The Stone Labyrinth

Submitted into Contest #125 in response to: Write a story including the phrase “Better late than never”.... view prompt

2 comments

Contemporary Fiction Happy

The church smelled of old stone. A distinct smell: a little musty, like fresh dirt, though not as strong, and with a cool layer John could only think of as mineral (although he couldn’t have described what mineral smelled like). It reminded him of historic churches he’d visited in Ireland. They were ancient compared to this one, but it was old for a Christian church in the U.S. 

Maybe because it doesn’t get a lot of traffic out here, he thought. The church was in a rural area, within a national forest. It lay, nearly hidden, two roads and several miles off the nearest highway, on an elevated clearing between two mountains. 

“You ready?” Maggie asked, walking up to the pew where he sat staring at nothing in particular. 

“I guess so,” he said after a long sigh.

“What’s wrong? That’s why you wanted to come, right: to try the labyrinth?”

“Yeah,” he said, walking with her to a small side door near the front of the church. “It just feels kinda dumb, now that we’re actually here. …Whatever. It’ll still be cool to see.”

“What do you mean? Why does wanting to see an ancient maze outside a cool, old church feel dumb? I’m kinda excited.”

A minister stepped to the door as they approached.

“You’re getting a late start. It’ll be dark in a few hours. But better late than never, eh?” he smiled. “Within, you’ll find three stone markers whose original purpose is uncertain, but can help you track your progress. I’ll pray for you as you go; and may God bless you as you follow Him, both in and out of the labyrinth.” 

He opened the door, and Maggie and John thanked him as they stepped between the tall, rock walls outside. 

“Okay, this isn’t a maze. It’s a labyrinth.” John paused for the question he knew would come.

“What’s the difference?”

“You have to find your way through a maze, and you can take wrong turns and stuff. But a labyrinth only has one way in and out. So, you follow a path through it, then usually follow that same path back out.”

“Then what’s the point?” she asked, wrinkling her forehead.

“The journey. A labyrinth’s supposed to…” he sighed, mustering the courage to say the words in his head, “to lead you to answers as you walk it.”

“And that’s why you feel dumb?” she asked gently, “Because you’re looking for answers? I don’t think that sounds dumb. What do you want answered?”

“I don’t know,” he huffed a half-hearted laugh. “Guess I should’ve thought up questions before I came in here.” He ran a hand through his short hair. “I’m in a pretty good place, you know? I’ve got a good job, an apartment in an okay part of town–”

“Friends you can text out of the blue to go history sight-seeing with you,” she interrupted, winking.

“Exactly!” he grinned, throwing his hands up as they followed the curved path of the stone corridor. “But I’m just not settled, you know? I should be; but it’s like I’m missing something.”

“So, what don’t you have? Good job, place to live–okay. But there’s more to life than that. How long have you lived in Newport? Year-and-a-half, now?”

“Almost two.”

“Hmm, that’s right–you moved in January. Do you have friends there? People you knew from college?”

“There’s not really anyone from college still around, but yeah, I’ve got some friends from work and church. I don’t have family there, obviously, but…” He trailed off, looking at the ground.

“But that’s part of why you left,” she finished for him. “You needed some space, there.”

They came to a hairpin curve in the trail. At the deepest part of the bend a large, time-worn rock protruded from the ground.

“Yeah.”

“Tell me about it,” she said as they approached the rock. “There’ve been rumors, but I didn’t listen to them–on purpose.” He was glaring toward the rock, but she knew he didn’t see it. 

“Why?” he couldn’t keep all the snarl out of his voice. “Everybody else seemed to.”

“I wanted to hear it from you, when you were ready.” Her fingers skimmed over the two images carved into the rock: a heart and a sun. Love and light.

“What if I’m not?”

“Then I’ll wait, and you can talk to me when you want to.” Her mouth quirked up on one side. “I almost said ‘if you want to,’ but you will. In high school, a little while after Grandpa died, Brandi left a note in my locker saying I could talk to her when I was ready. I didn’t think I’d ever be ready to talk about him–he meant the world to me…”

“I know,” John said quietly.

“But she was right. Eventually, I did need to talk to somebody about him. I just needed time. So, same with you: I’m here–or there, or wherever you happen to be–when you’re ready.” She smiled and squeezed his arm.

“It was me,” he said with his head bowed and a faint smile.

“What?”

“It was me who put the note in your locker. I guess I forgot to sign it. I’m glad you talked to somebody, though. I just thought I was wrong.”

He felt her eyes on him, but he couldn’t meet them. Maggie stepped in front of him and raised her arms to his neck. 

“Thank you,” she whispered, tightening her arms a moment. He squeezed back. She started, but smiled as they continued along the curving path. 

“Even if you didn’t listen to the rumors–and thanks, for that,” he shifted his eyes quickly to look at her as they walked. She smiled, but the corners of her mouth turned down, sympathetically. “--I know you heard that Mom and Dad got divorced.”

