Anastasia swirled her brush in the turpentine, looking over her shoulder and squinting at the mirror. Reversed, the grave woman’s tongue looked as fat as she’d hoped, but now it appeared almost detached, hanging from her lip like a condom half-filled with blood.
Will she like that? Anastasia wondered, looking back and forth from the canvas to the reference photo. They said “realistic,” but that’s subjective, now, isn’t it?
She stretched and felt the wisp of a headache beginning. Immediately she got up and stepped out onto the fire escape. Whether the pain came from the tension or the fumes, it was time for a break. A midnight rain shower had tamped down the stink from the dumpsters behind Eye of the Thaiger, and the smell of tobacco was strong when she lit up.
Most nights she looked north toward Lindow Street, watching the rentboys strut in the neon glow. South, the buildings were vacant, the alley littered with discarded humans wrapped around their bottles. Beyond them, lonely cars passing on Chestnut, and then the dark bulk of Machias Hill. The slope was too steep to build on, not valuable enough to be terraced, and so its shadows and scrub trees struggled toward the sky until they were cut off by the purple glow of streetlights. Looking at that was too much tonight, maybe too much ever.
Anastasia stared into her studio at the cheerful detritus of ten years of making art. Canvases ready for her hand, pictures on the wall awaiting buyers, floorboards stained dark from the medium she’d spilled while completing “A Sallow Man’s Regret,” sick and exhausted. The scrapings accumulated on her paint table—prickly rainbow by day, a washed-out pelt at 3:15 a.m.
“If I vanished, no one would notice,” she said, the corners of her mouth twisting downward. “Mom and dad would miss me. Sarah would have to get another artist for June. It’s just me, though. It’s always just me.”
The alley didn’t answer back, and she shuddered when she realized she’d been halfway expecting something.
Never going to know when they’re down there. Could be in the walls. Could be licking their lips upstairs.
Anastasia didn’t raise her head. Instead, she looked at the empty straight-backed chair across from her easel. Battered and scuffed, it had supported more sitters than she now could remember. So many faces, silent and restless, the power coursing through her hands as she reduced their anxiety and petty vanities into something that could hang safely over a couch.
Now dirty footprints surrounded the chair. Mold had showered onto the seat, and the creature’s naked buttocks had left a brown, double-crescent stain. The chair was going to burn, when she could bring herself to touch it.
Her lips had been deeper than naphthol, brighter than cadmium. People weren’t supposed to be that color, not this side of Mary Kay lipstick. Anastasia closed her eyes, wanting to unsee it all, tired of remembering every time she tried to sleep.
“Nice pictures,” the fat one hissed, absently stroking his cock as he thumbed through a stack propped against the back wall. She couldn’t stop looking at his hands—stained, long and yellow nails, and too many knuckles. The grave man alone could have been a freak, just some mutant, but she could hear the others rustling around behind her, chittering in a language she’d never heard. The sensation of unreality was countered by her bowels, churning like she’d gotten bad meat at La Plaza again, and it was going to be a long night.
The fat one turned and looked past her, jaw opening too wide as he squealed. Instant silence, and then one of them slipped around her. Anastasia stared at the creature’s sore-raddled breasts, observing how they splayed across her overdeveloped pectorals. The two of them muttered back and forth, and then they looked at her.
Sweat ran slowly down Anastasia’s back as the stinking death-fear was replaced by something else. The grave woman’s face contorted as she tried on the foreign expression. It should have been no stranger than any quirk of anatomy, but her smile was obscurely horrible—the echo of a dream of something beyond digging, rot, and the parade of boxed corpses.
“We don’t have to kill you,” he said, “not with the crazy shit you paint. No one would ever believe you. Just make her beautiful.”
When Anastasia opened her eyes, she thought for a moment that she was no longer alone, but it was only her reflection in the window—bared teeth and bleeding gums.
“Get back in there and paint,” she said aloud. “It’s just like any other deadline.”
Down in the alley, someone laughed.
