The Mystery of Dogwood Cross
CHAPTER
7
Wrongly Pink and Raging Red
Coffee poured from the French press into a ceramic mug so ancient it may well have made by the original island residents. “So, that’s all you’ve got?” I asked Mom as I took a seat at the kitchen table. “A delivery truck gone off course?”
“That’s the most logical explanation.” She rolled her eyes at me and set the press down, and offered me a cube of sugar. I accepted. “You know how the roads are back here. I could barely find my way back from town last night.”
This much was true. Mom had finally given up trying to navigate from memory and let me use the GPS, since we’d been trying to outrun the storm. That is, until the 3G no longer worked and we’d made a lucky guess or two. I dropped the sugar in my cup of coffee and slowly stirred it.
“You’re being silent,” she observed. “But not silent like, ‘Ohhh, I’m in looooove.’ It’s the kind of silent you get when you’re doing complex quantum trigonometry in your head.”
“There’s no such thing as quantum trigonometry,” I told her dryly.
“But if there was,” she countered, “it would be complex. And you would do it. In your head.”
“Yes. Because I’m a total braniac,” I agreed, even MORE dryly. Like, a lily pad in the Sahara dryly. Because I am so not a total braniac. She would know. She grades my papers. All of them. And much too honestly.
She stepped past me and kissed my cheek as she sat down at the table. “It’s not really our business if people come and go,” she said, eyes on mine. “But I’ll admit, I don’t like the idea of random men running around here at two in the morning. I’ll talk to Maisie about it.”
“Ask her if she has halberds or shillelaghs or mangonels lying around, so we can defend ourselves if invaders try to take our stone fortress.”
“I will. But a mangonel wouldn’t be in our favor. It’s a siege weapon, like a catapult, Darling.”
“How do you know?” I asked, and made sure to sound like she couldn’t POSSIBLY know.
She settled a soft, long-suffering look on me. “To get my Mothering Certification, I had to pass Archaic Northern European Weaponry. My dissertation was on the potential modern use of the Bangalore torpedo during inter-family conflicts.”
“Okay, one, totally not buying you had to get a certificate in mothering,” I said, and took a sip of the coffee. “Two, Bangalore is in India, and that is NOT Northern Europe and—,”
“India was still a British colony at the time.”
“—AND,” I continued over her interjection, “in no way would a torpedo ever, ever, EVER be acceptable during family conflicts.”
She leaned in, leveling a challenging look at me. “What exactly IS a halberd?”
I leaned in, too, and made a face at her. “A weapon.”
“Describe it.”
“It is made of ouchie material and causes ouchies.”
She sat back, satisfied. “I should totally make you write me an essay.”
“You can’t. Vacation. Besides, no WiFi. How am I supposed to write a report without Wikipedia?”
She looked like she was about to sob into her coffee. “I raised you better than this,” she said at length. “How many times must I tell you that Wikipedia is not a reliable source?”
I smiled super brightly at her.
Her alarm went off just then. “You’re so lucky that I’m a responsible adult and intent on creating a work schedule, even here in paradise.” She put the lid on her travel mug. “I was so close to making you write ‘Wikipedia is not source material’ a hundred times. In cursive. Backwards.”
I stuck my tongue out at her, and waved her off. “Go be responsible for something other than making my hand cramp.” She laughed, and within a few minutes, she was gone.
Alone again in the gatehouse, I considered spending the whole day in my PJs, but instead, I decided to get some sun in the back yard. Mom had gotten insect repellent at the store, and I put a layer of that on after my sunscreen. I took my book and a glass of sweet tea out and stretched out on a lounge chair.
Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Thorpe were sparring again when I heard it: the rumble of an engine. This was turning into a not-so-fun guessing game for me. The sound could come from Daniel’s truck (yay!) or Maisie’s SUV (meh). And last night I learned that it could also belong to a ShadowMan’s delivery truck (mmph).
The sight that accompanied the noise a minute later solicited the yay! response.
Daniel pulled his truck up parallel to where I was stretched out and, a moment later, he hopped out. “Hey!” he called and strode over.
“Hi,” I replied, and inwardly applauded myself for having decided against the PJs. “How’s work today?”
“Just starting,” he answered. “But I thought maybe you’d wanna actually see the beach today. I checked: the gator’s nowhere to be seen.”
I grinned a lot at that and sat up, swinging my legs to one side of the lounge chair and planting my feet. “Sounds awesome. Gimme a minute to grab some stuff. Come on in.”
He followed me inside, and my unmade bedofa greeted us. I pulled my battery from the wall charger and slid it into my camera. “So, last night,” I said, and tried my very best to sound casual as I went to the kitchen, “like, in the middle of the night, I woke up and there was a van at the gate, trying to get in.”
“That’s weird,” he said.
“I know, right? Hey, you want a Coke?”
“Sure.”
I opened the fridge to pull one out for him, but waited until I closed the door before I spoke again. “Mom says it was just a delivery truck gone off course.” I grabbed a bottle of water from the counter for myself and grabbed a protein bar, then went back out to him.
“I guess…I mean, I guess that’s what it had to be, right?” he asked, and he took the Coke when I offered it. “With the storm and everything, it would’ve been easy to get lost.”
It was time to drop it, even though I wanted to press the weirdness issue. Daniel didn’t know anything about this particular thing. I had to accept that. “Yeah, I guess so.” I put the protein bar in my bag, and took a moment to pull on socks and my new boots.
And then I heard laughter.
I looked up.
Yep, Daniel was laughing at me. “I said we’re going to the beach.”
“You told me to get boots!” I held up one of my fantastic new brown hiking kicks. “I listened to you!”
