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'Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe' Chapters 15 & 16


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Illustration by Nick Matej

 

15

 

“You’ve lived next door to the café for five years now, but you didn’t know the blackbirds were a rare species not commonly found in the United States?” the reporter asked.

“I knew they were special,” Gideon Kipling said. “The former owner of the café protected the birds fiercely. Didn’t let anyone close to them.”

“Didn’t that level of protection strike you as odd?”

“Lots of things strike me as odd in this town.”

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He tapped his pen. “Let me get straight to my point. Do you think the previous owner was hiding something?”

Gideon folded his hands on the table. “Aren’t we all?”

 

Natalie

I pulled open the front door of the little house late Sunday afternoon. It was just after three o’clock, and Ollie was still napping. “Come in, come in. I thought for sure you’d had a moment of insanity when you called earlier. Have you considered seeking medical attention immediately? Could be you’re having an aneurysm or something.”

Anna Kate clutched a foil-wrapped platter with both hands. “Having my head examined might not be a bad idea. I’m not sure what I’m doing.”

That made two of us. When Anna Kate had called this morning and asked me to let Doc know that she decided to accept his Sunday supper invitation after all, I about fell over. I suggested she come here first, so we could walk over to the big house together in hopes of taking some of the strain off Anna Kate. “Ollie’s still napping, and I’m letting her sleep as long as possible. She’s grumpy if she wakes up too soon, and we don’t want that at supper tonight on top of everything else.”

“Why not? I hear grumpy pairs well with awkwardness and discomfort.”

“As tasty as that particular menu sounds, I think I’ll let her keep sleeping a few minutes more.”

“Cute place,” Anna Kate said as she followed me inside. She wore white denim capris and a teal-blue sleeveless blouse that brought out the green in her eyes. I hoped to the heavens that Mama wouldn’t say anything about the rubber flip-flops.

“It is that. Mama has good taste. It’s the free rent that makes it especially attractive, but I’ll be moving as soon as I can.”

Light glinted off the copper in Anna Kate’s eyebrows as they furrowed. “Really? Where?”

“An apartment in town. Maybe a rental house if I can swing it. Just ” I’d been about to say “away from here” but realized it wasn’t the whole truth. “I want to be independent, stand on my own two feet. I really envy you, Anna Kate. It’s inspiring how you came here and picked up running the café like it was no big deal. I could never do something like that.”

“It was a big deal, and yes, you could. Your success at the café is proof—look how you stepped right in without batting an eye. Besides, being independent isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I can’t tell you how many times I wished to have a normal, stable life growing up. Like you.”

“Normal is in the eyes of the beholder, I suppose.” I gestured to Anna Kate’s hands. “If you’re willing to let that dish go, you can set it on the kitchen counter and come sit down. I’m just cleaning up my mess.” I’d been working on sewing projects while Ollie slept.

Anna Kate glanced down as if not realizing how tightly she was gripping the platter, then laughed as she set it down. “I guess I’m a bit nervous.”

“I have to admit, I am too. Mostly because I don’t know what to expect.” I knelt in front of the coffee table and went about picking up the notions I had spread out. The lace, ribbon, pearls, and sequins. I’d been crafting items to sell at Hodgepodge. Marcy Kolbaugh had been excited at my ideas for designs to sell in the shop.

Anna Kate sat on the floor on the other side of the coffee table, and rested her hands on her knees. “You and me both. What did your parents say when you told them I was coming?”

“Daddy smiled. He gets this glint in his eyes when he’s happy— he was glinting like crazy. I didn’t see my mother. She’s been in hiding since the incident. He says she’s fine, just sorting through her feelings.”

It hadn’t been surprising to me that Mama had locked herself away—it’s what she always did when she couldn’t deal with an emotional overload. Only, this was the first time I knew of that she’d done it physically, rather than mentally.

I’d have worried more, but I saw the light burning late into the night in her sewing studio these past two days, so I knew she wasn’t completely lost.

Anna Kate hugged her knees. “Do we know that Seelie will even be at supper?”

“Technically, no, we don’t. But she’ll be there.”

“How do you know?”

“I know my mother. She wouldn’t want to be seen as an ungracious hostess, especially to family. And I think that when she saw you face-to-face, she realized just that: you are family. She’d been in denial up until that point. The truth all but slapped her in the face on Friday night. She had to admit she’d been wrong, and she’s never wrong. She has a lot of reconciling to do—mostly with herself. Hand me that glue gun, will you?”

Anna Kate passed over the glue gun and picked up a piece of rainbow fabric in desperate need of a good pressing. “Is this a bow tie? Mr. Lazenby would be so proud.”

“I’m expanding my headband business,” I said with a laugh, gesturing to a sewing machine in the corner of the room. “Baby bow ties, bibs, hair bows, booties. I need to either raid my mother’s sewing studio soon or get down to Fort Payne for supplies and fabric, because I’m fast running out.”

I was leaning toward Fort Payne, since I would be down there at the end of the week for my counseling appointment. Daddy had offered me use of his car, though I wouldn’t mind another trip with Cam. I wanted to learn more about him.

“Seelie sews?” Anna Kate asked.

It was hard to describe what happened to my mother when she sewed. It was as though she were replaced with a woman full of life, of passion, of personality and creativity. “Faylene says Mama is like magic with a needle. It’s true. The items she creates are works of art. She’s been sewing since she was a little girl. She taught me, and one day I’ll teach Ollie, if she wants to learn.”

It was one of the few heartfelt gifts I’d received from my mother. Something that wasn’t bought in a store or with the intention of improving me somehow, like the collection of Clinique makeup and acne treatments I’d been given for my fourteenth birthday. There had been no hidden motives behind teaching me to sew—she’d simply been sharing something that made her happy because she thought it would bring joy to me, too.

It had. Some of the happiest times in my childhood were spent in Mama’s sewing studio. Unfortunately, those lessons never lasted long, and then she would retreat into her shell once again, leaving me wanting more of the woman she’d been before AJ died.

“As nervous as I am, I’m glad you decided to come to supper today, Anna Kate. But I admit, I’m mighty curious. What made you change your mind? I heard you were dead set against ever sharing a meal with my parents.”

“I can only guess where you heard that.”

“People like to talk.”

“Gossip, you mean.”

Smoothing a finger over a scrap of ribbon, I said, “I’m surprised you haven’t realized that means the same as talking around here.”

