by Michael Newton
I carry an armful of expensive glassware back to my hotel room after a long day out scouting. Antiques wrested from the hands of the desperate and the needy and the old. It was a good day. If I was a fisherman my nets would have come up full. I lay each thing out in a row on the bed. Then begin processing them for shipment. Bubblewrap and tape. By the time I’m done they’re all in a box which weighs thirty pounds. I lug it down to the Fedex Drop in the lobby.
I pop some Tylenol and sit down with a notepad. I write a message. “Package on the way. Good stuff.” And send it to my boss Needleman, through a portable fax machine. This black and boxy Portafax 910 is the only way he communicates with any of his scouts. He gave it to me when I started working for him.
It spits out his reply. “Good work. Now that you’re caught up, do you have any interest in a special job?”
“Sure,” I write. “What is it.”
“Right now you are close to where Gus Porcino lives. Remember him?”
“Porcupine? Sure, I remember. What about him?”
“Two years ago he was supposed to do a job for me. He was supposed to collect this antique doll house I’d spent months tracking down. I had a big private collector all lined up and it was gonna be a nice payday. But he never sent it. He never got in touch. I don’t know what happened. All I know is I’ve never heard from him. I want you to go see him. If he’s got the house, get it. I will pay you $5,000. Say yes, and I’ll send details. Don’t let me down.”
Shadows dapple the windshield as I maneuver my car up the long, unpaved driveway to Porcupine’s house. I round a final turn and find it, little white rancher, sitting in a plot of grass at the base of a hill. The grass is over grown. The curtains are drawn. The house looks sickly and quiet.
I park next to a beat up car, which I assume is his. I kill the ignition, and grab a bottle of scotch from the backseat I brought along as a present. I get out and shut the door. Its click sounds loud in the deep quiet. I stand listening. There is something buzzing in the silence.
I lean on the doorbell and look through the glass pane. The view is strange and indistinct. After a second I realize it’s because a sheet of heavy plastic is strung up like a curtain, making a vestibule. A slit appears and Porcupine sticks his head through.
“Porc, it’s me.” I smile, trying to hide my dismay. He looks shocking. No longer the handsome guy I’d known. He’s ravaged. Trembling. Thin to the point of wasting. Hair gone. Eyes shining with pain. “Go away,” he croaks, and retreats back through the plastic. I hit the bell again until he reappears, scowling. “I’ll call the cops.”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“I brought this.” I hold up the bottle. His eyes widen.
“I was in the area. I thought I’d say hello.”
“Ain’t you nice.”
“Seriously. Just a friendly visit. Why don’t you let me in?”
Porcupine steps up close so only the glass pane separates us.
“How’s Needleman,” he asks.
“He’s a recluse, like you.” He smiles at this, and I continue. “What’s going on man, why can’t you let me inside?”
“It’s not safe.”
I tuck the bottle in my coat pocket and step back. “If that’s the way you want it, I guess I’ll go.”
“It’s not the way I want it. It’s just the way it is,” says Porcupine. His eyes are locked on the bottle. “Wait.” He disappears. Reappears a moment later. Piece of paper in his hand. He holds it to the glass. “Here’s my number. Call me instead.”
“Whenever. Tonight if you want. I’m not doing anything.”
“Ok, sure. I’m gonna get some dinner, and then I’ll call you.”
I step back, and set the bottle down on the step. As I drive off, I watch him in the rearview as he opens his door and bends to grab it.
I take a little drive and end up at a drive-thru Wendy’s. I get a meal and park on the shoulder of a field out in the country. The sun is setting. I chew and think about five grand. I dial Porcupine’s number. He answers on the third ring.
“Heya, buddy,” he says. “How you?”
“I’m good. Just looking at this sunset. Do you see it?”
“Yes, it’s pretty. Makes you feel small.”
“That’s true,” I say. We start talking. What’s the gossip. What’s selling. How’s everybody. Remember that time. That dive bar in… His voice starts to get thick and his laugh becomes an infectious cackle that makes me laugh. He’s getting drunker, so finally, I ask. “Porcupine what’s going on?”
