The Test — Part 2: Revisions
A short story written, revised, and completed before your very eyes.
Read Part 1
The first draft of this story was completed on a Friday. I let it sit over the weekend and am revisiting it on Monday. Generally speaking, it’s best to get some distance from a story before starting revisions. This helps you come at it as fresh as possible. You’ll see errors and weaknesses better after an absence.
I typically make several editing passes on a short story, looking at the overall structure and at the writing itself every time. Here we go…
People don’t just vanish. Oh, sure, someone might fade into the night. Their scent might dissipate on the wind until not even the most persistent bloodhound can sniff it out. The breadcrumbs they dropped might be gobbled up by the birds and the mice, leaving not even the most tenuous of trails. But solid bodies don’t vanish. They walk into the sunset or fall off a cliff or are shot and dumped in the river. They may live or they may die, may return home or return to dust, but something always remains.
So Paul, my brother, had not vanished. He had to be out there, somewhere.
The first paragraph of the first draft contained some good imagery, but it didn’t fit the story. It suggested Paul was long gone and probably dead, whereas he actually has only been missing for a couple of days. So I cut it and replaced it with more appropriate imagery. Sometimes you have to cut your best lines.
His wife April called that late October morning, when cool air blowing in from the west had painted the trees in reds, yellows, and oranges and grocery store candy shelves lay bare, stripped of their wares in preparation for the flood of trick-or-treaters soon to wash over the sidewalks of our town. She called in barely controlled hysteria.
I made some small punctuation edits here and added the last sentence. I also nearly changed “lay” to “lie.” In spite of my wife’s constant drubbing, I still confuse those two about half the time. In the present tense, it’s fairly easy. “Lay” requires a direct object (you lay a book on the table), whereas “lie” does not (you lie down). But the past tense of “lay” is “laid,” while the past tense of “lie” is “lay.” Since I’m writing the narrative in the past tense, “lay” is correct above. But I had to look it up to make sure. I’ve been known to go to extreme lengths to avoid using these verbs just so I don’t have to think about it!
“Did he come to see you, Robert? Is he there now?”
“Why would he be here? You know we aren’t on speaking terms.”
“Then where could he be?”
I edited this exchange to make it more direct. Dialogue should generally be as terse as possible. I also took out the italics on “be.” Sometimes I insert italics early on for emphasis, but in revision I weigh whether or not they’re actually needed and remove them if not. Italics for emphasis should be used sparingly in most cases.
I could hear her shoes tap the linoleum kitchen floor as she paced back and forth, back and forth. I could almost see her, petite April, golden-haired April, in one of those snug blue and green dresses she so liked, the hem swishing about her knees, her hips swaying with each step, her cleavage just showing. I flushed in embarrassment. I couldn’t think of her without shame, not since Paul “caught” us. Our affair had been entirely in his head, but now it played out in mine, guilting me as surely as if I’d taken her into my bed. If I couldn’t prove my innocence, it seemed, I could at least punish myself for it.
In the first draft, this paragraph was rather weak. I needed to get more specific. He’s thinking of April’s body, is embarrassed that he is doing so, and refusing to accept that his guilt is justified.
“How long has he been gone?” I asked.
I added the attribution here. In general, I prefer to eliminate attributions where possible, but sometimes they’re needed for clarity. You don’t want the reader losing track of who’s speaking.
She sniffed, and I heard a tissue being ripped from its box. “He left Saturday night after I fell asleep. I haven’t heard from him since. No phone calls, no texts. He won’t answer my calls.”
Some changes here to make it more specific and clear. I changed “doesn’t answer” to “won’t answer” to hint at her fear that he has left her. “Won’t” is intentional, whereas “doesn’t” is just a statement of fact.
I glanced at the calendar hanging above my particle board home office desk, although I knew well enough it was Monday. “Where did he go?”
“Particle board” is more specific than “cheap” and thus gets the point across more graphically.
“I don’t know!”
“He didn’t say?”
“I woke up at two thirty in the morning and he was gone, Robert. He was gone!”
