Timothy Artsun, retired from a hard life of work, stands on the balcony that juts out from his two-bedroom apartment, watching the cars and people pass just feet below. At this early hour of the morning, people are rushing to work, stopping at the local Starbucks just across the street and secretly wishing ill to those cars ahead of them, who seem to only further jam the already-coagulated streets.
On most ordinary days, Tim would have already left his apartment and walked across the street, where he would stop at the nearby cafe and order the regular—a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich. As he ate, he would browse the classified sections, seeking single females who are looking for someone to share their apartment with.
His habbit, as perverted as it would seem for an elderly man, is not without reason. He’s been a widower for nearly ten years now. His wife—a beautiful woman who had once been known as Sherry Artsun—died while crossing the street. Ironically enough, she’d been hit while fetching the morning paper.
That same newspaper dispenser still stands on the corner of the street, decrepit from age and wounded by the local hoodlums’ baseball bats. Surprisingly—despite the damage that has been done—its red paint remains, a testament to the woman whose blood it has once tasted.
That doesn’t matter now, he thinks, rubbing the bridge of his nose. She’s gone.
Sherry has been gone for ten years.
It’s time to leave the house and head out into the world.
At the cafe, he reads the paper while waiting for the toasted sandwich, marking entries in the classified section with a red pen. He’s surprised to see how many ads are without phone numbers, considering that the women—all eighteen to their late twenties—are looking for homes.
How many would want to share an apartment with an old man? he ponders, glancing up when he sees a waitress. He sighs when he realizes she is not approaching with his sandwich.
Turning back to his paper, he examines the classified ads he has circled, then crosses out the ones he deems inappropriate. Single-White-Female (24) Seeks Female; Pregnant Mother of 3; College Student; Foreign Exchange Asian Woman—all are crossed out, if only out of necessity.
What seems like hours later, a young woman approaches, carrying a single plate with the toasted sandwich.
“Here you are, sir,” she says, setting it before Tim.
“Thank you,” he smiles.
When he looks up, he finds himself looking into the face of a young, attractive woman. Normally, older women with horribly curly hair or teenage boys with bad acne serve him, not someone as young or beautiful as this girl. Her long, black hair—dyed, badly at that—curls down one shoulder and stops at a prominent breast.
“Did you need anything else?” the young woman asks.
“Uh... no.” He blushes, lifting his pen to tap the paper in hopes that she has not noticed his stares. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she says, about to turn. The tilt of her body shifts her hair, revealing her nametag for the first time. It reads, Shelby. “Hey... wait a minute. Can I ask you something?”
“You wouldn’t happen to be the man in the classified sections, would you? The man who’s renting out his extra room?”
“That would be me,” he smiles, offering his hand. “Timothy Artsun at your service, ma’am.”
“Oh, thank God,” she sighs, taking his hand in both of hers. “I’m Shelby, Shelby Donald. I’ve been looking for a place to stay for months.”
“I’m guessing your search hasn’t gone well then?”
“No, not really.”
“What made you assume I was the one renting out the room?”
“You were crossing out names,” she shrugs. “I… I guess I just assumed.”
“You assumed correctly,” he says, reaching over to grab a napkin. “Tell you what. If you’ll give me your name and phone number, I’ll get an interview scheduled.”
“You’re a lifesaver,” Shelby sighs, accepting the napkin when Timothy offers it. She scribbles her name and number down, then slides it back to Tim. “Thank you. When can I expect a call?”
“By tonight, at the latest.”
“Thank you, Mr. Artsun. I appreciate it.”
With one last nod, Shelby turns and darts for the kitchen just as someone begins to yell for her to get back to work.
Timothy looks down, smirks, and slides the card into his breast pocket.
Yeah, he thinks. She’s the one.
Upon arriving home, Tim sets the card beside the phone and begins the ever-dreadful waiting process. Naturally, he’s learned patience throughout his life, but he’d be the first to admit that even he would have a hard time waiting to call a very attractive, very young woman.
Remember, he thinks, just because I’ve got her number doesn’t mean I’m going to accept her.
Just because a woman is attractive doesn’t mean she has a lot of money.
