Sunday, December 5, 2010

Three-Minute Fiction

Some people swore that the house was haunted. Enough so its listing came up first in her Google search.

“I’ve found one I want you to look at,” she told her husband. She often had real estate listings to show him, or upholstery samples for recovering her college-era couch, or fun ideas for their upstate vacation. He often had hilarious videos to show her, or pictures of people’s cats. He liked to say that they each brought something important to the marriage.

He hoisted baby Max up to his shoulder and leaned over hers. She clicked through different views. “It’s…awesome,” he said, as if there must be some mistake. “That’s really the square footage?”

“I know.”

“How can that be the price? What’s wrong with it?”

She turned and looked at him squarely. Her expression and the pause that followed announced this as an Important Marriage Trust Moment, like when he’d asked to spend four hundred dollars on a theremin.

“I got an idea from that horror movie we watched last night,” she said. “People are always finding great big houses they couldn’t normally afford that turn out to be haunted. So now I’m only searching for haunted houses.”

“…Um,” said the husband.

“And it’s fine because there’s no such thing. If people want to be stupid and superstitious it’s not our fault, right?”

Max needed a diaper change. Their entire two-room apartment smelled like diaper. The husband glanced back at her laptop.

“Show me the granite countertop again,” he said.

The front yard was immaculate. As they approached, Janice the realtor pointed out the carved duck mailbox with whirligig wings, as if it couldn’t point out itself. The husband and wife shared a smile. Ghosts did not haunt places with novelty mailboxes. They did not haunt ranch-style split-levels.

The first walkthrough would have gone beautifully if not for the baby’s fussing. Max upshifted abruptly from squirmy to tantrum, then cycled through seven or eight distinct wailing screams like a car alarm. They all agreed to try again the next weekend.

“Another couple’s shown interest,” the realtor warned them, but then you could almost see the delicate lie fall apart in her hands. “Not…not really though,” she admitted.

Their friend Jeff had been a house inspector before the market tanked. He agreed to have a look as a favor on Tuesday, and so Tuesday evening both husband and wife glanced at the phone as they nursed Max through some kind of croup. But it didn’t ring that night, or the next. Finally, reluctant to press a favor, the husband emailed Jeff and received a reply–just a spare list of concerns, no niceties:

shingles missing
flashing needs repair
cracked window
walls of half-bath bleed the curses of the damned

Jeff was the funny one in their group.

On Saturday they returned to the house. As they walked through empty rooms Max again threw a fit, but now they were determined. The realtor smiled sympathetically and walked them through the bedrooms, baths, dining room, kitchen. In the kitchen was a door to the basement, and they descended the sharp stairs, Max squealing, with only the light of a bare bulb to guide them.

The basement was large. The floor was unfinished dirt. Faint sunlight filtered in through mesh slits in the corners.

“What do you think–?” the wife began, hopefully. But she faltered when she realized Max had grown silent and perfectly still.

The lightbulb burned out. In the thin blue of the sun Max turned.

“We’ll take it,” he said.

Nothing was ever the same again after that.

NPR's Weekend All Things Considered has a regular contest called Three-Minute Fiction. Round Three submissions had to be inspired by a photograph. Round Four were requires to contain the words "plant," "button," "trick," and "fly." Round Five started this past October, and had the following stipulation: that every story begin with the line, "Some people swore that the house was haunted," and end with the line, "Nothing was ever the same again after that." And, as in previous rounds, it could be no longer than 600 words.

When I heard those lines an idea came to me right away. So I set aside my work and spent a day writing my submission. I sent it off, and forgot all about it. I don't listen to Weekend ATC religiously, so I missed it when the winner and twenty-five runners up were announced last month.

Needless to say, I didn't win. But something reminded me of the contest today, so here I am digging up my entry for a blog post. Maybe you people will like it. Go check out the winning story though, too, and the runners-up (which are listed in a sidebar).


Erin said...

I love this; I want to read more...!

Unknown said...

Nice. Yeah, I entered too. No dice.

Matt Phelan said...

This should have won. Nothing creepier than a baby using a full sentence. Nora would have just said, "Miiiiiiiiiiiiiine!"

Adam Rex said...

Thanks, guys.

Matt! How old is Nora now? I want to see a picture.