“…and then maybe go to the police,” Rusty was saying. “Who’s the client, anyway?”
“D-bag with too much money,” Anastasia said, grimacing. “Seemed all right at first, but now… he’s almost movie-grade crazy.”
“Really,” he said. “And he’s a trust fund kid? Huh. Even if he doesn’t hurt you, he could still damage your career.”
Yeah, I’d say getting fucking eaten would hurt my career.
Billy Corgan droned in the background as she looked at Rusty, slumped on his stool with an elbow on the bar. The Blue Camel was barely awake yet, just a few guys shooting pool in the corner, and there wasn’t any smoke to stop the neon PBR signs from twinkling in his rhinestone-covered plugs. Her graying mentor had reached equilibrium, bouncing back and forth between commissions and weed, lovers and benders, and he looked at peace with the world. Despite the so-bohemian exterior, he was sharp, and he always had good advice when her career was flagging. The surreality of filing this talk under “career advice” wasn’t lost on her, but she had nowhere else to turn.
Rusty was the closest thing she had to a friend. As they chewed over her problem, she wished for the thousandth time that she was better about keeping in touch. Meeting people at shows or some dive was one thing, but after hanging out a few times, conversations started to seem strained and fake. She’d always felt safer alone, keeping her night owl schedule, but it left her vulnerable.
“I had this client once,” Rusty said, “a guy from Microsoft or something. He didn’t threaten me, but I’ll never forget the days he sat for me. My studio, and just by being in it—he made it cold. He walked in and the paint fucking seized up.”
Rusty was staring into his pint glass and wouldn’t meet her eyes. His cheeks seemed to sag, and the skin under his neck was starting to look like a turkey wattle. Whatever had happened, it was enough to give her a preview of what Rusty was going to look like when he got old. He’d suffered for his sitter, and that suffering had left a mark.
“My client,” she said, and then stopped. “He’s… It feels like there’s something wrong nearby.”
“There might be,” Rusty said, his voice loud in the gap between songs. “And maybe if you just finish the piece, he’ll go away.”
“I don’t like being pushed around,” she said. “If I wanted that, I’d get a goddamn nine to five.”
“Better part of valor, girl. Faster you finish, the sooner it’s done.”
Anastasia closed her eyes, picturing filed teeth and intricately scarred faces.
This is never going to be done. They will always have been in my studio.
The lunch hour had come and gone by the time Anastasia walked into Entre Les Vies, and Dockside was as quiet as the neighborhood ever got. Squeezed between a coffee shop and a record store, the long, narrow gallery was laid out like a hallway, with little nooks and window seats. For the current show, black velvet covered the walls, distressed sconces held flickering LED candles, and Bauhaus trickled through the speakers.
She’d met most of the other artists who showed at Vies, but never Gary Wills, whom Sarah claimed was agoraphobic. His paintings slanted Neosymbolist, full of tortured figures alone in the wildest of landscapes. They were all the stranger for his use of encaustic, the wax impasto of trees and rocks almost jumping from the paintings as they fled from humans that didn’t belong. To call the paintings “monstrous” would have been impolitic, but true enough. They didn’t really fit Sarah’s lowbrow aesthetic, and maybe for that reason fewer red dots than usual speckled the title cards. There were a couple weeks left, though, and she guessed the show would sell on the strength of Wills’ brushwork if nothing else. Which didn’t do shit to help her figure out what to do with her “commission,” but at least it gave her a mood.
Soft scratching, and Peter Murphy started to chant about Bela Lugosi. She smiled, and her stomach’s churning eased.
At least I don’t have to worry about vampires. At least, I don’t think. Whatever those things are, they didn’t say anything about blood. Fuck. I don’t even know—
She turned to see Sarah Perry slinking in her direction. The gallery’s owner—Anastasia’s impresario/agent/therapist for the last six years—wore a black silk sheath and her hair was piled on high. She was aging but thin, and privately Anastasia thought that Sarah had something of Sargent’s Madame X about her.
