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When Alexis Blakely arrived at the home of Phillip Kramer, the rain was falling in long diagonal slants beyond the windshield of her car and the whole street lay half lost in rainy haze of the cold, gray, and dismal winter afternoon. Mr. Kramer lived in a large three-story house with a double car garage that had fallen into a state of mild disrepair. In the front yard, a disfigured tree that bore the scar of a past lighting strike loomed over an expanse of knee-high grass. A dilapidated shed sat at an uncertain angle a few paces away from the double car garage. One of the two garage doors was open.
Still a little nervous about the arrangement she had made with Mr. Kramer, Lexi pulled into the garage and parked her aging ‘90s model Honda Civic next to a 1934 Rolls-Royce that looked as though it could have only recently come off the assembly line. The Rolls-Royce was a status symbol, something that indeed confirmed Mr. Kramer’s success as an artist, but it also stuck her as a desire to strive for and achieve perfection. Lexi was only twenty-three, and while physical perfect came easy to her in terms of her appearance, she understood the visual aesthetics took numerous shapes and forms and that some of them were more difficult to achieve than others.
Lexi killed the engine, opened the driver-side door, got out of her car, and stood for a moment admiring Mr. Kramer’s Rolls-Royce. Her phone rang in her hand. The caller ID displayed MR KRAMER. She pressed the green ANSWER icon on the screen, lifted it to her ear, and hoped she sounded confident.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello,” Mr. Kramer said. “Is that you down there, Miss Blakely?”
“Splendid. Let yourself in. I’ll be right down.”
Mr. Kramer terminated the call.
Lexi slipped her phone into the back-right pocket of her blue jeans and went through the side door that connected the garage to the kitchen.
Under normal circumstances, she would have told Phillip Kramer to shove his request up his ass, but he had promised to pay her exceptionally well, and he had incredible references from other extremely famous artists, several prestigious galleries that only sold pieces upward of six figures, and models from around the world that made most of the typically Hollywood actresses look like trailer trash.
In the kitchen, Lexi detected nothing unusual for an elderly man of sixty-seven who lived alone. The light was switched off, the dishes needed to be done, and through the pantry door, which he must have left ajar, she spied a stockpile of canned food that didn’t require much chewing to consume. An empty food bowl and water bowl sat on the floor. Lexi wondered where Mr. Kramer’s dog was for a moment, for she heard no barking, and the bowls were far too large to have been meant for a cat, and then it occurred to her that his dog may have been deceased and that he had either left the bowls there in memory of his believed pet or simply forgot to take them up. Both options pulled at her heart strings.
She heard Mr. Kramer hobbling down the stairs a moment later and when he entered the kitchen, Lexi was surprised to discover that he not only walked with a cane but that he was only possessed one full set of fingers. The four digits of his left hand had been detached from the rest of him at the knuckle. His thumb remained.
“. . . been worse,” he said.
“I said it could’ve been worse.”
Lexi looked up from his hideous hand. She hadn’t meant to stare, and now to her chagrin, she could feel herself beginning to blush. She tried to look him in the eye and managed to with some difficulty. His eyes were blue-gray and faded, like the sky beyond the window. Beyond the kitchen windows, the wind picked up and whipped the rain across the front yard in a cascade of violent swirls. Mr. Kramer had begun to explain.
“Could’ve been my right hand—”
“—the one I paint with,” he said, ignoring her preemptive apology.
“I didn’t mean to stare.”
“It’s okay, Miss Alexis. It really is. Some people openly deny it.”
“What happened?” she asked before she could stop herself.
Mr. Kramer smiled, thoughtfully. Then he picked up a chewed-up can of potted meat from the counter and turned it over in his hand. It had teeth marks on it. Lexi hadn’t noticed this upon first entering the kitchen, and as she watched Mr. Kramer turn it over in his hand, she found herself unsure if he was examining it for the sake of inspection or if he was examining it to buy himself time to answer he inappropriate question. Beyond the kitchen windows, a bolt of lightning flashed followed immediately by a crack of thunder. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he tossed the can into the trash, and turned his attention back to her.
“It’s an old sexual injury,” he said with a wink.
Lexi blushed deeper, and they shared a good laugh. Then she followed out of the kitchen, into a short hallway, and up a set of narrow stairs, which he climbed enthusiastically in spite of his handicap.
