“When did you first notice the blackbirds?” the reporter asked.
Bow Barthelemy kicked out long, thin legs. “They’ve been here as long as I have.”
“How long have you worked for the café?”
“Twenty-five years, but the birds have been here longer. Nearly a century, I’ve heard.”
The reporter rolled his eyes and scribbled a note. “Are there always twenty-four birds like in that old nursery rhyme? ‘Four and twenty blackbirds, Baked in a pie—’”
“‘When the pie was opened, The birds began to sing.’” Bow finished the quote. “I know it. Zee once said those birds were probably relatives.”
“She was obviously joking. Right?”
“Zee never joked about the blackbirds.”
Unsure what to say to that, the reporter tapped his pen, then gestured wide. “You don’t find all this strange?”
“Not at all, but what’s strange to me could look mighty different to you.” He stood up, pushed the chair in. “I need to be gettin’ back to work. You want a refill on that blackberry tea?”
“Yes, please. Best damn tea I’ve ever had.”
“I heard tell you’re heading off to medical school soon, young lady,” Mr. Lazenby said. His bottom lip pushed outward and his jaw set as if bracing for a fight.
Skirting his chair, I picked up empty plates and gathered discarded silverware from a nearby table. I wasn’t surprised by his nosiness, as it seemed to be a community-wide affliction, almost as prevalent as the lack of respect for personal space. People had been giving me hugs all morning, my stiffness not the least bit of a deterrent. Did no one have boundaries around here? “That’s right. Classes start in August.”
It had taken me seven long years to complete my premed undergrad. Between switching schools twice, taking time off after my mom’s death, and running out of tuition money … it was a miracle I’d graduated at all. Truthfully, I’d have quit altogether, except for a promise I’d made to my mother a long time ago.
“Hmmph,” Mr. Lazenby said, staring long and hard at me.
It looked like he had dressed for a special occasion this morning, wearing pressed trousers, a crisp white button-down, and a red-and-white checkered bow tie, but I’d come to recognize it was his normal, everyday attire.
He’d been here since the doors opened at eight and didn’t look like he planned to leave anytime soon, even though it was now well after ten. Sitting prim and proper, with his back ramrod straight and his napkin on his lap, he glared at his fork.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
“This pie doesn’t taste right.”
“Otis Lazenby,” Jena Barthelemy called out from the kitchen, “I know you’re not insulting my cooking. That’s Zee’s recipe for apple pie, and I’ll have you know it’s a ribbon winner.”
Jena apparently had bionic hearing, because I wasn’t sure how she’d heard him over the hum in the room.
“It might be Zee’s recipe,” he said, “but this pie don’t taste like the pies Miss Zee made.”
“We can’t be changing the fact that Zee’s gone to glory, can we?” Jena walked over to us. “God bless her soul. Times are changing, and we need to change right along with them, don’t we?”
“But I’ll still dream tonight, won’t I?” he asked, panic threading through his high voice.
“I don’t know. Time will tell, won’t it?” Jena said.
A wave of anxiety washed over me.
While on earth, it’s the job of us guardians to tend to the trees, nurture them, and gather their love to bake into pies to serve those who mourn, those left behind. You see, the bonds of love are only strengthened when someone leaves this earth, not diminished. Some have trouble understanding that, so it’s the pie that determines who’s in need of a message, a reminding, if you will; it’s the love in the pie that connects the two worlds; and it’s a tree keeper who delivers the message.
Yesterday, Jena had taken on the task of making the blackbird pies, and I should have known they wouldn’t be quite right. A guardian was supposed to bake the pies. Now that Zee was gone, making the pies fell on me as the only surviving Callow. Unfortunately, I didn’t think Mr. Lazenby would get the message he longed for, but I was hoping by some miracle that he would.
“Hmmph.” He pouted at the fork before shoving it into his mouth.
“Now tell all, Anna Kate. Did you always want to be a doctor?” Pebbles Lutz asked.
Pebbles, her white hair piled high, sat across from Mr. Lazenby at the ten-seat communal table that took up most of the dining room. This morning, I’d seen her cast more than one longing glance his way, but he seemed oblivious to her attention and affection.
“For as long as I remember,” I said, dodging the heart of the question, the want part, as I collected more plates.
The café had once been a carriage house. A long time ago, Zee had converted it into a restaurant downstairs and living quarters up.
