September 3, 1951.
Riom, Auvergne, France.
L’Académie was the first boarding school that allowed both girls and boys to attend, together. I made my first September journey there when I was seven. I met Noah the next year, after my second September journey, in October, when I was eight. My birthday was on the tenth of August.
On my first journey, my grand-mère held my hand tightly, our connected arms drawn over to her lap. She held my hand with both of hers while the fingers on my other hand drew patterns in the tan leather of the seat. When Harold, our driver, made the turn, mémère, as I fondly referred to her, let go of my hand and fussed. She smooth down my light blonde hair, cut in a short bob and not parted down the middle. She fixed the hem of my blue dress, tugged at a wrinkle in my grey, wool stockings, and even leaned down, licking her thumb, to rub a spot clean on my little black shoes. I sat still, watching her work. When she straightened, she nodded. She touched my face, wrinkled, old fingers on soft, pale cheeks. She rubbed the mass of freckles over my nose, like she always did before she cried. Mémère didn’t have a chance to cry, though. One of the stewards opened my door as Harold stopped the car; another steward took my two suitcases from the trunk.
“Mémère,” I whispered. She reached out to rub my nose again, but the steward cleared his throat, and I smiled at mémère before sliding across my seat and out of the car. The steward closed it behind me, and then Harold took the corner, driving away, and I was led toward the iron gate. Beyond the high cobblestone walls were miles upon miles of the greenest grass I’d ever seen. A few trees were placed here and there, and a long gravel walkway led to l’Académie, a castle for princesses. It looked very similar to mémère’s manor, tall and long, with so many windows and balconies.
As we approached the wide stairs leading up to the massive front double doors, I saw a boy. He sat on the thick railing, legs swinging off the edge, and heels bouncing off the stone wall. He looked my age, maybe a year older. He was tall and skinny, sun-kissed skin stretched almost too tight over his interesting face. Mémère used to say that those who had interesting faces someday became very handsome. I think she was wrong, though, because it was his hair that I found interesting. This boy had so much hair, but it wasn’t long. It was soft-looking and messy, but not the kind of messy one arrives at when climbing out of bed. It was an organized mess, a chocolate-colored and big mess.
He smiled at me with wide brown eyes. He held a blade of grass on his nose, balanced there, and I smiled back. He had flecks of grass-green in his eyes. L’Académie was not just for princesses, but princes, as well.
September 3, 1952.
Riom, Auvergne, France.
On the September journey to my second year, I took care to watch for the turn. When it came, I fixed the hem of my blue dress and smoothed down my hair. As Harold stopped the car, I rubbed my nose and stepped out of the car. When I approached the stairs, the stewards flanking me, there was the first prince I’d ever seen, bouncing his heels off the stone wall under the railing.
There were two announcements that year. The first one I’d heard last year, but there were new first years this year, as there always would be. I listened to Madame Gwenaëlle as attentively as I had the year before as she explained l’Académie and its beauty, her accent thick and choppy around her English, “When you leave your family, you join us. Here at l’Académie, you are part of the lives of the students around you. You are one with your peers. You are a single unit. You are now a part of this family, one that will raise you into beautiful young men and women. Bienvenu à l’Académie.”
The second announcement was one that appealed to me where I’d thought it wouldn’t. Second years were going to integrate the girls and boys in classes. Only the older students, the third years and up, were allowed to integrate. And now we would.
October 17, 1952.
Riom, Auvergne, France.
While my three roommates slept, I sat with a lit candle in one hand and a book in my other. We’d learned to read last year, and I couldn’t stop. Thunder rumbled angrily outside, signaling the oncoming whip of lightning. It cracked at the same time my candle went out. I stared at it for a moment before folding the corner of my page and laying the book on my nightstand. I loved storms.
I pulled my robe tightly around me and lit a match over the candle again before I made my way out of the room. I never went far when I wandered the school at night; I only liked to find a window to watch the sky. My favorite, a large bay with a cushioned seat, was already occupied as I rounded the corner. I looked toward the figure, knees drawn to its chest and temple resting against the panes. It was the same boy from my very first day; I could tell by his hair.
