The Mystery of Dogwood Cross
CHAPTER
11
Desserting and Spelunking
Little Red Riding Hood. That’s how I felt. Except I wasn’t so very little, and I wasn’t wearing any red riding thing or even a hood. But I totally had the picnic basket Mom found in the gatehouse kitchen!
Oh, and because it was getting late, and the crawling and snorting and roaring things would be prowling soon, I wasn’t skipping along the forest path. I like being alive very a lot, see. Mom guided Gladys under the outstretched oak branches and the Spanish moss that dripped sometimes so low I thought they would wrap their fingerlike branches and tendrils around Gladys.
“You know why they’re called live oaks?” I asked. I was trying SO HARD not to dip into the stash of fresh brownies I’d made for the other islanders.
“No,” Mom said. “Why?”
“Because they live a REALLY long time. The average life cycle is 300 years. 100 years to mature, 100 years of adulthood, and 100 years to die. But a lot live way longer than that. There’s one live oak up in Charleston called the Angel Oak. It’s estimated to be 1500 years old. That’s like, older than YOU, Mom!”
She swatted me, but we both laughed.
“You better be glad I like you so much. Otherwise, I’d make you walk.” She grinned over at me for a second, then returned her gaze to the road. “You weren’t lying. You’ve been reading a lot. Are you going to be a arborologist?”
“Arborologist?”
“You know. Someone who studies trees.”
I sighed heavily. “Dendrologist, Mom.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Really?”
“Really.”
“Okay. That does it. No more reading this summer. You’re learning too much. I hate it.”
“You’re jealous of my brain!” I chirped. “My brain is getting to be sort of awesome!”
“No. More. Reading.”
I snorted. “Whatevs, Mom. I am so rebellious. I’m going to rebel all over that. Besides. I haven’t finished Northanger Abbey.”
She looked surprised. “Really? Why not?”
“I...I lost it.”
She groaned.
This was not exactly a new thing for me. In fact, the only stuff I didn’t lose on a regular basis was my camera equipment. Oh, and my phone. I have never, ever lost my phone.
“Please find it tomorrow,” she said in a tone that hinted that she was having to work at being patient.
I nodded. “Yes, ma’am. I will.” And I would.
She drove around the circle that served as a driveway for the cottages and parked. “Okay. Here’s the plan: you take brownies to Daniel. I’ll take brownies to Rhys. We’ll meet back here and take brownies to Maisie.”
I wanted to revise the plan so that I took brownies to both of the guys and Mom could feed the beast—
No.
I had to quit that.
It wouldn’t do me any amount of good to think about Maisie like that. Mom’s entire job here was to be able to find a good, proper place for Rhys so that he wouldn’t be at Maisie’s mercy. And Daniel? As much as I would like to see him working for someone who didn’t yell at people like Maisie did, he was here by his own free will. He liked—no, he loved—his job.
“Yeah, okay,” I said, and reached into the basket. I pulled out the first plastic-wrapped plate of brownies and handed it to Mom, and then I took the second.
The sky remained bright orange and red even as it darkened. I walked past Maisie’s cottage to the one in the back. Daniel’s truck slept by his small home. It was so weird to think of a guy just a little older than me having his own place. Most of my friends didn’t even have cars yet. As I climbed up the stairs to the tiny porch, I felt a little bit younger and a lot more awkward than I usually do. He was like a grown-up or something, really.
And I so am not a grown-up.
I’m just me.
I stopped before knocking on the door. A breeze rustled the leaves of a magnolia and a bald cypress, whose branches kissed. I strained to hear the ocean, which I knew wasn’t too far away, but tree frogs chanted so loudly that I couldn’t catch the sound of water. My ears picked up something else, though.
Gun blasts. Explosions. People talking.
Daniel was watching an action movie, I’d bet.
I LOVE ACTION MOVIES.
I knocked and wasn’t shy about it. Because, you know, I had brownies and I liked action movies.
I waited.
No response.
I sighed again and knocked more loudly. “I have brownies,” I told the door.
Like magic, this got Daniel’s attention.
The TV paused and the Amphibious Choir of Dogwood Cross seemed to get that much more obnoxious. A moment later, Daniel opened the door. At first he looked surprised, and then he looked really happy.
And that was BEFORE he saw the brownies.
“Hey!” he greeted me.
“Hey,” I answered, and offered him the plate. “I got bakey today.”
His eyes widened.
His mouth dropped open.
He beamed.
So did I.
I like making people beam. I think that has to be one of my favorite things.
“Come in!” he commanded as he took the plate. So I did.
“I can’t stay long. Mom’s waiting in the car.” I glanced around. Like the Fontaine cottage, the porch led right into the kitchen. Unlike the Fontaine cottage, dirty dishes were piled up around the sink. Soda and water bottles, fast food bags and cups, and mail decorated the counter. It wasn’t like, hoarder-bad, or anything, but it was like...
