The Mystery of Dogwood Cross
CHAPTER
9
The Boy in the Cottage
I screamed as the hand gripped my arm. Blindly, I whirled and looked at the hooded figure. I stayed in place because of my captor’s strength rather than my own impulse, which was to like, flail and flee. Rain stung my wide-open eyes, but before I closed them, I caught a glimpse of bright pink.
Pink lips.
Wrongly pink lips.
Maisie.
“Come with me.” Her grip remained firm, just above my elbow, and she began to move quickly toward the road. Off-balance by her sudden movement, I tripped along but caught myself. She yelled something into the storm but I couldn’t understand it.
The sky and earth flashed white as lightning burst just west of us. Her SUV was parked just up ahead. Shelter. Instead of fighting her, I ran with her. She released me as we approached, and I scrambled into the passenger side.
I slammed the door behind me, gasping for breath. A shudder ran through my body and I looked over at her. She pulled off her silver hood, which now I saw was part of a raincoat. “Oh, Sweetie. I’m so glad I found you! On his way out, Danny said you were out at the pavilion, and I was afraid I wouldn’t get to you!”
I pushed my dripping hair out of my face. My heart still pounded, less from the run than from being snatched, but I managed to give her an honestly grateful smile. “Thank you, Maisie. I didn’t see that one coming at all!”
“It’s a real gullywasher, for sure,” she agreed, and I tucked that word ‘gullywasher’ deep into my brain, because I liked it. “Lissen, Honey, I don’t know what your mama’s thinkin’, lettin’ you walk all over everywhere like she does. It’s not real bad out here, but I wouldn’t stray too much, if I were you.”
I wanted to respond by saying things like, “I HAVEN’T BEEN STRAYING and I’m only like, a week in, and what else am I supposed to do, Lady?” and “If I could get a solid wireless data network out here, life would be hunky-dory!” But I clamped down on those things and just smiled and nodded.
“Your mama’s still with the boy,” she continued. “I’ll take ya on over there.”
I thanked her again, and at least once more before I peeled myself from the SUV and raced up the side steps to the cottage’s small covered porch. I wrung out my hair and the tails of my unbuttoned overshirt as best as I could before knocking on the light turquoise door.
A wind blew and I shivered. The temperature was dropping even more. Was that normal?
I heard Mom approach. She peeked out of the door’s window, and I saw relief in her eyes. She opened the door. “I was so worried,” she said softly, taking my bag. “Come in, come in. Take your shoes off. It got cold in here, so I turned the heat on. You can warm up. Where were you? Are you okay?”
I followed the directions, and struggled to get my boots off while creating a puddle on the kitchen floor. “I was at the pavilion. Maisie found me.” And scared the beetlejuice out of me. But I didn’t add that. “She brought me here. I’m okay.” I pulled off my damp, very outdoorsy plaid overshirt since I was still wearing a baby tee.
“Good.” Mom set my boots by the door. “Put ‘raincoat, an awesome one’ on your shopping list, for when we’re in town next.” We had a growing list of stuff to buy, like bungee cords with which to raccoon-proof the trashcans, and the most recent season of our favorite spacey-wacey, timey-wimey TV show. Mom’s laptop monitor was big enough to use as a TV. We could while away at least a few nights that way, if we didn’t binge watch, and feel connected, once again, to our beloved Sci Fi community. I’d have to dig in and write some fanfiction to keep my edge.
“Will do,” I agreed, stooping again to roll up my jeans so they wouldn’t streak up the linoleum floor. My socks, miraculously, were dry. Well, they were until I lost my balance and stepped into the puddle I’d created. Darnit. I took off my socks and then looked up at Mom. “Are you going to say the thing? This would be a perfect time to say the thing.”
She faced me with a solemn look. “You’ll catch your death of cold.”
“You do that so well.”
“When you’re a mom, it’ll flow from your mouth, too,” she promised. “It’s not something you can fake, not even with years of practice in front of a mirror. Now listen,” she said, for-real solemn. “Rhys is in the living room, but we’ve been working in here. You’ll need to stay out of the kitchen after I introduce you. His grandfather’s sleeping in his own room. Cool?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I nodded. I loved that Mom could play, but also knew when to pull it in. It came in handy when I was actually upset about something, or needed help. “I’ve got enough stuff in my pack to keep me entertained for at least ten minutes.”
She pinched my cheek and grinned. “There’s my girl. I’ll toss your socks and overshirt in the dryer in a minute.” She left me in the kitchen so she could prepare Rhys. I looked around, realizing that this was my first time being inside the Fontaine cottage. I’d only ever been up to the porch to meet Mom. From the looks of it, they’d been in the middle of fine motor skill work. Beads of varying size were laying on the table. To the side were two tongs about the size of big tweezers. Mom had a lot of things like this in her occupational therapy kits. It looked like preschool stuff to the outsider, but I knew that the work Mom’s clients did with the “toys” was as valid as trigonometry or Latin translation.
