The Mystery of Dogwood Cross
The Curious Case of the Truck in the Night-Time
“You talked to both Maisie and Daniel today, right?” I asked Mom as I settled into Gladys, the Honda. We had stopped off at the gatehouse, where we both got ready for our trip into town. For me, this included another shower. It’s no good when you can smell yourself, you know?
“Yeah,” Mom said, and guided Gladys onto the road that led off the island. “Why?”
I pulled the sun visor down and flipped open its mirror, and began messing with my wet hair. If I wasn’t careful, it would dry funky. “Daniel said there were other workers on the island today,” I said. “I just wondered if you saw any of them.” I glanced over at her in time to see surprise register on her face.
“Nope,” she said. “All Maisie did was talk about what she needed from my work with Rhys, and then warned me that the weather was getting bad again tonight.”
Oh, yay. More scary weather.
“So you didn’t see anyone when you were getting Gladys?”
She looked over at me for a second. “Nope. No one other than Daniel. What’s bugging you, Love?”
I shrugged and reached forward to turn the AC on full blast. “I don’t know. There was someone else on the island. When I was in the truck with Daniel, someone called him. On his walkie-talkie thingie-wingie. It was a guy. A man.”
The words were no sooner out of my mouth than I nearly head-dashboarded. Six of us were on the island. Mom and me. Daniel and Maisie. Rhys and CTW, his grandfather.
“Nevermind,” I tacked onto the last I’d said, as soon as I realized it. “It had to have been Rhys’s grandfather been on the radio.”
“What did the man sound like?”
I wasn’t really expecting that question. “Um. Like. A man.”
Mom lolled her head back and stuck out her tongue, the way she tends to do when I give an unhelpful answer to a question. “Did he sound normal?”
I scrunched my nose up, the way I tend to do when she asks me a weird question. “As opposed to sounding like, I dunno, an elephant? Or a teensy baby? Or an aardvark?” I threw the last one in there because aardvark is my most favorite word in the history of every language ever. Aardvark.
Mom stuck her tongue out again, and this time made a strange noise, which was nothing like an aardvark. But maybe it was like a little like an elephant. Then she sighed. “Did he sound old? Frail?”
I tsked at her. “There is nothing abnormal about being old, and I’d appreciate it if you stopped talking about it as such. Some of my favorite parents are old.” I flashed her a pretty smile. “There are many things that aren’t normal about my parents, ‘old’ being the least of them.”
This time she stuck her tongue out at me without making a noise.
“No,” I answered her question. “He didn’t sound old or frail.”
“Then it wasn’t Charles,” Mom said. “He’s bedridden. He took a bad fall a few weeks ago. He hit his head, and just about shattered his hip. I stopped in to talk to him after my session with Rhys today, but he was barely responsive. He didn’t even talk to me, and he fell asleep again before I was out of the room.”
I guess the voice on the radio hadn’t belonged to him at all.
None of it sat well with me. We hadn’t been there a week, and I had a growing list of things I didn’t like about the island:
The ShadowMan, which I was only half-convinced had been my mind playing tricks.
The fact that someone had been in the Gatehouse long enough to unlock the locked door and do…whatever…on the Fontaine side of the house. Which had been lied about in the first place.
“Town” was another island, this one an upscale, carefully developed community comprised of a half-dozen or so gated communities and exclusive resorts, all of which were marked by beautiful signs on the main road. The signs led to thickly wooded private drives. Also along the main road were lots of big, thriving trees, and business signs that had been specially designed to blend into the natural environment. We got a full tour of the main road because the signs were so well camouflaged that we kept missing turns.
All of the buildings had the same basic design: low and flat, probably because of the hurricanes and tornadoes. They all matched, too: brown-gray, wood-shingled roofs, like the graphite from Rhys’s sketches. Lots of stucco and earth tones, with those sprawling live oaks and haughty palmetto trees everywhere. “That was Target,” I announced, and scrolled through the 58 new emails I’d received since we’d last been in a good service area. I looked up again. “That was McDonald’s.”
Mom whimpered. “No way! That was absolutely not a McDonald’s. It was a luxury home!”
“Golden arches on the sign,” I confirmed. “Ooh! THERE! Turn there!”