It was like a guy lived here.
Okay, maybe Daniel wasn’t some intimidating grown-up after all. I was okay with him being a little more like me.
“Thank you,” he said. The door clicked behind me, but he’d already opened the plastic around the plate and—yep, there he went, cramming an entire brownie into his mouth.
He was SUCH a guy.
And he would totally fit in with my friends back home.
“You’re welcome,” I said, but it was delayed. I was sort of transfixed on the primal thing happening in front of me. The way guys reacted to dessert never failed to interest me. It was like, sure, the world kept on happening around them, but they were suddenly powerless to do anything other than think about dessert.
I’m not judging, I swear. I mean, I not only ate three brownies while I was packing them up, but I also licked the spoons and the bowl. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if the secret to ending wars might be more dessert.
When I run for President, which I’m sure I will someday, I will put a huge emphasis on creating the country’s Dessert Regiment.
No, wait. No. That’s a terrible name, because the soldiers would be called Desserters.
Daniel finished off his second brownie as I puzzled out an alternate name. “Okay, so like, I should go,” I said. “I’ll catch you around tomorrow?”
I think he maybe forgot I was there, because again he looked surprised. “Yeah. Ah, I’ll be in the garden tomorrow, I think. See you there?”
I knew by now Dogwood Cross had a whole collection of gardens, but I figured he meant HIS garden. I nodded. “Yeah, sounds good. We’re going into town in the morning, but after we’re back, I’ll come out. Um, Daniel? Do you think it’d be okay, if I can get into the other side of the gatehouse, to get some of Rhys’s stuff for him? I know he’s living in like, an office, and doesn’t have much of his stuff with him. I think it might help with his therapy.”
I had his full attention now. I couldn’t read his expression. His brow furrowed and his mouth turned down a tiny bit, but he nodded. “Ah, yeah? I guess. I mean, if you can get in.”
“Awesome. I’m not a pro like my mom, but I think if he has some stuff to hold onto, some good memorabilia, it might encourage him.”
He smiled, and I thought there was a little sadness. “Yeah, that’s a good idea. Just don’t get your hopes up, okay? The wreck was real bad.”
I sobered. “Yeah, okay.” I stepped back to the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He smiled again, this time softly. I like this version of it better. It was warm. “Yeah. Can’t wait. Thanks again. This was real nice of you, Flip.”
I was still grinning when I reunited with Mom, and even as we gave Maisie her brownies. But on the way back to the gatehouse for the night, I knew what I had to do.
I needed to tell Mom some stuff. And I hoped she wouldn’t be mad at me.
“I’m not mad,” Mom said, and shifted into a more comfortable position on the upstairs sofa.
From my place on the other end, I let out a huge sigh of relief. The whole time I had been telling her about sneaking into the other side, and everything I’d seen on the second floor, I had been braced for a scolding.
Even a light scolding from Mom was bad enough for me. I have no clue how kids who intentionally fight with their parents manage to do it. I hated it when Mom was disappointed or frustrated with me, and she like, never got REALLY mad. My friend Cara, back home? Her Mom LIVES in state of mad or almost-mad, so Cara has stopped trying to please her. It’s sad it has to be that way, but I do understand it as much as I can. Cara doesn’t let it keep her from being a really cool and nice person, though. She’s one of the nicest people I know. Being considerate and kind and fun and creative when your home life doesn’t support any of those things is like, the strongest thing I can imagine for a kid, you know?
“I’m not mad,” Mom repeated, and then I heard it. There was a But coming. “But I wish you’d woken me up before you went spelunking.”
“I didn’t go spelunking, Mom.”
“Sure you did.”
“Spelunking is cave exploration.”
She looked at me, eyebrows up, like ‘I knowwwwww.’
“Oh, you’re being clever and using ‘spelunking’ because the closed side of the gatehouse is...cavernous?” I asked, unconvinced.
“Caves are dark and mysterious. The closed side is dark and mysterious. So yes. Cavernous. And therefore, spelunking works.”
I shook my head sadly, “Spelunking doesn’t work, Mom.”
She pouted at me. “The point is, it’s not fair that you’ve gotten to check it out and I haven’t. And also, I wish Maisie would’ve just come out and said it had belonged to Rhys and his father.”
“Yeah, me, too,” I said.
“So?” Mom looked expectantly at me.
“So?”
She looked pointedly over her shoulder, at the once-locked door, and then looked back at me. “Are you going to show me, or do I have to go all by my lonesome?”
I smiled at that. “Are you serious? You want to go snooping around?”
“Spelunking.”
“Stop trying to make ‘spelunking’ happen.”
She stuck her tongue out at me.
I stuck mine out at her MORE.
