The Mystery of Dogwood Cross
Lowcountry Green
Kudzu crawled up the edges of the front door and surrounded the deep teal shutters on the first floor. Out of curious necessity, I tried the door. It was locked, of course. I took a few steps, then leaned in to look through the window, but a Roman shade blocked my view. I even tried to push through the gate, but that, too, was locked.
Tired of being shut out, I pulled my camera from its bag and removed the lens cap. A few dozen close-ups, a hike up the road, and a lens change later, I pressed the shutter release on what I hoped would be a perfect view of the whole gatehouse.
I heard the sound of a car—no, it had a bigger engine than a car—a truck. I moved out of the road so that Daniel didn’t run over me when he came around the bend, but the sound was coming from past the gatehouse. A new, silver SUV appeared inside the gate and pulled to a stop. Maisie hopped out, smiling brightly. She wore jeans and a cute top that I wouldn’t mind adding to my wardrobe, but it was about three decades too young to work for Maisie.
“Good morning!” she chirped, and hopped puddles and sludge until she was at the gate, where she unlocked the catch. She pushed one side open and I helped with the other, managing to douse my left foot twice for the effort. Her pink lipstick didn’t really match her complexion, and her mascara was much too thick. But she smiled big and pretty. “Thank you! How was your first night?”
I decided to be diplomatic and not whiny. Too bad Mom wasn’t around to see it. “Loud,” I said, but smiled in return. “The place is really cool, but the power went out.” I told her about coping the old-fashioned way and she apologized, like, six times. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Daniel said he’d take care of it.”
She nodded. “Oh, good! He’s been a tremendous help. Now listen, Sugar, I’m heading into town. It’s a ways off, so we don’t make many trips. I’ll get you some more groceries. Is there anything in particular you want?”
I put in a few requests, mostly of the unhealthy variety. She didn’t bat a spidery eyelash. Before she headed back to her car, I asked, “Maisie? What’s in the other side of the house?”
“Oh, storage, mostly. We haven’t gotten to renovate it yet, so it’s in disrepair. Our historian was living in your side, but she went home now that the renovation’s on hiatus.”
I nodded, considering all that. “Is it cool for me to look around in there sometime?” I held up my camera. “I’m trying to gather a wide range of subject matter for my portfolio.”
Her eyebrows rose and her smile faltered. “I don’t know the state of things in there,” she said. “I don’t have a key.”
“Oh,” I said. “Okay.” I decided to drop the matter before she outright told me not to go in. Because you know what they say: if there’s a will, there’s a way. I had a will, so there was definitely a way.
“Well,” she said, once again very shiny. “I ought to go. Would you mind closing the gate up after I drive through? I’ll be back this afternoon.”
I waved, smiling right back at her. “See ya!”
Mom came home. Daniel helped bring our stuff just inside, but had to leave to do some work. While Mom and I unpacked, she told me that she, too, had crossed paths with Maisie.
“It sounds like she intended for you to sleep on the pull-out bed,” Mom said of her conversation. “That’s not okay by me. She’d told me there was a room for you, and she can’t backtrack now. You’re not a guest. This is your home for the summer. I’ll get it straightened out. Even if we have to clean up one of the rooms on the other side of the house.” She plugged her iPod speakers into an outlet and pushed them into their place on the kitchen counter. “Daniel called the electric company. We should have power by lunch.”
The power came back at 11:58.
Mom put on some Django Rheinhardt and we ate lunch, and then she went to work, organizing her office space upstairs. I went to the back yard with my camera and explored a little more, but it wasn’t long until I returned.
I don’t like not knowing the names of things. My brain doesn’t work well with ambiguity. “Big tree with awesome gnarled and knotted roots and green leaves” wouldn’t cut it. I decided to try to find some kind of field guide, but when I turned, I stopped short.
He had been right here.
The ShadowMan had been right where I now stood. I put my camera away and walked around the area, looking for clues or any evidence at all that someone had been there. The storm had washed away any human footprints, but I found no other sign of a person, or a person-y thing.