I continued onward despite my clenching stomach, something mémère called butterflies, and, as I approached, he turned and the flicker of my candle ghosted over his smile. His freckled face danced in the shadows, his pale skin drawn tight. “Hi,” he said softly, shifting so that I could sit with him. I took the invitation, blushing and not meeting his muddy eyes with the flecks of grass. “Noah,” he said suddenly, holding out his hand.
As I looked up to introduce myself, I noticed he was studying me, and he smiled softly when I met his gaze. “Brielle,” I whispered.
November 21, 1952.
Riom, Auvergne, France.
It seemed to always be raining. Noah loved the rain like I did. He brought me outside sometimes, just beyond the doors, and we laughed when the water splattered over our freckles. Noah liked to soak his hair and shake it like a dog, he liked to tell me stories while we walked about the school, and he liked to hold my hand during the day, where everyone could see. We ate lunch together, and he walked me to classes. Some of them I had with him, the integrated classes because he was older, and I was slowly starting to realize that mémère was right. His face was no longer interesting, but handsome.
February 8, 1954.
Riom, Auvergne, France.
The first summer without Noah was painful. Going back to the manor that had no mémère, I cried during thunderstorms, and I read eighteen books. When my third September journey finally came, my grand-père came with me, which meant we had to stop six times so that he could smoke and puke. Without mémère, he didn’t care if he was dying, and so he blackened his lungs, despite the cancer. When Harold took the corner, I kissed pépère on the cheek, fixed the hem of my blue dress, smoothed the part in my light blonde hair, rubbed the freckles on my nose, and opened the door.
Noah wasn’t bouncing his heels off the stone wall under the railing when I ascended the stairs into l’Académie. He wasn’t sitting next to me during the first announcements of the year, when Madame Gwenaëlle recited her welcoming speech, bienvenu à l’Académie, and told us the news. A school had been opened in London, England that was modeled after l’Académie. We weren’t alone anymore. Noah wasn’t in the halls between classes, he wasn’t next to me during lunch, and he wasn’t asking me to read to him during thunderstorms. Noah wasn’t there, but Cecilia was.
I met Cecilia in December, three days before we went home for winter break, the only time we left l’Académie for home. Cecilia came back with me because she shared the chocolate bar her younger sister, Adéle, sent her from their orphanage. No one but Noah had ever shown me such warmth, and I was taken with her immediately.
It was in February that I saw Noah again. He was suddenly there at lunch, looking at Cecilia warily. We always sat at the same table, and she’d arrived early. He looked up when I put my tray down. “Brielle,” he said breathlessly, standing up. I was already walking around the table when he met me and wound his arms tightly around me. “Brielle,” he said again.
“Where have you been?” I demanded, pulling back to look him over. He was still my handsome Noah, just like mémère had predicted, but there was something interesting about his face again. “You look tired,” I said before he could respond.
He smiled, but it wasn’t his usual smile. He was tired. It was more than just lack of sleep, though, it was something more. We sat down again, and I turned to Cecilia, who was watching Noah from behind her long, choppy bangs. “Cecilia,” I said, touching her dark arm, “This is Noah. And Noah, this is Cecilia.”
They stared at each other a moment, and as Noah started to extend his hand for a shake, Cecilia turned to face me, her silky black ringlets swinging in her ponytail. She fixed me with a steady, dark gaze, but I just rolled my eyes and turned my attention back to Noah. There were so many questions I had for him, and he never had any answers. Where have you been? Silence and a flickering gaze. Were you hurt? More silence. Noah, talk to me. His eyes to mine, silent, begging, pleading for me to stop. I never could. I care about you. Why won’t you tell me?
I was never given answers, not when mémère had come to take me away from the burning house, the screams still fresh in my ears, and taken me into her arms and her life, providing me with a beautiful home and a new start. I was never given answers, not when the ambulance had pulled up to the manor, when they’d taken mémère away from me, her ragged je l’adore still hammering in my chest as she waved an unsteady hand, and I knew, right then, her wave didn’t matter; I would never see her again. I was never given answers, not now, when Noah was dying, I was sure of it, there was nothing else that could possibly be so grave that he wouldn’t tell me, and I could do nothing to save him.
December 10, 1957.
