8 years old. Night.

I split like an atom and light screams away in all directions. All that remains is darkness and poison.

42 years old. Night.

Between deaths, I dream. I emerge from a bloodstained tub and rise and drift and sway skyward with every warm breeze; a flawless photonic butterfly. With the planet fading behind me, I traverse the vacuum of space where I sip cosmic radiation, not for sustenance, but for gratification. I bathe within the nebulous plasma of stellar nurseries and ethereal tongues of inquisitive flames stretch to lap at my form with an unconstrained longing to give me pleasure. My consent is instantaneous and eternal. Every constellation turns to observe my ecstasy and smiles as the light that left me returns in a hot, joyous burst. The forgotten blue of the Earth I leave behind is a monochromatic vulgarity next to this omni-spectral kaleidoscope of the heavens I share only with God itself. I am home.

42 years old. Day.

Spring sunshine colonizes the bedroom and my soul suffocates. The liberating vacuum of space in my sleep is annihilated by the crushing gravity of wakefulness. The God with whom I celebrated now grinds its foot into and through me. I am a pressed butterfly whose wings have rotted off; a husk left to desiccate. The dream, a lie.

In bed, I run my hands over the patchwork expanse of scars scribbled over every surface of my body. Each one would tell a special story to someone unfamiliar with trauma, but would regurgitate a sequence of tired tropes to those intimate with dismay and regret and revulsion and the deepest desire to carve a hated object into ribbons of ruby. 

I am not unique in my experiences, but I am in my clarity of purpose. Today, and every day going forward, I know precisely what I want from life – to observe and experience its end. Only that process will earn me the understanding of the events leading to this moment – and why I deserve every instant of suffering I endure. That understanding will be my blessing. That suffering will be my penance. If my body is a temple, I pray to be consecrated by cancer.

14 years old. Night.

Shower water stings the fresh wounds crisscrossing the flesh of my thighs and the bottoms of my feet. Eyes closed, I work the shampoo through my hair and feel the day weighing on me, unable to be washed away. Even at 14, I know I should be too young to experience such a weight. “You deserve this,” I remind myself. It’s a saying that was rasped into my ear one time. It has echoed for six years nonstop. My mantra.

Hair clean, I open my eyes. It looms directly in front of my face, floating, with light bending around it like an inverse halo. The familiarity is what strikes first. It wears my own facial skin stretched to distortion across a massive, otherworldly skull. It’s the same face I wore on my eighth birthday. 

I don’t scream. I know worse monsters.

26 years old. Day.

I float, like in so many of my dreams, as a winged and pristine quantum of living energy. A gash in space opens and pulls me through to another side. I await a gift of pleasure. Instead:

— a suffusion of incomprehensible wrongness 

— a sickening, vertiginous spiral

— a cessation of all meaning

I regain consciousness in a strange hospital.

My wrists are stitched. I’ve failed.

42 years old. Day.

Snow blankets the frozen ground outside the house. It feels too early for snow; barely October. Leaves still paint the trees in red and orange and yellow. Those colors now fall in clumps as the heavy snow snaps their branches. The vivid hues of their corpses are shocking against the whiteness. 

I shuffle into the woods wrapped in quilts, leaves and snow pushed away by each of my plodding steps. My mind is lurching; I haven’t eaten or slept in days. 

The lake is a quarter mile from the house. My family and I celebrated my birthday there once. It was the happiest day of my life. It was the last happy day of my life.

I’ve gone to the lake every day since arriving at the house – rain, shine, or snow. I sit at the decaying old picnic table and try to remember that day – to pluck that one fleeting moment out of my timeline to study and learn from it – the moment when I had to have done something to deserve what happened hours later.

A nagging voice in the back of my mind tells me I’ll never be able to learn what I want. Those memories are unavailable; less walled off than eroded away by the compounding acid of oft-recalled trauma. I shouldn’t bother trying to use this place to discover any details whatsoever, let alone those I need. 

Why would this yield insight into why it happened when I can’t even get that from sleeping in the same bed?

38 years old. Night.

I float, like in so many of my dreams, as a winged and pristine quantum of living energy. A gash in space opens and pulls me through to another side. I await a gift of pleasure. Instead:

— a suffusion of incomprehensible wrongness 

— a sickening, vertiginous spiral

— a cessation of all meaning

I wake up and learn I’d been clinically dead for 19 minutes and comatose for three days. 