“Good to see you,” Anastasia said, giving her a brief, one-armed hug. “How’s tricks?”
“Not bad. How’s my darling?”
“Oh, fine, fine,” Anastasia said, knowing from the slight quiver of Sarah’s eyebrows that she’d just set off faint warning bells. She said “Well, mostly. I’ve got enough for the show, but I’m trying some new things—figure painting, if you can believe it.”
Sarah nodded and smiled.
“Seven year itch, huh?”
“Something like that.”
“Well, they aren’t fruit, and they aren’t going to rot. If they don’t fit this go-round, then next year. Call it ‘New Directions’ and pick up some different patrons.”
If I manage to do the job well enough, I don’t know if buyers would like it. Ironic sparkly vampires are one thing, actual fright on the canvas are another.
“What do you think of the show?” Sarah asked.
“Good stuff, really fresh.”
“Yeah,” Sarah said, looking around and lowering her voice, “but you should have seen everything he wanted to hang.”
“The show’s already pretty dark. After those crime scenes of Francine’s—”
“Whatever. Sally Mann went there years ago. Look, in back I’ve got some of the work that I didn’t hang. Take a look?”
“Sure,” Anastasia said, curious in spite of herself. “If this is lightweight, I gotta see some more.”
“All right, but even the stuff in back wasn’t the worst—there were a few pieces I told him weren’t going to work at all. Take over for a couple, sweetie?”
Yao, her taciturn partner, nodded and stepped out from behind the counter. He smiled at Anastasia, as much interaction as she’d ever had with the tall, heavily tattooed man. Sarah had once referred to him as her “well of silence,” which had struck Anastasia as arch then, but less so over time. Sarah’s nervous chatter didn’t stop as they headed through the black door marked “Private,” and passing Yao was like walking through the spray of a fire hydrant in July.
How’s this helping? I could look at monster books at Barnes and Noble, or just go watch the latest torture porn.
Except—she couldn’t. The way those creatures had moved—a tense, restless strut—was like nothing she’d ever seen. And their faces! She found herself literally shuddering as she remembered. The way they swung their tongues around, there was a kind of unconscious wanting, lewdness, a rawness that she’d never seen in a theater. Trying to find a way to understand it—that was the challenge.
I could just leave, she thought as Sarah picked her way through the higgledy-piggledy boxes and fixtures. I could go somewhere else.
What a joke. Nothing left for her in Philadelphia, and the fact that her parents loved her didn’t mean they wanted her back in Newark.
“Sorry about the lighting,” Sarah was saying. “I’ve been meaning to get around to rewiring, but things have been tight this year. Now where…? Ah, look at this.”
She hefted a broad panel and swung it around.
Anastasia’s heart stuttered. It was like a dark star had exploded, taking away the light.
“That’s awful,” she said, even as she leaned closer.
“I know,” Sarah replied, smiling wryly, “and you can’t help looking. He says it’s just black paint in there, but somehow it’s deeper.”
“The varnish might account for that, I guess…”
Anastasia felt dim recognition growing inside of her as she looked. It wasn’t as if she’d never painted experimentally, just to see what happened: portraits in latex, half-ass scratchboard with ink and melted crayons, a hundred different things back in art school. But whatever Wills was doing, it didn’t smell like an experiment. His brushwork was confident, of a piece with everything else she’d seen from him. A monochrome painting shouldn’t have been very interesting, but…
It works. It shouldn’t, but it does. Nothing like my monsters, but there’s something there.
Sarah kept talking, babbling about Outsider this and Naïve that, but all Anastasia heard was black.
The buildings quivered in the light rain, but the sidewalk along Lindow held its place if she stared long enough. She kept stumbling on cracks and uneven pavement, but each time she caught herself against a wall. She’d drunk too much at the Camel, and tomorrow she was going to have to soak her clothes in vinegar to banish the stench, but it was exhilarating to be carefree. For the first time in days, she wasn’t afraid. The roar of the street drowned any residual anxiety.
