The reporter glanced over at the older woman at the next table. Pen in hand, she was focused on a leather-bound portfolio spread open on the table. But she wasn’t writing. A full glass of iced tea sat untouched, and condensation slid down the glass into a napkin placed under its base.
There was something in her intensity. The way she stared at the paper as if willing the words to come. The stubborn set of her chin. The white-knuckled grip on the pen. From a quick look, he pegged her as someone who was used to getting what she wanted. She had an air of power about her, evident in the way she held herself. Shoulders low, chin up, back straight.
As though sensing his examination, she turned her head his way and narrowed her icy blue eyes as if perturbed by the disruption.
“Are you writing an article about the blackbirds too?” he asked, trying to cover his nosiness.
“No,” she said, some of the ice thawing from her gaze. “If you must know, I’m trying to rewrite the story of my life.”
Late Thursday morning, I hurried along the sidewalk, my ponytail swishing across the back of my neck. I paused to look both ways for a break in the steady stream of traffic before dashing across the street to the grassy median.
I waved to an imposing-looking Josh Kolbaugh as he informed two people that they’d need to relocate their tent from the median to somewhere safer. By the looks of all the tents, chairs, and hammocks strung up along the full length of the median, Josh had a busy day ahead of him, rousting the birders from their makeshift roosts.
With another quick look, I darted across the street in front of Hodgepodge.
“Crosswalk, next time, Natalie!” Josh yelled, his big voice like a thunderclap.
Looking back at him, I said, “Sorry!” I noted, too, that the campers suddenly picked up the pace of packing their belongings, as though not wanting to be on the receiving end of his bad side. Smart people, those birders.
A bell rang out as I walked into Hodgepodge. I took a moment to adjust to the dim lighting, but only a moment. I was on break and didn’t have much time to spare. Not that Anna Kate would mind if I was late getting back, but I would. I took pride in my work ethic.
Needlepoint sachets scented the air with balsam pine. Shoppers chattered loudly. Even though the small store had opened only fifteen minutes ago, it was at capacity.
Marcy had three people in line at the register, so I didn’t want to bother her. Instead, I signaled that I was going to set the grocery sack of headbands, bow ties, and hair bows behind the counter. There was an invoice in the bag based on our previous consignments, so I didn’t feel the need to stick around and keep Marcy from her customers.
I was heading toward the counter when I spotted Cam Kolbaugh hanging a framed photo on a wall near a display of local pottery, so I detoured over to see him. I stepped up close to catch a glimpse of the photo without disturbing him and saw River lying near Cam’s feet. His tail thumped against the wooden floor when he spotted me.
The photo was a shot of fireflies dancing in a moonlit meadow. Dark yet light, whimsical yet somehow somber. It was utterly captivating.
“That’s beautiful, Cam,” I said.
Cam startled, nearly knocking me over as he jumped back, mumbling, “Sweet Jesus,” as he grabbed hold of me to keep me from falling over.
“Sorry,” I said once I was steady on my feet. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“No, no.” His hands squeezed my shoulders. “It’s not your fault. I must be getting rusty.”
River jumped up and pawed at Cam’s foot with a whimper.
Cam’s eyes had dimmed, and his arms were straight, locked. His breathing had quickened and his hands trembled.
“Rusty?” I asked, not quite following along.
“Once upon a time I was highly trained not to be snuck up on.” He finally released his grip, and then gave my shoulders a friendly you’re-good-as-new pat.
“Oh gosh, Cam. I’m so sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” My heart hurt for him and all he’d been through as a soldier.
“It’s okay, Natalie.” He smiled. “Old habits are hard to break is all.”
“You sure you’re okay?”
The light slowly came back to his eyes and River lay down, setting his head on his paws. “I’m sure. How’re you doing, by the way?”
“I’m okay,” I said, trying to be as honest as possible. “It comes and goes.”
“I get that.” He walked over and picked up another photo to hang. “Do you need a ride to your appointment this afternoon?”
As much as I wanted to take him up on that offer, I couldn’t lie. “No, my father’s loaning me his car.”
“Check the hood for nests beforehand.” He aligned the picture wire on the back of the frame with a hook on the wall.
I smiled. “I will.”
I studied the newest photo, a doe drinking from a pool of water at the base of a skinny waterfall. Despite the fact that the sight of water usually gave me palpitations, this image radiated tranquility. “Is this near here?”
“Up near my cabin, well off public trails.”
“No wonder you like it up there so much. It’s so … peaceful.”
“Even more so in person. If you’re interested in seeing it, River and I’d be happy to show you and Ollie one day, as long as you promise not to tell its secret location. The last thing I need is all these birdwatchers up there, getting lost in the woods.” At his name, River wagged his tail.
Suddenly, I wanted to see that spot more than anything. To feel it. But hiking with Ollie would be a challenge, and then there was the water situation … “Maybe one day.” I checked my watch. “I should probably get going, since my break is almost over.”
