My mom opened the flaps of the cardboard box and started pulling stuff out as I hovered next to her. I didn’t trust her to remember that I needed the box.
“Our teacher gave us a weird assignment,” I said. “He wants us to make a diorama.”
“What’s weird about that?” my mom asked, smiling at the box of cable adapters she lifted out of the box.
“He wants each of us to do the diorama on the exact same thing: the solar system.”
“Didn’t you do that in the second grade?”
“First, but that’s not the point. I mean it is. We’re too old for this. I don’t know. He wants everyone to do the solar system. And then we each have to present our dioramas for three to five minutes.”
“I don’t get it,” my mom said.
My little brother wandered over. He put a hand on the edge of the cardboard box and peeked over it.
“Neither did we,” I said. “So someone asked if he wanted us to focus on different things. Like maybe I could do Saturn, and Maribel could do the Kuiper belt, and Ash could do Pluto.”
“That’s not what he wants. He wants the whole solar system, from each of us.”
“System,” my brother said. He said it again, obviously as impressed as I was that he had pronounced the word clearly and correctly.
“Is this for your science class or your art class?”
“Mom, you’re not listening. I told you. It’s for my Applied and Practical Arts class.”
My mom turned to me as she lifted a book out of the box. She sighed. “That makes more sense.”
“He wants you to get creative within the confines of the two rules he’s given you. It must be the solar system, and it must be a diorama.”
I frowned. “But he didn’t say that.”
“Did he have a tricky look on his face?”
My little brother gazed up my mom. “It’s looking,” he said.
My mom chuckled and nudged me with her elbow. “Maybe he wants to see what you all will do. Who plays it safe? Who does something…atypical?”
I shook my head. “What’s the point? If he wants to see how creative we can be, why didn’t he let us do whatever?”
“Mom…” I crossed my arms.
My brother pointed into the box. “There’s an eye, mahm.”
“Are you worried you’ll get a bad grade?”
“Yes! This class is so easy. I don’t want to mess it up because I didn’t understand an assignment.”
“Mahm, it’s blinking.”
Suddenly, my brother screamed. His shoulders jerked up and he backed away from the box. I stepped back, thinking he’d seen a bug or something. My mom went to him and stroked his hair.
“What?” I asked. “Is it a bug?”
“There’s an eye, Mallow. It’s looking.”
I leaned over the box, now thinking that a picture of an eye from something my mom ordered had scared my brother.
Just as I peeked inside, he said, “It’s blinking.”
I felt my heart clench, but then I saw what was in the box, and I sighed in relief. There was no eye. There was nothing left in the half-empty box that even resembled an eye. I tilted my head one way and then the other to try and see what my brother thought he’d seen.
I took out the rest of the items and the packing material. I flipped the box over to show my brother that there was nothing in there. He frowned, looking confused. He wiggled out of my mom’s arms and walked over.
“See, it’s fine,” I said.
I took the box to my room. It was heavier than I expected. It didn’t look like heavy duty cardboard, but maybe it was some new kind of stuff, which was even better. I wouldn’t have to worry about the box falling apart if I had to punch a few holes in it.
I started brainstorming what I wanted my diorama to look like. My brother came into my room once or twice, like he always did when I had the door open. Once, he brought me a bowl of sliced apples. I noticed each time that he’d look over at the cardboard box. I’d set it down on the floor near the window.
I waited for him to say something, but he didn’t. So the last time he came in, I called him over and showed him what I was working on.
“What do you think, Win?” I asked him. “Do you think I could fit the solar system in a box?”
He grinned and shook his head. “No.”
I laughed. “You’re right,” I said. “You’re pretty smart.”
“You’re pretty smart, Mallow.”
I chuckled. One of these days he would know how to say my name.
I started working on the diorama that night. I’d written out every idea I could think of, even ones that I knew people had done over and over, like using marbles for the planets, or trying to build all the celestial bodies to scale.
In the end, I figured my idea wasn’t all that original, but it was original for me. And I did feel weird when I was doing it. So maybe I was doing the assignment correctly?
