Endure Within a Dying Frame, by Michael Griffin

Endure Within A Dying Frame - Heather Landry

Art by Heather Landry – http://sandpaperdaisy.com – click to enlarge

Mazlo sat invisible in the dark window at the front of the old farmhouse, watching, waiting for her to come. The driveway, likewise dark, was no more than twin dirt tracks through acres of overgrown weeds and dying grass. No street lamps, no glow of civilization, because there were no streets, no neighborhoods anywhere near. Within this neglected estate just a few ancient Oaks survived, gnarled branches pointing in contradictory angles.

Despite the true darkness, the front of his home seemed illuminated by Mazlo’s intensely focused anticipation, which increased the instant her headlights approached. As she parked, Mazlo swallowed a pang of shame at his ragged, disintegrating home. Gray boards warped and split, leaving gaps penetrated by wind and weather. The construction no longer carried the strict, linear geometry with which it had been built. All now bent with the entropy of age, sagging and misaligned.

The car door slammed shut. Front steps creaked.

Mazlo peered out, knowing she couldn’t perceive him through the glass. From out of obscurity into the brightness of his expectation, a woman ascended toward the dimly lit porch. Long black wool coat, red-auburn hair tied under a scarf. The sight triggered in Mazlo something like recognition, though all he knew of this woman was the description offered him by the service. Her arrival birthed a complex of desires, mostly reflexive echoes he’d felt repeatedly over decades. The ache of regret. A lustful and impatient hunger for insights he hoped she might deliver. Tangled memories of previous women who had arrived and departed in sequence. Mazlo did not distinguish. All he possessed was this place, and his hoped-for future. His heart thudded. Beyond anxiousness, a reaction more like panic. It rose in him again, the sickening blend of regret and wanting. To desire with such intensity felt desperate, even painful.

Fear, too. Fear for himself. Mostly for her.

Mazlo had asked the agency to send a woman of a type similar to Sandra, whom he’d described in terms of height, build, hair color and age. Sandra had been the latest. Such approximate familiarity, even mere similarity in superficial details, sometimes allowed him to derive more from first encounters. A good start was key, picking up where he’d left off, one companion leading to the next, no backtracking to repeat ground already covered. He needed to overlook the jarring aspects of transition, to conceive of them not as distinct persons, but chapters in one book.

Awaiting the knock, Mazlo froze. He didn’t want to startle her by opening prematurely. No ring came. Seconds ticked away. Had she become afraid, somehow retreated unseen in the dark? Certainly her car hadn’t moved, but it had been too long. He leaned, squinted out the window.

Knock, knock.

Mazlo jumped. Tension flickered in his chest.  Soon a new face, a different name. She was here.

Another knock.

What could he hope for? He told himself, as always at these times, she might be the last. One to bear him the rest of the way. If she couldn’t be his final companion, at least she might deliver him nearer what he sought. How close? Impossible to guess. Not even Mazlo’s unique knowledge could measure infinity with precision.

A thrill surged. That anxious jitter in his gut, a wild flutter of interior muscles. Trickle of sweat beneath his suit. Mazlo composed himself, switched on the brighter, second porch light, and creaked open the front door.

The woman squinted into the sudden light. “I thought you weren’t home. Everything here is so dark.”

Thin and pretty, about thirty-five, with green eyes and prominent Hepburn cheekbones. Just as described.

Mazlo flicked off both switches and gestured her inside. “I find it unsettling, too much of the wrong light.” He held out a hand to accept her coat. “Miss Lenora.”

She pulled off the scarf first, metallic green fabric patterned with tiny silver stars. Hair released from confinement expanded, took on new shape. “Just Lenora.” A scarlet  smile brightened her face.

Always hungry to seek order within patterns, Mazlo’s eyes followed the scarf, tried to count the stars and arrange them, even as Lenora put it in her pocket. Never mind, he thought. Their alignment probably lacked significance. Likely random, like most everything.

The corners of Lenora’s eyes crinkled as she pulled off her coat. Some fragrance reached him. Was the scent actually present in the room, or another echo of stagnant memory? Mazlo took her coat, and his other hand reached to touch Lenora’s arm, skin newly bare in the sleeveless dress. He stopped, hesitant. She offered an accepting look, acquiescence implicit with a lift of her chin. He touched her. The warm skin of a woman. How long? At least since the last month before Sandra’s departure. She’d changed by the end. Become something else entirely.

