Shooter Flash: Child’s Play by Sarah Masters

Eight-year-old Becky is sowing seeds in yoghurt pots. She has sat on the garden step and laid out newspaper to keep her dress clean. She is using a dessert spoon to transfer compost from a sack. Unfortunately, the sack is rather deep, so Becky has to put her whole sleeve inside. She frowns, thinking that in six weeks these tubs will be brimming with salad. She imagines Dad putting dinner on the plate, and Becky saying wait, we need some greens, and then cutting the leaves which fill the plates with more to spare for the next day and the day after that. Becky knows from the news, which Mum watches all the time with the curtains drawn, that prices are rocketing, and she, Becky, is going to help. She’s going to save the family. She empties the seeds into her hand and makes her face serene, in case anyone above is watching. 

The back door opens and Becky closes her hand into a fist.

“What doing, Beck,” comes the piping voice of brother Billy.

“Stay inside,” Becky orders. Then she remembers that she’s going to save the family. “Okay. You can watch.”

Billy doesn’t want to watch. He wants to do. He plumps down beside Becky and this nudges her arm. Becky is no longer serene.  

*

Becky is examining a seed pot. Six hairy white commas are poking through the soil. Becky gives them a sprinkle from her child’s watering can. She hears a noise from the drive on the other side of the house and recognises her dad’s car. She hasn’t seen him for a few days and wants to tell him something, so she drops the watering can and runs inside.

Billy comes out and crouches down. He strokes the commas with his finger. He lifts the watering can, but it’s heavier than he expects and water pours out of the opening, flooding the plants. This isn’t right. There’s some gravel next to the house, so he stuffs a fistful into the pot. That’s better.

*

Becky and Billy are sitting outside. Becky has on her best dress because they’re staying at Nana’s tonight. Her eyes are pink. She’s holding a single pot containing a thatch of seedlings. This was meant to save the family. Becky isn’t going to save anyone now. 

Billy spots an empty yoghurt pot in the grass. There’s something else, which he pockets. Becky is staring into space when he returns. Billy puts the pot on his head and makes his face very solemn. He pokes her knee. She sniffs. Billy removes the pot from his head and hands it to her. She looks at it, then puts it on her own head. Billy giggles. Becky giggles too. Billy puts his hand in his pocket and shows Becky what he’s found: a brown snail. He offers it to Becky. She thinks a minute, then puts the seedling pot on the ground and the snail on top. They watch the snail slowly poke its head out of its shell.

Becky holds out her hand to Billy. “Shall we find it a friend?”  

*

Sarah Masters has had stories published in Slush, the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology 2022, FlashFlood 2022, Little Ms, and Serious Flash Fiction. She lives in York.

Issue 15: Out West

I was once an Eastern greenhorn, a city girl lured to the Rocky Mountain West by the promise of big skies and open ranges, rodeo riding and cowboy culture. I found myself in a small town in a sweeping landscape, where the sense of space expanded inner horizons as much as outer ones. Years later, back in England, I made another westward move (admittedly on a more modest scale), from London to the green hills of the Cotswolds.

The allure of the West, of wild(er)ness and migration, underpins much of Shooter’s Out West issue. Some of the edition’s writers celebrate classic aspects of Western mythology (horses, reinvention, seeking a better life), while others confront its downsides (toxic masculinity, guns, prejudice). Beyond myths conjured by pioneer history and movie lore, the issue sifts through these ideas to explore personal, nuanced elements of the American West. And beyond that fabled frontier, writers examine East/West culture clashes and mind-expanding experiences in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and even Sudan.

One piece that does so with a satisfying dose of humour is Georgia Boon’s opening story, “West Country”, about an actress sent to the south-western corner of England to bond with her equine costar. Horses also feature in “Nice Riding” by Becky Hansen, her memoir about a simple yet potent accolade from a straight-shooting cowboy.

The issue’s other two pieces of fiction explore darker aspects of the theme. Zachary Kellian depicts the toxic masculinity within a group of Nevada desert dowsers in “Set in Stone”, when one of the drill workers is forced to come to terms with his sexuality. Annie Dawid, in “Acts of Nature, Acts of God”, imagines a Wyoming coroner’s struggle following the gun death of a ten-year-old boy.

Travelling abroad gives rise to very different experiences for two of the issue’s non-fiction authors. In “What’s in a Name?”, Parnian Sadeghi writes of the challenge to her identity after moving from Iran to the U.K. For Barbara Tannenbaum, visiting New Zealand from California following a cancer diagnosis leads to an uplifting revelation.

