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The Only Way Out Lies Farther In

She was seven years old, and if only she hadn’t seen the sign then none of it would ever have happened.

The grounds of the country house were vast, limitless-seeming. They had already been inside the house itself, had eaten lunch in the cafe, had explored both the lower and upper gardens, and had made the climb up to the lake. It was late afternoon, with a faint chill in the air, and Laurie was irritable and footsore. She’d lost her temper, for reasons she wouldn’t entirely remember later, and her father had decided that they were heading back to the car. The mood was tense. He wouldn’t look at her at all; he had a way of erasing her from existence when he was angry, an ability that alarmed her deeply. Laurie felt penitent, yet frustrated. Rain began to fall in fine streaks.

There were wooden signs everywhere, colour-coded, the directions marked in charred black characters; she’d quickly taken to disregarding them. There was no reason she shouldn’t have ignored this one too, but she didn’t. Her eyes snared on that one word: LABYRINTH. She knew that a labyrinth was a kind of maze. The possibility filled her with weird excitement, not quite pleasant.

“Can we?” she asked. She aimed the question at her mother, careful to let the threat of renewed tears into her voice.

“We’re going to the car park,” her father said.

Laurie snuffled. “We never do what I want to do.” She meant it earnestly; hadn’t she been dragged around all day, like a belonging?

“It’s on the way,” her mother pointed out. She was inspecting a map above the sign board. “It’s been a long day for her.”

Her father only scowled and began walking. Laurie measured the risks involved in further protest, decided they were too great. Her father’s temper, always unpredictable, had grown drastically worse of late.

At the next junction, her father ignored the sign marked CAR PARK for the one that read LABYRINTH. An unspoken decision had been made, and Laurie had got her way after all.

It didn’t take them long to reach the spot where the map claimed the labyrinth should be. However, what they came upon wasn’t remotely what she’d been expecting. She’d imagined high walls of stone, but there was merely a wattle arch in the hedgerow that ran beside the path. It looked to Laurie grown rather than made. There was nothing to mark the opening as an entrance, except that at the centre was a narrow plaque bearing carved markings. She barely glanced at them at the time—though often afterwards she would wrack her memory for some detail of what she’d seen there.

“We’ll have to be quick,” her father said. “It’s going to be dark soon.”

Laurie knew that wasn’t true. Evening was more than an hour off. Nevertheless, the sky was dusky, thick with grey cloud that continued to leak a constant drizzle. Disappointed by the labyrinth, she was almost ready to say that she’d rather return to the car.

Perhaps she would have, had her father given her the chance. Before she could put her doubts into words, he had walked beneath the arch. Laurie’s mother patted her shoulder, said, “Come on then.” Her tone was weary. She followed Laurie’s father, and Laurie’s sole choice was to hurry and catch up.

At first they walked between more hedgerows, but soon those petered away. The area they reached was large and open, slabs of white rock pushing through chalky soil. Its rough borders were defined by bushes and low trees that appeared to be growing wild. There were three—no, four—other paths heading from the edges in various directions.

They must have come to the wrong place, Laurie thought. Maybe this was another garden, a garden without flowers, or a part of the grounds that had fallen out of use. But she didn’t have time to wonder, for already her father had seized on one of the exits, her mother staying close beside him.

Again, Laurie hurried after. There was no sense of obstruction to either side; the wide path was bordered by knee-high foliage, patches of dogwood and willow, or by piled rocks or sometimes logs. There were occasional turns and junctions. Her father seemed to choose them at random. She realised that the rain had stopped. The sky was a strange colour, neither grey nor blue.

She felt her father’s anger, radiating. She couldn’t say if it was directed at her, at her mother, or at the labyrinth, but it frightened her. What if he lost his temper? What if he left her here? The prospect filled her with such raw terror that she wanted to cling to him, to be dragged along if need be. She didn’t dare—couldn’t find even the courage to clasp her mother’s hand.

The next area was surrounded by trees, taller than the ones they’d passed previously and bending inward. Upon the ground were wooden sculptures resembling totem poles, the tallest reaching to Laurie’s shoulder. Some of the designs were clearly identifiable as animals. Others were stranger.

The next contained a well that, when Laurie peered down into its depths, descended for a couple of feet, to end in a circle of sodden mud.

