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Locked in time, p.8
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       Locked in Time, p.8

           Lois Duncan
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  And so the slow-paced days of summer slid one into another, indistinguishable except for Wednesdays, which were the days when Lisette’s cleaning girl came. After my stepmother’s dinner-table dissertation on the Cajuns and the exotic descriptions I’d read in the books in the library, I have to admit to experiencing a slight feeling of disappointment when Celina arrived that first Wednesday, dressed in a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and blue jeans, with an iPod attached to her belt. A quiet, gentle-faced girl, not much older than me, she wore her long brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and worked to the accompaniment of hard rock channeled to her through earphones. After all the stories, I was unprepared to meet someone so pleasant and ordinary.

  As the summer progressed, so did the heat. I could literally feel it increasing from one day to the next. By the third week of June, the promise of it was there awaiting me before I opened my eyes in the morning, and by nine the total weight of it was already starting to descend on us. The midday siesta became not only acceptable to me, but a necessary part of each day, and evenings didn’t drop to a temperature that I considered comfortable until several hours after the sun had disappeared behind the oak trees. I dearly missed the luxury of central air-conditioning, but it wasn’t coming to Shadow Grove anytime soon. As Lisette pointed out, the place was designed to be open to the air, and it would be impossible to seal it up for air-conditioning.

  What did we do with ourselves during those long, drifting days of heat and inactivity? We were all there together, and yet our lives didn’t mesh.

  Dad was involved with the writing of his novel. He had submitted the first three chapters to his agent, who was now in the process of negotiating with a publisher, and Dad was hurriedly trying to finish a complete outline before going to New York to work out the details of a contract.

  As for Lisette, she always seemed to be busy doing something—dusting furniture, doing needlework, preparing meals. Sometimes she sat at the piano in the parlor and tinkled out delicate melodies that I had never heard before. On other occasions, she would change pace abruptly and start pounding out strong Dixieland tunes that shook the walls. She spent a lot of time doing things with flowers and would spend long periods of time standing at the kitchen counter, arranging roses in antique vases and floating cream-colored gardenias in low, silver bowls.

  Once or twice a week, Lisette drove into town to do errands and to shop for groceries. Often, on those occasions, Josie and I went with her to check books out of the library or go to an afternoon movie or simply to wander, browsing through clothing shops and record stores.

  After my initial morning at Shadow Grove, Gabe didn’t express any further interest in accompanying us to Merveille. Instead, he seemed suddenly to have developed an all-consuming passion for fishing. Through a classified ad in the Sunday paper, he bought himself a secondhand rowboat with an outboard motor and moored it in the rushes across the road from us. From then on, we hardly saw him. Every morning, he would disappear with a fuel can and his fishing gear immediately after breakfast and would reappear around dinnertime, sometimes bringing back a few bass. But more often than not he was empty-handed.

  Once, Lisette surprised me by suggesting that he take me with him.

  “Don’t you think that it’s time that you showed Nore some of the scenery along the river?” she asked him. “It’s like a whole foreign world back there, so green and lovely. I’m sure she’s never seen anything quite like it.”

  Gabe shot his mother a quick, dark glance and shook his head.

  “Not yet,” he said. “There’s plenty of time for that. We’ve got all summer.”

  “Sometimes it’s better not to put things off too long,” Lisette said. “You never know what problems may arise if you do.”

  “I said, later,” Gabe told her brusquely. “I’m just not ready yet.”

  He turned on his heel and stalked angrily out of the room. That evening, he didn’t come home until after dark. The rest of us had long since finished eating, and Josie and I were out in the kitchen in the process of loading the dishwasher.

  Gabe entered the room without a word of greeting, served himself from the soup pot on the back of the stove, and left again, still without speaking. A moment later, I heard the sound of his feet crashing hard on the stairs and realized that he was taking dinner up to his room.

  “Why is he acting this way?” I asked Josie, not attempting to conceal my hurt and bewilderment. “He seemed to like me when I first got here. What have I done to make him so mad?”

  “You haven’t done anything,” Josie said. “Gabe gets like this when he’s under a lot of pressure. He’s got things on his mind, that’s all.”

