Strange Love - Stefano Pastor - ebook
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Three fantastic novels:CarnivalFreely inspired by one of the most beautiful and least-known stories of H.P. Lovecraft (The Pickman model), Carnival is set in a gloomy and decadent Venice. A few days from the beginning of the Carnival, the triumph of Josef, a painter who has finally achieved success after being ignored for years due to monstrous creatures populating his paintings, is celebrating. A success largely due to the beautiful Leontine, one of the most popular models in the world, who agreed to pose for him. Obscene, cursed paintings, in which she has sex with those creatures. During the last visit to the painter’s studio, Leontine finds a photograph depicting one of the monsters painted in the paintings. Initially skeptical about its authenticity, she soon finds out that this is not a fake one. Something scary lies in the lagoon, something old, forgotten. A secret secured for millennia is about to be unveiled, inhuman beings will soon walk among us. The Carnival will only be the beginning of an endless nightmare.The Eighth NodeWalter is rich, gay and lives a dissolute life. Walter is a serial killer who attracts naive young men into his home, and then he kills them. Luca is a student. Young, handsome and in love. Luca is the first of Walter’s victims. He had gone on a date, had entered his home, to be tortured and murdered. All of this had occurred in the seventh node. But there’s another life, another time, another node. The eighth node. In the eighth node, none of this took place. Luca had never gone on that date. He’s still alive, and Walter didn’t become an assassin. Not yet, at least. Somebody wants this to happen. They’re prepared to undertake any necessary action, even the unthinkable, to make it happen. They want to force Walter to kill Luca. In this sick game, the roles can switch around; the victim can become a murderer, no one is innocent. A breathtaking thriller, without respite, that will surprise you. An unusual love story that goes above and beyond the laws of time and space.I Am Not HereThe boy is a little thug who got himself into something much more significant than him which could quickly lead him to destruction. The girl, on the other hand, doesn’t exist. In a distant time, she managed to annul herself by disappearing from the sight of men and sinking into oblivion. When the boy gets trapped, near facing death, she intervenes and saves him. It’s something she’d never done before, that which disturbs her. Besides that, she cannot get away from him. Since it’s something she has never felt before, it remains unknown to her. The boy is fascinated by her invisible presence and is determined to exploit her incredible abilities for his own interests. Without anyone’s intention, however, something impossible goes wrong. As he tries to find out who the girl is, the girl’s past slowly but forcedly comes to light. Their fragile relationship is put to the test each waking day until there is nothing to hide and they have to make a tough decision on whether to accept it or not. A tender love story between a boy pursuing life without worrying about the consequences and a girl whose life itself had rejected her, annulling her, until she ceased to exist. Is love really able to overcome any obstacle?

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Illusion Omnibus # 7

Carnival

Original title: Carnival

Translated by Alfio Loreti

The Eighth Node

Original title: L’ottavo nodo

Translated by Alexandra Hill

I Am Not Here

Original Title: Io non sono qui

Translated by Andrea Suárez

© 2018 Illusion

© 2018 Stefano Pastor

Graphics: Angela M.

All rights reserved

CARNIVAL

1

I arrived at eleven o’clock in the evening and stayed exactly half an hour. I used to plan my media appearances carefully, in that I was a real professional. I was the attraction of the evening, they had to wait and I made them want me. I had to look like the goddess come to give a caress to those poor people.

I had chosen the dress carefully. Along the feet, white silk, semi-transparent. A deep neckline and a side slit in order to show the tapered legs. Brilliants sewn over the whole body. No lingerie. White shoes with high heels, a platinum ring, two huge white gold earrings, made up of various crosses wedged between them. A little bit of makeup to make me look pale. Shiny lips, painted in pink, just a shade of eyeshadow on the eyes. A hairstyle of black hair like the night.

I was practically naked, at least so they could imagine me. Naked and diaphanous as they had seen me up to that moment, on every painting in the gallery. The dress itself could go unnoticed, almost as if it wasn’t there at all.

All those men wanted me; they would give everything to be able to sleep with me. I didn’t need them. I was walking through the audience, feeling them touching my skin, feeling the excitement, embracing impudent eroticism, but now it was all a game. They didn’t serve me and they wouldn’t have me.

Josef had changed my life, but I had also changed his. His monsters would have been very little without me. Horror book illustrations, nothing more. I had given birth to them; I made them unique. He always told me that.

It didn’t work with him, but I had planned this from the beginning. I slept with him because he was the painter and I was the model. Because after hours and days I was naked in front of him, what happened was unavoidable. Among us there was ardor, passion; no love. My love was only for Luca, I had kept my virginity for him. I had never loved anyone else. Sex was irrelevant.

My body was everything. That was what gave me a job. But at the same time, it was just a body, nothing important. With the body you could do anything; it was just a job. I had exploited it in the best way. Beauty competitions, some parades, but then it wasn’t enough. Time went inexorably, soon beauty would vanish, I wanted it to last forever.

I wanted to become art, to be art. I wanted that one day, maybe in a thousand years; they would still admire me and desire me. I wanted to be immortal.

I started posing for artists. For young people, for the most promising ones, they had a forward-looking future. Sculptors, painters, even some very good photographers. I set off my appearances; I wanted to be immortalized only in masterpieces.

Soon it happened. Leontine became more famous than the artists who depicted her. The first requests of one of the most famous artists arrived. With some, I had sex, while with others I didn’t. It was not necessary. My face, my body, was now in twenty of the most important museums in the world, and in the private collections of the most powerful men. I had reached immortality.

And then there was Josef. A challenge.

At first, he was nothing; I had been able to make him immortal. I still remember our first meeting. He showed me the paintings he had painted and I appreciated it. I imagined how I would find myself in there.

“There is no room for me.”

Art was there. The ability to make life coming from his imagination. I could not deny. I had never seen imaginary creatures portrayed with so much detail and perfection. You almost came to accept their existence. But they were monsters, they were all monsters, Josef had never painted a single human being. What did he call me to do?

“There may be,” he replied. “Only if you wanted to.”

