Furious Fiction August 2018 winner and shortlist

It’s time to announce the winning story and shortlist for August’s Furious Fiction! We received a record number of entries this month, and each story simply had to include the following three sentences:

  • The door was locked.
  • She laughed.
  • It felt familiar.

A reminder that all stories are judged “blind” (no, not with a blindfold, that would be silly) – as in they are judged on the story’s merits without seeing the name of the entrant or anything about them. So, with that in mind, it’s impressive that the winner for August is one of just a small number of people (growing smaller every month!) who has entered Furious Fiction every single month since it began!

Congratulations to Amanda McLeod of ACT Australia, whose story “Mind Games” was judged this month’s winner. She pockets $500 and you can read her winning story below, along with five other shortlisted stories.

Be sure to enter in September – whether it’s your first time or eighth time, it doesn’t matter – the best judged story takes home the cash!


AUGUST WINNER

MIND GAMES by Amanda McLeod

“Shall we play a game?”

I said nothing. This was how it started, how they tried to draw me out of my shell. Engage me, with something non-threatening.

My body language betrayed me.

“You’re right. I did try to engage you in a neutral way. It was deceptive. I apologise.”

There was something about her voice. It felt familiar. I exhaled, letting some of the tension leave me. I knew this one. She’d been to visit me before.

She shone like coloured glass in the bare grey room that was my home. For safety, they said. It was all about safety. Bench made of something hard but padded, too heavy to move. Roof too high for anyone to reach. Windows long but thin, enough room for an arm perhaps but nothing more. No way out, and no way in, save the door. Isolated for my own protection. My only visitors were hand-picked by my parents, who hoped to save my sanity.

I didn’t know how this one slipped past them. She wasn’t like the others. I told her that.

She laughed.

“That is indeed a compliment.” She stopped pacing around the room and sat on the bench, patting the seat in invitation. Still guarded, I lowered myself down beside her. She leaned forward and took my cold, thin hands in her warm soft ones.

“I am not like the others,” she whispered in a hot rush. “I am not here to justify your being in this prison. I am here to set you free.”

That was impossible. Nobody in a white coat was ever here to set me free.

“I don’t deserve it.”

She gave me a stern look.

“Of course you do. It’s not your fault they don’t understand you.” She rose again, agitated, and continued pacing. “You’ve been doing well. No hallucinations for more than a week. No acts of violence. That’s significant progress.”

I hadn’t considered that. Maybe she was right.

“Of course I am. I’m a doctor.” She wiggled her stethoscope at me. “Now, let’s talk about your release.” She sat back down beside me again. “When they take you home, I want you to go upstairs to Jenny’s room,” she held her mouth close to my ear and her voice dropped to a whisper, “and throw her out the window.”

I recognised her then. She’d been pretending, those other times she came to see me. Animal sounds tore from my throat as I tried to strangle her with her own stethoscope.

***

When I woke up, I was in restraints again. They came in to check on me and I demanded to know who she was, the doctor impersonator. How she got in.
They’d come running when they heard my screams, they told me. But there was nobody else here. The door was locked. It had been locked the whole time.

What we loved:
This one uses first person to excellent effect – we really have no choice but to get our bearings and then second guess our way through the arrival of this mysterious visitor. Simple, natural dialogue soon sees us lulled into a sense of security as we’re told to head upstairs… then BAM. The ending hits with clinical precision, as cold and hard as a padded bench. Seamless use of the three sentences – the final one confirming our fears. Compact, tight storytelling.


SHORTLISTED

DON’T MOVE by Amina Jansz

Grip the covers and pull them tighter. But don’t move. It might stir the thing to life.

What thing? There is nothing there. But I can feel it. Or I imagine it. A hand creeping on to the covers and squeezing my shin through the plush cotton. I kick at the pillow that’s protecting me from the cold unfeeling wood of the bed end. My toes brush against something hard. My instinct pictures a severed head bleeding into the mattress. I freeze. My legs are braver than the rest of me and they search further. I feel the hard-plastic nose of my bear plushie, one of many toys that are supposed to comfort me. My toenail taps against his plastic eye. Is he looking at me?

