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A Little Alive

A Little Alive
by Nick Manzolillo

There is something beneath a curtain and behind a locked door. She would do anything to see what it is. Of course, if Lexi gets caught while sneaking around and peering through old rusty keyholes instead of finishing her take-home exam, then her mom would probably ban her from seeing the new Harry Potter movie. That’s not something Lexi’s willing to compromise.

On top of her curiosity, she’s formed a guilty stomachache. Her crying mother left her at her Uncle’s in a rush because her brother got up to something none of the adults will tell her about. She imagines that it must be something pretty bad, and possibly gross. He’s a senior in high school and he’s always getting up to cool stuff she can’t imagine, like driving up to Maine with his friends over the summer. He makes everything Lexi does seem boring.

Uncle Horace’s house reminds her of a museum; everything he owns is ancient. The TV is one of those big square blocky ones. Uncle Horace isn’t really her uncle; he’s just a family friend that was close to Lexi’s Grandpa Frankie, on her mom’s side. Grandpa Frankie passed away when Lexi was still in Kindergarten, so she doesn’t remember him too well. Horace is over her house every holiday and birthday. His presents are always the best because you can tell he didn’t get them from just any store. He finds his presents from antique shops and, “on the road or across the ocean,” as he puts it. She’s only been at Uncle Horace’s a handful of times and she can’t help that itching, nagging curiosity. Through a locked door there must be something special.

Uncle Horace lives on the far side of the county, which is how Lexi knows her brother did something really bad, because her mother wouldn’t have driven her over here otherwise. Lexi used to think Uncle Horace was a wizard when she was younger, and she still plays around with that idea now. He has a bushy goatee and his hair is longer than Lexi’s. Uncle Horace once had an amazing store he ran but it ended up closing down. It was some kind of antique store, except the inside looked more like a funhouse and a freak show combined with the creepier exhibits at a museum.

It was called Oddities and she’s never been anywhere else that had her freaked out yet utterly mesmerized at the same time. You walk through that front door and there’s a mannequin with a hat that looks like the top half of an owls head with it’s eyes peering down from where it’s nested on the skull. That mannequin was always so tall and Lexi was too shy to ask Horace if she could wear it.

There were lots of animals, she remembers, some were in tubes of water like baby sharks and big ugly lizards and bright and colorful snakes. There were boar, bear, and moose heads on the walls. There were fisher cats, raccoons alongside other weird mammals as taxidermies arranged around the shop. Displayed, as if for Lexi’s amusement and horror, were dollhouses and strange porcelain mannequins, some more creepy and deformed than others. Shark jaws and both complete and incomplete animal skeletons were propped up behind glass displays. Strange, fancy old-fashioned dishes and posters adorned made sure not an inch of white was showing on the walls. Clown masks hung beside old signs that listed freak show acts and snake oil scam products, like magic hair growing cream and X-ray glasses. On one wall there was a pair of shrunken heads, then shriveled fetuses and old pictures of strange, horrible too weird to be true things that looked like mutated aliens. It was a nightmare and a dream at the same time. Lexi’s always wanted more of it, yet Oddities is nothing more than memory.

The shop was small, but she would walk around and around discovering new objects with every revolution, with every visit. There was an old medical desk and her uncle would sometimes tell her that she could pick any one draw and take what was inside. When she would, it would be filled with a random, hectic assortment of more objects-oddities. Her imagination was alit. There were magic rocks and seashells and black and white photographs of mermaids that looked real enough to her. There were telescopes, microscopes, and kaleidoscopes-- all old fashioned and different from the ones she recognizes today. Then there was the back room, and she was never once allowed in there.

Oh, but she did catch a peak, one time--she was as daring then as she is now. There were more treasures, gleaming, dark, and mangled. Her uncle told her “nothing back there” was ready to be seen. He told her mother and father that everything back there was in a state of “precise fragility,” and that he had work to do to make those things presentable. Even on her birthday, when little girls really do become princesses, he denied her a visit to the back room and instead let her open two of the medical desk drawers.

Uncle Horace hasn't been the same since he closed the shop, or maybe memories grow mold and become weird after a while. Uncle Horace seems to be a lot more quiet than he used to be, he’s almost sad now--he treats Lexi like just another adult. It's like he had a spark to him that fled to the night sky.

There is something in that room, just down the hallway from where Lexi's been doing her work. Through the keyhole and beneath that curtain it's strange, full of many lumps and it's alone on a table with a royal purple blanket draped over it, hanging to the floor. The purple is so smooth that she imagines it to be silk.

The living room she's in now, along with the rest of the house, is almost entirely unremarkable except for the overwhelming fact that it’s old. The most interesting thing about Horace’s house is the lack of comfort, the shivering creep of coldness, of hollowness that rings with every creak of the floorboards. Lexi taps her pencil against the dusty coffee table she's hunched over and then she throws it down the hallway leading to the room with a secret.

