13 Gifts Read online

  “It’s me, Aunt Bethany. Tara. Ray lent me his phone.” I turn my back to him and lower my voice. “I just wanted to make sure he wasn’t, you know, trying to kidnap me.”

  I hear a chuckle behind me, but I ignore it.

  “Didn’t he give you our note?”

  “What note?” I turn back to face Ray.

  “D’oh!” he exclaims, hitting himself on the forehead again. “Forgot about that, too.” He pulls a folded piece of paper from his back pocket and hands it to me. I scan it quickly. Apparently Emily had a big fencing tournament that they couldn’t miss so they sent him to fetch me. I hand the note back to him.

  “You still there, Tara?” Aunt Bethany asks, the phone breaking up a little. “We’ll be home soon after you arrive. Sorry about this.”

  I tell her it’s fine and give the phone back to Ray. It’s not like I could expect them to rearrange their schedules for me. I wouldn’t even want them to.

  Ray “yabbers” the whole twenty minutes it takes to get to the house. I manage to pick up a few colorful phrases. He had to “chuck a U-ee” at one point when he started going down a one-way street the wrong way, and then he told me some story about a “bloke” of his who wanted him to “chuck a sickie” last week so they could go to the movies. People apparently do a lot of chucking in Australia, which is where I finally figured out he’s from.

  Aunt Bethany’s house is just as I imagined, on the outside at least. It’s very big, with a freshly mowed lawn, three-car garage, and a circular driveway made out of paving stones, not blacktop like a normal driveway. The crisp smell of apples hangs in the air, although I don’t see any apple trees.

  “Out back’s a hole for a pool,” Ray says as he grabs my suitcase from the trunk.

  I follow him up to the large red front door. “A hole?”

  “Yup. The mister and missus can’t agree on the shape of the pool, so there’s been a hole for a year now.”

  “Wow, Ray, you just said two whole sentences that I understood!”

  He grins. “That bloody well won’t happen again!” As he unlocks the door he says, “The Aussie lingo comes out stronger when I first meet someone. You’ll get used to me.”

  I’m not planning on getting used to anyone. I’m about to tell him this when I hear Mom’s voice in my head telling me to be polite. So I don’t say anything at all.

  A large SUV squeals into the driveway and we both turn in the doorway. Emily jumps out of the backseat practically before the car stops moving. She’s grown a lot since I last saw her, but compared to her I still look freakishly oversized. She’s dressed in a thick silver outfit that covers every inch of her except her head and makes her look more like an astronaut than a fencer. A large silver medallion dangles from her neck that says 5TH PLACE and her light brown hair whips around her face.

  “Tara!” she yells, leaping up the two porch steps. “I’m so glad you’re here!” She reaches around to give me a big hug but it’s kind of awkward because she’s wearing all this padding and her arms aren’t very long. She squeals and says, “This is going to be so much fun!”

  When Emily lets go, Aunt Bethany hands her the fencing helmet that rolled out of the car after she jumped out, and takes her place in the hug. “You’re so tall! Just like your dad!” She and my mom have the same light olive skin and dark brown hair, but other than that they don’t look anything alike. For one thing, Aunt Bethany is wearing a dress and heels, full makeup and nail polish, and has jewelry on every place one can wear it including her ankle. If my mom puts on a skirt it means someone died.

  Uncle Roger strolls over and pumps my hand with a huge grin. I remember now how straight he stands, with his chest sort of puffed out, but not in an arrogant way. He has lost some hair and grown a mustache in the few years since I’ve seen him. Even though he’s probably ten years older than my parents, he doesn’t have any gray hair. I wonder if it’s because he’s rich and doesn’t have to worry about a lot of things. Every time we move to a new house I spot a few more gray streaks on Dad.

  Everyone asks me questions at once. “How was the train?” “Are you hungry?” “Do you want to see the town?” “Do you want to call your parents?”

  I really don’t want to talk to my parents, but I don’t want them to worry, either. “I lost my cell phone on the train,” I explain, “so maybe you can call them?” I know they won’t be too mad about me losing the phone since Dad loses his every other week, but I’m not planning on telling them about losing everything else. Not until I absolutely have to.

  “No problem,” Uncle Roger says. “We can get you a new phone tomorrow. You got replacement insurance?”

  I nod. Unable to think of anything else to say, I opt to stare at the ground. All this attention is making me miss the peace and quiet of the train, where no one bothered me. Ray picks up my suitcase, clears his throat, and says, “Tara probably wants to get settled upstairs. You know, wash the train off her.”

  “Of course she does!” Aunt Bethany says, whisking me inside. Ray bounds up the long, carpeted staircase with my suitcase while I stare around me in all directions. A chandelier with at least a hundred diamond-shaped crystals hangs over what looks like marble floors. I’ve only seen marble floors in museums before. A huge living room off to the right is filled with leather couches and fancy paintings and a coffee table with three books spread out in a fan shape. I can’t see what’s at the end of the long hallway that leads off from the foyer. It looks like a house from the pages of a magazine. And it smells like lemon.

  “Emily will show you the way to your room and help you settle in. She’s so excited you’re here!”

  Emily nods vigorously. “C’mon, let’s go upstairs.” She grabs my arm and pulls me toward the stairs. I let my hand glide over the dark wooden banister as we climb the winding staircase. If the guest bedroom is anywhere near as nice as what I’ve seen so far, I’m sure it will be double the size of my room at home.

  I follow Emily down the hallway, the carpet so plush that I can’t even hear our footsteps. She passes room after room of closed doors, then stops at the last one on the left and flings open the door. “Here it is!”

  We are facing a large room that is clearly Emily’s own. Her bed is unmade, and clothes, books, papers, trophies, and fencing equipment lie scattered around all surfaces, including the two twin beds. The top of her desk is piled high with thick textbooks and three-ring binders.

  “Make yourself at home,” Emily says, stepping neatly over what is probably a crumpled school uniform but could just as easily be last year’s Halloween costume.

  I don’t move. “But this is your room.”

  She opens her arms wide. “Our room.”

  My heart sinks as I catch sight of my suitcase at the base of the second bed. I’ve never shared a room with anyone. I want to ask how there isn’t a guest room in a house this big, but what comes out instead is, “Were you, um, searching for something and that’s why it looks this way? Or you left your window open and a tornado passed through?”

  Emily shakes her head and begins peeling off her fencing uniform. “Nope. It’s always like this. All the true geniuses were slobs.” She points to two posters sharing the space above her headboard. No pop stars or movie stars for her. Instead, my cousin has posters of two old men on her wall.

  “That one’s Einstein, right?” I ask, pointing to the one of the guy with crazy white hair sticking out in all directions.

  She nods. “And trust me, he was too busy figuring out how the universe works to bother with picking up his socks.”

  “Or combing his hair,” I mumble. “So who’s the other one?”

  “That’s Euclid, one of the greatest mathematicians of all time.”

  “Um, why do you have a poster of him over your bed?”

  She grins. “I’m hoping some of his genius will seep into me while I’m sleeping! I’m trying to figure out one of the Millennium Prize Problems. They’ve stumped the greatest mathematical minds in history, bu