Shooter Flash: “Free Solo” by Zach Sager

The rock loomed above Martin in the early morning sun, a vertical gray crag. After months of distractions he was finally upon it. The dark crevices felt warm beneath his powdered hands. His fingers curled into the holds, steadying his body, feet reaching for the slight ledges that jutted from the ragged rockface.

Climbing purified Martin’s mind. Thoughts of his ailing mother, his distracted wife, his teenage daughters, his precarious job – all fell away. In the moment there was only his grip upon the rock: the unyielding fact of it beneath his flesh, ascent his singular goal. Nothing else mattered when he was climbing, only the inching upwards, the pressure and push to scale the wall or the rock or the mountain. To daydream, to fret, to relax meant to fall.

Rachel had never shared his passion, but she’d accepted his disappearances on weekends and the occasional evening. She’d argued with him about the free solo documentary, but he’d imagined the sense of ultimate freedom, of exhilaration, that such feats must generate, and since watching the movie he’d been unable to shake his yearning. He’d always climbed with ropes – strapped into his harness, double-checking his safety gear – but not today.

At the start of his climb he’d felt a shiver of awe, but also excitement, looking up at the towering crest. He’d spent some time running his hands over the rock and contemplating his route. He felt light in his t-shirt, no dangling straps or clanging carabiners. Today he would push himself beyond his usual limits. He would taste the liberation of the free soloists.

Martin proceeded steadily, careful yet in the zone, testing footholds and feeling for cracks. He made slow but sure progress, looking neither down nor up but at the next portion of rock before him. His mind cleared; the rest of life drained away. There was only the pump of his blood and the strain of his muscles, a light breeze at his back and the faint fluting of birdsong in the background.

The crest of the crag remained far above him when Martin felt his arms begin to tire. Despite climbing since boyhood, middle age was taking its inevitable toll; his strength was not what it used to be. A ripple of panic intruded on his concentration and a cold sweat broke out across his brow. Reaching for the next hold with his toe, his leg began to scrabble against the rock, then seized up, and Martin felt himself begin to slip.

His sense of willpower and liberation flipped to full-bore fear as thoughts came rushing back: What would his girls do if they lost their father? How would his family cope with the trauma of sudden loss? How could he have been so cavalier with his safety? All in pursuit of an adrenaline rush. How could he ever have thought that might be the pinnacle of experience, when so many things were more important?

These things and more flashed though Martin’s mind as he came off the rock. His body scratched and bumped against the sharp surface; as he fell nine feet to the ground, he felt somehow absolved by the scrapes and bruises. They would tether him to his renewed perspective and, next time he came to climb the crag, he could go farther, knowing that he had brought his ropes.

*

Zach Sager is an attorney who lives in Delaware with his Boston Terrier, Heff. He writes, and climbs, in his spare time. This is his first published piece of fiction.

Shooter Flash: “Haunted” by Lucy Brighton

I didn’t think I would be the kind of ghost that haunts people, but here I am. I still go to school every day like I did before. What else is there to do? I keep hoping I will meet some other ghosts to show me the ropes. No luck so far.

When I first rose from the spot where I’d fallen, I looked at the scene. A noose swung from a bare tree branch. I imagined people gathered around professing a love for me in death that they never showed in life. I imagined my mother, dressed in black of course, wailing at the senseless loss of it all. And I was sure there’d be a memorial Facebook page; there’d been one a few years ago when April, three years older than me, had died in a car crash. 

I waited three hours before I realised that nobody was coming. So, I went home. I walked past my mum, sitting on the sofa with her coffee cup full of whisky and fooling nobody. She said nothing. Obviously. 

When I woke the next morning, I logged onto Facebook, eager to see if my memorial page was up. It wasn’t. They probably haven’t found me yet, I thought. 

That was three days ago. I walk the quiet corridors of my school, almost empty now that everyone else is in lessons. Sometimes I go to class; sometimes I don’t. There doesn’t seem much point in learning anything. I can’t imagine ghosts have to take GCSEs. I think again how much I wish there was someone else like me I could talk to, who I could ask about these changes, maybe someone to hug me.

