This month’s Furious Fiction was quite the layer cake of evil – asking for a whole lot of things from our intrepid storytellers. These were the criteria:
- Each story had to include YOUR INTERPRETATION of ALL FIVE of the above emojis, in any order.
- Each story’s first word had to BE AN ANAGRAM of its final word(s) (repeating the same word wasn’t allowed).
- Each story had to include the phrase: THERE WERE 11 ____ IN THE _____ (whole or part sentence).
Of course, the “emojis” were simply representing objects or concepts (they could have just as easily been five photos). And as for the anagrams, there are in fact thousands of words that form anagrams. Our entrants included good ones such as astronomer/moon starer, grandmother/armed throng, danger/garden, disease/seaside, married/admirer, unnoticed/continued, dormitory/dirty room and the overwhelming favourite, listen/silent.
That said, yes, it was a challenge – and congrats to those who rose up to meet it! This month’s winning story went to Scott White of NSW, Australia. He takes home a cool five hundy (we keep it in the freezer for freshness) and you can read his and other shortlisted stories below.
We hope to see you line up in December for the final challenge of 2019. We promise no anagrams or emojis. Maybe…
NOVEMBER 2019 WINNER
AN AWKWARD FIRST DATE by Scott White, NSW
“Horse or camel. Which do you reckon is faster?”
She had millions of questions, and I had no answers. It would later come out that I had terribly misread the situation. She had been far too nervous to allow the date to fall into an awkward silence, lingering in the air like cobwebs on an abandoned house, and therefore had decided to fill it with whatever had popped into her head at the time.
“Who do you think would win in a fight, a bear with scissors or a gorilla with a stapler?” she would ask, and I wondered why she would add stationery to such a barbaric situation. But the edges of her lips curved upwards when she asked these types of questions, and the dimples that appeared as a result forced me to answer.
“The Gorilla.” My reply was met with a furrowed brow and a look of confusion. I wasn’t sure whether it was the answer itself, or the lack of explanation. Was that the wrong answer, the gorilla only had a stapler, did he even have staples?
My wandering mind however had left an empty space in the conversation. She was quick to fill it with another question. “Would you like to walk me home?” This time her eyes gleamed, and the return of the dimples meant that I couldn’t refuse. “Of course,” I had replied, hoping that my short answer would be taken as quiet confidence. It probably wasn’t.
There were 11 steps in the way between the lobby and her door. She seemed comfortable in every place we had been that night, even now in the dim light of her apartment building, the cold air making me shiver. The yellow glow from the single bulb above us illuminated her eyes, and shone off the crescent moon necklace she had worn. It was a gift from her mother she said when she noticed me staring, but I was barely listening at that point. Later she told me it was a gift from a past lover, and that she was nervous if she told me she would’ve scared me off. She was right, I’m glad she hadn’t.
My anxiety had risen every step of the way on the walk to her apartment, like waves on a beach, and a comment like that would have been too much to bear. My anxiety had reached high tide it seemed, standing at the bottom of that staircase, underneath that orange light. This time she didn’t have a question to banish the silence. Her movement towards me was clunky but delicate. She had been a dancer before, and I admired how she could make artless movements look so graceful. She leapt into the awkward chasm between us, lips first.
This act of confidence was met by the only thing I could muster. The meekest form of admiration, a handshake. The final wave of anxiety had been too much to bear, enveloping and dumping me onto the shore.
What we loved:
Straight out of the blocks, this one grabbed us with its quirky opening line (it’s important to get the reader’s attention in flash fiction!). From here, the story made good use of the creative prompts throughout – whether as similes, concepts or objects and even somehow incorporating stationery (bonus points!). The result is a front row seat as the narrator relives this relatable, clunky yet delicate date filled with second-guessing, over-thinking and the benefit of hindsight. The final line appears to land a killer blow, until you realise the narrative style implies that things actually did work out in the end. (By the way, horses are typically faster than camels.)
