Death splashed onto the marble floor of the church with watercolor sunlight through stained glass.
Samuel Twindle watched the procession of devotees from the shadows of an alcove. He fidgeted the pill bottle in his right hip pocket.
The window across the aisle from where he stood showed a mother holding her broken son. Blood poured from his heart and stained her hands and dress.
"Heavenly," said Mrs. Smith. The longtime parishioner stepped up to the pane, her nose dusting it with condensation.
"They're like paintings in an art museum," said Betty Albert.
The sisters, Miss Albert and Mrs. Smith studied each decorated aperture. Their gawking held up the flock fluttering behind them.
Samuel knew the illuminated decorations cost a lot of money, money Mrs. Twindle spent with deliberation and purpose when she commissioned the work. As you entered the nave, the first of twelve pictorials depicted the baby Jesus cradled in his mother's loving arms. Soft, sweet faces gazed with adoration at one another.
At the bottom of each Biblical narrative, at a height for anyone that mattered, a bright red square proclaimed in bold, black letters, "Gifted by Mrs. Twindle:" a dozen compositions designed to highlight the generosity of the great patron, Mrs. Twindle.
The font of this benevolence held court in the chancel with the minister. The toes of her shiny, black patent leather shoes pointed like arrows at a brass plaque in the marble floor that echoed her largesse, "Gifted by Mrs. Twindle."
"You are a rare blessing," said the minister, Reverend Quitman. He bobbed his head in agreement with himself. "Yes, a blessing."
Parishioners came to genuflect at the beneficent stature that was Mrs. Twindle. They touched her hands with their fingertips as if hoping to be cured of their ills. She regarded them like the Madonna in the first panel doted upon her godly son.
Samuel stood in his corner, the blue-grey of his wiry hair and beard blending into the blue-grey of his collared shirt and worn dress pants. He mimicked Mrs. Twindle's image, feet together, hands clasped at the waist. But where she stood crisp and sharp, (black dyed hair that shone like her shoes, tailored, bronze Chanel suit, 50's style makeup,) he was all shadow and blurred edges.
Mrs. Twindle was the church's savior. She accepted the accolades of the people with calm, the perfect saint. She rebuilt the church after a fire destroyed it, bringing them back from the ashes.
She smiled her Mona Lisa smile. Only Samuel knew that she calculated how she expected each of them to repay her. Mrs. Twindle bought; she did not donate. She owned, and it would not be long before her spiritual brethren discovered this.
Mrs. Twindle lifted her right hand and crooked a finger at Samuel. He shivered. He didn't want to go, but that finger moved, and his feet moved. He shuffled forward.
He stopped in front of Mrs. Twindle and the Reverend Quitman, leaving enough room for people to pass between them.
"Speak up," said Mrs. Twindle. "Your voice is as dull and grey as your appearance."
Mrs. Twindle looked Samuel up and down. She opened the silver clasp on her high-gloss purse. Samuel's face reflected in the side of that bag, distorted and rippling. As he raised his sight, Mrs. Twindle's hand rose from the clutch's interior. The blood drained from Samuel's face. Mrs. Twindle, her secretive grin in place, handed Samuel a wire bristle brush. The back of his thighs tingled and burned.
"Try to do something with your hair," said Mrs. Twindle. "Go to the little boys' downstairs."
The head of the brush poked Samuel in the chest. He didn't move to take it. Mrs. Twindle put it in his hand, raking her manicured nails across his fingers as she released it.
"Go on," she said. "You're not afraid of the basement, are you?" Her capped teeth blinded Samuel.
He shambled towards the stairs.
"He's a bit slow," said Mrs. Twindle. The minister giggled.
Samuel held the brush like a knife. He envisioned jamming a spear into Mrs. Twindle's heart.
The basement served as the church's community room. The lavatories stood at the very back corner. The lights were off, and Samuel had a hard time finding the switch. His breathing turned ragged as he swiped and pounded at the wall.
He gripped the casing with both hands. His stomach roiled, and he gagged as acid refluxed into his throat. He worked his way around the door, closing it slightly, blocking off the basement's pale light proper. In the four inches between the corner and the frame, he hit the light switch. The fluorescent lamps blinded him like the sun when a drowning man breaches the surface of the sea.
He blinked and glanced across the room to see himself in the mirror above the sinks. He saw a frightened old man. Happy Birthday, he mouthed to himself.
Mrs. Twindle reminded him this morning while he applied her makeup and arranged her hair. Not with presents and a cake but with the story of his birth.
"You almost killed me," she said, as she did annually for 27 years.
"You missed your chance back then." She locked her vision with his in her vanity mirror. "You've been a coward from birth. You will not pull it off."
His hand paused mid-stroke, the knuckles of his hand turning white as he gripped the brush handle tighter in his fist. He didn't respond. He tried never to respond to Mrs. Twindle's taunts. Speaking his mind carried consequences.
"I told Minister Quitman about you and your little plans." Mrs. Twindle reached up and stroked Samuel's cheek, her cotton-candy pink nails scratching across his skin, trailing red marks.
"He suggested I have you evaluated."
Samuel moved the brush through her hair.
"I'd like to talk to a psychiatrist," he whispered.
"Would you?" Mrs. Twindle watched Samuel's reflection as he finished her coiffure. He placed the wire bristled brush in her outstretched hand. Their images in the mirror reminded him of the portrait in Oscar Wilde's novel. At sixty-two, Mrs. Twindle appeared younger than Samuel.
