The Christmas Blizzard

"Here we are, dear," said Mrs. Speaks. The bus had pulled up directly in front of her house. By now there were only a few other students on the bus, and none whom Alexandra knew well, so she carried Charlie's cage down the aisle without speaking to anyone else.

"Thanks, Mrs. Speaks. Merry Christmas!" she said, as she got off the bus and retrieved her luggage, which was only a small bag.

Although Charmbridge Academy was farther north, it was colder here, and it had snowed recently. Not heavily, but all the front lawns on Sweetmaple Avenue were blanketed in white. While some of the sidewalks were neatly shoveled, the path to the front door of the Green residence, predictably, was merely tromped flat from Archie and her mother walking to and from their cars.

Alexandra took in a deep breath, as she looked around at the familiar houses, while the Charmbridge bus drove off. She was home, and felt emotions she would never have felt if she hadn't been gone so long.

Then her front door opened, and her mother came out. "Alex?"

Claudia Green took hasty skidding steps on the slushy path from their porch to the sidewalk where Alexandra stood, and seized her daughter in a hug that almost lifted her off the ground. It was unprecedented in Alexandra's memory. Her mother occasionally hugged her, but never so tightly or for so long. And Alexandra didn't mind. That night, as Claudia actually prepared a home-cooked meal, and even Archie made no snide or critical comments, Alexandra's resolve to corner her mother with questions about her father weakened. There would be time enough later, she thought.

Days later, Alexandra had not yet had an opportunity to do this. After her first night back home, Claudia and Archie were both working back-to-back shifts during the week prior to Christmas. For a policeman and a nurse to both get Christmas Day off was not easy, so they'd had to agree to an undesirable schedule for the entire month surrounding the holiday.

Alexandra didn't mind too much. At Charmbridge, she had had little opportunity to be alone, and for the moment she was just happy to be home for a while. She now had Charlie for company, though the raven spent a lot of time away from the house, exploring the new territory. She was careful to avoid doing any magic, but she did check her locket occasionally, and was disappointed that Abraham Thorn had not reappeared. She was tempted to search her parents' bedroom and closet again, but wasn't sure how to get in without using magic.

She asked her mother for her entire accumulated allowance, and walked to the SuperMart to buy presents for her friends. She spent little time thinking about Darla and Angelique, deciding that a box of candies for each of them was sufficient. For Anna she bought a Little Red Riding Hood doll and storybook, as Anna had not been familiar with the tale when Alexandra mentioned it to her. She wanted to buy a button-maker for David, thinking he could use it for his ASPEW campaign, but they were too expensive, so she settled for a box full of blank buttons that he could practice transforming.

The Pritchards were the most difficult to shop for, and Alexandra knew they would be the most difficult to get their presents to as well. After wandering the SuperMart for a while, though, she was struck by inspiration. Just as the simplest charms struck Muggles with wonder, she remembered that those who grew up entirely within the wizarding community had no familiarity with even the simplest gadgets. She bought a pair of penlights and a small electronic calculator, and spent that afternoon writing very detailed instructions on how to use them on an accompanying card.

This left only the problem of how to get them delivered. For everyone but the Pritchards, she had addresses (though Darla and Angelique's lacked a zip code and Angelique wasn't even certain of a street number, so Alexandra could only hope the Post Office would be able to figure it out). After mailing her other presents, she tried to talk Charlie into delivering the box with the Pritchards' gift.

"Owls do it!" she said to the raven, who only looked at her as if in disbelief when she first proposed it.

"The Ozarks aren't that far." Actually, when she looked them up on a map, they were pretty far, but she still thought a bird should be able to fly there quickly. Charlie only squawked disdainfully.

"The box isn't that heavy!" she pleaded, picking it up and rattling it. Charlie made a scoffing sound.

