OTS 51: Toby by Lily Boyd

When I was four years old, our dog died. Four is a very resilient age. What can make us wail one minute can be gone from our heads the next. I cried and cried—and then we got a new dog. A puppy we named Missy. She was a small, raggedy mutt who dug through the Easter baskets while we were at church, suffered my brother’s rock band rehearsals, survived a tornado that tore up our house, and evacuated with us when Hurricane David was heading our way.

The summer after I graduated from high school, Missy was fourteen and was starting to show her age. I moved away to college, came home for Thanksgiving three months later, and she was wheezy and lethargic. My parents told me they were taking her to the vet the following Monday for a checkup. I knew I was going to be home again in just a month (for Christmas), but I had a feeling Missy might be on shaky ground. So, right before I caught my ride back to college I got down on the floor next to her, curled around her, and talked to her. I told her a lot of nice things, but mostly I told her that she’d been a really good dog. Then I left. She died the next afternoon.

All of this came flooding back to me as I read “Toby.” If you’ve ever loved and lost a pet, this story will no doubt have the same effect on you. It’s a laser-sharp and emotionally raw piece of writing, both fresh and familiar, and it’s all the more impressive because it was written by a teen. Lily Boyd is one of the winners of One Teen Story’s Teen Writing Contest, and we’re happy to be introducing you to her, and to “Toby.” (To read our Q&A with Lily, go here.)

Issue #231: Please Give Me One Good Reason Not to Hate You by Shawn Vestal

“I arrived in Bozeman after the place that came after Animas, was thinking I would stay forever—thinking I would finally stop what I’ve been doing and be someone, thinking this place was really me.” So says Benny, the semi-likable sleazeball who narrates Shawn Vestal’s brilliant new story “Please Give Me One Good Reason Not to Hate You.”

The thing is, Benny isn’t really his name. “Benny” is just the latest in a string of identities he has fashioned as a small-time scam artist crisscrossing the American West. Also, it’s not just the scams that keep Benny on the move. It’s people—his overpowering need to be among them and apart from them. You might say Benny is alternately addicted to and allergic to his fellow man. It’s an internal tug-of-war that so far has guaranteed him a life of perpetual unfulfillment.

But Bozeman—beautiful Bozeman, Montana—is going to be different. Bozeman is the place, Benny comes to believe, where he’ll finally settle down, fit in, and take a chance on normal human happiness. To that end, despite being out of shape and hopelessly un-outdoorsy, Benny accepts an invitation to go on a four-day, forty-four-mile mountain hike with a quartet of hip thirty-somethings—including his sort-of ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend.

If that sounds like a bad idea, you’re right, especially given Benny’s gift for self-sabotage. It doesn’t help that he’s a liar, a criminal, and a misanthrope. But whether you end up rooting for Benny or against him, we think you’ll agree that his story is one of the funniest, most compelling, and most daringly original works to grace our pages. Be sure to visit our website to read an interview with the author.

Issue #230: Bayou by Bryan Washington

When I was ten years old, I saw a movie called “The Mysterious Monsters.” It was about Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and the Abominable Snowman, and it was filled with cheesy “reenactments” of personal testimonies about encounters with these mythical creatures. Because it was presented as a documentary, and because I was ten, I watched the reenactment footage in absolute horror, completely forgetting these were actors (including the guy in the Bigfoot costume). For the next year, I had a hard time falling asleep, convinced that Bigfoot was going to crash a hairy arm through my bedroom window. I also spotted Bigfoot anytime I got near nature—at least a dozen sightings by the time I turned 11.

The two friends in Bryan Washington’s short story “Bayou” aren’t boys; they’re young men. When they discover a strange creature near a bayou on the outskirts of Houston, it isn’t fear they feel so much as a burnt-out sense of wonder, and maybe a chance to make some money. I was immediately drawn to “Bayou” because it begins with a chupacabra, and while many people claim to have encountered chupacabras (and even filmed them), biologists refuse to confirm their existence. So I was hooked from the get-go. But what follows is more than a monster story. It’s a story about friendship, misunderstanding, and longing. Or, as the author puts it in our Q&A, it’s a story about intimacy. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and if it inspires your own sighting of a mysterious monster—so long as it’s not a Bigfoot—I look forward to the reenactment.

