The Sphere by Garrett Rowlan

When Alan saw the sphere that December morning, he knew its manifestation spoke no longer of possibility but promise, prophecy. It was a sort of Christmas present, one not given to him by anyone but fate—a fate that he had woven.

Lifting the iron sliding door of the rental space half-open, just high enough to accommodate his 5’11” frame, the shape hovered above the cardboard boxes. It almost looked like a tree ornament. Small, round, and luminescent, the circle of light barely reflected off the storage-space walls. Contained inside the sphere, however, was the bright image of a woman looking directly at Alan. As he reached out for her, she faded. It was the woman he had killed, Charlotte Ditmar.

When she and the shape were gone, he opened the rolling gate all the way and knelt as if before an altar of twelve boxes, including the one he had brought with him on this Saturday morning. Twelve boxes: one for each month, roughly, each with its boundary of days annotated in black marker—days sealed in date-stamped envelopes. Those he began collecting shortly after Charlotte died.

Once his breathing had calmed, he lifted and set the new box on its appropriate spot, where it took its place among the 365 days, give or take, since the auto accident. They were days—or envelopes—filled with parking stubs, movie tickets, laundry tickets, bills, chits, restaurant bills, junk mail, newspaper clippings, along with occasional photographs and mnemonic notes…in short, all the picayune, printed realia from a dozen months sorted into one envelope per day. It was trash that contained memories, like individual brain cells detached but retained.

It had started a week after her death. He’d fallen into despair, became an apprentice hoarder. By early January trash had piled up and the bugs were beginning to take an interest in his bungalow apartment, rented in back of a house in the neighborhood of Alhambra, California.

He then had the dream. Previously, he’d believed that dreams were nothing more than detritus of the psyche, but this dream was 3D in depth, 4G in clarity. In it, ants marched in a tightening circle, and each carried not bread crumbs but a letter, the building blocks of meaning. The letters fused to form Charlotte. She nodded to him, as if to tell him to do something.

He woke with a feeling that he’d been given a mandate. At first, he meant to clean, but while carrying the trash outside he stopped and sifted back through it, separating the coffee grounds, candy wrappers, and orange rinds from the scraps of papers he’d tossed. As he did, he saw printed dates: the beginnings of a record, a file. He thought of the ants in his dream. He took the scraps and arranged them chronologically. As he did so, he had a strong feeling of a process, a series of ledgers that had a purpose. The next day he bought a box of envelopes and his own date stamp. From that moment on, his collection of days continued.

It might not have, but a sphere kept appearing—not the sphere he had seen, but a series of spherical shapes—redeeming what seemed an exercise in madness. One afternoon, there was the setting sun all orange and round, reflected in the high windows of a downtown structure; there was a volleyball rolling down the street, keeping up with his car for a half-block as Alan returned from the show one night. In his pocket was his ticket and credit card information.

He remembered Charlotte. “The circle holds the fundamental fact of existence,” she had told him once. “From the globe itself to the Aleph in Borges’ story.” (His master’s thesis, still uncompleted, was a contrast/comparison between the writers Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. He and Charlotte had met in a seminar on magical realism.)

“Fundamental fact?” he asked. They were crossing the nighttime campus after class. “What is that?”

“Space and time,” she said. “Those are the fundamental properties of existence.”

Now he believed her, for the sphere he saw as fundamental—a priori, a message from the wellspring of existence. Looking at the boxes, he saw them not as blocks of creative fanaticism, like institutionalized talents doing wall-paintings in shoe leather; no, he saw them now with new eyes, saw them as markers of time, leading him out of the labyrinth of his own despair. It was a Christmas present to himself.

He didn’t know what this feeling meant, only that it was strong and that he knew he needed to open the sealed boxes, boxes he had not opened since he himself had sealed them. Boxes he would open in a ritualistic, sequenced way. He didn’t know how he would do this, he only knew he would, that the year he’d spent documenting himself through trash had to have an end, something ceremonial: he didn’t know what.