“You have so much privacy,” Lenora said. “Far from everything.”

As if noticing his surroundings for the first time, Mazlo looked around. “I never think about this place, almost don’t perceive it at all. But unfortunately the tangible still envelops and binds me, against my will.”

Mazlo removed the jacket of his suit, a very specific and rare herringbone. Seen close up, black and white shapes interlocked into a simple repetition, while from a few feet distance, the pattern resolved to a dazzlingly shimmery silver moiré. The fabric possessed both qualities at once, depending upon perspective. Beneath the jacket, Mazlo wore a black dress shirt, buttoned all the way to the collar, without a necktie.

“I’m so pleased, seeing you in a suit for my visit, Mister…” Lenora waited.

“Mazlo.”

“Is that a first or last name?” she asked.

Mazlo had the impression she already knew, just a suggestion of confidence in the angle from which she regarded him. He smiled, took one step toward the hallway, and stopped to have another look at her. A lone candle on the bookshelf glowed. The two of them, a man and woman standing together close, encompassed for that moment within a gently luminous sphere, like a pair of fireside storytellers huddled for comfort against encroaching dark.

Like the living room, Mazlo’s bedroom was lit by a single handmade candle, red and scented of copal, a resin incense imported from South America.

Mazlo indicated the bench at the bed’s footboard. “Mind that sharp corner.”

The room’s unadorned, bachelor’s quality belied the near-constant presence of women, one after another, over a quarter century. But within the first week or two after their arrival, each of these women had become too distracted to care about decor. Mazlo himself was interested in pursuing a philosophy of numbers, all the lofty possibilities that implied. Why bother decorating a world so mundane, and soon to be left behind?

“Tell me about yourself, Mr. Mazlo,” Lenora asked. “What do you want me to know about you?”

Mazlo considered. It was the first time he’d been asked this way. Not what she wanted to know, but what he desired her to know. “I’m a mathematician. Retired.”

Lenora looked impressed. “So young for retirement.”

Mazlo was forty-nine, knew he looked older. “I’m still interested in theory, but can no longer tolerate the university, the social aspect. My focus was hypothetical geometry. Ordered symmetry.”

“Symmetry. I know what that is.” Lenora’s eyes lowered, then lifted again. She made a self-deprecating face. “Probably it means something different than what I think it means.”

Mazlo shook his head. “No, tenth-dimensional symmetry shares qualities with any 2D symmetry you might sketch on scratch paper.” He gestured at a geometric ink drawing which hung framed on the wall. “Even difficult spatial isometries can be reduced to points, lines, triangles.”

“I know better than to ask about a man’s income, but I wonder how a mathematician survives out here, alone in a country farmhouse.”

“Isolation is beautiful,” Mazlo observed. “Isolation is poisonous.”

Lenora kept watching, didn’t look away.

“I don’t have to work,” he continued. “I won a prize once. A major prize. When I was young.”

“You’re still a young man. It can’t have been so long ago.”

“Winners of this prize are always too ridiculously young to handle the award. Can you imagine, a prize sufficiently grand that recipients find their lives destroyed by twenty-five?”

“Sometimes you get sugar and poison together, the very same pill.” Lenora smiled pleasantly, as if she perceived no contradiction in this. “How did you win?”

“For insights relating to branching systems. Specifically, for formulating predictions in unfolding fractal patterns via modeling prevalence of hierarchical complexities.”

Lenora whistled a single, descending tone.

“The key was predicting upstream causation via granular retro-convergence,” Mazlo said. “I imagine that sounds like nonsense.”

“Not nonsense, exactly. More like it might drive you crazy, if you let yourself think on it too long.”

Mazlo considered unbuttoning his shirt’s top button. “Certainly did the trick for me.”

“Branching patterns, like rivers and streams?” Lenora sat down on the edge of the bed. “Or veins and capillaries? It doesn’t seem like branching things would be symmetrical.”

Surprised, Mazlo laughed and clapped his hands. Even the mathematically naive sometimes offered fine insights into deep matters. “A good instinct. I like you already, Miss Lenora.”

