Fiction: Theo’s Masterpiece
By Jack Moody
Theo awoke lying flat on his stomach upon soft earth. He lifted his head with the difficulty of one coming to from a deep but restless slumber, and with his hand he wiped the granules stuck to his face by the drool that had pooled underneath his cheek. From his prone vantage point he could make out the trunks of massive trees like elephants’ legs, and between them grew many patches of pale yellow flowers.
Upon standing, a sudden bout of dizziness struck Theo as he inhaled. The air was so thick with humidity he found it at first difficult to fill his lungs. The dense forest made his direct line of sight shadowed and difficult to determine, though when he craned his neck upward towards the sky he could see the pale blue, cloudless blanket overhead, and with his eyes followed the thin rays of light back down that reached through the canopy in sparse pockets.
Theo remembered hearing once, what felt like a lifetime ago, that when lost in the wilderness one should seek out running water. One can then follow the current back to safety. With no other ideas or survival tips rattling around in his memories, Theo closed his eyes, spun in circles on his heels, and stopped. What lay in front of him appeared no different than in any other direction, and so he decided this particular direction was where he would go.
As he traversed through berry bushes and tall grass that stood up to his neck, and over boulders and fallen trees, a few things slowly became apparent: Theo noticed this forest was devoid of sound. There was no whistling of the wind through the leaves, nor birdcalls, nor chattering animals skittering across the ground. There were only the sounds of his soft footsteps and the silence so great that it almost had a voice of its own. Theo too noticed that overhead the light from the sky hadn’t waxed nor waned. It was like looking up at a single solid, unchanging shade of cerulean spread thinly over the canopy like Saran wrap. As hard as he tried to catch a glimpse of the sun through the treetops there was nothing. The daylight seemed to come from no tangible source. It was as if time was in a standstill. Lastly, and most peculiar of all, becoming more unsettling as he traveled on, was that everything that made up the natural world around him, the bark of the trees, the leaves, the bushes, the boulders, the grass and the earth beneath his feet, even the sky’s shade of blue, all appeared dull, almost lifeless—as if the color of the world and everything in it had been drained. It was like seeing through fogged glasses, or suddenly being struck with a vague form of color blindness. Nevertheless, Theo continued on, forced to set these odd phenomena aside until he could find running water. It wouldn’t do to dwell on anything yet, except his need to escape.
It wasn’t until exhaustion began to overtake him did Theo finally catch the first sign of freedom. After climbing down a short cliff face he sensed it just on the other side of the tree line a few yards ahead: the smell of water. Though there was no sound of a moving current, it reached his nostrils as clear as it could be. The cooling, refreshing sensation of lifeblood was close. With no other sensory stimuli available, the acute instinctual understanding that water was nearby became overpowering. It was like feeling a weak pulse in a dying body.
Newly invigorated, Theo began to run, his body aching for a drink. He pushed through the dense underbrush, and upon reaching the edge of the clearing, found what he’d been looking for. Theo now stood at the bank of a great, snaking river, cutting down the middle of an open field and into the woods in either direction. He kneeled and reached a trembling hand into the water, and froze in confusion. Though the water was cool he felt nothing but stagnation. The river was still, and like everything else he’d found, a pale, murky reflection of the sky above. It was as if the current was frozen in time.
After such a time hearing nothing but silence, the sound of another person’s voice fired a sharp wave of fear up and down his body. Theo’s head shot up, and turned over his shoulder to where the voice had come from. Standing at the edge of the tree line was a man. Another living person.
“Hello there,” the man repeated, leaning against one of the enormous trunks. “Lost?”
Theo stood, peering shrewdly at the man, unable to tell if this was a hallucination. He had a childlike face, a layer of youthful fat hiding the definition that later comes in adulthood, but his skin was weathered, and his eyes were a bright and knowing green, the first burst of real color Theo had seen since awakening in this place. He wore a cloak of pure white, seemingly untouched by the dirt and brush of the woods.
After a moment of hesitancy, Theo relinquished the words, “Yes. Yes, I think so. Do you know where we are?”
The man smiled and stepped closer. “Well, we’re here. I’d thought that would be obvious.” Before Theo could respond to his frustrating answer, the man approached beside him at the riverbank and sat down cross-legged. “Do you remember where you were before you came here? I often find that recalling where there is helps me know where here is.”
