“Some people don’t want anything to do with the pie,” Summer Pavegeau said. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “My daddy, for instance. He tells me all the time it’s best to leave the past in the past.”
The reporter took note of her blackberry-stained fingertips as he said, “But you don’t think so?”
She glanced out the window, looking toward the mountains as though searching for something only she could see. “No,” she said, “but I find comfort in the past. All he finds is pain.”
He capped his pen. “Why’s that?”
Her gaze snapped back to him. “I thought you were doing an article on the blackbirds?”
Smiling, he said, “I seem to have gotten a little sidetracked.” Summer nodded. “Wicklow has a tendency to do that to people.”
I’d rushed straight home from that enlightening encounter with Anna Kate Callow for naught.
Neither Mama nor Daddy had been home. Since it was growing late and they were hardly night owls, they would most likely return any minute now. This time of night, they liked winding down with cocktails and dessert on the patio, a nighttime ritual of theirs as habitual as the setting sun.
I’d wait them out. Although it was past Ollie’s seven o’clock bed-time, I wasn’t ready to give up on getting answers regarding Anna Kate. How long had they known about her? By Mama’s strange behavior at the café this morning, I assumed not long. The way she had acted now made perfect sense—she had been trying to get a look at Anna Kate while keeping me in the dark. It was a familiar pattern—Mama often kept me in the dark on important matters.
While I understood why Mama fought so hard to protect me from anything physically or emotionally harmful, her rigidity on the matter had ended up making her my biggest threat. I wasn’t sure she fully understood the damage she’d done. Or perhaps, she simply hadn’t cared as long as I was safe.
As for Anna Kate, I was thrilled to discover someone else hanging off my mother’s branch of the family tree—surely, she would take some of Mama’s pressure off me. If that someone happened to be a young woman, close to my age, all the better. When I was younger, friends had been hard to come by, being that they all needed the Seelie Earl Linden stamp of approval. I had long since learned to close myself off from potential playmates, just to save the ultimate embarrassment of telling someone that I couldn’t come over that day.
I threaded my fingers through Ollie’s velvety soft hair as I read her a book, and she shifted to lean against my chest. Curled up together on the overstuffed sofa, I took a moment to inhale the sweet, lingering scent of her baby shampoo. This was actually my favorite time of day with her. It was our downtime, when she was extra loving and snuggly.
It had been hours since we’d arrived home, and after getting Ollie fed and bathed, I’d spent most of my time reading books, building blocks, playing trucks, and occasionally checking to see if any of the lights were on in the main house. Or the big house, as I’d called it growing up, seeing as how it felt like a jail.
Ollie blinked slowly, her eyelids growing heavy at the cadence of my voice, and I took a moment to appreciate the miracle that was my daughter. To enjoy the warmth of her tiny body, to feel her heartbeat against my arm, to soak in her innocence and sheer joy at simply being alive.
Dressed in lightweight shortie pajamas decorated with excavators, loaders, and dump trucks, she burrowed even deeper into my side, resting her head on my chest. She was going through a construction phase and had been over the moon when she’d spotted these PJs in the boys’ section at the department store. While I didn’t have a lot of money for extras, there was no way I could pass those pajamas by. But I hadn’t completely lost my senses—I bought them a size up, to last her a long while.
Growing up, I never would have been allowed to wear pajamas like these. Until I was a teenager, I had owned only monogrammed cotton nightgowns, ones with scalloped hems or ruffled cuffs. I hadn’t been allowed prints with Disney princesses or fluffy cats or anything cutesy or what Mama would consider tacky. And God forbid if I had worn pajamas designed for boys. A bolt of lightning might have struck my mother dead on the spot.
Ollie’s breathing deepened, and I quietly closed the book and set it aside. I wrapped my arms around her body and held on tightly, resting my cheek against her hair.
It was times like these that Matt most often slipped into my thoughts. Ollie had been only a few months old when he’d died, and I hated that he was missing out on these moments—even if it had been his choice to do so.
My chest tightened, thinking about him choosing to leave us on purpose.
Had he? Or hadn’t he?
I forced myself to breathe evenly, a trick a therapist down in Montgomery had taught me to keep anxiety from blooming into a full-blown panic attack. Breathe in, hold. Breathe out, hold. After a minute, the ache in my chest eased some, pinching instead of crushing.
I’d have the answers I longed for soon. If legend was true, the blackbird pie would tell me all I wanted to know. I’d eat the pie tomorrow, and tomorrow night I’d receive a note from Matt in a dream sometime after midnight.
A note that would hopefully explain everything about his death. With it, maybe I could finally put the past to rest and find the peace I craved. Until then, I’d keep breathing deeply and taking one day at a time.
It was hard for me not to see Matt in Ollie. In her infectious laugh, and in how outgoing she was. Ollie was part of him, and I wished more than anything that he could see the wonder we’d created together. What our love had created.
I watched Ollie sleep and marveled at how little it took to make her happy. Construction pajamas and a new book from the library, and she was the happiest girl in the world.
A yawning pit grew in my stomach, as it always did when I thought about happiness. I would do anything to make sure Ollie stayed this way—perfectly content and oblivious to the hurtful world around her.
Which was why I was here, wasn’t it? A grown woman, essentially living with my parents. I was thankful for their help, yes, but also mortified my life had come to this.
Before I fell down a rabbit hole of regret, I forced myself to stop thinking about things I couldn’t change. All my life, I’d let others take care of me. My parents, then Matt, then my parents again. I needed to stop dwelling on my deficiencies and start figuring out how to become a self-sufficient, independent woman—for Ollie’s sake. She didn’t need a milquetoast mother, but one who was strong. Capable.
Which was all so much easier said than done.
With that thought, the ache in my chest started to grow once again.
As I sang the ABC’s in my head—another trick my therapist had taught me to refocus my thoughts—my gaze fell on the big box near the door that had a note in my mother’s handwriting taped to its top. I had brought it inside and dropped it near the door, not wanting to deal with it straightaway. Besides, I knew what was in it: a sunhat for Ollie. Seeing as how Mama would expect a thank-you when I saw her next, it would probably be a good idea to have laid eyes on the hat in case she gave me a pop quiz on its color, size, or adornment.
