The Greatest Gifts They'd Ever Given

Toast was lying on her bed, deep in thought. It was Saturday morning, and she still had her pajamas on, the ones with her favorite rock band stenciled on the front. Outside the window, snow was falling in puffy flakes, turning the world a pretty white.

"Have you decided yet?" her mom asked from the doorway.

Sadly, Toast shook her head no.

"Don't worry," her mom said, "you will."

Would she? Toast wasn't so sure. That very afternoon she had to have a present for her friend Annabelle, and she was stuck for an idea. Stuck like the top of a year-old bottle of glue.

Last year had been easier. Then she and Annabelle and Betsy had exchanged home-made presents: painted ceramic turtles, a cut-paper calendar, and Japanese dance masks. Toast had had fun making the masks for Betsy in art class at school. Betsy's calendar for Annabelle with symbols for the different months of the year (June sailboats, October pumpkins) had been neat, as had Annabelle's turtles for Toast.

Before that, they'd always bought presents - also easy. All it took was money, and since Toast had a job as a baby sitter, buying was no problem. Exchanging mid-winter presents had become a tradition with the three girls - and until now was something Toast looked forward to.

So, what was wrong?

Annabelle's idea, that's what.

"Let's go all out this year," she'd said some time ago. "Instead of buying or making things, let's show our friendship by giving each other a prized possession."

Toast and Betsy asked her what she meant.

"You know," was Annabelle's answer. "What we already have that we'd hate to part with, something of value. A prize."

Annabelle was always full of ideas.

"Er, like what?" Toast was confused.

"Not your favorite thing," Annabelle explained. "Just something you like a lot that has some meaning for you."

As anyone could tell, Annabelle was a year older.

Toast had thought and thought. Since it was her turn to give Annabelle a present - smart, picky, bossy, fun, and generous Annabelle - whatever she gave would have to be perfect.

The trouble was, what something-of-value would Toast be willing to part with? Surely not her rock-star autograph book. She'd never give that away - never, not even to one of her two best friends. And not her miniature rhino collection that she dusted every day and kept on a shelf above her desk. And not "The Little House on the Prairie" book her grandmother had given her, the one with the gold pages and all the colorful pictures.

Giving that away would hurt her grandmother's feelings.

What then?

It was the falling snow outside Toast's window that finally gave her an idea - one as shiny and bright as a snowflake. Why hadn't she thought of it before? For weeks Annabelle had been sad because, for some reason, her parents had had to cancel their family's Florida vacation.

"So long, warm sun, swimming, snorkeling, shell collecting, long walks, yummy food, and outdoor movies. So long, good time," Annabelle had moaned.

Well, Toast had something that just might make Annabelle feel a little better - her postcard collection of all her favorite places. No, not ones she'd been to, but a kid could dream, couldn't she? Paris, Rome, Alaska, Mexico, the Virgin Islands, San Francisco, Yankee Stadium - and Florida!

Toast jumped off her bed and a minute later was dragging a heavy box out of the closet. There were the postcards right on top - 20 in all. If she'd had a place to display them, like in a photo album, she'd have kept the valuable cards handy, say, on the shelf next to her rhinos.

She felt only a twinge of regret as she wrapped them in red tissue paper and wrote "To my friend Annabelle, Love Toast" on top, but she knew that, if she asked, Annabelle would let her look at the postcards any time she wanted.

Whew - done!

Betsy and Annabelle arrived together at Toast's house that afternoon. Toast's mom (who'd liked the postcard idea) had made hot chocolate and cupcakes for them to enjoy while they exchanged their presents. "Let's go upstairs," Toast suggested, "and sit on my bed."

Now that she'd made up her mind, she was filled with excitement. She couldn't wait to see Annabelle's face when she saw her present. And what would Betsy be giving Toast? Whatever she'd wrapped looked pretty big and formidable.

"You first," Toast said to Annabelle.

"Wait," her friend blurted out. A wide smile lit up her face. "You'll never guess. Change in plans. My family is going to Florida after all. We leave by plane next week. Can you believe it? Two whole weeks on a sunny beach! I'm just sorry you guys can't come, too. Maybe next time, my dad says."

"Lucky you," Betsy said.

"Yeah," Toast added shakily.

"You don't seem happy for me, Toast," Annabelle said.

Toast shook her head, "Open your present."

Annabelle did, and when she saw what it was and heard Toast's reason for giving it to her, she laughed and laughed, then hugged and hugged. "I love it anyway," she said. "And I'll take the postcards with me on the trip to remind me of you."

With that she handed Betsy a long, thin, prettily wrapped box.

"I hope you like it, Betsy."

"I can't wait," Betsy said eagerly.

Inside the box were a dozen fancy French-made artists' ink pens, surely one of Annabelle's most valued possessions.

Was Betsy happy? Yes and no. Her face took on a funny look, as if she'd swallowed a cricket. Then she started laughing, too, while doing a back somersault on the bed.

"They're for drawing in your special journal," Annabelle told her in a puzzled voice. "Don't you like them?"

Betsy nodded. "Yes, verrrrrrry much," she said when she'd caught her breath. "Only look."

She handed Toast her present, which turned out to be Betsy's special journal - thick blank pages for drawing inside a leather cover etched with a wintry design.

"But Betsy, why?" Toast wanted to know. Betsy was the artist, not Toast, despite her making those Japanese masks.

"They're for keeping your postcards in," Betsy explained with a laugh. "At least, that was my idea."

Now all three girls were laughing - laughing, making faces, and hugging.

All three were happy and delighted to have such good friends.

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