Bribery, pleading, and threats didn't move the raven, but fortunately, Alexandra's problem was solved unexpectedly that night, when she heard a rapping on her window shortly after she'd gone to bed. Charlie was already inside, so Alexandra was startled by it. When she opened the window, she found a pair of barn owls huddled there on the windowsill, shivering in the cold. They were tied to either end of a package that must have been a struggle for the two of them to carry aloft, though it was soft and light when Alexandra undid the cords and picked it up.

A card in an envelope tied to the package with string said:

"Dear Alexandra,

Though Troublesome is vexing and her words are sometimes cruel,
She has the bravest and the biggest heart of anyone at school.
We wish you and your family the very warmest Yule.

Constance & Forbearance

(P.S. Please feed our owls afore sending them back to us, and let them bide a while in your home and warm up a bit if isn't too much trouble!)"

Alexandra smiled, and felt a warm glow that seemed to radiate from the card itself.

"Come in, you guys," she said to the owls, and they both hopped inside, hooting gratefully. She shut her window and poured out some of the bird food she normally fed Charlie. When the raven squawked in protest, she said, "Oh, stop complaining! Now you won't have to fly to the Ozarks!"

The owls rested halfway through the night, but woke Alexandra again several hours before dawn. She sleepily let them out once more, after attaching her gift to Constance and Forbearance to their legs. "Thanks for taking this to them," she said, and they both hooted back at her, though a little wearily, and flapped off into the dark sky, carrying her present between them.

The next day was Christmas Eve. Archie and her mother still had to work, though they would be home that evening. Archie complained in the morning about hearing owls hooting in the night. Alexandra thought her mother looked at her for a moment, but then Mrs. Green shrugged and said they were probably nesting in the trees near the house. Once again, her mother was gone before Alexandra could try to tackle her on the subject of her father. She wasn't sure yet if she would try to do it on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, since after all, the conversation probably wouldn't make her mother very cheery.

So she walked to the park that day. Larkin Mills Pond was frozen over and children were skating on it. Alexandra hadn't brought her skates, so she could only watch, a little enviously, and walk around the edge of the pond, when someone called out, "Alexandra!"

Surprised, she looked up, and saw that it was Bonnie Seabury. The younger girl skated over to her.

"Are you back from school?" Bonnie asked.

"Just for Christmas," Alexandra said, glad to see her, and even gladder that Bonnie was talking to her. And then another voice said "Bonnie!"

Brian skated over to join his sister. He looked not at all happy to see Alexandra.

"Hi Brian," said Alexandra.

He just looked at her. His expression was nothing like what she was used to. This was a cold and unfriendly Brian, not her best friend of many years.

"Look, the freak is back!" This voice was also familiar. Billy Boggleston lumbered over, less graceful on his skates than either Brian or Bonnie, but he was careful enough to stay well back from Alexandra, away from the edge of the pond. He and his friends formed a half-circle and jeered at her.

"I heard you had to go to a special school," said Billy, putting a nasty emphasis on "special."

"Yes, it's very exclusive. You have to have a brain, so don't bother applying," Alexandra retorted. Billy's friends hooted and snickered and made rude sounds.

"Who else rides the short bus with you? Other freaks and retards?" sneered Billy.

Alexandra was becoming angry, but she knew Brian and Bonnie were watching her. Alexandra hadn't learned a lot of new charms in her remedial classes, but it would have been so easy to whip out her wand and do something minor but flashy. Billy Boggleston, she knew, would run screaming in terror. He was already trying not to look nervous as she just stared at him.

She was very conscious of her wand, tucked safely in her jacket pocket. They had emphasized wand-safety in all her classes at Charmbridge. They had also emphasized the International Confederation of Warlocks' Statute of Secrecy and the vigilance of the Trace Office, to everyone returning to a Muggle community over vacation. But more than the risk of another disciplinary owl, Alexandra feared Brian and Bonnie's reaction if she were to draw her wand and do magic, so she didn't.

"Other people who can do what I can do ride the bus with me," she said to Billy, and felt a moment's satisfaction when he turned a little pale.

"What's that, make up stories about imaginary creatures and their imaginary friends and all the imaginary things they can do?" Brian said.

Alexandra's head whipped back towards Brian, as Billy and his friends laughed.

