This month we rode the story train and received a record number of entries for Furious Fiction yet again (we keep breaking those records) – as nearly 1200 writers climbed aboard. It’s official – writers love trains!
Here were the JULY requirements each story had to meet:
- The story had to take place on a TRAIN.
- The story had to include something FROZEN.
- The story had to include three 3-word sentences in a row.
Let it gooooo, let it gooooo – oh yes, um, there were indeed many references to the movie Frozen. There were also a lot of trains riding to a death of some kind, which made for many deep breaths from our judges. And definitely plenty of eyes meeting across crowded, smelly commuter carriages.
But we could only choo choo choose one, and that one belonged to Joanna Carroll of Vic, Australia. You can read Joanna’s story below, as well as a selection of other shortlisted stories and a further longlist of entrants whose stories were right up there vying for contention. Congrats to all – including YOU if you hopped aboard the overcrowded train this month and rode it all the way to Submit Story Station!
JULY 2019 WINNER
VIABILITY by Joanna Carroll
On the way in on the train, Alice checked out their website again. The women were conspicuously multi-racial but, in the new marketing fashion, uniformly shiny haired and middle-class. ‘OWN YOUR OWN FUTURE’, the homepage gushed in slick, minimalist font. A pan-European woman in dark-rimmed glasses simultaneously worked a laptop and took a call on her mobile while apparently sharing a joke with a co-worker just out of shot.
Alice swiped across. ‘YOUR FERTILITY, YOUR WAY.’ A new image appeared, a trio of slim, toothy women, all smiling and laughing indulgently. One was showing the others something amusing on her iPhone, distracting them momentarily from their own devices, a laptop and tablet for variation. Alice imagined the pitch that got these ideas the green light: ‘We want women to know they can have it all,’ some smug young guy in a suit had probably said. As far as she could tell, ‘having it all’ had been interpreted by the creative team behind the website as washing your hair regularly, mastering office-casual-chic and using the internet.
‘INVEST IN YOUR FUTURE.’ It had been, she reflected, a perverse decision to make the appointment. Not the decision to freeze her eggs; she wasn’t regretting that impulse. She was thirty-eight. Dan had left. She was alone. No, she told herself, it was more that she was starting to have misgivings about entrusting the process to a fertility clinic that was happy to call itself ‘Chill’ without any hint of irony. Would these people size her up and find her wanting? On the north side, her unwashed hair and scuffed boots read comfortably as normcore, but this clinic was south of the river. Did people look actually look like that over here? Her hand went to her abdomen.
‘FREEZE IT AND LEAVE IT.’ Jesus. She missed Dan for this stuff. He’d have laughed with her at the crass absurdity of it all. She looked fruitlessly around the carriage for some reassurance. Opposite, a teenage girl sketched artily in a notebook, stroking the stud beneath her bottom lip. An elderly woman across the aisle picked invisible debris from her mohair bosom. A few suits and a leather jacket stood, eyes locked on screens. Outside, a grainy film of housing commission flats and graffiti wound past.
Together they rocked in silent, unconscious unison. For a moment, Alice imagined herself in a simulacrum of one of the marketing shots, leaning across conspiratorially to the girl with the notebook or the woman with the debris to show them the ludicrous content on her phone screen. ‘Look at this!’ she would say with contempt, ‘Look at these fuckers!’ and they would lean in and smile and laugh.
She scrolled down. ‘FLEXIBLE PAYMENT PLAN.’
Again, she checked the route from the station to the clinic on Google maps, then put her phone away. She tilted her head against the window, felt it cold and hard against her forehead, and closed her eyes.
What we loved:
A lot of extraordinary things happened on trains this month, but in the end it was the train taking a back seat, as it were, that made this entry powerful. The story is kept moving with every swipe and scroll of the screen as we share the protagonist’s thoughts via each new page to build a picture of where this train is taking her. The creative use of the frozen prompt, seamless weaving of the three sentences and an exposition-free ending that lands softly back with our train journey all combined to get this journey over the line. Ultimately, we love the fact that on any given train, on any given day, there are hundreds of untold stories unfolding for passengers riding in silence – and this was one of those.
