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Discussion Starter #21
Break My Chains

A man purchases a mostly vacant plot of land and demolishes its only structure so he can build a house. But he doesn’t know anything about the land’s history. His actions may have unleashed something old. Something evil.

When I bought the land, the only structure on it was this tiny stone shed. It was lashed to the ground by crooked saplings and overwhelmed by weeds. There were no windows, just a single square door all boarded up.

My plan was to knock the thing down so I could use the space for a proper house, but first I wanted to look inside. The boards were rotten, so they came off easily, but beneath them, the door was secured by several chains and a heavy padlock.

I was never given a key, so I had no choice but to force my way through. I banged on the lock with an ax until the rusted metal gave way. During the endeavor, my hand slipped and scraped against the rough wood of the door. I came away with an evil-looking splinter, and the door got a fresh coat of red “paint”.

The interior of the shed couldn’t have been more than six feet square. It was just an empty chamber, save for a single object in the center of the stone floor. A chair. Although, to call it simply a chair would do it an injustice. I’d never seen a piece of furniture so ornate. Sealing it up in the shed had protected it from the worst ravages of time; the pale gold finish was only slightly flaked, the crimson velvet cushions only slightly frayed. Its grandeur more than made up for these minor defects.

I was so caught up in the beauty of the thing that I didn’t notice the chains at first. One wrapped around the back; two wound themselves around the armrests; two more bound the legs. Like the ones on the door, these were secured by several padlocks, although these didn’t seem to accomplish much. I was able to slide the chains off without any trouble.
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Discussion Starter #23
Toes

A boy is stuck in bed with a fever. But as he lies in the dim bedroom, he begins to wonder whether or not he really is the bed’s only occupant:

Do you know that feeling when you’re lying in bed, with the covers pulled up and your legs stretched out, and your feet seem impossibly far away from the rest of your body? It’s a very vulnerable sensation. That’s why I always sleep curled up like a fetus.

It happened when my family moved to a new apartment. I was eleven years old. It was a garden-level unit, half-buried in the damp soil of upstate New York. As we marched down the short flight of stairs for the first time, our arms laden with boxes, my dad joked that it was like we were moving into a grave. He often did that, made little jokes to tease me and my mom. They were always friendly, and they never bothered me—not at the time, anyway.

I remember lying in bed that first night, trying to get used to the different shadows. Our last apartment had been several floors up; we didn’t get tree branches throwing their twisted silhouettes across the walls at night, like we did in this new place. It was very disorienting, but I wasn’t afraid. Not yet.
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Discussion Starter #24
Lullaby of the Night

A night guard muses about his solitary job, relishes the beauty of nocturnal sounds, and tries to keep some kids from trespassing.

I’ve worked here so long, I can’t even remember why I took the job anymore. But nights like this, I imagine it must have been the music.

I came from the city, that much I remember.

The city. Noisy. Not like here. In this stone shed, there are only the cries of coyotes, owls, and their prey. The breath of the stars stirring the trees. Kids try to get in only once in a great while, but aside from that it’s…peaceful. A guy could fall asleep just listening to the crickets.

But I can’t sleep. It’s time to stretch and make the rounds. I don’t have a flashlight—a working one, at any rate. There’s a broken one lying in the corner of the shed, its lens cracked, but I don’t need it. It’s a clear night. Moon is full. And the stars…the stars, the stars!

I pause just outside the guard shack, head thrown back in the breeze. The stars spin above, framed between weighted branches. Nothing like the city. No stars in the city. Here, stars forever, constellations I never thought existed, stretching back as far as I can see, farther even, and some seem to reach down through the leaves—

Let’s not get carried away. I’ve a job to do.
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Discussion Starter #25
Come Home

A reclusive man is torn between his desire for a new life and the ghosts of his past. As the anniversary of his tragedy approaches, he is forced to choose between life and death.

It’s the last thing I see before falling asleep. That wisp of shadow cast upon my bedroom wall. I always wonder what’s doing the casting. It can’t be the ceiling fan, it’s the wrong shape for that—but next thing I know my alarm’s ringing and the night is over.

