While Deanna was staying at her Grandpa’s, she wasn’t allowed to use her phone, and she had to sleep in her mother’s old bedroom. It didn’t look like it had ever been the room of a child.
“Uh,” said her Grandpa. “I’ll leave you to it until dinner, shall I? There’s books. In the closet.”
He shut the door politely behind him. Deanna checked the closet. There was a dusty copy of Robinson Crusoe and a few picture books, none of which interested her. She opened the dresser and found it full of old dolls with flat little glass eyes. She touched a doll with realistically curly yellow hair, but worried she might break it, so she shut the dresser and let the dolls continue sleeping.
She got on her hands and knees, lifted the bed-curtain, and peered under the bed. Her Grandpa didn’t vacuum very often. Centered under the bed, against the wall, was a small cardboard box, which she extracted. It cast a long shadow.
Her Grandpa was the type of old man to set the air conditioning at a high temperature, but the box was cold. She perched the box on her bed and it peered at her craftily.
There was a knock. “Deanna?” said her Grandpa. “Dinner?”
“One second.” She shoved the box back under the bed and went down to eat.
Her Grandpa wasn’t a fantastic cook, and clearly he knew it. Deanna sawed away at her steak while answering basic questions such as, “What grade are you in now?”
“That’s right, that’s right. When your mother was your age, she was in ninth grade too.” Her Grandpa paused. “You play the clarinet?”
“Aha. Knew it was one of those.”
“…I’m not really hungry. Can I be excused?”
“Uh, yes, go ahead.”
Deanna scurried back to her room, and once the door was carefully closed, she retrieved the box from its exile. The places where she touched it were evident in the patterns of dust across its face. She thumbed open the flaps and peered inside the box. Inside was an apparatus shaped like a virtual reality headset, fitted to go over the eyes, but instead of a strap, it had a handle and a small clip in front. Deanna held the apparatus up to her face and looked through its filmy lenses. If anything, it made her vision worse.
The box offered itself to Deanna, aged photos gleaming at the bottom. Underneath the photos, printed on the box in uneven type, were instructions:
See the sights of a lifetime! Stereopticon, for viewing images in three dimensions. Attach slide to front.
She drew out a slide and clipped it in, holding the stereopticon once again to her face.
The picture popped out in three dimensions. It was a chess game, set up to play, with the black pieces facing towards her. She checked the pieces to see that they were set correctly, and then clipped in another photo. A woman dressed in maroon, wearing a long skirt and a bustle, had been caught walking down an empty street midday. The next photo was a shiny black vintage car parked in a closed garage. A man lounged in its drivers seat, smoking his pipe. The last photo was a jar on a plain background. Coiled in the jar was a sinuous pickled creature.
Deanna went back to the photo of the chessboard. White had made a move.
Deanna tried rubbing the lenses to see if there was a smudge that had confused her. She pulled the picture from its clip and examined it. Without the stereopticon, the picture was a blurry photo of a chessboard, set up but unplayed. Looking through the lenses—a white pawn was out of place.
She turned the stereopticon over in her hands, feeling its old wooden ridges and metal edges, finding no buttons, levers, or tricks. It would be easy to ask her Grandpa, but she didn’t want to admit she had snooped.
When the chessboard didn’t change further, Deanna flicked the slide across the bed and put the slide of the woman back in. Now the woman was moving, like an animated image that looped back to its beginning. She hurried down the street, never making it more than a few feet before snapping back to her original position. Deanna squeezed the handle of the stereopticon, feeling splinters dig into her palm. She wasn’t sure how she had made the woman move.
She switched to the image of the man. He lifted his cigar and took a puff, blowing out the smoke coolly. Again, he lifted a cigar to his mouth, blowing out the smoke. And again, he lifted the cigar, blowing out the smoke, and then he put the cigar down and winked.
Deanna flinched and put the stereopticon down, pushing it away and into the bedspread. In a shaking voice, she asked, “Are the pictures supposed to change?”
Of course, there was no answer.
Deanna sat still long enough that the shape of the shadows in the room changed and the light from the window began to wane. The stereopticon stared at her, baleful and upset from being rejected. When her joints creaked every time she twitched and her stomach rumbled with every breath, she picked it back up, but kept her eyes closed. She held its handle tight as if it were a hissing snake that she could check with her grip. She felt the picture with her free hand. It was smooth. Smooth things weren’t scary.
