2016 Short Story Prize Winner

The Manuscript

by Laura Heffernan

I squared my shoulders and closed the apartment door behind me.

My roommate touched my arm, making me pause. “Cara, I think we need to talk about your fear of rejection?”

“I have to do this, Rachel. I can’t let her read that manuscript!”

“I think that fiftieth rejection really go under your skin. This is a bad idea. What if you emailed her, told her you submitted the wrong document by mistake, and asked her to consider the right one? She won’t reject you for that.”

“I should just say, ‘Oops, I accidentally sent you my best friend's One Direction erotic fanfic with my query letter’? I’ll lose my only chance with the best agent in New York. I can’t.”

Rachel began to protest, but I cut her off. “Look. Weren’t you the one who said it was serendipity when my dream agent moved into our building?”

“Yes, but–”

“And weren’t you the one who badgered me until I queried her?”

“Yes, but—”

“No more ‘but’s. We’re doing this. Here's your copy of The Plan.” I’d spent days preparing for every contingency.

She shot me a withering look. "I don't need a piece of paper that says 'distract Julia at the coffee shop.’”

My gaze didn't waver until she put the page into her purse. I adjusted my hoodie, making sure it hid my blond hair. Sunglasses covered my eyes. For the hundredth time, I checked to make sure my actual manuscript sat in my bag. “How do I look?”

“Like the Unabomber.”

“You’re not helpful.” My phone beeped. “But you’re up. Go!”

Rachel trotted toward the elevator, muttering something that sounded suspiciously like, “I don’t know why I put up with you.”

“I love you, too!” I shouted after her.

According to my barista friend, every day at exactly three forty-five, Julia McCain bought a latte. Twitter said her assistant was out sick. That meant I had one opportunity to break into her office and get my manuscript back. Her website said it took her weeks to read submissions; I had mailed mine three days earlier. I just needed some luck—and for Rachel to keep Julia downstairs a few precious minutes.

With no time for the elevator, I raced down the stairs between our apartment and McCain Literary Agency. Thankfully, the hall was empty. I strode to the door.

Locked! Who locked their office when leaving for five minutes?

Maybe someone who might have authors break in to steal pages mailed by mistake?

Right. Luckily, I’d come prepared.

I pulled a bobby pin out of my pocket. I’d been practicing almost nonstop for the past forty-eight hours. After a moment, the knob turned, and the door swung open. I darted in and closed it with a sigh of relief.

The reception area spread out before me. A closed office door lay beyond. According to our calculations, I had four minutes to find the envelope with my query packet, swap it for the correct version, and get back to the stairwell.

Beyond the office door, a stack of papers buried the wooden desk. Of course. Naturally, I'd set my heart on the only agent in New York City who still required mailed queries, and she had a zillion of them. Why couldn't I want someone who embraced the Internet age?

A teetering stack of manila envelopes, each identical to mine, sat on the left corner of her desk. Not knowing what else to do, I started at the top. Not mine. One down, about forty thousand to go.

An incoming text from Rachel startled me. Are you done? We’re getting into the elevator.

I can’t find it! Move to the Contingency Plan!

With shaking hands, I went back to the stack. My hands flew through the envelopes. "50 Shades of Twilight"? Nope.

Not mine, not mine, not mine. Crap. I was searching for one particular needle in a haystack full of needles.

Blaring interrupted my train of thought.

Flashing lights. Sirens.

Contingency Plan? I texted, trying to breathe.

I leaned on the emergency button. You so owe me. Did you get it?

Almost. You’re the best friend in the world.

Rachel had bought me at least another five minutes.

My anticipation increased as I drew nearer the bottom of the stack. Despair replaced excitement when my questing fingers hit the desk beneath the pile, and I still hadn't found my envelope.

My phone buzzed again. We’re moving up, but it’s slow. Lots of people getting off.

With a sinking feeling, I spotted the manuscript sitting open in front of the chair. Julia must have been reading before she left. My arm shook as I flipped to the first page. “Odd Man Out,” by Cara Banks.


She'd only made it to the second page. My breath came out in a whoosh. The fanfic I'd accidentally included was stapled to the end. Julia hadn't read it. I’d thought about yanking it off, but didn’t want her to be able to tell someone tampered with it.

The envelope containing the correct pages had apparently been created with the strongest adhesive known to man. The stupid thing wouldn't open. I cursed myself for reflexively licking the envelope before closing it.

Another text. At the second floor.

Please, God, just another thirty seconds. . .

Finally, the flap gave way. I yanked the correct pages out, threw the old manuscript into my purse, and plunked the new pages onto the desk. Halfway to the door, I remembered to turn back and open the new document to the second page.

Home free!

Well, almost. I needed to get out before Julia found me and called the police.

Elevator stopped at 3rd floor. Abort! Get out now!

No time to reply. I pelted for the door. Before I got there, it opened. My heart stopped.

A brown-haired girl about my age stood in the doorway. Not Julia. Her assistant.

I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came out. Her eyes traveled from my hoodie to my glasses to the manila envelope peeking out of my bag. I couldn't breathe.

She shrugged and stepped aside. “Third time this year.”

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