I’d had dreams like this. My body but not my body, watching me go about my business through someone else’s eyes.
This time, it was my body that rose from the sofa and walked down the passage; but my body walked with my cane forgotten in my hand, without shuffling, the pain of every step ignored like an inconvenient itch. A consciousness I recognized as separate from my own resided in my mind, strong enough to suppress the me which pounded against the restraint like fists against a locked door.
Justine, stop! Let me go!
I whispered out loud, my words unfamiliar in this new language, “No, cher. Not until the deed is done.”
We went to Noel’s bedroom. The light was off, and he lay in bed, asleep, his arm flung out as if waiting for me to lie at his side. We went to his bedside, and my hand lay on his chest. He was so warm. His heart beat so steadily. Even after all the generations between them, Justine could see the traces of Achille in Noel’s face.
“For that alone,” I whispered, “he deserves to die.”
I screamed, No! No! Don’t touch him! as my hands slid around his throat.
I heard myself chuckle. “All right, cher. He’s not the one I want, anyway.” My hands left Noel’s neck; my cane forgotten by the bed, we crossed the house to Caleb’s room.
Oh, God, Justine, no, not Caleb, you can’t have him, he’s not yours.
“He is mine, cher. I’ll keep him with me and we’ll play together forever and ever…”
My hand opened the door. Mrs. Bell had gone to bed; Caleb’s fairy light was doused, but my eyes could see him in bed by the flashes of lightning, his Teddy keeping watch by his pillow and Tumnus asleep in the curve of his body. Tumnus stirred as my body approached, and then her eyes grew enormous and her tail bristled, and she crouched, her claws out. A deep rumble ran through her small body.
“Go on, cat,” my voice said.
Tumnus sprang from the bed as my body bent over Caleb, and she scratched my face a few times before my hands grabbed her and tossed her away. She scrambled out of the room with a howl.
In the commotion, Caleb woke, and he stared at me over the edge of his blanket, wide-eyed. “It’s all right,” my voice said as my hands tugged the coverlet back. “It’s all right, cheri. It’s time for us to go, you and I.”
He shook his head.
“Don’t you recognize me, Caleb? It’s me. It’s Justine. I’m borrowing Mr. Malcolm, just for a little while. We’ll do what I promised. We’ll play forever and ever, you and I, and you’ll never grow old and never lose anyone you love ever again. All you need to do is come with me.”
My arms tried to take him up, but some force — something I couldn’t see but that held me back as strongly as if my arms were bound, the same force that had kept me out of his room for weeks — prevented my arms from holding him as he inched away from me. “Caleb,” my voice said, and he rolled off the other side of the bed and darted out of the room.
“Little brat!” my voice shouted as my body lunged after him, but he was too fast and this body was too clumsy. The weak leg gave out, sending me sprawling to the floor.
My voice screamed in rage. In my mind, I pushed against Justine, but I didn’t have the weapons to fight her — she was too old, too strong, she had been preparing for this day for two hundred years, and my own near-death had made me an open door —
A being appeared in front of me. Bare feet, small, with toenails painted pale pink; legs and body clad in pale blue flannel pajamas printed with ducklings; a face that was sweet and gentle, with dark hair bound in a single braid that fell over her shoulder. She looked at me with a sad, understanding smile.
The vision of her was so ordinary that I almost rubbed my eyes in disbelief — but of course she looked ordinary, she had died on a regular Sunday night. She had put her son to bed and kissed him good night, and expected to do nothing more than kiss her husband good night too before going to sleep herself.
I whispered, “Grace,” as the sweet, everyday images of her life filled my head and I stared at her in wonder.
Oh, their life had been lovely. Simon and his friends filled their house with music. Caleb was a happy child, brimming with laughter and curiosity. She had friends throughout the city, she loved her brother-in-law, she and Simon were as affectionate and passionate as they had been the day they were married. She had been happy. Their house had been a place of joy.