“It was nice seeing you, Natalie. Maybe …”
When he looked away and didn’t finish his thought, I prompted him. “What?”
“You sure?” I asked.
“Then I guess I’ll see you around.” I bent and petted River’s ears. “And you, too.” He licked my hand, probably smelling bacon on it yet again.
As I turned away from them, two people in the far corner of the shop caught my eye. I blinked, wondering if I was seeing things. But no. Faylene Wiggins and my mother were in full conversation. Well, Faylene was. Mama, whose back was to me, seemed only to be listening.
I looked around, wondering where Ollie was, since Faylene was keeping her today. Suddenly nervous, I pretty much ran over, tucking around displays like I was a pro at obstacle courses.
“Natalie!” Faylene’s eyes lit up when she saw me. “This is a surprise seeing you here.”
My gaze dropped to the double-wide umbrella stroller beside her, and the smile came slowly as I saw Ollie and Lindy-Lou fast asleep side by side, their tiny hands clasped together.
“Aren’t they the most precious?” Faylene asked.
The corners of Mama’s eyes crinkled as she pushed a loose curl off Ollie’s slack face. “They are most certainly that.” Her gaze shifted to me. “Good morning, Natalie. I thought you had work today?”
“I’m on break.” Who was this woman smiling at me, and what had she done with Seelie Earl Linden? Not a week ago, she’d been giving me the silent treatment for letting Faylene watch Ollie. Now, Mama was standing here, literally faced with my decision, and acting like it was no big deal. “I just stopped by to drop off some items for the shop.”
“Marcy’s already done sold out of what you brought by on Monday. She can’t keep your handiwork in stock. They come in, they go out, lickety-split. You should consider expanding your line to clothes, blankets.” She laughed. “Heck, you should probably open your own shop. Ooh, Lordy, don’t tell Marcy I said that. I saw you over there talking to Cam. Everything okay? Looked kind of serious.”
My head spun with trying to keep track of the twists and turns in her conversation. “Everything’s fine,” I said. “I was just admiring his photos.”
Mama craned her neck. “Cam? The mountain man?” “Yes, Mama. Cam lives in a cabin up the mountain.” “You and he aren’t—” Mama cut herself off.
Faylene picked up the conversational thread Mama had dropped. She wiggled her eyebrows. “I heard he and you were snuggling on a bench out front not too long ago, and you two looked mighty comfortable with each other at the moonlight movie Friday night.”
Mama’s eyes flew open wide.
My cheeks flamed. “We weren’t snuggling. I had a panic attack and he helped me through it. And no, we aren’t.”
“Bless your heart,” Faylene said. “I’m glad Cam was there to help you out. He’s a good one. One of the best.” She dropped her voice. “His wife ran off with the cable TV guy while Cam was soldiering overseas. Broke his heart, she did. I think she’s plumb out of her mind. You don’t leave a guy like Cam, even if he was gone a lot. Men like him and Josh are hard to come by.” She tsked.
I glanced over at Cam as he hung another picture. My heart hurt for him again. I’d known his marriage had fallen apart, but I never suspected exactly how hard it had gone down.
Mama slid him another look, but didn’t voice any opinions about what kind of man he might or might not be. I was grateful she held her tongue.
“If you’re asking me, Natalie,” Faylene said, as she suddenly felt the need to examine her painted fingernails, “I think you and Cam would be good together. I’m just sayin’ it’s something to think about. Think real hard about.”
“Thanks, Faylene,” I said quickly. “But I’m not of a dating mind quite yet.”
She patted my shoulder. “I understand, honey. But sometimes love has a way of sneaking up on you. Keep that in mind, so you’re not startled when it up and taps you on the heart.”
“Love,” Mama said with a huff. “Natalie can’t have known that man longer than a week.”
I corrected her. “Actually, it’s been almost three weeks.”
“Love don’t have no timetable, Seelie,” Faylene said emphatically.
Mama looked to the heavens. “Lord have mercy.”
I had expected more of a protest; after all, a fully bearded, divorced mountain man would never have been welcomed to supper, let alone into my life. But Mama, surprisingly, kept any further opinions to herself.
“Let me see what you’ve got there, Natalie,” Faylene said, motioning to my sack. “I want first dibs, and I can afford to buy lots, now that I’ve rented rooms in my house to the birdwatchers. They’re paying me a pretty penny to stay at my place. All three of my extra bedrooms have been snapped up, and when these guests leave, I’ll take in others. God love those bird-loving tourists.”
“You’ve taken in strangers while you’re caring for Olivia Leigh?” Mama asked, shock and outrage punctuating the question.
“Calm down now, Seelie. I always watch the girls over at Marcy and Josh’s house. I thought you knew that.”
Mama raised an arched eyebrow at me. “No, I didn’t know.”
She might have known, if she’d been talking to me, so I didn’t feel too badly that she’d been unaware.
“But still,” Mama said, pursing her lips. “Strangers in your house, Faylene?”
