And so we arrive at the final Furious Fiction edition for this quiet, uneventful year. The criteria we required in December were:
- Each story had to include a GIFT of some kind.
- Each story’s first sentence had to contain only THREE words.
- The following words had to be used somewhere in the story: PALM, MATCH, ROSE.
With the fiction tree put up and decorated with our glittering criteria, we settled in (mamma in her kerchief and us in our cap) and waited for the assortment of stories to be placed under our carefully trimmed (to 500 words or fewer) tree.
The punchy three-word-opens helped focus the stories upfront, while literal and figurative gifts jostled for position with a mix of thorny roses, girls named Rose, boxes of matches, boxing matches, palm trees and palm readers – to name just a few of the myriad directions chosen.
But there can only be ONE shining star atop the tree each month, and this month the judges gave that honour to Elisabeth Shenher and her story, Star-Crossed (below), before kissing her bank balance with $500AU under the mistletoe. Congrats!
And well done to the more-than 1200 entrants who took part this month. If your story made the ‘nice’ list, give yourself a pat on the back. But even if it didn’t, don’t give up hope – you never know when it might be YOUR turn to guide our story sleigh… and you’ll get another chance very soon, 1 January in fact!
From all of us here at the Furious Fiction team, thanks for continuing to make this competition so special and have a safe and happy holiday.
DECEMBER 2020 WINNER
STAR-CROSSED by Elisabeth Shenher, Canada
Tomorrow, Anya dies. It’s tragic, of course. Funeral goers will say she had so much ahead of her—she was too young to die.
No one is too young to die. Not the boy playing baseball, nor the woman trying to stop her roses from withering, nor the priest playing chess, moving his pawn to e4. They die tomorrow, too.
Today, Anya is alive. Her laundry is piling up and she’s out of quarters for the machine. Her sink is clogged; she’s nearly out of dish soap.
On the train, she dreads her errands. She Googles where to buy Drain-Buster for the best price and wonders how much longer her soap could last—she doesn’t know that none of this matters.
But before she spends fifteen minutes of her last day comparing Dawn-Platinum to Dawn-Hand-Renewal and asking for her change in coins, she goes to the bookstore.
There, she finds what she’s looking for. As she reaches for the last copy, someone across the table reaches out his hand, too.
“It’s yours,” the man says.
Anya hesitates. “I can wait.”
“Nah—you were here first. Consider it a gift.”
Of course, Anya never gets the chance.
Anya doesn't believe in fate. She can see how, for some, fate is a nice idea—a warm blanket to wrap oneself in, whipped cream on hot chocolate, the last chip at the bottom of the takeout bag.
Anya’s grandmother thought that way. She died penniless and heartbroken all because she trusted in palm readings and leaves at the bottom of teacups.
Anya won’t be the same.
The man in the store, Vance, believes in fate. His Tinder bio says he’s a Taurus and he has a tarot card tattoo on his thigh. If he believed in fate a little less, he would’ve tried a little more. He might’ve asked Anya for her number, or told her that her eyes were beautiful. If he didn’t intently believe that his stars would align, he might’ve taken to the internet and wrote: missed connection—seeking my perfect match.
Vance does none of those things. He lives for thirty-eight more years before the cancer in his colon claims him. The disease might’ve been treatable if he didn’t ignore the warning signs because he believed everything would work out.
But on Anya’s last night, she buses to her apartment, her groceries in her lap. The sun sets in a bath of fire. Clouds burn. Fog smoulders.
Anya sees none of this. She’s on Facebook, arguing with her Great Aunt.
If Anya believed that reaching for the same book was a sign, if she’d made plans to go for coffee with Vance, she would’ve lived. Instead, Anya goes to the gym and a green Civic runs a red.
It’s unfair, she thinks in her final moments.
The boy chokes on a cherry. The woman seizes in her garden. The priest slips in the shower.
It’s all unfair.
And it happens all the same.
What we loved:
Using an omniscient point of view, this story deftly introduces us to a small cast of characters – but two in particular. While such a POV has the risk of distancing the reader, here it plays to its strengths as the all-seeing narrator, heightening the story’s unique tone and peppering it with detail. Along the way, it precariously balances between hope and desolation, giving us facts without answers and ultimately exploring the tapestry of short-lived (and often short-changed) human lives. With the ending already presented in those opening three words, we are able to compare the inconsequential things that take up our time alongside the small actions that have big consequences. Split in two like an apple, each half of this piece lingers after reading – reminding us that yes life can be unfair, which is why every bite must also be savoured.
