Authors: Lisa Maxwell
Tags: #teen, #teen fiction, #ya book, #Young Adult, #ya, #young adult novel, #YA fiction, #new orleans, #young adult fiction, #teen lit, #voodoo, #teen novel, #Supernatural, #young adult book, #ya novel
© 2014 by Lisa Maxwell.
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For Jason—Who never doubted—
One lifetime won’t be enough.
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
Requiem for a Nun
My parents met during the battle of Clarksville. My father was shot only a few minutes after the first charge and lay dying in the tall grass to the west of the main fighting. Acrid smoke from discharging rifles filled his nostrils, and the sound of cannon fire made the ground quake. He was supposed to die there, but he took one look into the clear blue eyes of the Union nurse who bent over him and decided to live.
My mother, always a stickler for accuracy, was not amused when he smiled at her and said, “There you are,” instead of expiring silently as the battle waged on. She scrunched up her nose, or at least I imagined she did, because that’s what she does when she gets irritated with my brother and me, and told him he was messing up his lines.
My father was only an enlisted man and, therefore, not entitled to lines.
He could have been a general, but he always told us that the bravery of the enlisted men was what won or lost wars, and the egos of their leaders were what prolonged them. It was in the trenches, he said, where the real event lived and breathed. He should know, since he probably knows more about the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression, if you prefer) than anyone around.
When he met my mom that brisk fall day, he was already a professor of American history. She was ten years younger, barely out of college and starting her first year as an English teacher at a local high school. She didn’t hold his ad-libbed lines against him, though. She says she was too surprised by the blunt declaration to do anything but laugh.
A few months later, they were married on the same field before a different battle began.
They don’t have many pictures from their wedding, but they do have one of the moment just after the minister has pronounced them married. The blue sea of Union infantrymen flank their left and the gray of the Confederates are at their right. My dad, with his shock of bright red hair and thick, square glasses, is grinning madly at the camera, and my mom is looking up at him, wonder and joy softening her sharply perceptive eyes. They look completely happy to be in that moment, there with each other and newly wed.
In the bottom right corner of the photo is a strange white smudge. It looks like a sweep of light.
When I was little, I heard my dad tell someone there was a ghost in the photo. I liked that idea—that one of the battlefield’s dead had come to share such a happy day. Later, when my dad heard me telling a friend about the ghost and showing her the picture, he corrected me. It wasn’t a real ghost, he said, just a trick of light or dust on the negative when it was developed that made the funny smudge. Ghosts aren’t real, he told us. The past is only as alive as we keep it by remembering.
Years later, as I stared at the picture I’d just developed, the one with the streak of light where a certain guy should have been, all I could think was that it seemed like my dad should have known better.
As I stepped out of the air-conditioned van, the bright heat of the Louisiana June felt like a solid wall. Humidity hung in the air, and for a moment I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to breathe through it. I could practically feel my hair starting to frizz. A trickle of sweat eased down my back as I lifted my camera to focus on the view in front of me. All I saw was whiteness.
I checked the camera again and realized the lens had fogged because the heat and humidity were so intense. I sighed and slumped against the car, but as I studied the house in front of me, I knew there would be plenty of time in the coming months to document every pitch of every roof. Maybe some of those pictures would make their way into my dad’s new book.
My mom stepped up next to me and slung a cool, bare arm around my shoulders. Squeezing me briskly, she positively tittered with excitement. “We’ve finally made it, Lucy! Just look at how beautiful it is, and it’s all ours.”
I didn’t share her excitement.
The car door slammed, and my brother T.J. shrieked, “We get to live in there?” as he launched himself toward the mansion in front of us. With its stately columns and overwhelming size, it looked like something straight from
Gone with the Wind
, and I could
understand why he’d be so excited.
But I didn’t share his excitement, either.
He was only seven. He wasn’t old enough to understand what we’d left behind. He didn’t have to give up his classes at the Art Institute or his spot as lead photographer for the school paper. For T.J., this was all just one big adventure.
For me, not so much.
No matter how beautiful the house was, with its stately gate formed from intricate swirls of wrought iron or its gracefully arching alley of oaks, it was still going to be my own personal form of hell. At least for the next few months, anyway. If I played my cards right, though, my parents had promised that at the end of the summer they would consider letting me go back to live with my Aunt Dani in Chicago for my senior year. The deal was that I’d give life in Louisiana a real try this summer—no burying myself in a virtual world or living on my cell phone.
If I didn’t play nice, I’d spend my senior year in a new school, far from home.
My brother ran toward the house, but my dad plucked
him up before he could tromp across a flower bed and
swung him around. “Not so fast there, Squeak,” he laughed, ruffling T.J.’s dark hair. “We don’t live in the big house. We live there.” He pointed out a smaller cottage peeking from a wooded path to the left of the long drive.