“You don’t have to make it sound sordid. Consider it more as a boarding house. I’m planning to sign up with Airbnb to help get the word out. Become official, so to speak,” she said, using air quotes around the word “official.”
Disapproval was stamped all over Mama’s face, in her narrowed gaze and those tightly pressed lips. “Don’t you need a license to rent out rooms?”
Faylene set her hands on her hips. “No ma’am. I checked and Wicklow doesn’t currently have any regulations for short-term rentals. I’m guessing that’ll change real quick, once word gets out. Just got to make sure I pay all the proper taxes. Now, look at these booties. So dang cute!”
“Aren’t they, though?” I jumped into the change of subject with both feet. “I found that vintage fabric at a thrift shop in Montgomery years ago, part of an estate sale that had come in that morning. I never bought something so fast in all my life.”
Mama peered into the sack. “What is all this?”
“Consignments.” I quickly explained my deal with Marcy.
Faylene said, “Aren’t they wonderful? Natalie is one talented woman.”
Mama reached in and pulled out a bib. She studied it, turning it this way and that, finally saying, “This is precious, Natalie. The ducks are a lovely print—timeless yet visually appealing. The stitching is very well done, and the striped piping is a wonderful touch.”
Faylene clapped Mama on the back. “Well, she learned from the best, didn’t she? Didn’t you, Natalie?”
“I did. It’s true.”
Mama’s gaze flew up to mine, as though not believing what she was hearing. And, Lord help me, I could have sworn she was blushing.
“Natalie’s talent is all her own,” Mama said. “I can see why her items are selling quickly. And I agree with Faylene, Natalie. You should expand. Perhaps some bigger-ticket items?”
Faylene’s eyes went wide and she pulled a long face laced with surprise.
I imagined I looked the same. The old Mama would have taken all the credit, hoarded it away like a secret stash of chocolate.
“Thank you, Mama. Maybe I’ll add in a few more things,” I said. “Someday.”
“If you start making dresses, you let me know,” Faylene said. “I’ll be first in line to buy one for Lindy-Lou.”
Mama eyed the grocery sack I still held. “But perhaps ...”
Ah, here it comes. The nitpicking, can’t-help-herself-from-butting-in matriarch. It was almost a relief to have her back. Because I knew how to deal with that woman. The other one? Not so much. “... a more professional method of deliv—” Mama abruptly cut herself off. Then she laughed.
Looking as flabbergasted as I felt, Faylene said, “You okay there, Seelie?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” Mama said. “Natalie, you do things the way you want. Don’t pay me any mind, hear?”
I nodded. I couldn’t believe what I heard, but I heard it just the same. With only a few minutes left to get back to the café, I couldn’t help asking what these two were doing together—they weren’t ones to associate during the day. Or ever. “What are you two doing over here, anyway?”
“Oh, I was just telling Seelie here all I know about Eden Callow,” Faylene said. “You could have blown me over with a feather when Seelie came in and asked about Eden. Eden, of all people. I mean, whoever would have thought? Not me, that’s who.”
Mama caught my eye, and I was surprised to see humor in my mother’s gaze.
Surely, my father had been wrong. Mama had to be medicated. In all my life I’d never seen her amused by Faylene’s ramblings. “Eden?” I said.
Mama clutched her pearls. “I thought I’d try to get to know her, after all.”
“Better late than never,” Faylene added with a firm nod.
“The only way I can think to do that is through people who knew her.” Mama dropped her pearls and added, “But I’m not having much luck. It seems Eden mostly kept to herself.”
Faylene snapped her fingers. “You know, my cousin Mary Beth was a classmate of Eden’s. She might have more information for you.”
Mama said, “Thank you for your help, Faylene.”
“Oh,” Faylene said, her face lighting up. “You might want to talk to Aubin Pavegeau. He probably knew Eden best, after AJ.”
Mama’s cheeks sucked in and her lips tightened.
AJ had been best friends with Aubin growing up—much to Mama’s dismay. Aubin, with his family’s backwoods background, hadn’t fit the mold of what my mother had deemed appropriate to associate with the Linden family. Somehow, and I truly did not know how, AJ had talked her into letting him choose his own friends.
I waited for Mama to say something, wondering just how big of a change she was willing to make.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Mama said stiffly. “Right now, I’m going on over to the library to see Mary Beth.” She dropped a kiss on Ollie’s head, then grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze. “I’ll see you later.”
Faylene and I stood shoulder to shoulder as we watched her weave through store displays on her way out.
“Is she taking happy pills?” Faylene asked. “I hear they work wonders for some people. Or, in Seelie’s case, miracles.”
“Not that I know of. According to my father, Mama’s not taking— or drinking—anything.” Since he wasn’t one to lie, I certainly had some suspicions he might not have all the facts. “He says she’s had a breakthrough of sorts.”
“Well, I don’t know what she’s done had, but I have to tell you, honey, I like the changes I’m seeing.”
I liked the changes too.
But I didn’t trust them yet.
I wasn’t sure I ever would.
