Our January 2020 Writing Contest
This contest is now closed to submissions!
The prompt for this contest has been...
It's a typical Tuesday afternoon following a brief rainshower. You step outside for some fresh air and to escape your cramped office cubicle. You think nothing of that puddle just ahead on the sidewalk - until you fall right in and find yourself in a whole other world! Write about what you see on the other side and how - or if - you get back before the boss notices you're missing.
We have 3 honorable mentions:
"Earning Your Stripes" by Josephine Lim
The grass is always greener, and in this contest entry, Lim's characters learn the hard way just how true that statement can be. Rather than transport them to an unrealistic or magical plane, Judah is taken through his greatest what-if: a war in our own world. Vivid descriptions and a description of the stress and immediacy of a battlefield help make this "other" world an enlightening experience.
"Lost and Found" by Justin Humphries
Simple wishes and desires are often the ones we feel are furthest from our reach. In his contest entry, Humphries gives his character a chance to see what might have been. Told from a relatable and honest point of view, Andrew's story is one of a quiet sort of redemption, or at least how one might work up the courage to right a wrong and move forward in a positive direction.
"Forgotten Realm" by A.S. Khan
Khan transports us from the real world to another one entirely, one that is seemingly lost to the human population. The result? A raw examination of choices, sacrifices and even recovery. For a shorter piece, Khan does a great job of portraying a fictional realm, not to mention the tragedies of the real one, transitioning from one to the other with ease.
And the first-place winner is...
Jennifer Moore with "Call Center Hell"
Not only does this story take an interesting take on the January 2020 contest's prompt, but Moore delivers a vivid and more literal description of how a mundane place like a call center can be someone's own personal hell - or even an overlooked paradise when compared to the alternative. Wry humor, a touch of the ironic, and a firm grasp on first person storytelling skills make this contestant's tale the best choice in this month's writing competition.
Read the winning entry below.
Call Center Hell
By Jennifer Moore
I took up smoking around the same time everyone else was giving up. That’s to say I invested in a packet of cigarettes and a lighter and fled the office three times a day for a smoking break, as per my contractual rights. I didn’t actually light the things – I never took the pretense that far – but I came to crave those precious five-minute breaks almost as much as a genuine smoker. Five minutes of fresh air was nothing short of a luxury after the windowless office. Five minutes peace from the endless, endless script... I understand you were recently involved in an accident that wasn’t your fault… In fact, those five minute breaks of fakery were the only thing that made the job bearable. But once I started down the pretend addiction road, I had to commit to it. I had to see the thing through, day in, day out, come hell or high water. Come heatwave or damp, murky drizzle, which was why I was watching the weather icon in the corner of my screen so carefully that Tuesday afternoon, berating myself for forgetting my umbrella. I needn’t have worried though. The heavy rain turned out to be nothing more than a passing shower. The minute the rain cloud turned back to a sun, I was up and out of my seat – my next cold call forgotten – threading my arms into my coat sleeves with practiced speed.
“Just popping out for a quick smoke,” I announced to the girl in the next cubicle, meeting with the usual lack of response. (We’re not exactly what you’d call a close workforce.) “Back in five,” I added, tucking my increasingly battered-looking cigarette box and lighter into my pocket, and heading for the door. Actually, I say five, but most days it was more like six. I tended to add on a bit of extra travel time – there were two whole flights of stairs to negotiate before you hit daylight – and my boss had yet to query it.
I took a sharp right once I got outside, steering away from Coughing Carol and her smoking buddies from the office above ours. Away from any prying eyes. And that’s when I saw him – Hamish, the one fly in my cigarette break ointment. I’d been so busy timing my break to match the weather, I’d forgotten about avoiding the office sleaze, who took his own break, like clockwork, at 3.15 p.m.
He waved at me from the wall – from my wall, with its treasured view of the one tree in the complex – and beckoned me to join him.
