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Locked in time, p.4
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       Locked in Time, p.4

           Lois Duncan
 
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  “Hi!” he said as he drew abreast of me. “What are you doing up so early? Isn’t this supposed to be your vacation?”

  “I’m used to a different time zone,” I reminded him. “What’s your excuse? Isn’t this your vacation, too?”

  “I like to do my running before the heat comes up,” Gabe told me. “It’s about all the exercise I get these days. Back in Chicago, our apartment was near a fitness center, and I got to work out on the machines whenever I wanted to.”

  “Your mother was saying last night that you might get a swimming pool,” I said.

  “Yeah, Josie’s pushing for one,” Gabe said wryly. “But then, Josie pushes for everything. If she had her way, your dad would put in a movie theater, a skating rink and her own private video arcade.”

  “She must get bored in the summer,” I said sympathetically. “Having a pool to swim in could make a big difference.”

  “She can swim in the river now, or here in the lily pond.” Gabe threw me a devilish grin. “Do you want an adventure? Why don’t we go back to the house and put on our suits?”

  “No way!” I said vehemently, not sure whether he was joking. “I don’t know how to swim, and even if I did, I wouldn’t swim in this!”

  “I was just kidding!” Gabe said with a laugh. “This pond’s two feet deep; nobody could swim in it. My kid brother and I used to wade here, though, when we were little. We’d get ourselves coated with mud and then go running back into the house. Maman would scream her head off, afraid we’d jump on the furniture.”

  “Your brother!” I exclaimed. “You and Josie have a brother?”

  “We did,” Gabe said, the laughter fading from his voice. “Louis died a while ago. He was thrown by a horse. It was a stallion—really wild—he should never have been riding it. Lou was like that, sort of a daredevil. He did crazy things.”

  “That’s terrible,” I said.

  “It was terrible. Maman about went crazy. She just couldn’t face the fact that one of her children was dead.”

  “I know,” I said, nodding. “I feel that same way about my mother. I still can’t believe that she’s gone. I see her in dreams, and it’s almost as though she were right there with me.”

  “You must miss her a lot,” Gabe said softly.

  “Yes,” I said. “But you know what that’s like. You must feel that way about your dad and brother.”

  “It’s not quite the same,” Gabe said. “I do miss Louis, but like I said, he was killed a long time ago, so I’ve had time to get used to it. What I miss most now is the whole idea of having a brother. If Lou were here today, he’d be somebody I could talk to. He’d understand my problems, because they’d be the same as his.”

  “What about your father?” I asked. “What happened to him?”

  “He got sick,” Gabe said shortly.

  “Sick, how? With what sort of illness?”

  “I don’t know. He was old; it could have been a lot of things. One night he went to sleep, and he just stopped breathing. A servant found him when she went in to take him breakfast. That wasn’t the shock to us that Lou’s death was. Papa’d had a full life.”

  “He couldn’t have been all that old,” I said. “Your mother’s still so young.”

  “Papa was a lot older. It’s not that uncommon.” Gabe drew a deep breath. “Hey, enough of this depressing stuff. Let’s talk about something else. What was it that brought you out here this morning so early?”

  “I was curious about the old buildings out beyond the courtyard,” I told him. “I thought I’d go see what they were, and then, when I saw the path through the rose garden, I decided to walk down here and see what the pond was like.”

  “Those buildings once served as quarters for slaves,” Gabe said. “Come on around back, and I’ll show them to you. They’re a piece of American history.”

  So we walked together to the south side of the house where the past lay spread before us in depressing dishevelment. The buildings I’d seen through the parlor windows proved to be brick and wood shacks that were so dilapidated it was hard to imagine anyone ever having lived in them. Gaping doorways and paneless windows stared blindly out on fields of underbrush that had once supplied produce enough to feed a whole plantation. Only the cottage nearest to the house, which Gabe informed me was now used as a storage shed, appeared to be in good repair. Its windows had been bricked over, and its sturdy door was secured with a padlock.

