The mower’s belts squealed as I steered onto Mrs. Bellefontaine’s driveway. I saved the drive for last, so when I finished cutting it—three swipes, back and forth and back again—I’d be pointed at the road, ready to go. She owned the biggest lot in the neighborhood, just like she owned the biggest house, but that didn’t mean she paid me more. To keep things simple, I charged a flat rate, five bucks a yard. Thus the stenciled “Flat-rate Frank” on the side of the motor housing.
Besides, smaller yards could be slow going too, since they required me to maneuver more. Her acreand-change back yard was easy-peasy by comparison, without bushes or bird baths to dodge. The only things interrupting the smooth flow of grass from one side to the other were the six-inch sassafras seedlings.
Her neighbor, Mr. Flagg, had a couple of big sassafras trees by the fence. Every year they dropped seeds into Mrs. Bellefontaine’s open meadow of a lawn. Sometimes they popped up in the gravel of the driveway. Maybe birds ate the seeds and pooped them out. I’m not a tree expert. Chemistry I’m good at, and English and math, but ever since I gagged at the dead frogs in seventh grade, living things have been kind of a blind spot for me.
Jeff Howe lives and works in the scenic Black Creek Bottoms area near St. Louis, Missouri. In addition to One Teen Story, his short fiction appears in the anthology Moon Shot: Murder and Mayhem at the Edge of Space, at untreedreads.com, in the quarterly anthology The First Line, and at Smashwords. Jeff’s novels are represented by Evan Gregory of the Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency; his first screenplay, Robo4ce, has won or placed in ten contests since June of 2015. He ruminates at his blog, Merciless Idioms.
Patrick Ryan on Making the Cut
Have you ever been hanging out with your friends, and one of you comes up with a bad idea, and the rest of you just kind of shrug and go along with it? I can’t count the number of times I’ve done that—particularly when I was a teen. The fact that I’m still around to write this introduction is a testament to how lucky I was—because some of those ideas weren’t just bad, they were dangerous.
The new issue of One Teen Story is about four good kids and one bad idea. It’s also about the aftermath, when not all of those kids can consider themselves lucky. The author, Jeffrey Howe, retells this story in a way that will have you perched on the edge of your seat, even while you know the outcome isn’t going to be a happy one. It will have you laughing in spots, even while it is downright horrifying. In short, “Making the Cut” does what excellent short stories should do: it grabs you, it entertains you, and it sticks in your mind after you finish reading. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Q&A by Patrick Ryan
PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
JH: The story includes aspects of a number of incidents during my formative years, plus a number of moments since that left impressions on me: the smell of sassafras seedlings when you mow them, the sheer volume and variety of debris in an urban flash flood. The actual impetus to bring all that together came at my critique group, Writers Under the Arch, while someone else was reading something of theirs. I don’t remember what their story was, but it made me think about friends I had growing up and how our paths diverged over time.
PR: Was there ever a version you considered where Frank’s involvement in the accident was more than it is now? Or less?
JH: I knew from the start that Frank would have a choice to go along or not, but I only decided to make his choice affect the others when it came time to write that scene. In a way the characters and the particulars of the moment forced my hand: by the time the words appeared on the screen they felt inevitable.
PR: “Survivor’s guilt” is a blanket term meant to describe the feelings of anyone who was involved in a tragedy but managed to escape it while others weren’t so fortunate. To a certain extent, Frank is suffering survivor’s guilt. But how do you think his situation is different from, say, an adult’s in similar circumstances? How does being a teen lend impact to this event?
JH: I think any kind of loss is awkward for teenagers under the best of circumstances. I recall funerals I attended during high school, for older relatives and kids my own age. I felt a little smothered by the expectations of how I was supposed to act, and by extension, how I was supposed to feel. That’s just being a spectator, as opposed to being the person who had to make the split-second life-or-death decision. I don’t believe that kind of decision would necessarily be easier for adults, but adults might better be able to put it in perspective later, or to rationalize it so they didn’t feel the weight so directly. Frank’s not there yet, though he might be getting there toward the end.
PR: What you’ve done in this story is remarkable in that many other authors would have attempted an entire novel about the subject, and yet you deal with it very succinctly without making the story feel at all rushed. If you were to make the story, say, twenty percent fatter than it is now, which characters do you think might get more mic/screen time?
JH: Given how central the triangle (quadrilateral?) between Frank, Russell and the twins is, another scene to further explore those relationships wouldn’t hurt.
PR: What are you working on now?
JH: I recently finished a screenplay and middle-grade novel about an eighth-grade robotics team, Robo4ce, and I’m working on finding homes for both versions. I’m doing revisions on another screenplay/novel combination, working title Not Even Past, a YA Science Fiction story about intelligent dinosaurs reappearing in a post-apocalyptic (but not dystopian!) future. And I’m finishing up the first draft of a SF screenplay I adapted from an unpublished short story of mine, “Cover Crop,” about three young farmers on a corporate farming planet, whose personal entanglements reflect larger problems bubbling under the surface. Literally.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
JH: Read. A lot. Writing without reading is like juggling without catching.