In a narrow hallway at the top of the stairs, Mr. Kramer looked first to the left and then to the right, as though he either wasn’t sure which way he was going or hadn’t decided yet.
“C’mon,” he said, turning to Lexi. “I’d like to show you some the painting in my personal collection before we get started.”
“That would be wonderful. Mr. Kramer.”
“You can call me Phil, Miss. Alexis.”
“Okay. But only if you call me Miss Lexi.”
“Agreed,” he said.
Mr. Kramer led the way down a hall. He did not merely hobble along with the cane, he leaned steeply into it. He stopped in front of a door, unlocked it, opened it for Lexi, and gestured that she should enter first. She did. The light was switched off. But there was enough light slanting through the windows for her to make out the subject of each painting hanging on the walls of the otherwise bare room.
“These are the ones none of the galleries will take for a variety of reasons,” he said, leading her around the room clockwise. “I take great pleasure in showing them off once or twice a year, although the last model I invited vomited and collapsed in a screaming fit on the floor half-way through this little tour. I like to think it was my art that distressed her so strongly, but my lawyer was later able to somehow prove in a court of law through means that remain unknown to me that she was an epileptic.” He paused for a moment before he continued. “You aren’t epileptic, are you?”
“Splendid. Let us continue then, shall we?’
She gestured for him to continue.
The paintings on the walls depicted a number of strange scenes, figures, and faces, many of which were painted against either blackness absolute or very dark and depressing backgrounds. The female figures were typically painted either nude or only partially dressed. But a number of the male figures were also depicted in the same way. The painting depicted humans displayed a number of expressions and moods. But there were also painting in which human beings were depicted in death. Evisceration, dismemberment, decapitation, and in mass graves were all present. Half glimpsed demonic creatures—male, female, androgynous, hybrid, monstrous, beastly, and demonic—also prevailed throughout the gallery. There were also hellish landscapes depicting rivers of blood, caves full of body parts, forests with figures hung from the trees, and beaches littered with plastic bottles and bone fragments.
Lexi enjoyed tour, and once Mr. Kramer concluded it, he led her back into the hallway, and locked the door behind them. Then he led her to another room at the other end of the narrow hall, unlocked the door, and gestured for her to enter.
“Welcome to my studio,” he said.
There were photographs, drawings, and paint on the walls. A tall bookshelf overflowing with volumes stood in one corner. A projector stood in another. Pencils, paint, charcoal, notebooks, and canvases lay strewn across the floor. An easel stood in the middle of the room. A paint spattered easy chair and table with a cluster of bottles stood beside it. Some of the bottles contained paint. Others contained brushes. Opposite the easel, there was a couch with a lamp positioned above and slightly off to the side of it. The light in this room was also switched off, and although Mr. Kramer did not switch it on, he did switch on the lamp. Mr. Kramer gestured at the couch.
“You can set your clothes wherever you like, Miss Lexi, and don’t worry, there’s no need to hurry, I still have to paint this canvas black before we can begin.”
Lexi looked around. Almost every surface in the room had painted on it to some degree or another, but she eventually settled on an old end table beside the only window in the room.
“You can leave your socks on,” Mr. Kramer said.
“I’d actually prefer it if you left your socks on.”
“I don’t like feet.”
“That’s okay, Phil. I don’t either.”
“Splendid. You wouldn’t believe the trouble feet have caused me over the decades, you really wouldn’t. I’ve had several bizarre encounters with women who were obsessed with their feet. It’s an unhealthy obsession, feet . . .”
Standing in front of the end table, she slipped her phone out the back-right pocket of her jeans and set it on the end table. Then she added her car keys and purse and glanced back at Mr. Kramer. He was hard at work, painting a large canvas black, still talking mostly to himself about how much he despised feet, and didn’t seem interested in watching her undress. Lexi didn’t have a problem with him painting her nude, for he had promised to pay her quite well, which was their arrangement, but looking out the window into the stormy expanse of his back yard, Lexi felt as though she had overlooked something
(sinister or strang)
about Mr. Kramer. Except . . . that wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t Mr. Kramer. It was something else, something about his house, something unseen that didn’t sit quite right in her mind.
But what is it?
Lexi didn’t know.
She stepped out of her shoes and nudged then against the end table with one foot that was still-socked against the end table.
