Last month, in celebration of our Crime and Thriller month, we asked you all to submit a story in 149 words or fewer. The rules were to introduce us to a character of your creation. The story had to feature your character having committed a crime (any crime, big or small). And finally, it had to include the words “birthday”, “softly” and “umbrella”!
Challenge accepted. We received many hundreds of entries, and the standard was very high. That of course made it a difficult task picking the shortlist and just as tough to find our two winners (each now with awesome book packs currently on their way to them).
But we did it, and here are the two winning entries, for your viewing pleasure:
A cloudless day.
“Blast,” Umbrella thought. He lay horizontal on the shelf and began to fantasise… Relentless precipitation, urgent hands grabbing at his handle.
A flash of red took him out of the moment.
Birthday Balloon glinted at Umbrella from above. Dancing provocatively atop a string, she softly bounced against the wall. Tantalisingly close. Umbrella had to admit she was attractive, as far as curvaceous objects go. She seemed up for anything.
Although… watching her sashay along, Umbrella grew uneasy. This could all be an act. Was Birthday Balloon a shelter substitute? Her figure at little risk of blowing inside out, no fiddly attachments. Yes. Certainly a threat.
It ended quickly. A well-timed breeze from the doorway and his unforgiving ferrule. A satisfying POP!
Birthday Balloon's dishevelled body collapsed in a heap.
Umbrella almost burst himself open with relief. Luckily his belt held him together.
Winner: Jasmine S. (NSW)
What we liked: A great start that introduced an unlikely character. Also, the short bursts suited this type of storytelling. We think the over-protective umbrella could get his own series!
There once was a man who couldn't float. His wife sat by the pool and said: ‘It's easy. Just relax. Any fool can do it.' She slid sunscreen softly along her silky legs. She sipped a multicoloured icy drink with a little paper umbrella in it. She flicked through shiny magazine pages.
The man tried harder, but his arms and feet rose upwards whilst his bottom sank. He flailed, breathless, to the surface. He tried again. And again.
“Honestly,” his wife said, “you're pathetic.” She lay back on the sun-lounger and closed her eyes.
The man dragged his sodden, disobedient body to the side of the pool and gazed at his perfect wife lying there in her birthday suit.
The man discovered his wife couldn't float either, as he watched her lying, face-down at the bottom of the pool.
Winner: Gabi B. (VIC)
What we liked: Again, just very simple scene setting. We approved of the type of umbrella, and the serene tension that slowly built up (difficult to do with so few words) to the final splash. In short, this story floated our boat!
‘The hateful eight’: Notables from our shortlist
These eight other stories made our shortlist for various reasons – perhaps for painting an excellent visual picture, deliciously descriptive language, cleverly grouped paragraphs, a quirky crime or surprising turn. Sure, they didn’t win this time, but we thought they also deserved a spot in the limelight. After reading all 10, you may differ in your opinion as to which two top the pile (in fact, it’s very likely) – but the judges’ decision was final! Enjoy.
It was a service station umbrella, too small to be useful and so cheaply made it would snap almost immediately. It was purple, Claire's favourite colour. She clutched the thin plastic, feeling the metal bones inside. Not unlike her own body, she thought, all straight lines and bony hips. A stick figure drawn in the margin of a page but she shrugged off self pity. Today was her birthday and she'd make it a good day.
She peered through a fringe of dark hair at the busy attendant and shoved the umbrella into the cavernous pocket of her jeans. Her hand hovered over it, a thumb hooked through the empty belt loop. Her jeans scuffed as she padded softly toward the sliding doors, then through them. She ran. Bare feet might not avoid the puddles but today she'd keep the rain off her head. A good day.
– Fiona G. (NSW)
It's raining softly but she still has her umbrella out. I stare at her as we walk toward each other, she lifts her eyes and holds my gaze, oh those eyes, and we stop, talk and talk for what could be hours, minutes, seconds. She's smiling and saying goodbye, oh those eyes, clearest blue in darkest waters, outshining the night, the street lamps, the glare of headlights. She's passed me already and I'm walking away, forgotten on the ordinary night of a thousand birthdays, but then running footsteps, heavy breaths, a hand in the pocket of my coat. I turn and it's those eyes again, smiling, laughing. She's walking backwards, brings her hand up to her ear, ‘call me', turns and vanishes down an alley, brown curls bouncing. I reach down down for a slip of paper, but only feel an empty pocket. The same pocket my wallet lived.
