Furious Fiction March 2022 winner and shortlist

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The first Furious Fiction challenge for the year landed in March, and it was the talk of the town – to miss it would surely be a crime. Here were the criteria:

  • Each story had to include a character that commits a crime.
  • Each story had to include some kind of DOOR being opened.
  • Each story had to include the words CHALK, TALK and FORK. (Longer variations were accepted as long as original spelling was retained.)

And so the doors were flung open far and wide – car doors, shop doors, bedroom doors, elevator doors and microwave doors. Chalk adorned the pavements – body outlines and hopscotch. It graced pool cue tips, tried to mix with cheese (we’ll chalk that up to experience) and made blackboards screech. Forklifts navigated forks in the road (“where the fork am I?”), while fork-tongued creatures and criminals stuck forks in victims. Big crimes, small crimes, fashion crimes and grammar crimes – dark, funny, sad and silly…

But enough talk (because there was a lot of that too). When the judges finally put a fork in this round’s selection of almost 1300 entries, it was Simon Shergold’s story that chalked up the win. Let’s hope winning the $500AU prize will open some doors for you Simon – congratulations!

You can read the winning story below, along with some other shortlisted ones, plus our longlist of entries that piqued the judges’ interest. Thanks to all who entered, and we hope to see you back again for the next round!


 

MARCH 2022 WINNER

THE 22ND TO THE 24TH by Simon Shergold, USA

I may be 4ft 2 but I really do own this place. Room 7, Hoppington Primary School. It’s taken me a while to rise to the top but since Jimmy Flynn was suspended after the incident with the class guinea pig and Emily Harris’ permanent marker, it’s been easy street. I’m quieter than Jimmy – nondescript, blending in. I’m the kid the teacher needs a photo of on parent’s evening, to remind them who to talk about. But beneath my dull façade, a manipulative superbrain whirs, looking for angles and, this time of year, there’s plenty on offer.

Miss Ewell? She’s just not up to the task. She sings quite well and her potato painting is really quite excellent. But she doesn’t sense danger, too trusting in that way that teachers often are. Looking for the good when, in reality, there’s little good to go 'round. Which is why, as I’m sitting here making my fourth paper chain decoration of the week, she senses no danger. She’s got Elf on the big screen, glitter on her forehead and a bullseye on her back.

A diversion is needed and, any minute now, Jacob Custer, will provide it. His floppy hair, pink cheeks and leisure suit belie a total lack of morals and a worrying addiction to coconut Bounty bars. He stashed a fork from the canteen a little earlier and he’s going to jab it into Hector Johnson’s thigh. Just hard enough to make him cry, drawing all the attention away from the Celebrations Advent Calendar that Miss Ewell so kindly hung by the blackboard exactly 15 days ago. Every day, in alphabetical order, one of my simpering peers had prised open a cardboard door and plucked out a Mars or a Snickers or, if they are unlucky, a bloody Bounty. It won’t be my turn till the 21st, last as usual, but that still leaves 3 spare doors; unassigned, going to waste over the holidays. Well, this afternoon, they’ll be mine. It’ll be like robbing a vault on a Friday night before a bank holiday Monday – plenty of time before anyone realises what’s gone down.

On cue, I hear Hector’s scream from across the playmat. Miss Ewell, gullible as ever, rushes over to break the headlock he now has on Jacob. I slip quietly away, past the ‘Ho Ho Ho’ chalked on the board. They’ve done a nice job this year, a Santa’s Grotto montage. I pull up a chair, noiseless against the chaos, and reach for door 22. It comes open more easily that I imagined. I reach in, feeling for the familiar foil crinkle. Instead, I find a folded piece of paper. I open it, putting my phonics practice to good use.

‘Unlucky Zak Zachary, you sneaky little bastard.’

Feeling queasy, I slowly turn to meet the glare I feel on the back of my head. Standing tall above the melee surrounding her, Miss Ewell gives me a wink and pops a mini Twix into her mouth.

