photo from Getty | Credit: Image Source
Prompt: Write a short story, of 650 words or fewer, based on the photo prompt above. You can be funny, poignant, witty, etc.; it is, after all, your story.
Read the finalists below, then vote for the one you like best by selecting your favorite or by emailing the letter of your favorite story to YourStoryContest@fwmedia.com with “Your Story 91 Vote” in the subject line.
The color drained from Pierce’s face as his eyes took in the confident smile, outstretched hand, and blue belt of the woman saying, “Hi! I’m Taylor.”
What was that?
Ice runs through her veins. She sits straight up, head cocked, listening. Frozen.
She shakes her head and lets out a small laugh.
It is the typical horror film scenario: young woman alone in a building a night, hearing strange noises. Soon the lights go out and the victim lets out a scream and runs straight into the killer.
Damn, Donaldson. All she wanted was to go home and stretch out on her couch with a glass of wine, well maybe a bottle, and watch her favorite show, but no. Why couldn’t he finish his own stupid reports?
She turns back to her computer and continues typing, getting lost in the jargon, losing time.
There it was again. That shuffle shuffle of feet across the floor. She stops typing and listens. It could be the security guard. In the movies the guard never reaches the victim in time.
She goes back to typing. She is almost finished. Just a few more paragraphs left. Her couch is calling. She presses save and prints. Her printer roars to life and spits out the pages; drowning out all other noises. She hums to cover her increasing nervousness.
The last page pops out and she turns her chair and snatches them out of the tray, tapping the edges on the desk, preparing to staple. The pages are so numerous; she stands to force the metal through all the paper.
In the quiet after the satisfying thunk of the stapler, she hears it again.This time it doesn’t stop.
She crouches down; making sure her head isn’t seen over the cubical. She leaves the report on her desk. She half duck walks, keeping low, to the wall of her daily jail cell. She reaches up and places her hands on the top edge. She slowly peeks her head over.
If this is the guard, she is going to feel silly.
Not the guard.
“Hi, Linda. I thought I was the only one here,” Jim from accounting says from across the room. “I almost turned out the lights on you.”
She smiles and stands at her full height. “I’m glad you didn’t. I thought I was the only one here, too. I was a little freaked out.”
“Donaldson on your back, too?”
“Yep. I just finished.”
“Me, too. Can I walk you out?”
“That would be great. I just have to drop this on his desk.” She picks up the report and waves it in the air.
Jim waves his papers back at her. “Exactly where I was headed.”
She shuts down her computer as she puts on her coat and grabs her purse. She leaves her cubical with the report.
They drop the reports off on the boss’s desk and turn off the lights. They leave the building, waving at the security guard at the front desk, chatting the whole time. Jim walks her to her car. She thanks him and drives away.
Her cubical is bathed in the blue of the monitor. Words appear on the screen.
You are safe for now, Linda. What about next time?
The screen goes blank.
My name is Clarissa. I work as a teller with the small branch of a provincial bank in Little Rock. No big deal if you’ve never heard of the town. Nothing exciting or eventful ever happens here.
Last week, Nakhon the Barber came in without his usual warmth. I invited him to my cubicle with a cheerful wave. He walked over with slumped shoulders and looked like he was about to cry.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. He began sobbing. His shoulders jerked with the force of his sobs. I couldn’t understand him because I am not fluent in sobbing. Although I discerned a heartbroken accent.
Nakhon is 65 years old and walks with a cane. A small man with many deep lines on his thin craggy face. His face bore an uncanny resemblance to the face of the steep, rocky mountains of Little Rock. I had always wanted to ask him if they were his relatives. I gave him a wad of tissue paper and he wiped the tears streaming down his cheeks. He managed to regain his composure. Pulled himself together with a mountain of an effort and told me his wife Maggie had passed way. She died in her sleep while visiting her mother in Tumwater. I offered my sincere condolences. He came to close her bank account and withdraw the cash. A huge amount by Little Rock standards.
