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Locked in time, p.16
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       Locked in Time, p.16

           Lois Duncan
 
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  The door to my bedroom was standing open.

  “Oh, no!” I whispered, filled with sudden apprehension. Breaking into a run, I covered the distance to my room in a matter of seconds. When I entered, I found exactly what I had expected. The table on which I had left the marriage certificates and Lisette’s journal now held nothing but the bedside lamp.

  I knew immediately who had taken them. It had to have been Gabe. He had spotted me that morning on my way back from replacing Lisette’s keys in her purse and become suspicious about what I was doing up and about so early. He’d undoubtedly been hanging around in the upstairs hallway, waiting for a chance to slip in and investigate my bedroom. It might even have been he, and not my father, who’d sent Josie to my door to awaken me with a message guaranteed to send me rushing heedlessly from my room. My eyes filled with tears of bitterness and frustration.

  It was so stupid of me to have left such important documents unguarded! There was no possibility now of convincing Dad of the truth. After my failure to come back downstairs with the proof I’d promised him, I’d never be able to get him to believe me. It was hopeless, and I had no one to blame but myself.

  Mom! I screamed silently. Oh, Mom, what can I do?

  There was no answer, of course. I’d had my answer on my first day at Shadow Grove. Repack your things and leave! my mother had told me. But the message had been lost in a dream, and I’d chosen to ignore it. Now I knew how important it had been, but it was too late.

  Suddenly, I became aware of the sound of an engine starting up in the driveway. The five minutes Dad had agreed to give me were up. True to his word, he was preparing to let Lisette drive him to the airport, and for the next day and a half he would be out of my reach.

  I would be alone—totally alone—with the Berges! Frightened out of my tears by the horrifying prospect, I jumped up from the bed and dashed out onto the balcony. They were taking the Honda. The engine was running, and Lisette was seated behind the wheel. Dad was standing on the far side, loading his briefcase, his laptop and his overnight bag into the backseat.

  “Dad!” I called out to him frantically. “Dad, wait! Please, wait!”

  My father turned to glance up at me. Standing there on the balcony with my wild, uncombed hair and frenzied expression, I must have been a sight to behold.

  “Please, wait!” I shouted. “I’ll be right down! Dad, I’ve got to go with you!”

  “I told you five minutes,” Dad called up to me. “It’s been almost ten. You know as well as I do that this ‘proof’ of yours is nonexistent.” He paused, and then continued, more gently, “I don’t know what your problem is, Nore, but when I get back, we’ll tackle it together as a family. We’ll go into Merveille for counseling. Lisette says there’s a family-services agency there. We’ll get things worked out, I promise.”

  “No!” I cried. “No—it can’t wait that long! I’ve got to talk to you now!”

  “That’s impossible,” Dad told me. “I’ll be back Saturday, and we’ll talk then. Meanwhile, behave yourself. I don’t want you giving Lisette any problems while I’m gone. Now I’ve got to get a move on or I’ll miss my plane.”

  “No!” I cried. “Wait! Please, wait!”

  Whirling, I raced from the balcony, through my room, through the hallway and down the stairs. I burst out onto the driveway just in time to see the Honda pulling out through the gate onto the highway. A sudden memory struck me of myself at age three or four, being left with a hated babysitter while my parents went off to a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah. Screaming and waving, I’d chased after them, running straight down the middle of the street in a line of traffic, until my father, catching sight of me in the rearview mirror, had stopped the car and Mom had run back to get me. “It’s all right,” she had crooned, gathering me up in her arms. “It’s all right, baby. We won’t leave you if it’s going to upset you this much.”

  If I’d thought it would’ve accomplished that same end, I would’ve done the same thing now. I would’ve run after the car, shrieking, “Come back! Come back!” until it stopped or until I dropped from exhaustion. But I was seventeen, not three, and it was Lisette who was driving, not Dad, and my loving, overindulgent mother wasn’t there to rush back for me. There was no way I could keep my father from leaving. If I was going to be saved, I’d have to save myself.

