The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Supposedly

 

redlockers

The school had a story about a gift.

It was a square box, bigger than a candy box, wrapped in old brown paper—very old, greasy from thousands of fingers over the years. Two pink chrysthanthemums had once upon a time been pinned to the top, but long ago they had withered to the color of dried blood.

Every year, on Valentine’s Day, the gift would appear in a different student’s locker. Supposedly, at least. That’s how the story went.

And then that student had a choice.

He or she could leave the gift untouched and, at the end of the day, close the locker, spin the lock, and go home. In that case, the next day, the gift would be gone.

Or he or she could open the gift.

And in that case, the student would never be seen again.

Supposedly. That was the story about the gift. Some people said the whole thing was just a ghost story or something. Some people said it was a prank the older kids kept alive, or even one of the assistant principals? Everyone had a theory.

But supposedly, every year, some kid did actually get the gift. Every year, some kid would swear he’d found the gift in the locker under his sweatshirt—or some girl would say it was right on top of her biology book. And sometimes they’d even have friends back them up.

“But I didn’t open it,” they’d always say. “I mean it’s just a story, but why take a chance.”

Supposedly, the last time someone opened the gift was back in the 80s. One guy said his mother was actually at the school then, and knew the kid who supposedly opened it. And the kid really did disappear that Valentine’s Day, and was never heard from again, according to this guy, according to this mother.

Which is a lot of accordings.

Annie thought the story was probably bogus. It seemed like the kind of bogus thing they told the younger students to keep them in line, so they could laugh at you later.

One thing about Annie: she was as easy to scare as anyone, but she was a lot harder to intimidate.

And so on Valentine’s Day, when she opened her locker and saw a square box in a plain brown wrapper, with dead flowers pinned on top, at first she froze.

Then, inside the freeze, she started thinking.

Not that she really thought she’d disappear, or whatever. But on the other hand, what could be inside this box that would be nice? Whoever was playing this dumb joke wasn’t going to fill the box with iPhones or scarves or Playstation gift cards or anything a person would actually want. Best case, something would come sproinging out at her, if she opened it. Or it would be someone’s long decayed ham-sandwich, moldy and turning to soup—ugh, her stomach turned just thinking about it.

Annie started to close the locker, but a beefy hand held it open. She turned around.

“You got the gift,” Tim Bettner said. His mouth was slightly open. “Oh my god. Oh my god, you got it.”

Tim Bettner played on the football team, because he was huge, not because he was athletic. He was kind of a jerk and used to bully Annie in grade school. She lifted her chin.

“Did you put this in my locker?”

“Oh my god, you got the gift,” he said again. He wasn’t exactly the smartest person in class, either. His wet upper lip curled in an unpleasant smile. “You’re scared to open it.”

“No—“ Annie began.

“You’re so scared. Scared like a girl,” said Tim. He raised his voice. “She’s scared!” he called. The few remaining students in the hall glanced at them.

“I’m late to class,” said Annie.

“Late to scaredy-cat class?” asked Tim. His idea of a hilarious burn.

“Back off,” said Annie. She slammed her locker shut and walked away.

“Are ya gonna open it?” Tim called after her.

“I haven’t decided,” she said.

She strode down the hall toward math class, picking up speed to beat the bell. Just as she reached the door, she heard a voice, half-whisper, half-croon, from the far end of the hall, near her locker.

“Aannnniiieee,” called the voice, soft as a lullabye. “I’ve got a presseeeent for you.”

Her skin crawled. She shook it off. Tim, that stupid jerk.

Halfway through math, finishing up a pop quiz she hadn’t studied for, Annie had forgotten about the gift. She had just, with some reluctance, left the quiz on the teacher’s desk when she heard a voice outside the classroom door.

“Aannnniiieee,” said the voice, low and sing-song. “I’ve got a presseeeent for you.”

Annie felt her hands go cold and her lips go dry. She looked at the class, then the teacher, but they all had their heads buried in their work, except for two girls whispering near the back of the room. Annie walked over to them.

“Did you hear that?” she asked.

“Uh?” said the short one.

“Never mind.”

Sitting at her desk, waiting for her heart to calm, Annie thought to herself: I’ll show him, I’ll show him, He can’t scare me.

She stormed through volleyball, getting a shout of approval from the surprised coach. She steamed through American history. She had the last lunch period, and was always starved by the time it came around, but this day she stood in the cafeteria doorway, scanning the room for Tim.

