Most weeknights the old man stopped at one of his favorite bars on the way back from work and then stumbled home drunk. Weeknights were easy—they only meant beer. All he expected was for me to toss some food in the microwave for him, stay out of his way, maybe do his laundry, and if that was all there was then it’d be fine. Weekends were about the hard stuff, mostly off-brand vodka or rum. Twice a month, on payday, he’d struggle through the front door with boxes from the liquor store, grinning like the Santa of alcoholics. Oddly, these started out as the best nights because he’d come home sober and reasonable, even handing me an occasional allowance. Once he got hammered, though, he was nothing but mean for the rest of the weekend.

If I was too loud—which meant if he could hear me walking around the creaky wooden floors of our apartment—he’d smack me. If I accidentally dropped my spoon in the sink while cleaning up from a bowl of cereal, it could mean anything from an insult to a thrown shoe. Or I could be sitting in my room reading and he’d just come in and clock me upside the head “for good measure.”

David Elzey

David Elzey manages a bookstore in Massachusetts where he lives and writes. He studied Creative Writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been published in Lunch Ticket and Found Poetry Review. Currently he is working on a YA novel about a pair of lost space-traveling Yeti.

Patrick Ryan on “Bolt”

Every once in a while, when we’re sitting around reading submissions, a story comes across our table that simultaneously grabs our attention and makes us recoil in fear. I’m not talking about stories that fit into the traditional horror genre, but horrific stories about contemporary teens in difficult circumstances. David Elzey’s “Bolt” is one of those stories.

Cy has an enormous problem he’s been keeping to himself, and it’s that his father is an abusive alcoholic. He’s verbally abusive, physically abusive, emotionally monstrous. But if you’re Cy, why tell anyone about it? Where’s the guarantee that seeking help will actually improve the situation? And so he suffers.

Two things happen that change the circumstances of Cy’s life. I’ll only mention one of them here—he meets a girl named Nova who, it turns out, also doesn’t have the most ideal home life. Nova is just getting to know Cy, but she cares about him. And she plants an idea in Cy’s weary head: fight back.

“Bolt” might make you wince. It might make you cringe. You might want to climb into the story and strangle Cy’s father, or reach between the sentences and pull Cy out by the arm. Regardless of how you react, I think it’s safe to say you’ll never forget reading this new issue of One Teen Story. And you might never stop wondering what happens to Cy after the story ends.

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
DE: When I was in college I saw a pair of street jugglers and one of them was a very accomplished fourteen-year-old-boy. I asked him how long he’d been at it and he said “A couple years. My dad made me want to learn.” I asked if his dad had been a juggler as well and he said “No, an alcoholic.” From that short conversation a story seed was sown.
PR: Have you written other stories about Cy, or about parental abuse?
DE: No stories about Cy, but I do have other stories that are set in Cy’s neighborhood. As for stories about abuse, this is my first, though I’ve seen my fair share, both growing up and when I was a public school teacher.
PR: This may be tricky to answer: How do you feel your understanding of Cy’s father (“the old man”) differs from Cy’s understanding? Or are they very similar?
DE: Cy knows his father about the same as most kids know their parents, I think, Cy just has it worse. There are things kids can sense, and things they think they know, and later on they learn the language and the words for what they’ve witnessed. He knows his dad is profoundly messed up, and maybe even blames Cy for his misery, but Cy isn’t willing to buy into that. The fact that the old man withholds information from Cy about his mother is what turns the boy into an adversary. What I understand about the old man that Cy can only guess at is that he became broken at some point in his past and allowed himself to indulge in the fatalism of his misery. It’s clear that Cy’s long-gone mother still holds some emotional sway over the old man, but he can’t even bring himself to admit it, and this as much as the alcohol is killing him from the inside out.
PR: What I would love to see, somewhere down the road, is a short story about Cy in his mid-thirties, as a parent. I can’t give you homework, but I can ask—what kind of father might Cy turn out to be? Or do you not imagine him with any kids?
DE: Ha! That’s a lot further down the road than I ever imagined Cy, from a storytelling aspect at least. Because of Cy’s cold and negligent upbringing, I imagine he’s got a tough road ahead of him in terms of finding a relationship that would make him comfortable about being a parent. I could also see him be the kind of kid who’d carelessly become a parent by accident and then have to struggle to not be like the old man. But if you’re forcing this homework on me, I would say that Cy becomes the most apologetic dad possible, never quite living up to his own expectations. He’ll have seen that the products of happy families are no better adjusted emotionally and he’ll come to realize that every new parent/child relationship starts with a blank slate.
PR: What writers inspire you? Was there one particular thing you read that made you want to start writing?
DE: This is complicated due to multiple influences. My earliest inspiration came from a fifth grade teacher, Don Mack, who encouraged my love of puns and the poetry of Edward Lear. He also nudged me toward Bradbury, who I still hold fondly when I’m trying to keep things simple. By 7th grade I’d discovered Vonnegut and all bets were off. Sometime around college I discovered the short stories of Jamaica Kincaid and the poetry of Margaret Atwood, but the turning point came when I discovered Daniel Pinkwater and Francesca Lia Block and suddenly knew the stories I wanted to tell.
PR: What are you working on now?
DE: It’s a YA novel about a pair of crater-surfing Yeti who accidentally discover a portal to another world that looks a lot like Earth. It’s got giant neon spiders, lost Boy Scouts, talking animals, a legally blind trucker, and a person who claims to be a descendant of Paul Bunyan. After writing a number of serious stories, I kinda went all-in on the absurdity side of things, and it’s been a lot of fun!
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
DE: I was in a guided workshop where we were asked to imagine what we would tell a younger version of ourselves, that this would help us understand who our audience was and what themes were important to us. After being unable to decide which version of myself I would talk to—the eleven-year-old me or the seventeen-year-old me—I decided I didn’t have to choose between them and that I had stories to tell both. So the advice I culled from that was: write the stories that the younger version of yourself wished they could have read. Write to please yourself, no matter which self that is.