This story is by Julie Stroem and won an honorable mention in our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I had been an artist.
In the slums, in darkness as black as our driven lust, I’d told my stories. And I can tell you, if wealth was measured by drops of crimson spilt in dark alleyways I would have been a millionaire.
The Bloody Painter, they’d called me. I liked to paint my victims afterwards, to show the world I was leagues above their average serial killer. I was an artist.
I had tried other ways, of course, ways that wouldn’t waste human lives, but not even the best brand of heroin could quite match the high of being the controlling power over someone else’s life, of seeing the soul slowly seep out of someone’s eyes. It was a thrill like nothing else.
But not anymore. I was a chained man. There was only one ticket out of here and it was a one-way to the morgue.
I turned my head as the door to my hospital room opened and my oncologist walked in, flanked by two nurses, one of which I already knew; sweet, conscientious, boring. She gave me a smile as she passed my bed and went to my roommate, pulling the curtain between us for privacy. The other nurse was unfamiliar, pale and curvy. I licked my lips. In my hands, she would have made a beautiful canvas. When our eyes met there was a strange gleam in hers.
“So.” The doc glanced at the medical chart at the foot of my bed. “Humfrey Brentwood.” I had to come up with something, didn’t I? Mr. Gory Bloodlust didn’t have the same ring to it out of the slums. “How are you feeling today?”
“Like a pig waiting to be slaughtered.”
That made the doc flinch a little and the nurse behind him gasp. I smirked. This was all the fun I was allowed these days. No more stories, no more admiration. No more paint. Fuck, I missed it.
The doctor coughed, collecting himself. “This is Michelle.” He indicated the nurse. Our eyes met and she smiled, but it wasn’t the boring, plastered service-smile the other nurses offered. This was something else. Something I couldn’t quite pinpoint. Something beckoning. “She’s here to take a few samples of your blood for analysis.” The doc drivelled on about something medical but I didn’t pay attention. My eyes travelled to the small tray of needles Michelle placed in front of me. I forced down a shudder. For all the holes I had poked in other people, I really fucking hated needles.
When I looked up from the tray, the doc had left and Michelle had taken my arm. The smell of antiseptic stung.
Her hands shook a little as she said, “You’re going to feel a small pinch, Humfrey.”
I looked away, teeth clenched.
“Ow!” I cried when the needle slipped and a few drops of blood ran down from my inner elbow.
“Oh, gosh, I’m so sorry,” Michelle immediately said, reaching for a stack of tissues on the tray to press to the tiny hole in my arm, but I held my hand out to stop her.
It was the first drops of blood I had seen in months. I stared, mesmerised as the paint left a vivid stripe of crimson life upon my ashen skin. It was a raw beauty. I twisted my arm, watching as the drops painted patterns around my wrist. It was nothing like the magnificent paintings I had been praised for, sure, but it was the only painting I’d done in months.
Michelle didn’t move to wipe it away. A dark corner of my mind entertained the notion that maybe she understood. After all, nurses too were in control of other people’s lives, though no where near the same height that my magma-black soul operated at. Her role was to save lives whereas my role was to turn them into contemporary art.
We both watched the path of the drop until it finally slipped from my skin and fell down on her pristine white attire.
“Don’t worry, a little hydrogen peroxide will sort that stain out,” I said.
“Wow, you certainly know your way around the chemicals,” she said, amused.
“It was necessary in my line of business.”
“And did you often have to clean blood off white shirts?”
I gave her a secretive smile. Oh, I could tell her such stories. But she’d probably run away screaming, maybe even call the police. But what could they do that the cancer wasn’t already doing?
The curtain pulled back suddenly and a startled gasp made us both look up.
“What are you doing?” The other nurse had finished with my roommate and was staring in shock at the fine-line crimson art on my arm.
Michelle hastily wiped it away with a mumbled apology and finished the blood-work under the scrutiny of her colleague — blood-work, I liked that word — and soon she left me with only a small plaster on my arm to remind me of the glorious paint.
In the quiet, my roommate sighed. “Fuck.”
“Bad forecast?” I asked. We were here for the same reason, but he was furthest along.
He shrugged. “I’ll probably last another month, much longer than they expected. Which would all be a blast if I weren’t in this fucking agony.”
I raised my cup of ice-water in a toast.
I woke the next morning to find my roommate dead. His upper body was angled towards me, arms and neck bend in a macabre way. No blood. What a waste. But I did notice a series of dark bruises on his neck.
My heart sang. Murder.
I inhaled deeply. The room smelled sweetly of death. Refreshing. After revelling in it a few more minutes, I called for the nurse.
“Must have died in his sleep,” Michelle told me after they’d rolled away the body.
“He seemed fine yesterday,” I said.
“It was unexpected,” Michelle agreed. Her hand twitched suddenly. She clenched her fist. “He was in pain. It was probably for the best.” Then she cracked a small smile. “Used to recite poems to me. Said it kept his brain awake. Now no one will ever hear his poems again.” Her words were sad but her smile wasn’t.
No one will ever hear his poems again, my brain parroted, and I realised with a pang of anger that this was the last place for me to share my stories too. My legacy. My art.
“Michelle?” I called for her just before she walked out the door.
She turned back. “Yes?”
“Would you like to hear a story?”
Oh, it felt wonderful to tell the stories again. I dived into the one about the suit who had pleaded for his life in no less than six different languages before his mouth was so full of paint he could not utter another word. Michelle didn’t scream or run away. She would gasp and scrunch up her face at some of the more gory details, but she stayed. She even smiled, too.
“That was . . . quite . . . something else, wasn’t it?” she said, laughing nervously as I wrapped up the story of the fat suit who’d looked on in horrific awe at the twelve puncture marks in his belly before my knife painted his throat scarlet. ‘That explains the laundry tip,’ she said with a wink, clearly not believing the truth of my words.
But I felt like myself again. High.
The next day, my pain was worse. And there was no more they could do for me. The oncologist apologised and left. Michelle hung back.
“Tell me another story,” she asked and the pain immediately lessened. I dived into another masterpiece, spurred on by that beckoning smile of hers. I told her the one about the suit I had turned into a gory feast for the eyes. A particular favourite of mine. Hers too it would seem.
“I’m going to miss your stories,” she said once the paint of my story had dried.
“They were my high.” Confession at last.
Her eyes narrowed as if she was trying to read my soul. Her wicked smile hadn’t faltered, not even when the paint of my story had decorated the entire floor. I noticed her hand twitched, fingers tightening around air, then relaxing as she said, “Goodnight, Humfrey.”
I awoke later to a melody. A low humming, coming from a person bathed in darkness.
“My sweet, I am your angel of mercy,” the voice sang. Michelle.
“What are you doing?” I asked, bringing my hands up — or trying. She’d tied them to the bed.
“Seeking my next high,” she said sweetly, then shot me that wicked smile. “You understand.”
Panic rose in me. Was this how a canvas felt before I splashed it with paint?
“You were a serial killer,” she said, securing the last knot. I couldn’t move.
“I was an artist.”
Her smile turned wry. “So am I.”
Then her hands tightened around my throat.