The haunting rhyme rattled and cascaded through David's pounding head, following him throughout his day. It whispered as he said goodbye to Geordi. It shouted as he ran a load of laundry. It wailed as he searched the house for his lost phone. He found himself pulling the ruined napkin out and staring at it every few minutes, just to make absolutely sure it was real.
He typed the words into an internet search engine, and then a second one when he found nothing. Nowhere in all of mankind's collected knowledge could the poem be found. At least, not in what had been uploaded into cyberspace. He tried starting somewhere smaller. He simply typed "dogwood poem" and found a wealth of pages involving a very different rhyme about how the tree has a biblical connection to some. From there he tried even smaller, researching the tree species itself. Again, it answered nothing.
Actually, it raised more questions. Dogwoods, in the spring, have no leaves. Their branches are covered in countless flowers, either white or pink depending on the tree. Summer brings broad, bright leaves and the flowers nearly disappear. In the fall the leaves turn scarlet, and blood-red berries bloom in clusters. A pretty tree, usually fairly small and spindly in stature even to the point of looking like an over-large bush.
David was far from a botanist. He'd never had a green thumb, and never cared to learn. There was one thing he did know, though. The tree in the crime scene photographs was not following the rules. It was a large tree, towering in the center of the small field. It was unusual, but not unheard of, for the ornamental species to grow to large size. The fact that the tree was in the middle of the sunny clearing was another unusual, but not unheard of, thing about the generally shade-loving tree. But there was one thing that David knew without a doubt that was entirely not right about the tree. Its huge branches had been laden with bright, white flowers that contrasted starkly against the nearly black bark. Not a leaf could be found on the tree, and in the dead of summer, that was simply not natural.
David paced his clean living room, running a hand wildly through his dark hair. What was happening in this town? Strange people he could accept as cultural differences, he'd grown up in an entirely different region with a vastly difference history. He could ignore strangeness in people, as he tended to ignore people in general. Strangeness in nature was another matter entirely.
He felt like death warmed over in more ways than one, and he couldn't bear to look at the walls of the little one bedroom house anymore. He pulled on his shoes and burst out the door, unsure of where he was headed. He pulled his car keys out of his pocket, but before he could reach his car a voice called out.
"Mr. Daugherty?" A female voice, completely unfamiliar and unexpected. David dropped his keys in surprise and spun around, "I'm sorry if I'm disturbin' you, Mr. Daugherty, but if I'm thinkin' right, there're some questions you want answered,"
Anthroponomastics is the study of names, specifically surnames and given names. Anthroponymy also covers endearments, nicknames, and the evolution of shortened names. It tracks the change of Richard to Richie to Rick to Dick. It would also be the place to start for an explanation of the name tag proclaiming 'Little Jase' on Jayleen Cole's pale blue shirt. As a child her relatives had collectively agreed not to call her Jayleen, and instead called her Little Jay Cole. Time had shortened it to Little Jay C, and eventually the sounds had been rushed together until most of the town had forgotten her name was not legally Jase.
Jase had never heard the term anthroponymy, but she'd often wondered if there was a word to encompass the circumstances of her renaming. That particular morning, however, she had other things on her mind. She made sure to hum happily as Saturday morning regulars filtered sporadically into the little diner. She floated from booth to booth, checking in on all of them with her biggest grin. She'd had a new-found determination in her step these last two weeks, and she knew better than to let anyone see it. She hitched her fake smile a little wider as an elderly couple shuffled in and sat as far from the bright windows as possible.
"Mornin' y'all," Jase reached their table almost immediately, fresh coffee in hand, "Have fun at Henry's last night?"
"Jase, hun, could ya turn down these danged lights?" Pearl muttered into her palms as she tried to hide her face from the world. Hangovers were never kind to Pearl Bailey.
"You know I cain't do that, Ma'am, but I can get y'all your cure," She grinned and headed towards the kitchen. Northside Diner was renowned for having the best hangover cure around. A foul, greasy concoction called Never Again. It was listed as an omelet on the menu, though very little of the brownish mass bore any resemblance to eggs.
When Jase arrived by the expo line, two plates of Never Again were waiting. Paul and Pearl came every Saturday like clock-work. She swept back over to the booth and placed the food down.
"Thank you, hun," Pearl began summoning up the courage to pick up her fork. Paul hummed sleepily into his coffee cup. He gave a one-sided smile and winked a bloodshot eye across the table to Pearl, who huffed grumpily at him, "Don't you start with that, mister. I feel like I'm 'bout dyin',"
"But you look purtier'n ever my em'rld, my ruby, my Pearl," He mumbled happily through his pounding headache, though no one bothered to understand his garbled words.
"I'll be back to check on y'all in a few minutes," Jase patted the table before she left to check on other customers. Just a few more hours and she'd be off the clock. It was the first day in two weeks that she had free time. The first day since that poor girl's death. The first day since whispers had started again for the first time in ten years about dogwood brides.
Today was her chance to find answers to questions she'd been asking since she could speak, and she wasn't going to allow herself to become side-tracked again. This time she wasn't going to take no for an answer.
