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Locked in time, p.11
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       Locked in Time, p.11

           Lois Duncan
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  “Don’t leave me,” I managed to mumble. “Please, Dad, don’t leave me!” I caught at his hand, and clung to it, as I had to that log in the river. “Don’t leave—”

  And then sleep rolled in over me in a thick, dark wave, and I was lost.

  I slept for six straight hours, and when, at last, I woke up, I felt sick to my stomach and my mouth tasted stale and sour. The room was soft with twilight, and my father’s hand no longer lay in mine.

  When I turned my head on the pillow, however, I saw him seated in a chair not far from my bedside, making penciled notes on pages of manuscript. He had the look of a person who’d been rooted to one spot for an extensive length of time.

  “Daddy?” I said tentatively. My voice was cracked and hoarse, but understandable. I tried it again. “Daddy?”

  “So, you’ve finally decided to join us in the land of the living,” Dad said, looking up with a smile that was as weary as it was welcoming. He laid his papers aside and got up to come over to the bed. “I was starting to wonder if maybe I shouldn’t wake you. When I suggested that you get some rest, I didn’t expect you to make that a lifetime career.”

  “Have you been here all along?” I asked him.

  “Most of the time,” Dad said. “I went downstairs for a while when Lisette came back with Gabe. He was one relieved boy when he learned that you were safe.”

  “I just bet,” I said sarcastically. “Where is he now, Dad? I want to see him. I want to talk with him, right here in front of you.”

  “I’m afraid that will have to wait,” Dad told me quietly. “Lisette’s driven Gabe in to Merveille to be checked at the hospital. She wants to be sure he doesn’t have a concussion.”

  “A concussion!” I exclaimed. “What do you mean by that? Nothing happened to Gabe. He wasn’t even thrown in the water.”

  “That’s true enough,” Dad said, “but he was thrown off his seat. His head hit the side of the boat, and he was knocked unconscious.”

  “That’s not true!” I protested. “Gabe wasn’t hurt at all! After I hit the water and came back up again, I saw him sitting right there in the stern as though nothing had happened.”

  “You don’t know what you’re saying, honey,” Dad said. “I saw Gabe’s forehead. He has a lump there the size of a goose egg.”

  “Then he was the one who put it there,” I said. “He must have hit himself with something, or maybe he rammed his head against a tree. Or perhaps he had his mother do it for him. If Lisette brought him back to the house, it means she had some time alone with him while you were up here with me.”

  Dad regarded me incredulously. “How can you suggest such a thing?! Why would Gabe deliberately injure himself? And Lisette? You know how much Lisette loves her children. They mean the world to her. She would die before she would ever hurt either one of them.”

  “She’d do it if she had to in order to back up Gabe’s story,” I said. “That story’s a lie, Dad. Gabe wasn’t hurt, he just took off. He didn’t try to save me when I fell into the water. Even worse, I’m sure he rammed that log on purpose.”

  “That’s a terrible thing to say.” All the former warmth was gone from my father’s voice. “I know you’ve been through a traumatic experience, Nore, and I appreciate how upset you are, but what you’re suggesting is beyond anything I will listen to. Accidents do happen, and while I’m not happy with Gabe for having been so careless, there’s no way in the world that I’m willing to believe that he did this deliberately.”

  “Then why did he go off and leave me?” I asked belligerently. “Why didn’t he jump into the water and rescue me? He knew I couldn’t swim, and yet he just sat there. That final time when I came to the surface, that time I grabbed hold of the log, Gabe was way down the river, already headed for home.”

  “You were scared and disoriented,” Dad said. “You’re simply not remembering right.”

  “I may have been scared, but I remember everything I saw!” I sat up on the bed. My head started spinning, but I held my upright position, gritting my teeth. “Where is Josie? Let’s bring in Josie! I bet there are lots of things she can tell us!”

  “Lisette took Josie with her,” Dad said. “Jo hasn’t been well today. She slept straight through the morning and didn’t wake up until after you had your accident. When she heard about what happened, she became so upset that Lisette didn’t want to leave her.”

