The Mystery of Dogwood Cross
CHAPTER
34
Epilogue
Ten Months Later
It was a bright and beautiful summer evening, and we’d survived the hurricane.
Emotions flooded through me as we passed over the covered bridge for the first time since Christmas break. Even then, the palmetto trees, sawgrass, and live oaks kept their green. The difference now came from the brilliant orange day lilies and yellow daffodils that lined the road in patches, and the white magnolias in the trees, and the cotton-candy blue hydrangeas blooming on hedges.
“Slow down, Dad,” I requested, and rolled the window down so I could snap a few photos.
“We’ll be here a week, Lamby-toes,” he said. “We can come back out and take more.”
“But what if they run out of their color-magic at midnight and wilt like Cinderella’s swag?”
“She has a point, Lamby-ears,” Mom said, and tugged Dad’s earlobe in a way which may have been cute to people who were not their kid. “No one knows how flowers work. It’s all a great mystery. Also, the Earth is flat. You need to quit insisting it’s anything but.”
They bantered on and I took pictures until we crossed the bridge, which, I noticed, had been rebuilt since December. I guessed Grandpa Chaz (he insisted I call him that these days) finally got tired of it flooding. As much as I appreciated history and preservation efforts, I appreciated things like safety more. And I was also glad that, once Maisie/Jackie had quit giving him drugs that kept him in bed, he had been able to spring back to normal. With steady physical therapy, he’d regained full mobility.
I put my camera beside me and picked up my phone, and then grinned. “Mom,” I said, interrupting their completely inappropriate flirting, “guess what?”
She ignored me and kept baiting Dad. “Chlorophyll? What? You just made that word up!”
I leaned forward and shoved my phone out between them. “MOM. I HAZ CELL SERVICE!” I made sure to say that in all caps, just so she would comprehend the significance. We’d had cell service on our last trip down here, and Rhys and I had talked nearly every day when I was home in Tennessee, but still, it felt like a novelty.
It got her attention, and she checked her phone, and then Dad’s. “You should test it! Make sure it’s real!”
And so I did.
“Are you here?” Rhys asked by way of greeting. “Tell me you’re here!”
“We’re so totally here!”
“Sweet! We’re at the gatehouse. Mary Ellen made pie. It’s the best pie. Come eat pie with us!”
He didn’t have to ask twice.
Dusk settled, but the six of us—Grandpa Chaz, Rhys, Mary Ellen, Mom, Dad, and I—chatted late into the night. It was so great to see Chaz doing so well. While the others talked, my gaze drifted out of the living room, past the glass, to the dark yard. Instinctively, my eyes searched for the ShadowMan, even though Rhys had revealed himself to me nearly a year ago. He had ventured through the storm, to the gatehouse that first night because he wanted to look through his dad’s stuff for evidence against Henri and Maisie. He hadn’t known that we had just moved in.
Other things had come to light over the next few months, too. Mary Ellen came forward during Maisie/Jackie’s trial. After Chaz’s fall (also attributed to Maisie and Henri), Mary Ellen had begun questioning Maisie’s credentials and intent for being on the island. As we all knew, Maisie didn’t react well to feeling threatened. Maisie had, in turn, gone through Mary Ellen’s résumé and found minor discrepancies, like adding the word “Director” to a job title and implied she’d taken college classes in grant writing rather than just attending some workshops.
Mary Ellen, possessing a significant amount of scruples more than Maisie, was easily intimidated. When Maisie told her to take a hike until Chaz was healthy again (as if Maisie had any intention of actually helping him get better), Mary Ellen felt like she couldn’t fight back.
It was a great reminder of how bullies work, finding a flaw and exploiting it.
Chaz was far more forgiving to Mary Ellen than she’d been of herself, and he’d welcomed her back. His kindness and compassion challenged me to be a better person. I loved being around him, and I knew it was helping everyone heal. Especially Rhys.
I knew Rhys had a hard time without his dad, but that was to be expected. Over the course of the year, he had been attending grief counseling. He was able to talk openly most of the time, and I felt like I knew Dr. Contee, his counselor, personally.
