Furious Fiction September 2018 winner and shortlist

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It’s time to announce the winning story and shortlist for September’s Furious Fiction! Over 700 entries came in to land this month, each one needing to address the creative criteria:

  • The entire story must take place in an airport.
  • The story must include the word SPRING somewhere. (Plural also okay.)
  • The story must include the phrase: IT WAS EMPTY.

The judges were transported to terminals all around the world – (and interestingly, so many airport bathrooms!). The setting proved a rich ground for storytelling and heightened emotions. After much deliberation (and overpriced snacks), we reached our final destination.

Congratulations to Michael McGoldrick of Vic, Australia, whose story was judged this month’s winner. He scores himself a cool $500 and you can read his winning story below, along with five other shortlisted stories.

Furious Fiction October is arriving soon with another $500 prize on offer. Get on board for the chance to see YOUR story published next month!


SEPTEMBER WINNER

(UNTITLED) by Michael McGoldrick

Everyone is here, or so it seems. I stare at the cup of cold coffee on the bench. The plastic spoon slips through my fingers again. Through the thick cafe window, blurred figures move with purpose on the tarmac. The adoring crowd swoosh their flags, raise their banners, silently cheer. It’s all caught in the wind. A muted dress rehearsal of emotions for the imminent arrival. I tap my phone for the hundredth time. Fifteen minutes. I close my eyes.

A muffled squeal of microphone feedback brings me back, however, lacking any spring of anticipation, my eyelids remain shut. Locked in a final moment of escapism. But it’s over immediately. The inevitable crescendo of voices finally penetrates the glass, forcing me to acknowledge that time is up. I open my eyes as the women exit the plane, their descent met with a wave of applause.

I should get down there. Slipping off the stool, I make my way along the corridor to the designated waiting area. A closed door, a single chair. I stand. The carpet pattern, a frayed mess. A voice nearby interrupts the distant mumble of the PA. This way. Apologies. Awkward silence.

“They’ve done us proud and stolen the heart of the nation,” the emcee announces to the crowd. I consider my own heart. It was cracked. It was painful. It was empty. Now it is numb.

Another cheer goes up in front of the plane.

The coffin appears from the back of the plane.

Everyone is here. But not to see him. That is just me.

What we loved:
A tightly woven piece with a heart wrenching finish. Juxtaposing the crowd’s elation with one person’s grief is a potent approach – and acknowledges the range of circumstances that can bring people to an airport. The sense of bleakness is cleverly illustrated by the small things – a plastic spoon, the frayed carpet. At an impressive 260 words, it’s carefully delivered and we still feel like it’s told in real time, a character wishing away their grim reality. Three final sentences – one an echo of the first line – land with powerful impact.


SHORTLISTED

PORT by Alisha Brown

“But why airport?” I ask. “Seaports are in the sea. Surely airports would have to be in the air? This is a land port for air vehicles. An earthport.”

The cashier blinks; scans.

“I guess it depends whether the prefix refers to the location of the port, or to the mode via which the transport travels. If it were the latter, airport makes sense. But so does skyport. And skyport sounds a lot cooler.”

“Would you like a bag?”

“No, thanks. Did you know that there’s a place called Seaport that has an airport? Seaport airport. I wonder if people go to duty-free and buy port from Seaport airport.”

“Cash or card?”

“Just cash. Actually, now that I think about it, port might refer to the point of access. Port Macquarie and Port Stephens have access to the ocean. So it’s correct to call an airport an airport. But anyone’s backyard is as much of an airport as this one. Air is everywhere”

“Have a nice day,” she says, holding a limp plastic bag out towards me like the carcass of a dead animal.

“Oh, that’s fine, I don’t need a bag,” I say.

She looks me in the eye.

I take it.

#

I finish the most difficult sudoku in the book and turn to the crossword.

Down:

1. Warmer season (6).

Seriously? I scratch
S
P
R
I
N
G into the paper and think about how they could have used coiled mechanism or to produce unexpectedly instead.

Spring is my least favourite season. Everything beautiful comes back to life just long enough for you to forget the inevitability of its death. You plant a tree; it withers. You smell an orchid; it rots. You fall in love; he breaks your heart and messages you out of nowhere two years later asking if you’ll meet him at the airport.