“Aannnniiieee.”

The voice, the sweet, cajoling voice again, and now it was coming from behind her.

“I’ve got a presseeeent for you.”

Jaw set, Annie turned on her heel and walked back down the hall to her locker.

 

Five minutes later, Annie’s best friend Makayla, headed for lunch herself, saw Annie, facing her locker, working at something in her hands. “What’s up?” she asked. “Sit by me at lunch, I have GOT to tell you about—“

“Give me a second,” said Annie. “I’ve gotta do this so I can shove it in Tim Bettner’s stupid FACE.”

“Oh my god that’s what I was going to tell you!” said Makayla. “Tim Bettner’s not even here, he got sent home during first period science, he cracked his head on the corner of a cabinet, oh my god the blood, and he was crying like a—“

Annie’s busy, furious fingers were tearing at the package. “Wait a minute, what?” She turned back to Makayla. “But if Tim’s not here, then who—“ her fingers stopped.

But her fingers stopped too late. The box was open.

 

Later, over and over, to all the questions from laughing, shivering friends, then annoyed teachers, then anxious principal, then frantic parents, then police—all Makayla could say was that when Annie turned around, she had a box in her hands. Yes, she was sure it was a box, a box covered in torn brown paper, and yes it was open.

And then she was gone.

Yes, she knew what that box supposedly meant. No, she wasn’t playing games. Yes, she would like a kleenex. Okay, she’d start again.

 

Annie found herself in a vast, dim, empty place. It was cold. Across from her sat a small, pasty creature with tiny red eyes and a black hole for a mouth. The creature might once have been human.

“Who are you?” said Annie softly.

“I am the gift,” said the creature. His voice was like the creaking of a gate in the distance. Now his hole-mouth twisted into a terrifying parody of a sweet, relieved smile. “I was the gift,” he corrected himself. “But now you are.” His expression twisted into something like sadness. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I’m more sorry than I can say,”

“Why are you sorry?” asked Annie. “Am I dead?”

“Oh no, oh my gosh no, that would be so much better,” said the small, pale thing. “You’re the gift. You have one chance a year. One chance to make someone else the gift. Supposedly,” he said. “I mean that’s what I heard.”

Annie looked at him in disbelief. “Are you —you’re the last kid who opened the gift?”

The thing nodded.

“But you don’t look like . . . and anyway how could you . . “ Her lip curled up in disgust.

“Oh, I know what you’re thinking,” the creature said in his flat, tiny voice. “You’re thinking, How cruel, how could you be so cruel, to make someone else live this horrible fate.” He creaked in a broken-bird way that might have been a laugh. “That’s what I thought, too. You’ll see. You’ll see. Anyway,” he added. “You’ll have a long, long time to think about it. After what happened to you, it will be many, many years before anyone is brave enough, or forgetful enough, to open the package again. Thank you for being so brave.”

“But wait, though—“ Annie began.

A few drops of brownish fluid leaked from the creature’s tiny red eyes. “Goodbye,” he said, and crumbled into dust.

 

Annie sits alone in the vast darkness.

“I am the gift,” she practices saying. “I have a present for you.”

She practices making it sound nice.

She would have a long, long time to practice.

The Nightmare Window

You’ve noticed my absence here—I know you have. True, I’ve received only two letters of inquiry: one disguised as a life insurance flyer, the other a blank sheet wrapped carefully around a dead cricket.

But I know what that insurance flyer and insect-corpse were trying to say, and I know they spoke for millions of souls impatient for Cabinet news: to put it simply, you missed me.

window hanging among dark trees at nightWhat kept me so busy? Oh, just saving your lives, or at least your sanity.

That’s right, you heard me. You’re welcome. And the story can now be told.

Those of you who on occasion walk, or hasten, past the Cabinet of Curiosities itself, that strange, many-turreted tower (by the way, I don’t know which of you scrawled “CREEPY OLD WITCH” on the sidewalk outside my window? but it brought a smile and a blush to this old face, as I know you intended)—anyway, those of you who pass by our quarters know that six months ago, a window appeared among the trees.

Just a four-paned window, in a wooden frame painted a dingy, peeling white, hanging seemingly from the sky itself.

I collected this window several years ago at an estate sale with a tragic history, my favorite kind. It seems a young couple had hung the window from their trees as a sort of whimsical art statement, I suppose. Artists baffle me; they don’t seem to realize that they are playing with fire.

