The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Number 87,145

Lizzie doesn’t know what it is about the new kid, but he freaks her out more than pretty much everything except for maybe—maybe—when her brother pretends to be an alien. That’s when he stands around the corner at night, in the dark, and jumps out at her as she walks, sleepy and fuzzy-eyed, back to her bedroom from the bathroom. Which is just not fair, jumping out at a girl as she’s coming back from the bathroom. Lizzie thinks a person should have a kind of safe pass at moments like those. And she’s not sure what makes her brother an “alien” when he does that, but she’s long given up trying to understand him.

The thing is, that’s a jumpy scare, something that comes and goes really fast, and then it’s gone.

The new kid at school is different. This kid—Malcolm Huxley is his name—he freaks out Lizzie in a slow way, a tingling, heavy way like when there’s a storm blowing in, and you just know it’s going to rip the skies open any minute now, but you don’t know when.

It’s something about his eyes. They’re very still. He doesn’t blink much. It’s also, Lizzie thinks, something about the way he smiles at people, how he watches them while they’re talking, how he never blinks his still, dark eyes. He just watches, and smiles his slow smile, and moves his hands from his lap to the table, where he folds them together like whoever’s speaking to him is the most important person in the world, and he’s not even going to mess with his phone while you’re talking to him. That’s how much he cares about your conversation. Isn’t that courteous? Such a rarity, in this technological age.

Lizzie is not even sure he has a phone. He’s old-fashioned like that. He wears neckties to school. And he talks too formally, using words that sound like they should be used only at funerals or in fancy, white-walled modern art museums. Stuffy, cold, lyrical words. The teachers just adore him. They think he’s “refreshingly polite.” They tell him so, too, right to his face, and he folds his hands in front of him and stands there and smiles his slow, perfect smile. “You flatter me,” he says to them. “How kind.”

Lizzie is not impressed by such instances. Gag me, she thinks, rolling her eyes.

But she’ll give him this: He’s interesting.

Lizzie has been waiting for something interesting to happen.

So last week, when Lizzie noticed Malcolm Huxley watching her at lunch from across the cafeteria, she didn’t react. She kept eating her sandwich. And then the lunch bell rang, and she went to math and Malcolm went to choir.

Not a big deal, Lizzie thought. Just Malcolm being Malcolm. Whatever that meant.

But every day since then, he’s been watching her at lunch—staring with his eyes that don’t blink, putting his sandwich down between each bite. Chewing. Swallowing. Watching her. And at first she thought she was imagining things, but today she realizes that every day he has been moving closer to her.

The first day, he was sitting with the cheerleaders. Well, not sitting with them, really, because he seemed so out of it that Lizzie wasn’t sure he even noticed them trying to talk to him.

He was too focused on Lizzie, she guessed.


But still, interesting. It’s been interesting for Lizzie, watching him move from the cheerleaders to the band nerds to the theater geeks to the track team and then, finally, to her. It’s interesting, watching him slide into the seat across from her. Her friends look at her, and then at him, and then back at her.

“Hi, Malcolm,” they say. Everybody knows Malcolm. You can’t wear neckties and speak like an old man and not have people know who you are.

He ignores them. “Hi, Lizzie,” he says to her. He isn’t blinking, and his smile spreads across his face like he knows a secret that Lizzie doesn’t know. And she wants to know.

But she sighs, because she doesn’t want him to know she wants to know.

“Hey.” She says it so it sounds very whatever-y.

“So.” Malcolm pauses, folds his hands on top of the table. “I was wondering if you wanted to come to my house tonight. I could use some help with the unit we’re currently studying in math, and I’ve heard you’re something of a mathematical whiz.”

Meredith, Lizzie’s best friend, elbows her, and Lizzie kicks her under the table.

“I guess.” Lizzie shrugs, but on the inside she is completely thrilled. A chance to figure out the mystery of Malcolm Huxley? Plus a chance to show off her inarguably impressive math skills? She is so in. “I mean, I’m definitely a mathematical whiz, but I guess I’ll help you.”

