It was a dark and stormy night at Furious Fiction HQ. The judges gathered around the glow of the Apple laptop and rubbed their hands with glee (a brand of hand sanitiser). Yesterday, the identity of the competition winner was unclear – many sitting on the fence in their decision. But today, they all agreed as one, just as the mother of all thunderclaps rang through the land, its highly-charged companion lighting up the results for all to see…
Ahem. These were the story criteria this month:
- Your story had to be set during a storm.
- Your story had to include the words MOTHER, APPLE, YESTERDAY
- Your story had to include the phrase: SIT/SITTING ON THE FENCE
And yes, we received a STORM of entries (almost 1400 to be exact). Rain storms, thunder and lightning, dust and snow. Angry storming tantrums, storms in teacups and stomachs. People storming buildings and people brainstorming ideas. But just one entry stormed its way to victory – and it belonged to Tegan Huntley, with her emotional story, “Wattle Street”. Here’s $500 cash for your efforts. How do you like them apples?
You can read Tegan’s story below, along with five other shortlisted stories from this month plus a longlist of entrants that made it to the judges stormy table session. If your name is here, congrats! If not, let the storm pass and dust yourself off ready for JUNE’s edition, when no one will care about yesterday. Enjoy!
MAY 2021 WINNER
WATTLE STREET by Tegan Huntley, WA
She walks so she doesn’t have to think.
She pushes her designer pram through the tangle of identical beige streets, tinged blue under the darkening sky. The rain spears in sideways, numbing her face and soaking her shirt already damp with sour breast milk that her body insists on producing.
She should have stayed home. But staying home is worse.
Unlike most of the unnecessary baby things she bought, at least the pram is getting used. She spent more on it than her first car. She enjoys the envious glances from mothers in the street. But there are no envious glances today. There’s nobody about.
She reaches the café, but she doesn’t go in, she never does. It’s one of those plasticky chain store coffee shops with substandard coffee, pre-packaged banana bread, and a grim play area where mothers lock their children while they bitch about their useless husbands. They raise eyebrows over their apple slices and flat whites, their disapproving glances zinging through the window. She knows what they’re thinking.
What sort of mother would take a baby out in this weather?
I saw her walking in the rain yesterday too.
That poor child.
But they wouldn’t understand.
She walks so she doesn’t have to feel.
It was Sam’s idea to move to Wattle Street. They used to sneer about the boring cookie-cutter homes in the northern suburbs. But then she got pregnant and suddenly they were people who cared about things like having a theatre room and a nursery and a two-car garage. It seemed silly now.
She’s pushing the pram uphill, rain drumming on the hood, wind snarling at her ears, glutes burning in protest. She’s got to lose that stubborn baby weight that clings to her like a parasite. She had been told breastfeeding would remedy that. And perhaps it would have, if she could have.
She’s blindsided by a pang of regret. It crushes her ribs and she’s certain she’s going to die. She’s going to die in this bland cream brick neighbourhood a few metres from home next to her limited-edition pram.
She hunches over next to the one house in the street with any personality – Irene’s place with its row of garish gnomes sitting on the fence. She feels the gnomes’ eyes on her, silently judging.
“What are you doing?”
Irene’s on the porch, morning paper in hand, eyes wide with pity. She wonders what Sam has told her.
“Taking the baby for a walk.”
Irene drops the paper, disappears inside, and returns with a blanket, moving towards her, arms outstretched.
She moves toward the pram protectively, but Irene’s faster. She flicks back the hood, the empty crib yawning open, and the grief she’s been walking away rips through her, more agonising than the labour pains that wracked her body, more chilling than the cold words still echoing in her ears no matter how fast she walks.
He’s not breathing.
She walks so she doesn’t have to remember.
What we loved:
No map can prepare you for Wattle Street. Here, there is no dramatic thunder or damage and destruction from the storm. Rather, the persistence of the rain and ‘snarling’ wind acts as backdrop to our unnamed protagonist’s raw grief – paralleling her relentless anguish and a painfully critical inner monologue.
When working with such a small word count, symbolism and authentic details go a long way in adding extra spice. The prose may be simple and accessible throughout this story, but each description still packs a gut punch… the soulless cafe, the sour breast milk and the beige cookie-cutter neighbourhood seemingly overrun by judgemental inhabitants.
The designer buggy is cleverly used to navigate the narrative through to its heartbreaking end. ‘The empty crib yawning open’ – such a visceral image that hauntingly reveals the story’s truth and the character’s pain. Powerful stuff, with a perfectly banal title to gently seal in the pain.
