A new year of Furious Fiction and a new crop of hopeful storytellers (and some veterans!) lining up to showcase their skills. With the devastating bushfires at their peak earlier this month, a lot of writers used the challenge as a chance to express their emotions through their words – some heartfelt pieces resulted.
These were the January criteria:
- Each story had to include a COUNTDOWN of some kind.
- Each story had to include a character who SHARES A SECRET.
- Each story had to include the word SERENDIPITY.
We had every kind of countdown you can think of – from detonators to elevators (pictured), New Year’s Eve to hide & seek, the TV music show and many more. Also, the word “serendipity” is certainly not one of those words you can just slip in anywhere, so well done to those who managed it.
This month’s winning story belongs to Stephen Lynch of Tasmania, Australia. A well-deserved $500 heading your way Stephen – nice work and good to see the Apple Isle stepping up to the top of the podium.
If you entered this month, how awesome are YOU? Seriously, let’s keep this 2020 run going by fronting up in a few weeks for the February challenge. We asked around and we’re ready to call it – Furious Fiction is the world’s biggest free monthly fiction contest! High fives everyone. Now, notebooks out – let’s put this month’s specimens on display…
JANUARY 2020 WINNER
WHAT’S IN A NAME by Stephen Lynch, TAS
Hatchet and Bones, whose real names are Trevor and Gregory, stand outside in the rain at the back end of a non-descript Toyota Camry.
Hatchet looks at his watch.
“Your pal has only got five minutes left,” he says and pounds once on the boot of the car.
Bones looks at his watch. “Really? Mine says eight minutes.”
“Well, what does your phone say?”
Bones reaches into his jeans pocket and pulls out his phone, the screen is cracked because his big hands perfectly made for roughing people up constantly drop this dainty little piece of tech.
“I told ya.”
“Well, I did buy the watch in Bali.”
“Yeah, took the wife and kiddos over there a coupla months back.”
“Four minutes, where is this friend of yours?” Hatchet asks with a question that’s not meant to be answered.
“It was your anniversary last week, wasn’t it?” Bones asks.
“So what'd you and the missus get up to?”
“Nothin’ much, just got a take-out and watched a movie.”
“Sounds alright, which movie?”
“Serendipity, seen it?”
“Don’t think so.”
“It’s a rom-com, got that John Cusack in it.”
“Oh yeah he’s good, is it a new one?”
“Nah, it’s old, the missus musta made me watch it ‘bout a dozen times.”
“Look between you and me, I really like the movie, it’s a good laugh. ‘Course I’d never let her know that. Just make her think I’m doing her a favour.”
“Never hurts to have a few favours in the bank.”
“I like that movie” says the voice from the boot.
“Shaddup” the two heavies say as they each lay a fist into the boot.
“Judging by my watch you’ve only got three minutes left, better use of that time would be prayin’ than trying to talk to us.”
“Looks like this guy ain’t gonna show, shall we get ready?”
They both put on some disposable latex gloves and Bones gets a baseball bat from the backseat, his discipline instrument of choice.
“Two minutes,” Hatchet says with glee.
“I’ve been meaning to say all night how much I like your jacket.”
“Yeah? It’s new but I wasn’t too sure about it.”
“Thanks, that does remind me, I better take it off, it’s impossible to get blood outta suede.”
“Actually, here’s a little trick for ya…white vinegar.”
“You don’t say?”
“Yep, saved a pair of me boots I messed up stompin’ some punter, turned ‘em good as.”
“Alright, I’ll keep it on, it is a bit nippy tonight. Well Bones, this has been a very pleasant night, and to top it all off now I’ve learnt somethin’ too.”
“One minute” Bones says tapping the boot with his bat.
And in 59, 58, 57 seconds, two men christened Trevor and Gregory will get to show one poor soul whose whole world right now is the boot of a Toyota Camry just how they got their nicknames.
