Furious Fiction August 2021 winner and shortlist

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With many writers having some extra at-home time on their hands, August’s Furious Fiction competition welcomed a bumper crop of entries – more than 1600 and the second highest ever! They came from all parts of the world, hoping their words would shine brightest. These were the challenge criteria:

  • Your story’s first sentence must contain only four words.
  • Your story must include something being shared.
  • Your story must include the words PAINT, SHIFT, WAVE and TOAST. (Longer variations were accepted as long as original spelling was retained.)

And so it began. Before you could say “vegemite, champagne or marshmallows?”, we had toast-laden tales of all varieties, each shifting nervously and waving to the judges. All sharing the same brief but painting very different stories for us to enjoy. The short opening sentences made things tricky, as suddenly every story possessed a pithy or punchy opening (take note for future months!). But ultimately, the pile got thinner and thinner, until just one remained on top. That one belonged to A K Scotland – now the toast of the town and $500 richer. Congrats!

You can read this winning story below, along with five shortlisted ones, plus scan the longlist at the end for familiar names. But even if you entered yet received no recognition this month, charge your glass all the same and toast yourself and to creative freedom. Enjoy!


 

AUGUST 2021 WINNER

THE SCREEN by A K Scotland, NSW

‘See those three dots? That’s the menu. Just click the dots and select “share screen.”’

Framed behind a picture window, the late afternoon sun licks the clouds with a forked tongue. The fiery display belies the chill inside this home studio, where two expectant faces glow coolly from the monitor.

‘Mandy, can you share your screen please? Patrice wants to see where you’re at with the cover art.’

My boss, Artemis, and the author, Patrice, blink and wait. Plastered across my second monitor is a third, unblinking face – a face contorted into the abject terror of a scream emoji.

‘I’m just…’ (I’m just stalling.) ‘Three dots?’

‘Yes.’ Artemis emits a slight hiss as the ‘s’ catches between clenched teeth. ‘The three dots in the little bubble, click that.’

Two hours ago, I’d been ready to fix a kerning issue or fiddle with the text placement. But then Patrice threw her considerable, mid-lockdown weight around, and now I’m back to the drawing board.

‘It needs more drama to reflect the epic proportions of my novel.’

(Translation: I need more drama to reflect my massive ego.)

‘It’s too heterogeneous. Can we make it more rhizomatic?’

(Translation: You studied fine art for four years, but I know more big words than you.)

‘Can we see the water in shades of chartreuse?’

(Translation: I don’t know what ‘chartreuse’ is and when confronted with baby poo green water I’ll demand you change it back.)

‘Mandy, three dots. Bottom middle of the screen.’

Patrice’s chins fold in on themselves like the compressed bellows of an accordion.

‘I’m looking…’ (I’m toast.)

I can see them, of course – dot dot dot – a bubbly ellipsis playing bellman to my impending doom. But I can’t click them. I can’t click them because I don’t have a dramatic, rhizomatic, baby poo-spattered masterpiece to share. While Patrice has been speaking, I’ve been rage-doodling.

Staring back at me in garish 32-bit colour is a pixelated, alien form. It’s me. I’m hovering at the edge of the painstakingly rendered Bridge of Hostility by Patrice Miller-Young and I’m damn near ready to jump. I’m bracing my head in my hands as my eyes bulge in horror. Pixel-Me didn’t want to be a graphic designer. She wanted to follow painter, Edvard Munch, into that “unholy trade.”

‘Mandy, for god’s sake, just hit ALT+SHIFT+S.’

‘I’m hitting SHIFT…’ (I’m losing all CTRL.)

I could log off. Pull the cord. Blame the dodgy Wi-Fi.

I do none of these things.

‘Mandy, you insufferable hack, share your damn screen!’

Deep inside, something thin and brittle snaps. The echoes reverberate until they fill my ears. Trembling like a startled deer, I click the dots. I select “share screen.”

A sharp exhalation of hot air hisses through the speakers.

The accordion expands, peers across her keyboard. Eyes widen to fill coffee ring-sized frames.

I wait as Patrice fills her bellows to bursting. Then I wave my job goodbye as the author opens her mouth to speak.

‘I…

LOVE IT.’

What we loved:
Ahhh, the Zoom meeting – where it may be easier to wear pyjama bottoms and blame technology, but client demands are just the same. Here, an all-too-familiar opening pulls us into a tightly constructed story filled with clear distinct characters and a relatable present-day premise – we can’t help but empathise with Mandy the book cover designer. In fact, it is the superb narrative voice and style that fuels the story sentence by sentence, creating a piece that's both compelling and comical (with some witty one-liners and parenthetical asides). The three dots on screen become a series of tension-filled three-dot ellipses as the story progresses, growing more pronounced until the final, literal, reveal. This is a story that uses humour and the “rule of 3” to great effect; an example of the subjective nature of art – and sadly, entirely believable (as any designer will admit!).


