Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Return to the Labyrinth

[Note: this has been poorly received. Too boring, evidently, with (still) clumsy scene transitions, and (sheesh) too many big words.]

Leon Jordan traced the steps back from the office and through the waiting room, mindful of any unexpected topology that may have developed since he came in. Concentrating on his gait, he did not think to suppress the furtive roving of his eyes as they inspected his immediate geometric environment, not that there was anyone in the lobby to notice. Furthermore, Doctor Reide's business was laid out in a simple, open fashion (positively a requirement for Leon's patronage), which, judging by the dust, hadn't been jogged out of shape for many years, and this patient was more willing than usual to stake some faith in the permanence of it. Most of his attention gravitated to the door at the end of it then, the entrance to this little burrow in space he'd allowed himself to tumble into, and it loomed larger with each of Leon's measured paces. He pushed on, the portal growing before him, menacing.

He held his breath and closed his eyes as he passed, but once outside, nothing seemed changed. His shoulders fell back to their customary slump, and he crookedly wandered his way out of the little town, back to his tidy ditch by the bridge.

Leon Jordan was a homeless man. Unlike perhaps many homeless men, he was sober and relatively well groomed, keeping his brown beard and hair as neatly trimmed as could be managed with a mirror and scissors. The requisite ragged coat and stocking cap of the hobo adorned him in their season, but a memory of dignity and cleanliness still hung about his person. The children in town were aware of his nervous walks through the streets twice a week, but he was not quite strange enough, and perhaps not obviously defective enough, to suffer their taunts. Ultimately, there was something that was just ignorable about Leon, and, truth be told, he didn't notice others much either.

He had been visiting Dr. Reide for about a year, having discovered the practice during his last desperate search for himself. The biweekly appointment was not a particularly drastic move in Leon's twisted chess match with his environment, but the necessary journey through well-defined portals like the office door was always handled with high caution. If he were careful enough about his trips into town, he reasoned, he'd merely untangle whatever path through the cosmos he'd strung together for the visit, and return, at the end, exactly at his launching point, the little gully by the culvert. And as tracability went, Reide's office was better than, say, the post office where Leon picked up his Social Security check every month. The old doctor never had any other clients that Leon could tell, and the course remained as immutable as possible in his absence.

The session that day consisted of its usual mixture of boredom and alarming possibility. Reide, a pallid and squishy old man with a senile grin, didn't offer judgments, and didn't push his client through any horrifying trials of behavioral therapy or drugs (also inviolable requirements for Leon's business), but most typically meandered his way through a conversation on the topic of Leon's unusual notions, frequently entertaining their veracity. Though most of the cost of the therapy was covered by taxpayers, Reide frequently didn't even remember (or maybe didn't bother) to charge at all for Leon's portion, (which, while not strictly one of Leon's precepts, was a nice touch).

"So, a knot hmm?" Reide had been saying, "A knot, you say. Your life. I like this metaphor."

Leon felt he needed to talk to someone about these issues, and Dr. Reide, though paid for it, was someone. The visits were his closest thing to a regular friendship, and outside of the occasional terrifying trips to the other places where he needed to transact life, the closest thing to a professional relationship as well. The old man was Leon's last tenuous link to a lost normalcy.

"It's not just a knot," Leon said. "Everyone's life is a knot. But mine is different. Something went wrong with mine, and I don't think it was my fault."

"...like we're twisting our way through space, eh? A knot...do you think you can unwind it?"

Leon was not prepared for the question. "Untangle it? I don't know."

"Tell me about the doors," Reide went on, turning to look at Leon for the first time in their session. He parted his tobacco-blemished lips in an inarticulate smile.



"Well, look, so life's a knot, right? And here we are stringing ourselves along like that guy in that maze story."

"Theseus? Hmm."

"Yeah, so here we are like Theseus, dangling our lives behind us like rat's tails. We're spinning out these strings, and we're tangling them up in all kinds of stuff. If you go through a door and then another door, it kind of gets knotted up around the jambs. If that door manages to go away before you get back into it, then you're in trouble. You can't unknot it then. If it were somehow possible to find your way back through all of the portals you go through in your life, then you'd make a perfect circle from birth to death, but it gets tangled up instead." Leon's brow was becoming slick.

