Furious Fiction September 2021 winner and shortlist

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This month’s 44th edition of Furious Fiction was an up-and-down affair as we asked entrants to either plumb new depths or climb to lofty heights. These were the challenge criteria:

  • Your story must include EITHER an attic OR a basement.
  • Your story must include some kind of insect.
  • Your story must include the words EARTH, WIND, FIRE and WATER. (Longer variations were accepted as long as original spelling was retained.)

If our judges weren’t familiar with the works of 1970s band Earth, Wind & Fire, let’s just say that they are now! The same goes for a menagerie of creepy crawlies, from shiny Christmas beetles to skittering cockroaches and graceful butterflies. An entomologist's dream. 

And then there was the choice between up the folding ladder or down the creaky stairs. It’s funny how basements tend to conjure up horror vibes, while attics have more wistful memories – maybe it’s their “heaven and hell” comparisons? Whatever the case, almost 1600 storytelling souls made their way to one or the other (it was a pretty even split actually), with Jo Withers the first to discover the old box marked “$500AU winner”. Congrats Jo!

You can read her winning story below, along with five shortlisted ones, plus scan the longlist at the end for familiar names. And hey, if you simply ENTERED this month, well done for poking around in the dusty attic (or basement) of your creativity – we hope you had fun!


 

SEPTEMBER 2021 WINNER

THE LAST PARTY by Jo Withers, SA

We’d practised the drill for months, since the rifled men snatched power. Now, as mother pushed me and my brother down the basement steps, I knew we weren’t pretending anymore. I was old enough to understand, but Rami was only six. We told him we were planning a surprise party, told him if he stayed still and quiet, he could have the biggest slice of cake.

I pulled him down into the dark beside me at the bottom of the stairs and held him close. Above, I heard mother close the basement door and pull the false wall across to disguise the entrance. Instantly, we’re engulfed in gloom. Seconds later, there are noises like gun shots and the metallic smell of smoke as though someone’s trying to start a fire. Rami looks terrified.

‘Don’t worry,’ I whisper, keeping my voice level, ‘they’re just getting ready, setting off a few party poppers to check they work.’ I press a gentle finger against his lip.

Upstairs, the noises continue. We hear heavy objects scraping across the wooden floors and raised voices we don’t recognise.

‘Just friends arriving,’ I tell Rami, ‘helping mother move furniture so people can dance.’

I wonder how long we’ll be down here. I know we have air and water for thirty-six hours but somehow, I already feel like I’m gasping. My throat is tight, and my hands are shaking, but I must keep calm for Rami.

The noises upstairs are getting louder. I can hear mother’s voice, scratchy as though she’s been crying. I hear objects breaking and men shouting outside the basement door. Mother screams, an unnatural, inhuman wail which circles around every wall of the house, filling every space like a violent wind. I can’t keep the party pretence any longer.

Rami jumps up beside me wanting to get to her, fights when I try to stop him, hitting me, trying to get up the stairs. I kick his lower leg to topple him down and press my hand against his mouth. I hold him tight, pressed against my chest as a crescendo of rage unleashes upstairs.

Then there is silence.

We stay there for hours. Gradually, my grip on Rami loosens until eventually we stand hugging, holding each other up, sobbing then stopping, sobbing then stopping.

Finally, we move apart. I hold Rami’s hand and lead him upstairs. We open the basement door and push the false wall aside. The house is in ruins as though crazy revellers just held the wildest party, broken pottery is shatter-sharp across the floor, earth crumbles around scattered house plants, holes are smashed through walls.

We wander through the kitchen where only this morning, mother greeted us with kisses as we tumbled down to breakfast. Cabinets hang from hinges, blood splashes across the tiles and behind the broken cupboards, roaches chatter, teeming from their newly exposed homes, swift in grief and fear, scurrying fast as they can scuttle, desperate to run far, far away.

