The Mystery of Dogwood Cross
Chapter 16: Party Crashers
“You know what would be perfect?” I sunk the blade deep into the watermelon and sawed it in half. “The pavilion. It’s gorgeous, Mom. It would be the most perfectest venue for our shindig. You really need to go exploring WITH me someday.”
“But it’s hoooooot,” she whined, and I heard her open the ciabatta rolls. Mmm. I’d been waiting since our last grocery run to eat those. I totally understood that she was saving them for a special occasion, and I was totally glad she considered Nadia and Jason’s visit that occasion.
She was right about the heat. If Maisie really had called the company, they’d been dragging their feet about coming out to fix the air conditioning. “Yeah. All the more reason to hang out in the shade outside. And we could take Gladys to the plantation house. I haven’t photographed anything over there yet.” Gladys’s AC was holding out very well, even in the heat and humidity, and I knew Mom could go for even a short reprieve from the heat.
“Okay, okay. I’ll do it. Probably. Maybe.”
A knock on the front door took us both by surprise. Mom was already doing the important work of filling the sandwiches, so I put my knife down and wiped my hands before answering the door.
Daniel stood there, a lopsided grin on his face. “Hey,” he said. “I was waiting for you to come down to see Rhys this morning, but you never showed. So here I am. Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, everything’s good. Mom’s going in at lunch because...” I realized then I hadn’t told him about Nadia and Jason coming to visit. Shoot!
“Um, well, I met one of Rhys’s friends in town. She’s really worried about him, you know? She hasn’t seen him since Mr. Fontaine got hurt, and Mom thinks that being around more people would be great for him.”
He stared at me for a minute, but then nodded. “Yeah, yeah, that’d be good for him. Uh, which friend did you meet?”
“Nadia. She and Jason are coming out today.”
Daniel frowned, but he nodded again. “Okay. I guess that’s...I mean, that’s good.”
“You say ‘good’ but you’re frowning,” I pointed out.
He laughed. “You’re observant. I can’t get anything past you, can I?”
“Sharp as a tack. So, why the frowning?”
Again, he hesitated, as if trying to find the right words. “Nadia’s nice. I mean, she’s a really nice person. Jason, though? We’re kinda like oil and water. We don’t get along so great.”
I could see he wasn’t terribly comfortable telling me that, so to make him laugh, I narrowed my eyes and tried to look all sage and stuff. “So, you’re saying you have an archenemy.”
He stared at me more, but then a laugh burst out of him. Score! “Yeah. Archenemy. That’s exactly what I said.”
“Daniel has an archenemy?” Mom piped up from behind me. “Ooh, how exciting!”
“Yes, he does. And he’s coming to lunch.” I smiled nicely at Daniel. He worked hard to suppress his own grin.
“Daniel or the archenemy?” she asked.
“Both?” I asked him.
He shook his head and put his hands up. “Just the archenemy. It’ll be better that way.”
I wanted Daniel to hang out, but I wouldn’t push him. “For Rhys?” I asked.
“Yeah, for Rhys. Hey, come find me after? I have something cool to show you down by the beach.”
“You got it. I’ll save some brownies for you.”
He looked pained to be missing brownies. I didn’t blame him, but hey, his choice. “See ya later. Bye, Mrs. Himura.”
“Bye,” Mom and I said together. We headed back to the kitchen to finish our preparations. Neither of us had to tell the other to make extra food to give Daniel.
Eleven-thirty rolled around way too fast.
The minutes between 11:31 and noon, however, dragged.
The clock ticked past 12:00, and then 12:09. No sign of Nadia or Jason. Mom wasn’t too pleased with them being late. “With special needs students,” she said, “keeping a schedule is very important. If they don’t make it in by 12:30, we’re going without them.”
At 12:21, a mud-splattered, red truck pulled up and a minute later, Nadia was apologizing profusely to Mom and me. “It’s been so long since we’ve been out here and there was a huge branch in the way and Jase had to get out and move it and...”
Jason, tall and strong, with closely cropped brown hair and a crisp, white T-shirt that undoubtedly cost more than anything claiming to be a T-shirt ever should, appeared behind Nadia and extended his hand to Mom. “I’m real sorry. Thanks for waiting for us.”
Introductions were made all around. That took all of four seconds, and then Mom ushered them both inside. “I’ll let you help take some of the food out to the car,” she said, and proceeded to load Jason’s arms up. I watched him check our dishes and Tupperware for leaks before relaxing enough to take them out.
“I brought my mom’s potato salad,” Nadia said. “Rhys loves it. And strawberry pie. It’s his favorite.”
She and Mom talked a bit while I carried the plasticware and Chinette out to Gladys, trying to get over the weird emotion that had hold of me. It’s not like Mom and I had any ownership here, but it seemed like we should have, since we’d been here with Rhys for what felt like ages already.
