Somewhere far away, someone was burning leaves. When the breeze blew, the smell reached the farm grounds, somehow crowding out the nearer aromas of frying donuts and baking pies and simmering apple cider. The noise—the babble and movement of a few dozen people, the laughter and shrieks and running footsteps of children, the crying of at least one baby at any given moment, it seemed—receded, too, when the smell was present, as if Paul’s senses were straining exclusively toward the sharp fragrance of invisible smoke.
He was past the point of being amazed at the goodness of simple things like the smell of burning leaves, but still able to be grateful for them. He wasn’t yet at the point of being nervous that that goodness would fade, that he would wake one morning to find it no longer enough.
He waited until the breeze had died away before beginning to gather up the napkins and paper plates from the rough wooden picnic table, and saying, “Well, that was fun. Shall we call it a day?”
He’d been looking across the table at Diane, but it was Beth, sitting beside him on the bench, who took her cue to shriek, “Daddy!”
“What?” Beth’s face was tacky with caramel. Her legs kicked beneath the table with sugary energy.
“Daddy, we didn’t do the maze!”
Her eyes bulged and her mouth widened in a pantomime of disbelief. “Daddy. Are you serious?”
He looked up at Diane. He was glad to see she was smiling, not so glad to see she was watching him rather than Beth. I’m the one who needs supervision, he thought. Fine.
“Have you heard about this?” he asked. “This so-called maze?”
There was a small, outraged gasp from beside him, at the level of his elbow, but he kept his eyes on Diane. After a moment of hesitation, she decided to play along. “I seem to remember hearing something about it.”
They’d heard about nothing but the straw maze for the entire forty-five-minute drive. As she often did, Beth had seized on one aspect of an outing, and built it up far out of proportion. She’d spent the drive alternately asking questions about it—based on Paul’s own childhood visits to the farm—and elaborating on the bare facts with her own odd fancies. She’d been reasonably patient throughout the tour of the mill, and the haunted hayride, and the apple picking, and she’d consumed her caramel apple and hot cider with apparent gusto. But now her anticipation was bubbling over.
“Let’s put it to a vote,” Paul said. “Raise your hand if you want to go see this—what’d you say it’s called?”
“A maze!” Beth cried, both arms stretched ramrod straight toward the cloudless blue sky. “A amazing maze!” She shimmied to her feet and began hopping up and down on the bench, which suddenly seemed very narrow.
“Beth,” Diane said quickly. “Paul.”
But he was already on his feet, bending to scoop Beth from the bench, then holding her wiggling form against his chest. Beth said, too loudly, and directly into his ear, “Can we, Daddy? Okay?”
He must’ve made some sound or gesture of acquiescence, because a wet, sticky kiss hit him on the cheek. Beth giggled at the effort necessary to disengage her caramel-encrusted lips from Paul’s face, then started wiggling again as Diane set to work on her cheeks with a wet nap.
As she twisted in his arms, the small white scar on his daughter’s left temple seemed hardly to move, as if her whole body were pivoting on its fulcrum. Paul had an impulse to kiss the scar, but thought better of it immediately. Instead, when her face was as clean as it was going to get for the time being, he set her down on the ground, where she took his right hand in her left, Diane’s left in her right.
Beth strained against their arms as she led them across the grounds, seemingly oblivious to the strolling families and sprinting, screaming lines of children which Paul and Diane maneuvered to avoid. As Beth explained again the many wonders of the maze, Paul said to Diane, “Here, Hon, let me take that.”
She hefted the small paper bag of apples in her right hand, and said, “It’s fine.” She hadn’t yet returned to the point of accepting small acts of gallantry. Fine, he thought. At least she didn’t sniff my cider. And he couldn’t have blamed her if she had.
They rounded the corner of a long red barn, haunted each year for six weeks in September and October, and Beth said, “There it is!” There was no mistaking the long expanse of stacked bales, the maze’s nature already hinted at by its first T intersection, visible through the wide gap that formed both its entrance and exit.
“It’s the biggest in the whole world,” Beth said. “A amazing maze!”
“In the state,” Paul corrected, though he had no idea if this were still true, or even if it had been true when he’d been so informed, many years ago, by his own father, who’d tried hard at times, though not, Paul thought, as hard as he himself was trying.
