The Mystery of Dogwood Cross
I didn’t tell Mom about the lipstick.
I should’ve, probably. Although, I don’t know what she’d have done about it, you know? It wasn’t like she was going to track Maisie down and yell at her for trespassing. I was pretty sure she couldn’t call the cops on her—Maisie had more of a right to be here than we did.
Or did she?
Either way, Mom and I had managed to salvage a stressful day. She deserved to be able to sleep without worrying about pink-lipped women creeping around a house that wasn’t exactly ours.
I deserved that, too. Only, my head swirled with what-ifs and whys and all sorts of other dangerous questions about Maisie and Rhys and Rhys’s dad and—
And Daniel.
I hated questioning Daniel, but it was beginning to feel like he knew something. Maybe some THINGS. Plural. I tried hard to focus on all the good stuff about him instead: his laugh, his knowledge, and his sense of humor. He was capable and smart, even though he’d dropped out of school. He was doing okay for himself.
There was nothing wrong with Daniel.
Still, I had questions.
Why was he alone? Where were his parents? Had something similar to Rhys’s misfortune happen to him? What brought him here? What kept him here?
I fell asleep thinking of my hand in his.
So hey, at least my day ended on a positive note.
I didn’t hear Mom leave the next morning.
I didn’t hear a car pull up outside of the gatehouse, either.
I barely heard the knocking on the front door.
My face almost completely planted in the bedofa sheets, I cracked an eye at the daylight.
Yeah, yeah, that was real. Someone was knocking on the door.
I pushed up to sit and rub my eyes. Was that Nadia? No, she wasn’t due until tomorrow. A minute later I peered out the kitchen window. An older woman in a business suit, her pencil skirt fitting just right, walked across the dirt to her blue sedan.
She looked NORMAL and not at all scary! Like a puppy, I got really happy. PERSON, I LOVE YOU!
I controlled my excitement and moved back to the foyer where I opened the door. “Um, hey?” See how cool I can be?
She stopped and turned, and then stared at me for a moment.
I stared back, but the whole staring thing got old really fast, so I raised a hand to her. “Hi?” I tried again.
She remembered herself and smiled, then laughed. “Hello. I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting—you.”
“I get that a lot,” I said ruefully, but then flashed her another smile. “May I help you?” Mom would be so proud of my manners.
The lady came back over and extended her hand. “I’m Amelia Dunham,” she said as we shook. “Rhys Fontaine’s social worker.”
Rhys’s social worker.
She was nice and her job was helping Rhys! Awesome!
“I’m really glad to meet you, Ms. Dunham.” I told her who I was, and who my Mom was, and why we were here.
“Oh, it’s so lovely to meet you, too.” She glanced at my PJ tank and shorts combo and winced. “I’m sorry I woke you.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “You’re nice. If you weren’t nice, I’d be really mad, but we’re good.”
She laughed again. I liked her laugh. “Is your mom around?”
“She’s in her session with Rhys right now. They work at the Fontaine place.”
“I’ll go introduce myself. I need to check in on Rhys, and I need to speak with Mrs. Underwood, too.”
It took me a minute to realize that A) she meant Maisie, and B) Maisie had a last name. I guess I had just thought of her as having only a single name like Sauron, Voldemort, and Rasputin.
And then I smiled more. Because an authority figure was going to Talk to Maisie.
At least, I hoped she was going to capital-T Talk.
“I know she’ll be glad to see you,” I said, nodding.
“Oh?” She sounded unconvinced.
Maybe Maisie wasn’t glad to see anyone ever.
I just nodded and smiled even more. Mmhm.
“That’s good,” she said, “because I have some things I need to Discuss with her.”
At least, I hoped that was capital-D Discuss.
“It was a pleasure,” Ms. Dunham said, and turned back to her car.
She got a few steps in before I called after her. “Ms. Dunham?”
She turned and smiled again. “Yes?”
“Could you wait for a minute while I get dressed? I’d like to come, too.”
I had no more than ten minutes to get as much information out of Ms. Dunham as I could. It was like a weird game. One I wasn’t prepared to play. I needed to use my time as wisely as possible. I had to prioritize.
That meant I would ask as many questions about stinkin’ Maisie as possible.
