13 Gifts Read online

  I squirm, not sure what the right answer is and not wanting to insult anyone. Any time we move to a new town, I set my expectations so low that if anyone even smiles at me in the hall it’s a victory. So these people have already surprised me just by saying hello! To say nothing of an Australian personal assistant who I can’t understand most of the time, a math-genius cousin with a father who has rooms full of weird stuff, a boy who chants in pool holes and whose singing makes trees grow, two best friends who use blackboards to talk to each other, or Rory, with the evil bunny and the strange way she has of both blending in and standing out. And then there’s the matter of those hand-holding hawks that seem to be following me. But for all of them this is their normal life. How could I tell them how strange they are, even if they’re asking me?

  Finally I say, “Well, my parents only decided I was coming here three days ago. So I didn’t have time to build up any real expectations of the town, or, you know, the people here.”

  A quizzical look flies between them. They don’t even try to hide it this time.

  “Really?” Rory asks, knitting her brow. “Just three days ago?”

  “Uh-huh. It was very last-minute. My mom’s job got moved up, so I have to finish the last two weeks of the school year online.” Okay, so there may be a few gaps in the story, but I didn’t actually lie about anything.

  “Huh,” Amanda says, giving me another head tilt. Then she mumbles something about being right back and strides off toward the boys, blackboard swinging so fast it hits her on the chin. She yanks Leo aside and writes something on her board. I can’t help thinking it’s about me, but what could she possibly have to say? I barely told them anything.

  Rory touches me gently on the arm and turns me a bit so my back is facing the others. “So,” she says breezily, “have you been to a bar mitzvah before?”

  It’s obvious she’s changing the subject, but this time I don’t mind. I shake my head.

  “Me, neither,” Rory says. “David’s, like, the only Jewish kid in town. He’s been learning everything through this online program his mom signed him up for.”

  “Really? You can do that?”

  She nods. “And there’s no temple near here, so the service and the party afterward are going to be at the community center. That reminds me, I have to look for a gift.”

  My eyes widen. A present! Of course presents go along with bar mitzvahs. And from what I remember hearing at school, they’re pretty expensive ones. Rory must have seen my expression because she says, “Definitely don’t worry about a gift, Tara. David wouldn’t expect that at all.”

  But Mom’s voice in the back of my head tells me otherwise. “I wouldn’t feel right going to a party without a gift.” And before I can stop myself, I add, “My parents gave me spending money for the summer, so I’ll just use part of that.”

  Rory’s dad pulls into the parking area and that effectively ends our conversation. I follow the others to the car. Maybe the stores in Willow Falls will accept magic beans instead of money. It worked in Jack and the Beanstalk. Or wait, maybe it didn’t. Although if I actually owned magic beans, I’d use them to go back in time and un-pepper-spray the principal. Then I’d be off to Madagascar, where no one would expect anything from me for two whole months. (I’m pretty sure none of the lemurs would be declaring their manhood with a ceremony requiring a big gift and a fancy dress.)

  “Look what I found!” Rory’s dad exclaims when we reach him. He’s standing outside the car, waving a large book in his hand. The words Willow Falls High School are emblazoned on the front in gold.

  “Daaaad,” Rory complains, her hands on her hips. “Not that old yearbook again! I’ve told you before, my friends don’t want to see pictures of your high school rock band. We get it, you were cool once.”

  “Very funny, darling daughter,” Rory’s dad says, flipping the book open. “But I brought it because I thought Tara might like to see something.” He holds the book out to me, open to a page near the end. I take it, and everyone crowds around to see. A large banner proclaims PROM KING AND QUEEN, with a full-page color photo underneath. A dark-haired girl in a pink dress steadies a small silver tiara on her head with one hand, and clutches a bouquet of white roses with the other. At her side is a skinny boy in a white tuxedo, all gawky arms and legs. I recognize the picture right away. Mom told me how Grandma had begged her to wear that dress to the prom, and how she’d donated it to the local Salvation Army the very next morning. Next to the picture, Dad had inscribed a message to Rory’s father: I’m sure you’ll find your prom queen one day. Let’s hope she’s not a zombie. Then below it he’d drawn a cartoon zombie with skin dripping off his face.

  Rory’s dad chuckles. “Your dad always did love his monsters.”

  “He writes books about them now,” I tell him.

  He slaps his thigh. “Man, that’s great! Just great!”

  “Wow,” Rory says, peering over my shoulder, “you weren’t kidding about your dad being really tall. Have you ever seen this picture before?”

  I nod, handing the book back to her father. “My parents used to have it up on their bedroom wall.” As I say it, I realize I haven’t seen it in the last few houses. Was it lost in a move somewhere?

  This time I climb into the car last so I’m squished up next to a window. I spend the ride back into town staring out of it, wondering how I’m ever going to come up with the money to get David a gift. I tune out the conversation in the car, which has turned to talk of final exams next week. What if they actually ask me to hang out again, only next time they want to get ice cream or go to a movie? I won’t even have pocket money to pay for any of that stuff. Plus, I still have to figure out a way to replace Mom’s iPod before the end of the summer.

  Probably, Aunt Bethany and Uncle Roger would give me any money I needed, but I don’t want to feel even more indebted to them. They’re already housing and feeding me. Plus, how could I ask them to lie and not tell my parents that I lost the money? Me lying is bad enough; I can’t ask others to lie for me. And, as much as I don’t want to admit it to myself, my pride is at stake. It’s just embarrassing that I couldn’t hold on to the two most important things my parents entrusted me with.

  I’m deep in thought about how I could take advantage of my height and pretend to be older in order to get a job somewhere in town, when Jake Harrison’s name reaches my ears. I can’t help but tune back in.

  Next to me, Amanda asks, “When does the movie open again?”

  I blurt out, “In six weeks!” exactly as Rory gives the same answer from the front seat.

  Leo and David groan. “Looks like we have another Jake Harrison fan on our hands,” David says.

  Amanda grins. “I don’t think Rory can be considered a fan anymore.”

  Rory twists around and glares at Amanda. She gestures ever so slightly toward her dad.

  Amanda mouths the word sorry. David giggles and Rory glares at him, too, before turning back around. I look out the window again. I’m probably supposed to wonder what that was all about, but nearly thirteen years of not getting interested in other people’s lives has trained me well. The only reason I’m even mildly curious this time is because it has to do with Jake. How could someone be a fan and then stop being one? Whatever the reason, Rory obviously doesn’t want to discuss it in front of her father. I don’t blame her. I would never want to talk about boys in front of my dad, either. Not that I could imagine an occasion where that would ever come up.

  My thoughts turn to Dad’s inscription in the yearbook. He was clearly just as smitten with my mom back then as he is today. The little cartoon he drew was pretty funny. He used to draw whole comic books for me when I was younger. He always made me a superhero of one kind or another — kindergartner by day, vanquisher of evil by night. His comics would probably give most little kids nightmares, but I loved them. Mom told me once that Dad thought about writing and illustrating comics for a living, but he didn’t think he could make enough money at it.