A glass door and big bay windows at the front of the café let in an abundance of light. The floors were the same dark pine as the stairs, and the walls were covered in whitewashed pine, as was the ceiling. With a fairly open layout—only a half wall separated the cooking and dining areas—it felt as though this were a family kitchen rather than a business.
The whole space was light and bright and airy, but right now it felt more than a little claustrophobic. All eight tables were full, every seat taken. Several people stood near the door outside, waiting to come in. Some I recognized as neighbors. Some I didn’t, such as the young woman with the baby who kept passing by, staring inside forlornly.
Hands full, I headed back to the kitchen, to drop the dishes at the sink and take a minute to simply breathe. It was overwhelming to be the focus of so much attention.
“You’re doing fine, just fine,” Bow said from his spot at the stove. His normally pale face was infused with redness from standing over the stove all morning, and concern flashed in his light blue-gray eyes. “Especially seeing as you have no restaurant experience,” Jena added. “I’m impressed.”
I decided she impressed easily, because I was a hot mess. I knew my way around a regular kitchen—cooking and baking were second nature to me—but I knew nothing about working in a commercial kitchen or waitressing.
I’d already broken three plates, spilled more water than I cared to admit, and was limping—my feet burned like the devil. “Is it always this busy?”
“It’s a sight busier than usual.” Bow pulled a basket from the double fryer. “Between the birdwatchers and … you. People are curious.”
There was a slight arch to his back, and I wondered if that’s where his nickname had come from. His body looked like a bow missing its arrow. He emptied the basket onto a paper plate. Crispy hash browns spilled out, glistening and steaming, and I dashed them with salt before they cooled.
“I know they are.” I’d expected a crowd. But not quite one this size.
Bow flipped a row of pancakes on the built-in griddle on the top-of-the-line six-burner gas range. It was clear Zee had recently done updates to the kitchen and had spared no expense.
“We can close up early if you want,” Jena chimed in. “You’re the boss. Nobody’s going to argue.” Hope sparked in her brown eyes as she cut biscuits from thick dough. She stood at the marble-topped prep island, which was covered in a thin coat of flour. Jena, too. The white powder dusted her dark, plump cheeks and thin, straight eyebrows. Black hair threaded with silver was pulled into a high, coiled bun.
“That’s okay. I can handle it.” At least I could for another four hours.
Jena dusted off her hands. “You’ve got Zee’s spunk, that’s for sure.”
Jena and Bow Barthelemy had welcomed me to the Blackbird Café with wide open—if not floury—arms. While they seemed to know everything about me and Mom, they tended to reveal their past to me much like they cooked. A dash of this, a dollop of that. A light-handed sprinkling of history. They were in their mid-fifties and both had worked here for decades, coming on board after my mom left town. Their job titles were a bit vague, but it seemed to me that they were everything. Cooks, cleaners, gardeners, servers, cashiers, and maintenance.
I glanced out the double windows over the deep farmer’s sink, across the yard to the mulberry trees. Fluttering leaves made it look like the trees were fanning themselves in the morning heat. Mulberries, still pale and unripe, hung from thin stems. Bow referred to the fruit as the blackberry’s skinny cousin—they shared the same pebbled skin and coloring. Never having eaten a mulberry, I’d picked a pinkish one a few days ago and had winced at the sourness. According to Jena, the berries wouldn’t be fully ripe for another three weeks or so, when they turned fully black. Only then would their sweet yet mild flavor shine through.
“Zee would be right proud seeing you in here, working your tail off.” Jena’s smile was bright against her dark skin as she glanced over at me.
She had a slow, melodious way of speaking that I found slightly mesmerizing. Swallowing back a sudden rush of emotion, I said, “Thank you for that.”
I tended to keep people at arm’s distance because it was easier— emotionally—for me when I had to eventually leave them. It seemed as though Mom and I had always been packing up our lives and moving on. But somehow, in the short week I’d been in Wicklow, Bow and Jena had already slipped past my defenses. Maybe it had been the way they’d welcomed me whole-heartedly, or perhaps the kindness in their eyes, or their endless patience as they taught me to run the café. Or maybe it was me, too spent with grief and the mental toll of having to run a business I knew nothing about, in a place where I knew no one, to put up much of a fight where affection was concerned. They were the closest thing I had to family right now.