I instinctively glance at my phone on the way to the bathroom—not the master bath connected to my room, the smaller one down the hall—and see one unread message waiting for me. I pause just long enough to delete it.

I rush through the shower, not bothering to wait for the water to heat up. I stare at the suds running between my feet before they pile up at the drain like the worst car accident you ever saw. On the other side of the shower curtain, the bathroom light buzzes. I think it’s because the bulb needs changing, but I won’t do that until it burns out completely. I kind of like the noise. Fills the space between my ears, keeps my head from collapsing on itself—

A deeper, louder buzz punctuates the morning, reaching my ears even over the rush of cold water. The phone I left in the bedroom, vibrating against my nightstand. I clench my fists, my fingernails stamping little crescents into my palms. One of these days I’m going to draw blood. Still haven’t figured out how I’d explain the scars.

From the shower, it’s downstairs for a quick breakfast. I trot down the steps, tightening my tie as I go, making it too tight because for some reason I find the sensation comforting, then slow to a halt on the bottom landing.

It’s bad this morning. After a moment of steadying myself on the banister, I take that first, dreadful step.
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Discussion Starter #26
Oblivion's Call

Oblivion’s Call is a strange band of musicians. Your first three concerts are free, but after that they demand a grisly toll.

Roy’s hand dripped over the chalice. Crimson drops made black in the dimness, echoing as they mingled with the blood of everyone else who had preceded us.

“What the—” I began, grabbing for Roy’s arm to pull him back, but he shoved me away.

“I don’t even feel it anymore. Besides, it’s a small price to pay for what you’re about to experience.”

The black glove that squeezed Roy’s wrist finally let go and withdrew behind the ebony curtain of the ticket booth. Roy produced a cloth bandage from his pocket and expertly tied it around his hand.

“Dude,” I said, “if that’s the price for admission, I don’t want anything to do with these guys.”

Roy threw his arm around me and ushered me through the doors of the auditorium. “Don’t say that until you’ve at least heard them once. Trust me, it’ll change your mind about everything.”

I’d already seen enough. That lightless ticket booth, those velvet-gloved hands reaching from behind the curtain, the knife. When Roy had first told me about Oblivion’s Call, I was barely interested. I only gave in when Roy assured me that the first three concerts were free, that I had nothing to lose.

But after the ticket booth, I was done. Free or not, this was too messed up. I tried to break away from Roy, but he caught me and steered me to our seats.

“This is the only one,” I said. “I don’t care how good their music is.”

Roy smiled as he settled into his seat. “We’ll see about that.”

The stage was hidden behind a heavy black curtain. I couldn’t look at it without imagining those hands reaching out. I closed my eyes and shook my head.

Roy nudged me. “It’s starting.”

Reluctantly, I looked up. The curtain swayed, parted—

All the lights went out.

The darkness was absolute. My heart thudded. I held my breath. Waiting. The silence grew and grew. I looked around, but couldn’t even find an exit sign. It was like someone had tied a black sack around my head.

I waited longer. The growing silence felt like a balloon, inflated to the point of bursting. I tensed in my seat, expecting something loud, something painful. I almost imagined I could see the darkness swelling out from the invisible stage toward me.

I nudged Roy. “Is something supposed to be happening?”

He didn’t answer me. I couldn’t tell if he was ignoring me or just oblivious.

I threw myself back in my seat, crossed my arms, and waited for the lights to come back on. A blood toll for two hours of silence? Was this some kind of joke? A black-market blood drive? I thought about just getting up and leaving, but I’d never be able to escape the theater in this darkness.

And then a shape twisted through the darkness in front of me.
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Discussion Starter #27
Memoria Aeterna

A farmer wakes up to find strange forces at work in his home. Is it the result of a winter storm, or something more sinister?

The storm of the morning of December twenty-sixth was predicted by no meteorologist. We had no time to prepare.

In the still-dark hours, I woke to the ghostly light of moon and stars reflected off snow. The radio, left on overnight to serenade us with lingering Christmas carols, now played only static. It was frigid in the house. Outside, nearly a foot of snow had fallen.