“Marvelous.” Malcolm stands up and holds out his hand. “Shall we say right after school? We can meet outside by the buses and walk there together.”

Shall we? Lizzie tries not to laugh as she shakes his hand. “Indeed, we shall,” she says, trying to imitate him without cracking up. Meredith is just dying next to her; Lizzie can hear her ready to burst. But Lizzie manages to maintain a serious expression.

“I’ll see you then, Lizzie,” Malcolm says, and he leaves, and once he’s gone, Lizzie’s entire table explodes into gasping and laughter.

“Oh my god. Malcolm Huxley. Oh my god.” Meredith grabs Lizzie’s arms. “He’s cute, in a weird way. Don’t you think he’s cute?”

Cute? Not so much. But interesting? Oh yeah. Lizzie shrugs, playing it cool. “He wears ties.”

Meredith ignores this. Who cares if he wears neckties? That only adds to his mystique. Her eyes go wide. “What will your parents think about you going to his house to study?”

Lizzie is only thirteen, but this whole thing is making her feel older, like a high schooler, like someone who gets away with things. She has never been that kind of person. She has always lived in a very square, very neat box.

She feels her friends’ eyes upon her, and she flips her hair back. “They don’t have to know,” she says in a way that feels dangerous to her, and everyone squeals. She sees Malcolm watching from across the cafeteria, where he’s just thrown away his lunch trash. She waves, trying to flirt, kind of. She’s not really sure how to flirt, but Malcolm’s smile oozes out of him anyway, and he bows.

He bows.

Lizzie thought people only did that in movies.


Despite all Lizzie’s hair flipping, she’s pretty nervous about going into Malcolm’s house. It looks normal from the outside—she can see it as they turn onto his street—but there is the whole not-knowing-how-to-talk-to-boys-who-bow-to-you-in-cafeterias thing.

Boys with hair way shinier than hers.

Boys who hold open the door for you and offer to take your coat.

“For real?” she asks him, handing him her coat. “This is your house?” Her voice echoes across marble floors. They’re inside the foyer of Malcolm’s house, and it’s beautiful—old-fashioned (surprise, surprise) with heavy rugs and dark wood and weird sculptures on tables—but beautiful. And big. It didn’t look this big from outside, and it didn’t look this old. It smells old, like an antique store. Like an attic. Like . . .

“A library.” The double doors on Lizzie’s right are open, so she goes in, kind of dazed, and sees shelves stretching from floor to ceiling, and they’re all full of books. There’s a fireplace she could stand in without having to duck, and two red chairs in front of the fire.

“Do you like it?” says Malcolm. He sits in one of the red chairs, folds his hands in his lap, and watches her. His hair is swept to the side in a neat blond wave.

“Are you kidding?” Lizzie isn’t really a book person; she prefers numbers and soccer. But this library is like something out of a fairy tale. It’s enormous—the size of her basement; no, the size of her house. This is crazy. A part of her thinks she should not be so excited about a library that is way too big for the house she saw outside, but she hurries to the nearest shelf anyway. Maybe if she sees what kind of books this boy has, she’ll understand about everything—the ties, the shall we, the slow smile.

But the books are blank. The spines, anyway. No titles, no authors. Just red books and blue books and green books, all of them dusty and worn around the edges.

“I hate to rush this,” Malcolm says from his chair, “but I’m running out of time. So, if you want to sit down, it might be easier.”

“All right, all right.” Lizzie frowns and drags her finger along the blank spines of these books. She wants to pull them out and open them, see what’s written inside.

She also doesn’t want to open them. Thinking about doing so gives her that growing storm feeling, the one she got about Malcolm when she saw him on his first day at school. That slow-building, stomach-twisting scared feeling.

“If you’re really that excited about algebra,” she says, turning around, “we’ll get started on tonight’s homework. But first can I meet your—”

Lizzie stops, staring at Malcolm. He has a book in his lap, and it isn’t his math book. And he’s writing in it.

