Hands shoved into his pockets, her dad continued to stare at her.

She already knew what he must be thinking. He was probably wondering to himself if things would ever go back to being normal. If she would ever be the same again. If they would ever be the same.

In turn, Isobel wondered how long it would take for him to realize the obvious answer to that.

She gave the bags a shake. “So I think I’ll go try to find a place to stash this stuff.” Without waiting for a response, she ducked into the hall.

“Yeah,” she heard him call after her. “Good thinking.”

As Isobel made her way into the hallway, she thought she could hear her mother whispering, asking her father, “What happened?” and she knew he would cave and tell her that she’d brought up the Maryland trip. Again.

Isobel cringed. She switched the shopping bags to one hand and grabbed her scarf with the other, pulling the itchy woolen fabric free from her throat. Stalking down the hall, she passed the archway that led into the living room, where both the TV and the Christmas tree glowed with soft silvery light. Isobel stopped long enough to squint at the television screen, which displayed a spreadsheet of video-game statistics, weapon lists, and blinking vital signs.

That the game had been paused could have been an indication of only two things: Either her little brother had had to pee so bad that he couldn’t hold it any longer, or he’d been abducted by aliens.

Isobel snorted at the abandoned controller and empty spot in front of the TV, sure that she had never been so epically lame at twelve years old.

Reaching the end of the hallway, she rounded the banister to face the stairway and started with a yelp.

Danny, who had apparently not ascended to the mother ship, stood at the bottom of the stairs, his chubby arms open wide, blocking her path. While one hand clasped the banister post, he pressed the other flat to the opposite wall, creating a barricade with his body.


“Season’s greetings, sister,” he said.

Isobel eyed her little brother. It always made her wary whenever he addressed her as anything other than the usual “cheer troll” or “nerf herder.”

“What do you want?”

He tossed his head to one side to clear away the lengthening bangs of his dark mud-brown hair from his sharp blue eyes. A smirk pulled at one corner of his mouth, giving him an impish look. “Only to inform you of a recent transaction in which you were an integral element,” he said, pug nose thrust into the air.

Isobel felt a twitch in her left eye. “Danny, just spit it out and move already.”

“If it makes it easier for you to understand,” he said with a sigh, adopting a tone one of his computer screen characters might use with any nameless underling, “I shall hereafter employ the usage of smaller words more digestible to your limited heathen mortal palate.”

“You drink milk straight out of the carton and you’re calling me a heathen? Danny, tell me what you want and then get out of my way. I’m not in the mood.”

“Fine,” he said, his expression collapsing into a deadpan stare. “So you know that weird friend of yours Dad hates? Bracelets. Talks funny. Too much hair?”

“Gwen?” Isobel asked, eyes narrowing. She knew her brother could hardly mean anyone else. Aside from being pretty much her only friend these days, Gwen Daniels had been Isobel’s one accomplice in sneaking out on Halloween night. And Isobel’s dad had never forgotten that it had been Gwen who had lied to him outright, telling him that she and Isobel would be going to a parent-supervised all-girl karaoke sleepover at her house—not meeting Varen at an underground goth party.

“She’s up in your room,” Danny said, and jerked his head toward the stretch of stairs behind him.

Isobel’s eyes flew wide. “Gwen’s here?”

“Gave me ten bucks to let her in.”

“What?” Isobel glanced up to where her door stood slightly ajar. Inside, a long shadow drifted across, momentarily blocking the light coming from within. She mounted the stairs, but Danny backpedaled in front of her, snapping his arms wide again. She halted, shooting him an icy glare of warning.

“Ten bucks to let her in,” he said. “But,” he added, finger lifted, eyebrows rising to vanish beneath his mop of hair, “you and I both know that such a nominal fee hardly covers my silence.” With that, he held out one chubby hand, palm up.

Isobel gaped at her brother. “I’m not paying you!” she nearly shouted, and swatted his hand aside. She hurtled forward, shouldering past him, shopping bags in tow.

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