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Authors: Wendy Mass

13 Gifts

BOOK: 13 Gifts
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13 Gifts
 

BY WENDY MASS

FOR MY DAUGHTER, CHLOE, WHO HAS
GIVEN ME MORE GIFTS IN HER FIVE
YEARS THAN I EVER IMAGINED

Contents
 

Title Page

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Aussie Glossary

About the Author

Copyright

Chapter One
 

Like all big mistakes, mine started with a goat.

But if I’m being totally honest, I wouldn’t be riding my bike to school at dusk, with nefarious deeds ahead, if that telegram hadn’t arrived last month. The goat came a little later.

The telegram came all the way from Madagascar, where maybe they don’t have access to phones or computers or other modern ways of communicating. Mom’s been preparing for months for our summer trip to the large island off the coast of Africa. Dad and I get to tag along while she studies the mating habits of the bamboo lemur. It might not sound like it, but this will be more fun than last summer, when we watched her catalog the scat of various woodland creatures in the forests of Ecuador.

Scat = Poop.

Mom had never gotten a telegram directly from Madagascar before, though, so I figured this must be really important. Her face went totally white when she read it. The guy who delivered it just stood in the open doorway. I think he was waiting for a tip. He didn’t get one.

Mom crumpled up the telegram before I could read it, but she told Dad and me that she’d just been made head researcher
of the lemur project. I’m not sure why this news freaked her out so much. It was just a matter of time until she got this responsibility.

Since the telegram arrived, Mom’s been really distracted. She’s even stopped asking if I’ve finished my homework or made any new friends (usually her two favorite topics). Whenever I try to strike up a conversation, she mumbles something and wanders out of the room. This morning I found her keys in the freezer next to the ice cream sandwiches.

Her normal approach to mothering has always been to smother and overprotect. While I was still in my crib she taught me that talking to strangers would cause my tongue to turn green. (I believed this until I was eight.) I’ve never been allowed to sleep over at anyone’s house, and my cell phone has a GPS tracker in it that links up to her computer. Mom promised me she’d only activate the tracker if I went missing, but when I stopped to buy gum after school last month, she texted me to get a quart of milk. Coincidence? I think not.

So if I happened to have a lapse in judgment by agreeing, during a moment of temporary insanity, to steal the middle school principal’s beloved goat for Shelby Malone and her DFs (devoted followers) based on the promise that I’d then be allowed to sit with them at lunch for the last two weeks of seventh grade, who could blame me? I have been set adrift by my own mother.

Tonight I’m actually going to do what Mom’s been pushing me to do for years — something social with a group of my peers. Scary and illegal, but social. As much as she likes to keep tabs
on my every move, she’s always bugging me to make friends and do things. She’s complicated like that.

I’ve found that standing on the sidelines works very well to keep all the middle school drama from touching me. The problem is, that sometimes trying to stay
out
of trouble actually gets you
into
trouble. Choosing not to participate in any group projects or activities isn’t a popular option with my teachers. Every time I get in trouble, Mom seems so disappointed in me. She must never have done anything wrong in her entire life. She doesn’t ever punish me, though. The look on her face is enough.

Well, tonight’s activity probably isn’t exactly what Mom has in mind, but the plan is already under way. There’s no turning back now. I pedal hard, and my bike brings me ever closer to the middle school parking lot and the unsuspecting goat. I had hoped to blend in to the background during my mission (or as much as possible since I’m about a foot taller than most seventh-grade girls, thanks to my Jolly Green Giant of a father). Mom may currently be distracted with her job, but not everything slips by her. The only way I’m allowed to go riding at dusk is with bright yellow reflectors practically all over my body, a whistle around my neck, and a container of pepper spray dangling from my wrist. All this in a town where the biggest crime during the two years we’ve lived here was when little Richie Simon stole a hot pepper from Mr. Jones’s garden. Richie claimed it had gotten stuck on the bottom of his shoe when he went to retrieve his lost baseball, but if that were true, he likely wouldn’t have eaten it. Poor kid threw up so many times, and in so many
colors, that even grouchy old Mr. Jones couldn’t bring himself to press charges.

