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'Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe' Chapters 21 & 22


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Illustration by Nick Matej

 

21

 

“Beautiful property you have out here,” the reporter said.

Aubin Pavegeau limped toward the small cabin that was going to be the reporter’s home for the night. A beautiful chocolate-colored dog raced ahead of them, and two goats bleated from a pen behind the main house. “Thank you. My wife and I built it shortly after we were married.”

“I haven’t had a chance to meet her.” He dodged a chicken in his path. “Has she had any contact with the blackbirds?”

“If you ask my daughter Summer, she has. But you won’t be meeting my Francie. She died some six years back.”

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“I’m sorry. Was it an accident?” He winced as soon as the words were out of his mouth. “You don’t have to answer that—it was rude of me to ask.”

“It’s okay,” Aubin said. “It was a car wreck that killed her. But most days, it feels like karma.”

 

Natalie

It was a bit after seven o’clock when someone knocked on the door. I quickly crossed the room before whoever knocked did it again. Despite my best efforts to keep her awake to go to the movies tonight with Mama and Daddy, Ollie had fallen asleep early. Rather than subject them to her temper when she was sleepy, I’d put her to bed. There would be plenty more movies.

In the quiet, I’d been researching how to start an online shop, and had been pleasantly surprised to see that it was doable.

Very doable.

With a growing bubble of excitement, I thought I might just give it a go. A boutique of my own.

It was a goal I never even knew I wanted, until Faylene had planted the seed that day in Hodgepodge.

And then … I found I wanted it more than anything. Creating and sewing and running my own business sounded like a dream come true.

My bubble popped when I saw through the window next to the door that it was my mother on the porch. A tote bag dangled from her arm, and a big box that had a wrapped plate on top of it was in her hands. How she’d managed to even knock was beyond me.

Looking toward the heavens, I said, “Really? Now?”

Then I realized what I was doing—adopting Mama’s method of coping—and I immediately vowed never to do it again.

Reluctantly, I pulled the door open. “Mama, it’s late, I’m not feeling well, and I was going to bed soon ”

She walked past me into the house, tossing a questionable look at my pajama shorts and tank top. “I won’t stay long. Your father is taking a nap before the movie showing, and I thought it was a good time to stop over.” She glanced around. “Is Olivia Leigh already sleeping?”

I closed the door. “She is. I think she’s going through a growth spurt. She fell asleep while eating her spaghetti, so I cleaned her up and put her to bed early.”

“Have you eaten?” Mama asked, setting her load on the coffee table, and then picking up the plate on top. “I fixed you a plate of fried chicken and potato salad in case you’re hungry. There’s a slice of chocolate fudge cake there too.”

I took the plate from her hands and felt a catch in my throat. “I ate with Ollie, but thank you for this. It’ll be nice to have tomorrow.”

“Are you feeling any better?”

I could still feel the headache pulsing near my temple, but pulsing was a sight better than pounding. “Much better. I’m sure I’ll be fine tomorrow.” I put the plate in the fridge, peeked in on Ollie, and said, “Has Daddy been feeling okay? Seems he’s sleeping a lot lately.”

Mama sat down on the couch. “He says he’s fine.”

“But?”

Mama worried a button on her sleeve. For a moment, I thought she wasn’t going to say anything else, but then she said, “He hasn’t been himself for a few months now. I keep nagging him to go for a checkup, but he’s a stubborn old coot. What else have you noticed?”

“He’s tired. He’s not eating well. He winces in pain when he bends over or lifts something heavy.” I sat in an armchair and tucked my legs beneath me. “Do you think it’s something serious?”

Shadows swept across Mama’s ice-blue eyes, darkening them. “Hopefully it’s just old age. We’re not getting any younger.”

Your daddy is dying. “Hopefully.”

“I’ll try harder to get him to go to a doctor.”

“Me, too,” I said. “Power in numbers.”

