“Do you have any idea what time it is, old man?” I questioned as I flicked on the light as he came into the flat.
“Jesus Christ—ESTHER!” He hollered gripping his chest. “You almost gave me a dang heart attack!”
I couldn’t help but smile. I was not letting him off the hook but I’d always wanted to do that. “Grampa, it’s two a.m.”
“I know, which is why I’m going to crawl into bed…” He yawned the last part as he took off his coat and ascot.
“Oh no you don’t.” I leaped off the seat and ran in front of him before he could move to the stairs. “What happened with Malachi Lord?”
He groaned. “Esther.”
“Grandpa.” I crossed my arms and waited.
“Shouldn’t you be more worried about me? Like helping me to bed or something?”
“You said the moment I helped you to bed would be the last time you ever got out of bed. Which, now that I think about it, is a horrible thing to say to a ten-year-old.”
“Noted.” He nodded as he tried to walk around me again.
“Grandpa, seriously!” I frowned trying to give him my puppy dog eyes while pouting. But he pushed my head back with his index finger.
“That look has no effect when you try so hard. Move it.” His voice much more serious now and so I moved but I didn’t give up.
“Grandpa, you know why I love Malachi Lord’s books?” I asked him and he stopped mid-step to hear me out. I’d never given an explanation before and he’d never asked. “I love them because the pain he puts his characters through allows me to live optimistically. Mom abandoned me before I was even a week old and my father is dead. I continually feel like I’m failing to live up to some obscure greatness, and just as everything is bubbling to the top, just as I start to panic and want to hide away in my room forever, Malachi Lord releases a new book. I read it and reread it, sobbing over the pages, and you know I’m a crybaby, I cry at the most random things, but I never sob, never really weep, until I read his books. Afterward, I take a deep breath and smile, because I get to live on even though the characters died. What am I going to do in the future if Malachi Lord stops writing? Oh, the horror!” I added the last bit as I placed the back of my hand over my forehead and tilted my head upwards like the women in those old Hollywood movies did.
When he didn’t say anything I had to look back at him. He was staring at me with those old brown eyes of his. “Put your hand down.”
I did so immediately and when I did he flicked my forehead.
“Ouch!” I flinched moving back. “Grandpa!’
“Esther.” He mocked me even rocking his head. “What are you going to do in the future if Malachi Lord stops writing? I ought to kick you in the rear. What kind of question is that? You will live like the seven billion other people on this planet and you will be the bringer of your own happiness and optimism. Not a book. Not a man. But you.”
My mouth dropped open in shock. “Wait, why am I being lectured? Plus you’re the one who told me to be passionate about the arts.”
“The arts. Plural. Not a single author or book. This is how I know you’re not ready to take over the publishing house. You’d probably turn it into the Malachi Lord foundation. Huh!” He huffed eyeing me up and down before heading up the stairs.
I stood there dumbfounded for a second. Not a single question I’d wanted to ask was answered and worst of all… I got lectured, and the evil eye too, as if I’d done something wrong. My shock shifted to amazement and my amazement to amusement. Nodding to myself, I clapped my hands together and then turned to the stairs.
“One of these days, Grandpa I’m going to…to…to figure whatever it is that you do to make me forget all my questions!” I hollered up at him.
“Good luck!” He yelled back and he laughed so hard he started to cough. But before I could ask if he was alright he shouted, “I’m fine. You gotta be quicker than that.”
“You gotta be quicker than that.” I mocked under my breath making a face at his now closed door.
“I heard that!”
“No way,” I whispered backing up and tiptoeing back to my room. Why was I tiptoeing? God, I was so lame! I could legally drink, get married, and go to war in every country in the world and yet I still felt like a kid playing grown up. With a sigh, I headed back towards my room behind the stairs. I dragged my feet across the bright red Persian rug and crawled into my futon-styled bed opposite the massive windows that overlooked the city.
“Ahhh.” I moaned happily wiggling under the sheets. The downstairs bedroom was meant to be the master bedroom. However, when I was four, I’d always came down to sleep in my grandpa’s room…not on his bed but on my pillow by the window. Every time I was high up on a bed I ended up falling off. When I was ten, a certified big kid, my grandpa gave me his room. And now I could look out at the city lights which looked like stars once I got really sleepy.
