Welcome to July’s Furious Fiction story showcase – a monthly chance to shout out our community’s creativity and the opportunity to have YOUR OWN story featured or acknowledged. And this month it was all about connecting with your inner child – here were the criteria:
- Each story had to include a CHILD (16 or younger) as its main character.
- Each story’s first sentence had to contain two colours.
- Each story also had to include the words BUMPER, PRIZE and IMPOSSIBLE. (You could use longer variations as long as the original spelling was retained.)
The two colours quite literally set the tone for our stories from the first sentence – from the changing colours of skies, red and pink faces, or the flashing lights of police and paramedics. We also took a lot of visits to fairgrounds, to ride on the bumper cars or take home prizes at the impossible-to-win attractions. (That’s when we weren’t reading bumper stickers, stuck in bumper to bumper traffic OR meeting bunnies named ‘Bumper’!)
HAVING A CHILD AS PROTAGONIST
So, why did we ask you to include a CHILD as the main character? A big part of it is lived experience. We have ALL been children at some point in our lives (yes, all of us!) and writing from your own memories can be a great starting point – often leading to authentic scenes (because they actually happened!). We saw that this month, with many stories taking place in past decades – perhaps a reflection of when the author was a child!
- A child protagonist helps keep the story simple and honest.
- A fresh perspective can open up new angles you didn’t think of for storytelling.
- For example, many used the ‘innocence of youth’ to deal with grief or a traumatic event through the lens of a child’s eyes.
- Others went for the older end of the age range to explore coming-of-age themes surrounding first loves or family relationships.
Many stories this month chose a 3rd-person POV to keep an adult ‘voice’ on the child’s story. However others chose a deeper 1st-person POV to view events through. None is right or wrong – but remember that if a child is narrating a story, it doesn’t mean it has to be written in simple language. The juxtaposition of expert prose with a young character can be powerful in the right context!
Congrats to all those featured this month and we hope to see you lining up for the next Furious Fiction challenge on Friday 4 August!
UNTITLED by James Milne, VIC
A leaf drifted lazily in the wind, a red and gold platitude falling to mark the season. The girl watching it so melancholy, felt a death knell as it touched down.
She wrapped her arms around herself, the hollow emptiness in her chest screaming out into the void of this dying landscape in front of her. The girl closed her eyes, and took a deep breath.
Trying and failing to remember what happiness might feel like.
The wind ran on by her, carrying with it the smell of smoke, and the distant and quiet crackling of those burned out husks lying on the ground. Still hot with coals, so many days on.
A place, once so full of life, vitality, was now such a barren wasteland. Turning back the clock was impossible. Trees, once so lush and green, now naked and charred. She wished she could turn back time, to when more than a single leaf was left to fall.
A world filled with the brilliant coppery colours of autumn, and the laughter of falling into a pile of leaves. Days when the sun shone down on her and the soft breeze whispered through her hair.
Her eyes opened as she gave a shallow cough into her hand, throat and chest feeling the gentle burn from the lingering smoke in the air.
She felt entirely alone, in this desolate waste.
This was the reality of it all.
The bushfires had raged their way through, and left nothing behind. They had screamed out their anger at the changing temperatures of the world, unbalanced, unforgiving. Life was lost when it stood in the way.
In front of her was the frame of the place she'd called home. Only the frame. The reinforcing beams stood like little hands, stretched towards the skies, begging for mercy. Screaming out the last breaths as the house was completely swept away.
Moving closer, she was too afraid to so much as step onto the porch. It was broken, crackling away with the dying flames.
She tried her best to hold back her tears, looking up at the man who was braver than her, more desperate than her. The shadow of her father moved through the smoking ruins, searching. Hunting for anything that might have survived.
She had no hope.
God help her, she was only fifteen.
The smoke carried the screams and tears on the wind. Voices of the lost, the dead and damned. Families ripped apart, fools caught before they could run. There was no bumper of protection. It didn't care if you had a virtue, it cut you down all the same. Heroes and villains.
Her dad gave a shout of triumph, and quickly and evenly stepped to the doorway, proudly holding out a singed prize towards her.
She burst into tears, her teddy bear saved.
We’d love to start this month’s selection with something bright and chirpy, but the reality is that many stories dealt with serious or tragic events – as seen by young eyes. This is no exception, with the aftermath of something close to many Australians’ hearts. It uses colour and description in short punchy paragraphs to emote a sense of loss and doesn’t try to sugarcoat the reality of loss, albeit with a silver/fluffy lining at the end.
KID GLOVES by Carl Newby, QLD
“He wore an orange hood and his arms and legs were blue.”
Tyson took another sip of hot chocolate. The marshmallows bumped up against his lip. He licked the sticky, sweet moustache. He wondered if police stations all had marshmallows for little kids, or if someone went and got some for him from the store on the corner. He saw the store out the window of the car when it brought him here.
“Bumper to bumper,” the policeman driving had said.
His mum always told him to look out for things like that. She said it was like making a map, except in your head. A way to find your way home.
“Uh huh,” said the police lady. She’d said her name, but Tyson had forgotten already. He had the same problem at school. He still had teachers who had teached… taught… Who had taught him, for two years. He called them ‘miss’ or ‘sir’ which they always said was very polite. He hoped it wasn’t bad that he did it because he couldn’t remember their names. The police lady wrote down something else, even though Tyson hadn’t said anything else. The hot chocolate was real good.
“Do you remember anything else about him?” asked the police lady.
Tyson thought. “Ummm…” He grinned. He was embarrassed to say.
“It’s okay, Tyson. You can tell me.”
Okay. “He was really strong,” said Tyson, “and fast. Like – whoosh! Whoosh!” Tyson showed her, waving his arms back and forth. A splash of chocolate, jumped out of his cup and went all over the front of the T-shirt they had given him. “I’m sorry!”
The police lady reached out to him and Tyson jerked back. She wasn’t gonna hit him, but you never knew, sometimes. “Hey,” she said, quietly, like a whisper, “it’s okay. Did you burn yourself?”
Tyson looked down at the shirt. They said he could have it, like it was a prize for being brave. He still felt guilty. He ruined a lot of things. “No,” he said, as quiet as the lady had been. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… I’m bad sometimes. I don’t mean to…”
The lady took the cup away and put her hand on Tyson’s shoulder. “You’re not,” she said. Then, after a moment, “but I think you need another hot chocolate.”
Tyson grinned, “with…” he stopped, not wanting to be rude.
“With marshmallows,” she said.
“What’s he saying?” asked DeWalt.
Grace punched 3-0 on the microwave and reached for the bag of marshmallows. “Same thing as when he got here. Mother’s boyfriend, uh…” what was it, “Jollie… ‘hurt his mum’ and a ‘superhero stopped him.’”
DeWalt snorted. “A superhero.”
“Yeah,” said Grace as the microwave dinged. “Who else? Why? Were you gonna do it?”
She plopped the marshmallows into the warm milk. The kid’s clothes were in a forensics bag. Blue pyjamas. Fleecy orange hoodie vest. The knife was already in the lab. If monsters like Jollie were real, were superheroes all that impossible?