What we loved:
This scene is restrained yet fraught, with an emphasis on sound – over all other senses – to heighten its terror. Both the tone and POV are authentic throughout, effectively portraying a young, protective protagonist in a helpless situation. And the story's active language is also a smart choice – at once throwing the reader into the basement with the kids as they listen to their world being torn apart above. Avoiding gratuity and exposition, the narrative instead chooses to focus on the children’s perspective and the initial pretense of the party – an apt way to illustrate their sheltered life experience so far, and all the more heartbreaking as a result. The final shatter-sharp details don’t hold back however, as the true scene is revealed – the children in parallel to the insects fleeing what was once their home. An impactful demonstration of where less can sometimes be more in storytelling.


 

SHORTLISTED

UNDERCOVER by Dave Evan-Watkins, UK

Tommy O’Shea covertly wipes a bead of sweat from his forehead, anxious that no one should suspect anything; that no one should guess his three-year-long hell might soon be at an end. Three years of having to constantly watch his back – of trusting no one.

But no longer. Convince Micky “The Wrench” to turn state’s evidence on Sal in exchange for judicial immunity and a cushy witness protection deal somewhere by the water and it’s over.

Together they exit the grungy cellar bar where Sal and his cronies conspire, and step into the cool evening air, instantly bathed in the tangerine neon glow of the streetlights.

Silently they climb into a dark grey saloon, and the tinny strains of Earth, Wind and Fire’s ‘September’ burble out of the speakers as the engine purrs into life. But they do not set off yet. Instead Tommy swats at an imagined fly on the dashboard, secretly engaging the central locking.

“Mick?…I’m a cop.”

“You what?!”

“I’m a cop, Mick. Been undercover these three years.”

“No you ain’t!”

“I am, and the net is closing on Sal, but you don’t have to go down with him.”

“I dunno what your game is Tom, but you ain’t no cop. I’d know ‘bout if it you was – see – I’m a fed.”

“A fed?!”

“Comin’ up on six years meself, and you can bet I’d ‘ave been told if the boys in blue was tryin’ to muscle in on my–”

There is a sharp rap on the passenger-side window and both men start visibly.

“Jimmy Digits! Think you could knock any louder next time?!”

“Steady on, Mick, just wanted to know what you two were gossiping about. Looked awful serious.”

Nine years between them and still the moment catches Tommy and Micky off-guard. “Well…we…uh…oh bloody ‘ell! Listen, Jimmy, I’m a fed. And you two are both under arrest.”

“Actually,” says Tommy, “you two are under arrest – I’m a cop.”

“Oh great!” Jimmy cries joyfully to befuddled looks from his two companions, “I’m undercover too, for Vodafone. Can I interest either of you in a new pay-as-you-go contract?”

“Pay-as-you-?! Jimmy, are you off your nut?”

“Not at all! All the big brands are doing it now these days. Being the preferred supplier for any of the big gangs can net you more business than some of the Fortune 500 companies! Take Tony The Wheel – he’s an undercover BMW rep. Me and him did two years with the Boston Mafia before this gig. And do you really think Two-Hands Lou got those lovely Rolexes you’re wearing after they fell off the back of a lorry?”

“Wait – are you telling me that none of you lot are actually career criminals?!” Tommy enquires, dismayed. “What about Sal? Please tell me he at least is a genuine bona fide felon!”

“Oh, no question!” says Jimmy, “You seen what they’re charging for them new iPhones? Bleeding daylight robbery!”

What we liked:
We do enjoy a piece that isn’t covert about its quirk – and here, as the characters reveal their ulterior motives one by one, you can’t help but giggle at their befuddlement. A great example of selecting a simple, silly premise and running wholeheartedly with it. (It’s also an example of not needing the basement/cellar to be the centre of the action – but merely a bit player.) The humour is amplified through the back and forth dialogue – leaving little room for descriptions, but perfectly placed to play the story out like a Monty Python skit or spoof of The Departed. Cute nicknames match their tell, Tony “The Wheel”, “Jimmy Digits” and “Two-hands Lou” all ramping up the ridiculousness until the final “hard Sal”, where our felon is revealed to deal in iPhones. You can just picture him saying, “How do you like them Apples?” as he opens a briefcase…


 

SHORTLISTED

UNTITLED by Deirdre Martinz, Vic

You’ll love this. I was cleaning out the attic the other day and I came across one of your toys. Almost tripped over it. That little red fire engine you loved so much. You remember? You used to push it around the house with the siren blaring. In the end I took the batteries out. Couldn’t stand the noise. I never told you. Even when you sat there for hours pressing the switch back and forth, trying to make it work again. Even when your big blue eyes filled with tears and your lower lip quivered. Something that always cut straight to my heart.

