I built a fire in the backyard using lint from the dryer as kindling. It curled up and disappeared almost instantly, but after I added enough of it, the twigs caught and the flame committed itself to eating the logs. Everything was bright and contained in the pit I’d made out of cinderblocks, which I’d dragged from the neighbors’ backyard where a pile of construction garbage sat from their stalled addition. Money problems, I guess. We had them, too.

My sister, Emily, was supposed to be staying with me that week. She went to school in Ann Arbor, but it was her spring break now and she had some time off. Spending the week bonding with Emily was the deal I had made with my mom, who’d gone to Florida with her boyfriend and had wanted me to go, too. They were sailing on his boat; they’d started in Daytona Beach and were winding all the way around the southern tip up the Gulf Coast to Sarasota. Hours and hours of sitting on a boat as the hull slapped the water repeatedly. I’d Google-Earthed the route, zoomed in so I could see the Gulf Coast sand beneath the blue glass of shallow water. It looked pretty, but Ken hated me and would probably toss me overboard mid-voyage.

Megan Cummins

Megan Cummins lives in Newark, New Jersey. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in A Public Space, The Masters Review, Hobart, Guernica, and Ninth Letter. She has an MFA from Rutgers-Newark and an MA from UC Davis. She is the managing editor of A Public Space and has worked as a reader in the fiction department at the New Yorker.

Patrick Ryan on “Aerosol”

Have you ever thought you had a really good idea for a dystopian fantasy novel? Have you ever secretly imagined you as the main character? And have you ever wondered what that says about you?

Even if the answer to the first two questions is yes, there’s probably a good chance the answer to the third one is not really. It ties directly to wondering why we’re all so crazy about dystopian fantasy stories to begin with. Why this constant yearning for both escape and fresh peril? (Is our present peril not perilous enough?)

The new issue of One Teen Story takes on these questions in a big, wonderful way. It’s called “Aerosol,” and it’s about a teen who is busy working out the dystopian fantasy novel she intends to write, all the while neglecting a dangerous situation in her present—and very real—life. We’re delighted to put before your eyes this gripping and very funny short story by the one and only Megan Cummins.

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
MC: Years ago, when I was in high school, I used to hang out with my friends at an abandoned factory on the outskirts of town. This makes us sound far more rebellious than we actually were—we just took photos and made s’mores at a campfire. One day there was an aerosol can too near our fire, and it did explode. In real life, no one got hurt, luckily. For years I’ve been trying to write about that exploding can—and usually these stories were set at that factory. They never worked. I also tried to write fantasy novels when I was a teenager—one that had a plot close to the one the narrator of “Aerosol” tries to concoct. Only when I took those two things (the can, the idea of writing a fantasy novel) out of their original contexts and nestled them into the story of a girl who feels like she needs to escape a life she can’t control, where the family she always had doesn’t exist anymore, did the story start to come together.
PR: At one point, the narrator says, “...if I’m ever transported in space and time I’ll think yes, finally.” Is it just her home life (her parents’ breakup, her mom’s new boyfriend) she wants to escape, or is it more than that? Situation at home, or larger canvas of adolescent angst?
MC: I think it might be more than that. I definitely think there’s an element of her home life in her wish to escape to some unknown time and place, but there’s also the lure of a radical change that you don’t have to work for. Something just chooses you. It’s a compelling promise, particularly for young people. Fantasy novels—which I read almost exclusively growing up—have a way of highlighting the special inside the ordinary. That’s part of what the narrator hopes for, that there’s something inside her that’s bigger and brighter than the pain she feels.
PR: There’s something artistically gorgeous going on here, in that your narrator is planning her dystopian fantasy novel about a girl who can make her way through trials and tribulations by using cunning and wits, and all the while she is suffering (increasingly) from a wound she won’t properly tend to. Can you speak about that a little? And was it as funny to you as it was horrifying?
MC: I did think it was funny as I was writing it. Funny because the plot of the novel bleeds into her own thinking and she’s asking herself these questions about why the plot is or isn’t realistic, but grim as well because she’s ignoring the fact that problems in real life can’t be solved as easily as problems in fantasy novels. There’s no magic to help her out, and circumstance doesn’t cooperate nearly as well in real life as it might in fantasy books. Also, I think I was drawn to the idea of having my narrator feel really connected to her narrator, so much so that she forgets she isn’t the narrator in her own book.
PR: Finish this sentence in just one word—the word you think best captures it: “This story is about __________.”?
MC: Fantasies.
PR: What’s your favorite dystopian novel or film?
MC: Children of Men. I haven’t yet read the book by P.D. James, but the movie, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is one of my favorites.
PR: What are you working on now?
MC: I just finished a story collection, of which “Aerosol” is a part. I’m working on a YA novel about a teenage girl, in a dystopian future, trying to find a cure for her disease.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
MC: Is there love in the story? It’s harder to write characters who love each other than it is to write ones who dislike each other. That doesn’t mean they can’t be in conflict with each other. My teacher Tayari Jones is the one who made sure we ask ourselves that question.