A new year and a NEW Furious Fiction challenge – with January seeing a record number of almost 1000 entrants (something about those New Year’s goals) battling it out for story supremacy.
A reminder of the criteria that we asked for this month:
- Each story’s first word had to be NEW.
- Each story had to include the words NINETEEN, DESERT and PRESENT
- Each story had to include SOME KIND OF LIST – open to interpretation
Well, we had a lot of “new year, new you” vibes, that’s for sure! Also, a surprising number of “new shoes”… and many who hooked it onto New Year’s. (Hint: some of the more memorable stories had nothing to do with a new year.)
There were also a couple of great stories that were almost shortlisted, but just missed out by the fact that we wanted the word DESERT and not DESSERT – these stories spelling it our way, but clearly meaning the double-S variety. Ah, so close!
And so to our winner. Congratulations to Robyn Noble from the NT, whose story was judged this month’s winner. Each month, all stories are judged “blind” (we do not look at entrant names until winners have been selected) so it was a nice surprise to see Robyn’s name – she has entered Furious Fiction every month since it began! Great work Robyn; $500 coming your way – a nice start to 2019!
You can read Robyn’s story below, along with six other shortlisted ones our judging panel selected for this month. Enjoy!
JANUARY 2019 WINNER
LIFE’S A PUZZLE by Robyn Noble
New York, nineteen across, four letters.
C I T Y
Gerry’s eyes glazed, the memory so clear, down to the flower buttons on her powder blue dress. He wondered if it felt so quick for everyone. Dwelling was something he tried not to do but as time went on it took a lot of effort. Time could easily become an adversary.
Nineteen fifty nine, sixty years ago. She leaned against the pylon, the city lights reflecting on the water. A nervous smile crossed her lips when he asked if he could kiss her. Eyes downcast forcing him to gently lift her chin. When their lips parted he was sure ol’ girl Liberty gave him a wink.
Fourteen down, Index, second letter I.
Gerry filled in the L, S and T.
“What about Thomas?” She asked, leaning against the headboard, her bulging belly substituting for a table.
“Or William, he could be Billy.”
“What if it’s a girl?”
Gerry scraped the last dregs of marmalade from the jar, spreading it across his toast.
Seven down, State of great sorrow.
D O L O R
Alone that fateful night he decided on ‘William Thomas.’ They needed a name for the death certificate. It was a strong name. A strong name for a little man who tried so hard in vain.
She fought and pulled through, a broken heart the lasting injury. No more came after that but they had each other and slowly the smile came back to her eyes.
An arid region, 11 down.
D E S E R T
They had travelled to many places together and immersed themselves in other cultures. The Pyramids had always held a fascination with her. Looking back, maybe travel filled a void in her life, a void filled for others with playgrounds, homework and children’s sport.
Taking a bite of toast his gaze went to the frame on the mantle. Her with the Sphinx in the background. As he clicked the button her hat had blown off.
“Why frame that silly photo?” She had asked.
“I like it,” his only answer.
He could still hear her laughter as she chased the hat across the burning sand.
Four across, Employee.
W O R K E R
Sitting front and centre her applause rose above the rest. She had been his biggest fan when it came to his career. He knew the award was partly hers, he couldn’t have risen so high in the industry without her support.
Gerry re-boiled the kettle, two cuppas at breakfast, toast and marmalade his normal routine. She had always scolded him over the two spoonfuls of sugar he had in each cup. He had managed to get down to one but it had slowly climbed back up. It didn’t seem to matter now.
Twelve down, Cease, 3 letters, first letter D.
She wasn’t meant to go first.
The phone rang, bringing him back to the present.
Five rings then it stopped. Telemarketers. He pondered why he didn’t have it disconnected.
But sometimes he answered it.
Just to hear another voice.
What we loved:
Sometimes you give out criteria and in the stories you get back, they are very visible – shoehorned into place. However, a great story incorporates things so well that it’s almost like we choose the criteria from it and not the other way around. This beautiful story expertly delivers two narratives and timelines that weave in and out of each other, respecting the reader’s ability to make sense of the clues (literally) along the way. In the course of a simple crossword, we experience a shared life and feel Gerry’s highs and lows with every across and down. A bittersweet, understated ending that fits the style perfectly. Great use of this short story form.