“I was dead set against it, because I didn’t want to betray my mother. I had such a picture of what the Lindens were like in my head. What they looked like, where they lived, how they lived, and the kind of people they were.” She laced her fingers. “Since I’ve been here in Wicklow, I’ve realized that the picture I had painted in my head wasn’t my picture at all. It was my mother’s. There have been things I’ve seen that don’t match up. In fact, the only thing that does is how much Seelie hates my mom.”

“Hate” was such a strong word, but I struggled to find a replacement. It could be because there wasn’t one—my mother had hated Eden Callow. Still did. “Is it not still a betrayal, you being here today?” I asked as gently as I could.

“Maybe it is,” Anna Kate said. “But on Friday night, when I looked into Seelie’s eyes and saw all that pain and regret, I decided that maybe it was time to start painting my own picture. As much as I love my mom, she did teach me to think for myself, so I believe she’d understand.” She grimaced. “Maybe. I hope.”

I couldn’t help laughing. “Like I said, I’m glad you’re here. As much as Eden might’ve disliked my parents, I imagine she’d want you to know more about AJ. You’ll probably get an earful today.”

Her eyes brightened. “I hope so.”

“I know so. Mama, especially, will probably go on and on.”

Anna Kate ran a finger along the edge of the coffee table. “What’s Seelie like? Truly like? I only know my mother’s version of her.”

I tightened the lid on a canister of beads, and then set it into the laundry basket I used to store my sewing goods. “I’m not sure I’m the right person to ask.”

“But as her daughter, you know her best. Right?”

I tried to evade the question. “It’s complicated.”

“Why?”

Setting a pair of pinking shears in the laundry basket, I took a deep breath. “To people in the community, she’s prim and proper and graceful. She’s charitable and driven and stoic. She has high expectations, impeccable taste, and a discerning eye.”

“They also know she’s quick to judgment and can cut you with a look. But I really want to know how you see her. I’ve heard rumors you’re not close. Why is that?”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into all this, but Anna Kate was family, and she had the right to see all the dirty laundry. “My earliest memories of her are warm and loving. There were lots of hugs and kisses and cuddling. But all that changed when AJ died. I was three. I didn’t understand much of what was happening, all I knew was that AJ was gone, and my mother, as I knew her, was gone too. She’d disappeared into someone who looked like Mama, but she wasn’t the same. Cold and distant. It was Daddy who started reading me stories at bedtime. Daddy who kissed my scrapes and made my breakfast and picked out my clothes, which was all well and good, but I really wanted my mama back.”

Anna Kate picked at a loose string on the seam of her pants. “I’m guessing she never came back?”

I wove a piece of lace through my fingers, pulling so tightly it hurt. “While I was growing up? No, not really. Every now and again, when she sewed, I’d see her, but it was so brief that I questioned whether it was real or just me hoping she was finally healing. I see glimpses of the old her with Ollie, though, and it gives me hope that she’s still in there, trying to find her way out. I hope she does, I truly do, but it doesn’t make up for what I lost out on.”

My father’s words echoed in my head as I set the lace in the basket.

Grief can change a person to the point where they become some­ one they don’t know, or even like very much.

“And I feel terrible for saying that,” I admitted, “but it’s the truth. I know she was suffering—but she never sought help for it. She tried to stiff-upper-lip it, because she thought mental health was something to be ashamed of, to be swept under the rug and whisper about behind people’s backs. I don’t think Mama could have withstood gossip on top of her grief.”

Mama hadn’t come around on the topic of mental health until I’d had my first panic attack and Daddy had insisted I see a therapist. It had taken her seeing my pain to understand that help meant health and there was nothing to be embarrassed by in seeking treatment.

Anna Kate said softly, “Seems like we all lost a lot when my dad died.”

“It’s kind of astounding, isn’t it? How one split second can alter so many people’s lives? Dividing our lives into categories of before and after? Before AJ died … after AJ died … Sorry. I’m getting philosophical.”

“It’s okay. I think a lot about that kind of thing, too. What if the car hadn’t crashed that day ... ? Would my mother and father have gotten married? Would I have grown up here in Wicklow? Would my mom still have become a nurse? Or would she be running the café? The what-ifs keep me up at night sometimes.”

“Same here,” I said, thinking of how many sleepless nights I’d had. Not just with AJ and his accident, but with Matt and his drowning, as well. “If AJ hadn’t died, would I have been a happier child? Would I be less of a people-pleaser? I spent a good portion of my younger years trying to get my mother’s attention. I did everything she asked, going above and beyond to make her proud. Yet my every accomplishment was compared to AJ in some way.”

“Like how?”

“Oh, little things. I’d come home with A’s on a report card, and Mama would be sure to tell me that AJ always earned A’s, too— usually in harder subjects than mine. If I mentioned that I liked the color green, Mama would mention that his favorite color was blue. Foods were the worst. If I said I liked carrots, I’d hear about the time AJ tried carrots for the first time and spit them out on Daddy’s tie. He hated them. Not only that, I had a thousand rules to live by, because Mama had become irrationally overprotective.”

“I can kind of understand why.”

“Oh, I can too, but it didn’t make it any easier to live with. By the time I was a teenager, I came to the realization that to get Mama to notice me, I needed to do things AJ never had.”

Anna Kate’s lips twitched. “Oh no.”

“Oh yes. I thought bad attention would be better than no attention, so I started rebelling. Small ways, mostly, just to aggravate Mama, because I really was a good kid. Dyeing my hair. Smoking, which only made me queasy. Listening to music she didn’t approve of. Running away tended to get the most attention, but I never went far.”

I almost laughed, thinking of the times I’d run off—only to wander along Willow Creek and get eaten alive by mosquitos until the wee hours. I hadn’t had any best friends to get into teenage mischief with and there certainly had been no boyfriends—no one was ever good enough for Seelie Earl Linden’s approval. But when I was located or eventually wandered back home, I always let my mother think the worst. Getting caught, after all, was the whole point of sneaking out.

Anna Kate smiled. “I bet that went over well.”

“It backfired, actually. I thought she’d finally start seeing me for who I was, but the more I acted out, the more rigid she became, freezing me out even more. Just when I thought I couldn’t take her coldness any longer, I graduated from high school and went off to college. There, I suddenly had all the freedoms I ever wanted, so of course I went and did the stupidest thing possible, at least in my mother’s eyes. It certainly got her attention, but it was the final straw for her, and she all but cut me out of her life.”