Then again, she could always be working the streets.
He chuckles at his thought and makes his way to the fridge. There, he pulls out an amber bottle filled with brew from his friend Mat. His friend’s alcohol always seems to hit the spot, especially since he’s able to special order it at the liquor store right across the street.
After settling down in his recliner, he turns the TV on and browses through the guide until he comes across the painting channel. From there, he leans back, tips the bottle to his lips, and sighs as a man begins to sketch the rough lines of a sunrise over a mountain with a lead pencil.
I need to paint more, he thinks, taking another swig of the cherry-tasting brew. I don’t do it enough.
His will to paint seemed to have died when Sherry passed. He still doesn’t know why, after all these years, but he’s always held hope that it might come back. In his younger days, he’d been quite the painter, even going so far as to display his art at local exhibitions. He’d been praised for his talents. A critic had even gone so far as to write an article about him—Timothy Artsun, a young, ‘budding’ talent that was ‘sure to take the world by storm’ in a few years time. He’d sold most of his paintings in an auction after Sherry died. Some he kept to himself, while others he donated to good cause. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, The City for Better Safety Improvements, the people who came to help him in his time of need.
As he thinks about his past and how most of his livelihood went to the grave with his wife, he remembers Shelby, the girl who wants to move in with him. He thinks about the way he looked at her badly-dyed hair and well-endowed breasts and how Sherry would feel had she been alive, and how he would have felt should he have been caught.
It doesn’t matter now. Sherry’s gone… forever.
He tips the bottle, if only in memory of his wife.
Hours later, he opens his eyes as he awakes from a drunken stupor. Amber bottle still in hand, he pushes the recliner’s footrest back into its mortal tomb and staggers into the kitchen. There, he sees the Memory Café’s business card that Shelby wrote her phone number on.
I have to call her, he decides, setting the bottle down.
It seems as though the glass has become a part of himself, as he feels distant when he sets it down on the opposite counter. He stares, mesmerized by the slight amount of liquid that rests on the bottom, but doesn’t extend his hand to grasp it. There’s no need for alcohol—not even a slight sip—when he calls Shelby.
Picking up the cordless phone, he lifts the business card, squints—cursing himself for not grabbing his glasses before making the trek into the kitchen—and begins to dial the number. A one, a few fives, and a three later, the phone is ringing in his head.
Ten rings later, just as Timothy is ready to hang up the phone, it clicks.
“Hello?” Shelby asks.
“Hello,” Timothy says. “This is Tim Artsun, from earlier.”
“Oh. Hi, sir. I was wondering when you’d call.”
“Sorry, that’s my fault. I fell asleep.”
“It’s ok. I mean, it’s not like I’ve been sitting by the phone waiting for you to call. It’s just… I… wait, I mean—”
“It’s all right,” he laughs, reaching up to scratch the mess of stubble on his chin. He makes a mental note to shave. “I’d love for you to come over and see the apartment. It’ll give you a chance to check the place out, and besides—we can get to know each other a little more.”
“All right… where do you live again?”
“It’s the apartment building right across the street from Memory. I’m on the third floor.”
“I didn’t know you lived so close,” Shelby laughs. “I won’t even have to drive to work anymore. I mean, if you decide to let me live with you. Not that I expect you to just pick me or anything, sir, because I would never do that. I—”
“Don’t worry,” he smiles. “I’ll expect you in… a half hour or so?”
“That’ll work,” the young woman says. “Besides. I need to shower and get ready anyway.”
“All right. Thanks, Shelby. See you then.”
“Thank you, sir. Goodbye.”
He clicks the off button.
“Hey, Mat,” Timothy calls, rapping on the glass door with his fist. “Open up!”
“Who is it?”
Mat—a middle-aged man of forty with graying hair and too-dark beard shadow—makes his way out of the shadowed depths of the liquor store. He sets a hand over his eyes, glances out the window, and smiles when he sees Tim.
“Don’t be a stranger,” the man laughs, opening the door to let him in.
“Yeah. I’ve been a bit of one lately, haven’t I?”
“You have,” Mat agrees, “but that’s all right. What can I do ya for, old man?”
