It’s a new year and we were so eager that we hit the ground running with our first Furious Fiction challenge for 2021 on the first day of January. (Ahem, it may have also had something to do with the calendar.) A new year was dawning, so here’s what we asked participants to bring to the prose party:
- Each story had to begin at sunrise.
- Each story had to use the words SIGNATURE, PATIENT, BICYCLE. (Longer variations were permitted.)
- Each story had to include a character who has to make a CHOICE.
And so, with the sky turning an assortment of colours (we had blues, purples, oranges and more), our 1500+ contestants set off on their wobbly way – bicycles at the ready, showing considerable patients and bringing their signature storytelling skills. We visited COVID wards, drank cocktails and watched vampires race the clock.
It wasn’t just the characters that had to make a choice, and for the judges it was a tough one – signing off on this month’s winner, Sian Briggs and her story, Going Home (below). Congrats to Sian – she can buy herself a shiny new bike with her $500 prize.
If you missed out making the short or long lists below, don’t despair. Dust yourself off and get back on that bicycle (figuratively – we promise there won’t be bikes next month). Every story you create makes the world a better place, so let’s keep up the good work team!
JANUARY 2021 WINNER
GOING HOME by Sian Briggs, WA
They still talk about that sunrise. The sun snaked up slowly and the sky exploded, a heady mix of apricot and fire, salted caramel and angry fuchsia. It was, they say, like a bottle of hope and beauty and hatred had detonated.
“I got lucky. Up early that day, rode my bicycle to Little Jim’s to get an almond chai.”
“I lived on the coast back then. Cat woke me up at the sparrow’s crack. Pulled the blinds and fell to my knees.”
“Oh mate. I kick myself for sleeping past eight that day.”
Grace Dibney was up early that morning, as she was all mornings. She peeked through the blinds but saw nothing. This was Grace’s secret. She only saw grey, in every sunrise, in every sunset.
Grace was a very neat woman, who was quick to whip out a dustbuster. She parented effortlessly. Twin boys, 13, who were level headed, natural leaders, budding cricket stars. A button cute daughter with impressive pipes, who had been plucked to play Cosette in Les Mis.
Grace’s husband, Les Dibney, was a lawyer. He kept their family goals on an Excel spreadsheet and thought they were tracking nicely. Les was a partner in Dibney & McGrath Legal and spent much of his time at the office.
This was fine, though, because Grace had it covered. High fibre, low GI meals on the table. Cricket whites soaked in Napisan. Patiently, perpetually sewing sequins on dance costumes.
The morning of the sunrise started like any other. Grace dropped Dave and Louis at cricket training at 6.30. Took Lissa to choir at 8. Margaret McGee saw her in the carpark and tapped on the window.
“Morning, Grace. How about that sunrise today?”
Grace rolled down the window, smiling.
“Oh hey, Marg. Wasn’t it a beauty?”
They chatted for a bit before Grace waved off Margaret and drove back home. She cut a grapefruit and sprinkled it with Equal. Percolated a coffee, no sugar and no milk. She washed the dishes and dried them. Took out the trash. And then pulled a suitcase out from under her bed.
Later, Margaret McGee liked to remind people that she was, indeed, the last person to speak to Grace that day.
“I mean, she was her usual pleasant self. We talked about that sunrise, those incredible colours, how lucky we are. She even suggested a coffee later in the week.”
Grace knew it wasn’t too late to unpack as she rolled the suitcase toward the front door. She could still make pump class at the gym. Mop the floors with Pine o Clean.
But instead, she pulled out a piece of her special paper and a sharpie.
“Dear Les,” she wrote.
“I know I should be happy, but I’m not. I need to see colour before it’s too late.
Please tell the children I love them. I’ll call when I land in Paris.”
She followed with her old signature, neat, tight, succinct.
What we loved:
Flash fiction is all about setting a vivid scene from the get go, and here we can’t help but marvel like the townsfolk at the explosion of apricot, caramel, fuschia, hope and hatred. With sure footing and deft strokes, this story’s omniscient POV casts its eye over the neighbourhood before zooming in on Grace and her family – stirring up each character’s traits vividly in a few select words. It’s a clever choice to set the reader on edge with a sense of foreboding about Grace’s fate and the piece dangles the figurative carrot along each paragraph, with the story playing out almost like a police report. The icing on the cake (or the ‘Equal on the grapefruit’) is the combination of the foreshadowing about Grace’s grey vision and the story’s ultimate ending … succinct and superb.