“What did you do?” Anna Kate asked, eyes wide. “Don’t tell me you got arrested.”

“Worse.” A squeak came from the hallway—Ollie was waking up. I threw a look at the clock. And it was time to go over to the big house.

“What could possibly be worse in Seelie’s eyes than getting arrested?” Anna Kate asked.

I stood, lifted the laundry basket, and looked at Anna Kate dead on. “I got married.”

 

Anna Kate

“Okay,” Natalie said, turning to face me on the walkway between the guesthouse and the main house. Her dark eyes were focused and serious. “If you get too overwhelmed, we leave. Just get up and go.” She snapped her fingers. “We should have a signal or code word or something. How about ... oh, I don’t know …” She looked all around, up and down, and then laughed. “I can’t think of a thing.”

A sleepy-eyed Ollie lifted her head off Natalie’s shoulder, stared at her mother, and then started laughing too.

I loosened my grip on the platter. “How about succotash?”

“As in sufferin’?” She laughed harder, which set Ollie off again.

I smiled at them. “I used to love watching Looney Tunes. Sylvester the Cat was a favorite.”

“Sufferin’ succotash. I haven’t heard that phrase in forever. It definitely fits. You ready?”

“As I’ll ever be.”

She nodded vigorously. “It’ll be fine. Just fine. Absolutely fine.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard Natalie say those words in that order, and I wondered how often she used them as a pep talk for herself. A lot, I guessed.

As we headed for the patio doors leading into the kitchen, I wished we could turn around and go back to Natalie’s cozy little cottage and pick up the conversation we’d been having. She’d left me on a cliff-hanger with the whole marriage thing, promising to tell me another time what had happened.

Keeping my arm’s-length policy had crashed and burned where Natalie was concerned. Was it because she wasn’t simply a friend but my aunt? I wasn’t sure. All I knew was I’d never opened up to someone like I had with her. This wasn’t a relationship that would simply fizzle out because one friend moved away from another and lost touch. Family was forever. For better or for worse.

The air-conditioner droned as Natalie led us into a spacious kitchen. Light flooded the room, catching on copper pots hanging from a ceiling rack above a wide island.

A light stone countertop complemented dark maple cabinets and vivid sage-green walls. A potato masher, its wires thick with creamy spuds, rested on a wooden cutting board, and a roasting pan scraped of drippings sat on iron trivets. Bowls and plates were piled deep in the farmhouse sink. Several colorful flower arrangements were displayed in vases on the countertops and the kitchen table.

The air smelled of sweet ham, a hint of rose, and was filled with soft jazz. Plates rattled from the dining room, and my grip once again tightened on the platter.

“Hello!” Natalie called out. “We’re here!”

“Hihi!” Ollie said as Natalie put her down and straightened the hem of Ollie’s dress.

For the millionth time since I woke up that morning I reminded myself why I was doing this. It would have been easy to keep on minding my own business. To ignore the Lindens and the pain they carried around like an aura.

But as I had gone to sleep last night after hearing the blackbirds sing their soul-stirring song, it was Bow’s voice I heard echoing in my thoughts.

Seems to me there’s a whole lot of people around here carrying around a heap of pain tied to the past. Might be time to start letting that go and start healing.

The pain we all shared stemmed from that one moment in the past when our worlds were split, like Natalie had said, into a before and an after.

Twenty-five years of grief and sadness, pain and anger.

It was time to let go. To heal.

I was the link between the before and the after, and I could no longer deny that the job of putting this family back together was mine. As uncomfortable as that may be.

However, as a Callow, healing was my calling, and I was suddenly very much up for the challenge. Or so I told myself, so I wouldn’t run out the door and not look back. Nerves were making me question my decision.

Doc appeared in the dining room doorway, and upon seeing us, his shoulders dropped, and he let out a breath. His eyes were, in fact, glinting.

Ollie’s dark hair flew out behind her as she went running as fast as her little legs could carry her straight into his arms. He winced as he picked her up.

“You okay there, Daddy?” Natalie asked.

“Went golfing again yesterday, and my old muscles are feeling it.” He met my concerned gaze and pasted on a smile. “I am so happy to see the three of you. Thank you, Anna Kate, for accepting my invitation. Welcome. You didn’t have to bring anything.”

“Anna Kate brought something?” Seelie said, coming into the room.

She had a hand wrapped around her pearls as she kissed Ollie’s cheek, then hesitated before pecking Natalie’s. She then took a step toward me as if coming in for a hug, then abruptly dropped her arms and took the platter out of my hands.

I wasn’t sure whether I was relieved or sad about the hug. Seelie’s voice was light, her face neutral. I didn’t sense any malice or ill will. Just awkwardness. She wore linen trousers, a short-sleeved sweater, and only the bare minimum of makeup—a little cover-up, mascara, blush, and lip gloss. Her feet were bare, her toes painted soft pink.

I glanced at Natalie, who had a hand pressed to her cheek, and wondered when Seelie had last kissed her.

Seelie bent her head low to the platter. “Biscuits. Oh, they smell divine, Anna Kate. What kind are they?” she asked casually, as if I’d spent every Sunday with them my whole life long.

I threw a look at Natalie, who stared at her mother, as if not recognizing her. It suddenly felt like the Twilight Zone in here. “They’re zucchini and cheddar.”

“Is that,” Seelie sniffed, “thyme I smell?”

“Fresh thyme from Zee’s garden and a bit of jalapeño.”

Seelie smiled—a smile I recognized as my own—and said, “What a delightful combination. I look forward to tasting them.” She dropped the foil on the counter, picked up the platter, and carried it toward the doorway, slowing only to tickle Ollie’s leg.

Natalie snapped her mouth closed, opened it again. “What’s with Mama?” she asked Doc.

His eyes were still glinting. “I’m not sure what you mean?” Natalie said, “Is she medicated?”

“Not that I know of,” he answered.

“Drunk?” she offered.

He tipped his head as if debating it. “I don’t think so.”

“Mental break?”

He grinned. “Breakthrough, perhaps.”

“What does that mean?” she asked.

Seelie popped into the doorway. “C’mon, now. Supper’s getting cold.”

