13 Gifts Read online

  “You must be Emily’s cousin,” he says.

  I nod.

  “I thought she told me you weren’t coming for a few weeks.”

  I want to tell him he misunderstood her, but then I’d have to explain how I only pepper-sprayed the principal a few days ago, and I have no desire to share my life story with a strange boy. I look around for a ladder or rope, but don’t see any. Changing the subject I ask, “Did you, um, fall into the hole?”

  He shakes his head. “Good acoustics down here. Nice echo effect off the dirt walls. And more privacy than at my house. I live across the street. Your aunt lets me practice over here.”

  “Practice for what?”

  “For my bar mitzvah. It’s in a month. I’ll, you know, become a man. According to tradition.”

  That explains the foreign language. There are a few Jewish kids in my grade, but I hadn’t been invited to any of their bar mitzvahs. “Well, I should, uh, let you get back to it.”

  “Wait,” he says. “You don’t have to go. I mean, if you don’t want to.”

  Considering this has been the longest conversation I’d probably ever had with a soon-to-be-thirteen-year-old boy outside of science lab, I figure I shouldn’t push it. I shake my head and say, “I’ve got to take a shower.” Then I cringe. Did I really just tell him I needed to shower? Head down, I scamper away before I can further embarrass myself.

  Uncle Roger has taken Ray’s place at the table, the newspaper half-obscuring his face. “Eggs?” Aunt Bethany asks me, holding out a skillet. Oil sizzles and pops all around the pan. I can’t help noticing she’s wearing makeup even though it’s early on a Sunday morning. Maybe she sleeps with it on. I thought only women on soap operas did that.

  I shake my head. “I’m sorry about last night. I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”

  “Not at all,” she says. “You’d had a long day. We saved you some pizza; it’s in the fridge.”

  “Thanks.” I’m waiting for her to ask where I’d gone, but she doesn’t say anything. I clear my throat and say, “Um, I was just out riding my bike, I mean, Emily’s bike. I should have left a note or something.”

  She cracks an egg over the pan. The oil sizzles louder. “Ray told us,” she says, tilting the pan so the egg spreads evenly. “We want you to feel comfortable here, so feel free to do whatever you’d normally do at home.”

  I’d rather not admit that at home my mother makes me tell her every time I step out of her sight. And I have no desire to wear body armor while biking in a strange town.

  She glances at my outfit. “Perhaps you’d like to shower and change before the barbeque?”

  I redden. “I was just about to.”

  “Towels are in the hall closet,” she says, then lifts the pan off the stove. With a flick of her wrist, the fried egg jumps out of the pan, flips in the air, and lands in the center of the pan. She beams in satisfaction.

  “Cool,” I say.

  She waves her hand. “Don’t be too impressed. Eggs are the only things I know how to make that don’t taste like burnt bricks.”

  The head behind the newspaper nods in agreement.

  I’m halfway out of the kitchen when Aunt Bethany calls out to me, “Wait a sec.” She leaves the pan on the stove and picks up my arm, the one with my mom’s bracelet. “This looks familiar.”

  I can’t think of what to say without admitting it was my mother’s, so I blurt out, “I have a whole bag of jewelry for you from Mom. It’s upstairs.”

  She lowers my arm and smiles. “I saw the bag last night. I figured it was either your mom’s or you’re an international jewel thief posing as my niece. Speaking of your mother, you should call her now, before the plane takes off.”

  She’s probably right. But I really, really don’t want to talk to my parents. Mom can always tell when I’m hiding something. Even over the phone. She’s truly gifted that way. I’m still not ready to tell them I lost everything they gave me.

  “Darling?” Uncle Roger asks, calmly resting the paper on the table. “The eggs?”

  We both turn to look at the stove. Black smoke pours from the pan. Aunt Bethany groans and runs over. I take the opportunity to run the other way.

  I find Emily sitting up in her bed highlighting a section of her math book. This must have been the one she was reading under the covers.

  She grins and points out the window. “It’s sunny now! I was afraid your party was going to get rained out.”

  Too bad my alarm clock doesn’t have the magical ability to make real rain. “You guys don’t have to throw a party for me, seriously.”

  “It’ll be fun,” she insists. “You’ll get to meet my friends, and I invited Rory and some of her friends, too.”

  I can’t figure her out. Yesterday she didn’t want to hang out with me, now today she wants me to meet her friends.

  “Great,” I say without any actual enthusiasm. She turns back to her book, and I grab clothes and shampoo from my suitcase. My Jake Harrison poster is still folded exactly like I had it, so that’s good. The hatbox looks undisturbed, too, which means Aunt Bethany didn’t find my letters and the bag of broken glass. I’m not sure which would be harder to explain. I wedge the suitcase under my bed between a stuffed lizard and a plastic pumpkin filled with Halloween candy wrappers.

  Halloween = Eight Months Ago.

  The bathroom window looks out onto the backyard, where Bar Mitzvah Boy is still chanting. He never told me his name. I guess I didn’t tell him mine, either. The echo from the hole makes his voice sound deeper and richer than it did in person. More confident, too. I stand and listen for a few minutes until I begin to feel like I’m eavesdropping on a private moment, which is silly of course since he’s singing outside for anyone to hear.

  The air vent under the window pumps the odor of bacon into the room, and it smells like home. Not my home, because Mom almost never cooks bacon, but someone else’s home that I’m not a part of. I turn on the shower, eager to drown out the strangeness of everything. The sound of the pounding water does drown out the boy’s voice, but the steam only heightens the bacon smell.

  I probably should have called my parents before their flight left. Even though Aunt Bethany told them I arrived safely, they’re probably worried that they haven’t heard from me directly. Although if they were so worried about me, they wouldn’t have sent me here. Now they’ll just have to wait till they get their weekly phone access.

  By the time I’m done showering and dressing and drying my hair, the chanting has stopped. In its place is the hustle and bustle of party preparation. I peek out the bathroom window. Balloons have been tied around the trunks of various trees, adding color to the yard. Aunt Bethany, in a pink flowery dress, directs Uncle Roger to place a tray of burgers on the patio table.

  I back away from the window and return to the bedroom. Emily has moved to her desk and is scribbling an equation in her notebook. Once again I’m afraid to disturb her. She erases, scribbles again, chews on her pencil, then sees me at the door. “Hi, cuz,” she says, closing her books.

  “Don’t stop whatever you’re doing because of me.”

  She makes a face. “Mom only lets me work on my math theorem for an hour a day. Time’s up.”

  I wonder if Aunt Bethany knows that Emily works in the middle of the night, too. “Hey, I just saw your dad carrying out plates of food. I thought your mom only made eggs.”

  “She does,” Emily replies, plucking a skirt and top from various parts of the floor. “All the food is catered from a restaurant in town.”

  “But I saw that big grill outside?”

  “That’s only for decoration. Dad took out all the moveable parts a long time ago. I’ll have to show you his lab later. You should see what he’s able to make out of a rubber band and a bar of soap.”

  I don’t tell her I already had a middle-of-the-night peek. I leave her to dress and go back across the hall to watch the action outside the bathroom window. The backyard is filling up quickly with partygoer