When I got to my room, I found a shopping bag sitting in the center of my bed with a note propped up against it. I recognized the loopy, flowing script even from a distance: Caroline.
Sorry I missed you. I’ll be back in a couple of days, hopefully with a good progress report of the renovation. I forgot when I was here last time to drop this off for you. I found it in the bedroom closet of the beach house the last time I was there, when I was cleaning stuff out. I’m not sure what it is (didn’t want to open it) but I thought you should have it. I’ll see you soon.
It was signed with a row of Xs and Os, as well as a smiley face. I sat down on the bed next to the bag, opening the top. I took one glance, then shut it, quick.
Oh, God, I thought.
In that one glimpse, I’d seen two things. Wrapping paper— gold, with some pattern—and a white card with my name written on it. In another hand I recognized, would know anywhere. My dad’s.
More to come, the card he’d given me that Christmas Day, the last day I’d had with him, had said. Soon. So my missing present wasn’t an EZ gift after all, but this.
I reached to open the bag, then stopped myself. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t unwrap it now, I realized, because no matter what it was, it would disappoint me. All this time it wasn’t a gift I’d wanted: it was a sign. So maybe it was best to let this, of all things, have endless potential.
I pulled my chair over to the closet, took the bag, and pushed it up and over next to the box with the EZ products. Whatever it was, it had waited a long time to find me. A little bit longer wouldn’t make that much of a difference.
“Whose turn is it to ask?”
“Yours,” Wes said to me.
“Are you sure?”
He nodded, cranking the van’s engine. “Go ahead.”
I sat back in my seat, tucking one foot underneath me as we pulled out of Delia’s driveway and started down Sweetbud Road. We’d won the toss, which meant we got to go wash the van, while Bert and Kristy were stuck making crab cakes. “Okay,” I said, “what’s your biggest fear?”
As always, he took a second to think about his answer. “Clowns,” he said.
I just looked at him.
“What?” he said, glancing over at me.
“That is not a real answer,” I told him.
“Says me. I meant a real fear, like of failure, of death, of regret. Like that. Something that keeps you awake nights, questioning your very existence.”
He thought for a second. “Clowns.”
I rolled my eyes. “Please.”
“That’s my answer.” He slowed down, edging carefully around the hole. I glanced at the heart in hand, which was still, shimmering in the heat. “I don’t like clowns. They scare the shit out of me, ever since I went to the circus as a kid and one popped a balloon right in my face.”
“Stop it,” I said, smiling.
“I wish I could.”
We were at the end of the road now, a cloud of dust settling all around us.
“Clowns,” I repeated. “Really?”
He nodded. “Are you going to accept it as my answer, or not?”
“Is it the truth?”
“Yeah. It is.”
“Fine,” I said. “Then it’s your turn.”
I knew a lot about Wes now. That he’d gotten his first kiss from a girl in sixth grade named Willa Patrick. That he thought his ears were too big for his head. And that he hated jazz, wasabi, and the smell of patchouli. And clowns.
The game we’d begun the night we were stranded was ongoing: whenever we found ourselves alone, driving to a job or prepping silverware or just hanging out, we picked it up automatically where we’d left off the last time. When everyone else from Wish was around, there was noise and drama and laughter and chaos. But times like these, it was just me, Wes, and the truth.
When I’d first started playing Truth, back in my slumber party days, it had always made me nervous. Wes was right in saying it was diabolical: the questions asked were always personal or embarrassing, preferably both. Often, playing with my friends or sister, I’d choose to pass on a question and lose rather than have to confess I was madly in love with my math teacher. As I got older, the games were even more brutal, with questions revolving around boys and crushes and How Far You’d Gone. But with Wes, Truth was different. He’d asked me the hardest question first, so all that followed were easier. Or somewhat easier.
“What,” he asked me one day, as we walked through Milton’s Market looking for paper towels, “is the grossest thing that’s ever happened to you?”
“Ew,” I said, shooting him a look. “Is this really necessary?”
“Answer or pass,” he told me, sliding his hands in his pockets.
He knew I wouldn’t pass. He wouldn’t either. We were both totally competitive, but really, there was more to it than that, at least for me. I liked this way of getting to know him, these random facts and details, each one like a puzzle piece I examined carefully, figuring out how it fit in with the rest. If either of us won, it would all be over. So I had to keep answering.
“Fifth grade,” I said, as we turned onto the paper product aisle. “It was December, and this woman came in to talk to us about Hanukkah. I remember she gave us gelt.”
“That’s the gross part?”
“No,” I said, shooting him a look. “I’m getting to it.” Being so economical with his own words, Wes was always prodding me to hurry up and get to the point, to which I responded by padding my story that much more. It was all part of the game. “Her name was Mrs. Felton, Barbara Felton’s mom. Anyway, so we got gelt, we were talking about the menorah. Everything was fine.”
We were at the paper towels now. Wes pulled an eight-pack off the shelf, tucking it under his arm, then handed me another one, and we started toward the registers.
“Then,” I said, “my teacher, Mrs. Whitehead, comes up to Norma Piskill, who’s sitting beside me, and asks if she’s okay. And Norma says yes, although looking at her, I notice she’s a little green.”
“Uh-oh,” he said, making a face.
“Exactly.” I sighed. “So the next thing I know, Norma Piskill is trying to get up, but she doesn’t make it. Instead, she pukes all over me. And then, as I’m standing there dripping, she does it again.”