"If that's where they send all the crazy kids," Brian continued, "then I'm glad you're not going to school with us anymore. You should be locked up, or kept far away from normal people."

Bonnie's eyes were wide, but no wider than Alexandra's. She was conscious of her mouth dropping open and a sensation like her stomach falling, falling, endlessly falling, but she barely heard the howling laughter of Billy and his friends. She could only look into Brian's eyes, which met hers for just an instant. His expression was cold and angry, the corner of his mouth was curled up into a sneer, but what she saw in his eyes was the most terrible thing of all: fear.

Then he grabbed Bonnie and pulled her away from Alexandra. "Come on, Bonnie. We don't hang out with freaks."

It was that last word, from Brian's mouth, that hit Alexandra like a punch to the stomach. She felt her knees tremble, but she stood motionless while the others pointed at her and laughed, and then turned away one by one to skate across the pond. Only when they were no longer watching her did she turn slowly around and begin walking home. She walked at first. Then her pace quickened. She was huffing as her arms swung back and forth in a rapid motion, and then she was trotting while she tried not to raise her hands to her eyes, knowing if she did then she would start crying and she'd arrive home with frozen tears stuck to her face, and then she ran, blindly, all the way from the park back to her house. She ran inside and slammed the door with a noise that made Charlie caw in surprise upstairs, and then she ran up into her room and threw off her jacket and whipped out her wand, feeling raw hurt and fury and a desire to cause harm.

Charlie was suddenly as still and quiet as if stuffed. Alexandra's lips moved silently, and then she began cursing.

She cursed Brian, and she cursed Billy Boggleston, and she wished misery and retribution upon them, and she wished they'd suffer and wish they'd never been born, and she wished they'd be sorry they'd ever laid eyes on her, and most of all that they'd be sorry they'd ever said those things to her. All her frustration and rage and vengefulness came out of her mouth, and only when she was done and felt like she'd vented it all, did she see what was coming out of her wand.

It was a great green and yellow and orange ball of energy, swelling around her like a nasty glowing soap bubble, and it crackled with malice and spite. She knew in an instant that she was unleashing something terrible.

"No!" she gulped. "I didn't mean it!"

Charlie trembled, still not making a sound. The greenish ball of malice was still pulsing at the tip of her wand.

Alexandra knew there were things you couldn't take back, and this was one of them. If she set it free, she didn't know what would happen, but she knew the consequences would be far worse than an owl from the Trace Office. So she swallowed hard and put what little energy she hadn't expended furiously cursing Brian and Billie into a single prayer that it wasn't too late to undo it, and said, "Explico!"

There was a burst and a flash of light and Alexandra was thrown back onto her bed. Dazzled, she couldn't move for a second, and then she sat up. The ball of energy was gone, but there was a terrible sense of foreboding in the air. She jumped up and ran over to Charlie's cage.

"Charlie!" she exclaimed. "Are you all right?"

The raven had also been stunned. It fluttered its wings and cooed feebly.

Not knowing what she'd done or whether she'd undone it, she sat back on her bed and wrapped her arms around herself, and shivered. Outside, she saw snow beginning to fall.

The snow continued to fall that night. It came down heavily and suddenly, catching the entire town by surprise, and even as salt trucks and snowplows began plying the streets, the snowstorm intensified.

Alexandra's mother barely made it home that evening, and said she'd had to abandon her car two blocks from the house and hike the rest of the way through snow drifts that were already up to her thighs. Archie called and said he would not be able to come home – all emergency personnel were on twenty-four hour duty. The roads in and out of town were already undrivable, and visibility was nonexistent. Alexandra only had to look outside and see that the snow was coming down in solid sheets of white. She couldn't see her hand in front of her face.

It only got worse after midnight. Alexandra barely slept, and knew her mother was staying up, worrying about her stepfather. During the night, she thought she heard noise outside, like someone moving through the snow, but when she got up to look, she couldn't see anything because the snow was still falling.

