The Last Present Read online

  “It struck very suddenly,” Mr. Kelly says. “Just a few hours ago she was so excited to go to the bar mitzvah. She couldn’t wait to play with her brother’s friends.” He stops talking while a family exits the elevator and we step on. He presses the button for the third floor. An older couple carrying pink balloons and flowers slip in right before the door closes. The woman — who I quickly deduce is a new grandmother — uses her elbow to push the button for the floor marked BIRTHING CENTER. “Our daughter just had a baby,” they gush. We try to smile for them, but like Mr. Kelly before, it’s hard to make our mouths go that way.

  The couple gets out on the second floor and Mr. Kelly continues his story. “So we arrived at Apple Grove early this morning. Connor needed to set up the video feed to allow David’s father to watch the service.” He pauses. “I hope that worked out all right?”

  We nod. “It worked perfectly,” I tell him. “It was like David’s father was in the field with us.”

  “It was Connor’s idea in the first place,” Leo adds. “He worked out the whole thing with the clinic where David’s dad lives.”

  “He gets his technical skills from me,” Mr. Kelly says, pride evident in his voice. Then his expression saddens. “When Phil — that’s David’s dad — first got sick, Mrs. Kelly and I used to drive David and his mother up to see him at the clinic. Phil could still crack jokes, and could even get around a bit on his own. But once his condition worsened, they stopped asking us to come.”

  Neither of us says anything. David’s never spoken much about his dad, at least not to me. I know his condition is permanent, and hereditary, which means that David might get sick one day, too. Mr. Kelly shakes his head as though shaking off the sad memories before picking up his story. “So Connor finishes setting up and we’re about to take our seats when Grace starts breathing heavily, gasping almost. We thought maybe she was having an allergic reaction to a bee sting or something, but we couldn’t find any sign of it. At first she could still talk. In fact, all she was doing was talking. But it wasn’t making any sense. She kept talking about strings in the sky. She kept saying what sounded like ‘Willow Falls is a blanket.’”

  “‘Willow Falls is a blanket’?” Leo repeats as we step out of the elevator and turn down a long hallway. “What does that mean?”

  “We have no idea. Then, just as suddenly, she stopped speaking at all. She didn’t appear to hear us, either. I carried her back to the car and brought her straight here.” He doesn’t talk after that, just strides quickly past rows of closed doors. The halls have that cleaning solution smell to them, which I guess is better than a lot of other smells a hospital could have.

  When we get to Grace’s room, all I can see at first is a metal bed completely surrounded by doctors with white coats and clipboards. In the absence of any chairs, Mrs. Kelly is sitting on a window seat that looks out onto the parking lot. Her face is white and she keeps clenching and unclenching her hands. I don’t see Connor. He’s such a good brother, he’s probably in the gift shop getting Grace some balloons.

  Everyone is talking at once. From what I can make out, the doctors are debating various solutions. I hear words like benzodiazepine treatment, intravenous fluids, shock therapy. My heart beats faster. Those don’t sound fun. Finally a gray-haired doctor tells everyone that the best thing to do right now is to make sure she’s comfortable and not dehydrated. One by one, the doctors and nurses trail out into the hall. I hear one of the doctors mutter, “Never seen anything like it. Not in Willow Falls.”

  Mr. Kelly hurries in and we follow behind. I stop short when I see Grace. She is lying on top of the covers, her small body taking up very little space on the bed. She’s still wearing the pretty striped dress she wore to the bar mitzvah. She should be on her way to the community center right now with the rest of David’s guests to dance and celebrate, not stuck here with doctors poking and prodding her. Her mother had braided her long red hair for the party and the braids are now neatly draped over her shoulders. Her bright blue eyes are wide open. Almost too wide. She is unmoving, her face frozen in place like a Halloween mask. As someone who has become an expert in reading facial expressions, I can easily recognize the one on her face now.

  It’s amazement.

  I scribble the word on my blackboard and hold it up to Leo. He nods, then writes, I was going to say awe. And also confusion.

  I nod in agreement. He takes my hand and squeezes it. My pulse quickens whenever he does that. I squeeze back, grateful as always that he’s here with me. We step closer to the bed. I don’t see pain anywhere on Grace’s face, which is a great relief. I can’t help but wonder what her last conscious thought was before she froze. I’m not sure what her parents see when they look at her. Judging from their own expressions of worry and fear, they must not see what we see. Or maybe it doesn’t matter to them. They just want their daughter back.

  “Mr. and Mrs. Kelly?” a woman asks from behind us. Her voice is all business. “Please take a few moments to visit the main office. They need to go over hospital procedures, sign paperwork. Insurance, visiting hours, that sort of thing.”

  I almost don’t look away from the bed. But something about that nurse’s voice sounds familiar. So does the ever so slight smell of apples that wafts through the room. Leo and I turn in unison.

  Angelina! She is no longer wearing the dress I saw her in at the bar mitzvah service, or the purple scarf. Instead, she has on a green nurse’s uniform, complete with an official-looking badge and sneakers almost as white as her hair. I wonder where she got the outfit. We were clearly right to come here. Not that I’d really doubted it, but seeing her is nice confirmation. For some reason though, I find myself a little annoyed. She could have told us where to come instead of making us guess. Even when she needs our help, she’s secretive. I look at her expectantly. She looks right past me.

  “We’ll stay here with Grace,” Leo offers. Grace’s parents exchange a look that says they’re not sure about leaving her with two kids they barely know.

  “I’ll be here as well,” Angelina says, straightening her uniform. “I’ll come get you immediately if there are any changes to her vital signs.”

  “All right,” Mrs. Kelly says with a concerned glance at the bed. She picks up her pocketbook and squeezes me on the shoulder as she heads to the door. I feel my anger at Angelina drain away a bit.

  “And you might want to tell someone the coffee machine in the lobby is broken,” Mr. Kelly adds.

  “I’ll get right on that,” Angelina replies, closing the door behind them.

  I put my hands on my hips. “So you’re pretending to be a nurse now?”

  She shrugs. “I’ve been a nurse for a long, long time.”

  “So let’s see,” Leo says, ticking off on his fingers, “that makes you a nurse, a school bus driver, the owner of Angelina’s Sweet Repeats and Collectibles, the caretaker of the Willow Falls Historical Society, a ticket taker at the Willow Falls Reservoir where you’ve been known to rescue people from drainpipes, a server in the school cafeteria, and one time you worked at the paint-your-own-pottery store where Amanda and I had our fifth birthday party. That’s seven jobs. Did I miss any?”

  “You missed plenty,” she snaps. “I like to stay busy.” She glances over at Grace and a shadow crosses her face.

  I put my hand on Angelina’s arm. “Today’s the day, Angelina. You obviously knew this would happen to Grace. It would have been nice to warn us, but I guess then you wouldn’t be you. Tell us what to do. Tell us how to fix it.”

  “If only it were that simple,” she says, sitting down on the end of the bed. There’s plenty of room, since Grace fills only the top half.

  “Is it all right to talk in front of her?” Leo asks, gesturing toward Grace. “I feel kind of weird about it.”

  “She can’t hear us,” Angelina says, shaking her head. “She’s in her own world now and we can’t reach her.”

  Leo gives the wide-eyed Grace one last uncertain look before faci