Jeremy Packert Burke grew up in Virginia, has a BA in mathematics, and currently lives and works in New York City. His fiction has previously appeared in Reservoir. His Twitter is @jempburke.
The Labyrinth: it’s full of eels. Little square reflecting pools sit at each joint, just enough water to wet his shins, for the eels brush up against his calves. Mist drifts off them like prom night dance floors, and then disappears. The straightaways, thankfully, are dry. Bernard runs, leaps, turning his body in the air to avoid the pools of anguilliformes, although as his legs grow tired he more often stumbles, misses, wets his toes on the pools’ cusps, narrowly missing the eels.
The Labyrinth: it’s quite large, dark, labyrinthine. Its walls are gray and seamless stone. It has arches occasionally; pigeons build nests in their cornices and coo disinterestedly as they raise their young. Bernard marks the arches and walls with a stub of gray sidewalk chalk as he passes them. The pitter and patter, the clatter, of his footfalls echoes around so many corners, it sounds like he’s chasing himself.
The Labyrinth: convincing fakes of famous artworks adorn certain walls. Bernard does not stop to check them out; they would only distress him with their infinite symbolic possibilities. But he drags his chalk over their surfaces which leaves a long gray streak, like a line of erasure. He does this by accident, or at least without forethought. He passes Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day and runs his chalk over the umbrella’d pedestrians; the city’s colors are muted but they’re still colors.
At home, viewers watch his run, comfortable atop piles of luxurious stolen foreign rugs and pillows. Their walls are lined with rugs, too, to keep the heat, the sound, in, to keep the light out.
Maureen, his wife, and Vapiano, her lover, do not watch. They feed each other jam sandwiches that taste like the sky.
The State newspaper denies all existence of the Labyrinth, leading to much speculation:
—Punishment for war crimes!
—Combination game show/workout plan!
—Tedious snuff film.
But understanding the purpose of the Labyrinth will not get Bernard out of it any quicker. Lostness is not predicated on reason, but on distance, time, acceleration, on entropy and blockages. There are an infinite number of ways for a string to be knotted and only one for it to be undone.
Bernard reaches a T-junction, pauses, scratches at the calluses on the soles of his feet, takes a sip of coffee from his thermos. A wide pool of eels stretches before him, and they wriggle. He gnaws on a piece of hardtack, lets it soften against the back of his tongue. —Left! cries half of America. —Right! cries the other half.
—Oh, Vapiano! cries Maureen. The day grays her window, graces her with dim light. She’s not sure she could stand blue.
She had begged Bernard not to enter the Labyrinth. He was terrible with direction, she reminded him, he had gotten lost in the Grand Bazaar, in Istanbul, and had to ask a maker of pearlescent boxes the way to the gate. —There are no makers of pearlescent boxes in the Labyrinth, she told him.
—But I must go, he had said.
—Why? she had asked.
—Because I have been asked, he said. —And if I do not, then someone else will.
—You could come with me, he suggested. —Your sense of direction has always been excellent, better even than that of box-makers.
—Would they allow that?
—We could bargain.
—But I don’t want to go into the Labyrinth.
On the day they came for him, she slipped the pearly piece of chalk into his palm.
On the TV, Bernard thinks, chews, swallows, spins on his heels and runs back down the long, lonely leg of the T. America groans. He passes Demuth’s The Figure Five in Gold and it just says “No,” but he pays it no mind, and with a wiggly mark of the dove-gray chalk it nearly reads “Now.” A pigeon coos.
Vapiano is an adjunct professor of mathematics at the university where Maureen teaches, an analytic topologist. He had shown her how a sphere may be decomposed into two identical spheres of the same size and density, had shown her that point-nine-repeating is the same number as one, had explained that a set may be both open and closed, neither precluding the other. She had found obscure hope in his words, found solace in the idea that we can be more—or less—than just one thing, at least mathematically. In the letters that Bernard had sent, from whatever secret pre-Labyrinth holding facility he was held in, all the words were redacted, even his own name, crossed out in black nail polish. Maybe he did it himself.
After several of these Maureen had sold her TV and called Vapiano. She knows that one day soon she will get word either that Bernard has made it to the Labyrinth’s center, or to its edge, or has succumbed to its turnings and arches and pigeons, and, whichever way, she does not know what will happen after.
—We should go somewhere this weekend, Vapiano says. —The mountains, or the lake. Somewhere elemental.
—No one goes to a fire.
—I have to stay here, in case something happens.
—What could possibly happen?
—But he left you.
—And you called me, he says, kissing her thumb. —And we made love.
—And we are together now.
—We’re in the same room..., Maureen gently corrects him.
The chalk was something their son had played with, years ago. Craggy worlds on the driveway, washed away in the rain. He had disappeared over the side of a ship on a family cruise, proof that wide, open space is as deadly as confinement. She found the chalk in the storage benches on the porch, along with skateboards and deflated basketballs and spiderwebs.
—There’s no knowing what will happen, Maureen says. —I must be ready for everything.
Bernard’s footsteps haunt every house but hers, clatter through thousands of Dolby 5.1 surround sound systems across America, muffled against all of the stolen rugs. No one wonders if they should help him; there’s not much they could do.
It’s not clear what Bernard is thinking about. He doesn’t speak, even to himself. For a while he tried the whole keep-your-right-hand-to-the-wall trick, following all the appropriate turns, but he found himself going in a circle. Or passing again his old chalk markings, anyway. If not a circle, some sort of closed path. Not open.
