Theme 821: Ordinary Objects
The tarantulas, coruscating chafer beetles, deathstalker and black emperor scorpions, white dragontail butterflies, and praying mantids, all frozen in lucite domes or cubes and lined up along bracketed shelves, did not interest Cyrus Quaich. Nor was his attention attracted by the barbastelle bats with outstretched wings, the hingeback tortoises with battered shells, the splayed hearts of jackrabbits and snakes, or the bleached resus monkey skeletons, also all suspended beyond the touch of time in light-refracting acrylic blocks. Cyrus was not diverted even when shown the plateglass-shielded lab in the basement, where oven-sized vacuum chambers, vats of formaldehyde and acetone, stacks of glass molds, and incandescent heat lamps were arrayed among numerous specimens left thawing or steeping atop steel counters.
Nevertheless, Cyrus listened patiently to Mr. Alastor, owner of Alastor’s Still Life Emporium, as he proudly rattled off the newest items in stock, noted which arachnid or amphibian might make an appropriate anniversary gift or living room curio, and elaborated on some of the concerns and hazards of procuring and properly fixating these critters.
It was only when Mr. Alastor turned the deadbolt on the heavy iron door behind the last supply shelf in the Emporium’s basement that Cyrus’ excitement began to return. Mr. Alastor pulled the single hanging lightbulb’s string to illuminate the closet beyond, which contained two tall cabinets on either side of a squat gunmetal vault-safe with a five-spoked handle. Beaming, Mr. Alastor gestured to the lucite-cast items displayed in the cabinets, which he described as among his finest work: human eyeballs with curving veiny stalks and intelligent emerald pupils; human hands gesturing in poses reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Adam or Raphael’s Zoroaster; human fetuses caught in developmental stages ranging from batrachian to fully formed.
Cyrus nodded appreciatively, but what he had come for was within the vault-safe. Mr. Alastor studied Cyrus in silence for a moment before crouching to reach for the combination lock. He twisted the dial clockwise, then counterclockwise until a bolt snapped, which allowed him to spin the handle and swing the door open. From inside he lifted out a buoy-sized sphere covered by a black silk sheet. As soon as he set the sphere down, Cyrus anxiously shoved him aside and tore the sheet away.
Petrified within the large lucite globe was a young woman’s head, sliced cleanly from her body at the bridge of her neck. The gasping terror of her last breath was still painted on her ovate face: her freckle-brushed cheeks were etiolated; her glistering sepia irises were nearly eclipsed by her dilating pupils; her poppy pink mouth hung open in a choked wail; her cropped tawny curls were flung out in an erratic corona.
Cyrus held the sphere in both hands and turned to Mr. Alastor. “I must have it. I’ll pay any amount,” he declared.
“I won’t take money for it,” Mr. Alastor revealed. “This piece demands a special price.”
“Anything,” Cyrus agreed.
“I’d like you to write a confession that explains why you killed her,” requested Mr. Alastor, tapping the sphere above the young woman’s forehead.
“What?! I—” Cyrus began to protest but halted when he saw Mr. Alastor’s smile crawl up his sallow, concave cheeks. He realized Mr. Alastor had known all along that the head in the sphere had belonged to Cyrus’ fiancée, Eidolia Pearle. When a gossipy auctioneer had informed Cyrus of Mr. Alastor’s possession of the head, she had sworn that Mr. Alastor was ignorant of its origin; she had obviously been misled—or instructed by Mr. Alastor to lie. Cyrus scanned Mr. Alastor’s crooked, gnarled form and reassessed the negotiation. He pulled himself up and retorted, “If you’re familiar with the case, then you’ll know I didn’t kill her.”
Mr. Alastor tittered and shook his head. “No, what you’ll know is that I know what the retriever of Ms. Pearle’s cranium knows. And that person witnessed the original crime scene.”
Cyrus shuddered, for Mr. Alastor was right. Indeed, Cyrus’ real purpose in locating Eidolia’s head was to discover who had taken it after cleaving it away so sharply, as with a massive razor. For some reason, this person had disposed of all the incriminating evidence Cyrus had left behind—the pair of kitchen shears covered in Cyrus’ bloody fingerprints, used to penetrate Eidolia’s throat; the tuft of his hair she had ripped from his temple; even the boot scuffs made as he bolted in panic from the rear porch. Cyrus had speculated that this thief would try to blackmail him, but at the same time the actions in question suggested that the thief might have independently planned to murder Eidolia for her head. Was this person in fact Mr. Alastor? What did Mr. Alastor really want? Turning back to the entrancing sphere, Cyrus began to wonder what he himself was truly seeking.
“Don’t worry,” Mr. Alastor counseled. His surprisingly powerful fingers clutched Cyrus’ arm. “I’ll never show anyone else the confession. I promise. I just want it, er, for satisfaction’s sake. The object obviously belongs in your hands.”
Cyrus’ gaze lingered over the sphere. Eidolia’s bright, motionless eyes were pulling him backward, through their reflections of his face, to the instant of her death, trapping him in the past. Cold despair began to worm through his thoughts.
Finally Cyrus nodded his assent to Mr. Alastor’s proposal. In response, Mr. Alastor took the sphere from Cyrus’ hands and brought it to the far southern corner of the basement. There he put it on a wooden desk table, on which a clean sheet of typing paper and a sharp-nibbed fountain pen had been laid out in preparation. He pulled out the desk table’s chair and prompted Cyrus to sit in it. So as to resume contemplating Eidolia’s time-snaring eyes, Cyrus complied without hesitation.
Mr. Alastor smirked and slapped Cyrus’ shoulder. Before leaving Cyrus and climbing the stairs back up to the shopfloor, Mr. Alastor advised, “Take your time.”
A week later, no trace of Alastor’s Still Life Emporium remained in the building. Vagrants sheltering from the winter icewinds, however, discovered Cyrus Quaich’s stiffened body in the former Emporium’s basement. It was still seated at the desk table. The fountain pen had been driven into Cyrus’ throat, evidently by his own hand. On the paper before him, he had scrawled, “I killed her to keep her.” But the sphere-encompassed head of Eidolia Pearle had disappeared.
Explanatory Postscript: When I say “picked randomly,” I mean picked from a Master List that I’ve compiled of 999 themes intended to serve as creative writing prompts (from the following sources: 501 Writing Prompts; 25 Creative Writing Prompts; Examples of Themes; List of Themes; 365 Creative Writing Prompts; 100 Themes Challenge Writing Prompts; List of Journal Ideas; and Top 10 Types of Story Themes). To pick a theme at random, I roll three ten-sided dice (the first for the hundreds place digit, the second for the tens, and the third for the singles) and find the theme under the number I have rolled. If I hit a theme I have already written on, I roll again. If I ever roll 000, I make up a theme. The Master List is a secret, so don’t ask for it.