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'Midnight at the Blackbird Café' Chapters 9 & 10


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Illustration by Nick Matej

 

9

 

“What initially brought you to town, sir?”

“A report of a rare sighting of Turdus merula,” Zachariah Boyd said, proudly puffing out his chest to show off his Bird Nerd T-shirt. “I’m the president of the Gulf Coast Avian Society. We welcome new members.”

The reporter carefully wrote down the name of the group and its website, noting it would make a good inset for his article. “How long do you plan to stay in Wicklow?”

Mr. Boyd scratched his chin, which was covered in a neatly clipped white beard. “Don’t rightly know. I came for the blackbirds … but I’m staying for the pie.”

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Natalie

I hadn’t stuck around to witness Mama gloating her way through Ollie’s swimming lesson. I’d headed straight out the moment I’d handed my cheerful daughter over to my also-cheerful mother for the day.

The town was jumping. There was a group of people walking around, hanging flyers about the Fourth of July carnival, which was still more than a month away. I recognized them as being from Mama’s Refresh group and went out of my way to avoid contact. The last thing I wanted was to run into Coralee Dabadie and have to make small talk about Stacia giving Ollie swimming lessons, something I didn’t like to think about, never mind discuss with a woman I hadn’t spoken to in years.

Cars were backed up along Mountain Laurel Lane and many of the diagonal parking spots were taken. There was a vibrant hum in the air that hadn’t been here yesterday, and an even bigger crowd in front of the Blackbird Café, where I was headed. I’d eat my piece of pie, check around town to see if anyone was hiring, then head home.

Staying behind to watch Ollie’s lesson would’ve been sheer torture. Taking a deep breath, I reminded myself that she was in good hands. Mama loved Ollie and wouldn’t let harm come to her.

Not willingly, anyway.

But accidents happened.

No. I refused to go there. Between Mama and Stacia, Ollie was not going to drown.

She was not going to drown.

I struggled with the need to race back to the pool, grab my daughter, and never let go. Suddenly dizzy, I latched on to a light post for balance as Matt’s bloated, ghostly white face floated in and out of focus, then came sharply into view, in the finest possible detail, the scar on his cheek almost translucent. His blue eyes opaque. His skin puffy.

I’d barely recognized him enough to identify his body, freshly pulled from Lake Martin, where he’d been missing for two days. I closed my eyes against the memory, clenched my jaw, and willed myself not to throw up right here in the center of town, all over the purple and pink petunias along the sidewalk.

I was still clinging to the pole when I felt something wet and slimy on my hand and heard a throaty whimper. Alarmed, my eyes flew open. River, the Sheltie mix, was at my feet, staring upward. His wet nose nudged my arm and he gave my hand another lick.

“He has a knack for finding people in distress,” the mountain man, Cam Kolbaugh, said. He ducked his head to look me in the eye. “You okay?”

“Oh, fine.” I coughed, trying to clear the lingering anxiety from my throat. I patted the light post. “Just checking to make sure this thing’s sturdy. It is.”

“Good to know. You can probably let it go, then.”

My head swam. “I’m thinking I should keep on making sure it’s not going anywhere for a bit longer. Another minute or so should do the trick.”

Cam knelt down, pulled a backpack from his shoulder, and riffled around inside it. He brought forth a canteen and held it out. “Water. Full. None of my cooties on it yet.”

“I’m not thirsty. Thanks, though.”

He sat back on his haunches, then suddenly pulled out his camera and took a shot of me.

“Why’d you do that?”

He studied the image for a moment, a deep frown causing his eyes to narrow. He stood and showed me the camera’s screen. “You’ve lost all coloring. I’ve never seen someone go so white in all my life.”

“Count yourself lucky.” I stared at the picture of myself and couldn’t argue that I looked ghostly. And ghastly. And that I was almost the same color Matt had been on the shore of the lake. Just like that, his face was back, staring blankly at me. I wobbled.

Cam grabbed my arm. “Hey, now. Come on. I’ve got you.”

He led me to a nearby bench, sat me down. River set his chin on my knee, not taking his doleful eyes off me. When I started shivering uncontrollably, Cam inched closer, then placed his right arm around my shoulders, pulling me close, anchoring me to him, as if he did it all the time. He took his other hand and reached in front of me, gathering up my left hand to hold it tightly in his enormous callused palm. The contact should have felt like a confining invasion of my personal space—he was practically a stranger, after all. A big, overpowering stranger. Instead his heat and his strength seeped into me like a soothing balm.

I focused on breathing. In, out. One breath at a time, just like the therapist had taught me when I’d first started having panic attacks. It took a good few minutes, but the shaking stopped. The nausea was still there in the pit of my stomach, but under control. My head throbbed but was no longer fuzzy.

Cam let go of my hand and rubbed River’s ears. “How’s the bench doing? Sturdy as the lamppost?”

I managed a weak smile. “I don’t think it’s in danger of collapsing anytime soon.”

He caught my eye. “Good to know.”

“Thank you for watching out for me,” I said.

“You’re welcome.”

“Oh, I was talking to River.”

Cam laughed, long and hard. “I should’ve known.” As casually as he’d draped it around me, he removed his arm. He fussed with his backpack and his camera.

“And thank you, too.” I tried to explain what had just happened, without going into the gory details. “I get …”

“You don’t have to go explaining anything to me. Traumatic events leave emotional wounds that’re hard to heal. Everyone has their own way of getting through it.” He stood up, held out his hand.

I slipped my hand into his and looked up. “What’s your way?” I asked, because instinctively I knew he spoke from experience.

“I hide in the mountains.” “I like your way better.”

“Took me a long time to find a method that works. You’ll find yours. Now, where’re you off to? I’ll walk with you.”

I wanted to argue that I’d be fine on my own, but truth was I liked his company. He had a calm strength about him I envied. “To the Blackbird Café.”

We started off in that direction. He said, “It’s a hot spot today. Loads of people showing up because of the blackbirds.”

“I suppose I’m going there because of the blackbirds, too.”

“But you know they won’t be out until midnight. They’re a sight, too, let me tell you. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. I got chill bumps when they appeared, practically out of nowhere.”

River walked a step ahead of us, his tail wagging as he sniffed people who passed by. I wished Ollie were here—she’d have loved this time with the dog. “Oh, I’m not going to see the blackbirds. I’m going because I need their help. To heal.”

He glanced at me, confusion filling his hazel eyes. “Their help?”

“You haven’t heard about the pie, then.”

“The pie?”

“The blackbird pie? It’s … well, it’s something special. And I’m counting on it to help me get rid of a ghost.”

Anna Kate

My quiet, peaceful morning hadn’t lasted long. By nine thirty, the Blackbird Café was jam-packed. Every table was full and there was a line out the door and down the block. We couldn’t cook or serve fast enough, and at one point I thought we might run out of food. I couldn’t even offer up pie, as I’d handed it out among the early-birders before the café opened.

I dropped a plate of home fries at a table, then went around the room to refill coffee cups. Other than Mr. Lazenby, Pebbles, and Faylene, I didn’t recognize the rest of people in the café, but by their discussions I’d picked up that they were only in town to see the blackbirds.

Mr. Lazenby had been here for close to three hours now, and each time I passed by him to refill his mug or drop off a plate, he grumbled about mulberry stems. You’d think I’d asked him to destem a whole tree instead of a small bunch of berries.

I’d talked to Bow and Jena about the mulberries earlier, but they didn’t know too much other than that Zee looked forward to harvesting them each year. They had never seen her preserve, process, or freeze them, or do anything other than gather them when ripe. She never made mulberry pies, either, which I thought was strange.

“Order up!” Bow thumped the countertop.

I hurried into the kitchen, dropped off the coffee pot, and picked up two plates laden with johnnycakes, a type of cornmeal pancake, according to Bow, topped with brown butter apples, the day’s special. “Thanks, Bow.”

“You holding up okay out there?” he asked.

Surprisingly, I was. Maybe because there were more birders than locals, and I wasn’t the focus of everyone’s undivided attention. I’d fielded only a few questions about my life, so word must be getting around town on its own. And I’d dropped only two plates and one mug. “Better today than yesterday.”

Jena bit back a yawn as she set another sheet of biscuits in the oven—she’d been yawning all morning, saying she’d woken up earlier than usual to tend to a friend. It didn’t help that she’d been pulling double duty this morning—helping in the kitchen and the dining room. “And tomorrow will be better than today, just you wait and see. You fit right in here.”

I didn’t know about that, since I’d had no idea what a johnnycake was, but it was nice not to feel like a complete outsider.

