2019 Flash Fiction Prize: The Collection
Wow, it's that time of year already.
The Poetry Prize announcement is upon us soon, and the novel judging is well underway! But, before we can get all of those things wrapped up, we wanted to give our winners their dues and present their work to the world.
The Flash Fiction Prize is one of our favourite competitions. Short fiction really pushes writers to choose their words carefully, and 500 of them isn't very many, all things considered.
But, that doesn't stop you guys from producing some wonderful pieces, and we're really, really pleased with this year's collection. There are some fun ones and some sad ones, but no matter where their stories take you, you can be sure that it's somewhere amazing.
So, without any more of my rhetoric, I'm so wonderfully pleased to introduce this year's Flash Fiction Collection.
Grand Prize Winner
By Jim Noonan
A light snow falls as I slip into the distance of the deserted highway, the billboard's logo — a red and white checkerboard like the one I always put on her letters — flashing by my eyes, then dancing in flashbulb-violet haze before melting in the stab of my headlights.
We ran in different circles, if "circles" is the word you use in a high school graduating class of
seventy-six. I ran in the circles of her smile and the way her eyes sparkled blue and her
neat script read "Seventy-six in 76!" as she touched my arm and handed the yearbook back.
We exchanged addresses with yearbooks, like everyone did, but she was cheerleaders and girls
in school colors, breasts hidden behind textbooks. I was pot-smoking boys in jeans, splay-legged in study hall, waiting. Her father was the principal. Mine drank. Still, I saw her every day in band and in the halls and she smiled at me in soft sweaters, brown hair framing her face.
I stare at black beyond my headlights and see red pencil scratches in the corner of an envelope, a checkerboard, red filling in, white showing through, that winter after graduation. Letters. Hers kind and thoughtful with deep shades of homesickness, "lost without circles in South Bend!" Mine awkward, but strengthened with longing and the encouragement I put on like my Navy-issue coat that winter in Waukegan — and the way she smiled when I arrived on campus after she pleaded, "I need to talk to someone I know. Notre Dame’s only an hour by bus!" And we laughed about the letters, the red and white logo I drew on every one, the checkerboard — "Purina Mailbox Chow!” — she sang it as she kissed my cheek, and how sweet she was, introducing me to her friends in their short college skirts and black tights, clear young eyes, and how the beer was stale in plastic cups at the mixer, the band too loud, and how my polite refusal to dance at each friend’s invitation stayed on my lips all night, waiting for her to ask, for her to look up at me from behind her sleepy eyelids, and then the long night awake on the floor of her dorm room, chattering until I knew she was asleep, listening silently to the soft fall of her breath in the bed just beyond my reach, wondering if she would say any word but "friend."
But we ran in different circles.
And checkerboards no longer on letters over the years, arriving like echoes through a valley, each fainter and farther from the last, until just yesterday morning it’s been two years. And the letter in my pocket, in her husband’s hand, saying, "She would have wanted you here." And I’m driving, lost in red and white checkerboards as snowflakes dance in my headlights.
The Squirrel House Is Not Full Of Nuts
By Sherry Morris
Keys jingle-jangle a tune I can’t follow from the green wrist coil you wear. You stop, look back over your shoulder, smile, but your eyes watch for anyone standing too close. You turn your attention back to leaving – release the double-bolted locks, push open the heavy door. It’s going home time for you. For us, it’s the skeleton crew. Our durable red wristbands list our name, medications and allergies. They could easily be removed with a snip, but scissors aren’t allowed here.
‘Squirrel house. Which nut you want?’ is how Norman answers the payphone in the dayroom. He lives to answer that phone. His big voice booms. People complain, but the grounds are full of the creatures, so he gets away with it. Hang-ups are frequent. But when he gets a name, he shouts it with a smirk, then drops the handset and moves away. If no one takes the call, we watch the receiver dangle, listen as a tinny otherworldly voice says, Is anyone there? Can anyone hear me? Monica?
We all know our nut names: Suicide, Sexually Abused, Eating Disorder. There’s one Post-Partum. Some girls — and it’s always girls — are multiples, presenting their trauma like bejewelled necklaces for us to admire.
We know each other’s real names but nicknames are safer. Slick and Blue got busted by Dragon for candy swapping, but Muddy turns a blind eye.
There’re no locks on our doors, we’re free to enter each other’s worlds. Tammy has broken green eyes, taped-together glasses, and a knack for nicking. Amanda has the baby, bandages on her wrist, and a husband who sobs when he visits. Monica’s a run-away, but her family keep finding her. Charlene, if this is her real name, tells fascinating tales of beatings, starvings and webcam sex-scams. Stella doesn’t talk, but plenty is said about her.
In dreams, I use the staff phone to dial the payphone. When Norman answers, I say Cashew. Smile as his voice travels around the room. Speak gently into the receiver’s ear. Then ring the number again. Pecan. And again. Macadamia. Until we all have shiny new names and our smiles return.