Like now… I could feel my eyelids getting heavier when all of sudden the sound of
Beethoven’s Für Elise began to play softly. I listened feeling as if the bed and I were spinning, drifting, floating, and just as it was getting good it stopped and it felt as if I were being abruptly pulled out of the sky by my ankles and back to the ground. Sitting up, I picked up my phone from the wood frame of the bed that was just thick enough to hold my laptop and phone. Looking at the screen I saw that I had not only missed Li-Mei’s call but also her text…
“Are you up?”
“No…because no one but doctors, 911 operators, and cops should be up at this hour. Goodnight,” I replied and no sooner had I leaned back did Beethoven’s Bagatelle start to play again. Groaning I kicked my feet out as I answered.
“You better be dying,” I said into the phone.
“I think I’m in love,” she said, speaking in Mandarin, not English.
“With whom?” I sat up, the idea of sleep was now erased from my mind.
“I suck at this game just tell me.” I was excited now.
“Fine. But only because I’m excited.” She paused.
“I wanted to let the suspense build.”
Rolling my eyes I laid back down. “You do that but fair warning while the suspense is building I might fall asleep.”
“Fine. Gosh. It’s Malachi Lord.”
I froze, unsure of what to say.
“Silence is not the reaction I was expecting, Esther.”
“Sorry…” I started to drift off but caught myself. “Malachi Lord? As in the author Malachi Lord?”
“New York is a big place but I doubt there are many who share the same.”
She had a point. “I just don’t understand, how can you be—?”
Her laughter cut me off. “Esther you’re so naïve and sweet sometimes it’s funny. Of course I don’t love him. I just mean I have a crush on him. Like a huge heart churning crush. And I’ve been trying to cyberstalk him, you know, to get more information on him, but there isn’t much and your fansite is down.”
It took me a second to process…I really was that tired. It was then that all the questions I’d wanted to ask my grandfather came back into my mind. “Wait. My site is down?!”
I sat up quickly grabbing my laptop again.
“Really your site that’s what you’re worried about I—”
“Li-Mei! It’s not down! You nearly gave me a heart attack! Are you sure you have the right link?”
“Forget about the damn site! My love life is evolving!”
I took a deep breath closing the laptop. “Fine, rewind. You met Malachi Lord today? What happened? What did he say to you? I bet he’s really nice—”
“He’s a total asshole.” She snapped. “And a bit weird…he barely even made eye contact with me. He was like this wounded wolf—if you got too close he’d bite your head off.”
Everything I’d pictured my favorite author to be like had just been incinerated in two sentences. No, wait…
“Well in his defense he did just rescue your mother from a burning car. He was probably just injured and dealing with the stress of it all.”
“Maybe…” She trailed off. “A few nurses were fans and asked for his autograph, apparently he said no and walked away.”
“Well…” I didn’t have an excuse for that one. “Wait, then why do you love him—I mean have a crush on him?”
“Esther,” she said like she couldn’t believe I was asking. “First, he is so handsome. Even more so in person. He’s muscular but not like a meat head, so I guess more fit than muscular. I just wanted to reach out and touch his pecs. Oh, and by the way, he glares with those sultry blue eyes like he knows you know. He’s so handsome he could totally…”
“Secondly?” I cut in before she went down that rabbit hole.
“Oh, right…secondly he saved my mom. And thirdly he saved my mom from a burning car like Superman. And fourthly—”
“Why did you say he saved your mom like it was an afterthought?” I laughed then remembered I hadn’t asked about her mother. “How is she a? Are you in Jersey now with her?”
“Why do you think I’m speaking Mandarin?”
“Li-Mei it is an ungodly time in the morning, does it seem like I’m functioning enough to think right now?”
“I’m speaking in Mandarin,” she went on as if I hadn’t said anything, “so that my mother, who is in her room now, will hear parts of our conversation and be satisfied that I have Chinese friends.”
