A Year of Gifts
Have you heard of flash fiction? I wasn’t sure what it was so I did some research. Turns out it’s a short story, often not more than 1,000 words, that can give the reader instant gratification. It should be a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and an end. They aren’t genre specific and can be about anything you want. My interest was piqued.
What images does your mind conjure up when you think “October”? Anything unique? For me, I see fog, mystery, early darkness and intrigue. Darn Halloween, I think it’s influenced how I feel about the whole month!
When planning what I wanted to share with you this week, I couldn’t pass on the temptation to try my hand at a bit of flash fiction, set in a slightly creepy place, but that could still speak to the gifts life has to offer. I wasn’t able to keep it to 1,000 words but here goes nothing…
Apples and Advice
She snapped on the light switch. The miniature crystal chandelier high above sputtered once, twice, then gradually came to life, casting hatched shadows against dark walls, the meager light struggling to shine through intricate spider webs spun around the fixture’s bulbs.
“Darn wiring,” she muttered, though there was no one to hear her. The chilled air was hushed as she entered the grand foyer through the heavy, carved wooden door. As Katherine set her heavy bag of Halloween goodies down on a dust laden side table, the door swung shut on creaking hinges of its own accord.
“This house is starting to creak as much as I am,” she spoke aloud again, her voice raspy from lack of use. A glance at the grandfather clock, silent in the corner, did little to enlighten her as to the time. Its hands were still stuck at five minutes past twelve. The pendulum inside the glass fronted case hung precariously, one side having freed itself, the other still held securely in place. The pendulum mirrored Katherine’s state of being.
Moonlight slanting through the beveled glass of a transom meant they would be arriving soon. The old woman shuffled back through the gloom, towards the kitchen, her memories leading her through the darkness as her eyes could not. Past the swinging door, into the heart of the home where large plate glass windows above the sink glowed with moonlight. Katherine didn’t bother to try the lights in this part of the house. It would be futile. There, on the edge of the counter, sat the silver tray, undisturbed since she’d placed it there on this night, one year ago.
She blew dust off the heirloom platter, the effort leaving her winded. After retracing her steps back toward the light, she set the tray down next to the bag of goodies and then carefully removed six caramel apples, spacing them out on the tray. Time was running short. She must hurry.
One more trip down the hallway beside the grand staircase to her left and she would be ready. How she wished she had the energy to ascend those stairs but she hadn’t yet earned the right to do so, despite the beckoning rainbow of light streaming through the stained glass gracing the landing above. Her tug on the small closet door under the staircase met with resistance. This was always the most difficult part of the evening. Katherine paused in her efforts, took a deep breath, and summoned what strength remained. The stubborn portal eventually gave way with a low grating sound, as if complaining at the intrusion.
Katherine reached up, blindly searching for the string she knew hung there. She could feel tiny filaments cling to her fingers but didn’t bother to shake them off as she tugged. One naked bulb cast a pale-yellow light strong enough to illuminate dust motes but not the dark corners.
She expelled a sigh of relief. As expected, the closet contained the two things she’d need for her evening. A solitary hanger, padded in faded pink velvet, gingerly held an exquisite ivory dress. She’d originally planned to marry her beloved in this dress years earlier but life forced her to find a new purpose for it. She gingerly ran her gnarled fingers over its beautifully beaded front, gentle so as not to break the brittle thread. She jerked her hand back as her touch dislodged one pearl button, the sound of it bouncing on the wooden planks below was louder than it should have been in the otherwise silent house.
Shaking her head to dispel wistful memories, she struggled to lower the stubborn zipper along the front of her black mourning dress, rust slowing her progress. In time, she managed to shrug out of the somber garment and pull the snowy gown on over her head, hoping she didn’t dishevel her hairdo too dreadfully.
How many more times must I do this? she wondered, dropping her usual attire onto the chair standing sentinel next to the closet.
She reached inside for the only other item—the wooden box set on a shelf above her head—carefully wrapping her fingers around the warm wood and bringing it down do hold in front of her chest. Why this box remained warm to her touch after all these years, when everything else felt cool, was a mystery.
