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Locked in time, p.10
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       Locked in Time, p.10

           Lois Duncan
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  “You want us to live together?” I whispered incredulously. “But you don’t even like me like that!”

  “Yes. I do, Nore. And I could love you, too,” Gabe said, “if I let myself. What about you? Do you think you could fall in love with me if you tried?”

  “I—might,” I said hesitantly, reluctant to admit that I had been half in love with him ever since my first day at Shadow Grove. “I don’t understand, though—if you feel this way about me, why have you been acting the way you have? You’ve hardly even spoken to me since that night at the club.”

  “It hit me, that night, how hopeless the whole thing was,” Gabe said. “I didn’t want to get any more attached to you than I already was. I didn’t think there was any chance of things working out for us, and it’s so damn hard when you care about people and then you have to—lose them. Then I got this idea about going away together. It could be the answer, Nore—at least for four or five years. Are you willing to try?”

  “Why do we need to run off like criminals to be together?” I asked him. “We live in the same house right now. Why can’t we wait, at least until we graduate from high school?”

  “That’s impossible,” said Gabe. “It has to be now, or it’s never.”

  “Why?” I looked at him blankly. “I don’t understand.”

  “Of course you don’t. You’ll just have to take it on faith that I know what I’m talking about. Felicite didn’t understand either—at least, not at first.”

  “Felicite? You mean, your ex-girlfriend?”

  “She wasn’t just a girlfriend,” Gabe told me. “She and I lived together like husband and wife for almost eight years.”

  “You couldn’t have!” I exclaimed. “You’re seventeen! When did this big romance take place? When you were nine years old?”

  “I know you won’t be able to accept this, but we were both seventeen when Felicite and I fell in love,” Gabe said. “Eight years later, she was more of a mother to me than a sweetheart. An older man came along, and that was the end of our relationship. They got married, and I went back to live at Shadow Grove.”

  “What you’re saying makes no sense at all,” I said irritably. “I hate it when you play games with me like this. This was the way you were talking that night on the way back from the club. It isn’t funny, Gabe; it’s just really messed up and upsetting.”

  “Then you won’t go,” Gabe said. It was a statement, not a question.

  “No, of course I won’t go,” I told him. “It’s a crazy idea. I’d never hurt my father that way; he’d worry himself sick about me. Besides, it just wouldn’t work. We’d never be able to support ourselves. People our age aren’t ready for all that.”

  There was a long moment of silence, broken only by a splash as one of the turtles slid off its log and sank into the river. It went down like a stone, and from the spot at which it had entered the water, ripples moved out in a series of ever-widening circles.

  Then Gabe said with stolid acceptance, “All right. That’s it, I guess.”

  He reached down and took hold of the rope that activated the engine. His jaw was set, and his eyes would not meet mine.

  “Don’t be angry,” I said more gently, regretting my reaction. The romantic idea hadn’t been crazy, just totally unworkable. “This doesn’t mean everything’s over, Gabe. We have so much time—”

  “It does mean everything’s over,” Gabe said quietly. “I’m not angry, Nore, I’m just sorry—just terribly sorry.”

  He gave the rope a sharp yank, and the engine caught immediately. Gabe set it on idle, and then, at last, turned to look at me. There was pain in his eyes, but when he spoke, his voice was expressionless.

  “How about getting out some sandwiches before we head back? I know it’s early for lunch, but I didn’t get much breakfast.”

  “Neither did I,” I said, relieved at the change of subject. “Don’t start up the boat yet. I’ll get the picnic basket.”

  Getting up from my seat in the bow, I moved cautiously back toward the center of the skiff, taking care not to set it to rocking with any sudden movement. Bending down carefully, I picked up the basket from the floor by the middle seat and stood, balancing myself, while I unhooked the latch that held the lid in place.

  “Your mother made ham—” I began.

