With that thought, Isobel made a solemn oath to herself not to mention Maryland again. After tomorrow, after Christmas, she would need to cut her losses and start figuring out a way to get there on her own.

A twisty sensation, like a python unwinding from a branch, unfurled through her gut. The thought of traveling to such a huge city alone sent a jolt of panic through her. Not to mention the fact that she would have to steal from her parents in order to afford a plane ticket or even bus fare. And then there was the added problem that she’d have to sneak out, and lie. Again.

But Baltimore was her last hope. Her only hope. There, in a cemetery, during the early morning hours of January 19, Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday, a man could be observed every year visiting the poet’s grave. A man in a cloak and a hat. A man who hid his face behind a white scarf.

A coward, Isobel thought, her hands tightening into fists around the shopping bag handles.

Known the world over as the “Poe Toaster,” he had been appearing at Poe’s grave for decades. Materializing out of nowhere, he would place three red roses there and then vanish.

Only a single photograph of him existed. Taken sometime back in the nineties for Life magazine, the scratchy black-and-white print showed a night-vision image, pixelated and indefinite.

Either luck or fate had caused the photo to fall into Isobel’s hands.

After grading her and Varen’s paper and project on Poe, Isobel’s English teacher, Mr. Swanson, had handed back the assignment with an article detailing the Poe Toaster’s rite. Also included in the article had been the infamous image.

A shock had run through Isobel the moment she had set eyes on it. She could not have mistaken the kneeling man in the photograph. It was the same man who had once appeared to her in her dreams, calling himself “Reynolds.” The same man who had warned her from the beginning, who had fought by her side and had even saved her life.

In the very end, though, he had lied to her.

Isobel felt a stab of bitter coldness at the memory of how he had betrayed her, cruelly playing her own hope against her.


Before she discovered that he’d tricked her into thinking that, like her, Varen had returned safely to the real world, Reynolds had promised Isobel that the two of them would never meet again. But Isobel knew he would never count on her discovering his identity as the Poe Toaster.

Why would he, when he’d never counted on her doing anything but blindly playing along with his own plans?

Her resolve deepening, Isobel headed for the kitchen door and shouldered her way in, her dad following close behind.

As she crossed the threshold, the aroma of baked turkey and mashed potatoes rushed her, the rich scent accompanied by a wave of warmth.

Her mom stood at the stove dressed in worn dark-wash jeans and an oversize gray sweatshirt. Stirring a saucepan of gravy with one hand, she held open a thin paperback novel in the other. Isobel recognized the book as one of the trashy thrillers she liked to read between her brick-thick classics.

Her mom turned her head when she heard the door, though it took a second longer for her eyes to part from the page. At last she lowered the book, flashing Isobel one of her distracted “I’m still somewhere else” smiles.

“Back already?” she asked. “That was quick for a Christmas Eve venture to the mall.”

Isobel pulled off her white knit hat. A loud growl rumbled through her stomach, even though she didn’t feel the gnawing hunger it implied.

She set the bags down and peeled off her gloves. Shedding her coat, she hung it on one of the hooks behind the door.

From the living room, she could hear the familiar sound of video-game music punctuated by the slashing twang of swords and the anguished cries of fallen undead. Danny, she thought. Still in front of the TV. Always in front of the TV.

Isobel’s mom laid her book aside, open and facedown on the countertop to hold her place. “I started dinner late because I thought you two would be gone at least another half hour,” she said.

“You know me,” Isobel’s dad chimed in, shutting the door. He shed his coat and hung it next to Isobel’s. “Quick and simple. That’s the way we roll, right, Izzy?”

Isobel shot him an incredulous stare. Had he really just said “roll”?

Snatching up the bags again, Isobel headed for the archway that led out into the hall but stopped when she felt two sets of eyes boring into her back. She glanced over her shoulder to find her suspicions confirmed.

“What?” she asked.

On the stove, the saucepan of gravy started to burble and slurp. Her mom, as though snapping from a trance, turned away and switched off the burner.

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