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Darkness surrounded me. It swallowed me whole, enveloping me in a blanket of bliss as I curled into myself on the hard cement beneath me.

My stomach twisted and churned, the agony of having no food in my belly making it hard to concentrate on anything but the hunger ripping through me. I could try sleeping. Maybe that would make the pain go away. But slumber was lacking no matter how long I kept my eyes closed.

Footsteps sounded above me. They became closer and closer. With each step, my heart thumped, pounding against my rib cage. My skin broke out in a cold sweat. Fear rippled down my spine like icy fingers danced along my small, frail body.

Please, God. Make her stay away. Make her forget I even exist.

But my prayers went unanswered. No one heard them. It was like as soon as I sent up my prayer, the steps only became louder and faster.

I tried moving away from the sound but the chain around my ankle prevented me from going very far.

“Come out, come out wherever you are,” she sang.

Pretending to be asleep did nothing. I would only get whipped awake. So instead, I brought my knees up to my chest, curled my arms around them, and waited for whatever punishment I would get.

“You’ve been a bad boy, haven’t you, Zachary?” Her voice was louder as she stood on the other side of the closed door. The locks released, revealing the person who invaded my nightmares.

“Aww, my little toy. Why are you so scared? I’m only doing this to make you stronger. You know that.”

A whimper escaped me, even though I didn’t want it to. I couldn’t control it. This woman terrified me.

“I have some food for you, but I need something first.” Her bright blue eyes flicked to mine. “You want food, don’t you?”

I nodded. I would give anything for even a piece of moldy bread.

“I’ll unchain you and you can come with me. Same thing as last week. Understand?”

“Please,” I croaked through my parched, cracked lips. “Not again.”

“I know you’ll do anything for this food. Can you smell it?” She smirked. “So good. I made it myself.”

I swallowed hard, knowing the food was laced with something. I may have been just a boy, but I knew when food tasted funny. But at that point, I didn’t care. She could kill me. As long as I had a full belly, I would die happy.

My stepmother came farther into the small room and unlocked the chain from around my ankle. “Come with me, Toy, and I’ll give you your food after you give me what I need.”

I spent the next couple of hours doing everything she asked of me, just so I could have a slice of moldy cheese on stale bread. She had promised me a full meal but lied. That sandwich gave me the strength to survive through another night of hell. I didn’t know how long it would be until I got my next one, so I savored it.

I savored every damn crumb.

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