The next morning, the snow was up to the top of their front door. It would take hours of shoveling just to get to the sidewalk, and her mother told her that much of Larkin Mills was now without power. And still the snow kept falling.

At noon, power went out on their block. Alexandra's mother lit the fireplace and they stayed near it to keep warm. She brought Charlie's cage down and let the raven perch near the fire as well.

"I've never seen a blizzard like this in my entire life," her mother said.

The only consolation, Alexandra thought, was that no owl from the Trace Office would be able to make it through this storm.

Her mother wrapped them both in a pair of heavy quilts, and held her to keep her warm, and they sat huddled together as the house became colder and the shadows grew longer. Alexandra wondered if she would end up having to use magic to keep them from freezing. She was alone with her mother and had her undivided attention for the first time since she'd returned from Charmbridge, but she knew Archie was out there in the blizzard and her mother was thinking about that, and she could not bring herself to start asking questions about her father.

Mrs. Green rose now and then to prepare some sandwiches or other snacks, and Alexandra again thought she heard noise outside. She could see her mother did too; she tilted her head and looked out the window, but it was still a blanket of white. Then she returned to the fireplace and suggested they open their presents, since Archie was not likely to get home that night.

Archie had given her a snow saucer, and her mother had bought her a new pair of ice skates, since Alexandra had mentioned in letters home that she didn't have any of those things at school. There were also new clothes and books, and then Alexandra opened her presents from her friends. Darla and Angelique had given her boxes of candy. David (whose present had arrived by mail the day before Christmas Eve) had sent a book about football, which Alexandra thought was funny since they'd never talked about football, and another one about the civil rights movement.

Anna's gift was a beautiful golden charm bracelet to go with the bracelet Alexandra usually wore. She hoped her mother didn't notice the similarity. It had a symbol dangling from it, which Anna explained in the accompanying card was the Chinese character for "raven."

Constance and Forbearance had sent her a knitted hand muffler. It was particularly appreciated under the circumstances, and when Alexandra thrust her hands inside it, she realized immediately that it had had a Warming Charm cast on it.

"I'm glad you've made so many friends," her mother said, as Alexandra leaned against her under the quilts. Alexandra nodded. She might have taken that moment to ask the questions she had wanted to ask, about her father, but there was a sudden crashing sound from upstairs.

They both jumped, but Alexandra sprang to her feet before her mother did. Charlie, who was sitting on top of the cage, cawed and flapped through the air and up the stairway. Alexandra was about to follow when her mother grabbed her arm. "No, Alexandra, you stay here."

"It's probably a bird 'cause I left the window open," Alexandra said, and then she heard things falling off her desk.

"I'll check," her mother said firmly, and grabbed a poker from the fireplace, but Alexandra followed her up the stairs, with her hand on her wand, tucked in the waistband of her pants.

Alexandra was quite sure she hadn't left her window open, and so she was surprised when she felt an arctic gust of air upon reaching the top of the staircase. Looking around her mother, she saw that the window in her bedroom was indeed open, and her desk had been overturned.

"Mom, come back downstairs now!" she exclaimed. She grabbed her mother's hand, and then they both heard a roaring, crackling sound from the living room. Mrs. Green gasped and hurried past Alexandra back down the stairs. Alexandra paused, still at the top of the stairs, looking into her bedroom, and then her mother screamed: "ALEXANDRA! WE HAVE TO GET OUT OF THE HOUSE NOW!"

She sprinted down the stairs to find their living room in flames, with her mother backed to the dining room trying to beat them down with one of the quilts. Fire had spread from the fireplace and engulfed the sofa they had been sitting on, the chair, the carpet, and the bookcases, and was already climbing the walls.

Her mother looked at the windows in a panic, realizing that with the snow piled up against the walls of the house on all four sides, they couldn't get out on the ground floor. "Back up the stairs!" she said.

