I wrote this a while ago after having picked up THE HELLBOUND HEART for the umpteenth time. So I’d like to give my thanks and a nod to master Clive Barker and admit wholeheartedly that the labyrinth, and other parts surely, in this story is greatly inspired by him.
I’d also like to thank the people who shared the image of the labyrinth and the pyramid to be used and modified. Also thanks to my J who lent me his face for the cover photo. The edit is mine.
And here you can access the Kindle version of the story (It’s 9300 words).
I hope you enjoy,
OUT FEARLESS LIVES
“It’s not that I think love and sex are mutually exclusive,” Joe told me, “It’s just that I think you can have one without the other.”
“I’m always in love with the people I have sex with,” I said nodding my head. “Though there have been occasions when it didn’t last very long,” I added.
“That’s what I’m saying, Mark,” he said.
“No, I don’t think I could do it without thinking I was in love, that’s what I’m saying.”
“You’re drunk,” he said.
It wasn’t the first time we’d had this discussion.
I met Joe at the pub where I went to play my guitar. It was a hobby of mine, and I wasn’t bad, but it was nothing I was able to make my living from. An advanced hobby, I called it. It was fun, and I wanted it to stay fun and nothing more. So I went there most Saturdays and plucked my guitar if there was any interest, sometimes improvising with the band, if there was one, sometimes solo.
Joe was my age, slowly sinking into the quicksand of middle age. He was the father of three, two twin-teenage girls and a boy who had recently turned thirteen. He never spoke of his wife and she never joined him at the pub, so I was almost strangely in the dark when it came to her, but he did talk about his kids a lot.
We shared family-war stories and we were buddies, though we never met outside the pub. It was a friendship, albeit a limited one. We never did each other a favour or asked anything of the other one except to be there from time to time to listen to our ailments, or whatever was on our minds that week.
A form of cheap therapy.
The conversation about love usually came up after the second or third beer, if it came up at all. It varied, of course, but discussions like these required some social lubricant, like beer.
Outside the pub my life was on the back burner. My wife had left me a few years back, taking my little girl, who wasn’t so little anymore, to live in New York with her and the new boyfriend, soon to be husband. I had a good relationship with the two of them, but the distance meant that I didn’t actually have any life with them at all, just a phone bill as proof of association.
It hurt, and I had thought about moving to the city to be closer, but Adriana was attending school for gifted dancers and had little time to spare so I stayed in the old house, rented the spare room to a collage student, worked from nine to five as a teacher and went to the pub on Saturdays. It was a life and to be honest, it wasn’t much different from before, except for the emotional part of no longer being a family man.
That was a significant difference, of course.
Then one night at the pub that conversation took a different turn. It was just another Saturday night. It had been an unusually busy week and I was feeling a bit overwhelmed but had opted into going to the pub anyway, thinking that the break might do me good. Adriana had told me that my invitation to her mother’s wedding would arrive in the mail at the beginning of next week and proceeded to inform me that her scholarship had come through.
I played my guitar like I used to, hoping no one but maybe Joe heard the ailment in my voice as I sung the saddest melodies I knew. The crowd didn’t seem to mind, they even appreciated the atmosphere it created and when I was finished I sat beside Joe and sighed heavily.
Joe bought me a beer and we started chatting. When the topic suddenly changed, I found myself in better spirits.
“So, you wouldn’t go home with a gorgeous lady if she asked you?” he asked me out of the blue. “If you didn’t know her I mean?”
I waited a while but when he was about to say something I spoke.
“I don’t think so,” I said quietly, then I spoke up a bit. “I need something more than just a hot husk,” I said.
“Look at me,” Joe said.
I reluctantly turned towards him. We were sitting by the bar, facing the bartender and not each other. I turned on my stool and faced him.
“Look into my eyes,” he told me.
“What is this about? Practicing your pickup methods?” I asked grinning.
He didn’t remark, in fact he looked a bit grim, but went on to look into my eyes.
“We’ve been friends for a long time,” he said after a while without breaking eye contact. I just nodded my head.
“Is this difficult? Do you trust me?” he asked.
“Yeah it’s hard, and as far as I can throw you, but that’s quite a bit,” I said.
“Well maybe not just as uncomfortable as I thought it would,” I told him. “But almost,” I added grinning.
We were quiet for a while and when I was about to break the eye contact he put his hand on mine and shook his head.
“You see, if you are able to look this deeply into someone’s eyes you already share something with them. I read this book that says that what happens is that you exchange a part of your soul. Some do this momentarily, instantly, and just like that they have a deep relationship. We exchange a part of ourselves and gain a part of the other person. This creates a form of connectedness, and the connection is the same no matter the relationship, you just have to face that.”
I took a moment to be quiet and think about what he was saying. It sounded like new age voodoo to me. However I tried to think about what he had said on a different level, which is intensely hard while looking into someone’s eyes, and when you’re feeling fuzzy from the alcohol.
“You’re full of shit,” I said and looked down.
Then he leaned over, and whispered in my ear. “If you do this for a while, you connect and if you aren’t a stubborn asshole, that connection can become anything you want it to be. It doesn’t work with everybody, because you can’t find connection with everybody, but when you do connect it is up to you to bring the relationship to the level you want it to have.”