Abundant poetry rounds out the issue’s prose (for the first time featuring an equal number of fiction and non-fiction pieces). Sally St Clair and Callista Markotich take inspiration from history and literature in “Californian Bone Soup” and “Language Lorn, Riding to Mexico”. Dreams of travel infuse Nicholas Hogg’s “Mariner”, while Millie Light conjures a strong sense of place in her two Cornish poems. Sinister elements lace Meghan Kemp-Gee’s “The Fugitive” and Richard Lister’s Darfur-set poem “Apart”. In “The Student with Spurs”, David M Schulz conveys the limitations of the Western dream, while John Laue rounds out the issue with some whimsical yet lucid Californian haiku.

Finally, don’t miss Lynette Creswell’s historical fiction, “Malkin Tower”, winner of the 2022 Shooter Short Story Competition. Inspired by the 1612 witch trials in Pendle, northwest England, Creswell conjures a compelling, suspenseful tale with a vividly murky setting. The story revolves around a young girl forced to testify against her mother and sister, who stand accused of witchcraft. “Malkin Tower” underscores that injustice can occur in any era – or, as other work in this edition shows, at any point on the compass.

Cover art by C R Resetarits

To order a copy of the Out West issue, please visit the Subscriptions page.

The 2022 Poetry Competition is now open to entries, and the theme for the winter 2023 issue will be announced imminently online!

Shooter Flash: “Greed” by James Hancock

At night, a child’s bedroom is a grey gloom of pretty things shrouded in shadow: an assortment of daytime toys waiting quietly as children sleep in the half-light. Maisie and Martin’s room was no different. Normal in every way, except for the faint glow of silver-pink light that floated in from between their bedroom curtains. A soft aura of minuscule powder sparkles and the shape of something small and magical within the light. A fairy.

Butterfly wings worked to a blur, carrying the visitor over to Maisie, where it hovered, and without a sound, gently lifted the girl’s pillow to exchange tooth for coin.

But it was interrupted.

Maisie’s eyes opened and she smiled. The menacing smile of a six-year-old missing her two front teeth.

“Gotcha!” Martin shouted with delight, and as the tooth fairy turned to face the boy in the next bed, he blasted her with a jet of fly spray. The tooth fairy coughed, covered her face with tiny hands, and flew away in retreat. Straight into a box, which Maisie instantly lidded shut. Captured!

“It worked,” Maisie chuckled, and gave the box a shake.

Martin wrung his hands together and grinned. “How much money do you think a tooth fairy carries?” He took the box from his sister and put his ear against it.

Maisie reached under her bed and produced a zip bag of wicked things. “Let’s find out,” she said, pulling a penknife from the bag and passing it to her brother.

Cutting a slit in the lid, Martin brought his lips close. “Listen here, little fairy. Post your coins through that gap. All of them. Or else!”

“Or else we’ll throw the box, and you, on the fire,” Maisie added.

“Please,” came a soft whimper from within.

“Do it!” Martin snapped, then gave the box another shake. “If you want to go free, you better do as you’re told.”

“And hurry up about it,” Maisie added.

A moment of quiet as the dazed prisoner recovered her bearings, then a small gold coin slid out through the gap. Cackling with glee, Maisie snatched it up and examined it. Another coin followed the first. Then another. And another. Coins continued to emerge through the slit in the box lid, instantly grabbed by greedy fingers.

Then the tiny voice came again: “There are no more.”

“You sure?” Martin growled in a threatening tone. “We don’t like tricksters.”

As Martin began counting their stolen treasure, Maisie leaned in to whisper, “We punish them.”

“I promise.” A sniff followed the timid voice. “Please let me go.”

Maisie picked up her penknife and tested the sharpness of its point with a finger. “Well?”

“Thirty-five,” said Martin. “Good enough?”

Maisie thought about it for a moment, clicked the penknife shut, and gave a nod.

Once again, Martin pushed his lips to the lid. “No funny business or we’ll clip your wings. Okay?”

A frightened murmur: “Yes.”

Martin lifted the lid, and the fairy darted out in a flash. A silver-pink blur, then darkness as the fairy disappeared behind the curtains and was gone.

Maisie and Martin laughed triumphantly. They scooped coins, penknife, and fly spray into the bag of wicked things and climbed back into their beds, their fiendish plan a great success.