“Ha ha, very funny.” Tim smiles and walks to where Mat keeps his wares. He sets a finger to one of the glass bottles and traces its edge, marveling at the smoothness. “Got anything I’d like?”
“I’ve got any and everything you could possibly imagine. Why? You lookin’ to have a party?”
“Something like that.”
Mat raises his eyebrows.
“What?” Tim laughs, taking a bottle from its rack.
“Tell me what you’ve got cooking in that old head of yours.”
“I’ve got someone coming to the apartment tonight.”
“Oh? And who might this someone be?”
“A young lady that works next door.”
“Hot damn,” Tim laughs, bending to clap his knee. He whistles soon after, a habit Tim has come to detest. “You’ve got a girl comin’ over?”
“For your information, she’s a perfectly-grown woman,” he says, lifting the apple-green bottle so he can read its flavor. “I hate the way you call women girls. It makes us old men sound like perverts. And why the hell are you starting to name your drinks after women? ‘Snow White?’ What’s next? One for each dwarf?”
“Oh, that’ll come later,” Mat grins, slapping an arm around his friend’s shoulder. “Tell you what. Since you’ve got a lady coming over, I’ll give you this bottle for free. It’s mixed with apple extract. Tastes just like juice, but rolls over your tongue like pudding.”
“I assume that’s a good thing?”
“Hell yes it is!” Mat slaps Tim’s back, pushing him toward the door. “Go on, get back home, you crazy old bastard.”
“All right, all right,” he laughs, raising the bottle in friendly toast. “I’ll get going. Thanks again, Mat.”
“No problem, buddy.”
Tim leaves the store wondering just how people could come up with such stupid names for alcohol.
Shelby arrives later that evening, dressed in a short-sleeved blouse and a skirt. Timothy smiles when he opens the door to her young, unsure face.
“Hello,” he says, offering a hand. “It’s good to see you, Shelby.”
“It’s good to see you too, sir.”
She grips his hand—not hard, but firm. The confidant handshake reminds him of his wife.
No, he thinks. Don’t start thinking about that.
All he needs is to think about Sherry at a time like this.
“So,” he says, making his way into the kitchen. “I suppose I should ask you to elaborate on why you’re looking for an apartment.”
“My mother,” Shelby says, starting to seat herself in one of the bar chairs. She stops when she realizes her action. “May I?”
“You may,” he smiles, already pleased with her proper language.
While Shelby settles into her seat—welcoming herself into an environment that may soon be her home—Tim opens the fridge and pulls out the bottle of Snow White.
“You never said why you were looking for an apartment,” he repeats, looking up at Shelby as he reaches for the bottle opener.
“Oh… that.” She sighs, brushing an arm across her brow. “I might have mentioned it earlier in the restaurant, and I started to mention it now, but my mother. She’s… she’s very overbearing. She thinks I need to get a real job, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m lucky to have the job I’ve got.”
“It’s a miracle anyone can get a job in this economy,” he agrees, setting the bottle and the opener on the bar in front of Shelby. “Would you like a drink?”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t.”
“And why not?”
“I… uh… I’ve never—”
“Ah,” he smiles. “Then you’re in luck. I’ve got something with a mild taste.”
He doesn’t bother to reveal the nature of the alcohol, nor does he bother to mention that the store which he bought it from is well-known for its strong drink. He grabs the opener, drives it into the cork, then stops, glancing up at his guest.
“Why don’t you open it?” he offers, pushing the bottle forward. “Might as well make your first time memorable.”
“Doesn’t the cork fly off though?”
“If you’re not careful.”
Shelby smiles, taking hold of the bottle with one hand and the opener in the other. With one firm tug, the cork pops off, foam erupting from the base of Snow White’s neck in the process. The young woman laughs and pushes it away when the form starts to run down the sides.
“It’ll stop in a minute,” he says, walking to the cupboards. He has to stand on the very tips of his toes to reach for the cabinet in the corner, where he keeps his wine and champagne glasses. He pulls the two most expensive—and ornate—ones from the center compartment. His and Hers, they had once been, when his wife had still been alive. He shakes the thought from his head and sets them on the bar before closing the cabinets. “Thank you, Shelby.”