TEMPESTAS by Conor McCammon, NSW
It was a murky Thursday evening and Morris Mendelsen was hoping to be struck by lightning.
The storm had rolled in yesterday, a wash of eggshell thunder-cracks and pissing rain, tearing the sheets off his clothesline with a kind of divine apathy. He had waded into the gardenia bushes to untangle now sopping pillowcases, startling a gang of magpies that had been sitting on the fence in the downpour. Then, a wink of brilliant light had made him look up.
Reluctant thunder crunched like gravel underfoot. A pause. Then the lightning came again, a graceful arcing seam in the distant air. It left Morris blinking the pink afterimage from his eyelids.
He stood for a long time, letting the wind lash lazily around him. His heart raced, the hair on his arms standing army-straight as he gripped the pillowcase with pearly knuckles. He felt none of it. Not the chill of his clinging clothes, not the rivulets of sky that pooled at the corners of his worn face.
No, he was back with Mother, on the porch of his childhood home, a different storm drumming secret rhythms on the corrugated roof. There she was, looking at him with those kind eyes, a sort of wry smile tweaking at the edges of her mouth.
Finish your tea Morris. Then you can go play in the rain.
He had grumbled but complied, wolfing down his cheese and apple slices before tugging on his raincoat in an eager rush. Moving through the curtain of water pouring off the lip of the roof, he had turned to look at her.
Yes, he remembered it now. At that moment the sun had suddenly broken out. Through those glassy threads of water she had looked otherworldly, the light warming her face where it gratefully settled.
She had smiled at him then, an expression full of easy joy. His first, last, most chest-twisting memory of her.
Then, a lightning strike so close and loud that the world went white. When his vision had cleared, she had been gone. Not dead, not ‘missing’. Gone, like an unwritten storybook, like the flame of an unlit candle. It was as though she had simply never been. But Morris remembered now, and he held the memory so fiercely that he thought his chest might crack open with the force of the remembering.
The rain picked up, fat marbles hammering urgently against his face. Trees contorted in the howl of a fresh gale. He looked up again, into the dim knot of clouds that now wept so freely.
I remember you.
Perhaps he thought it; perhaps he said it aloud. Regardless it felt for a moment as though the storm quieted, relieved. He thought perhaps a sheet of sunlight might pierce through the cloudbank of evening.
Then, a flash of light, an embrace.
And Morris Mendelsen was gone. Gone like an unwritten storybook, like the flame of an unlit candle. It was as though he had simply never been.
What we liked:
A strong opening line really does act like a bolt of lightning in flash fiction – and here, in one sentence – our curiosity was piqued.
The prompts this month seemed to spark some lovely turns of phrase for many writers (who doesn’t love a stormy setting?) and when descriptions are equally quirky and as vividly explored as they are here, the result is quite simply stunning.
What’s more, the tale of Morris and his mother effortlessly weaves drama, mystery and a dollop of otherworldly magic into an eloquent package that’s full of intrigue and nostalgia. For the judges, this type of craftsmanship was a joy to read, including the fairytale-like repetition in the final lines.
MOTHER’S DAY by Laura Jay, Vic
In the distance, I see a town, I lick my lips in anticipation. The need to feed gnaws internally urging me forward. I approach a clearing. Mirth bubbles inside at the sight of them, useless weapons poised. Perhaps once they might have been effective, but not now, my children have seen to that. I roar at them to amuse myself, feeling the heat in my body radiating out. I’m pleased to see my enemies take a step back, sweat beads their foreheads, Adam’s apple nervously bobs under makeshift masks. Some of them flee seeing their imminent demise, those with a hero complex attempt to reload with shaky hands.
The trail behind me is cleansed but there is still much more to do as Mother has instructed. The hunger pains jab painfully, I must feed immediately. The bold ones have retreated behind the skirts of their mechanical beasts now. A hot wind ignites my excitement and I consume all, delighting in their screams as I run them down one by one. Some of my children linger behind picking at the scraps.
I imagine myself reaching the town, indiscriminately choosing who I will devour whilst leaving their neighbour untouched, all at my whim. Those who sit on the fence of indecision are great sport, too late they realise I am coming, lingering behind a second too long. A second I make them regret. Even the ones I pardon are beautifully scarred by my presence. The power surging within me is all consuming, I must have more.
Sporadic bullets fall from above, stinging my body. I look skyward, dismayed to find my yellow Goddess obscured by an indigo sky of ever darkening clouds. I twist, full of rage as the peppering ammunition quickens. People from the town have regrouped, encouraged by the storm. Serpentine weapons strike their watery fangs into my hot flesh. Fear grips me with cool hands as I diminish in size and intensity, there’s nowhere for me to hide on this blackened landscape of ashen canopies. I struggle to breathe, choking down carbon barbs that pierce my lungs.