And then I looked up.
With the afternoon sun hidden behind the trees, the back of the house was shaded and gloomy. Lights were on inside, and I could see straight into the picture windows. Straight into the living room where I was supposed to sleep.
I needed a bedroom.
My eyes were then drawn to the other side of the gatehouse. Even if there were no actual bedroom on that side, surely there would be a more private room for me.
I headed back up the hill to the other door and gave the knob a valiant try. No dice. I peered into one of the windows. There was no shade in this one, but boxes were stacked in front of it, giving credence to Maisie’s story about storage. I tried another window, but couldn’t make out much of anything. Sighing, I headed into our side to make another attempt at opening the locked door at the top of the stairs.
“Whatcha doin’?” Mom asked from her workspace.
“Eating chocolate,” I replied, even though I had no chocolate at all (which is always a very sad thing). “It’s really good, you want some?” I messed with the latch at the lock.
“It’s not nice to tease an old woman, especially when it’s about something as important as chocolate.”
“Who’s teasing? Maybe I’m hallucinating. Maisie was supposed to bring back junk food. She’s been gone forEVer. I am withering away.” I pushed the door. It didn’t give.
“You look rather waifish, I agree.”
“It is very difficult to be this wonderful without chocolate.” I pulled the door. It didn’t give.
“I could get you another protein bar.”
“There are only disappointing, itty-bitty chocolate chips in those.” I let go of the door and hopped around in a circle. It still didn’t give.
“Honey?” Mom asked, voice full of sweet concern. “I see you’re working very hard at the breaking and entering. I am proud of your work, but hopping has never helped me break or enter, not even once.”
I turned and looked at her, and made sure to pout a LOT. “I don’t want to sleep on the bedofa, Mom. It’s creepy down there all by myself, and there were monsters and you know how I’m allergic to monsters.”
Mom opened her mouth to reply (and I’ll bet my favorite lens that what she was about to say was not going to be helpful in the slightest), but we both heard a vehicle approaching and went to the rear-facing windows and looked down.
Daniel’s truck pulled up, and, once parked, he hopped out and headed for our back door.
Mom went to answer his knock, and I tried the door one more time, but still to no avail. “Honeybear, you want to take a tour of the island with us?” she called up the stairs.
“Is there a Taco Bell?” I called back down, but I had already started down the stairs.
Daniel laughed. “I wish,” he said. “The closest fast food is about twenty miles out that way.” He pointed in a direction that had to be north or west or east. But not south, because I knew Dogwood Cross was about as South as South Carolina got.
Once again in the backseat of Daniel’s truck, I ate a protein bar with disappointing, itty-bitty chocolate chips. We rolled past more trees, brush, water, and mud—but to Daniel, the plants had names and some of them even had histories, as if they were old buddies of his.
He slowed the truck almost to a stop. “All that’s Spanish moss,” he said, pointing up to greenish gray tendrils that curled down from the trees like unkempt hair. Some of it spilled down so low I could easily reach it, had I not been in the truck. “You probably know that, but what I doubt you know is that it’s not Spanish, and it’s not moss, either.” He cast a glance back at me and grinned. “And it’s actually part of the pineapple family.”
Mom and I took turns arguing with him about how it was more likely to be part of the seahorse family than the pineapple family. He laughed and drove on, and the hardwood forest gave way to clearings on either side of the road. In the distance, to the left, a classical white building with an observation deck stood tall, towering over the grounds. Daniel followed the road to the right, away from it.
“What’s that place on the left?” I asked.
“That’s the pavilion. It was actually the first thing on the island to be restored. It’s real nice. I’d take you over, but the road doesn’t go there. Maybe we could walk it sometime.”
“Awesome, thanks,” I said, and sat back, and then my mouth dropped open. “Whoa,” I murmured.
“Oh, wow!” Mom exclaimed. “It’s gorgeous!”
“That’s the big house,” Daniel said of the enormous mansion looming in front of us. “The old Hollohan place. That’s where the inn’ll be, if we ever get back to the restoration.”