“It’s much better if we like each other.”

Mazlo draped Lenora’s coat and his own jacket across an armchair in the corner, then sat on the sharp-cornered bench to remove his shoes. “I’ll lie on my side. You’ll please recline here.” He indicated the side of the bed nearer the door. That bedside table was empty.

She reached behind herself, started unzipping her dress.

Surprised, Mazlo raised a hand. “I should have explained. You don’t have to–”

“I understand, sweetie. A man’s wife leaves, he’s lonely.” Half out of her open dress, she leaned back on one elbow. “I can figure out what you need without you having to tell me.”

She found his hand where it rested on his knee. Her fingertips traced delicate arcs on his skin. In a room so nearly lightless, she was only an outline, a vague suggestion of human form. Her touch could be anyone’s.

Mazlo withdrew his hand. “Sandra was never my wife.” Still fully dressed, having removed only jacket and shoes, he settled back atop the covers and gestured to indicate she should do the same. “It only takes a few seconds of quiet. Be still.”

Lenora smiled gamely and lay back. After a moment, she looked toward him, expectant and playful.

Mazlo was impatient, hungry. It had been so long. The thousandth time.

“Please lie motionless,” he whispered.

Mazlo held himself still. Lenora reclined fully, gazing at the ceiling. Gradually her limbs went slack and her slow breathing made the only sound, Mazlo having taught himself to breathe in silence. In that frozen interval, Mazlo glimpsed a flash through time, a flicker of memory like an image projected onscreen, extinguished before it could be savored.

His marriage, in the time before awareness had come, the only time he’d shared his life in any lasting sense. Even as he’d possessed her, Mazlo recalled wanting more. Something grander, more distant.

Mazlo snapped back to the present as a gap opened in the air above them, a luminous slit wavering in  darkness. From this unfolded a cloud, spinning particles gently glowing like silver dust. This light was subtle, not enough to read by. Lenora seemed unsure what she was seeing, but to Mazlo it was unmistakable, as familiar as a loved one’s face. The rift opened, a knife wound in space, a small, silent firework spilling into the room from a distant time and place.

“Here she is.” Mazlo lifted one hand and moved it in a gesture like conducting music. The particles swirled around his fingers without touching his skin, like metal shavings vibrating in proximity to a magnet. He lowered them toward Lenora’s neck, stopped just short of contact where collarbones met at her vulnerable throat. The light, as if understanding and intelligently following his intentions, drifted onto her. Though the particles had maintained a gap of separation from Mazlo’s skin even as they were led by his movement, they immediately clung to Lenora. Their brightness moved quickly, cast light over her face, spreading down her neck and chest to encompass her entire body.

So quickly, Lenora became entangled.

The body-shaped aura only imperfectly fit the solid woman within, as if wavering undecided between her actual shape, and the slightly different forms of other bodies no longer present.

Lenora gasped.

“Don’t be afraid,” Mazlo said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you what to expect. How she’d make you feel.”

“She?” Lenora trembled minutely, then her whole body spasmed. Her eyes darted.

Mazlo thought she might shriek, bolt for the door. At this stage, many fled. But if she remained still, accepted the sensation a few seconds more, she would recognize that pain was no part of this. Mazlo wouldn’t need to explain. Her natural unease would give way, replaced by a hunger for more.

Lenora’s tremors lessened. She sat up halfway and eyed the door, as if openly contemplating escape.

“Will you lie back?” Mazlo whispered, trying to soothe her with breathy words. “Her outline is nothing tangible, it can’t harm you.” He slid away, careful no part of himself should accidentally touch her.

Lenora’s expression softened, wide-eyed and wondering. Watching her own hand, she raised it slowly, as if sudden movement might disturb the phantom aura. Her mouth hung open. “What is this?”

Mazlo wanted to tell her of equations, of calculations perfected in cracked midnights, decades ago. He said nothing, only savored the knowledge of coming transformations.

Like a projection sharpening into focus upon a screen, the apparition resolved, became more coherent. Lenora’s chest rose and fell in a breathing rhythm slightly offset from the movement of the aura, until the two synchronized. Lenora arched her back in response to some unseen stimulus.

It was happening. Vast distances were narrowing.