THE CHRISTMAS ROSE by E.E. Rhodes, UK
“It’s me, Rose.”
It was the second time she’d called through the letterbox. Probably wanted her soccer ball back, or something else her unruly brothers had kicked over the fence into my back garden, interrupting the day.
When the family had first moved in the children had been polite. Almost respectful. That had been at the end of a chilly spring. But, come the first good day with a hint of warmth to it, the three of them were out in their backyard playing a complicated game with bases and three balls. There was a lot of shouting.
It was the first of many games. And the first of many balls over the fence.
I had sent a nice note 'round asking if they might keep it down while I was trying to have my afternoon nap or watching the test match on TV. It was hard to hear the commentary over all the shrieking.
At the front door Rose gave up on calling. She was the quietest of the three, and I supposed they’d sent her thinking I’d be mollified by her small-girl hair in bunches and the winsome freckles scattered like spilt sugar across her nose.
That was fair enough. She could be a sweet child, engaging and open, with a sunny disposition.
I closed my eyes. Perhaps if they got really desperate, she would come back again, after all, how many balls could one family have, and there were several still on my back lawn.
It was possible I'd broken my hip and, even though the heating had kicked in, I was beginning to stiffen all over. This was how people died wasn’t it? Lying on the floor of their living room, feet tangled in a stray power cord.
There was a knock on the patio windows. I could see Rose, her palms pressed against the glass as she tried to peer in past the half-drawn curtains.
I tried a feeble call to her and she waved. Tucked under her other arm there was something done up in bright red Christmassy wrapping paper.
“Get your father,” I mouthed at her. She nodded, said something I didn’t catch, and then skipped out of view.
Ten minutes later there was a commotion at the front door. Rose’s father got a blanket over me and we waited together for the ambulance he’d called.
When I got out of hospital three days later, badly bruised but not broken, the present was on my coffee table together with a card. There was a note slid into the envelope with a drawing from the children apologising about all their racket over the year. In the picture we were all waving at each other. The smallest child’s hair was done up in bunches, tied with spangly ribbons, my little Christmas Rose.
Out in the garden I rounded up six brightly coloured balls and managed to throw them back over the fence.
What we liked:
It’s a clever move to not reveal the protagonist’s predicament until halfway through this piece. What at first seems like a quiet reflection on the ruckus of the children next door changes tack when we realise our disgruntled main character is in a helpless hip-induced heap on the floor, desperately seeking what he had previously scorned. This is a quiet, simple scene, deftly illustrating the power of community connections – a theme that has certainly flourished in 2020 amid the adversity. The sweet sentiment ties this story together with a bow at the end, but it’s controlled and handled with a light touch.
LADY LUCK by Mikki, NSW
“Do come in.”
Hannah froze, a protective hand over her boy’s shoulder.
“Don’t dawdle, I am up the back,” the voice said.
When Hannah saw the man, he seemed respectable. A fitted grey suit, pinned white rose and bowler hat.
“Sit,” he offered, “Your boy can wait there.”
Henry pulled away, drawn towards a chess set and his mother sat, quietly.
“10 shillings,” the man said.’
Almost half the cost of her tickets, Hannah thought. She noticed his neck muscles tensing. A shaving rash irritating the skin. “Alright,” she said, rummaging through her bag.
With methodical purpose, the man began dealing a deck of cards. Each row perfectly matched the one above. “So, what would you like to know?” he asked.
Hannah was surprised. “Aren’t you supposed to tell me?”
Still dealing, the man smirked, “I read the cards. You give the direction. Everything makes sense with context right?”
With her foot, Hannah dragged her suitcase closer. He was likely a charlatan, but already had her money. “Okay, I’m struggling with a decision. We’ve got a trip coming up and I’m not sure if we should go.”
The man rubbed his palm over a card and flipped it. “Going away or running away?” He raised his hands. “I don’t judge. It doesn’t change the cards anyway. I’ll tell you what I see. Two things quite clearly.” He paused for dramatic effect and whispered. “Do not go. Choose something else. Somewhere else.”