I lowered Ollie gently onto the couch, and tucked a throw pillow next to her in case she rolled. I set the box on the raised counter bar that divided the open living room from the kitchen and pulled the note free from its tape. My mother had old-school looping penmanship and took pride in its beauty.
Stacia Dabadie will arrive promptly at nine a.m. Please have Olivia Leigh ready at
no later than eight forty-five.
Soon after we’d moved here, Mama had offered to keep Ollie on Friday mornings. Special one-on-one time. So far, they’d had a teddy bear picnic in the park and driven down to Fort Payne for a children’s theater production. While grateful for some time alone, I had also dreaded those mornings. I didn’t like letting Ollie out of my sight for long and I didn’t want Mama smothering her with rules, either.
It had crossed my mind more than once this past week to sit down with my mother to put an end to the outings. I hadn’t yet found the strength to do so, however, because I knew stopping the excursions would hurt Mama’s feelings and disrupt the progress we’d made with our truce.
Since I wanted peace in the family, I’d bitten my tongue.
But what did Stacia Dabadie, Coralee’s granddaughter, have to do with tomorrow? Using a butter knife, I cut the tape on the box and opened it. Inside there was a frilly pink sunhat, a pink bathing suit, a pink beach towel printed with hearts, and a bottle of sunscreen, SPF 50.
Bile crept up my throat as I set each item on the countertop. My hands went clammy, then ice cold, when I recalled Mama mentioning during last week’s Sunday supper that Stacia Dabadie had taken a summer job as a lifeguard at the pond of the local state park and wasn’t that lovely?
I, of course, had changed the subject straightaway, believing Mama just hadn’t been thinking to bring up something like that.
I should have known better.
Oh, how I should have known.
Seelie Earl Linden rarely spoke without thinking.
As my stomach rolled, I spread the towel out on the counter, folded it in half, then quarters, then eighths until it was too bulky to fold anymore. I set it back in the box. The swimsuit was folded in half, in quarters, in eighths, then rolled into a pink rope. I set that in the box. The hat went next. I carefully set the sunscreen bottle on top of the obnoxious pink pile and went about closing the box, overlapping the flaps until it was secure. I picked up the box, opened the front door, stepped out onto the narrow front porch, and flung the box as far as I could. It flew over the iron safety fence that surrounded the swimming pool and tumbled to a stop on the stamped concrete patio, inches from the shimmering water subtly lit by underwater lighting.
As I turned to go back inside, I noticed the lights on in the big house and could see my parents moving around the kitchen.
With my current mood, it would serve me best to go inside, close the door, and bolt it.
Instead, I peeked in at Ollie, who was still peacefully asleep on the couch, and instantly decided to leave her be. I’d be gone only a few moments. Just long enough to let my mother know, plain and simple and to the point, about my position regarding swimming lessons.
I quietly closed the door, and marched myself along the stone pathway that cut through the manicured lawn, past the tea roses, and up the three stone steps of the back porch.
In my anger, all thoughts of Anna Kate Callow had fled my mind, but they came rushing back as soon as my mother’s voice floated through the open patio doors.
“I couldn’t even get a good look at her for all the busybodies at the café, not minding their own business.”
“You could have gone inside,” Daddy said, his tone flat, as though exceptionally tired.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Putting off the meeting is only going to make it harder, for both of you.”
“I’ll not be put on display for the whole town to talk about for years to come. I simply wanted to see if what everyone said is true. That she looks just like AJ.”
A cabinet closed with a thud. “She does, indeed. I stopped by to see her myself this morning.”
My mother’s tone took an icy turn I knew well. “You what?”
“I spoke with her and invited her to supper on Sunday.”
There was a stretch of frosty silence before Mama said, “Why would you do such a thing? We don’t know who she is, what she’s like, or her intentions. She could be after our money.”
“She is our granddaughter,” he said, his voice tight. “There is no doubt in my mind.”
“How naïve of you. I won’t believe it until I see DNA evidence.” “All it takes is one look to know the truth. The DNA is evident in the shape of her eyes, the dimples in her cheeks, and the color of her hair. She has your hair, by the way, only curlier.”
There was another stretch of cool silence. “If it is true, if, damn that Eden Callow! How dare she steal that girl from us, sneaking out of town like a thief in the night without anyone even knowing she was with child.”
“Enough!” Daddy shouted.
Something slammed. A fist on a table, maybe. I froze on the deck, then tiptoed toward the door. I’d never, in all my years, heard my father raise his voice. He had a calm demeanor about him. He showed displeasure with the lift of an eyebrow, a cool glance, or a pucker of his lips.
“Don’t you dare raise your voice to me, James Linden. I’ll not stand for it.”
“I am done,” he said, heat in his tone. “I’ll not hear another word against Eden Callow. She’s not to blame in this situation.”
Mama laughed bitterly. “Who is, then, pray tell?”
“We are,” Daddy said. “We might as well have bought Eden the one-way ticket out of Wicklow with the way we behaved after AJ died. No wonder she kept that child from us.”
Mama sucked in a breath. “You’ve lost your senses, yes you have.”
“No,” he said. “I’m finally seeing things with clarity. Eden did nothing but love our boy, and we were ready to hang her from the nearest tree. She was grieving, same as we were. You know as well as I do that AJ loved her just as much. They were planning to get married! I pray he doesn’t know how we treated that poor girl after he was gone. It makes me sick to think I let him down.”
“She killed him,” Mama said, her voice so cold I actually shivered.
“We don’t know that,” he insisted. “No evidence was ever found to support anything other than the crash was an accident.”
Mama scoffed. “There were no skid marks at the scene. That should be evidence enough. Eden didn’t try to stop the car. She didn’t brake.”
“It’s flimsy evidence at best. Anything could have happened to prevent braking. She was pregnant. She could have passed out from low blood pressure or any other early pregnancy symptoms.”
“I know it was murder.”
“What if it wasn’t, Seelie? What if you’re wrong?”
I held my breath. I was certain my mother believed she hadn’t been wrong a day in her life. She was always right. Always.
Mama’s voice practically dripped icicles as she said, “Cold-blooded murd—”
“Stop it!” he yelled. “I won’t have it anymore. Do you hear me? We lost AJ. Are you willing to lose his daughter, too? Because I’m not. It’s why I invited her to supper, an invitation I’m disappointed to say she declined.”
