For April’s Furious Fiction $500 short story competition, we turned the screws a little – by making everyone write a story that had the same title: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. Along with that, they also needed to use three specific words at some point in their story and end their tale with the same phrase.
(Find out more about how our free monthly Furious Fiction competition works – it’s open to anyone 17 or older.)
Here are the specific things that were required this month:
- The title of the story had to be THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM.
- The story had to feature the words “busted”, “emerged” and “key”.
- The story had to end with “the clock struck four”.
Judging was a tricky task – with some figurative ‘elephants in the room’ involving some truly tragic subjects. And of course there were very real elephants too!
Ultimately, as usual, it was the quality of the writing and the ability to hook us into the story quickly and bring it to life that made the top stories stand out.
Congratulations to Fionna Cosgrove, whose story was judged this month’s winner. Well done! Take a read of the winning story below, along with FIVE other shortlisted entries.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM by Fionna Cosgrove
‘Are you from around here?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I mumbled.
‘Just visiting then, or moved here permanently?’ His voice was even, giving away nothing.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, honestly. I couldn’t remember.
‘It can be like that,’ He tilted his head back and his smile emerged from beneath his helmet.
My mind wandered back to the moment he busted through the door.
I looked down and felt tears well behind my eyes. He noticed.
‘The weather is a bit odd at the moment. It’s been an unusually cold summer,’ he offered.
‘I’ve never really liked the cold,’ I said.
‘You and me both,’ he laughed. ‘I find the key to surviving it is using alcohol to warm you from the inside.’
His voice was gentle and kind. I wondered if he had a family waiting for him. I grimaced.
I watched as the two small dots on the digital clock blinked relentlessly.
A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead. The only sign he wasn’t as calm as he appeared.
The chatter coming from his radio was English, but only fragments made sense in my head.
‘Officer, you need to leave now.’
My face was warm, and I realised it was from the tears streaming down my cheeks.
He sat back on his heels and looked up at me with a smile stretched across his face. I appreciated it.
‘I just have to get some more tools. I’ll be right back,’ he lied.
I watched as he stood up, packing several items into different compartments on his vest. His eyes darted from the digital clock attached to the wires around my body to the numbers written on the floor next to me, etched by a person I had met one hour before, in a siege I could only have read about in the pages of a horror novel.
There was that gentle smile again.
I tried to smile back. I failed.
As he exited the building I tried not to focus on the deadline written next to me.
With a shaky breath, I closed my eyes as the clock struck four.
What we loved:
In a month where the story criteria challenged a lot of people, this story weaves them all seamlessly into an efficiently written, emotive and powerful (ticking) package. The dialogue flows easily and the ‘elephant in the room’ is ever present throughout as we can’t help but hold our breath until the final line. Short enough, and good enough, to read twice.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM by Hanna Schenkel
Her wrists hurt. She was rubbing them as she looked around. Apart from some new cracks in the wall the kitchen looked as always. The red spatter everywhere reminded her of when she had forgotten the spaghetti sauce on the stove and it boiled so hard that the bubbles shot a metre high. Well, except that it was much more this time, as if Mike, instead of slapping her and telling her to go to her room until dinner, had taken the whole pot and thrown it against the wall. Not too far a stretch of the imagination she decided, so from now on that’s what had happened today.
That explained why the dirty dishes on the stove still smelled of pancakes instead of spaghetti. Mum had come downstairs and seen what had happened and had made the pancakes so everybody could be friends again. After dinner they had not worried about the dishes because Mike was working the late shift so he’d be away all night. She and Mum had played Scrabble and JJ lay on his blanket and chewed on the squishy plastic key that helped his growing teeth hurt less. Then Mum had tucked her into bed like she used to when it was just the two of them, and then she went to watch a show where people found dead bodies and then a grumpy policeman would come and the murderer would be busted even though it was some fancy businessman and everybody said don’t mess with that guy. Mike would never do something brave like that. Maybe that’s why Mum liked those stories – to imagine that her own husband was at least a little bit like that, being police and all.