It was a challenge I couldn't resist, and he was handsome. A wild man, with long hair and a wild beard. A sharp nose and penetrating eyes that makes everybody uncomfortable. I wondered how he would have been in bed and I accepted.

The model he chose for me was beautiful. Younger and much more beautiful than he was. A statuary body, muscular. I don’t remember the name, indeed, I’m not sure if I ever hear him talk. Totally naked, wrapped up on the floor, we simulated wild love, never moving. I remember his eyes, blue as the sky because I spent hours watching them. I couldn’t resist the attractiveness of certain bodies; I better focus on something else.

It took three full afternoons and when Josef showed me the finished painting, the model wasn’t there. It was a monster that embraced me, one of those humanoid beings that Josef used to portray. It was a unique and distressing experience because that being was inside me and I was giving myself to him completely. We were captured in a wild intercourse. Our bodies were perfect, so alive that we could get out of the painting. No one had ever made my essence so complete. Even the beast had a soul. His hunger, his ardor, the excitement was transmitted in every single muscle, the need, the strength.

I was speechless to contemplate it for a couple of minutes, and Josef didn’t hurry me up. I lacked a word to describe it. It was obscene, immoral, disgusting, but also the most erotic picture I’d ever seen. Was that woman really me? I had never seen myself so beautiful in my whole life.

At the end, I said something very stupid. “It’s strong.”

Josef forgave me because that night we had sex for the first time. And I kept posing for him.

Forty-seven paintings, an enormity. Six months spent in that study, in total nudity; to the point that there had been days I didn’t even remember dressing up. Models, so many models, one more beautiful than the other, which Josef would have transformed into as many monsters. And then Luca. The love.

That evening was the peak of our experience, but also the farewell. We were no longer together, me and Josef since I met Luca. We had no sexual intercourse for two months. Josef had accepted it, without problems. I had few problems.

It was complicated. After Luca, everything was complicated. He didn’t care, but I did. I felt wasted to show my body to strangers instead of being with him. To embrace beautiful men whom I didn’t care about, instead of reaching for him. I felt I didn’t need it anymore, my priorities were misplaced. Immortality didn’t seem so important anymore. Perhaps I had already reached it.

There, that evening, I had made history.

Josef was the author, the magician, the undisputed genius of the brush, and yet whenever I came into the gallery, every discourse broke down and all eyes were on me. I had eclipsed him; never a model had so much power.

It was hours that they were looking at me, that my naked body was exposed in every position. Thanks to me the macabre had never been so appetizing. We had created something new. Unique.

The woman who loves monsters. That matches with them. Ghoul, Josef called them. Corpse’s devourers. An ancient race that had originated in Asia. He knew the subject well.

Leontine, everyone whispered that name. They were excited for me; they would have covered me with gold to be able to sleep with me.

There was a strange light in Josef’s eyes, and perhaps jealousy. But he came to me and never was more obsequious, perhaps to show his guests that he could touch me and they couldn’t. I was an object, a beautiful and desirable object, so they saw me. But one day they would have been dust and wouldn’t.

Bankers, industrialists, politicians, and art dealers, journalists, critics, even a senator and a cardinal. Josef introduced me to everyone, but I soon forgot their names. I smiled and filled with excitement. I made them crazy. We would sell them all, those forty-seven paintings, at an exorbitant price. Other museums would have welcomed my image; it was just a matter of time.

It was Josef’s triumph, but it was also my good-bye to the world of art.

But I didn’t tell him that.

After that, I missed those narrow streets and bridges all the same. I loved Venice but I still couldn’t get to know it. In fact, I had little time to visit.

It didn’t matter, I had refused a ride, I didn’t want to go home. It was almost midnight and I had no intention of closing myself in that hole alone.

I needed fresh air.

Luca had refused to come. He never liked those paintings. When he saw how Josef had painted him, he couldn’t hold back. “You piece of shit!” He shouted at him. “What is this crap?”

Josef had not even paid him.

That day was another Luca, different from the boy I knew. Luca was sweet and kind, always smiling. Yet that picture had upset him. I almost lost him, even if we weren’t together yet.

Luca was an art student; he was in the first year. He was ten years younger than me; there was nothing in common between us. I was rich, famous, and unscrupulous, he was still living with his parents and he was modeling for a hobby. Until then he had posed only for other students during the lesson hours. He had never done such a hard work.

Josef had put him on an old armchair, almost a throne, all in inlaid wood. Completely naked. I was lying on his knees, by the way, an uncomfortable position. He had kept us there for eight days. I ended up with an atrocious backache and a crush. Luca was madly in love with me.

It was the most beautiful painting Josef had ever done, in real life proportions. Surely it wasn’t the most obscene. Luca had taken it very badly, he felt violated to be painted in that way. They almost had a fight.

From that day on, my sitting sessions were less and I had begun to see Luca, far from the study. I didn’t see any future for the two of us, but his love was the only reason I was still in Venice.

I didn’t expect it as I thought I was immune. I never had it before. With such a young boy, then. He had completely blushed the reason; I started behaving like a stupid sixteen.

Luca was twenty years old and the ideas were clear, there was nothing childish in him. It was a serious thing, not just a crush; he had even brought me to know his family. It couldn’t work, I kept repeating myself. I had to give it a cut, go away, and forget Josef and Luca, and those stupid paintings. I had to regain my existence because I had never felt so helpless.

I had learned soon that I couldn’t count on anyone, at twelve years I was already illusion-free. I had a purpose and means to reach. Perhaps it was my mother’s purpose, but at that time I didn’t realize it. It took years before I came to understand. I was beautiful and I had to exploit that beauty. I had to be the most beautiful one. My parents divorced.

Dad wouldn’t stand an example Mom had set, that she would sell me, that she would drag me to every beauty contest around Italy. I lost my virginity at fourteen, with one of the judges who was twenty years older than me. He was a handsome man, and he taught me many things. I had also won the competition.

I have not seen my mother for ten years. She hated me. She told everyone that I had repudiated her, that I got rid of her as soon as I didn’t need her anymore. That I was an ungrateful daughter. She could let off as much as she wanted, as long as she was as far away as possible.

