A tense awkwardness filled the room. Gwen pretended not to notice. She only pulled the candy dish toward her and began to pick through the M&M’s, pulling out the reds and leaving the greens.

“You know what they say about the green ones,” she muttered to herself.

Isobel looked from her mother to her father, and the picture began to grow clearer.

Even though her dad had said that her mom was okay with the trip, Isobel could tell that she wasn’t. Not really. Not only that, but she’d begun to sense an unfamiliar level of contention between the two of them. It was like a loose knot that had gradually started to tighten. She could feel the stiffness in the way they interacted, or rather, in the way that they didn’t. It took her only a moment to realize that even though they’d exchanged words, they hadn’t really been talking.

Isobel looked down into her mug of cocoa, at the lumps of melted marshmallows floating on the surface like clouds in a murky sky. She told herself that she couldn’t think about that. If she allowed herself to worry too much about her parents’ involvement or the tension building between them, then she would lose sight of why she was going to Baltimore in the first place. And she couldn’t afford that. Not if she wanted to see Varen again. Not if she wanted to keep her promise.

The cheerleader part of her told her the whole thing would work itself out, even though she knew that kind of thinking was only false comfort. But part of the plan, she had decided, was not to overthink what she was doing. If she took it in steps, if she crossed each bridge as she came to it, then and only then could she keep believing that she would make it, that she would see him again. It was her only tactic for fighting the doubt and the insurmountable darkness that came with it.

“I think I’m going to see who’s playing,” her dad said suddenly. With that, he turned and marched out of the room.

“Sam,” her mom said, her head popping up from her papers. He didn’t turn back, though, and Isobel watched her mother sink into herself, her eyes glazing over as she brushed her fingers over the snowflake locket at her throat.

“That’s beautiful,” Gwen said, her voice slicing through the moment, soft and yet intruding enough to turn her mother’s attention away from the empty doorway. “Christmas present?”

Isobel’s mom dropped her hand from the necklace with a flutter, as though she hadn’t realized she’d been fiddling with it. She smiled at Gwen and nodded, though her eyes remained distant and sad.

“I gave Isobel a necklace too,” Gwen said. “You should show your mom.”


Placing one hand on the mahogany box, Gwen pushed it toward Isobel.

Isobel glared at Gwen. She was starting to wonder how much she’d underestimated the girl’s ability to find a means to any end. When Isobel still didn’t take the box, Gwen plucked it from the table herself and pried it open, holding it out toward Isobel’s mom the way a waitress might display the label of a particularly fine bottle of wine.

“Oh, that is lovely,” her mom cooed. “Such a nice gift.”

“What can I say?” Gwen shrugged. “She’s my bestie.”

Bestie? Isobel thought.

“Why don’t you put it on, Izzy?” her mom asked.

“Yeah. Put it on,” Gwen echoed. “Here,” she said as she pulled the necklace free of its velvet bed. The chain unraveled like a silver snake. The hamsa dangled at the end, the opal gleaming, as iridescent as the sparkling snow that coated the world outside.

Isobel’s initial irritation turned into an under-the-lid boil, and she trained her eyes on Gwen. Unfazed, Gwen merely unlatched the necklace and stood. Rounding Isobel’s chair, she lowered the chain over her head and latched the clasp in place. Next, she scooped Isobel’s hair out from underneath the chain and let it fall loose once again.

“Oh, Izzy. It’s so becoming. I’m sure you’ve thanked Gwen already.”

“Yeah.” Isobel gritted a smile. “I did. It’s great. I love it.”

Gwen beamed, triumphant.

“Well,” she said with a sigh, grabbing her coat, which she’d hung on the back of one of the kitchen chairs, “I guess I’d better let you guys get back to your Yuletide festivities.”

“What about you?” Isobel’s mom asked. “What are your plans for today?”

“Nothing much,” Gwen said. She pulled her coat on and waved her hat through the air as though batting away a fly. “Hanukkah ended last week. The twenty-fifth tends to be a boring day in the Daniels household. But thanks for the cocoa, Mrs. Lanley. Merry Christmas.”

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