Down:

2. Void (5).

H E A R T, I carve into the page. The wave of resentment rides itself out and I reach for the eraser. The big clock hanging off the ceiling ticks forward like a cherry blossom losing its flowers. E M P T Y, I correct myself. It was empty. It was always empty.

#

“This is the second announcement for Miss Alisha Brown. Alisha Brown. Your friend Ben Gomez is trying to locate you. Please make your way to Arrivals as soon as possible. Thank you.”

“You think he would just call her,” I say.

The cashier smiles slightly; scans.

“Or maybe he already tried. Maybe she doesn’t care. Maybe she’s left him here like he left her in the restaurant that time. Maybe she prefers shitty crosswords with predictable answers to the company of a twenty-four-year-old man with the emotional maturity of a toddler.”

“That’ll be forty-two-ninety-nine.”

I rummage through my bag; find my wallet.

“Alisha Brown. Alisha Brown. Please make your way to Arrivals.”

I cradle the port against my chest as I leave.

What we liked:
The unique use of SPRING and EMPTY caught our eye, and combined with the customer and cashier exchanges, painted a portrait of an analytical individual at an emotional crossroad. This well-told narrative blends humour and heartbreak and only slips in a tiny taste of backstory. The dialogue keeps it interesting, the ending leaves it open for reader interpretation, and we agree – ‘skyport’ definitely sounds a lot cooler.


SHORTLISTED

SERIAL DRINKER by T.K. Zelvis

How many times had I sat in an airport bar drinking my thoughts away? Too many to count, but at least four times this week. Or was it five? Maybe I was starting to go a little mad from the sleep deprivation and the constant moving. Seemed like it.

“You alone, sweetheart?”

My eyes went to the gentleman raising his eyebrows at me like he was saving me from some Lonely Damnation. “Sure, I’m alone.”

“Would you like some company?”

I shrugged, tipping back my whiskey and leaning back in my chair, he was kind of handsome. Strong jawline, greying temples, muscular underneath his well-tailored suit. If it were a different day- or a different place- I probably would have even welcomed his hands on my body.

As it was, I barely had time for another drink.

“Where you off to?” the man asked, ordering us both another round.

“Nowhere important,” I smiled, “and yourself?”

“Also nowhere important.” He gave me a big grin I suspected he knew made him look sexy as hell, “That’s the great thing about places like this, where we’re going doesn’t have to be important. We can be whoever we want for the time we wait.”

My sentiments exactly, that was why I liked them so much. And why I also despised them. Interactions could be meaningful or fleeting, a quick one in the bathroom or a conversation you’d never have with someone who knew you. It was powerful, or it was empty.

“Have you been here before?”

The question sounded simple- casual even- and yet I could tell there was something underneath it. That there was something more he was asking me.

“Once or twice, I suppose,” I didn’t say I came back every spring, he might start thinking a little too much on it, “Are you from here?”

The man shrugged, downing his drink and placing it carefully back on the coaster, “I’m not really from anywhere.”

No. He wasn’t. Just like I wasn’t. But we all had our favourite places, our favourite… hunting grounds, so to speak.
I sipped from my glass and watched him from the corner of my eye, I really didn’t have the time to waste sitting around and pondering who he was or who he worked for. My flight would be boarding in a few minutes, and I really didn’t want anyone seeing me when the body was found.

“It was lovely meeting you,” I got to my feet and picked up my carry bag, “until next time, I suppose.”

The man gave me one of those charming smiles, attempting to hide the little wheels turning in his head, “If there is a next time, it would be quite a coincidence.”

I grinned and patted his shoulder, “I don’t believe in coincidences, officer.”

What we liked:
A neatly served bar scene with a killer ‘blink and you miss it’ reveal. The rhythm here is purposeful and efficient. It’s set up as a familiar premise – a random encounter over a drink leading to something more. The story flirts with a romantic interlude, then knocks it down just as swiftly with a film-worthy final line.


SHORTLISTED

CHARLIE’S FLIGHT by Xanthe Knox

As far as he could tell, Charles Whittaker was the last human alive in North America.

While it certainly had its drawbacks, it did mean he had the first class lounge of the Dallas Airport all to himself. He also didn’t need to share the bottle of Yamazaki whiskey he’d taken from the bar.