  “That figures,” I said bitterly. “Of course Lisette got Jo out of here. She didn’t want us pumping her for info while she was gone. I bet Lisette drugged her last night, just the way she drugged me today, so she’d be out of the picture this morning and couldn’t interfere with things. She knows Josie likes me, and she didn’t want to run the risk of having her spoil the plan.”

  “I don’t like all this talk about ‘drugging’ people,” Dad said. “All Lis gave Josie last night was a very mild tranquilizer, and this afternoon you had a sip or two of anisette. I have a small glass of that with Lisette every night after dinner. It’s never sedated me to any degree.”

  “It did once,” I told him. “On the second night I was here. Remember how you and Lisette both got sleepy so early? That was Gabe’s doing. He poured your drinks from his own special ‘lullaby-time’ stash. That stuff’s been treated with herbs that a witch girl gave him. I bet this family’s into all sorts of witchcraft stuff. God knows what kinds of things Lisette keeps in her medicine cabinet!”

  “That’s enough of that, Nore,” my father said angrily. “I don’t want to hear any more of this. I’m going to go downstairs now and fix some dinner. I don’t know how Gabe is going to be feeling when his mother gets him back here, but Lis and Josie will probably be needing some nourishment. After you’ve pulled yourself together, come down and join me. I warn you, though, I’m not going to listen to any rerun of these crazy accusations. These are my wife and stepchildren that you’re talking about. I happen to care for them deeply, even if you don’t.”

  The tone of his voice ended the conversation. Even if that hadn’t been the case, there would’ve been nothing more I could’ve told him. It was little wonder that my father refused to believe me. The things I’d been saying did sound crazy.

  As soon as Dad was out of the room, I got up from the bed and headed for the bathroom. The dizziness that overwhelmed me earlier still hadn’t completely vanished. I felt shaky and nauseated, and my tongue was coated and sticky. I could hardly wait to rinse my mouth and brush my teeth.

  The face that looked back at me from the mirror over the sink was hardly recognizable as my own. It was pale and glassy-eyed, and my hair, which had been plastered wet against my skull and then slept on, was as matted as a doll’s wig.

  I got out my toothbrush and toothpaste and scrubbed my mouth out, and then got into the shower and turned the water on full blast. As I scrubbed the muck of the riverbed off my body, I pondered the most immediate problem that confronted me. I would somehow have to prove to Dad that my suspicions about my stepfamily were not products of an overactive imagination. Without that, I would never be able to get him to leave Shadow Grove, which was something I was convinced was an absolute necessity. My dream of my mother’s warning had been prophetic. Every moment we stayed on the premises we were in danger.

  After the conversation that Dad and I had just had, it was evident to me that there was no way I could get him to accept the fact that Gabe had tried to kill me. He had been too well-conditioned by Gabe and Lisette during the time I’d been sleeping. What might be possible to prove, though, was that I’d been drugged—that herbal potions were available at Shadow Grove—and that the Berge family used them to suit its purposes. Although this was a far cry from proving attempted murder, I had the feeling that if I could force Dad to open the door of his mind a crack to the possibility that there were certain things about his new family that weren’t as they should be, that crack would enlarge on its own to permit entrance to other, more serious suspicions.

  I was sure that the cordial Lisette
had given me in the afternoon had contained a sedative. I could think of no way to prove this, though, without obtaining a sample of the concoction. That possibility seemed like a dead-end street. I was almost positive that the drug had been placed directly into my glass, rather than into the anisette bottle, and that glass would undoubtedly have been thoroughly rinsed out by now.

  But I did have access to the “snooze-booze” anisette Gabe kept in his room. If I took a sample of that to a pharmacy in Merveille, they’d be able to tell me how to get it analyzed. My heart started beating faster as this idea began to take form. The whole Berge family was out of the house now, which was an unusual occurrence. If there was ever to be an opportunity to get my hands on Gabe’s supply of anisette, it was now.

