This story is by Tracy Maxwell and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
I remember my first maze; the conviction of my lefts and rights. The moment I fell in love with getting lost. My mother was alive and the world still smelled freshly laundered. Our family was at the county fair, and anchored in the middle of all the spinning, looping madness was a sprawling puzzle path made of corn. Gobsmacked, I asked my father if it grew out of the ground like that, all twisting whirls and winding spirals, and he laughed. He laughed all the time back then. He confirmed that mazes do in fact sprout up when the earth can no longer contain all her secrets. I’ve dedicated my life to coaxing them out of her ever since.
In my home office, I grab the schematics for a serpentine hedge maze at a library in San Antonio. A big job. An exciting one, as well. Sky-high hedges carefully transformed into magical book stacks that draw you in, and center grounds reward your Sherlockian pursuit with a lush secret garden for reading or sunning. It’s one of my favorite mazes yet, though intricate enough in its design to drive me mad in recent days. If only I weren’t constrained by pesky little things like time and space.
A tapping on the window too easily pulls me away from the page. Rain. The weather is changing. I need to work faster. Instead, the atmospheric pressure of it all propels me down the street and into the front door of Al’s. My father’s best friend. My cheerleader since Dad became an angel full time.
After ordering a beer and checking the score–delicate women do follow sport–I attempt to puzzle out my problems while Al listens and works his towel until every glass shines like a gift.
“If anyone can pull it off it’s you, Carmen,” Al says.
It’s great when someone believes in you, but sometimes you just don’t want to hear it.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” says the gentleman now standing at my elbow. I swivel my head to see what cologne ad he stepped out of, and wonder if I should have eaten something before ordering that drink.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t believe I spoke to you,” I say, going for aloof but a bit too curious to pull it off.
He looks at me longer than propriety would allow outside of a place called “Al’s.”
“My apologies. You didn’t. Speak to me, I mean. I wish you would, though. I’m Elan.” I look up at his strong jaw while he offers a sure hand in my direction. He carries himself like a reluctant aristocrat, all green-eyed and blue-blooded. Not from around here.
“Okay, buddy. Bring it down a notch, will ya? The girl’s just trying to have a drink.” Al’s awkward fatherly tone is giving me cavities. He never had children of his own, so most of his interaction with me springs from pure love and plain guesses. He hasn’t yet realized that’s all parenting really is.
Our new guest looks nervous, so I wave Al away and gently slide my warm palm into Elan’s cool one. We chat, and I wholly expect the standard bar banter that’s really an equation. The right answers usually lead to a hot and sweaty common denominator. But this feels like an altogether different thing.
In town from somewhere very else and terribly interesting, Elan is smart, thoughtful, funny. Careful with what he shares, mercurial in his movements, and completely unaware of how his lips look in repose. There’s something else that I can’t quite place, but no matter. I shut down my quickening heart and prepare to send this one back to his wife.
“Oh, I’m not married,” Elan says quickly.
“That’s not the first time you’ve done that.”
“Am I to believe you’re reading my thoughts?”
Elan nods but is quiet for once. At least he’s acknowledged this parlor trick. After studying nothing but my face all evening, he looks away. Though I am full of wonder and a billion questions, I am suddenly too tired to figure out his game. I finish my beer, bid the handsome stranger goodnight and make my way outside and back home. I crawl into my four-poster pondering books as tall as trees, puzzling men and cosmic promise.
I wake with renewed enthusiasm, rush to my workspace and spread out my plans. The fuzzy dead-ends plaguing me lately became twists and turns of brilliance in my dreams; lingering questions evaporated, and deep down inside a little voice said you could win the Newman for this one. In the middle of my imaginary acceptance speech, my phone buzzes. A text message.
Orion Park, 12 p.m.? -E
Excited by my clear-headed stroke of luck–or genius–regarding the maze, I pinch my cheeks, finger comb my hair and add a slash of red lipstick at the last minute. Hey, hey, it’s a wild Wednesday.
While locking my bike I hear my name, and my interior core overheats. These feelings are so foreign to me I wonder if I’m coming down with something. Cursing my flushed cheeks, I look up and he’s there. Perfectly alert in the early morning mist.
“I had coffee,” Elan says.
“You really do have to stop that. It’s unnerving. Are you one of those…illusionist people? You did magically get my number.”
Elan laughs and ushers me toward the path. I realize it might not be the best idea to disappear into a park with a perfect stranger, especially one who is apparently reading my thoughts, but he really is a perfect stranger: the hair, the teeth! And despite his charming exterior, I’ve never felt so drawn to another human being.
“About that,” Elan says, then falters. For the first time he doesn’t seem so poised. While his thoughts silently churn, he pulls a blanket out of a small knapsack and we lay back on the grass and stare at the clear blue sky. I feel obliged to fill the silence.
“When I was little I saw mazes everywhere. I think the certainty of escape calmed me, and I believed there was magic in the rows. I’d lay on a bed of leaves in the backyard and imagine the clouds were a floating maze. I’d weave my way through the blue without touching any of the fluffy marshmallow,” I whisper, surprised by my candor. “I’d also connect the stars through my bedroom window at night, designing a celestial puzzle made up of the brightest stars. Mazes are branching, labyrinths are unicursal. You can call most anything a maze, though.”
Elan is thoughtful, watching me ramble as I watch the clouds break apart and reform like elastic continents.
“When I was…little?” He raises an eyebrow and laughs. “I also looked out into space using something like a telescope. Where I’m from they’re a little different. You can see every inch of other planets in amazing detail.” He takes a deep breath. “Including this one.”
“Wait, what? No. You’re not saying—”
“Yes. I mean, no. I mean this is who I am, much like you. I look like this; no scales under my skin. I’m just from far away. Please, just listen,” his voice quivers and I’m floating. “I was 15 when I saw your first maze. Crude by your standards but beautiful by mine. See, where I’m from they aren’t mazes, where you feel lost. It’s actually a language of love,” he says, eyes brimming. “And you speak it. Your messages are written all over this world. I’ve laughed and cried and fallen in love with you all the way up there,” he says, pointing skyward.
“I followed your words as we grew up, as you won accolades, and poured more love and intricacy into this one-way correspondence. Until you…invited me here.” He looks sheepish.
I don’t move. If I slowly make my way back to my bike, I can probably lose him. But the thought rings hollow.
“It is hollow! You had to know you were speaking to me out there. You believed. Your father told you.”
My head is spinning. What Elan is saying is mad, but I hear my father’s voice boom in my head.
There is no one on this earth good enough for my little girl. Remember that, Carmen!
What if he was right? Did he know something I didn’t?
Elan is holding my hand now as we watch the afternoon sky begin to dim. I use my other hand to reach past the blanket and dig into the earth, wondering if I’ve uncovered enough of her secrets. Wondering where my parents are, and if they can see my messages of love from somewhere out there. Wondering what I could say without all these pesky limitations of time and space.
“You have no idea.”
“You’re really going to have to stop doing that.”
When he kisses me it is out of this world.