Then he leaned back, looked into my eyes again. He was so close this time that I could feel his breath on mine and for a while I thought he was going to kiss me. It felt intensely uncomfortable, but I didn’t move.
I just sat there, staring.
Then he leaned back, took a sip of his beer and faced the bar again.
“It’s a funny thing, the human psyche,” he said simply.
I tried to gather myself, thinking maybe I was too drunk for this conversation. “I thought you were advocating for the other side. Now you’re saying the connection is important.”
“Of course it is,” he said, “but you can have sex with anybody, having a relationship with someone requires something else entirely, a form of intimacy you don’t need sex to share.”
“Square one,” I said.
I finished my beer and was quiet. We spent some time speaking of other things and then I said my goodbyes, gathered my guitar and stumbled home, thinking that Joe always had been a bit different from other friends I’d had.
His words were on my mind the whole week for some reason, and when it came time to go back the next Saturday I created an excuse for myself not to go. Something about that conversation, the time I spent staring at him, had upset me and I wasn’t in the mood to face him. It was one of these things you do to avoid whatever might or might not be staring you in the face.
On Sunday morning he called me. It was early too, though I was already up wondering what the hell to do with my Sunday.
“Yo Mark,” he said cheerfully, “I have something to show you, want to join me?”
I didn’t want to meet him now any more than I wanted it the night before, but I couldn’t for the life of me make up a proper excuse.
So I told him sure, why not, and thirty minutes later he was outside my house, newly shaved, wearing worn, blue jeans and a leather jacket. He had a pair of sunglasses and a cheeky smile on his face.
He drove a Volvo and somehow that changed my view of him a little. The car looked like a good, large family car and it was cleaner than I ever remembered my car being while Adriana was smaller. He looked fresh and much younger than he usually did while staring into a glass of beer.
“You weren’t at the pub last night?” he started.
I just mumbled something about a stomach bug. He talked about the night before and that he’d been a bit bored there without me.
“I missed your songs man,” he said.
I didn’t say much, tried to answer in the right places and use more than one syllable words. He drove us outside the city, towards an old farm beside a large lake. When he parked the car he pointed towards an island in the lake and asked if I minded rowing out there.
I just shrugged my shoulder and followed him, now getting slightly curious as to what he was up to. The weather was good, albeit a bit chilly. I sat down in the rowboat and let him take me over to the island. He chatted, and if he noticed that I was quiet, he didn’t mention it.
The island was small, but a little bit bigger than was noticeable from land and there was a hut hidden on the other side of it. Inside the hut was a staircase into an underground grotto. Down in the cave there was a wooden door, the doorframe had been carved with a rose pattern. It looked like it led right into the rock.
Joe looked at me and was quiet for a little while before he started talking.
“Inside there is probably a chamber, in the chamber there is a shadow of a person sitting in a chair. He or she will be completely still and silent until you look into their eyes. When you do that they will start to react to you and what comes of the conversation will be up to you. You can get a real truth about yourself from them, or you will be sidetracked and not get much at all. It’s up to you. Do you dare to go in there?”
“What on earth are you talking about?” I asked him bewildered.
He looked into my eyes, but I quickly looked away.
“The person in there, is a shadow of you, and can guide you. Do you trust me?”
“I guess,” I said thinking that he was really out of his mind but I put my hand on the doorknob, ready to get this over with. He nodded his head and urged me forward.
I don’t know what I expected to actually find in there, but I didn’t believe a word he said. I was just humouring him.
There was a candle light flickering in the middle of the cave, a faint light that made the whole room obscure and strange. I walked a bit further in and saw a small wooden chair and a dark shadow figure sitting on the chair. In front of the chair was a log.
“Hello?” I asked insecurely, but there was no reply.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” I said but then I remembered what Joe had said and I realised that the thing in the chair didn’t look alive at all. I approached slowly, trying not to make a sound, actually terrified of what I might find sitting there.
I recognised myself. I even recognised the old AC/DC t-shirt I was wearing. I hadn’t seen that shirt in a long time. It was eerie. There was no life in the body, but the eyes were wide open, staring into nothingness.
I hesitated to come closer. I hadn’t been very responsive while Joe was explaining things to me and it hadn’t occurred to me that anything would actually happen in the cave. I thought it was a prank or an attempt at proving some point. But was this a prank? And if it was how on earth would he know about the t-shirt?
But I knew it wasn’t. The thing was too real to be a dummy, there was something in the atmosphere and in the way this thing stared straight a head that made me think that it was alive, just none responsive.
So I did what he had told me to do. I walked towards the thing in the chair that looked like a much younger version of myself. I hunched down to look into its eyes. Into my eyes. These were the eyes of a much younger me, but they really were my eyes. It was a bit like looking into the mirror, except that the me looking back appeared to be from another time.
I don’t know how long I looked into those eyes. I can’t tell you, exactly, about the magic that flowed between us. It was an exchange of sorts, an exchange that’s impossible for me to put into words.
Then suddenly there was life in the puppet and he started moving. This younger version of myself, identical down to the small scar on my left hand, started moving about as limberly and elegantly, or inelegantly as the case may be, as I.
