Nullity, lethe, preoccupy. And fear comes over me. Heavy shadows slipping from corners, quickly sliding, cover my face. A thick blanket falls and suffocates. Shadows of death, everywhere, leave me shaking. Outside, neon sign, streetlamp, hover like angels. Dim red, dim yellow. Shadows only more intense.
Not malevolent. I know that. Rational men don’t believe in ghosts. Or angels. Am obsessive. Know that, too. Mother loved stories of spooks. Panicked in thunderstorms. Swore she saw my father in every shadow. Old house. Question every knocking. Knock twice if it’s you, Howard. I learned to track them down early. And still do. Track them to their source, satisfied that there is order in this world. This teacup. Just the right angle to make father’s profile on that wall. Follow ghostly knocking to radiator. Recognize orb of light, moving in air, as mote in my own eye.
Can’t track these new shadows down. Move by themselves. Try to time movements to sounds of cars hissing by on blacktop. To cold air through rattling windowpane. Unmoving curtain. Pelting rain.
Slept in cubicle last night. Guards amused. Crazy mathematician. Lives over bar. Doesn’t drink. See his hands shake? Must be on something. Worked my own equations. My own trajectory across time and space. I can be measured. Demand every shadow have a source.
Andreas Albrecht, cosmologist, U of C, would split time from space. Suggests universal constant might be “quasi-separability,” space between me and my universe. I have my own separate existence, my own identity. As do you. As does each pebble. Each grain of sand. We die, we die alone. Into terrible nowhere. Null.
His numbers work through my numbers. Score for music that makes things happen. Numbers for universes where I wouldn’t exist. Where there are no separate notes.
Yesterday afternoon, went out and bought a night-light. Only made things darker. Shadows still there. Doctor on base says I have beginnings of Parkinson’s. Knew that.
Obsessive nature turned against me. Me against myself. What is death? Nothing. Oblivion. Void. Simple but incomprehensible. Who was I before I was born? Lethe. What is past? Mortmain. Influence of things that are now nothing. Where am I going? Nowhere. Past, future: dead handshake in shadows.
Decadents of 1890s. Their absinthe. When shadows pass over my eyes, feel like I’ve become one of them, drugged and delirious. My drunken awe. My rational mind has given me such an abyss to fall into. Enlightenment shown us such darkness.
March back to the installation. Through the gate. The bright yellow signs. The magnetometers. The x-rays. The armed guards. All this, I realize, because they, too, fear death. Death contained in this place by barbed wire. Nervous men with machine guns.
I wipe the whiteboard down. Begin again. Add numbers. Subtract. They reflect separation. Conclusion still the same. Death equals zero.
Time pushes us. Don’t even know what time is.
Or what time it is. Wind up pacing back and forth. Head down. Eyes watching feet move across dingy white linoleum. Too tired to pace, spin in chair for hours. Fall asleep. Lights always on here. Bright to mimic our confident search. Will not go back to apartment except to shower, shave. Change my clothes.
This afternoon, I have been spoken to. Summoned into Brigadier General Wellman’s office. He has spoken to me.
An official term, “spoken to.”
This morning, in the hallway, looked up as Colonel Crane moved past me. Noticed something pinned to her collar. She passed so quickly. Something changed. I wheeled around. I swear I said “excuse me.”
I followed her down the hall to her office. The radar array. Only reached for her collar to see what it was. Just one of those pink ribbons. Breast cancer ribbon. More death. My own wife. Never grow old. What would she, had she reached my age, have looked like? Her face is still forty-five. My grief. Women dying, women dead, but there was more.
I stood there, I guess, holding her by her collar. Was I thinking of breasts? Of lovemaking? No. Maybe I lost track of time? She kept swatting my hand. Maybe yelled something. I’m told I broke the top button of her blouse. I have apologized. The math is difficult to explain. Her skills are focused on flight paths and weather patterns, not abstractions of cosmology. I had to get back to my whiteboard.
The ribbon curled up and around. I found that it had an open end. Of course it did; they all do. They’re a little loop of thin ribbon. Pinned in the middle. Nearly a lemniscate.
I took a marker. Drew the infinity equation on the whiteboard: p2=a2 sin 2ø. Under it, a circle with a twisted center. I drew an ouroboros slithering. Writhing. Striking itself. This, I thought, might free me. A runic prophylactic. Rid me of my shadows.
I even stop to ask: How did the ancients know this? A universe that turns on itself. That eats itself. Mindlessly eats itself. Analemma, year after year. I need more math. Sweating, shivering until I wipe down the whiteboard. More math. The equilateral hyperbola greets the perpendicular and falls upon it from the center. Redo my equations. Hands only stop shaking when I’m working. When I’m doing math.
Apartment, shower. Must stay presentable. Shave. See face in bathroom mirror. Possibilities collapse into probabilities collapse into certainties. I’m so old. Waves collapse like thunder. Eventually, the cat in the box is dead. Inevitable. We all are.
Work all night, revising. Moving between whiteboard and computer keyboard. No use. Parkinson’s, breast cancer, hit by a bus. Every day the end of the world for somebody. Empty hungry hollow mouth, those loose loins. My shadow is my mother, again and again. I understand it. Numbers prove it. Knock twice, mother. Universe already dead.
I type the password in the little box. The screen waits for me. Death, destroyer of worlds. One world, anyway. I type: admin. Can prove this hypothesis by experiment. Hack the codes. Hit return. Watch little numbers dying fast on the right slowly kill the big number on the left. Sit and watch. Time swallows itself. A closed system. All numbers die to zero. Done.
In Nebraska, the sounds of early morning drowned by rockets. Time curves and loops and falls.
To infinite darkness, infinite cold. Infinite nothing, broken only by the burst of time. I know too much. Infinite death broken by this burst of me. Broken again. In its perfect curving waveform, I am a crackle of static.
My hand hovers over the keys.
What stops me? Colonel Crane. Her ribbon. The end is open. Open. Heisenberg’s uncertainty: Nothing can’t last forever. Can’t count the possibilities. There is always more. DNA’s double helix. The immortal chemical stuff, turning through time. Nearly a lemniscate, but undone. Skater on a figure 8, breaking loose, away. Unpredictable. Life turns in any direction. Death is the illusion; life is real. Outside by the gate, I remember I can go anywhere.
Decision depends upon observer. And I’m still thinking about it.
This story is taken from Forsythyia Groundhogg-Robin’s book Seducing the Ferryman, which may be found on Amazon by following this link.