The Editing Process, a short story by Celeste McLean
Sci-Fi/Fantasy: Short Story
Title: The Editing Process
Author: Celeste McLean
Word Count: 2,940
It wasn’t until the key was missing that Carren realized that this might actually be happening. She’d checked its usual spot, the place where she’d told the technicians that it was always kept, and it wasn’t there. Her entire body was flooded with the adrenaline of panic. She put the mug (World’s Greatest Dad!) back on the shelf and panted. The plan wasn’t foolproof, but getting in was supposed to be easy.
For a moment, she thought about scaling the wall on the side of the house. She’d done that dozens of times and knew each hidden hand hold, but back then she was only afraid of being caught by her mother. This time, she didn’t even know what would happen if anybody saw her. Even the police would be easy in comparison to the questioning she’d get from the Center. She remembered their solemn insistence that no one, not even the target, could know she was there.
There would have to be a better way.
She rummaged through the garage, touching her bare fingertips to each different hiding place that she could only half remember. Under a familiar box of vases that shifted noisily when she moved it, she saw something glinting in the darkness. She pushed her fingers under the box and felt an unmistakable shape. Then, the scraping sound of grit and dust as she pulled it towards her, and finally the quiet landing of it into her waiting left hand.
Panic again, but this time not because her plan was failing her. No key meant no easy way in. Meant backing out. Meant keeping her hands cleaned of murder.
She stared at the key, wanting her window of opportunity to close on itself. She’d been warned of the consequences of failure; had sworn to execute the plan that she herself had constructed. But she had disbelieved the plausibility of The Center’s claims, so at the time her planning sessions were just a therapy of vindictive creativity. The ha-ha yeah right of matching their outlandish promises with her own outlandish scheming.
If you send me back there, I will kill my father.
Anticipating a tasteful standard issue rejection of her application, she had only submitted one to savor the language they would return. Rejections had become more than a hobby over the last year, her website finding a strange popularity after she’d posted that bit the zoo had sent. After that, it became a challenge to find original ways to get rejected; her application to The Re-Visioning Center was meant to be her crowning achievement. Their bland response was going to be juxtaposed against the psychoses of the essay she’d sent, pared down from her fifteen page diatribe and presented in a tight, eight hundred word package of wrath and empowerment.
But their letter didn’t have the diametric beauty of a polite go fuck yourself that she expected. It didn’t come with the suggestion of medication and therapy the way that the zoo’s had, and it didn’t come with a cease and desist order like the one she received just a month earlier by the ballet academy. Instead, the letter she held in her shaking hands had the chatty congratulations of impossible, unimaginable acceptance.
We are delighted to inform you that your application for Life Re-Visioning has advanced to the next step of our rigorous selection process…
As she pushed the silver key into the lock, she wished that she had just recycled the letter. Or not responded. Or that it had gotten lost. Or any one of countless chances she had to not be opening that very door on that very night to do that very thing she had dreamed of doing for more than half of her entire life.
Once she was inside, though, she felt less uncertain.
Sure, she staggered with the shock of return, of being surrounded by things that had over time become nearly unreachable memories. But even as she was disoriented by the reality of her mother’s shoes in a pile next to the door, the dark swamp of her anger opened and brought with it a want of retribution.
In the bedroom at the top of the stairs, a thirteen year old girl was reading by the light of her silver goose neck lamp. Before slipping unseen into the garage, Carren had looked up at the dimly glowing window and laughed at how perfect The Center had made the illusion. Now, surrounded by the things that she knew no one would have been able to doctor – the musty smell of laundry in the first floor bathroom, the crumpled afterthought of purple crepe still stapled to the wall though the birthday streamers had been pulled down weeks earlier – she didn’t just believe. She understood.
She crouched down next to the sitting room sofa, patting in turn each object in the neat line of schoolgirl preparation. The bloated rectangle of a teal backpack stuffed with school books. A red coat, a blue scarf, a purple hat, and then two red gloves. A yellow poster board, RAINFALL AVERAGES BY YEAR written across the top in tidy hand written block letters. And finally, a pair of dark brown loafers with an insert in the left one to make it fit better.
She knew these things. Knew this night. If she didn’t carry out her plan, the girl in the bedroom would never give her presentation. She would fail the year, have an abortion the next, and push her mother down the stairs in between. Her mother would be fine, her recovery from a twisted ankle laboriously drawn out as the girl tended to her in mortified apology. It would take more than twenty years and five therapists for the girl to realize that she wasn’t apologizing for the ankle.
