The Mystery of Dogwood Cross
CHAPTER
5
A Mild Case of Herpetophobia
Daylight streamed in through the wide windows and glass doors. The morning shone in, beautiful and bright. Outside, the birds chattered and chirped. I could hear a woodpecker at work in a tree, probably some distance away. I lay on the bedofa and listened to my mom shuffle around the kitchen.
I couldn’t move.
The ShadowMan stood, barely a foot from the doors. He stared in. I stared back out. Everything was wrong. He was so close, and it was so bright, but he was still a coal gray mist. I couldn’t make out a nose, a mouth, his clothes. Wind tossed a few leaves and flowers from the magnolia tree outside. His hair did not move.
But his hand did.
“Mom,” I tried to say, but it was more of a croak than even a whisper.
He reached out.
At first, I thought he was reaching for the doorknob.
No, no, no! You’re not allowed! I silently screamed at him.
But his hand continued its ascent. And then, it pushed out, to the glass.
No.
Not to the glass.
THROUGH the glass.
I tried to pull back, but I couldn’t move. The hand, cold and damp, clasped my arm. The touch freed me and I bolted upright.
“MOM!”
My heart thudded in my ears. Shaking, I looked into the stunned face of my mother.
“Oh, Honey!” she whispered. “Baby, it’s just me.”
I covered my face, hiding from both the sunlight and embarrassment. “It’s okay,” I managed, with shaky breath. “I just—a dream. Bad dream.”
“I was just going to let you know that Maisie’s picking me up in a minute to go get the car. Daniel cleared the road enough. I’m going straight over to see Rhys for our first session. All right?”
Rhys.
The memories of the night before came flooding back so fast they nearly took my breath again. But I nodded. “Yeah.”
“You’ll be okay here by yourself today?”
I nodded again. The adrenaline made my heart slam against my chest wall, but my head was still clouded. “Yeah, Mom. I’ll be fine.”
“All right, Babe. The phone here doesn’t do long distance, they say. We’ll go into town this afternoon and check in with the rest of the world. You’ll be able to talk to Dad”
That sounded good.
I laid back down until Maisie came for her, sort of dozing in and out, but never getting back to a good sleep. Finally, I gave up and slowly went through the motions of morning, annoyed that I didn’t have even basic television to watch. I tried my phone about a dozen more times, but still no service.
There was a TV in Rhys’s room, sure, but it felt weird, going in there. Also, I had a strange feeling that if I poked around too long in that side of the house, I’d get locked in. And who knows what would happen then?
I needed to get out, to explore, to demystify this island a little. So I braided my hair, grabbed my camera bag, phone (I’m hopeful, I know), a bottle of water, and a protein bar, and wrote Mom a note. Careful not to lock the back door behind me, I followed the unpaved road through the growing heat.
The lizard’s googly eye tracked my every movement. We were playing Shutter, which is one of my least favorite games to play. Usually, I play it with kids. But animals, especially ones that seem to have an extra current of electricity running through them, making it easy for them to disappear, are the champs at Shutter.
I wanted a good picture of this little guy—or girl—with his googly eye wide open. I was pretty sure that in the dozen or so shots I’d gotten, he’d blinked just as my finger hit the capture button. I didn’t dare look away from him to find out for sure, because he’d be gone in a breath. When I got the shot I wanted, I’d just KNOW.
Once again, the sound of an engine announced Daniel’s arrival. I realized, as I pressed the button once more, that I already knew the difference between Daniel’s truck and Maisie’s SUV, just by the sound. Taking a little pride in that fact, I shifted my weight and went for a slightly different angle. “Stay there, little guy...good boy. Or girl. I’m sorry; I can’t tell if you’re a boy lizard or a girl lizard. Don’t be offended.” I knew I was close enough to the road that Daniel would see me, but I was into the brush and wouldn’t risk getting run over.
Light played over the lizard’s patterned scales and I caught it. I got a few good shots, ones I’d be content with. I knew that to get the ones I really wanted, I’d need a different lens. One I didn’t own. One that had been on my wish list for a good ten months. Hopefully, these pictures would at least show that I knew how to work with what I had.
Then the coolest thing happened. Mr./Ms. Lizard’s BABY popped his/her head around the corner of the tree! Okay, I was assuming it was my subject’s baby, and I didn’t speak lizard well enough to ask about the relationship, but it was smaller and adorable in a reptilian way, and it seemed to not be afraid of the bigger lizard! I talked softly to them both, snapping a few more pictures, even as I heard the truck stop and Daniel get out and walk over.
“Hey,” I greeted him without turning away from the little lizard buddies.
“Hey,” he replied, but his voice sounded a little off. “Listen, whatever you do, don’t move, okay?”