BREAKDOWN by Eugenie Pusenjak
New Mexico. Summer. 7.12am.
The father looked at the smoking engine and cursed under his breath. His family – stunned, sweaty, but thankfully unhurt – lingered in the meagre shade cast by their vehicle.
“You all should get back inside. It’s cooler there.”
“Can you fix it, Daddy?” asked his son.
He tried to smile. “Sure I can. We’ll be on our way in no time.” But as he spoke, his eyes registered the crumpled metal, tangled wires, shattered glass. Not to mention the ugly list to the left, as if the suspension on that side had disintegrated.
“Mama, I’m thirsty!” cried his daughter.
“Let’s look in the back, and see what we can find,” said the mother, taking each child by the hand.
The father licked his dry lips. How had it gone so wrong? They’d been cruising along, no problems, kids dozing in their seats, when the steering started to shudder in his hands. As he’d wrestled with it, the dash went crazy, needles jumping and flickering all over the place. A loud bang had come from deep inside the engine, right before they’d crashed to a stop.
The mother appeared at his side, her large eyes worried. “We can’t stay here. They’ll find us.”
He nodded. He’d heard many things about the people in these lands. Decadent and godless. Curious yet fearful. Hateful and aggressive, always engaged in some skirmish or another. What would they do to him and his family? Present them to their leaders? Lock them up? Torture them?
“I don’t think I can fix it. Not without the parts.”
The mother laid her long fingers over his. “Then we need to go.”
“Go where?” The morning sun beat down on their shoulders. He thumped the vehicle, hard. “They see this, they’ll come looking for us.”
She pointed to the blue ridge in the distance. “The hills…”
He shook his head. “On foot? And suppose we make it. Then what? We spend the rest of our lives, the rest of our children’s lives-”
He turned. Something was speeding towards them. A red speck, growing closer by the second.
“We could ask them for help,” she suggested. “You never know…”
“They don’t even speak our language.”
They clasped hands as the thing drew nearer.
Nineteen-year-old Clarence Eckley had seen the lights shoot over his father’s ranch, and jumped into his red Diamond T pickup to investigate. To his dying day, he never forgot the sight that awaited him in the desert. A huge round object, like a gigantic saucer balanced on three legs. And jiminy, the creatures that stood underneath! Not human. Elongated limbs. Bulbous eyes. One stepped toward him and began to speak in a low, gobbling, language.
Clarence screamed, and threw the pickup into reverse. The tires spun wildly, sinking into the sand, before gaining traction. He swung the car around, floored the gas pedal, headed towards town.
He did not stop until he’d passed the sign which read: ‘Welcome to Roswell’.
What we liked:
Okay, we admit, we were fooled by this one – such was the relatability of the roadside breakdown that almost all of us have experienced in some way, shape or form at some point. We meet these nameless characters and begin to really feel their desperation through the dialogue. Ultimately it does what all good short stories should – keeps you gripped, wanting to read on to find out what happens to this poor family. As the ending plays out, we realise that this story is truly “out of this world” – and a re-read reveals a bunch of clues.
THE MARKET by Madeline Shaw
New pomegranates are stacked twenty or thirty high on the table in front of her. Their burnished red skin catches the morning sun. They are the first she has seen this season.
Next is the sweet stall piled with dates, plain almonds, sugar-coated almonds in white, blue and pink and sultanas in wooden boxes. Along the front there are lolly bags for children with a tiny toy in each and gold ties around the top.
Eiya is lured into the marketplace by the familiar smells – the charcoal of the kebab grill heating up, fresh flatbread from the baker’s street oven, frankincense from the Catholic Church on the corner and already the sweet perfumes of the Muslim women in the early morning heat.
It is only eight in the morning but 32 degrees. The swirl of aromas rises into the heavy air.
She is reminded of the day before, standing in the desert looking out to the Sea of Galilee. Watching eagles playing on a thermal uplift. The sea lay calm and bluey green hundreds of metres below her lookout, but the birds rose to her height and above in a twirl of relaxation, buoyed by the invisible heat waves taking them further and further up into the hazy sky.