I reluctantly throw away the covers and clamber in the darkness for my phone. The light of the screen is too bright and for a moment, I fear the sight of an illuminated face hovering at the foot of my bed. My eyes adjust and there is nothing there. Above the lumps of my knees and plush toys, there is just the wall. I stare. I am afraid to blink.

I don’t remember when I last fell asleep peacefully. After the blissful years of childhood, the time when fears in the night were acceptable, there has always been the struggle with my agitated heart and overly perceptive ears. Mother was sympathetic back then.

“You just have a wild imagination,” she assured.

The routine of bedtime became more neurotic each time the family sang goodnight. The door was locked. The quilt was pulled back. The wardrobe was shut. The curtains drawn. Then I would climb into bed and cocoon myself from the projections of my mind’s eye.

Mother came into my room one night in search of a dress that I had borrowed. The sound of her clumsy movements was comforting. It felt familiar. I realised that I would fall into the clouds of dreamland faster if she stayed with me.

She found the dress and the door closed behind her. I tried to resume my slow descent. But a chime of realisation rang. She had forgotten to close the wardrobe. I could hear it. Or rather I didn’t hear it. Through my closed lids, I saw the fearsome black abyss exposed by the open sliding door. I saw something slink out of the shadows of my makeshift dresser. My eyes snapped open. Angry, I jumped out of bed and slammed the wardrobe shut.

“What’s the big deal?” Mother called out.

“I told you I don’t like the wardrobe open!”

She laughed.

Everyone laughs. I don’t mind them laughing. At least I know they are there. Once they go to sleep, the strip of light beneath my locked door disappears. I am alone.

I return the phone to the nightstand and pull the covers over my head. I close my eyes, afraid of the imminent plunge into darkness when the screen locks.

I don’t move.

What we liked:
Hands up who has ever had this feeling – as a child or an adult? Here it’s told in such a way that we found ourselves feeling that same fear of the monsters under the bed (or in the wardrobe). While most stories this month chose the more common passive “the door was locked” sentence (with “locked” as an adjective), this found a way for the verb variety to make sense. A few memories sprinkled throughout only adds to the feeling of nervous night-time nostalgia!


SHORTLISTED

BLISTER by Suzi Mezei

There was a rust-coloured scab on the top of my right hand from where he’d scratched me. It was fat in the middle and thin at the ends, bowed like worm changing direction. I was joking, I said, though I really wasn’t. I sauntered past washed-out wine tables and sat heavily beside him on the couch, crossing my legs so he was encircled by my presence. He pressed into the corner of the brocade, the summer haze swimming over his head. I leaned in close and the heat of my breath fell on his soft skin. I would have an hour with him alone. The door was locked.

When my mother came home, she asked where he was. Training, I lied. Friends told me my legs looked fat in shorts. But I liked the way they thrust out from the frayed denim and took over. I licked my finger and stuck it in a jar of Nescafe. You’re a pig, mother frowned. Yep. I sucked the bitter granules. She opened a box and put three frozen pies in the oven. She threw me a look that said she wished I wasn’t there. It felt familiar. Strangely comforting; a reinforcement.

She bent down to untie her shoes. She worked too hard in a hospital at something menial; so menial they never invited her to the staff Christmas party. She was resentful of everything. She carried the smell of the hospital on her body. Her uniform shirt strained with the weight of her aging, dry breasts. Did you get the washing in? Her voice was near the floor. No. There were strands of white in her tied hair. She shook her head, mumbled. She spread her lint covered toes. She laughed. I knew she was disgusted. Mostly, I was glad.

He’s late she said.

I said nothing.

I looked at the place on the couch where the floral cover was ruffled; the space that he’d filled with his pathetic body. My cloudy-eyed mutt named Jed, sniffed that place now. He poked his old snout in very odd places. He whined. What’s wrong with him? My mother asked. I shrugged.

I turned on the television and tasted the coffee.