Doc motioned for us to go ahead of him.

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Natalie dropped her voice and said to me as we shuffled toward the doorway, “Her feet were bare, right? I wasn’t seeing things, was I?”

“Bare feet,” I whispered. “Blush-pink toenails.”

“Mama, where are your shoes?” Natalie asked.

Seelie looked down at her feet. “Oh! Look at that. You’ll have to forgive my lapse.”

Her gaze slid to my flip-flops, and I saw her lips purse in disapproval before she quickly masked the reaction.

Natalie glanced at me, her eyes wide, before taking Ollie from her father’s arms. She headed into the dining room behind her mother.

Doc snagged my arm, pulling me to a stop just short of the doorway. Dropping his voice to a whisper, he said, “I’d appreciate it, Anna Kate, if you didn’t mention anything about my”—he paused for a second—“issues with the heat.”

In the light of the kitchen, he didn’t look as ill as he had on the deck of the café the day I’d first met him, but I could still see the sallowness of his skin. I didn’t know exactly what was wrong with him, but I knew that whatever caused that yellowish skin tone had nothing to do with the weather. “Heat?” I said, emphasizing the word.

“Yes, the heat.”

It hit me suddenly why he was acting suspiciously. “They don’t know, do they?”

The truth shone in the depths of his dark, downturned eyes. Neither Natalie nor Seelie knew he was ill. “Promise not to say anything?”

It wasn’t my diagnosis to share, but it didn’t seem fair to Natalie and Seelie that they didn’t know. I would want to know. “Only if you promise to tell them soon.”

“I will.”

“Are you at least under a doctor’s care?”

“Many.” He sighed.

“What exactly is wrong?”

“It’s nothing to—”

“Come on now, let’s sit down. What are you two whispering about?” Seelie asked.

Doc propelled me into the dining room and said, “I was telling Anna Kate again how wonderful it is to have her here.”

It’s nothing to worry about. That’s what he had been going to say—I was sure of it. But by the looks of him, I was worried. I had my share of biology and anatomy classes in college, and I was quickly searching my brain for a disease that would cause that kind of coloring. Hepatitis or liver failure jumped first to mind. Treatable, yes, but sometimes fatal.

“It is indeed,” Seelie said, raising her gaze to meet mine. She quickly dropped it again, as if not wanting to seem like she was staring. “I hope it becomes a tradition for as long as you’re in town, Anna Kate. Our home is your home.”

I managed a weak, noncommittal smile. “Thank you.”

“Where am I? Are there hidden cameras?” Natalie buckled Ollie into a booster seat tethered to the chair next to hers and looked upward, scanning ceiling corners.

“Don’t be absurd, Natalie,” Seelie said. “Now let’s sit and have a nice meal. What can I get for y’all to drink? There’s sweet tea, wine, Coke, and coffee ”

Natalie went back to shaking her head in disbelief and gave Ollie a green bean to gnaw on.

I wasn’t much of a drinker, but I eyed the wine and wondered if anyone would mind if I drank it straight from the bottle. To play it safe, I opted for tea.

Along with an overabundance of surrealism, the dining room held a farmhouse table, painted matte black. A long runner embellished with embroidered roses ran down the center of the table. Among plates and bowls of food, three small vases held fresh flowers that looked like they’d come from the backyard flower beds. Daisies, black-eyed Susans, white roses, and ferns.

“Beautiful flowers,” I said as Doc held out a chair for me. “Thank you.” Seelie put a tall tea glass in front of me, then went around to the other side and handed one to Natalie as well. “James cut them from the garden this morning.”

James. Doc. My grandfather. My very ill grandfather.

I fought a rush of sadness and focused on my surroundings. White china sat on thick green cotton placemats that had an intricate floral design stitched into them, and the polished silver flatware gleamed. The artwork tended toward colorful animal prints, watercolors of rabbits, squirrels, and a lamb. Framed family photos were tucked around the room, on the sideboard and on top of a hutch. I wanted to get up to study each and every photo, but I didn’t want to be overtly rude.

“Before we eat, I’d like to say something,” Seelie said as she took her seat. She looked across the table to Doc.

He gave her an encouraging nod.

Seelie’s gaze shifted to Natalie, then me. She inhaled deeply. “Anna Kate, I don’t know what happened the day your father died. No one does. I chose to believe the worst, because it helped me deal with the pain if I had someone to blame. It was easier than not knowing the reason why he isn’t here. I needed someone to blame.”

In my lap, my hands were fisted so tightly my short fingernails dug painfully into my palms. “And now you suddenly don’t need someone to blame?”

I tried to keep in mind all Natalie had told me, about how the accident changed her mother. Her account had tugged at my heartstrings, because I was human. I couldn’t imagine what it was like to live through the death of your child. It didn’t excuse Seelie’s behavior toward my mom, but it explained it to a certain degree.

However, even knowing all that, accepting it, even, didn’t stop the anger simmering within me. I tried my hardest to tamp it down, to listen, but I could feel it bubbling under the surface.

Healing, I reminded myself. Healing.

Seelie held my gaze. “Until I saw you the other night, I couldn’t admit to myself that’s what I’d been doing. There’s an unimaginable pain that comes with burying your child, agony that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Accepting that God simply decided AJ’s time was up and took him away … I couldn’t bear the thought.” Moisture shimmered in her eyes. “It was easier for me to blame your mother than accept it was God’s will. It was the only way I could go on.”

Ollie fussed and Natalie quickly gave her a handful of green beans, a scoop of mashed potatoes, and a sippy cup of milk.

“It sounds to me,” I said, trying to keep my voice even, “as though you still haven’t accepted it. Do you believe the crash was an accident or not?”

“I don’t know what happened,” she repeated.

I broke eye contact and pressed my lips together to keep from lashing out.

“Seelie,” Doc said, a warning in his low tone.

“Hush up,” she said to him. “I’m just being as truthful as I can. Anna Kate, before now I wasn’t even willing to consider the crash was an accident. Now, I am, but I need more time to fully process it. I need time to adjust to the fact that I could’ve been wrong for so many years. That I could’ve caused irreparable damage to others in my quest to see that someone was held accountable for AJ’s death. To accept that there might be no reason at all why my son was taken away from me.”

