Unearthly Page 54

For the first time that I can remember there won’t be a party on my birthday. No cake. No presents. Mom gave me a gift before she went off to California, a sunshine yellow sundress that rustles against my calves when I walk. I love the dress, but standing in my bedroom looking at it on the hanger, such a sweet, perfect dress for a birthday party or a date or a night out, I’m instantly depressed. I go downstairs and sit at the kitchen counter munching Cheerios, feeling even sadder that there’s no banana to slice up into my cereal, and turn on our small kitchen television to watch the news.

The reporter’s talking about what a dry season it’s been in Jackson Hole this year. We only got two-thirds the normal amount of snowfall, she says, and the spring runoff has been pretty low. The reservoir is way down. She stands in front of the lake and motions to the low water level. You can clearly see where the water usually comes to, the color of the rocks lighter once it hits the regular waterline.

“This year’s drought may not affect us much now,” she says, staring with solemn eyes into the camera, “but as the summer progresses, the land will get drier and drier. Fires are likely to start earlier in the year, and the fires are likely to be more destructive.”

Last night I tried to fly again, this time carrying a duffel bag. I couldn’t find a better equivalent of a human being. I filled it with a bunch of cans of soup and a couple of gallons of water, along with some blankets and padding, lugged it into the backyard, and tried to take off with it. No such luck. It probably weighed half of what Christian does, if that. And I could not for the life of me get off the ground with it. All the focus that goes into making myself light so that my wings can lift me is worthless when I try to pick up something heavy. I’m too weak.

Now, as I stare at the television, which is running footage of the Jackson area’s previous forest fires, my skin prickles like the reporter is speaking directly to me. I get the message. Try harder. The fire’s coming soon. I have to be ready.

I spend the morning painting my toenails and watching daytime TV. I should get out, I tell myself, but I can’t think of anywhere to go that won’t make me feel even more pathetically lonely.

Around noon there’s a knock on the door. I don’t expect to see Tucker Avery standing on my doorstep. But here he is, holding a shoe box under his arm. The sun’s falling directly across him.

I open the door. “Hi.”

“Hi.” He presses his lips together to keep from smiling. “Just get up?”

I realize I’m wearing a very dopey pair of pink plaid pajamas with the word PRINCESS embroidered across the left breast. Not my idea, these pj’s, but they’re warm and comfy. I take a step back, into the frame of the door.

“Can I help you?” I ask.

He holds out the box. “Wendy wanted me to give this to you,” he says. “Today.”

I gingerly take the shoe box out of his hand. “There’s not a snake in here, is there?”

He grins. “I guess you’ll find out.”

I start to turn back into the house. Tucker doesn’t move. I glance at him anxiously. He’s waiting for something.

“What, you want a tip?” I ask.

“Sure.”

“I don’t have any cash. Do you want to come in?”

“Thought you’d never ask.”

I motion for him to follow me inside. “Wait here.” I set the shoe box on the kitchen counter and sprint upstairs to put on jeans and a yellow-and-blue flannel shirt. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and it stops me cold. My orange hair is a rat’s nest. I duck into the bathroom and try to comb the snarls out, then braid it in one long plait down my back. I dust on a little blush. A coat of lip gloss and I’m presentable again.

When I come back down the stairs, I find Tucker in the living room sitting on the couch, his booted feet on the coffee table. He’s looking out the window where the wind stirs the big aspen outside, the tree a flurry of motion, each leaf trembling with life. I love that tree. Seeing him there, admiring it, unnerves me. I want to put Tucker in a safe little box where I can predict what he wants, but he refuses to stay in it.

“Nice tree,” he says.

The boy has unexpected depth.

“Open it,” he says, without turning to look at me or the shoe box on the counter. I pick up the box and lift the lid. Inside, wrapped in white tissue paper, is a pair of Vasque hiking boots. They’re noticeably used, with some wear on the edges and soles, although clean and well cared for. These are expensive boots. I wonder if Wendy and I have the same size feet, even though I’m so much taller than she is. I wonder how she could have afforded such great boots, and why on earth she would give them up now.

“There’s a note,” says Tucker.

Inside one of the boots is a three-by-five card with Wendy’s slanted scrawl on the front and back. I start reading.

Dear Clara, I am so sorry I can’t be with you on your birthday. While you’re reading this I’m probably shoveling horse puckey or worse, so don’t feel too sorry for yourself! The boots are not your birthday present. They are a loaner, so take care of them. Tucker is your birthday present. Now before you get that mad face, hear me out. Last time we talked, you sounded lonely and like you weren’t getting out much. I refuse to allow you to mope around your house when you’re surrounded by the most beautiful land ever. No one on earth knows this part of the country better than Tucker. He is the finest tour guide to the area that you are ever likely to meet. So suck it up, Clara, put on the boots, and let him show you around for a few days. That is really the best possible present I can give you. Big hug! Love, Wendy.

I look up. Tucker’s still looking at the tree. I don’t know what to say.

“She wanted me to sing you a little jingle, too, like I’m a singing delivery guy.” He glances at me over his shoulder, a corner of his mouth lifting. “I told her where she could stick it.”

“She says . . .”

“I know.”

He lets out a sigh like he’s facing a particularly unpleasant chore, and gets up. He looks at me from top to bottom, as if he’s unsure that I’m up to whatever he has planned.

“What?” I say hotly.

“That’s pretty good. But you’ll have to go back upstairs and put on a suit.”

“A suit?” Somehow that doesn’t seem plausible.

“A swimming suit,” he clarifies.

“We’re going swimming?” I ask, instantly unsure about this whole Tucker thing, no matter what Wendy’s intentions were. I glance over at him. A lot of girls would be thrilled to receive Tucker Avery as a present, I know, what with the stormy blue eyes and the golden tawny skin and hair, the dimple carved into his left cheek. I have a mortifying flash of Tucker standing in front of me wearing a big red bow and nothing else.

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