In this case, within about a year, the fire they toyed with burnt them, and badly. This was not a literal fire, for the house still stands. But the fate met by the couple inside was so terrible, so unspeakable, that even years later their once-lovely house bears a tattered FOR SALE sign.

I doubt that house will ever sell, as long as human memory lives.

I read about the case one morning when the wind wrapped a yellowing scrap of newspaper around our iron gate. When the wind brings a story, you must always pay attention: the wind doesn’t joke.

I was profoundly troubled by what I read. Not by what happened to the young artist couple—tragic, etc., naturally, but I don’t care. I have no interest in them.

However, according to the newspaper account, when the police and ambulance workers leapt from their wailing, shrieking vehicles, one young paramedic was stopped by a grisly sight on the front porch: a butterfly with one wing torn off, spinning frantically on the ground.

“It just made me shiver all over,” the young man reportedly said. “It was like a hint of what we’d see inside.”

Well.

I am, as it happens, very fond of butterflies. So I decided to look into this case. I bought the window, brought it home, and hung it among the trees of our front yard. Some know-it-all passerby—was it you? —explained to a friend that the thing must be hung with fishing line or some such invisible thread. Ha-ha-ha, said the know-it-all: it couldn’t just be hanging from the empty air.

It could, in fact, and was. But these details need not concern you.

Once the window was hung, every night for the next month I climbed into a tree to watch it. I learned that this window has two interesting properties.

On nights when the moon is full, when that cold and waxy light spills through the panes—on those nights, and only then, a midnight watcher can see what lies behind the window.

The view is not a pleasant one. What lies behind the window are the creatures of our worst nightmares—everyone’s nightmares, the most dreadful ones, the ones you try to forget, and usually do.

You know the sort of thing. Skeletons, some still bearing ragged strips of flesh.

Shadowy black things leaving trails of oily slime wherever they go.

A crowned head, neck still bloody from the axe, eyes and mouth open wide in horror, hurtling toward you.

Crowds of ghosts, pale and gray as old photographs, human-shaped but with pieces horribly missing.

A snarling dog whose maw is a human mouth that drips blood.

A long stream of screaming, flapping night-birds.

That sort of thing, and much, much more—all that I saw behind the window on that first full moon last summer.

It gets worse. I also learned that on nights when the moon is new, a black disk in the black sky, then all those . . . creatures, let’s call them, that lie behind the window: all those nightmares crowd up to the pane to watch us.

And once in a while, at midnight during the dark of the moon, one of the creatures slips or slithers through the window-crack to have its fearful fun, until dawn, when it must return.

Do you see what I’m saying? I hope you’re keeping up. That fearful fun of a nightmare is what happened to the unhappy previous owners of this window. “This is a terrible nightmare,” at least one of them must have said, as the terrible, unspeakable things happened. Until he realized, or until she saw, that it was not a nightmare at all, but real as pudding real as a boot, real as a the scream in your own throat.

My concern grew. So for six months, at every full moon, I climbed the tree to watch through the window as creatures of blood and darkness fought and cavorted and danced on the other side.

And for six months, at every new moon, I planted my old face right in front of that window, so that they would know just who was waiting for them here, and think twice about slithering out.

And on the nights when the moon was neither full nor new, I took a single candle and ransacked our curatorial libraries for information.

I learned that when by chance the new moon happens to fall on the night of the winter solstice—the longest, darkest night of the year—then the worst of all happens. That night, the window opens, wide, wide, wide, and evert nightmare creature made hard and real comes streaming through, leaving a trail of blood and black slime on the sill.

And every house, all that long, long night—not just in my neighborhood, but everywhere in the world where one lies asleep—is visited by one or more of the nightmare crew. And when they are finished, the innocent sleepers are mad or they are dead, and I would not like to have to say which is preferable.

And, dear readers, as you perhaps know or perhaps did not, this past winter solstice occurred the same night as the new moon.

So I made certain preparations. And on December 21, as the dusk came on, I was already seated in the high branches of our lone evergreen, wool skirts gathered around my ankles. I am an elderly woman, far more elderly than any grandma you know, and I do not wear trousers. But I am an excellent tree-climber, and had at the ready a thermos of tomato soup as warm and red as human blood.

