Skip to main content

Lily Kent, 2024 1st Place Fiction

Submissions are open to one piece of fiction completed for coursework during the last calendar year. Submissions should not exceed 20 pages. Lily Kent wrote the 1st place submission in the Fiction Category for the 2024 President’s Writing Awards.

About Lily

Lily enjoying nature over Spring Break in Vancouver, Canada.

Lily Kent is an arts student from California, pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing and a minor in History of Art and Visual Culture. Her emphasis lies in fiction and her writing often tackles themes of death and existentialism with a literary, or speculative twist. Outside of writing she enjoys listening to music, and being around her friends. She hopes to pursue a career in the editing and publishing industry.

Winning Manuscript – Hell Is a Corporate Office

Death wasn’t sure what he hated more, his job, or the people who did it for him. He had been employed for as long as he could remember, but that’s how it went in the afterlife. You remembered most of what happened when you were alive, but the years since would blend into one another until you weren’t sure if you had died just last night or 100 years ago. But time didn’t matter when you were already dead. What mattered was finishing the job.

He was given hundreds of assignments each shift and was usually able to get through them all. He tried to take care of them quickly, to not linger on the regret and remorse that came with each completion.

After identifying the victim, double, triple checking to be absolutely certain he had it right, he would swoop in, plant the kiss, and move on to the next folder in the stack. He ignored the way their bodies seized as the breath left their lungs. He closed his eyes when he felt the final shudder as the last traces of life were leached from their bodies. He buried the acute stab of shame that came with an unrequited kiss. But the actual action of taking a life wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the smell.

Death punched his time card and scanned his employee badge to call for the elevator. His office was on the 178th floor, though each and every cubicle on every level was the exact same. The walls of the entire building were a depressing gray, the desks and chairs made to match. Walking through the office felt like floating through a storm cloud, bloated with unshed rain, yet somehow constantly getting more and more full without ever letting anything out. There were no windows either, no sources of light other than the fluorescent yellow bulbs lining the ceilings every few feet that would flicker intermittently.

Though if he was being honest, Death wasn’t sure if windows would provide much more light anyways. He had never seen outside the office and therefore had no reason to assume that there was any brightness to be let in at all. There was no time between his shifts. He simply clocked out, blinked, and found himself well-rested and ready to clock in for another day, deprived of the chance to explore outside, if such a thing even existed.

If he had asked the other employees he would be assured that this was normal, but he avoided interactions with the other workers as much as possible. Sometimes he overheard a conversation by the coffee machine while pacing on his break. The workers liked to share their stories, bits and pieces of their lives before. But Death knew that “before” was in the past, and he was more concerned with focusing on the now.

The elevator dinged and hundreds of employees spilled from its opening, day-shift workers on their way to clock out. Death watched the chamber empty and stepped inside along with his co-workers. They were packed in, shoulder to shoulder, and he had been shoved into the back corner opposite where the buttons were.

“What floor?” a stout woman with brown, bushy hair and dark skin asked the crowd. A chorus of numbers rang out until the woman had pressed every last button, all the way up to 999. Death sighed and leaned his head back against the cold, metal wall. He had tried to beat rush hour, but was unsuccessful every shift.

Just as the doors were closing a cartoonish popping noise filled the elevator and a girl no older than seven appeared in front of the doors.

Death felt his stomach lurch as he peered over the crowd, alerted by the sound, to see a new button had been added, floor 1,000. It didn’t happen often, but he had worked enough shifts to experience when another floor appeared, the building expanded to house the newest employees.

The girl’s lips were blue and ice clung to her lashes, cluing Death into the way she had passed. Her hair was wispy and she wore white, sparkly pegasus slippers that were covered in a substance too dark to be dirt. They always appeared in the clothes they were wearing when it happened. After a few shifts they would start to fade away and be slowly replaced by the same gray jumpsuit adorned by every other employee. That was one way to tell when someone had been hired, by how much brightness they had left in them.