He burps. “Sorry.”
“Really. What’s up with you.”
“You know that feeling when you’re out scouting and you find something good?”
“Do you like that feeling?”
“I loved it. Never got tired of it. No, the longer I worked, the more I needed it. I dreamed about it. Finding great stuff. I had a whole theory. Used to tell people. Probably told you.”
“That’s right,” I said, remembering. “What was it? Oh, yea. ‘Greatness is rare.’”
“That’s right,” he said. “Very rare. Something truly great is as rare as sin. It’s impossible. But one day Needlemen sends me out on a job, and I finally find it.”
“No. It ruined my life.”
He takes a loud gulp from the bottle. “You know what happens if you touch something impossible?”
“Tell me” I reply.
“Well, even if it’s very small—” Another belch from his end of the line.
“Jesus kid, I’m drunk. I drank too much of that scotch. I’m not used to it anymore. I have to lie down.”
“No, please, I want to know.”
“Let’s pick it up tomorrow. I have to go. I think I’m gonna be sick.”
“Take care of yourself,” I say, but the line cuts out and I don’t think he hears me. I toss the phone into a nest of wadded up wrappers on the seat and smile at my reflection in the rearview.
Porcupine’s driveway is a bitch in the dark, especially as I’m taking it with the headlights off. I glide out the mouth of the drive. Park in the shadows. Slink across the grass. Creep around the back. Spot him through the bedroom window. He’s crashed on the bed. He’s snoring. He’s still in his clothes and his shoes. The bottle of scotch is lying on his bedside table.
This is my chance. I go around to the front and pick the lock. Turn the handle soundlessly. Swing the door slowly. Part the plastic curtains and step inside.
The house is empty and clean. The walls are white. There’s a bare minimum of furniture. No books, no decorations. A powerful air purifier hums in the corner. I start to toss the place.
The closets are precise. Squares of tape make grids on the shelves. Supplies. Spools of tape, twine, a pyramid of batteries, a box of gallon ziplock bags. Each type of object to its own grid.
This is strange enough. But there are also notes written on the shelves in the greasy lead of a butchers pencil. Next to each item, numbered and dated. “Six batteries, Saturday the 4th.” “Forty-two twist ties, Sunday the 5th.” On and on. I come out of the kitchen back into the living room and I notice more writing. A note next to the clock, written on the drywall. It reads “One clock, Weds the 7th.” I can see faint writing behind the smudges of many eraser marks, like he’s been erasing and rewriting the note each day.
The nerves in my stomach are tightening as I make my way down the hall. I peak through the door into Porcupine’s bedroom. He’s still sprawled out, not moving. The next door leads to a spare bedroom. I fish a penlight from my pocket and turn it on, playing the beam over the space. Desk in the corner, single bed, with a quilt neatly laid out. How long has that bed been made up and waiting for no guest?
One of the desk drawers has writing on it. “House, seven pieces, Weds, the 7th.” I pull it open and see the seven broken pieces. They have a texture and sheen like ivory, but are finely and precisely detailed, as if cast by a mold. I take a moment to look at them, lying in their neat pile. Their white looks dirty against the brown of the drawer. And I think: all this trouble for these? before scooping them up and stuffing them in my coat pockets.
As I tiptoe back down the hallway I notice a mirror hanging on the wall. It is large and has a circular gilt frame. A slight convexity to the glass. The workmanship appears to be of great antiquity. The silver backing is peeling away. It’s set high on the wall. All I can see of myself is a fish-eyed reflection of my head and shoulders.
I scan around the mirror frame looking for Porcupine’s pencil marks. But there’s none there. No notes. The tension in my stomach coils. Had I seen it on my way in? The pieces feel heavy in my coat. I hear a groan from the bedroom. Porcupine’s whimpering snaps me back. I run lightly through the living room and shut the door behind me.
