This month, more than 1000 writers entered Furious Fiction – mixing alchemy with creativity in the hope of stumbling upon the magic story elixir. The September criteria were varied and many:
- Each story had to include the name of at least ONE element from the periodic table.
- Each story’s first and last words had to begin with S.
- Each story had to contain the words TRAFFIC, JOWLS and HIDDEN.
- And finally, each story had to include something that BUZZES.
Elementary, my dear writers! In fact, you collectively mined that periodic table well – with more than 80 different elements used. The most popular? Oxygen, carbon and gold. Yes, we DO read every story (hi Peter Clarke from NSW!) and we loved the inventive, fun ways that so many of you chose to get your “story elements” in!
Of course, there were other criteria too, all helping to create quite a varied bunch of entries this month. But one story stood out for us, and it belonged to Jay McKenzie of NSW, Australia. She brought all the elements together to create the winning formula this month and is $500 richer for her efforts – well done!
You can read Jay’s entry below, as well as a selection of other shortlisted stories and a further longlist of entrants whose stories were in the judging mix. As always, well done if you entered – and we hope to see you all line up for our special 21st birthday celebration on 4-6 October!
SEPTEMBER 2019 WINNER
WIPE by Jay McKenzie, NSW
Sandwiches curl, untouched, bread going crisp in the heat. We are bathed in white summer warmth, but I am cold nonetheless. Wet, but neither of them have noticed.
“I wanted to do this, face to face.”
The traffic rumbles by, oblivious.
“But here? Where we always…?”
She hushes him, strokes me with her fingertips.
The silence heavy, thickening with their every breath – his laboured, hers fluttering.
He stops, lost. Shaking his head, the jowls that have crept onto his face recently wobble. Baggage-laden eyes blink rapidly. He surveys her face. She is beautiful still, he thinks, their story etched into the crows feet around her eyes.
I want to cry he needs you! I need you. But I don’t. I retain my wooden silence.
We watch, he and I, as she twists the gold from her finger. It slips off with ease.
It rests in her palm as she holds it out to him, the unending circle of their love. He turns his face, blinking to the sky.
She gazes down at me. Don’t give it to me I plead silently. I don’t want it. But my silence screams compliance, and she gives me the ring.
I hate it. I hate the weight of it bearing down on me. Hate the weight of her lingering fingertips. Hate them and love them and oh God, this is just too hard.
Her phone buzzes in her bag. She looks at him again, but he remains fascinated by a wisp of cloud, eyes hidden. The strap of her bag has tangled around my leg and she has to untwine it. I don’t help.
“Yes,” she says softly on answering. “I’m leaving now.”
He doesn’t look at her, but I feel the tremble of his arm pressed against me, deep and sonorous.
She turns. I trip her – I can’t help it. She stumbles. Smooths her skirt. Steps from the kerb. Doesn’t look back.
We wait. Five seconds, maybe more. Then he’s leaning heavily on me, convulsing sobs wracking his body. We don’t care who sees. I support him silently as he bends and breaks. Saying nothing, taking his weight.
I too am breaking. For I know that this will be the last I see of him. He can’t see me. I hold too many memories. Their first date. The proposal. Birthdays. Their youngest leaving home. Every time they came to me. I suppose it only fitting that their story should end with me.
The convulsions ebb to a ragged breath. He pats his face with a napkin and stands.
Don’t go, I whimper inside. He lays a hand gently on me. I savour the familiar heat of his palm. He closes his eyes, peels his hand from me and heads into the crowd.
They are gone.
A waitress – I forget her name, they come and go – spots how wet I am and gives me a swift wipe, clearing them, wiping clean, ready for the next story.
What we loved:
A unanimous winner this month, this break-up scene uses excellent emotive storytelling and expertly handles its unique POV without ever revealing its hand. Along the way, the use of truncated dialogue rings true for a scene of this kind, while the final paragraph ties back to the title nicely in both a metaphorical and literal sense. (In a way, the table is like Furious Fiction each month – new stories, wiped clean for the next month!) Creative, original and moving – a pleasure to read!
THE CARNIVAL FISH by Shelby Van Pelt, USA
Something is wrong with King Arthur. I can tell from across the room. Fish don’t swim upside down.
I run a hand through my stubble and walk over to the bowl. Morning seeps through the window and the water shimmers in the golden light. King Arthur floats in the middle, his round orange belly popping through the surface like a buoy. He looks like he could be sunbathing.
How am I going to tell you?
Six months is pretty good for a carnival fish. We really tried. You cleaned his bowl every week. I sprung for organic fish flakes and pricy purifying drops for the chlorine in the tapster.
There’s a chopstick on the table from last night’s takeout. I use it to poke the water. King Arthur bobs on the ripples. I nudge his tailfin and he turns slow pinwheels before coming to rest under the rim of the bowl, hidden.