The neon ham in the window of Giancola’s Deli was her cue that she was almost home. She looked around but couldn’t see anyone following her, so she turned down the alley. Climbing a fire escape might not be ideal in her condition, but it beat dodging randy drunks from the inevitable first-floor parties in her building, and she hated having to watch out for turds in the stairwell.
The alley was practically silent compared to the street, its late-stage inhabitants too gone for catcalls. The smell was like breaking surf, even in her inebriated state–sour stink of old malt liquor. Scrounged fast food lingering on whiskers. Underwear that hadn’t been washed in a long time. The grease seeping from their pores was like a rancid sauce on top.
Anastasia felt her shaky steps loosen, and soon she was moving at an easy lope. Even in the shadows, the bottom of the fire escape seemed to shine, and she sprang for it like always, without a second thought. She was so focused that she barely noticed the way that the drunks nearby leaned away from her, as if they would jump from the alley, if they had the strength.
The night air cooled as she climbed the water-slick metal rungs, and the city breathed around her like any other jungle. She could almost hear the crawl and scratch of insects in the failing mortar between the bricks of her building. When she caught a whiff of grave mold one story below her own window, it came as no surprise.
Anastasia looked up and, even in darkness, could see the smear of filth on the sill. Driven past caring by the whiskey, she shrugged and continued her lithe ascent. When she reached the landing, she paused to catch her breath, noticing that the lamp she always left on had been turned off.
“Riddle me this,” she called. “What lamp stays on, all day and all night, but turns itself off to give me a fright?”
Her giggle was answered by a chuckle from the shadows within. It sounded like he, whichever one of them it was, stood near her easel.
“Silly rabbit, that’s easy. One whose bulb burned out about twenty minutes ago.”
“We don’t need tricks to scare you. No, don’t stop now.”
Anastasia kept on, thinking it was a nasty surprise to realize that she could be this afraid, even drunk. She edged away from the window, leaning against a wall and closing her eyes to let them adjust more quickly.
“You’ve made progress.”
“That’s what you asked.”
“It’s not done yet.”
She opened her eyes. The grave man—they looked so alike, but not their leader—leaned against the opposite wall, a darker shadow, the bare wireframe of a man.
‘Not done yet?’ We didn’t talk timeline…
“Cat got your tongue, snackling?”
“It’s going to take a while longer.”
“Our pack leader isn’t patient.”
“He’s going to have to be,” she said, the professional in her coming to the fore, born from a thousand conversations with pushy clients. “He can have it fast or right, but not both.”
Silence. The air swirled as he shot across the room, motes of dust eddying in the diffuse city light behind him. He stopped a foot away from her, hair bristling like hackles.
The grave man said nothing—just clicked his teeth together—softly—once.
The room seemed brighter after he’d slipped out the window. His reek still soured the air, though, and she could make out spatters of semen glistening on the floor by her easel.
“Hungry,” she muttered. “So hungry.”
Anastasia closed her eyes and let the brush fall with a clack of wooden handle against floorboards. Somewhere down there was a paint mark, but she found herself not caring. The smell of oil, usually so comforting, seemed to mock her.
Every painting she’d completed, every sculpture she’d brought to a finish—anything that grew from her soul reached a point where she declared it shit and considered tossing it. This painting was no different, despite the rancid smell lingering around the studio, and the memory of rotten, gleaming teeth. Except this time, the shit stage endured. The more she glazed and fiddled with highlights, the further the portrait seemed to regress into a fog of cool technical perfection.
She shrugged on a jacket and slipped out into the hall, descended the trash-strewn stairs. The street welcomed her with a kiss of exhaust and a boy sleeping in the doorway. The sidewalk was cigarette wrinkles and flaming eye shadow, tracks and vice tourists: the patchwork that meant “home.”
I come down here to think. How’s that for a laugh?
The people streaming past might as well have been a George Bellows mob from a hundred years ago, pushing and laughing and squatting on fire hydrants. Lost in a crowd was her favorite place to be, and it brought the usual high—a remote, cool thoughtfulness, to which the glaze of Adderall was a dim second cousin.