The girl trembled slightly, most likely still feeling the effects of the cold that had claimed her life. She stepped forward and the woman by the buttons leaned down so that she was eye level with the new arrival.

“What floor?” she asked. The girl was silent so the woman reached out and lightly grabbed the ID badge dangling from the girl’s nightgown.

Name: Death
ID#: 128,4738,094,2937,038,120,367,100
Floor: 1,000
Status: Trainee

The woman nodded silently and pressed the button.

Death elbowed his way through the crowd in the elevator and stepped onto the 178th floor. His tall, slender frame staggered over the walls of the cubicles to provide him with a view of his coworkers already seated at their desks, and sorting through their respective assignments for the night.

He sat at his desk and stared indifferently at his own pile of manila folders he would have to get through by the end of his shift. He reached for the first one and let himself get lost in the sound of rustling paperwork as the other employees did the same.

As he flipped open the first assignment a head donned with wiry black hair appeared over the wall of his cubicle. He could only see down to the man’s nose, but his bright blue eyes framed by gray-wired glasses stared at him, unblinking.

“Heya Death!” the bespectacled man greeted him cheerily.

“Death,” the man lifted his chin in response, not much for formalities. His deep, monotonous voice rumbled through the office as he looked down to continue sorting through the stack of tonight’s assignments.

“I say,” the intruder continued, dragging out each syllable as if he purposefully meant to take up as much of Death’s time as possible. “Ya haven’t got anotha stapla floatin about have ya?” His British accent added to the grating quality of his already high-pitched, overly excited voice. Death cringed at the sound, but reached into the drawer of his desk and found a gray stapler. He handed it to his coworker and watched as his bushy brows rose impossibly high as if this was the best thing to ever happen to him in his entire afterlife. “Right-o Govena! Yer a real life-saver hey chap?” He winked one round, crinkly eye, agonizingly slow, before disappearing back into his own cubicle.

Death sank deeper into his chair, a wave of nausea assaulting his body as he attempted to cast the last comment out of his mind. He took deep, controlled breaths until his heartbeat had slowed enough to allow him to continue his sorting. He told himself that he was still just adjusting, that he would get used to the macabreness of his job, of his entire existence, but he had been telling himself that ever since he got hired, and he never got used to it.

He tried to avoid thinking about before as much as his mind allowed. He didn’t see the point in wallowing over his past life when there was nothing he could do to get back to it. Whenever he found his mind wandering he forced himself to think of the worst parts of his life as a reminder for why he shouldn’t miss it, why he didn’t. Still, his thoughts always drifted, but they usually wound up in the same place.

He remembered being told when he was alive that there was a special place in hell reserved for him. He never argued, never saw the point. He wasn’t a religious man. He didn’t believe in an afterlife, just thought that death was lights out, the end, goodnight. But to his great dismay hell was entirely real, but it was nothing like what he thought it would be.

There were no flames, or torture. No eternal damnation. There were no demons poking and prodding him as revenge for the ungodly life he lived. In fact Satan himself had yet to make an appearance.

But some days he found himself wishing that all the bible toters and preachers had been right. That the early renaissance painters he had dedicated his college years to studying were correct in their distressingly morbid depictions. Because in his opinion the reality of the afterlife was much worse. Hell was not a fiery pit filled with demons and debauchery. Hell is a corporate office, and he works the night shift.

His first assignment of the night was a boy who had barely turned eight. Death walked along the narrow street his victim was located on while staring down at the smiling, cherubic face on file. His round, rosy cheeks drew a tug of familiarity from the recesses of his mind. A memory that he thought he had forgotten, but no matter how much time had passed and how many lives he took, he always remembered the first.

It was in a dark, desolate alley lined by moldy cobblestones that could never fully dry after a wet spell. His assignment lay sleeping in one of the small quarters along the walkway. An older woman affected by fever, tossing and turning helplessly in her sheets as perspiration flowed from every orifice on her body.

