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Locked in time, p.9
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       Locked in Time, p.9

           Lois Duncan
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  “If a romance should develop,”… “You got us into this! You made the deal!”… “At Shadow Grove, I’m the one who is in control of things!”… “We can’t go on like this, Maman!”… “Nore Robbins is a danger… a stranger… a danger…”

  “… in danger.” Another voice rose, like an echo of Lisette’s.

  “You and your father are both in terrible danger!”

  I thought, but couldn’t be certain, that the voice was my mother’s.

  At some point during that long and restless night, my dreaming must have been shaped and structured by the sound of the door to Josie’s room opening and closing. In my dream state, I got up from my bed and slipped, ghostlike, through the wall, to trail my stepmother down the hall to the room she shared with my father. To my surprise, she passed the door and continued on to the far west end of the hallway, where she opened the door to Gabe’s room, stepped inside, and closed the door behind her.

  Once again, I heard voices, low-pitched but clearly distinguishable.

  “I said later. I’m just not ready yet.”

  “Sometimes it’s better not to put things off too long.”

  “We’ve got all summer.”

  “Nore Robbins has an uncanny awareness of time!”

  Then, suddenly, the whole scene changed, as though the channels on a TV set had been abruptly switched and a new program was being shown. In this new vignette, I was standing on the bank of the river, but I wasn’t alone there. I was in the midst of a group of people clothed in long, black robes, and every one of them was holding a candle. From behind us in the darkness there came the heavy, rhythmic beat of jungle drums, and at the river’s edge, several yards away, there knelt five figures, one in a scarlet robe and the other four clothed in white.

  “Watch, Nore! Please, watch carefully, Nore, and remember!” I turned to see that my mother was standing beside me. Her normally smiling face was creased with worry, and her eyes were turned toward the little group by the river. I followed her gaze and saw to my surprise that the figure in scarlet wasn’t a man, but a woman. She appeared to be combining ingredients of some sort in an earthen bowl, and her four companions were watching the procedure with intense interest. After what seemed an eternity, the red-clad figure lifted the bowl in both hands and raised it high above her head. Swaying back and forth to the drumbeat, she began to chant. The words held no meaning for me, but the voice, low and guttural like the growl of a predatory animal, made my flesh crawl. The candle-bearers took up the chant, growling the strange, foreign syllables rather than speaking them, as the woman in scarlet lowered the bowl and bent to hold it in turn to the lips of each of the white-clothed figures kneeling at her feet. Then she threw back her head and uttered a long, shrill cry, and the vision vanished.

  I must have tossed and turned incessantly during the dreams, for when I awoke the following morning I felt as exhausted as though I had really lived through all these experiences. Although I awoke at my usual early hour, I didn’t get up immediately to take my walk. Instead, I continued to lie there, watching the sunrise fade from the sky and listening to the chorus of bird voices twittering in the oak trees, until, without meaning to, I allowed my eyes to drop closed again. When I opened them for the second time an hour and a half later, the room was flooded with the brilliant light of full-blown morning.

  It was the latest I had slept since my arrival at Shadow Grove. Although I knew in my rational mind that it was ridiculous to let one instance of oversleeping make me feel guilty, it was so ingrained in me to run on a regular schedule that I threw on my clothes in a rush that was almost panicky in a frantic effort to redeem myself.

  As I descended the stairs, the smell of coffee rose to meet me, and I wondered if the rest of the family might still be at breakfast. This hope was squelched, however, when I passed through the downstairs hallway and heard the sound of my father’s computer keyboard already clicking away behind the closed door to the study.

  When I reached the kitchen, its sole occupant was Lisette. She was standing at the counter, slicing up the leftover ham from the previous night’s dinner. Seen in silhouette against the window behind her, her facial features seemed almost unreal in their perfection. The knife she was holding made a firm, sharp tapping sound as it repeatedly descended upon the cutting board, sending slices of pink meat falling, one on top of another, in a neatly stacked pile.