“I spoke with Blaine yesterday,” Chaz said when there was a break in conversation. “He’s doing well.”
“Oh, that’s great!” Mom said. “I’m glad he got back into college. Was he able to make up his coursework?”
“Almost all of it. He’ll be taking a few classes through the summer.”
My phone buzzed. I read the time before the text. “Hey,” I addressed the group, “I hate to break up the party, but it’s almost eleven.”
“Really?” Chaz asked. “We should shove off. Big day tomorrow!”
Rhys grinned and put his drained cup of decaf on the end table. He still favored one side of his body over the other, but every time I’d seen him (fall break in Tennessee, when he’d earned Jayla’s approval, Christmas here, and then spring break again at home), his progress amazed me. Even now, I couldn’t stop smiling because of how well he was doing.
He stood up. “Yeah, we should. I need my beauty sleep.”
Dad snorted a laugh. “You bet you do.”
They traded verbal jabs so easily now that I was pretty sure if Rhys had full use of his body, they’d spar physically, too. I liked that they got along well, but it totally annoyed me when Rhys called Mom or Dad just to chat when I wanted to talk to him. I mean, come on, he was my boyfriend, not theirs!
Okay, okay, fine.
I loved that we were all on the same team.
The adults said goodnight to one another, but Rhys lingered in the living room with me, collecting coffee cups and plates.
“I wish Daniel was here,” I said.
“I know,” Rhys replied, and walked with me to the kitchen. “He’s sorry he’s not here, too.”
I loaded the dishes carefully into the sink and turned to face him. “I’m really excited for tomorrow.”
His own grin matched mine, I was pretty sure. “I’m scared.”
“Don’t be scared,” I said, and stepped in to put my arms around him. “Be proud. You’ve worked so hard.”
His fingers grazed my cheek and moved in close.
That’s when a damp dishtowel hit us both in the face.
“Oops,” Dad said, leaning against the fridge. The towel dropped to our feet and I gave him a Look. He grinned back at me. “My bad.”
Rhys wasn’t completely deterred, and gave me a quick kiss. Then he shot a cheeky grin at Dad. “’Night, Mr. Himura.”
“Night, Teenage Boy Who Freaks Me Out a Little,” Dad replied good-naturedly.
Mom and Dad migrated upstairs to bed. One of Mary Ellen’s first orders of business upon her return to Dogwood Cross was to renovate Maisie’s cottage. She’d taken most of her things from the gatehouse when she moved over to Maisie’s place, but most of the furniture remained.
I puttered around, taking my time to pull out the bedofa and reply to Nadia’s texts. Before my head hit the pillow, I shot Daniel a message:
Haven’t been past the gatehouse, but dude, the drive in was gorgeous. Great work!
Seconds later, his reply came:
Thanks! We’re having an awesome year with the weather. Y’all should spend the summer.
That night, I dreamed about what a normal summer on the island would be like.
I woke up smiling.
Graduations are pretty much the worst thing ever for anyone in the audience. This time, as the midday sun roasted skin and stomachs growled, I was jealous of the wonky, dark blue caps sported by the graduating seniors of Bonaventure High. I wasn’t terribly jealous of the matching polyester gowns, though.
After the keynote speaker left the platform, the Master of Ceremonies took the time to ask the audience to hold its cheers until the end. But when Rhys’s name was called, Mom and I were the jerks who not only hooted and hollered, but we also stood up to do it.
We started the applause, but the rest of the audience helped us finish it. Everyone knew his story, of course. Everyone knew how he worked extra hard to complete his senior year, and how hard he fought for his outstanding grade point average.
We settled back into our seats, beaming, but the fun wasn’t over. Nadia received her diploma. Jason received his. And then the announcer said, “Daniel Harrison Monroe.”
Mom, Chaz, and I all were on our feet again and cheering, even if no one else knew that Daniel had worked at least as hard as Rhys.