In the next there was a small fountain, though it was turned off. She couldn’t tell if its aquamarine bowl was genuinely old or just made up to look as if it was. The figure in the centre was a sort of mermaid, and Laurie felt sure that if the water had been on, the current would have spewed from her wide-open mouth. People had thrown coins into the inches of stagnant water, and they glittered like early stars in an evening sky. Laurie pondered what those people had wished for. Had it been for a way out? Before she could throw in a penny of her own, her father had hastened on.

The trails, now, were lined by high, close-planted hedges, and so cramped that the three of them had to walk in line. Finally Laurie felt that they were truly in a maze. But they’d been walking for a long while to reach this point, and she doubted her father would be able to retrace his route to the entrance.

In the next clearing was a small building, like a cartoon of a house. The woodwork round the edge of the roof was ornate, in a style that made her think of Heidi or The Sound of Music. Laurie was positive, somehow, that this was the centre of the labyrinth. There was a single door into the house, secured with a latch. Her father was marching away, but Laurie couldn’t resist the impulse to peek inside. As she opened the door, nor could she escape a certainty that the space within would be familiar: their own living room or kitchen, maybe even her bedroom. Yet the interior was empty asides from low benches around the walls, and smelled strongly of must. Probably the house was intended as a shelter in bad weather—though one that perhaps few ever stumbled across.

By the time she’d shut the door and reset the latch, her parents had vanished. For a second, Laurie was gripped by utter panic. What if they really had left her? Or couldn’t find their way back? Her father was angry enough, and distant enough, that conceivably he wouldn’t try.

Excepting the passage they’d arrived by, there were two exits from the clearing. She nearly chose the one to the left, at the last instant changed her mind. Passing the first corner, she saw her parents a handful of paces ahead. They didn’t wait for her to catch up. She was half out of breath as she reached them, a stitch snagging at her ribs.

Soon afterwards, the hedges opened out. Again the trail was bordered by low foliage, logs, and stones. Laurie wondered if her father knew where he was going, if he had a plan, but his face was hard and betrayed nothing.

As she stared upward, Laurie was struck by an abrupt, overwhelming impression: she didn’t know this man and woman who walked beside her. At any point they could have been switched with two other people who looked exactly the same, and how would she ever expose that duplicity? What if she’d chosen wrongly? What if it should have been left and not right?

They arrived at another wicker archway. It mirrored the gate they’d entered by, though she was convinced it wasn’t. The trail beyond, bordered by a steep decline and thick woodland, was unfamiliar. Farther along she saw one of the wooden signboards, the first she’d noticed since they’d entered the labyrinth.

Were they out? There was no indication. This tree-lined path could just as easily be a part of the maze, a stretching tendril. When she began to recognise spots from their earlier exploration, they seemed to Laurie subtly different. The car park, when they eventually arrived, was familiar yet strange. So was their car. Perhaps it was only a car that resembled theirs, in a car park identical to the one where they’d parked: all a replica, almost perfect.

Throughout the drive home, that sensation stayed with her. Her parents were silent. Even if they’d spoken, Laurie wouldn’t have dared reveal to them what she felt. Her fear wasn’t that they’d tell her she was being silly, but that they might not. Her greatest terror was that they’d admit the truth: that they weren’t actually her parents but merely looked like them. That they were in fact maze people in this endlessly winding maze world.

Laurie found it difficult to identify any moment as the one when she’d realised that everything had changed.

Her parents hardly spoke anymore. Her father was like a stranger, both to Laurie and to her mother. He worked longer hours, came back late. Sometimes Laurie caught her mother crying, or heard her stifled sobs drift from another room. There were arguments, though not often, and usually after Laurie’s bedtime. She would lie awake and listen, trying to piece together shouted snatches, to gather from them an explanation of what this sudden conflict might signify.

Yet in her heart, she knew the truth. More and more she traced the changes to that day, and to the labyrinth. Something had happened there; something crucial and intangible had been lost. They had gone in as a family, come out as strangers—or had never left at all.

Increasingly, it was that notion that haunted her. How were you supposed to know? With each overheard argument, each cold glance from her mother, every night when her father returned unaccountably late, the conviction grew. This wasn’t her old life. This wasn’t her old home. The streets she walked on the way to school, which felt so subtly wrong, were not the streets she’d walked weeks before. This, all this, was the labyrinth, and perhaps one day she’d turn a corner and there would be the wicker arch, the footpath—the version of her family that was now vanished.

The separation came that winter. It surprised no one, and Laurie considered herself beyond the point where anything could shock her. They told her it was temporary, but she knew better. Of course there was no reason for these two strange people to be together, to keep up the charade of being her parents. She almost felt sorry for them; the pretence couldn’t have been easy.