As I delivered the plates, I spotted Natalie outside in the crowd. She waved when she saw me, and I pointed to the back door. She ducked out of line and disappeared around the side of the café. I dreaded telling her that there would be no pie today.

“Was that …?” Faylene stood up, then sat back down. “I’ll be. It is Natalie.” She turned to me. “You know Natalie?”

A hush fell over the locals, but the chatter from the birders kept steady, covering the sudden awkwardness. “I met her yesterday. At the park.”

I glanced at Mr. Lazenby, and even he seemed on the edge of his seat. “What did she have to say?” he asked.

“Yes,” Pebbles said, leaning in. “Do tell.”

I wiped my hands on my hip apron. “Well, not all that much. She asked me to save her a piece of pie.”

“Pie? Oh.” Faylene pressed her hand to her heart. “The dear, dear thing.” She turned to the table, including all the strangers, and said, “Natalie’s husband passed away one year, seven months, and four days ago, thereabouts. A tragic, tragic accident. Drowned in Lake Martin, and search and rescue didn’t find his body for two whole days.”

A sad murmur echoed down the table, and my eyes stung with tears, though I hadn’t even known the man. Then I realized that I wasn’t hurting for him—I was hurting for Natalie. And little Ollie. Especially Ollie. I knew what it was like to grow up without a father.

Mr. Lazenby straightened his green-striped bow tie. “I’d forgotten about that.”

Pebbles said, “I didn’t know Natalie was back in town. How long is she planning on staying? How old is her girl now?”

“Just under two, and I’m not sure,” Faylene said. “Unless Natalie’s relationship with Seelie has changed, I’m guessing they won’t be here long. Like oil and water, those two, especially when Natalie was a teenager.”

“She’s going to be mad about the pie,” Mr. Lazenby said, as if his brain had only now caught up to that part of what I’d said. Then his eyes brightened. “Hold up now, Miss Anna Kate. You said the pie would be fixed tomorrow—will you put aside a piece for me? I’ll pay extra.”

Behind him, Pebbles shook her head so vigorously I thought for sure she was going to end up with whiplash—she wasn’t the least bit sorry he hadn’t been getting his heavenly messages from his dearly departed wife.

“Sorry, Mr. Lazenby,” I said, not feeling too badly. I knew he’d be waiting at the door at dawn—there would be plenty of pie for him to choose from. “First come, first served. Café rules.”

Indignantly, he sputtered, “But you were going to save a piece for Miss Natalie!”

“Family members are exempt from that rule,” I said, then walked away. But not before I heard a squeal out of Faylene.

“Family? Did you hear that! Anna Kate is a Linden. I knew it. I just knew it.”

“We all knew it,” Mr. Lazenby said grumpily.

I smiled as I strode to the back door to greet Natalie—she was coming up the steps of the deck.

“Come on in,” I said. “Excuse the madness. It’s a little busy.”

“A little?” Natalie said. “It’s a nuthouse.”

Bow said, “Who’re you calling nutty?”

“Hi, Bow.” She gave him a big smile.

He came over and gave her a bear hug. “Never thought I’d see you inside this place.”

“Things change,” she said with a touch of sadness in her voice.

“That they do,” he agreed solemnly. “It’s been too long.”

“We sure did miss you,” Jena said, edging Bow out of the way with a jab of an elbow to hug her as well. “Where’s that sweet baby of yours?”

“Ollie’s with my mother for the day.”

“Well, isn’t that nice?” Jena said.

Natalie said nothing in response—only gave a closed-lip smile and a guttural “Mm-hmm.”

Her hair was pulled back the same way it had been yesterday— in a low side knot at her neck—and she wore the same gold stud earrings, and no other jewelry. Her summery floral dress had a boat-neck bodice, a thick belt, and a loose A-line skirt that twirled around her knees. Strappy black sandals looked freshly shined, and the chip in her toe polish had been painted over.

She looked every bit a cultured southern beauty, from her perfect posture to her makeup to her clothing, but for some reason, I suspected it was all surface, and that she was, as she’d mentioned yesterday, a hot mess. At least on the inside.

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I said, “The bad news is that there isn’t any pie today. I’m really sorry. I messed up the recipe. But the good news is that I know what I did wrong, and there will be pie tomorrow.”

