The Secret of Laurel Oaks

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9780765313669: The Secret of Laurel Oaks

When Lila and her family visit Laurel Oaks Plantation in Louisiana, her parents and brother scoff at the claim that the house is haunted. But secretly, Lila suspects there are ghostly presences willing to communicate with her, and her alone. One spirit eager to tell her story is Daphne, a slave girl at Laurel Oaks in the 1840s, who was blamed for the poisoning deaths of two girls and their mother. Daphne’s spirit senses that Lila is the very person she’s been waiting for, the one who can prove her innocence so her spirit can rest at long last. Shifting back and forth from Lila’s world in the present to Daphne’s world in the past, the true story of what really happened that fateful night finally comes to light.

Laurel Oaks is a thinly disguised version of the legendary Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana, which is on the Smithsonian's list of the ten most haunted places in America. This novel was inspired by the author's visit to the plantation and her experiences there.

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About the Author:

Lois Ruby is a versatile and accomplished novelist who has written books for middle-graders and young adults. Among the many awards she has won are: ALA Best Book for Young Adults and New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age for Arriving at a Place You’ve Never Left (1977); ALA Best Book for Young Adults, New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age for Miriam’s Well (1994); Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies and the IRA Young Adult Choice selection for Steal Away Home (1995). A former young adult librarian, Ms. Ruby now spend most of her time writing and leading creative-writing workshops. She and her husband live in Albuquerque, NM, and are the parents of three grown sons.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Lila  "Here we are!" Dad said, waking Mom from her short nap. It had been a long Thursday of travel from Albuquerque to Baton Rouge, and after a quick dinner of muffuletta sandwiches at the airport, we had hit the road to get to the bed- and- breakfast before dark.

Though there was room for maybe six cars, the Laurel Oaks parking lot was totally deserted. Where were all the other guests? As our rented SUV crunched the gravel of the plantation grounds, I rolled down my window and stuck my head out. Steamy air blasted my face. It was October, which in Louisiana means still hot enough to fry bacon on the hood of the car.

The two- story mansion loomed ahead at the end of the driveway, in the dusty shadows of twilight. I couldn't wait to explore the whole place, which was supposed to be one of the ten most haunted houses in the entire country. That is, if you believe the Smithsonian Institution's Web site. "Wow, it really looks-"

"Creepy." My brother Gabe, who's fourteen, a year older than me, had an annoying habit of finishing my sentences, when I was perfectly capable of doing it myself.

We were missing two days of school for our family trek, because Mom had been invited to give a paper at the Biophysical Anthropology Conference at Louisiana State. Since she was always overwhelmed with what ever it is professors do, and Dad was hopelessly nontech, Mom had asked me to hunt down an interesting place to stay.

"And, Lila, make sure it's someplace not at all like Albuquerque," she'd said. What could be more not like high desert Albuquerque than a swampy plantation? I did an Internet search and came up with a sure winner: "Laurel Oaks is certifiably haunted. Come on, it'll be so much fun!" I'd promised my family back in the summer. Of course, that was before Roberto died and everything changed.

Now my dark spiked hair wilted in the humidity, and my usual gobs of mousse plastered the hair to my forehead. I looked over at Gabe. His perfect cap of blond hair bobbed around his face and fell over one eye, making him look like a lopsided cyclops. Even his Balloon Fiesta T-shirt looked like it'd just come out of the dryer. Me, I was leaking from every pore in the Louisiana soup.

Dad parked the car and we tumbled out. "Ouch!" The hot gravel burned my bare feet. I leaped to the grass for relief until Mom tossed me my flip- flops.

Dad looked around, nervously jingling the car keys. "You got a confirmation, didn't you, Emily?"

"Right here." Mom fanned the yellow paper under his nose. "It says to park in the back and check in at the General Store. Over there."

"Which has a CLOSED sign on it," Gabe observed. "They're trying to get under our skin from square one."

"Lila, get the local Comfort Inn on that cell phone BlackBerry what ever you call it thing of yours." "

No way, Dad!" cried Gabe. "I'm ready to collide head- on with a bunch of ghouls. You up for it, Lila?"

"Oh, yeah," I murmured, but I had a different take on it. Ask me a month ago, and I'd have agreed with Gabe one hundred percent. But at the end of the summer things changed for me. Because of Roberto. I shuddered at the thought of his broken body and the weird stuff that came afterward. Stuff I'd never told anybody.

But I trudged right ahead, leading the troops down the gallery, which was a long porch that spanned the back of the house. Six rocking chairs lined the gallery, perfectly still and gleaming white in the dusky moonlight.

The whole house was dark except for one dim bulb lamp in the window of a second- floor dormer, flickering the way those fake electric Christmas candles do.

Mom sank into one of the rockers and looked around wanly. Her Southwest peasant skirt billowed around her like a parachute. "Look at me!" She thrust out an arm puckered with big goose bumps. "I have a bad feeling about this place, kids." "Lila's idea, her fault," Gabe said gleefully.

Dad glanced my way and smiled. He's absolutely the gentlest of men. "Emily, let's you and I go around to the front. You kids stay put." They walked around the side of the house, holding hands. Embarrassing if anyone else were around to see them.

I rattled every doorknob along the gallery. Each door was locked tight, and each had a horse shoe hanging over it, some good- luck thing. Looked like we were going to need a little luck to get inside.

