On a bleak morning in early December, a white dove appeared in the sky over Tennyson. It circled above town, where Christmas lights still...

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On a bleak morning in early December, a white dove appeared in the sky over Tennyson. It circled above town, where Christmas lights still glittered in the gray dawn. Suddenly it swooped down toward a grimy collection of row houses and landed on a kitchen windowsill.

Inside, 15-year-old Meghan Weir dressed for what she was sure would be another miserable day at Blake High School. She buttoned the new green henley shirt her mother found at an outlet store. She pulled her brown hair into a ponytail and put on her black cat-eye glasses. Leaning close to her reflection in the mirror, she examined her face. No blemishes, at least, but the face looking back at her was still sad.

Even Christmas, just a few weeks away, brought no joy. Six months earlier, her mother had lost her job at the plant. Unemployment benefits had run out. Their meager savings were nearly gone. For Thanksgiving dinner they’d indulged — half a chicken breast and Stove Top stuffing. Their phone was disconnected now; Meghan had to go to the library to get on the Internet for homework. Fortunately, there was a law against power companies turning off service during cold weather. Too bad there wasn’t one to prevent bill collectors from coming to their door.

The dove watched Meghan fetch the newspaper from the front stoop and drop it on the kitchen table where her mother sat drinking coffee.

“Just look at the help wanteds, Mom,” she said. “Stores are always looking for help around the holidays.” She kissed her mother. “Gotta run.” She grabbed her backpack and shot out the door.

The dove flew two blocks over and perched on a streetlight in front of a shabby bungalow. Jack Mosley, a broad-shouldered teen in a letterman’s jacket, picked up three empty beer bottles next to the recliner where his father snored. On a nearby table, a computer screen flashed “The House Wins.”

Since Jack’s mom had died earlier that year, playing online poker and drinking beer had become his dad’s nightly routine. Jack dropped the bottles into the overflowing recycling bin in the kitchen. On his way out, he covered his father with a throw, picked up his gym bag, and quietly shut the front door behind him.

The dove darted up a hillside to a gated community of mini mansions. It balanced on a birdfeeder outside the bay window of a breakfast nook. Inside, Nicole Bradshaw’s parents, dressed in tailored suits, ignored each other behind their newspapers. Nicole didn’t know which was worse — them fighting at night or giving each other the silent treatment. She tucked her long blond hair behind her ears and zipped up her fleece vest over her cheerleader uniform.

“I’ll eat a Power Bar on the bus,” she said. Before they could protest, she slipped out the door.

Like a scout, the dove flew in front of the school bus, hovering alongside when the bus stopped for Meghan, then Jack and finally Nicole.

Meghan sat alone in a seat up front. She peered out the windshield, watching the bird circle the bus. Jack sat in a middle row with his teammates just in time to glimpse the dove through the window. In the last row, Nicole wedged herself next to Erin Hobbs, the snippy red-haired queen of the sophomore class.

“Did you see that white bird?” Nicole asked.

“What? No!” Erin said, tossing her head. “About my hair, please. Layered or keep it one length?”

Beyond Erin’s head, the dove flew by the window. Nicole craned her neck to keep it in view.

“Nicole!” Erin snapped.

“Layered,” Nicole said.

Erin nudged her. “Why is that loser, Meghan Weir-do, staring at us?”

Nicole looked toward the front of the bus and saw Meghan twisted in her seat, staring at the back window. With a smirk and a voice loud enough to reach Meghan, Erin said, “Weir-do needs to get a life.”

Stung, Meghan quickly turned around.

When the bus pulled up in front of school, Meghan, Jack and Nicole filed off, each wearing the same puzzled look. Why, of all the kids crowding into school, were they the only ones who seemed to notice a white dove on their trail?

Monday: An Invitation

Copyright 2006 Scanlan & Fair Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate