The Last Present Read online

  “Your mom still makes you reuse yours till it falls apart?”


  “That’s pretty gross.”


  I drag him away and we turn into the baby aisle. We have to step around a girl in pigtails. Her baby brother is gleefully flinging pacifiers at shoppers’ legs while his sister struggles to take them from him and put them back in the bucket they came from. I’m glad I don’t have any younger siblings. Not that having an older one is such a joy, but still, it’s hard enough to be responsible for myself, let alone a little kid.

  I bend down to help the girl pick them up.

  “Thanks,” she says, pushing up the glasses that have slipped down her nose. “The second my dad went to grab something at the end of the aisle, my brother decided to do this. I think he lives to embarrass me. And he’s not even one yet!”

  She smiles gratefully as I hand her a bunch of pacifiers and I realize she’s older than I first thought — she’s just small and her hairstyle makes her look even younger. Leo yanks my arm so tight, I’m afraid he’s going to pull it right off. “Don’t talk to her!” he hisses in my ear. “That’s Rory!!”

  I whirl back around. The girl is bending down again because this time her brother has torn open a box of Cheerios. I gasp for the second time in as many minutes. He’s totally right! It’s nine-year-old Rory! We should keep moving, but we’re trapped by shoppers on both sides, and I kind of want to stare at this version of Rory for a few seconds longer.

  “Look what I found!” Mr. Swenson calls out, pushing his way through the aisle.

  “Guess the whole family’s here,” Leo mutters.

  Mr. Swenson holds up his basket. “Trick candles! They’ll be perfect for Sawyer’s birthday party next week. He’ll never see it coming! I grabbed all the ones they had!”

  “That’s great, Dad,” Rory says. “A little help here?”

  “Hang on a few more minutes, hon. Your mom gave me a whole list. You’re doing great.”

  Before she can complain again, he takes off. I can’t help but notice there is no stripe in his hair yet.

  Leo hisses at me again. “He took all the candles!”

  “I know,” I whisper back. “We can’t exactly tackle him.”

  “C’mon, Sawyer,” Rory says, turning back to her brother. “Let’s find a more boring aisle with nothing to play with.” She reaches down to pick him up and then quickly straightens up again. I expect to see Sawyer in her arms, but they’re empty.

  I look down. Sawyer’s not there! I turn around in a circle. He must have crawled through people’s legs in the split second Rory was talking to their father. Instead of freaking out like I thought she would, Rory merely sighs and shuts her eyes. I’m about to offer to help find him when I hear a whistle blow. Rory opens her eyes. “And there it is,” she says, taking off in the direction of the whistle. We hurry after her.

  “You can’t do that, little boy!” the store manager is yelling. “That’s for display purposes only!” We round the corner to find Sawyer, pants and diaper at his ankles, sitting on a plastic Elmo potty in the middle of aisle three. He looks up and gives Rory a big grin and two thumbs up.

  The manager is turning all sorts of unpleasant shades of red. Rory’s parents arrive and take in the scene. Mrs. Swenson hands her husband her fistful of coupons and bends down for Sawyer. “Look on the bright side, honey,” Mr. Swenson says as Mrs. Swenson pulls up Sawyer’s pants. “I bet he’ll be really easy to toilet train!”

  “You know you’re buying that now,” the manager says, barely containing his anger.

  “We’ve gotta go,” Leo whispers as Rory’s dad assures the manager that Elmo will be going home with them. Leo drags me away from the scene, which really, in any other circumstances, would have had us laughing until our sides hurt. We turn into the much less crowded greeting card aisle, where he lifts the bottom of his shirt and quickly drops it again, but not before I could see the box of trick candles stuck in his waistband!

  “Where did you …” I lower my voice. “You’re not going to steal those!”

  “Of course not,” he says, pulling the box out. “I mean, I did steal them from Rory’s dad’s basket when he was otherwise occupied with a peeing baby, but c’mon, the guy had six boxes. That’s called being greedy.”

  “Slick move, Leon,” I say as he strides up to the last aisle, which fortunately is the farthest from where Mrs. Swenson is now trying to convince the manager to sell them the potty at a discount since it’s used. Mr. Swenson doesn’t seem to notice that his basket is one box of candles lighter. We pay and run out of the store, not looking back. We only slow down when we get within a few stores of the pottery place. I lean against the wall to catch my breath. “Do you think Rory will remember me, I mean Amy, talking to her?”

  “I’m not sure. Depends on how many embarrassing moments she’s had. This one might not stand out.”

  I consider this. She’s had a lot just in the last few years that we’ve been friends. And this one clearly wasn’t the first. Even though it was risky talking to her, it was really cool and I’m totally glad I did it.

  Leo and I slip around the back of the pottery store. The back door is open, with just a screen door between us and the party that we can hear going on inside. The door creaks as we open it, but it’s way too loud in there for anyone to notice. As we’d hoped, the cake is sitting on the counter in the back room. Beside it lays a box of small pink candles.

  I reach into the bag from the drugstore and pull out the new ones. Besides being rainbow colored, our candles are considerably taller. “What are we going to do?”

  “We don’t have a choice,” Leo says, already shoving the pink box into his pocket. “Let’s just leave them here. Maybe they won’t notice.”

  I place ours on the counter. “Or maybe they’ll think the store gives everyone a free box.”

  We slip back out, then hurry around to the front so we can watch through the store window. It takes a while to collect all the pottery pieces and clean off the tables so Mrs. Kelly can lay out the paper plates. Leo already has Angelina’s notebook out in front of him, staring down at the page. “Any minute now,” he says.

  The singing begins and we risk pressing our faces up to the glass. I’m very relieved to see our candles in the cake, their tiny flames dancing and sparkling. “We didn’t leave them much choice,” Leo whispers, reading my mind.

  Grace makes her wish, then begins to blow out the candles. As expected, Connor squeezes right up next to her and blows as hard as he can. The flames flicker and we grab each other’s hands tight. But the flames soon return, strong as ever. Everyone laughs and Mr. Kelly forcibly removes Connor from the table. Grace giggles and keeps huffing and puffing until all of them are out. All the kids and grown-ups are laughing and clapping with delight. I glance over at Connor. He just seems confused. Only two grown-ups aren’t laughing — Mrs. Kelly, who is busy glaring at Connor for trying to blow out his sister’s candles, and their grandfather, who is frowning at a piece of broken pottery in his hand.

  “Ta-da!” Leo says, holding up the notebook. “A big red check mark!” We high-five and run around to the back of the store again. One of the college girls who they hired to help with the party is carrying some trash out to the dumpster. If she doesn’t get back in on time, she’s going to see us disappear!

  She turns back toward the building, but then stops and takes out her phone. My heart sinks. “What do we do?”

  “I got us out of this before,” Leo says confidently. “I can do it again.”

  We walk over to the spot where we first arrived, and even though I’m sure she must be wondering why we’re standing here, she’s too absorbed in her conversation to say anything. She’s still only a few feet away from us, though. This is not good.

  I lean toward him and whisper, “I think she’s too old to care if Jake Harrison was spotted nearby.”

  “I got this, don’t worry.” Leo checks his watch.