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'Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe' Chapters 19 & 20


spinner image illustration of hands holding a framed photo of a doe drinking from a body of water at the base of a skinny waterfall
Illustration by Nick Matej

 

19

 

“Sometimes you have to know when to give in. I mean, if he hasn’t come around by now, he never will. Am I right?”

The reporter stared at the marvel that was the woman’s hairdo. It looked a lot like white spun cotton candy. “Ma’am? I’m not sure if you’re aware that I’m writing an article about the blackbirds?”

Pebbles Lutz waved a hand of dismissal. Her color was high, her eyes glassy. “I never read that kind of stuff. I prefer romance novels, if you want the God’s honest truth. Birds.” She huffed. “Maybe I’ll give him one more chance. Just one, mind you. I have my pride to consider. Ain’t that so?”

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Utterly perplexed, he said, “Yes, ma’am?”

“I think so too. Now, if you’ll be excusing me, I’m feeling a touch under the weather.” She patted his cheek as she passed by him. “You’re a nice man.”

He took a hand wipe out of his messenger bag, and as he wiped his face, the chair, and the table, he wondered what in the hell that had all been about.

 

Anna Kate

“I’m not happy, Miss Anna Kate.” Mr. Lazenby folded his arms over his chest and harrumphed.

Early morning sunshine poured in the café’s windows, and lingering raindrops sparkled on the glass. The storm the night before had blown through quickly, a blessing considering the roof on Mr. Pavegeau’s bunkhouse had a leak. It was nothing a bucket couldn’t deal with, but he’d vowed to get that hole patched today, and by the time I left last night, the birders staying with him were happy to be out of the weather.

It was a few minutes past eight and the café was packed. My hands and back ached from scrubbing wood floors at the Pavegeaus’, and I was trying to hide my disappointment that Gideon hadn’t come by this morning for coffee. In fact, he’d been absent a few days this past week.

I had been poised to take Mr. Lazenby’s order when he’d voiced his complaint. “Why aren’t you happy, Mr. Lazenby?”

His purple-and-silver-striped bow tie was askew, and there were dark circles under his eyes. “The pie I ate yesterday was broken.”

He sat at the end of the community table, in what I’d come to know as “his” seat. Pebbles sat across from him, Faylene to his right, and I’d made sure to seat Mr. Boyd, Sir Bird Nerd, next to her. If he was lonely, Faylene was the perfect seat companion, since I was certain she’d never met a stranger in her life. They were talking a mile a minute about the blackbirds. Well, Faylene was doing most of the talking, but Mr. Boyd was nodding every time she paused for breath.

“Broken?” I tipped my head. “How so?”

His rheumy eyes narrowed in accusation. “I didn’t get a dream last night.”

“Rosemarie probably didn’t have anything to say,” Pebbles said as she sipped her coffee. “Might could be she’s tired and wanted a night off from telling you what to do. All that talkin’ must be exhausting. Besides, notes aren’t guaranteed, Otis.”

He frowned at her. “Don’t be ridiculous. The pie was faulty.” He glanced up at me. “I’m not fixin’ to ask for a refund or nothing like that, but can you make sure I get a good piece of pie today?”

I knew there were mulberries in the apple pie he’d eaten yesterday, so there was only one conclusion I could come to. He hadn’t been in need of a message. “Pebbles is right, dreams aren’t guaranteed—they come only when there’s something to be said or something that needs to be heard.”

“Young lady, I have a hard time believing that Rosemarie suddenly has nothing to say after years of her telling me plenty. Uh-uh. No way. The pie was broken,” he insisted.

“Maybe it’s her silence that’s saying something.” Pebbles rubbed at the pink lipstick stain on her mug. “Did you ever think of that?”

Her white hair was stacked higher than usual today, and she wore a lightweight floral top that had a floppy bow tied at the neck.

“Like what?” he asked her. “What could her silence possibly tell me?”

“Like maybe it’s time to stop hanging on her every word and move on with your life?”

“Move on to what?” he asked. “I’m eighty-two years old.”

“So? Doesn’t mean life is over. Doesn’t mean you couldn’t find someone else to spend the rest of your years with. Maybe Rosemarie is trying to tell you it’s okay to keep on living.”

He snorted. “If she wanted to tell me that, she would have. If the pie wasn’t broken.”

“Lord love a duck!” Pebbles huffed, reached into her purse, and pulled out three singles. She dropped the money on the table, threw her napkin on her plate, and said, “I’ve lost my appetite.” With that she stood and stormed out of the café, stiff-arming the door on her way out.

Mr. Lazenby watched her go, then looked up at me and said, “I’ll be having scrambled eggs, sweet potato hash, two pieces of bacon, and a piece of pie that’s not broken.”