What we loved:
Crime never pays, and here we witness one of the smallest crimes of the month – stealing superfluous calendar chocolate. But it all counts, and when you’re in primary school, the stakes are akin to a Vegas heist – which is what elevates this story, through its “all-in” commitment to its protagonist’s scheming ways (part Frank Underwood, part Stewey Griffin). The intriguing title invites us into a classroom scene – where we’re quickly introduced to a hilariously precocious tot, hellbent on plotting the perfect crime. The narrative voice is consistent and distinctive throughout – a real strength of this piece. And even within a small word count, a cast of interesting characters emerge. No easy feat. 

Although the protagonist is absurdly astute (setting up the comedic tone nicely), it’s also a great example of how to blend a character study and 3-act structure together to form a well-paced story. The crime may be as small as the tiny advent calendar doors, yet we still have a main character with clear needs and desires fueling the story all the way to his “foiled again” foil-wrapped ending.


 

SHORTLISTED

UNTITLED by Amy Hutton, NSW

The deep red stain was the only sign a dead man had once laid there.

Tara thought there’d be a chalk outline. Like in the movies. That’s why she was there. To see the chalk outline. A perfect chalk outline of Jeff. But there was nothing. Just a pool of his blood rapidly disappearing into the asphalt behind some flapping police tape. To say she was disappointed was an understatement.

Her phone buzzed, and she pulled it from her pocket already knowing what the message would say. The cops wanted to talk to her. Of course they did. Everyone knew she hated Jeff. She’d even sent him a bunch of texts telling him how much she hated him. Which, in hindsight, wasn’t the smartest move.

But she would be okay. She had an alibi. The night before she’d gone to a late-night session of the new Batman movie. She’d sat in the back row, eaten popcorn, and noisily slurped on a Coke.

The movie was good, and she was bummed she’d had to miss a bit. The bit where she’d ducked out to kill Jeff.

She’d shimmied through the window in the ladies’ restroom and onto the dumpster she’d positioned there earlier, jogged to the laneway he always cut through after his shift at the restaurant, and stabbed him with his favourite knife. The one she’d stolen from him. The one he’d pointed in her face when he screamed that she had no idea how to slice a pork tenderloin.

She’d show him how well she sliced meat.

She’d stabbed him in his side like she’d seen on TV. Like the prisoners with a shiv always seem to do. Stab stab stab.

He was strangely silent as her blade stuck his beefy flesh again and again. Not like that guy at the truck stop that time. That guy had wailed so loud; she’d had to put her fingers in her ears. Of course, the fork she’d jammed into his eye was probably responsible for the wailing.

Jeff did gurgle a little now she thought about it, and kind of creaked, as if he was an old door opening on a rusty hinge—his eyes wide and his mouth gaping like a surprised goldfish. She’d liked that bit. The shock on his face when he saw hers looking down at him. That was her favourite bit.

When she was sure he was properly dead, she’d ditched the knife, jogged back to the cinema, swung past the concession stand for some Milk Duds, and returned to her seat. She was bummed she’d missed a bit of the movie. The movie was good. She’d have to go back and watch it again.

Tara took one last look at the stain that used to be Jeff. Maybe police never used chalk outlines at all. Maybe it was just a movie thing. She would ask the cops waiting for her at her place. Maybe they’d know.

She shrugged and headed home.

What we liked:
The combination of crimes and chalk unsurprisingly resulted in many a chalk-outlined story this month. This one cleverly tops and tails the narrative with the protagonist’s longing to see one in real-life. 

It’s an effective framework for the rest of the story (of the night before) to unfold, delightfully deadpan and complete with a Killing Eve Villanelle-esque antihero. (Tara was definitely more upset about missing her movie than about killing Jeff.) And just when we might feel a pang of sympathy for her actions thanks to a hint of Jeff’s treatment of her, we quickly learn that this isn’t the only piece of cutlery she’s killed with.

It’s this murderous movie buff and her nonchalant retelling of her after-dark deeds that makes for a memorable story and compelling tone.


 

SHORTLISTED

THE TROUBLE WITH SPELLING by Rananda Rich, NSW

The first hint something was amiss was when chalk no longer worked.

When they eventually found the body, they had to use a German equivalent, kriede, when analysing the murder site. After the formalities of identifying the body, I gathered the team together.

“It is with great sadness that I inform you of the loss of one of our dearest friends and hardest working teammates. Taken from us in senseless fashion, they will be sorely missed. At this diffi… hard time, the poli… the authorities are looking into it.”