I stared at my fingers, thinking there was no way they’d ever return to a normal color. They were stained purple, and I suddenly had visions of turning fully purple, like Violet turned blue in the Willy Wonka movie.
“If you rub your hands with one of the unripe mulberries, the pinkish-green ones, it helps take off the stain.” Summer crushed one, rubbed her hands together, then rinsed. To my amazement, the purple faded from her hands. “See?”
We’d finished our first harvest of the ripe mulberries and had washed five pounds of fruit. We’d let the berries keep in the fridge in the Harry Potter room overnight. Tomorrow, we would harvest again and start canning, repeating the process every other day for at least a week or more.
I’d worn old clothes, so the dye on my T-shirt and jeans didn’t bother me, but seeing my hands a different color was slightly disturbing. I used her trick, and my skin went from purple to a soft pink that was barely noticeable. “Amazing.”
She laughed as she dried her hands on a dishtowel. “It’s a trick Zee taught me.”
“Well, thank you for sharing it, because, even though I knew we were facing stains, I didn’t realize quite how bad they’d be.”
“I know it’s none of my business, but …”
“What?” I asked, smiling.
“Why are you going through all the trouble of processing these berries if you’re going to be leaving soon? There aren’t going to be any pies to be made.”
I wasn’t prepared for the emotional punch to the gut that came with her question. It nearly knocked the wind out of me. I’d been stifling thoughts of what would happen when I left Wicklow and trying not to worry about the blackbirds. What was going to happen to them?
There’ll be a whole flock of women there to help guide the way, that I can promise you.
Holding on to Zee’s promise, I said, “If I’m being completely honest, I don’t know why I’m doing it, other than it’s what’s supposed to be done. Does that make sense?”
“Zee would be happy to know they’re being taken care of. She loved those trees and these berries.”
With a sad smile, I said, “I know.”
I went to get my wallet. “Let me pay you now for your help before I forget. What’s your going rate for mulberry harvesting? Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s not high enough, so don’t lowball.” I planned to double the number, no matter what she said. I didn’t know what I’d have done without her help. “I know you’ll put the money to good use at college.”
When she didn’t answer right away, I faced her. “Summer?” There were tears in her eyes. I rushed over. “What’s wrong?”
She threw herself into my arms, and after a stunned moment, I held on to her, and the sweet scent of honeysuckle filled my nose.
“I don’t know what to do, Anna Kate.”
“About what, sweetie?” Sweetie? Good God, this town was taking hold, but right now, as Summer sought comfort from me, I didn’t find that such a terrible thing.
“College.” She sniffled and pulled back. Swiping her eyes, she said, “I don’t know if I can go after all.”
“What? Why? Of course you can go. Is this about your father?” As strong as her desire was to go to college and further her education, she talked a lot about not wanting Aubin to feel alone when she was gone, despite his insistence that he’d be fine.
“No, it’s about money.” A tear leaked down her cheek. “I filed my FAFSA late and didn’t get near enough in loans to cover what I need.”
I knew from experience that the time to file for financial aid packages and scholarships was long past. By at least six or seven months. With a lot of the aid, it was first come, first served.
“I’m short eight thousand dollars.” Her chin trembled, and she took a deep breath. “Which is mostly room-and-board fees.”
I leaned against the sink, quickly trying to come up with a way to fix this. “Maybe you can find a cheaper place off campus, cook your own meals ...”
“Not possible. It’s a requirement for freshmen to live on campus. I’ve been saving up as much as I can, but it’s not going to be enough, even with the school’s payment plan. I’m starting to panic. I’ve waited so long to go to college, and now this …”
“What’s your father say?”
A guilty flush made her cheeks turn red. “I haven’t told him.”
“I don’t want to worry him. He’ll do something crazy like sell the house to come up with the money, and I can’t let him do that. I’d rather never go to school than let him sell the house he and my mama built together. Maybe I should just defer this year ...”
I sighed, trying to think of a solution. What would Zee do? She’d take over, that’s what, and fix the problem. “Don’t panic yet. How long do you have?”
“About a month. That’s when I need to pay the first installment, which is a few thousand.”
“Totally doable,” I said, hoping I sounded more confident than I felt. “We’ll figure something out.”
“We will?” Her big blue eyes filled with hope.
“I’m no stranger to financial aid woes. I’ve been down this road before. It’ll all work out. Have you applied for any on-campus jobs?”
A burst of honeysuckle scented the air as she shook her head. “Not yet.”
“Then that’s your homework. Get online and see what you can find. Let me worry about the rest for now.”
She threw her arms around my neck again. “Thank you, Anna Kate.”
I patted her back. “I haven’t done anything yet.”
“That’s just not true.” She gathered up her belongings. “I need to get home to tend to my nighttime chores. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I watched her hurry off, wondering if she moved at any speed other than fast-forward. I already had two ideas on how to raise money, one that I’d put into action first thing tomorrow morning. The other, I needed to think about some more. Because for that plan to work, I needed to tell Aubin what was going on.
