Furious Fiction February 2021 winner and shortlist

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It was a happy third birthday to Furious Fiction this month (be sure to check out our “stories behind the stories” collection) and to celebrate turning three, every story had to begin with the word THREE. That wasn’t all though:

  • Each story had to be set in a SCHOOL.
  • Each story had to begin with the word THREE.
  • Each story had to include the adjectives: MAGNETIC, UNCOUTH, SUSPICIOUS, FLOWERY

 

Of course, a typical passing-notes-in-class school wasn’t the only school you could choose, and we welcomed oceans of stories filled with schools of fish, driving schools, cooking schools, language schools and even the more figurative schools of thought and hard knocks! 

Yes indeed, it was a challenge worthy of a birthday bash – designed to test the many pupils of our storytelling school. And when the results were pinned on the board, this month’s teacher’s pet was Kate Gordon, whose story “Grief” was a powerful piece that stopped the judges in their tracks. Congrats on being top of the class Kate – five hundy coming your way!

You can read Kate’s story below, along with this month’s other “head prefect” shortlisted stories and “achievement certificate” longlisted entrants at the end. If your name is there, definitely dance around the room. But if it’s not, don’t be too hard on yourself. It was a tough assignment and March is just around the corner. Class dismissed!


 

FEBRUARY 2021 WINNER

GRIEF by Kate Gordon, TAS

Three times she’d tried – picked up the pen, put it down, almost written a word.

The other students sent her suspicious looks, in between their own frantic scribblings.

She imagined their flowery prose. Imagined pulling out a pair of secateurs.

Cutting their words.

Her own prose was uncouth, unruly, unwilling to come. She imagined her pen magnetic, pulling the thoughts from her mind, but …

How can you write your thoughts when they are made of a pain so overpowering it deletes everything else, leaving behind only itself.

This grief was everything. The whole story.

Her friends made her come. They told her it would help – let it out, write it down, set it free …

They thought the grief was separate from her. It was not. There was no way to untether it. Not with pen and paper. Not even with secateurs.

Beside her, a woman sat. They hadn’t spoken. How could she speak, as if everything wasn’t broken inside of her?

She could smell the woman’s perfume. Sandalwood and lavender. Something a bit like sand.

Summer. Summer, playing in the sand, watching tiny crabs skitter. Their eyes so bright, brighter than the sun …

The memory came unbidden, unwanted. Her hand began to shake.

The woman, beside her, turned, and she tensed, gripped the secateurs in her hand, ready to cut the woman down if she tried to speak, tried to ask …

But the woman did not speak.

She only placed a wrinkled hand on top of her shaking one.

The hand stayed there awhile and at first, she felt angry – how dare the woman even try to make this better?

This could not be made better.

Slowly, the anger faded – the longer the hand stayed and the silence continued. Slowly, the anger became something else. Something like a wave within her. Then it became a tsunami.

The sob escaped before she could stop it.

She could hear gasps, pens dropping. Whispers.

The hand stayed.

A moment later, a tissue on her desk.

Then, an arm around her shoulder.

And there were no words. Only touch. And presence.

And then, it seemed, the whole class was around her. Holding her.

Nobody spoke.

She wept.

And they held her.

They held her until she finished weeping, and then, quietly, they went back to their desks. Took up their pens.

The hand of the woman beside her stayed a little longer.

Until, finally, it was drawn softly away.

She stared at her pen. She imagined it sharp.

She picked it up. She pressed it to the page. She imagined it cutting, into the paper, into the page, into herself, making the words she couldn’t say:

He is dead.

Finally, someone spoke. The woman beside her whispered, “Keep writing.”

So, she did.

The words appeared.

The flowers grew. And they were shrivelled flowers. They were browned and they were broken but they were something new that wasn’t there before.

It made nothing better. But it was better than nothing.