She went to live with her mother. There was no discussion. Initially they stayed with her grandparents, but by the following summer they had a new house of their own. It wasn’t as nice as their old one and the move meant Laurie changing schools. She saw her father once a week, their encounters stiff and awkward. One time he smelled of alcohol and scarcely talked to her. Another he left the room hurriedly and she heard him crying in the bathroom. He seemed less familiar than ever, and to have abandoned any attempt at persuasion. After the eleventh or twelfth visit, Laurie told her mother that she didn’t want to see him again, and her mother didn’t argue.

Birthday cards and Christmas cards still arrived that year. The messages they contained were impersonal. They could have been written by anyone. Laurie assumed that the writing was her father’s, though she couldn’t have said with absolute confidence.

At least her home life was easier. She and her mother were civil; her mother rarely even raised her voice. At school, however, Laurie was distracted. She would doodle mazes across her exercise books, mazes that joined up and overlapped and had no end.

The other children thought she was strange, and she thought they were strange too. They were fakes and didn’t know it. They truly believed that the world inside the labyrinth was real.

By the time she got into her teens, Laurie wasn’t thinking about the maze so much. Gradually she managed to persuade herself that it didn’t matter—or anyway, that the damage had been done. So what if the world was somehow wrong? If this was really a deception, it was perfect in every aspect.

Yet she understood that, knowing her existence for the illusion it was, she would never fully be able to connect. What was the point when a turn, a step through the wrong doorway, might bring her out once more in that old reality? What was the use in caring about people when they were only labyrinth people? As her mother grew increasingly unrecognisable and remote, so Laurie found pretending that she loved her ever harder. When she remarried, it occurred to Laurie that the transition was complete. There was nothing between them anymore.

Laurie met James at university. He wasn’t especially good looking, he wasn’t especially anything, but he made her laugh and didn’t treat her as if she were strange. She felt comfortable around him, having long ago given up hope of feeling comfortable around anyone. He was a couple of years older than her, with a grasp on the world that she lacked, an intuitive practicality that reassured her. He made her life more real.

Perhaps neither of them had faith that the relationship would survive through university, especially after James graduated and began work—but it did. Laurie had no interest in trying to find someone else, and James, for whatever reason, seemed content with her. Once Laurie had graduated as well, they moved together to a new city, and henceforward the likelihood of them separating appeared even smaller. For Laurie, who avoided decisions wherever she could, it was nonexistent.

Change was not something you made happen. Change was a wrong turn, an unexpected junction that left you with the illusion of choice. Either she and James would stay together forever or they’d be torn apart. So long as she didn’t feel too deeply, the outcome was hardly important.

They married when Laurie was twenty-three and James twenty-five. The wedding was small, and most of the guests were James’s friends and family. Her mother came with her new husband. Laurie didn’t invite her father.

Five years later almost to the day, nearly four years after Michael had been born, Laurie appreciated at last what she had to do.

The impulse came from nowhere, and at the same time was irresistible. She perceived immediately that she couldn’t tell James: that would mean taking both him and Michael, and the prospect brought her close to panic. What if they should become lost, as she had? And the worst of it would be that she’d never be sure but would always suspect.

However, the sole alternative was to lie. She made up a story about a business trip, going so far as to rope in a work colleague to back her up. Still, she knew that James wasn’t fooled. Probably he imagined she was cheating on him, as she increasingly supposed he was cheating on her.

Nonetheless, Laurie persuaded herself that the trip would be a break. Her other reasons were silly, a joke; that was all right because a couple of days away from James, even from Michael, would do her good. She booked a room in a nearby inn that had a lavish-sounding restaurant. How long had it been since she’d rested, really rested, for so much as a night?

Her good intentions evaporated in the moment she arrived. The inn was pleasant, her room was nice, but she could barely bring herself to look at them, knowing that the labyrinth was near. She waited only as long as it took her to drop off her small suitcase before she got back into the car and drove towards the country house.

It wasn’t as she remembered. She found that she hardly remembered at all. Her recollections were a collage of other occasions, of other places, stitched loosely together. The car park had moved, or else had been extended. At any rate, the ribbon of tree-shrouded tarmac was utterly unfamiliar.

Regardless, out of stubbornness or maybe from fear, Laurie insisted on relying on her stunted, broken memories. She ignored the signposts, refused to take a printed leaflet from the information booth. She tried to persuade herself that the steps by which she ascended the rugged hillside sparked some glimmer of reminiscence.