BEGIN AGAIN by N Milde, VIC
“You’ve been very patient.”
Dee looks around, light from the rising sun biting. Behind her bench, below the bare oak and above the city, a man is standing. She squints, holding a hand to her eyes.
“It’s been five nights.”
“I know; I saw you up here.” The man leans his bicycle against the tree and crosses the grass to stand at her shoulder. “Apologies. I would have come sooner, but…”
“You had to be sure.” The sun stings, so Dee turns away.
“It’s important,” the man agrees. “Policy.”
Dee shrugs, reaching for the folder tucked under her leg. It flaps in the wind as she holds it up.
“My paperwork’s all here.”
The folder slips from her hand, and pages rustle. The man rounds the bench and sits, carefully checking each sheet. Dee rubs her leg, glancing over, but his back is to her.
“That seems fine,” he taps the final page, “just needs my signature, then we proceed.”
“’Good.’” The word is repeated levelly. “Are you sure? It’s a drastic step, having a life professionally replaced. Most reconsider, even after waiting.”
“That’s… surprising,” Dee says, looking at the papers in the man’s lap. His hands are rough, but rest gently to keep the wind from snatching them. Days more work if even one escapes, she realises. Her own hands are numb from the cool night. She has already removed her ring, all other arrangements for her disappearance made months earlier. The man has not spoken, and she feels him watching.
“I’d think… going back would only make the feeling you’ve made too many mistakes worse.”
“If so, we can remove that memory – it’s a small additional fee.”
“But not mandatory.”
“People need to hear of us somehow. If you go through with it, however, you’ll remember nothing.”
Dee nods, frowning. She feels the weight of her life like a sack, its limp and disappointing heft. Over five evenings she’s thought of many things she might say if she were to leave the hill, but it all seemed like too much for words, with no guarantee of something better.
“Does… have you ever had repeat customers?”
“Some,” the man concedes, “I suppose I can say that. Official policy is that those who don’t remember the past aren’t necessarily destined to repeat it. Not every time.”
“I want to believe that.”
“Wouldn’t be here otherwise, I suppose.”
“Would you tell me if I’d waited before?”
The man is silent a moment.
“I wouldn’t know.” he says, quiet, “I don’t trust memories much now anyway.”
Dee nods again.
“So,” the man shifts, sitting up, “your choice?”
Testing the weight, Dee looks at her hands. “What now?”
A pen scratches, and the folder is snapped shut.
“Take the bike. By the time you reach the bottom you’ll know the way to your new home. Your bike will be stolen in two days. From there, it’s all you.”
Dee breathes deep, then stands quickly.
“And you. Better luck this time.”
What we liked:
Here above the city and below the oak, we witness a tightly woven tale that wastes no words on exposition and contains the action within a single scene that’s nonetheless loaded with consequences. Channelling Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind vibes, the story revels in what it doesn’t share as much as what it does. We don’t learn Dee’s history or the painful past that has led her to this decision. We don’t know the man’s motivations or the intricacies of the service he provides. But in a compelling snapshot, we learn enough that our interest is piqued and curiosity ignited. Purposeful dialogue, minimal descriptions, and a nod to futuristic technology swell together to create a memorable story.
UNTITLED by Alissa Thomas, NSW
By the time Camille turned 25 she had bitten her fingernails so low they inverted. She was aware they were awful. Raw, tampered fingers hosting slithers of crescent moon bone she’d long learned to hide. But this morning, as the first light cast shadows across their shameful splinters, she resisted the urge to bite. Her car was warm and stuffy after a night breathing its recycled air. At first, she’d kept the air conditioning running but as the night wore on and the cicadas’ song spent its finale, her hatchback’s grumbling began to cut thickly through the night air. She tried lowering the windows but, after dusk, mosquitos took their vampiric sojourn. So, instead, she chose the light hum of circular air through its warm, musty vents.
By 7.45am Camille had been staring at his house for 14 hours. She’d begun to know its form, memorising even as her heavy eyes flickered open and closed. The shutters were new. They were the expensive kind. But the columns outside, the ones beneath the veranda were old. And they lacked symmetry. One close to the front door, another by a side wall. The more she looked, the more irrational they became.