  At that moment, the engine came to life with a mighty roar and the boat shot forward. An instant later, the peace of the swampland was shattered by a jarring crash, and I felt myself being catapulted backward over the bow of the boat, still clutching the picnic basket, too shocked even to scream. The last thing I remember seeing before I struck the water was a wide arch of blue, filled suddenly with thrashing wings, as water birds rose from the marshes on every side of us and exploded in one wild burst into the shelter of the sky.

  The river closed around me, and I went down, weighted by clothing and terror, plunging like the turtle into the thick, soupy water until I actually felt my face brush the river floor. For one frantic moment, the thought occurred to me that I might be destined to stay there forever, sucked in and enmeshed and swallowed, coated with stickiness, caught by the mud like a fly in a jar of honey.

  Almost immediately, however, I felt myself beginning to rise again. At some point during my descent, I had released my grip on the basket, and now, with my hands unencumbered, I raked wildly at the water in a feverish attempt to claw my way with my bare fingernails up out of the brown depths of the river into the world of light.

  I was still clawing when my hands and then my head broke the surface. Choking and strangling, I dragged in a great gasp of tepid air. When I blinked the water out of my eyes, I saw our boat, rocking peacefully back and forth like a cradle, only a few yards away. Gabe was seated in the stern in exactly the same position he’d been in before the accident. I could only imagine that his grip on the rudder control handle had prevented him from being sent flying out as I had.

  “Gabe!” I tried to call out to him, “Gabe—I can’t—I can’t—!”

  He knew I couldn’t swim! I’d told him that on my very first morning at Shadow Grove, when the two of us had stood chatting together down by the lily pond. Was it possible that he could’ve forgotten and was actually thinking that I was capable of swimming across to the boat?

  “Gabe—please!” I gasped, and felt myself going under once more. This time, I descended more slowly, but with a sort of leaden certainty. My feet struck bottom and seemed to keep right on going, sinking into the gummy sediment as though they belonged there.

  After what seemed like hours, I did begin to rise again, but this, too, happened slowly. My chest felt ready to burst by the time I again reached the surface of the water. My head thudded hard against something solid, and I reached up and grabbed it, shoving it out at arm’s length in front of me so I could come up behind it.

  Clinging for dear life to whatever it was that I was grasping, I spat out a mouthful of water and hungrily sucked in air. When I had gained enough control of my senses to fully comprehend things, I saw that the object of my salvation was a floating log.

  It was probably what our boat had gone plowing into. But where had the boat disappeared to? I couldn’t see it anywhere. Clutching the log, I glanced wildly around me in all directions. When, at last, I did spot the skiff, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was a good fifty yards downriver, chugging rapidly along like a squat, gray pony headed determinedly for its stable. All that I could make out of Gabe was the back of his head. He didn’t even turn back to look over his shoulder.

  I stared after the boy and the vanishing boat with increasing horror.

  “Come back!” I tried to scream, but the sound that emerged from my throat was no more than a whimper. In another few moments, the boat was a speck in the distance. Then it disappeared altogether around a bend in the river. Gabe deliberately left me to drown!

  The mere idea of his doing this was so incomprehensible that I couldn’t immediately absorb it. For an unreasonably long time, I stay
ed where I was without moving, clinging to my makeshift life preserver and waiting hopefully for the boat to reappear. It wasn’t until the herons had begun to settle, lured back to their places of residence by the unbroken quiet, that I was able to accept the situation.

  Gabe wasn’t coming back. He had no intention of trying to save me. If I was going to survive this adventure, I was the one who would have to get myself back to dry land.

  In my logical mind, I was no longer frightened of drowning. My log seemed remarkably buoyant, and as long as I kept my hold on it, there was little chance of my going under again. With this fear set on the back burner, I immediately turned my thoughts to other dangers, such as the sorts of creatures that might be sharing the river water with me. Alligators, water snakes, and leeches were almost as horrible as drowning. I would have to get to shore, and the sooner the better.

  By twisting my shoulders with quick, hard jerks, I was eventually able to work the log around so that it angled toward the south bank of the river. Then, using the swollen wood as a paddleboard, I started awkwardly kicking, which slowly moved me in the direction that I wanted to go.