The only shadow on their marriage was the occasional visit to Emmanuel, and those they kept as short as possible. Grace felt the same fierce protectiveness toward Noel that Simon did. They agreed early on that they would never leave Noel alone with Emmanuel, and they would never stay at Fidele overnight.
But then there had been a storm, and Emmanuel had insisted they stay, rather than drive back to New Orleans in near-hurricane conditions. Grace had woken in the night with the creepy feeling that someone had bent over her and watched her sleep.
The next night, they were dead.
That was how much Justine hated them and their happiness. They had eluded her for as long as they could, but once she saw them, she did all she could to destroy them.
Grace’s lips moved, and I heard her words like a memory rather than as if she had spoken out loud. Save my son.
I can’t. She’s too strong.
“You can, lazy ass,” Zachary said.
I opened my eyes. Grace had been joined by Simon and Zachary — Zachary in his uniform, the Red Cross band on his arm; Simon in the red sweater and khaki pants he’d been wearing the night of the fire — and they all looked down at me. Zachary wore his familiar affectionate, exasperated smile. Grace and Simon looked understandably worried.
Zachary got onto one knee beside me. “Get up, soldier. You’re not done yet.”
“Up,” I said and pushed my hands against the floor to get myself onto my knees. In my mind, Justine roared and forced my back down, hard enough to smack my head against the floor. My head spun, but I said again, “Up!” and got to my hands and knees again.
Justine shoved my body into my side. I gasped, “Zachary, help me,” and he stood over me, his goodness shining in the dark room like an angel in Hell. He cradled my head in his hand.
I fought. I don’t know how, but I fought. I fought like I had on the beach of Normandy, but without a gun or grenades — only my will to live, only my desire to protect the people I loved.
Justine screamed and fought back. She was old, so old, and strong, so strong, and she had rage and grief to power her. But she was alone.
I felt her leave me like a fever breaking. I gasped for breath and sat up, and blinked a few times to clear my vision and settle my aching head. “I can’t walk.”
“Crawl,” Zachary said.
“We’re with you,” said Simon.
I got onto my hands and knees and crawled to the school room, the only other place I could think of where Caleb might try to hide. As I crawled, I heard the unmistakable sound of fire crackling from below — the fire in the library fireplace was spreading, no doubt helped by Justine. The firelight in my room was also growing brighter, and I was certain every fire in the house, possibly even the gas in the kitchen, was being pushed along to bring down this house and everyone in it.
The schoolroom door was closed. I grasped the doorknob to haul myself up and let myself in, and hissed as the hot metal burned my hands.
“Caleb,” I said as soon as I was in the school room. “Caleb, it’s Malcolm. I’m me again. I’m sorry I scared you. Something — someone — tried to trick you but she’s gone now.”
The lid to the toy box lifted a tiny bit, and then fell again. I used the desk to pull myself to my feet, and made my way along the built-ins to the toy box. “Caleb, the house is on fire. We have to leave, now. We have to leave.”
I tried to pull the lid open and he pulled it back. I heard him crying, and it broke my heart even as my voice grew stern. “We have to go now, Caleb! I’m not going to let you die!” I yanked the toy box lid up — I have no doubt I had some help, even against a terrified six-year-old — and scooped Caleb up out of the box.
Caleb fought me as I held him to my chest and leaned against the built-ins to catch my breath. I held his head in one hand and said, “Sh, peanut, stop, it’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you,” and at ‘peanut’ he stopped, and blinked at me, uncertain, scared, hopeful. I kissed his cheek. “It’s me, little man. Come on.”
I started to carry him out of the school room, the built-ins holding me up, when he twisted back and held out his hand. “My kitty!”
“Oh, God,” I muttered and put him down on the floor. “Stay right there, okay, Caleb, please? Don’t move.” Of course he ran out of the school room, and I shouted, “Caleb! God damn it–” and went to find Tumnus, who had hidden herself in the corner of the toy box. I unbuttoned my shirt and put her inside, wincing as her claws dug into my chest. “I need a hand free, cat,” I said as I made my way out of the schoolroom. “Try not to claw me to death.”