What we loved:
Told mostly through internal discourse (with gardening imagery and metaphors beautifully intertwined like emotional ivy), this well-paced piece cleverly mirrors the different stages of grief. We often say that some of the best stories have an honesty to them that you can’t ignore – a human truth at their core. And here, exploring grief in this way (especially for a bunch of writers) is especially relatable. The lack of dialogue only serves to pack a powerful punch when we do finally hear the only utterance. Likewise, the choice of short lines ensures there are no wasted words. Everything happens in real time, with even the smallest of gestures feeling both revealing and poignant from the protagonist and cast/class of characters. It’s a story that doesn’t offer answers and shines brighter with believability as a result. The final two sentences sum it up wonderfully.


 

SHORTLISTED

BAIT AND SWITCH by Tim McNamara, VIC

Three feet away the hook dangled, glinting. A ragged prawn was draped over it like a badly hung coat. Maurice stared at it wistfully.

‘It has a sort of magnetic appeal doesn’t it?’

‘Don’t be a fool Morry,’ Glenda said. All around them spun a slow moving vortex of silvery forms. ‘You don’t see anyone else taking it do you?’

‘Pah. Cowards, all of them.’

Glenda waved a fin at a large fish circling nearby. His scales gleamed and a proud crest rose up from his spine.

‘Barry’s been to the surface. He said there’s some guy sitting up there in a flowery Hawaiian shirt. You don’t think that’s suspicious?’

Maurice expelled some waste scornfully.

‘Just because some flashy bonito with big fins says it doesn’t make it true. Barry can suck seaweed.’

‘Let’s just go and get some plankton.’

‘Dammit Glenda, a mackerel can’t live on plankton alone! When I was a juvenile, we’d eat squid—‘

‘Morry, that was ten years ago! You have to stop living in the past. Barry says —‘

‘I’m so sick of hearing about Barry.’ Maurice narrowed his translucent eyelids, but of course Glenda didn’t notice. ‘You’ve been spending a lot of time listening to Barry lately.’

Glenda puffed her gills.

‘Well maybe you should listen to him too. He says us ocean going pelagics should stick together.’

‘I’d like to tell him where to stick his pelagics,’ Maurice muttered, eyeing the prawn. ‘Typical Bonito. They act so polite, but underneath they’re just…uncouth. No real manners.’

‘Well, I think he’s a gentleman.’

Maurice’s fins twitched.

‘I’ll show him. I’ll show all those quivering jellyfish what a real mackerel can do.’ Maurice’s torpedo shaped body glided closer to the hook with a quick flick of his tail. The prawn wobbled tantalisingly in the current, and Maurice felt his mouth opening and closing in anticipation.

‘Morry, please, you’re scaring me. Don’t do this.’

Maurice looked at Glenda, her dorsal stripes dark despite the years. She still loved him, but somewhere along the way, she’d stopped believing in him. He would have to remind her to believe in him again.

He drifted closer to the hook, only a foot away now, and sucked in a deep draft of clean salt water as he readied himself.

‘Sometimes Glenda, a mackerel needs to make a stand. It might not be easy and there might be danger, but —‘

Maurice’s speech was cut off abruptly as a large silver fish surged past him and snapped at the prawn, swallowing it whole.

‘Barry, no!’ gasped Glenda.

The barb pierced through the bonito’s upper lip, holding fast despite its mad gyrations. Maurice and Glenda watched as slowly, inexorably, Barry was drawn up to the surface.

‘See, I told you,’ said Maurice. ‘No manners.’

What we liked:
We were positively swimming in fish stories this month and there were some great tales (tails?). But the judges couldn’t go past this one purely for its neat, succinct idea and highly believable dialogue. The story hooks (ahem) you in from the first sentence – Maurice and Glenda’s relationship issues bubbling to the surface for all to see/sea. Also, despite being an animal story, the author makes the smart choice of creating well-rounded characters with their own needs and desires. There are plenty of jokes and great one-liners floating throughout, but none distract from the overall narrative, or the excellent deadpan ending. Bravo!