  Willing myself to be calm, I tried to get my thoughts into rational enough order so that I could come up with some kind of plan for survival. First and foremost, I knew I had to escape from Shadow Grove. The danger had been great enough when Dad had been there and my stepfamily had been forced to keep up a facade of normalcy.

  This wouldn’t be necessary any longer, for they knew I’d discovered everything, and they didn’t have to pretend to be anything other than what they were. If my existence had been a threat to them before, it would be a greater one now, especially since Dad had decided on family counseling. In therapy, I’d have a chance to tell my story to an authoritative outsider, who would record it in his notes, even if he didn’t believe it. If days, weeks or months from then the famous author Charles Robbins and his daughter were to die as a result of some mysterious accident, there would be someone who might come forward and demand an investigation.

  If I wasn’t going to be brought to the attention of a psychologist, then, I’d have to meet with an accident almost immediately. Because of this, I couldn’t risk remaining alone at Shadow Grove at the mercy of the Berge trio for a moment longer than was absolutely necessary. My father’s two-day absence would provide too ideal an opportunity for me to fall down the stairs or take a tumble into the swimming pool.

  My one escape hatch—and, thank god, I had one—was Dave Parlange. He was scheduled to pick me up for our date at six. Since the Berges knew nothing about this, they wouldn’t be prepared to stop me. I could intercept Dave’s car as it pulled through the gate, jump inside and lock the doors and direct him to drive straight back to Merveille. By the time Gabe or Lisette could reach their own car and start to follow us, we’d be gone.

  The knowledge that Dave would be coming did a lot to calm me. I wished I’d replaced my cell phone and could call him! However, I’d let that opportunity slide past me, and now I’d have to hold out for another four hours. During that time, I’d need to find a way to conceal myself. Although Lisette wasn’t there at the moment, Gabe and Josie still had to be reckoned with, and their combined forces represented a considerable threat. Would they, I wondered, expect me to reenter the house? Could they really believe I’d be that stupid? Yes, possibly they could, for I hadn’t proved myself to be too bright with some of the other, less-than-clever moves I’d made recently. My guess was that, at that very moment, they were gazing down at me through the half-open louvers of their balcony doors, waiting to see if they’d have to come after me, or if I would come to them.

  Well, at least this offered me a way to gain some time for myself. Painfully conscious that two pairs of eyes were probably observing me, I turned and walked slowly back toward the house as though I were intending to enter. Once I’d mounted the porch steps and was safely out of sight of anyone who might be looking down from above, I ran down the length of the porch, climbed over the railing and dropped to the ground at its far east end.

  Sticking close to the side of the house, I walked swiftly toward the back, glancing around for someplace to hide. The estate was so large that it offered numerous possibilities—heavy growths of bushes, clumps of blossoming trees, sheds, storage areas, the dovecotes, the remains of the deteriorating stable. Where, I asked myself frantically, would Gabe and Josie be least likely to come searching?

  Glancing past the line of slave cabins, my eyes came to rest on the tiny, private cemetery. It sat, fully exposed, just beyond the row of cabins, so visible to the eye that it hardly seemed to qualify as a possible hiding place. At the same time, it was so overgrown that it was almost a thicket of greenery, and the rounded tops of the tombstones could barely be seen above waist-high weed
s.

  It’s ironic, I thought, that the two deceased members of this family are destined to offer me refuge from the three who are still living. Leaving the shelter of the wall, I broke into a run, cleared the stretch of ground that separated me from the miniature graveyard and plunged through the narrow opening in the wrought iron fence. Brambles tore at my legs, and a swarm of gnats rose in a humming cloud from a clump of daisies. Dropping down between the two tombstones, I made a nest for myself in the thick, damp grass and settled there for a long and miserable wait.

  The hours passed slowly.

  To keep my mind occupied, I played a game with myself. I tried to recall the happenings of each year of my life. The earliest of these years were, of course, devoid of memories, but the year that I turned three held the memory of a teddy bear named Sam and a ride on a merry-go-round. The summer that I was four, my parents rented a cottage on the coast of Maine, and I could recall a strip of white beach and a moat-encircled sand castle with a seagull feather stuck on top, and a wave that knocked me down and filled me with terror. When I was five, I started kindergarten, and my teacher let me clean the blackboard, and a little boy named Michael made me a Valentine.