Jena made a noise that sounded like a trill as she put a tray of biscuits into one of the wide double ovens. “I call it like I see it, sugar.”
I appreciated that. Taking a moment to collect myself, I breathed in the various aromas spicing the air. The dark-roast coffee, vanilla, green onion, lemon, cinnamon, thyme, and a hint of yeast underneath it all. The scents reminded me of Zee and soothed my aching heart.
Pulling back my shoulders, I grabbed a fresh pot of coffee for top-ups, and headed back to the dining room and into the line of fire, trying not to slosh coffee all over the customers.
Faylene Wiggins had come in while I’d been in the kitchen and now sat next to Mr. Lazenby. I had met her at Zee’s funeral and guessed her to be in her late fifties or early sixties. She had short dark hair, inquisitive blue eyes, and a way of speaking I wasn’t sure I’d ever get used to. At Zee’s funeral, she kept close to me, fending off the nosiest of questions from others, and had gifted me with not one but three zucchini loaves.
She held out her mug to me and said, “It’s so strange. I’ve known Zee Callow my whole life long. We grew up together, us two. I’ve seen her through an ill-fated marriage with your granddaddy, her opening this café, her birthing your mama, and probably saw her most every day of my life … yet she never said a word about you.” She looked at me expectantly.
I topped off Mr. Lazenby’s mug, not sure if there had been a question to answer, but I noted that she was the first person to mention my grandfather. He’d been a traveling salesman who’d stopped in town to hawk insurance plans. Zee claimed she’d been swept off her feet by his charm and good looks, and it hadn’t been long before they drove up to a chapel in Gatlinburg for a quickie wedding. It had taken only a few weeks for the enchantment to fade, however, which happened to coincide with his itch to hit the road again. He’d given Zee an ultimatum: him or Wicklow. He’d left town soon after the divorce was finalized, never to be seen again. By that time, he’d known that my mother had been on the way but had driven off anyway.
Zee had often said my mother’s desire to travel the world was in her DNA, but insisted her roots were here, in Wicklow, and that this town was where she belonged.
Anna Kate darlin’, promise me you’ll never marry a man who doesn’t respect the importance of your roots. For where your roots are, your heart is.
“It’s strange, isn’t it, Anna Kate?” Faylene said. “That we didn’t know about you?”
I knew exactly why no one in town, other than my mom and Zee, had known of my existence. The Lindens. Instead of answering, I shrugged.
She frowned. “If you don’t mind my asking, honey, where’ve you been hiding all these years?”
That I could answer. “A little bit of everywhere across the country, mostly up north,” I said, refilling mugs as I went around the table. “I moved around a lot growing up. Mom was a traveling nurse.”
A lot was an understatement. I’d moved at least twice a year from the time I was born until I turned eighteen and started college. After that, it stretched to a year, a year and a half. Mom had tried to stay put many times, create a home, but old habits had been hard to break. Endlessly restless, she wasn’t one to ever sit still for long.
“Up north?” Pebbles said, her lips pursed. “Bless your heart.”
I wasn’t sure why it seemed like she was offering condolences. “I’ve been in Boston for the past two years,” I added. It was the longest I’d ever lived anywhere, even though I’d changed my living situation four times during that time. “Finishing up my degree.”
In-state tuition fees were the only reason I was still in Massachusetts, or I would have moved on by now. I’d yet to find a place that felt like home, something I wanted very much.
“I heard that,” Faylene said. “I thought you’d have more of an accent, truth be told. I fully expected you to sound like a Kennedy. I always did like them Kennedys. Especially that John-John. He was just the cutest thing. Those eyes …” She sighed. “But you don’t talk anything like them.”
The disappointment in her voice amused me. “I’ve never stayed long enough in one place to develop an accent of any kind.”
Pebbles said, “My sympathies on Eden’s passing, Anna Kate. It was a sad day around these parts when Zee shared the news. A blood clot, I heard.”
That’s what the doctors had said, but I always suspected that Mom’s broken heart had finally given out on her. It was honestly quite amazing it had lasted so long—I suspected a big part of it had died along with my father that fateful day so long ago. The rest of it finally caught up.
A round of murmured condolences swept across the room, and I tightened my grip on the coffee pot. “Thank you all.”
