A Thing of Beauty. Short Story.

Ted put down the pencil and looked at his doodle, it was the same as the others, a rough sketch of a sideways triangle, which was supposed to be a cliff, a splotch of darkness above a thin line for a tree, then a few curling lines at the base of it all for water. He didn’t know why he kept drawing it, but something about it seemed incredibly soothing. Of course it had none of the details that he had in his mind, it didn’t have the other, distance cliffs, the birds flying above, the flowers that surrounded the tree and carpeted the cliff top. Besides, he wanted to share it with others, for them to feel the relaxing power of it. So far he hadn’t succeeded in that part, but Ted knew that was only because he wasn’t drawing it right. All those flourishes and colours needed to be there, to intermingle and combine to create something greater than the sum of its parts. For the first time in his life Ted wished he could draw, that he was able to pick up any kind of instrument and transfer what was on his mind onto the page. Sure he had looked at other drawings that people had done and vaguely thought it would be nice to be able to do something like that, but this was different. This was like a need, a need to explain, to share.

The image had come to him in a dream the week before, he had been walking up to the tree, but he woke up before he could reach it. Every night since he had the same dream and every night he got a little closer, but so far he hadn’t made it to the tree. Ted knew once he did something amazing would be revealed below, that the beauty and majesty of it would be breath taking and unlike anything he had ever seen, or ever would see again. Part of what was so frustrating about it was that he couldn’t seem to explain it correctly. When ever he tried he got weird looks from people, Andy had told him that it sounded like a nice dream, but she just didn’t want to hear about it any more and she was the one who insisted he start telling her about his dreams. He knew he sounded intense when he spoke of it, but it was an intense feeling and he wanted to get that across to people. Back in his room he had started trying to paint it. Mostly there were just crumpled balls of coloured paper but he knew he was getting closer with each stroke of the brush. If it took years he would capture it on paper and then he’d be able to show everyone.

As class ended he gathered up his things and filed out with everyone else, the others were going to the pub, but he didn’t want to go drinking, he never slept well after a few drinks and he never dreamed. He didn’t want to do anything that would slow him down, even if it was just by a day. He waved them off and left, claiming he felt a little under the weather. Normally that wouldn’t stop him but they didn’t seem to really mind, they knew he’d talk about the dream obsessively once he had a drink or two.

Back in his room he dumped his bag onto his bed and took out the paints. The colours he was using were wrong, the greens and greys, but they were the closest he could get. Besides, these were just practise ones, the real one would be done later, when everything else was perfect. He picked up a brush and started to paint.

When he was done his arm was sore and his hand was cramping from gripping the brush too tightly. He flexed his hand slowly and massaged it until it felt better. Once that was done he looked over his work. It was better than it had been the night before, but it was still shitty. He sighed to himself, at least it didn’t look like a ten year old was doing it anymore, though at the rate he was going it could take him another four months before he was even close. Ted yawned, then stretched before plodding down the hall to the bathroom, there he quickly brushed his teeth and splashed some water on his face, with that done he headed back to his room.

Ted lay in bed and closed his eyes, he started to breathe deeply. He had never had a problem falling asleep before but he had some difficulties since he started having the dream. It was all he could think about and when he thought about it his heart started beating faster. After a while his mind started to calm and he nodded off.

Ted opened his eyes and took a deep breath of the orange scented air. All around him were flowers, thousands and thousands of them, all different colours, up ahead was the tree. He stood and looked up, the sky was a deep blue, a few clouds drifted by, blindingly white. He started to make his way up the hill, but everything was moving in slow motion, his legs didn’t seem to want to go forward, it was like trying to wade through mud. He could see the path he had started to wear into the ground ahead of him. The tree was getting steadily bigger, despite it being so close he couldn’t make out the details, everything about it seemed blurry and off but he knew once he touched it it would all become crystal clear and beautiful. He took another step, then another, midway during the next he woke up. Ted groaned in frustration and rolled over, he closed his eyes, hoping he’d fall asleep again, but he couldn’t. after a few minutes he got out of bed and stretched. Oh well, he was closer again and tonight he would be even closer.

