In the echoing silence she looked at her palm as if it were a stranger's. Shaking, she hung her apron on a hook. Calling upstairs for Louisa to come down, she turned to the sink and waited, counting the footfalls, the seconds it took for her daughter to bounce down the back steps. The door squealed open.
In a barely controlled voice, she instructed Louisa to baste the turkey at intervals, check the yams, and set the dining room table. The girl nodded curiously at her mother, sneaking a sidelong glance at her father, still facing away in his strange posture.
Isobel turned on her heel and pushed out of the room, away from Victor. She imagined him rubbing his cheek and staring at the swinging kitchen door until it bumped to stillness behind her.
She climbed the stairs, rasping knuckles along the dark beadboard, veering into the room she shared with Victor. Snapping on the light, she pawed through her underwear drawer until she found the envelope of money she'd saved from her dressmaking. She carefully pulled bills from the thin packet. Victor's smug face loomed before her and she stuffed three of the dollars back into the envelope.
She was grateful Thomas and Henry were out of range. Earlier she'd seen their snow-blurred movements from the kitchen window. All afternoon they'd struggled over an igloo at the edge of the creek, their caps cardinal bright against bare trees and colorless blocks of icy snow.
Downstairs, she pushed her felt cloche over her eyes, shouldered the porch door open against a low drift, and aimed herself downtown to stretch her bit of savings into a decent Christmas for her family.
Main Street was nearly deserted, most shops already closed for the holiday. Isobel blinked through fine lashings of snow and plucked her way through ankle-deep drifts. Each time her foot came down, slush shot up to spatter her stockings and hem.
She saw a figure move toward her and she pulled her scarf up high, but not fast enough to avoid Mrs. Sima's eye. Sima's butcher shop was next to Victor's tailor shop. Mrs. Sima trotted closer, trailing a wake of snow, her voice ripping through the curtain of white.
She took refuge in her hat, pretending she hadn't heard.
As Isobel turned she managed a surprised look, suddenly glad for pelting snow that explained away the red sting in her eyes.
"If you're looking for Victor, dear, he's left the shop... oh, hours ago now." Mrs. Sima rubbed her arms like a channel swimmer. "About noon, I'd say." Powdery snow rose from her fur coat. When Isobel only smiled, Mrs. Sima cocked her head sideways. "You haven't lost him, have you?"
Isobel blinked, her smile cast in place. "I don't think so, Mavis. Why do you ask? Had you thought I would?"
After a beat, the woman chortled. "Ha! Ha, well...."
"Well, isn't this a perfect Christmas Eve? Made to order!"
"Yes." Isobel nodded at the doorway of the mercantile. Large, garish boxes were gift-wrapped and propped in a tower against a display window coated from the inside with false snow.
"Here's my stop, Mavis."
"Last-minute shopping? Goodness, I had everything bought and wrapped by Thanksgiving."
Isobel put her hand on the door. "Always prepared, Mrs. Sima, just like a Boy Scout."
"Ha. You tell your family for me to have a very merry"
"Yes, merry. Same to yours." Isobel slipped into the door, but not before hearing Mavis muttering into her fur, "Butter wouldn't melt..."
If the children were disappointed the next morning at the tin banks, adventure books, and sketch pads she had found on picked-over shelves at the mercantile and the dime store, they didn't show it. Nor did they display any false enthusiasm. Receiving their perfunctory kisses and lukewarm thanks, Isobel fought tears. She was tired, had been up late cleaning the kitchen and wrapping gifts. She had restlessly tossed all night next to Victor's snoring bulk. Still wearing her bathrobe and slippers, she sank into an armchair. Victor took down the roll of documents tied to the tree with a silver ribbon.
From These Granite Islands by Sarah Stonich. © March 2001, Little, Brown & Co, used by permission.
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