At Christmas, Noel, Caleb, and I were still living my father. We looked at houses and apartments, but we could find nothing that really suited the three of us as much as my father’s house. On top of that, Caleb liked his school and was making friends in the neighborhood, so when I asked Dad if we could stay a while indefinitely, he smiled and said, “Of course.”
Duncan and Phoebe got married not long after we arrived, which gave us another reason to stay — we didn’t want to leave Dad alone once Duncan had moved out. Dad could take care of himself, of course, but why move out when we would be over all the time anyway? Caleb and Dad adored each other, which didn’t surprise me, given how mild and gentle my father was; what did surprise me was that Noel and Dad liked each other just as much. Noel called him by his first name for the first three days, and then “Dad” slipped out and Dad didn’t correct him, so Dad he remained.
In October, Dad got out the old tent and sleeping bags, and we went into the mountains for one more camping trip before the snows fell. He and Caleb slept in the tent while Noel and I slept outside. We could hear them talking drowsily for an hour after we’d gone to bed, Caleb’s piping voice asking sleepier and sleepier questions while Dad answered each one patiently, about the trees and the animals and the stars.
The neighbors thought it odd, of course, and who wouldn’t wonder about two bachelors living with a widower and a small child; but my father shut down any rudeness with a well-placed rejoinder and a mild look. We’d always been an unorthodox family and eventually the questions stopped. I supposed they decided it was the Carmichaels being unusual again.
It helped that it was increasingly common in those days to find a pair of old soldiers or sailors living together to comfort each other after the war. Many of them had been discharged at the port of San Francisco, often for homosexuality, and ended up staying. We found more and more places where men like us gathered and could be ourselves.
For Christmas Mary Kate and George brought Rosemary for a week-long visit, so Dad invited all the extended family over for dinner on Christmas Day. Noel was overwhelmed by all of the family; he had met various cousins over the months — you couldn’t turn a corner in this city without bumping into a Carmichael — but all of them in one place could be a bit much, even for someone used to it.
Noel slipped away before supper, once Caleb was safely playing with his cousins, and I sought him out in the turret at the front of the house. It had been my favorite room when I was growing up and I understood Noel’s fondness for it — it was cozy and comfortable, and you could watch the city light up below as the street made its way down to the Bay.
I leaned in the doorway. “It’s almost time to eat.”
“I’ll be there.” He was wedged against a window, his knees drawn up, his gaze on the street outside. I joined him, wrapped an arm around his waist, and rested my chin on his shoulder. He leaned back against me with a sigh.
“I know they’re a lot to take in,” I said.
“They all seem very pleasant,” Noel said.
I chuckled. “So diplomatic.”
“They’re your family. I’m not going to be insulting for its own sake. Only if required.” He leaned his head back to slant a look at me. “I’m hopeful it won’t be required.”
“I doubt it will be. They know what you are to me.” I kissed his temple. “And if they need to ask, I’ll tell them.”
“Your lover,” he murmured.
“My love,” I replied. I squeezed him around the waist and he chuckled, and we remained there a few minutes more until someone called up the stairs, “Supper’s on!”
Noel had been privy to all of the supper plans — the turkey and garlic mashed potatoes and bread pudding — so the look on his face when Mary Kate brought out the birthday cake, lit with thirty-four candles, was absolutely priceless. It wasn’t often that I could surprise him, so I relished every chance I had, particularly ones that the rest of the family could be in on. Caleb giggled with glee and Dad looked proud, and Noel’s eyes grew bright and damp as the family sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” at the tops of their voices.
He looked at me and I smiled at him. At the clamoring of my relatives, Noel bent over the cake to blow out the candles and make a wish.
“What did you wish for, Uncle Noel?” Caleb said.
“I can’t tell that,” Noel answered, “or it won’t come true.” He looked at me again — across the table from him by then, with Rosemary on my knee — and then picked up the serving knife and started to cut slices.
It still amazes me, how different a house can feel when it’s full of love. People had warned me about Fidele that it was a house full of sorrows, and no wonder; it was a dynasty founded on deception, and its descendants paid the price for generations.
This house, while it wasn’t half as beautiful as Fidele had been, had no such history. My family was exactly what they presented themselves to be, with their big laughs and bigger hearts; and because I loved Noel, they welcomed him into the family, too.
I thought about this as I lay awake that night, after I had given Noel his birthday present and many kisses; I thought about the ghost of poor Justine, and of Simon and Grace and Zachary, too. Even if Fidele hadn’t been haunted, I thought, it would have felt the same, given its history.
“You’re thinking,” Noel murmured and put his hand on my chest.
I put my hand on top of his. “Am I keeping you awake?”
“No.” He scooted closer, tucking his head in the crook of my neck. “But since we’re both awake…” He kissed my throat.
I laughed and pulled him to me, and we kept each other awake for a while longer.
You know I’m not a religious man. I don’t know what waits for us after death. Maybe it’s nothing; maybe it’s the reward we deserve; maybe it’s the reward we feel we deserve.
What I do know is this. After his death, my brother saved my life, protected me, looked out for me. A dead woman appeared to me and guided me to save the life of her son. A dead man told me he trusted me to look after his family as I would my own, because they were my own. And I know that these three people had hearts big enough, had love strong enough, to not only save us from a creature made of rage and fire, but to help her find rest.
So, say what you will about heaven and hell, punishment and rewards. I don’t know anything about any of that. What I do know is that there is love and there is death, and of the two, love is stronger. Love will always be stronger.
Fidele: February 8, 2015-February 27, 2018