by Josh Denslow
Haley and I had been broken up for two weeks when she asked if I’d drive up north to have dinner with her parents.
“They are looking forward to meeting you,” she said over the phone, and I could picture the wince that happened when she felt uncomfortable. The twitch of her cheek.
“Won’t they think it’s weird we aren’t together anymore?” I said.
“Not if we don’t tell them,” she said. “I thought about getting someone to pretend to be you, but my parents would never buy it. And you know me so well already.”
But that was the thing; I didn’t really know her. It was pretty much why we’d broken up. During our few months together, we’d talked only about the present moment, our shared experiences, as if she’d materialized out of the ether to go to movies with me, eat at my favorite restaurants, and periodically leave her bras at my apartment. We’d had a nice time, a better than nice time even, but if I ever asked her about her life outside our bubble, she would joke that it was “classified” or “complicated.” I found her inscrutability to be torture, and I’d plagued myself with thoughts of her other life, her other loves, her other selves.
In fact, I’d actually done the breaking up part, which was the first time in my life I’ve done that. It was bizarre. I did such a poor job of it that when I dropped Haley off at her apartment building after a meal spent discussing the merits of tapioca balls in tea, she’d asked me if we were over.
“Yes,” I’d said.
Which was the same exact thing I said in response to meeting her parents.
It turned out that it wasn’t just dinner; it was a weekend at her parent’s house. The actual house where Haley grew up. It was away from the lights of the city and near a lake and I hoped it was full of family pictures. I wanted to learn something about her.
“Just so you know, they would never let us stay in the same room,” she said as we drove out of the city in her little two-door sedan. “So it won’t be awkward or anything. You know, having to sleep in the same bed.”
“It wouldn’t have been awkward.”
Something flared in the air between us, like charged ozone. I knew if it were ignited, I’d surely never let her out of my sight again.
“So why the ruse?” I asked. “And don’t say it’s classified.”
“If you want to know the truth, Mom is dying. And I want her to see I’m happy before she goes.”
My tongue clicked against the roof of my mouth. The wheels of the car whooshed along the road like whispering mourners at a funeral. I had no idea what to say.
Haley tilted the rearview mirror toward me, and when our eyes met, she laughed loudly. A big sound that came from somewhere deep inside her. “Holy shit, how did you fall for that? I couldn’t even keep a straight face when I said it.”
“Looked pretty straight to me,” I said.
“Oh, you’re angry at me now.” She pushed out her lower lip.
“I’m not angry. It’s just how would I know you weren’t telling the truth? I know nothing about you.”
“You know what I look like naked.”
I couldn’t help it. I blushed. I was no prude in the bedroom, but any frank discussion of sex while fully clothed sent the blood rushing to my head like a schoolgirl.
“That’s better,” Haley said and she put her hand on my knee.
By the time we got to her parents’ house, I couldn’t tell if we were back together. And it wasn’t until we were driving up the long driveway, hemmed in on both sides by hulking trees, that I realized she’d never told me why we were deceiving her parents. The house itself was modest, although quite beautiful. The whole thing was a rust-colored brick with thick vines creeping up to the second-floor windows.
“That’s my room up there,” Haley said as she stopped in a car port. She pointed up at the corner window. The light was on and I thought I saw the shadow of someone standing inside. “Mom’s probably making the bed now.”
The shadow turned, and in the second before the light turned out, I thought I saw a snout and two curved horns on its head.
Haley slugged me on the arm. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m looking forward to meeting your mom,” I said. “I’m really glad she’s not dying.”
“But aren’t we all dying?”
“I prefer to push that out of my mind.”
“Oh hey,” Haley said and slapped my knee. “I forgot to tell you. The house is old and it settles in weird ways. It sometimes moans at night.”
“You get used to it.”
“Moans?” I said again. “Can’t you pick another less creepy word?”
“Whatever you do, don’t try to figure it out. Dad hates when guys think they know more than him. Plus you’ll just get lost in the house. You aren’t going to win him over by fixing it.”
“Oh I’m trying to win him over?”
She popped the trunk and got out, and I realized that was the first bit of information about her life she’d ever told me.
I grabbed both of our bags and followed Haley up to the door. Before we’d entered the arc of the porchlight, the door flung open and a burly man ran out, his arms opening wide as he ran toward us. It was disconcerting. With the shadows dancing around, I couldn’t tell if he was happy to see us or if he was planning to mow us down. But a moment later he had Haley in a crushing hug and she laughed as she thrashed at his completely bald head.
“Haley Bear!” he roared.
“Put me down, Dad!”