The irony wasn’t lost on her. Here she was, pathetically slunk on the worn upholstery of her driver's seat, grading her lover’s house, viscerally searching for signs she should simply drive away and go home. Three months ago, he’d been the emotionally absent, but wildly fascinating object of her pub banter. He instantly obscured her better judgement and, seven drinks in, she could no longer be sure if the wedding ring had been there the whole time. By the time she’d uncovered his marital misgivings, his not-so-secret secret, was a ghost in their relationship. Camille patiently awaited his divorce announcement but as weeks of after-hours grew close to a year, she unconsciously deleted his other life. His wife didn’t even have a name as far as Camille was concerned. So today, the house, in all its gratuitous realness, with its letterbox and lawn and recycling bin, clamped around Camille’s throat. She pulled the letter from her pocket, her hands shaking enough to distract from swollen red fingers but not enough to blur the signature from her obstetrician. She opened the car door, legs thumping with cold nerves as she walked towards his driveway. As she got closer, a clanging came from the garage. A boy of only five or six pedalled a bicycle, stopping in front of her. “Hello.” he said. “It’s my birthday tomorrow!” Camille smiled as thick mucus tears formed at the back of her throat. “Happy birthday” she choked. Folding the paper back into her jeans, Camille retreated, checking the morning was still untouched by the watchful eyes of apparent parents. Back in the car, she gasped a desperate cry, her eyes welling as her fingers searched for comfort. Then, the familiar crack of a ripe nail gave way under her bite, and she started the ignition.
What we liked:
The raw pain of bitten nails and a broken heart encapsulate this early morning vignette/vigil. Delivered to us in lumps of narrative with minimal paragraph breaks, the story matches Camille’s sleep-deprived state – her analysis of her lover’s home creating some lovely symbolism as the expensive facade and uneven columns inject her with hope that the marriage structure within may also contain many faults. The simple, poignant exchange with the child is an appropriate and authentic climax which delivers that perfectly observed gasped cry before wrapping up once again with a gnawed nail and crumbling dreams.
UNTITLED by Ben Squires, NSW
Shit. So much for a surreptitious exit.
The blinds are closed and his room is dark. Almost pitch black.
You can make him out though, breathing heavily underneath the duvet cover.
God, it must’ve been months since he last washed those sheets.
“How was that for you?”
“Not too bad… I suppose.”
If there’s anyone in the world who could use an ego check it’s this guy.
But it’s not your job. Your job is to find your bag and get out of there.
“I don’t get a lot of complaints.”
Hard to believe. But perhaps there is a silent majority of people out there who prefer their sexual encounters to last no longer than five to seven seconds.
“You know every time I go out fans approach me. You could say you’re actually quite lucky.”
He’s actually quite lucky there aren’t any sharp objects close at hand.
“What part of town is this?”
That’s going to be a problem. And your bicycle is still at the station.
Just be patient, find your bag and get out of here.
“Do you mind if I open the blinds?”
“Be my guest.”
Natural light post coitus, always a risk. But you’ve got to find this bag.
You pull the cord. Sun’s coming up. Light fills the room.
Piles of dirty clothes, old FHM magazines with pages you wouldn’t dare try to separate, and two litre Coke bottles filled with a greenish liquid that can only be described as disturbing.
And look, he’s got a poster of himself up on the wall.
God, that must be 20 years old. I think you had the same one on your wall in Year Eight.
He still looks incredible in it. Even with the blond tips.
But now, as he stands up in the light of the morning, there’s a difference in size and shape, not to mention hair density.
“Want to go again?”
You look at the poster. You look at him.
He’s no longer the man in the poster.
“Look, last night was a mis…”
“You know I haven’t been with a woman for…”
“We don’t need to – it’s fine. Have you seen my bag?”
“It’s right here.”
He turns around, bends over and reaches under the bed.
An interesting angle. But he’s got it.
“Thank you, I have to go.”
“Thank you for last night.”
“It’s fine. We were drunk.”
“You know I haven’t felt that way since…”
“You don’t have to tell me.”
Alright, there’s the door.
He’s got something in his hands. It’s a serviette. He gives it to you.