“She doesn’t know that,” she said it happily and I had to laugh. “Seriously though, you’d think a woman who just had a near death experience would be more worried about herself. Nope! Instead she’s using this as motivation to get me married, because apparently if she died I’d be all alone with my cats who, when I die of old age or of depression or both, will turn on me and start to eat my face because no one would realize that I’d died!”
I held back the laughter that was fighting to break free. With my hand over my mouth I managed to say, “You’re making that up.”
“Oh, that was actually her being kind. When I was twenty-four, we went back to Nanjing in China, for what I thought was a funeral for my uncle…guess what happened?”
“There was no funeral?”
“There was no uncle!” She hollered and I couldn’t help it.
I laughed so hard the tears rolled down my cheeks.
“No uncle. No funeral. Just my great aunts, my mom’s old friends, their sons and me, for this big, weird matchmaking ceremony.”
“Your mother is a savage.”
She laughed. “Yup, a trait I inherited. Since then I’ve refused to keep my hair black and I only speak English whenever I’m around her in protest. Now is just a treat because she almost died. ”
Are all mother-and-daughter relationships a battle of wills like this?
“Which is why Malachi Lord is also my perfect husband.”
“You’ve lost me again.”
“He has everything I like in my guys—”
“You said he was an ass!”
“Exactly!” she replied and now my head hurt.
Shifting onto my side I sighed and said, “Explain.”
“All girls like bad boys. It’s the truth. Howard is nice and all but oh my god, he’s like a puppy—”
“Hey! Puppies are cute!” I pouted.
“Then why did you break up with him?”
I had no response to that and it was annoying. I had broken up with Howard but that was only because I wasn’t sure what I wanted and I didn’t like the idea of just having him on standby. I didn’t want to jerk him around. However, he, didn’t seem to get it and had simply said that he’d give me space…though he still texted me daily.
“Exactly. Cute is nice but sexy is better.” She gloated. I didn’t need to see her face to know she was probably grinning from ear to ear. “Malachi…he’s not a puppy. He’s got that whole mystery to him. Like why does he live in places like Ho Ho Kus, New Jersey—”
“I’m sorry, where?” I asked thinking my mind hadn’t translated correctly.
“Ho Ho Kus, New Jersey. Let me guess, you haven’t heard of it?
The name rang a bell but I had no idea as to why.
When I didn’t speak she continued. “Yeah I grew up there, the Chihohokies Indian tribe say that Ho Ho or the Hohokes…”
“Is that what they call the sound the tree bark makes when the wind blows?”
“Yeah. So you’ve been there?”
No. I hadn’t I didn’t even know how I knew that. Had I read it somewhere? Maybe. But it was a weird thing to remember.
“Huh? Sorry?” I shook my head clear. “Malachi—hot, mysterious, I’m following…well not really but still I’m here.”
“Are you really that tired?” she asked but before I could once more remind her of what time she kept talking. “Anyway, he’s got this bad boy edge I like, but in reading his books you can tell he’s sensitive. Well…he at least knows how to get a girl going.”
“He’s also not Chinese.”
I frowned at that. “What’s wrong with being Chinese?”
“Nothing! But it will annoy my mother! And spare me from seeing the smug look that she would have plastered on her face for the rest of her life if I end up marrying and I quote ‘nice Chinese doctor or lawyer with a good family.’…”
“So you’re in love with Malachi Lord because he’s the perfect way to spite your mother?”
“Exactly! With Malachi I can rebel, but she won’t be able to reject him because he’s her savior!”
“You are a terrible person.”
“You have no idea how crazy a mother can make you—shit I’m so sorry!”
“No.” I laughed though it wasn’t that funny. However, I didn’t want to make her feel bad and changed the subject. “I like your plan. Plus, it’s great story Li-Mei. The beautiful woman who searches for love in a modern world. The mother who wishes that love to come from their own history. The man, who saves them both, one in body, the other in heart.”
I’d definitely read that.
A few days later….
“Yes, Alfred?” I answered as I placed the phone on the bronzed granite countertop of the kitchen and grabbed the box cutter to open the final box.
