From the pen of Canadian horror author, Kate DeJonge from her anthology ‘Nightmares: A Collection of Scary Stories’ her short story ‘The Artist’

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by Kate DeJonge

My aunt Maisy owned a small art gallery downtown for decades. When she opened it, hers was the only art hanging on the walls and the rent was cheap. Over time, she accepted new artists’ work, hoping that earning commissions would help to pay her bills. She hung on to her little gallery through the highs and lows, and then some time in the last few years things changed. Whether it was the city’s revitalization efforts or the new “shop local” movement, Albany Street was becoming trendy. More galleries and artisan co-ops were opening monthly, and they treated my aunt like the street’s ‘mother hen’. Maisy was more than happy to help new shop owners navigate the community and got to know them all personally. Everyone loved Maisy.

On the first Friday of every month, the shops and galleries hosted an open house of sorts. They allowed other makers and artisans to set up tables in front of their shops and stayed open much later than their regular business hours. This attracted shoppers and art enthusiasts from all around, which was good for local crafters as well as the brick-and-mortar galleries on Albany Street. Maisy enjoyed meeting new people and talking about the pieces she had on display, especially if they were artists, too. The artists were the most interesting, she told me because there were no two alike. While one could be a classically trained painter with a degree in fine art, the next one could be an oddball who sang everything he said and had Disney princess tattoos all over his face. Their background didn’t matter, they all had a story.

Maisy was often asked if she would consider selling these artists’ work in her gallery, and sometimes she said yes. It was important to her that the work she showcased was varied in style and technique, which meant she was always working with someone new. It was one of those Friday nights when Peter Fray walked into her world. He was quiet, unassuming, but the photos he showed her on his cell phone with her were extraordinary. When she took on Peter’s work, she suspected there would be a reaction from the public.

Peter worked with oils on a variety of canvases which was part of his unique brand. Maisy sold paintings he’d done on sheets of papier-mache, starched cotton shirts, strips of veneer torn from old furniture, and much more. Peter saw everything as a potential canvas, such was his genius. The other element of mystery in his work was the subject matter. Although abstract in style, he painted people. His art was dark, all blacks and reds and browns with harsh strokes and sharp edges. He said that he could see the dark side in anyone, even the sunniest, cookie-baking grandma.

When Maisy hung one of Peter’s pieces in the front window of her gallery, people stopped to look. It was a conversation starter. Several of her shop neighbors came in to ask about it, concerned with its violent nature, but when Maisy explained Peter’s process, they understood the artistic merit. Word spread to the local media, and before long customers were asking if Peter would paint their dark portraits. Maisy provided his studio space in the loft above the gallery and began to take bookings right away. Her fingers were too knotted with arthritis to paint anymore, so she was happy that the loft had a new artist to fill it with creative energy.

People came from far and wide to have their portraits painted, staying in town for a few days at a time so that they could leave with their completed paintings tucked lovingly under their arms. Some thought it was morbid, but more were intrigued. Maisy’s gallery gained multiple awards as her walls were shopped bare and famous artists vied for the coveted space. Peter, elusive by nature, was rarely spotted on the streets which just added to his mystique. Maisy was shocked when Peter asked if he could have dinner at her home one night, to meet her family.

My aunt obliged, of course, and invited a few of us to attend, as well. When Peter arrived at her home, I was already there with my parents, my brother, Maisy’s husband Charles, and her best friend Virginia. Peter was quiet but pleasant, answering all questions asked of him but volunteering nothing. He stared at the ground for most of the evening, but every now and then I caught him staring at one of us when he thought no one was looking. I didn’t like the look I saw in his eyes. It was…wrong.

Maisy served dinner, her famous roast chicken with more trimmings than a Thanksgiving celebration. Peter waited for the platters to be passed to him and took minimal amounts of everything, dotting his plate with tiny food islands, making sure nothing touched. It was quirky, but nothing to be alarmed about. He watched the flames in Maisy’s centerpiece dance, a mirthful smile twisting one corner of his mouth as if he were suppressing a secret joke. When all were ready to eat, he spoke quietly.

“Might I have a sharper knife?”

His face was down, looking at his plate, but he gripped his dinner knife in his left hand with the pad of his thumb pressed tightly against the blade.

“I’m-sorry, Peter, what was that?” Maisy’s brow was furrowed, unsure of what she’d just heard.

‘The knife.” He whispered, “I need a sharper knife.”

The last word came out harshly with a line of spittle dripping from his lip. My breath caught in my throat. This guy was nuts. My mother inhaled noisily, shocked that this meek man had said such a thing.

“I’m sure it’s fine, Peter. Have you tried it?” Maisy was speaking to him as if he were a toddler having a tantrum. She was the only person in the room familiar with the artist; perhaps this was normal behaviour for him. Nonetheless, Maisy’s eyes darted around the table, assessing each guest’s reaction to Peter’s outburst. Virginia had her cloth napkin clutched at her breast, my mother’s mouth was agape, and my brother was snickering. My father kicked his shin under the table and was met with a petulant grunt. Uncle Charlie was ignoring all of us, already halfway through his plate.

A large vein was pulsing on Peter’s forehead and his knuckles had turned white, but he released the knife. He took a long breath and blew it out through his nose, then looked up at Maisy and smiled.

“I’m sure you’re right.” He said to Maisy, then dug into his food. He ate as quietly and politely as one would have expected, carefully folding his napkin over his plate when he was finished. My mother and I volunteered to clean up so that Maisy could take the rest of her guests into the living room for brandy.

“What is wrong with that man?” My mother asked as we stood at the sink with the water running. I giggled and shrugged. Aunt Maisy had introduced us to a number of colourful characters over the years, and my mother and I always discussed their oddities as soon as we could get away from the group.

