Furious Fiction March 2020 winner and shortlist

It’s been quite a month for the planet, but Furious Fiction judging stops for no pandemic (although each entry did have to be judged two metres apart). It’s hard to believe it was only two and a half weeks ago (feels much longer, right?) that we received a bumper 1200 entries for our competition, and our criteria had a rather ‘person, place, thing’ vibe this time around:

  • Each story had to include a PERSON IN DISGUISE.
  • Each story had to take place in a PARK.
  • Each story had to include a MIRROR.

Entries threw us everything from amusement parks (we see you, house of mirrors!) to playgrounds and car parks; rear view mirrors, compact mirrors, mirrored sunglasses and ponds. Then of course the many hundreds of creative takes on disguises brought out a dark side in some of you, while others took the more fun, Disney-themed route. Definitely a mixed bag and an interesting month for our judges!

Yet there can only be one winner. So, please take off your disguise and reveal yourself, Janette Ellis of Queensland, Australia – you’re taking home this month’s $500 prize. You can read Janette’s winning story below, along with a handful of other shortlisted gems and longlisted names.

A big shout out to everyone who entered this month. It’s not easy to put your head up above the parapet creatively – but even if you missed out this month, the next round is just over a week away. How cool is that? It could be YOU riding high in April…


MARCH 2020 WINNER

JUST ANOTHER SATURDAY NIGHT by Janette Ellis, Qld

It’s midnight and she’s alone, walking slowly down the lane in a part of town where no lone woman should be walking, especially one dressed like she is. It’s dark in this place, shadowed by tall buildings on either side. A few industrial-sized bins contribute to the inner-city perfume—a simmering mix of grime and garbage, with a tinge of acrid summer ozone. Strips of light escape high-up windows, but not enough to illuminate her. 

A car turns off the busy main road into the lane. It’s moving stealthily, hunting her, the almost hidden figure ahead. The headlight’s arc finds her. Her cheap red dress is too small, and the thickening of middle age is unmistakable. She looks uncomfortable in her stripper heels and caked-on make-up. The car stops. She rests her hand on the door while she exchanges words with the driver. Whatever is said, it’s enough to make her move to the passenger side and get in. 

The car heads to the end of the lane, pauses briefly, and surges into the flow of traffic. They don’t go far. Down the road, past the clubs, the bored bouncers and Saturday night revellers, they turn into an underground car park. The driver finds a dim corner and cuts the engine. They unbuckle their seat belts. There’s no one else around.

“Let’s get into the back seat,” she says. “It’ll be more comfortable.”

He looks at her silently. She’s getting nervous.

“What’s wrong?” she asks. “Don’t you like me?”

He sighs and pulls out a badge. She recoils from it like it’s a snake.

“What the hell?”

She tries to open the door. It’s locked.

“Soliciting is a crime. But I’m going to give you a choice … either I take you in or …”

“Or what?”

“Or you convince me not to.”

It takes her a few seconds to understand his meaning.

“Like that is it? I don’t f**kin’ believe this. All this for a freebie? F*ck.”

She gets into the back. He follows her. It’s over in a matter of minutes. He returns to the driver’s seat, straightening himself up while watching her in the rearview mirror. Dressed again, she gets out and walks away. He jumps out of the car and quickly catches up, grabbing hold of her.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

She looks confused. And scared.

“We had a deal.”

He smiles. In a quick movement, he pulls a pair of handcuffs from his pocket and clips them around her wrists.

“Deal’s off.”

Now she’s angry.

“Oh f**king hell Dan! I said not these cuffs.”

His bravado is gone.

“What?”

“These are the ones we lost the key to. Geez you’re a dickhead.”

“Oh shit. We’ll have to go home and cut them off.”

“This is the absolute last time we do your stupid hooker fantasy.”

Back in the car, he does up her seatbelt while she glares at him, cuffed hands in her lap. They go home.

What we loved:
A fantastic example of active storytelling from start to finish, this third-person point of view gives us a gritty, cloying first three paragraphs of narration before moving to dialogue for the last half – all to great effect. This month’s prompts sent most writers down the same garden paths (literally), however this story uses its setting of a (car)park purely as background to the action – with a mere glance in the mirror and more than one disguise to keep us guessing. The result is refreshing, as the reader follows this interlude with curiosity and even trepidation until the excellent comedic (double) twist. Submitted without the modesty-asterisks on the F-bombs, even the swearing feels justified and realistic – as this couple brings all new meaning to the idea of ‘lockdown’ activities…!