“Well, for one,” he says, allowing her to fill his glass, “pouring us a drink. And for two, coming to visit me this evening.”
“I told you I would. Besides, I don’t have much choice in the matter, if I want to get away from my mother.”
“Why does she think you need a real job?”
“She thinks I need to pay off art school as soon as I can.”
“So you’re a student,” he smiles, sipping his drink. “What medium do you specialize in?”
“Ah. I admire you, ma’am.”
“Because an artist who actively pursues his or her talent and continues to improve it is one who cares about their art. It’s not often you see someone so dedicated.”
“I’m not dedicated—just bored.”
They both laugh. Shelby glances at Tim, reaching for her drink with tentative fingers. They tap their glasses as though playing a piano before taking their first sips.
“I’m not just shooting that off the top of my head either,” Tim says. “I really do admire you. I used to paint once.”
“Once?” she frowned. “What happened?”
“My wife. She passed.”
“Thank you, but there’s no need to apologize. “
“It’s sad when someone loses someone they love. You can’t help but feel for them, you know?”
He nods and lifts his glass. He makes no attempt to disguise the length of the drink he takes.
“If you want,” Shelby says, “we can paint together. I always carry a set of paints, so all we’d need is a canvas.”
“You carry paints in your purse?”
“Some people carry cell phones, other carry chihuahuas. I just happen to carry paints.”
Tim watches her for a moment, trying to discern her purpose. When he finds no ill intent behind her hazel eyes, he nods.
“All right,” he says. “Let me go get my canvases. They should be in the back room here.”
It’s the first time he’s painted since Sherry died. Like a fish out of water, he struggles, first attempting to wet his brush, then dip it into the paint. Gradually, with Shelby’s gentle coaxing and encouragement, he is able to do the thing he has always wanted to do.
Slowly, and with effort that seems to come out of nowhere, he traces the edges of a far-off mountain, making sure to add its jagged peaks and ledges before moving to the foreground. There, he arranges a field, adding minute details as they go along.
“Do you live nearby?” he asks, looking up at Shelby. She’s since pulled her badly-dyed hair back into a ponytail. Grey and Robin’s Egg Blue speckle her face.
“The next town over,” she smiles, reaching up to scratch her chin with the end of her brush. “If you want to know the truth, I’m not just trying to get away from my mother. I’ve been looking for my uncle as well.”
“Uh huh. He said that if I ever needed anything to go to him.” She stops to consider what she’s said, then sighs, indifferent to the older man she’s now confessing to. “Well, so far, I’ve had very little luck.”
“He lives in the area then?”
“I think so… at least, he said he did. It’s kinda sad when you don’t even know where your own family lives, huh?”
“I suppose so.”
He shrugs, glancing at her painting—which appears to be a haunted seascape—before returning to his own. He lifts his glass and sips from it, just as Shelby has for the past few minutes. A buzz—starting at the base of his forehead—spreads its gelatinous tendrils, grasping for the deeper parts of his mind. He knows this angel of mercy will soon knock him down—not dead, but out.
“Are you having fun?” Shelby asks, smiling when she catches him looking.
“I… I guess,” he frowns, looking at his painting. “I’m a little rusty, but I think I’m getting there.”
“Rusty?” she laughs. “If that’s rusty, I don’t even know what mine is.”
He glances at her painting, but doesn’t say anything. Hers is beautiful, with its smooth strokes, blues and greys. His, however, seems rough, with its jagged edges and its unintentional splotches of color. He stops to consider how an artist is always wondering, comparing his old work to his new. The new, while better, always seems to lack something the old has, at least until it settles within the dark expanse of an artist’s oceanic mind. Ideas sift from the bottom, floating to the surface, then spring into action, crawling onto land to evolve their arms and legs. That idea, once stably planted in the artist’s figurative world, continues to evolve until it becomes sentient and can speak for itself. Maybe that is why he believes he is rusty. Maybe it’s because he believes these strange, new places in his mind cannot be compared to the old, deserted places that have long since fallen into another man’s hands.