The lake was still there. The bridges across the river that fed through its midst and the straggling pines around had changed though, as had the trails that wound about the water’s edge. Or so Laurie thought; she was willing to concede by then that it was her own retention that was shifting and unreliable. Regardless, she was confident that she could retrace the route to the start of the labyrinth. Doing so would be simply a matter of drifting downhill and towards the car park, of letting her unconscious mind slip into the past and make her choices for her.

She hadn’t known exactly what she meant to do once she got there. Perhaps she’d have come eventually to that vacant, damp-odoured house in the centre, to see if her adult eyes revealed answers she’d missed in childhood. Perhaps she’d have walked the maze backwards; theoretically such a thing must be possible. The notion horrified and excited her. Would anything change? Would she come upon her past self, her true parents, still wandering those endless paths? Would she find herself at the wattle arch, a girl once more, with the courage to turn away this time?

She would never know. The labyrinth was gone. Laurie couldn’t identify any detail she absolutely recognised—though there were pieces, a glimpse here or there, a tree or a rock or a section of wall that stood out vividly in her memory. After an hour’s exploring there could be no question; she had crossed entirely the area where it must have been, travelling from the lake to the most westerly edge of tarmac road that encircled the estate. And could the maze genuinely have been so small? Reason told her that at most they’d meandered through those winding pathways for no more than twenty minutes.

To Laurie, those minutes had felt like hours, aeons—a lifetime in miniature.

When she’d explored all there was to explore, she took a seat on a crude bench of split timbers and put her head in her hands. She could no longer deny what she’d surmised from the first moment: it wasn’t that the labyrinth was gone, but that its convolutions had consumed everything else. What she’d wandered those many years ago had been merely a husk, long since discarded.

She spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the grounds, trying to make some sense of all that had happened. She saw now that this was how the world worked: you made one wrong turn and your course was permanently changed, even broken irreparably. There was nothing to be done. Laurie’s problem was only that she’d learned that lesson earlier than most, and taken it so deeply to heart.

She left as evening drew in, conscious that the country house might close for the night and terrified at the possibility of being locked inside. What she’d somehow found a way to cope with by day, she suspected would be unendurable by night. Whatever resources had allowed her to brave the past and her deeply fractured relation to it, they were exhausted. She considered travelling home, but the idea of driving for hours through darkness was barely more reassuring than that of staying in the grounds.

Back at the inn, she ate a pleasant meal that she scarcely tasted, drank more than she normally would have, went straight to bed, and only as she was about to switch off the light noticed the missed calls from James on her mobile. She’d promised to call him, she realised; she’d promised she’d wish Michael goodnight. This would be the first time she hadn’t done so since he’d been born.

Laurie turned her phone off, rolled over, and gave herself up to sleep.

She woke early, though she’d set no alarm. She felt clearheaded, unnaturally calm. When she turned her phone on, there were more missed calls from James. Laurie packed her bags and checked out.

She didn’t know how to get home. Rather than set her Sat Nav, she drove at random, picking her route as she had in the estate grounds, by fragments of memory or intuition or by nothing at all. These roads were another labyrinth, a maze within the maze—and it struck her then how much their design was intended to confuse and deter.

Laurie drove and drove. Driving was easier than thinking. She had set her phone to silent, but a dozen times she heard it buzzing from the seat beside her. With each the vibration seemed a little more frantic. If she stopped, if she rang James, she would have to go home, and she wasn’t ready for that. This course, however irrational, felt easier and more correct.

Yet she couldn’t drive forever. She started to spy familiar place names, which she carefully ignored. An impetuous left turn took her into a tangle of smaller roads, through some sort of business estate, and finally there was a dead-end ahead and no choice but the car park to her right, which fronted a wide, square bracket of a building, two storeys in height and of joyless seventies design.

Laurie knew where she’d come to—where her subconscious had led her. She had looked up pictures of the building on the internet, back when they’d originally contacted her.

Six months prior, her father had suffered a severe stroke. The private hospital he was staying in had approached Laurie, asking if she’d be interested in visiting him and if she’d like to receive updates on his condition. She hadn’t responded to their letter, or to the further letters and phone calls that followed. It would have been useless to explain to them that her father had vanished from her life years ago.

Now, though, she was here. She’d navigated the maze, refusing to make a single choice, letting herself be carried amid its contortions, and here she was at the centre. It was obvious, and she should have seen: a labyrinth was powerless without its beast. She understood who had pursued her for so long—not by their presence but by their growing absence, like a reflection retreating in a rear view mirror.

