It’s just paint in the snow outside.

Paint that had sloshed lazily to each side of a can before leaping out onto the ground in a tidy pathway, like miniscule ruby stepping stones. Following it, we begin from the edge of a small, rocky beach to the backdoor of a shabby, ranch style home layered in moss and slouched under blankets of freshly fallen snow. The problem wasn’t exactly that it had snowed an unseasonable amount for that time of year, but that the snow often fell from only a few yards above all at once. This was due to the canopy of tree branches above that would cradle as much snow as possible until the weight would overcome the branches and fall to the roof of Elizabeth James’s home. This, more often than not, would happen at odd hours of the night and spring Elizabeth from her bed flailing about for an intruder. So, with this a regular occurrence, Elizabeth was reasonably on edge.

The path of trickled splotches of red did not halt at the wooden door of the shack, but continued on inside across the door sill, where Elizabeth must have crossed the threshold not long before. This wouldn’t be that odd considering she often mixed her paints and cleaned her brushes out in the river. Admittedly, not great for the eco-system, but convenient for her artistic needs. Continuing along the red paint trial crossed through a long hallway into an open, unfurnished room that was flooded with the stale blue light of winter morning. In this room were paint splattered milk crates, stacked to about waist level, canvas draped over them and there wasn’t a bare inch on the walls or floors. On each side were murals and illustrations of the mountains or ocean, depending on whether she was painting on the west or east side of the house that day.

In a spotlight of sunshine swimming in through the dusty window and at the end of the red paint trial sat Elizabeth James with her knees cradled to her chest while absent mindedly biting at her thumb. Her eyes narrowed from behind a pair of stark black frames, scrutinizing the wall in front of her. On the wall were three identical windows, stretching nearly floor to ceiling, and beyond it a scenic view of the snow-capped mountain range. On this particular morning, fog clung in streams to the mountain sides while dark, coal colored clouds swirled at the peaks.

Elizabeth rolled her shoulders on a deep inhale, stiff like naught but her eyes had moved for hours, which had darted back and forth from window to window. From the precisely chosen and exact location that she sat, the view through the glass panes and the mural on the wall lined up identically with a small exception of the sky. Outside, the sun was unseen behind multiple layers of grey and black, while, on the mural, a boastful sun smiled upon the mountain peaks. Elizabeth took a slow, contemplative sip of her steaming coffee, rolling the liquid around her cheeks.

When she did move, her movements were sluggish due to the paralyzing coldness of winter and lack of hot water, exhibited then as Elizabeth lowered her mug to the top of the nearest crate. The knock between the ceramic and wood sounded particularly cacophonous given the absolute silence of the rest of the house and it wasn’t until the sound finally settled back into a safe silence that Elizabeth finally lowered her socked feet to the floor. Her deep concentration for such a simple task insinuated she may have been calculating her movements second to second, weighing the consequences of even the smallest action. She could feel her body moving through the space of the room as if she was plunging into water, crossing through to a new state. Without so much as a glance down, Elizabeth rolled a brush up her fingers having found it exactly where she’d left it the day before and as she had for any day before that. Then, with all the momentum of a person swimming through honey, she dipped the tip of the brush into a chunky concoction, comparable to paint, the color of which was nearly identical to the sky above.


There is a calculated amount of time which inches by and then Elizabeth finds herself predictably seated at a table set with food. Everything precise, everything routine. Without moving her eyes, Elizabeth continued the performance, as she did every day, by closing her fingers around a small pile of pills, perfectly aligned parallel to her plate. Without any change of expression or indication that she knew what she was doing, Elizabeth tossed the pills all at once to the back of her throat, following them down with a chug of apple juice. She swallowed with a lazy blink, right on schedule.

As morning crawled into a cold, colorless afternoon, Elizabeth continued along with her perfect daily dance. Behind unseeing eyes, she spent hours tracing onto canvas beside the window facing the ocean. She’d remember, for years to come, that her imagination only came alive at the ocean front because it was constantly changing. There was no risk of simply recreating the scene in front of her because no one thing could be focused on long enough to reproduce accurately before it had, again, transformed into something else. The mountains were unlike that. Sturdy and unmovable things as the mountains were, they wouldn’t change even the slightest bit until long after Elizabeth would die.

