The Last Present Read online

  The shoe box rests much too lightly on my lap to hold a pair of shoes. It almost feels empty. Contrary to what Connor thinks, I can’t tell what’s inside. “All right,” I reply to his unasked question, and lift the lid. He leans over and frowns down at a carefully folded train schedule covered in small blue ink. Below it, the corner of a small, square, yellowed envelope peeks out. “Bummer,” he says. “Not a pair of high tops.” He settles back and leaves me to it.

  I start with the train schedule. I find the words Dearest Grace in one corner and begin there, turning the paper in circles as I follow the words.

  I am writing this the old-fashioned way, with ink on paper on a moving train. I must start off with an apology, and they do not come easy for me. I was not ready to share my secrets, to show you (or anyone) the threads that bind this town. I am sorry to have frightened your family this past week, but I had to protect you, and them. You were spilling secrets without knowing it, telling tales that weren’t yours to tell. People would have figured it out, had they heard more. You are so young to carry this burden, this highest responsibility. I do not recall feeling as young when it was my turn, although no doubt my mother felt differently.

  My life has been filled every day with equal parts beauty and sadness, regret and joy. So I silenced you to borrow some time, to give Amanda and Leo a chance to do what I couldn’t achieve the first time. But you have surprised me, young Grace. You were not frightened by what you saw, these weavings of time and place. You held tight to your connection with it, as I suppose I did as well, so long ago. There is not room for both of us, not for long. The old must always make way for the young; time goes only in one direction for a reason. It is your turn, Grace.

  Amanda and Leo, Rory, and Tara, they have taken up residence in this old lady’s heart, although they may be surprised to hear of it. And David, well, it was all about him in the end, wasn’t it? You have a larger family now. They, and I, will be here for you. You will not be alone as you enter this new world. When you are eighteen, you will find your own way, as it was for me, and for those who came before.

  Think of the moments with your loved ones as gifts, presents for the years when those around you have run out of birthdays, but you have not. I have one last present for you, which you will find in this box. It will open doors to wonders unimagined. Use it or don’t.

  Take the next two years to learn and grow. You will be older by the time your full strength is restored, and more prepared to take on the life you were chosen for. I will visit, will tend my herb garden, will watch the trees of Apple Grove grow tall enough to once again provide shade for the townspeople to dance under. You can always find me if you need me. Well, not always, I suppose. Now that my power has been spent, my long life will one day catch up with me. But let us not dwell in dark places. It is much nicer to walk in the light. The present — the here and now — is perhaps the greatest gift.

  I shall be leaving town for a while, a few months, even. There is much I have not seen of the world outside our little town, and as the saying goes, there is no time like the present. If you run into Bucky Whitehead, tell him he’s the most charming fiddler I ever did see.


  I reread the letter, smiling at the line about Bucky. I had been worried that alerting him earlier to her arrival may have been a mistake. I knew she loved him, and he her, but I’ve never played matchmaker before. Turned out that he’d had their suitcases packed since my birthday.

  I pick up the envelope, feeling the outline of the hard, key-shaped object inside. I try to sense the lock’s location, but Angelina must have blocked it. I wonder what else she has shielded from me. I will trust, for now, that she is still looking out for my best interests. Flipping the envelope over reveals two words: Ask Tara.

  “It’s down here?” I ask, craning my neck to see down the narrow alley. “I’ve never been here before. Aren’t these stores closed down?”

  Tara and the other girls exchange smiles. “Only sometimes,” Tara says. She leads the way while David, Leo, and Connor trail behind to distance themselves from anything that has to do with shopping. David is talking nonstop about his father and the plans they made on the train for the rest of the summer, and how now his mom won’t be so sad all the time and maybe they’ll get a dog. It has not yet occurred to him that he no longer has to worry about when the disease will strike him. This realization will come soon, tonight after dinner. Tara will be the first person he tells, Connor the second. Not paying attention, David stumbles on the uneven cobblestones, pitching forward. A tiny flick of my hand and he’s upright again, only partially aware he almost fell. I’m pretty handy to have around!

  I glance at the stores as we pass by. They don’t look like much fun. A whole store for watches? A sign in the barbershop window promises a shave and a haircut for two dollars. Sure, maybe fifty years ago. “Are you sure my key has something to do with these stores?”

  Tara stops in front of the last store. “Just this one.” The letters on the top of the door spell out ANGELINA’S SWEET REPEATS AND COLLECTIBLES. Angelina left me a key to a thrift shop? The girls use their forearms to sweep away circles of dust from the large glass windows lining the storefront. I can now clearly see the contents of the store, stuff stacked high on shelves, hung on racks, piled in corners. Even from this distance, I can see the objects glowing with their history. I can see who owned them, and I can see why the owners brought them here to sell. I can see who needs them. Sorting through all these things will take years. Maybe that’s what Angelina had in mind.

  David steps forward, pressing his face to the glass. “Hey! When did all that stuff get here?”

  “Finally!” Tara shouts as the others burst out laughing. She runs up to David and he faces her, his eyes wide with surprise. We all turn away.

  It’s not polite to watch someone’s first kiss.

  A heartfelt thank-you to everyone at Scholastic who lovingly helped bring Willow Falls to life, and to the amazing, inspiring, wonderful readers who came for a visit and never left. You guys are the BEST.

  About the Author

  Wendy Mass is the author of award-winning books for young readers, including 11 Birthdays, Finally, 13 Gifts, and the Twice Upon a Time series: Rapunzel, The One with All the Hair; Sleeping Beauty, The One Who Took the Really Long Nap; and Beauty and the Beast, The Only One Who Didn’t Run Away; as well as A Mango-Shaped Space, Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall, Leap Day, Every Soul a Star, and The Candymakers. She lives with her family in New Jersey.

  Don’t miss any of these spellbinding stories from Wendy Mass!

  The Willow Falls series

  11 Birthdays


  13 Gifts

  Twice Upon a Time

  Rapunzel: The One with All the Hair

  Sleeping Beauty: The One Who Took the Really Long Nap

  Beauty and the Beast: The Only One Who Didn’t Run Away

  Copyright © 2013 by Wendy Mass

  Cover photograph © by Michael Frost

  Cover design by Whitney Lyle

  All rights reserved. Published by Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., Publishers since 1920. SCHOLASTIC, SCHOLASTIC PRESS and associated logos are trademarks and/or registered trademarks of Scholastic Inc.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Mass, Wendy, 1967– author.

  The last present / Wendy Mass. — First edition.

  pages cm

  Summary: Children’s birthdays are always strange in Willow Falls, but when Connor’s little sister Grace falls into a frozen state on her tenth birthday, Amanda and Leo must travel back in time to find out what force prevented Angelina from casting the blessing that would have protected her.

  ISBN 978-0-545-31016-1 (hardcover)

  1. Birthdays — Juvenile fiction. 2. Time travel — Juvenile fiction. 3. Blessing and cursing — Juvenile fiction. 4. Best friends — Juvenile fiction. 5. Paranormal fiction.