Imagination

If this Drawtober story were a T.V. show, it would be an episode of The Twilight Zone. Here's the drawing that inspired it.

Sheffield tossed the iPad onto Danny’s desk. It clattered across the surface, and Danny winced. He didn’t know how much an iPad like this one cost, but he knew he couldn’t afford one.

“What the fuck is this supposed to be?”

Danny glanced at the screen before it went dark.

“What you asked for,” he said. “Bears.”

“I asked for photorealistic bears that also look cuddly and appealing to children,” Sheffield said. “And you gave me monsters!”

“They’re not monsters…”

But a swipe of the screen told Danny that it had happened again. He’d drawn something without realizing it. The bears — which were to be the stars of Pixel Entertainment’s newest short film, Grin and Bear It — had started out fitting the description Sheffield had emailed that morning. Danny had drawn Papa Bear as an overstuffed grizzly with a dopey grin; Mama was his match, with eyelashes and a softer, more feminine face. The kids were roly-poly black bears, and their neighbor, an adorable panda. Danny was especially proud of Petey Panda. Once the film hit theaters — attached to Pixel Entertainment’s feature film, Sideways Sam — he knew that the stuffed version of Petey would sell like hotcakes.

But not this version of Petey. This version of Petey had fangs. Instead of front paws, he had mechanical claws, and one eye had been replaced with a metal eyepatch capable of firing a laser. He was half bear, half machine — a steampunk bear. Truth was, he looked kind of cool.

The rest of the bears had their own problems. Papa Bear peered from the screen with clouded eyes, his fur a white shroud; he looked like some sort of ursine sorcerer. Mama’s fur was gone completely, replaced by a coat of live rabbits that hung over a bear skeleton. And the bear kids? Danny didn’t think America’s parents would be too happy about their kids seeing a short film about zombie cannibal bears.

“Shit,” he muttered.

“‘Shit’ is right, my friend,” Sheffield said. He dropped into the chair on the other side of Danny’s desk. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but it’s gotta stop. What were you thinking?”

Truth was, Danny hadn’t been thinking. It happened every time he picked up his stylus and began to draw. At first, he felt in control, knew exactly what lines to put down, where to shade, how to make the pictures he saw in his head come to life. As he worked, though, he always fell into a sort of trance. This was what flow was like, he’d learned from his favorite art teacher. That moment when you no longer felt in control, and the thing you were creating just flowed through you, like a gift from the muses. Inspiration came straight from them, bypassed your brain, coursed through your hand and onto the page. Or iPad screen.

It was when that flow took over, though, that Danny got into trouble. He couldn’t seem to control what happened when he was under that spell. But surely he hadn’t emailed these bears gone wrong to Sheffield? That was career suicide.

“…career suicide,” Sheffield was saying. “It’s not just your reputation on the line, here, kid.”

Danny tried not to resent Sheffield calling him “kid,” and failed. After all, they’d gone to school together. In the same grade. There was a time Danny had called him “Joey,” not Mr. Sheffield. Just because Joey “Fartface” Sheffield’s daddy owned the country’s most successful independent animation studio — something Joseph Senior had actually earned with his own talent and hard work — Joey Fartface had landed a position as lead animator, despite a monumental lack of real ability and exactly zero imagination. He’d kept his position by farming out the most difficult jobs to his underlings. Guys like Danny, in particular, who had actual skill and an expansive imagination.

Still. Danny wouldn’t have taken the job if he hadn’t needed it. If it wasn’t at least a foot in the door. He wouldn’t work for Sheffield forever. Already, the higher-ups had started to take notice of him, even despite Sheffield’s attempts to take credit for Danny’s work. Why, Joseph Senior himself had stopped by Danny’s cube only a week ago to compliment him on the robot character he’d developed. Said it showed that Danny had “real imagination.” Joey Fartface had deemed the robot “too scary” for kids, so Danny had no clue how Joseph Senior had ended up seeing it. But he’d liked it; that’s what mattered.

“…even listening?” Fartface Sheffield was saying. “I’m going to do the generous thing here, Danny-boy — ”

Danny stabbed a sharpened pencil into his own thigh to keep himself from telling Sheffield to fuck off.

“ — and give you one more chance. Because like I said, I’m the one who got you this job, and I’m lead animator. So it’s my hide that’s gonna get tanned if I have to bring Psycho Bears to the table tomorrow. Do it again, and do it right this time.”

“Joe — Mr. Sheffield, I mean.” Danny grimaced. “It’s already after five. I told my kids I wouldn’t be late tonight.”

“Should’ve thought of that before you drew this garbage.” Sheffield was already out the door, his words fired back over his shoulder. “Do it again.”

