Contest #21 winner 🏆

This Simple Phrase

Submitted by Oceania Chee to Contest #21 in response to: Write a short story about a work Christmas party that goes... awry. ... view prompt

Christmas Eve, the pop of a champagne bottle followed by a resounding cheer, one voice louder than the rest. 

Where you are is the glass-walled corner of an open-plan office space, colored in neutrals and grays on all sides in the style of what the CEO’s wife thinks is minimalism. Imagine setting down a little bystander on Google Earth, peeping through windows and open doors. Imagine seeing you leaning against the wall adjacent to floor-to-ceiling glass; lanky, slightly lackluster, not quite thirty yet but not quite 20 anymore. Old enough for your mother to start nagging you about settling down with a nice girl. You, in your company-mandated ugly Christmas sweater, holding your company-mandated glass of pale ale. Zoom out to see the entire complex, all chrome and glass, and swooping modern angles. Zoom out even more to see Silicon Valley, nestled next to Hollywood Hills, lost in the sway of the underwhelming Los Angeles winter. 

In the present moment, you are looking away, looking down and out the window. To a bystander, you’d look like you were searching for your car in the parking lot, but really you are fixed on what little you can see of the horizon, the black silhouette of the hills. The demarcation between what you know and what you’ve never seen. 

The pop of a champagne bottle, and the loudest voice is the CEO, Adam Shumate, who is called Mr. Shumate but asks to be called Adam, whom you call Adam-the-CEO in your head. Adam-the-CEO, who is trying to drink from the spray of champagne and kiss his wife at the same time. 

You turn away from the curving line of the hills, and raise your glass when everybody else does. Adam-the-CEO’s wife is pouring out champagne for everybody around her, standing next to an ostentatiously decorated tree in the center of the room. Her own Christmas sweater is of Rudolph, his red nose exaggeratedly stretched over the swell of her pregnant belly. You take a sip of your beer, wincing at the burn as it goes down. 

“Enjoying the free alcohol?”

You raise your eyebrows and smile. “You mean the mandatory alcohol.” 

The guy talking to you is probably a colleague, if he’s at this party as well, if he’s also wearing an ugly Christmas sweater. He has a startlingly realistic Santa’s face on it. You think he might be from accounting—you have a hazy memory of seeing him during your monthly interdepartmental progress meetings. 

 “Ah well, potato, potato.” 

“You just pronounced both of those the same way.” 

You remember making eye contact with him across the room when the meeting inevitably derailed into Adam making lengthy speeches about hard work. Right now he grins, wide and attractive, and throws back what’s left in his glass, and then he winces. “Okay. There’s no way beer should sting like that.”

 “Oh yeah, it’s definitely been spiked.” One of the ones in Adam-the-CEO’s little motley crew of yes-men, the five higher-ups that follow him around religiously. Not that you’d ever say this out loud. 

Guy from Accounting snorts, and leans back against the window, partly facing you. “I can’t believe this place, sometimes.”

The tone of his voice is incredulous but just ambiguous enough that you’re still wary, because there are two ways this conversation can go. The first is one where Guy from Accounting is awe-struck, under the Silicon Valley spell, and you spend another five minutes making lukewarm conversation about how freeing this office is, how you feel like you’ve made a family. The second is where he says something along the lines of—

“Do you think Adam knows that we can all smell him when he doesn’t take a shower after his workouts?” 

You relax into a laugh. 

“It’s weird, is all,” Guy from Accounting continues. He leans his head back against the cool glass. He has these dark floppy curls that hang loosely over his shoulders, and when his head tips back the curls follow with a slight sway. You find your eyes trained to the length of his exposed neck. “I thought I’d end up somewhere…other than here, which, I know, everybody thinks that of themselves. How do I explain it?” 

Under the skin of his neck, his throat works. Away from both of you, the sounds of everybody at the party milling around. “It’s like,” he continues. “Do you ever wonder if your teenage self would approve of who you are today?” 

You are quiet for a little while longer than usual. Quite truthfully, you aren’t sure. Zoom out—to you at sixteen, bright-eyed and ambitious and so utterly exhausted of everyone around you. Watching the same hills that you watch now and thinking about how easy it’d be to leave them behind. 