Actually, the biggest crime in our town’s history just might be the one I’m about to commit. But I have to focus on being careful, and not let fear creep in. In the movies it’s always the scared ones who do something dumb like drop their wallet with their driver’s license in it. And I had a big pimple the day our student ID photos were taken, so no way is that going to be displayed on the front page of the town paper. When I reach the middle school, I hide my bike in the bushes and pray that it remains safe. It’s my favorite possession.

Earlier today, Shelby had stuck a ruler in the doorjamb of the gym door so it wouldn’t lock. I would never have thought of that. Not that I’ve considered breaking into school buildings before. Breaking
out,
yes, but not in.

I enter without a hitch and sprint through the empty gym, which feels bigger than ever. The only person I need to watch out for is the night custodian, who, according to Shelby, spends most of his time in the cafeteria, listening to music and mopping the same spot on the floor over and over. We chose this entrance because it’s the farthest from the caf.

Once in the hall, I stay close to the lockers as though they offer some small bit of protection. I’ve gone to so many schools by this point (six at last count) that they all blend together. Same Vote for ME! posters slapped up on the walls, same mud-brown lockers with papers sticking out of them at odd angles, same unmistakable smell of gym clothes, old tuna sandwiches, and cleaning solution. This could be in Anywhere, USA.

The doorknob to Principal Murphy’s office turns easily. He must be pretty trusting not to have locked it. I slip inside without so much as a creak. I can literally
see
my heart thumping under my T-shirt, and I bet I could wring a cupful of water from my palms. Other than the events of the last five minutes (and one harrowing occasion in preschool when I snuck into the supply closet for more animal crackers and got locked in), I have very little experience going where I’m not supposed to go. Shelby and her DFs are stationed at posts outside the school, ready to text me if we have any unexpected visitors. I pull out my phone. No texts. That’s a good sign.

The closed blinds allow only slivers of light to filter in from the parking lot, but I don’t want to risk discovery by opening them or switching on the desk lamp. It helps that I’ve spent enough time inside these four walls to know the layout of the office even in the near darkness. That, and the fact that, at three feet tall, the goat is hard to miss.

I don’t doubt my decision to steal him until I’m standing only inches away from his long, furry face. I never noticed before how one deep brown eye is almost an inch higher than the other. When combined with his slightly upturned lips, he looks sweet and goofy and a little bit confused.

I reach for him, then hesitate. Yes, it’s strange that the principal keeps a goat in his office, but who am I to judge where one’s affections lie? Personally, I hail from the school of thought that says the fewer things you care about, the less you’ll get hurt. But that doesn’t mean I should fault someone else for bringing a huge goat to work and taking him to every school activity like a trusted sidekick.

The clock is ticking and this goat isn’t going to steal himself. Shelby and the DFs are probably wondering what’s taking me so long. I make my decision. To make my mom happy, I will steal the goat. And I will sit with Shelby and the DFs for the next two weeks and pretend to both understand and care about everything they say. Then I’ll put it all behind me and immerse myself in the courtship rituals of small, furry tree dwellers halfway around the world.

I’m not sure in what order, but as I stretch my arms around the goat’s flank, light suddenly floods the room. The words “Unhand that goat!” fly at me from the doorway. My “getaway car” (Shelby’s older brother’s pickup truck) peels out of the parking lot with Shelby and the DFs piled in the back, and Principal Murphy gets a face full of pepper spray due to my oversensitive startle reflex.

When my parents arrive to pick me up, I try my best not to cry. Principal Murphy is doing enough of that for the both of us. Hopefully his eyes will stop watering soon and he’ll regain full use of his sight. At least that’s what the small print on the container says should happen in about two to three hours.

“Your daughter will be suspended for the last two weeks of the school year and will be expected to take her final exams at home,” he announces to my parents.

They nod from their chairs, looking down at the large desk, rather than up at Principal Murphy. I can’t blame them. Between the watering and the twitching, it’s pretty gruesome.