“Hi,” he said to me.
“Hi,” I said hesitantly and sat down on the log opposite him.
“You’re so sad,” he said slowly.
“Don’t apologise,” he said. “Tell me what happened?”
“Don’t you know?”
“I want to hear it from you.”
“My wife left me, took the kid and moved away.”
“What made her do that?”
“She fell in love with someone else.”
“Why did she do that?”
I was silent. These weren’t questions I wanted to think about.
“It’s too late to care now,” I told him.
He stood up and started pacing around, parading in and out of the light the candle cast. Then he sat down on the chair again.
“Do you remember Anton?” he asked.
I hadn’t heard that name in years. I hadn’t thought of him in a long time either.
I nodded my head, but I didn’t say anything.
“Do you remember that night? We were at a lake, a few of us. Guys and girls together? No adult supervision. Those were good times,” he smiled. “And you walked down to the lake with Anton while the others were in the tent playing spin the bottle or whatever.”
The crescent moon smiled down on us that night and we sat together, with two large rocks supporting our backs and we threw stones into the lake, making ripples in the moons reflection. We didn’t say much at first. Anton was nervous, I could tell from the way he ran his fingers through his hair so it stood up on its ends, making his haircut rather comical.
“Do you like Nina?” he asked after a while.
“She’s alright,” I said.
I had kissed her while spinning the bottle earlier in the evening. I knew many of the guys would have given a lot to be in my shoes.
Anton moved a bit closer, throwing a large rock from underneath him which appeared to have been bothering him.
“How was it?” he asked.
“How was what?”
“I don’t know, do you like her?” I asked, but Anton shook his head.
“I don’t dislike her,” he smiled nervously, “but I don’t like her that way.”
“No, me neither,” I said.
“Do you like someone else?” He asked.
I remember just shrugging my shoulders and we were quiet for a while.
“I like someone,” Anton said finally and for some reason his words made me a little nervous and therefore I didn’t say anything. He laughed and made an effort to throw a pebble far into the lake.
“Does it hurt?” I asked him, looking at him.
“Every damn day,” he said laughing nervously.
“Do you think she likes you back?”
“No,” he said simply.
“We should have taken some beer with us,” I said.
So Anton got up and got us each a can of beer. There was enough of it, one of the guys had “DELIVERED” as he called it, spelling it out loudly as he arrived with bags full.
Anton didn’t take long. He sat down close beside me and handed me a can. We opened them in unison, took large sips and then we leaned back towards the same rock. We had the camp behind us, but the rock gave us shelter from their prying eyes. As if they cared what we were doing.
Anton was tall and thin, had long dark hair and piano fingers. He wasn’t one of the popular kids, but his father was a guitar player, played in a popular band in town and so he was always included in everything the group did. His father later taught me everything I knew about playing the guitar.
I wasn’t a very popular kid either, but my best friend since kindergarten was, so I was included too. We were both marginally popular, tolerated because something about us brought the cool, as my friend Markus had called it once.
We sat and sipped our cans quietly for a while. Then Anton turned and looked at me.
“You look good in the dark,” he said. “Mysterious.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that, smiled and thanked him, then I emptied my can and stood up.
“Lets go swimming,” I said and I tore off my shirt, pants and everything else I had on and then I rushed into the water. It was freezing cold, but the day had been warm and I knew I’d get used to it.
Anton hesitated, but only for a moment. Then he was out of his clothes as well and in the water. We swam to the far end of the lake side by side, and I climbed up onto a small cliff ledge to rest. He was in the water, standing tall with the water up around his waist.
I had a moment on that rock. One of these strange moments you always remember clearly later on. I remember seeing the moon mirroring in the water, the ripples from Anton’s movements running through it. I remember staring.
He splashed water on me and taunted me a little for being a wuss so I jumped into the water again and splashed him back. The thing resulted in a traditional water war, which ended up with us trying to push the other one into the lake. He gripped me by the neck and pushed me down. I remember finding him very warm in the cold water.
When I came up again I was ready to attack him and reciprocate, but he looked so serious standing there with his hair dripping wet falling into his eyes and on his shoulders. So I stopped in my movement and looked at him. He was tall, the water reached his stomach but he was standing upright.
For a long time we stared at each other and then he came to me and he kissed me. I surrendered completely to that kiss and when it was over he dragged me into the water and we swam side by side to a clearing, far from our camp.
“Everything about that night was right, until the sun came up,” the younger version of me said, breaking the spell. “And you acted like a coward”.
I looked to the floor, unable to look the gimmick in the eyes. That person that was me and therefore knew, I suspected, every emotion that had lingered inside me, things I had kept hidden.
“Do you still miss Anton?”
“He hasn’t occurred to me for years, really,” I said.
“That’s not true,” he said. “I saw it in your eyes.”
“Well, that’s not true,” I said. “I haven’t.”
“You think about him when you’ve had a couple of beers. And you used to think about him when you…”
“Ok that’s enough,” I said, “Maybe you’re right”.
“If you could go back,” he said, “Do it all again. Would you do the same thing?”
I thought about it.
“I don’t know,” I said, “I liked Anton a lot, but it was too much for me. I couldn’t face the-,”.
“I know,” he said and smiled. “I know you couldn’t and you know what?”
I didn’t say anything, just let him continue.
“It wasn’t your fault,” he said.
“It was. If I’d just been a bit more sensitive. If I hadn’t participated that night and then totally dismissed him then maybe-,”
“Maybe,” he said. “But chances dictate our lives, would you say the same thing if he had been a girl?”
“I don’t know, I think so,” I said.
“He didn’t die because of you, he died because he chose to die,” he said.
And I felt the old wound rip open and the pus seep out, green and disgusting.
“He died because I was an insensitive jerk who couldn’t face-,” and my tears started running.
“Why did you never face those things? Why did you never, even in the darkest holes of your soul, ever look at this closer? Why ignore your own feelings?”
“You should know,” I said and laughed.
“Yes,” he said, the words lingering.
“Do you want to talk about the cellar moment?” he whispered.
I shook my head violently and looked him in the eyes. Again that feeling of looking at my mirror image suspended in time.
“She was wrong, you know that,” he said without breaking eye contact.
“I know she was,” I said.
“She did something very wrong, you were just a kid,” he said.
“I know,” I said. A sob escaped me.
He stood up and sat down on the log beside me, put his young arms around me and hugged me and there I was crying, being rocked by some impossible version of my younger self.
“It’s perfectly alright,” he said, “but you need to let these things loose. You don’t have to talk about them, but you have to have an inner dialogue about them”.
“So is that what this is?” I asked, still being cradled.
“I guess,” he said and laughed.
“You loved your wife,” he said.
And I nodded heftily.
“But it was hard,” he said.
I didn’t respond but knew he was right.
“And the man who is waiting for you outside?” he asked.
“Joe?” I sat up. I had almost forgotten about Joe.
“Should I get back? Is he waiting?”
“He can wait, but I guess we’re done,” the younger me said and took me by the shoulders. “Never forget Anton,” he said.
“It’s never been like that,” I said. “Sometimes I think it was just a dream, and that it never happened. Those have been good moments. Usually I just think it was particularly intense because we were teenagers.”
“Maybe it was, but it did happen, and what happened afterwards did too and it’s alright, you need to open up that cellar of yours.”
“The cellar will always be closed,” I said stubbornly and looked at him. “But at least you know,” I said and smiled.
He nodded his head.
“Hey,” he said when I stood up, ready to go.
“What about Joe?” he asked.
“He’s a-,” I hesitated, “a friend?” I followed up.
“With a nice smile, a rather sensitive soul and he’s hot,” the creature before me said.
I looked down into the floor, trying to close the door this kid was opening for me. “And he’s married,” I said sternly.
“We’re all just people, trying to find souls in the world that will accept that little part of our soul we’re ready to give away. Don’t let conventionality stop you in doing that, you’ll die a sad death.”
“I won’t be a-,” I hesitated.
“You don’t have to be anything specific, just don’t continue to stare into the abyss! It’ll destroy you and I find it exhausting”.
“Well yeah,” he smiled. “Now go, you’ll be fine.”
With that he sat down into the chair again and resumed the same position he had been in when I entered the cave and I watched a small light travel out of him and towards me.
I stumbled out of the cave. I felt completely exhausted. Joe caught me by the arm and sat me down on the floor in front of the doorway.
“It’s draining,” he said. “I’m sorry I didn’t prepare you more, I thought you’d never go with me if I did and I thought you needed to do this, was I wrong?”
I sighed, stroked my hand through my hair and found myself wondering if I had inherited this motion from Anton. Anton with the soft lips.
“You weren’t wrong,” I then whispered.
We stayed there for a little while before climbing out of the cave. Joe helped me into the boat and rowed us to shore. When we came to the car he gave me a sandwich and a coke and we drove off.
The food sustained me and halfway home I almost felt like a human being again. I silently contemplated what had happened as we drove the rest of the way home and when he stopped in my driveway I invited him to come inside for a while.
I didn’t expect him to take me up on it, but he did. Apparently curious to know a little about what had happened. And I was curious too, about the place he had taken me to.
So we ended up in the living room, each with a safety beer in hand and the TV news set on low volume.
“What was that place?” I asked him.
“The Island is a family thing. I inherited it when my father died. Strange place, isn’t it?”
“Magical,” I said staring at my can. “Have you been in there?”
“No,” he said, “My name hasn’t come up yet.”
“There’s a stone that shows the name of the person that should go in. Your name has been written on it for a while. I’ve been wondering how to get you to go there. I don’t always let people in, there have been a lot of names, but I figured it might help you and we’re friends so-,”
“You’re trying to protect the place?”
“Yeah, imagine what would happen if the word got out?”
I could imagine. If the word got out the place might be destroyed and the consequences seemed unfathomable.
“But you’ve never been in there?”
“My name hasn’t come up.” He shrugged his shoulders.
“But you’ve heard about what happens in there?”
“Yes, I’ve heard the stories. They vary, but there is someone sitting there and you look into their eyes and they come to life and make you come to terms with some things, or just chat. But I’m guessing everyone who goes in there has some secret truth waiting to come out.”
