Here’s a bit of what Kirkus Reviews had to say about The Cabinet of Curiosities in their starred review: “Along with a cast of evil magicians, oversized spiders, and other reliable frights, the stories throw children into sinister situations in graveyards, deceptively quiet gardens or forests, their own bedrooms, and similar likely settings. Said children are seldom exposed to gory or explicit violence and, except for horrid ones who deserve what they get, generally emerge from their experiences better and wiser—or at least alive. . . . A hefty sheaf of chillers—all short enough to share aloud and expertly cast to entice unwary middle graders a step or two into the shadows.”
For those of you stopping by our blog for the first time (welcome all) here’s how the contest works: Read the exclusive story below, enter the raffle, answer the question, and win this signed print by the cabinet’s brave and talented illustrator Alexander Jansson. Come back next week for a new story and a different print! This contest is open to all but the curators themselves and the staff of Greenwillow Books. It will end Friday at midnight, and we’ll select the winner on Monday.
The Cabinet of Curiosities, a collection of 36 sinister tales by Stefan Bachmann, Clair Legrand, Katherine Catmull, and Emma Trevayne–aka the Curators–goes on sale May 27.
By Claire Legrand
If Julian had to stay in this car for one more second, he was going to start screaming. And that would probably make Mom and Dad and Summer sing even more loudly than they already were. Such a thing shouldn’t have been possible—they were practically wailing—but Julian knew from experience that it was.
Julian paused his music and tugged out his earbuds and squashed the hot gummy bubble of anger in his chest.
“Hello?” Julian said. “Are we gonna stop soon?”
But Mom and Dad and Summer were singing one of those round songs, which meant Julian had to hear the same song sung three different times by three different voices overlapping. It was chaotic, and nobody but Mom could sing worth anything, so it was also kind of painful.
“Hello.” Julian kicked the back of his dad’s seat but not hard enough to get in trouble.
Dad stopped singing and looked at Julian in the rearview mirror. “Almost, Julian. Don’t snap at me.”
Dad went right back to singing, but his voice sounded irritated now. Of course Dad was irritated. Mom and Dad and Summer loved the whole road trip thing: The junk food and the singing and stopping at random “special attractions” like oversized spools of thread and the birthplace of General Whoever who fought in Some War Who Cares.
But Julian always got sick in the car. Long trips made him nervous. Books were one thing, but Julian didn’t like going to real new places. Danger in real new places was totally possible. The people in real new places were weird and looked at you funny, and in real new places, you can’t close the book when things get too scary. Not that anything scary had ever happened to Julian, but if it ever did it would definitely be on one of these stupid road trips. Also, Julian was no good at singing so instead he listened to books or music on his headphones the whole time because that helped him relax.
Road trips made him feel both angry and left out. Why couldn’t he just have a good time and not be nervous or sick and just smile and sing lame car songs instead, like normal people did? Like Summer.
Julian looked at his sister and felt his chest bubble up again. He tended to get so angry at Summer. She was about to turn ten years old, and she was cheerful and golden-haired like a fairy tale princess, and everyone loved her. Summer could make friends with a fencepost, Mom always said.
So what if Julian wasn’t like that? So what if Julian was quieter and wasn’t good at making friends and didn’t like real new places? Julian knew he shouldn’t care. He was smart enough to know that everyone is different and it would be weird if the world was filled with all Summers and no Julians.
But he did care. It made him angry, and that made him feel bad. Summer was a good kid, and Summer understood Julian. She liked that he was quiet, and she was nice to him even when he was mean to her.
Summer put her hand on Julian’s hand and smiled, laughing at some joke Mom said. “Sing with us, Julian. Sing the next song with us?”
“No thanks,” snapped Julian, and snatched his hand away.
Summer darkened, like she was sunlight and Julian was a stormcloud. She curled into a little ball and looked out the window. She wasn’t singing anymore.
In the front seat, Mom sighed.
Dad looked even madder now, in the rearview mirror. “Apologize to your sister.”
“For what? For not wanting to sing?”
“For your tone.”
