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288 pages
Jan 2004
Bethany House Publishers

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IT WAS THE HALO THAT CAUGHT her heart between beats and made her breath pause and take notice. The sun in the white sky was a pale face surrounded by a glow, and she let up on the gas and stared one moment before it began to snow. Plump sugarplum fairies, crystalline dancers afloat on the air ... and she knew, she knew it meant something good.

The gravelly shoulder of the highway ground beneath her tires as she pulled over to the side and stopped. She opened the convertible top and, tipping back her head, watched the flakes separate from the gauzy sky like moths from a giant cocoon.

Alessi held her face still to receive the icy kisses on her skin and hair. A car zoomed by, sending the dancers awhirl in a wild tarantella. She traced their motion with a finger in the air, then dropped her hand to her lap and laughed.

What was she doing on the side of the highway with her car filling with snow? She looked again at the sunglow through the thickened clouds. The halo was gone. They never lasted. But their magic did. She felt it now, captured inside her as she activated her roof and pulled back onto the highway.

She’d seen the first halo at seven years old; her father had been gone for three. Mom had shouldered several jobs, and after school Alessi worked with her. They cleaned houses for people with lots of “don’t touch” things. Three nights a week they also stocked shelves at a health food market. The other nights they were home, but Mom was often too tired to fuss over dinner.

The night she saw the halo, Alessi had just started to protest Chef Boyardee when her mother reached into a drawer. “Do you know what these are?”

They were the handkerchiefs they’d found at the Salvation Army for three cents each.

Her mother said, “The fine linens of the queen of Sheba.”

Mom liked that queen. She always said one day they’d live like the queen of Sheba. But Alessi was tired of canned spaghetti.

Her mother’s eyes lit. “They were smuggled out of the country by very smart sparrows who brought them to the fairy queen for her banquet.”

Now, that was a queen Alessi couldn’t resist. A story about two royal persons meant extra magic. “How did they get here from the fairy queen?”

“A gift, of course,” Mom said.

“But we found them at—”

“Because wicked gnomes stole them from the fairy messenger. But their magic drew us to them on the shelf and made us recognize the gift. You will always see the gift if your heart is open to the magic.”

Alessi’s heart was opened wide as Mom spooned canned spaghetti onto the plate. “And this,” she said, “is the fairy ambrosia.”

That’s when she saw it, her mother’s head encircled by light, her golden hair aglow. Alessi’s mouth fell open. Mom bent to serve her own portion and the lamp behind spread its light to the room. But Alessi had seen it.

Reveling in the memory, Alessi pressed the accelerator to pass a wooden-sided truck filled with rubber tires. The driver honked and waved as she went by. The Mustang had that effect. It was the nicest thing she had ever been given. That had been a halo day too—her eighteenth birthday.

“A Mustang? For me?” The convertible had sat in the circular drive like a dark candied apple with caramel leather seats.

“Now that you’re on your own, you’ll need some wheels,” her uncle said, noblesse oblige. Aunt Carrie flashed her Estée Lauder smile.

“Thank you both so much. Should I ... maybe I’ll just pack up now?” She had entertained thoughts of college, even the possibility Uncle Bob would put her through. But this was reality. “I really don’t know how to thank you. For everything. Taking me in and ...”

“Less ... you’re my sister’s only child.” Her aunt’s eyes moistened on cue.

Uncle Bob nodded. Standing with their two children outside their sunwashed Palm Beach home, they positively glowed. Halos. She had waved good-bye to the Fisher Price family and envisioned their lives sealing up like a knife mark in Jell-O as soon as she was gone.

Now, three and a half years later, her paint still gleamed, the leather was soft as a puppy’s underbelly, and two and a half weeks before Christmas, Alessi had reached a place where it snowed. The flakes flew around the Mustang as the sun disappeared in the pasty sky. A halo on the sun, and now the snow. Something good was coming.

The orange gas pump light flashed on the dashboard, and an eighth of a tank would only take her so far. The road ahead was white, with no cars in view, but she knew the tire truck men were somewhere behind, should a true emergency occur. She just needed an exit, the sort with services.

Snow thickening, she decreased her speed. Her needle was close to empty. The wipers thwacked more quickly as she adjusted them. Finally an Exit sign appeared, though the snow obscured the words and almost covered the trusty food and gas symbols. She tapped her fingertips on the steering wheel in time with the turn signal, then eased off the highway, climbing the ramp to the crossroad. Her stomach growled.

She was used to going without, but the snow had conjured images of hot mashed potatoes with melting pats of butter, meat loaf and gravy, and cocoa swirled with whipping cream. Her last great meal had been a Thanksgiving splurge of turkey and dressing at a cafeteria. Her stomach tightened again. She would stop for food this time.

But searching the road ahead, she hoped there really was something out there. The sign at the top of the exit had been equally unreadable except for the bottom stems of several letters and an arrow to the right. Trees thickened; conifers, pines, and a bare deciduous net on both sides. The road began to dip and rise, and ahead she saw a sign, sideways to the wind and at last readable: Charity, four miles.

* * *

Halo, snow, Charity. How much clearer could it be? Alessi passed into Charity’s city limits, noting the first buildings in a daze: a breeder kennel, a hardware store, a mini mart.