Death loomed over her in the darkness, the only light coming from the moon that shone through the tiny window overlooking the alley. It was full tonight and cast an otherworldly glow over the woman’s unnaturally pale, glistening face.

Death trembled slightly as he leaned down over her face like he was told to do in his training. He was a mere inch away from planting the kiss when he felt a tug that seemed to come from behind his navel and suddenly was ripped away from the woman and transported into the alley outside.

He looked around frantically, wondering if he had done it, if this was what it was like. But when he inhaled an unpleasant scent reached his nostrils and he turned to find the source of it.

A young girl was slumped against a damp wall at the opposite end of the alley. Her chest rose and fell slightly while she clutched her stomach. Death could barely make out in the moonlight the blood seeping from what he would soon discover to be stab wounds. Nausea assaulted his body and he turned to vomit, tossing the woman’s case file to the ground as he dropped to his knees, but nothing came out.

He didn’t know how long he sat there, dry heaving, and shaking as tears he couldn’t shed threatened to spill, before he finally picked up the file again, resolved to finish the job. But when he opened it, it no longer showed the woman but instead the young girl who laid feet away from him.

“Oh my God,” he choked out while another wave of nausea roiled through him. He raised a hand to his mouth and bit down on his fist. The sharp grooves of cobblestone stabbed into his knees as the dampness soaked through his uniform.

The scent radiating from the girl had continued to grow stronger and stronger and was what finally made Death pick himself up from the ground. He walked on trembling legs a few feet to where her body lay before kneeling once again beside her. He white knuckled the file, creasing it from the force of his grip and brought his face over hers.

He felt her shallow breaths against his parted lips, clamped his eyes shut, and forcefully planted his mouth upon hers.

The onslaught was immediate and unbearable. The wretched scent of decay that had been slowly seeping from her wounds suddenly a million times worse as life finally, and completely left her body. Death pulled away and gagged as the acrid smell coated his throat like a physical force. He would taste brimstone for days to come no matter what he did to counteract it.

Within the blink of an eye he was transported back to the office and he found himself in a state of shock, sitting at his desk. The pile of assignments waited expectantly for him. He tried to keep to himself, to calm himself down, but the magnitude of his shock must have been noticed by a passing coworker because he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Those are the worst ones,” a soft, sweet voice said from behind him. He was hunched over in his chair, face buried in his hands. “You’ll never get used to it, someone starting the job and leaving it for you to finish.”

He was barely able to get the words out with his shaky breath, but he managed a weak, “Why me?”

The hand left his shoulder as the employee turned to walk away, but not before adding, “You were just the closest.”

Death had soon come to learn that it was the lingering stench of death that drew the nearest employee to the scene, ripping them away from their current assignment and forcing them to finish the job. He had also realized that the lady was right, those jobs were impossible to get used to. The intrusive sensation of being ripped away and dumped into a different place accompanied by the more often than not gruesome reality of murder.

The next time it happened he was just as unprepared, but eventually he swooped in, planted the kiss, and inhaled the wretched scent of decay as their heart stopped beating, and the breath vanished from their lungs.

When he was transported back to his desk after his first assignment of the night his hands reached automatically for the neck folder, but met empty air. His brow furrowed and he drew his lips into a tight line as he observed the usually folder riddled desk to be empty but for a singular white sheet of paper.

Report to head office, was scribbled hastily across it in bold, black letters as if it had been rushed. He stared at the note confused. He had no idea that the building even had a head office.

He stood from his chair, towering over the walls of his cubicle and scanned the office to see if anything was amiss. But everything appeared to be normal, business as usual. Employees sorted through their assignments while others popped in and out of thin air, either on their way or coming back from a job. He sat back down, contemplated what he should do, then quickly snatched up the paper and beelined towards the elevator.

“Wait up ova there!” a recognizable voice shouted from behind and he turned to see the British man waving his borrowed ‘stapla’ in the air.