“It’s not like I’m doing a bad job,” she muttered as she passed a 7-11, looking at the tired faces and listening to the chime of the cash register. “Actually, it’s pretty good.”
Would they know? Care? Maybe they were so simple, so primitive that a good painting would do it. But…
They’re all appetite. They don’t evaluate or deliberate—they feel.
So here she was, looking for something to jar her from the slump. Problem was, she’d seen it all before. She’d been seeking inspiration for days, but Wills’ black impasto had taken her nowhere, and booze and drugs had brought only relaxation, not genius.
Anastasia jerked to a stop at the corner, a bus rolling by two feet away. She’d spent years as an artist, taking and discarding lovers, creating pictures that slipped from her life like pennies into a sewer grate. All those years, and who would know her absence?
With transience and passing on her mind, she turned down a random alley. A familiar smell jumped out at her, and she kept walking past the boxes and piled crates. And there, curled into a comma, lay a dog’s carcass.
How long he’d been dead was hard to tell. A white-muzzled, white-eyed mutt without a collar, he’d lived hard. The maggots churning in the open pit of his stomach weren’t babies, and the rain had washed some of what he had been into the gutter. Crows had been at him.
The sun broke through the clouds, and butter yellow bathed his intestines. Matted fur looked like spiky trees. This was no Flemish tapestry, but there was art in his posture and the play of light—dried ruby blood, green dumpster, gray bricks. Some beauty lingered in him still. Not much, but enough.
Anastasia didn’t turn at the sound of their hard-nailed scrabble on the fire escape. The midnight air began to eddy with the quiet thumps behind her, and she imagined lithe ochre bodies vaulting through the window. Creak of floorboards, and the fat grave man stood in front of the painting.
Her stomach pitched, but other than that, all she could think of was the tiredness. They were crowding around the leader, leaning in to see. One knelt and quested toward the canvas with his tongue. Another reached out and grabbed onto it, and he squeaked, clawed her buttocks. The fat one laughed drily.
“You did right,” he said. “That’s Savra.”
“Savra,” Anastasia said, tasting the name.
She flinched as a thin, filthy hand landed on her shoulder. And there was her model, staring at the painting.
“Didn’t think we had names?” the grave woman said.
“No,” she said, trying to cover her surprise at hearing the woman’s voice. “No, I just didn’t know I could pronounce them.”
Silence, and then the chittering started, in a high register, and it sounded like laughter.
“You can say anything we can say.”
The thin grave woman she had painted—Savra—said something to the fat one. The words sounded familiar, as none of their words had, and something stirred inside of her.
“Almost comprehensible, wasn’t it?” the fat one said, licking his lips.
“It just didn’t seem quite so—
“Foreign?” the woman said, smiling a nasty smile. “Strange? All I did was slow it down.”
“You’ve got your painting. There isn’t—Stop that.”
She jumped and scooted back, away from the thin, mold-covered hand that had crept up to poke through her robe and rest on her thigh. The ancient creature who’d snuck up beside her was more blue than yellow, and he slunk back to the group crouching by the window when the fat grave man hissed.
“Most people,” he continued, “couldn’t distinguish our coughs from our consonants. You’re different.”
“I just want you gone,” she said, even as part of her seemed to hesitate.
The fuck? Bitch, you are in a room with shitting, fucking cannibal demons.
“Yes. And stop looking at me like that. You’ve got what you came for.”
“And you have new eyes. Nothing’s ever going to look the same for you—not the dawn, not your paint, not a bowl of cereal.”
“Maybe, and maybe not, but either way I want you gone.”
Anastasia could feel the kind of vibration in her hamstrings that usually only came after hours of painting. The fear wouldn’t leave, and the scratching-tearing-slapping sounds meant God knew what was happening in the shadows. For no reason she could fathom, she thought of Tessa Jean, her childhood dolly, and wished that the plastic-eyed girl lay in her arms again. Small comfort when her parents were fighting downstairs, but the doll had been a comfort until cigarettes and vodka, and greedy boys in abandoned houses. She closed her eyes.
