The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Door Downstairs

Corinne does not think she is brave. But she is.

She lives in a small blue house with her older sister, Camellia, and Mama.

Corinne thinks this house is hiding something. Their spotted dog whines every time he passes the door to the basement. But when Corinne tells Mama and Camellia this, they ignore her. Corinne is used to that. Camellia and Mama never see what Corinne sees.

They are too busy whispering.

Camellia and Mama are always telling secrets about grown-up things Corinne doesn’t understand. When Corinne asks them to explain, they say, “When you’re older.”

Corinne wonders, “When will that be?”

Camellia is tall, like Mama. Corinne is short. Camellia is smart, like Mama. Camellia always says the right thing. Corinne never says the right thing. Corinne’s hair is the color of dust, instead of golden, like Camellia’s hair.

Sometimes Corinne pretends Camellia has warts on her skin and hair the color of the dust under the rug.

This makes Corinne feel better. For a while.

It is evening time. Camellia and Mama lie on the bed in Mama’s room, whispering and laughing.

Corinne creeps into the room. She listens to Mama’s voice, which is soft like a song.

“What are you talking about?” asks Corinne shyly.

“Oh,” says Camellia, “nothing, Corinne.”

“Just grown-up talk, dear,” says Mama.

“Nothing you need to worry about,” says Camellia.

“But we would like some privacy, please” says Mama. “Just for a little while.”

“Why don’t you go play with your toys or something?” suggests Camellia.

So Corinne leaves them, feeling very lonely. She wants to cry but doesn’t let herself. Grown-ups do not cry. Grown-ups are beautiful. They whisper and tell secrets.

Grown-ups look nothing at all like short, quiet, dirty-haired Corinne.

Corinne wanders through the house and sees their spotted dog. He paces in front of the basement door, whining.

Corinne scratches his ears and wonders.

“Is there something down there?” she asks, but of course no one answers. And Corinne has always been too frightened of the basement to explore it for herself.

Then—laughter, from upstairs. Camellia and Mama, always laughing together. Why couldn’t Corinne be Mama’s favorite?

Corinne stares hard at the basement door.

“Grown-ups are not afraid of basements,” she tells the dog, who wags his tail doubtfully.

Corinne opens the door. It creaks like rusty jaws opening wide.

She peers downstairs. The air smells like paint and laundry and something else, too. Something . . . dark.

Corinne wants to be brave. She walks downstairs and explores. So what if it is so dark she can hardly see? So what if she hears a scratch-scratch-scratch in the corner?

Grown-ups aren’t afraid of darkness and scratching sounds.

There is the washing machine. There is the clothesline with Mama and Camellia’s frilly things hung up to dry.

But there . . . what is that? Tall and dark, maybe just a shadow?

No. It is a door.

Corinne tiptoes near. She touches the door. Her hand closes around a handle as cold as ice and thin as a tongue. Corinne pauses. Maybe it isn’t smart to go waltzing through strange doors like this.

But would Camellia go through the door? Would Mama?

Yes, of course.

So Corinne does too.

And on the other side, she finds . . .

She finds . . .

Another world.

Right? Yes? Isn’t that true?

Corinne stops and stares around her. Yes. It has to be.

It looks like the world Corinne knows, and yet different. Here, everything is scratchy and dark, like the world has been drawn by a shaky pen. Here, instead of stars in the sky, there are thousands of blinking white eyes.

In Corinne’s world, people do not have black Xs stitched over their chests. And in Corinne’s world, people speak.

Here, the people do not speak.

“Excuse me,” says Corinne to a boy passing by, “can you tell me where we are?”

But the boy stares at her and says nothing.

Corinne tries again.

“Excuse me,” she says to a girl with red braids, “can you please tell me where we are? There was a door in my basement—”

But the girl only stares. Her eyes are silver and foggy, like the boy’s eyes.

Everyone’s eyes are silver and foggy here.

Corinne is afraid, but . . . but there’s something wonderful about this place, isn’t there?

What is it that’s so wonderful?

Corinne decides to explore and find out.

She explores every night.

Once Camellia and Mama are asleep, Corinne puts on her hat and winter coat and boots and sneaks into the basement. Every night, she explores the world through the door downstairs. She begins to think of this world as her world.

Corinne discovers a giant serpent, lying upside down with its fat white belly in the air. Its jaws are wide open and so are its eyes.

There is a great black X sewn into the serpent’s fat white belly.

Corinne wanders through a forest filled with moaning trees.

There are great black Xs sewn into their trunks.

Corinne watches a herd of strange animals. A bird with tall, tall legs and a beak like a giant silver trap. An alligator with two heads. Brown rabbits with curling sharp teeth.

They all have scratchy black Xs sewn onto their chests.

“How bizarre,” Corinne says to the spotted dog, who quivers in her arms. She lifts him up so they are nose to nose.

“No one knows about this but me,” she says to him.

Mama doesn’t know. Camellia doesn’t know.

This is Corinne’s world.

How wonderful, how grown-up, to have a secret like this.

One night, while exploring, Corinne finds a boy, lying on the ground. His eyes are not quite so silver and foggy as the others’. He points to the black X on his chest. He whispers something.

