Furious Fiction December 2018 winner and bumper holiday shortlist

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Ho ho hope you’re having a wonderful time this Christmas season. And just in time for the holiday, here are our picks from December’s Furious Fiction! This month’s criteria were:

  • Each story had to take place on Christmas Eve EITHER 50 years ago OR 50 years into the future.
  • The first word of each story had to rhyme with the last word of the story. (They couldn’t be the same word.)
  • Each story had to include the line “IT WAS GONE IN A FLASH”.

We were curious to see who would set their Fiction Delorean for 1968 and who would choose 2068. The results saw 62% of entries head for the past, but that still meant a chunk imagining a host of Christmas futures…

Congratulations to Mike Smee of NSW, whose story was judged this month’s winner. Mike will wake up tomorrow to find $500 under the tree (okay, maybe not, but it’s on its way!). And because it’s Christmas, we wanted to share a bumper crop of 19 shortlisted entries to go with our winner. That’s right, your very own top 20 stories to enjoy over the break.

Finally, thanks to everyone who has participated in Furious Fiction in 2018 – we’ve had so much fun bringing it to life and bringing it to you! We hope you’ll join us in January as we start 2019 with another fun fiction weekend.


DECEMBER WINNER

CHRISTMAS EVE, 1968 by Mike Smee

Clare, like me, is twelve years old. Skinny, long-limbed, thick, black hair plaited like liquorice, a scattering of freckles on her face. Not so many I couldn’t have counted them if only she’d stop hopping as if she’s trapped on hot sand. She smells of cinnamon and bubble gum. I pretend to be reading “Three Cheers Secret Seven”, but I’m actually transfixed by her knobbly knees.

It’s Christmas Eve, 1968. We’ve all come to Uncle Vinny’s place, a rambling, ramshackle house hidden in the hills behind Byron Bay. Two days of squabbling in the back seat to get here, staying overnight in a motel room that reeked of mothballs and cigarettes. It’s just on dark when we arrive at Uncle Vinny’s, and in the fig trees around the house the bats are squealing like little sisters.

I don’t think Uncle Vinny is really my uncle. Actually, from what I’ve overheard, I think he might be a draft dodger. Which would explain his getup – the straggly grey hair and beard, the rainbow bandana, the patchwork vest that glows in the dark. The sunglasses at night. Then again, Uncle Vinny’s a self-declared hippie, so maybe he naturally dresses like this. His house reeks of patchouli, and he likes to hug everyone. Maybe too much. There’s a peace sign on the top of the Christmas tree, and I’m sure he’s put something unusual in the adult’s Christmas punch, because not long after we arrive they all start dancing and laughing too loud, and the night soon descends into mayhem.   

There’s maybe a dozen kids running around; a few are little more than toddlers. Being the oldest and tallest, they crowd around Clare and me, and follow us like puppies from room to room. Maybe the electricity is cut off, because the whole place is lit up with candles. Their light casts crazy shadows on the walls as we run past.

Later, we’re playing hide and seek, and I run and hide in a cupboard under the stairs. I’m thinking if I’d brought my torch I could’ve kept reading, when the door swings open. Only it’s not the seeker, it’s Clare, and she crawls in, and closes the door, and sits down beside me. She’s trembling soft as a whisper. She puts her finger to her lips, then to my lips, then puts her lips onto mine. For a breath. Or two. Then she pulls away, and smiles as she opens the door, and runs off.

What a sneaky thief is time. Like an infinity pool, life seemed to go on forever. And then one day I felt the edge and looked back, and it was gone in a flash. I can still see her dimpled smile, and her long black hair, still feel the touch of her lips. It feels only a breath ago. Or two. But it’s fifty years later and I’m old, and it’s getting late. And I look around, and no-one’s there.

What we loved:
In a month filled with war, headline grabbing astronauts and big displays of what it meant to be in either of the two eras, this story quietly opens the door to our own cupboard under the stairs and gives us a gentle kiss of fleeting nostalgia in a setting that just seems so familiar. The narrative is compact and the final paragraph is a simple reminder that half a century can sometimes feel so close, yet so far. Stays with you for more than a few moments after (the older you are, the longer it stays!).


SHORTLISTED

DELIVERY by Zoe Cantwell

Lin hadn’t decided what to do with the orb. It sat wedged in a bowl on her coffee table, winking rainbow lights at her. It was stupidly round. Before the bowl it had made a continuous effort to vanish under the couch. The best she could figure, it seemed like a cross between a bauble and one of the holo-projectors whose ads she shamelessly loved. Maybe a fancy holo-projector? She waved her arms at it like the saleswoman, hoping to open some kind of menu. Nada. Perhaps it was password protected?

“Or, you doofus, it’s just a really flashy ornament someone chucked.” The lights were blinking faster now, as though in mock agreement.

She felt a little bad about filching it from the apartment’s waste room. It had been wedged behind the leg of the reductor – either left for scroungers and rolled or someone dropped it while they were doing their shrinking. No one had asked after it on the building’s comms board, so she was hedging on the former.

So far it didn’t seem to do anything, other than flash and be too heavy to use as a real bauble. She eyed her wilting Christmas tree again, but it didn’t look any sturdier than it had the last time she’d checked.

Lin sighed and flopped down onto the sofa as a knock sounded at the door. She sat up.

This late, everyone was either snuggled up at home or out drinking themselves into Christmas. Maybe number 45 had run out of eggnog?

“Yes?”

Muffled speech came from the other side, and she resigned herself to getting up to open the door. She cracked it and glimpsed a green hat and a waist-high man. He thrust his hand in the gap and she jerked back. He was holding another orb. This one was flickering frantically.

“What are-“

He stepped into her apartment. Lin was too shocked to stop him. He was minute, practically elfish. And beaming.

“There you are!”

She whirled as he skittered past her towards her orb. It too had become a disco ball of lights.

“Just think what Christmas would have been without you!” He crowed, tapping her orb with his own.

It began to emit a high-pitched whine. It shook. Twinkled wildly. The squealing intensified.

Then it was gone in a flash of sparkling colour and the faint smell of gingerbread. She stared at the spot where it had been.

“What was that?” Lin asked, starting to feel light-headed.

The man was already part-way out the door, but he turned back to her. “Call it a delivery system. It needed to be sent back to someone important. Lucky I found it, we’re already behind on New Zealand. Until next year!” He winked, tipped his hat to her and left. Lin stared.

Through the open door she could hear upbeat carols and laughter coming from number 45 across the hall. And in the background, the tolling bell of midnight as Christmas day rolled in.

What we liked:
This quirky 2068 version of Night Before Christmas gives us a Santa-free, understated glimpse into a future festive season, thankfully devoid of dystopia but not short on curious Christmas spirit and mirthsome mystery. Great use of the line embedded into the sentence and active language from go to woah (or actually, from Lin to in…).


SHORTLISTED

THE JOLLY RED MAN by Hakeem Beedar

Slick with sweat, your breath caught in your throat; each footfall threatens to shatter your aching joints, yet you run. It is Christmas Eve and you run from Santa Claus.

He’s closing in on you now. You hear the chime of his bells, the giddy of his reindeer. A wound in your calf paints your shoes crimson and you lose your balance. The floor welcomes you with a crack of your skull. Woozy, you drag yourself into a nearby alleyway and rummage through your rucksack. A bottle, lighter than it was only hours ago. With a shaking hand, you raise it to your lips and tease your mouth with the dregs at the bottom. Oh, how you wanted more, just a bit more — but it was gone in a flash.