My wrists are stitched. Another failure. I deserve this.

For the first time since I was 14, I remember the atrocity that appeared to me in the shower all those years ago. I picture it twice as large now, filling the hospital room – the skin of my child face stretched over its monstrous, alien skull. I imagine it shaking with silent laughter, as if it knew I was never serious about wanting to die; that I was impulsive in a moment of weakness. 

I hate knowing how right it is.

There’s too much I need to know first. I just don’t know where to look. 

43 years old. Night.

There are no bird sounds. No insects. In gauzy darkness that wraps around me like the scarred flesh enshrouding a breathing ossuary, I watch as clouds devour the last star. Rain follows; tiny, soaking droplets. I am in a chair in the backyard. The fire pit has been dead for two hours. I am drenched and dissociating, caught in a vile superposition of my middle-aged self and a replay of the events of 35 years earlier. This happens daily. Sometimes twice. These are moments when I wail and thrash, but also when I beg for relief, despite my deepest and most profound need to suffer and atone for a crime I cannot remember committing. 

I plead for some ability to understand why it happened – to be able to analyze it without passion or pain so I can have one second of peace before I am content to resume rotting in motion until I fall. 

In a paroxysm of despair and pain, I whimper to the sky for help. 

The rain stops.

The sky responds.

43 years old. Between. 

“I can’t let it go.”

“What can I do?”

“I need to know how I made it happen.”

“You can have them.”

“Show me.”


The instant after the choked, astonished, “…oh” escapes my lips, I spend the following 36 hours screaming and sobbing with delirious, unbroken laughter. I have precisely zero memory of the other side of the conversation.

When my hysteria ends, I am on my knees on the back porch, head down, filthy, wet, and freezing. I stiffen and shiver. My trembling fingers reach up and trace the contours of my face and reach my eye sockets. Nothing remains but carbonized tissue, burned all the way to the cauterized optic nerves. The remnants crumble under my fingertips. I imagine them floating to the ground like fat, black snowflakes. I collapse on my side.

43 years old. Daynight.

I am curled in a tiny ball, my cheek pressed against the splintery wood of the porch. Gritty streaks of ash smear my face and chest. Nothing hurts. My optic nerves fire in a desperate, autonomic search for the stimuli once provided by generous eyes that no longer exist in this universe. Do I?

Formless sparkles of anti-darkness shimmer as my brain tries to match patterns in the void. When I rise on my elbow and turn my head toward where I expect the house to be, the shimmer coalesces into a shape of the familiar structure. I don’t understand why, but I am too exhausted to wonder or to stay in that position. I roll onto my back and face skyward. It’s there.

I try to squeeze shut nonexistent eyes.

43 years old. Daynight.

I never know why they allowed me to see it that night when I was 14, or how I was able to forget about it until after my second suicide attempt. Perhaps it was a demonstration of their power and cruelty; perhaps it was a sinister foreshadowing of events they knew would happen later in my timeline. I don’t know their motives. I don’t think I can know. 

What I do know is that now, for the first time, I can perceive it in its entirety. It is an alien colossus; a skull of immeasurable proportions and impossible, horrible, fluid geometry. Its surface pinches to a single point while at the same time bulges outward and swallows the rest of the sky. It is both stationary and in motion; twisting and folding in ceaseless recursion, yet simultaneously embodies immensity and heaviness and immovability so stark even light dies on its surface, unreflected.

Despite its unholy perversion of physical laws and gleeful ravaging of spacetime, there is a single constant: the stretched mask of flesh that decorates it. Regardless of the skull’s orientation, it lies prominent across the roiling topography. I know it’s the remnants of the face I wore on my eighth birthday. The same confusion. The same betrayal. The same horrified bewilderment that exemplifies a shattered epistemology. A self in the process of splitting.

The fleshy holes of its empty eyesockets lock to the charred calderas of mine.

I travel.

0 years old. Day.

The first certainty to carve itself through my soft skull is how there is nothing colder than existence. I didn’t ask for this, yet here I am. I cannot begin to fathom the cruelty behind its mechanism. I don’t deserve this.

43 years old. Daynight.

On my back, eyelessness meeting eyelessness. The alien grows larger and the face begins to tear. Distorted beyond all recognition, its final shred snaps. The tatters fall into nothingness. The last thing I perceive with my ersatz sight is the skull splitting as thousands of black, liquid eyes erupt from its form like soap bubbles, surging toward me as if held back by my child face all these years.