But right now, you say, “I don’t ever look for the approval of teenagers.” 

He laughs, clear and full-bodied. “Fair enough.”

He turns to the rest of the room, and in his distraction you turn to watch his profile. You remember sitting in those meetings and thinking he was kind of hot, all broad-shouldered and handsome in a loose, easy sort of way. 

Near the center of the room is Adam-the-CEO, followed by the five board members that everyone knows he has in his pocket (although you won’t be the one to bring it up). Every once in awhile his boisterous laughter rings through, over the background music. 

“Adam’s really something, huh?” You say from behind your glass. He turns back to you. 

“That’s one way to put it. Never had a boss like him before.” 

“Clearly you haven’t been in LA long enough if you haven’t had a boss that walks around the office barefoot.” 

“You caught me.” He raises his hands in surrender. 

“Why are you in Silicon Valley, then? Another small-town boy, haunted by ambition?” You’re only half-teasing, and you can’t help but think of the thousands of others that flock here for that exact reason. 

He looks so wistful that you almost regret bringing it up. “Chasing dreams.”

“No offense to Adam or anything, but what a terrible place for a dream chaser to end up.”

Guy from Accounting gasps and lays a hand on his chest. “You dare say that about our brave leader and helmsman? I will have you know, he scouted me.” 

“Scouted, huh?” 

“From a gas station near the border to Nevada, no less.”

“He what?” 

“I was smoking next to the pumps. He said he liked my gall.”

“That’s terribly reckless.” You don’t know if you’re talking about Adam or not. 

“I know, right?” Guy from Accounting says gleefully. “So I cut my trip short and came here.” 

“Where were you gonna go?”

“I was driving up to Seattle to go live with my parents. And they, well,” he frowns. “Haven’t spoken to them since.” 

You don’t press for more, no matter how you might want to. The thin layer of yellow liquor, foaming at the bottom of your cup, shivers as you look back out the window. This time all you can focus on is the reflection of the giant Christmas tree in the center of the room. 

Instead of asking anything you might mean (Do you miss them? What’s it like, out there—), you finish your drink and say, “I’ve always wanted to go on a road trip. I’ve never been outside of California; you know?” 

“Oh, shit,” Cute Accountant mutters. “Incoming—”

A hand claps painfully hard on your shoulder, and not more than a second later a booming voice: “Boys! Enjoying the beer?” 

You turn, and it’s the man himself, Adam Shumate, Adam-the-CEO, he who meets with his personal trainer in the office and never showers afterward, who walks around barefoot and makes his employees drink alcohol at work parties. 

You smile. “We sure are.” 

Adam has a glint in his eyes. Behind him, the execs struggle to contain their laughter. “Slipped a little surprise in there. A friend of mine named Jack.” 

You smile politely, but Cute Accountant looks gobsmacked, staring down at his drink and up at Adam, who guffaws, his entire face reddening, “What—oh my god, really?” 

Adam is by now wheezing soundlessly so hard that he has to lean against the wall next to you. A vein bulges on the side of his forehead. “I got you so bad!” 

Guy from Accounting groans. But weren’t you just talking about how the beer was spiked?

When he recovers, Adam stands up straight and turns to Guy from Accounting, completely and transparently ignoring you. “I knew a made a good choice hiring you, Dave.”

Dave. So that’s what he’s called. Then, two seconds later, the rest of your brain catches up and you realize what he’s doing. ‘Chasing dreams’—you should’ve known what that really meant. 

Guy from Accounting—Dave smiles beatifically at Adam. “I really appreciate that, Mr. Shumate.” 

“None of that crap. Call me Adam, we’re a family here. Why don’t you come with us to the rooftop?” Adam motions to the execs milling around behind him, like a herd of hesitant minnows. It’s then that you leave, scooting past Adam, who doesn’t spare a second glance at you. 

At the refreshments table, you pour yourself a glass of champagne and nurse it, awkwardly admiring the gigantic Christmas tree in the center of the room. Adam’s wife, what was her name? She’d done a great job decorating, is all. 