Come morning, the twins awoke from a night of vivid dreams and peeled their faces from blood-caked pillows. Screams rang out as fingers pawed at deep holes in raw toothless gums.

Another visit had concluded matters, and the greedy children had paid their debt in full.

*

James Hancock is a writer/screenwriter of comedy, thriller, horror, sci-fi, and twisted fairy tales. A few of his short screenplays have been made into films, and he has been published in print magazines, online, and in anthologies. He lives in England with his wife and two daughters. And a bunch of pets he insisted his girls could NOT have.

Witch trials inspire 2022 story comp winner

Lynette Creswell has won the 2022 Shooter Short Story Competition with “Malkin Tower”, a tale inspired by the Pendle witch trials of 1612.

Shooter’s competition readers and judge, editor Melanie White, were quickly caught up by Creswell’s suspenseful storytelling and vivid 17th-century setting. In an email, Creswell wrote, “I felt compelled to write the story after hearing the true events of Jannet Devices, a local nine-year-old girl who in the 17th century sent ten innocent souls to their deaths.”

Creswell, who lives in Lincolnshire, has published several fantasy and romance novels (including Sinners of Magic, the first of a trilogy), as well as a children’s book, Hoglets’ Christmas Magic. Her story “A Slice of Cake” won the Society of Women Writers and Journalists’ short story competition in 2019.

Dean Gessie came runner-up in Shooter’s story competition with “Nobody Knows How Much You Love Him”, a tale about a child’s illness skilfully interwoven with metafictional allusions. Gessie, a Canadian author and poet, has won numerous international awards for his writing, including this year’s Aesthetica Creative Writing Award for poetry. His short story collection, Anthropocene, won an Eyelands Book Award in Greece and the Uncollected Press Prize in Maryland, USA.

One story also earned an honourable mention this year: Jeremy Smith’s “Pulpit Politics”, for its deft handling of topical immigration themes. Smith, a charity administrator who lives in London, has been published recently in Popshot Quarterly.

Both “Malkin Tower” and “Nobody Knows How Much You Love Him” are available to read online, and “Malkin Tower” will also appear in Shooter’s forthcoming Out West issue. Congratulations to this year’s winning writers!

 

Shooter Flash: “Virginia Correctional, 2024” by Crystal Fraser

They said it was murder, even though I swear it was just an accident. I ran during my first two pregnancies right up til the third trimester, and even though I’d hit 34 by the time of my third, I saw no reason to do things any different. I went down over that tree root and started cramping right away. When I got home and saw the blood I called 911, didn’t think twice about it. And then the cops showed up at the hospital. 

“Intentionally causing the death of an individual,” they said, “by self-induced abortion.” How can a fetus be an individual when it’s physically linked to its momma, connected by the cord. There’s no individuality there – it’s a part of someone else. A potential person, sure. But not yet a person, housed inside the womb. Just one step further along than sperm and egg. Maybe they should criminalise men for all the potential life they waste watching internet porn. But that would never happen, would it. Every man would be in jail.

The thing is, I was always a Republican. I love my country, and my kids, and even though Burt up and left pretty quick last year, right after I got that positive test, I’ve got good family values. But what people say don’t always match up to what they do. All those politicians acting righteous, telling other people how they oughta live, talking about God and family and the right to life – then they get busted for rape or assault or sex with a minor. Even if they don’t get busted, everybody knows it. Trump never went down but there’s plenty of pictures out there of him partying with that Epstein guy, and I bet he wasn’t hanging out just to play golf. 

So now I’m in here, because of what they called “negligence”, causing the death of someone I never even met or named, while my girls are living without their momma and their daddy God knows where. What kind of family values is that, to take away the momma of two girls just because a child that might have been didn’t even make it to its first breath. They’re doing okay, but my mom is pushing 60 and the girls run a little wild. My dad passed two years ago right after they overturned Roe. He was all for it, then, but I bet he didn’t count on things going this far.

You have to wonder why some people care so much about the existence of babies in this world and not the lives of women. Or maybe you don’t, not that hard. Seems to me like men have all the freedom of choice, but they sure don’t want women to have it the same way. If pregnancy was something that happened in the male body you can be sure they’d do what the hell they liked about it. Especially if they already had two kids to take care of on a single income, and didn’t much feel like going through the sickness and the labor pain and the blocked ducts and the crying and the broken sleep and the cost of childcare making it damn well impossible just to survive.

