The Mystery of Dogwood Cross
Chapter 1: A Dark and Stormy Night
It was a dark and stormy night and we were driving toward the hurricane.
No, really.
Dark, stormy night.
Driving toward.
No, really.
After Mom called Maisie, her contact on the island, for the sixth time to be sure it was a good idea to come (“I mean, no, really, we can find a hotel inland, Maisie”), I figured I wasn’t just being a melodramatic teenager. I get accused of that a lot.
But Maisie kept on promising Mom that it was nothing, and that this happens every year and the hurricane proper was over in Georgia, not even in the same state, and this was just rain from it.
I knew this wasn’t “just rain.” This was a waterfall pouring over the entire Southeast. My whole body was tired from the tense nine-hour drive, which was supposed to only be seven hours, but Oh My Wow we had to go so slow, because visibility was awful even in the daylight. I pried my gaze from the road—or, you know, from the place I assumed the road was—and looked at Mom. “What if we get sucked into the undertow?”
I guess she wasn’t expecting that question, because it took her a half-beat longer than usual to answer me. “Normally, this is where I’d remind you that roads don’t have undertows. But I think in this instance, it’s a valid question.” A blast of rain-wind did its very best to shove us into the median, as if illustrating our point.
“Dad won’t know what happened to us. He’ll be in London in, like, three hours and there will be so many scones and Mounties and he’ll probably totally forget us.”
“Mounties are Canadian,” Mom corrected, just like I knew she would, which is totally why I said it. “And he can’t forget us. He got that tattoo of our faces.”
Dad had no such tattoo, but I grinned anyway. “Oh, right.”
She grew quiet as she navigated the unfamiliar backroad, and my mind fired up with thoughts about the next few months. When Mom told me we’d be spending the better part of our summer on a private sea island, I was almost thrilled. I say “almost,” because the idea of a summer away from my best friend was, frankly, a deal breaker.
It’s not like Jayla and I had epic plans or anything. If I’d stayed in town, I’d assist with swim lessons at the community center, just like last year, and attempt to get some of my photography published. Jayla would have tennis lessons and play rehearsals. Both of us would babysit and go thrift shopping and try our very best to not be terrible at guitar. Mostly, we’d hang out. We just like being together, you know?
But then Mom started talking. She missed her calling, I think. I mean, sure, she’s a pretty important figure in the special education arena, but she’d have made a killer saleswoman. She started her pitch with words like “private island” and “historic home.” She followed that up with promises of time on the beach, then went on to describe how my portfolio would expand with the new location’s flora and fauna. Besides, Dad would be gone on his business trip almost as long as we were, so it wasn’t like we were leaving him all alone to fend for himself (read: subsist on Twinkies and Dr. Pepper). He’d at least be getting fish ‘n’ chips and shepherd’s pies at his fancy luncheons, right?
I did float the idea of just moving in with Jayla, but Mom raised her eyebrows like, “SRSLY?” And so I figured that also meant, “No.” And within a few short weeks, we had packed up our stuff for the summer, turned over our keys to Mom’s favorite neighbor, said goodbye to Dad, and headed off for our summer adventure.
Dogwood Cross belonged to a man superbly named Charles Thibault Winfield Fontaine. The only way I remember that name, by the way, is because it’s just that superb. Mr. CTW Fontaine lived with his grandson, Rhys, who was supposed to be an incoming high school junior, but he’d been in a bad accident that left him with cognitive disabilities, according to Mom. Rhys had been out of school for months because of the injuries. His social worker wanted an assessment of his ability for rehabilitation by September. Mom, a nationally recognized specialist in the field, was offered the job.
“I think we’re here,” Mom said, and took a left. I caught a glimpse of a pretty, new sign, but the rain was too heavy for me to read it. She flipped on the car’s hi-beams and drove slowly around one curve, then another. She was rewarded for her bravery, because in front of us stood the great landmark Maisie had told us about: the covered bridge.
But Mom stopped the car before crossing it. “I can’t see a thing. It’s like a black hole in there.”
She wasn’t exaggerating: it was literally a hole of blackness. We couldn’t see much on the other side of it, either. Big trees, the kind that should’ve created a gorgeous canopy over the road, created swaying shadows.
