They sat around an oblong table in the shell of an abandoned building. They had to operate in secrecy because of their extreme M.O. Piles of 8×10 papers were scattered everywhere, empty Chinese food containers stained some of those unlucky and much unloved sheets.
The editors had an archaic system. Off to the side in a neat stack, were submissions with purple Post-it notes paper-clipped to them, signifying them as potential acceptances that required rewrites. In another pile, orange Post-its were clipped to signify outright acceptances.
That was all hammered out. They had all the stories and poems they were looking for.
This meeting was to discuss the pile of rejections still standing on the table. One of those rejections would be selected and the author would be dealt with. In person.
It was late, the editors all had dayjobs in the morning. A row of drained wine bottles were piled against the plastic garbage bin. Cigarette smoke loomed. Jenn clicked her pen, repeatedly.
“This one right here was the worst of them,” Charlie said, shaking a stapled batch of papers together.
“Which was that?” Jenn asked.
“The one about the ghost that falls in love with the lawnmower.”
Walter laughed as he leaned back in his chair, “That was pretty bad, but not the worst,” he held up his example.
It was a poem about a topless vampire who had a pet Dragonbird.
“This is the worst,” Walter remarked.
“It is,” Blaire confirmed, and since she was the head editor, her decision carried a lot of weight.
“So, then … is that the one?”
No one said anything. It was a lofty decision carrying significant consequences for the writer of the Dragonbird poem.
“It is,” Jenn finally admitted.
They took a quick vote. It was voted that the Dragonbird poem was the absolute bottom of the barrel from the submissions sent for consideration.
“It’s your turn,” Blaire said to Walter.
Walter sighed. He nodded. She took the revolver out of her purse and passed it across the table to him.
“Where do I have to go?”
Jenn read the cover page … “You’ll have to go see Sheila Goan-Penderstone in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” Jenn wrote the name and address on a sheet of paper. Then she clipped a red Post-it to the poem, passed that over too.
“Uggghhh,” Walter said. It was a far drive: ten plus hours. He stood up from the oblong table, tucked the gun in his waistband, “Off I go.”
The editors said, in near unison, “thank you, Walter.”
They believed in what they were doing with all their hearts.
Walter drove fast to the west in his beaten up Volkswagon. He stopped to use the restroom in a truck-stop, getting a cup of coffee and an egg salad sandwich from the all-night diner.
In a booth, alone, he briefly questioned what he was about to do. That was to be expected. He’d been through this many times over the years. To combat his doubt, he took out the laminated card that he kept in his wallet, read it again.
Call for Submissions: Please send your best work to ______ Journal. We are currently looking for fiction, non fiction and poetry across all genres as long as there is an emphasis on quality and artful wonder. Our goal as a press is two fold: to publish the best and brightest that we come across; and to discourage bad, sloppy, writing by murdering the author of the worst submission that we receive each submission cycle. Current payment for acceptance is $___ per word. Send your work—double spaced, with a cover letter including name, address and a brief bio to us at the following email: ____________
Walter put the card away quickly as the waitress came with his sandwich. He’d asked for rye bread. The toast was plain white bread. The gun felt heavy in his pocket. He bit into the sandwich, uncaring. His eyes were blank as he stared straight ahead, the egg salad fell into his beard. His hands shook as he wiped his chin with the napkin.
The author of the Dragonbird poem, Shelia Goan Penderstone lived in a little blue house surrounded by dark woods. Walter drove past, very slowly, noting that there was only one car in the driveway and no garage. Walt shut off his headlights, parked his Volkswagon in the woods, out of sight. He pulled a ski mask over his head and crept quietly through the woods, coming into the backyard under the full moon. He peered into the back windows for some sign of a dog. Seeing nothing, he tried the window. He wasn’t surprised to find that it was unlocked. Writers are stupid.
Climbing in, he adjusted to the sounds of the house. Waiting again. He didn’t worry if she was alone. The writers usually lived alone, it was a common thread among all of them he’d killed. As his eyes adjusted, he became conscious of breathing in the room.
She was in an EZ chair, sleeping under a quilt with an American flag being gripped by a golden eagle.
Walter flipped on the light.
She didn’t wake.
He looked at her face. Wrinkled. Thin purple lips. Dentures removed. A slight mustache above the upper lip.
She began to snore slightly. That was enough. He shook her. She woke up screaming at the pot bellied man in the ski mask.
“Be quiet,” he commanded.
Shelia was full of wild panic. She kept squirming farther and farther away up the EZ chair. Soon it would tip.“
Stop that,” he said, pulling out the gun.
She froze. That always worked.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“You know who I am.”
“I can guess,” Shelia said, “But I don’t wanna believe it.”
“I’m the editor.”
She sighed heavily, at the end of the sigh slipped out a wounded whimper of realization. “Oh … I don’t want to accept it. There must be some mistake.”
“There’s no mistake,” Walter said.
“I’m a good writer. I’ve been writing my whole life! People tell me I’m good!”
“They lied to you.”
“I’ve been published a lot! One of my poems won a contest!”
“Be quiet,” he said, “It’s been done. You knew the consequences. You read the directions. You submitted. You were the worst.”
Shelia shook her head in resistance, “I couldn’t have been the worst. I’m a great writer.”
“They all say that, you know.”
The gunshot woke the cat who was sleeping on the bed upstairs.
Walter drove out of Pittsburg, his hands white knuckled on the steering wheel. There was blood on his white checkered dress shirt. He disposed of that in a gas station garbage can, choosing to wear his undershirt the rest of the ride. He tore up the red post it note with Shelia’s information and promised himself to forget all about her. Just another rejection. Nothing personal.
Closer to home, the sun coming up, he called into his work and told his boss at the factory that he would be out sick.
“I’m just sick,” he said.
“We’ll see you tomorrow?”
Walter placed the phone into the cradle, closed his eyes: imagined he had made literature a little better, somehow, in his small way.