Fiction: “Correcting President Barnes” by Kelly Ann Jacobson

We called him The Editor. He arrived from the sky—black briefcase in hand, suit cinched tightly at the neck with a black tie—and after a flawless landing on the roof, entered the building in a few short, purposeful strides. He looked like a man, and if you touched his skin, he would feel like a man, but you wouldn’t touch his skin, or even look him in the eye, if you wanted to survive his editorial hand.

You see, we called him The Editor because he swiped people off the face of the earth like our editors swiped off spare commas with their red pens. Not just any people; journalists like me who had drawn the eye of the public on President Barnes before he took his title, the ones who had pointed out his inconsistencies and inabilities and intolerances and had almost, but not quite, stopped his election.

The Editor fixed these people like a backspace button, took them away and turned them into empty space above an ergonomic office chair.

“Jean Sanders,” The Editor stated when the receptionist ten desks away from me asked for a name. Not his name—everybody knew his name—but the name of his next victim.

I stared at the byline of my next piece, “by Jean Sanders” written in Times New Roman size 12 font. Two years before, that same byline had appeared under the last piece about then-Governor Gerald Stanley Barnes before the election, “The Million Dollar Evasion.” Back then, seeing my name in print had given me chills. I’m making a difference, I’d told myself. I’m changing the future.

He’d won anyway.

Is it too late to run? I wondered now. If I hide under my desk, can the machine known as The Editor smell my fear like fresh ink?

The Editor took five long strides and stood across from me, his mechanical face blank and smooth.

“Jean Sanders?”

I nodded. Next he would slide an arrest warrant across the desk; next I would follow him back down the aisle of silent interns; next I would disappear like a note on a messy desk. No one would remember my name. One of the interns would commandeer my desk.

The Editor removed a marble statue from his pants pocket and placed the miniature President Barnes on the corner of my desk next to the ball point pens and the rusty stapler.

“What’s that?” I asked, curiosity getting the better of me. This was not standard protocol.

“President Barnes thanks you for your service to his cause.”

The Editor returned to his resting stare.

“Excuse me?”

“President Barnes thanks you for your service to his cause.” The Editor repeated. “He instructed me to give this statue to you as a sign of his appreciation.”

“I don’t understand.” I looked at the statue, at its smooth white face and swoop of white hair. “Am I being erased?”

“Erased? Please clarify.”

“For the article. ‘The Million Dollar Evasion.’ The other writers—”

“Journalist scum,” the robot spit out. His face twisted into his programmed expression of anger. “They do not deserve to live on the same earth as President Barnes.”

“But I … I … ” Words appeared on the page of my mind and then drifted away.

“Wrote the article that saved President Barnes from losing the election. What better to have rallied his supporters than pointing out his refusal to support a socialist government?”

I wanted to cover my ears, but my hands rested on my lap and stayed there. The Editor might as well have cut them off and thrown them away like an industrial shredder slices through paper. Behind him, the interns stared like photographers waiting for a shot.

“President Barnes went up twenty points because of you. You saved his campaign!” The Editor added to this exclamation with a beaming smile. “This statue is just the beginning. President Barnes would like to invite you to work at Barnes Daily, his own personal philanthropic enterprise, where you will write thoughtful editorials expressing the President’s views and maybe, if you play your cards right, a few of your own.”

He continued to speak, but I tuned him out. My eyes drifted to the interns, and then to my boss’s office across the room, and then, finally, all the way to the window to the view of New York City, smudged as a pencil sketch. I found Barnes Tower among the outline of gray on gray.

The words of the article came back then, loud as typewriter keys. “There are some things, Governor Barnes, that even you cannot evade.

In my palm, the statue felt heavier than I’d guessed for such a small trinket. In the air, sailing over the heads of the interns toward the window, it looked lighter than a feather on a very weighted scale.

***

Kelly Ann Jacobson teaches as a Professor of English in Virginia, and she is the author of many published books, including the novels Cairo in White and The Troublemakers and the poetry collection I Have Conversations with You in My Dreams. She also edits anthologies such as Dear Robot: An Anthology of Epistolary Science Fiction. Under her pen name, Annabelle Jay, Kelly writes young adult fantasy novels. Her short fiction has been published in places such as Northern Virginia Review, New Plains Review, and Iron Horse Literary Review.

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