Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Trading Up: Round Five of NPR's 3-minute fiction contest

Some people swore that the house was haunted.  But haunted houses are, as a rule, aged, decrepit, crumbling affairs.  There’s a difference between something falling apart and being torn apart.
They were laughing as they entered the first-floor master, near the great room, whose wiring had been ripped out.  He had said something hilarious to the realtor, who was laughing warmly.  She was laughing, politely --- she was a good sport --- but he could hear the laughter’s sharp edges.  He laughed to show he was harmless.  They were buying a house together, which means love.
I can get you a deal on the plumbing.  From my brother-in-law, actually.”  The realtor pointed through the French doors, four panes of frosted glass kicked out, to the big master bathroom, which had once been tricked out with fancy bronze and copper fixtures.  She wanted them to be sure they knew the house was still a steal.
“That’s very kind of your husband’s brother,” he said.
“My sister’s husband, actually.”  The realtor’s eyes flicked down to her hands, her ten bare knuckles.  He looked at her hands, at her face, smiled.
She turned around, said she wanted to see upstairs.  She was debating if she should walk out the front door.  But they’d all come together in the realtor’s car, a convertible Beamer, a lot like the car she’d drove when she met him.  But she had legs, didn’t she?  She’d run cross-country in school.
The realtor caught her arm gently.  Her honeyed voice told her she should really see the separate his and hers closets.
She was desperate to flee, imagined the old owners running, shaking the house’s dust from their feet, but she was cornered by manicured nails that were gripping her arm tightly, blanching the skin beneath.
“There was a full-length mirror in here, but it’s broken now.  You should put a new one in. You can really see the true colors of things with all the natural light in here.”
The big skylights let the Nevada sun pour in and made the huge clouds of dust look like snow.
The snow was falling on two prone bodies.
Both women shrieked.  He came running in, to save them, no doubt.
The bodies scrambled up.  They were children, nine or ten, twins maybe, two androgynous, blank faces.  They saw the adults had cornered them.  They shrank into the back of the room.
“Are you two okay?” he asked, gently, taking ownership of the house that wasn’t yet his.  He approached them slowly, carefully.
They said nothing, hugged each other, stared at the grown-ups.
His arm bumped a  loose shelf, which fell down, kicking up more dust.  In the blizzard, the children’s bodies became silhouettes.  Because he was a man, and knew how to behave manfully, he held out his hands, palms up, so they’d see he was safe.
While they were still silhouettes, their outlines began to blur until their bodies were replaced by two outlines of light.  The outlines became columns of dust, of air, of light, shimmered, vanished.
He turned around, puzzled, but ready to comfort the two women, as was his wont.
She looked at his eyes.  She couldn’t remember the last time she’d really loved him.
She turned and ran, past the scratched-up walls, the hole-in-the-wall-sockets, out the front door. She didn’t stop at the car, just kept running, couldn’t decide if she should run for the city that shone like a mirage in the distance or for the real, substantial desert.
He sighed, but didn’t follow after her.
Nothing was ever the same again after that.

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