A Package for the Editor: Free Fiction for Fyretober October 11, 2023
A Package for the Editor
Paula Winn grumbled as she passed the old Victorian. Try as she might, she couldn’t not stare at it now. It was all she could do to keep her eyes on the road instead of looking for someone or something at the house.
That compulsion wasn’t part of the writer disease. Most people, maybe everybody, had trouble letting go of an idea once it set in. “Don’t think of an elephant!” never works.
But it felt like an occupational disease of writers. Just when you on an idea with a deadline, another idea would take over your brain and demand your attention. There had to be a thousand memes about that on writers’ social media.
But this wasn’t a story idea. Paula didn’t write stories about mysterious presences with mysterious purposes. She wrote adventure science fiction across the stars or in other realities. Even at her most exotic, her stories made sense. There was a logic to what happened, and logical, thinking characters could puzzle it out.
But she couldn’t puzzle out the house, where the… the man, whatever he was, had operated. Alien? Devil? Angel? Visitor from another dimension?
Figment of her imagination?
She shook her head as she drove past. The man was real. The house was real. She had no way to prove either, but she was certain.
She also had no way to demonstrate it to anyone, nor to explain it all. She had tried to explain to Evan, but that had only earned her strange looks. Those looks hadn’t ended yet, not even after she had explained the whole idea as an elaborate joke, as a story in progress.
That in itself made her wonder. She had shared countless stories with Evan, he was her sounding board. On some stories he was practically a co-author, she bounced so many ideas off him. All those ideas, all those stories, but he had never before given her that look. Something in her telling had affected Evan. In some subtle way, she had let him know: this was no ordinary story. She believed it.
Let it go, Paula! she said to herself. Don’t make me sing Frozen!
If only it were that easy, as if jokes could wipe the curiosity from her brain. But it just didn’t work. Her mind would let go of the house, the man, and all the unanswered questions.
But really, how could she let it go? It wasn’t like the mysteries had gone away. The house was still there, and people still didn’t notice it, save for Paula herself. More than that, they unnoticed it. That was the best word she had to describe it. In all the times she had driven past the house since her conversation with the man – more times than her work really required, she had to admit – she had never once seen a vehicle parked in front of the Victorian. On even the busiest days, the space in front of the house – room for four cars to park – was always empty. It was like that stretch of road simply didn’t exist to anyone but her.
But there was no time to worry about that. Paula still had her demanding delivery schedule, as hectic as ever. She had packages to drop. That might not shake the house from her brain, but it left her little time to fret.
Late that day, Martha almost forgot her mystery. As she pulled up to her to one of her last deliveries of the day, the phone screen showed the recipient information. And Martha gasped. Kevin Fenton.
That can’t be! she thought. I would know if the editor of Trans Lunar Injection lived right here in Grand Rapids… Wouldn’t I?
But honestly, would she? Today the writing world was almost entirely located in one place: the Internet, amid all the nooks and crannies of blogs and social media and writing forms and newsletters. Unless you made it a point to find out, whoever really knew where anybody lived?
She knew where the TLI offices were, because that address in North Carolina had been on the checks for the three stories she had sold them. But did Fenton live there? Had Paul Miller lived there? Did his widow Rachel live there? Honestly, they could all live anywhere as far as Paula knew. If they lived on the Moon, she would know. Sure, there would be a two-and-a-half second time lag in any phone calls, but she never called them.
Suddenly she grabbed her phone and switch to the dictation app. “Note for the idea pile: editors on the Moon.”
She closed the app and went back to the dispatch screen as she looked at the white two-story clapboard house to which the package was addressed.
She shook her head, turned off the motor, stepped into the back, and grabbed the package addressed to Kevin Fenton. The return address on it was that of a survival foods company, one of those places that sent out the civilian equivalent of Meals Ready to Eat. She and Evan had ordered from them for hiking trips. As survival rations went, they were some of the best for the price.
The box was heavy, as if it contained food for weeks. Maybe a month. She set it on the front ledge of the van, scanned the label to track progress, and then carried it out onto the sidewalk.
When she got to the door, Paula hesitated. Standard procedure was to scan the label, set down the box, snap a picture, and walk away. She had absolutely no justification for doing anything else.
But she couldn’t help herself. She rang the doorbell.