  “What sort of things?” I asked her, and then—as a possible explanation occurred to me—“Could it be that girl he used to go out with, the one who gave him the herbs he uses in the anisette? He said she lived in a cottage over by the river. Is he seeing her again?”

  “No,” Josie said with certainty. “Felicite is gone. She and Gabe broke up a long time ago.”

  “Maybe she’s changed her mind and come back,” I suggested.

  If that were the case, it would explain so many things—the long hours Gabe spent away from home each day, the often nonexistent catch after supposedly fishing all day, his resistance to his mother’s request that he take me with him on one of his excursions on the river.

  “That’s impossible,” Josie said. “Felicite’s dead.”

  “Dead!” For some reason, I reacted with as much shock as if I had known Gabe’s former girlfriend personally. “When did that happen? Did Gabe just find out about it? No wonder he’s been acting so distant and preoccupied.”

  “It didn’t just happen. Gabe’s known about it for years,” Josie said. “He wasn’t all that upset by it, even back when it happened. By then, the two of them had been broken up for ages.”

  “He wasn’t upset by it?!” I repeated incredulously. “But, Jo, he had to be! Maybe they weren’t still going together, but to have somebody your own age, someone you’d once really cared about, die—”

  “It happens all the time, Nore,” Josie said calmly. “Friends grow away from you, and they do die. That’s why it’s better not to get too attached to people. When you do, all that happens is you end up sad.”

  Lying in bed that night, I thought back on that statement and could hardly believe that a thirteen-year-old had actually said it.

  Despite her peculiarities, however, as the weeks slid past, I found myself developing a real fondness for my stepsister. With my father and Gabe so involved with their own activities, a lot of my time that summer was spent with Josie. I grew familiar with all her favorite music, and she, with the contents of my own collection. We experimented with my blow dryer and curling iron, giving each other wild and wonderful hairdos; we took long walks along the bank of the river; and we lay in the sun, developing our tans, while a crew from a company called Holiday Pools, Inc., lined an oval-shaped pit with cement to create a swimming pool.

  Often, in the late afternoons, when shade fell across the courtyard, we sat out behind the house in deck chairs and drank iced tea and played card games.

  On one such occasion, Josie had just spread her winning hand out on the table and shouted, “Gin!” when a familiar voice spoke up unexpectedly from behind us.

  “Aren’t you a little young to be ordering cocktails?”

  “Dave!” I exclaimed, turning in surprise. “Where did you come from, all of a sudden?”

  “I didn’t plan to burst in on you like this,” Dave Parlange said apologetically. “I did ring the doorbell, but I guess you can’t hear it out here. Celina said your dad was working and Josie’s mom was napping, but she thought I’d find the two of you around back.”

  “I’m so glad you’re here!” Josie crowed happily, bouncing up from her chair like an excited puppy. “I’ve been wondering and wondering if you were ever going to come!”

  “How do you know Celina?” I asked, surprised by Dave’s use
of her name. “Did you meet her when you were out here doing the roofing?”

  “All the old-time residents of Merveille know each other,” Dave said. “It’s like belonging to a club that goes back a hundred years. Celina was one year ahead of me in high school. Did you know that her grandfather, Charlie, used to work here as a gardener?”

  “Did he really?” Josie exclaimed. “Maman will be interested to know that. How long ago was it?”

  “Way back before either you or your mother was born,” Dave said. “I believe he said it was back in the nineteen-thirties. I ran into the old guy at the hardware store the other day. He was laughing about what a coincidence it is that another generation of his family should be working out at Shadow Grove for the Berges.”

  “There’s something nice about that,” I said. “It’s like when you finish a book and then find out there’s a sequel. Sit down and cool off, Dave. Do you want some iced tea? I’d invite you to swim, but our pool doesn’t have any water in it.”

  “That’s no problem,” Dave said. “I love to swim in dry pools; there’s so little chance of drowning. No, seriously—I can’t stay that long anyway. I’ve got to go in a few minutes. It’s my sister’s fourteenth birthday, and I need to get her a present.”