You’d just taken another sip of champagne when a pained cry comes from the center of the room, next to the tree. A commotion breaks loose, and everybody gathers there, the low buzz of the room crescendo-ing into a din of a dozen different voices. Then above it all, somebody saying, “Her water broke!” 

Over the tops of everybody’s heads, you see Mrs. Shumate, clutching the bright red Rudolph nose over her belly, stumbling backward, straight into the centerpiece of the room. 

The tree falls. Hell breaks loose.

Everyone swarms around Mrs. Shumate, whether to help her up, or just to gawk at her. Somebody is crying, somebody else is screaming. An ornament rolls to your feet and you kick it away from you, extricating yourself from the fray. And then somebody yells, “Where’s Mr. Shumate?” 

You just barely have enough time to dodge the horde of people retreating to look for Adam. 

Half an hour later, Mrs. Shumate safely carted off to the hospital, Adam dragged off the roof and into man Uber to follow the ambulance, the Christmas music is still playing. Even standing in the parking lot, looking for your keys, you can faintly hear Nat King Cole crooning about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. 

Around you, everybody else is streaming out of the building. Briefly, you wonder how people are supposed to drive themselves home. Then you wonder how you’re supposed to drive yourself home. Before you can consider it further, you hear rapid footsteps, and you stop. 

“Hey!” A familiar voice calls. “Where’d you go? You left in such a hurry.”

You turn slowly, maybe a little unwillingly, and there’s Guy from Accounting—Dave, looking a little worse for wear, but still with the same broad congenial smile. Only now it just reminds you of his slick grin around Adam.

“You were up on the roof.” You can’t help but sound bitter. The smile slides off his face. His eyebrows pinch together in the middle. 

“Are you seriously jealous? Because I thought that you—”

“Well, I thought you did too.” Suddenly the cool night air is utterly still, incredibly sobering. Dream-chaser indeed. “I’m sorry, this doesn’t even matter. I totally get it. I just thought it was strange at the moment. ” 

One large floodlight illuminates the entire parking lot. Dave is backlit, and in the surrounding glare you can just barely make out his face, the little shifts in his expression as he seems to consider you. You go back to looking for your keys, hands in pockets. 

Dave shakes his head. “You’re right. It is strange. It’s strange to me too, if it helps. I’m sorry.” 

“Please don’t apologize.” You turn away from the floodlight, toward your car. 

“No? Well. You have to let me make it up to you somehow.” He scratches his nose, scanning the parking lot, and even backlit like this you see something dawn on him, almost in the same moment that he feels it. “Hey. What did you call me earlier? Terribly reckless?”

“Where are you going with this?” You drop your keys back into your pocket and the both of you face each other, each of you with half your faces lit by the floodlight. Against your will, you feel your mouth tugging up at the corners.

“Let’s run away together.” He seems to get a little thrill out of saying it, almost as much as you do hearing it. 

“I—” And you know it isn’t practical at all, to leave everything behind like that, all for one guy. You don’t even know this guy. Well, you know his name is Dave.

“You’ve always wanted to go on a road trip, right?” He steps closer to you, close enough that you know for sure he can see you smiling. “I’ll take you past the hills. We can go to Seattle. See my parents.”

“You don’t even know my name.” The smile grows. 

“What are names if not meaningless noises?” 

“What if you’re a cult leader? What if I’m a cult leader?”

“There was only one cult leader in this building, and he left half an hour ago to watch his wife give birth.” 

You both chuckle at that, but something makes you stop. 

“Oh my god,” you say, “do you think he made his wife drink?” 

“Please don’t say that. I don’t want to think about that. For everybody’s sake, let’s hope he doesn’t.” He looks at you, at your hand still in your pocket, still grasping your keys. His face softens into something hopeful, vulnerable. “So? What do you say?” 

“I say—” Behind Dave’s head is the hills, just the faintest black silhouette against the city lights. In the back of your mind, you already know you’ve made a decision because the hills have never looked closer and smaller than they do now. “That we are both pretty drunk right now. We should sober up, first. And then? We’ll see from there.”