It couldn’t sound like the inquisition it really was, though. I had to at least lead into the harder questions.
“It’s difficult,” I told her, practicing my Gently Concerned Adult voice, “because Mom doesn’t know how much progress Rhys had made before we got here.”
“I can see how that would be hard,” Ms. Dunham agreed. “Especially in his case. He not only had to deal with the physical aspect, but the emotional pain of losing his father. He was in the hospital considerably longer than the doctors expected, too. He missed the funeral.”
Not being able to say goodbye to your only remaining parent? As if I didn’t hurt enough for Rhys’s sake. I shifted my camera bag onto my lap and put Northanger Abbey on top of it. “Mom says he’s been non-verbal through all of her sessions.”
She glanced at me. “That’s not surprising. When he first woke up, he tried to speak, but the doctors couldn’t make out much of what he was saying. And after he found out about his father, he stopped trying to communicate with anyone besides his grandfather.”
“And now that his grandpa…” I said, but trailed off.
She nodded solemnly. “He’s had to deal with far more than anyone should have to.”
“When did Maisie come here?” I asked. “Because she seems like she’s been here forever.”
Ms. Dunham smiled without taking her eyes off the road. “Mr. Fontaine—Charles, that is—hired her about a week after Rhys came home. He tried to take care of his grandson, but he knew Rhys needed specialized care.”
I had thought of Maisie as a LOT of things in the past two weeks, but I hadn’t thought of her as a nurse. I hadn’t witnessed her doing a single, solitary nurse-ish thing. I shifted again. “How’d he find out about her?”
“Mary Ellen recommended her.”
Mary Ellen? “Excuse me? Who’s Mary Ellen?”
Ms. Dunham gave me another one of her surprised looks. “Mary Ellen Lennox?” she asked, trying to jog my memory.
And when she said it like that, it did ring a bell. But not one loud enough to place the name. I shrugged at her.
“Sweetheart,” she said in that pretty, Southern way, “you’re living in Mary Ellen’s house.”
“I—the gatehouse? The gatehouse belongs to Mary Ellen?”
“Well, it belongs the Fontaine family, of course, but she was living there. Along with Rhys and his father, on the other side. Like a duplex.”
“Oh,” I said. It wasn’t completely new information, but… “Who is she? Mary Ellen?”
“She’s the official historian of Dogwood Cross,” she said. That’s right. I’d seen her name on some of the papers and written in some of the books. “She’s an expert on the Gentle Isles. When she was giving one of her history talks, Maisie was there. The way Maisie tells it, they became fast friends. Their shared love of anthropology and all.”
Ms. Dunham’s tone was impossible to ignore. She didn’t believe that at all. Neither did I. “Right,” I said, matching her wryness. “I’ve never met anyone more scholarly than Maisie.” We were getting close to the cottages, and I was running out of time. “Where is Mary Ellen now?”
“She stayed for almost a full month after Mr. Fontaine’s accident, but when the paychecks stopped coming, she had to leave. She sent me a letter, though: she’s back in Charleston, where she’s from, and working on grants. She said she’d come back to work when Mr. Fontaine has recovered and the work begins again. I don’t think she enjoyed being so far removed from civilization, though. She told me that the Internet was her only friend out here. Oh, look!” She tapped on her window. “It seems like Daniel’s still working, at least.” His truck was parked just off the road.
“Yeah, he’s—,” I started, but then changed course. “Could you drop me off here?” I wanted to keep talking to Ms. Dunham, but I wanted to avoid being present for the Maisie portion of the show. In fact, I wanted to be far, far away. The company of gators and snakes would be preferable to Maisie.
It wasn’t until I was following a path to Daniel’s garden that what Ms. Dunham said kicked in.
Mary Ellen had Internet “out here.”
Country music led me straight to Daniel. In his standard gray T-shirt and jeans, he knelt at the picket fence that surrounded his raised beds. He moved a weathered board into place and hammered it to the lower rail.
I’d seen enough slapstick movies to know that I should wait for him to finish hammering before I spoke, so as not to spook him and make him like, hammer his thumb or something.
The second he was satisfied with that spot, he moved up to re-secure the board to its top railing, from which it had gone askew. “Need a hand?” I asked.