Julia hopped over to the kitchen table, trying to avoid the pools that had gathered on the floor, which was really hard because she didn’t want to look down. She felt a bit queasy and nearly threw up but then she was distracted by JJ’s screams that came from upstairs. She carefully removed her slightly damp, sticky socks before she emerged into the hall. Mum would throw a fit if she got blood on the brand new carpet.
Except it was spaghetti sauce, she reminded herself.
JJ was red from screaming. She tried to lift him out of his cot but the railing was too high and she could only just reach him with her fingertips. Finally she climbed in with him. She checked his nappy like she’d seen Mum do and it was wet so she stretched as far as she could to reach a new one from the dresser.
JJ settled down and started chewing on her hand and the drool made her pants all wet. And then he started babbling and looking to the door and squishing around in her arms and she knew he wanted his Mum, except his Mum wasn’t there anymore, it was only Julia, and all of a sudden she was scared. The clock struck four.
What we liked:
Dark and innocent all at once, there is a strong sense of foreboding throughout as the domestic chaos that Julia explores slowly comes to light. Clues are strewn along the way, and the realisation that she is unable to reach into the cot is heartbreaking. Not for the faint-hearted – a powerful and well paced story.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM by Edgar Keighley
Magic is difficult. It just doesn’t happen as if … well, as if by magic. And not all practitioners are accomplished. Like doctors, some are very good and some are quite shoddy, yet all of them are imbued with an aura of omniscience and salvation. So it is with magicians and their ilk.
In the modern spirit of transparency and disclosure, it’s time some misbeliefs were busted. Start with Cinderella. Most of what you have been told isn’t wrong, but it’s important that you know about the whole shebang. It certainly didn’t have a happy ending. You know only the expurgated edition.
Zelda – the Fairy Godmother you’re familiar with – has a blemished record. She has been before the Magical Practitioners Tribunal on four occasions. Without going into details, let’s just say that she has a tendency to be sloppy. Not a great attribute when you’re splashing about powerful incantations.
And you need to know a little about transformations. You don’t just blink a mouse into a mount – there’s much more to it than that. You set parameters around a burst of extra-dimensional energy (that’s the sparkles you see), and assemble the conditions that channel something into temporarily becoming something else. But you need to get those parameters spot on. The other thing about transformations is that, unlike public transport, they are strongly time dependent and can only operate on hourly slots.
At eight in the evening of the Great Ball, when Zelda transmogrified the mice, she cast the spell a tad tardily. A stray sparkle struck the mirror and, as a general rule, magic and mirrors should never meet. The glass, the silver backing, the reversed image do dangerous things that are difficult to determine. The altered magic ricocheted off the mirror and whizzed through a key-hole into the kitchen where it mesmerised another mouse. (Seriously, for all Cinderella’s supposed housework, that place was a rodent infested dump.) Now, when magic passes through a narrow conduit – a key-hole for example – it messes with the timings of spells. Particularly transformations.
So what does all that mean? Well, basically this. The mouse that was reflectedly bewitched was never going to turn into a horse. Probably something much bigger. And the transformation wasn’t instant. A key-hole sized conduit can delay a transformation by around eight hours.
Everyone was oblivious to this small glitch and Cinderella breezed off to have a dazzling whirl at the Prince’s pad before throwing a shoe in her hasty exit. Back at home she sat in the small kitchen sobbing into a tub of ice cream, despondent that the evening had turned into a debacle. A mouse, which despite having felt woozy all evening, emerged from behind the cupboard and sat under Cinderella’s chair to offer consolation and score any ice cream that dribbled to the floor.
As the mouse sat under the chair it began to feel off colour to a degree that couldn’t be explained by ice cream consumption alone.
Then, the clock struck four.
What we liked:
Taking a well-worn story and skewing it into something new, this reads as a curious cautionary tale. Part instruction guide to the dangers of misdirected magic, as well as a warning to not necessarily believe everything you read, we loved the use of ‘busted’ and the dramatic final arrival of the titular character!
