“Oh, whoops, that shouldn’t be there,” Buster paused before a door in his dining room wall that shouldn’t exist. Except there it was: a small, red door planted between the stack of Halloween table runners selected to match his mothers’ original (purchased at Big Lots during a post-Halloween sale) and his ever-expanding, precariously leaning birdhouse collection. (Buster’s first birdhouse was a copper hummingbird feeder purchased from Lowe’s, during an apparently post-hummingbird season sale. The house was a fantastic feeding failure, but Buster kept it on account of the copper.)
Buster rubbed his bald spot and contemplated the small door now occupying the space where two magazine piles should be leaning against each other, every issue its own version of a keystone in Buster’s jumbled paper architecture. He was as nonplussed by his magazine’s disappearance as he was the doors appearance. They had been leaning there so long it was possible Buster forgot about the door, but if his magazines fell over, where were they? Buster couldn’t think of any other explanation but that someone’d come in there and moved his good stuff around. He rubbed his nose. “Well, now. Someone’s been carpentering in my house.”
The red door was outlined by a miniature gray brick arch and sported a spotted brass doorknob. Buster looked around for other evidence of intrusion, but his impressive number of inanimate objects didn’t reveal any clues. The house was absolutely still. Well, Buster corrected himself, the mice were doubtless eating through some treasured possession somewhere, the cunning vermin. It was almost enough to get a guy to invest in a cat. After all, Buster already had an assortment of antique and porcelain cat bowls his theoretical kitty could choose from. He cautiously edged to the door and tried the tiny knob. It was locked. Someone had locked him out of a door in his own home.
“OK, now I’m a little creeped out,” he mumbled. No one else lived in Buster’s ranch style house. No one visited, either. There simply wasn’t room for people among all his useful things. Buster kept company with record albums of space music from the 60s, McDonald’s kid’s meal boxes used to organize his extensive repository of every beer cap he had ever spent, toothbrushes from exotic hotels, not-so-exotic hotels, admittedly mostly from the grocery store. He peeled the labels from his old pill bottles designating his blood pressure, cholesterol and heart prescriptions and used them to store beads, buttons and needles. Essentially, anything that went in the garbage was a personal failure on Buster’s part.
But all the beads, brushes, Bruce Wayne effigies, bottle caps, binoculars, and jars of beans organized according to variety were no adequate company to face a locked door that simply shouldn’t be there.
My little carpenter might still be around. Buster shuddered. As he backed away from the red door he elbowed a stack of boxes topped by an acquisition of ceramic Santas rescued from a fire. Well, a fire sale at least. One of the Santas held a metal bell that jingled into the silence. Buster cringed and waited. He could almost hear the three functional grandfather clocks ticking away in the living room.
Buster tiptoed down the hall into his guest room. He kept his books in the guest room because, in a way, the characters walking within their pages were his guests. They didn’t mind staying with him, printed neatly upon the paper. He searched for his Alice in Wonderland stack, his belly brushing against books as he tried to quietly sift. Alice had an issue with oddly sized doors and Buster wanted a refresher on how she’d dealt with it. Buster owned twenty-three copies of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. One of them was a first print, and another, carefully sealed in a double layer of plastic, was signed by the man himself.
As Buster flipped through the pages, looking for the passage about passageways, he heard a tiny voice humming from the hall. His heart pounded, despite medications dutifully taken, and he felt stuck to the spot. Something was trundling down his hallway, and it didn’t sound like a run of the mill burglar.
The humming crescendoed as the interloper passed the guest room, then faded. Buster gingerly peeked around the stack of books hiding him from the doorway. Nothing, again. He edged over the faux- Persian runner that covered the room’s original green carpet. He almost managed to double carpet the entire house in rugs collected here or there. Kept the floors warmer and made the place unique. A nasty run-in with fleas ended his love affair with found carpets, however. He never finished the workroom.
Maybe it was just the HVAC, Buster told himself. After all, who hums while burgling?
Buster listened, intent on hearing anything else singing in his house. There was soft thump overhead, just above where Buster stood. Too big to be the work of mice. Buster desperately hoped he’d upgraded to rats. Door-building rats. Buster put down Alice in Wonderland and started looking for The Rats of Nimh.
Thump. There was definitely something rearranging his attic, but he couldn’t reckon what he might have stored up there that could topple so enthusiastically. Lack of flooring hindered Buster’s use of his attic.
