The Last Present Read online

  Rory jumps up from her seat. “If you happen to wander off and run into me about a month before my twelfth birthday, please tell me not to mistake a drainpipe for a boulder at the Willow Falls Reservoir!”

  I laugh. “Angelina gave us strict orders to get in, get out, and not make any changes. Plus, if you hadn’t met Angelina that day, we wouldn’t have gotten to be friends.”

  “Okay, good point,” Rory admits. “Feel free to push me into the drainpipe if you see me, then.”

  “Poor Grace,” Tara says, frowning. “Can we go visit her?”

  “Her relatives are coming, so we might just be in the way.” I’m about to suggest we get back to the party when all three of our phones ring at once. We reach for one another and grab hands. Our phones almost never ring since everyone texts instead of calls. All our phones ringing at once can mean only one thing.

  A movie star has entered the building.

  “And David didn’t mind Jake getting all the attention?” my mom asks as she runs the brush though my hair an hour after the party ends.

  “Nope. I think he was happy to turn over the spotlight.”

  Mom looks at me in the bathroom mirror as she evaluates her work. It’s been years since she’s done my hair for me, but when she offered to style it for the premiere, I said yes. Knowing that I’ll be telling her “almost truths” for the next ten days makes me want to spend time with her while I can. Once the “near lies” start, I’ll want to keep my distance. That’s just the way it works.

  “After the lunch part, Jake and Tara’s cousin Emily performed their song from the play,” I add, happy to have something normal to talk about. Although for most people, being at the same party with the cutest teen actor in America wouldn’t be considered normal. But for me it was the most normal part of the day so far, which says a lot about my day!

  “Sounds wonderful,” Mom says as she smoothes some anti-frizz cream onto the ends of my hair. “What else?”

  “Well, then Jake convinced David and Connor to do their number. They stuffed pillows from the community center’s couches under their shirts and ran around singing and kicking their legs out. David burst one of his buttons! It went bouncing across the dance floor.” It was hilarious. And it was good to see Connor forget his troubles for a few minutes. “Then Bucky played the violin and Mrs. Grayson from next door played the piano. A bunch of the guys put David up in this chair, which is a tradition, I think. They even put his mom up in a chair!”

  “Sounds like a great day,” she says, laying down the brush on the counter. Then she says, “Wait, is Connor the older brother of the little red-haired girl, Grace? The one who played your youngest daughter last night?”

  “Um, yes,” I say, surprised. “Why?”

  Mom turns me around to face her. “Honey, she’s in the hospital. I don’t know what’s wrong, or how serious it is.”

  My jaw falls open.

  “Don’t worry, I’m sure it can’t be too serious. This is Willow Falls, after all.” She tries to smile brightly, but it quickly falls away.

  “How … how did you find out about it?”

  “This is a small town, hon. I knew before lunch.”

  The doorbell rings before I can find out what else she knows. “That’s probably Leo and his parents.” She kisses me on top of my head. “I’ll offer his parents something to eat. You two can continue the game where you have conversations without actually speaking words to each other.”

  “You’ll be happy to know that game is ending soon,” I tell her, following her down the stairs.

  “I’ll believe it when I see it,” she says. “Or rather, when I hear it.”

  Leo and I go straight out the back door while the grown-ups settle themselves in the living room. The last thing I hear before sliding the kitchen door shut is our dads making bets on whose kid will spend more time on the editing-room floor than in the movie.

  We stop when we reach the middle of the yard. Neither of us has our blackboards on, which causes me a brief second of panic until I remind myself that we don’t need them. Leo clears his throat. I clear mine. I suddenly feel really shy, which is crazy. He’s been my best friend my whole life, if you don’t count that one year.

  He breaks the silence. “Hey, Amanda.”

  My stomach flips to hear his voice. Of course I’ve heard it all year, but not with my name included. I smile. “Hi, Leo.”

  “This feels … freaky. Good freaky,” he clarifies.

  “Yes, good freaky.” I can’t stop smiling.

  “Crazy year, right?”

  “And how about this going-back-in-time thing?”

  He grins. “Totally insane.”

  “Are we really doing this?”

  “I think we are.”

  We start talking over each other, saying anything that comes to mind just because we can. We don’t even notice the back door opening until Tara and Rory appear. “Hey!” Rory shouts. “You guys are talking to each other!”

  “Yup!” Leo says. “Just like regular folk.”

  “Don’t worry,” Tara says. “You guys will never be like regular folk.”

  I’m pretty sure she’s right. “You know I’m always happy to see you,” I say to them. “But, Rory, aren’t you going to the premiere with Jake?”

  Rory shakes her head. I can tell she put some extra effort into her hair. And she’s wearing a really pretty sundress with strappy sandals. “He has to do press stuff before the movie starts. Like interviews and pictures. I don’t want to be in the way.”

  “It must be bizarre having a famous boyfriend,” Leo says.

  “He’s not my … oh, forget it.”

  We all laugh. “I promise I won’t kiss my poster of him anymore,” Tara tells Rory. “Now that you and I are friends.” I can’t help notice her slight hesitation before saying the word friends. She’s so independent, much more than me. I think she’s still getting used to having a group of friends now. I’m really glad she’s staying in Willow Falls.

  “I left your sister’s dress in your kitchen,” Tara tells me. “I hope she won’t mind I wore it.”

  “She’s away at a summer program for a few more days, so she won’t even notice.”

  “She’s not going to be at the movie tonight?”

  I shake my head. “We’re not really very close anyway.”

  “My mom and her sister have only seen each other twice in, like, thirteen years,” Tara says, “but now they’re, like, best friends. Maybe it will be that way with you guys when you get older.”

  “Maybe,” I say. But I doubt it. I know Tara’s trying to make me feel better but I’ve gotten used to it.

  “Time to go, kids,” Mom calls out to us from the kitchen window. “Pick a car and pile in.”

  We trudge inside, all talking together. “It’s true!” my mother exclaims. She grabs Leo’s mom by the arm. “Look! The kids are talking to each other again!”

  “Let me see that,” Mrs. Fitzpatrick says, pushing the husbands out of the way. “Okay, speak!”

  Rolling his eyes, Leo turns to me, bows, and says, “Hello, Miss Ellerby. You look lovely this evening.”

  “As do you, Mr. Fitzpatrick.” I give an awkward curtsy.

  “No more chalk squeaking on blackboards!” Leo’s dad says.

  “No more texting at all hours of the day and night!” my mom adds.

  Dad puts his hands together like he’s praying. “Thank the gods above, it’s over!”

  Not the gods, I mentally correct him as we head out to the car. Angelina.

  The lights! The red carpet! The paparazzi’s bulbs flashing in my eyes! Granted, no one actually wants to take my picture. The chances of me rising to fame are practically nil. I wouldn’t want it anyway. I’d worry that every time I had a bad hair day (most days), I’d wind up on the front of some tabloid.

  The red carpet extends from the center of the closed-off cobblestone street straight into the movie theatre’s front door. The marquee screams PLAYING IT COOL STARR