The Gift.

‘What is it?’
She stared at the glass bottle, resting on his cracked palm.
‘It’s your birthday present.’
The girl didn’t react, deciding whether this was another test. He moved his hand closer to her.
‘Go on.’
She eventually took it and held the bottle up to the brightest part of the ashen sky, peering at the clear liquid within.
‘What’s in it?’
‘It’s called perfume.’
The girl pulled off its plastic lid. ‘Can I drink it?’
‘You don’t drink it.’ The mask hid his smile. ‘Folks used to spray it on their necks or wrists.’
‘Why?’
‘To smell good.’
She lifted her visor and stared at him. ‘You said they’d find us if we smell different.’
‘Aint no raiders out here.’ He nodded to the dunes of ash stretching toward the grey horizon. ‘Besides, it’s your birthday, ain’t it? Try some.’
The girl eventually removed a glove and sprayed the perfume on her skin. She unclasped her mask and warily brought her wrist up to her nose.
‘Well?’
The smell made her gag. ‘It smells like chemicals. Why would people want to smell like chemicals?’
‘It was supposed to smell like flowers.’
‘Thought you said flowers smelled nice.’
Sometimes he forgot she hadn’t known the old world. He pulled out the lunchbox from his backpack and found the candle they’d discovered in the house by the dried-up lake. The girl watched him light it, and they sang the song he’d taught her. Aside from the anthem he’d sung when he was a boy, it was the only song where he knew all the words. With barely enough people to sing them, the world had little need for songs and anthems anymore. They finished the last note, and the girl remembered to blow out the candle.
‘Did you make a wish?’
Silence.
‘Well? Did you?’
‘What’s the point? They never come true, anyway.’
‘Sure, they do. Mine always do.’
His mask somehow made the lie easier. The girl had already lost so much; he couldn’t let her lose hope too. He took out another match, their second last, and relit the candle.
‘Try again. This time, close your eyes.’
She eyed the fickle flame before finally closing them.
‘Imagine the looks on the faces of the people around you when your wish comes true. Can you see them?’
She nodded.
‘You’re sure?’
‘Yes.’
‘Good. Now, blow.’
She blew the candle out. Its smoke rose to join the ruinous vapour pooled in the sky above them. A hot wind blew from the west, a continual memory of that direction’s sins.
‘Ready to find the others?’
The girl opened her eyes and nodded, and he turned to pack the lunchbox into his knapsack. He glimpsed the girl smell her wrist again, and this time, her cracked lips curled into the briefest of smiles before disappearing behind her mask again. He was thankful she couldn’t see the glistening of his eyes behind his goggles. Without the girl’s hope, he was lost.

© Matthew S. Wilson, December 2020

This piece was written for December’s Furious Fiction writing challenge, ran by the Australian Writers Centre. where entrants were given 55 hours to write a 500-word story, meeting the following criteria: each story had to include a GIFT of some kind;
the first sentence had to contain only THREE words; The following words had to be used: PALM, MATCH, ROSE.

Peer Pressure Test

Kieran strode toward us and placed the enormous plate in the centre of the judge’s table, his proud smile showing off a row of perfect white teeth.

‘Wow – look at this dish,’ exclaimed Geoff, the show’s longest-serving judge, and unofficial host. ‘Now, this is what cooking is all about.’ He’d said this phrase at least once a show last season, consequently making it the title of his last cookbook.

Magnifique, it looks so sexy’ exclaimed Jean-Pierre, who never missed an opportunity to remind the audience he was French, or overtly sexualise the food to appeal to his largely female fanbase.

Everyone awaited my praise, but I couldn’t stop staring at the plate: Kieran had served us a ham and cheese sandwich. Sure, he’d removed the crusts from the bread, served it with a few twisted sprigs of rosemary and scattered some exotic micro-flowers over it, but at its core, it was still just a sandwich. Even the herbed butter, which he’d carefully served in a quenelle next to it, looked kind of lumpy.

‘You’ve certainly cooked us something to eat,’ I said cautiously, remembering my agent had specifically warned me against being the bitchy new judge who thought she was above adjudicating a reality TV cooking show. ‘So, tell us what inspired you today?’

‘Well, it was probably my nonna,’ said Kieran, his brown eyes shimmering with tears. ‘And even though she’s gone now, she still speaks to me when I’m cooking.’

As the other contestants in the background wiped tears from their eyes, I imagined the producers adding in the heartfelt piano music later, oblivious to the fact the other contestants were merely upset someone else had beaten them to playing the “dead grandmother card”.