Back at the hotel, I lay the pieces out on the bed and pour myself a drink. I carry the glass into the shower. I let the water run. I crack ice cubes in my teeth. I take big drinks until the memory of my reflection in that mirror starts to blur.
I’m feeling a little better as I come back into the bedroom. I play with the pieces, fitting them together until the house sits before me whole again. With a tap it falls apart. The pieces are heavy and it is satisfying to play with them. I think about Porcupine. How he thought these pieces were the impossible thing he’d always been chasing. How he let finding them deform his life.
The Portafax whirred into action. A message from Needleman.“How did it go?”
“It went great,” I scrawled in reply. “I’ve got it right here. I’m looking at it.”
“That’s fantastic,” Needleman wrote back. “Good work.”
“The only thing is, I’ve been doing some thinking, and you’re going to need to tell me what’s up with this fucking toy house, if you ever want to get it.”
“What did Porcupine tell you?”
“I don’t think it’s that important.”
“Well, I do. And if you don’t tell me I’ll walk away from this job right now.”
There’s a long silence, in which I sit on the edge of the bed looking at my reflection in the dark window. Finally the fax whirrs to life again, spitting out page after page.
I’m glad you asked actually, because it’s a wild story and I’ve been dying to tell someone. The long and the short of it is this. It’s a famous object. It was part of a murder case. It started with this dad who burned down his house with his kid inside. A little girl. They find him at the scene out back sitting in a chair, catatonic. I mean firefighters running past, flames in the window, the roof’s about to come down, and he’s just sitting there in his pajamas. They cuff him and lead him to the street. He stumbles along. Until he sees this toy house sitting by the mailbox on the front stoop waiting like a delivery. Then he flips. Starts screaming, thrashing. It gets so bad the cops have to give him a zap to get him into the car. And one of them realizes that the house is what set him off, so they grab it. Take it with. Drop it into evidence. Years later the evidence room manager will be a man with bad gambling problems. But that’s neither here nor there.
Anyway, they get dad into an interrogation room and he spills his guts. This confession is so nuts, it makes the house famous. I won’t go into it all the details, but the gist is this:
Normal guy, normal kid, normal house. The girls name is Tabby. He’s a single daddy. Mom/Wife long dead. He works from home. The house is always messy. Dad begins to notice extra messiness. Little stuff. Extra pencils in the drawer. Extra bunch of grapes in the fridge. Extra clothes in his closet. Stuff he doesn’t remember seeing before. But he figures, life’s chaotic – so no big deal. Just one of those things.
Then one day, dad goes into Tabby’s room. He sees her playing on the floor with this white toy house. He’s carrying an armful of laundry or something, and he goes about his chore. After he puts it away, he’s leaving the room. And it hits him. He stops, turns back. He asks her, where did that house come from? But she acts like she doesn’t understand. It’s my toy, she says. But dad knows, he’s certain, that he never bought that house for Tabby.
So he makes it his mission to find out where the house came from. He tracks down everyone and anyone, cousins, friends, whoever, who could have gotten Tabby it for a present. But no one knows about it.
Tabby’s a bright kid. But whenever he asks her about it she becomes strangely silent. Yet, at the same time, she plays with the house more and more. She loves it, carries it around with her. Well, things get worse. That is, more stuff begins appearing in the house.
Things appear out of nowhere. Sometimes something totally new, like a sword over the mantle place, and sometimes a copy of something that already exists. This happens with their fridge. One morning dad walks out to the kitchen and there’s two of them. One in its normal spot. Another standing in the middle of the floor. Exactly the same except it was empty. But it worked. So he moved it out to the garage and used it to store extra groceries.
The investigators ask how it led to the fire. But the question makes him clam up. They go to work on him. Try to make him talk. After a fruitless back and forth one of them gets the bright idea to confront him with the toy house.
When dad sees the thing he goes mad. Quick grabs it up and smashes it. It’s a heavy thing and it cracks into seven pieces. He’s weeping. Face buried in his hands. He starts talking. He admits. He gives.