Mom did turn there, and soon we were settled into a cool booth at a fancy sandwich shoppe (it was so fancy it deserved an extra –pe at the end of ‘shop’) with our laptops. We ordered fancy sandwiches and fancy sweet tea. The restaurant was pretty much empty, so we called Dad and spent half the call on Skype. I could see how much Mom missed him, and could hear how much he missed us.
“I want to come home sooner,” he said.
“You could, but we wouldn’t be there,” I reminded him.
When we closed the session, I was feeling crazy homesick. But it was more dadsick. Like, I really, really wished Dad were with us. Then I caught up on email and the countless texts I’d missed.
Finally, Mom looked up at me. “It’s nearly four o’clock. We need to do some shoe shopping.”
This was not a usual thing for my mother to say. She does not have a shopping addiction, but I had creeped her out sufficiently with my snake story, and then added to it with the gator incident. “Daniel says I need boots” was all I’d had to say, and she was on board.
After finding suitable footwear, Mom dropped me off at a coffee shop so I could edit while she bought groceries.
I found a corner with an electrical outlet and set up camp with a vanilla latte and my computer, and texted with Jayla while I caught up on all the adventures my friends and favorite bands were having without me.
It didn’t take long at all, to be honest.
I pulled open a collection of photos from my USB drive and began editing while I chatted with Jayla. Music pumped through my earbuds and I began to feel like myself again. I don’t know how long I’d been at it when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
Which made me jump and be all like WHA OH WHA! My coffee cup, which had been next to my hand, went flying, but I managed to grab it just as the lid came off.
I think I did some panicking out loud, because yep, other patrons were looking at me. Only a few drops had splattered out, so after I tugged my earbuds out, I wiped the espresso up with some napkins I’d brought to the table. Then I looked up to find a pretty, curly haired girl. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m really sorry to bother you.”
“Oh,” I said, and took a breath. Fortunately, I calmed much more easily this time than I did with the snakes. “Hey. You’re fine, it’s fine.” I replaced the plastic lid and even managed to smile.
She returned it, radiating apology. “Thanks. Um, may I ask you a question?”
She had none of Daniel’s pronounced drawl, so I assumed she wasn’t a native Carolinian. I got ready to tell her that I couldn’t help with directions or whatever, but her question surprised me.
“Is that Dogwood Cross?”
I glanced back at the photo on my screen. It was one of the gatehouse, from the backside, from earlier today. “Um, yeah.” I looked at her again. “Yes, it is.”
She looked at the other chair at my table. “May I?”
I nodded. “Sure.” I leaned over and pulled my bag from the chair, and she slid into it.
“Thanks,” she said. “So, were you there? On the island?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I’m staying there for the summer, with my mom.”
She looked stunned. “Really? Have you—do you—,” she tumbled over a jumble of thoughts and words, then tried again. “Have you seen Rhys?”
She knew Rhys! I brightened for half a second, but I had to shake my head. “No. Not yet, I mean. My mom’s working with him, she’s a therapist.”
She exhaled hugely. “Oh, wow. Oh, that is so good. Do you know how he’s doing? Or how Grandpa Chaz is?”
Grandpa Chaz?!? She totally didn’t mean CTW Fontaine, did she?
I sort of fish-mouthed at her for a moment, because someone named Charles Thibault Winfield Fontaine couldn’t be a Chaz, you know? But then I found my words. “I don’t think either are doing really well? My mom’s concerned, at least.”
Whatever hope she’d had faded quickly. “Oh,” she said, then chewed her lip. “Um, do you know if we—Rhys’s friends—could come out and see him? We’ve tried once, but that woman told us we were trespassing.”
Whoa. “Maisie?” I asked incredulously. When the girl nodded, her mouth pressed into a frown, I sat back in my chair and met her eyes with my own. “She must have been worried something would like, be triggered or something,” I said. I didn’t now Maisie well, but I felt the need to give her the benefit of the doubt. I mean, sure, she hadn’t been truthful about the other side of the gatehouse, but she’d had her reasons.
My phone rang then, and MOMMY flashed on its screen. “Hang on,” I said, and snagged my phone, tugging the earbuds out. “Hello?”
“Hey,” Mom answered. “I just pulled into the drive-through. I’m getting a decaf latte. Meet me on the other side?”
I glanced up at the girl, who’d totally snagged my photography journal and was totally writing in it with totally my favorite pen. “Yeah, okay,” I told Mom. “Let me pack up.”