SHORTLISTED

MIRROR by E.G. Nesbitt, NSW

I smiled brightly across the small metal table. The cafe in the park did a roaring trade on sunny weekends.

“It’s pretty busy here today,” I commented. 

“It looks like they have a couple of kids’ birthday parties.”

This was self-evident. Under one shady tree, a piñata was being disemboweled by a glittery group of Elsas and Sleeping Beauties. On a paved area, small superheroes were protecting their secret identities by keeping their masks in firmly in place while they gobbled cake. 

“It’s a great park for parties. Lots of… space…” I waved a hand vaguely and trailed off. “Um, for the kids to run around, I mean,” I finished lamely.

“Lots of people bring their dogs here, too. There’s a great off-leash area.”

“Do you have pets?”

A waiter came over and a few minutes were spent ordering coffee and asking about the cake of the day. 

“It’s funny how the ‘cake of the day’ always seems to be carrot.”

“It’s the same way that the ‘soup of the day’ always seems to be leek and potato.”

Silence fell. I tried my bright smile again then rushed to speak.

“Did you read about the buildings they have just restored at Pompeii…”

“I saw an article the other day about astronauts growing lettuce..”

“Sorry! After you!”

The silence was a little longer this time.

The waiter returned, bringing drinks and cake and an opportunity to discuss the cocoa powered patterns in the coffee foam and the consistency of the carrot cake.

That took up a few minutes.

My tiny tank of small talk seemed to have dried up. I couldn’t think of another thing to say. I sighed. This had been a silly thing to do.

I walked away from the table, paying the bill on the way past the cafe counter. The waiter gave me a look, probably wondering why I had ordered two coffees and cakes and then left them untouched.

The small makeup compact was clutched in my hand. The idea of using a mirror to practise conversation had seemed like a good idea. One day, I might progress to having coffee with another person.

What we liked:
A short but effective piece in awkward conversation and observation, this story is loaded with excellent turns of phrase and relatable scenarios. These all become funnier on a second reading, once you realise just how small this small-talking situation really is! It’s also hard to shake your head at the absurdity – when as writers, we’ve probably all sat alone in cafes, with characters talking to each other in our heads (although we’d never leave the cakes and coffees untouched!). Ultimately, it’s about one person’s inner struggle amid an everyday backdrop – a tightly woven slice of life, served with a smile (and a side of cream). This is not what they mean by ‘social isolation’…


SHORTLISTED

ON BLIND TRUST AND BLACKBIRDS by Kira Belaoussoff, Canada

Reverend Williams casually took a drag on his cigarette, watching the blackbirds fall like raindrops. 

The only areas he could make out the tiny silhouettes was where the streetlamps illuminated the ground— circles of orange light dotted with an ever-increasing number of carcasses. The unkempt grass muffled some of the noise, but soft thuds still echoed through the park.

Every so often, a bird would strike the roof of the gazebo that sheltered him. Williams would cringe at the metallic ting that followed, the sound heavy in the air.

The dark feathered bodies continued falling down to Earth. 

It was biblical.

Williams leaned against one of the sturdy oak posts that supported his little alcove. He looked up through the tree canopy and confirmed his suspicion. The moon was a bright crimson against a velvety night sky. 

Williams closed his eyes and listened to the soft thud, thud, th—

“You got a light, Father?” A man hastily shuffled into the gazebo, closing a sleek black umbrella in the process.

Well, he resembled a man. It was similar to how a scarecrow resembles a man— humanoid, but the details were all… off. 

A man in your periphery.

His hair was pitch black and his alabaster skin stretched like it didn’t fit his skull properly. Maroon eyes followed Williams’ hands as they slipped into his clergy robes, bringing out a brass lighter. He tossed it to the man.

He caught it and lit a thin cigarette in one swift movement. Where the man’s likeness should be mirrored on the metal lighter there was an absence of light. It was more of a negative imprint than a reflection.

The man extended his hand in offering, but Williams simply closed his eyes and leaned deeper into the wall, listening to the rhythmic beat of the birds.

“Keep it. Don’t think I’ll be needing it much longer.”

“There’s still time,” his slanted voice purred as he pocketed the lighter. “Six days to build the world… six days to end it.”

Williams chuckled. “And on the seventh, we all rest?”

