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Locked in time, p.3
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       Locked in Time, p.3

           Lois Duncan
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  Josie glared at her mother and muttered some comment under her breath that I didn’t catch. Gabe evidently did, however.

  “Don’t push your luck, kid,” he said softly. “You know how Maman feels about your taking off on your own like that. She worries all the time that something will happen to you.”

  “Well, that’s stupid,” Josie shot back belligerently. “By now, you both should know that I can take care of myself.”

  “Jo!” Lisette said warningly.

  “Okay! Okay! I’m going!” Glowering, Josie turned on her heel and stalked out of the room. Her departure was followed by an uncomfortable silence. It was Lisette who finally broke it.

  “I’m sure everyone’s starving,” she said. “There’s no good reason why we should wait any longer for dinner. Chuck—Nore—I do apologize for my daughter’s behavior. I’m afraid she’s going through that rebellious stage that you always hear about.”

  “It hits everyone at that age,” Dad said, trying to make light of the situation. “When Nore was thirteen, she thought the whole world was against her, especially her parents. Then, just when her mother and I were about ready to ship her off to an orphanage, she came over the hump and turned into a delightful young adult.” He rose to his feet and offered his wife his arm. “If the food is ready, I certainly am. Let’s have dinner.”

  With Dad and Lisette leading the way, we trooped into the dining room, which, like the parlor, had windows that faced out onto the darkening courtyard. An ornate, mahogany china cabinet took up most of the far end of the room, and a crystal chandelier hung suspended from the ceiling over an oval table that was formally set for five.

  “Chuck, will you light the candles, please?” Lisette asked my father. “Gabe, dear, come give me a hand, if you will, in bringing things in. No, Nore,”—as I started to volunteer—“tomorrow you can pitch right in with the rest of us, but you deserve one night of being the guest of honor.”

  So I took the seat to which she gestured, and while Dad lit the candles—six tall, white tapers in antique silver holders—Lisette and Gabe trotted back and forth to the kitchen, carrying in bowls of a spicy, tomato-based soup filled with shrimp and crabmeat, and hot French bread and a tossed green salad.

  “I don’t understand why you don’t hire some live-in help,” my father said as Lisette placed the bowl of salad in the center of the table and then seated herself in the chair on his right. “For a place this size, we ought to have a full-time cook and housekeeper. You know that back in the old times the estate was swarming with servants.”

  “They used slave labor back then,” Lisette said with a frown. “Today, household help is terribly expensive. Servants don’t ‘live in’ the way they used to.”

  “We’ve got the money to spend, hon,” my father said gently. “What’s the point of my finally making it big if I can’t use the income to make life pleasant for my family?”

  “You’ve spent so much on us already,” Lisette protested. “The restoration of Shadow Grove is going to cost a small fortune. Then, on top of that, you’ve hired a ground maintenance service; you’ve bought me a washer and dryer; you’ve had a dishwasher installed; and the other day I heard you promising Josie a swimming pool.”

  “I want you to have help,” Dad repeated stubbornly. “Why are you so set against it, Lis? It can’t just be the cost. You know that’s not a problem in my present situation.”

  “I guess maybe I have a thing about privacy,” Lisette admitted. “The idea of some stranger living right here with us, snooping on everything we say or do—it makes me uncomfortable somehow. I did hire that Cajun girl, Celina, to come clean on Wednesdays.”

  “What’s ‘Cajun’?” I asked, taking advantage of the sudden lull in the conversation. “I’ve heard the word, but I don’t know exactly what it means.”

  “The words ‘Cajun’ and ‘Creole’ both refer to the descendants of settlers of Louisiana,” my father told me. “The old European Creole families consider themselves aristocracy. Their ancestors came here directly from Europe, while the Cajuns arrived by way of Canada.”

  “There were cultural differences, too,” Lisette said crisply. “Many of the early settlers intermarried with each other. The strain has been watered down enough by now so the differences aren’t so evident, but several generations ago they had their own customs and superstitions.”

  “What sort of superstitions?” I asked with interest.

  “Well, I don’t know.” Lisette shrugged her slender shoulders. “It’s not a subject that has ever been of much interest to me.”

  “They might have been based on voodoo,” my father suggested. “Back in the beginning of the eighteenth century, slaves from West Africa arrived in New Orleans. They brought their pagan religions with them, and from what I’ve read, voodooism became somewhat of a vogue here even among the settlers.”

  “That’s not the case now, thank goodness.” Lisette glanced up at the doorway. “Well, Josie, so you’ve finally decided to join us!”

  “I didn’t think you were offering me a choice,” Josie said.

  She crossed to the table and slid unceremoniously into the seat next to her brother. Although she was dressed in the same jeans and T-shirt she had been wearing when she came in from her walk, her hair was now combed and she had put on makeup. A lot of makeup.

  “Gumbo again?” She wrinkled her nose with a show of distaste. “You’ve hardly served anything else since we got back here. Can’t we ever have pizza like we did in Chicago?”

  “Not if I have anything to say about it,” Lisette said. “We’re home again now, thank goodness, and I, personally, can’t get enough seafood to make up for all of those years we spent away.”

  “This is great,” I said in an effort to compensate for Josie’s rudeness. “One of the nice things about going to school in New England is that they serve us fresh seafood. Would you believe that once they even gave us lobster?”

  “We lived for a while in Boston,” Gabe said. “I liked it there.”

  Dad turned to Lisette in surprise. “You never told me that!”

  “You and I had a whirlwind courtship,” Lisette reminded him. “There are lots of things I haven’t had a chance to tell you.”

  “We’ve lived in lots of big cities,” Josie said proudly. “New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco—there have been so many that the only way I can tell them apart is if something special happened there. I’ll always remember Hartford, for instance, because that’s where the Ringling Brothers circus tent caught fire and we almost got trampled to death trying to get out. Then there was the—”

  “That’s enough rambling, Jo,” Lisette broke in abruptly. “How about talking less and eating more? The rest of us are almost finished with dinner.”

  “I was just trying to be sociable,” Josie said in an injured voice.

  “I appreciate that,” Lisette said, and I was startled by the edge to her voice. “I would appreciate it more, though, if you would concentrate on eating instead of chattering. After you’ve finished, I would like you to clear the table and load the dishwasher. No back talk now!”—as Josie’s mouth flew open to protest—“This is neither the time nor the place for a mother-daughter battle.”

  Josie seemed about to respond and then evidently thought better of it. Throwing her mother a look, she lapsed into sullen silence, which she maintained for the duration of the meal.

  When dinner was over, the rest of us moved out into the courtyard and settled into lawn chairs to watch a full moon rise slowly and majestically out of the trees to take its place in the absolute center of the sky. Now that the heat of the day had lessened, the air had a softness to it that was different from anything I had ever felt. The aroma of honeysuckle was all around us, so heavy that I could almost taste the scent of it, and the chanting of cicadas filled the night with so much sound that conversation seemed unnecessary.

  Gabe served us all glasses of anisette, which he informed me was a traditional French after-dinne
r drink. This time I didn’t refuse the cordial, and, leaning back in my chair, I sipped the thick, sweet liquid and stared up into the star-studded sky, feeling more at peace than I had in a long, long time.

  Perhaps things would be all right after all, I told myself. Lisette had not turned out to be the “wicked stepmother” that I had anticipated. Josie, for all her perversity, was no worse than many other girls her age, craving independence and resenting parental restriction. And Gabe—

  My heart gave an odd little jump as I gazed across at Gabe. The moonlight lay in streaks of silver upon his forehead. The rest of his face was lost in shadow, and I couldn’t see his eyes. What is he thinking? I wondered. How did he feel about our sudden entrance into his family? Had it been as hard for him to adjust to the idea as it had been for me? Would he accept me as a sister… and did I want him to?