My idea was just this, I would use unexpected colors to paint all the heavenly bodies. The sun would be electric blue. Maybe I would even make some lightning bolts around it, instead of the usual flames. Mars would definitely not be red. Earth would not be blue and green. I’d paint the asteroids bright yellow. And maybe Neptune would be plaid.
I started thinking about textures too, and I went around the house gathering scraps of things like sandpaper and cheesecloth.
I wouldn’t worry about scale. And I wouldn’t label anything.
The only thing I would paint with the expected colors was the inside of the box. I would use indigo and midnight blue. And I’d spray a little white paint for faraway stars.
I really got into the project that weekend. And I happened to not have any major homework in my other classes. I had spread newspaper over the floor in my bedroom. I borrowed a palette and a set of acrylic paints from my dad. And my mom kept bringing me stuff from around the house.
My brother wandered in every now and then, maybe hoping I’d be playing a video game. But I was always just working on my project, gluing, molding, painting, and propping. I noticed he kept looking at the cardboard box and making faces. At first, I thought he was jealous of the time I was spending on my homework. That was for weekdays. I was supposed to spend some of the weekend with him.
So I told him he could stay and help me with a few things, as long as he did what I said.
My mom came by with a bag full of spare buttons. I asked my brother to find a few big ones. I’d stick them to the back and sides of the box and use them to represent faraway galaxies.
I warned him not to eat any and almost kicked him out of my room when he kept pretending to put a button in his mouth.
But he picked out some good ones and he watched me glue them into the box. I glued a few to the back of the box, which was actually the bottom of the box if it was in its original orientation. So I flipped the box so the bottom was the bottom again and the glue could dry without the buttons slipping down.
My brother stood and leaned over the box, smiling proudly. “Looks good.”
“Yeah, you’re a skilled button-picker.”
He shrugged and suddenly his smile dropped away. He ran to me. “Mallow, it’s looking.”
I went to the box and peeked over the side, and for a split second, I saw an eye staring back at me.
I gasped and blinked.
And it was gone.
In its place was a large plastic purple button.
I must have just seen my own eye reflected in the button.
“Wow, that power of suggestion thing is strong, huh?” I said, looking down at my brother. “There’s nothing in there. I’ll stand next to you. Go ahead and look.”
My brother craned his neck and peered over the edge of the box. “Gone,” he said.
But that night when I was getting ready for bed, I stared at the box and wondered if I should look inside one more time, or if I should close the lid.
The power of suggestion, I thought. And I shook my head and went to bed.
The diorama was finished.
My mom and dad had seen it, praised it, and taken pictures of it from different angles. And I had started staring at it, proudly at first. But then, I felt something in my stomach, like a little worm wiggling around.
I was worried.
Our presentations were a couple of days away. My diorama would have to survive until then, and it would have to survive the car ride to school. I wouldn’t need help carrying it. I’d made it lightweight. I’d securely glued everything. If there was anything that needed to fold out or pop out, I’d made it so it could fold or pop back into the box. And I’d left the box’s flaps on, so I could just close them.
But I had worked so hard, and I didn’t want even one piece to fall off or get messed up. And that little worm starting growing and wiggling its away up from my belly to my chest.
And that’s how I was feeling when I saw the eye.
I crinkled my nose and frowned.
I stared at it.
Just inside Saturn’s rings. It was big. As wide as my middle finger, maybe bigger.
I blinked a few times, hoping it would go away, but it didn’t.
I rubbed my eyes, but the eye in the box was still there.
The eye blinked.
And I gasped.
“Hey!” I called out.
The eyeball slid to the right and looked right at me.
I backed out of my room. I wanted to get my brother. I wanted to see if he saw it. But he was just a little kid. I wanted to get my mom, but my mom wouldn’t believe me. Not unless she saw the eye with her own eyes.
I had to be sure that I had really seen what I thought I saw. I made myself go back into my room. I stared inside my diorama. I stared inside Saturn’s rings.
The eye was gone.
I took a deep breath. That worm in my gut was gone too.
It had just exploded and its guts were spattered inside my guts.
