Tamara stared out the window watching her neighbors. She chastised herself and wondered when she became the nosey neighbor everyone despised. She didn’t seem to be able to control herself - her neighbors were interesting.
In her years, she’d lived in apartments stacked up four floors high; she’d lived in trailer parks where she barely had enough room to park her car without hitting her neighbor’s house; she lived in the suburbs where the other houses were so close that she could stick her arm out the window and touch the next house, but she’d never been as intrigued about the doings of others as she had been in the last months.
Her new neighbors, a hundred yards out of her kitchen window, were so fascinating that she’d bought a pair of binoculars, which she kept by the sink, just to watch their comings and goings. She assumed it was some type of halfway house, as the faces she saw across the road seemed to change daily.
“Are you spying on the neighbors again,” her husband asked as he stepped into the kitchen and pulled a beer from the fridge.
“Yes,” she answered, feeling heat fill her cheeks. “I can’t seem to stop myself.”
Tony leaned against the sink beside her as he peered through the glass. “It’s probably a halfway house, or some kind of shelter,” he said, as he watched a lady usher two small children into the huge home.
“It probably is,” she said, setting the field glasses back down on the counter. “But the other neighbors haven’t mentioned it, just said the family had lived there forever, and that they weren’t very friendly.”
“We’re rural now, Tamara, people like their privacy out here, and so what if it’s a shelter or halfway house - as long as they tend to their business, we’ll tend to ours.” He popped the top of the beer and took a long swig. “I’m almost done with the presentation, want to see my slideshow?”
“Sure,” she said, slowly turning from the window. She stepped into his messy office and watched the presentation that would hopefully open the market for a new shoe company. “That’s really great, Tony!” She kissed him.
He pulled away. “How’s the painting coming along?”
“Slowly,” she sighed.
“They’ve paid, Tamara, you should really get it done.”
She sighed. “I know, but it’s so dark and I can’t work on it for long before …” she trailed off.
“Before you have to watch the neighbors,” he concluded. “I haven’t wanted to say anything, but it’s becoming an obsession.”
“It’s not an obsession! And the painting is dark and depressing, and I have to send pictures each time I do anything and listen to this asshole drone on and on about what it’s supposed to look like – I’m not sure it’s worth the money. The damned painting is giving me nightmares.”
He sighed. “It’s good money, Tamara, and you’re an artist, painting is what you do for a living.”
“Yeah, I know,” she snapped, walking back to the kitchen and grabbing her own beer, “but the dude is sick. Yes, I paint, but I’ve never had to paint anything like that and I don’t like it. I wish we could give the money back.”
“How are we to do that?” He stood in the doorway, watching her pace as she sipped the can. “It was your idea to move out in the middle of nowhere, it was your idea to have both of us work remotely, and although that painting is only a few thousand bucks, we need that money!”
She held up her hand. “I know, I know, and I don’t want to fight, but I’ve been painting a murder scene for months now and I’m sick of it. He’s never pleased, the reds aren’t red enough, or they are too red. The browns aren’t brown enough, or they’re too brown. And the scene keeps changing. I know the fucking money is good, but I hate him. I hate the damn images that will be in my head for the rest of my life and I’m not sure that it’s worth the dollars, not to mention how he keeps changing things.” She saw another car pull into the dirt drive across the street and ran to the window, picking up the binoculars.
Tony sighed and went back to his office.
Tamara lifted the lenses and watched a young woman step from the passenger side of the car. She adjusted the dials on the glasses and focused in on the woman’s face and the tattoo exposed by the halter she wore. The tattoo covered the woman’s upper arm, and was nice work by any artists’ standards, and displayed a sea creature devouring a small boat. “Nice,” Tamara whispered, as she watched the young woman step up the stairs and disappear in the old rambling house.
She set down the binoculars and stepped back into her studio, staring at the huge painting with hatred. She had followed the drawings sent in the mail, and the directions of the man on the phone or email as well as she could, but it was the strangest contract she’d ever had in her years as a professional artist. Most of her assignments were painting from pictures, often children with dogs or cats, sometimes - family portraits done in oil, and occasionally photos of the recently deceased, but this was the first time someone wanted a murder scene on a 4X6 canvas.
The canvas was taller than she was and she had to use a stepstool to reach the top, while also having to sit on the floor to reach the bottom. And it seemed the scene changed week to week, sometimes the victims were light skinned and light haired, other times they were darker skinned with different hair. Sometimes the scene was in a hall; other times a kitchen, but most times in a library. Each time she made the change and sent the photographs several hundred dollars appeared in their account, but after months it was draining.
She stepped over to her computer in the corner and saw she’d received a new message from the buyer. She sighed and wondered if she should click the message or just throw the computer, and her career, out the window and be done with it. Money, she thought, we need money, and had to coerce her fingers into clicking the message as she slowly sank in the chair.
“Ms. Tamara, I promise this will be the last change and I have already forwarded five hundred dollars into your account. The victim is blond, long hair, and has a tattoo on her left arm of a sea creature about to eat a small wooden boat. She is wearing a halter. The rest of the room is the same. Thanks so much.”
“Holy shit!” She back kicked sending the chair across the hardwood, the wheels underneath her seeming to gain momentum until she crashed into the wall. She fell out of the chair and hit the floor. “The girl,” she began and shook her head hard. “No freaking way,” she said, standing slowly and moving the chair back to the computer. She reread the last message and then sat back in the chair, re-reading all the messages from the unnamed buyer.
Suddenly, she saw her world in snippets of pictures through the lens of the binoculars and paintings. “No,” she whispered, reading his first message, and then seeing the people stepping on the porch next door through her field glasses. She clicked on his next message, remembering the paint on the canvas and the people stepping into the house across the way. “No!” she said, clicking on the next message and again remembering changing the colors and tones on the canvas.