A lot of your toys were up there. I thought we had got rid of them, but we must have kept some. I don’t know why. Hope, I suppose. I found Freddie Teddie too. With his button eyes and threadbare ears. You used to drag him around the garden by one arm. Remember that time your ice-cream dripped onto him? He ended up covered in ants. Straight into the washing machine. Couldn’t bear to let him out of your sight. You sat watching him sloshing round and round in the water. And afterwards, we hung him on the line to dry in the wind. You couldn’t sleep without him. I often thought about that…afterwards.

Anyway, it got me reminiscing. When I came down from the attic, I got all those old newspaper clippings out. There was so much media attention. Reporters camped out on the street, digging their equipment into the earth, churning up our nature strip. And our lives. Vultures, your father called them. He was right. Combing through our lives with forensic precision. Questioning our parenting. Picking through our history. Poking at our wound until it festered.

Two boys go out to play. Only one comes back. A good story. A newsworthy story. For a few weeks. Days spent trying to worm their way into our lives. False empathy. Fake compassion. Everyone trying to get the best exclusive. They moved on. We didn’t. How could we?

People said you’d ran away. I knew you hadn’t. I found Freddie Teddie in the garden. You would never have left him. Of course, your brother blamed himself.

I took your place in your bed, sleeping with Freddie. I moulded myself around him, like I used to around you, after a bad dream. I would wrap myself around you. Feel the soft warmth of your skin, press my nose to your head, inhale your scent.

It’s been almost 20 years. Funny, it still feels like yesterday. Still no sign, still no news. Another missing person cold case.

Those memories stay strong and sharp. For now. It’s the new ones I have problems with. They tell me I have early onset Dementia. Funny, isn’t it? A lifetime trying to forget, and now, I don’t have a choice. I will hang on to you. I will hang on to you for as long as I can.

What we liked:
Here, a clear, conversational and intimate tone of voice filters through this story of loss, keeping the reader engaged from the opening sentence (with its personal invitation) until the very end. The 2nd person POV is an especially fitting choice for this style of story, working seamlessly to draw you in while also portraying a mother’s monologue, memories, and long-held grief for a missing child. The idea of a real-time conversation rings authentic for someone who would continue to hold out hope that their child is out there. The descriptions of the beloved toy Freddie Teddie are particularly poignant and realistic, as is the bitter matter-of-fact recollection of a case that clearly created so much chaos. A simple premise with deep layers, this is a story that hangs on to you for as long as it can.


 

SHORTLISTED

THE DIGGER by Sherry Hintze, United States

The hole was never meant to amount to much. A niche in the basement wall to nestle Louise's wine rack in. A project to keep Doug busy after he'd been fired, just until a new position turned up.

But once he'd pulled away the foundation stones, the exposed earth beckoned, inviting. It crumbled beneath his touch, the rich aroma filling his nose. An ant crawled over a rock and disappeared into it, as if leading the way. So Doug dug. And kept digging.

The initial chamber thrilled him, cradling him in the earth's embrace. But it wasn't enough. He tunneled outward, hollowed a larger chamber, tunneled again. Eventually his burrows criss-crossed the neighborhood, winding around water pipes, dodging foundations, nestling into the roots of the neighbor's ancient oak.

At first Doug hid the excavated earth in Louise's flowerbeds. When there got to be too much, he dumped it, bucket by patient bucket, in the woods behind the house. He worked when Louise was at the office, taking care to shower and change each day before she returned.

But even Louise could not be put off forever.