I did end up going to find my brother. I took him aside, so my mom wouldn’t hear us. And I asked him to describe what the eye looked like.
He showed me how big he thought it was. And he told me that it was scary, because it was brown but also kind of red.
And he told me it looked like a monster’s eye.
Since that wasn’t helpful I kept asking him different questions about why he thought it looked like a monster’s eye. I showed him pictures of different kinds of eyes, and he pointed to the eyes of dragon’s and lizards.
What he described sound exactly like what I saw.
I was surprised when he volunteered to come with my to me room to see the eye again.
He wrapped both his hands around the bottom of my arm and walked behind me. We walked slowly back into my room. Everything else looked normal. A stack of books on my desk. The canister full of colored pencils that were different heights. One pair of headphones on my bed. Another sitting on the seat of my chair. The tiny desk fan running on low.
And the diorama right next to it, with the flaps of the box open toward my door.
And the eye inside, staring off to the left.
My brother’s grip on my arm tightened. I glanced down at him. He was biting his lip. I nodded. And he nodded back.
I turned and called out to the eye again.
The eye shifted toward us. And this time, the box shifted too. It wobbled and slid a few inches.
I pushed my brother behind me and back out of the room.
We rushed down the stairs.
“Let’s go find mom,” I said.
My brother said nothing.
I didn’t tell my mom what I needed for her to see. I figured she wouldn’t come upstairs if I did.
I just told her I needed her to see something in my diorama. I could tell she thought I’d added some new detail or something and just wanted to see if she’d notice or praise me some more.
When we went upstairs and into my room, I saw right away that the eye had vanished again. I looked at my brother.
“Gone,” he said.
“Okay,” my mom said, sighing and gazing down at the diorama. “Let me see. What am I looking at? Do I get a hint?” My mom humored me sometimes. But she didn’t pretend.
I had to think of something. “Uh, it’s okay. If you don’t notice it right away, I need to work on it more.”
“Haven’t you worked on it enough, honey?”
“Yeah, it’s not a big deal. Maybe I’ll leave it. Sorry for calling you up here.”
“Oh, don’t be sorry.”
My mom turned and pat me on the shoulder. Then she looked at my brother. “Isn’t your sister’s project great?”
My brother didn’t say anything. He looked at me and his expression said, “Is it?”
I called my friend Maribel and told her all about the eye. I started off saying the word “hypothetically” a lot, because I was worried she wouldn’t believe me, but then I remembered who I was talking to. Maribel was into that kind of thing. And she was into believing her friends when they made wild claims.
“Where is it now?” she asked.
“The diorama, and yeah, the eye. All of it.”
“In my room. I closed the flaps of the box, and I closed the door. I’m not going back in there until know what it is and what to do.”
I hoped Maribel could help with that. But she had no idea what the eye could be.
But she did know who might. She remembered reading an article a while ago about an organization, a company or agency or something, that handled cases dealing with unusual phenomena, stuff science couldn’t explain, supernatural stuff, extraterrestrial stuff.
“Why does it keep disappearing?” I wondered out loud. “And I think it was bigger the second time I saw it.”
Maribel suggested tearing my diorama apart, but then she took back the idea, in case it might make the eye—or whatever the eye was attached to—angry.
That made a shiver go down my spine.
I was nervous, and maybe starting to get scared. But I wasn’t scared enough to consider destroying my diorama after all the work I’d done, all the details I put into it. I’d thought my idea was just okay, but after I finished actually putting it together, I thought it deserved more than just an “A” in an easy art class. Assuming some disaster didn’t happen that destroyed the diorama, I’d been thinking about asking my mom to display it in the living room, in place of that dumb bunch of faded construction paper flowers I’d made her for Mother’s Day when I was little.
Maribel wanted to come over and take a look for herself. But she’d been mildly grounded for scaring her grandmother with stories of gray aliens with owl faces. She did find and send me the article she’d read. The end of the article included the contact information of the agency that was featured. One number was for press interviews, and different one for something called “Cold Reports or Inquiries.”
I didn’t like talking on the phone. But I dialed the number for Cold Reports and Inquiries. I held my breath when the ringing stopped, but all I got was a recorded message. I hung up before the recording finished talking.