“Thank the Lord someone has some sense around here,” Mama said.
Daddy let out a long sigh. “I’m going to keep asking until she says yes.”
“You most certainly will not.”
“I most certainly will. It’s past time to stop blaming and start healing.” He quietly added, “I suggest you look deep into that guarded heart of yours, Seelie, to see what’s truly important in life. Now, I’m going to bed. I have a headache.”
I heard fading footsteps, and imagined him heading off toward the back staircase. His parting shot echoed in my head, especially the part about Mama’s heart.
For most of my life, I’d believed Mama hadn’t a heart at all, just a hard, spiky shell, like a dried-up sweetgum ball. It wasn’t until I witnessed the interaction between her and Ollie that I suspected there was something warm in her at all.
“Natalie Jane,” Mama snapped. “What are you doing out here?” I’d been so lost in thought that I hadn’t heard her approach.
She looked around. “Where’s Olivia Leigh?”
Mama’s eyebrows snapped together. “Then I suggest you get back to her. I cannot imagine what was so important that you’d leave her alone.”
I’d been angry before the jab at my mothering, but now fury buzzed through me, starting at the bottoms of my feet and working its way upward. “I came to tell you that Ollie won’t be available in the morning. Or any morning you try to sneak in swimming lessons.”
“How dramatic. Sneak? I don’t think so. I told you plain as day last weekend that Stacia would be coming over.”
Mama always knew how to twist my words. “You did not ask me about the swimming lessons. I know, because I would have said no. You need to call Stacia and cancel. Ollie won’t be participating. Not tomorrow. Not the next Friday. Not ever.”
“Yes, Olivia Leigh will be participating.”
“No, she won’t.” I pressed clenched fists to my thighs. “I would have thought you of all people would understand my position on the matter.”
“Natalie, it’s because I understand that I hired Stacia. Teaching Olivia Leigh how to swim is the only way to ensure she doesn’t drown.”
Nausea churned in my stomach. “Matt knew how to swim. It didn’t stop him from drowning, did it? Keeping Ollie away from water will make sure she doesn’t drown. No water, no drowning.”
“And what happens if she slips past you? Finds a way into the pool? Or a neighbor’s pool? Or Willow Creek behind the house? It’s best for her to know how to save herself.”
“You do not know what’s best for her. I do. She won’t slip past me. She’s never out of my sight.”
“Is that so?” Mama’s self-righteousness was in full bloom as she looked pointedly at the little house, then tipped her head and pursed her lips.
I turned. Ollie was coming up the pathway. Oh Lord.
“Hihi, Mama! Hihi, Gamma!” She waved her whole arm as she toddled along, her smile bright in the twilight.
My stomach ached something fierce. “We’ll finish this some other time.”
“No. We finish it now. My house, my rules, my pool. I will not take a chance with Olivia Leigh’s safety. She will take swimming lessons with Stacia, starting tomorrow morning. If you have a problem with that, Natalie, you don’t have to stay here, on this property. But you already know that, don’t you? You’re real good at running away.”
I couldn’t even speak. I turned, scooped up Ollie, and took her back to the little house.
I was halfway down the path when I heard Mama say, “Eight forty-five, Natalie.”
Holding in a scream of frustration, I jogged up the steps of the covered porch and threw open the door, and it took everything in me not to slam it closed. I didn’t want to scare Ollie.
It took another half hour to get her resettled and tucked into bed for the night. My emotions were all over the place as I paced the living room, trying to keep a panic attack at bay.
It was true—my first instinct was to run. It always had been. To get as far away from my mother’s oppression as possible. But until I married, I was never gone for very long.
Down in Montgomery, I’d been a happy homemaker, living in a secluded bubble, just Matt, me, and then Ollie. My father visited regularly, but my mother had little to do with me after I married a man she hadn’t approved of. I had seen her maybe ten times in all the years I’d been gone, and one of those times had been at Matt’s funeral.
It wasn’t until after he died, and the dust settled, that my blinders came off. I suddenly realized exactly how isolated I had become from everything and everyone.
The last thing I wanted was that kind of isolated life for Ollie.
When I moved back to Wicklow three weeks ago, I’d told myself I wouldn’t run anymore. That I’d do anything to make peace in the family, to give Ollie a solid foundation.
But I couldn’t live like this. With this feeling of … suffocation.
I just couldn’t.
There had to be a middle ground.
After much pacing and consideration, I hatched a plan that I hoped would be an ideal solution. I’d start looking for an apartment in town, which I considered self-preservation rather than running away. I’d still be in Wicklow and Ollie would still have the family and community I wanted for her, but I’d be out from under Mama’s thumb.
First things first, I had to find a job. I needed money. Unfortunately, until I had enough saved up to move out, I had no choice but to play by my mother’s rules and allow Ollie take those damned swimming lessons.
Bitterness burned my throat as I crept outside, stealthily hurrying along the dimly lit pathway leading to the pool. A small brown bird with a crooked wing sat on an iron post watching me intently as I unlatched the gate. Frogs croaked and crickets chirped loudly as though tattling on me as I retrieved the box I’d hurled over the fence earlier.
As I carried the box back to the house, it took everything in me to ignore the overwhelming desire to wake up Ollie, pack what little we owned, load our junky car, and get out of this town.
And never, ever come back.
Out on the side lawn, there had to be at least fifty people waiting for the blackbirds. Maybe more. Tiki torches were lit, a few people had portable grills set up, and excitement hummed in the air.
I’d taken a quick break from rolling pie dough to watch them a minute. I sipped hot tea, my favorite homemade blend of chamomile and mint that I usually drank before bed. The food dehydrator on the counter held today’s clippings from Zee’s garden: lemon balm, echinacea, and mint. Once dried, I’d store them in an airtight container until I concocted a tea recipe that perfectly captured their flavors and health benefits.
As I went back to the dough, Doc Linden and his sallow coloring kept slipping into my thoughts, along with Natalie, and Ollie with her tiny backhoe. Mostly, I thought of my mother, as I tried to put myself in her place twenty-five years ago.
By eighteen she’d already had a hard life. She’d lost the man she loved and was accused of killing him. She’d walked away from this town, away from everything familiar. But as I stood here in this kitchen with the scent of flaky, buttery pie crusts surrounding me, I couldn’t help wondering if leaving had hurt her more than if she’d simply stayed put.