“Just leave it on my desk,” Death groaned while resuming his mission, but instead of listening the man jogged to meet him, and clapped a hand on Death’s back.

“Can’t thank ya enough mate!” He was at least a foot shorter than Death, and had to tilt his chin up to meet his eyes. He held out the stapler and not knowing what else to do, Death took it.

“Right, any time,” he assured him, and went to wave before realizing the note was still clutched in his other hand. He quickly dropped his arm, turned tail, and sprinted the rest of the way.

He thought he heard a faint, “What an odd chap,” but ignored it as he finally reached the elevator. When he entered he expected to find the usual hundreds of buttons and feared that he would spend the rest of his shift just searching for the supposed head office, but instead the familiar popping noise sounded and a singular glowing, white circle labeled ‘HO’ appeared. Tentatively, he reached out the hand that held the note and pressed it.

The first thing he noticed about the head office was the color. Insead of the usual gray, off-white walls enclosed the small space at the center of which stood a rich, mahogany desk. A green bankers lamp sat in the corner of it next to a plaque that brandished ‘Head Office’ in gilded, gold letters. A man sat behind the desk, fitted in a dark, blue suit that complimented his tanned skin. His dark brown hair was cropped close to his skull and his equally dark eyes were fixed on a pile of paper before him.

Death slowly stepped out of the elevator as the doors had opened straight into the office. His boots clacked on the shining, hardwood floor as he approached the desk, uncertainly.

“Ah, Peter! Just in time,” the suited man looked up with a smile, flashing his perfectly straight, white teeth. Peter rocked back on his feet, shocked by the use of his real name, a sound he hadn’t heard in what felt like forever. “Are you alright?” The man registered his shock, and stood from his desk, seemingly ready to jump into action depending on Peter’s answer.

“Yes sorry, I just…” he searched for the words but opted for shaking his head instead as the proper ones seemed to elude him.

“Why don’t you take a seat,” the man continued while gesturing to a brown, leather chair Peter hadn’t noticed when he entered the room. In fact he was almost certain that it hadn’t been there before, but he sank gratefully into it, resting his arms on the sides. The man retook his own seat and watched Peter carefully while sliding a cup of water that also seemed to have magically appeared towards him. “Drink, you might feel better.” Peter silently obliged, still adjusting to the oddness of the situation. “Well let’s get the formalities out of the way why don’t we? My name is Odom, I run the head office for the company, and-” he paused. A second passed in silence that Peter was all too happy to return. “Did you bring a stapler with you?”

“What?” he looked down into his lap. “Oh, umm, I did.” He held up the stapler lamely like the worst show and tell.

“Right.” Odom blinked and shook his head as if to physically clear his thoughts. “As I was saying, I run the office here and I’ve been asked to meet with you.”

“I’m Peter,” was all Peter could manage.

“That you are. Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll get straight to it. Peter,” he cleared his throat, “you’re fired.” More silence.

“I’m fired?”

“Yes!” It was Peter’s turn to blink, to let the comment sink in, but his thoughts were too shallow for Odom’s statement to reach any significant depth.

“And what exactly does that mean?” he settled on asking, tentatively.

“Well it means that-” Odom took a deep breath to explain himself but stopped abruptly. A look of confusion matching Peter’s own spread across his features.

“What is it?”

“Well the thing is…” Odom resumed, but trailed off once more.

“What?” he prompted again, agitation growing evident in his tone.

“The thing is, we’ve never done this before so as I’m sure you can assume, we actually have no idea what this means, just that it has to happen.” Peter gripped the stapler, the cold metal acting as an anchor. He poured over the statement, again attempting to decipher some deeper meaning, but it seemed that any reassurance was assumedly impossible. Another minute passed in silence and it was on his tenth run through of the conversation that his mind caught on something else entirely.

“Who the hell is ‘we’?”

“Oh you know, the board, the higher ups, the big men in the sky.” Odom didn’t even have the grace to appear surprised at the question, as if it was well-known knowledge.

