13 Gifts Read online

Still utterly astonished, I try to pull my thoughts together. No bamboo lemurs? Stuck for the summer with my little cousin who had to be rushed to the hospital for eating half a glue stick the last time they visited us? I force my mouth to work properly. “But, Mom, you hate Willow Falls. Now you want to banish me there for two whole months with people I barely even know? While you guys are thousands of miles away?”

  To her credit, she has the decency to look down at the table. Her legs begin to twitch, one after the other, a habit she has when she’s anxious. “You shouldn’t say hate. That’s a terrible word. And Willow Falls was a wonderful place to grow up, wasn’t it, James?”

  My father nods. “Indeed it was.”

  “Then why don’t we ever go back? I know your parents aren’t there anymore, but why haven’t we ever visited Aunt Bethany?”

  “It’s complicated,” Mom says, still staring down at the table. “People get busy with their lives. But now you’ll have a chance to get to know your cousin. Emily is apparently a very levelheaded and stable girl, and I think she’ll be a positive influence on you.”

  I shake my head in amazement. “She’s seven and eats paste! And I’m levelheaded enough.”

  “She’s not seven anymore,” my mother corrects me. “She’s eleven now and quite gifted academically. I assure you she no longer eats paste. And do you call breaking into your principal’s office the act of a stable person?”

  I raise my voice. “How can I have any stability when you uproot us every time the wind changes direction?”

  She presses her lips together into a firm line. We stare at each other in angry silence. Dad pounds another nail. He must have a lot of faith in the lining of his slipper. Either that or he’s recently gotten a tetanus shot.

  When she speaks, she does it so softly I have to lean over the table to hear her. “What if I promise that if you go willingly, if you really try to get along with everyone and keep an open mind, then we won’t move again?”

  I shrug. “I don’t believe you.”

  “I’m serious,” she says, more firmly this time.

  Dad stops pounding and raises his brows. “Are you sure you want to promise that, Molly?”

  Mom folds her hands firmly in front of her and nods.

  Dad turns to me. “That’s a pretty good offer. What do you think?”

  Honestly, I don’t know what to think. It’s not like where we live now is so amazing or anything. Just another suburb in a string of suburbs. My parents never move us anywhere interesting. But the thought of not having to pack up again, of not being the new kid everyone stares at, well, that’s too good to pass up. “Fine, I’ll do it. But I get to take my bike and my Jake Harrison poster, and if Emily eats any more art supplies you’ll have to fly back and pick me up.”

  “Deal,” Mom says, sticking out her hand.

  “And we’ll never move again? At least until I graduate? And I mean high school, not just middle school.”


  I take her hand and shake it.

  “Start packing,” she says cheerfully. “We head to Willow Falls Saturday.”

  Jaw falls again. “As in tomorrow?” I manage to squeak out. “Boy, you’re not losing any time getting rid of me. What about my homework? And finals?”

  “We’re not trying to get rid of you, Tara. The research team I’ll be heading up has already started. I had intended to meet up with them once you got out of school. Now there’s no reason to wait. We’ll drop you off and fly out tomorrow evening from there.”

  I mutter something under my breath that, under normal circumstances, would probably get me grounded for a week.

  She throws me a warning glance and climbs off the bench. “We have to go to school later so you can clean out your locker. Your teachers will be dropping off your assignments in the main office.” With that, she motions for Dad to follow her, which of course, he does because he knows that arguing with Mom when she’s made up her mind is useless. As they stroll back to the house, Dad turns and gives me a you can do it thumbs-up.

  Maybe a summer away from my parents won’t be such a bad thing.

  I rest my cheek on the table and close my eyes. Sadly, the tight ball in my stomach is a familiar feeling. I get it each time my parents announce we’re going to move again. At least when we move, it’s still the three of us. A loud kreeee, kreeee sound right next to my ear rudely interrupts my downward spiral into self-pity.

  I open my eyes and lift my head off the table. I’m not alone in the garden anymore. A huge bird (a hawk? a buzzard?) is perched less than a foot from my face. Normally I would jump up and scream when faced with a giant bird with a sharp, curved beak, sitting close enough to peck my eyes out, but I’m frozen. I’m not a superstitious person by nature (and I’m turning thirteen on Friday the thirteenth, so that’s really saying something), but I’m pretty sure its sudden appearance is supposed to mean something. Good luck? Bad luck? Six more weeks of winter? No wait, that’s the groundhog.

  The hawk tilts its head at me like it’s trying to decide something. I’m being judged by a bird! Finally it ruffles its shiny brown feathers, apparently having come to some kind of decision. With a final kreeee followed by a garuuunk, it springs off the table and takes to the air. It gives a lazy flap of its enormous wings, then circles overhead in a slow glide. It’s still close enough for me to clearly see its yellow feet and pointy talons. With a sudden burst of energy, it flaps quickly and takes off. A second later I feel something wet and slimy slide down the back of my head.

  That can’t be good.

  Chapter Three

  I pull my still-damp hair into a ponytail and climb into bed, exhausted. The only good thing about today is that it’s over. While the lowest point of the day was definitely Mom’s announcement of my banishment to Willow Falls, further humiliations and annoyances included — but were not limited to — the following:

  1. It took three showers over the span of twelve hours to get the sticky hawk poop out of my thick hair.

  2. First I had to endure whispers of that’s her and goat and principal and pepper spray and suspended as I walked the hall of shame to the principal’s office with Dad. Then Shelby Malone (now my archnemesis) passed us in the hallway and said, “Wow, Sara, your father sure is tall.” And then DAD SMILED AT HER (even though she’d just called his only daughter by the wrong name) and said, “Thank you, young lady!”

  3. Principal Murphy announced that since my mother informed him I will be leaving tomorrow to attend a camp for troubled teens, he doesn’t want to keep me from “doing the important work ahead of me there.” So he’s waiving my homework assignments and will have my teachers send my final exams to the camp for one of the counselors to administer. If the words CAMP FOR TROUBLED TEENS hadn’t come out of his mouth exactly as a stream of green pus oozed from his left eye, I would have focused on them more. As it was, it took a few seconds for the words to register and for my brain to start coming up with reasons why I’m totally NOT a troubled teen, whatever that means: I don’t compare myself to airbrushed supermodels. I don’t obsess over boys (only Jake Harrison, and who doesn’t love him?). I don’t hate my parents (well, maybe a little right now) or smoke behind the gym like those kids who think they look really cool but actually look ridiculous. Okay, so maybe I wear black a lot, but it’s not because I’m depressed or rebelling against society or anything; it’s just that I have an awful sense of style, and black matches black really well.

  4. It took my father most of the car ride home to convince me that Mom let Principal Murphy believe I was going to that camp because otherwise I wouldn’t be allowed to leave town before exams were over.

  5. On the positive side, the principal clearly got at least some of his sight back because he flinched as soon as he saw me.

  6. I got home to find Mom had taken the liberty of packing my suitcase for me, and I had to repack it with the right stuff. I then refused to take a last trip to the ice cream parlor with her for our favorite, bubblegum ice c