As Winter Light is a novella, these excerpts will be short, but sweet. There will be one every day this week, though, starting with this one.
On her knees in the barren display window, Allie considered the challenge of vacant space. If nothing else, it could be a great topic for her next blog post. Her last had been on the most recent release in a young adult trilogy, the type of thing her customers had come to expect. They might not be so happy with a complaint about her inability to focus on this year’s Christmas display. Thanksgiving had come and gone and the four by eight foot area contained nothing but twinkling white lights affixed with tape along three sides. Blue painter’s tape. She couldn’t even muster the gumption to go out and purchase red duct tape from a hardware store that was no more than a five minute walk from the front door. Thank goodness her parents were in Florida. Even though they’d turned Connor Falls Book Emporium over to what they termed, perhaps facetiously, her ‘capable hands’, she was still answerable to them for the holiday receipts. Seasonal sales accounted for more than half the year’s income. A window that was not only undecorated for Christmas but without any content whatsoever might put a teensy bit of a damper on customer enthusiasm.
Sunlight through the two huge windows gilded the recently swept hardwood flooring, highlighting its sterile condition. Shadows came and went across the surface as people passed by, no doubt wondering when Allie was going to get her act together. One shadow stopped and stayed. Allie looked up from contemplating disaster. A child’s face was pressed against the window, handprints outlining her sleek, dark head like a smudged wreath.
The little girl’s fingers curled into a fist. She rapped three times on the glass, the effect in the empty, echoing space like a series of small cannon blasts. Allie flinched.
“Don’t do that!”
Seeing the child prepared to knock again, Allie lurched onto all fours and scrambled over to the window, crouching to get her face level with the little girl’s. “I said, don’t do that. Haven’t you ever had a fish?”
“A fish?” the girl shouted back at her.
“Yes. A goldfish? In a fish bowl? Never mind.” Allie scanned the sidewalk. “Where are your parents?”
The girl jerked her still-fisted hand, thumb raised, toward the opposite side of the street. “My dad’s at the bakery.”
Allie frowned in the general direction of From the Hart bakery, the establishment owned by Gina Hart. People passed along the sidewalk, but none of them appeared to be searching for a small, dark-haired girl. Allie shook her head, wondering why a child who looked no older than six or seven had been permitted to wander across the main street and to the bookstore unaccompanied.
“My mom’s in California. She lives there now.”
“Entirely too much information to be shouting out to the world,” Allie said.
“Wait there. I’ll be right out.” Allie slid to the edge of the display space and hopped off, grabbing her coat from the stepstool. She headed to the front door with a shout over her shoulder to whichever employee might be within earshot that she’d be back in a few minutes. Outside, she found the little girl leaning with her back against the window, arms folded across her puffy, pink coat, fine dark hair blowing into her eyes. A backpack hanging off her shoulder pressed against the glass, revealing a doll sticking out the top and what looked like a potato chip bag clipped shut with a clothespin. Allie pushed her arms into her own jacket sleeves and zipped up. Her breath frosted in the air.
“Aren’t you cold?”
The girl shook her head.
“Let’s go find your dad,” Allie said.
“He knows where I am.”
Allie tipped her head to the side, eyes narrowing. “He let you cross the street by yourself?”
The child tightened her grip across her narrow torso and glared at the sidewalk. Allie studied her defiant demeanor. She had a feeling the girl’s father possessed no clue his daughter had wandered.
“What’s your name?”
“Lydia,” the girl said.
“Lydia. That’s a nice name. Mine’s Allie. And your dad’s in Gina’s bakery?”
Lydia glanced up from beneath frowning brows. “Who’s Gina?”
“The woman who owns the bakery.”
Allie looked again toward the bakery for a man in frantic search for a missing child. The people she saw striding from place to place appeared unconcerned, absorbed in their independent activities. Reaching down, Allie extracted Lydia’s left hand from under her right arm and closed her fingers around the little girl’s. “I can’t be responsible for you outside my window and would feel guilty as all get out if you disappeared, so let’s go find out what kind of goodies your dad’s bought, shall we?”
Allie took three steps before Lydia pulled back on her hand, digging the heels of her pink rubber boots into the sidewalk. “I don’t think I should go with you. You’re a stranger. I think I should stay right here where my dad can find me.”
Allie released Lydia’s fingers. Lydia shoved her hand into her coat pocket as far as it would go.
“Well, you’re right about that. I am a stranger. Your dad really knows you’re here?” That seemed irresponsible, allowing a child Lydia’s age to wander freely about the streets, no matter how safe everyone viewed Connor Falls to be. “Can I call him for you, then? Do you know his cell phone number?”
“He doesn’t have one,” Lydia mumbled.
“He doesn’t have a cell phone?”
Lydia shook her head.
“In this day and age?”
“He doesn’t like that stuff.”
“That seems odd,” Allie said, more to herself than the child standing beside her.
“I’m not lying!”
Allie glanced down in surprise at Lydia’s vehemence. “I didn’t think you were.” She studied Lydia’s heart-shaped face a moment longer, noticing how the child avoided her eye, how her blue gaze focused earnestly across the street, but not at the bakery. A deeper suspicion settled in. “Lydia. Lydia, look at me, okay?”
The girl turned her whole body to Allie, her attention glued to Allie’s denim-covered legs. Allie dropped to her knees, gazing up into Lydia’s face. “Lydia, is there something you’re not telling me?”
“What do you mean?” The girl’s chin trembled, eyes welling up with moisture.
Despite herself, Allie’s heart went out to her. She touched Lydia’s arm. “Did you sneak away from your father? He could be very worried, you know. I would be.”
“I…” Lydia hesitated, her mouth working. “He…he doesn’t know where I am. I ran away from home, Allie. Daddy doesn’t know where I am at all.”
Curling her fingers over Lydia’s sleeve, Allie drew her nearer. Huge, shining tears ran down the child’s cheeks and dropped onto her coat. Allie inhaled, thinking hard. She’d run away herself a couple times in defiance of one restriction or another, but she’d never gotten very far before realizing her foolishness. She wondered how far Lydia had walked before coming to stop at the bookstore window.
“Where do you live?”
Lydia shook her head.
“You need to tell me. I’m sure your dad is scared.”
“Yes, scared. Because you’re not there and he doesn’t know where you’ve gone.”
Lydia withdrew her hands from her pockets and wiped her face. Allie settled back on her heels to avoid the sidewalk chilling her knees through her jeans.
“Do you and your daddy live in one of the apartments above the stores?”
Lydia shook her head.
“A house on one of the side streets?”
Lips compressed, the child wagged her head again from side to side.
“Okay,” said Allie, “I’ll have to figure it out. Do you live in Paris, France?”
Lydia’s chin jerked up. “What?”
“In a sunny little apartment on the Seine? Or perhaps in New York City? Just off Central Park?”
“Of course not.” A reluctant giggle escaped Lydia’s lips.
“Well, where then? Am I even close?”
Lydia shook her head so hard her hair circled out like a ballerina’s tulle skirt. She gazed up at Allie, eyes wide. “Dad and I live in a place that used to be magic,” she said, “but it isn’t anymore.”
Sadness pinched at Allie’s chest. She remembered the days of magic, too. This child was way too young for enchantment to have left her life. “And where is that, sweetie? I really need to know.”
Releasing a trembling breath, Lydia nodded. “Luke’s Tree Farm. Do you know where that is?”
Of course Allie knew. Even if she had no other reason to know the farm, most everyone got their Christmas trees at Luke’s, a huge place growing every type of evergreen imaginable.
Nearly two miles outside of town.
“How on earth did you get here, Lydia?”
Lydia burst into tears.