December 10, 2017

Fiction by Sherry Howard: "The Maze"

I live with my children and crazy dogs in Middletown, Kentucky, a stone's throw from the beautiful horse farms Kentucky is always bragging about. During my career in education, I served as middle school principal in one of the largest school districts in the US; I share many skills with cat-herders. I love to read, write, cook, and sit in the sand watching the waves when I can. My poems and stories have appeared in several journals and anthologies. I'm also published in children's literature.


Travis and Lindsay arrived in his black Jeep Liberty at the Fall Fest, ready for whatever this third date might deliver. Travis had fond memories of many teen trips to this corn maze, and so far Lindsay had been game for adventures on their dates. He hoped this wouldn't be a let-down after the excitement of their first two.
Date number one had been a hot air balloon ride—an extravagance inspired by Travis’s infatuation with her killer combination of blue eyes, black hair, and dimples. He'd wanted to make a memorable first impression after his stunned realization that she’d accepted his invitation, actually seemed pleased that he'd asked her.
Date number two had been harder to plan. After all, how could he top the hot air balloon on his modest budget? But he'd pulled in a favor and gotten a private cave tour at Mammoth Cave, something almost impossible to get, and he wasn't sure it had been “officially” endorsed. Again, Lindsay had seemed to love the spelunking adventure, and they'd followed the cave tour with a lazy river ride that included calling deer from the wooded shore and throwing them apples. She'd been thrilled at the sweet interaction with the animals.
Lindsay hoped for more spark and less adventure on this third date, although the adventures had been fun, and thoughtful. She'd never dreamed of going up in a hot air balloon, and might have declined had she not realized how much it must’ve cost Travis to arrange it.
She craved a relationship that felt comfortable as a warm blanket after sledding all afternoon. Adventure was fine in small doses, but she wasn't an adrenaline junky and hoped Travis wasn't one, or this third date might be the last.
“What first? Candy apples?” Travis asked as they crunched their way across the gravel parking lot toward the buildings that held the country store and the winery.
“Yum. No contest.” Lindsay reached for Travis’s hand and squeezed it, then dropped it.
Travis missed the warmth of Lindsay’s hand as soon as her hand left his. This stage always felt so awkward to him, afraid to offend and afraid about not letting Lindsay know how much he liked her. But, in their walk to the bustling area that held all of the festivities, their comfortable silence reassured him that all was well.
Sun beamed down on nature’s best fall decorations all around the open courtyard: pumpkins, green apples, hay bales, corn. Human’s additions to nature’s bounty added smells to die for: cotton candy, popped corn, corn dogs and funnel cakes. Lindsay stood in the middle and took it all in, wanting this printed in her brain forever, a perfect fall day. She grabbed Travis’s hand and held on. “Let’s taste one of everything!”
Travis enjoyed Lindsay’s enthusiasm as they tasted everything, just like she'd said, including a selection of wines in the romantic tasting cellar of the winery. They'd ordered a few bottles of their favorite to pick up when they left—a hopeful sign to Travis. That meant she'd be with him in the future to drink it, right?
“Oh, look, the corn maze closes soon,” Lindsay said.
“I wanted us to do that, but I thought it might be getting ready to rain.” Travis glanced at the black clouds overhead that had seemed to appear out of nowhere half an hour ago.
“We’ll be fine if it does. Let's go.” Lindsay remembered that Travis had said the corn maze was one of his favorite memories from here. She'd never been in one, and hoped it wouldn't trigger that suffocating feeling she got in elevators.
“I'll get the tickets then.”
While Travis wandered off to get the tickets, Lindsay sat on a scratchy hay bale and enjoyed all the young families around her. She hoped to be pushing her own stroller soon, but only if the right guy came along. She worried that Travis seemed too nice, too easy to be with. She wasn't ready to put her guard down.
“Let's go,” Travis said, startling her from her musings about past relationship failures.
The maze paths barely showed in the semi-darkness once you got deep inside. Immediately, Lindsay lost her sense of direction. Actually, she lacked a sense direction all of the time, but this, this challenged her. She couldn't remember if she'd gone right, left, or straight at turns she'd made, and soon she felt hopelessly twisted. She hoped Travis was keeping track better than her.
The first heavy drops of rain didn't worry Travis. Within seconds though, the skies exploded with pouring rain, thunder, and lightning, faster than Travis had ever seen.
“I can't see! I can't see!” Lindsey had tried to keep the panic out of her voice, but couldn't. The musty smell of the wet stalks overwhelmed her, and the darkness brought on that elevator-feeling she'd worried about. She reached out to grab Travis’s hand, but found nothing but air. Then her feet found the hole just off the path, and her ankle found pain. Crack.
“Travis? Where are you?”
Now silence filled the empty air. And Lindsay felt lost.
Soaking wet, cold, and feeling closed in, Lindsay sat down on the suddenly muddy ground and rocked herself. Was this a joke? Did Travis think this was funny?
The storm raged and Travis couldn't see Lindsay in front of him anymore. “Lindsay?”
Blinded by the rain and the sudden darkness, Travis plunged ahead, arms outstretched in front of him, an urgent need to find Lindsay overwhelming him. How had they gotten separated so quickly? He didn't remember this maze being so complicated. The ticket-seller had told him the maze closed at dusk these days, and they'd been the last to get tickets that day. So, no one behind them, and maybe no one in front of them. His heart pounded at the thought of Lindsay stuck by herself in this. Maybe she'd already found her way out, but he doubted it—they’d only been at the beginning when the storm seemed to appear out of nowhere.
Lindsay huddled in the dark and wondered why she'd left her phone in the car. She'd call 911 if she had it, that's how terrified she felt right now, 911 emergency-worthy scared. Every corn maze, scary Halloween, or stalker movie she'd ever seen flashed through her thoughts. A gargantuan clap of thunder followed by nearby lightning had her whimpering, wondering if a lightning strike could set the corn ablaze even if the downpour kept it wet. Or would the maze monster come first? Rain drenched, thunder pounded, lightning flashed—Lindsay shivered.
Travis rushed forward in the torrent intent on one goal: find Lindsay. He walked into the dripping stalks more than once, gagged by the smell a second too late, already engulfed by what felt like arms, but he realized were simply plant parts. It reminded him of an old movie, whose name he couldn't remember, where the plant tries to eat people, causing him to chuckle. He stopped chuckling when a thunder thump and nearby lightning strike nearly caused him to wet his pants. Onward. In a hurry. Poor Lindsay.
Travis couldn't believe his eyes when the overwhelming darkness changed to the normal darkness of a storm at dusk. He'd exited the maze into the arms of the owner.
“We were so worried about you! That's never happened before,” the owner said .
“Where's Lindsay,” Travis asked.
“Your girl? She's not with you?”
The bile in Travis’s throat left an awful aftertaste as he swallowed it back. “No.”
Quickly armed with a two-way radio matched to the one in the hands of the owners, Travis raced back into the beginning of the maze. An emergency crew was on the way.
Travis twisted through the maze, turning randomly on the dark, slippery, wet paths. When he fell and broke his glasses, he stuffed them into his pocket and forged ahead. The huge clap that had almost made him pee, and the thought of Lindsay being alone in here if that happened again kept him going. A whimpering sounded from just ahead, and he caught the faintest scent of Lindsay's perfume, which she'd told him was called Angel.
“Travis?” Lindsay knew her voice sounded ragged, so she said again, “Travis!” She sighed and tried to stand, but couldn't get her balance to push up with her ankle hurt. “Can you help me up?”
“I found her! She's hurt her ankle. We'll be right out,” Travis said.
The static of the radio was a welcome lifeline to the outside for Lindsay, even though she couldn't see it. Her heart slowed to its normal rhythmic pace. The next thing she knew Travis had swept her into his arms, and turned around to walk in the opposite direction.
Lindsay hadn't expected this kind of rescue, but she'd take it. Travis smelled like hay and wet hair, wonderful smells right now. His arms around her felt like a warm blanket, and something tight in her opened up when he said, “I looked everywhere for you. I was so worried about you. I'm so sorry!”
The waiting crowd applauded when they exited, more attention than she'd have liked, but visitors lost in the corn maze was apparently big news that spread fast. She was swaddled in big, warm towels like a newborn, and given water that tasted as sweet as their favorite wine from the winery here.
A medic checked her ankle, and pronounced it injured enough for a hospital visit via the waiting ambulance. Travis refused to let the ambulance leave without him on it.
While they waited for the doctor, Travis said, “How about you pick for our next date?”

~Sherry Howard

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