The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Every Person a Prism

Curator’s note:

Well now, what have we here? A new story, collected from the adventures that have kept us so long away? By carrier pigeon and smoke signal, letters in the sky and messages sent on the wind, your four Curators have kept in contact even as we each traveled to the most far-flung, forgotten corners of worlds both real and decidedly not. We always knew we would return, and that our joyous reunion would be alight with tales of the things we had seen. Stuffed to the gills with cake and thrilled to all be in the same place again, we held our curious new treasures up to the light and debated where each might best fit in our Cabinet. Now, you might well imagine that on our journeys we encountered all manner of people, creatures, and objects, most–if not all–of which were not at first what they seemed to be. For that reason, our newest collection is on the theme of imposters.

Please, do enjoy.

Your Curators.


The car pulled up outside a tiny house on a narrow street in a small village. None of it was familiar except Evie’s grandmother, already waiting on the front porch. Evie waved through the window and smushed her face up against the glass as her mother parked in the driveway. Grandma June waved back, a smile eating up all the wrinkles on her face.

The moment the car stopped, Evie yanked off her seatbelt and jumped out, running up to get her hug. Grandma June gave her lots of hugs in the week or two they spent together every summer, but this first one was always the best. Soft and squishy and perfumed with roses and talcum powder.

“Hello, my darling,” said Grandma June, squeezing the very breath out of Evie. “How are you today?”

“Good,” gasped Evie. Grandma let her go, and together they waited for Evie’s parents to join them with Evie’s small, green suitcase. Her mother had originally picked out a pink one, but no, Evie had wanted the green, the color of the apple skins that littered the kitchen counter while the smell of baking pie filled grandma’s house. They always baked a pie on their first day together, and they’d eat it with ice cream for dinner, making a pact not to tell Evie’s parents that there hadn’t been a vegetable in sight.

The pie had fruit in it, anyway. It was healthy.

But it would be a different house this time, a different kitchen counter. Grandma June used to live in a city almost the same size as the one Evie lived in, but a few months ago, she had decided the hustle and bustle was more than she could take in her old age. She wanted quiet, she said, and to go to the shop for milk without a thousand people getting in her way, or huffing rudely because she wasn’t quick on her feet anymore. She had moved while Evie was still in school, so Evie had stayed with her best friend for several days while her parents had helped Grandma June move everything she wanted to keep to this tiny house.

“You planted your flowers,” said Evie’s mother to her mother, pointing at the beds below the porch. “They look beautiful.”

“Thank you, dear. Couldn’t live without them, wherever I am.”

“Are you settled in?” asked Evie’s father. “Enjoying it here? It’s very quiet, isn’t it? We didn’t see a single person on the way through.”

“Oh, yes,” said Grandma June. “Quiet, for certain, but I was after quiet! I do have a new bridge club here with some lovely friends, and a very nice young man comes to cut my grass, though I tell him every time that he’s not to touch my flowers, and the sweet people at the grocery store know my name and fetch the things I can’t reach. Now, will you stay for a drink? We could have it out here,” she said, pointing at the wicker furniture. “It’s such a beautiful summer day, I made lemonade. Mrs. Hill down the road gave me lemons from her tree.”

“I’ll get it,” said Evie’s father, patting his mother-in-law on the shoulder. “You sit down.”

“I’ll help,” said Evie. She wanted to see inside the house. Grandma’s old house, where she’d lived with Granddad before he died, had been big and tall, full of so many rooms that Evie had always been able to pick which bedroom she wanted to sleep in on the trip. This house was only one floor, Evie saw that from the outside, and when she stepped in, she could see practically the whole place from the front door. A kitchen was to the left, and a living room to the right, and ahead was a hallway with two bedrooms and a bathroom leading off it. It was very different, but it smelled like Grandma, all roses and talcum powder, and that was the most important thing.

A big bowl full of green apples sat on the kitchen counter. Evie smiled to herself.