I watched emotions play across her face, changing from unhappiness to acceptance to … relief?

“Will you save me a piece tomorrow?” she asked.

“Of course.”

“Thanks. I guess I should be going, then. I’m hoping to job hunt while Ollie is occupied. Do any of you know someone who’s hiring?”

Bow stroked his beard, smoothing it in swift downward strokes, as was his way. “Times are tough right now. I can’t think of anyone looking for help.”

Natalie winced.

“Maybe down in Fort Payne,” Jena said. “The drive’s not too bad.”

“I’d like something local, if possible,” Natalie said, clasping her hands together tightly. “Something walkable.”

“Hmm,” Jena said, her gaze sliding to me. Her dark pencil-thin eyebrows went up, and her head tipped toward Natalie.

I didn’t have anything against Natalie personally, but she was a Linden. I wasn’t sure I could face her day in and day out. The emotional toll …

But then I saw something in Natalie’s eyes, a shimmering desperation that told me exactly how much she wanted—needed—a job.

She needed help. The healer in me, the nurturer, couldn’t see that and walk away, even if she was a Linden.

Damn it.

I took a deep breath and said, “As long as the birders are around, we’re going to need extra help in the dining room a few days a week, if you’re interested. It’d be temporary. Only until the birders finally get their fill of the blackbirds and leave.” Or I did. Whichever came first.

Jena grinned ear to ear, and I tried not to roll my eyes at her.

Natalie brightened and pressed her clasped hands to her chest. “I’m interested. I have to be honest, though. I don’t have any experience as a server—but I’m a quick learner who isn’t afraid of hard work.”

Undoubtedly, she could have said she was allergic to coffee, pie, and people, and I probably would have offered the position to her anyway—that’s how deeply the call to comfort ran in Callow blood. “Sounds like you’re as qualified as I am,” I said. “When can you start?”

“Today,” she said with a smile. “Right now.”

“I don’t want to be the voice of doom and gloom, but what of Ollie? Have you checked out daycare for her?” Jena asked. “And … Seelie? I can’t imagine she’d approve of you working here, knowing how she feels about the café.”

Natalie’s back straightened, ramrod stiff. “I … don’t know. I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. I know someone who might be able to help with Ollie …” Her gaze drifted to the dining room and softened. Then it hardened immediately when she said, “My mother is another matter, but I’m old enough now to make my own decisions.”

If her voice hadn’t caught on the word “own,” I would have bought her Miss Independent act, but it had and now I wondered how much say she had in her own life.

It was none of my business, I reminded myself. More so because Natalie was a Linden. My arm’s-length policy was more imperative now than ever. Even though I was breaking my resolve not to have anything to do with the Lindens by hiring Natalie, that’s where it ended. She was an employee. I’d be friendly. That’s it.

Bow whistled low. “Look at you, all grown up. Seems like only yesterday you were just a bitty thing, helping us tend our gardens.”

“We all have to grow up sometime, don’t we?” she said.

“Some sooner than others.” Jena pulled biscuits from the oven as she looked over her shoulder at us.

“How about this,” I suggested. “You help out today, see if you even like the job, and then we’ll go from there once you’ve had some time to think on it.”

“A good plan,” Jena said with a firm nod. She grabbed an apron from the rack near the back door and tossed it at Natalie. “Welcome to the Blackbird. Now get to gettin’. We’ve got customers waitin’.”

“Thank you, Anna Kate, for giving me a chance.” Natalie threw her arms around me.

I sighed and gave in to the hug but quickly wiggled free. “You’re welcome.”

Most of the diners were oblivious to us, but there were a handful watching our every move. Faylene dabbed at her eyes. Between those tears and Natalie’s hug, something deep inside me started to ache, a pain I remembered well.

It occurred every time I started making friends in a new place, knowing I’d eventually have to leave them behind. Whether it be a few months or six months or even a year, I always had to leave, for one reason or another, and it always hurt. Once, when Mom and I moved to a small town in Pennsylvania when I was in middle school, I decided I wasn’t going to make any friends. I planned to be a loner for six months, to save myself the pain of it all. That had backfired spectacularly, because all I’d learned was that the pain of denying oneself friends was worse than leaving them when it was time to go.

Over time, I developed an arm’s-length approach that had worked well for years. Friendly, not friends. It still hurt to leave, but not quite as much. The downside, of course, was that I lived a rather lonely life. It was a small price to pay to protect my emotional well-being.

