Genres: Sci-fi, horror
When the commission first came, I wasn’t struck by anything in particular except for the name. The email he sent was vague, asking for a graphic for his website. The client sent me a scanned sketch of a symbol and the color he wanted it in. A bit old-fashioned, maybe, to scan in a rough pencil sketch. I figured maybe the client wasn’t computer savvy, or was commissioning something for his boss, or something like that. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
But he sent the color in hex, which should have been my first hint that something was off.
And he signed the email with an alias.
The symbol was a jagged looking logo, basically unseeable in the light graphite on the grey of the bad quality scan I’d been sent. Edges poked out, stray lines ending abruptly after flying off the sketch. At first, it looked like Robert Indiana’s LOVE statue. When I took a closer look, it resembled a caricature. I moved in closer to my monitor as I examined it, and the image watched me back. I saw eyes in the picture, lifelike, staring at me, staring back at me as I saw it—whatever it was—in its entirety.
For just a moment, as I looked into the image, it was like I was falling. It was the whole world. Like when you’re at a museum and you can feel the energy of the art around you, the logo Alpaca had sent me surrounded me.
But then it blinked. I saw it move and breathe like it was coming out, coming for me, expanding the whole screen of my monitor and I flinched so hard, I flipped the chair backwards.
Lying on the dirty carpet floor of my apartment, it felt like the first breath I’d taken since I agreed to take the commission. I clambered out of my chair and stretched, the first stretch of the day, as I looked at the wall clock and wondered when the hell it got to be five thirty. I didn’t get anything done that day. I made dinner, tried to clean up my workspace as I always did after work hours, and relaxed before going to bed.
The next morning, I went straight to my computer. I switched on the lamp with the good lights in it so I could see, and I sat down to work.
I traced over Alpaca’s image, cleaning it up as best I could, getting rid of the stray lines. Relief washed over me when I had the lines done and I could get rid of the sketch. No more face, no more eyes watching me as I worked. I gave it an opaque watercolor splash of the #FF37AC, a bright pink, over where the eyes would have been (for good measure) and sent it back as quickly as I could, just happy to be rid of the image and the duty of dealing with it.
He sent it back a few hours later, in the middle of my working on another project, only to reject it.
Tracing is unacceptable. You must recreate the image yourself.
Please add in #44FFEF in the next version you send.
When I checked, I still only had the upfront payment.
I hated clients like this, who changed what they wanted. Who were so demanding about specifics that didn’t really matter. (At least his quick response was nice, if not off-putting.)
But it didn’t sit right in the back of my mind. How could he tell I traced the image? And why was that the issue he had with it?
I saved and closed the project I was working on to reopen the Alpaca project.
My apartment was chilly for the sake of my computer and my equipment, and I worked with a blanket over my shoulders. But when I opened the sketch to reference it for the redraw, I saw the eyes again, and I felt a shiver run through my body—down my back and up my arms.
I redrew it quickly so I could close the original sketch. With the new color, a bright aqua, I created a more stylized version of the symbol. Rounded out the corners a bit, made it a bit more modern. More approachable. I had no idea what it was I was drawing, but it wasn’t staring at me anymore. Instead, I caught myself staring at it, lost in the colors.
It was neat and clean. The bright aqua symbol with a magenta watercolor splash would draw attention for whatever it was Alpaca wanted it for. I was happy with it when I sent it off.
But just as he did the first time, the client replied an hour or two later, requesting the addition of a new color. He said he was pleased with the modernization, the stylization that I did.
Pride swelled in my chest. I immediately put my other projects on hold again to work on the image and add in the new color (a bright green).
When I sent it back, I eagerly waited for another email from Alpaca. I sat, refreshing my email every so often just to make sure I didn’t miss it. I even got out of my chair to check that my internet was still working. (It was.) I sat waiting, watching, for his email, but it didn’t come in the two hours that I sat there, so I went to try to work on some of the other commissions I had.