You close the door, walk down the hallway and wait for an elevator.
On the ride down you open the serviette at the fold.
Oh, it’s his signature.
What we liked:
As the saying goes, ‘don’t meet (or sleep with) your heroes’. The internal discourse and character-revealing dialogue is a real strength here (notice the unfinished sentences and interrupted thoughts), as the two bat back and forth, vividly portraying a guy who can’t read the room, and a post-coital partner desperate to leave it. The creative criteria are woven in seamlessly, and in particular – the beat where a comparison is quickly made between the heartthrob poster and the reality posing next to it – is an excellent execution of a character making a choice. A gritty reminder that sunrises don’t just mark the beginning of a new day but also the end of the night before…
RUNNING by Russell Fox, SA
Orange-peel coloured light slices through the venetians. I squint awake, suddenly alert, grabbing both arms of my chair. Where…?
She’s in bed. Scrubbing her eyes with balled-up little fists.
“I’m hungry, Daddy.”
I punch ‘9’ on the phone and order. It’s at our door before she’s pulled her grubby unicorn leggings on.
I search the motel clerk’s face, scrawling a fake signature before breakfast is handed over. Vacant. We’d both rather be elsewhere.
She shrugs. “Not like Mummy’s.”
“Birthday’s coming. Any suggestions?”
“How ‘bout a bicycle? Big girl needs a bike?”
She smiles and I forget where I am. “Or a skateboard?”
I push the burnt coffee away and unfold the map, cursing ‘Find my iPhone’ for the millionth time. If only I could power on, type ‘destination’ and have coloured lines show me where–
I shake my head. “We’re going soon.”
She screws up the front of her t-shirt.
“But it’s down the hall…” Dust flickers as I pierce the blinds, peering to the carpark below. The same silent cars sleep where they were last night.
“I’ll take myself.”
“Sweetheart, I’ll walk you–”
“No.” Her arms fold. “I’m a big girl. Said so yourself.”
Her bottom lip pops out.
Then will come tears.
Then will come screaming.
Then will come…
“Fine. But don’t talk to anyone.”
She skips along the balcony to the ladies, pink plastic shoes echoing off the cement. I watch through a crack in the door until she turns the corner, mentally choosing a budget motel with toilet next stop.
She clacks back quickly, head down.
Lavender-smelling hands are thrust toward me.
“Daddy… are we sick?”
“No. Why?” My finger traces the spidery lines across mottled green paper, searching for inspiration.
“The doctors by the toilet said we’re going to be their patients.”
My head snaps toward her. “What?”
She sits next to me on the bed, resting her head on my shoulder. “They whispered when I walked past. ‘Not yet. We’ll get them both as they leave. We need patients.’”
The map hisses as it slides from my lap to the floor.
“I think they’re doctors, just dressed in blue.” She squeezes my hand. “Mummy didn’t say when she got sick so I never knew. Will we be okay?”
Tears prick my eyes. My heart pounds. I grit my teeth.
You’ll need all the patience in the world. You’ll never take her from me.
I jam the chair under the door-handle before running to the back window. I pop the fly-screen out and search the fire-escape leading downstairs.
“Let’s play a game.”
“Please not the ‘Be Very Quiet’ game…”
“No, this is ‘Circus’ game. I’ll lift you down and you walk the tightrope. See there below?”
She claps her hands and laughs as I lift her up. She kisses my nose.
“Love you, Daddy.”
I love you too, sweetheart.
What we liked:
A masterclass in pacing, this story seems at first to lag behind its title before the seemingly quiet father and daughter motel stay swiftly ups the stakes at the turn of a misheard homophone – a creative use of the criteria. The story’s tone is consistent throughout – short sharp sentences that play with time (“We eat” vs “Heavy silence”), punchy descriptions and verbs, with an ever-present layer of tension, sprinkling of sensory details and a dollop of mystery to leave the reader guessing. Another example of leaving unnecessary exposition on the cutting room floor.
WHILE SHE SLEEPS by Zoe Dublewicz, NSW
Behind my thoughts is a white noise chatter of ‘What ifs’. For every decision that I make, the algorithm churns out a setlist of alternate paths that could have been mine.
As I slide out of her bed and steal through her apartment into the newborn daylight the tape starts playing.
