Short stories pop into my mind with almost everything I do or see happening. These are story starters for me. Oftentimes, I turn a real life occurrence into a fiction piece to make a point, as in Boy at the Crossroad.
I’ve learned that not much of a market exists for short stories like Boy at the Crossroad, because of its gruesome nature, no matter how real it could be.
By the way, this short story was not real. My friend and I saw the boy doing something strange with a knife in the middle of the intersection in the dark of night. That’s all we learned. My Muse has quite an imagination and is who kicks out short stories.
So my stories cannot all be nice, with happy endings. Life just isn’t that way. If I come across a story starter and it triggers one or more stories, I’ll write them. Somewhere along the way, some are accepted for publication.
Short stories like this one may be accepted in a publication somewhere. It’s just a matter of searching till the right market is found.
Whenever you come across story starters that lend themselves to something unnerving, try to write the type of short stories that carry messages. They teach us something, maybe a moral value. The perfect setting or backdrop would have been presented to you. Make the most of them in your short stories.
The Boy at the Crossroad
The making of a monster.
My housemate Hal touched the back of his hand to his forehead. “Retirement’s hard work,” he said, feigning fatigue. “Let’s go to the beach.”
I slipped into my bathing suit and wrapped a short sarong over that and tied it off at the hip. We love to swim. Not only does it keep us tanned and healthy, it also keeps us thin and young looking in mid-life. Never mind we both have graying hair.
We loaded up his van with snorkeling and beach gear and took off just as dawn came filtering in. Other than town and residential streetlights, the rural areas on the island of Kauai, as in rural areas on all islands in Hawaii, are dark at night.
As we approached an intersection in our small neighborhood, a boy about eight years old came into view. He moved about like he might be following something in an erratic pattern on the ground. He was alone.
Notice the line at the top: The making of a monster. These notations at the beginning of short stories or articles act as an enticement for the reader.
The title, coupled with that one clue to the story line become powerful temptation to keep reading. Yet, in a case like this story, it could be a total turn-off, the reader not wishing to read something gruesome.
For those reasons, lines that compliment both the title and the overall story are powerful. They not only attract readers but also respect those who don’t wish to read your short story. I say “respect” because your reader may love your work, yet be turned off to reading about the vagaries of life. Having been forewarned, they will still read your other work.
Notice, too, that the story begins happily. Two people, in an idyllic setting, enjoy one of the best parts of their lives.
You need to place as much emphasis on short stories as you do longer pieces. Emphasis is on beginnings, middles, and endings. You must have contrast.
In anything from flash stories to short stories to novels, both the characters and the story line must arc.
That means the character begins as a person with a specific mindset, but has some sort of epiphany that makes them understand life and their situation in a whole different light.
So it is, too, with short stories. The plot line will begin one way, in this case, happily. Then it will take a turn, for better or worse, and we learn something from it.
Then, just as we’re introduced to these two carefree people, the mysterious child is introduced, adding a shot of tension into the plot.
“What the…?” Hal asked as he leaned forward and strained to see through the windshield and early morning darkness.
The boy saw us approaching and headed for the curb. Then he turned around and started back to the other side. As we came closer, he stopped right in the middle of the road where it intersected the highway. Finally, he turned his back to us and stood with his arms tucked stiffly at his sides. He had very short hair and his clothes were so neat and clean, I thought he might be out early in preparation for going to church.
Hal stopped along side of the boy and stuck his head out of the window and asked, “Are you okay?”
“I-I’m okay,” he said. His voice was choppy. He took another step to leave and stopped; then took a step in the opposite direction and stopped. He glanced at us sideways and rolled his eyes a lot. He wouldn’t look directly at us but opened his mouth a couple of times like he wanted to speak. He looked like he might cry. His lips quivered. I thought sure he was about to confess something. Like any woman with strong motherly instincts, I wanted to sooth him somehow.
“What are you doing in the middle of the road at night?” Hal asked.
The boy’s eyes flitted back and forth and then he walked away and slipped around the rear of our van.
I called to him from my side window. “You sure you’re okay?”
He took two steps toward us. “Uh…yeah,” he said. “Sure.” He held his right hand tight at his side, hiding something.
“What’s in your hand?” I asked.
He just wouldn’t stand still. I thought he might flee. Finally, he hesitated a moment, then slowly showed me his hand. “Just my scissors,” he said. His voice rang with guilt. He flipped the small scissors over a time or two to show me. The long sharp points gleamed. He closed the blades, and hastily threw the scissors into the pocket on his left pants leg. Other metal tools stuck out and clinked together when they hit. In the early dawn, I couldn’t make out what they were.
“Where do you live?” I asked.
His eyes got real big. He looked back down our street, seemed to choke up, but said nothing. He twirled a finger in his hair and pulled hard. I thought sure he would pull out a whole hank of hair. His lips quivered as he turned and walked back to the curb. Finally, he looked straight into my eyes. His eyes begged, but for what? What could he be doing in the middle of the road before dawn that would cause him such distress? I started to get out of the car to see if I could help him.