What we loved:
We do love when stories make us giggle, and this one nicely dished out the funny flavour as well as being expertly packed into its custom designed 496-word suit. Almost playing out like a Guy-Ritchie-Quentin-Tarantino film scene, the screwball characters are delightfully brought to life with their natural dialogue (best line is awarded to our old mate in the boot!) – something that reads easy, but isn’t always easy to achieve. Complete with confessions of chick flick love and handy household tips for your average thug, it’s a modern hitman classic. Nice bookend as we end on the reference to the nicknames from the opening. Solid and worthy of five hundred dollars in unmarked bills!
TEACHER by Jen Hacker, NSW
She met him at a rehab residence. He was one of 15 men there, trying to get sober or clean, or to bypass gaol, or fulfil that last-chance promise to themselves or the sceptical; those families or wives or girls, if they had them, that had heard it all before but still hoped.
She taught them computers. It was basic skills, one long day, two nine-week terms, measured by the length of their stay and her lesson plan. She went in armed with a handful of notes, a don’t-mess-with-me attitude and a snorting laugh that cut through any anger or bullshit as she offered up Word and Excel, some homemade bikkies (if they were lucky), and a bible-less break from the 12 steps and chapel. Amen.
Some flirted, but she brushed that off – she was the only woman there – so she graciously accepted the compliment and got on with it. Others shared their secrets and dreams, taking her aside during smoko, and she listened with gravity to stories of pain, sensing half-truths and letting those slide, blowing raspberries at hyperbole, keeping her eyes dry if the telling got troubling, keeping her head as clear as she could. She listened, but kept herself distant. She was not a shrink; that was not her role. What she did was guide them back to the makeshift classroom when smoko was done because she was their teacher. At night, at home, with a bottle of wine and a fag in her hand, she sometimes cried, but so what?
He shared stories too, but those made her laugh. They were boys' own adventures; ‘I sunk my milk-bottle raft,’ (sabotaged, no doubt, by a father bent on thwarting his plans to sail to New Zealand), ‘I swam through dead rats in the river,’ (they were thick on the surface and hard to get past), ‘I was pushed off a train, rolled down a hill past two sets of tracks, and landed near an off-duty nurse who took me to hospital.’ ‘Serendipity,’ she’d said, wide-eyed and snorting. ‘Plain dumb luck,’ was his answer back.
He had made her laugh; the way he bribed his way into class when there were no seats left, proffering a fag and a promise to cover some cleaning shift in exchange for a chair, then regaling the crowd with his tall tales as they tapped away on the laptops. He made everyone laugh, didn’t everyone love him? Why was he there? She thought his recovery was going well, but what did she know? She was only a teacher. He was fabulous at spreadsheets and formats and the telling of tales. ‘Great at stories,’ he said in the note he had left, the one crunched in her hand, ‘but shit at everything else.’ She was counting down the steps to the gravesite. Three two one she was there. She’d kept a respectable distance from the handful of mourners. Then she laid some flowers on his grave and in front of them all, she wept.
What we liked:
Five paragraphs beautifully paced. The nameless teacher’s character is impressively fleshed out in such a short story – which presents as an evocative piece of fleeting friendships that sink under the skin. Each of those five paragraphs is poignant and evocative, including of course the emotional punch of the final one. In a month of many overt criteria elements on display, we also admired how delicately the criteria was woven into this powerful piece. A painfully realistic snapshot, well told.
WHAT LIVES INSIDE by Dettra Rose, NSW
Some days, like today, the memories move in me like dark clouds dimming a full moon.
I’m in the kitchen making coffee. We don’t use a fancy machine just a plunger. Dark roasted bean dust. Boiling water. Push it down. Pour. Luke has his black. I water mine down with rice milk.
At the table by the kitchen window, we have our ten-minute breakfast of phone flicking, chopped banana, cereal, and perhaps a conversation about what dinner looks like later. Luke volunteers to cook tonight.
Outside, we wait for the elevator.
Once when I was descending, I told the lift my secret. Illogically I worried someone heard it, even though I was alone. That’s the horror of keeping secrets. The fear is, are they fully intact?
Floor 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Bing. Ground floor.
We kiss goodbye. I walk my usual route to work. Today is the anniversary of my secret. It’s a two-year-old. Prickly as an echidna and just as painful to touch.