“How's the job search?” she asked pointedly over beef stew one night, her shrewd eyes taking in his pale skin and receding hair, the shirt hanging in folds around him.

“Um,” he mumbled, gnawing a chunk of turnip. “Working on it.”

She sighed, but didn't press.

Sleepless, Doug took to slipping out of bed at night, creeping down the basement stairs and into one of his burrows. There, cradled by the earth, he dreamed of others to dig beside him, share his cozy nest.

Two weeks later, Louise told Doug that the Hendersons were having their oak tree cut down. “Something's completely undermined the roots,” she fussed. “The slightest wind could topple the whole thing.”

Doug nodded, saying nothing. He began to range farther and farther, searching for an elusive something that remained just beyond his reach.

The day inevitably came when Louise, home early, descended to the basement. She gaped, horrified, at the tunnel leading into darkness, the piles of dirt Doug no longer bothered to haul away. “Doug, what in blazes are you doing?”

“Digging.” He extended a grubby hand. “Let me show you.”

“Doug, you're sick,” she said quietly. “There's something wrong with you.”

“Nothing's wrong,” he protested. “I just…dig.” He reached out again. “Come and see.”

Louise stiffened, backing away. “Put it back.”

Doug looked at his hole, considered miles and miles of tunnels. “I can't. I belong to it.”

“You'll be hearing from my lawyer.” Louise stomped upstairs, slamming the basement door behind her.

The lawyer's packet dropped through the mail slot sometime later. Doug might have felt the vibrations as it landed, but the world upstairs was scarcely real to him by then. He spent his time extending his tunnels, searching for others like him. They were out there, something within him insisted. Someday, perhaps someday soon, he would find them.

What we liked:
Once we finished chuckling at a character called ‘Doug’ following through on his name, we were intrigued by the quietly mysterious premise of this piece. It can be a delicate balancing act delivering an engaging story that also doesn’t offer too many answers. But as we see Doug dig deeper and deeper and ultimately further away from reality, his growing compulsion effectively builds the story’s tension. In turn, it builds a deeper reader connection with Doug, despite his unsettling new habit and crumbling relationship – undermined much like the neighbours’ oak tree. A unique narrative which for some might simply be seen as the silly tale of Douglas who should have dug less, but for others is rich in metaphor and mystique – akin to the “rabbit holes” we occasionally all lose ourselves in.


 

SHORTLISTED

AMIDST THE SADNESS OF PAPERWORK by Simon Shergold, UK

I’m sitting in the attic, a final stop through time. The box is wooden and more bruised than I remember. The small brass latch strains a little; like me, trying to contain everything it holds within. I flick the clasp and the papers breathe out, as if you are exhaling one last time. I’m holding my breath, conscious of not using your oxygen. I brush away a moth that has lain here who knows how long – a sentinel no longer needed.

The Title Deed

Your name and our address sit plainly against the squall of swirling, calligraphic legal speak no one understands. A statement of your solidity, a constant in the firestorm that surrounded us. On moving day, we unpacked our lives one box at a time, memories stamped ‘FRAGILE’ carefully freed in the hope of making better ones. Eating pizza on upturned crates, we plotted a new journey without looking in the rear view mirror.

The Birth Certificate

Your opening chapter. The tiny fingerprints are silent smudges of the part of you that never changed. The type has faded, fitting for people and places that I do not know and will never return to. Your full name is a whisper of a life before me, held on the wind. They handed me your final chapter at the hospital last week, its wording all too bold and clear, black ink defined and definite. So final.

The Letter

Your name careers towards the edge of the envelope in my teenage spidery scrawl. The note inside a menu of night-time gossip and midnight snacks on a school trip I secretly dreaded and then not so secretly loved. This was my way to say I missed you; missed us. But that I was OK. A turning point, kept safe should we ever need its strength again.

The Card

Always violets and lilies, purple and white beacons of pain. This is you holding on to him, a flower pressed inside to delay the goodbye a little longer. I have a dozen such cards on my windowsill, each with a kind note that doesn’t help and doesn’t hurt. When the time comes I know I’ll keep one too, a portal to touch our hardest days.