Fireworks went off in the distance, a series of loud popping noises. Around here fireworks generally started a good week before the Fourth of July and lasted a good week afterward. It was my belief that people just liked having a reason to blow stuff up.

“I brought over that fabric from Patsy”—she motioned to the big box—“and something else I wanted to show you.”

Apparently Mama and I had differing opinions on what not stay­ ing long meant. It seemed to me she was here to stay for a while. I should have known this would happen, after she had done the same thing earlier at the café. “Do you want something to drink? Coffee? Tea? Iced tea? Iced coffee? A Coke? I have all the caffeinated beverage groups covered.”

Mama said, “Do you have any gin? It’s been a long week.”

I couldn’t hold back a laugh—it had been the last thing I’d expected her to say. “No gin. How about wine?”

“White?”

“Coming right up.”

I found two glasses in the cupboard and pulled the wine bottle from the fridge. I poured, and carefully carried the glasses back to the living room, the wood floor creaking beneath my bare feet. If Mama had noticed my lack of footwear, she didn’t point it out. She had better manners than I did.

“This is good,” Mama said after taking a sip.

“It should be—Daddy picked it out. He gave it to me when I moved in. A housewarming gift.”

“It was probably more of a dealing-with-your-mama gift.”

“Maybe so,” I said as I took a sip.

“It’s rather amazing it hasn’t been opened before now.”

I laughed again, wondering when I’d last laughed like this with her. I couldn’t remember a time. “This is the second bottle—Daddy gave me two.”

Mama shook her head in amusement, and then set her glass on a coaster. She pulled a three-ring binder from the tote bag. “I was going through some of my old designs and thought you might like a few of the patterns. There are baby gowns and dresses, john-johns, shirts. Take what you want, if any. There are pictures of finished products to go along with the patterns.” She handed the binder to me.

Flipping through the pages, I sat in awe as I took it all in. “These are incredible. I don’t remember you making any of these things.”

“I made most of them before you were born. I lost most of my passion for sewing when AJ died, but some of it has come back over the years. Not nearly like it used to be, however. Seeing what you’ve been doing recently is helping reignite that love. Suddenly, I want to create and design again. You see, I lost myself when he died, too,” Mama added softly.

She didn’t need to tell me. I knew. Oh, how I knew.

“In making all these life changes, I hope to find myself again, Natalie. A better me.”

I also couldn’t recall a time when Mama and I had sat and talked like this, sharing concerns and feelings. I didn’t find it as awkward as I thought I would. “I like the changes so far. It’s been good to see glimpses of the old you again.”

“I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to realize how lost I was. It wasn’t until I saw Anna Kate that I realized how far I’d wandered. Here, hand that over, will you please?”

It made sense to me that in order to find herself, Mama had needed to find a piece of AJ first. She’d found it through Anna Kate.

I passed back the binder. Mama flipped to the second page and set it on the coffee table. “This is the very first dress I ever designed, long before AJ was born.”

I leaned forward to take a look. It was a darling pink and tangerine dress with the barest hint of gray detailing and delicate puff sleeves.

“All my life, I wanted to be a mother and to have a family. A big happy family. Four girls, four boys. A family of ten sounded just right. I had it all planned out in my head, certain it was going to happen. Which only goes to prove that I don’t always get my way.”

Good Lord, was she cracking a joke? My mama?

I realized with a start that this new mother of mine was going to take some getting used to.

She tapped a picture. “I made this dress for my first daughter, sure I was going to have a girl straight off.”

I tried to imagine having seven siblings and couldn’t fathom it. Couldn’t imagine having any sibling, really. After all, I’d been raised as an only child, for all intents and purposes.

“It wasn’t to be, of course. I struggled to conceive AJ, and Daddy and I tried for years after he was born to have another child ...before we eventually gave up trying. So I spoiled AJ rotten. Absolutely rotten. I gave to him all the love I’d set aside for the big family I’d always wanted ... I had the perfect little family, and tried to be happy with the blessings I had, but I never quite felt fulfilled. Then you came along. Perfect you, the prettiest baby you ever did see, with ​​those big brown eyes and bow lips. We took you home from the hospital in that pink and tangerine dress.”