So, with this reasoning in mind, Elizabeth perched herself on the floor, facing the ocean, and fingering a chunk of clay. She saw the clay through her hands, often closing her eyes or watching the water while she worked. Soft curves turned to jawbone. Elizabeth scarcely breathed during this part of the ritual, notable by the infrequent puff of condensation that crawled outward between her lips.

Though this was, as the definition clearly explains, a ritual and therefore rooted in its sameness day to day, Elizabeth differed only on the amount of cigarettes she smoked during the process. It wasn’t uncommon to make her way through an entire pack, ashing them into stray pots and pans. Other times, if she was working on a painting, she’d burn the butt into the eyes of the portrait. She could also be caught tracing the ash along the paintings neck with all the concentration of a killer.

Echoing off the ceiling, scratchy talk radio swayed in and out like the tide, wafting through walls of static. At this point in the process, Elizabeth had already blocked the particulars of the announcers voice and instead heard only a constant stream of white noise. Elizabeth gingerly touched her finger to the clay and traced lips that curved into a scowl. They was rarely a time in which the lips did not curve into a scowl. She dabbed the end of her diminishing cigarette into the head of the emerging bust. The grimace seemed to deepen. She dropped the smoke into a mason jar, already stained from standing paint water. The voice on the radio ebbed back into decipherable words. Elizabeth exhaled, smoking leaking out of each nostril, as a newscaster lamented the disappearance and presumed death of a local college student. Local being used liberally given Elizabeth didn’t have neighbors. The nearest town only knew her from her short brush with fame, prior to moving out here, in which her face had blinked out of every television across the country. (This was when she’d switched to radio, after all.) However, no one who recognized her actually mentioned it or showed any signs of it. On the occasion she did find her way into town, perhaps for breakfast at the diner or to replace the dried out brushes she’d forgotten to rinse, the town paid her the respect of treating her with indifference. Of course the edges of the curtain sometimes fluttered and she caught mothers behind strollers crossing the street away from her and teenagers daring each other to talk to her. As if she was a wild animal come down from the mountain, not with clear intent to hurt but still lethal to approach. She watched a serving staff once pull straws to see who had to serve her.

She knew what they thought she had done, but even so she thought their wariness of her was a bit unwarranted. Like she might lunge at their throats any moment and therefore they must always be prepared to leap backwards. They had special rules of regulation for when she came in. All of this was done carefully around corners and supposedly out of Elizabeth view. She was grateful they at least tried to hide their fear, but it was depressingly easy to notice the way no one ever met her eye.

Regrettably, Elizabeth realized, the missing woman was one of the only people in town who would genuinely smile when she approached and subsequently met her gaze. She thought maybe her nickname was Paw, but she knew her as Annie James. Elizabeth squeezed the muscles in her stomach and attempted to be upset by this news. She thought, maybe with enough concentration, her throat might close and her heart might drop into her stomach like often happened to the characters in her books. None of which happened, of course, and she relaxed. This kind of thing did happen, anyway. People disappearing into the mountains, frequently during white out snow storms. The radio announced the details of the on-going search and the desperation of her family and friends.

“It’s like having your lungs ripped out of your chest…” A new voice sobbed. “But you have to keep breathing anyway.” Elizabeth paused, fingers lingering at her sides, and considering these words. Then, she retrieved a miniature, faux leather bound sketch book from her shirt pocket and scribbled, “Lungs ripped out — Keep breathing.”

This was, while abnormal to any outsiders, the daily ritual Elizabeth had been performing again and again for nearly ten month now. A drugged repetition fostered only by herself. She didn’t think she was punishing herself for anything, because she certainly didn’t feel guilty or remorseful for any of the things she was accused of doing. But she couldn’t deny that she was methodically numbing herself into a useless and safe cyclonic existence. In this way, she couldn’t cause any more damage. Her daughter Hallie was still missing, so an alibi sis not yet exist which could excuse her of the crime. Although an equal amount of evidence existed that she was innocent that she was guilty, it was of a common mind that she, Elizabeth James, was solely responsible for the disappearance and potential murder of her daughter.