“You sure you don’t want to try a zucchini frittata?” I asked.

“No. I most certainly do not.”

I stifled a sigh as I jotted down his order. “Do you ever think you might be stuck in a rut, Mr. Lazenby?”

He set his napkin on his lap. “There’s nothing wrong with routine, Miss Anna Kate.”

I wasn’t so sure. It was the first time I questioned whether eating a daily piece of pie was emotionally healthy.

Sometimes, like Faylene had said, in order to move on you had to let go.

Mr. Lazenby was clinging to that pie for dear life.

“Anna Kate, I’ll take one of those frittatas,” Faylene said. “You’ve got me hooked on them. Simply delightful. I’ll also take a biscuit with sausage gravy, extra gravy.”

“Ooh,” Mr. Boyd said. “I’ll have the same. Faylene, have you tried the zucchini fries? Also delightful. Just the slightest hint of heat from the cayenne pepper.”

“I haven’t, but I do like a little fire. Care to split an order?” she asked, tucking her dark hair behind her ear. “Maybe we can even get Otis to try one.”

Hmmph.” Mr. Lazenby crossed his arms again.

“My treat,” Mr. Boyd said, nodding.

“Thank you kindly, sir.” Faylene looked up at me, a twinkle in her eye. “Order it up, please, Anna Kate.”

“Will do,” I said, turning toward the kitchen.

Jena moseyed over. “I still can’t get over the sight of Seelie Earl Linden walking through that there front door like it’s no big deal.” I swung around. Sure enough, Seelie was taking the seat Pebbles had vacated. She eyed the napkin sitting on the plate in front of her with disdain.

Jena gave me a bump forward, toward Seelie. “Best go clear that setting before Seelie calls the health department about the lipstick on Pebbles’s mug.”

At my dark look, she laughed and went back to cutting biscuits.

I smiled as I approached the table. “Let me get these dishes out of the way, Seelie, and I’ll be right back to take your order.”

Mr. Lazenby’s brows were furrowed as he said, “Pebbles might be coming back. We should save her seat.”

I picked up the plate and set the mug and silverware atop it. “If she comes back, I’ll find her another seat.”

“But that’s her seat.”

“Is something wrong?” Seelie asked.

“Not at all,” I said at the same time Mr. Lazenby said, “Yes.”

I pointed at him. “You, hush up, or I’ll slip a blueberry into your pie.”

“You wouldn’t!” “Try me.”

“What’s got your goat?” he asked. “Sheesh.”

“Seelie, you must try the frittata,” Faylene said. “It’s the special today, and Anna Kate outdid herself with that recipe. Zucchini, goat cheese, onion, fresh mint. Heaven.”

I said, “Really, the zucchini is the star. There’s two plants in the back that just keep giving and giving.”

“I’ll try the frittata, then. Thank you, Faylene, for the recommendation. Have you tried Anna Kate’s zucchini cheddar jalapeño biscuits? Some of the best savory biscuits I ever tasted.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen them on the menu …” Faylene picked up her reading glasses and looked around for a menu.

“I haven’t put them on the menu,” I said.

“You must put them on there, Anna Kate,” Seelie insisted. “Everyone would love them.”

“Oh, I know I would,” Faylene said.

Mr. Boyd nodded. “Me, too.”

Mr. Lazenby turned his plate ninety degrees and said, “Not me.” “Maybe I’ll add them tomorrow,” I said. “The menu is already set for today.”

“I look forward to it.” Faylene slid her reading glasses on top of her head. “I’ve loved every single one of your new recipes, Anna Kate. Zee was a good cook, but you’re a great cook. One of the best. I’m going to miss your food something fierce when you leave us.”

I felt Seelie watching me intently, and my cheeks heated. “Thank you, Faylene. I’m going to miss creating new recipes.”

“Will you be gone for long?” Mr. Boyd asked.

“A while,” I said. As I rushed to the kitchen, I heard Faylene explaining to Mr. Boyd about medical school. I dropped off the dishes and wiped my hands.

Jena said, “Was that a smile out of Seelie?”

“A few of them,” I said.

“It’s a daggum miracle.”

“Order up!” Bow thumped the counter.

I picked up the plates, balancing one of them on my forearm. I was halfway to the table when a young woman motioned for me.

“Sorry to bother you, ma’am, but I was wondering if you sold T-shirts?”

“I don’t,” I said, and then smiled as I realized what a wonderful idea it was. “Not yet. Will you be in town long?”

“A few more days,” she said.

“Check back with me then.”

“I will. Thanks.”

I walked away, my mind spinning. I needed to talk to Aubin to see if he wanted in on the project. It was another way to possibly earn money for Summer’s college fund.

I set Mr. Boyd’s plates in front of him, then went down the line, ending with Mr. Lazenby. I took Seelie’s order and had to smile as Faylene peppered her with a million questions.