Then she waited. For two minutes, which would put her completely off schedule for her last three boxes of the day. This is silly. A complete waste of –
She heard a chain sliding, and then another. Then she heard one, two, three deadbolts release. She saw the door tremble, as if someone leaned against it, looking out through the peephole.
Then the door opened a crack, stopping when one last, stout chain reached its end. In the shadows within, a short, balding man looked out. His eyes darted back and forth and up and down before finally landing on Paula. “What do you want?” the man asked.
Paula hesitated only a moment before saying, “Package for Mr. Kevin Fenton?” That was silly. It wasn’t a question, it was a package for Mr. Kevin Fenton. But Paula was nervous.
The man looked down at the box, which would be just visible through the crack of the door. “Well, set it down!”
As Paula lowered the package, the man started to close the door. On an impulse, Paula said, “Excuse me, are you Kevin Fenton of Trans Lunar Injection magazine?”
That stopped the man, with the door open just a sliver. Now standing behind the door, he said, “Who’s asking?”
Paula was emboldened by that. If the answer were no, he would’ve just said so. This was… The Editor… “Mr. Fenton, my name is Paula Winn. I’m an author. You pub – Well, Paul Miller published some of my stories in TLI.”
The door suddenly swung back open, and the chain practically rang. “‘Best Ares’?”
Paul nodded. “That was one of mine.”
“Issue 47. I remember that. Paul and I spent some time debating that one.”
“Oh…” It didn’t exactly make Paula feel comfort that they had to debate whether to accept her story.
As if reading her mind, the Editor said, “No, not that. You misunderstand. We knew right away we would buy it. we debated whether we could put a first-time author’s name on the cover. It’s not normal.”
He paused, closed the door unexpectedly, released the last chain, and opened the door wide. Paula saw him in more detail now: a short, very pale balding man in his early 50s, as best she could judge. He wore a sloppy gray tracksuit with the Grand Valley Lakers Logo, and threadbare house slippers. He looked not at all like her mental image of an Editor. He was ordinary. Human. Even a bit sloppy. Had she passed him in the street, she would never have noticed him. And in fact, if he lived around here, she just might have passed him.
“The cover,” he continued, “it’s not for everybody. It’s for names that will sell issues, the bestsellers in the field. The ones readers will recognize from halfway across a bookstore aisle. Always.” Then he grinned at her. “Except when it’s not. Please, come in.”
This would get Paula into all sorts of trouble. It was against half a dozen policies, and it would make her late on her last three deliveries of the day. It was a really bad idea.
But when the Editor tells you to come in, you come in. She went in.
The Editor wasted no time. He quickly stuck his head out just far enough to scan the neighborhood, up and down and around, before slamming the door, reapplying the chains, and locking the deadbolts. His action was so fast and so urgent that Paula began to have doubts. Have I made a mistake? I’m locked in a house with a strange man. She’d never heard any rumors about Fenton being a serial killer or anything, but you never knew. Sometimes fans were good at keeping secrets.
But as Fenton turned back from the door and smiled at her, Paula felt no threat. He was so small, so scruffy looking, that she felt confident she could take him. In the worst case, she had the knife in her back scabbard, and could reach it quickly. That was against all company policies, but fuck policy when it came to safety. If she thought she could conceal it, she would be carrying. A knife was all she had, but it would be enough. She felt sure.
Especially because the man was so scrawny. Practically emaciated. He looked like he hadn’t had a good meal in a week. The way he shuffled made him look tired made him look weary, as if something had kept him awake at night, many nights in a row. The dark circles under his eyes added to that impression.
Paula had been distracted by his behavior and his looks, so she missed some of what he been saying. “…and Paul and I both wondered how you came up with such an amazing idea. It was…”
Paula set the box down on a low bench by the door, and she shrugged. “It was a parallel world story. Nothing special.”
“But the dilemma that you posed! That was unique. Your protagonist had to pick the single best version of Mars for all humanity to be stuck with. To make the choice that would take away everyone else’s choices because somebody had to, and she was the only one who could. Some writers would’ve turned her into a tyrant with that story, but you… You turned her into a mother.”
Paula felt her cheeks flush. She still wasn’t used to praise for her stories. And from the Editor!