Again Mazlo found himself doubting the very thoughts that appeared within his mind, wondering if they truly arose from him, or were imposed from elsewhere. What if all his beliefs and desires were being fed to him? Even now, he no longer really believed the presence to be some kind of female spirit, as he once had; the mind was so stubborn, even when it knew better.

The very air seemed charged with an alien electricity. Objects in the room were spaced at very precise intervals, measurements knowable, angles perfectly incremented and arranged. Every measurement adhered to the symmetric principles Mazlo himself had calculated in isolation, in those long-ago years just after the prize. At this moment, the ancient house felt newly made, the atmosphere not stale with dust and rot, but alive with the hum of possibility. Dull surfaces were beautiful once again. Even the twin specters of aging and death could be ignored. Mazlo didn’t care whether such perceptions indicated slippage within his mind. He didn’t want to return to the outer world, cared nothing for the scrutiny or judgments of dim people. Life had been nothing but an extended exercise in auto-explication of truths incomprehensible to any mind but his own. For this he’d been first rewarded, then shunned.

Even if others could be taught to perceive, if they could peer alongside him into the infinitely vast  dimensions of that sublime place beyond, they couldn’t possibly grasp what meaning it held.

Mazlo caught himself drifting, drawn bodily nearer Lenora. Again he forced himself away, toward the edge of the bed. He’d learned he might accidentally reach out in his excitement. Touch her too soon.

Eyes lightly closed, Lenora shook her head and moaned, slow and deep. Her tongue swirled within her mouth, as if savoring some potent liquor. Another long moan trailed off into hitching, gasping breaths, then she laughed in delight. Her eyes flicked open and she looked around, as if caught in some embarrassing public act.

“Is that me, those sounds?” Lenora giggled and shifted a hand to cover an abashed grin. “I’m sorry, I–” Some further distraction interrupted. Her eyes rolled back, her neck lolled, sweat trickling down her skin.

Urgency increased within Mazlo. He wanted to press forward, had to restrain himself. Stay calm, patient. Lenora felt familiar, but this was new to her. She wasn’t ready to continue where Sandra had left off.

“Don’t apologize,” Mazlo said. “Tell me everything you’re feeling, no matter how intimate. Sensations on the surface of you, or inside.”

“Hmmm…” Lenora writhed and her body shifted within the open dress. Another moan built, resonant in her chest, and grew louder as her mouth fell open again. “I’m reaching toward you.” Her lips formed the words, but the voice sounded not at all like her own.

“You can come through,” Mazlo urged. “This is the one.”

“Last barriers.” Lenora looked side to side, eyes focusing on nothing. “Almost cracked. So near.”

“This way.” He reached, unthinking, almost touched. He caught himself, jerked away his hand.

“Tell me how to find you,” she huffed.

“I don’t know how. You have to–”

“Your name. A beacon.”

Mazlo too breathed faster, compelled by the quickening rhythm. Unable to help himself, he leaned in, hovered close. He savored the tingle of proximity to Lenora’s sweat-drenched skin. Nerves cried out for touch. Terrible to be so near, yet remain apart.

“I can’t,” he cried. “Tell me how!”

Though driven by a sickening intensity, he remained mindful enough to fight the urge to overreach. This stage was delicate, not a time for passionate clutching, or easy release. Remain focused, eyes open, receptive. Breathe slowly, not too intense. Listen and learn.

As Lenora flailed, the bed rocked beneath them. Mazlo leaned, too eager, shifted close. His touch penetrated the glow, brushed Lenora’s arm, slippery with sweat. Immediately his palm felt the sizzle of contact.

At once she stilled, quieted. The light dimmed.

“Wait,” Mazlo gasped, breathing hard. “Not yet.”

The colors comprising the light died away, chromatic layers diminishing one at a time until the last of the unearthly implication had drained out of the room. Mazlo tried to remember, to grasp hold of that sense of meaning, but already it seemed alien. He closed his eyes, pressed knuckles into his eyelids, desperate for an afterimage. Any flash of color, a prismatic spark. A hint of new realms.

The room was merely dark again, indistinct from all the bland, colorless rooms of the world.