‘Tomorrow is an important day.’ He told himself as he poured another glass.

He had been talking to himself for a few years now. A habit which had been initially concerning.

‘You’ve learned as much as you can Charlie boy. Time to jump in and put theory into practice.’

Learning to fly and navigate a plane when society had collapsed hadn’t been a simple undertaking. Charles had scoured close to one hundred libraries until he thought to raid an actual flight school. Without instruction the learning material had been virtually indecipherable. Two solid years of reading and matching pictures with control panels had resulted in a feeling of semi-somewhat-sort-of-confidence that he might be able to perhaps get one of the smaller private jets off the ground.

‘You said you’d leave in the spring. Well, it’s spring now Charlie. No excuses.’

He lifted the glass to his lips before realising it was empty. He refilled it and leaned back in the leather recliner.

‘Sure, maybe a boat would have been safer. But you were terrified of sharks. You said you’d rather go down in flames then linger for hours in the water. Besides, you don’t know how to sail either.’

Charles had, had no family, and no close friends to speak of. He’d had business associates. One or two women he called in the wee hours when he’d had too much to drink. But they’d always left before he woke and he never missed them when they were gone. So it was that he was totally unprepared for the chest-crushing loneliness of being utterly without human company.

‘Australia’s a long trip.’

‘Yes but it’s an isolated island. If anywhere was spared it’ll be there.’

‘You sure you’re not just homesick? Hawaii’s an island too Charlie boy.’

Charles had no reason to believe anyone was anywhere. He’d seen no planes or ships, nor heard a single radio transmission since the collapse. But that didn’t mean they weren’t out there. Either plunged back into a pre-industrial era, or avoiding contact with the ravaged continents.

‘Australia.’ He nodded as he drained the last of the bottle. ‘No changing plans now.’

It was dark outside the windows of the lounge now. Charles guessed it was close to midnight.

‘First light.’ He said as he pulled the airline blankets over him. ‘At first light, we fly.’

Outside, it started to rain.

What we liked:
There were quite a few dystopian tales this month, but we had a soft spot for solitary Charlie preparing for his flying debut. A strong start to engage the reader and the quirky dialogue punctuates an inventive premise. Sprinkled details throughout reveal a resourceful character teetering on the edge of sanity. Good luck, Charlie!


SHORTLISTED

ALL THE BETTER TO EAT YOU WITH by Rachel Kirk

Doug slides anxiously down into the plastic seat outside the boarding gate. His sweaty shirt rides up against his back. He presses his carry-on bag tightly between his knees and clutches his passport with white fingers. The smells from the fast food booths make him nauseous: the grease in the air coats his windpipe with each breath. Doug’s red cheeks puff out as he breathes faster and faster. He’s sucking in the human scents around him, the smell of feet and bad breath and stale sweat.

‘You feeling alright?’ a voice to Doug’s left says conversationally. Doug starts. He could have sworn that when he sat next to this seat, it was empty.

‘I hate planes,’ Doug says. He desperately wants to ignore this distraction. He needs every ounce of concentration to keep sitting here rather than sprinting back towards the entrance. But then he hears a loud chuckle: ‘You think planes are bad, you should try real flying.’

Doug turns. A small acid-green dragon is perched on the next seat. It stretches a pair of sleek scaled wings and looks up at him.

Doug manages to whisper, ‘…real flying?’

‘Oh yes,’ the dragon says brightly. Its claws are folded politely over its stomach. ‘It’s cold, it’s lonely, your wings get tired – it’s much easier just to hop on a plane.’

‘And – the people? They don’t mind?’ Doug asks, wide-eyed. The plastic armrest cuts sharply into him as he leans back. He bumps into the young woman sitting on the other side. She shoots him an irritated look, ignoring the dragon completely.

‘People never seem to pay much attention,’ the dragon says wistfully.

Doug’s heart thumps in his throat. His mouth is dry and dusty.

‘There’s so much to like about planes,’ the dragon continues. ‘The food, for instance.’
Its yellow eyes are hypnotic. Doug leans forward. His passport falls unnoticed into his lap. When the dragon moves, a golden sheen skims over its scales, like the flash of a fish’s tail in a pond. Doug can feel the hot snorts of its breath on his face.