In blackness, I feel them wash over me, tossing me in a tide that grows more violent with every second. I don’t mind. I understand as much as I ever will. 

I await the incomprehensible wrongness I tasted so briefly those two times earlier in my life. The spiraling oblivion. The space – the void – the point – outside meaning. In whatever time that remains, I imagine the celestial butterfly floating toward the sun in a final gasp to feel warmth and light once more. Warm and safe and loved, just like in the dreams. 

But dreams are lies.

© Max Lobdell, 2024. May not be published, reproduced, translated, or performed without express written consent. Send inquiries to to receive pricing information.

Lucy and the Basement


“I can’t find Rudy!” Lucy whined.

“Where’d you leave him?” I asked, barely paying attention.

“Right here!”

“Well is he there?”

“No, but…”

“Then you didn’t leave him there, Luce.”


“Go look for Rudy, hon. Your Dad’s busy.”

Lucy sulked out of the room. I wondered if it’d be a “good dad” thing to help her look, but I figured at some point the kid would have to learn not to leave her things laying around. Self reliance and all that. Like Thoreau talked about, but with more indoor plumbing.

“Found him!” Lucy shrieked from somewhere upstairs.

“Atta girl,” I called back. “Now c’mon down and finish Moana, then we’ll have some dinner.

“I don’t like Moana!” Lucy pouted. “She’s boring.”

“How do you know that if you’ve only seen the first twenty minutes?”

“I just do.”

Lucy stomped down the stairs with Rudy under her arm. I glanced at him. He definitely needed to go through the washing machine. Lucy’s a sleep drooler, just like her mom was. In the time Lucy’d had him, he’d built up quite a rind.

“I think it’s time Rudy gets a bath, Luce.”

She held him at arm’s length, studying him.

“No,” she declared. “He’s fine.”

“Bring him over and let me sniff.”

Lucy rolled her eyes and walked over. I still didn’t know where she learned that. I figured she’d be at least twelve before the eye-rolling phase. Lucky me.

I took Rudy and put him under my nose. He reeked.

“Yeah, no, sorry hon, he’s going in the washing machine. C’mon, let’s go downstairs.”

Lucy’s face darkened.

Continue reading “Lucy and the Basement”

The First First Responders


“It’s going to take forever to get there in this snow.”

That was the first remark I heard about the event, aside from the basics: place, fire type, and potential casualty estimate.

For those interested, the answers were “Silver Stream Forest off RR7, unknown, and unknown.”

We were in the middle of a once-in-a-century snowstorm. Those once-in-a-century storms that seem to come every five years nowadays. Doesn’t mean much to some, but for those of us who have to work and drive in them to save lives, it matters.

That night, it mattered.

Our station is the only one in the area. Under ideal conditions, the rural route seven connection to the forest would be a 35 minute drive. We’d be lucky to get there in 90.

An hour into the drive, we saw the aurorae, despite the howling wind blowing heaps of snow through the air. I’d guess the visibility was less than ten feet. But the aurorae were clear.

“Electrical?” John posited.

“Not sure how that’d work,” someone answered — sounded like Lloyd.

“No.” John agreed. “Me neither.”

I looked out the side window toward the direction of the lightshow. It wasn’t like the kind I’d seen when I spent time in Iceland after college. Nothing like that. These ribbons of light were thin and fast moving. And red, too. All shades of red, from deep crimson to something that neared orange.

“Definitely not the borealis,” I said, mostly to myself.

Continue reading “The First First Responders”



Perhaps this can serve as a eulogy for my beloved friend and roommate, Maya. She didn’t deserve what happened to her. No one does.

I guess it started with a lecture on the first day of classes that semester. Everything just seemed to go south after that.

The professor’s name is Laura Oxley-Vereen. Remember that. She’s taught here for thirty years, is tenured, and is politically connected. She is untouchable.

Her course is mandatory.

“It’s important to remember who are and who are not your allies,” Oxley-Vereen lectured. “It’s simple, really. Only women are your allies. Real women. Not crossdressers, or ‘transgenders’ as they like to be called. They’re gay men in costumes. Don’t let them convince you they’re anything more than that. They will never experience the issues women endure, no matter how they dress or what they change their names to.”