I ventured out to the barn to check on the cows. My boots crunched through the thin layer of ice that kept the powder beneath from stirring—although it seemed the storm’s fury had long passed, and not a breath stirred the air. The barn doors cracked and groaned as I opened them. Snowdrifts blocked the way, and the wood was frosted over. By the time I forced my way inside, the cold had infiltrated my heavy clothing and begun stinging my skin.

The barn was empty. No cows. Not even the frozen corpses I’d feared to discover.

I left the barn and gazed out across the blank distance. Virgin snow glowed, save for the dark, wavering trail of my footprints. Nothing else marred the expanse. Not a trace of hoof or boot aside from my own.

They must have fled before the storm. Sensed it coming and broken out of their stalls, and the snow covered their trail. It was the only explanation I could think of. How would I find them? I couldn’t search on foot, and although my truck could probably handle the roads, I doubted it would get me far in the fields. The cows wouldn’t have stayed in the fields anyway; they’d have sought the shelter of the woods, where my truck definitely couldn’t go.

With nothing else to be done, I returned to the house. It was still dark. Not even a paling of the eastern sky to betray the rising sun. The radio still filled the house’s hollow spaces with static. I left it on, hoping the signal would eventually clear up and bring us word of how the storm had impacted the rest of the world. The others were still asleep.

The lights didn’t work. I tried the kitchen first, then the living room. Nothing. Yet the radio continued to play, its static following me from room to room like a muttering shadow. Now and then I caught hints of garbled words, spoken in a low voice, calm and level.

“…nd…shua set…welve stones in…idst of…Jordan, in the pla…”

That was impossible. The radio ran off the same circuit as the kitchen lights. Unless all the bulbs had blown during the storm…

I checked some of the other electronics. The digital clocks seemed to work—that is, their displays all flashed at me, all showing the same time, 6:33, never changing no matter how long I watched them.

The radio and the clocks. Nothing else seemed to have power.

Not even the electric stove. This alarmed me at first, then I realized I wasn’t hungry. When the time came, we could light the fireplace and cook over open flame. The refrigerator was dead, but we could move all the perishables outside to keep them cold.

Phones were out too, both the land line and cell. There was no way of reaching the outside world except going out into it ourselves.

The plows hadn’t hit our road yet, but as I’d noted earlier, my truck could probably make it through. I had to try. Announcing my departure in case any of the others could hear me, I set out once more through the cold to my vehicle.

The engine didn’t respond when I turned the key. The dashboard didn’t even light up, so the battery was dead as well. The thought of diagnosing and fixing the problem in the bitter cold was unappealing to say the least, so I sat behind the steering wheel and debated my next course of action. Beyond the windshield stretched an endless white field. I could see my trail between the house and the barn, and my more recent trail from the house to the truck. But aside from that: purity. So smooth it seemed like polished marble. So bright it blurred my vision. I averted my gaze upward, toward the black sky, and my breath caught.
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Discussion Starter #28
From Somewhere Deep

Two brothers explore the woods behind their house one summer night. They find something strange…and perhaps deadly.

I have a lot of fond memories from my teenage years. This is not one of them.

I’d just finished my sophomore year of high school. To celebrate the start of our summer freedom, my younger brother and I spent the evening around a bonfire in the backyard, burning old homework assignments and roasting marshmallows over their ashes. I don’t recall which of us suggested abandoning the fire and hiking through the woods behind our property. It was a stupid idea, and if it was mine then I’d like to apologize to my brother now. If you can read this, Dan, I’m sorry.

We’d been back there plenty of times during the day. The forest floor stretched more or less level for several yards before suddenly plunging into a broad gully. A stony brook trickled along the bottom. As far as we knew, that brook had no name, and we couldn’t identify its source or its destination. It was simply The Brook. On warm summer nights we could hear frogs singing along its banks, and after a heavy rain we could hear its swollen current rushing through the gully.

But tonight it was quiet. There’d been no rain for a couple weeks, so any remaining water was stagnant. Even the frogs were still, although now and then we heard a lonely thunk or peep. We were cautious. Our post-school, s’more-fueled euphoria hadn’t completely clouded our judgment; we knew not to stray too deeply into the woods, to walk parallel to the tree line so as not to risk tumbling into the gully. But if you’ve never been in a forest at night, you have no idea how dark it is, how easy it is to get disoriented. It’s nothing like the movies; there’s no luminous blue fog to light your way. It can be pitch black even with a full moon overhead, and we didn’t have even that small luxury. After maybe fifteen minutes of laughing at our own daring, then laughing at the way our laughter echoed back at us off the trees, we found ourselves sliding down the steep bank toward the brook.