 

SHORTLISTED

UNTITLED by Sascha Elk, VIC

You cradle me, vacant. Your mind has been wandering lately, looking towards easier times, and looking back, mourning them.

He brings you tea and toast and you thank him, but no smile breaches your lips. You’re too tired to feign love, softness. You reserve it all for me because I need it, but I can feel its emptiness. Will this ever end, you wonder. It seems infinite now. Impossible.

Today you’re painting my room, from dandelion yellow to duck egg blue. Perhaps that will make you want to be in here.

I watch from a mat on the floor, fists plugging my mouth, eyes wide, kicking. He comes in and offers help, but you want to do this, for me, for you. He gets on the floor and tickles my tummy, but I don’t smile much, and you point that out again.

What if it’s your fault? What if you weren’t happy enough when I was born and now I’m imprinted with melancholy?

Don’t be silly. That’s what he says every time you voice a concern, and every time you retreat further, back inside that shell you live in, inside your mind.

I grow, and your worries shift. Should you have another child? Someone for me to play with. You’re busy trying to keep your art alive. You spend hours in your studio, hunched over canvases of watercolours, African animals and numbers in black and gold. Things for parents to place in their children’s rooms, to mark the milestones. The first weeks, the first Christmas, the first year. All the things you couldn’t find happiness in when they were mine.

I’m right here, and yet you’re lonely. So am I. And so is he.

The sibling you wanted for me doesn’t make it. You’re sad, but relieved.

You take me to the beach and I climb on rocks, watching you as you walk in the shallow waves that lick your ankles and splash your calves. I can feel your restlessness. Even in these peaceful moments I sense your mind, busy, distracted. You’re never here, with me.

You’re older now. He is gone, lost long ago to wrong words and stubborn silences.

I turn twenty-one, and at my party you give a speech. You tell me I’m on my own now, that I’m a woman, and it’s time I made it on my own.

We stop moving through this life together. You get what you’ve wanted since I was born: solitude. I don’t need you, you think. You can be free, enjoy your life, finally.

You no longer feel the guilt you felt when I was a baby, you accepted it, and then finally became immune to it.

I cradle her, vacant. My mind wanders, looking toward easier times, and looking back. I understand you now. It’s arduous, all-consuming. You weren’t meant for this journey.

She stirs, her tiny body moving against mine and I return, here, now. She shares your name.

And I hold no blame for you.

What we liked:
A unique voice, both childlike and wise – all-seeing from her mother’s eyes – harnesses the power of the 2nd person point of view in this melancholy generation game. Bare-bones language and evocative phrases allow the reader to step inside and intimately understand the parenthood struggles it conveys, and empathise with its range of characters. Yet, there is always a sense of distance as big moments pass by in just a few words. Ultimately, this story balances the duck egg blue bleakness and dandelion yellow hopefulness with precision, tucking away any needless melodrama to quietly showcase the human truth at its core. As such, the full circle ending is understated, poignant and perfectly realised.


 

SHORTLISTED

WHAT STAYS BEHIND IN THE GREEN by Dead Carcosa, USA

There was a pond. It was surrounded on all sides by tall oak trees choked with ivy that cloaked the pond in quiet shade. Faint sunlight worked its way down through the canopy, where it shimmered across the dark water, stirring shoals of tadpoles up to the warm, muddy shallows. The surface of the pond was perfectly still, though life teemed beneath its surface. Tall stalks of grass grew straight up from the water where they waved in a faint breeze scented with blackberry and ivy.

A dragonfly circled the edge of the pond. It was half-heartedly stalking an oblivious butterfly that had been floating to and fro through the brush at the water’s edge. The dragonfly knew it shouldn’t actually eat the butterfly (the toxic warning of the thing’s vibrant coloration were ingrained in its ancestral dragonfly brain). Still, it kept up the scrimmage. The dragonfly used the dim light of the sun and shifting, confusing movements to move closer and closer to the slow-moving insect.

In that last moment the sapphire-blue dragonfly was snatched from the air by a wren that had been waiting out the toasty summer day beside the shady pond. The wren himself was plenty hungry, but this trophy wasn’t meant for him. Taking great care not to drop his catch, the wren left the pond behind and cut a familiar path south through the trees.