  “Well, hi there!” she said when she looked up to see me in the doorway. “What happened to that built-in alarm clock that we’re all so in awe of? Did you forget to set it last night?”

  “Oh, I set it all right,” I said sheepishly. “It went off at its usual time, but I guess I must’ve pushed my mental ‘snooze’ button. Why are you making sandwiches already? Am I really so late that it’s almost lunchtime?”

  “You, with your time sense, must know better than that,” Lisette said. “I’m fixing a picnic for you and Gabe to take out on the river.”

  “What do you mean, ‘out on the river’?” I asked in bewilderment. “I thought Gabe didn’t want any company on his fishing trips.”

  “That was yesterday and the week before that,” Lisette said. “That boy’s changing moods are almost a match for his sister’s. Out of the blue, he announced this morning that he’s finally decided to introduce you to the bayou country. He asked me to tell you to come over to the boat when you’ve finished breakfast.”

  “All I want is coffee,” I said, puzzled by this sudden turn of events. “Is Josie going with us? Is she waiting at the boat, too?”

  “Josie’s still in her room,” Lisette said. “You weren’t the only one to sleep late this morning. Actually, I have to take responsibility for Josie. I was afraid that she’d never be able to settle down last night, so I gave her a pill to help her get to sleep.”

  “She was upset,” I acknowledged, pouring coffee into a mug. “She was crying so hard yesterday that it was almost scary.”

  “Jo is a high-strung girl,” Lisette agreed. “Her adolescent hysteria gets totally out of hand. She has to realize that this Parlange boy is far too old to be interested in her. Obviously, the person he came here to see was Celina.”

  “Celina?” I exclaimed in surprise. “Why do you say that?”

  “Josie told me that he and Celina went to high school together,” Lisette said. “A lot of men seem to be attracted to Cajun women. Personally, I’ve always thought them to be rather coarse-looking.”

  I was startled by the bitterness in her voice.

  “I think Celina’s quite pretty,” I ventured tentatively.

  “And promiscuous, too, no doubt,” Lisette snapped. She seemed to assert a major effort to get a grip on herself. “Please, forgive me for that outburst, Nore. It must have sounded strange to you. I was being unfair, of course. Celina does seem to be a nice enough young woman, and I didn’t have any right to imply that she wasn’t. I have to keep reminding myself that this current generation should not be held responsible for the deeds of its ancestors.”

  “Speaking of ancestors, did you know that Celina’s grandfather used to work at Shadow Grove?” I asked, seizing gratefully on this chance to change the subject. “Back in the nineteen-thirties, he was a gardener here.”

  “So Josie told me last night,” Lisette said. “It’s an odd coincidence, isn’t it? I can only assume he was employed by my first husband’s grandparents.”

  Our conversation lapsed into less threatening chitchat, and I sat down at the breakfast table to drink my coffee. As I sipped at the hot, black brew, Lisette continued to prepare lunch for Gabe and me, placing the slices of meat between thick wedges of buttered French bread and wrapping the sandwiches in plastic wrap. She placed those and some cookies and two cans of root beer in a small wicker picnic basket and set it on the table in front of me.

  “There you are,” she said. “I hope it’s enough for the two of you.”

  “I’m sure it will be,” I said, setting down my mug and getting to my feet. “Thanks so much
, Lisette.” I paused, and then continued, a bit awkwardly, “Thank you, too, for all the other nice things you’ve done for me. I really appreciate the way you’ve made me feel so welcome here.”

  There was a moment’s silence.

  Then, Lisette said quietly, “You’re a nice girl, Nore. Josie told me about how kind you were to her yesterday. She said that she wished that the two of you were blood sisters. I, too, wish that your relationship with us were different.”

  Suddenly, to my surprise, she leaned forward and kissed me. “Run along now, dear. Have fun on your excursion with Gabe. My son is very fond of you. A mother can sense such things. It would have been wonderful if you could have met each other under other circumstances.”