There's a creak from elsewhere in the house. Uncle Horace has no mystical abilities--he can't move through this place silently, either. He's upstairs, he probably won't notice what Lexi does. As soon as her mother sat her down, Uncle Horace told her she was welcome to whatever was in the fridge "plenty of sandwich making materials" and that she isn't allowed to looking through any room with a closed door. How long was it exactly before she broke his rules? As soon as he went upstairs to work on the catalogue he claims to be writing?

Lexi scurries over to the locked door on her tiptoes (which doesn’t make much of a difference as far the floorboards are concerned) and then she grabs the doorknob and twists it. "Alexandra Rose Thorton!" The house explodes in a crash of thunder at the eruption of her uncle’s voice as tremendous footsteps clobber down the stairs. Lexi thinks the faded green walls around her are melting, until she realizes she's shivering.

"It was locked anyway!" She whines as her uncle comes to a stop in the living room. His lips are trembling and his eyes are sharp little knives.

“What are you doing?” Something about the way he talks has her on the verge of tears. He asks that question like there’s nothing special, nothing exciting or, even, magical, about the world. He asks that like he didn’t own a shop of…wonders, just a few years ago.

“I was just exploring. I wanted to see where you keep everything from the… shop.” Lexi’s pencil cracks beneath her UGGs as she steps forward.

Uncle Horace crosses his arms, seeming to lean forward and grow taller, like some great bitter bird hunching forwards. “It’s dangerous for you and for the specimen…my objects.”

“I’m not six, I won’t break anything.”

“Strange oddities begat strange circumstances.” Uncle Horace rolls up his shirtsleeve to show her an arm zigzagged with semi-pink scars. “This can happen to you little lady, some items appear like one thing, but they’re really another and that’s why you’ve got to keep to yourself.”

“What’s under the purple curtain?” It’s all out now, why not ask? Why not try to pry away? This place is a treasure chest that’s practically begging to be opened. He’s going to have to bring her home or keep an eye on her. She won’t take no for an answer. So much for Harry Potter.

Uncle Horace frowns and with his goatee and the collection of wrinkles that sag across his cheeks, he looks like some kind of droopy dog. He seems confused, until he stares to Lexi’s right, towards the keyhole and then there is the thinnest smile. “Determination is a hell of a quality, kiddo.” The sadness clings to his voice, why won’t it just leave? It’s as if he’s on the verge of being real, of being complete. “But what if I told you something horrible was in there? I don’t think I’d forgive myself if it messed you up, and gave you nightmares for the rest of your life.”

He’s a smart guy, Lexi’s mother tells her he has a lot of different school degrees. Uncle Horace has been around the world, literally, so that means he must have seen all sorts of stuff. He was in one of the wars, too. Maybe it’s because her imagination isn’t big enough, or because the worst thing she’s ever experienced is burying her cat Snickers after he got hit by a car, but Lexi tells Horace yes.

“Yes, I want to see what’s in there. I’m eleven, come on.” Horace smiles again, and Lexi wonders what’s so funny.

“Well, before we even go in there, I want you to know I’ll keep you safe.” He grimaces before pointing a thumb upstairs. “First we have to get the key.”

“Why do you keep the door locked?” She asks as Uncle Horace heads for the staircase. It’s the steep and narrow kind of stairs, like the type they keep in apartment buildings.

“So nosey little girls don’t go where they don’t belong.” He chuckles and then his tone tapers off. “So nothing gets out.”

“Is there something alive in there?” Lexi asks. Uncle Horace still has that playful way of speaking, even if it doesn’t actually sound right. Lexi doesn’t completely understand him.

“Hmm.” He shakes his head as he looks toward the top of the stairs. It’s shadowy up there, but it is a cloudy day and the lights are spaced out kind of weird in this house. “Yeah, kind of.”

“What…like a pet? An animal?” Lexi thinks of the weird medical instruments and photographs of mutated people in the Oddity shop. She imagines that Uncle Horace has Frankenstein experiments going on behind locked doors.

“It’s not really alive, but it’s not really dead, either.”

“Like a zombie?” She asks but Horace just clears his throat and shakes his head.

On the second floor, Uncle Horace leads Lexi to what looks like an office. There’s a big desk covered in papers and an old computer. There are bookshelves lining the walls full of both leathery, old volumes and new, plastic softcovers. There are a few curiosities, too and like an object from some half-forgotten dream, Lexi spots the owl hat hanging at the top of a coat rack. “I remember that!” Lexi points and Horace’s lips draw tight as he walks across the room. For a moment Lexi thinks he’s going to pluck the owl hat from the top of the coat rack with his long arms but instead he ignores it, as he hunches over the desk and pulls open one of its drawers.