“Waiting to come out?” I whispered.
“What did you say?”
“It was a younger version of me, the one in the chair. A wise fella,” I laughed, trying my best to sound ironic.
“You?” he smiled, “That’s a first. How was it?”
“Hardest conversation of my life really,” I said.
“Was it? What did you talk about?”
I sat there wondering what to say. “A friend of mine from school, his name was Anton.”
“A good friend?”
“He committed suicide when we were nineteen,” I told him.
“That sucks, I’m sorry man, what happened?”
“He hung himself in his father’s garage. He was a plagued kid, I guess, but-,” I stopped talking. Didn’t want to talk about this now any more than before.
Joe was silent, let me chew on what to say.
“You know,” I said finally, “I’ve been sitting on this forever, I don’t know if you’re the right person to share this with.” I laughed. It was the laugh of the uncomfortable man.
Joe didn’t say anything, just looked at me and nodded.
I sat silently for a while, drank my beer and he did the same. Then I started talking. I don’t know why or what happened but I did and I told him the whole story of Anton. And while I was talking I somehow expected Joe to judge me, to step away and condemn me for what I’d done and for what I might be and yet I couldn’t stop talking. I expected the judgement I had been waiting for all my life, the judgment I had been laying on myself, expected it in his eyes.
When I was finished I got up and got another beer. I brought him one too and asked if he wanted it. He said he never took two on Sundays but said he’d make an exception this time.
He was sympathetic. I don’t know why that surprised me, but it did and when we’d talked a bit and finished our second beer he got up and went into my kitchen, fetched us each a third one and sat down in the sofa beside me.
“We drink too much beer,” he said.
“Nah,” I smiled.
He had been sitting in the chair next to the TV and his move to the sofa beside me surprised me a little and made me somewhat uneasy.
“Look,” he said and handed me the beer. “I have something to tell you and I guess this is the time to do it otherwise it’ll remain untold and-,” his voice drifted off and I did him the favour he’d done me. I waited and let him gather his words.
“A few months back, a bit before your wife left,” he started. “Something happened at the pub,” he sighed.
“At first I was sure you remembered, then I realised you didn’t. I tried to refresh your memory a couple times, but you know-,”
“What happened? What did I do now?” I smiled.
Joe was serious.
“We were both drunk, I guess you were in a state of blackout. I didn’t think you were at the time, I’d never have-,” he hesitated before continuing. “I know you called me the next evening asking if you’d done something stupid, asking if I’d seen your wallet. I told you you’d forgotten it at the pub and that I’d taken it home with me and I don’t know why that lie came so easily to me or felt necessary.”
“Right, I remember that phone call,” I told him. “Worst hangover of my life.”
“Right,” Joe said. “Well, I wasn’t completely honest with you. I-,”
I looked at him then and I tried frantically to search my memory banks for any information on what he was talking about.
“I can’t remember why we decided to party but we were still there when the pub closed that night, both alone in the nest, unwilling to go home, remember?”
I nodded, “Unusually great guitar solo, as I recall?”
“That’s right,” Joe smiled. “So we went to my house afterwards, it’s not that far and we ended up drinking whiskey and talking about music and what not.”
I shook my head and tried to recall. “I don’t remember being at your house at all-?”
“Look man, I don’t know what happened but we-,”
And Joe blushed and was silent.
“We?” I tried to bring it out of him, but I already suspected what he was about to say, though I was completely unable to conjure up any memory of anything happening.
“You must think I’m yanking your chain-,” Joe said.
“I hope not,” I said, cranking a smile.
“You didn’t think anything changed after that?” he turned towards me, pulling his leg up into the couch, balancing the beer on his thigh.
I stared at the can.
“I realised that night that there was more to you than meets the eye and that you weren’t ready to face any of it. You said some strange things and then-,” he hesitated again.
“Joe, you’re blushing,” I said and smiled.
Maybe it was the beer, maybe it was what I’d been through before or something else, but I wasn’t in the mood for more words. They seemed redundant and I did something I had never actually had the guts to do before, all through my life to my mid-life crisis. I had never been the one to do this, even my wife initiated things with us. She took the initiative in our relationship from day one and I’d very willingly let her.
I leaned forward and I kissed him.
It was soft, spontaneous and nothing like anything I’d ever done before, including whatever I’d done with Anton all those years ago. It wasn’t as awkward and in the movements and the familiarity of it I did realise that we’d done this before. At least once.
Afterwards he told me what he remembered of it.
“We were drunk, really bloody soaked and I can’t much remember how it started but we were comparing war wounds. You were showing me your tattoos, the hidden ones and I was showing you the scar from my hunting accident and then we were poking at each other and then kissing and the kissing led to other things.”
He paused there, and for a while I thought it ended there but then he continued. “I have done these things before. I was openly bi when I was younger and though I don’t flaunt it my wife knew it when she married me. I did promise her full faithfulness though, and it fucking sucks being unfaithful like this.”
“I’m sorry,” I told him.
“No, don’t you apologise. It’s complicated,” he said and put his hand on my thigh. It was an intimate gesture I wasn’t used to from him and it took a bit of an effort not push it away, the body wanting to react like it was used to.