I chose the evergreen in order to disguise my presence. I have learned the hard way that when I sit astride a winter-bare branches in plain sight, I risk troublesome neighbors calling 911 to report a “crone in tree” emergency, which leads to the tedious necessity of slipping Forget-Me-Ever potions to the mental health authorities and, frankly, life is too short.

Midnight came, and I watched through the window.

I saw a nightmare-bat with long needle teeth.

I saw a man with a blood-spattered face, a bloodier axe, and a terrible grin.

I saw a furry black tarantula the size of a pony with rows of shark-teeth.

I saw a sneering doll whose fist clenched and unclenched as it laughed a high, mad laugh.

I saw a woman with long black hair whose face was smooth and featureless as an egg.

And as the distant church tower gently chimed midnight, I saw these nightmares, and many more, as they lifted the window. I felt the sickening rush of the nightmare wind sweep past me.

And what did I have to hold against them, to push them back—I, an elderly woman with an empty thermos and a wool scarf?

I had what you use against any nightmare creature: light.

At my signal, the sparklers I had tied all over our leaf-bare maple burst and fizzed with crazy light, one after the other, like wild birthday candles.

Light.

At my signal, in the huge bare oak, the flames of a thousand small white candles awoke and danced.

Light.

And the Cabinet itself, as if its eyes flew open, lit up in lines and curves and patterns of light, every window outlined in starry brightness, every turret, every gargoyle’s eye and lip, every doorway, every line of every roof, a dazzle of light.

It worked, of course. You’re here, aren’t you? The toothed and the bloody and the snarling and the mad retreated, with shrieks of fear and frustration, and the window closed again, I hope for a long, long time.

A man passing in the street, tipsy from a holiday party, remarked to his companion, “Look at this ridiculous display. Some people don’t have any better ways to spend their money. Just want the biggest light show in the neighborhood.”

He passed just under my tree, this gentleman. It was tempting, indeed.

But in the spirit of the season, I let him live.

Little Doors of Blood and Bone

The first thing Ida unlocked was the cat.

The cat’s keyhole was on its breast, a few inches under the chin. It squirmed hard when she held it, but once she thrust the old iron key inside, it went quite still.

best keyA little door made of fur and bone swung open.

What was inside? Not bone and blood and beating heart, as Ida had thought. Bone and blood were there, of course, but were not what this key revealed.

Instead, when Ida peered inside the little door, she saw a blue flame, teased and roused by a silky wind that swirled around it, smelling of smoke and sunbeam-dust. As Ida’s peering face blocked the bone-and-fur door, the wind withdrew, and the flame sank almost to nothing. Scattered around its embers were sharp, curving things—fangs, or claws, or both—and the tiny bones of birds.

Ida closed and locked the cat’s chest. It leaped away without looking back.

All this happened a good while ago, back when your grandma’s mother was a girl. Times were hard then, hard enough that a young girl worked after school in an old folks’ home, sweeping floors and serving mush to help her parents pay the rent. That was Ida. She wasn’t afraid of work, or of very much else.

In that old folk’s home was a woman named Mae, who had not said a word as long as Ida had worked there. She was thin as paper, with hollow eyes and frizzy gray hair, and she rocked back and forth in her bed, smiling to herself. After a while, Ida stopped noticing her, only set the bowl of mush on her bedside table and picked it up, usually untasted, half an hour later.

But one night, when Ida reached for the bowl, a papery brown claw snapped around her wrist. She looked up.

“I see your lock, little miss,” the old woman hissed. Her black eyes had some old fire in them. “I have the key, and you can’t hide nothing from me!”

Ida tried to pull away, but Mae’s long yellow nails dug into her wrist. In her other thin hand, she held up an old iron key.

“This . . .” Mae began. She stopped, wracked by a violent cough. “This!” she said, and her eyes glowed, looking at the key. Then, “This,” she said a third time, and now her eyes, still on the key, clouded over with fear and despair. Round, sticky tears rolled slowly down Mae’s face.

“You take it now,” she said to Ida. “I don’t,—“ she coughed. “I don’t . . . I don’t want it any more! Take it, please, take it from me now!” Her voice climbed, frantic.

Ida put the key in her pocket, more to get it out of the woman’s sight than anything else. Mae turned over in her bed, back to Ida, her bony shoulders shaking silently.

It was busy that day at the home, and Ida forgot about the key until she was walking home. Slipping a chilly hand into her apron pocket for warmth, she felt cold iron.

