13 Gifts Read online

  “Not exactly,” I reply. “Mom? Maybe you’d like to tell him what it is?”

  She drops down onto her knees, right on the grass.

  “Molly!” Dad says, rushing to her side. “Are you all right?”

  “Where did you get that?” she asks. Her voice sounds like it’s coming through a very long tube. “Did Polly give it to you?”

  “I don’t actually know her name,” I tell her.

  “Long brown hair? Very pretty? Probably hates me?”

  I nod. “That’s her.”

  “Your old friend from school?” Dad asks, kneeling beside her. “I know you two fell out of touch, but why would she hate you?”

  Mom looks at him, her eyes bleak. “You never noticed that we stopped talking once you and I started dating?” He shrugs. “Not particularly.”

  She stares at him for a minute, then rolls her eyes in my direction, as though I’m supposed to commiserate with her on the cluelessness of guys. I don’t show any expression, and she stares back down at the grass.

  “I knew one day we’d have to have this conversation,” she says. “It might as well be now. My guilt has only been getting worse.”

  Dad reaches out to take her hand. Now I roll my eyes. Wait till he hears that he only wants to comfort and love her because she tricked him into it.

  “Whatever it is, Molly, you can tell us,” he says.

  She gently pulls her hand away from his, and takes a deep, shuddering breath. “One day, back in eighth grade, I was at Polly’s house after school. I overheard her grandmother on the phone, bragging about how her granddaughter was about to snag a boy. I remember she said good genes run in that family. They’re tall and sturdy. Good stock.”

  The corners of my mouth twitch at that one, but I quickly stop myself.

  “Anyway, she said how Polly had bought something from Angelina D’Angelo. A love potion.” She cringes as she says the words, unwilling to even look in Dad’s direction. He starts to laugh, but Mom’s story is about to get a lot less funny. “I knew exactly who Polly would be using it on, and I knew exactly where she’d have hidden it. A few days later, I snuck in when I knew no one would be home — no one locked their doors in Willow Falls back then. Probably still don’t. Anyway, I took the bottle.”

  At this point in the story, Dad looks down at the bottle he’s still holding. “This?”

  She nods miserably. “Then at the eighth-grade dance, I brought the boy I liked a cup of juice and he drank it.” She pauses here and waits for Dad to catch up. I watch as realization dawns on him, slowly at first, then with a sudden burst of understanding.

  “Me?” he asks, letting the bottle slip from his grip onto the grass.

  Mom bites her lip and forces herself to look at him. “Saying I’m sorry doesn’t cut it, I know. I couldn’t risk Polly snagging you.”

  He rocks back on his heels. “Polly liked me?”

  She nods. “And I knew you liked her. And I trapped you into a lifetime of loving someone you didn’t want to love. At first, when we were young, it didn’t bother me much. Then as we got older, and Tara came along, the guilt started to eat away at me. What right did I have to play with people’s lives like that?”

  No one answers her. She reaches out for me and tries to pull me down. I stay standing. She sighs and says, “But on top of all that, and maybe the worst part, is that Angelina knew I’d taken it. She chaperoned the dance that night, and she saw me pour the purple liquid into a cup. She didn’t try to stop me, or to make me pay her for the potion, but she warned me that if we had a child one day, that child would pay the price of my betrayal.”

  My knees buckle and I join them in the grass. “What?”

  “She said that when our child turned thirteen, he or she would have to come work for her to pay off my debt. Alone. I agreed, because when you’re thirteen, how can you even conceive of having your own child? It seemed a lifetime away.”

  I place both hands on the ground, willing myself not to topple over.

  Mom grips Dad’s leg. “That’s why I didn’t want to come back here after college. I thought if we moved away, Angelina would forget about all this. And for a year or two, I put it behind me as we settled into our life. Soon Tara was born. I was so in love with this baby, I actually congratulated myself on stealing the potion. Otherwise I wouldn’t have her.

  “I had one month of pure joy with the man that I loved and the baby who I treasured more than anything on the planet, until a silver rattle arrived from Willow Falls. The card inside the gift box said simply, Looking forward to meeting Tara in thirteen years.

  “So we moved again. And again, she found us. So we just kept moving. I always made sure our phone number was unlisted. I made sure our address wasn’t online anywhere. I tried to keep Tara close, never letting her be with strangers, always making sure I knew where she was and how to reach her. But somehow, Angelina kept tracking us down. I thought we’d finally shaken her this last time, but then that telegram arrived and —”

  Dad sits up straight. “That wasn’t about your job?”

  Mom shakes her head. “It was my final warning. Tara was almost thirteen and it was time to pay my debt. But how was I supposed to get her to go to a place we’d never even taken her before? And to send her alone, when I’d barely let her out of my sight for thirteen years? I called Bethany — who of course knows nothing about the love potion, or my arrangement with Angelina — and she said she’d love to have her for the summer. So that was a relief. Then I booked the train, since she had to arrive alone. But I still had no idea what explanation to give.” She turns to me. “And then you handed me the solution on a silver platter. You got suspended from school. So I bumped up the dates with Bethany and told her you’d had a bit of trouble and would be arriving early. I changed the train, and, well, here you are.”

  My whole body is literally shaking with disbelief and shock at all the things she’d kept hidden for so many years. Out of all the things she just told me, one shines like a beacon through the thick web of lies. “So it was you? You’re the reason I’m here in Willow Falls?”

  Mom doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t have to. “I can’t believe it!” I cry out. “She was right after all!” The last thing I want to do is laugh, but I can’t help it. It’s just all so crazy.

  “What’s funny about this?” Mom asks. “Who was right about what?”

  “Angelina! She said after the play I’d find out why I was here, in Willow Falls. I told her I knew exactly why, but she said I didn’t. Guess she was right about that!” Then I fall silent again. The whole story doesn’t make sense. Angelina didn’t come find me and make me do work for her. I was the one who went into her shop. I think back to the order of things. The chain of events started because I needed money. If I’d kept the money my parents had given me, I wouldn’t have needed to sell anything. But how could Angelina be sure I’d need money? There was only one person who had the opportunity to take my wallet. She was short, she was wide, and she wore a ton of makeup that would cover any blemishes or birthmarks shaped like talking animals. How could I not have seen it before? “The woman on the train!”

  Mom nods miserably. “I almost fainted when I saw her. It took a few seconds to recognize her under all that makeup and the dark wig.”

  “Wait,” Dad says, “you’re talking about the woman with the first-class ticket?”

  “She stole my money!” I say, in amazement. I didn’t lose it after all. Or my phone, or Mom’s iPod! “That’s how she got me into her store. She made it seem like it was my choice, when it never was.”

  “Tara, I’m so incredibly sorry about everything. I know I’ve disrupted your life over and over with the moves, and by being so overprotective. But I love you so much and I only wanted to keep us all together. Has your time here been awful?” Mom cringes in anticipation of my answer.

  I consider telling her yes, but what good would that do? “It was really hard in the beginning. But I made some good friends, and that m