We rested from the world over the weekend, and then on Monday morning Noel returned to work, and took Caleb into the city for his therapy appointment. I spent the morning drawing and writing letters, as usual, and then took the truck into the city to get Caleb.
To my surprise, Noel was in Dr. Dufresne’s waiting room when I arrived. “Is something wrong?”
“Dr. Dufresne asked me to come in today,” he said as I sat on the sofa beside him. “You’d already left by the time I called. We could go out to lunch after we’re done here.”
“I’d like that,” I said. There was no one else in the waiting room — Dr. Dufresne’s receptionist was in a receiving room at the front of the office — and so Noel’s hand wrapped around mine until Dr. Dufresne opened her office door.
She came out to talk to us rather than bringing us in, and we could see Caleb kneeling at her little drawing table, coloring in a coloring book. “Mr. Thibodeaux, I was so sorry to hear about your father,” she said as she took the armchair at the end of the sofa.
“Thank you,” Noel said simply.
“How is Caleb behaving at home?”
“He seems to be doing all right,” Noel said. “He played with his friend Samuel on Saturday and Samuel’s mother said they got along fine. He’s been sleeping the night through and hasn’t left the house on his own.”
“He indicated Mrs. Bell has been sitting up with him at night,” Dr. Dufresne said.
Noel nodded slowly. “She’s been very concerned about him. She’s been with our family since before my twin and I were born. She’s the nearest he’s got to a grandmother.”
“It’s certainly helping, I’d say.” We all watched Caleb for a moment, then Dr. Dufresne said, “To be honest, Mr. Thibodeaux, I’m not certain there’s much more I can do for Caleb at this point. He’s a happy, creative, well-adjusted little boy who chooses not to speak. We e can only wait for him to decide he’s ready to speak again. Given his artistic development,” she said with a nod to me, “his mind is being nourished, and his imagination is very healthy. I’m happy to continue seeing Caleb if you want him to continue therapy, but any breakthroughs Caleb may have will come from himself.”
His expression solemn, Noel reached for my hand again. Dr. Dufresne’s gaze landed on our hands, but her only reaction was a minute quirk of her eyebrow. Noel said, “That’s fortuitous timing, Dr. Dufresne. My firm wants me to move to California to open a new branch, and we’re planning to go by the end of the summer. I was going to ask you for a referral, but if there’s nothing a therapist can do for him, then I suppose that’s the end of it.”
“The change of scenery would be good for him,” Dr. Dufresne said, then added gently, “Good for you, too.”
Noel smiled a little and said, “I think so, too,” and then realized he was holding my hand, and gave me a smile, too, as he let it go.
Dr. Dufresne called, “Caleb, it’s time to go now,” and Caleb put down his crayons and came running. Noel scooped him up and kissed his hair.
“Hey, peanut. I thought I’d take you and Mr. Malcolm to the park for a little bit before lunch.”
Caleb nodded vigorously at that, so we said goodbye to Dr. Dufresne and left her office. I left the truck in the parking garage where I’d left it, and Noel drove us to City Park in the Jaguar.
We walked together for a while, and then Noel gave Caleb leave to run ahead and climb his favorite oak. While he was occupied with this, Noel said, “I suppose today is as good a day as any to tell Caleb about the plans to move.”
“We ought to explain a few other things, too,” I said, and when Noel looked at me, puzzled, I said, “About you and me.”
“Ah,” Noel said. “I don’t know exactly how to explain it to him in a way he’ll understand.”
“He’s five,” I said. “Adults living together and sleeping in the same bed is just a thing they do. He won’t think it’s different from, say, Julia and Alex, or Angelique and Rene, until he’s older — hopefully much older.”
Noel nodded slowly, thoughtful. “All right.” He nodded to a nearby bench, so we crossed the grass to wait for Caleb.
“I wrote to my father this morning,” I said once we were sitting. “I don’t imagine he’ll say no, especially if it’s only for a few weeks. Duncan is planning to get married in September, so we’ll likely be moving in just as he’s moving out.”
“Has he found a job yet?”
“He has,” I said. “There’s a job waiting for him to graduate in San Jose, so they’ll be moving south. It’s not a long drive, though, so we should see them often.”
“That’s good. I’m looking forward to meeting them both.” Noel paused again. “I’m a little nervous about meeting the rest of your family.”
I patted his hand. “They’ll like you.”
“Even if I’m your sweetheart, not just your friend?”
“Even then,” I said. “They love me, so they’ll like you.”
“I hope you’re right.”