  Letting the comb in my hand drop unceremoniously into the sink, I left the bathroom and hurried down the hall to Gabe’s room. To my relief, the door wasn’t locked. I turned the knob, gave a hard shove and stepped inside.

  I don’t know exactly what I expected to find there—the den of a monster? An open coffin? A mummified corpse? I have to admit that I was feeling hostile as a result of the morning’s events. What I did find was both a relief and a disappointment; it was the typical cluttered habitat of a teenage boy. The bed was unmade, and on the floor beside it, there lay an empty soda can and a pile of candy bar wrappers. Gabe’s shorts and running shoes had been tossed into a corner, along with a dingy T-shirt and a pair of dirty socks. The shelf above the bed held an old radio, a CD player, and a pile of sports magazines. One wall of the room was decorated with photographs of well-known athletes, and a Maxim centerfold had been taped to another.

  After giving the room a quick overview, I turned my attention to the dresser. Nervously, I gripped the brass handles of the topmost drawer and pulled. The drawer slid easily outward, displaying such a jumbled assortment of clothing that it was obvious that Gabe was accustomed to putting away his own laundry. Plunging both hands into the drawer, I rummaged among the socks and underwear, groping around for some container that liquor might be stored in.

  The only bottle I found was one labeled “Brut,” and, upon opening it, I discovered that it contained aftershave lotion. Shoving that drawer closed, I performed the same investigation on the second drawer, and then on the third. Each search met with the same lack of success. The final drawer didn’t contain a bottle either, but as I ran my hand along the bottom of it, my fingers came into contact with something that didn’t seem to belong there. It felt at first like a flat piece of cardboard, but when I got a grip on one corner and lifted it out to inspect it, I found that it was a mounted photograph. Evidently the product of one of those novelty old-time photo places, it showed a family of five, posed formally together, dressed in old-fashioned costumes.

  The seated woman and two of the children I recognized instantly as Lisette, Gabe, and Josie. A second teenage boy stood behind Lisette, with one hand on her shoulder. Although he bore a strong resemblance to Gabe, he was shorter and stockier, and his squared-off chin gave the impression of stubborn rebelliousness. The man in the picture could have been the children’s great-grandfather. He was wrinkled and frail-looking, and sat in the slumped position often assumed by the feeble elderly.

  As I stood there, studying the photograph, I suddenly became aware of the sound of a car motor. Glancing through the open louvers of the door to the balcony, I was startled to see Lisette’s car turning in at the gate. As the car approached the house, it moved out of my line of vision, but in a few minutes I was aware of the fact that the engine had gone silent. Then there was the sound of car doors opening and slamming, and the indistinct murmur of voices, one of them masculine.

  They were home—Lisette and Josie—and Gabe must have come back with them. Despite his supposed injury, he must not have been hospitalized.

  I knew I had to get out of Gabe’s room immediately. Giving the photograph one final glance, I started to thrust it back into the drawer.

  Then I hesitated. Although I knew I’d never met him, there was something about the elderly man in the picture that was oddly familiar. His was a face that I was used to seeing somewhere else; in another form, perhaps, and in a different setting. The eyes—I knew those eyes—and the old-fashioned frock coat. Where in the world had I seen someone wearing that?

  When the answer struck me, it didn’t make things much clearer. It wasn’t this man I was recalling, it was his picture. Although he was many years older in this photograph, he was the subject of the oil painting that hung in the parlor.

  Even as this thought occurred to me, I knew I had to be wrong. The portrait downstairs was obviously a very old one. The man who had sat for it would be long dead by now. There was no way he could have posed with Lisette and her children for what, judging by their ages, had to have been a recent photograph.

  There was no way he could have… and yet he had.

  The moment I accepted that idea as fact was the moment the whole world seemed to fall out from under me.

  I didn’t put the photograph back into Gabe’s drawer. I carried it, instead, back to my own room and slid it into the narrow space between the headboard of my bed and the wall.

