Free Fiction! “Settling In” (1127 words)

This isn’t actually the story I planned to post today. That story, after some revising, ended up too long to be flash fiction. I wrote this story from scratch, tonight, just for you. I hope you like it, and as always, thank you for reading.

Time slips past a house in different ways, different when a house is a home than when it lays empty in the middle of an overgrown lot. A home can expect to pass its days one after another in a peaceful kind of slumber. The old yellow house out on Country Road No. 2 hasn’t slept well in a long, long… longer than it could remember. It shifts uncomfortably when rain falls in huge, heavy drops, or when frost chases across its windows, barely held in by rotting frames. Its pipes moan when the ground freezes hard. Small animals scurry through its walls, build nests in forgotten piles of unclaimed mail. The house hasn’t gotten used to these sounds yet.

When the afternoons are warm and a slight breeze blows across its faded shutters, it might remember better days. Mr. Malone coming to watch the house being built, wearing dark slacks and a pressed white shirt under his army jacket. Mr. Malone planting rose bushes under the kitchen window. Pouring drinks in the living room for his friends, other men in pressed shirts and slacks, or barbecuing in the backyard. Soft music from the old record player, drifting out through open windows into the night.

Now the house is both thinner and heavier, its joints too dry to fight against the downward pull of gravity. It tries to sleep to pass the time but every noise startles it awake.

One day, Mr. Malone was taken away, and he never came back. The house had hoped his ghost would walk through what remains of his home, a flicker of old moments like the curling photographs in the hallway, though it doesn’t know where the thought came from. It isn’t a comfort.

The newspapers keep coming, though. Some times it’s a child riding a bicycle, with a sack slung across their chest, who throws without looking and only by accident manages to hit the front porch. Other times, it’s a team in a pickup truck, with one person sitting in the bed, tossing out newspapers with bored precision, while another drives. They might not be the same child or the same truck, not after all this time, but none of them come up to the house so it isn’t sure.

It takes time and repetition for a house to learn about its people, after all.

The house is falling apart. The ghost of Mr. Malone is just a memory, the house’s memory. Snapshots of different moments in time, that’s all. The house doesn’t have a person anymore. It doesn’t even have a ghost to haunt it.

Maybe this is how it’s supposed to go, the house begins to think. Let gravity pull down its rafters. The porch swing already lost one of the hooks that kept it suspended. It scraped against the porch floor when the wind was up. Time and the elements should finish the job. Let the heat strip the rest of the yellow paint from its siding, the house thought. Let the steel rust and the wood turn to dust and just settle into the earth, at first a mound of debris but over time, a place for creeping vines and crawling things to roost.

Maybe then, the house could rest.

One afternoon, a young man wanders into the yard. Hello? he calls out. Anybody home? He doesn’t have a newspaper in his hand.

The house’s screen door slaps softly against its wooden frame. The latch fell out a few winters before, and the hinges are rusted.

All right then, the man says, his voice softer now, warmer. I didn’t really expect anyone to be here but I don’t want to startle you if you are. My dad lives next door, you might have seen him? We’re neighbors.

The house couldn’t remember what neighbors were, or if neighbors were a thing a house should have.

Well, I haven’t been around in a while, the man was saying aloud and he walked slowly around the front of the empty house, peering at it from different angles. I’ve been stuck at home for months. Honestly I’ve started talking to myself and I should probably stop but who knows, because there’s no one listening to this anyway.

The young man comes back the next day. At first, he clears the newspaper from the porch, raking it into plastic bags before carting it away. A fire hazard, he says out loud. Sorry, he says also. I don’t even know who I’m talking to. My dad lives next door, you know? I can’t have you catching fire with him so close. The man laughs at himself for talking to the house.

The house creaks a little, quietly.

The man clears the plants growing around the house, talking all the while. These roses can still come back, he says at least once. They just need a little care. And another time – I should oil the hinges on this screen door, since I’m here.

It’s too bad you aren’t lived in, he says later. To be lived in is to be loved, right?

In the middle of the night, when the bats flutter overhead, the house starts awake. Then it remembers there is such a thing as neighbors, not here at home but somewhere close, and it settles down again. Just… waiting.

The man comes back the next day, and fixes the porch swing. He starts to collect the more recent newspapers – which still come, but instead of thudding against the house’s walls, they land softly on the driveway a few steps from the garage door. The man piles them in a plastic crate near the front door.

The young man brings a cup of coffee over, early one morning, in time to catch the paper as it’s headed toward a rose bush. He sits on the porch swing, gently balances his cup on one knee while he pulls the elastic band from the paper, and flips it open. Then he takes a sip of coffee, leans back on the swing, and looks out over the yard.

I put in an offer yesterday, he says. I want to be near my dad, in case anything happens. And I want to fix you up, get you back to the house you used to be. So, I guess I’m saying I want to be here for you, too. If you’ll have me.

The sun is warm against the house’s walls. The porch swing squeaks a little as it moves under the man’s weight, a familiar sound. The young man drinks his coffee in silence, and the house can’t remember if this is happening for the first time, or the hundredth. It doesn’t matter. By the time the house figures it out, it’s already fast asleep.

Note: I decided to post a new story on June 20th before I realized that it would be Father’s Day here in the US. This story isn’t a Father’s Day story, not intentionally, but if you need a soft and comforting tale to end your day – especially one that hints at nice things about family and friendship, since not all Father’s Days and not all fathers are good for everyone – I hope reading this helped you.

Want more? You can read the rest of my free fiction here. Plus: A frequently-updated list of my professionally published work is collected on this page. Many of those stories are online too, and are often free to read at the publisher’s site.