The dragon says, ‘I’m already starting to get hungry.’
Doug can smell the thing’s breath now: sweet and overripe, like something rotting. The points of its teeth glisten.

Over the speakers, a bored monotone says, ‘Flight 318 is ready to board.’
Doug shakes his head, dazed, as if he’s surfacing from a dream. Sharp teeth grin back at him.

The dragon watches Doug spring up from his seat. He zooms through the ticket check, takes great bounding leaps down the corridor and doesn’t stop until he’s safely through the door of the plane. It’s only then that his heart rate starts to come back to normal.

The dragon blinks its crocodile-like eyelids. It pulls out a packet of salted peanuts and offers another to the girl one seat over. She doesn’t look up.
‘Some people,’ the dragon says softly to itself, ripping the packet open with long claws. ‘You try to be friendly…’

What we liked:
Active writing opens this story and promptly takes the reader along for the ride. We enjoyed the unexpected turn at the height of Doug’s pre-flight jitters. Where many stories often rely on the visual senses alone, this one skilfully mixes in touch, taste, smell and sound to bring the scene to life. We’re not sure of the dragon’s true intentions – but it was ultimately the perfect wing-man for fighting Doug’s fear of flying.


SHORTLISTED

GROUNDED by Martin Lindsay

Rain beats down against the departure lounge windows, hard, like nails. A muted corner-mounted television shows a weather update. An unseasonal typhoon passing by Japan’s west coast, violent storms ravaging the country. And rain, unstoppable rain. So much for the beginning of spring.

Finally, the inevitable – after successive delays, the departures board lists his flight as cancelled. An announcement: a calm female voice, presumably issuing instructions for passengers to contact their airline for rescheduling. Tomorrow? The weather could take days to clear.

Work has to stop sending him on these trips. The Russian roulette of tight schedules must eventually fail. This time, in Tokyo, it has.

He sends the message – carefully drafted, apologetic for circumstances out of his control – then prepares for the consequences.

The reply arrives within minutes.

‘Typical’.

A quick estimation of time zones and bedtimes. He messages back.

‘Can I at least talk to her to explain?’

Passengers make a slow procession from the lounge. The rain continues buffeting the glass in violent gusts. His phone vibrates.

‘Make it quick.’

Trusting the safety of his carry-on bag underneath the row of seats, he seeks a quiet area to call.

His daughter’s voice, sleepy and hesitant, answers.

He wishes her well, asks of her day, then begins the apology – he won’t be back in time for pick up tomorrow.

Silence. Disappointed, confused, or just tired, he can’t tell.

“I’ll try to be back for some of our weekend.” He wants to list reasons: the hurdles against him, the efforts he has made. But they’re irrelevant to five-year-old ears.

What has he tried? Saying no? Insisting someone else be sent instead?

But if there was someone else, what need would there be for him at all?

“Mum says you think work is more important than me.”

Mum says. No start to a sentence could evoke more terror. Access could be court ordered; the words in between could not.

“Nothing is more important than you,” he says. “When the rain stops and the planes are flying again, I’ll be straight back.”

“Tomorrow?”

He looks back to the departure lounge. It was empty, the boarding desk unmanned.

“We’ll have to see.”

Don’t raise expectations. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

“Maybe. Maybe the next day. Maybe we’ll have to wait until our next weekend.”

Expectant breathing on the line, waiting for him to lead the conversation.

“I bought you a present.” He glances back to his carry-on luggage, a small geisha doll inside.

“Oh. Okay.”

Murmurs in the background.

“Mum says I have to go to bed now.”

“That’s okay. Sleep well. I love you.”

“Bye.”

The phone is passed over then the call is immediately disconnected.

A security guard stops at the unattended luggage, looking for an owner.

He waves and makes his way back. The guard moves on.

Sitting, with nowhere to go until work notifies of new flight details, he watches the weather forecasts and listens to the rain.

What we liked:
A sorrowful slice of frequent-flyer life. The subtle dialogue keeps the story’s heartbeat at the foreground while the relentless rain provides an apt backdrop. While the emptiness of the departure lounge further emphasises the father’s helplessness. A great example of simple storytelling that still packs an emotional punch.


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