“How come none of these books have titles?” Lizzie asks, uncertain. But that’s not the question she really wants to ask. Why are you writing in one of them? That’s what she really wants to ask. Because the book in Malcolm’s lap looks like one of the books on these shelves—except it’s not dusty. It’s new, and its edges are crisp, and its pages are clean. Except where Malcolm is writing.

“Oh,” Malcolm says, in that polite voice of his, “because I don’t need titles. I know what they all are.”

“Really? Every single one of them? But there must be thousands. How can you remember all of them?”

“Because I am much smarter than you will ever be,” Malcolm says smoothly. “And there are 87,144 books in this room, to be exact.” He looks up at Lizzie, and this time his smile is quick, like a dart. Like a knife. “Soon to be 87,145.”

He taps the book on his lap with his pen, like he’s inserting a period. The sound is final, like the closing of a lid.

And then Lizzie feels it: She feels herself bending inward, like her arms and legs are folding up into curlicues, like she’s way too deep underwater and her body can’t take the pressure, so it collapses instead.

She looks down at her hands.

They’re fading.

She begins to scream. She runs for the double doors, but they’re closed and locked. She bangs on them, claws at them, but she is shrinking. She is a girl made of screams instead of bones. She is a girl made of pen ink instead of blood.

She is flying across the room because something is pulling her. Her half-vanished fingernails are digging into the carpet. And then they’re not digging into the carpet because they’re gone. She is gone. She is . . . no longer solid. Something pulls her through a tiny hole, a hundred tiny holes—through letters, written in Malcolm’s handwriting.

Lizzie is in a white, clean prison. She tries to hold out her hands, and she sees nothing. She tries to turn around, and can’t. She can think, she can faintly speak, like something is stuck in her throat, but she can’t move, and all she can see is a forever-whiteness—and Malcolm’s face, in front of her.

She sees his face through dozens of tiny windows that are the letters he has written in this crisp, new book with crisp, new edges and a spine with no title.

But Lizzie, too late for her, realizes this book doesn’t need a title. None of these books do. Because these books are not just books.

They are people. This book is her.

She peers through the window of Malcolm’s letters: September 18, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Dale, thirteen years old, mathematics whiz, sarcastic, athletic, pretty.

Lizzie feels like she is looking out of her own tombstone. She tries to scream—a hoarse, whispery sound, because there isn’t a lot of room in her new home for things like voices. She tries to claw her way out through the windows of Malcolm’s letters. But she no longer has use of her arms.

She begins to cry—but there isn’t a lot of room there for tears, either, so she just feels like she’s choking and gasping inside her skin.

“There, there,” says Malcolm, and then he is no longer a boy, but a great, ghastly, scaly thing, a thing with shadows for claws and cold black eyes. His Malcolm-face peels away in curls of skin, and then he is just this terrible thing staring at Lizzie and speaking to her with a high, sweet voice. It is the same voice: Malcolm’s polite, shall we voice.

He bows to her, mockingly.

“Welcome, Lizzie,” he says, his voice hissing on the z’s in her name. “Welcome to your new home. I think we shall be excellent friends.”

Then he slams the book shut, and Lizzie is squished into darkness, which is far worse than the white prison and makes her feel claustrophobic. She feels pinned down and strapped in, and then she feels Malcolm kiss the cover of her book like a parent would kiss its child good night, except his lips are fat and wet with slime.

She feels her book being slid across a surface—onto a shelf?

She feels the snugness of something on either side of this cramped, dark space—other books, beside her?

And she hears whispers—above her, below her, on either side of her, stretching out in all directions as though she is floating in a sea made of terrible words:

Welcome, Lizzie.

Welcome, Lizzie.

Help us.

Help us.

After a time, Lizzie takes up the call too: Help us. Help us. It is a choir of souls.

A choir that no one will ever hear, except for the slithering thing reclining in the red chair by the fireplace. The coiled, hulking, shadow-clawed thing.

It hears, its claws folded in its lap, and it does nothing but laugh.

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2 Responses to “Number 87,145”

  1. mindy says:

    Wonderful imagery. A library full of souls. I had fun reading and waiting on the mystery of Malcolm.

  2. mindy says:

    Also, I like the title very much.

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