The fine folks at NPR host a three minute fiction contest, which I learned about after they had already had five rounds of it, where they ask for short stories based on parameters set by a famous author. The current round was hosted by Michael Cunningham, author of the utterly marvelous novel "The Hours". The rules were that you had to start and end with phrases he gave you-"Some people swore that the house was haunted" at the start, and "Nothing was ever the same after that" at the end. (Kind of a Halloween thing.) The story had to be less than 600 words, which, they say, takes about 3 minutes to read aloud- thus, the three minute fiction contest.
So I entered, and I didn't win.
Now, they got 5000 entries, they say, which isn't surprising, and the fact that I didn't win is even less surprising. But one of the rules was that the story couldn't be previously published, so I couldn't publish it here. But I didn't win, so I'm going to call that parameter null and void. And I think this isn't bad, frankly. So here it is- a 600 word story, using the rules set out as shown. Call it "Available Light", yet another title cribbed from Neil Peart. I hope he's not a reader.
“Some people swore that the house was haunted?”, she demanded. “A ghost story? Come ON, Dad.” She was ten years old, but she had already mastered the swooping, mocking tones of a teenager. I had warned her about the indignities of camping- the bugs, the dirt, the animals- all things she could forgo for a weekend with Aunt Jennifer, reading stories to toddlers and changing diapers by day, talking Twilight and painting toenails at night. But she cheerfully agreed to join me, which put us here, next to the lake, night creeping in around us, sitting around a small fire.
“Tell me a real story. Tell me how you met Mom,” she said, her innocent face paining me in the jumpy light. With Carolyn dying before she turned 2, my daughter didn’t know her mother as anything more than a framed picture, so she hungered constantly for stories of her as a breathing, feeling adult instead of the spectral presence she was.
“That old thing? I’ve told you that before.” I knew why she wanted to hear it again-it was like a World Series announcer telling a story that seasoned fans had heard before- you knew it already, but you listened for the smooth curves and the satisfying ending anyway. You wanted the rhythms of it more than the meanings of the actual words.
“I know,” she said dreamily, “tell it again.” After her phone died, then mine did, we resorted to swimming, sunning ourselves on the rocks, reading, talking, and just breathing in the crisp air and listening to the thousand small noises that made up the quiet of outdoors. She had been writing furiously in her notebook while I cooked- perhaps a scrap of poetry, or a story, or a letter to a friend. Do kids write letters any more? Probably not.
I told her the story-my sweeping run into the post office, not looking where I was going, headed for the outgoing mail slot, the solid hip check I gave her mother, sending us both sprawling-the apologies, laughter, and conversation that led to coffee, and then dinner, and a sudden rush into romance, and a tiny wedding, and within a year, the red, screaming, wide eyed gift of her birth. I told her of the late night feedings we would have in bed together, falling asleep with her with neither of us watching “Monday Night Football” when her mother worked the night shift. I told her of the hurricane of work and obligation that robbed us of sleep, but we undertook joyfully, goggle eyed with the wonderment of new life. I told her of her mother’s tangled hair, soft brown eyes, proud smile, warm laugh, and tender heart.
I didn’t tell her of the soreness that became pain. The pain that became one doctor, and then another, and another. I didn’t tell her of words like biopsy and malignancy and radiation, of her beginning to walk when her mother no longer could. I didn’t tell her of long afternoons walking hospital corridors carrying her, and later urging her to color in the corner of the room as her mother slept fitfully. I didn’t tell her of the black fits of rage that brought me to near tears as I drove her home alone. I didn’t tell her how she had lost her mother, but I had lost my only friend.
“Then she got sick?”, she asked.
“Yeah,” I told her, “Nothing was ever the same again after that.”