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.