By Jesse Stanchak
This story was written by the fantastic Jesse Stanchak who runs the Twitter page @MicroFlashFic. I highly recommend following the page.
The listing for the house was short: “$50 a night. Steps from the beach. Everything included.”
Sara wouldn’t have considered it, if not for the photos. They were lavish, artful things that belonged in a coffee table book about better people living better lives, not on a website for strangers subletting their homes to other strangers. All the images centered on the home’s many windows, which all seemed to look out on perfect beach views — a frame in a frame.
At $50 a night, there had to be some kind of catch. But it was cheap enough that if she booked it and it was infested with scorpions, she could still afford a motel room. And she needed that weekend away.
When she arrived, the back door was unlocked. There was a note on the polished driftwood kitchen table, written in beautiful fountain pen loops.
Welcome to this seaside sanctuary. Help yourself to anything you want. Be well and come again.
F. G. Morgan, Proprietor
PS: There’s nothing for you in the basement.
Just like the listing, it was maddeningly short on specifics. And just like the listing, the look of the place made up for everything. The light was perfect, pouring in through those big windows, into rooms where each piece of furniture appeared to be handmade, yet expertly crafted. This felt like a place where messes never occurred. It was too airy, too free to be bound by clutter.
The house made Sara want to learn to paint. It made her want so much: To be a person who drank herbal tea to fall asleep instead of wine; To be a person who ate fresh vegetables instead of sniffing old takeout containers before chancing food poisoning; To be warm; To be generous; To be free of self-doubt or worry or fear. And at the end, to dream effortlessly of the life she’d lived.
And for two days, that’s who Sara was. She was relaxed and happy and confident — until Sunday night. She was supposed to head home in the morning. That didn’t sit well. She didn’t want to leave Beach Sara behind. She opened the refrigerator and noticed a shelf at the bottom she hadn’t seen before, stocked with white wine. She hadn’t touched a drop since she got here, but with the daylight fading, now seemed like an excellent time to fix that.
She drank while the moon rose. And as she drank, she wondered. Who was F. G. Morgan? How did they afford this place? Why did they rent it so cheaply? Did they know what it was worth? Did they care? They couldn’t possibly. They didn’t appreciate it. They’d never leave it otherwise.
The more she thought, the angrier she grew. She considered vandalism, but it wasn’t the house’s fault. She thought about stealing something. But the owner already told her to take anything she wanted.
Except for the basement. She remembered the note priggishly informing her that she needn’t go downstairs. “There’s nothing for you in the basement.” Well, she could judge for herself on that score.
There were four heavy padlocks on the basement door. But the door’s hinges were old, held in place with long, thin pins. She swatted at the bottom of each pin with the flat of her shoe. They slid right out with a satisfying pop. The door fell off its hinges; the locks were meaningless now.
She touched the wall just inside the door frame, searching for a light switch. It wasn’t there. There must be a bulb with a pull cord at the bottom of the steps. Her grandparents’ home had been that way. The beach house didn’t look that old, but now that she thought about it, the place had almost had to be. How else could it be this cheap and this charming? Mystery solved.
But she still wanted a souvenir to remember the house by. Or perhaps to get back at the owner. Or just to poke around. Her wine buzz was shifting gears, and it wasn’t entirely clear to her where the evening would land. But she did need to go down there, dark or no dark.
She began walking down the wooden stairs, holding the handrail. The light from the kitchen was bright enough that she made it down a dozen steps before she could no longer see in front of her. She dug out her phone and put it on flashlight mode. She panned the phone around, but it didn’t reveal a thing. She still couldn’t see the next step, much less the floor. The phone must have broken.
It was planned obsolescence. Companies made these phones cheaply, so they’d break down, and you’d need to trade your old phone in to afford a new one. Then the companies would harvest the parts from the old phone and slap on a fresh coat of paint and sell it again. Or something like that. The point is, the damn thing was broken. It was all broken. And none of it was her fault.
She stuck out a toe to feel around for the next step. But the impact never came. She would have lost her balance and tumbled forward, but she was still holding the handrail, so she only tipped forward a little. She did drop her phone though. It fell away from her for what seemed like a very long time. Its flashlight was still on. She watched it with curious detachment. It flipped over and over in the darkness as it fell, the beam spinning like a receding lighthouse. It was working after all. How about that?
Then it was too small to see. She was alone. Everything was dark and getting colder by the moment.
Dropping the phone should have made her furious. She knew that. She’d spent far too much money on that phone. She knew that too. And she hadn’t insured it, of course. And getting money for a new one when the old one wasn’t even paid off would be such a headache.
Paying for what now? She really did have a headache. Or at least, she did whenever she thought about whatever it was that made her head hurt. She sat down and rubbed her temples and thought about how important it was not to think about things that hurt you. She began to yawn.
A soft voice in the back of her mind pointed out that the door had closed. That was strange, wasn’t it? The kind of thing she ought to care about. Then again, doors were always going places. Not like her.
She lay down. She wanted to stretch out and explore the space. She felt like that could take a while.