He laughed more. “I meant for when you’re walking through the brush and stuff. Not for when you’re on the BEACH.”
“There are critters everywhere,” I argued, but he was already taking the boot away from me. “I don’t want the critters to get me.”
“The worst critters on the beach will be the no-see-ums and the occasional sand crab.” He put my boot on the floor, out of my reach.
“No-see-ums?” I asked, because that sounded very much like a ninja critter. You know, like yesterday’s coral snake.
“They’re like gnats. But they’re really flies, I think. And they bite.”
“So…mosquitoes?” I asked.
“No. Not mosquitoes. No-see-ums.”
I gave him a look, the kind where my mouth and eyebrows are pressed down. “How does one keep no-see-ums away?”
He shrugged. “Dunno. But if you figure it out, tell me!” And then he shot me the widest smile, as if he’d been helpful.
And even though he was, actually, extremely NOT helpful, I really liked that smile.
I will be honest: I was kind of bummed that Daniel had to work again today. I really wouldn’t have minded him hanging out all morning. He dropped me off, but before he left, he showed me where the footpath back to the cottages was.
“It’s a shortcut, and if you stay on the path and keep your eyes open, you’ll be okay,” he said, and took a step back toward his truck. He hesitated, eyes on me. The air between us felt heavy. Even more heavy than the heat and humidity warranted. “Just be careful.”
And then he added, “I like having you around.”
Oh.
Yeah.
Okay!
I smiled, and was really glad it was so hot, because maybe he wouldn’t notice that I was totally blushing. “I like having you around, too. So…be careful. Too.”
Apparently I left my ability to communicate like an intelligent person back in my home state.
He didn’t seem to mind, because he left me with that great smile of his.
Which meant I kept on smiling for a while, too.
I stayed on the beach for nearly two hours. I photographed a lot, walking down the shore to the little jetty someone had built, probably recently. Then, back at the blanket I’d brought, I drank the whole bottle of water as I read another chapter. It took a long time, because I kept getting distracted with…critters.
But these critters were not of the hungry-for-you variety!
The pelican’s form, from this distance, looked more like an ancient sky creature, like a pterodactyl, than a modern bird. It glided, then cut a half-circle into the air before it dove from the sky and plunged into the water. It disappeared under the gray-blue waves. Moments later, it resurfaced and floated. A fish’s tail hung from its light brown bill and flopped, helpless. Soon enough, the pelican had it in its pouch. From there, I didn’t know what happened to the prey.
The pelican must’ve texted his friends, because over the next few minutes, more pelicans came to lunch in front of me. I got a lot of good shots, even though I hardly had the perfect lens for these kinds of photos. I finally let the camera rest around my neck, but a new movement caught my eye.
A little farther than where the pelicans bobbed atop the water, I saw it again.
A smooth, gray back rose up, its dorsal fin like a flag, and then arced back into the water!
DOLPHIN!
I moved to the water, ditching my flip-flops in the process, to get as close as I could without getting my clothes wet. The water, warm and inviting, broke around my calves as I focused my lens out to the water. Then my knees, then above them. I shot a lot, not knowing how any would turn out, but I didn’t care. It was exciting! Dolphins!
Eventually, I moved back to the land and dried off. I was hungry, and the protein bar wasn’t really appetizing. It was nearly noon, and Mom would be finishing up with Rhys. I packed up and headed up the trail, still smiling from all I’d witnessed.
Fortunately, the trail up to the cottages was shaded but not at all creepy or crawly, and I emerged somewhere between the Fontaine cottage and Daniel’s smaller one. Voices filtered through the air. No, a single voice. A woman’s.
Not Mom’s.
And…angry.
I hesitated, then drew closer to Daniel’s cottage. Close enough to know the words were coming from Maisie, in her own little house. Quietly, I approached, sticking to the treeline behind the houses and listening.
“Don’t you lie to me, Boy. I know exactly what I said, and the fact that your pathetic brain can’t follow some simple directions—,”
The voice faded. She must be walking around or something. I moved in, close to the back of Daniel’s place, and peeked around the side. His truck wasn’t there, and I was glad he wasn’t getting her ire. “—and if you ever, EVER disobey me again, you’ll be begging to go back to where you came from, do you understand me?”
I froze. Whoa.
WHOA.
I backed out of the yard quickly and made it back to the trailhead, my heart pounding in a not-fun way. I took a deep breath and headed up to the Fontaine cottage. Gladys sat out front. Thank goodness!
A screen door opened, then slammed shut.
I glanced over at the other cottages, but I couldn’t see who’d come out.
I wanted to run up the Fontaine stairs to Mom, but I did my very best to look casual.
“Hey, Sweetie,” came a bright, candied voice.
Maisie.
The same one who’d been spit-angry just half a minute ago.
I stopped and turned, and smiled at the woman. “Hey!”
Her eyes fixed on me. A cold chill ran through my bones and I couldn’t stop the shudder that ran over my skin. “Lookin’ for your mama?” she asked, her wrongly pink lips turned up into a smile.
It took me a second to answer. “Uh-huh.”
Her smile…
It changed.
There was a reptilian quality to it. But yesterday’s snake and gator seemed benign in comparison.
“We say, ‘Yes, Ma’am’ around here, Sweetie.”
I somehow managed to keep my smile, even though I wanted to gulp. “Yes, Ma’am.”
Satisfied with my obedience, her smile changed back. “She’s right in there,” she said, and pointed to the house that I was totally about to enter.
“Thank you,” I said as brightly as I could.
“Of course. Y’all have a good afternoon.”
Without waiting for me to answer, she turned and walked back the way she’d come.
I want my mommy.
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