I needed to be more careful here in Wicklow and not grow too attached. The last thing I wanted was to add to my grief when I left town in a couple of months.

Drawing in a deep breath, I pushed those thoughts aside for now and got back to work. Extra hands made quick work of the lunch crowd. Natalie turned out to be a decent server, personable, strong, and quick on her feet. She dealt with the shock of locals seeing her working here much better than I would have, laughing off the slew of questions with grace.

The most common one wondering if her mother knew she was here.

Between that and Bow’s comment about never thinking he’d see Natalie inside the café made me wonder if the Blackbird had always been as forbidden to her as it had been to me.

Things change, Natalie had said.

I couldn’t agree more.

10

Anna Kate

An hour after closing the café for the day, I ventured toward the south end of Mountain Laurel Lane, toward the limestone courthouse that anchored it. Its grounds had a small outdoor amphitheater that hosted concerts, movie nights, plays, and was home to the playground where I’d run into Natalie the day before. According to Bow and Jena, the inside of the courthouse held all of the town’s administrative offices, the police station, two courtrooms, and the public library, which was my destination.

There was a trio of people at the amphitheater, setting up a screen for tonight’s Movie in the Moonlight event, a showing of Peter Pan. A big banner strung across wide wooden doors touted the Fourth of July carnival. There’d be festival rides, abundant food and music, arts and crafts, and, of course, fireworks—all sponsored by something called the Refresh Committee. I noted, too, that the events taking place on the lawn were sponsored by the same group.

Across from the courthouse to the west was a small motel, its lot full, its no vacancy sign flashing neon red. It was flanked by several boarded-up storefronts. The only other businesses still open in that strip were a laundromat and an Italian restaurant that many locals had informed me was the town’s favorite pizza place. No one had ever mentioned that it also happened to be the only pizza place, but that didn’t surprise me much. It had become clear in my short time here that the residents of Wicklow tended to focus on what they had rather than what they had not.

To the courthouse’s eastern side, there were more boarded storefronts, a small general store, and a hardware and farm store. Most of the houses I could see from this spot were in want of TLC, needing new roofs or fresh paint. Or both. Fences leaned and lawns grew long.

A uniformed policeman came out of the courthouse just as I reached the top of the steps, and he stepped back to hold open the door for me. Tall and brawny, he had a barrel chest, wide shoulders, and a nose that looked like it had been broken a time or two. A gun was clipped at his hip, a shoulder mic rested near his strong chin, and he wore a dark cap that shaded bright blue eyes.

“You’re Anna Kate, aren’t you?” he said with a smile, then he stuck out a big hand. “I’m Josh Kolbaugh. Faylene Wiggins’s son-in-law.”

I should have known who he was, simply from Faylene’s very apt description of him being a “big bear of a man.” He was quite bearish. Practically a grizzly. “Marcy’s husband, right?”

He kept on smiling. “Yes, ma’am. You’re a quick learner. I imagine you’ve been meeting lots of people this past week. It’s not easy keeping track of names and faces.”

The “ma’am”s were killing me slowly. “It helps that Faylene told me all about you and Marcy and Lindy-Lou, not four hours ago.” She’d practically talked my ear off, and every time I’d leave to tend to another diner, Faylene would pick up right where she’d left off when I came back. She was making my friendly policy really difficult.

“Heck,” he said, “you probably know my life story better than I do by now.”

“Not quite. Maybe by the end of next week.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Humor flashed in his eyes. “Are you going inside? You need help finding something? It’s a maze in there and not well marked.”

“The library?”

He pointed. “Go straight this way, turn right at the first hallway, left at the next, up the flight of steps, and around the corner. Can’t miss it.”

“Straight, right, up, left, around.” I stepped through the doorway. “Got it.”

Shaking his head, he used his right hand as a directional tool, as if we were playing charades. “Straight, right, left, up, then around.” I hoped this excursion didn’t turn out like my afternoon outing the day before, or there might be need of a search party. “I’ll find it.”

I sounded more confident than I felt. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” He tipped his hat. “Have a good one, Anna Kate.”

The door closed behind me, and I breathed in the scent of the old building, a combination of wax and dust and history mixed with a touch of mildew. My flip-flops slapped against marble floors, and the sound echoed against mahogany wainscoting. I turned right, then left, and then went up. And sure enough, there was the library. One of the double doors was held open with a plastic wedge.