Lenora’s breathing slowed. Her hair, darkened with dampness, stuck to her forehead and neck. Sweat soaked her dress. “I saw…” She sighed, slumped in exhaustion. “For a minute, I understood everything.”

Mazlo fought the urge to try again, to compel her to push on. The risk was too great to disregard. Already once tonight his eagerness had ended things prematurely. Sometimes his objective seemed near enough to grasp. He had to remember patience. This plan had evolved through decades: sketched diagrams, or maps for a new universe. Once the way was clarified, convoluted structures could finally be grasped, the system proven by equations first glimpsed in amphetamine-fueled waking dreams.

It was the same for Mazlo as for the women. As soon as he’d become aware of his desire, the impulse had already been too great to ignore.

For tonight, the resumption of pursuit would have to suffice. A single step. Lenora could only bear so much. Her body, her mind. The force of Mazlo’s need wasn’t sufficient to carry her through.

Mazlo and Lenora rested together, breathing, clarifying impressions of what had transpired. He wondered how her interpretation might differ from his own. Although the glow had vanished, a coppery tingle remained in his nostrils, like ozone after a lightning strike.

Lenora’s eyes evaded his. Had she already begun to change? Her skin appeared still vital and smooth, barely freckled at the cheekbones. He wanted to reach out, touch her again. He searched her eyes for signs of distress, failure to process what had happened, and found only the flush of pleasure’s aftermath. She would be unable to resist, but a small, weak part of Mazlo feared she might leave and not return.

Lenora sat up, straightened, and reached to zip her dress. “It’s a little hard to understand.”

Hearing her uncertainty, he felt in control again. “Profound truths are never transparent at first glance.”

At this, her eyes narrowed as if in defensiveness. “I might have a better idea than you think. What happened, I mean.”

Mazlo ignored his urge to explain her error. Better to hear what she believed. “Really? What?” He leaned forward, hoping to appear not skeptical but receptive.

The corner of her mouth lifted. “I’ve always been interested in metaphysics. My uncle was a spiritist, used to include us in his shows. Lanny, my cousin, told me it was never really ghosts in those séances. Not fake, but not ghosts either, not spirits. Something else. Something not from here.”

Maybe she possessed a small insight or two, understood that what many called ghosts or spirits had never been human, nothing so local as that. But there remained so much she couldn’t possibly know. Mazlo battled the impulse to inform, to build upon her small understanding, explain the rest. He couldn’t, yet. He needed to be certain he possessed her. Let her leave and return, drawn by her own desire. This would make her willing to test her own capabilities. How much stamina in such a slight body?

“Many are afraid, driven off by it.” Mazlo didn’t mention what happened to those who weren’t driven away. The ones who stayed.

“You don’t really believe it’s some woman’s spirit,” Lenora said.

Again Mazlo restrained himself. So often he couldn’t say the words that came to mind.

“You know it’s no human thing,” Lenora added. “Not from here.”

Mazlo was surprised, but more than that, felt possessive of this world of his. Her presumption surprised him, made him want to lash out. She couldn’t possibly have gained such a quick understanding of what had entered the room, where it had come from. He calmed himself before he spoke. “What do you think it is?”

Lenora looked at him straight on. “Something formless, without a name.” Then she looked away. “Cold, and so distant. It barely realizes what we are.”

“Maybe,” Mazlo mused. “Anyway, we’re finished. That’s all for tonight.”

She stood, straightened her dress, and started toward the hallway. She turned back, smiled as if embarrassed at the circumstances, and looked at the floor. “That was… everything you wanted?”

Mazlo conceived of ever-growing complexities, invisible and convoluted matrix sets. Distant, that much was true. Intangible, but knowable. Some day.

He nodded. “Yes.”

Lenora retrieved her coat from the corner, started out and again stopped. She seemed reluctant to leave.

Mazlo stood. He hated to let her go, but knew her return must be volitional. That was the only way. Experience told him Lenora remained unaware what had been taken from her. She might feel an intangible absence, impossible to name. Even the most essential, intrinsic aspects of a person were insubstantial enough they might not immediately be missed. Just such an ephemerality ruled Mazlo’s every waking thought. A thief had left behind something else, a placeholder for what had been stolen. A sliver of tomorrow to offset a trace of yesterday. Anyway, what was the point in hoarding all this life, this pettiness and mundane striving? Better instead to gamble on the chance to glimpse the numinous.