Beyond the window, the rain and the lightening and the thunder were still going strong. The grass, weeds, bushes, and trees capered in the wind, and Lexi thought it was entirely possible that the wind might uproot one of the older, deader trees in the back yard before the sun set that evening.
She took hold of her T-shirt at the bottom, pulled it up over her head, set it on the end table, and ran a hand through her hair, casually readjusting it in the opaque reflection of herself in the window. She undid her belt buckle, the button of her jeans, and the zipper. She pulled her jeans off, sliding one leg out at a time, and set them on the end table on top of her T-shirt.
Still dressed in her bra and panties and socks, Lexi glanced back at Mr. Kramer. He was working on painting his canvas black in a heavily focused sort of concentrated silence.
She reached behind her back, and she was just about to unhook her bra, when she spotted somebody in the backyard and spotted. They were standing in the rain, and their back was turned to her at first, but then they turned, and made eye contact. The rain was still falling too heavy for her to make out the finer details of their face, and although she couldn’t see their eyes, she was certain that they were looking at her dead on. She stepped away from the window, unaware that she had let out a wispy gasp of freight when she had first glimpsed the figure.
“What’s wrong?” Kramer asked without looking up.
“The man . . .”
“There’s a man in your backyard.”
Mr. Kramer grabbed his cane, stood up, and hobbled over to the window, moving quickly with a sense of haste. Lexi stepped out of his way. Mr. Kramer scanned the back yard beyond the window for a brief moment. Then he turned to Lexi with a fiery intensity in his eyes.
“Can you describe him?” he asked.
“I asked if you could describe him.”
“There’s a man—”
“If there was, it’s gone now.”
“He’s gone?” It’s . . . ?
“Yes and no. Are you sure you saw a man?”
“Well,” she said. “I’m assuming it was a man.”
“Did you see somebody in the backyard or do you think you saw somebody in the backyard. There is a difference.”
“I don’t know.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, looking wildly around the room. He leaned his cane against the window still, yanked the draw of the nightstand open, and withdrew a large revolver with a long barrel. He flipped the cylinder open, inspected that there were bullets inside, and snapped the cylinder shut with a flick of the wrist.
“Whoa,” Lexi said, holding her hands out in front of her in a gesture that meant: stop, slow down, calm down. “What are you doing?”
“It must have followed me back.”
“It?” And then more shrilly she repeated herself: “It!”
“Most people can’t see them, not even when they want to be seen,” Mr. Kramer said. He pawed at his cane with his useless left hand, realized he wouldn’t be able to carry both the revolver and the cane, turned, and hobbled away from Lexi. As he crossed the room, he mumbled something under his breath about how bad this was, and his dog, and how he should have known something like this could have happened . . .
“You’re gonna tell me what in the name of fuck is going on here!” Lexi shouted, setting out after the crazy old man dressed in her bra and panties and socks.
He had already slipped into the hallway and disappeared, and by the time she made it to the last point she had seen him, he was nowhere to be seen. She listened, heard him on the stairs, and made her way down the hall. She reached the stairs just in time to catch a glimpse of the old man limping briskly around the corner of the door at the bottom.
“C’mon, you dog-killing son-of-a-bitch!” he shouted. “Show yourself!”
Lexi descended the stairs, taking them two at a time.
Mr. Kramer was storming down the hall. He rounded another corner. A sound of breaking glass rang out, a gunshot sounded, and there was a muffled cry. Lexi broke into a run.
A moment later, she rounded the corner at the end of the hall and found herself in a modest dining room. The window was shattered, and she her step became suddenly cautious as she was wearing only socks on her feet. Mr. Kramer was lying face down in a spreading pool of blood on the floor. The revolver lay just beyond his reach. Lexi thought he had been shot in the abdomen at first. Then she turned him over and saw that he had been eviscerated in a manner that did not indicate that he had been shot. His whole midsection had been ripped open, some of his intestines were hanging out, and although his eyes were open, it was evident that he could no longer see anything in the world of the living.
Something moved. Lexi wasn’t sure were the sound had originated, but she didn’t waste any time scooping up the revolver from the floor and pointing it wildly around the room.
“Who’s there?” she said, pointing the revolver back toward the hall from which she had just come.
She pointed the revolver at the threshold to living room.