If that had been the worst of our misfortunes, this would’ve been one of those fond memories I mentioned earlier. Neither of us were hurt, and we weren’t afraid of getting lost. The gully was a constant landmark; all we had to do was march back up the hill and we’d be home in a matter of minutes. And now that we were at the bottom, the greatest danger was already past. So rather than take our tumble as a warning, we laughed it off and took it as an excuse to keep exploring.

As I mentioned before, this wasn’t our first time exploring the gully, just our first time after dark. We knew that gully and that little brook. We knew all the notable trees and oddities in the landscape. We’d practically grown up in those woods. So when we saw the light glowing out of the hillside ahead of us, we were surprised to say the least.

Dan and I both stopped. The light was dim, an orange shimmer in the darkness, like firelight cast from an unseen source.

“What do you think it is?” asked Dan.
Read the rest here: https://www.thenoctrium.com/library/from-somewhere-deep/
 

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Discussion Starter #29
Morning Bells Are Ringing

This happened back when my son, Zach, was less than a year old. As you can imagine, we had a lot of baby toys scattered around the house. Many of them were electronic, including a plastic book that played songs as you turned the pages.

I awoke one morning to the robotic refrain of “Are you sleeping, are you sleeping?” I assumed Zach was awake and playing in the living room. Then I opened my eyes and saw the green glow of my alarm clock. Not morning. Not even close.

Well, that didn’t mean Zach wasn’t awake. He’d probably woken up hungry, and my wife had handed him that song book to play with while she fetched his bottle. I rolled over, fully expecting to find the bed empty. Instead I saw the dark form of my wife beneath the blankets, rising and falling with each breath.

Perhaps Zach had somehow escaped his crib—but that was unlikely. What else? Dying batteries?

There was only one way to resolve this mystery. Feeling quite alert now, I sat up and took a moment to orient myself within the house. My wife and I were accounted for. The next logical step was to check on Zach.

I rose from the bed and crept to the nursery door. I turned the handle, pushing just enough to crack the door open and peer inside without disturbing the baby.

In my narrow view I could see shadows accentuated by a cold glow from the night light. The black bars of Zach’s crib, the pale rectangle of the mattress behind them, and a small bundle sleeping peacefully.

I withdrew, not only because Zach was now accounted for, but because the song, as it repeated itself—“Morning bells are ringing, morning bells are ringing”—was coming from the living room at the other end of the hall.

I turned and made my way slowly in that direction, wondering at the fact of the song’s repetition. That’s not how the toy worked. It played its song once and was done, unless you turned a page, in which case it would start a new song.

As I approached the door to the living room, the song ended. There was a rising chime—the signal that a page had been turned—and once again, “Are you sleeping, are you sleeping?”

The moment I stepped into the living room, the song stopped. Mid-phrase: “Brother John, brother—”

The abrupt silence startled me into stillness. My senses prickled as I stared into the dark living room, waiting for some clue. Then I felt along the wall for the light switch and turned on the lamp.
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Discussion Starter #30
Photographs in Darkness

Happy Halloween!

A young man finds himself in a what appears to be an abandoned apartment building, but is he really along in there?

I braked at the stoplight and rested my forehead against the steering wheel. What could I do? The three appointments I’d scheduled had been fruitless. My two impromptu tours likewise. This city was just too expensive, even for the—I’d thought at the time—generous salary from my new job.

But that salary was contingent on my relocation, and it was looking more and more like I wouldn’t be able to relocate.

The light turned green. Just before I pulled away from the intersection, I saw the flyer. It was taped to the stoplight pole and caught my eye because of four words: APARTMENTS FOR RENT CHEAP.

I slowed down to note the address, earning an impatient honk from the car behind me. I had time for one more tour. One more chance. Hopefully, “cheap” meant the same thing to the flyer’s owner as it did to my overstretched budget. If not…I shuddered at the thought of returning to my parents’ basement.

