NPR’s All Things Considered sends out challenges to its listeners, inviting them to write and submit samples of very short fiction (so-called Flash Fiction.) The contest series is called Three-Minute Fiction. Their latest challenge had the following constraints:
- It must begin with the sentence, “Some people swore that the house was haunted.”
- It must end with the line, “Nothing was ever the same again after that.”
- It must be 600 words or less (can be read aloud in three minutes or less.)
I submitted a piece for this challenge, although I didn’t win any special mention. (See here for the winning entry.) Still, it was my first attempt at flash fiction and I found it an interesting writing experience. I hope you find it an interesting reading experience too.
Some people swore that the house was haunted. Our father, a chemical engineer, wasn’t inclined to believe them. He was proud of our new home. “Jealous neighbors are two parts jealous to every one part neighborly,” he’d said, hitching his belt to declare the matter closed.
Still, our mother believed. It was in her nature to believe the unlikely or untrue, as it was to claim crippling fatigue when it came time for evening chores. She believed the neighbors’ stories even though she was smarter than our father, or perhaps because of it. While he applied his ration of intelligence to plastic copolymers, our mother devoted her larger share to a mystical realm unaffected by van der Waals forces and hydrogen bonds.
With her ankly feet propped on cushions, Mother would tell us about the spirits occupying our new house. “Put your ear to the wall and you’ll hear them, knocking about and whispering things.” Or, “don’t you sense their eyes? I feel them like ice on my shoulders, even when I’m dressing in the dark.” My sisters and I suffered her stories without hearing them. We were preoccupied with the asymmetries of our unfamiliar bodies and the baffling social hierarchies at Roberta Lax Academy for Girls. We heard nothing in our walls, felt no ice on our shoulders. When possessions went missing, we never suspected a ghost. We knew it was Mother collecting our handkerchiefs and marbles and Father’s company pens, carrying them in her apron pocket as talismans until we’d notice their absence and steal them back.
Every weekday morning, Mother walked us to the corner to see us off for school, and each afternoon we returned to find her waiting outside in the lengthening shadows, claiming to have just stepped out for a little fresh air. She never crossed the house’s threshold in between.
We learned of her daytime activities from whispering neighbors and their less discrete daughters at school. When Mother wasn’t sitting on our front porch, she was trolling the neighborhood for water, a snack, or a bathroom. She knocked on doors, claiming to be out shopping, and her intrusions and pretenses quickly frustrated the neighbors. After all, our mother had a house, one of the loveliest in town. Some stopped answering their doors; others timed their outings to miss hers. And so in time Mother wandered further, knocking on new doors and tiring new people. My sisters and I imagined that her humiliating excursions could go on indefinitely. And then suddenly they came to an end.
What we know of her last outing is pieced together from witnesses around town, impassive eyes that watched our mother meet closed doors one after another without offering to help. They say she passed the park and crossed Main Street, plumbing new terrain. An electrician would be the last to see her as she disappeared down Sycamore, her dirty-blond hair and pale fingers dissolving in a blinding midday glare. No one knows which door she knocked on and what she found behind it; no one who’s telling, anyway.
When we returned from school that afternoon, our mother wasn’t waiting on the porch. We found her inside at the kitchen sink, running a sponge over the curves and crevices of a teacup. Astonished, we crowded around her. I touched her hip, smoothing her empty apron pocket and she said, “Yes, of course, in a minute,” but that was all. The walls were silent. The teacup was already clean. And nothing was ever the same again after that.