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM by Michael McGoldrick
It’s not mine. It’s never been mine, not exclusively anyway. Its arrival came shortly after the dog’s. Now the two of them are inseparable, loving each other’s company. I often imagine them sitting together in silence. Content. Avoiding eye contact.
The dog? Oh, that’s not mine either, although it does spend an awful lot of time with us. By her side, licking at her hand. It watches me, ever protective of her. I don’t encourage it to come around, however I am certainly guilty of feeding it at times. And like all family pets, I seem to have gradually become the one responsible for cleaning up after it. Shooing it away isn’t the answer, it simply comes and goes as it pleases. Expected, yet unpredictable. Elephant in tow. A symbiotic relationship, uncomfortable and crowding.
They must share a house key, as I often come home from work to find that they are the ones awaiting my arrival. No sooner have I emerged from my car then I can sense their presence. Sometimes it’s silence, other times a volume twisted further than is needed. All the lights may be off or the door dead-bolted. I know soon enough.
When the key is lost in a medicated ripple, the door is often busted down. A small black shape waits to wander inside again. Despite its existence, I have never seen it. I see where it has messed on the rug or scratched up the chair. I sense it, like a shadow in the periphery. I clean up, mend bridges, send apologies, smooth over misunderstandings, decline invitations, accompanied by my unspeaking, careful elephant.
Nobody ever talks about the elephant of course. Not even me. When the dog has run amok, the elephant watches out for me. Often it’s a simple task in a darkened room. A dab on the cheek with a tissue or a shared drink. Unappreciated, it is cast to the back of my mind, but never for long.
I’m parked in the driveway with the ignition off. The clock has struck five and my daily routine continues. Through clenched jaw, a slow, deep breath fails to quell my racing pulse. My thoughts are of the elephant. Is it here? Has it followed the black dog inside today? I close my eyes, only for a second or two. A cowardly hope. A selfish wish. Unable to face the dog or elephant. Stressed and tired. Please just take me back to when the clock struck four.
What we liked:
Once you understand that this is not your typical tale of pet ownership, the layers peel back to reveal an original and cleverly written tightrope-walk of a story – making the ‘black dog’ of depression (and the elephant, of course) a physical presence in the narrator’s life. Told in first person, it also finds a clever way to deliver the final words.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM by Fiona L. Clarke
“Right,” said the smaller one, obviously in charge. “Are we all here?”
“We’re just waiting on Penny and Rory, Earl,” the one in orange and black spoke up when none of the others did. “They did say they may be late. They got busted trying to loosen one of the locks yesterday. They think Jones may be on to them.”
A loud thumping sound came from over in the corner.
“Shhh!” several of others hissed.
“Sorry,” muttered the large one, his eyes downcast, not daring to look at Earl.
Earl shook his head and sighed, “We can’t wait. It’s nearly four.” Tapping his long black nail on the map spread out in front of him he said, “We will be breaking out here.”
The others moved in closer to get a better look.
“Hey, watch what you’re doing, you big oaf, you nearly crushed me,” the one with big ears rubbed her leg and hobbled out of the way.
“Sorry,” the big one grimaced.
Earl tutted before continuing. “Zed has the key, don’t you?”
Zed waddled forward and held aloft a small silver key. “Snatched it from Watson at feeding time,” she laughed.
The others joined in, the large one trumpeting loudly.
“Sorry,” whispered the large one.
Earl glared at him. “Okay. From there we split up. That will make it harder for the keepers to catch us…”
“Hold up,” one of the meerkats on lookout called out.
Everyone fell silent. The large one sneezed causing three others to fall over.
“Sorry,” he moaned.
There was a noise on the other side of the hole in the fence. They all held their breath as two heads emerged through the hole.
“Rory. Penny,” the large one cried out, his large grey ears flapping.
“Keep it down!” the rest of them told him.
“Sorry,” he grinned.
Penny sidled up to Earl, “Why do we always have to hold the Escape Committee Meetings here?” she asked nodding towards Emmett, who was shuffling around trying to make room for everyone.
