It had been exactly seventeen-hundred-and-fifty-seven days since the discovery. Marcus knew this because he counted, and counted, and recounted. Sometimes, he felt all he did was count days. He was good at it – very good. He imagined that to many people, counting days was an unremarkable skill. And if pressed, he would agree; but then, quite impulsively, he would disagree just as strongly. These were the contradictions of living with unremarkable skills.
The discovery was by accident, as they often can be. At first it was impossible, and then over time, the uncertainty had traded with wonder, until many people settled back on insisting it was impossible. This was speculation, of course, as he had told no one else about the discovery. Such being the common fate of impossible things.
Marcus was a painter. At one time – years ago, perhaps – his work had been considered something unique. He could paint in an unknown style, given time – which he had once regularly taken. Before the discovery, he prided himself with taking time. It didn’t matter how long: days, weeks, months, and all the indeterminate lengths of time that were taken in his blissful existence before counting.
The discovery had occurred on an ordinary day, although he had combed over it many times looking for anomalies. He couldn’t remember the particulars – if there was sun, clouds, dramatic rain. He had been inside his studio, finishing his first great painting. The culmination of many weeks was arranged in color on the canvas, and he was applying finishing touches, which consisted of long periods of staring blankly around, sometimes at the canvas, sometimes out the window. It bothered him some days that he could not recall the weather, as he was sure he had spent much of the day looking through the glass panes, but evidently saw nothing.
The painting he was working on was unique. He had even painted himself inside it. A small figure confined in the very background. It would be impossible to say it was him, unless you knew his intention for it to be so.
The discovery had happened when the painting was done. He was readying himself to take the painting off the stand, unable to bear looking at it further, when he had felt the most unpleasant sensation, like a rope pulling his spine into his stomach. He had lurched forward, with the room dissolving into colors, and then felt like he was free-falling into a depthless space.
When he came around, it took a moment to reorient himself. His breath was even, but internally, it was as though he had finally broke free from the surface of water, having been submerged for far too long. The confusion mixed into a blurred fascination, and for a moment, he thought he may have died. Spontaneous death, like a miracle – except not an uplifting one.
Seventeen-hundred-and-fifty-seven days later, he resolved that he had not, in fact, died.
On the first day, the day of the discovery, he had looked at his surroundings, feeling disoriented in a place he knew very well. Every detail seemed over-familiar, like reliving a memory, not in the hazy constructions of thought, but once more, back into its life. He had stood there, dazed – it was impossible. He was exactly where the figure in his painting had been.
He had been trying to get home ever since.
He could paint different worlds, and each time, it would be precisely as he painted it. But only so far as the confines of the frame. One fraction outside, and it was unknown. If he painted himself in a forest, he would be there – but in what era, or if people existed then, he could not know until after he saw for himself. He had been lucky, as far as it can be said, that the first time he had been able to find people, canvases, and paints. That he could paint himself a way out. After that, he had learned to paint his supplies into each new painting. From then on, he always had a way out, onto a new canvas, into a new world.
The matter of getting home had appeared simple, at first. He had painted himself, in his studio, back in his home, with the people he knew best. A holiday dinner.
Sure enough, he had found himself there. Each person looked exactly like he recalled. His surroundings had the welcoming warmth of home, and he smiled, congratulating himself on his mystical talent, and his apparent ingenuity. No doubt, he had done something special in a past existence.
It did not take long to discover that not one person in the room was as he knew them. Physically, the resemblance was identical, but that was where it ended.
He had not been initially discouraged. He repeated the process over and again. Each time, details were different. People would know him, but in unfamiliar ways. Sometimes his studio did not belong to him, sometimes the people he knew best barely knew him at all, as though he were an offhanded guest invited to a home that was no longer his. He painted and re-painted. He painted different memories, distinct ones that would surely re-create his original world. They were the same only in appearance, and every person, and every detail beyond the canvas he painted was subjected to a capricious change. Each similarly was insidiously reworked to undermine what he had once known. Some days he believed he was forgetting – forgetting, or being over-written, until he would not be able to know his world even if he arrived there.
Over time, he did not leave his ability completely unexplored. In more optimistic periods, he had tried living in some of the worlds he painted. He had painted himself into different lives, while varying the degrees of extravagance he included. He never lasted long. To the extent that they were familiar, they were uncannily disturbing, as if he walked in a hollow world. To the extent they were different, they felt detached and unreal.
It was after many attempts that he settled on what he had to do. It was a move of desperation, he did not deny it. He had to wake himself from these artificial worlds, and he needed to be finally free from them. He chose his studio, exactly as he remembered it, symbolically as it had been on that first day.
He painted himself last. Unmoving and unnaturally prone on the floor. He closed his eyes.
Sandra left the same message that she had already left several times that day. Then she called the gallery, assuring them that Marcus had finished the painting – just today, in fact. She lied, and told them she was looking at it right now – and yes, it was unlike anything he’d done, and yes, he had found his inspiration again – and no, they could not talk to him right now. She hung up, and took the last steps to his door. She knocked loudly, hoping to put the irritation of her day into each knock. She took out her phone, and left the message: Marcus, I’m at your door, I’m not leaving until you answer.
She knocked again, and waited.