No! It’s light – and it’s blinded you. Your eyes fill with white, your mind screams with the rage of a thousand hornets and you leave your bag as you dash down the alley. Your leg still smarts, and soon your body does too. You want nothing more than to lie down, let the fat beast hold you in his grubby grip, then throw you back into the camp.

‘Ho, ho, ho!’ The roar of the beast fills your ear and he lets free a hail of lead. The alley explodes, shrapnel tearing wood to shreds and you jump without thinking. The door shatters. There’s no light, but you don’t care. On and on, you run and run until the murky air fills your lungs and you double over hacking.

The bells stop. A thunder of hooves on the roof, followed by a thump. You had a knife in your bag, but you left that in the alley. Your hands reach out behind you, grasping for hope. Rough steel greets them. An abandoned wrench.

You feel the familiar grooves of the tool. You’re back there, adjusting playground set after playground set, toy kitchens, plastic race cars and when you falter for just a moment… Pain ripples through your back. The camp’s conditions really did take their toll on you. Despite yourself, you laugh. Did you really think you could escape?

A clock chimes in the corner, despite its age it still ticks away day after day – it still works, just like you could have been; like you should have been. The floorboards creak and there he stands. Framed against the pale moonlight, his round belly growls with anticipation, and his gloved hands grip the end of a sickle.

The clock strikes twelve. It’s Christmas Day, 2068. You should have worked for your freedom, but you decided to muster up the courage just not meant for you. It’s Christmas Day, and here comes St Nick.

What we liked:
A truly scary but brilliantly depicted fugitive snapshot of what appears to be one of Santa’s little helpers on the run. Fantastically descriptive, it appears that we are finally getting the answer to the question of whether the elves get paid or not. Little children shouldn’t read this one.


SHORTLISTED

INTERMISSION by Norman

Freezing winds whipped at bare branches and knocked hollowly on the door. In the distance, a train howled into a lonely fade. Then the next jovial tune started playing from the speaker in the corner, where Fran was slumped on a creaky armchair, bopping her feet.

“Do you remember mum singing along to Bublé?” She smiled at the thought of her harmonies and the lovestruck twinkle in her eyes.

“I remember we were old enough to think she was crazy, but not too old to stop dancing along.” Charlie chuckled through wrinkled cheeks. He looked at his sister with heavy eyelids and wondered how many more eves it might take for him to forget those merry boogies. It had been an entire year since he had last seen her, and her childless smiles were less convincing this time, he noticed.

To his left, he looked out through to the empty dining table, free from the polite clinking of stray cutlery and amorphous chatter to distant relatives. It used to be a warzone of splattered gravy and three-pronged rivalries for the crispiest potatoes and, when the champagne was running low, truthful jibes on the most mischievous and charming at the table. No one would sleep a wink, the kids and then the grandkids wouldn’t dare blink too much, and even the wine would hold its tannic breath, waiting for the last ten magical seconds to tip over into a gift-ripping frenzy of laughter and chaos. Now, on table set for two, a meaty carcass was turning brittle.

He took out a cigar and lit it; burning away at the great relic from his young, hedonistic days. He used to brave the cold and stand out on the empty veranda on Christmases when mum and dad were bickering and let the roast go cold. The memory snapped into his mind- and then, it was gone in a flash, like the aftermath from posing for a gaudy-jumpered family photo, and he sat there for a long moment, blinking.

There was a haze in the room now, of cigar smoke and whiskey and old memories, the sky had turned to a familiar darkened smog and Fran was whistling another nebulous tune that might have been the exact mirror of the song before. Where had the time gone. They had been kids, teased each other, fought for each other’s presents, came together when dad packed up and left, forgot to come back for the university holidays, met each other’s partners, played with the kids, laughed, cried and burnt their hands on hot pans. And sometime in the middle of it all, his kids had grown up and did the same thing. He sighed and closed his eyes. In the blink of an eye they’d be back, he reassured himself. He took a deep breath in, then spluttered from the smoke, wheezing.

What we liked:
Beautifully told in a kind of smoke-filled long tendril that just plays memories on repeat, this story never shouts what time period it lives in (but Bublé places it in the future) and just gets on with two people at the shallower end of their lives, reflecting on more colourful times. You really feel you’re there – the kind of scene that is uncomfortably real, yet you cannot look away.


SHORTLISTED

CHRISTMAS WISH by Helen Taylor

‘Where is Vet Narn?’ Em asked. Her toothpaste breath caressed my cheek.

‘It’s Viet-Nam,’ I said.

‘I know.’ She nestled closer into me, her tiny chin touching my collarbone. “But where is it?’

‘In Asia,’ I said, pushing my pillow under our heads.

‘Where’s Asia?’ Em said.

My eyes stung from chlorine. The summer night air moved like a warm wave around the bedroom. I stroked Em’s fringe. ‘We really need to sleep,’ I said. ‘So we’re ready to open Santa’s gifts in the morning.’

Em shot up like a startled chook. ‘What if he doesn’t come?’

‘Calm down,’ I said. ‘He’ll come.’ She rested back in the cove of my arm which ached from hours of Marco Polo in the pool.

‘I don’t believe you,’ she said. ‘Dad was meant to be home for Christmas, and he’s not. So why should I believe that Santa will come?’

I pressed my eyes tight together, trying to conjure up an image of Dad in my mind. It was so long since he left. I saw his smile but then it was gone in a flash. Em started to cry. I wrapped my arms around her.

Ow! A stabbing pain pierced my ribs. I screamed. A hand smothered my mouth. I tried to pull it off. Em was kneeling on my chest. I grabbed her around the waist, and lifted her to the side. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Shh!’ she said. ‘It’s Santa.’

‘What?’ I sat up.

‘It’s Santa,’ she said. ‘I saw him.’

‘Where?’ I turned on the bedside lamp.

‘In the lounge room,’ she said, her breath shallow and rapid. ‘He’s talking to Mum and he’s got a beard and he’s in a sleigh.’ She clapped her hands together.

I climbed out of bed. Em followed. I opened my bedroom door. Voices floated down the hallway from the lounge. A woman. Mum. A man. Santa? What if it’s a burglar? Oh my God! Mum’s being attacked. She laughed. Not being attacked. Good. I tiptoed down the hall, Em as shadow. The lights on the tree illuminated the lounge room.

‘Dad!’ I screamed.

He was in a wheelchair, one leg in a cast. And he had a beard. How weird. Dad with a beard. He held both arms wide and I ran to him. Em was behind me, crying, squealing, jostling to get close to him. He wrapped his huge arms around us and I started to cry. Dad’s home. My Dad’s home. I can’t believe my Dad is finally home. His rough hands quivered as he stroked my hair.

What we liked:
When we threw the dart at 1968 this month, we expected a few Vietnam stories (and they came), but what sets this apart is that it’s about the ‘negative space’ (to borrow an art term) of war; the families and the children and the return. Told through the eyes of children, it’s simple in its honesty. Bearded Santa in a sleigh turns out to be unshaven Dad in a wheelchair – a powerful visual in this touching late night reunion.


