Chapter 15: We Shall Come Bearing Gifts

After sitting down and eating most of the pancakes Dad cooked for us, I found myself back at my sketchbook drawing pictures of the figures I saw in my dream. Trying to talk about it directly to them didn’t do me any good because I still couldn’t figure out what it meant, or even if it was supposed to mean anything at all. At least now I had another way to visualize those dream creatures so that they wouldn’t be stuck in the back of my head all day.

“You gonna finish these, Didi?” Dad asked as he picked up the plates in the dining room.

“Nah. I think I’ve had enough,” I said.

“Okay, then. Guess I’ll take ’em.”

I watched him pick up a few of the smaller pancake bits from my plate and eat them on his way to the kitchen. It was impressive how he was able to do that without dropping anything.

“By the way, Didi, we’re thinking of going out after work to get gifts for Sol and her mother,” he said after washing the dishes. “Do you want to come along?”

“Sure!” I said, perking up for the first time this morning. “Where are we going, exactly?”

“We haven’t decided yet,” Mom said, “but we’ll talk about it more when we get home.”

No matter where we ended up going, I was looking forward to venturing out of town again as long as it didn’t mean going back to St. Gabriel.

After Mom and Dad left for work, I decided to get started on a new painting using what little paint I had left. With my hours being reduced for the week and my need to secure funding for whatever tuition I’d need to pay, I knew I had to get started on something quickly.

When I started painting the hood of the mysterious cloaked figure, I painted it purple instead of blue just in case anyone who saw it thought I was trying to make Lillian look scary. I didn’t get very far into it before my red paint ran out. I wrote down a reminder to myself to ask Dad if we could take a detour to Angelo’s on the way home from our shopping trip.

After another hour of studying from my spellbook and refining some of the spells I already knew, I went out for a walk around Emerson Park and the corner store a couple of times. The area around the park got more crowded on my second lap, so I knew that if I needed to go out and practice on my own, I would have to do so earlier in the morning when there weren’t as many people watching.

When I stopped inside Cherry’s, the store was livelier than I’d ever seen it. Okay, so maybe calling eight customers in one room at one time “livelier than ever” was pushing it, but it was a small corner store. Mr. Cherry looked like he was happy to have all the traffic.

Much of the merchandise on display had changed over the last several days. I didn’t know how much of that was due to sales thanks to that weird clause in my contract limiting the amount of time an item could remain on the shelves. My Emerson Park painting was hanging on the wall to the left of the front counter. A few people looked at it for a few seconds, but nobody seemed interested in buying it. I wondered what would happen if my painting didn’t sell by the seven-day cutoff date. Would the Cherrys send it back to me? Would it get put in a box, stashed away somewhere to be forgotten?

As I looked around to see if I could find something nice to buy for Sol, I spotted Shaniya looking at a pair of clay figures on one of the middle shelves. One was of a boy holding a basket, and the other was of a girl holding a handful of flowers. Neither had any color to them, but they were each sculpted with an amazing amount of detail. Shaniya picked up the boy figure, examined it thoroughly, and then put it back on the shelf.

“Who’d want to buy an ugly little thing like this?” I heard her say as she looked at the statuette with a hint of disgust.

She didn’t notice me standing on the other side of the shelf, so I called out to her.

“Oh, hi!” she said. “I remember you. You’re the girl from the library. Thanks again for your help.”

“It was nothing,” I said, even though the spell I used wasn’t easy to downplay. “How did your test go?”

Shaniya smiled. “Pretty good. I got an 84.”

“That’s great!”

She thanked me and turned back toward the shelf to look at a glass bowl with a floral pattern painted around the rim. It was on one of the lower shelves, so she had to kneel to get a close look at it.

“What’s up with these paint streaks?” she asked. “It almost looks like those flowers are…bleeding.”

I looked down at the bowl to see what Shaniya was looking at. There were trails of red falling off some of the roses, and a few streaks of yellow-orange running off the marigolds on the opposite side. The little colored bulbs at the bottom of some of the streaks suggested that they weren’t put there for artistic effect. I was afraid of touching the bowl and smudging it up.

“Eh, whatever… I’m not here on a shopping trip. I’m here to see Elias.”

Shaniya went to the front counter and asked Mr. Cherry if his son was available. He didn’t waste any time in calling Elias down, although it took Elias a few minutes to get to the front counter from whatever he was doing. From the outside, it looked like there were three floors to the store building, so I figured he was upstairs playing video games or something.

Elias came out from behind the counter to give Shaniya a hug and a kiss, holding it for a few seconds longer than I thought they should, considering how busy the store was at the time. I waited a few minutes for them to talk among themselves before approaching.

“Hey, Elias,” I said. “How did you do on your test?”

“I did all right,” he said, bringing his voice down to almost a mumble. “I passed, at least.”

“Way to go! You don’t seem too happy about that, though.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

I quickly changed the subject to try to lift Elias’ spirits. Without knowing how well he was doing in school overall, or even what other classes he was taking, I didn’t want to give him any advice that would hurt his academic prospects.