“I’m not the least bit surprised Eden became a traveling nurse,” Pebbles said, sipping from her mug. “She always had wanderlust in her heart, that one, even when she was a bitty thing. She forever had her nose stuck deep in travel guides.”
Faylene said, “True enough. Everyone around here knew she wasn’t long for Wicklow. She and AJ had such big plans for their future …” She slid an appraising look toward me. “No one was shocked when she left town so soon after the accident.”
“Ooh, especially with the way Seelie Linden behaved toward her,” Pebbles said, tsking loudly.
My heartbeat kicked up, and I fought the urge to pull out a chair and sit down. All my life, I’d longed to know the real story behind my mother’s leaving this town. The juicy bits. The gossip behind Seelie accusing my mother of murder. All the things my mom—and Zee—would never tell me. Whenever I pressed them for more information, for details of why Seelie would make such an accusation, all I ever heard was the crash had been an accident and that was that.
It didn’t help matters that my mother had no recollection of that day at all—she’d suffered a head injury in the accident that had wiped out her short-term memory.
But—and it was a big but—I always noticed on the rare times my mom talked about my dad and the accident, she always had a distant look in her eye, and the corners of her lips would tip downward, like they did when she wasn’t quite telling me everything.
I suspected there was more to the story of the crash, and now that I was here in Wicklow, I realized I wanted to know the whole truth of what happened the day of the wreck.
Most of all, though, I wanted to know more about my father. Mom had kept a lot of him to herself as well. It had been too painful for her to share much, and I’d never pushed hard, because seeing her cry tore me apart. But now? Now, the time had come.
“Order up,” Bow called out, thumping his hand on the counter-top. He preferred that method to using a bell, a sound he claimed to despise.
“Excuse me,” I reluctantly said to the table.
I picked up the plates Bow had set out and turned to see an older woman outside the door, staring in. Big hat, sunglasses. She didn’t look like she planned to come inside—even though she blocked the entrance. She simply gawked.
Probably another local, curious to lay eyes on the mysterious Anna Kate Callow. It seemed I had my own rubberneckers. I bit back a smile as I set plates in front of a pair of birders, who’d come in for a snack.
“What kind of doctor are you thinking to become, Anna Kate?” Pebbles asked as I passed by. “A family doc, like your granddaddy?”
I wiped my hands on my apron. “My granddaddy?” I asked as innocently as I could manage.
She forked a piece of ham slathered in red-eye gravy and said, “Doc Linden? One of the finest doctors this town ever did see. It’ll be a darn shame when he retires.”
A hush fell over the restaurant, except for the table of birders who seemed oblivious to everything except their eggs and sweet potato hash.
Pebbles suddenly turned ghostly white and dropped her fork. “I, ah, I mean …” She glanced around, obviously looking for someone to take the foot out of her mouth.
According to my mother, I was the spitting image of my father, Andrew James Linden, with my curly dark ginger hair, wide downturned eyes, and deep dimples. It was no surprise at all that everyone here saw the resemblance too, especially the older folks who would have known him personally. My likeness to him was one of the many reasons Wicklow had been off-limits my whole life long.
“I’m not sure what I’ll practice just yet. I have some time before I need to decide,” I answered, dancing around the massive elephant in the room. Everyone might suspect I was a Linden, but I wasn’t ready to confirm the rumors quite yet. Not until I figured out how to deal with the Linden family, something I’d been worrying about all week long. I still didn’t have a plan.
When my mother left Wicklow, she packed everything she could fit into her car, including an all-consuming hatred for the Lindens. We’d carted the animosity from town to town, unpacked it, and lovingly tended it until we moved again. After she died, I started carrying the load for her.
As much as I was curious about my father’s side of my family—and I was—I couldn’t simply forget how they had treated my mother. Of how they had accused her of murder, even after the car crash had been ruled an accident. How they had shamed her. How they had barred her from my father’s funeral, not allowing her to say goodbye to the only man she’d ever loved.
And how she had vowed the day she left Wicklow that they’d never hurt me the way they had her. Which meant no contact with me. Not ever.
But now, I was here.
Avoiding the Lindens while I was in Wicklow these next couple of months wasn’t feasible, considering this town was roughly the size of a postage stamp. I had tried to imagine what I’d do or say when I finally ran into them, almost to the point of driving myself crazy. Finally, to save my sanity, I decided I’d wing it. Because there was simply no way to prepare for a meeting like that.