It was certainly large. He’d expected a diminution from his memories, in area and especially in height, but the aspect of limitless extent he remembered so clearly was very much in evidence, and, as they neared the entrance, he saw that the stacked bales still rose well above his head, probably higher than he could reach. He was unexpectedly, childishly excited to see that.
I can always knock them down to make a path if I get lost. He smiled wryly at the strange thought, perhaps the echo of an assurance his younger incarnation had made to himself when embarking on explorations past.
“If you go the wrong way, you see the alligators, and they chomp you up,” Beth informed them, sounding like a tiny, manic tour guide. “But if you get to the middle and ring the bell, you get a crown, because then you’re the Queen of Halloween.”
“That’d look good with your Batgirl costume,” Paul said, envisioning the chuckling explanations when he took her trick-or-treating in a few days. He had to remind himself that the crown business was purely a product of Beth’s imagination; as, for that matter, were the alligators.
Paul had forgotten, until they’d almost reached the maze, that there’d always been an old man in a rocking chair beside the entrance. For all he knew, this was the same man; back then, anyone older than his parents had registered as old. This man looked a healthy sixty-five or seventy, hair white but full, face lined but not shriveled.
It had seemed natural enough to a child’s sensibilities that there should be a gatekeeper to usher visitors into the mysteries of the maze, but now Paul wondered why the man was here. “We don’t need tickets?” he asked, pausing beside the entrance.
“Nope,” the man said, glancing at Paul just long enough to avoid rudeness. “Go on in.”
“You own the place?” Paul wouldn’t have considered it wise to linger if Beth had still been straining toward the maze, but she’d become momentarily tractable, her attention elsewhere.
The man shrugged, still gazing out across the grounds, toward the low hills that rose orange and brown and red in the distance. “I run it, anyway.”
“For how long? I only ask because I used to come here as a kid.”
“Oh, years and years. You folks can go on—”
“Can I pet him?” Beth said, her hand wriggling free of Paul’s.
“Ask the man,” Diane said.
“Can I? Please?”
Paul looked down at the object of Beth’s distraction, a snug comma of black fur in a shallow wicker basket beside the man’s chair. The shape unfolded itself enough to raise its head. It twitched its ears and regarded them sleepily, blinking the yellow-green diamonds of its eyes with exaggerated deliberateness.
There’d always been cats, too, or a cat, Paul remembered. Black. Maybe the same cat. But that was a strange thought.
“See if he’ll let you,” the man said.
Beth reached down, too abruptly, Paul thought. But the cat received her first, overzealous caress in stride, and raised its head to meet the subsequent strokes of her small hand.
“Gently, Honey,” Diane said.
“What’s his name?” Beth asked, still petting the cat, which was staring fixedly into her face.
“Doesn’t have one,” the man said. “Not that I know of. I just call him Chance.”
Something in the man’s voice, or maybe the seeming contradiction of his words, drew Paul’s eyes. He’d intended a surreptitious glance, but his eyes fastened on the man’s face when he saw the expression there. The man’s mouth was set in a hard line that pulled the surrounding wrinkles taught, making them resemble scars. Paul couldn’t decide if the man’s eyes held discomfort, annoyance, fear, or some combination, or something else entirely. The expression was so strange it made Paul wonder for a moment if the man were having some kind of medical emergency.
“Come on, Honey,” Paul said. “You don’t like it when people interrupt your nap.”
He’d expected resistance, but Beth straightened up, waved at the cat, and took her parents’ hands again. “Bye, Chance,” Beth said. “Hey, where you going?” The cat had risen silently from its basket, and was padding toward the haunted barn. “You’re gonna get scared if you go in there, you silly cat.”
It didn’t react to Beth’s amused warning, nor to the scattered cajoling that rose from the line of visitors waiting in front of the barn as it sauntered past. It brushed lightly against the leg of the greasepainted murder victim manning the barn’s entrance, and disappeared beneath the long strips of clouded plastic that hung from the top of the doorway, blocking the light.
“Maybe we can visit him in there,” Beth suggested. “After the maze.”
“Maybe,” Paul said, looking to the man for an indication of the barn’s age appropriateness. The man shrugged. “We’ll see.” Paul nodded to the man, and moved them toward the maze’s entrance. “We don’t even know if we’re going to make it out, remember? We might get chomped.”
“Oh, yeah. We might.”