The door was still tightly closed, but I was pretty sure it was unlocked. I shoved it with my shoulder a few times but had no success. Mom tried, too, but our labors were fruitless. It barely budged at all.
“Go get the battering ram,” Mom told me.
“We don’t have a battering ram, Mom.”
“Are you sure?”
“Really sure.”
“Crowbar?”
“We don’t have a crowbar, either.”
“Put ‘battering ram’ and ‘crowbar’ on the list of things to get tomorrow, please.”
“You got it,” I said, and gave the door another shove, closer to the frame.
This time I felt movement. I tried a few more times, and finally, it swung open. I beamed at her, even though I’m pretty sure my trapezius or levator scapulae or deltoids or whatever would never, ever recover.
“We really need to find a Breaking and Entering course somewhere,” Mom said as she hugged me. “You liked your swimming and art classes at the YMCA. Maybe they have Criminal Artistry, too.”
“I hope so!” I said, sounding way more enthusiastic than I actually felt. The truth was, aside from getting a few things for Rhys, I didn’t want to return to the Fontaine side of the gatehouse. It wasn’t just a morbid place, but it was sad. And kind of creepy in a different way, because that bathroom reminded me of the photos of abandoned asylums I’d seen. My snooping around earlier, at CTW’s cottage, was different. I knew I could fix a problem there.
But here? I couldn’t bring Rhys’s dad back.
Neither could Mom.
As we prowled through the second floor again, I looked for signs that Maisie—or whoever—had been here again, but found none. This time, I lingered outside in the halls until we made it back to Rhys’s room.
“Let’s take a few photos,” Mom said. “And here, his baseball, and oh, there are some yearbooks...”
“There’s a DVD player in his room at the cottage,” I said. “So we could take some of those movies on the shelf, and some music?”
“Great, yes!” she said, and helped me sort through them to find the most suitable.
My allergies were getting the best of me, once again super-fast. When I started coughing, Mom sent me back with the armful of dusty items, and told me to take my medicine and then another shower to get the allergens off. I did as I was told. By the time I was dressed again, this time in my jammies, I expected her to be back.
She wasn’t.
I busied myself with doing things like putting eucalyptus oil on my collection of bug bites and neatening up the space around my bedofa. In the process, I found Northanger Abbey! I tidied things much too quickly, and was left hearing the silence of the house.
Which meant I could hear things outside of the house.
Tree frogs, mostly. Those guys were so, so loud, a constant reminder that we were pretty much at the intersection of Nowhere and the Atlantic. The edge of my known world, literally.
Feeling exposed by the windows, I began turning off lights. I kept on just one small lamp so that I could read. Only, I couldn’t focus on the book. About six seconds before I was going to hunt for Mom, she emerged.
“I thought you’d gotten eaten,” I said, feeling a little frowny. “What with Rodents of Usual Sizes running around and all.”
“No,” she said, and smiled. “I was just fascinated. There are offices down there. All this research about the island, and plans for it and...it’s really cool. But I can imagine no one wanted that stuff being tampered with. I think...”
Mom trailed off, looking out the windows that creeped me out.
“What, Mom?” I asked, and looked out there, too.
“I saw movement.”
“What?” I asked, and turned off the lamp, leaving us almost complete darkness. “What did it look like?”
“It was big. Tall.”
My heart began to pound. Was the ShadowMan back?
Mom moved to the window, silent, and peered out. “There!” she whispered excitedly. “Look!”
I joined her, taking her hand, and scanned the trees, which were silhouetted by the moonlight.
And then I saw it, too.
Movement.
The thing walked slowly, its head low to the ground.
Mom was right. It was tall—probably almost as tall as her.
Another moved into view, and then another.
“Deer!” she exclaimed, keeping her voice so soft. The beautiful animals picked their way across the rear lawn, venturing closer to the house, now that the lights were off and we were invisible.
Deer.
Was this what I’d seen that first night? Deer?
No. I’d seen a human form.
I was sure of it.
I was almost sure of it, at least.
A crash from outside caused the deer, Mom, and me all to startle. The deer all looked toward the house, but one by one, they relaxed again and returned to eating. Mom clutched her heart to her chest, but just then, a raccoon skittered across the patio.
“Ugh,” Mom said. “The trash! It’s going to be everywhere in the morning!”
Neither of us had ever been brave enough to chase off the coons, though. They were mean, mean animals. The first time they’d gone for our trash, Mom HAD gone after them for about three seconds, until they looked like they were going to come after HER.
“Bungee cords,” she said, reminding me of the real to-buy list for tomorrow’s trip to town.
“Yes. Bungee cords,” I agreed before we said our good nights.
I lay in bed, thinking of Daniel’s place, and brownies, and deer, and wondering if I was going crazy. Or if I’d dreamed the ShadowMan. The last thing I remember thinking about before drifting off was Rhys’s look of recognition when I’d said Nadia’s name.
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