THE INTERROGATION by K.L. Winter, Vic
Chin resting on her hand, she tried blinking away the tiredness. It was important to keep her wits about her. After a small miscalculation with her story yesterday afternoon, she had managed to keep her mouth zipped all night. She wasn’t going to slip up again.
They had finally allowed her a toilet break, a small snack, and a chance to sleep. Unsurprisingly, she hadn’t slept well. Now that it was morning, they were ready to take another crack at her.
One of her interrogators sat down across the table, brows raised above intelligent brown eyes. The other stood behind her, just out of sight, which was a bit unsettling. They were clearly going to use every trick in the book.
‘We simply don’t believe the incredible web of lies you spun yesterday,’ he said, without preamble, resting both hands flat on the table. ‘Don’t get me wrong, we admire your creativity, it just doesn’t add up.’
Under normal circumstances, silence was probably still her best option. Today, however, they had something to hold over her. Glancing at the clock on the wall, she weighed her options again. The minute hand jerked forward as if to emphasise the time-sensitive nature of her predicament. Despite all she’d done to stand her ground so far, she found herself on the verge of giving them exactly what they wanted. Then she heard a distant rumble.
‘Maybe now’s the time to cut a deal,’ he said.
She waited, listening. There! A closer rumble.
‘We can’t let you go until you confess what you’ve done.’
Wait, was that rain?
‘If you confess, we can work something out.’
Yes, it’s definitely rain.
A sporadic patter of rain sounded on the roof. Within moments it became a loud, steady drumming, accompanied by the occasional rumble of thunder and sharp flash of lightning. Her eyes flicked to her interrogator in time to see the realisation cross his face. He glanced over her shoulder towards the other interrogator where, she assumed, he saw the same realisation reflected back at him.
They’d just lost their key bargaining chip.
There was no way her friend Sarah’s family would be going to the beach in this weather. She didn’t need permission to go with them anymore, because the trip would be cancelled.
‘Come on sweetie,’ her mum said desperately from behind her, ‘tell dad and I the truth. You’re almost nine years old now, you really need to stop lying so much. There were 11 biscuits in the packet, and now there are 2. It wasn’t really a stray chihuahua in a tutu, was it? I mean they’re too small to even reach the door handle aren’t they? Let alone the snack shelf in the pantry?’
Shrugging, she smiled, tapping her fingers on the table in time with the rain.
She wasn’t going to give an inch.
What we liked:
A good example of well-paced, active writing, this intense interrogation keeps you reading right from the start. And just like the protagonist, the story isn’t keen on giving up details in a hurry, happy instead for us to wonder where this is going. But the rumble changes that (maybe it was her tummy?) and things quickly unravel into decidedly lower stakes for us, albeit equally intense for the eight year old in question. A nice take on child/parent negotiations.
THE CUP by Mike Smee, NSW
Meat and two veg. Sprinkle of salt. Every night, except fish and chips Friday. As regular and reliable as the 7 o'clock news we watched as we ate. If I said not a word and ate all my vegetables, there was dessert … a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a spoonful of canned peaches.
My father ate at the club. After dinner, my mother curled up with Johnnie Walker, Peter Stuyvesant and regret. In my room, I cut pictures out of magazines to stick in my scrapbook, and hummed along with the top forty on my transistor radio.
Until my mother called out, ‘Caroline! Go to sleep.'
Outside my bedroom window was a straggly tree with prickly leaves, and on windy nights the moonlight flickered through the branches and spun shadows like spider webs on the walls.
The only break from this routine was our annual trip up the coast. In the back seat I struggled to keep my transistor tuned, until there was only static. We always stayed at the Happy Holiday Motor Inn. It was across the highway from the beach and at night the trucks roared past like an ocean.
Once we ventured inland, winding along sun-dappled roads fringed with trees straight and white as candles. We stopped for lunch near a pale grey cemetery, bounded by a rusty fence. There were 11 headstones in the graveyard, and 9 of them were for children.
