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. 

Dark Arts issue conjures black magic, painting mastery, suburban sorcery and political manipulation

When daily news everywhere reeks of self-serving political machinations, it’s enough to make readers wish for a little black magic of their own: What spell could oust a buffoon from Number Ten (though perhaps, frustratingly, simply to be replaced by yet another toad)? What incantation might block an ex-president from the White House forevermore?

Some of the contributors to this winter’s Dark Arts edition have inspiring suggestions, if only in the realm of fantasy. Emma Levin opens the issue with an imaginative reversal of the frog prince myth,  “Moments Recalled in the Seven Minutes Before the Police Arrive”. Capitalists – and anyone who enjoys living on the planet – might do well to take note of the consequences in Judy Birkbeck’s allegorical “The Landowners”. In “Green Beans Are Valid”, Annie Power offers a satirical take on the Orwellian ideology police. Indebted to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Max Marioni follows yearning for belonging through to the bitter end in his tale about a student secret society, “The Laurel Wreath Club”.

Some of the issue’s most compelling work took the theme quite literally, moving away from the realm of enchantment into the world of painterly arts. The artist in Lauren du Plessis’s story, “Entropy”, finds such inspiration in astronomy at her mountaintop fellowship that she becomes her work as much as any painter can. In “The Black Place, 1944”, Robert Herbst channels Georgia O’Keefe’s experience in the New Mexico desert, where she created many of her famous paintings. The title of his story nods to some of O’Keefe’s most mesmerising dark art.

The outcomes of dark arts in war are often less positive, as Greta Hayer shows in her historical fiction “Tusk”, about an elephant handler and his giant charge in battle. Elizabeth Hosang’s malevolent “Fixtures” are much smaller, but no less potent, in the very different setting of a gnome-ridden house in suburban Canada.

To lift the spirits – as well as unsettle them – Lisa Farrell closes the issue with her entertaining piece about a rather too effective magician in her story “The Last Act”. Bewitching verse from Alicia Hilton, Jeff Gallagher, James Hancock, Nina Murray and Ceridwen Hall studs the edition, interspersing the prose with poetry on black magic, feminist revisions, challenging creativity, and the magic of science. The issue’s featured poem, Dominic Baur’s “Status Update” (winner of Shooter’s 2021 Poetry Competition), weaves together layered allusions and linguistic associations to conjure a strong sense of underlying narrative. (Both “Status Update” and runner-up Isabella Mead’s poem “Great Aunt Audrey” are available to read here.)

Also online is a new monthly project, Shooter Flash, for those who enjoy even shorter stories than the ones appearing in the magazine. The competition accepts submissions on a rolling basis, with cash prizes, online publication each month, and an annual anthology of the winning pieces that will go out to all of Shooter’s subscribers at the end of each year. The winning stories have been posted online since the inception of Shooter Flash a few months ago – please enjoy these punchy pieces on the website via the link above and, if you’re a writer of miniature masterpieces, go ahead and send us your work!

To order a copy of the Dark Arts issue or to subscribe to Shooter, please visit the Subscriptions page.

Shooter Flash: “Where the Sun Doesn’t Shine” by Claire Schön

‘They’re at it again, sir?’

‘I do wish you’d call me Dick, old chum.’ I wince; it just doesn’t seem fitting for a prime minister, although often it does. As his press secretary, I spend a lot of time in the prime minister’s company. I am very much in the background, but what I do is essential, especially for this prime minister. I still pinch myself every now and then, to remind me sometimes of my luck and other times to bite my tongue.

‘Mary, can you bring me a knife for the butter, please,’ he shouts to Mary, a former lawyer and now his long-suffering personal assistant. ‘Always hovering around, that one, but never brings me the required utensils to eat these silly little breakfasts that she serves up.’

In front of him is a feast fit for a large family; he likes his food. 

Dick came in on a campaign for green and healthy England: more walking, less talking. To think that swayed the electorate. I suppose there wasn’t a great deal of competition after the last lot crashed and burned in a quiver of catastrophic contradictions. It seems everyone just wanted something simple and straight. Dick is simple alright, and we think he is straight. At least, his wife does.

‘Dick, the northern electorate are complaining that the promised infrastructure and development programmes are not being delivered. I’ve had an endless round of journalists requesting an update at today’s press conference.’

We are at the prestigious opening of the UK’s largest solar power station in Kent, another southern project. I’d told him we should time it better, but he needed to cover up the latest husband-swapping scandal involving the Minister for Children and Families and the Minister for Women and Equalities. Personally, I think the latter took it all a bit far, and the former had only been married five minutes and had no idea about children or families. However, they were ‘old chums’ of Dick’s from Oxford.