One of the things I liked the most about Mom and Dad is that “stupid” was as bad as any cuss word around our house. I’d gotten in more trouble the few times I’d called myself stupid than I had when I said my first really bad word, without knowing it was a really bad word. And Mom was really compassionate and patient. Not just with her clients, but with me, too. She’s always had a way of seeing to the heart of problems. That, along with the CONSTANT reading and studying she does, makes her an awesome occupational therapist. And a pretty cool mom, too.
I took a minute to wring out and rebraid my dripping hair, and then Mom popped back in. She gathered my wet, discarded clothes and nodded to me. I followed her into the living room.
The room was cozy and, to my relief, warm. Windows along one side of it told me it could catch a nice breeze when they were open. No interior decorator had been involved with the furniture selection, but I liked that, too. This stuff was well loved, soft, and strong. There was a strong, residual scent of wood smoke that fit with the fireplace that quietly oversaw the room. The floor was wood, and a thick, old rug covered most of it. No TV here, either, but books piled everywhere. Not old reference books, like at the gatehouse, but a lot of novels. John Steinbeck, Tom Clancy. Mark Twain, Suzanne Collins, David Baldacci. I saw some nonfiction history titles and biographies in the mix, too.
And there was Rhys. He stood at the window, swaying back and forth to a rhythm only he heard, staring out at the storm.
Rhys was the most disturbing thing about Dogwood Cross.
Because even from this angle, Rhys was really good-looking.
He was tall. Not lanky, but just-right tall, maybe around six feet. He had strong shoulders, and his back showed he was no stranger to work. His clothes came from stores that proudly put their names over everything, and they fit him nicely. His hair was dark blond, highlighted with gold from the sun, and he’d once had a neat haircut, but it was growing out, into waves that curled just over the tops of his ears, almost touching his collar. He was nothing like I had expected.
“Rhys,” Mom said softly. “I’d like you to meet my daughter.”
No! No, Mom, no no no no no! I looked and a smelled like a wet dog! What was she thinking? I was about to protest—couldn’t this meeting happen like, on a sunny day when I was in a cute sundress and looking perfectly feminine and as attractive as possible?—but I remembered his injuries. He could barely write his own name now, she’d told me so. He wouldn’t be interested in me like that, no matter what, so I had nothing to worry about. Right?
“Rhys?” He hadn’t moved away from the window, turned his head, nothing. Mom stepped forward. “Rhys, could you—“
He turned then. His gaze went right to me and stayed there.
He wasn’t celebrity pretty, but he was definitely attractive. His almond-shaped eyes were honey brown, his mouth was relaxed, and his nose curved gently, softening his features. Mom reached out and touched his shoulder. One side of his face pulled back in a wince. The other side, however, remained slack. My piano teacher, after her stroke, had the same kind of facial paralysis. Her speech had been slurred, and her motor functions severely decreased in one hand.
I stepped forward. “Hi,” I said carefully, and gave him a smile. I received no response, but I wasn’t really expecting one. He frowned with that one side of his mouth, and then turned his back to me again, watching the storm out the window.
Mom gave me an apologetic smile, and then went to another part of the house to put my stuff in the dryer. The lights flickered, then went off. I glanced worriedly at Rhys, knowing that sometimes, unexpected things set off Mom’s clients. He didn’t seem to notice the sudden darkness, though. I remembered Mom saying he was under responsive to certain stimuli. I guess visual stimuli was one of them.
Everything I’d wondered about him since arriving flooded back into my mind. Like I usually do after meeting one of Mom’s clients, I wrestled with how unfair it was that some people were born normal and some weren’t. That tragedy happened to some and nothing bad ever happened to others. But then Mom’s rule about “normal” popped back into my head.
There is no Stupid.
There is no Normal, either.
The electricity, and the lights and the heat and all the sounds that came with it, came back on. The dryer, somewhere in the back hall, started, and Mom emerged again. She had a few towels in her arms, and handed them to me. “I hope it stays on,” she murmured.
“Me, too,” I said.
“Rhys?” Mom held out her hand for him. Like a child, he took it and walked slowly with her to the kitchen to finish their session.
I laid out the towels so I wouldn’t mess up the big chair in the corner, and curled up, shivering. I pulled my phone from my camera bag, thinking maybe, since this was the residential part of the island, there might be…
I pressed the screen button on my phone, which I kept with me as much out of habit as hope.
The “no service” symbol greeted me. I frowned to myself, and moved to my feet.
I had questions, and this might be a chance to get some answers.
—- Hey, everyone! It’s so cool that the Author Journals for the Creative Partners Program are live now! Be sure to check your favorite CP story’s Table of Contents to find the link to the Author Journals. My first, “The World of Dogwood Cross” is linked in the comments of this chapter. Thank you so, so much for reading! -Eliza —-
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