Lexi backed out of the dining room, retraced her steps, opened the door that she thought would lead back upstairs, and stepped off into darkness. Her feet left the floor, the doorway at the top of the stairs spun like a kaleidoscope, and she tumbled ass-over-teakettle down a ragged set of wooden stair. She landed in a crumpled heap on a cool concrete floor. Only then did she realize that she had opened the door to the basement instead of the upstairs.
Sprawled on her ass in the rectangle of light that feel from the doorway above, she had somehow managed to hold onto the revolver without dropping it or pulling the trigger, but her left forearm was now crooked at an unnatural angle. It didn’t hurt. But the sight of it made her feel nauseous.
Everything remained bathed in unnatural silence for a moment. Then she heard the unmistakable sound of a stair creak underfoot. There was nobody there, but visual confirmation wasn’t enough now, for she no longer trusted her survival entirely to her sight alone. She leveled the revolver at the empty stairs, aiming dead center from where she was seated to the door at the top of the stairs and pulled the trigger. The barrel jumped, the shot resounded in the concrete space, and damn did that feel good. But her euphoria was short lived, for a burst of blood ushered fourth from seemingly out of thin air.
She pulled the trigger again and again and again and again. Blood exploded two out of the four times she pulled the trigger. Her ears were ringing now, and she couldn’t hear the click of the hammer falling upon empty chamber. Her adrenaline was pumping now, and she couldn’t feel the revolver failing to kick back in response to a bullet being projected from the chamber. Someone
cold and slimy must have fallen down the stairs, for she felt it crash into her and she felt it group her leg. She simultaneously kicked out at it with the heel of her foot and scooted back on her ass. When she found her footing a moment later, she was still pulling the trigger of the empty revolver.
The darkness seemed to be pressing on her on all sides now, thick and heavy, as though it possessed weight. She backed into a shelf and knocked a bunch of cardboard boxes full who knows what. Her breath was coming in short bursts that was hard to control and her heart was pounding in her chest. There was something lying in the rectangle of light at the bottom of the stairs. She thought it was the man she had seen from the second story window only moments before, and as it groaned and pulled itself to its feet, it was. But when its eyes feel upon her, it remained humanoid only shape, for its features, including its eyes, melted away into those of a leathery reptilian creature. Its jaws were full of needle-sharp teeth that gleamed in the low light. She had apparently shot it once in the chest, once in the leg, and once in the head. The former seemed to be causing it the most pain. The latter had merely grazed it. It took a single nightmarish step toward her. Then it stopped, grinned, and flipped on a light switch.
A crack in Lexi’s sanity opened like a chasm at the bottom of an ocean trench. It was so much worse in the light. She threw the revolver at it and backed away from it deeper into the shadows, screaming. It followed.
She tripped over a box, fell on her injured arm, and groaned. Then she spied the door not much further back in the shadows. The reptilian figure was still coming after her, but it was evidently hurt, and the injuries she had inflicted on it slowed and labored its movements.
Lexi moved toward the door, hoping it wasn’t locked. The reptilian figure was closing in on her now. She grabbed the doorknob, wondered if in the event that it was lock if she would be able to physically overpower the reptilian figure, and twisted hard. It was unlocked. She opened the door and fled into a greater darkness than she had ever known.
It was quite some time before she realized she there was no longer a concrete floor beneath her feet, and eventually she felt grass brushing against her legs. Certain she had finally lost the reptilian figure, she plunged into mushy ground, and she soon wading through the waist-deep water of a fetid swamp. A bloody red light began to gather strength in the distance ahead, and as the night began to give way to an ever-reddening sky, Lexi began to wondering in a half-broken sort of way where exactly the door in the dead artist’s basement had taken her.
When she reached solid ground, the redness had fully illuminated the hellscape in which she had fled and she stopped to rest among a copse of limbless, leafless trees. She was standing at the bottom of a steep escarpment, and at the top among the large obsidian rocks, she soon spotted the disfigured silhouettes of horrible creatures.
Humanoid, beastly, demonic, none of them were quite the same in regard to their physical appearance, and although some of them spoke amongst each other in strange guttural tongues, others merely pointed down to where Lexi stood, gesticulating and/or hopping up and down a frenzied manner.
But despite their differences, Lexi soon noticed they all had at least one thing in common and she shuddered with dread.
They had all taken a fierce interest in her arrival.
CREDIT : Scott Landon