That, of course, made me move. I looked back at him. “What?”
He put his hand out. “I said don’t move!” I could hear his exclamation, even though his tone was soft and controlled. He stared down near my feet, which made me, of course, look down, too.
I did not move.
Snake.
SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE OMG SNAKE.
Its colorful body zigzagged up from the carpet of leaves and pine needles, just inches away from my bare toes. I cursed my love for casual attire again (I’d made the poor decision to wear shorts and I had already provided lunch for a lot of mosquitos, and now the flip-flops were likely to get me killed) and worked really hard to not move.
Of course, that’s when each of those bites began to sting and itch.
Right when I dared not move.
Daniel made his way closer to me, slowly, and I clutched my camera tightly. I felt sweat bead up, and a drop began its journey down my temple, slowly enough to make its path down my skin uncomfortable, too.
“You know the difference between a scarlet king snake and a coral snake?” Daniel asked, voice still super quiet.
I didn’t dare answer him, but no, I didn’t know.
“They have the same colors, but a scarlet king snake is great to have around. A coral snake really is not. It’s poetry,” he answered himself. “Yellow touches red, you’ll be dead. Red touches black, venom lack.”
Were I sure that speaking wouldn’t set off the snake, I would’ve commended him for his AA/BB rhyme scheme. See, Mom? I paid attention in poetry last year. But then his words registered, and I looked at the pattern of rings on the snake’s body.
Yellow touched red.
Daniel stood about a foot away from me now. The snake stopped moving altogether and, like the lizard before it, watched us. “Okay,” Daniel whispered. “On three, I’m going to get him.” I noticed then that Daniel had thick, dirty work gloves on, and wore long jeans and broken-in cowboy boots, too. Much better than my shorts and flip-flop ensemble. He kneeled down slowly, and the snake moved away from him. Towards me.
“You step behind me on ‘one,’” he instructed.
The hard part would be stepping and not leaping, but I mm-hmmed.
“One.”
I moved quickly, and so did he. He didn’t have to count to three at all, and a moment later, he was standing tall, the snake in his hands. His fingers pinched right behind the snake’s jaw, controlling its head. At my feet, it seemed huge. Now, in Daniel’s grasp, I realized that it was kind of small.
Either way, venom was venom. I had no interest in challenging the animal.
“Head back to the truck,” Daniel said. “I’m gonna put this guy somewhere safe. For us and him both.”
Back at the truck, the bed of which was half full of new lumber, I took a few photographs of Daniel kneeling by a fallen tree. He caught me taking pictures as he walked back and laughed, clearly embarrassed. “What are you doing?”
“Taking pictures of my hero, of course. I plan to have an exhibition at MoMA in the near future.”
He pulled off his gloves as he came near. “MoMA?”
“The Museum of Modern Art,” I explained. “In New York City.”
He stepped onto the road and stopped, eyeing me. “Is that where you’re from? New York?”
I shook my head. “Nope, Tennessee.”
“Ah. You’re a Yankee.” His eyes sparkled and his mouth pulled in a grin.
“Yep. It’s practically Canada.”
He laughed, too, then leaned against the hood of his truck. “So if you’re from the mountains, why aren’t you dressed like it?”
It was almost a good question. “Because I am on vacation. At the beach. Only I’ve been here a few days and I’m not quite sure where the beach is.” I sighed dramatically. “We took a tour of the island, but our guide completely bypassed the ocean.”
Daniel’s eyebrows shot up, but then his shoulders began to shake with laughter. “You think you can forgive him, since he just saved you from a terrible beast?”
I considered that for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah. This one time.”
He smiled fully at me. “Hop in the truck, Flip.” It took me a moment to realize he was referring to my flip-flops. “Your hero will take you to the beach.”
I managed to get in this time with less flailing than last, and I was extremely proud of myself for it. The inside of his truck surprised me. I only have a few friends who have cars of their own, and all of them are older. Of the guy friends with cars, none of them did a great job of taking care of the interior. Usually soda cans and candy wrappers and fast food bags littered the seats and floors. Jayla even started bringing a towel to sit on when she rode with Mickey, her boyfriend. She’d meant to make a point, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t even take notice.
Daniel’s truck, on the other hand, was surprisingly clean for a work vehicle. Sure, mud and other debris of the natural variety (leaves, grass, sand) had tracked in, and a bottle of Mountain Dew sat in the cup holder. The cab smelled like work, but also of the island. Decidedly not like gym socks or stale fries, or any of the other smells I associate with dudes’ cars. Plastic bags from a home improvement store like the ones back home took up part of the bench in the back, and a half-empty 24-pack of water took up the other.