A lamppost over by the courtyard fountain shed thin sprays of light, enough to create a glare against the windows of the house's ground floor. Peering in, I saw that it was filled with dark furniture as massive as bears, and huge hanging chandeliers, and shimmery mirrors and unlit sconces, and the faint outline of a back staircase, but no people. "There's got to be an innkeeper around," Gabe said. "Or a caretaker, or janitor or someone."

We cupped our hands against the window glare and peered into the back side of the reception hall. A dim lamp suddenly sputtered on. I jumped. "

Motion detector," Gabe said.

"Yeah, but whose motion?" Nobody stirred inside.

The old- fashioned lamp revealed a baby- grand piano with its top raised like the wing of a swooping eagle. A pot of yellow mums perched on the piano, centered on a lace doily.

I grabbed Gabe's arm. "Look!"

The piano keys were rising and falling rapidly, all the way up and down the keyboard, as though someone were playing a jaunty tune.

Gabe put his sweaty ear to the window. "Hear anything?"

Not a sound came from the room, and the piano bench was empty.

"It's a player piano with the sound gutted out," Gabe said. "Pretty convincing."

"Probably. Sure." I watched those silent keys jump up and down as though ghostly fingers tapped them. And then the flowerpot began inching toward the end of the piano as the lace doily seemed to be pulled slowly out from under it. I gasped.

Gabe just snorted. "Look for wires," he said. "Somebody's behind a chair, jerking that pot across the piano. I'll bet money on it."

"What money? You owe me five dollars already," I muttered, heart pounding as the pot hung off the edge of the piano for a second until gravity kicked in, and the mums came crashing to the floor. More dirt than could possibly have filled that small pot scattered all over the threadbare Persian rug.

"Whoa!" I cried.

"Just special effects to spook gullible people like you," Gabe scoffed.

By now gray dusk had slid into navy- blue night. Gabe trotted along the porch, and as he whooshed by, he set all six rockers in furious motion, their legs slamming against the ancient floorboards. A minute passed, then another.

"Weird," I said, trying to sound unconcerned. "There's no wind to keep the rockers going."

"Electromagnetic something or other," Gabe said.

I swirled my hand around the middle chair, as if I could grab a fistful of ghost or charged air. Nothing. A shiver went down my back. I glanced over at our SUV. Maybe we could still get a room somewhere else. Anywhere else. The fierce churning song of cicadas filled the night. "This place creeps me out."

"That's the beauty of it," Gabe replied. And the chairs kept thumping. "What's that racket?" asked Dad as he and Mom came around to the back of the house.

"The old lady ghosts are racing to the edge of the veranda in their rocking chairs," Gabe replied dryly.

"So I see." Dad tossed the car keys from hand to hand. "I guess it's no surprise that every single door's locked all around the house."

"I don't like this place, Ethan. The management must have forgotten that we were checking in tonight." Mom rolled her long, salt- and- pepper hair into a knot that she tucked in at the top of her head. Rivers of sweat streamed down her face and neck. My mom, who'd done fieldwork in remote rain forest villages of South America where natives speared poisonous snakes for lunch, looked positively spooked by Laurel Oaks. "Just one night," Dad reassured her, and she grudgingly nodded.

Gabe strode along the porch, his sneakers slapping the splintery wood. This time as he passed, every rocker stopped suddenly, some tilting back on their legs in freeze- frame. "How'd they do that?" I yelped.

"Good trick, and here's our next clue." A banana tree loomed in the corner between the General Store and the house. Gabe pulled an envelope out of its tangle of floppy huge leaves. "Must have been blown over here by the wind."

What wind? The air was unnaturally still, as if the night held us all in suspension, and not even a leaf dared to flutter. And yet, without a breath of cool air, I felt chills ripple up and down my back. I huddled close to Gabe. He waved the envelope. Printed on the front were these words:

The Barry Party Us.

That made me think of the Donner Party in the 1840s, a bunch of people in covered wagons trekking from Illinois to California to pan for gold. They got stranded in the wintery mountains, ran out of food, and then it was down to feast on friends and family or starve. Too bad Gabe was too skinny and sinewy to provide much tender meat for the Barry party.

An old- fashioned skeleton key, glinting gold, tumbled out of the envelope and clattered to the floor. I swooped it up while Gabe tilted a sheet of onionskin paper toward the lamplight and read aloud:

Welcome to Laurel Oaks Plantation. I'm frightfully glad you're here.

o Do not attempt to enter the General Cambridge Suite at the far end of the gallery.

o The golden key opens the door at the bottom of the steep staircase leading to the dark belly of the house.

BEWARE THE TWELFTH STEP.

o Keys wait in the doors of your rooms at the top of the stairs. The Eberly room is on your right; the Brookes and Gladstone rooms are on your left. Choose wisely.

o Caution: Do not, DO NOT turn out the light in the hall. When the last light at Laurel Oaks is snuffed out, the spirits are released to take their pleasure.

o There are no phones in the house. There is no one in the house but you. Lock your door from the inside. Carefully. Rest in peace.

Your Host,

Camilla

"They certainly know how to set atmosphere around here." Dad laughed out loud as he folded the welcome note into his shirt pocket.

"No kidding," Gabe said. "Rest in peace, that's what they say when you're six feet under, eating worms!"

Dad, Gabe, and even Mom were all laughing, while my heart raced and my curiosity went into overdrive.

Of course, the thing I most wanted to know was, what's in the General Cambridge Suite?

Excerpted from The Secret of Laurel Oaks by Lois Ruby.

Copyright © 2008 by Lois Ruby.

Published in September 2008 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.

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