Which wasn’t at all like Paul. He could be quick-tempered, even rude sometimes, but not to April. I’d never heard him say a sharp word to her, not even that day when he thought the worst of us. He’d put that all on me. “Deep breaths, April. Let’s think this through. Did you call the police?”
She whimpered. “I’m afraid to.”
“What if they say he’s been in an accident? Or dead?”
“Should I come over?”
The world held its breath. I’d made a dangerous offer. For so many reasons, she should say no. What if we tripped in the stress of the moment and fell into the infidelity Paul thought he had uncovered? What if he returned alive and well and found us together, even innocently together? In her silence, I heard her think, Damn you, Robert, why did you ask? Mortified, I willed the question into nonexistence, willed her to say no.
But she didn’t.
“Please.” So she whispered. And so I did.
This needed further development. The first draft felt too insubstantial to sustain the weight of the moment. Robert and April are treading dangerous ground now, given their past (or what the reader can gather of it so far) and the stress of Paul’s disappearance. The reader needs to feel that danger and care about what will come of their decision.
April opened the door of their little white and blue bungalow as soon as I got out of my car. She stood back, hand on the doorknob, eyeing me as though I was the plumber come to fix a leaky faucet. The weakening autumn sun shone from high overhead, illuminating her hair, her face, her dark jeans and pale blue t-shirt. I hadn’t seen her for nearly six years. If anything she had grown more beautiful, so beautiful I had to look away. I should never have suggested this.
Again, I felt this needed to be more detailed and specific.
Without a word, I passed through the door. She pushed it shut behind me. We didn’t speak, didn’t touch, didn’t look each other in the eye. She led me to the kitchen and pulled out one of the beige padded chairs for me. A bit of stuffing dangled from a rip along the side. I sat and waited while she fumbled at the counter for cups and made coffee. I didn’t want her to fuss over me. I only wanted her to sit with me, to draw comfort from my presence, but the ritual of serving a guest offered her a momentary respite from her fear.
I wanted to focus this a bit more on his thoughts.
Once the steaming cups were before us, she took the phone from the cradle and passed it to me. I called the police and reported Paul missing, then we settled in to wait. We half drained our cups in silence.
“Why did you come?” She stared into the dark liquid.
“You could have said no.”
“We’re family, April. Why wouldn’t I have come?”
She peered harder into her cup. “You know why.”
Why wouldn’t she look at me? Why couldn’t I look at her without guilt? I thought back to the day of our undoing. Paul, April, and myself prepping their living room for a coat of paint, she all joy and smiles, he running out to the garage to get more masking tape. She and I momentarily alone. A look passed between us, a foolish comment, a risque joke, another, a crescendo of laughter, a moment of embarrassment, then something else, maybe a momentary hug, maybe a peck on the cheek. She found her way into my arms and I into hers. But it wasn’t like that. We’d just been horsing around.
Then the explosion. The shock. The anger and the fighting. And afterward, the guilt, the misplaced guilt. What had happened? Why had Paul not understood, not listened? What had we done to deserve his wrath?
His “amnesia” in the original seemed too simplistic. I felt he should remember it better and have a better sense of events while denying their significance. His sense of shame, nevertheless, should indicate that on some level he knows the truth.
But that was all a distant past I couldn’t clearly see through the fog of emotions. I only knew the here and now. “For you,” I told her. “Not for Paul. He — “
She looked up, eyes smoldering with anger and fear. “Stop.”
Maybe I should have, but the betrayal had cut so deep. “He’s the one who— “
“Just stop. He’s a good man. Your brother. My husband.”
“It hurts, April. Six years of agony.”
This bit just needed some general tightening.
She lifted her cup to her lips. I watched her drink. She didn’t return my gaze.
Now I felt ashamed at hurting so much for so long. The injustice of that ate into me. Why should I bear the blame for everyone else’s faults? “What did we do, April?”
She thunked the cup down on the table. “You know.”
“A couple of stupid jokes. A bit of, I don’t know. Nothing serious, anyway. Nothing real.”
She finally looked me in the eyes, blank, uncomprehending, then laughed bitterly. “My God, Paul. My God.”