The dreams continued on for a week, every night he would get just a little bit further, but so far he had yet to reach the tree. The dreams had started to change too, different colours were starting to bleed through, the sky was no longer the deep, clear blue it had always been, now there were streaks of purple and yellow. The grass, which had been a bright green now had splotches and patches of red. As he neared the tree he began to glimpse the ocean, a mixture of greens and blues, but now there were spots of black. Sometimes the colours were there from the beginning, other times everything would be fine, then things would seem to shift, the colours changing for a brief second before returning to their natural state. Ted found these colour shifts distressing, they were wrong and they ruined the beauty of the dream. He started finding it harder to paint the scene accurately, he would zone out in front of the canvas and when he had finished he would look at his work to find the colours had infected that too, like an old, water stained photo. Usually he would take a few minutes to try and correct the mistakes, but they were still there, underneath the paint and he could never change that.

Ted had locked himself away from everyone, he didn’t have time for classes or friends, he was so close to completing the painting and it needed to be finished. He was almost at the tree, another night or two and he would finally be there. The tree itself was still blurry and he knew it would be until he touched it, then he would see it properly. He could see the ocean stretching out into the horizon, a beautiful, calming mix of colours. The other colours still bled through, but he was able to ignore them now, like marks or blemishes on an apple, they were ugly, but they didn’t take away from the overall feeling of the place. If anything they helped enhance the beauty of the proper colours.

Ted reached out, his hand so close to the trunk. He paused, hand hovering mere inches from the bark. Did he really want to touch it now? After all this build up? Would it really be as beautiful as he expected? He moved his hand closer, the tree emanated a soothing heat, Ted took a deep breath and laid his palm against the bark. He could feel it, the heartbeat of the tree, slowly thumping. The tree became clear, he could see every detail of it, it was magnificent. Its leaves were interspersed with bright red flowers, its bark was grey and brown, ancient and new. The colour shift came again, Ted snatched back his hand. The flowers were no longer flowers, they were hearts, beating as one and dripping blood, the trunk was no longer gnarled bark, instead it was faces, elongated and screaming in pain. The colours shifted back and he was staring at the tree. Dark, ominous clouds appeared in the sky above, instantly blanketing it, Ted shivered in the sudden cold. This wasn’t right, this wasn’t what the dream was like. He started to turn, moving so incredibly slowly. He would wake up, any second he’d wake up and the nightmare would be over. He could figure out what had corrupted his perfect, beautiful dream. A heavy wind picked up, the branches of the tree started whipping about, lashing at his back and sides. Ted screamed with each strike, he could feel blood welling at each cut, hot and thick. Ted tried to run, but he was still stuck in his turn as the tree lashed out at him again and again. A cold rain started, suddenly it was warm and thick, around him was blood, the smell of it heavy in the air, he could taste the coppery tang on his tongue. There was a final gust of wind, incredibly strong, it send one of the branches diving into Teds back, he shrieked in agony as the branch burst through his chest, his heart speared on the tip of it. The branch began to rise, dragging him upwards, he writhed and screamed in pain. He slid down the branch, the wound widening until his back hit the trunk. His screams became part of the chorus as the faces on the trunk joined him in agony.

When it was over the sky cleared and the breeze became light and pleasant, the tree stayed on its perch, overlooking the sea. Ted’s face had joined the others, he screamed and screamed as he saw someone in the distance, trying to warn them away, but they couldn’t hear him, nor could they see him. He could only watch in horror as day after day they made the same trek he had, each step bringing them further into the trap.

About Alan James Keogh

I am a 26 year old writer who somehow tricked U.C.D. into giving me not only a degree in English and Classical studies, but an Hons Masters in Creative Writing too. Visit my blog where I post short stories twice a week (Monday and Wednesday) and an installment of a serialised novel on Fridays. I did consider writing this in the third person, as though it was written by someone else, but Alan is not comfortable writing in the third person as it seems kinda creepy and unbalanced so Alan decided it was probably best to write in the first person. He hopes it went well for him.
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