“Anyone need a coffee refill?” Hands went up left and right and I laughed. “And I’ll be right back with your pie, Mr. Lazenby.”

“No blueberries!”

I patted his shoulder and said, “Would you like a piece too, Seelie? Today we have peach, strawberry rhubarb, apple, and blackberry.”

“Oh no, none for me,” she said, shaking her head.

“Is it the calories or the dream you’re afraid of, Seelie?” Faylene asked.

Before she could answer, Mr. Boyd said, “Y’all don’t really believe that the blackbirds are singing messages from people who’ve died, do you? They’re just singing.”

Faylene said, “Of course we do!”

I tsked. “What would your mother say about all these doubts, Mr. Boyd?”

His cheeks colored. “Those were just dreams.”

“Ha!” Mr. Lazenby scoffed. “Dreams, my foot.”

“Maybe you should cut Zachariah off the pie, cold turkey,” Faylene said to me. “Save it for the believers. It’s a precious commodity that shouldn’t be wasted.”

“No, no! Don’t do that,” Mr. Boyd said quickly. “I … like the pie.” “Then keep your skeptical opinions about the blackbirds to yourself while you’re in this here café,” Faylene said, poking him in the arm. “What would your mama say about your manners?”

His head came up sharply, and his eyebrows dropped low. “She’d say to mind them, and I know that because she said so in the dream I had last night …”

“See!” Faylene said. “If that there isn’t proof, I don’t know what is.”

 “Dreams,” Mr. Lazenby mumbled, shaking his head.

Mr. Boyd, his cheeks pink, glanced at me. “Sorry, Anna Kate.”

“Don’t worry about it another second,” I said.

Faylene beamed at him. “I do like a man who can apologize. Now, pass me one of those zucchini fries, if you please. I hear they’re delicious.”

My gaze went to Seelie, but her attention had turned to the writing on the soffit. When she finally looked down and caught me watching her, she looked away quickly.

But not before I saw the tears in her eyes.

 

Natalie

My therapy appointment this week fell on a Tuesday afternoon, and Lord help me, I was once again running late. The birders had kept the café busy and me on my toes right up until closing time. I had only a few minutes at home before I had to be on the road, or I ran the risk of having to reschedule.

The therapist would probably say my habitual tardiness was a result of me not wanting to go to the appointment at all, and she’d be right.

 I didn’t want to go.

But I needed to.

I knew the difference.

It was my third meeting with her, and while I didn’t exactly enjoy our time together, I hadn’t had a full-on panic attack in more than a week. We’d spent much of the last appointment talking about lies, and since I’d given no ground on the subject we would be revisiting the discussion today.

She was trying to convince me that lying wasn’t always detrimental.

Right.

Clearly she’d never had a husband who lived a secret life, one who maybe, possibly, killed himself to keep from telling his wife the truth.

My lungs squeezed painfully, and I took a few deep breaths, focusing on calming myself down once again.

Avoiding looking in the direction of the pool, I ran up the porch steps of the little house. A large, thin, rectangular parcel wrapped in brown paper was tucked behind a rocking chair near the door. My name was written in dark ink on the packaging, and underneath that the word “fragile” was underlined.

I mused at the combination, wondering if the word “fragile” was describing the package or my state of mind. Both fit, I supposed, so I didn’t linger on the intention.

Pulling out my keys, I unlocked the door, then pushed it open. Chilly air washed over me as I set the package on the kitchen counter, tore the paper, and gasped.

It was the framed photo of the doe and waterfall. A note slipped out onto the floor.

 

          Natalie—

               Thought that if you couldn’t go to the waterfall, then the waterfall should come to you. Everyone needs a little peace in their lives.

                                                                                        —Cam

 

I blinked away a sudden rush of tears. No crying. But it was such a thoughtful, kind gift, I couldn’t help the surge of emotion.

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I needed to call Cam to thank him. Then I realized I didn’t have his phone number. Marcy would, though … I reached for the phone, then dropped my hand. I didn’t have time right now.

There was barely enough time for a quick shower if I was going to make it to the therapist’s office in time. Skipping the shower was out of the question.

Fifteen minutes later, I was headed for the door when the phone rang.

Glancing at the ID screen, I recognized my mother’s cell number.

Befores and afters.

Before Mama had decided to reinvent herself, I would have walked out without answering. After her personality overhaul, I grabbed the phone, hoping that the new her hadn’t vanished. I kind of liked her.

“Hi, Mama. I was just on my way out to therapy.”

“I don’t have much time either,” Mama said. “The Refresh meeting is having a short break, and I thought I’d take advantage to give you a call about a conversation I had a few minutes ago.”