Issue #229: Goodnight Nobody by Sarah Hall

Dear Reader,

Meet Jem, an eleven-year-old girl who is leaning forward toward adulthood with all her might. She has, as the author describes it in our Q&A, “an elastic, skipping-ahead brain” that doesn’t necessarily want to focus on the little brother she’s often charged with watching, but would much rather be investigating the bloody incident that has taken place down the street—an incident that’s left one person dead and put another person in jail. (Her brain would also like to be watching Thundercats, but that’s not an option at present.)

Sarah Hall, the author of “Goodnight Nobody,” is one of the most careful writers I know. Her word choices, narrative pacing, and sentence rhythm are the result, I suspect, of a great deal of hard, obsessive work. And yet none of that calls attention to itself. The nuts, bolts, and machinery are all hidden away, and her work is a pleasurable breeze to read. One of the great achievements of this particular story is the fact that its voice is so intimately attached to Jem, it feels as if it’s written in the first-person. I find “Goodnight Nobody” to be an addictive read, and I hope you do too.

If, by chance, you haven’t encountered Sarah Hall’s work before (she now has two story collections and five novels under her belt), I’m all the happier to be introducing you to her. Her new story collection is called Madame Zero. She’s a treasure, and we’re honored to have her in the One Story family.

Issue #228: The Third Birdhouse by John Biguenet

One of the many things I admire about our new issue is the way it sweeps through time with the subtly of a light breeze. The narrative voice is subtle, as well — subdued, even, and remarkably commanding. Contributing Editor Will Allison brings us “The Third Birdhouse,” so the honor of introducing if is his. — PR

In one of the Old Testament’s more unsettling tales, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. The devout Abraham takes Isaac to a mountaintop, builds an altar, and binds his son to it. Just as Abraham raises his knife, though, an angel intervenes. “Now I know you fear God,” the angel says, “because you have not withheld from me your only son.” Abraham ends up killing a ram instead, and as a reward for his obedience, God blesses Abraham’s family.

Things don’t work out quite so well for Abraham in “The Third Birdhouse,” John Biguenet’s contemporary retelling of Isaac’s life: it’s not okay in twentieth-century Brooklyn to try to murder your son with a hatchet, even if you think God told you to. But things do work out for the narrator, who—like the biblical Isaac—goes on to lead a long and prosperous life, with twin sons of his own.

The question is what kind of dad this modern Isaac will be, given the poor role model of Abraham. Isaac’s big test comes when his younger son, Jacob, swindles his twin brother out of his inheritance, just like in the Bible. How will Isaac respond? Raise the hatchet? Bury the hatchet? Hatch a compromise? His solution surprised me, and it’s one I’m still grappling with, which is partly why I love this story: like all good literature, it challenges the reader, posing questions rather than answering them.

John Biguenet, on the other hand, was more than happy to answer our questions. Be sure to check out his author interview to learn how birdhouses found their way into this retelling of Isaac’s story and to get John’s distinctive take on the reading habits of Donald Trump.

OTS #50: Guts by Gnesis Villar

As you may know, at the beginning of this year One Teen Story became a quarterly magazine focused solely on the writing of teens. Along with how wonderful it is to work with young, emerging writers, I’m excited that we’ll now be putting their stories into the hands of over 10,000 readers (which is a huge circulation increase from what OTS was able to boast of in the past). To start us off on this new venture, we present you with “Guts,” a story written by Gnesis Villar. “Guts” is several things at once: it’s a story about courage and self-respect, it’s an endearing portrait of a friendship between two teenaged girls, and it’s a chilling tale of a dangerous world that looks a lot like ours. Read what Gnesis has to say about how the story came about in our Q&A. She’s a remarkable talent. I feel certain we’ll be reading more of her work, and I envy readers who get to experience “Guts” for the first time.

Issue #227: What Is Behind by Tomiko Breland

We at One Story aren’t in the habit of publishing stories that directly relate to current events—not because that’s our policy, but because such stories usually take a long time to dream up, percolate, and write. When Tomiko Breland’s “What Is Behind” came to us, we were captivated by the writing, first and foremost, and we were blown away by its immediate grasp of an ongoing, tragic, and very widespread current event: the plight of the Syrian refugees. The story follows nine people, inviting the reader into each of their heads as they emerge from hiding and make a run for safety. It’s a remarkable piece of political fiction—in no small part because its emotional impact is not just the result of the subject matter, but of the way it’s rendered. To read more about how the story came into existence, take a look at our Q&A with Tomiko Breland, where she reveals why the form she wrote in was the only one that allowed her to do justice to her characters.

