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Locked in time, p.2
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       Locked in Time, p.2

           Lois Duncan
 
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  “Of course,” Lisette said apologetically. “That shows how excited I am; I’m not even thinking straight! Your father has talked so much about both you and your wonderful mother that her name comes popping out as naturally as yours does.”

  By this time, Dad had gotten out of the van and was coming around to open the door on my side. This was something I had never known him to do before.

  Lisette, however, seemed to take the courtesy for granted, and kept chatting, lightly and easily, as Dad took my hand and pulled me to my feet.

  “Your father says you’ve never spent time in the South before. I hope you’ll learn to love it here as much as we do. There’s some strange magic about this bayou country. Those of us who were born here may move other places, but we always seem to come back.”

  As Dad unloaded the suitcases, Lisette linked her arm through mine and drew me up the porch steps and through the open doorway into the entrance hall. Beyond this was the living room, or—as I would learn to call it—the “parlor,” a long, narrow room with floor-to-ceiling windows that opened out upon a courtyard. The room’s walls were plastered white, and these, along with the extremely high ceiling and the direct exposure to the out-of-doors, gave it a feeling of airy spaciousness. The furniture was composed entirely of antiques—graceful high-backed chairs and inlaid tables, a glass case containing an assortment of vintage firearms, and ornate, gold-rimmed mirrors. On one wall, over an upright piano, there hung an oil painting of a bearded man in an old-fashioned frock coat, and at the far end of the room, flanked by dark wooden end tables, there stood a sofa upholstered in rose-colored velvet.

  A young man was seated there, reading. As Lisette and I came into the room, he laid his book aside and sprang hastily to his feet.

  “This is my son, Gabriel,” Lisette said. “Gabe, dear, this is Chuck’s daughter, Nore.”

  “Hi, Nore! It’s nice to meet you.” Gabe flashed me a friendly smile and extended his hand. Small-boned and compactly built, he stood only an inch or so taller than me.

  This was more than compensated for, however, by a face that could have graced an album cover. The strong, square jaw, sensuous mouth, and dark brown eyes made any rock star I’d ever seen look hideous.

  “It’s nice to meet you, too,” I said, trying to sound casual as I took his offered hand.

  “Lis,” Dad said from the doorway, “where should I take these bags? Have you decided yet which room you want to give Nore?”

  “I thought she might like the rose room,” Lisette said. “That’s a corner room, Nore, so you’ll get a nice flow of air. These lovely old relics of houses weren’t designed for modern air-conditioning, but they were built high enough from the ground so they do catch the breezes.”

  My initial reaction to Shadow Grove as a replica of Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara was renewed and reinforced as Dad, Lisette and I mounted the winding stairway to the upper level of the house. The staircase itself was built of Louisiana cypress, my father informed me, sounding as proud of the fact as if he had hewn the trees himself, and the banister was of a rich, dark mahogany of such fine grain that it slid beneath the palm of my hand like satin. The long row of bedrooms was arranged off a central hallway, and each room had a large, louvered door that opened onto the balcony. The rose room—which, evidently, drew its name from the pattern of tiny rosebuds on the wallpaper—had two such doors, one to the north, facing out upon the driveway, and one to the east, where an array of colorful flower beds bordered a brick path that led down to what appeared to be a lily pond.

  “Leave the jalousies open, and you’ll be surprised at how cool you’ll stay at night,” Lisette told me. “You’d better pull the screens, though, or you’ll be eaten alive by mosquitoes. Those pink towels on the dresser are yours. You and my daughter, Josie, who has the bedroom next to this one, will be sharing the bath across the hall. Your father and I have the master bedroom at the center of the house, and Gabe’s room is on the far west end.”

  “Where would you like me to set these suitcases?” my father asked me.

  “It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Just anywhere.”

  “I imagine you’d like to get freshened up and rest before dinner,” Lisette said. “We won’t be eating until seven or so, so you’ll have time to take a nap or get unpacked or do anything else you’d like. I’ve put some empty hangers in the closet for you. If there’s anything else you need, just let me know.”