“Normally I’d scold you…” He coughed and it wasn’t a normal cough, it was the type of cough that made people flinch because you were sure it was painful. “Ah…this gosh darn cough. Sorry, what was I saying?”
I put the box cutter down and lifted the phone instead of taking it off speaker.
“I’d forewent scoldment?”
“You do realize that neither of those words are used in common vernacular. In fact, I’m not sure scoldment is a word at all.”
There were many things I liked about Alfred Noëlle and until this very moment I assumed his directness was evenly distributed among all aspects of his life. But I now realized that he, like everyone else, was well equipped to be bold and direct towards others yet unable to do the same with himself. I was unsure of what to say so decided to say nothing at all.
“Who would have known your silence would be more annoying than your actual comebacks.”
I smirked at that and walked towards the window. “I’ve finally finished moving.”
“Finally? It’s only been three days. And I hired the movers. Did you even unpack anything?”
“I’m not an invalid, Alfred. I’ll have you know that I unpacked the coffee maker all by myself.” Well, I was technically in the process of doing so, but he didn’t need to know that. I glanced out at the green trees that surrounded the house on all sides and found myself somewhat disappointed by the lack of colors despite the fact that it was nearly fall.
“Of all places, why Montana?”
“It was the last state that came to my mind,” I told him. “And I now that I know who and where she is…I’m freer to roam around more on a different time zone.”
“Are you sure Li-Mei is her?”
“Yes.” I didn’t have to think about it. The connection I felt as we nearly touched. It was her. “It all makes sense…the way we met again. The impractical story of it all which could start a whole new romance, and I, in a moment of weakness—”
“Humanity.” He corrected.
“Still weakness.” Humanity may be why we kept making the same mistakes over and over again. “The cliché of it all—I save the mother of the woman who not only works in the same publishing house that I write under, but is on the team that manages my work and as such is able to find out where I am. And in rushing to her mother’s side, we coincidentally and serendipitously met at the doors of the local hospital just as I was attempting to leave and she was attempting to enter…and thus the tragedy begins.”
“Unless you move to Montana?”
I nodded even though he couldn’t see me. “Unless I make an effort not to fall in love with her this time, to put forest, rivers, and mountains between us.”
“You do realize we have planes now?”
I rolled my eyes as I sat on the cream colored couch. “Normally I’d scold—”
And while his reply was amusing, but I could no longer give him time to avoid his fears. “How much longer do you have, Alfred?”
“I was doctor in four of my past lives. I know that cough is not just a cough.”
He snorted. “Four out of a thousand is horrible statistic.”
“Says the man with tuberculosis in this era of modern medicine.”
Silence again. And I didn’t mind silence. In fact, I preferred it which meant I could wait until he either hung up or spoke.
He chose to speak. “They say it’s antibiotic resistant but not contagious. However….”
“In a man your age it will be fatal.”
He exhaled as if in relief. “The doctors here want to try all these new drugs and whatnot. Part of me said forget it because I wasn’t going to be anybody’s guinea pig. But then my granddaughter…” he laughed with joy at the thought of her. “She comes home crying, and though I’m used to her crying fits, I still gave her my attention and listened as she complained about the hero of the latest book she was reading. She called him every name under the sun for giving up on his love after finding out he had a terminal illness. She said he should live on for love, and yadda, yadda, yadda. And at the end of her rant she hugged me and told me she loved me. I knew then that I was going to be a guinea pig.”
I could feel the pain, the darkness slithering around me like a snake. I didn’t want to shoulder his pain but I couldn’t help it. “I’m sure you’d prepare a much more formal goodbye for me than this call, so what do you need from me, Alfred?”
“Yes,” he finally said. “But let me make an excuse for it anyway.”
Only Alfred. “I’m listening.”
“We aren’t publishing your next novel because it’s boring.”
I paused trying to pretend I didn’t hear that but I couldn’t. “I’m sorry, did you just say the tragedy that was one of my past lives is boring?”
“Yes,” he replied and I was starting to hate this excuse. “It’s only boring because it ends like your other books. Everyone knows your face right now. They will be expecting greatness from their real-life hero and we can’t give them more of the same.”
