13 Gifts Read online

  Making Up Stories = Lying = Not a Good Thing to Do When Trying to Pay Off Debt to Society.

  But what choice do I have? I figure I’ll start as close to the truth as possible. “I … I know this lady who collects old canes and, um, things with ducks. I know she’d love this one.”

  “Canes and ducks, eh?” he asks.

  I nod. “Yup.”

  “This guy’s been like a part of the family.” He pats the top of the duck’s head. “Sure would be hard to let it go.”

  “I can pay you,” I offer. Maybe I should have led with that one. I have the money from Angelina stuffed deep into my sock. I no longer trust wallets. They disappear too easily.

  “Well now, that wouldn’t be right seeing as it wasn’t mine in the first place.” He turns to his daughter. “Annie, what do you think would be a fair trade?”

  “Hmm …” She taps her long nails on the dessert counter. “I know! We’re short a dishwasher today.”

  Mr. Milazo grins at me. “Whatya say? Ready to roll up your sleeves and dive in?”

  Great, just great. Rory and Leo are going to walk in here any minute and find me up to my elbows in suds and grease? But if I let the very first thing from the list slip through my fingers, I’m never going to finish. I glance over at the cane and sigh. “Okay, I’ll do it.”

  Annie laughs. “We wouldn’t really make you wash dishes.”

  “Just testing your commitment,” her dad says with a wink.

  “Oh,” I reply weakly. “Good one.”

  Annie’s cell phone rings. She reaches into her pocket and answers it, holding up a finger for us to wait. Her dad shakes his head and nudges me. “Kids these days with their cell phones, right?”

  I chuckle politely in response, glancing anxiously at the door.

  Annie slips her phone back into her pocket and says to her father, “That was Shelly. She apparently told the leader of her Sunshine Kid troupe that she sold fifty boxes of cookies instead of five. We now have forty-five extra boxes of cookies in our garage. Either we sell them by six P.M. tomorrow or pay for them ourselves.”

  Mr. Milazo claps me on the back. “I think we found you a job!”

  Annie beams. “How’d you like to be a Sunshine Kid?”

  “A what?” I ask, hoping I misheard.

  “They’re like Girl Scouts,” she explains. “Except their uniforms are yellow and orange instead of green and brown. And they let boys in. Oh, and their cookies aren’t as good. And they sing.”

  “So you want me to dress up in a uniform and sell bad cookies? And sing?”

  “I didn’t say they were bad. Especially if you put ketchup on them.”


  Annie’s dad walks over to the umbrella stand and pulls out the cane. Without a word, he presents it to me very solemnly, like he’s handing me a really important gift. It’s heavier than it looked in the stand. Very solid, and obviously well made since it’s held up all these years. Strange to think that someone wouldn’t have come back for it once they realized it was missing.

  “Fine, I’ll sell the cookies,” I mutter. “But I’m not singing.”

  “Wonderful!” Mr. Milazo booms.

  “What’s wonderful?” Leo asks, walking through the door with Rory. “Is today buy-one-get-one-free pancake day?”

  “No such luck, my boy,” Mr. Milazo says, thumping Leo on the back like they’re old friends. “This young lady here is going to be an honorary Sunshine Kid! She’s going to sell forty-five boxes of cookies by tomorrow afternoon!”

  “Is that right?” Leo asks, raising an eyebrow.

  I give a little wave with the hand not currently leaning on the cane for support.

  Rory puts her hands on her hips. “Tara’s new in town. What have you two done to her?”

  Mr. Milazo touches his hand to his chest. “Who, me?”

  “Is that smoke?” Rory asked, sniffing the air.

  “Hey,” Leo says, “if you’re out here, who’s making the pancakes?”

  Mr. Milazo’s eyes widen. He turns and runs back through the swinging doors without a word. Smoke billows out behind him.

  “Seat yourselves,” Annie instructs us, running after her dad.

  Rory leads us past the counter, where a group of women are eating ice cream and laughing. I glance hungrily at their bowls as we pass, and notice one lady picking out her gumballs and arranging them on her napkin. For the first time since I’ve been in town, it sinks in that my mother grew up here. And Dad, too! They probably came to this very diner, maybe even sat at that very counter. It makes me feel both closer to them, and farther away.

  We settle into the last booth. “Sooo …” Leo begins, glancing at the cane next to me on the seat. “Anything you’d like to share with us about your day?”

  I look from one to the other. “Um, not really. It’s been a pretty ordinary day. You know how it is in sleepy little Willow Falls.”

  “We do,” Rory says, not taking her eyes from my face. “That’s why we know it wasn’t an ordinary day.”

  I squirm, the cushion squeaking underneath me. It’s impossible to turn away from Rory’s intense gaze. “Well, I guess I do have to sell forty-five boxes of cookies by tomorrow.”

  “And why is that, exactly?” Rory asks.

  “It’s kind of a long story.”

  “We’ve got time,” Leo says. “You’re gonna have to spill it sooner or later, unless you want to sell forty-five boxes of really tasteless cookies all by yourself.”

  “They’re not that bad with ketchup,” I mutter. He’s right of course. I can’t sell the cookies by myself. Unless I buy them all! I do a quick calculation. Rats. I’d use up most of the money from Angelina right there.

  I sink deeper into the bench cushion. I might as well be back at school right now, trying to talk my way out of having to work with others on some project. The last time I agreed to be a part of a group, I wound up getting suspended. “I don’t have a good track record of playing nice with others,” I explain. “Ask any of my teachers.”

  “At least tell us what’s up with the cane,” Rory says. “My little brother, Sawyer, quacks at it every time we come in here. I’ve never seen Mr. Milazo take it out of the umbrella stand before. Why would he just give it to you?”

  I shrug. “I guess my charm and winning personality won him over.”

  Leo laughs. “No offense, but I’m pretty sure there’s more to it than that.”

  The waitress approaches the table and places one large chocolate-chip pancake in front of each of us. I hadn’t even seen anyone order. I think I could eat all three by myself. Leo digs into his pancake, but Rory doesn’t touch hers. She’s still waiting for an answer from me.

  I sigh, glancing longingly at my plate. “If I let you help me sell the cookies, will you stop asking me about the cane?”

  “For now,” Rory agrees, cutting into her pancake. “But there’s not much time if we’re going to sell forty-five boxes by tomorrow. I’ll pick up the cookies from Annie. I’ve babysat for her kids before; she lives right around the corner from here.”

  “Then what?” Leo asks. “Her kids will have covered their neighborhood already.”

  “True,” Rory says. “Why don’t we start at the community center? That’s our best chance of having a bunch of people in one place at a time. We’ll need to get uniforms, though. No one’s going to buy cookies from Sunshine Kids dressed in school clothes.”

  “Amanda was a Sunshine Kid in third grade,” Leo says, “but I’m sure her uniform wouldn’t fit anyone.”

  “I know where to get them,” I say quietly.

  Rory grins. “Great!” she says, as though it’s perfectly normal that I would know such a thing after being in town only a few days. “Then let’s get going.” She pushes Leo across the bench until he has one leg in the aisle.

  “Wait, what about our pancakes?” he asks, grabbing on to his plate like it’s a life preserver.

  Rory looks down at our mostly untouched pancakes