It was the day before Christmas and throughout the world, writers sat waiting and curiosity swirled.
Whose holiday was about to get merrier? Let’s find out – here were the criteria…
- Each story had to include SOMETHING EITHER BEING SENT OR RECEIVED IN THE MAIL.
- Each story had to include the following words: JINGLE, CLICK, BUMP, SIZZLE (plurals or -ing variants are allowed).
- Each story’s final sentence had to contain exactly THREE words.
With a jingle of bells – or maybe car keys, a thousand writers submitted stories.
Visions of winning danced in their heads; five hundred bucks and towns painted red.
And so to the browser window they did dash, to find out at last who’d take home the cash…
This month’s winning story belongs to Ben Ashley of WA, Australia. He will find an extra $500 under the tree tomorrow. Also, thanks to Title No Title, we have this month embraced the festive spirit by awarding their 2020 Australian Literary Diary to TWO shortlisted stories we drew out of our Santa hat – well done Reece Milne and Sue Tymms! You can read their stories plus other shortlisted ones below.
Want your own Australian Literary Diary for 2020? Get 10% off using promo code: AWC at the checkout over at Title No Title. A must-have writer’s companion for the new year.
Thanks again to those who entered this month – there was some fierce competition and if your story didn’t make its way here, that doesn’t mean you’re on the naughty list. Every month is a great opportunity for you to challenge yourself and build a collection of short fiction – so we hope to see you lining up again in 2020!
Now, PLOTTER! Now, PLANNER! Now PANTSER with THICK SKIN!
Writing SONNETS!, or OP-EDs! MEMOIRS and FICTION!
To the top of the page! To the top of the hall!
Now bash away! Smash away! Thrash away all!
Wishing everyone a safe and happy holiday from the Furious Fiction team.
DECEMBER 2019 WINNER
A REQUEST by Ben Ashley, WA
I write to you as a last resort. In the spirit of the holidays, and by extension, my own sanity, I am extending the olive branch. This is a peace offering.
I see now that it is possible that I have not been a model member of our community. For example, I understand that my djembe drumming requires a refined musical ear to fully appreciate. I cannot help it if my muse visits me at 1am, for I am an artist, and I cannot ignore the gift of inspiration. I did make a concerted effort to invite you to join in our spirit chanting seminars, but you never responded to my RSVP.
You have quite visibly shown your displeasure when I choose to focus my chakras in the first light of day. Unfortunately, although my roof is in full view of your daughter’s bedroom, it is there that receives optimal sunlight, and therefore, the only feasible place for me to sun my perineum. As the single most efficient method to receive my daily energies from the sunlight, surely you can see that this is entirely out of my control.
I realise that our shared wall is occasionally the recipient of vigorous bumping, when my partner and I consummate our love on Tuesdays and Sundays. I am truly sorry that this resulted in ‘shattering your brand new Samsung OLED’, however, I think we would all agree that we would all benefit from a little less screen time, no?
Yes, it may be true our household is partial to the potent healing properties of the Surströmming, and while the sizzling aroma of fermented Scandinavian fish is my idea of a perfect breakfast, I concede that it is somewhat of an acquired taste. Although I find it a source of unlimited healing, I agree that the scent can often have a tendency to linger, albeit only for one or two weeks.
It is only now, after much self-reflection, guided meditation, and liberal use of hallucinogens, that it has finally clicked. I have come to see how it is possible that my way of living has created minor tension between us, particularly evident on the occasion you attempted to hit me with your car.
My pledge to you is this:
I will close my curtains when I walk free of the shackles of clothing.
I will refrain from hosting coordinated drumming circles on weeknights.
I will prepare all aged seafood feasts indoors.
These rampant Christmas jingles have to stop.
Mariah Carey’s shrill warbling permeates my ears like an air raid siren. It consumes my entire being. We first heard traces of carols in early September. September is an unacceptable month to be playing Christmas jingles. How can you live with yourself?
This cannot go on. My partner weeps herself to sleep most nights.
I appreciate your cooperation in this matter. Please, spare us this sick cruelty.
What we loved:
“Love thy neighbour”, they said! We received a number of stories told through letters this month, but this one scored points for its unrelenting humour and clear characters – cleverly portrayed even through a one-sided exchange. We love that the seemingly never-ending list of eccentric habits are an assault on the senses for the long-suffering neighbour – who is literally copping offensive smells, sights, and sounds from across the wall – you can almost smell the Surströmming! And yet, despite the mountain of misgivings from next door, the reason for the letter is actually something deemed equally offensive – that ONE tune we all love to hate to love. Wonderfully told, although we suspect the Christmas jingles will only increase in ferocity…
GESTATION IN RECESS by John Adams, USA
On Monday, Delores Duarte tearfully proclaimed she was with child.