Before I met Luca, I didn’t know love; I didn’t even know what it was. I couldn’t differentiate love and sex. Even though he was so young, Luca knew how to love, he had fallen in love more than once. He had to teach me what love is.

I didn’t know how to kiss; it was the first thing he told me. I didn’t understand, I had always done it and nobody had ever complained. According to Luca, I was wrong, no girl kissed that way; he had to teach me that too. In the end, he taught me to make love, which was good in bed. I was amazed at how many things I didn’t know yet, and he was a little amazed also.

He never told me, but I knew it the same. Selling my body had made me a whore. Even if I had never been paid for sex, which made no difference. My ease was wrong because I didn’t know anything about love. At the age of thirty, a little boy taught me what shame meant, and he did so by sleeping with me. This is a funny life.

That day I felt different, but I just didn’t know what I should have done with my new life.

The steps brought me to the studio. It was not a conscious choice, but I was there anyway.

It was an ancient building, nestled in the dark, and it was almost 1 am. It was empty because Josef was still in the gallery and had no housekeepers.

I never asked him, but I was sure the building was his own, even if he was using one entire floor only. By daytime it was exposed to the sun, for long. He had cut down the drapes and walls and the studio had become a single room with windows on the three sides of the building. That was why the light was never missing.

The windows were huge, at that moment they were protected by curtains. From the outside, they were not visible because an ivy-covered wall concealed them from prying eyes.

I still had the key.

There was a lot of me there because I once lived there. Even after I met Luca and returned to my apartment, I had not taken away almost anything. I had accumulated too much stuff, and mine was a studio flat, but above all, I didn’t want to break up definitively with Josef. He had never asked me anything, had accepted any decision, had not opposed to it. He didn’t deserve to look like an enemy to me.

It was over now, though. I stood next to him posing; he had his show, it had been an unprecedented success on all newspapers. He was a man at his peak; he could be considered a well-established painter. He no longer needed me.

Maybe I would have left him a message. I didn’t want to talk to him. Perhaps I should have written to Luca also and disappear, but I didn’t find the courage to do so.

I went in.

I didn’t feel out of place, once I felt at home. I knew the studio well and even the bedroom. I had laid down virtually everywhere, on each chair, every couch, every bed and every furniture of that mausoleum. I remembered every moment of those infinite sessions; it was just the faces of my partners that they were wrapped in fog. They always resembled.

My clothes were still in the closet that I had once shared with Josef, he never removed them. I did it, borrowing a dusty suitcase underneath the bed. I filled it without any care because I would have sent it all to the laundry. I could have left them; I could do without, even though they were designer labels. I wasn’t interested in that anymore. But I didn’t want to give Josef false hopes that one day I would come back. It was best to make a clean break.

It was not me that Josef wanted, just my body. He wanted me to continue to pose for him. He didn’t care about Luca, only about his paintings. I regretted to have allowed him to continue for so long. I should’ve stopped long before. To be unique you don’t have to repeat yourself, and I repeated myself forty-six times. But I got to know Luca and was well worth it.

I filled the suitcase, but there were still a few things to take away. I recovered an old sack that once contained brushes and colors. The bathroom cabinet was full of my cosmetics. I put everything in the bag including my bathrobe, and underwear that were there for a very long time, without anyone ever washing it.

Then I went back to the studio, but it was full of memories. It seemed to me to know him forever and not for six months only. I recovered bracelets and earrings, which I used to leave in the oddest places, colored scarves, even a pair of ballerina shoes. Wigs, panties, chocolates, even a doll I was fond of. I passed the whole carpet room to clear every trace of my presence. In short, the bag was also full.

I put it in the entrance, next to the suitcase, and went to look for something to write a message. I picked up a charcoal, but I couldn’t find any paper. On the stand where Josef was working, there was a new canvas, virgin. What better place to leave my message? Knowing Josef he would be able to consider it as a work of art and hang it as such.

Faced with that white canvas, though, the memories came back rushing. What we were for each other, me and Josef. No, no love, but something brought us together anyway. Those paintings, they were like our children. Horrible, disgusting children, but what parent doesn’t love his own creation?

Actually, I had hated him in the beginning. What painter requires absolute immobility? If that was what he was looking for, why not using a picture? It took time to understand that even the stasis was full of life. His models were palpitating and he was able to translate it on the canvas. There was something unhealthy in his need to turn every male into a monster, but perhaps in his mysterious past, he hid the key to interpreting that phobia. I was no longer interested in finding out.

We will meet again at the Louvre, I wrote to him. Together forever. Goodbye.

I was uncertain whether to sign it, but every work of art required it. I added Leontine. He would understand.

I put the charcoal on the shelf, and I saw something sticking out from the corner. It looked like a photograph, an old one with a white edge. It had slipped almost completely behind the shelf and I just saw the edge. I had to use tweezers to pull it out.

I can’t tell why I did it. Perhaps because it was unusual to find a photograph there. If he had been any other painter I wouldn’t be surprised, but Josef didn’t paint on commission and only depicted flesh and bone models as well as imaginary figures. Who knows how long it was there for, maybe years. I was curious to know its past.

The picture was a bit crumpled, but it was printed on a hard paper. Despite the outdated technique, it didn’t seem old. It was precisely the throne where I and Luca had laid. There was a creature sitting instead of Luca, in the same position as Josef had made him pose. The creature was identical to that depicted in the portrait.

It couldn’t be a photo, it had to be a painting as well. Or rather, the picture of a painting. I went under a lamp, where there was more light, to check it with more attention.

The chair was just that and it looked photographed. Consequently also the creature. Josef’s painting was realistic and attentive to detail, but even he couldn’t have achieved such perfection.

I didn’t get scared, not yet. In the modern world, everything could be altered; any monster could be recreated at the computer, rebuilt so perfectly to look real. Yet that photo seemed different.

At first, everything was black and white and this was already strange, taken with a probably old camera. Even the paper on which it was printed was no longer used for decades. Was it an old photo then? Impossible, it portrayed that chair and studio as it was now.