I thought about putting the diorama box in the garage. My parents would ask me about that. They probably figured I wouldn’t let the box out of my sight until presentation day. I could maybe tell them I felt better about having it safely in the garage so I wouldn’t have to move it far. They probably wouldn’t be worried enough to wonder what I was up to.
But I felt bad about thinking of leaving the box in the garage. It felt as if I’d be leaving it for someone else to deal with.
So I left my diorama where it had been since I finished. Instead, I planned on watching it all night. I’d stayed up all night once at a slumber party. Well, almost all night.
So I figured I’d sit in bed with a flashlight, and I’d watch the box.
But when night came, I lost my nerve. I just hid under my covers. I wished I could fall asleep and just wake up in the morning. But I couldn’t sleep. I kept hearing the box shifting around on the table.
At some point, I must have gotten too tired to stay awake. I woke up when my alarm went off. I was still under the covers, and I froze when I remember why I was under the covers. I tried to hear past the sound of the alarm. But I didn’t hear anything. The loud alarm and the light coming into the room gave me enough courage to throw off the covers and look at the box. It was halfway off the edge of the table. If it had moved anymore, it would have fallen off. My diorama would have been ruined. The flaps were still closed though.
I got out of bed and pushed the box back onto the center of my desk. I pulled open the flaps as quickly as I could, and I jumped back as I looked inside.
But there was nothing.
I told Maribel all about it at school that day. She felt bad that I’d been scared, but she couldn’t hide the excitement in her wide eyes. She desperately wanted to come over and see. I told her to try asking if she could come over to study. We had a test the next week in our Historical Geography class. And if her folks let her come over, my mom could pick her up on her way back from the airport. My dad had some three-day conference thing and was flying out in the late afternoon. My mom was getting home early from work so she could drop him off. She promised to bring home pizza for dinner.
About an hour after I got home that day, Maribel messaged me and said her mom had agreed that she could come over.
I felt a hundred percent better. Somehow I was sure that Maribel would see the eye.
I told my brother Maribel was coming over. He didn’t smile, but he did nod and say, “Good.”
Win was a funny little guy sometimes.
Even though I knew that my mom and Maribel would be coming through the door anytime, I didn’t have the nerve to carry the diorama box downstairs. I kept pacing in the hallway just outside my room.
Then I remembered that luggage trolley thing that my mom got once to help her move some heavy boxes.
I would be weird trying to wheel it down the stairs, but the diorama wasn’t heavy. So it probably wouldn’t take me that long.
I asked my brother to keep watch from downstairs, and call mom right away if something bad happened. I gave him my phone and showed him how to call.
“I know,” he said.
He wanted to come upstairs with me, but I wouldn’t let him.
I reached over to the box a few times and stopped. It was starting to get dark. And I wasn’t sure, but I thought that the eye-thing seemed to be more active when it got dark. And it was quiet during the day. It had been daytime when my brother first saw the eye, but all the times I’d seen the eye it had been in the evening.
I finally managed to touch the box. I meant to keep my arms outstretched while I lifted it and put it on the trolley. But when I lifted, the box felt a lot heavier than I expected. My skin started feeling hot. I gulped. My mouth felt dry.
It shouldn’t be this heavy, I thought. I reached over, lifted the box, and put it on the trolley. And then I froze with my arms still outstretched. I waited for the box to shift or wobble. When it didn’t, I attached the cables around the box to secure it, and I started rolling it down the hallway, still watching it, and feeling for any shifting.
I slowly rolled it down the stairs, wincing after the box landed on each step. When I got to the bottom of the stairs, my brother met me and looked at the box.
He handed me a facial tissue.
I used it to wipe the sweat from my face and neck.
The box was heavier than it should have been. But that wasn’t why I was sweating.
I’d meant to put the box on the coffee table in the living room. But I suddenly felt exhausted. I walked over to the couch and leaned on the arm. I asked my brother to give me my phone back, and I checked the time. There was a message from my mom. She’d picked up Maribel and the pizza, and they were on the way.