So Danny did it again, after the phone call home. After the explanations and apologies. He could hear his kids in the background, giggling, playing. He’d been planning on drawing with them tonight — his favorite kind of drawing, when the kids would scribble a shape, and then Danny would create something from that shape. Those drawings, he never lost control of. Those drawings flowed, too, but not like the stuff he came up with for Pixel.

He drew the Bear family again. Drew the friend, Petey. Drew their neighbor, ungainly Mr. Moose. They all started out right, but they ended wrong. Who wanted bears with horns? A panda with the scaly wings of a dragon? Who wanted a moose that looked like a monster from another dimension altogether?

Danny’s cell phone buzzed, and he glanced at the clock as he answered. Midnight? Shit.

“You missed bedtime again,” his wife said.

“I’m sorry, I really am.” Danny swiped the Bears and their friends away. Mindlessly sketched as he talked with his wife. “I didn’t realize the time.”

“I know you said you were going to be late, but Danny — this is nuts. You’re not a surgeon or a firefighter.”

He drew a bulbous head with one great eye. Tentacles.

“I know.”

“I don’t get why you let that Fartface guy push you around.”

“I told you, Annie. He’s my boss.”

The octopus took shape on the screen almost independent of his hand.

“It just doesn’t seem worth putting up with so much bullshit. Especially when you’re the one with the real talent. What did Sheffield Senior say? That imagination like yours is what started Pixel in the first place?”

The suckers on each tentacle were huge, almost like giant mouths themselves.

“Listen, I’m leaving now, okay?” Danny said. “Be home in twenty.”

He stood and pocketed his phone. On the iPad screen, his octopus glared up at him, covered in neon zebra stripes.

Danny shook his head. “What’s wrong with me? Some imagination.”

He tapped the screen dark and left his cubicle. If he drove fast, he could be home in ten.

*

The next morning, Danny arrived to discover the flashing lights of several squad cars reflecting off the exterior of the Pixel Entertainment building.

“What’s going on?” he asked the receptionist.

She shook her head. “I’m not sure.” Then lowered her voice. “They say it’s Mr. Sheffield.”

Danny grimaced and hurried down to his cubicle. But his cube was blocked by a crowd of suits and uniforms.

He tapped one of the officers on the shoulder.

“Excuse me. This is my cube?”

“You’re — ” The officer glanced at his notepad. “ — Daniel Wong?”

“That’s right.”

“Any idea what Joseph Sheffield, Junior, might have been doing at your desk last night between one a.m. and three a.m.?”

“What? No. What’s going on?”

He pushed his way past the officer to find Sheffield Senior in a corner, holding his head and surrounded by secretaries and more police. Plainclothes detectives swarmed his cube, each of them careful to step around the body in the floor:  Joey “Fartface” Sheffield, his face a purple-blue shade that only an absence of oxygen could account for, his neck wearing a red ring of welts.

“This him, Mr. Sheffield?” asked the officer Danny had just spoken with.

“Yes, yes,” Joseph Senior said. “It’s just awful, Daniel. My son — it seems you were the last to speak with him?”

“I guess I must have been. I left around midnight — ”

Joseph Senior waved a hand. “Yes, there’s no concern that you — the security cameras show you leaving at midnight, just as you say. It’s just — ”

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Sheffield.”

“Listen, son.” Joseph Senior took him by the shoulder. “We’ll need someone to take over Joey’s projects. Immediately. I know, given the circumstances, it’s asking a lot of you. But you’re the only animator I can think of who would be up to the task. Are you?”

“Uh — oh. Yes,” Danny said. “Yes. Thank you — thank you for the opportunity, sir.”

The officer gestured to Danny. “This is technically an active crime scene, but I know it’s also your office. You want to gather up whatever you need and see if you can find another space to work?”

Danny grabbed his essentials and let himself be led down the hall — to Joey Sheffield’s office, it turned out. He let the secretary who’d shown him there close the door, then let out a trembling sigh. It was too much. It was awful. And yet —

“No more Fartface,” he murmured as he swiped his iPad’s screen.

His stomach dropped.

There was his octopus, its huge tentacles curled beneath it. Its silly neon stripes practically glowing on the screen. It gazed out at him with one huge, knowing eye. But it wasn’t the octopus he’d drawn — it wasn’t in the same position he’d drawn it. He swiped away from the screen and found the Bear Family, their moose neighbor, earlier drafts of the Bears, the robot Mr. Sheffield had liked so much. There was no other octopus. Just the one he’d drawn. Yet not the one he’d drawn.

Except.

He thought of Sheffield’s purple-blue face. The welts on his neck, just the size and shape of —

“No,” Danny said to the screen. “Impossible.”

The octopus on the screen dropped its eyelid. Gave him a wink.

***