I shrugged. It had to be that way. The alternative was too awful.
“You were all over me and I was all over you. You call that a joke?”
Had it gone that far? Had we meant it? In that moment, had we wanted each other? Was that why I couldn’t think of her without shame? I could imagine such betrayal, but I couldn’t own it. That was something other people did, not me. Certainly not April. I had to say so. “I didn’t do anything — “
“That I didn’t want.” She ran a hand through her golden hair. “It wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t gone out to that damn garage. Not then. But another day? Maybe when we had you over for dinner and he went out to grill the steaks, or when you stopped by to pay back the money he loaned you and he wasn’t there. Anytime the two of us were alone. I know you’ve paid dearly for it. So has Paul. Maybe it was inevitable. Maybe it’s my fault. If so, I’m sorry.”
I closed my eyes and dared to embrace her in my thoughts. I could feel my arms pull her close, my hands trace the curve of her back, my body soak up the warmth of hers, our lips play over each other and our tongues caress and her breasts press hard against my chest. I could no longer deny it. We had indeed done these things, just the once, just for a fleeting moment, but it had been real. Not by accident. By design.
She sipped her coffee. “Total hell.”
“Well. What’s done is done.” Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. It didn’t matter anymore. We had betrayed Paul, and now he was gone. “I’m sure he still loves you. This can’t be about that. Not after all this time.” I said it, but I only believed the first part.
She looked up, blank, empty, as drained as her coffee cup. “I’m not sure of anything anymore.”
I spent considerable time on the part between the previous comment and this one. This is important stuff, in which the history of the conflict involving the three characters is explored and Robert gets to the point of acknowledging it. I’ve moved away from him having amnesia to him simply denying the reality. I still feel that he may have blocked some of it from his conscious memory, but it’s not entirely missing, just suppressed and denied.
An officer dropped by, asked questions, and took down information. He informed us that Paul hadn’t been admitted to any hospital in the area, hadn’t been involved in any reported accident, hadn’t shown up for work. April and I called family and friends. Nobody had seen him. He might have been a figment of our imagination. The day wore on until darkness crept over the world. As evening gave way to night, a gibbous moon rose and silence encroached.
“Will you be okay?”
She didn’t answer. We were in the living room, April sprawled haphazardly on the sofa, I in a recliner not reclining. Eyes closed, face sagging with worry, she still looked beautiful. I remembered how she had felt in my arms and longed to feel her there once more.
“Should I . . .” I wanted to hear her say yes, but feared to finish the question. Just get up and leave, I told myself.
She opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. “Say it.”
“Say it, Robert. Please.”
“Should I stay?”
Her eyes closed again. “Would you? If I said yes?”
If I did, Paul would never return. Somehow I knew that, as little sense as it made. The universe watched, breath held, waiting for us to falter, eager to pass judgement on us. It wanted us to doom ourselves, and him with us.
Suddenly angry, I told the universe to go to hell. I rose. “I’ll call in the morning.” I said it gently. The universe notwithstanding, I did care for her. That’s why I had to leave.
Tears seeped from her closed eyes. “I’ll be fine.”
I doubted that. I doubted either of us would be ever again. But it was the only way. I left without saying goodbye.
The changes in this scene were just by way of tightening the writing.
I barely slept that night, and when I did, I dreamed of our past, of Paul stumbling into our passion, of him throwing me across the room, bloodying my nose, knocking the wind from me. In the dream, the beating didn’t stop. It felt far worse than reality, yet somehow more tolerable, for I accepted that I deserved it and willingly submitted.
Morning came too late and too soon. I dragged myself out of bed, showered, made toast and coffee, called in sick. Work would could wait until my brother and my mind emerged from the void. Assuming they ever did. I resisted the temptation to call April but checked the clock again and again, wondering when or if she would reach out for me. That she didn’t both worried and vexed me.
The day slipped from morning to afternoon before her call came. “Come see me,” she said, and abruptly hung up. It was a minor miracle I didn’t receive a ticket — or several — on the way over. Anticipation and nerves churning within me, I arrived to find Paul’s black Ford Mustang parked in the driveway.