As soon as the thought came, it went. Because as much as my theory might be true—that my mother would have been happier here despite living near and dealing with the Lindens—she hadn’t left town because of her own pride or embarrassment or even wanderlust, as Pebbles had called it.
She’d left this town because of me, determined to keep me away from people she truly believed would cause me harm. Not physically, perhaps. But mentally. Emotionally.
Fighting a yawn, I pushed away the image of Doc Linden’s sad eyes and tried to focus on the task at hand. It was closing in on midnight, and I’d purposefully stayed up late to hear the blackbirds sing their songs, and I was more than a little anxious.
As I slid the rolling pin over the pie dough, stretching it, shaping it, I heard Zee’s voice in my head with each pass. I had been ten years old when she finally taught me how to make piecrust from scratch.
“Careful now, darlin’. Too thick and the crust won’t cook all the way through. No one wants a soggy-bottomed pie. Soggy bottoms are always unfortunate.” Her hands, soft and sure, had covered mine on the rolling pin, guiding my strokes. “Too thin, and the crust will burn, and no one wants to taste charcoal when they’re expectin’ something sweet.”
“Granny, how do you know when it’s right?” I’d asked.
She’d smiled at me, her teal eyes twinkling. “You’re a Callow, Anna Kate. And Callows know pie. That knowledge is deep inside you. You’ll know. You’ll see.”
I felt a teardrop snake down my cheek, and I swiped it away with the back of my hand, unwilling to let emotions get the best of me tonight. I’d already made six pies but, still restless, decided to make one more with the abundance of blackberries I’d found in a bucket on the back deck earlier this evening.
I finished rolling two crusts, knowing they were about as perfect as they could be. There was something in the weight of the dough, its stretch, its texture, that told me as surely as if it could speak that it was ready to be baked.
Gently, I folded one of the crusts in half, then in half again and draped it over a glass pie dish. I unfolded the dough and pressed it against the glass, molding it to fit the dish perfectly, leaving a bit hanging over the edge. I dipped a spoon into the bowl of blackberry filling I’d already prepared, and though it was good, I thought it wasn’t quite right. It was a nagging feeling, one I’d had with each of the pies I’d made. Something was off.
It didn’t help that Mr. Lazenby’s voice was echoing in my head.
This pie don’t taste like the pies Miss Zee made.
The pie hadn’t—I’d sampled it myself. I’d eaten enough of Zee’s pies to know. Whenever she visited, she’d bake me special miniature pies, all my own, lovingly showing me how to make each one. Apple, blueberry, peach, cherry. Endless combinations.
None of mine tonight had tasted like hers.
I grabbed a clean spoon and took another sample of the filling, letting it roll around on my tongue. Something was missing—a flavor I couldn’t place.
“Now turn your back,” Zee would say before we added the top crust to those miniature pies.
“Why, Granny Zee?”
“I need to add the secret ingredient.”
“Secret? What is it?” I’d asked eagerly.
She leaned down. “I promised your mama I wouldn’t tell, but you already know what it is.”
“No, I don’t! I swear I don’t.”
“You do. You’ll put it all together one day, Anna Kate, when you’re older.”
“And if I don’t?”
“There’ll be a whole flock of women there to help guide the way, that I can promise you.”
“Give me a hint? Pleeeeease,” I added overdramatically. “It’s not something silly like love, is it?”
She’d bopped me on the tip of my nose with a floury finger. “That’s exactly it. The secret ingredient is love, darlin’. The purest kind of love there is. Now, turn around, and remember—these pies are our little secret from your mama.”
I may have been young, but I’d clearly heard a telltale pop of a sealed lid each and every time I turned. A sound anyone would recognize if they’d ever opened a full jelly jar. Love shouldn’t have been so noisy. Besides, Zee wouldn’t have broken her promise to my mom, so I knew that she’d been pulling my leg about the whole love thing.
Frustrated, I ventured into the deep pantry off the kitchen to search the spice and extract shelf. My gaze skipped over cloves, allspice, nutmeg, vanilla, almond, and lemon.
“What did you put in those pies, Zee?” I asked, poking around.
It couldn’t be a common ingredient, or I’d have been able to place it easily. I had a decent palate. I closed my eyes, recalling the unmistakable pop of a seal being released. The mysterious ingredient, I realized, couldn’t have come from a tin or twist-off bottle.
I turned away from the spices and searched among the jarred goods, most of which Zee had canned herself. Plums, grapes, tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, raspberries, beets, rhubarb, peas, okra. All were in tall glass canning jars, but I was looking for smaller containers, a size that Zee could have hidden from me in a skirt pocket, something along the lines of a baby food jar or a jam sampler.
It was a futile search.
Ignoring the feeling that I was doing something wrong, I finished the blackberry pie and put it in the oven. The other pies had already cooled and were in the pie case, waiting for tomorrow’s diners. I checked the clock as I cleaned up and washed dishes. It was just past eleven.
If all went as it should, in less than an hour the blackbirds would emerge from the tunnel between the mulberry trees and sing songs— messages from the Land of the Dead—to those who ate pieces of pie today. While those people slept, they’d dream the message meant for them, sent by people who’d loved them.
At a minute shy of midnight, I opened the back door, and the energy of the excited crowd pulsed through the room. I shut off most of the lights, leaned against the marble-topped island, and waited with anticipation. Right at midnight a loud whoop from the birders went up when the blackbirds emerged.
Unbidden, tears sprang to my eyes at the reaction of the strangers, and I watched with a watery gaze as the birds soared upward in a tight formation. They swooped low as they circled the backyard, garnering ooh’s and aah’s from the crowd, then they landed, one by one, on the branches of the trees.
Four and twenty blackbirds.
Out the side window, I spotted multiple smartphones glowing in the darkness. The birders had gone eerily silent as they watched the blackbirds, as though expecting something more. Most likely, they’d heard of the songs sung at midnight and were waiting.
“Come on,” I urged under my breath. “Sing.”
The birds remained silent, sitting, watching. I could feel their gazes on me, even through the darkness.
The longer they kept silent, the sicker I felt. Minutes ticked by. The birds would be gone soon, back into the leafy tunnel. “What am I doing wrong?”
But even as I asked, I knew. Instinctively, I knew.