SHORTLISTED

SALVATION by Fairlie Dunlop

Chard. Asparagus. Oranges. Evan stares through the window across the street. Dancing lights from a Christmas display briefly illuminate hidden corners of the store, revealing colourful delicacies.

The streets are quiet yet the city hums with driverless cars, manoeuvring for the optimum position for a pick-up, accompanied by a gentle electronic hiss. There are other sounds, layered beneath the urban drone, but Evan’s hearing isn’t what it used to be and he was born in a time before organ protections, well before genetic enhancers. A time when music festivals featured speakers larger than coffins, if you were lucky you stood right alongside, eyes closed, the sound of drums washing over you. The carelessness of youth means that Evan cannot hear the rough-sleepers, rolling over and grumbling, half-heartedly because today is not too hot for a change.

Evan is only weeks away from joining them though and he knows it. He had it all at the turn of the century: the car, a bayside home, an enviable job. He built it over decades and then it was gone in a flash. A perfect storm of separation, ill health, a devastated stock market and poor career choices. That combined with sheer denial left Evan with no assets, a two-figured bank balance and bad credit. By far the youngest of four, he has no surviving immediate family, no sibling to shelter with as the years take their toll. Of course there are charities but they triage now and he certainly isn’t anywhere near old enough or sick enough. So there it is.

He leans against the pharmaceutical vending machine, the refrigerated steel eliciting a slight shiver. This city is dying, he muses, and so am I. Evan hopes to eat some of the produce before they find him, it is Christmas after all. Once his grandmother told him she would be thrilled to find an orange in a sock on Christmas morning. It seemed unbelievable at the time, as a kid he was uninspired by oranges, those little segments wilting away in the lunch box. Today only the wealthy enjoy fresh fruit. How everything comes around.

Undeniable reality kicked in for Evan when the notice to vacate came last month. No other option presented itself in the excruciating fortnight that followed. Then one night while watching an old movie an unlikely seed was sown. He knew a colleague who had ended up in Corrections, she had seen the writing on the wall and had set about embezzling as much as she could before she was displaced. Unfortunately for her, the AI spotted the discrepancies. She sends messages occasionally, it didn’t sound too bad and the Charter of Human Rights means that you get three meals a day and a bed. Better than Evan’s current situation and rock bottom awaits.

He crosses the road, heading towards the window. A rainbow of colours flickers over his face, a momentary mosaic. Evan closes his eyes then brings the mallet down hard.

What we liked:
The future isn’t kind to Evan, so he figures out a plan to keep a roof over his head, albeit with bars for walls. This is clearly the future, but again, doesn’t need to overtly say it (show, don’t tell!) – instead busying itself with heavily-laden paragraphs describing this new world. We also liked that Christmas Eve had merely a bit-part in this tale. After all, normal, non-festive things happen on this date too.


SHORTLISTED

KEEP THE DREAM ALIVE by Angela Panuccio-Gray

Blake woke with a start to the sound of the tree crashing down. He groped for a makeshift weapon. Damn his pacifism! Ironically, all he found was a copy of Rolling Stone’s anti-Vietnam War edition. He rolled it up and crept downstairs.

Entwined in the branches of the fallen Christmas tree, moaning and sobbing softly was an abject figure dressed in red. Was it…

“Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“Are you serious, dude? It’s Christmas Eve and you ask the fat guy in red what he’s doing in your house?” The wretch gulped loudly.

“Santa?” asked Blake incredulously.

“Well done, Inspector Clouseau. I knocked your tree over and got entwined in the tinsel. Could you untangle me?”

Blake obliged. Santa was freed in a jiffy and sat down with a thud, shoulders slumped.

“Good question, what am I doing here? What is my purpose? What?!”

“I think it’s pretty clear what your purpose is, Santa.”

Santa sighed. “That’s what my psychiatrist said. That, and ‘keep taking your Valium.’ Say, fix me a drink?”

“There’s milk…”

“Milk?! I’m lactose intolerant, not that anyone cares about that. Noooo, we’ll just keep putting out milk and cookies for ole’ Santa, never mind his waistline or cholesterol!” The ranting was accompanied by a fresh bout of bawling.

“I’ll fix you a whiskey.”

Santa stopped crying, breathing shakily until the whiskey came. Libation and it was gone in a flash. He held out the tumbler for another and guzzled it.

“I’ve been reading that Dr Spock and I’ve realised, unsurprisingly, I’m unfulfilled. I’ve been stuck in the same, dead-end job for years: no promotion, no pay increase, no uniform update, always expected to be jolly.”

“I can imag-”

“I didn’t ask for this! I wanted to be a lifesaver but opportunities are limited in the North Pole. What do you do?”

“I’m a tattoo artist.”

“Oh, the freedom to pick one’s own path.” Santa sighed wistfully.

“I don’t make a lot of money but I enjoy it.”

“I’ve always thought tattoos were for sailors and ex-crims, although…the Missersh does enjoy a bit of shailor talk shometimes, ‘eh matey’.” Santa was getting a little slurry.

“I could give you one. It’ll be my Christmas present to you, to say thanks for your tireless work.”

“I don’t know… it might be fun. I’ve always fancied a buoy.” Santa brightened.

“Which boy is that?” Blake felt a smidge concerned.

“A life buoy, of course. To remind me to keep the dream alive. In fact, write that underneath.” Santa rolled up his sleeve and gritted his teeth as the buzzing needle etched his indelible, beachy totem into his forearm.

By the time Blake was done, Santa was sober and almost jolly. He admired his new ink.

“Thanks, I’m feeling much better. Maybe I’ll start lifeguard training in the off season, you never know…Merry Christmas!”

He hugged the tattooist and disappeared up the chimney, leaving a twinkling trail and the faint odour of whiskey in his wake.

What we liked:
One of the funniest exchanges we read involving Santa, this paints the big man in red in a whole new light, and actually makes some pretty good points along the way. Nice back and forth dialogue throughout, although perhaps the fact that it’s an experimental 1968 could offer an alternative theory as to whether any of it actually happened at all…!


SHORTLISTED

A DARK AND UNAPPETISING PLACE by Eugenie Pusenjak

“Tune in for this special edition of the CBS news.”

Ollie eased through the throngs of chattering relatives, until he could see the TV. Grandma smiled from her armchair, a tray of turkey balanced on her lap. “Isn’t this marvelous? Those brave young men in their rocketship! Never thought I’d live to see the day.”

He grinned back. “Wait ‘til next year. They’ll be walking on the moon.”

On the 21-inch DuMont, Walter Cronkite was speaking. “…Apollo 8 is in its ninth and next to last full orbit of the moon.”

“The kids should be watching this,” said Aunt Ruth. “Donna! Sandra! Jeffrey! Where are you?”

Jeffrey toddled over, clutching his new Hot Wheels car. “Donna’s listening to her Monkees record. And Sandra’s playing with her dumb talking doll.”

“Why’d they have to do this on Christmas Eve?” said Great-Uncle Billy. “I’m missing Laurence Welk.”

“First manned mission to the dark side of the moon,” said Ollie. “This is history in the making!”

Cousin Nancy – slim, beehive hairdo – proffered a plate. “Mince pie?”

“Not for me, thanks,” said Ollie.

“Girls! Come watch the astronauts.”

“VROOM!” Jeffrey raced his car across the vinyl flooring, sending it skittering under the tree.  