When the kitchen was clean, we joined the party for an awkward game of charades. I hated the game, and Peter’s strangeness just made it worse. I was about to reach into the bowl for my clue when he suddenly stood up and swept his arms in a circle, addressing all of us.

“I should like to paint you.” He announced. We looked at one another questioningly, but Maisy stood up and clapped.

“Wonderful! Yes, wonderful!” she proclaimed, “We would be honoured, Peter!”

He bowed deeply, as if he’d just finished a live performance, took his coat from the back of his dining chair, and left the house. Maisy turned to us excitedly and told us that she would send out an email with our appointment times that very night. Peter would start the next day. She was thrilled that he had found her family interesting enough to explore with his artistic genius. I was not looking forward to spending time alone with the man.

And so it began. I was expected to attend a conference out of town for the following week, so I would be last to sit for my portrait which was fine with me. I spent the next five days listening to motivational speakers and industry leaders while my parents and brother, my uncle, my aunt and Virginia had their dark sides brought to life by Peter’s deft strokes. On the sixth day, I was happy to be back in my own home with my own bed. On the seventh day, I showered and dressed in the outfit my mother had suggested, laughing somewhat as I curled my hair and applied make up. None of my efforts were going to come through in Peter’s rendition of me; I’d seen his paintings. Everyone had, by then.

I arrived at the gallery to find the front door locked, which was odd. I cupped my hand around my eyes and peered through the glass, looking for my aunt. The lights were on, so she was there; perhaps she’d locked the front door so she could go up to the studio to make sure Peter was ready for me. I dug through my purse and found the spare key; the one Maisy had given me long ago when I was taking art classes and wanted to use her studio on weekends. I heard the music as soon as I stepped in. It sounded like an old 78 record, something French or southern, and it was skipping. As I walked toward the stairs that led to the loft, I realized Peter’s paintings now covered the right wall entirely. I paused to look at one and saw that the oil was still wet, a streak of red creeping steadily down the rough wood canvas. Why would Maisy hang art that hadn’t cured yet?

I should have stopped then. I should have known. If I’d stepped back to look at all of Peter’s new work, I may have recognized my family and run. Instead, I allowed my selfish curiosity to propel me forward. A week had passed since meeting Peter and my mind had been dulled by the never-ending series of workshops, I’d been put through for five days. All I knew now was that I wanted to see what my own darkness looked like. I climbed the stairs, calling out for my aunt, and kept going when she didn’t answer. I reached the studio and unbuttoned my coat, throwing it onto a large pile of garbage bags I’d never seen before without thought. I didn’t notice the red paint leaking from the bags and pooling on the hardwood floor, or the sickly stench of rot. Peter was there, standing behind an easel, ready to paint. I think I even smiled when I said hello to him.

He did not return my greeting and would not meet my eyes. He told me to sit on the stool in the center of the room and remain still. I tried to engage him in conversation, but he would not participate. I studied him as he worked, wondering how he could do so without looking at me even once. It was when I asked him how my family’s portraits had turned out that something finally clicked. The wet oil dripping down the painting in the gallery. His eyes darted to my face as I sucked in my breath, and he was on me before I could plant my feet on the floor. A painful prick in the side of my neck told me that he’d injected me with something, but I didn’t know what. I could see, I could hear, but I could not move my body.

I glanced around the room frantically, though I don’t know what could have helped me at that point. I saw the tools hung on the wall like a mad surgeon’s dungeon, but I could not scream. A garbage bag fell loose from the pile where I’d thrown my coat and landed with a thud and a squish, but I could not vomit. Peter was grinning down at me now, fully connected for the first time.

“You. Your family. You have inspired me!” he whispered, his breath rank. I could smell his body odor, but I could not fight him off. Tears filled my eyes, pleading with him silently.

“Do not cry, young one! You have made me great!” he pushed himself up and went to his wall of tools.

“I have brought out the darkness in so many, but none could reach the darkness in me. Not until,” he was straddling me again, “your auntie.” He had a hacksaw in his hand, and he was sweating profusely. He ran its handle across my cheek as if he were caressing me lovingly.

“I could have stopped with Maisy, but why waste a talent like mine?” he flipped the saw over and ran it over my face again, blade side down. I felt time slow down, the jagged teeth tearing at my skin while I lay paralyzed beneath him.

“When I finish your portrait, when the world sees my new collection, they will know.” He raked the saw across my chest, and I tried to black out. I had too much adrenaline coursing through my body, though, my mind would not shut down.

“Did you see their darkness in the gallery? Did you see how richly, how vibrantly it comes out when I paint them with their own blood?” My breathing was slowing, and I prayed that the drug he had injected was killing me. I wanted to die before he finished with me.

“Yours will be my masterpiece, the jewel in my crown. Do you see that canvas? That is your auntie! I peeled her skin while she bled and dried it in front of the furnace in the basement. Your portrait will be immortalized on her flesh, and in turn I will be known as the one.” He shuddered with excitement. “The one who can see the darkness in the brightest of us all.”

“Thank you,” he whispered as he kissed my cheek. “You have given me the greatest gift. You have released my own darkness. Now, I am not only the seer. I will be the seen.”

I finally blacked out then. I don’t know how long I was unconscious for, but I can’t hear Peter now. My limbs are bent, I’ve been folded into a ball and stuffed into a garbage bag like the others. I can feel the plastic against my torn skin, and I think parts of me are missing, but I can’t move. I’m in darkness, but I’m alive. Everything hurts and my pulse is faint, but I’m conscious.

When he opens the door to the gallery, when he invites the world in to see his new work, please come upstairs. Please find me. I’m still here.

 

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