Winners of the August/September Flash Fiction Challenge
The August/September flash fiction challenge was a simple one. Remember, it read: Write a scene in which your character finds themselves in a crisis/emergency situation. Show us how they respond. (They don’t necessarily have to be the hero of the piece.) Two elements: the crisis – and the character’s response. The sort of situation, in other words, that crops up in almost every story – so the challenge was an opportunity to prepare yourself for the real – that is to say, fictional – thing.
As usual we had a good crop of entries. We liked the fact that so many of you were careful to avoid over-explaining the nature of the crisis. In every case of those we picked for our shortlist, the precise nature of the emergency was merely suggested.
We’ll start with the runners-up this time, and end with the grand fanfare for the winner, who has earned herself either a literary assessment on 5000 words of writing – (worth R2900/£170) or a voucher to the same value to use on one of our courses or programmes. So, congratulations…
To Nols Matyolo for her very South African response to a quintessential challenge.
To Jean Veitch for her immersive account of another recognisable crisis that has afflicted too many of us.
To Helen Nevin for a story that features an unusual protagonist.
To Andrea Doig for her account of a cold-blooded protagonist who makes an equally chilling choice.
To Victor for his accurate account of a character’s reaction to an emergency clearly of his own making.
And finally, to Catherine Munro and Tariq Fensham… Let me rephrase that. To Tariq Fensham who loses by a nose to Catherine Munro but who manages within the compass of her 250 words to create a world of great good cheer – before shattering it with a piece of news.
But Catherine Munro is our winner this time, for her piece on a car caught in rising floodwaters. What makes it is the hapless grandmother’s wonderful response to their predicament.
Well done all of you – and thank you to the many others who took on the challenge. Remember – there’s always a next time.
You tested positive.’ The man wore a brown uniform. He stood tall near the driver’s side window. He turned the alcohol tester’s tiny screen to face him. Positive, that’s what the display read.
Arthur blinked through the haze and tried to focus. ‘I only had one beer.’
He thought back to the evening he’d just had, trying to remember how much he’d actually drunk. The host had welcomed him with a beer and he’d ordered a few more after that, but he wasn’t about to confess that.
‘Please switch off your engine and get out of the car.’
‘Is that really necessary?’
‘What are you suggesting?’
What was he suggesting? ‘Nothing. Just wanna know what my options are.’
‘I’m gonna take your car keys, put you in the back of the police van and take you to the nearest station for you to be processed. They’ll take your blood to test for alcohol. Since it’s Friday night you’ll stay in the cells at the police station for the weekend until you can see the magistrate on Monday.’
What? Spend the weekend in prison? He didn’t think so. He didn’t want to sit in prison for a simple DUI. Besides, there were worse criminals out there roaming free. He’d just made a simple mistake. Also, he couldn’t miss work on Monday. How would he explain this to his employer? No way was he ruining his career, his life for a DUI.
‘What do you want?’
Was I hearing my own heartbeat or his footsteps? My throat ached and underwater rushing sounds filled my head.
The fusty cupboard smell reminded me of childhood games, old fashioned slatted doors provided perfect lookouts for hiding and seeking. Today I could see nothing. No peepholes, no slats. I was in dark isolation, my black boot driving its heel into my lower back.
Surely he could hear me? Panting like an unfit runner. I ballooned my cheeks as bile rose, my throat burned as I swallowed it, my stomach protested grumpily, loudly. If he didn’t kill me, my body would do the job by poisoning itself.
A familiar click registered through my physical chaos, the rickety sound of the ballerina springing to life. James always chuckled, wondering out loud why I hadn’t upgraded my jewellery box. I would smile over the truth that the faded box, its faux pink satin worn thin, represented my last piece of normal.
The tinny tune was cut short as he presumably slammed the lid closed, perhaps worried that he would disturb someone, perhaps in victory at having found something of value. My gut wrenched, I felt my childhood being ripped away from me. Again.
The tears itched as they sweated down my face; they dripped off my jawbone and plopped onto my thighs. I could do nothing to stem the flow; my hands were trapped and the sound of moving them would blow my hiding place.
It was the box or it was me.
The sand crunches underfoot. The tang of salt rides on the air. It is that secret time, the sun is newly risen and the sea announces its mood for the day. The crowds have not arrived yet, but those in the know are already there.
it is a large beach, long and wide, no matter the tide, and he knows it intimately, for they are daily visitors- unless Gina decides otherwise.
It is always with Gina. He may not come alone, at least not now, as he is” too young.” Perhaps never. Gina is a good person, but he feels she is overprotective.
Today he is impatient to reach the water. There is a small chop to the waves. It is perfect for swimming. He loves to swim, the water tickles and teases, and when he comes ashore, he often elicits admiring glances, as if people are surprised at how good he is. “Just like a fish,” they say.