“Arrghh! You’re on my tail. Get off!” screamed one of the lemurs.
Earl rolled his eyes, “He’s the only one who can’t break out of his enclosure on his own.”
“You don’t think he’s a liability?” Penny suggested.
Earl looked over at his best friend. Emmett noticed and waved his trunk sending one of the monkeys flying.
Earl tried not to laugh, “No, not intentionally, anyway.”
He cleared his throat loudly to restore order, “You all have your disguises?”
There was a rustle of various hats, caps, ties, scarves, handbags, and backpacks being put on. Everyone turned in surprise towards Emmett now wearing a small red and white cap, looking very pleased with himself.
“Everyone ready?” Earl asked.
“Yes,” they chorused.
Emmett nodded and his cap fell off. He picked it up and quickly placed it back on his head.
“All right. Wait for my signal.” Earl lifted his paw in the air bringing it down as the clock struck four.
What we liked:
There were a couple of zoo/circus type stories this month, but this one stood out for its snappy dialogue and the visual treat it paints as this motley crew plan their big escape. Or maybe we just love picturing them all wearing hats, caps, ties, scarves, handbags, and backpacks while trying to casually blend in!
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM by Candice Locklee
Mr Oliver was cursed with a curious problem.
Every time the clock struck four, something in his house disappeared.
At first, it was just little things.
A toothbrush here, an old photo frame there. Sometimes, the object was so small and forgotten he didn’t even know it had gone.
Then, one night, his bed disappeared right out from under him. He was shocked awake when his body hit the hard floorboards and he had to fight to disentangle himself from his bundle of sheets in the dark.
Since then, he’d slept in the spare bedroom.
This morning, a rather large object had disappeared from the centre of Mr Oliver’s second-story living room.
He had woken as usual, made a plate of greasy leftovers for breakfast and emerged into the living room only to find a large, gaping hole where his floor used to be.
When Mr Dash arrived for his daily visit, the response was to pretend that it was still there.
“Lovely day, Jim,” Mr Dash mumbled into his steaming cup of tea.
“That it is,” Mr Oliver said, cheerfully. “Haven’t seen weather this good for a long while”. His friend grunted in agreement and discreetly shuffled his chair to the right of the chasm. “You know,” he said, “poor Margie’s got her work cut out for her now that Paul’s been laid off”.
Mr Oliver took a sip of tea. “How’s he doing, anyway?”
“Busted some ribs. Got hauled off to hospital. Won’t be back at work for a month”.
“Ouch. Poor Margie, indeed.”
Conversation flowed between the two men – it was too easy to lose track of time.
“More tea?” Mr Oliver asked politely after the shadows had settled long in the room.
Mr Dash stood. “I should be off, Jim”.
“Already?” Mr Oliver asked, disappointed. He hated to admit how lonely he was these days.
“You know Mary. She’ll start to worry if I’m not back by four – you should come over someday. Mary would love to see you”.
“Absolutely,” Mr Oliver replied. “Tell her to save me a seat at the table!”
But they both knew it wouldn’t happen.
“See you tomorrow, Jim”.
With a kind smile and a nod of his head, Mr Dash plodded down the stairs. Mr Oliver heard the front door shut as his friend retreated into the night. Alone again, he skirted around the hole in the floor and made his way through the house.
Past the empty dog bowl on the floor and the rolled up leash.
Past the note on the refrigerator – Be home late tonight, could you put the roast in the oven and don’t forget the veggies! – and the empty photo frames in the hall.
Past the door that was now locked with no key to open it again and past the pair of little shoes sitting neglected under the windowsill.
He went into the spare bedroom, closed his eyes and braced himself.
Downstairs, the clock struck four.
What we liked:
We couldn’t help but be drawn in by the first few lines – and the matter-of-factness of the story’s simple happenings juxtaposes beautifully with the oddity taking place in poor Mr Oliver’s life. Equal parts funny, surreal and sad, ultimately it’s the latter that rises to meet the ending. In a sea of stories, this stood out.
Think you could have done better?
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