  “Thank you,” I said. “It seems like you’ve thought of everything.”

  “If I haven’t, be sure and tell me,” Lisette said warmly. “I want you to be happy here, Nore. Shadow Grove is your home now, just as it’s ours. I hope that you’ll learn to love it as dearly as we do.”

  Impulsively, she leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. The brush of her lips was as soft as the wings of a butterfly. For one brief moment, I breathed in the scent of gardenias.

  Then Lisette drew back, smiling, and reached for my father’s hand.

  “Nore must be tired after her long trip, Chuck. Let’s give her a little time to herself.”

  “That’s a good idea.” Dad smiled, too. I could tell he was pleased that our meeting had gone so smoothly. “You come on down when you’re ready, baby. By then, maybe, Josie will be back from wherever it is she’s wandered off to, and you’ll get to meet the third member of your new family.”

  They left the room, still holding hands, and I stood, listening to the receding sound of their footsteps as they echoed down the hall. Suddenly, they stopped. There was the sound of a door being opened and then softly closed. Then there was silence.

  I went over to the doorway and stared out into the empty hall. Instead of going downstairs, Dad and Lisette had evidently entered their bedroom.

  Their bedroom. The thought of my father sharing a room with someone other than my mother was so foreign that it was almost inconceivable. What are they doing now? I wondered. Kissing? Whispering pet names to each other? Are they standing on the far side of that closed door, locked in each other’s arms?

  It was a question I knew I had no business pondering. I had to learn to accept the fact that my father was now remarried. As he, himself, had pointed out to me, another chapter of his life was beginning, and he was obviously head-over-heels in love with his beautiful new wife.

  Shoving the vision of an embracing couple out of my mind, I pushed my own door closed and turned my attention to the suitcases that Dad had set on the floor at the foot of the four-poster bed. For the next quarter-hour or so, I kept myself busy hanging skirts and dresses in the closet and loading piles of shorts, shirts and underwear into dresser drawers. I carried my toothbrush and other toiletries across the hall to the bathroom, where I found the medicine cabinet jammed to overflowing with more bottles and jars of blusher, foundation and eye shadow than a fashion model could have put to use in a lifetime. Josie must be a precocious thirteen-year-old, I thought with amusement, as I shuffled things around to try to create a space in which to set my own lone tube of mascara.

  Returning to the rose room, I set up my laptop and unpacked my hair dryer, my iPod dock and my camera. Finally, when everything else had been taken care of, I removed from the side pocket of the second suitcase a small, framed photograph of my mother.

  I had taken the picture myself, and it showed Mom, dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans, standing in the front yard of our home in Guilderland. We had just returned from a bike ride, and her hair was a mass of windblown curls. She was facing the camera, laughing, and in the background, propped against the house, there stood a bicycle. It was the same red ten-speed that she was to be riding three days later when a prominent local businessman, rushing back to his office after a three-martini lunch, ran a stop sign.

  Cupping the photo in my hands, I sat down on the edge of the bed to study the beloved face. No, my mother had not been a beauty queen by anybody’s standards, and she couldn’t have competed in looks with Lisette. Mom had been, for one thing, a good twelve years older. My pare
nts had been in their mid-thirties when I was born, and this picture showed a woman with laugh lines at the corners of her eyes and worry lines on her forehead and a few extra pounds on her hips and around her waist. She was simply herself—Eleanor Robbins, housewife and mother—after years of being “Eleanor Robbins, computer programmer.” Although she had been good at her job, she had never been a dedicated career woman. The day that Dad’s eighth novel, Life in the Fast Lane, had sold to Hollywood, Mom had happily retired from the workforce to become a full-time wife and mother.

  “You’re going to be bored stiff,” her friends had warned her. “What will you find to do with yourself all day?”

  “All the things I’ve never had time to do,” Mom had told them. “I’ve got enough projects lined up to keep me busy for the rest of my life.”

  The word “boredom” didn’t exist for Mom. She had been so excited at the thought of all the adventures that lay in store for her! How unfair it was that “the rest of her life,” which she had been so eagerly looking forward to, had consisted of only three short years!

