“What is it?” she asked, feeling oddly on guard.

“It’s got a few stipulations that go along with it,” her dad said. Standing, he walked over to the tree, bent down, and pulled a dark green folder from beneath the tree skirt. Stepping around Danny, he made his way to where Isobel sat on the couch. He had an odd, pinched look on his face as he held the folder out to her, like an FBI agent handing over some sort of top secret document.

“You can thank your brother. He talked me into it early this morning after you . . .” He paused. “Well, after your mother went back to bed. She . . . uh . . . doesn’t know yet, by the way. Your mother. So . . . you’re going to have to help me with that, too.”

Isobel took the folder in both hands. As she flipped it open, her father sank onto the couch beside her. Because of her pile of presents, though, he had to perch on the very edge of the cushion.

Isobel stared at the sheet of crisp white printer paper tucked into one side of the folder.

An image of a blue jet soared across the header. Below, she saw her father’s first and last name paired with her own in blocky bold black letters.

It took a full five seconds for it to sink in that what she held was a flight itinerary.

Her jaw slackened as she read the words “Baltimore-Washington International Airport.”

Isobel rocketed to her feet. “This . . . ,” she said, breathless, “this is . . . is this . . .?”

Quickly, she scanned for dates. Their departure was listed for five forty-five a.m. on Sunday, January 18. That meant they’d be in Baltimore later the same morning. He’d scheduled the trip for Martin Luther King weekend, just like she’d asked.

Isobel knew that the Poe Toaster visited the graveyard after midnight on the eighteenth, during the early morning hours of the nineteenth. The thought that she would actually be there, that facing Reynolds had now become a near certainty, made her start to quiver all over.


She turned to face her father. “Is this for real?” she asked him. “Are you really taking me?”

Her father rose. Pressing a finger to his lips, he gave a furtive glance toward the dining room. “Don’t get too excited yet,” he said, lowering his voice. “I still have to make the appointment with the university. I doubt they’ll be open that Monday because of the holiday. That’s why we’re staying an extra day. So that means you need to—”

Isobel let go of the folder. She catapulted herself at her father, swinging her arms around his neck and pulling him down into a tight embrace. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you.” Over and over she repeated it. “Thank you, Dad. Thank you. You don’t know what this means.”

And the truth was that he didn’t. He didn’t know what it meant at all.

But when it got down to it, Isobel supposed, neither did she. Not really.

Only that she’d somehow managed to establish that first step back into a world of terror, confusion, and chaos.

All the same, it was one that took her closer to finding Varen. And for the moment, that was enough to make her happy.

Tears burned at the edges of her eyes again. She pressed her face against her father’s sleeve and breathed in. He smelled so wonderful to her. Like Old Spice aftershave, fireplace cinders, and dark coffee, a smell tied to a million different memories.

Pulling herself free, Isobel turned on Danny, who remained oblivious to the moment. She stepped toward him, her bare feet crunching over wrapping paper, and dropped to kneel on the floor next to him.

“Don’t. Even. Think about—”

Isobel wrapped her arms around him, causing his DS to tumble out of his hands and onto the floor with a thump.

“Watch out!” he shouted. He yanked off his headphones. “Why are you touching me?”

He tried shoving her off, but Isobel remained attached long enough to plant a kiss on the side of his head.

“Sick!” he yelled, and pushed her away. “Get off!”

Unable to keep herself from laughing, Isobel rolled backward onto the discarded shreds of wrapping paper while Danny scrambled for his DS.

“Augh!” he growled. “That was a freaking boss level! Now I’ve got to do the whole board over again.”


All three of them looked up at once.

Their mom stood in the doorway, a bag of mini-marshmallows clasped in her hands. She wore a startled look on her face.

“What’s . . . going on in here?” she asked, aiming the question at Isobel’s father. “What’s so funny?”

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