T.J. looked sufficiently deflated as he looked from the cottage to the mansion and back. It made me feel a little better. I wasn’t the only one not getting what they wanted.
My parents certainly were. After spending almost twenty years as a professor in Chicago, my father had gotten the chance of a lifetime—to curate and direct Le Ciel Doux, an antebellum sugar plantation outside of New Orleans.
“Living history,” he’d told us when they sat us down to tell us about the move. “No stuffy books and maps, Lucy. This is what real history is. The places and people who shaped nations, and we’re going to live in it and help to shape and preserve it for the next generation.” He’d been vibrating with excitement.
I couldn’t blame him, really. He and my mom had been avid re-enactors since before they met. Much of my childhood had been spent sleeping in a tent in some national park or local field, waiting for a battle to happen. It was an odd childhood at times, to say the least, but until the job offer at Le Ciel Doux, it hadn’t been a problem. Until that point, I’d just disappear for a weekend and then come back to my reality. My friends barely noticed I was missing. No harm, no foul.
Now, my parents’ little obsession with keeping the past alive had changed everything. Their decision to move us to Louisiana had fundamentally changed the pattern I saw my life taking. I could only hope that if I played by the rules all summer, the move would just be a tiny imperfection in the larger fabric. I couldn’t let myself think otherwise.
I pulled my bag out of the trunk and stared at the house again. The huge, thick columns that supported the mansion’s roof looked like they’d been taken from an ancient Roman temple, and its deep veranda kept the windows on both levels in shadows. It was a gorgeous old thing. Stately and commanding, it was the kind of place a little girl could build fairy tales about. It looked like a house that held secrets.
For the first time in days, I felt my mouth kicking up into a grin. I could work with secrets. I checked the lens of my camera again, and this time when I raised it, the dense shadows battled with the stark white columns in my viewfinder. Light and dark, angles and soft curves. The house was going to make one heck of a subject for my senior portfolio.
Looking at the photographic possibilities the house presented, I felt like I could do this. For the first time since we’d crossed out of Chicago’s city limits, I could put on a happy face and give my parents what they wanted for the summer. I’d hold up my end of the bargain just fine, and in three short months my life would return to its regularly scheduled programming.
My shoulders relaxed as I scanned the house for a good shot, for the perfect balance of darkness and light. There was something menacing about the place, even with its almost pristine beauty, and I wanted to capture it. I could see the project now—a study in shadow. Finally, the angle I was searching for came into the frame.
If the big house was elegance and mystery, our little cottage was nothing but charm. I probably shouldn’t say little, since it was bigger than our townhouse back in Lincoln Park, but compared to the sheer size of Le Ciel Doux, the overseer’s cottage was cozy.
Like the big house, it had a large, deep porch. But where columns dominated the mansion, the most distinctive feature of the cottage was a large, pyramid-shaped roof that looked like an umbrella protecting the rest of the structure from the heat of the day. Where the mansion was starkly white and pristine, our cottage was a soft yellow stucco, accented with dark, worn timbers and slate-blue shutters framing large, airy windows. There were no shadows there, no secrets.
But when I walked inside, my knees buckled in shock. There, among the softly colored walls and high ceilings, was our life. Our ancient Chesterfield sofa was already in place in the front parlor. My mother’s heirloom highboy was holding court on the far wall, and I knew with a sinking feeling that if I looked at the neat lines of books in the glass-encased shelves, they would be her collection of first editions.
My parents were delighted that our stuff had beaten us there and were admiring how well everything fit. T.J. was bouncing happily on his favorite club chair, and then suddenly, with one of his usual bursts of energy, he raced to the back hallway to look for his room.
I was afraid to move.
I didn’t want to see our things in that house. Wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t want the old canopy bed that used to be my fairy-princess bower, or the pretty carved dresser my parents had brought home for my tenth birthday to be there. I wanted them back in Chicago, where they belonged. Where I could return to them.
Seeing our stuff in this place made everything far, far too real.
I clutched the strap of my bag tighter. It was all I needed. My cameras, laptop, and gear, some art supplies and a few changes of clothes. This was only a temporary stop, I told myself, like a really long weekend at a far-off re-enactment. When this purgatory ended, I was going back to my real life. The one that made sense to me. My parents might want to live in Louisiana, but it wasn’t going to be permanent
for me. Couldn’t be.
Until that moment, I hadn’t really realized what moving meant for my family. It was more than just some furniture. I wondered how we could be the same people in this place. How
could be the same person I’d been before. But my thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. Still in a bit of a daze, I turned to watch my parents greet the visitor.
She was a tall woman, maybe in her early forties, with dark hair pulled away from her elegant face. She had high cheekbones, a generous mouth, and beautiful dark eyes. She wore soft linen pants in a drab green and a flowing black shirt. Against her throat and wrists, clunky antique jewelry clinked musically.
“I see y’all got in okay,” she said in a smooth-as-cream voice and with a wide smile. She stepped through the door and set the rumpled paper sack she was carrying on the floor.
