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The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

1

OF COURSE, THERE IS NO MONSTER IN THIS MAZE. Still, I can’t help but compare myself to Theseus as I unravel a bright red mitten and trail the lengthening string behind me.

The comparison is imperfect. Theseus’ ball of yarn anchored him to the labyrinth’s doorpost—a surefire exit strategy. My string dangles. Theseus delved into his labyrinth willingly, hunting the monster that haunted its halls. I … well, I’m not sure how I got here.

No Minotaur, though. That’s a plus.

I pretend I’m a mythical hero hunting for an exit, because it’s better than the reality: I was probably kidnapped, then dropped off in an abandoned building when they realized my net worth was in the red. Nobody’s forking up a ransom for li’l old me.

I have no memory of the past … day? Maybe longer. I’m in an abandoned office building, or something like it. And whoever put me here took my clothes, and dressed me in the most ridicul—hmm.

There’s a fork in the path.

I look back the way I’ve come—down a long, empty hallway. Not “empty” as in “devoid of people,” but really empty. There are no seats set against the wall with cracking pleather cushions; no vending machines pimping sugary beverages; no polyethylene plants in plastic IKEA pots. And, more conspicuously, no doorways branch off, no dents deface the drywall, and no scuff marks mar the linoleum tile. I’ve seen nothing to distract me from this purgatorial plane of white.

But here, two paths diverge.

I look left. More hallway. I look right. Ditto. Each path is identical, as far as I can tell, and each promises an undifferentiated adventure in blandness.

I arbitrarily choose the right-hand passage and trail my mitten’s innards around the corner. I revel in the vein of cherry red in a world of inoffensive whites.

I’m trying to make the best of my shitty situation. My cell phone is missing—so no calling for help—as is my wallet. Who knows what charges I’ve already racked up. Worse, in lieu of my normally carefully crafted façade—skinny fit denim, chambray in various fall hues, and a haircut that suggests I’m trying, but not too hard—I woke up wearing the most absurd frippery I’ve ever seen.

I’m decked out in khaki pants with too many pockets, a baby blue windbreaker, and a white tee stained with … coffee? I hope it’s coffee.

And my shoes. Ugh. Bulky Reeboks with condom-thin soles from the turn of the century, or whenever school-bus yellow was in vogue. They squeak against the linoleum as I turn down a random corridor in another intersecting hallway.

My other accoutrements include a striped neck scarf that would make Doctor Who proud, a cheap chrome watch, and the crème de la crème—a weathered brown Stetson. It’s the hat that really embarrasses me. I’m not a cowboy. Well, maybe once … for Halloween … as a child.

I don’t take the hat off.

And, of course, I have a red mitten. Had a red mitten. I unravelled it because what’s the point of just one mitten?

The watch though—that’s a slap in the face. Someone took my five-hundred-dollar cell phone and slipped this piece of crap on my wrist instead. And it’s broken—sans an hour hand or any indicator of the date. Minutes and seconds march proudly by, but I have no clue how long I’ve been stuck in this building.

This goddamn building. A maze, I’m sure of it. Or maybe it’s just an office building, abandoned for its lack of actual offices—and its M.C. Escher floor plan.

Here’s another branching path, this one with three options. Or four—I could turn back. But no, I eeny meeny miny mo my way down the left-hand fork.

Should I be marking my path with something more permanent than a loose thread? I doubt this will help me retrace my steps very far. My pockets are mostly empty though, save for ... what’s this?

I pull out a small book bound in gaudy orange leather. A Bible? Sort of—it’s a Gideon New Testament replete with the Psalms and Proverbs, like the one I owned as a child. The cover is rippled with bends and the leather’s stubble is worn smooth. It’s been well loved by someone—probably the bastard who stole my clothes and dressed me from the bottom of the Salvation Army bin.

Inside, two pages are bookmarked with nickels and other pages are dog-eared. Sooty fingerprints stain many pages and I see spots that look like tear stains. Verses throughout are underlined and some of the margins are tattooed with red ink.

Unfortunately, the previous owner of this New Testament wrote their verse in Italian. These notes could be all important—instructions on how to escape, perhaps? The secret to eternal life? Or they could be nothing at all—Bible study notes? A recipe for mom’s meatloaf?

If only I could read Italian.

Still, while I’m not a religious man, the Bible gives me hope. At least it’s proof that someone other than me exists. Someone else stuck in this maze—or the deranged architect who put me here. Probably someone wearing my chambray.

