In August, 2011, one of the writers’ groups I belong to, The Round Hill Writers’ Group, set a writing prompt: Tell a story about a paperboy. I had just started attending the meetings, so I wanted to write the story, but I had nothing. Seriously, nothing!
I like to write speculative fiction/science fiction, and I don’t have a lot ideas hanging around for paperboys. Oh, before I forget, we were set to read the stories aloud during the next meeting. Yes, in two weeks, I was supposed to read a story that I had no idea for to a group of strangers, most already published. I’m kind of shy, and this assignment sent me ping-ponging between a coma and a panic attack. That may be a bit of an exaggeration but not much of one.
With trepidation, I took up the challenge. I decided I had to work within a few parameters. The story couldn’t have any aliens, laser beams, subspace drives, or monsters. Also, in an effort to save my sanity, the story had to be 1000 words max. I figured I could get through reading 1000 words even if the story sucked.
The first cut came in at 1300~ words. I cut a few points that I liked, but I had to do it. I focused on the main through line for the story. The funny aspect of the experience was that I learned it’s easier to cut something that’s on the page to hit a word count than it is to add material to achieve a word count.
Here is my story about a paperboy.
Music blared in Carl’s ear. By touch, he found the “Off” button on the alarm before the singer could complete a verse. He exhaled into his open palm and then inhaled–he had morning breath. That wouldn’t do, not today of all days.
After brushing his teeth, he crept downstairs and slipped out the front door, careful not to wake anyone. He saw his daily task by the harsh white streetlight waiting at the foot of the driveway–two stacks of newspapers, each bundled by stiff plastic straps.
Carl’s dad had insisted that a job would instill responsibility. During the ensuing argument, his dad had hinted that getting his driver’s license hinged in great part on his performance. Carl longed for his driver’s license, anticipating the possibilities that driving would bring, so, every morning, he forced himself to rise well before the sun, until it became a habit. Along the way, he learned to love the other four o’clock.
He coasted on his bicycle to the newspapers. After splitting the ties on the first bundle with his penknife, he folded each paper into thirds, filling his vest. When he first started the route over a year ago, it took him forever to prep and complete delivery, almost missing homeroom on several occasions. These days, he followed a routine he honed over the course of his first few weeks on the job. After a couple of days botching deliveries, he noted every customer on a map and determined the most advantageous route. On the first leg, he headed west in a circle bringing him back home to restock with the remainder of the papers. Then, he headed east directly to his most distant customer, finishing the route with dawn breaking at his back, instead of it blinding him. Besides, these days, the best part of his route was a couple of blocks away where he loved spending his leftover time.
Today, Carl biked the westward leg and returned home to refill with the second batch of papers. Glancing at his watch, he was a few minutes ahead of schedule, even though a burnt-out streetlight forced him to virtually place the paper at the doors of four customers, instead of giving them his customary, well-aimed toss. Early on, he learned the hard way that if he couldn’t see the paper’s landing spot, he wouldn’t hit it, which would prompt customer complains about finding papers in inconvenient spots like muddy planting areas. He still remembered the dull thunk-slosh of hitting the Johnson’s birdbath.
Hopping on the bike, he pedaled hard. The sooner he finished, the sooner he’d get an answer to a question he wanted to ask for the last three months. He hoped for a “yes.”
With his vest emptying, Carl approached Miss Anderson’s house and noticed the red Ford F-150 in the driveway. That truck started to appear six months ago on Saturday mornings and shortly afterward, on Sunday mornings too. Recently, it appeared on Wednesday or Thursday mornings. He knew what was happening; after all, he was fifteen.
Carl slowed as he approached house of the Cat Lady, Mrs. Jenkins, often wondering what happened to Mr. Jenkins. He was extra careful with this delivery because he didn’t want to anger the cats. Like a gargoyle, a cat sat on her wood fence, glaring at him. No a gargoyle wasn’t right; it was more like a sentry, patiently watching, waiting, and guarding. The cat inspected him, licked its paw, and cleaned its ear as if signaling he could proceed. He dismounted, looked over the fence, and tossed a paper onto the sidewalk near the porch steps. A chill shot up his spine as he noticed two eerie, glowing green eyes from under bush fronting the porch. From a shadow, a third cat walked over the paper, up the steps, and through the small cat door. He suspected it was announcing the delivery. This morning Carl saw only three cats, but he knew there were more lurking about, waiting to pounce at the slightest provocation. He had no desire to have a herd of angry, screeching cats chase him, not after the last time when a paper hit one.
He approached the last customer, a family new to the neighborhood three months ago. Dismounting his bike, he quietly opened the metal gate and walked into the back yard. “Vi?” he called out in loud whisper.
“Over here, at the telescope,” Violet said.
Smiling, he casually dropped the paper on the ground and strolled across the dewy grass where he found her hunched over, looking into the eyepiece of a telescope. “What’s this morning’s show?”
“Venus and Mars are dancing around a sliver of the moon. Here take a look.” She rose, smiling, pushing her blond hair behind her ear.
Fuzzy spots filled the view, so Carl adjusted the focus, careful not to disturb the telescope’s position. The spots came into focus, red Mars garnering his attention. He had seen it before.
“Mars is on the right and Venus is below looking greenish today,” she said.
“That’s amazing,” Carl said, really meaning it. What used to be a bunch of white spots at night was now a beautiful sight, thanks to Violet. He stood straight and asked, “Did you get it?”
Her gorgeous smile grew wider as she reached into her pocket. She handed her prize over to Carl and said, “Don’t laugh. The picture is horrible.”
The firm plastic-encased document was what he yearned so long for, especially since meeting her. But, she was a couple months older, and she earned her driver’s license first. “It’s fantastic. Congratulations.”
Handing it back, he had second thoughts about his question. He hesitated, wanting to ask, but afraid of the answer.
“What?” she asked. “The picture’s not that bad, is it?”
“It’s not that. I was just wondering… I mean…” Catching the first rays of dawn, her blue eyes mesmerized him. Without thinking, he blurted out, “Would you like to go to the movies Friday night?”
“Of course! And it’s about time you asked.”
He felt his checks warm and said, “It isn’t like I could put you on my handlebars.”
“Well, I’m driving and I’ll pick you up at seven.” She hugged him and gave him a quick peck on the lips. “I’ll see you at you school.”
After she entered the house, Carl exited through the gate, quietly latching it, thinking that, all in all, this job wasn’t so bad.