Everyone said Sela had a feline grace to her. I never understood what they were talking about. She was more of a snake, slithering into my life and wrapping herself around me until I could hardly breathe. It was her ability to unhinge her jaw that kept me from walking away. Not too often you see a trick like that, much less get to experience it intimately. Unfortunately, the novelty wore off after a while, and I was stuck in a hell of my own making.
Back in the day, I was the big draw on the art scene. The critics said I was daring in my approach to painting, subtle with the elements of horror, hiding monsters in every day moments. Sometimes, they were so obscure that you only saw them when you looked away. That was a trick I learned from an old man down in the fens. He told me to make sure the monsters were held back by something, so they didn’t escape the painting and wreak havoc on the world. I thought he was crazy, but I always included the proper sigils or gates or real silver in the paint.
Don’t bother asking how to find him, or even his name. He gave me a dozen different ones he’d been called over the years, some in languages so obscure I’d never heard of them. I was too busy being flattered by his attention to think about how weird that was. See, a lot of people had tried to get the old artist to teach them, but most of the time he didn’t answer the door. When he did, he’d just blink at them and close it again or swear a lot, then close it. I saw my friends’ failure as a challenge, so I persisted. On my twelfth visit, he sighed and let me into his house, a mess of twisted sticks and mud on the outside. Inside was a whole different story – thousands of stories, carved into dark panels, curled around twisted pillars, dripping from the ceiling in a riot of color and texture, so real you expected them to move when you touched them. That was part of what he taught me. I should have listened to the rest.
Trouble started when Sela asked me to paint her. She didn’t want a classic portrait. She had seen my work and wanted something macabre. I couldn’t figure out why someone like her wanted to be surrounded by horror, real or imagined. You’ve seen her. Hell, her picture is everywhere you look. Tall, glossy blond hair with that natural curl that catches the light no matter what the source, smoky gray eyes, the perfect pucker. And her curves…well, you’ve seen those, too, if you’ve opened a magazine.
I thought I was hot shit when she called me with her request. Naturally, I wasn’t going to deny her. Even if she hadn’t hit on me, I would have taken the commission. A painting like that has a good chance of becoming iconic. I was all about making a name for myself in those days. When it comes down to it, I guess I got my wish. More people have seen that portrait than anything I’ve ever done. Search the internet for images of Sela, and it’s the first thing to crop up – dozens of sites expressing all sorts of opinions on it, but whether or not they approve, they’re all willing to post a picture of her, arms spread out, covered in blood. Too bad it’s not what I painted.
I couldn’t do what she asked of me. I couldn’t soil her image. So I put the horror in the corners, at the edge of the mirror, in the shadow of the half-open closet door. Her I left pristine and beautiful, the way she’d been made. The bitch threw a fit like you wouldn’t believe over that. It was a stunning piece of work, probably my best and most commercially viable painting. And she hated it. She paid for it, of course, and she didn’t leave me the way I thought she would. Instead, she walked into that painting and sent out her flawless image, all because I forgot what the old man taught me: never give the monsters a way out. No, I didn’t see her do it. But I know what I know.
You probably think I’m insane for talking about her this way, when a year ago I would have told you she was the love of my life. That hasn’t changed in fact, just theory. It took me a little too long to figure out that this Sela is a walking disease. You heard that right. She doesn’t have one, she is one – a special sort of illness that settles in through the skin and slowly corrodes the internal organs until your system shuts down completely. Doctors were baffled by my rapid aging, white blood cell count, the toxins raging through me. I didn’t tell them the truth because I don’t want to spend what’s left of my life in a nuthouse.
Instead, I sit here, watching the smoke from an endless chain of cigarettes fill my studio. The walls used to be robin’s egg blue, but they’re closer to slate now. From time to time, I open all the windows and let the smoke clear, until it almost smells good. Almost. There’s still my rotting body to contend with. If I didn’t reek of stale tobacco, I’d recognize the slaughterhouse stench of my corruption. Then I might be tempted to leave the windows open until the cold seeped in and blessed me with an end. Pneumonia would be welcome, since I’m too messed up to go outside and try to contract that fancy new strain of influenza. And to think, I used to be a motivated guy. But I know what will happen if I walk through that door. The monsters are out, and they’re waiting for me.