A clever trick in flash fiction is to get in late and out early. Here we see it used to great effect, as we are not shown the conflict in question but rather are picking up the pieces at the station afterwards. The dialogue is authentic, as is the narration for a child’s perspective (“real good” instead of “really good” for example). It all leads us to the second scene and the puzzle pieces of this superhero origin story fall into place. Tight storytelling that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
LEAVING PRIPYAT by Jacqueline Hautot, VIC
She remembers the impossible fire, all the colours of the rainbow, Papa says, but she mostly remembers red and blue. Mama clicks her tongue at the sight. She’s cross because the noise of all the sirens through the night kept her awake.
‘Lucky we have a good view from here, eh, Alinka,’ says Papa, who’s standing by the open window, sipping at his coffee and watching the flames from the power plant. He’s in a good mood – he’s always happier when there’s work to be done, and it looks as though there’ll be plenty of it because surely they’ll need builders on hand to fix up all those broken walls, once they get the fire out.
He’s not in such a good mood by the end of their walk to school. He drops a perfunctory good-bye kiss on Alina’s head and his mouth is in a thin line. He keeps looking around at all the policemen. None of them seem to be doing anything much except wandering around but even to Alina it feels strange to see so many of them all of a sudden.
That night she lies in bed drowsy but not yet asleep, listening to her parents talk in low, urgent voices. It slowly comes to her that something is very wrong, and she clutches her little toy rabbit to her – the one Baba has sewn for her out of an old washcloth as a prize for doing so well in school. She feels worried, but not worried enough to keep from drifting off. Her dreams feel odd, and there’s a dull metallic taste in her mouth.
The impossible fire is still burning in the morning. Papa has closed the window, even though it makes the apartment hot inside. At breakfast, Mama and Papa are grimly quiet. Papa drinks his coffee and Mama cooks an egg, and no-one says anything. Alina wants to go to the park and see her friends but Mama says no, and there’s a hissed discussion where all she catches are the words ‘danger’ and ‘radiation’ and ‘evacuate’. She understands enough to feel frightened, a lump of lead heavy in her belly.
When she looks out her bedroom window, she sees the buses. They’re parked bumper to bumper, stretching out from the centre of town. A few of the drivers are standing around, smoking and chatting. Alina can see the thin grey wisps of smoke rising from their cigarettes. It looks silly compared with the gushing black plumes coming from the towers behind them.
Mama helps her to pack a bag with clothes, underwear, her toothbrush, her papers. She wants to take her schoolbooks and her pencil box but Mama says no, there’s no room and besides, they’ll be coming back in a few days. Papa pastes a smile on his face and tries to tell Alina it’ll be just like a nice holiday with no school – but there are cracks around his smile.
She packs Baba’s toy rabbit anyway – just in case.
Anyone vaguely familiar with the events of Chernobyl will recognise what is happening here. That name is mentioned precisely zero times throughout but the title gives clues as does the eerie yet realistic description of the ‘impossible fire’. An excellent example of a child trying to make sense of what is happening around her – all while her parents (and us, the reader) feel that growing lump of lead in our own bellies. A reminder of the human stories that can so easily be lost in such events.
HAIR CHALK by Frances Prentice, QLD
‘Blue and yellow.’
Willow watched her mother’s eyes lose their unfocussed stare and turn to her. ‘Sorry, what?’
‘The colours of my hair for crazy hair day at school. I want blue and yellow. Can you buy me some hair chalk tomorrow?’
‘Hair chalk -,’ her mother murmured, ‘never heard of it.’
‘Look, just go to the Reject shop and ask for hair chalk. Holly’s mother got some there yesterday.’
‘Hair chalk,’ Willow’s mother closed her eyes. She slumped in her chair. Willow eased the vodka bottle from her limp fingers and took it to the kitchen. She contemplated tipping the dregs down the sink, but thought better of it, remembering the last time. She put the bottle in its regular spot, under the sink next to the bumper size bottle of dishwashing liquid. She wondered again why her mother even pretended to hide it.
Setting the tap to fill the sink, Willow went to her mum’s room and dragged the doona from the bed. She turned off the tap as she went back past it, and draped the doona over her mum’s inert form. Sighing, she went back to the kitchen and plunged her hands into the warm suds. Slowly scrubbing the dishes, she wondered when mum had begun to slide into the abyss that had swallowed her.
It hadn’t always been like this. She remembered when she was four, Mum at home with her singing and dancing in the loungeroom, doing art projects, creating cubbies. It was just the two of them, and they were best friends.
Then it was Willow’s first day of school, and Mum’s first day of work. She had scored a job she loved – Project Manager for a local firm. School hours. Perfect. Willow remembered how she had glowed when she came home from her first day of work, like she’d won a prize. Her boss loved her – she was so innovative, so creative.
It was good for the first few months, though the house had got pretty messy. Mum was so tired and consumed with projects she’d brought home to complete at night. She’d complained about impossible deadlines.
The light had gone out of Mum’s eyes. She’d started bringing home bottles in brown paper bags instead of piles of papers. Hot chips became a regular dinner, Willow’s mum joking about their Irish heritage.
One day, Mum had failed to come and pick up Willow. The school had called her but she hadn’t picked up. Holly’s mum had offered to take her home, and they had found her mum asleep on the couch. It turned out Mum had lost her job for failing to meet deadlines, for turning up late to meetings or forgetting them altogether.
Mum snored softly under her doona in the front room. Willow dried her hands and headed down the hallway. Some things were just too hard. Maybe she’d just borrow Holly’s hair chalk.
Unflinchingly domestic and low stakes (hair chalk from the Reject Shop), this is a study of gradual decline – the frog in the slowly boiling water. Right from the efficient opening sentence, we see Willow simply trying to navigate her school week and the quiet chaos that has become reality all around her. We get a glimpse of the ‘before’ that led to the ‘after’ but ultimately we return to where we started and an insight into many homes where children are forced to take on the parent role. The title, like the child, chooses to focus on the chalk, when the real story is clearly so much more.
A RAINBOW, EXPLAINED by Lilia Gwaeltug, USA
Red was for the sirens that grated against her eardrums, for the brown blood on her lips. The tears would come later.
Orange was the light that the inferno cast on the scene, painting everything in impossible, stark contrast. It might rage and burn now but it would die later.
Yellow was the colour of her dress, where it was not ripped or stained now. A bright yellow, like of butter. The shock would fade later.
Green was for the grass that she lay on, her small fists tightly closed around the broken seatbelt like it was her prize. The grief would pierce later.
Blue was her eyes, and the sky, and the numbness that had crept through her right arm. The screams would start later.
Indigo was the car that had plowed into their vehicle, sending pieces flying everywhere. Not far from her lay a piece of the bumper, smoldering in the baking hot sun. A tire, flung into a tree. The steering wheel, still in her frozen father's hands. Help would come later.
Violet was for now, for the waves of pain that washed over her as she lay there, her three-year-old eyes glazed over as she struggled to breath.
It would be alright, later.
Using the rainbow as a neat device to structure its narrative, this is more storm than sunshine – a brutally dark aftermath that uses repetition (“later”) to great effect and shares details in waves, much like the sense of slipping in and out of consciousness. Barely 200 words, this is still powerful storytelling that manages to span the entire spectrum of sirens, shock and sorrow.
GREEN by Alison Hooker, QLD
When I was young, our garden was my secret place, the espaliered apple trees forming leafy green tunnels I could sneak through unseen as I wound my way to the Lilac Cave and the Blackcurrant Bush Camp down by the Land of the Back Fence.