We hung up and I saved my edits, and typed a quick G2G will TXT at Jayla, and closed my laptop. “Hey, my mom’s here. I’ve gotta go.”
She pushed the journal over to me, and I saw that she’d written her name, email address, and phone number.
“My name’s Nadia,” she said. “Rhys was one of my friends.” And then she corrected herself. “Is. Rhys IS one of my friends. We’d all love to see him again, even if he doesn’t recognize us or whatever. Call me?”
I shoved my stuff into my bag. “Yeah, I will. I’ll try to make that happen.” Mom was always encouraging relationships for her clients. Before I packed up my journal, I wrote out my info on a page from the back and tore it out for her. “Here. We don’t get cell service or data on the island, but we’ll be back here a lot, I’m sure.”
“Thank you,” she said, and looked terribly grateful.
I flashed her a smile and said goodbye, and zipped up my packed bag. “See ya,” I said, and grabbed my phone and coffee, and headed out the door.
Mom. Bought. Groceries.
Lots and lots of groceries. It was well past dark, and the incoming storm lit up the otherwise indigo skies from just a few miles away. Mom and I raced to get armload after armload inside. She’d just locked up Gladys when the rain began to shoot down from the skies like a blitz. She raced inside, barely damp at all.
“Huzzah!” I pirate-cheered at her win.
“Huzzah!” she pirate-cheered for herself. “Here’s hoping we won’t lose power again. Because,” she said, and procured a tub of salted caramel, “ice cream. I bought a lot of ice cream.”
I did my very best to convince her that we should probably eat it all, right then, just to be safe, and because of wastefulness and also starving kids in Beverly Hills and stuff. But instead of eating all of the ice cream (THREE DIFFERENT QUARTS!), we put the groceries away. We argued about where to store the flashlight batteries (she won, and put them in a drawer with some long-lasting candles she’d scored, and also lighters and some matches, and was basically logical, the way moms sometimes are) and showed off her Exciting Buy of the Day: a set of camping lanterns that had the highest possible ratings and reviews online.
“One for you,” she said, and made a great show of handing me the thin yellow tube, “and one for me. Now we can pretend we’re in Tomb Raider.”
“How do you know what Tomb Raider is?” I said, and tried out my Very Own Lantern. It was so bright! TAKE THAT, SHADOWMAN!
A chill raced across my skin at the thought, and nature made me jump with a huge crash of thunder, just as lightning illuminated the kitchen.
“Pssh,” she said, and put the grocery bags away. “Lara Croft and I were buddies way before you were born. Here,” she said, and handed me something wrapped in a plastic bag. “So that you don’t get too incredibly bored and annoying.”
“Aw, how sweet!” I said, and took the gift. As I pulled it out of the bag, I jumped. “MOM! Thank you! I wanted to read this so bad!”
“Yes, well, I’m going against my conscience,” she said, doing her best to sound snooty. “You know how I feel about those edgy young adult novels.”
I cuddled the new copy of Northanger Abbey. “Thank you for compromising your morals this one time, Mom.” I kissed her cheek, and after ice cream, I curled up on the bedofa with Jane Austen’s hilarious Catherine Morland.
Mom packed up for bed sometime around chapter five, but I paused only to get ready for bed. Catherine’s vacation plans were enough to keep my mind off of my own vacation’s weird twists, and I read, amid the thunder and lightning, until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.
I knew I was dreaming this time.
I knew the shadows were real, but that there was no man walking in them.
I knew the shouting was just in my—
I opened my eyes.
The power was out again, or maybe Mom had come in and turned off the lamp by the bedofa.
And then I heard it again.
Someone was close and shouting and—
The rumble of a truck engine.
I pushed up and swung my feet over the side of the bedofa, and grabbed my phone, because it was closer than my flashlight. Where had I put my bag? I shone my phone’s face around as I walked to the one window that faced the inner part of the driveway. The driveway that split the gatehouse into two sides. Headlights shone through the iron bars, and there—
No, wait. Not ShadowMan. Just a man, silhouetted against the light, running from the gate, back into the passenger side of the truck.
I watched the truck back out and turn away.
That was not Daniel’s truck.
That was a moving van.
I glanced at my phone again. 2:24 am.
What the...?

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