Could have. Might be. The words stung, not because she wouldn’t blindly accept that my mom hadn’t driven off that road on purpose, but because the words needled my conscience. The fact of the matter was that Seelie was right: no one knew what had happened on that road.

But I knew my mom. Knew her well enough to know she wouldn’t physically hurt another person. She abhorred violence of any sort. The only times I ever heard her truly angry were the rare times shspoke of Seelie and Doc, and even then she hadn’t raised her voice. “My mother would never hurt anyone on purpose. If you’d taken any time to get to know her, you’d know that.”

“Of course we knew her,” Seelie said dismissively. “She and AJ dated for three years.”

Taking a deep breath, I said, “You knew her only as the enemy. You didn’t know who she was as a person at all.”

“Eden is not an innocent victim in all this,” Seelie snapped. “She hurt us by hiding you away, didn’t she? Vindictive isn’t a pretty look on anyone.”

“And there she is. That’s my mama.” Natalie leaned back in her chair. “Thought I’d lost my mind for a while. Bare feet,” she murmured.

“Natalie.” Doc sighed.

“What?” she asked. “Bare feet. When have you ever known Mama to walk around with bare feet in the house? Never. That’s when. Slippers, sometimes. But mostly it’s normal shoes. Heels, even.”

Seelie looked toward the ceiling and muttered something under her breath before saying to Natalie, “That’s enough, young lady. If I want to be barefoot in my own house, then I will.”

Natalie rolled her eyes, and I had the feeling they’d been rolled quite a bit under this roof while she was growing up. “Yes, ma’am.”

Seelie faced me. Her blue eyes had frosted over, and in them I saw the hard woman Natalie knew so well. “If Eden wanted to punish us by keeping you away, she succeeded. We will never get those years back.”

“This isn’t getting us anywhere,” Doc interrupted.

Heat radiated through my body as my temper flared. “Actions reap consequences. You can try to spread the blame around, but it’s your vile behavior that has led us to this point. You know what you’ve done.”

She linked her hands together, set them on the table’s edge, and leaned in. “Yes, I do know. I loved my son so much that I wanted what was best for him. Parents want what’s best for our children, and if that comes across as harsh sometimes, then so be it. Eden was opinionated and headstrong and came from questionable bloodlines—between Zee’s hippie ways and a practically anonymous father ... Eden didn’t fit in our world. She wouldn’t have been happy,” Seelie said. “There are expectations that come with being a Linden. Could you imagine Eden at a Junior League meeting?”

I glanced at Doc. He was shaking his head as though he couldn’t believe what he was hearing, but he didn’t speak up.

I turned my attention back to Seelie. “You’re not seriously trying to argue that you were doing my mom a favor by treating her badly?”

“Of course not. I’m trying to make you understand that we lived in two vastly different worlds. Eden wasn’t the right choice for AJ.”

I unclenched my fists, then clenched them again. “That wasn’t your decision to make. They loved each other.”

She kept her hands joined, her fingers laced together so tightly they were turning white. “Can parents make mistakes? Absolutely. We’re human. I, however, don’t see that I was wrong to think Eden was anything other than an obstacle holding AJ back from his full potential. And I was right. She was driving the car when he was killed. If he hadn’t been dating her, they wouldn’t have been together, and he’d still be here, wouldn’t he?”

“So much for God’s will,” I said through clenched teeth.

“It must be nice to sit there steeping in your self-righteousness,” Seelie said, her tone softening as she leaned back in her chair. “You haven’t walked in my shoes.” She pointed at Natalie. “Not one word about my feet.”

Natalie snapped her mouth shut.

Seelie went on, and in that moment of letting her guard down, I could once again see the imprint of all she had lost. “But let me ask you this, Anna Kate. How do you feel about Eden hiding you away all these years? She undoubtedly believed she was making the right choice for you, because as I said, that’s what parents do, but do you think she made the right decision keeping you sequestered? Keeping you from people who would have done nothing but love you?”

I looked between the four of them, focusing mostly on Ollie, who was eating mashed potatoes with her fingers. I thought of all the hate after the accident. The hatred my mother had endured. Her hatred toward this family. Hate, hate, hate.

“I thought maybe she had made a mistake,” I said. “It’s why I came here today. I was hoping that we could try to put the past behind us and start over, but now I can’t help feeling that the hate runs too deep for me to dig us out. I’d been foolish to even think it was possible.” I pushed back my chair and stood up.

“It wasn’t foolish, Anna Kate,” Doc said, standing as well. “It’s what we want, too.”

“We’re a family, Anna Kate,” Natalie added. “The thing about families is sometimes they fight. Especially our family. We get angry and say things we don’t mean—and sometimes things we do. It doesn’t mean that there’s not love beneath the anger. Please don’t leave. We can work through this.”

The tears shimmering in her eyes nearly did me in. I couldn’t bear to see her upset. It was then that part of Zee’s blackbird story came back, loud and clear.

Above all else, the guardians must nurture the love. Without it, all is lost.

That those words would resurface now meant I should take them to heart, but I couldn’t overcome the sense that I’d be fighting a losing battle. “I don’t know how we can. The past can’t be changed. There’s no getting over it or putting it behind us. It’s become us. We live it and breathe it, keeping the anger alive, fanning its flames. There’s no way to overcome it.”

“There has to be a way,” Natalie said. “I refuse to give up.”

I wanted there to be a way—the healer in me wanted it more than anything. But there was no balm or salve or herbal tea that could take away this kind of pain.

Seelie stood. “No. Anna Kate’s right. The past cannot change.”

“Mama,” Natalie said on a sigh.

Seelie held up a hand. “The past can’t change, but people can. The minute I saw you, Anna Kate, I realized how hardheaded I’d been all these years. It started me thinking that maybe Eden and I had more in common than I thought. That, perhaps, I’d been wrong about her after all, because if she hadn’t been in AJ’s life … we wouldn’t have you. If I could go back and make some changes—and truly get to know something other than your mother’s flaws, I would. I can’t. I can, however, start making changes right now. I’ve made mistakes that hurt people, and I’m truly sorry. I hope one day you’ll forgive me.”

I gripped the back of the chair as I listened. I felt her words, knew she believed what she said, but I wasn’t sure I trusted her to follow through. She was seventy-odd years old and had lived her life in such rigid confines that going barefoot was a big deal. Could someone truly change after all that time? “I appreciate that. I do. I’m just …” My emotions were too jumbled to make sense of how I was feeling. “I need some time.”

