For some reason, I have a soft spot for stories about people who aren’t quite as big as me. I’m a six-footer, so there are quite a few folks who meet that definition. Here’s a story about some more. Herewith, the first half of “Model Homes.”
Karina stared through the window of the dollhouse, enthralled by the exquisite miniatures inside. The detail went beyond anything she’d ever seen before, including a tiny food spill on a highchair in the dining area. She used a magnifying glass to verify that the almost invisible milk puddle contained almost microscopic Cheerios.
“How in the world do you do it?” she asked of the old man behind the counter.
“Trade secret,” he said, making an involuntary whistle through a gap in his teeth.
Karina straightened, her eyes taking in the price tag on the toy building she’d been inspecting. “The scale is unusual.”
The old man raised his eyebrows, then pursed his lips in silence.
“It’s much smaller than what I’ve seen in other shops.”
Low laughter punctuated the old man’s words. “I struggle to keep my own shop stocked. I have no time to worry about the competition.”
“But how do you do it? Each room is perfect. The accessories match; some of the furniture even shows wear. My God, some of the wall hangings could be sold as separate works of art if only there were a way to magnify them. How do you do it?”
He frowned a little before clearing his throat. “All it takes is time. And patience.”
“Ordinarily I’d complain about prices as high as these, but the detail…” Her voice drifted off as the shopkeeper excused himself to assist another customer.
“Mrs. Vandergriff! How are you?” he said to a silver-haired matron who stood frowning just inside his door.
“I’m not happy, Oliver. Not happy at all.”
Too curious to ignore the issue, Karina sidled closer while feigning deafness as she absently examined miniature linens stacked in a tiny wooden armoire.
“Do you recall the playhouse I purchased for my great-granddaughter?”
The old man nodded. “Of course I do. It had a country kitchen with lots of cabinetry. What’s wrong with it?”
“Something died in it. By the time my little Penelope unwrapped it, the odor had become unbearable.”
“That’s terrible!” exclaimed the old man. “I can’t imagine how something like that could have happened.” He appeared genuinely upset to Karina, and his distress seemed to mollify Mrs. Vandergriff.
“Did you bring it with you? I’d be only too happy to clean it up and make it right.”
The matron sniffed imperiously. “I couldn’t bear to have it back in my home. Just the memory of that smell is enough to– No, I don’t even want to think about it.”
“Then perhaps you’d allow me to come and collect it,” offered the shopkeeper.
“It’s too late for that,” she said. “I told the gardener to burn it. I’ve had the house fumigated twice on the off chance some vermin may have escaped from it. One can never be too careful.”
The shopkeeper appeared crestfallen. “Is there anything left of it? Anything at all?”
Mrs. Vandergriff shrugged. “Ashes possibly, if they haven’t already been spread on the flowers.”
“Then there doesn’t seem to be much left I can do for you,” he said.
“There’s the matter of my refund,” she said.
“I want my money back! You sold me tainted goods.”
The old man squinted at her. “I can’t refund your money unless you’ve got something to return.”
“I’ve been a customer here for forty years,” she said. “I’ve bought your dollhouses for my children, my grandchildren, and now my great-grandchild. Are you saying I haven’t earned a little something in all those years?”
“Other than my gratitude?” he asked. “No.”
She scowled so hard her cheeks wobbled. “You’ll be hearing from my attorney.”
“He likes dollhouses, too?”
Huffing like a steamship, Mrs. Vandergriff executed a full right rudder and sailed out the front of the shop.
Karina straightened and gave the man a sympathetic smile. “You did the right thing,” she said. “You have nothing to worry about.”
“Not from her, anyway.”
Karina tried to read his expression, but it appeared mostly blank.
“Listen,” he said, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to close early today. There are– I have some things to attend to. I can’t– I hope you’ll understand.”
“Sure, no problem,” she said. “I can come back tomorrow.”
He walked her to the door. “You might want to call first.”
Karina thought about the shop and its odd little proprietor all the way home. She had long since decided to buy one of the exquisite dollhouses, despite its insanely high price tag. Joe wouldn’t be happy about it, but he’d get used to the idea. But, just to be on the safe side, she decided to dig out one of the trashy little nighties he’d given her some years back. If she mentioned the dollhouse while wearing a half-ounce of lace and a smile, he probably wouldn’t ask too many questions.
The plan worked to their mutual satisfaction, and Karina returned to the shop the following morning, a Thursday, but it wasn’t open. Nor did the sign on the door suggest when it might re-open.
Results were the same on Friday and Saturday. By Sunday morning, Karina’s patience had worn completely through. By Sunday afternoon, she had convinced herself that the asking price for the dollhouse was actually quite reasonable, assuming she ever got the chance to shove some money at the old man. By Sunday evening, she realized that life without one of the dollhouses was simply unthinkable.
She had to have one.
Now–even if she had to sneak in after dark, grab one, and leave the money where the owner would find it. She contented herself with the thought that even though she had to break in, she wouldn’t be stealing anything.