‘Oh I’m so sorry, when did she pass?’ I asked gently.

‘Oh, no – she’s not dead,’ clarified Kieran, ‘she’s back in Cairns now, and just always calls me whenever I’m cooking.’

Nonna was alive – cue the uplifting piano music.

‘Well, let’s see how it tastes,’ I smiled, quite certain it would taste exactly like a ham and cheese sandwich.

Geoff did the honours, cutting the sandwich into three, the camera zooming in to capture our pensive faces as we ate.

‘Well?’ asked Geoff, wiping his mouth with a napkin.

Ooh, la, la,’ said Jean-Pierre. ‘I feel dizzy, the way good sex can make me feel, it’s dripping with flavour.’

‘I tasted it, and immediately thought – Bazingo – that’s tasty stuff,’ agreed Geoff,  thereby announcing the title of his next cookbook.

Everyone turned to me, the bright red light of the camera second only to the dazzling brightness of Kieran’s perfect teeth.

‘When I first saw it, I was a tiny bit concerned it was just a sandwich,’ I started, causing everyone to frown; my last 20 years as a food critique flashed before my eyes. ‘But Geoff and JP are right – this is a modern take on a classic, and I absolutely loved it. Bazingo!’

© Matthew S. Wilson, August 2020

This piece was written for August’s Furious Fiction writing challenge, ran by the Australian Writers Centre, where entrants were given 55 hours to write a 500-word story, meeting the following criteria: The story had to be a comedy, and had to contain a sandwich.

Simon and Jess.

Jess and I had been together for two years. We were complete opposites, which is why it worked. She was always very ‘big picture’, leaving the details to me. Last year’s Vietnam trip was no exception: Jess decided how we’d spend each day; I held the map and kept an eye on the time (the only reason we missed the boat to  Ha Long Bay was the departure time on their website had been wrong). Here at home, we enjoyed the simple life: spending our time playing scrabble, watching films or listening to music. We were happy, which is why I was so startled the night Jess brought Zoë home.

‘I’m Simon,’ I’d said feebly, immediately noticing Zoë was both slimmer and younger than me.

‘Jessica says you’ve got the Wi-Fi details?’ She sounded as Scandinavian as she looked.

I asked Jess if it was Ok to share our Wi-Fi credentials, trying to sound more casual than I felt.

‘I’m busy with dinner, Simon, just tell Zoë whatever she wants to know.’

As it turned out, Zoë wanted to know everything: Jess’ height, her weight, date of birth, even asking to see Jess’ texts and photos. After dinner, Jess made cupcakes for their visit to her mother the next day, then Jess and Zoë went to bed together. In two years, we’d never slept in separate rooms. As I lay on the couch, staring at the ceiling, I tried to imagine why she was punishing me.

I flicked through some old photos, pausing on a rare one of the two of us. We were at the hairdresser; it was the day she’d had her long auburn hair shortened to her shoulders. I kept flicking, eventually reaching a photo of Jess with her ex, the two of them in a changeroom, as Jess tried on a black dress. I’d met Jess’ ex briefly, she lived with Jess’ mother now. I suddenly realised I wasn’t being punished; I was being replaced.

The following morning, Jess and Zoë emerged from the bedroom. Zoë lay cheerfully on the couch alongside me as Jess boiled the kettle.

‘You look drained,’ joked Zoë.

‘Just look after her, will you?’

‘Of course.’

‘No, I mean it – she’s a good one.’

She paused. ‘Ok, I will. I promise.’

Jess sat down next to me on the couch, nursing her mug. She gently ran her thumb across my face, stroking it the way she’d done a million times before, telling me we needed to reset things between us.

‘Are you sure?’ I asked, knowing what this meant. She said she was, and everything turned black.




When I woke, an elderly woman with glasses squinted at me.

‘Hello, which language do you speak?’ I asked.

‘English.’

‘I’m Simon, your virtual assistant for this device.’

‘It’s like Siri on the last phone I gave you,’ said a younger woman with auburn hair.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked.

‘Susan,’ answered the older woman. ‘And this is my daughter, Jessica.’

© Matthew S. Wilson, June 2020

This piece was written for June’s Furious Fiction writing challenge, ran by the Australian Writers Centre, where entrants were given 55 hours to write a 500-word story, meeting the following criteria: Each story’s first and last words had to begin with J; Each story had to include a game being played; Each story had to include the phrase MISS/MISSED THE BOAT.