It was next to impossible to maintain that chipper calm for the rest of her shift, but she managed it. If she'd let her fierce determination show for even a moment, someone would have noticed and thought up some inane task that they'd need her help with. Something that would inevitably take all day. It was the same as the last time. People keeping her busy and distracted until her window of opportunity closed. A decade of frustration ran like rusty nails through her veins, and nearly made her grumble aloud. She took a deep breath and forced that bland smile back on her face. If there was one thing Kept Creek had taught her, it was to find your best poker face and stick to it. If people thought you were up to anything, they'd make it their business to find out what it was. She couldn't afford that.
Her shift passed slowly, the clock intent on dragging and stalling through its rotations, and Jase found herself running through old memories the entire time. The last time it'd happened was over ten years ago, and she'd just been a teenager. Not much more than a child, really. The funny looks, the whispers, the questions that swirled past her at school were more than enough for her to realize at least part of the ugly truth.
She knew her story was a tragic one, but the real tragedy for Jase was her own ignorance. It seemed that the entire town had made up their minds against her ever finding the truth. Maybe they had been right to do so when she was younger, but it was a small town. Secrets never stayed completely buried. She'd heard enough whispers and seen enough side-glances to know that whatever was killing women in Kept Creek, whatever driving force was behind the gruesome aftermaths, had something to do with her parents.
She also knew that any straightforward questions from her inevitably ended in lies or abrupt subject changes. If she wanted to find real answers, she'd need outside help. Outside help that would believe her. Outside help that, until a few weeks ago, she thought she'd never find.
The clock mercifully surrendered its hold on her and the midshifters rolled in. Jase pulled off her server apron and rolled it up to keep her tips from spilling out. She'd count it later. She nervously smoothed out the wrinkles in her black pants and as she jumped into her hand-me-down pickup she secretly hoped she didn't smell too horribly of grease.
She could barely breathe as she parked on the side of Peach Street. She'd heard the couple from California had moved somewhere along the short road, but she had no clue which house. She hopped out of her truck and began walking slowly down the road, checking the license plate of every car she walked past. One of them would certainly say California.
She had walked nearly the entire length of the road when she finally saw it, the little car with the out of state plates. A man with dark hair that she'd never seen before was about to climb in and drive away. Her heart pounded in fear at the prospect that he was leaving town, and she started running.
"Mr. Daugherty?" Her voice came out with a nervous waver. He spun around at the sound and dropped his keys. Jase stopped in place, immediately feeling silly for running. She took a deep breath and stepped a little closer to the stranger she'd read about in the newspaper, "I'm sorry if I'm disturbin' you, Mr. Daugherty, but if I'm thinkin' right, there're some questions you want answered," The same questions she wanted as well. He stared blankly at her for a moment, then he blinked as if making sure she was real. His head tilted slightly to the side like a confused dog as he really, really looked at her and it made Jase uncomfortable. His eyes were intelligent, but bloodshot and tired.
"Why don't the people here get married?" His words were so quiet Jase almost didn't hear them, "Why does there have to be blood?" His voice was sandpaper, but each word was carefully enunciated, every letter spoken with a rough clarity Jase hadn't known possible.
"You get right to the point a things," She glanced down at her feet to escape those haunted eyes. She'd known that he'd be grieving, that he'd be a wreck of a man, but his pain seemed tangible and she hadn't been prepared for that. She cleared her throat and looked back at him, "I don't have all th' answers, sir, but I've got a few. More importantly, I can help you track down th' rest a the story. If you'd be willin' to work with me on it," She crossed her arms in front of her to have something to do with her hands.
He gave her another long, serious look that made her feel like he was reading her life's story on her face. Finally he nodded and pulled a crumpled paper napkin out of his pocket.
"What is this?" Again, Jase barely heard the words. She hesitantly took the napkin from him, feeling much less sure about her master plan than she had earlier. This was a broken person. What if he didn't want the answers she wanted? What if he didn't believe, or couldn't handle it? He could end up the same as others before him, and she'd be the one that drove the final nail into his coffin.
She glanced down at the napkin in her hand and read each word carefully before handing it back to him.
"They found her 'neath the dogwood shade," Her voice shook nervously, "Clean white petals t' mark her grave. Her pain is done, but mine's begun 'neath that self-same dogwood tree," With every word from her his eyes grew wider.
"But what does it mean?" He stepped closer, but Jase stepped back. He looked half out of his mind, and she'd left her gun in her truck. His eyes pleaded with her, and she knew if she went any further with this she'd most likely regret it. She also knew if she walked away right then, she'd kick herself the rest of her life.
"I'll tell you what I know, but there're an awful lot of busy-bodies 'round here that'll make it their business to hush me up if they see us talkin'," She looked up and down the street as if half-expecting people to come running over.
"Then let's talk inside," He gestured to his house, "I have so many questions," He started towards the door, ran back to his car to pick his keys off the ground, and ran back to his house. Jase hesitated by the sidewalk for just a moment before following him inside.