By now, the air was thick with smoke. The floor felt hot beneath my feet, and the floorboards groaned. My eyes stung and my lungs burned as I pulled myself along the wall down the passage to Mrs. Bell’s room. I didn’t bother to knock — just yanked the door open and shouted, “Fire! Up!”
Mrs. Bell bolted upright and gaped at me, but then grabbed her wrapper and belted it around her waist. “Where’s Caleb?”
“He keeps running away from me.” Tumnus meowed pitifully, her claws digging into my chest. I patted her through my shirt. “Could you–?”
She took the cat out of my shirt and put her inside her robe, and put my arm over her shoulders to support me. I could have kissed her. We made our way back down the passage, shouting, “Caleb! Caleb!” and checked his room once more to make sure he wasn’t hiding under the bed.
The grandfather clock struck three, its tones discordant as its casing went up in flames.
Mrs. Bell called, “Caleb, don’t hide! Come on out, sugar!”
On the landing, I saw Noel opposite us in his bathrobe, frantic. “Malcolm! Where’s Caleb?”
“We’ll find him,” I shouted back.
Flames licked up the walls. I could see the paint in the paintings bubble and melt. Window glass cracked from the heat. The floorboards and carpets, the curtains, every chair and side table — everything in the hall was on fire. I had no doubt the other main rooms in the house were equally ablaze, given the thick acrid smoke that hung in the air.
I pushed Mrs. Bell toward the stairs. “Get Willie out.”
“Go on! I’ll find Caleb!”
She looked at me a moment more, then grabbed my face and kissed my mouth, hard. She ran down the stairs, toward the kitchen and Willie’s room. Tumnus howled the entire way.
“Oh, God,” Noel said, and then shouted, “Caleb! Crawl on the floor, Caleb!” as he ran around the landing to the west wing. “What the hell happened, Malcolm?” His face was white and his hands were shaking as he grabbed me by the shoulders. “Where’s Caleb?”
“He ran away from me. He’s not in the nursery or the schoolroom.”
“Why did he run away?” He shook me. “Why did he run away from you, Malcolm?”
I started to answer, when a beam fell from the ceiling onto the landing behind Noel. We both ducked — curtains like columns of fire, furniture cracking and melting, the air full of cinders — and I said, “Justine, it was Justine, I can’t explain. We have to find Caleb.”
“Downstairs, if he’s not up here,” Noel said and put my arm over his shoulders. We made our way downstairs, Noel covering my head when cinders and debris fell from above, and were met by Willie and Mrs. Bell below.
“Caleb isn’t down here,” Mrs. Bell said, tears running down her face. “I can’t find Caleb anywhere.”
Somehow, above all of the fire and shouting, we heard the tiny, “Uncle Noel?”
We all looked up. On the landing above us stood Caleb, his face smeared with soot and streaked with tears.
Behind him, her arms crossed over his chest, was Justine.
“Dear God,” muttered Willie.
Noel called, “Don’t be scared, peanut. Don’t be afraid.”
He’s mine! Justine said in a voice that probably once been sweet but was now hoarse, as if she had been screaming for the last two hundred years. I’m taking him with me!
“No!” shouted Noel from below and started up the stairs.
Justine roared and a curtain of flame flared up on the stairs in front of Noel. Noel flinched before he took a determined step forward. I put my arm in front of him so he wouldn’t go charging through the fire, and he glared at me but didn’t try to push through.
“You hate us,” he growled at Justine, “fine. I don’t blame you. Achille wronged you from beginning to end.”
Flames burned in her eyes. Flames jumped all around us. The noise was deafening, the heat was unbearable.
“Justine!” I shouted and her head turned to me. “Justine, you have every right to hate Achille’s descendants. I don’t blame you. But you need to know this — Michel, the baby who died, he wasn’t your son. Maxim was. Maxim lived. Maxim was your son.”