The first time I’d seen the pavilion, I’d been captivated by it. It had taken on a new life today, with the low rumble of pop music playing, décor strung from the ceiling beams, and fine linens and porcelain dressing the tables. The party for the four graduates, complete with caterers and a DJ, was well suited to this venue. Yes, the pavilion was a place meant for celebrations, not the housing of criminal activity.
Rhys, Jason, and Nadia spent the better part of the afternoon with their guests who weren’t me. I was cool with that, because it gave Daniel and me a chance to catch up. We wandered down to the beach, talking about everything as easily as we had before things had turned sour between us.
For all the good things that had happened after Maisie’s arrest, getting my friendship with Daniel back on track was the one that made my heart feel full.
“Have you decided about school yet?” I asked, letting the seawater wash over my bare feet, and, in turn, feeling my feet sink as the water retreated.
“No,” he said, and reached down to pick up a shell. He rinsed it in the next wave, then examined the pattern appreciatively. “Honestly, this is further than I ever expected to go. It was hard, but I’m glad Chaz made me do it.”
Chaz had worked out an agreement with Daniel, once the charges against him lifted: Daniel was allowed to stay at his cottage as long as he honestly worked toward graduation, and worked part-time on the island. Now that he’d done it, I wasn’t sure what the deal was. So, I asked.
“He says college is my choice. He sat down with me last week and we went over the community college’s horticulture and landscaping courses, too. I have some time to decide, still.”
“And if you don’t go?” I asked, and pulled my feet free of the sand.
“If I don’t go, I can work here full-time again.” I didn’t have to look at him to know he was smiling. But I did anyway, because seeing my friends happy was one of the best things ever. “This week, though? This week, we hang out. Hey, you haven’t seen what they’ve done with the big house. C’mon!”
We walked down the beach, then paused to put our shoes on again before we hiked up the rough path to the huge plantation house. Daniel unlocked the front door and held it for me.
“It’s so weird to not use the window,” I mused. But as I looked around, I gaped. There was still very little furniture inside, but the home was sparkling clean. All the broken or peeling bits were repaired. Not a speck of dust or a cobweb to be found.
“Keep going,” Daniel urged. “They fixed the floors, just like when they were first built.”
Where the kitchen’s wood floor had caught fire and caved in, the new floor lay firm and inviting. I was able now to cross to the back window and look over the cliffs, to the Atlantic. Wow.
“That’s not all. C’mon.” Daniel gestured for me to follow him up the stairs and through the second floor hall. We emerged at a little balcony that overlooked the dining room. “Mary Ellen says the original owner’s daughter was very shy, and she liked to observe the guests before joining them. She had a favorite flower—”
I looked down at the intricate pattern of tiles that made up the dining room floor. “A dogwood blossom,” I murmured.
“Yeah. See?” He made an X to connect the four petals. “Dogwood Cross.”
I almost felt like every question I’d had about the island had been answered.
Almost.
Night fell and the guests began to leave. I said goodbye to Nadia, Jason, and their parents, and then settled at a table with Daniel and Rhys.
“So,” I said, looking at Rhys. “College.”
“Yep. College.”
“Art college,” Daniel said, and made a face that made us laugh. “_So_ not for me.”
“Aren’t you glad I applied and not you?” Rhys asked.
“Yep,” Daniel agreed. “And I’m glad you were the one accepted, not me.”
“I’m glad they let you in, even though your drawing isn’t quite back to where it had been.” He’d worked hard in his therapy and spent a lot of time regaining his skills, and apparently that mattered just as much as a perfect portfolio.
“Me, too,” he said quietly, and then cast a grin at me. “That reminds me. Daniel, do you have the thing?”
Daniel stood from the table and disappeared for a minute.
“What thing?” I asked.
“The thing that I really want you to consider,” Rhys said, and took my hand. “You don’t have to—if you don’t do it, it doesn’t change anything with us. I mean, we’re making this long-distance thing work, right? But I think you’d be a good fit and—”
Daniel reappeared and placed a fat envelope on the table in front of me.
“It’s a year away for you,” Rhys said. “But I really think you’d like it, and the photography department is amazing.”
He released my hand so I could open the package. As I flipped through the college catalog, I knew what my answer was going to be.