The missing ingredient.
I needed to figure out what it was.
You’ll put it all together one day, Anna Kate, when you’re older.
I was quite a bit older now and still had no idea. My eyes stung with frustrated tears as I watched the birds take flight, soaring, then dipping low to return the way they’d come.
The birders applauded.
Bone-weary, I climbed slowly up the steps and planned to go straight to bed, not even bothering to brush my teeth, but as soon as I came into my bedroom, I noticed that the window was slightly ajar.
I thought I’d checked all the windows earlier when searching for the trespassing phoebe, but I must have missed this one. I walked over to the window and looked out. The birders were holding strong in the yard, their animated chatter filling the air. As I started to slide the window down, I sucked in a breath when I saw two blackbirds sitting on the sill.
I hadn’t yet seen any of the birds up close—they rarely left the area around the trees. Suddenly shaky, I knelt down to get a closer look at them as the bedtime story Zee told me long ago echoed in my head.
It’s not until one of the guardians in the family passes over that she becomes a tree keeper, taking with her only the color of her eyes. Twenty-four in total, black as twilight, the keepers fly between the two worlds. They collect messages from those who’ve crossed and pass them along to those who mourn through sweet songs, songs that are too otherworldly to be understood in anything but a dream state.
Immediately, I was taken aback by the birds’ unusual eyes—a thin band of color rimmed dark pupils. I couldn’t make out the exact shade in the dim lighting, but I suspected one had green, the other teal. My mother’s and grandmother’s natural eye colors.
Tears pooled along my lashes, and I was beyond grateful that Zee had shared with me that bedtime story of my heritage. The Callows were guardians and gatekeepers of something incredible. All twenty-four of the blackbirds were my ancestors—generations of women protecting something amazing.
There’ll be a whole flock of women there to help guide the way, that I can promise you, Zee had said.
She hadn’t been exaggerating.
“What am I doing wrong with the pies?” I asked the pair.
The birds bobbed their heads and watched me with somber eyes, and then lifted off, soaring into the backyard to join the rest of the keepers.
I knew full well they couldn’t tell me—they couldn’t speak. Only sing. And I’d never receive a message in my sleep, either, even if I ate a dozen pies. Zee had told me once that one of the drawbacks of being a keeper was that they couldn’t sing messages of their own. Only notes from others. Even so, I thought perhaps they could have given me some sort of hint or sign, but as they disappeared out of sight, I was left with only a pit of sadness in my stomach and tears blurring my eyes.
Grief was a capricious companion. Sometimes distant and aloof. Sometimes so overwhelming it was hard to think a straight thought. Its mood changed at whim, making it emotionally exhausting to keep up.
There were times, like right now, when it felt as though I’d been grieving my whole life long.
Probably because I had been.
I sat there on my knees for a good, long while, hoping they’d return, before slowly standing up. I closed the window and climbed into bed, feeling like the weight of the world anchored me to the mattress.
I pulled up my quilt, tucking the worn fabric next to my face, and closed my eyes. I could hear the birders chattering loudly about the blackbirds. I fell asleep the same way I’d woken up that morning. To the sound of a ruckus outside my window.
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I’d slept in fits and starts and woke to a dulcet female voice insistently saying my name.
I stirred, then stiffened in fear that I wasn’t alone in my bedroom. “Natalie, your father is dying.”
I bolted upright in bed and blindly reached for the baseball bat I kept next to the headboard. My heart pounded as my eyes adjusted to the early morning light streaming in through the windows, which were open only wide enough for the mountain breeze to ruffle the sheer curtains. The screens were in place. No one had come in that way.
Throwing the sheet off, I slid out of bed and hurriedly checked Ollie’s room, right next door. Her blanket was on the floor, and she was fast asleep in the toddler bed, her small hands thrown above her head. Her gentle, rhythmic breathing set me at ease for a moment.
I checked her closet, the only possible hiding spot, and found nothing out of the ordinary. Doubling back, I searched the little house top to bottom. There was no one.
Loosening my grip on the bat, I leaned against the wall, letting the adrenaline settle. I gave myself a moment, then went back into Ollie’s room.
I knelt down and retucked the quilt—her blankie, or bankie as she called it—around her, and watched her breathe for a moment.
I let my fingers linger on the quilt. It had been a gift from my mother to Ollie, crafted from remnants of her baby clothes. Mama had made many quilts in the same fashion, including AJ’s, which had gone missing after the car wreck that killed him, and she’d made many for friends and family.
But never one for me. She’d been working on it when AJ died, and in the aftermath, like most everything else in her world, it had ceased to exist.
My fingers drifted across the fabric, lingering on a soft terry cloth square in the corner. The image came easily of Matt holding a newborn Ollie in the crook of his arm like a football, her tiny head resting in his big hand. She’d looked like a little pink peanut against his muscled arm as she blinked up at him.
“She’s looking at me like I’ve done something wrong,” he’d said.
“Probably she’s wondering what in the hell just happened to her.”
He gently kissed Ollie’s downy head. “Don’t worry, sweet girl. Daddy’s here now.”
My heart hurt as I withdrew my fingers from the scrap of fabric cut from the outfit Ollie had been wearing that day.
Shoving the memory aside, I went back to thinking about the voice I’d heard. It had sounded so real. It couldn’t have been, though, as there was no one inside the house.
Was it possible someone had been outside? Speaking through my open window?
I slipped on a short summer robe and a pair of sandals. A bold sunrise set the horizon aglow as I crept down the porch steps to check the perimeter of the little house for any sign that someone had been out there recently.
Several lights were on in the big house, including the kitchen. Not surprising, since my parents were early risers. If they’d seen someone trespassing, however, Daddy would have been out here with his shotgun long before now.
I considered for a moment that the voice had been my mother’s, then dismissed it almost as soon the thought came. The way the words had been spoken reminded me of Snow White’s singsong way of talking. Mama didn’t singsong. Not ever. Not even when she was actually singing. She had a gunfire way of punctuating lyrics that perfectly matched the tightly controlled way in which she lived her life.
Thick dew soaked my feet as I made my way toward my bedroom window. Crickets silenced. The wet grass showed no footprints other than my own, and the mulch bed beneath my window was undisturbed, covered in spots with sparkling spider webs. Dew droplets clung to the leaves of the boxwood shrubs and fragrant rose bushes.