 

SHORTLISTED

COPING by Sheila Quairney, VIC

Three hours.

He watched the hands of the clock on the wall behind the rows of bent heads creep slowly round.

Three more hours until he could escape for the day, escape this endless classroom captivity, the demands of 30 uncouth teenagers.

His hand crept once again to the comforting bottle-shaped object in his jacket pocket. His eyes closed momentarily as he imagined the cool liquid slipping down his throat. Remembered the buzz, the kick, the high, the slow flowering of his better self as the alcohol entered his bloodstream.

He was so tired of the petty bureaucracy, the rules, the egos, the relentlessness of the school day. No privacy, no opportunity to slip away, just kids, kids, kids. How he needed that drink to rise above it all, to be the one in charge in the classroom, to be ready with the quips and the quick put downs, to be admired for his ability to handle even the toughest smart-arsed 15 year old. If only they knew. His wife did, he was sure – becoming ever more suspicious, starting to ask questions, noticing shaking hands, breath smelling of mints, the usual give-aways. He was just trying to cope – couldn’t she see that?

Two hours.

She watched the hands of the clock on the wall of the school office above the rows of filing cabinets creep slowly round. Two more hours until she could safely leave her desk, get in her car, drive to the gym. Her sanctuary. Pounding the treadmill, spinning on the bike, stretching and sweating through a hot yoga session. Bliss. Escape from the dreary realities of her home life, watching her husband’s shaking hands, listening to his voice becoming more and more slurred, suffering his alcohol-fuelled irrational behaviour. Their once magnetic attraction turning increasingly soured, like his breath. He repelled her – the fruity smell of him, the minty taste of him, the unkempt look of him. His false, flowery compliments, trying to make her feel sorry for him, his endless excuses, his refusal to tackle his problem. And she hated him for what it was doing to their son. Her hand crept to her pocket, fingered her gym fob. She had to try and cope, didn’t she – for him?

One hour.

He kept checking the phone in his blazer pocket, surreptitiously watching the minutes count down.

The small packet in there a promise of a future high, to be anticipated, savoured, maybe shared, definitely secret. And then – the escape. To another place, far away from the arguments, the shouting, the crashing furniture, the tears, the apologies. Weekends were the worst, behaviour at its most extreme. How had it got like this? Was it always this bad, or had he been too young to notice? Well, he noticed now. He was just waiting to pick his moment, to cut and run, to live somewhere normal, with sober, caring, happy people. In the meantime – well, he had to cope somehow – didn’t he?

The bell rang.

What we liked:
Here, we land in a more traditional school – but it plays out as merely the backdrop to multiple POVs efficiently conveying three sides of a family’s story, where each character is trapped in circumstance and reaching for very different coping mechanisms. The simple three-part framing device sees each player counting down to the bell, consumed by their own world. The parallels make for nice reading – allowing each character to creep their hands to pockets, to hidden items, revealing their secrets, their shame, their futile grasp at hope. It’s a great touch. The tone is dark, but ultimately this is a relatable take on the realities that lie beneath the surface – and as a reader, this kind of story lingers well beyond the final “bell”.


 

SHORTLISTED

UNTITLED by Susanna Jose, ACT

Three rubbish bins stood alone, uncharred near the courts. Flowery childlike designs painted on the sides of each bin spoke of past, happy ‘beautification’ projects. Smoke and steam still hissed from the black stumps and ashes of the classrooms. Rain had come but it was really drizzle and had not been enough to stop the blaze from its fury. Play equipment, covered assembly area, water tanks and anything close to the buildings was gone. Twenty metres away, a sign with blistered paint welcomed people to Railway Terrace Primary School.

Exhausted volunteer firefighters lay on the ground, their ‘yellows’ black and filthy. Two fire trucks, tanks and hoses empty, were parked, ash covered and futile. This was the third fire in a week and definitely suspicious. The captain and the coppers were saying, ‘multiple points of ignition’. They all knew what that meant.

