Again, Isobel nodded. Nod, nod, nod. It was what she did best these days.

Concern flashed across his features, and his smile faltered.

Quickly she found her voice. “You’re probably right,” she said.

He continued to watch her, frowning, like there was still something else he wanted to say. Instead of saying it, though, he pushed his smile into place again. Turning, he opened the front door and let in a burst of frigid winter air.

Even though the sudden brush of cold wind should have sent a shiver rattling through her, it didn’t.

Outside, Isobel could see that the deep blue darkness had since lightened, evidence that the dawn was doing its best to push back the curtain of night.

Her father remained only a moment longer before bending, at last, to pick up his briefcase.

“I’ll call you, okay?” he said. He raised his coffee mug to the side of his head as though it were a cell phone, like he thought she needed sign language.

“Yeah,” she said, “sounds good.”

He gave a half wave, then shuffled out, poking his head back in at the last moment to say, “Grab the door for me?”

Isobel pushed herself up from the stairs. She pressed the door closed behind him while her father shouldered his way past the outer storm door.


She leaned her forehead against the wood, listening to his shoes click against the sidewalk as his footsteps grew distant.

With her hand still gripping the knob, she caught herself wishing she could run after him and call him back. Time and again she’d had to fight the urge to tell him everything, even though she knew he would never believe any of it.

A moment longer, though, and she might have confessed that actually, she had had the nightmare he’d mentioned—the one where she’d lost. But unlike the recurring dream about practice, it hadn’t concerned Nationals at all.

It had concerned everything else. The only thing else.

But it hadn’t been a dream.

These days, it was getting harder and harder to tell what was.

She spun, putting her back to the door, listening to the quiet hum of the sedan’s engine as her father backed the car out of the driveway and onto their street.

The twin beams of the headlights flashed through the living room window, casting a host of misshapen shadows along the floors and walls, making Isobel feel suddenly less alone.

A chill climbed up her spine, receding only when dimness and silence settled over the house once more.

She glanced up to the darkened doorway of her bedroom.

Her dad had told her to try to go back to sleep. Now that she was wide awake, though, Isobel began to doubt if she would ever know true rest again.


Bleak December

Her father’s “no later than noon” call lit up Isobel’s cell closer to four. Something had come up, he said, which had essentially turned his quick Christmas Eve trip to the office into another full workday. So it wasn’t until after five that they were finally able to wrestle their way through traffic and into the mall. Amazingly, they managed to extract themselves from the mad bustle, bags in tow, appendages intact, by seven. They were even able to locate the sedan before the first semifrozen droplets of the weatherman’s projected “wintry mix” began to pepper the pavement.

Isobel stared out the passenger-side window as her father maneuvered the car through the congested parking lot. Slushy rain streaked the glass, turning the whole view mottled. Christmas lights blurred into glowing smudges, while the bright holiday window displays melded into shapeless meshes of color.

As the sedan edged toward the main road, a sifting of white snow slowly began to replace the sleet. It collected on the windshield in fluffy specks between wiper-blade swipes, the downy flecks bringing Isobel’s thoughts back, yet again, to her dream.

“Awfully quiet over there,” Isobel’s dad said. “How about some music?”

He didn’t wait for an answer. Instead he flipped on the radio, and through a scratch of fuzz that made Isobel flinch, Bing Crosby’s voice broke, crooning about a white Christmas.

They turned, emerging from the bottleneck squeeze to join with the steady flow of traffic. Rows of trees swished past on the left, clumps of wild mistletoe clinging to their barren branches like tangled knots in petrified hair.

Despite her father’s attempt to spark conversation, Isobel’s thoughts remained lost in a world that existed between here and forever. A world that still held him.

For the entire day, the brief flashes of Varen’s face, both torturous and comforting, had been the only thing she could concentrate on.

The dream itself still felt loose in her head, more distant than a childhood memory.

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