He shut the door and let out the breath he had been holding. He hated being out there. He was so glad to be home. The others, out there, didn’t understand. This was his safe haven, his place. He was alone and he liked it, no one else understood, and certainly no one valued what he had done.

His apartment may have just been a bedsit, but he had transformed it. It was his world. He had created a special place. His was the landscape of a Kingdom. He had valleys and hills and towers and tunnels, all made from what out there thought of as junk.

He picked a path through the newspapers and old pens and bottle tops to his chair, the place where he was most comfortable, the place where he could sit and go through the bag of things he’d acquired.

He hadn’t been out on a hunt for a very long time; he had almost everything one could need, right here. Food and drink delivered, everything to be left outside. How he hated the prying eyes, the judging eyes of people, the people out there.

What did they know of his great creation?

It was rare for him to ever go out, but now and then he felt compelled to add new things. Those were the rare days, the unusual hours when he would go scavenging, peering in garbage cans, gutters, in dumpsters and secondhand stores.

Then he’d rush home, as fast as his old legs would carry him, cold in his ancient and filthy clothes. And then there was the moment, the glorious moment which was now, when he opened the bag to see what marvels he had acquired.

He rattled around in the old plastic bag and drew out two treasures of the day. There was an old alarm clock, that he was sure he could fix, and a hat, a man’s hat with a feather. He just imagined sitting there in his chair, his chair that was also his throne, for he was the king of this wonderful place, his home, his world of stuff gathered over the years.

He was imagining what would be in just a moment or two. He would sit there on his throne, wearing the hat, with the clock ticking the time and he would chew the old cigar he had kept for, well, obviously, for now.

Today was the day for it to come into its glory!

If he could find it, he knew it was here somewhere. Before he drew out the third item, his mind became pinioned by need. He had to find that cigar; it was all his brain could hold. He got up and entered one of the tunnels he had made in the towers of newspapers; they were built on old shelves upon which were many magical things. The old wombat made of rabbit fur with the stuffing falling out, some mugs he had found now containing paper clips, and some old bottles of kerosene.

He nodded with satisfaction. He didn’t merely decorate his home; he kept things that might come in handy, too. He had learned from his mother, a child of the Depression, “don’t throw it away.” He had old thread, piles of buttons, lots of jars, some still had peanut butter stuck to their sides, and he kept cloth that might be good as curtains some day.

Only, of course, if he could get an instruction manual for the sewing machine he’d found.

She had also left him this apartment, this bedsit, this fortress, this protection from the world.

He had felt lonely for a time after she had gone, but then he had found his friend. Or his friend had found him. It had been fortuitous in the long run, although frightening at first.

He had found his father’s old gun in his mother’s stuff and kept it in the special container for TV remotes that one of his neighbours had been about to throw out. He was lucky the gun was still loaded and worked as well as it did.

He took a sigh as he remembered, when the man first came, it wasn’t in the spirit of friendship. He had been an intruder in this king’s domain; he had come to steal what he could. Steal some of his precious possessions. The king had been astonished the intruder had found his way in through all his landscaping, the carefully constructed protection for him in his armchair, the king on his throne.

He had been incensed at the gall of the intrusion.

Of course, the man hadn’t seen him, camouflaged as he was by his own tattered tailoring, his hair a white dreadlocked bird’s nest atop his thin frame.

But the king had seen the rippling newspapers, noted when this thief stopped to take stock,

How dare he enter his Kingdom. The burglar had noted the chair and the old mannequin that sat in it and had casually begun to brush by.

That was when he had raised his gun and shot the burglar in the head. The man had fallen onto a pile of newspapers strewn over the old couch.

“What were you thinking back then?” he asked the desiccated corpse, still in the place where it had fallen on the couch.

They had become good friends now, and had been together for a long time. He had named his friend John.

He knew he was dead—he wasn’t crazy—so he knew when he offered him soda, John wouldn’t drink, but he felt, as the host of this party, and the King of this country, that he should offer at least.

Every time he finished a drink that those others brought, he’d toss the old can to John, just in case he liked the idea of taking a sip.

They’d been together for years, John was good company, and even funny in his way. He had become the King’s fool, and would have, if he could have, pointed out the error of his King’s ways, but he remained silent, so the King never learned.

He wasn’t much help at finding things either, and the King knew he would have to do it himself; he rose from his armchair, his throne, and entered a tunnel to find that cigar.

“I know it’s here somewhere,” he called back to John, lying so still in his bed of cans. He was a very good friend, no bother at all. They had come to know each other’s rhythm of living.

It had been difficult at the start, what with all the blood soaking into the newspapers that were waiting to be read, and then the smell and the flies. For a while, they didn’t see eye to eye at all. The King had even been driven to using bug spray and air freshener. Those had been terrible days, but for some years now, they had been boxing along very well.

The King emerged from the tunnel, an old stogie clamped in his teeth.

John was good company, never complaining that the King hadn’t washed or brushed his hair, or that he wore the same clothes day and night. It seemed so unnecessary to dress in the morning and then again in the evening, such a waste of time that could otherwise be spent on his collection, his world, his grand masterpiece.

John always agreed—he was good like that—and he no longer stank or drew flies; his flesh had turned papery thin. It was an interesting conversation, the one John was having with time; the King listened politely but never interrupted them. He no longer needed room freshener; John and time had come to an understanding, it seemed. Time!

The King remembered the new old alarm clock and showed it to John.

“You can borrow it,” the King told him kindly. He knew John was pleased.

“Oh wait!” he told John, and John always did. “There was another treasure I found.” And he drew out an old box of matches someone had left on a fence.

“Shall I light the cigar just this once?” he asked John. John agreed.

“I must wear my hat,” said the King.

He drew in a deep breath of old tobacco and coughing he dropped the cigar. The cigar burned the newspapers all around him, the old sticks of furniture burst into flames, and the flames rushed to the bottles of kerosene, as if they just knew.

The King was so frightened, not for his life, but for the landscape he had lovingly laboured over all this time. He tried stamping the flames, he tried smothering them with a blanket of John’s.

“John, help me!” he cried, but the corpse just lay there grinning and burning.

John finally seemed to have something to say, his dry bones crackled with heat, but the King was sure it was laughter from his own dear friend, turned against him at the end, when he was in his greatest need.

The King coughed and cried as his beautiful world went up in flames; the smoke overtook him and he succumbed to the fire.

The firemen, searching the smouldering heaps of remains, were told there was only one man to look for. A recluse, with no friends, who never went out, he barely spoke.

Why then, they wondered did they find two charred bodies?

The police came in, forensics took samples and plied their magical ways.

A lost man, missing for 17 years. A body shot in the head; they agreed it must be him.

The King died with the remains of his fool,

the man died with the remains of his friend,

the recluse died with the remains of his only intrusion.