There was a small fire station and, next to that, a post office, city hall, and maintenance all in one log building. At the Stop sign were clustered the Hawkeye Gift Gallery, Bennet’s Books, and Moll’s Café. To her right, Best Beer and Pool, and diagonally, Mr. Gas Garage and Videos. It didn’t seem like the setting for a miracle, but what else could be coming with a halo on the sun?

She pulled up to the pumps and got out. The snow fell steadily, with less whimsy than before. She leaned on the car door and looked back the way she’d just come. A few cars were parked along the street, though none putted down the road, and only one man was out in the snow getting a newspaper from the stand outside the mini mart.

It was a scene she’d never experienced: cold, yet warming, each roof and ledge flocked with foam that for a moment reminded her of the ocean. But she was far from the balmy air, the flaming bird of paradise, bougainvillea, and green, waving fronds. And she couldn’t help thinking this was what Christmas should look like. No pink flamingos with neck wreaths, lighted palm trees, or Santas in swim trunks.

She shivered. Her cotton top, bought secondhand, was lightweight, and her canvas sneakers were getting wet. She would have to find her jacket in one of the bags in her trunk. But for now, she reveled in the cold. Except for the smell of gasoline, the air was crisp and charged with some energy she’d never felt. Her heart skipped another beat. Almost giddy, she tried to catch a snowflake on her tongue. But they veered away at the last moment, and she gave up, folding her arms across her chest and looking over the last few buildings.

The Charity Community Center, Maple Tree Bakery, and Hair Magic. She could just make out what looked like a church at the end of the block, and on the cross street by the mini mart was Granny’s Trunk, clothes and collectibles. It might be fun to rummage through there, but she should stick with what she had in her totes: shorts and tops, another pair of jeans, socks, sandals—and hopefully a jacket, though she couldn’t remember what she’d done with the green windbreaker with the broken zipper. She’d been just peevish enough when she packed up this last time to have tossed it. Maybe she’d try Granny’s after all.

She wanted to memorize the whole scene, to plant it in her mind. It could be—yes, it could be—her first view of the “place.” The thought warmed her, as did the anticipation of a meal at Moll’s, and the whole scene, comforting as a children’s picture book. She imagined the title: Charity’s Treasure. She had landed in a fairy tale, and she wished Mom were there to see.

The gas pump clunked. She rehung the nozzle and replaced her gas cap. Looking down Charity’s quaint street once more, she tried to absorb the magic, to keep her heart open and recognize the gift. Shivering, she reached past the open car door and took two bills from her purse.

Tucking hand and money beneath her opposite arm, she hurried inside the station. The man behind the counter smiled and stood up from his stool. He was very tall and narrow in the shoulders. “You could have waited in here for the pump.”

“I know. But since I’ve never stood in snow before ...”


She shook her head. “Nope.”

“That’s why you were ...” He lapped with his tongue. “Trying to catch it.”

“You saw that?” She laughed.

“I don’t suppose there’s anyone who hasn’t tried it. You have to move slowly so you don’t blow them away.”

“So that’s it.”

“It’s easier with a really wet snow. The flakes are heavier.” He pushed the buttons on the register. “Do you want anything besides the gas?”

She looked around the shelves of oil and automotive parts, racks of snacks and incidentals, to the back wall lined with videos. In the midst of that was a glass case with old photos and movie memorabilia. “What’s all that?” She walked back to the case.

“Just a hobby.” He joined her there. “That’s my favorite.” A signed Clark Gable looking debonair as Rhett Butler.

“Do you sell these?”

“Nah. They’re keepers.” He put his hands into his pockets.

There was Humphrey Bogart and Yvette Mimieux, a Three Stooges Festival poster, a Charlie Chaplin doll, and a playbill featuring the cast of The Wizard of Oz with all five signatures, including Toto. But what she really loved was the autographed photo of Rod Taylor sitting in the Time Machine. What a place this Charity was. A lanky grease monkey with a Hollywood collection.

A man came in from one of the side doors, compact and dark with black circles around his nails. He carried the warm oozy smell of grease. “Finished up that V-dub. Running sweet now.” He stopped when he saw her. “Oh. Hey. Quite a collection, eh?”

“It’s wonderful.” She turned back to the first man. “Well, I’m pretty hungry. How’s Moll’s?”

“It’s good if you like real food. If you’re one of those Florida gals who only eats sushi ...”

She smiled. “How did you know I’m a Florida gal?”

“Read your license plate.”

“Oh.” She followed him back to the counter.

“That and you never seeing snow before.” He rang up the sale and gave her seven cents change.

“Not ever?” the short man asked.

“Not actually falling. Well, of course I’ve seen it in the movies, and you know what? It looked just like this.” She looked out the window at the gas pumps growing fuzzy. She blinked. “Did you ... did someone ... move my car?”

Her tall attendant leaned to look. “You move her car, Dave?”

Dave paused from wiping his greasy hands on a rag. “What do you mean? I was working on the Bug in the garage.”

Alessi pushed through the doors and stood in the lot between the gas pumps and the station. She looked both ways down the street. Everything looked the same, except the snowfall had thickened—and her car was gone.