  Behind the shacks there stood the shell of what once must have been a huge and impressive stable.

  “Maman got rid of the horses after Louis died,” Gabe told me.

  “What’s that over there?” I asked him, gesturing off to the right, where a wrought iron fence enclosed what appeared to be a tiny graveyard. It was so overgrown that the rounded tops of two tombstones could barely be seen beneath the tangle of vines and grasses.

  “That’s the Berge cemetery,” Gabe informed me. “All the old plantations had family burial plots.”

  “It looks old, all right,” I commented. “And it could use some weeding. Didn’t your mother say that Dad had hired a maintenance service?”

  “They haven’t had time to work on the cemetery yet,” Gabe said. “There’s been too much other stuff for them to do around the estate. You should have seen this place when we first moved back here. It was a full-fledged jungle.”

  As we started back toward the house, he reached over and took my hand. “So what’s your reaction? Does Shadow Grove meet your expectations?”

  His hand around mine, I had to concentrate on keeping my cool. I swallowed hard before I could answer his question. “I’m not sure exactly what I expected,” I told him.

  “There are other houses like this one all up and down the river,” Gabe said. “They cost so much to keep up that only a handful are still private residences. Most are owned by the state and are tourist attractions.”

  When we entered the house, we found the rest of the family at the breakfast table. The rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee filled the kitchen, and a pitcher of orange juice sat out on the counter.

  “Well, hi!” Dad said in surprise. “I didn’t expect the two of you to appear together like this. I thought Nore was still upstairs sleeping and Gabe was out running.”

  “I was,” Gabe said, dropping my hand like a hot potato. “Hi, Chuck. Good morning, Maman. Josie, that’s one huge bowl of Corn Pops. Don’t you think it would have been nice to save some for the rest of us?”

  Josie shrugged her shoulders. Her eyes flicked up at her brother. Then she shifted her gaze to her mother, as though curious to see her reaction to the fact that Gabe and I had been holding hands.

  I, too, glanced across at Lisette. Her eyes had narrowed strangely, and her full, soft lips were pressed so tightly together that they were compacted into a pencil-thin line.

  “So, what have you two early birds been doing?” she asked with a show of casualness. “Don’t tell me that Nore’s into running, too! Are we really going to have two exercise buffs at Shadow Grove?”

  “I went out by myself like I always do,” Gabe said defensively. He hooked his thumbs nervously under the band of his running shorts. “Nore just happened to be up early, and we ran into each other by accident. I took her around back to have a look at the slave quarters.”

  “Those buildings are interesting, aren’t they? They make the past seem so terribly recent.” Although she was addressing me, Lisette’s eyes were on Gabe. There seemed to be some sort of unspoken dialogue going on between them, like a secret second level of communication. “The present, as we know it, is of such small importance in the total scheme of things. Its only real purpose is to serve as a bridge between yesterday and tomorrow.”

  Josie continued to chew methodically on a mouthful of cereal, but she, too, seemed in some way a part of this odd conversation.

  Watching the silent interplay between mother and children, I experienced once again the feeling that I was missing something. It was as though these t
hree family members had known one another so long and so intimately that they no longer found it necessary to communicate with words.

  Then the moment was over. Everything popped back to normal.

  What kind of suspicious weirdo are you, Nore? I chided myself.

  From the moment I first arrived at Shadow Grove, the atmosphere kept swinging back and forth between normal and strange so sporadically that I was never quite sure which end of the seesaw was up. It was as if I kept catching glimpses of something at the edge of my peripheral vision, but it wouldn’t hold still long enough for me to get it into focus. One moment, I would be viewing my stepmother as threatening, and ten seconds later she would be chatting along in such a warmhearted manner that I would feel ridiculous for ever having entertained such a thought.

  This was one of those times. I felt like a total idiot.