As I headed upstairs to take a shower, I could only shake my head at my strategy to keep people at arm’s length.
It had proven impossible.
I’d done the complete opposite.
I’d become a hugger.
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By Thursday night, I was exhausted from the busy week. As I tended the gardens, I tried to think of ways to change the café’s schedule around to include a day off once in a while.
Contemplating schedule changes was easier than thinking of Doc, and how I’d told him when he stopped in for coffee this morning that I wouldn’t be at Sunday supper this weekend.
I wasn’t ready to go back quite yet.
Much to my surprise, Seelie had come into the café a few times this week. She never stayed very long, but went out of her way to make small talk with me. It was awkward, but not completely terrible. Natalie had informed me that Seelie was on a mission to find out as much about my mother as she could.
It was a sweet gesture. One twenty-some years too late, but I couldn’t find it within myself to hold that against her anymore.
Not wanting to dwell on the Lindens, I went back to thinking of days off. Not just for me, but for Bow and Jena as well. I never knew anyone who worked so hard. I wanted to lighten their load.
Then it hit me that we only needed to tough it out for another month, when the café would be closing. I’d set the date at July twenty-fifth. That would give me enough time to clean it up and get it ready for the real estate agents to come through before I left town. Which reminded me that I needed to check in with Gideon to find out how long he thought the whole real estate and probate process would take.
The humidity suddenly felt more oppressive than ever as I knelt down in front of the zucchini plants and pulled my weeding bucket closer. My lungs ached as I took a deep breath, and I wasn’t sure if the thick air or the thought of leaving this place behind was to blame.
Because I suspected it was the latter, I shoved the thoughts out of my head and tried to focus on pulling weeds. But as I worked, I couldn’t help wondering what was going to happen to Jena and Bow. And Mr. Lazenby and Pebbles. And Summer and her beautiful brown eggs. What was going to happen to the zucchini plants? Would anyone water them?
And what was going to happen to the blackbirds?
I turned to look at the mulberry trees. Summer and I had been harvesting like crazy, and she would be here in a couple of hours to collect more berries and can them well into the night.
Without the love, the trees will wither and die.
My breath caught in my throat, and I choked back raw emotion. If there weren’t pies, the trees were going to die.
I couldn’t let the trees die. I couldn’t.
But I needed to go to medical school. I’d made a promise.
What I really needed was to find a solution that would include both. I turned toward the trees again. “I could use a little guidance,” I said, hearing the naked plea in my voice.
The trees rustled in the breeze.
I pulled in another breath, ignored the squeezing in my chest, and knee-walked along the grass, counting the weeds I pulled to keep my brain occupied with numbers instead of things I couldn’t change.
I was at forty-three when a pair of gray-blue eyes peered out at me from the patch of lemon balm.
I leaned back. “Hi, Mr. Cat.”
He stepped out from his hidey-hole, stretching one leg at a time, and I reached out to rub his ears. He quickly put a good bit of distance between us.
“All right. Obviously, you like your personal space. I can respect that. Did you see I put out some water and food for you? It’s on the deck.” I pointed at the bowls. Bow had warned me that I was practically inviting every raccoon and possum within a mile’s radius to stop by, but I hated thinking that this cat hadn’t enough to eat or drink. Especially in this weather.
He flicked an ear, then took two steps in the direction of the gate and looked back at me.
“What now?” I asked. “Is Gideon stuck on the roof again?”
Mr. Cat took two more steps, looked back.
“I really need to get this weeding done.”
He yowled, reminding me suddenly of Ollie when I made the mistake of not doing what she wanted immediately.
“Fine.” I pulled off my gloves and stood up, thinking to myself that I shouldn’t give in to his dictator-like behavior. I held open the side gate for the cat and let out a harsh laugh when I realized what I was doing. “Come along. I need to get back soon.”
“Miss Anna Kate? You all right?”
“Hi, Mr. Boyd. I’m fine. How’re you doing?”
Mr. Boyd was a constant presence in the side yard, while the other birding visitors tended to come and go.
“Good, good. How about that birding magazine wanting to do an article on the blackbirds?”
The freelance writer had called earlier, asking to observe the blackbirds and conduct interviews. He’d be arriving soon. “I’m not sure the blackbirds need any more attention.”
I could’ve sworn the cat sighed as he sat behind Mr. Boyd’s chair, waiting for me.
Mr. Boyd said, “I don’t think you understand what a big deal these birds are. I’ve been studying birds for more than half my life, and I’ve never seen birds behave the way they do. They’re special.”
He didn’t understand quite how special, but his enthusiasm made me smile.
He gestured toward the mulberry trees. “And the midnight singing? How’d you train them to do that?”
“I’ve been in town less than a month. No time to train anything.”
“And the pies … ” He trailed off as if debating whether to bring up the subject at all.
He’d scoffed when he first heard the legend of the pies and how extraordinary they were. Yet he kept coming back every day for another piece. “Have you been having unusual dreams?” I asked.