MERRYBROOK by Simone Schreiber
Next stop, Merrybrook.”
The voice behind the announcement sounded forcefully cheerful, a harsh contrast to the sulking commuters, stacked into the train like sardines in a can.
Edward’s heart fluttered in eager expectation. Merrybrook was his stop and his favorite part of his morning commute.
Helen felt a knot form in her stomach at the announcement. She feared Merrybrook station every day on her way to work.
He jumped off his seat like a lovestruck teenager, not like the middle-aged businessman who resembled his worn-out leather briefcase.
She tried to sink further into her seat, hiding behind the book she had brought with her.
Edward made his ways through row after row of seats, carefully shuffling past passengers who thinned out with every step. He tried his best to appear casual, slowly making his way to the door while scanning each cart for one specific person.
Helen had tried different things every day. Sitting by the doors, sitting far away from the doors, sitting with people, not sitting with people, standing, leaning, crouching, taking an earlier train, a later train – he always found her. Today she had picked the very last cart on the train, hoping to avoid him that way.
When he finally saw her, his heart was hammering in his chest. She was sitting at the very end of the train, her nose deep in a book. Edward leaned against the doors a few steps away and took a good look at her: She was the same stunning image he harbored of her in his mind.
She had spent over an hour in front of the wardrobe this morning, trying to pick out something to wear. Was her bra showing under this blouse? Did this skirt reveal too much of her legs? Was there anything she could do to stand out less, to make herself invisible to him?
He loved how her white toes were sticking out of filigree leather sandals, how her nail polish matched her lip gloss and how strands of her cinnabar hair fell over her porcelain neck where they had escaped the firm bun. He knew he was staring, he couldn’t help it – she was too beautiful.
Helen felt him staring at her before she saw him, a shiver running down her spine. The cold sweat on her neck felt frozen, like tiny shards of ice. She tried her best to focus on her book, reading the same paragraph over and over again, desperate to avoid eye contact, a nod, a smile, anything that might encourage him.
The train stopped. The doors opened. He got off. Edward stole one last glance at her from the platform, sculpting her image into the marble of his mind. He couldn’t wait until tomorrow when he would see her again.
He finally got off the train and Helen dared to breathe again. With shaking hands, she finally dialed the number of the police.
What we liked:
Here are two more silent stories happening on a daily commute. Often in a situation such as this, we are privy to the thoughts of just one of the people involved. This cleverly crafted story works so well because we get to see both sides of the story thanks to effective back and forth POV to drive the narrative. In particular, the juxtaposed insights as Helen anguishes over her outfit choices, and the actual intricate details of her appearance that captivate Edward. Chilling in its everydayness.
SAVE THE DAY by Zayne Kadry
“Hurry, BioniGal! We can’t hold them back much longer.”
“I’m trying,” BioniGal yells, throwing a tense glance over her shoulder. Doctor Storm, her new sidekick Lightning Lad, and Monkeyman are still locked in battle with Blizzaro and her minions. “The controls are encrypted, but I’ve almost cracked it.”
BioniGal turns back to the control panel, looking for the right button to push or wire to cut. If she doesn’t find it soon, the train will crash into the iceberg, killing her team and all the civilians onboard. Everyone is counting on her. She won’t let them down.
Ten seconds left.
Nine seconds left.
Eight seconds left.
Out of nowhere, a gigantic furry beast appears at the side of the tracks, scooping the iceberg into its mouth. The train jolts to a halt, sending everyone, villains and heroes alike, flying around the space.
“No, Buster!” a voice booms outside the train. “Bad dog. Give me the ice cube. We need it for our game.”
Monkeyman untangles himself from Blizzaro and Lightning Lad, standing up to peer out the window of the toy train. He sees Tommy and Jessica chasing Buster the beagle out the room. “Okay, everyone, minor technical issues. Take five.”