By the time Elizabeth pulled away from the dough-like sculpture, the ocean outside had retreated to the farthest it would ever be from her home. Though the sun was still undetectable, a telling glow on the horizon foretold sunset. Without turning her head, she swiftly raked her eye down the completed sculpture. The clay was shaped like a masculine face with unruly patches of unkempt facial hair growing out of its chin. The eyebrows were bent inward over closed eyes, as if puzzled. Elizabeth wore a similar expression, déjà vu tickling her insides. Like maybe she’d seen this face before. She blurred her vision, unwilling to look any longer. Purely based on physical appearances, it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to assume the sculpture to be an angel given its heavenly features. Instinct seemed to tell her otherwise.


It wasn’t until the day completely succumbed to night that Elizabeth finally unfurled from herself. She could no longer make out the waves from the sky nor could she properly find the face inside the mound of clay, so she uncurled like an insect and reached for the lamp. As the room faded into view, so did piles of canvas all turned toward the walls so that the content could not be seen. Elizabeth took the sculpture between her palms and pressed a finger into the eye socket, letting the clay sink in around her skin. She repeated on the other eye and then observed her handy work. Still, goosebumps crawled the length of her arm. Elizabeth lit another cigarette, which she held between her teeth, before finally closing her hands around the sculpture, effectively destroying it.

Before bed, Elizabeth stored the clay away then stripped her soiled clothes in the kitchen. Little balls of clay clung to the fine hairs on her arm, stubborn to stay even when Elizabeth soaked a wash cloth in the freezing water and washed herself with it. Her skin was a hard red from the friction before she finally dunked her entire head beneath the faucet. She pulled the water through her hair with fingers crusty with dried paint. Speckles of color snowed into the sink below her. When she finally flipped her head upright, speckling the wood floor with water, she paused at the sight of her own reflection in the kitchen window. She watched herself grimace, thinking again about Hallie’s disappearance. She squeezed her eyes shut, attempting to conjure up any kind of emotion. But there was nothing. No fear, even after the realization that her comfortable ritual was about to be disturbed. No queasiness, despite the overwhelming similarities between Annie’s disappearance and Hallie’s disappearance. She couldn’t be sure it was the same person, but she felt confident enough. After all, this person had a very particular ritual of their own. Not one of medicinal numbing and elongated suicide, but a very precise recipe which this person followed in order to most efficiently execute an abduction and kill. So, here this person was, jumping back into the spotlight and doing so as obviously as knocking at Elizabeth’s front door.

These two people, Elizabeth and the Killer, they’ve never met before. In fact, their knowledge of each other was purely hypothetical up until this point. Elizabeth knew what she’d picked up at crime scenes and what she’s recreated on the page and in 3D format for police analysis. She has vague descriptions and rumors. She could put these pieces together but they still only formed a pinhole glance at this very real person, like looking at someone through a keyhole. There was none of the gritty details and certainly none of the answers. On the other hand, the Killer must also have assumed someone like Elizabeth existed, though Elizabeth wasn’t sure how specific the Killer’s information was. There Killer in theory did know that Elizabeth existed but only in the same way Elizabeth knew The Killer existed: a dead body. Nothing they knew about the other could make up a real, three dimensional person.

Elizabeth wondered, frequently at that, if the Killer had ever even considered Elizabeth as a person instead of a job title. Did this Killer even wonder what she sounded like? Would the Killer be tickled to know that she’d driven Elizabeth, though in advertently, to her breaking point? Best case scenario, the Killer also considered Elizabeth in the time immediately before sleeping each night. Often, this was the sedative which lulled Elizabeth to sleep each night. Other nights she’d lay awake estimating the hour and imagining the Killer obsessing over Elizabeth as well. She imagined she was the killer. The feeling this fantasy often revoked was not unlike fear, but Elizabeth was fairly certain the pills had eliminated that possibility. Anyway, Elizabeth was positive that this was another emotion altogether, though she couldn’t put her finger on it, it was not unlike slipping on ice and the moment just before hitting the ground.