Low murmurs circled the lecture hall. Maya sank into her chair. Even I could feel the eyes on her. I seethed.

“I know this isn’t a popular opinion nowadays,” the professor continued, undeterred, “but it is a fact of biology. They will never menstruate. They will never be raped and forced to carry the rapist’s baby. And hell, if they worry they’re making less money than their male-presenting coworkers, they can just take off their wigs and scrub away their makeup for a quick raise.”

Continue reading “Erasure”

Conversations With a Mouth


I’m in pain.

Truth be told, I want to hurt. I like the idea of hurting. Of suffering. Of retribution. It’s my cross to bear. I should carry it with a smile.

But God, that smile. The one in the mirror. That gaping gash of a grin. Blood-tipped canines and gore-caked molars. Evidence of violence; evidence of depravity — all exposed in a smile of the purest, truest joy.

“Do you remember how she tasted?” my teeth ask. “Do you remember the texture and consistency? The chew?”

I do my best to ignore them, but they bite my tongue. I taste blood. Again.

“Stop,” I demand. “I can’t.”

My tongue, wounded, chimes in. Its voice is wet and heavy. “She tasted sour. And sharp, depending on the parts. But unique. Unique Monique.”

My tonsils giggle. A rush of saliva trickles down my throat.

“I loved her,” I whimper. Tears carve paths down my cheeks — hotter than the saliva in my throat, but cooler than the blood on my tongue.

“You still can,” my lips insist. “She’s still here.”

Continue reading “Conversations With a Mouth”

A Boy Scout’s Secret


I’d spoken to Nate’s psychologist about the times he’d claim to speak with the ghost of his dead father. The doctor would nod his head and say my son had hold him the same thing.

“Just part of the grieving process, Mrs. Hammond. These things take time. But thank you for bringing it to my attention. I never want you to feel like any detail is too small or unimportant to tell me. If Nate feels like he needs to imagine his father and relive some of their moments together in his own context, you should let him.”

It all made sense to me, but it seemed to happen a whole lot. One morning over breakfast, about a year after his father’s death, Nate told me about how he’d been speaking with him just a few minutes before he’d come downstairs.

“What did he tell you?” I asked, mentally taking notes I’d be sharing with his shrink.

“Just the normal stuff,” Nate replied. “Advice and all that.”

“What kind of advice?”

Nate paused. “Things he’d tell me when he was, you know, still with us.”

He started to get teary eyed. I followed suit.

“He talked about Boy Scout stuff.”

I grinned. Ted had been a beloved scout leader for as long as I’d known him. He got along so well with those kids. All kids, really. He had a way about him that was both disarming and assertive – qualities I’ve found all the best teachers have.

“What kind of scout stuff, Nate?”

Nate shook his head. “He didn’t want me to say too much. He said you might get mad.”

Continue reading “A Boy Scout’s Secret”

That Shaky Fellow


Leaves don’t grow on the trees in this town. Birds won’t nest in them, either. I can’t remember the last time I saw a squirrel, let alone heard one chittering in the branches overhead. Everything’s just dead or dying around here. Been that way since that shaky fellow started showing up.

I think it was 1966 when I realized he might really exist. I guess that means I was around ten or eleven. Hard to trust the memory of a kid that age, I know. Still, all these years later, it’s as clear as anything. Clear as the screen I’m typing this on. And I just cleaned my glasses.

I was coming back from a sleepover at Davy Egan’s place. Kids were allowed to walk around town by themselves back then. We weren’t afraid of getting kidnapped or fondled or anything like that, although it probably happened a lot. Not to me, though. Not to anyone I know. But that doesn’t mean much in the scope of where I’m going with this.

To get from Davy’s place to mine, I liked to cut through the Wilhelm Country Club golf course. Saved me from having to go around. The groundskeepers would chew you out if they caught you walking on the greens, but they wouldn’t chase you if you ran.

I’d always been a good runner.

It was an early morning in late July. Davy had kicked me out before dawn because he had something to do that morning. I didn’t mind. We hadn’t gotten any sleep that night, so I wasn’t groggy.

It was raining a little. That meant groundskeepers wouldn’t be out and about. That’s what I told myself, at least. Made sense to my eleven-year-old mind.

Turned out I was right. I was all alone out there.

Continue reading “That Shaky Fellow”