That carnival. It was one of the last things we all did together before your mom got sick. Your mom and I laughed with disbelief when you landed the winning shot, the ping-pong ball plopping into the cup with a splash. You fell asleep on the way home, slumped in your carseat with King Arthur on your lap. The water in his plastic sack sloshed as we wove through traffic.
I slide my back down the wall and sit on the floor. What am I going to tell you? That King Arthur went to the big fish tank in the sky? You won’t buy it. You’re smart, and you’ve had to grow up so much these last few months. Too much.
Clementine pads over. She purrs like a buzz-saw as I scratch her jowls. We put the bowl up high because of Clem. That was your mom’s idea. If I’d been in charge, King Arthur would’ve been a snack.
“What are we gonna do, Clem?” I mutter. She looks up at the fishbowl. Her yellow eyes gleam as if saying: well, if you’re gonna flush it anyway.
I shoo her away. We’d never flush King Arthur. You’ll insist on a proper burial.
There you are on the stairs. You blink, eyes heavy with sleep.
“Morning, Sweet Pea.”
“Daddy, why are you sitting on the floor?”
The worst day of my life is coming, and soon. The day I’ll have to tell you that your mom’s gone. After each hospital visit, I silently beg whoever’s in that big fish tank in the sky: please, just a little longer.
You crawl into my lap. I cup my hand on your cheek. “Sweet Pea,” I say, “King Arthur died.”
“Oh,” you reply. You hem your lips and nod, a gesture so measured, so mature. Something inside me cracks.
The tears come hot and fast, but they’re not yours. I can’t describe the noises that come out of me. Huge, gasping sobs that are animal, alien.
You wind your tiny arms around my neck. “It’ll be okay, Daddy,” you say.
What we liked:
Short stories need to pique your curiosity – and this one did exactly that with its great opening. What seems at first a simple tale/tail of losing a pet is beautifully and achingly unfolded to give us, by the end, another layer to the narrative – interwoven seamlessly into the original. Use of second person POV is notoriously tricky to nail, but the instances of it here are used deftly to help pack an emotional punch.
KEEP ON SINGING by Kate Gordon, TAS
She looked up at the sky; bellflower blue and heavy, somehow. Somehow closer to the earth and pressing down. Pressing down on her.
Behind her, in their grandmother’s shiny new Leyland, her sisters sat in a row.
Ruthie had corkscrew bunches and sucked on a pink lollipop. Jo applied her green apple lip gloss, filling the car with the scent of counterfeit summer.
Anna held her small silver box. If you didn’t know her, you might have imagined it contained jewellery or maybe even a love note, from a boyfriend back home.
Jenny knew her sister. She knew that in the box, hidden under a lace handkerchief, there was a chunk of some sort of mineral or stone. Probably, knowing Anna, something like polonium. Or arsenic. Something that could kill them all.
Their grandmother swerved in the traffic, avoiding an oncoming Mini that strayed over the centre line. “Fucking women drivers,” she swore beneath her breath. In the backseat, the three girls giggled.
Jenny didn’t know how they could laugh. She didn’t feel like she could laugh ever again.
The car windows were open. Occasionally, a blowfly would find its way inside and would buzz around in a panic until it remembered the window; worked its way back outside.
Even after it left, the buzzing in Jenny’s ears remained.
Their grandmother turned a knob on her dashboard and the radio crackled to life. A Helen Reddy song. Their grandmother began to whistle, making her jowls wobble faintly.
Jenny didn’t know how she could whistle.
“He’s gone,” she whispered to herself. “He’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone.”
In the backseat, her sisters sang along with the radio.
In the driver’s seat, their grandmother whistled.
And Jenny’s heart exploded.
And outside the car, there were other cars, and there were children playing in their front yards and children on bikes and children on rollerskates and their dads were inside; at home; drinking Victoria Bitter; cooking chops; dancing with their mums and living.
“You don’t know that,” her grandmother said, from the corner of her mouth. And then she added, “He’ll be back.”
But Jenny knew.
Men died in wars.
Her grandfather had died in a war. Her grandmother should know.
They should all know, by now.
Outside the window, people danced.
In a jungle, somewhere, thousands of miles away, her father had a gun.
And other men had guns.
And her father would die.
But people danced.
And her grandmother whistled.
And her sister had, in a silver box, a stone that might kill them all.
And Helen Reddy sang “I Am Woman”.
The world outside was changing and it was staying the same. And another blowfly flew in the window.
And her father had a gun.
“You don’t know,” their grandmother repeated.
Jenny closed her eyes. She could see the jungle. She could see her father.
They drove. The car smelled of apples.
The sky pressed down.
On the radio, another song began. And her sisters kept on singing.
