The Mystery of Dogwood Cross
The Stone Pier
“Maisie has been here,” Mom said as we searched the cottage for Rhys once more. “Because look, she fixed breakfast.” She gestured to the kitchen table, where Rhys’s bowl sat, dirty with oatmeal remainders.
“She didn’t stick around to clean up,” I said. Upon closer examination, the oatmeal was already mostly dried out and cemented to the ceramic bowl and its accompanying spoon, but still showed enough softness to tell me that it hadn’t been left over from yesterday.
We checked every room, but there were no signs of Rhys at all. CTW slept on, completely useless to our search, but it looked as though he’d been fed, albeit hastily, too. Back outside, Mom headed for the car. I followed, but stopped before getting in.
“Wait,” I said. “You go look up and down the roads. But I know the footpaths better than you do. I’ll check down by the beach.”
We made plans to meet back at the cottage, and I set off.
It’s strange, how worry can make silence deafening. As I walked, I listened hard for the sounds of teenage guy, even though Rhys was no regular teenage guy. Instead of guy sounds, I heard everything else. The rattle song of cicadas. The bright chirps of tree frogs. It wasn’t night, so they hadn’t come together for choir yet. A whooperwill called out, loud and clear, and wind made the branches above me dance. Every few yards, I broke through the humid air with my own song: “RHYS! RHYYYYYS!”
When the path, lined with palmettos and wax myrtles, gave way to cordgrass and sea oats, I paused and scanned the beach. No sign of Rhys, but the tide was on its way out, and the sand was still wet enough to hold footprints.
I trudged over the loose, dry dunes and into the harder-packed wet sand to investigate. I put my foot beside a print: it was definitely larger, man-sized. And it was barefoot. Unless Daniel had gone for an early morning walk, these had to belong to Rhys.
My heart raced, even as it dropped into my stomach. The worst scenario burst into my mind, causing my head to pound. “No,” I told my morbid imagination. “The tracks go along the shore, not into the water.”
And so I followed the sandy footprints, so, so glad the tide wasn’t on its way in to act as an eraser. The sun kept rising, and even though the heat tried to slow me down, I wouldn’t let it. I kept my pace, every once in a while calling for Rhys, even though I was sure he wasn’t hiding under the sand or anything.
In the distance, a stone pier stretched out, past the breakers, and into the deep water. Rhys’s trail led me to it, and as I neared, the pier’s magnitude caused me to pause. Made of massive rocks with weathered edges, it looked as if it had been there for centuries, and reminded me of something I’d see on a British coast. It struck me as more of a wall than pier, really. I drew closer and picked my way up the rocks.
Standing atop it, I could see more than I expected.
While the Atlantic breathed, sovereign and unstoppable, my eyes were drawn to the white powerboat that bobbed restfully at the pier’s end.
A boat.
Of course there was a boat. Mr. Fontaine was rich, and he owned a sea island.
A boat made perfect sense, right?
But if it was Mr. Fontaine’s, shouldn’t it be locked up somewhere? How long had it been out here?
My skin burned from the rising sun, and I remembered my task. I looked down the other side of the shore, but I saw no more footprints. The beach narrowed considerably, leaving just a small stripe of sand before an incline to the woods. Just past the dunes, I could make out a wood cabin.
I looked between my options: the cabin and the boat, and started walking the length of the pier. Even though it was wide enough that I couldn’t easily fall off, the flat surface of the rocks were slick. When we escaped the hot cottage, I had decided on flip flops since, for once, I wouldn’t be doing any exploring. Right now, I really, really wished for those hiking boots.
The further I went, the more alone I felt. I wasn’t really up THAT high, but the wind seemed stronger out on the water, and the drop from the top of the pier to the water seemed much, much higher. My heart began to pound again, and I took a few steadying breaths. I was close enough now that I could make out the blue letters on the side of the boat: LE LAFITTE.
I also saw how low the boat rested in comparison to the top of the pier, and the stone stairway that descended straight into the water.
Thunder rumbled in the distance.
I searched the sky and, sure enough, saw a dark mass of clouds rolling in fast.
“Seriously?” I asked the sky. “I mean SERIOUSLY?”
