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:

  1. It must begin with the sentence, “Some people swore that the house was haunted.”
  2. It must end with the line, “Nothing was ever the same again after that.”
  3. 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.

A Disappearance

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.

2 responses

  1. This is the story I never got around to submitting to NPR. In a way it starts out similar to yours (father that is scientific and no-nonsense, mother that believes in ghosts), but goes in a completely different direction…

    Ghost Stories

    Some people swore that the house was haunted. That’s why we bought the one on the next block. Dad’s an engineer and argued we could get the sellers to lower their price. Mom’s an interior decorator and countered we had to consider resale value. She also believes in

    At least that’s what I suspect. She tells really good ghost stories when we go camping. Too good if you ask me. Dad’s stories aren’t any good at all. They start out okay, but peter out before the end. His heart just isn’t into all that “mystical malarkey”. Mom’s stories always start out sketchy, like she’s trying to remember something from her past. By the time she gets to the end, though, it’s as if she is reliving the horror. Once I even saw goose bumps on Dad’s arm in the glow from the campfire. He saw me looking at his arm, shrugged, then put on his sweater pretending he was cold.

    It was a few months after we had settled in before any of us realized we had bought the house that backed onto the haunted one. Mom had been hanging out the laundry when she noticed the window trim on the house behind us was ashen blue. The haunted house had ashen blue trim. When she brought this up at dinner Dad and I could see the concern in her eyes. She assured us it was just about resale value; most people don’t want to even live near a haunted house. Dad gave her the same clinical look he had when she first mentioned the house’s special feature, but Mom still looked concerned. Dad decided to lighten the mood by suggesting we do an overnight campout in our backyard. Maybe she could scare away the ghosts with her stories. Even Mom got a kick out of that.

    Mom and I put up the tent while Dad started the coals in the barbeque. We had hotdogs, baked beans and smores. Dad then put wood on the coals so we could have a fire. He was beginning one of his ghost stories, when Mom shushed him and pointed to an upstairs window in the haunted house. When Dad and I turned around we could see a dull light flickering through the curtains in the rightmost window. It disappeared for a while, and then reappeared in the middle window getting brighter all the time. We heard a muffled clink like a kerosene lamp being set down. A shadow loomed in the window. There was a distinct clack as the window was unlatched. Mom’s face was a portrait of quiet terror. Dad tried to appear cool as he clenched and unclenched his fists nervously.

    The house exhaled a hollow squeal as the window was slowly raised. The curtains were parted. We could see the figure directly. It was as black as its shadow. Two gray hands appeared on the sill lit only by the waning moon. The figure bent and leaned out the window. As it gradually raised its head we could see its face was gray as well. I looked back at Mom and Dad. They were facing each other with the same voiceless scream.

    Mom turned to face the gray demon. “How’s your move going Kathleen?”

    “Alright, but everything takes twice as long as you think.”

    “It was the same for us.” Mom looked back at Dad and gave him a wink. His face was a mix of anger and embarrassment as he continued to clench and unclench his fists. Nothing was ever the same again after that.

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