There was a logistical problem. Alan couldn’t open them here nor, as he discovered after two hauling trips back to his place, could he fit them into his small, bungalow-style apartment. It was in the back of a two-story house that had belonged to the Lynne family—or the Lynne trust, Alan supposed, as Jerry Lynne had died two months ago. The family had buried him, cleaned out and painted the house and told Alan he needed to leave in a week, be out by the new year. All that remained was to wax the floors and then list it, along with the bungalow in back: 3 bdr., 2 ba., liv rm, frplce, bck unit.

“Fireplace,” Alan said to himself. He had a key, somewhere. Mr. Lynne had given him one, thinking he might need it in an emergency. He rummaged in his desk drawer until he found it. He let himself in through the back door. He walked across the kitchen’s emptied and painted interior. He crossed the living room’s hardwood floor and stood in front of the empty fireplace. The room was cold.

Looking into the fireplace, he knew he would have to burn the paper, sacrifice the collected days to an end unknown. He brought the boxes into the house and arranged them, after some thought, in a circle. He had a plan. As he proceeded with the reading and burning, he would work around the recorded time and slowly go toward the fireplace, burning the last envelopes, going backward in time to the traffic accident in which Charlotte had died and he was at the wheel. He had a stash of matches and candles.

Staring out the window into the daylight street, he took stock. He was thirty-five years old, an unmarried man with no family, with nothing to lose, really. If this failed, he at least would have cleaned out his Public Storage space.

And if this succeeded…but he didn’t know what he wanted, what to expect. It was all about the process, not the result. He would learn as it happened.

He started by rereading yesterday’s entry; school, Starbucks, groceries…he had a receipt for each day, along with a phone bill that, like all bills whenever possible, he always paid in person because they gave him a receipt.

Then two days ago, and three, four. When he had fifteen days read he carefully carried over the handfuls of paper to the fireplace and burned them.

Slowly, he got into a rhythm, a kind of trance. Days passed, sliding through his fingers. Gradually, the paper he burned had an evocative quality. Often the most insignificant bill summoned a remembered thought, or some observation that had him savoring the recollection like a precious favor or scent—the year in sensual review. Sometimes he had made small notes on the chits he collected and those had their own particular slant of handwriting, like a magnetic needle reflecting his mood.

After reading two months’ worth of scraps, he noticed how the room was unexpectedly warm, as if the fires had given off more heat than he suspected, and the sun lingered longer than he was used to this December.

He pulled out a piece of paper: celebration of the life of Mr. Charles Lynne.

“Went to Charlotte’s grave after Chuck’s service,” he reread the note he had written in May. “Feeling rotten, miserable, guilty. Useless. Sometimes, I wish it had been me.”

They were going to a restaurant to celebrate her jumping through the last hurdle, getting her teaching credential, and they were heading east on the 134 into Glendale when it happened.

“Hadn’t you better call them,” she said. “We might be late.”

He couldn’t remember the number, and that’s when he looked down at his Android, and the next thing he knew, Charlotte was yelling and when he looked up he saw he was going full speed into a car that had stopped. He slammed on his brakes and the car behind him screeched and the three cars came together almost simultaneously.

“No, officer,” he later said. “I wasn’t distracted. I was paying attention. It all happened so fast.”

Shortly after that, Charlotte said she wasn’t feeling well. Her head hurt. She fell into a coma and died at the hospital.

He went back to his burning after a few more weeks were torched. Tired, as if this exhausted time had taken its toll on his body, he stood and went to the window. Peering around the blinds, he saw it was almost dark now, yet the day had gotten strangely warm. The memory of Charlotte had left him feeling odd: retrograde was the word he chose, as if each forward step were, somehow, a backward one. Even the things he saw across the street had a small slant to them, as if they were being tugged at by some other kind of gravity.

Turning around, he noticed how the remains of torched paper and cardboard (he’d burned boxes along with the envelopes) had begun to fill the fireplace.    

He lit a match to find the trapdoor at the fireplace’s back. He lifted it open, scraped the ashes into the trapdoor until it was clean. He would repeat the task when he was finished reading. He didn’t want anyone to know he’d been here.

After reading another month’s worth, he felt sleepy and stretched out. When he woke it was near dark, and for a few seconds he didn’t know where or even who he was, as if he were floating. Then he shook his head and it all fell into place: who, what, and where. Still, a strange feeling persisted, as if he were some Rip Van Winkle who had slept not forward in time, but backward. He had no idea how long he’d been out.

