VARIATION ON A THEME

Gregory Williamson reclines in a battered old chaise lounge, set on a hilltop in the middle of nowhere. He is aware of the biting cold, but somehow no longer really feels it. He doesn’t care. It’s news from a distant land, one he is leaving behind. He is quite sure the feeling of distance means he is close to the end, and he is at peace with this. It’s according to plan, after all. Like the night around him, time seems frozen, locking him into the present and endless moment. It’s a comfortable fit. It feels familiar.

The stars of winter over him are as cold and hard as the air he breathes, clearly seen in the black sky until he exhales, and then briefly obscured by the steam of his breath. The clouds of steam are appearing less often. Orion fills his vision; the pale streamer of the winter Milky Way crosses the sky to the east. Sirius blazes down and to his left, twinkling with mad rainbow colors, a matter for peripheral vision. He can’t turn his gaze directly toward it. He is mildly puzzled that the stars remain so clear and undimmed. Greg thinks his vision should be fading by now, but the stars are bright. That his last sight might be such a starry sky, a thing for which he has a fondness he’s never been able to explain, is pleasing. It is also surprising that he can still appreciate the view, and feel that fondness, in that endless moment of his ending.

“What the hell do I know?” he mumbles to the stars. “First time for everything, even the last thing.”

The pills are in him, washed down by expensive vodka. His coat is open to the bitter cold night air. The pills and the alcohol are surely doing their work, and because of them Greg feels perfectly comfortable, ironically numb to the winter air. He imagines that each time he exhales, another degree or two of body temperature is shed. He sighs deeply and bids farewell to a few more degrees. An overpowering urge to sleep wells up from deep within. He will be free soon. No more cancer, no more creaking old age, no more bitter undercurrent of betrayal. Greg looks up at the blaze of frosty stars and smiles. And drifts away into that sightless sleep that will soon be so much deeper. He can feel it happening, and a sense of comfort and ease fills him. And it does all feel very familiar. One last flicker of déjà vu.

He opens his eyes and realizes that he is no longer alone. Greg turns his head, expecting vertigo but feeling none, surprised that he can move at all. “Who the hell are you? And how did you find me?” Damn it, they found the note too soon.

“Call me Lucy,” replies the tall woman standing beside him. “I didn’t find you, exactly. We’re all here together, after all.”

“I didn’t put even the merest hint of where I was going in that note.”

Lucy shrugs and says, “That doesn’t matter. I haven’t seen your note.”

“Who sent you?” he demands.

“No one,” Lucy replies in a matter-of-fact tone. “Your daughters have no idea that you’re out here. They haven’t read your note either.”

“Now, how the hell would you know that?”

“Same way I knew where to find you.” Now Lucy wears a patient smile. “It’s all a matter of awareness, and let’s just say mine provides a unique perspective on your reality, compared with what you’re accustomed to.”

In the soft light of the stars it’s hard to see much of the woman. Greg has the impression that she is tall and slender, with long dark hair and a face that implies Asian ancestry. She wears a long, dark coat, tied closed around her waist with a sash. Her arms are crossed over her chest, hands bare, and she seems entirely unaffected by the cold night air.

She gives him a speculative look. “Yes, you’re definitely the one I need.”

“You were looking for me?” Confusion rises through the swiftly diminishing urge to sleep. Greg feels more clear-headed than he has in many years. “Why?”

“That’s going to take some of what you call time to answer,” she replies.

“Time is something I don’t have, lady. Not tonight. You’ll need to explain yourself and quickly.” Gregory looks back up to the stars. “I was just about gone when you butted in. Sound asleep for good and all.”

“You’re not sleepy,” she points out.

Greg sits up, swinging his legs around and planting his bare feet on the ground. He doesn’t feel his feet. “What the hell is up with that?” He looks down and sees his shirt hanging open over a scrawny, bare chest. The numbing buzz that lured him into one last sleep is quite gone, but he still doesn’t feel the cold. He looks up at Lucy, who smiles down at him. “Who the hell are you?” he demands again. “What’s happening to me?”

“That’s part of what’s going to take some time to explain,” she replies, lowering herself to sit beside him, on the foot end of the lounge chair. “All part of the same story, Greg. But trust me, you have all the time you need to hear me out.”