“Why don’t we fix things on Earth, before tearing off into space, huh?” said Uncle Howard. He swigged his Pabst. “Bad enough we got the war with the Gooks, the Commies in Czechoslovakia, and kids here with hair down to their keisters-”

“Oh, hush your mouth, Howard,” said Grandma. “I raised you better than that.”

“Don’t worry, I’m putting him on ignore.” said Ollie.

“Are you having a nice Christmas?” asked Nancy.

He nodded. “The best.”

“… clear picture of the rendezvous window and the moon’s horizon,” said Cronkite.

The room fell silent. Everyone crowded closer. On the screen: a cratered orb, huge, pale and magnificent.
One of the astronauts was speaking. “I hope all of you back on Earth can see what we mean when we say this is a very foreboding horizon, a rather dark and unappetising looking place.”

“Fantastic,” breathed Great-Uncle Billy.

“I wanna go into space!” said Jeffrey.

“What will mankind do next?” asked Grandma.

Now the astronauts were reading from the Bible. Genesis, Chapter One. Surrounded by people, Ollie felt a sense of peace, belonging.

Then the room shimmered. It was gone in a flash. Family, TV, everything.

Ollie pulled off the headset. His hour was up. He exhaled slowly, feeling slightly nauseous, alone in the converted warehouse. A drone whirred overhead and landed beside him. It spoke in mechanised tones.

“Please attach your headset to the hook where indicated. Don’t forget to swipe your identity card on the way out. Thank you for choosing Veracity Simulators.”

“Merry Christmas,” murmured Ollie.

“I do not recognise that expression.”

Ollie stepped out into the empty, immaculate street. No fairy lights. No carols. No aromas of turkey and pudding wafting from houses. It was 24 December 2068. He walked home, glancing at the moon.

What we liked:
What at first seems like a well told fly-on-the-wall of the famous Apollo 8 orbit from 1968 (yes, we did have more than a few stories that mentioned this!) in a flash becomes a clever glimpse back at history from the future. Nicely paced, and a second read-through reveals a few cute clues as to Ollie’s awareness. One of only a few stories that snuck in BOTH time periods!


SHORTLISTED

CHRISTMAS SPIRIT by Jhong

“To your left. The restroom.”

“No. I’m here for Christmas.”

“Oh… Well, you’ve made it just in time… sir.”

The man responded with a countenance of utter annoyance.

“It’s a quarter to four, sir.”

“Okay.”

The teller pursed his lips.

“Well then, can I have your name, sir?”

“John. John Johnson.”

“Okay Mr. John… son.” The teller grinned as he tapped away at his keyboard. “Your address?”

“1 Liverpool Street.”

“Found you.”

The man’s eyes widened slightly as he was momentarily overcome with the optimistic expectation of a boy.

But it was gone in a flash as the teller turned his revealing gaze from the screen to the man.

“I am sorry Mr. Johnson. It seems that we don’t have anything for you this year.”

The man sighed as he rested his elbows on the countertop and ran his fingers through his hair.

“Your score is three hundred and fifty. I’m afraid that’s well below the threshold. I hope you do better next year, sir. Goodbye.”

The man had walked away before the teller could finish his sentence.

He slouched on a bench in the waiting area. People looked his way, but the man could only stare at the floor.

Number 8823 flashed on the screen.

A young girl, no older than eight, stood confidently.

“That’s me!”

Her emerald festive dress swayed elegantly as she skipped to the counter.

“Hello Miss, may I have your name please?”

“Janie Foster. I live at 5 Oxford Street.”

Fingers tapped vigorously at a keyboard.

“My, my, my, Miss Foster, your parents have done well this year. You are entitled to receive one ticket valued at a thousand.”

The girl beamed, holding out her cupped hands.

The teller wrote a cheque and slipped it under the transaction window pass-through.

“Please pick up a guide from the entrance regarding wish capabilities as well as restrictions. Have a very Merry Christmas, Miss.”

The girl skipped to a second waiting area on the other side of the lobby.

The man, who had been watching, followed discreetly, in the hopes of leeching some form of joy through observation.

When number 8823 flashed, the girl walked up to another counter, which was partitioned unlike the last, and proudly slapped down her cheque.

The clearly impressed teller smiled warmly at the jubilant child.

“What is it that you wish for this year, Miss Foster?”

“I want a dress that’s made of gold.”

The man left, unable to maintain his composure.

He slumped his shoulders in defeat as he walked home, empty-handed and empty-hearted.

“I’m back.”

Two small, hungry children looked up in anticipation, desperation, with a tired look in their eyes.

“Next year, kids. I promise you.”

What we liked:
Well, it’s not that we LIKED seeing this version of the future but we did like the way it was told, in short, sad bursts – first with our man and then as he sees what he could have had. We’d tell you more about this story, but you do not have enough points. Goodbye.


SHORTLISTED

UNTITLED by Sunion Matheson

Cash wasn’t a problem for Frank that Christmas – there were no shops. The problem was the steaming mist and the sludge that passed for a track in that damn jungle. Frank looked along it again. Still no sign of his mates. He’d left enough markers, they surely couldn’t have missed them.

‘What a Christmas Eve,’ he grumbled silently. He should have been home, in the backyard. His dad would have had the Styrofoam Esky chocked with crushed ice and Fourex. Last Chrissy he’d handed one to Frank. Father and son, first beer together. His mum would have had the red and white checked, plastic tablecloth on the table under the Hills Hoist. Paper plates laden with potato salad waiting for Dad to get those sausages done on the barbie. Betty and Bill from next door would be there, and they’d have brought Angela over. Frank stopped scanning the scene and he fixed on Angela. Her face, so soft, so clean. She was two years younger than him. She’d be finishing school this coming year. Surely, he’d be home by then.

He heard something. A rustle, a snap of a branch. He sat up straight and peered into the jungle. Movement!

‘The lads are here,’ he thought. ‘Why aren’t they on the track I cut?’ He squinted into the shadows amongst the green curtain of vines and saw men in uniforms. But not Australian, they were Viet Cong.

Frank grabbed his Armalite, released the safety, and slid down lower, glaring between the leaves.

The rest of his squad were coming down that track, following his markers. Markers that would lead them into an ambush. He had a choice. He could stay quietly hidden, or he could open fire, which would alert his team to the danger ahead of them, so they could spread out and come in behind the VC. And save Frank.

If they got there in time.

Avoid or engage? If he started shooting, then who’s to say how many of his company will perish because of that? If he stayed silent, perhaps the VC would pass by and be gone before his team arrived. Yeah. Silent.

The Viet Cong knew this jungle. They knew every fragrance that the plants and the mud offered. Brut aftershave wasn’t one of them. They knew every print that animals make on the jungle floor. Size ten leather boots weren’t one of them. They knew the whispering sounds that leaves make in a breeze. Different sounds from leaves pulled over a face to hide it.

Frank could feel his heart thumping in his chest like he’d been running full pelt for miles. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. And there was Angela, smiling at him through the barbeque smoke. She was glad he was back from that awful war. She thought he was quite a hero. He took her hand and told her they had their whole lives to spend together.

And then it was gone in a flash.