Alexandra knew from fire safety lessons at school that you wanted to go downstairs, not upstairs, if your house was on fire, but downstairs they had no way out. So back up they went. Alexandra also knew that she should have had a ladder or a rope to escape from her bedroom window in the event of a fire, but somehow she and her parents had never quite gotten around to implementing a complete fire safety plan for their home. She could already see flames licking at the bottom of the stairs, and marveled at how quickly the fire was moving.

"Shouldn't we call 911?" she asked her mother, but already she knew the answer.

"They've barely started plowing the town center," her mother answered grimly. "They can't possibly reach us in time."

The blizzard was still howling outside, as thick and blinding as before. Even though it wasn't quite sunset yet, it might as well have been midnight, for all that they could see. Fire was already roaring up the stairs as if it were pursuing them with deliberate intent.

Her mother moved to the small spare bedroom they'd used for years as a storage space, shoving old boxes and furniture aside. "We'll have to climb out onto the porch," she said, "and then jump down. The snow is so deep, it should break our fall." She was struggling to get to the far window. Alexandra could smell smoke and feel heat rising from the floor beneath them.

"Mom, we should go out my bedroom window, we don't have time!" she said.

Her mother ignored her, and pulled open the shutters and pried at the window of the spare bedroom, which had not been opened in years. Alexandra looked from her mother to the top of the stairs, gauging the speed at which the fire was advancing. And in her head, she was composing rhymes. She cursed Ms. Grimm for letting her be placed in remedial charms classes, and she cursed Mr. Newton for having taught nothing but basic wand drills and simple charms, rather than something that might be useful like a fire-extinguishing charm or a rope-summoning charm or even a window-opening charm.

"Alex, come here," her mother said, as she forced the window open with a creak. Unlike the window from Alexandra's bedroom, which opened directly out to a two-story drop to their backyard, the spare bedroom's window opened out over their front porch, so there was a downward-sloping surface to crawl out onto. At the moment it was groaning with the weight of the all the snow piled up on it.

"Go on, Mom, I'll follow you," said Alexandra, but her mother grabbed her and practically shoved her out the window. "Do not argue with me, Alexandra!"

She slipped a little as she tried to find footing on the porch roof, kicking snow aside. Her mother began climbing out. Alexandra could see an orange and yellow blaze behind her.

"Hurry up!" she exclaimed.

Claudia Green clambered out onto the porch with her daughter, and as she stood, the roof collapsed with a groan, pitching them both forward to land in snowdrifts rising above Alexandra's head.

"ALEX!" her mother shouted.

"I'm all right!" Alexandra sputtered, as she tried to stand, more than half-buried.

Her mother was a few yards away. She could hear her also struggling in the snow.

It was cold, and the snow was blinding. Alexandra stuck her bare hands into the snow and tried scooping her way towards her mother, but her fingers started to get numb before she'd excavated more than a small amount, and she wished she hadn't left Constance and Forbearance's magical hand-muffler behind.

"Alexandra, come to where I am!" her mother was saying.

She tried to do that. And without drawing her wand or speaking any rhymes, she found herself climbing out of the hole she was in and walking on top of the snow, though there must have been five or six feet of it beneath her. But when she moved towards her mother's voice, she suddenly heard her calling from a little further to the left.

"Mom!" she shouted, and moved that way, yet her mother's voice was even further away.

In the blinding whiteness of the blizzard, she could see a red and orange glow in one direction, radiating heat, and then, something just as bright but more green and yellow in the opposite direction, so she followed the latter.

She continued to call for her mother, yet her mother's voice was growing faint. She knew she couldn't have wandered far. They were on Sweetmaple Avenue, after all! The green and yellow light continued to lead her on, and without thinking about it, she followed. She walked through the snow as if it were only ankle deep, but the cold still permeated her. She was shivering, but hardly noticed. Nor did she realize it was getting darker. The glow that remained just out of reach was her guide. Alexandra was oblivious to all else.

On she trudged, as the sky darkened until even the falling snow couldn't be seen. The world was blank and empty and endless, and there was only a pulsing, bobbing green and yellow glow to light her way. Hypnotized, unaware of how her steps were slowing as the cold began seeping into her body, she continued to follow the light.