“Come here,” Uncle Horace mutters as Lexi approaches him and gasps. It’s a drawer full of keys, but they’re not just boring moldings of silver and gold, they are royal, and they are bizarre. There are keys shaped like skeletons and keys adorned with jewels. There are keys that look like fanged things and there are keys that seem ancient and heavy. Some of these keys even look like they could open doors to other worlds. Like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. There’s a bubbling in Lexi’s stomach. All of these keys are really question marks. How many things are there to find, to discover, to know? How many locks are there standing in her way?

“You like them, don’t you?” Uncle Horace is sitting in his cushy, velvety red chair. He seems frail, like he’s slowly becoming too boney.

“I love them.” Lexi hovers her hand over the mess of keys, so many keys all unique…there are hundreds of them, stacked on one another like a mess of gold coins in a chest.

“Do you know where they all go?” Lexi asks but Horace only shakes his head, slowly.

“No, but I know where this one does.” Uncle Horace holds up a large silver key that, despite its size, is unspectacular. “You don’t want to see what’s in there. It’s horrible.” Horace closes his fist around the thick key so that only its jagged mouth shows. “It’s going to make you not want to follow funny looking keys anymore. It’s going to ruin your curiosity, and, dear, it may just ruin you…but I’m not going to deny you your curiosity.”

“Well, then maybe you have something cooler you can show me instead…” Lexi looks up at the owl hat, but then her gaze falls, weighted, toward the cavernous drawer of keys. “No.” She changes her mind. “Maybe you have nicer things you can show me…after I see what’s under that blanket.”

“Then close that drawer.” Uncle Horace hurls himself up and heads for the door before stopping and waiting for Lexi to do as he says.

“I want to wear that owl cap.”

“Then wear it.” Lexi slams the key drawer, jumps up near the coat rack and just grazes the owl hat with her fingertips as it falls and she catches it and slaps it snug on her head. It’s more comfortable than she imagined and she feels, or believes she feels, wiser, just by wearing it.

“Why did you close your shop? I miss it.” She’s asked him this before, at family gatherings and such, but the question has always been brushed off like a soft gasp in a strong wind.

“It costs money running something, I figure mine is best spent on more crucial things. I don’t see the point in sharing with people, it has always been a private thing, my work, you know. The collection, the display with things on sale was always just a side effect. It wasn’t easy after your…grandpa…passed. He was sometimes my, what do you call em, sidekick. Heck, maybe I was his. We were never quite partners but, a lot of the things I found and took were when he was around and by my side.”

“Was he like you?” Lexi asks. They’re standing before the locked door now but the idea of the grandpa she can’t remember meeting is stranger, more intriguing.

“No, no he was nothing like me. People had more fun with him around, I…I’m better for a campfire or, I don’t know.” Uncle Horace does look like a storyteller.

“Well, I’m having fun right now.” Lexi reaches up and rubs her owl cap. There are feathers and for a brief moment she wonders if this is really the top half of an owl’s scalp. Those glassy eyes and that nose, though, its certainly fake. Just a lost piece of ancient fashion.

“I made what you’re about to see. It’s…based off some designs I found. Actually, it’s based on a lot of research I found, and completed. You saw the shop, you remember all the dead things? All those tubed up animals and such. I thought something alive, almost, would be better. More impressive.” Like a doctor injecting a shot while keeping you caught up in conversation, Horace slips in the key, and the door peels away. There in that small dining room and lying across a table that may as well be an altar, is a thing beneath a purple blanket. A thing with a great many appendages poking up in random places, making the purple blanket seem like some kind of funhouse tent.

There were more objects, more curiosities just beyond the keyhole all along. To the left and right of the doorway is a disorganized cluster of objects. Birdcages, weird cactus like electrical tubes with mesh wires over their bulbs. There are taxidermy pigs and a half a Zebra. There is an old rowboat propped along a wall next to a badly burned totem pole. This room, hidden along the walls--it’s the continuation of Oddities. Lexi’s eyes never waver from the thing beneath the purple blanket for long. As she stares at it and follows Horace closer to it, one of the things poking along the other side of the blanket twitches. Then another thing twitches and soon, there is something wriggling beneath the blanket.

“We trigger it. Electrically.”

“Can’t you just tell me what it is?”

“I don’t have a name for it…” Horace doesn’t turn from the thing beneath the curtain. He’s afraid, Lexi didn’t realize that until now.

“Why do you have it?”

“I’m sorry, I thought it was obvious. I made it. I took one thing I found and combined it with a few others.”

“This stuff is…these things…its all…why do you have it? Some of its cool and weird and like what you would keep in a museum but, why?”