I sighed. I showed my brother the message, even though he couldn’t read it.
“We won’t be alone for long,” I said.
“Mallow…” My brother’s eyes widened.
He wasn’t looking at my phone. I followed his gaze to the foot of the stairs.
The flaps of the cardboard box had just popped open. And something was stretching out of the box.
Something that looked like an arm, gray and pinkish with joints. It was two or three times as long as my arm. The knobby end of the limb uncurled into three long fingers.
Another limb extended from the box beside the first one. The fingers reached down to the ground and pushed so that the box tilted up. Two more limbs came out and stretched in opposite directions. The limbs pushed up and the box rose from the ground and twisted around so that the open end was facing me and my brother.
Inside the box, between all the long skinny limbs, was an eye. It was as big as my little brother’s head now.
I screamed and my brother screamed. I grabbed him and we ran to the front door.
Behind me I heard a squeaking noise, like something slipping on our wooden floors, and then a thud.
I didn’t look back. I kept running, and we reached the front door. The door started opening, moving toward us.
I stopped and glanced back.
The eye was bulging out of the box now. I couldn’t even see the solar system inside. And there were two more limbs sticking out of the box. These were shorter. They waved around kind of like tentacles, or…like flagella.
I glanced forward again, gripping my brother by his shoulders.
My mom came through the door holding two boxes of pizza propped at her hip. Maribel walked in behind her.
Both of them widened their eyes and looked behind me and my brother. And I knew they saw the thing.
My mom dropped the pizzas.
“Mom! Outside!” I cried.
But she reached behind her to grab Maribel and wrapped her other arm around me and my brother. She swept us all aside as the monster in the box ran up to the door and crashed into it, closing it. The limbs all crumpled and the box slid down the door. The eye strained out of the box.
“I can’t believe it,” Maribel whispered.
The eyeball rolled toward the sound of her voice.
“Out of the house, kids,” my mom said in a low voice. “The garage.” Somehow, she had grabbed an umbrella from the stand by the front door.
She was pointing it at the box monster like a sword. The monster was starting to get on its feet.
We all moved toward the kitchen and my mom stayed behind us, covering our escape.
It followed us. It crawled over the couch, and when one of its limbs landed on the glass surface of the coffee table, it slipped again. My mom pressed the button on the umbrella and it shot forward and sprung open.
Till then, the monster hadn’t made any sounds, except for the sounds of its moving around.
But the umbrella must have made it angry.
It shrieked. It sounded like a goat and a rooster, but really high-pitched.
We ran into and through the kitchen, and opened the door to the garage. My mom flicked the garage door switch. The door started to rise open slowly.
Behind us we heard the monster, crashing its way through the kitchen.
We ran outside, and my mom tried to run back and open the car door, but then she heard the monster shriek again. She left the car.
From the sidewalk, I tried to look inside our house. But we had our curtains drawn already.
My mom gestured for us to stay back. She was on her phone. I heard her telling whoever was on the other side that there was some kind of wild animal loose in our house.
I made a call too.
I called that number for that agency. I got a voicemail again, but I left a message. I didn’t have time to come up with some way of describing what just happened so that it didn’t sound like I was making it up or playing a prank. I just described everything I could remember. Maribel and my brother stood beside me, and they added any other details they could remember.
I hung up.
“What do we do now?” I asked.
I looked over at my mom. One of our neighbors was walking up to her.
We heard the sound of glass breaking and a shriek from inside the house.
My mom was confused when the three black cars pulled into our street. She was probably looking for an animal control van.
Instead, five or six people in dark business suits came out of the cars and walked toward us.
One of the people reached out her hand and shook my mom’s hand. “We’re answering a call by Malarie.”
My mom looked at me.
“The emergency call you made was also routed to us, ma’am,” the woman in the suit, the agent, told my mom. The agent held up her badge and identification and gave her the name of the local police captain, who could vouch for her and her agency.
She told my mom that based on my description, she believed her team could confirm the identity of and contain whatever was in our house. She asked permission to enter.
My mom had dropped her keys when she dropped the pizzas.