When the phone call finally did come, Elizabeth was standing in her closet, swaying like she might fall in either direction. Technically, she had stepped down from her position so the calls were more of a courtesy than anything. A habit she thought would have died by now. More often than not, she’d go entire days with the phone unplugged. Today, however, true to her prediction, her ritual was interrupted and she was jarred from sleep as the voicemail machine picked up. Disoriented when she did not open her eyes to see the end of her bed, but the inside of her own storage closet, Elizabeth blindly waved her arms above her head until locating the pull string. Once this light was activated, Elizabeth found herself eye to eye with a portrait carved into the wood paneling. A woman’s face, slightly adhered by tresses of brown hair, starred back. She thought maybe she saw her blink. Elizabeth exhaled between rings. In her dream, her skin was soft and flexible like that of wet flour. She’d been grabbing at her skin in chunks, flinging bits of herself all over the room like maybe there might be something hidden beneath the first layer. Something not unlike her, but deviant. Awake, she padded the skin on her chest, verifying that it was in fact a dream, and backed out of the small closet, not daring to take her eyes from the portraits until the door was securely shut.

She rehearsed her reaction in the car on the way to the scene. Fastening heart rate, shortness of breath, lack of awareness. She recited the symptoms of shock in her head while, occasionally, sneaking a glance into her own reflection in the sun visor mirror. Her eyes betrayed a drug induced apathy, even her best acting skills couldn’t hide, accentuated even further by the severity of her under eye shadow. In a life before Annie and Hallie’s disappearance, Elizabeth was never the object of any scrutiny so she was safe to act in a world without an audience. At the time, there wasn’t any journalists writing entire columns analyzing the shiftiness of her eyes as if an inability to hold eye contact with anyone person validated her guilt. She practiced exhaling despondently in the sun visor mirror, while turning into a private parking garage. The tires loudly protested the asphalt as the car circled around and around, climbing higher up the garage.

At the highest level, Elizabeth idled at the exit ramp back down, daring the muscles in her feet to work. There were plenty of logical reasons to leave, many of them resulting in favorable and safe consequences. Namely, back at her home, with the phone unhooked. As she contemplated, the engine coughed and smoke seeped out of the sides of the hood.

“Damn,” she groaned, jerking the wheel into a spot and manually rolling up the window from the invading smoke. They could have gotten her a better car. Had she been so lucky, the car could have stalled in the middle of a free-way, sending her crashing through the windshield. She wondered, without her dead, who they’d send to clean up the mess.

Elizabeth retreated from the vehicle, pressing the frames of her glasses further up her nose as she went. She’d bent them at the crime scene of Hallie’s disappearance and hadn’t fixed them since, namely due to a newspaper article released only days before she was arrested. The article boasted that Elizabeth demeanor was sadistically apathetic during the search for Hallie, casually complaining about a bend in her glasses and calling off search parties. At the time, it seemed logical enough to have proper eyewear while looking for a missing person but others didn’t seem to share the same view. So she hadn’t gotten them fixed, hoping maybe a follow up article could be written explaining that she hadn’t taken the time to fix her glasses because finding Hallie was all she thought about. Not bathing, not eating, and definitely not proper eyewear. She even went as far as to call the nearest newsprint to tell them about it.

“The article could be called “Eye Will Always Love You” and then, I think, there should also be a comic strip just to lighten up the readers mood, you know? And I’ve been thinking about it a lot so the comic would be this optometrist and she’s checking out a patient’s chart, okay, and her eyes kinda pop out of her head and she suddenly exclaims at the patient, ‘Your vision is terrible, you need glasses!’ “And the patient is shocked to hear this news, almost too shocked to speak. But finally she says, ‘But Doc! I am wearing glasses!’” Elizabeth had to pause to laugh here, before continuing, “and in the final frame the optometrist contemplates this information, shrugs and says, ‘Oh, then I need glasses!’” They never returned her call regarding the article, so Elizabeth never properly fixed her glasses.

Elizabeth draped a lanyard ID over her neck and slipped underneath various strips of caution tape. It was only once inside that she plucked her glasses from her shirt pocket and slid them up her nose. The building was sharp in architecture, composed of jagged ceilings and floor to ceiling windows, and had never before been the location of a crime scene. The letter on the glass wall exclaimed “ERGOT INDUSTRIES” asserting both the name of the company and naming the man who ran it: Will Ergot. Elizabeth traced her eyes over the letters, while simultaneously snapping a medical mask against the back of her neck. Whether they dabbled in murder or not, Elizabeth thought all CEO’s were psychopaths and Will Ergot would be no exception. There was a reason Elizabeth divulged in the creative arts after Hallie’s disappearance: number seven on the list of occupation with the lowest rate of psychopathy. Since she didn’t think she’d make a suitable nurse or beautician, she settled on art. She thought, maybe it didn’t really take emotion to create art. Just an over active imagination.