I left my hand resting on his for a moment longer. In my letter to Dad, I hadn’t said Noel was my sweetheart in so many words, but I suspected my father would understand. Why else would I be bringing them with me, if not to look after people I loved? But, I supposed, I’d have to be explicit about it if Dad didn’t read between the lines.
Caleb came running to us, and proudly held out a beautiful green oak leaf to Noel. “How lovely,” Noel said and picked up Caleb to sit on his knee. “Did that fall off the tree?”
Caleb nodded, and spun the leaf by its stem in his fingers as he leaned his head on Noel’s chest.
Noel rested his chin on the top of Caleb’s head a moment, then said, “Peanut, there’s something we need to talk about. Now that Grandfather has passed away, we’re going to change … quite a few things.”
Caleb looked up at him with a slight frown, and Noel hugged him. “You’re still going to be with me,” he said, “and Mr. Malcolm is going to keep teaching you. But my boss, Mr. Adrian, he wants me to open a new office for our company out west. I’ve agreed to go. This means I’ll be away a lot less, but we’re also going to move to California.”
Caleb frowned deeper.
“I know that’s a long way away, and we’ll miss everyone we’re leaving behind,” Noel said. “Mrs. Bell and Willie have decided to stay with their families, and our friends will be staying here, too. But you can write letters to Samuel and Eula and anyone else you want, and we can visit sometimes.”
That seemed to placate Caleb a bit, though he was still frowning.
Noel said, “We’re going to live with Malcolm’s father, Mr. Arthur, until we find a place of our own, and then it’ll be the three of us. As a family.” He glanced at me, and said, “Mr. Malcolm and I, we went to be a family together.”
I said, “That means Noel and I intend to live together and raise you together. What do you think? Are you okay with that?”
Caleb looked up at Noel, and then at me. He gave me the oak leaf.
I murmured, “Thank you, Caleb,” and put the leaf away in my sketchbook, and Noel handed me a handkerchief to dry my eyes.
Preparations to move to San Francisco began right away. Alex kept the farm running smoothly, the 4/4 Club was doing well under Cozy’s management, and when Noel talked to his current tenant about continuing his lease the tenant offered to buy the house; those were all burdens off Noel’s mind.
Taking a cue from other former plantation houses in the area, Noel began to search for someone to live at Fidele, give tours of the grounds, and be caretakers of the house. If they wanted to run it as an inn or a wedding venue, or both, he was open to that idea, too. By June he had found the McEwans, transplanted Texans whose children were grown, who were enthused about sharing the plantation’s history and living in the house. Once the contracts were signed, they planned to move in at the beginning of September.
Summer passed. The air was sultry, heavy with moisture, the heat fading only slightly when the sun went down, which was almost nine o’clock by midsummer. We allowed Caleb to stay up later; we star-gazed or caught fireflies, and he drew pictures of increasing sophistication to ask the questions he wouldn’t ask out loud.
I brought this up to Noel one night as we got ready for bed. “Do you still want me to tutor him once we’re in San Francisco?”
“Absolutely,” he said. “You don’t think he’s ready for school, do you?”
“Oh, no,” I said, “not until he starts speaking again. Who knows when that will be.”
We got into bed and kissed good night, and after we lay in silence for a moment, he said, “And as long as you don’t mind me paying you.”
I chuckled. “I guess I actually am a kept man.”
Noel chuckled too. “I’ll keep you in style, sunshine.” He moved onto his side and lay his arm over my chest. I kissed his forehead.
“I don’t demand much,” I said as I stroked his arm. “Just buy me pencils sometimes.”
He kissed my neck and settled against me. “So many pencils. Every pencil I can find.”
Dad wrote back to me that of course we would live with him, for as long as we needed. One less thing to worry about; it would be much easier to find an apartment or little house once we were actually on the city, and it would be easier on Caleb to be in a house while we searched, instead of in a hotel.
“I know you’ve enjoyed New Orleans,” Dad wrote, “but I’m selfishly glad to have you back in the city. I’ve been more and more uneasy about you being in that house. Keep yourself and the Thibodeauxes safe.”
I did what I could. Noel was busy but happy; he smiled with more than his eyes, laughed without stifling himself, and slept peacefully at my side. He had to travel frequently, but he was always happy to come home.
One night in July I said, “Caleb should learn to swim before we move. We can go south to Santa Cruz and teach him to swim in the ocean, but he should have some idea of how to do it beforehand.”
“Good idea,” Noel said, so the next Saturday he was home he took Caleb and I into New Orleans to swim at the YMCA; he showed Caleb how to breathe, and then how to kick, and then how to move his arms, so that by the time we left Caleb could swim across the shallow end and come up beaming with accomplishment.