In the weeks leading up, he had grown more and more worried about the implications of the thing. He believed it was the source of the new items that were introduced into his house. But he didn’t know anything about it. He had no idea where it came from. Tabby never wanted to talk about it. She seemed to pick up on his agitation. She grew alarmed. Began having trouble sleeping.
This went on for awhile. On the night of the fire he read to her for hours, but she wouldn’t sleep. She clung to him. Her little body felt warm and finally it grew heavy with sleep. Her eyes closed. He got up. Kissed her on the forehead. Tiptoed to the door and shut it gently behind him.
He was heading to his room when he heard her call him. “Daddy!” She was standing in the doorway. “Daddy, I had a bad dream.” He went back, told her it was ok, led her back to her room. He was holding her little warm hand when he opened the door and saw her lying there on the bed, her golden hair spread over the pillow.
He claimed not to remember anything more until they were dragging him off and he saw the house on the porch. This upset him just as bad as anything. Because the house had definitely been left inside. Who brought it out, he kept asking.
Anyway, he ended his confession by advising them to destroy the house. Get rid of it. Burn it. Whatever.
The investigators smirked.
He said, Let me ask you this. Have you touched it?
A couple of them nod, including the man who got it from evidence.
Then it’s probably too late, he said.
They ask what he meant but he wouldn’t respond. That night he did himself in his cell. So there was nothing to take to trial. The case was closed without any further investigation. But word spread. The crazy guy and the toy house. Eventually, I tracked it down. I asked Porc to get it for me. I never hear from him. And there you have it.
I finish reading, and sit in silence looking over the pages. I didn’t know what to think. Then, the machine starts up again.
“In my opinion, it’s all bullshit. When they did the autopsy, dad’s system was full of drugs and booze. He went nuts and killed his daughter. But the house didn’t have anything to do with it. He made it up to cover his guilt, or maybe he imagined something was going on, whatever. But he did it. And the thing is a collector’s item now. We cater to some sick puppies sometimes, I can’t change that. Anyway, I know how sensitive you can get. This is probably not what you were expecting when you signed up. So I’m willing to double your fee to ten grand if you’ll go through with it.”
The next morning I check out early. I’m going through the parking lot towards my car when I notice a figure running between the rows. It’s the Porcupine and he’s coming at me. He doesn’t stop. He lays into me with a flying tackle and slams me up against the panel of a car. We go down to the blacktop. He’s on top of me. “Jesus Christ,” I wheeze. “What’d you do that for?”
“You betrayed me,” he yells. “You broke into my house.”
“It’s not personal,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
He straddles me. He bats my arms away easily. Anger is making him strong.
“How’d you find me,” I ask.
“That’s easy. I just called around to the hotels until I found the one with a parcel delivery.”
“That’s smart,” I say. “Now please let me up.”
“No.” He presses his hand into my chest, forcing me down. “Not until you tell me what you did with it.” The rattle of a truck engine grows loud in the distance. A Fedex truck swings round to the hotel doors. Porc’s eyes bulge. He screams. He tries to stand, but I grab him. We wrestle. The Fedex man walks inside and comes back out again with a dolly full of packages. He throws them in the back of his truck and drives off. The truck gets small and disappears. Porc is writhing furiously. He’s crying. “You don’t know what you’ve done, you don’t know what you’ve done!”
“You poor crazy bastard,” I say, and begin to roll off him.
But he lashes out at me and hits me. He connects with my forehead. My vision explodes. A heavy cut opens and blood spurts out.
I fall over. He scrambles to his feet and stands over me. “Look at this,” he says, shoving the weapon in my face. It’s a gleaming white shard. “I found this in my room waiting for me when I woke up this morning,” he says.
“No, that’s not possible,” I try to say, but he’s beating my face raining down screaming blows and my jaw goes crunch and I can’t talk anymore.
Michael Newton writes stories and is the manager of the Asbury Book Cooperative, a new/used bookshop in Asbury Park, NJ. He is also a member of the editorial collective at Ugly Ducklin Presse, where he is the managing editor of the journal second factory.
Image source: Chris Barbalis/Unsplash