The wren arrived at the edge of his territory, where an old log house stood alone just outside the forest. He circled carefully, descending through a hole in the roof leading into the abandoned cabin’s tiny attic. There, tucked in a corner of the rafters, was the nest he shared with his mate.

Tired from the heat of the day, the wren surrendered the broken dragonfly to his two, ravenous hatchlings. They were enormous, now. Not long before they would be ready to leave. The wren settled down next to the mother of his eggs and closed his eyes. His mate kept a look-out, sleepily watching the cool dim of the attic. The creak of the walls soon lulled her and her chicks to sleep as well.

Beneath their nest and attic, in fits and starts, the forgotten cabin deteriorated under the weight of time and humid forest air. A husband and wife had lived there—had spent their lives there—so long ago that nobody alive retained any memory of interacting with them. Their story hummed in the floorboards and sang in the curling paint of the house, whether the world had forgotten them or not. The wood silently bore the last trace of them. The man had named the pond outside after his beloved wife, the ivy grew up over the years to protect the place from the rest of the world. In seclusion, the cool waters of the pond carried the nocturne of who they were. The summer heat carried on outside, the wren dreamed about flying, the house dreamed about people.

What we liked:
A rather lovely tour of a setting richly brought to life, piece by piece. In fact, on first read, we didn’t even notice the creative criteria woven in – a rare accomplishment. There’s an undercurrent of a larger story contained within this short piece, a complex history and deeper relationships. But for now, it wisely chooses to settle on the small movements and cyclical qualities of nature – the dragonfly, the wren, the creaking cabin acting as a heartbeat to the narrative. Its magic lies in the feeling it imparts on the reader as you take in the final words… a sense of peace.


 

SHORTLISTED

DEAD AIR by Cat Nadel, VIC

“What do I miss? Gotta be toast. Remember toast?”

“Mmmmmhmmmm.”

“Roll outta bed, pop two slices in the toaster. Slap on some butter and Vegemite and CRUNCH. Now that was a way to start the day! What about you?”

“Scccrrrrsssshhhion.” Dammit. The radio was fritzing again. I thump it.

“What was that mate?”

“Television!” Thank god. Barney’s voice is hoarse but clear.

“Sorry, lost ya for a second. Yeah, TV was good!.”

“Yeah.”

The radio is quiet. All I hear is the snap and pop of air and gas as it escapes the logs in my fire.

I used to freakout every time that happened, but now I’m used to Barney’s long silences. I check the billy. Almost boiled. I know Barney finds it painful to talk about before. Yet somehow our conversations always wander back there.

“Shall we go back to the game?”

“Righto. Your move?” I grab the tea bags and shuffle back to the table.

“Yep – you ready?” Barney sounds cocky. He’s probably about to rinse me.

“So you see where PAIN ends on the vertical? Add a T at the end to make PAINT. And then, going left; put an X and an E and going right put I-N-C-T.

“Are you kidding me? You’ve hit the triple word score with the word “extinct?” You’re cheating!”

“Nah mate. I’m just very good.”

“How do I know you’re not cheating?

“You don’t. You just have to trust me.”

Silence again.

“Barney?”

“Yeah mate?”

“Don’t you want to play a game in person sometime?”

“Don’t start this again, Dan.”

The billy hisses. The water’s boiled.

“But why not? These are long-wave radios we’re speaking on – we can’t be that far apart!”

“It’s too dangerous.”

The water bubbles over, threatening to put out my fire.

“There’s nothing out there.”

I use a stick to shift the billycan onto the dirt. It splashes, conjuring dark shapes in the mud.

“You don’t know that.”

Barney is right. I don’t know anything for sure. All I know is that I haven’t seen another person in a long time. Maybe 3 years? No way to measure time anymore.

“What are you scared of, Barney?”

“Were you ever on Tinder, Dan?”

“Don’t change the subject.”

“I’m not. Just did you ever go on a date with someone you were really excited to meet and then you met her and she just wasn’t what you were expecting?”

“What are you saying, Barney?”

“Did you ever have a podcaster you really liked? Listen to them every day, feel like they’re your best friend, then one day you look them up and find out they’re a massive racist?”

“Do you think I’m a racist, Barney?”

“No Dan, that’s not what I mean.”

“We might be the only two people left in the world!”

“Exactly! The stakes are so high! … What if we don’t like each other?”

“Barney, you’re my best friend. Nothing’s going to change that.”

I stare into the fire. The radio is silent.

