More than anything, she remembered being close to Varen. She just couldn’t recall where they’d been or what he had said.

And as the day had dragged on, she wondered if her subconscious could somehow be the culprit behind the repeated dreams, doing its best to provide her with the one thing—the one person—that it hurt too much to be without.

“If this keeps up,” her dad said, putting on his turn signal, “we might just get one of those.”

Isobel stirred from her thoughts. “One of those what?”

“A white Christmas, Iz,” he said, his eyes never leaving the road. “What are you thinking so hard about over there, anyway?”

As they switched lanes, her dad offered a wave of thanks to the lady in the kid-packed SUV who had let them over. Isobel glanced down at her hands in her lap.

“Oh.” She summoned her best semblance of a smile. “Just thinking about . . . Nationals,” she lied, and touched the thin golden band on the ring finger of her right hand. She twisted the ring, turning it around and around. NATIONAL CHAMPION it read in bold capital letters that framed a smooth, glinting, Trenton-blue gemstone.

“Seems like you’ve been thinking about that an awful lot lately,” he said. “Or worrying about it, I should say. I mean, to the point where you’re dreaming that it didn’t happen.” He paused, looking away from the road to glance in her direction. Isobel knew he was waiting for her to speak, but she couldn’t think of what to say. She didn’t know what it was he wanted to hear. It was better, she thought, to remain silent and let him draw his own conclusions. At least it was easier to hide the truth that way.

“You know, Izzy,” he said, returning his attention to the road, “you were really great out there this year. I mean, better than ever. And I’m not just saying that. I have to admit, I was a little nervous when I saw Heywood do their routine, but you guys smoked them. You know that, don’t you? I mean . . . I can’t help but get this feeling that, for whatever reason, you keep asking yourself if you really deserved to win. It’s like you feel guilty about it, when I don’t think I’ve ever seen you more focused. The squad was great, but you, Izzy, it’s like you were on another plane of existence. I mean, you were totally zoned. You should be proud of yourself.”

“I am,” she said, giving the ring a final twist as the sedan rolled into their subdivision, past the triple-tiered fountain, which now stood as still and silent as a cemetery monument, collecting snow in its empty basins.

Isobel sensed her dad glancing her way again, so she looked up and squeezed out yet another false smile. She tried her best to hold the expression, even when he looked away, but keeping up the game was starting to take its toll.


At the very least, she’d tried to make it seem like Nationals had mattered to her in the way it once had, before that day at school when she’d been paired to work with a certain jade-eyed goth boy named Varen Nethers. Before she’d ever known a single thing about him or the ominous subject he’d chosen for their English project—the man who was Edgar Allan Poe.

But Isobel was a bad actress. When it came down to it, there was only so much “I’m okay—really” smiling she could muster when she wasn’t out on the floor cheering, when she didn’t have any choreography or chants to prop up the new cardboard-cutout version of herself. Without a distraction that took all her mind and body, it was just too hard to pretend that she wasn’t empty on the inside. Or that she didn’t know far more about what had happened on Halloween than what she had told her parents.

The events of that night came back to her in flashes. The Grim Facade. The dreamworld masquerade. The falling ash and the woodlands. The sky ripped into shreds by bleeding strips of violet. And his eyes. Always those eyes. Again and again she saw the blackness overtake them. She watched it spiral out, consuming her reflection, leaving behind a stranger.

“You think Mom will like the locket?”

“What?” Isobel blinked. “Yeah,” she said, recovering quickly, realizing that he must have meant the gift he’d picked up that afternoon, the one the store clerk had had to retrieve from the special-orders case. “Of course she will.”

The sedan slowed as it neared the stop sign just before their street. Isobel raised her thumb to her lips and bit down on her nail. “Hey, Dad,” she said, speaking around her thumbnail, “have you thought any more about, you know, us going up to take a look at U of M?”

Instead of rolling through the stop sign the way he usually did, the car gave a sudden slight jerk as he pressed the brake. At the same moment, Isobel saw his lips flatten into a thin, tight line.

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