“That trip goes nowhere. It’s literally a dead end. Maybe just return home?”
An image of her husband, sweaty and dirty storming through their empty kitchen. No dinner, no wife, no son. She leant forward. “What else?”
“Well that involves your son.”
“My son?” she shot a look over her shoulder. Henry was playing harmlessly on the floor.
“It’s extra, a further 8 shillings,” the man said.
Hannah laughed. “I don’t have anymore.”
“But you have your tickets,” his eyes locked on her hand. Without sensing it, she’d been holding the tickets the entire time, rubbing them relentlessly.
The man continued. “The information is a gift really. Your son has an incredible talent, it’s as clear as anything I’ve seen.”
Henry was watching them. Innocent, defenceless. What sort of life was she condemning him to? Where were they running? She had no plan. Hannah edged the tickets towards him. ‘Tell me then.’
Henry could see them talking. His mother leaning in close, her eyes wide. By the time she turned, tears rolled down her face. She danced over and lay a salty kiss flat on his cheek.
Of course, our man in the suit waved courteously as mother and son exited, but his heart was racing. Years of grinding and hard toil. Waiting to seize such a moment. Tomorrow he’d set sail and never return. Straight from Southampton to New York aboard the greatest ship ever built. He took a swig of whiskey and pocketed the tickets. Lady luck had finally found him.
What we liked:
We received a number of psychic/fortune teller stories this month (no doubt thanks to one of the required words being ‘palm’!). However, this one caught our eye for its historic setting and ironic ending. The story plays out in real time and appropriately conjures an air of mystery as it unfolds. We can hazard a guess why Hannah (no, not “Rose”) may be fleeing with son in toe, but what is the boy’s special talent? Where did they find this card reader? The dramatic irony lands with a double flip as we discover the fate of the shifty man in the suit and the fact that, perhaps for the first time, his “vision” and warning to abandon a planned trip was in fact right on the money!
THESE FINAL MOMENTS by Dead Carcosa, USA
“You’ve been shot.”
Thanks for the insight, I had sorted that part out, already. I can’t see who said it, only shapes. Everything has been reduced to a twisting mess of flanged sounds and orange-bulbed street lamps spreading webs of carnival light out between the darkness. I am on my back on the road, I can feel the rough pavement against the palm of one hand. I am neither warm nor cold; draining blood and focus out onto the street and down the gutters. I can’t even remember what city I’m in or how I got here. I remember lighting a match and seeing a flash in the shadows. I felt the single bullet hit my chest like a train. My ears still ring from it. I should be panicking but all I feel is lonely and a little bit nostalgic.
On the other end of the country, Cheryl will be watching the sunset and thinking about making dinner. She might be reading in the living room. More likely she’ll be out in the garden, trimming wilted roses off the bushes to make room for a new bloom in the spring. Even from here on the bloody ground I can smell those flowers. I gave them to her as a gift one year, I hope she never saw it as just another chore. I think of all the things I wish I had said and the thought almost breaks through to me, wedging through the vagueness and fog numbing my mind. If only I had this or that, it hurts to think about it.
Mary will be in the nursery or out sitting in the grass watching her mom in the garden. She is barely two and probably won’t notice my absence for too long. She’ll be lucky, in that way. I doubt she’ll have any memory of me as she grows up. The thought makes me a bit depressed, so I focus on that second part. Mary will grow up. A lifetime is a good enough bright side to look on. I think about those scant few memories of the times we spent together. I never really got a chance to be a good or bad father one way or the other. Still, I hope I left some kind of impression. I hope I did something.
There are blue and red lights all around me, I can almost make sense of them.
Miles overhead a trillion pieces of rock and metal debris, random bits of refuse from our solar system and beyond, pull unstoppably towards our planet to be dashed against the surface of our atmosphere and shattered into heat and dust. Deep below my bloody pavement, millions of tons of mindless burning ooze churn through the veins of our planet in a dance that will outlast us all.
A moth beats a rhythm against the streetlight overhead. I can hear it throw its body against the glass like the hand of a tiny clock.