Satisfied that there had been no intruder other than an eight-legged variety, I rolled my neck to ease the tense knots in my shoulders. I must have dreamed the voice. There was no other explanation.
Jumping, I spun around quickly, baseball bat at the ready. I let out a breath of relief as I came face-to-face with my father.
He threw his hands up. “Whoa, slugger!”
“Sorry.” I lowered the bat and willed my heart rate to slow. “I was lost in thought and didn’t hear you coming.”
“What’s going on?”
Looking fresh from a recent shower, he was already dressed for work in his crisply ironed pants and baby-blue button-down. Combed back off his forehead, his damp brown hair looked black in the morning light. As it dried, the hair would flop forward, its waviness winning out over a forced taming.
“A noise woke me up,” I said. “I wanted to make sure no one was out here lurking.”
Your father is dying.
My voice cracked as I added, “But I think I was just having a bad dream.”
While I’d been focused on finding a potential intruder, I’d been holding in the emotional deluge caused by the mysterious message I received. Of course it had been a bad dream. My father dying? No. Not possible. He looked … I studied him closely. He looked the same as always. Thank the Lord.
Absently, I pointed at my footprints in the wet grass. “No one’s been out here but me.”
Putting an arm around my shoulders, he started walking me toward the front door. “Seems like that nightmare still has you shaken up. You should have called me—you shouldn’t be out here alone looking for a bogeyman.”
I allowed myself to be drawn toward him. When I was younger I’d spent a lot of time glued to his side as he read me books, one after another after another—it was our favorite thing to do together, to disappear into the pages of another world. I’d always considered the crook of his arm to be the safest place in the whole world. “Daddy, if I called you for every bad dream I had, you’d never get a good night’s rest.”
As soon as I said the words, I wished I hadn’t. Even though I spoke the truth, I didn’t like exposing my emotional baggage to others. Especially him. My problems were mine, and mine alone. I didn’t want him worrying.
He stopped walking. “What can I do to help, Nat?”
“You’ve already done more than enough to help me … and Ollie, too. You and I both know I need to learn to be strong enough to stand on my own two feet, and if that means chasing after bogey-men at the crack of dawn, so be it.”
After Matt died, I’d found a job that allowed me to work at night from home. No doubt about it, being a home-based support representative for a local department store had been a lousy job, but I could stay with Ollie and it had paid some of the bills. The rest … that’s where my father had stepped in.
Over the past couple of years, he’d paid what I couldn’t, and all he’d ever asked in return was for us to spend time with him—he’d often come down to Montgomery to take me and Ollie out to lunch or dinner, which, if I were being honest, was simply one more gift he’d given us, not the other way around.
There had never been any mention of Mama during all those years of him visiting us—and even now I wasn’t sure if she knew how much he’d provided after Matt died.
I suspected not.
“Asking for help doesn’t mean you’re weak, Natalie. It’s a sign of strength.”
“That’s sweet of you to say, Daddy.” It was just like him to try to make me feel better about my flaws. “But I can’t keep asking. I already can’t repay you for all you’ve done for me.”
“They weren’t loans, Nat. I wanted to help.”
“I know, but I still feel like I owe you more than gratitude.”
He was silent for a moment as though mulling my words. “I have an idea of how you can repay me.”
We climbed the porch steps. “I hope you’re not going to say money, because I don’t have any. Unless you count the kind that’s in Ollie’s toy cash register. And if that’s the case, I hope you don’t mind that it comes with bite marks. Those plastic coins are some of the best teethers around.”
He smiled. “I don’t want money.”
“What, then?” I’d do just about anything for him.
“Same as always. I want time. Stick around here for a while. Six months. A year. Give yourself the chance to get to know this place again. A chance for this place to get to know you again.”
There was only one reason he’d be asking that of me this morning. “You heard Mama and me having words last night.”
“Hard not to.”
I longed to say she’d started it, but I bit my tongue instead, not wanting to get worked up all over again.
“Time is what I want, Natalie. Can you do that for me?”
He knew me too well—and how my first inclination would be to run. My gaze cut to the big house. Mama’s face was clearly framed in the kitchen window above the sink—she was watching us.
“You know I don’t—and can’t—make excuses for your mother,” he said, “but she was on edge last night and took it out on you. She has a lot going on right now.”
“With Anna Kate. Yes, I know.”
Surprise flared in his eyes. “You know about Anna Kate?”
“While I rather wish it was either you or Mama who told me about her, yes, I do know. I met Anna Kate yesterday at the park. She seems nice.”
“I’m sorry. We were waiting to tell you until we knew for certain.”
“There’s no denying she’s a Linden.” It had taken me a moment to see the resemblance, but that was because I hadn’t been looking. The possibility that I had a niece out in the world had never once crossed my mind. AJ had been only eighteen when he died.
“Yes, I knew the minute I saw Anna Kate in person yesterday.” Daddy’s chin lifted slightly as he glanced off in the distance. “Your mother and I were going to discuss it with you today.”
I tapped the head of the bat on the top of my foot. “Now you don’t have to. I already know. For the record, I think asking Anna Kate to supper was a nice gesture.”
“You and I might be the only ones to think so. Anna Kate turned me down flat.”
I twisted his words and threw them back at him. “Give Anna Kate the chance to get to know this place. A chance for this place to get to know her.”
By place, we knew we both meant Mama.
“I’m sure Anna Kate is overwhelmed right now,” I added. “She needs time to adjust to the idea of us.”
Sadness haunted his eyes. “I’m not sure time is going to help in this situation. What happened in the past … She thinks the worst. Justifiably so.”
In all the years I’d heard Eden Callow’s name cursed to the heavens, I never really stopped to think whether my parents had been right to persecute the young woman. I’d simply believed their truth that Eden had killed AJ and gotten away with it.
Their truth. But had it been the whole truth?
After overhearing their conversation last night, I now questioned all I ever thought I knew about Eden. I kept tapping the bat against my foot. “Overcoming the past is a challenge, especially since it looks like you and Mama were wrong about Eden and treated her badly. The key to it all, I think, is that you need to show Anna Kate who you are now, because your relationship with her isn’t about what happened back then. It’s about what happens from here on out.”
He glanced away, toward the big house. “If only it were that easy, Natalie.”
