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.

8 Replies to “Manifold”

  1. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I got an email saying you’ve posted, what an incredible story once again. Thank you for sharing, I always look forward to them!

    1. m_lobdell1 says:

      Thank you Emma 🙂

  2. If this is truly your last here, it is a hauntingly beautiful send off, thank you

    1. m_lobdell1 says:

      Thanks so much, Ali. I’ll be around elsewhere, I promise 🙂

  3. Thank you for sharing this experience. I missed reading your words ^^.

    1. m_lobdell1 says:

      Thank you Gayle!!

  4. Please let us know where you’re publishing next. I’ll be there.

  5. It’s been so long! Lovely to see another post from you ❤️

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