The Mystery of Dogwood Cross
“Hello?” Nadia’s voice came through my phone simultaneously soft and bright,. As she and I talked, I imagined her across the table from me, all pretty and Southern, bright eyes and concerned heart. I was so not like her, except for the concerned heart thing.
At least I had that going for me?
“So, my mom dropped me off at the cafe again,” I told her. “It’s our first time in town since I saw you. Anyway, I asked her if it would be okay if you came to visit Rhys. She said yeah, as long as she could supervise.”
Silence filled the connection between us for a second, and then another. “Are you serious? Oh, wow, that would be so great! Can I bring Jason? He’s Rhys’s best friend and he’s been really worried about him.”
I faltered. I hadn’t talked to Mom about more than Nadia coming out, but what could one more hurt? “Yeah, yeah, of course. That’s fine.”
I could almost feel Nadia’s relief. “Oh, good,” she said, but then her tone changed. “Are you sure it’s totally okay? The last time we went out to see him, that horrible man told us it was private property and he would call the cops if we didn’t leave.”
I blinked. “Horrible man?” Did she mean CTW? I seriously doubted it, since she’d been so colloquial by calling him Grandpa Chaz before. “You mean Mr. Fontaine?”
“Oh, no! Grandpa Chaz is the best. He’s always been SO NICE to us. I hate the way he’s been treated in the papers and stuff, you know? No, I meant the tall guy with the accent?”
I wondered what kind of accent was notable to her, since she had such a soft drawl of her own. “I don’t know who you’re talking about,” I said. “So whoever he is, I guess he’s gone.”
Again, I could hear her relief. “Okay, that’s good. He wouldn’t let us past the gate last time.”
“Well,” I said, trying to reassure her, “I live at the gate now. And I’ll let you in.”
Nadia and I made plans for her to visit in three days, because her work and volleyball schedule was so packed, and she said Jason worked nights waiting tables at some resort on this island. She thanked me at least six times before she hung up, and then I texted Mom the plans.
I uploaded the highlights of my recent photography onto my online portfolio, and then sorted through emails and messages. What Nadia said nagged at me, though, and I finally gave in. I couldn’t find out who the mean guy on the island was, but the thing about CTW being treated badly in the press? Yeah, that was weird.
So, between texts to Jayla, I searched Charles Winfield Thibault Fontaine.
A lot turned up.
While some of the articles from the bigger regional newspapers were unbiased, a bunch of smaller presses and bloggers treated him with a lot of negativity:
While the island of Dogwood Cross is not subject to the same building codes as the neighboring residential and commercial Gentle Isles, Fontaine has agreed to follow the environmental protective regulations in effect across the coast. Even so, many on the Gentle Isles Development Council have expressed their concern over his perceived autonomy over Dogwood Cross. Eileen Wilkeshire, a longtime member of the GIDC, has been Fontaine’s most vocal opponent. At a recent interview, she told the Gazette, “The state has been actively pursuing the purchase of Dogwood Cross from the Fontaine family for almost two decades. It’s an incredibly valuable resource for the natural inhabitants. The island’s southern shoreline is integral to thousands of sea turtles. To develop that particular beach as a playground for vacationers could do unbelievable damage to the Atlantic Ocean’s ecosystem.”
I’ll be honest: I had to read that paragraph like, three, maybe four times before I really comprehended what it meant. But when I did, I moved on to the other search results, most of which were similar in content. Some, however, were scathing. One blogger had a number of anti-Fontaine posts. Most of those weren’t out of concern for the ecological effects that would come with the island’s development, though. This blogger, who went by the name Blackbeard, seemed to be way more upset with CTW for being rich. His tirades were monotonous reruns of each other, with phrases like, “utterly selfish” and “entitled” and “ignorant outsider.”
And then I came across a post dated in mid- February linked to the car crash that had killed Rhys’s dad. Blackbeard’s single word on the post sucker-punched me: “Justice?”
How horrible. How incredibly horrible.
“I hate the Internets,” I said after I recovered. Even so, I clicked the link.
On the night of February 12, Rhys and his dad were driving on the mainland road we’d just driven today, when someone in an SUV slammed into the driver’s side, head-on. It had happened on the edge of the suburbs, but a traffic camera had caught the accident on tape. The SUV belonged to Blaine Armstrong, a community college student. Armstrong had been last seen at a local club, boozing it up with friends.
The article said that Rhys’s dad had died on the scene, minutes before the paramedics got there. Rhys had been taken to the hospital to treat a severe head wound. He was expected to recover.
I knew how that story ended.
Another related article, linked to the last, had more information. Rhys was a star baseball player, who’d won a bunch of regional art competitions over the years. He’d moved with his dad, an architect, to Dogwood Cross just a year and a half ago, from Chicago. Rhys was a member of the forensics team and, no lie, helped out at a food bank charity in his spare time.
I SORT OF hated him for being an athletic, intelligent, artistic, altruistic overachiever. But not really. It was no wonder Nadia missed him.
This article had been updated just a day later: Armstrong had been found, passed out at a friend’s house, no sign of injury. His SUV, however? Its front end had been torn into a hot mess.
At the date of the article, Armstrong was in custody with no bail granted, waiting a trial for vehicular manslaughter.
I felt so sick for everyone involved.
And Blackbeard’s comment haunted me.
“Honey?” Mom asked softly as we drove back to Dogwood Cross. “You’ve been so quiet. Are you feeling okay?”