A rebuilt computer model specifically for the picture? Why printing in black and white and in those sizes? A joke?

A joke for whom? That picture had gone unnoticed, who knows how long. Months, surely. It could have stayed there for years if I had not seen it. No, it wasn’t a joke, his model was there. He probably stuck it to the edge of the painting as we were posing. From that photo he found his inspiration, he replaced that creature to Luca, portraying us.

He didn’t convince me enough, but I felt violated. If those were his models, what was the need of boys like Luca for his paintings? I was still convinced that it was a fake, a photomontage made on the computer. Of course, it was obvious, such creatures couldn’t exist.

I put the picture in my pocket before I left. I turned off the lights and said goodbye forever.

2

I had to call Luca, we agreed, but I didn’t. It was almost 2 am.

With the new suitcases, I couldn’t move anymore. My studio-flat was very small, but I didn’t need anything else. I had never lived there; I just slept there every now and then.

As a housewife I was awful, I couldn’t even cook an egg. The kitchen was immaculate as the day I rented it. I didn’t wash and didn’t iron, I didn’t do anything, there were shops for that. I took off that dress and put some shorts on. The house was too small to be cold.

I wouldn’t be able to sleep, so I turned on the laptop. First, I scanned the photo to see it at the maximum resolution. Then I checked the paintings database. I had a copy of every piece of art I was posing for. I immediately found the one I need and compared them. It was curious that it was exactly the one where I posed with Luca.

I compared the two creatures, dividing the screen in two, and then zooming to get a close-up of the faces. Although it was black and white, the picture was definitely more accurate. More outlined. That it was used as a pattern was obvious because the pose was exactly the same, and it was also the fact that the creature portrayed didn’t come from another painting.

I looked for images of ghouls on the internet, but I didn’t find one that resembled the painted creature. For once I really looked at it, trying to figure out what it was, beyond appearance.

It seemed like something between a man and a dog. Or a jackal, or a hyena. It was not a werewolf, of which I was certain, there was no resemblance. The creature was hairless, the skin shiny, of a bluish green color. The tooth was that of a dog, its lengthened muzzle. I summoned the pictures of the other paintings to see it in full figure. He had a curved gait as if he was struggling to walk on two feet. There was no tail, but the spine was high and culminated with a spur. Sexually equal to a man, there were no differences. Even hands and feet seemed human, though Josef was drawing them with long nails as claws.

A creature created on the computer?

I came back to check the two close-ups. In both of them, there was life, but the expression was completely different. If the expression was. There was lust and excitement in the painting, only hate in the photo.

What was the meaning of those paintings? For critics, it was clear, the union between the beauty and the beast, the most classic and ancient of human perversions. But before that? Josef had portrayed hundreds of those creatures before painting me. I still had pictures of many of those paintings somewhere. I got them to study his style before I agreed to work for him.

I found them in a forgotten directory at an indecent resolution. Sufficient, however, to understand the meaning.

There was nothing erotic in those paintings; the creatures represented were always males. What prompted Josef to get them coupled with me? It was a strange choice, but it was just the way I saw it. At one point Josef had decided to pair his creatures, and he had chosen me. Since then he had not painted anything else.

Those paintings were horrendous, one more macabre than the other. No one had the studio as a background; the creatures were portrayed in places where they supposedly lived: cemeteries, caves, cellars. Dark spots from which they emerged as nightmares. They were devouring corpses, Josef had said, but in his paintings, it was never seen. In cemeteries, they hid behind the tombstones. Rarely there was more than one creature per painting. In only one there were three. They were very similar, yet different.

I studied that picture carefully, trying to determine the differences. The points were so many, and I was surprised not to notice them before. Just as I did with Chinese tourists, who seemed to me all the same.

I smiled and continued studying the paintings, with this new awareness. I made a disconcerting discovery: all the figures represented were different among them. I didn’t find a creature painted twice. I was concerned with the paintings for which I had laid and I also noticed the same differences.

Eventually, I found myself looking at the two close-ups. It was undeniable that the creature of photography was identical to the painted one, though the expression was different.

There I stopped, so as not to be overly imaginative.

And yet …

If it was a creature created on the computer to be used as a template, then what justified those differences? It would have been unnecessary to modify the individual features from time to time, and all this just to take a miserable black and white photo.

No, it didn’t make any sense. More logical would be if the details changed as he liked, using fantasy. But even this wasn’t possible, the creature in the photo wasn’t the first one to be depicted, yet every detail was identical.

The expression wasn’t, was it important?

I was degenerating; absurd ideas were rushing in my head. It was impossible for that photo to portray a living creature. Absolutely impossible. There was an explanation I had not yet considered.

I should have asked Josef for clarification, but I didn’t want to meet him again.

After all, I wasn’t so curious, that mystery could also remain so, and there were more urgent issues to think about. I shut down the computer and put it away, but I couldn’t sleep.

Luca woke me up at eleven. He was the only one who had my number; I had changed the phone a few days back, in anticipation of what would have happened with Josef.

“You didn’t call, last night,” he began. He seemed resigned, he was getting used to me being unreliable.

“I took my things off the studio, I even left a message.”

Luca should have been glad that I kept my word with that issue.

“So you don’t have to see him again?”

This was the prediction, but I doubted it would be so simple. “I’m not looking forward to that for sure,” I said.

Luca wondered if the answer could be good. “Half an hour in St. Mark’s Square?” He suggested.

He was resigned to that, too, that in Venice I knew just four or five locations only. Organizing appointments with me was always complicated.

It didn’t leave me much time to get ready, so I cut short and hung up. I didn’t tell him about the photo I had found; I didn’t even mention it to him. Anyway, before leaving I put it in the purse.

I was the most famous woman in Venice, pity that the Carnival had not started yet. A mask would make me feel comfortable.

Half of the city would visit the art gallery; even those of art didn’t understand anything. Exposed paintings were too good to pass unnoticed. Thousands of people had seen my naked body in every detail. Wearing a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt wasn’t of much help. To complete the disguise also a scarf that hid my hair and a pair of sunglasses. I felt the usual tourist, but I was sure someone would recognize me anyway.