He did as he was told and then turned his expansive face to me. I took a step back, unaccustomed to such open displays of affection. My parents barely acknowledged they’d spawned me if more than two people were in the room.
“Not a hugger?” Haley’s dad said with an impish grin.
“Well, I don’t know, I wouldn’t say that,” I said, not wanting to disappoint Haley.
“Good,” he said and then he pounced. I felt his arms around my biceps before I even saw him move. He smelled like cinnamon, and heat barreled from his hairless face like gamma rays. The bags fell heavily to the ground at my feet.
“You’re crushing him!” Haley said, still laughing.
And indeed he was. I’d stopped attempting to breathe and was apparently awaiting the slow embrace of death.
Haley’s dad let go and I realized he’d lifted me completely off the ground. My knees buckled as my feet reconnected with the earth and I barely kept myself upright.
Haley and her dad laughed identical laughs as I sucked in air and waited for the stars to stop popping in my vision.
“So, this is the guy, huh?” Haley’s dad said.
“That’s the one,” Haley said.
In the light of the house, Haley’s dad was much older than I’d originally thought. He had to be at least seventy-years-old but everything about him was taut and coiled and vibrating with energy. Haley’s mother was a good twenty years younger. She wore her dark hair in a bun and had perfect erect posture. She looked demure and a little humorless.
“I keep myself virile for this wildcat here,” Haley’s dad said as Haley’s mom lit a candle on the table already set with food. He pounded both fists on his chest and it sounded like a boulder striking the side of a barge.
“Nobody wants to hear you talk that way,” Haley’s mom said. “Now, let’s eat.”
Haley pulled me to the table without introducing me to her mom. I had no idea how I was supposed to address either of them and that was giving me a fair bit of anxiety. I didn’t want to play the pronoun game all night and I certainly couldn’t call them Mom and Dad.
But I shouldn’t have worried because no one really talked. After such a warm reception, I was surprised at the lack of conversation. They focused on the chicken and green beans and apple cobbler as if it were all going to disappear if any of them looked away.
“This is delicious,” I said.
“Of course it is,” Haley’s dad said. “My wife made it.”
And that was it.
Haley’s mom walked us upstairs after she’d cleared all the plates from the table. I looked in the entranceway and along the hallway and I’d yet to see a picture. I needed that glimpse of the past. I had this nagging sensation that Haley and I weren’t the only ones pretending things were different than they were.
“I put you in the office,” Haley’s mom said to me. “There’s a pullout couch.”
“Thank you,” I said.
Haley opened the door and ushered me in.
“You’re across the hall,” her mom said to her.
“I know where my room is, Mom. I’m going to get him settled.”
“All right. But no horseplay.”
“Promise,” Haley said as if this was completely normal.
The office was small. It barely had enough room for the wooden desk and the cracked leather couch.
“I wanted you to know that there isn’t enough room to pull out the couch. No one has ever told Mom so we let her keep on believing there is. You mind sleeping on the couch itself?”
“I don’t mind, it looks comfortable enough,” I said. “But I don’t understand. Why not tell her?”
“It works better this way.” Haley put a stack of sheets and a pillow on the couch. “I hope you’re able to sleep.”
Haley moved to the door and I grasped her hand, not wanting her to leave yet.
“I can’t stay,” she said.
“Why did your parents want to meet me? They barely spoke to me.”
“What did you want them to say?”
“I don’t know. Ask me about myself or something.”
“I told them all about you,” she said.
Haley smiled. “Everything.”
The couch wasn’t comfortable. I tried putting my head at both ends. I tried with a pillow and without. I tried wrapping the whole couch in a sheet. It wasn’t going to happen.
I gave up and walked over to the desk. I thought I’d find something personal inside but that thought was immediately dashed. The two drawers were empty and there wasn’t a single piece of paper on the surface. Or a picture frame. Whoever used this as an office wasn’t really using it. I wished I’d brought a book because there wasn’t a single thing to occupy my mind.
Then came the moan.
All of the hair on my neck stood on end. It was not the moan of a house settling. It was the moan of a creature in trouble. It was the moan of despair.
Then it came again. No longer only lugubrious, it now had the distinct whiff of fear. Whatever was making this sound needed help.
I clicked open the door to the dark hallway. Haley and her family seemed unconcerned. Everything was as silent as our meal. There was literally no way I could ever get used to that sound.
Something huffed at the end of the hallway. Almost like a horse.
“Hello?” I said.
“Go back to bed,” came a quivering voice from the shadows.
“It’s a couch actually,” I said, hoping to diffuse some tension.