“What?” Corinne leans close. “What is it?”

“The . . .” The boy gasps. His eyes fall closed. “The . . . Marrowman.”

When he opens his eyes again, they are like everyone else’s—silver, foggy. Blank like clouds.

Corinne hears a thundering step past the moaning woods. The world shakes and shudders.

She sees a flock of black owls with long, red tongues hanging out of their beaks. She sees a family of hairless foxes, pink and wrinkled.

All with Xs on their chests.

All with silver, foggy eyes, all running and flying away from . . . something.

Corinne runs, too. She hears the boy’s words in her mind: The Marrowman.

Who is that?

Corinne finds the tall, dark door in the air that leads back home. She opens it and barrels through, into her basement. The spotted dog is panting in her arms, quite beside himself.

Corinne runs upstairs, jumps into her bed, and huddles under the covers until morning.

When she wakes up, her body heavy and sore . . .

She hears nothing. The house is the kind of quiet that comes after something terrible has happened. The spotted dog hides under Corinne’s bed.

Corinne tiptoes downstairs, into the kitchen. “Mama?”

She tiptoes through the hallway. “Camellia?”

Nothing. No one. Not a footstep. Not a breath.

Corinne looks down into the basement, where a dusty lightbulb flickers. It swings on its string, back and forth, back and forth.

Then Corinne remembers: Last night, she forgot to close the door downstairs.

She clomps downstairs in her boots, and she sees . . .

She sees . . .

. . . something terrible.

Mama and Camellia, lying on the floor by the door downstairs.

The door that Corinne left open. The door to the other world.

They have great black Xs stitched into their chests.

Corinne’s heart is a hammer pounding, pounding away.

“Camellia?” She touches Camellia’s forehead. Nothing. Coldness.

“Mama?” Corinne holds Mama’s hand. It is cold and hard like stone.

Corinne holds their hands and cries. It is her fault this has happened. How careless of her, to have forgotten to close the door. Even if she was scared, that is no excuse. Camellia would never be so scared as to forget to close an important door.

Corinne dries her face and pulls herself up. She kisses Camellia and Mama on their cheeks smooth as marble.

“I will figure out what happened to you,” she declares. “And I will save you, even . . .” Corinne looks at the spotted dog, who is most helpfully cleaning his left foot.

“Even if I don’t know how to save you,” says Corinne. “Even if you never tell me any of your secrets. I would rather have you back and never talk to me at all. I would rather that than see you like this.”

Then she draws her coat tight around her, and steps through the door downstairs.

The world through the door quakes and trembles, like the land itself is breathing. Corinne stands under the sky full of blinking white eyes.

“Where shall I go?” she asks herself.

She sees fields of white bone and many dark, moaning forests. Which way will take her to someone who knows what happened to Mama and Camellia?

The spotted dog sits at Corinne’s feet and whines. He looks to the north, where dark mountains stretch to the sky like long, crooked fingers.

Oh. Oh, yes. Corinne sees it now—herds of creatures, crowds of people. They all have those foggy silver eyes, and black Xs on their chests. Like Mama and Camellia do. Everyone is hurrying south, away from those mountains.

So that, Corinne decides, is exactly where she will go.

She walks for many days, the eyes watching her from the dark blue sky.

As Corinne walks, the world begins to change. She sees fewer red-tongued owls, fewer sharp-toothed hares.

The cold wind grows still. The ground grows slimy, and the air takes on a horrible smell.

Then, Corinne sees him.

The Marrowman.

It must be him.

He is shaped like a person, but he is as large as a boat. He has wings, and his belly is bulging, and his back has a crooked hump. He is made up of too many things to count, all of them slithering around each other like a ball of worms. He is frightening, but the pieces of him are beautiful.

In the Marrowman’s body, Corinne sees the black wing of an owl, the scaled tail of an alligator, the red sneakers of a boy, the white teeth of a girl, the branches of a tree, a tangle of spiderwebs.

And there—can it be?

There, a flash of gold, just like Camellia’s hair.

But then it is gone.

“You’re a brave thing,” booms the Marrowman. “A brave thing indeed, to come and find me.”

He cranes his long neck down to look at Corinne. A hundred eyes form in the middle of the Marrowman’s face—blue eyes, black eyes, human eyes, cat eyes. The biggest eye is yellow and taller than Corinne.

It blinks.

The spotted dog shakes in Corinne’s arms, but Corinne stands tall.

“I am not a thing,” she says. “I am a girl. Are you the Marrowman?”

The Marrowman smiles. “And what if I am?”

Corinne has to be careful. The Marrowman could crush her. But she needs information.

“I was wondering,” she says, “because I’ve heard the Marrowman is the best at what he does. The best in the whole world.”

The Marrowman puffs up his chest made of scales and bones and leathery skin. “I’m the only one who does what I do.”

“And what is that?” says Corinne carefully.

The Marrowman leans even closer. Corinne can see herself in his yellow eye. His breath smells rotten.

“I steal hearts,” he growls, “and I use them to make me stronger.”

