His face lacked proportion, though he wasn’t unattractive. Lips too thin, forehead too thick, nose off centre. The sort of man who blended in until pointed out. Not, at first glance, a memorable customer, let alone someone to think about years later.
It was a Sunday. I know because the open door made room for echoes of next door’s pub – a place which made, self-proclaimed, the ‘best roast in town’.Low grey clouds and a thin mist blanketed the car park. I’d just come off my lunch break, popped in a mint to mask the tuna wrap that lingered on my breath. Dad had pushed me into working at the local DIY store for the summer– ‘put in a word’ with his colleague, the manager’s wife. The store bustled with the bank holiday weekend, damp umbrellas spitting drizzle on the floor.
“Gemma, boss told me to take over the till so you can tidy up the shelves in aisle four. Says they’re looking a little cluttered,” Nick, my colleague, said. His lie might have been directed towards me, but his eyes were on a blonde girl in the queue.
“She’s out of your league, mate,” I winked and walked off.
Aisle four (Power Tools) was somehow devoid of the not-quite-middle-aged-but-still-believing-themselves-young muscle-men comparing chainsaws. A single customer, a man whose age lingered around the late twenties, paced back and forth. I’d seen him before – not enough to label him a regular, but working in a small town shop grants good face recognition.
He looked up at me – or tried to, eyes dragged downwards by bruise-like bags, “Sorry, what aisle’s the paint in?” a crooked smile contrasted straight white teeth.
“Paint’s in aisle six. Here, follow me. I’ll show you.”
He remained a couple of steps behind me as we walked, a position that made me conscious of the tight black trousers I wore.
“Any plans for the bank holiday?” I asked.
“Finally getting around to painting the living room,” his voice had an in-built echo to it.
“Good luck with that.”
“It’ll be alright; I’m a man aren’t I?” he winked. The neck of a wine bottle balanced between the handles of a shopping bag hooked around his wrist. Its sapphire label matched the veins snaking his arms, “And cooking myself a decent meal for once.”
“What’s on the menu?”
“Chicken,” he swung the shopping bag, oblivious of the wine bottle as it tipped back.
“Sounds lovely. Here you are, sir,” the cans were of a uniform size, but the colours were anything but – every imaginable pigment presented on the shelf, “will that be all?”
He stood, with chin up and back straight, closer than a normal customer would, patted a palm over his gelled hair to make sure every piece was in its given place. The jet black strands clashed with a bourbon beard, stubble that ended mid-neck, not stretching far enough to conceal what looked like a scar – raw enough that his skin hadn’t sewn together. I saw flesh.
“Could you help me choose a shade, actually? You look like you’d have good taste,”the words were an excuse for him to tiptoe his gaze up and down my body.
“Uh-I’m not an expert,” his glare was magnetic, the sort of man you wouldn’t want to refuse, “but I’ll give it a go. What colour were you thinking?”
“Purple,” he leaned over close enough for me to both inhale his cologne, of which he wore an obnoxious amount, and swallow a breath of it. I suppressed a cough, blamed a shiver on the air-conditioning.
“Right, over here then. Light or dark?”
“Light. A lavender sort of colour.”
There was something about the way he ran his fingertips over the paint cans – a touch both light and heavy. It was then that I noticed the skull tattooed onto the back of his hand, extending across his knuckles to his fingernails (gnawed).
“What do you think?”
“Me?” his eyebrows raised, pupils magnified as if to nod.
“I could do with a pretty girl’s advice.”
“Uh-” my cheeks warmed beneath his microscopic look. I pointed at the first can I came across to redirect his vision.
“Lethal lilac. What a name…that’ll look nice in the kitchen.”
“Wasn’t it the living room you were painting?”
For an instant, his face paled, skin talcum-powder white, “That’s what I meant.” Another wink, another side smirk, another precarious lift of the plastic bag, “I could also do with a paint roller and one of those knives for… for-”
“That’s the one, babe.”