“So, uh, I’m visiting a friend’s house for the first time this weekend,” I said, “and I was wondering what kind of gift I should get for them.”

“You can never go wrong with homemade baked goods,” Shaniya said. “When Elias and I first started dating, he brought me these cute little moon- and star-shaped sugar cookies. We sat on my front porch and ate the whole bag together. They were so delicious… I had no idea he was so good at baking!”

“Well… Dad did most of the work,” Elias admitted. “The moon and star shapes were my ideas, though.”

Shaniya wasn’t amused by my snickering. I couldn’t help myself. It sounded like such an odd thing to say. If I was in his shoes, I would have lied and said I did it all. Then again, baking some cookies sounded like a good idea, assuming we still had enough ingredients from Mom’s last batch.

“Why not do a special painting?” Elias asked. “You’re good at that!”

“I thought about it,” I said, “but I already made one for when they came to my house. Besides, I need to go pick up some paint later on, anyway. Is there anything I could get in here that you might recommend?”

“I don’t know how much I can help unless I know more about this friend of yours. Do they like any of this artsy stuff?”

I’d only seen Sol come to Cherry’s once. She didn’t really take interest in any of the items around her when we met that day. It was possible, although highly doubtful, that she liked to visit Cherry’s between magic practice sessions and dance lessons. It was also possible that she already had a bunch of painted dolls or fancy blown glass figures on shelves in her room. I found myself in an annoying paradox – wanting to surprise a friend with a nice gift, but not wanting to ask her about her interests and spoil the surprise. I could have picked anything out from the shelves and hoped for the best, including that “bleeding flower” bowl. If she didn’t like it, the worst I could expect to happen was that I would be forced to keep it for myself. Cherry’s didn’t look like the kind of store that offered refunds.

“I’m not really sure,” I said after looking around at everything. “Maybe I’ll just get her a CD and be done with it.”

Elias looked at me and shrugged. “I guess you could do that, too.”

I didn’t want to leave the store empty-handed, so I went ahead and bought the boy and girl figurines. If Sol didn’t like them, then at least I’d have something to put on my windowsill.

While I waited for Mom and Dad to get home, I sat on the couch in my living room and tried to relax. It was just soft enough to sit down and meditate on, but the temptation to kick off my shoes and fall asleep was too great. I told myself I only needed a few minutes. When I woke up, the afternoon news had ended and I hadn’t eaten lunch yet. On the bright side, I hadn’t seen any of the creepy cloaked people in my daydreams.

It wasn’t easy for me to go back to working on sketches when I had an unfinished painting waiting upstairs. Pencil and ink drawings were easier and cost less to produce, but they weren’t as easy to sell. You couldn’t really hang a cool-looking paper drawing on your wall unless you found a decent frame for it. One of these days, I was going to need to invest in a scanner to digitize some of these sketches so I could post and sell them online.

Dad came home a little later than usual. He told me he stopped at the gas station on the way home to fill up for our shopping trip.

When Mom got home from the library, we all gathered around the couch to watch television. I tried not to get too comfortable knowing we were about to leave at any moment.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Down to Mucci’s Mall in Marble Borough,” Mom said. “We haven’t been down there in months. It’s the closest mall we can go to ever since Wishing Well got torn down last year.”

“Wishing Well? Wasn’t that the one with the video arcade that was almost as big as the food court?” I sighed as I recalled visiting that arcade on my 14th birthday and spending six dollars in quarters trying to beat the final boss of Smash Arena before one of the local tournament players challenged me and interrupted my run. “I kinda miss that place.”

“Yeah. Mucci’s doesn’t have anything like that,” Dad said, “but they’ve got better food. Do you want to get some pizza or a burger while we’re there? I’m not really in the mood for cooking.”

“How about some seafood?” I suggested. “I’d like to try something a little different.”

“Actually, a burger doesn’t sound half-bad,” Mom said.

“We’ll see if we can hit both of those restaurants while we’re out. Ready, ladies?”

“You bet!” I cheered.

“Of course!” Mom said.

The ride into Marble Borough didn’t feel like it took as long as it did to get to St. Gabriel. It helped that there were more roads to travel along so that all the traffic wasn’t funneled into one street or highway. The scenery in St. Gabriel and the surrounding areas was more awe-inspiring due to it being a much bigger city than Sharonia, but there was something charming about the way the houses in Marble Borough lined up, and how some of them had freshly-cut lawns lined with stones and those little pinwheel ornaments.

When we got to Mucci’s, the parking lot was only half-full. Despite that, finding a good parking space was hard because most of the parked cars were concentrated closest to the three main entrances. We walked toward the big revolving door in the center, hoping it would help us remember where we parked once we were finished.

The emptiness in the parking lot was deceiving, as it looked like there were plenty of people walking around the two-story mall. A few of them gathered around the giant three-tiered fountain in the center, flicking pennies into it to make wishes.