BioniGal and the minions use this opportunity to take a smoking break. She leans on the control panel, removing an e-cigarette from her pocket and inhaling deeply.
“What are you doing Sunday?” BioniGal asks, a puff of smoke leaving her mouth. “Tommy is staying with his grandparents, so we’ve got the day off.”
“I’m working on my characterisation,” Minion No. 2 replied. “I really want to make the leap from underling to supervillain.”
In the far corner Doctor Storm and Blizzaro bicker. Lightning Lad watches them with concern.
“Don’t mind them,” Monkeyman says, “They always fight about silly things, but I’ve never seen two toys more in love. So, how’s your first day going?”
“It’s so much fun! Tommy has a fantastic imagination. Not like some kids you hear about; always doing the same thing over and over.”
“Yeah, Tommy is great. Jessica too when she comes over. Last week it was a jewelry heist. We almost stopped the bad guys, but Tommy’s mum needed her earrings back.”
“Typical.” Lightning Lad chuckled. “Hey, can I ask you something?”
“It’s just, you guys are so talented, I’m worried I can’t keep up.”
“No, man. You’re great! Your performance was totally believable,” Monkeyman said, patting Lightning Lad on the back. “If I didn’t know better, I would have really thought that icicle stabbed you in the leg.”
“Thanks, mate. That means a lot.”
The sound of a door closing caught everyone’s attention. Monkeyman looked out the window again, seeing Jessica and Tommy jogging towards the train.
“The kids are back, places everybody!”
The toys rush to their positions and watch Jessica put a fresh ice cube on the tracks. BioniGal turns to Lightning Lad, smirking. “Ready to save the day, New Kid?”
He grins back at her. “Bring it on.”
What we liked:
We had a number of ‘toy train’ sagas this month, but this one brought good characterisation and humour to the table. The result is an enjoyable romp with toys who really want to bring their ‘A game’ to playtime. The work day banter once they take their smoko break is particularly fun and a reminder to always look for the story behind the story to create something original.
LITTLE LIVES by Sia
Antonia, her mother and her father climbed onto the train, one chilly Friday evening, just as the last beam of sun rays withdrew from the windows, cherishing the silk and the lace, before it glided over the coarse cotton lining of the curtains.
Antonia loved being on the train in the evening, especially these cold winter evenings when the warm, heavy dizziness lingered sweetly into her body before she drifted off to sleep. It had almost become a routine now, since the construction of the train began, and she dreamt of spending each evening of each new winter snuggling in this wonderfully comfortable new-found haven.
“Don’t be so happy Antonia, dear. It’s not going to last. Besides, it doesn’t do to smile so, when we sleep over the graveyard of our kindred.” Her father reproached.
“Graveyard, ma?” She had never imagined graveyards could be so pleasant.
“It is true.” Her mother grimaced, recalling what the women in the clickety boots and primp black apron had said earlier.
“Pure Mulberry Silk. Ninety per meter. Only for you. Ma’am.”
She remembered how the ladies had gushed over the material, how they had passed it from hand to hand, pulled it through their rings, fantasized about it, all the while, managing to conceal their glee beneath masks of dismay over the “unreasonable price!” She remembered how one of them had cried with her. But hers were tears of happiness.
Antonia was sure it was an earthquake that awakened her in the morning. Mother would never jerk her so, not even if she were hungry. There was too much noise. She clutched frantically in the air and managed to keep a hold while it lasted. When she opened her eyes, mother and father had vanished. Paralyzed with fear, she felt the ground slipping under her feet. It had happened a few times before, but never, never quite so literally had she felt it.
When it stopped, the hailstorm began. Antonia caved her head between her arms, shutting her eyes tightly, as she awaited her death.
“Please, please, please. Let it be quick.”