45 degrees was not unusual for the desert and fitting for her last day. She had been stationed in the Golan for 12 months. Sand, dust, heat and glare had been the menu for the last three in the summer but the whole year had been extreme, especially the January winter in the middle of their training, with the snow up to the top of their boots most days.
That winter food had been such a treat. Chicken soup, hummus, boiled egg, tomato and cucumber. The packeted cheese was top of everyone’s list. Coffee was the daily vice. Like a sweet present.
Coffee made the cold, gunfire, midnight training, sleeplessness, and fear all bearable. Drinking coffee with friends in the same boat. Coffee gave hope that in the future things would be OK. Sometime. Way off when. For everyone.
Rap music was her other balm against the barren space of the desert, which she had grown up in and loved but which could be a trap if you were bound to stay in it. Rap allowed her to flee the endlessness and soar like the birds above the sea. When she could, she would work or train with her headphones on with her choice of rap. Hers alone.
As she walks into the marketplace on this August morning, the smells, sounds and vibration of the market well up the emotion in Eiya’s chest until it hurts. She has smelt fear. She has seen death. What was once simple is now confusing.
Eiya sits down on a blue plastic crate. She leans against the wall resting. She holds her rifle firm against her shoulder. She is nineteen.
What we liked:
This one grabbed us with how it sparked our senses – a beautifully descriptive tone set from the very first pomegranate. We really feel as if we are there alongside Eiya as she navigates the sights, sounds and smells of this market. We feel the morning heat and the reality of her life – growing up in this part of the world but now seeing a new side of it. There is no twist here, no sudden realisation. We are simply one of the many flies on the wall of this young woman’s daily reality. It’s impossible not to picture this one vividly.
THE GIRL ON THE BOX by Tim Radley
New and improved!
He looked at the label with scepticism. The smiling girl on the box was maybe nineteen, very attractive of course, but that was all part of the spin, wasn’t it? That slogan was plastered in red font above her pretty hair; a promise that satisfaction was contained within. But he thought what it really boiled down to was a product failure. Why wasn’t the product good enough before? And now, some poor schmuck in the marketing department had to turn the ship around. To the board members present at that crisis meeting it must have seemed like a desert oasis. The answer to their prayers. The almighty rebrand.
And surely, it couldn’t be both new and improved. An improvement required an existing product, so obviously one of the promised qualities was a lie. He glared at the girl on the label, challenging her. She smiled back at him with that mocking grin.
He turned the box over to escape her empty promises, but there she was again on the back. Now she was in mid-stride with a playful border collie by her side, the both of them laughing at him, knowing that he would inevitably succumb, if only to find out whether her claims of newness and improvement were indeed true. Which of course they wouldn’t be. By definition couldn’t be.
Well, he would not be fooled so easily. He hadn’t paid his way through three years of university to fall prey to what was obviously a last-ditch effort by a company with a failed business model to salvage the last shreds of their meagre market share. He laughed inwardly at the pretty girl on the box.
She coughed politely back at him. His victorious smile melted into a look of disbelief. What sorcery was this? He nearly threw the box away!
A hand on his shoulder brought the hint of a scream to his lips. What came out was a high-pitched noise like a prop in a cheap haunted house attraction at the fair. He whirled to see a now-distressed old lady behind him with her shopping trolley, cringing back from him.
“Did you want that as well?” came a voice from in front of him. The cashier was doing her best to be patient. The rest of his groceries were bagged up already. He looked around sheepishly at the old lady and mumbled an apology, and down at the scrap of paper in his other hand. Not on the list.
“Oh, I guess I’ll give it a try.”
What we liked:
The inner thoughts of this shopper hilariously play out here in an all too familiar impulse-buy moment at the checkout. With cynicism dripping from each sentence, open war is declared on the marketing departments of the world and their mid-stride, border collie owning minions. It makes good points (new AND improved?). It’s fun. It’s silly. It’s original!
NAFF by Nikky Lee
“New Age Fae and Fortune, this is Daisy. How may I make your dream come true today?”
“Oh, uh, hi. I wasn’t expecting this number to work.”
“We get that a lot. I assure you we are a present and legitimate business. Tell us your wish and we’ll see it done, all before the stroke of midnight.”
“I wasn’t really prepared for this. What do other people wish for?”
