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A PERFECT ENVELOPE • by Maria H. McDonald

Every day was the same. At 9:00 o’clock each morning, Eleanor the assistant copyeditor started her day at the office. She opened the envelope at the top of the pile. She read the first few lines of the enclosed manuscript, picking up the black pen that was her weapon, while reaching for the manuscript that was her prey.

Eleanor worked at a publishing house, and was part of a corps of copyeditors. Together they refined manuscripts at various stages of completeness. Her colleagues liked to wield red felt-tipped pens, but Eleanor preferred a heavy black ballpoint. It was formal; it was final. The author would feel the harshness of her edits. The wrong word was like a cancer. If she had a scalpel, she would have used it to excise the offending words from the paper.

Her pen flew across the page, as precise and immediate as the pin of a polygraph machine. Eleanor was efficient with her pen. She was brisk. She was ruthless.

Cut, cut, cut. Happily, with gusto. Cut, cut, cut.

Eleanor was proud of her perfect penmanship. She wanted her victims to know exactly what was wrong with the words being cut. Sometimes she laughed aloud, wondering why some people felt compelled to write when they couldn’t string a proper sentence together.

The manuscript Eleanor reached for that Tuesday felt the same as the all the others that had come before. She pulled the first page towards her, her pen poised, ready to strike.

But her pen hovered motionless in the air above the page.

The writing in the manuscript was lyrical, sensual, delightful. The writer had an effortless facility with language. Not one word or phrase was superfluous. Eleanor could detect no typos, no redundancies, and no usage errors.

A dynamic plot and charming interplay between the characters pulled Eleanor through the story. She forgot that she was reading, and instead let the story melt into her consciousness. She extracted its wit and grace, pulling it into her blood through the skin on her fingertips.

Before she realized, it was the end of the day and the other offices in the building were empty. The silence ricocheted around her. Manuscript pages littered the floor at her feet. She had finished reading the novel. She was left bereft upon reading “The end.”

Eleanor laid the manuscript aside, and sunk deeper into her chair. The long commute home was all that was left of the day, a desolate trudge through the soot and scowls of the downtown horde.

She had to feed the cats, do her laundry. She had planned to stop at the market for a bottle of wine.

She had also planned on spending time with her own manuscript. Her novel, which she had been working on for three years. The same stretch of time that she had been with the publisher. Whenever she had a spare moment, she pulled out her latest draft and tried to write.

Her own writing was unspeakably arduous. The words she sought were buried under rock, like fossils or precious stones — each one to be quarried with infinite patience and care so it didn’t crumble like dust in her hands.

The thought exhausted her.

Instead of heading home to her cats and her laundry and the bottom of a bottle of wine, Eleanor closed the door to her office and sat back at her desk. She set down her black pen and extracted a different weapon from the drawer.

Eleanor pulled the left sleeve of her pink cashmere cardigan up past her elbow, and removed her watch. She ran a cold fingertip along a fading crosshatch of scars on her inner forearm. She could read three years of toil and effort on her skin, a blighted manuscript of disappointment and frustration.

With her right hand, she reached for the utility knife. She thought about her novel-in-progress, that stack of pages decaying in her study. Eleanor knew that her words would never flow as beautifully as the ones she had just read. She wondered if she would ever stop trying.

She placed the tip of the knife on her forearm, preparing to cut into what was once — years ago — the perfect envelope of her skin.

The first cut was little more than a scratch.

“Your characters are not believable.”

The next was deeper, slightly more satisfying.

“Your plot structure is hugely flawed.”

The next one drew blood. She gasped a little at the cold feel of the air, but pressed on. Fresh lines of red emerged from each tiny cut and blended with the old into a tapestry of scars.

“You’ll never finish your novel.”

“You’ll never find an agent.”

She wept, and felt her novel dying the death of a thousand cuts.

“You have nothing important to say.” “You’ll never amount to anything.” “You’ll never be good enough.”

Cut, cut, cut.