What we liked:
For some reason, there were many dystopian tales this month. This one piqued our interest for the back and forth banter between Barney and Dan, with only a subtle hint towards their dire circumstances in the dialogue (and Scrabble game!), while its deliberate focus is instead on the friendship between two best mates who have never met but share the same frequency. Dialogue-heavy stories are notoriously difficult to get right – there has to be an element of rhythm and believability in the exchange. And here, despite an apocalyptically unfamiliar situation, there is still a familiarity that draws us in. The crackling radio and whistling billy provides a suitable sparse soundtrack and enriches the scene. Extra kudos too for the clever title – a play on both the radio and what may lie outside.


 

SHORTLISTED

THE ROOM by Michelle Dickins, VIC

What the door saw.

I saw you walk in, heavy soled black boots, drop crotch pants and a forced smile. Your feet rocking and tapping, hands rubbing your thighs or fingers circling your temples. You, lying on the trolley in a blue gown, white knuckled, gripping the sheet under your chin, eyes closed, and those feet still moving. Disheveled on your return, sporting a paper hat and dribble on your chin, feet motionless. Nurses in pairs, in and out at every shift change. Machines that beeped and whirred. You on the bed, hand on the buzzer you never pressed. A closed curtain. Cleaners and meal assistants, white coffee, no sugar. A man who made you smile, wide and toothy. Laughter before you held your chest and begged him to stop. Him, attentive, moving furniture, pouring water, walking you to the bathroom, appearing every day, and staying for the duration of visiting hours before the curtain closed again. The last time I saw you you had a different swagger, treading lighter, arm around the same man. Him carrying flowers and bags. You never looked back.  

What the table held.

I was pleased to be of service, holding drinks, meals of rubbery toast, your phone, a book you flipped through the same two pages of, an iPad and headphones, a notebook and pen and a growing stack of white paper pill cups that threatened to tip over every time three of my wheels moved and one did not.

What the bed did.

I did not steal your sleep! I can’t help it if you found me utterly disagreeable. You had all the buttons at your disposal. You could raise and lower me on a whim. The reason you slid down the bed all the time was the plastic mattress protector. I will not be held responsible for your sweating and sticking to the sheets. You painted me as the enemy, complained about the squeaking and said you couldn’t wait to get home to your own bed. But I was totally there for you. A place to hang your drainage bags and your buzzer. My rails kept you safe from falling. You’d have been flat on your back without me and then where would you be…pressure sores, that’s where! At least the nurses appreciated me, elevating you to their own heights.

What the bathroom took.

Guilty as charged. I took the blue radioactive body fluids you shared with me, and sucked up the stench of a seeping wound, body odour and bed breath with the exhaust fan. With every shower and movement, I took your time and energy. Yes I stole looks, more of a quick peek. You weren’t about to, until I reflected that everything was going to be okay.

What the window gave.

I gave you watercolour sunsets around the distant church spire, and a busy laneway of trucks and backyards to view. I gave you shapes, distance, other views and perspectives. I gave you my horizon to wave to.

What we liked:
This is a title that not only sets the scene, but also frames our cast of characters. Each is introduced one by one – inanimate objects that have been privy to such human intimacy, the truly unsung “essential workers” that have witnessed so much. As a nice touch, each element has its own unique voice – from the door’s perspective of the patient and primary focus on the comings and goings of the entryway, to the insistent, almost pleading tone of the bed, and the final reflective quality of the window. A great example of thinking outside of the box.


 

SHORTLISTED

FOR NOW by Susan Manwaring, WA

Be like the bee. I can see him thinking.

He’s thought it before. Has it written in his golden eyes. Think like them. Be them. His reflexes are finely honed, a living, breathing steel trap. He tries to catch them, bite their wings. He flies through the air as they do, backflipping and front flipping and kick flipping. Agile and lithe. Could put an Olympian to shame. But they’re too fast. Or too high. Always just out of reach.

So, he sits and watches them buzz. A portrait of patience. Eyes darting here and there, focused on all and none as they paint the air in their striped pyjamas, blissfully unaware of their own tantalising form of entertainment. A private concert. Standing room only in the dirt below.

I sit and watch them both. The bees and him. The grass itches at my bare ankles as we share in the sunlight, in the summer breeze on this winter day. The sun casts shadows through tree limbs stripped bare, and the bees dance in and out of the shifting shapes of light. Some dance too close, the claws and fangs of the waiting beast below snapping them out of their honey-drunk complacency. Captured inside this chink of calm amongst the storms.

Yet somehow, we – human, beast and bee – know that this will not last. Behind this brightness, this shiny new coin of a day, Father Time relentlessly coils in his chain of moments. We know they are never really ours to keep. Only his to collect. What has appeared must ultimately vanish, and what has begun must always end.