‘What do you think of this wallpaper, Sally? Jemima is in raptures about them both but can’t decide which. I’ll be buggered if I can see a difference, can you?’

I sometimes wonder if Dick might be colour blind. The press has been lenient on him up until now, describing his dress sense as ‘flamboyant’, but I can understand that Jemima must despair at times. 

I pick one of the wallpaper samples to move things along. We are running late for the power station.

‘Definitely this one, sir, um, Dick.’

‘Thanks, Sal. What would I do without you?’ I don’t feel important.

‘Getting back to the complaint from–’ 

‘The miserable northerners. Yes, yes. Well, what am I supposed to do if it is dull and dreary up there and the sun never shines? It’s a solar power station. That’s it! I’ll announce, at today’s press conference, that if they sort out their weather, they can have their own power station. Ball back in their court. We have to think of the environment, you know.’

I can just see the headlines now: Prime Minister tells north of England to stick their complaints where the sun doesn’t shine. I’ve just recovered from the last pounding from the women’s rights lot, after he tweeted that ‘some things are gender-specific, like mini skirts, you wouldn’t want men’s big, hairy legs peeping out of those, now, would you?

‘I take your point, Dick. You are the voice of reason. But we do need to keep them happy.’

‘Then let’s build another bridge for a high-speed train. The northerners can come and work down here, get a bit of sun and earn some money before they make their drab way back.’

He seems to have forgotten that I come from up north, although he persuaded me to lay the accent on thick for PR purposes.

‘The last bridge was very expensive, Dick, and we can’t stretch to a high-speed train.’

‘Then they will all have to drive.’ I am about to remind him of the environmental factor, which has slipped his mind again, but he ploughs on, enamoured by his own wisdom. ‘We will have to observe them closely; the universities up there aren’t as good as ours. Not sure what they learn in those neglected institutions.’

I went to one of those neglected institutions.

‘Mary, where is my butter knife?’ he screeches. ‘Honestly, it is a wonder that I can come up with such cracking ideas with this lack of competence from the waiting staff,’ he says in a lower, though not much lower, tone. Mary is in the same room, fussing with something or other in the corner. She leaves quickly. ‘She’s a northerner, you know.’ Mary is also not part of the waiting staff, but they refuse to travel with him after the cream cake incident.

‘Just put something together for me to read out, good girl.’

Mary joins us as we walk through the power station. She lags behind looking frazzled. 

The station is quite spectacular and in line with our environmental policy; I breathe a sigh of relief.

‘What’s with the sheep, gents?’

‘They provide natural vegetation control, and they are very cost-effective.’

‘Messy bleeders, though. Look at all this poop. And we need to think of the northerners. We’ll have to get rid of the sheep and replace them with northerners and petrol lawnmowers.’

I die inside. The head engineer leading us around is from my neck of the woods and an environmental expert. He looks livid, and I fear another press leak. My carefully scripted speech for Dick at the upcoming press conference might not cover this one.

‘Mary, I need a snack,’ Dick shouts, without turning. At that moment, my day is saved. The headlines I am dreading never materialise. They are replaced by events I could never have imagined:

              Prime Minister stabbed in buttocks with butter knife by PA

Thank you, Mary.

*

Originally from the UK, Claire Schön now lives in Austria. She studied German and Spanish and is now fluent in the former but useless in the latter. Claire started writing in her mother tongue in 2020 and has short stories, flash and micros published or upcoming in a number of anthologies including Funny Pearls, Fudoki Magazine, Blinkpot, Grindstone Literary and Reflex Fiction. She has been shortlisted and longlisted in various international competitions. Twitter: @SchonClaire.

Baur wins 2021 Poetry Competition with “Status Update”

Dominic Baur, a former history professor, has won the 2021 Shooter Poetry Competition with “Status Update”.

The poem earned first place for its layered allusions and linguistic associations, weaving together threads of meaning to conjure a strong sense of underlying narrative. “Status Update” is not only Baur’s first contest win, but his first poem to be published. Although he has previously published academic work in numerous journals, Baur began writing poetry only in retirement. “Perhaps I chose the wrong career,” he joked in an email.

Isabella Mead, who landed second place with her beautifully evocative poem “Great Aunt Audrey”, also came runner-up in Shooter’s 2018 Poetry Competition. She won the 2021 Julian Lennon Prize, the 2020 Bedford International Poetry Competition, and the 2019 Wells International Poetry Competition. She was a 2021 finalist in the Brotherton Prize for which her poetry will be published in an anthology with Carcanet. 