It was a typical Monday—the air was cool, dogs barked nearby, Postmistress Jane delivered mail across the street—save Delores’ condition.
She did not say ‘pregnant,’ of course, since she was five years old and did not yet know that world. Instead, she practiced techniques learned from the countless Regency-romance adaptations her parents watched every Sunday: she billowed onto the playground, flung the back of her hand across her forehead, and sobbed, “I am a fallen woman and with child!” The Baby Cady doll stuffed under her shirt gave the performance lopsided realism.
Jillian Dover, whose daddy spent his Sundays catching up on soap operas, gasped, “Who’s the father, Delores? Who?” Jillian crooned a deep-voiced ‘duhn-duhn-duhn’ worthy of the best Friday cliffhangers.
Boys quickly protested their innocence.
“I was winning Le Mans,” said Sammy Martinez, whose daddies enjoyed auto-racing programs.
“I was holidaying in Saint-Tropez,” said Jacob Alton, whose mommy preferred travel channels.
“I’m just her boy-toy,” said Simon Allister, whose parents favored reality-TV programs with titles like Tempting Sizzle. (Simon, for his part, did not know what the term ‘boy toy’ meant, though he very much liked both the words it encompassed.)
Pepper Feldstein, whose mommies had seen virtually every nature documentary, explained how Delores might have become ‘with child’ were she a baboon.
Caleb Carmichael, whose mommy devoured science-fiction reruns like kettle corn, suspected the baby was implanted by aliens. “Probably benevolent ones, though.”
Denny Markev, whose parents paid extra for fine-arts channels, offered a graceful pirouette.
It was Honey Sue Maxwell, raised by parents who adored their British parlor mysteries, who resolved to solve the case. She scanned the area, searching for clues to the baby’s paternity. Her eyes meandered across the street, where Postmistress Jane continued delivering the day’s mail.
A plan formed. “Lie down, Delores,” Detective Honey Sue commanded. “You’ve gone into labor.”
Delores, still a-flutter with 19th century melodramatics, meekly protested—the ground was filthy, she was a hollow shell of a woman, she had consumption—but Honey Sue persisted. Soon, the mother-to-be was face-down in the dirt. (Lyle Wallace, wise from his parents’ heart-racing medical dramas, corrected her position.)
“Push, Delores!” Honey Sue demanded. “Push that baby out!”
Delores did just that. She pushed—pushed her hands against the bump in her shirt until the Baby Cady doll jutted into the young detective’s waiting grasp.
“A clue!” Honey Sue cried.
“My baby,” Delores whimpered as she died of consumption (and also went back into the classroom, as recess was ending).
As jingles of school bells rustled the other children inside, Honey Sue studied the plastic newborn cradled in her arms. A string dangled from its back—what doctors called the ‘umbilical cord,’ no doubt. Curious, Honey Sue pulled it. It wound back inside, clicking as it went.
“Daddy?” the doll cooed up at her.
Honey Sue, recess’s most brilliant detective, gasped. Could it be? “I’m… I’m…” she stuttered. “I’m the father?”
What we liked:
Every month we encourage entrants to write a story that stands out. And with December’s criteria nudging most down a festive and mail-driven storyline, this quirky story’s unexpected approach zagged with aplomb. Right from the title and delightfully melodramatic opening line, our curiosity was piqued to the point of needing to peek further. And as this playtime drama rolled out with its cast of kooky kindergarteners, its commitment to the cause made us chuckle at its absurdity. Nurture clearly wins over nature at this school – where even five-year-olds are filled with such nuance not seen since the days of The Little Rascals. In particular, we loved the theatrics of Delores and Honey Sue’s sleuthing skills. A wonderfully wacky glimpse into the sponge-like properties of children!
UNTITLED by Sue Tymms, Vic
I should have been expecting it. She always sent a postcard, always. We’d often joke that she’d already showed off her photos, suntan and quirky souvenirs, be on the move again, before the small rectangle of cardboard made it through our letter flap.
I should have been expecting it, prepared myself. Realised the awful inevitability that it would arrive after she was gone. But there were so many matters to attend to, so many arrangements to make. It completely slipped my mind.
Even the jaunty jingle of the front door bell, our postie’s trademark ring-ding-ding, did not prepare me. I walked numbly along the dark passage, squeezing past and bumping into somber relatives. Their soft condolences followed in my wake, a flotilla of meaning-wells and apologies.
