But unlike the dream with Varen, the nightmare with Pinfeathers remained fresh and alive in her mind, every horrid detail still sharp and clear. A shudder ratcheted its way up her spine at the memory of the monster’s mouth pressed to hers. And that smile. That horrible, jagged smile.

The Noc’s visit made her wonder about the shadow she had seen inside her bedroom the day before. And later under the bathroom door.

“Hey,” Danny said, calling to her from where he sat on the floor beside the Christmas tree, surrounded by discarded multicolored ribbon curls and box-shaped husks of wrapping paper. “Look alive, space face.”

He chucked something at her. Isobel flinched, catching the small brick-shaped package just before it could smash into her nose. Covered in lumpy red paper and too much tape, the thing looked like it had been wrapped one-handed by a toddler.

The box felt light in her hands, as though she would open it only to find wads of old newspaper stuffed inside. Isobel glanced to Danny, but he had since gone back to rifling through his fresh stack of shrink-wrapped video games and console accessories. Behind him, A Christmas Story played on the TV, the volume kept low.

Across the room, Isobel’s dad sat staring at the television, dark bags under his eyes. A new silver sports watch encircled one of his wrists, and he had on the pair of blue University of Kentucky slippers Danny had given him.

Sitting next to him on the love seat, her mom flipped through a boxed set of mystery novels. Occasionally she would reach up to her collar and brush her fingertips over her new locket.

Isobel looked at the present in her lap. With cautious fingers, she began to peel back the tape and pry open the corners of the wrapping paper. She shucked the glossy red sheath to reveal an old tissue box stuffed with a sheet of crumpled-up copier paper. Isobel yanked the paper free, only to hear something else rattle inside the box. Her attention went to the paper first when she noticed faint blue writing tucked between the crumpled folds. She opened the paper and read the lines of Danny’s sloppy handwriting.

Consider this another U. O. ME.

Watch and learn.

Isobel frowned. Confused, she slid her other hand into the tissue box, her fingers reaching through the plastic slot to stumble across something cool and metal. As she pulled the object out, she heard Danny’s voice pipe up over the TV.


“Hey, Mom, do we have any hot chocolate?”

In her palm, Isobel held what appeared to be a small silver-and-pink butterfly key chain. It felt heavy in her hand and had a clip-on attachment rather than a split ring. When she tucked her thumb beneath the butterfly’s wings, they fanned upward and out with a quiet click, revealing the round face of a ticking watch. The gift brought to mind her previous glitter-filled key-chain watch, the one she’d broken back in October.

Isobel turned the watch over in her hand, hardly able to believe that Danny would have remembered something like that. Normally, putting the words “Danny” and “thoughtful” together in the same sentence would have been on a par with trying to genetically alter jellyfish to fly. Still, she didn’t get what the gift had to do with Danny’s cryptic note.

“I think we’ve got the powder kind in the cupboard,” Isobel heard her mom say. “Should I make some?”

“Actually, that sounds really good,” Isobel’s dad said.

The sound of his voice made everyone look in his direction. It was the first time her father had turned away from the television or said anything since opening his presents.

“Izzy? How about you?” her mom asked.

Isobel studied her brother, still trying to put two and two together, but he had slipped on the pair of headphones she’d gotten him and plugged them into his Nintendo DS.

“Sure,” she said, “I’ll take some.”

Her mom gave a tight smile, though Isobel thought she sensed a hint of relief there too. Then she got up from the love seat and padded through the archway leading into the dining room and kitchen.

Folding Danny’s note, Isobel tucked it back into the tissue box.


Her dad had stopped watching TV and now, instead, he watched her.

“There’s something else,” he said.

Isobel set the box aside. What did he mean, “something else”? She looked toward her brother again, but he remained absorbed in his DS, his back hunched and his shoulders curved forward, nose hovering less than an inch from the flickering screen.

“I mean you have one more present left to open.”

Brow arched, she looked at the already hefty stack of gifts that sat next to her on the couch. In addition to new gear for cheer practice and a gym bag, her parents had gotten her lavender body lotion, two sweaters, and a pair of jeans. Considering her recent trip to Nationals and her championship ring, Isobel hadn’t expected to get nearly as much as she had.

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