[fiction] Pen & Ink

Maybe if I hadn't sketched outside, none of this would have happened.
A lot of things could have gone differently, and anyone of them would have prevented her arrival. If I'd done better on my geography exam. If mom and dad had taken me with them to the gallery opening. If it had been raining.
It started in the park across the street. I sat alone on the bench. Joggers, dog walkers and kids of all ages wandered the criss-crossing paths. The streetlights had come on and the sky had turned into a puddle of melted Creamsicles. I lost myself in random drawings, filling the pages from edge to edge.
There were lines I was happy with, and shadings I wished I'd done less of. I must've criticized every pencil stroke. At some point I became aware the voice judging my work wasn't my own.
"Who's there?" I asked. I glanced around to see if any of the passersby had seen me talking to myself. No one seemed to notice. The whispering stopped. So I asked again. "Who is there? Who's whispering to me?"
"If I tell you, you won't believe me," the voice said. It belonged to a young girl. But when I looked around for one, none was there. "See?" she said. "I told you you won't believe me."
"Show yourself," I challenged. "I want to see you."
"Show me yourself," she said. "If you want to see me, turn the page."
I was wrong. There was nothing about her voice that was childlike. She was ancient, commanding. I wasn't at all sure why I did it: I turned to a new page in my sketchbook.
"It's blank," I said, not knowing what else I expected.
She laughed. "You have a pencil, don't you? Use it."
I held the pencil tightly between my fingers. I wondered what it would draw if I let it touch the paper. I shook my head. Did I actually believe what this voice was saying? Why not? The voice was from my own head, wasn't it?
Instead of arguing with myself, I let the pencil move across the page. The lines were long, looping, graceful. I soon recognized the shape of a girl.
"Who are you?" I asked, staring at the incomplete sketch lines. I put the pencil down on the bench. "What do you want?"
"Finish me, and then we will discuss," she said. Though her voice was playful there were undercurrents to her tone that I didn't like.
"Why should I?" I tapped a finger against the book. 
"I could help you," she said. "I could show you how to make your drawings into the best drawings in the world. Pictures everyone would love."
I closed the book and went home.
#
In the middle of the night, the voice called to me through a sleepy haze.
She begged for me to finish drawing her. There was no way I was doing that. She was creepy. Everything about this was creepy.
But she wouldn't let up. There was no way she was going to let me sleep.
I'd left the sketchbook by the front door when I'd returned home, so I grabbed it and sat at the kitchen table. I flipped to her page. Her face was mostly drawn. The body needed a lot more work. I considered erasing everything on that page, wiping away her smirk, her bright eyes.
I flipped to a new page.
I filled the page with whatever images came to mind. I didn't notice until I was done that she was silent the whole time I worked, and by the time I noticed, I was too exhausted to care. It was all I could do to stumble back to bed.
#
"Did you draw this?"
Mom's words pulled me back from my half-asleep study efforts. I was supposed to be prepping for my English exam, but instead I was absently doodling down the margins.
I wasn't sure how to answer. She'd shown no interest in my drawings before, dismissing them as the work of a child, not good enough for her gallery.
She stood in the middle of the kitchen, her morning coffee routine paused with the bag of roasted beans in one hand and my page in the other. Nothing interrupted mom's coffee routine. Ever.
I didn't remember removing that page from the sketchbook. She seemed to be waiting for an answer.
Finally I said, "Yes."
She put the page down on the table in front of me. "Make some more," she said.
#
I breezed through my English exam. We weren't allowed out of our seats until we'd been there for two hours, so I doodled on the pages I didn't need. The guy across the aisle kept throwing looks my way. I guess he didn't find the exam as easy as I did. Normally, I wouldn't have, either.
He snagged my arm on the way out of the gym. I recognized him from class. He would sit at the back, hardly say a word.
"Hey," he said. "Those drawings. They're good."
"Yeah?" I asked, eyeing the many tattoos covering his arms. I'd never given him a thought before, but maybe he did know something about art. "Nice tats," I said, meaning it.
"I know a guy. I think he would be interested in seeing your work."
He caught me glancing at his tattoos again. "He's always looking for new designs," he said.
I stared at him, waiting. Once I'd determined he was serious, I replied, "I'll think about it."
I thought about it for the rest of the day. I thought about how suddenly my work was being noticed when it was so thoroughly dismissed before. What had changed? The subject matters were the same. The media hadn't changed; I still used pen or pencil on paper. The only thing that was different was her presence.
She couldn't have changed everyone's minds. No one could do that. She was supposed to be from my mind. Was it only my perception that had changed? Was the praise always there, I just didn't hear it? I needed to perform a test. I needed a harsh critic. The harshest. My father.
#
Dad was on the phone, working from his den for the evening. Normally I wouldn't intrude while he was on the phone, but tonight he'd waved me in. He was arranging a deal. Another charity event. He would want my interruption to be brief.
Heart thudding in my chest, knees shaking, I waited to show him my work. I felt like I was five years old asking to put a finger-painting on the fridge, knowing it wouldn't pass muster. None of my art was ever good enough.