So really, when you think about it, you could say the outcome was worth it, even if I did end up in here. Even if it was an accident.

Which it was.

I swear.

*

Crystal Fraser’s stories and essays have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, MacGuffin, The Iconoclast, Potato Soup Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, and elsewhere. She teaches high school history in Indianapolis, where she lives with her husband and two kids.

Shooter Flash: “For Heaven’s Bakes” by Chris Cottom

Launch Day Latte: Pumpkin Spice

On the first morning of her new cake and coffee shop Suzette takes pictures of Kezia in a crisp white tunic, holding a rhubarb and custard roulade. Kezia is five foot ten, pencil-slim, and Ophelia-pale, with a wilderness of carroty hair and rosebud lips that she paints as red as Christmas. 

‘I’ll show these to Barry tonight,’ Suzette says.

‘Aren’t you posting them on Facebook?’ 

‘I’m no good at all that.’

Kezia takes Suzette’s phone and does it for her. Twenty minutes later six cyclists are queuing for pre-ride carb loading. 

I hit the jackpot with you, Suzette thinks. I’ll take the agency a complimentary box of cranberry cookies.

Day Two Traybake: Sticky Date Surprise

Kezia stands outside with a plate of bite-sized Black Forest mini-rolls.

‘Only one each, naughty boy!’ she tells a guy with a hipster beard, while Suzette takes pictures.

The man says he’s a teacher and asks about work experience for his Year Tens. 

‘There’s barely enough room in the kitchen for me and Kezia,’ Suzette says. ‘How about a cappuccino cupcake for your dinner?’

In the corner of the best photo is a bit of the boarded-up Indian restaurant next door.

‘We can crop that out,’ Kezia says, her fingers flashing over the screen.

The hipster teacher comes back in the afternoon. ‘Another gingerbread latte?’ Kezia asks, tracing a long black fingernail along the ice-blue neon letters behind the counter. ‘Fancy anything else?’ 

Day Five-a-Day Featured Fruit: Banana Bread

Suzette takes pictures while she bakes, and drips lemon drizzle on the lens of her phone.

‘You need an Instagram husband,’ Kezia says.

‘I’ve got an accounts husband. That’s enough.’ 

She takes a collapsed individual cherry cheesecake home for him. It doesn’t stop Barry wittering about cashflow forecasts and asset turnover. 

A certificate in Business Studies, Suzette thinks, and he reckons he’s Bill Gates. ‘The only turnovers we need,’ she says, ‘are apple and cinnamon.’

‘Excuse me! Whose redundancy money paid for your fit-out, all that wall-to-wall stainless steel?’

‘I know, I’m sorry.’

‘And I’m not even a sleeping partner.’

In more ways than one, thankfully, Suzette thinks. 

Day Seventh Heaven: Lemon Meringue Whoopie Cookies

‘I’m starting prepping at home in the evenings,’ Suzette says.

‘Either the mixer goes,’ Barry jokes an hour later, ‘or I do.’

‘Easy choice then,’ Suzette says with a laugh, putting her pecans on fast grind. 

Day Nine: Vanilla Cloud Cake 

A van parks on the pavement and spills builders into the former restaurant next door. The men pop in all the time for flat whites and flapjacks. The younger ones crack cakey jokes designed to make Kezia forget she’s dating a chemical engineer with a BMW. They wield their wrecking bars and soon there are more white vans than you can shake a spatula at: electricians and joiners, plumbers and shopfitters. 

Day Thirteen: Passionfruit Pavlova

‘All these guys are great for business,’ Suzette says, getting out another tray of salted caramel tarts. 

‘They’re not bad for my personal life either,’ Kezia says, yawning.

‘What’s it going to be next door?’ Suzette asks Afran, the foreman, who’s developing a serious brownie habit.

‘Maybe sandwich shop,’ he says, shrugging. ‘Maybe pizza.’

‘Either’s fine,’ Suzette tells Barry that evening. ‘People can step round to us for their puddings.’ 

Barry, who’s learning to live with food processing, nevertheless urges a tactical marketing uplift. ‘Enhanced customer loyalty programme, local radio advertising, door-to-door leafleting. You can call it Operation Dessert Storm.’ 

‘I can’t afford all that,’ Suzette says. ‘This is a start-up business, actually.’

‘I was going to suggest you use the last of my redundancy money.’

She rushes over and buries her face against Barry’s cardiganed chest and he slides his palms down her back to her hips. 

