Contest #166 shortlist ⭐️

62 comments

Contemporary Fiction

Be honest with yourself; you have a problem. 

You spent all those years saving and planning and preparing for the moment when, come that first Monday morning, you could ignore the hour and roll over and sleep until only your aching bones could force you from your bed. Now, you have nowhere to be. 

You can enjoy the sunrise from the patio chair on your back porch instead of squinting into it from the backed-up line of morning traffic. You can brew fresh coffee and drink it while it’s hot in a fragile, ceramic mug—a mug not intended for transport, a mug meant to be used while sitting still and contemplating its contents. 

Think about it: you can drink your coffee in the nude if that’s your prerogative. You do whatever you want. There’s no dress code anymore. Pants are optional. You no longer have to worry about picking up your dry cleaning, about pairing the right shoes with your suit, or whether pinstripes are still in vogue. You can lounge in a bathrobe until the sun sets if that’s your choice. 

But you—you have found it difficult to reprogram the habits you’d spent decades establishing. The alarm still blares at its regular time, and you obey its command to rise and begin your day—a day completely free from constraints by a company who now pays your pension. Some days you forget this and walk to the bathroom to begin your regimen of daily grooming only to pause, toothbrush in hand, and remember that you don’t have to go to work today. Not today, not any day, because you’re retired now.

The possibilities of your open schedule regularly excite and overwhelm you. Sometimes you stare into the fogged up mirror and squint, hoping to soften the reflection of a face mapped with creases. You search the eyes staring back, looking for a hint of that vibrant version of yourself who once overflowed with energy and zest for adventure, but you haven’t known that part of you in a long time. It seems to have faded after all these years.

But this is not a time to be melancholy; you should be happy, relieved—proud. You’ve worked hard. You’ve earned this freedom, this season of rest and exploration. Go! See the world. Rediscover yourself and your passions. Take up a hobby: painting, writing, maybe woodworking. Start a simple project. Build a shelf and leave it empty—a place to collect new treasures of the life you’ve just begun, souvenirs of all the places you’ll go.

And you can go anywhere you want now. You could reach out to your friends and plan a grand trip. What about Wilma and George? Those two haven’t slowed down, even in old age, and they keep inviting you to join their escapades. Last year it was a castle tour and a trip to the beach. This year it’s an Alaskan cruise. You’ve always wanted to see the northern lights—why don’t you call them and agree to tag along? Someone can water the plants and bring in your mail, there’s nothing holding you back. 

Oh, but there is. You’re still thinking about work. Don’t do this to yourself. Remember that morning traffic you griped about for years? About the idiots behind you and the morons in front of you, how you complained that everyone drove like they were half dead or half wishing to die? How your blood pressure spiked the minute you hit the freeway? You don’t have to make that drive ever again if you so wish. You could go driving for fun. Take the back roads with the windows rolled down, palms riding the breeze. You can look at the trees, how they’re changing, adapting to the cold they know is coming.

Don’t think about work. That chapter is over, and you did well. They threw you a lovely retirement party, remember? Everyone from the office came, sharing kind sentiments of their appreciation for your years of service. You smiled and shook their warm hands, but part of you couldn’t help but wonder if they were just itching for this day to come. The day you would finally leave so they could tear the place apart: rip the old wallpaper from the lobby—the wallpaper you had personally picked out—set fire to the filing cabinets and digitize everything like they’d been pushing for, “revamp the vibe” of the whole office. 

You saw their plans to erect a stone fireplace in the lobby, along with a coffee bar and in-house barista. You hope whoever takes over your position has discovered fairy dust to sprinkle over the accountant so he can perform a magic trick with the budget. No way they’ll find the funds for that, because it sure wasn’t there when you wanted to hire live music for the Christmas party. No, some young gun in a smart watch told you they could stream Christmas music and put the money toward the open bar. Priorities. 

You won’t admit it to yourself, but you worry about the place since you’ve been gone, that the new hires won’t be trained properly, or that no one will care for the clients like you did. You liked the way things had always been done—the rows of files with names on each tab and the physical paperwork with handwritten notes scribbled in the margins. It was all there, everything you needed to know, right in front of you. 