“Do you have any paperwork?” I asked trying not to sound indelicate. I still had a job to do despite his bereavement. He had the paperwork. A death certificate, Maggie’s Will and his means of identification. It all checked out after a fairly short review and I was impressed he had the presence of mind to come with the required documents.
I closed the late wife’s account and he left the office and Little Rock that very day. He also inadvertently left his cane behind at the bank. Funny how bereavement can make an old man sprightly all of a sudden. He mentioned he was starting a new life in Las Vegas.
This evening, I heard someone talking with Abe, the security guard, as he shut the bank doors signaling the end of another business day.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I took a peek over the top of my cubicle. It was Maggie at the door. I know one should not speak ill of the dead but she looked frazzled. Apparently, she had not fully transitioned to the afterlife. From snippets of the conversation I overheard, the deceased lady came to the branch with a challenge. An unusual one for a dead person. She could not access her online banking while away at Tumwater. The situation had her stressed out. She was in panic mode and looked flustered. She could not reach her husband as his phone was switched off. She was worried it was an account takeover. Was someone trying to perpetuate a fraud on her account? First thing she did when she got back to Little Rock was come straight to the bank.
“Is there anyone here who can assist me?” she asked. I was the only operations staff left in the bank. Abe pointed in the direction of my cubicle.
Am I the only one who gets goose bumps when they see dead people who don’t know they are dead?
It starts out like any normal first day on the job. Fill out a bunch of paperwork. Be escorted to a cubicle. Except this time, my escort’s a robot.
“You are the only human on this floor,” it declares. “Your assignment is in the left-hand side of your folder. Begin working.”
So much for pleasantries. Ten minutes into reading my project description—developing butler robots—I look up and see a woman peering over my cubicle.
I instinctively hold out my hand. “Hi, I’m Keith.” Her hand feels damp and cold. I wipe mine on my pants.
“My skin is still being perfected. I am a female Robo Tech series 1414 engineer bot. Rita for short.”
She looks so life-like, especially her eyes.
The loudspeaker crackles. “Bots to reboot… in one minute.”
Rita walks around to my cubicle and stands over me. She stiffens and slowly raises her finger to her lips. “Ceiling cameras,” she whispers.
I barely nod my head.
She stares into my eyes. “Hacked into Rita’s system. Robo Tech’s harvesting human organs and body parts and putting them into robots. Get out. Contact FBI Agent…” Rita shuts down before finishing.
My heart’s pounding. The door opens down the hall. I slowly stand up and see the CEO stomping toward me. He looks exactly like his picture on the website. He picks up Rita and moves her aside before stepping into my cubicle. “Keith Brenner.” He extends a hand. “It’s great to finally meet you.”
I let out a breath. “Pleased to meet you, Dr. Meyer.” I shake his hand. Was that a gear humming? He can’t be a robot, can he? I bite my lower lip.
“Everything okay, Keith?”
“Yes, sir. It’s an honor to meet you.”
“Glad you’re here, Keith. We expect great things out of you.”
“Come to the conference room down the hall at ten. I want your ideas on how to stop our soldier bots from shutting down during combat. Got a four-star general all up in my goodies.”
“Of course, sir.”
Meyer starts walking away, then stops. He turns around and looks at Rita and then back at me. “Appears you’ve already made a friend. Just remember, this isn’t Westworld,” he grins. “She’s not that kind of robot.” Meyer stomps away.
I collapse in my chair, then jump as Rita’s hand touches my shoulder. “Your appearance indicates you are upset.”
I ignore Rita and run from my cubicle to the door. It’s locked. I sprint around the floor searching for a way out. The other robots go about their work in their cubicles oblivious to the fact that I’m even there.
“You cannot leave, Keith,” Rita says over and over as she follows me around the room. The walls begin to spin and I put my hands on my knees and try not to throw up.
Rita stands next to me and smiles. “Did you erase my communications data prior to shut down?”
“Data analysis reveals we were talking for several seconds before shut down. The contents of that discussion were eliminated.”
“Leave me alone,” I scream as I grab my head.
“I cannot do that, Keith. You’re going to be late for the meeting. Follow me.”