“It’s starting to get to me,” he chuckles.
Shelby says nothing. A quick glance at her face shows her insecurity. From her pursed lips to the slight squint of her eyes, it’s obvious his words have had some impact on her sense of calm and home.
“You can stay here tonight,” he says, setting the paintbrush in its cup of water. “I have to get to bed.”
“I can leave.”
“There’s no need to drink and drive,” he says, walking toward the hall.
“Which room is it?”
“Second on your right.”
He slides into his bedroom without telling her goodnight.
Soon after, he climbs into bed, wondering why he can’t shake the image of tearing Shelby’s clothes from her body.
The alcohol, he thinks. Yeah… that’s it.
He falls asleep with that same thought and image.
The following morning, he wakes to a silent apartment. It’s not uncommon—considering he has lived alone for so long—but with a guest in the house, he expects something—the coffee maker running, the TV blaring, the whisper of bare feet across the kitchen linoleum.
He hears none of this.
Instead of dwelling on this perturbing silence, he rolls out of bed and heads for the master bathroom. Once inside, he peers at himself in the mirror. Harsh, grey stubble lines his cheeks and jaw, while his hair lies in disarray, pressed to his scalp on one side, standing on the other. He reaches up to scratch his chest and nearly shivers when he feels the tickle of hair against his fingers.
It’s nothing, he thinks, glancing down at the thin layer of grey that covers his broad chest.
For a moment, he wonders why he’s shivered, but doesn’t dwell on it. He turns, parts the shower curtain, and starts the bathtub first, as always. He bends and lets his hand rest under the running water, waiting until it becomes lukewarm before running the shower. It’s a habit he’s religiously had since his teenage years, when he’d stepped into a scalding-hot shower without first testing its warmth. Faint blotches still line his arms where the water ate away at the upper layers of his skin.
Reaching down, he slides his underwear down his legs before shrugging them off his ankles. Once at the end of one foot, he kicks it into the corner—his official dirty laundry basket—before stepping into the lukewarm water.
With the faint touch of water on his face come the memories of last night. He and Shelby, drinking and painting, talking about her long-lost uncle and how she’s been searching for him; his first painting in years, a bleak sunrise against a harsh mountain; and hers, a lonely sea that threatens to swallow any who look at it whole. He breaths in the faint mist that rests in the air and sighs when he feels it dampen his throat. It’s been years since he’s filled a glass of water and set it on his nightstand. The refreshing moisture is heaven after a long night.
Once finished with his shower, he shaves, brushes his teeth, then walks into his bedroom and dresses before returning to the bathroom to comb his hair. Afterward, he steps out of the bedroom and into the hall, where he walks into the kitchen and grabs a cup of coffee.
It isn’t until he turns to face the living room that he finds Shelby.
Naked, bloody from the waist down, she lays sprawled along one of the couches, head tilted to one side. He drops the cup in his hand and doesn’t even blink when he hears it shatter. All he sees is Shelby, sprawled out along the couch, blood painting her nether region and a thick layer slime coating her chest.
Without a moment’s hesitation, he bounds into the room and to her side, but stops before he can crouch to take her pulse.
Scrawled across her chest in thick, red paint, the word ‘uncle’ starts on her right breast, the U encapsulating her right nipple in an incomplete sphere before the rest of the word continues across her chest. The final letter—E—fully captures her left nipple, which appears to have been gnawed or torn off.
“Oh my God,” he breaths.
He thinks of how he should have grabbed the phone and dialed 9-1-1, then remembers the episodic events of trauma that enter a person’s mind after a tragic event. When he heard of Sherry’s death, he had not been able to leave it. He’d asked the state trooper who’d came to his door if he was sure it was his wife who had been in an accident and adamantly refused to believe so until the man showed him Sherry’s bloody driver’s license. He’d collapsed with the truth—had fallen to his knees and stared at the floor, tracing lines of dirt that had been invisible until then—and still hadn’t been able to believe what he had heard.
Sherry, he whispers, lips tracing the name in silence. No.