– Grayson N. (WA)
Softly and gently he did it, as she slept. Holding the pillow down on her face. Afterwards he stroked her leathery cheek and carefully placed one last kiss upon her forehead. Although his steady movements would suggest it, he had not planned the event. Yet he was not surprised. There was a certain clarity and release in the act, something that he would have looked forward to had he known how it would feel. “Ivan,” she had said that morning over tea, “I don't remember why I loved you.” He had been losing a little of his darling each day since the diagnosis. Her slowly decaying brain matter killing all memories, of anything that mattered. He remembered everything. The night they met, Dulcie emerging from underneath her polkadot umbrella with her porcelain skin and red lips shining. That special birthday, when he had promised to cherish her forever.
– Justine K. (VIC)
The dark and private corners of The Sedgemore Hotel became his unwitting accomplice. Trivia Newton John his alias. So many innocent victims; sometimes celebrating a birthday, other times the joy of friendship. Teams reaching into the depths of their trivia knowledge, blissfully unaware that their best endeavours would be fruitless. Softly spoken yet deafening in his intent, Maurice was vigilant in the execution of his devilish crime. Wednesday nights became Maurice's evening of choice to execute and refine his acts of deceit.
Maurice moved stealthily and sat silently in the eastern corner of the bar. A wry smile and black umbrella marked his territory. His sweaty hand clung to the schooner glass – and so it began. A quick glance at his phone, a cheat sheet protruding from under a coaster and an unscheduled bathroom visit. Silent weapons used on unknowing victims to execute the perfect crime – Victory!
– Kim F. (NSW)
I shake the dark drops from my umbrella, caring little for the carpet. Caring little for anything.
There are puddles at my feet.
Lipstick on my neck.
A dull stone in my heart.
Silence hangs on tendrils of smoke that crawl from the kitchen. My wife sits red eyed and stinking of cigarettes. Her empty smile the only expression she has left.
There's cake on the bench. Humming bird topped with cream cheese.
A single candle broken in three, kept crooked by the wick.
My finger carves a furrow through the icing.
Beyond the sweet is a quiet kiss of bitter.
“Happy birthday,” she whispers.
“You shouldn't have,” I say, meaning it.
It suddenly feels warmer.
I claw at my tie.
The room spins.
She catches me as I stumble. Lowers me softly to the floor.
Her sad smile doesn't change.
The dark comes swiftly.
More than I deserve.
– Pete N. (SA)
Slipping around the side of the house, Larry brushed the cold drizzle from his eyes. He scanned the police car rolling softly up the drive, and assessed his birthday suit for theatrical effect. Calloused and odorous, rambling hair, cracked and yellowed nails; the product of hard living. A good base, but this was show business. He smeared a finishing flourish of mud across his rump, and lunged out of the shadows.
“And YOU, moon man! I see you!” he growled, spittle flying, eyes rolling. “Ruffian! Rascal!”
She recoiled, he braced. Careful not to touch either officer, Larry kept up a stream of nonsense until the younger man produced an umbrella and a thermal blanket and coaxed Larry into the car. His colleague went to inspect the house. She'd return, Larry knew, with nothing to report except a muddied, half-open window. He'd done his job. They'd be gone by now.
– Sarah A. (NSW)
The engineer stands in the shadows of the hotel foyer, staring, with a strong sense of foreboding, up at the glass-bottomed swimming pool suspended in the ceiling.
It wasn't structurally sound. He knew this — he'd written the report on it. But here was everyone carrying on with their holiday plans, oblivious.
“It's my birthday treat,” an elderly woman smiles at the check-in staff, her ageing husband shaking slightly beside her.
A girl with dark skin and a black one-piece swimsuit floats serenely in the pool above, the water lapping softly against her.
He should have turned the report in. Instead, he accepted the bribe to change it. And it's too late now, he knows. The cracks are already there. As if on cue, a small trickle of water suddenly cascades onto the gentleman's trembling head.
“Did you bring the umbrella, Betty?” the old man pats his head in confusion.
– Sarah B. (NSW)
Sod it, conditional suspended sentence. I stole three wallets, jeez! I thought six months at least? I'll be sixty in July. On welfare, alcoholic, homeless; I can't take another winter sleeping rough on the streets. Got a piece of foam and a sleeping bag in my old pram, from verge pick ups; got an old golf umbrella too. But it's bloody cold and wet out there.
Right, no more softly, softly. I got a syringe, tomato sauce and water made the blood. It'd be aggravated robbery, with a lethal weapon; plus, now I was a repeat offender.
I robbed a jeweller in a huge shopping centre, I'd never get away. I didn't. Exhibit A was a huge handful of necklaces. Blah, blah, blah, finally the judge got to the good bit. ‘Three years at Grevillea Prison'.
Wahoo! Warm place, free food, clean bed, bathroom. Maybe a birthday cake too?
– Louise B. (WA)
Congratulations to the many others who submitted a story. And if these kinds of writing exercises are your thing, keep a look out for some exciting challenges coming up in the near future. We’ll always let you know about them in our weekly newsletter, so if you don’t currently subscribe, now could be a great time to do so!