Please, Do Not Draw This Turtle

Do Not Draw This Turtle

“Do you like to draw? Or paint? Or maybe just sketch and doodle?” 

I must have heard this line a hundred times as a kid, whiling away my summer Saturday afternoons watching old movies on TV. It was delivered by a pleasant-looking man with gray hair in a suit hawking a “free art test” over relaxing music. As a kid I was always kind of interested in these commercials but my parents told me it was some kind of a scam.

There must have been a point when I stopped seeing the ads, because I forgot all about them until recently. I was housesitting for my parents while they were on vacation, watching network television for the first time in years. I’d forgotten how strange it felt to be advertised to in a non-targeted way. Seeing commercials for cars and reverse mortgages seemed like such a joke. At least the crap they tried to sell me on YouTube ads was affordable.

Anyway, it must have been three in the morning when I woke up on the couch to the warm tones of that ad, the shot through open glass doors of a woman putting the finishing touches on a painting of a Victorian house. The toll free number popped up on the screen and something possessed me to call it. I expected it to go to a phone sex line or something but a tired-sounding woman answered, asked if I wanted the test, then took down my address. I thought she was going to ask for a credit card number, but that was it. A couple of days later, the test came in the mail.

It looked just like it had in the commercial. There were a few little spaces where it asked you to reproduce some simple patterns — wavy lines, cross-hatching, things like that — but the meat of it was a character illustration. There were two to choose from: a realistic-looking pirate and a cartoon turtle. I picked the turtle. Everyone chooses the turtle.

I spent a half-hour trying to get that turtle looking right, and felt the same way I used to when I’d draw as a kid — the frustration of my inability to make my output match my vision. But I pushed through it, and the end result wasn’t too bad. I found some old stamps in a junk drawer and decided, what the hell, let’s see what happens when I send this thing in.

Of course, I know now that it didn’t matter whether I sent it at all. What matters is that I drew the turtle. I’m sorry that I did. I wish I could take it back.

A few nights later I was up late again and saw the ad a second time. It could have been chance that a 30-year old commercial aired once in the dead hours of the morning, but twice? I noticed something strange this time, too — the furnishings of the home the woman was painting in, the background the gray-haired man was standing in front of, they all looked more modern. Even stranger, it looked much crisper, as if it had been shot in high definition.

How could that be possible, I wondered? The guy in the ad looked just like I remembered him from decades earlier. Maybe it was his son? I did some digging online and found that the company hosted all of its ads on YouTube, where they only had a couple of dozen views each. The version from 1990 was just like I’d remembered it as a kid. The newest, from only a few years ago, was the one I’d seen recently. The sets were different, the woman painting was different, and the camera was different. Only two things were the same: the man and the cartoon turtle on the test.

I dug a little deeper. I posted on some image boards and nostalgia subreddits and talked to other people who remembered the commercials. Some of them had even ordered the tests and sent them in like me — but none of them had ever received a response. If this was all a scam to bilk people out of money, then it was a pretty lousy one. There wasn’t even an application fee for some of the “contests” the company ran.

Somehow, the company’s website was still online. It looked like it hadn’t been updated in at least 20 years, with its tiled background, serif fonts, and “under construction” banners. There wasn’t much to it — a picture of the president, another of the turtle, some copy about unlocking your artistic ability. The same address I’d sent the test to was on there as well. When I looked it up it turned out to be in some office park a few hours away. I called the phone number again to try and ask if I could visit, but when I said I’d already done the test, the woman hung up.

I figured if I drove out I’d just find that the company hadn’t been there for ages, or that the current president just happened to be the spitting image of the old one. By then, though, the whole thing was eating at me to the point that I decided to just make the trip anyway. Besides, it wasn’t like I had much else going on.

When I pulled into the lot on a Tuesday afternoon and walked into the building I was surprised to see a listing for the company in the office directory. There was no security guard or buzzer, even — it seemed like they didn’t get a lot of visitors. I took the elevator up to the little space the company occupied on the fourth floor and found a secretary sitting behind a desk. She was feeding brochures into a shredder one at a time. I could just make out the turtle drawing on one as she dropped it in and it was slashed into thin strips.

Was I there to get a test? I recognized her voice from the phone. No, I told her, I’d already done it. I had an appointment with the president. She said that he was busy. I told her it was urgent, that I’d driven a long way, but she kept stonewalling me.

Then I heard it. A wail, this piercing, otherworldly sound of helpless agony. It was just shy of human. You know how cats learned to imitate babies to get people’s attention? It reminded me of that. It was coming from the door behind the secretary’s desk, and I found myself bolting across the room, compelled by the anguished cry.

What I saw behind that door will stay with me forever. Someone — something — was huddled on the floor, surrounded by five easels. Each of them was emblazoned with the cartoon turtle. And then I realized what I was seeing, what the pathetic form cowering from those paintings was. It was their subject, the character from the art test.

Sickly and pale green, the cartoon turtle in the flesh. Its huge, unreal eyes bulged at me wetly, and it reached out one quivering, blunt hand before a leather shoe kicked it away. A man stepped between us, the man from the commercials — the president. He looked just like he had on television decades earlier.

If I didn’t get the hell out of there right away, he said, he’d have me arrested for trespassing. He muscled me out of the room and locked the door behind him. I tried to get back in but his secretary called 911, so I bailed.

There are stories where demons and fairies can be commanded by those who know their true name. And there are religions that prohibit depicting their gods. Well, somehow, I think this guy got in contact with something out there — a demon, god, whatever you want to call it. He discovered its true image, learned that he could take hold of it through that image.

My parents had been half-right — the commercials were a scam. But it was never about money. This guy just needed as many people as possible drawing that turtle, focusing our energies on representing it in pencil and ink. Without realizing it, we were literally drawing it deeper into our world, keeping his attachment to it strong and keeping himself alive long past when he should have died. That’s why there were never any replies, why the secretary was just shredding the few tests that were still coming in.

Maybe one day they’ll stop coming in entirely, and that thing will be free. Will it want revenge on its captor, or maybe on everyone who helped keep it imprisoned? I don’t know. But it looked so desperate, so sad in that little office out in the middle of nowhere, that somehow I don’t think it will. I think it just wants to be allowed to die.

I don’t know how to help it. I went back days later, once I’d had time to think about all of it, and the office was empty. All I could think to do was to tell you what I’d seen. That, and to say this:

Please, whatever you do, do not draw this turtle.

3 responses to “Please, Do Not Draw This Turtle”

  1. Josh Jarvis Avatar
    Josh Jarvis

    This is great. And I’m also concerned about the poor pirate demon trapped out here.

  2. Dawn Avatar

    It took the reveal of the turtle to realize this wasn’t a report on a scam but a story. I was so hooked the whole time. Well done.

  3. gay dog Avatar

    You can have eternal life (ok, yes) you have to spend it micromanaging a gross turtle (hm)

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