Doc said, “Our door is always open, and the supper invitation stands.”

My gaze fell on Ollie. Oblivious to the turmoil around her, she grinned when she saw me watching her and flapped her arm, sending a green bean flying. “Annkay! Hihi!”

My heart felt like it was breaking in half. She’d started calling me Annkay when she couldn’t properly pronounce Anna Kate. “Hi, Ollie.”

As I watched her play with her food, I realized she only knew love and happiness, so that’s what she gave people. Even people she didn’t know very well. She didn’t know hate, and I didn’t want her to, especially when it came to her own family.

I was leaving this town soon, but when I left, I didn’t have to pack that heavy hatred along with my quilt, like always.

The choice was mine.

I could cut them off completely here and now, or I could start healing, like I had originally intended.

Talking over the catch in my throat, I said, “I’ll be back—I just don’t know when. I need to sort through all these feelings.”

“We’ll be here waiting,” Doc said, and Seelie nodded.

With that, I practically ran toward the patio door, hoping I’d made the right decision by not cutting them off.

I wasn’t sure.

But as I walked home in the bright sunshine and thick humidity, I noticed my steps were just a little bit lighter.

16

 

Anna Kate

Early the next morning I found myself sitting in the garden at dawn, staring at my feet when I should have been collecting veggies and pulling weeds.

I’d been crouching on the gravel pathway telling the zucchini what went down at the Lindens’ house the day before when I’d taken notice of my feet. My blue toenail polish was chipped. My ankle bones stuck out as usual. They’d always seemed to be extraordinarily bony to me, despite the many times my mom had told me that they were perfectly ordinary. Morning dew mixed with garden dirt had left dark streaks on the tops and sides of my feet, and wishboneshaped tan lines attested to the fact that flip-flops were my preferred summertime footwear.

The phoebe sang from the stone bench in the center of the garden as I slipped my feet out of the flimsy shoes and sat down, stretching out my legs, then drawing them inward to press the soles of my feet together. I held them, closed my eyes, and fought a wave of guilt.

“Anna Kate? Are the weeds so stressful you’re meditating?”

My eyes flew open, and I found Gideon looming over me. “How did I not hear you?”

“Either I’m light on my feet,” he said, sitting down, “or you were deep in thought.”

Looking like he’d just rolled out of bed, his hair was rumpled, his eyes hooded and sleepy. He had on a wrinkled T-shirt, long gym shorts, and sport sandals. Most weekdays, he went for a long bike ride before starting work. “If I was a betting man, then I’d say it was the latter.”

He had nice feet, I noticed. Clean with neatly trimmed toenails. “Are you a betting man?”

He studied me. “Today I am. You’re not really meditating, are you? If so, I can come back later.”

“I’m not meditating. I tried to once, but I couldn’t figure out how to shut off my thoughts. It was as though sitting still, breathing evenly, gave my brain permission to run wild. What exactly is high-fructose corn syrup, why is the Earth round, what really happened to Elvis … that kind of thing. It was a free-for-all in there.” I let go of my feet, stretched out my legs again. “The same goes with yoga. I can’t concentrate.”

“Maybe you should come with me on a bike ride or a hike sometime. Riding works wonders at clearing my mind.”

“Maybe I will,” I said.

I looked at my feet again, at that chipped polish, then shifted my gaze to the mulberry trees. Their branches hung low, weighted by morning dew and almost-ripe berries. The blackbirds had come to sing their songs last night, and I’d listened with tears in my eyes, wishing one of those messages could be for me.

“Anna Kate?” He nudged my leg. Light springy hairs covered his legs, and he had a small scab on his right knee. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

I wasn’t certain what he saw that made him ask the question, since I was usually better at hiding my emotions. The concern in his amber eyes had me blurting out what was weighing on my mind. “I like walking around barefoot.”

“Okay,” he said slowly, a question in his tone.

“Do you walk around your house barefoot?”

Leaning forward, he rested his forearms on bent knees. “All the time. Why?”

I tucked a zucchini into the basket. The plant’s leaves had grown to the size of dinner plates, and I couldn’t pick fast enough for what the plants produced now that they were healthy and happy. “I know somebody who doesn’t. Who, because of the way she was raised, feels it’s improper to go around in bare feet. Even in her own home.” I looked at my toes, but all I could see was Seelie’s blush-colored nail polish.

“Seems old-fashioned and a little sad in a way, but it’s not a big deal. Why is it bothering you?”

It was bothering me. A lot. I tried to push it out of my mind, but it kept finding its way back.

I didn’t want to think about how the way a person had been raised could influence them throughout their whole life to the point where they were seventy years old and still wearing shoes in the house because they didn’t want to break protocol.

Because if I dug deep to see the bigger picture, then I might have to consider that a person who had been nurtured under those kinds of strict rules and archaic wisdoms wouldn’t consider getting to know someone they deemed beneath them. Someone like the daughter of a free-spirited café owner, even if that young woman was dating their son. It simply wouldn’t cross their minds to care. Oh, they’d be polite. Civil. All surface and no depth. Because that’s just who they were. How they were raised. Undoubtedly, they believed their son would tire of the girl he was dating and move on to someone more suitable. Someone from an upper-class background.

Who probably never walked around barefoot.

Shaking my head, I said, “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m just … I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. I have a lot on my mind and haven’t had near enough coffee this morning.” I stood up, slipped my flip-flops back on, and held out my hand to him. “Let’s fix that, shall we?”

Looking at my hand, he hesitated only a second before putting his palm on mine, and then he wrapped his fingers around my wrist. He rose in one fluid motion, but once on his feet he didn’t let go of me. “If you ever want to talk about it, Anna Kate …”

“Thanks, Gideon.” I pulled my hand free and started up the steps. “Are you hungry?”

“Coffee’s just fine.” He surged ahead to open the back door for me.

I washed up, and we fell into our usual routine.

“What’s today’s special?” he asked.

Last week, I’d taken over creating the day’s specials. I enjoyed coming up with the recipes. So much so that I wished I could spend all my time in the kitchen, but three cooks in here was a bit much. “Sausage and ramps mini-frittatas.”

“Ramps? How very southern of you.”