Lenora went out to the living room and stopped just inside the front door. Mazlo leaned close enough to smell whatever perfume scented her, mixed with the pleasing earthiness of drying sweat and lingering hint of ozone. Better than a kiss. Lenora pulled on her overcoat and Mazlo handed her an amount of cash–the agreed fee, plus a generous tip. She began to refuse, trying to articulate something. Couldn’t possibly, after how things… He insisted.

Mazlo knew she would never forget, would revisit obsessively those minutes, would return not for him but desperate for another straining connection, a stimulus utilizing every nerve.

“Goodbye.” She went out into the indifferent cold.

Mazlo wanted to call after, tell her she might as well stay. He closed the door.

This plan he’d worked so long toward understanding, so many years, now that he’d brought Lenora in, made her part of it, he hoped she might endure. That was the precise word: hope. Through all Mazlo’s despair, he’d always kept hoping. Moments of sharpest pain, deepest anguish, those were the very moments hope seemed most important, most keenly possibly, if momentarily, out of reach.

The important thing to recognize was that the past was hopeless. Had always been. Would always be.

There was only the future.

Mazlo had felt himself driven to extremes every day, compelled toward things he otherwise couldn’t have imagined. Where were such impulses born? Certainly not within. He believed there existed some free-ranging waves of energy or force invisibly permeating the universe, like gravity and the illusion of time, giving shape to thoughts, influencing the human mind to consider undertaking the otherwise unthinkable.

Why not? If only.

At these extremes of abject weakness the mind became most susceptible to this influence. Driven to desperation, trembling in feverish wanting. Rationalizing that somehow, hope would prevail.

Mazlo tried telling himself the future had already been designed, built of shapes cut from ancient patterns. He had only to find his place. Vivid, eternal dreams awaited. A blossom dripping honey to the tongue. Tastes surging like electric shock. Unearthly scents, carriers of arcane secrets encoded in beguiling patterns, like occult songs. An ecstatic surging of blood. The coming of pleasure. A clenching fury.

Waiting, hoping for a brush with godhead.

“You’ll return,” Mazlo whispered. “I’ll welcome you.”

He was alone again. Ever closer.

Alone, all perspective retreated. Mazlo suffered in fear, despair, and uncertainty, despite the previously certain knowledge of what he must soon attain. The certainty of her return, proven by many past repetitions, did nothing to prevent a persistent ache in his gut, urgent as a burst appendix. His desire for Lenora, or what she might convey to him, retreated into the distance, a barely-recalled vision already fading.

Why this lack of hope? Such fear, every time he became alone. Why couldn’t he remember this was only desperation, fear of solitude? Of course she would return.

What if she didn’t? What if Lenora was gone forever, and nobody would ever replace her?

Mazlo imagined the fear he experienced was far greater than most people. Probably it arose from guilt. He didn’t deserve a lofty future, or anyone to share it with him, not when all the damage was taken into account. The truths he’d learned had value, but at what price?

All truths derived from the primary cause. From the fundamental, all else emerged.

Once, a younger Mazlo had determined mathematics to be a dead end, and instead sought truths within the written word. Religion, philosophy, the occult: endeavors directly aimed at enabling a personal experience of the cosmic. These offered insights, amplified by psychedelic drugs, which clarified that nothing important was happening HERE or NOW, not when compared to the cosmic scale. Profound distances, deep time. What connection did TODAY have to ancient history, or the distant future?

As to the cyclical and connected nature of all things, Mazlo had sought explication, but found philosophers, magickians and theologians gave only hints.

Mathematics had always drawn him back. It covered the full spectrum of possibilities.

Plane reduced to line, line to point. Quanta vibrant with intent conveyed infinite possibility.

The strange actions of baryons disproved false notions like distance and proximity. Mazlo was neither physicist nor astronomer, but could see even that was connected. Vast helical galaxies, subatomic micro-universes, all forms of arrayed information. Confusion spun toward toward clarification faster than light, birth and death on a collision course, ending and beginning, a cycle of repetition faster and faster throughout the infinite history of this universe and all those prior.

Fear of death, hunger for pleasure. By these words, timeless beings spoke from far realms, into ours. This way, everything could be understood.