When the receptionist turned the page on the big break room calendar, alerting everyone in the office that it was your last month there, they’d already begun the work of transferring files to the database and destroying the paper copies. You could hear the shredder running constantly, like a buzzing gnat in your ear. As if there wasn’t already enough change happening all at once, they’d even begun scheduling clients for appointments over the phone or video call, in order to “improve convenience” and “streamline office function.” How can any of that be an improvement

The new director would tell you not to stress, that this is the direction the world is moving in, but no, no, no—there’s so much you lose when the clients aren’t there, face to face. It’s just not the same. To be able to grasp their hand and smell their cologne and see the emotion in their eyes—that’s how you’d build relationships, trust. When clients would sit down across your desk, they’d forget about the tedium of paperwork, wait times, and fees. You’d just have a conversation. They’d tell you about their kids, or their family vacation, or a business they’d just started, and you’d listen, really listen, to the people you saw as more than simply a number, a case, or a billable interaction. How could anyone recreate that experience over the phone?

You have to stop. Did you expect to be there forever? Do you have such an inflated sense of self-importance that you really don’t think anyone else is capable of doing your job? That your approach, your ideas, your systems are dogma?

You need to relax. These are the years you’ve worked for. That career your younger self scraped and climbed and clawed to achieve wasn’t just to fund your present: you were paying for your future, and that future is now. 

So, finish your coffee, put on some clothes, and go for a drive. Yes, that’s right–it’s still early, the day is yours. The radio is playing some throwbacks to the generation of shaggy-haired rock stars, and you crank it up and roll down the windows. An early morning commuter beside you is carelessly smearing concealer under her tired eyes, guiding the steering wheel with an elbow. Others are trying to scarf down bagels without dropping globs of cream cheese on their freshly starched dress shirts. They glower at you, obviously in self-loathing. You are free as a bird, and they are probably late for work. Either that or they just hate your loud music.

You drive toward the warmth of the morning sun and pull off the exit and into the familiar dimness of the parking garage on 4th Avenue. You find a spot—somewhere new. That designated space near the front is no longer yours. The slam of the car door echoes across the cement parking deck, and you feel that familiar flutter in your stomach as you begin the well-worn trek to the building you’ve collectively spent more hours in than at your own home. But you’re only going through the motions. You have no responsibilities here anymore, no one relies on you; you’re just curious to see how things are going—to put to rest the notion that the company is suffering without you.

You stride past a bookstore, a salon, and the old hardware store proudly boasting its sixth decade of business, then round the corner to the street with the building where you no longer work. 

And you almost don’t recognize it. 

Neon orange traffic cones line the sidewalk in front, and strips of caution tape stretch across the door. Black char has stained the brick above the windows like warpaint, and the air smells like burnt plastic.

You fumble for your phone and dial the main office, but it just rings and rings. You call the new director, chest heaving, but no one answers. You drag your hands down your face and chew your thumb nail down to a stub. Then, reluctantly, you acquiesce to the convenience of smartphones and mash the round icon that seems to have all the answers. You search online for news posts with information about what happened. Images and videos of flames and smoke billowing out of the window send a knife to your insides, like it was your own house you were watching go up in smoke. Apparently, a gas leak from a new fireplace installation caused an explosion, though no one was injured.

“I knew that was a bad idea! I knew it!” People pass you on the street, ignoring your outburst. “They’ve gone and actually set the damn place on fire!” 

You want to throw your phone against the pavement or heave it at the already broken window of 107 4th Avenue, but what good is that. 

Your chest deflates with a heavy exhale, and you turn away from the carnage and walk back down the street. As you pass the row of businesses and shops, a gray-headed couple exits a store and holds the door open for you, smiling, thinking you mean to come in. 

And why not. 

You shuffle to the back of the store where the shelves are stacked with slats of wood–raw pine in all different sizes. One aisle over, tins of stain in dark walnut, golden oak, and red-brown mahogany line the industrial shelves in neat rows. A wall of brackets and metal hardware displays its endless selection of bronze and brushed nickel. You’ve never built a shelf before, where to start? 