Issue #226: Prairie Fire, 1899 by Mike Alberti

When I was growing up in Florida, we would have tornados now and then. They were long and skinny, or fat and stubby, descending out of storm clouds to crack like a whip over our town, or poking down like the nose of a dog nudging a sand castle. The scariest thing about them—even scarier than their unpredictability—was their strength.

I was reminded of those tornados when I first read Mike Alberti’s “Prairie Fire, 1899.” There are no tornados in this story, but, as the title suggests, there is a fire. A wide, merciless fire. And, as we all know, fires are merciless not because they don’t want to show mercy; they’re merciless because they’re single-minded. They only want one thing: to burn.

The new issue of One Story is about the meeting of that fire and a mining community on the American frontier at the turn of the century. It has a classic, almost formal voice, and a narrator that moves from person to person with the ease of a spark carried on a breeze. In our Q&A, Mike Alberti describes it as “a sort of fable about the West.” It’s a remarkable, large-hearted short story with great staying power. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Issue #225: An Oral History of the Next Battle of the Sexes by Lucas Schaefer

When “An Oral History of the Next Battle of the Sexes,” by Lucas Schaefer, showed up at the office and I gave it an initial read, I spent the first few pages having to remind myself that I was reading a work of fiction and not an actual oral history. Once I wrapped my head around that, I became drawn in by one of the biggest casts of characters I’ve ever encountered in a short story—each voice distinctive, each character a building block in the recreation of a historic (fictitious) event: the legendary 1974 battle between Holly Hendrix and Terry Tucker. The story is as compelling as it is funny, as infused with personality as it is charged with spot-on observations about the way we regard gender, power, and ambition. We’re delighted to be ushering it into the world, and we’re even more delighted that this is the first publication by a talent we are most certainly going to be hearing more from in the future: Lucas Schaefer.

To learn more about why Lucas chose to write a fictional oral history instead of a more traditional short story—and to hear what he has to say about the joys and challenges of that form—check out our online Q&A with the author. We make it standard practice to conclude our Q&As by asking authors to share the best piece of writing advice they’ve ever received. Lucas’s answer is both a charmer and heartbreaker!

Issue #224: Optimistic People by Chris Drangle

There are many layers to Chris Drangle’s “Optimistic People,” including the layer of earth one of the characters is buried under as the story opens. Contributing Editor Will Allison lassoed this twisted, hair-raising work of fiction, so I’m happy to let him make the introductions. Enjoy!-PR

This month we’re excited to bring you one of the most shocking, suspenseful short stories ever to cross One Story’s submission desk: “Optimistic People,” by Chris Drangle. Set in rural Virginia, “Optimistic People” is the tale of two teenagers on their first date. Warren and Soleil have plans to meet up in the woods to watch the sunset. Warren is well meaning but dim; as Soleil puts it, “There was a thin line between being good and being a moron, and he straddled it.” Soleil is the new, weird girl in town, her parents having fled Washington D.C. to escape a congressional staff assistant turned stalker.

The teens’ plans go awry when Soleil runs out of gas en route to the meetup. Meanwhile, Warren stumbles upon two men burying a mysterious something in the woods. Minutes later, we meet friendly, disheveled Tom, whose prayers are answered when Warren unearths the pine box in which Tom has been buried alive.

I’m guessing you’ve never encountered a character quite like Tom. (If there’s such a thing as your typical buried-alive guy, this guy is definitely not it.) I won’t spoil the plot by revealing more, but you should know that a man being buried alive is not this story’s most chilling plot twist. That comes later, and it unfolds in a fictional slow motion that will have you turning pages with a delicious sense of dread.

Chris Drangle is still new on the literary scene, having published just a handful of stories, but we look forward to seeing a lot more of his work. You can get to know him in our online Q&A, where Chris discusses techniques of suspense, his fondness for story titles, and the importance of figuring out why the junebug collapses.