She pressed the stereopticon to her face and opened her eyes. The man jumped out at her, and she screamed and threw the stereopticon away.
Then, curious again, she picked it back up, holding it away from her face and crossing her eyes to see the image. The man laughed, holding his belly. He took a deep pull from his cigar and laughed some more, blowing out thick smoke. He took another drag on the cigar, laughed, and Deanna realized he had gone back to looping. She placed the stereopticon on the bed and shifted away from it.
Footsteps creaked outside the room and Deanna threw the bedspread over the stereopticon. The footsteps paused and her Grandpa knocked on the door. “Deanna? Is everything alright?”
Deanna bit her lip.
“Deanna, please answer me.”
“I’m fine,” she murmured.
“Deanna?” Her Grandpa entered. “I heard something, is everything alright?”
She swallowed hard. “I stubbed my toe. I… have a really low pain tolerance.”
He sat on her bed, dangerously close to the hidden stereopticon. “I understand it’s hard being away from home. You’ll only be here for two nights. Are you having trouble sleeping?”
“Did you look at the books?”
“Yeah. I’ve already read them.”
“Oh. There’s also some dolls in the dresser, if you’d like to play. Quietly.”
Privately, Deanna thought she was a bit old to play with dolls. “That’s okay.”
“Oh.” Her Grandpa seemed at a loss. “I can bring you paper and a pencil, if you’d like to draw. Do you like art?”
“Okay.” Her Grandpa raised his hands in defeat. “Goodnight. I’ll be in my room if you need me.”
Deanna was left alone.
The stereopticon beckoned, and curiosity and boredom were stronger than fear. She reminded herself that it couldn’t really hurt her. She clipped in the picture of the chessboard. Black had made a move. As she watched, the white slowly made another move, like an invisible player had spent a long time considering their options.
Deanna didn’t know the rules of chess, and took the chessboard slide out after a few minutes. She clipped in the picture of the pickled creature, but it, thankfully, had not changed. She clipped in the picture of the woman.
The woman glanced left, then right, then hurried down the empty street. It no longer appeared to be midday. She passed into the dangerous territory outside the streetlamp oases, stuttered in step, looked back, and ran. The image floated along smoothly and impersonally alongside her, never showing behind or ahead, and this was why Deanna didn’t think to look away.
The woman tripped on her fluffy skirt and struggled to get back up, wasting precious seconds untangling her shoes from her petticoats, and then another second paralyzed by the thing that was giving chase. She scrambled up, clutching the wall, and it was clear she had twisted an ankle. She screamed so loud that Deanna could hear it in her spine, and then turned to Deanna and mouthed, HELP.
Deanna mouthed help back.
Shaking, the woman turned to face her unseen aggressor and swiftly reached into a pocket and pulled out an old-fashioned pistol. She put the pistol in her mouth and Deanna ripped the stereopticon away and shuddered.
A long moment passed. The stereopticon seemed to smirk. Deanna lifted the stereopticon slowly. It showed an empty street, sans woman.
“Is the woman dead?” Deanna asked.
For a second, she almost expected an answer, though she was quite alone. She scratched a lump on her arm. It felt good to dig her nails into her skin.
The stereopticon preened and postured, pleased with itself, and Deanna shut it in the closet. She scratched at her arms. When her arms were raw and red, she scratched her legs. She went to sleep disquieted, with the distinct sense that she wasn’t alone.
When she woke up, her face and chest felt like they had been raked with knives. There was dead skin caked under her fingernails. As she sat waiting for something to start her day, she clawed at her neck. “I don’t know how to stop,” she breathed, but it was too quiet for anything to hear.
Deanna couldn’t stop thinking. She kept seeing the woman putting the gun in her mouth and then turning to Deanna and cackling. Perhaps if she held the stereopticon up to her face, the urge to sand away her skin would fade…
She put in the chessboard slide. The game had progressed fairly far, and as she watched, the remaining white knight knocked out the white queen. A black pawn moved to obliterate another black pawn. The game was moving white against white and black against black. The last two pieces left were a black rook and a white knight.
