She had seen him. She knew she had.

One moment he’d been there, his gray-toned image mirrored in the screen of her cell phone as though he’d been standing mere inches behind her. Close enough to wrap his arms around her. Close enough for her to have felt his breath on her neck or the heat of his body against her back.

But she hadn’t felt anything.

Then, when she’d turned around, there’d been nothing there. No one. Just the wind, the cold, and the ashen oak.

Isobel had checked her phone again, but Varen’s reflection had vanished.

Too shocked to think, she forgot about texting Gwen.

The bell rang and, dazed, she returned to class.

That afternoon during cheer practice, Varen’s face, so close, so clear, continued to haunt her.


“IS-O-BEL!” Coach’s voice, amplified through the squad’s blue-and-gold megaphone, slammed through Isobel’s concentration.

“C’mon!” Coach yelled. “Up and at ’em, Lanley! You’re not going to start that space-case business again, are you?” Coach waved her toward where the rest of the squad stood waiting, already lined up in their stunting formations. “Break’s over. Just because the competition season ended doesn’t mean it’s time to slack off.”

Isobel jumped to her feet from where she’d perched to rest on the corner of the bottom bleacher. When she stood, though, her water bottle tumbled out of her lap and hit the floor with a thwack, inciting titters from Alyssa Wilkes and her posse of sidekicks.

Setting down the gigantic cartoon-size megaphone, Coach made a show of sighing, her round hip jutting to one side.

“Thirty minutes left before I’ve got parents in cars breathing down my neck to release you all, Lanley,” she said. “Let’s go already! We gotta get through these drills or basketball season’s going to be chock-full of claps and boring ground-level jumps. Hustle!”

Isobel left the water bottle behind on the floor as she jogged to the place where Stevie and Nikki waited for her along with her two spotters, Stephanie and Deja.

At the far end of the line, Isobel could hear Alyssa yawning loudly.

“That’s enough, Miss Wilkes,” Coach snapped. “Focus should be on the stunt at hand, not your next nap. Now let’s hit it, team. Remember, we’re going for a wave effect here, but our sidelines aren’t gonna give us a lot of room, so keep it tight. Don’t worry about the letter boards yet, Ashley. Leave them there for now, we’ll add those in when we get our timing down on the lifts. Starting with your group, Stevie, and on down the line. Clean and prep by the count of eight, then I’ll begin the count again. Group two, don’t forget that your flyer needs to be up two counts after Isobel. Group three, two counts after Carly, and so on. We all stay up for eight, then it’s the same count in reverse, with the pop cradle for our dismount.” Coach raised the megaphone again. “Ready?”

Isobel didn’t bother offering so much as a glance in Alyssa’s direction, channeling her attention instead on the prep and load as Stevie and Nikki, her two stunt bases, squatted on either side of her. They held their hands out for her feet while her spotters sank down in front and back of her, ready to brace her during the lift.

After Nationals, Coach had been quick to rearrange the squad’s regular grouping. And it had come as no surprise to Isobel that Coach had chosen to separate her and Alyssa, taking care to place them as far apart as possible during any given formation. Considering how complex Coach Anne’s choreography tended to be, though, Isobel wasn’t sure how long the reprieve would last.

While Coach counted, her voice lilting up and down with every other number, Isobel placed one hand on each of her bases’ shoulders and pushed off from the floor, popping into the load.

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

On the last count, Isobel shot tall, rising high above the gymnasium floor. Keeping her knees locked, she mimed the action of flipping up her assigned H-for-“HAWKS” letter board.

Since they were taking the stunt in a wave pattern, Isobel and her group would have to hold their position the longest. While she waited for the count to restart and the wave to make its way back down the line, she tried to keep her mind on maintaining her balance without allowing her thoughts to circle back, yet again, to what she’d seen in the courtyard.

But that was almost more impossible than trying to convince herself that the moment hadn’t been real.

She’d seen him.

It had to have been real. At least as real as anything else that had been happening to her. As real as drawings that came to life in old books. As real as masked figures who could walk in and out of reality. Real as the monster that had appeared in her living room.

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