I stepped inside and immediately felt at ease, as though in the presence of close friends among the many books with their colorful spines, the towering wooden shelves, and the scent of old paper, mustiness, and memories. Growing up, I’d spent a lot of time in libraries—which had been sanctuaries in the hours between school letting out and when my mother came home from work.

A middle-aged woman with pink streaks in her blond hair looked up from the checkout desk as I approached. “May I help you?”

“Hi, yes. Does the library have a collection of old newspapers?”

“Depends,” she said, clicking out of a computer screen to give me her full attention. “How long ago? There was a flood in the late nineties that wiped out nearly everything we had. We’ve been slowly piecing together what we can, but there are a lot of gaps.”

“Twenty-five years ago.”

She gave me an odd look, then said, “August, by any chance?”

“How’d you know?”

“Wish I could say I was psychic, but sadly that’s not the case. Otherwise I’d probably be a lottery winner and not working here at the library. Not that I don’t love my job,” she added quickly, looking around as though her boss might be nearby. “Follow me.”

I followed, wondering if she, too, was related in some way to Faylene—her manner of speaking was quite similar.

She looked back at me over her shoulder, saying, “We’re working on digitizing our newspaper collection, but it’s tedious work and sadly we have limited funds. The newspapers we’ve recovered from that year are on microfiche. Are you familiar with the machines?”

“I’ve seen one. Does that count?”

She laughed quietly. “It’s a sight better than some who come in here. They’re easy enough. It won’t take long for you to catch on.”

We wove through a warren of bookshelves, past an aisle devoted solely to DVDs and Blu-ray movies, through the children’s section, where it was story time. I smiled at the small, enraptured faces as a woman read with great theatrics about a boy named Eddie who’d lost his teddy. I fought the urge to sit down to have a listen.

During the vast time I’d spent in libraries, I’d discovered they weren’t as quiet as people believed. There were almost always librarians speaking in hushed conversations. There were muffled footsteps on the carpet, the crackling noise of pages being turned, and children speaking loudly because they hadn’t quite learned how to use indoor voices yet. People coughing, sneezing. The heating or cooling systems groaning. The melody was comforting and soothing.

As we approached a wall of private rooms, which, according to the sign posted on the wall, were used for study groups or community meetings and could be reserved, the chatty librarian said, “You’ll have to wait your turn. The film from that month is currently in use.” She gestured through a window into a room that held a single microfiche machine, a table, two chairs, and a copier.

I stared in disbelief at the person sitting at the scarred wooden table, peering at the screen before her.

Natalie.

She must have sensed someone watching her, because she looked up suddenly. A red flush crept up her neck as she gave me a halfhearted wave.

“Oh, do you two know each other?” the librarian asked.

“She’s my aunt,” I said as casually as I could manage.

“Natalie is your aunt?” Her eyebrows dipped. “Are you related to Matt?”

“Matt?”

“I guess not,” she said with a small laugh. “Matt is Natalie’s husband. Was. May he rest in peace.” Her head tipped to the side as she studied my face. “But if you’re not on Matt’s side of the family … Oh my God. Are you Anna Kate?”

Small towns never ceased to amaze me. “I am. Anna Kate Callow.”

The librarian grabbed my hand—not to shake but to hold. She clasped it tightly. “I’m Mary Beth Sheehan. It’s good to meet you. Zee was a wonderful woman, may she rest in peace. She was a regular here, and we miss her so. It was such a shock to learn she had a granddaughter. I went to school with your mama. No one even knew she was pregnant when she left town.” She tsked. “Such a tragic shame what happened.”

I didn’t know if she was referring to my mom being pregnant, her leaving town, the car accident, or my mother’s or Zee’s deaths. It was possible she meant all of it.

I tried to free my hand, but Mary Beth held on tight. I disliked the grip more than hugging. “Were you friends with my mother?”

“Not especially. Eden was a quiet sort. Kept to herself a lo. Didn’t have any best friends to speak of, unless you count AJ and Aubin. Have you met Aubin Pavegeau yet? He’s a bit of a hermit these days.” She dropped her voice. “He was in a bad car crash years ago, lost his wife—may she rest in peace—and he never quite recovered. Anyway, he and AJ were thick as thieves growing up. When Eden started dating AJ, it was only natural she became part of their friendship. You have her eyes. Such a pretty color, that green. Oh! It’s so good to meet you.”