It isn’t Sherry who lies on the couch, brutalized and long since dead—it is a young woman named Shelby, whom he met at the café across the street just yesterday. He’d eaten a cheese-and-tomato sandwich served by her very hands no more than twenty-four hours ago, had painted, spoken, and drank with her last night. How could she be dead? And how, by all means, is she covered in blood?
You know, he thinks, but doesn’t want to believe what he thinks.
Uncle—that single word—is written across her chest, the paint long since dried. Her eyes—glazed over in death—stare at the ceiling, while her tongue bloats inside of her mouth, peeking out from between pale, red lips. Her stomach—once smooth—is distended, pregnant with her child of decay.
Taking a few steps back, he turns and locates her purse, which sits on the counter near the microwave. He grabs it without hesitation, not bothering to stop and consider what the police will say as he tears through its tiny compartment, coming away with extra brushes, her driver’s license, and a portable phonebook.
Then, as if something has struck him with divine intervention, he pulls out a small, hardback journal that has ‘Visual Diary’ written over the front. Below its title is a picture of Shelby herself, with the words ‘My Life in Color’ scrawled in gold cursive just beneath it.
This is, he thinks, but stops, not sure whether or not to open it. Yeah. This is it.
Taking a deep breath, he closes his eyes to gather his nerve before opening the diary.
Inside, as with all diaries, is her information—her name, her age, her hometown, her current address. The latter has been erased, messily at that. The word ‘Maple’ stands out at the very end, right where he supposes the word ‘street’ is supposed to be. The next page reveals a picture of Shelby as a young girl—a teenager with bad acne and braces. ‘The start of my visual diary’ is written off to the side. A bad attempt at a smiley face sits below it. He ignores this and continues through the pages, only briefly glimpsing at pictures of horses, friends, and what looks to be bra burning, until he comes across the final completed pages.
A woman—captured in rage and surprise—is the centerfold of one page.
‘My mother,’ the caption reads, ‘is a witch.’
Tim shivers, suppressing the urge to reach down and rub the gooseflesh from his arms. He does, however, reach up to scratch an itch that rests below his left eye, the one he’s always seemed to have trouble with.
Your bad eye, his father used to whisper, the memory so alive the man’s breath is on his ear. Watch the girls, sonny—you only got one chance to put your pecker in its place.
“Quit it,” he says, reaching up to rub his temple. “It’s not… not that.”
He looks up at Shelby and wonders. Could he have killed her? Could he have stripped her of her clothes, raped her until she bled, then possibly strangled her before writing his message across her chest?
Why uncle though? he thinks, trying as hard as he can to not look at the dead woman in his apartment. Why—
It hits him, hard, like a bullet to the brain. He stops moving, breathing, thinking, even moving as the revelation begins to sink in.
Shelby—a girl of nineteen—looking for an apartment in the city to find the uncle who said he’d help her through anything.
A woman—accused of witchcraft by her daughter—infuriated on one page of the diary.
Your sister always had a bad temper, his father whispers in his head, gripping the back of his hair like he used to when drunk. Lucky. You don’t seem to have that.
With hesitation he has not felt in years, Tim turns the page.
A picture of Shelby’s mother and a man with graying hair slides out from between the two pages.
‘Gotta remember,’ the caption reads, ‘that uncle’s been a wreck since aunt Sherry died.’
The diary slips from his hand, where it lands beside the broken remnants of the coffee cup. The picture—which had revealed itself in the blink of an eye—seems to float, gliding on invisible currents of air as it comes to rest at his feet.
“Shelby,” he breathes.
Shelby, who sat in his lap at family reunions; Shelby, who used to show him Picassos when she was five; Shelby, who, after her first menstrual cycle, came knocking on the door in the middle of night. She’d been twelve then, and her mother, crazed with religion and mental disorders, had expelled her from the house, claiming the devil had come to take her child into the pits of hell. He’d lived in the country then, almost ten years ago.
He’d moved after saying goodbye. His sister had barred contact. He hasn’t seen Shelby since her thirteenth birthday.
Before he can finish the thought, he sees it pinned to the fridge—a note, scrawled in almost-illegible writing.
Change of prescription, it reads. Signed, Dr. Greene.