“I will be willing to shave a week off her punishment if she gives up the names of her accomplices.”

I shake my head. I may not be a joiner, but I do know that you don’t rat out your partners in crime.

Principal Murphy’s face darkens. But oddly, Mom’s expression changes from anger and disappointment to something that almost looks like … relief? Happiness? Yes, there’s a definite gleam in her eye. Does the fact that I had been invited to participate in an activity —
any
activity — with other kids make her so happy she is willing to overlook the fact that I just got kicked out of school?

No such gleam in Dad’s unblinking eyes, though. It takes a lot for my usually laid-back father to get mad, but I can tell by the firm set of his jaw that I won’t escape some sort of punishment this time.

Imagine all the trouble I’d have gotten into if it had been a
real
goat.

Chapter Two
 

I wake the next morning to the sound of a babbling
brook. Most kids’ alarm clocks beep, buzz, or play Top 40. Mine babbles, gurgles, rains, thunders, or whooshes, depending on what setting it’s on. Mom feels it’s important to wake up to the calming sounds of nature, as the animal kingdom and our own ancestors have done for millions of years. But honestly, the sound of water cascading over rocks is doing little to calm me now. Instead, it mocks me with its
la-di-da, just relax and enjoy the wonders of nature, isn’t life grand?
attitude. I switch the setting to thunderstorm. There. Now it matches my mood.

All the kids who
didn’t get
caught trying to steal a life-sized stuffed goat (and then temporarily blinding the principal) will be getting up for school right now as if it’s an ordinary day. I stare at the ceiling and wonder what everyone will say about me. Even though I normally fly well under the radar, it’s very rare that someone gets suspended for two whole weeks. People are gonna notice.

If this were a normal day, I’d be just about to miss the bus. Frankly, I would have expected my parents to come in here by now. I switch off the storm and sit up. In the quiet I can hear two things — the snip-snip of the gardening shears below my
window, and the clack of my dad’s fingers flying across his keyboard down the hall. He’s in full deadline mode on his latest “zombie eats alien” book that I’m not allowed to read until I’m older.

Outside my window, the chomping sound of the shears is getting louder and more intense. Our house is all on one level, so when I peek through the blinds, I’m only about five feet above the small vegetable garden. Carrots and peapods and fistfuls of parsley fly into Mom’s white wicker basket as she yanks and snips, yanks and snips. The bush to her left is full of butterflies, but she doesn’t even glance at them. She’s moving at least five times faster than usual. Things may be even worse than I feared. I let the blinds fall.

The only beam of light through the dark cloud of impending doom currently hanging over my head is Jake Harrison, who beams at me from his poster next to my window. I lean over and kiss his cheek. This little morning ritual always makes me feel better. He smiles back at me with those perfect white teeth and that gleam in his eye that says,
I may be a huge movie star, but I’m just a regular guy, too.
He’s the only boy I could ever imagine kissing in real life, which, of course, means that I’ll never, ever, kiss
anyone,
since I’d just as soon get the chance to kiss the real Jake Harrison as grow another head.

To calm my nerves, I take out my stationery. My fourth-grade teacher believed that letter writing was a dying art and matched us each up with a pen pal who lives across the country. My penpal, Julie, is the only person I tell what’s going on in my life. She’s not even going to
believe
this last incident. When I get it all out on
paper,
I address the envelope and stick the stamp
on upside down, which has become a tradition whenever I write her. Then I reach into the closet and pull out the flowered hatbox that used to belong to Mom’s mother, Grandma Emilia. I wedge the top free and drop the envelope inside. It lands on top of the sixty-six other letters I’ve written Julie in the past four years and never sent.

The frantic gardening finally stops. Even though it means having to leave the relative safety of my bedroom, I really need to use the bathroom. I wait another minute, and then open the door slowly, hoping the coast is clear. It isn’t. Both parents are standing a few feet away from my door, whispering. They stop when they see me.