What we liked:
A mysterious, layered glimpse at dysfunctional domesticity, with a chilling undercurrent that’s colder than a frozen pie. The inner monologue is a very good example of “show don’t tell” in action as our narrator’s trivial wonderings hint at psychopathy, but never overtly. Using sparse, effective dialogue, it is dark without being gratuitous – making you want to reread to uncover more. The story itself feels like that rust-coloured scab, about to be pulled off.


SHORTLISTED

STOLEN MOMENT by Debbie Gravett

The door was locked. They ran for the next one… also locked. There was only one more at the end of the hall. Adam glanced behind him, grabbed Rachel’s hand and sprinted for all he was worth pulling her along. Her foot caught, and she slipped… he helped her up, took two long jump strides and reached for the cold metal. He gripped the handle and pushed it down while she watched the hallway. They could hear them coming, feet pounding on the stairs. The door resisted. With a desperate shoulder tackle it gave way, they slipped in and collapsed with their backs against it. To get their steam train puffing under control, they assumed meditation breathing—deep inhalation and slow exhale. Family responsibilities and aging had robbed them of their fit physiques as time was never enough or their own.

“Where are they?” the voice knifed through the quiet.

They held their breaths as the footsteps grew closer—three light sets, with one slightly heavier than the others, but all fast.

“Are you sure they came this way?” a different voice inquired.

The silver handle above them squeaked as it bowed, the door shivered as someone pushed it from the other side, but stayed shut. Adam and Rachel sat like fear-frozen statues. It felt familiar. Like a game of hide and go seek, except this was no game, and they didn’t want to be found.

“They can’t be here, all these doors are locked. Let’s go look downstairs again,” a third voice waned.

They released a puff of air.

“How come they didn’t get in?” Rachel whispered, just in case. “Were you pushing against the door?”

“No, I slipped the lock when I closed it.”

She laughed.

“Quick thinking. I figure we’ve got five minutes to ourselves before the kids come back around trying to find us,” Adam kissed his wife like a newlywed, neither having the remains of any guilt. A few minutes alone to cuddle and restore their sanity, before returning to being the playmates, cooks, cleaners and law enforcers.

What we liked:
Take a look at the first paragraph, compared with the rest of the story. A classic example of setting the mood through absence of a paragraph break! By doing this, the initial manic, rushed, panicked state is delivered twofold. Ultimately, the genre we think we’ve stumbled into is delightfully subverted – revealing more ‘rom-com’ than ‘thriller’ as all parents of the world nod in unison! Simple, descriptive storytelling.


SHORTLISTED

UNFAIR by Brad Almond

“…a couple of women grabbed my butt.”

“Oh,” Henry’s sympathetic voice replied through the phone. “Dude, I’m sorry. That sucks.”

“Yeah, listen…” I started, glancing around the almost abandoned street. It was the witching hour and darkness permeated the idyllic setting. Night-time brought with it the chill of fear, abated by isolated islands created by street lights. I waded out from one such island, starting my brief journey to the next lightened pool.

“I’m about twenty from home, man, and I swear…” I dropped my voice, “I think somebody is following me.” I glanced behind myself, seeing the shadowy figure behind hiding in the darkness.

“Ok. Stay with me, alright? I’m ready to call the cops. Which street are you in?”

My response became strangled in my mouth as the footsteps behind me sped up. They thumped sharply on the footpath.

“Baker” I wheezed out as my heart and pace quickened. I reached the next island of light and hesitated. Do I stay here, well lit but abandoned by humanity? Or do I dive back into the dark, hoping that a quick four-minute run would get me home safely?

I heard the footsteps continue. They were getting closer.

No. It was worse than ‘they’.

Her.

She was getting closer.

A block away I heard the tyres of a car screeching a burnout. Some young woman was celebrating her youth and freedom with petrol powered cylinders.

She’d be no help to me. I was alone.

Or more to the point, I wasn’t.

I start running from the light. I hear her gaining.

I round the corner and see my apartment block ahead. I put on a burst of speed, and she nearly matches me. Up the steps, my hands shaking, trying to open the glass door. She’s close now, no more than seconds behind me.

It’s open.