And with the her hand on that iron, everything looked different. At first she couldn’t tell how everything looked different, only she saw that it did. But in a second or two, she saw.

When she had her hand on the key, everything had a lock. Not just doors and mailboxes, but everything. The trees had locks, and so did each schoolbook under her arm. The postman who tipped his cap at her in friendly hello—he had a keyhole lock in the side of his face. So did the woman driving by in an automobile — her keyhole was right in the middle of her forehead.

Ida took her hand off the key. Everything looked normal again.

She put her hand back, and saw, she saw, that even every flower had a tiny lock on its stem. And ever person around her, all of them were locked up tight.

And, as Ida realized: she had the key.

As soon as she got home, she unlocked the cat. After she’d had her look, and the cat had fled, she tried unlocking a book. Books were expensive, but Ida loved to read, and over years of birthdays and Christmases she had carefully collected a whole shelf full. She brought the key to the shelf, and selected a favorite old story to unlock.

Inside, she found dead flowers, and a broken sea shell, and the faintest seagull cry. That was nice.

In another, she found an old candy wrapper, and wet tea bags, and a sigh that touched her skin with a breath as cold and moist as a ghost’s. She locked that one back up quickly.

In a third, she found a tipped-over bottle of blood-red ink, a pile of rusting iron nails, and a small gray bird with a little black cap, still and dead, one onyx-bead eye wide open and staring at her.

Ida snapped the little door shut and locked it, and didn’t unlock any more books.

Instead, she went outside to a tall, broad cottonwood tree, walking around it until she found the keyhole buried in the deep creases of its trunk. At first she thought she’d found a diamond inside—but then she saw it was sunlight shining through a single large dewdrop, even though the sun had already sunk below the horizon. All around the sun-water jewel were chanting voices, rising and falling on vowels of a language Ida did not know.

Ida listened to the lovely music for a while, until her mother called her to dinner.

At the table, over a very small chicken and very large bowl of potatoes, her father asked how her day had been. His voice was kind, but his eyes were tired and distracted. Ida could not help but notice, when he stretched out his hand for more potatoes, pulling his shirt askew, that there was a rusting keyhole in his chest.

Her mother put dinner on the table without much talk at all, and at one point put her face into her palms and squeezed them hard against her eyes.

“Honey . . . ” said her father.

Her mother interrupted him. “It’s all right, forget it,” she said.

Ida saw that her mother had a keyhole in her throat, just above her collar bone.

That night, when she heard their breaths turn to long, slow sighs, she crept into their room with a flashlight to see what she could see.

Delicately, she pulled back her father’s pajama shirt and fitted the key in. His skin gleamed under the bright moonlight. Inside him, she found a blue jay’s feather, sky-blue streaked with midnight. Beside it were the scattered seeds of a dandelion that someone’s blown to make a wish.

The third thing inside her father was a locked metal box, that you might keep files or money in. It was dented as if it had been pummeled with fists or heels, but it was still locked, and even Ida’s magic key did not work in it.

The feather and wishing-seeds and locked metal box made Ida sad, though she couldn’t say why. She locked her father back up, and moved to her mother.

Inside her mother, Ida found dead grass folded into the shape of a St Brigid’s Cross, and a violet hair ribbon tied in a tight knot, and a glass fishbowl full of murky green water, too clouded and filthy to keep any fish alive.

This made Ida sad as well, more sad than she could say, so she closed her sleeping mother back up and went back to her own bed, key still in her hand, and cried a little. She wished that terrible, crazy Mae had never given her the key. She was hugging herself and sniffling, face buried in the pillow, key still in her left hand, when with her right hand she felt something just over her left shoulder.

Something hard. Something metal.

A keyhole.

She stopped crying. She sat up, key in hand.

She thought very hard, very hard indeed. She thought of the dewdrop sparkle and chanting sun of the tree; and the little dead bird; and the thick, green, fishless water.

Ida did not turn her own lock that night, and Ida didn’t sleep.

When dawn came, she slipped out of the house in the gray light, key in her pocket. She half-ran all the way to the nursing home, jiggered the back door where the lock was loose, and slipped in. In seconds, she had crept into the room of mad old Mae.

Mae was sprawled in her bed, muttering in her sleep. Her keyhole was just below her collarbone, a little to the left. Careful and silent, Ida slipped the key in and peered inside.

Inside the old woman, the dawn lit up a dusty space as empty and hollow as the inside of a doll.