  I had worked my way up to my eighth year and was in the process of steering my mental way through that when I heard Josie’s voice calling, “Nore! Nore, where are you?” Huddling lower in my hollow between the tombstones, I fought back panic and stubbornly kept my mind riveted to its appointed task.

  Eight years old—a case of chicken pox—a red bicycle with training wheels—my first sleepover, at the house of a friend name Heather. Nine years old—my father signed me up to take swimming lessons at the YWCA, but I refused to go. I was petrified at the thought of having my head underwater.

  “Nore! There’s something important I need to tell you! Nore, where are you? Please come back to the house so we can talk!”

  At the age of ten I discovered the joys of reading. My mother dragged down from the attic a box of treasured volumes that she’d saved from her own childhood, and we spent months poring over its contents. Together we mourned the death of sweet Beth in Little Women and accompanied Nancy Drew on her wild adventures. Together, we chanted the poetry of Vachel Lindsay and giggled over the tongue-in-cheek humor of Dorothy Parker.

  Eleven years old—and twelve—and then, at long last, I celebrated the landmark occasion of my thirteenth birthday. I could remember getting up that morning and heading straight for the mirror. Despite the fact that the face that looked back at me now belonged to a teenager, it had undergone no miraculous transformation. The cheeks were still too babyishly round, the features too undefined; the aura of glamour and sophistication that I’d hoped to find there was still sadly lacking. The only difference in my appearance involved my chin, which had blossomed out in a cluster of pimples overnight. I let out a wail of horror that shook the house.

  Determinedly making my mind continue dredging up memories, I refused to let it take focus on the present. I knew that if that were to happen, I could easily give way to terror. Although Josie’s voice was no longer calling my name, it was obvious she hadn’t given up on finding me. Every once in a while, as I peered out through the screen of tall grass that concealed me, I caught a glimpse of her bright yellow T-shirt as she came popping unexpectedly around the corner of the house or traversed the path that led to the lily pond. As for Gabe—I had no idea where he might be. I could only guess that he was out there searching for me also. I returned to my game, my instrument of self-preservation.

  At thirteen years old, I suddenly declared war on my parents. They abruptly became “the enemy,” bent on wrecking my life with their unreasonable regulations. Everything I wanted to do seemed to be forbidden. I couldn’t stay out past eleven; I couldn’t go to concerts; I couldn’t attend parties unless there were adult chaperones. The one time I cut class to go to an afternoon movie with some friends, I was hauled out of my theater seat by my father, who’d been in his home office, working at the computer, when the attendance office called. (All of my friends had normal parents who worked outside the home.)

  It was a horrendous year for all of us, but I did move past it. My fourteenth year and my fifteenth year were better. I outgrew my training bra and my adolescent acne and was finally given permission to start dating. The face in my bathroom mirror began to smile back at me, and my parents seemed suddenly not as bad as I’d thought they were. Unlike Josie, held forever—a bud that would never bloom—I moved gratefully out of that no-man’s-land of that gray area between childhood and adulthood.

  I carried my remembrance game through to the beginning of my sixteenth year, and then discontinued it. I refused to relive the pain of my mother’s death.

  At ten past five, I heard the sound of Lisette’s car pulling into the driveway. I wasn’t situated so that I could actually see it, but I recognized the pitch of the Honda’s engine. It drew to a stop in the back of the house, and a car door opened and slammed shut. A few moments later, I heard the screen door to the house bang closed.

  Now, instead of counting bygone years, I began to count current minutes as the hour of six loomed closer. Twenty minutes to go—now fifteen—now ten! I knew I had to be positioned at the end of the driveway in order to intercept Dave before he could continue on up to the house. The only way I could think of to get down there was to stay close to the line of oaks that bordered the drive. The sun was low enough now that the trees threw dark pools of shade onto the lawn to the east. If I worked my way down the row, darting from shadow pocket to shadow pocket, there was a chance I could make the journey undetected.