"A knot in four dimensions, eh? And you can't go anywhere..."

Leon sweated, eyes wide.

"But isn't this the case for everyone? Everyone goes through doors. Are yours different? And isn't the damage done? How do you know?"

"It's different. Yeah, it's like that, but me, I'm in the wrong place, you know? Something happened. Wrong door or something, like Scooby Doo running into one closet and coming out across the hall. But I came out in a whole different building. I'm in the wrong life, dammit, and I'm stuck here."

"I don't like that metaphor nearly as much," replied Dr. Reide. "Are you sure the knot as bad as you think it is?"

Leon stood up, the chair clattering behind him. "I don't know, maybe we could get up above the maze somehow, and make some sense of all that played out twine. If we didn't tie ourselves down to it. Maybe if it was unfolded in just the right way, and we were looking at it from just the right angle, it would all work out, you know? It would make sense."

"Interesting." Rising with effort to meet his client, Reide extended his soft bloated hand to Leon's wiry one. "I think that that is enough for today. We should continue this thought of yours in our next session." And with that, Leon was out through the horrible door, and on his way back to where he lived.

As Leon attended the usual tricky navigation back to the bridge, he was conscious of all sorts of unintentional portals, anything that managed to bound the world on four sides and through which he could pass. He never understood how people managed to wander through life unaware of the maze that is circumscribed directly over their heads. Apparently they were unimpressed with the dangers of passing through archways, doorways, and the ubiquitous warren of power cables on their winding journey through the day. Every one of these holes was a door (and could be the door), and who knew which one (or how many) Leon himself had crossed to get attached to this miserable plane, away from his lamented life. And who knew where the next portal would take him?

As he trudged along his route to the bridge, entering the spare, dry countryside, there were fewer and fewer of these potential egresses. He constantly checked the space overhead to acknowledge every one of those inadvertent doors that could lead him down a rabbit hole, and he carefully re-navigated his way back through those few he'd been forced to pass on his journey in.

Slowly, Leon made his way along the highway until he got to the culvert where he made a home, his private shelter from the wind, with its little fire pit and his meager possessions bundled up neatly next to the concrete. There, he slept in a bag that came up to his chin, supposing that if he ever fell into the hole of it, he could readily re-emerge. He had a smaller collection of things on the other side of the highway, for when the wind blew the other way. He never considered walking through the pipe to get there.

He nudged his bags aside, and pushed himself up against the abutment, shivering in his heavy coat though it wasn't particularly cold. No, it wasn't supposed to be like this. The doctor's talk of old stories was, like so much else, a source of intense discomfort to Leon. It took him back, dragged up memories of things lost and once taken for granted. When the fall came, it had been very quick. Everything stopped making sense, and the trajectory of his life was suddenly aiming much lower. Over the course of a month he'd changed from a promising young man into a nobody, a man afraid to take a step through the next door, tied to the bridge.

His sister, to whom he'd been close, and his beloved fiancée Sheila stopped noticing him. They did not question his existence exactly, but they managed to ignore it, acknowledging him only if he got in the way. He'd checked into a hospital, during which time these alleged loved ones left town without warning and returned no calls. He had been rational, but not healthy. He could not work, and the staff there had arranged a life on the dole as soon as possible, and then encouraged his release. He had been uncomfortable moving around the building, but was judged independent and harmless enough to avoid being an expensive ward of the state. Leon walked away from the building and in matter of several days, began the marginal existence in the bare, open spaces he had been living ever since.

He had been an imaginative child, and had read greatly before whatever transition had doomed him to his present state. In his exile, he'd at first tried to pass the time with novels and magazines, but he soon developed a deep suspicion of literature. Stories, though none of them were a physical reality, were nonetheless portals of a kind into all sorts of alternate worlds. The casual entrance into these fictional universes (and even nonfiction painted stilted substitute realities; he hated it even more than the obviously made-up stuff) seemed to make light of the drama of his life, as though the author were having a joke at Leon's expense. He'd stopped reading altogether before very long, as his dementia became established and routine. Yet he was convinced that he was not insane.