My hopes both rose and fell as I neared the address. Rose because even in this overpriced city, a bed in this part of town had to come cheap. Fell because it was, well, that part of town. Shining glass gave way to dark, jagged holes. Traffic disappeared. Stoplights swayed from their wires, lifeless. There were no trees showing off autumn colors, but there were enough discarded newspapers whispering through the streets like leaves that it felt like I was driving down a country road in a black and white photo.

By the time I parked in front of the address, my conflicted hopes had died. This building was abandoned. Dimming sunlight—what little made it this deep into the urban labyrinth—showed me a door fused to its casing by a smear of graffiti. Windows caked with dirt and soot. Rusted fire escapes that ended several stories too soon.

That was it, then. My last hope, a dead end. I shifted into reverse.

A gray form moved behind the spray paint and grime of one of the windows. A moment later, the graffitied door cracked open, and a slight, hunched form slipped out. It stopped when it saw my car, stared directly at me, and I almost didn’t hit the brakes. No, I didn’t want to share a building with that thing!
Read the rest here: https://www.thenoctrium.com/library/photographs-in-darkness/
 

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Discussion Starter #31
Night Communion

Two business partners get lost in a blizzard and take shelter in what appears to be an empty church building. Here’s a teaser:

It was some time past eleven, as far as he could guess, and Jacob was regretting the decision to ride through the night. Beside him, Phillip rode with his head bent against the wind, his dark riding cloak plastered with snow.

They’d both agreed to this plan, hoping to reunite with their families all the sooner. Jacob and Phillip were business partners, and the engagement from which they were returning had been a miserable one; all parties had left feeling either disappointed or cheated. Jacob and Phillip were encouraged only by the thought of their own comfortable beds, and any measure that returned them swifter to that reward seemed a good one.

But that had been in the early moments of dusk, before the sky had grown black with storm clouds. Now, as ice pelted his face and his horse staggered through snowdrifts, Jacob wished they’d rented a room in the last town. It would have been worth delaying their homecoming by a few hours to avoid this blizzard.

The men’s spirits were low enough thanks to their stinging faces and numb fingers, but what really had them depressed was that, some time ago, it had become apparent that they were lost. Their road had been buried beneath the rising snow, and the horses must have veered off at some point. It was Phillip who first noted the unfamiliar surroundings. They had sought to regain their way, but only succeeded in becoming more lost. They passed through strange woods and vast fields, none of which they recognized. But what alternative had they? They couldn’t very well stop and camp for the night; they and their horses would be frozen by morning. So they rode. Jacob could barely see his horse’s head in front of him, but still they rode.

Jacob firmly believed that things couldn’t be worse. The thought had barely escaped his mind when he heard a CRACK. His horse lurched and Jacob leapt from the saddle as the animal toppled over. Phillip was doing the same, scrambling away from his steed as it kicked and screamed amidst a churning chaos of broken ice and black water. The men watched helplessly as their horses vanished beneath the surface of a hidden pond.

When the last echoes of the animals’ cries had been swallowed by the water, Jacob asked, “What now?” His question was nearly lost beneath the roar of the snowstorm.
Read the rest here: https://www.thenoctrium.com/library/night-communion/
 

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Discussion Starter #32
The Bus

A high school student investigates a local tragedy and has a brush with a supernatural horror.

The town I grew up in could boast exactly one remarkable event. The accident of 2004. It resulted in the indefinite closure of Stover Road and a stricter screening process for new bus drivers.

No one ever lived on Stover Road, but it was a key stretch of pavement, linking our small town with the even smaller village of Buckhill. After the 2004 tragedy, I learned that the road’s construction had caused a bit of a fuss with some of the older folks in the region. The few who were still alive in 2004 wasted no time in shouting “we told you so” loudly enough to convince the authorities. The resulting closure meant kids from Buckhill had to suffer a doubled commute time to and from school.

I never had to ride the bus. My mom was a bus driver, so I’d just go to school with her in the dark hours of the morning and wait at the bus garage until the main building opened up. My mom didn’t drive the Buckhill route, fortunately, but the accident still rattled her. It rattled a lot of people. I can only imagine what it was like in Buckhill. All those kids, just gone like that.