As was tradition, Evie’s parents stayed for a drink and a bit of a rest after the drive, then they kissed Evie and Grandma June goodbye and got back in the car. They would go home, back to their jobs, leaving Evie and Grandma June to get up to whatever mischief they could find to get into. Evie was the only grandchild, so she and her grandmother had all of that special kind of mischief to themselves, just between the two of them. Grandma June had taught her how to knit, and bake, and play chess so well Evie could beat her father at it now, and she was only ten. They did all kinds of fun activities together. Besides making apple pie, the other thing they’d do today is choose a book from Grandma’s shelves, and spend evenings taking turns reading it out loud.

First, however, there was some housekeeping to do. They put the empty glasses in the sink and then Grandma June showed Evie her new bedroom, the empty chest of drawers into which Evie could unpack the clothes from her little green suitcase. All right, so she didn’t have bedrooms to choose from anymore, but she recognized the furniture from Grandma’s old house, and there, in the middle of the pillows, was an old, threadbare stuffed elephant. At home, with her parents, Evie swore she was too grown up for stuffed animals, but it was unthinkable to sleep at Grandma June’s without Henry. Evie looked forward to seeing his ragged trunk every summer almost as much as she looked forward to seeing Grandma June.

They put away Evie’s things and returned to the kitchen, where the bowl of apples waited. While Grandma peeled, Evie mixed together the butter and flour for the crust. The oven heated up, slowly warming the room around it on an already warm day, but it wasn’t unpleasant. It felt cozy, it felt like living inside all the happy memories Evie had of Grandma June, even while they were making a new one.

“How was school, my darling?” Grandma June asked, using a very sharp knife to slice the apples. “I’m not sure your letters told me everything.”

“It was okay,” said Evie. She stabbed at a particularly stubborn chunk of butter with the end of her wooden spoon.

“Just okay?”

Sometimes, Grandma June knew Evie better than anyone.

“Well,” said Evie, “Beth wasn’t in my class this year. I missed her. I kept getting paired up with Melissa Jones for projects, and she hates me. She pinched me all the time when Mr. Watson wasn’t looking.”

“Did you tell your parents?”

“No,” said Evie. Some things she just didn’t want to tell them, she didn’t want to worry them, but it was safe and warm here. “It’s all right now. Hopefully she won’t be in my class when we go back to school, and Beth will.”

Grandma June nodded in time with the slicing knife. “You are a little ray of sunshine, aren’t you? Always looking on the bright side. You get that from me. Which reminds me, we’re going to have tea with a friend of mine tomorrow. I’ve been telling her all about you since the day I moved here and she was the first person I met in the street, and she’s simply desperate to meet my little Evie.”

“That sounds fun,” said Evie. “Have you made many friends here?” She didn’t want Grandma June to be lonely in this new place.

“Oh, yes,” said Grandma June. “In a small place like this, you get to know everyone in the blink of an eye, and heaven forbid you have a secret! Tell one person, and five minutes later everyone’ll know it.”

“That’s not nice,” said Evie. “People shouldn’t tell other people’s secrets.”

Grandma June chuckled. “They’re not really secrets. It’s nice to feel welcomed here, part of the community. It’s much harder to feel like that in a big city.”

It was time to assemble the pie. Soon, the smell of it cooking wafted through the small house, making Evie’s mouth water.

They ate it for dinner, its warmth melting the scoops of ice cream Grandma put on top of both their slices. Evie licked her plate clean, and Grandma June pretended not to notice. Full and happy, they curled up together on the same flowered sofa that had been in Grandma June’s old house, with a book from the same bookshelves. When the sun set outside the picture window and the room grew dim, Grandma June switched on a lamp and they kept reading until Evie’s eyelids began to droop and she yawned between the words.

It had been a long day, what with packing her little green suitcase and the hours in the car, plus the happy ones with Grandma June since she’d arrived. Evie climbed gratefully into bed, hugged Henry the elephant to her chest, and fell into a deep, long sleep.

Morning came, Evie’s first full day with Grandma June. After breakfast, Evie put on her shoes and took Grandma’s hand as the two of them headed off to see the village. Everything was new to Evie, the shops and little cottages and pretty squares, laid with grass and flowers, ringed with wrought-iron fences.

