At first the light was blinding, just a pure, white flood that etched an afterimage on Todd’s retinas as he tried to blink it away. But then the white receded into a shimmering haze, like a desert highway at noon viewed at just the right angle. It ebbed until the light became the room, and the room became the light, and Todd stood in the center of it all, dazed and frightened.
“Oh, my Lord and heavens above, I’m dead, aren’t I”? Todd clutched his chest and looked around halfheartedly for a chair, or a stool, or something to steady his swaying nerves.
“No, Todd, not dead. Far from it. Well, that’s not really fair to say either, is it? You’re not far from death because you’re the perfect model of health. You’re far from death because, how do I put this, because you were never ‘alive’ to begin with.”
The voice paused and then begun again, “I have an idea – why don’t you take a seat and I’ll try to explain, as far you’re entitled to an explanation anyway.”
The light again – brighter this time, and almost, but not quite, warm. Todd shielded his eyes and looked away – or attempted to, as there was no actual origin of the light, as if it flowed outward from an unseen fixed point and everywhere all at the same time. And then all of a sudden, it was gone, with an almost audible snap. When he looked again, Todd was standing back in his office in his home, again in the dead center of the room.
“What is going on?” Todd demanded, but his voice was edged with just the slightest tinge of fear. “Where am I?”
“Where? Why, you never left, Todd. You didn’t go anywhere. You didn’t go anywhere just now, you didn’t go anywhere this morning, you haven’t ‘gone’ anywhere in the past ten years. Please, sit down. It’s going to be easier to take in if you do it on your own, keeping up the illusion of free will has always been of utmost importance to me.”
Todd hesitated, put one hand on the back of his swivel chair – a chair he spent countless hours in, writing, reading, preparing his note for that day’s radio broadcast – but it felt different. Not like the well-worn luxury artificial leather he was used to. It was somehow hollow, flat, as if he was…
“Aha! I got it. I’m dreaming! Boy howdy, for a second there I thought maybe I was losing my marbles. Must have been too many late nights proofreading my latest book. I think I’ll just wake up now.”
The voice sighed. “Have it your way”. Another snap and suddenly, Todd was seated in the chair. There was no perception of movement; one minute was standing, and then, instantaneously, he was sitting down.
“You’re not dreaming, Todd. Dreams, as any first year psychology student can tell you, are merely subconscious manifestations of experiences, desires, memories –a giant enhanced ‘replay’ button, if you will. You can’t dream, Todd, because you’re nothing but memories. So to speak.”
“I think I need something to drink. My mouth is suddenly quite dry. I’ll take that sweet tea, now, if you’re still offering.”
The light again, softer now, but accompanied by a slight high pitched buzzing, like a distant air conditioner or…something else, he couldn’t quite place. But familiar. As he sat contemplating this, he swiveled around in his chair and found himself face to face with Dr. Sanford again. Todd gasped and backed up rapidly, in the chair, bumping into his desk and knocking over his framed, autographed photo of he and the pastor of that mega-church he met last year at the All-American Youth Family Values Christmas Conference. He just couldn’t remember the good pastor’s name.
“I don’t know, I never came up with one. Got stuck on ‘Josh Something’ and then got distracted,” Dr. Sanford said, absently
“Wait, how did you know what I was thinking about?”
Sanford put his head in his hands briefly and then shook them both out at the wrist. “Ok, this is going to take a lot longer than I thought. I know what you’re thinking because without me, you wouldn’t be thinking at all.”
“So I’m like a puppet in a movie?”
“Man, you really are bad at analogies. No, not a puppet. A puppet is controlled by a puppeteer. You’re not being controlled, Todd. Let me make that clear to you. YOU are in complete control of your life. One of my greatest gifts to you was free will. Such as it is.”
“So you are God”.
Sanford smiled. “Something like that, I suppose, except I’m very, very real.” Sanford leaned back on a chair that wasn’t there and crossed his arms. “Todd, what do you do with a car that isn’t running right?”
“I don’t know, I never owned one.”
Todd hesitated, shifting his considerable weight to the side in the chair. “Depends on what was wrong with it, I reckon. If it had a flat tire, I’d put air in it. If the chain was broken, I’d get it replaced.”
“And if you couldn’t figure out what was wrong?”
‘Bring it to the shop and let a professional have a look at it.”
“So I’m a bicycle?”
Sanford stood up and put his hands in his pocket. “Yes, Todd, you’re a bicycle. That’s what I’ve been building up to with this little speech. Everyone, you can come out now, Todd has figured out our little ruse!”
Todd stared at him for a moment, and squinted his eyes. “You know, sarcasm is the lowest form of discourse.”
“No, that would be Twitter. Look, it’s clear that you’re not catching on, but that’s more of an indicator of my success than your failure.”
Sanford walked over to the door opposite of Todd’s desk, put his hand on the knob, turned and said, “You want to see something? Follow me.”
Todd snorted. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“That’s the spirit!” Sanford snapped his fingers and the office instantly dissolved into a pattern of blue lines that pulsed against an unending void of darkness. The chair Todd was sitting in vanished as well, and he crashed to the floor, soundlessly. Picking himself up, Todd opened his mouth to protest, or question, or even to scream, but no sound came out.
“It’s better to be thought a fool, and all that, Todd” Sanford intoned, as he turned around and began walking towards the void.
Todd’s hands flew to his mouth, opening and closing his jaw a few times, even waggling his tongue, but the only sound he could generate was the clacking of his own teeth against each other. But still, he followed, slowly, begrudgingly, as if it was a trip to the salad bar.
“I knew you’d see it my way, Todd. But you better hurry up, if we don’t get a plot started soon, we’re going to lose half the audience. It’s taken two years to get this far, I doubt they have much patience left.” Sanford said, over his shoulder as he continued on into the inky blackness.