It had been exactly seventeen-hundred-and-fifty-seven days since the discovery. Marcus knew this because he 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 was an unremarkable skill. And if pressed, he would agree – but then 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 seemed impossible and people resisted. Over time, the impossibility had slowly traded with wonder, but eventually people settled back on insisting it was impossible. These were speculative arguments, of course, as he had told no one else about the discovery. Such was 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 enough time. Before the discovery, he prided himself on taking time. It didn’t matter how long. Days, weeks, months: all the indeterminate lengths that were taken in the blissful existence before counting.
The discovery had occurred on an ordinary day. He had combed over it many times looking for anomalies. He couldn’t remember the particulars. He had been inside his studio, finishing his first great painting. The culmination of months arranged on the canvas. He had been applying the finishing touches, which consisted of long periods of staring blankly at nothing, sometimes at the canvas, sometimes out the window.
The painting 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, but it was. The discovery happened then. He was preparing to take the painting off the stand, unable to bear looking at it further, when he had felt the most unpleasant sensation. It was like a rope pulling his spine into his stomach. He had lurched forward, with the room dissolving into colors. He felt like he was free-falling into depthless space.
When he came around, his breath felt like it had finally broken the surface of water, having been submerged for an age. For a moment, he thought he may have died. Spontaneous death – like a miracle, except not a pleasant one.
Seventeen-hundred-and-fifty-seven days later, he resolved that he had not, in fact, died.
On the first day, he had looked at his surroundings, feeling disoriented in a place he knew very well. Every detail seemed overly familiar, like reliving a memory, not in the hazy constructions of thought, but truly reliving it. He had stood there, dazed. 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 was precisely as he painted it. But only so far as the confines of the frame. One fraction outside and it was the unknown. If he painted himself in a forest, he would be there – but in what era, or if other people even existed, he could not know until after he found himself there. 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. He could paint himself a way out. After that, he painted his supplies into each new painting, and he always had a way 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. 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, the details were different. People would know him, but in unfamiliar ways. Sometimes the people he knew best barely knew him at all, like he was an offhanded guest invited to a home that was never 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, every detail beyond the canvas was subjected to a capricious change. Some days he believed he was forgetting – forgetting, or being over-written – until he would not be able to recognize his world, even if he ever arrived there.
He did not leave his ability completely unexplored. In more optimistic moments, he had tried living in some of the worlds he painted. He had painted himself into different lives, varying the degrees of extravagance he enjoyed. It never lasted. To the extent the world was familiar, it felt uncanny and like waking in a hollow life. To the extent the world was different, it felt disturbing and unreal.
It was after many attempts that he settled on an idea. It was a move of desperation, he did not deny it. He had to wake himself from these artificial worlds. He needed to be finally free of them. He chose his studio on that first day. A painting of his painting. He painted himself last, lying before the finished canvas, his body unnaturally prone on the floor. He closed his eyes and waited.
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. She lied, and told them she was looking at it right now – and yes, it was unlike anything he’d ever 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 her irritation into each knock. She took out her phone, and left another message: Marcus, I’m at your door, I’m not leaving until you answer.
She knocked again and waited.