He looked up and grinned immediately, which, of course, made ME grin immediately. “Hey! You missed me?”
I nodded. “I was pining. Wrote your name all over my science notebook and everything. It was pathetic.”
He dropped his hammer on the ground. “Yeah?” He turned and leaned back against the fence, then looked at me soberly. “You’ve got it bad. What’re we gonna do about that?”
I shrugged. “Just be prepared to catch me. Pretty sure I’m gonna swoon.”
He winced. “Right now?”
I took my time, as if running a self-diagnostic. “Nah. Maybe Thursday, though.”
He laughed at that. “You don’t seem like the swooning type.”
I beamed. “That is the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me! So, whatcha doin’?”
“Well,” he said, and cast his gaze over the garden. “I weeded that bed, and then I talked to a rabbit, and then I started fixing this fence, and now I’m talking to you. What’re you doing?”
“A nice lady woke me up and I hitched a ride with her. I saw your truck and decided to come bug you.”
He grinned again. “Your mom must be running late today. You two stay out partying last night?”
I smirked wickedly. “You know it. Mochas on the beach, and also books. We’re so cool. But Mom was on time. The social worker came to visit.”
“Oh,” he said. “Amelia Dunham?”
“That’s the one. She’s really nice. And she seems to like you. She was glad you were still working here.”
“Did she ask a lot of questions?”
“No. I asked most of them.”
“Yeah? What kinds of questions?”
I shrugged. “I wanted to know about Rhys, and how he was progressing. Stuff like that.” And then I added, “I have a lot of questions. Not just for her.”
He rested his arms back on the rail. It was a perfect picture, with the trees and pampas grass framing the pond behind him, and beyond the pond, a smaller building I hadn’t explored yet. I was tempted to pull out my camera and go all Nigel Barker on him, making him pose for me.
“You have questions for me?” he asked, growing serious again.
“Yeah. I do.”
“What questions do you have?”
I shrugged again and looked away, because I wasn’t good with intense moments. “I want to know about you. Why you’re here, about your family, all that.”
“That stuff? It’s not sunshine and roses, but I can tell you. C’mon.” He moved away from the fence and bent to pick up his hammer and box of nails. We went to his truck and he pulled down the gate so we could sit on it.
He offered a Mountain Dew from his cooler. I don’t really like the drink, but the offer meant something, so I took the bottle gratefully. He settled in and turned toward me. “My family, huh?” When I nodded, he took a deep breath and gave me an abridged version of his life story.
“If your parents are out of the picture,” I said and tugged at the empty bottle’s label, “and if Mr. Fontaine is out of commission, then how are you making money?”
“Maisie pays me,” he said. His gaze was on my hands. “She’s been really good to me, especially to keep me around even though the other crews split as soon as the checks stopped coming.”
“She’s good to you?” I asked, and searched his face for some sign that he was joking. I found nothing like it.
“Yeah, I mean, she’s got so much on her shoulders, you know? Not just taking care of Rhys and Mr. Fontaine, but she’s in charge of making sure the lights and water stay on, all sorts of stuff.”
That…huh. I hadn’t thought about that side of things before. “So, how does she pay for stuff?”
He shifted on the bed of the truck, stretching one leg out and tucking the other up under it. “I don’t know a lot about law, but I do know she says she’s got Power of Attorney, and that gives her access to some of Mr. Fontaine’s money. Not a lot of it, though. I’m always having to buy the cheapest groceries and stuff.”
“You do the shopping?”
He shrugged. “Usually, yeah. She’s just busy all the time, you know?”
I nodded, even though I didn’t know. I had never seen Maisie working at all.
“Hey, c’mere,” he said. He hopped off the back of the truck, then reached his hands out to me. I stood up at the edge and took his hands, and hopped down, too. He didn’t let go of my hand and walked with me, out of the garden gate. “You like fruit, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, and hesitated when he tried to pull me into a section of overgrown vegetation. “I see thorns, Daniel. I’m not really great with thorns. I tend to bleed.”
“You’re such a wuss,” he teased, and released my hand so he could dive into the brambles. Okay, he didn’t actually DIVE, but he totally disappeared into them. And then a few moments later he returned with his hands full of blackberries, raspberries, and the hugest green grapes I’ve ever seen.