The Labyrinth had been favorite story of his youth, back before he'd known to be afraid of the idea. He still remembered some of the other stories too, and the doctor's conversation had brought to mind one of the ones that had haunted him. There was something unusual about the characters, he recalled--they were robots or something--but they were the same sort of mocking fairytale people as the Theseus and the king of Crete. This king (king robot) had had a magic box built for him that would take him to all sorts of wonderful alternate realities, full of beautiful women, fabulous riches, and splendid food. But there had been some fight between the king and the constructor (or maybe it was a bet), and the man with the box sent the king into a world that was indistinguishable from the one he left. When the king tried to come back to his proper world (there was, of course, a magic box in the new place as well), he again found himself in a duplicate of the original one. The king couldn't find his way out, and he couldn't catch the bastard who put him there.

For the millionth time, tears studded the corners of Leon Jordan's eyes. Like the king, he was stuck here, too. Good Lord, but look at him. He didn't even have the balls to sleep under the bridge like a self-respecting bum. What the hell happened? He needed to step back, to look at his life from a distance, but he couldn't break the bonds. Propped against the bridge, he sat thinking, head in hands. He'd tried to do it before, and his resolve was lost at the first challenge. He knew, however, that this life was surely going to kill him—soon--if he didn't find his way back. It was getting harder to move at all.

It was two days until the next appointment. With something like a spark flickering in his well-worn neural pathways, Leon began waiting, trying to think of a way out.


"So even if you could untangle it," Reide was saying, "would it matter? There are still going to be so many crossed points, hmm? And you can't even get to them because they've already been made, in the past." He was more engaged than usual today.

"Well, I think you really helped me to it on Tuesday, Doc. Just like you said, if I could lay it all out right, then maybe I could see it. Like if you have a pile of rope that looks all knotted up, but when you pull it apart--you know, unkink it, straighten it or whatever--you can see that there are really only one or two real knots that can't be shaken out. I know it's more complicated than a tangled cord, but I think my life is like that. If I shake out the tangled-up parts, then they'll be less confusing, and I'll be able to see where I crossed over wrongly."

"Interesting. Difficult when you are the rope though, I'd think. Hmm."

"Yeah, I'm gonna have to walk my way back to it. But I'm pretty sure that some of those kinks are easier than they look. A twist here, a shift there. Maybe I can find the right door if I can see past all that extra clutter."

"And cross it, Leon?"

"Well, we'll see. We'll see."


Walk his way back. He'd known for years, he supposed, that he'd have to go back the way he'd come. It sounded easy in the office that morning, but those strings were pulled awfully tight. The forbidding concern had always been the number of minor passages he'd have to worm his way through on the way, not all of which could be reproduced thanks to the passage of time. Maybe it would be enough to look only for the biggest twists, and find out whether or not they were invariant.

Leon inhaled sharply and looked at his sparse possessions, at the worn space near the bridge. He could be making the tangle worse, but, he reasoned, he was going to die anyway, and that would be true in any hell he'd encounter from this one forward. The worst he could do was hasten it, and even that was better than sitting here. He stood there, hunched in his green coat, and his eyelids fluttered wetly. He was afraid of death, but it would be better than coming back here. He straightened and put a shaking leg forward, followed by the next.

Since the multiverse had gotten the best of Mr. Jordan, he'd gone almost nowhere that he couldn't retrace. During his hospitalization, and even immediately after his release, Leon did not make it far from the orbit of the ward. He tried to consider the turning points that had driven him out of the hospital's gravity well, and the vagueness of them stopped his stride. Impossible... He looked back up the highway, and thought again about death.

Swallowing, he advanced his mind to slightly more recent memories. He'd stumbled out of town in the middle of the highway, he recalled, aimless and desparate, until he found the culvert and simply stopped walking. He recalled that his stomach had been cramped, as, in fact, it was now.

So from where was he fleeing? He'd been so hungry, and even though he had a few dollars, he couldn't make himself go through the door of the diner. He closed his trembling eyelids, and smells came to him. He did not remember the name of the place, but it didn't matter, he thought he could remember the where. He followed the double yellow line back toward town, waving at the few alarmed motorists who noticed him at the last minute.

The sun shone on Leon's back as he strode into the parking lot, evoking a memory of contentment. It must have been that feeling of security that had brought him to this place in his hungry desperation. He hadn't thought about it for years, but he'd spent countless Saturdays here with his family eating meatloaf and chicken soup and liver and onions (where else could you get liver and onions?). He'd spin around on the stool with its cracked red Naugahyde cover while his sister giggled and his father smiled tolerantly over his coffee. He remembered walking in with them all, the sun warming his shoulders just like this, and there had been the same sense of possibility, the same sense of the future unfolding before him. To his surprise, he began skipping across the parking lot like a ten-year-old before catching himself in the present.

He slowed past the entrance, and kept his steps well away from the long arch of the awning, stomach lurching as forced himself under the power cable strung to the northwest corner of the edifice. His more recent dinner was growing clear in his mind. He reluctantly crept around to the back of the restaurant and into the three-sided fence where dumpsters were still concealed. The fumes of rotten food were overpowering, but he willingly let them invade his senses, probing for whatever memory the odors would elicit. He had no intention of eating, but he felt his stomach rumble in sympathy with the past.

He could feel the cold metal rim of the dumpster on his (then ample) waist, and his shoulder hurt after wrenching open the broad plastic lid. He felt the shame at the ridiculousness of this, at the intense awareness of the cartoonish way his legs were bicycling above him as he rooted for scraps head-down. He'd been delighted to uncover some sandwich crusts, and managed to choke down a half calzone after picking out the cigarette butt. He felt his gorge rising again at the memory of the nasty thing, tasting the ash and glad of it. He shivered against the side of the metal box, much as he'd done a decade ago, trembling pale, yet unwilling to vomit up the precious nutrition in his gut.

Leon hunched over in sympathy with his former self. He did not expect the vision of the past to be so strong. It was too poignant, he thought, too real to not be true; he'd untwisted one loop of his wildly knotted life. Listening to his feelings, he walked away from the dumpster with his eyes closed, feeling a lifetime's worth of resolve crammed into his fractured psyche. He recalled his tentative steps toward the diner, pacing back and forth in cowardly widening loops from the hospital parking lot, where he'd spent several hungry days afraid to move and unwilling to reveal himself to the staff. Even with his eyes shut, he thought he could remember the way.

What would Dr. Reide think of this, he wondered.

Leon did not find out immediately. Before long, he'd found the hospital insecurely boarded up, with placards over its windows and charred fire pits in its weedy parking lot. He spent the better part of the afternoon tracking a circuitous and intuitive path (often with his hands over his eyes) about the environs before pulling off a board and ducking in, ears perked for the voices of the past.

He missed his next two scheduled sessions with the doctor, and when he came in days late, Reide betrayed no indignation at his client's absence, nor at his unscheduled appointment.

Leon, however, was a changed man.

"Doc, I swear I could hear her voice. Ten years gone, and the phone was gutted who knows how long ago, but I could close my eyes and there was her telephone voice in my ear. I could feel the plastic handset and smell the hospital smells too." A frown passed over his face. His conversation with Sheila had not been fulfilling. She had responded to him, but did not encourage conversation. It had been like talking to an uninterested stranger.

"In the old hospital, eh? Where you once stayed?" Occupying an abandoned building was evidently unrelated to the doctor's sense of professional ethics. "Do you feel you're crossing over, Leon?"

Leon's frown deepened. "No. I don't think so at all, but everything's coming to me so clearly now. I'm pushing the strings around and seeing the problem, but not untying anything. Not yet."

"The knot of your life's gone wild, it seems." Dr. Reide revealed his infantile grin and chuckled wetly. "That shouldn't be possible in real space, of course, but maybe you'll find the crossing point and tame out that twist, eh? That would be something."

Leon looked helplessly at him.

"Took your metaphor a little too far, hmm? I'm saying I think you should keep this up, Leon. Even if you can't reduce this thing to something more normal, doing something about it is clearly good for your mind. You're done with the hospital, now? Good. Get back where you left off, and keep searching out your path. Maybe you'll even get where you need to go. And Leon?"

"Yes?" Leon sat bemused at the shift in the doctor's personality. He'd become direct, eyes unglazed, possibly even thinner, and the vaguely incontinent smell was gone. The old man had never given Leon direct advice before.

"If you do find your way back, make sure you stop and say hello to whatever crazy old Doctor Reide lives in that world, eh? I'm afraid I will miss our conversations.