I quickly slip inside and slam it shut, twisting the key. I see her there, standing on the steps, swaying slightly, smiling at me. She’s reaching out to the handle, wiggling it, but it won’t open. The door was locked.

“Oh sweetie,” she calls to me. “I only wanted to talk. What’s wrong? Why won’t you talk to me?” She abruptly kicks the door with all her might, and I jump, breath escaping from me in ragged gasps. “Stuck up bastard!” She yells at my frightened shadow in the hall. Turning, she left back into the night.

The last I could hear of her was a nightmare that would haunt me for weeks. After all of this, she laughed.

She laughed.

After having lived through this sort of thing nearly half a dozen times, I hated this. In a fair world, this shouldn’t happen. A near miss like this shouldn’t feel familiar.

But as a young man, it did.

It felt familiar.

It was unfair.

What we liked:
Yes it does feel familiar – but with one simple switcheroo, it’s an alternate reality. The story doesn’t dwell on this of course, for that’s the point – here it’s the normal world. With an opening exchange that seems funny at first, you soon realise what’s going on (making any initial reaction more curious). The journey home kept us reading with good pacing, dialogue and description, as we willed on the protagonist. A simple yet clever statement on what is familiar and unfair in the real world.


SHORTLISTED

(UNTITLED) by Heidi van Dort

Tammy was slumped on the cold, hard tiles. In the distance, a baby was crying.

She stood up slowly, wincing from a sharp pain in her head. There was a lump.

Tammy noticed a baby monitor on the kitchen bench. The cries grew louder. Whose baby was that?

She must be babysitting, she figured. She’d been taking on extra jobs after school lately to get spending money for the upcoming holidays. Strange that she couldn’t remember this place though.

Finding a staircase, Tammy ascended to the second level. Several doors faced onto the landing. She tried the first one. The door was locked.

She tried the second one with more luck. A jolt ran through her as she stepped into the nursery. It felt familiar.

Shaking off the feeling, Tammy walked over to the cot. She picked up the red-faced baby and shushed and patted her until she was calm.

“Are you hungry?” she asked gently.

Tammy was back in the kitchen when a noise behind her made her jump. A man had appeared in the doorway.

“Hello,” she said. He must be the father.

“Hey,” he smiled and took the baby from her arms, planting kisses all over her plump cheeks.

“I was going to feed her, but I’m having trouble remembering where you keep the bottles.” She was embarrassed to admit to her client that she didn’t know what she was doing.

“Bottles?” he asked, regarding her carefully. “But you breastfeed her.”

She laughed. She always laughed when she was nervous. That was a creepy joke for a middle-aged man to make to a teenage girl.

“Are you ok?” He frowned. “Is that a bump on your head?” He took a step towards her and Tammy shuffled back. Her temple throbbed. She wished she could remember what had happened.

“Actually, I might go home now if that’s ok? If I’m finished here?”

“Tam?” The man sounded worried now, and the familiar way he said her name made her feel unnerved. She’d never had any of the dads from her babysitting jobs hit on her before, and she hoped this wasn’t going to be the first.

“Let me just grab the nappy bag and I’ll take you to the doctors. I don’t think you’re well.”

He left the room and as soon as the coast was clear, Tammy snuck quickly towards the front door. She had almost made it when something made her stop dead in her tracks.

The woman in the hallway mirror had fine lines around her mouth, tired eyes and hair that was greying at the edges. Tammy shivered as a chill ran through her. She was looking at a reflection of herself in twenty years’ time.

The man and his baby reappeared next to her. Tammy tried to ask what was happening, but the words wouldn’t come out. As the baby stretched her arms towards Tammy, she babbled one word.

“Mumma.”

And for the second time that day, Tammy fainted onto the cold, hard tiles.

What we liked:
A bewildered main character in an unfamiliar home, Tammy seems like a teenager with a few problems. But things aren’t what they seem in what could actually be the scariest story on this list – as that realisation hits home (her home) in front of the mirror. Using third-person keeps us mercifully at arm’s length, but we still can’t help but see our own lives flash before our eyes. The final reveal certainly provides what you might call the mother of all endings!


 


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