“About?” I kept an eye on the microwave clock. The blue numbers glowed at me accusingly. I turned my back on them.

“I was talking up your sewing and fabric choices to Patsy Dale Morgan when she mentioned she had an old trunk of vintage fabrics that you’re welcome to, free of charge, since they’re just collecting dust at her house.”

I perked up. “I’d feel better if I could pay her for them, but I can’t pay much . . .”

“She’s not going to accept your money, Natalie. She says you’d be doing her a favor.”

I recognized when it was pointless to argue. “That’s awful nice of her. I’d love them.”

“I’ll tell her so as soon as I go back inside. And I’ll have your daddy swing by Patsy’s tonight to collect them.”

“I can do that, on my way home.”

“Oh, I know. I figured this way would be easier on you, what with your schedule lately. You know Patsy. Faylene Wiggins is a novice talker compared to her. You’d be there three hours at least, where your daddy has no qualms whatsoever about cutting off a conversation in order to make it home by suppertime. You know how he likes his meals.”

The image of him poking at his roasted chicken and sweet potatoes at Sunday supper flashed through my mind, and the pit in my stomach widened. He could tell me all he wanted that he was fine, just getting old, but something wasn’t right with him. I could feel it in my soul.

“Thank you, Mama.”

“You’re welcome, Natalie. And one more thing … when I was home earlier, I saw that burly mountain man leaving our driveway in his pickup truck. Had you been expecting him?”

“His name is Cam, Mama. And no. He brought by one of his framed photos. Left it on the porch.” I didn’t dare tell her that it had been a gift. No telling what she’d read into that.

“A gift?”

Shoot.

I couldn’t out-and-out lie. “Yes, a gift. I’d been admiring it at Hodgepodge. You should check out his photographs next time you’re in there. I think you’d like them. Now, I really need to get going.”

There was a long stretch of silence before she said, “Then I’ll let you go.”

I could tell there was much left unsaid in that brief silence. I could practically feel her disapproval vibrating through the phone. But I had to give Mama credit—she hadn’t voiced her opinions of Cam. It was a step forward. A baby step, but I was more than okay with that. We said our goodbyes, and I took one look at the clock, groaned, and ran out the door.

20

 

Anna Kate

I looked out the side window. “Is it my imagination, or is it beginning to look like a tent city out there?” I spotted several trash cans and a sign with the word rules written at the top of it.

“Not your imagination. Zachariah Boyd is doing his best to organize the chaos as more people arrive,” Jena said.

Bow adjusted the heat on the fryer. “You could say the birders are flocking here.”

Ugh,” I groaned.

Jena laughed as she gently kneaded biscuit dough. “That should be incorporated into Wicklow’s slogan somehow. Wicklow, where people flock. Flock to Wicklow?”

“Wicklow, a flocking good time,” I said, laughing. “We should put that on T-shirts too.”

“I’d buy one,” Jena said. “And wear it proudly. The sooner we can get them printed, the better. With the Fourth of July celebration next weekend, birders will be arriving in droves, making a weeklong vacation out of the trip up here. Not only that, but word is getting around about the hiking and biking. Wicklow will be a mountain resort town before we know it.”

Biking reminded me of Gideon and his offer to take me riding one day. I looked toward Hill House and noted the lights were on. I hadn’t seen him much lately. He’d only been by for coffee on Tuesday, and it had been a quick visit where we mostly discussed the zucchini and the bike ride he had planned.

I had the feeling he was avoiding me, and for some reason it was painful.

For some reason. I scoffed at myself. I knew why it hurt. I liked him. A lot.

Jena came over to see what I was looking at and poked me with her elbow. “Looking for Gideon? You do know he’s sweet on you.”

“He is not.”

“Shoo-ee, honey, yes he is. Isn’t he, Bow?

“Sweet as this sugar,” Bow said, winking at me as he poured sugar into waffle batter.

“It’s why he’s been keeping his distance.” Jena put the pan of biscuits into the oven. “Yes, ma’am.”

I tied an apron around my waist and saw that Mr. Lazenby was sitting on the bench by the door. “Why would he do that if he’s sweet on me?” I dropped my head back and groaned. “That sounds so silly to say aloud.”

Jena said, “I can think of a couple of reasons.”

“Like?” I asked.

Dark eyes gleamed as she held up a single finger. “One being that you’re leaving soon and getting attached isn’t the smartest thing to do.”

That wasn’t news to me. “And two?”

She stuck a second finger in the air. “He was Zee’s attorney. He might feel it’s inappropriate.”

It didn’t feel inappropriate, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt on that.

“And third … I can’t help feeling he’s keeping something from you. A secret.”

Bow said, “I bet you’re right about that.”

Jena smiled at him. “I’m always right.”

“I know.” He grinned. “You already have that T-shirt.”