“Yeah, and I hate that for you all.”

“Don’t. Well, don’t hate that they got divorced, hate why they got divorced: Dad cheated on her. Again.”

Again?

“Yeah.” He clenched his jaw, and it was a few seconds before he could resume speaking. “He had once before. Well,” he amended quickly, “he…had a relationship that went beyond friends with some woman from work, but I don’t think they were sleeping together. Mom found out. They separated, but not for long.”

“When was all that?”

“When we were in college. It was when I didn’t come back for so long. You asked me about it or said you missed me or something, once.” He smirked, “But I wasn’t ready to talk about it, then.”

“More than once,” she said defensively. “I was worried about you. That was when you quit posting anything, anywhere. I had no idea that was why, though. I’m so sorry.”

“I’m glad you didn’t know. I didn’t want people to know. It was bad enough, already. ...But this time, he was sleeping around.”

“Your poor mom,” she said, closing her eyes. "Did he admit to it?"

“Yeah, when he told us his mistress was pregnant.”

Maggie’s eyes flew open and her mouth gaped.

“Oh, John…”

Frowning, he quirked an eyebrow and shoved his hands in his pockets. 

“When?”

“You know Dad,” he huffed, bitterly. “He called us all to the living room for a ‘family meeting’ and that’s what he dropped on us.” He shook his head. “It was back in the summer, about six months ago. The baby’s due…I don’t know, exactly…in about a month. Mom told him he needed to leave. He did; and Mom, Josh, and me just tried to hold it together, after that.”

“Is that why you haven’t been around? I assumed you were just busy with stuff in Newport.”

“I don’t like admitting it,” he said after a few moments, “but yeah, that’s a big part of it. I stayed with Mom and Josh, the night he told us. Mom spent a day, maybe, crying; then she was up and going, like nothing had happened. Like she hadn’t just sent the man she’d been married to for thirty years packing off to his mistress.” They rounded another curve where the path nearly doubled-back on itself, and headed in the direction they had just come from. “I asked her about that, and she said it hadn’t surprised her, that it’d been coming for a long time. She started dating, again, a few weeks later.

“Josh went back to school in August, and I haven’t been back much since. I’ve seen Dad once, and he acts like everything is wonderful and we should be so happy about the baby–a sister, this time. Do you know how messed-up that is to say? People our age have kids, not my Dad.”

They came to another rock sticking up in the middle of the path. Again, two figures were carved into it: a crown and circle with scratches made to fill in its space. Loyalty and darkness.

“What do I do? Now I question everything. They always seemed happy together–until we were in college, anyway–but they went back to normal after Dad came back. Were they ever happy, then? I thought my parents were what love looked like. Now I don’t know if they ever loved each other.”

Maggie nodded slowly and listened, watching with empathetic eyes.

“And how do I act with them, now?” he continued. “I’m so mad at them–both of them, really, but especially Dad. I want to ask him what the h–” he stopped himself, arms half-raised. He’d known her since they were ten, and he’d almost never cursed around Maggie. He swallowed and sat on the low rock. “...what he was thinking. But, honestly, I don’t want to know.

“I just…” he looked down, words faltering, and ran a hand through his hair. Maggie stepped beside him and put her hand on his shoulder. “He’s my dad. …Sometimes I want to cut him out of my life, completely; but…but he’s my dad. And I still love him. …Same way with Mom. So what do I do?”

He’d known Maggie for fifteen years and had never let her see him cry. This time he couldn’t stop his harsh sniffing and swiping at his eyes

“I don’t know,” she whispered. Sinking to her knees on the cold ground, Maggie put her arms around him. He went still for a small eternity, then took a racking, shuddering breath and held onto her tightly. She stroked his hair, and they stayed like that for a long time. 

Finally, John raised his head, turning and swiping at it with his hand.

“Here,” she said, trying not to grimace, and handed him a tissue from her coat pocket. 

With one hand he used the tissue to dry his face, and with the other he helped her to her feet. He thanked her, and they started along the corridor, again.

“Is that what you’re missing? The family you used to have?” The question had been hanging in the air between them for several bends. It was almost a relief that she asked it. Almost.

“Or the family I thought I had, anyway?” He sighed, looking up at the sky. The labyrinth walls were high, the dipping sun casting their shadows over the path. But the deep blue of the late Autumn sky was deceptively bright: it seemed it should be much warmer than it was. John didn’t know if it was the season or the thought that chilled the air, but he shivered, just the same.

Maggie squeezed his hand. 

When did we start holding hands? he thought with a jolt. He pretended to look away, so she wouldn’t see his surprise. Her hand fit naturally into his, like it’d always been there. Somehow, the air wasn’t as cold, anymore.

“Yeah,” he said, after a few minutes, “that’s part of it. It has to be. But not all of it.

“I feel a lot better after talking to you, don’t get me wrong,” he added quickly, “but there’s more to it.”