“The thing with sex is that it’s complicated,”
“Hey, I get it man,” I told him, unwilling to show him that I felt a bit hurt, slowly removing my hand.
“No, you don’t,” he said and took my hand and placed it back.
“For a long time I thought I would never fall in love with men, that I just liked sleeping with them, liked the way they felt and looked, you know?”
“I guess I do,” I said and I couldn’t help but to grin a little.
“But you’re a bit different,” he sighed.
I looked at him, “Look, you don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to throttle me on the head with a bottle. This is all-,” I started.
“I know, very new to you.”
“I guess I might not need that visit to the cave chamber,” he said, “How disappointing,” he said, then he leaned over, put his beardy chin next to mine and whispered ever so softly: “I think I may be in love with you. I think I may have felt this for quite some time now.”
I didn’t say anything, this came as a complete shock to me. But I kissed him and that had to be answer enough. He left at that and casually asked if I’d be there next Saturday.
I told him I wouldn’t miss it.
It was like waking up in a new body, or rather; It was like waking up with a new or at least improved soul. It wasn’t like I had become a new man in twenty-four hours, but it was easier to go to work the next morning. And Saturday couldn’t get there soon enough.
Joe was there a bit before me as always. He signalled to the bartender for another beer as I was sitting down, putting the guitar case on the floor, and for a while we acted as if nothing had happened the previous weekend. He joked about the band that was playing and told me stories of his kid.
And then the world shifted and it all changed back again. And I wasn’t sad for it.
“My name has come up,” he said. “It’s there, and now I’m so terrified to go, I’m not sure I can face it.”
“Does your wife know about this place? Can’t she go with you? Help you out.”
“Actually, I think I’d rather have you there,” he said.
And so the next day we headed off to the island again. This time I was the one to make sure we had subways and Coke in the car. I rowed the boat, not as elegantly as Joe had I might add, and I waited for him down in the dark room as he went through the damaged door. My memory from the week before wasn’t perfect, but I could have sworn the door was different, the wood seemed much darker now.
It was quiet for a long time. Then I heard him scream in there, the noises were so loud that it startled me greatly. Then everything was quiet again and for a long time I feared he was lying dead in there. I had no idea what to do.
Morning turned to noon, noon turned to afternoon and then dusk was upon us and he still wasn’t out. So I tried the door.
I don’t know why I thought it wouldn’t open. I don’t know why I thought it would stay closed for anyone but him. I don’t know why it opened, but it did.
The room I entered was nothing like that room I had been in the previous week. In fact the room wasn’t a room at all. It appeared roofless and gigantic. I was suddenly underneath a dark sky and there was a staircase in front of me leading downwards. Down below was a labyrinth, corridor after corridor, closed spaces walled in with concrete and skeletal parts and I saw a white pyramid far off in the distance.
I thought about turning in my tracks, closing the door and leaving him there. I really did, but when I heard him screaming, I knew I couldn’t do it. I ran down the stairs, hearing the door slamming loudly behind me.
I ran through the corridors and they all looked the same. The same gaping skulls, glaring thoughtlessly from the rough stone walls, corridor after corridor. I heard cries in the distance, some I thought might belong to Joe, some I thought might belong to someone else. Sometimes I thought I heard a baby crying, sometimes I thought I heard a woman screaming.
I ran and after a while I started to call his name.
The labyrinth turned red as if some dark sun was setting and I ran faster. My body didn’t seem to mind, it didn’t tire. The walls turned to tall trees, and shrubs that bled, though some were burning, and up in between the branches I saw the naked bodies of men and women in awkward positions. They seemed to be alive, though barely.
I ran and I shouted and when I heard him shouting back, a faint “Mark!” echoing from the top of a large pyramid in the distance I ran the best I could towards the sound. I took short cuts through thorny shrubs that tore my skin but I didn’t care.
At the roots of the white pyramid I saw a startling sight. I saw Anton standing beside a large oak tree. The tree was shedding its leaves, as if it was autumn, the red, yellow and brown leaves raining down on him.
I stopped dead in my tracks.
“Anton?” I asked. “Anton? Is that you?”
He stood there, looking as if he’d always been that long scrawny fellow and I guess he had. He turned slowly to face me and I saw his eyes were blood shot, there were no eyeballs, just red fluid that slowly seemed to trickle down his cheeks, like tears.
“What the hell is this place?” I yelled him.
He didn’t answer, just started towards me, lips formed in a giant smile, as if the corners of his mouth had been torn further up to enhance his smile. It was grotesque. Otherwise he looked as he had, all these years ago, the skinny body, the fingers and the long dark hair.
“Anton?” I said. “Why are you here?”
But he had no words, only arms that came at me, threatening me with an embrace I knew I would never forget. I sidestepped him and told him I was sorry, but that I had to save my friend and that’s when he started speaking.
“So you can safe him, but not me?” he asked.
“I liked you, but I was afraid and I’m sorry. I’ve been sorry for that my whole life but now I have to find Joe. Do you know where my friend is?”
And Anton seemed to stop to think, momentarily he looked like the boy I once knew, and he pointed his finger up the pyramid.
I hugged him lightly. Trying to ignore the blood oozing from his eyes.
“I hope you gain calmness, my friend,” I said, “None of this was ever your fault”.
And he turned to the tree and started to climb it, vanishing in between the autumn leaves and I couldn’t see where it ended. The tree reminded me of the tale about Joe and the Beanstalk, but that reminded me of Joe and I remembered what I was doing there so I started running again. I ran up the stone steps of the labyrinth, they were huge marble stones and I had to jump up to come further. The stone was white but every now and then red pools appeared as if embedded in the stone. They looked like red quicksand and in the quicksand I saw people floating, some desperately attempting to get up, some seemed to have given up and were just floating in the goo, sinking. I jumped over one and a hand grabbed my leg, holding me, dragging me towards the quicksand. I kicked and I screamed and when I got away I started running again. Up step after step, wondering if this journey would be endless or if it would end abruptly in a feverish panic that would deal me damage that would end my life.
But I heard Joe, I was sure I heard Joe and so I ran, stepping over the smaller steps, taking two at a time. Listening to the slow cooing of the souls beneath, it was as if the echoes of their screams played soft music, not soothing but agonising. It produced anxiety at the pit of my stomach at the same time I hoped that they would never stop singing this beautiful song.
Then I saw her. She was on her way towards him. I stopped dead in my tracks, almost heading back after all this. I wanted to be anywhere but there. She wore a white gown, light silk and lace. I hated that look. Her hair was tied in a knot in the back, blond and I knew it her hair, because I had seen it countless of times.
When she saw me she smiled. Her face was smooth and completely without the wrinkles around the eyes I remembered from all those years ago.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I shouted at her. “Go away! Go to hell!”
“That’s precisely where I am dear,” she said and walked hastily towards me. “And now you are here finally, my little toy soldier,” she was about to grab me by the throat but I took her hand and forced it away.
“I’m not a little boy anymore,” I told her. “I may not be able to heal the wounds you caused me but I can fight back now”.
“Is that what you think, little boy toy?” she said. I noticed, as she smiled this time, that her teeth were bloody, fangs protruding.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to do to fight her off, but I was sure talking about it wouldn’t help much. I looked around for something to defend myself with, but there was nothing.
She grabbed me by the throat. I managed to dodge her partially, but she got a hold of the collar of my jacket and I turned to get it off quickly. She took it and smelled it, drawing a long pleasurable breath.
I hated that sound, that sound of her soft pleasurable sigh. It was the most disgusting sound in the world and I threw at her, rage boiling in my blood. I hit her. I hit her several times and the sound of her laughing, and breathing in that disgusting way, fast until she let escape a quiet pleasurable screech. It threw me over, I hit her, thrust her backwards and made sure she’d fall down into one of the pits.
She sounded like she was having an orgasm as she fell into it. And as the memory hit me I threw up on the stone beside the pit she was sinking into. I took a deep breath, tried to get a hold of myself, the rage was still boiling in me but I had to get to Joe and he was so close now.
When I saw him I thought he was dead.
He was nailed, hands over his head, to a stone altar that looked like it had been soaked in a lot of blood, though it had been white, once upon a time. I ran to him and I tried to pull the bolts out of the palm of his hands. When I managed with one, I ran to take the next one. It popped out and I started on his feet.
“You shouldn’t have come,” he said. “You should just have left me here. I deserve this.”
I didn’t say anything, but continued to pull at the plug that had been nailed through his feet. When they too came loose I took him into my arms and I pulled him to me, rocking him like a baby that needed sleep. Completely frantic.
“What happened to you?” I asked him. “Why is yours so much worse than mine?”
He didn’t answer, just pointed towards the top of the pyramid.
I saw a creature standing there. It was big, had large white wings and a terrible bloody sword in its claws. I didn’t want to pay it any attention, hoping that not acknowledging it would make it unreal somehow, but then it turned towards me. It seemed to speak through grotesque ripples on its head.
I lay Joe down on the ground beside the altar and walked towards the creature.
“What the hell is this?” I asked loudly.
“You don’t belong here,” the creature told me and it pointed its finger at me. The burst that came at me was strong, it knocked me off my feet and sent me flying down a few steps.
I stood up and started towards the creature again.
“What the hell is this?”
“This is his hell I presume,” the creature said and pointed towards Joe. “Apparently he thinks he deserves it and who am I to deny him of the pleasures I have to give.”
“Pleasures? You torture people! There are corpses everywhere, the-,” I couldn’t continue, it was staring at me, the laughter emanating from it sounded like mockery.
“And you? What did you meet on the way? What did you encounter?”
“That’s none of your bloody business, now let us go. Joe doesn’t deserve to be here, and you know that.”
“I don’t care, to tell you the truth,”
“If you don’t care then let us get out.”
“It’s easy to be brave now that it’s almost too late, but I appreciate a change in behaviour.”
“What do you know about my behaviour?” I asked.
“Well, the place becomes yours when you enter it. Haven’t you noticed the trees? They didn’t use to be here. I think it’s too good for our society down here. You should leave.”
“Then let me take Joe with me.”
“He won’t go until he faces his fears and whatever the fuck he thinks he has done.”