“Let me see. According to my list, the last three wishes were for an endless supply of Minties, a mobile phone battery that never goes flat and a lifetime ticket to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert on Broadway.”
“They seem awfully… subdued. What happened to immortality and expensive sports cars?”
“Ah, well, immortality violates clause nineteen, sub-clause twelve of our agreement with the powers that be––basically, we can’t interfere on a grand scale. As for sports cars, the Competition and Consumer Act office gets a bit touchy when we go granting big wishes like that, undercutting the competition and all.”
“So, wishing for a million dollars is out?”
“No can do. Clause 21: we’re not permitted to generate any fortune.”
“Not even a Lotto win?”
“That breaches clause 57, but we can give you a Scratchy.”
“At least tell me it’s a winning Scratchy?”
“Sorry, but we cannot influence your luck in any way. May I offer a suggestion?”
“I’m all ears.”
“We can’t interfere on a grand scale. But it’s no sweat on the small stuff. Is there something you always run out of? Pens? Milk?”
“What about a lifetime supply of socks and jocks? No more inside-out days. What do you say?”
“I guess it’s better than nothing.”
“Excellent! A lifetime supply of socks and jocks coming right up. Now, how would you like to pay for that?”
“It’s not much. Just your soul.”
“You didn’t think we granted wishes for free did you? How else are we supposed to power the wish? Magic doesn’t grow on trees you know. Don’t worry, they’ll be some left once we’re done, you can even call up again later. But I wouldn’t recommend it a third time.”
“I don’t want to try it a first time!”
“Unfortunately for any wish that includes a lifetime supply, we need to extract soul payment to power it.”
“I’m not trading my soul for some measly underwear.”
“Alright, look, I need to make quota this week. How about a one-off? Something small, like we discussed, no endless supply, just one item. I don’t need a soul for that.”
“I think I need a drink. A strong one.”
“Done. Do you mind holding a minute?”
1 minute later.
“Hello, Daisy again. Can you confirm the delivery of your wish?”
“When I said strong drink, I meant the alcoholic variety. This smells like coffee.”
“Yeah, about that. We’re an unlicensed venue. But I gave you a triple shot.”
“Have a nice day, enjoy your NAFF wish.”
What we liked:
We’ve all imagined the scenario of being given a wish and wondering what you’d wish for. This idea plays out here in a modern take – with the genie replaced by Daisy the operator and the lamp her NAFF call centre. We enjoyed the fun back and forth dialogue here, as this wish hotline shows its true bureaucratic colours. The progression from big wish through to the final result is hilarious and a literal lesson in being careful what you wish for!
TWENTY LESSONS by Iona Flett
New year, new encounter! The latest was one of the greatest. Lithe, lone-wolf Twenty, in a hand-built cabin. How lovely to learn that I can still be surprised.
Nineteen was less impressive. Corrupted by clichés, he’s an emblem of what’s wrong with modern relationships. Still, I couldn’t look a gift horse in the (handsome, dirty, misguided) mouth.
Not too long ago it was Eighteen, whose mouth I ran my tongue along. Oh how I lusted after him and his beautiful brain. Such talent, such knowledge! And to think we met through Seventeen, who voted for George Christensen. Ugh. The less said about Seventeen, his terrible politics and his little hands, the better.
Two years in a desert before that because Sixteen came with enough delight and disappointment to turn anyone celibate for a time. We constructed lofty plans that were so swiftly dismantled … it’s amazing that cutting pain, like a stomach-flipping kiss on a beach in my memory, still feels so sharp.
I really liked Fifteen. He was a writer and a flirt, and a deep, funny companion through a dark northern winter.
Fourteen and Thirteen – they were a cute couple! I’m glad I was invited in for tea and experiences. Sometimes a single night is enough to reframe your past, redefine your present, and refocus your future.
So with the reframing, Twelve now seems less important. He was important. He was everything. But that’s the way it all seems at twenty-five, when an older married man overwhelms you like a red dust storm boiling from the horizon. The taste of the grit is all that’s left now the storm has passed.
Eleven laid me down on a tiled Lisbon rooftop; she taught me things I should have already known.
Ten, he of the half-way point, was educational too. It’s difficult not to be when you carry with you such a massive reminder of our culture’s obsession with huge, turgid masculinity.