The bubble burst in Julian’s chest. He wanted to punch the back of Dad’s seat. But Dad had said they would have lemonade and fudge at this place, and Julian was starved, and punching probably wouldn’t get him anything. So he mumbled, “Sorry.”
Summer peeked over at him and smiled and patted him on the shoulder. Her fingernails were dirty. Her front teeth were crooked and goofy. Julian kept his face stony. Summer crossed her eyes and pulled her mouth into a weird shape.
“Dork,” Julian said, and Summer giggled, and Julian turned away, smiling.
Mom pointed, the map flying out of her hands. “There’s the exit!”
Dad swerved hard, and they made it. They passed a sign for Summer Springs, and Summer clapped, squealing. “That’s my name!”
Julian couldn’t even be mad at her. It was pretty cool to share a name with a nature park. It was why they’d chosen this place. Dad smiled and Mom smiled, and Summer traced the letters on the window with her pinkie.
Mom bought four cups of lemonade and four sticks of fudge, so when they started on the trail through Summer Springs, Julian’s stomach was full and his fingers were sticky.
Summer Springs was a park in the mountains, with a whole set of trails built into the rocks. There were stone bridges and rocky passages so small Dad had to suck in his belly to get through, and cliffs that looked out over the countryside. From Lover’s Leap, Julian could see five different states. If he squinted through Dad’s binoculars, he could see white houses buried in trees next to the highway.
But the place did have one weird thing about it: gnomes.
Little stone gnomes with colorful clothes and hats, placed throughout the trails. They dug ditches and planted flowers and stood frozen, waving their shovels at the people walking past.
“This is so . . . random,” said Julian, looking at a gnome in a purple shirt with a rake in one hand and his hat in the other.
Dad laughed. He was really getting a kick out of the gnomes. “People who build these attractions tend to be a bit eccentric, I guess.”
Mom giggled and took pictures of them. “I think they’re adorable! Such ugly little faces.”
“How can something be adorable and ugly?” said Julian.
“Oh, they can. You know, like those pug dogs.”
“Julian,” whispered Summer, tugging at Julian’s shirt. Whenever they passed a gnome, Summer went quiet. She shrank, like she was a flower and the gnomes were icy cold winter. “I don’t like them.”
“They’re watching us. They have sharp teeth. They don’t like us, either. They’re watching us.”
“They’re not real, Summer. They’re just stupid statues.”
“They smell like . . . skin.”
“Oh, like you can smell the gnomes from all the way over here? The not-real, statue gnomes with their not-real, statue skin?”
Summer tugged on Julian’s arm, pulling him down the path. “I don’t like them,” she kept muttering, and she wiped her face with the back of her hand. “They’re watching us, they’re watching.”
Julian let Summer mutter and freak out or whatever it was she was doing. Sometimes Summer did stuff like this. She liked to daydream, and she didn’t read books because the stories affected her too much. They scared her so much she couldn’t sleep, or made her cry so hard she got sick, or made her so happy she’d get hyper like she did after eating candy on Halloween, except like a hundred times worse.
Summer was just being Summer.
Gnomes that smell like skin. What a dork.
Except for the whole gnome thing and Summer acting bizarre, Julian actually liked it at Summer Springs. The mountain breezes were cool, and that helped Julian’s car sickness. There were lots of trees, and at this one spot a bunch of white deer slept next to a creek.
The moment she saw them, Summer fell in love with the deer. “Julian, look at them!” Then she lay on her stomach to peer over the cliff and started talking to the deer like they were her babies. She even gave them names: Sweetheart, Sammy, Sammy Junior . . .
A twelve-year-old boy can take only so much of that, so after a minute or two Julian started looking around through the binoculars. He saw a rabbit, and a family with five kids on a wooden bridge, and an old man leading his three-legged dog up some steps. At the top, he let his dog drink from a bottle of water.
“If I were an animal, I’d want to be one of these,” Summer said, kicking her brown legs. “A white deer with long legs and big doofy ears.”
Julian rolled his eyes. “You already have big doofy ears.”
“You’re too close to the edge.” Julian put his hand on her collar.