“At the end of the aisle, sir,” he walked with assurance, but chose with little scrutiny, pulling the first items he saw from the shelf and slipping them into his back pocket, “anything else I can help you with today?”
“That’s a lovely necklace you’ve got there,” a pause while his eyes skimmed for my nametag, “Gemma.” His swallow was audible, Adam’s apple knifed through cling-film skin, gaze flickered between my face and pendant. The lion-like stare brought pinpricks to my bare arms. I realised two out of three buttons on my polo were undone. He seemed like the sort of man who could unbutton the last one without using his fingers.
I cracked my knuckles, “Will that be all, then?”
“My mother has a necklace like that,” he said in a cloud-like manner, words fuller than the airy way they were spoken, “beautiful, beautiful little diamond. Like the rest of her.”
“She sounds like a lucky lady.”
“Oh, I thought you said, I didn’t think-”
“You’re not wrong, though. She’s probably luckier up there than she ever was down here. Some people get dealt shit hands…” his voice faded into the memory I watched ripple across his face, “a plant would liven up the room, don’t you think?” with a single surge, the wave changed.
“Sorry? Oh, of course – plants are all outside.”
“You’re not going to show me, Gemma?” he possessed the smirk of a teenage boy. I could taste lemonade with a mere splash of vodka, could hear bad pop music as I moved my lips to the rhythm of a boy who believed he could kiss.
Just as I considered faking a distraction, I saw my boss meandering through the store, eyes menacing, flickering with a reminder of my customer service promises, “Anything specific in mind?” I remained a couple of steps in front of him, pursed my lips and power-walked, swerving to dodge strolling customers and the puddles they left behind.
He answered with immediacy, but stretched out the syllables, “lavender.”
I spotted a pattern,“There you go, sir.”
Despite the plants’ similarity, his eyes examined each with precision, the way one would pick an outfit for their new-born niece. He stroked the lilac flowers with his palm.
“This one is,” he inhaled for a second too long, “perfect. What do you think?”
“I’m sure your living room will look lovely, sir.”
“Perfect,” he repeated, “exactly what I’m going for,” his fingertips crimsoned as he gripped the plant pot. The sort of guy who approached everything with intensity, a child in perpetual time-out, a teenager whose cigarette hobby became chain-smoking packets, a boyfriend whose love-bites left scabs, a lightning lover.
“I hope I was helpful. Have a great day,” his gaze fuelled my walk back to the front of the store.
“Open another till would you, Gemma? Nick said he was just nipping to the toilet but he’s disappeared.” It didn’t take perfect vision to spot Nick’s predator smirk through the window, stepping a little closer to the blonde prey he’d served earlier.
Cashiers possess a switch, one that flips the second the till opens. It’s robotic: an automatic “next, please,” and “have a nice day,” mechanical button pressing and ripping off receipts. Customers blend into one another, faces become one.
“Next, please,” I said.
“Well, aren’t I lucky?”
He leant over the counter – a centimetre or two too close. Wafts of his cologne lingered, “Would you like a bag, sir?”
“Please,” he tapped a grey lighter on the counter – a methodical touch, rather than one of impatience.
“That comes to £21.99, sir.”
“‘Sir’ is a great word, it’s a pity more people don’t use it.” He pulled out his wallet (brown leather) and handed me the notes (two tens and a five).
“Thank you. Let me get your change for you.”
“That’s alright babe, you can keep it.”
“We don’t have a tip box.”
“Pocket it,” my hands tensed, “have a lovely day, Gemma,” my hands relaxed, coins bulleting to my back-pocket.
“Good luck painting-” I hesitated before adding, “sir.”
“Who needs luck?”
I didn’t glance back to watch him leave. Instead, my eyes found the grey lighter on the counter. It felt heavy in my hands and stiff between the coins in my pocket.
“Next, please,” I said with a second of delay.