Mr. Lazenby banged a hand on the table. “But what about this place? The café? As Zee’s heir, you’re the new owner, am I right to think?”
Everyone—including the birders—watched me expectantly.
I didn’t quite know how to answer him. I wasn’t the heir yet.
Not waiting for a reply, he kept talking. “What’s going to happen to the café if you’re headed off to become a doctor?”
A sorrowful Mr. Lazenby had awoken me at the crack of dawn these past few days while the café had been closed, yearning for blackbird pie. As I studied him, I was grateful not to see oceans of tears in his rheumy eyes, but there was no mistaking the apprehension lurking in the murky blue depths as he worried about the future and the sweet connection he had to his wife, who’d died more than a decade ago.
“Will there still be pie?” he asked, running a handkerchief over his bald head.
My chest ached. I simply didn’t have the heart to break the news to him that I planned to sell the place as soon as my mandatory two months of running the café were up and put any proceeds toward the cost of medical school.
“Well?” he demanded.
“I don’t know if there will be pie.” I hadn’t thought that far ahead.
Mr. Lazenby narrowed his cloudy gaze on me. “Are you sure you’re Zee’s granddaughter? I’m starting to have my doubts. You didn’t even bake the pies!” he said, his words harsh and cutting.
Jena rushed to my side, a pot of coffee in hand. “Where’re your manners, Otis? Hush now. Let the girl alone for a minute. All these questions have my head spinning and they aren’t even directed my way. Anna Kate, why don’t you take your break now? Get off your feet for a bit, get some fresh air.” To the table, she said, “Who wants more coffee?”
“Hmmph.” Mr. Lazenby crossed his arms over his chest.
“Thanks, Jena.” Fresh air was exactly what I needed to clear my mind, to remind myself why I was here and putting myself through this torture. I headed for the garden.
Bow held open the back door for me. “You want a snack? I can whip something up real quick.”
“No thanks, Bow. I’ll be right back. I just need a minute to myself.”
“Take as long as you want. Jena and I can hold down the fort.”
Stepping outside, I closed my eyes and leaned against the screen door frame.
The scent of mint was strong, undercut with another fragrance I didn’t recognize at first. Then it came to me: honeysuckle. Strange only because I hadn’t seen any growing in the yard.
Puzzled, I opened my eyes and nearly jumped out of my skin when I spotted a young woman sitting on the deck steps.
She jumped too, leaping gracefully to her feet. “Sorry, ma’am! I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Not the damned “ma’am” again. My God.
“Are you one of the bird people?” I asked. I didn’t think so—not with the way she was dressed in threadbare Daisy Dukes and a black tank top, her feet bare and caked with dirt.
Tall and thin as a willow, she stared with big blue eyes from a deeply tanned face dotted with freckles. Long dark hair was pulled back, braided along the crown of her head. The rest hung in loose waves down her back. Cradling a twig basket in her skinny arms, she held it as if it were a fragile newborn. An embroidered tea towel was tucked protectively inside the basket.
Those impossibly big eyes blinked in confusion. “The bird people?”
I guessed her to be fifteen or so as I gestured to the side yard.
“They’re birders, watching for a glimpse of the blackbirds.”
She turned, and I realized the honeysuckle scent was coming from her. A lotion or shampoo.
“Oh! No, ma’am. I’m not one of them.” She glanced toward the mulberry trees. “I’m so sorry about Miss Zee.” Tears pooled in her eyes, but she blinked them away. “She was a good friend to me.”
“Thank you …?”
“Oh! I’m Summer. Summer Pavegeau.”
“I’m Anna Kate Callow,” I said, though I had a feeling she already knew exactly who I was. I motioned to two rocking chairs on the deck. “Come sit. My feet are killing me.”
She followed me to the rockers, her sure footsteps soundless on the rotting deck boards. Carefully, she sat, still embracing the basket. “Your flats are cute, but probably not the best if you’re going to be waitressing. Zee wore Crocs. Swore by them.”
I made a face. “I am not going to wear Crocs.”
Summer smiled. “Did you pack tennis shoes, at least?”
I’d packed everything. “I have an old pair somewhere. I’ll pull them out.”
It was my turn to smile—because it had been her idea. “How long have you known Zee?”
