The Last Present Read online

  “Yes?” a voice replies sheepishly.

  We all whip our heads around and look up. There he is at the top of the pool, peering down.

  Rory blushes. “Sorry, guys,” she whispers. “He’s leaving town tomorrow, so this is my last chance to see him.”

  “Does he want to come to the beach with us?” Tara asks.

  Rory looks at me and Leo, a hopeful expression on her face. I know Tara did the polite thing by asking, but having a movie star with us would make it pretty hard to suddenly disappear. Or would it? I whisper so Jake won’t hear. “That might not be such a bad idea. Everyone at the beach will be so busy watching him, they won’t notice if two kids suddenly vanish.”

  “Unless they’re taking a video of him,” Tara says. “That’s what I’d be doing.” Then she turns to Rory and quickly adds, “I mean, you know, if I didn’t know him as a person.”

  “We’d need to reveal him at just the right moment, though,” Leo says. “Hey, Jake! Can you blend into a crowd?”

  “Sure I can! I’ll be right back.” He starts to pull away.

  “Give us ten minutes,” Rory calls up.

  He gives her a salute and disappears from view.

  “Okay, quick,” I say, “let’s go over the plan before he gets back. I have twenty dollars in case we need money again. Leo, did you bring the duct tape?”

  He unzips the backpack at his feet and pulls out a roll of thick gray tape. “Duct tape. Check!”


  He replaces the tape and holds up scissors. “Check!”

  “Handheld video game to keep Connor distracted?”

  “Check and check.” He holds up two different kinds.

  “You guys think of everything,” Tara says, impressed.

  “We have to make up for yesterday,” I say, taking out my phone. “Let’s go over the video again to make sure we’re not missing anything.” I forward to the part where Connor unties the balloons from the back of the lawn chair. One minute he’s helping his grandfather and parents set up some beach blankets a few feet away from the main party area. The next, he’s marching straight up to the balloons. Unfortunately, he unties them before most of the guests even arrive. This leads to a lot of kids showing up late because their parents couldn’t figure out where on the big beach to find the party.

  “Hey, do you still have the video from the bowling party on there?” Rory asks. “Can I see it?”

  I find the video and hand her my phone.

  “So this is what a real phone feels like,” she says, bouncing it gently in her hand. “Nice.” She hits the PLAY arrow and watches for a minute while I help Leo repack his backpack.

  “I was right!” she shouts, and holds up the phone. “Is this you?”

  Sure enough, Amy and Leon are front and center in the video! Leo grabs the phone and gapes.

  “I really DID have a limp!”

  I grab it from him. “Wow, look how tall Amy is! I thought the ground seemed farther away!”

  “I can’t believe the video changed!” Tara says, leaning over Rory’s shoulder. “That’s amazing. And it’s weird that we remember both ways. We do, right?”

  We each take a minute to recall the memory of the first time we watched it. The rest of us nod. “Yup, it’s still in my head, too,” Tara says. “I wonder if the other people at the party remember both ways, or just the new one?”

  Seeing the proof of our visit makes it all seem so much more real. When Leo and I were stuck in our eleventh birthday, anytime we tried to change the course of events, it didn’t stick. Only on the last day were we able to make any real change, but that’s because we were no longer stuck. Now we’ve actually changed the past for every kid at that party, even if only by the fact that they’ve had one more small rubber ball in their house for the past year.

  Rory hands back the phone, frowning. “You are changing people’s memories. That’s so weird. It’s like you’re playing with their heads.”

  I’m not used to seeing that expression on Rory’s face. It doesn’t make me feel good. “But what choice do we have?” I ask. “If we need to change the past to save Grace, how can we do it without changing people’s memories of events?”

  “I guess you can’t,” Rory admits. “It’s just … it makes me kind of mad at Angelina, playing with people’s lives like this. I know that’s dumb, I mean, she’s just trying to help. I should be used to how she works by now.”

  “I know what you mean,” Tara says. “You guys don’t know the whole story with me and Angelina, and I’ll tell you one day, I promise, it’s just that, well, she controlled so much of my life without me realizing it. Like, my whole life she’s been doing it.”

  We look at her, surprised. “Your whole life?” I ask. “But you’ve only been in Willow Falls for a month.”

  “My whole life,” she repeats.

  “Wow,” we all mutter, then fall silent. I don’t like being responsible for permanently changing someone else’s life. What if one of those girls at the party stepped on her rubber ball in the middle of the night, slipped, and broke her leg? Or her dog chased the ball out an open front door and never came back? I suddenly feel really overwhelmed. My eyes fill with tears.

  The girls rush over to hug me. “Did I make you feel bad?” Rory asks, stroking my hair. “I’m so sorry!”

  “Was it something I said?” Tara asks. “Listen, the path that my family took to get to Willow Falls might not have been the one I’d have chosen. But it got me here, and now I have you guys for friends, and I think I even have a boyfriend! So Angelina can’t be all bad, right?”

  I squeeze Tara’s hand, grateful for her words.

  “I wouldn’t be friends with you guys, either, if it wasn’t for Angelina,” Rory adds. “I know you and Leo were looking out for me last year. You even signed up to be extras in the movie so you could keep an eye on me.”

  I manage a smile. “You figured that out, huh?”

  “Well, you kept popping up with random advice, and then I overheard you tell your friend Stephanie that you’d never seen a Jake Harrison movie before. That was a clue that you had other motives for being an extra.”

  “Uh, everything okay down there?” Jake’s voice calls down. I look up, shading my eyes from the sun, which has moved overhead, but I don’t see him yet.

  “Dude, you gotta help me,” Leo shouts. “They’re getting all girly on me.”

  Jake appears at the edge of the pool. He spreads his arms. “What do you think?” It sounds like Jake, only this guy has shaggy blond hair coming out of a blue baseball cap instead of Jake’s short brown hair. He could be Ray’s younger brother. He’s wearing dark sunglasses, an orange-and-red Hawaiian shirt, and the dorkiest pair of swim shorts I’ve ever seen on anyone over three years old. I mean, they have rainbow-colored rubber ducks on them.

  “Now, this guy knows how to do disguises!” Leo says, tipping an imaginary hat at him.

  “Impressive!” Tara says.

  “He’s had lots of practice trying to blend in,” Rory explains. “He had that hat specially made.”

  “Is that real hair?” Tara asks.

  “You’d rather not know,” Jake says, grimacing.

  “You might not want to smile at anyone at the beach,” Rory suggests. “No one else has teeth as white as you.”

  He covers his mouth with his hand. “Ugh, my manager made me get them whitened. I’m getting them fixed as soon as the publicity tour is over.”

  Leo shakes his head. “The life of a movie star is never his own.”

  “Tell me about it,” Jake says, pulling off the hat. “I’ll meet you guys there. I have to do a phone interview on the drive.”

  He takes off and Ray appears. “Hey, you down there. Ready to stop playing silly buggers so we can get on the road? I have a committee meeting for the new community theatre when we get back and I don’t want to be all beachy.”

  Leo scampers up the side and insists we were not playing silly buggers, whatever tha