“It all came out,” Mae whispered. She had not moved, but her eyes were open, staring at the ceiling, bright and mad. “See? I opened myself up, and it all came out, and rolled and ran and flew and drained away.“ She laughed, a high, unhappy laugh. “I’m empty now. It’s all gone, it’s all gone, all gone.” She laughed her mad laugh over and over.

Mae’s roommate was awake and crying. Nurses and orderlies were calling each other in the hall to come.

Ida slipped out the window and ran.

She ran. She ran not home, but in the opposite direction, as far as she could. She ran till the sun was high, ran through the farms and pastures surrounding her little town. She ran until she came to an empty field; no cows, no crops, no wildflowers, even, nothing but dirt and scrub. She dug, then, using sticks and her own hot, sweating fingers. She dug as deep as could, pulling out rocks as she went, ignoring their keyholes. Then she put the key at the bottom of the hole, piled rocks on top of it, filled it with dirt, and walked home.

When she came in after being gone that whole long day, her mother exclaimed and shouted and hugged her and cried. Ida didn’t mind the shouting. She only hugged her mother, and said “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” over and over.

But she was not apologizing for what her mother thought she was apologizing for.

So years passed, and more years passed. Ida grew up, then Ida grew old, then Ida died.

Meanwhile, the rocks of the earth didn’t want the key. They pushed it slowly up and up, back near the surface of the earth.

And meanwhile, a builder bought the scrubby field and covered it with brand-new houses. During the building, many a tractor and backhoe only barely missed digging up that old iron key. Soon the scrubby field had become a new neighborhood. Years passed, and it became a somewhat older neighborhood.

It became your neighborhood, in fact.

And in the backyard of a house in that neighborhood, the key still lays there, just under the surface of the ground—buried so shallow, a dog could dig it up.

It’s buried in your backyard, in fact.

That’s why I’m telling you this story today. Just in case you find that key.

I’m not going to tell you what to do with it, if you find it–if your dog digs it up, or you dig it up, or the earth casts it up at your feet.

I just thought you ought to know.

The Other Side of the Door

Summer camp, and me and Matías are walking down to the lake for kayaks, which we don’t like that much. Everyone else is already down there. So when we come to that fork in the path, where you go to the right to get to the lake, we didn’t exactly decide or talk about it, but we just took the left fork instead.

He’s a cool guy, Matías is. We like a lot of the same stuff. He’s like my best friend at camp.

He might sort of be my best friend of anywhere.

blue doorSo down the left path. And at first I don’t notice, ‘cause me and Mat are talking, but after a while what he’s saying sort of fades out, and I notice how on this path the woods keep getting denser, and the dead leaves under our feet get darker and softer, and you can’t hear the lake at all anymore. You can’t hear hardly anything at all, even the birds are quiet.

The path stops at this clearing, like that’s the place the path was taking us to.

And in the middle of the clearing is a door.

This door is just standing there, surrounded by trees, inside a wooden door frame. It’s painted dark blue, like the darkest midnight blue, and the paint looks old, all cracked and peeling. It has a regular doorknob, brass or whatever.

I mean, it’s just a door. A door in the middle of the forest. At first we just stand there, like: What?

Then Mat starts laughing, like this is the most hilarious thing he’s ever seen. I sort of see why he’s laughing, it is pretty funny—I mean who brought a door out here? or did there used to be a house, and now a door is all that’s left? But for some reason I don’t feel exactly like laughing. I keep noticing all the quiet.

Mat walks up to the door. I say, “Hey, man, maybe you shouldn’t . .” and he stops and looks back at me, smiling, like, “Shouldn’t what?” And I can’t think of what I was going to say, can’t think of a good reason not to touch the door. It’s so weirdly quiet here isn’t a good reason.

Mat picks up a stick like it’s a briefcase. He puts his hand on the doorknob and looks back at me, saying in this fake deep, jolly voice: “Well, goodbye kids, I’m off to the forest office! Forest pizza for dinner tonight!” And he opens the door, still looking at me, and walks through.

I wait for him to come back around from the other side. But he doesn’t. So I guess he’s hiding on the other side, for a joke? and I walk around back there.

And he’s not there.

I look around to see if he’s hiding in the woods. But the bushes and trees are so thick, no way he could have got in there without me hearing him in all this quiet.