Just to my right, there was a rectangular pillar with the layout of the mall printed on the face closest to the door. The simple, boomerang-shaped layout made it hard for anyone to get lost. We each took a paper map to help us locate all of the shops, and agreed to end our night by visiting the food court on the east wing.

Our first stop was Heart of Glass, a store that sold all types of drinking glasses and glass sculptures, from the tallest wine glass to the shortest shot glass. I couldn’t believe there was a market for a specialty store like this, where an earthquake or a loud enough sound or an errant baseball could wipe out one’s inventory in seconds. Mom and Dad picked out a drinking set that included three regular glasses, two wine glasses, and one for making margaritas. It was obvious they had Lydia in mind with that set since Sol was still about two years away from the legal drinking age. I saw a pair of glass birds in a cage that looked like they would have made a nice car ornament, but I didn’t buy it because I already knew what I was going to buy for Sol.

After that, we took a leisurely stroll around the west wing of the mall, past the Knowles department store on the end, and into Orange Records. In an age where it was easy to download and stream songs onto a computer with a single click, Orange Records still saw a lot of young visitors. It helped that there were booths around the store that let customers listen to 30-second snippets of songs from an album to decide if they were worth buying. I went to one of the listening booths and sampled a few tracks from St. Nina, the newest album from Ashlynn Franks. Dance-pop wasn’t really my thing, but those songs were incredibly catchy. I had to resist the urge to sing along and embarrass myself.

I ultimately took two copies of St. Nina with me to the counter. My goal wasn’t to study the album the same way I did with my Simple Spells book. It was just to give me something to listen to whenever I wasn’t studying. When I paid for the albums and told the clerk I was buying them for a friend, she gave me a teasing wink. “Sure, you are,” she said, unbuckling one of the straps on her Orange Records apron to reveal an Ashlynn Franks concert T-shirt. “You don’t have to be shy about being an Ashlynn fan!”

“This is just my first Ashlynn album, though,” I tried to explain.

“Betcha it won’t be your last!”

Unfortunately, the clerk’s cheeriness didn’t rub off on me. I wanted to get out of there and move on.

We continued touring the east wing of the mall, deciding to save our visit to the second floor for another day since we already did everything we wanted to do. As we got closer to the food court, I saw two young men walking away from a small store carrying wand cases in their hands. The woman standing behind them appeared to be locking up the store for the night. It was only six o’clock, and the mall at large didn’t close until ten, according to the map. When I peered through the metal gates to see what she was selling, I understood why – she was running a magic shop just like the Blank Scroll. Every shelf was filled with scrolls, wands, spellbooks, beakers, and potion ingredients. There was no doubt in my mind that she wanted to close early – or the mall security team made her do it – to prevent the rowdier late-night crowd from ransacking the place.

The food court was probably the most crowded area in the mall. It was right around dinnertime for most of the locals, so we had to wait in long lines to get our food. I picked up some grilled shrimp skewers from the seafood store, and Mom and Dad both bought cheeseburgers from Burger Barn. We picked an empty table around the outer rim of the eating area, giving us just enough room to eat our meals and compare our hauls.

“What did you wind up getting for Marisol?” Dad asked.

“An Ashlynn CD,” I said.

“Good choice! That sounds like something she might like. What about her mother?”

“I didn’t buy anything for her. I gave her that painting that one time. Remember?”

“Technically, it was a painting of your friend and her mother wanted to buy it from you,” Dad reminded me.

“Her mom said she liked it, though.”

I looked down at Mom’s feet and saw a pair of bags from a store I didn’t remember visiting. “What’s in those bags?” I asked after taking the last bite from one of my skewers.

“Oh, just some snacks and things,” Mom said.

“More cookies, huh?”

“Of course! I bought enough for everybody – us and Marisol’s family.” Mom put down her burger and reached into one of the unmarked bags by her feet, pulling out two containers’ worth of assorted cookies. “And there’s so much variety in these packs! Chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, ginger snap, sugar…”

Mom seemed a lot more excited about the cookies than she did with her cheeseburger. She let Dad have the last quarter of it while she stole away to the bathroom. I went along with her so that I didn’t have to complain about needing to pee later.

We took our bags with us to the parking lot, which I swore had twice as many cars in it since we entered. Our car was wedged between a minivan and a pick-up truck, so Dad had to pull out of his spot to give Mom and I enough room to get in. Whoever owned either of those vehicles would probably have been mad at us if we dented them with our doors.

We stopped at Angelo’s arts and crafts store in Emiliora, which was about halfway between Marble Borough and Sharonia. I visited this store a lot, so it didn’t take me long to find what I needed and get to the register quickly. This time, I got double my usual order of paints and a few extra brushes. I didn’t know how many more chances I’d have to come back once summer started.

I hadn’t told my parents about my nightmare, but I felt a lot better after getting out of the house. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to talk to Sol about it either. All I cared about was whether or not she would like either of the gifts I bought for her.

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