“Where is everybody?” Evie asked. It had suddenly occurred to her that there should be people about, running errands or simply strolling along in the summer sunshine, as she and Grandma June were.

“Oh, here and there, I imagine. You must remember this isn’t the city, my darling. Not nearly so many other souls here. Can you hear that?” Grandma June tilted her head and closed her eyes.

Evie copied her, but she couldn’t hear a single thing. “I can’t hear anything,” she said.

“Exactly!” said Grandma June.

A bird chirped from a nearby tree, breaking the silence.

“Well,” said Grandma June, blinking, “if it’s people you want, let’s go call on Mrs. Watson, my friend I told you about, remember? Since my company isn’t good enough for you.” She winked to show Evie she was teasing.

They turned the next corner, into a winding lane lined with houses. There was an old, crumbling church, too, with crooked headstones in the churchyard, but the bell in the tall tower was silent.

“June!” A door two houses down opened and a woman stepped out onto the front step, waving. Grandma June waved back, leading Evie to the garden path that ran up to Mrs. Watson’s home.

“You must be Evie,” said Mrs. Watson, coming down to join them. “It’s so nice to meet someone I’ve heard so much about!”

Evie focused her eyes on the little diamonds in the print of Mrs. Watson’s blue dress. “It’s nice to meet you, too,” she said politely, though she couldn’t say she’d heard much about Mrs. Watson. Only that she was one of Grandma June’s new friends here. Mrs. Watson looked to be younger than Grandma; her hair was blonde instead of white, and she had fewer wrinkles, but Evie loved Grandma June’s wrinkles.

“Well, come in, come in. I’ll put the kettle on and we can all have a nice chat. I just might be able to find some cake, too.”

That made Evie smile. Cake was always a reason to smile. Mrs. Watson gave her a knowing look, and Evie relaxed. It would be nice to meet Grandma June’s new friends.

Inside, the house showed a different sort of taste than Grandma June had, or Evie’s parents had. Everything was sleek, modern, in black or white or gray. Evie was slightly afraid to touch anything, and the sofa she perched on was stiff and uncomfortable.

A kettle whistled, plates clinked together. Mrs. Watson came in with a tray, laden with a clear glass teapot and china plates as white as bones.

“Now, Evie, tell me everything about yourself that June here has forgotten to mention,” said Mrs. Watson, handing Evie a slice of chocolate cake. “Oh, and don’t worry a bit about the crumbs, that’s what vacuum cleaners are for. Now, I want to know all about you.” Mrs. Watson leaned forward, her eyes bright, curious.

Evie’s face flushed with warmth. Um. She never quite knew what to say in these sorts of situations. Her parents had friends like this, too, who wanted to seem interested in Evie but weren’t very good at being normal about it. Adults could be very strange sometimes. “Er. I like to read?” she said, as if she wasn’t sure herself. “I play the piano, but not very well. I don’t like broccoli.” That wasn’t everything, but she couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“Well, you’re delightful,” declared Mrs. Watson. “And you’re very pretty. Do all the boys at your school chase after you?”

Evie blushed even more deeply and shook her head. Grandma June laughed. “She’s far too young for that kind of thing, Marilyn. Plenty of time for that later.”

“But you and I are running out,” said Mrs. Watson. “Which reminds me, I caught that Mr. Lee at the post office giving me the eye the other day.”

“Oh, did you, now?” asked Grandma June.

Evie ate her cake, being careful of the crumbs. Whatever Mrs. Watson had said, she didn’t want to make a mess. As she chewed, she looked around the room, but there wasn’t very much to see. A few glass vases that were quite like the teapot, really, and a shiny gray bowl filled with odd white sticks.

Grandma June was laughing as she and Mrs. Watson discussed some man at their bridge club. Evie frowned. She’d never seen her grandmother like this before, and it hadn’t been so very long since her grandfather died. Grandma June couldn’t have forgotten him already, could she?

Evie sipped her tea through a frown and waited for the two of them to finish talking. Which, finally, they did.

“We’d best not take up all of your day–you need to go to the post office, after all,” said Grandma June, winking.