I’d love to pay that bastard back in kind. Or ... maybe not. I might be lonely. I might be happy just to see another human being.

How long have I been wandering now? How many times has that minute hand tripped sixty? I haven’t seen anyone in a while. I can’t be more exact than that.

2

I’M MORE LOST NOW, if that’s even possible. Picking paths at random didn’t work and I’ve abandoned the little optimism I had that I might chance upon the green glow of an exit sign or an overworked intern whom I could pester for directions. I’ve found nothing and no one, save hallways intersecting with yet more hallways, always straight ahead or at ninety-degree angles.

I change tactics. I follow the right-hand wall, trace every dip and turn with my outstretched hand. If I follow this wall it should deposit me at an exit sooner or later. Worst-case scenario, I’ll wind up full circle, right?

But no, there’s a problem with this plan. I’ve been assuming that I’ll find an escape on an exterior wall, but what if this structure sprawls out underground? Perhaps I should be searching for a staircase. And that could be anywhere—even in the centre of the maze.

Plus, every hallway looks identical. I could have already passed my starting point without realizing it. I could be looping back over myself time and time again.

In the quiet of these empty halls, I notice subtle sounds that I’d been overlooking: the soft clink of coins in my pocket, the hum of fluorescent lights overhead, the ragged breaths escaping my lips. And—there’s something else. Something deeper in the maze. What is that sound? Where is it coming from?

I stop. I hold my breath. I hear nothing but the electric hum of the lights above me. Just my imagination?

I decide to keep moving, but I switch tactics. I pull one of the nickels from my pocket and start scratching numbers into the drywall beside my chosen paths with the edge of the coin: 1 ... 2 ... 3. I walk in the straightest line possible. If no straight path presents itself, I turn right and then straighten my path with a left-hand turn at the next intersection.

But only now do I notice how strangely these branching hallways are dispersed. At times, my path is littered with choice—I’ve barely turned a corner before I’m waltzing down another fork in the road. Other times, I walk for long periods without finding a single branching path.

I still count the minute spinning circles round my watch face. Five. Six. Seven. Have I really been walking this long? Why don’t my legs ache with the effort? Why aren’t I winded?

Now I’m scratching 40 in the drywall. Now 72. Now 119. How long does this building crawl on for? Who would design such a mundane prison?

And then, as I move to mark my 200th intersection, I see it—a number 11 etched beside the corridor on my left.

What the fuck. I’ve been travelling in a straight line. How did I wind up back here? Did I forget to correct a right-hand turn with a left? Did I overcorrect a few too many times? Have I looped back without realizing it?

I stand in the centre of this intersection. I stand for a long time, staring at the writing on the wall.

I come to a decision. I tie my deconstructed mitten to my index finger, clasp one hand to the top of my Stetson so the hat doesn’t fly off, and I start running.

Screw strategy. I choose hallways at random. I smack into walls on my way around corners. I fly by hallways I’d meticulously labelled mere hours ago: 82, 5, 114 ... 202? Wait, did I even make it that far?

I lace the maze with red yarn. I dash pell-mell with utter disregard for the tangled net I’m weaving. I expect to feel a sharp yank as my yarn catches on a wall or gets tangled in itself, but no pull comes. Instead, I trundle through intersection after intersection, trailing my colors—when I spill into a four-way with a red thread stretching from left to right in front of me.

About time my yarn trail came in handy. I cross the red thread and continue down the only hallway I evidently haven’t tried. I break into a run once more ... and then stop.

I’ve found my thread again, stretching between the left-hand corridor and the one straight ahead. I turn right.

But there it is again. A three-way intersection this time, with the thread stretched from hall to hall in front of me. I head left, following the vein of red on the ground.

I must be spinning in tight circles—one mitten certainly didn’t unspool into this much yarn. Yet I stumble across my thread again and again.

And then, as I’m following my thread down a long, straight hallway, I find myself in an intersection criss-crossed with red wool. My lifeline stretches down every corridor. I tug at the crossing threads and find them taut, but no matter how hard I yank it never pulls back on the thread tied to my finger.

I keep walking through hallways daubed in red. The yarn underfoot grows more concentrated. It zigzags away ahead and behind, veers into every new passage I discover. A cobweb of red, like veins flowing down the corridor. They trip me and turn my path treacherous.

At last I stop. I lean against a wall and sink down to the woolly floor. I untie the useless unravelled thread from my finger and let it fall. Now what do I do?

3

THE WOMAN SELLING TICKETS peered down at me dubiously from behind her thick, black-framed glasses. She looked up at my Grandmother and asked how old I was. Emphasized that children under twelve were not allowed.