Because my mom was a bus driver, I knew a few things about school buses. Things that came up frequently in the aftermath of the accident. For instance, federal law requires the body of a bus be strong enough to support one and a half times the bus’ weight, the idea being that it’ll hold up in the case of a rollover or collision, preventing the kids inside from getting crushed.

Investigators determined that the bus hadn’t been properly inspected. The closure of Stover Road spoke to how much faith our town put in the investigators’ opinions. Afterall, the bus hadn’t rolled over, and there were no other vehicles it could have collided with. And no lack of inspection could explain what had happened to the missing rear half.

They set up orange and white barricades on either end of Stover Road. The pavement crumbled, and slowly succumbed to weeds. The forest through which the road ran closed in on either side and covered everything in fallen leaves. Years later, after the shock and mourning had passed, kids would dare each other to approach the barricade, to shout across it and listen for an answer. But not even the toughest kids would set foot onto that cracked and faded blacktop, nor dare their friends to try. It was an unspoken law that not even the most irreverent among us cared to violate.

There was some argument about what to do with the bus—what was left of it, at least. Some parents wanted it destroyed, others wanted it preserved as a memorial. It sat behind the bus garage, at the very edge of school property, waiting to learn its fate. The debate went on for weeks, then gradually simmered away without any decision. And so the bus stayed there. The grass grew tall front of it, and the woods, which formed the back edge of the school grounds, reached out to claim it. Between the road and the bus, it was like nature was slowly erasing the tragedy from our history.

But you can’t erase something like that. Not completely.
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Discussion Starter #33
Safe and Dry

A group of men goes looking for their missing friend. The search brings them to an abandoned house in the middle of the woods. They soon find that there’s more to the house than meets the eye, and it’s definitely not abandoned.

Tommy Nier wakes thinking it’s still the middle of the night. If he’d look at the clock above his dresser across the room, he’d know it was 6:59 a.m., but it’s been raining all night and the stormclouds have yet to disperse. The sky outside his window is charcoal and the voice coming under his bedroom door sets his tiny heart pounding. Tommy can’t make out words. It’s just a stream of high-pitched, questioning tones, broken now and then by a listening silence, muffled by doors and carpet and walls until it’s like the house itself is sobbing.

Tommy climbs out of bed at 7:00 and creeps to the door. He pulls it open and steps out into the dark hallway. He sees his mother’s bedroom is open. Her voice, coming from somewhere else in the house, is clearer now, though Tommy still can’t understand what she’s saying. He starts his way down the hall, glancing into his mother’s empty room as he passes.

Her curtains are drawn, blocking even the dim, rainy light from the charcoal clouds, but the green of her alarm clock picks out highlights. The jagged outline of crumpled cloth. The pale crescent of a domed forehead.

Tommy scurries away with a gasp and comes to the stairs. Looking down, he can finally catch hints of language: “…sick joke…who’s she?…I’m not…”

The steps creak under Tommy’s weight, and the voice downstairs cuts off sharply. There’s a moment of breathless silence, then rapid footsteps. Nancy Nier appears on the landing below. Mother and son stare at each other in the dark; Nancy’s eyes sit in red sockets. “Go back to bed, Tommy,” she says.

“Who’s on the phone?” Tommy asks, eyeing the device in his mother’s hand.

“Go back to bed,” Nancy repeats. She vanishes toward the kitchen.

Tommy hovers over the stairwell for a minute, listening as the conversation downstairs resumes. He shivers, then turns back toward his bedroom at the far end of the hall. He’s halfway there when he freezes. His heart thuds to an absolute stop inside his chest. He feels like every drop of fluid in his body has chilled and drained into the soles of his feet.

Something lays across the floor, protruding from the darkness of his mother’s room. A white shape made gray by the darkness. A small arm that tapers quickly to a tiny hand with five baby fingers.

Tommy sways on the carpet for a second, feeling himself meld with the shadows around him. All the while his eyes remain open and glued to that still shape reaching out of his mother’s bedroom. When he finally draws breath, he screams.
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