Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"Scrap Paper" - A "Sleepwalking" short story, by Graham Patrick Smith

Saturday, February 15th, was the four-year anniversary of the day I started on what would become Sleepwalking, the first novel in my young adult series, Who Was Veronica Dawson? Ronnie has come a long way in four years; four novels completed, gaining a literary agent, losing a literary agent, and starting the whole 'seeking publication and representation' process anew. 

In honor of Ronnie's fourth birthday, I wrote a new short story starring her. I hope you enjoy it. 

Oh god. Oh god, he noticed me staring. Oh god, oh god.

My breath quickened and I felt my heart thundering in my chest. I felt my face start to grow hot, so I quickly tried to bury it in my copy of Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry. I hoped it looked like I was absorbed in the book and not the boy sitting one row and one desk to the left of me.

Jonathan McGregor had sat in the same seat since the first day of school, and I had purposely taken the seat one row behind him, one desk to the right. It gave me a beautiful view of the side of his face, his awesome hair, and his muscular shoulders and arms.

And, of course, his butt, whenever he got up to sharpen his pencil.

Minutes before, I had been found myself in my usual trance of watching him instead of paying attention to Mr. Edwards, my English teacher. Jonathan’s pencil had slipped from his hand, bounced on the eraser, and flipped back into my shoe.

He had turned, looking for his pencil.

Our eyes had met. For one long, slow second, we were locked on to each other.

He had leaned for his pencil the same instant I had, on instinct alone. Our eyes had finally departed when I picked up his pencil by the eraser and handed it to him. He had taken it without our fingers even coming close to touching.

“Thanks,” he had said softly, in his gentle baritone.

My lips had stopped working and my mouth had filled with sand, so I had simply mumbled and retreated back to my book. When I looked up to Mr. Edwards, the page number that was written on the board was not even close to where I had opened the book.

Oh god, he knows. He knows, I continued to panic. He knows I was watching him all class period. He thinks I’m a total freak.

What was I going to do? I couldn’t just let him walk out of English class thinking I some kind of weirdo stalker. Even if that’s precisely what I was acting like.

What does it matter if he saw you? I asked myself. Just enjoy the view. You still have fifteen minutes of class to admire him.

I thought my inner monologue was trying to make me feel better, until it added, It’s not like it hurt your chances with him. You had zero chance of him liking you before, and you still have zero. Nothing lost, really.

I didn’t want to believe it, of course. I wanted to have hope that, for once in my life, the cute boy that I crushed on would actually return my feelings. Too often I daydreamed about having someone walk me to class, greet me in the morning by the attendance office, and kiss me good-bye when we got on separate busses at the end of the day.

My skin broke out in gooseflesh as a cold sweat started forming on the back on my neck. What would it feel like to kiss Jonathan McGregor?

Not like you’re ever going to find out, the voice inside of me said.

Something inside me flared to life, and I thought defiantly in reply, Oh, yeah? Watch me.

While the rest of the class continued to read, I rummaged around in my backpack until I produced a piece of lined paper. It was crumped and had been battered by weeks of textbooks, and it had some notes from Algebra scribbled on it from a few months ago. It would do.

Still trying to hold the book open with one hand to give the illusion that I was actually doing classwork, I smoothed out the paper with my arm and pulled a red pen from my pocket.  Before my brain could catch up with my gut impulse, I poured out my heart in red ink.

Confession time. I think you’re really cute. Actually, I’ve thought you’re really cute since the beginning of the school year. Seriously; I just thought about kissing you, and I got goosebumps all over. I want to get to know you better. And then we can… you know… see where things go.
~ Ronnie (the girl behind you, to the right)

When I stopped to catch my breath, I was mortified at what I had written. The mean voice in my head was laughing hysterically at me when I wadded it up and shoved it back into my backpack. If anyone would have walked by and seen it, I would have been absolutely mortified.

That might have been coming on a little strong, I told myself. Try it again.

Mr. Edwards called for an end to the silent reading and started asking discussion questions, a telltale sign that we were in the last five minutes of class. I was running out of time to get it right.

I rummaged in my backpack again until I found another piece of scrap paper. Without bothering to smooth it out, I started writing. This time, I made a conscious effort to tone down my teenage hormones.

So here we are. English class, huh? I mean, we already speak English; isn’t that enough?  Ha ha.
~ Ronnie (the girl behind and to the right of you)

I wadded it up and crammed it into my backpack the second I had finished it. The mean voice howled with laughter in my head even before I had produced another piece of wrinkled notebook paper. My pen flew across the paper, scrawling words conjured by my frantic brain.

