What happened after that, I remember only in bits and pieces. Firetrucks arrived, and an ambulance. The firefighters had us all breathe with oxygen masks to combat smoke inhalation. Between the smoke, the crawling, and walking without my cane, I couldn’t support my own weight, and they put me on a stretcher and into the ambulance.
I slept. I woke hours later, an oxygen mask still on my face and bandages on my hands, to see Noel asleep in the chair beside my bed. His hand lay on the sheet beside mine. I moved mine enough to touch fingers, and fell asleep again.
When I woke again, the light from the windows said it was mid-afternoon. Noel had changed clothes and shaved, and sat in the chair reading a book. He closed it when I stirred, and put his hand lightly on mine again. “Malcolm,” he said. “Don’t try to speak. They want you just to breathe for now.”
I closed my eyes, then opened them again.
“Caleb says,” he paused to smile, “Caleb says Justine ‘borrowed’ you for a bit. He says Justine promised him they’d play together forever and ever if he’d go with her. I suspect this means she intended to kill him,” he paused, pressing his lips together, “and bind his spirit to Fidele somehow.
“I feel like I should be furious with you.”
I moved my hand from under his.
Noel took it back. “The thing is, I’m not. I mean, I know it wasn’t you. Not really. Whatever she made you do, I know it wasn’t you.”
My eyes stung and I had to look away.
Noel kissed the back of my hand, and laid it gently on the coverlet. “Get some sleep. We’ll talk more later.” He stood and made to go, and then stopped and bent over me to kiss my forehead.
I closed my eyes as a feeling I suspect was grace washed through me.
By the next morning, my doctor decided I could do without the oxygen mask, but I was still being treated for burns on my hands and face. I was to rest my voice, and in a few days they’d let me try to walk again.
The bandages on my hands made me clumsy as I tried to feed myself for the first time, but the soup I was given was so bland it hardly seemed worth the effort.
Noel poked his head through the curtains that separated me from the other patients in the ward. “Do you mind a visitor?”
“Never,” I whispered, not able to speak above that volume. He took the chair beside my bed again.
“How’s your lunch?”
I handed him the spoon. He took a sip, then made a face. “Ugh. Why didn’t you say it was terrible?”
I whispered, “I’m not supposed to talk.”
“Asshole,” Noel said and lay the spoon on my tray-table. I smiled, not denying it, and then raised my hand and pressed it to his cheek. Noel closed his eyes and tilted his face into my touch.
I said, “I’ve had a lot of time to think.”
“Malcolm, don’t, not now.”
“Now,” I said. It hurt to speak — in my throat, in my heart — but I went on anyway. “You should take the position in Seattle, or Los Angeles. Forget about me.”
“No,” Noel said.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m a danger to you and to Caleb. These hands were around your throat. She almost made me kill you.”
“But you didn’t. You fought her, and you drove her out.”
“I had help.”
“If you need it, I think you’ll have help again. But I don’t think you’ll need it. I think they left and I think they took Justine with them, to … wherever it is she needed to go.” He kissed the back of my hand again.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, and I don’t know if it was the painkillers in my system or exhaustion or just more love than I deserved, but I began to weep. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
He sat on the edge of the bed and held me, and whispered, “Sh, sunshine. Sh. It’s behind us now.”
“All those paintings. All those first editions. Your family’s entire history. Gone, just gone.”
Noel stroked the back of my neck. “Good riddance to it,” he said quietly. “They were just things. I’ve got you, I’ve got Caleb. The important things are safe.” Then he looked at me, stricken. “But all of your sketchbooks, your art–“
“None of it matters,” I said. “Not as much as you.”
The curtains around my bed were closed, and the noise of the ward seemed far away. Noel kissed me, carefully holding my face to avoid the burns, and I kissed him back with everything I had.
When I proved I would walk and breathe on my own a few days later, I was released from the hospital. Noel and Caleb had been staying with the Christies, and so Noel brought me there for the few days between my release and our planned departure.
The house had been insured against fire, which was one piece of good news. The investigator, Noel told me, blamed the fire on a faulty gas line in the updated kitchen. The plan was to completely demolish what remained to prevent squatters and looters, though Noel said there was nothing to loot.
“The McEwans are devastated,” Noel told me as we lay on the Christie’s guest bed — I was still under orders to rest frequently — after supper. “They even offered to live on the property to keep an eye on things while we rebuild, if we want to rebuild, but I don’t see the point of rebuilding. The draw of the place was that it was an antebellum mansion.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Let it smolder, I suppose. Give Alex leave to plow under the gardens and plant more sugar cane.” He sighed and scrubbed his hands over his face. “Honestly, no one should live there. It was never a happy place.”
I took his hand. “We’ll find a place to be happy.”
He turned onto his side and lay his head on my chest. “Promise?”
In the end, our worldly possessions with us fit into the back of the pickup truck. Noel decided to sell the Jaguar rather than drive it cross-country, and so it was with a much lighter load than planned that we got into the truck on the last Saturday morning in August, said goodbye to our friends one more time, and headed west.
For all my brave words to Noel, I was nervous about going back. It was home, and home should always welcome you, but I wondered if I would find the familiar streets and houses as haunted as I had before.
When we reached San Francisco, I directed Noel through the city to my father’s house. We parked on the sloping street and got out of the truck, Caleb whining a little with weariness, and the door to the house opened.
My father came down the stairs, grayer than he had been the last time I had seen him, a little more stooped, but his eyes were as lively as they had ever been and his smile was just as bright. “Malcolm, welcome home,” he said and hugged me, and I hugged him back hard, overwhelmed with how much I had missed him.
After a minute or two of this I stepped back and said, “Daddy, meet Noel and Caleb Thibodeaux.”
“Hello, Mr. Carmichael,” Noel said, polite but cautious. He had picked up Caleb, and Caleb clung to him around his neck and peeped at my father shyly.
“Call me Arthur,” Dad answered. “No need to be formal with family.” He looked at Caleb. “You must be Caleb.”
Caleb nodded. “Yes, Mr. Arthur.”
“I think you had better call me Granddad,” my father replied, and looked up at me with a wink. “Come inside, boys. You look done in.” He offered his arms to Caleb and Caleb went into them, and Dad carried him into the house.
I looked at Noel. We smiled at each other, joined hands, and followed.
That first night back in the city, I dreamed I was at Fidele — not the burned-out wreck I knew it to be but as the jewel it had been the first time I saw it, gleaming cream and white in the Louisiana sunshine, with neatly trimmed lawns, abundant flower beds, and ancient cypresses lining the drive.
Simon Thibodeaux and I walked down the drive in companionable silence. He looked lighter than he had before, as if the burdens holding him to Earth were completely gone. He just had one more thing to do.
He said, “Caleb and Noel… you love them as much as I do. I’m glad.”
“I do,” I said.
“I know they’re in good hands,” he said, smiling at me, so like Noel I caught my breath.
“Thank you,” I said. “I promise I’ll take care of them.”
“I know,” Simon said. “I know you will.”
Grace joined us, pretty and dark-haired, in flannel duckling pajamas. She put her arm around Simon and he kissed her. They went on walking to the shining house at the end of the road.
I watched them go, and to my utter lack of surprise Zachary was by my side. “See?” he said. “I told you, you weren’t done yet.”
“Am I done now?”
He smiled at me, gentle and proud. “No.”
We hugged each other. I closed my eyes and held onto him tight, and when he pulled away it was all I could do not to weep. “Be seeing you,” I said when he stepped away.
“It had better not be soon,” he said, and then followed Grace and Simon up the road.