He isn’t cold, the urge to sleep has completely vanished, and he doesn’t feel any of the effects of drugs and alcohol. Greg exhales; his breath doesn’t turn to steam. She knows his name, and knew where he was. But Greg is absolutely certain they’ve never met, even as he realizes she seems somehow – familiar.

“What the hell?” he whispers to himself, bewildered.

“Well, to start with, rest assured none of this has anything to do with any mythology you know about. All of those are vague impressions of the true reality. What the hell? What in god’s name? Trust me, none of that applies.”

“If that was supposed to make things any clearer…”

“We have a ways to go, yet,” she replies. “A little patience will be well rewarded.”

“Okay, I’ll shut up and you start talking.”

“Fair enough.” She seems to be gathering her thoughts for a moment, then nods and says, “You’re familiar with the concept of time’s arrow?”

“Sure,” he replies. “Time flows one way, past to present, and into the future.”

“That’s an illusion, one you experience because most of your consciousness exists in the linear realm,” Lucy says.

“The what?”

“Reality is vastly more complicated than you realize,” she tells him.

“I’ve – often thought so.”

“You’d still be quite surprised.” She laughs quietly. “Assuming you could truly comprehend that complexity enough to react with surprise. Still, I’ve gotten pretty good at interpreting it for linear perceptions.”

“In that case, please continue.” Greg is torn between annoyance and bafflement. Why am I not cold? I can’t see my breath turn to steam.

“You and yours experience reality in a particular way, as a sequence of events strung out between what you call birth, and what you think is death. But there’s more to it than that, so much more that your concept of eternity is a paltry thing by comparison.” She is nodding as she speaks, as if pleased with herself. “My perspective is completely different. I experience all of reality in its vast diversity as a single thing, one that always exists right now. No past, no future, just – now. And all of its infinite aspects mesh together in a way that seeks a perfect balance or harmony.”

“And the life I’ve lived and am about to end is a part of all that?” Greg asks.

“An infinitely tiny, and yet vital note in that desired harmony.”

“Desired?”

“It’s a work in progress,” she admits with a shrug. “That’s why I’m here with you.”

“You know,” he says, “I’d have thought even a hallucination in my last heartbeats would make at least a little more sense.”

“I am not a figment of neurons giving their last and all,” Lucy replies patiently. “I’m quite real, in my own particular way.”

“Okay, you can see all of eternity at once,” he says. “What does that make you? A god?”

“What you call eternity is just another part of the whole,” she replies. “And in some of your linear mythologies, I’d qualify as a deity, though not in the sense of being the creative principle. There is such a thing, and I’m part of what it laid out when this reality came into existence. I’m sort of an emergent property, and the role I play could be roughly considered analogous to a conductor running an orchestra through the mother of all rehearsals, one that neither begins nor ends, although it certainly changes. I’m fond of what you would call musical metaphors, so you could think of it in terms of an infinity of variations on a theme.”

“During the rehearsal?”

“I did say it’s a work in progress.”

“Okay, pardon the impatience of an old man, and never mind that nothing you’ve said makes a bit of sense, what does any of this have to do with me?”

“The work in progress is reality, all of it,” she says patiently. “The rehearsal is forever revealing, well, call them off notes and instruments out of tune. My existence is defined and given purpose by tweaking these things, nudging the whole ever closer to the perfect performance. The linear reality you call life is a source for many disharmonies. To work on that aspect of it, I need to manipulate the existence of such as yourself.”

“Right,” he grunts in reply, slowly shaking his head. “So, any moment now, I’ll actually be dead, and you’ll be as gone as I am. And I should be dead by now, with the pills I took. To say nothing of being well on the way to freezing solid.”

“Oh, you are quite dead, Greg,” she assures him. “At least, you are in the linear sense of your perception. But in the true nature of reality, the symphony I conduct, you are an unerasable part of the score. So you’re anything but dead, and never can be.”

She rises to her feet and holds one hand down to him. He takes that offered hand out of habit, rising from a seated position having become, for him, an often challenging maneuver. But as he stands, he feels pretty spry for an eighty-seven-year-old cancer victim, full of pills and booze. To say nothing of being frozen stiff. Lucy nods in a way to direct his attention to the chaise lounge. Greg is there, sprawled on the chair, coat open, lifeless eyes turned to the stars.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he whispers.

Posted August 20, 2022 by underdesertstars

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