Riom, Auvergne, France.
Cecilia and Noah never became friends. Sometimes I thought it must be because she was three years his junior at eleven, just two years younger than me, but mostly I thought it was because she thought he’d stolen me. In truth, Noah had always had my heart first. Now I know, old as I am, that he’d have it last, as well.
Cecilia continued to come home with me, and soon Adéle, too. Adéle started at l’Académie during my seventh year and Cecilia’s fifth. That year, when we went home for the two weeks, the manor was quiet. Pépère was gone, and his will had passed the estate on to Harold, as promised. I didn’t get a new driver, but Harold got a new bedroom and an adopted daughter. He was young still, and I thought he might even see me graduate from l’Académie in seven years.
That afternoon of the tenth, I asked Noah to come back with us. We were walking through the snow-covered grounds when he declined. “I need to be at home,” he murmured, squeezing my hand.
“Maybe you can visit, then?”
“Maybe.” He shrugged. And then, quite suddenly, Noah stopped. I turned, and he stared at me a moment with his muddy eyes, the promise of spring and grass creeping in. I loved his eyes. Sometimes I drew them, little doodles while our professors droned on. He’d never seen my sketches.
Noah let go of my hand and reached up, brushing his thumb over my nose, rubbing my freckles, his skin soft and unwrinkled; young, alive. “You’re a winter girl,” he said, “You have snow for hair and icy ponds for eyes. Your freckles are like snowflakes, and your face is like an angel.”
“You remind me of a rainy spring day,” I whispered, and he laughed out loud. I pushed him into the snow before jumping in myself. When I was younger, before the ragged je l’adore, mémère always used to say that I reminded her of an icicle, always dripping with snow and always freezing, but always ready to go back outside into the winter.
“Why do I remind you of a rainy spring day?” Noah asked, looking over at me. I kept my gaze on the frosty blue sky, and when I started to answer, he said my name, “Brielle.” There was always something special, something that made my skin tingle, whenever he said my name. “Brielle.” I looked over finally. There were little white flakes in his big, crazy hair, and a pink blush had crept into his pale cheeks. “Brielle, I have to go home because I’m dying.” I blinked. “Not right now,” he assured, “They think I’ll live until my thirties, but—but I have to go home.”
“Where were you that year?” The fall of 1953; my questions had nearly disappeared.
“A hospital,” he said, his voice soft. He was still looking at me, and I forced myself not to cry. I would be strong for him. “Brielle,” he whispered after a moment, “Brielle, I love you.”
I didn’t hesitate even a heartbeat, “I love you, too, Noah.” I always had. I always would. I still do.
January 4, 1961.
Riom, Auvergne, France.
I was thirteen, the winter of 1958, when I had my first kiss. After we returned from break that year, covered in snow and bristling from the chill, as we approached the stairs together, Cecilia, Adéle, and I, there was Noah, as always, bouncing his heels off the stone wall under the railing. Cecilia took Adéle inside, Noah took my hand, and then he took my heart, forever his. It’s been three years since then, and he still greets me that way, in September and January. This is the first time he hasn’t, three winters later, our season.
“Where is he?” Cecilia asked, and we went through the double doors together, the three of us.
Madame Gwenaëlle was in the front hall, and she bustled over when she saw me. “Brielle,” she said softly, “Avec moi, s’il vous plaît.” With me, please.
“Oui, Madame,” I responded worriedly. I waved to Cecilia and Adéle as I followed Madame away. She led us into her office where a set of stairs and a door separated her living quarters. She motioned toward a plush chair, but I remained standing at the foot of her desk. “Madame, quel est-il?” Madame, what is it?
“Noah,” she said, and I looked away. My eyes felt cold, the ponds frozen, and so I took the chair she’d offered, my gaze still fixed on the window. Snow fell steadily, sliding down the windows and settling heavily on the grounds below. I watched it for a few moments before Madame sighed. “He is alive,” she said quietly, her English nearly incomprehensible. I had only ever heard her speak in English during the opening ceremonies.
“Madame?” I said, turning my gaze upon her, “Why have you called me here, then?”
“He will not be returning to the school for some time. He is very ill,” she said slowly, trying out the words, “I know you were close.”
