She heard her father draw nearer, saw his shadow stretch wider as he made his way toward her. Yet she still flinched when he wrapped a hand around the fireplace poker clutched between her own hands.

Finally glancing up at him, Isobel watched his red-rimmed eyes scour her face as though in search of some evidence that she was still, in fact, his daughter.

“Isobel, honey,” he began again, using one hand to brush back a lock of her hair while at the same time attempting to extract the poker from her grasp with the other. “Are you even awake right now?”

All at once, she felt her focus return. Her eyes met directly with her father’s.

She let go of the poker, releasing it into his tugging grip.

Parting parched lips, she spoke at last.

“I—I don’t know.”


Grim Returns

Contrary to Gwen’s Christmas Eve prediction, it took an entire week for most of the snow to melt. Still, icicles hung from the roofs and sides of homes and businesses, dripping from gutters like strips of torn lace. Like crusted barnacles, hard clumps of charcoal-colored sludge clung to the underbellies of cars and trucks.

The world had a drowned and washed-out look by the time Isobel returned to school, and though the thick coating of white had receded, no color had returned to take its place.


Even the grass looked gray, poking up through the lingering swiss cheese patterns of snow on Trenton High’s front lawn.

But despite the lack of scenery, Isobel was glad to finally get out of her house, even if it felt like she was simply leaving one prison for another.

A light rain began to fall as she stepped through the line of rumbling buses and the lingering haze of exhaust fumes.

She stopped to stand on the sidewalk that led up to the school’s side entrance.

Hooking her thumbs in the straps of her backpack, she scanned the building’s regal structure. Far above, beyond its ridged outline, tattered clouds crawled across a slate sky. Flashing silver in the overcast light, the windows did their best to coordinate themselves with winter’s drab gray palette, to blend in just like everything else. Just like her.

It was January now. A new year. Exactly two weeks until Poe’s birthday.

After her second strange encounter with Pinfeathers, though, Isobel had stopped having dreams about Varen. Or anything, for that matter.

Like the falling snow, her connection to the other side, to him, had abruptly ceased to be, leaving her small collection of recent experiences to thaw in the stark glare of reality.

To her left and right, students passed her, hurrying to silence and stuff cell phones into pockets and bags. At first Isobel didn’t think anyone noticed her. Then she made the mistake of removing the hood of her sky-blue parka as she entered the school.

She knew she wasn’t imagining the looks, the blatant stares, the whispers.

By this time, she’d grown used to them. They’d become a staple of her daily life at Trenton. Everyone knew who she was. Of course they did. She was the last person seen with Varen Nethers. “You know,” she’d heard one of the junior boys say to a group of buddies before the break, “that weird goth kid who went missing on Halloween night. That girl, the cheerleader, she’s his girlfriend. Or was, anyway.”

Isobel did her best to ignore the gawkers and murmuring as she made her way through the hall.

It wasn’t that she hadn’t expected them to be here when she got back. She’d just hoped that there would have been enough winter-break drama and gossip to provide even a minuscule amount of distraction.

But there would be no respite.

Whispers and turning heads, glares and fleeting looks of sympathy alike followed her all the way to her locker.

She put up her mental blinders, steering her thoughts in the direction of the day’s schedule. Classes. Lunch. Classes. Practice. Dinner. Homework. Sleep.

Sleep. It was the one thing she still looked forward to. Strangely enough, it was the one thing that made her feel as though she was doing something.

But each night, the dreams refused to return.

Why, when she had finally learned how to become lucid while dreaming, when she’d discovered how to communicate with him, had he vanished from the radar?

She was sure it all had something to do with the night she’d found Pinfeathers in her living room. It was obvious now that he’d been trying to tell her something. But in the end, nothing he’d said had made any sense to her. Nothing except his mention of her necklace, the hamsa, which Isobel wore night and day, holding fast to her promise not to remove it.

Pinfeathers’s sneering face swam to the forefront of her mind when she stopped in front of her locker. She heard his words echo through her head as she dialed her combination.

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