While “Status Update” will appear in print in Shooter’s forthcoming Dark Arts issue, both poems are currently available to read online, along with other past winners.

To subscribe to Shooter’s print edition or place an advance order for the Dark Arts issue, please visit the Subscriptions page.

Shooter Flash: “Roar” by Alison Wassell

A small child with two candles of snot dangling from her nose tugs at Maggie’s cardigan. She takes her thumb out of her mouth.

“Miss Elton, why is your shoes different?” Maggie, grabbing a tissue from the box on her desk, looks down at her feet. She is wearing one black shoe and one brown one.

“I was just testing you all, to see if anyone noticed,” she says. Having wiped the child’s nose she sidles toward the cupboard and pulls out the trainers she wears for PE. They look ridiculous with her tights and tweed skirt, but slightly less ridiculous than odd shoes.

It is a relief when the afternoon arrives, and she has an excuse to change into what she refers to as her “slacks”. The children form an orderly line, and she leads them into the hall. They find spaces and sit down. She does not even have to remind them, today, that a space is somewhere she can walk around them without standing on anyone else. She has them well trained.

Maggie gets down on her hands and knees. This takes longer than it used to. The children giggle. Maggie emits a ferocious roar. So ferocious, in fact, that a couple of the children recoil in fear. Maggie hauls herself into a cross-legged position.

“Who can tell me what kind of animal I was pretending to be?” she asks. Hands are raised and faces turn red as breath is held and children compete to be asked. Maggie smiles  as she tries to remember what question they are clamouring to answer. Lately this has been happening more and more. She chooses a girl with blonde plaits whose name eludes her.

“An elephant?” guesses the girl. Her classmates titter, and Maggie gives them a reproving stare.

“Not a bad guess, Eleanor,” she says. She remembers now, the girl’s name is Eleanor. Relief washes over her. Elephants are interesting creatures, she tells the children. It is said that they never forget. Maggie envies the elephants.

“Who wants to have another try?” she asks. She tells them she is thinking of an animal that is a member of the cat family. You can see them at the zoo. The male one has a sort of fringe of fur all round his face. Eager hands wave in the air again. Maggie points at a boy who has turned puce.

“Lion,” he says. She nods gratefully. Of course. Lion. She tells the class that they are going to practise being different animals. She turns on the music and off they go, growling and howling, screeching and tweeting. Some of them grow a little silly. She calms them with a single look. At least she has not yet lost the power to do that. She glances out of the window at the rainswept yard, and it occurs to her that she should have done playground duty this morning. Someone must have covered for her. Fear forms a fresh knot in her stomach.

In the classroom the children change back into their uniforms and Maggie distracts herself with the tying of ties and laces, the struggle to pull t-shirts over too-large heads, the battle to return two correctly named plimsolls to each PE bag. She re-plaits several heads of hair and carefully wraps a lost tooth in a tissue. She writes a note to the tooth fairy, hoping she will be generous.

As the children scramble to hang their bags on their pegs the Deputy Head appears at the classroom door. She surveys the chaos with pursed lips. Almost young enough to be Maggie’s granddaughter, the tasteful tattoo on her shoulder is visible through her white cotton blouse.

She summons Maggie with a jerk of her head. They need to have a chat, as soon as possible, she says.

“There are a couple of issues.” She turns and clip-clops away on her inappropriately high heels. The children gather on the carpet and Maggie selects a picture book to read to them. It takes a while for them all to be settled and Maggie fills the time dreading the meeting that lies ahead. She knows what the “issues” are. The forgotten playground duties, the day she arrived with two rollers still in her hair, the nonsensical lesson plans that seemed to have been written by someone else entirely, when she came to read them. Someone must have complained. She has let things slip. Her hands shake slightly as she sits up straight, setting an example. The class falls silent.

Maggie begins to read. It is one of her favourite stories, a tale she almost knows by heart. Today, though, the words jump about on the page and some of them have suddenly grown unfamiliar. She halts, stumbles and, mid-story, gives up and sets the book aside.

“Who has some news to share?” she asks the class, with a half-hearted attempt at cheerfulness.

She welcomes the home-time bell in a way that she never used to. She bundles her charges into their coats and matches them up with their book bags. Clinging weakly to the door frame she watches the last of them disappear through the school gates.

Maggie shuts her eyes for a moment. She remembers her mother, in the home, unable to remember the purpose of her own legs.