Frowning, he scratched his beard. “Funny you should say so. I’ve been hearing my mother’s voice in my sleep. She’s been lecturing me to find someone to settle down with and to write that book I’ve always been meaning to write. She always was one to nag. She thinks I’m lonely.”
I wanted to laugh at his discomfited tone, but there was a tenderness to his voice that stopped me. “Are you?”
He shrugged. “I’m content enough. I have hobbies.”
“Clearly,” I said, gesturing wide.
“It’s the strangest thing, those dreams. I’ve never had any like ’em. It’s as though her voice is right there in my ear, talking to me.” He pressed his lips together, then pushed them out in a sour pucker. “There’s something else she said ”
Waving a fly away from my face, I waited, feeling like Mr. Boyd needed to get out whatever was on his mind.
“It’s been a good twenty years since she’s been gone. She’d fallen on a patch of ice and hit her head. I raced to the hospital, but she’d died by the time I got there.”
“I’m so sorry.”
He gave me a wan smile. “Since then I’ve carried a good bit of guilt for not being there, but in one of the dreams I’ve had this past week, she told me not to feel badly for not saying goodbye. That it had been her choice to go before I got there—because she didn’t want me to see her suffering. She asked me to remember her the last time I saw her.” The corners of his eyes wrinkled as he grinned. “It had been Christmas, which was her favorite holiday. She’d smiled and laughed the whole day long, singing carols and dancing around while wearing a Santa hat.” Slumping, his chest puffed out as he exhaled deeply, lost in the memory. Then he blinked and straightened, standing tall. “Sorry, Miss Anna Kate. Didn’t mean to tell you my life story. I must sound like a crazy man.”
“Not at all. You sound like a man who loves his mother.”
With a nod, he said, “I want to believe those dreams are messages, like the legend says. I truly do, but it’s just so unfathomable.”
“Hold on,” I said to the furry dictator.
Mr. Boyd looked around. “Hold on?”
“The cat is growing impatient.” “Cat?”
“He’s right over—” But the cat was gone. I sighed. “I should get going. My advice to you about those dreams is to listen to your heart. It’s as simple as that, Mr. Boyd.”
“You and I must have differing opinions on the word ‘simple.’”
“I bet you we don’t.”
With that, I left him standing by his chair. I walked among the tents, saying, “Here, kitty, kitty,” but there was no sign of the gray cat. When I reached the sidewalk in front of the café, I looked both ways. Mr. Cat was sitting near the walkway leading up to Hill House’s front door.
“You didn’t have to run off like that,” I said as I approached him.
I started up Hill House’s walkway, thinking that Gideon was once again in need of some sort of rescue, but to my surprise, the cat kept going straight. I had to backtrack and jog to catch up to him. People on the sidewalk didn’t seem to pay the cat any mind as he led me along. A few called out hellos to me, but didn’t stop to chat.
As I walked along, I couldn’t help but notice the now hiring signs set prominently in many storefront windows, along with an abundance of blackbird merchandise. Hodgepodge had found blackbird plushies, and the next storefront down—a pottery gallery—was selling blackbird bowls and mugs. Another shop had blackbird artwork. Adaline’s, an ice cream shop, had recently reopened and had added a blackbird flavor to the menu—blackberry with chocolate chips.
It warmed my heart to see that the town had embraced—and was capitalizing on—the blackbird brand, but it also caused me to worry. Right now the town was flourishing. There was an energy in the air, happiness. I didn’t want that to end. What would happen if the mulberry trees died? Where would the blackbirds go?
Would they find another passageway?
Or would they stay in the Land of the Dead—for good?
I didn’t have an answer to that—it hadn’t been included in Zee’s blackbird story. Not knowing bothered me. A lot.
It wasn’t until the cat and I were almost upon the cemetery that I realized it was where he was leading me. The entrance was marked by a pair of stacked stone columns that supported a rusty metal archway. The cat went ahead, walking along a narrow paved road flanked by rows of tulip trees and a freshly mown lawn. He didn’t look back, and eventually he disappeared around the bend that led to the graveyard.
I’d stopped at the columns—I didn’t particularly want to go in. My grief was already too close to the surface today, bubbling up with thoughts of leaving the café and Zee’s gardens soon. Seeing her burial plot might push me over the edge of despair.
Hot winds blew through the valley, and I picked up the scent of impending rain mixed in with the sweetness of cut grass. I leaned against a column, and heat from the stacked stones filtered through my shirt and shorts.
Tall ornamental grasses planted at the bases of the columns swayed. Robins hopped around, their heads tilted to the ground listening for worms. Cars with license plates from Indiana and Missouri drove past on their way into town. A truck from Florida went by, towing a camper. Birders, I assumed, arriving for the weekend.
The cat didn’t come back.
I decided to wait five more minutes for him to return before going back to the café. Time was almost up when a flash of movement in the sky caught my eye. I squinted, wondering if I was seeing things. Because if my eyes weren’t playing tricks, a blackbird had landed on a low branch of the nearest tulip tree inside the cemetery.