Inside the maze, they stood facing the yellow-brown wall of the first intersection. Paul smiled as he watched Beth look solemnly right, then left, then right again. He glanced up to see that Diane, too, was smiling, and watching Beth, not him. Finally Beth nodded, and pulled them to the right.
They fell into a three-part rhythm, taking turns choosing their collective path, sometimes doing so silently, sometimes pronouncing their verdicts with portentous significance, sometimes changing their minds at the last second, swearing they’d heard snapping jaws and slinking, scaly bodies just ahead.
At one point, Paul saw Diane adjust her grip on the bag of apples, and reached impulsively across Beth. Diane let him take the bag, said, “Thanks.” No hidden strain, no unspoken, grown-up-only meaning; just “thanks,” delivered with nothing but a small, careless smile.
Not long after, Beth stopped short, and cried, “The bell!” Paul heard it then, the short, spasmodic peal of the old brass bell at the center of the maze, coming from somewhere just ahead and to the right.
He remembered how deceptive the bell had usually proven when his younger self had sought it, in much the same fervor of discovery as Beth’s. It would ring, full and clangorous and tantalizingly near, and he’d rush off in that direction, and the maze would channel him where it chose, and the next time the bell sounded, it would be a tinny, hollow jingle in the invisible distance.
To his surprise, Beth took the next left, eschewing a right that seemed more promising. The new path took two sharp right turns almost immediately, and led, by way of one more left, to the center of the maze.
The space seemed wide after its narrower approaches, though Paul didn’t think it could’ve been more than ten or twelve feet square. In the middle of the space was a short stack of bales, from which rose the two iron supports of the bell. Beth dropped their hands and ran forward, reached up to grasp the worn rope descending from the bell’s tongue, and paused, looking back over her shoulder. “Come on,” she said. “Together.” The rope was just long enough for each of them to grasp it with one hand, and together they rang the bell once, twice, three times.
Beth made most of the decisions on the way out, and Paul restrained himself from cautioning her about alligators, unsure if, in her mind, ringing the bell had banished all danger. They’d just arrived at the exit—by way of the path that had lain to the left, when the same opening had been the maze’s entrance—when Diane stopped, and said, “Is it getting dark already?”
Paul looked first at his watch, having to let go of Diane’s hand, which he’d been holding for some time, maybe since the bell. There’d certainly been a change in the light—either it had come suddenly, or he’d only noticed it when Diane pointed it out—but it wasn’t yet three.
He looked up, expecting to see a stray bank of clouds blocking the sun. But the sky was entirely overcast, and very low, its flat, pale gray shaded faintly but uniformly indigo. It didn’t look like a storm—Paul didn’t know what it looked like—but he said, “We should probably head back to the car.”
“Paul,” Diane said. “What—Where are we?”
The question was strange enough to make Paul look at her in irritation, though this vanished when he followed her eyes across the farm grounds.
His first thought was that the sky was doing strange things to the farm, but he realized almost immediately that the change in light couldn’t possibly account for the altered landscape. The grass wasn’t merely reflecting the sky’s grayish indigo, but actually that color; and though, before, it had shown only in trampled patches amid the more prevalent bare dirt, now it sprouted lushly everywhere, rising above his ankles, extending to the horizon to supplant the autumn colors of the hills.
The quaint wooden form of the mill, and the bright red silo which had stood beside it, were gone from the middle distance, replaced, respectively, by a long squat building and a high circular tower, both of stone a darker shade of the same strange color as the grass and sky. The grounds looked deserted, and Paul realized that the laughter and murmuring of the crowd had disappeared, seemingly as suddenly as the day had darkened. He looked to the left, and received an impression of another, larger structure not far away, before something closer caught his attention.
Paul didn’t recognize him at first; the old man had apparently changed into a costume while they’d been in the maze. In place of his faded plaid shirt and jeans, the man wore a long brown robe like a medieval monk’s, tied at the waist with a slender black cord. The makeup job was elaborate, even professional: the wealth of new wrinkles, and the livid scar curling in a rough semicircle from above the left ear across the side of the face and neck, were richly textured. Paul couldn’t see the edges of the bald cap, but there must have been one; the top of the man’s head was completely hairless, and as deeply grooved as his face.
The man stood a few yards away, in front of a weathered wooden stool that had apparently replaced his rocking chair. Something else was missing, but Paul couldn’t remember what. Beside the stool, the ground sank in a long, wide declivity Paul hadn’t noticed before. It looked like the ghost of a shallow in-ground pool, the gray-indigo grass within trampled flat.