Later, we pulled into the gravelled carpark of a pottery tucked in the forest. There was a man with a white beard. He shook hands with my father and they lit cigarettes and talked in the sun. My mother and I went into the gallery. Cups, plates and teapots sat on low timber tables. Everything ochre. My mother said I could choose one. I picked a small cup without a handle.
When we went outside, the men had stamped out their cigarettes, but the smoke still hung in the air above them, flimsy and uncertain, like a memory.
I still have the cup. I'm looking at it now. When I look at it, I think how the woman who made it is most likely dead, and the man with the white beard too. Like my mother and father. But the cup is still here, with not even a chip. I've never used it for drinking. It's a cup for holding memories. Maybe that's why it doesn't need a handle.
Beside the cup is a framed black and white photograph. It's the only photo I have of me as a child. I'm maybe ten, in a white lacy dress and veil. I look like a sacrifice. My hand is curled in a circle, which I'm holding to my eye like a spyglass. I often used to wonder what I was looking at.
I don't know who took the photo, or where it came from, or who framed it. But I know now who she's looking at. She's looking at me.
What we liked:
Like a flickering old home movie, the simple yet vivid imagery captured in this story reads as a random assortment of collected memories and the power that objects can have in unlocking dusty recollections. A nostalgic memory storm in a (tea)cup, it gently tugs at those faded, misplaced childhood memories we all have from our own past. A simple yet strong ending.
TO THE YOUNG READER by Lauren Ford, Qld
Dear little one,
I see you there. Freckled nose almost touching the pages of your book, legs swinging underneath you as you stop every few minutes to absent-mindedly push yourself gently on the creaky swing-set your mother bought a few Christmases ago.
I see your eyes devouring the written words with a voracious hunger. Sharp lines cut across your brow like scissors to paper as you come across a scene that makes you question something. The little creases on your forehead slowly flatten as you begin to understand the author’s trajectory. And it hits you like an unexpected gust of wind.
Your eyes are like glass moons, the reflection of the white pages glistening there as a tear escapes from your eye, falling in silence on the front of your school uniform.
Ah yes, I know the part well.
“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” The words come back to me clear and complete.
You gently close the book, shut your eyes for a moment, and smile, clutching the then new edition of “Charlotte’s Web” to your chest. I feel the ghostly memory of the bittersweet emotions you are experiencing in that moment.
That was the day that you discovered there is a power in written words. You may not be able to hear them spoken, but they are loud inside your mind like untold secrets.
After sitting on the swing for a few minutes more, you abruptly squared your shoulders and rushed inside, writing something ferociously in the diary you kept. You showed your mother excitedly and declared your mission.
“I want to be a famous writer when I grow up.”
There were 11 words in the sentence. 11 words that would change your life.
And from those 11 words burst a river. Your mind was a cage of butterflies being set free. You wrote with a quiet determination. You relished in the opportunity to create that same sense of wonder, that same emotional charge, that same glorious thrill that always accompanied the final page of a great story.
And as you grew into your adult-sized shoes, you remembered those 11 little words and refused to let them go. You tried and failed and tried again. The dreaded rejection slips would arrive in the mailbox and each one would leave your skin smarting, your heart wounded. But it didn’t stop you.
Your body swelled with happiness on the day those who knew you well smiled with excitement at your latest story. You felt it too. This was it.
Now in the faces of those excited children, clutching their beloved books to their chests and shuffling excitedly as they line up to shake hands, I see you there behind their eyes. “How do I become a writer like you?” they ask. I smile as I remember that day on the swing. Those 11 words.
“Exactly what you are doing right now, little one,” I say.
What we liked:
We saw a few writers use the letter device to tell their story this month, but we couldn’t resist this one. An all-too-familiar childhood experience for many, a celebration of the joy of reading and the insistent tug of a writer’s ambition. That 11-word sentence powerful as the catalyst for things to come and a great use of that prompt. If you’re a writer, there will be a small part of you that feels this letter is addressed to you.
