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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe

A Novel

Heather Webber

Forge Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1


“Why don’t you start at the beginning?”

“The beginning? Well, I reckon that was the funeral. The funeral turned into a damned circus when the blackbirds showed up.” Blackberry sweet tea sloshed over the rims of two mason jars as Faylene Wiggins abruptly slapped her hand on the tabletop. “Wait! Wait! You can’t print that. My mama would wash out my mouth with her homemade lemon verbena soap if she knew I cursed for the good Lord and all the world to see in your article.”

The reporter flipped the pages of his yellow steno pad. “I thought you said your mother was dead?”

“You’re not from these parts, so you’re excused for not understanding. Wicklow, Alabama, isn’t any old ordinary town, young man. Goodness, I wouldn’t put it past my mama to rise straight out of the ground and hunt me down, bar of soap clutched in her bony hand.” With a firm nod, she jabbed a finger in the air and added, “Now that you can print.”

Anna Kate

Commotion loud enough to wake the dead was never a great way to start the day.

Startled out of a deep sleep, I sat up. It was a quarter past five in the morning, and for a moment I didn’t know where I was. It was a familiar feeling, almost as comforting as the worn quilt I’d carted from town to town my whole nomadic life long.

As I rubbed tired eyes, clearing out sleep, the events of this past week slowly came back to me. Wicklow. The Blackbird Café. The funeral. The birds. The neighbors.

My God. The neighbors.

Drawing in a deep breath, I eased back onto the pillows. I didn’t know what it was that had woken me, because all I heard now was the air-conditioning rattling through the vents, the tick of the hallway clock, and melodious birdsong. Nothing out of the ordinary.

If there was any mercy in this world, the noise hadn’t been a tearful Mr. Lazenby banging on the café’s front door—for the third morning in a row. He was a sweet, mournful old man who simply wanted his daily piece of pie, but all I wanted was to pull the pillow over my head until my alarm went off half an hour from now.

Instead, I came fully awake at the sound of unintelligible shouts, a mumbled roar that seemed like it originated from directly beneath my second-floor window. Confused, I tossed the quilt aside and slid to the floor. I knee-walked across dusty pine boards to the window. Dawn brightened over the mountains on the eastern horizon, promising a sunny and undoubtedly humid spring day.

Looking downward, I saw a small group of men and women gathered in the side yard. About twenty strong, they wore big hats and sensible shoes, carried binoculars, and were lined up along the iron fence, staring into the backyard. I didn’t recognize a single one of them.

Not that I had met everyone in town since I arrived from Boston, but it sure felt like I had.

It had been an intense week, starting with the fateful call that my grandmother Zora “Zee” Callow had passed away unexpectedly of natural causes. I’d made a whirlwind trip down here to Wicklow, a rundown small town nestled deep in the mountain shadows of northeast Alabama, to make funeral plans and meet with Granny Zee’s lawyer. I then went back to Boston to pack my few belongings and forfeit the room I’d been renting in a quaint old colonial only one T stop away from UMass Boston, where I’d recently graduated.

I’d loaded my car, mentally prepped myself for a seventeen-hour drive, and headed south. I temporarily moved into the small apartment above the Blackbird Café. Buried my beloved Zee. And unsuccessfully evaded most of my kind yet nosy new neighbors who wanted to know anything and everything about Zee’s secret, mysterious granddaughter, Anna Kate Callow.

Me.

There had been an endless stream of visitors these past few days, and I’d never seen so many zucchini loaves in all my life. Each neighbor had arrived with an aluminum foil–wrapped loaf, an anecdote about living in Wicklow, a long story about Zee and her café, and relentless queries about my age, my upbringing, my schooling, my mother’s passing four years ago, and my father’s identity. I hadn’t minded the stories of Granny Zee at all, but I dodged most of the personal questions, especially the ones about my father. I wasn’t ready to go there quite yet.

It had been an exhausting, emotional week, and I didn’t want to even look at zucchini for a good long while.

Now this daybreak meeting. Who were these people?

A wave of muggy, warm air slapped me in the face like a wet towel as I pushed the window sash upward. It creaked in protest against the swollen wooden frame. “Hello? Hello!”

At the sound of my own voice, my head throbbed, pulsing sharply against my temples. I’d spent most of yesterday with Bow and Jena Barthelemy, the café’s only employees, readying the café for its reopening this morning. The energetic duo had given me a crash course in running the place, everything from ordering to inventory, tickets, and the point-of-sale system. I’d prepped dishes and familiarized myself with the menu and kitchen layout. The day had been nothing short of overwhelming, but Bow and Jena swore up and down that I’d catch on quickly enough.

Now, on my knees at the crack of dawn, craving strong coffee and utter silence, I questioned for the umpteenth time this week why on earth I’d moved, even short-term, to this tiny, two-stoplight Alabama town. I didn’t belong here. I should be back in Boston, finalizing my plans for my move an hour west to Worcester, where I was going to start classes at UMass medical school in mid-August.

Then I remembered.

Zee.

More specifically, Zee’s will.

“There, there!” someone shouted from below as he gestured into the backyard. Then he added in a somewhat shamed tone, “Never mind. It was a crow.”

A chorus of grumbles echoed.

“Hello!” I shouted again.

No one seemed to hear me.

Grabbing my robe, I quickly covered up my knit shorts and tank top and ran a hand over my unruly hair. The stairs creaked as I hurried down them. The pine treads were polished in a dark satin finish that came from decades of use. I could easily imagine Granny Zee zipping up and down these steps, which was strange considering I’d never seen Zee do so. In fact, I had never even set foot in the Blackbird Café—or Wicklow, for that matter—until earlier this week.

Wicklow had always been forbidden territory, a family commandment created by my mom, Eden, the moment she left this town at eighteen years old, vowing that we would never return. That had been twenty-five years ago, when she had been just six weeks’ pregnant with me. While growing up, every time I had asked about Wicklow, Granny’s café, the blackbirds, my paternal grandparents, whom she hated with her whole heart, and, of course, my father’s tragic death, Mom stubbornly clammed up.

Not that I could wholly blame her silence—after all, she had lost a lot here in Wicklow, including the love of her life and almost her freedom when she’d been accused of murder. Yet it had always seemed to me that the thing she’d lost most was herself.


Copyright © 2019 by Heather Webber