I’d heard the news on the radio at work, but Dad brought it up at the dinner table as well. He was an expert in talking about subjects that had no business being discussed over mouthfuls of lasagne.
“He didn’t just stab her once. He went at it nine times. Nine,” Mum and I dropped our forks in unison, “her fiancée found her lying on the bathroom floor.”
Although the radio presenter hadn’t been quite as explicit, she’d added a detail Dad had missed.
“Police found a sprig of lavender woven through the victim’s hair. It is safe to say that the incident has caused disbelief. Any leads from the public would be much appreciated.”
It wasn’t him. It couldn’t have been. Murderers are psychopaths, freaks of nature, social anomalies, outcasts with lightning eyes and thunder breaths. He was painting the living room, he said. Nothing out of the ordinary. A mere coincidence. Lavender was common, the store’s best-selling plant. Who doesn’t have a lavender plant in their house nowadays? Mum’s was on the kitchen windowsill. The smell made me feel sick. He was a regular customer, a cookie-cutter of a small-town resident. Nothing abnormal at all.
The case remained unresolved. A murder that morphed into a mystery the police still curse themselves over, that waitresses and bus drivers and school teachers gossip about in their lunch breaks. Boss even warned Nick to tone it down – sick of his sinister theories, his details about the break-in and stabbing, his marvel at moves too calculated, too precise.
“It happened early evening. It’s like he wanted to challenge himself, risk as many people seeing him as possible.”
A criminal who painted within the lines.
I found the lighter when cleaning out my closet the other day. Seven years since the murder, and the object felt heavier somehow. Its cold metal, stained with his touch, burned my palm. His drumming it against the counter lullabied me into insomnia. My eyes closed and the insides of the lids were tattooed with his crooked smirk and sharp jawline. I wondered if cologne helped his scar heal. Had I misunderstood the guilt engraved into the coins when he’d told me to keep the change? Had he chewed dry chicken while plotting meticulous steps? Or had he saved dinner for afterwards, to satisfy a worked-up appetite? My mind swapped wine for poison – I hoped scarlet drops charred his throat, rotted the line of his stomach and dissolved his body whole.
A month ago, my boyfriend and I bought our first apartment together. Signed a contract we’d pretended to read, hauled boxes onto a fifth floor (no lift), moved into a place we loved despite its box rooms and low ceilings. The drip of the tap helped me sleep.
“How much discount do you get?” we were leaning against opposite arms of the sofa, legs twisted into each other’s. My summer job at the DIY store had stretched to a full-time placement.
“Well, this place is ours now, and these walls are hideous,” he wasn’t wrong – jagged brown stains peered through ripped wallpaper, “we could paint them together.”
“What colour were you thinking?”
His eyes danced over the four walls, squinting to fake interior design experience, “How about some sort of purple? Light would look good.”
I’m not sure if he felt my legs numb between his, whether he noticed the memory moisten my palms and tickle my neck, “I’m not sure I like the idea of purple.”
He came back to the store once. The aisles groaned with sale season – I zigzagged between shoppers seeking discounts, peered through shelves in search of normality, desperate to confirm his legs were regular and his hands were regular and his face, although somewhat misshapen, was regular. But my hands were trembling and I knocked over a box of screws and by the time I’d picked them all up, he’d escaped.
Now, his face flickers through shop windows, an illusion of his assured frame leans against bus stops, he sits across from me in the waiting room of the dentist’s office. An instant and he’s gone again. A master of subtlety, a genius at camouflage. The sort of man who blends in until he points himself out. A human, at first glance.
From an age of just single digits, Alice Kouzmenko has pencilled and published stories. It is a passion that, combined with her love of reading, has propelled her through her teenage years, encouraging participation in various creative writing contests, including the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Now, at the tender yet exhilarating age of eighteen, Alice will be entering university to study English Literature and Creative Writing. Her dreams of publishing a full-length novel have not yet faded, and instead burn brighter with every word written.
You can read Alice’s previously published short story Sketching Sunsets here…