The Gift

The Gift

by John Hedrick

“Some people swore that the house was haunted,” the woman behind the counter insisted. “Everyone who’s ever bought it has brought it back.”

I eyed her skeptically. Haunted? I always heard hauntings occurred in places of terrible suffering where spirits of the dead lingered when they couldn’t escape their pain. Not that I believed in ghosts, but even so, how could a dollhouse be haunted?

The old man beside her lovingly patted her wrinkled hand. “Never mind that, sir. She’s got a bit of an imagination.”

“It’s no imagining!” the old woman argued. “The little girl in the family that brought it back told me so herself.”

He smiled gently in reply. “No, dear. The parents told me they returned it because the roof latch is broken, and they couldn’t open the dollhouse.”

“So it has been returned before?” I interrupted.

“Only once,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to fix it.”

I nodded then made a show of examining the rest of the dollhouse, intending to negotiate a reduced price. In truth, I’d made up my mind to buy it as soon as I entered the shop. My daughter’s birthday was the next day and as usual business travel had made this a last minute effort. If I picked something up today I could still get it to her by overnight express since I wouldn’t be returning home myself until the end of the week. Besides, it seemed to me a nice dollhouse was just the thing any little girl would want most for her birthday. Determined to keep my lunch appointment I turned to make my offer, but the shopkeepers had stepped away. I almost called them back, but I didn’t want to appear too eager. So, I contented myself by really looking at the dollhouse while I waited.

It was a beautiful, two-story colonial model, painted white with black shutters and a red door. I’d glanced into a few of the downstairs windows before I finally noticed them. Magazine clippings of assorted pairs of men and women had been glued to the walls in every room, and between each pair was a cutout photograph of a brown-eyed little girl. All three were staged in various activities together: eating, playing games, reading stories. The girl’s clothing varied, but the uneven cutting showed the same tattered patch of wallpaper behind her where she’d posed herself for each scene.

A heavy, sinking feeling filled my chest as my eyes slowly passed from room to room. The last room, which I somehow knew would be the master bedroom, had a black curtain hanging in the window. I couldn’t see inside. My chest tightened and my hands began to tremble. Full of a sudden, overwhelming dread, I knew I had to see what was inside that room. I fumbled with the rooftop latch, hoping to see inside the room from above. Someone had glued the rooftop down. Without thinking, I seized the rooftop by the eaves and wrenched it free from the dollhouse.

The bedroom below was empty.

I stood panting from exertion and spent emotion. It was true. The dollhouse was haunted. Its ghosts were the scenes this little girl had created for herself of the one thing she wanted most in the world but couldn’t have. Now they haunted me too. I paid the shopkeepers for the ruined dollhouse and then tenderly laid it to rest in a dumpster behind the shop. I drove straight back to my hotel, checked out, and booked the first flight that would get me home to my daughter before morning.

Nothing was ever the same again after that.


This story was my entry to the NPR Three-Minute Fiction Contest in 2009. Per the contest rules the story must begin with the words…

Some people swore that the house was haunted.”

and end with the words…

Nothing was ever the same again after that.”

13 Responses to The Gift

  1. Haunting and a good use of the assigned sentences. I found myself wanting more. Has good story appeal and could be adapted for a much longer tale that I myself would like to read.

  2. Dave says:

    Yeah I love how you created the story out of the required sentences. It definitely engages the reader by raising questions, e.g. “brought it back” – how can you bring a house back? A great moral in there too 🙂

    On the constructive side, I think that your prose feels a bit too formal – if it was more colloquial I think the reader would find it easier to relate to the narrator. And “raw emotion” struck me cliche.

    I hope that helps 🙂


  3. Megan says:

    I liked it a lot! Loved how the ‘haunting’ was reflected in his own guilt. Also liked how you turned the final required sentence into a moral.

    Critique-wise, I’d incorporate further the second paragraph into the story. I really liked the description “I always heard hauntings occurred in places of terrible suffering where spirits of the dead lingered when they couldn’t escape their pain.” Maybe explain further how the girl’s terrible suffering was like a death, or how she couldn’t escape the pain of her life and had to create one. You illustrate this, but a sentence tying back to this initial description would really make the ‘haunting’ connection stand out.

    I would definitely submit! Keep us posted on how it goes:)


    • John Hedrick says:

      I like your idea. However, I neglected to mention that to ensure the story stays under three minutes, they’ve imposed a word count limit of 600 words. I’m at 600 even. It took a lot of revising to trim it down without losing anything vital, although I lost some other bits I really liked. My initial draft was around 850 words and did a bit more tying together. Depending on the contest outcome, maybe I’ll revisit this and expand it a bit to see where the story goes. Thanks!

  4. Dave says:

    Good luck – it’s a great story!

  5. Kay says:

    I really liked it and wanted more. I liked your use of ‘haunting’ not in the traditional way we think of ‘haunting’ but in the way the things we do in life haunt us. You can envision the man rushing home to his daughter and taking her into his arms in a big hug.

    Great job John. I look forward to reading more of your work….you have the gift.

    Thank you so much for letting me share in this.


    • John Hedrick says:

      Thanks Kay! I really wanted to do something unexpected.

      Once I decided to change the house into a dollhouse I asked myself the same question the viewpoint character does about how a dollhouse could be haunted. In the spirit of unexpectedness, I decided to rethink the notion of the haunting too. So, I shifted the haunting from being in the dollhouse (with actual ghosts), to the minds of the people who experience it instead. I also played around with the presence of the three girls in the story. One is a girl we hear about, but never see (from the old shopkeeper). Another is a girl we see (in the photographs), but never really know. And the last is a girl we know (the daughter), but never see or hear from. And yet none of three girls are actually in the story at all.

      Just like the haunting. 😉


  6. Tracy Clark says:

    I’m very excited to see your story! I wish so badly you were in my area as we recently asked our SCBWI members to submit a “ghost story” for a reading in Virginia City. Yours would have topped the list! Very well done, especially given the word count limitations!

    I agree with a previous comment that the story mirrored the dad’s own guilt. I don’t know if that was intentional, but it was very well done. Such great writing, John. Keep it up!!

    • John Hedrick says:

      Thanks Tracy. That means a lot to me.

      Yes, the guilt was intentional. I wanted for it to be unexamined due to his cavalier attitude and all-work focus until the little girl’s “ghosts” haunted him.

      I’m glad you liked it!

  7. Kim L says:

    JOHN! What can I say??? I love it!

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