  I left the house by the front door, replaying Lisette’s cryptic good-bye in my head. Could she tell I had feelings for Gabe? As I descended the porch steps, perfumed air rolled up to engulf me like a tidal wave. Honeysuckle and magnolias poured forth their respective fragrances, and the mingled scents of the various flower-laden bushes that bordered the porch had already thickened in the heat of morning to a cloying sweetness. The long driveway lay stretched ahead of me like the dim aisle of a great cathedral, spotted with pagan coins of light that slipped through gold-paned windows. As I walked down to the gate beneath the canopy of oak leaves, I felt dwarfed by the immensity of the trees on either side of me.

  At the end of the driveway, I paused for a moment to brace myself for that initial step from the pleasant shade of the trees out into the full intensity of the blazing sunlight. When I did take that plunge, heat came pouring down like molten copper, and within minutes my shirt was damp with perspiration and plastered to my back like a second skin. I hurried across the road, painfully aware of the heat that was rising in waves from the asphalt to attack my feet through the thin rubber soles of my sandals.

  At this particular spot only a matter of several yards separated the shoulder of the road from the bank of the river. I saw Gabe immediately, standing at the water’s edge with his back toward me. His shoulders were slumped, and he was leaning in a dejected manner against the bow of the weathered rowboat, which had been pulled up a foot or so onto solid ground. He was obviously listening for me, because he turned immediately when I stepped from the asphalt into the rustling grasses and stood, watching me walk toward him, with an expression on his face that wasn’t very welcoming.

  “So, you did decide to come fishing today,” he said. “I thought that maybe you wouldn’t want to, all things considered.”

  “Your mother fixed us lunch,” I said, holding up the basket. “I thought that was really nice of her.”

  “Sandwiches and cookies and stuff, I bet,” Gabe said caustically. “That’s a nice little touch. Trust good old Maman to think of it.” He gestured toward the boat. “Well, climb aboard if you’re going to. I need you to weigh down the stern so I can get us shoved off.”

  “I’m going to track in mud,” I warned him, glancing down at my sandals, which were already deeply embedded in the marshy earth.

  “That doesn’t matter,” Gabe said. “Not with this old bucket. Go ahead—get in.”

  I did as directed, scrambling awkwardly over the side of the boat and almost dropping the picnic basket in the process. Once safely in, I set the basket on the floor by the center seat and moved to the back to add ballast to the end with the motor. Gabe threw himself against the bow, and there was an unpleasant, slurping sound as the boat began to slide backward across the wet mud and then settled into the river. Walking it out from the shore until he was knee-deep in water, Gabe grabbed hold of the side of the boat with both hands and hauled himself up and in.

  The skiff lurched dangerously beneath the sudden new input of weight, and I clutched at the rusty engine for support.

  “Be careful!” I exclaimed. “You almost tipped us over!”

  “Sorry,” Gabe said. “Look, Nore, I know that you’re not that into water stuff. If this tipsy boat makes you nervous, why don’t you just say so? Go on back to the house and tell Maman that you’ve changed your mind. There’s nothing she can do about it if you decide you don’t want to come with me.”

  Actually, I’d been contemplating doing exactly that. But I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction.

  “What are you trying to do,” I asked, “get rid of me?” I was swept by a surge of perversity. “That’s not going to be that easy. You invited me to come today, so I’m afraid you’re stuck with me. Where do you want me to sit?”

  Gabe was silent for a moment. Then, with a shrug of defeat, he seemed to accept my decision as irrevocable.

  “You can ride up in the front,” he said. “It’ll give us better balance.”

  He moved aside to let me edge past him. The boat kept dipping back and forth as I gingerly worked my way forward, and by the time I was settled on the small, triangular seat in the bow, we had drifted back to bob against the shore.

  Gabe picked up an oar and pushed us away again. Then he seized the cord to the engine and gave it a vicious pull. The motor sprang into life with a sputtering roar. Gabe adjusted the throttle, and we began to chug out into the middle of the river.