“The same reason you want to see what’s under that blanket. It’s all about the fantasy, Alexandra. It’s all about holding something and not quite knowing what it is. It’s the ideas you get up to, it’s the story you start making up the minute you hold something your unfamiliar with. These things are raw fascination…they’re every story you’ve been told in physical, singular form.” Horace points at the thing beneath the purple blanket. “I thought something brought to life would…cross a boundary of sorts. I thought it would be like having a completely captivating dream come to life. Like something you’d read from a storybook. I thought I would create the ultimate curiosity….” Horace grabs the purple blanket just as what’s beneath starts writhing, and squealing.

Lexi doesn’t shriek or cry. For a moment, she can’t look away--if only because she doesn’t entirely understand what she’s looking at. When she was younger she would play in her mother’s garden and lift up these big rocks that formed its boundary and beneath them would be hosts of squirming, creeping bugs. What’s beneath the blanket is a mammal, like some kind of furry beetle with too many legs and a long blue tongue that keeps getting caught in its pincers. There are rusty, mechanical parts too, and maybe a tail, unless that’s just another arm. It’s not moving so much as it is twitching and wiggling into the air its limbs, its many limbs. Then she sees one of its eyes, and realizes it’s a person’s, a real, light blue and human eye. Horace’s shoulders are slumped i as he stares at the thing that isn’t quite alive. It’s like some kind of upside down wound up toy. Its limbs move in the same, flopping pattern. Lexi looks away and the tears in her eyes aren’t from horror. She’s never seen anything sadder; Horace looking over that thing in utter defeat.

Lexi walks out of the room and sits down on the old couch in the living room, next to her backpack and the unfinished exam. Horace joins her after a few minutes. He locks the door to the room and that thing behind him. “Here,” he holds out what Lexi thinks is the key to the room with the horrible thing he just locked away, but instead something catches the light across the key and Lexi detects a sparkle. The key has a wide silver handle that reminds her of the moon. As Horace hands it to her she realizes she is trembling. “You can keep this. I don’t know where it goes. Maybe you can imagine…something nice.” Her fingers graze it and for a moment they are both holding this key to the unknowable, but then Horace lets go as he casts an uncertain glance toward the locked room. There is a faint rustling from within.

“Why do you keep it?”

“As a reminder.”

“Of what?”

“Of what can go wrong when enough isn’t enough.” Horace slumps over on the far side of the lumpy, too rectangular to be comfortable couch.

“It’s just a really sad thing and I don’t think you should keep bothering with something as sad as that. Maybe you should go back to what made you happy, before.”

“You say that so easily…you’re so young, dear.” Horace has another tight smile as he stares at his blank television set.

“Well, yeah, I’m eleven, but, look.” Lexi holds up the key he gave her. “Forget…” Lexi forces her hand to be still from its shivering even as she realizes she can still feel that thing squirming, kicking in the air like flickering flames suffering and burning out with nothing to consume, continuously. “Forget that room. Where does this go? Where do all of you keys go? We should try and find out. How many other locked rooms are there?”

Uncle Horace lets out a dry chuckle and then shrugs. “None” he almost sneers and Lexi lowers the key, rubbing her fingers over its edges. Uncle Horace continues; “But I do have a number of junk boxes, in the basement. I don’t know what’s inside but, they won’t be horrible like that. Maybe.”

“Let’s do it then, you have a lot of keys so it’s going to take a while.”

“They won’t all fit. There are more keys then locks, more keys than every lock I’ve ever known.”

Lexi jumps to her feet and holds the key in the light so that it glows and gleams, like a magic wand. “That’s okay.”

Uncle Horace grimaces but his lips catch and turn into a smile as he heaves himself up onto his feet with a crack from his knees. “I’ll organize the boxes and other locked items. You get to deal with the keys, and trying every one of them out. I’ll make us some coffee, and see if I have any ice cream.”

Lexi’s heading upstairs to pull out the drawer of infinite keys and Uncle Horace is getting ready to brave the heavy shadows of the basement to find every box, crate, and chest he has. Coming to ruin everything is a pitiful scurrying sound from the locked room. Lexi and her uncle look at one another. Lexi silently pleads for him to ignore it, and after a moment, he does, as he nods, and then they turn and separate, to begin their search for something greater.

* * *

Nick Manzolillo's writing has appeared in over forty publications including Wicked Haunted: An Anthology of the New England Horror Writers, Grievous Angel, TQR, Red Room Magazine, and the Tales To Terrify podcast. He has an MFA in Creative and Professional Writing from Western Connecticut State University. By day he works as a content specialist for TopBuzz, a news app. He lives in Manhattan and spends the little free time he has growing a beard.

What do you think is the most important aspect of a fantasy story? 

The exact moment what you’ve been taught is not possible begins to happen.