13 Gifts Read online

  “Sounds like her.”

  “Don’t tell me she’s still alive? She was old when I was a kid.”

  “Still alive and kicking.”

  “Who else have you met?”

  “Well, there’s —”

  “Honey, sorry to cut you off, Mom wants the phone and we only have a minute left.”

  “Wait, Dad!”

  “I’ve gotta hand over the phone. Miss you, honey.”

  “I miss you, too,” I say, truthfully. “Here’s Mom.”

  I take a deep breath, trying to prepare myself to talk to her.


  I attempt to say hello, but a lump has formed in my throat and I can’t seem to speak. It’s a lump made of anger and frustration and confusion and trying to act grown-up and keeping secrets and missing her all wrapped into one.

  “Tara? Are you there?”

  “I’m here,” I manage to squeak out.

  “Is everything okay?”

  I force myself to pull it together. “Yes.”

  “Are you sure? I’ve been frantic here, not being able to talk to you.”


  “You’re surprised?”

  I swallow hard. “Well, you’ve been so weird and angry, and you sent me away.”

  “Okay, I see your point. But you’re okay? You’re meeting people? Nothing bad has happened?”

  “Yes, I’m meeting people. And nothing … too bad has happened.”

  “Tara, they’re telling me I have to hang up. Stay strong. We’ll call again next week. And, Tara, I’m really sorry.”

  She hangs up before I can ask which of her recent behaviors she’s sorry for.

  “Your parents?” David asks, sitting back down next to me.

  I nod.

  “They’re still in Africa?”

  I nod again. “That’s far.”

  “Yup. And things with my mom have been weird lately.”

  “Sometimes that happens with me and my mom. It’s hard not to take it personally, but I’ve sort of figured out that mostly, it has nothing to do with me. Something at work could be bothering her, or she’ll get a call about my dad that will upset her.”

  I figure this is as good a time as any, so I say, “You haven’t mentioned your dad before.”

  He looks off into the distance, past the kids playing in the sandbox and the man selling pretzels, and into some place I can’t see.

  “He’s in a special facility about three hours away from here. He has a condition called dystonia. It started to get bad when I was four or five. He used be at home but now he has to be someplace where he can be monitored and taken care of correctly. He can’t control a lot of his muscles or even talk anymore.”

  David’s hand is gripping the edge of the bench as if he needs to feel the solidity of it. I remember doing that as I sat on the curb outside Bettie’s house after Rory and Leo told me about Angelina’s store.

  As though someone else is taking control of my body, with absolutely no conscious thought whatsoever, I rest my hand on top of his. After a full minute of sitting like that, I start to obsess over the fact that our hands are touching and that I started it and that he didn’t pull away. Should I take my hand off his now? What if he wants his own hand back but doesn’t want to be rude and move it first?

  Then he whispers, “It’s genetic. It might happen to me, too.”

  I stop thinking about our hands. “Might? How will you know?”

  “I just have to hope I get lucky and the gene doesn’t turn active.” Then he smiles. “Good thing I’ve got a good luck charm now.” He flips his hand over while it’s still underneath mine.

  David and I = Two People Officially Holding Hands.

  I feel full. Like I could burst. It’s an absolutely perfect moment. Right up until my phone rings and the pregnant lady who sold us the candlestick holder asks me to come over and clean her cat litter.

  “That’s Muskrat Suzy,” Carolyn says, pointing to the hugely fat orange cat currently hissing at David and me from the porch. “Don’t mind her. She about to have kittens and she’s very protective of her space. Muskrat Sam is around here somewhere. He’s the expectant father.”

  We make a wide circle around the cat and step into the house.

  “Sorry about the mess,” she says. “Bending down isn’t what it used to be.”

  I’ve gotten so used to Emily’s room that the few books and clothes scattered around don’t even faze me. Still, I find myself picking them up as she walks us over to the litter area.

  “You’re not supposed to clean cat litter when you’re pregnant,” she explains. “Something about a disease they carry in their … well, in the stuff they leave behind in the litter box. My neighbor had been doing it for me, but she’s on vacation for a week. There’s kind of a lot in there.”

  “It’s not a problem,” David says, plucking the little plastic shovel off the shelf. “We’ll be happy to do it.”

  I nod in agreement.

  “You two are very cheerful for people about to clean out cat poop.”

  I blush and grab one of the plastic bags next to the box. “This is nothing. I’ve seen a lot more poop in my day than this.”

  “You have?” she asks, amused.

  “I once spent a whole summer helping my mother label which animal it came from.”

  David stops, mid-scoop. “There’s a lot I don’t know about you.”

  That’s for sure.

  While we work, Carolyn sorts through some boxes of clothes that someone must have sent her. Every few seconds I’ll see her touch her belly, or rest her hand on it briefly. I’ve never been this close to someone as pregnant as she is. It’s totally bizarre actually.

  I must not be the only one stealing glances at her belly because she asks, “Would either of you like to feel the baby kick?”

  My eyes widen. I quickly shake my head. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare.”

  David jumps up so fast he almost knocks the litter box over. “I do! I want to be a pediatrician one day.”

  Clearly, there’s a lot I don’t know about David, either.

  David steps over to the sink to wash his hands. But when he approaches Carolyn, Muskrat Suzy positions herself directly between them and hisses, daring him to approach.

  Carolyn laughs and gently shoos the cat away. “She’s protecting me. Us two pregnant gals gotta look out for each other.” She places David’s hand on her belly.

  “Wow!” he exclaims, his eyes wide with excitement. “C’mon, Tara, you’ve got to feel this!”

  I really don’t want to put my hand on a near-stranger’s belly, but David seems to have no problem with it. So I wash my hands and join him. When I first lay my hand there, I’m surprised at how rock hard it is. Nothing like a regular stomach. A second later it feels like a tiny fist is punching my palm. I yank my hand away in surprise.

  Carolyn smiles. “Now you’ve met Milo.”

  “Isn’t it amazing?” David asks.

  Carolyn beams. “And the thing I didn’t expect was to love him so much, before he’s even born. Like there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him.”

  She starts singing a lullaby to her belly, and to my horror, David joins in, voice cracking and all.

  “You’ll make a really good doctor one day,” Carolyn says, smiling up at him.

  After another round of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” we resume cleaning the litter box and generally straightening up the place. David keeps chatting about this and that, but I can’t focus. All I keep thinking about is how my mom protected me like that, how she loved me like that, and how we can’t even talk to each other anymore.

  “Are you all right?” David asks on the walk home. He hasn’t tried to take my hand again, which I’m grateful for. I think all of this voluntary touching of other people in one day has overwhelmed my system.

  “I’m fine,” I tell him, feeling better now that we’re on the move again. And soon we’ll get to cross one more thing off