  It wasn’t until we were a good hundred yards downstream that it occurred to me to wonder why the boat didn’t carry any fishing gear.

  “Where are the poles and stuff?” I asked. “Wasn’t this supposed to be a fishing trip?”

  Gabe glanced down at the floor of the boat, as if expecting to see the poles materialize there.

  “I must have forgotten them,” he said.

  “Do you want to go back?” I asked him.

  “Maybe in a little while,” Gabe said. “For now, though, let’s just concentrate on giving you a tourist’s-eye view of the bayou country.”

  In perfect agreement with that suggestion, I turned my attention to the foreign scenery that now surrounded us. Within the few short minutes that we had been out on the water, the river had routed itself far enough away from the highway so that we had put all signs of civilization behind us. The terrain that now enclosed us was a ghostlike forest of palmetto shrubs and live oak trees, the moss-draped branches of which hung above us like shabby, gray tents. Knobby-kneed cypress rose from the river on either side of us, and the smooth, dark surface of the water threw back their reflections as perfectly as a mirror.

  As we continued our slow-paced journey up the river, pale lavender-colored flowers, which Gabe informed me were called water hyacinths, began to appear alongside of our boat. The farther we went, the more numerous these blossoms became, until, eventually, they massed together to form one solid sheet of purple, which covered the surface of the river from one bank to the other. White herons, evidently disturbed by the noise of our motor, rose with screams of protest from the reeds at the water’s edge and went streaking off into the treetops, dragging their long, strange legs behind them like excess baggage.

  After we’d traveled several miles of this world of shadows, the river suddenly widened, and the branches above us parted to let the sky show through. In this broader expanse of water, dead trees floated like lumpy corpses, caught in the tangle of roots from the clotted water-flowers. When I observed these logs more closely, I was surprised to discover that the “lumps” were not, as I had at first imagined, knots in the wood, but were turtles, lined up like cookies in the oven to soak up the sun.

  Gabe idled the engine and then let it die completely. The silence that followed was like nothing I had ever experienced. It was so deep and so intense that it seemed to contain some mysterious sound of its own, pitched at a level either too high or too low for human ears to decipher.

  Against this massive silence, the tiniest sounds were as startling as gunshots. The splash of a fish. The cry of a bird. The rustle of a squirrel, leaping from one tree limb to another.

  “I see now why you like to come here,” I said softly to Gabe. “It’s a whole different world from the one we live in.”

  “It’s a place where time doesn’t seem
to exist,” Gabe said. “The outside world keeps changing, but back here everything stays the same.”

  “Josie said the same kind of thing yesterday,” I told him. “She said her life is like that, locked in place with nothing ever changing.”

  “Poor Jo,” Gabe said with sympathy in his voice. “I think life is harder for her than for any of us.”

  “It was really weird,” I said, “to hear something like that from a thirteen-year-old. Do you have any idea what she was talking about?”

  “There’s not much about Josie that I don’t know by now,” Gabe said. “My sister and I have known each other for many years.” Abruptly, he changed the subject. “There’s a question I need to ask you, Nore.” He paused, obviously searching for exactly the right words. “What would you say—to the idea of going away together? You and me?”

  “Going away together!” I repeated in bewilderment, unable to believe I’d heard him correctly. “What do you mean? How could we do that?”

  “We could take the Honda,” Gabe said carefully. “Don’t worry—you can do the driving—at least, until I work something out about getting myself a license. We could go back to the house right now, and you could wait for me out by the road while I slip into Maman’s room to get her keys. Then we could just take off.”

  “Take off and go where?” I asked him.

  “Anywhere we want. California might be a good place to start. There are a lot of people out there on the coast, all coming and going. Nobody ever knows exactly who anybody is. We could rent an apartment and maybe get jobs as movie extras. Or you could waitress, and I could work… or something. It wouldn’t much matter, as long as we were free and together.”

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