‘Might cost you…’

‘Don’t get any funny ideas,’ she says, slapping his hands away.

‘I’ll settle for a daily giant Jammie Dodger. With a bonus Bakewell blondie if I do the leaflet drop myself.’

‘You don’t have to do that.’

‘I need to lose an ounce or two. It’s not as if there’s much accounts work to do yet.’

Day Twenty: Rocky Road Slice

‘I see there’s a notice in the window next door,’ Suzette says, as she staggers in from the cash and carry with a fifteen-kilo multipack of Fairtrade demerara. 

‘They’re advertising for staff,’ Kezia says. 

‘Could you stay another hour on Monday? Barry’s insisting I go to the bank with him.’

‘They’re paying apprentices more than I’m getting.’ 

Never mind customer loyalty, Suzette thinks. What about staff loyalty? ‘What are they calling the place anyway?’ she asks, knowing it won’t be half as witty as For Heaven’s Bakes.

‘Starbucks.’

*

Chris Cottom won the 2021 Retreat West Flash Fiction Prize. He was the People’s Choice Winner of the LoveReading Very Short Story Award 2022, highly commended in the Bournemouth Short Story Writing Prize 2022, and shortlisted twice in the Parracombe Prize Short Story Competition 2022. He’s also had stories published by Cranked Anvil and Streetcake and broadcast on BBC Radio Leeds.

Shooter Flash: “Blue Girl’s Gift” by Donna L Greenwood

Blue Girl is the blue of milk gone sour under moonlight. She pads towards her human and snuffles into the wet lap.

Sarah’s time has come. She strokes her Russian Blue and sucks in her cheeks, holding her breath, hoping to stop the birth pangs. She can’t. A ghost train of pain shrieks along the tracks of her veins, leaving her panting.

Blue Girl has birthed many a mewling bag of fur and bones. She feels the claws of the litter twist her insides. She’ll drop them soon and then she can eat. She nestles further into the stink of her owner’s lap and is rocked to sleep by her human’s birth shudders. Blue Girl is unconcerned; her kits will slide out easily. It’s her fourth litter.

Sarah bites the insides of her cheeks. She should be in hospital. He shouldn’t have left her lying at the bottom of the stairs. There is a sloshing inside her womb. She imagines the baby has disassembled somehow, his body parts floating towards her heart.

The kits are coming. Blue Girl lifts her head and jumps onto the carpet. The human is dripping water and blood. Blue Girl daintily picks her way across the mess and curls herself into a ball away from the human’s moans. She feels the kits find their way. Their slug-wet heads slip through her fur and find her teats. A full, warm feeling settles upon her and her throat rumbles. 

Sarah howls. There is no baby, only blood. The alabaster walls of the echoing home she has lived in for years loom above her like tombstones. His house, not hers. They never married. She strokes her stomach and lets her hand flop into the seeping blood. Hopefully, she’ll bleed to death on the floor before he arrives with the doctors. He has told them she is mad, that she threw herself down the stairs.

Blue Girl smells her human’s distress. She nudges her kits away and stands.

Sarah watches the cat slink towards her. Blue Girl bumps her head against Sarah’s face. The cat moves down her body and licks away the blood caked on the inside of Sarah’s legs. The soft rhythm of her tongue calms Sarah and she lets out a soft breath. When the licking stops, she wonders whether the cat has abandoned her, then she feels something small and warm drop onto her stomach. She opens her eyes and Blue Girl is standing over her, green eyes blazing. When she pads away, the small warmth on Sarah’s stomach remains.

When she looks down, she sees a squirming, blue-furred baby about the size of an apple. She reaches down and pulls it onto her chest, feeling the tiny heartbeat patter against her own. The kitten isn’t a purebred Russian Blue – he will drown them if he finds them here when he returns. But for now, it’s all she needs. Holding Blue Girl’s baby with care, she prepares to stand.

*

Donna L Greenwood writes flash fiction, short stories and poetry. Her work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions and Best Microfiction. Her debut novelette-in-flash The Impossibility of Wings has recently been published by Retreat West. Twitter: @DonnaLouise67

Shooter Flash: “The Cleaner” by Sam Szanto

Carys attacks the master bedroom with a Henry hoover, tucks the sheets – ‘hospital corners’, her mother whispers from beyond the grave – and changes the pillowcases, one of which is streaked with what appears to be spray-tan. She also picks up a pair of frilly knickers and worries a stain on the carpet until two pairs of latex gloves are ruined. Then she takes two white towels from the ensuite and folds them into swans to go on the bed; she saw it done in a film about Japan and regards it as her special touch. It eats into her limited time but makes her clients feel special. 