As his head turned, the sunrise caught his face just so, highlighting deep shadows beneath his eyes. Had those been there before? “No one said it was going to be easy.”
His chin came up, and he faked a smile. “I best get going. I’ll see you later on?”
“I’ll be around.”
It took me a moment to understand why he was suddenly so interested in my whereabouts. “Then, too. I’ll stick around for a while, Daddy. I promise.”
“Don’t go pressing your luck. I’m not putting a time frame on it.”
He hugged me. “All right. I’ll take what I can get.”
“Thanks for coming out here and checking on me.” I squeezed him more tightly than I normally would and frowned. Had he lost weight? Breathing in the smell of him, I picked up the hint of soap and mint and something else I couldn’t quite identify. Something sharp, bitter, and completely unfamiliar.
“Anytime. I’m always here if you need me.”
He released me, and I suddenly felt chilled. “Have you been feeling okay lately?”
“What makes you ask?”
Your father is dying.
“Just making sure. Since I’m going to be sticking around for a while.” I tried to make light, but I could hear the strain of worry in my voice coming through loud and clear.
He jumped off the porch with a flourish, kicking his heels up to show off. “Do I look like a man who’s feeling puny? Don’t you worry about me, Natalie.”
As he walked off, I noted that he hadn’t actually answered the question. I kept watch over him until he disappeared through the patio doors of the big house before I turned to go inside, wake up Ollie, and get on with the day.
As I swung the baseball bat onto my shoulder, I told myself not to let the worry take root—that I’d had a bad dream. Nothing more. He was fine. Just fine. Absolutely fine.
If my father were dying, I’d know it …
Early the next morning, I woke up before my alarm went off. Today, all was quiet outside, and I knew exactly where I was.
In Wicklow with the blackbirds.
I should have been exhausted after the day I’d had yesterday, but I felt oddly rested. Sitting up, my first thoughts were of coffee. Although I was slightly obsessed with herbal tea, I always kick-started my days with coffee. But soon I started thinking about the blackberries Summer had dropped off. Zee’s cobbler sounded like a perfect breakfast treat—I hadn’t had a chance to make it yesterday, but I had the time now.
I hurriedly showered, dressed, and pulled my hair into a sloppy bun. Before I went downstairs, I made the rounds of the small apartment. Zee had been a minimalist, and it showed in her sparse furniture and lack of knickknacks. Her artistic flair wasn’t lacking, however. The walls were painted eggplant purple. The deep sofa was mint green, and the floral upholstery on the single armchair was a riot of colors. The small kitchenette was bare-bones, and I figured that was because Zee mainly cooked downstairs. Her room was painted summer-squash yellow. Crisp white curtains and bed linens added to the bright, sunny atmosphere. I closed the door and went down the hall for my shoes. My bedroom was painted a serene green that reminded me of a mint leaf, and it had the same white, light fabrics as Zee’s room. The whole apartment, while colorful, reminded me of nature. It felt like Zee.
I opened the curtains to check on the birders. Most had gone, but there were a few who remained behind in sleeping bags. I spotted Sir Bird Nerd milling about, his binoculars in hand, and I was surprised he hadn’t headed back to Mobile.
It wasn’t until I turned to go that I saw something green on the other side of the window, on the corner of the stone sill. Puzzled, I slid the window upward, knelt down, and saw that the green belonged to a leaf. It was held in place with a small stone.
Smiling, I carefully picked it up. I realized the blackbirds had given me a clue after all. When they’d bobbed their heads last night, it had been toward the corner of the sill where this leaf sat. Between the darkness and my tears, I hadn’t seen it.
I gently turned the brittle leaf over in my hand. It had five lobes, the tips of which looked like hearts. This leaf was browned along its edge as if in distress, and something deep within me responded to its call for help.
It was a mulberry leaf.
I quickly slipped on my sneakers and went running down the stairs, through the kitchen, and out the back door, which thwacked behind me. I hurried across the lawn toward the mulberry trees, immediately noticing that some of the unripened fruit had dropped overnight. White, green, and pink berries littered the ground beneath the trees. Leaves had started to brown and curl inward.
I bent and pushed my finger into the ground beneath the trees. Their distress wasn’t from lack of water—the earth was dry but not parched.
Confused and a little nerve-wracked, I knew the blackbirds had given me that leaf for a reason.
You’ll put it all together one day, Anna Kate, when you’re older.
As Zee’s voice rang in my ears, I calmed. I closed my eyes and tried to recall any part of her bedtime story that had to do with the trees.
It’s the love shared between the two worlds that allows the passage way to remain open, Anna Kate, darlin’. Without the love, the trees will wither and die.
The love. The phrase echoed in my head as I stood under the trees, looking upward at the sad leaves and drooping berries.
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.
Gather their love to bake into pies.
I reached up, cupped a cluster of berries.
The secret ingredient is love, darlin’. The purest kind of love there is.
I dropped my head back and sighed at my thick-headedness. Zee had been right—I knew exactly what the secret ingredient was—it had just taken me a little while to put it together. “Sorry!” I called into the leafy tunnel. “It’s been a long week.”
As I pulled the cluster from one of the trees, however, it took only a moment for my excitement to wear off. These berries were hard, greenish pink. Unripe. I couldn’t possibly put them into a pie as they were—the pies would be inedible. I debated whether I could cook them down to a syrup, adding extra sugar to make the berries palatable.
It was worth a try.
But that wasn’t the end of my worries. My gaze swept over the trees—while there were still a lot of berries, there wasn’t enough to make a month of pies, never mind a year’s supply.
How had Zee done it?
Then I recalled the pop of the secret ingredient she’d added to the pies she’d made me.
Of course! She’d processed the berries. I ran back into the café, still clutching the cluster of unripe berries. I waved to Sir Bird Nerd, promised the zucchini some TLC, and ran up the steps and into the kitchen. I checked the pantry, the freezer, and all the cupboards. There was no cache of preserved mulberries.
Hands on hips, I clenched my jaw, and took a deep breath. I’d figured out the hard part—I’d ask Jena and Bow what they knew of the mulberries when they came in later on. For now, I’d start the mulberry syrup to use in the pies I planned to bake later today.