Rita leads me to the conference room and motions for me to precede her. I hold my breath as I open the door and step into the darkened room, Rita right on my heels. My legs wobble as I see pictures of me and my deceased parents up on the screen. I hear the door lock behind me. The twelve people sitting around the table turn and stare at me.
My eyes dart around the room. I back up and bump into Rita.
Meyer stands up and nods at her.
Rita grabs my shoulders.
“Welcome Keith,” Meyer says. “You have just the parts we’ve been waiting for.”
I notice too much.
The cubicle walls join at not-quite-90-degree angles, creating a dull, fuzzy maze. The gray of them spreads like a bad attitude. A single red pushpin sneers from an otherwise blank wall.
A papercut somewhere makes somebody hiss.
Most of the fluorescent lights have been replaced with LEDs, except in the break room. From the corner of my eye, I can see one flicker. Flick, flick, flicker. I listen to it hum.
Above the drab landscape hangs the murmur of voices. Busy, bored, muted, with a thread of resentment — we’re all trapped in the Great American Rat Race.
Calm, I tell myself. Soon. I take another bite of muenster, another breath. I slip my high heels off and twist, slowly, in my office chair. I didn’t used to notice so many things. But ever since —
There. There goes Dolores Valdez again. She stares at me. She’s always doing that these days, though she tries to be subtle. It’s not admiration, disdain, or jealousy. But she’s definitely watching me.
I wonder if she knows. She and Mr. Cush.
I used to be your average nine-to-fiver: Drive to work. Walk in, eyes glued to the floor. Hello, to those who insist. Occupy a cubicle, with your rear glued to the chair, eyes glued to the screen, and lips glued to your coffee cup.
Then they changed me. Somehow. It was at that last employee picnic, I know it. At first I blamed food poisoning — diarrhea, nausea, vomiting — but when the illness abruptly shifted gears from pain to ecstasy and dropped me into a 24-hour nap that left me with this acute awareness of everything —
I jump as Fred activates the shredder.
In another cubicle, Darla St. Martin sneezes, making her hat feathers quiver. Nobody else knows about her female-pattern alopecia.
Across the room, I hear Jeff grunt, shift. He’s getting too hot, as usual, but shorter sleeves would reveal his full-sleeve tattoos of nude women.
Nan Brown, the secretary, has duplicates of every key in the office, even personal keys. Especially personal keys. I hear them rattle in the drawer, hidden under her candy stash.
Tap, ta-tap, tap. David Muldoon’s dusty mouse tells me he navigates his computer entirely by keyboard.
I stand up and press against the cubicle wall, watching him. He’s oblivious.
In 13 minutes, Dave will get up for his 12:06 p.m. cup of coffee.
In 5 minutes, Mr. Cush will leave for a lunch meeting.
In 6.5 minutes, Nan will follow.
After her, but before Dave, I’ll get up, walk to Nan Brown’s empty cubicle, and grab the keys to Mr. Cush’s office.
Then I will know everything.
Glug, glug, glug, gulps the water dispenser. It’s two-thirds empty, but the —
There goes Mr. Cush. Nan grunts as she rises from her chair.
Dave is getting restless, craving his 12:06 caffeine.
I move, barefoot, across the worn carpet, slipping unseen between the rhythmic flows of the workplace. I snag the keys from Nan’s desk, then slide over to Mr. Cush’s office. I’m in. I shut the door. Breathe. Outside, I hear Dave walk by.
Flawless performance, everyone.
I unlock Mr. Cush’s cabinet and pull out the folder bearing my name. My fingers tremble. Quick!
Project RDNT, Phase Two
Rodent Genetic Modification Serum successfully administered. Subject stable. Proceed as planned.
Observe subject’s coworker interactions. Report behavioral changes. Watch for increased efficiency, alertness, etc. Monitor subject closely; side effects include paranoia; subject may flee unexpectedly.
Imperative: Do not allow subject to become aware of experimental status. Secrecy must be maintained at all costs in order to preserve experiment integrity. Test subject must be destroyed immediately if —
I jump as the door handle moves.
“Mr. Cush —”
He sees the folder. Our eyes meet.