It lay amongst a drift of cards. ‘With Sympathy,’ from those who’d heard. ‘Merry Christmas,’ from those who hadn’t. It didn’t click until after I picked it up, squinting at the bright picture of tourists sizzling on a white sandy beach.
One last echo.
What we liked:
Most of the time, a story that leaves more than 300 words unused is lacking something, but this one stood out for its emotional punch – short, sharp and poignant. The exact relationships, names and backstory did not need to be mentioned yet the story is still authentically heartbreaking. Some lovely turns of phrase throughout its short form – in particular we love “a flotilla of meaning-wells and apologies.” All of the prompts are seamlessly filtered throughout and the powerful three-word finish is perfect.
WINNIE + FRED by Latesha Randall, NZ
Winifred sometimes worried they might crush her. They filled her one-bedroom home in neat stacks; perfect white towers rising up like ghosts from the tables, shelves, and corners.
The drawers and cupboards were the first to be occupied. Then her walk-in wardrobe. The office. Marching onwards into the lounge, the dining room. Their advance was relentless. She warily eyed the teetering piles that threatened to topple at the slightest hint of a bump.
It had been like clockwork for the past 58 years. Each day she’d walk down her narrow, cobbled driveway to open the creaking mailbox (possibly even older than she was), and there it would be. A pale square, containing one sheet of lined paper, neatly folded in half. A letter from Fred. The stamps hand-selected to amuse her – a butterfly, ice-cream cone, or flower. Say what you like about him, he had always been a thoughtful man.
When they’d parted, she’d never expected to hear from him again. They both understood the reasons they couldn’t be together. But then, 7 days after, from the other side of the world, the letters started coming. At first they were dramatic, sizzling pleas for the past to be undone, longings for a reunion. Over time, they turned reminiscent – rambling recollections of their youth, their small, bright adventures.
“Remember how one Saturday we stole the gumball machine from the corner store? By Sunday, our jaws were so worn out from chewing we could barely talk!”
“Remember how we carved our names on just about every tree in town – Winnie + Fred – I can still picture you there with the knife, tongue halfway out in concentration.”
As he continued writing to her, like prayers to a benevolent but unresponsive god, she listened to Fred’s life unfold.
Triumphs. Tragedies. Loss.
She heard his stories of sickness and health. Times of riches and poverty.
Musings on ageing – “You know Winnie, it’s curious – I don’t feel any different inside, but when I look in the mirror, I don’t recognise my reflection.”
Boredom – “I know there’s plenty I could do, but I can’t think of a single thing I want to do.”
Gratitude – “Isn’t memory a marvellous thing? I can dive in anytime I want and live a moment all over again.”
Her daughter Tracey clicked her tongue in disapproval at every visit, but she couldn’t bring herself to part with any of them. The approaching jingle of the postman’s bell was the highlight of her day. And when you’re over 80, you want to hold onto those.
So when she shuffled down one morning, and found the mailbox empty, Winnie’s heart skipped a beat – possibly two. “It’s fine,” she told herself, “He’s just busy.” The next day, nothing. After 5 days in a row, Winnie finally acknowledged what she’d already known to be true.
She looked into the chasm of the mailbox, and whispered softly.
“Goodbye, dear Fred.”
What we liked:
With a strong opening paragraph, we are gently and enigmatically welcomed into the home (and world) of Winifred. From here, we are taken on a sweetly-told walk down letterbox lane, with the prompts expertly woven through the narrative and Fred’s romantic observations drawing us into daily layers of a life lived apart, love and loss. We do receive a lot of love stories – and we will say that it’s no mean feat to write a short story that can tug at the heartstrings without feeling schmaltzy. (And if you enjoy this kind of story, we recommend watching the wonderful film Mary and Max over the holidays.)
SCENTED PAPER by Reece Milne, Vic
You sent me a decision, wrapped in scented paper. It hit me as soon as I opened the letterbox and saw it waiting for me. Lavender I guessed, with a hint of rose. It opened to a glossy heading written in gold. The content done in a flowing wavy font that made me squint just to read it. I saw your name written at the top and stood there for a while.
I took it with me longer than I should have. I held it as I made a coffee, I held it as I made breakfast. I held it under the remote, clicking through the channels. I read it over and over again, wondering what it really meant. I suppose she invited me. You probably just said we were old friends and she thought it a good opportunity to fill more seats. Or was this your way of showing me you’d finally figured yourself out? Were you proving to me that you were right when you said it wouldn’t last.