Now, Nine is worth a moment of our time. Nine. Mine. You know Nine, I think? When I knew Nine he wasn’t yet famous. But he was already gentle and kind, and patient and funny. And easily wounded by careless, regrettable, neglect.
Eight is the oldest lover I’ve had. I’m scared to look him up in case he’s dead now. He’d retired from advertising, and slummed it with the shoeless, unshaven hedonist he saw in me.
Seven, Six and Five are blurring in my mind. I might not even recognise them in the street. One sweating in a hot tent, another writhing on stiff hotel sheets. Did one drunkenly fall down some stairs on the way home? Ouch: there are lessons there.
Four loved to watch his own gym-swollen body reflected in the mirror.
Three followed me around devotedly, and accidentally set my brain for twenty years of rejecting those most interested.
Two and One, I think, share “first”. Sometimes it takes a bit of repetition before you catch that momentous, memorable, marvellous tune.
What we liked:
Of all the seven stories featured here, only this one has a faint new year theme to it – and even then, it merely serves as a starting point. We don’t muck about, getting straight into it and pretty soon you realise what kind of a countdown you’ve stumbled upon. Fast-paced, tightly packed and cleverly constructed, the entire story is one big list that ultimately and aptly ends with “one”.
WRITER’S BLOCKHEAD by Bob Agnew
“New pen, eh?” Bob sighed inwardly. He’d set aside two hours to write, and, yes, he was using a new pen. Trust you to notice, Bruce.
Bob needed a new pen like he needed a marimba. He’d seen it in the pen shop window and thought it might be just the ticket to overcoming his writer’s block. As if. He was starting to jot down some ideas when Bruce appeared, lounging against the door jamb, that smirk on his face as if he’d just caught Bob doing something shameful.
“Yeah”. Bob attempted a smile which died for want of sincerity. “Just thought I’d get some writing done while the old inspiration strikes”, he added lamely.
Bruce appeared not to have heard. He sauntered into the room, zeroing in on Bob’s pen tray.
“You must have at least twenty pens by now.” His tone was light but accusatory at the same time. Why don’t you just use a Bic? it seemed to be saying. Bruce was moving his head slightly as he peered at the pens, his lips moving as if he were praying.
Oh, Jesus, he’s counting the pens, Bob realised. Just fuck off and let me write.
“You’ve got nineteen, not twenty”, he said, inexplicably triumphant.
“Oh, right”, Bob replied, dropping the pen onto his pad and exhaling sharply, hoping Bruce would sense his frustration and leave; Bruce, however, was a subtlety-free zone.
“What pens would you put on your desert island list? How about this one?” Bruce held aloft a Parker 51. “Or this?” Now, a Lamy Safari. “What do you need so many pens for anyway?”
“I’m a writer.” Bob realised how unconvincing this sounded as justification for owning twenty, sorry, nineteen, fountain pens.
“But, really, Bruce, to write, what I need is-“
“How much did this one set you back?” Bruce brandished a Sheaffer like it was damning evidence in a murder trial.
“I don’t remember. Look, Bruce, I really need to write so could you-“
“What’s your story about?, Bruce asked, in that peevish tone he employed when he didn’t really want the answer to his question but was annoyed that you were doing something of which he couldn’t see the point.
It’s about a guy who’s trying to be a writer but his supposed best friend gives him no support or encouragement and just finds a variety of ways to subtly voice his disapproval, until one day the writer gathers the courage to shut the door in his friend’s face and attend to his craft.
“I’m not sure yet, I’m just toying with ideas at present.”
Bruce grunted, having lost interest yesterday. “Want a beer?” It was more directive than invitation.
Now’s your chance, Bob. Tell him you’ve got to write.
“OK.” Bob stared at his jottings for a few seconds, put his new pen down and followed Bruce into the kitchen.
What we liked:
If this were in a comment thread, we’d simply reply “^^THIS” – such is the nodding of heads and knowing smiles this story elicited from our judging panel. Stories with writers as the protagonist can be risky, but this one delivers gold, mainly due to the strength of these two characters. We all know a Bruce – sent to Earth to shatter our precious writing moments, and this particular Bruce is so deliciously realised that poor Bob never stands a chance. Wonderfully insightful and like a mirror to the pen hoarding procrastinator in us all!