“I know, but…” She furrowed her brow. “They’re evil, and they had something to do with it. I may not understand how yet, but I know it.”
Daniel watched her for a minute, thinking, then he nodded. “No. I believe you. Now what?”
“I don’t know.” She sighed. “But I’m not letting Gemma go anywhere near them again. I’ll tie her to the bed if I have to.”
“That sounds reasonable.”
“Desperate times call for desperate measures.”
“Where is Gemma?” Daniel asked.
“She’s over at Alex’s.” Harper gestured to his house next door. “She’s comforting him.”
“So we know she’s safe and taken care of?” Daniel asked, and she nodded. “Good. Then why don’t we do something that you want to do?”
“I don’t know. What do you like to do?”
“Um…” Her stomach rumbled, since crying always made her hungry. “I like eating breakfast.”
“That’s so weird.” Daniel grinned. “Because I like making French toast.”
“That works out, doesn’t it?”
Together, Harper and Daniel made breakfast. Her dad came in when he smelled it cooking, and the three of them ate together. It could’ve been a little awkward, but it wasn’t. Daniel was respectful and funny, and Brian seemed to like him.
She knew that when Daniel left, her dad would be full of inquiries about the nature of their relationship that she wasn’t prepared to answer. But it was still worth it.
Being on the island brought back memories. It had been far too long since either Harper or her father had been out to visit Bernie McAllister, so when Brian invited her to tag along with him that afternoon, she happily accepted.
With Gemma still over at Alex’s, it was just the two of them, and that was a bit of a shame, since Gemma had always liked Bernie, too. Although, to be fair, Harper had never been that sure if it was the old man or if she really just loved the island.
Brian had borrowed a boat from a friend to get there, and he pulled up to Bernie’s dock, which was almost hidden among the bald cypress trees that grew out into the water. There was a narrow path to the boathouse, but otherwise the island was almost overgrown with cypress trees and loblolly pines. The trees towering above them were nearly taller than the island was wide.
“Oy!” Bernie shouted.
Harper shielded her eyes from the bright sunlight that managed to break through the foliage, but she couldn’t see Bernie anywhere.
“Bernie?” Brian asked. He climbed off the boat first, onto the dock, then helped his daughter do the same.
“I thought that was you coming ’round there,” Bernie said, and Harper finally spotted him trotting down the path and waving his hand. “I wasn’t expecting company today, but it’s a nice surprise.”
“I tried calling,” Brian said, “but the number didn’t work. Do you still have a phone out here?”
Bernie waved it off. “The storms were always taking it out, so I just got rid of it.”
“We aren’t intruding, are we?” Harper asked as she and her father walked down the dock to meet Bernie. “We don’t want to bother you.”
“Bother? Ha,” Bernie teased in his cockney English accent, “it’s never a bother getting a visit from a pretty girl such as yourself.” He winked at her then, making Harper laugh. “And your old man ain’t so bad, either.”
“So how have things been, Bernie?” Brian asked.
“Can’t complain, though I still do.” Bernie turned around to start leading them from the dock and gestured widely to the trees around them. “Come on. I’ll show you what I’ve done with the place. Things have changed since you’ve been here last.”
Nothing looked all that different to Harper as she followed Bernie up the worn path toward his house. Everything still smelled of pine and creeping Charlie, just the way she remembered it. As Bernie and her father talked about all the things they’d been up to over the last year or so, Harper wandered more slowly behind them, admiring the place from her childhood.
Since she’d been about twelve or so—the age at which her father started feeling safer about leaving her home alone in charge of Gemma—they’d come out to stay with Bernie less and less, but before that, it had been a home away from home.
Harper was certain that if she looked, she’d find the fort she and Gemma had built out of branches and old wood in the back, behind Bernie’s cabin. They’d secured it with nails and wood, and Bernie had promised to leave it for them always.
When they reached his cabin, she noted that it looked more worn than she remembered it, but it held up remarkably well for its age. Vines covered one side, with Bernie trimming them only around the windows.
As Bernie led them around to the back of the cabin, Harper finally discovered what the “big changes” were—he’d started a vegetable garden. A giant rosebush, covered in large violet blossoms, grew in the center. It was something his wife had planted just before she’d died, and until the vegetable garden, it was the only plant he really took care of.
“Wow, Bernie,” Brian said, a little stunned at the sheer numbers of tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, carrots, radishes, and lettuce that Bernie had in his yard. The garden plot was nearly the size of his cabin.
“It’s a lot, isn’t it?” Bernie smiled proudly. “I sell them at the farmers’ market. It helps supplement the ol’ retirement. You know how extravagant my life can be.”
“It is impressive,” Brian admitted, “but if you’re strapped for cash, you know—”
Bernie held up his hand, stopping him before he could say more. “I know you’ve got two girls to take care of, and I’ve never taken charity a day in my life.”
“I know.” Brian nodded. “But if you do ever need anything, you can always come to me.”
“Bah.” Bernie shook his head, then stepped into his garden, rubbing his hands together. “How would you like a rutabaga?”
While Brian and Bernie discussed what kinds of vegetables Brian would want to take home, Harper headed out toward the trees, hoping to get a glimpse of her old fort. Coming out here was like stepping into Terabithia.
Some of her best childhood memories involved her and Gemma running through those trees, usually because they were being chased by one make-believe monster or another. Almost always Gemma would be the one who turned around and faced the monster.