But then builders arrived in the adjacent paddock and an ugly brick structure daily loomed larger against the setting sun, its long shadows slithering uninvited into the hidden recesses of my dusky world.
This imposing monstrosity morphed into a pristine town house with brightly polished red-tile steps. The Rhubarb Queen announced we had new neighbours. Her voice lowered as she intimated the delicious scandal that, ‘the Revels own a betting shop’ and had two boys.
Hmmm… after the recent chicken and the egg lessons at school, my curiosity had become piqued by the loud and obstreperous behaviour of these dirty aliens. And now there were two living immediately next door!
Our once genteel street exploded into a bumper noise fest, the hooting and hollering accompanied by the explosive crunch and swoosh of displaced gravel on the unmade road. Bottle-cap enhanced wheels whizzed up and down concrete driveways and clattered as mounts were discarded into untidy heaps.
But the most intriguing sounds emanated from the fort-like lean-to behind the Revels’ garage. Muffled scuffles, whistles, excited shouts; the banging of clumsy boys tumbling inside or out; occasional tinny blasts of bubble-gum music from a tranny radio: – clearly Steve and Kenny had A GANG!
I prickled with envy. What a prize to have a clubhouse!
But it was impossible to wheedle the password out of Kenny!
When Kenny took my tournament-winning conker without revealing the password in return, I decided to act, and fronted up at the clubhouse door. Scraping noises came from within, then a pop and rustle like crisp packets opening.
I knocked forcibly on the door.
I knocked again.
It opened a crack. ‘What?’
‘I want my conker back. Let me in.’
‘Don’t know the password.’
‘Don’t care. Let me in.’
Door slammed. Muffled urgent conversation.
‘You can come in. But you have to show us yer bum.’
Without thinking, I pushed my way inside and was immediately surrounded by Kenny and his smug mates. My courage wavered momentarily but I braced myself, focused instead on the battered back of the door… and then determinedly pulled down my shorts.
Time hung in silence. Dust motes danced in the heavy afternoon sunlight streaming down from the window above.
‘Ugh! Yuck-y!’ Someone clapped his hands over his mouth. Another one giggled. Then they were all squealing, pushing past me and falling over each other to tumble out of the door, racing to reclaim their abandoned steeds.
‘Where’s her dick?’
‘Girls don’t have one!’
The air suffocated me.
I felt conflicted, the dust motes floating into a confusion of red as I tidied my clothes. I had achieved the prize…. But somehow lost a secret of my own…
This plays out like a story of two halves – the first an all too familiar scene of make-believe, where as a child every garden becomes a magical kingdom filled with leafy tunnels and fantastical characters (Rhubarb Queen, anyone?). But when the new arrivals next door turn out to be ‘aliens’, it morphs to a Little Rascals-esque clubhouse initiation of sorts. A wonderfully described age – where everything is changing and everyone is a little green. (Clever title!)
NOT TONIGHT by Kelly Doyle, NSW
The blue and red flashing lights reflected off the crumpled bumper of Andy’s car. It was a bit of overkill, surely, having this many police officers in attendance. What would it accomplish? I glanced over at two of them, heads bowed in deep conversation. I caught the words, “only 15”. I sheepishly looked away and surveyed the rest of the scene. Lessons were going to be learned. Hard ones.
But not tonight.
I don’t really know why I took Andy’s car. Boredom? Maybe. Jealousy? Probably. It was impossible not to envy my older brother. As long as I could remember, he’d been the star of the show, excelling in almost everything he tried. Andy scored trophy after trophy, while I got participation awards. He was the kid shooting hoops for giant toys at the Easter Show while Mum and Dad made sure I played the games where every child wins a prize. I looked around for Andy, but he hadn’t arrived yet. I cringed at the thought of how mad he was going to be.
But not tonight.
I didn’t even want to think of the fury that would be etched on Dad’s face. He was looking older these days, thanks in part to the worry I always caused, according to him. And Mum? She wasn’t going to be furious like Dad. She could never be furious with me. She would be… disappointed. And every kid knows that’s way worse. Was that their car trying to get past the barrier up the road? I strained to see but the headlights were too bright. Not like the obliterated headlights of Andy’s car. Maybe he was with them? I wondered if his night out with his mates was interrupted. And Mum and Dad were supposed to be having a date night. Oh, there would be fury all right. There would be disappointment.
But not tonight.
The ambulance officer had stopped talking to me. That was a shame, because she’d been keeping me calm. But I suppose she needed to get on with her job. Her partner wasn’t as friendly, shaking his head most of the time. I guess he was in the “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” camp. Like I’d intended to swerve for a dog and slam the car into a power pole. I heard him sigh again. No doubt he was going to rant and rave at his own kids about the perils of joyriding.
But not tonight.
I heard the screams before I saw her, running from the car that had been stopped by the police up the street. I looked down again and watched as the officers held her back from where I still sat, slumped over the wheel. She’d once told me I could never understand the love of a mother.
Yes, the anger would come. Yes, there would be disappointment. But not tonight. Tonight there would only be grief.
Another bold and tragic scene through the eyes of a youngster (this time it’s a teenager). And once more, it picks up in the aftermath – with our child protagonist clearly at fault and piecing their way through the details. Clever use of repetition (“not tonight”) keeps the small insights connected and while the ending is ambiguous, there is a feeling that the clues sprinkled throughout mean our narrator could be the last one to find out the tragic reality. A good example of not going heavy on exposition and letting your reader come along for ‘the ride’.
AN END, A BEGINNING by TJ Edwards, NSW
My new mother laid me down inside the nursery, a room entirely shades of whites and greys. I watched the mobile spin a lion, an elephant, and a zebra while Greensleeves played softly as she left the room. This was it. The big prize at the end. I lay swaddled, a baby burrito; warm, comfortable, and loved.
If you’d asked me back then I’d have told you, you were crazy. Reincarnation? Ridiculous. How does one get from this life to the next? Of course, now it seems so simple. The crossing of the river Styx? Death itself? Real in their own regards. But laying here as memories of my former life played out and dissolved was unsettling. This was a fresh start, maybe I’d avoid making the same mistakes.
Maybe I’d be better.
Maybe… I wouldn’t.
Memories passed in a haze, broken down into a highlight reel of moments of consequence from my earliest memory. In trouble for talking back to my father. Beaten for stealing. I felt my tiny voice crack as I relived the abuse at the hands of my uncle. There were no words for what he’d done, and there were no words here, just my infinitesimal cries.
I quickly regained my composure as my new mother opened the door an inch to check on me. Satisfied that I’d calmed down, the door closed, and the reel continued.
The early alcohol abuse. The violent clash with my mother. My father tossing me to the curb. The homelessness. The abandon. The sheer hopelessness. I stifled a cry, but I rolled back and forth, kicking against my muslin cocoon and thrashing against what came next. I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t need to see it, but it was impossible to look away.
I reached down, turning up ‘Highway To Hell’ by AC/DC as it blared over the radio. An ironic choice in retrospect. My knees controlled the wheel of the car, so I could hold the lighter beneath my crack pipe. I knew how I’d paid for the drugs and it wasn’t with money. The open windows of the car kept putting the flame out, but still, I persisted.
A curve in the road.