“Nice of you to dress up.” A muffled voice complained, circling around Elizabeth from behind and balling her hair into a bun with ungloved hands. Katy smiled, holding a small pile of bobby pins between her teeth. Then, through her teeth she continued,

“You’re going to need to suit up.”

“Where am I supposed to get a suit out here?” Elizabeth asked incredulously. Katy plucked the bobby pins from her mouth and buried them in her hair, licking her lips before finally sighing.

“Hazmat suit, Elizabeth.” She smiled sheepishly, recycling through her practiced emotions, willing her cheeks to blush.

“Obviously!” She exclaimed, exhaling in a way she hoped sounded like laughter. “I was kidding.. Of course!” Katy had looked away, having pulled up her hood and snapping the elastic of her gloves.

“Don’t fake laugh like that.” She said, stretching her fingers in front of her face. “It’s upsetting.”

Elizabeth nodded, considering if she should be offended. She watched a strand of hair fall loose from her hood and cradle her cheek. Katy, with all the tidiness of a toddler, was arguably vastly more intelligent and observant than Elizabeth herself would ever be. Yet, her hazmat suit was two sizes too large and a bobby pinned chunk of hair was already drooped across her forehead.

“Get dressed.” She demanded. “And remind me to never apply for a job here.”

“Why? I hear they just had an opening.”

There wasn’t a fluid in the human body that Katy hadn’t touched, more than likely poked or prodded, and joked about. One time after a multiple car pile up, they’d been commissioned to retrieve the top half of a corpse, which had been flung from its vehicle and landed a top a highway billboard. By the time they had gotten there, nearly two dozen morning commuters had gotten an eye full of the severed corpse.

“I guess you can say,” Katy had started, inhaling through the fabric of her mask, and shaking her head grimly. “She didn’t have a leg to stand on.”

Elizabeth had always appreciated, nay loved, Katy’s lack of gag reflex. Once you’ve found more than one friend post mortem, she said, you’re allowed to joke about these things. But Katy had never been on the accused end of a murder investigation and therefore had never felt the pressure to monitor her own actions.

As Elizabeth stepped into the legs of a hazmat suit, Katy informed her of the circumstances of the crime. Supposedly, an employee had found out they were being let go and put a bullet between her bosses’ eyes, before swallowing one herself. There was a myriad of witnesses, including Will Ergot himself, who had been in a meeting with the murdered man when the crime was committed.

“She’s in there now.” Katy snapped her own medical mask over her mouth and nodded toward a closed room. “Police released the office back to her hardly 24 hours ago. She sure is eager to get back to business.”

“There were other witnesses?” Elizabeth inquired. Katy nodded.

“No one else was inside, but the walls are glass. I guess there’s enough evidence to back up Ergot’s story. Seems pretty clear cut. They want employees back in here by Wednesday.” Katy stifled a yawn and gestured Elizabeth to follow, leading her towards a conference room at the end of the hall. She didn’t wait for Elizabeth to enter, before pushing inside.

The walls were grimy with blood and residue and Katy immediately got to work taking notes. Elizabeth crouched and touched a gloved finger to the carpet. Most of Employee A had ended up on the wall, but Employee B’s wound’s had leaked down her chair and were long soaked into the fibers of the carpet before police had closed the scene. A small pool of blood had gathered below Employee B’s swivel chair and Elizabeth estimated a stain nearly two feet in diameter had already set in in the floorboards below.

“Are we sure she didn’t kill herself just to get rid of this disgusting carpet?” Elizabeth asked without taking her eyes from the mess.

“I don’t know. Sounds like a martyr to me.” Katy answered, picking at a chunk of residue on the far wall. “Think she’d mind if I picked her brain?”

