“Our family’s business is none of your concern,” said Mr. Nethers. The anger and bravado in his tone had drained away and was replaced by a cold matter-of-factness.

Bruce spoke again, wheezing between his words, his throat clogged with suppressed coughs. “I’m . . . afraid that the reality here . . . is that he is no longer any of your business. Not anymore. He turned eighteen week before last. But you knew that, of course.”

Varen’s birthday had passed? Isobel had never even asked him when it was. And now he’d turned—

“Eighteen, Mr. Nethers. Do you know what that means? It means that even if he does choose to return, he no longer has to go back to you, sir.”

Isobel could see the tremble begin in those big, meaty hands, the quake traveling up his solid frame as they formed into boulder-shaped fists.

The outburst came like a roar of thunder. “He is my son!” Varen’s dad shouted, loud enough to cause the bowl-shaped light fixtures to ring. “You are not his father. I am!” He pounded the counter again, causing a row of stacked paperbacks to slide.

“Then why don’t you try acting like it,” Bruce said, at last starting to shout himself, “instead of waiting around until it’s too late? Until he’s run into trouble at school or vanished altogether? Where have you been, Mr. Nethers? Where have you been all this time besides at the bottom of a bottle?”

A hush fell over the shop.

The sound of her breathing became unbearably loud in Isobel’s ears.

Her phone vibrated in her hand. She fumbled to open it and found two texts from Gwen. The first, she realized, was the one she’d received upstairs but had neglected to check.




I sobel hurried to type a response. V’S DAD. STAY THERE.

Her thumb slid to the send button, but before she could press it, the phone slipped out of her grasp. She gasped as it hit the floor with a loud crack, snapping itself shut like a clamshell.

She clapped both hands over her mouth, staring at her phone in wide-eyed horror.

“What was that?” Varen’s father demanded.

Isobel’s eyes shot back to the door. Her heart began to pound like a fist against her sternum.

“Wh-what was what?” Bruce stammered. “What are you talking about?”

“That sound.”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“Of course you didn’t.”

“Really, Mr. Nethers, I’m surprised you can hear anything at all above your own—Wait! Where are you going?”

Footsteps. Hard, heavy footsteps. She heard them thumping against the worn wooden floorboards, getting closer.

Isobel began to quiver all over, bolted to the spot like an animal about to be eaten alive, knowing the predator had already caught her scent.

“You can’t go back there!” she heard Bruce call. “Stop! Do you hear me, I said stop!”

“Varen!” called Mr. Nethers in a gruff voice.

She stumbled back from the door, knowing that there was nowhere she could hide. There was nothing upstairs. No closets, no furniture. Nothing. She was stuck. Trapped.

Snatching her phone from the floor, Isobel clutched it tightly and whirled.

“Varen!” the voice boomed from just outside. “Varen! I swear to God if you’re here . . .”

She clambered up the stairs, hands over feet, but the toe of her tennis shoe caught on the lip of one of the steps. The stair pulled loose with a clatter.

Isobel fell forward, the edges of the stairs jutting into her ribs and banging her shins. Wincing, she bit back a cry and twisted to look behind her, at the plank she had inadvertently yanked free. Beneath it lay a long black hole, a hollow space like a small, narrow grave, large and deep enough for a person to fit through sideways.

The doorknob jiggled, then began to turn.

Isobel sprang for the hole and dropped inside, landing on her feet. The top of her head still poked above the open stair. She reached an arm out to grab the loose plank and pulled it over her. Hearing the squeak of hinges, she sank down quickly, the board settling back into place with a muffled thump.

Isobel squatted in the tight space. Balancing on the balls of her feet, she tried not to think about the cobwebs she couldn’t see or the pill bugs or brown recluse spiders that might be crawling over her shoes at that very moment. Not when there were worse monsters stalking the world directly above.

Isobel’s phone, still in one hand, vibrated continuously. Isobel knew that Gwen must be trying to call her, but she silenced the hum and sent the call to voice mail.

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