Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH (08/31/17)
TITLE: An Exquisite Sequence of Words
By Jan Ackerson
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She’s early this month—the would-be contributors to the Serendipity themed issue of her literary magazine were outstanding. She should start right away on the April issue, but she enjoys the rare feeling of having a few hours with no obligations. There’s a candy bar in her desk; she unwraps it while opening her email, thinking she’ll look online for a new scarf once her inbox is clear.
Other than the usual junk, there’s just one email that catches Jess’s notice; it’s from her assistant, Barbara, with check this out in the subject line. There’s no text, just an attachment—a story from a hopeful writer.
Jess opens the attachment, and with a snort of derision, notes a misplaced modifier in the first sentence. She scans a few paragraphs, marking three comma splices, a cliché, and a misuse of the word myriad. Ordinarily, this sort of writing would cause Jess to toss the story immediately into the rejected folder, but this afternoon, with time on her hands, she decides to read on. Either Barbara sees something Jess doesn’t in this story, or—more likely—Barbara got a kick out of how truly awful the story is and wants to share the mirth.
So Jess reads on, missing the scritch of red pen on paper, back when people submitted typed stories in crisp brown envelopes. It’s certainly satisfying to fill up her computer screen with red corrections and additions—but it’s just not quite the same. This particular story is starting to look ridiculous; there are corrections in every line, and Jess wonders why this person ever thought to submit to a literary magazine in the first place.
And then, near the end, Jess reads a sentence so exquisite that she literally gasps. It’s a short sentence—a fragment, actually. One noun. A verb. A few other words, nothing spectacular when taken individually. But as a whole, this sentence—well, it’s one of the most beautiful and heart-rending sentences Jess has ever read. The words shoot straight to her heart, and she thinks, Chrissy.
The last time Jess saw Chrissy, there was angry shouting, a slammed door, the squealing of tires, and then utter silence—for over ten years. Oh, my little one, she thinks. Did you write this? The submissions are anonymous, but Jess knows how to access the original file, to see the writer’s name.
It’s not Chrissy.
Jess reads the sentence again, and then Barbara pokes her head into her office, grinning. “Did you read that story I sent you? What did you think?”
Jess isn’t sure what Barbara is up to, and she’s still shaken by the power of that one flawless sentence. “I don’t quite know what to think,” she says, stalling for time. “Why did you send it to me?”
Barbara settles into a chair. “Well, I guess I wondered what you thought about the main character. Why do you suppose she refused to open that letter, in the beginning?”
It occurs to Jess that she has no idea what the story is about; she’d been so busy finding split infinitives and comma faults that she hadn’t really read a word. Except for that one sentence, which has bonded to her heart and is now squeezing it tighter with each heartbeat.
“Well, I…I don’t really know. Give me a few minutes, will you? I’m not quite done here.” She swivels away from Barbara in an uncharacteristic gesture, and Barbara sits there for a moment, surprised, then quietly leaves the office.
So Jess reads the story again. It’s still terrible, but it’s also wonderful, and every paragraph whispers Chrissy, Chrissy.
When Barbara walks past her door again, Jess calls her in. “Give the story to Erin,” she says. “Have her clean it up, but be sure she keeps the writer’s voice.”
Barbara squints at Jess. “Really? I was sure you’d hate it.”
“I do hate it. But it’s kind of special, isn’t it?”
Barbara nods and turns to leave, and Jess opens up a new window on her computer. She knows—has always known—exactly how to contact Chrissy, and she wonders if there’s an exquisite sequence of words that will bind forgiveness to Chrissy’s wounded heart.
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