If I’d left my number, how would she look finding it? What message would she send? How would I respond?
I left my bicycle at the bar. I go to retrieve it while a phantom relationship plays out in my mind. A proper date at the dumpling spot uptown. Texts. Sleepovers. Exclusivity. Her pink sheets would become our pink sheets. We’d order in. Dinner and a movie in bed. Sauce on the sheets. Mundane, routine sex between sauce stained sheets.
Or she could be patient zero. A vicious, condom resistant strain of a new alien STI, and she won’t have my number to let me know, my balls will turn black and fall off. What if there was a hole in the condom? My drunk, lazy little swimmers could be busy at work building an entirely new person. Would she keep it? Does she need my signature or something to get rid of it?
How would she look waking up to realise that I didn’t leave my number?
Hair slightly matted from our efforts, smudged makeup, tequila breath.
Is she disappointed?
She let me inside of her apartment. Inside of her body. It would have been polite to leave a number.
At least a name.
Before I reach the bar there’s a cafe. Warm croissants, indie music and the cry of coffee being ground.
This could be our shop. Our local spot. They’d know our orders, blue berry bagel, long black, eggs bene and… a cappuccino? A cap is fairly basic and inoffensive. But what if she’s vegan?
Soy Cap and a croissant.
One soy, and one full cream so she has options.
They’re in my hand and I’m walking back to her apartment.
I could bin them both and go home, but the voices have much less to say about the potential of carrying on as I was.
What if I go to another bar tonight? What if I meet another nameless, faceless girl?
Those questions don’t surface because I know the answer, but I don’t know what she’ll say if I go back and ask to see her again.
What we liked:
“What if?” is one of the key techniques in an author’s toolkit when summoning story ideas, but here it’s showcased in full focus as a frame for the piece. It’s a clever approach for a story to gently fast forward through the protagonist’s phantom relationship, and although it’s mostly an imaginative set of scenarios, the strong narrative voice easily allows the reader to jump aboard the train of consciousness and enjoy the ride. Seeing choices and consequences laid bare here is both comforting and confronting – it’s the same algorithm we all run every waking moment, and this story serves as a reminder of why it’s best to keep such thoughts on mute!
SOMETHING GOOD by Faith Hamblyn, NZ
I wheeled my bike out of the dark driveway, my worn wheels skittering dry leaves. The last of the milk bottles for delivery were cool against my back in the early morning air, with the Hendersons’ milks left in their architectural letterbox’s basement. They looked like pale, squat ghosts in the dim light.
The neighbourhood slept, with only one car sweeping past behind me as I reached the second-to-last house in my delivery. The sun was rising in the distance, but I’d be home before its grey fingers had flowered. Birds heralded the coming sun in clusters in their trees, but I still worked under the sleepy gaze of streetlights.
Gliding into the Swansons’ wide driveway was like arriving in old Hollywood. Pink flamingo statues on their manicured lawn kept company with fragrant roses. They only wanted one bottle, so I loaded out a full-cream silver-top into their wire milk holder.
Along with the tokens left in the letter box, I took out the unsealed envelope that had been left in there for me. Merry Christmas, it read. Inside was a folded $50, which I slid into my pocket; it felt heavier than the deliveries I was carrying, somehow, inside.
At the Duncans’, I leaned my bicycle against their broken-teeth fence and moved a rusted tricycle out of the way of their postbox. Mr D had knocked it out of true when he had been living here, and he’d not been back to straighten it up since. The flap at the back was always up, and junk mail fell into the long grass around it.
Four milk bottles were in the bottle holder, with a note holding tokens sitting in a bottle neck like a paper flower. I took my backpack off and swapped out the empty bottles for full ones, eyeing how the paper sat at an angle, not heavy with tokens. Mrs D put a smiley face as a signature on her notes for me, written on kitchen paper towel.
“Sorry, doll – only 1 token,” read the note, “but I’ll get it to you next time. XO :)” It wasn’t enough to pay for even one bottle, but there were more kids than rooms in the Duncans’ place, so I pocketed the disc that had been wrapped up just so, the note written patiently at the post-dinner dining room table. The $50 in my pocket felt crisp and loaded with luck.
I put the $50 into the Merry Christmas envelope from the Swansons’ and slotted it in with the milks. It made them look more cheery, like a promise of something to celebrate Christmas on the family table. The condensation from the milk bottles made it stick to them; something not to be overlooked.
