Contest #89 shortlist ⭐️

15 comments

Contemporary Fiction

She couldn’t focus on what her boss was saying because of how much the bug bites on her leg itched. Her dress pants had gently kissed each bite as she walked to his office, waking up those pesky red dots from their hibernation. They screamed to be itched now. Beat on her temple, ‘Scratch me! Scratch me!’ Leaning over, she rubbed one on her knee to calm the chant. 


Ugh, she knew she should’ve worn bug spray while camping. She gave herself a pass because it was winter and she hadn’t seen a mosquito in months, but a smart person would've accounted for chiggers. At least not worn yoga pants which made her entire legs a delectable, elastic-covered feast.  


“So what do you think about that?” her boss asked. 


Whew, she had no idea. “Sounds great!” 


“Sweet, then Martinez will reach out to you. Listen, Sam, I know you’ve been working long hours because of our recent downsizing. You’ve made taking on two additional roles look good.” 


“While being paid less than I had before the downsizing,” she muttered. 


The boss coughed. “Yes, it is hard with the 401K match being on pause. Headquarters is working to find out when it’ll be back and they are saying it is guaranteed this year, but that’s not what I want to focus this conversation on. What I want to focus on is what a great job you’re doing. We really appreciate your work.” 


Would they really tell her if she was doing a bad job given how much they needed her? Yes, the company was probably that out of touch. They would probably watch her work eighty hour weeks and say, ‘Why, Sam, couldn’t you work more?’ ‘Sam, can’t you work eighty hour weeks and look a little more chipper? Put on a smile.’


She extended her rubbing stroke, going from top of her right knee to two inches below it. This pattern enabled three additional bites to be soothed with one motion. 


The Big Wood Trail is what did her in. The trail was narrow and she’d pulled three ticks off of her dog, Barkley, during the four hour hike. Brushing past the underbrush, the smell of pine in the air, the chiggers jumped right on, taking their little pincers and burrowing their tiny mouths into her tasty, pale winter-flesh, leaving her looking like a pox victim.


It was worth it. Worth it to hear nothing but bird calls and the crunch of the needles under her boots. Worth it to sweat and move and have her mind open to think beyond the grid of a spreadsheet. God, the first hour, the trees, going straight up to the sky, their branching so high that the leaves were clouds, reminded her of spreadsheets. The neat line of a trunk like an axis. She thought she was too far gone, her brain fully converted to corporate land, but then Barkley had found a lizard. They watched its slither up the black pine tree’s trunk, pausing in stillness once it realized it had an audience. It flicked its tongue to eat some small mites. 


“See,” she said to Barkley. “The lizard can’t be too scared of us: it’s eating.” 


The boss said Sam’s most dreaded phrase: “I have an opportunity for you.”


“Sir, I don’t really want any more opportunities. We’ve already established I’m doing three jobs with the pay of one.” 


He laughed. “Sam, this is going to be great! This is going to shoot you straight up to the top. This opportunity is going to be the keystone in your career.” 


Camping was the best way to spend a weekend because she didn’t have cell phone service. No one could reach her with their fake emergencies. The emergencies were real to the people calling her, just not real in the picture of life. Was a rounding error not something that could wait until Monday? Was an excel file on the I-drive versus the C-drive really Defcon One? In the office, the answer was yes. In the woods, the answer was decidedly, scream-a-curse-word-into-the-stillness, no. A woods emergency was a real emergency. 


She slept in a hammock with a thermal protector and Barkley for warmth. Coyotes wailed in the distance and Barkley’s ears and head would pop up like a gopher. He’d growl, low and under his breath, not confident enough to bark yet. “It’s OK,” she’d soothe and Barkley would lie back down, tucking his chin into her chest. She rocked them back and forth. Slept deeper than any night in her apartment. If only life could always be this simple. 


The boss had given up on Sam asking about the opportunity. “We’ve looked over the numbers and it seems our first downsizing wasn’t big enough. We have to do more.”


Well, hell, if this was going to be one of those meetings, she might as well itch both legs. She leaned forward in the plastic chair. Each hand rubbing each knee in a circular stroke. 


“We want you to take on Maria’s position. Don’t worry, we really think you can do twenty percent of the work and get eighty percent of the impact, so it’s not going to feel like you are doing four jobs.” 


The only thing keeping her from pulling out her hair was the demanding leg itch. Those sentences and their implications left her with so many questions. 


But Maria was a single mother? Might as well itch to mid-calf. 


Were managers getting downsized or is the company going to be so top-heavy it crumbles like a stick bridge under a bowling ball? Make that full calf. 


Were all of these surplus managers ready to accept twenty percent? Would she get a raise for the additional labor? Ankle, it is. 


She itched in giant strokes, from knee to sock line. Back and forth. Up and down. She had to hunch forward in the chair to reach everything. In hindsight, she must have looked primal, maybe like a gorilla walking. She deserved at least the relief of itching her bites if she had to deal with this. 


No, she deserved more. She deserved sunsets and weekends. Hobbies and holidays. Being able to snuggle up to Barkley whenever she wanted. The smell of pine without the nag of spreadsheets. 


“I quit.” 



In the thrill of action, of motion, Sam told her landlord she’d be leaving at the end of the month, fulfilling her contractual obligation of a thirty-day notice. She could do anything, be anyone. The world was her oyster. 