“You’ll have to come with me,” the man said, voice gravelly and gruff. He gestured them forward with a hand as wizened as his face.
“Is this…new?” Paul said stupidly. “We were just in the maze…”
“I know that, don’t I?” The man’s annoyance had a hollow tone, as if he were playacting. “Took the first right, the second left, the second left again, and so on. Rang the bell three times. Not twice, not four times, three. Then you left the center by the path straight ahead, went right, went left the first time you could—and it doesn’t matter. It’s done. Now you’ll have to come with me.” He gestured again, turned, and moved slowly away.
Paul didn’t know what to call the structure the man led them toward: a castle, a fortress, a temple. It must have stood roughly where the barn had been, though it was much larger, its front wall—the same strange stone as the other buildings—extending at least a hundred feet in either direction, and rising four or five stories. He saw no windows; the only break in the wall was a high, wide opening, with no door or gate. He glanced over his shoulder, and saw that the maze was no longer made of piled straw, but large slabs of the same gray-indigo stone.
“Where are we?” Diane said. Paul was glad she’d said it; he didn’t think he had the courage to ask a question which admitted so bluntly that they were in another place entirely than the one from which they’d come.
“This is his place,” the man said, not looking back. He was still attempting to sound annoyed, or angry. Paul realized that this was for the man’s own benefit, not theirs; that he was trying to dislike them. “His world. That’s all I know for sure.”
“Whose?” Diane said.
“I told you, he doesn’t have a name. Not one I know, anyway.” The words were vaguely familiar, but Paul couldn’t remember in what context he’d last heard them, until the man went on, “I call him Chance there, but—I don’t know. I can’t call him that here.”
Paul said, “Are you talking about the cat?”
The man ignored the question, or considered his vague gesture toward the doorway that lay just ahead an adequate answer. The opening was almost a tunnel, Paul saw as they moved through; the wall was easily ten feet thick, and the opening itself would’ve been wide enough, high enough, for a truck to pass through. Beyond, the structure had no roof; the wide, grassy courtyard in which they found themselves was open to the low sky. Its walls were long, featureless sweeps of stone, except for the opening that yawned on the far side, facing the one through which they’d come.
The old man stopped about a third of the way across the courtyard, and stood watching the doorway in the far wall. Paul, Diane, and Beth—holding hands again, as before—stopped behind him.
“He’ll come,” the man said. “He knows you’re here.”
“The cat?” Diane said. “I don’t—”
“I’ll tell you what I think,” the man said, glancing over his shoulder before returning his eyes to the doorway. “It’s all guesswork. I could be wrong. But I’ve had a lot of time to think about it. I know that maze was here when my father was a boy. I think when his father was, too. Anyway, it was here when I went through with my grandson. When he—when it chose me.” The man gestured cryptically to the scar that dominated the left side of his face. “To be whatever it is I am. Living in two worlds, aging here but not there. It needs someone. Or wants someone. A guide. I don’t know what happened to the last one. Although I guess I do.
“I think it’s always been here, or somewhere. In one form or another. Caves, tunnels. A house with a thousand rooms. It could be a whole town, I guess. It could be almost anything. As long as the essentials are there.”
“What do you mean?” Paul said. “What essentials?”
“The paths. The turns. All the ways you might’ve gone, but didn’t. All those, set against the one way you did go. How many turns do you suppose you made, getting to the center, then getting out?”
“I don’t know. Dozens.”
“Just about. You made twenty-two. That’s not counting all the turns you didn’t make. Those are choices, too, of course. And you rang the bell three times. What do you suppose the odds are, on someone taking exactly that path, down to the last turn?”
“I have no idea.”
“I don’t either. Except that it’s unlikely, to say the least. That’s what I mean, it could be a house, or a town. You could drive along the streets for years, for a lifetime, and never go that exact, one-and-only way. And end up here.”
“But we didn’t know. You make it sound like we meant to do it that way.”
“No, I don’t. You might hear it that way, but that’s not what I said at all. Knowledge doesn’t enter into it. What you meant to do. This isn’t a court of law. The world doesn’t give two damns for what you meant to do. You didn’t know what you were choosing, but that doesn’t make it any less your choice.