I didn’t know back then that Luke and I would move in. That we’d become a couple who went to Ikea and disagreed about the need for placemats.
He was a lovely guy I met on Bumble. Seven dates. Seven dates and three weeks late in my cycle. I booked myself in. It was as quick as having wisdom teeth removed.
As our relationship rolled on, I meant to tell him.
But what was kinder? And to who?
The words went rusty in my throat. What if I lost him? What If he stopped loving me?
I told my closest friend. She hugged me but was lost for advice.
A car honks as I cross the road without looking. I remind myself thinking about this again takes me nowhere new.
I arrive at work. Smile. Read. Type. Repeat. During the day Luke texts.
I’m going to make something special tonight. Don’t be late.
That makes me smile. Luke cooking something special might mean he doesn’t burn it. Or experiments with a new variety of stir-in pesto. But hey, I’ll buy a bottle of wine anyway. It’s Friday.
‘Look, we bought exactly the same wine.’ I say to Luke as I unveil it from its brown bag and see its twin on the bench.
‘We’re SO serendipity.’ He says with a flouncy voice swinging his tea towel.
And I laugh. It felt like that when we met. When we discovered both of us had buried our fathers just months before. Were born in the same hospital. Hated liquorice. And kept bumping into each other in the local Thai take away.
I put placemats on the table. Pour wine. Watch Luke dishing out mushy rice risotto.
No, my darling, Luke. I’ll never break your heart or mine with confessional honesty that might do more damage than good. I’ll keep my two-year-old secret and let it grow old inside me. Some secrets aren’t born to change their identity.
What we liked:
Where some may have over-dramatised this premise, we appreciated the poetic descriptions peppered with domestic details of a secret too late to share. The placemats act as an effective symbol of the shield she places between her and her partner’s heart, and we find many more metaphors and double meanings (including the title) at play throughout this well-crafted story of lingering loss and love. When handled with care, adding layers to a short story is a great way to add so much more without necessarily troubling the word-count… something to consider.
UNTITLED by TJ Rovsky, Vic
I have something to tell you.
A secret. Not a big one. Not an important one. Not even, some might say, an interesting one. But as I stand here before the crowd of a hundred, their eyes fixed uncomfortably upon my forehead, my breasts, my shaking hands; anywhere but my own – I realise I am alone. Except for you. I know you stand behind me, three steps on the diagonal; your legs strong and solid and shoulder-width apart, your hands gently clasped behind your back, your jaw taut as you gaze out over the faces below. My fearless protector; my loyal guard; watchful and silent as I stand on the raised platform, a timid queen addressing her people. I think it strange that although you have all the poise and confidence I wish I possessed – a presence that could command armies, while my knees knock beneath my skirt – the crowd doesn’t spare you a glance.
I open my mouth, but fear grips my throat and I can’t seem to find the words to address my audience. Instead, my mind wanders, stumbling through my memories to the day we met. Lady luck, serendipity, happenstance, blessing; call it what you will. I found you lying beside me, a mere infant, in my mothers’ makeshift cot. I found you in the fields I used to roam as a child; like me, you were alone. I encountered you in the marketplace, where you looked and you looked and you bought nothing. I see now that our history is long and beautiful in its secrecy.
‘Three.’ A man’s voice booms across the cobbled pavement, tearing me from my thoughts.
A murmur ripples through the crowd like a serpent.
I see awe and fear in their eyes.
My secret is this: I know. I think I’ve always known. I know why the eyes of the crowd below move past you unseeingly. Why nobody ever recognises your name. Why the townspeople rarely visit our cottage on the hill – with red and white roses dripping from the walls and honeysuckle around the front door – and those that do avert their eyes as they pass me wrestling with the thriving vegetable patch. And while there is no truth to the names they call me, I believe once, just once, I really did peer into a distant future, where I saw people like me – seen, understood, supported – thriving too.
The man smiles grimly; he loves to hold the attention of his audience, moulding their gasps, their excitement and their terror in his hands like clay.