I run back around to the other side of the door. I call his name, I yell, “Mat! Matías!” over and over.
Nothing happens except quiet. He’s just gone, Mat’s just gone.

I walk up to the door and put my hand on the knob. Then I put my hand down, because I don’t have to do this, some grownup should do this. I run as fast as I can back up the path, back through the woods, to tell the counselors that Mat disappeared.

But when I get back to camp, all out of breath, before I even get to the counselors’ cabin, I see him. I see Matías. It’s from the back, but he’s the only one at camp with an Astros T-shirt. And I’m so relieved, it feels like I’m standing in a shower of relief and it’s pouring right down from my head to my feet. It was just a crazy Mat joke after all. I run up to him, yelling, “Mat! Hey Mat, I can’t believe you got here before me! You really . . .” And I stop.

Because when he turns around, it’s not Mat. It looks like Mat—same thick black hair that kind of sticks out at the top of his head, same brown eyes, same one ear bigger than the other.

But it’s not Mat, no way it’s Mat. Because the dark eyes are cold and empty, and he isn’t slightly smiling on one side of his face like Mat always is. He isn’t smiling at all. He isn’t even standing right—Mat’s fidgety, he’s always moving around and drumming his fingers or practicing soccer kicks. This boy is standing totally still.

Then he blinks his cold, empty eyes at me one time, and gives a tiny, cold smile. He puts one finger to his lips, and says, “Shhhhhhh.”

All the skin on my arms raises up in little bumps of fear, and I turn around and run. I hear Al the main counselor yelling my name and saying something about “dinner” and “dark soon,” but I don’t stop.

At first I don’t know where I’m running, I’m just running from the thing-not-Mat, which is the creepiest thing I ever saw. But then I know I’m running to the door.

When I get there it isn’t dark yet, but the light is all strange and clear so you know it will be dusk soon, and then dark.

I walk right up to the door and put my hand on the knob.

And then I stop, because: What if?

What if it sucks me in to wherever it took Matías?

What if there’s something waiting on the other side?

Then I remember the creepy thing that isn’t Mat, and I put one hand onto the door frame, holding on just in case, and open the door.

I am looking at a garden, crammed with flowers, dusty blues and bright-fire reds, sunny yellows. A path leads through the flowers to a blue-white sky. I can smell the green and the sweetness from here. I want to go there so bad, I feel my leg sort of pulling up on its own, like it’s going to take a step in.

Is this where Mat is? I don’t see him, but . . . I lean in.

And just as I’m about to really step in, because it looks so beautiful and peaceful there, so much better than this hot, cruddy camp or my shout-y house, I slam the door shut.

I lean my head on the door for a second. I don’t want to open the door again.

But I gotta find Mat. Maybe I could at least call out for him, in case he’s wandering down that path somehow, in case he can hear me.

I open the door again.

But now what I see behind the door is totally different. There’s no garden at all. Now where I’m looking, it’s deep under the ocean, the water hazy and blackish-green. I could reach out one finger and touch the ocean, it goes right up against the doorway and stops. I can smell the salt and fish and underwater snmells.

On the floor of the ocean is the skeleton of a whale. A million little plants are growing up inside and around it, winding around the bones, waving gently in the water, and fishes swim around and inside the plants and the bones. A whole little world in this whale skeleton, far under the sea. I say “Mat,” in a small voice. But if he’s in this place, he can’t hear me.

I remember Mat wasn’t looking, when he walked through this door. He was looking at me, to see me laugh at his joke. He might have walked into anything at all.

I shut the door, and open it again.

This time I see a dark house, cluttered with old and dusty things, broken clocks and fat brown books and thick blood-colored carpets and unlit lamps, and tons more. The only bright part is a window all covered with ice making crystal patterns like frozen snowflakes on the glass.

“Mat?” I say. But the place is all dusty and silent, like no one’s been there in a million years.

I close the door and open it again. I do that over and over, and the door always shows me someplace new. In every place, I call “Mat! Matías!” In every place, he doesn’t answer.

I open the door to a city street drowning in a river of flood water. A wave crashes over the sign on a Chinese restaurant.

I open the door to a gray field, and in the center of the field one tree, with leaves made of smoke that wavers and breathes.

I open the door to a sky blood-red with streaming birds.

I open the door to a dirty alley far below, and two girls in coats, fighting. I hear their tiny angry cries. When I yell “Mat!” one of the girls looks up.