“Shove your semantics up your arse.”
I stepped back into the office. “Will do. I’ll get right on it.”
As soon as I shut the door I heard the moan again, so close now that it was like fingers tapping directly onto my spine.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Like hooves passing my room.
“You’re an idiot,” I muttered to myself as I slowly opened the door and peered into the hallway. A hulking man passed and all I saw was his T-shirt that said WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT? and a pair of jean cut-off shorts before he was past my line of sight.
I counted to ten and then stepped out quickly before I lost my nerve, and there waiting for me was a man with a bull’s head on top of his shoulders. His big bull nostrils flared and his dewy bull eyes were fixed on me. His horns curled over his head and they looked moist in the dim light.
The shock was so severe, that I didn’t try to run or scream or squeeze my eyes shut, all of which I wanted to do. Desperately.
The bull man huffed.
“I expected someone bigger. And more attractive,” he said.
I nodded. That sounded about right.
“So why’d you come here?” When the bull man talked, his mouth moved, but it was unclear how he was forming words.
“You’re staring at my mouth.”
“No,” I said. “I’m sorry. I mean, I am. Staring at your mouth. But I’ll stop. Please don’t kill me.”
“I’m not going to kill you!” he roared. “Way to rush to judgment based on my looks. For all I know you’re one of those big game hunters with endangered animals mounted on your wall, but you don’t see me assuming that.”
“Yes,” I said rather lamely.
“So are you?”
“A big game hunter?”
“Oh no. I’ve never killed anything.”
But he smiled and it was a very scary thing to behold. I looked away from his face and down to his bulging biceps and his overly hairy legs. And there was a tail I hadn’t noticed before, flicking silently in the dark.
“You didn’t answer me. Why are you here?”
I thought about Haley and how vulnerable I felt in our relationship. “I wanted to know more about Haley. I hoped it would help us.”
The minotaur snorted. “Good enough, I guess. Follow me.”
“Unless you want to go back to your couch and tug your man bits or something.”
“No I’m cool. Let’s go.”
It wasn’t until we were on the stairs that I realized I was in my boxers and a t-shirt and I was barefoot.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“You’re kind of annoying, aren’t you?” the minotaur said.
“Oh I don’t know. Not really.”
“Do you have to know the reason for everything before you make a move? You can’t always prepare for the future, man. Sometimes you follow a minotaur against your better judgment wearing only your jammies.”
“Against my better judgment?” I asked.
“Grow a pair,” he huffed and stomped down the stairs. I followed after him, my toes cold in the cool night air. The floor creaked as I stepped onto another landing, another hallway. I didn’t remember going up two flights of stairs after dinner.
“Minotaur?” I said. But he was gone.
There was another set of stairs going down and two doors at the end of the hall. He must have continued down the stairs. I took them two at a time hoping to catch him but found myself alone again in an identical hallway. I ran back up the stairs only to find the same hallway again. I was caught in some kind of loop.
I heard the moan again, somewhere very far away now. I ran to the end of the hall and tried both of the doors. Locked. I was losing at my attempts not to panic, so I sat down right there on the carpet.
After a few minutes of deep breathing and making sure my balls didn’t slip out of my boxers, I slowly got to my feet. If I went up one more flight of stairs, I’d be back at the office. By not panicking I’d managed to keep myself from getting lost in this maze. I was going to head back to the couch and force myself to sleep and in the morning I was getting out of here as fast as possible.
Something shuffled on the stairs below and I saw the flicker of a light. A moment later, there was Haley’s mom holding a candle on a plate like she was in a Victorian novel.
“You’ve decided to do it,” she said and she actually looked pleased.
“Challenge the minotaur.”
“In what way?”
“In a challenging way,” she said.
“Like a game of chess? Or Scrabble? Or a rap battle?”
Haley’s mom looked less pleased.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” I said.
“Surely you’ve heard of minotaurs and mazes and all that? Our house is a maze. But only at night. Makes going for a snack at midnight a nuisance, but you get used to it.” She patted the pocket of her nightgown and I saw an enormous piece of brownie wedged in there.
“How do you get back?”
“There’s a series of patterns. Like for you, to get to the minotaur’s lair, you just go up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A. Then select and start.”
“From where?” I said.
“Anywhere. You can’t get back to the office the way you came.”
“Wait. So there’s a pattern to get me back to the office?”
“Of course there is, but do you want it?”
Did I? I thought of Haley’s tilted smile that caused her right eye to close just enough to seem like a wink. My arm still tingled from where she’d slugged me earlier in the car.