“I’m going home,” he said as he took off running.
I stood beside the car and watched him duck into a back yard a little ways past our house. At least he was home.
Now we meet the boy and get to share his uneasiness. Do you get a sense that boy knows he’s doing something wrong but doesn’t know how to stop?
These kinds of portrayals must not only give us a well-rounded description of the characters, but of their states of mind too. In short stories, this must be accomplished quickly, while maintaining a lower word count.
On our way again, I asked Hal, “What could he be cutting outdoors at this hour? Creepy crawlers are the only things that move around our neighborhood at night.”
“Don’t jump to conclusions,” Hal said. “He didn’t have blood on his hands.”
After a great day of snorkeling on the North Shore, Hal and I had dinner at our favorite local restaurant in Old Kapa`a Town. Darkness was setting in as we approached our house, but it was still light enough that I saw that same boy on the lawn two doors down. I hadn’t thought of him all day.
Now he was jabbing at a scrawny orange tabby that seemed cornered up a short tree. It didn’t look to me as if he was playing. He must have hit the cat because it cried out angrily, leaped out of the tree, and bound away limping.
Something in the boy’s hand gleamed. He started to take off after the cat but noticed our van and turned away and stood rigid. Then he bolted into the back yard. That house was the only rental in our small neighborhood of mostly quiet families and retired homeowners and attracted one transient family after another. Maybe his parents worked and left him alone at all hours.
After watching him viciously thrust at the cat and evidently injuring it, I couldn’t help myself. I walked over and knocked on the door.
As a contrast, or relief, from the uneasiness felt with the introduction of the boy, the couple enjoys their day. The reader enjoys it with them.
Writing short stories this way is similar to writing comedy relief in a hard-core mystery. In those stories or films like Die Hard--the film that brought greater awareness of comedy relief--the action is non-stop, to the point where the reader or viewer is on overload. Then one character says something funny or ridiculous that breaks the tension.
It’s the same in all good prose. They can be written fast-paced with action all the way through that leaves us breathless at the ending. Or short stories can be written with “relief” from the action every now and then. In my opinion, the latter gives the reader pause to contemplate what is happening. Boy at the Crossroad is written this way.
Then after a breath of relief, as must happen in short stories, reality sets in quickly. Here, the couple arrives home and sees the boy again. And he’s up to no good.
The woman who answered could have been his grandmother. Her layered makeup and exaggerated false lashes seemed out of place in our humid, tropical climate. She wore an extremely large, loose, ruffled Hawaiian muumuu and panted and puffed like it might have been an effort just to get to the front door to open it.
“Your boy,” I said, after introducing myself. “…was in the middle of the intersection before dawn and—“
“He’s our neighborhood watch,” she said.
I didn’t know our area needed a security program. I must have looked confused.
She shrugged and the corners of her mouth twitched nervously when she tried to smile. Her thick beet-red lipstick filled ran into the wrinkles at the corners of her mouth. “He keeps the area clean. Gets rid of the geckos for me. I hate those stupid lizards!”
“That’s why he tried to hide his scissors?”
“Hide?” she asked. “He doesn’t have to hide. What he does for me is kills all those dirty geckos…all those slimy toads too. I don’t know where they all come from but they’re better off dead.”
Enter the grandmother, the root of the evil - and someone who didn't belong living in the tropics.
I could have conjured her as being a vivacious, upstanding person. But who of that character would encourage their grandson to kill?
Yes, I could have portrayed her as an upstanding citizen. In order to have a solid citizen encouraging a grandson to kill would take a whole novel’s length to develop. I’d be dealing with the undercurrent of the person she was inside, and the person she portrayed outwardly.
I portrayed the grandmother as someone unlikable, yet perhaps likeable if she was a psychic who aided the Police Department in solving cases. But that’s another story.
The grandmother in this short story is a misfit. So, too, are her actions and what she expects of her grandson.
I remembered a conversation I had with my neighbor’s husband just after I moved to Kauai. He told me about how geckos controlled the bugs and other pests that infest our homes, especially termites. The toads never hurt anyone either and they controlled the insects in our gardens.
The boy entered the room carrying a soda can and making gurgling, choking noises as he plunged his scissors downward in the air again and again as if stabbing something. He saw me. His eyes got real big and he did an about-face.
The woman turned and yelled, “I told you never to bring food and drink into this room!”
Her living room was so immaculate it looked unused. She called him back into the room and he crept in, minus the can and scissors, and avoided looking at me. She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him in front of her. He stared at the floor.
“I just thought it was dangerous that he was in the middle of the intersection in the dark,” I said.
“He wanders a lot,” she said. “But he’s a big boy. Kills those pests wherever he can find them, just lops their heads right off!” She made it sound like he was a real pro.
I began feeling queasy about the whole situation. “I guess I just wanted to make sure he was okay.”