The shade of the sky will fade back to grey, and the chill will bite at our ankles once more. We will leave the bees, or the bees will leave us. They will wave goodbye with their golden wings and fly for home, just as he and I will turn inside and close our door. Rain drenched windows just a picture frame of what will soon be a memory. The final separation of here and there.

But that is then. Not yet. Now we play pretend. We hold back this moment and make it last forever. A film on repeat, the hum and thrum of their aerial music its soundtrack. I raise my cup, a toast to their performance. Too early for champagne, but I close my eyes and imagine. I forget the tick of time.

For now, the bees dance and sing.

For now, he waits and watches.

For now, I sit and stare.

What we liked:
Sometimes the best approach in flash fiction is not to jam pack a story with action, but rather showcase a brief moment in time and let it breathe. This story dials that feeling up to 11; mindfulness magnified. Its brilliance is in its simplicity – a quiet garden scene and the private concert of buzzing performers in their striped pajamas. The strength lies in the acutely observed tiny details in this moment, spawning deep reflective thoughts. The story also cleverly plays with the notion of time – its fleeting nature and the tantalising way it seems just within grasp, like the bees, but is ultimately too fast, too high, always just out of reach. And yet, for all this talk of simplicity, this is in fact three stories in one, each happening simultaneously – three versions of “now”. It’s a gentle reminder that at any moment, there is always more happening beyond just our own story – and the perfect place to end this month’s selection.

 


 

LONGLISTED ENTRANTS

We did some maths, and if you made this list, your story was in the top 2.5% of all entries this month. What does this mean? Well, first it means ‘fist-bumps’ all round if you’re on this list – nice work. But also, if you’re NOT on the list, it means you could have simply been in the top 5% instead – so don’t be hard on yourself. Just like our winning story illustrates – creativity can be a subjective thing!

THIS MONTH’S LONGLISTED (in no particular order):

  • MOON & SUN by S Z Fletcher, VIC
  • ONE CLICK FOR YES by Chris Kok, Netherlands
  • YOU CAN GET ANYTHING IN VEGAS by Emilio Iasiello, United States
  • PEANUT by Cass Neaton, NSW
  • SISTERS OF MERCY by Kenneth Mann, United Kingdom
  • OUR LAST MEAL by Ebony Frost, WA
  • NO REGRETS by Matthew Dewar, WA
  • 3 BED, 2 BATH by Teagan Howell, WA
  • PENSIVE by Tom Eskdale, NSW
  • SANCTUARY by Wendy Jarvis, VIC
  • TREASURE YOUR MATE by Emily Charlotte Ann, WA
  • A PLACE WHERE ONE STAYED by Natasha Robin, NSW
  • PERSPECTIVE by Nick J Hennessy, NSW
  • ANIMAL INSTINCT by Ceyda Aldatmaz, VIC
  • TWO NARRATORS LEARN TO SHARE by James Flanagan, United Kingdom
  • THE MURAL by Lauren Wesley-Smith, South Africa
  • THE CLOCK by Mark Anthony, VIC
  • IN THE PARK by Kevin Phyland, VIC
  • THERE'S A MONSTER IN MY ROOM by Louise Jones, VIC
  • GODS AMONG US by Penn Mertz, Greece
  • TODAY'S FORECAST by Breann Daigle, United States
  • CLOSER THAN MOST by Gillian Betterton, United States
  • JUST MAYBE by Joyce Carter, NSW
  • G by Alison Boughey, VIC
  • THE TEACHER by Joshua Beer, NSW
  • AFTER SEI SHŌNAGON by Cheryl Brown, WA
  • MEETING PEOPLE IS EASY by Edward Bicioc, NSW
  • UNTITLED by Simone Law, VIC
  • BUT IS IT ART? by Stefan Brisbane QLD
  • HE DIDN'T LOVE ME ANYMORE by Manie Van Den Heever, South Africa
  • MIXED COUPLE COUNSELLING by Paul Freeman, United Arab Emirates
  • THE COPIER by Brian Boon, NSW
  • UNTITLED by Michael Burrows, WA
  • TWINS by Barbara Eustace, United Kingdom
  • STRANGE BEDFELLOWS by Cathryn Lewin, QLD
  • MODERN PANIC by Scott-Patrick Mitchell, WA
  • BREAKFAST by Brodie Wilkinson, SA
  • URGES by M Blight, SA
  • THE GRAND PRIZE by Jane Lo, Hong Kong
  • ALL DAY FULL BREAKFAST by Kimberley Shiel, Canada
  • BEAUFORT SCALE by Kinneson Lalor, United Kingdom

 

 

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