It’s further unclear whether he knows he is being watched; he has never addressed the cameras, or looked them directly in the eye. There is speculation that the broadcast isn’t live, that it’s a pre-recorded loop and that whatever will happen has happened already; in place of the future, the past perfect.
The present: perfect, continuous. He has been running for days, has been running as if pursued. Certain viewers come to believe that he is, that whoever is editing the video does so exactly to hide the pursuant beast. A minotaur seems too obvious; perhaps a hippo, or else two hippos, or else an iguanodon, one viewer suggests. Bernard runs loudly past a van Eyck diptych, half Crucifixion, half End of Days, like two sides of different coins.
—Oh, Maureen! cries Vapiano. —What is to become of us? He is dramatic for a math professor, Maureen thinks. She makes him a jam sandwich and asks him to leave. It’s dark out. It’s Halloween, in fact, and all the children of the town are dressed as pieces of labyrinth, costumes of walls and corners and pools of eels, the maze rearranging itself based on who wants to be close to whom, to hold hands, to kiss, to steal candy from another. When a pool of eels and two corners come to her door, she realizes she has no candy. She gives them jam sandwiches, instead.
The son had been eleven, agile, clumsy, a lover of cool rocks and Roald Dahl, like any boy. He used to buff rocks into perfect domes using sandpaper, set them up along the top of his dresser pretending they were geodesic cities of the future. She heard him secretively narrating through the hollow-core door. —In a desert wasteland, only the power of rhombitruncated icosidodecahedric structures can save humanity. He had always loved structure, had found salvation in it; they all had, still do. But he had never lived to see the Labyrinth, had disappeared over the side of the ship the summer before the first murmurings and satellite photographs of it had appeared. Three years ago, that. Maureen still had all the stones somewhere, but she couldn’t look at them. She was amazed she’d been able to touch even the chalk.
Ariadne was the only person smart enough to get Theseus out of Minos’ labyrinth, and he quickly abandoned her, but she got a consolatory coronal constellation, a boreal present from Bacchus. Maureen wonders what her consolation will be if Bernard abandons her again. A new toaster would be nice. Hers is full of crumbs and smokes dreadfully.
She steps into the cool night, locks her door twice. Her shoes clap against the earth, muffled. On a grainy, boxy TV in the store on the corner, the proprietor watches Bernard running. The sun never sets on the Labyrinth, and the footage never stops, even when he manages to sleep. When Maureen gets to the counter, she cannot help but follow the cashier’s stare to the TV, the blurry and purple and green glow of the old cube; the sound is off. Together she and the cashier watch silently as Bernard leaps, kicks off a wall, safely beyond another set of eels. He races, races more, further. He is ragged. He is beginning to grow a beard and it looks quite bad. His chalk is now a mere stub. She recognizes the shape of his body but not how it moves, now like a rusty automaton at the end of the world, on the point of collapse. She can almost see his joints creaking. Maureen stands in the store and watches him run toward a second eel pool, make a second leap, soar into the air, clear the water, land, stumble, fall back, splash, fall right into the middle of the pool, his ass hitting the floor, the eels, with force. Bernard shrieks, drops his piece of sidewalk chalk. The chalk is drowned in eels and quickly dissolves. Bernard does not reach through the wriggling bodies to grab it. He splashes out of the pool, dodging eels and dripping wet. She can see in the grainy footage that he is crying, can tell from the way his body is bent forward, from the shape of his hands. Bernard looks broken, like a promise or a silence. His lips silently conform to the shape of her name. —Maureen, he mouths. —Maureen. The shape of her name is shock and grimace. Ahhh! Eeeeh! He stumbles forward, stops for a moment, and sits down, with only his coffee and hardtack and the calluses on his feet. Apart from breathing, he doesn’t move. Online, many disquisitions are written on this moment.
When Maureen arrives home, there are two men in dark glasses standing on her porch under the moth-beaten dome light. —Mrs. Shubak? the taller of them says.
—It’s Ms., actually.
—Ms. Shubak? says the shorter one.
—We’re going to have to ask you to come with us.
—Who are you with?
—This is about the Labyrinth, huh?
—We cannot say whether or not such a thing exists. But if it does, yes, this must be.
—I’m not interested, sorry. She goes to open the door, and they do not block her way. Inside she sees more men, more dark glasses, disassembling her furniture, her cabinets, her toaster with a thirty-piece set of Allen wrenches. They are sorting the pieces of her life based on surface area and luster: adamantine, submetallic, pearly, waxy, vitreous. Subcategories of aventurescence, color change, and chatoyancy. They’ve drawn a grid.
—Ms. Shubak, says the shorter one. —At this juncture it is not so much a question of what you want.
—You’ve been implicated, says the taller. —Action must be taken.
—I understood that participation was non-compulsory, she says. —That’s what Bernard told me.
—Ah-h-h, no, says the taller one. —It was not.
—Now we’re going to have to ask you to come with us.
She sighs. —I won’t forgive him for this, she says.
—Be that as it may, Ms. Shubak...
They lead her quietly to their car—a seafoam-green Lincoln—without checking her jacket, without finding the fifteen sticks of multicolored sidewalk chalk she bought at the corner store: red like dynamite, blue like detergent, white like death, and green like peace and quiet. They are stuffed into various pockets, enough chalk to draw an entire constellation’s worth of lines. She, at least, would get out.