And then BAM, lights came on from the other side of the bank. Mom and I both jumped. Someone squeaked, but I’m not sure which of us it was. The bigger, brighter lights from the other vehicle flashed a few times in a blinding way. Someone was signaling us.
“Is it just me, or does this seem like the setup to some horrible urban legend?” Mom asked. In an act of either bravery or stupidity, she unfastened her seat belt and struggled to pull her raincoat on. She left the keys in the ignition, climbed out of the car, and braved the downpour. Before she was out, I heard her mutter something about sensible shoes.
From inside the car, I couldn’t really make out what she shouted toward the bridge, and definitely couldn’t make out what the other person said. After a few more shouts back and forth, she slid back into the car, completely drenched.
“That’s Maisie and Daniel,” she said. Water made a steady stream from her black hair, down over nose and high cheekbones. “They said there are trees down on the road, but they’re in his truck and can off-road.”
“Good for them!” I said brightly. “Shhh, shhh.” I leaned into the dashboard and pretended to listen to our Honda. Then I straightened and looked, matter-of-factly at my adorably drenched Mom. “Gladys says there is no flooding way she’s gonna off-road. And then she said some other things I’m not allowed to say to my mother.”
I got the LOOK. I sort of love the LOOK.
“Gladys doesn’t have to off-road. Maisie and Daniel are—oh, hey look, coming to get us.”
“We’re leaving Gladys?” I whispered, hoping the car wouldn’t hear the nefarious plan.
“Hush,” Mom said, her tone low and conspiratorial. “We’re not leaving her so much as we’re saving her the trouble.”
All joking aside, like, we seriously were just going to leave the car here?
“Just get what you need absolutely the very most,” Mom instructed, and bent around weirdly to try to dislodge her smaller carry-on from under the pile of travel snacks and work stuff. I joined in the fight, and finally, we freed and lifted the zebra-striped roller suitcase and bullied it to the front of the car.
Then I turned around in my seat and yanked out my backpack. I knew for sure could handle serious rain, because I’d taken it camping like forty times in the past five years. I was not leaving my laptop in the car. I’m sorry, but I had saved up half the cash for that baby. I was NOT leaving it to be eaten by swamp things or washed into the river, if the road gave out under Gladys. I dropped my phone into the backpack, too, because of the waterproofiness.
I had a zip hoodie out already, so I tugged that on, and over it I strapped my (also waterproof) camera bag. Because if I had to choose between my laptop and my camera, I’d choose my camera, any day.
Mom had been getting ready, too. I looked up just in time to see a tall figure, silhouetted against the bright beams of the truck, emerge from the bridge and come to our window. “It’s Daniel,” Mom said. “He’s going to help us.” She opened her car door and, Daniel ducked his head down.
Whoa. I wasn’t expecting —
“Hey!” he said, and flashed a grin at me. I was expecting an older man. Daniel wasn’t old at all. Well, he was older than me, but probably not by much. “Lemme get that for ya,” he told Mom, and took the zebra bag from her. “What else can I help ya with?” The wind whipped his bright yellow rain slicker around, and rain poured down over his hood and shoulders, but he didn’t seem fazed.
Mom pulled the keys from the ignition and tugged her oversized purse close. “That’s it, I think.” She looked at me. “Do you need help?”
“” I guessed, hoping the right answer. “I think I’ve got it.”
“Okay, then.” She nodded to Daniel, who stepped back. She and I both got out of the car and shut the doors.
On your mark, get set, go!
We ran. And by ran, I mean we plodded like stampeding rhinos through the mud. Between the lights and the rain, I couldn’t see where we were going. Mostly, I was just following Mom. Who, by the slurping sound of boots in standing water, sounded like she was following Daniel.
We made it onto the bridge, where things got a little easier. No rain, and we could get out of the light. Daniel opened the rear driver’s side door of the truck — it was massive, with those huge mud tires – and Mom climbed up the 40 feet and slid into the truck with the grace of a longtime rodeo groupie.
I stood there, gaping. Because HOW DID SHE DO THAT? She reached down. “Here, give me your bags.” I did as I was told, and then tugged my clinging, wet jeans leg up some, trying to get my foot to the rung so I could get in. I couldn’t reach it.
“Here, lemme help,” Daniel said, and bent over, bridging his hands together. “Just like a horse, right?”