She laughed. “I do, don’t I?”

The two of them seemed to be in an especially good mood this morning. “A secret?” I asked, trying to rein them back on topic. “What kind of secret?”

So help me if he had been married all this time and conveniently forgotten to mention it.

“I don’t know, sugar. It’s just intuition,” Jena said in that melodic way of hers. “I’ve been around this town long enough to know when people are keeping secrets.” She sighed heavily. “I have to admit, I’m going to miss this place, though I’m looking forward to new adventures.”

“Miss this place? Are you leaving town?” I asked.

Jena said, “We’ve been planning for a long time now to move along once you sold this place. We want to travel some, see the sights. Now, don’t be looking at me with that long face. It’s nothing to be sad about—it’s been a long time coming. We were supposed to only be passing through here to begin with.” She laughed. “And we ended up staying twenty-odd years.”

I hated thinking of them leaving, though they had every right to move on with their lives. “Gideon says Wicklow has a way of holding on to you.”

“He’s flocking right about that.” Bow crossed the kitchen and climbed a small stepladder to reach a roll of paper towels on a high shelf. He was wearing shorts today that showed off his skinny chicken legs, as he called them. It was the first time I noticed he had a jagged scar running down the back of his left calf. It looked familiar, the shape of that scar, though I knew I’d never seen it before. He usually wore pants to work.

“Where did you two live before here?” Though they were two of the kindest, gentlest souls I’d ever come across, they weren’t very forthcoming with information about themselves.

“Here, there, and everywhere,” Bow said. “We’re gypsies at heart.”

“Yet you’ve stayed here for more than two decades. Why?”

Jena suddenly busied herself with the muffin tin, wiping the metal edges with a damp dishtowel.

​​Bow’s cheek twitched. “To right a wrong, Anna Kate. To right a wrong.”

“Has it been righted?” I asked.

“Not yet, but we’re workin’ on it,” he said, grabbing a knife to cut potatoes.

“For twenty-some years …?”

“There’s no time limit on trying to fix a mess you made.” Jena came around the island, wiping her hands on the dishtowel. “But sometimes, well, honey, sometimes it’s best to let the past settle a bit before you go stirring it up again. People see things differently through the lens of time.”

“And is that what you’re doing now? Stirring?”

“We’re veritable dust devils,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

“And when that dust settles, you’ll be leaving? Where will you go?” I asked. “What will you do?”

What was I going to do without them?

Then I gave myself a good, silent talking-to. I was leaving, too. “Wherever the winds take us.” She turned to check the coffee pots.

I wiped a counter. “I have to confess that I hoped you two would stay on and run the café.”

“Are you rethinking medical school?” Bow asked.

“No, I’m going. My lease is signed—I move in August first. That gives me a couple of weeks to get settled before classes start.” I stared at his arched back, trying to fight the sick feeling coming over me.

Hmm,” Jena said, her pencil-thin eyebrows raised.

I frowned. “What?”

“What?” she echoed.

“You’re not one to beat around the bush, Jena.”

Bow laughed. “No, she’s one to perch in that bush and sing loud and clear.”

“Hush.” She swatted him. “It just seems to me, honey, that you belong right where you are. I see your heart here, plain as day. It’s on that there specials board and the way you talk to the zucchini and it’s in the pantry on the herbal tea shelf you created. It’s out there on Mr. Lazenby’s face, it’s in the way you’ve taken up for Summer, it’s in the love you have for Natalie and Ollie.”

I wanted to make a snarky remark about how that wasn’t much evidence at all, but I couldn’t bring myself to joke.

I bit the inside of my cheek. “I have to go. I made a promise to my mom, and Callows don’t break promises. I’d like to find a way to keep the café open while I’m gone. I’d become more of a figurehead, overseeing the operation from afar.”

“And the pies?” Jena asked, as if knowing full well what would happen if there weren’t blackbird pies.

It made me wonder exactly how much she knew of the blackbird legend and the secret of the mulberries. I suddenly suspected she knew it all.

“I haven’t figured that out yet,” I said. “Maybe I can make them up in Massachusetts and overnight them.” The mulberry preserves would be easy enough to pack up and take with me.

Jena tsked. “You’re too smart to be thinking that plan would work in the long run. I’m going to say it plain as day: you can’t have both. You need to choose: medical school or the café.”

“It’s not that easy,” I said.

“Honey, nothing in life is.” She took the rag out of my hand. “Best you open that door, before Otis picks the lock.”

I looked up at the clock, surprised to see it was after eight. I hurried through the empty dining room to unlock the front door. “Good morn—”

“Don’t you good morning me, young lady,” Mr. Lazenby said, marching straight toward his seat.

