Locating another candle, Isobel took the box of matches, struck one, and lit the wick.

Warm flickering light filled the space, sending shadows leaping up the walls and across the slanted ceiling.

It didn’t surprise Isobel that Varen would have a secret like this—a hiding place within a hiding place.

That thought made her smile, though her grin faltered as she passed the candle across the carved wooden box. The sputtering light revealed the fancy lettering of a name engraved into the lid.

Isobel set the candle aside and reached to draw the wooden box toward her.

Her fingertips traveled across the deep grooves and notches that formed the name MADELINE.


Lady Madeline

Isobel opened the box. The hinged lid tilted back, held at ninety degrees by two violet strips of ribbon in either corner.

A stack of photographs littered the top layer of the box’s contents. Beneath, Isobel saw an assortment of odd trinkets and pieces of old jewelry.

Her fingers went first to the photographs, and she pulled free the topmost picture, recognizing it as one that had come from her own cheerleading scrapbook.


Dressed in her blue, gold-trimmed uniform, the one with the smooth A-line miniskirt and the THS shell top, her own image beamed up at her from the glossy paper, pom-poms held up to either side of her head like giant puff-ball ears. She had one shimmer shadow–caked eye pinched shut in a squinty pirate–style wink while she puckered her lips at the camera for a kiss. Her hair sat on top of her head in a ponytail of corkscrew ringlets, and a painted star glittered on her left cheek.

All in all, she looked ridiculous.

She remembered that Nikki had snapped the photo at a regional competition last year, right before their performance.

But how did it get here?

She thought back to that night Varen had snuck onto her roof. After leaving her bedroom for several minutes, she’d returned to find him no longer waiting on the roof but perched on the edge of her bed. He’d had her cheer album in his lap, his nimble fingers flipping through it. Her face burned when she realized he must have slid the photo free from its plastic sheath and tucked it away somewhere during the time she’d been gone.

For a moment, she couldn’t decide whether she should be infuriated or flattered—or if it was better to default to the ever-appropriate choice of mortified.

Why, out of all the other pictures in the album, did he have to pick this one? Why not one of the ones with her actually posing, like, without a goofy face, bad hair, or stupid pom-pom antlers?

She flipped the photo over so she wouldn’t have to look at it anymore, when she noticed something written across the back.

Short lines scrawled in deep violet blazed against the white watermarked Kodak paper. Bringing the photo closer, Isobel began to read. She felt her heart stammer a beat when she realized that it was a poem. About her.

I keep telling myself

That you’re

just a girl.

Another leaf blown across my path

Destined to pass on

And shrivel into yourself

Like all the others.

Yet despite my venom

You refuse to wither

Or fade.

You remain golden throughout,

And in your gaze I am left to wonder if it is me alone

Who feels the fall.

Isobel’s hand sank, as though the photo had become too heavy for her to hold.

Like tiny knives, his words lacerated her heart.

Isobel pushed the photo back inside the box, prepared to shut the lid and leave, but through her bleary, stinging vision, she caught sight of another photo in the stack.

At first she could glimpse only the edge, and it was the wisps of soft, honey-colored hair that made her draw it free.

The woman in the picture watched the photographer with a steady pair of large eyes, her chin tilted slightly upward. Her beauty, natural and free of cosmetics, was undeniable.

Her lips, shapely and petal pink, seemed as though they wanted to smile, even though they didn’t. Her wavy blond hair lay in a gentle swoop across her smooth forehead, the soft flyaway ends disappearing behind her in what Isobel thought must be either a low ponytail or a loose braid.

The woman, slender and pale, wore a plum-colored peacoat buttoned to her chin, while a black knitted scarf laced her throat.

Even though the physical resemblance was subtle, Isobel knew that this was a photograph of Varen’s mother.

It was the woman’s eyes, the same hue of polished jade, that gave her away.

Taking a closer look, Isobel began to notice faint lines showing through from the other side. Curls and slanted loops appeared in raised bumps around the edges, like Braille, as if Varen had pushed too hard with his pen while writing.

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