“Not true. I simply discovered some growing at the back of Zee’s garden and thought I’d try them. They’re good. I’m going to start incorporating them more often in my cooking. When, you know, they’re in season.” I wrinkled my nose. “I wonder if they grow in Massachusetts.”

“Next thing you know, you’ll be cooking up collard greens and grits.”

“I already cook those—my mom taught me when I was little. You can take the woman out of Wicklow, but not Wicklow out of the woman.”

Which was especially true for the women in our family.

“It’s what I’ve been telling you,” he said. “Wicklow has a way of holding on.”

I clutched the handle of the coffee pot. “Yeah, but it always sounds like a warning when you say it, even when you’re joking.”

He smiled over the rim of his mug. “Does it?”

“Are you saying it isn’t?”

“That depends.”

“On what?” I set the pot back on its warmer. “On whether you want to be held.”

Out the side window, I saw that some of the birders were already awake and milling about. Zachariah Boyd, Sir Bird Nerd, was walking around the yard with a trash bag picking up litter. I was starting to wonder if Wicklow had gotten a hold on him, too.

“Do you, by the way?” Gideon asked.

I looked over my shoulder. “Do I what?”

“Want to be held?”

I turned to face him fully, wondering if the flirtation I picked up on was real or if I was imagining it. He looked perfectly relaxed, his hips resting against the counter, his ankles crossed, his hands holding his mug to his lips. It was his eyes that gave him away. There was heat in them, making that amber look like molten lava.

My stomach tightened with a need for something I’d never wanted before. Instantly I told myself to knock it off, because there was no arm’s length in those thoughts.

He quietly added, “Held by Wicklow?”

“By Wicklow,” I repeated, struggling against the disappointment of it all. I busied myself filling ceramic containers with sugar packets. “It doesn’t matter much what Wicklow wants. I’m leaving at the end of July.”

He set his mug on the counter and started helping with the sugar. “Then a warning it is.”

“Noted.” I took a sip of coffee. “I wanted to apologize for the other night. It was … dramatic.”

After the horrifying scene with Seelie, we’d quickly packed up and left the amphitheater. Gideon and I had walked back to the café in silence. Our goodbyes had been awkward. And later, I realized I hadn’t even had a chance to unpack the blackberry sweet tea before all hell had broken loose. If it had been a date, then it would have fallen under the “disastrous” category.

We reached for the sugar packets at the same time, our fingers tangling. Our gazes met, then we pulled our hands away.

“What’s family,” he asked, “without a little drama?”

Family. “You make a good point.”

His gaze went up to the soffit again. “Speaking of family, I’m surprised Zee never mentioned me to you.”

“She didn’t really talk about anyone from Wicklow when she visited. Is there a reason she should have? Mentioned you to me, I mean?

Besides your friendship?” Because to my ears, it sounded like there might be something more.

“I thought she would. Considering.”

“Considering what?”

He was stopped from answering by a knock on the front door. “You do have your fair share of early morning visitors, don’t you?” he asked, laughing. “I’m starting to think I had it all wrong, and it’s you who has the hold on Wicklow.”

Smiling, I turned, expecting to see Mr. Lazenby at the door. It wasn’t. It was Pebbles.

“I’m going to head out,” Gideon said, walking toward the back door.

“You don’t want to stay and talk? I’m sure I’ll only be a moment with Pebbles.”

“I’m sure. There’s a bike ride calling my name.”

“All right, then.”

He went out the back while I opened the front door. Pebbles had a smile on her face. “That Gideon’s a cute one, isn’t he?”

“Is he?” I asked as innocently as I could manage. “I hadn’t noticed.”

Pebbles chuckled, clearly seeing right through me. “I suppose you’re wondering why I’m here so early.”

“I suppose I am. Is everything okay?”

She looked left, then right. “I have a favor to ask.”

I stepped aside. “Come on in.”

Later that morning, I stopped by Mr. Lazenby’s chair at the far end of the community table to refill his coffee mug. He had Faylene next to him and Pebbles across, as usual.

He coughed into a handkerchief. He’d been coughing all morning. I said, “I can whip you up something for that cough, Mr. Lazenby. Help clear out those lungs. A little licorice root tea will do you a world of good.”

“I don’t be needing none of that,” he stated as he tucked away his handkerchief. “I’m fine, just a tickle from the grass pollen. I mowed my lawn last evening.”

I eyed his uneaten, yet thoroughly dissected, piece of pie. It had been gutted, its berries mashed, the crust scattered like buckshot. He’d cleaned his plate of scrambled eggs and sweet potato hash, so I knew he wasn’t feeling too terribly. “Something wrong with the pie, then?”

He looked up at me, his rheumy eyes swimming with dismay. “Yes, ma’am. The blackbird pie has blueberries in it.”

“It’s a mixed berry pie. Blueberry, raspberry, and blackberry. It’s a new recipe I started making last week, since the blueberries are ripening.”

“Well, I wish you wouldn’t go changing what isn’t broken. I hate blueberries, and I hear tell from Jena that all the other—normal— pies are long sold out.”

“You aren’t goin’ to up and die, Otis, from not being able to eat a piece of pie,” Faylene said, then glanced my way. “Don’t be minding him, honey. You go on and keep that pie on the menu. Everyone else thinks the pie is delicious. Ain’t that so?” She stood up and asked again, much more loudly to the whole room, “Ain’t the mixed berry pie delicious?”

A concerto of agreement rose to the rafters, and I smiled. Faylene was anything but subtle.

She sat back down, set her napkin on her lap, and picked up her mug. “Told you so.”

Mr. Lazenby wore a black-and-white polka-dot tie today with his short-sleeved white dress shirt. “What’re you going on about, Faylene? You haven’t even had a piece of that pie. You don’t know how delicious it is or ain’t.”

Pebbles said, “Well, I ate it, and it’s mighty good pie, Anna Kate. One of the best pieces of pie I ever did have.”

Mr. Lazenby scowled at her.

“Don’t be looking at me like that, Otis Lazenby. A little change never hurt anyone.” Pebbles sipped from her mug, her pinky in the air.

“It’s hurting me right now, isn’t it?” he snapped back.

She set down her mug and glared. “Don’t you go takin’ your bad mood out on Anna Kate. She’s been doing nothing but running herself ragged all morning taking care of everyone, not even having one day off since she opened the café. Where’s your grace? If you wanted a particular piece of pie, you should have gotten here right at eight, like always, not two hours late, expecting there to even be pie left.”

