Remy sat slumped sideways in the driver’s seat of his car with the door open and his shoeless feet on the cold cement of his driveway. He was still wearing the remnants of his Halloween costume, although most of the accessories were gone, scattered across town in the trashed living rooms of friends of friends. All that remained was a purple and black flannel shirt and a pair of sturdy, tan pants. Last night, Remy had tucked the pants into black boots he’d borrowed from his grandpa, but the boots had given him blisters and now he didn’t know where they were either. Remy had been Lord Hitheryon, a character from an obscure cartoon he’d loved when he was young, although Remy thought it still held up pretty well. The show was called Watch Your Step and it was about a group of wilderness guides living together in a giant lodge nestled in the mountains and leading ill-fated tours through the harsh-but-beautiful terrain. The show had made mountain goats seem very sinister. They were always trying to butt people over ledges and they spoke a strange, unnerving language that only other mountain goats could understand.
Remy went back into the house and knocked on his roommate’s bedroom door. There was no reply so Remy went in. His roommate was on his bed buried under three musty comforters. He was only visible from the forehead up. His hair looked to be more oil than hair. Remy picked up his roommate’s phone from where it had been discarded on the floor and left the bedroom, closing the door quietly behind him. Then he went to the kitchen, leaned back against the crumb-covered counter top, and dialed his own phone number. After two rings, a female voice answered.
“Hey,” said Remy. “Who’s this?”
“Gemma,” said the woman.
“Where are you?” asked Remy.
“Corn maze,” said Gemma. “Who’s this?”
“This is Remy. You have my phone.”
There was a short pause, a rustling noise, and the call was disconnected. Remy tried to call back but Gemma didn’t pick up and the call went to his obnoxious voicemail message, which didn’t seem nearly as funny now that he had to hear it from the perspective of a frustrated caller.
Remy tapped his roommate’s phone against his chin. He didn’t remember using his phone after leaving the corn maze, so he must have accidentally dropped the phone in the maze and this Gemma had person found it.
Remy went back to his roommate’s bedroom and tossed the phone on the floor more or less where he’d found it. Then he went to his own bedroom to put on shoes and a jacket. He needed his phone if for no other reason than to make sure he hadn’t sent any troublesome drunk text messages to ex-girlfriends the night before. If he had, he needed to begin damage control ASAP. There might still be a chance to nip a potential ex-girlfriend crisis in the bud before it got to Ariel.
Remy saw the hunter’s orange Lord Hitheryon stocking cap peeking out of his bedding so he plucked it out and pulled it down over his ears. Then he looked in the mirror to make sure no one had drawn anything obscene on his face, put his keys in his front pants pocket, slipped his wallet in his back pocket, and left for the corn maze.
As Remy drove South out of Multioak, old neighborhoods gave way to newish housing developments gave way to brown, partially-harvested farmland. The late afternoon sun seemed like it was barely trying. Remy, of all people, would not hold that against it. He was feeling less pukey, which was good, but his mouth was dry and tasted sour and he regretted not bringing a can of pop with him. The radio, turned down so low that Remy could only hear high hats, played something with an absurd amount of high hats.
Remy didn’t realize he’d missed his turn until he was almost a mile past it. He executed a two-point turn on the deserted county road and almost missed the turn again on the way back, realizing at the last second that the giant “This Way to the World’s Largest Corn Maze” sign had already been taken down since the previous night.
There was another corn maze up North of Heavenburg that also purported to be the world’s largest which led Remy to believe that either there was no governing body in charge of determining which corn maze was actually the world’s largest, or else said governing body had no means of effectively punishing those corn mazes that made false claims to the title and therefore was neither feared nor respected.
When Remy got to the corn maze, the gravel parking area was empty. He parked his car in the spot closest to the maze and turned it off, sitting in silence for a few moments, his eyes taking in the empty ticket booth and, just beyond it, the gap in the tall, dry stalks of corn that served as the maze’s entrance. Fifty feet to the right of the entrance was a slightly narrower gap in the corn: the maze’s exit. Remy and Ariel and their friends hadn’t made it to the exit during the previous night. They’d gotten so turned around that, without realizing, they ended up backtracking and exiting through the entrance. There had been plenty of blame to go around, but, dressed as fictional wilderness guide Lord Hitheryon, Remy had taken the brunt of it, some of it surprisingly bitter.
