The Last Present Read online

  “This whole thing. We’re locked in a bathroom by an old man who thinks, what, that we’re going to steal a five-year-old’s birthday presents? In a few short minutes we’ll either be arrested, stuck five years in the past, ripped to pieces, or, option number four, wind up sitting on some unsuspecting person’s lap while they go to the bathroom. We’re going to need a vacation from our summer vacation!”

  He chuckles, but says, “I’ll laugh about it when you’re home safe.”

  “What about when you’re home safe?”

  He pauses before answering. “I care more about what happens to you.”

  I don’t know what to say. So I clear my throat. “Is Mrs. Kelly still trying to put the cake back together?”

  He peers back out the window. “Yup. Connor just got sent to his room. That means less than a minute to go.”

  I pull on the back of his shirt. “You should come down. We should stand as close as possible to the door in case option four happens. You don’t want to be standing on anyone’s lap! Or in the toilet if no one’s on it and someone left the seat up!”

  He scrambles off and we huddle together by the door. “Look on the bright side,” I whisper. “Only a few seconds left, which means we didn’t get arrested.”

  “True. And this room is much too small for a trampoline.” He starts counting down the seconds. “Three … please let Tara have gotten our email…. Two … I promise to be a better person and clean my room the first time Mom asks. … One!”

  White. Everywhere white. “Leo?” I call out, pawing my way through soft white air. Pieces of the air come off in my hand and stick to my face. “What’s going on? Are we in heaven? Is this a cloud?”

  “I’m here, Amanda!” he shouts, flailing his arms. The feathery strands begin to fall to the ground and I finally figure out what they are. The soft white air is actually toilet paper hung from the ceiling. From every square inch of the ceiling. I can’t even see the door.

  “Very funny, guys!” I call out, too relieved to be too annoyed. “Are you gonna blame this one on Ray, too?”

  Rory and Tara burst into the bathroom, nearly knocking us over. They can only shake their heads because they’re laughing too hard. Leo starts draping the long strands of toilet paper on their shoulders until they’re nearly as covered with it as we are. It takes them that long to recover.

  I sigh. “So I’m assuming you got my email?”

  “Yes!” Rory says. “We ran over here as soon as it came through on Tara’s phone. I’m sure Connor’s parents thought there was something seriously wrong with us when we locked ourselves in the bathroom.”

  “There is something seriously wrong with you,” Leo says, gesturing to the mess all around us.

  “Hey, you’re lucky Rory talked me out of the first idea,” Tara says. “Water balloons.”

  “We’ve already been soaked once today with a surprise sprinkler attack. Where’s Connor?”

  “He’s keeping guard by the kitchen door,” Rory says. “He thinks Leo ate a bad burrito for lunch and is telling everyone to stay far away.”

  I nod approvingly. “Nice.”

  Leo groans.

  We spend the next five minutes stuffing the last pieces of toilet paper into a big garbage bag and planning our next move. “The next party is the hardest one so far,” I tell them. “It’s about an hour away from Willow Falls at a relative’s house. Connor sits down on top of one of the birthday gifts. The one Angelina enchanted, of course. Crushes it to bits. We’re going to need Ray to drive us again.”

  “And an excuse to be in a stranger’s living room,” Leo adds. “We had today’s party totally under control. We should be upstairs celebrating with Grace right now.”

  Rory checks her watch. “Bucky should be back from his trip by now. Let’s go over there and see if he knows where Angelina is. If there’s something she’s not telling us, maybe he can. No offense, but you’re kinda running out of days.”

  Since the Kellys live so close to town, it takes only a few minutes until we get to the community center. And then only a few seconds to find Bucky, due to the fact that he’s currently onstage, playing his violin for the usual bridge and poker crowd that hangs out here in the middle of the day. A yoga class just got out and a few of the women are watching, too. Judging by his lopsided grin, Bucky is thoroughly enjoying the attention.

  When he’s done playing, we wait for his adoring fans to clear before we join him.

  “How nice of you kids to visit on this fine summer day,” he says, slipping his violin into a case.

  “Hey,” Tara says, pointing to the case. “Did you have to buy that? Did I forget to give you your blanket back? I’m really sorry. Things got kind of crazy after the play ended. I can get it back for you, or pay you for the case, or —”

  He pats his new case lovingly. “No need to worry, dear. An anonymous benefactor had it delivered right here to the community center. The ladies can’t help falling in love with me once they hear me play. Happens all the time.” He winks.

  Tara holds up the red envelope. “Speaking of ladies and love. Spill.”

  He squints at it, then shakes his head. “Never saw that before in my life.”

  “Bucky Whitehead!” Tara says.

  “Oh, fine. What do you want to know?”

  Leo nudges him in the arm. “So, you and Angelina, eh?”

  “Leo!” the three of us girls say.

  “What?” Leo asks innocently. “No use pretending we didn’t read it.”

  Bucky sighs. “So we’re having this conversation.”

  “We really don’t mean to be nosy,” I promise him. “We’re just hoping you can help us with something.”

  “Come on, then,” he says, leading us over to his favorite couch. He settles into his usual seat and we pull up chairs around him. “You know, my memory works a lot better with a full belly.” He points to the desk at the front, which is currently set up for tea time. “All that playin’ works up an appetite.”

  Rory jumps up. “I’m on it.”

  We wait for him to start talking, but he just hums along to the background music the community center pipes into the main room. I try not to show my frustration. Leo is not trying quite as hard. I have to kick him until he stops tugging at the loose threads on his armchair. The thing already looks like its best days were decades ago.

  Rory returns and hands Bucky a plate piled high with crustless cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches. “Hope this is all right.”

  “Just fine, thank you.” He rests the plate on his lap. “A drink would be nice, too.”

  Rory turns back around without a word. We watch as Bucky happily chomps on the sandwiches. Leo starts tapping his foot, which is at least less destructive to private property. Rory returns with a pink plastic cup of tea. There’s nowhere to put it, so she winds up holding it awkwardly on her knee.

  “So what can I help you with?” Bucky finally asks.

  Tara hands him the card. “I found this last week near Angelina’s seat at the bar mitzvah. It’s the one I bought for you at the drugstore, so we know you sent it. Sorry we read it.”

  “We weren’t planning to,” Rory adds. “We thought maybe it would help us figure out where Angelina is. Somehow I don’t think she’s really gone fishing.”

  “Oh, but she has,” he says, reaching for a sip of the tea. He hands it back to Rory. “A family reunion upstate. Lake, fishing, canoeing, the works.”

  Somehow I can’t picture Angelina in a canoe! “And she’ll be gone all week?” I ask, my hopes deflating.

  “That’s the plan,” he says. “But you know the saying, ‘Man plans, God laughs.’ That’ll no doubt make more sense to you when you’re older and have seen how life works out much different than you expect.” He looks off into the distance and it takes Rory offering him some more tea to bring his focus back to us.

  “I hope this isn’t too personal, Bucky,” I say, “but we really have a lot of questions for Angelina. Judging from your card,