People filtered in behind him, including Faylene and Mr. Boyd, and several other locals and birders I’d come to recognize by face, but not by name. Each gave me warm greetings, joking about the blackbirds or all the zucchini dishes on the specials board. But my gaze kept going to Mr. Lazenby. He was pouting.

I grabbed a coffee pot and headed his way.

He looked up at me and said, “It was broken again.”

I left room at the top of his mug for him to add cream, just the way he liked it. “Another night of no messages?”

His lips pressed together stubbornly. Finally, he said, “I did have one dream, but it made no sense.”

“Was it from Rosemarie?” I asked.

“It was.”

“What did she say?”

“She called me a blind old fool.” He made a sour face. “That pie’s gone bad. Rosemarie has never called me a name in her life.”

As Faylene sat down next to him, she chuckled. “Not to your face, anyways.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” I said.

Mr. Lazenby scowled. “Where’s Pebbles?” Her chair remained empty.

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“Me either,” Faylene added, “but I did hear her mention yesterday that she planned to go to the moonlight movie tonight. You should call her, Otis, see if she needs an escort, since her knee’s been giving her some problems lately. Arthritis,” she said in an aside to Mr. Boyd. “You’ve always been so helpful to her in the past, Otis.” In another aside, she said, “He drives Pebbles around to her appointments, takes her grocery shopping.”

“Don’t go making me sound like a white knight,” Mr. Lazenby grumped. “I only did those things because Rosemarie nagged me to.” He glowered and mumbled something about movies, old fools, and broken pies.

Faylene lifted her eyebrows. “I thought you said she didn’t nag.”

Hmmph,” he said, turning his back to her.

It was interesting to me that Rosemarie had asked Mr. Lazenby to look after Pebbles. And suddenly I wondered if Rosemarie’s marked change in message-giving was her way of weaning her husband from the pie.

Faylene laughed and patted his shoulder. “You put Otis’s breakfast on my bill, will you, Anna Kate? Seems to me he needs a pickme-up. Poor old fool that he is.”

“Don’t forget blind,” Mr. Boyd piped in.

“Oh, that’s right. Poor blind old fool that he is. Nothing he likes better than a free breakfast.”

“That’s true. Thank you,” Mr. Lazenby grumbled over his shoulder. Then his hand snaked out to pick up his mug and he slowly turned back to the table, but he didn’t join in the conversation. He kept staring at the empty seat across from him.

s I collected orders, my gaze kept going back to Pebbles’s chair too, and I thought that maybe, just maybe, Rosemarie had been playing matchmaker all along.

 

Natalie

I had slept fitfully the night before and was dead tired by the end of my shift. I’d planned to work on my sewing projects after work, but a long nap might be a better use of my time.

“You sure you’re okay, sugar?” Jena asked me for approximately the hundredth time that afternoon.

“Yeah, Jena. Thanks. I’m mostly just tired and have a bit of a headache.” I grabbed the pitcher of blackberry tea to top off glasses.

“I can do that,” Anna Kate said, pointing to the pitcher. “And I can make you some willow bark tea for your headache—or you could take a short break at least.”

“No, no,” I forced a smile, “that’s okay. It’s good to keep busy.”

Staying busy helped keep my thoughts at bay.

Anna Kate threw me a worried nod, then took two plates to a corner table. The café was due to close up in ten minutes, so I prayed those guests were fast eaters.

I hadn’t lied to Jena—I was tired and had a headache—but I was also worried.

About Ollie and her swimming lesson this morning. Oh, how I hated those swimming lessons.

And about my father, too. I’d gone over to the big house to check on him last night, and he’d already been in bed, asleep, and it hadn’t even been eight at night. Usually at that time he and Mama were on the patio sharing a cocktail.

On top of that, there were all the thoughts of Matt’s death and our life together. Therapy was causing me to pick the relationship apart, piece by piece. I turned over conversations in my head, regretting the times we’d argued, and wishing I’d been able to change what had happened. Some way. Somehow. All the while, Cam’s talk about forgiveness rang in my ears, like an echo that just wouldn’t quit.

Maybe it was true that I needed to forgive Matt.

But I didn’t know how to do that.

The therapist told me to be patient, but I was losing patience fast. I wanted to be … normal, even if I didn’t know what that was anymore.

My thoughts were muddled, and all I wanted was a good, long sleep so I’d stop thinking for a while. I longed for silence. Peaceful, blissful silence.

I went into the pantry for more sugar packets. Bow and Jena stood just inside the doorway, their backs to me, their heads together. Before they noticed me, I overheard them say something about running out of time and desperate times calling for drastic measures.

“Oh!” Jena squeaked. She reached behind her and grabbed a bag of coffee beans. “Didn’t see you there, Natalie.” With a smile plastered on her face, she squeezed past me.

Bow busied himself by straightening cans on a shelf. “Need something, Nat?”