Nobody hugged me before the rope on the tree. Nobody raced to my rescue to talk me down, like they do on TV. It was a quiet affair; the only sound was the rustle of autumn leaves in the wind. 

“Watch out,” I shout as someone ploughs into me, almost knocking me over. Then I remember my situation and feel ridiculous. They can’t see or hear me, so what’s to stop them even walking straight through me? 

I don’t stay in school long today; it’s too hard watching the others at break time. Their laughter and togetherness wrenches at whatever constitutes a heart for a ghost. 

I don’t go home either. The last two nights have been insufferable. I sat on the same chair as always; Mum, saying nothing, drank her whisky and watched the soaps. She never even cries. Maybe it’s her way of coping, I tell myself. 

I head to the graveyard. I mean, seems apt for a ghost, right? I count the rows: twelve rows down, fifth grave along. I sit beside the grave and touch the headstone, surprised that it feels cold to my touch. 

“It’s me, Dad,” I say, then look around to see if he’s there. He would make the perfect ghost guide. We could be together again at last.

“It’s Sophie, Dad. I’m dead now too so you can show yourself.”

Nothing. 

I think it will probably take time for him to get to me from wherever he is. I didn’t notice any passage of time, personally: one minute I was climbing the tree with the noose around my neck and the next I was a ghost. Maybe Dad goes to work, like I go to school, out of habit, for something to do. I wouldn’t even know how to get there – which bus would I catch? No, I better wait here. 

I sit for a long time. There’s a brief flurry of activity around sunset when people seem to walk their dogs. Then silence. I shuffle around on the cold grass. 

I feel certain he will return here when it gets really late. I let the excitement fizz inside me like popping candy. I picture his strong arms and his curly rust hair. And mostly, I think of his smile. It’s been almost a year and the picture of him in my mind is fading a little but the smile is burned into my mind’s eye. I know he will look the same, not like some ghoul from a horror film, because I still do. I haven’t changed a bit.

There’s a rustle. I listen, desperate for the tread of his heavy boots. The sound grows, definitely movement. Panic seizes me for a second. Maybe it’s a bear or a fox. So what if it is, I think, what harm can it do me now. I puff out my chest. 

Human steps. I could burst with anticipation, like a thousand Christmas mornings. I’m finally going to see Dad again.

Instead, in the moonlight, the person reveals itself as Mum. 

“Sophie,” she says, her voice heavy with tears.

Maybe she comes here to talk to us both.

“Sophie,” she says again, moving closer.

She can’t actually see me, so I stay put. 

“I’ve been worried, Sophie,” she says and crouches down beside me.

I look around the empty graveyard. 

“It’s time to come home, sweetheart,” she says and puts her arm around me. I can feel it – the weight of her arm and the warmth of her breath. 

“It’s time to come home, Sophie,” she says again, standing and pulling me up with her.

“I just wanted to see him again, Mum,” I say, following her toward the gate. 

“I know,” she says. “I know.”

*

Lucy Brighton is a Northern-based writer who has completed an MA in Creative Writing at Leeds Trinity University (Distinction). Her work has been published in Writers Forum, Journeys: A Space for Words, and Henshaw Press’s second anthology, as well as various websites and online magazines.

Shooter Flash: “Meta-metamorphosis” by Andreas Smith

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from awful dreams he discovered that he had changed in his squalid corner into a little man. He stood on his two pale legs, stretched out his two pale arms, stifled a scream, and nearly fainted.

This was no dream.

In the opposite corner his parents were fast asleep, head to head, their antennae lovingly entwined and their hard brown backs glinting in the first rays of the sun. Nearby his young sister, half sunk in the soggy green morsel of bread she had been sucking on for the whole of the previous day, looked almost angelic as that same sunlight crept towards her under the kitchen cabinet. All three slept on contented, engorged and satiated with life’s bounteous harvest, as if nothing at all could go wrong in this, surely the best of all possible worlds. It was, then, a typical morning in the life of a normal, happy family of cockroaches.

But something had gone wrong – something terrible. Gregor shivered, pulled a piece of foil from an old ball of dust and hair, and wrapped the foil round his shameful nakedness. A rusty pin, for months lying barely noticed in the den, he now took up and thrust through the foil to secure it.