  As I drew closer to land, my progress was slowed even further by the masses of water hyacinths that blocked my way. These deceptively delicate-looking flowers, which had been sparsely scattered through the center of this wider portion of the river, became increasingly numerous closer to the shoreline, and their long, trailing roots intertwined to form a net of snakelike coils. Tearing a pathway through this was far from easy, and I was as exhausted physically as I was emotionally by the time I finally dragged myself out of the water.

  I didn’t stop to rest, however. I was too filled with adrenaline—too hurt, too angry—too determined to get to my father and inform him of the incredible thing that had happened.

  Turning my left shoulder toward the sun, I set off heading south, the direction in which I knew the highway must lie. My soaked sandals slurped across mud and caught on tall grasses. I shoved my way through shoulder-high thickets of palmetto shrubs and thrust aside low-hanging tree limbs, and with every step I took, I grew more and more furious.

  By the time I had reached the road, my mind was focused on one thing only—the fact that Gabe, who had just finished telling me that he wanted to live with and love me, had not only tried to kill me, but had come very close to succeeding.

  I arrived back at Shadow Grove at twenty past twelve. The fact that I managed to get there so quickly was thanks to a middle-aged woman in a gray Chrysler who stopped to offer me a ride. I had never accepted a ride from a stranger in my life, but I didn’t hesitate a second before accepting this one. Even if she had turned out to be some serial killer in disguise, I couldn’t imagine her doing anything to me that would be worse than the experience I’d just been through.

  Of course, she didn’t do anything other than spread newspapers out to protect her upholstery and ask with concern what had happened. I was too worked up at this point to tell her anything but the truth, or, at least, a portion of it; I said that I’d gone fishing with a friend and fallen out of the boat, and that the boy I was with had gone off and left me.

  “A lovers’ quarrel,” the woman said knowingly. “Dump him, honey. No guy who would do a thing like that is worth a dime.”

  “I’m going to dump him, all right,” I told her vehemently, and to myself I added silently, When Dad learns what happened today, he and I will be dumping this whole weird family.

  The woman let me off in front of the gate to Shadow Grove, and I trudged up the long driveway, finding it hard to believe that a few short hours earlier I had come swinging down it, basket in hand, as happy and unsuspecting as Little Red Riding Hood on her near-fatal trip to her grandmother’s house.

  The first person I saw when I entered the house was Lisette. As I stepped through the front doorway, I could see straight across the entrance hall into the parlor. My stepmother was seated there on the sofa, in a posture of waiting, and from the stunned expression that crossed her face when she saw me, it was evident that I wasn’t the person she was expecting.

  I didn’t speak or in any other way acknowledge Lisette’s existence. Instead, I wheeled around and continued down the hall to my father’s study. When I reached it, I flung open the door and hurried in.

  Dad turned from his computer, obviously startled by my abrupt and unannounced entrance. His eyes grew wide and alarmed as they took in my condition.

  “Good lord, Nore, what happened to you?” Dad exclaimed. “You look like a drowned kitten!”

  “I almost became one,” I said, my voice ringing out so shrill and strange that I hardly recognized it as being my own. “Gabe almost drowned me!”

  “Gabe almost drowned you!” Dad repeated blankly. “What in god’s name are you talking about?”

  “Just what I said,” I told him. “Gabe took me out for a boat ride on the river, and when I was standing up and not holding on to anything, he ran the boat full-speed into a log. I was thrown out into the water, and I almost drowned!”

  “Good lord!” Dad said again. “Thank god you’re all right! Where is Gabe? Is he okay, too?”

  “Of course!” I cried. “What could possibly happen to Gabe? He’s some sort of magic man! He can squeeze a half dozen lifetimes into seventeen years!”

  And then I did something I’ve never fully forgiven myself for. I burst into tears.

  If I’d stood there and told him my story calmly and coherently, I believe that perhaps I might’ve convinced Dad to believe me. I lost that chance, however, the moment I let myself start crying. Once begun, the tears would not stop; they just kept pouring out, and every measure of control I had went right down the drain.