“We need to talk,” Mom says, rubbing her chin with a gloved hand. I’m about to tell her she’s just smeared dirt across half her face, but Dad has already licked a finger and is using it to wipe off the smudge. It takes a lot of effort on my part not to roll my eyes at this gesture. Honestly, he’s like an eighth grader with a crush on the head cheerleader. In his eyes, I’m pretty sure Mom can do no wrong.

“Let’s go out back,” Mom says. Dad and I are both in our pajamas and slippers, but she doesn’t seem to notice or care as she leads our little group down the hall and out the back door. The wooden picnic table under the birch tree has become our official family-meeting spot, and we head straight for it.

Once seated, Mom wastes no time with small talk about the lovely early June weather. “Trust and honesty are essential to a healthy relationship,” she begins, laying her hands palm-up on the table, “and to a happy family. You have let us down, Tara,
and broken our trust. There are consequences for that. Serious consequences.”

My eyes widen at the harshness of her words. Each one makes my stomach clench tighter. She’s never talked to me like this before. She’s been hard on me sometimes, but I always felt that deep down, she was on my side. Dad squirms on the bench next to her, but remains silent.

“You’re at a turning point in your life right now, Tara, and it’s up to your father and me to make sure you don’t go down a dangerous path.”

Okay, so it’s sinking in that she is most definitely
not
happy with me for trying to impress the popular kids. I must have misread that gleam in her eye last night. She confirms it when she says, “I’d like to think I raised a daughter who wouldn’t do something foolish just because the other kids were doing it.”

Now I can’t help rolling my eyes. Doesn’t she know me better than that? When have I ever followed the crowd with anything? When has anyone even asked me to? How can I explain the real reason I did it was to please
her
? I look to Dad for help, but he has chosen this moment to start pounding a nail sticking out of the table with his huge foot.

“So what are you saying?” I ask her. “I’m grounded for the next two weeks until we leave for Madagascar? I’m already suspended. Isn’t that enough?”

She shakes her head. “I know this is going to sound harsh, but your father and I have decided that you won’t be coming with us for the summer. Instead, you’ll be going to Aunt Bethany and Uncle Roger’s house in Willow Falls. You haven’t
seen your cousin Emily in a few years, and we think the time away from kids who were obviously a bad influence will do you a world of good.”

My jaw falls open. Literally, I cannot close it. A bee could fly directly toward me and I wouldn’t be able to stop it from landing on my tongue. Mom’s spent the last twelve years and eleven months trying to protect me from unseen harm, and okay, maybe even spoiling me a little (probably because she feels guilty for making us move every time she takes a new teaching or researching job). Now she’s sending me out on my own while she’s on the other side of the world? I doubt she can track my phone from the jungle.

Dad clears his throat and faces Mom. “I know we agreed on this, Molly, but maybe a shorter visit with your sister’s family would be enough? A week or two perhaps? We wouldn’t want to complicate their summer plans….”

With Dad’s words, hope swoops in. Mom shoos it right back out. “I’ve already spoken to Bethany, and she’s very excited about it. She’s even going to keep Emily home from camp so she and Tara can spend time together. If the lemurs behave, we may not be gone the entire summer.”

Still utterly astonished, I try to pull my thoughts together. No bamboo lemurs? Stuck for the summer with my little cousin who had to be rushed to the hospital for eating half a glue stick the last time they visited us? I force my mouth to work properly. “But, Mom, you hate Willow Falls. Now you want to banish me there for two whole months with people I barely even know? While you guys are thousands of miles away?”

To her credit, she has the decency to look down at the table. Her legs begin to twitch, one after the other, a habit she has when she’s anxious. “You shouldn’t say
hate.
That’s a terrible word. And Willow Falls was a wonderful place to grow up, wasn’t it, James?”

My father nods. “Indeed it was.”

“Then why don’t we ever go back? I know your parents aren’t there anymore, but why haven’t we ever visited Aunt Bethany?”

“It’s complicated,” Mom says, still staring down at the table. “People get busy with their lives. But now you’ll have a chance to get to know your cousin. Emily is apparently a very levelheaded and stable girl, and I think she’ll be a positive influence on you.”