Outside, it was full dark, and he lit a couple of candles and carried them back into the house. He returned to work, surrendering to the stream of days—meaningless days, trivial days, but each with some kind of bill or receipt to flag it—until he stuffed some more ashes down the trapdoor and began to wonder if the hopper below was full.

After blowing out the candles, he carried the book of matches outside. The darkness had a deep purple tint. He found by streetlight the small grate under the chimney. He unlatched the door, but when he thrust forward the lit match to see the buildup of ashes inside, he found the hopper completely empty, as if the ashes had fallen into oblivion. He kept thinking there had to be something, but there was nothing—more than nothing: the essence of nothing, an emptiness that hadn’t been given time to exist.

He didn’t return to the house. He went to his bungalow apartment. He lay on the bed and felt recharged, almost excited, filled with a sense of daring and violation, and beyond that an emptiness he recognized as hunger. Once the hollow feeling had a name, he was almost ravenous, as if he hadn’t eaten for weeks, and soon enough he was putting on his coat and walking up the street toward Huntington Boulevard a quarter-mile away.

From the liquor store near the corner he got a box of matches, a candy bar, a Coke, and a bag of trail mix.

“Good,” Alan said. “I see you’ve dropped the price of the trail mix.”   

“No,” the clerk said, “It’s been that way. I’m thinking of raising it, actually.” He looked tired, the clerk, but not so tired that he forgot to hand Alan correct change and a receipt for his purchases. By now, the clerk knew the obsession of this particular customer.

Alan took the bag of groceries and went outside. On the sidewalk, he tore open the bag of trail mix and ate almost all of it right there. Finally, he popped open the Diet Coke and sipped as he headed back to his apartment.

He was nearly there when he saw her. At first, of course, he knew her as someone who resembled Mrs. Tate—someone thin and walking a small dog at night—but as the woman stepped into the cone of streetlight, he saw that it was Loretta Tate, who was found dead by her daughter the day after the Fourth of July.

Now she walked slowly in his direction, her face clear in the reflective splash the streetlights made on the pavement. Alan spilled a little Coke because his hand shook.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hi,” he said. He felt the words escape his throat in a sound like a small dog’s bark.

“Very pleasant night,” she said.

“Yes,” he said. He stepped forward, and when he did her features shifted in what looked like dismay, even horror, but he couldn’t understand why. Maybe it was just the strange sensation he felt inside him. He wanted to say, “Aren’t you supposed to be dead?” Obviously, it would be inappropriate. He was inappropriate, being in a time that had vanished. He watched her cross the street and enter the gate that led to her condo upstairs. Alan recalled how the EMTs had eased her body, strapped in the gurney, down the stairs.

He went straight to his room and sat. He didn’t know what to do. The electric light from a lamp had a droning quality, like someone else had occupied this space and forgot to flip the switch as they were leaving.

At one point, he looked to his left. In a small bookcase by the door he saw an old Modern Library copy of the Divine Comedy—his mother, a professor, had taught Dante—and Alan half-recalled one line in the “Inferno.” After searching for twenty minutes, he found it, Canto Twenty, where an augur who tries to foresee the future walks Exorcist-style, with his head turned backward.

“Because he wished to see too far before him,” Dante wrote.

Mentally, Alan protested. I don’t wish to see the future, and it’s the past that wants to see me.  After a second of thought, he added, It needs me for something.

“I only had the experience to have the documentation,” he said aloud. “Is that a sin?”

No answer came back, and he knew that if there were one, he’d have to find it himself.

He thought about his mother. He had been an only child and she had married rather late, 36, and he knew she had expected him to give her the comfort of a family, grandchildren to spoil, when she retired. After one broken engagement, however, he had never gotten close to marriage again. He wondered, not for the first time, what she would have thought of Charlotte. As for his father, Alan’s parents had divorced when he was young, and they had lost contact.

He went back into the house but he couldn’t bring himself to read. Instead, he lay on the floor and slept, and when he woke he had the same sensation of having slept backward in time, only now he knew there was a meaning. He stayed in the house and ate the last of the bag of trail mix. Can’t go back, he thought, can’t go forward. But then: Can’t stay here.

