13 Gifts Read online

  Thankfully Rory’s dad pulls up to the curb before I scratch my skin raw. As she leads us to the car she says, “I should warn you, my dad’s a little, well, different.”

  “My dad’s pretty different, too,” I tell her. “He writes about zombies for a living and is, like, seven feet tall.”

  David whispers, “But does he have a green stripe in his hair?”

  “Last year it was blue,” Amanda adds from behind.

  I can see the stripe as soon as Rory opens the passenger door. It’s hard to miss since the rest of his hair is blond. It’s a normal-sized car (unlike Uncle Roger’s), but it’s still a tight fit in the back. I hope I remembered deodorant this morning! As we pull away, Rory gestures to the backseat and says, “Dad, this is Tara St. Claire. We met her at the barbeque today.”

  Rory’s dad looks in the rearview mirror. I give a little wave. It’s all I can do considering my arms are pretty much pinned at my sides. Then I say, “It’s actually Tara Brennan, not St. Claire. My mom and Emily’s mom are sisters.”

  The car jerks to a halt and we all bounce forward, then back.

  “Dad?” Rory says worriedly.

  He twists around in his seat to face me. “Your mother and Bethany St. Claire are sisters? Your mother’s Molly?”


  He peers closer at my face. “And your last name is Brennan?”

  I nod.

  He breaks into a huge grin. “You’re Jim Brennan’s daughter!”

  I nod again, a bit more hesitantly this time. Maybe he’s a fan of my dad’s books? Dad doesn’t have that many fans, but some of them can be pretty hard-core.

  “Jimmy Brennan’s daughter!” Rory’s dad exclaims, shaking his head. “I don’t believe it. Jim and Molly!” He stares at me, continuing to shake his head in amazement. I find myself staring at the green stripe. I wonder if it fades away or if he’s stuck with it until it grows out.

  “Um, Dad?” Rory says, tugging on his sleeve. “We’re sort of in the middle of the road here.”

  “Oops, sorry,” her dad says, turning forward in his seat. He pulls back into the flow of traffic, still shaking his head in wonderment.

  “How do you know Tara’s parents?” Rory asks him.

  “We all grew up together,” he says, grinning. “Molly and Jim were an item before the rest of us even thought about dating. From eighth grade on, they were inseparable. Then after high school they moved away and never came back. We all figured they’d get married, and now here you are. Living proof!” He glances in the rearview mirror at me, and shakes his head again. “Molly and Jim’s kid. Wow. Wait till I tell your mom! And, Leo, your dad was a few years ahead of us in school, but he’ll remember them, too!”

  It continues like that all the way out of town, past some cornfields, past the Willow Falls Shopping Mall, and onto a dirt road with a small white sign that reads WELCOME TO THE NEW APPLE GROVE. We pull over next to the sign and climb out.

  “I’ll be back to pick you guys up in about half an hour,” Rory’s dad says, leaning out of the car window. He beams at me. “You’re tall, just like Jimmy. Good ol’ Jimmy Brennan! Hey, are your parents in town, too?”

  I shake my head. “They’re in Madagascar for the summer.” I leave out the part about how they banished me to Willow Falls before they left.

  He laughs. “Madagascar? What are they doing there?”

  I feel my cheeks start to burn. “My mom is leading a research team to, um, study the mating habits of the bamboo lemur.”

  He laughs again. “You’re making that up!”

  I shake my head. “Nope. That’s what she does.”

  He thumps the steering wheel in delight. “Good ol’ Molly! Be sure to tell them Doug Swenson says hello, okay?”


  He pulls away and Rory says, “I mentioned the weirdness of Dad, didn’t I?”

  “You did,” I reply as we walk away from the road.

  I don’t know what I’d expected of a place called Apple Grove, but I’m pretty sure apples figured into it somewhere. As far as I can tell, though, Apple Grove is just a clump of about twenty-five tiny trees in the middle of a clearing behind a shopping mall. None of the trees are higher than my waist, and most are considerably shorter. Some need sticks to hold them up, others are surrounded by wire mesh, still more peek out from under mounds of fertilizer. A few unplanted ones have canvas bags wrapped around the bottom, for extra protection, I guess.

  A small fountain completely covered in crusted-over bird droppings sits a few feet in front of the trees, like an old queen presiding over her subjects. Was this the birdbath Rory sacrificed her phone to save? I’d have to go on record as saying it probably wasn’t worth it.

  Amanda inhales deeply. “Ah, smell those apples!”

  I would say she’s crazy, that these trees are completely bare, except that the smell of apples really does fill the air. Apples and apple pies and apple tortes and apple turnovers. “Where’s that smell coming from?” I ask, turning around in a circle.

  “Not you, too!” David groans.

  Rory and Amanda share a quick look. Amanda writes something to Leo, who nods eagerly.

  “You smell it, too, Tara?” Rory asks.

  “The apples?” I ask. “Doesn’t everyone?”

  David shakes his head. “Only girls can smell it, apparently.”

  I look over at Leo, who reddens slightly and immediately starts pulling at the collar of his T-shirt like it’s suddenly gotten too tight. I just know he can smell it, too. Why would he let David believe he can’t? What would be the point of that? Maybe they just don’t want David to feel left out. For kids who only became friends not that long ago, they really protect each other. For the second time since I’ve been to this town, I get a pang of jealousy. I don’t like it. I’ve made it a habit not to long for things. It makes not getting them a lot easier to handle.

  “Come on,” Amanda says, running over to the first row of trees. “Come see what we’ve done. Apple Grove used to be a really important part of Willow Falls. Over a hundred years ago, the families who lived here exported apples all over the state.”

  Leo makes these wide sweeping motions with his arms. “Can’t you just picture it? The townspeople used to string lights up in the apple trees and hold weddings and school dances, and boats would sail back and forth on the river. It used to be such an amazing place.” He lets his arms fall to his sides. “But the river dried up, the people who lived here passed away …” He pauses for a moment, than continues. “The houses eventually came down, and years later the mall went up, destroying the few trees that were still producing fruit. Amanda and I got permission to plant new apple trees in this small clearing.” He glances around. “Guess it doesn’t look like much.”

  “It’ll take a few more years until the trees grow fruit,” Amanda says, gently touching one of the thin branches. “And some might never. But the ground remembers how to grow apples, so we have hope.”

  Leo grins at me. “If you promise not to laugh, we’ll show you how we help them grow.”

  “Forget it, Leo, no way,” David says, crossing his arms.

  “Why not? You do it all the time.”

  “Yeah, but that’s with you guys. Tara’s going to think I’m a total dork.”

  “She probably already does,” Rory jokes. “So you might as well go ahead.”

  He shakes his head and presses his lips together.

  “Come on,” Leo says. “You’re going to have to do it next month in front of a hundred people. You can’t get shy now.”

  He sighs. “Fine. But you know it doesn’t really help the trees grow.”

  “Sure it does,” Amanda says. She touches a tiny leaf on a spindly branch. “I’m sure this little guy wasn’t here last week.”

  David rolls his eyes. “All right. Assume the position.”

  The other three immediately sit down on the grass, and to my surprise, keep going until they are fully lying down. “Come on, Tara,” Ro