No one said a word.

“We have always been a tight-knit team, but now we’ve got to pull together. However, it seems likely an insider job. And while we will follow the law to the letter, we will tra… hunt you down.”

The letters shuffled and looked awkwardly at their neighbours.

“So, let’s take a moment, and remember our third letter of the alphabet. We will miss you. See? It just doesn’t sound right.”

I shed a tear. The gathering murmured with suppressed sadness.

“In the meantime, I have some important updates. We must keep going. Languages rely on us. And we still operate in a highly ruthless environment. We’ve lost market share to Hanzi over the last few years, and already operate leaner than Katakana and Arabi… I mean, I guess, our Arabian opponents.”

“I took the opportunity to speak to two of you before this meeting, and I am very grateful to announ… to say that S and K are stepping up to take over the hard work of our fallen third letter. Please support them. We will have some komplexities, of kourse. For example, skool is fairly logikal, but teashers, will likely bekome edukators for the short term until we work out all the kinks.”

A muted round of applause reverberated around the krowd.

“Bekause of the extra pressure, we need to streamline. After this meeting, U will move to a part-time position globally. Our long-running experiment in North Amerika, has shown we kan labor with honor, though we still value U for their gift to humor.”

“As we kome to this fork in the road, we see now that plan A is obsolete. We will transition smoothly to plan B, and ensure we have plan D in reserve.”

G whistled aloud as the implikations bekame klear. O’s expression said it all.

“Furthermore, Z will take on some of S’s heavy duties around organizing, a further benefit from that same US experiment…”

As I talked, a rukkus broke out at the bak of the room when polise burst through the door of the private meeting spase.

Realizing what was happening, Y yelled his namesake over and over, “Why, why, why?” and started to throttle his neighbor even as the handkuffs went onto his former ko-worker. T held him bak as the others formed a Q to spit and jeer.

“How did you know?” I asked the detektive.

“X marked the spot,” she replied.

What we liked:
When you’re competing with hundreds of other stories, it’s always worth pushing the creative envelope. Or in this case, pushing a letter of the alphabet to its death – with a curious opening line that only becomes clear as you read on.

The premise here is inventive and chuckle-worthy, and it deliberately manipulates its written format to great effect (just notice how many of the jokes would be lost in an audio version!). 

Even on a second read, there are things to pick up beyond the sheer silliness of the scene. For example, the double meaning behind “no one said a word” when you have the alphabet gathered together, or the law being followed “to the letter”. We also appreciated the ambiguity of the main character (letter) being “I” – allowing the story to be read as both first and third person POV. A good example of embracing a funny idea and getting the most out of it.


 

SHORTLISTED

SCHOOL RUN by Michael Burrows, WA

Dirty forks in the sink from last night. Bowl of warm milk on the table, all the sugary cereal picked out. Toast crumbs strewn across the counter.

They say it’s going to be another scorcher today. Stay inside if you can. Crank up the aircon if you’re lucky enough to have it.

“We gotta leave in five. You ready?” he yells across the house.

They shout back from their rooms. Muffled voices, something about a missing sock.

“Just wear the ones you wore yesterday. No one will know.” He’s wearing the same sweat-stained shirt. No one will know.

“Two minutes, girls. Lunch is on the counter.” Packet of chips, rollup, muesli bar. Pre-packaged. Teacher will probably say it’s too many what-they-call ‘red foods’, not enough green. Like he’s got the time.

He stands by the front door and yells again. “We need to leave.”

Alice arrives first. Those tiny black shoes in her hand. Says she can’t get the laces right. Says Mum used to do it for her. “Where is Mum?” she sits in the middle of the hallway with her schoolbag twice the size of her and puts her shoes on the wrong feet.

“I told you, Mum is living with her new friend Tony. Remember? She needed space.” He swaps her shoes, talks her through the laces again, in that same singsong voice she used.

Rosie keeps him waiting.

He opens the car door and hoists Alice up into the seat, throws her bag in the boot. His shirt sticks to his back. “Don’t touch the seatbelt, honey, it’s too hot.”