  Blinking against the familiar sting of unshed tears, I leaned back on the pillows and closed my eyes. The face in the photograph continued to smile at me from the inside of my closed eyelids.

  Unfair! my mind screamed in silent protest. Unfair! After so many years of struggling to make ends meet, my parents had finally seen their dream become reality. Life in the Fast Lane had become the pilot for a prime-time television series, and, overnight, Dad’s income had leapt well into the six-figure bracket. The saying “success breeds success” had proved to be true in my father’s case. Once the name “Charles Robbins” became recognized, Dad’s earlier novels had suddenly been rediscovered. They were hailed as “lively reads” by those very reviewers who previously had ignored them, and foreign publishers had fought to outbid one another for publication rights.

  It was the classic happy ending to the “rags to riches” story, except that Mom, who should have been enjoying it with us, was gone. It would be Lisette, not Eleanor Robbins, who would be sharing the second half of my father’s life, and although he had not revealed the fact in his e-mail, I was beginning to suspect that this life would be spent at Shadow Grove.

  “I’d like for us all to spend the summer together,” Dad had written. “It will give us a chance to become a united family. Lisette owns a house here that has been sitting unoccupied. I want to devote this summer to putting it back into shape again.”

  At the time I read that, I had interpreted the statement to mean that Dad was planning to get the house fixed up for sale. Now, however, I had to believe otherwise. Lisette had been so adamant about the fact that Shadow Grove was home to her that I couldn’t imagine her consenting to move to Guilderland. Why, then, I wondered, had she and her children ever left here? As attached as they were to Shadow Grove, why had they moved away? Wouldn’t it have been more natural for Lisette, as a single parent, to raise her son and daughter in this home that they all seemed to love so dearly?

  After the pressures of the day, the clammy heat was affecting me like a sedative. One moment I was lucid and thinking rationally, and the next I had slipped across the line into dreaming. Cloud wisps blew through my groggy mind like whirling shreds of cotton, and a canopy of oak leaves closed in above me. A hand touched my cheek, and when, in the dream, my eyes flew open, it was to find my mother standing by my bedside.

  I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d had dreams like this before. But I guess it’s something you never get used to.

  “Mom,” I said, “what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be dead!”

  “Not to you,” the familiar voice said matter-of-factly. “I’m not dead to you, Nore. Now listen, because I have something important to tell you. I want you to repack your things and leave Shadow Grove immediately.”

  “Leave Shadow Grove?” I exclaimed. “But I just got here! Dad wants me to spend the summer. In September, I’ll be going back to school in New England.”

  “By September, it will be too late,” my mother told me. “You and your father are both in terrible danger. You must talk to Dad, you must tell him—Nore, are you listening?”

  But I wasn’t anymore. Caught in the tides of sleep, I was drifting away from her, and the shreds of blowing cotton were becoming a snowstorm. The branches of the oak trees were dipping lower and lower, and their leaves were sending shadows flickering across the fading image of Mom’s face.

  It didn’t occur to me then to take this dream-warning seriously. It wasn’t as though this were the first time I’d seen my mother when I was sleeping. Such grief visions spattered my nights with regularity.

  I’m a reasonable person; I don’t believe in ghosts.

  What I have learned to believe in, though, is something far more frightening.

  When I awoke, the air had grown somewhat cooler and the room was soft with the gentle hues of twilight. The sun had slid below the tree line, and the light that slipped in through the open louvers of the two French doors was muted and diffused.

  I knew instinctively that it was almost seven, the time Lisette had set for dinner. I don’t have many talents, but one that I do possess is an acute awareness of time. I can somehow sense what time it is, almost to the minute, and I can wake myself up at a predetermined hour without setting an alarm clock.

  My muscles were so stiff that it was clear I’d slept without moving. The photograph of my mother was still clutched in my hands.

  You and your father are in terrible danger!

  “It was a dream, just another dream,” I reassured myself. The woman in the picture seemed to be smiling in agreement.