Someone throws a stone in our direction. ‘Witch!’ a voice calls. ‘Possessed by the Devil!’ A stowaway whisper from the front row catches the breeze to my ear: ‘Did ye ‘ear? They say she wanders ‘round that old dirt patch on the hill, day-in, day-out, digging holes e’rywhere an' chanting spells.’
Are you still there? I can’t feel you now.
The flames burst to life beneath us.
What we liked:
Right from the opening sentence, as a reader you are already intrigued by the directness of this narrator, with an overwhelming presence throughout. This story stood out for its unique approach and authentic narrative voice, with a tense countdown to a well-written ending (high stakes indeed). Multiple readings reveal alternatives to the Joan of Arc-esque vibes… perhaps a more modern metaphorical meaning – another example of adding layers to make the story linger with the reader.
THE WOMAN IN THE RED COAT by Emily Thomas, Vic
I’m running now, headlong down the Brakewell Street shopping strip. The soles of my rubber school shoes slap the bitumen and my schoolbag slaps my back, knocking me side to side like the ringing of a bell. I’m flapping my arms now across my torso, paddling the air with my hands like wonky propellers to keep me in balance.
Blue haze, red haze, yellow haze – the butcher, the newsagents, the library. Black haze, white and green – the council toilets and gardens with barbecues and men holding beer. I strain to keep my eyes locked on the figure waiting at the traffic lights – the figure in the red coat, the figure I saw in my dream.
‘Faster!’ I tell my legs, and I feel my muscles mould into their new position and pace.
‘Faster!’ and I feel my heart elevating in my throat. It’s expanding and contracting over the part that lets me swallow.
I see an orange Ford Falcon now, speeding over the hill and the smell of burning rubber singes my nostrils and mingles with my own sweat. This isn’t serendipity; I’ve watched this exact moment play out in my dream.
The traffic light changes to red and the green man illuminates.
The woman steps out onto the road, and with one last burst, I press forward, my belly connecting with the stiffened weight of a woman in shock.
A kaleidoscope of orange, red and the blackness of bitumen fills my vision and we crash onto the road in a crippling thud. Sharp pain vibrates in my knees and my fingers sting and throb simultaneously, wedged behind the woman’s back and the road. I take a breath and pull myself up from off her chest, and the weight of my backpack topples me sideways.
Just like in my dream, the woman opens her eyes, and I quickly move to cradle her heavy head of silver hair in my badly grazed palms. I can see her eyes, nose and lips are clear, unlike the blurred version in my dream. She has wrinkles like gullies and creek beds, streaming from her blue eyes. They fill with water as I look down at her and a wobbly smile crumples her lips.
‘I thank you, dear boy,’ she says, reaching a cold and shaking hand to clasp the top of my shoulder, ‘how…how did you know I was in danger?’
I tuck my left arm beneath her body and gently lift her back from off the bitumen. I can smell the red of her coat and the talcum in her hair. ‘It’s my secret,’ I say, ‘I saw you in my dream,’ and the gullies around her eyes crackle and crease.
Scores of people now, run towards us. Shopkeepers and passers-by call out to see if we’re okay. The Falcon is gone, but I can still smell the acrid black of its tyres deep within my lungs.
What we liked:
With flash fiction, one of the best strategies is to simply drop your reader straight into the action, and that’s exactly what we see here. No wasted words on backstory and introspection – the pace here keeps you reading and repetition is used to great effect. Lovely original descriptions populate the entire piece, from the authentic feel of rubber school shoes slapping the bitumen to the saved woman’s wrinkles like creek beds, and other beautifully realised sensory details scattered throughout. Again, it’s so easy to build up a picture of this story in your mind – a credit to the active storytelling at work.
DAILY RITUALS by Lindsay Morrison, ACT
“This is pretty cliche, you know?” Captain Victory remarked casually indicating as best as he could with his hands tied the pot of acid below him. Chains were looped tightly around his body, effectively pinning his arms to his side while also dangling him above the gurgling mess. The smell rankled his nose, but he found he could ignore it quite tolerably. It wasn’t the first time this has happened to him after all. “I mean, like not only have we been through this before, but it’s in all the movies. Couldn’t you have thought of something more original, like hot chocolate?”