The kitchen is next. Deflating helium balloons bob, including an ‘18’. It must be for the daughter, Isla. She was 13 when Carys first came here. Carys was employed by an agency then called Mrs Mop.

Carys is blitzing the work-surfaces as the client, Morgana, appears. It’s the first time she’s seen her today: Carys was given a key after two years’ weekly service. Morgana is wearing purple Lycra and carrying her iPhone in its glittery purple case. She looks tired, yellow skin under her eyes.

‘I’m making coffee if you’d like one?’ she asks.

Carys has a rule not to accept hot drinks from clients, so declines as she always does. Morgana turns on the coffee machine. Carys brushes away food scraps, takes the plastic and glass recycling to the bins outside, sweeps and bleaches the floor. Morgana drinks her cappuccino and talks about Isla’s party at the weekend. Carys makes appropriate noises in response. Morgana is one of only a few clients who talk to her while she’s working; she suspects the others hide, or pretend to be very busy at their laptops; but she has seen games of solitaire on the screens. Once, at the end of a shift, she passed a café and saw the client whose house she had been cleaning sitting in front of their laptop.  

Kitchen finished, Carys takes her cleaning supplies to the family bathroom. Morgana follows to the threshold.

‘Hey,’ she says, ‘you’re married?’

Carys starts; had she talked about her husband? She had a dream about him the night before and its cobwebs have clung to her all day. Then she follows Morgana’s gaze to her ring finger; her hands are usually concealed by latex gloves but she’d just run out.

‘Yes,’ Carys says, ‘married for fifteen years.’ 

Morgana doesn’t need to know that her husband died three years ago, after the black tentacles of cancer latched onto him.

‘Ahh, quite the stretch.’ 

Morgana wants to hear more; Carys doesn’t want to say more.

After a pause, Morgana starts talking about her husband. Now that the lockdown rules have been lifted, he is in the office almost every day and out a lot in the evenings.

‘It’s like he doesn’t want to spend time with us,’ Morgana moans. ‘I’m sure people aren’t meant to go back to work full-time in offices even now.’

‘I’m sure he’s very busy,’ Carys says meaninglessly.

She removes the plastic bag from the bin, stuffing the tissues that were on the floor into it. Her hands brush against a plastic stick. She shouldn’t look, but she does. There are two pink lines on the stick. It could be a Covid test, but the ones she has used have C and T on them. Morgana is looking at her phone, so hasn’t noticed. Carys wonders whether to tell her about what might be a pregnancy test, but what if it is Morgana’s rather than Isla’s? Despite the amount of time she has spent listening to her client, she doesn’t know how old she is: she could be anywhere between 35 and 45. 

Carys ties the handles of the bag and places it outside the bathroom. She washes her hands for twenty seconds, singing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice in her head. Then she sweeps up the hair on the floor, sluices water, scrubs sink-grime and tackles shower-mould. Morgana’s phone rings, and she walks away to answer it.

In the hall, Carys feather-dusts photos of Isla at various ages. She sprays glass cleaner on the wedding photo of Morgana and her husband Al. In the photo, Morgana is wearing a surgical-white gown with a sweetheart neckline, which Carys knows was handmade in London, and clutches a bouquet of deep-red roses; Al wears a matching red tie and button-hole rose. Carys and her husband don’t look like that in their one wedding photo. They married on a trip to Scotland, witnessed by two registry office staff, one of whom had taken the photo. She wore a pale blue dress, her husband a checked shirt. Their daughter was born nine months to the day later. Has she ever told Morgana she has a daughter? Clemmie is the same age as Isla; Carys cannot imagine her daughter with a baby.

Carys’s final task is the living room. They have a cat the colour of Morgana’s wedding dress, and Carys lint-rolls its hair off the sofa. She feels a pang as she does it – her fingers are a bit arthritic now.

The four hours (plus ten minutes, which she won’t be paid for) are up. Carys calls to Morgana that she is leaving; Morgana shouts goodbye from upstairs. The cat gives a sad-sounding miaow.

Carys wipes her sweaty face with a piece of kitchen roll, lugs her bucket and brushes to her car, and drives away. One more client to go, and then she can clean her own home. 