“You’d kept it all that time?”

“Of course,” she said simply. “In my hope chest. With your arrival, I had it all. I’d never been happier. But then AJ was taken away, and my perfect family was destroyed.”

Mama,” I said, a plea to make her stop talking right there. “Stop. Please stop. I don’t want to hear any more.” It wasn’t likely to change a damned thing. There was no changing the fact that AJ was gone or how she’d treated me for most of my life. “What’s done is done. Let’s leave it in the past.”

Her voice frosted over. “No, Natalie. It’s time I’ve spoken up.”

I knew that tone—she wasn’t going to let this go until she said what she needed to say. However, if I was made to listen, I needed more wine. I collected the bottle from the kitchen and refilled my glass, then hers. I sat back down and sighed.

“So much of my identity was wrapped up in AJ that when he died, it was like I died, too. And oh my stars, how scared I was of losing you, too. Because if it could happen once, what would stop it from happening again?”

I set my glass on the table and wrapped my arms around my legs.

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“I was so scared. All the time. It ate me up, day and night. I worried endlessly that something would happen to you. I loved you so much. All I wanted was to protect you. I cut your food into the tiniest pieces so you wouldn’t choke. Made sure you washed your hands all the time to you wouldn’t catch colds. I limited your time in cars. I walked with you everywhere to make sure you didn’t get hit by a car or trip on a crack in the sidewalk. I didn’t like you finger-painting because I worried the paint had lead in it. I didn’t like you gardening because the dirt might have bacteria. I kept you out of crowds. I made sure you didn’t play with kids who might be bad influences, ones who would eventually learn to drive and drive you right off the road …”

My chest hurt something fierce. “I’ve always known why you behaved the way you did. What I never understood was why you chose to show your love for me by being overbearing instead of affectionate. All I ever wanted was my mother back. The one who used to laugh and sing and play with me. The one who hugged and kissed me.”

Her chin quivered before she locked her jaw. It took her a moment to say, “The pain of AJ’s death changed me, Natalie. I didn’t realize I was showing you the wrong kind of love. I should have seen it, especially when your father pointed it out so many times, but I was too blinded by the fear to see the damage I was doing.” Mama’s eyes were full of remorse. “I worked so hard to keep you safe—to keep you here with me—that it’s a slap in the face to know it was my actions that ultimately took you away. I understand now why you rebelled, and I am so very sorry, Natalie.”

My chest squeezed. “I’m right here, Mama. I came back.”

“I know, and that’s all that matters now. It’s like I said to Anna Kate. The past can’t change, but people can. Going forward, I’m taking the lessons I learned from all that pain with me, but it’s time to leave the pain behind. I promise to be a better mother, Natalie. Give me time.”

I struggled to work through my feelings. It had been an overwhelming day, and I could feel my anxiety vibrating. My gaze went to the waterfall picture hanging on the living room wall, and I took deep, calming breaths. Pain changed people. I knew that firsthand— I’d said it about myself just recently. There was no going back to the Before. Not now, not ever. “You don’t need time to become a better mother. You’re already on your way.”

22

 

Anna Kate

“Are you sure you’re up for this?” I asked Natalie as we found our places at the Sunday supper table. She held a sleepy Ollie in her arms and didn’t bother with the booster seat.

Natalie had called off work yesterday with a headache, and still looked like she was suffering. I was worried about her, especially after she left Friday afternoon without saying goodbye.

“I’ll be fine,” Natalie said. “Ollie’s been watching a lot of movies, which isn’t my finest hour of parenting, but it lets me rest on the sofa with a wet cloth on my head.”

“Fine? Just fine? Absolutely fine?”

“Exactly.”

The humor in her voice eased my anxiety somewhat. Jena had said Natalie was feeling poorly when she left on Friday, but I couldn’t help thinking there was more to it.