I clutched the wheel, spun it, and overcompensated.
The grill was silver. The bumper said ‘Mack’.
The sound was deafening.
The taste was metallic.
The smell was soiled.
The pain was that of a thousand suns, over in an instant that felt like an eternity.
There was light.
There was dark.
There was death.
But then… there was life.
With a sudden gasp, I reached out, crying, screaming into the abyss. Hands in the darkness held me, a voice cooed, and I awoke on my new mother’s breast.
The memory faded as she picked me up from my cot, bouncing me up and down as she whispered softly. I cried then, letting go of a life best remembered as a life not even half lived.
As if providing the sequel to the last story, this one cleverly explores the idea of reincarnation – with a chance to let go of the previous one while coming to terms with new surroundings. We see the term “my new mother” as our baby gets used to their surroundings – unsettling at first but using an adult-like consciousness for the baby makes sense as we understand this is second chance at life. It’s an intriguing thought that we might all be born with a fading memory of our former life, but with no way to communicate it!
LAST NIGHT AT THE VIDEO KING by Natalie Clair, UK
“Three Colours- Red or Blue?” Alex leaned back in the creaking office chair and folded his arms behind his head.
“Blue, obviously.” Anna flicked the string over on her cat’s cradle. She tapped the shelf beside her and pushed the tapes over. Horror. Three video cassettes left; the dying days of Amicus hadn’t tempted anyone in the blow-out sale. “Won a bunch of prizes too.”
“Oh, now ya testing me!” He pulled a Micro Machine X-Wing from the cash register and flew it through the air. “OK, Breathless.”
“Too easy! At least go for something like Vivre sa vie. Impress those high school kids.” She gulped, a blaze of nervous heat filled her. “OK. What about…” Anna stood up and skipped around the shelves. The lightbulb flickered overhead. Less than an hour to go until midnight and final closure. The power could cut out at any minute, Video King’s corporate office had a reputation for penny-pinching. The X-Wing plummeted to the floor beside her. “OK Mr. Star Wars. Bumper round. War, Crime & Kids- what’s your favourite?”
While he decided, Anna tapped her Mary Jane’s on the floor and looked at the Yoda-shaped coffee stain on the linoleum floor. It had been there ever since her first visit.
“No way, really?” She climbed up the empty shelf and looked over at him. “Gotta give Cary Elwes his due, that was some comeback in Saw.”
“Not really? The guy was still working- you just never noticed.”
The soft drink fridge clicked off.
“Guess the green tea's stuck here forever now, huh,” Alex said.
She hopped off the shelf and ran to the back. A standee of a badly-drawn Pocahontas leaned against the bright pink shelving. Underneath it, the abandoned Tamagotchi chucked by Lisa Lee during a tantrum. A spider scuttled across the top and up the wall. What was her first video rental? The Lion King? Lining up for Titanic, holding the double cassette set like it was the holy grail.
“You know it’s impossible, right?” Alex walked up behind her. “With Netflix, DVD, all those online guys- it’s a miracle Video King kept going as it is.”
The photo wall of employees. Her sister’s was the most recent, a Cheshire grin with braces and a mohawk.
“Besides, Big Sis up there needs that key back so, uh, maybe we should go.”
It was everything. The stale popcorn, squashed-in gum, and anticipation of movie night. Life.
“What was yours?” she asked, grabbing for his arm.
“First, your first video?”
Caught mid-stride, Alex held onto the wall. “I dunno, probably Disney or something. Come on.” A car cruised past outside, its headlights strafing the room. “See? Probably security or something, now give me the key.”
Electricity fizzed through the overhead lighting and snapped off. Bathed in darkness, Anna watched Alex walk through the store and slam the key into the door. She turned back to Pocahontas and pushed her over.
“Coming,” she called.
This month dredged up a lot of nostalgic stories – many set in the ‘70s or ‘80s, but here we see a more modern death knell as the doors close on a tradition many over the age of 30 will look back fondly on. Filled with big and small details of a dying empire, we watch like a fly on the wall (or a movie poster!) as Anna and Alex deliver the last rites to not just a store but a way of life. It’s hard not to get caught up in the relatable energy as the lights go out for the final time. Rest in peace, Friday night video-renting rituals!
THE CALL by Al McKillop, NSW
The newly painted red telephone box stood out like a pubescent pimple about to explode on the drab, grey concrete face of the Glasgow housing estate. This incongruous explosion of colour had attracted quite a crowd, even on such a cold morning.
Danny stood in front of the door, defiantly refusing others entry. His green and white hooped football shirt gave away both his allegiance to his team and the church that his family aligned to. It was unlikely he had ever seen the inside of a chapel, but the Catholic tribe stuck together here and he felt safe displaying his colours.
That didn’t stop the others standing around him teasing and goading.
“Come on ya wee turd let us in, I need to phone the Pope to get the lottery numbers for tonight’s bumper prize!” The other boys laughed at their ring-leader’s attempt at a joke.
Danny didn’t move, his expression set, facing up to his adversary who was considerably bigger than him. “Ye cannae use the phone Alex, I’m waiting on a call. Yer no’ getting’ in until my dad calls me.”
“Yer dad’s in the jail – how’s he going to call you? That’s impossible!” Alex took a step forward, pulling himself up to his full height to try to intimidate Danny.
“He’s going to call me, he promised he would call today and this is the only phone number he knows. Leave me alone and there’ll be no trouble.”
Alex laughed and moved even closer to Danny. “Trouble?” he sneered. “The only trouble there’ll be today is you trying to phone an ambulance after I’ve smashed your face in. Now, get outta my road, I need to use that phone.”
Danny stood still and slowly put one hand behind his back. “You’re no’ using it until I’ve spoken to my dad,” he repeated.
Alex grunted and quickly stepped forward, raising an arm to push Danny out the way. As quickly as Alex moved, Danny brought his hand from behind him. A blade flashed and quickly disappeared into the side of the bigger boy.
Alex reached down to his side, his hand trying to cover the wound that was pumping blood onto his shirt. He silently fell to the ground and the crowd scattered to the sanctuary of their tower blocks.
Danny just stood there impassively watching the red blood pool around the concrete base of the red telephone box.
The ring of the telephone broke the silence.
“Told you he would call.”
Danny turned round, opened the door, stepped inside and lifted the receiver without another glance at Alex. He smiled as he heard his dad’s distant voice on the phone.
“Hey son, how are you?”
“Hello Dad. They didn’t believe me when I told them you would call. You always call on my birthday.”
“Happy birthday Danny, a teenager now, eh? Hope you’re being a good boy?”
Danny smiled to himself. “The best, Dad, always the best.”
Set back in a time before mobile phones, you can feel the Trainspotting-style energy of this bleak birthday blocks ‘n’ box scene. With red blood matching the shiny red telephone box, it’s an insight into the day-to-(birth)day reality of many who grow up in such a place. The details and dialogue help you to picture the scene with ease.
UNTITLED by Lydia Terry, QLD
When his eyes go red and her face turns white, that's my cue to leave. I wonder why they stay together, when all they want is to tear each other apart. Are the vows they made before I was born so binding? Is it so bad to walk away?
Away. Hide. Escape. What I've learned to do, for the fifteen years I’ve been alive. Two more years before I can leave for real.