I wasn’t sure what, exactly, they had been discussing, but by their guilty flushes, I deemed it better if I didn’t know. “Sugar packets.”

He reached for a box and two boxes tumbled off the shelf. He snagged both in midair.

“Impressive,” I said, taking one of the boxes from his hand.

“Catlike reflexes come in handy once in a while.”

As I went back into the kitchen, the front door swung open and Aubin Pavegeau walked in, a cane in one hand and a backpack slung over one shoulder. He was dressed in a pair of jeans and a gray Roll Tide T-shirt, and had what looked like a twig hanging out of his mouth.

Jena whistled as she spotted him. “Look what the cat done dragged in.”

“I don’t like cats much,” Aubin said, tucking the stick into his back pocket, before giving Jena a quick hug.

Jena laughed and said, “No accountin’ for taste. I see you’re still chewing sweetgum sticks, Aubin. Some things never change.”

He gave a sad smile. “And some things do.”

“True enough.” She pointed at me. “You know Natalie Walker? She’s AJ’s little sister.”

Aubin’s face paled as he looked my way, and for a minute there I thought he was going to turn himself around and march right out of the café. It wasn’t a secret what he thought of the Linden family, but how we had managed to rarely cross paths in this small town was some sort of wonder. I’d only ever seen him from afar.

Finally, he stuck out a hand. “It’s been a long time, Natalie. You and AJ have the same eyes. Same shape, that is. Different color.”

I shook. “Daddy’s eyes. No mistaking them.” The thought of my father made my stomach start churning again.

Jena said, “It’s good to see you out and about, Aubin. Isn’t it, Bow?”

“Sure is. Real good,” Bow said with a nod. “Take any table you want.”

“Thank you kindly, but I’m not staying,” Aubin said. “Just wanted to run something past Anna Kate. If she’s got the time.”

“Where is Anna Kate?” Jena asked, looking around. “She’s disappeared.”

Bow said, “She went out the back door a minute ago. Probably picking more zucchini. Here she comes now.”

Sure enough, Anna Kate set two zucchinis and a bunch of parsley on the counter and smiled wide when she saw Aubin. “This is a nice surprise. Good to see you here, Mr. Pavegeau.”

“I told you to start calling me Aubin.”

“Old habits … ” Anna Kate wiped her hands on her apron as she approached. “What brings you by?”

Aubin slid the backpack from his shoulder. “One of the items I pulled out of the cabin last week was a screenprinting setup my meemaw used way back in the day.”

Bow said, “A little birdie told me your granny was one of the original artisans that put Wicklow on the map.”

“That’s right,” Aubin said. “Her specialty was printmaking. Found some of her old print blocks as well, but what really caught my eye was her screen press. I cleaned it up, did some research, and ” He reached into the backpack and pulled out a folded tee. He flapped it open and held it up.

On the front of a white T-shirt was a blackbird sitting on a mulberry branch. The words “Blackbird Café, Wicklow, AL” formed a circle around the bird.

Anna Kate gasped and pressed her hands to her cheeks. “Oh my gosh, Aubin! This is wonderful. Absolutely perfect.”

I said, “Did you do the artwork? It’s lovely.”

“Yes, ma’am. My skills are a bit rusty, but with a bit of practice, we can be sellin’ these in no time.”

“It’s perfect the way it is,” Anna Kate said, running a finger over the design.

“Let me see.” Jena elbowed her way in. “Aubin Pavegeau, you’re a talented man!”

Bow caught my eye and motioned to two plates sitting on the counter. I scooped them up to deliver and refilled water glasses while I was at it.

Glancing up at the clock, I saw it was closing time. Thank the good Lord above. As I went to lock the front door, however, I spotted my mother and Ollie walking toward the café.

“Mama!” Ollie came running as soon as she saw me.

I caught her and swung her up to nuzzle her neck. Ollie squealed with happiness, giving me a moment of blissful peace ...until I smelled the chlorine in her hair.

“How were swimming lessons?” I forced myself to ask.

Mama smiled. “Olivia Leigh will be a mermaid before we know it.”

My stomach rolled. “Did you two come for lunch? We’re just closing, but I can whip something up.”

Mama gestured to her tote bag. “No, thank you. I brought some family photo albums to share with Anna Kate, then Ollie and I are going to get some ice cream from Adaline’s. It’s good to see Wicklow coming alive again.”

As we went inside, I noticed straight off that Aubin Pavegeau was gone. The screen door slammed shut, and I looked toward the deck in time to see his head go past the window. I didn’t blame him—I’d have avoided my mother if I were him too.

“Annkay!” Ollie said. “Hihi!”

I set Ollie down and she ran around tables until she reached Anna Kate, who bent down, her arms open wide.