Any other file I opened was obscured by Alpaca’s image in my eyes. The colors were too bright, burned into my eyes. When I blinked, I saw it flashing, like an optical illusion, or when you stare at the sun. It was there, and it would always be there. I rubbed my eyes until I saw the firework sparks behind my lids, and I thought I was fine. But when I went to work on something else, the symbol appeared again in front of my eyes. For a brief moment, I was afraid this logo, this image, was all that I would ever see again.
I went to bed early.
When I woke up, the first emotion I felt was relief at seeing an email from Alpaca. He hadn’t forgotten about me. His email was one sentence, instructions with another color to add.
But when I went to carry out the order, the color was already there, highlighting the green flashes I’d added the day before.
And it was the eye in the caricature I’d gotten rid of in the sketch. And it was staring at me.
There was no sign that the file had been altered. I looked frantically, and I tried to erase the addition to my work, but it was impossible. It was as if the eye was meant to be there, had to be there, was always there, and would always be.
I hesitantly sent it to Alpaca as it had appeared to me that morning.
The reply came instantly.
Now add #FF890B.
The instructions always came faster, after that. I followed them endlessly. Hours turned into the day turned into night without my realizing. The sun rose and set behind the blinds I always kept closed.
The light from my lamp and the image were the only constants in my life.
When an email came from another client, it felt like a veil was lifted. I saw my old life, the one before Alpaca, and it was so dull and colorless.
Dear Mr. Cal Thicke,
The graphic assets for my accounting website were supposed to be done yesterday. I’ve been trying to call you, but your phone goes straight to voicemail.
Please reply ASAP.
Social Media Coordinator, Hero Accounting
Another angry client. No praise, no color.
I deleted the email and opened Alpaca’s image.
It was watching me, yes. But I was watching it, too. Every color that appeared without my hand, I saw. Every line that moved, I noticed. I was blessed when my lines, my colors were left in their spot, as if the image was accepting me and the choices I made for it. I was its servant, and through me, it lived.
But the image was more than itself. It was me as well.
And when the image and I looked at each other, seeing each other breathe with only a screen between us, we both knew that. Each inhale expanded our space, and we grew closer.
The digital canvas was filled with color, the lines like a Celtic knot in their detail, and I knew it was finished. The symbol and I looked at each other with mutual respect, mutual understanding that we had come to a glorious end.
The final email from Alpaca directed me to print it.
You will know what to do then.
And as I always did, I followed his instructions.
I stood away from my computer for what felt like the first time in weeks. How much time had passed, I wondered. I stole a glance at the clock, but the second hand was unmoving. The batteries must have died at some point without my noticing.
I stretched. The first stretch in… how many days?
The printer clicked, beeped. It made that chopping sound printers make.
Then it screamed as it tried to print what it couldn’t, a mechanical high-pitched cross between a screech and a whirr.
It exploded in a cloud of color, covering me in toner and ink. At first, I was surprised more than anything, and tried to wipe it away. But it started to burn. It was burning, and I tried wiping it off on my shirt, pants, anything that wasn’t my skin. I ran into my bathroom and jumped into the shower, feeling the water for the first time in I don’t know how long, but it wouldn’t come off, and it wouldn’t stop burning.
I saw myself in the mirror. I saw the symbol—my symbol—covering my body. My skin was burning, sizzling underneath the ink, the image I’d created.
“Congratulations,” a voice said, and a man—no, not a man—a figure, walked into my bathroom. He looked like a badly rendered CGI, covered in colorful splotches of his own that made up a familiar symbol, a familiar colored tattoo. Different from mine, but similar. Some different colors, but the shape was recognizable.
He reached into the stream of my shower, and I felt his hand on my shoulder, calming the burning in my chest, steadying me with a smile.
“I am Alpaca,” he said. “You have done such a good job.”
I breathed out as he traced the aqua symbol on my chest with his purple finger, smiled with cream lips and lime-colored eyes. He was nothing but the ink from my exploded printer, the words from the emails we exchanged. But he was here in front of me, and he felt as real as the sizzling of ink on my skin and the cool water in my hair.
“What did you do to me?”
“We have been watching you,” he said to me. “We believe you have a wonderful eye for art. Together, we can create a beautiful world.”