“Everything’s that way. How many hundreds of millions of little swimmers went racing for the promised land when you were conceived? And one—one—made it. Any of the hundreds of millions of others, and you’re not you. You’ve got the same name, maybe, but you’re someone else. Multiply that by your parents, and theirs, and theirs, all the way back. It’s already unlikely enough to make your eyes water. Multiply it by all the hundred trillion little contingencies that put everyone in the world exactly where they were at exactly the instant they were there, at each and every instant. To make a train, or miss it, meet somebody, or not, start a war, fall in love, become a slave, catch a disease.
“I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. But I’m probably telling you something you don’t think about very much. People know how unfathomably goddamn unlikely it all is, and they dream up things like fate, God’s plan, causal determinism, alternate universes. Not because they’re arrogant or stupid. Just so they can sleep at night. Because you can tell yourself it’s all meant to be, or you can keep yourself from thinking about it, or you can lose your goddamn mind. Or you can tell yourself it doesn’t matter, that one life, one world, is as good as another. But it does matter, if you like existing. You, the person I’m talking to, not some different person, with a different life, in a different world.
“What I think is, the maze is a crystallization of all that. A final focusing. All that infinite unlikelihood…someone has to pay for it. It doesn’t matter what form it takes, though I guess a maze is as fitting as anything.”
“Fitting…” Paul trailed off at the sight of a large shadow moving across the opening in the far wall. Except, pitch black as the shape was, it couldn’t have been a shadow, he realized; the strange light wasn’t capable of producing them.
“For him,” the man said. “That’s what he wants. That’s what he feeds on.” The man fell silent as the shape filled the opening in the far wall, and emerged, enormous and impossible, into the courtyard.
The thing retained a vaguely feline appearance, despite the warping of its features: its triangular ears were swept far back along its head, to point almost directly behind it, and its oval eyes—not yellow-green now, but the same gray-indigo as its world—were sunken and piggish; all this to accommodate its drastically enlarged muzzle, which occupied easily three-quarters of its face, and which was still not large enough to close completely around the forest of tapering white shapes within, more like sharpened tusks than teeth.
Paul saw, when it turned and began to stalk slowly along the far wall, that it was the size of a city bus. Its body was longer and lower to the ground than a proportionately large cat’s would have been, and its legs were angled sharply upward, so that, at any given moment, at least one knee joint rose above its back; they were more the legs of a great hairy spider than those of any cat. Its tail was only a separate section because Paul’s mind insisted it must be; it appeared a seamless continuation of its slender body, more like the back portion of a snake than a true tail.
Someone shrieked, and Paul thought at first it must be him; certainly some part of him was shrieking, audibly or not. Then he realized it was Diane, though he’d never heard her so starkly terrified, not even in the timeless interval between the point at which he’d lost control of the car and the point at which they’d reached the trees.
He opened his mouth to say something to her, but instead he addressed the man. “What’s it want? What’ll it do?”
“It’s going to eat you,” the man said sadly; he’d failed in his attempt to dislike them, which Paul now recognized as no more than the chef’s self-defensive disdain for the lobster as it went into the pot. “A sacrifice, or just sustenance, I don’t know. But listen to me: don’t run. It’s worse if you run. It’ll eat you all the same. But it’ll play with you first.”
Paul didn’t think he could’ve moved his legs if he’d tried; shock and fear had staked them to the ground.
The man turned, and offered him a silver flask. “Here. Take all you can. Dull it. It’ll be quick, I promise, if you stand and take it. But it’ll be bad.”
Paul stared dumbly at the flask, looked away with no particular emotion. “I’m five-months sober,” he said. No words he’d ever spoken had sounded so absurdly, meaninglessly disconnected from their context. He thought he’d laugh, but when he opened his mouth, no sound came.
The thing straightened out, padded toward them. Something clunked to the ground to Paul’s left, and he turned to see that he’d dropped the object he’d been carrying, which he’d forgotten about, and which was no longer a bag of apples, but a black wooden bucket filled with wet red human hearts. As they spilled from the overturned bucket in a bloody drift, their irregular shapes and raggedly severed arteries, and the fact that a few appeared to be weakly pulsing, made them roll across the grass with hideous whimsy.
When the hearts were still, the world was silent except for a low, deep growling which Paul recognized, as the thing approached, as purring.
Conor Powers-Smith grew up in New Jersey and Ireland. He currently lives on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, where he works as a reporter. He is an active member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, and his stories have appeared in AE, Daily Science Fiction, Nature, and other magazines.