The Mystery of Dogwood Cross
CHAPTER
14
Connections
“Where’s your Mama?” a pink rain-slickered Maisie demanded. Her hair dripped onto her shoulders, and I could easily imagine the exposed skin of her neck smoldering the way the Wicked Witch of the West’s skin reacted to water. Her lips, pinker than her raincoat, pursed into a sour scowl.
“Ah, she’s, ah, she’s in the—ah—”
“I’m right here,” Mom said from the hallway. She stepped forward, her shoulders back and relaxed, her chin up in that regal manner she used to have onstage. While the Wicked Witch steamed to one side, Titania, Queen of the Fairies, stared her down. I rarely saw Mom in prima ballerina form, but I swear, even her feet were planted in third position. I knew what that meant.
Mom was ready for action.
I probably should’ve given Maisie fair warning about Mom’s grande battement. But I totally didn’t.
“I thought you were OFF today,” Maisie said, as if Mom did something wrong.
If Mom was intimidated at all, she didn’t show it.
“I am,” she replied. “I went looking for you, but you weren’t around. So we came here to wait. Let’s talk privately?” she suggested in a tone that really wasn’t a suggestion at all.
Maisie whirled and went back into the kitchen. Mom cast a glance my way as she followed.
Daniel snuck out before the door closed and winced. “Sorry,” he said softly. “I didn’t think she’d be that mad.”
I frowned a lot. “Why would she be mad at all? We found Rhys. He could’ve gotten seriously hurt.”
Daniel shoved a hand through his hair and eased into a chair across from me. “She’s just…I guess…she’s tired. I mean, Maisie and me are the only ones keeping this place running, you know? She stresses out when anything goes wrong.”
Something struck me about his words.
He wasn’t making an excuse for her. He wasn’t asking for understanding.
He was only giving me another explanation.
“That boy doesn’t have a lick of sense left in him! He’s a lost cause, and I don’t know why they just won’t put him in that school and be done with it!”
Maisie’s harsh words exploded through the kitchen door and I flinched. Daniel was on his feet again, fast, and he disappeared into the kitchen again. I looked over at Rhys. His expression was dull again, his gaze to the floor. His muscles weren’t tight anymore, either. It was like he hadn’t heard the insult, and like he was no longer afraid.
It was like he wasn’t even there.
My eyes traveled to Mom’s bag.
His stuff was in there. We hadn’t brought it out, and Mom hadn’t tried working with him today, maybe because Daniel was here. Mom and Maisie went back and forth in the kitchen. I stood, picked up the bag, and looked at Rhys. I wanted him out of hearing distance. Even if he didn’t understand—and I wasn’t sure he was a lost cause at all—he didn’t deserve to be exposed to that kind of abuse. “Come with me?” I asked him, and was surprised when he followed me to his room.
I moved a box from the office chair and sat down, but Rhys just lingered in the doorway, looking at something only he could see on the floor. I took a deep breath and reached into the bag, and looked through the things Mom had brought. I pulled out the baseball, which I noticed now had been autographed by a bunch of people. I held it out to him.
He looked up slowly.
Like when I mentioned Nadia, his breath seemed to catch.
And then he stepped forward and reached to take it from me.
I smiled and handed it over. “Mom and I aren’t like, creepers, okay? Just, she thought getting some of your things from the gatehouse would be good for you.”
His gaze was now fixed on the ball. He turned his wrist, looking at all the signatures. I figured it wasn’t a collector’s item, since it hadn’t been under glass when Mom found it. It seemed really familiar to him. The kind of familiarity that warms you, then leaves you with an ache when you remember something that was lost.
I chewed my lip, watching him until I was too uncomfortable to do it anymore. Then I dug into the bag again and pulled out a handful of CDs, then tried to get the office stereo system up and running.
And I totally did. Go me!
Music played quietly through the room. It was a band I never heard of, one that wasn’t incredibly good, and it didn’t seem to have much of an effect on Rhys. I stacked the other CDs by the stereo player, and put a few sports and art magazines on his unmade bed.
From the other side of the house, the door slammed hard.
“Bet that was Maisie,” I mumbled, and pulled Mom’s bag onto my shoulder. “I’ll see what’s up, okay? Stay here?”
He didn’t nod or anything, but he didn’t follow me again, either. I found Mom in the living room, massaging her temple. “I think it’s time to go,” she said tiredly. Whatever Maisie had said, it looked like it defeated Mom. I hated that. “I have a headache.”
She didn’t have a headache five minutes ago.
But I didn’t protest, and packed up our stuff. “Where’s Daniel?”
“He left,” she said. “Maisie needed him for something.”
I didn’t like the sound of that at all. Even though I hadn’t seen Maisie mistreating Daniel, I didn’t doubt she could turn on him like she had just done to my mom. And if I’d read Rhys right, he was scared of Maisie, too.
“Do you think it’s okay to leave Rhys?” I asked.
“I’ll talk to him,” she said. “I’ll let him know that if he wants to go for a walk, he should wait until one of us is around.”
When we drove away from the cottages, I noticed that Maisie’s SUV and Daniel’s truck were both gone again.
