The Mystery of Dogwood Cross
CHAPTER
19
Homecoming
Mud and sopping grass slowed my progress, but I made it to Rhys as another bolt of lightning exploded the sky above us. The thunder deafened me for a moment, but I reached out for his hand. “Rhys, come on, come inside!” It was only a matter of minutes, I was sure, before the sky toasted us like marshmallows.
Fortunately, he was compliant, and hurried alongside of me. We picked our way up the flooding yard. I could barely see anything, but kept moving toward the porch light. Rhys clung to my hand with his good one, which was its own comfort, since I was doing my darndest to keep from thinking about critters like snakes and leeches as we trudged up the hill.
Thankfully, Mom had woken, too, and met us at the porch. “Oh, Baby, are you okay? What is—Rhys, what are you—?” But she knew better than to expect an answer, so she didn’t finish that question.
Inside, we drenched teenagers huddled while Mom grabbed towels for us. After I mopped up as best I could, I said, “I’m going to change into dry clothes, okay?”
Mom nodded and kept trying to clean up Rhys.
A few minutes later and much, much dryer, I returned. Rhys, heaped into a soggy pile of person and cloth, sat on a towel that covered the seat of the wooden rocking chair in the corner. Mom tried valiantly to towel-dry his thick, unruly hair.
I looked at Mom. “So…are we going to take Rhys back to his house?”
“It’s raining too much,” she answered. “The road will be a mud pit by the time we get to his house.” Then she looked at me. “What on Bruno Mars are you listening to?”
I gaped at her. “It’s your playlist.”
“A little melodramatic, dontcha think?”
I waved my hands, the towel flopping against my leg. “Oh em gee, Mom, all of the music is yours.”
“I’m forty.”
“Plus two.”
She rolled her eyes at me. “Go put on some Disney Channel starlet or you’re grounded.”
“Sixteen, not ten, Mom.”
She grinned. So did I. I turned the music off completely and cast a glance at Rhys.
“What’re we gonna do with you?” Mom asked him, her voice gentle.
He needed to change clothes. I thought of his bedroom on the other side of the gatehouse. “There may still be some clothes over there,” I said, gesturing loosely that way. “In his old room. I’ll see if I can force that door open again and find anything for him.”
“And I’ll make some cocoa to warm you two up.”
She left the room first, but before my foot was on the first stair, Rhys stood up.
I stopped. “Rhys? What is it?”
He pushed a hand into his damp jeans pocket and then pulled it out again. He stretched his arm out, and opened his fingers. A ring binding a few keys rested on his palm.
A key. To the door. Of course.
Of course, he’d still have the keys to his old home. I stepped back down and accepted the offering. “My shoulder is still bruised from the last time I tried to get in there. Thank you, Rhys.”
I think he almost smiled.
The second key I tried worked, and the door swung open.
Keys are so cool, y’all.
I flipped on every light between the stairway and the bedroom, and murmured threats to any mice that might be planning to mess with me. I knew I was going to need allergy medicine within five minutes or else I’d be miserable the remainder of the night.
I made it to Rhys’s room, and awkwardly pawed through drawers until I found some gym shorts and a Georgia Bulldogs T-shirt. They carried the slightly sour smell of being unused for a long time, but it was nothing some time spent in the dryer with a Snuggle sheet wouldn’t cure. I found some socks and a pair of guy-sandals, probably left behind because it was still winter when Rhys moved away from here.
I started back through the hall and was just passing the Hoarders bathroom when I saw It.
A laptop.
Like. Right there, buried under a pile of notebooks and clothes.
I started toward it, but remembered my arms were full and Rhys was waiting for clothes.
Yeah, I’d be back in the morning.
Mom and I were both relieved that Rhys seemed perfectly able to follow instructions like, “Take these clothes to the bathroom and get ready for bed.” While he was in the bathroom, I cleaned up my stuff and Mom pulled out the bedofa. I’d be sleeping with Mom tonight. As we cleaned up in the living room so he wouldn’t trip over my stuff, I planned all the fun ways I could annoy her in the night. If I was quick enough, I might be able to sneak in and short-sheet the bed before she climbed in.
“I’d give him my room,” Mom said, “but I don’t know that it’s appropriate. Still, I don’t like the idea of him being able to wander out the door while we’re sleeping.”
Rhys came back, and Mom laid down some rules for him. She ended up with, “Please do not go outside the house, and please-please-please do not get hurt.”
Not making that up. She really said that.
She locked up and turned off the lights, save the kitchen one. We both told him good night, then went to bed.
She and I both stayed awake for a while, talking through his situation. Finally, we dozed off.
We both woke up to pounding on the door.
Mom stumbled out of the bedroom first. I looked at the clock. 6:20.
I tried to regulate my breathing and wake my brain up, but was in the hall before either of those things happened.
I found Rhys sitting up, scowling, on the bedofa. His hair was messed up and he looked perturbed, I noticed, but not distressed. I rounded the corner to the entry, where Mom had the door open.