“Hello, Ollie! Are you having fun with Grandma today?”

“Swim!”

“You went swimming?” Anna Kate made a fish face and tickled Ollie’s belly. “Are you a little fishy?”

Ollie laughed and tried to make the same face. “Fishy!”

“Do you want some juice?”

Ollie nodded and Anna Kate went to the fridge.

“I’ll get you some sweet tea, Mama,” I said. “Have a seat.”

The café quickly cleared out, and I busied myself with end-of-shift chores while Anna Kate and Mama looked at photo albums. Ollie was happy as a clam, charmed by a dustpan and hand broom.

So much for ice cream. Mama seemed to have forgotten she was going to drop off the albums and move along. By the looks of her and the photo albums stacked on the table, she planned to stay a good, long while.

“And this one,” Mama said, “was when AJ was four and decided to make me a mud pie for Mother’s Day. A bigger mess you never did see.” Mama and Anna Kate had their heads together as they looked at the photograph. “He was so proud of himself, giving me that pie, smiling ear to ear.”

There were albums upon albums at home featuring AJ. His short life had been well documented. There were only two albums of me. And I couldn’t remember a time when Mama had ever shown me such love and attention as she was paying Anna Kate right now. I could only recall our heads that close together when Mama was giving me what for in that quiet, cold way of hers.

Jena hip-bumped me. “You still doing okay?”

“I’m all right,” I said as Mama prattled on, detailing another one of AJ’s triumphs.

“I’m not sure I believe you.”

I said, “You know I don’t lie.”

“I got eyes. I see you’re hurtin’. You know you can’t hide it from me. Never could.”

I had become friends with Jena and Bow one early spring night nearly fourteen years ago. I’d had a huge fight with my mother over something petty. In anger, I’d snuck out in the dead of night and had gone farther into the woods beyond Willow Creek than ever before. It was only when I decided to head home that I realized I was hopelessly lost. If not for some small cat prints that I followed by flashlight, I might still be in those woods. The prints had led straight to Jena and Bow’s small cottage, and they seemed to be waiting for me when I stumbled out of the woods.

They’d taken me in, given me hot chocolate, and listened to me cry about the injustices of life.

After that day, I’d spent a lot of time with them, helping them farm their homestead, listening to their tales of travel, loving them because they loved me for who I was.

“It hurts,” I admitted. “But I’m all right. I know it’s important for Anna Kate to see the pictures and hear the stories. They’re her history.”

“Seems to me the hurt isn’t coming from the pictures or the stories, but you go right on telling yourself it is, if it makes you feel better,” Jena said, patting my cheek before turning toward the dishes.

Wishing the day was over already, I sang the ABCs in my head to block my thoughts as I stacked chairs with painstaking efficiency. When there was a knock at the front door, my stomach bottomed out when I saw Josh Kolbaugh standing there in full uniform. Then he smiled and I remembered to breathe again. He wasn’t bringing bad news about Cam. Thank goodness.

Anna Kate was already at the door to let him in. “Josh, hi.”

“Got a sec?” he asked her, motioning outside.

“Sure.” She followed him out.

Mama said, “What do you think is going on?”

“Don’t know,” I said as I turned another chair upside down and slid it onto a table. My gaze went to Ollie, to make sure she was keeping out of trouble. She was still playing with the broom and dustpan, and for a moment I wondered why I even bothered buying toys.

Whatever it was Josh had to say hadn’t taken long. Anna Kate came back inside, her forehead furrowed.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Anna Kate sat down and sighed. “I’d asked Josh for his help in finding a copy of the police report from the car crash. But he just told me the police don’t have the records anymore—they were destroyed in a flood years ago.”

Mama picked at the plastic on the photo page. “It’s important to you, the police report?”

“I want to know what happened—just the facts. A police report would be the most impartial account.”

Mama kept picking. “I have a copy of the report somewhere, filed away for safekeeping.”

“You’re serious?” Anna Kate asked, eyes wide.

Nodding, Mama said, “I’ll try to find it in time for Sunday supper. That is, if you’re going to be there this week. If not, I can drop it by here. No pressure.”

“Thank you, Seelie,” Anna Kate said. “I’ll look at it on Sunday, at supper.”

Mama beamed and turned a page in the photo book. “And this is when …”

I tuned her out, and tried to tamp down a growing bitterness. Because not only did I have to hear all about AJ’s life these days, but now on Sunday I was going to have to hear about his death, too.

And suddenly, I couldn’t take it anymore. Not one more minute.

I picked up Ollie, went into the kitchen, hung up my apron, waved to Jena and Bow, and went out the back door.

As the screen door snapped shut behind us, I glanced back inside.

Neither Anna Kate nor Mama had even noticed we’d left.

NEXT: Chapters 21 & 22

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