Summer’s fingers, I noticed, were purple. Blackberry stains. On one of our secret excursions, Zee had taken me blackberry picking one summer when Mom and I lived in Ohio. There had been no hiding those stains from Mom, but much to my surprise, she hadn’t made too much of a fuss when she caught us purple-handed. Probably because blackberries were her favorite fruit. Instead, she’d smiled and asked Zee if she’d make cobbler with the berries we’d collected.
It was the best cobbler I’d ever eaten.
“All my life. Eighteen years now. I was born and raised here in Wicklow.”
Eighteen? I’d never have thought that old—something I didn’t mention. No teenager wanted to know she looked years younger.
“I helped Miss Zee tend her garden a couple of days a week during the warmer months. She told me how much she missed you and wished you could come here.”
I raised an eyebrow. “She talked about me?”
“All the time. Showed me pictures, too. Oh, don’t worry! I never told another living soul about you. It was mine and Zee’s secret. You have her smile—she was right proud of that, claimed it was her best feature.” She stared at her dirty feet. “I always thought her best feature was her big heart, but no one asked me.”
I studied her, catching the quiver of her chin as she fought to keep her emotions in check. Summer Pavegeau must have been a very good friend for Zee to share such a secret. “Just so you know, I agree with you.”
She gave a short, firm nod.
“What have you got there?” I gestured to the basket, hoping desperately it wasn’t a zucchini loaf.
Carefully she pulled back the tea towel, revealing a dozen brown eggs. “Miss Zee was a regular customer, but I wasn’t sure if you were needing any for the café.”
Although there were two crates of eggs sitting on the kitchen counter, I didn’t hesitate to say, “Of course. We can always use eggs. What’s your going rate?”
“Two dollars a dozen and a piece of blackbird pie.”
The addition of the pie caught me off-guard, and I looked more closely at her. That’s when I saw the familiar look of grief trying to hide in her eyes. “That’s a bargain if I ever heard one.”
I pulled a stack of ones from my apron pocket—tip money—and peeled off two singles. As much as I wanted to hand over the whole wad, I didn’t. Instinctively I knew Summer wouldn’t have taken the money for nothing.
She tentatively reached out with her stained fingers and said, “Thank you, ma’am.”
My teeth clenched. “Please don’t call me ‘ma’am.’ I beg of you. Anna Kate is just fine.”
“Do you think you’ll be needing another dozen tomorrow … Anna Kate?”
I ignored the fact that she sounded physically pained to say my name instead of “ma’am,” and said, “If you’ve got them, I’ll take them. I see you’ve been working with blackberries. I could use some of those, too, if you have extra.” Suddenly, I wanted to make cobbler.
A shimmer of excitement flashed in her eyes. “How much are you wanting? A pint? Quart? Gallon?”
“A quart is fine. I’m willing to pay top dollar, considering the thorns and snakes.”
“Oh, the snakes don’t bother me none. I like them more than people sometimes.”
Summer might look young for her age, but it was becoming clear to me that there was an old soul behind those big blue eyes. I stood up. “Let me get your pie. I’ll be back in a second.”
I turned to find Bow standing in the doorway. He had a piece of pie already boxed, as if he’d done this before. He handed the box to me, then said, “I didn’t want to interrupt, but you’ve got a visitor insistent on seein’ you.”
The cautious look in his eyes made me nervous. “Who is it?”
He ran a hand down his trimmed beard. “Doc Linden. You ready to see him?”
Was I ready? No. No, I wasn’t. Why the hell did I think winging it was a suitable idea?
“Anna Kate?” he said. “I can send him away if it’s too soon …”
I didn’t think I’d ever be ready, so I might as well get it over with. I sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. “It’s okay. Can you send him out here, please? I don’t really want an audience hanging on our every word.”
My nerves were running wild as I turned around to say goodbye to Summer and to give her the piece of pie.
But she was already gone.
Renew your membership today and save 25% on your next year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
I sat down. Stood up. Set the cardboard pie box on the deck railing. Wondered why Summer had run off. Plucked a mint leaf, crushed it between my fingers. Nerves twisted my stomach into an acidic knot.
I should’ve known I’d need to deal with the Lindens sooner rather than later. Of course the rumors of my existence had already reached them. News spread fast in small towns.
Heat radiated upward in waves from the splintered deck planks as I paced them. Try as I might, I couldn’t stop picturing the constant pain in my mother’s eyes. Pain that seemed to become more pronounced every time we moved, as if the hate she carried around chafed at her compassionate nature and rubbed her soul raw.