“So you want me to write a happily ever after? They ride off into the rainbow-filled sunset?” It was like he was mocking me. “To the rest of the world it is fictional, but to me it is an autobiography. I can’t write what didn’t happen!”
“I know, Malachi. I know which is why it’s an excuse,” he said and I relaxed slightly.
“My granddaughter.” He didn’t bother to hide it any longer. “She’s smart, beautiful, funny, and just odd enough that it’s adorable, but most importantly she’s kind, she always makes those around her smile, and….and I don’t want the last time I see her or hear from her filled with…this. I don’t want her crying over me. With me gone, and you now knowing who your past lover is, I hoped she could spend the next couples of weeks in Montana with you while I sought treatment here. She’s a fan of your novels. In fact, she’s a super-fan. She’s the one who titles most of your novels and runs your fan page. If anyone can help you make up a happy ending it’s her. And I don’t want her figuring it out or meeting anyone by chance. She’s not trouble, you’d hardly even notice she’s there—”
“Send her when you’re ready.” He didn’t need to explain at all. He merely had to ask. “I don’t know about this book but I’ll keep playing along until…you return.”
“I’m a man of word.” No matter what lifetime, if someone of the Noëlle family needed help I’d offer it. It was my eternal debt to pay.
June 17th 1853- St. James Parish, Louisiana
“Are you sure the lady is fine?” Philip de Noëlle asked from up above us as he held the plank of wood tightly at his side. I waited for her to answer because I knew he’d be more satisfied but she didn’t say a word, and even I looked to make sure she was alright, but she merely smiled that smile of hers, her eyes glistening with excitement and jubilation.
“Mary-Margaret?” I spoke her name to get her attention, and when she blinked, her green eyes shifted to Dr. De Noëlle.
“I’m much more than fine, Sir. Thank you. You’re quite kind helping us like this.”
When I looked back, his white face was dumbstruck as if he figured she’d be coming to her senses by now…now that we were miles away from her home and my bondage, and hiding in a dirt ditch as we tried to make it up north.
“I’ll be back at night.” He reached beside himself and carefully dropped a flask of water and a basket my hands while peaches, grew behind her house. “They’re for her, you hear me, boy?”
I nodded. I was more than happy to give them to her. “I’ll never forget this Dr. De Noëlle. I’m forever in your debt.”
He didn’t say anything in reply. He didn’t get the chance to. He quickly placed the plank over us and the branches over it, allowing only the slightest amount of sunlight to reach us.
“It’s almost over, Francis,” Mary-Margaret whispered as she rested her blonde head on my dark, bruised chest and ran her small white hands over the scars. “This life ain’t the easiest we’d ever had, it may very well have been the hardest, but we’ll make it. You’ll see, this is the last one. Our last life.”
I wanted to tell her she’d said those words before, that we’d fought the odds just like this before and lost. And yet here we were fighting once more. But I couldn’t say those words ‘cause her hope gave me hope. Instead, I wrapped my arms around her and held her close. And the tighter I held her the more comfortable I became which is why I didn’t hear them.
“You’ha dirty nigger!”
It happened quickly, too quickly for me to even gather my thoughts. Hands were everywhere, white hands, smacking me, beating me, pulling her away from me.
“FRANCIS!” She screamed but I didn’t see her, though I tried to. I tried to protect my head, I tried to see her, to make sure they weren’t hurting her. It was her scream next that reassured me she’d be okay. “DADDY PLEASE! DADDY! STOP! FRANCIS!”
Master Bondurant was an evil man to just about everyone, but even evil men loved their daughters, so I figured Mary-Margaret wouldn’t die here. I didn’t think about the pain. In fact I’d lost the ability to hear anything, which was a shame, cause I wanted to hear her at least. I prayed I’d get to see her face one more time before I went…and that prayer was answered when the noose came around my neck and I was being dragged across the forest floor before being pulled. That’s how I saw her, her face bright red due to all her screaming and tears. Her younger brother, Adam, was holding her back as she kicked and fought to get to me, while her elder brother spat into my face. I wanted to say “Mary-Margaret stop fightin’ ‘em!” as there wasn’t anything she could or say or do but hurt herself at this point but I couldn’t on account of the rope…they hadn’t tied it right, or maybe they did and wanted me to suffer, cause it felt more like my throat was closin’ in than my neck breakin’.