“It’s just…” She tried to explain, but she could hardly explain it to herself. That story had been so long ago, some of her the choices that went into it were lost. Seven more stories go through her head since then, two of them published. “It just seemed like the way it had to be.”
“Oh, you’re just being modest.” The Editor opened a door to a study. “You have to tell me more about it.”
But before he led the way, he stuck his head in the study and looked around, much as he had at the front door: up, down, and into corners, as if something might be hiding there. When he seemed satisfied, he said, “Come on in!”
Paula followed him into the paneled, carpeted room with the big side windows that would be great for morning light. There was a fireplace set into one brick wall along the north side. Two faded leather armchairs facing the fireplace. A couch sat along the east wall, between two gilt-edged end tables. A long matching coffee table stood in front.
Two shelves above the couch and the stone mantel over the fireplace were filled with… Well, she wouldn’t call it junk, because this was the Editor’s office! Lucite awards. Framed magazine covers. Toy dinosaurs and spaceships and robots. Photos of Fenton standing with some of the greats in science fiction. If an Editor had to have eccentricities, these were exactly the sort of eccentricities he should have.
And there was The Desk. Paula couldn’t help thinking of it that way. That was the place where decisions were made. That was the place were Trans Lunar Lnjection happened.
It was messier than she expected. There were piles loose paper in big wire bins on three of the four corners, with more papers flowing across the desktop. A comfortable blue plush chair sat behind the desk, and a closed laptop sat just in front of the chair.
“Come!” The Editor said, gesturing toward the armchairs. “Over here. It’ll be more comfortable.”
Then he stepped carefully around the oddest thing in a roomful of oddities: a large cage made of fine wire mesh sat on the floor between the desk and the nearest window. Scattered inside were dozens, maybe scores of small folded bits of paper. Was this some abstract origami display?
Whatever it was, the Editor was careful not to disturb it, circling around to point her to the chair closest to the cage. Then he opened the cupboard set into the wall, reached in, and pulled out two silver plastic-and-foil pouches. “Would you like a drink? I have…” He squinted at the labels. “…mango pineapple and cherry lime.”
Paula glanced at her phone. She was going to be so late, Ben Schaefer would certainly reprimand her. She should just leave, but… “Cherry line sounds good.”
“Cherry lime it is!” The editor handed her a pouch, took his own, and sat in the other armchair. Paula pulled the thin straw in his plastic sleeve from her pouch, jabbed the straw through the foil skin, and took a drink. It was more survival rations, but pretty good.
Then, for the duration of a drink pouch, they talked about her story; and Paula felt like royalty. The Editor told her about some of the mail they had received that hadn’t made it to the letter column simply because the positive messages had exceed the available column inches. Paula told him about misreading the Rest Area sign and how that had led to the story. He got a laugh out of that.
But when the drink was gone, Paula looked at her phone again, this time more pointedly. “I’m sorry, Mr. Fenton –”
“Please, call me Kevin.”
She got up from the chair and headed for the exit. “Thank you, Kevin, but I really should go. I’m not done with my deliveries yet.”
Kevin stood as well, veering around the cage and walking her to the hallway. “This has been delightful.”
A sudden impulse may Paula add, “But I would like to talk again. This been fascinating.”
The Editor opened his mouth to answer; but just then some grumbling noises came from his laptop, and he snapped a look at it. His eyes were wide… almost as if in fear. “No, not… I mean, this has been a great afternoon, but I probably shouldn’t…”
Paula nodded. “I understand.” She didn’t, really. She guessed maybe that the older gentlemen was concerned about propriety. She should be, too, really. She was a married woman here alone in a house with another man, even if she didn’t see it that way. That was how rumors get started…
Then she had another thought. “You’ve been so kind, but I wouldn’t want to impose on your hospitality again. We could go out somewhere, someplace comfortable to sit and chat and have a cup of coffee. Are you familiar with Marge’s Donut Den?”
The good folks at Fyrecon have declared this to be Fyretober: a month of creative prompts, encouraging writers, poets, and artists to share their explorations. Today’s prompt: Djinn party.
All right, all right, I completely missed the prompt this time. But I got the story!
In case it’s notclear: Paula Winn is a fictitios author, and Kevin Fenton is a fictitious editor. Trans Lunar Injection is a fictitious magazine.
Or are they…?