HIS AND HERS by Nina Peck, WA
Sore shoulders and a darkening of the skin on my forearms are the only signs that anything went awry today; tomorrow, at work, I’ll wear a sleeve light enough to be seasonal but long enough to cover what would otherwise be a black and blue talking point amongst the staff.
James sits out in the kitchen; I can hear the radio on, playing something melodic and upbeat – I imagine him marking school books, tapping his foot in time with the song.
I uncurl myself from the floor of the shower and stretch my aching arms. With the water still running, I step out and wrap myself in a towel, one with Hers embroidered on it. Its partner hangs damp on the hook behind the door.
I crack open the window and the cool night air brings goose-bumps to my skin; through the slightly warped glass I can make out a thin crescent moon, shaped like a scythe.
“You nearly done in there, babe?” His voice is right outside the door. I instinctively place my hand on the already turned lock.
“Five minutes,” I call back, shutting off the water.
I hear his footsteps recede down the hall and back into the kitchen. I look around the bathroom, wondering what I might use as a weapon. A pair of scissors lay idly on the vanity – I’d used them earlier to cut the label off the dress I’d bought for an upcoming work function. It was black and lace, but modest in length and high necked. I’d deliberately chosen something I didn’t think would upset him, but I’d chosen wrong.
I pick up the scissors and run the blades through my fingers. Who am I kidding? I’m not that wife – if I were, I would’ve been out of here six months ago. No. I’m a spider trapped in a web of walking on eggshells and covering up bruises and accepting apologetic gifts.
The only other thing to catch my eye is a blister pack of sleeping pills – there were 11 in the tray last time I checked, but only six left. I wonder if that’s enough?
Problem is, I’m not that woman either. I’m the silent smiling type who will let him take my hand tonight, tell me he’s sorry and that he’s made my favourite for dinner. I’ll probably let him lead me to bed and massage my yellowing bruises – the ones he left last time I bought a dress he didn’t approve of.
I towel off my hair and leave it loose around my shoulders. I pull on flannelette pyjamas and breathe deeply before unlocking the door, the click of the action making me instantly nervous.
“Dinner's ready!” James appears in the hallway, bottle of wine in hand. And when I manage the 15 steps to the kitchen, the table is set with crystal glasses and candles, and a note card with his scrawled handwriting sits in the middle – Love You Always! – propped up against a single rose.
What we liked:
This strong, evocative piece is effective at capturing the mix of emotions (shame, defiance, resignation and more) in what is sadly an all-too-realistic situation. Details play a big role here – from the surrounding objects in the bathroom to the smallest noises and intricate observations. Meanwhile the internal discourse speaks volumes – resulting in a powerful, heartbreaking slice of life with a cleverly matched title. A sensitive subject dealt with in a believable way, free from melodrama. (If you are in Australia and would like to speak to someone, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline day or night on 1800 799−7233.)
TEMPTATION by Daphne Briggs, Vic
Part of the problem was that there were 11 Tim Tams in the packet, and we were a family of five.
On Friday nights, to mark the end of the school week, we liked to sit and watch a movie together, often one of the Harry Potter series, or Lemony Snicket. We all loved a bit of magic. And a treat.
After dinner, once the kids were shampooed, showered and cosy in their pyjamas, the chocolate biscuits came out and waited on the kitchen bench. My husband Brian would take the red handled scissors from the second drawer, and ceremoniously snip open one end of the packet. (We liked things neat at our place).
The three children, would then run to the couch and nestle themselves in a row under a blanket. Oliver the eldest was eight and the twins Jessie and Sarah had just turned six. The corner spot on the L-shaped couch was mine. Brian took the other end, holding the remote.
Before the movie started, there’d be a crackle of plastic, as I slid the wrapper back from the plastic tray, to expose the row of chocolate covered warriors. I’d take one and pass the packet along to the kids. We had no need for a plate. The dishes were done for the evening, and we weren’t a fancy lot.