I dropped the mint leaf and wiped my hands on my jeans as I heard the screen door squeak open. It snapped shut with a sharp bang of inevitability that made me jump.
Bracing for a rush of rage, I steeled my shoulders and clenched my hands and jaw. Slowly, I turned around to finally face the life-long enemy I’d never met.
My grandfather, Dr. James Dawson Linden.
I didn’t know what I’d expected to see. Devil horns, maybe. At the very least, I’d pictured him as a stereotypical old-money southern society gentleman. Air of charming superiority undercut with smugness. Seersucker suit. Slicked-back hair. The scent of pipe tobacco hugging him like a second skin.
At first glance, there was none of that. There was a humble air about him with his casual clothes, dip of his chin, tilt of his head, and his layered white and silver hair that covered large ears. He wore khakis, a periwinkle blue button-down, and scuffed brown loafers. Standing with his hands tucked into his pockets, he stared at me as if trying to memorize every line of my face, every curl of my hair.
He was just a man.
A man with downturned brown eyes that looked burnished from a lifetime of sorrow.
I honestly don’t know how long we stood there, taking each other in, trying to find familiarity in the face of a stranger. It was easy to see that I had his eye shape, his dimples. I even had the same cow-lick at my hairline that forced my hair toward the right side of my face.
Bitterness burned my throat as I tried to picture what this man would have looked like in his youth, because I imagined, except for the hair color, that my dad had been the spitting image of his father. I broke eye contact and tried to get past the overwhelming awkwardness. Chattering from the bird-watchers in the side yard rose and fell, a steady thrum that drowned out actual birdsong. A small brownish gray bird landed at my feet to investigate the crushed mint leaf. A phoebe, I believed. The ornithology class I’d taken in college had been a favorite.
“Do you mind if I sit down?” he asked, swaying enough to catch my attention.
Deck boards creaked under our feet as I guided him to a chair.
He had paled and broken into a sweat. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, thank you.” He waved away any concern. “The heat … ”
I didn’t believe him. Nor did I think his reaction had been born from emotion at meeting me for the first time. In his distress, his face had lost its normal color, revealing a sallow undertone that had been hiding beneath a deep tan. A faint yellow tinge colored the whites of his eyes as well. Something was terribly wrong. His liver, I guessed.
My gaze went to Zee’s flower garden, straight to the yarrow, its white flower clusters making it easy to spot. Her secret teachings over the years hadn’t been in vain. She’d given me an education I treasured. From it, I’d developed a love of herbal tea—creating my own blends wasn’t so much a hobby as an obsession.
Yarrow tea wouldn’t cure whatever ailed Doc, but it might help some, given its beneficial properties for the liver. Then I gave myself a good mental shake. He hadn’t asked for my help. He didn’t deserve my help.
Yet I couldn’t help myself from saying, “Let me get you some water at least.”
I wasn’t a monster, for crying out loud.
“No, no. No need.” He swiped his brow and upper lip with a handkerchief he’d pulled from his back pocket. “I’m not staying long. Please sit.”
Reluctantly, I sat. If the man didn’t want water, I wouldn’t force it on him.
“I’m real sorry about Zee,” he said. “She was a good woman.”
I studied him, looking for insincerity, but found none, which made me even more uncomfortable. I’d been raised believing the Lindens despised the Callows and vice versa.
Yet here sat Doc with compassion in his eyes. And then, the more I thought on it, I realized I never once heard Zee speak ill of the Lindens.
It had been only my mother who’d openly despised the family.
The realization threw me off-kilter, tilting the world as I knew it. It occurred to me that my mother had painted me a very specific picture of the Lindens—but how much of it was an accurate portrayal?
Suddenly tongue-tied, I was unable to mumble even a thank-you for his sympathy.
“Do you have any regrets in life, Anna Kate?” He rolled the cuffs of his shirt to his elbows. A worn leather watch with a scratched face glinted in the sunlight.
“Don’t we all?” I asked.
“Big ones, I mean. Ones that fester deep in your soul?”
A breeze kicked up and the bird hopping around the deck tipped its head as if also waiting for my response. “Just one,” I admitted, shoving away the memory.