“Hot chocolate isn’t scary though,” Master Disaster mumbled grumpily, standing moodily by the controls. Usually he took greater pleasure in trapping Captain Victory, but today he just didn’t seem to be feeling it. Possibly it was because his cat Meowbert was missing. Not even opening a can of tuna seemed able to find him. It seemed he would have no serendipity until the mischievous ginger tabby was found.
“I could scream, if that helps?” Captain Victory offered, playing the helpful good hero as always. “Or tell you how ‘you’ll never get away with this.’ You know I’m great at that.”
“You are pretty good at that,” Master Disaster conceded. “But I just want this over and done with. Greg, start the countdown.”
The little bent-over henchmen pushed a large red button, causing darkness to settle over Captain Victory other than the few spotlights whirling around him. The hero whistles in appreciation of the dramatic effects. A woman’s voice began to drone out the countdown in a bored tone, like she too was used to the drill.
“10 . . . 9 . . . “
Captain Victory shifted the watch on his wrist that he knew Master Disaster had conveniently overlooked when he’d tied him up. He pressed the side of the watch against one of the chains and activated the laser setting. It sliced through the chains with ease, Captain Victory catching hold of one of the loose chains and swinging to the edge of the acid pot. With a tight flip, he landed neatly on his feet and executed a small bow.
Greg clapped profusely, looking impressed.
“5,” droned the woman’s voice, before Master Disaster switched her off with a sigh.
“Oh dear, you’ve defeated me again,” the villain said heavily. “Drat.”
Captain Victory climbed the stairs to pat his arch-nemesis on the shoulder. “I’ll let you in in a little secret,” he whispered confidentially. “You’ll never beat me for good will always triumph!”
Master Disaster sighed. It was the same speech every day. It really made him wonder why he’d thought to join the villainous industry. It really was a trying profession.
The hero patted his shoulder again, like a mother comforting a child. “Well, there’s always tomorrow. Nine o’clock?”
“See you there.”
What we liked:
Another slice of humour to end on this month, as it pokes fun at an all-too-familiar scene from popular culture. The battle between good and evil is clearly getting a bit routine for poor Master Disaster who’s on a losing streak and questioning his life choices. This was another example of zagging when most stories zig – and we enjoyed the fact that this story didn't take itself too seriously.
Congrats to the following stories that made it to the shortlist selection round. But hey, even if you’re not here, you still created something original and you get to do it all again in February! Just another reason to lurrrrve Furious Fiction!
JANUARY 2020 LONGLISTED (in no particular order):
- DECEPTION by Zoe Crowest, WA
- GOING DOWN by Kathleen Ryder, NT
- EDDIE by Lauren Gee, TAS
- THE FRIENDSHIP by Cynthia Roberts, ACT
- FUEL FOR THOUGHT by Grant Hinton, WA
- DEAR YOU by Sam Lane, Vic
- THE LONG WAIT by Lauren Rathwell, CANADA
- MODERN DAY SERENDIPITY by Angela Bonus, Vic
- OLD SOUL by Sarah, Vic
- AROUND THE GLOBE WITH MR CONEY by Johanna Skinner, QLD
- UNTITLED by Ivana L. Truglio, NSW
- SPIDER LESSONS by Lindsay Bamfield, Vic
- DEATH OF A FRIENDSHIP by Megan Clift, Vic
- THE DEVIL’S DRESS WAS EMERALD GREEN by Tim Law, SA
- GRAVE WISDOM by David Jesson, UK
- KRYPTONITE by Janet Aubrey, NSW
- UNDER A BLACKENED SKY by Michelle Upton, QLD
- COPY THAT by Gregory Ballinger, Vic
- YOU by Olivia Farag, NSW
- WRITTEN IN THE STARS by Raven Aucamp, SOUTH AFRICA
- UNTITLED by Jannette Ellis, QLD
- NEW YEAR’S EVE WITH CAPTAIN COOK ON THE ISLAND OF SERENDIPITY by Christopher Morgan, Vic