And so he returned to his reading. He opened envelopes. His fingers moved through a landscape of days, each yielding to its predecessor. Sometimes, it felt like each day he burned lessened his hold on reality, as if there were small parts of himself that were going up in smoke.

Going backward, he felt a reverse causation. The present caused the past. The braided days turned into ether. The papers, it seemed, burned more readily now, sometimes leaping into flames even before the match had reached them. Reading through these entries, he felt he knew how the dead felt, looking back on their lives.

The room had been filled with summery warmth for a time, but as the months cycled back to last winter, he felt a growing chill.

With trembling fingers, he set the last envelope of days on the hob that had held the other ashes and lit it, burning it along with the very first envelope he had saved. He fed the flames by tearing bits of cardboard from the last box that had held the days. He pushed the final ashes down into oblivion. He scraped clean the inside of the fireplace. After that, he lay on his side, his knees drawn up into a posture that was almost fetal.

He dozed, and when he woke he rolled on his side. In the fireplace, the sphere appeared, as he had somehow expected. Its light was fragile as if reflected from another time and place.

He watched it now. He had seen it this morning; he had seen it in dreams. But he had never seen it this intimately, as if he were both inside the circle—a perfect shape of many colors, changing colors, round as if drawn by a compass—and outside it too. It was a stereoscopic vision that allowed him to sense a resolution of opposites: youth/age, life/death, now/then, here/there. It contained all, everything. It was a perfect balance he sensed, an inclusiveness that felt almost like justice.

The sphere faded. He stood. He went to the window. He peeked through the blinds. It was still night, and waiting at the curb was his car—the one he was driving when he had the accident.

And that’s when it all came to him. That’s when it all made sense. That was when he knew why he had done this, when he had the thought he couldn’t allow himself before. He could undo what had happened with Charlotte.

He walked outside and sat in the car. The key waited in the ignition. After staring at it for several seconds, still reluctant to start, he looked down the driveway and saw the light from his bungalow. The glow in the window had a haunted look, and why not? He knew the person inside was haunted, his spirits weighed down by an act he might repeat, and correct, if he just turned the key.  

He turned the key.

There was a flash of light across his windshield, a blinding atomic brilliance. He clasped his hands over his eyes, and as he lowered them it was with the sense of a motion under him. He was driving down the 134 freeway in Glendale, and Charlotte was beside him. Christmas music played on the radio.

“Shouldn’t you call the restaurant?” she asked. “Tell them we’ll be late.”

“You tell them,” he said, feeling like he was inside of a performance and it was important to say his lines just so. The important thing was to keep his eyes focused ahead of him, watch the car in front that would soon brake suddenly.

“You chose the restaurant,” she said. “Don’t you have it on your phone?”

“I can’t look down,” he said. “I’m not making that mistake again.”

This was the moment when the car ahead stopped, and Alan was about to take his foot off the gas in anticipation when he heard Charlotte shriek and he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a pickup sliding over into his lane.

It was blind panic that caused him to jerk the steering wheel to the right, sending his car plowing down a grit-strewn strip that ran between the road and the restraining barrier. Alan’s momentary sensation of relief became panic when he saw a yellow plastic barrel designed to lessen the shock of a crash. He slammed on the brakes. The tires squealed and the car fishtailed slightly and hit the barrel, the impact sending his forehead and the steering wheel into a momentary, rude acquaintance. He saw stars. They were burning cinders, falling to earth. He leaned back. The white noise of passing traffic eased him back to consciousness. He might have blacked out; he didn’t know.

As he blinked, Charlotte was shaking him. “I smell gasoline,” she said. “We have to get out now!”

“You’re okay?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” she said. “Get out!”

Groggy, Alan flung open his door. He stepped outside, but he staggered. Holding the door for balance, he looked over at Charlotte, whose expression from the safety of the guardrail was kind and yet oddly ominous, as if she held a dark secret. When he let go of the door he stumbled into the right-most lane of the freeway. He looked up. A man was heading directly for him. The man looked a little like Alan, and he had his head down, texting as he drove. He didn’t see Alan, who, in that last split-second, knew about balance, about justice, and about time that could be rewound and still demand a sacrifice.