What we liked:
A simple car ride can yield so much – as we are expertly transported to the suffocating nostalgia of a time and a place that we can picture without ever being explicitly told. Small details bring each character in the car to life, and there is effective use of repetition (both in language and as the scene plays out on a loop) – reminiscent of a song. Lovely use of pacing and descriptive language throughout.
THE LONG WALK by Susan Vance, Qld
Sitting up, he gasped for breath. Damp sheets tangled around his legs. For a few seconds his tired brain allowed some respite before the stark reality of his situation crept into his consciousness.
Washing, he stared at the face reflected in the mirror. The strain of the last few weeks was evident by the grey pallor of his skin and the etched lines around his eyes and mouth. He scraped the whiskers from his jowls, turning his head from side to side to check for any stray hair. Glancing at the letters written the night before, he had been assured by the staff they would be delivered after he vacated this miserable cell. One letter for his wife, his children and his parents. He regretted not spending more time with his family. They had always been there for him, supporting, encouraging, believing. Now it was too late. He shrugged. The past was the past, it couldn’t be rewritten.
Accompanied by a guard, he walked to a spartan room where meals were served. Nodding at the two men seated at the table, he looked at what was on offer. Steak, eggs and coffee. Comfort food. He ate in silence. The time for chitchat was long past. The hands on the clock ticked off the minutes as he finished his last meal on earth.
Returning to his room, he changed into his new suit. It felt bulky and stiff. He had tried it on several times over the last few weeks, adjusting the sleeves and ensuring the collar fitted closely. Through the ungiving fabric he gently stroked the photo of his family hidden in his breast pocket. After years of waiting, the thought of what was to happen made his stomach lurch and his heart rate accelerate.
Out in the corridor, the chaplain murmured a heartfelt prayer, asking God to bring them in safety to their journey's end. Now, with the guards by their side, it was finally time to leave.
The men were temporarily blinded by the bright sunshine as the rear door opened. They moved out and across the metal gantry. Even from this distance he could hear the traffic making its way along South Washington Avenue. He was surprised to see hundreds of onlookers gathered behind the chain link fences. Cameras clicking. Fingers pointing. Should he wave at them? Acknowledge their presence? Maybe not. Staring ahead, he focused on walking.
Crowding into the metal cage, the guard pressed the buzzer, indicating they were on their way up. He watched silently as the numbers and figures passed by on the titanium shell. One, one, oh, ell, ell, oh, pee, ay. The cage stopped with a shudder.
“Sir!” The engineer saluted and shook his hand. “Good luck and God’s speed.” The astronaut moved aside and along with all the paraphernalia needed to survive, he squeezed into the tiny cockpit. He was about to make history. Checking the dials, he smiled and realised he was no longer scared.
What we liked:
We do love a twist, and as our main character exits his cell to have his last meal on earth, most of us are likely thinking one thing. But this cell has no lock and he will have meals in the future – just not on this planet. Well paced, with each solemn paragraph marching us a clock tick closer to the final destination, before cleverly blindsiding us with a parallel reality. The title perfectly sums up the similarities of these final moments.
BIG DAVE by Daphne Briggs, NSW
Sweltering under the hot sun Big Dave ran the back of a weathered hand across his forehead. He flicked away the sweat and replaced his hat.
Not a breath of wind, and only a few wispy clouds streaked the pale blue sky above. There wasn’t an ounce of shade. The Great Northern Highway shimmered in an oily mirage before him.
A pair of headlights shone in the distance, like two round eyes. Squinting, he watched them drawing steadily closer. An iron ore truck.
Big Dave stepped out into the centre of the road. The smell of asphalt filled his nostrils. He stood waiting as the vehicle approached. For a moment he questioned what he was doing, out there.
The driver brought his truck to a stop and leaned down from the cabin window,
‘Sure is a hot one today.’
‘Yeah, enough to melt the Coon off ya Cracker Barrels.’
The driver chuckled.
‘They’re tipping the mercury’s gonna hit 43 degrees later today.’
Perspiration trickled down the side of Big Dave’s face, dripping from his stubbly jowls.
The driver must have sensed he was parched,
‘Ya wanna drink mate? I’ve got a spare can of Coke here.’ He held up a red, aluminium can.
The shiny gold ring on his third finger caught Big Dave’s eye. New. Big Dave thought wistfully of his own ex-wife. Long gone now. Back to her family in the Philippines, with his child. Yeah, he’d stuffed up there. He flinched. His Hi-Viz shirt had stuck to his back.
A fly buzzed past and settled near the corner of Big Dave’s eye. He brushed it away in irritation.
‘Na. But thanks anyway buddy. I’ve got me esky hidden in the scrub over there.' Glancing across the dry red soil, he pointed at the grubby polystyrene cooler box, visible under a spindly bush beside the road. ‘I’ll have a cold one after you’ve gone.’