After all, it was odd that I wanted to hide; generally, my ego would have pushed me to be more eccentric than usual. But I had slept little and bad, and I felt depressed.

Luca was the only one who recognized me and gave me a kiss. I stopped him when he tried to take off my glasses because I had bags under my eyes that I didn’t have time to hide with the makeup.

“Stop it,” I said, “don’t behave like a baby,” even though he didn’t deserve to be treated like that. I took him by one arm. “Come on, let’s go in that cafe. I need to drink something.”

He stopped immediately. “Are you crazy? That’s a trap for tourists! Do you want to pay a stupid amount for a coffee?”

I didn’t have any problems with money, but Luca couldn’t tolerate any waste. He decided. “Come on, come with me.”

Its angelic glow was enhanced by sunlight. It wasn’t a night owl like me. We were like day and night.

Even for him, it wasn’t easy; I noticed it when we found a sheltered restaurant of its own taste. He went to look for the darkest spot instead of sitting on the veranda.

It was inevitable; we both knew it would happen. Being a model wasn’t a fault, my nudes adorned the most famous museums, but at that time it was different. Venice would never have forgotten those paintings.

“It’s the opening time that there is a queue to go see them,” he said. “It is estimated that there have already been four thousand visitors since yesterday.”

A triumph, even if he didn’t like it. Even being one of the models was irrelevant; nobody could have recognized him anyway.

“It’s art,” I repeated for the hundredth time, for it was just like this. Whether he would like it or not, Josef was still a great artist.

“Of course!” He muttered. “I think my dad has gone too.”

This put me in a dangerous situation. Although none of the canvases had severely pornographic details, the subject matter was always that and my nudes were integral. I had known Luca’s father and me uncomfortable to know that he had seen me naked. Curious, it was the first time I felt that way.

“What does it mean?”

He avoided my question, or maybe not. “Today you are invited to have lunch in my house, it has been decided.”

No parent in the world could be happy that their only son would go out with someone like me. Not even Luca’s parents could make an exception, even though they had been friendly and nice. But maybe they had a more romantic idea of ​​my job.

“I’m not in a position to meet them,” I said, pointing to my outfit.

Luca smiled. “Why? You are just perfect.”

“I don’t know what you think …” I started, but he leaned over and silenced me with a kiss.

“That’s not the time,” I replied because I didn’t want to be warmed up. “Are they angry?”

“Why did we get together?” He asked mischievously.

We weren’t together. He would have wanted to but so far I didn’t want to. I was looking for the strength to break up, not to worsen the situation.

“Do you know how they call me around?”

“Stop it,” he said.

I was impetuous. “The art’s bitch.”

“It’s not true. They say you are the tenth muse, I heard them.”

In fact, both definitions were right. Obviously, they were not the same people to give them. “What do your parents prefer?”

He has annihilated me. “Dad says you should come live with us. Mom has already prepared a room for you. They want to know you better. At least up to the Carnival, then we’ll decide.”

There was little to decide. Indeed, every moment my desire to run away grew. If only he wasn’t there!

There was something in Luca that went beyond beauty. Perhaps its joy to live. Yes, that kind of reasoned vitality, without excess, yet natural. It spread like a contagion and made me feel inadequate. I felt the urge to adapt, to let myself go.

“In your house? Don’t even think about that.”

“Why not? You’ll have a lot of space, you’d be independent. You can always leave at any time, no one will stop you.”

Luca belonged to one of the oldest Venetian families, over the centuries it had counted prestigious people and even some nobles, though at the moment they struggled to survive. They lived in an ancient building, hostage to the Fine Arts, which prevented them from making the slightest change. That big and cold house sooner or later would bring them to ruin.

“It’s an absurd proposal, you know it well.”

“Why?” He asked again.

I didn’t understand his game, or maybe I could. I didn’t understand why his parents went along with his wishes, but perhaps they were afraid of losing him. I didn’t even understand what I wanted.

On any other occasion, I would be on the front line to enjoy my triumph; I wouldn’t be hiding in an anonymous coffee. What happened now that I wanted to avoid fame?

Luca was the only explanation. But it wasn’t true.

I wasn’t ashamed to have him next to me, to show myself with him. He was no longer a child; he would have been perfect at my side. And he loved me too much to not accept it if I asked him. Maybe it was even worse, I was jealous of him, I wanted to keep him away from the spotlight, I didn’t want anyone to take him away.

I burst into laughter and took off my glasses. “Tell me the truth, what do they think of me? Why do they still allow you to go out with me?”

Luca was not a liar and now looked a little ashamed. He did not know how to lie. “They say you are very rich.”

I wasn’t sure I understood. “So?”

“Then nothing. Dad says you’re very rich. Is that true?”

I would never have expected a question like this. “I’m not Naomi Campbell,” I said.

“She’s not at the British Museum, not even at the Louvre.”

“I’m not sure about that.”

“Are you rich then?”

I never had that problem. It was rare that I paid for something from my pocket. I didn’t even own a house, I’ve never been anywhere for long enough. I didn’t make investments for the future; I often didn’t even check my bank account.

“I have paintings,” I admitted.

This time he didn’t understand. “Paintings? What does it mean?”

It seemed to be obvious. I often accepted the work of the author as compensation. On other occasions, he gave them to me as presents. Some gifts had been special; other works had seen their value grow over time.

“I have a couple of Picasso, though small. A Van Gogh, a Monet. Some other impressionist. Most of the time, however, these are newer works, whose quotations are constantly growing.”

He was making the math in his mind. “Then you are really rich!”

“I would if I decided to sell them,” I said. “But I have no intention of doing so.”

I would never tell him that even Josef’s painting for which we had posed soon would have come into my possession. That would have been my reward. Nobody would ever know.

“I think that daddy would be happy anyway,” he chuckled.

“What’s your game?” I asked.

He shrugged. “What do you care about what my father thinks?”