I didn’t think twice. I went in.
Light bounced off the fluttering, glossy green leaves of the tree and the eyes of the blackbird. In the daylight it was easy to see the blackbird’s light, mottled chest, her orange beak, and the thin pale green rings around her dark pupils—green being the original color of her eyes. It was a trait that hadn’t been noticed by the birders, but if they ever did spot the color, it was just one more oddity for Mr. Boyd to question.
“What are you doing here?”
She took wing, skimming low to the ground as she followed the curve of the lane leading toward the graveyard.
I hesitated only a second before following and kept my gaze averted from the freshly turned earth where Zee had been laid to rest. It didn’t matter that I knew her spirit lived on as a blackbird—the visceral reaction to seeing that hole in the ground during her funeral services had nearly ripped me apart from the inside out.
My mother soared high, then swooped low behind the Linden family monument. I paused only a moment at my father’s grave marker. It was also the place where my mother’s ashes had been secretly scattered by Zee four years ago. It had always been my mother’s desire to be laid to rest with him.
I glanced away from the granite stone and caught sight of the blackbird on the far side of the cemetery. She coasted, dipping out of sight as she landed in a maple tree. When she didn’t reappear, I broke into a sprint. Between the humidity and the exertion, I was out of breath by the time I reached the tree and stumbled to a full stop when I came upon Aubin Pavegeau. He was sitting in front of a headstone next to the tree.
Aubin looked up at me and said, “You best sit yourself down and catch your breath. Though I suppose if you’re aiming to die, you picked a good place to do it. Take out the middleman of it all.” He smirked.
I wasn’t as amused, considering my lungs were on fire. Gulping air, I looked for the blackbird in the dense foliage above my head, but she had vanished. Instead, I saw the gray cat watching me from next to the tree trunk. His tail swished rhythmically in short bursts, as though he’d been impatiently waiting for me to arrive.
Honestly, I was surprised he wasn’t out and out tapping his foot.
Between the cat and the bird I had no doubt I’d been brought here for a reason—a reason I hoped would reveal itself soon, because I had no idea what was being asked of me.
Sweat streamed down the sides of my face as I sat down in the grass next to Aubin. I swiped my forehead with my forearm, and decided now would be a great time for the clouds to move in and the skies to open.
“Just out for an invigorating afternoon jog on this lovely, ninetydegree afternoon?” Aubin asked. Wearing the same outfit he’d had on the first time I met him, he sat with his legs bent, his wrists resting on his knees. His walking stick lay in the grass next to him and a red Alabama ball cap shaded his eyes.
I pulled my ponytail up so the breeze could reach the back of my neck. The burning in my lungs was slowly starting to subside, but I’d have committed a felony right then and there for a drink of water. “I can’t believe anyone runs for fun. I was chasing a cat,” I said, thinking it best to keep any mention of a blackbird appearance to myself. “A gray one.”
Aubin’s face flushed, and he began plucking blades of grass. His voice was tight when he said, “A cat. You don’t say.”
“You don’t like cats?”
“Not particularly. Especially gray ones.”
It seemed to me there was a story there, but I didn’t press. My gaze went to where the cat had been, but he was gone. That cat was amazing at quick getaways.
I let go of my hair and finally took notice of where we were. The gravestone at our feet belonged to Frances Camilla Pavegeau, loving wife and mother. Sympathy twisted through me, stirring emotions I’d rather not deal with. I hesitated to leave, since I’d been led here, but I wasn’t comfortable. “I should get going. I didn’t mean to bother you.”
Aubin went back to plucking grass. “Sit awhile, Anna Kate. Let your breathing get back to normal at least. I don’t want you dying on my conscience. That dance card is full up.” He tossed a grass blade at the headstone.
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing. Even though it had been an accident, my mother suffered endlessly knowing she had been the one behind the wheel when my father died. I had the feeling that Aubin carried the same crushing culpability.
I bit back a half dozen questions that I ruled out as too personal or insensitive. Instead, I decided to switch topics altogether. “Thank you for the blackberry sweet tea recipe. I’ve started selling it at the café, and everyone’s loving it. Aubin’s Blackberry Tea.”
“You didn’t have to name it after me.”
“Of course I did. It’s your recipe. And because the recipe is yours, it’s not right for me to earn money from it, so I’m setting aside all profits to donate to Summer’s college fund. At this rate, she might have enough for the first installment of the tuition bill by the time I leave town. The rest, however ...”
His fingers stilled mid-pluck. His eyes narrowed. “Tuition bill? Summer told me all the fees were covered with loans and scholarships.”
A bee buzzed by, landing on daisies set in a wide bronze vase in front of the gravestone. “She didn’t want to worry you. She didn’t get quite the amount of financial aid she planned on. She’s been saving, but doesn’t have enough.”
A gusty breeze blew through, and the maple branches groaned. I looked up but saw nothing but the silvery undersides of the leaves and gray clouds rolling in.
A storm was brewing.