What we liked:
And so we arrive at a story that lands us right in the heart of the war of the day. Here, Frank is an appropriate name as we receive a frank account of this foreign jungle. More to the point, we get a detailed picture his Australian home and what waits for him in a reality that will never happen. Just like war, this tale has no happy ending.


SHORTLISTED

NEW TRADITIONS by Ferne Merrylees

“Believe it or not, but Christmas used to mean something different fifty years ago,” said the nanny-bot to the five-year-old clone.

“There were still presents, right?” Josie asked, flattening her pink paper jumpsuit, and patiently withstanding the nanny-bot’s attempts to tidy her hair.

“Well yes, but not how you think.” The nanny-bot’s metal neck plating flared and then settled reluctantly. “Presents were exchanged between family and friends, often beside a dead, decorated tree.”

“Like we’re family?”

“No little one. We’re not family. I’m programmed to keep you safe.”

“Then what about the other Josies? Are they family?”

“Not quite. Half a century ago, even as children marched in the streets and politicians exchanged the future for wealth, most people related by blood or bonds, would exchange gifts.”

“So everyone got something?” Josie looked confused. “Why?”

The nanny-bot sighed and lifted the child into its arms, heading towards the door to wait for it to unlock. It hoped it wouldn’t. Only once a year on Christmas Eve did the original Josephine select a clone to extend her own life. It was tradition.

“Because of love mostly.”

“Love,” Josie said, tasting the word in her mouth like it was a sweet. “Do you think this Christmas I’ll be chosen? To be a present?”

The door remained closed and for a moment the nanny-bot had hope. But then it heard the unmistakable sound of a pin pad beeping and the door slid open.

Josephine waited all sleek lines and sharp edges. Her smooth skin couldn’t disguise the years reflected in her eyes.

“J-23. You’ve been selected for harvesting,” the original Josephine announced, her lips a slash of red. “The greatest present I could give myself. Merry Christmas.” And she held out her arms for the child. The nanny-bot hesitated. It had raised this Josie from the moment she was sequenced, but it still couldn’t fight its programming.

It handed Josie over, cold fingers desperate to cling, to keep the child close. Josephine turned, Josie peering over the woman’s shoulder, and the nanny-bot found itself speaking.

“You don’t deserve her gift.”

Josephine stopped, her red heels striking together.

“Excuse me?”

The nanny-bot knew it should stop. It could be reprogrammed for such a slight or worse, disassembled.

“You heard me. What you’re doing is wrong.”

“Wrong? It’s Christmas Eve. Traditions are made to be kept. Without clones, how would humankind survive?”

“This tradition should be broken. The future belongs to our children.”

“Nanny?” Josie chewed her lip, squirming in Josephine’s arms and doubt flickered in the older woman’s eyes. It was gone in a flash.

“I am the future,” Josephine growled, tightening her hold and Josie squeaked in pain. The nanny-bot acted. Her first directive was to protect its charge and all it took was an instant.

“Come here, Josie,” the nanny-bot called.

“Am I no longer a gift?”

“No Josie.” The nanny-bot hurried towards the exit, Josie’s small hand in its own. “It’s time we started our own traditions. It is Christmas Eve.”

What we liked:
Equal parts poignant and chilling, this future isn’t very fun if your name is Josie – where you live to serve your original. Told mostly through dialogue, there is something cinematic about this scene and the Handmaids Tale-esque moment where nanny-bot breaks ranks and protocol is an uplifting relief!


SHORTLISTED

EDDIE by Di Green

Growing old is hard. Growing old without Eddie is almost unbearable, thought Margaret, her right hand slowly exploring the cold, empty space beside her in the bed. Christmas Eve, 1963, five long years ago, the worst day of her life, still haunted her every waking moment.

A smile touched her lips as she remembered the many Christmas Eves they had shared in their 50 years of marriage. It sounded like a long time, but now looking back it seemed it was gone in a flash.

Eddie used to say he’d ordered snow for London for Christmas Eve, as he knew how she loved to wake up to a white Christmas Day and they would lie in bed and watch the white flakes gently fluttering past the window. He promised he would never leave her, that he would always find a way to come home. But then he was gone, just like that.

Forcing herself out of her thoughts, Margaret slowly dragged herself out of bed to prepare for the day. Her son, Michael, was calling in today. He said he had a gift for her that couldn’t wait. Margaret couldn’t imagine what sort of gift involved such urgency, but she was always pleased to see her son.

Margaret spent the day tidying the house and baking Michael’s favourite carrot cake, and had just settled down to knit when the doorbell rang.

“Hi, Mum. Merry Christmas!” Michael smiled, handing her a box with one arm and hugging her with the other. “Open it straight away!”, he said.

Margaret thought she heard sounds coming from the box, but decided it must have been the children in the street. As she ripped the paper off, the lid sprang up, forced open by the head of the cutest puppy she had ever seen.

“Oh my goodness!”, Margaret squealed, “what a surprise!”

“I hope you like him, Mum. I thought he’d be good company for you.”

“I hadn’t considered getting a dog,” she said “but he is cute.”

“Oh, and you’ll never guess his name, it’s Eddie! The breeder had already named him, but you can change it if you want. It seemed like an omen, like you’re meant to have him.”

“Thank you, Michael, he’s beautiful.” She waved as he walked to his car.

The remaining afternoon disappeared quickly, filled with puppy play and cuddles. By the evening, Eddie had worked his way into Margaret’s heart, and she moved his bed from the laundry, where she had planned for him to sleep, into her bedroom.  Eddie, however, continued to whimper until she gave in lifted him onto the bed, where he snuggled happily up against her. After his initial snuggles however, Eddie sat upright and began staring alternately across the room then back to her, as if trying to draw her attention to something. Margaret was puzzled, until she finally looked out the window and saw what he was trying to show her.

With a tear in her eye, she realised it was snowing.

What we liked:
Okay, so we’re a sucker for dogs. It’s such a simple tale of loss and love, but the way that it is told is beautiful. The ending was exactly what you wanted it to be, and you can’t help but smile.


SHORTLISTED

THE FORGOTTEN by Fionna Cosgrove

So, there we were. The whole family enjoying a pre-Christmas celebratory ham. Bing Crosby crooned in the background, and the smell of cinnamon and ginger filled the air. Remnants of Mum’s attempt at a gingerbread house. I watched, a smile stretched across my face, as Mum poured gravy onto our five plates and Dad squeezed her shoulder with appreciation. My little brother showing more interest in the Christmas movie playing behind us, then anything occurring at the dinner table, and my little sister counting down the hours before the mountain of presents could be shredded into wrapping paper debris. It was home made perfection. At least what I remember of perfection. The image flickered.

‘No, please,’ I begged, ‘A little more time,’

‘Please swipe your tag for another ten minutes,’ the emotionless tones of a pre-recorded voice dripped out of the speaker.

I stared at the frozen image of the four familiar faces.

Then, a soft zap, and it was gone in a flash.

My breath caught in my throat. I raised my right arm, bracing it with my left to minimise the shaking, and scanned my code.

A quick pinch in my neck, and that tell-tale shiver.

‘Thank you for your contribution, and Merry Christmas,’ the speaker crackled.

The dark room in front of me shimmered, and then there they were.

Another ten minutes. And then another ten after that. I swiped until I had reached my limit.

‘Joanne! What happened? You said just once!’ Jonah’s arms wrapped around me, as I stumbled out of the building.