No chance. He might have been too drunk to recall where his hands ended up at the Christmas party – that’s what he claimed, anyway – but I remembered it all too well. The thought of wasting my precious five minutes making mortifying small talk with ‘Handsy Hamish’ was too much. I changed course again, lurching off down the sidewalk towards an enormous puddle, as if an impromptu dip was just the thing on a cold winter’s afternoon. As if I wanted to spend the rest of the day with dirty rainwater sloshing around inside my new suede slip-ons. But wet feet seemed like a small price to pay under the circumstances, and it probably wasn’t as deep as it looked. That’s what I told myself, anyway, as I strode confidently into the water…
Cold. Cold. Cold-cold-cold-cold-cold. For a moment or two the sudden change in temperature was as much as my brain could process – the pure shock of breath-stopping cold, sucking the very air out of my lungs – but then, as the full impossibility of what was happening kicked in, I hit full panic mode. The ground! Where had the ground gone? One minute there’d been rain-slick sidewalk beneath my feet and then… and then nothing, save for a tunneling rush of water sucking me down, down, down.
I’d love to say it was like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but it wasn’t. There was no time for cute contemplation as I fell, or for admiring the passing scenery – it was too stomach-churningly fast for that. Fast and wet and cold. Did I mention the cold? What about the screaming? Did I mention that? The way the water screamed around my ears as I barreled on faster and faster? Or maybe I was the one screaming. All I know is it felt like the whole world was a screaming rush of water… and then it stopped, just like that, and I found myself falling out the other side – right through the bottom and back onto solid ground. Back to where I’d started.
Yes, I know, that’s utterly impossible. And if it wasn’t for the icy water streaming off my hair and clothes I’d have sworn blind it never happened; that I’d imagined the whole thing. Because there was Hamish, sitting on my wall, right where I’d left him. And because when I turned round, shaking with shock and cold, the puddle had disappeared again.
I headed back to the office – what choice did I have? – and spent the remaining two minutes of my break shivering under the hand dryer in the communal bathroom, trying to get my head around what had happened. But there was no making sense of it. The more I thought about it, the crazier the whole thing got.
I jumped as the door opened. “Cutting it a bit fine, aren’t you?” said my boss, shouting to make himself heard over the roar of the hand dryer. “Shouldn’t you be at your desk by now?”
“Oh erm, yes, sorry,” I stammered, smoothing down my still-wet clothes in an effort to look more presentable. It was a lousy job and I hated it with a vengeance – they don’t call it ‘call center hell’ for nothing – but that didn’t mean I could afford to get fired. What was the time? How long had I been gone? I glanced down at my sports watch but the water must have done something funny to it. Or maybe it had done something funny to my eyes. The time seemed to be flashing 6.66 p.m.
“Hurry up now,” said my boss, “those calls aren’t going to make themselves now, are they?”
“No,” I agreed. At least, that’s what I opened my mouth to say, but the word died on my lips at the sight of his face. At the sight of his eyes, glowing red under the flickering strip light.
You must be feverish, I told myself firmly. You’re hallucinating. That’s all. It was the only explanation that made any sense. Just play along for now. Grab your bag from your desk and go home.
I headed back into the office, feeling warmer with every step. It must have been the fever taking hold. I knew smoking was bad for your health but I didn’t realize fake smoking could be dangerous. By the time I reached my cubicle, my whole body was burning up. And the hallucinations were coming thick and fast now. Everyone I passed had the same red eyes and I could have sworn there were actual flames licking at their feet.
I understand you were recently killed in an accident that was totally your fault… the girl next to me was saying, through a rising cloud of smoke.
“I er… I’m not feeling too good,” I told her. “I think I need to go home.”
“Home?” she repeated, covering her mouthpiece with glowing fingers. “Go? Hah! Good luck with that.”
I didn’t know what she meant at first. Not until I tried the door. Not until the boss appeared behind me, his red eyes burning into the back of my neck.
“You’re not going anywhere,” he hissed. “Not until you’ve finished smoking.”