‘Why do you think you’re here?’ you ask.
‘You’re the one with all the keys,’ I say.
I ask, ‘Why are there no squirrels in the squirrel house?’
You look at me, blink, write something.
I stare out the window, watch the vermin chase each other, bury nuts.
Towards the end of our almost-silent session I feel sorry for you.
‘What people don’t understand is that most nuts aren’t really nuts. Pecans, cashews, walnuts, Brazil, pine – they’re seeds. Peanuts are legumes. Macadamias are fruit. There’re very few true nuts — chestnuts and hazelnuts — but people call them all nuts. It’s easier.’
‘Interesting,’ you say. ‘Go on.’
But I’m weary now. Fall silent. Your frenetic scribbling makes the keys dart and dance, clatter together. Chatter like squirrels. I feel a headache coming on. I go back to watching them run wild amongst the trees.
By Michael Thompson
I never liked clowns growing up. I wasn’t scared. I just never understood what they were
An office in Vietnam is like an office in England, but at same time, not. Between the halogen strip lights are air conditioners blasting cool air into the jet engine fug. The water cooler is always busy because the water in the tap is toxic. Talk is small: the traffic, the pollution, the police out for New Year taking bribes. Snacks are laid in front of the couches: sandwiches, bananas, star fruit, dragon fruit, something that looks like it could only have been grown under the sea on one of Saturn’s moons.
‘Intractable.’ I look down at the lesson plan on my knee.
My Vietnamese boss hobnobs in the teacher’s lounge in her blazer. Professional, phoney, inexplicably carrying a Selfie Stick.
‘Intractable.’ Why the fuck do a group of beginner English students — businessmen — need to know the word intractable? What the fuck does it mean anyway? And why the fuck do they keep giving me these classes?
It’s my boss. She likes the young teachers because the awful, old business people are less likely to complain. Intractable. In.tract. in.tract.a.ble. The more I look at the letters the less they mean anything. Squiggles on a page. Milk swirls on a latte. A clenched fist slamming down on a keyboard. Nksjlnkcsalknd.
My stomach lurches. It might be the black, drip coffee or it might be the flies. Trapped, buzzing from buzzword to buzzword on the emblazoned glass. Opportunity. Buzz. Development. Buzz. Your future. Buzz. It might be the low drone of my colleagues. One set speaking in a language I’m meant to understand and the other in alien sounds. Rising tones, falling tones, wave tones. Intractable.
My boss is doing what comes naturally to her. She’s mingling, taking pictures, networking. And there is a moment of singular absurdity, a crescendo in the queer mundanity, it’s as if my sense of self is dissolving and reforming outside of my body.
He sees the room as if through a scope that breaks everything down into its constituent parts. There is no chair, no chairness, there are only segments. Fabric and metal and rubber stops on the feet. There is no lesson plan. There is paper and ink and a staple. There is no boss. There is a human female. But why has she put white powder on her face and red paint on her lips? Why does she walk around on sandals with a raised heel, leaving the foot, with its painted nails, pointing downward at an angle?
And it feels like some terrible veil has been lifted. He has seen up the magician’s sleeve, into the ringmaster’s dressing room, there is no going back. He has been flung from the carousel, out of the earth’s orbit, and he must look on from above as everything continues to oscillate wildly.
The Artistry of a Surgeon
By Will Macillan Jones
I’m terribly sorry, did the pen tickle? Please stay very still, try not to wriggle around like that. There, that line down your breast isn’t adequately straight. I’ll have to swab it off and redo it.
That’s better. I have drawn that line vertically. It matches the line on your other breast exactly. Now, the semi-circle underneath each nipple; it’s a bit like drawing a smiley face, isn’t it?
Please allow me to congratulate you on the even shape of the aureoles. I’m quite sure that you appreciate that the aesthetics of what I do are very important to me, and that includes achieving a symmetrical result for you. I had a lady in here last month: well, I had a terrible task to achieve a good result for her. A result of which I could be proud. I am sure that you will be less of a challenge, if I may say so.
Now, please excuse me whilst I lift each of your breasts in turn to draw the incision lines underneath them. Naturally I am wearing surgical gloves. We can agree that skin to skin contact would be entirely inappropriate?I have a number of strict guidelines that I follow and I am careful not to breach them. They have carried me a long way in my career, and I am determined to continue for many years yet.
Right, finally it’s this surgical line. From the breast bone right down to the groin. I will have to use the metal ruler. It’s cold? I shall have to warm the ruler up for the next ladies to come through. They ought to thank you for that idea really.
Although they won’t have an opportunity, of course, as I am sure that you understand. Oh look! You have had a Brazilian. How thoughtful of you, it helps me to orientate the line properly.
