To her surprise, Danny fell to one side, where he lounged against the wall, arms folded. “Think Dad won’t ground you for the rest of Christmas break?” he called after her.

Isobel halted midway up the stairs. She turned to glare back at him.

He beamed at her.

Isobel imagined how good it would feel to reach out and snatch free a patch of his mussed hair. Growling, she slammed the bags down.

It wasn’t so much that she feared being grounded. Especially when she couldn’t be certain that she’d ever officially been ungrounded. Or, for that matter, if she ever would be. But she didn’t want her mom or dad finding out about Gwen all the same. Not when Gwen was the one person besides herself who knew what had really happened Halloween night.

She had been there.

Gwen had told Isobel that she’d known it was all real. And contrary to what everyone else believed, including the police, Gwen knew that Varen had not simply run away.

Isobel yanked her purse from her shoulder and rifled through the middle pocket. “You’re such a freaking snotmonger,” she snarled. Locating a ten, the last of her Christmas allowance, she crumpled the bill and flung it at him. It bounced off his shoulder and landed on the stairs. Danny, taking on an air of reserved dignity, bent to retrieve the money. He smoothed the crumpled paper by rubbing it back and forth on the banister. Next, he held the bill up to the light as though checking for authenticity.

Finally he pocketed the money and, smiling, made a show of gesturing toward the stairs, his arm sweeping out Vanna White–style. “Your party awaits you up the steps and in the room to the left. As you make your way up, please remember to keep all hands, arms, tentacles, pincers, and mandibles inside the railings at all times and—”

“Just so you know,” Isobel snapped, all but spitting her words over her shoulder as she hauled up the bags again and climbed to the top of the landing, “I muted the TV and took your stupid game off pause.”

Danny dropped the scam act like a hot plate. He scampered down the stairs and bolted for the living room, belly wobbling, socked feet thundering. Isobel could practically hear him dive-bomb into his usual spot in front of the television, a swatch of beige carpeting that she could swear was taking on the contours of his butt.


Muttering, she trudged to her bedroom door, which was cracked an inch.

The knife-blade slice of frost-colored light that streamed out into the hallway flickered suddenly, as though someone inside had darted past.

“Gwen?” she whispered. Placing a hand flat against the door, she pushed her way in.


Into the Night

Isobel craned her neck inside her room, surprised to find her friend reclined in the middle of the full-size bed, her back propped against the cubbyhole headboard, supported by a stack of pillows. In one hand, Gwen held a folded-over magazine; her entire head was obscured behind the glossy image of a pouting, airbrushed Maybelline model. Her skinny legs lay stretched out in front of her, her blue-and-white-striped stockinged feet wagging beneath the hem of a long, bluish-green broom skirt.

Isobel couldn’t help but smile. Even in the middle of winter it seemed as though Gwen was unwilling to forgo her usual skirt-over-spandex-leggings look for a more practical (not to mention warmer) pair of jeans or corduroys.

Over one shoulder, Gwen’s forever long and straight mouse-brown hair lay draped in a ropelike braid. Her free hand rummaged through Isobel’s emergency stash bag of chocolate-covered pretzels. Seemingly oblivious to Isobel’s presence, Gwen continued to graze, the sound of crunching issuing loudly from behind the magazine.

“Helloooo,” Isobel said as she slipped inside. She paused, glancing first left and then right, still trying to determine the source of the shadow she thought she had seen only a moment before. Confused, she shut her bedroom door behind her. It clicked quietly into place, but Gwen still didn’t look up. Isobel frowned. She set the shopping bags down, approached her bed, and placed one hand on the magazine to lower it.

Gwen’s attention snapped upward. She froze in mid-chew, brows arched in surprise. She blinked chestnut eyes at Isobel from behind her oval-framed glasses until recognition settled in. Then, the tension in her frame easing, she dropped the magazine to her lap, swallowed, and plucked free a pair of white earbuds.

“Home at last,” she quipped in her dry Brooklyn accent. “If I’d known they were letting you out of the house, I’d have brought along a book. Honestly, how do you read this schlock?” Gwen gestured to the magazine in her lap. “I mean, who cares if it’s better to wax your eyebrows or tweeze them? As long as you’re not shaving them off and drawing them back on in brown Sharpie like my aunt Clarice. By the way, next time do me a favor and warn me when there’s going to be a cover charge, would you?”

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