  Lisette poured juice into glasses for Gabe and me. I thanked her for mine and sat down in the vacant seat across from my father. Gabe got out two more bowls from the cabinet to the left of the sink, and he and I poured ourselves Rice Krispies (Josie had, indeed, consumed all the Corn Pops), and if a camera crew had happened to walk in on us right at that particular moment, we could have served as models for a “get-your-family-off-to-a-happy-start-at-breakfast-time” TV commercial.

  While we ate, we discussed our plans for the day.

  My father announced that he would be spending it writing.

  “I’m back on the job again, Nore,” he said with satisfaction. “The dry spell is over. The juices are flowing again, thank god.”

  “That’s terrific!” I exclaimed. “Are you working on another novel?”

  “Yes,” Dad said, “and it’s different from anything I’ve ever tackled. It’s set here in the South right after the Civil War. I’ve never tried my hand before at anything historical. I guess the ghosts at Shadow Grove have started to get to my brain.”

  “In that case, I won’t even ask if you want to drive into Merveille with me,” Lisette said. “I have to go in to buy groceries and do some errands. I’d enjoy your company, but I don’t want it on my conscience that I was responsible for stopping the flow of words that could have immortalized Shadow Grove.”

  “While you’re in town, please try to remember to stop by the phone company,” Dad said. “I hate this business of being cut off from the world without a telephone.”

  “You have your cell,” Lisette said. “Why do we need a landline?”

  “I don’t like doing business on a cell phone,” Dad said. “Calls are always getting dropped, and the thing never stays charged.”

  “Can I go with you?” Josie asked eagerly. “We’re all out of snacks, and you never buy anything good unless I’m there.”

  “Why don’t all four of us go?” Gabe suggested. “While you two are doing the grocery shopping, I can show Nore around the metropolis of Merveille.”

  “That’s hilarious!” Josie snorted contemptuously. “ ‘The metropolis of Merveille!’ Still, almost anything’s more exciting than hanging around Shadow Grove.”

  Lisette turned to me with a smile. “I’d love to have you ride in with me, Nore, but don’t expect too much of Merveille. As Josie implies, it’s not exactly a second New Orleans. You can come too, Jo, but I’d rather that Gabe stayed here. The work on the roof is supposed to be completed today, and someone should be here in case the men finish early.”

  “Chuck will be here,” Gabe said.

  “Chuck is going to be working on his book.”

  “That’s no problem,” Dad said. “I won’t be exactly entombed, you know. I can take an occasional break to check on the workmen.”

  “I’d like for Gabe to stay,” Lisette said again, decidedly. “Please, don’t argue, son,” she added, as Gabe opened his mouth to protest. “Chuck has work to do, and I don’t want him to be interrupted. Girls, let’s try to get started as soon as we’re finished with breakfast. If possible, I’d like to get back before the work on the roof is finished, so I can check and see that the workmen have cleaned up.”

  When breakfast was over, I excused myself and hurried up to my room to change into layered tanks and a skirt in place of my shorts. By the time I came back downstairs, Lisette and Josie had already gone out to the car. I was just headed out the front door to join them when my father called after me, “Nore, will you do me a favor? While Lis is doing errands, could you stop by the library and pick up some reference books?”

  “Sure,” I said, pausing in the doorway. “What books do you want?”

  “I’m not certain myself,” Dad said. “I need background material on this part of the country. Just browse the shelves and bring back anything you think looks interesting.”

  “Won’t I need a library card?” I asked him.

  “Apply for one while you’re there, but take mine to use for now,” Dad said. “Tell the librarian you’re my daughter.”

  The car that awaited me in the driveway was a dark blue two-door Honda. Lisette was behind the wheel, and Josie was impatiently bouncing up and down in the backseat.

  “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting,” I said apologetically as I climbed into the passenger’s seat next to my stepmother. “Dad stopped me to ask if I’d pick up some books at the library.”

  “That’s easy enough,” Lisette said. “The library’s right around the corner from the telephone company. You can pick out the books while I’m making arrangements to get a phone installed.”