When I was small, I'd crawl under the dining table and watch their faceless silhouettes collide. That way, they could be anyone. Not my parents. The space beneath the table soon became too small and too vast, so it was my bedroom I sought solace in – undercover, where I could pretend anything beyond the blanket didn't exist.
But the blanket grew too thin. The outside world started penetrating through. I sought the sturdier confines of my wardrobe, which is where I find myself now. Here, I imagine I can access Narnia: behind these wooden panels is another world that can swallow me up and never spit me out. Where the impossible is possible and the pretend becomes real.
Except, the world behind wood does not let me in. Instead, I find my escape through an old shoebox. There, my hands feel for a familiar shape. A pack of cigarettes, stolen from a desk in a forgotten room.
Sometimes, when I light these cigarettes, I imagine my wardrobe catching fire and spreading and burning everything down: this family, this house, all the prized possessions within it. Nothing left of anything, but ash.
Engulfed in smoke and imagination, I perform the ritual. In, and out, and peace. Release. When only the cigarette bumper remains, I slip the bumper into an old pickle jar which still has streaks of sticker residue that hint at his favourite brand. The jar is nearly half full. Or half empty, depending who’s to judge.
With each rising centimetre of cigarette carcasses, I feel myself falling deeper into the outstretched arms of lung cancer. The very cancer that took him, my favourite person, away. These cigarettes are the last thread tying me to my Pop. They transport me back to a time and place where things were okay. They are the smell of him, the comforting embrace of him.
I wonder if they’d notice me then. If I got cancer. I wonder if they’d pretend to like each other, knowing my time was limited. They pretended back then, when Pop was dying. Always pretended, in front of him. They – we – were happy together. And so Pop died, never doubting the genre of our lives could be anything but fantasy.
Is that what I want? For them to pretend? I look at the books stacked beside the shoebox. Endless worlds of escape I thought could save me. I look at them now and I think they are cruel. Would a make-believe life hurt less than the truth? Would running away guarantee I’ll never be chased?
In some children’s stories, wardrobes do indeed provide a portal through to a fantasy world and an escape of sorts. But here, it’s an escape of a different kind, as our unnamed 15-year-old protagonist seeks refuge (once the blanket grew too thin) within its confines with a found packet of cigarettes and its clouds of smoke among the mirrors. Told with a claustrophobic but relatable teenage inner voice, it’s a powerful and unsweetened take on a child’s perspective of domestic decline.
CONFETTI AND BALLOONS by Elizabeth Gonzalez, VIC
Is it going to be blue or pink? What do you think? What do you thiiiiiiiiink?’
I roll my eyes. Again.
Mum is talking in a silly, singing, childish voice, in the way you might talk to a toddler, or a puppy. None here. Just friends and family, all attending this stupid party in which a big revelation is about to happen. My parents want to share with the world if they’re having a boy or a girl.
Honestly, why are we even here? Who invented these gender revealing parties? Or whatever they’re called.
Pop would understand. He’d be rolling his eyes just like me. I miss him; he’s cool. He calls me Wednesday, like the girl from the Addams family, because he says I’m cynical and smart. I always thought I was adopted. That’d explain so much.
It’s good to see Mum smiling, though. She’s been a pain for so long, when she was having all those annoying treatments, trying to get pregnant, her mood swings terrifying. At least that’s over and she’s happy for now. Until the baby is born, I guess.
Is it too late to call Pop? It’s not like he can come to my rescue. But just hearing his voice would be awesome.
A few months ago, he won this amazing prize, like the lottery or something. He didn’t become an instant millionaire or anything, but just enough for him to do something like, really, really great.
He wanted to buy a huge four-wheel drive, all new and shiny, with a silver bumper at the front, to go and explore the Outback. But somehow, Dad talked him out of it. Saying it was dangerous, the carbon emission, a man of his age and blah blah blah. So, he decided to travel to South America instead, and he’s there now, exploring the lost treasures of the Incas.
I’m like, so jealous. I got to stay here, pretending to be interested in school – which I’m not…dah- but at 14, I still can’t decide where to go and what to do without parent supervision, or advice, or whatever. And even worse, my parents expect me to help when the baby is born? Yeah, not happening. Babies are gross. They smell and cry and poo and never sleep when they should. I mean, how can I relax, chill, or even pretend to study, when there’s a small person screaming for whatever reason? That’s just impossible.
Mum hushes us all and says it’s time. And suddenly it’s raining confetti from within the balloons. What happened? Because the confetti are blue AND pink. That's weird.
Mum and Dad are laughing. ‘Surprise, it’s twins! You didn’t expect that, right? Hahaha!’
Wait…WHAT?? Like, t-two babies? Two? TWO BABIES?? Oh no. Oh no no no no no no no. Like, I’m going to Peru right now. Or anywhere else. Until the babies are, like, 15 years old.
Welcome to the inner thoughts of a 14-year-old – one that is struggling with the imminent arrival of a sibling (or two). Told with a naive yet believable voice, it’s equal parts moan and derision, such is the lens with which teenagers view the world – and in this case, the modern practice of gender reveal parties. As for the final twist – it’s the salty icing on this grumpy blue and pink cake!
2004 by Elio É. Choquette, Canada
I fell in love the first time I saw her, in the pink and blue glow of the first dance of sophomore year. I’d never been in love before, but I knew there was something different about her from the other girls in my class, my friends, anyone I’d ever met.
I immediately knew she was like me. It felt impossible that I could know something so personal just from looking at her. But I just did, so viscerally it ached.
I was drawn to her in a way I’d never experienced with anyone before. It was magnetic and left a metallic taste in my mouth. She was wearing a black suit with an untucked shirt, her long dark hair — like mine but less curly — in a low ponytail. I didn’t know what I wanted from her. Did I want to be her or be with her?
I was wearing a dress I hated, but my mom had insisted, because it was “what proper young ladies” wore. I didn’t want to be a “proper young lady.” I had never really felt like a girl, no matter how hard I tried. It just never felt right. Femininity didn’t come naturally to me.
But I didn’t know what I wanted to be. Not a girl, but not a boy either. I hated boys my age, I didn’t want to be like them. It was like I was a boy without actually being one. But I always played boys in school plays and homemade films my sister and I made with the video camera we had saved all summer to buy. 2004 was a great year for us; we made films out of everything, every book, every movie we liked.
Once, while we were wandering around pretending to be secret agents, we found an old car in a ditch. We took its rusty bumper for our newest endeavor, a Jurassic Park-inspired comedy. Of course I played the “beau” in it, wearing my dad’s shirts and the cowboy hat my best friend had given me for my birthday.
Somehow she was right next to me. I couldn’t move, speak, breathe; I was on fire and drowning at the same time, like when I had won first prize during a swimming competition.
“Thanks, I hate it,” I replied before I could stop myself.
She laughed. “If it helps, my mom wanted me to wear one too, I changed in the bathroom.”
“Wish I’d thought of that.”
“Next time,” she winked, moving towards the dancefloor, mischief written all over her face.
“Wanna get out of here?”
And before I knew it, I was following the girl whose name I didn’t know, who was wearing clothes I wanted, whose hand was in mine. We ran away from the kids dancing awkwardly, through the back door, laughing too much to speak, but not needing to.
And in that moment, I simply knew we’d never need words to understand each other deeper than anyone could.