Elizabeth turned another fake laugh into a cough and Katy snapped her gloves.


“Alright. She requested I get her a quote before we got started.” She paused. “Do you think she’s one of those wealthy white guys who think, like, an individual banana is worth ten dollars?”

“Make up an amount of money and see if she even notices.” Elizabeth suggested and Katy nodded thoughtfully, before retreating out of the conference room and back toward the entry-way. Elizabeth made use of her time alone by removing her hood and lowering her medical mask. It was in the best interest of the company she worked for and all employees to assume blood (and other bodily fluids) were all contaminated and should be treated as dangerous, but without Katy in the room, Elizabeth disregarded these rules and shook tangled locks of hair from her eyes. As far as crime scenes went, it was on the cleaner end of the spectrum. Like someone thirsting for bloodshed but unwilling to desecrate the decor of the room. Though the walls were otherwise smeared with innards, there was a single framed photograph hanging on the wall, utterly untouched. In it, a dark haired man could be seen shaking the hand of someone Elizabeth didn’t recognize. The stranger in the photography was doubled over in laughter. Elizabeth contemplated the importance of this particular handshake and subsequent photography. If it was hanging on the wall of a conference room in the main offices of Ergot Industries, it must have been a momentous occasion.

Elizabeth removed the framed photograph from the wall, turning it over in her palm to search for any sign of contamination. No blood. Behind her, the door clicked open and Elizabeth turned, photograph still in hand.

“Hey, do you know who this-“ Elizabeth was silenced by the person in the door-way. Not Katy as expected, but someone taller and decidedly stockier in build even beneath the hazmat suit. The dark haired man in the photo.

“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth began, “this is a crime scene, you can’t be back here.”

“Closed crime scene.” The man corrected, eyeing the photograph cradled in Elizabeth’s hands. “This is my building, Officer Thorne gave me permission to reenter the premise.”

“Though, I can’t imagine she advised it.”

“Certainly not.” The man agreed, hesitantly lowering his own medical mask to match Elizabeth. “Is the air safe to breathe?”

“You’re Will Ergot.” Elizabeth stated. The edges of Will’s upper lip twitched in response.

“Uh,” Elizabeth hesitated, pressing her glasses up her nose and gesturing at the carpeting. “We’re going to have to pull all of this up. I’m not really sure how long that’ll take…” Elizabeth trailed off. “Actually, my partner was looking for you. She’d be able to get you more specific information, I just kinda show up and do what she tells me.” Elizabeth paused. “I hope you weren’t too attached to this carpet.”

Will didn’t answer, instead scowling at the ruined wallpaper. Will seemed none too bothered, just inconvenienced and Elizabeth tried to remember if Will was the CEO or just the founder. Possibly both. Will’s eyes crawled over the walls, landing briefly on the vents, then shook his head. His nonchalance about the whole thing alerted something deep inside Elizabeth’s chest, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.

“I could clean those too.” Elizabeth exclaimed, as Will turned to leave. “No extra charge.”

Will paused, investigating a splotch of blood on the door frame before turning his bored eyes back to Elizabeth.


“Why would I clean them or why no extra charge?”

Will dared grin. “Both.”

“Well, technically we only clean anything contaminated by the crime. That includes blood, saliva, and just general bodily innards. Normal stuff. But we only come when the fluids came out of a dead body. However, those vents are… gross. I think I spotted some mold in there and inhaling that on a daily basis can be as deadly as a bullet between the eyes. You become more susceptible to things like the common cold.. asthma.”. Elizabeth paused, taking a deep breath. “So if I were to say that I happened to spot some blood on the vent, then wham-bam-thank you ma’am, you’ve got yourself a clean ventilation system by Monday.”

Will responded with a slight bend of his brow. “Do you spend a lot of time worrying about dirty vents?”

Elizabeth shrugged, gesturing lazily at her own hazmat suit.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about cleaning in general… It’s kind of cathartic, actually. You get to feel like you’ve changed the world, in a little way.”

Without skipping a beat, Will smirked. “You can get the same result by destroying something.”

Elizabeth forced out a smile. I’ll get you, she promised silently.

Submitted: December 11, 2019

© Copyright 2023 Dr. Shenita Etwaroo. All rights reserved.

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