With help from Willie, Mrs. Bell, and various members of their families we packed up our personal belongings. We would drive cross-country in the truck and ship the Jaguar; Noel gave Willie the Packard, telling him, “Nobody could take better care of it than you,” and both of them pretended not to notice how touched Willie was at the gesture.
Most of the house’s treasures would stay behind: the piano, the paintings, the books, the furniture. Caleb’s toys made up most of the boxes. Noel’s belongings from his house, he packed up for the moving company to ship as well. My belongings still fit in my knapsack and trunk, and I packed the sketchbooks first, smiling to myself as I realized I hadn’t touched the tale of Sir Errant for weeks. I was busy but happy too.
Yet my father’s uneasiness was not unfounded. They were small things, hard to pinpoint or explain to strangers. I lost pencils all the time but when my current sketchbook disappeared I turned all the common rooms upside down trying to find it; days later, Willie’s niece found it in a broom closet. Noel lost his watch and thought he’d left in a hotel in Savannah, only for it to reappear on the kitchen table. Car keys went missing from their hooks in the kitchen, then reappeared hours later after we’d turned out all of our pockets in the search.
The house was even more full of whispers, just loud enough to hear the sounds but not loud enough to hear the words. Whenever I sat at a desk or a table, I would grow increasingly uncomfortable, as if someone was glaring at my back, looking for the right place to stab.
At least Caleb seemed unaffected. He played with me and Noel, or Tumnus and Samuel, not invisible playmates. He stayed in his bed every night. He ran up and down the stairs with Tumnus chasing after him, and sometimes laughed out loud.
I checked the flue in his room every night to avoid a repeat of a smokey room; whatever entity started that fire, they decided one night to start one in Emmanuel’s room. We only caught it because Mrs. Bell was restless and closing up the house to put herself to sleep, and her shouts woke up the rest of the house.
The fire put out, Noel gave me an exasperated, exhausted look, and said, “I hope we’re not leaving the McEwans a disaster.”
“I don’t think you are,” I said. “I think once you and Caleb are out of the house, this will calm down.”
“God, I hope you’re right,” Noel said. I gathered him to me and stroked his hair to put him to sleep.
Myself, I had dreams. They were like films, except I was the camera. I saw a boy vivid blue eyes and curly dark hair, whom I helped to rid of his country accent and dress correctly, so that he could pass himself off as an impoverished nobleman; who worked and saved and only lied a little; and who claimed to love me until the end of time. I saw this boy become a man, who no longer had to pretend to be gentlefolk; who built a house in the bayou and started buying land, so much land, more land than his family had ever dreamed of owning. And I saw this man meet a girl with golden hair who stole his heart and my place in his bed.
Every time I woke from these dreams, I fell from wherever I was standing. Sleepwalking like I had as a kid, like when I’d first arrived at Fidele; only now these intense dreams came with it. Humiliatingly, I had to drag myself back to my room from whatever passage I’d wandered to, and I wondered how the hell my body had managed to walk so far before pain — or whatever — finally woke me.
But they were only dreams. It was just sleepwalking. They only happened on nights Noel was away, and since he had so much else to worry about I kept it to myself.
Noel’s last business trip was in August. His responsibilities had shifted from presenting plans and investigating resources to interviewing new employees, which he did not enjoy as much as making things. But he wanted the best people he could find for the California office, no matter where they were from, and so he spent the last half of the summer going from Massachusetts to Florida to find them.
He was gone for three days this time, his train due after midnight. I took the Jaguar into the city, and sat in the waiting room, sketching, until the train pulled into the station. Noel was one of the few passengers to disembark, and he smiled at me wearily when he saw me waiting on the platform. “Hello,” I said and gave his elbow a squeeze. A proper hello could wait. “How was your journey?”
“Bearable,” Noel said. He offered me his arm. “It’s better to be home.”
Once we were in the car, I took his face in my hands and kissed him heartily, while he made happy humming sounds and held me around my waist. “Sleepy?” I said when I finally pulled away, and he nodded, eyelids already drooping.
“I interviewed four potential employees today.” He leaned against my side, his head on my shoulder. “It’s not my favorite thing, but necessary if we’re going to work together. I just wish … I don’t know, that I could know more about a person than an interview can convey. I don’t want to hire someone, have them move out west, and then discover that they’re terrible people or don’t know what they’re doing.”
“What does your gut tell you?”
“My gut is overly cynical,” he said and put his hand on my knee. “But I suppose if I interview twenty people and only hire one, they’ll set a high standard for the rest.” He rubbed his eyes. “I’ll fill this office somehow.”
“I wouldn’t rush, just to have the desks full,” I said. “You haven’t even started interviewing people in the area.”