“Thank you.” I finally freed my hand and hooked a thumb toward the door. “I don’t want to keep you when you probably have other things to do, so Natalie can show me how to use the microfiche. I’ll come find you if I have any problems.”

“Sure, sure.” Mary Beth grinned. “You know where to find me.

Oh! I am pleased as all get-out that you’re in Wicklow. You’ll love it here. I just know it. Come see me on your way out, and I’ll set you up with a library card.” She gave a full-body wiggle of happiness before pivoting and walking away.

Natalie had a wry smile on her face when I finally opened the door and stepped inside. I took a deep breath, blew it out.

“Bless your heart,” Natalie said, pure syrup.

“Is Mary Beth related to Faylene? She has to be, right?”

“She’s Faylene’s first cousin. Their mothers are sisters, though Faylene’s mama is passed on a fair time now.”

“May she rest in peace,” we said in unison and couldn’t help laughing at each other.

As I pulled up a chair and sat down next to her, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d laughed. It felt good.

I tried to mind my own business, but couldn’t keep from saying, “No doubt you heard Mary Beth mention your husband just now, and Faylene did earlier, too, at the café. I’m really sorry.”

Her hand fisted, released. “That’s kind of you to say so, Anna Kate, but I really don’t like talking about it.” She wrinkled her nose. “Mostly because I hope he’s not resting in peace at all.”

Pain flashed across her face. It was so unlike everything I knew of her to this point that I immediately knew Matt Walker had hurt her terribly. I hated him instantly. “I see. Then I hope he’s rotting to pieces in eternal squalor.”

She looked over at me, and ever so slowly, she smiled, a bright smile that filled her eyes with warmth, making them look like melted chocolate ganache. Her shoulders loosened as the tension faded. “That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard in a long time.” She let out a light laugh. “And I shouldn’t have said what I did. It’s just that I’ve been stuck in the angry stage of grief for quite a while now.”

“I understand that,” I said. “I’ve been there myself, but I’m guessing there’s a little more to your anger than mine.”

What was I doing? This was all much too friendly. Yet I couldn’t stop from trying to help her through her pain. “If you ever want to talk …”

Sometimes being a Callow stunk, plain and simple. I did not need to help everyone.

I didn’t.

Stupid heritage.

Oblivious to my inner turmoil, she stretched out her long, tan legs next to the table. She had on sandals with a slight heel but hadn’t once complained of aching feet during her shift, even though I could see an angry blister near her left baby toe. I was beginning to believe she was part Stepford after all.

“Thanks, Anna Kate. Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime. Only not today. Or tomorrow. Or the next day.”

“Well, you have until the end of July before I move back to Massachusetts for medical school. Plenty of time.”

Her eyebrows went up. “Medical school? Family doctor, I’m guessing.”

I knew why she’d taken that guess. It was because my father was supposed to have become a family doctor, going into practice with Doc Linden to continue the Linden legacy. “I’m not sure yet.” Family medicine didn’t appeal to me. Most traditional medicine didn’t, if I were being honest. “I’m drawn more toward integrative medicine, osteopathy, or homeopathy.” My mother wouldn’t approve, but it was the only way I was going to make it through medical school.

Natalie nodded, but I noted her frown and the way the skin pulled together between her eyes.

“What’s that look? Do you not believe in natural medicine?”

“Oh! No, I do.” She pressed her hands to her chest.

I noticed she did that a lot—when she was being earnest. “Let me guess. Your father doesn’t.”

“My mother and my father. I think the term ‘quackery’ has been said a time or two about the subject.”

“Well, it’s good then that it isn’t their decision.” And suddenly, it made sense to me why my mother had shied away from holistic medicine. I’d bet a zucchini plant that my dad hadn’t believed in natural medicine either. She’d denied her heritage to give his importance.

No wonder she and Zee were always snippy with each other on the matter.

“Very true,” Natalie said. “It’s important to follow your own path.” She said it with such conviction that I suspected she was saying it more to herself than me. Mind your own business, Anna Kate, I told myself, even while biting back a dozen questions. I wanted to know the details of her childhood, how it had been living with the Lindens, how she knew Bow and Jena so well, and, mostly, I longed to know everything, every last detail, about my dad. I needed to change the subject, so I said, “I’m a bit surprised to see you here.”