His sister stirred first and, seeing the thing her brother had become, emitted a deranged clicking noise as she frantically pursued herself in circles. Not that the parents were much calmer: they scrambled out of the den onto the kitchen floor at the sight of their son’s transformation, their beloved handsome son, now this… this monster. The father, recalling his position as master of the den and realising, as cockroach patriarchs always have, the danger presented by the vast desert of a recently mopped kitchen floor, forced his wife back under the cabinet to the safety of the den, with its moist, fetid air, rotting fragments of food, and years of dirt drifted into random heaps. The three huddled together and, afraid even to blink, gawped at Gregor. He stretched out an arm, friendly or threatening, it mattered not: his father, drawing on his old reserves of cockroach courage, dashed at his son, butted him in the groin, and knocked him flat. Never was a snout put to better use than this! Meanwhile, wife and daughter, instinct conquering fear, rolled everything roundabout towards Gregor’s corner – dust balls, breadcrumbs, meat and cheese pellets, spent matchsticks, mucus-encrusted tissues – till Gregor was imprisoned behind a barricade of rubbish. He got up, brushed himself down, once again secured his modesty with the rusty pin, and peered through a gap in the barricade. “Father, mother, dear sister – it’s me, Gregor, your beloved son and brother!” At the awful noise, incomprehensible and unearthly, the family backed off. Certainly it was a Gregor, but of what sort?

Mother’s tears seeped.

But time moves on. Gregor’s sister, hunger again gnawing at her belly, crawled over to her putrid soggy green breakfast and sank her face in it. Mother poked her wet snout through the gap and, despite everything, gazed lovingly at her son. He was busy tidying up his corner, as if disgusted by the lovely filth in which he had been fortunate enough to be hatched. It pained her to see how ungrateful he now was as he gracelessly paced back and forth on his thick and ugly white legs, his once comely face now an ugly mask of disgust and disapproval. Father, dining on a dainty morsel of rotten bacon and occasionally glancing through the gap, suddenly brought up the contents of his stomach and, no doubt stirred by fatherly obligation, vomited them towards Gregor (his only son, after all). But Gregor, even more disgusted than before, ignored his father’s offering. Let him starve then, like the countless ungrateful wretches before him!

As the days passed and the old normality became a faded dream, the family learned to bear their affliction. It was unfortunate that Gregor’s mad repugnance at filth and squalor had led to his living quarters deteriorating into a state of the utmost cleanliness (his poor house-proud mother could hardly bear to look), but even more disturbing was his rejection of any food at all, even the splendid lump of cat vomit his sister, at immense effort, had barged all the way across the kitchen to the den and then through the gap – only for her beloved brother to turn his back on her! So, while they gorged themselves on the fruits of the earth, Gregor, whose share of these fruits was his by right, became thin and weak, and was soon just a bag of bones, whining and wheezing and muttering gibberish to himself in his corner, the food that he once relished no longer the equal of his fastidiousness. No one now bothered to shore up the crumbling barricade: only a fantasist would look upon its pathetic prisoner as some dangerous monster, plotting evil against the world as he lurked in infernal cleanliness.

It was the mother’s mournful scrabbling which announced Gregor’s final end. There was much moistness in their eyes that morning, though it soon dried up. Life goes on, after all. They considered eating Gregor, but an old taboo, its origins lost in the mists of time, held them back. His parents dragged the corpse to the cat bowl at the far end of the kitchen. On returning to the den, they were pleasantly surprised to see that their daughter, stretching her many legs and tucking into a tasty titbit of something or other, was on the verge of becoming a fully grown cockroach in her own right, indeed a great beauty.

*

Thus did Hermann Kafka, canny businessman and father of Franz, an obscure author, strive to outdo his son, whose literary ambitions he scorned. But the son was more cunning than the father imagined: he stole his father’s crude fairy-tale, turned it on its head, and wrote a Metamorphosis of his own.

* * *

Andreas Smith has published stories in several UK literary magazines, including Monk and Storgy. He has also written several novels and is now represented by the David Grossman Literary Agency in London. He lives in County Durham and works as a freelance editor, though he sometimes travels to India for several months at a time to write in cafes while drinking chai and watching cows pass by.

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!

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: “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.

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.