“Je l’adore,” I whispered, my voice ragged, and the breath that I took in was shaky. “Excusez-moi.” Madame didn’t comment on my rude behavior as I leapt from the chair and raced away from her office. I couldn’t look at her, couldn’t listen to her broken English, couldn’t think of Noah lying in a hospital bed with tubes in his nose and needles in his arms.
I found myself outside, and my lungs ached. I drew in heavy, shaken breaths, the icy air searing through my body. I couldn’t breathe. I clutched at my clothing, fingers scrambling and fisting over my heart. He is alive. But for how long?
March 12, 1963.
Le chalet en bord de mer.
Brest, Brittany, France.
Noah returned three weeks after we’d started again at l’Académie for our second semester that year. He hadn’t been healthy, and I’d watched him grow weaker and weaker until one day, in April, he left, and he didn’t come back. The year passed on without him, and then, in July, one month before my eighteenth birthday, I received the first letter from him. Mon amour, he wrote, I will return to you. I will love you. I will cherish you.
He’d given me his address. There was no invitation, but I knew what it meant. I don’t know what possessed me, but I ran to my room, and I packed. I found Harold downstairs, a large suitcase at my heels, and he looked me over once before nodding. He understood. We found ourselves four hours away in Brest, Brittany. When we arrived, my breath caught.
There was Noah, leaning over the railing of an adorable little white cottage. It had belonged to his parents, long ago, before they’d gone, a summer home meant to keep their sickly child healthy and happy. Now it would serve as the place of our love and of his still-broken body, an unintentional home.
It sat on a small cliff where the waves roared angrily against the rocks. The railing surrounded the porch, which led inside to a single floor with three rooms: a kitchen, sitting room, and bedroom. The black-shingled roof glimmered in the sunlight, but the horizon was dark and stormy. It was nearly seven o’clock, and it was chilly.
“Harold,” I said softly, but he was already getting out and gathering my suitcase from the trunk.
“Be safe,” he whispered, touching each of my shoulders. He looked me over again before pulling me into a tight embrace. “I’ll see you in September,” he said, and I nodded.
As he pulled away, Noah turned from the railing and stared at me. I stood there for a long time, staring back at him, until he finally pushed away from the railing and bounded over to me. When he reached me, he looked alive and well. “Brielle,” he said, and his thumb reached up to rub my nose.
“Noah,” I broke, crumbling into him, and he sighed, folding me away in his arms. He smiled like the ocean, like the salty breeze and the promise of rain, like cinnamon and peppermint. Sometimes, he smelled like mémère, her softness, her kindness, her beauty, and sometimes I could see her being taken away, and her face was handsome, not interesting, and she had large hair and muddy eyes with flecks of grass. Sometimes, Noah was one the one being taken away, and yet, I still buried my face in his cotton chest and inhaled, safe.
“I’m better now,” he promised, “I’m not going to leave you again.”
“Okay,” I mumbled with a nod, and Noah loosened his grip to look at me.
“Please be happy.”
“I am happy. I have you.”
Noah smiled widely before leaning down and brushing our noses together. “I love you, Brielle,” he whispered, and I didn’t respond. I leaned up, finding his mouth. We kissed softly, and Noah was strong for me.
May 14, 1965.
Riom, Auvergne, France.
“You’re graduating,” Cecilia hissed, grabbing my arm and shaking it, “Brielle, you’re graduating!” I grinned and nodded. I was twenty, and I had finally finished schooling at l’Académie. In just a few short hours, I would be on the road with all of my belongings, due North.
Girls and boys that I’d made acquaintances with over the years shouted my name as we all prepared. When Madame Gwenaëlle finally came to retrieve us, we filed away into a single line, and she brought us into the auditorium, all twenty-six of us, in our fourteenth and final year, and she presented us to our friends and family. Harold stood up and clapped; he was still young in my eyes, far from death, and he’d seen me graduate. Noah remained seated, staring at me, and, even as everyone around him stood, I saw only him, smiling softly and watching me with his muddy green eyes. When the audience took their seats again, he stood and blew me a kiss. “Je l’adore,” he said, just loud enough, and I bit my lip to keep from crying. My ponds were thawed and ready for summer today.