Here’s the scalpel I will be using for the procedure. I’ll place it here on this tray, where you can observe it. Yes, it has been properly sterilised since your last surgery, despite the budget cuts the economic climate has forced upon us all.
Do you remember your last surgery? That was when I took your tongue out, so that tonight when I start cutting, you cannot scream and disturb my neighbours while they are watching the evening soaps on TV.
It wouldn’t be fair on them, would it?
By John Everex
I stay up late, pretending to sleep when they say lights out and pretending to sleep when they walk past my room. Our apartment is on the fifth floor of Redemption Court, an old Art Deco block in the centre of the city, near the department stores, fashion boutiques and overlooking restaurants and public houses. Once they’ve gone to bed and the flat is silent I come out. Once, I used to wish one of them would come out to me; I'd hoped they'd comfort me in the night and perhaps coax me back to bed with a song or kind words. Now, I like this solitary time in the quiet and darkness.
I've learnt to love the night. I love how colour disintegrates into monochrome grey and ignites when touched by unexpected light. I love sounds in the dark, the echoes and passages of silence. I love how everyday noises — a car engine, a cough or a distant argument — take on prophetic qualities that speak to me. I drink in the nightlife: the drunks carousing their way home, cursing or fighting or loving those around them, staggering like the walking dead; the rats scurrying around the heels of the well-to-do patrons of the restaurant opposite; that same restaurant's chefs smoking down the side alley among the bins, crude-talking words in an exotic tongue.
My affinity for this night-time diorama allows me to see one of the first.
The truck is out of place in the city night. It should be eating up miles on a motorway, not edging through urban streets, but it does, too clumsy and ugly for the refinement of the road below. The vixen doesn't stand a chance. She runs out from foraging in the kitchen bins opposite, in front of the vehicle’s front left wheel. It barely registers her body, as it crushes her pelvis into the blacktop. She makes no sound, or at least, I hear nothing above the roar of the truck, which redshifts off into the night. Her broken body is a black stain, a darker smudge below my window.
But it’s not long.
She twitches. At first, I think it’s my eyes, I can feel the tiredness. Have I imagined it? Pressing my forehead against the glass, I see it again. A shuddering, painful wave of movement that travels through what's left of her body. She raises her snout before dropping it back to the black. Stepping away, I put my hands up to the glass. I should help — do something — but half her body has been crushed by the wheels. She cannot survive.
But she does it again, pulling up on her front legs and peeling her body from the road surface. She pulls herself step by step into the filth of the gutter, streaking liquid darkness behind her: a viscous trail that will turn red with the dawn.
She’s one of the first.
The Rustling Of Leaves
By Charlotte Bird
If I close my eyes, I can hear the sea. The susurration of the tide on the pebbles, the heave and swell of it. I can almost smell the tang of salt, feel the sharp freshness in the air. My soul ignites, and for a brief, glorious moment I stand in the surf, hand in hand with you. I turn to look at you, eager, but opening my eyes breaks the spell. No waves on pebbles, just the wind fluttering a thousand leaves in the towering trees. It’s always windy here, a behemoth stirring in the air. A raw power that shifts the thick branches as though they were twigs. No salt smell; instead, an earthy aroma, fields and cow dung and grass. It’s summer, and hay fever shimmers in the air; you’d never stop sneezing, love. I miss the sea, and you. There’s a weight here, everything is solid and immovable, rooted in ancient earth. I was made to flow fast and free, just as you were made to soar weightless above us all. That’s why we loved the coast, our two elements side by side. Now I’m as far inland as can be, a fish out of water you might say.
It’s a perfect day; it would be glorious on our beach. We’d chase each other through the shallows before sprawling on that faded old picnic blanket, not noticing the pebbles pressing our backs. The sea would glitter like broken glass, your hair would blaze like flames. You’d laugh at me as I started to turn pink after an hour and we’d retreat to our secret cave, hidden among the boulders. Here, the trees supress all the colour. The entire palette is shades of green. You wouldn’t want to paint it, even your skills couldn’t render this scene anything other than miserable. It’s what I deserve; my exile is my penance. My only comfort is the dream of you. I conjure you when the solitude becomes too much. The urge to run back to the real you is overwhelming, a bone-deep need to hold you and be forgiven, but it’s too soon. Time needs to do its work on you, peel back your layers. I have to wait until you forgive me; I can feel your anger, even here. Your ghost stalks the shore with a fury more terrible than a tempest. I went too far, I know, but I had to stop you leaving and you wouldn't listen. I should be punished, so I’ll endure here until you're ready. When it's time, I’ll climb down to our hidden cave, our magical grotto where you wait for me, and love the very bones of you. We were destined, you and I.
I yearn to close my eyes, recapture the illusion, but once my grasp slips it takes time to pull the tenuous threads back together. The pebble beach is gone, and I am left with the rustling leaves.