He turned the key in the ignition, and a country song I kind of knew came on. “Tell me about the other times your life has been saved,” he said as he resumed his drive. “I wanna know how I rank.”
“You’re kind of competitive, huh?” I asked, but I was totally amused. I told him about my dad, who once jumped in a pool, all his clothes on, after I’d been pushed in. I then told him that it was my dad who’d pushed me in, and then he’d jumped in after, even though I could swim just fine. The whole thing was to make me laugh. Dad loves making me laugh, and I love that about him.
Then I told him the more serious story about when I was three, and was at my dad’s office. A peppermint got stuck in my throat, and Dad’s business partner performed the Heimlich maneuver on me.
“That’s it?” he asked. “Just the business partner guy and me, then? Because your life wasn’t really in danger at the pool.”
“Oh, and Jayla,” I added. “Just you three. I don’t usually require much saving.”
“I feel special,” he said, and I TOTALLY saw him grin to himself. “So, Jayla?”
“My best friend. She saved my life once, too.”
“Do I get to hear that story?”
“Nope.”
“Why not?”
“Because I almost died of embarrassment then, and I’d put myself in grave risk of dying of embarrassment again if I ever had to repeat the story.”
He looked over at me and I swear he almost pouted. It was adorable. “Oh, that’s not cool. Now I wanna know!”
I shrugged and gave him a nice smile in return. “Sorry. Not gonna happen.” I was not telling ANY guys I knew stories involving my lame attempts to flirt with other guys, oblivious to the yard-long toilet paper tail I’d acquired in the ladies’ room at the mall. Jayla had BFFed like a boss and performed emergency surgery before I even knew I had the problem. Best. Friend. Ever.
It was time for a change of subject for sure. “So, um, I have a question. Who lived at the gatehouse before us?”
A shadow passed over Daniel’s face and he paid more attention to the road. “The historian working on the project. When the work to the house stopped, she just kind of picked up and left.”
A woman had lived there. That made sense, with the way it was more carefully decorated. “And the other side?”
He slowed the truck and drove off the road and through a clearing filled with weeds and wildflowers. “Ty—that is, Mr. Fontaine’s son—and grandson. The one your mom’s helping with.”
“So...no one wanted to come right out and tell us that to begin with?”
He glanced apologetically at me. “We didn’t want to creep you out. And things are weird right now, since the doctors said Rhys could possibly recover but he’s not showing signs of it. It didn’t feel right, packin’ up his room when he might come back.”
The way Daniel talked about Rhys made it seem like he had run away from home, or was off at college or something. I knew from the island tour yesterday that Rhys and his grandfather shared a cottage near Maisie’s and Daniel’s. “How old is he?”
“Seventeen, like me.”
Only a year older than me. I didn’t know what had happened to Rhys’s mom, but I sensed a sort of camaraderie between Rhys and Daniel. Two guys the same age. Rhys’s art suggested he appreciated nature, and the way Daniel had talked about his garden and work around the island, they seemed to have some things in common. “Did you know him?” I asked. “Before the accident, I mean?”
He was quiet for a beat longer than I expected. “Yeah,” he answered. “We went to school together.”
“You guys were friends?”
“No,” he said, much more quickly. “He was nice enough, but...no. We weren’t friends.”
I wanted to ask more, but his tone had changed and I got the feeling he really didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He guided the truck onto a sandy path, worn from use, and I saw the pavilion again, this time much more closely than yesterday. A hedgerow, taller than me, formed a thick, prickly barrier between the path and the pavilion.
A wide ditch filled with water created a second obstacle between the road and the pavilion. I wanted to go check it and the huge plantation house out, but I figured I had plenty of time for that in the next few weeks. I was busy staring out the window when the truck slowed.
“Well,” Daniel said. “We might not be getting to the beach right now.”
I looked out the windshield and my eyes went all like 0_0.
An alligator, maybe five or fifty feet long, blocked the road.
I pointed at it. “It’s a thing. A thing, Daniel. That is a THING.” I think I was bouncing in my seat a little bit. I do that when I’m watching something terrifying on TV, like “Jersey Shore.”
He glanced over at me, his eyebrows up high. “Yep. That’s a Thing. Down in these parts we call them ‘gators’, though.”
I whimpered. “I don’t want to go to the beach.” I looked at him with the pleadingest eyes I could. “Please do not make me go to the beach with that thing on the loose.”
I think he was trying to refrain from grinning. Nope. I was SURE he was. His eyes sparkled. “The gators are always on the loose here, Flip. It’s illegal to feed or kill ‘em.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay. As long as they know I can’t feed them, then—wait. The gators don’t care about the laws. They’re like...they’re like the mafia and also skateboarders.” I had to throw the skateboarders thing in there because Jayla does love her skateboarding, and I do love hanging out while NOT getting torn to pieces by asphalt and gravel and cement and stuff. I looked back at Daniel. “The laws will not keep an alligator from eating me. Or you.”