“That’s the plan.” The man smiled tightly, displaying an array of too-sharp teeth. “You should be resentful. It’s not exactly fair is it? None of this is…” 

His tense tone gave him away. Pain and anger can never be completely hidden. 

“I’ve faith I’ll end up in a pretty boring place.” Williams replied gently. “And, besides. Why bother being bitter about the inevitable?” 

They stood silently for a long while. Long enough for the storm of birds to die down and the orange edge of dawn to break, the soft morning light revealing thousands of inky bodies carpeting the park grounds.

With a small nod, the man opposite to him slipped into the long shadows the sun cast along the trees. Williams slowly made his way back to his church, a short walk from the center of Baxter Park.

And, when the first of the earthquakes started, Reverend Williams sat down and had his morning coffee.

What we liked:
A truly imaginative and original take on the criteria, this story had an intriguing first line that hooked us in. The scene vividly unfolds from there, where despite the apparent chaos literally raining down all around, the pace of the action still feels as casual as the Reverend’s drag on his cigarette. It’s a skill to create a story that evokes such an air of mysterious and impending doom and two characters clearly defined by their dialogue and mannerisms, all in such a tight word count. This does just that with gentle finesse. By the time the earthquakes arrive, it’s very clear that the end of the story is nigh…


SHORTLISTED

CONSTRICTED VIEW by Ingrid Taylor-Moss, Vic

Enclosed, Alexa’s world shrunk. Swaddled by darkness, only a single stream of light beamed in—but even that gateway was covered in mesh.

Her narrowed perspective was hard to shift. Turning her head didn’t turn the one she was encased in. Inside this insulated abyss, it was easy to succumb to panic.

Alexa knew how to avoid panic. Breathe. Ignore the weight boring down. Look to that circle. That wonderful 15cm mesh-covered circle. Or past it, to that beacon of orange; the protruding carrot.

Inside this prison, the park looked shockingly idyllic. The grass was greener; the playground, brighter; the kids smiles, wider. They looked up at her with such hope, such glee. It flooded her too.

A disembodied voice bellowed from inside her, ‘I’m Olaf!’

The kids shrieked and jumped around every time. She loved this part of her job. That, and getting paid $32/hr. A friend owned a few costumes and arranged kids’ birthday party gigs. It was a joyful job that paid the bills while she was building her career.

It was vastly different from the gig the night before. She had brought the house down by skillfully, soulfully, and sinfully, swinging her saxophone in the seediest bar in the city.

Now, she stood in a park in the Eastern suburbs in a 6’3” Disney costume.

The head was insanely heavy. Alexa’s eyes looked out the character’s mouth; above that was the giant carrot nose and severely overdeveloped cheeks. Lastly, annoyingly, the snowman’s forehead loomed.

Somehow, it was dressed like this, Alexa saw her. In a white sundress. Her. Amanda.

Alexa stopped. She spun her head to hide her face. Olaf’s head stupidly stayed steadfast. Black obscured everything.

Within, Alexa breathed. The weight bore down. Her world shrunk. Enclosed, swaddled by darkness, everything narrowed.

She looked back to that circle. The light. The light of her face. Of her. In that white dress. Amanda was still as beautiful as she had been five years ago. Even distorted by mesh.

Why now? Why here? Last night, she’d swirled and swanned about on stage. She’d made her sax scandalously sing. Why this park? At least Alexa was disguised by an animated caricature.

Amanda was smiling down at the kids near the table with the birthday cake. She was smiling with the kids. Her kids.

Alexa’s world narrowed further. The foam head seemed to grow. The abyss lengthened. At least the snowman was submerging Alexa’s white-hot heartache.

This was Amanda’s kid’s party.

Inside this prison, the park suddenly looked gruesomely bright. The kids shrieked and jumped. They smiled up at her with such hope, such glee. They didn’t look at Alexa, but past her. She suddenly felt it, her irrelevance. The children looked up at an idea, not her. They saw their childhood joy mirrored back to them in Olaf’s plastic eyes. Her own were eaten by his dark mouth.

From Alexa’s constricted view, Amanda looked perfectly content. Happy in this life. Alexa couldn’t see past Amanda’s disguise either.