I open the door to 17 butterflies feeding on a dead dog.

Some of the things I see are so beautiful, and some are so horrible. The worst is when I open the door and the whole doorframe is filled up with this big man, with thinning hair and his sleeves rolled up, and he’s looking right at me with an ugly smile. I slammed the door on that man so fast. I didn’t even call for Mat.

The sky is losing color and the light is going away. It’s going to be so dark on that path going back to camp, but I can’t leave Mat wherever he is, and I can’t go back to face that thing that isn’t Mat.

So I open the door one more time.

This time I see a forest clearing, where it’s almost dark. “Mat!” I call. My voice is weak, because I’m tired of calling, and I’m afraid.

But something I didn’t see before, this dark blue curled-up thing under one of the trees, it stirs, it sits up.
And it’s Mat.

“Mat!” I yell. He starts stumbling toward me, calling my name. I realize that he can’t see me. I start talking so he can follow my voice, just saying anything, stuff like “You got this Mat, come on man, you’re almost home, this way,” like that.

Mat’s getting closer—he’s almost here. I hold on tight to the door frame, just in case, and put my other hand through. Mat must see my hand, because his eyes get big and scared.

“It’s me! Just grab my hand!” I say. “I’ll pull you through!”

He grabs my hand. But just at the same time, I feel someone yank my other hand off the door frame and hold it tight. I turn around, and it’s the other kid, the one who looks like Mat, but he’s not. The not-Mat’s mouth is twisted in anger but his eyes are the same cold and empty they were before.

Mat and the not-Mat are pulling hard on my hands, I feel like they’re puling me apart, my arms are stretched out all the way. I pull as hard as I can, I pull both of them close, and pulling them in spins me. I am spinning, turning in this threshold, Mat in one hand, not-Mat on the other. I have to save one, and I have to let go of one, and I have to make sure I stay on the right side of the door.

Finally I open my right hand and shove that boy through the door, and I pull hard with my left hand and don’t let go. I slam the door shut.

There’s a dark head on the ground next to me, where he fell. “Look at me!” I yell. Because I don’t know if I got the right one.

When he looks up, I know right away it’s Mat. I can see him in there, no question, there inside his startled eyes.

We walk back to the camp hardly talking at all, but I’m so happy, so happy and relieved. I run up to Jim and say “Did we miss dinner? Can we eat anyway? because we’re starving and we had this crazy . . . “

Then I stop.

Because when Jim turns to me, it’s Jim’s goofy long face, and Jim’s pale blue eyes. But the eyes are cold as ice and empty. There’s no Jim inside them.

I hear Mat call my name, sounding scared. I turn around.

A bunch of the guys from our cabin are standing in a circle around him. Their empty eyes are like little buttons of black ice, and their faces aren’t happy or mad or anything at all, only unsmiling and cold.

I wonder if my face looks as scared and my eyes look as big as Mat’s.

Now it’s the next morning, and me and Mat are waiting outside the bunk cabin with our bags, because they’re sending us home.

“We’re on the wrong side,” whispers Mat.

“I know,” I say.

“If we could make it to the door . . .” he says.

But Jim is standing over us, the same way he’s been all night.

A car pulls up, and my parents get out. Only it’s not my parents. I sort of knew it wouldn’t be, but I was sort of hoping anyway. Seeing cold horrible empty things that look like Mom and Dad, but are not my mom and dad—it’s the worst thing in the world to see.

“You won’t be seeing Matías again, so say goodbye now,” not-my-dad says, as he takes me by one arm to the shiny car.

I’m sitting in the back. I look at Mat through the window while it rolls up automatically. I think we’re both slight;y crying. I say with my mouth, but not out loud, “goodbye, goodbye.”

The car drives away, and Mat gets smaller and smaller, until he’s gone completely, and I’m alone.

Episode 2: Dark Valentine, by Katherine Catmull

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Welcome to the second episode of The Cabinet of Curiosities podcast. This week, Curator Katherine Catmull reads her story “Dark Valentine.”

You can subscribe to this podcast at iTunes.

Each week, one of the four Cabinet curators—authors Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand, and Emma Trevayne—will read a tale from their collection of spooky, creepy, or simply horrifying short stories, The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief and Sinister, available from Greenwillow/HarperCollins, wherever books are sold.

Scary stories for ages 8 and up. Adults will like them, too–if “like” is the is the best description for a cold and creeping terror.