13 Gifts Read online

“Hey, you like Jake Harrison?” she asks, apparently not noticing my Olympics-worthy leap.

  We both stare down at my poster, me trying not to faint from fear, her grinning. “I like him, too,” she says. “Why don’t you put it on the wall?”

  She reaches down for the poster, but I’m too fast. I quickly shut the lid, just barely missing her fingertips. “I’ll do it while you’re at school. Your book’s not there, sorry.”

  She sighs. “That’s okay. It just means I’ll be Emily B today. When you forget your books, you lose points.”

  “You’ll always just be Emily to me,” I joke, hoping to distract her as I push the suitcase under the bed with my toe. Had she really gone in there to look for her book or did she suspect something? Her expression seems sincere, but I don’t know her well enough to know how good a liar she might be.

  She glances over at the clock, then begins rushing around the room shoving various objects into her book bag. My legs are too wobbly to stand much longer, so I sit on the edge of the bed and watch.

  Aunt Bethany walks in, fully dressed and made up already. “Hi, girls. Tara, did you sleep okay?”

  “Yes, great,” I reply, perhaps a little too quickly. “I mean, the bed’s really comfortable.” I inwardly groan. What a stupid thing to say.

  “Good. I know it’s hard to adjust to a new place. Emily, Dad’s downstairs waiting to take you. I’m just going to talk to Tara for a few minutes.”

  Emily dashes out of the room calling out her good-byes. I place my hands on my lap, telling myself not to worry; Aunt Bethany doesn’t know anything about the comic. How could she? Unless … could there have been security cameras in that room? What if they’d watched the whole thing from their bedside table?

  “This came for you this morning,” Aunt Bethany says, handing me a folded piece of paper. “It’s an e-mail from one of your teachers.”

  I never thought I’d feel so relieved to see a homework assignment. “Thanks.” I don’t open the paper yet because I can see she has more for me.

  “I wanted to give you this, so you can come and go as you please.” She places a silver key in my hand. It’s attached to one of those stretchy bands so I can wear it on my wrist. I push it on there now, right next to the red rope bracelet. I see Aunt Bethany looking at the friendship bracelet with that same puzzled look as when she first saw it. Then she shrugs and gets up. “Well, you have our phone numbers if you need to reach us. You have the run of the house, and if you go out, just leave a note. Do you want me to drive you to the diner to meet Rory and her friends later?”

  I shake my head. “I figured I’d ride Emily’s bike, if that’s okay.”

  “You know the way already?”

  I nod. “With all the new towns I’ve lived in, I’ve had a lot of practice learning my way around new places.”

  Aunt Bethany’s face softens. “Moving all the time must be hard. Molly never used to have this need to always be on the go. I don’t know where it came from. Is it your dad?”

  I shake my head. “It’s always Mom’s decision. Out of nowhere, she’ll decide we have to pack up and move. But I’m pretty sure we’re going to stay where we are for a while now.”

  “Good!” she says, leaning over to pat my arm. “I hope you’re right.” She leaves me in the room, shaking her head as she goes, mumbling about how it’s a shame not to give a child roots. I sit there until I hear her car pull out of the driveway. Then I spring into action. I wash up, get dressed, and grab the little backpack Dad gave me. I take a minute to look at the comic before sliding it inside the backpack. The Fantastic Four. I know a little about that one. I think the lady can turn invisible and the one guy is, like, made out of rocks or something. And one guy stretches? I’m tempted to read it, but I don’t want to risk smudging the pages or anything. The cover states that this is issue #12, and that it was printed in 1961. That sure sounds old enough to be worth $200.

  I head down to the laundry room, where everyone leaves their shoes. As soon as I step into the kitchen, I’m greeted by Ray, in green plaid pajamas, holding up a plate of what looks like ground-up … something. “Ready for brekkie?” he asks.

  I’d totally forgotten about him! I shake my head. “Not hungry.”

  “Go on,” he says, thrusting it out toward me. “Give it a burl. I bet you’ll like it.”

  I shake my head again.

  He shrugs. “Suit yourself.”

  I hurry into the laundry room and he follows me, stirring his concoction. “Where are you off to so early?”

  I slip into my sneakers and open the door. “Just riding my bike into town. I want to get there when the stores open.”

  He laughs. “You don’t have to rush. Throngs of shoppers won’t be descending on Willow Falls any time soon.”

  I wish I’d just told him I was going out for exercise. Now he’s going to expect me to come back with something. “You’re probably right. See you later.” I close the door behind me.

  He opens it and calls out, “Stuff downtown can be exy. Before you buy anything, tell ’em Ray sent ya. Ask for the mate’s rate.”

  “Sure thing,” I reply, “whatever that means.” I fling open the shed doors. Nope, the bike didn’t get any bigger. I have to pump the tires again and shake a beetle out of the helmet, but soon enough I’m heading into town. It feels strange being the only kid between six and eighteen years old out on a school day. I wonder if people think I’m cutting school. Or maybe they think I stole a little girl’s bike and am making my (slow) getaway!

  I don’t stop peddling until I reach the corner of Main Street and the alley. Ray was right. I certainly won’t have to compete with many other shoppers. I spot some seniors going into the community center, and two moms pushing strollers into the library. Other than that, though, downtown is pretty empty.

  There are no sidewalks in the alley, and I can’t ride on the broken cobblestones. No other choice but to push the bike. The watch-repair store is closed, as are all the others I pass. When I reach the last one on the right, I lean my bike against the wall and peer into the circle David had wiped off. Angelina’s Sweet Repeats and Collectibles is as full of stuff — and devoid of people — as it was yesterday. I check the times on the door. The sign only says OPEN WEEKDAYS, but doesn’t give any specific hours. Well, I have nowhere else to go, so I reach around for my backpack and settle down next to the door to wait.

  I drum my fingers on my legs. I wish I had something to read. Something other than The Fantastic Four, sealed up tight in its protective bag. According to the cover, they meet the Hulk in this one. I guess he didn’t become incredible until later.

  Not much to look at in this alley. None of the colorful awnings of Main Street, no flags waving from flagpoles, no life of any kind really, not even a breeze. And David was right — it does sort of smell like feet.

  Hunger is starting to creep in, and I wonder if I should have accepted Ray’s offer of brekkie. Still, refusing to eat anything I don’t recognize has served me well up to this point. I pull the backpack onto my lap and unzip the outside pocket. Success! One of the granola bars Mom packed me for the train is still mostly intact. I inhale it, then look up and down the alley for a garbage can. Nope, none of those, either. I shove the wrapper back inside my bag, where my hand lands on a piece of folded paper. My homework! I’d forgotten I stashed it there. At least it will be something to read.

  I expect to see a list of questions on some boring topic or another, but instead, Mrs. Schafer, my English teacher, has written me a letter.


  Principal Murphy filled us in on what happened last week (although some of the details are a bit unclear). Obviously you are going through a difficult time right now, and the other teachers and I don’t want anything to derail your progress at the camp. Our experiences are what shape our lives, and as the great philosopher Socrates once said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Therefore, we have agreed that if you write an essay at the end of your program, reflecti