This is a story I submitted to the fifth round of NPR's 3 Minute Fiction. There were over 5000 submissions, so I won't take it personally that I didn't win. :) The contest was announced on 9/11/10. I was in the kitchen, cooking dinner. I turned my ideas around in my head for the rest of the evening, and as soon as I got the kids went to bed, I ran upstairs to type it out. The next day, I cut about 200 words to stay within the 600 word limit. And then it was done. And here it is. 600 words exactly.
Some people swore that the house was haunted. Even before the brownstone stood empty, the family that lived there was isolated; the mother wore a black burkha that made her look like a negative image of a ghost floating down the street. Maybe it was unfair to blame the family for the distance; neighbors on the block felt uncomfortable making small talk.
“I’d be in a tank top,” said Marie Costa, three doors down, “and she’d say ‘Hi,’ covered, from head to toe, with her two kids. And I’d flashback to my grandma telling me I had loose morals because I’d gotten my ears pierced.”
Eric Williams, one door down, regretted that he’d never learned their names. “If we’d known them better, we could have tried to find out what happened to them.”
The family disappeared on 9/11/01, but no one noticed at first. Cynthia Rice’s husband was killed in the World Trade Center. In the aftermath, everyone was shell-shocked. Jet fighter planes roared overhead and paper from the towers floated across the East river to land in Joan Wellington’s backyard.
Joan was the first to realize they were gone. As anti-Muslim sentiment rose, Joan decided to pay them a visit, to extend a hand of friendship. No one answered her knocks. Chinese food menus were piled up at their door. Talking to neighbors eventually established that no one had seen the family since Mr. Smith, an elderly renter, saw them leave together on the morning of 9/11.
The years went by but the house stayed empty. Wet leaves covered the sidewalks. Snow fell. Gum melted to the pavement. Each anniversary, the block mourned the man they had lost. As time passed, some said the Muslim family was responsible for Jeffery Rice’s death. Others said they had fled in fear. Others, like Joan, just wondered what had become of them.
The ninth anniversary was especially upsetting to the block because friends had stopped speaking to each other over the issue of the Muslim center near ground zero. Joan, for example, was no longer on speaking terms with Cynthia, her neighbor of 17 years. They had watched each other’s children, and Joan had practically moved in when Cynthia’s husband was killed. But more recently Joan had called Cynthia “prejudiced” and Cynthia had said that Joan hated America.
On 9/11/10, Joan saw a man unlocking the door of the empty house.
She went outside. “Hello. Do you live here?”
The man turned. “My sister lived here, with her family.”
“I remember them.”
The man didn’t speak, as if he was expecting Joan to say more.
“What happened to them?” she finally asked.
He looked surprised. “They were killed in the attack on the World Trade Center,” he said. “My brother-in-law had an office. They often breakfasted there on days when my sister and the kids spent the day in Manhattan.”
Joan stared at him, in shock.
“I live in London, and I couldn’t bring myself to return to face my sister’s empty home,” he said. His shoulders dropped. “But nine years of being haunted by a house is enough.”
“I didn’t know.”
“The papers printed their names,” he said.
“I didn’t know their names.” Joan bowed her head. “Someone else on this street died there, too.”
“You mean Rice?” The man shook his head. “Haven’t you read the paper? He didn’t die. They just found him, in Canada. He had never gone to work that day. He’d been fired the week before and hadn’t told his wife. When the towers fell, he just left.”
Nothing was ever the same again after that.