Summer dusted off her knees and shirt and smiled up at him. “Nice meanie.”
Dad was calling them, waving them over. Mom was taking pictures of a woodpecker.
“What animal would you want to be?” Summer said, squinting. It was really bright on the mountain, sunlight reflecting off the rocks like white glass. “If you were an animal.”
Julian walked toward his parents, Summer hot on his heels. “A monster.”
Summer scrunched up her face. “A monster isn’t an animal. It’s a monster.”
“Well, okay. A monstrous animal, then.”
Summer scratched her left leg with her right foot. “So you could scare people?”
“So people would leave me alone if I wanted them to.”
Summer was quiet. Mom was pointing at the mouth of a cave. “The Enchanted Caverns!” she said. “There are fairy tale dioramas inside. Scenes from famous fairy tales. That’s what the map says.”
“Seriously, so random,” said Julian, shaking his head.
Dad and Mom laughed and held hands.
Julian and Summer followed their parents past a white cottage built into the mountainside. On the cottage’s roof sat a gnome with wide white eyes and a toothy grin, and a purple checkered banner said THE ENCHANTED CAVERNS in faded letters. Julian could hear people laughing and talking inside.
“I wouldn’t, though,” said Summer decidedly. She stopped to pick up smooth dark pebbles and put them in her pocket. She glared up at the wide-eyed gnome. “I wouldn’t leave you alone, Julian, not ever. Even if you were a monster. Not even then.”
Julian took Summer’s hand. It was warm and small, and it made the last of Julian’s car sickness go away. Together, they stepped inside the cave.
At first, Summer was quiet and calm.
She held Julian’s hand as they walked through the Enchanted Caverns behind their parents. They saw other families, and other children, and Julian saw the old man carrying his panting three-legged dog. Twinkly music played from speakers in the ceilings, a dance-like song that made Julian think of one of his books, when the hero’s sneaking through a dark corridor, danger around every corner.
The music turned Julian’s skin into a field of goosebumps.
Creepy blue lights lit up the fairy tale dioramas and bled into the corridor. Julian peeked through each window to see them—the iridescent trees, the glowing figurines, their gnarled, sculpted hands. Red Riding Hood approaching the cottage where the wolf was waiting. Snow White in her glass coffin. Goldilocks, her face in shadows, running from three snarling black bears.
And occasionally, a little meadow of gnomes—gnomes picking flowers, gnomes planting vegetables. A group of gnomes sitting on a shelf in the ceiling, their black boots dangling over Julian’s head.
Through all of this, Summer remained quiet and calm, though her hand gripped Julian’s so hard that finally he ripped it away from her.
“Ow! What are you doing?” Julian hissed. “You’re hurting me.”
Summer grabbed his shirt. “I don’t like it in here.”
Julian was about to yell at Summer for being stupid, but something about the look on her face stopped him. “Well, we’ll just walk a bit faster. We’ll hurry through, and then we’ll be out in the sun again.”
“No, I don’t think so. Oh, no, I don’t think so.” Summer started pulling on her hair. When Julian tried to stop her, she grabbed his hands. “Julian. Julian!”
Julian turned away. He had never seen Summer like this, not even in her strangest moments. Surely someone would come. Surely Dad and Mom would hear Summer screaming and find them, take them by the hands and lead them out.
But Julian saw no one. He heard no one. All he heard was the twinkly music from the speakers overhead, and the soft drip-drip of water against stone. Everyone else passing through the caverns had disappeared. Everything was eerie and blue and dark.
“Dad?” He tried to yell, but no sound came out. His fear had come so quickly that it was like being hit in the stomach, or plunging into icy water. Julian couldn’t speak, or breathe, or move. “Mom?”
Summer threw her arms around Julian’s neck and screamed. “I won’t leave you, I won’t, I won’t. Even with monsters. Even with monsters.”
Julian tried to pry loose Summer’s arms, but she wouldn’t let go. “Summer. What are you talking about?” Julian felt like he wanted to cry. He didn’t understand why his sister was acting like this. He didn’t understand where everyone had gone. This was all happening so fast. “Summer, talk to me!”