So she sat on her navy blue Ikea sofa and binge watched four episodes of true crime reenactments. She fell asleep a little tipsy and woke up at her normal time of six. Unable to fall back asleep, she finished the series. Barkley was ecstatic to spend all day snuggling and getting pets, barking at suspicious-looking squirrels in trees. She knocked back a few more series from her bucket list before she admitted it was time to figuratively and literally get off the couch. 


All of her furniture went up on an internet marketplace. The iron-rod Ikea bed was the first to go. A college freshman in a pink polo with a long ponytail took it with the help of her boyfriend and his fraternity bro. 


Sam had only one love affair on that mattress, an ill-advised one with a coworker. He was funny and nice enough, gentle in bed, but she should’ve seen the red flag that they always went back to her place. And then they’d broken up and his desk was only two cubes away. She constantly heard his laugh and inane, sarcastic comments, eventually forcing her to invest in noise cancelling headphones. She wondered what he thought about her quitting.


Barkley and Sam slept on the sofa until someone bought that, too. Then they slept in her sleeping bag on the floor. 


The hardest thing to sort out was her book collection. Between the spines was more than weight and ink, the pages held friends and memories of who she was when she’d first read them and had absorbed their ideas. She begged her mom to store the books. 


“Say-um, we’ve been through this.” The line had been drawn when she graduated from college. No more belongings in her parents’ home: they were downsizing to a two bedroom. 


“I know, Mom. What if I paid you a storage fee?”


“One box, you pay shipping and a twenty dollar - per year - storage fee. We’ll put it in a closet.” 


For two weeks, Sam placed a book into the box only to take it out again to make space for another. She felt like she could probably get rid of her annotated high school books, but a store might throw them away because of all the scribbles and didn’t she receive an A because her annotations were so good? At least Slaughterhouse Five and Left Hand of Darkness had to be saved. The modern classics, the ones she knew she had to reread because reading them made her feel alive, she narrowed to The Broken Earth and Southern Reach trilogies. She spent evenings rereading her favorite passages.


Her mom had recommended one of those first class shipping boxes, but that seemed too small. Too narrow for the things that taught Sam how to think and how the world worked. She ended up paying fifty dollars in shipping.


The rest of the books she took to the local used book store, imagining some middle school girl finding them and falling in love with them. The girl would dream of bigger and better things because of Sam's exquisite used literature. The unimpressed sales person gave her two dollars for the lot. 


What she didn’t sell, she gave to friends. A day before her official move-out, they threw her a cleaning party, figuring she was definitely going to need her deposit with such nebulous future plans. Monica drank a copious amount and ended up puking in the bathtub, then trying to clean it while crying apologies. Sam promised she’d never forget them. 


In the morning, they nursed themselves with painkillers and packed her cross-over per the diagram she’d drawn. Barkley excitedly took shotgun. Sam waved goodbye and made promises to be in touch on social media.



The air smelled of pine as Sam took her first deep breath that month. She stepped forward, crunching the needles on the path. Barkley danced around her, smelling the ghosts of animals that stood there once. The trees were majestic, guards of a magic place. Their straight lines showed how serious they took their role as sentinel. Light was dappled through their leaves and felt like fairy kisses on her skin.  


She didn’t think about spreadsheets at all. 

April 15, 2021 23:41

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15 comments

Michael Boquet
14:36 Apr 23, 2021

Wow! Third time on the shortlist in 3 months. An inspiring story. Who among us doesn't dream of leaving their dead end job and starting a new life. It was nice to live that moment with your character. I liked the way you handled her memories of camping. I would have liked to see you lean into the double meaning of the itch a bit more (both physical and the itch for something different). It just sort of feels like both drop off halfway through the story. Still though, this is a satisfying read. Congratulations on getting shortlisted!

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H Bolton
17:39 Apr 24, 2021

Thanks! Sorry to leave you itching for more metaphor

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Shea West
06:15 Apr 24, 2021

The part about her mother saying, 1 box and an annual storage fee gave me the best kind of laughs. I see myself doing that to my own kids. The way you used an actual itch as a feeling of bug bites and also, "I gotta get outta this job and this life," was great! I never would've thought to put the two together, but you wrote it so well. Congratulations!

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H Bolton
17:38 Apr 24, 2021

Thank you for the compliments, Shea! Glad it made you laugh

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Amy Gupta
20:41 Apr 23, 2021

Loved your story. I like stories about living your best life.

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H Bolton
17:39 Apr 24, 2021

Thank you! Dont we all need some wish fulfillment?

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Ro Gardje
17:16 Apr 23, 2021

Oh I really enjoyed this! It was really well written! I wanted moooore 😁

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H Bolton
19:54 Apr 23, 2021

Thank you :) Glad it kept you hooked

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Josh C
07:13 Apr 23, 2021

Great read!

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H Bolton
19:54 Apr 23, 2021

Thank you!

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Josh C
08:50 Apr 25, 2021

Oh and apparently, congratulations on the shortlist!

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Claire Lewis
21:47 Apr 16, 2021

You got me with the getting-rid-of-books scene. It hurts to downsize a book collection even just by a few books, I can’t imagine being limited to a single box! Overall, I deeply enjoyed this story. The figurative language is fantastic and your mc is very dynamic. I thought your pacing was spot-on, too. Very strong work!

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H Bolton
01:00 Apr 17, 2021

Thank you!! The book scene did bring me flashbacks of my last couple of moves. And thank you on the pacing comment! A month is a tricky amount of time in a short story.

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Claire Lewis
18:33 Apr 23, 2021

Congrats on the shortlist!!

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H Bolton
19:55 Apr 23, 2021

Thank you!

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