When the hailstone hit her, she sighed in relief. But to her surprise, she didn’t die. It was light as a feather and it smelled of meadows. They were pelting down upon her, dazzling, white, flying gracefully with the breeze, as she looked on with rapturous delight. It was in that beautiful moment of happiness, that she heard the words trailing excitedly before they pitched up to notice what proved fatal.
“…clichéd but beautiful all the same. You were always a sucker for fairytales, Jenny. Frozen! Isn’t that a tad childish wedding th…Ahhhhh God, hold still. There’s an ant on your train! Lemme…”
Brave Antonia had survived an earthquake. She had lived through a landslide. She had even outlived a hailstorm. But she didn’t survive being black in a white place. She died a beautiful death looking at Andrew kissing Jenny, everyone laughing, smiling, crying. They were tears of happiness.
What we liked:
Antonia loved being on the train during winter evenings, and at first, it seems like we’re witnessing the start of a cosy weekend journey. But the “graveyard of our kindred” soon subverts things, revealing the sacrifices that her silkworm buddies have made for this ant to hitch a ride on such a train. A fresh take on setting the story on ‘a train’ – sprinkled with nice descriptions and a good reminder to think outside the box.
THE RIGHT CONDITIONS by Kat Inabinet
Plates rattled as the motion of the train gently jostled their neat little stacks.
The lunchtime diners had come and gone, and Sal was left with the remaining food and the laboured hum of the lone air conditioner in its futile resistance of the sun that pressed hot and insistent against the windows. The temperature today was blistering, but Sal didn’t mind the heat. In fact, when she walked in, her thin blouse damp and clinging to the curves of her silhouette, he preferred it.
Faceless staff deferentially cleared away empty plates, replacing them with fresh promises of the ocean before melting back into obscurity. Sal observed the woman’s eyes grow wide with wonder as she pored over the tempting offerings.
Exquisite slivers of jewel coloured fish lay in a swoon over pert mounds of rice, and glistening seaweed parcels of plump roe hinted at salty delights. Exotic morsels solicited attention in their enticing, trussed up portions and although her gaze would occasionally slide in his direction as she made her selections, she never really saw him.
But he saw her.
She was not especially beautiful, as Sal understood the term, but for him it wasn’t the outside that mattered, it was all about what was inside, and this woman projected a fragile vulnerability that he found deeply alluring.
He circled the room and watched in mute captivation as she carefully chose each delicacy and brought it tentatively to lips that she wet with anticipation. Her eyes fluttered closed as she tasted her food, features alternating between surprise and pleasure as she gave herself wholly to the experience of every new flavour.
She rolled a piece of raw tuna around in her mouth, savouring the clean, supple bounce of the flesh. A more discerning palate would have recognised the subtle texture changes peculiar to tuna that had been frozen, but she seemed happily oblivious.
Dew-like drops of perspiration still spotted her brow and when a single bead descended her cheek in a gentle caress, Sal was overcome with passionate reverie. His mind was aflame with visions of her sweaty form splayed across twisted sheets, flushed and exhausted because of him, and he ached with the desire to be inside her.
The train shuddered in sympathy and he edged closer.
Sal understood that he wasn’t much to look at, and offered little in the ways of seduction, but under the right conditions he flourished, and a single touch could make her his.
He was close enough to see the pulse hammer at her throat and hear her shallow breathing. From under heavy eyelids, her pupils dilated with the arousal of her culinary awakening and she eyed him hungrily as he closed the distance between them.
This was his moment.
Everything had aligned perfectly for them to be together.
The Salmonella contamination.
The heat wave.
The naive consumer.
The cycle of the sushi train had finally brought Sal to her at precisely the right moment and she reached for him.
What we liked:
And here’s another type of train we had a few stories about this month – the sushi train! Metronomic in its pace, this passionate and poisonous thriller keeps us guessing till the end, with Sal’s sick desires well illustrated as he closes in on his prey. We’re not sure we feel like sushi after reading this one, but bacteria personified was definitely a clever approach! The three sentences as the ‘reveal’ worked nicely.