May Contain Nuts
By Sarah McDermott
“People treat it like a joke,” Martin said, eyeing the back of a prepackaged sandwich.
“I know, I know.”
Lucy pulled her coat a little tighter around her shoulders. The towering refrigerator was blasting out chilled air that smelled faintly of mayonnaise. The train was due in thirteen minutes. That gave them three minutes to queue, two minutes to get across the platform and eight minutes for Martin to find an edible sandwich.
“They think, ‘oh, for fuck’s sake, grown man scared of a peanut.’ I know that’s what they think. I’m not—” he looked up. “I’ve heard all the jokes, you know?”
Lucy made a sympathetic noise, not looking at him. Was that Anne Hathaway on the cover of Cosmopolitan? She squinted across the dull linoleum floor. “Have you found one that won’t kill you yet?”
Martin was examining a flatbread, mouth twisted in concentration. “Possibly,” he said.
She glanced at the packaging. “Pesto’s pine nuts, isn’t it?”
“I’m not allergic to all nuts, Lucy. I’m allergic specifically to peanuts.”
“I’m just saying, if a trace of peanut could kill me then I’d personally be playing it safe with the pine nuts.”
“I ate a hazelnut last Christmas.”
It was true. The hazelnut was in a Quality Street. Quality Streets may contain traces of peanut. She’d checked the label at the time, because that was before she’d realised that peanuts were only occasionally a life-threatening hazard for Martin.
Anne Hathaway was making eyes at her from across the room. Weird, over-eager Anne Hathaway eyes: Half Disney princess, half head girl. There was a free tube of nail polish on the cover. She could paint her nails on the train and spend a solid hour with her fingers splayed, refusing to wipe up Martin’s spilled pesto.
“So you’re going with the chicken then?”
“I’m not sure. Do I like pesto?”
“Why would you pick it up if you don’t like it?”
“There are only so many to choose from.” His voice rose to a thin whine.
Well then why didn’t you pack a lunch, she almost snapped. Instead she said, “train’ll be arriving soon. Could you...?”
An interminable silence. Across the shop floor, a woman passed by the magazine rack and picked up the last Cosmo. She thumbed through a few pages, not stopping on any particular article.
“You had pesto at Sam’s engagement brunch,” Lucy said. “Remember those little pasta canapé things?”
“People are so unkind,” he said finally. “About people like me. With allergies, I mean.”
“I know,” Lucy said. The woman had dropped the Cosmopolitan into her basket. Anne Hathaway landed face-down in a family-sized bag of chocolate eclairs.
“It’s a serious condition,” Martin said.
“I know,” Lucy said. She glanced at the big clock by the departures board. Nine minutes to go.
“They treat it like a joke. Everyone does.”
“I know,” Lucy said.
Like a Pendulum
By Karmen Spiljak
‘Welcome back,’ the reception robot says. Her rainbow eyes scan through the screen projection on the wall. The date sparkles. It says ‘12th October 2170’.
‘It’s your birthday,’ she says. ‘We’ll get you something special, then.’
She scrolls through the screen.
‘How about love tingles? You haven’t had those yet, have you?’
I shake my head.
‘Is it nice?’
‘It’s supposed to be.’
‘What’s it like?’
‘Imagine everything turned to liquid. In a good way,’ she says.
She pauses. ‘A bit, but much better. Definitely something worth having on your... forty-fifth birthday,’ she says.
I scratch my cheek.
‘Tell you what,’ she says, ‘If you don’t like it, you can have one of your regulars afterwards. It’ll be a gift.’
She takes me to the room. The first time I came to an e-motion centre, I was surprised to find a simple space with white walls, a chair and a table. It wasn’t until the lights turned off and the holograms appeared, that I understood how things worked.
I ease into the chair and watch the walls melt into pink skies. A big, glowing ball tints the edges of the horizon orange. I reach for the glass on the table and drink up, trying not to frown at the bitter, citric taste. My limbs turn soft and wobbly. Soon I won’t be able to move, so I make myself comfortable and fix my gaze on the sun. As it sinks, I close my eyes. My stomach tingles with pleasant tension, as if it was full of buzzing insects. Ripples of sweet weakness emerge from my belly button. My pulse races.
Lingering between pleasure and discomfort, my feelings swing from one to the other, like a pendulum. Was there really a time when people got to experience all this for free?
What was it like, having so many thrilling emotions, getting them without prior warning? Earth was a different place, back then. These days angst and anger are the only things you can get free of charge. Not that anyone would want to pay for them.
My body pulses. Streams of glee and anticipation intertwine as they surge through me. I erase life outside these walls. The blazing sky that grinds life into grey dust, the smell of burnt flesh, time suspended between hope and anguish, waiting for one final swing
The above pieces will all be published in our 2019 Anthology, available early next year.