Her head bobbled as she gave him what for, and her beehive hairdo wobbled back and forth. For a second there, I was afraid it was going to topple over, but whatever hairspray she used worked miracles.

Pebbles knew firsthand that Mr. Lazenby wasn’t here right as the doors opened, because she had been. And she’d been sitting in that exact chair, nursing a cup of coffee and keeping a worried eye on the door, until he came inside and sat down.

She also knew there wouldn’t be any pie left but the mixed berry, because she’d bought every last one of the others and delivered them to the birders camped outside—as a gesture of hospitality, she’d said, feeding me a line of how appreciative she was of the birders for bringing her extra income just as her property taxes were coming due.

I slid her a look, and she blinked innocently at me.

I realized now that her act of kindness had nothing to do with hospitality and everything to do with keeping Mr. Lazenby from his pie. She had to have known he didn’t like blueberries and that was why the mixed berry pies were the only ones she didn’t buy.

I gave her a pointed look, and she simply smiled at me and sipped her coffee, the sneaky woman.

“Two hours late?” Faylene repeated. “That isn’t like you, Otis. Did you sleep in? Did you have an appointment? Did you forget where you put your wallet? Did you lose your way here and end up on the other side of town?”

“That last one only happened once,” he said, “and I wish you’d stop reminding me of it. As you know, I had started a new allergy medication that made me lose my bearings.”

I turned and filled the mugs on the table behind me, while still listening to the conversation. It had been strange not to see Mr. Lazenby at the door first thing that morning, but I’d been so busy I hadn’t had a chance to really think about why.

“And that’s not what happened today?” she asked.

He sent her a withering look that fell flat. “No,” he grumbled, dragging the word out as he shoved plump berries around the plate.

I swapped out my nearly empty pot of coffee for a fresh one and cleared a newly emptied table, a two-top. I wiped it down and reset it fast as I could, so I could keep an ear on the conversation.

“Now you’ve gone and piqued my curiosity,” Pebbles said. “Why were you late this morning?”

He set down his fork and sighed. “Not that it’s anyone’s business but mine, but Rosemarie told me I should come in at nine today.”

Pebbles leaned back and sighed. I might have been the only one to see her roll her eyes, because Faylene was already patting Mr. Lazenby’s arm while saying, “Well, bless your heart.”

“Rosemarie?” I asked, shamelessly inviting myself into the conversation as I cleared the plates from the spot next to Faylene.

“My wife,” he said wistfully.

His dead wife. “Her message to you from yesterday’s pie was to come here two hours later than usual?”

“That’s right,” he said, his shoulders stiffening. “What about it?”

“I just … I thought the messages being sent would be more ...” I searched for the right word.

“Affectionate?” Faylene offered.

“Well, yes. I always thought they were love notes.” I gestured to the soffit. “Under midnight skies, Blackbirds sing, Loving notes …”

“What is love?” Faylene said, reminding me of Aubin Pavegeau.

I hadn’t seen him since the day I stopped by his cottage, but I’d become addicted to his blackberry tea.

“Once,” Faylene said, “one of my notes from Harold reminded me to pay the county taxes. Another time, he went on and on about the importance of changing the oil in the car after I burned out the engine. If you’re asking me, that message would’ve been real helpful before the engine burned out, but who am I to nitpick messages from the dead?” She took a deep breath, blew across the top of her coffee mug. “He sent those notes because he loves me and doesn’t want me to lose the house or blow up the car. Taking care of me is how he always showed his love.”

“That’s kind of sweet,” I said. “But I don’t think I’ve seen you eat any pie since I’ve been here. Do you not want messages anymore?”

“It’s been some time now that I gave up the pie. I’d like to fall in love again at some point, and I don’t think I’d ever be able to fall for someone else if I’m still talking to Harold all the time, never able to truly mourn him. Sometimes it’s best to let the past go, know what I mean?”

“No.” Mr. Lazenby thumped the table with a closed hand. “I’m not ready to be lettin’ anything go.”

Faylene elbowed him. “You don’t ever think of falling in love again, Otis? Have someone to share your twilight years with?”

“I have someone,” he said. “Rosemarie.”

Pebbles groaned softly.

I thought I was the only one who heard her, but then I saw Mr. Lazenby give her the side-eye and wondered if he knew more about how Pebbles felt than he let on.

Mr. Lazenby said, “I know Rosemarie nags sometimes—”

“All the time,” Pebbles said, cutting him off. “She nags you all the time.” Her voice went up an octave. “Get a haircut, weed the flowers, throw out the expired crackers in the pantry, get to church early, watch your cholesterol, eat more vegetables, cut back on the sweets ” Pebbles thumbed away a drop of coffee sliding down her mug. “And Otis always does what she says. Always.”

Pebbles pressed her lips together as though holding back what she truly thought of the matter of Mr. Lazenby and his wife’s messages. It was probably wise of her, considering his hackles were already raised, blinding him to why Pebbles would care so much.

“Why wouldn’t I? It’s darn good advice.” He handed me the pie plate. “Take this away, please. Blueberries. Blech.”

Faylene stood up. “I best be on my way. I have a grandbaby to see. Chin up, Otis. There’ll be more pie tomorrow.” She paid her bill and with a wave, she was gone.

Mr. Lazenby started coughing again, and I said, “Are you sure about that herbal tea? It wouldn’t take any time at all to brew.”

“I’m sure.” He threw his napkin and a ten-dollar bill on the table. “I’m going home. I’d appreciate it if you saved me a piece of apple pie tomorrow, Miss Anna Kate.”

Pebbles shook her head vigorously, and the beehive swayed. “Anna Kate only saves pie for family, remember?”

Daggummit,” he said.

He might not be blood related, but for some reason it had started to feel like he was family. A grumpy old grandpa. “That’s true,” I said, “but I’ve decided not to sell the pies in bulk anymore, so there should be plenty left when you get here tomorrow, Mr. Lazenby, no matter what time that is.”

He beamed. “I appreciate that. See you tomorrow morning.”

Pebbles pouted as he left, and I said, “If you want him, you can’t trick him. He has to come around on his own.”

She stared into her mug. “It’s been years. How long am I supposed to wait, Anna Kate?”

Unfortunately, I didn’t have an answer for her.

NEXT: Chapters 17 & 18 

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