Dawn came to the island, cool and crisp. I swallowed an allergy pill, donned my hiking boots for the first time in almost a year, and jotted a note for Mom and Dad. Then, I grabbed my camera bag and escaped the gatehouse before they woke up. I climbed into Daniel’s truck and, from the backseat, Rhys leaned forward and kissed my cheek.
“Morning,” I said, grinning. “Thanks for getting up early for this.”
“YOLO,” Daniel replied, to which the only appropriate response was for both Rhys and me to smack the back of his head. He laughed at the abuse.
An hour later, we were deep in the caves. This time, all of us were much better prepared to spelunk. Ever since I left the island after last year’s crime fighting, I’d spent my free time working through the thousands of photos I’d taken and writing my story. The one thing on the island I had no photos of was the cave system.
Today was the day.
“So, at this point, we’re almost under the plantation house, right?” I asked, and let the camera flash light up the cavern.
“Yeah,” Daniel said. “Just over there is the trapdoor where we escaped. It’s been sealed up, though.”
I kept my darn it! inside and snapped a few more photos.
“Hey, did you see that?” Rhys asked from behind me.
“No, what?” I asked.
He turned his super-bright flashlight beam to a corner of the cavern wall, way up high. “Is that a hole?” I asked. “It looks like a crawlspace.”
Daniel, the tallest between us three, went over and stood up on his tiptoes to look. “It leads to another cavern,” he said.
“Help me up.”
The guys looked at me like I was nuts, but I gave them a serious look. “I’m practicing being a world-class photojournalist. Humor me?”
They did, but the entire time they lifted me, they mumbled about all the explanations they were going to give my parents if something bad happened.
“A shark popped out and gobbled her up,” Daniel said.
“It was a portal to another dimension,” Rhys said.
I didn’t hear the rest, because I was army crawling my way through the hole. Much too late, I remembered the massive centipede that I’d met That Bad Night, and I whimpered.
“Are you okay?” the boys asked in unison.
I emerged, safe and sound, and dropped down to the cavern floor. “Yeah. I’m—,” and the one scene from the one movie I had watched over and over again made me sing, “HEY, YOU GU-UYS!” And then I said it more. “GUYS. GUYS. GUYS!”
“What?” Rhys demanded.
I moved my flashlight in a circle around me and tried to process what I was seeing.
Crates.
Trunks.
Barrels.
And nothing like the ones Maisie’s crew had been hiding.
“This can’t be,” I breathed, my heart pounding.
I ventured forward, only somewhat aware of the sounds of both boys making their way through the hole, too.
“Miya,” Rhys said, concerned. “Miya, what are you—wait, is this—?”
“Oh my— ”
That was Daniel.
Together, we gathered around a small chest that had been stacked on top of a barrel. Daniel worked off the top and we stared at its contents.
In the movies, centuries-old Spanish doubloons gleam.
We all learned right then that in real life, centuries-old Spanish doubloons are dull.
Dull, but every bit as valuable.
______________________ THE END _____________________
Author’s Note: And here we are. The end. I’m absolutely honored that anyone read chapter ONE, much less all through the story! You’re wonderful, and I really, really mean that!
A lot of you have been asking what’s next. It looks like I’ll be doing another novel here sooner, rather than later, but right now I’ve started a longform book here on Storybird that is about writing suspense into stories. It’ll have all sorts of little writing tips as I think of them, too, probably. It’s aptly titled Cliffhangers and Other Thoughts About Writing. I would love for it to be more of a conversation than a lecture, so please, feel free to flood comments with your own thoughts, experiences, questions...whatever!
Eventually I’ll be going through and editing this book, because I know there are a thousand things wrong with the writing. I won’t be changing the plot in big ways, but from time to time, chapters may be offline. Also? I think a few more Author’s Journal entries for Dogwood Cross will appear over time.
I want to dedicate more time to reading other peoples’ work here on Storybird, too, so PLEASE do not be shy! Comment here if you have anything you’d like to read or promote to other readers!
Once again, thank you so, so, so much for taking the time to read this.
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