Two days and Big Dave could be back in Perth. Maybe get a Tinder date. He licked his zinc covered lips and sighed. Perhaps it was time to leave this wretched place and turn his life around.
A message crackled through the speaker on his Walkie-Talkie.
With renewed purpose Big Dave rotated his pole, spinning the traffic sign from ‘STOP’ to ‘SLOW’.
What we liked:
Great use of prompts, and managing to pack a lot into just 380 words, this sweltering slice of highway life is an authentic and well illustrated vignette. Despite the harsh landscape, we’re never left high and dry as this encounter peppers colloquial language and true-blue Coon-melting Aussie gems to keep us intrigued. All is revealed in the final line – also a nice reflection on the pace of life in these parts.
THE MAN OUTSIDE by Nina Peck, WA
Soundlessly, Holly opened the little window next to the bed and allowed the silver shard of moonlight to illuminate the tiny room. Next to her, the six-foot-something stranger continued to snore quietly, his alcohol-stale breath pungent in the sticky post-coital air.
Sliding from the bed, Holly curled beneath the window and lit a cigarette, drawing hard on the filter, watching the little orange tip glow with a satisfying crackle.
Outside the window the traffic was virtually non-existent; the occasional Uber delivery bike, a few black cabs. Her eyes were focused on a small bar across the road, and the man sitting outside it, sipping a glass of red. Even though it was hidden from her eye-line, she knew there was a book open on the table in front of him: The Tell-Tale Heart. She was reading it too.
The man turned his head slightly, his nose – once broken in a bar fight – was slightly crooked. Holly admired his profile, the high forehead and a devastatingly sharp jaw line. She could sense him smile, and she smiled back.
Drawing on her cigarette, she looked across at the stranger in her bed. His parted lips were dry, but a string of saliva hung between them. Unlike her friend across the road, this man had jowls which hung loose and round, aging him. Not that I know how old he is, she thought to herself, in fact, what’s his name, again?
On the bedside table, Holly’s phone buzzed to life. Before she had a chance to reach out for it, it buzzed a second time, and then a third. The glow of the screen and the insistent sound wasn’t enough to stir her guest, he was in too deep a sleep.
She read the messages with a smile, her heart full for the first time that night.
Are you OK – was it worth it?
I’m halfway through Poe. Join me?
He always asked, but she never went.
She pondered his questions; his concern. She saw him across the road, his phone on the table, the screen dark, but he was waiting for her response. She hoped he could sense her looking, her appreciation.
Standing, Holly tiptoed across the room and pulled on the jeans she’d so readily discarded a couple of hours ago. The moonlight didn’t allow her to pick her underwear out amongst the pile of clothes that lay strewn around the bed, so she pulled on her over-sized University sweater and felt the familiar tingle of arousal she got when she was sans underwear. Except this time, she wasn’t on the hunt – not in the usual way.
Would she make it across the road this time? She was unsure. She slipped the house key into her pocket. Behind her, through the little window, she could hear the gradual fall of rain. Full of good intentions, she slipped from the room, towards the front door.
She wanted to be different. Maybe he was the answer. She had to see.
What we liked:
Clear storytelling is on display here, not to mention a healthy dollop of intrigue – with a night time scene so well described that we can picture the bedroom and the street below as if it were a clip from a film (you can almost hear the soft soundtrack playing). Here, in the still of the night, it’s all about what isn’t being said – with well-paced, restrained introspection throughout.
Congratulations to the following entrants whose stories were also on the judges’ radar this month. To you – and all others who entered – well done. It could be YOU on the podium next month!
SEPTEMBER 2019 LONGLISTED (in no particular order):
- MUM by Stevie Hayden, SA
- HOME by Anna Tavares, NSW
- NO TIME by Andrew Fergusson, NSW
- UNTITLED by Keely Fleming, NSW
- NITROGEN AND PHOSPHOROUS by Deb Hannagan, WA
- HERE TO SERVE by Jane DeGeorge, USA
- 50/50 or PHONE A FRIEND? by Douglas Ross, Vic
- SPRING CARNIVAL by Carmen Cuskelly, Qld
- UNTITLED by Rajita J, Singapore
- BOY by Carnelian E-J, NSW
- QUIZ SHOW by Sean M Elliott, Vic
- TAP, TAP by Denise Newton, NSW
- SELENIUM by Sarah Keenihan, SA
- MEETING THE PARENTS by Bruno Lowagie, Belgium
- THEM WORKDAY FEELS by Fionna Cosgrove, WA
- DEAL WITH THE DEVIL by Connor Sassmannshausen, Qld
- FLIPFLOP by James Dunford, UK
- MONSOON RAINS by Andreas S Mumm, SA
- TWELVE SEVENTEEN by Zoe Wood, NSW
- UNTITLED by Immy Mohr, NSW
- THINGS I WISH I COULD TELL YOU by Charles Manila, Vic