Something to do with Seelie and those photo albums.

I knew Natalie hadn’t had the best childhood, and seeing the way Seelie gushed over the photos had to sting. I wished I’d realized it while it was going on, but I’d been too swept up to notice much but the pictures. Guilt picked at my conscience.

As Doc set a heavy pitcher of tea on the sideboard, he grimaced.

“Daddy? Are you all right?” Natalie asked him.

“Right as rain,” he said, heading back to the kitchen.

“I never did understand that phrase,” she said, shaking her head. Doc’s color today was terrible, and I was surprised that neither Seelie nor Natalie had commented on it. Dark circles rimmed his eyes. He looked like he’d lost a good five pounds this past week, slimming down everywhere except for his stomach, which had bloated. His cheeks had hollowed, his neck had thinned.

He still hadn’t told Seelie and Natalie of his ill health, even after he promised me he would. Apparently Lindens didn’t hold promises to the same standards as Callows. I’d talk to him as soon as I could pull him aside, because it seemed to me time wasn’t on his side. His health had taken a nosedive.

Seelie carried in a bowl of steamed carrots, took a look around as if taking stock of drinks and forks and napkins, then she sat. “Natalie, do you want help putting Ollie in her chair?”

Ollie. She’d used her nickname, and I glanced at Natalie to see if she’d noticed.

Emotion fell over Natalie’s face, softening her eyes. She’d noticed.

“It’s best I hold her,” Natalie said, rocking side to side. “She’s still half asleep, and you know how fussy she gets when she’s tired.”

Doc came back with a basket of rolls, and Seelie’s gaze followed him the whole time, her forehead etched with worry as he sat down.

Maybe she had noticed his coloring after all.

“Bankie,” Ollie whimpered, barely lifting her head.

Natalie reached into the diaper bag at her feet and pulled out a quilt to tuck around Ollie. “Here’s your blankie. Shh.”

“That blanket …” I said, staring at it.

Natalie said, “Mama made it for Ollie’s first birthday, using her newborn clothes as patches. It’s Ollie’s favorite—she has trouble sleeping without it.”

Stunned, I turned to Seelie.

“What is it, Anna Kate?” she asked.

“I have a quilt ... and I have trouble sleeping without it too. It looks a lot like Ollie’s, except different patches, of course. I’ve had it my whole life.”

Seelie gasped, and her hands went to her cheeks. “You must have AJ’s quilt. It went missing after the car crash. He planned a picnic lunch that day and packed the quilt along with the basket. No one knew what had happened to the quilt, because it wasn’t at the crash scene.”

“I’ll be damned,” Doc said.

“How’d it get to you?” Seelie asked me. “It hadn’t gone with Eden to the hospital. I know, because I checked.”

“I have no idea,” I said.  “All I knew growing up was that it had belonged to my dad. I didn’t know you had made it until right now.”

“He’d be glad you had it,” Seelie said, nodding. “I’m glad youhave it.”

Natalie reached for a roll, broke off a chunk, and offered it to Ollie, who refused it and tried to burrow even further into Natalie’s collarbone.

Doc said, “Would you like some steamed carrots, Anna Kate?”

Seelie shifted toward me. “AJ hated carrots. The first time he tried them ”

I half listened as she recounted the story, because I was focused on Natalie and something she had said to me a while back.

Foods were the worst. If I said I liked carrots, I’d hear all about the time AJ tried carrots for the first time and spit them out on Daddy’s tie.

As much as I wanted to hear more about my father, I had to keep in mind Natalie’s feelings, especially since the guilt for hurting her on Friday was still weighing heavy. I hadn’t known for sure that’s what had happened until now—that she’d been hurt—but the truth shined in her eyes for all to see—if we looked.

I took the bowl from Doc, scooped carrots, and redirected the conversation. “Seelie, do you think there’s room at the carnival next weekend for another vendor booth?”

“Certainly. Why?”

