Tuesday, November 2, 2010

These Houses Crumble

NPR's "All Things Considered" has an occasional fiction contest. The challenge: following a prompt, write a story that can be read in three minutes or less. This round's prompt got me so excited that I'd already conceived a story before realizing I'd missed the deadline by a month. I was running low on procrastination methods so I decided to write it anyway.

The prompt, conceived by Michael Cunningham: The story must start with the sentence "Some people swore that the house was haunted," and end with "After that nothing was ever the same again." My story originally clocked in at 1100 words; paring it down to 600 was a great exercise in word economy. The result is below.

Some people swore that the house was haunted. Inexplicable creaking, lights flickering in windows, the standard symptoms. These reports came soon after I photographed the house for the local historical society, where my after-school job provided an excuse to escape home. The day I visited was chilly, dry, gray. Leaves and birds had flown. The Woodward house, an anomaly on its suburban street, was set back from the road and surrounded by woods. Its boxy core dated to 1681; various appendages had been tacked on throughout the centuries.

I circled the rambling structure, peered in through wavy windows. No one lived here. The last Woodward had died a few years back, abandoning the family manse to the mercy of the present. Now the historical society was making a lethargic attempt to save it from demolition by acquiring National Landmark status. Hence my photos.

Wind shivered through thin branches. I shivered in my fleece. I tramped through ankle-deep leaves, snapped a photo, turned a corner, and came upon a long-abandoned door. I turned the knob; no movement. Then I pulled — pulled — with all my weight and the door broke completely free of its rusted hinges, collapsing in a rush of dust. I looked into the gap it had created: darkness and more dust. Wouldn’t you have entered?

It might have ended that day. But the house was just a short walk from my own house, where tension between my mom and dad was mounting. I explored the Woodward house’s mildewed parlor, the dark kitchen with its low ceiling beams and man-sized fireplace. I found the hidden recess where, I’d read, patriotic Woodwards stashed arms for Revolutionary soldiers. It held scattered mouse droppings but no guns.

Soon I was spending nights there. I learned to navigate the uneven maze of a place in blackness blacker than any I’d known. I brought a flashlight. When my parents bothered to ask, I said I was staying with friends. My friends: the banister bends smoothed by decades of fingers; the scuffed spot by the hearth that must have suffered some sitter’s feet. A space heater provided warmth in the bedroom where I arranged my sleeping bag. It was cozier than home, where things were really quite bad.

This went on for a few months. The house and I grew closer. I needed space, it needed an inhabitant. At night, I imagined past occupants stirring around me: mothers kneading dough, fathers shaking earth from boots, spinsters rocking by the fire. I welcomed my family of ghosts.

Then, the morning after a parental fight that brought policemen to our door, I found a toolbox in the Woodward house foyer. Dark-worn floorboards had been ripped up to reveal milky splinters. I hadn’t noticed these developments when I arrived the night before, eager for peace.

What was happening with the Woodward house? I asked my boss that afternoon in our stuffy cubbyhole of an office. Oh, he hadn’t mentioned. A compromise. A buyer wanted to live in the old woodpile. So it wouldn’t be demolished? No, but. But? No landmark status. So? She can change the house as she will. Meaning?

That night would have been my last at the Woodward House, but at midnight mom called and said to get home right away because dad was leaving. He had already gone in the 10 minutes it took me to run back through the frigid night. Mom threw her hot sobbing body against me as I opened the door. I held her awkwardly. The next day they came with sledgehammers and nothing was ever the same again after that.

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