“You have got to be kidding me.” Peter leaned his head back, the leather of the chair cool on his neck and laughed despite himself.

“Listen Peter, I understand how confusing this must be-”

“Do you?” he scoffed, and dropped his chin to stare Odom in the eyes directly whose previously cheery face darkened.

“We’re running out of room. We didn’t think it was possible, but it’s happened and this is the solution we’ve come up with. We can only add so many floors.” Any trace of patience he once possessed had vanished from his tone, niceties replaced by seriousness.

“I don’t understand?”

“Do you have any idea of the cost of running maintenance on a building this big? I mean we’re adding a new floor nearly every year now and the electricity, the plumbing, the-”

“Did you say every year?” Odom’s eyes widened as if that detail should be the least of Peter’s concerns in the midst of the situation.

“About, yes,” he said irritably. Peter’s stomach roiled. The stretches of time that he had thought to be weeks, maybe months, had in reality been longer. Much, much longer.

“How long have I been dead?”

“Well it should be in your file here.” Odom opened the folder he had been examining when Peter had entered the office. It was identical to the ones that held his own assignments. “You were hired on May 14th, 1825.”

“I know that, I was there,” Peter deadpanned. “I mean how long has it been since, how long have I been here?”

“Well today’s the first of August and it’s 2137,” he said like it was common information. “So about-”

“A long time.”

“Yes, about a long time.” Peter attempted to piece everything together.

“And now you’re firing me?”

“Like I’ve said, we’re running out of room. We have to start putting you guys somewhere and you’re just the first.”

“Why me?”

“It was random Peter. We wanted the decision to be impartial.”

“And you have no idea what’s gonna happen when you do it?”

“That is correct.”

“Do I have a choice?”

“You do not.” Peter pondered this, considered arguing, fighting back, but found himself falling back on the habit of leaving behind before, and getting through the now. He hated his job, hated being dead. This was a chance to make the afterlife his new before and leave it all behind. In the end it wasn’t a hard decision, though it was never his to make.

“Ok,” he said.



“Right, well,” Odom stood from the desk and picked up Peter’s file. Behind him a paper shredder appeared, on and ready to use. “You might want to put down the stapler.”

He set it on the desk and leaned back in the chair, unsure of what to do next, but Odom had already started feeding his file into the shredder. Unexpected panic flooded his system. Fear of the unknown. Fear of dying, again.

But it was too late to turn back as the shredder had already begun the process of ripping him apart. He felt that his body was on fire, that he was being torn apart from the inside out. Muscles peeled from bone, veins stretched to the point of tearing.

He was in agony. It was worse than his original death when sickness had infected, and overridden his body. But suddenly the sensation of being stabbed, flayed, and skinned alive all at once stopped.

A pulsating warmth spread from his chest and he looked down to see that his name tag had turned from its usual gray to a glowing white. All of his information had suddenly changed.

Name: undecided
Floor: NA
Status: NA

Odom appeared to be examining the change as well and Peter looked up to meet his gaze.

“Well that’s certainly interesting, I wonder what it-”

But before Peter could hear the rest of the sentence he felt a familiar tug from behind his naval as he was ripped out of the office and his vision was assaulted by a bright, blinding light. He could feel his heart racing as his body was clenched tightly as if by a fist, restraining and compressing him. He turned his head wildly, but was only met with the sight of white. He was sure his eyes were open, but it appeared that there was nothing more for them to see other than the brightness surrounding his entire being.

Then as quickly as it had appeared it vanished and was replaced by complete and total darkness, the faint sound of beeping, and the smell of antiseptic. This time he found that the darkness was a result of his eyes being closed and as he forcefully pried them open he experienced the curious sensation of his memories slipping away, and his mind draining to nothing. He felt only two solid hands cupped around his small, fragile body and the faraway, distant voice of someone exclaim It’s a boy!
He opened his small, rosebud mouth and cried.