My dad walked over to embrace her. “Mina, you did a great job with the place.”
“I just supervised. Some of the guys we have working on the sugar mill came over and did all the heavy lifting.” She looked at me and winked before turning back to my dad. “I don’t lift. I delegate.”
“We’ll have to give them something to thank them,” my mom said, coming over to hug her as well. “You’ve done marvelously. It seems like our stuff was all meant to fit here.” She shook her head and looked around, clearly delighted with everything she saw.
My mom was right. Our things did seem to belong in those spaces like they were made for them, unlike in Chicago. There, they’d always looked more like some sort of a collection than furniture a family lived with. If I had friends over, they were usually afraid to touch anything. But in the cottage, the effect wasn’t of a museum or collection, but of a home. It was almost like my parents had been accumulating the stuff of their lives just for that place. I didn’t like the idea one bit.
“Come meet the kids,” my dad told her. He shouted for my brother and then motioned me over. I came on leaden feet.
“Lucy, this is Amina Sabourin. Her family has lived in this area for more than a hundred years. She’s the business operations manager here at Le Ciel.”
She held out her hand, and I took it. Hers was warm and soft, and surprisingly strong. When she squeezed my hand gently, I swear I felt a jolt of recognition. It was like I’d met her before, even though I knew that was impossible.
I was startled at the direction my thoughts had taken, but she seemed unaware. Her eyes were a deep, dark brown—the type of eyes that broadcasted emotion clearly. Now they were smiling at me, clearly pleased to meet me, but then, for the barest whisper of a moment, I thought I saw something move in their depths. Something that made me think she recognized
“Very nice to meet you, Lucy,” she said interrupting my thoughts and shaking me from my delusions. “You look about my daughter’s age—eighteen?”
“Ah. Close, then. Chloe’s a few months older than you. She’s in town picking up some supplies or she’d be here to meet you too.”
I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say to that, but my brother saved me when he tore into the room right at that moment. I swear, the kid doesn’t do anything unless it’s at top speeds. My dad scooped T.J. up effortlessly when he leapt, and T.J. clung to him like an overgrown spider monkey.
“This little imp is Thomas.”
“T.J.,” my brother corrected, giving him a stern look. He’d decided sometime last year that he wanted a nickname. He wanted to be T.J. because there already was a boy named Tommy in his class. My parents resisted for a while. They’d named him after a founding father, after all, and they didn’t think that sort of name should be shortened. But T.J. is irresistible, all energy and innocence and light, and it’s impossible to deny him anything for too long. And I had to agree with him—T.J. fit him much better than the name my parents had burdened him with.
Not that I told them that. I was just glad that they hadn’t named me Martha.
Mina laughed, a low chuckle that was as smooth as pebbles on a beach. “Delighted, little man,” she said, holding out her hand so T.J. could shake it solemnly. “You have quite a family here, Leonard. I’m happy to meet them.” She smiled broadly at us, and then nodded toward the bag she’d brought in. “I brought you some housewarming gifts.”
At the prospect of gifts, T.J.’s face lit up and he ran over to Mina’s bag. He rustled around a bit and then lifted out a slim blue bottle, but he frowned when he realized it was empty.
Mina lowered her voice to a soft cadence. “It’s gotta be empty to catch the bad spirits,” she told him, crouching down to his level. “You see, little man, down here by the river, the air is filled up with the spirits. Most are good enough. They help the crops to grow and keep the waters back. But a few of them,” she whispered as T.J.’s eyes grew wide, “a few of them are mischievous. Devilish things that like to cause all sorts of troubles.
“But do you want to know a secret?” she asked with the air of a fellow conspirator.
T.J. nodded earnestly.
“Well, I’ll tell you.” Mina tapped a long, manicured finger against the blue glass. “Those bad spirits get distracted easily. Something like this shiny bit of glass here, and they forget their mischief. They want to see what it is that makes the pretty colors, and when they go to explore, they get all tangled up inside and can’t get out. So what you do is you put this here bottle out in your trees, and any of those bad spirits that happen to be wandering by, looking for mischief, will get lost inside.”
T.J. looked at my parents. I could tell he wasn’t sure whether to be scared of the idea of spirits hanging around outside our new front door or what the possibilities might be if he could manage to trap one.
“It’s just a story, Squeak,” my dad told him.
“And a lovely tradition,” my mom murmured, coming to take the bottle from him. She held it up and, when she turned it in the sunlight, blue light spilled across the floor. “I’ve seen the bottle trees that some people have in front of their houses down here. They’re beautiful. Thank you for such a lovely gift.” She smiled at us and then turned back to Mina. “Come on back and let me make you some tea,” she said to her. Linking arms, they turned to walk back to the kitchen. Mina pointed out some of the features of our cottage as they disappeared down the hall, leaving us standing alone in the front parlor.