13 Gifts Read online

  I shake my head. “I always figured if I had a sister we’d hate each other.”

  She grins and marches into the hall. “You shouldn’t say ‘hate.’ “

  I smile at the back of her head, and the tightness in my chest loosens just the littlest bit.

  Chapter Five

  Instead of heading downstairs for dinner, Emily leads me past the stairs to the opposite end of the hall. She stops in front of the last door, where big black letters tell us to KEEP OUT. Ignoring the warning, she opens the door and marches right in. I hesitate. I hadn’t planned on breaking any rules within my first hour of arrival.

  Emily yanks me inside and shuts the door behind us. It’s dark. It’s also colder than in the rest of the house. I shiver. She flips on the light and my eyes instantly widen.

  Long wooden shelves cover all four walls, from floor to ceiling. As far as I can tell, the stuff on the shelves is a mixture of toys, action figures, old-fashioned candy and chocolates with labels in other languages, comic books, bobbleheads, baseballs and footballs and soccer balls with autographs scribbled on them, and cookie jars covered in a thin layer of Bubble Wrap. Other than the balls, which are in plastic containers, everything else is still in its original packaging. A long, rectangular table sits in the center of the room with a single computer, a printer, and enough packing supplies to keep a small post office afloat for a year.

  Emily trails her hand along one of the spotless shelves. “Pretty wild, right?”

  “What is this place?” I whisper.

  She laughs. “Why are you whispering?”

  “The sign on the door?” I point out, voice still low. “I figure that means we don’t want to get caught.”

  “Dad doesn’t mind if I come in here. As long as I don’t touch anything.”

  My eyes scan a row of Star Trek toys. “I thought your dad was an inventor.”

  “He is. But not everything is as big a seller as the Sand-Free Beach Towel or the Odor-Absorbing Sock Monkey. So a few years ago he started buying and selling collectibles. Mostly buying.” She gestures to a shelf full of neatly stacked comic books. Each one is tucked inside a plastic slipcover. “He has two or three of each of these. He doesn’t like giving anything up.”

  An astronaut Barbie Doll with the words LIMITED EDITION sprawled across the box stares down at me from the top shelf. “Don’t you ever want to play with any of this stuff?”

  Emily shakes her head. “I’m too busy. Between school and fencing and trying to solve my math theorem, I don’t have much time for toys anymore.”

  In the bright light I can see gray smudges under both her eyes. I wonder if she stays up very late reading those thick books of hers. “Um, maybe we should go down for dinner? I know my mom always gets really mad if whatever she made gets cold.”

  “It’s not really like that here,” Emily says, opening the door. “You’ll see.”

  It seems like at least one of the many closed doors we pass on the way back down the hall should be a spare bedroom. It also seems like the smell of food should be in the air. But even when we reach the bottom of the stairs, the only thing I smell is lemon-scented furniture polish.

  The pile of delivery menus on the kitchen table explains a lot. I see Chinese food, Japanese, Thai, Mexican, Italian, and a place for deli sandwiches. Who knew Willow Falls was so multicultural? Aunt Bethany walks in from the adjoining laundry room with a stack of towels. “I ordered pizza. It’ll be here in a few minutes.”

  “We can wait on the porch for it, if you want,” Emily offers.

  Aunt Bethany hands her the money. “Don’t forget the change. Last time you gave him a ten-dollar tip!”

  “C’mon, let’s go out the back way.” Emily leads me through the laundry room and out the back door. She steps onto a large patio with a barbeque grill and table at one end, and a large vinyl shed at the other. Most of the rest of the backyard is taken up by the huge hole where the pool is supposed to be.

  “My mother told me you like to ride bikes,” Emily says. She makes no mention of the gaping pit of dirt, earth, and rocks with the hastily constructed plastic barrier around the edges that doesn’t look imposing enough to keep even a chipmunk away.

  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Mom told them stuff about me, but I am, a little. “At home I used to ride every night after dinner.” I don’t tell her how hard it’s going to be not riding. I already miss feeling the wind on my cheeks, that sense of freedom, of using my muscles and feeling strong.

  She opens the latch on the shed and the door swings open easily, letting out a musty smell. “You can use mine while you’re here. I never use it.”

  My heart leaps. “Really? That’d be great!” Then my eyes land on the bike. It’s pink. Like bubblegum pink. Knotted tassels hang limply from the handlebars, a white wicker basket secured between them. Stickers of Clifford the Big Red Dog cover the banana seat. One gear, no hand brakes.

  “I know it looks small,” Emily says, “but if you raise the seat you’ll be able to use it.”

  My thank-you comes out a bit forced, but Emily doesn’t seem to notice.

  “You can go for a ride right now, if you want, while I wait for the pizza guy.”

  I eye the bike, which looks like something I would have ridden when I was seven. “Um, that’s okay. I’ll just wait with you.”

  “No!” she says, so forcefully that I take a step back.

  She seems just as surprised herself, because she quickly adds, “I mean, it’s fine, I can do it myself.”

  “Okay. I’ll, um, go unpack.”

  “Okay,” she says, visibly relieved that I’m not going to follow her. She shuts and latches the shed.

  I watch until she disappears around the side of the house. Have I worn out my welcome already? Maybe I should have made a bigger deal over the bike. I’m tempted to climb down into the hole and hide out there until the summer is over. I peer over the edge and am sorry to see that the mixture of dirt, tree roots, and slabs of wood doesn’t look very inviting.

  So I push open the laundry room door, only to hear a male’s voice say, “Oomph!” and a second later, the sound of glass shattering on the tiled floor. I peek in to see Ray staring down at the remains of something green.

  “I’m so sorry! I didn’t see you. I hope that wasn’t a really expensive … bowl? Vase? Glass frog?”

  “Bowl,” he says cheerily. “No worries. It wasn’t exy. Only cost a few quid. And that one was just for practice anyway.”

  “Practice for what?”

  “I’m a glassblower,” he says, thumping his chest. “ ’Tis a noble profession.”

  “A glassblower? I thought you worked here, for the St. Claires.”

  “I am a wearer of many hats.”

  I’d expected Aunt Bethany to come running when she heard the crash, but now I can hear her on the phone somewhere else in the house. “Guess we should clean this up.”

  “Too right!” Ray grabs a dustpan from the shelf above the huge washing machine. He carefully picks out the larger shards and sets them aside, then starts sweeping up the smaller pieces into the bin. I stand there, feeling useless. He ducks into the kitchen to dump the bin into the trash and comes back with one of those ziplock freezer bags. He instructs me to hold it open while he puts the larger pieces inside. When we’re done he says, “I’ll go over the floor in here one more time with the mop, make sure I didn’t miss anything. You can throw that out under the sink.”

  I nod and head over to the sink, where I slide out the garbage can. I’m about to drop the bag in, but something about the way the glass catches the light from the window makes me feel a little dizzy. I stare down at the bag, at the jagged, beautiful shards, and am reminded of how the sun had transformed the leaves into shimmering glass outside the train station.

  I don’t know why, but I can’t throw it out. I close the cabinet and without turning to see if Ray is watching, I take the bag and run upstairs. I hide the bag of glass inside Grandma’s hatbox, then