The Last Present Read online

  “I hope you’re right. But how do we know we won’t wind up at someone else’s birthday party? Think of all the parties that must have been held here on July fourteenth for the past hundred years, and we still don’t know what year we need.”

  Leo smiles. “It doesn’t matter what else happened here or what year Angelina’s party was. We know all we need to know.”

  “We do? How?”

  “Ask Rory,” he says. “She’s had a busy afternoon.”

  At the sound of her name, Rory looks up from impaling a marshmallow with a stick. I sit on a log beside her and she hands me the stick. Wiping her hands on her shorts, she says, “So get this. I went with my mom to pick up Sawyer at this camp he goes to at the community center, figuring maybe I’d catch Bucky there. I didn’t find Bucky, but remember my friend Sasha, who takes those ballet classes upstairs? She’s Kira’s older sister. You know Kira, the who kissed Jake during the play and then fainted?”

  “Amanda might not have met Sasha,” Tara says, joining us. “She didn’t sell cookies with us that day when the rest of us met her.”

  I let my marshmallow hover over the fire. “Yeah, I’m glad to have missed that one. Although I heard the uniforms were really something.”

  “I think I still have a wedgie from those shorts,” Leo grumbles.

  “Anyway,” Rory says, “Sasha was there today, coming out of her dance practice. Sasha and Kira’s family is related to Angelina somehow, like, really distantly, but they call her Auntie Angelina. So I said, ‘I thought you were all up at the lake,’ and she says, ‘That’s not till next week.’”

  My marshmallow drops into the fire, but I barely notice. “So where is she, then? Did you find out?”

  Rory shakes her head. “But I found out something else. Sasha asked me what I was up to this weekend, so I told her we were camping here, and without even asking, she said, ‘Auntie Angelina talks about that place. People used to have parties there before the mall went up. Auntie says none of them could equal her eighteenth birthday, though. It was the first one ever held there.’”

  “She didn’t happen to say when it was, did she?”

  Rory shakes her head again. “I asked, but all she said was that Angelina never reveals her age.”

  “It doesn’t matter, though,” Leo says, reaching into his pocket. “We know enough now.” He pulls out Angelina’s notebook and flips it open to the first page after Angelina’s handwriting. I see he’s already written down what Rory told us. How long was I sleeping?

  I stand up and grab a bottle of water out of the cooler. “Okay, so we know it was the first party ever held here.” I start pacing in circles around the campfire. “But we don’t know what time the party started or where to stand in order to be sucked into the past. We could be in the totally wrong place at the wrong time.”

  “Or the totally right place at the right time,” Leo says, grinning.

  “Why are you smil — oh!” And just like that, we’re in the middle of the biggest party I’ve ever been to. Instead of David’s voice coming from Tara’s iPod, an orchestra is playing a waltz. The air smells clean and fresh and strongly of apples, so much more so than in our time. No car exhaust from the mall parking lot. No mall at all! I guess we were in the right place after all!

  I turn around to take it all in. The trees! Their full branches spread low and wide, forming a natural canopy above the dancers. Gas lamps sway in the branches, glowing although it is not yet sunset. The apples are full and ripe, even though it is still early summer. I can’t take my eyes off them. “Leo, do you think the apple seeds Angelina gave us on our fifth birthday came from one of these trees?”

  He’s staring up at them, too. “I don’t know. I think those were on our great-great-grandfathers’ property.”

  “But Angelina told us Apple Grove was their property. Didn’t she?”

  Leo holds out his hand. “Let’s skip the history lesson till later. Would you care to dance, Miss Ellerby?”

  “Sure, why not.” I take his hand and we join the couples swirling on the dance floor. A dance floor in the middle of the woods! Really it’s a huge plank of wood, but still. Someone really went all out.

  “Pardon us,” a dancing boy in a top hat says, stepping neatly around me. His partner waves a white-gloved hand as the boy twirls her away, her long dress skimming the dance floor. Everyone is dressed a lot more old-fashioned than I would have guessed. I knew Angelina was old, but I didn’t think she was this old!

  Leo reaches for the water bottle that I’m still gripping and slips it in a pocket of his cargo pants. “Best to keep this out of sight. Judging by the clothes these people are wearing, I’m pretty sure plastic wasn’t even invented yet.”

  I lean in for the dance. He puts his hands on my waist and I put mine on his upper arms. I murmur in his ear, “I hope whatever we look like now that we’re dressed well enough.”

  “No one is pointing at us and laughing,” he says, “so we must be okay. Unless they’re just being polite and we’re really farm kids dressed in overalls.”

  “Well, safe to say we’re not cows anymore.”

  I let him lead me across the dance floor, doing my best not to trip or bump into any of the couples twirling around us. We reach the end of the dance floor and find ourselves in front of the old fountain. Except now it’s shiny, new, and bubbling with water. It’s the first familiar thing I’ve seen and is more proof that we’re really here, maybe a hundred or more years in the past. For sure no one we know is even born yet. There are no cell phones, no email, no airplanes overhead. I shiver in the warm air, and pull closer to Leo. “Don’t worry,” he whispers. “We’ll be okay.”

  I nod, trying to remember what my mom does when she gets anxious before a big job. Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth. I do this a few times until I feel brave enough to suggest we explore.

  Leo takes my hand and leads me off the dance floor. There are more people here than I’d originally thought. All ages, too, and not all of them are dressed as fine as the couples on the dance floor. There really are farmers in overalls, and they’re chatting it up with businessmen in three-piece suits. Kids of all ages run around chasing one another and stealing cookies from the centers of the tables. All of the women are in skirts, and most wear bonnets or carry parasols. Everyone’s feet are muddy since other than the dance floor, we are walking on the bare earth.

  A waiter in a white tuxedo walks by with a tray of oysters. He holds it out to us. I can tell Leo is tempted, but we both politely decline. The aroma of simmering meat mixes with the sweet smell of apples and my stomach growls.

  “This is so fancy!” Leo whispers. “I can’t picture Angelina wanting this.”

  “Mother!” a young woman screeches behind us. “Please tell Amanda and Leonard they must go home now! They are RUINING my party!”

  Leo and I freeze. Angelina sees us! She knows us! And she must be really angry if she’s using Leo’s full name. I wish we could instantly disappear back into the present but it just doesn’t work that way. We slowly turn around, ready to face Angelina’s wrath. The young version looks almost nothing like the old one. Eighteen-year-old Angelina is fashionably dressed in a long skirt and a tight blouse, her dark hair in one long braid. In her heels she stands taller than I’ve ever seen her. I push through the fear and say, “We’re so sorry, we didn’t mean —”

  But Angelina is not looking at us. She’s watching two kids, no older than eight, shoving each other by the fountain. Angelina’s mother, an attractive woman with hair piled high beneath a light blue bonnet, hurries over to split them up. “Leonard Fitzpatrick!” she scolds, pulling the boy aside. “I know your mama taught you better than to fight with a girl.”

  Leo and I gasp and grab on to each other for support. The red-faced boy has a head full of black curls and the girl has wavy blond hair, half of which is coming out of the pins used to keep it off her face. I can’t take my eyes off them. It’s like looking in that warped mirror agai