Stricken locals lined the fence as the fingers of the sun crept upwards towards another scorcher. The parents had been fighting the school’s closure for years. This would do it now for sure – all that letter writing, lobbying and sucking up to politicians wasted. A few cheerful looking kids emerged, one yelling to her friend that this was, ‘the most exciting thing that’s happened for yonks.’ They were no doubt happy at the thought of no school for a while.

Bill wondered just how much more this small town could take. Those kids didn’t realise they’d probably have to be bussed to school thirty kilometres away from now on. The mine had gone and taken half the population. There were no jobs. Every second shop was empty. Only two out of the eight classrooms in embers had been used in the last few years. The few remaining farmers in the area were locked in a pattern of drought most years and over-stocking in the good ones. There was no money and no future there. Hell! Even the pub was for sale.

A couple of TV vehicles pulled up. ‘Vultures,’ Bill thought. Fire devastation zones were magnetic to those guys.

He wandered over to sit with his truck’s team members, thankfully accepting a sandwich and a soft drink along the way. It was a relief to get off his feet. They were a pretty good bunch as crews went. Jude the driver could sure get a truck out of trouble near a hot one. The teenage back seat boys carried on like wankers but settled down at crunch time. Even though the new team leader girl looked uncouth with her tats and studs, she certainly didn’t take crap from anyone and knew her way around a fire ground. All in all, Bill knew they had each other’s backs facing a blaze.

The captain and team leader began talking about ‘mop up’ tasks and debriefing back at the station. Bill’s thoughts drifted. It was tragic and depressing, but …, he fingered the cigarette lighter in his pocket.

What we liked:
If you have a good opening paragraph in flash fiction, you’re off to a good start, and this month the judges appreciated openings that used “three” in a visual way like we see here. The descriptions help set the scene quickly, while a clear narrative voice and deep POV rings true immediately. In just a few sentences, we learn about the town, its people and its problems from a voice that’s rich in character… with the narrative wheels greased by excellent choices of adjectives and turns of phrase. As it plays out, the tragic circumstances and varying impacts of the fire expertly keep the reader busy right until the final line… where an unsettling detail sparks a new set of questions.


 

SHORTLISTED

THREE LONG SECONDS by Emma Carr, NSW

Three seconds. Three. Long. Seconds.

Blood pounding in my ears. Heart beating in my chest.

Outside of the orchestra of my own body, the only noise is the air going in, the air going out, rapidly, repeatedly, as twenty-two people breathe, desperately trying to be quiet.

The act of trying to slow my breath makes me panic more. It’s like focusing so hard on trying to do that little thing just hammers home the need to be afraid.

I hear a tiny, muffled whimper behind me. I think it’s Sherry. My heart breaks for her; she’s so scared. But at the same time, I want to scream at her to shut up. We’re all scared. Seriously, Sherry, don’t get us all fucking killed.

I remember Sherry’s sixth birthday party. Small town, we’ve all known each other our whole lives.

There were fireworks; special flowery ones just for her. She was terrified of them. Hid under her bed and cried. I felt bad when the cake was cut and she still wasn’t there. Not that bad though; it was a good cake.

I bet she wishes it was just fireworks now.

Three seconds. Please, god, just let us survive these three seconds.

A computer screen reflects the small window near the top of the classroom door. I can see the face pressed against the glass. I try not to look, but my eyes are drawn to the reflection; it’s magnetic. Despite my fear, I want to see his eyes. I’m worried that he will look the same as he always did. Just another normal boy. A bit quiet. And a bit sad, maybe. But nothing special. Nothing suspicious. No signs of what was to come.

He’s peering in, trying to see if anyone is in here. We’re all squeezed into the corner, breathing, trying to be quiet.

There’s a sudden, loud, rattling noise. I breathe in sharply. So does everyone else. None of us breathe out.