Corinne’s eyes go wide. “Why do you do that?”

“Because I want to know everything,” shouts the Marrowman. “Because I want to be everything. The strongest, the bravest . . .”

“The most beautiful,” whispers Corinne. “The smartest.”

“I want to know everything,” rumbles the Marrowman.

“You want to know everyone’s secrets,” says Corinne.

The Marrowman nods happily. “You understand, then!”

“I do,” says Corinne. “You got tired of feeling lonely, and ugly, and not understanding the things people say.”

“It wasn’t fair!” the Marrowman huffs.

“You got tired of people keeping secrets from you,” says Corinne. A tear rolls down her cheek.

“It was mean of them to do so!” the Marrowman cries.

“I understand,” Corinne says, and she really, truly does. She pats one of the Marrowman’s clawed feet.

“Are you all right, brave two-legged thing?” says the Marrowman. “You are crying.”

“Because I feel like that all the time,” Corinne says.

The spotted dog pushes his head against her leg. He wants them to leave.

“Well,” says the Marrowman, “why don’t you stay? I can show you how to steal hearts and use them for yourself. Then you won’t ever have to feel that way again.”

“Really?” Corinne says, her chest filling up with joy. “You would do that for me?”

“Of course,” says the Marrowman. “Even someone as mighty as me wants a friend now and then.”

Then the Marrowman digs inside his chest and pulls out two orbs of light.

“I can show you how,” he says, with a sly smile, “if you eat these hearts.”

Corinne stares at the orbs of bright white light. They pulse in the Marrowman’s hand. They have a rhythm.

Like heartbeats.

They smell familiar. They are singing soft words Corinne can’t understand.

But she knows those strange, high voices.

Mama’s voice. Camellia’s voice.

Corinne must be very careful, now, and very clever.

She holds out her hands for the hearts. The Marrowman gives them to her. He smiles a smile of a thousand different teeth.

“Well?” he bellows, licking his puffy pink lips. “Go on. Eat them. Quickly. Or we have no deal.”

Corinne thinks, “It would be easy to eat them, wouldn’t it? It would be over in a minute or two. And then Camellia and Mama would be forever inside me. I would know all their secrets. I would be as smart and tall and perfect as they are. I would be their favorite. They would love me best of all.”

Corinne holds the hearts up to her eyes.

Her own heart is being pulled in many different directions.

At her feet, the spotted dog whines. He is ready.

And so is Corinne, for she has made her decision.

It was a nice thought, for a while. To be as powerful and strong and strange and beautiful as the Marrowman. To have her mother’s and sister’s hearts locked up inside her.

But . . . Mama and Camellia are waiting for her, on the basement floor. With Xs over their hearts. With strange, silver eyes.

Mama and Camellia love her. Corinne knows that, even though sometimes they make her so angry she can hardly think.

So Corinne runs.

She clutches one heart in each hand, and runs—back through the tall, dark mountains. Back through the moaning forests. Back across the fields of white bone.

The Marrowman is following her, his footsteps like crashing drums. He is so fast, with all those stolen legs and arms and wings.

But Corinne has a spotted dog. She has the hearts of her mother and sister, too, and they have a small blue house. Corinne thinks of these things, and her feet come off the ground. The spotted dog jumps into her coat, and the hearts she carries grow wings of bright white light.

Corinne flies.

Her wings carry her safely back to the tall, dark door, waiting in the air for her.

She is through. She is in the basement.

The Marrowman roars and reaches for her with his hundred hands.

Corinne slams the door shut.

Thud, comes the Marrowman’s fists on the other side of the door.

Thud.

Then, silence.

Is he really gone? Or is he just catching his breath?

Corinne doesn’t know. But she knows what she must do.

She kneels between Mama and Camellia. She opens their mouths and gently feeds them their hearts. She pretends they are sick and she is spooning them chicken soup, but instead of soup, it is soft, warm light.

“Slowly, Mama,” says Corinne, as Mama begins to glow.

“Careful, Camellia,” whispers Corinne, as the X on Camellia’s heart begins to fade.

The spotted dog whines and licks their hands.

Then—

“Corinne?” whispers Camellia, rubbing her eyes. They are blue now, not silver.

“Corinne? Sweet Corinne?” says Mama, sitting up. Her eyes are brown now. Mama’s eyes, and Mama’s soft, lullaby voice.

No Xs on their chests. Just whole, warm, wonderful Mama and Camellia.

“What happened?” Camellia asks.

“We went somewhere,” says Mama. “I think we did. What happened to us, Corinne?”

“I will tell you at supper,” says Corinne. It can’t be wrong to have this one secret, just for a little while. “But first, we have a job to do.”

They search the basement until they find bricks, a pail of mortar, and a dirty shovel, hidden in the corner.

Corinne thinks, “This is not the first time this has happened,” and she shivers, wondering . . .

But first, they have a job to do. Together, Corinne, Camellia, and Mama hide away the door downstairs.

One Response to “The Door Downstairs”

  1. Skylifter says:

    I love this story, it brought me a lot of joy and I love scary stories so this website is like my dream. I definitely recommend this story.

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