What we liked:
Don’t you just hate it when you run into an ex while dressed as a snowman? And yet, of course despite its rare absurdity, we actually CAN relate to the emotions taking place here in Alexa’s ‘mesh-covered prison’ as she struggles with her surroundings – ‘swaddled by darkness’ and contrasting with her alliteration-rich soulful sax career. The story opens and closes solidly, with a simple narrative that presents all the highs and lows of a kids’ party experienced from behind an oversized head. Frozen in her insulated abyss and not sure whether to Olaf or cry, this is a well-told voyeuristic vignette and yet another bad advertisement for self-isolation…


SHORTLISTED

THE FUNHOUSE ILLUSION by Seetha Nambiar Dodd, NSW

Step right up!
The Clown is on stilts. He wears colourful polka dots and a bright, green wig. The painted smile and lone, fake tear are incongruous, and oddly, make him appear devoid of emotion. He looks both silly and grotesque at once. Maya is hesitant. She has seen the darkness behind these disguises. There are no polka dots on the other side. Everything in her body tells her to turn and run. Yet, she knows that if she doesn’t face her fear, she will never truly be free. So, Maya walks through the arches of the amusement park and braces herself for the assault on her senses. The vibrant colours are laser beams to her eyeballs, the loud music roars through her eardrums into her skull, and the scent of danger makes her stomach lurch.

Take a look at this!
The Clown ushers Maya to the funhouse mirrors and takes his payment. She can see herself reflected in many ways, and not all are pleasant. Despite knowing the mirrors are rigged to distort, Maya does not like what she sees. The clown nods encouragingly. “This is how the world sees you,” he declares, towering over her. “This is who you are.” His oversized smile spreads to reveal gleaming teeth. Maya closes her eyes. This is not how she sees herself, but she does not know how to argue her reality here in the world of Clowns.

Candy floss, only three dollars!
Clowns present tricks disguised as treats. Maya pays to taste the fleeting sweetness on her tongue. It is familiar. She recognises this transient pleasure. A moment of bliss, just a moment, and then disintegration into nothingness, and she is left wanting. A recurring pattern. There are many Clowns, all with different tricks. All eager to show her who she is. All taking pieces of her as payment for the privilege.

Last call for the Ferris Wheel!
The Clown grabs Maya’s hand and leads her to the wheel. Maya knows the ride is exhilarating but she is not prepared to keep giving up pieces of herself. “No,” she says, and tries to pull her hand away. The Clown is still smiling, but his grip tightens. “How will you know who you are if I don’t show you?” he sneers. Maya shakes her head. It is time to leave the park for good. The Clowns will just have to amuse themselves from now on.

“I’ll take my chances,” she tells him, turning on her heel and running out of the park with the lightness of freedom in her step. The Clown gazes at her. He tries to force a tear out, but it doesn’t come.

What we liked:
Cleverly written and engrossing, this dreamlike sequence presents a metaphoric assault on the senses – a wonderland of colour and description. Maya has had enough of forced fun, empty promises and instant gratification in her life. Perhaps of social media and consumerism that looks bright and shiny but leaves her unfulfilled and misunderstood. Perhaps failed relationships or friendships? Like a funhouse mirror, the more you explore this story, the more angles and interpretations present themselves – not an easy thing to do in such a small word count. Dizzying, disturbing and deftly described – as stories go, it’s a step right up…


SHORTLISTED

AND THE PRIZE FOR BEST PARENT GOES TO… by Jennifer Moore, UK

A tree? Effie couldn’t believe it when he brought the note home. What kind of half-assed non-part was that to give a kid? Especially a kid with Caleb’s natural acting talent and artistic flair. Since when was a tree part of the Nativity anyway? But that was last week. If life’s taught Effie anything, it’s the importance of working with what you’ve been given.

“They’ll be sorry when you’re up there collecting your Oscar,” she tells him, zipping him into the hand-sewn trunk. “Breathe in now, there’s a good boy. Yes I know it’s tight. It’s meant to be tight. When did you last see a baggy tree?”

“I’m hungry,” says Caleb. “Please can I have an ice cream? Daddy always buys me ice creams when we come to the park.”

Yes, thinks Effie. That’s exactly the sort of lazy parenting I’d expect from your father. I don’t see him helping you prepare for your acting debut. “An ice cream?” she says out loud, laughing it off as she lifts the hand-sewn wire-threaded branch ensemble over his head. “Don’t be silly. Trees don’t eat ice creams, do they? Hands up now, through the branch holes… No, you need to keep them up. High up in the air, that’s it. Stretching up like tall branches reaching for the sky.” When was the last time Daddy did any method acting with you, huh?