Each member of the family knew they were entitled to a ration of two. The kids would scoff both of theirs at once. I usually took my time, licking the smooth, creamy chocolate off the outside and savouring it before eating the cream filled biscuit sandwich. I’d have one as the movie began and my other about half an hour in.
There was never any discussion about the remaining Tim Tam. Before we went to bed, it was slipped back into the packet, and returned to the pantry.
But every Saturday was the same. I would rise early, looking forward to my coffee and a sweet reward, before tackling the first load of washing for the day.
The brown packet would still be there, but it was always empty. I had quizzed the family, but no-one ever owned up. Week by week my annoyance grew, until I could stand it no longer.
After a quick check of the web, regarding the toxicity of hair dye, Indian ink and food colouring, I hatched my plan to catch the culprit.
The following Friday, before the final Tim Tam was returned to the pantry, I lifted the troublesome, disappearing biscuit and squirted a generous amount of green food dye into the slot beneath it.
I barely slept.
The next morning, as one by one the kids drizzled into the kitchen for breakfast, I took each by the hands. With an adoring smile, I checked the tips of their fingers.
Not one of the three had fallen into my trap.
What we liked:
With its beautifully relatable opening sentence, this is a great example of how a readable story doesn’t need to have a complex plot to be compelling. (In fact, when you have just 500 words, keeping it simple is a very wise thing to do.) Nothing flashy here – it’s the dramas of daily life – a comfy, domestic tale with a knowing smile and a dollop of whodunnit for good measure. What do they say about it always being the husband? That’s the way the cookie crumbles…
Also congrats to the following stories that were in our judges’ longlist this month – an impressive effort from the hundreds that we receive. (Not there? Don’t worry – there’s another chance next month!)
NOVEMBER 2019 LONGLISTED (in no particular order):
- I’VE BIN WATCHING YOU – Laura Brown, NSW
- BLISS – Karina Grift, Vic
- THE HEIST – Anna Dal Pont, Italy
- DEAR ANGIE – Bailey Green, Vic
- THE NAMETAG – Eugenie Pusenjak, ACT
- SAID THE BUTTERFLY TO THE SPIDER – Anthea Jones, Qld
- ROOTS – Zoe Gross, NSW
- WHICH SIDE OF THE MOON? – Laura Coultas, ACT
- ROSE-TAINTED LOVE – Seetha Nambiar Dodd, NSW
- THE PORTRAIT – Molly McGill, Vic
- UNTITLED – Tracy Davidson, UK
- A WEREWOLF’S LAMENT – Holly Rae Garcia, USA
- FIRST TIME ON TELLY – Dave Evan-Watkins, UK
- BEST LAID PLANS – Jane Connolly, Qld
- TRAPPED! – Phillipa de Wit, Vic
- UNTITLED – Tess Gilmour, NSW
- HIDDEN – Michelle Upton, Qld
- WHOLE – Rae Taylor, Vic
- UNTITLED – Jarrad Heal, Vic
- JURY DUTY – Bruno Lowagie, Belgium
- A CRY IN THE WILDERNESS – Claire Curtin, Qld
- PUDDLE-HUNTING – Allison Black, Vic
- THE EMOJI KILLER – T H Galligan, SA
- SATIN ON SUNDAY – Leon Whitten, USA
- WAYWARD – Angela Teagardner, USA
- TO THE MOON AND BACK – Kim Hart, NSW
- SEEKING ASYLUM – Julie Meier, Canada
- LITTLE SPARKS, GRAZING THE NIGHT – Renee Boyer, NZ
- HIDING – Stevie Hayden, SA
- UNTITLED – Everett Blake, Qld
- UNTITLED – Mahmoud Salameh, USA
- UNTITLED – Rhiannon Faith, SA
- NEWBIES WELCOME – Paul Dalgarno, Vic