I looked down at the yellow cowboy helplessly. “Oh!” I said. He was making a stirrup. Oh, okay! Awkwardly, I put my muddy left foot in his hands and he lifted me up. It was a bit faster than I expected, so with absolutely none of my mom’s grace, I sort of fell into the cab of the truck and grabbed hold of the driver’s seat until I could get both legs under me.
“Oh, sweetie!” Mom said. “Are you okay?”
“Uhhuh,” I said, but my ego was definitely bruised and would require a heat pack later. Daniel didn’t seem to think anything of it, and shut the door behind me, then climbed into the driver’s seat. With skill, he backed out of the bridge and we were on our way.
Like Daniel, Maisie seemed bright and completely nonplussed about both the storm and the lack of real roads and—oh, hey, a tree totally just got uprooted as we passed what may, in drier days, have been a meadow. She, too, was in a rain slicker. Hers was bright pink, and even in the truck she kept the hood pulled over her hair. Maisie chattered loudly, and I hoped at least Mom could understand her over the loud rain and even louder truck. I have no clue what was said, because I was busy being bumped around in the big cab. I ended up clutching my camera bag to my chest with one arm, and snaking the other around a passenger handle by the window just to stay in my seat.
Maybe five minutes later, Daniel called out, “We’re at the o’er side a’ the island!” I had to strain to see past the dark gray fog and light gray rain and the dark black night. We slowed and Daniel steered us to the left.
Maisie turned around in her seat and grinned at us. “Home sweet summer home!” I ducked around Daniel’s seat to look out the windshield. Directly in front of us, illuminated by the truck’s crazy bright lights, stood a huge wrought iron gate, which stood pushed open. Above it, old, aged brick arched and flowed into a house, all a single structure. The only window on the first-floor facade was bright, the light inside on, welcoming us.
A gatehouse! I get to live in a gatehouse!
Mom and I said goodnight to Maisie, picked up our smaller bags, and Daniel led the dash to the front door, carrying the zebra case as if it weighed nothing at all. There was no porch, and the eaves didn’t offer much in the way of shelter. Mom and I huddled together as Daniel dug his hand into his yellow raincoat pocket, then pulled out a key ring the size of a bracelet, completely loaded with keys.
He chose one and used it to unlock the door.
And then another with which to unlock the deadbolt.
He pushed the big old door open, flipped the light switch up, and stepped back for Mom and me to enter.
I followed Mom inside. The walls were mostly made of old, imperfectly-shaped bricks. The floors were dark, aged, and wood.
Thank Tesla there were electric lights.
Electric lights meant running water and WiFi, right? Right?
The further we walked into the gatehouse, the thicker the air became, all damp and stuffy. It smelled like cleaning chemicals and felt like a cold sweat. To our right, under a wide archway, was the kitchen. To our left, a roll-top desk and some trunks filled the space under the stairs. Daniel led the way to the living room, where he put down the zebra case and flipped on a lamp.
A contemporary sofa with a chaise faced French doors. Wide windows on either side of the doors gave an almost panoramic view of the back yard. Or, it would’ve, if it wasn’t pitch black outside. A big leather chair was tucked into a nook at the foot of the stairs, near one of the rear windows. Little end tables held lamps, and the far wall was filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, which were, in turn, filled with books and magazines.
The rain was still super-loud, so I didn’t realize Daniel was talking until Mom replied with, “Okay.”
“Well,” Daniel said, tugging his sopping wet baseball cap onto his head, and it his accent was so strong that it sounded like he’d said, “whale.” It took me a minute to decode the word. “We’ll see ya in the mornin’. Take care, ladies.” He flashed another one of his nice smiles, and exited.
“See ya,” I said as the door thudded behind him. Then I looked at mom and rocked back on my heels. My shoes and socks squished with floodwater. She looked right back at me.
“So. Here we are,” she said. She had this wet puppy look to her. I bet I had a drowned rat look to me.
“Yep. Here we are.”
She grinned. “An adventure!”
“An adventure,” I agreed.
Lightning flashed bright, momentarily illuminating the trees and rain outside. An earthquaking crash of thunder accompanied it.
And then the lights went out.

Keep Reading

Chapter 2

Chapter 2: Locks and Shadows

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