What we liked:
Maybe it was the criteria, maybe it was simply this year, but we received a lot of stories that dealt with death this month. And here we literally are on hand to witness ‘these final moments’ – playing out with a realistic mix of immediacy and confusion in a convincing stream of consciousness. This is a dark scene in more ways than one – with grave descriptions in the opening and closing sections nicely juxtaposed with warm memories of a partner and child sandwiched in between. The only three words of dialogue make for a strong opening while the evocative final line closes this piece with some powerful imagery.
MAYBE by Penn Mertz, Greece
It was stupid. And old-fashioned. And not very creative. And it was all Ann could do, hoping Lila would understand.
She had spent hours picking out songs, recording them, throwing out tapes then re-recording them, changing the order of the songs, thinking that perhaps she should not do this at all and in the end, she wasn't entirely satisfied, but it was all she could do. She named the tape with a black Sharpie “LilA E-love” and regretted it immediately. It was too obvious. She picked up the marker again and hesitated. She had smudged the last “e” and now the title just looked stupid. “LilA E-lov.” Well, she thought, perhaps this was a good metaphor, unfinished words and never ending regrets seemed to define her.
It wasn't technically a date, but her heartbeat echoed in her ears all the same. It skipped and raced at every accidental touch of their hands and just before they parted ways. She was sure it stopped altogether as she fished in her jacket pocket for the little plastic box.
She pressed the mixtape to Lila's palm, hoping she would understand immediately but fearing it at the same time.
“This is for you,” she said.
Lila received it with a confused smile and Ann felt her heart drop and shatter but she supposed it was to be expected.
Nothing ever worked in her favour so why should this? Whatever, she told herself. She would get over it. It didn't mean anything. Lila probably just thought it a little weird for a gift, but she wouldn't think too much about it. They could still be friends. And Ann would just have to swallow down the heavy weight that had taken residence between her lungs.
So when Lila had come knocking on her door, a little after midnight with a single rose in hand, it was unexpected. Ann fought very hard to keep her hopes and the “maybes” from flourishing out of control.
“I know a rose is no match for a mixtape, but…” Lila said.
Ann smiled, and a little bird escaped the cage of her chest and was now flying free. She stepped aside to let Lila in her apartment. A “maybe” was enough.
What we liked:
It’s a nostalgic time of year, so hey, what’s more old-school than a mix tape from your crush? The first three words make perfect sense and anyone with a beating heart can relate to Lila’s playlist of authentic emotions here as this (rather short) story demonstrates how a simple idea is all that’s needed for flash fiction. The strength in the prose comes from the descriptions of anxiety and release – the heavy weight between the lungs, the self-doubting inner voice and the relief as the hope escapes from the caged chest. The story’s title is also apt – both for the theme throughout and its ultimate resolution.
WISH by Lily Joseph, UK
‘Come with us.'
In the gossamer thin veil between asleep and awake, Alice left her bed and opened the window. Below, in the dim blue glow of moonlight upon snow, a parade of carriages and sleighs slipped down the street, festooned with holly wreaths and swags of red ribbon. Candlelight burned within the carriages and the voices beckoned her along, although nobody else appeared to hear.
Alice felt no fear at all as she climbed down the ivy and ran after them. The snow underfoot did not sting her bare feet and her nightgown felt as cosy as when it was warmed by the fire. The stationary last carriage glowed like a pumpkin and she stepped up inside to meet its owner.
‘You made a wish, Alice,' said the little man. He was dressed in a suit of plum and evergreen and reclined on a sumptuous velvet banquette. ‘You wished for your mama to be home for Christmas.'
Alice nodded. Papa said that she had gone forever, but she couldn't be.
‘We heard your wish. Would you like to come with us to find her?' His apple cheeks shone pink in the candlelight.
Alice glanced back at the village. Something in his voice told her she could have one or the other. She thought of Papa in his cold study, bent over his desk, all alone. Then Mama, warm and smiling, but she couldn't clearly remember her face. She looked at her hands and bit her lip.
The man's voice was kind. ‘It's alright not to know what you want, child. Wishes are like wind. They change all the time.' He smiled and reached under a soft woollen blanket. ‘Here, I have a gift from her. From your mama.'
He held a small box, wrapped with a crimson ribbon – with one pull it was open. Alice reached out her hand and in it he placed something the likes of which she had never seen. In her palm lay a little rose, as small as a match. She bent her head to it and breathed in. Though it was exquisitely tiny, it smelled like a garden full of roses, her mother's favourite scent.
