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Locked in Time

Lois Duncan


  New York Boston

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  For my good friends Don and Eileen Stanton

  When I look in the mirror, the girl I see there is pretty. I know that sounds vain, but I don’t mean it that way. When you’re seventeen and a half, being pretty comes with the territory. Smooth, unlined skin, shiny hair (mine is strawberry blond), trim hips, firm breasts—that’s what being young is all about. I know that I’m not going to look this way forever. Twenty-five years from now, if I’m lucky, people might call me “interesting looking.” That’s the best I can hope for, and it will be good enough.

  But, at this unique time in life, I’m pretty, and that makes me happy. I didn’t feel that way last June, however, when my nightmare summer at Shadow Grove was about to begin.

  In many places, early June is considered summer, but that’s not always the way it is in New England. On that particular morning, as I boarded the plane in Boston, it still seemed like springtime, a fragile season of cool, sweet mornings and pale lemon sunlight. It was the last I would see of that sort of weather. When I disembarked in Baton Rouge hours later I felt as if I were walking into a steam bath.

  The thick, damp heat rolled up to meet me, and I felt myself wilting on the spot. My hair, freshly washed that morning, sagged limp against my neck, and drops of perspiration broke out on my upper lip. My face began to prickle the way it did when I was headed for an acne breakout. Before I got halfway up the ramp my designer silk blouse was glued to my skin like Saran Wrap.

  Entering the blessed air-conditioning of the airport terminal, I fell into step with the rest of the passengers who were streaming toward the exit. I didn’t see my father in the lineup of people waiting.

  I glanced worriedly around me. As angry as I was with him, it had never once occurred to me that he wouldn’t come to meet me. Was it possible he forgot I was coming?

  Before I had a chance to pursue that thought any further, Dad’s strong hands grasped my shoulders. An instant later, I was spun around and pulled tight against his chest in a crushing bear hug. The familiar scent of his aftershave filled my nostrils, and a sandpaper cheek ground hard against my forehead.

  “Dad!” I exclaimed. “Hi!”

  I had meant to hold back—to act aloof and chilly—to let him know without any doubt how absolutely furious I was. Instead, my arms flew up to encircle his neck.

  “Daddy!” I cried, as if I were five years old again and just home from kindergarten, bursting into his home office to reassure myself that he hadn’t vanished during my absence.

  “I’m so glad to see you!”

  “Nore, baby!” He released me from the hug and thrust me back at arm’s length for a prolonged inspection. “God, you’re so grown up! What did you do to yourself? This can’t all have happened since last Christmas!”

  “It didn’t,” I told him.

  There was a moment of silence.

  Then Dad said quietly, “I’m sorry, honey. I guess I wasn’t noticing much of anything last winter. I promise you, though, things are going to be different now.” He changed the subject abruptly. “How was the flight? Are you hungry? Would you like to get something to eat before we head home? We’ve got an hour and a half’s drive ahead of us, so if you’re feeling empty, now’s the time to do something about it.”

  “The flight was fine, and they served a cardboard sandwich on the plane.” My eyes flicked nervously past him. “Did anybody come with you?”

  “No, I came by myself,” Dad said. “Lisette and the kids are dying to meet you, but Lis thought it would be best if you and I had some time alone together first. She knows that we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.” He put his arm around my shoulders. “How many suitcases did you bring?”

  “Only two,” I said. “I had my winter things stored at the school.”

  “That was sensible,” Dad said approvingly. “You’re not going to need them here, that’s for sure. From what people tell me, by this time next month it’s going to be hotter than Hades.”

  We collected the suitcases at baggage claim, and I waited with them at the pickup area in front of the terminal while my father went to the parking lot to get the car. Alien sounds, sights and smells barraged my senses.