For a moment, it seemed as if the noise retreated and the heat was not so relentless. They all stared at me.
“Achille wrote it all down,” I said. “He told the whole story. Michel, his son with Charlotte, died minutes after he was born. Achille took Maxim from you and told Charlotte he was her child. All of the Thibodeaux family, they’re descended from Maxim — from you. They’re your family, Justine. They’re all yours.”
The fire roared all around us, and then a scream rent the air so loud and full of grief that we all cringed. Mrs. Bell hid her face in Willie’s chest.
Noel said, his voice soft, “I’m sorry, Justine. I am. I’m sorry for everything Achille did to you.”
She hesitated. Caleb whimpered, “Uncle Noel, I’m scared.”
“It’s okay, peanut,” Noel said to Caleb, and to Justine, “Please, let me have Caleb. Let your line live on a little longer. Please.”
She stared at Noel, and her grip on Caleb loosened. As it did, three spirits appeared around Justine. For a moment I thought there would be a fight — but instead, Grace placed her hand on Justin’e face. The two women looked at each other, Grace’s face full of empathy. Justine closed her eyes, and Grace wrapped her arms around her. Simon did the same, and Zachary, too, and at the next flash of lightning they disappeared in a whirlwind and a scattering of ash.
The house still burned, the flames climbing the walls ever higher. Another beam dropped and we all ducked.
“Get out,” Noel ordered Willie. “Get Mrs. Bell out.”
“But Mr. Noel–“
Willie took one more look at us, and then he and Mrs. Bell ran out of the house.
“Caleb,” I said as I tested the staircase. “Drop to your knees, Caleb, we’ll find a way out–“
“Caleb,” Noel said from below the landing. “Caleb, listen to me. Do you trust me?”
Caleb nodded, looking terrified and brave at once. “Yes, Uncle Noel.”
“I need you to jump, peanut, okay? Squeeze through the railings like you did before, do you remember? Squeeze through and then jump, and I’ll catch you. Okay? Will you do that, peanut? Jump into my arms. I’ll catch you.”
“Okay.” His voice was still tiny and frightened, but he was brave — he slipped through the rails of the banister, and then he jumped.
Noel caught him. They both fell, Noel twisting so that he took the brunt of it. I staggered to them, and Noel got to his feet, Caleb in his arms. I was wheezing, my lungs aching — he grabbed my arm and we fled the house as the ceiling collapsed behind us.
At the bottom of the steps, I tumbled face-first onto the grass. Noel grabbed me around the chest and pulled me further away, and we all huddled close together on the lawn as more sections of the house collapsed.
“Are you okay?” I hear Noel ask Willie.
“Fair enough, Mr. Noel.”
“I’ll be all right.”
“I want my kitty,” Caleb said in a tiny voice, and Mrs. Bell answered, “Here you go, sugar.”
“Will you take Caleb a moment?” Noel said, and there was rustling as he handed Caleb over to Mrs. Bell. Noel bent over me, and pushed my hair back from my forehead. “You still with us, Malcolm?”
“For now,” I said and rolled over onto my back to breathe in the cold, wet air and get the smoke out of my lungs.
Caleb said, “Uncle Noel?”
“Yes, peanut?” Noel said.
“It’s raining,” Caleb said, and Noel began to laugh and weep at once, and he kissed Caleb over and over.
“I know. We’ll get out of the rain soon.”
Headlights swept up the avenue and the car skidded to a stop. Alex Christie got out and started to run up the front steps, and Noel shouted, “Alex!” before he stepped into the inferno. “Alex, we’re over here!”
Alex came to us, his face white, and dropped to his knees. “Oh, my god,” he said, “Julia was up with Janie and saw the light and we thought — I called the fire department–” He burst into sobs.
Over the roar of the fire I could hear the faint sound of sirens. Noel stroked my hair and I closed my eyes, and he whispered, “Just breathe, sunshine. Just breathe.”