Grandmother had told me the plan on the five-hour drive from Edmonton to Grande Prairie: “Now when we get there,” she’d said in a voice soft and chiding, “remember: you’re twelve.”

“But, I’m eight....”

Grandmother flicked the cowboy hat perched atop my dark, curly hair so that it fell off and dangled by the string at my throat. “You’re twelve,” she insisted. “You think eight-year-olds can grow a beard? Besides, there’s no maze if you ain’t.”

I adjusted my cowboy hat and Fisher-Price sheriff’s badge and double-checked my felt-marker stubble in the sun flap mirror. Then I stared straight ahead at the long dark road, anticipation bubbling in my throat.

At dinner a week prior, I’d announced that at long last I could watch the Halloween specials on TV. I was too old to be scared by all that fake stuff, I told her. It was all make-up and fake blood anyway, I explained.

My Grandmother sucked her teeth, clicked her nails against the kitchen table and sized me up like a bottle of homemade wine. “Oh, well, if you’re too old....”

I didn’t sleep the next few nights. But I also didn’t complain, so my Grandmother dutifully didn’t ask about the bags under my eyes—even if she chuckled beneath her breath.

Then, after a week of watching me acclimatize to black-and-white Frankensteins on her old dial television, she jammed a toque on my head and hustled me into her car.

She slapped a flashlight and a canteen of hot chocolate in my arms and shifted the car into gear. “The torch is for the maze,” she said. “The hot chocolate for the drive. We’re off.”

So here we were, in the middle of the countryside, surrounded by darkness and the pervasive scent of manure. I could hear wind whispering through an unseen cornfield and—somewhere close at hand—the terrified shrieks and squeals of the maze’s victims.

The bespectacled woman pursed her lips. “Twelve?” I nodded, pointed at the cowboy stubble my Grandmother had speckled across my chin with a Sharpie.

The woman looked down at me. I looked up at her. She sighed. “Twenty dollars.”

“Ten,” my Grandmother amended. “He’ll be hoofing it alone. I’ll be buying a snow cone.”

“We don’t sell snow cones.” The woman frowned, prioritized her thoughts. “And the maze can be quite scary for children.”

My Grandmother made a sound like pfft, while she peeled off two blue bills for the woman. “Which way to the concession?”

I’d wandered through corn mazes before, but never like this—in the dead of night, my fingers numb from the cold. I could still hear the tittering of those within the maze, and the rustling as they ran through endless corridors of corn. The moon was a pale fingernail in the sky. Even the trees looked skeletal, dusted in white frost.

I held my Grandmother’s hand all the way to the cornfield’s entrance. Creaking in a cold breeze, the stalks sounded like guillotine ropes waiting to fall.

“Scarecrows dressed up like zombies,” my Grandmother said, “and people jumping out to chase you when you turn a corner. Besides—you’re old enough, right?”

I puffed up my chest. Yes, I was old enough. But still, I couldn’t help the whispered question escaping my lips, “And there are no real monsters, right?”

My Grandmother waved her mittened hand. “No such thing. Unless you find corn particularly terrifying. Now, Gran’s going to buy a Cracker Jack.”

I nodded. I’d been instructed to find four checkpoints, and then to find my way back to the beginning. Between one and two hours, they’d said ... unless I got lost. If I was lost, I might spend eternity between the stalks. I smiled at the silliness of that, but was still relieved to see my Grandmother waiting for me by the entrance, when I turned around to look. She waved, so I turned my back on her and marched forward with a liar’s confidence.

I swung my flashlight left and right as I crept slowly forward. The corn was cordoned off of the main passages with strips of yellow tape. The compact dirt beneath my feet was pockmarked with the footprints of those who’d gotten lost before me.

Two minutes into the cornfield, I encountered my first horror: a scarecrow dressed up like a reaper. I jumped as I rounded the bend, but managed not to scream. Then I laughed. A scarecrow. This wasn’t so scary after all.

A minute later a man wearing a Jason Voorhees mask and brandishing a bloody axe leapt from the stalks, roaring incoherently. I fell hard against the corn on the far side of the wall and got tangled in the yellow tape. I screamed myself hoarse as he stalked ever so slowly towards me, running a finger over the jagged axe head. I didn’t have the presence of mind to realize that his slow saunter gave me all the time my numb fingers needed to untangle myself, and the opportunity to run blindly into the night.