The flush of young love was told many times in stories this month – and this example seems to capture that confusion and excitement well. An attraction so magnetic that it leaves a metallic taste; not knowing if you want to be someone or be WITH them – these and other clever insights slowly lift the veil on our protagonist’s thoughts and questions about her own desires. Innocent in its coming-of-age staging, it is well paced and well observed.
A GIRL, A DOG AND A GREEN TORANA CALLED REX by Sheree-Anne Matheson, VIC
Rex, my brother Ned’s green Torana, sat under a sad grey tarp in our shed.
At fifteen, surviving the big dry is the only life I’ve known.
“Work smart, not hard” and “Make your own fun” were family mottos I used to justify taking the key to my brother, Ned’s prized possession.
I was supposed to take Dad’s old ute, to check the mail, just as Dad and I normally did together, but Dad was tired.
On the farm, the summer’s heat made the half-kilometre trek down the driveway virtually impossible.
I begged him to let me go by myself.
“Just to the mailbox and back, you hear me, Nell?”
It’d been twelve months since Rex’s key left its hook. A week after taking Rex for a run, a fatal bull ride took Ned.
I strode out the back door, key in hand, waking Sammy from her afternoon siesta.
The red kelpie sprang to her paws.
Nipping at my clenched hand between barks, Sammy followed me to the shed.
Rex sat under a sad grey tarp.
I peeled it away and Rex’s pristine body glistened.
Sammy jumped onto the passenger seat and waited; drool dripped from her pink tongue. I half-skipped around to the driver’s side and climbed in.
Hearing the motor for the first time in twelve months, I teared up.
Spinning tyres stirred up the dust. Leaving foresight behind in its thick cloud, Rex rolled down the driveway.
Both sitting upright, Neither Sammy nor I took our eyes off the track. I gripped the wheel tight.
At the gate, I opened the door. Sammy rose.
I should’ve gone straight to the mailbox, but I wasn’t ready to return Rex to the shed.
I unlatched the gate, lifted its peg from the ground and pushed it open.
Back behind the wheel, I eased through the gate and continued out to the bitumen road.
The skinny stretch ahead was eight hundred metres of perfection.
“It’s okay, girl.”
Out here, too far for highway patrol to bother, we rarely see more than the odd car having taken a wrong turn.
I pushed the accelerator flat.
The steering wheel shook in my hands, but squealing, I held them steady as we roared full-pelt down the road.
Sammy cowered; her snout concealed under her front paws.
I didn’t see the cow until it was too close to ignore.
I swerved into the long grass, tried to straighten up, then braked.
Rex’s brakes locked. The back wheels slid to the left.
I closed my eyes…
A fence post to the rear sent Sammy scampering into my lap as my head hit the window.
I opened my eyes. Guilt and relief washed over me.
Sammy followed me as I wobbled around the car. The bumper hung beneath a busted taillight.
My hands shook as I nursed Rex back to the shed and put the tarp back over.
“Sorry, Ned,” I whispered.
Can you get more Aussie than the title of this story? It immediately sets the scene; a sunburnt country with no rain in sight and farms so big that you need to take a roadtrip to check the mailbox. It’s been a year since Nell’s big brother left and this desire to take ‘Rex’ for a bigger ride seems to be about more, a way to process grief. Engaging and direct, there is a real sense of place about this piece – authentic in its full-pelt, accelerator-flat intentions as it slides the grey tarp off dusty memories and deals with loss in a truly rural way.
COLOURFUL by Connery Brown, NSW
Maybe I should’ve known the red tree and green fire truck would’ve given the game away. My drab little secret that I saw the world differently.
‘Are you colourblind Matthew Grey?’
‘Then why is your tree red?’
It was a fine tree – a chunky brown trunk reaching out lithe tanned limbs clutching clumps of leaves. Evidently, red. Though, apart from the leaves which I’d intended to be green, this was a splendid tree for a seven-year-old to have drawn.
‘The tree miss, is on fire.’
‘Really? On fire?’
‘Yes miss. It was struck by lightning.’
‘Well, let’s hope the fire doesn’t spread,’ Miss Brown the teacher muttered as she continued doing the rounds of her class, Two-Green.
That was when I added the fire engine.
Peering over my shoulder, she said, ‘I’m not saying it’s impossible Matthew Grey, but then it’s not very likely, is it? Have you ever seen a green fire truck?’
Miss Brown took Dad aside when he came to pick me up after school.
‘Is Matthew colourblind Mr Grey?’
Dad noticed my drawing, ‘Wow – the fire brigade to the rescue! Now that’s what I call a masterpiece. This little beauty will take pride of place in my office.’
Driving home, Dad quizzed me on the colours of EVERYTHING. We were stopped at the traffic lights.
‘What do you call that colour Matt?’
‘And now the light has changed, what colour is it?’
‘Do the colours look different?’
‘Then how can you tell them apart?’
‘Red’s on the bottom, green’s on top, and orange is in between.’
We were beeped by the car behind, as the top light still glowed. Green for Go. The impatient driver overtook us with a roar as we approached the next set of traffic lights.
‘Now Matt, quick! What colour is that?’
‘Orange. Now red.’
Dad mustn’t have seen the red brake lights of the impatient car flare before us, because we stopped with a jolt and a crunch. As dad reversed, we tore off the front car’s rear bumper bar.
Let’s just say, some colourful language was exchanged. As I suppose were insurance details. And as you can imagine, Mum was unimpressed, especially when Dad blamed his own colour blindness.
‘Bringing home the odd bunch of green bananas is one thing, but this …’, she said, waving at the mangled car in the driveway, ‘… is something else entirely.’
Months later, Dad took me to the local library, he said for a surprise. He’d secretly entered my drawing into an art competition, and I was awarded a prize. Well, a fancy certificate which Dad read as we moseyed to the corner milk bar to celebrate: ‘To Matthew Grey, for letting us see the world differently.’
Dad bought us each a bottle of soft drink. Lime-flavoured we thought, but the fizzy beverage tasted more like raspberry. Clinking our bottles together, Dad toasted, ‘To Matt Grey, may you live a long and colourful life!’
Filled with mismatched colours and lots of questions, this story triumphs in its display of a parent’s love – being able to see beyond what some might call a deficiency and celebrate it as a strength. Through gentle, authentic dialogue, this mutual bond between father and son is slowly revealed and proves that even with a name like ‘matt grey’ you can lead a colourful life!
HOPE CROWS by Heidi Couvee, ACT
The heavy black sky was backlit by a tangerine glow. Alice ran, her heart beating a steady rhythm while the lick and hiss of the flames sang an eerie melody. She tripped on a log, briefly airborne before her feet found the ground again. Far behind her, the prize rooster wailed to his frightened flock. She’d managed to throw open the gate before she left so at least they’d have a chance.
By her side, Nipper kept pace. ‘C’mon boy, nearly there. It’s just like that time you raced me at the cross country. Remember that? You ran so fast!’ Somehow, talking out loud made her feel a little better so she went on. ‘And remember that bumper crop of pumpkins last year? Pretty different to this year, hey boy?’ She glanced to see him foaming at the mouth, the whites of his bulging eyes full of terror.
