This story was written for the Reedsy Contest "Winter Wonderland".
More specifically inspired by the prompt: "A busy city is quieted by a big blanketing of snow. Write from the perspective of two (or more) characters who live there."
A Clean Sheet
Looking up from my work, I witness how the first snowflakes appear in the sky. As out of nowhere, they swirl down softly and invite me to get up from my desk. From where I stand, on the eleventh floor of a dull office building, I have a nice view on the streets below.
“It’s not really winter until it snows,” my grandmother used to say. Celebrating Christmas without her for the first time in my life, felt awkward. It wasn’t really Christmas without you, grandma, I reminiscence in silence.
The flakes are getting bigger and bigger, as if grandma is shaking up a big white down blanket somewhere high in the sky. It’s too early to tell if the snow will settle on the ground, but I hope it does.
“White is not a color,” I whisper, “but a promise of many colors.”
Mesmerized, I can’t keep my eyes from the spectacle that enchants the skyline of the city.
A dry cough from the colleague I share my office with awakens me from my daydream. The moment of magic melts away instantly. The perfect picture of a fairy-tale landscape covered by a pearly white snow carpet as painted by my imagination, is gone. Now that I’m brought back to reality, that image is replaced by the forecast of a monotonous ride home being worse than ever due to gray slush on dirty streets.
“Don’t you have a customer meeting in half an hour?” my colleague asks.
“Well then,” he says when I nod in reply, “Stop daydreaming and get to it.”
He hasn’t said a single friendly word to me since that one night we’ve spent together after the Halloween party at the office. I for one, want to forget what happened. I’m thankful he doesn’t want to talk about it.
I return to my desk, pretending I need to finalize my presentation. The contrast between the romantic snow scene that I hope for and the snow misery that I can expect, feels like a metaphor for my assignment. The images on my computer screen don’t reflect what I see outside. I browse through a series of pictures showing blue skies, sun-drenched beaches, palm trees, swimming pools, and all-inclusive hotels. I’ve been working on the summer holidays brochure for our customer “Paradise Travels”. I don’t know what’s worse about this customer, the name of his company or its uninspired slogan “Travel to Paradise with Paradise Travels”.
It was my task to create a brochure offering packages including a flight with a low-cost airline, several nights in a small room one would rather find in an army barracks than in a hotel, and an all-you-can-eat arrangement for meals. I did an honest attempt to present all of this as if it were “the smartest way to spend your vacation budget” with the emphasis on “as if”.
Needless to say that I was halfhearted about the result. While working on the copy, I had to silence the cynic in me more than once. My morbid mind tried to convince me that “Paradise Travels” would have been a perfect name for a funeral business: “We promise you heaven. If we don't deliver, we'll give you your money back.” The chance that anyone would ever complain about the service is nonexistent; there is no returning from hell.
“I’ll take a short bathroom break before the meeting,” I tell my colleague.
Fortunately, he’s not in the office when I return for my laptop. I watch the city one more time before I go to the meeting room. I’m happy to see that the snow is settling; it soothes me. I switch my brain off and put my automatic pilot on; I have a customer to please.
The presentation goes surprisingly well. Then again, it’s not an art to redefine “old-fashioned” as “retro” or “vintage” when your customer is twice your age.
“It’s exactly what I wanted,” the owner of Paradise Travels says, “You’ve done a wonderful job.”
My boss, who is always supervising this kind of meetings, smiles and says: “You can always trust on Hannah for delivering excellent work.”
Usually, it isn’t considered a compliment when a customer claims we’ve done exactly what he wanted. Our agency takes pride in going way beyond the expectations of its valued customers, but in this case, I know my boss couldn’t care less. He knows very well that he has given me an assignment no one else in the office wanted.
“I appreciate that,” the customer says, “You can count on more business from me next season!”
His words feel like I’ve just failed my exams and will have to redo all of them after the vacation.
“This is for you, Hannah. As a token of our appreciation.”
The customer hands me a handful of vouchers, worth two hundred dollars apiece, one voucher per booking, not to be combined with other promotions.
“Share them with your colleagues,” he adds, “Show them your wonderful brochure and they won’t know which vacation package to choose first.”
Before I can thank him, my boss stands up and thanks him in my stead. He takes a glance at his watch; the meeting has taken up more than enough of his time.
Back in my office, I offer one of the vouchers to my colleague. He doesn’t deign to accept it.
“I’d rather be found dead in a ditch than go on vacation to one of those tourist traps,” he says.
With those words, he takes his coat and he’s off.
I decide to wait for twenty minutes so that I don’t have to share the elevator with him or accidentally bump into him in the underground garage.
It seems that I didn’t have to worry about traffic congestion. Traffic is only a tad slower than usual. It’s no longer snowing, and I take the time to look around. There’s slush in the streets, but the sidewalks and parks are still covered by a blanket of snow. I sometimes forget how beautiful this city can be.
I’m almost home when police signs warn me about an accident ahead. There’s a police car and an ambulance parked on the side of the road when I drive by. Secretly, I hope they’re pulling my colleague from the ditch he hoped to die in. I know I shouldn’t have those thoughts.
At night I look through my bedroom window. It’s snowing again.
“White is not a color,” I repeat, “It’s the promise of many colors.”
Suddenly I know what I should do to revive myself.
“I’m quitting tomorrow! I’ll look for another job and start anew with a clean sheet.”
For the first time in months, I manage to fall asleep before the midnight hour.
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