  “Why did you go to the trouble of driving all the way out here, if you’re just going to turn right around and go straight back?” In her usual, quicksilver manner, Josie had, in one instant’s time, switched from a beaming smile to a petulant pout.

  “I wanted to check with Nore about her plans for the weekend,” said Dave. “Since you don’t have a phone, this was the only way I could reach her.”

  It took a moment for the significance of the statement to register with Josie. When it did, the light drained abruptly from her face.

  “You’re asking Nore for a date?” she asked in a small, stunned voice.

  “I thought we might go to a movie or something,” Dave said. He plowed right ahead, oblivious to her reaction. “What do you say, Nore? Would you like to go out somewhere next Friday night?”

  “I don’t know,” I said slowly. “It would be fun—but—”

  My eyes shifted to Josie. The pain on her face was more than I could contend with. “It would be fun,” I repeated, “but I can’t. I’m sorry. I already have plans for Friday.”

  “Then what about Saturday?”

  “I’m busy on Saturday, too.” I longed to cushion the refusal by offering some sort of explanation. I was afraid, though, that if I did, Dave would compound the problem by inviting me to go out with him the following weekend.

  “I’m really sorry,” I said lamely. “Thanks, though, for asking me.”

  “Yeah—well—those are the breaks, I guess.”

  I could tell that I’d hurt him, but I didn’t know how to soften the harshness of the rejection.

  “Are you sure you don’t want some iced tea?” I asked him awkwardly. “It’s only about four right now. You don’t have to leave quite yet. The stores in Merveille will be open for another few hours.”

  “No, thanks. Like I said, I’ve got to be heading back.” His smile was a little too brilliant, the show of casualness a bit too elaborate, to be convincing. “Well, see you around, girls. Maybe we’ll run into each other at the club again.”

  “I hope so,” I said. “I really do hope so, Dave.”

  There was nothing left to say then except “good-bye.” We both said that at once, avoiding each other’s eyes in mutual embarrassment, and Dave left us the way he had come, disappearing around the corner of the house in several long-legged strides. A few minutes later, we heard the sound of his car starting up in the driveway. The roar of the engine seemed so loud in the afternoon stillness that I couldn’t imagine how we could’ve missed hearing him arrive. For long moments after his departure, Josie and I sat in silence.

  It was me who finally broke it.

  “Do you want to play another hand?” I asked.

  “No.” Josie had been staring down at the cards, spread faceup on the table between us. Now, she lifted her eyes to meet mine square on. “Why did you tell him you were busy this weekend? You know that’s a lie. All we’re going to do is sit around.”

  “I didn’t come here to spend my summer dating,” I told her. “I came here to be with my father and get to know my new family.”

  “That’s not why you turned Dave down,” Josie said. “You did it because of me. You knew that I wanted to go out with him, so you wouldn’t.” The expressive dark eyes so much like Gabe’s, so exactly like her mother’s—were suspiciously bright. “That was nice of you, Nore, but you didn’t have to do it. Gabe was right the other night. Nothing is ever going to work the way I want it to. No matter what I do—or what you do—or what anybody else does—nobody is ever going to fall in love with me.”

  “That’s ridiculous!” I exclaimed. “You’re only thirteen, Jo! When I was your age, I wasn’t dating either!”

  “But then, you got to be fourteen—and fifteen—and sixteen!” Her voice was sharp with sudden, startling anger. “Guys like Dave think you’re pretty. They won’t even look at me!”

  “In another few years—” I began.

  “That won’t make any difference!” The words were accompanied by a strangled sob. “I’m too skinny—and I’ve got zits—and I don’t have any boobs—and I’m ugly—ugly—ugly—ugly—ugly!”

  The tears that she had been struggling so valiantly to hold back burst free in one great rush, as though a dam were breaking and a century’s worth of pain were being spewed forth. Instinctively, I opened my arms and held them out to her, and, just as instinctively, Josie jumped up to throw herself into them. Gathering the weeping girl tightly against me, I rocked her back and forth as though I were her mother, shocked and bewildered by the intensity of the outburst.