He’s trying the handle. Forcing it up and down, pushing on the door. But it’s locked. Miss Simms locked it as soon as the alarm went off. Well done, Miss Simms.

Why do we call her Miss Simms? Like calling her Lauren would be so rude, so uncouth. We’re practically adults now. And here we are together. After this, I will call her Lauren.

A loud, low thump makes my insides jump. He kicked the door. I think kicked, not punched. I feel like punched would have been a less deep sound. Or maybe he hit it with the gun. I haven’t seen the gun, but I imagine it’s a shotgun. It’s loud. We know it’s loud; we’ve heard it seven times so far. Seven loud bangs. Screams. Then the siren. We all know the siren. We’ve had practice drills with the siren.

The face is gone. He’s gone. He’s moved on.

It was only three seconds. Three. Long. Seconds.

We stay quiet and wait. Eventually the police will be here. It will be over.

What we liked:
To be dropped into the action is an effective way to make the most of a small word count, and here you’re immediately holding your breath with the other students – bracing yourself for tragedy, inner “orchestra” (great line) raging. This story could have easily slipped into gratuitous or overly dramatic territory but its strength is actually in its restraint – the fear factor enhanced instead by what isn’t shown. As a result, the sensory details are heightened, particularly in the sounds (or lack of) while the main character’s strength and resilience is revealed by the undertone of hope and promises for the future (e.g., “after this I will call her Lauren”, “it will be over”) and small glimpses of dry humour. Ultimately, it walks this emotional tightrope of a subject with precision and grace.


 

SHORTLISTED

THREE MINUTES by Emma Bowditch, QLD

Three minutes ago everything was fine, three minutes ago everything was normal.

Ms Greene stood at the front of the class trying tirelessly to teach us something, probably something I should have been paying attention to. She was wearing a cheerful, flowery dress as usual. Her glasses chain swayed as she moved around. Jimmy was throwing bits of rolled up paper at a spot on the floor. A fly was buzzing furiously against the window trying to get out. The clock was ticking loudly, reminding me of how much time was left before I could go home. Three minutes ago it was just another boring day.

Carrie and Lisa were whispering about something, heads jammed together, hiding behind their hands. So typical. Todd was picking his nose. Mum would call him ‘uncouth'. No one liked to sit near him, you were liable to get boogers flicked at you. Clint had his new magnetic ruler stuck to the leg of his desk trying to impress people. I wasn't impressed. Three minutes ago the day was dragging on.

Two minutes ago the principal’s voice droned over the loudspeaker reminding us of next week's swimming carnival. I'd probably stay home. I was about as buoyant as a brick. And the amount of sunscreen I'd have to wear, it just wasn't worth it.

Jenny was furiously rubbing something out, brushing bits of eraser all over the floor. I'd started thinking about what I'd watch on TV tonight.

My best friends Jason and Mike were sitting either side of me. We were going bike riding at the quarry after school. The fans whirred and squeaked overhead, one of them had a suspicious wobble.

The room smelt faintly of sweaty kids, chalk and old lino. A bead of sweat ran down my back.

One minute ago there was a knock at the door. Ms Greene opened it and stepped out into the hall. I was just able to make out the muffled sound of a conversation. Toby was probably in trouble again.

Ben was kicking the back of my chair. An annoying, continuous thud, thud. I wished the fan would fall on him.

One minute ago I wished school was over and I was having fun with my friends.

Thirty seconds ago the classroom door opened and Ms Greene announced ” We have a new student everyone, please welcome Samantha Brice,” and there you were. Long golden braids, freckles across your nose like sprinkles on a donut, eyes the blue of Aunt Ivy's curtains. Your smile was like summer.

You looked at me, my heart stopped and everything changed.