The School Report

‘Lacks focus’ and ‘daydreamer’ are just two of the compliments given to you that I recognise in myself; our minds always off to slay dragons metaphorical and real. Earthy four-word phrases that today would be a paragraph of concealed teacher speak. Their grudging admiration of the girl you were shining through, if you just look closely enough. Me in another time, you at your most glorious.

I sit cross-legged amidst the sadness of paperwork; the post-it notes of a life, your life, rippling out like disturbed water. In time they will recede, piled carefully back within that small bruised box. But always ready to take one more breath when I need it.

What we liked:
As mentioned upfront, the attic-based settings seemed to elicit many memory-themed stories this month, and this one was no exception. We were impressed with how well it created both a character portrait and a nostalgic-tinged narrative. Using paper objects to punctuate the story, each uncovered document elegantly sheds more light on the nameless, departed loved one’s own story. The emotional core of this overall story rings true – perhaps as so many of us have mimicked the behaviour of the protagonist, sorting through a box of forgotten items and instantly being transported back in time. In fact, we wonder how long hard-copy paper mementos will remain hidden gems in this way as time goes on… it is indeed the sad and dwindling nature of paperwork. The final description of “post-it notes of a life, rippling out and then receding” is beautifully delivered. 


 

SHORTLISTED

TUESDAY NIGHT AT THE SHAVEN GNOME by Brad Campbell, NSW

Lucas feels an itch on the inside of his thigh, just below his left testicle.

‘Three minutes until the next pose,’ Abigail announces.

Lucas stands naked in the basement bar of the Shaven Gnome, one foot perched on a velvet stool and the other outstretched and stuck to the sticky parquetry. It’s a Tuesday and the room smells like sweat and Southern Comfort.

‘Remember, if you’re a beginner, it’s easiest to start working around the negative spaces.’ Abigail tries to speak in cool, earthy tones and isn’t wearing any shoes. ‘For instance, see the large cavity this pose creates between young Lucas’ legs?’ He wonders if it’s within his employment rights to ask Abigail for a glass of water.

Lucas briefly makes eye contact with a girl in the class – he imagines her name is Louise – wearing a fire engine shade of red lipstick and a tee-shirt with a band he’s never heard of. Her friend taps her on the shoulder and points to the easel before they both nose laugh into their glasses of pinot. Lucas vaguely recognises her from the psychology lecture hall but it’s too late to worry about that now.

Abigail had firmly told Lucas to stay still through each pose but she didn’t say anything about not being allowed to close his eyes. He tries to focus on the muffled sounds of the Shaven Gnome jukebox upstairs, the faded whack of a pool cue, and the crowd – singing, swearing and drunk. He lets himself imagine being nestled in a corner booth with Louise, fully clothed and sharing a bottle of whatever.

‘Next pose!’ Abigail commands with a short clap. The basement is filled with the scratchy sounds of art paper turning all at once. Lucas forgets what he’s supposed to be doing next and looks to Abigail helplessly. She makes a prayer motion and Lucas drops to his knees. As he settles in, the high pitched hum of a mosquito moves past his ear to who-knows-where.

‘Excuse me, can I please have a new piece of charcoal?’ Lucas knows it’s Louise speaking and he momentarily stops pretending to talk to Jesus. Abigail swans over to hand her a fresh stick. She inspects Louise’s work, nods approvingly and offers some whispered advice with dramatic, flailing arms. Abigail then notices Lucas has broken his pose and clicks twice pointedly at the floor for him to resume the position. ‘Sorry,’ Louise mouths through a silent giggle when Abigail turns her back.

Lucas is finally allowed to step into the storeroom to dress next to a used mop and crate of lemons. Abigail hands him an envelope of cash but he doesn’t count it. He is about to leave when he sees Louise at a table with her friend, stirring shrinking ice cubes in a glass. He turns towards her but again finds his feet glued to the floor. Instead, he exits the Shaven Gnome and steps out onto the street, allowing the sober wind to goosebump his skin.