  Hauling myself stiffly to my feet, I peered cautiously around me. I could see no sign of life in any direction. Was it possible, I wondered, that all the members of the Berge family were gathered inside the house, discussing my whereabouts? Hoping desperately that this was the case, I left the sanctuary of the tiny graveyard and ran swiftly across the open expanse of lawn that separated the cemetery from the driveway.

  Plunging into the shadow of the nearest of the oak trees, I pressed myself close against the huge trunk and turned to focus my eyes on the end of the drive. With a sense of shock, I saw that, for the first time since my arrival at Shadow Grove, the great iron gate was closed and padlocked. It was all I could do to keep from bursting into tears. I couldn’t believe I’d been so easily outmaneuvered! With the driveway sealed, there’d be no way Dave could get in to rescue me. I’d be trapped, alone and defenseless, at the mercy of the Berge trio until my father got back from his trip.

  Struggling to keep from giving way to despair, I tried to force my mind into more positive thinking. I couldn’t allow myself to be numbed by panic. If I couldn’t get out through the gate, then I’d have to find another route to safety.

  Maybe, I thought, I can get over the fence. The wrought iron fence ran all the way around the estate, and at some point along the way, there had to be some means of scaling it. In fact, if I remembered correctly, one of the dovecotes out by the stables stood adjacent to it. If I climbed onto that, I might be able to scramble over the top of the fence and drop to the ground on its far side. Then I could circle back to the highway and meet Dave outside the gate.

  Without permitting myself to dwell on the danger of further exposure, I left the shelter of the oak tree and fled back across the lawn in the direction from which I’d come. Half-expecting at any moment to hear Josie call out my name or see Lisette emerge from the entrance to the patio, I bypassed the cemetery and continued on toward the back of the house.

  As I came opposite the slave cabins, a thought occurred to me that caused me to pause in my flight for a moment of reflection. If I did escape from Shadow Grove and told Dave all the things I’d discovered, he would be no more likely to believe them than my father had been. The tale of the Berge family was so incredible that no one could reasonably be expected to accept it without evidence. If I hoped to convince anyone of the truth of my story, I’d have to back it up with something concret
e.

  The evidence I needed lay in the storage cabin. Although I was no longer in possession of Lisette’s diary, there were other documents and photographs that would substantiate the family history. They were probably all still there—there hadn’t been time yet for their removal—but once Lisette realized I was gone, they’d be whisked away.

  As much as I dreaded the thought of delaying escape, I couldn’t see any alternative—I had to grab some documents. Reversing direction, I headed for the cabin. When I reached it, I was relieved to discover that the lock was still positioned as I’d left it, with the pivoted shackle inserted through the ring in the door, but not actually locked.

  I plucked the padlock free, hastily pulled the door open and stepped inside. Then, as I stretched out my hand for the light switch, I suddenly froze. Instinctively, I knew I wasn’t the only occupant of the room. Someone else was there in the darkness with me.

  For a moment I stood unmoving, weighing my options. There were only a few. I could whirl and rush back out through the open doorway, but there was nowhere to go from there. Whoever was waiting for me in the room’s black interior obviously had an accomplice. Someone else had to have replaced the lock on the outside of the door so I’d be tricked into believing it hadn’t been tampered with. This second person would now be positioned to intercept me if I took flight. Whether I fled or whether I stayed, escape was impossible.

  Bracing myself, I groped for the switch and flicked on the light.

  My companion in the storeroom was Gabe Berge.

  “So it’s you!” I was so swept with anger that my fear was momentarily minimized. “It’s good old Gabe, the guy who’s so ready to fall in love with me! What are you doing here in the dark like a snake? Were you hoping to finish the job you screwed up on the river?”

  “I can’t blame you for being bitter, Nore,” Gabe said quietly. “If you’ll be fair, though, you’ll have to admit that I offered you an out.”

 
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