I was still holding your invitation an hour after I opened it. I was wondering what I would even say to you if I went. Would I pretend that nothing happened? Or worse, would you? Would I see you at the reception as the night came to an end? When the party goers left, tired and drunk and the music went down to a soft jingle that echoed over the dance floor. Would we come together and talk for hours like we did before? When we walked down the early morning streets and you’d softly bump into me every once in a while. The little nudge we kept our own little secret to show each other how we felt when everyone else was watching. The thought made me smile until I remembered her and felt awful for wanting it.
Why did you send me this? You’d condemn me to sit sizzling in a suit, (in the back row no doubt) to prove to me you’ve changed like you said you would when it ended? I wanted to believe this was some cry for help. That you wanted me to come bursting in like the movies and yell my objection. I know better.
I was still holding onto your letter, the paper crinkled from my tightened grip. There are several things I could say to you if I went, or things I could ask you. So many things that all this time I’ve wanted to know.
I was still holding your invitation when I knew what I would do. I knew all I needed to know now, and even though you sent me memories tied in scented paper, and I’m thankful for that at least, I’ll let you be. I’ll let go.
What we liked:
This story had a great opening line – a beautifully descriptive and tonally appropriate way to begin what is a believable narrative portraying the power of one piece of mail. Even if the context and contents were different, we’ve all been here – faced with the emotional memories that can become unlocked with the simple opening of an envelope. We loved the soft touch in using ‘bump’ to evoke a vivid scene and the repetition of ‘holding’ and ‘held’ throughout – as they effectively steer the story to its final three words and a sense of closure. Simple, succinct storytelling.
I WATCH THEM by Holly Rae Garcia, USA
A young couple spills onto the sidewalk from an all-night diner, laughing and holding hands. Before the door closes, the scent of burgers sizzling on a grill wafts out into the night. They stop to embrace. A man in a leather jacket sidesteps them, rolling his eyes and muttering beneath his breath.
I watch them kiss.
Young men gather beneath me. They talk of futures, families, and hope, while they wait to cross the street, car keys jingling in their hands. Two of them graduate next month, and one already has an impressive job offer. The tall, gangly one is starting a charity for the homeless. World-changers, all of them. Or at least they want to be.
I watch them dream.
A woman with a black satchel over her shoulder approaches, the bag bumping against her hip as she walks. Clutching her hand is a boy, three or four-years-old, with remnants of an after-dinner ice cream still on his chin. She stops in front of the large mailbox cemented to the sidewalk. Kneeling down so the boy can reach into the bag and pull out a package, the mother then leaves the bag at her feet and lifts him up to the bin opening.
I watch them laugh.
They don’t see the man in the leather coat behind them. He grabs the satchel at their feet, stuffs it beneath his jacket, and ducks into the diner. The mother hugs the boy before she sets him back onto the sidewalk beside her and turns to grab her satchel.
I watch them cry.
A traffic light changes, the soft click almost drowned out by car engines coughing to life on one side, and brakes squealing on the other. The young couple hurries across the road, still holding hands. An old man, leaning down to adjust his car radio, plows through the intersection.
I watch them fall.
The dreamers beneath me jump into action. One calls the emergency line while another, the impressive-job-offer graduate, kneels to help the couple bleeding onto the pavement. The tall one directs traffic around them all, but it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s too late. They wait for the ambulance, shoulders drooped and silent. They know they won’t be changing anyone’s world tonight.
I watch them try.
Horns bleat in the distance as drivers grow impatient with the stalled traffic. Angry men and women roll their windows down and yell at the cars in front of them, shaking their fists into the cold night. Emergency vehicles struggle to find a path forward.
I watch them fail.
My light flickers, as it has for the past two nights. City workers came to fix it yesterday, but they didn’t have a spare and aren’t allowed to buy any more. Budget cuts, you know. The street below flashes in and out of my vision. A young woman looks up and watches me cycle on … off … on, her eyes a delightful shade of green.
I cannot watch.
What we liked:
With a stanza-like approach to the narrative, this voyeuristic story delivers us a handful of mostly unrelated moments. At first, we try and find the meaning – hoping to be illuminated by a link, clues or the motive to this watcher with unknown intentions. It’s only once its inanimate identity is revealed that we simply see it as a snapshot of high-”lights” across this night. The simple repetition and realistic descriptions throughout made this a curiously compelling slice of everyday life.
UNTITLED by Karen Huntly, Vic
Dear Lachlan, It was great catching up with you again during your Melbourne sojourn and I trust this email finds you fit and well. The conference in Iceland must have agreed with you. You looked very relaxed and refreshed and I’m thrilled your presentation was so well received. Hope you had a safe trip back home to Sydney. Tomorrow morning is the start of my 8-week sewing class and, having previously used masking tape for hems, surely the only way is up. (No pun intended.) Warmest regards, Georgie
Dear Georgie, Nice to hear from you, and thanks.