She left the light on in the closet, knowing she’d be returning the items after her visitors had gone. She heard the rumble of tires on the pavement outside and the slam of car doors. They were coming. Thankful for the welcoming light glowing on the front porch, Katherine removed the lid from the wooden box, the sweet smell of spring lilacs wafting up at her. She inhaled their freshness, holding their essence deep in her lungs. The chandelier above seemed to brighten a bit, chasing the shadows back.
As Katherine set the small box down next to her tray of apples, she fingered the six sealed envelopes inside, thankful they were all still there. She’d learned missing envelopes meant heartache. Footsteps and laughter echoed up from the stone walkway in front of the house, music to Katherine’s ears after months of silence. It sounded like Timmy’s laughter but she couldn’t be sure.
Someone twisted the knob on the old doorbell and the ringing of chimes echoed from wall to wall, floor to ceiling. Katherine ran nervous hands over her midsection and stepped to the door, her face illuminating with a smile in anticipation of seeing her friends.
“Hello, hello. Happy Halloween you little munchkins,” Katherine greeted the two standing just outside the door. A woman stood further back, down on the walkway, as if hesitant to come closer. Katherine was surprised at how the two children before her had grown.
“Hey,” the girl murmured in response. The boy next to her gave her arm a little shove and he shot the sullen girl a look. “Jeez Suzy, don’t be so rude.” Suzy shrugged again, earning a sigh out of him.
The boy, slightly younger than the girl he’d just scolded, turned his attention to Katherine. “Trick or treat, Katherine! Sure hope you have one of those amazing caramel apples for me again this year,” he said with a grin. He was dressed like a pirate, complete with face makeup and a plastic hook on his left hand. His right hand held a partially filled pillow case.
“Of course I do, Timmy," Katherine assured him, stepping back, a signal for them to enter. “I have one for your mother and your sister, too. Come on in Charlotte, don’t be shy.”
The woman below smiled up at Katherine as she climbed the steps. “Suzy doesn’t want to be seen trick-or-treating with her mother so I’m trying to be discreet.”
The girl wearing the witch hat, heavy black eye-liner and a surly look on her face gave a little snort but stepped out of the way to allow her mom to enter the foyer. Katherine shut the door behind the small family.
“Come here, Timmy. Help me with the apples. The tray is heavy.” With the boy’s help, all three in Katherine’s first round of visitors soon held their treats.
“So, before you go, tell me what you’ve been up to this year,” Katherine said, looking at each of them individually. All she got out of Suzy was another shrug and a murmured “not much”, to which Katherine frowned.
“Now Suzy, last year you were all excited about your new violin. Have you been playing it much?”
Suzy shuffled from one foot to another. “Yeah, I guess, but it’s kind of dumb.”
At this, Katherine leveled the younger girl with a hard look, hands on her hips. “Suzy, don’t ever say music is dumb. And don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. If your friends are telling you that, just ignore them and know they aren’t truly your friends. Now, it wouldn’t be Halloween if I didn’t have a little note for you too, would it dear?”
Finally, Suzy graced Katherine with a smile and took the small envelope out of the older woman’s extended hand. As the envelope passed from one to another, Katherine saw a flash of an older Suzy, dressed in concert attire and sitting in the first chair, throngs of people in the audience beyond. The girl would be alright.
“Do I get one?” the younger Timmy asked, stepping closer to peer into the wooden box.
“Yes, Timmy,” Katherine said, pulling out his envelope but raising her hand to slow him down. “I heard about this fun group at your church, where boys your age get together to play basketball and hang out. I really want you to give it a try. The information is in here,” she said, holding the envelope up with his name on it a little higher. “Promise you’ll check it out?”
Timmy met Katherine’s eyes, a questioning look in his own, but he reluctantly agreed as he took the envelope. Katherine saw a flash of two boys, shoving Timmy around on the playground, but then another three boys approached and told the bullies to knock it off. She was confident he’d find friends to help him stand up to the mean boys if he went to the church meetings.
“Katherine, you have been so kind to us through the years. I just want to thank you for all the wonderful treats and advice you always give me and the kids. But I’m afraid I have some news. It’s good news, but we have to move in about six months. I got into that nursing program you encouraged me to check into last year.”
“Charlotte, that is wonderful news,” Katherine said, reaching out to squeeze the woman’s hand. “I’m so happy for you!”
“But that means we won’t be here next Halloween, Katherine,” Timmy whined.