Finally, the garage door grumbled out its ominous homecoming, and she nodded. She touched her fingertips to her lips and then pressed them against the fingers of the girl’s red gloves.
“Let’s do this,” she whispered in the darkness.
She listened to the car pull into the garage; the door grind close behind it. When she heard the door of her father’s red Chrysler slam, she retreated to the even darker hallway.
The clunk and clatter of her father’s body hitting the door made her jump. She knew that upstairs, the girl had heard it too and put down her book. She started brushing her hair, getting ready to be tucked in.
The front door was opened with a push, its knob pounding against the wall behind it. Her father staggered through the doorway. Even from across the room, she could smell the drink on him. She knew that crying wasn’t going to help keep her focused, but the tears leaked out from the corners of her eyes anyway.
“I don’t want to do this,” she whispered, and before she realized that she had let the words escape, her father’s head was jerking from side to side.
“Carren?” he called.
“I’m still awake,” the girl at the top of the stairs called back.
She lunged at him then, which wasn’t part of the plan, but it was the best she could do with the reduced vision brought on by her onslaught of tears. She was supposed to let him pass by her in the dark, too stubborn as always in his insistence that he didn’t need the hallway light to know the way through is own house. She was meant to kill him from behind, without him ever seeing her.
Instead, he staggered backwards as she crashed into him. She shoved the device forward, making contact with the barrel of his chest. She pushed the two buttons and the charge went off with an anticlimactic snap. Her father’s body convulsed, then dropped to the floor.
“Daddy?” she heard the girl at the top of the stairs call, her voice small and frightened. When Carren heard footsteps pounding down the steps, she retreated out the still open door.
Her bare feet slapped against the concrete front walk. As she ran, she thought of the girl’s footsteps down the stairs, her loud, hurried gait waking the rest of the family.
“Carren,” her mother yelled, “get back to bed.”
But the Carren in the house, the thirteen year old girl who had been waiting up all night for her father to come home, couldn’t do that. She could go nowhere but down the stairs and then into the sitting room where she saw in the dim light that came in through the window, the lump of her father lying on the floor.
“Daddy!,/i>” she screamed, and the light switched on overhead. Suddenly, her mother and her brothers were all around her, touching the man on the floor, Mother yelling at him to wake up, wake up, wake up goddamn you James Propert, you are not leaving me with these four children. But his face was already discolored around the lips, and there was no rise and fall to the drum of his chest.
Carren kept running, the vision pushing its way into her head as if it were her own memory. She ran to the rendezvous point blind with tears but knowing every step without hesitation. When she finally reached the tree next to the playground, she folded herself against its rough trunk. The tree would be gone in a decade, rot eating away at it from the inside out. But tonight, it offered a familiar shelter.
Thursday, April fourth. She knew this night. She’d lived for years inside of her inability to escape it.
She remembered the smell of her father as he walked into her room. He always seemed more relaxed when he came home from a night out, winking at her when her mother turned away. She’d laugh behind her hands, gleefully conspiratorial. And if he got home really late and everyone was already in bed, she always got a few extra cuddles.
She put her brush down on her nightstand and flung her arms open to him in welcome. He smiled widely.
“You up late, peach,” he said, sitting beside her on the bed.
“It’s a good book,” she shrugged.
“I thought you would like it.” He tucked a tawny strand of hair behind her ear and her face tingled at the touch. “You should get some sleep. Big day tomorrow.”
She grinned and opened her arms to him again. He leaned into her and wrapped his arms around her tiny body. Patted her on the back.
She nuzzled her nose against his neck and pulled him in tighter. He was gone so much and even when he was home, he was always so busy. It was only when he’d come to tuck her in that they had any time alone together. That’s when he would hold her hand and they would talk about whatever book she was reading. Sometimes, he’d get another copy from the library and they’d read it together. She would always finish first, though, because he was so busy he hardly had any time to read.
It made her feel so grown up, the way that he would talk about books with her, suggesting ones that her mother said might not be appropriate for a girl her age. Even the title of the one she was reading now, Fifteen, made her feel older. More mature. Her father wasn’t reading this one because he said it was a girly romance book, but he’d bought it for her just the same. He’d brought her a stack more just like it, which made her curious and anxious, wondering when she’d have her first kiss.
“I love you, peach,” he said, smoothing his large hand over her head.
She nestled into his palm and cuddled her face to his shirt. The buttons pressed against her cheek, but she didn’t dare move. He’d be gone again in a moment and she didn’t want to make that happen any faster.