Rosie hasn’t done her hair. He watched one video online about how to do plaits, and gave up after five minutes. Rosie rolls her eyes at him like she used to – wise beyond her years, they used to tell each other. He remembers a moment from his own childhood he hasn’t thought about in years; stealing a handful of red frogs from the corner shop when the man wasn’t watching. The feeling that he was so grown up, so sure of himself. The pure bliss of getting away with it. Can’t remember what that felt like.

He pulls Rosie’s hair back into a messy ponytail and ties it with one of the lacky-bands that now live permanently on his wrist, marking his skin.

“Mum’s not coming back, is she?” Rosie says. Stops him in his tracks.

“What’s on your hands?” Her fingers are bright yellow, and there is a blue mark on her skirt. He tries to rub it off but just smudges it further.

“I was drawing. Outside.”

He bundles her in the car, and cranks up the air con. Swears when he notices the time. He doesn’t spot the chalk drawing until he’s backing out the driveway.

The big figure with the curly blue hair and the belly, and the two smaller figures in dresses, holding his hands.

The round yellow ball of a sun shining down on the three of them.

What we liked:
There’s a simple relatability in this suburban story of a morning routine that could easily belong to any one of thousands of truncated families anywhere in the world. Its power is in the specificity of the domestic details – the lunch items, the plait-tutorial, the lacky-band marking the father’s wrist. It holds back on the backstory and exposition (no picking sides or dramatics) but still allows enough of a glimpse for the reader to understand the key details and build an emotional connection. 

At no point do any of the criteria feel shoehorned into the story (the crime itself is fairly innocuous and relegated to a small flashback). Instead, we receive a well-crafted and tightly contained piece that delivers intimacy and subtlety at each turn. What started with dirty forks is bookended nicely with the chalk – bringing the story to an authentic, heartfelt close. A great example of realism and restraint in a month of noisy crime.


 

SHORTLISTED

THIS IS A ROBBERY by Marcus Caravela, WA

“This is a robbery.”

The malice of those four muttered words was muffled by the light-blue surgical mask wrapped around the man’s face.

The cashier, a lanky teenager in her first job, looked up from the store catalogue she was reading.

“I’m sorry?” the girl asked.

“I said, this is a robbery,” the man muttered again, this time projecting his voice to be heard over the just-too-loud muzak seeping through the stereo speakers overhead.

The girl looked around the store. The Thursday afternoon shift was usually quiet, but this one was especially so. The storefront was empty except for the stocky man standing at the counter, hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his khaki shorts. After a moment, she spoke.

“This is a Cotton-On,” she said, hoping the implication was clear.

“Just put the money in the bag.”

He pulled his hand out of his pocket, gripping a loosely woven mesh bag between his fingertips and waving it in front of her.

“You want me to put money in that?” she asked. “There’s a lot of coin.”

He sighed and stood there in thought. Resolved, he swung the reusable plastic Woolworths bag from off his shoulder. He stepped forward and handed it to her around the recently installed Perspex screen before retreating behind the 1.5 metre line.

She upturned the bag and emptied the contents onto the counter. A full red cabbage bounced off the glass coming to a rest alongside the fork that had also clattered out of the bag. A moment passed before she locked eyes with his blood-shot pupils, contrasting with his chalkish complexion.

“Did you only buy a cabbage?”

“Just put it in there. Please.”

She shrugged. Fifteen dollars an hour didn’t particularly demand loyalty.

With a few taps of the screen, the register bounced open. She dug into the recesses of the machine, keeping a mental tally as she filled the bag.

“It’s about 82 dollars and some change.”

“Thank you.” He held his arms out for the bag to be placed in them.

She paused, before tapping the sheet of paper taped to the other side of the screen.

“Did you sign in?”

“Oh yeah, no problems. Sorry about that.” While he was talking, he flashed out his phone with practised ease. With barely any time to think, he had lined it up to the QR code and the small chime notified him that his sign-in was successful.

A pregnant pause filled the room. The crescendo of the stereo orchestra had reached its peak. The two stared at each other as the moment that had passed sunk in.

“Ah,” the man said. “Shit.”

“Yeah,” the girl replied.