Unfortunately, the pies I made last night were simply regular old pies, and I winced at the thought of dealing with Mr. Lazenby’s disappointment. And mine, too, when I realized the blackbirds would have no songs to sing tonight, either.
Tomorrow, however, everything would change. Suddenly I couldn’t help but wish the day away, even though it was barely six in the morning.
I went about making coffee, remembering Bow’s instructions on how to use the fancy coffee maker that held three pots.
Once the coffee was brewing, I washed the mulberries and set out to remove their stems, which might have been the most tedious job I’d ever undertaken. So dreadful, in fact, that I ended up setting the bunch aside to work on later. After I was caffeinated.
I poured a cup of coffee and gathered together the ingredients for the blackberry cobbler. In a saucepan, I heated sugar, cornstarch, blackberries, lemon zest, and vanilla and let it thicken as I worked on the cobbler’s topping.
As I measured flour, I heard a tap on the back door and saw Gideon Kipling’s face outlined in the window above the sinks.
I waved him inside. “You’re out early. The birders aren’t bothering you, are they?”
“Not at all,” he said, peering out the window into the side yard. “They’re dedicated, aren’t they?”
“They’re something. What have you there?” I gestured to his hand.
He held up a jar of honey. “I saw you were up and thought I’d bring you some of that honey you were drooling over yesterday.”
“I was not drooling. I was too dehydrated to drool.”
He laughed. “Fair enough. If you don’t want it.”
I dusted my hands on my apron and lurched for the jar. “I might be drooling now.” I admired the color. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.”
“I have the feeling you’ll put it to good use.”
“I most definitely will. Coffee’s hot. Want some?”
“Absolutely.” He crossed to the shelves where the mugs were stored and grabbed one. Then he backtracked to the fridge for the cream, knowing exactly where it was located in the double-wide refrigerator.
I stirred the blackberry mixture and turned off the heat before grabbing the coffee pot. I motioned with my chin to the mug and creamer he’d set out. “You come here often?”
Putting his hands on his hips, he looked astounded, as if only now realizing what he’d been doing. “Sorry. Habit. I used to have coffee with Zee a few times a week before the café opened for the day.” He glanced around, his gaze eventually going upward, lingering on the blackbird quote on the soffit. “I’ve missed it.”
Surprise rippled through me as I filled his mug. “I didn’t know you two were that close.”
“Zee was a good friend to me.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” Grief ballooned in my chest.
With a nod of acknowledgment, he said, “You couldn’t have.”
But for some reason, I felt as though I should have known. About him. And about Zee’s relationship with Summer, too. It stung, this feeling of exclusion, which seemed strange to me since I’d never minded being left out of Wicklow before now. I’d always accepted that this was a forbidden place I’d never see, with forbidden people I’d never know, and that was that.
Only, it turned out it wasn’t.
Pushing those thoughts out of my mind, I topped off my mug. “I’m glad you said something. I like knowing you and Zee were friends. It’s … comforting.”
“Really? Then why the sudden frown?”
“Oh, it’s nothing about you and Zee, I promise. It’s only that for a second there I was overcome with the deep need to bake you a zucchini loaf.”
Laughing, he added cream to his coffee but didn’t bother stirring it through. A white cloud bloomed in the dark liquid as he said, “See, Wicklow’s already getting a hold on you. I told you it would.”
“Not hardly.” I went back to making the cobbler’s batter, adding sugar, salt, baking powder, and, lastly, buttermilk to the flour and butter.
He leaned against the sink apron. “This coffee is good. Reminds me of Zee.”
“It should. Jena taught me Zee’s way of making it.” I’d been happy to carry on one of her traditions, but it was another thing that made me feel strangely left out.
“What’re you cooking up over there?” he asked.
“Did you know you smile when you measure ingredients?”
I glanced at him. “I do?”
“With every ingredient. I noticed because I think it’s the first I’ve seen you smile since you’ve been in Wicklow. Which is a shame, because you have a nice smile.”
I ignored the sudden flustered feeling that nearly made me drop the wooden spoon I was using to mix the batter. “Cooking and baking make me happy.”
“Runs in the family, then?”
“It does. I learned from the best.” I assembled the cobbler, stuck the eight-inch square pan in the preheated oven, set the timer, and faced him. “Are you hungry? How about an omelet?”
“Thanks for the offer, but I should get going. I’ll be forever in-debted if you save me some of that cobbler, though.”
“That’s a fair price for the honey.”
He finished his cup of coffee, rinsed the mug, and set it in the dishwasher. “When you have some extra time, I need—”
His words were cut off by someone pounding on the front door.
Mr. Lazenby had his face pressed to the glass, which only seemed to highlight each and every frown line. “Miss Anna Kate! I need to be talkin’ to you!”
I let out a breath.
“What’s wrong with him?” Gideon asked.
“The pie,” I said, heading for the front of the café.
“The pie?” I heard Gideon mumble behind me.
“Miss Anna Kate,” Mr. Lazenby said as soon as I opened the door, his color high, “the pie is broken. I didn’t get a dream.”
“I know. Come back tomorrow.”
“What about today’s pies?” he asked, eyes wide.
“Broken too. There actually won’t be any pie sold today,” I said, making a spur-of-the-moment decision. “Everything will be back to normal tomorrow. See you then.” I forced a smile and closed the door.
I turned back to Gideon, only to hear pounding on the door again.
I spun around.
“But I’m hungry,” Mr. Lazenby said pitifully through the glass. “And something smells real good.”
I hesitated only a second before pulling open the door. It was the least I could do for the sorrowful old man.
“You’re a nice girl,” he said, passing me by, heading straight to the island where Gideon was already pouring him a cup of coffee.
They said their hellos, then Gideon headed for the back door. “Thanks for the coffee. I’ll talk to you later, Anna Kate.”
“But wait. You were saying something earlier …”
“It can keep.”
He nodded. “Don’t forget to save me some of that cobbler.”
I followed him to the screen door and leaned against the jamb. “Gideon? I know I’m not Zee, but I’ll be down here most mornings around six if you want to come on by for some of her coffee.”
Sunshine glinted off his eyes. “I just might take you up on that.”
With that, he was off, down the deck steps and walking across Zee’s garden toward the back of the yard.
I turned to face Mr. Lazenby and rubbed my hands together. “Now, while we wait for that cobbler, how about we pass the time destemming some mulberries?”
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