Maria H. McDonald is a full-time communications advisor, part-time indexer, sometime student and permanent dreamer. Oh, and she likes to write. Maria has previously been published in The Globe and Mail, Scrivener and the Queen’s Feminist Review.

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A PERFECT ENVELOPE • by Maria H. McDonald, 3.3 out of 5 based on 51 ratings
Posted on June 22, 2010 in Literary, Stories
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  • http://www.paulfreeman.weebly.com Paul A. Freeman

    So that’s what happens to all my work that gets rejected!

  • http://www.paulfreeman.weebly.com Paul A. Freeman

    So that’s what happens to all my work that gets rejected!

    A scary piece of writing.

    Must get back to my great unfinished novel.

  • http://patriciahale.blogspot.com Patricia J. Hale

    Pulled me in by the end; fun.

  • http://www.deborahblood.com Debi Blood

    Dark and strange and gripping and fabulous!

  • http://wwebb3@comcast.net Bill Webb

    Story really grabed me and although I guessed the end I had to keep on reading. Well done. Now I am going to finish my book!

  • http://everydayprose vondrakker

    Sooo , WHY do we bother???
    Is it for the love of rejection?
    Well written piece !!
    4 ****

  • Pingback: Perfectly published « Restless Writers()

  • Rob

    Ah, yes, the emotional hurdles. Don’t we all feel like that off & on?
    A very nicely done piece.

  • Tom

    Emotional, for sure, but I’m left without the very thing that makes flash fiction a story: resolution. We spent half the story reading the superficial reasons she’s unable to write the novel, and then the other half reading the emotional/psychological reasons she can’t write the novel. So we do have conflict. But, unfortunately like many flash fictions, we’re left without the resolution. I’d like to see more basic elements of the story. By cutting out half of the superficial and keeping the emotional/psychological, I think you could have nicely tied it up with some resolution (whatever resolution that is) at the end.

  • Dyan

    What a gripping story! Yes, story. I think it has a beautiful resolution and, unlike the case with a traditional short story, the limited word length often forces some of these elements to remain unwritten, that is, hinted at or implied in the written storyline. While it leaves the reader not knowing exactly what happens, I love that it leaves us feeling something – disturbed, scared, empathetic – which is the goal of all writing. Excellent job!

  • Rose Gardener

    I may be reading too much into this, but the over-perfectionism of a self-harmer combined with the need to self destruct because she can’t achieve her own perceived idea of perfection had a real ring of truth in it. 5 stars.

  • http://barndance.biz Ian Carter

    Very disturbing. I have a grand-daughter who is self-harming, but for very different reasons.

  • L Hart

    A beautifully crafted story – I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • http://surgebin.blogspot.com Bernard S. Jansen

    Very creepy, but I think, very well-written. I feel it’s complete enough, as a story. I like the “cut, cut” coming back in another way. I like what this says about people that find it easier to find problems with other peoples work than to write better work themselves (this reminds me of someone). I gave it a 5.

    I did stumble in the first paragraph. She is reaching for a pen, while reading a manuscript, while reaching for a manuscript. Felt awkward, but it could just be me.

  • Jerry Kraft

    Excellent story. I think you held the surprise very well and still made it feel both unexpected and inevitable. The “death by a thousand cuts” may be the perfect description of writing, revision and editing and the impossible pursuit of perfection is the monster at the gate. Great job.

  • Cat

    As a cutter, this was massively triggering to me – the ending came completely out of left field. I was definitely expecting her to feel downhearted and at a loss regarding her own work – I was just shocked and appalled by the fact that she cut to absolve herself.

    Brilliantly written – on first read through, the first half of the story is fun and vicious, but when you know what’s about to come it takes on an entirely different note.

  • http://www.restlesswriters.ca B Jas

    Love this deliciously dark and disturbing story. The element of surprise is such a tease and leaves you hanging wanting more… the writing is superb. Polished. Perfect.

  • http://www.milo-inmediasres.com Milo James Fowler

    Ouch.

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