Sitting in my car, I stared at his. Within the house, he waited, thinking and plotting God knew what. I didn’t know how I could face him, not after yesterday. Whatever abuse awaited me, I had no choice but to accept it should I step through that door. But April had called. She wanted me here.
Most of the edits so far in this scene were just tightening the prose. In this paragraph, I wanted to sharpen Robert’s feelings upon finding Paul returned.
Fighting off a rising tide of dread, I left my car and approached the door. Like yesterday, April was waiting and admitted me, her gaze never straying from the floor. And there was Paul, seated on the sofa, watching me with his inscrutable eyes. He licked his lips but said nothing.
I had no desire to speak first, but the silence nearly buried us all alive. Somebody had to say something. I shoved my hands in my pockets and tried to smile. “Glad to see you’re okay. We were worried.”
“Yeah,” he admitted. “Sorry about that. Thanks for coming over.”
I glanced at April, who acknowledged me with a shrug and motioned me to the recliner. She deposited herself next to her husband, who put an arm around her, tentatively, as though afraid of breaking her.
Again, the silence engulfed us. We couldn’t look at each other. Again, I was left to make the first move. “So what happened?”
Even I had trouble figuring Paul sometimes, but I could tell words were eluding him. I wouldn’t have blamed him for accusing me again, for questioning what April and I had done while he was gone, for throwing me out and warning me never to return. That might have been for the best.
“I couldn’t live with it anymore.”
If April knew what he meant, she didn’t show it. A rabbit hiding in the tall grass, she kept perfectly still.
“Hating you. And doubting my wife. It was eating me up inside.”
He had every reason to hate me and doubt her, but his method of facing it angered me. He’d done April, at least, a grave injustice. “So you ran off in the middle of the night? What the hell kind of response is that?”
“I didn’t run away. I removed myself from the picture. To test . . .” He sighed miserably and pulled April close. She leaned into him, compliant.
My fingernails dug into the arms of the chair. Even if I deserved to be set up to fail, how could he have treated April so? If she hadn’t been right there, I might have slugged him for that.
Again, making this sharper. The original was rather weak.
“I pushed it off the cliff, let it fly or fall as it would. That way I’d have no choice. I’d be forced to trust you. Both of you.”
So he hadn’t tested us, but himself. I scolded myself for doubting him. April looked away, as embarrassed as I. I scrutinized her face and wondered how we all had come to this pathetic moment. Paul stared at the walls, out the window, anywhere but at us, as though the test hadn’t ended. Maybe it never would. Which begged a question. “What if you can’t?”
“I can.” He squeezed April and smiled at her, then nodded at me. “I actually can.”
April turned to him and buried her face in his shoulder, simultaneously laughing and crying. “You’re such an idiot.” But for what? Testing himself? Trusting us? She didn’t say.
She might have been right, but I couldn’t let it hang there. He hadn’t seen us the previous day, hadn’t heard us, couldn’t possibly know what was really in our hearts, buried under a veneer of denial. So I had to insist, for my own sanity if not for his. “But what if you can’t?”
April held her breath.
I didn’t know if she wanted me to continue or shut my mouth, but I felt compelled to finish. “While you were gone — ”
I broke this up a little to get April back into the mix. She can’t vanish. All three of them have to be there for the end.
He put up a hand to stop me. “This isn’t yesterday, Robert, and it’s not six years ago. It’s today.”
Which didn’t make the past vanish any more than he had, nor could we be sure it would never return. Looking into April’s eyes, I knew she felt the same. Still, Paul was right. Today offered a moment to make a new start. And maybe that would be enough. Because really, it’s the only moment we ever have.
And likewise, making sure April is with us to the end, as well as strengthening the finish. The question of what happens in the future is not resolved, but they are all brought to an awareness of what (generally) is required for them to successfully move on with their lives. I wanted to leave the reader with a sense that some kind of resolution was reached without implying “happily ever after.”
This is not necessarily the end of the edits, but likely the rest will be tweaks rather than significant changes. In the third installment, I’ll present the final version, but without comments so you can simply enjoy the story.