Sorry for staring earlier. Well, not really… see, I think you’re cute. So it’s hard not to stare. Sorry if that creeps you out. (Also, not really sorry)
~ Ronnie (the girl behind and to the right of you)

Before some base, lower portion of my brain destroyed the note, I placed it between the pages of my copy of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and closed the book shut. An inch of paper stuck out of the end of the book, making it completely obvious.

At first, the demeaning voice in my head started laughing again. When I stood from my desk, it’s laughing diminished. And when I stepped forward and placed my book on Jonathan’s desk, so the piece of paper inside was facing directly at him, the voice shrieked in horror.

Oh, wait. That was just my common sense.

What the heck are you doing?! Screamed every shred of common sense in my body.

I was so nervous that it felt like I was tingling all over. But I was in too deep to back out now. Any second, he was going to pick up the book, notice the note I had left him, and finally know how I felt about him.

In the middle of a class full of people.

Oh, god. What had I done?

The flood of teenage hormones in my brain that had made this attempt at flirting seem like a good idea was instantly burned away in an inferno of fear. And not wimpy fear, either, like walking through a dark house in the middle of the night. This was lower-brain-function Fear, with a capital F, like our ancestors had the first time they had to outrun a saber-tooth tiger.

Like the cavemen of old, I was afraid for my life.

A total of three seconds had passed since I had placed the book on Jonathan’s desk. On the fourth second, I reached down to take it again, before I did something even more stupid (although I wasn’t sure how I could possibly achieve that). But also in that fourth second, Mr. Edwards took both books from the desk and added them to the stack in his arms.

In the fifth second, the bell rang to end class.

Time returned to its normal speed. Jonathan gathered his things and left the room with the rest of the students.

Mr. Edward took the stack of books to the bookshelf behind his desk and started placing them inside, where they would stay until they were randomly passed out to the class tomorrow: when someone in class would find my note containing my feelings for Jonathan, complete with mine and his names written on it.

The inferno of turn had turned into a full-blown Chicago fire. And I was Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.

Oh, god. What have I done?   

Saturday, February 1, 2014


I wrote this short story when given the prompt "Soot" by a competitive writing community. I grew up in eastern Kentucky, the mountains of Appalachia, the heart of coal mining country. Appalachia, the mining industry as a whole, and the people associated with both, often get poor publicity. And although prescription drug abuse has infected the area like a plague, most people from the area have always been hard working, salt-of-the-earth individuals, simply providing for their families. Among them are my father and grandfather, who both went into coal mines for as many years as their bodies would allow. My grandfather's name is Elmer. 


His knees ache so badly when he lowers himself into bed that, for just a moment, the releif takes his breath away. The springs creak with his weight. A slow exhale, from a breath he didn't realize he was holding, escapes his lips in time with his body sinking into the matress. 

"Elmer? Did you get in bed with your boot on?" 

He looks down. He's just in a t-shirt and his undershorts, but bunched around his feet are his coveralls. When he'd arrived home, he'd been in such a hurry to unbutton the coveralls and take them off that he hadn't removed his boots. Now the coveralls are bunched around his feet. When he wiggles his toes, though, he can still feel the boots' protective steel plate, laced in place. 

He looks like a banana with a persistent, blue peel. "I did, Betty. I'm sorry. Will you help me get them off?" 

There are footsteps through the house, but it's not his wife that enters. Instead a bright little face, framed by bouncing brown hair, charges into the room. "I'll help you, daddy!" She says, stumbling to a stop by the end of the bed. 

Sweet Cathrine. "Thank you, Kitty," he says with a smile, sitting up and dropping his legs over the side of the bed. His knees make him wince, but Cathrine doesn't notice. She simply busies herself with unlacing the tall books and yanking them with all her might. He still does most of the work, but seeing her desire to help warms his heart like nothing else. 

After all, it's why he goes into that mine every day. 

With the boots now discarded on the floor, he is free to extricate himself from the coveralls. His wife enters the bedroom with their youngest, his son, on her hip. Cathrine wipes her brow with her hand, smearing a black streak over her eyebrows. 

He laughs. Betty frets, with a smile, "Kitty, look at you! You've got coal dust on your face!" 

Cathrine looks at her mother, then he father, and exclaims, "I look like daddy, now!" With reckless abandon she climbs into her father's lap, over his aching knees. He barely notices as he takes her into his arms. 

"Will you make sure she gets washed up before dinner?" Betty asks him, smiling. 

Careful not to make her even dirtier with his own blackened face, Elmer smiles and nods.