“Yeah,” I lied, gazing out the window. The sky glowed blood red over the salt marsh. A heron, broad and strong, made a calculated arc and came to rest at the nearest edge without a wobble. I wished I could be so sure. I wish I knew how to not only fly, but to land with such grace and assurance.
Of course, the heron wasn’t trying to make friends or deal with Mood Swing Maisie. The heron didn’t worry about Rhys or his grandfather.
“Sweetie?” Mom prompted me.
I glanced at her. “Yeah?”
“I asked if you’d talked to Jayla?”
“A little. She was at rehearsal.”
“Anyone else?”
I nodded, and gave her a list of the other friends I’d talked to, then looked out the window again.
“You were quiet at dinner.”
I sighed. “Sorry?”
“I’m not mad, just, you know, Dad’s waited days to talk to you and you were kind of sullen.”
What she was saying in her sweet-Mom way was that I had been rude to Dad. I sighed again and apologized. “I guess I’m just worried about Rhys. What’ll happen to him once we’re gone?”
She reached over and tucked some of my dark hair behind my ear. “Well, after I write my final report on his abilities and give my recommendation, he’ll be placed in a home where he can get the kind of care he needs. You know how this works, Baby. He may even be able to go into a good foster home and a regular school.”
She was right. I did know how this worked, but I was hoping that maybe this time, it would work differently, considering his circumstances with his dad and grandfather.
“He’s seventeen,” I reminded her. “He’ll age out within a year.”
She looked at the road in front of her, and I could see she wasn’t very happy with Rhys’s potential future, either. “I know. But his social worker is very good, and I want the best for him, too.”
I sighed and nodded, then reached over to turn the music up. Mom took the cue and let the conversation rest.
I woke up before seven the next morning.
Which was weird. Because who does that on vacation?
The bedofa sheets clung to my legs, damp and unhappy, just like me. At first I thought I’d knocked over a glass of water, but then, as my brain woke up, I realized that it was sweat.
Everything about me was sweat.
And as I peeled off the sheets and sat up, I became pretty sure that it wasn’t just me sweating, but the air, too.
And then I started hearing everything. I heard the birds, who were much too cheerful and chirpy. I heard the house creak. I heard the sunshine. I heard its heat, and its mocking smile.
Wait. I didn’t hear everything.
The air conditioner was not running.
I pulled myself out of bed and started checking everything electrical. The clocks displayed the correct time. My laptop’s charger light glowed. In the kitchen, the refrigerator hummed.
I found the thermostat and messed with the control. Nada. Not even a click. I whined a lot, and then stood in front of the open refrigerator door for an irresponsible amount of time, drinking the remainder of a jug of lemonade. Because if I didn’t, I would surely melt.
When Mom was up, I complained loudly at her a lot and she complained loudly back at me and poked at the thermostat panel a lot, and then whined. “I’ll have to talk to Maisie,” she said, her tone full of dread.
“I opened the windows that have screens,” I told her, “and the doors that have screens. I couldn’t find any walls with screens, but if I had, I’d have opened them, too.”
“This is why you’re my favorite daughter,” she said. Then I took what would be my first of three showers of the day.
And here I will admit to being a spoiled wuss: I am a spoiled wuss.
And so was Mom, because even though it was Sunday and she wasn’t obligated to work with Rhys, she decided to do some extra therapy, since the Fontaine cottage would be cool.
I, so helpfully, offered to go along with her and quietly support her by reading Northanger Abbey in the corner. She agreed to this.
“Before we go,” I said as I pulled my hair back into a wet knot, “can we pack lunches? For us and for Rhys, too?”
She looked surprised, but nodded. Not long after, armed with hefty turkey sandwiches, pasta salad, strawberries, and cookies, we packed Gladys up.
“Should I close the windows?” I asked Mom. We’d closed and locked the doors, but the idea of closing up the house completely, with no air circulating, made me want to whimper.
“Nah,” she answered. “Nobody besides Daniel and Maisie comes here, right?”
That was yet to be confirmed, but I shrugged. Mom put the bag of Rhys’s retrieved possessions in, too, and we headed to the other side of the island.
It was still early, only a little after nine, but Maisie’s SUV was nowhere to be found. Mom left a gently worded note about the AC on her cottage’s door, and we headed across the way to the Fontaines’.
“For some reason, I didn’t peg her as an early riser,” Mom said.
“Because it must take an hour to put on all that lipstick,” I replied. I got a warning look from Mom, because that wasn’t the kindest thing I could’ve said. But I think she was kind of amused, just not allowed to show it. But to make amends for my statement, I added, “Or maybe she’s at church?”
Neither of us thought that was likely. But neither of us had to say so.
On the Fontaine porch, Mom knocked. It was her usual time to visit, even though it was an off day. There came no answer, so she tried the door and it opened. “Wait out here,” she told me, and I did as I was told.
I put my Little Red Riding Hood basket on the ground and leaned against the railing, looking over at Maisie’s cottage. It was sort of run-down and dirty. I shifted my weight and caught a glimpse of Daniel’s cottage further down. I considered bailing on Mom and going to hang out with him, but his truck was gone, too.
Mom’s cute sandals clicked against the kitchen floor, and then she pushed open the door. “Honey,” she said, clearly alarmed. “Rhys is gone.”
Author’s Note: Thanks for your questions on the last chapter! I’ve answered them over in my Author Journal, which you can find in the Table of Contents for this book (and I’ll post a link in the comments once this is published). And yes, I did answer the question about my main character’s name!
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