  Within seconds, I was sobbing so hard that I couldn’t talk.

  Dad jumped up from his chair and came over to put his arms around me.

  “Nore, honey,” he said gently. “Poor baby, you must have been terrified.”

  “Chuck!” Lisette’s voice spoke from the doorway behind me. “What happened? What’s the matter with Nore? Is she hurt?”

  “The kids had a little accident in Gabe’s boat,” Dad said. “Nore says they’re both okay, but she fell in the river. She isn’t a swimmer, so, of course, she got really scared.”

  “Poor thing!” exclaimed Lisette. “What an unfortunate thing to have happened! I’ve told Gabe over and over that he should carry life preservers.”

  “You wouldn’t normally expect to need them on such a narrow strip of water,” Dad said. “Gabe undoubtedly didn’t realize Nore couldn’t swim. Is there anything we can give her to calm her down a little? Some tea, maybe, or some brandy?” He tightened his arms around me. “Nore, baby, try to get a grip on yourself. You are okay. You did make it through. Gabe got you home safely.”

  “No, he didn’t!” I tried to tell him, but the words never quite came out. The more that I struggled to speak, the more impossible it became.

  Dad sat down in his desk chair and pulled me onto his lap, cradling me against him in the same way he had when I was tiny and had woken from a nightmare. It flashed into my mind that this was the same way I’d held and comforted Josie on the previous day. For some reason, the irony of that realization caused me to cry even harder. I had cared about Josie—I had cared about all of Dad’s new family—never knowing, never guessing, that they were my enemies!

  It was several minutes before I heard Lisette’s voice again. When I did, it was close beside us.

  “Here, Chuck, try this. It always seems to work for Josie.”

  “Thanks, Lis,” Dad said. “Listen, Nore, I want you to drink this. Now, stop being silly!” as I jerked backward and tried to push his hand away. “It’s just anisette, and you only need to take a swallow. You’ve got to get over this hysteria or you’re going to make yourself sick.”

  He held the cordial glass to my mouth and shoved the rim between my lips. For one crazy moment, I envisioned myself shattering it with my teeth and spitting out a shower of bloody saliva and
shards of glass. I knew, though, that this sort of resistance would not get me anywhere. There wasn’t enough strength left in me to combat the combined forces of Lisette and my father.

  With a feeling of utter helplessness, I parted my lips and allowed the sweet, dense syrup to be poured into my mouth. Even as I swallowed, I sensed there was something in it that shouldn’t have been there. A few moments later, my suspicions were confirmed as I felt the impact of the potion hit my stomach. A wave of dizziness struck me, and I clung more tightly to my father, pressing my face against the comforting bulk of his shoulder.

  “There,” Dad said gently, as my sobbing became less frenzied. “There, now—I told you this would make you feel better.”

  “It was poisoned,” I whispered. “It’s making me feel funny.”

  “It was anisette, Nore, and all it’s doing is relaxing you.”

  He rose from the chair, gathering me up in his arms as easily as though I were still a small child and it were my bedtime.

  “Let’s get you upstairs, and Lisette can help you get changed. Then you can lie down for a while and after you’re feeling more rested—”

  “No!” I protested weakly. “Not Lisette—you! You stay with me, Daddy! Don’t leave me alone with Lisette!”

  “All right, all right,” Dad said soothingly. “Please, don’t be offended, Lis. Nore isn’t herself right now. She doesn’t know what she’s saying.”

  “I understand perfectly,” Lisette said. “You go ahead and take care of your daughter, dear. I’m going across the road to see if I can find my son. As fond as Gabe is of Nore, he’s sure to be terribly upset about what’s happened. He may be feeling so guilty that he can’t bring himself to come in and face us.”

  I don’t remember very much about what happened after that. The world was spinning too wildly for me to fully take things in. I do know that Dad carried me up the stairs and into my bedroom, and I have some faint recollection of his opening the drawer and getting out dry clothes for me to put on. I know I kept trying to tell him things, but my words kept slurring together, and even to my own ears the results of my efforts were little more than gibberish.

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