“I want to stand up, but I can’t remember how,” she had said, tears coursing down her cheeks. She had not recognised Maggie for the last five years of her life. Maggie is thankful, finally, for her childless state. 

She opens her eyes and stands up straight, preparing herself to face the Head and Deputy. She imagines their glee as they confront her with her shortcomings, and the gossip that, as thick as thieves, they will have about her later, over a bottle of wine.

Right now, though, Maggie is defiant. She stretches her jaws as wide as they will go and roars like a lion into the silence.

*

Alison Wassell is a short-story and flash writer who has been published in various places, both in print and online, including Retreat West, Reflex Fiction, The Cabinet of Heed, NFFD, FlashFlood Journal, and Litro.

Shooter Flash: “Showtime” by Chella Courington

It all started with the ring. Not the ring Radney gave Roshelle over lasagna in candlelight ten years ago in September. Nor the gold band he gave her a year later. But the wrestling ring he built in back of their split-level ranch home with blue shutters and salmon brick in Montgomery, Alabama. Radney wanted to be a professional wrestler since he first saw Hulk Hogan with a blond mane and protruding pecs glistening on TV. Roshelle wanted Radney to be one too. When she was a kid, her dad used to take her to the armory every other Saturday to sit in the front row and watch grown men in speedos pin each other to a bouncy floor. Their sweat soaked her red dress, cotton sticking to her legs. “How’s that for a good show,” her dad always said as they walked into the night, the air chilling her wet skin.

When Radney announced he was going to build the ring, Roshelle was elated, absolutely over the moon, hugging and kissing him as if it were their wedding night. They hauled posts and plywood, tires and turnbuckles, rope and tarp to their backyard, cutting away all the grass and shrubs for their dream. After six weeks of digging holes, fitting wood, and stacking tires, they had their ring – posts stained dark brown and the cushiony mat creamy white. To celebrate, they brought out their fluffy bed pillows and flamingo quilt bought at a sample sale to christen the mat under the stars. They didn’t even notice the mosquitoes.

Now was the time to begin sparring. Radney called three of his wrestling buddies, who said they were busy with wives or sons. But Radney heard them bluffing – they’d lost their love for the sport. No more long nights and yells for clinch fighting. His friends were scattered. No more sharing tales of how the Hulkster pinned Nick Bockwinkel for the last time. Like a kid who’d lost his first dog, Radney dragged himself to the kitchen and opened a Miller.

“Come on, I’ll spar with you.” In her gray shorts and burgundy T-shirt, Roshelle was eager to take to the mat. He knew she loved the sport, going to matches with her dad then with Radney, screaming until she could barely whisper.

“Sure, let’s go,” he said. “I’ll be easy on you.”

“OK. But you’re going to get all of me.”

They stepped into the ring ready for practice. She danced around him, one leg sliding into the other, tapping his chest but ducking before he could take hold. Finally, he grabbed her and tossed her against the ropes. She rebounded and came in low, dodged his kick and took his feet out from under him. Falling on him, her elbow knocked out his breath. Blood drizzling from his face, his lip split and his nose scuffed, he rolled over just in time to see Roshelle launch herself from the top of the post. As she descended, arms spreading like an angel and wind blowing through her hair, Radney realized that he had never loved her more.

 

Chella Courington is a writer and teacher whose poetry and fiction appear in numerous anthologies and journals including SmokeLong Quarterly, X-R-A-Y Magazine, and New Flash Fiction. A Pushcart, Best Small Fictions, and Best of the Net nominee, Courington was raised in the Appalachian south and now lives in California. Her recent origami micro chapbook of poetry, Good Trouble, will be available soon at http://www.origamipoems.com.

New project: Shooter Flash

Now and again, writers ignore the length requirements for the magazine and we get submissions on the shorter side that are painful to reject. Sometimes we publish them anyway.

However, it became clear that we weren’t accommodating a lot of talented authors. In recognition of the abundance of brilliant short-short story writers out there, we’re excited to announce a new project: Shooter Flash. Now, we have a forum exclusively for authors of prose shorter than 1,000 words, with a rolling competition to spotlight one story each month on Shooter’s website. In addition to online publication, winning writers will receive £50, and their work will be included in an annual anthology sent to all of Shooter’s subscribers.

For guidelines and further details, please visit https://shooterlitmag.com/shooter-flash. Feel free to email shooterlitmag@gmail.com with any questions. And poets, no need to feel left out – the 2021 Shooter Poetry Competition is also currently underway.

We can’t wait to read your work – good luck!