Luca did not care about money. Indeed, in some ways he hated them. Richness required a certain standard of living and he wanted to be free. Her family had always been a prisoner of past glories and lived in the constant fear of not being up to their ancestors. To see me as a good party, in his eyes it was just his luck.

Luca was sure that I was the woman of his dreams and that we would stay together forever. Certainly, our meeting must have been shocking for his romantic soul.

“At our house, you could relax, no one would bother you,” he continued.

“And the two of us?”

He came back to smile. “Don’t worry; the house is so vast that no one will disturb us.”

It was real madness, but the idea of abandoning that studio blocked me. At least I would have been certain that Josef wouldn’t be able to reach me.

“I have to think about it,” I said.

Casa Marconi was a four-story building, but for many years the family only occupied the first two, and only a part of them. The rest was left to sightseeing.

Luca had grown up without any intimacy, accustomed to being surrounded by strangers at all times of the day. Perhaps that was a bit like me and he wasn’t afraid to show up.

His mother Lidia was still convinced of being a noble, even though it was a century that the family had lost its title. In fact, they sold it, Luca said, but I didn’t know if it was true. She looked like a canary, with a melodious, moving voice. So much grace was suspected, however, I didn’t want to become her enemy, I was certain that such a kindness would have been very vindictive.

Guido, Luca’s father, was vain. Although this word was in disuse, it had never been so appropriate. An elegant man, extremely refined, gave importance only to details, losing sight of the problem as a whole. He was the less practical person I ever knew. Having to prepare a lunch, he would be able to waste hours putting every piece of silverware into its perfect place, forgetting to cook. Fortunately, certain tasks were not assigned to him.

Officially the Marconi family had four servants at his service. Actually, they were rented for hours, and only on special visits. For our lunch, they had re-exhumed them.

It was only the four of us at a table that was eight meters long. Fortunately for me eight meters separating me from Guido Marconi, because we were on the opposite sides of the table. Luca and her mother were close, but not enough to reach them.

I didn’t really like certain formal meetings, especially when I was feeling under observation.

Guido had annihilated me on arrival. “We feel honored of your presence. I imagine he has received much more important invitations than ours.”

The tension was palpable, and even Lidia’s chirping could dissipate it. It was Luca to tackle the subject in a moment of calm between two courses. “Did you even go to see the show, dad?”

He was trying to make me feel uncomfortable, or maybe he wanted me to make a decision.

Guido Marconi didn’t answer and asked me the most bizarre question I could expect. “What makes you do that, Leontine?”

Luca stiffened and came to my aid. “Leontine is a model, I thought you understood that.”

His father shook his head. “Leontine is not a model, she is the model. That I know has never happened before. Typically, artists are making models famous, and not the other way around.”

The conversation was getting interesting and I was surprised. I guess it was the right time to be a part of it. “Do you see it that way?”

“It’s not about how I see it, but how it really is. Nowadays a painter who gets you as a model is already destined for success. Doesn’t it look strange to you? Should not be the other way around?”

“Let’s say I have good taste and I know how to choose.”

“That’s right!” Guido exclaimed. “She is beautiful and has good taste. Just that! How many beautiful women are out there having good taste? Many, many, actually the majority. In fact, they could be beautiful just because they have good taste. But what do they do in life? Nothing. Because good taste is not enough, you need to be able to build, invent, and create something. And they are not capable of doing so. Even you aren’t able to do so, and yet you have become more famous than all the painters you posed for. How do you explain it?”

Luca was very tense, but that discussion made me feel thrilled.

“Who says I can’t create anything? Who says that beauty and good taste are not enough? Art is a beauty. All art tends to just that. So why can’t I just be art? I have created my future. I chose to become art, to be immortal.”

He grimaced. “Posing for Roszin … how is he called?”

“You can call it Josef as everyone does.”

“Posing for Josef then?”

“What doesn’t satisfy you? The paintings he did to me?”

“I’m not happy to turn him into a genius because he is not. As a painter he is little more than mediocre, talking about art is far too much.”

“Do you know him?” I wondered.

He made a vague gesture. “He has been living here for many years. Don’t be fooled by the Polish name, his parents spent their vacations in Venice before he was born.”

“And don’t you like him?”

“The person or the artist? It matters little, I don’t like both, I admit it.”

On the person, I couldn’t argue, but the artist I was certain to know him better than him. “He has a great talent.”

“Maybe, but he threw it away. And you helped him to do so.”

“Are you talking about the subject of his paintings?”

“Those are not paintings.”

“You didn’t like them then.”

There was no deception in his behavior, only resignation. “Was it necessary to pose for someone like him?”

I couldn’t bear to see people criticize my choices, especially when I was convinced that I wasn’t wrong. I had understood it immediately, as soon as Josef had shown me the first painting I had posed for, that it wouldn’t have been easy. Many would criticize me, though his art was undeniable.

“Ten years ago I wouldn’t have done it,” I admitted. “I wouldn’t have had the courage. But now yes. It was the right decision to do so. It was necessary. Josef deserved success.”

He snorted. “To share his abomination with the rest of the world?”

I smiled. “Just so, to spread his abomination to the rest of the world.”

Guido sighed. “Well, you made it. I hope you don’t have to regret it. It would be funny if one day you’ll be remembered only for this stuff.”

I tried to reduce the problem. “Josef is just one of the many painters I posed for. Better than many others, maybe, but not of them all. And then art is unpredictable, it’s not easy to distinguish a temporary success from a lasting one. Many of these artists may fall into oblivion within a few years. One may become immortal.”

“It will never be Josef.”

“Who knows?”

We were at a standstill, both anchored in our positions. Luca tried to intervene. “Did you know Josef, dad? When?”

Guido Marconi lost a bit of his security. “It’s been a long time ago.”

Lydia hurried to speak again and took us on more harmless topics.

3

“So, will you move?” Luca asked, as soon as we were alone.

That old palace was very beautiful, although it was uncomfortable to live there for most of the year. The view was gorgeous. Wondering in the balcony I was still trying to make any sense of the conversation with his father. What did he really think of me? I had the curious feeling that he likes me. “Would you really want it?”