“FRANCIS!” By her voice I was able to hear again, fight on longer.
“He ain’t even human, Mary!” Adam shook her but she didn’t stop, not ‘til she was free and then she ran to me…stubborn to the very end that one was.
She grabbed her father’s fallen pistols and pointed one towards Adam and the other towards her father.
“Let him go, Daddy!” Her face was streaked with dirt.
“MARY!” Master Bondurant called out to her in shock. “Mary, this ain’t you. What it do to you? Mary…”
“DADDY, LET HIM GO! I ain’t gonna miss…just like you taught me.”
Master Bondurant grunted and pushed her brother out of way so that he could pull the rope tighter.
“NO!” She screamed and pointed both guns at him, causing Adam to charge after her in anger, which was never good for someone who wasn’t bright. He took the butt of his rifle and hit her as hard as he could, which for someone his size, was much harder than he should have. Her blonde hair spun as she recoiled from the blow and she fell face forward into the dirt right under me as the guns fell from her hands.
“Mary! Mary-Margaret!” Master Bondurant hollered as he let go of the rope and I fell to the ground. I saw red in the pool of her blonde hair among the dirt and grass. “What have you done?! Adam, what have you done! Mary! Mary!”
“What is this?” Dr. De Noëlle came riding in on horseback. “Is this from the riot?”
“A bunch of niggers are rioting upstream, I was on my way to help.” He lied. He was good a liar. Even I believed him. He hopped off his horse and rushed to Mary-Margaret. “Rush to my house tell my wife I need the blue vial,” he said to Adam, then to Bondurant and his other son, Sam, he said, “She’s going to need to be wheeled in. I need a barrow and as many sheets as possible!”
They were about to hop to it when they remember me. Their compassion and worry now gone again. How did people turn it on and off like that?
“We don’t have much time! He’ll bleed out soon enough! GO!”
They took satisfaction in that before running into the forest and to their horses. It was only then that Dr. de Noëlle came to me and I tried to speak again. “Save…”
“She’s gone.” He frowned hovering over me. “She felt nothing. But she’s gone.”
I think I knew that but hearing it hurt. Knowing she went first hurt.
“When and if I can, I’ll bury you two together,” he said to me. “You want me to pray with you?”
“I’ma go….” I said as my eyes closed. I’d meant to say I’ma going to see her again. But it he wouldn’t understand anyway so it was okay.
“Ahh!” I exhaled as I found myself rolling off the couch and onto the wooden floor gasping for air. Trembling, I tried to breathe even though nothing could stop the panic and fear of dying that had crept over me.
Rolling onto my side, I curled into a ball and laid there until the pain went away and the trembling stopped. I wouldn’t have known how long that took if I hadn’t watched the sun go down over the trees in the window in front of me.
“Why?” I asked rising from the ground. Expecting no answer and getting none I walked back into the kitchen and took out the coffeemaker and the packet of Italian Roast coffee. In the few minutes it took for it to brew I made myself a sandwich. Then I limped from the kitchen to my bedroom which contained nothing but my bed on the dark hardwood floor and dozens of covered canvasses that were all lined up against the walls. Placing my meal on the ground next to the painting I was working on, I sat down and cleaned off my paintbrush unable look away from her green eyes.
“You didn’t have to die too,” I said to her as I dipped the ends of the brush into the white paint and signed not my name but the name of Francis. You didn’t have to but you stubbornly run towards me each time…this time you need to stay away.
The paintbrush snapped from the pressure of my fingers. But I kept thinking If there is any connection between us you must break it and stay away!
See you all next week for chapter 4 and 5
Please Remember “Malachi and I” is an original story of J.J. McAvoy, shared on this blog by J.J. McAvoy. Copying, duplicating, printing, publishing in any form of media including web, manipulating, transmitting or reproducing without the prior written permission of J.J.McAvoy is strictly forbidden and would constitute a breach of copyright.