As she drives down Morgana’s road, she passes a car parked at the far end. She recognises the man on the driver’s side from the wedding photo she has just dusted, but not the woman. They do not see her.

*

Sam Szanto lives in Durham. Almost 40 of her stories and poems have been published or listed in competitions. In March, she won second prize in the Writer’s Mastermind Story Contest. She was a winner in the Literary Taxidermy awards, won second prize in the Doris Gooderson Competition 2019, and third prize in the Erewash Open Competition 2021. She won the 2020 Charroux Prize for Poetry and the First Writers International Poetry Competition.

Shooter Flash: “Poseur” by Amy Stratton

Annabelle shifted once more upon the bed cushions, while Charlie paused with his brush halfway to the canvas.

“Don’t move,” he said. “You’ve got to keep still.”

“Ok, I’m good now,” she said. “I promise.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, keep going,” said Annabelle, fighting the urge to fidget. Much as she liked the idea of an artist boyfriend, the reality of posing was turning out to be a little less fun. 

Charlie cast quick little glances at her while his brush made light scrapes upon the canvas. They’d been together for a few months; Annabelle had been hoping he’d ask to paint her, and now he was. He’d raved about her beauty: her long dark hair, her milky skin. It was a little odd, the way he was looking at her now, after the early weeks of basking only in his warm, admiring gazes. Now his brow slightly furrowed as he glanced at her, honing in on her clinically, not meeting her eyes. Very different from the look of a lover.

Brushing off the prickle of unease, Annabelle told herself the brief discomfort would be worth it. She wondered if he might submit the picture for the annual show at the portrait gallery. She indulged in a little fantasy of her portrait looming large amid the other canvases, being admired by the crowds. 

Almost an hour and many micro-fidgets later, Annabelle’s neck and lower back were starting to feel royally cricked when Charlie set down his brush on the heavily spattered palette.

“Still needs a bit of touching up, but it’s basically finished,” he said. “Do you want to see it?”

Annabelle yelped with relief and stretched luxuriously, rolling from the bed. She padded over to the easel with a smile and draped herself around Charlie’s shoulders, kissing his cheek, then froze at the sight before her.

The woman on the canvas appeared gaunt, all hard angles and deathly pallor. Her hair hung straight and limp; dark eyes glowered within purple hollows; nose awkwardly bent as if boxer-broken. Annabelle recoiled.

“What do you think?” Charlie asked.

“I just – need the loo,” she said, scurrying out of the room.

In the bathroom, she stared at herself in the mirror. Did he really see her that way? She peered closer, as Charlie had, clinically: Did she actually look that way?

People thought Annabelle was beautiful. She’d always been told so. She took care of herself – had her nails done, her hair blow-dried, her eyebrows waxed. She didn’t leave the house without makeup on, nor would she ever dream of letting Charlie see her without it. What if – she thought with a cold stab of horror –  she didn’t look how she thought she did? Right now, in the mirror, her face did look sharp, her nose pointy. Her makeup had smudged; Annabelle scrubbed at the shadowy patches beneath her eyes, but they wouldn’t come off. Perhaps it was the lighting. She welled up with frustration and snapped off the light.

“You don’t like it then?” Charlie drawled as she returned.

“It’s… good,” Annabelle faltered. “It’s just not very flattering.”

Charlie shrugged. “It’s just my style,” he said, cleaning his brushes and setting them aside. “It looks a bit raw right now, too. I haven’t finished. But I don’t do ‘Insta’ portraits.”

“I know you don’t,” Annabelle said. “But is that really how you see me? I mean – I don’t exactly look very beautiful in it.”

“Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder,” he said with a smirk.

“Right, but – you’re beholding me, and I look like that?”

“I try to capture an essence, not just the literal surface of someone. Come on, Annabelle – it’s art.”

Annabelle felt a deep lava of rage beginning to rise. 

“Well maybe it’s not,” she snapped, “and maybe I’m not okay with it.”

Charlie’s face reddened. “What would you know about it? It’s not quite the same as taking selfies.”

“It’s my face there – it’s my image,” Annabelle pointed at the canvas, “and I’m not happy about it. You’ve made me look ugly. You’ve made me look sick.”

“Well maybe you are sick,” Charlie exploded. “And if it’s not good enough for you, then maybe neither am I.” He strode back to the easel, picked up a tube of paint, and squirted a thick white stream at the picture. Grabbing the largest background brush, he slashed paint across the canvas. After a few rapid strokes Charlie threw down the brush, paint flecking the floorboards, and stalked from the room. Annabelle heard the front door slam.

