The Last Present Read online

“Maybe. I’m not sure I followed it, though.”

  “Me, neither. But from what I could piece together, Angelina has some kind of responsibility to help people, but tonight she just wants to be a teenager. I think she was trying to tell the woman she’d come after the party, but I’m not sure.”

  “I don’t know how any of this is helping us cure Grace,” Leo says. “Maybe we’re on a wild-goose chase here. Speaking of goose, do you think anyone would notice if we had some dinner? That food smells good!”

  Keeping Leo from food is an impossible task. “Just lay low. More of our relatives might be lurking nearby.”

  That’s apparently all the permission he needs. “I’ll get you something, too,” he calls over his shoulder.

  I lean back against the tree trunk. Although ablaze with stars, the sky is quiet, too. No planes, no satellites in orbit, no space station. Just other stars and other planets. Right now, in this very spot, Tara and Ray and Rory are looking up at the same stars, though they can’t guess how many are really out there, hidden by decades of light and pollution.

  “Have you fallen, miss?” a deep voice asks from above. I look up, hoping to find Leo with a plate of food. Instead, a young man in a very high collar that looks uncomfortable in the heat, is kneeling beside me, concern in his eyes.

  “I … I’m fine, thanks. I mean, thank you.” I guess young ladies aren’t supposed to sit on the grass and lean against trees at fancy parties.

  He tilts his head at me. “Are you one of the D’Angelos’ relatives from upstate? I cannot quite place your accent.”

  I glance around for Leo to rescue me, but don’t see him. “Um, I live pretty far away, I mean, not far from Willow Falls in terms of miles, but still, um, far.” I’m rambling, but I can’t help it. I didn’t expect to have to talk to anyone.

  “Willow Falls?” he asks, scratching his head. “Is that the name Smithy landed upon? I thought he was championing for Willow Hills. Although now that I think on it, there are no hills here to speak of, now, are there?”

  I stare at him, realizing what I said. “I … I’m just confused about the name.” I wave my hand in front of my face. “It must be the heat. I feel a bit woozy.”

  “You must let me get you some water. I shall be right back.” He strides off toward one of the tables before I can stop him.

  “I leave for five minutes and you’ve found a new boyfriend?”

  I don’t need to turn around to know that this time it’s Leo. “Who said I have an old boyfriend to replace?”

  He grins and kneels beside me. “A pretty girl like yourself? I’m sure the boys are all fighting over you.” He places a large plate on my lap. The edge is rimmed with what looks like gold. It is quite beautiful. I can’t say the same for the brown chunk of meat sliding around in what I think are mashed potatoes. “What is it?”

  Leo already has his first piece in his mouth. “I think it’s mutton,” he replies between chews. “Or wild boar?”

  “Mutton or wild boar? We’re not in medieval times!”

  He shrugs. “Probably steak, then. It’s good. Aren’t you gonna try it?”

  I push the food around with my fork, wishing I’d thought to stuff my pockets with Emily’s candy mixture. My new friend returns and hands me the water. “I apologize,” he says, tipping his hat at Leo. “I did not know you were here with someone.” He backs away, bowing as he goes.

  “He was sweet,” I say.

  Leo grunts and spears my chunk of nameless meat with his fork. I lay my fork on my plate, not hungry anymore. I don’t think we’re going to figure out anything here. Maybe we shouldn’t have let Bucky and what he did at the last party distract us. Maybe we should just finish what we started with Angelina and leave this all behind us.

  I’m about to share my thoughts with Leo when he reaches for the glass of water my suitor had brought me, and brings it to his lips. I grab it back. “You shouldn’t drink that. They don’t have the same water-filtering processes that we have. Didn’t you learn anything on all those school trips to the reservoir? There could be all sorts of things living in there. You’ll thank me later when a tapeworm doesn’t crawl out of your —”

  “Hey!” he says. “I just thought of something! The two people we most want to speak to are right there.” He points around the tree. “Not even thirty feet away!”

  “Don’t even think it, Leo Fitzpatrick! If you’re worried about my plastic water bottle messing up the time line, imagine what confronting Bucky and Angelina would do!”

  “I know, I know. Man, it’s frustrating. I wish Bucky would just tell us what he meant about Angelina changing and why he was pretending to be related to Grace and Connor.” He digs back into his food again, or rather my food. The tempo of the music changes to something much faster. At the same time, the chattering voices and the sounds of silverware clinking against bowls and plates abruptly cease.

  “Why don’t you ask him yourself?” I suggest.

  “Huh? But you said we can’t.”

  “Not young Bucky … old Bucky. Look. We’re back!”

  He looks up from his food and follows where I’m pointing. A familiar white-haired man ambles toward us, using a long walking stick for support. Gone are the gas lamps and almost all the stars. The lights from the mall parking lot are on, which makes it much brighter than it should be for this time of night. We scramble to our feet, holding the fancy plates, which apparently have made it through time with us. Looks like we’re thieves after all!

  Tara catches sight of us. “They’re back!” she shouts, shutting off the music coming from her iPod. The others jump up from their places around the campfire and stop short when they see Bucky. We meet in the middle, by the fountain. It’s jarring to see it crumbly and broken again.

  We all start talking at once and no one can figure out what anyone’s saying. Ray puts his fingers in his mouth and lets out a shrill whistle. “Respect your elders,” he commands. “Mr. Whitehead, you go first.”

  “Please, ladies first,” Bucky says, gesturing to me. He’s still charming a hundred years later.

  I have so many questions for him, I don’t even know where to start. The easiest first, I guess. “What are you doing here?”

  “Let’s sit down, if you don’t mind. We’ve got a lot to talk about and these bones are old.”

  Ray sets up a beach chair for him and Bucky sinks gratefully into it. The rest of us pull up logs around the fire. Tara shows Bucky the bags of snacks. “In case you need to eat first.”

  He holds up his hand. “I’m fine.” To me and Leo he says, “I saw you disappear at the beach a few days ago.”

  I turn to Rory and Tara. “I thought you said no one saw us?”

  “Hey,” Tara says with a shrug, “we were busy dealing with a movie star in shock.”

  “Following you to the beach was just a test to see if my theory was right,” Bucky says. “When Grace was rushed to the hospital last weekend, I knew Angelina would follow her there. And with Leonard and Rex’s curse and your blackboards, well, I started putting the pieces together.”

  Leo and I share a surprised look. Leo asks, “You know about our great-great-grandfathers’ curse? I mean, enchantment?”

  Bucky nods. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you anything sooner. Whatever my issues with Angelina, I respect the need to stay out of the way of one of her ‘projects.’ Everyone is on their own path, as she is so fond of pointing out.”

  “But you didn’t stay out of the way this time,” I say. “In fact, you seem very much in the way, Great-uncle Bill! You locked us in a bathroom!”

  The lights in the mall parking lot switch off all at once, and in the firelight I can see all the lines crisscrossing Bucky’s face. Now that I know how old he really is, it’s amazing that he looks as good as he does. There is a weariness in his eyes, though, probably caused by a lifetime of holding in secrets.

  “I promise to explain, but I need to start much earlier.” He takes a deep breath and his words tumble ou