Nellie’s Perfect Gift
by Brian Rowe
The birthday party had to be spectacular. Theresa had invited fourteen of her friends, most of whom were from Mrs. Kent’s class, but a few of whom were from P.E., recess, her own neighborhood. They were a mix of ages — some ten, some eleven, two twelve-year-olds, one thirteen-year-old who looked about nine. Her mother had decked out the house with countless decorations, even going so far as to put a giant banner outside the front entrance door stretched at least forty feet horizontally. The day Theresa moved from Albequerque to Santa Cruz last year was her very own birthday, and so the only party she had was a slushee fest at the local 7–11, her brother Carl giving her a hug and a coupon for a free hot dog. This year was going to be different, Theresa had made enough friends to fill the front half of the house, everywhere from the entrance hallway to the gargantuan living room, and she was ready for a memorable birthday she would never forget.
Ashley and Amy arrived first, two blonde sisters with pigtails who each brought a lopsided box that looked to fit exactly one large skate. Mary came next, then Patricia and Sarah and Tiffany. All of her friends had made it on time, except for one — Nellie. Where was Nellie? Theresa had become good friends with her out on the basketball court at recess last month, always losing to her when they played HORSE but hoping one day that victory would be hers. Thirty minutes went by, and the large group was already ready for the chocolate and vanilla ice cream cake, which Theresa’s mom made from scratch and didn’t just order from the local Baskin Robbins, when the doorbell rang. All of the girls asked who it was, and when Theresa told them Nellie, they all gave her strange, almost petrified kind of looks. Theresa answered the door, and Nellie bounded inside, the biggest present of the night wrapped in her arms. It looked large enough to fit a golf cart. Theresa told her to set it in the family room area along with all the other presents, which were numerous, a whole lot more than last year.
Nellie hugged Theresa and then said hello to the other girls, who were all huddled together in a circle at the kitchen table, Theresa’s mother starting to slice the cake. The girls, noticeably, did not say hello back, didn’t even acknowledge Nellie. Theresa went so far as to introduce her to the group a second time, and finally about five of the girls gave Nellie a little wave, as Theresa’s mother starting set down plates of the cake one by one. Theresa got the biggest slice, of course she did, but she was one of the few who actually allowed enough time to enjoy the sinful dessert, every bite light and refreshing, the moist chocolate cake mixed in with the vanilla ice cream like a sweet lover’s dream. Most of her friends were just shoveling it in like breakfast oatmeal, two minutes to go before they catch their bus. Nellie scooted her chair up beside Theresa and brought her fork down to the plate. Theresa did a double take, noticing that Nellie had the smallest slice of everyone at the table. She asked her mother to give Nellie more, but she just shrugged and apologized for not making enough. That wasn’t like her mother. That pastry-pie-dessert queen always made more than enough.
The group moved into the family room, where the TV was on and playing the latest Oscar telecast, and Theresa started opening her presents. She received two skates from the twins, although each was a slightly different shade of black. She got the limited edition Harry Potter series from Sarah, a new wristwatch from her friend, Gwen. She loved all of her gifts, but nothing was standing out for her, nothing super personal that actually meant anything. Ten more minutes passed and she had two gifts left, one from Tiffany, one from Nellie. Tiffany’s gift was the size of an apple, so she opened that one first — a Christmas ornament hand-painted from Tiffany’s artist aunt. It was gorgeous, but still, it felt like something Tiffany would give to just anyone. Theresa moved to the other couch and tipped Nellie’s present to its side. It was a big box, and heavy enough to hold an adult German Shepherd. Nellie was the most unpredictable of all her friends, and it wouldn’t have surprised Nellie to find a pet dog in the depths of the box.
Theresa ripped off all the wrapping paper, then pulled open the top part of the box. First she pulled out a basketball jersey with Theresa’s name stitched into the back. Then she pulled out not one, not two, but three basketballs. Theresa thought that had to be it, but the box was still heavy, and she still hadn’t reached toward the depths of it. She had to tilt the box more toward her, to be able to dip her arm down far enough. Her fingers latched on to plastic, then the back of a wooden board. She started to pull the object toward her, but it was too heavy, and she asked for Nellie’s help. Both girls reached into the box and pulled with all their might, Nellie nearly tripping over the chair leg and falling on her face, and a black mini basketball backboard came tumbling out, right onto the carpet. Theresa brought her hand to her chest, amazed at the sight before her. Theresa’s name was on the backboard, too, along with Nellie’s name beside it, and underneath the phrase, FRIENDS FOREVER.
“Black,” someone said. “It’s from Nellie, so of course it would be black.”
Theresa spun around. Looked down at the semi-circle on the floor, at all her so-called friends. “Who said that?”
None of the girls locked eyes with her. They stared in twenty other different directions, but nowhere close to Theresa.
Finally, Ashley pointed at her sister. “It was Amy! Amy said it!”
Amy’s eyes opened wide, as everyone stared at her. “Ashley, what are you doing?”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I can’t lie, I just can’t!”
Nellie already had her arm out to stop Theresa from charging across the room toward loudmouthed Ashley, but Theresa pushed right past it, her face reddening with a pulsating rage, her eyes welling up with unexpected tears. “Ashley,” she said, “you say one more thing bad about Nellie, and I’ll kick you out of this house, understand?”
Ashley nodded and gripped the hand of her sister tight.
“That goes for all of you,” Theresa said, and then she walked back to Nellie, picking up the backboard and one of the new basketballs on the way. “Now who’s ready to take on me and Nellie outside?”
The girls played basketball late into the night, Amy and Ashley scoring the lowest of everyone, Tiffany and Patricia receiving a couple points more, Theresa and Nellie leading the way and showing the rest of the girls how the game is done.