“Thank you very much for the cake,” said Evie.

“My pleasure, my dear. Do call on me again before you go home, will you? It’s so nice to have visitors.”

Evie nodded. Time had passed curiously in the house; it felt as if they’d been there ages, but when she checked her watch, it wasn’t even lunchtime yet. Perhaps this was just the way of sleepy little villages.

“Let’s go home a different way,” said Grandma June, taking Evie’s hand. All the quiet, tree-lined streets looked nearly the same to Evie, but she trusted that this was not the way they had come. She could sort of understand why Grandma liked it here, it was indeed very peaceful. The village was surrounded by rolling fields, over which, in the distance, a summer storm was brewing, the clouds dark and coiled, ready to strike.

Evie stopped. All right, not all the houses in the village were the same. That one was strange.

“Who lives there?” she asked, pointing. It sat in the middle of a huge lawn, far back from the road. Weathered shingles threatened to fall off its jagged roof at any minute. Its porch was rotting, sinking into the ground, and starving ivy crawled across the dark red brick.

“Why, every village has to have a creepy old house. Where else would the monster live?” Grandma June laughed. “Oh, darling, I’m teasing. It’s empty, so far as I know. Shame, isn’t it? It’s a lovely old place.”

Evie wasn’t certain about that. She thought creepy was truly the right word.

They made it home before the rain, and sat reading as lighting flashed and thunder crashed and drops pelted the window. When Evie’s stomach growled–the cake had been a while ago, and breakfast a while before that–Grandma June made them sandwiches. Evie didn’t worry about getting crumbs on the sofa this time. Afternoon turned to evening, with dinner and more of their book. This was how Evie liked Grandma June, settled in a cozy living room, just the two of them.

And so the new routine of their summer visit began. Every day, after breakfast, they would leave the house and go for a walk, dropping into the shop to buy milk on their way, or stopping to speak to the rare people they encountered on the street, on errands of their own or walking their dogs. Everyone they met already knew about Evie, and she had to keep coming up with things to tell them about herself. She was nine years old, she wanted to be a librarian when she grew up so she could read books all day, she liked butterflies but not caterpillars. It was certainly different to the visit they’d had only last year. When she’d visited Grandma at her old house in the city they had gone exploring, of course, but to zoos and museums and art galleries, and in a place with so many people they’d almost never run into anyone Grandma knew. Here, though it was so quiet, so seemingly empty, everyone they did meet knew Grandma, and she knew them.

And Grandma June was different, too. Evie couldn’t quite put her finger on how. Perhaps it was, simply, that the setting was new, and so Grandma June was a little bit new, too.

But she was still Grandma June, with her books and apple pies and roses and talcum powder, and that was the important thing.

Evie awoke, Henry the elephant clutched to her chest. It was still dark in her room, and she checked her watch on the nightstand, pressing the button on the side to make the little screen light up. Just after midnight. She didn’t know what had woken her, maybe there’d been a noise outside.

Her heartbeat sped. Maybe there’d been a noise inside.

She froze under the covers. If she lay very still and held her breath, she’d be safe.

But she couldn’t do that. Grandma June was old. What if there was someone in the house? Evie had to protect her. It took all of Evie’s might to force herself from the bed, her bare feet silent on the carpet as she crept into the hallway. Moonlight shone in through the windows, the curtains open everywhere because it was supposed to be safe here in this little village.

Inch by inch, she moved toward Grandma June’s room. The door was ajar, and it pushed open without even the hint of a squeak.

Grandma June was a lump of shadows and blankets in the bed. Evie tiptoed across the floor until her knees touched the mattress.

Grandma June rolled over, and the moonlight hit her face.

Evie’s hand flew to her mouth so fast and so hard she hurt herself as she tried not to scream.

 

*

 

“Good morning, my darling. Did you sleep well?”

Evie rubbed her eyes. “Yes,” she said softly. The nightmare was over, but it had felt so real at the time. She’d never had a dream like that before, where the feeling of being awake and terrified had lasted for hours, all the way until dawn. Now, in the bright summer sunlight of morning, she wasn’t sure whether she’d left her bed at all. She didn’t think she’d ever sleepwalked before.