“To say the truth it’s Daddy who wants it. I don’t mind, I can always move in your place if that’s what you want.”

In that shoe box? I should have found another apartment but I was reluctant to do so. I would end up feeling like a prisoner. Maybe accepting their hospitality was the right choice, there was no obligation and I could really leave at any time.

“I’m moving here,” I decided.

Later, in my apartment, Luca helped me to prepare my luggage. Obviously, he didn’t know what to pack and I was forced to take away everything he was bringing me.

“This one yes!” He complained for I had chosen not to bring the green dress. “It looks good on you!”

He had not yet understood that certain dress could be worn once only. “When does the Carnival begin?”

“In three days. Have you not ever seen it?” He didn’t wait for a response and added, “Why is it so hard for you to stay somewhere for long?”

Finally, he noticed. “Would you like me to stay here longer?”

He shrugged. “We can go wherever you want, but Venice is so beautiful, it is a shame to leave.”

“What makes you believe that I want you with me?”

He had no doubts. “Of course you want me.”

I still didn’t understand how I was able to get into that trouble. I had posed with hundreds of models, but it was the first time I fell in love with one of them. With a kid who was still in school, moreover. What kind of life could we have together?

“Let’s see this famous Carnival,” I said.

It was not enough for him. “What will happen when some other painter will call you? Will you be able to say no?”

I was also asking myself that very same question. “For now I’m on vacation, I don’t want to work.”

Luca grinned. “So it’s up to me to convince you to stay.”

As absurd as it was, it was perhaps what I was looking for. It was for him to chain me or let me free.

“You do your best.”

The young man laughed. “I try.” Then he added, “Is it a problem if we stop my friends on our way home? They all want to meet you.”

It wasn’t the best start.

I was old, I had to realize it and accept it. My God, not so old to throw myself away, I still considered myself one of the most beautiful women in the world. Women, not girls.

What am I doing between them? Unfortunately, Luca’s friends were mostly female. Indeed, apart from one exception, they were all female. That they were less beautiful than me was of little importance, they were even ten years younger and a completely different mentality.

I was old; I just had to accept it. Luca’s friends didn’t talk about famous singers and actors, or dresses and cosmetics, Luca’s friends were like him, they just loved art. Students of his own school. But they were young and frustrated, tending to make lapidary judgments on everything. They behaved like aggressive critics. Was I like them, at their age?

In a few minutes, they destroyed most of the painters for which I had posed for, but worse still had demolished painters of the likes of Picasso and Dalí. I was horrified.

That I was a model for them was normal, they had already known many of them. But a model, though famous, in their eyes, was always a low-ranked role. If Luca had hoped to impress them, he had made a huge mistake.

Josette was the biggest bitch, the one who dictated the rules. I was ready to swear that her name was fake, like the class she was pretending. She was the prettiest of the group, even though she always seemed to be ready to take it out on someone.

Maria was my colleague, so she said. She posed for a couple of painters. What they had found in her was a mystery to me, because she was also a little bit ugly.

Annalisa and Miriam pretended to be twins. What one did the other had to do it as well. They never disagreed and gave themselves strength. They were considered intellectuals, but only because Miriam was obstinate to wear glasses with thick lenses, deliberately forgetting the miracles of the laser and Annalisa had serious weight problems. She looked like a whale, in short.

Gianni was the other eyewear in the group. This, unfortunately, didn’t make him a geek. He was the least intelligent of all and spoke only for catchphrases, reducing everyone to stereotypes.

Let’s say that the first impression wasn’t very flattering and I understood why Luca had waited so long to introduce me to them. Obviously, between them, Luca stood up, but I couldn’t understand why he would join such losers.

Soon I had to change my mind.

The torture lasted for almost an hour while playing with the cell phone, looking like I was waiting for a call. Instead, I kept checking what time was. It lasted forever. I was expecting questions, not judgments, but they seemed to have to complain about everything and what I thought it didn’t mattered. Luca always tried to bring the talk back to me, but they were desperate attempts.

They decanted their experiences as they were really interesting, without realizing how empty their existence was. I didn’t trash them, I just wanted to leave.

Eventually, Luca had pity for me and stood up. “Now we have to go.”

At the cost of embarrassing him, I wanted to pay for everybody. In the end, they were just students and I was the famous model who earned good money, it seemed natural to me. The fact that I almost didn’t touch my drink while they had eaten like pigs put Luca in an even worst position. The fatal blow was given by his friends, for they accepted it delightfully.

When, however, I put my hand in my purse to look for money, I found that picture. I paused for a moment, I wanted to put it aside, and then I left it unattended on the table, continuing the search.

I had thrown a bomb and I was curious to see what would happen.

Miriam was the first to fall. Without any embarrassment, she reached out and took the picture. She brought it in front of her eyes to see it better.

“What is this?” She asked.

My phlegm was exemplary. “Oh, that one? One of Josef’s models, I think.”

Miriam passed the picture to her twin soul. “Look this.”

Annalisa’s fat rolls trembled as she watched it. “What a crap!”

Luca was pale. He tried to reach the picture but wasn’t quick enough. Gianni stole it from Annalisa’s hands and walked around, not to be intercepted by Luca.

“Damn! And you even slept with him?”

Luca was dying, but Gianni kept him under control and brought the picture to Josette. She kept it a little distant, not to be infected with the image. Maria stretched her head to look at it too. She made the most intelligent objection. “But it’s a picture!”

At least someone realized it. “It’s nice, isn’t it?”

Luca managed to grab it and got it from Josette’s hands. She complained. “Where are your manners?”

He looked at it for a long while, all of them studying his expression. Among Luca’s many characteristics there was no simulation. Whatever he thought was always an open book, for who was able to read it. And I was afraid that at that table they all knew him pretty well.

“Where did you get it from?” He asked.

Strange question, who knows why he had considered it a priority,. “From Josef’s studio,” I replied.

His reaction was even stranger. “It’s impossible. It’s a joke.”

Why did he get to that conclusion? “Do you know anything?” I asked.