The rook and the knight hesitated.
Her Grandpa trudged down the hall. Deanna pulled away, pressed her face to the floor, and looked under the door crack. Her Grandpa passed. She went back to the stereopticon, and it hummed happily to be used. The game of chess was over, the street was empty. The pickled creature had not moved.
Her skin itched and the sensation didn’t go away when she rubbed. She wanted the stereopticon gone, she didn’t want to look at the last picture. Her hand skittered and clipped in the photo of the man in the car without her permission, and she clenched her muscles, trying to keep the stereopticon away.
“No, no, no,” she murmured, but she couldn’t close her eyes, and her hands followed familiar motions, lifting the stereopticon, looking through the lenses-
The man smiled and laughed and took a long puff from his cigar, and then he pulled out a gun. Deanna’s heart stumbled and the stereopticon fell.
The stereopticon beckoned, smiling, insistent that it was joking and no one was hurt, everything would be alright, she would feel better if only she locked the door to her room, that would keep her Grandpa out; she had to hold out just a little longer. See, look at the picture, feel how smooth it is, how safe, now look through me and see how he’s fine, see, he’s waving to you, he’s alive, he’s alright, look at the picture, it was all a trick. You’ve been tricked, and wasn’t it a funny joke? Lock the door and you’ll see a funnier one.
Deanna laughed weakly. She locked the bedroom door.
BANG! said the little white flag that had popped out of the man’s gun. Deanna giggled because it was a very funny joke. She couldn’t calm the prickling of hair on the back of her neck. She didn’t feel alone.
The man settled down. He started his shiny black car, shut his eyes to take a nap, and fired his gun vaguely in the direction of Deanna. The first flag fell out and a new one took its place, announcing, GOODNIGHT.
The light outside the window suggested it was already nighttime. Where had the day gone? The image was getting hard to see, and the lamp in the corner flickered. She put the stereopticon down, despite its protests, and curled up to sleep.
The stereopticon breathed.
The bedroom doorknob rattled. “Deanna? Please open up, you need to eat. Why are you doing this?”
Something wasn’t right.
“Unlock the door. Are you listening to me? Unlock the door!”
Deanna coiled herself tighter. She wanted to be alone, she wanted to be left in peace, she wanted her skin to be smooth and safe and to not feel like she was being eaten from the inside, so she scratched it until blood welled to the surface and still she couldn’t tame the itch.
“I’m going to break the lock,” her Grandpa warned.
“No!” Deanna cried, and the stereopticon agreed. Push the bed, it suggested. Push the bed in front of the door.
She braced herself against the bed frame. It was heavy, and she was brittle, like old dry wood that had been forgotten in a box under a bed for years and years. She pushed until her arms threatened to snap. The door shook. She hurried around to the other side and pulled the bed until the door was half blocked and her body burned. Her heart rattled and thumped and begged for mercy, but the stereopticon insisted, no, there’s freedom in my lenses, just look, look look look and be free.
“Deanna?” wailed her Grandpa. “Did you put something in front of the door?”
The chess game had ended at a weary stalemate. The street was empty. The man in the car had played a funny joke and now he was dead.
“I’m tired,” she whispered. “I want to go to sleep.” But her hands wouldn’t let her stop. She clipped in the picture of the creature in the jar, getting it wrong side up, and she struggled to clip it in the right way. “Let me stop, please,” she said, but the stereopticon said, no, that’s okay, if you’re tired then I can take over and do it for you, and it took her hands and clipped the picture without trembling, and it forced her to look.
The jar was broken and thick liquid pooled around shards of shattered glass. The pickled creature was gone. Deanna let the stereopticon drop.
“Deanna? Deanna! Open up! Open this door!”
“Am I alone?” she whispered.
Something hissed. The lamp in the corner had burned out and she hadn’t noticed.
Her Grandpa kicked the door and yelled. Deanna crawled to the dark closet and shut herself in. The banging on the bedroom door paused, and the thump thump thump in Deanna’s chest filled its place.
Something tapped the other side of the wall. The sliver of light under the door dimmed. The thump thumping thump in her ears grew and there was the lightest scratching on the closet door.