The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

One Times Two

Mama always told me not to answer the door.

It was dangerous, she said. You never know who might be on the other side, she said.

I kept the key in my hand the whole way from school, held it so tight it left a mark that was always gone by next morning and back again next afternoon. I locked myself inside the house at the end of the row, all exactly the same. Red brick and white shutters, pointy roofs and shiny mailboxes.

I’d do my schoolwork, and count the hour until mama came home.

There were seventeen minutes left. I was multiplying nine times seventeen, and I liked how neat that was.

The doorbell hadn’t worked in years. The knock was soft at first. It stopped and came back again, louder.

Nine times seventeen is one hundred and fifty-three.

Finally, the knock went away.

Twelve minutes later, the door opened. “Adam? I’m home.”

“I’m in here,” I said. “Someone knocked a little bit ago.”

“Oh,” said mama. “I’ll check to see if they left a package. Are you hungry yet?”

“Starving!”

Mama laughed.

After dinner, I finished my math and took a bath. That rhymed, and I liked how neat that was.

My eyes were almost closed, blankets pulled up to my chin. A tap rattled the window, like the spindly wooden fingers of a branch, but there were no trees outside my room. Bugs sometimes flew too hard into the glass and I’d find them squished on the sill, messy and disgusting. I pulled the blankets higher and fell asleep.

The key mark was still on my palm. Eight times thirteen is one hundred and four.

Knock, knock.

“Go away,” I said, much too quietly for whoever was on the other side to hear me. I wouldn’t open it, because of what mama said. It could be anyone.

The same thing happened the next day, and the next. I told mama every time, and she went up and down the street, to all the houses with their red bricks and white shutters and pointy roofs and shiny mailboxes to ask if it was the people who lived there, needing something. But it wasn’t any of them, and they hadn’t seen anybody on our porch. We must have been at work, they said. Helen must have been at school, they said.

The tap on the window was loud enough to wake me up. I climbed out of bed, wriggling my toes in the soft rug before I pulled the curtains apart an inch to look outside. There was nobody there, nobody I could see.

Six times eleven is sixty-six.

I was almost expecting the knock, but I jumped and dropped my pencil when it came, anyway. The lead broke and skittered away across the floor. “Go away,” I said, a little louder this time, still too quiet to be heard through the thick, locked, safe door.

“Please, let me in.”

I ran upstairs, soles of my shoes slapping on the wood, loud, but quieter than my heart thumping fast. I slammed the door to my room so hard the window rattled and that made me jump, too.

“Adam? I’m home!”

“I’m up here,” I whispered.

“Adam?” Mama climbed the stairs and knocked at my door. “Are you in there?”

I stayed curled on my bed, watching the handle turn, even though I knew it was just mama, who smiled when she saw me, and whose smile turned into a frown. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”

I couldn’t tell her, not this time. She’d think I wasn’t old enough to stay home alone for an hour after all, and I’d have to stay at school where it was noisy and messy and impossible to remember what five times nine was.

“I’m not feeling well,” I said, which wasn’t exactly a lie.

“Stay here,” she said. “I’ll bring you some soup.”

All night, something tapped at the glass. “Please,” it whispered. “Please, let me in,” and no matter how many times I told myself it was the wind, I knew that was a lie.

“You still don’t look very good,” said Mama in the morning. “Let’s stay home today.” She called the school to get my work, and I sat on the couch with a fresh pencil that made nice, sharp marks. I liked how neat they were.

Three times seven is twenty-one.

Mama was upstairs, folding away socks. Someone knocked and it was safe, safe to answer while she was home. I listened as I tiptoed to the door, but there was no voice this time. Probably the mailman with a package.

The lock clicked. A breeze blew as I turned the handle and pulled.

There was no one there.

“Hello?” I called, stepping out onto the porch in my bare feet. “Is anyone there?”

The wind blew harder; the door closed with a shattering slam. I saw too late that everything was different.

There were no other houses on the street, no red bricks or white shutters. Beyond the porch was just barren grass, far as I could see, and farther still. Overhead, the sun was hazed with clouds, hot, but the wind was cold.

“Mama?” I called, knocking on the door hard as I could. “Mama?”

She’d been at the back of the house, upstairs. I ran from the porch and onto the grass, pebbles biting at the bottom of my feet, little teeth hidden in the grass. Around the house and into the overgrown backyard. “Mama?”

I called for her until I couldn’t anymore, my throat hot and raw as the sun that was, now, sinking down in the sky. She’d notice I was gone soon, open the front door and find me there, sitting against it, knees pulled to my chest.

The stars began to twinkle. The moon was bright. My eyes dropped closed, and when I opened them, my whole body hurt from sleeping that way, a solid ache from head to toe. The grass was glassed with frost. My stomach rumbled. Mama still hadn’t noticed I was gone.

I knocked until my knuckles were bruised, blue as the morning.

There was still nothing to be seen in any direction, just my house sitting there in the middle of the nothing.

I multiplied things in my head to stay calm, keep my heart from hammering. It was afternoon, I think, when I remembered the ladder, left in the backyard last summer, now covered with moss and mold and snails. Messy and disgusting and I didn’t want to touch it, but I did, now, dragging it as far as I could and propping it against the red brick.

My bare feet slid on the slimy rungs. I tapped at the window, but there was no answer. I knocked at the door again. “Please,” I said. “Let me in.”

I don’t know if it was the next day, or the one after that, or the one after that when the handle turned. I knew I was cold, and my ribs stuck out, and my mouth tasted of the disgusting hose water that had been the only thing to drink.

The wind blew as the door opened.

One times two is two.

I saw myself.

And we both screamed.

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