Now where is the attic ladder? Buster had spent twenty-five years or so walking under that thing, and now he couldn’t place where it exactly it was.
Oh, man. That’s the attic ladder. Buster sidestepped the squeaky board in the middle of the guest room, and took a breath. Ah, jeez, it’s in my bedroom. They’re in my bedroom. They must’ve moved the dresser to get the ladder down. Which means they’ve been here awhile. Makes sense. They built a damn ol’ door.
His most recent cellular was on the kitchen stove. Go look if you’re going to, or run for the phone. Either option required a trip across the house.
Buster edged down the hallway. His original idea was to simulate a wine cellar here, so he kept the bottles from parties he used to go to and set them on little wine racks he found at flea markets. Flea markets and parties were both things of Buster’s past.
The humming kicked into an energetic tune- it was unrecognizable to Buster. Something old, he thought. Some kind of folk song. It abruptly stopped. Buster watched the bedroom, then grabbed a make-up mirror from a side table- make up mirrors were always handy and Buster kept a few. I should really leave this alone and call the police, but I have to know. Buster crept to his own bedroom and held the mirror up to see who had broken into his house.
The dresser was indeed pushed away from the wall and the attic ladder was pulled down. Buster looked into the reflection, staring into the attic’s darkness. No sound, no motion. Nothing even his imagination could transform into a monster. Or burglar.
A high pitched voice, like a child, hummed right behind him.
They’ve broke in for my Brio trains.
Buster spun and what he saw nearly negated his heart medicine altogether.
A small man, just over three feet tall in a dark green waist coat and top hat, disappeared into the dining room.
Buster blinked. What did I just see?
Buster followed the sound of soft metallic jingling.
I gotta move that Santa box.
Buster looked around the dining room doorway to see the small man rattling a set of keys, examining them one by one. He sang under his breath. “That’s the Rastettlers, that’s the Moseleys, Parker, some Smith, hmm, mmm, ah, Buster M. Bingham, purveyor of the finest Tin Boxes in the Midwest of North America. Thank you, sir!” He inserted the key in the door.
A white garbage sack— product of Buster’s kitchen— sat next to the small man. I’ll be daggone, those are my cookie tins!
“You’re welcome!” Buster exclaimed from the doorway, hands on hips. Surely he could settle up with this pocket-sized plunderer, despite the little man’s carpentry skills. “I’m calling the police!”
“Wait, wait! I’m not robbing you!” the small man spun and held up his white-gloved hands. “I’m trying to help you! You’ve got a problem, you know! Look at this place, it’s not a dining room, it’s a dining tomb!” He dismissively toed the trash bag of boxes. “Where mice and grimcrack come to die, and maybe you, too, if you don’t make a change!”
“I’m calling the police, so you better get out of here!” Buster turned away.
“Buster, a tiny door’s not just a way in,” the little man called in a sing-song voice as Buster made for the kitchen. “It’s a way out for both of us!”
“I don’t care and I don’t care!” Buster yelled back, as he grabbed his cell phone. Buster owned over a hundred cell phones neatly organized on his pantry shelves (one of the reasons the beans had to go to the dining room). But the one on his stove definitely worked.
“Buster!” the little man chimed. “I’m taking the tins!”
“Like hell you are!” I’m between him and the door… Buster froze, “Oh, darn it!” He ran down the hall with his cell phone, that modern weapon of the unmartial artist, aloft in his hand.
The little man, the door, and Buster’s tin boxes were all gone. In their place was an empty crystal decanter and a piece of paper. Buster crossed the dining room and picked up the note. Written in carefully neat, gold flecked letters was the following:
“Ten tin boxes were taken
One glass decanter returned. (Did you even miss it?)
For every meaningless object let go,
This glass will fill,
Until true wealth overflow…
In other words, get out there and live without the burden of useless things collected.
Before I come back.
And I am coming back.”
Buster looked from the decanter, to his phone, to the stack of Halloween table runners. The most recent call received on his phone was from his niece, over a month ago. It was followed by several unanswered calls. He’d stopped answering because he was collecting his minutes.
Maybe the little man was right, despite being a damned thief. Maybe Buster was collecting all the wrong things.
Buster hit the dial button to call his niece.
“Hi, hello. Cassie? This is Uncle Buster. Oh, dear, I’m glad to be calling you. Say, I was wondering. You and the other young folks in the family wouldn’t wanna help an old hoarder clean out and start over, would you?”