13 Gifts Read online

  I turn to look at Mom. No one went over that part with me. “Yes,” Mom replies. “Her aunt and uncle will be there. I wrote their names and telephone number on the release form. Tara has a copy in her backpack, too.”

  “Excellent,” the station manager says. “Then we’re almost all set.” He reaches back into his drawer and pulls out a bright yellow rubber bracelet. “You’ll need to wear this for the duration of your travel with us.”

  He hands it to me and waits while I pull and stretch it in an attempt to get it over my hand. “Is there a bigger size?”

  He shakes his head. “Sorry, they make ’em pretty small so they don’t slip off the younger kids. I can give you this instead.” He reaches back into the drawer and pulls out a white sticker the size of a paperback book with the words UNACCOMPANIED MINOR in huge red letters. “You could wear this on your chest.”

  I give one more yank and the bracelet finally lands on my wrist. “Thanks, I’m good.”

  “Bon voyage,” he says with a salute.

  Dad salutes in response. Mom shakes the man’s hand, and I tug at the bracelet. It really is very tight.

  “Does my hand look purple to you?” I ask Dad as we follow the signs to the right track.

  He takes hold of my hand and turns it side to side. “Not more than usual.”

  “I’m serious. What if my circulation gets cut off and my hand swells up and has to be amputated?”

  Dad shrugs. “Then I’ll put you in my next horror novel.”

  “This is the gate,” Mom says, stopping short.

  I look up at the sign next to the door that leads up to our track. It lists all the stations. “I don’t see Willow Falls on the list, Mom. Guess we better head home.”

  “Not so fast. You’ll be getting off in River Bend, the next town over. Willow Falls is too small for a train station.”

  When we arrive on the platform, the train is already there. I tighten my grip on the backpack while Mom hands the conductor my ticket. He asks to see my bracelet, so I hold up my wrist. I’m fairly certain my hand is not normally the color of grape juice.

  He motions us to climb on. “Train departs in eight minutes, so be sure you’re off in time.”

  My parents assure him they will. Inside the train it’s actually pretty nice. The seats are blue and green striped, with two seats on each side of the aisle. It looks clean, too. A little cramped, but not too bad. I follow Mom down an aisle as she carefully checks out each seat. The train is mostly empty since this is the first stop on the line, so I’m not sure why she doesn’t just pick one.

  “How ’bout this one, Mom?” I gesture to a perfectly good seat by a window with no one on the aisle.

  She shakes her head. “Keep going.” So we trudge through another car until finally she stops and says, “Here.”

  I look at the seat. It looks exactly the same as the others.

  “What’s different about this one?” I ask.

  She takes a deep breath. “It’s in the center of the train car, so there will be less sway when the train’s moving. And it’s facing forward; some of the others were backward. You tend to get nauseated when traveling backward. Also, the bathroom is in the next car, so it’s close enough to use without having to deal with any unpleasant odors that might emanate from it. Plus there’s an escape hatch above the window in case of emergency.”

  “Perfect,” I say, dropping my backpack onto the seat. “When my hand falls off and my arm begins to gush blood, the paramedics will be able to climb right in to save me.”

  “That is indeed handy,” Dad says. “No pun intended.” He easily tosses my suitcase on the rack across the aisle from me.

  “Why’d you put it over there?” I ask.

  “You can keep an eye on it better than if it were above you,” Mom explains before Dad has a chance. “If you get hungry, the food car is two ahead of this one. And make sure you have your backpack with you at all times. People come and go on trains, and you can’t be too careful. You have your phone, so call us if you need anything. Not sure about the reception in here, though …” Her eyes mist up. Dad sniffles, then coughs to hide it.

  At least I know they care. “I’ll be fine, really.” I actually have no idea if I’ll be fine, but it seems like the thing to say in this situation.

  “Call us when you arrive,” Mom says, “and remember, we’ll only be able to call out once a week, so keep your phone handy. If there’s a problem, just call that number I gave you and the Institute will send someone out to fetch us.”

  The speaker crackles on. “Train 751 departs in two minutes. All aboard.”

  “Excuse me,” a soft voice says from behind my dad. He steps out of the aisle to reveal a short dark-haired woman with a deep purple scarf draped over her hair and tied under her neck. She’s wearing the most makeup I’ve ever seen on someone outside of the movies. Green and purple eye shadow, bright pink lipstick, and what has to be four coats of mascara and ten coats of foundation. She looks very glamorous. And sort of like a whole makeup store exploded on her face.

  “Got four root canals yesterday,” she explains, pointing to the scarf. “Cheeks swelled up like beach balls. Not pretty.”

  My parents nod politely and move farther out of the way to let her pass. But she doesn’t even try to squeeze by.

  “I couldn’t help but overhear,” she says. “Your daughter is traveling alone?”

  Dad nods. Mom’s eyes suddenly lock on a spot over my shoulder, like there’s something only she can see. There better not be ghosts on this train. Then she takes a deep breath and focuses again. “We’re in a hurry,” she tells the woman. “So —”

  The woman holds up two tickets. “I have an extra ticket for the club car. First class. Full meal service and lovely accommodations. My daughter was supposed to travel with me but got called away on business. You know how it is with these modern women.” She tries to smile, but then winces and brings her hand to her cheek. “Still waiting for those painkillers to sink in. Anyhoo, I’ve got an extra one if you think she’d like it.” She pauses. “Ticket, that is, not painkiller.”

  “This seat will do fine,” Mom snaps, a bit rudely if you ask me. I know she doesn’t approve of women wearing a lot of makeup, but it’s no excuse to get snippy.

  “You’re sure, now?” the woman asks, looking from Mom to me.

  Since I’ve never traveled first-class anything, I say, “First class sounds pretty nice, Mom.”

  “This will do fine,” she repeats firmly.

  “All right,” the woman says, turning around.

  “I don’t see the harm —” Dad starts to say but is cut off when the conductor steps into the car. It’s a different guy from the one who let us on.

  “Last call!” he shouts from the doorway. “You folks traveling with us today?”

  My parents shake their heads.

  “Better get a move on, then.”

  Mom leans over to hug me, and holds on so tight that when she stops I feel more alone than ever. She rushes down the aisle without looking back. Dad leans in and whispers, “You go take that woman up on her offer. You deserve it.” I pull back in surprise. Dad almost never goes against anything Mom says. He gives me one more squeeze before hurrying after her.

  They wait outside my window until the train pulls away from the platform. We wave at each other as the station gets smaller and smaller. The last thing I see is Mom leaning into Dad and him putting his arm around her. My eyes burn and I blink away tears. Being alone on the train is bad enough. Being alone on the train and crying about it is that much worse.

  When I’m sure the train is out of my parents’ sight, I stand up, hold on to the back of the seat across the aisle, and pull down my suitcase. I figure someone will eventually sit next to me, so if I have to make small talk with someone, it might as well be with a lady who’s nice enough to offer me a first-class ticket.

  It’s not easy maneuvering down the aisle, but I only bump one person in the knee and he had his leg re