“Slow down,” says Gina. “What’s the rush?”
But there is a rush. He sees it, a tangle of dress, and hair and arms. It is a small tangle, and it disappears under the waves, and comes up again. just briefly.
Why has no one else seen it? There are people, talking, laughing, one is reading the newspaper.
His ears roar, “Oh, my god, help.” And Gina, no, come back. He runs, and ploughs into the water.
He is powered by his genes, and his great, courageous heart.
He knows he will save her.
He is a Newfoundland.
Shut the fuck up!
The jagged words slice through my cotton wool mind, but my jaw feels unhinged and my mouth incapable of forming them. My knuckles as white as my widened eyes are still clutching the steering wheel.
The banshee’s wailing has shattered our silent cocoon, jolting painfully through my stunned limbs, and unclenching my hands. My chest heaves back into rhythm on a gasp at the icy chill already claiming my feet as its own.
Her unearthly shrieks dwindle to a low whimper as she blurs and distorts in the crimson mist I rapidly blink against. A groan escapes her slack mouth as her matted head slumps further.
If he was here, you know who he would save first, don’t you?
“Shut the fuck up!” This time the words erupt through my clenched teeth and pulsate around the car.
You know he would save his Princess before you.
“Well, he’s not here!” The glacial water swallows the last of my words.
Suddenly galvanized, I free myself from the prison of the seatbelt and wrench myself through the shattered window.
Almost there, I glance back down and see her sodden eyes snap open locking onto mine. Her panic claws at me and her mouth chokes open to greedily grab the last of the trapped air before the gushing water closes over her outstretched arms.
Sorry Princess but it’s my turn now.
I turn my face towards the light and kick towards freedom.
“Passop!” my wife yells, and my gaze, returning to the road, is met with a body crashing into the bonnet, bouncing off the windscreen and flung meters high into the fresh morning air.
I pull the car to the side of the road as panic sets in.
What’s the number for the police, 911? No wait, that’s America.
Shattered glass everywhere. I should call for an ambulance.
Where is my phone? I need to call somebody, anyone.
My wife is in complete shock.
“I’m getting out,” she says.
“Just wait,” I reply, but she doesn’t.
I’m shaking. I can’t press the buttons.
I need to get out or it will look bad.
It’s not my fault.
Chatter ripples around the table, hats cast off, water bottles discarded for blue-hued, sparkling drinks, clinking on the scrubbed wood, fresh-picked floating lemon slices collecting tiny bubbles.
Daypacks and walking sticks lie forgotten beside dusty boots and freed, blistered toes.
“To rock art and kind farmers!” The toast rings loud from parched throats. Silence as we sip, then “Aahs” and sighing, tired laughter.
My phone buzzes in my pocket. I’d thought we had no reception here.
“Mum!” I say. But before she speaks, I know.
I walk away across the lawn, away from the farmhouse, my view across the vast citrus valley sweeping to the red mountains beyond.
“He’s done it again.” Her voice shakes. “I don’t know what to do anymore! Thank god Riana was here! She called the ambulance. There’s so much blood. Oh my god, I can’t go through this again!”
I feel my knees give way as I sink to the grass.
“Mum, calm down. Is he dead?… That’s good. Just take a deep breath. That’s better. Now tell me how he’s done it this time.”
As she speaks, my gaze moves from the grass, out to the soaring sky. I feel the hot magma of fury welling up. How many times have we tried to help him; have I watched my mother clean up the mess?
“Mum. If he wants to do it, just let him. I’ve had enough, and so have you.”
An eagle swoops across the blue as I put my phone away.
Elsie felt the back seat sway slightly under her.
‘Stop, Angela! Please don’t drive any further,’ she blurted out, but her daughter, gripping the steering wheel fiercely, again told her to shut up. On the concrete approach to the crossing the rumble strips could be felt but not heard.
The rain on the car’s roof was a thundering roll, drowning out the squeak of the windscreen wipers. The older woman felt as though she was being crushed in relentless increments down into the musty seat cover. Her fear of her daughter’s disapproval rose up again and pushed out her dread at being trapped in a car in the flooded causeway.
Jethro, sitting in the passenger seat, blurted out, ‘It looks very strong, Mum, do you really think we’ll get across?’
His mother’s strong arm snapped across his chest, catching him hard, ‘Both of you, shut up, it’s absolutely fine!’
He began to cry, one painful sob, and in that moment the heavy old car jolted forward and, in slow motion drifted off, off to the left. The woman was grabbing at the gear lever with one hand, turning the wheel hard to the right, in the upstream direction, but the greedy rubber tyres had nothing to grab hold of anymore, the back of the car swung around and they were in it, in the river, heading directly downstream to Castleburn.
Elsie’s breathing slowed, ‘Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream . . . ‘ she murmured to herself.