THE CASE OF SALLY PICKLES by Khaleila Hisham
Dear Sally Pickles,
On behalf of the Devil himself, we would like to welcome you aboard our Express Train to Hell.
Thank you for selling your soul and we hope that your journey with us will be a comfortable one.
A few things to note:-
- There are no attendants on board because you are going to hell.
- We will not be providing snacks or drinks as these are only required in a 3-dimensional reality.
- Therefore our trains do not have toilets. Please refrain from walking around the train in search for somewhere to cry as our trains go very fast and you may get sucked out into the vacuum. In the event of which, we will not be responsible for any lost souls. You may cry in your compartment but please be mindful of your neighbours and keep it down.
- In your compartment, you will find a tablet computer has been provided. You may watch the shell of your body that you have left behind, live the life you wished for it. If you find that the screen is frozen, simply switch the device off. And then switch it back on.
Thank you and we hope you enjoy your ride.
If you have some feedback for us, please fill in the section below.
To Whom It May Concern
Yesterday, I was visited by one of your sales representatives, Lee, at my place of business where I manufacture and supply soles for shoes called “Solely Sally”.
I must begin by saying that it was a scorching hot day and I was severely dehydrated. Yes, I had wished for a big ice pop but when Lee showed up offering me one, I thought I was simply hallucinating! It was hot. I was delirious. Lee suddenly appeared.
I firmly believe it was Lee’s responsibility to make it clear that he was not just a figment of my imagination. How can one enter a 3-dimensional reality only to ignore all of its symptoms?
More importantly, I was under the impression that my wish would be granted in exchange for soles. Not souls. In fact, when I asked him how much he wanted, he simply said “the whole lot”. Lee had accepted all 666 pairs of soles in the shop which further convinced me that I had completed my end of the transaction. I cannot fathom why he would have thought I would trade my soul for a big ice pop! Even the biggest one is not worth my entire soul.
He certainly did not mention that I would be ripped out of my body and put on this wretched train. It is full of wailing politicians pacing about looking for a toilet!
I would like to request a full refund of my soul as I’m sure you can see how the misunderstanding occurred.
Please refer me to the right person or department promptly as I can see the shell of my body eating a strawberry ice pop. I am allergic to strawberries.
What we liked:
There were a whole lot of “death train” type stories that pulled into our judging station this month, but this original format and humour was refreshing. Obviously, just being different isn’t all we look for… it had to back it up, and it does this well with two cleverly constructed pieces of correspondence. The first is a witty “induction” style welcome, complete with professional matter-of-factness and nice use of frozen (we’re surprised we didn’t have more frozen screens this month). Then Sally’s “this has all been a big misunderstanding” letter shows you how she ended up here. Well crafted and entertaining.
Congratulations also to the following entrants whose stories were in the running with our judges this month. To you – and all others who entered – keep it up! You never know when the storytelling stars will align…
JULY 2019 LONGLISTED (in no particular order):
- CAT AND MOUSE by Deb Hannagan
- THE TUNNEL by Jessica Tunnage
- THE TRAIN OF MY EXISTENCE by Samantha Rollman
- DOORS CLOSING, PLEASE STAND CLEAR by Kylie Olsen
- JUST BLEND IN by Risudo
- TEXT IN TRANSIT by Anna McEvoy
- JUST LIKE YOU by Karen Eason
- THE UNTOLD STORY by Sally Lewry
- THE FAMILY BUSINESS by Amy Hutton
- I HATE TRAINS by Karina Grift
- WHEN TERROR TAKES OVER by Michelle Dickins
- 9876543 by Verena Heirich
- BETWEEN THE LINES by Sue Mitchell
- JUST ANOTHER MOMENT by Z.A.Williams
- UNTITLED by ARR
- FLIES ON A TRAIN by KM Smith
- THE UNDERSIDE OF THINGS by David Farran
- AN EARLY ARRIVAL by Aylish Dowsett
- ONE SINGLE TRACK by Kylie Hannant