“We’ll see from there.” He’s smiling, bigger than you’ve seen him smile all night. You think he might know that you’ve decided already. “Hey. Look what I found on the floor. You wanna do something dangerous?” In between his fingers he dangles a keycard, black and gold. Only six people in this whole office have this card—Adam, and his group of sycophants.

“Wanna go up to the roof with me? At least until we get kicked out.” 

“You’re a bad influence and not even a cool one at that. First, it’s a road trip to Seattle, and now you want me to sneak into Adam’s man-cave with you?”

“We can go stargazing.” 

You huff. “I can stargaze down here. Or you know, in my own apartment. Thanks, and all.”

“Okay, suit yourself.” Dave turns back, walking leisurely in the direction of the building.

Who are you kidding? 

Imagine, if you will, going on Google Earth and dragging a little bystander onto the street. Imagine seeing you, with your back to the camera, walking next to another. Zoom in, on the way you walk in tandem into the lobby, toward the elevator. Zoom in, on your hands, just barely entwined, palm brushing against palm. 

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33 likes 19 comments

19:01 Jan 03, 2020

Loved the story and the strong use of grammar. Well deserved! I would never have even thought of a beautifully polished story.

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19:01 Jan 03, 2020

I enjoyed this story so much, and I had the same reaction as Sarah Paris - how is it that Hollywood Hills and Silicon Valley are described as close? Is this some kind of parallel universe/sci-fi story? LOL! Good story anyway.

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21:24 Jan 01, 2020

Enjoyable read! The one criticism I have, though, is that Silicon Valley is nowhere near the Hollywood Hills--it's actually in Northern California 😉.

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02:08 Jan 02, 2020

SHIT. Well, thank you for bringing this to my attention! I'll just have to hope that other readers are as bad at American geography as I am hahaha.

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16:30 Jan 03, 2020

Fear not, I’m moving to California next year. I’ll make sure to tell you all about the geography I don’t know. Adorable story, btw😄

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16:51 Jan 03, 2020

I scared myself there. I’d been to Silicon Valley as a kid and I wondered if my parents drove all the way to Southern California to get there. Oh well, such a cute story for a hopeless romantic like me 🥰

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02:22 Jan 02, 2020

Lol😁. Still a good story!

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05:00 Jan 04, 2020

Great story. You totally earned this win. It kind of reminded me of the stream of consciousness heard from Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen. I was hoping Dave and the Narrator would hook up, even if the Narrator was playing hard to get. What is really funny to me, is that the CEO of my company acts just like Adam. I had to muffle my laughter at reading his antics. Well done.

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04:15 Jan 04, 2020

I loved your story! Congrats on winning!

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16:52 Jan 03, 2020

Well-written story! Congratulations!

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10:27 Jan 13, 2020

you held my attention from start to finish. Amazing story

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22:56 Jan 10, 2020

Congratulations! It’s an excellent story. And, sorry, but silicone valley (San Jose area) is 400 miles north of Hollywood. If your cars fast enough, it’s close.

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15:39 Jan 09, 2020

You were funny and intriguing in such an effortless way. I love the way you framed this story!

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01:14 Jan 09, 2020

I enjoyed your story, Oceania. I appreciate the sense of being essentially captive in a situation at times, and just going with the flow. Well done.

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17:12 Jan 07, 2020

Very enjoyable to read! ^^ I had a lot of fun, noticing all the little, subtle details is my favorite thing to do as I read, that and act out the characters actions.

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06:33 Jan 07, 2020

Read enjoyed this story. Certainly interesting way of POV. Very descriptive and I am sure many people will forgive the slight error in geography. Deserved to win.

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Well, the Silicone Valley/Hollywood Hills problem has been discussed, so let me say I liked the uniqueness of this piece. You captured the jigsaw patterns of interoffice chatter and testing out new relationships. Good dialogue and descriptions. Good segues into the mini-scenes. Thank you for sharing this.

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15:36 Jan 05, 2020

This story was great! I loved how you used second person, you don’t see that much these days!! Great story overall!

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00:10 Jan 05, 2020

wow so good! u earned it!!!

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