"You should get something to eat, too," he added, rising to give the younger man a pat on the shoulder and a gentle nudge out the door. "Good luck."

Outside the office, Leon felt in his pocket for any remaining cash. Probably foolish to think he'd stop needing that, even if he did manage to return to his own reality; these planes of existence seemed indistinguishable outside of Leon's own experience of them. Nonetheless, it felt time for a last grand meal. He'd been haunting the old hospital for several days, hardly seeing the dank abandoned halls of the present, and though he'd revisited any number of meals, he was fairly sure he had not, in fact, eaten anything. And navigating through the hospital was a remarkable milestone at any rate. The doc had been right about that.

On his way out of Reide's office, he sometimes stopped at the convenience store down the street. He liked it because it had a drive-through window and he didn't have to walk in. It was Leon's habit to walk warily up to the window, order his groceries, and carefully carry them back the way he came. (They were also gracious enough to cash his checks.) He'd indeed eaten little that week, and he splurged on two warmed burritos and a cola. He devoured the first burrito at the window, and, flashing a smile at the familiar clerk (who ignored it), walked back around nursing the second and sipping his Coke.

Calling Sheila had been the first thing he'd done at the ward, and, save finding his way out the door, was the last thing he'd done on his visit this week. He made his way back to the entrance now, where he left off, anticipating now that intense sense of…place to direct him to the next point up the hill of the past, and ultimately to the forbidden crossing at its apex. Leon was excited.

As he ambled his way back through the shifting labyrinth of his own making, he considered how easy he was finding it to negotiate the path. As his confidence grew, he realized that he'd spent most of the last decade cowering in one place, and he looked at himself with a growing sympathy, as though he were someone else, some other poor wretch. He'd have to go to his apartment from there, and he realized he could probably navigate it quickly, having shivered in his room most of that time, desperately trying to phone the loved ones who now treated him like a stranger, too frightened to go to work, too scared to go out and buy food. By the time he'd willed himself to make the hopeless trip to the ward, he'd already learned to count his steps and watch out for hidden passages.

He sat on the stoop of the old hospital door, a battered and happy hobo, finally looking, without that intent gaze, like the more typical variety of crazy. The building still echoed with old voices, though more distantly, and he could hear the intercom crackling and the gurneys squeaking somewhere back in the past. A lonely ghost trudged toward him from a more recent memory, waiting to be mirrored by the Leon of the flesh.

He'd wait till the morning, he thought, and hopefully no one would be home. He hoped they had not changed the place too much. Full and confident, he curled up there on the concrete, wrapped in his tattered green coat, head pillowed by a skinny arm. He watched the sun set over the trees, and drifted off into dreams of mazes and monarchs, of heroes and strings.

He woke shivering in the shadows, and sat leaning against the pillar, his tread upon the step in his ears and the cool brass handle of the door (now gone) on his hand. Leon sat for a time listening to the fading din of the past as he awaited the proper time for his next step deeper into it. At around 10AM, he rose, and paced the younger, cleaner Leon backwards on his nearly forgotten trek. His apartment had changed less than the hospital had, a unit in a series shabby building projects, blocks of brick sprouting from untended rust-colored earth. Early model cars were parked here and there on the cracked lot, some on blocks, and some of these perhaps from Leon's time. He followed his shade toward the old address. The current tenants had strung Christmas lights across the entrance and without passing under, Leon carefully unhitched one end and dropped it before attempting the regular door.

He found the entrance locked, and with regret he broke the window to release it from the inside. He dug out his small dirty wad of dollar bills and placed it guiltily on the counter as he passed.

Leon looked into the kitchen as he entered the place. Very little had changed. He breathed deeply of dried spaghetti sauce, of dirty clothes. It was like looking into a college dorm room--he'd been so young. His ghost seemed to spread around the apartment, and he looked at the pattern of it motions. He realized that it was not just a simple loop--there was a skinny thread out, yes, and the one he followed in, which seemed to have lost some significance, but he found that couldn't precisely pin down any single line in here. He could, however, read the shape of his past motions as though they were filling out a space defined by probabilities. Closing his eyes, he could sense this blur of his old perambulations. He reached his mind out to the pattern, and tried to make his body take up the same space.