The Carren back at the house wasn’t nestling into her father’s embrace, smelling the long workday smell of him mixed with the sour whiskey smell that made her mother’s lips purse in disapproval. Instead, she screamed until her brother Jimmy, the eldest, wrestled her from their father’s body and pinned her against the hallway wall. She sobbed against him wildly as the paramedics tried to perform CPR. She collapsed in a heap when they wheeled away him away.
Under the tree, Carren was vomiting. Her stomach ached with the anguish of her father, dead at her feet. She felt the soft skin of his hand as she held it in hers, begging Daddy don’t die, don’t die, please please please I need you don’t die. But he was dead, there was no question. And she was the one who had killed him.
She sobbed, loud long wails of agony and regret and anger. Confusion as the memory of her father’s hands on her face, his lips on her lips coexisted with the vision of his hand pulled from her hands, his lips turned purple and quietly innocent.
A river of grief, an ocean of it spilled through her body, sloppy with remembrance of a man who had loved her without ever touching her. Another river flowed away, carrying with it the memory of him being the only man who ever had. She clawed after those memories, clinging to her hatred as a buoy against the guilt and apology and shock of murder.
She glared at The Center’s device, deceptively innocuous as it sat in the puddle of soft foods the technicians had fed her before the strapping her into the room-sized machine. All at once she understood why The Center only armed her with a solitary charge. If she had another, she’d hold the smooth plastic into her own body and press the two buttons simultaneously. Maybe she’d even hear the whispered snap of it igniting before her heart stopped completely.
With menacingly perfect timing, it began to vibrate. She snatched it to her, retching at the smell of her vomit. Two blinking LED lights flashed, and she was flooded by a searing blue light. She closed her eyes against it and her mind closed around itself in a fog of sleepy surrender. “Just between us, peach,” she recalled her father’s voice saying, and then she fell completely into the black.
She woke up at home, clinging to a dream that she was having about her father. Aching with the threat of a sob, she unlocked her phone and messaged her mother: Thinking of you today. Then she went back to bed, grateful that she had someone else to cover for her on Sundays. The children who came into her shop were wonderful, but on days like today she could not manage facing their doting parents. The ones who bought two copies and promised to bring their children back to next month’s book club would almost certainly do her in.
Later she drove to the cemetery, heavy with sorrow and tired from the dreams that hadn’t let her rest. She cleaned away the leaves that had collected on his headstone and her hand jumped back. April 4, 1985. Beloved husband and father. She grabbed at something in her mind, a tendril of a memory that was filled with an awful wrongness. The dream, she thought, settling back into the well of grief that she had known since a month after her thirteenth birthday. A birthday bright with her father’s beautiful smile and his arms wrapped warm around her. Not coincidentally, it was the last one she would actually enjoy.
It was also the last one that she would spend with her mother. Eight weeks before her fourteenth birthday, they got into another screaming confrontation. A heated discussion about skipping school deteriorated into back-and-forth fury just inside Carren’s bedroom doorway. Panicked and trapped, she shoved her mother so hard that she fell down the stairs. Clawing at the banister and yelling obscenities at her only daughter, Liddy Propert twisted an ankle and fractured a wrist. Carren was sent to live with an aunt who drove her to a therapist’s office twice a week for a year. Two years after that, she sent back her mother’s wedding invitation unopened. Carren’s aunt, her father’s sister, lectured her quietly about family and forgiveness until she listened. After the reception, thick with the laughter of reunion as she posed for pictures with her brothers, she hugged her aunt in breathless gratitude. But that cool November day had only been a temporary respite; their entire history of blame had never really eased in the twenty-five years since her father’s death.
She kissed her fingertips and pressed them against her father’s headstone, wistful for the family they could have been if he had lived. She heard footsteps behind her and stood slowly, holding on to one last quiet moment alone with her father. She turned and saw her older brother Michael approach hand in hand with his own daughter, Jade. She was thirteen herself now, all knees and elbows like a gangly puppy. She shoved her way into Carren’s embrace and smiled up at her widely. She looked down at the girl and hugged her with a sudden sense of anxiousness.
“Beat me again,” Michael said quietly.
“I’m only a few minutes away,” she answered with a shrug.
“It’s only fitting,” Michael shrugged back. “You were always his favorite.”
Carren looked down at the headstone again. Beloved Husband and Father.
“Maybe not favorite,” she said after a moment, kissing her niece on the forehead. “Just Daddy’s little girl.”