Again, he laughed. He was so easy about things, even with Death staring us in the headlights. “You’re right. But for the record, the gators don’t usually make it onto the beach. They don’t like saltwater.”
“Good to know.” I pointed at the gator, who didn’t seem very threatened by Daniel’s big truck. It just lay there in a patch of sun. “But if it’s all the same to you, I want my mommy.”
I expected him to laugh again. I mean, sure, I was a little disgraceful, what with my growing phobia of reptiles, but I at least owned it! Instead, he frowned at me.
“Look, I’ve been working here for nearly a year, right? Sure, I’ve gotten some stings and some bites. The worst was from a really big blue crab, and that was pretty much my fault to begin with, because I was plannin’ to make him a meal.” He gave me a lopsided grin. “What I mean to say is, I don’t want you to be too scared to do what you were doing.” He nodded toward my camera bag. “What I drove up on before was real special.”
I bit my lip and felt heat rise to my cheeks, but he’d already pulled a smile from me. “You mean me with the snake?” Even as I was saying it, I knew I should’ve said a simple, “Okay, thank you.”
I’m such a dork.
Daniel rolled his eyes. “You with the lizard,” he clarified. “The pictures.”
A crackle burst through the cab of the truck, and then a voice said, “Danny, where are you? We’ve only got a few hours to get the cave opened back up before—,”
He struck his hand out fast and grabbed the mic from the black radio mounted just under the dash. “Yeah, yeah, I’m close,” he said quickly, cutting the other man off. “There’s a gator in the way. I’ll be there real soon.”
In a hard, quick motion, he flipped the switch on the radio box to OFF before he put the mic back in, and then looked at me. A bead of sweat dripped from his forehead. That would’ve been reasonable—it was at least 95 degrees out, and we had the windows down—but his breaths came short, too. Like he was nervous.
“Sorry about that. I ah,” he faltered for a moment, “I should take you to your mom, I guess.” He reached for the shifter and put the truck in reverse, but didn’t back up yet. “Did you wanna take pictures?”
It took me a second to realize he meant pictures of the alligator. Awkwardly, I pulled out my camera and rolled the window down. There was no way I was actually getting out of the truck to snap photos. I got a few pictures. None were spectacular, but they’d be cool to show Mom, and send to Dad and Jayla.
“Thanks,” I said as I settled back into my seat. “So, who was that on the radio? You said yesterday it was just us, you, Maisie, and the Fontaines.”
He didn’t answer right away, once again focusing hard on the road. “Storm knocked down some of the construction,” he said, but it felt forced. “We had to call in some help to reinforce...I had to go get lumber and stuff today.”
So that was what was in the home improvement store bags.
Silence settled between us after that. He was clearly uncomfortable all of a sudden, and because he was uncomfortable, I was, too.
When he dropped me off, Mom was just leaving the Fontaine cottage. “See ya,” he said. I really didn’t like how weird things had gotten all of a sudden.
I dropped down out of the truck. “See ya.”
I shut the door. Before he pulled away, he said, “Hey, Flip?” I turned around, and he gave me an uncertain smile. “I wanna see those pictures sometime.”
Okay. So he wasn’t mad that I’d asked about whoever was on the radio. That was good. “Yeah, okay. I’ll get some prints when I’m in town.”
He smiled at me again, this time more fully. That was a relief. I still had my new friend. This summer would be even longer without someone to hang out with. “I can’t wait.” He nodded at my mom and said, “Good afternoon, Mrs. Himura.”
“Good afternoon, Daniel,” Mom replied, and I didn’t even have to look at her to see that she was smirking in that Mom Knows Something Is Up way. That is SO annoying, because she’s usually SO right.
I walked around to the passenger side of Gladys and gave her a warning look. But she only smiled more as we got inside. “Don’t, Mom.”
“Whaaaat?” she asked. She is SO not good at innocence.
“Don’t.”
“Fine,” she said. “I won’t.” And she didn’t. She talked about her meeting with Rhys, but I didn’t hear much of it. My mind was busy, puzzling. The workers must’ve gotten in early, or maybe when I was in the shower this morning, because I’d have seen them otherwise. I had stayed close to the road that went in and out of Dogwood Cross.
When we arrived at the gatehouse, I made a point to check the tracks in the drying mud of the day. One set matched the Honda. The other set matched the big mud wheels on Daniel’s truck. There were no other sets of tire tracks. No other vehicles had come through the gate.
I wasn’t entirely sure the six of us were the only ones staying on the island.

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The Curious Case of the Truck in the Night-Time

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