A loud, piercing caw was what finally brought her to her senses.

"Charlie!" she exclaimed.

Somewhere nearby, over her head, her raven was flying in this mad blizzard. And when she called Charlie's name again, a spot of black materialized out of the sky and fluttered to her shoulder.

She looked around, and realized she had no idea where she was or how long she had been walking.

"Mom?" she shouted, but there was no answer, and then she yelled, "Hello?"

The green and yellow light she had been following was now nowhere to be seen, and the cold hit her fiercely then, like a convulsion seizing her body.

"Wh-wh-where are w-w-we, Ch-Ch-Charlie?" she whispered, teeth chattering. The raven croaked and nestled against Alexandra's cheek. She shivered, and realized how very, very cold she was. She'd been wearing only a sweater, pants, and slippers when she and her mother escaped their burning house. Anna's charm bracelet was still on her wrist, and her wand was still tucked against her side, but other than that she had nothing.

"We h-have to g-get h-h-home," she said to her raven. "C-c-can y-you lead m-me th-there?"

Charlie cooed at her, and then took off. A moment later a shrill caw sounded overhead, and Alexandra tried to follow, but she was lost and did not know in which direction to turn.

Charlie kept cawing, and Alexandra shouted, "Charlie! Where are you?"

Then she heard a noise nearby. Something moving through the snow, pushing it aside.

Her heart beat faster. She drew her wand, wishing desperately she had learned some defensive magic this semester. All she could think of was trying to push whoever or whatever it was away, or repeating her fireball trick, though she'd never tried to do that with a wand.

A bright light reappeared in the darkness, and then it was in her eyes, blinding her.

"Who are y-you?" she shouted, pointing her wand. She thought her chattering teeth must be as loud as her voice. Then a familiar voice said, "Alex?" She almost dropped her wand.

It was Archie, standing knee-deep in the snow. He had a flashlight held up to his cheek, the way police officers did, and he was shining it into Alexandra's face.

Charlie cawed again and landed on her shoulder.

"Guess that damn bird of yours is good for something," he said. "All that noise gave me something to follow." And then, "What is that?"

She was still pointing her wand at him, she realized. Somehow, her arm had held it steadily, though the rest of her body was shivering. She dropped it to her side.

"My magic wand," she said.

"Magic wand," he repeated. She couldn't see his face, but the bemused, aggravated tone was familiar. "Right." He let out a long sigh.

Then her stepfather was wrapping his coat around her. He picked her up and was carrying her, which he hadn't done since she was little, but she didn't mind because she was so very cold and tired.

"How on earth did you manage to get all the way out here?" he demanded. "What did you think you were doing?"

"Trying to f-find M-Mom," she said, shivering. "Where are we?"

"Alex, we're almost a mile from home. You just about wandered onto the Interstate," Archie said. "I don't even know how that's possible."

"The Interstate?" she repeated numbly.

"Not that there are any cars moving on it right now, but still. The trouble you get into..."

The admonishment she was used to. The note of concern underneath she was not. Normally the thought of being carried like a baby by her stepfather would have her squirming with embarrassment and indignation, but now she didn't care. Whatever she might think of Archie, she knew she was safe.

"Is M-Mom all right?" she asked.

"She's fine, but worried sick about you. Managed to call from the neighbors'. Our house burned down, Alex."

And Alexandra closed her eyes, and fell asleep.

Alexandra had somehow walked directly away from her burning house that night, down Sweetmaple Avenue and through Old Larkin and towards the Interstate. She wondered to herself if she would have eventually reached Old Larkin Pond, had she kept going. Archie and her mother could not get over the impossibility of her blind hike through the blizzard. Archie had only been able to find her because he'd been fighting his way through the snow to get home all afternoon, and when his wife had called the police station, Archie had been alerted over the radio, and went in search of her. It was Charlie's cawing that led him to her.

What the green and yellow light that Alexandra had been following might have been, she did not know, but she felt a shiver every time she remembered the way it had led her through the blizzard as if she were in a trance. She did not mention it to her parents, of course.

