Every three weeks, I publish three short stories in Dutch that I have written as an exercise in response to an assignment by the Dutch web site schrijvenonline.org. For several months now, I also try to write a short story of maximum 500 words in the context of the Furous Fiction contest by the Australian Writers' Centre. None of my stories have made the long-list yet –writing in English is hard if you're not a native English writer–, but I'm enjoying the challenge.
These were the assignments of the last three months along with the stories I submitted:
Assignment: Write a story (in 500 words or less) that includes, word for word, ALL of the following SIX descriptions (describing whatever you want), one of which MUST appear in the first sentence of your story.
The sheriff and his deputy were out on an errand when a stranger walked in, trailing his shiny, silver spurs over the floor. I was alone in the office, nervous as hell, not knowing how to address the man.
‘Ca-can I help you, sir?’ I stammered, ‘The sh-sheriff and the de-deputy aren’t here right now.’
The stranger ignored me at first, examining the “Wanted” posters on display. Much to my surprise, he tore one of the posters off the wall.
‘Wh-what are you doing?’ I asked.
The stranger pulled his gun and put its cold and greasy barrel to my head.
‘I know where the sheriff and the deputy are,’ he said, ‘My boys are keeping them busy as we speak.’
‘Do-don’t kill me, sir,’ I begged, ‘I’m harmless.’
‘I know you are,’ he replied, ‘Take a seat. We have to talk.’
I walked to the sheriff’s desk and sat down in the sheriff’s seat. The stranger took the other chair and put his scratched and weather-worn boots on the desk, his spurs leaving nasty marks on the tabletop.
‘You know who that is?’ he asked, pointing at the ink-stained poster with his gun.
I read what it said: ‘Loser “Lou” Jackson. Wanted for armed robbery. Reward: $500.00.’
‘So you can read,’ the stranger said, ‘Now prove that you have sharp eyes. Do you recognize the man on the poster?’
I took a closer look at the picture: ‘N-No, I can’t say I d-do.’
The stranger sighed: ‘That’s supposed to be me.’
‘Bu-but it doesn’t look anything like you,’ I uttered.
‘Exactly my point,’ the man —Lou— said, ‘That picture doesn’t do me justice!’
He put his gun and the poster on the table, produced a photograph from the inside pocket of his jacket, and showed it to me. It was unmistakably the image of the man sitting in front of me.
‘I want you to ask the sheriff to print new posters using this picture.’
He put his hand in another pocket and pulled out a stack of banknotes.
‘And have him raise the reward to a thousand dollars while he’s at it,’ Lou said.
‘Bu-but why?’ I asked.
Lou pointed to another poster on the wall: ‘Do you see that man, over there? That’s my brother, Winner “Ace” Jackson. There’s a thousand-dollar reward on his head. That’s double the prize on my head, while I have committed far worse crimes.’
‘O-O.K.,’ I said, ‘I’ll pass the message on to the sh-sheriff.’
I could smell the sweet and pungent scent of my own sweat, but I had to know: ‘Why is this s-so important to you?’
‘That’s none of your business,’ Lou replied, ‘but I’ll tell you anyway: I want my mother to love me as much as she loves my brother. That’s why!’
The silence that followed was broken by the shrill, piercing scream of a distant train whistle.
‘Now if you’ll excuse me,’ Lou said, ‘I have a train to rob.’
Assignment: write a story in 500 words or less, and
“I wish we could burn all them zombies.”
“But what if we ever find a cure?” Jim asked.
“That’s wishful thinking,” the machinist answered, “most of the scientists lived in the cities. They were the first to be hit by the epidemic. Zombies look for brains, not for cures.”
“Then why are we transporting these bodies to the desert?” Jim didn’t like to use the Z-word.
“Because we were told to do so.”
Jim had been recruited for this job right after the army evacuated the few people that were left behind in his hometown. Help came just in time as resources were running low. He wondered if there was anyone he knew among the human cargo stowed away in the cryogenic tanks the train was carrying.
“You shouldn’t think of them as humans anymore,” the machinist said, as if he could read Jim’s mind.
“How many bodies are being hibernated out there?” Jim asked, pointing at the tracks in front of them.
“I don’t know. Several tens of thousands, I guess. This is my fifth trip to the facilities.”
“What do they look like?”
“Like giant warehouses in the middle of a huge solar park. One wonders why it was originally built. It’s as if someone knew this was going to happen.”
“Maybe someone did.”
The machinist didn’t answer, but Jim knew he had made similar reflections. The pandemic outbreak had been too sudden, too fast, too widespread for it to be merely an accident. Jim wanted to believe this was all part of an elaborate ploy by the government. He would never have agreed with such a strategy, but he wanted this ordeal to make sense.
“What if all of this was planned?” Jim asked, “What if a cure was created along with the disease? What if we’re nothing but a small cog in a large scheme to stop the human race from destroying the earth?”
“Even if that’s true, we do as we’re told. Just like the train, we follow the rails that were laid down for us. We cannot change course.”
“You don’t like to think for yourself, do you?”
“That’s not it. I don’t know what to think of the situation, therefore it’s better for me not to think.”
“That is cowardly.”
“That is realistic.”
“Go to hell!”
“Unfortunately, that’s probably where this train is taking us. The hibernation facilities are purgatory for humanity. Eventually, we’ll all burn. We might as well burn all them zombies right now.”
Assignment: write a story in 500 words or less, and
“But I don’t want a green button,” Lindsey complained, “I want a nice red one, just like my best friend Maya!”
Lindsey had been looking forward to this party for too long to let an old woman with a clipboard spoil all the fun. Next Monday, she and all the other kids who turned six this year would go to school for the very first time. She was a big girl now, and this party was supposed to celebrate that.
“Lindsey Dunphy,” the lady said with a stern nod to her assistant, “my list says that you should get a green button, so it is a green button that you will get. End of discussion!”
Her assistant took a green button from the table behind him and pinned it onto Lindsey’s party dress.
“Hush, off you go!” the lady commanded.
Malcontent, Lindsey wanted to object, but Maya Morton took her friend by the hand and led her to the ballroom where there was music and laughter and lots of candy.
“If you really don’t like green,” Maya tried to comfort Lindsay, “we could trade buttons.”
“Maya, you’re the best,” Lindsay said, “but I thought red was also your favorite color?”
“I don’t mind,” Maya replied, “last year, my brother had a green button too; he was quite happy with it.”
The air was thick with tension as the parents were waiting for the party to end. It wasn’t the first time Mr. and Mrs. Morton had to go through this ordeal. For Mr. and Mrs. Dunphy, all of this was new. Lindsey was their only daughter.
Suddenly, there was a cry of horror here and a sigh of relief there, breaking the unity of the crowd. Mr. Morton tried to stay calm as his wife fell apart. He took the smartphone of which the screen had turned red from her shaking hands.
“Let’s go home, Mary,” he said with a broken voice, “we still have a son, you know. He needs us to be there for him, and we need him as much as he needs us.”
Mr. and Mrs. Dunphy felt a flash of guilt as they saw the Mortons leave, but that sad feeling didn’t last long. The screen of their smartphone was green. They were filled with joy. Trembling with anticipation, they reached out to see a glimpse of the doors of the venue. They couldn’t wait to see their daughter coming out of those doors, a green button pinned onto her pretty party dress.