“You know it,” the fat one said, darting forward and pressing her against the wall. He leaned in, said “When you first saw us, you knew it. You’re right to be afraid.”
The reek of death rasped from between his filed teeth. The hardness of him, pressing at her, and only the old, thin terrycloth separating her from whatever disease or filth might coat his cock. She started to shake, tried to squirm to the side. He slammed one hand against the wall, and his nails looked sharp enough to gouge the bricks. He pressed closer, threatening the unimaginable.
“You’ve always been one of us.”
The creatures’ chittering faded to silence. She looked into his eyes, their broken veins a roadmap of Hell. Over his shoulder, the subject of her most recent painting had stopped grinning. There was no expression on her face at all.
A distant mother and father.
People reluctant to get close to her, except for the danger-lovers and freaks.
The subtle, almost unnoticeable sense of recognition she felt when they were close.
You’re kidding yourself, she thought. These aren’t tract-handing, drum-beating, money-grubbing religious freaks. They’re motherfucking—
“Monsters,” he whispered. “That’s right. And, yes, we are that close to you. The hum you feel when we’re near… it is in your head, but not the way you think.”
“Right,” she said as the bite of cold terror turned to cold anger, loosening her tongue. She leaned back. “If you’re going to fuck me, eat me, whatever, then just do it.”
He spread his lips again into an impossibly wide smile.
“Fuck, maybe. But eat? Ah-nah-STAH-see-ah, if only you could smell yourself like we can. Like you should be able to smell yourself.”
“The paint,” he said, pointing to her table. “All that oil, those chemicals, the stuff you breathe in the air. You’ve gone bad.”
He said something in their tongue, a low screech, and she heard the others start scrabbling out the window and onto the fire escape.
“But if you’re… if I’m…” she trailed off, trying to stay on top of the surging emotions. ”How will I find you?”
The words left her mouth, and she stared at the creature in horror. He smiled, and that was as bad as the thought of what she’d just asked.
“Why would we want you to find us?” he said, tilting his head to one side.
He laughed. The grave woman flinched behind him.
“It doesn’t work that way. We take a human baby, put one of ours in its place. It’s just to keep the blood fresh.”
Anastasia looked at the grave woman, studying anew the intricate, careful scars on her face. She’d felt so much more normal than the others. With good cause, apparently.
So… that’s it. My true family is going out into the night. My corpse-eating, baby-stealing siblings don’t want me.
“And I stay alive,” she whispered.
“We don’t kill our own kind,” he said, shrugging as he moved toward the window, signing for the grave woman to follow.
Savra picked up the painting, held it close. She reached out and ran one finger down Anastasia’s cheek, and then followed him out the window.
A last, soft squeal—and then silence.
Tears came, but she did not collapse. Instead, she picked a blank canvas from the pile in the corner and put it on the easel. She lowered the mast until it was secure, and then she started rummaging around in her paint box.
After a time, she found what she needed, and her father’s smile was red. From there she built the cheeks and jaw, sketching in the structures while her kin were still fresh in her mind.
Dawn arrived, and Anastasia stood back, exhausted.
“Not bad,” she said, wondering what Sarah would think.
She looked around the studio, forcing herself to inhale deeply. Oil, dirt, and mold had blended into something survivable. As she crawled into bed, not bothering to shed her clothing, she thought about plein air painting for the first time in years, imagining graveyards by night, and what the moon might bring.
J. T. Glover has published short fiction in The Children of Old Leech, The Big Bad II, The Lovecraft eZine, New Myths, and Handsome Devil: Stories of Sin and Seduction, among other venues. He is a member of the board of directors of James River Writers. By day he is an academic research librarian specializing in the humanities. He lives in Richmond, Virginia, and can be found online at www.jtglover.com.
If you enjoyed this story, let J.T. know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.
Story illustration by Nick Gucker.