The apartment smelled like formaldehyde, a smell that soothed Romano as he pushed his legs back into his recliner and stared at the flickering black and white image on his now-antique video set. The old analog signal didn’t pick up television anymore, so he had resorted to playing the same VHS tapes over and over, recordings of news broadcasts of missing people, from adults to children, over the past three decades across the United States.
Romano liked that about the news. He liked that they hadn’t been solved the puzzle yet, that no one had been able to find out who did it. It was a mystery, a sense of unknown mystery surrounding the bodies of girls and boys being dumped somewhere by the same mysterious killer, all completely untouched except for the fact that every single one had been dumped missing every tooth in their body.
The case had been going on for years, and every time a new body was found Romano would record the news and watch it over and over. Until the analog went out. Then, he just imagined how they all would respond.
Pouring himself another glass of bottom shelf whiskey, Romano rose from his recliner and walked over to the tattered rug in the corner. Kicking it aside, he revealed a wooden door in the floor of his tiny one bedroom home. Bending over, his back almost creaking with reluctance as tired muscles stretched beyond their limit, he lifted the door and began climbing down the ladder into the darkness.
Feeling around in the nothing that surrounded him, he reached for the chain dangling to his left to bring light to his damp, dark cavern. As the old incandescent bulb flickered to life, the room filled with a soft yellow light, bringing into view a girl who was maybe eleven or twelve years old, her body strapped to a metal table with a drain beneath her head.
Romano walked over to her side, taking no notice of her rapid breathing and the tears streaking down her cheeks. Grabbing a wooden wedge off the tray beside the girl’s head, Romano carefully slipped it between her teeth, forcing her mouth open. Reaching back to the table, he grabbed a scalpel and a set of pliers. Clasping down on her front tooth, he began to pull, all the while carefully scraping away at the girl’s gums to ensure the tooth retained its perfect shape as it was removed.
She screamed, tried to escape, but the binds were fastened too tight around her to allow any real range of motion except the exasperated pleas of desperation that fell flat on the sound-proofed walls. Then, as he made the final yank and the tooth came free, the girl fell silent, her body giving into the pain and slipping her mind into silence.
Romano worked carefully for almost two hours, until every tooth was removed and placed in a small bowl beside the girl’s head. Looking down at the bowl full of teeth, he felt a calmness come over him. This was where the real art began. Crossing the room to the freezer, he removed a bright red apple and returned to the table. Cutting a slice across its center in the shape of a crude and malicious grin, he carefully began to insert the teeth into the soft innards of the apple.
The work was careful, a true piece of art in the form of an apple, now smiling brightly at the world with a mouth full of perfect, white teeth.
Picking up a mason jar, he filled it with formaldehyde and dropped the apple inside. Walking to the wall, he placed the jar on the fourth shelf down, in a spot marked 62. Stepping back, he marveled at his work. 62 jars, 62 smiling apples, ranging in color from red to green to yellow to everything in-between.
He stared for several minutes, just admiring his work, taking in every creation he had made over the years, from young teeth to old teeth, from perfect smiles to heinous ones. Sighing quietly, he walked back to the ladder and pulled the the chain, sucking the light out of the room before ascending back into his quiet little home.