“Aubin Pavegeau and I would like to sell some screen-printed T-shirts.”

“The Blackbird Café shirts Aubin designed?” Natalie asked. “He’s quite talented.”

I said, “Those, along with some new designs as well.”

Seelie’s lips pursed. “T-shirts?”

I explained how the project had come about and the various designs in the works.

“Flocking?” Seelie said, her hand on her pearls. “Don’t you think that’s a bit ... risqué? I don’t think it’s appropriate.”

“I think it’s funny,” Natalie said. “I’d wear one of those T-shirts.”

“No, you would not, young lady,” Seelie snapped. “It’s tacky.”

Every once in a while the old Seelie made an appearance. If Natalie’s smile was any indication, she didn’t take the admonition to heart.

“You’re not thinking of the bigger picture, Seelie,” I said. “The Refresh Committee should take note. Even though these shirts are being sold to supplement Summer’s college fund, it’s this kind of marketing that will attract attention. It’ll lure people here. And once they’re here, hopefully they’ll stay around awhile. See the blackbirds, hike and bike the local trails.”

“Spend their money,” Natalie said.

“Exactly.”

Seelie kept on pursing. “I still think it’s flocking tacky.”

Natalie laughed, nearly choking on her tea.

Seelie blinked innocently and reached for the rolls.

Doc ran his fork through his mashed potatoes. “If the café is shutting down in a few weeks, why make T-shirts? Seems a waste of time to me.”

We all looked at him.

“What?” he asked.

Seelie said, “Anna Kate just explained that the T-shirts are a fundraiser for Summer Pavegeau’s college fund.”

“Did she? I didn’t hear that part.” He picked up his sweet tea and took a long sip.

Natalie looked at Seelie, her eyebrows drawn low in concern. “About the café,” I said, trying not to give Doc a lecture right then and there. He needed to let his family know what was going on with his health. It wasn’t fair to them. “I’ve been brainstorming ways to keep the café open while I’m at school. Maybe I can hire a managing team. I’ll still make the pies and overnight them down. Jena thinks it can’t be done, but I think that where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Seelie said, “It seems to me you’re happy in the café, Anna Kate. You come alive there—I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Why not defer medical school a year, give yourself some time here in Wicklow? Get the café on its feet again.”

Ollie’s hand wiggled out of the quilt and snatched the roll away from Natalie as she said, “I think that’s a great idea. Give yourself some time.”

“No,” Doc said. “Absolutely not. Don’t you two go planting ideas in Anna Kate’s head just because you don’t want her to leave town. If she defers, she’ll never end up going. She’ll get too comfortable here, and that will be that.”

Seelie leveled him with an icy stare. “It’s not our decision to make. It’s Anna Kate’s. It’s clear she’s unsure about selling the café. Giving her options takes away some of the pressure.”

“She’s made her decision already,” he said. “Is she not starting classes in August?”

“That was before,” Seelie said, her teeth clenched, “Anna Kate had other choices.”

His chin jutted as his face paled. “The only choice she has is medical school. The sooner the better, so she can take over my practice sooner rather than later.”

“Hold up now,” I said, freezing. “Who said anything about your practice? I don’t want it.”

“It was supposed to be AJ’s, which means it’s supposed to be yours,” he said.

Suddenly feeling sick, I clenched the napkin in my lap, twisting and turning it. Had I been blind to his true intentions all along? “Your speech about wanting to get to know your granddaughter ... about moving forward. It wasn’t about me at all, was it? It was always about you. What you want.” I knew he’d been manipulating me, I simply hadn’t realized the extent.

“Succotash!” Natalie yelled. “Succotash!”

“What on earth?” Seelie said, eyeing her.

Natalie reached for the diaper bag. “We should go, Anna Kate.”

Doc’s voice turned to stone. “Eden wanted you to follow in your daddy’s footsteps—you said so yourself. His footsteps lead to me. My practice.”

“Lord have mercy,” Natalie whispered.