They reached the dusty fire trail and turned east. Her lungs were searing, the acrid smoke burning her throat. Through tearful eyes, she saw the approaching shine of headlights. Could it be real? She stopped and waved frantically as the little specks of light quickly became a red hatchback. Mrs Cowper flung open the door. ‘Alice Parkes, you get in this second!’ She was sobbing as she watched the young girl and the scruffy dog scramble into the backseat. “Buckle up, it’s gunna be a wild ride!’ She sped into the smoky haze.
The evacuation centre at the surf club was packed. People had the vacant look she had seen so often on the news, now she was the news. She scanned the crowd frantically. ‘Mum! Mum?’ She screamed again and again, her voice cracking. She held Nipper tight as panic started to set in. A burly old policeman strode over and put his big, calloused hand on her shoulder. ‘Hey, love. Who are you lookin’ for. Too young to be here all alone aren’t ya?’
‘I can’t find my mum,’ she said. ‘We got separated and I ran.’ The old policeman led her gently through the pulsating throng of humanity and as she sank to the ground, he eased his old legs down and sat next to her despite the fight his knees put up. His heart broke.
Across the room, mum’s eyes were frantically scanning the crowd for Alice. Like an eagle, she spotted the mop of tangled blonde hair, the crooked teeth and the gangly legs. Those legs that looked like they could snap at any second but that loved to race. Mum’s own legs powered her through the bubbling mass of people and she grabbed Alice like a vice. ‘My darling girl, I love you, I love you!’ Mum’s salty tears dripped onto Alice’s smoke-stained face. ‘You’re OK, we’re OK.’ Outside, the fire raged on.
Looking up at the burning night sky, the future seemed almost impossible. But Alice, in that magical way of children, was full of hope. As dawn broke, a prize rooster crowed.
Not for the first time this month, we are surrounded once more by the chaos and confusion of bush fire season. But this time it’s not the aftermath – rather Alice and her dog are on the front lines, running for their lives. The visceral description of the ‘black sky backlit by a tangerine glow’ tells you all you need to know – and while the word ‘fire’ is only mentioned once near the end, the cues are clear throughout. The ‘pulsating throng of humanity’ at the surf club is captured well and the final ray of hope provides a gentle call back to the start – as a new day begins, in more ways than one.
THE BOOBY PRIZE by Immy Mohr, NSW
Creamy white and peachy pink. My two favourite colours in one amazing place. Soft and squishy pillows full to the bumper with milk. My milk. I lean back to get a better look and nod. Yep. Definitely the best. Completely impossible to beat.
“He's looking at them the same way I do.” That's my Dad. Don't know what he's smirking about. I wouldn't be smirking if I had a pair of hairy, useless boobs. That's probably where booby prize comes from. I've been ignoring him ever since I found out about his fakery.
“Stop it, he'll hear you!” That's my Mum, she’s glaring at Dad and her face is bright red like a strawberry. I'm not meant to have eaten one yet but Dad snuck me one once. Before he betrayed me.
Mum moves, and the cushiony skin ripples under my fingers, reminding me why I'm here. With a gurgling laugh I face plant onto my beloved milk jugs. My Mum tries to help, but I've got this. I don't need anyone's help. I'm a big boy now, I've even got my first tooth to prove it. Huh, I wonder if that'll help the milk flow faster?
“Fuuuuuuuuudge me!” My Mum's entire body spasms away from me. “Right, that's it, I'm done. We're weaning!”
I clench my jaw tighter because I don't like the sound of what she's saying.
“Don't bite it off!” She angles her finger into the side of my mouth. Does she think I was born yesterday? I bite down harder. “Oi, let go you little piranha!”
I look up at my Mum, who's grimacing with tears welling in her eyes. I smile, nipple still firmly wedged between my gums. She strokes her hand over my head and coos. Oh yeah, I've got her wrapped around my little finger.
She shifts and cradles me tighter, both arms cocooning me, one hand rhythmically patting my nappied butt. I relax my jaw and Mum's body loosens. “Sleep little baby…” she croons softly under her breath. I close my eyes and snuggle in, one arm tucked around her side, the other hand creeping across to the other boob where I can twist, pull, stretch and yank to my heart's content because both of Mum's hands are stuck holding me, so she can't stop me. Plus, I'm about to fall asleep, right?
I like to let Mum think I'm almost asleep. I can be all floppy and breathing deeply, but the moment she moves, I open my eyes. Surprise! I was just pretending.
Mum loves that game. She's getting pretty good at it too, sometimes she stays so still, I actually do fall asleep. Then I wake up in my cot with no memory of how I got there and boy does that make me angry.
Not as angry as I am at Dad and his duplicitous nipples though.
Ahhh yes, the perspective of the baby – and in this case the breastfeeding specimen’s mini inner-monologue! It turns out that they aren’t simply cute lumps of limited consciousness but scheming one-toothed milk-hounds, intent on squeezing out every last drop. The perspective of dad’s ‘fakery’ with his ‘hairy useless boobs’ was a highlight!
TURQUOISE FOR PATIENCE AND ORANGE FOR VIOLENCE by Grandma Smillew, Poland
The Aliens were turquoise and orange. Ryan hated these colors but loved aliens, so he did the impossible and forgot about the bad to focus on the good. That day Ryan made a giant leap toward becoming an adult and recognizing the world's complexity. He understood that to achieve his dream of becoming a NASA scientist, he would need to learn the art of compromise. Today was his first lesson and maybe his ticket to be part of NASA's next summer program. Ryan decided to collect data for his report.
“Where are you from?” He asked.
“You wouldn't understand.”
“Try me. I got the first prize at the science fair last month.”
“It's impossible. You're too young. Your brain doesn't have enough neurons.”
“But I'm eleven already! And I didn't say anything about your hideous colors. Turquoise and orange.” Ryan shook his head in disgust. He wasn't proud of his mean comment, but Ryan was still a child. Surely, the alien would understand.
Unfortunately for him, what the aliens lacked in patience, they made up in violence. They tore off the front bumper of Ryan's father's car and crushed the kid's brain. Ryan died instantly, but his ghost got the satisfaction of seeing Aliens counting his neurons and realizing they were wrong. With 86 billion in his brain, Ryan had enough neurons to understand where the aliens came from – even with a billion dedicated to hating turquoise and orange.
Sometimes it’s okay to be a little silly, and this story decides to do just that – with a delightful set up that suggests all manner of outcomes before abruptly ending it all! Unfortunately for poor Ryan, he didn’t read the room quite as well as he thought (the arrogance of youth!) and those aliens had a little too much orange, not enough turquoise. A good example of sometimes simply not needing all 500 words to say what you need to say!
DANCING GIRL by Zacharey Jane, NSW
The air smells of afternoon sun in tones of lemon and peach, those sweet colours that coat me. As I navigate across my room I run a hand down my face, from forehead to lips, inhaling the sun on my fingers. My hands brush the bedroom walls as I walk and they are warm, like cinnamon. One, two, three, four…I've arrived. It takes four steps. Sometimes I notice that I’m counting, sometimes I don't.
Reaching out I find the handle: it’s smooth, warm and round. I open the door. A slight pulse of air across my face, warmer: chocolate and spice, the taste of age, the feel of a favourite pillow, the colour indigo…what I imagine is indigo.
I reach up to count along the spine of the hanging rail, each vertebrae distinct. Number Six today, a rustle of anticipation as I slowly take her down into my arms. The sequins feel scaly as I smooth her skirts, skirts rough to touch with a weight that hangs on my hips and centres me when I turn, a bodice that makes me inhale as I am zipped. I love how close Six holds me.