I took another huge breath and forced myself onward.
Even though I was pretty sure the pier was getting more narrow as I went.
Even though if I glanced anywhere than at the rocks right before my feet, my world started to spin.
Even though ANOTHER storm was coming in.
Rhys was important.
There was the tiniest chance he had made it to that boat.
But as soon as I ensured he wasn’t down there, I promised myself to get my rear back to land.
The wind picked up more as I neared the (steep) (slippery) (uneven) (untrustworthy) (dangerous) (terrifying) stone steps. I was NOT going down there. I just was NOT. It was one of those things that wouldn’t happen, no matter what. Nope. The boat was open, except for the steering area, which had a cabin. I know like, NOTHING about boats, so I didn’t know if there was a downstairs or not.
The point was, Rhys was nowhere to be seen. I looked back up at the sky, which was all menacing and unfriendly, and whimpered out loud. “RHYS!” I called down into the waves. “RHYS! IF YOU ARE DOWN THERE, YOU NEED TO LET ME KNOW, LIKE, RIGHT NOW, OKAY?”
I straightened and, desperately hoping he’d be safely on the beach, looked back to the land.
He wasn’t there.
But Daniel was.
He waved, arms high in the air. I couldn’t make out the expression on his face, but because of the kind of frantic flailing he was doing, I guessed he was really concerned about me being out on the pier.
I was totally down with being concerned about that, so I picked my way back. He started up the pier to meet me, and when we came together, he surprised me by putting his arms around me. “That is so not safe,” he said, then released me. But then he took my hand.
I did not mind this at all.
“Rhys is missing,” I told him.
“I know,” he said, and we walked off the pier together. “I’ve been out looking for him.” He showed me where he’d parked, just beyond the dunes.
The pier eased over the beach and into the woods, near the cabin I’d seen earlier. Daniel talked about all the places he’d already searched, and I told him that Mom was looking, too. “I followed the footprints,” I said. “And then I saw the boat, and was afraid he was in there. Whose boat is it?”
“It’s...ah…it’s Maisie’s.”
“Maisie has a boat?”
“Yeah, she—have you looked in the cabin yet?”
“No, I was going there next.”
“Good thing you didn’t,” he said, and half-grinned at me. “Bats.”
I stopped walking and LOOKED at him. “Are you kidding me? BATS?”
“They won’t hurt you, but I figured it’d be better if I looked in there instead of you.”
“Yes, okay, yes, good idea, but BATS, Daniel?”
“They’re great. They keep the mosquito population down,” he grinned more. “Maybe we should get a few for the gatehouse?”
“Maybe you should stop talking about horrifying things and go check for Rhys.” I said this, but I wasn’t letting go of his hand yet. He’d have to let go of mine first.
Instead, he tugged me closer to him. “Maybe you SHOULD come with me. I think you need to face your fears.”
I laughed, feeling a heat that had nothing to do with the temperature rise in my cheeks. “Nope, I’m good with hiding from my fears. You go on. I’ll be right here.”
He gave me a disappointed look, but did let go and headed deeper into the woods, toward the cabin.
I turned a small circle, surveying the shore that I’d walked, the boat, and then the oncoming storm. The temperature had dropped a little, and the day continued to darken. The sounds of the ocean gripped me again, and because I had no choice but to listen hard, I could hear him open the cabin door.
I looked back to the woods, and I saw a shape moving fast, away from the cabin. Towards me.
I almost laughed. “The bats must’ve been scarier than he thought,” I said to myself, and walked toward the form.
And then I realized that Daniel had been wearing a gray t-shirt.
This person was in a green one.
“Rhys!” I called, and ran to intercept him. “Rhys, it’s me. Hey!”
He stopped short and I was able to close the distance between us. “Hey, it’s okay,” I said, slowing down so not to alarm him. “I was looking for you. I was worried. Are you okay?”
He blinked rapidly in response. His breath came fast and hard, and sweat dripped from his hair, down his neck. It was a crazy hot day, but this looked like more than a reaction to the heat.
He’d been running.
And from the fear showing in his eyes, it was clear to me he’d been running FROM something.