The confrontation left Mom discombobulated, for lack of a more appropriate word. Back at the gatehouse, she was restless and couldn’t focus on anything, moving from one window to the next, mopping up some of the water that had made it inside during the storm. I went after her, finishing each job, painfully aware of the quiet. It was still drizzling, but hardly anything came in through the windows now. As we wrung out our towels in the kitchen sink, I broke the silence.
“Hey. Let’s go to town. Dad’s probably just getting settled at his hotel for the night. We should call him.” I knew she was feeling lonely, and Dad always, always knew the right things to say to her. They were still very mushy, even though they’d been married for like, ever. “And then we can go to a matinee and dinner. And maybe hit up the bookstore and get coffee? Date night?”
She searched me, and even though I could SEE the ‘We need to watch our spending’ argument come up, she smiled. “That sounds fabulous. I’d love that. Let’s dress up.” She reached in and put her arms around me. “I love you, Small Child.”
I grinned into that, and hugged her in return. “I love you, too, Old Woman.”
We found a park where Mom could have her conversation with Dad. While on the phone, she cried because she missed him, and then she cried some more because Rhys’s situation frustrated her so much. I drew some poor excuses for zentangle in my notebook and pretended not to notice her tears, because the one thing worse than having to cry is crying in front of people.
I talked to Dad next. He did a full status check on me:
How are your allergies? Manageable.
Have you talked to Jayla? Not enough.
Is it pretty down there? Yes!
How’s the photography? Oh, it’s good!
“How do you think Mom really is doing?” he asked.
I glanced over at Mom, who had gone for a stroll on the other side of the picnic area. Assured she was out of earshot, I answered. “She’s lonely. She misses you a lot, and there’s no one around here to make friends with. She’s having migraines again, too.”
“Is it the weather?”
“Probably, yeah. It rains a LOT here. It started this morning and only just quit an hour ago.”
“She’ll never make it in London,” he said wryly. “It’s been raining almost nonstop since I got here. Listen, I’m going to try to get in contact with the mobile company so we can see if we can at least get you some signal boosters or something, okay?”
“That would be awesome,” I said. “I think that would help a lot.”
The movie was a great distraction, and our dinner afterwards was even better. The restaurant’s massive patio overlooked the ocean, and a live band played music from the 50s and 60s. A few older couples danced near the stage, which made me wish I’d brought my camera.
As we picked our way through a big plate of shrimp, we looked over all the touristy things listed in a touristy magazine and made plans for next weekend.
“Carriage ride,” I said for the fifth time in as many minutes. I grabbed the second-to-last hush puppy (SO GOOD) and bit into it. “I want to go on the carriage ride!”
“I heard you the last thirteen times you said it,” Mom said, and took the last ball of fried cornmeal divinity.
“Hey! I was going to eat that!”
“I know,” she said, and smiled sweetly at me. “That’s why I took it.”
It was good to see Mom back to normal. I was selfish about my wanting her to be normal, though. When Mom was down, it felt like I was all alone. And I couldn’t stand being all alone on Dogwood Cross.
“You know,” Mom said, and was totally talking with her mouth full, “we could invite Daniel along next weekend.” She glanced at me. “Since you two seem to get along so well.”
“That’d be fun. He already knows a lot, but I bet he’s never been on a carriage!”
She sighed. “I never promised the carriage.”
“You didn’t have to,” I said brightly. “I know you want to do it as much as I do.”
She lifted a fork loaded with coleslaw, aimed it at me as if it were a catapult, and narrowed her eyes in play warning. “You need to stop knowing me so well.”
I raised my hands in surrender, but I rested in the knowledge that I would SO be taking that awesome carriage ride!
Instead of the bookstore, Mom bought a cheap blanket at a surf shop down on the boardwalk. In our date night dresses, our sandals on the sand beside the blanket, we drank overpriced coffees and watched the sun set over the Atlantic.
Even though my phone worked just fine, I left it in the car. I’d already checked my email and shot a few hello texts to friends, but that was about all. I guess I was breaking an addiction I didn’t know I had. Instead of being occupied with people who weren’t with me, I had become able to take in sights and sounds of the world in front of me. And I kind of liked that.
It was really good to be around people doing normal things, and to remember that our life on Dogwood Cross, although not horrible, was temporary. I took a walk along the shore, watching dusk settle on the coast before me.
We returned to Dogwood Cross later than we’d expected, but neither of us cared.
“The AC is still out,” Mom announced grudgingly. “Why am I not surprised?”
“Maybe Maisie made an appointment,” I suggested. Even though the words came out of my mouth, I knew it was highly unlikely. We were a burden to Maisie. A nuisance. Mom and I both knew it.
Mom turned on music to cheer us up, and I headed to the downstairs bathroom to change into PJs. I flipped on the light and began to unzip my dress, when I noticed a black and gold tube of lipstick on the counter.
Mom barely wore makeup. Too many years of caking it on for performances got the cosmetics thing out of her system. And I only owned lip gloss, nail polish, and mascara.
I picked up the tube and twisted up the lipstick.
It was pink.
Bright pink.
Wrongly pink.
Maisie had been here again.
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