“Of course not,” he said angrily, throwing it back on the table.

It was the first time that Luca was lying to me and they all noticed. He wasn’t quite capable of lying.

Josette returned to the picture and studied it again. “What is this creature?”

As I suspected, he had never seen a painting of Josef, though she criticized him bitterly. “A ghoul,” I replied.

“What?” She shouted.

Miriam came to her aid with breathless air. “Ghouls are creatures of Arab mythology. They are multiform demons living in the desert, the cruelest of the djinns. They can become hyenas but also humans.” She interrupted for a moment her Wikipedian show. “But that doesn’t look like it at all!”

Obviously, she knew exactly how they were. “Josef calls them so,” I informed her.

Gianni could not think of anything else. “But did you really make love with these creatures? Didn’t you find it repellent?”

I didn’t consider it worthy of an answer.

“But it can’t be a picture,” Josette insisted, the only one who had centered the problem.

“What, then?” I asked.

She looked surprised. “Are you asking me?”

“You’re the art expert, I’m just a model.”

Gianni found the answer before everybody and snatched the photo out of Josette’s hands. “Do you think it’s a three-dimensional model?” He asked me with a bit of disappointment.

“Is it possible?” I asked.

He began to study it with renewed interest. “Everything is possible nowadays. You can’t imagine what you can do with a computer.”

There were a few seconds of silence as he continued to study it. “It’s perfect,” he decreed.

“So it’s not done to the computer?” I asked.

“I didn’t say this. If it was done on a computer, it has been done by a serious agency. It’s not something that you make easily and quickly.”

“And if it had not been made on a computer what could it be?”

Gianni grinned and his voice became weird. “From beyond the grave.”

“Stop joking,” Luca said immediately, but no one listened.

Josette balanced the situation by retrieving the picture. “How did you get hold of this?”

Maybe I was wrong to show it so lightly but I was glad it had such an effect. “It was in Josef’s studio, I told you.”

I did not know I did it, but Josette didn’t notice. “Just like so, in the reach of everyone?”

I felt uncomfortable and didn’t fall into particulars. “No.”

Again she didn't investigate. “These are the models of his paintings? The ones where are you too?”

“Evidently.”

“But you never saw them, did you? I mean, when I pose they are no there.”

Luca exploded. “Of course she never saw them! They don’t exist, except in Josef’s sick mind!”

Josette ignored him and gave me a strange look. “Doesn’t that bother you?”

“She is disgusted,” Luca replied. “We are all disgusted. But I don’t see what’s strange about that. Whether they are action figures or anything else, he uses these things for his paintings. Why does it matter?”

It was a picture, not an action figure that was disturbing. “Have you ever seen such a picture before?” I asked Josette.

“Never anything like that.”

“I’m not talking about the subject, but the picture.”

She raised an eyebrow elegantly. “Many professional photographers refuse digital machines and are faithful to their equipment. Some still prefer black and white.” She studied it again. “But this picture is not professional, not even the equipment used is a pro. Some artisan, at most, and certainly very old.”

I had also noticed the lack of a professional hand; it seemed like a photo of a family reunion. “How this come to terms with the three-dimensional model?”

Miriam thought an answer. “He doesn’t at all.”

Gianni put his hands forward. “Slow down, slow down! Are you saying that they really exist? Are you all crazy?” He pointed to me. “She is kidding us, can’t you see it?”

I stood up to take the picture but Josette pulled it back. “I can try to find out who shoot it,” she suggested.

I was reluctant to leave it to her.

Luca had something to say but he didn’t know how to do it. Eventually, it exploded. “Josef took them; he took pictures of me as well!”

All eyes were on him. He clarifies immediately. “I mean, Josef has the camera! I don’t mean that he shoot a picture of that thing! I don’t know what the hell he did!”

I was puzzled. “You have never told me that.”

“Tell you what?” He replied, slightly offended. “What’s to tell? Josef made me some photos before he employed me as a model. It’s normal, they all do it.”

I wasn’t sure his friends knew he posed for Josef. Gianni made him talk but Josette silenced him.

“What kind of photo did you do?”

He made a vague gesture. “The usual.”

It behaved as if it was natural to pose for a painter when I knew it was the first time. “Were you naked?” I asked.

It was not easy to make him blush but I succeeded. “What kind of question is it?”

“In short, were you naked or were you not, it seems a very simple question.”

“Does it have any relevance to this story?”

He was naked. I went ahead. “What pictures were then?”

“It was a test, here’s how he called it, to determine the optimum position. He made me do some posing, around the studio.”

I pointed to the picture. “There?”

He sighs. “Yes, even in that chair.”

It was obvious if it was a test. Josef had to decide what position was the better one. Because he had chosen the chair, he had to have photographed him over there as well.

Gianni took the photo again and told Luca. “So this is you?”

“Don’t be stupid,” Josette said.

Gianni didn’t give up on his idea. “But he can be definitely him. He may have corrected the picture to turn it into what it needed.”

It was a logical but unpractical hypothesis. “That picture can’t be retouched,” Josette liquidated, and immediately addressed Luca. “What camera did he use?”

He smiled. “Oh, you will never believe it, I laughed when it showed it to me. It seemed to have more than a century, placed on a tripod. And the flash, then! It seemed like a flamboyant firework. And what he had to do to bring it to every new shot! He seemed crazy.”

He was kidding but I was astonished. Josef didn’t seem to be such an outdated guy at all.

Josette nodded seriously. “It must have been so, yes. He chose the right position and then used your photo to fit his model in the same way.”

“What model?” I asked.

“I don’t know!” She replied. “But something has been photographed!”

The voice of reason came to the surface again. “Guys, you’re going mad,” said Gianni. “You are talking as if those things really existed.”

Josette stood up. “I want to see them,” she decided.

I was not sure I understood. “What do you want to see?”

“Paintings. Your paintings. I want to go see the show. Who’s coming with me?”

Needless to say, they all agreed unanimously. Before we got apart I managed to retrieve the photograph.

“We’ll let you know,” Josette dismissed.

Surprisingly, I found allies.