Part 1

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Tom stood perfectly still as the cool evening wind rustled his shirt and raised tiny bumps on his bare arms. He counted deep, methodical breaths from one to ten, over and over, until he was satisfied his heart rate was lowered acceptably. A faint stirring of electricity in his fingertips informed him that he had probably been breathing a bit too deeply, but that would pass.

Beyond an intimidating set of black iron bars stood an austere Victorian cottage, its grayish paint peeling to reveal dry, crumbling wood. A wooden fence extended from the gate and ran along both sides of the property. Every rotting post was laden with a chaotic tangle of vines and ivy. An ancient live oak sprawled its gnarled limbs overhead, threatening to collapse onto the heads of unwary intruders.

It was time. Tom could no longer convince himself that this pause at the threshold was just to avoid being out of breath when Madam Aaron answered the door. The simple fact was that he was afraid of the old woman. Or at least, he decided, of the situation.

He'd never been to a tutor before, and he was confident he could get through seventh-grade geometry well enough on his own, but his mother had insisted he take Madam Aaron up on her generous offer. Free instruction from such a distinguished personage was an honor that could not be refused.

Tom gathered his courage. He gave the gate a cautious push, and with a long, distressing creak, it swung open.

In response, a number of black birds sprang from their various hiding places and scattered in all directions across the twilit sky. Tom gazed up at the noisy creatures—crows or ravens, he guessed—trying to remember what such a group might be called. Not a "flock," he'd learned in school, something more ominous. A meanness? A conspiracy?

Murder. The word tore into the boy's mind, freezing him with terror. Still staring at the sky, stricken with a paralyzing dread, he felt a hot breath touch his exposed neck. His heart raced, providing a jolt of adrenaline just powerful enough to restore mobility.

He lowered his gaze to find an icy pair of eyes floating in the darkness, mere inches from his face. Two rings of blue in a field of black. Inside his head, Tom began to scream. He imagined falling backward, scrambling to his feet, and sprinting all the way home. But in reality, he couldn't be the first to break this silent stare. The eyes had him.

"Don't mind the hound, son. She's not half so mean as she looks." It was Madam Aaron, calling from her front porch. Before Tom's eyes, the blackness took shape and became nothing more than a dog—albeit a very large dog.

"Her name's Ella," she continued, ambling casually toward them. "She's part Newfie and part husky... and all sissy. See the cornfield back there?" She gestured behind the house. "Ol' Ella won't go near it. I don't even need a fence back there to keep her in. The corn does just fine."

Tom gulped and found his voice: "Miss... Dr. Aaron!"

"Madam Aaron will do," laughed the old scholar. "I'm no doctor."

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