  The long, stressful day, the time difference and the unaccustomed glass of anisette were all working together to weigh down my eyelids. A soft breeze blew up from the river to stroke my face, and the song of the crickets was as soothing as a lullaby.

  When Dad asked, “Nore, are you awake over there?” I tried unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn.

  “No,” I confessed, “not really. I guess I’d better call it a night before I fall completely asleep in my chair.”

  So I said my goodnights and went indoors. As I passed the doorway to the kitchen, I glanced inside, thinking I might stop and exchange a word or two with Josie, but the dishwasher was already running, and the room was dark.

  I continued on upstairs and down the long hall to the room at the corner. As I was opening my bedroom door, I became aware of the sound of music playing in the adjoining room. Josie had evidently decided against any further socializing and had retired to spend the remainder of the evening in her own company.

  Poor kid, I thought as I put on my pajamas and drew the screens across the doors to the balcony. In my opinion, Lisette had overreacted to the situation in the dining room.

  Josie had only been trying to sound cosmopolitan when she had bragged about all the places that her family had lived. Why, though, did they move so often? And why move to so many big cities? If Lisette loved the rural aspects of Shadow Grove, it seemed peculiar that she kept moving her family from metropolis to metropolis.

  The dinner-table conversation had been general and inconsequential. Still, as I settled myself into bed and reached over to flick off the lamp, I couldn’t help feeling that I had missed something. As if something had been said that had not been trivial and meaningless. There had been something—something—

  The answer came to me as I was slipping into sleep, and the shock of the realization jolted me awake. Josie had commented that she would always remember Hartford, because she had been living there at the time of the Ringling Brothers fire.

  I had heard about that fire from my mother, who had grown up in a small town in rural Connecticut. She had told me about it one day when I was sick in bed with chicken pox.

  “This is a story my mother used to tell me when I was sick. She had chicken pox, too, when she was about your age,” she had told me sympathetically. “In her case, though, being sick may have saved her life. Her parents, your great-grandparents, were planning to take her to the circus to celebrate her eleventh birthday, but she got sick, so the outing had to be called off. That day a terrible fire broke out in the circus tent, and a hundred and sixty-eight people died in the blaze.”

  The date of my grandmother’s eleventh birthday was over sixty years ago.

  Gentle and sweet-breathed as those early summer evenings may have been, the loveliest time of day at Shadow Grove was morning.

  My first full day there, I awoke early because of the time difference between Louisiana and the East Coast. Lying in bed, I could see out through both of the screened French doors, each of which framed a great sheet of empty sky. This sky, as seen through the north door, was pale blue and hazy; to the east, it was aglow with the flames of sunrise. I lay still for a time, watching, mesmerized, as the two spatial areas went through minute-by-minute alterations. The north sky grew brighter and clearer; the east sky softened to pink, and then, as shade melted into shade in fluid transition, became the same clear blue as its sister next door.

  When the two views had synchronized, I sat up in bed. From this higher vantage point, I could see the massive green heads of the oak trees through the door to the north. I got out of bed and crossed over to the dresser. My mother’s face smiled good morning to me from her picture. I pulled open the drawer and got out shorts and a T-shirt and carried them with me across the hall to the bathroom.

  As I showered and dressed, I reviewed the previous evening. Now, in the clear light of day, Josie’s strange statement affected me less strongly. It had, of course, been untrue.

  Josie was thirteen years old, and it was obviously impossible for her to have been anywhere sixty years ago. It must simply have been that she had felt left out of the dinner-table conversation and had wanted to make some remark absurd enough to draw attention to herself. It was evident that the child was extremely lonely. The peace and seclusion at Shadow Grove might be appealing to adults, but for someone Josie’s age, it meant being cut off from any chance for a normal social life. One lone girl, stuck out in the middle of nowhere, without access to friends or things to do, might easily become resentful and rebellious. When seen from that point of view, Josie’s hostility toward her mother became—though no more pleasant to witness—at least more understandable.

  Well, I was here now, I told myself; that might help things. While I wasn’t exactly Josie’s contemporary, I came closer to filling that role than anyone else. Perhaps I could become her friend as well as her stepsister. If I could, then life might be easier for everyone.