My wheels hummed against the road tar, and the birds started singing in earnest. The sun was rising and lightening the sky, and I’d finished my last street. My threadbare duvet behind dusty net curtains had never seemed so welcome as I headed for home.
What we liked:
There is only one person physically in this story, although two homes are also treated like characters – their descriptions avoiding cliche yet clearly revealing something about their contrasting inhabitants. The additions such as the ‘small, squat ghosts’ of the milk bottles and the distinct voice in the note scrawled by Mrs D all add up to create an authentic scene, with a touch of nostalgia for milk deliveries of old. The goodwill gesture (a ‘token’ gesture perhaps?) is conveyed with restraint, steering away from the sickly sweet territory to simply remind us that something good can happen anywhere, any time – even at sunrise.
If you’re on this list, you’re one of approximately 3% of stories that furrowed the judges’ brows and flirted with contention this month – congratulations! And even if your name is not here, the standard continues to rise every month so keep at it… we look forward to seeing your story here (or shortlisted above!) on a future monthly wrap up.
THIS MONTH’S LONGLISTED (in no particular order):
- THE PIONEER by Michelle Cook, United Kingdom
- RIDE BEFORE DAWN by Glen Donaldson, QLD
- BY YOUR SIDE by Gwyn Everett, United States
- SUNRISE, WYOMING by C. S. Serajeddini, United Kingdom
- FINAL SUNRISE by Jeremy Neal, NSW
- THE RULES CHANGE AT MIDNIGHT by Kate Gordon, TAS
- REMEMBER THE BEST THING. by Lindsay Bamfield, VIC
- A CURE FOR HUMANITY by Rachel Harding, NSW
- NEARLY BROKEN by Stephen Hickman, VIC
- FLOWERS THAT FORGOT TO BLOOM by S. W. Stribling, Mexico
- OUTSIDE SUNRISE STATION by Isabel Pereira, ACT
- PHURIOUS PHICTION by Dave Evan-Watkins, United Kingdom
- DAWN by Katalina Vergara, VIC
- THE SUN DIDN'T RISE by Paul Riessen, VIC
- PEDAL POWER by Sylvie Poetschke, Canada
- SEA BREEZE by Luke Hoheisel, United States
- SEA CHANGE by Julie Davies, QLD
- PAGE SEVEN by Debbie Wingate, United States
- WAITING FOR A SIGN by Leonie Harrison, NSW
- THE SECOND DAY by Peter Jarrett-Schell, United States
- REALITY BITES by Sue Mannering, South Korea
- THE LONG DAWN by Emily Elkins, VIC
- UNTITLED by Tim Law, SA
- TWILIGHT DAWNING by Geoff Benstead, NSW
- THE DECISION by Sussan Khadem, VIC
- FROM DAWN TO DUSK by Amber Gaston, NSW
- GIRL by Amanda Maxwell, United Arab Emirates
- OF MEN AND MONSTERS by M. Lynn Grier, United States
- IT'S TIME by Mike Henry, NSW
- NEW YEARS OVERTIME by Matthew Dewar, WA
- HERO by Vicki Neele, VIC
- UNTITLED by Janice Hull, NSW
- ONE NEW YEAR'S DAY by Mary Powell, VIC
- PAGE 1 by Morgan Delaney, Germany
- GREEN EYES by Brian Boon, NSW
- SURVIVAL INSTINCT by Lynette De Grandis, VIC
- UNTIL SUNRISE by Kim West, VIC
- UNTITLED by Alf Dean, WA
- THE REUNION by Vicki McCracken, VIC
- WISH by Alison Roberts, NSW
- FOX DANCING by Danielle Baldock, NSW
- A GIRL WALKS INTO A BAR by Hannah Elstub, NSW
- GOING BATTY by Sally Eberhardt, QLD
- AUGUST MORNING by Jw Ryan, NSW
- 30.01KM by Jurgen Stahl, SA
- CROW by Phil Miller, NSW
- CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE by Jo Withers, SA
- WHAT WOULD HANNAH DO? by Kristin Anderson, Netherlands
- VLAD, FROM PROJECT DEVELOPMENT by Richard Rebel, NSW