I was lost, so I began taking turns at random. I stopped once, hearing screams from my right. I crouched behind the corn and watched as a man and a woman, holding hands and giggling, ran past me, with Freddy Krueger hot on their heels.

When I stopped to catch my breath in the glow of six pumpkins, my nerves were frayed. Now, even scarecrows made me jump. This wasn’t helped by the one time a scarecrow lifted himself off of his cross and moaned as he shambled after me.

The maze was supposed to take between one and two hours to traverse. How long had I been here? I was too proud to cry out for a maze warden, so I groped for the exit with tears streaming from my face. I followed trails that looked familiar, that I half-remembered wandering down. I forgot about the checkpoints and just wanted out.

The last horror I faced before escaping the maze was an enormous shirtless man with a bull’s head and burning eyes. In the gloom, his pants—they must have been pants—looked like unkempt fur with the backwards bend of a bull’s legs.

He chased me faster than any of the others, his breath hot on the back of my neck. I ran and screamed my way around every corner and bend. Finally, as I felt his fingers brushing the back of my clothes, I dove off the marked trail and into the grey corn. I heard the hooves skid to a stop behind me, and then come crashing through the corn in pursuit.

On the path, his long legs easily overtook mine, but here my smaller frame was an advantage. I wove through ears of corn, the fibrous stalks slapping me with their leaves. I could hear the monster behind me, bull rushing through the plants I’d sidestepped.

I ran and I ran and I ran ... until, at last, I stopped running. Only then did I realize that I’d lost my pursuer. For the last few minutes, the sound of pounding hooves had been nothing but blood pulsing in my ears and the cold spittle on the back of my neck was just a trickle of sweat down my spine.

Somewhere behind me I heard a bellow of frustration. There were no words in that roar, nothing human. I heard the clump of heavy hooves resume their stalking—seeking to punish other boys who’d lied about being brave and being twelve years old.

When I emerged from the maze, my hands and arms were scratched and dirty, my vision blurry with tears. I tripped over cornstalks and between trysting couples until at long last I found my Grandmother, sitting on a bench by the entrance, licking her sticky fingers.

She stopped as I ran up to her, said nothing as I buried my head in her shoulder. Instead, she folded me into her arms and let me sob out my terrors until my heartbeat slowed and my adrenaline drained away.

“You were in there for a long time,” she said gently, and stroked my hair. “You’ve lost your hat.”

“I’m sorry,” I whispered into her neck, her scent more comforting than her embrace. “I wasted your ten dollars.”

“It’s all right to be afraid,” my Grandmother told me. “It’s smart to be afraid. Because, you see, I forgot to tell you that there is one real monster in any maze. Only one creature that can find its way around. I forgot to warn you about the Minotaur.”

4

WHAT IF I’M THINKING ABOUT THIS MAZE all wrong—what if there’s no exit whatsoever? Wouldn’t it be easy to hide a doorway behind some fresh drywall? Maybe I’m on a reality show, or maybe some Italian stranger that I pissed off is exacting an elaborate revenge.

So here’s the new plan: I’m going to smash through the walls in a straight line, Wile E. Coyote style. The drywall can’t be more than three or four centimetres thick and I’ve yet to see any support beams.

So what the hell, let’s take a lesson I learned from the gerbil I’d owned as a child. I’d built mazes for him on my bedroom carpet. Cereal boxes formed the walls and masking tape the mortar. The mazes were replete with dead ends and cul-de-sacs, paper towel tube bridges and false trails.

I perched above the maze to watch his progress and judge him. He was less than keen. Usually, he simply sat where I set him, protesting my maze with pellet-sized turds on my rug. Sometimes he ran for a time, but the simplest of obstacles seemed to stymie him. And once, he decided to break all the rules by chewing a hole through the cardboard wall.

Time for a gerbil-inspired jailbreak. I slam my heel into the nearest wall.

A spray of white powder and drywall explodes around my foot. I kick the same spot again, with more force. Then again. I peer through the hole I’ve created.

On the other side, I see more white walls. Well, shit.

I bring my hands to the hole and pry at the surrounding drywall. Ripping paper echoes down the corridor as the wall spills its dusty innards onto the linoleum and the soft bed of red wool. My fingers and clothing turn flour-white.

As soon as I can, I wedge my upper body through the opening, brace my arms on the other side and then bodily haul myself through. I stand in this, my new hallway, which is almost indistinguishable from the last. No spiderweb of red yarn, though. I’m not sure if that’s an improvement or not.