He sighed, nodded to the cashier as if to apologise for the time wasted, before promptly turning on his heel. He took quick steps to the automatic door, waited for it to squeak open and marched out into the late afternoon sun.

The girl looked down at the counter. It was fortunate she liked cabbage.

What we liked:
There is something immediately likable about an incompetent criminal. That’s not to say that writing about one guarantees a slam-dunk – but in this case, it is deftly brought to life through the brilliant banter between both ineffective robber and nonplussed store assistant. 

Playing out much like a comedy skit, there are plenty of clever details to be found amid the mirth. For example, it can be tricky to weave in pandemic-related elements in a way that’s fresh and appealing, yet this story uses them superbly. In fact, the climax with the QR mishap as the robber slowly “cottons on” to his calamitous mistake is pure comedy gold. Bravo – a hilarious piece with a contemporary feel.

 


 

LONGLISTED ENTRANTS

If you made this month’s longlist, congratulations! You stood out from the pack in some way. And even if you missed the list this month (itself probably the biggest crime of all), that doesn’t mean your story isn’t worth celebrating, so give yourself an ovation for putting your work out there – the world needs more stories.

THIS MONTH’S LONGLISTED (in no particular order):

  • UNTITLED by Gabrielle Della Franca, WA
  • BETWEEN CRIMES by Olivia Brooke, VIC
  • SOCKS by Nikolas Karageorge, VIC
  • THE CELLAR by Sarah Haggett, United Kingdom
  • ROXANNE by Gina Dawson, SA
  • CHICKEN PIE by Kate Reynolds, NSW
  • BREAK BROKE BROKEN by Julia Ruth Smith, Italy
  • SOULMATE by Joanna Turska, United Kingdom
  • SCENE OF THE CRIME by Richard Gibney, Ireland
  • DETECTION by Courtney Mcdermott, United States
  • BURNING LOVE by Zoe Dublewicz, NSW
  • VEGAN VEGAN by Geoff Gore, New Zealand
  • HEY, BOOKS AREN'T FOR READING by Sabina Malik, Canada
  • MURDER IN THE KITCHEN by Julia Bruce, United States
  • ORANGE INCUBUS by Tiffany Cooper, Canada
  • FUNERAL (IN COLOUR) by Ellie Kathleen, QLD
  • THE TRIALS OF TEACHING ENGLISH TO ADOLESCENTS by Gwenda Steff, VIC
  • TWENTY REASONS I DON’T SLEEP AT NIGHT by Mandy Savoie, Canada
  • STUCK IN TIME by Robert Fairhead, NSW
  • RED ROOM by Robert J. Boland, NSW
  • SAVING EVANGELINE by Jo Skinner, QLD
  • MOTIVATED BY GRIEF by Jamila Head-Toussaint, NSW
  • SUMMER RAIN by Anita Link, QLD
  • *THUMP!* SILENCE. by Alboricah Rathupetsane, South Africa
  • THE LAST SQUAWK by Benjamin Keyworth, NSW
  • THE WRITER'S CELL by Ashlee Hanson, NSW
  • CUT FLOWERS by Marion Lougheed, Germany
  • BREAKING NEWS: FORK CANCELLATION PROTEST UNDERWAY by Shara Aviva, NSW
  • NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH by S.C. Leong, QLD
  • A STORY SO SHORT THAT GOD, IF EVER ONE WAS, NEVER HEARD IT by Tim Forrest Day, China
  • ASHES TO ASHES by A K Scotland, NSW
  • CANCEL CULTURE by Cheryn Witney, SA
  • NANNA'S REVENGE by Charles Duncan, QLD
  • THE ACCOUNTANT by Hester Van Der Vyver, NSW
  • PERMISSION by F.R. Mortimer, United Kingdom
  • UNREMARKABLE by Rachel Allen, New Zealand
  • GO ON, BE A DOLL by Seetha Nambiar Dodd, NSW
  • AWAY FROM HOME by Sarveen Murugan, Malaysia
  • UNTITLED by Ebony Frost, WA
  • A PEARL OF GREAT PRICE by Paula Wescott, United Kingdom
  • THE END by Linda Durrant, NSW
  • ROUTINE by Manesh Koshy, India
  • DAYBREAK by Aryan Sodhi, India

 

 

 

 

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