They assumed that the fire had been caused by a stray spark from the fireplace, or something left too close to it that caught fire, though the fire inspector commented afterwards that it was amazing how quickly it had spread. Within minutes, the entire house had been engulfed. Virtually all of their possessions were destroyed.

"It's just as well you're going back to school in a week and a half," her mother sighed. "It's going to be uncomfortable for us for a while."

For the time being, they were in a motel room. It was very uncomfortable, especially sharing a bedroom and a bathroom with her mother and stepfather. Pets weren't allowed, but Charlie always stayed near, and when her mother and stepfather were at work, Alexandra let the raven inside the room. After the first day, they decided that the motel room wasn't a suitable place to leave Alexandra alone. So she spent the rest of her Christmas vacation in a succession of friends' and neighbors' houses. Alexandra was surprised at how many friends and coworkers her parents had who offered support in the wake of their tragic house fire. Policemen's wives and fellow nurses babysat Alexandra over the next few days, and she spent one afternoon at Mrs. Wilborough's house. Mrs. Wilborough didn't want Alexandra to touch anything in her house and so all she could do was read books, but the old woman was nosy too and kept trying to find out about the "special school" that Alexandra was going to.

But the most uncomfortable times of all were the two days that Mrs. Seabury offered to let Alexandra come over. If her mother knew that Alexandra and Brian were no longer on speaking terms, she didn't say anything, as she couldn't turn down free childcare. Mrs. Seabury seemed to be aware of this, and was polite but very cool with Alexandra. She must have felt an obligation to help out her neighbors, whom she had known for a good number of years, especially when so many other neighbors were doing the same thing, but Alexandra didn't mistake her charity for friendliness. Brian's mother wasn't happy to have her around, and she didn't think it was a coincidence that she stayed over on days that Brian and Bonnie were visiting their grandparents. Mrs. Seabury made her nice meals, and even gave her extra snacks to take back to her hotel room with her, and let Alexandra watch TV as much as she wanted, and so they were very polite to one another and barely exchanged more than a few words.

Alexandra tried to puzzle out all the details of the night of the fire, going over them again and again in her mind. Someone had opened her bedroom window and started to ransack her room. Somehow a fire had started moments later. Somehow she had become separated and lost, mere yards from her mother. So many strange details and none of them made sense. She feared her own aborted curse might have had something to do with it, but she feared equally that the danger that had been dogging her throughout the semester at Charmbridge Academy had followed her back to Larkin Mills.

Her mother was back to her usual distant, snappy behavior, and Archie's attitude hadn't been improved by their having to live as refugees from the fire either. By the time she came home for the summer, they said, their fire insurance would have paid out and they'd have a new house, but Alexandra was now counting the days until the Charmbridge bus would arrive to take her away.

With her mother so upset and angry, Alexandra knew she wasn't going to get any answers about her father. It wasn't that her resolve had faded; she simply knew her mother, and knew that under the present circumstances, there was no approach that wouldn't result in angry shouting and then silence.

And worse, the locket and her bracelet had perished in the fire. Unless the mysterious intruder had stolen them. Alexandra had left them upstairs in her room, and suspected that's what whoever had knocked her desk over had been searching for. But she had left them under her pillow, not in her desk, so the would-be thief wouldn't have had much time to search for them.

Yet despite the disaster, and her subsequent discomfort in the cramped motel room and irritation at being passed from neighbor to coworker during the day, there were parts of this Christmas that lingered in her memory and which she did not want to forget. Opening the presents from her friends. Her mother's genuine delight when she returned from school. The two of them cuddling together on the couch in front of the fireplace. And strangely, Archie wrapping her in his coat and carrying her out of the blizzard.

It had been, in most respects, a truly awful Christmas, and Alexandra was looking forward to going back to school. Yet when the time came for the Charmbridge bus to pick her up again, she could not help looking around at the snow-covered streets of Larkin Mills, and feeling a little homesick again, before she'd even left.