I don’t even bother smashing through the next two walls, I just throw my weight into them after a running start and go exploding out of the other side. But every corridor looks goddamn identical and I seem to be making no progress at all.

For the umpteenth time, I stop to collect myself. I pat the dust from my hair and clothing—only to realize that in the last collision, the Bible has fallen out of my pocket. I step back through the hole I just created and pick up the fallen book.

I look down at the Gideon New Testament, looking for solace in the foreign red letters. The page I flip to, midway through the Book of Matthew, has three short lines scribbled beneath the Bible verses and an arrow pointing up at the passage. Unfortunately, I still can’t read Italian.

I slump against the wall and try to think my way out.

This maze may have no exit. That thought’s been haunting me. Maybe I’m dead. Perhaps I’m in hell and hell is boring. Or purgatory—this place seems to fit the bill. No torture, but no paradise. Doomed to wander forever, unless I can earn my way into heaven.

And this Bible in my pocket—irony? Were the notes left by the last poor unfortunate, trapped in my place?

I close my eyes and listen to the fluorescent lights humming overhead. I’ve read that they’re bad for you, that they cause migraines and insomnia. I’ve heard that fluorescent lights are linked to cancer too. An ex told me they disrupt regular menstruation.

It figures, I suppose, that hell would have fluorescent lights.

I look back down at the Bible: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened....”

I knock on the wall I’m leaning against, but nobody answers. Maybe I need to find an actual door first, before this advice will work.

But no, I don’t believe in hell. Or purgatory. Or heaven, for that matter. Human-made seems more likely than afterlife. And I’m not dead—I’m a white rat, running laps. Or a gerbil.

My eyes skip past the Sunday school parable material and drift down to inked-in Italian.

Io non so ben ridir com’ i’ v’intrai,
tant’ era pien di sonno a quel punto
che la verace via abbandonai.

I pluck out the word “abandon” from the red letters, but little and less otherwise. And there’s the arrow, the arrow pointing up.

I look up. Those damn fluorescent lights. I close the book, stuff it in my pocket. I look up again. Fluorescent lights. And a corkboard ceiling.

I smack my palm into my forehead. For Christ’s sake, I haven’t been thinking in three dimensions. What if I try to climb my way out?

I stand and walk over to my recently vandalized wall. I rest a foot in the hole and test the drywall with my weight. More white dust crumbles to the floor, but it seems to hold me, so I ease myself upward. I reach up and knock one of the corkboard panels askew.

I’m too low to see above them, so I kick a second hole into the wall a little higher up. I rest my other foot in the second hole and slowly ease my weight onto my other leg, so that I don’t go ripping through the drywall. I move deliberately and, blessedly, without incident. I pull myself up to look through the ceiling ...

I’m staring down another white-washed corridor. The panel I’ve knocked askew is a square of linoleum tile, lying on the floor beside me.

I blink and duck my head back down. Corkboard. Fluorescent lights.

I poke my head up again. Hallway. Linoleum. More fluorescent lights further overhead. What the fuck.

I perform a little experiment. With my head sticking through the ceiling, looking out at the “second floor” I’ve broken into, I feel my left hand along the bottom of an adjacent piece of corkboard. I rest my palm against the bumpy surface and push up—and I see a square piece of tile beside my head bounce on my fingertips.

Well then.

Experiment number two: I bring both hands up through the ceiling and put my weight on what appears to be linoleum tile, fully expecting it to cave down around me. It doesn’t. In fact, it affords me enough purchase to hoist myself through the opening and scramble up. The tile, if it is that, smells of dust and floor wax, and feels as hard as, well, linoleum.

I loiter here. I walk around the hole in the floor at least a dozen times. I stamp at the ground, knowing logically that it’s wafer thin and that I should be falling through. I stick my head back down, stare at the light fixtures, then back up to see if I can find any evidence of them. I even poke a finger at the plastic case covering the lights, but those don’t seem to budge.

I wander over to the floor tile I’d moved to climb up and flip it over and over in my hands. This side linoleum. That side corkboard. Weird.

Well. What now. I’ve climbed a little higher, I suppose, so if I really am underground, I’m that much closer to escaping.

I look up at my new ceiling, with its new corkboard and new light fixtures that I absolutely cannot distinguish from the old. If I keep going up...?

No, not yet. Let’s explore this new floor first.

I set off again, but I’m uncomfortably reminded of my gerbil. When he lost his will to wander the halls I’d created, I lured him deeper with rewards of sunflower seeds and carrots. And when he manufactured his freedom by chewing a hole through the cardboard, I responded by placing more walls around him.