Dear Lachlan, Well, the sewing course came and went, along with my sanity. Let’s just say that overlockers and I do not click. The hideous tote bag I made, was, however, the perfect size to carry my newly acquired sewing paraphernalia to the op shop. I hope you’re finding time to work on the children’s story you told me about. Cheers, Georgie
Dear Georgie, Story nearly finished. Lachlan
Dear Lachlan, I hope you are well and that you get some positive news from the annual grant applications for your research. Things are a bit grim at my work. Sociopathic boss has all six of us on egg shells. He has started charging one of his long-term staff for the power to charge his electric bike, he’s installed a webcam over my chair which he can remotely access any time, from anywhere, and in his spare time he’s spewing forth vitriolic emails to each of us. Ah, the serenity. What with work, and Dad being ill, I’ve signed up for a meditation course. If that fails, alcohol beckons. Best regards, Georgie
Dear Georgie, Thanks for your email. I have my fingers crossed for some success with the grants. Lachlan
Hi Lachlan, Have you heard the latest jingle promoting the Northern Territory? Reminds me of how we met on the day trip to Litchfield, and you bumping smack bang into that termite mound while looking the other way. Your embarrassment was quite endearing. I headed down to Bunnings on the weekend for a cooking demo with Poh, but got there late and had to settle for the 1st Heatherdale Scout Group’s sausage sizzle. Dad’s condition has deteriorated, and we’re taking shifts to help Mum out. I hope all is well with you. Regards, Georgie
Dear Georgie, I was disappointed to see you dropped the use of ‘Dear’ in your last email. Hopefully just a slip up. I have finished writing The Climbing Tree and have sent a USB stick in the mail for you to review and edit.
Georgie, How’s The Climbing Tree coming along? Lachlan
Hello Georgie, I haven’t heard in a while. Any update on my story?
Dear Lachlan, I managed to finish editing The Climbing Tree. Will post back next week. Cannot see it being a challenge, but I ask that you please never contact me again. Oh, and another thing. My Dad died.
What we liked:
Wow, Lachlan huh. What a catch! The give and take take take correspondence here nicely illustrates the contrasting characters. Georgie’s greetings and sign offs are wonderful devices to show the relationship cooling. No fancy punctuation needed – we read the ebb and flow perfectly as it flows to a sad, yet satisfying ending. A nice use of the word count to create a sense of time passing – and a timely reminder for us to all employ active listening with our loved ones these holidays!
Also congrats to the following stories that were on the decision table this month – it was a tough one so give yourself a pat on the back. If you’re not listed, good news – you get another chance next week!
DECEMBER 2019 LONGLISTED (in no particular order):
- UNTITLED by Garth Jones, Qld
- TEETH by Timothy Zala, Vic
- UNTITLED by Naosheyrvaan Nasir, NSW
- SECRET SANTA by Sheree Simmons, SA
- NO BRUISES by Sam McCulloch, Vic
- THE GIFT OF GAV by Sam Herd, Qld
- ANOTHER HOBBY by Frances Le
- FRAMED by Sarah Rutherford, SA
- SOME KIND OF LOVE LETTER by Keely Fleming, NSW
- CHRISTMAS POST by Ingrid Jendrzejewski, UK
- ONE STAMP PLEASE by Caleb Walker, Vic
- THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS by Mandy Waring, NSW
- NOT EVEN THE MOUSE by Kate Dunn, Vic
- LETTERS by Eva Helene Hagavik, Norway
- TROUBLE AT MILL by Roslyn Emmerick, ACT
- THE RELIEVING CLAUSE by Nathan Taylor, Qld
- THE LAST POST OF CHRISTMAS by Gael Bell, UK
- LITTLE SISTER by Ivana L. Truglio, NSW
- ENOUGH WAS ENOUGH by Freya Devante, Malta
- CASABLANCA by Jay McKenzie, NSW
- THE NIGHT I SAVED CHRISTMAS by Paul Crook, SA
- IT’S NEVER TOO LATE by Connie Boland, Canada
- THE CHRISTMAS CARD HEALER by Leah Eichner, Vic
- UNTITLED by Daniella Vido, ACT
- OUT THROUGH GOUT by Barend Nieuwstraten III, NSW
- NOT A BOY by Amy Ruth, USA
- BONNY HILL by Meg Pacelli, USA
- A LETTER FROM SANTA by Pam Makin, SA
- THE LETTER by Jenni Carter, USA