White pillars held up tiered porches, which were stacked three stories high. The porches wrapped around the home. It was gorgeous, if disheveled from weather and age. As we neared, I could see the shutters were still bright teal and the porch ceilings, but not their roofs, were the same color. I really liked that color.
“We can’t go in,” Daniel said. “Most of the floor’s been torn out where it wasn’t already completely rotted away. And there was a fire in the back.”
“That’s too bad,” I said. But what I really meant was, “I will get some awesome pictures and get to try new techniques!”
He drove us around some more. He showed us the abandoned stables and old servants’ quarters, which were comprised of a series of cabins sheltered by trees. Then we went on to the cottages where he, Maisie, and the Fontaines lived. All three cottages were in the same area, but spread out and well shaded. He drove us down the beach for a while, and looped us back up through the gardens.
“Garden” was a very optimistic word, in my opinion, to describe the layers of overgrown vegetation crawling over the space in front of us. A dense pine grove cut our glimpse short. If Daniel was the gardener, he wasn’t doing a very good job. I almost told him so, but then the pines gave way to a much more beautiful sight.
The lawn here had been trimmed in recent days, and the white picket fence surrounding the carefully tended beds was in good repair. He slowed the truck down again and stopped. “This is my project,” he said, and I could hear his pride. “It’s not too easy to get some vegetables to grow in sandy ground, so I made those raised beds myself.”
He hopped out, and Mom and I followed him through the gate. He took a good twenty minutes showing us his handiwork. Mom acted interested. But me? I really was interested. I loved the way he knew stuff. Most guys don’t know stuff. At least, they don’t know stuff that doesn’t involve video games or sports. Daniel knew a lot, and I liked the way he talked, and I really liked the way he looked when he talked about what he knew.
And I hoped I’d be able to hang out with him a lot while I was here.
Maisie had dropped off the groceries while we were gone. Mom and I spent some time putting them away and we made dinner. She had a headache, so she went to bed early.
I turned on some quiet music to keep me company, because I didn’t want to be completely creeped out again tonight. It helped that the night outside was quiet, save for tree frogs and crickets.
Downstairs, I perused the books lining my makeshift bedroom’s wall. I scanned the spines for anything with a title similar to Lock-picking for Curious Adolescents Who Have No Business Looking into the Other Side of a Gatehouse.
Mostly, the titles were nonfiction. A lot of them were old. Not like, antique, but 1960s, generic, green and blue and greenish-blue hardbacks. History, flora, fauna, architecture, anthropology, geology. The closest thing I came to finding a lock-picking how-to were several volumes on pirates in the Southeastern United States.
I couldn’t pick the lock and go exploring, but I could get some names to help soothe my curious brain. One of the trees I’d seen had acorns under it, so that made it an oak, right?
I pulled out Lowcountry Green: The Comprehensive Guide to South Carolina’s Trees, Grasses, and Shrubs. It was a newer book than the others, big and thick and pretty, like Martha Stewart’s art director went a little nuts and decided to take on unmanicured lawns and wildflowers for the first time ever.
I took it and a glass of iced tea up to Mom’s office area, settled at her well-organized desk, and opened up the ginormous tome.
There are a lot of oak trees indigenous to South Carolina.
White, scarlet, southern red, turkey, laurel, overcup, black jack, swamp chestnut, water, willow, chestnut, northern red, post, black, live, angel. I decided I’d have to collect a few leaves to do a proper ID when I came to a harrowing realization: a single day without Facebook and YouTube, and I was acting like…I don’t know…a SMART kid.
It felt kind of awesome.
My camera bag was close, so I stood to grab the journal and pen from it, but then I stopped and stared at the locked door.
Why hadn’t I noticed it when I was coming up?
It was still locked tight, but now light illuminated the cracks around it.
Someone had been in the gatehouse.
Someone had been on the other side.

Keep Reading

Chapter 4

Lock-picking for Curious Adolescents

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