  “We’re so silly!” she might have been saying. “The next time I come into your dreams, I’ll say something more sensible.”

  Getting up from the bed, I placed the framed photograph carefully on the dresser and went across to the bathroom to get washed up for dinner. The face that gazed back at me from the mirror over the sink was flushed and puffy-eyed from an overdose of sleep. I doused it with cold water, dabbed some lip gloss on my mouth, and dragged a comb through my tangle of pillow-matted hair. Then, on impulse, I got my mascara out of the medicine cabinet and applied it to my lashes. I told myself that I wanted to look nice so that Dad would be proud of me, but I have to admit I had another reason as well. If his mother was an example of what women in Louisiana looked like, then Gabe Berge would be used to some pretty exotic girls.

  Back in my bedroom, I peeled off my damp blouse and travel-rumpled jeans and dropped them into one of my newly emptied suitcases. Then I went over to the closet and got out the frilliest piece of clothing I possessed, a sleeveless, yellow sundress with a full, ruffled skirt. I’m the type of person who sticks to jeans and tops, and I’d never felt comfortable about that impulsive dress purchase. Now, though, cinching in the belt and swaying my hips a little to cause the soft material to swirl out away from my legs, I felt pleased with my mental picture of how I must look. If femininity was the look for ladies at Shadow Grove, I’d show the Berges I could hold my own with the best of them.

  Downstairs, I found Dad, Lisette and Gabe seated in the parlor, sipping amber liquid from delicate, long-stemmed glasses.

  Dad looked up with a smile when he saw me in the doorway.

  “What did I tell you, Lis?” he said with satisfaction. “Here she is on the dot of seven, and she’s not even wearing a watch.”

  “Not a moment late nor a moment early. That’s really incredible!” Lisette smiled, too. “Your father’s been telling us about this gift of yours, Nore. I thought one of us had better go up and wake you, but he told me that you have your own built-in alarm clock.”

  “It’s too bad Josie doesn’t have one,” Gabe commented dryly. “Then maybe she’d turn up when she’s supposed to.”

  “You’re right about that. It would certainly make life easier.” Lisette continued to smile with her lips, but not with her eyes. “Josie’s not home yet, Nore, so dinner will be l
ater than I intended. While we’re waiting, can I offer you a glass of sherry? Our first dinner together is a cause for celebrating.”

  “No, thank you,” I said, surprised at the invitation. Our family had never been into the cocktail-hour bit.

  “A Coke, then?” Lisette was asking, when there came the sound of the front door being thrown open and slammed shut again.

  “She’s here,” Gabe said. “You can relax now, Maman. The wanderer’s returned.”

  “Josie?” There was a strident edge to Lisette’s voice. “Josie, come in here this instant! Do you have any idea how late it is?”

  “Sorry, Maman. I lost track of time.”

  The girl who appeared in the doorway was small and dark, with Lisette’s high cheekbones and luminous brown eyes. One day, perhaps, her beauty would match her mother’s, but at this point nothing about her had come into proportion. Her nose was too long, her mouth too wide, her chest still flat and bony, and she had the overall gawky look of a knobby-kneed colt.

  Her appearance brought back painful memories of my own transition from childhood to adolescence. I breathed a sigh of relief that this stage of life now lay behind me.

  “You have a watch, Jo,” Lisette said. “Why aren’t you wearing it?”

  “I forgot to put it on after my shower last night.” The girl turned her attention to me. “You’re Chuck’s daughter, right? You’re Nore?”

  “Yes, I’m Nore,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you, Josie.”

  “Where have you been?” Lisette demanded. “You’ve been gone for hours!”

  “I went for a walk,” Josie told her. “Where else would I go? It’s not like there’s anyplace around here where people can have fun. There’s no mall, no movie theater, no nothing! Living out here at Shadow Grove is like being locked into a big moldy old cage.”

  “That’s enough, Jo,” Lisette said shortly. “Go get cleaned up. Then come back down and join us in the dining room. If it weren’t for the fact that it’s Nore’s first evening here, you would be skipping dinner.”

 
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