  A dark-skinned man had parked his pushcart in the center of the sidewalk and was selling a wafer-like candy made from nuts and brown sugar. A woman in a flowing orange dress glided past me, carrying a basket of pale, waxen blossoms that I couldn’t identify by name. I caught fragments of conversations held by voices with soft, strange accents that made the words sound almost like music. A couple was speaking French, and from somewhere behind me, a child’s voice chattered excitedly in Spanish. Even the air smelled different, heavy and musky, rich with muted odors that I didn’t recognize.

  The car that was inching its way toward me in the slow-moving line of traffic was familiar, however—far too familiar. It was the same beige van that had once picked me up from Girl Scout meetings, from ballet lessons, from the skating rink, from the houses of middle school classmates. It was a car that belonged, not here in Louisiana, but back in Guilderland, New York, where I had spent the first fifteen years of my life.

  The slanting afternoon sunlight glinted off the windshield and rendered it opaque. My heart painted in the face that I longed to see behind it. The sweet mouth smiled. Clear, blue eyes squinted, half-closed, against the sun. Unkempt brown curls, lightly threaded with silver, bounced against soft cheeks. I drew a ragged breath and averted my gaze.

  The car kept moving forward and soon pulled up beside me. It was, of course, my father, and not my mother, who sat behind the wheel.

  “Sorry to be so long, hon,” he said apologetically through the open window. “The parking lot attendant gave me his whole life story while he counted out change. That’s how it is down here; the word ‘hurry’ isn’t part of the vocabulary.”

  He got out of the van and went around to open the back. The latch was stuck, and he had to rattle it hard to get the door open. For some perverse reason, that fact pleased me. The latch that had never worked easily for my mother should have had no business accommodating my father now. The memory of Mom, her arms filled with groceries, pounding the latch with her wristbone and struggling to keep from swearing, would have made me smile if the accompanying sense of loss had not been so painful.

  I got into the van on the passenger’s side. Dad eventually did get the back open and loaded in my suitcases. Then he shoved the door closed and came forward to climb into the driver’s seat.

  “So—off we go!” he said.

  The jovial note in his voice was so at odds with my own emotions that I couldn’t begin to respond to it. The drive would take us an hour and a half, he had told me. In just ninety minutes I would be meeting the woman who had taken my mother’s place in my father’s life.

  We started off on the city freeway, but before too many miles were covered, Dad turned the car onto an exit ramp that led to a two-lane highway. This road was bracketed by shrubs and pine woods, and the sky beyond them gleamed with an odd iridescent sheen, as if the sunlight were being fed through a prism. Gazing out through the window beside me, I found myself experiencing the eerie sensation that nothing I was seeing was real. Veils of Spanish moss hung like gray crepe from the arching branches of oak trees, and clouds of large, black birds rose from nowhere with high-pitched cries and then sank down again into the foliage. Ahead of us, the asphalt shimmered as though spotted by puddles, but by the time we reached them, they had vanished and reappeared farther up the road.

  For a long time we drove without speaking. It was Dad who finally broke the silence.

  “I know how surprised you m
ust have been to get my e-mail. Shocked, even.” When I didn’t respond, he continued, “I owe you an apology, Nore. I should have called or written sooner. The truth is, though, that there wasn’t any ‘sooner.’ It all happened so fast.”

  “I guess it must have.” I made no attempt to hide my bitterness. “One day you’re a grieving widower, and the next, you’re a groom. That’s fast, all right.”

  “I fell in love,” Dad said simply.

  “Mom hasn’t even been gone a year yet!”

  “Don’t you think I know that?” Pain rose, sudden and fierce, in his voice. “The day your mother died was the most terrible day of my life. I went through the next six months like a zombie. That’s why I insisted that you go off to boarding school; I didn’t want you to have to share a home with somebody in my condition. I couldn’t eat without vomiting. I couldn’t sleep without nightmares. I couldn’t write! That novel I was working on—I even had a movie contract—I can’t remember what I did with the manuscript. I might even have burned it. I was out of my head with grief and behaving like a crazy man.”