Katherine turned to him with a smile. “Tim, there comes a time when life as we know it has to change if we want to keep improving things. Your mom is taking a brave step to give you two a better life. Besides, it won’t be too many years before you stop going trick-or-treating. You are growing up. Now I want both of you to promise you’ll be good sports about the move and you’ll support you mom on this. OK?” she asked, looking from brother to sister.
To her surprise, both Timmy and Suzy nodded and stepped forward to give her a hug. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d received a hug and their spontaneity left her speechless.
“Maybe we’ll come back to see you with our own kids someday,” Timmy said, clearly proud at Katherine’s comment about him growing up.
With waves goodbye, Katherine saw the small family out the door and on their way. She watched as other knots of people passed by on the sidewalk out front, not turning her way. She knew only a select few could still see the light shining on her porch. There used to be more but their numbers dwindled each year. To most people, the old mansion looked deserted with its broken windows and sagging roof line. The rumors of ghosts kept trouble away.
Before she could step back inside, she was delighted to see three more turn onto her walkway, the youngest a small child in a glimmering angel costume. The tiny girl struggled to lift her booted foot high enough to climb the first step until a woman came up behind her, caught her under her armpits, and helped the toddler "fly" up the steps. An elderly woman climbed the stairs behind them, waving at Katherine with a bright smile.
The child squirmed in the woman’s arms, insisting she set her down, her dark hands pushing against the pale arms holding her captive. Once on her own feet again, the little angel ran up to Katherine and pushed right past her, into the house.
“Oh, Katherine, it’s so good to see again,” the woman said with a laugh, motioning in the direction the child had disappeared. “Sorry for her rudeness. It’s tough to contain a three-year-old on Halloween.”
“Hello, my dear Isabelle,” Katherine said in way of greeting, waving the woman in behind her daughter and catching the eye of the third woman. “It is so good to see you, Florence, out with your girls.”
Florence surprised Katherine with a quick hug as she entered the old house. “I have exciting news,” she shared as she released her. “I took your advice!”
“Well now, come in, come in. We must catch up,” Katherine said with a laugh. She hadn’t had this much fun in a long time.
As she again shut the door behind another group of visitors, she noticed little Lydia standing at the base of the stairs, pointing upward, perhaps at the pretty colors glowing out of the moonlit stained glass. The little girl babbled, as if greeting someone only she could see.
“Come here, Lydia,” her mother instructed the toddler in a firm voice. The child looked at her mother, back at the stairs, gave a little wave, and came to stand by Isabelle.
“I’m so happy to see all of you again,” Katherine said. “And I have an apple for each of you.”
“Thank goodness. It wouldn’t feel like Halloween without one of your apples,” Florence said with a smile. “But, I must tell you, we probably won’t be here for your apples next year. That is my news. Remember when I told you about my sister moving to Florida last year and how you encouraged me to go visit her? We had a falling out years ago but you reminded me of the importance of family. Well, I took your advice and spent the month of February with her. Now I’ve decided I don’t want to spend another cold winter up north and she invited me to come live with her! I leave next week.”
Katherine grinned. She remembered their exact conversation and was delighted Florence was taking her advice. She pulled Florence’s envelope out of the box and handed it to her, seeing a flash of Florence sitting poolside, wearing a big straw hat and arguing with a woman that looked an awfully lot like her. Katherine's Halloween visitor was going to do just fine in Florida.
Not to be left out of the conversation, Isabelle chimed in. “And remember how I told you last year that I was worried about being both a cop and a single mom? You challenged me to really think about what was most important in my life after Jason died. Of course, the answer is little Lydia here. I started brainstorming about other ways I might be able to make a living that didn’t include the possibility of getting shot at on the job. I remembered how much I loved drawing when I was younger. I signed up for a college level art class, loved it, and I’ve decided I want to illustrate children’s books. Plus, I can do that from anywhere, so we’re moving to Florida, too, so we are closer to Mom. I’m sorry to say this might be our last Halloween to visit you, too.”
Katherine’s mind was full from all the news. She thought back two years to when Isabelle and Jason came for their apples, as they’d been doing since they married, but also to proudly show off their newly adopted baby daughter. She’d encourage them to look into adoption when they confessed to having difficulties starting a family. Then last year was the terrible year when she’d opened up the wooden box and realized Jason’s envelope was missing. The poor man had been killed in a car accident on slippery roads the previous January.
