The relationship of siblings is a complicated dynamic; not quite friendship sometimes, sometimes not quite love. No one has shared understanding of parents like siblings, and with them we navigate what can sometimes be the war-like environs of childhood. No wonder the sibling relationship is a rich minefield for fiction.
Cote Smith’s “Hurt People” is the story of two brothers, thirty-two months apart, referred to solely by how they reference each other in birth order: elder and younger. They are each other’s confidantes, playmates, protectors and co-conspirators. When they need it, they are each other’s cheer. At the outset of “Hurt People,” the brothers sleep by the fan like “sister cats” and their desires are simple: they want the temperature to reach seventy-two degrees, the mark at which their ever-working mother will allow them to go to their apartment complexes pool.
“Hurt People” is set in a town that has “more prisons than restaurants.” It’s a town of surrogate fathers; Rick, their mother’s co-worker, who gives them rides around the driving range; the police officer who gives them baseball cards from his car. At the pool they encounter Chris, a guide into a more adult world of seediness and sexuality, whose introduction triggers the change in the story.
People ask me what we look for in stories. Upon first reading “Hurt People,” I was struck by how acutely Cote’s young narrator observes his world. The city has only one siren, “with only one sound, which it used for all of its warnings.” To point out a spot on his temple where he has been bruised, the younger waits in his mother’s customer service line. The elder’s back heaves a “big sigh.”
The voice is subtly styled, idiosyncratic. The dialogue has no missteps. “What is your opinion of having the best mother on earth?” the boys are asked. “I’m in favor of it,” the elder replies.
This is not a coming of age story. Rather, it’s a story defined by the fact that its narrator does not come of age, instead has to observe his older brother grapple with a chilling encounter without being able to follow or help. For a young narrator with a professed desire to “want in on whatever the elder did and thought,” who experiences “panic” whenever he is unable to see his brother, these are devastating stakes.
This is Cote Smith’s first published story, and the launch of our “Introducing New Writers” series. Subscribers will notice this issue will arrive in a custom envelope announcing it as a fiction debut and inviting you to congratulate the author on our blog. This year we will host readings in the current hometowns of two of our writers who have published their first fiction with us. First up is Lawrence, Kansas on May 2nd to celebrate “Hurt People.” This series is made possible by a generous grant from the NEA, recognizing One Story’s consistent goal to support and showcase new voices.
Supporting new voices is a passion of ours. I’ve seen young writers become discouraged and give up. I am a young writer and I give up 15 times a day. Writing fiction is hard. But, I’ve also seen how One Story’s editing process and publication can change young writer’s lives. 10% of our writers are published for the first time in One Story. You should consider becoming a subscriber. It’s $21 a year. You get 18 issues. Every issue we publish gets another person’s story into the world; kids in prison towns in Kansas, girls grappling with their meteorologically obsessed fathers, love stories told in letters, stories about Superman’s girlfriend, swimming stories set in Madagascar, stories that are extended bar jokes, stories about messed up guys who work in hot dog factories. We tell these stories to connect, to build community.
To read an interview with Cote Smith, click here. I hope you will enjoy “Hurt People,” and the introduction of a bright, new literary voice.