“Mercy,” Ollie echoed from under her blankie.

My chest heaved with anger. “His footsteps, yes. My shoes. It would be nice at some point if someone actually cared what I wanted. You once asked me if I had regrets, and I told you I did. One. It was the day I promised my mother I’d become a doctor because I knew it was what she wanted and would make her happy. I made the promise. It’s done. I’ll see it through, but that’s the end of it. The rest of the decisions are mine.”

“You know how I feel about regrets.” He shoved to his feet.

His words from the day I met him came back to me.

I’ve decided regret is like cancer. It eats you from the inside out, just the same.

The haze of my anger evaporated instantly. Had he told me straight from the get-go what was wrong with him? Did he have cancer?

Oh my God.

“I need some fresh air,” Doc said. “We can continue this conversation later.”

“Daddy?” Natalie said. “Are you all right?”

“James?” Seelie jumped up.

I saw Doc sway, and grabbed hold of him just as he collapsed.

 

Natalie

“He lied to me.” I thought my heart might break clear open. “It was a lie of omission, but that’s still a lie. I asked him flat-out if he was feeling well, and he evaded the question.”

“I don’t think he wanted to worry you,” Anna Kate said, her eyes bloodshot.

“But it’s a lie just the same, isn’t it? Doesn’t make it hurt any less.”

Anna Kate reached out to hold my hand, and at the same time Cam’s voice, once again, came unbidden into my thoughts.

Sometimes people lie to protect the ones they love.

Anna Kate and I sat side by side in the hospital waiting room. Faylene Wiggins, bless that woman, had come by to collect Ollie. She was taking her to Marcy’s house to play with Lindy-Lou until I could pick her up.

We’d been here a few hours now, and we were waiting on Daddy to be discharged against medical advice. He insisted there was nothing the hospital could do for him that couldn’t be done at home, and there was nothing anyone could do or say to talk him out of it.

He was being sent home with information on hospice care. Cancer.

Daddy had cancer. It was eating up his pancreas, affecting his liver function, and had spread to his lungs and his stomach.

He’d known for nearly six months now and hadn’t said a word. Not a single damned word. There were no treatment options left. No cure.

He had a few months left, at best. If we were lucky.

My head swam, and it felt like the brightly colored walls were closing in on me. Every inch of my body ached, and I desperately wanted to go home and try to pretend this was all one big nightmare that I’d wake up from any minute now.

“I knew he was ill,” Anna Kate said, her voice raw. “But I didn’t know how sick he was.”

My head was so fogged with emotion that it took me a minute to fully comprehend what Anna Kate had said. I shifted to face her. “You knew he was sick? How did you know?”

“I saw it,” she said. “The color of his skin, the yellowing in his eyes ... He told me he was seeing doctors.”

As if I’d been burned, I dropped Anna Kate’s hand. “How long have you known?”

Anna Kate winced. “Since the first time he came to the café.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? Or Mama? How could you keep something so serious to yourself?” I said, my voice sharp.

I sounded like my mother. The old one. I didn’t even care.

Hurt flashed in Anna Kate’s green eyes. “I didn’t know how serious it was. And at first it was none of my business, and then he asked me not to tell. I made a promise.”

“Some promises are meant to be broken, Anna Kate. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”

“He promised me he’d tell you.”

“Well, he didn’t, did he? You should have, Anna Kate. You should have.”

Lies, lies, everywhere.

Your father is dying. The voice suddenly rang in my head, and my stomach rolled.

I had known—someone had told me.

I just hadn’t paid enough attention.

Why hadn’t I paid enough attention?

Acid rose up my throat. I was going to throw up right there in the waiting room if I didn’t get out of here. I jumped to my feet and ran. I headed toward the EXIT sign, thinking fresh air could only help.

But as soon as I stepped outside and sucked in a deep breath I knew nothing was going to help. The tears came hot and fast, and the more I tried to hold them in the harder they fell.

My father was dying.

NEXT: Chapters 23 & 24 

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