I took one of the grapes when he offered it to me, and bit into it. The skin didn’t break easily, and I spat it back into my hand. “What is this?”
He grinned. “That’s a scuppernong. It’s a kind of muscadine.”
“Those words are brand new and don’t help me eat this at all.”
He laughed at me. “Here, you gotta bite a hole in it first…” He showed me how to puncture the skin and then pull the pulp through the skin. I tried it, and the most unexpected flavor hit my taste buds. It was like Christmas and summer all at once, with the way the spicy flavor mixed with the grape taste I was used to. I finished mine and immediately went for another.
The berries were perfect, too.
Totally worth getting scratched up for, and believe me, I did. We talked and picked handful after handful, and then found a patch of ground void of fire ants to eat and talk more. The hour passed, and then another before he looked at his phone for the time and said, “I should get back to work. I told Maisie I was only gonna weed the beds and then I’d help her again. How ‘bout I drop you off at your place?”
He sounded less than thrilled, which made me feel good. And wanted. At least my presence was preferable to work. “Yeah, thanks.”
Back at the truck, country music filled the cab. I picked out a few sand spurs from the bottoms of my jeans and tossed them out the window. I thought about how easy it was to spend time with Daniel. I didn’t even mind his teasing, and he didn’t seem to mind my exaggerated fear of all the things ever (except chocolate).
Maybe he was thinking the same kinds of things, because when he pulled up to the gatehouse and parked, he looked at me and said, “If I can get sometime this week off, would you want to hang out?”
I worked hard not to smile TOO much, and probably failed. “Yeah. I’d love that.”
“Invasion of a body snatcher,” Mom said. She sat the big bowl of Greek salad in the middle of the table. I set the glasses of ice water by our plates and sat down with her. “It was so crazy. Remember how super sweet she was when we first got here?”
“Yep,” I said. “We were Darlin’ and Hunny-Child back then. The good old days.”
Mom laughed. We joined hands and said grace, and I moved to dish out some of the salad onto her plate. “So none of the anger yesterday was there?”
“She was nice as could be,” Mom said. “No anger, no malice.”
“No vitriol,” I said, because it seemed like a good time to play Synonyms.
“Rage,” Mom chimed in.
“Oh!” Mom said brightly. “Nice choice! You win!”
I laughed. “Thanks!” I settled back and put some salad on my plate. “What did Ms. Dunham say about it all?”
Mom shrugged. “She said Rhys was making a lot of progress, and that he looked considerably healthier since she was here last.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Just a few days before we got here.”
I smiled at that, and then gnawed on a pitted kalamata olive. “That’s all?”
“She also told Maisie to back off so that I could do my job as I saw fit. She encouraged your friendship with him, too. She said that probably does him a lot of good.”
I was glad to hear that, because I didn’t intend to stop being friends with Rhys. “Maybe this is what we needed. Maybe Maisie needed to be reminded that she’s not the general manager of the universe.”
Mom gave me a small smile. “I really hope so.” She stabbed at her salad but didn’t eat. Something was up.
“What are you not saying?”
Mom’s gaze locked on me. “How do you do that?”
I shrugged. “I have superpowers. They’re hereditary. I get them from my dad.”
She took that as reason to launch a fork of lettuce and feta at me. I retaliated with a grape tomato…which she totally caught. That was so cool!
“Okay, okay. Here’s the thing. Ms. Dunham asked if I’d consider staying longer than I agreed.”
“How much longer?”
“I don’t know. We didn’t discuss all the terms. She was just floating the idea. Maybe a week or two?”
I nodded without thinking about it. “I—Rhys needs all the help he can get, right? He deserves it.”
“Yeah,” Mom said.
I knew we were both thinking about Dad. Going home at our scheduled time wouldn’t bring him back from London sooner. We wouldn’t be giving up time with him. My reasons for wanting to go home were pretty selfish. I wanted my friends, my room, my bed. My other clothes. My Internet. My Netflix. My coffee shop and my my my.
Rhys, though.
I wouldn’t be able to forget about Rhys.
And I wasn’t ready to leave Daniel yet.

Keep Reading

Chapter 16

Chapter 16: Party Crashers

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