While the staff were surprised by her sudden appearance, they didn’t turn her away. The nurse who escorted her seemed pleased, in fact. “Your father doesn’t get many visitors,” he said.

Laurie’s reply was noncommittal. She had never wanted to visit her father, so why would she imagine others would?

As they negotiated passages that varied only by colour, pale blue to yellow to sage green, he told her what to anticipate: “Your father still hasn’t recovered all of his mobility. On his bad days, he struggles with talking. You should be prepared for a difficult conversation.”

Laurie nodded her acceptance. There could be no point in explaining that she’d expected nothing less.

Her father was sitting up in bed—or rather, had been propped up. His face was loose and fleshy, his posture aslant, and he looked much older than she recalled. Clearly he was aware of her presence. She felt, too, that he recognised her. She knew there were things she was supposed to say in a situation such as this, platitudes that were meant to be aired. Surely she should at least try to explain to this man she hadn’t seen for so many years just why she was here.

Instead, Laurie took the chair beside the bed and strived to find the words she’d sought to release. “What happened that day?” she said. “That day in the maze. It was our last trip as a family; the last time before everything fell apart. Do you remember? I need you to tell me what really happened.”

Her father’s mouth moved, but no sound came. Laurie thought she detected pain, deep behind his eyes.

“Are you really my father?” she challenged. “Or are you something else?”

Still he made no answer, except for a muted rattle in his throat—as if the reply he’d intended had lodged and wouldn’t come free.

“I hate you,” she told him. “I hate you, and I hope it hurts in there.” For she comprehended now that her father was trapped as well, and that he could see no way back.

He reached a trembling hand; she was startled at the movement. His fingers ran out of strength before they reached her and fell against the bedcover. Laurie contemplated her father’s hand as though it were a creature settling to die. For the first time, she felt a sensation other than her own pain.

“Why,” she asked, “do things have to change?”

Laurie began to cry. She cried like a little girl—like the child she’d once been and could hardly recollect, who she’d lost and would never rediscover. She cried for herself, for her father, for their family, and for the fact that decisions did not have predictable outcomes. She cried for the labyrinth and for what it meant to live inside, the knowledge that there was no escape, not for anyone. She cried for the relief, the release, that realisation brought.

Afterwards she gripped her father’s hand. Her antagonism was gone entirely, and all she saw in the bed in front of her was an old, frail stranger who resembled someone who’d once been the centre of her life.

Outside, the sun was setting. The rich amber light gave even the roads and prefabricated buildings and too-orderly flower beds of the business park a weird splendour and dignity.

As she drove home, Laurie discerned that she was seeing differently. A gilded cage might still be a cage, but that didn’t detract from its beauty. The darkening sky, the swaying trees, the other cars upon the motorway, a black snake specked with glittering red—it was true that all this was the maze. But then it had always been that way, always would be. They were all of them trapped, and ultimately every outbound course led farther towards an unreachable centre. Yet they were trapped together, and to precisely the same degree. She wasn’t alone.

James must have heard the car pulling into the driveway. He was waiting in the doorway by the time she got out. It was hard for her to separate out the mingled emotions in his face, or to know which she was supposed to respond to. “I’m sorry,” she said, and brushed past. She wanted badly to see her son.

Michael evidently appreciated that something had happened, though not what. Initially he was inconsolable, but after she’d held him in her lap for a few minutes, after she’d sworn she would never leave him again, he began to settle. Then she carried him upstairs and tucked him into bed.

As for James, he remained angry at first, as angry as she’d known him to be. However, Laurie understood that he had only been afraid. She weathered the storm of his fury, resisted the urge to confront him in return—about the infidelities she suspected, about the way he was often cold and distant and distracted by his work. There would be time for that, and the prospect of making difficult choices didn’t frighten her as it once had.

“I’m sorry,” she said, over and over. The words were easy to say, yet she meant them. But no matter how he asked, she refused to explain where she’d been.

“I got lost,” was the all the answer she would give him.

About the Author

David Tallerman is the author of the recently released crime thriller The Bad Neighbor, ongoing YA fantasy series The Black River Chronicles, the Tales of Easie Damasco trilogy, and the novella Patchwerk. David’s short fiction has appeared in around eighty markets, including Clarkesworld, Nightmare, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. A number of his best dark fantasy and horror stories were gathered together in his debut collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories. He can be found online at davidtallerman.co.uk.