You pull out your phone and scroll through your contacts until you see the G’s. You hit “dial” and wait, inspecting a tin of dark wood stain labeled “espresso,” when he finally answers.

“Yello.”

“Hi George, it’s me. I’ve been thinking. I’ve always wanted to see Alaska.”

October 07, 2022 20:41

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62 comments

Rebecca Miles
06:23 Oct 09, 2022

Once again, something completely new from you and, as always, a corker. The questions posed by the second person POV really root down into the conundrums of retirement and allow so much great well-observed detail. Great choice to make the protagonist a reflection of a way of working on the way out; it gave his leave-taking a much broader relevance. Funny isn't it: when we're snowed under we long for a life of leisure; when we get there, the easiest thing seems all our old purposes and pursuits. I hope this helps me when I finally pull up at...

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Aeris Walker
18:11 Oct 09, 2022

“gun the gas pedal to new horizons,” I love that. You’re very right—we’re always looking to the next season of life and forgetting to enjoy the one we’re in. Thank you for reading, it’s always much appreciated :)

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Michał Przywara
15:54 Oct 08, 2022

First off, fantastic title :) What the story is about becomes clear pretty quickly. Very relevant to the prompt, and just very relevant in general. I've heard variations of these musings from a number of retired people, as I'm sure many have. So it becomes a story of learning to let go. Retirement is a reward we work towards, but for many it's also an inevitability. And being a huge change, it can ironically feel less like a reward than a punishment. You're story highlights this with the power of habit. Naturally, the longer we do somethin...

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Aeris Walker
16:11 Oct 08, 2022

I think you’ve missed your calling as an English teacher. You always pick up on the deeper themes and meanings behind the writing and communicate them back to us so clearly. It’s funny you mentioned the fact that moving toward the modern actually would allow this company to live on, even with the loss of the physical building. I originally had a line where the character came to that realization, but it felt very “told” and stiff and I did away with it. I am glad the twist was unexpected! I felt like it would be very difficult from the seco...

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Michał Przywara
02:07 Oct 09, 2022

Heh, nothing wrong with blowing everyone up :)

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Michał Przywara
21:16 Oct 14, 2022

Heh, I would have been disappointed if a story called "Pants are Optional" didn't win anything - congrats on the shortlist :D

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Aeris Walker
11:44 Oct 15, 2022

Haha! Thanks so much 😁

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Riel Rosehill
22:00 Oct 12, 2022

Hey Aeris! I'm really struggling to keep up with the stories at the moment but I couldn't scroll past a title like this! Loved the voice of this grumpy narrator, despising video calls... it really was on point! Even better that once she left the actually set the place on fire, and then she just decides to go to Alaska and not dwell on it any longer. Fun read!

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Aeris Walker
22:53 Oct 12, 2022

Hey Riel!! It’s so good to see a story from you up this week, and I look forward to reading it as soon as I stop to play catch up too 🥴 I have a boring academic paper due, which I’ve procrastinated on, and now have to put all my writing efforts there this week.. thanks for reading this one 😉😉

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Anne Marie Miles
13:40 Oct 11, 2022

I love the unique second person perspective here. It feels more personal than first, more relatable. But you also had a ton of imagery created through your thorough details. As someone who lives where we have one of the worst commutes, I can say you nailed it with images of people putting on making while driving, eating their lunch, hating every other driver on the road. I could never understand why someone wouldn't want to retire, maybe your MC is a Capricorn - ha! But the opening line sets this up nicely - "be honest with yourself, you h...

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Aeris Walker
09:36 Oct 13, 2022

Hi Anne! Thanks so much for reading. Yes, traffic just stresses me the heck out—I’ll take a back road any day. Glad to hear those descriptions came across as realistic 😉 but I don’t envy your rough commute!! Thanks again.

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Anne Marie Miles
14:15 Oct 13, 2022

Back roads all day! My husband is the one who commutes everyday, I only have to a couple days a week. You're very welcome. Looking forward to reading more from you!