Yesterday I was born of lightning strike and tinder forest, ravenous. Now I lie dying, yet still the endless ache to consume yearns within. I watch helplessly as my children are stamped out, their glowing souls arc heavenward in a wisp of smoke. The people I’ve spared will never forget, I am infamous now. Stories of Mother’s wrath will spread globally, finally earning her due respect. With a final flick of my tongue I vow to return, waiting patiently for abandoned campsite embers, dry landscape or the careless toss of a glowing cigarette from an open car window.
What we liked:
After the cruelty of last year’s devastating bushfires, the anthropomorphism in this piece is chilling despite its flames. Special mention to how all of the criteria are deployed creatively – from a bobbing Adam’s apple, a merciless “Mother” Nature, the devastation wreaked on those who sit on the fence and the flames born from yesterday’s lightning strike. The action unfolds in each paragraph and with the firestorm raging with unsettling ferocity and malice, it’s the rainstorm that gets to play the heroic role in this ultimate battle of nature. This story stays with you afterwards like a smoldering ember – a disturbing, yet clever and powerful piece.
AFTERMATH by Cath Krejany, Vic
Her mouth was ash. No. Not ash. Something more… metallic.
Were her eyes open? She couldn’t tell. Her head spun. Kaleidoscopes of black, grey and fluorescence played across her vision. Muffled sounds beat against the inside of her skull threatening to burst free. Something cold and hard pressed against the outside of her cheek.
A distant thunderclap. A chance meeting.
One eye opened slowly. The other refused to obey. Its fat and swollen lid fused shut. A blurry image formed. An apple? Green. Shiny. She watched the light glisten off its surface with her one good eye. It was moving. Rolling slowly toward her on the slick and glossy tiles. The underside rounded to face her. It was bruised and partially caved in. Smashed pulp oozed from its skin.
A flash of lighting. A deluge. A shared umbrella.
Cold had seeped into her bones. They ached. She ached. The air was still and calm now replacing the oppressive humidity. She should get up but she couldn’t make herself move. She could smell the apple only inches from her face. Sweet, fragrant with a hint of rot.
A knowing glance. A look. A lie.
She forced herself upright and surveyed the room. Shards of broken ceramic littered the floor. The coffee table was on three legs, crouching at an odd angle as if ready to pounce. Its frosted glass top was shattered. Some of it was still embedded in the side of her face. Her stomach lurched as she took her first faltering steps.
A hotel room. A rendezvous.
In the bathroom she studied her reflection. Her face was ruined. Her lip was split open so wide she could see her own flesh. Dried blood spatter decorated her swollen black eye socket and trailed across her face. How much of it was hers? She ran her ripped and bloody fingernails through her hair and searched for traces of the mother and wife she had been yesterday. In the mirror she could see the outline of the two lifeless bodies in the other room.
A careless mistake.
She had followed him. Not wanting to believe it. It was the little things. It’s always the little things. Like a wet umbrella. There could be no more sitting on the fence. Not now. She had stood in the rain for a long time as the forked lightning illuminated the room. She’d watched the two dark silhouettes fumble their way towards each other urgent and eager. Blind fingers searching, tearing off wet clothes. It was easier than she expected. So caught up in each other they had not heard her enter. The fruit bowl made an audible thud as it smashed over the top of his head, caving it in like an apple, pulped and oozing. Neither were a match for her white-hot rage. She was the tempest. She had been unleashed. And she could no longer be tamed.
What we liked:
We saw many stormy domestic scenes this month, but this one nicely teased out the narrative with each paragraph – starting with the end and working its way backwards as the protagonist surveys her body and surroundings… the calm both before and after the storm. Descriptive details pour from the page – with the rolling, bruised apple particularly unsettling. The blend of sensory details and ominous hints framing each paragraph results in a dark and cinematic scene with a revengeful, compelling antihero at its core.
COME TO THE WINDOW by Pam Makin, SA
The sky holds the weight and colour of gunmetal. Out on the horizon, the intermittent flash of lightning, interspersed with low thunderous rumbles, portends a squall. Time is short.
I sit on the fence. I am aware of loose boards, rusty nails, and splinters, the fence being the old timber paling kind not replaced since the 1970s. It is a precarious position but the best from which to observe my targets.
To the west, at number 12, I can see her in her study. The window frames her desk, lending natural light to her morning work. But this afternoon, the room is softly lit by a small lamp. Her face is highlighted by the sharp blue glare of the screen, its glowing bitten apple eating up her secrets. This is where she spends most of her time now.
