Writing on Wednesdays: (Don’t) Panic Contest

writing and coffee

Recently, Lauren Oliver (one of my most favorite authors) hosted a writing contest to spread the word about her upcoming YA novel, PanicNeedless to say, I am BEYOND excited for the book. Oliver challenged us to write as if we were going through a Panic game/test ourselves. Her advice? Make the stakes as high as possible and be creative. I had a ton of fun writing a short story (ish thing) for the contest, although I didn’t win. The 1st place winner’s piece was extraordinary! I love constructive criticism and post for fun. Here we go!

Ten minutes. Ten minutes between me and winning that money. Ten minutes between me and going to college. I still don’t understand how the judges seem to tailor these tests so precisely to my worst fears. Thirty seconds. Thirty seconds before I choose to shimmy into the coffin in front of me and allow myself to be lowered underground. Buried alive has a strange ring to it. What an oxymoron. Twenty seconds. My palms start to sweat. I take a deep breath. “Buried” goes with words like “cold” and “unyielding” and “death.” “Alive” goes with words like “free” and “well” and “warm.” The crowd is starting the countdown. I step into the coffin and lay down. They close the lid. Darkness. I can still hear the muffled sound of the crowd’s cheers. I feel myself being lowered into the ground. Thud. The first chunk of dirt hits the coffin’s lid and makes my heartbeat quicken. I look to my right and see the glowing button that I can push if I want to end the test. Thud. That button means freedom. Thud. That button means failure. I didn’t invest a dollar every single day for almost an entire year just to fail. I will go to college. I won’t end up like my mom, stuck in this town with kids she doesn’t want and no way out.

My eyes have adjusted to the darkness by now and I see the deep grooves carved into the coffin. I take another shallow breath. This isn’t as bad as I pictured it. I’m probably halfway through the test. Except that I learned in psychology class that adrenaline can make time seem different. Slower. Or Faster. I can’t remember. I could have three minutes left. Or nine. I clench my fists, trying to keep the terror from rising into my throat. Silence. I can’t hear the crowd anymore. All that remains is the sound of my quickening breaths. I try holding these breaths—I don’t want to waste precious air. Oh God, am I going to die here? Is this going to be my legacy? Are my last moments going to be marked by utter darkness in an unmarked grave?

Stop! I chide myself for allowing my thoughts to take such a negative turn. I try to turn on my side but I can’t. I’m trapped in this position. It has to have been ten minutes by now. What if they left me? What if that’s why I can’t hear them anymore? I look at the glowing button. It’s tantalizing now. No. I start clawing at the roof of the coffin. I don’t have enough room to hit anything. My clawing becomes more and more frantic. I swear the coffin’s walls are getting closer. I feel hot liquid running down my fingers as my nails begin to bleed. The button is right there. It’s ridiculous, but I can’t bring myself to push it. Why I choose instead to attempt to claw out of the coffin, I cannot say. I’m beyond reason. I reach into my mind and grab hold of the only lucid thought available: I will win. I must be hallucinating because I feel water soaking into my shoes. I ignore it until it tickles my calves. I feel relief. I feel panic. Water means that they haven’t abandoned me here; it’s the second part of the test. Water means that there is less room for air. Less air. I bite my hand to keep from screaming.

I steal another look at the button. Why won’t it turn red? Red means the test is over. Red means I’ve won. I feel something crawling up my leg. Please let it not be a spider. I close my eyes and take several deep, starving breaths to try and conquer my near-hyperventilation. I force myself to analyze my situation. Fear can’t control you if you don’t allow it to freeze your mind, right? What is the fear being tested here? They never tell us. Is it fear of the unknown? Is it fear of enclosed spaces? Drowning? Or darkness? Or of the underground? Or death? What if fear only holds power because we feel like we can’t control the situation? Well, I control this situation. I choose to not push that button. I choose to beat this test.

As I come to this realization, I smile. When I smile, water leaks into my mouth. I hadn’t even realized the water’s fast rise. I cough and my eyes fly open. I pull my hands up from my sides and find that they are numb and heavy. My whole body feels numb. The water is suddenly freezing. The need to lift my right hand to the glowing button becomes an unintelligible litany. Time seems to slow down and my senses dull. My universe becomes my right hand, moving inch by inch from my waist to the button near my head. I didn’t win. Defeat crushes me like a physical blow.

The light turns red.

I barely register the coffin being lifted, the water draining out, the sunlight hitting my face, or the crowd’s ecstatic cheers. To them, the test is a game. To them, I am their champion. To me, the test is a way out of this place. To me, I have survived. I do not get the luxury of elation or victory. I feel blood caking my nail beds. I feel sensation returning to my muscles. I feel grim satisfaction because I endured my fears. Not victory, but endurance. I feel…free.

**I give ALL credit for the (Don’t) Panic contest and the Panic novel concepts to Lauren Oliver. I retain rights only to my writing itself.**


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Sandra
    Aug 01, 2013 @ 14:16:07

    really enjoyed reading it. Nice article complemented by a great photo. Is that your own shoot?


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