  As we pulled out onto the road through the open gateway, we drove past a green truck that was obviously preparing to turn into the driveway. From the position in which I was seated, I wasn’t able to take in much more than the fact that the vehicle had PARLANGE ROOFING COMPANY lettered on its side.

  Josie, however, let loose with a piercing wolf whistle.

  “Hey, Nore!” she exclaimed. “Did you get a load of that guy who was driving? Isn’t he hot?”

  “I really couldn’t see him too well,” I responded, trying to sound regretful. “I’m on the wrong side of the car.”

  “Oh, man. You missed it! Yow!” Josie whistled again, hitting a strident note that came close to shattering my eardrums.

  With difficulty, I kept from wincing. Lisette made no such effort.

  “Jo,” she said, “have you any idea how crude you sound?”

  “I don’t see what’s so crude about noticing a good-looking guy,” Josie said peevishly. “He’s nice, too. His name’s Dave, and I talk to him every day during his lunch break. Did you see the size of his shoulders? They have to be three feet wide!”

  “That’s enough, Jo,” her mother said curtly. “Let’s leave that subject alone, please. Nore, I’ll bet you’ve never seen orchids growing wild before, have you? There are some lovely ones over there in the fork of that oak tree.”

  “Dad pointed some out to me yesterday,” I told her. “It’s hard to believe that they grow right out by the roadside here, as common as daisies back home in New York.”

  And so while Josie sat, sulking, in the seat behind us, Lisette and I continued to make chitchat throughout the remainder of the forty-mile drive into Merveille, a town that turned out to be not much different from what I had been led to expect. As Lisette had warned me, it was certainly no “second New Orleans,” but there were enough stores and office buildings to take care of most people’s everyday needs.

  As we drove through the streets, I saw several grocery stores that I recognized as part of national chains, as well as a Walgreens, the golden arches of McDonald’s and a JCPenney like the one where Mom had bought our towels and bed linens back in Guilderland. There appeared to be only one movie theater, but the marquee advertised a film that I’d seen only recently in Boston, so I gathered that Merveille wasn’t that far behind.

  “Look! The Danceteria!” Josie squealed in excitement, bouncing out of her surliness. “Look over there on the corner! Do you see that sign? They’ve turned the old deli into a dance club!”

  “I’m going to p
ark in the Safeway parking lot,” Lisette told us. “That’s a good central spot, considering the things we have to do here. The phone company is just around the corner, and that building across the street is the public library. Why don’t we split forces and do our various errands, and then we can meet back at the market to shop for groceries?”

  “I want to check out the club!” Josie announced.

  “At ten in the morning? It’ll be locked up and empty.” Lisette regarded her daughter with amusement. “Go along to the library with Nore, Jo. You can use Chuck’s card to check out some books for yourself.”

  “I’m sick of books,” Josie grumbled. “It seems like all I’ve done for a hundred years is read.” Despite her complaints, however, when we reached the library, she headed straight for the section marked “Recent Reads” and began to thumb through the new selection of romance novels.

  I checked the online catalogue and was pleased to find that the stacks contained a large selection of books on Louisiana history. Settling myself at a table to sort through the volumes, I was soon completely absorbed in accounts of lifestyles so extravagant that one writer referred to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Creoles of European descent as “prince-planters who held court in their castles in the same grand manner as the royal families of Europe.” In contrast, there were descriptions of the other early residents of the bayou country, who were denounced for having “diluted the purity of their bloodline” by intermarrying with the black Creole population.

  One author described this strain of Cajun as having “gone native, developing a society separate from that of their affluent neighbors.

  “Much folklore developed,” he wrote, “about the renegades who inhabited makeshift shacks along the banks of the river. Though little about their customs was set on paper, it was rumored that they practiced a form of voodoo known as gris-gris. The bartering of spells and potions in exchange for material possessions was suspected to be far more common than was generally acknowledged. Many of the black Creole women were extremely beautiful and were supported as mistresses by the Creole landowners.” At this point in my reading, a hand touched my shoulder.

 
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