From a university, to a prize granted. Finally to this house, which had once seemed appropriately humble and non-distracting. Now it seemed to be gruesomely dying, its flesh disintegrating, falling off its bones. But this place was a hub, had been granted significance by the towering structure of Mazlo’s cumulative knowledge. Complex truths extrapolated, then simple ones.

Yet he was only a man, made of flesh. A home made of wood, failing.

Mazlo snapped back to his room, eyes aching at the window, seeking Lenora in the vacant dark. Would she return? His mind spun. Fractal geometry, branching principles. What did those mean? One woman, but… Every individual resembled all others. One, same as many. Natural laws derived from the ontological first mover. All accounts were to be settled, and the end would become a new beginning.

On one extreme, infinite expansion worked in ceaseless opposition to entropy. On the opposing side were the insistent illusion of linear time, and the dull finitude of human existence. The sublime, the terrible.

Mazlo counted on the possibility of leaving behind these aspects he despised. That was the only way he could convince himself to go on. Lenora could carry him closer. Maybe she would be the last. He hoped, but he’d hoped before. Most died never knowing, never having glimpsed even the first hint. Spirals, recursion, the golden section, Fibonacci numbers, secret primes. All men and women were numbers arrayed in space, a recipe for multiverses. The language of children conveyed seeds of prior knowledge, lingering hints, genetic memories of prior realms, to which we might return.

Lenora’s desire must be unimaginable. Much as he ached, her suffering must be worse. She must be dying to return. Dying. He laughed.

How had he survived two months after Sandra left? Those weeks had passed in delirium of sleep and fevered dreams. Now, a single night alone left him tormented. He drew curtains against daylight, leaned close against the fireplace until the heat obliterated the unbearable chill.

Still he waited, rocking in the dark room. A voice within him spoke of guilt, self-recrimination. How many had he allowed to disintegrate?

“Everyone disappears,” Mazlo explained.

So many consumed, devoured by his selfish needs.

“They had desires, too. Autonomy.”

No one was listening. Only himself.

This was the cost of isolation, remoteness from humanity’s coursing. A dead home surrounded by dying trees in a comatose, insane world. He had to break through, before the veil fell.

Doubt had always before been erased. Second thoughts, fears he shouldn’t go so far, should turn back, had always been quelled upon the woman’s return. And she would. She understood the danger, knew that if something else didn’t consume her, death still waited.

Delirious in a swirl of desire, Mazlo glimpsed red hair glinting under the dim light. Lenora. His heart leapt from despair to hope. He hadn’t heard the car park, the door shut. But here: a knock at the door.

He stood, crossed to let her in, imagining all she’d endured. Sleepless nights fighting against desire. Fever dreams, somehow aware of the threat. Shut inside all day, like Mazlo himself, shuddering behind blanket-darkened windows.

Another knock. Lenora.

Mazlo tried to sustain hope for her, but knew that like others before, she couldn’t forestall disintegration. She would become hollow, a dreamless amnesiac, then either slink off into the brittle gray fields while he slept, or die in bed beside him, consumed. Those who hadn’t escaped left no trace but for white dust like baker’s sugar, a few wisps of hair, and dry shards of marrowless bone. Better they made it out alive, that some instinct for self-preservation broke through hedonistic delirium in time. That wasn’t something he could influence, even if he wanted, and lately they seemed not to last as long. Maybe his desire was nearly manifest.

He imagined her on the other side of this door, mind seized in a struggle to hold onto sanity, only vaguely aware of the nameless controlling force. Lenora, blended with an intelligence which lacked its own flesh and visited in borrowed gaps, devoured pinched fragments until slowly her mind turned to ash.

Mazlo gripped the knob, turned, and opened.

On Lenora’s face shone the doom he surmised. A melancholy smile, vacancies behind eyes burned away by memories of pleasure, skin split by subtle cracks where her beauty rent apart and liquid substrate leaked through. Something else beneath the sadness, some secret, guarded. Mazlo tried to read those eyes, gazing back golden green, some midway between the need he was accustomed to seeing, and a confident readiness he couldn’t explain.

“My love,” he whispered, wondering if this pattern might be less certain than he assumed. Could some extraordinary woman alter his trajectory?

Lenora leaned back in their embrace to look at him. “Love, you called me?” In her eyes something flashed. “Is that what this is?”

What did she want him to say? Yes, Mazlo had sacrificed others, but always hoped one would continue with him, survive as he’d managed. Sometimes this distinction seemed a feeble excuse, but it was true. He hoped. For now, Lenora remained beautiful. When that diminished, as it must, Mazlo would focus on other qualities. Most valued were the capacities of perseverance and stamina. Like a living work of art, the ability to endure within a dying frame. To find pleasures, to enjoy without diminishment, to ignore the onrushing inevitability.

“Until we shed this carapace,” he whispered, “and wear only infinite space.”

Hair vivid red, warmth of her body against his. Aspects tangible, objective, if transitory. Her longbow smile, that hint of knowing.

Already in this embrace, she’d begun to fade, the scent of her to change. Smell of decay blended with the copal candles, intended to attract the sublime.

Lenora sighed. “These past days, I’ve been through so much.” Light, almost teasing.

Fear nettled. What if he’d misjudged, if Lenora was different, not only stronger than the others, but himself? The insights he’d struggled decades to gain, another might apprehend more easily. Maybe she would survive, and he would decay? Uncertainty nagged him. Something about her fed this murmur of doubt.

“Would you ever have told me?” she asked.

He felt judged, accused.

She leaned close, whispered so her breath tickled his ear. “Now I understand you.”

Now Mazlo felt afraid. What if she outlasted him, if the cosmos would be unfolded as he’d conceptualized, but not by himself. Lenora, transcendent in his stead, after he’d faded to ash and bones. No, that wasn’t possible. The thing wasn’t just intuition, but complex mathematics, both theory and computation, the arena of his indisputably great achievement. This universe couldn’t be seen directly except through the veil of complex number sets. “What do you mean?”

“You noticed my fair skin, so white?” She ran fingers through red hair strands. “I’ve spent all my time in dark rooms. Since I was little.”

Mazlo began to tremble. This abstract future goal didn’t matter, if he couldn’t survive the here and now. “Please, you can help me. I’m only trying. That’s all.”

“Only trying. Trying seems hard for you.” Lenora’s voice was strange. “It’s easy for me.”

“Please, we can help each other.” He considered. “I can help you, too.”

“You’ll help me?” Her lip curled, mocking.

“Yes, both of us,” Mazlo insisted, desperate. “I’m only trying to survive. To stay intact long enough to find a way out of his hateful, devouring–”

“Devouring?” She shrugged, took a step back. “I don’t see it.”

“You will.” He breathed, feeling dizzy. “Just look around. Always watching. Judging.”

Something in her smile, not sadness, not decay. A secret. Mazlo couldn’t quite read those eyes, green speckled gold. Certainly they didn’t convey the powerless need he expected. More like confidence, an inexplicable readiness. He’d always wondered if his pattern might break. If some woman, possessed of unprecedented knowledge or strength, might reach past him.

“What is this?” he asked. “What’s happening?”

“All those summers, cousin Lanny and me, staring at dark ceilings. Counting the things Uncle called down, before they flitted away. Each one a number.”

He’d convinced himself Lenora had already begun to disintegrate, that he’d smelled the sour hint of her imminent doom. Horror overtook him as he realized he was wrong. The smell was his own failing body, already falling apart. Mortal terror rose from his subconscious, grabbed hold of him. Very soon he would be gone. Lenora would awaken one morning in bed beside his ashes, wisps of sickly hair, and chips of parched bone. She would be the one to finish what he’d begun, long ago.

Something in her aspect had in fact changed, but not what Mazlo expected. Not disintegration, not fear or entropy, but new depth. An increased complexity revealed itself in her eyes. A hint of the very same eternity Mazlo had always sought. Now it was near, contained within Lenora. Under her control.

He wondered at the odd smile on her lips. Already it was too late.

Mike GriffinMichael Griffin‘s collection The Lure of Devouring Light was a 2016 Word Horde release, and Dim Shores will soon publish his novella An Ideal Retreat. His stories have appeared in all kinds of fancy books and magazines, but Griffin is most famous for his red pants.

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Story illustration by Heather Landry.

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