“You shouldn’t be here,” came a voice. A whispery voice. A very-old voice. A too-old voice.
Julian whirled, and Summer stopped screaming, and there, at the bottom of the stone steps, crouched a tiny boy. His clothes were torn scraps. He was pale like he hadn’t seen the sun in years, and though his body was small, his face was tired and wrinkled.
Summer took the rocks from her pocket and threw them at the boy. “Get away from us. Get away, leave us alone!”
The boy dodged the rocks like they were nothing. “Shouldn’t be here,” he whispered. “Shouldn’t, shouldn’t. But too late now.”
Julian came out of his shock and grabbed Summer’s hand. He was shaking, but she was on fire. She was blazing hot, and steady. Her eyes snapped hatred.
“Actually,” Julian told the boy, “we were just leaving.”
“You aren’t leaving,” said the boy. “Neither of you. One to pay, and one to stay.”
One to pay, and one to stay. Dozens of voices said it, from somewhere Julian couldn’t see—from everywhere. They whispered it over and over, and Julian saw shapes moving in the shadows. Pale shapes, dark shapes, deformed shapes. They came into the blue light, little by little. They were all children—some boys, some girls, all bent and broken and backward, with faces too old for their bodies.
Julian backed up until he hit the wall. He kept Summer behind him. “Pay what? We don’t have any money.”
The broken child-things laughed. The first child-thing, the pale boy-thing, smiled a toothless smile. He had a pointed black tongue. His mouth opened too widely.
From behind Julian, Summer took off her shoe and threw it at the boy. He ducked, and it bounced away.
“It’s been a long time,” the boy said, “a very long time, since there has been anyone worth keeping.” The boy smiled, his jaw snapping open. “You’ll make them very happy. And it’ll be nice to have a new friend.”
“Keeping?” Julian felt sick. He could hardly stay standing. He felt the ridiculous urge to shove in his earbuds and turn on his music and close his eyes. That would make this go away. “You can’t keep us. We’re not staying.”
The child-things went quiet. They straightened, and their smiles faded. Now they were the ones looking afraid.
The pale boy pointed into the darkness. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, but you are. One will stay, and one will pay.”
Julian held tight to Summer’s hand, and turned around.
They came in a small, dark, slithering crowd. They crawled and crept, they dragged themselves along by broken yellow claws.
The gnomes, it seemed, were not gnomes at all anymore.
The gnomes, it seemed, had been hiding something . . . else.
Bits of torn bright clothing clung to their brown, bony frames. They had long pointed ears and long pointed snouts. Some had tails and some had rotting, stumpy wings. Some still wore their ruined gnome hats. They carried knives; their teeth were lined with blood.
“I don’t like them!” Summer said shrilly. She took off her other shoe and threw it at them, but it melted when it touched them, and turned into a thick black liquid like tar. The creatures swarmed over it, scooping it up with their hands. They fought over it, smearing it on their faces. They breathed deeply. They were smelling it.
“Smells like,” they growled, licking their lips. “Smells like child.”
“Fresh, frightened child.”
“Young, innocent child.”
Sweating, shaking Julian imagined that he was in a book. Yes. Yes, that had to be it. He was in a book, and the only way to get out of this was for the person reading the book to close the book and put it aside for the day.
“Close the book!” Julian yelled, waving his arms at the ceiling and jumping around like crazy. “Close it! Please, hurry!”
The creatures hooted and hollered. The pale child-things whispered to each other, hiding in the shadows.
“You,” wheezed the nearest creature, a spindly brown thing with limbs like a spider. It moved like a spider too—skittering here and there, crawling close to the ground. “You.” It pointed at Julian. The other creatures and the child-things fell silent. “You will pay.” It pointed next at Summer. It grinned widely, rotten teeth spilling out over cracked lips. “And she will stay.”
The creatures began to cheer. They beat on their chests, raked their claws against the stone, gnawed on their torn clothes.
The child-things rushed toward Summer. They were rushing toward Summer. Julian tried to stop them. He kicked them and punched them. He tore at their filthy clothes, and the fabric came apart in his hands like muddy leaves.
