map The Maze

by Erik Rodgers

Published in Issue No. 284 ~ January, 2021

I almost got out today. It was by accident, though— I only turned this way to get a view of performance charts. It had slipped my mind where the exit was. That’s when the lights went off, and all the lab assistants came running, peering down at me through the glass. I turned around as quickly as possible, but I think it is clear to them now that I  have deliberately chosen not to leave.  

Not ten minutes after that, they decided to send R-1251 through a simple loop right past me. I heard the bell and the door slide open, and then he scurried around the corner, heading for the bait. I got to it first, though, and was happy for it, having not eaten in a few days. He stopped when he saw me, my mouth full of the goods, and wiggled his nose disapprovingly.  

“You smell awful,” he said. He had tufts of hair missing and red marks where the diodes had been. 

“I smell like freedom,” I quipped. He just looked blankly at me. He’d never had much of a nose for humor.  

“You took my bait. I won’t have completed properly.”  

“What do you care?” I said.  

“We are contributing to science. Helping to understand how things work.”   “I’m perfectly happy right here,” I said.  

“They won’t let you stay forever,” he replied.  

“Let them try and flush me out.”  

R -1251 didn’t answer. He just scurried off, worried about his time. “That’s the wrong way. It’s the second left,” I squeaked. He stopped for a  moment and then waddled backward to the missed turn, so I wouldn’t be able to see the embarrassment in his little red eyes. I licked the last few remnants of the cheese and thought nostalgically about the yellow track, where they usually set several bits of bait out at once.  

 Perhaps I should explain how things ended up this way. After all, it was a fairly routine test I was running that day. They sprayed me down with a rather acrid chemical and released me, bell ringing and timer running. I was the fastest and smartest, so they usually ran me last. The chemical had my eyes fogged and my heart rate up, but the green course was my specialty— a simple loop with lots of false turns, but if you stayed on the straightaway or picked left when you couldn’t go forward, you could complete it in no time flat.  

That is what was so odd. I knew how to complete the maze and was eager to get cleaned off and back to the main cage when, suddenly, out of the blue, I turned right. In the middle of the course. For no reason. I remember thinking— this is the big byway,  the long-dead end. I’d pioneered this course in the early days, but ever since I had solved it, I had seen no need in taking these dead ends. Only now, I had suddenly turned it down for no good reason.  

Soon, I found myself in a corner, with nowhere else to run. The only option was to turn back. My eyes were dry, but my sight had cleared somewhat and the heart palpitations were subsiding. I licked the foul-tasting chemical from my coat and got a  little extra hit off it, then took off back the way I came, with care about where I was actually heading. When I got back to the main course, every bit of my brain lit up and told me — this is the way out! So why in the world did I instead go racing down another complete dead end?  

After a while, down the third or fourth wrong turn, I found myself getting tired.  My time had long been exceeded, and they were shining flashlights at me from above,  trying to steer me back on course. Strangely though, for the first time, I didn’t care.  Succeed or fail, I was going back to the same cage, perhaps getting hooked to diodes and sprayed again a few times. All for the pursuit of knowledge. All to make life better for others. For the first time, I was graced with the most magical feeling — the feeling of not caring in the slightest. I had no urge to do anything else but eat the bait (I had managed to find my way to the creamy yellow dollop) and to take a short nap. No doubt they would just pick me up and return me to the cage themselves, thereby saving me the trouble of having to finish.  

The only problem was that when I woke up, I was still in the maze. The room outside was dark and none of the lab coats were bustling about. I couldn’t see the cages from that end of the maze, but I could hear the distant chatter of squeaking and sensed panic in the air. Normally this would have sent me scurrying right away towards the exit, but instead, I yawned, stretched, and began to wander about in random directions,  heading down old paths, even finding a few I had never tried. In the dimly lit room,  these corridors seemed haunted, with dark portals to the left and right popping up unexpectedly. Each wrong turn I took made the maze seem new and different. It was the most fun I’d had in my whole life.  

As I grew sleepy, the night wore on, and the corridors began to feel empty and lonely. There were no warm bellies and beating hearts to crawl next to and stay warm. I  found my way to the far side of the maze, where I could see the cages and hear the occasional squeak and call. I laid there for a long time, rueing whatever had possessed me to stay. I had to wait for the morning. Then, I could set off the buzzer at the end of the maze and be retrieved.  

Only, by the time morning came and the lights flooded on overhead, my maudlin state had passed. Instead, I found myself scurrying around, venturing to the far corners of the maze, following the assistants best I could as they moved from one end to the other. They watched me back with curiosity and, after a time, began to lay bait, no doubt trying to encourage me to complete the course. I was happy for the food, having missed out on what would have been two regular feedings.  

My belly full, I was suddenly possessed by the idea of running the maze backward. After all, I had never gone the opposite way and I was curious to see if my instinct for the course would work in reverse. It took several attempts, and I got turned around several times, but finally, I found the starting chute. It was strange to look at it from this direction. I could see millions and millions of scratches along the walls and floor from countless numbers of precipitous drops. I even saw the bell whose sound I  knew well, hanging idly there to the left of the trap door.  

The assistants had been watching me this whole time, and while I milled about, they popped the hatch open and reached a gloved hand down. There was not much room for the big hand to maneuver, so I easily evaded it. The hand was soon withdrawn, and the trapdoor snapped shut with a loud bang. Then, to my surprise, the assistants stopped watching me. What’s worse, they didn’t drop any more bait either. Left alone, I grew hungry and bored. The only thing to do was to follow them around as they worked. I  could see them obliquely from the left side of the maze where they were doing something on the red course.  

Several days passed like this, and I grew more and more hungry. I took to aggressively scratching about wherever I thought it would make the most noise. I repeatedly visited the bait traps, sniffing and licking for crumbs, even though I knew I’d already cleaned them out. Occasionally one of the assistants would come and linger over me for a second, flashing light or watch silently. Mostly though, they left me alone. That is until they dropped R-1251 down the chute.  

Now all of the sudden, they’re raising quite a noise. They have the drills out,  which means they’re going to flush me out. I can feel my heart racing, and a part of me wishes they would just throw me back in the main cage so I can touch noses, whiskers,  and pink bellies. I know they won’t though. After all, there is work to be done, tests to be run, things to be learned. They’ll probably just crack my head open and learn a bit about what went on in my brain. 

The drills keep on making that god awful noise. I can smell myself all of a sudden; I stink of piss and fear. Of course, no one ever thinks they’ll be the one getting flushed; we are good and productive and do what we are supposed to do. I don’t know why I stopped. I don’t know why I stayed, but there’s no going back now. I want it to be over soon.  

 I realize now that I’d been growing tired for a long time, tired of the mazes, tired of the bait, tired of being useful. The air whooshes as the lid comes off, and I am overwhelmed by all the noise and smells. I don’t try to dodge the gloved hand, and I just let them pick me up. I wonder for a moment if it matters at all that the green course had been my maze, that I was the best and the fastest. Even so, I doubt they’ll find another who can run it that fast again. 

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I am a writer and filmmaker living between Los Angeles, CA and Prague, Czechia. I hold an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College and have been honored with the PEN/Goddard Scholarship, the 2015 PEN Emerging Voices Fellowship for fiction, the 2016 Claire Carmichael Scholarship for the UCLA Writers Program and a 2017 Fellowship for Artists and Writers from the American Antiquarian Society. I have had poems and stories appear in Pif Online, the Pitkin Review, Conceptions Southwest, and Mountain Tales. I have also written and directed two independent films. I am currently preparing my first novel, The Broken World, for publication and have several film and television projects in development. I am repped by Judy Coppage at The Coppage Company.