“What do you want!” she responded to his message and hit the send button, her hands shaking. She slid across the floor on the chair, slamming into an old paint stained bureau and opening a drawer. She pulled free a pack of cigarettes, and lighted one as she stared at the computer screen, waiting for a response. “No, no, no, no,” she muttered under her breath, as she expelled a long stream of smoke. “No!”
The computer chimed alerting her to a new notification.
“No,” she muttered, taking a deep draw from the tobacco. She exhaled, and moving her feet slowly she propelled herself in the chair back to the computer. She took another drag, her hand shaking so much that she had to use the other to stabilize it, and then clicked the button to open the mail.
“You could save her, you could have saved all of them. Time is growing short.”
“What?” she whispered, trying to lift the cigarette to her mouth but dropping it in her lap. She jumped up, slapping the fire burning into her leg just below the line of her shorts and the computer chimed again.
She reached down, clicking the button for new mail as she ground out the butt into the hardwood. “Less than ten minutes, and you know the house, you’ve been painting it for months.”
“What the fuck?” She stared at the screen.
The computer chimed again, and she slowly reached over and opened the new mail. “Less than eight minutes, Tamara.”
She ran. She snatched open the bedside drawer and removed the pistol, quickly checking to ensure it was loaded.
“What are you doing?” Tony stepped out of his office.
“I’m saving the girl!” she declared and ran to the door, throwing it open. She raced across the yard, while wishing for better shoes, and crossed the dirt road.
She bounded onto the porch where she had seen so many disappear and wondered who she had become, and what kind of virus the buyer had infected in her with his constant changes. She briefly considered that she may go to prison as she kicked the door open and again wished for better shoes as she felt the force travel up her leg and settle in her hip.
Tamara limped into the house, the gun raised. “Where is the girl?” she demanded, knowing the paths as she had painted them in the last weeks and months.
She entered the library of the old house and saw the girl. The tattoo on her shoulder was exposed, the skin underneath white, as the girl’s hands were bound behind her back. “Where are they?” Tamara squatted beside the girl, tugging at the rope.
The girl shrugged. “I don’t know,” she whispered, tears cutting white streaks in her make-up.
Tamara looked around the room. She knew the room; she had painted it over and again in the last months. “Drawer,” she muttered, and stood up. She went to the desk and slid open the drawer. Inside, she found a knife. She pushed the pistol in her pocket of her shorts and grabbed the blade.
Tamara ran back to the girl, cutting the ties that bound her and urging her to run. “Go, go now!”
“Who are you?” the girl asked, rubbing her wrists.
“Tamara, your artist. Run!”
The girl ran, and as Tamara heard the front door slam she looked around the room, comparing reality to the paintings she had done over and again. “Where are the others?” she asked softly as she went room to room.
“Tamara! Fuck! Tamara! What are you doing in there?” she heard Tony yell from the front door.
“Did you get the girl?” she called back.
“Yeah, I sent her to our house and called the police!”
Tamara cleared one room after another as she had seen actors on TV do with her gun out in front of her, the safety off, and then stared at the stairs while she felt her hip throb. She limped to the front door and fell in Tony’s arms as the police cars began filling the street.
“Her hip is broken,” Tamara heard, as she stared up into too bright lights, "we need to put in pins.”
“Twenty-six bodies under the house, most were kids or young women,” she heard, waking from heavy sedation after surgery, “but there may be more underneath, we’re still digging. She saved the one, and we found a couple kids upstairs, and we are grateful to have busted the bastards.” She glanced up to see a couple police officers talking to Tony, and then fell back into sleep.
“You’re home, how does it feel,” Tony hovered behind her as she maneuvered the crutches.
“Weird,” she clunked into the kitchen and saw the binoculars on the counter. She stepped to the sink, stared out the window, and saw the police tape surrounding the house across the road.
She shook her head slowly. “I need to go to my studio.”
“Baby, you need to rest.” Tony’s brow furrowed.
“I will, but I need to go to my studio.” She turned from the window.
“I don’t think I told you I got the shoe account,” he said following her, his hands outstretched and open to catching her if she fell.
“That’s great!” she smiled as she clunked down the hall. “Congratulations!”
“That’s what we needed and you don’t have to worry about crazy people wanting portraits of murder anymore, tell that guy to fuck off.”
Tamara stood at the closed door, trying to figure how to open it and still maintain her balance on the crutches.
Tony reached around and turned the knob, opening the door. “Do you need me? I know it’s your place and you don’t like folks in there and I have to answer a couple emails.”
“No, I’m good,” she promised.
“I’ll be back in five, and then you need to get in bed,” he kissed her on the cheek.
“Five,” she said, watching him head back to his own office before she stepped into the studio.
She struggled under the crutches to the huge canvas and pulled the sheet away to see an empty canvas. No color, no paint, no murder scene – a completely white unused giant space. “What the f…?” she muttered. “What the ever living hell?” She stared at the white remembering layers and layers of paint, and changes and changes. She shook her head and heard the chime from the computer. She closed her eyes. “What now?”
She worked her way to the desk, reaching down to click the message and hoping she wouldn’t lose a crutch. The message unfolded and she caught her breath.
“Good job, Tamara. Five thousand in your checking account. Your husband is about to announce you have to move again, and you should accept. You have another painting to paint.”
She caught her breath, dropped the crutches, and managed to fall in the wheeled office chair. She dropped her head down to her knees, gasping at the pain from her ribs and hips. “What the …” she had no words.
Tony burst into the room. “Honey, I just got the best job offer ever! On the east coast, we’ll be set for life! Honey … Tamara … baby…” He dropped to his knees beside her chair. “Are you okay?”
Tamara lifted her head from her knees and smiled, as the tears flowed down her cheeks. “I’m ready.”