I took Joe under the arm and we started down the pyramid. There was no use in talking. Bewildered by fear and disillusion I just kept us moving, trying to imagine what could possibly get us out of here.
“What is this, Joe? What happened?”
His sores seemed to be healing impossibly fast. The wounds made by the nails that had gone through his hands were almost gone. I tried to get him to talk but it was hard as we had to keep on moving. I lost my bearing. I had been hoping to go the same way back, but of course in the Labyrinth of the Dead it was impossible to do that.
So we found a way through the trees and out of the maze. What met us was a black desert, filled with small splinters and countless bones, with the occasional soul roaming aimlessly. Some had lost an arm, or an eye but were still walking, carelessly through the desert. We tried to avoid them, tried to find a way towards something, but all the distance promised us was more desert or cold blue mountains in a direction I thought was back to where the pyramid should be.
“I messed up,” he said. “I knew not to force it, but I wanted it to be my turn. I wanted to know what this place would fix in me. What it would help me with. I just wanted a little guidance.”
We walked and walked. For what felt like days we walked, until we came to a giant gateway that stood alone in the sand, not protecting anything visible. The words above it warned us about stepping through, and I hesitated.
“Why is it so hard?” Joe asked. “Why does it have to be so damned hard?”
“We make it hard,” I told him. “It’s not really, it’s our own judgment that makes it so. We focus on the way we think the world sees us. Who cares what the world thinks?”
“My wife,” he mumbled.
“What about her?”
“I was awful to her. I promised to be faithful and I wasn’t. I didn’t love them. Just felt lust. She doesn’t want a divorce, but we’ve been apart for three years. We’re keeping up appearances, and I don’t know how long I can keep up. It’s rotting me from the inside out.”
“Joe, focus!” I told him, “Snap out of it and help me get you home.”
“I’m not sure I want to go back,” he said. I took his face between my hands and looked deep into his eyes. If there ever was a time not to linger I knew it was now. Our surroundings could change at any moment and then the gate might be lost forever, but I saw something in him and I couldn’t stop looking at him.
“Only you can decide how you live your life, not your wife nor I can tell you how to do that. You need to find a way to forgive yourself for whatever it is you think you’ve done to her or anyone else.”
Then I kissed him lightly on the lips.
And so we walked further into the desert, past rattlesnakes and living beings that looked more like mutilated corpses. We met a couple with nose rings, each with a naked human beings on a leash. The leashed people looked impossibly happy.
Then we came to the door. It was blue with roses growing out of the doorpost.
“Let’s go,” I exclaimed, rushing towards it, but he stopped me.
“Let me just say this first,” he said. “I’m a coward, I might always be a coward. I’m sorry.”
“Joe, for the love of god we can do this later,”
“No,” he said.
“You’re not a coward,” I said. “In fact you’re the opposite of coward. Bravery is easy if you’re not afraid,” I said.
“Mark,” he said in a low voice as he let me slowly drag him towards the door. “What is this place?”
“It’s your own personal hell,” I exclaimed.
“And you? How are you here?”
I didn’t know. I’d met Anton, so maybe this place was mine as well. “Maybe it’s mine too. We’d be great together in here,” I laughed. “Maybe that thing you said about similar souls has us universally tied up somehow? Maybe all the people in here are our kindred spirits, and the rest their demons.”
“Can’t we just stay?” he asked.
“Be here together forever, suffer this together.”
I kissed him.
“Desperation,” I then told him. “That’s what you’re experiencing. We can make our own fate when we step through the door. It doesn’t have to be this bloody hard.”
“You don’t understand,” he said. “On the other side of that door it’s all different.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, “I at least, will feel the same way there as here.”
He smiled then and with some odd warning on his lips he let me lead him towards the door. I touched the knob and was relieved to find it turning.
We stepped through and out we came, into the same small cave we had exited through. We were both tired, but Joe was basically unconscious, so I more or less carried him up the steps and towards the boat. I struggled through the wind towards the shore on the other side and I got him into the car. As I was helping him in I noticed he had scars in the palms of his hands.
“I can’t believe you suggested we’d stay,” I told him when we were on our way.
“It would have been easier,” he said.
“Easier than what?”
“Than telling my wife and my kids that-,”
“That I can’t play games anymore. I’d rather be spiked on that damned altar than face their judgment.”
“I’m sorry, Joe,” I told him.
“Don’t apologise,” he said.
He laughed and the echo of his laughter seemed endless, as if we were still in that giant vault, with that ominous sky hanging over our heads, with view over the white pyramid.
“I’m so full of shit,” he said.
I started the car and we drove towards the city.
He held my hand the entire way, like a child that’s afraid of the dark. It was a nice feeling. I can admit that I sometimes think about what would have happened had we stayed in that awful place. The thought occurs to me. The idea comes when I least expect it. A curious thought born of the fact that I get tired of what the greyness the regular days has in store for us. Letting the world see who I really am isn’t always easy, but it’s a fight that brings me joy, because life before was worse than the hell I experienced in that bad place with Joe. And seeing the surprise in my ex-wives face when I brought Joe with me to her wedding was good, but not as great as seeing the joy in Joe’s face when I asked him to join me.