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.

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”

A Treehouse at Sunset


“Sooooo….what is it?” I asked, chewing the tip of my left pigtail.

“I think it’s an old treehouse,” Lisa replied. Her face was speckled with dirt. We’d crossed the wide creek an hour before. It had been mostly mud.

“We can probably climb,” I mused, pointing my dirty finger at the ragged wooden slats nailed into the side of the tree.

Lisa studied the slats. They were rotten. Streaks of rust ran down below the old nails. “Yeah, maybe.”

“I’m gonna do it,” I announced, and started toward the makeshift ladder. “Just catch me if I fall.”

“You know you’re too heavy,” my friend sighed. “You’ll break my neck.”

I pretended not to hear. I placed a tentative foot on the first wooden slat, then shifted my weight back and forth. The piece wobbled, but it didn’t break. I put more weight on it, then grasped the rung above my head and pulled. Still steady. I was fine.

“I think it’ll be okay!” I called behind me, and began my ascent.

The late-July sun hung like a drop of molten slag in the western sky; not as bright as it had been a few hours ago, but it didn’t feel any cooler. Sweat poured down my brow and chest and legs, spattering Lisa. She clicked her tongue in annoyance.

I stared up through the narrow, jagged square cut into the bottom of the treehouse. Spider webs clung to the faraway ceiling, drifting in the weak breeze.

“I don’t think you’d like it up here,” I hollered. “I think there’s spiders.” Continue reading “A Treehouse at Sunset”

Seeds of Ignition

His mouth is a door.

“Where do you want to go?” he whispers. A tongue, short and pink, slips out and hangs over a swollen lower lip. Eel slick. A leafy gutter after a late October rainstorm. Far, far away, a crowded planet annihilates into its sun.

“To meet them,” she replies, and reaches with a tentative hand.

The door widens to accommodate. Skin splits, then knits. New teeth sprout from elongating gums. Enamel amaryllises.

Hand, wrist, forearm. The door makes room. It did for me. I was the first to try. The first to succeed.

“How far until…” she asks, only to hush. Right then, she can feel it. I can tell.

Five fingers finesse frigid, fleshy folds. Folds finesse back.

Continue reading “Seeds of Ignition”

The Star Bridge


Eric shot himself in the head on April 24th, 2016. I was standing beside him. I still have the bloodstained clothes. And the bloodstained memories.

“You need to understand, Elena,” he explained, holding the gun to his temple. “There’s a bridge. It’s right here.”

He shook the gun, as if to signify its new status – not as a weapon, but as a means of traversal.

“Don’t, Eric.” My voice was slow and calm but flickers of panic were doubtless present in its timbre.

“I see it now. In flashes. Whenever I imagine pulling the trigger, I get a glimpse of the bridge ahead. It’s not black. It’s not empty. It’s bright and full and warm with everything I’d imagined.”

Machinery whirred around us. An omnipresent hum of energy filled the room as countless megajoules of electricity filled capacitating cylinders, all ready to discharge at a specific time.

“What if you’re wrong?” I asked. “What then? You’re just dead. And you’re worthless when you’re dead. All that potential is gone.”

“The continuation of life affirms worthlessness. My worth is in what I’ve seen. My worth is in what happens next. Because if I’m right, and I know I’m right, everyone will learn that what we are in right now is just the first stage. Once that gets out, we can all go through. And on.”

“But by that, you mean that everyone can just die? Are you listening to yourself?”

He gripped the gun tighter and grinned.

“Maybe it sounds crazy. But I see it. And I think you’re about to.” Continue reading “The Star Bridge”

Of Malevolence; Of Misanthropy


“Mankind is the true God,” I’d proclaim. “The universe is our laboratory. Our playground. If something exists, we will learn of it. We will study it. And, through our strength and resolve, we will dominate it.”

My voice, at the time still young and powerful, echoed, day after day, throughout the lecture hall: “We are the third of the three paradigms. The early cosmos was the first; shapeless, protostellar dust, which, through the hardcoded mechanisms of this universe’s physics, yielded pattern coalescence. Stars. Galaxies. Planets.”

“Patterns increased in complexity over billions of years. Physics begat chemistry. Chemistry begat biology. And so began the second paradigm: biological evolution. The complexity seen in evolution dwarfed that of the previous paradigm. Eukaryotes. Fish. Mammals.”

“And finally, hundreds of millions of years later, as all the interwoven complexities reached a critical point, a singularity formed. It was the birth of the third paradigm: human intelligence. A force powerful enough to allow the willful direction of aspects of the other two paradigms, as well as its own destiny. It is a force seen nowhere else in the universe. It commands nature. It imposes its will on nature.”

Continue reading “Of Malevolence; Of Misanthropy”

The Cave in the Lake

undersea cave

A long time ago, I used to scuba dive with my college buddies. It was my passion. It made me feel like an intrepid explorer, charting the unknown and discovering the unseen.

That was way before my daughter. Way before my ex-wife, too. Like so many things, I gave it up when the drive to start a family kicked in. After Penny was born, scuba was just a frivolity I had no right to focus on. And that was that.

Twelve years later, after the divorce, I started looking at the world like I had before it all went south. I could resume the activities and hobbies I’d abandoned. Scuba diving was at the top of the list.

Once everything was finalized, I bought a house two states away from the one I’d shared with my wife and daughter. It was nothing special. It wasn’t the house I cared about when I closed the deal on the property. It was what sat behind it: a lake.

Continue reading “The Cave in the Lake”