Theo was about to snap at the man for talking in riddles, when the words spoken caused him to pause. “I… ” Theo started, his mind searching as he looked around at his surroundings as though they would provide his answer, “I don’t know. I can’t remember where I was before.” The terror of this realization set in like a stone sinking to the bottom of his stomach. He hadn’t until this moment thought about the events before his awakening, and upon doing so, drew a blank. There was nothing before this. All he knew was being in the forest. How long had he been here?
The man looked up at Theo and frowned. “That’s a pity. With no there it’s always difficult to find here. But not impossible. Why don’t you sit?”
Theo complied, resting upon the earth next to the man as he reached a wrinkled hand into the stagnant river. “Odd, isn’t it?” the man said, watching the water spill between his fingers. “Funny what the mind can do. Well, I can’t tell you why you’re here. Only you can know that. But in a dull and still world, the fact that you’re the only thing with any life says something. What it says, though, I don’t quite know. But it’s talking.”
“What about you?” Theo said, turning to the man.
He smiled. “What about me?”
Theo didn’t feel like pressing the odd man, as it was becoming clear that he wouldn’t provide any more information that didn’t require mental gymnastics. He stared into the glimmering river, gazing through the surface at the bed of clay. “I just want to go home. Where does this river g—”
“Perhaps you are home,” the man interrupted. “Anything is possible. It just may not look very much like home yet. But it’s funny what the mind can do. Life, and even death, is only what we make of it. Something to think about.”
Theo, growing angry with the man’s games, hissed, “Look, old man—”
But when he turned to face him, the man was gone.
Theo remained at the river’s edge for some time. No longer consumed with the immediate need to escape the woods, his mind had become transfixed by the ephemeral man and his words. Though he believed that what the old man had told him held some key to the nature of his predicament, Theo couldn’t make sense of what door it may open. His illusory reality was becoming more and more intangible the longer he took stock of the world around him. It was as though he’d been shaken forth into a state of semi-awareness while deep in the throes of a very convincing dream. He considered that he was merely becoming lucid in the most lifelike and real dream state his mind had ever conjured up. This didn’t quite feel correct, but he compartmentalized his trepidation towards the concept and chose instead to find some kind of comfort in the possibility that all this was occurring in his mind as his physical body slumbered peacefully on his bed. But the further he followed his thoughts down this line of reasoning, the more confused he became. There was no memory of a bed, or a home, or a life at all. Theo was operating with the self-awareness and recollection of a newborn infant.
Theo stood, toying with the old man’s words, letting them tumble between the corners of his mind. He looked up at the bleak sky. He wanted the light of the stars, the glow of the moon, the deep dark blue of night to comfort him like the safety of a locked room.
Suddenly, as the thoughts echoed inside his head, something fantastic happened. Theo no longer felt the solid ground beneath his feet. He looked down and, with no twinge of fear, saw the earth shrinking away from him. Floating up and up and up like a discarded balloon, Theo saw the trees like elephant limbs become miniature children’s figurines. The river like a dead serpent went on beyond the horizon, solid and as devoid of vitality as the rest of the world he could now see with clear eyes. The great expanse of dulled and pale flora became one large, gray organism, like blood-drained skin stretched loosely over the body of a once gorgeous and youthful creature on its deathbed. The artificial-blue sky he now touched resembled the sterile fluorescent light of a hospital room.
At this moment, Theo’s reality shifted. The idea that what he was about to do had never before occurred to him felt laughable and naive. He would paint the sky. He would paint the earth. He would paint the trees and the wind and the current. Theo would give his world a pulse.
Theo lifted himself higher in the air, until the world below was a vague blur. He lifted an arm over his head, and with the focus of a trained artist, like Michelangelo looking up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he waved his open palm across the sky. As his hand passed over his canvas, what was before the stark and lifeless shade of grayish-cerulean became alive; a deep, full, navy blue blanketed the earth. Night fell across the sky at his command, like the goddess Selene flying through the heavens in her chariot. In contrast to the gray he’d left behind, the colors exploded with brilliant hues the likes of which he’d only seen in masterful paintings.