Next door, to the east, at number 14, he sits at his piano. Yesterday, he returned without his mother. Today, he has barely moved from his stool. He is playing the same piece of music over and over, pausing and repeating portions of it before moving onto the next passage. It is beautiful music, but he does not appear to be enjoying it.
The afternoon is as dark as midnight. At number 14, the music stops. Lights come on. I can see him at the window. I stand and turn on the top of the fence, curling my tail, just so, to draw his attention. The window opens.
“Hey, Cat! So, you’re still hanging around the neighbourhood, eh? This storm is a big one. Better find somewhere to sit it out!”
“Talk to her, Man!” I mew at him. “She’s lonely too.” I flick my tail in the direction of number 12.
“Go on! Get out of the storm. Stupid Cat!” He shouts over a roll of thunder and closes his window on the promise of lustration.
“Stupid Man!” I mew back.
Over at number 12, the deep growl of thunder has enticed her to lift her head. She stands and stretches. He, at number 14, still at his window, watches. I strut along the top of the fence, tiptoeing expertly along the narrow ridge. I call to her as the lightning and thunder exchange blows overhead.
“Come to the window,” I mew, as loudly as I can. A great bulb of water drops between my shoulder blades as the rain begins. “Come to the window!”
And then, in a perfect moment of cosmic alignment, they stand, facing each other, she at her window, he at his, eyes locked. The whole world ignites in a tremendous flash of electricity, Nature’s drumroll anticipating triumph, water falling in Niagara-like sheets.
As the window at number 12 lifts, I sense my opportunity. I dash beneath the sash, screeching a “thanks” as I pass her.
I can’t play piano, but I’m not stupid.
What we liked:
If you’re going to sit on a fence, you may as well have the action play out on either side of it. And so, with the sublime double meaning of gunmetal to set the scene, we begin. There’s no need for bells and whistles in this stripped-back story – just a mewing matchmaker atop a fence, hoping to bring two single souls together in the eye of the storm. This could easily have fallen from its perch into overly sentimental meet-cute territory, but its strength is in its restraint – as it illustrates two characters with two different lives and captures the simplicity of meeting eyes across the divide. The feline POV is a lovely touch (paws for effect?). We will never look at the neighbourhood cat the same way again!
THE GIFT by Rebecca Hingerty, NSW
The arrow on the wooden barometer hung low, pointing to a thundercloud. Ironic that a drop in atmospheric pressure resulted in storms. It was the opposite for people.
Rachel sat in the tastefully arranged living room of her family home, the usual claustrophobia intensified by unseasonable humidity. One form of pressure dropping, the other rising. Mother’s Day had always been triggering, long before ‘triggering’ had entered the emotional lexicon.
Rachel passed her mother a small package. Yesterday marked her annual quest for the perfect blank card to accompany the perfect, impersonal gift. Nothing schmaltzy or relentlessly pink. She always stopped for a masochistic glimpse inside the cards addressed to ‘My Darling Mother’, giving thanks for a lifetime of duties selflessly executed. Rachel fantasised about creating her own line of cards. “Darling Mother, thanks to your endless criticism I get to enjoy a lifetime of low self-esteem.” Or, “You were never there when I needed you.” A niche market perhaps, but surely there’d be takers? A bitter smile and it was on to the blank section. This year she chose a Margaret Preston still life. Bowls of apples and jugs of flowers suggesting a warmth and homeliness that had never existed in this house.
Her mother read the card and opened her gift with pursed lips and dead eyes. Nothing was good enough. Rachel had long since given up caring.
“What a shame, I’ve already read this,” she said, dropping Ishiguro’s latest offering on the cold marble coffee table.
“I can exchange it for you,” proffered Rachel’s father, a Pavlovian response to a lifetime of sitting on the fence between mother and daughter.
“It’s time for dinner.” Rachel’s mother scrutinised her daughter as she walked towards the dining room. “Not that you look like you’ve been going hungry lately.”
A rumbling of thunder outside. A drop in pressure, a rise in pressure.
Somewhere in a parallel universe, Rachel saw herself surrounded by siblings, laughing and drinking Prosecco. A fantasy mother delighted by a new bathrobe or air fryer. Wine glasses from Ikea. Takeaway food. Football on the telly. Perhaps a dog on someone’s lap. All abominations in her own mother’s eyes.
Through the window, Rachel watched expensive real estate preening under a flash of lightning, the steel grey of the harbour its red carpet. So much affect, so little effect. A lifetime of display. Performing beauty. Performing family. Almost instantaneous thunder. The eye of the storm.
