Every few months NPR has a Three-Minute Fiction short story contest. The “Three-Minute” really means “600 words,” and each contest consists of one or more constraints that the story has to satisfy.
The October contest (which was the first I heard about) specified the first and last sentences of the story: “Some people swore that the house was haunted.” and “Nothing was ever the same again after that.” The first is fine and easy to work with, but the last caused me no end of trouble. Also, 600 words is really, really hard. Somehow I produced a 750-word story, and then I spent several days rewriting all of my sentences just to make them shorter.
However, my story did not win. Most of the finalists (as well as the winner) bored me pretty severely, although I did enjoy this one. Since the winner has been announced and it’s not me, I’m suddenly free to post the story for your reading pleasure and/or displeasure. Enjoy!
Some people swore that the house was haunted. Certainly by movie rules it should have been. It was built on an Indian burial ground. In 1966 the infamous “LSD Babysitter” cooked and ate her charges in its kitchen. In the 1970′s it was home to a coven of witches, in the 1980′s to a Crüe of Satanists, and in the 1990′s to a cult of UFO-worshippers. The only thing it lacked was, well, a ghost.
Ignoring this deficiency, Jake Henson bought the place to fleece superstitious tourists. He served “Eggs and Ectoplasm” breakfasts every morning, conducted “Ghost Tours” every afternoon, and rented out the house for Goth weddings as many evenings as he could.
He made up names and stories for its spectral residents: Matchitehew, an Algonquin chief, objected to breakfasters disturbing his eternal slumber. Sandra, eaten by her babysitter, sought revenge against drug users. Aaron was a churchgoing teen whose ritual sacrifice by the Satanists kept his soul from ascending to heaven, while Heather was spiritually stuck on earth after committing suicide to board a nonexistent spaceship supposedly hiding inside a comet.
Each spirit got its own room, rigged with sound effects, period props, and theatrical lighting. Thanks to Jake’s showmanship, the ghosts soon became de facto members of the community. Parents abandoned “users are losers” anti-drug pamphlets in favor of scary stories about Sandra. Ms. Wickman, the Social Studies teacher, made Matchitehew the focal point of her “what we owe the Native Americans” lesson. Reverend Wallingham frequently used Aaron to demonstrate the “reality” of Satan. Even the head of the local “skeptics” organization referenced Heather when discussing the improbability of alien visitation.
Jake’s troubles began when he caught the attention of “Ghost Debunkers,” a cable television show devoted to gonzo exposition of supernatural claims. Its host, Warren Dribman, was a champion skateboarder turned prank-caller turned investigative journalist. Every day he chose a new disguise and tried sneaking a hidden camera into the house. Some days he succeeded, and some days he got caught, but every day Jake felt pressure to make his spirits harder to debunk. Bedsheets with holes were replaced with tissue paper then with flickering lights. Ghostly howls were replaced with electrical crackling then with wind noise. Detailed biographies were replaced with three-sentence blurbs then with first names and generic details.
Dribman, in turn, asked his Internet fans for help. Soon “Dribman’s Army” accounted for a majority of visitors to the house. They harassed tour guides. They staged phony weddings as distractions and searched rooms marked “NO ENTRY.” And in the process they bought lots of tickets.
Finally, a stressed-out Jake asked Dribman to meet. Dribman arrived early one morning and found Jake in the “Sandra” room clutching a ledger.
“You’re making me a ton of money right now.” Jake showed him the figures. “But your minions are eventually going to shut me down! Can’t we reach some sort of agreement?”
“You want me to sell out Dribman’s Army?”
“No more than you sold out Dribman’s Skaterats or Dribman’s Dialers!” Jake was turning red.
“I suppose half of the profits might do it.”
“Half? There’s no way you’re getting…” Jake clutched his chest and collapsed.
Dribman picked up the ledger and studied it greedily. After a minute, he fished in his pocket, found a joint, and dropped it next to Jake’s body. He flipped on his camera, positioned it to capture both Jake and the “Sandra hates it when you do drugs” sign, and narrated, “This is Dribman, and I’m shocked to inform you that ghosts are real!”
Nothing was ever the same again after that.