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Kelsey H
08:59 Oct 11, 2022

Great use of 2nd person pov. I recently realized just how hard this is to pull off when I started to read a story using it and 3 paragraphs in still couldn't work out if 'you' was referring to themselves or addressing someone else. No such confusion here, it flows really well, and I love the stream of consciousness style of it as the narrator works through their feelings on retirement and the changes of the world in general. Also I know it is sort of a sad moment, but I loved this line: “I knew that was a bad idea! I knew it!” People pass ...

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Aeris Walker
09:20 Oct 13, 2022

Thank you Kelsey! I’ve been wanting to do a story in 2nd person for a while, but was a bit intimidated. I’ve read amazing ones and some that also left me confused, but I’m glad to hear that the speaker was easier to identify. Looking forward to seeing more stories from you!!

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Stevie B
03:52 Oct 09, 2022

Aeris, I think you've truly written a wonderful piece of work. The opening sentence is commanding and lures your readers into this tale hook, line, and sinker. Your narrative skills are quite impressive. If I may be so bold as to offer a minute suggestion, and expressing my respect to you as writer-to-writer, the line "Think about it: you can drink your coffee in the nude if that’s your prerogative.", perhaps would be enhanced by restating "Think about it: you can drink your coffee in the nude because that’s your prerogative." Again, love yo...

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Aeris Walker
19:21 Oct 09, 2022

Hi Stevie! Thank you so very much for reading and leaving your positive remarks--and I am always open to suggestions and critique! It's what makes us better. Unfortunately, this one has already been approved, but I will take that edit into consideration for future updates with this story :) Again, thank you!

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Thom Brodkin
22:38 Oct 08, 2022

I wish I had your talent for detail and description. You transport us into your world, the one you created, and for a moment we forget ours. I paint in broad strokes. My creations look fantastic from afar but yours stand up to the scrutiny of close inspection. I am a storyteller. You are a writer. Great job once again.

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Aeris Walker
11:37 Oct 09, 2022

A most sincere thank you, Thom. I love you how described that—but sometimes I wish I had some larger brushes. I think more in words than in story, and I am envious of those brains that are always brimming with big ideas ;) I really do appreciate your kind words, they are such an encouragement.

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Sophia Gardenia
17:49 Oct 08, 2022

I love this story! The attention to detail is breathtaking! A couple of things that stood out to me: - 2nd person POV: Makes it seem like the MC could be anyone; adds to the relatableness of the story. The story also read like an internal monologue that highlights the MC's difficulty to deal with the changes in their life - The title: funny and eye-catching - "You can brew fresh coffee and drink it while it’s hot in a fragile, ceramic mug—a mug not intended for transport, a mug meant to be used while sitting still and contemplating its cont...

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Aeris Walker
01:02 Oct 09, 2022

Hi Sophia! You absolutely picked up on all of the things/themes that I felt were most important in the story. And I’m really glad you caught that detail about what kind of mug the character drinks their coffee in, how It shows the difference between rushing off somewhere or leisurely sitting and sipping. That was one of my personal favorite sentences :) Thank you so much for your kind words and positive feedback—it means so much!

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Sophia Gardenia
20:16 Oct 15, 2022

Yay, Aeris, this got shortlisted! Congrats!

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Aeris Walker
11:17 Oct 16, 2022

Hey, thanks Sophia!! 😊

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Suma Jayachandar
16:21 Oct 08, 2022

Change is a frightening, painful and liberating force that hits you hard when you pass through it. As a lifelong wanderer who got many farewells, I could relate to the POV here. The loss of a routine, the missing purpose in waking up in the morning, overnight shift in your interactions - what the POV craves for is to be relevant and wanted. Very human. But time waits for no one. Once he realises it is his need to feel wanted and the sun still continues to rise in the east without him going to work, he plans a trip to Alaska. That is growth ...

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Aeris Walker
22:01 Oct 08, 2022

Hi Suma—thank you, as always, for reading and sharing your thoughts. I couldn’t necessary relate with a retiree, but that “loss of routine” and “shift in interactions” you mention perfectly describe what it feels like when leaving a job to stay home with babies, which was my experience. Just a different season of life :) like retirement.