Content with what he’d created, Theo flexed his fingers as if flicking off droplets of water, and a dazzling burst of constellations lit up a corner of the midnight air. Again and again he did this until the celestial bodies bathed the gray forest with golden light. Now carefully, he pointed an index finger at an empty blue pocket and traced the outline of a crescent moon. After connecting the outline, it appeared, beaming a fantastic and reflective yellow. The moment this happened, Theo felt the sudden chill of a light breeze passing through, ruffling his hair and cooling his sweating brow. The pulse of his world was becoming stronger.
Overwhelmed with excitement, Theo dove down through his creation until landing softly back upon the gray earth. He looked around at the sickly woods; the possibilities were almost too much to fathom. Movement—he wanted movement, he wanted life. Leaning down on one knee, Theo dipped his hand into the stagnant river, and with a forceful motion, pushed the water forward as if telling it to return to its natural state. Now a heavy current pushed with him, through his fingers and down the length of the carved out bed of clay. He cupped his hand and brought it up to his mouth, drinking deep from the water until it spilled down his chin. He could feel his heart rate increasing. The exhaustion from his travels and the humidity that had now been swept away with the wind drained from his body like a great weight had been lifted.
Theo looked upward to appreciate his work. It was only right that the earth below should match the heavens in colorful brilliance. He reached his hand into the river once more, feeling the rapid movement of water and listening to the noise it created like a symphony of static, and like someone had dumped a bucket of oil paint, the water turned a luminescent gold, lighting up the edges of the forest on either side all the way down like candle lampposts. His changing world had showed him his path.
Swaying his hands to and fro like an orchestra conductor as he walked, the leaves of the trees all around him burst into radiant oranges and reds and greens, glittering as if a great swarm of fireflies were hovering amongst the branches. With each step taken, patches of kaleidoscopic flowers erupted out from the ground in his wake.
Theo’s surroundings began to take on the appearance of thousands of paintbrush strokes, less a natural reality but a surrealist piece of artwork. The ground undulated like standing atop a moving ocean, and he experienced the distantly familiar sensation of resting upon the chest of a breathing, living being.
WE’VE GOT SOMETHING.
Theo stopped in his path. He looked up and around and behind him. He was sure he heard the words, disconnected and ethereal, as if carried by the wind, but couldn’t find a person the voice was attached to.
GET THEM OUTTA THE ROOM.
The shimmering colors in the trees and the glow of the golden river began rhythmically fading in and out like blinking traffic lights, and the ground shook and vibrated as if an earthquake had struck. Something farther down the path appeared, such a bright and intense white light that Theo had to hold a hand up to his eyes to keep from being blinded. It was the source of the voice; he could hear the words more clearly the closer he got.
Theo took off into a sprint towards the apparition, as the undulations and tremors and colors of the woods grew into such intensity that he could hardly keep his footing.
STAY WITH ME, THEO. STAY WITH ME.
The disembodied voice exploded with the booming, omnipotent force of a god. Theo’s lungs burned, the light ahead so powerful he squeezed his eyes shut, only following the words’ increasing volume. Flowers burst forth beneath his footsteps, pushing out and against his soles as if urging him desperately forward.
Then, all at once, like turning off the light in a room, everything ceased. The ground settled, the erratic blinking of his world sank back into a soft incandescence, and Theo stopped. He felt the warm glow of something just beyond reach. The only sound echoing through the wind was a steady and rhythmic, electronic beep. Theo opened his eyes.
He’d reached the apparition. A rectangle of white light stood alone in the woods before him. It was a door. Theo felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around, and there beside him was the old man. Without a word, the man smiled and nodded, stepped forward into the door, and disappeared.
Come back to us, Theo.
The voice floated over to him from beyond the light.
Theo took a tentative step, and his foot dissolved into the illuminated void. He breathed in deep, took a look at the burning blue sky, at the world he had brought to life, and walked through the door.
Theo awoke to the face of a man in a surgical mask staring down at him. “We almost lost you there,” he said. “Welcome back, Theo.”
Jack Moody is a novelist and short story writer from wherever he happens to be at the time. He is the author of the short stories collection Dancing to Broken Records (Beacon Publishing Group) as well as being a staff writer for the literary magazine and podcast Brick Moon Fiction. His work has appeared in multiple publications including The Saturday Evening Post and his forthcoming debut novel Crooked Smile is slated for a March 2022 release from Outcast-Press. He didn't go to college.