“They’ll get their turn.” He made his head comfortable on my shoulder again. I kissed his hair, and let him doze while we drove back to Fidele.
It was so late when we got home that we simply put on our pajamas, kissed good night, and climbed into bed. Noel fell asleep at once but I lay awake, listening to him breathe, until the sound soothed me to sleep.
I dreamed I was on my knees on the steps of Fidele, pounding o the door with my fists as I screamed Achille’s name. He’d had me removed twice before but I refused to surrender. I screamed, “I want my baby back! That bitch can’t have him!”
The door opened and I fell across the threshold. I looked up, expecting to see Achille’s man who had dragged me away before — but no, it was Achille himself.
He said, as cold as he had once been warm, “You want to see your son? Come with me.” He grabbed my arm and pulled me up the stairs, not to the nursery but to his own room, where there was no cradle. There was–
The coffin was so tiny.
Grief rent my heart into pieces. I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t bear to take another breath, except to say, “A curse on you and yours, Achille Thibodeaux,” and then I turned, and I ran, and I hurled myself off the landing —
I woke as I crumpled to the floor. I lay there, panting, my leg and hip aching, the wood floor under my palms, as I reminded myself I was Malcolm Carmichael and it was 1952 and it was just a dream, just a dream.
A light flickered on behind me, and Noel said, “Malcolm, what the hell?” as he came out of the bedroom, belting a robe around his waist. “Where’s your cane?”
“I’m not sure,” I said and started to roll onto my back, but Noel stopped me.
“Don’t move yet. Let me look you over. Did you hit your nose? Do your teeth feel okay?”
I ran my tongue over my teeth. “They’re fine. Noel, I’m fine,” I said as he ran his hands gently over my neck and shoulders. “Just help me up, please.”
“You fell,” Noel said, but helped me to my feet and hung my arm over his shoulders. “Why were you walking in the first place?”
I sighed, and got into bed before I answered. The light was still on, and I almost reached to turn it off so I wouldn’t have to look at Noel’s face. “I was sleepwalking. I’ve been sleepwalking all summer. This is the first time it’s happened when you were here.”
Noel narrowed his eyes at me. “I asked for no more secrets.”
“I know,” I said, “I know, but I didn’t want you to worry.”
“I’m going to worry,” he snapped. “Okay? I’m going to worry. At least if I know something’s wrong I have something solid to worry about and not the formless worry about everything I’ve usually got.”
“Come here, sweetheart,” I said, holding out an arm for him, but he didn’t move closer, not ready to be comforted yet.
“What else have you not been telling me?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I didn’t think this was important enough to bother you with.”
“If something is forcing you out of bed and making you hurt yourself, it’s important.”
I exhaled, tired and aching and not wanting to deal with this right now, but I said, “I’ve been having dreams about Justine and Achille. I had one tonight. I think when I dream about Justine, I sleepwalk.”
“Dreams,” Noel said. “What sort of dreams?”
“Their story, Justine and Achille’s. She loved him, really loved him, and he gave her up like she was nothing.”
A beat passed, and then Noel rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. “You’re an idiot,” he muttered and curled up at my side, his head on my chest.
I put my arms around him. “I know.”
“Don’t hide things from me, Malcolm, no matter how small they might seem. I need to know what’s going on in this house.”
I stroked his hair. “Justine is the one who jumped from the landing. She saw the coffin of her child, of Michel, and killed herself out of grief.”
“The dreams told you this?”
“Yes, and more things about them, too.”
Noel murmured, “You’ve always said grief is a strange thing.”
“I truly believe it is. It makes you angry, it makes you sad, it makes you lash out, it makes you destroy yourself and everything around you… and it could make you curse your faithless lover and all his progeny, and haunt them until the end of time.”
Noel raised his head and studied my face, and then kissed me and got out of bed to turn off the light. He held me tight, his head on my shoulder, and I stroked his hair.
“I hope you’re right,” he whispered, “that once we leave this place, the ghost will leave us alone.”
“We’ll line the house with salt if I’m wrong.”
In response, Noel sat up and started to remove the silver dime from around his neck, but I put my hand on top of his. “No, honey. Keep it. You’re in more danger than me.”
“I’m not the one she’s giving dreams and making sleepwalk.”
“They’re just dreams,” I said, “and she doesn’t want to hurt me. I’m not a Thibodeaux.”
Noel studied me again, and then lay down. “Okay,” he said. “I hope you’re right.”
“I’m right,” I said. I kissed his hair. “I know I’m right.”
I meant only to reassure him, but there was some pride in that statement. Some hubris. Some belief that I could solve every problem Noel Thibodeaux had.