A security guard loomed above us, ‘Move on,’ he kept his voice low.

‘You’ve almost killed her!’ Jonah screamed. ‘Look at her! She’s aged twenty years! That’s not allowed!’

The guard placed his hand over the weapon affixed to his belt, ‘Peak period, different rules. She signed the waiver. Now leave, or I will make you leave.’

Jonah muttered under his breath as he collected me from the ground. At the same time the doors to the building opened. A young couple walked out, bracing themselves against the night with their woollen pea coats and cashmere scarves.

The woman eyed us disdainfully, before addressing the guard, ‘Roland, there really needs to be an alternate exit for the donors.’

‘I’ll suggest it to the company, Mrs Buxton. In the meantime, may I say, you both look exceedingly youthful.’

The young man chuckled, ‘You may indeed,’ he clapped the security guard on the back. ‘And what are your plans for this festive season?’

The frivolous exchange of pleasantries continued, as Jonah guided me to an alleyway around the corner. It was almost full for the night, crowded with faces of the forgotten, awaiting their next donation. An elderly man shuffled over, offering us a patch of bitumen and a corner of his blanket.

I leaned into Jonah, closing my eyes, holding onto the images of a simpler time.

‘Merry Christmas,’ I whispered.

Jonah tightened his grip on me, ‘Merry Christmas Jo.’

What we liked:
Similar to the earlier story of a future where you tap into your memories, this one takes on a darker tone. We begin innocently enough, with a tale of family at Christmas time, before the truth of these memories comes to light. The ageing and subsequent youthfulness of these future benefactors is chilling. Well told, this story paints a clear picture while the title offers a solemn double meaning.


SHORTLISTED

UNTITLED by Jodie Woodward

I sit with an old red cap clasped in my hands, feeling no magic at all on this night which was once filled with so much of it.

Christmas Eve. The name itself used to mean something, just like my own name did, but that was years ago now, when times were simpler.

For generations, the feat I managed was considered impressive – the logistics of manufacturing and delivering gifts made to the exact specifications of eager young girls and boys. I was the jolly old man with a white beard who somehow managed to visit an entire planet of children in a single night, knowing if each one had been naughty or nice without having to be told.

I had spreadsheets.

Now my name is mentioned like a joke in bedtime stories all over the world, on this night more than any other. Once I was spoken about with wonder and excitement, now I’m just a reminder that technology has superseded so much. Even tradition.

‘Do you want me to open a bottle of red, dear?’ my wife asks, patting my shoulder with a gentle hand.

‘Yes, dear,’ I say, not looking up from the fire raging in the grate in front of me. Remembering.

My reign was supposed to last forever. There’d been no talk of retirement plans back when I took this role on, so long ago now I can barely even remember it, because I’d signed on to do this indefinitely. Now the children of the world order their own presents which arrive instantaneously and they create their own virtual reality simulations of the North Pole where they ride on sleighs and build snowmen without ever having to leave the warmth of their bedrooms.

Now, my likeness is everywhere but my presence isn’t required.

The elves and I just couldn’t keep up with the demand for smarter and smarter technologies either. The children wanted everything and they wanted knowledge too, no longer content with waiting. They used their technology against us – installing hidden cameras, putting GPS trackers on the sleigh, and sending Rudolph for DNA testing. They unravelled every piece of my story and explained away all I did as trickery, leaving no mystery or magic.

The children stopped believing and the adults let them.

It was gone in a flash.

My wife returns from the kitchen with a plate filled with food. She’s been baking all day – cookies, cake, pie, tarts and muffins – as if overfeeding me can recreate some of the tradition we’ve had to leave behind.

It’s not the food I miss though, it’s the thrill, never knowing if I could deliver all the presents before the children woke from their beds. I worked quietly, light on my toes, so they wouldn’t see me.

Now there’s just this on Christmas Eve each year – hiding from the bitter cold with a glass of red wine. Remembering.

‘Don’t let it get you down.’

She hands me an oversized slice of cherry pie.

What we liked:
We just love the real take on Santa that we saw in a number of stories this month – whether it’s the earlier lactose-intolerant variety questioning his existence or here with a bunch of future regrets as our red-capped crusader laments a paradise lost and traditions gone by. Our favourite line of the story (and maybe the month) has to be “I had spreadsheets”… brilliant!


SHORTLISTED

CHRISTMAS EVE by Pauline Rimmer

Crash! I sat up and listened. Getting out of bed I padded to the door feeling disorientated.

I stood hesitantly, willing myself to investigate. Perhaps it was good old Santa, it was Christmas Eve after all.

Heading downstairs, I was careful to avoid the fourth step. Wait! That squeaky stair was at Mum’s house, not my townhouse.  A figure crouched by the Christmas tree as briquettes burning in the fireplace cast a soft red glow over the scene. A face turned toward me.

“Shhh, you will wake Mum. Come see what we got.”

I stared dumbfounded. It was my brother Rowan, but how could that be? He had died in a car accident in 1980, and now here he was, fourteen years old grinning at me like we had planned this conspiracy.

I shook my head trying to wake from this surreal experience. My thirteen year old self stared back at me from the fireplace mirror with a stunned expression in the half-light. I looked down at my flannelette nightie, I hadn’t worn one for many years.

Rowan was looking at me strangely.

“You OK Susan, you look like you have seen a ghost!”

But I have! I wanted to scream, but instead picked up a newspaper from beside the fire and held it up in the dim light.
The Herald. 24th December 1968. Apollo 8 Mission sends Christmas message from the Moon!

The paper fell as I looked around. I was thirteen again and home. I hugged my brother tightly.

“Get off, what’s the matter with you?”

“I’m just happy.”

Dream or not, I was determined to make the most of this precious time.

“Here, this is yours, sorry it dropped, hope it wasn’t breakable.”

We sat in companionable silence in the kaleidoscope of colours reflecting  the tree lights onto the draped tinsel and paper chain decorations.

“What are you two doing up so early?” said Mum with a smile.

I rushed to cuddle the plump figure in the pink polyester dressing-gown with the familiar scent of lavender powder.

“I love you Mum!”

I knew my future was lonely as she had also left my life.

“I love you too sweetheart. Come on, let’s see what Santa has brought you.”

We opened presents, showing Mum although we suspected she already knew what was there.
I held my precious jewellery box tight, complete with dent from Rowans mishap.  I would treasure it forever.

“You are very soppy tonight” complained Rowan as I gave him a peck on the cheek.
Mum laughed.

“It’s good to see you two getting along, hopefully you will always be close.”

“Not if she keeps annoying me.” Rowan grumbled.

Yes we will and I miss you both terribly I said silently. I closed my eyes and inhaled the fresh scent of pine. I had forgotten how nice a natural tree was in my 2018 world of artificial everything.

I woke suddenly, desperately trying to recapture the dream. Sadly, it was gone in a flash.

What we liked:
Past memories can often feel like they happened in a dream, and combined with this time of year (you’ll be feeling a little nostalgic perhaps right now being surrounded by people, places, sights and smells from your earlier days) this story gently reminds us of things gone by and things (or people) that we lost along the way. A nice, simple idea which resonates with so many.


SHORTLISTED

REINDEER GAMES by Ben Ashley

“Oi! Cut it out, Prancer, or it’s back to the basement! We’re already late!”