"What would you say to a head doctor?" She hit Samuel with rigid spokes of the hairbrush.
Samuel's flesh shriveled and crawled.
"Would you tell him about our secrets?" Mrs. Twindle's skin was smooth as stone, unblemished, pink, tight. There were no worry lines around her bright, beetle eyes.
Samuel smashed his lips together. He scrunched his lids closed, blocking the triumph on Mrs. Twindle's face.
Mrs. Twindle's laugh came to him in the restroom bringing him back to the present moment. It echoed her laughter from this morning.
His hand shook as he attempted to subdue his hair. At first, he thought it shook from fear, but the more he brushed and the more he thought about it, the more he thought maybe his hand shook from rage.
The anger compressed. The pressure built.
He had been thinking about killing Mrs. Twindle for months; years. Killing her today would be the greatest gift he could give himself.
Mrs. Twindle figured it out. She told him so that morning. He didn't know how, but she was clever. He must have left a clue somewhere. Or maybe she read his mind. She knew what he was thinking. She was always in his head.
His hair remained untamed, the same as before he brushed it, but his hair didn't matter. He cleaned out the brush, an involuntary sob leaving him as it did each time he touched this implement. He put it in his pocket, keeping a hold of it as a reminder.
He shook the bottle of pills in his other pocket. He liked the idea of poisoning Mrs. Twindle. She would suffer from internal bleeding and liver failure. The iron supplements sounded like a rattlesnake.
He could push her down the stairs. No. He decided to kill her today, and she was already down the stairs in the filling basement. Shoving her up the stairs would only result in skinned shins. Not good enough.
He was back to his very first choice, spiking the church's bug juice with antifreeze. He just had to figure out how to get it to Mrs. Twindle and not to all of the other parishioners. And maybe not get caught. Not getting caught ought to be part of his plan, but he would settle for freedom.
The custodian kept antifreeze in the supply closet with all of the cleaning supplies. Mrs. Twindle's money paid for these items, too. Samuel imagined Mrs. Twindle dying from her antifreeze: her money finally used for good.
He'd have to get into the supply closet without anyone suspecting his purpose.
He walked past the refreshments table and bumped into it, knocking over several cups of fruit punch. Empty twenty-ounce red cups rolled into the spilled juice.
The white-haired woman behind the table yelped in surprise as the white plastic tablecloth overflowed with red liquid and red plastic.
"I'll clean it up," said Samuel. He went to the supply closet and came back with paper towels. He righted the cups and wiped up the red juice.
Mrs. Twindle came up to the table. She placed her hand on Samuel's arm.
"I hope Samuel is doing a good job cleaning up this mess, Miss Enid." Mrs. Twindle pinched Samuel on the back of the arm.
Miss Enid glowed from the attention given to her by Mrs. Twindle.
"I, yes, thank you," she said. She took a deep, warbling breath. "Ma'am." Miss Enid was ninety years old.
Mrs. Twindle ran her hand across Samuel's shoulder, down his back, and across the pocket with the brush. She pressed the bristles into the flesh of his hip before heading to the ladies' powder room.
Samuel could follow her in there, push her head into the pink toilet bowl, and drown her in the blue sanitized water. She would end up with a mask that the undertaker would have a hard time covering with makeup.
"She's so sweet and kind," said Miss Enid.
"It does look that way," he said. "Can I help you serve tonight?"
"Why, you are sweet, too. I would love your help." She removed the soiled table cloth.
"Where do you keep the punch?"
She pointed to the kitchen area next to the supply closet.
"You'll find all you need in there."
"I'll just put these extra paper towels back in the supply closet."
"While you're in there, get the drink pitchers out. They are so much fancier than those ugly cans." Her head wobbled up and down as she spoke. "Yes, quite festive for this special day."
"Yes, ma'am," said Samuel, "special for this special day."
After putting the paper towels on their shelf in the closet, Samuel found the dark purple glass jugs still in their shipping carton. He turned each decanter over and pulled the stickers off all but one. In that one, he poured antifreeze. The color of the glass disguised the color of the liquid.
He replaced the four pitchers in the cardboard box. In this way, he could take them into the kitchen, and no one would see the fluid already in one of them.
The cans of juice stood ready on the kitchen counter. Samuel opened the first one. He poured enough of the liquid into the pitcher with the antifreeze for two cups full while still in the box. The rest of the can's contents went into the next pitcher. Once all of the pitchers were full, he took them out of the box.
He took two of the unpoisoned pitchers out to Miss Enid, where she began serving the people milling about her table. Samuel went back into the kitchen for the other two pitchers. He held the antifreeze pitcher tight in his right hand. He placed the other pitcher on the table, then picked up a couple of empty, red plastic cups.
"That boy will be the death of me," said Mrs. Twindle to Reverend Quitman. "After our conversation, Reverend," she said, "I don't think he'll ever leave me."
The minister nodded in agreement.
Samuel crossed the room towards Mrs. Twindle carrying two red cups.
Mrs. Twindle and Reverend Quitman turned in unison as Samuel approached them. Samuel handed a cup to Mrs. Twindle. Samuel raised his red cup, tipping it towards Mrs. Twindle in salute. She mirrored Samuel.
"Happy Birthday to me, Mother."