This short story is a tale of suspenseful mystery; a story woven like the finest tapestry; a masterpiece of fiction.
Okay, now I’m getting a little carried away here. But isn’t that what us writers are supposed to do? Exaggerate to the extreme? A sort of literary showmanship? Or perhaps the real point is to create something so profoundly disturbing that we stay in the minds of our readers like a worm in the brain, wriggling its way through, nibbling at thoughts. I mean, we demand your attention through our words as if each line is changing history. We depend on it. We breathe it. Without readers, what are we? Do our words still exist? It’s nothing but arrogance in how we expect to be heard, to be listened to and pondered over. Our only aim is to manipulate your emotions so that you will keep coming back for more. We kill beloved characters to see you cry, we break up relationships to see your heart break. Sometimes we might even make you laugh, but even that’s only a temporary stopgap between the pain and torment we wish to inflict. We’re sadists, and really that’s because you are too. You want this. You want to be able to feel. Why else would you read fiction? To learn? Pah. You’re only in it for the ride. You pick up a book to experience the journey of ups and downs, knowing full well it will come to an end and return you to your own miserable reality.
Joseph was a curious lad. Every day Joseph would set out to find something new, something he had never experienced before. Yesterday he tried yams for the first time — sure they weren’t as great as ice cream or peanut butter and jam sandwiches, but he thought it was a worthwhile experience. The day before that he broke into his school and slept the night under his teacher’s desk. These things weren’t planned out mind you, just random thoughts Joseph had on the day plucked out of existence.
Oh yeah, how many times has this story been told? Ten times? A hundred times? A thousand?
We instill our main characters with quirks we wish we had. We give them courage when we’re terrified of stepping outside. So we lock ourselves indoors and plop down in front of our keyboards, giving our fictional creations a dream list of looks and personality traits. We become these superior beings. People with super powers or maybe just an incredible set of wits like Sherlock Holmes. We write charming James Bond characters to seduce women we would never have the guts to talk to outside of a computer screen.
Today Joseph was stuck. He was lying on his grandmother’s couch staring at the ceiling covered in fly poop. He was struggling to come up with something. Usually he wouldn’t even have to try. It would come to him like a cricket ball to the back of the head. Today however was a different story. His grandmother had died in her sleep. When she didn’t wake him that morning, Joseph knew something was seriously wrong. He had slept in at least a good hour or two. Eventually he got out of bed. He knocked on his grandmother’s door, but heard no response. Curious, he went in to check on her. She lay under the covers, her face cold and white. Her lips slightly parted. She did not stir even when shaken. It was that image that kept replaying in his brain while he lay on the couch. He couldn’t think about his own selfish want to do something for himself when his only protector and guardian and loved one, had gone. Her spirit had left her body and floated up to Heaven as she had always told him.
See? That didn’t take long did it? Second paragraph in and we’ve already tormented our main character. Having a death this early on doesn’t take the Joss Whedon approach, which is to kill off a beloved character you’ve grown to love over a whole season of television. The emotional impact is barely there. We never met the grandmother, but already we feel an affinity with Joseph and his loss. Conflict is the main ingredient of the poison that is story writing. Without it, our characters (our superior selves) have no need to rise up stronger than before, to change something in themselves (usually a personal trait we can’t seem to part with no matter how hard we try).
Joseph stared so hard at the fly poop that he began seeing images. Like when people stare at clouds or ink blots, recognisable shapes triggered memories in his brain. But it was all things he had done before; hunting a butterfly with a net, rolling down the hill in an empty oil drum, and walking fully clothed into the river. Then Joseph saw himself at the dining table and his grandmother serving him pancakes; golden brown, perfectly round and warm. As he squeezed the bottle of maple syrup Joseph remembered his grandmother asking him what he was going to do for the day. And then the suggestions came; “Have you made a peanut butter pine cone before? What about building a raft?” To each question he would nod or shake his head and continue biting at his pancakes dripping in syrup. It was only after he would dry the dishes and his grandmother had gone to tend to the garden when the ideas came back to him; his ideas. You know what, when I come to think about it I’ve never built a raft before, Joseph thought. This memory caused Joseph to snap his eyes open. His head throbbed and his whole body felt stiff.
The realisation. Sure, some writers choose to reveal this later on in the piece, a twist ending of sorts. But in short stories we don’t always have the luxury of doing a M. Night Shyamalan. When we do, we get the smug satisfaction of you shouting aloud; “Oh shit!” Sometimes all we want to do is deceive our readers. Trick them. Lead them along a story rope; the wrong rope. The bonus besides the ‘Oh shit moment’, is that you, our loyal reader, will often read or watch our work a second or third time, just to confirm in your own mind whether there were hints throughout, or whether it was just a cheap blow right at the end.
Joseph was back again in the doorway of his grandmother’s room, looking in at the still figure tucked beneath the sheets. It was a peaceful scene, but that didn’t make the sickness in his stomach go away either. Gingerly he tiptoed into the room, afraid he might wake her from her eternal slumber. One of her wrinkled hands rested on top of the duvet. He placed his small hand on top of hers. It was cold, but he didn’t remove his hand. Joseph looked at her closed eyelids hoping they would open. “Gran, what do I do today?” he paused. “I’m sorry I never thanked you before for all your ideas. I stole them as my own.” His grandmother’s face stayed motionless. He gripped her hand tighter, wrapping his fingers around hers. “Please tell me. I don’t know what else to do.”
