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Other Birds
Author: Sarah Addison Allen

 


Chapter One

 


The empty wicker birdcage beside her began to rattle impatiently. Zoey gave it a sharp look as if to say they were almost there. It stopped.

She glanced at the cabdriver to see if he had noticed. The old fig-shaped man was watching her in the rearview mirror, his silver eyebrows raised. Several seconds passed and he continued to stare, which she found disconcerting because she felt his eyes should really be on the long bridge over the water. But he seemed to be waiting for her to respond.

“Did you say something?” Zoey said. He hadn’t spoken a word since his Where to? when he’d picked her up at the airport.

“I asked if this was your first trip to Mallow Island.”

“Oh,” she said. “Yes.” The birdcage rattled in disagreement, but she ignored it this time. It was her first trip. The first trip she could remember, anyway.

“Sightseeing?”

“I’m moving there. I start college in Charleston this fall.”

“Well,” he said, drawing the word out like a tune. “Don’t hear of too many people moving to Mallow Island. It’s mostly a tourist place because of that book by Roscoe Avanger. You know it?”

Zoey nodded, distracted now because the small sea island had just appeared on the horizon and she didn’t want to miss a moment of it. It was rising from the marshy coastal water like a lackadaisical sea creature sunning itself, not a care in the world.

The closer they got to it, the more her excitement grew. This was really happening.

As soon as they were off the bridge, the cabdriver took a left and traveled down a two-lane highway that skirted the perimeter of the island. The water, dense with reedy vegetation, ended just inches from the pavement. But it didn’t seem to bother the drivers of cars with out-of-state license plates. They zipped along confidently, following decorative metal signs that read:

THE MALLOW ISLAND RESORT HOTEL: 3 MILES AHEAD

THE SUGAR WAREHOUSE: 2 MILES AHEAD

HISTORIC TRADE STREET: NEXT RIGHT

Afraid he might miss the turn, Zoey was about to point it out to the cabdriver, but he’d already put on his blinker. She sat forward, not knowing where to look first. If she hadn’t known that Mallow Island had been famous for its marshmallow candy over a century ago, Trade Street would have told her right away. It was busy and mildly surreal. The sidewalks were crowded with tourists taking pictures of old, narrow buildings painted in faded pastel colors. Nearly every restaurant and bakery had a chalkboard sign with a marshmallow item on its menu—marshmallow popcorn, chocolate milk served in toasted marshmallow cups, sweet potato fries with marshmallow dipping sauce.

Zoey rolled down the window, and a thick combination of salt from the Atlantic and sugar from the bakeries blew in. It was both strange and familiar. She wondered if the smell was bringing up a long-forgotten memory from when she was a little girl. She struggled to recall anything but, as with most things concerning her mother, her memory was more wish than real.

“Are you sure the place you’re looking for is on Trade Street?” the cabdriver asked, braking hard when a dazzled tourist decided to cross the street without looking. Zoey had to put her arm out to stop the birdcage beside her from toppling over. Pigeon was going to be seriously pissed when Zoey finally let her out. “This is a business section, not residential.”

Nervous that she might have gotten some detail wrong, Zoey rooted through her backpack to find the piece of paper on which she’d written the information. “Yes,” she said, reading from the paper. “It’s called the Dellawisp Condos. The building manager said the turn wasn’t marked, but to go down the alley beside Sugar and Scribble Bakery and you’ll find it.” That was the hope, anyway. If this didn’t work out, there was no backup plan. She’d be stuck here with no place to live this summer.

The cabdriver shrugged as they crawled down the street with bumper-to-bumper traffic. He found the bakery—a pink confection of a building with peeling white trim that looked like icing—and turned. The alley was darkly shaded by the buildings on either side of it, which didn’t bode well for finding anyplace livable back here. Just when Zoey was beginning to think that this was a colossal joke being played on her, and that her father and stepmother were having a good laugh about it right now, the alley opened up and there it was—a beautiful old cobblestone building shaped like a horseshoe. A wrought iron gate was the only entrance. It gave the place an air of magical secrecy, probably bewildering anyone who happened to take a wrong turn down this dead-end alley.

It was smaller than Zoey thought it would be. Every story she’d ever heard her father tell of her mother had been prefaced by her love of money and her conniving ways of getting it, so this wasn’t a place Zoey would ever have thought her mother would want to be—tiny and quiet and hidden. She felt a small thrill of happiness. Already she was learning something new.

“Huh. Who would’ve thought this was back here?” the cabdriver said. “How did you find out about this place?”

“My mother used to live here,” Zoey answered, handing him some cash. Then she grabbed her backpack and the wicker birdcage and got out.

She purposely kept her back to the cab as it left. As soon as she could no longer hear it, she looked over her shoulder to make sure it was gone, then opened the birdcage. She felt Pigeon dart by her on angry wings.

Zoey took a steadying breath and walked to the gate, which bore a weathered brass sign that read THE DELLAWISP. She pushed it open and the hinges squeaked, piercing the silence. In front of her was a small, overgrown center garden. She stepped inside and followed a brick pathway lined with short trees bearing clusters of disproportionately large, bell-shaped blooms. They gave off a cloying scent like a bottle of dropped perfume. Her backpack brushed one of the trees as she passed, and suddenly a swirl of tiny turquoise birds flew out.

With a shriek of surprise, Zoey ran the rest of the way to the U-bend of the building. She stepped onto the sidewalk in front of a door marked MANAGER. The birds, disconcertingly, landed on the sidewalk and began to hop around her.

They were exquisite little things, some no bigger than ring boxes. She watched as one found her shoelace and began to pull on it with its sherbet-orange beak.

“Please don’t do that,” she said, not wanting to move for fear of hurting it. “Can’t you tell it to stop?” she asked Pigeon.

Pigeon gave a crisp coo from the garden, as if to say this move hadn’t been Pigeon’s idea, so Zoey was on her own.

Zoey knocked on the manager’s door, her eyes still on the birds. When the door opened, she looked up to see an elderly black man in faded jeans and a khaki work shirt. He had a long white beard tied at his chin with a rubber band, like a pirate. The little birds seemed to take the open door as an invitation to enter and hopped past him into the office.

The man just stood there. His rheumy brown eyes, magnified behind square glasses, were focused on something over Zoey’s shoulder in the garden. Zoey had to resist the urge to wave her hand in front of his face to find out if he could actually see her.

“Hi,” Zoey finally said. “Are you Frasier?”

His eyes snapped to hers and he gave a rusty laugh. “I’m sorry, yes. And you must be Zoey. Welcome.”

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