I shake my head in amazement. “She’s seven and eats paste! And I’m levelheaded enough.”

“She’s not seven anymore,” my mother corrects me. “She’s eleven now and quite gifted academically. I assure you she no longer eats paste. And do you call breaking into your principal’s office the act of a stable person?”

I raise my voice. “How can I have any stability when you uproot us every time the wind changes direction?”

She presses her lips together into a firm line. We stare at each other in angry silence. Dad pounds another nail. He must have a lot of faith in the lining of his slipper. Either that or he’s recently gotten a tetanus shot.

When she speaks, she does it so softly I have to lean over the table to hear her. “What if I promise that if you go willingly, if
you really try to get along with everyone and keep an open mind, then we won’t move again?”

I shrug. “I don’t believe you.”

“I’m serious,” she says, more firmly this time.

Dad stops pounding and raises his brows. “Are you sure you want to promise that, Molly?”

Mom folds her hands firmly in front of her and nods.

Dad turns to me. “That’s a pretty good offer. What do you think?”

Honestly, I don’t know what to think. It’s not like where we live now is so amazing or anything. Just another suburb in a string of suburbs. My parents never move us anywhere interesting. But the thought of not having to pack up again, of not being the new kid everyone stares at, well, that’s too good to pass up. “Fine, I’ll do it. But I get to take my bike and my Jake Harrison poster, and if Emily eats any more art supplies you’ll have to fly back and pick me up.”

“Deal,” Mom says, sticking out her hand.

“And we’ll never move again? At least until I graduate? And I mean high school, not just middle school.”

“Yup.”

I take her hand and shake it.

“Start packing,” she says cheerfully. “We head to Willow Falls Saturday.”

Jaw falls again. “As in
tomorrow
?” I manage to squeak out. “Boy, you’re not losing any time getting rid of me. What about my homework? And finals?”

“We’re not trying to get rid of you, Tara. The research team I’ll be heading up has already started. I had intended to meet up
with them once you got out of school. Now there’s no reason to wait. We’ll drop you off and fly out tomorrow evening from there.”

I mutter something under my breath that, under normal circumstances, would probably get me grounded for a week.

She throws me a warning glance and climbs off the bench. “We have to go to school later so you can clean out your locker. Your teachers will be dropping off your assignments in the main office.” With that, she motions for Dad to follow her, which of course, he does because he knows that arguing with Mom when she’s made up her mind is useless. As they stroll back to the house, Dad turns and gives me a
you can do it
thumbs-up.

Maybe a summer away from my parents won’t be such a bad thing.

I rest my cheek on the table and close my eyes. Sadly, the tight ball in my stomach is a familiar feeling. I get it each time my parents announce we’re going to move again. At least when we move, it’s still the three of us. A loud
kreeee, kreeee
sound right next to my ear rudely interrupts my downward spiral into self-pity.

I open my eyes and lift my head off the table. I’m not alone in the garden anymore. A huge bird (a hawk? a buzzard?) is perched less than a foot from my face. Normally I would jump up and scream when faced with a giant bird with a sharp, curved beak, sitting close enough to peck my eyes out, but I’m frozen. I’m not a superstitious person by nature (and I’m turning thirteen on Friday the thirteenth, so that’s really saying something), but I’m pretty sure its sudden appearance is supposed to
mean something. Good luck? Bad luck? Six more weeks of winter? No wait, that’s the groundhog.

The hawk tilts its head at me like it’s trying to decide something. I’m being judged by a bird! Finally it ruffles its shiny brown feathers, apparently having come to some kind of decision. With a final
kreeee
followed by a
garuuunk,
it springs off the table and takes to the air. It gives a lazy flap of its enormous wings, then circles overhead in a slow glide. It’s still close enough for me to clearly see its yellow feet and pointy talons. With a sudden burst of energy, it flaps quickly and takes off. A second later I feel something wet and slimy slide down the back of my head.

That can’t be good.

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