She smirked suddenly and pushed the boy aside. Sweat beaded on her forehead and ran down her temples. “So now you can mind your own business!” Her abrupt attitude change took me by surprise.
“Sorry,” I said, almost stuttering. “I was concerned for him. That’s all.”
She closed the door before I had time to turn and leave. I heard her scream at the boy, “Now get the hell out of my living room!”
This section cements the personalities of both the grandmother and the boy. Short stories have to make a point, and fast.
In fact, this section gives us a look at the uneasiness of the innocent neighbor who only wanted to help the boy. She needs to mind her own business, but also feels an injustice is being done. Someone needs to do something about it but she feels a moment of helplessness.
I couldn’t get the boy or the strange woman out of my mind. Controlling pests in their own yard might be one thing, but scouring the neighborhood in the dark to behead creatures with a scissors was a frightful scenario.
I remembered earlier in the morning how the boy looked back down our street when I asked him where he lived. It seemed then that he wanted to say something. He knew he was doing wrong but had no choice but to follow the dictates of that domineering woman and would pay dearly if he told.
Just as I was about to climb into the shower, I heard a commotion out on the street. A woman screamed, others shouted angrily, with children’s high-pitched voices mixed in. I heard the grandmother’s voice over all the rest. I felt sorry for anyone who had to deal with her. I climbed into the shower. The neighbors could mend whatever they had gotten into.
Over the sounds of the shower water, I heard sirens approaching and once they were near, recognized them as from police cars. By the time I climbed out of the shower, I heard another siren, that of the firefighter paramedics. Then came an ambulance.
Someone knocked on my door. I dried quickly and threw on some clothes. My neighbor stood on my porch looking bewildered as she clung to her little girl’s hand. “Did you hear the sirens?” she asked.
I looked down the street and could see the police car lights rotating but couldn’t make out what was happening. It was dark already as attendants brought a stretcher out of the back of the ambulance. Police held back the neighbors. “What’s that all about?
“That new boy that just moved in,” she said, gesturing toward the commotion. “He got into a fight with Andy, one of my daughter’s friends. He raked a scissors across Andy’s throat.”
I gasped and realized my mouth hung agape.
“While I’m here,” she said, “I also wanted to ask. Our new Persian kitten is missing. Have you seen it?”
The rest of the telling is left to showing the results of the earlier actions. Short stories must provide the best plausible answer to occurrence introduced early on.
In light of the fact that this boy had a problem of conscience, it couldn’t be solved quickly.
When writing short stories, think about the outcome of any situation you create. Can the outcome be accomplished in few words?
In short stories, I think not. As in the case of Boy at the Crossroad, all we can expect from this short story is to see something critical happen that will finally get the boy the help he needs.
Short stories do not have to wrap up the action. They can show the reader the direction the action will take. In essence, the ending of this short story is positive because the boy will now receive help. Too bad his actions took so long to be noticed.
And finally, the grandmother will get her comeuppance as well. Yay!
As you can see, the title of this short story is metaphorical. Not only did we see the boy at the crossroad in the dark of night, but also, he is at a crossroad in his life. And, truly, it is a dark time for him since he is young and naïve, and not in control of his actions or the results.
Most short stories carry a message. That’s why we write them. Short stories offer everything from humor to fright. They put us in touch with our emotions. Short stories make us think, and can also be the harbingers of gloom and doom. I am not sure if I have any short stories in that category. If so, I’ll post them and we’ll discuss.
Now that you know only the little bit I saw, do you see what my Muse produced from it?
In reality, I still wonder why that boy was out in the dark and what he was doing before he ran off home. I’ll bet he had some short stories to tell. Still, what I wrote is what I thought he might be going. He was out there using his scissors on a creepy-crawler or two. Ulgh!
I allowed my Muse to run away with itself. I still wonder if I couldn’t turn that one night scene into something more pleasant. However, once I write my short stories, they stay that way. Seldom do I go back and try to change the temperament of a piece. I received a story starter. I did with it what I did. If I can get to an aha! experience and feel I’ve made my point, the story stays the way I wrote it.
Short stories, though fiction can make a point and drive it home.
Nonfiction short stories must be specific and accurate within the truth of a situation. When I try to write nonfiction short stories and then begin adding fiction into the mix, the story becomes fiction.
All stories have beginnings, middles, and endings like every other piece written.
Short story characters, as with characters in all stories, should go through a character arc. That’s when they start out as, perhaps, one personality type, and then change to another.
This is accomplished by showing what the character believes in, how they act, and so on. At the end of the story, they believe something new, something more. They change their way of thinking. Perhaps their lives change, but something causes the character to be more than the person they were when the story began.
And finally, I like to think that most all prose contains messages, something we can be wiser for knowing.
As in Boy at the Crossroad, the reader is made wiser by understanding curiosities of personalities. People know and do things that should be investigated. We know that some occurrences shouldn’t be left to run their course.