What we liked:
Ahhh, the “new kid love story” at last! The vibe here is classic classroom – nicely drawing out all of the tiny details of the scene, painting a clear picture for the reader of a sticky class full of distinct (and distracted) students. The narrative voice is appropriately ‘tween’ and to fit the gravity of such an auspicious occasion, the story has fun with the pacing as it cleverly counts down to its ‘dramatic’ meeting. In a setting traditionally loaded with tropey trapdoors and cliché, this could have easily fallen flat, yet the anticipation factor and time it takes panning across the desks and into the protagonist’s thoughts keeps things fresh and entertaining. A timely reminder that even the simplest, often-told ideas can be communicated in a new way.


 

LONGLISTED ENTRANTS

If you’re on this list, you’re one of approximately 3% of stories that didn’t have to do detention this month – congrats on being talked about favourably in the staff lounge! And for all those striving to be etched into the hall of fame or see their name in the trophy cabinet opposite the principal’s office, we’ll see YOU next month!

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

  • HOW TO SIT ON A WALL by Jay Ling, VIC
  • STAY IN SCHOOL by Rhonda Skinner, Canada
  • THE THREE SCHOLARS by Lucy Robertson, QLD
  • CRIMES AND MISDEMEANOURS by Samantha Cordwell, NSW
  • HENRY'S END-OF-YEAR REPORT by Zachary Pryor, VIC
  • FINAL EXAM by Marion Langford, QLD
  • BAD RAP by Yehrim Han, NSW
  • CATCH by Jane Allman, NSW
  • THE GOOD IDEA FAIRY by Glen Donaldson, QLD
  • TOXIC by Pam Makin, SA
  • UNTITLED by Sarah Fathima, United Arab Emirates
  • THREE WISHES by Phillipa De Wit, VIC
  • SCHOOLED by Tegan Huntley, WA
  • A PASSING GRADE by Nicholas Gabriel, NSW
  • AN AWKWARD AGE by Paul Rouse, United Kingdom
  • FOR THE MOTHS by Hana Ortega, NSW
  • NIGHT CLASSES by Auresh Yousefpour, QLD
  • THIS TIME IT'LL BE DIFFERENT by Simon Shergold, United Kingdom
  • LESSONS by Joe Cushnan, United Kingdom
  • SIMON SAYS by Lorette C. Luzajic, Canada
  • DAY ONE by Madeleine Pelletier, Canada
  • A CHILD COME BACK by Sharon Boyle, United Kingdom
  • ALL THAT GLISTERS by Josephine Queen, United States
  • 7.1 by Aislinn Hein, Mexico
  • PACKED IN LIKE HUMANS by Kathy Prokhovnik, NSW
  • PLENTY OF FISH by Hannah Elstub, NSW
  • AN ACCIDENTAL TRUANT by Paula Manners, SA
  • THREE HAIL MARY'S by Raelene Harrington, SA
  • THE SCHOOL FOR CLAIRVOYANT DINOSAURS by Alyssa Mackay, QLD
  • UNTITLED by Anna Bhantana, New Zealand
  • 9 ACROSS by Mick James, VIC
  • THREE MORE YEARS by Rob Tuckerman, ACT
  • CORONA GRAMMAR by Rosie Francis, United States
  • HOME IMPROVEMENT by Cathy Jones, NSW
  • THE INTERCEPT by Geoff Gore, New Zealand
  • THE LAST TIME I SAW BONITA PARKS. by Danielle Baldock, NSW
  • HARD TIMES by Jacqui Hazell, TAS
  • EMERALD DEPTHS by Jessica Anscombe, NSW
  • THE HOLE IN THE FENCE by Keshe Chow, VIC
  • REUNION by Janeen Samuel, VIC
  • THE ANNUNCIATION OF MS HELEN CHAVESON by Nathan J Phillips, ACT
  • TUESDAY PRISONERS by Amanda Bower, Ireland
  • UNTITLED by Romany Rzechowicz, ACT
  • IT'S DEBATABLE… by Ryan Caldwell, QLD
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