The ceremony was short, and we were passed on from one of the stewards to Madame Gwenaëlle before we left the stage and went to sit with our patient watchers. Noah pressed a kiss to my hand. My life had started, finally.
October 17, 1966.
Le chalet en bord de mer.
Brest, Brittany, France.
I turned at the voice, smiling when I noticed the bagged deli meats in the butcher’s hand. “Oui, merci beaucoup, monsieur!” I said, taking the cheese, turkey, and roast beef. I left them in my carriage before continuing through the store. I only needed a few things as Noah hadn’t been eating very much lately. I picked through the fresh produce, stowed that away, and then made my way over to the breads. After loading some pasta, hamburger, and chicken into my basket, I found myself at the front of the store. As I searched my pockets, I smiled. Noah’s coats were always so long and roomy.
“Damn it,” I hissed, opening the buttons and reaching into one of the inner pockets. I pulled out my wallet and a small velvet purse. I blinked, and my ears went deaf. I stared at the purse in disbelief.
“Mademoiselle!” the cashier shouted, and I jumped, nodding.
“Excusez-moi. Je suis désolé.” I quickly paid for my things, one hand still curled around the velvet purse. After I’d loaded the car, I sunk into the front seat and shakily opened it. The ring was simple but exquisite. A single silver band wrapped around, a circular diamond meeting in the middle. I flexed my left hand and slid the ring on, inhaling sharply. It fit around my finger. It was beautiful.
I reached back into the pocket, desperate. I pulled my hand back out to reveal a crumpled piece of paper. I carefully unfolded it, and there it was, in Noah’s smooth handwriting, I would ask you to love me forever, to stand by me forever, to be my wife and my only one forever. My Brielle.
My eyes were cold, and so I turned on the car. As I drove home, my icy blue eyes thawed, and I cried in bliss, warm tears staining my cheeks. My smile shined through it, wide and brilliant, and I could barely contain myself as I finally pulled up to our little cottage. My Noah, my husband, my love.
I hurried to gather the bags from the trunk, but as I came around the car, the porch slid into view. My feet staggered, and I dropped the three paper bags with a shriek, “Noah!” I sprinted across the grassy cliff, my breath rushing out of me. “Noah!” I screamed, scrambling up the stairs and all but falling next to him. “Noah, please,” I gasped, taking his shoulder and turning him off of his side and onto his back. A ragged gasp fell from his lips, and I hurriedly hooked my arms underneath him, pulling us up and dashing into the house.
“Noah,” I whispered, shoving the bedroom door open and lowering him onto the bed. The ring on my finger shimmered in the sunlight streaming through the window, and Noah turned his face toward it, closing his eyes and sighing.
“My parents,” he said, his voice hoarse and quiet, “This was my parents’ house.”
“I know,” I said, pushing his hair back off his forehead before leaning down to kiss the damp skin there, “This was your summer home.”
“They brought me here because I was dying. I thought it could fix me again.”
“It’s just a house, Noah.” A wave crashed against the rocks, and I tried to slow my heart, to relax my breathing, but my body trembled. “You have to tell me,” I finally said, and Noah’s eyes met mine. “You have to,” I repeated, “I need to know how to help you, how to save you—how to love you.” I touched his cold face, my thumb rubbing over his nose like he’d done so many times to me. I had never told him about mémère.
His hand reached up to mine, his fingers shaking, and he brought my palm to his lips. “You found it,” he murmured, nosing at the ring.
I smiled, nodding, “Yeah. I found it.”
“Who’s the lucky guy?” He tried for a smile, and I leaned down to kiss him softly.
“It’s always been you, Noah, from the very first day I saw you. It will always be you.”
Noah nodded, and he closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, he turned his gaze back to the sun. “You’ve always wanted answers. I’ve always wanted to protect you.” Noah looked over at me, his lips parted, color leaking back into his skin. “Okay,” he said, and I squeezed his hand. It wasn’t a promise, but it was heavy. I didn’t know what he was agreeing to, but I could see it in his eyes, the weight of the knowledge that nothing could save him, that even our love would die, wash away into a memory and a single beating heart, my own.