  “If you couldn’t work, what were you doing in Louisiana?” I demanded. “You wrote that you were coming here on a business trip.”

  “That’s true,” Dad said. “Travel and Leisure wanted a story on the state of Mardi Gras celebrations today. That assignment was my agent’s doing, not mine. He was hoping that the pressure of a deadline might get me working again. I let him talk me into it. I thought he might be right. If I could get away from that empty house—from the memories—then maybe…”

  He let the sentence trail off.

  “That’s where you met Lisette? At Mardi Gras?”

  Dad nodded. “It was at one of the fancy balls—a friend got me an invitation. I’ll never forget how she looked the first time I saw her. She was dressed all in white, in an old-fashioned gown with a hoopskirt. There was lace at her throat, and she wore camellias in her hair. I caught sight of her across the dance floor, and I just stood there, staring like a schoolboy. She had to be the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my life.”

  I couldn’t let that statement pass unchallenged.

  “More beautiful than Mom?”

  “That’s not fair,” Dad said shortly.

  “But, you said it!”

  “Your mother was dear and lovely. She had an inner beauty. It made me happy just to look at her sweet face.”

  “But she wasn’t movie-star glamorous, like Lisette!”

  “No, she wasn’t.” The silence that followed seemed to last forever. Then, Dad said quietly, “Don’t do this to me, Nore. Don’t try to ruin it. Can’t you just be happy that I’m alive again? Your mother would have been.” He paused. “Well, wouldn’t she? Be honest.”

  As much as I hated to, I had to answer, “Yes.”

  “This is another chapter of life for me,” Dad continued. “It’s no disloyalty to your mother or to our good marriage. It’s the same for Lisette, a second chance at happiness. She’s a wonderful woman and hasn’t had it easy. A widow, raising two kids on next to no money—that’s rough.”

  “What are her kids like?” I asked, curious despite myself. “You hardly mentioned them in your e-mail.”

  “Gabe, the boy, is about your age. He’s a bright, attractive kid. I think you’ll like him. Josie’s at that awkward stage, just going into her teens. She’s going to be a beauty one day, you can tell, but it’ll take a few years.”

  “What do they call you?”

  If he had told me “Dad,” I think I would have burst into tears, but, to my relief, he didn’t.

  “They call me Chuck, just like everybody else does. And they’re keeping their own last name, Berge. Of course, you’ll call Lisette by her name, no Mom-type thing. She won’t be trying to take your mother’s place, Nore. I don’t expect you to be her daughter, but I do hope you’ll be her friend. Will you try?”

  He was backing me against a wall. I had no choice.

  I drew in a long breath and let it out slowly.

  “I’ll try,” I said reluctantly. “I can’t promise anything more than that, but I’ll try.”

  With that settled, there suddenly seemed to be nothing left to talk about. We continued to drive for another half hour or so, making sporadic attempts at casual conversation. During that time, the terrain that slid past the car windows underwent a number of changes. The woodlands gave way to fields and then to marshland. Our road adhered to the bank of a narrow, brown river, which Dad said was a tributary of the Mississippi. Occasionally, he would draw my attention to some animal or plant life.

  “That’s a heron. See, out in the water, that big white bird?” or “Look over there on that tree; that’s a wild orchid,” or “That may look like bamboo, but it’s actually sugarcane.”

  Ahead of us, the sun was rapidly sliding lower in the sky. I leaned my head back against the seat and blinked into the glare, trying to get my thoughts in order, but finding it almost impossible. The effects of the heat and humidity, piled on top of a sleepless night of nervous anticipation, were catching up with me.

  I was just beginning to doze a little when my father said, “Here we are. This is the entrance to Shadow Grove.”

  “It is?” My eyes snapped open, and I glanced in bewilderment from one side of the road to the other. “But we’re out in the middle of nowhere!”

  To our left there was nothing to be seen but marshes and the river behind them. On our right, the road was bordered by a wrought iron fence, half-concealed by an overgrowth of high, flowering bushes. No house was in evidence, although some fifty yards ahead of us the line of the fence was broken by an open gate.

