Read their winning submissions:
Writers were asked to interpret the theme Explore in any way they wanted in a fictional piece under 2,000 words. Thank you to Alex Baker of Igniting Writing for organizing this contest and thank you to all the participants! It was fun to share writing across the sea!
By Tess LaLonde, South Burlington, VT
Her fingertips drift over the surface of a fallen log—not quite touching, but almost feeling the rutted rhythm of its bark on her skin nonetheless. Her eyes trace the scene before her as if memorizing its depths. They linger on the scant strip of sky visible between the forking branches of a rusty brown maple. As she inhales, the musty scent of decaying wood fills her, and her mind flickers briefly with recognition. The forest smells like old growth and thriving life, an aroma she can almost recall from her long-ago past. Dawn lets the breath slip out in a sigh of contentment.
This place is beautiful and familiar, like the first chapter of a favorite book. She peruses its pages with reverence, giving each petal and fallen leaf its due.
Every detail is fresh and remarkable. She smiles at the antics of a pudgy brown squirrel trying to fit a few more acorns between his stuffed cheeks. As he completes his task, scrunches his nose, and bounds away towards a clump of poplars, Dawn lifts her hand in a wave. The creature can’t see her, of course, but she waggles her fingers and pretends.
As he scrambles up a tree and across a branch, leaves quaking in his wake, a small yellow-breasted bird takes flight and swoops down over her head. Out of instinct, Dawn ducks, before straightening in time to watch a few of the disturbed leaves float peacefully towards the ground. She takes a second to savor their yellowing hue in the soft light of the late-afternoon sun.
As she makes her way deeper into the forest, moving with purpose, she passes groves of oak trees and berry-laden bushes until she reaches a stream gurgling with delight. This is it. This is as far as she can go. She takes a seat, stretching her legs before her, feet flopping to the side. Light warms her skin while a tear, unbidden, pricks her eye.
The sky is glorious in its enormity here, the trees vivid and striking. Needles puff in bunches like a storm of green clouds. Snags rise like skeletal kings. There are flowers, bursting and blooming in every direction, lining the riverbed with crimson and gold, subtle violet, and a pure, simple white. This—this is what the world should be. How long she rests there, in the quiet bliss of nature, it is impossible to tell.
But however long, it’s not enough. Without the warning of crackling twigs, she feels a hand tap lightly on her shoulder. She knows all too well what that means.
With a sigh, deep as the water gushing over the smooth, speckled river rocks, Dawn lifts a trembling hand to her face and removes the VR headset.
The forest falls away, a play’s backdrop torn asunder to reveal the dusty wooden planks and stark brick walls that lurked behind its swirling imitations. The pixelated wildlife and simulated smells disperse, pre-recorded chirps and whistles growing stale and artificial in the harsh light of the bunker’s fluorescent bulbs.
If she closes her eyes, the sun lamps and whirring fans casting a cool breeze across her face could almost convince her she hasn’t left paradise at all. But her time is up, and she wouldn’t want to make trouble by lingering any longer than is permitted.
“It’s so real,” she murmurs, more to herself than anything as she relinquishes the headset and steps away, shaking herself of the fantasy.
Beside her, the freckle-strewn man in uniform flashes the tight smile of someone who has answered this remark one time too many. “That’s the point, ma’am. People don’t pay for passable.”
Dawn mirrors his smile, hands him a wad of cash from her pocket, and surrenders her precious spot to the next nostalgic explorer. Her body feels more leaden than it did an hour ago as she retreats past the waiting line—shorter every day—and down the stark white hall.
Tonight, once the low hum of the bunker finally lulls her to sleep, she will dream of a frollicking squirrel and warm sunshine speckling leaves. The next morning, as that very sun rises somewhere far above to shed light on a world barren and broken, wrecked and condemned, she will savor the vision’s sweetness until it once again slips from her waking grasp. Each time she visits, this happens. She knows it will happen again. And with each repetition, each subsequent loss of the plentiful paradise, Dawn will wake up remembering a little bit less of the world that once was eternal.
Read all submission to the Explore challenge here!