“But my arms hurt.”

“They’re not arms, Caleb, they’re branches, remember? Come on, if you’re going to be the best tree Glenlake Primary has ever seen then you need to start thinking like a tree. Think strong and majestic. Think rooted. Think…”

“I could think about my tree-house. Daddy says he’ll help me build one at his house.”

“Does he now? It sounds like I’ll be having words with Daddy next time I see him… Anyway, no, that’s not what I mean. Think foliage. Think respiration.”

“My fingers feel funny. All fizzy and prickly.”

“You mean your leaves feel funny. Don’t worry about that, that’s just the er… the photosynthesis. Right, you stay here with the other trees and practise. Mummy will be just over there on the bench, watching. Watching to see how tall and still you can be for the next twenty minutes. How tree-like. We’ll show those teachers what real acting looks like, won’t we?”

The bench faces the other way, but that’s okay. Effie’s already thought of that. Her compact mirror offers the perfect view of her perfect little tree.

That’s it, she thinks. Good boy. Keep it up – just like that. Anyone can do angels and innkeepers, but a tree? That takes proper skill.

“Mummy. There’s a dog.”

“Don’t worry, sweetheart, trees aren’t scared of dogs are they?”

“He’s doing a wee, Mummy. He’s weeing on my leg.”

“Trunk,” says Effie, watching proudly in the mirror. How’s that for a convincing performance? “The dog’s doing a wee on your trunk.”

What we liked:
“When did you last see a baggy tree?” implores this scenario that so many will relate to. After all, no parent wants their child to be chosen as an inanimate object in the school play, but we disguise that with pride all the same – a disguise almost as tightly zipped as the tree itself. Here, the blend of internal and external discourse is wonderfully effective in delivering this satirical stage parent struggle – as mother and son rehearse his being a tree in the park. Many park stories this month followed dark, ominous paths, but this one stood out for choosing to take a lighter route – proof that a simple idea well executed can often be all it takes for a successful short story. (“That’s just the er… the photosynthesis” is comedy gold.) Now, can someone please unzip that poor kid?


LONGLISTED ENTRANTS

Congrats to the following stories that were pulled from the pile to be further discussed this month… an impressive achievement when considering the pile was 1200 entries high – part of the top 3 percent! Keep up the good work – next month could be your turn to top the podium.

MARCH 2020 LONGLISTED (in no particular order):

  • REFLECTION INFECTION by Bruno Lowagie (Belgium)
  • THE WINDCHIME by Gael Bell (UK)
  • Z IS FOR ZAMBIA by Marion Langford (NSW)
  • THE DROP by Fionna Cosgrove (WA)
  • UNTITLED by Ashleigh Mounser (NSW)
  • PRINCESS by Nathan Taylor (QLD)
  • GENTLE IMPULSION by Josephine Queen (USA)
  • GIRL IN THE PARK by Jacqueline Harrett (UK)
  • FAKE SANTA by Meg Dunn (NSW)
  • THE SNAKE by Brenden Walters (NSW)
  • DINNER DATE by Cheshire Deimos (USA)
  • BEING BELLA by Nina Peck (WA)
  • BLUE by Ally Chien (Taiwan)
  • THE ENTERTAINER by Noeline Stanger (NSW)
  • HOW WAS I TO KNOW? By Sandra James (Vic)
  • A SNAP DECISION by Sue Mitchell (QLD)
  • THE BIG DAY by S.D. Scott (NSW)
  • FRAGMENTS by Louise Zedda-Sampson (Vic)
  • TODAY by Carmine (Indonesia)
  • THE SCORE by Matt Crichton (Vic)
  • NO SIGHTINGS RECORDED by Elizabeth Clark (NSW)
  • THE LUMP by Nirvana Dawson (QLD)
  • A WALK IN THE PARK by Carlee Smyth (SA)
  • LIVING CANVAS by Robyn Porter (NSW)
  • REARVIEW MIRROR by Emma Joenpolvi (QLD)
  • MIRROR MIRROR by Salini Vineeth (India)
  • HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT by Michele Kay (SA)
  • “IT’S DANGEROUS IN THE PARK AT NIGHT” by Sean M. Elliott (Vic)
  • DENTURES by David Petkovic (NSW)
  • MOVE ON by Philippa Bowe (Moldova)
  • BALLPARK FIGURES by Anna McEvoy (QLD)

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