Now it seemed these three were finding a new way through the world. Not in ways they’d expected, but they were seeking joy again.
“I’ll miss you all terribly, but I’m so happy to hear how you are both moving on. I’ll be fine here. Don’t worry about me,” Katherine assured them. She took the last two envelopes from the box, handing them to Isabelle. She saw a flash of Isabelle surrounded by a classroom of children, proudly showing them a beautifully illustrated book she held in her hands.
“Please, do me a favor. Save Lydia’s envelope for her until she graduates from high school. Give it to her on her graduation day and tell her about the silly old woman you grew up visiting on Halloween—the woman that always gave you caramel apples and unsolicited advice,” Katherine instructed, a solitary tear slipping down her cheek as she handed off the last of this year’s envelopes. She had a vision of a teenage Lydia, going on a mission trip to her birth country, helping other girls find education there. Maybe Lydia would even become a teacher.
“I promise I’ll do that for you, Katherine,” Isabelle said as she laid her hand on Katherine’s shoulder. “And you should know that I’ve kept every single note you’ve given me through the years. When I’m having a bad day, I pull one out and read your words of encouragement. You’ve helped me through some of my darkest days and I’ll always treasure our friendship, even if we only ever saw each other once a year. You are a blessing.”
Isabelle leaned in and dropped a light kiss on Katherine’s papery cheek. The three of them quietly left the house. No one liked to linger over good-byes.
Katherine sagged against the closed door, exhausted from the evening. Her eyes took in the empty tray and she tried to summon the strength to take it back to the kitchen. Maybe I shouldn’t bother. No one will be back next Halloween. They are all moving on.
She straightened with a sigh. It was time to turn out the lights. But she again noticed the scent of lilacs floating on the air. The foyer brightened. A movement at the top of the stairs caught Katherine’s weary eyes. Coming down the steps toward her was her beloved Charles, his face shining with love. Gone were the ravages of the disease that swept him away so many years earlier, before he could marry her.
“My dearest Katherine,” he said, his voice as sure and strong as it had been all those years before. “I think you missed something in your box.”
Katherine shook her head, not welcoming the distraction his words created, wanting only to go to him and let him hold her in his arms again. But he shook his head and again motioned for her to check the box.
With a sigh, she peered in. There, at the bottom, was an envelope she hadn’t noticed earlier. Her name was beautifully written across the front in a hand she didn’t recognize. She lifted up the envelope with shaking hands and broke the seal, pulling out the note.
She scanned the message before letting the note flutter to the ground. She looked up at Charles, love lighting her eyes and her smile, and reached her hand toward his. He clasped her hand in his own and helped her up the first of the stairs to his side. Together they ascended the rest of the grand staircase and stepped into the light.
The forgotten note lay face up where it had fallen. The following spring, a utility worker noticed it when he entered the deserted home. He was there to be sure all the utilities were capped off so demolition could begin the following day. He read the words from the note out loud, slowly as they were written in a fancy cursive and hard to decipher. He read them aloud even though he was alone in the old house.
“My dearest Katherine, you have shared your wisdom and charity with countless people through the years. You’ve earned your freedom and now it’s time for you to continue helping others from a higher place. Your work here is done.”
The man looked up from the note in confusion, wondering what it could possibly mean. Probably some kids breaking in here and messing around, he thought as he shoved the note into his jean’s pocket. He’d show the note to his kid tonight. She had a vivid imagination and would probably work it into one of her stories she was always writing in those journals of hers.
The man made his way down to the basement and confirmed the power had been turned off years ago. A tag on the electrical box was dated twelve years earlier—probably the last time someone had been down there. He exited the old house through the majestic front door. As he pulled the old door shut, he considered asking his boss if he could salvage it, save it from the wrecking ball.
Shame to see another one of these old houses torn down, he thought. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
Well there you have it! My attempt at a short haunted house story to get you in the mood for October festivities. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Kim
Kimberly Diede Author
Hello everyone and welcome to my blog! My name is Kimberly Diede and I'm a fiction author and family girl. When time permits, I am happiest with a great cup of coffee in one hand and a book in the other. I love to alternate between reading and writing. Winters here can be long, dark and cold. Summers are unpredictable, lovely and always too short. Every season of the year, as in every season of life, is a gift. Let's celebrate it together!