The reindeer stared at him, sand on his nose, his expression filled with loathing.

“You know what the problem is? I coddle you all too much,” The big bearded man sighed, his hair matted with sweat. He was rummaging through a small, grubby sack.

“It’s one night. One night a year, is all I ask.”

From further down the line, Blitzen gave an indignant snort.

“Hohold up! Did you say something, Blitzen?” the man rumbled. “I hope not! Miserable, ungrateful swine. You’re too slow! All of you!” There was a vein bulging in his temple as his hands suddenly found what they were looking for. A small metal lock pick.

“Ah! Wait here. And there’ll be no supper if you keep horsing around!”

With that, he turned his back on the sleigh, and trudged his way toward the rear of the house.

“We’re reindeer,” Blitzen hissed after him, once he was safely out of earshot.

The ten of them had landed haphazardly in a backyard, one in a sea of hundreds – of thousands – of identical backyards. There were toys strewn across a lawn, a tyre swing strapped to an aging oak tree, and a small wooden sandpit nearby. Prancer had gone back to digging through it. Finally, his head reemerged, jaws clutching the remains of an old apple.

“This is the thanks we get,” he said, chewing loudly. “We do all the work, and he just sits there, yelling at us all year long.” There were murmurs of agreement.

From across the yard, they watched the big man remove his hands from his filthy red mittens and press his ear against the door, fingers fumbling with the tiny lock pick. After a few minutes, he swore and threw the bent pick over his shoulder, took a few steps back, and kicked one massive fur-lined boot into the door with a resonating thud. It echoed through the dead of the night, punctuated by heavy breathing and frequent cursing.

“Absolute amateur,” said Donner.

“He’s the worst we’ve had in some time,” said Blitzen.

Thud.

“Not the basement,” whispered Prancer. “Please not the basement.”

“Have you seen his lists?!” asked Dasher, shrilly. “Judging everyone! Always judging!”

Thud. The door sprung open with a cloud of splinters, and St. Nick – it was gone in a flash.

Rudolph, who had been gazing pointedly at the stars and ignoring his colleagues, turned around at this, sniffing his ever-blocked nose.

“It’d not just hib. It’d da kids!” Sniff. “Wanting bore and bore each year!” Rudolph sneezed.

Comet had to agree. “Stuffy has a point. With all these Barbies, GI Joes and Hot Wheels, yo-yos and comics … we can’t keep up.” He gazed toward the open door of the house. “He really is a bit useless, though.”

Blitzen looked around at the others, a gleam in his eye, his face resolute.

“Friends, I think it’s high time we found a new delivery boy.”

What we liked:
Good on your Ben for bringing some reindeer humour to the table. And yes, we think you could be onto something here – these conversations would definitely be happening. Some brilliant points are made in this clever, pithy exchange of observations of a Santa not fit to serve, in this (not overtly) 1968 pre-mutiny.


SHORTLISTED

TAKE AWAY by Rosina Owen

“Dinner is on its way.”

“But it’s only Christmas Eve, Jill.”
“I know Dan, don’t get your knickers in a twist. It’s coming from Mars this year. They have this fabulous, new intergalactic restaurant set up, and everyone is raving about the food. Getting great reviews, and it takes less than twenty-four hours.”

“Bulldust, Jill, I don’t trust that mob. What’s to say they don’t lace our food with poison? Bump us off and conquer Earth. Next thing, all you women will be working down their salt mines, and us blokes will be kept as sex slaves.”

“That’s a laugh, Dan. they would pension you off, quick smart. Now stop being such a racist. They’re nice people. I noticed a Martian family at the local supermarket last week.”

“Huh, don’t trust them, not like us. Wrong colour, never did like green. And what about those eyes, sticking up on stalks? Weird. And did you hear about that lot on Jupiter? Invented a new ray gun ten times faster than the one we have. We need to step up and show them who’s the boss.”

“Oh, and before I forget, you and I are going on a diet starting Boxing Day. You have to get rid of that huge belly. You look like you’re about to give birth to a beer keg. How long is it since you saw your feet in the shower?”

“Rubbish, the doc said I’m in perfect shape. If I keep taking the pills, I can live till I’m two-hundred.”

“But they only work if you eat healthy food, and that doesn’t include gallons of beer and buckets of takeaway chicken and chips dripping in fat.”

“I’ll be dieting as well. My weight is creeping up. Might enter the Mrs. Outer Space comp.”

“You must be joking, Jill. Have you seen the females from Venus?”

“Now, what’s for dinner? I’m starving.”

“Sorry, potluck. Need to leave room for our Chrissy dinner. I’ll heat up that nut casserole. But, before that, I’ll just check up on our meal from Mars. Oh, No.”

“What’s up?”

“The space shuttle delivering the capsule with all the Christmas meals to Australia has been hit by a meteor. Everything splattered across the Universe. It was gone in a flash.”

“What will we do? the shops will be shut, and there is nothing in the house. I reckon its a conspiracy. They want to starve us now.”

“No, we won’t starve, Dan. The cupboard is full of the food I got in for our diet. Plenty of tofu, kale and my favourite, brussel sprouts.”

“Don’t cry, sweetheart, at least we’ll be thinner.”

What we liked:
Oh no, there really is nothing worse than the food you ordered from Mars getting hit by a meteor and having to end up eating tofu and kale! We enjoyed the nonchalant way that this couple is going about their daily 2068 business, almost as if we weren’t actually sitting here reading (take note!). The conversation may be odd fare, but it’s not going to be as odd as Christmas dinner…


SHORTLISTED

UNTITLED by EN Blake

According to historians, the following audio was recovered from Fire Support Base Sandpiper in Base Area 301, also known as the Hát Dịch Secret Zone. It is believed to have been made by off-duty radio technician Jack Murphy on December 24th, 1968.

“What’s that, Walker, cookies?”

“Yeah, here have one.”

“Oh, no, I didn’t—”

“Murphy, shut up and have one.”

“All right. Thanks.”

“Did you get anything from your folks?”

“Nah, there’s four of us over here, I doubt they’d be able to scrounge up enough tins.”

[Laughter]

“Four brothers, huh? What was that like?”

“Three brothers, man! I’m one of ‘em!”

[Laughter]

“Right, right. Well, three brothers is more than I had.”

“You were an only child?”

“I have a sister.”

“I was an only child.”

“No one’s surprised by that, Davis!”

“Hey!”

“You’re not missing much. Two brothers just means you get beat up twice as much.”

“Having a sister isn’t much different.”

“You beat up your sister, Walker?”

“Are you kidding, she beat me up!”

[Laughter]

“Don’t laugh, you haven’t seen her!”

“You sure about th— Ow!”

“That’s my sister, Davis!”

“Sorry. Think she’ll send you some extra cookies?”

“No, Mary doesn’t really agree with… No cookies.”

[Silence broken by a slapping noise]

“Damn mosquitoes!”

“They’re everywhere. Did you take the pills they gave us?”

“Which ones?”

[Laughter]

“For malaria, you don’t want to end up like Johnson.”

“Maybe I do. A couple of weeks in the med bay surrounded by nurses might be just what I need.”

[Laughter]

“Okay, Murphy, you hang out in a dirty tent eating gruel and sweating; I’ll stay out here and eat these cookies all by myself.”