The moment where our hero has a crisis of faith. The old ways no longer apply. New thinking is the only way forward. Lessons learned from the journey told in this current time frame. I kind of cheated here with a flashback, but as with a lot of things in life (writing especially), rules are made to be broken. At least that’s what we try to tell ourselves. We say we’re experimental, that we’ve innovated, changed the playing field. But it’s all semantics really. Although every story is essentially the same, we try and kid ourselves that we’re different, that we’re better than all those phonies. We add shock and horror for the sake of creating controversy. We want our readers to get mad, to actually respond with something we’ve written. Speaking of which, things are about to get a little disturbing…
“You told me I used to sleep in bed with my Mum when I was littler,” Joseph pulled down the covers and slipped into the bed next to his grandmother. She was wearing an old faded white nighty. He wrapped an arm across her chest and snuggled closer for the warmth that wasn’t there. “This is the first time I’ve slept in your bed.” Joseph had braved the smell thus far, but at this distance it was quite unbearable. He covered his nose with the v-neck of his t-shirt. He lay next to her peeking over his shirt, looking at her wrinkled features. His head shared the same pillow.
Joseph stayed in that bed until the next morning when an inquisitive neighbour knocked on the front door. Tepidly Joseph arose out of bed and walked down the hall to the front door. He reached up for the handle and pulled the door towards him. It was grey permed Mrs. Finnigan. She clutched a large cream handbag and a folded-up umbrella. “Hello Joseph. Is your Grandma about? We’re off to the shops today.”
Joseph didn’t say a word. He lead Mrs. Finnigan to the bedroom in which his grandmother lay. Joseph stopped at the door frame and glanced inside. Mrs. Finnigan stepped into the room. She didn’t drop her bags in surprise, scream, faint, or cry. She simply walked up to Joseph’s grandmother and stroked her head, keeping her forehead clear of hair. She looked at Joseph, “I’m sorry honey bun, she’s not coming back to us. ”
“I know,” said Joseph meekly.
Ahh there’s nothing like deus ex machina to come in and save the day. Not that it was an emergency down to the last vital second, but little Joseph did need someone’s help. It was no Princess Leia coming to Luke’s one-handed rescue from Cloud City, and sure it’s not the best literary device in the world, but it has its uses, however contrived it might be. Okay, I’m just making excuses here. We use deus ex machina because we writers are lazy. We write something into a dead end and we don’t want to un-write the hours of tapping away at our keys. So we basically pull a solution out of our asses.
The next time Joseph saw his grandmother, she was inside a coffin, not dressed in her old nighty, but in a lovely navy blue blouse. Mrs. Finnigan handed him a red rose and urged him to place it inside the coffin. To see inside the coffin Joseph was standing on top of a stool. Her face was still white, but her lips were crimson, and her hair was done nicely. His grandmother’s hands were clasped over her belly. Joseph tucked the rose under her hands so it looked as if she was holding it. He stepped down from the stool. The funeral parlour was small and there were a few people ambling about or sitting down on the chairs provided, sipping on tea from cups and saucers made of delicate china. Many of the people Joseph had seen before, some he hadn’t. Most were wrinkled and grey and white. There were a few younger couples, about the same age as Joseph’s parents when they had passed.
A movement caught his eye. In a black dress, a girl with short brown hair and about Joseph’s height, skipped around the room, weaving through the chairs. She received scowls, but no one had it in them to take her aside and tell her off. She saw Joseph looking at her and skipped right up to him. She grinned. “Hi, I’m Emily.”
“Joseph. My Grandma has gone to Heaven.”
“I know. My Mum told me. That’s why I’m skipping,” said Emily still bouncing on her toes.
“Oh,” said Joseph flatly.
“Isn’t it great? I can’t wait to go there someday.”
“It is I guess, but I don’t feel happy.”
“Come skip with me,” said Emily, taking his hand. Reluctantly at first Joseph stumbled beside Emily as she skipped around the funeral parlour. He soon found his footing and the two of them were in step, darting in between the pensioners and their cups of tea. He realised it was his first time skipping with a girl. Joseph smiled for the first time that week.
I bet you thought this depressing tale would never lighten up. We writers are sadists, but we’re not that evil. At least not all the time. Introducing an important character near the end of the story is lazy writing, but as I’ve sad it before, we are lazy. Any shortcut and we will take to it like bunny on bunny action.
As much as we like to think we are the heroes, we are the damsels in distress and it is the writing in shiny armour that comes and saves us. You, the reader, are a pleasant side effect (or negative as the case may be). We write to be heard, to boost our ego, but it is in the process of writing we experience the most. From the torment of procrastination to perceived writer’s block, to taking from our own personal experiences, writing moves us, touches us, inspires us. We may stumble into repetition, crutches, and clichés, but our intentions are pure.
We can only hope you will experience something too.