  Josie’s door was still closed when I came out of the bathroom. I paused at my own bedroom long enough to deposit my pajamas and then continued on down the hall to the stairs. As I descended the staircase, I knew instinctively that none of the others were up and about yet. There was an absolute stillness about the house below me, and that made it seem caught and locked in time like the slumbering palace of Sleeping Beauty. I stepped off the bottom stair into the front entrance hall, and the sound of my shoes striking the wooden floorboards was as startling as gunfire.

  Without conscious thought, I found myself walking on tiptoe as I crossed to the entrance to the parlor. Seen without occupants, the room was like a set from a period play, with the antique furniture, the hand-carved mantel, the gold-inlaid scrollwork around the mirrors. The Oriental carpet, though worn with the passage of years, glowed softly with muted colors from the past.

  At the end of the room, the portrait of the bearded man in the old-fashioned coat looked like something that should have been in a museum. For some reason, however, the face no longer seemed strange to me. It was a moment before I realized that the features of the face, the dark hair and the wiry build very much resembled those of Gabe Berge.

  A great-grandfather, I thought, or perhaps a great-great-grandfather. I wasn’t versed enough in the history of men’s fashions to be able to place the precise era of the man’s clothing, but I guessed it to be from the end of the nineteenth century.

  What should I do with myself until the others wake up? I wondered. Back home in Guilderland, I would have gone out to the kitchen and turned on the coffeemaker, but to do that in someone else’s house seemed presumptuous. It would be better, I decided, to stay clear of Lisette’s kitchen until I’d had a chance to find out where she kept things and whether or not she’d appreciate help making breakfast.

  Dawn had now given way to full-fledged morning. In the short time that I had been standing at the entrance to the parlor, the light in the room had already changed significantly. When I had come downstairs, it had been dusky with shadows. Now the sun had risen high enough to slant its light in through the southern windows so that it fell in pale strips across the carpet. Through those windows I could see, as I had not been a
ble to the evening before, an assortment of wooden planters filled with orange flowers. Beyond those, there stood a low hedge of flowering bushes, and farther still a line of small, weathered buildings. I decided that since I appeared to have the whole of Shadow Grove to myself right then, I might as well seize the opportunity to do some exploring.

  When I let myself out through the front door, the lush beauty of the day burst upon me. There was a richness about it, a thick, golden sweetness, that poured over me like sun-warmed honey. Directly ahead lay the driveway, a sun-spotted corridor, flanked by the incredible oaks. At its far end, the wrought iron gate stood open to the road. When I glanced to either side of me, greenery and flowers were everywhere, in some cases so dense that they could have passed for a tropical jungle. Spanish moss and honeysuckle hung draped from branches, and magnolia trees were heavy with bursting blossoms. Tiny hummingbirds, their wings whirling like miniature helicopters, hung suspended beside the thick bushes of crepe myrtle that rose to cushion the warped edges of the porch.

  I descended the porch steps and walked slowly along the front of the house, almost overpowered by the scent of so many intermingled perfumes. As I rounded the northeast corner, I came across the brick path that I’d seen from my bedroom window the afternoon before. It was bordered by beds of iris, and beyond those a tangle of rosebushes sporting blooms that ranged from the palest pink to a crimson so deep that it was almost purple.

  Distracted from my original purpose, I paused a moment, trying to decide whether to continue on around to the back of the house or to take the path. I decided on the latter, and several moments later was standing on the bank of a small, circular pond, the surface of which was so solidly covered with lily pads that the water beneath them was totally invisible. This green carpet was broken at intervals by waxen blossoms, floating lazily with petals spread to the sky.

  “Nore! Hey—Nore!”

  Turning in surprise, I saw Gabe jogging toward me across the wide stretch of lawn that lay between the rose garden and the house. He was dressed in shorts, a sleeveless T-shirt and running shoes, and his glossy hair reflected the morning sunlight like polished ebony.

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