What we liked:
First up, great title – pub and story. And with a (ahem) ballsy opening line, this story immediately had our attention. Like some of the best examples of flash fiction, the plot here is straightforward and simple, but its vivid scene and characters burst from the page. The descriptions showcase the author’s excellent observational skills, and welcome us into this basement bar (a rare non-residential setting) where we can feel the sticky flooring, hear the muffled jukebox and pool cues, and see the posing Lucas as he waits, watches and wonders, but ultimately remains frozen and unable to follow through on his smallest desires. The claps and clicks of Abigail the art teacher are easy to picture, as is the lonely lemon-scented storeroom. A fitting place for us to exit our own “Shaven Gnome of stories” for this month as we step out onto the street once more…

 


 

LONGLISTED ENTRANTS

Each month, this longlist of highly commended entries may seem like a large collection of stories, however they represent just 3% of all we judged in September. To put it another way, there are 1520 stories that did NOT make the longlist. Here are those who did (if you’re on the list, by all means, celebrate!):

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

  • TO DREAM by Arafel Kane, NSW
  • STEAM by Don Patrick, NSW
  • CONSTRUCTION by Julia Travers, United States
  • FREE AT LAST by Warren Benedetto, United States
  • BEING A GHOST by Christopher Morgan, VIC
  • MEMORIES by Amrita Khadilkar, Singapore
  • ANTS ON A HOT TIN ROOF by Alwyn Mcnamara, NSW
  • UNTITLED by Heaven-Leigh Porter, QLD
  • SUMMERTIME COUNTDOWN by A.D Buchan, NSW
  • WARSAW by Brodie Wilkinson, SA
  • UNTITLED by The Coven, QLD
  • UNTITLED by Jessie Yu, VIC
  • FLYING BLIND by James Vernon, QLD
  • ESCAPE ROOM by Pk Gladwell, NSW
  • THE BOOKWORM by Susan Vance, QLD
  • THE $1 CANDLE by Greg Eccleston, NSW
  • UNCLUTTERED by Debra Hassen, NSW
  • SUPERMAN by Thomas Elson, United States
  • BEFORE YOU GO by Pauline Yates, QLD
  • WHAT DO YOU TELL A CHILD? by A. J. Forget, United States
  • THE RESPLENDENT LAMENT OF THE MAGNIFICENT ELEMENTO by James Flanagan, United Kingdom
  • FAIR MAIDEN by Tallis Baker, QLD
  • TO BE CONTINUED by John Harb, NSW
  • THE METER READER by A K Scotland, NSW
  • METAMORPHOSIS by Elizabeth Spencer Spragins, United States
  • RESILIENCE by Jennifer Lindner, United States
  • MAUDIE'S BASEMENT BAR by Jane Brown, QLD
  • PIECES by Emil Čolić, WA
  • UNCLE DEAN by Zoe Dublewicz, NSW
  • HOMEWRECKER by Eugenie Pusenjak, ACT
  • MEETING MARLON by Jane Hodgkinson, QLD
  • HER by Sydney Savage, WA
  • GEROME by Kerry Cox, WA
  • THE WINDS OF NO CHANGE by R J Fitzgerald, VIC
  • 75 YEARS by Suzanne Wacker, QLD
  • HONEY I’M HOME by Ferne Merrylees, NSW
  • A NEW VANTAGE by Lydia Evans, WA
  • THE FALL by Louise Booker, QLD
  • DANNY by Angus Trigg, NSW
  • LEAVE IT TO THE BOYS by Angela McCrann, United Kingdom
  • THE GLASS JAR by Aayet Mushtaq, India
  • RETURN TO SENDER by Bill Heather, QLD
  • MARJORY by Joss Cannon, WA
  • THE QUEEN IN THE BASEMENT by Malwina Strutt, NSW
  • LOOPS by Lily Harmon, NSW
  • ALONE by The Mind Chaotic, Bulgaria
  • EXTINCTION EVENT by Merin Jacob, South Africa
  • ANTS by Dawn McCaig, Canada
  • UNTITLED by Sophie Dwyer, QLD

 

 

 

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