13 Gifts Read online

  I get a sinking feeling. “Do these people even know you want their things?”

  She shakes her head again. “Nope. That’s where you come in. You get to convince them to hand over the goods.” “How am I supposed to do that?”

  She shrugs. “You’ll have to offer them money, or charm them with your winning personality. Stealing the goods, I feel the need to point out, is not an option.”

  She bends down and rummages under the counter. All I can see is the top of her shoulders. I assume she’s digging around for the money to give me, but when she resurfaces, she plunks an old-fashioned tape recorder on the counter instead. “I don’t trust making lists on paper,” she says, sliding the tape recorder closer to me. “Paper burns, it drifts away. These babies will last forever.”

  Honestly, the thing must be forty years old. Inside the scratched window lies a single cassette tape. Whatever words had been written on the label faded into blue smudges long ago. “What do I do with this?”

  She rolls her eyes. “You take it home and listen to it. The list of objects is on there. I’d start tracking them down right away if I were you. It might take you some time to find them.”

  My jaw drops. “You mean you’re not going to tell me who has them?”

  “Don’t know myself. They’re here in town somewhere.” She waves her arms around as if that’s helpful in any way.

  I grip the edges of the counter. “But what if I can’t find everything?”

  She leans over the counter and puts her hand on mine. It is surprisingly comforting. “If you can’t get everything on that list, you will simply return the money. Oh, and either you’ll tell your uncle about the comic or I will.”

  I yank my hand away. Obviously I’ll have spent all the money by that time. Where would I get another two hundred to pay her back? I couldn’t. And of course I don’t want Uncle Roger to know about the comic. Which means I have no choice but to find everything on that list.

  Quick as a flash, she presses a combination of buttons on her cash register and the drawer shoots open. She counts out ten twenty-dollar bills and hands them to me. I zip them up into my bag, then check the zipper twice. There’s no way I’m losing ANY money this time.

  “Um, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful,” I say, forcing myself to make direct eye contact, “but maybe there’s something I can do here instead? I’m really good at organizing things. Or I could sweep or dust. I mean, no one knows me in Willow Falls, so wouldn’t it just be easier if you asked them for these items, instead?”

  “Believe it or not,” she says, “some people have been known to lock their doors when they see me coming.”

  “Why? Because you’re always asking for their stuff?”

  “Sure, we’ll go with that explanation. And now that you mention it, you’d be best off not telling them it’s for me.”

  “But people must sell you stuff all the time, the shelves are full of—”

  “No need to come back until you have everything on the list,” she says, cutting me off. “I’ll see you here in a month, let’s say July thirteenth.”

  “But that’s my thirteenth birthday,” I blurt out, although saying it makes me sound like I’m about two years old. And it’s not like I have other plans that day.

  She peers closer at me. “You know what happens when you turn thirteen, don’t you?”

  “You become a teenager?”

  She scoffs. “Much more than that. At thirteen your soul becomes settled in your body. You become the core of the person you will be for the rest of your life. And thanks to me, you’ll have paid off your debt to society by completing this job. You can enter your teen years free and clear.”

  I’ve had pretty much enough of this. “Honestly, isn’t ‘debt to society’ a bit much? Selling the comic book would only have affected one person. If he even noticed.”

  “You truly believe that?” she asks.

  I nod, more confidently than I feel.

  She shakes her head. “Our actions have long-lasting consequences, of which we often have no knowledge. They ripple far out into the universe.”

  “I know that.” After all, me being sent to Willow Falls is proof of how well I know that. “But trust me, I’m a sit-this-one-out kind of girl. I don’t get involved for that exact reason. I don’t want to ripple anyone’s universe.”

  She puts her hand on mine again and, again, I relax a tiny bit. “Well, you’re off the sidelines now, kid. Welcome to the game.”

  Then she steps into her office and closes the door behind her.

  I rock back on my heels. This is sooooo not how I thought my morning would go. My brain is swirling. Souls solidifying? Me, in the game? How can I be in the game when I don’t know any of the rules?

  After five minutes of her not returning, I see no other choice but to accept her terms. I slide the comic into my backpack and reach for the tape recorder. I can barely lift it! It must weigh thirty pounds! How did Angelina make it look so effortless? She must be stronger than she looks. I lug the old machine out of the store, clutching it to my chest with both arms. There’s gotta be a dozen better ways to make a list of something.

  By the time I get back to the house, I’m exhausted from the effort of balancing the tape recorder on top of Emily’s wicker basket, which I’ll now have to replace due to it being totally squashed. I’d had to keep a hand on the machine at all times, which meant leaning over the handlebars and riding at a really awkward angle.

  Thankfully no one else is home or else it would have been hard to explain the sudden appearance of a giant tape recorder from the days before people walked on the moon. I can tell that Aunt Bethany has come and gone again, because there are shopping bags piled up on the stairs.

  The first thing I see when I get up to the bedroom is a large red and white shopping bag on my bed. I rest the tape recorder on the desk and peek inside the bag. Clothes. A lot of very colorful clothes that are way too big for Emily. I dump out the bag until it looks like a rainbow exploded on my bed. Had Emily told her mom about my lack of wardrobe? Or maybe Aunt Bethany saw it for herself when she put me to bed that first night. It was really nice of her to do this, but everything’s so … bright.

  Leaving the clothes where they are, I return to the task at hand — returning the comic. Even though I didn’t see any cars, I still put my ear up to the door of the Collectibles Room. Satisfied that all I hear is the hum of the central air-conditioning, I turn the knob and push. But the door doesn’t budge.

  It’s locked! How could it be locked? I feel the panic rise up in me. Uncle Roger would have had to lock it sometime between midnight last night and now. Why would he do that? Did he know someone had been there? Did he know it was me?

  I feel way too obvious standing here in the hall. Someone could come home at any minute and see me holding it. I need to hide the comic somewhere really good. It can’t be in my suitcase, since both Emily and Aunt Bethany seem to have no hesitations about going in there. I stare down the hall. The lab! All those piles of magazines that couldn’t have been looked at in five years. If I slipped it in between them, it would blend right in.

  So I listen at the lab door, then push it open. Everything looks just as it did that first night when I stumbled into the room by mistake. I head right for the magazines and slip the comic inside an issue of Inventors Digest from seven years ago. I stack a few more issues on top of it, then stand back. Looks good. And if Uncle Roger did happen to come across it, maybe he’d think he left it there himself by mistake. Until I can get that other door open, this will have to be a good enough option.

  Now, on to the tape recorder. I sit at Emily’s desk and examine it from all sides. I press the little button that’s supposed to release the tape cover, but nothing happens. I try to wrench it open to get at the tape underneath, but it won’t let me lift it enough to get my fingers in there. It would help if there were a button that actually said PLAY SO I could tell if the tape still worked. I rub my finger over the large black butt