Shooter Flash: “The Silence” by A S Partridge

The baby was crying. Again. Susan had just sunk into sleep ten minutes before – blessed, blackout unconsciousness – and was now wrenched back to the surface by those piercing, incessant cries.

“No,” she moaned, pressing the side of her face deeper into the grubby warmth of her pillow. Laundry, among other things, was overdue. “Shut up.”

I can’t take it any more, she thought, groggily, as the cries escalated. It was the four-month sleep regression. Apparently that was a thing: sleep regressions.

Something that had not been a thing, for Susan: The Golden Hour. Her son, instead, was whisked straight to NICU and intubated through a perspex box. Another thing, but not for her: The Letdown. In Susan’s case it applied purely in the emotional sense – no breastmilk, no oxytocin hit. After weeks of squeezing and pumping, she’d accepted defeat and resorted to formula, despite the exhortations of a parade of nurses, breastmilk advocates and healthcare visitors. One more thing, for the record: a Partner. No dad’s better than a bad dad, Susan frequently told herself. Plenty of women struggled with unhelpful mates, she knew; but in her alternate universe, in the dead of night, there was a pair of hands to lift the screaming baby from its cot and remove it, somewhere else, out of earshot.

The baby continued to cry, louder now, no doubt needing a nappy change, a feed, a cuddle. It was incessant, relentless. “Shut up!” Susan yelled, shoving back the bedclothes and propelling herself upright. One sleep cycle was all she needed, a straight ninety minutes, then she could cope. Just one. On top of four months of broken sleep, it had been several nights in a row of waking hourly. Hourly. Her brain felt scrambled, swollen, bulging within the confines of her overheated skull.

She stormed around the bed to reach the cot on the other side, her vision swimming in the dark. The lump of her child lay within, wailing mouth aglow in a shaft of moonlight slanting past the edge of the blind. Seized by fury, Susan gripped the wooden edge of the cot. “For the love of god,” she screamed, for the third time, “shut up!”

The silence fell so immediately that Susan took a moment to register it. Then she wondered if she was, in fact, dreaming, or if she’d had a stroke. Had she fallen instantly deaf? For there lay her child, mouth open, the image of a squalling infant – yet no sound emerged.

Shocked by an icy jolt, Susan reached in and picked up the boy. He remained frozen – not just mute, but stock-still, a stone statue in mid-scream.

“Jakey,” she said, clutching his swaddled body to her before holding him aloft in the moonlight. “Jakey! Wake up!”

She pressed her ear to his chest and there, fast and soft, fluttered his heart. Raising him to her face, she felt the whisper of his warm breath upon her cheek. She sank onto the bed, cradling his small form – her darling, her beloved. The room whirled, so quiet that Susan could hear a faint ringing, like tinnitus.

She drew back and placed the baby gently on the bed, unwinding the folds of his swaddling cloth. His fists lay tightly balled, bent legs stiff in the air. Mindlessly Susan changed his nappy and flashed onto the memory of changing a plastic doll in prenatal class, a class that purported to prepare you for everything yet only proved, in retrospect, to prepare you for nothing.

With the baby clean and wrapped up again, Susan gathered him to her chest and slid back into bed. His mouth remained open wide, soundless; body warm yet unmoving. Susan drew the covers over them both and leaned back into the pillows. Tucked up warm with the curled animal of her infant at her breast: this was the dream of motherhood, the very picture of parental bliss. The maternal fantasy, the ideal.

The silence was a gift, surely. It couldn’t last long; ideals never did. So Susan resigned herself to sleep, and sank numbly into blackness. Reality would return soon enough. It had to.

*

A. S. Partridge has published poetry, flash fiction, and short stories in numerous magazines including Aurora, Malahat Review, Popshot, Scribble, and others. She lives in Edinburgh, where she is working on a satirical novel about motherhood.

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.

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.