She glanced at the newspaper article she’d been reading. “I feel like a kid who got caught with her hand in the cookie jar.”

I glanced at the headline that had been zoomed in on.

 

Car Crash Kills Wicklow Standout

Leaning in, I studied the face of Andrew James Linden in a photograph that looked like it might have been one of his senior pictures. Dimples framed a wide smile. Downturned blue eyes sparkled with mischief, and freckles dotted his nose and cheeks. His gingery blond hair was cut short and styled in gelled spikes. “My mother only had one or two photos of him. I’ve never seen this one.”

“I’m surprised she didn’t have more. Didn’t they date for years?”

“Three years, since the start of sophomore year in high school.” I stared at the photo, wishing for things that were impossible. “My mother wasn’t much for picture taking. Or having her picture taken. Do your parents have any photos of them together?”

“Not that I’ve ever seen,” she said.

“They probably would have ripped my mother out of them anyway.”

After a moment, she said, “Probably so.”

I admired that she didn’t try to sugarcoat it. “Why are you looking at these old articles?”

She leaned back in the chair. “All my life I grew up believing Eden had gotten away with murder—it’s all I ever heard. But last night I heard my parents arguing, and Daddy claimed the crash had been an accident. Mama said it was murder. I don’t know much about what happened that day—I was only a toddler—but it was unsettling to know that the crash might have been an accident after all. Since I really don’t want to ask my parents for more details, I came here for more information. Unfortunately, most of the articles are generic. Lots of ‘the crash is still under investigation,’” she added, using air quotes.

I scanned the article. It had been a sunny day when the car veered off a back road and hit a tree. The passenger, Andrew James Linden, died instantly. The driver, Eden Callow, had been taken to the hospital and was in serious condition. Preliminary reports showed that no drugs or alcohol had been involved and that speed hadn’t been a factor in the crash. An interesting tidbit was that it had been my dad’s car. So why had my mother been driving?

Natalie said, “Is it true Eden couldn’t remember the crash? My mother always said it was convenient amnesia on Eden’s part.”

“It’s true. She only knows what people told her. Do you know why my mom would have been driving the car?”

“No idea. But my mother is absolutely convinced they had a fight about him going off to college and leaving Eden behind, and in a fit of rage, she drove off the road, aiming to kill them both, only Eden survived.”

It was the same story Jena had told me. “Mom wished she hadn’t survived. If she hadn’t been pregnant with me, I think she’d have found a way to join him much sooner than she did. She loved him more than life itself, and because I was a part of him, she loved me enough to raise me until I could take care of myself.”

I tried to tell myself that sharing this information wasn’t overly personal, that it was our history, but it felt like a lie.

Natalie set a hand on my arm. “She didn’t … she didn’t kill herself, did she?”

“Not purposely, no. But she never went to the doctor, and ignored the warning signs of the blood clot that led to a heart attack. I figured her heart finally had enough grieving and just gave in. But the thing is, she always claimed that she’d never, ever hurt my dad on purpose. That they loved each other and planned to get married. She doesn’t remember how that car ended up in the trees, but she knew it was an accident.”

“Why did she leave Wicklow so soon after the accident? My mother always said it was because of her guilty conscience.”

How I could so despise a woman I’d never even met was a mystery to me.

“She left town because of me. What would your parents have done if they’d known she was pregnant with AJ’s baby?”

She paled. “They would have tried to get full custody.”

“Exactly. They had the money, the resources, the clout, and the emotional desperation ”

Natalie let out a weary sigh. “Tell me this, Anna Kate …”

I glanced at her, waiting.

“Why are you here today? Why did you want to see these old articles?”

Rubbing at an ink stain on the tabletop, I said, “Mostly for the same reason you are. I want more information. My mom rarely talked about the accident, but when she did ”

“What?”

“I couldn’t help thinking there was more to the story. I think I have the right to know what truly happened that day.”

“If anyone does, it’s you. So what now?”

“Maybe there’s more information on the police report?”

“Probably. But that was twenty-five years ago—long before most police stations became computerized. Do departments keep paper reports that long?”

I looked at my father’s smiling face on the computer screen and once again felt a tug of sorrow. “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.”

NEXT: Chapters 11 & 12 

 

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