She slips from her hanger with a swoosh of lavender: the plant that grows down the pathway at Grandma's, the chemical Mum uses to fix the tulle.
I close the wardrobe door and lean against it, hearing the reassuring clunk as the catch re-engages. The glass is warm against my bare back: it must be after three. Home-from-school cars are passing in the street below and on cue three car doors slam, as Mandy-from-next-door arrives with the boys. Outside, when we were small, I could tell Max from Alex by their hands upon me as we played, and the way Max smelled sweaty but Alex always smelled of warm, salty biscuits. Now it's only their voices I can touch. I wonder if they miss me, too.
I run my right hand to the cut edge of Number Six’s skirt and turn her upside-down. My left hand snakes through her gusseted interior to find an arm hole as a pivot point. Then up she goes, up and over my head with a swoosh and a swing and I am lost in an impossible forest of memory, of dance class before the world faded, of the smell of dark green in what goes unsaid when I ask for more than my parents think I can manage, of a glittering prize that calls to me whenever I turn my face to the sun and imagine something less dark behind the eyes. As Six cascades over me I am deafened momentarily by her rustling cries, her carnival parade of fabric jostling down my body, her boisterous bumper car of joy like it’s me and Dad behind the wheel and I can’t drive because I was only five and I can’t see because I am me, but Number Six doesn’t care – she is free and she knows we're going dancing tonight.
Dripping with a deep well of descriptive goodness, this mid-afternoon wardrobe rendezvous reads like a human encounter, such are the cues and personification of Number Six, with all its sequins, zips, rustling cries and bodiced curves. Unapologetic in its mission simply to find the perfect dress for dancing, this story leans fully into the sounds and smells to create a scene that’s engaging and exciting within its closeted confines – masterclass of sensory storytelling.
SHE’S 14 by Faith Pollard, WA
She’s 14 and all she can see is the blue and beige of the horizon. All it seems to do is bleed, especially the way the one tree stands alone on the hill. A bird arrives, a flurry of green confusion, rummaging amongst the air in the hallway, trying to escape through the windows that have suddenly appeared. All the kids jeer. Call it stupid. They open the largest window so that it finds its way home. She walks back to class. She feels the concrete and bricks conspiring to suffocate whatever life they touch.
She’s 14 and all she seems to be filled with is this sense of impossible. Nothing stimulates her as she keeps ticking the certificates off like a checklist. She imagines one day she will have her name placed on that golden wall, with plaques like small bumper stickers. An ATAR of higher than 90. But that is not a goal. Not a prize she must strive for. Simply a coincidence it feels. She can’t see the purpose in any of this. She reads books to quell the disquiet in her bones. She’s restless. One day she will be free. Waiting for the years to pass until she is allowed autonomy.
She’s 14 and she wants university. She wants to pick her subjects, and she wants to feel that rush of being challenged. Instead, she deeply researches every assignment she is tasked with, producing PowerPoints as dense as the medical papers she’s been reading to create them. Her teachers finally tell her she needs to cut them down. Although a teacher put her on stage for her poetry last year, this year another tells her that she will never write well. Her mother moves her down a class. Things settle again. But no number of A-grades or nods of approval seem to explain why she must live like this.
She’s 14 and she walks to the park in the afternoons and reads in her tree. She lies and lopes, straddles and gropes, lets her frustration propel her amongst the branches. She reaches the final leaves and takes deep breaths of the evening breeze. Greets the soft touch of the winter sun scraping her pores. Her head becomes soaked in sky, as she lifts herself through the flowers, the bees and the birds, that come to love her back.
She’s 14 and she shows a guy this tree. Doesn’t resist when he touches her, not enough. And so, they couple up. She knows she’s simply second-best to his best friend, and yet, she is not bothered knowing this. She finds the intimacy fills her life with sparks of colour. His house provides a refuge to the thick boredom that stifles the town. As the months pass the tantrums begin, crying to follow, before demands condense into a burning steam. Her mother starts to get concerned. But what else is there to do? At least a hard boil is better than tepid water that goes on and on.
Great use of repetition on this one, with each of the five tightly-packed stanzas beginning in the same way. This structure helps connect each of our unnamed protagonist’s stages of teenage angst – a high achieving, bored teenager desperate for something more, with the final paragraph seeing the equilibrium bend and start to break. The urge would have been strong to write this in first person but the distance of third gives it a more level, observer’s voice. Oh, the struggles of youth!
THIS MONTH’S ‘LONGLIST’
Each month, we like to include an extra LONGLIST of stories that stood out from the hundreds and were highly considered for the showcase. Remember, all creativity is subjective, but if your name is here, well done – and we hope to see you ALL next month!
THIS MONTH’S LONGLIST (in no particular order):
- BLUE by Isabel Pereira, ACT
- SKATING AGAINST THE SHADOWS by Elijah Christopher, Nigeria
- MORE MONEY FOR SUPER by Gregory Yeates, NSW
- THE GREAT RESET by Bruno Lowagie, Belgium
- M IS FOR MAMA by Ann Wilkins, New Zealand
- THE BABY GRAND by Chris Cottom, UK
- THE APPEARANCE OF DEATH by Jennifer Williams, VIC
- THE SUMMER RAIN by Nelly Shulman, Israel
- SWEET SIXTEEN AND THE SUMMER THAT COULD HAVE BEEN by Arpad Nagy, Canada
- DETENTION by Terry Hornby, QLD
- SICK HEADACHE by Thomas Elson, USA
- FOOTPRINTS IN THE SAND by Chris Waterson, UK
- BLACK IS THE DAY by Bernardo Villela, USA
- HIGHWAY 90 by Jessie Littlefield, NSW
- THE HILL by Paula Benski, USA
- CAT’S EYE by Christina Friedrichsen-Truman, Canada
- TRAY TABLE by Nicole Wilson-Rogers, WA
- THE END OF THE WORLD (AS WE KNOW IT) by Sydney Brooks, USA
- MY ADVENTURE by Tim Radley, SA
- THE BOY IN THE WHEAT FIELD by Kashiefa Du Toit, South Africa
- A LITTLE BREAK by Holly Brandon, USA
- GAME DAY by Kylie Johnson, SA
- LAST WISH by Haley Jackson, QLD
- GROWING UP POOR by David Klotzkin, USA
- IN PURSUIT OF SASSINESS by Lou Harper, VIC
- FLIGHT OF SPITE by Ronda Payne, Canada
- THE NEW GIRL by Oonagh McBride, UK
- CARELESS by Samantha Saunders, NSW
- PLAYING PRETEND by Janna Wagner, USA
- GREEN AND BLUE by Lisa Habermann, TAS
- 1979 by Cecilia Maddison, UK
- A BETTER POEM by Robert Fairhead, NSW
- STICK PEOPLE by Nikki Reid, VIC
- COTTON AND STRAWBERRIES by M.R. Lehman Wiens, USA
- RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW by Michelle Dunne Breen, ACT
- BLACK AND WHITE by Sukanya Singh, India
- BEDS ARE BURNING by Mel Francis, Netherlands
- TOE TO TOE by Ana Lynch, WA
- UNTITLED by Cassandra Neaton, NSW