Finally he put the phone down. He turned in his chair to face me expectantly. "Yes?"
I held up the art mom had seen, waiting for his reaction.
Dad had a face of stone. He'd carved it before working for mom's gallery, in the years he'd worked for big business and played poker every Saturday night.
"Do you have more?" he asked.
I held up a sketch from last year, one neither of my parents had ever noticed.
"Anything else?" Dad asked. "I can't put together a show on two sketches. Come back when you have more."
I left Dad's office, trembling.
Heart pounding, I went outside, flipped out a lighter and let the flames lick the pages. In a matter of seconds, the pages had been completely consumed.
Yeah, I was in trouble. The question was, what was I going to do about her?
#
I woke in the morning feeling like I'd been up all night. My sketchbook lay open on the floor with the pages I'd burned right there. As if I'd never burned them at all.
#
I finished my art history exam confident I'd aced it. So my mark should average around at a pass, since I'd failed the mid-term. For some reason, I'd expected more art and less history in this course.
The tattoo guy found me.
"You got the job," he said, falling into step next to me. I was headed for my locker. Not sure where he was headed.
"What job?"
"The tattoo artist job," he said.
I stopped in my tracks. "I didn't apply for a tattoo artist job."
He grinned. It was creepy. I don't think he'd brushed his teeth that month. "After you handed in your exam yesterday, the teacher tossed your doodles into the recycle bin. I fished them out and showed them to my uncle."
"Why would you do that?" Why would anyone do that?
He shrugged. "My uncle is burned out. He's been tattooing for thirty years. He's bored of the same designs. When his shop is busy, I get paid to clean it. I could use the money again."
I frowned.
"He liked your work, though. Said it was fresh."
I'd never given any thought to being a tattoo artist before. I always thought my doodles were just. . . doodles. If anything, I'd expected them to lead to portraits, maybe. I guess I'd looked at tattooing like a muralist looks at graffiti.
Tattoo guy was still there. Like he was waiting for something. I didn't know what to say.
"My uncle wants you to come by the shop today," he said. "You got time?"
This was really happening? I was really being offered a job? I had to see it for myself.
"Yeah. I'll be there," I said.
#
I stood outside the tattoo parlour, double checking the address. Something was off about this whole situation. I knew what it was, but I didn't know her name or how she was doing it.
I'd brought my entire sketchbook with me. Just the one I'd been working with most recently. There were dozens more at home, but I'd left them under my bed.
I finished drawing her. I hadn't meant to. It must have happened in the night. I didn't remember doing it.
She'd said she would talk to me once she was finished, but last night she'd remained silent. I figured she was mad at me for burning the pages. The fire made no difference; people still wanted me, and I'd ended up re-creating the pages anyway.
I opened the book, flipped to her page. The twilight made the lines on her face into eerie shadows.
"Who are you and what do you want?" I asked.
She didn't answer. She didn't need to. I had a pretty good idea what she wanted. As she put it, she was in my head.
#
It had been three weeks of hell, but I'd hardly noticed. I spent my days tattooing pig flesh. I spent my nights filling pages for mom and dad. They didn't even care where I went during the day, as long as I produced work for the gallery.
I got my first customer the night of my gallery opening.
The woman came in, minutes before closing. I was in the back, putting needles into the cleaning oven. I came out to find her leafing through my sketchbook.
"I want this," she said, pointing to the page of my unknown whisperer. "I'll pay double."
The boss's gaze fell on me. I felt doubly betrayed. Guess closing time was flexible, and my sketchbook wasn't private. "You ready?" he asked.
I shrugged.
"Take her to the second chair."
Hours later, I put the finishing touches of the girl on the happy customer. The woman kept her promise, paid twice the fee, and slipped me a hundred for myself.
I'd missed my own gallery opening. Later I would find out every piece had been sold. That was all it took to make my parents happy.
As the woman got ready to leave the tattoo shop, I could have swore the new tattoo moved. I mean, she winked at me. Just when I was certain I was crazy, the tattoo blew me a kiss and gave me a wave, as the woman passed through the door.
Ink bled out of the needle in my hand, leaving drops on the floor.
Within weeks, the woman ended up with a major record deal, and rumour was she would star in three movies. Guess she'd wished on a lucky star.
I went to the sketchbook, leaving a trail of ink drops behind me, and turned to the girl's page.
It was blank.
#
I tried for days to draw the girl again, but none of my attempts measured up. For the rest of my life, I would create only crap compared to what I made under the influence of her.
Within a week of my first customer, I would be fired from the tattoo job. My ideas weren't quite fresh enough.
Immediately after my first show, my parents moved on to the next big artist, and I didn't get another show with them. Of course, I didn't have to. I had shows booked with other galleries and requests for private commissions. And I had a pile of money I didn't know what to do with. Art school, maybe.
Sometimes my parents asked about my drawings, and that was worth more than all the money in the world.
 ### THE END