They rounded another tight bend, and a third stone stood in the path, closer to one wall, this time. On it were carved a pair of hands pointing toward each other, as if they were about to shake in agreement; beside them was a circle with lines quartering it evenly. Friendship and balance.

“Do you ever talk to anybody? I mean, like–” she pursed her lips as they stopped in front of the rock. “You said you have friends nearby–in Newport, I mean. Do you ever talk to them? Like really talk to them?”

He smirked at her verbal clumsiness–she glared, in response–but his expression faded and he was suddenly fascinated by their feet.

“No, not really. I don’t know anyone that well, yet.”

“Then you know what the rest of it is,” she said. “You need a friend.”

She looked up at his eyes and they both became aware of their still-laced hands. 

He breathed a shaky laugh.

“I guess you’re right. Can I…” He laughed, again, swallowed, and darted his eyes back to hers. “Would you…”

“I always have been,” she looked up at him through dark lashes and grinned.

He smiled and nodded, kissing the hand wrapped in his. The next curve came quickly, and soon they found themselves at the end of the path.

“Okay, so what now?” she asked. “We just turn around and go back?”

“Yeah. We go through all those turns, again, but from a different direction. Metaphor,” he grinned.

She closed her eyes, nodding with a smile, and they turned to follow the trail out of the labyrinth.

“So why didn’t you say anything to me before?” she asked, as they passed the third stone, again. Friendship. Balance.

“I don’t know. I didn’t think you’d want me to. You know,” he shrugged, “we kinda lost contact for a while there, and everytime I asked somebody about you it was that you were doing so well, seemed so happy, were dating whoever-he-was. It didn’t sound like you had a lot of free time.”

“Let’s not talk about ‘whoever-he-was.’ Not now.” There was a stiff, flatness in her voice, but it vanished at the next sentence. “So, you asked about me?” She tilted head and glanced at him through the corners of her eyes. She was smiling.

“Yeah, well…” he muttered, grinning.

“I said ‘keep in touch,’ ‘call me sometime’–something like that–every time I saw you.”

“Yeah, but that’s just stuff people say. They don’t mean it.”

“I meant it.” There was no teasing in her eyes, now. “I mean it. I can’t change things, but I can listen.”

They walked a few more paces. He knew she wasn’t finished. 

“Honestly? Selfishly,” she looked up at him, again, “I’ve missed you. You’ve been there, somewhere, for most of my life…and it’s been weird without you.”

It has. He hadn’t realized it before, but they had been with each other–friends in some way, shape, or form–for most of their lives. He knew he’d missed her, but how deeply hadn’t stricken him until just then.

I can’t drag her into this. He was suddenly embarrassed. Embarrassed because he had texted her ‘out of the blue’--as she’d put it. Embarrassed that he hadn’t talked to her in so long. Embarrassed by his family, and everything he’d told her about them. Holy…I told her everything! If we’re around each other–heck, just going out today–people will talk about her like they have the rest of us. And she still lives there. I can’t do that to her…

He released her hand. He tried to do it casually, but he twitched his arm away too sharply and knew it. She looked up at him, her forehead wrinkling.

“I can’t drag you into this,” he said to the question mark on her face. “I’ve missed you, too, even more than I knew until…being with you, again. I can’t bring you into this mess my parents made. There’s no telling what people are saying about Mom, and I know what they’re saying about Dad–I’ve thought it all, too. If we start talking more, people will start on you, too.”

“You’re right,” she said, after a minute. “People will talk–they like to do that, especially when it’s none of their business. But…I’ll be there for you, anyway.” She shrugged. “I never meant to not be there in the first place.”

As they passed the second rock–Loyalty. Darkness.–he noticed that he held her hand, again. He’d reached for it this time, he realized, though he hadn’t thought about it at the time.

“Look, neither of us can control what anyone else does,” she said, matter-of-factly, “but we can control what we do. And I want to be here, there, or wherever for you.” She looked at him sharply. “But I expect the same from you.”

He grinned at her wink, and held her hand more tightly. 

They didn’t speak for a while, giving each other space for their own thoughts. As they passed the first stone, again, John turned to her. 

“I promise.”

“What?”

“I’ll be here, there, or wherever for you, too. No unsigned notes, this time.” He wanted to say more, but decided to pace himself. Instead, he raised her hand to his lips, and kissed it, again. Love. Light.

He was sure of several things, when they exited the labyrinth. He was sure that he still loved his parents, and the hurt they’d caused couldn’t be undone. He was sure it would take a long time to sort out the truth of his life with them, if he ever could. He was sure he wanted Maggie with him, through it all. He was pretty sure she wanted to be, too; and he was absolutely sure he’d work to make it so.

December 19, 2021 00:53

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

2 comments

Jon Casper
12:51 Dec 19, 2021

I thought the device of the stones mirroring the steps of his inner journey was excellent. Great dialogue throughout. Very enjoyable read!

Reply

Melissa Woods
21:11 Dec 19, 2021

Thanks, very much! I appreciate you reading it and the feedback!!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply