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Locked in time, p.15
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       Locked in Time, p.15

           Lois Duncan
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  Beginning to realize the direction in which the true-life drama was headed, I hastily picked up the final volume, dated 1895. Turning to the date of Josie’s thirteenth birthday, I read Lisette’s entry, which described a party at which her daughter had worn her hair piled high on her head and had been allowed to drink champagne: “The only member of the family to miss the celebration was her father, who was called away on supposedly important business. My mother later informed me of the rumors that have been circulating about what Henri’s business appointments have recently consisted of. Tomorrow I will pay a call upon a certain woman. I do not believe that my husband will have ‘business’ in her home again.”

  As I finished reading this entry and was preparing to turn the page, I was suddenly struck with the realization that it was almost five. Dawn would soon be breaking, which meant Gabe would be getting up for his morning run. As much as I hated to interrupt my reading, I knew it would be unwise to stay in the cabin any longer. Not only could I not afford a meeting with Gabe on my way back to the house, but I needed to return Lisette’s keys to her purse before she and Dad woke up.

  Reluctantly, I closed the diary and hauled myself to my feet. My neck was stiff and sore, and the vertebrae in my back seemed welded into place from having remained in one position for so many hours.

  On my way to the door, I stooped to gather up the collection of certificates that documented Lisette’s many marriages. Then I switched off the light, and with the papers and journal clutched tightly in one hand, I opened the door and stepped out into the dew-drenched world of impending morning.

  I replaced the padlock, taking care to position it in such a way that it wouldn’t be apparent to a casual observer that it hadn’t been fully closed. Then I crossed the courtyard to the house. Although the moon had, by this time, completed its course across the sky, there was enough pearly light now seeping in from the sky in the east to allow me to see where I was going.

  I let myself into the house and hurried up the stairs and down the hall to Dad and Lisette’s bedroom. Without a flood of moonlight to illuminate it, the room was dark enough so that I had to grope my way across it to the dressing table. Locating the purse by touch, I hastily dropped the key ring into it, nervously aware of the altered breathing patterns of the room’s two occupants. I had no idea how long the effects of Josie’s anisette could be expected to last, but Lisette was already turning restlessly on her pillow, and my father was no longer snoring. As I was starting to leave, Dad spoke out sharply in his sleep, and I knew I hadn’t completed my mission a moment too soon.

  I had a second scare when I was almost to my bedroom. Suddenly, I heard the sound of a door being opened at the far end of the hall. Not pausing to glance behind me, I quickened my pace until I was almost running, grabbed the knob of my own door, and threw it open. Plunging into my room, I shoved the door closed behind me and sank down onto the bed.

  What, I asked myself, was going to happen next? Had Gabe seen me, or hadn’t he? And, if he had, would he suspect where I’d been? From my location in the corridor, it would’ve been obvious that I wasn’t returning from a trip to the bathroom.

  For what seemed an eternity, I sat trembling in anticipation of a rap on my door, or, worse still, of having the door fly open and being confronted by both Gabe and his mother. Eventually, though, as time went by and neither of these events occurred, my heart began to beat more quietly. Impossible as it seemed, perhaps the hallway had been dark enough so that Gabe had come out of his room and still managed to miss me.

  More time passed, and my panic gradually subsided. Finally, throwing caution to the winds, I turned on the bedside lamp, reopened the diary and resumed reading where I’d left off.

  The journal’s final entry was longer than any of those that had preceded it, and the writing fairly lurched across the page, as though the person gripping the pen had been too excited to fully control her hand. Lisette didn’t report on how she’d located her rival’s cottage. Instead, she plunged directly into a description of the confrontation.

  As I suspected, the girl is young, but she is not beautiful. It was obvious to me the instant that I stepped into her cottage that she had used gris-gris voodoo to seduce my husband. The hut reeked with the odor of unholy herbs, and seashells lay in small, precise piles at either side of the door. Half-burnt candles stood in a line along the windowsill, and an owl sat sleeping on a perch at the back of the room.

  The girl regarded me with eyes that were slanted like a cat’s.

  I had no need to identify myself, for she recognized me at once.

  “Madame Berge,” she said, “why are you honoring me with a visit?”

  “I think you know that already,” I told her stiffly.

  “Perhaps I do. I wish, though, that you would tell me yourself.” How I would have loved to claw those mocking eyes out! Instead, I spoke with all the dignity I could muster.

  “I have come to demand that you cease your affair with my husband.”

  “I am not inclined to oblige you,” the girl said coolly. “It so happens that I have become quite fond of Monsieur Berge. Not only is he attractive, but he is also extremely generous, and my standard of living has improved since he became my benefactor.”

  “You have no choice in this matter,” I told her. “No matter what spell you may have cast upon him, it cannot begin to rival my own strong claim upon Henri. If my husband loses me, he loses Shadow Grove as well. No sane man would give up his rights to his home and plantation for the likes of you.”

  The girl regarded me blandly. It was clear that she did not believe me. She was already visualizing herself as the mistress of Shadow Grove.

  “It is I, not Henri, who am the owner of Shadow Grove,” I informed her. “The house was a gift to me from my parents. If I leave my husband, he will be of no practical use to you. His home and his business are the property of the DuBois family.”

  “Are they, indeed?” The girl looked thoughtful. She was silent for a moment. Her expression did not change, but when she spoke again, I detected a subtle alteration in the tone of her voice. “Perhaps, then, the two of us should strike a bargain. Neither of us would wish for our Henri to become a pauper.”

  “A bargain!” I scoffed. “What could you own that I would have a use for?” I gestured contemptuously about me at the meager contents of the cottage.

  “I am prepared to offer you a fair exchange for your husband’s company.” She smiled, and her teeth showed small and pointed like those of a river bass. “I have something that you desire greatly, Madame Berge. I have something for which you have been yearning for quite some time.”

  “I find that doubtful,” I responded. “You have something that I want? Pray, tell me what is it. The disclosure might amuse me.”

  “My youth,” the girl said simply.

  In the silence that followed, the truth of that statement rang out like the clang of a cymbal.

  “You are making no sense,” I said at last. “You were speaking of barter.”

  “Can you guess how old I am?” Her cat-eyes were shining.

  I did not want to respond, but I could not restrain myself.

  “Eighteen?” I hazarded. “Possibly, nineteen?” The smooth skin indicated youth, and yet there was something about her that unsettled me. “Twenty? What difference does it make? Your youth may have seduced my husband, but it will not hold him prisoner if I wish it to be otherwise.”

  “I was eighteen when the rites were performed,” the girl said. “That was thirty-four years ago.”

  “That’s ridiculous,” I exclaimed, but my heart took a sudden leap. Like most Creole children, I was raised on stories of voodoo, of the ceremonies that were said to take place in the swampland, of potions made from snake blood and goat’s milk—of sacrifices and offerings. First as a child, and even now, as an adult, I would wake in the night to hear the distant beat of the ritual drums and would shiver as I contemplated the magnitude of the dark, strange spells that were being
woven at that very moment on the bank of the river.

  “What were those rites?” I asked, trying to conceal my eagerness. Was it possible that this woman could be in her fifties?

  “They were the rites of the Bowl of Years.” Her voice was solemn. “Those who drink from the earthen bowl halt the process of aging.”

  “People grow younger?” I whispered in wonder.

  “No, that is not possible,” the girl said. “Time can be stayed, but it cannot be forced to run backward. I cannot offer youth as you knew it fifteen years ago. What I can offer is the chance for you to remain the age you are.”

  “Are you actually telling me that if I were to take part in this heathen ritual I would never age a day past thirty-five?” I regarded her incredulously. “What would you want from me in return—my immortal soul?”

  “What use would I have for your soul?” The girl’s strange eyes were bright with amusement. “What I would ask from you would be the support and affection of your husband. Of course, I would not claim him permanently. He would be yours again in good time, when his hair grew gray and his stomach began to sag.”

  The vision of Henri aging with the years, while I remained untouched by the passage of time, filled me with a surge of malicious satisfaction. Then a sobering thought occurred to me. If I accepted this woman’s offer, not only would I witness the aging of Henri, but I would also have to watch the aging of my own children. I would see my handsome sons become feeble and doddering; I would see my daughter, white-haired and wrinkled, leaning on a cane.

  “I could not bear to outlive my children,” I said firmly. “My sons and my daughter must also drink from the Bowl of Years.”

  “Why, most certainly,” the girl said readily. “Your children may take part in the rites when you do. They will remain with you always, exactly as they are today.”

  She averted her eyes, so I could not see the expression there. I am certain, however, that this time they did not contain laughter. Why would any woman laugh at the concept of something so gloriously fulfilling as a mother’s having her children with her forever?

  It was close to six in the morning when I finished reading the final page of Lisette’s incredible story, closed the journal, and laid it carefully on the table beside my bed. Then, sinking back on my pillow, I fell immediately into the deep and dreamless sleep of emotional exhaustion.

  When I finally awoke, it was to the sodden heat of midday and to a repeated knock on my bedroom door. With my eyes still closed, I asked, “Who is it? What do you want?”

  Josie’s voice spoke through the door.

  “Nore, your father wants you downstairs in his study.”

  “Why?” I asked coldly. “What’s he mad about now? Did you tell him I hurt your feelings last night by refusing your escape money?”

  “Maman’s getting ready to drive him into Baton Rouge to the airport,” Josie said, ignoring my sarcasm. “I guess he wants to say good-bye.”

  “Say good-bye!” I exclaimed, coming fully awake with a start. “What do you mean, ‘good-bye’? Where is he going?”

  Then, all at once, I remembered something that I’d let slip past me, overshadowed as it had been by all the traumatic revelations of the previous day. Dad had said that he had a meeting scheduled with his publisher on Friday. That must mean that this was the day he was flying to New York!

  Panic surged through me as I realized the full significance of that fact.

  “Tell him I’ll be right down!” I cried. “Don’t let him leave till I get there!”

  Jumping out of bed, I quickly threw on my clothes and rushed out of the bedroom. I was halfway down the hall to the stairs when the feeling suddenly struck me that I was being watched. I glanced back over my shoulder, taking in the emptiness of the hallway. The door to my bedroom was closed, as was the door to Josie’s room. It was possible that the bathroom door might have been standing open a crack, but I couldn’t be sure without going back to check on it. There was no time for that now; not if I was going to prevent Dad from deserting me. If people want to spy on me, then let them, I told myself. The important thing was that Dad and I leave Shadow Grove together!

  When I burst into my father’s office, I was relieved to find him alone there, in the process of loading papers into his briefcase.

  “So, Sleeping Beauty’s awake at last!” he commented when he saw me, red-faced and panting from my dash down the stairs. “Are you sick or something, Nore? You don’t usually sleep straight through the morning like this.”

  “I was tired,” I said. “I didn’t get much sleep last night.”

  “I should think that you would’ve had plenty, considering the hour you must have gone to bed.” Dad’s voice was devoid of warmth. “I thought you were going to come down and eat dinner with the family.”

  “I wasn’t hungry,” I said.

  “I don’t believe that for one minute. You simply weren’t willing to make the apologies I asked of you.”

  “I’ll make them now,” I said with feverish eagerness. “I’ll apologize to Lisette and to Josie and to you and to Gabe and to anybody else you want me to, but please, can I go to New York with you, Dad? It’s really important!”

  “Why would you want to do that?” my father asked me. “This isn’t going to be a pleasure trip. I’m only going to be in the city for one day to meet with my publisher. I’ll be tied up with business meetings.”

  “That’s all right,” I said. “We’ll still have two evenings together. I need some time alone with you. There are things I need to talk about.”

  “What sort of things?” Dad asked. “What is there we can discuss in New York that we can’t discuss here?”

  “Personal things,” I said. “Father-daughter things. The two of us haven’t been alone together since Mom died. Is it all that strange that I should want a little time alone with my father?”

  “There’s not much chance that we could get you a seat on the plane,” Dad said. I could see that my mention of Mom had softened him. “If you’d come up with this suggestion a bit sooner—”

  “At least we could try!” I said quickly, pressing my advantage. “I could drive you to the airport, and we could check for any cancellations. Maybe I can fly standby… if not, then I’ll just drive back. It can’t hurt.”

  This last was offered without any belief that it would come to pass. I had no doubt that, after spending an hour and a half alone in the car with me, Dad would reject the idea of either one of us ever returning to Shadow Grove. Now that I had Lisette’s journal to confirm my suspicions, I would have no problem convincing him of the danger we were in.

  “What’s going on here?” Lisette spoke quietly from the doorway behind me. “Has Nore decided she wants to ride into Baton Rouge with us?”

  “She wants to fly to New York with me,” Dad told her. “If there’s a seat available, I guess there’s no reason why she shouldn’t.”

  “Well, I can think of a reason,” Lisette said. “After Nore’s disgraceful performance yesterday, I don’t see how you can even consider treating her to a vacation.”

  “Lis has a point, Nore,” my father said. “You certainly haven’t earned any special privileges. Your treatment of Josie yesterday was unforgivable.”

  “I told you I’d apologize!” I said. I whirled to face Lisette. “I’m sorry I put Josie out of the van! I’m sorry I was rude to you! I’m sorry I accused Gabe—”

  “Apologies are well and good,” Lisette said coldly, “but they can’t erase what took place. This is your daughter, Chuck. I won’t try to tell you how to handle her. If you choose to withhold punishment, that’s your decision. I do think, though, that it’s going a bit too far when you reward her rude behavior with a trip to New York City.”

  As I saw my father’s face beginning to register agreement, my control suddenly disintegrated. In a frenzy of panic, I clutched at Dad’s arm.

  “Oh, please!” I exclaimed. “You can’t go off and leave me here! You don’t know what these
people are! You don’t know what their plan is!”

  “There she goes again,” Lisette said with a weary sigh. “She’s breaking my heart, Chuck. She can’t forgive me for being alive when her own mother isn’t, and for falling in love with you and becoming your wife.”

  “You are not in love with my father!” I exploded. “Getting married is your favorite hobby! It’s how you get the money to keep Shadow Grove going and to support yourself and your children.” I turned frantically to my father. “How many times do you think your wife has been married? Two, right? You think that you’re her second husband? Well, you’re not! There have been at least six men ahead of you!”

  “That’s enough, Nore!” Dad said. His voice was shaking with anger. “I’ve heard all of this that I intend to. After this venomous tirade, there is no way in the world I would consider taking you anywhere.”

  “But I’ve got proof!” I told him. “I’ve got a whole sheaf of marriage certificates, and death certificates, too! Just give me a minute, Dad, and I’ll run upstairs and get them!”

  “I don’t want to look at any—” my father began, when Lisette placed a placating hand on his arm.

  “It’s all right, dear,” she said gently. “Can’t you see that she’s obsessed with this? Please, let her go and get whatever it is that she wants to show you. It’s far better to get all these doubts of hers out in the open so they can be explained away.”

  Dad was silent for a moment.

  Then he said, “All right, go get this proof of yours, Nore, but you’d better make it fast. I have to leave for the airport in five minutes. If you’re not back down here by then, forget it.”

  “Don’t worry,” I told him, “I’ll be back right away.” Shoving past Lisette without acknowledging her existence, I hurried out of the room and up the stairs to the second-floor hallway. As I turned to the right toward the east end of the hall, I stopped dead in my tracks.

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