‘Will we drive on?'
Alice gripped the little rose and felt its thorns.
‘I can't' she said, knowing Papa would be awake soon. She jumped down from the carriage onto the street and before she could say thank you or goodbye the snow began to fall so fast and thick that she could see nothing at all. Whirls of white dizzied her into darkness until her eyes opened and she was back in bed.
She crept downstairs to the Christmas tree. There were presents underneath from Papa. A silvery glint caught her eye – a new decoration, a minuscule rose, hung from a branch. Although her palm still stung with tiny thorn pricks, Alice smiled.
What we liked:
This sweet story (and perfect title) plays out like a scene from a Victorian Christmas card while also skilfully illustrating a child coming to grips with grief. Right from the beckoning first three words, the imagery puts the reader in the middle of a magical narrative, festive and dreamlike yet all the while lit by the glow of a sombre light. Soft like freshly fallen snow, the narrative is both heartbreaking and hopeful in spirit, and layered with metaphors. As a reader, you want to remain in the child’s fantasy rather than accept the reality that Alice is likely just asleep, breathing in the scent of her mother and clutching at the last of her memories. Finally, a lovely closing line blends pain and optimism – perhaps saving the best metaphor for last as we look back on this year and wish you a safe holiday and happy 2021…
If you’re on this list, you’re one of 3% of stories that made it to the big round table where judges make decisions (it’s also where they eat Chinese food). Something about your story tickled at least one judge’s fancy, so keep at it! And if you DON’T see your name here, then clearly that just means YOUR story must have been in the top 4% (obviously!). Stay positive and we’ll see you next month…
THIS MONTH’S LONGLISTED (in no particular order):
- THE GIFT… by P.L. Matthews, NSW
- LONELY RAILS by Heaven-Leigh Porter, QLD
- THE GIFT by Vince Gledhill, United Kingdom
- CAFÉ AT NIGHT by Ray Tilma, Netherlands
- CHRISTMAS SHOPPING by Chantal S, VIC
- CHRISTMAS 2020 by Natalie J E Potts, SA
- THE LONELIEST DAY OF THE WEEK by Louise Jones, VIC
- PA'S GARDEN by Jo Skinner, QLD
- THE WEEK'S WEATHER by Wendy Christie, VIC
- REINDEER GAMES by Lio Lylark, United Kingdom
- WESTERN WINDS by Patrick J. Source, United Kingdom
- EASY RIDER by M. Annette Griffiths, QLD
- CAUGHT IN THE ACT by Belinda Oldham, United Kingdom
- EMPTY SKIES by Dave Williams, United States
- UNTITLED by Charlene Mertz, United States
- THE FINAL CLUE by John Drake, Ireland
- MYRRH by Peter Jarrett-Schell, United States
- FEED THE MOON by Zack Wilkins, United States
- FREQUENT FLYER by Andrew Harrison, NSW
- ONE PERSON'S TRASH by Yelena Crane, United States
- THE LAST GIFT by Bianca Breen, WA
- ENDINGS by Kelly Doyle, NSW
- GHOSTS by Jo Withers, SA
- FICTION FRENZY by Alyssa Mackay, QLD
- SPECK OF A CHANCE by Shelby Van Pelt, United States
- ANNIVERSARY by Eugenie Pusenjak, ACT
- ON THE LIST by Kylie Fennell, QLD
- MY GIFT TO YOU by Carly Mitchell, VIC
- OFF TARGET by Tricia Spafford, NT
- ZOMBIE CHRISTMAS APOCALYPSE by Sarah Cross, SA
- UNTITLED by Tayla-Jane Mcdonald, QLD
- NOUN VERB ADVERB by Tanya T, New Zealand
- THE DELUGE by Jacqui Hazell, TAS
- THE GIFT. by Pat Treleaven, VIC
- THE STORYTELLER by Leila Murton Poole, New Zealand
- THE LITTLE WHITE BOX WITH GOLD LETTERING by Blake Tori, QLD
- IN THE GROTTO by Nancy Stevenson, United Kingdom
- LOOKING AHEAD by Julie Richards, VIC
- THREE PLACES by Lyn Hazleton, United Kingdom