  “You are not ugly,” I told her. “You’re at a terrible age—thirteen. You’re not a kid anymore, and you’ve got all these weird, new feelings, but you’re not an adult either, so there’s nothing for you to do with them. What you’ve got to realize, Josie, is that everybody goes through this—I remember how bad it was! In only a couple of years it will all be different.”

  “No, it won’t!” Josie cried miserably. “Nothing’s ever going to change, Nore! Time keeps going by, but it doesn’t count for anything!”

  “It does count!” I said helplessly. “You just have to be patient. When you grow up, you’re going to be beautiful!”

  “No, I won’t.” The words were muffled by the pressure of her face against my shoulder. “I’m never going to look any different than I do now.”

  “You will be beautiful!” I repeated with total sincerity. “How could you be anything else? Why, just look at your mother!”

  “I have looked at Maman!” Josie said with frightening bitterness. “I look at her all the time, and I hate how she looks! I hate how she talks—how she acts—I hate everything about her!”

  “You don’t mean that,” I said. “Oh, Josie, you know you don’t mean that!”

  But even as I spoke, I knew deep in my heart that she did.

  The plan was for me to die on the following day. I wasn’t aware of this plan, of course, as I lay on my bed the morning after Dave’s visit to Shadow Grove, watching dawn break beyond the open doors to the balcony. Fire spilled into a crystal sky, and the gold rose slowly behind it, and then the blue. I thought about Josie and wondered if she was watching it also, lying in her own bed in the room next door to mine.

  Josie had not been with us for dinner the previous evening. She had developed a headache after her tirade of weeping and gone upstairs to her room. It had fallen to me to explain the situation to Lisette, who had seemed more concerned about the fact that Dave had been to see us than about Josie’s emotional reaction to his visit.

  “What was he doing here?” she asked me. “The roofing was completed weeks ago. Why would one of the workmen come here now?”

  “He wasn’t just ‘one of the workmen,’
” I said hesitantly. “He had gotten to be a—sort of—personal friend.”

  “A friend of whom?” Lisette asked. “Not of Gabe. And you only saw the young man once that I’m aware of, that time I asked you to go out and fetch Josie in for lunch. So, whom did he come here to see? What business did he have here?”

  The truth of the matter—that we had all become more than casual acquaintances during an evening spent together at the dance club—was impossible for me to say. I glanced nervously across at Gabe, hoping he would come up with something, but he was staring down into his plate as if he weren’t following the conversation.

  “I think this is something I’d better discuss with Josie,” Lisette said finally, when neither Gabe nor I spoke up to volunteer an answer. “That girl has become so boy crazy, she invites all kinds of liberties. I’m afraid that someday she may get herself into serious trouble.”

  True to her word, when dinner was over, she did go upstairs, and she remained in Josie’s room for the rest of the evening. When I went up to bed at ten forty-five, I could hear the murmur of their voices, still rising and falling in serious discussion behind Josie’s closed door.

  I didn’t go straight to sleep that night. Instead, I lay awake for over an hour, staring out through the two French doors into the star-filled sky and thinking back on the scene that had occurred that afternoon. No matter how hard I tried to sort things through, I continued to have the feeling that there was something there that I hadn’t been able to grasp. The weeping girl whom I’d held in my arms had seemed, on the surface, to be as typical a thirteen-year-old as one could find, a reincarnation of myself at that miserable age, racked with all the insecurities common to early adolescence. Yet, there had been some underlying current that I couldn’t quite fathom—an intensity of feeling, a depth of pain, a strange sort of empty hopelessness—that I had never experienced at Josie’s age, or, for that matter, ever.

  Time passed, and eventually I did doze off, slipping from wakefulness into slumber in such minute gradations that I can pinpoint no true crossover point when reality gave way to dreaming. As though sound had been put into slow motion, the voices in the adjoining room grew gradually louder, and the words of the conversation became clear to me. Although I knew at some level of fading consciousness that this couldn’t actually be happening, it was as if I were standing, once again, at Josie’s door with my ear to a drinking glass.

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