He took off his cap, wiped his forehead, and put the cap back on. “Makes sense now why she’s been runnin’ herself ragged, taking on every odd job she can find.”
“Like I said, there should be enough money from the tea to help her out with the first payment.”
“I can’t see how selling tea is going to bring in enough money.”
I smiled. “You haven’t been by the café lately, have you?”
“I haven’t been there for twenty-five years.”
I doubted the timeframe was coincidental. “When my father died?”
He let out a deep breath and glanced around. “You know, way back when, AJ and I used to sneak out of our houses to come here at night to play hide-and-seek. Scared the ever-living tar out of each other. Some days I sit here and expect to hear his ‘Boo!’ from behind me. It would be just like him to haunt me like that. He was full of jokes and pranks.”
“Good Lord, yes. The best one? When he put a black rubber snake in his mama’s toilet. Had to peel Seelie off the ceiling. I’d have paid good money to see that.” He laughed. “AJ didn’t see the outside of his room for nigh on three weeks afterward.” His chest shook as he chuckled.
Smiling, I said, “If he’d done that to me, I’d have had a heart attack and died on the spot.”
“Same,” he said with a smile.
While I could sit and listen to stories of my father all day long, one thing was bothering me. “Why did you make it seem like you weren’t that close to my father when I asked about him a few weeks ago?”
Aubin’s hand clenched, released. “It’s complicated.”
“It doesn’t matter now, Anna Kate. It is what it is. I wasn’t much of a friend at the end. That tends to taint everything else. Talking isn’t going to change anything. I learned my lesson the hard way, changed some things about myself in turn, and I don’t care to go picking open old wounds.”
There was no mistaking the pain in his voice. “Seems to me, Mr. Pavegeau, that wound never fully healed.”
After a long pause, he plucked more grass and said, “I don’t want to talk about it all the same. Now, tell me how much money Summer needs.”
I bit back the urge to fight with him to get some answers. Not only because I wanted to know what had happened to cloud his relationship with my dad, but because I suspected it would do him some good to talk it out. Instead, I explained the payment plan and what Summer was up against.
He whistled sharply. “She’s always worrying about me. No one worries more than that girl. She needs to go off to school, learn to be her own person and not my caretaker. But I don’t see how we can afford it.”
Grass poked the underside of my thighs as I crisscrossed my legs. “I’m not ready to give up quite yet.”
He gave me a sad smile. “You’re a lot like your daddy. He was the optimistic sort too.”
“You say that like optimism is a bad thing.”
“Hope brings nothing but pain.”
I flicked a speck of dirt from my leg. “That’s a sad way to live life.”
“It’s been a sad life to live.”
We sat in silence a few minutes before he added, “I have some sticks I can sell.” He picked up his walking stick and rolled it in between his palms. “I can set up a roadside booth at the end of our driveway to sell our products. Honey, vegetables, soaps. Might as well take advantage of all these tourists passing through.”
“Speaking of them … How do you feel about boarders?” I asked, thinking of the idea I’d had for him to make quick money.
“Boarders? As in houseguests? I couldn’t. I like my privacy.” “Boarders, as in paying guests. The birdwatchers need places to stay. The motel’s full. Others in town have started renting out spare bedrooms and are charging as much as forty to fifty dollars a night.”
His eyes flew open wide, and he tugged on his beard. “On second thought, I could probably stand some company. For Summer’s sake.”
Smiling, I said, “They’re not long-term guests. Most stay a night or two to see the blackbirds, then move on. But more people come in their place. It’s not forever, but short-term, there’s money to be had.”
His head bobbed. “I’d feel funny renting out the main house, but I do have a cabin in the back as well as an old hunting bunkhouse. The cabin has two small rooms, a kitchenette, a bathroom. Sleeps four. I’ve been using it for storage—stuff passed down from relatives that I can’t bring myself to get rid of. The bunkhouse sleeps six. It’s nothing fancy, so I probably can’t charge much for those beds, but it’s a place to sleep.”
“How soon can you clean it all out? With this rain coming in, the birders will need somewhere dry tonight.”
“Few hours, at least. I need to pick up some supplies, wash sheets, and do some scrubbing.”
A trickle of excitement went through me that everything was going to work out just fine for Summer. “I’ll go back to the café and put the word out to everyone there. Then I’ll come over to help you get things ready. Many hands make quick work.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I want to.”
“No. I couldn’t let you.”
I set my jaw stubbornly. “What would my daddy tell you to do? Because I’m betting he’d tell you to stop arguing with me and let me help.”
He wagged a finger. “You aren’t playing fair, pulling AJ into this.” Smiling wide, I blinked innocently.
Groaning, he stood up and said, “Fine. You and your daddy’s smile win, Anna Kate. I’ll be seeing you soon.”
As I hustled back to the café, I thought of the gray cat leading me here. And my mother, too. I’d been thinking the reason was to rescue Aubin somehow or Summer.
But as the first raindrops fell, I couldn’t help thinking this meeting hadn’t been about them at all.
It had been about me.
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