[Scuffles]

“Cut it out, Murphy, they’re my cookies!”

[Laughter]

“Did you see what Lee’s Christmas tree looks like now? All the beer left in the cans has gone sour and the whole thing’s leaning.”

“Why’d they cut it down so long ago? Isn’t the whole point of a Christmas tree having a nice-looking tree for Christmas?”

“You keep looking at the trees, boys, I’ll be out here with the Donut Dollies talking about my inspiration service for our country.”

[Laughter]

“How’s Davis? Has anyone seen him?”

“You didn’t hear?”

“No, what?”

“He didn’t make it, Murph. Died before they could get him out.”

“What the hell? We’re supposed to be on a ceasefire!”

“Tell that to the VCs.”

[Mutters]

“That’s why we got air support now. The platoon ran into a claymore, five of ours got hit. Then the VCs that set it off got in one of their little boats. Our guys couldn’t get there in time, it was gone in a flash. You really didn’t know, Murphy?”

“I was doing the broadcast, they didn’t tell us any of th—”

[Muffled shouting]

“What’s going on out there, did someone shoot down Santa?”

[Laughter]

“Shit, that was Sarge, what—”

[Screaming, shots]

END OF RECORDING

What we liked:
A clever take on a ‘found footage’ style, and the setting felt natural (as natural as war can) thanks to the realistic dialogue between the boys of the 301. The interspersed audio cues are a nice touch as if we really are reading the transcript, and of course the end of the story ends when the recording does – where silence means so much.


SHORTLISTED

THE PRICE OF PEACE by Ash Tudor

“Remember don’t walk too far, Caleb.”

I call out from the beach and try desperately not to cry. Caleb joins the thousands of five-year-olds wading into the ocean. I stand with the other parents on the sand, most of us solo fathers and mothers, our partners killed in the Grand Last War. The rare couples hold each other.

The sun is sinking into the horizon. I’m cold, Christmas tomorrow will be colder. The water must be icy but no child complains. Each one has been educated; they’re a gift and they must behave.

Quite suddenly, a woman begins yelling towards the sky. She screams profanity and hate. Another woman is quick to grab her shoulders.

“Yours might not be chosen. Be quiet!”

Mercifully, the yelling woman stops. The truce is only a decade old, and fragile. 2058, the year the war ended, is still fresh. We cannot afford to cause offence.

They arrive, hundreds of their ships light up in our skies. During the war, we called their ships Flying Shields, flat, round and mighty. They approach with brutal speed and stop at the shoreline, hovering above the water. Every heart on the beach shatters. I keep eyes on Caleb, drinking in every part of him. Curly hair, chubby fingers. He doesn’t flinch at the Martians’ arrival.

Without announcement, compartments of the ships open and release metal claws. One by one the Martians pluck the children out the water, the claws hugging around our baby’s stomachs. The children go limp and disappear inside the ships. So many disappearing forever. But they won’t take them all.

I’m not breathing. Caleb’s is still in the water. My Caleb.

The offering is over quick. Once they’re satisfied, the ships fly backwards and return to the sky. Soon there’re all gone, except one.

The unchosen children stay in the water. Caleb is among them, but still I can’t breathe. We parents, those of us who haven’t collapsed in the sand, don’t move, not until we hear the signal.

The lonely ship hovers above the shore. How many children sit inside it? Eighty? Probably more.

At last, an alien voice blasts from the ship.

“Merry Christmas.”

The signal. The children turn and run.

I sprint forward, Caleb’s short legs struggle in the water. He jumps into my arms and we fall in the water, latched together. I feel the outcry of love around us as other parents do the same. On the sand, there is a chorus of wailing.

“It’s over Mumma?”

“Yes, darling.”

Once a child has been offered as a gift they can never be offered again. My Caleb, forever mine.

The ship remains. We all know why.

“Next year,” the voice is firmer. “We ask for humans age twelve.”

The ship rises and like the others it was gone in a flash, blasting back to their own atmosphere.

If I hadn’t already fallen in the water, I would’ve collapsed. Twelve. Twelve-year-olds next Christmas Eve. My Elly will be twelve this coming September.

What we liked:
Human sacrifices sounds like a fun future to look forward to, and we really have to feel sorry for this mother who has now ended up with children in the spaceship lottery two years running. There are no soft edges to this one – a truly terrifying and well told glimpse into an alien-dominated future.


SHORTLISTED

SHARING THE SKY by Lucy Ryan

“Would you do that to another kid!?” I screamed, slamming the back door and escaping outside. Angry tears poured freely down my face. Ma was popping pills like candy again. She said they were just for her pregnancy headaches this time. Not dangerous.

She was probably right. I didn’t care. I hated her for her selfishness.

The sky darkened, and I lay on my back, alone in the yard. I stared up at the moon, the thin crescent visible through a gap in the clouds. Apollo 8 was up there, orbiting the moon. What I wouldn’t give for a chance like that, even just for a good school! But all the money went to Daisy, because of those damn Thalidomide pills. For a second, I felt a flicker of resentment towards her. It was gone in a flash of guilt and shame as she came shuffling through the back door, braces supporting her deformed legs, her misshapen arms waving happily at me.

“Whatcha doin’, Lizzy?” she called, waddling over.

“I’m just…looking at the sky.”

She flopped down next to me. “Are you looking for Santa?”

“No, I’m looking at the moon. There are people flying around it.”

She thought for a moment. “What if they hit Santa?”

“They won’t. They’re just sharing the sky tonight. What are you hoping he’ll bring?”

“I want proper legs. And proper arms. Can he do that, Lizzy?” Her eyes were bright with hope. It was like a punch in the stomach.

“I-…No-…He-…can’t do that. He’s not that kind of magic.”

“But if he’s magical, what’s he use it for?”

Suddenly, I was angry at the old man. “Nothing useful.” I said shortly.

Daisy was quiet for a long time. “I don’t think I like Santa.” she whispered. “If he’s magic, why can’t he fix me?”

Wretchedness filled me. She would have to grow up too fast.

“He won’t help you. But you see those astronauts up there?”

She squinted at the sky. “No.”

“That’s because they’re further away than anyone has been before. Further than you could possibly imagine. How d’you think they got there?”

She shrugged.

“Well, Santa didn’t give them a ride. They got themselves there. They dared to do what everyone said wasn’t possible. Daisy, if men can one day walk on the moon, you can prove people wrong, too. You can do anything that anyone else can and more. You don’t need Santa’s help.” I furiously blinked the unwanted tears away.

She nodded. “Okay.”

She thought for a minute, then said, “If they’re flying around the moon, why don’t they just land on it already?”

A reluctant smile crept onto my face. “Enough questions! To bed with you!” She squealed with laughter as I hoisted her into my arms and carried her inside.

As I tucked her in, she looked at me with wide eyes.

“He’s not real, is he? No one’s that mean.”

I couldn’t argue with that.

“No.”

She grinned. “Good.”

What we liked:
This backyard slice of 1968 is at first hot and angry before taking on a mellower guise of sibling love and knotted emotions. You can feel the battle going on between resentment and guilt, which ultimately melts away into love thanks to an innocent who never asked for any of it and some touching dialogue. Completely topical to its day and with a nod to our friends orbiting the moon on that date in history, this look up at the stars seemed the perfect place to end our collection.

And now, enough questions. To bed with you!


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