  “The old plantation homes were always in the rural areas,” Dad said. “Many, like Shadow Grove, date back to before the Civil War. This estate was originally owned by the prosperous DuBois family, and they presented it to their daughter as a wedding gift when she married a man named Berge back in the eighteen seventies. That was an era when cotton and sugarcane were the lifeblood of Louisiana. Industry in the cities came later.”

  We pulled through the gate into the drive beyond it.

  There, I found myself confronted by one of the most spectacular sights I had ever seen. On either side of the driveway there stood a line of huge oak trees, their giant branches intertwining to form a massive canopy of vibrant green. Through the spaces between the leaves, the late afternoon sunlight fell in golden splashes, painting intricate patterns on the driveway below. At the far end of this incredible corridor, there stood what appeared to be a mansion, but, framed as it was by the immense trees, it was impossible to determine its true size. Although its proportions implied the magnitude of a great cathedral, it was so dwarfed by the towering oaks that it gave the illusion of being no larger than a child’s miniature model.

  As we moved slowly up the driveway, it began to assume its proper place as the focal point of the scene before us. The closer we drew, the more impressive the structure became. It stood three stories high, if you chose to count the ground floor as a story. The wide-porched main floor stood well above this and was supported by brick pillars and edged on both sides by a parade of graceful white columns. A balcony extended along the length of the highest level, and above that there rose a steeply pitched roof.

  “It’s like something out of Gone with the Wind!” I exclaimed in amazement.

  “Yes, it is,” Dad agreed. “Or, rather, it used to be. You can’t tell from here, but the years and the weather have taken their toll. We’re in the process now of getting the place reroofed, and I’m afraid we may have to completely rebuild the porches and balconies.”

  We continued on up the leaf-shaded driveway, and Dad brought the car to a stop in front of the house. On the porch, a woman stood waiting.

  Our eyes met and held while Lisette and I took stock of each other.

  My father’s description had not done this woman justice. She was more than beautiful. Small and slightly built, she had the fragile perfection of a princess
from a fairy tale. Her heavily lashed, dark eyes accentuated the delicately chiseled features of her face. Glossy, black hair, swept high and held in place by golden combs, gave her a look of elegance that belied her small stature. Most startling of all was her complexion. The creamy skin was totally free of lines or blemishes and had a look of such taut and youthful freshness that it didn’t seem possible that it could belong to a woman with teenage children.

  This is Lisette, I thought incredulously. This is my father’s wife.

  Be her friend, Dad had begged me. Will you try?

  Now, as I sat staring up at my stepmother, I suddenly realized that this choice wasn’t going to be mine to make.

  Despite the childlike loveliness of her face and figure, the tiny woman on the porch above me radiated strength. It would be Lisette, not me, who would be making the decisions here at Shadow Grove.

  And as for friendship—

  I stared into those luminous eyes, and a chill shot through me. What I saw there wasn’t the promise of friendship, but of something strange and sinister.

  The shocking word that flashed through my mind was “death.”

  Which, of course, was ridiculous. In the next instant, whatever small thing it was that had triggered such a reaction on my part—a trick of the light, perhaps, or my own overactive imagination—had righted itself, and the beautiful eyes held nothing but warmth and welcome. Lisette, smiling and gracious, came hurrying down the steps to greet me. She was wearing a peach-colored dress with a full, swirling skirt, and her slim, white arms were as creamy and smooth as her face.

  “Eleanor!” she exclaimed in a voice that had the same rich, musical quality as those I had overheard while waiting for Dad to bring the car from the airport parking lot. “Eleanor, dear, welcome to Shadow Grove! I can’t tell you how happy we are to have you with us!”

  “Thank you,” I said a bit stiffly through the van window. “It’s nice to be here. It was my mother, though, who was Eleanor. I go by Nore.”