It was a short drive to town, and the streets were empty save for the one in front of the First Baptist Church. She shook her head and muttered, “As if Hadleyburg would ever be big enough for a second Baptist church.”
The shop’s front entrance was shuttered and dark, so she walked around back and into the barren alley behind it. She carried a short pry bar she’d brought along in case she had to force her way in. A row of rear entry shop doors faced her, but only one held any interest. A single, naked bulb hung from a socket over the door and cast a feeble cone of light on the littered ground. The door stood slightly open.
Tempted to announce her presence and ask to make the purchase, she felt guilty for showing up at night when the store would normally have been closed. How would she explain that, or the pry bar in her hand?
Karina searched for a dumpster or a stack of boxes—anything she could hide behind while she waited for the old man to come out, but his truck was the only other thing in the alley. She touched it with a tentative finger then quickly withdrew her hand and wiped it on her jeans. The vehicle would have to do. She squeezed between it and the shop door and waited.
This is really stupid, she thought to herself. I should just go to the door, knock, and let myself in. There’s no crime in that. He’s got the dollhouse I want; I’ve got money. Who cares if it’s Sunday night? She set the pry bar out of sight on the ground and prepared to go to the door.
When the light over the door clicked out, Karina instinctively shrank deeper into the shadows. In the distance, a siren wailed. Her skin broke out in goosebumps. As if in accompaniment, the shop door squealed a ghastly harmony to the siren as the old man backed out of the building with a large cardboard box in his arms.
“Thank God that’s the last of ‘em,” he groaned as he levered the box into the back of his pickup truck. After locking the shop door he tried to raise the tailgate, but it wouldn’t stay shut. After muttering a string of obscenities, he secured the box with a pair of bungee cords and walked around to the front to get in.
Karina’s car was parked in front of the building. She had no chance to get to it without being seen, and if she waited until he drove away, she feared she’d be unable to catch up with him. He opened his door, and a light went on inside the cab. Karina bolted toward the back of the truck and scrambled in as the old man slowly eased behind the wheel.
Her pulse raced as he cranked the ancient engine, but beat even faster when she realized she’d heard something moving around in the box resting inches from her head.
She eased up to peek inside when the truck lurched forward, throwing her toward the box which crumpled slightly under her weight. Though surprised by the sudden jostling, it didn’t shock her nearly as much as the tiny, startled scream that came from inside the box.
The old man drove for what seemed like hours, though Karina never had a chance to look at her watch. All her energies were devoted to the goal of not sliding out the open end of the vehicle. The old man certainly didn’t drive like a senior citizen, and Karina avoided being tossed out by wedging herself sideways in the truck bed with her arms over her head.
They left town in minutes, then traveled through open countryside toward the low hills on the southern edge of the Smoky Mountains. Pavement gave way to gravel and then to dirt as the truck growled through the darkness. Karina cursed herself for being so stupid. Obviously, the old man was up to something, but that didn’t give her the right to stow away and follow him like some sort of spy. What would he do if he caught her? What would she do? And what—or who—was in the damned box?
Eventually, the truck slowed. Karina managed a hasty look before it came to a complete stop and saw a massive old barn, visible only because of a full moon and a cloudless sky. She scrambled to exit the truck before the old man could get out of the cab and work his way around to the back. Hoping to guess his intent, she knelt beside the tire on the passenger side and strained to hear him.
He muttered things she couldn’t make out, though it seemed clear he was unhappy. The bungee cords came free with a bit of clatter as they hit the bed of the truck. The old man grunted as he dragged the box toward the tailgate.
Worried he would suspect something because of the damage to the side of the box, Karina crept toward the front of the truck to stay out of his way no matter which direction he chose. The damaged container didn’t generate any comments from him as he lugged it toward the barn. He seemed oblivious to her presence as he reached the building, set the box on the ground, and struggled with a heavy, sliding door.
Though beset with worry over how she would ever return home, Karina also nursed a growing concern about the contents of the box, to say nothing of the man carrying it. When the door to the barn finally creaked open, she saw a brightly lit interior that left her stunned and confused. The door didn’t remain open for long as the old man closed it as soon as he had carried his burden through.
Karina crept closer, doing her best to remain quiet. She crept slowly around the old building hoping to find a gap in the boards or a window of some sort that would allow her to examine what she’d only briefly glimpsed. The mission seemed doomed from the start, but she stayed with it until she came upon a knothole that hadn’t been sealed from the inside.
Peering through the tiny viewport she observed what looked like a fairly ordinary suburban neighborhood, complete with single homes and apartment complexes. One thing made it odd, everything had been done in miniature. Unlike the dollhouses she’d seen in the old man’s shop, these buildings appeared whole; they had no open sides. Though she couldn’t be positive, she felt confident in her assessment that the little buildings were not only whole, but inhabited.
That conclusion brought her up short. What in hell was going on? Had the old man imprisoned an entire community of tiny humans? And where on Earth had he found them?
“Kinda figured I’d find you back here,” said the old man.
Karina spun around, her heart racing, an excuse already forming on her lips. “I– It’s not–”
~Stay tuned next week for the conclusion~