It had felt so real. She stared into her bowl of cereal, but all she could see was Grandma June’s face…or rather, the blank, featureless mask where her face should have been, lying against a ruffled, rose-printed pillow. It had looked like a face Evie might have sculpted from clay in one of her art classes, smooth and unwrinkled, with little marks from her fingernail for eyes, nose, mouth.

“Are you sure, my darling? You look tired. Perhaps we’ve been adventuring around the village too much. Shall we stay home today?”

Evie shook her head, clearing it of the horrible lingering nightmare. “No,” she said, squaring her shoulders. She’d had bad dreams before–none like that, admittedly, but she’d had them, and they always wore off. No reason to ruin a perfectly good day. “No, I’m all right. Let’s go for another walk.”

“As you wish,” said Grandma June, her smile making all her lovely wrinkles deepen. Evie breathed a sigh of relief. Everything was back to normal, the nightmare was fading already.

They went to the street where all the shops were, and stopped outside one whose entrance was nearly blocked with plants and flowers. A man a little older than Evie’s father waved through the window, and Grandma June pushed open the door.

“You must be Evie!” said the man, smiling down at her.

“Evie, this is Mr. Patel, who helps me find the perfect flowers for my garden.”

“And for you, young lady, I have these,” said Mr. Patel, moving to a nearby table and picking up a pot of the most beautiful lilies, striped with orange. Evie startled. Grandma June must have told him those were her favorites.

“Thank you,” said Evie.

“We’ll plant them this afternoon,” said Grandma June. “Now, Mr. Patel, about my roses…”

Evie wandered around the shop, barely listening to the discussion about how best to keep pests away from Grandma’s perfect flowers. The scent in here was almost overwhelming, but in a good way; she breathed deeply and inspected all the different plants, orchids and sunflowers and spiky little cactuses. The memory of the nightmare was almost completely gone now, but a new thought had replaced it. She thought she might know why Grandma June seemed a little bit new here.

“Do you talk to Mr. Patel about flowers a lot?” asked Evie when they were back out in the street, cradling the pot of lilies in her arms.

“Of course,” said Grandma June. “That was the first thing I did when I moved here, found someone who could help me with everything I needed for the garden.”

“And you talk about the man at the post office with Mrs. Watson.”

“Among other things, yes, but I do believe you’re right, she’d like to find a new husband, that one.”

“And at the grocery store, you told that girl which was the best flour for pie crusts.”

Grandma June gave Evie a look. “And with you, I’m Grandma June,” she said, smiling. “You’re right, you know. I’ve noticed it more too since I moved here. We are all different people to different people, does that make sense? We make friends for all kinds of reasons, and together, all those reasons make up an entire person, like you, or me.”

Evie thought about this for a minute. She had her very best friend; they always went to the library together, but at school, she played hopscotch or tag with other kids. And she thought her next-door neighbor was annoying because he was younger than her, but when he invited her up to his treehouse, he was sort of all right. Those were all different parts of Evie, but they were still all Evie. She was just seeing new sides of Grandma June, here in the new village with all her new friends.

That made sense. Grandma June always made the world make sense.

The sun shone on them all afternoon while they worked in the garden, planting and pulling weeds, spraying water from the hose. Tired and muddy, they ate dinner on the porch as the sky darkened and, in the distance, a light in the empty, creepy old house flickered on and off.

“Did you see that?” asked Evie, pointing.

“See what, my darling?”

Evie blinked and squinted. She was sure she’d seen a light in the topmost window, just visible over the roofs of the other houses. But it was off now.

She shook her head. Maybe it had been a reflection, or a firefly.

That night, the bad dream came back.

 

*

 

It was Evie’s last night with Grandma June. Part of her was sad, and part of her was not. The part that was sad would miss the reading, the gardening, the walks and apple pies. The part of her that was not wanted a good night’s sleep in her own bed, where she never had that dream. Every night since the first time, she had dreamed of waking up, getting out of bed, creeping to Grandma June’s room, seeing the featureless, clay-like face on the pillow. And every night, she had stopped herself from waking up Grandma June in the dream, afraid of what might happen if she did. Would Grandma wake up in real life? Would Evie? Would both of them scream at once?

Moonlight shone in through the windows. The carpet was soft under Evie’s toes. She was asleep, she knew it, but she had to follow the nightmare through to its end. Grandma June’s bedroom door opened without a squeak, and the terrifying, blank face slept on the pillow.

It was her last chance.

Evie reached out her hand.

The voice filled her head, and the room, but it did not wake Grandma June.

“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” it said.

Evie did scream this time. And it did not wake Grandma June. She wheeled around, peering into the shadowy corners. A ghostly, wispy shape hovered in front of her, its face as blank as Grandma’s.

“It is so lovely to finally meet you properly,” said the shape. “Of course, I have been meeting you in all manner of ways for two weeks now. Evie, who loves lilies but not broccoli, and reading but not the girl who pulls her hair at school.”

Evie’s heart hammered in her chest. This was a nightmare. A very strange nightmare. She just had to go back to bed.

Her feet wouldn’t move. “Who are you?” she asked.

“A good question,” said the wispy thing. “I am everyone. Do you remember the conversation you had with your grandmother? With me? We are all different people to different people. You, my darling, are a prism, each facet of you casting a new rainbow to the chosen few who see it.”

Evie’s mouth went dry. She had to force the words out. “What do you mean, the conversation I had with you?”

The shape shimmered in the darkness. And there, standing before her, awake and smiling, was Grandma June. The Grandma June behind Evie in the bed rolled over and muttered something in her sleep. The shape shimmered again, and there was Mrs. Watson. Again, and there was Mr. Patel from the flower shop. “I had to learn everything I could about you,” it said. “All the different things you’d tell different people, that together make up who you are. Only then could you become part of me.”

Another shimmer.

And there, in front of Evie, was Evie herself.

Evie, the real Evie–for she was real, wasn’t she? Real and asleep and having the most terrible dream–closed her eyes and ran, stumbling blindly from the room, crashing into the wall, feeling her way to her own bed. She clutched Henry the elephant to her chest and refused to open her eyes until the sun was high in the sky.

Slowly, she made her way to the kitchen. Grandma June smiled at her over a chopping board piled with strawberries.

“Good morning, my darling,” said Grandma June. She looked like Grandma June, sounded like her, smelled like her, roses and talcum powder.

It had all been a nightmare.

“Good morning,” said Evie.

“Your parents made an early start. Eat up your breakfast and pack your case, they’ll be here soon.”

“Okay,” said Evie.

She waited on the porch for the familiar car, glancing between the road and all of Grandma June’s flowers. Her little green case sat beside her, and Grandma June was in one of the wicker chairs, sipping at her tea with a smile. The moment the car came into view, Evie jumped up and ran down to the driveway.

“We missed you too, Evie-girl,” said her father as he climbed out and gave her a big hug. “The house is too quiet without you.”

“We won’t stay,” said Evie’s mother to her mother, “we’ll let you have your quiet back, I can only imagine how busy this one has kept you! Come for a visit in a month or two.”

“I will,” said Grandma June, kissing Evie’s mother’s cheek. “We’ve had a wonderful time here. I’m already planning all the things we’ll do next summer.”

A sick feeling filled Evie’s stomach, but she forced a smile and nodded. She might have the nightmare here again, if she came back. She might have it at home, but she didn’t want to think about that. She hugged Grandma June goodbye. It felt like Grandma June.

Evie buckled herself into the back seat and waved as the car pulled away. She twisted to look through the rear window, at Grandma June still standing on the porch.

With Evie, right beside her.

 

One Response to “Every Person a Prism”

  1. Basilisk says:

    This was a gripping snippet of what should probably be a mid-sized book. Several concepts were picked up; too many to be elaborated on in a short story. I’d love to find out more about how the wisps work and what their connection is to the creepy house and whether or not Grandma June knows anything about all this or senses it?

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