Shaking, she walked around the easel to view what remained. The still-damp greys and blues beneath had streaked into the strokes of white, but her face was now a blank space, the portrait entirely obscured.

Annabelle poured a large glass of wine and took it with her into the bathroom, where she began to run a hot bath. Charlie may have gone but she felt relieved, more than anything else, now that the portrait had gone too.

While she waited for the bath to fill, she took another sip of wine and set the glass back on the edge of the sink. The mirror had steamed up. She wiped it to take a look at herself, but the surface remained opaque. Irritated, she used the edge of her sleeve, then grabbed a towel to clear it properly.

Yet the mirror was still clouded. Becoming frantic, Annabelle continued to scrub at the slippery surface, but the mirror remained whited out; her reflection was nowhere, as if caught in a blizzard. She dropped the towel and backed away, staring – but all she continued to see in the glass was nothing.

*

Amy Stratton is currently pursuing an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmith’s, University of London, where she lives with her cat Harry and far too many books.

Shooter Flash: “Love in Transit” by Isabelle Spurway

I am on a train going from Saint Petersburg to Helsinki, reading a novel about an American infiltrator in Russia. Every now and then I look out of the window, wishing to see something interesting. We are driving along the edge of a forest and birch trees stand bunched up together, tall and thin, their narrow tops piercing through grey clouds. I scan the flashes of wilderness for a wolf, or a Siberian tiger, but instead there’s just trees and grass. Across the aisle is an old woman and opposite her a young man. She is about sixty and he is about twenty-five. They have struck up a conversation. He is in love. She is wary. It is going like this:

‘We walked around Petersburg all night then got breakfast in the morning. We spoke about everything.’

‘How did you meet her?’

‘In a bar. We got to talking about our situations.’

‘And what was her situation?’

‘She lived there.’

‘And you?’

‘I live in Helsinki, used to live in Russia. I am Russian.’

‘Why did you move?’

‘My mother died when I was young. I left for university in Finland.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘It was tough for a while, but the universe looked after me.’

He sounds earnest. As if all he’s ever done is put his trust into something bigger than himself.

‘And led you to this girl, I presume.’

‘Yes.’

‘When will you see her again?’

‘I’m going back to Petersburg in two months’ time.’

‘And you’re sure it’s love?’

‘Yes. Yes, I’m sure it’s love.’

A good place to fall in love, Saint Petersburg. I imagine him declaring his feelings on Nevsky Prospekt, in the middle of the busy pavement, perhaps on Anichkov Bridge. Behind him beautiful buildings, pastel-coloured palaces. He says the words during the white night, tinged by the electric blue of dusk. 

I peek at the man. He has lovely brown hair and chiseled cheeks. He looks like the kind of person to fall in love during the night. More mysterious, more passionate. Falling in love during the daytime seems almost pathetic in comparison.

‘Be careful,’ the woman says.

I learnt earlier that she is from Israel. I wonder if anyone her age believes in falling in love after one night. Maybe she has fallen in love before, during night-time, and maybe her heart was broken. It is harder to see the old woman’s face; she is facing the same direction I am. I catch a glimpse of red hair, wispy and frail.

‘I’ve never been careful,’ says the man. 

Someone once told me that most Russians are careful, but maybe he has never been so when it comes to love. Maybe when love is real, nobody is careful.

He asks her about Israel now. She is travelling alone. She has always wanted to see Russia. She has read about it all her life. Israel is beautiful. Saint Petersburg is beautiful. Yes, I hope Finland is beautiful too. It’s a beautiful world, isn’t it? All these places, all these beautiful places…

The train rolls on and the old woman gets up to retrieve something from her bag, stored in the hold. I turn my head slightly, so that she’s in my periphery. I catch a glimpse of her face. She has a long, ragged scar that runs from her right eye to the bottom of her cheek.

It has started raining outside. We pass a lake and the water pounds down through the surface, making it ripple. We’ve just made it across the border. Every now and then a little wooden cabin appears in the middle of the trees. I spot one with a red front door and a pile of logs out front. As soon as we pass it the rain stops and the clouds begin to part slowly, waiting for the sun to shine through.  

*

Isabelle Spurway has a master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Kent and currently lives just outside London. She writes many of her stories during her commutes to and from the city and finds most of her inspiration in travel.