Rachel stood silently and walked back to the living room. She picked up Margaret Preston’s homage to home and hearth and tore it into pieces. She slipped the Ishiguro into her handbag and turned to face her parents. Her father looked fearful, her mother bored.
“My darling mother.”
A pause. A rumbling of thunder. The storm passing. A rise in pressure, a drop in pressure.
Rachel walked towards the door, knowing she would never return. On impulse she lifted the barometer from the wall and let it smash to the floor.
What we liked:
We enjoyed that the premise of this story rested on the uncomplicated ritual of giving a Mother’s Day gift, and like layers of wrapping paper, a history of resentment, personality clashes and complex family dramas unfurl. (We suspect this story might be the most relatable of the bunch!)
The storm plays out here like a soundtrack, drumming the emotional beats of the story – low pressure and high. And we applaud the undercurrent of humour (the fantasy about the greeting cards is an excellent aside) – fittingly used to dodge real emotional pain for the protagonist, but allowing this story to be both entertaining and relatable.
Also a timely reminder as we end this month that characters don’t always have to die and stakes need not be dangled so high for a story to affect and be effective.
That’s it, the barometer is smashed. The storms are over…
Congrats to the following stories who caught the judges’ eyes this month – keep tweaking your story recipe… it just needs one final ingredient to make it truly memorable… (this is a cooking metaphor, please do not add actual food unless appropriate). And it might seem like a long list (haha), but you’re still in the top 3% of all entrants this month, so celebrate that fact!
THIS MONTH’S LONGLISTED (in no particular order):
- JAM by A Almand, United States
- WHEN THE FIRESTORM CAME by Ronan Kavanagh, WA
- REDO by Mary Lawton, Ireland
- THE STORM IS STILL OUTSIDE by Isabel Pereira, ACT
- A MATTER OF TIME by Aimee Sargent, WA
- COME RAIN OR SHINE by Ross Williams, United Kingdom
- THE PATH by Elizabeth Mccaig, Canada
- UNTITLED by Jessie Lozanski, Canada
- DROPLETS ON THE GLASS by James Kable, NSW
- GODS AND MONSTERS by Rex T. Masterson, TAS
- THE CHAOS OF FEELING by Georgia Napier, WA
- THE NEST by Ferne Merrylees, NSW
- RAINDROP RACES by Jess Morgan, NSW
- ONCOMING STORM by Meghan Douglass, SA
- UNTITLED by Shayne Denford, NSW
- UNTITLED by Jessica Tunnage, NSW
- A SHOT IN THE DARK by Jane Hodgkinson, QLD
- THE SIZE OF AN APPLE by Stephanie Skilling, VIC
- A STORM FOR IDEAS. by Grainne Armstrong, Ireland
- MOTHER by Bree Perera, VIC
- I SPY-DER by Carly Mitchell, VIC
- ORCHARD by Ada Okoye, Nigeria
- BETWEEN EARTH AND SKY by Nap, Canada
- EVERY PATH HAS A PUDDLE by Taylah Gellatly, NSW
- UNTITLED by Simone Schreiber, Iceland
- DAY TRIP TO THE PARALLEL UNIVERSE WHERE I MARRIED THE BOY NEXT DOOR by Emma Robertson, United Kingdom
- NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT by Alison Attwood, SA
- WE ALL FALL DOWN by Carl Newby, QLD
- CALM by Claire Stewart, WA
- YOU LEAVE AT THE END by Tanatswa Makara, Zimbabwe
- LOSER by Mary Scott, NSW
- FRUSTRATING FICTION by Edward Bicioc, NSW
- WINDS OF CHANGE by Mary Sheehan, Ireland
- RED by Hayley Young, ACT
- THE SNOW STORM by Nikka Besnard, Algeria
- ROTTEN by Laura Speed, NSW
- ARCANE LOVELINESS by Shweta Ravi, India
- THE SECOND DAY by Damian Perry, VIC
- CHASING APPLES by Rosemary Minucos, NSW
- PEGS by James Anderson, NSW
- REFUGE by Tori Wills, NSW
- MOTHER'S DAY IS NOT THE SAME by Maggie Wright, NSW
- SLIP by Zoe Williams, WA
- GREY SKY IN MOURNING by Kelly Stuart, NSW
- BROTHERS AND BRIMSTONE by Thomas Tugwell, NSW
- THE STORM by Marc Howard, VIC
- UNTITLED by Gem Hathaway, NSW
- THE VISITOR by Debbie Gravett, South Africa
- DAY TWELVE OF TWO by Stefan Schutte, South Africa