“Rhys, are you okay? You’re scared—what—just, can you please talk to me?” I reached a hand out for him and he didn’t shy away. But he didn’t take my hand, either.
After a hesitation, he opened his mouth. “I…” he said, then swallowed hard. He looked at me with pleading eyes, as if he desperately wanted to communicate something but couldn’t.
I stepped closer, but lowered my hand. “You what?” I asked softly. “You can talk to me, okay? I’m your friend.”
He closed his eyes and bowed his head. “I need to—,” he said haltingly.
“You found him!”
Rhys and I both looked around to see Daniel. “Yeah,” I said, and smiled some. “Yeah, I did. He’s okay now.” I looked back at Rhys. “You’re okay now,” I told him.
It was true. But he didn’t try to talk again.
The storm hit, hard and angry, just minutes after we made it back to the Fontaine cottage. Mom made it back a few minutes after the storm started, and once she was inside and mostly dry, we split up our food so we could feed Daniel, too. He was gentlemanly and only ate a fair portion, which, you know, is good because Mom and I aren’t THAT great at sharing food.
I noticed that Rhys had difficulty chewing. I should’ve expected that, given the loss of muscle control on the left side of his face. Even so, he ate every last thing we offered him. I’d be burnt out on Ramen soup, too, if that was pretty much the only thing I’d been eating for months.
The worst of the storm only lasted twenty minutes, but the rain kept coming. Mom agonized about the open windows at the gatehouse while Daniel and I played Egyptian War with a deck of cards we’d found on the bookshelf. Rhys sat in the corner and watched while Mom read The Secret Garden aloud for a little bit. I kept an eye on him, offering him a smile here or there, but he never seemed to relax. I would talk to Mom when she and I were alone, but I didn’t want to chat about Rhys in front of him, as if he wasn’t there.
After I beat Daniel and then Daniel beat me and then I beat him again, I began to teach him how to play Agram, which my dad learned to play when he was working in Mali. And I totally would have won if we’d played, just for the record.
“You’ll probably lose,” I warned him, trying not to laugh as I shuffled the cards. “But that’s okay, because you seem to be way better at losing than winning.”
His mouth dropped open in mock offense. “I LET you win that one time.”
I arched an eyebrow, tilted my head, and gave him the very best incredulous look I could muster. “No one could intentionally play THAT badly.”
He launched a throw pillow at me, laughing, and I batted it away. The cards fell from my hand in the process, which made me laugh, too.
We kept on trash talking each other, our insults increasing in lameness as we picked up the cards. Mom laughed, too, and began criticizing our slams. “Seriously, Honey? You were playing CARDS, not basketball!” She stood up and went to the window, peering out.
Daniel handed his batch of cards over to me, still snickering. “Deal.”
“You’re bossy AND a card game loser,” I said mournfully. I fully intended to continue the line, but my eyes were on Mom. “You okay?”
“Maisie just got back,” she said and sighed. “I have to go talk to her.”
“I’ll do it,” Daniel said, and stood. “You don’t have to.”
Mom stopped and looked at him. “Are you sure?”
Daniel nodded, and cast her a lopsided smile. “Yeah, don’t worry about it. I’ll tell her about the air conditioning problem, too.”
“Thank you, Daniel,” she said. The relief in her tone told me that Mom really, really didn’t like having to deal with her, either.
We heard Maisie enter the Fontaine cottage, and Daniel went through the door to the kitchen to head her off. Mom quietly excused herself to use the bathroom, but I think she wanted to be scarce more than she needed the facilities.
I moved from the floor to the couch and looked over at Rhys, who stared at the floor. Still, tension pulled at his muscles. From this angle, I could see that his jaw—well, the side of his jaw that worked right—was clenched, too.
“Rhys?” I asked quietly.
His eyes darted to me.
“How much can you understand? Mom says you don’t talk at all, but I heard you try to talk to me. And in the woods—you were scared. What of?”
The working side of his mouth trembled. And then he looked to the closed kitchen door.
I glanced that way, but turned my attention back to him immediately. “Are you scared of Maisie?”
He swallowed hard, eyes on mine.
He was terrified of her.
I leaned in and whispered, “You’re not the only one.”
The kitchen door swung open and Maisie came into the living room.
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