  Not that it remained there for any extended period, because during the days that followed, I took it out often. I would lie on my bed for hours on end and study it, while in the blue sky beyond the open French doors, the strange, swirling clouds of a Louisiana summer writhed and wrinkled in heat and rising humidity that was becoming all but unbearable. My closer inspection now revealed to me that I’d been wrong in my assumption that the picture had been taken recently and that the people in it were wearing costumes.

  When I removed the photograph from its mount, I discovered that it hadn’t been printed on modern photographic paper, but upon a silvery sheet of very thin metal, and that the cardboard behind it was so browned and brittle with age that it crumbled in my hands.

  Yet the woman was Lisette, there was no doubt of that. And Gabe and Josie were simply Gabe and Josie—looking as they did now, except for their clothing and hairstyles. Josie was dressed in a long skirt and white gloves and was wearing a hat, but there was no mistaking the high cheekbones and the huge, dark eyes. Gabe wore an odd-style suit, and his hair was cut very short. The other boy in the picture was wearing knickers. That boy wasn’t familiar to me, but I knew who he must be. He was Lisette’s second son, the one who had died many years ago. He was Louis.

  Except for meals, during which my father was present, I tried to avoid all contact with the Berges. This wasn’t difficult to do, as they made no effort to press themselves on me. The pool was now completed and filled with water, and Josie spent most of her time either swimming in it or stretched out on a beach towel next to it, reading one of her romance novels. Lisette, although she was as pleasant to me as always, didn’t question the amount of time I spent in my room alone or try to coax me to accompany her on shopping trips. It was as if a transparent wall had suddenly slipped between us, a wall that no one needed to acknowledge, that everyone except my father was aware of.

  My only confrontation with Gabe occurred on that very first evening when he and Lisette and Josie returned from Merveille. After I’d concealed the confiscated photograph in my room, I went downstairs to the kitchen where the whole family had now gathered. Although my father had heated up soup and made a salad, nobody seemed to be in any rush to eat. Josie’s eyes were red and puffy, as though she’d been crying. Lisette was in the process of pouring herself a glass of sherry.

  Gabe was slumped in a chair at the kitchen table. His face was pale, and he did have a lump on his forehead, which looked really painful.

  “Why did you do it?” I asked him in front of all of them. “Why did you leave me to drown?”

  Gabe raised his head and looked me straight in the eyes.

  “I didn’t,” he said. “I was knocked unconscious. When I came to, there wasn’t any sign of you anywhere—not in the boat—not in the water. I shouted your name, and I didn’t
get any answer. I didn’t know what had happened to you. It was terrifying.”

  “That’s not true,” I said. “You weren’t hurt—at least, not then. When I was thrashing in the water, I saw you in the boat. You weren’t looking for me, you weren’t calling, you weren’t doing anything but sitting there. When I surfaced for the second time, you were way down the river.”

  “I don’t know how you can say that, Nore,” Gabe said.

  “She was panicked,” Dad said apologetically. “She was hallucinating. People’s senses can play strange tricks under stress.”

  “I wasn’t—” I tried to protest, and then let the sentence trail away as I saw the closed expression on my father’s face. He had made it clear already that he didn’t believe me. To prolong the scene with Gabe wasn’t going to accomplish anything except to cause even more estrangement between us.

  I don’t think I’ve ever felt so helpless and as isolated as I did during the week that followed that incident on the river. The conjectures that were building within me were too horrendous to keep to myself, but there was no one I could share them with. If Dad refused to even listen to my accusations about Gabe, I could imagine what his reaction would be to the other suspicions that were beginning to form in my mind.

  What I needed was someone to talk with who knew the Berges. The more I thought about this, however, the more I had to realize that there were no such people. Lisette and her children had no social life of any kind. There were no neighbors within many miles of Shadow Grove. No mail ever arrived there, except for business correspondence addressed to my father. Since there was still no telephone, no one ever received any phone calls. It was as if this family had deliberately placed itself on a deserted island, totally out of reach of other human beings. The only outsiders who had set foot on the grounds since my arrival had been workmen hired to perform impersonal services, and Dave Parlange, who had paid me one short visit in order to invite me to the movies.

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