“This isn’t about me,” I reminded myself quietly, and shut the rear passenger door.
Mom gathered us between the cars. “I want to prepare you both,” she told Jason and Nadia. “He’s nonverbal, but he’s begun to respond to certain things. He gets agitated when too much is going on, so I make it a point to go at his pace, not my own. And honestly, I don’t know how he’ll respond to seeing both of you.”
“Is there anything we shouldn’t do?” Nadia asked.
“Just don’t be offended if he doesn’t respond to you the way you want him to.”
Nadia glanced at Jason, who looked uncomfortable. I didn’t blame him. It would be so hard to see your best friend like this.
We loaded up into the cars—Jason didn’t want to leave his truck behind—and Mom led the way to the cottages. “They seem nice,” she said to me.
“Yeah, Nadia’s really sweet.”
From the silence that accompanied us across the island, I guessed that Mom was as apprehensive about this meeting as I was. When the cottages came into view, she said, “Set up under the trees. I’ll bring Rhys out.”
I nodded. “Okay, yeah.”
Minutes later, I laid our big picnic blanket out next to the pink paisley one Nadia had brought.
“Should I get a chair?” Jason asked Nadia. “I mean, so he doesn’t have to sit on the ground?” He looked at me helplessly. “We brought camping chairs. I’ll go get them. Just so it’s easier for him.”
As he walked back to the car, I helped Nadia set up the food. “He seems really nervous,” I said quietly.
“He is,” she agreed, kneeling on the blanket. “But so am I. I want this to be good for Rhys.”
“I’m sure it will be. You guys are nice and care about him a lot. That’s what he needs the most.”
She smiled at me, and I think she was grateful for the reassurance. But then her gaze traveled somewhere behind me. I looked back, and saw Mom approach with Rhys.
His eyes were downcast, watching the ground as he followed her. When she stopped, he did, too. Beside me, Nadia stood up. “Hey,” she said.
That got his attention.
He stared at her, and his mouth opened. He wanted to talk. The pained expression on the side of his face that still worked properly proved he really wanted to talk. I realized I was holding my breath, wanting him to talk even more.
“I got three,” Jason said as he rounded the corner from where we’d parked the cars. “If we need the other one, I can run back and get—,” he stopped abruptly, and all five of us stood, pretty much frozen in that totally awkward moment.
Now, Rhys stared at Jason. Something changed, though. Rhys’s eyes were bright, and a smile tugged at the one side of his mouth.
We made Rhys happy! It took all of my resolve to not bound over to Mom and high five her! Progress! So much progress!
“Hey, dude,” Jason said, and put the camping chairs on the ground in a pile. Grinning in return, he stepped in and gave Rhys a huge, huge hug. Mom winced at first, no doubt bracing for Rhys to startle, but instead, Rhys raised an arm and sort of, kind of, just enough hugged him back!
I beamed at Nadia, and she beamed, too, and it was all beamy goodness, except for the few tears that escaped and rolled down our cheeks. This was more of a positive reaction than any of us had hoped for.
Jason stepped back and, his apprehension gone, he started talking to Rhys like nothing had happened. As if Rhys had just been gone on vacation or something. Nadia wedged herself between the guys to give Rhys a quick hug, too, and I beamed more.
Mom slipped over to where I stood. “This was a great idea,” she said. “Good job, Lamby-toes.”
I laughed and hugged her, since I had all the feels right now. “Better watch out. I might decide to go into your field instead of photography.”
“Aw, look at y’all!”
Maisie’s voice cut through the scene like squealing brakes, grinding all the happiness to a stop. She came into the clearing carrying a plastic serving plate laden with sandwiches. “It’s so nice to see you kids,” she said, flashing a smile that was noticeably not wrongly pink.
I stared for a moment, and then looked over at Rhys. He’d stiffened again, and the life I’d seen inside him had disappeared. He was scared.
He wasn’t the only one. Nadia had stepped back, almost as if she to hide behind Jason. And Jason looked as if he’d been caught committing a crime.
Marched marched right up to us, without an invitation, and sat her plate next to ours. “Oh, look at this spread! It makes my sandwiches look pitiful in comparison.” She turned a circle, that smile of hers making her look even more like a viper than ever before. “Daniel, bring that over here. We didn’t miss a thing, they haven’t started eating yet.”
I looked over to the path and sure enough, there Daniel stood, looking equally apologetic and embarrassed. Carrying a glass pitcher of lemonade in one hand and a cooler in the other, he joined us, and paused in front of me. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I had no idea she’d—”
Then Maisie interrupted by clapping her hands together. She turned that viper smile directly at me. “Let’s get this party started.”
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