Rain still fell, but it was down to a drizzle. Maisie’s bright pink rain slicker was visible behind Mom.
“He’s here,” Mom said. “He showed up past midnight last night, right in the middle of the storm.” With a little bit of attitude, she added, “If our phones worked, we’d have called.”
Maisie looked past Mom, to me, her face hard. Like all of her displeasure, her worry, was my fault somehow. When did this woman become my nemesis? What did I do to deserve any looks from anyone like that? When I was eight, I accidentally broke Jayla’s finger in the door, and she never once looked at me like that!
Mom said something to Maisie quietly.
Maisie responded.
I turned away and went to sit on a chair near Rhys. “Did you sleep all right?”
He jerked his head in a nod, his eyes darting back towards the doorway. His muscles were tense, his bad hand clenched tight. He looked how I felt.
Mom came into the living room. Maisie followed, and her hot pink galoshes, dotted with hearts, tracked in mud, paying no mind to the rug under her feet.
“Rhys,” Mom addressed him, “You’re welcome to spend the day with us, if you like. We can do our work here, you and I.”
Rhys blinked, then looked at me.
I nodded and smiled. “We’d like to have you around. I can show you some of the pictures I’ve taken, if you’d like.”
He raised his head and looked me in the eyes. “Yes,” he said.
Whoa! Rhys talked! For us! Beaming, I looked at Mom, then at that other woman. I didn’t want to embarrass him, but my eyes were huge, like 0_0 ! And so were Mom’s!
Maisie’s, however, narrowed.
“You heard him,” I said. “He wants to stay. We’ll have a good time, won’t we, Mom?”
“We absolutely will.” She was every bit as excited as I was.
Maisie crossed her arms. “Fine. I’ll pick Rhys up this evening. Don’t make him miss dinner with his Grandpa. That will just ruin everything.”
I stared at her pretty incredulously, but couldn’t stop it.
Maisie demanded incredulous.
Maisie broke eye contact first. Isn’t that the sign of submission?
This didn’t feel like submission.
“I need to use the restroom,” she announced. Before Mom could answer, Maisie was already down the hallway.
I made a face after her, but then looked back to Mom, who was speaking quietly to Rhys about all the things we could do together today. I curled up into a chair on the edge of the room and waited for the drama to pass.
And by “wait for the drama to pass” I meant, “wait for Maisie to leave.”
I head a door slam, and then a drawer shut. From the bathroom. Then another drawer shut. And another.
Maisie was going through our bathroom stuff?!? What in the…?
Oh.
Oh.
I stood up and grabbed my purse from my pile of stuff, and dug around for—there. Got it.
And then I went to the bathroom door and tapped.
“Just a minute,” she said gruffly.
I tapped again.
“I SAID—,” but the door swung open.
“Are you looking for something?” I asked. Because I am SOOOOO helpful.
She furrowed her brow. Her normal-colored lips pressed into a sour expression. “What?”
“Are you looking for something?” I repeated, and I held out her expensive tube of painfully pink lipstick.
A bit of shock registered on her face. “What—where did you—how—?”
“It was the weirdest thing. Mom and I were gone all day last week, and somehow it just…_appeared_in here.”
She snatched the tube from my hand and raised her jaw. “Thank you for finding it,” she snapped, and offered absolutely no explanation as to why she’d been in our space without asking.
“You’re welcome.” Just to be a pain, I stood, blocking her exit from the bathroom and smiled obliviously at her.
“Excuse me,” she ground out through clenched teeth.
“For what?” I asked, but before I pushed the envelope too far, I stepped out of her way.
Maisie tracked mud back to the living room and addressed Mom. “I’ll be off, then,” she said, and cast another look at Rhys, but she didn’t leave. She cocked her head to the side. “Where did you get those clothes, Rhys?”
Mom sighed.
Like, “Get of my house, already.”
That kind of sigh.
“They were in his old bedroom,” Mom explained.
Maisie flashed a look at her. “That side of the gatehouse is off limits.”
I stepped up fast, “Hey, it was me. Not Mom. I went in and got them. It’s all Rhys’s property, really, right?”
“His clothes were soaked last night,” Mom added. She put an arm around my shoulders. “We couldn’t let him go to bed like that.”
Maisie looked like she wanted to say something but was literally biting her tongue. “Fine. I’ll be back this evening. Please don’t mess with anything else. Good day, Giovanna.”
Mom didn’t even reply, just showed her out the door.
I stood, frozen for a moment. Had to remind myself to breathe. I looked back at Rhys. He was standing now, hands on the back of a chair, watching Maisie’s departure. His forever-closed fist bore into the leather.
“Rhys,” Mom said, joining us again. “I’m sorry about all that. I’m glad you want to stay today.” The smile she gave him was tight, but I could tell she was trying to act like everything was good and normal. “How about some yogurt or cereal for breakfast?”
“Yes,” he replied.
Twice! Twice he’d spoken to us!
Hearing his voice was maybe one of the best things ever. I hoped I could someday get him talking for a good, long time.
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