But the agents said they wouldn’t need our keys. My mom looked dazed, but she gave permission. And then she made another call, asking for an operator to connect her to the local police captain.
Maribel started secretly taking pictures as five agents went into the house.
We heard more sounds of crashing, and something like a laser. The agent who spoke to my mom, who seemed to be in charge, touched her earpiece and spoke to the people on her team. She looked down at a really thin tablet.
“Well,” the agent said, turning to all of us. “Looks like you got yourselves an interesting one. But it is what we thought it was. It’ll take us a minute, but we’ll get it under control. Once my team is done, I’ll walk you in.”
“My friend read an article about you guys last year,” I said, turning to Maribel, who seemed as dazed as my mom when the agent started speaking to us. “I thought she was just being gullible.” I shook my head.
“We’re real. But we keep a very low profile. And what you witnessed is real. The creature has an official name, but we call it a ‘celestial gobbler.’ That’s…not as bad as it sounds.”
“How did it get in that box?”
“I don’t know how. Not yet. But I do know why. Have you ever heard of a hermit crab?”
“You know how they abandon their shells to move into another one if they find one that’s uninhabited and maybe bigger and nicer than their current shell?”
“That’s what the gobbler does, only with cardboard boxes. They’re transdimensional beings. They phase in and out of our dimension. That’s why the eye you first noticed kept vanishing. They phase in more once they’ve settled into their new home. And then they stay here. They love boxes. But they usually don’t bother with ordinary cardboard boxes, or if they do, they abandon ordinary boxes pretty quickly. This one stuck around though, because you gave this particular box some love, decorated it, spent time on it. The gobblers have eyes to see true beauty.”
“We noticed the eyes,” I said.
The agent smiled. “Impressive work, by the way. The diorama.” She held up her tablet. It displayed a still image of my diorama behind a faded image of the eye.
My eyes widened. “Thanks.”
“They’re harmless,” the agent said. “They only look scary. But they can be disruptive, as you’ve seen. So it’s best we take this one. And I’m afraid we have to take the box as well. The gobbler has…bonded to it. Separation at this point would be inadvisable. It would ruin your project anyway. I’m very sorry about that.” She turned to my mom. “We’ll put you in touch with someone who can help you fix the broken items in your home at little to no cost.” She gave a quick nod and walked away toward the two agents who were carrying a cardboard box between them. They were straining, as if the box was full of stones or bricks.
“Oh, honey, your project. I’m so sorry,” my mom said. “It was really beautiful.”
“I’ll call your teacher and explain everything. I’ll get you an extension. And if you’re not up for redoing all the work you did, I’ll see if I can push for an alternate assignment.”
My mom rubbed my back and squeezed my shoulder. “What else can I do?”
I stared at the dark-suited agents as they took my cardboard box diorama to one of their cars. And I watched the agent in charge. For the first time in a week, the nervousness I’d felt about the eye was replaced by a different feeling. A feeling that my friend Maribel would understand. I tried to secretly point at the agent in charge, who turned to us and waved us over. “Could you get her card, or her number at least?”
“Absolutely,” my mom said. “Did you want me contact her to find out if we could get your diorama back after all, minus the…the thing?”
“No,” I said, and I did feel my stomach lurch a little with regret. I had wanted people to see it. “I’m…okay with the diorama being the gobbler’s new home.” I reminded myself I had a lot of pictures and videos of the diorama’s construction.
I looked up at my mom. “So, next month, we have an assignment for career day. We’re supposed to bring in a speaker to talk about their jobs. I was going to ask you or dad, but…” I glanced at the agent in charge.
My mom rubbed my shoulder. “Sure, honey. I might have to attend that presentation myself.”
We walked back into the house. My brother held my hand. His grip was strong, but not too tight. Maribel walked beside me.
“We have a lot to talk about,” I said. “I’m sorry I never really believed you about this kind of thing before.”
“That’s okay. I kind of didn’t believe me either. I just wanted this stuff to be real.”
“Have you ever heard of a ‘celestial gobbler’ before?”
“We have a lot to talk about.”
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel