universe

An Unexpected Visitor

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Martha glanced at the clock on the wall. 8:00 p.m. She sighed, turned off the TV and prepared for bed.

While brushing her teeth, she gazed into the mirror, and not for the first time, she wondered what the hell had happened. In her mind, she was still a nineteen-year-old woman, yet she now had the achy, arthritis-ridden body of seventy-five. She could feel the weight of time pressing down on her, breathing down her neck, stalking her in every unseen shadow. She never failed to be surprised by how ephemeral life seemed in these vulnerable moments, like vapor that was solid to the eye, yet parted and evaporated to the touch.

She spat her toothpaste into the sink, rinsed out her mouth and turned off the light.

Ghosts of the past visited her as she tossed and turned through the night, visions of people and places that had either changed beyond recognition or were no more. The world seemed pliable in that place between dreams and the waking world, a land of impossible geometries and infinite possibilities.

It was in one of these not-quite-dreams that Martha received an unexpected visitor.

“You returned,” she said when she spotted him floating in the window sill.

“I promised, didn’t I?”

“I was fifteen when I last saw you. You promised to come back, but I gave up on you by the time I was thirty-five. Why did you take so long?”

The phantom reached out with insubstantial hands. “You were young. You needed experience that only age could provide.”

“Well, look at me,” she snorted. “You certainly got what you wanted.”

“But don’t you see? You are so much more lovely now.”

She said nothing.

“I have something for you. Open your hands.”

Martha had not seen this particular visitor in decades, yet she trusted him now and did as she was told.

“You saved us. An entire world exists today because once you loved. Now, that world belongs to you.”

Martha looked down at her gift and gasped. She held the universe in the palm of her hand.

“My final gift to you,” said the apparition, and then he smiled and disappeared.

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Roots

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The universe was weakening.

Betty could feel it fraying around the edges, the evil beyond pounding against the celestial gates. The cosmos wouldn’t hold for long, and when its defenses fell, it wouldn’t just be this universe that would suffer. Hers was the cornerstone, the center of all existence, the universe in which all other universes derived their being. If she didn’t do something soon, all would be lost.

She closed her eyes. Took a deep breath. Let her soul slip from her body. The cosmos absorbed her into itself, until she was sailing across space and time. The fabric of existence quaked and shuddered with the force of the Darkness’s attacks, and she felt herself falter, gutter like a flame caught in a strong wind. But she would not let the world she loved die with her.

She pressed on.

She let the Darkness draw her, let it tug her along the macrocosm’s star spangled surface like a lure. It was hungry, eager to consume, and she would use its hunger against it.

One rumbling quake after another, each like a mountain hurled at her from a world-sized sling shot. Soon enough she found herself at the source, a bulge in the cosmic substrate, a festering pustule that was growing like cancer just beneath the surface.

I can’t do this. The thought skittered along the membrane of her mind, but she ignored it. She could, and she would. All of reality depended on it.

She let the Darkness pull her in further, until the g-forces from that supernatural black hole threatened to pull her apart. Then she reached out it was like sticking the arms that were back with her body in tar took hold, slowly peeled back the layers of empty space.

The darkness shuddered, reeled.

WHAT IS THIS?

It was aware of what she was doing now. She had to work quickly. She inserted herself into the place between, felt for the roots of this deadly celestial blight and pulled.

Another rumbling shudder.

I WILL CONSUME YOU.

Waves of despair crashed over her, and she faltered once more. She could feel those poor souls who were trapped on the other side, wailing in eternal despair. It was catching, and like a hook those dark emotions began to reel her in.

But Betty wasn’t having any of that. She sent out roots of her own, a blinding sprawl of interconnected fibers. They anchored her to space and time, where she stood fast and let the Darkness’s greedy tugging work against itself.

Sure enough, the more ardently it struggled to pull her in, the more the hold of its own roots weakened, unable to withstand the intense shearing forces.

There was one final shudder, one that nearly did her in, and then Betty felt the first root snap. One by one the others followed.

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? the Darkness bellowed, its disbelieving howl rippling across the universe. I AM UNDONE.

The last of its roots disengaged and the Darkness was cast out at last, hurtling into the empty void beyond.

Exhausted, Betty surveyed the damage. It was extensive, she thought, but with time and help it would heal. She considered her body back home, an unfathomable number of miles and eons behind her, and let it go. She was part of the universe now, ageless and eternal.

She extended her roots as far as they would go, hooked into the wounded patch of space and time like a scab. Yes, she thought again, the cosmos would heal. Together they would grow into something stronger, something greater.

The Darkness would return, but with her and the cosmos joined, they would be ready.

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Life in Reverse

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It was happening again. A cosmic hiccup. A moment in time, repeated.

The world moved around her, but in reverse. How many times had Stacy been through the same series of events? She might have been through a single iteration, or she might have been through a thousand. Forward. Then backward.

Water rose from the shag carpet like Jell-O, streamed back into a glass that reflected sharp needles of light as it fell upward, arcing through the air and finally righting itself on Mary Anne’s serving tray. The woman back-stepped from pale and mortified to warm and boisterous.

In an insane corner of her mind, the part of her that was convinced she’d done this long enough for the sun to burn out, Stacy wondered if God had found some particular event in the world so funny that he’d had to hit the rewind button to watch it again.

Then she wondered if this was Hell.

Mark’s shoulder disconnected from Mary Anne’s, just as his foot parted ways from the table leg that had tripped him. His head came up like an Olympic swimmer rising from the water. All of this in a world without sound.

How could that be? Shouldn’t she hear everything, but backwards? Did it have to do with waves of sound traveling backward instead of forward, toward instead of away from the source? Maybe, though she suspected that wasn’t quite right.

During all of this she was frozen, like the ice sculpture mounted beside the chocolate fountain, dripping backwards as it spontaneously refroze. Like the T-1000 in the Second Terminator movie, she thought, and a mad giggle would have escaped her lips if she could have opened them.

Lucy stepped back into her field of vision, approached her in a strange backwards walk as she undismissed herself from Stacy’s company. She had no idea how far back time would go before things righted themselves, but a sense of certainty was mounting that the stage was nearly set for the next iteration. She thought of the movie Groundhog Day. Was there a lesson in this? If so, why couldn’t she remember any of her previous experiences? She suspected, much to her horror, that this was pure accident, that the universe wasn’t so neat and orderly after all. That, more than anything else, scared her.

If this was immortality, she wanted to die.

Lucy’s mouth opened. The arm she’d withdrawn from Stacy’s shoulder returned. And that was when she felt it, a tug, an instant of hopeless disorientation as the universe stopped, tilted, began to spin in the opposite direction once more. In one infinitesimal moment she felt she was on the precipice of something, that she existed outside space and time, that she was nearly a god. Then memory drained from her head like water down a sink.

“Stacy,” said Lucy, a hand on her shoulder. “It was so good of you to come. Let me see if I can find Steve so he can say hello.” She left Stacy, gone in search of her boyfriend.

Then there was a shocked cry, a mortified apology and the dull thud of a glass landing on the carpet. Stacy’s eyes went to the wet spot, and she could swear that just beyond that darkened halo of shag carpet there was some cosmic secret, a hidden trap that was about to spring.

Another tug, then a pull. The muscles in Stacy’s body froze, and a knowledge that wasn’t quite memory returned to her. It was happening again.

A moment in time, repeated.

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