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.