“No!” Julian cried. He reached for Summer and caught her hands, but the creatures were pulling him away, and he lost her. Their scabby brown fingers wrapped around his legs and arms, dragging him across the floor.
They were smiling down at him. They were raising their knives. Pay, pay, pay, they chanted. He will pay, pay, pay—
“Fine,” said a small voice. “Fine. I’ll stay. I’ll stay here, if that’s what you want.”
The creatures stopped and let Julian go. He scrambled to his feet.
Summer stood there, hands in fists at her sides. She had that weird, faraway look like she used to get when she was allowed to read.
“I won’t leave my brother,” Summer said. “I told him I wouldn’t. So of course I’ll stay.”
The creatures stepped back, and back, and back, grumbling, groaning, their too-long arms dragging along the stone.
The child-things stared. The pale boy crept closer to Summer, on all fours like a scared dog.
“It’s been so long,” said the pale boy, “since anyone was brave enough. Since someone stayed instead of trying to run.”
“So long,” the other child-things whispered. “Years upon years.”
Summer found Julian’s hand. Julian grabbed it tight. “Well,” said Summer, “even if he were a monster, I wouldn’t leave without him.” She shivered and sneezed in the cold. “I said I wouldn’t.”
She looked like a normal Summer again, instead of strange, brave Summer. Or maybe both were the same. Julian wondered: Would he have stayed for Summer? Was he as brave? Maybe instead he would have tried to escape. It was impossible to know, and Julian felt cold and sick again, like in the car with the air conditioning blasting on him and too much junk food in his belly.
“Go,” said the pale boy. He touched Summer’s bare feet and then shrank back like she had burned him. “Go, now.”
The creatures, slinking and shuddering over each other down the corridor, were staring at Julian and Summer with cold dark eyes that glinted in the blue light. They were confused. Julian could see that. But for how long?
“Now,” whined the pale boy. He pushed Julian, and his hands left behind a stinging feeling on Julian’s skin. “Now.”
The child-things howled and ran deeper into the caves, and the pale boy went with them.
And the creatures—the horrible spider-thin creatures—reared up into a single great shape in the dark cavern. They shrieked and surged forward, spilling over the ground toward Julian and Summer like a wave of black water. Their nails clacked against the floor.
But Summer was fast, and Julian was faster. He led the way, pulling Summer hard, and hands grabbed at their legs and seized their clothes, but they didn’t stop.
When they hit the sunlight, it was like bursting out from underwater. Summer was coughing, and Julian was holding her up. Julian felt a hand grabbing at his leg and kicked back, but when he looked behind him, nothing was there but the mouth of the cave and a cheerful sign that said COME BACK SOON.
Dad found them and clapped them on the backs. Behind him, Mom was taking pictures of blue jays. The three-legged dog was on a bench getting his belly scratched.
“There you are!” Dad said. He was red-cheeked and happy. His shirt was sweaty, and his hat was crooked. “You two were right behind us, and then all of a sudden you weren’t. Thought I was gonna have to come get you.” He knelt in front of them and ruffled Summer’s hair. “Pretty cool in there, huh? Lots of things to see. And kind of spooky, huh?
“Dad.” Julian tried to say it a few times before he found his voice again. “Dad, promise me something.”
“Sure thing. Hey. Wait.” Dad leaned back and squinted at Summer’s face. “You all right, sweetie? Something scare you?”
Summer tried to smile but she didn’t let go of Julian. She held onto his arm and her fingers were white. Her cheek was warm against his arm, and this time, when Julian felt the hot bubble in his chest, it wasn’t gummy or bad. It was full of light, and it held Summer’s name inside it.
“Just promise me,” said Julian.
Dad scratched his head, pushing back his hat. “Well, sure. Anything. What is it?”
“If Summer ever asks me to sing with her again,” Julian said, squeezing his sister’s hand until he felt her squeeze it back, “make sure I do it.”
You can find the Curators online . . . should you dare to. They flit in and out of twitter, where they are posting lines from stories in the collection every day.