“Well, that’s as close to a no as we’re likely to get,” Haley’s mom said.
“I don’t understand the B and the A and the rest.”
“You’ll figure it out.”
“Hold on. Has anyone challenged the minotaur before?” I tried to imagine Haley’s previous boyfriends in the same predicament I’d just found myself.
“How did it go?”
“Not that well, I hate to say. And with that I must say goodnight.”
If I wanted to get back, all I needed to do was follow her. I couldn’t let her out of my sight yet.
“That couch doesn’t pull out,” I said.
She cocked her head to the side. “What do you mean?”
“The room isn’t big enough. To accommodate it.”
“That’s simply not true.”
“I’m afraid it is.”
Even though I’d managed to keep her standing there, I still didn’t know what to do.
“Well, thanks for letting me know,” she said.
“What should I call you?” I said. “Haley never properly introduced us.”
“Let’s wait and see how you do with the minotaur,” she said. “People die in there.”
Before I could say anything else she’d slipped up the stairs and out of sight.
With no other options, I decided to try the pattern. I went up again, stopping to check if I’d actually returned to the office. I had not, just as Haley’s mom had said. So it was up another flight according to the pattern. Then down twice. I was actually working up quite a sweat. I went left and right in order both times, curving down hallways that I hadn’t seen before, and that’s when I finally found a small alcove that was different. Two doors, one with marked with an A and one with a B. I stepped through B and found myself in the same room with the same choices.
But also Haley’s dad was now there.
“There he is!” her dad bellowed. “I knew you were made of sterner stuff.”
“What exactly gave you that impression?” I said.
“Just a hunch.”
“But we barely spoke at dinner.”
Haley’s dad shrugged. “No one wanted to get attached yet.”
I took a deep breath, very sure of myself. “I can’t beat the minotaur,” I said.
Haley’s dad guffawed. “Not with that attitude you won’t.”
“I don’t understand why you’d all send me to my death. You don’t even know me.”
“That’s rubbish. Nobody is going to die. You just have to prove your mettle.”
I stood there staring at him with no idea what to believe.
“Now take off your shirt.”
I was too numb now to argue. I pulled off my shirt without hesitation and dropped it next to me.
Haley’s dad stared at me, a little puzzled. “Your chest is concave.”
“Yeah, I don’t think I’ll instill much fear in the minotaur.”
“Likely not. But I still have high hopes.”
“That makes one of us.”
I wished Haley were here right now. If only I could see her, maybe ask her a few questions, this whole thing would be easier. At that exact moment, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was fighting for.
“You’re almost there. Go through that door marked A. Choose your weapon.”
“Oh, and one last thing. You have to be completely nude before you challenge the minotaur.”
The room on the other side of the A door looked medieval. Racks of gleaming weapons. Axes and maces and swords and whips and shields and some stuff I’d never seen before. Every single one looked like the kind of thing people died while holding.
At either end of the room was a door. One said EXIT and was bolted with a rusty padlock. The other said START in bright red letters. I scanned the racks, looking for the smallest weapon, something I was least likely to hurt myself with as I attempted to wield it. Then I thought screw it and grabbed the biggest shield there. My focus was definitely on protecting myself. It was too heavy to hold aloft so I had to push it along the carpet toward the door marked START.
It was slightly ajar, just enough to see movement but not enough to tell who, or what, was inside. I tugged the waist of my boxers, not wanting to pull them off. It was really bothering me that the minotaur might be naked too. And chances were high that he’d be hung like a bull. There I’d be with my skinny arms and paunchy belly feeling self-conscious.
I moved closer and heard voices.
“Do you think he’ll fight?” said a voice which I knew to be the minotaur.
“He’s kind of fixated on himself. He thinks the world should be naturally curious about him or something. As if everyone wants to know more. But I do like him. I’m still hurt that he dumped me.”
That voice was Haley. The subject was me, of course.
“Do you actually want him to fight? He won’t win, Haley.”
“He would if you let him.”
“Well then,” the minotaur said. “Do you want him to win?”
In that silence, I would have plenty of time to pull off my boxers and lift the shield in front of me. I could push through the door and neither of them would be able to see me. Maybe instead of confronting the minotaur, I could get Haley to come with me. Away from this house. From the maze of the past. From a minotaur who guarded all of her secrets.
And from behind the shield, I could keep everything about me hidden.
Josh Denslow is the author of the collection Not Everyone Is Special (7.13 Books). When he’s not playing the Legend of Zelda with his three boys, he’s usually thinking about playing the Legend of Zelda with his three boys.
Image source: Sigmund/Unsplash