Panting, Leon found himself on the sidewalk. It was the afternoon, he saw. He sincerely hoped it was the same day. He felt his arms. They were fuller, he thought, taking up more space even though they looked the same. Maybe it was progress. He realized he was kneeling, and rose and looked behind him. An apartment he recognized was there, but it held little mystery. It was merely a place he used to live.

He stood there and did his best to cast his mind back still further. Sheila sprang in there, and he felt a dying, nearly dissipated anger. There must have been a fight, and though he had no clear memory of the event, he could sense the emotions that decorated his way home from it. A simple line again, and he could sense it, but he could not reach his mind back to its origin. No choice but to follow, but the incompleteness of the thing bothered him, especially after his journey through the house. He felt urgency.

He turned his body to the old complex, and closed his eyes, dropping his chin to accept the fear that had given over from anger. Occupying the same space as the young Leon, he began to walk in reverse, his face watching the old complex fade backwards in decreasing terror. Distantly, he heard horns and shouting, but his mind was more and more occupied with a woman, anger at her uncooling and fear of the future undawning, a sense of presence returning as he fled toward the source of his argument. He was mumbling strange syllables to himself, English, backwards.

The fury grew, and memories of the conversation sprang to his mind, though not with the feeling of simultaneity that his walk produced: he was remembering remembering them. He was muttering loudly now, hotly. He pushed out his fist and then pumped it back. "!taht ekil em teart t'nac uo--"

Leon halted, abruptly. His head was cool, suddenly empty, and time was going forward. He opened his eyes, no longer able sense what he had been following, nor any emotional resonance at all. For a moment he stood blankly, and then the old fears returned, crashing upon him as he turned timidly around.

He was in the shadow of a tall building, somewhat below street level, in a decorated little urban nook. He'd been following a sidewalk ramp downwards for several turns, and was now standing before a little cavern of leaves. Leon stared at the opening. The walk continued into it, and the twining branches were the soapy green fronds of two rows of overgrown boxwoods that were flourishing in concrete planters on either side of the walk, their branches tangling densely overhead. The late afternoon sun lit the entrance of the tunnel such that an arc of illumination, brilliant white on the cement, framed the first couple of steps inward, leaving the rest of the hole in a dappled inconstant shadow. At the end, about thirty feet away, was a wooden door with a carved handle. He had no recollection of it at all.

It was the most frightening thing Leon had ever seen.

As he gaped at the leafy corridor, it seemed to stretch and snap back, like a cheap horror movie special effect. Two weeks ago, he could not have imagined such a place even in his nightmares, but here, he could feel the import of it weighing on his shoulders, and again that feeling of haste.

He would not go back. He squared his shoulders to the cave mouth, filling the bright arch with his shadow, smelling the leaves. As he stepped in, the path again seemed to stretch out before him, more palpably, and with a desperate holler, he charged at the receding door. Legs pumping, he chased it farther, farther. He would not go back.


Sheila Thomson had not been to this town in ages, and she did not precisely understand why she had stopped so early to spend the night when there was still such a long drive in front of her. The hotel had a quaint little back entrance though, and she liked that, a little garden path with a wood door. She was hovering by it now, unsure whether to go outside for that walk or wait just a little longer, when she heard the odd handle rattle. She hesitated, gathered herself, and opened it. A familiar face greeted her.

"Oh, there you are Bill. I'm so glad you're here. I was going to take a walk, but I thought I heard shouting out there. I'm feeling a little uneasy for some reason."

"I didn't hear anything, honey, maybe it's just the hometown ghosts. Didn't you say you almost married a guy from here?"

"You know, it's the strangest thing. I can't even remember his name anymore."

Her husband grinned, "Well, William K. Thomson can have that effect on a woman, I've heard."

"Not funny, Bill. Let's go out the front door. This place is really giving me the creeps."



hipparchia said...

poorly received?! i liked this one! i adore big words.

Keifus said...

[good thing I have email notification thingies going...]

A while back, last summer or fall I suppose it was, I submitted this to Baen's Universe (no idea if the magazine took off or if the site is still up), and it got very little attention. One reader really liked it, another gave the above comment, which I thought, and still think, was pretty dumb. It wasn't quite my market (action-adventure stuff), and I learned a lot in the process, but it was kind of disheartening just the same.

I should try something new soon.