I caught sight of Bow peeping out the kitchen window. He pointed at Doc, then hooked his thumb over his shoulder. In charade language, I interpreted that as him asking if I wanted Doc thrown out.
I gave a subtle shake of my head, and he gave me a thumbs-up. I wanted to hear what Doc had to say, since something was clearly weighing on his mind.
“I have many.” Doc twisted a gold wedding band around his finger. “Too many. You get to be my age, and you start counting regrets at night instead of sheep.” He cracked a joyless smile.
He looked to be in his early to mid-seventies. Barely old age these days. I supposed he could be older than he appeared. I didn’t know any Linden family history. Mom had made it clear that any and all questions about that side of my family were off-limits, and she’d been so resolute on the matter that I’d respected her decision.
As he dabbed at his forehead again with the handkerchief, I said, “I imagine being in ill health would also cause someone to take a good look back at their life.”
One of his dark, bushy eyebrows rose. “I reckon so.”
I was completely unprepared for the sadness that poured over me like it had been dumped from a bucket held over my head, soaking me to my bones. I shouldn’t care about this man or what was wrong with him. Fighting the stinging in my nose, my eyes, I looked away, focusing instead on watching the bird as it pranced around. One of its wings hung at an angle, as if it had once been broken. Poor little thing.
“We didn’t know about you,” Doc said after a drawn-out pause.
Thankfully, he didn’t try to deny that I was related—something, I admitted, I had feared. Though I’d gladly take a DNA test if need be. “I know.”
“Why didn’t Eden tell us?”
“Do you really need to ask?”
His gaze went to the bird hopping around the deck, pecking at splinters, and he rubbed his thumb over the watch face. “Your mother had to have known how much a grandchild would mean to us. We would’ve liked to have known you. It was our right to know about you.”
“Are you serious?”
“You only know one side of the story, Anna Kate.”
There was an ache in his voice, a strain that once again made me question everything I’d ever known about the Lindens.
Gripping the arms of the chair, I said, “Did you falsely accuse my mother of murder? And refuse to let her attend the funeral of the man she loved more than life itself? Because I’d say those things qualify as a forfeiture of any rights you may have had. End of story.”
“It’s not that simple, Anna Kate.”
“I think it is.” I jumped to my feet. “I need to get back inside.” I started for the door. The bird lifted off with a startled twitter toward an open window on the second floor and flew inside. I frowned—I didn’t realize a window had been open. Great. Now there was a bird in the house.
“Wait, Anna Kate. Please.”
With a sigh, I stopped, faced him, and tapped my foot as I waited for him to come up with something—anything—that could explain the unexplainable.
Doc glanced at the mulberry trees with a wince. “I’ve decided regret is like cancer. It eats you from the inside out, just the same. I have to accept the fact that I can’t change the past. I can’t. No one can. What’s done is done, and I’m truly sorry for it.”
Clenching my fists, my nails dug into my palms. I swallowed the words I wanted to speak, and they burned bitterly as they went down. It was a little late for apologies, but I wasn’t so heartless as to not hear the sincerity in his tone. I only wished my mother had been the one hearing it instead of me.
“You’re wrong about this being the end of the story, Anna Kate. It could be a new beginning if we let it. If you let it. We can’t go back.” He shoved his hands into his pockets and rocked on his heels. “But we can go forward. I’d like to get to know my granddaughter. My hope is that you’d like to know me … and all your father’s side of the family. We have Sunday supper at four. If possible, I’d like you to be there this weekend to meet the family properly.”
“Thank you for the invitation, but I simply can’t.” I reached for the handle of the screen door and inside saw at least a dozen faces staring my way. All immediately looked away.
“You know, Anna Kate,” he said, “I understand that you may not want to get to know us, but what of your daddy? Don’t you want to get to know him as we did? We have dozens of scrapbooks and photo albums. You’d barely have to talk to us at all …”
I froze, my hand still on the door handle, immediately recognizing that Doc was manipulating me, managing to see straight into my heart and what I wanted … to get what he wanted.
Learning more about my dad, getting a better feel for the person he’d been, meant more to me than I could ever express. I wanted to bury myself in those photo albums for hours on end, to hear all the stories over and over again. But I had to stay strong. For my mother’s sake. “I’m sorry,” I said tightly. “I won’t be able to make it.”
With that, I rushed inside and let the screen door slam shut behind me.
Free for AARP members and available in their entirety online.