I slept fitfully throughout the day, vaguely aware of the times Noel cracked open the door to check on me — I assumed to make sure I hadn’t vomited or fallen off the bed and couldn’t call for help. Late in the evening, I woke to find Caleb’s teddy bear tucked against my side. I sat up slowly and held the bear for a moment, smiling at the sweetness of the gesture — Caleb really was an astonishing child — and then got my cane, put on my shoes, and hauled myself to my feet.
As I went down the passage to Caleb’s room, I saw his nightlight was on and the door was ajar. When I peered in, Noel sat at the foot of Caleb’s bed as he watched Caleb sleep. He wore a serious, thoughtful expression on his face as he absently stroked Tumnus, nestled against his thigh. The kitten wasn’t asleep, either — her tail twitching slowly as she extended and retracted her claws, and her ears turned toward me when the floor creaked.
I tapped on the door and Noel looked up. He didn’t exactly smile, but the frown disappeared when he saw me.
“I think he needs this more than I do,” I said in a whisper as I came into the room, and I gave Noel the teddy bear.
He put it against Caleb’s side. Still asleep, Caleb made a soft sound and wrapped an arm around the bear. Noel said in a similar low tone, “I think he was worried about you.”
“He’s a good kid.” I said, after we both watched Caleb sleep some more, “Has he had bad dreams?”
“Not yet, but after the way Emmanuel treated him today it wouldn’t surprise me.”
The rain tapped on the windows, a sound I normally found soothing. “If you want my help to take Caleb away–“
“I can’t,” Noel said tiredly. “Every time I leave I have to truly ask myself if I’m coming back, but I always come back.” He stroked Caleb’s hair, and Caleb made a little contented coo. “It would only be worse if I tried to take him away. Emmanuel would drag my name through the mud.”
“You’re his son,” I said. “Surely you know a few of the skeletons in his closet.”
Noel’s mouth worked a moment, then he said, “I do, but I also know it doesn’t matter. He’s a good ol’ boy in a city run by good ol’ boys. Anything I say about him only gets waved away.”
He sounded so hopeless that I couldn’t help myself — I sat behind him on the bed and draped my arms over him so that I could hug him to me. He sighed, and then leaned back against me. He whispered, “I am glad you’re here. Willie and Mrs. Bell do what they can, but at the end of they day, they’re his employees.”
“So am I.”
“But you’re not afraid of him. You’re probably the only person in this house who isn’t.”
“He’s nothing to be afraid of,” I said. “He’s a lonely, bitter old man who doesn’t know how to be a father. That’s more sad than frightening.”
Noel huffed. “I’ve always been afraid of him. I can’t think of many days when I haven’t been afraid. People tell me I’m a hero because of what I did in the war and I want to tell them I just know how to live when you’re always afraid.”