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Seán Mc Nicholl
14:45 Oct 08, 2022

Aeris, this was like looking into the mind of my father! He’s retirement age but won’t go because he thinks the business can’t survive without him! Very different style from your last, and second person POV can be difficult (I stay well clear!) but you nailed it! Loved the ending!! Well done!

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Aeris Walker
16:17 Oct 08, 2022

Thank you! I have been wanting to write one from this perspective for a while, and tried to keep it simple. I was thinking about my grandparents with this one. They are like the two friends in the story who are just constantly running and traveling and enjoying every day of their retirement. Even into their 80s, they’ve probably done more in a year than I’ve done in my whole life. Thanks for reading! Always appreciated 😊

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Jim Firth
11:56 Oct 08, 2022

Love the title. Very good choice and fits the theme of the story nicely. I thought 'How to Build a Shelf' could an alternative title, haha. I like the cheeky little detail that you slipped in at the end--'inspecting a tin of dark wood stain labeled “espresso,”. The story reads as smooth as an espresso. Bravo :)

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Aeris Walker
15:46 Oct 08, 2022

I’m glad you like the title! I came up with a few options, but went with the most lighthearted one. Haha, a “cheeky detail” that, or just evidence that this author drinks too much coffee… 😬

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Rama Shaar
10:41 Oct 08, 2022

Again, you did a great job in making us relate to someone we seemingly have nothing to do with. I'm a female, far away from retirement, but I saw myself in all of his thoughts and actions. The plot twist was very good, almost guiltily satisfying and the ending was unguiltily satisfying. Oh, and I'd love to see Alaska! Hopefully before I hit retirement ;-)

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Aeris Walker
12:03 Oct 08, 2022

Thank you so much! Oh me too! Alaska looks so beautiful, but is definitely more than a hop, skip, and jump away.

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Amanda Lieser
22:37 Oct 23, 2022

Hi Aeris! I loved your use of pov on this story and I also loved that ending! It was incredibly clever of you. I think this story’s incredible vivid language helps drive the point home to create something tangible. I also wanted to say congratulations on the shortlist! I picked a favorite line to share as well: An early morning commuter beside you is carelessly smearing concealer under her tired eyes, guiding the steering wheel with an elbow. Nice job!

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Aeris Walker
13:54 Oct 27, 2022

Thank you so much, Amanda 😊

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Kevin Broccoli
16:51 Oct 17, 2022

This is so different from what I've read from you before but in all the best ways. It had nice tinges of satire to it while still being distinctly your style. Well done.

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Aeris Walker
12:37 Oct 18, 2022

Thank you very much, Mr. Broccoli. I’d been wanting to try a story in 2nd person for a while and this simple idea seemed like it might fit well. Thanks for reading ☺️

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Philip Ebuluofor
12:45 Oct 17, 2022

Fine work Aeris. Congrats.

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Rabab Zaidi
15:32 Oct 15, 2022

What a wonderful way to discuss retirement ! How well people can relate to this !

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Aeris Walker
12:38 Oct 18, 2022

Thank you very much, Rabab!

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Tommy Goround
22:30 Oct 14, 2022

:::::: congratulations

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Aeris Walker
11:41 Oct 15, 2022

Thank you, Tommy!

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Sumiko Courtney
18:34 Oct 14, 2022

You’ve captured so well how hard it is to pass the, ahem, torch, to the colleagues that remain. The loyalty is strong and it is hard to trust that your projects are in good hands. Love your details, especially the coffee cup not designed for transport.

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Aeris Walker
11:18 Oct 16, 2022

“Torch” haha, that made me laugh. Thank you very much for reading, I so appreciate it!

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Suma Jayachandar
15:27 Oct 14, 2022

Congratulations!!

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Aeris Walker
11:32 Oct 16, 2022

Thank you, Suma!! ☺️

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Thom Brodkin
15:25 Oct 14, 2022

I’m so happy you got shortlisted. This was a great story so well written. Congrats.

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Aeris Walker
15:39 Oct 14, 2022

And you too!! Thanks so much 😊

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