Remy blamed the map. Every year the corn maze was made to look like a different scene, although you’d never know for sure unless you looked at it from high in the air, like in a helicopter or a hot air balloon, which Remy had never done. The map of the corn maze, which cost an extra dollar per copy, was a top-down drawing of the maze that revealed the scene depicted by the hundreds of twisting, branching, criss-crossing paths. Remy always wondered who decided on the scenes for the corn maze. Apparently in the very early days, the scenes were all more or less connected to Halloween, but as far back as Remy could remember, the corn maze scenes hadn’t been connected to Halloween or autumn or even to each other. One year the scene would be something cute, like bear cubs eating honey out of a fallen tree. The next year the scene would be three skateboarders executing high-flying tricks on a half-pipe. The following year the scene might be a fictitious ancient city’s crumbling skyline or the faintly-recognizable portrait of a low-grade television actor. This year the scene had been an old scholar hunched over a small desk and writing on a piece of parchment with a quill pen, his room illuminated by dozens of candles and the light of a moon with a dopey face visible through his window. Anyway, the map had not been helpful. It never seemed to coincide with where you thought you were. Once the maze entrance was out of sight, it was impossible to pinpoint your location on the map, and once you didn’t know where you were, the map became just another drawing of an old man and some candles and a dopey-faced moon. Remy doubted that even the real Lord Hitheryon, supposing for a moment that he actually existed, would have been able to get anywhere with such a map. Of course, the real Lord Hitheryon probably wouldn’t have been well on his way to drunk before he even set foot in the corn maze. But on the other hand, the real Lord Hitheryon probably wouldn’t have set foot in a corn maze under any circumstances.
Tired of speculating about the real Lord Hitheryon, Remy put his hand on the car door handle, trying to decide if it was worth getting out. He didn’t see any movement at the maze’s entrance, exit, or even among the stalks. Maybe Gemma, if that was her real name, had been pulling his leg. How stupid would it be if he got lost in the corn maze by himself on the day after Halloween looking for his phone because he was afraid he may have drunk-texted an ex-girlfriend or two? That would be super stupid. Remy was starting to lean towards leaving empty-handed when he saw corn stalks moving near the maze’s exit, their tasseled tops shaking as something pushed its way between them toward the near edge of the field. Narrowing his eyes, Remy thought he caught a glimpse of unnatural blue among the corn. Someone’s coat, maybe? He stepped out of his car and shouted, “Hey! Hello? Gemma? You have my phone!”
The corn stopped moving. The late afternoon air was silent but for the far away thrum of combines and tractors at work in other fields. Remy took a few steps toward the field and shouted again. “I know you’re there. Just give me my phone back, OK? This doesn’t have to be a big deal.”
The corn maze sent such stillness back at Remy that he began to wonder if whatever had been moving in the corn had managed to sneak away somehow. He was just about to get back into his car when a tiny, familiar sound came floating out of the corn maze. It was his phone’s custom ringtone: a short loop of the opening synth line from Duo of One’s mostly unknown song, “Mirthworm.”
The ringtone played for only a few seconds before it abruptly ceased, but it was enough for Remy to know his phone was near.
“Gemma!” shouted Remy. “I know you’re there!”
There was a short pause, and then Remy saw the corn began to shake violently as Gemma, or whoever it was who had his phone, went crashing back into the maze.
“Stop!” shouted Remy, running towards the maze’s exit. The sound of his quarry’s noisy flight receded and then stopped and Remy realized that, assuming it was Gemma, she had either stopped again to listen for his pursuit or else she’d broken out of the stalks and onto the maze’s winding trails, which would allow her to run much faster while making far less noise. Either way, Remy was going to have some trouble retrieving his phone.
Ten minutes later, Remy still didn’t have his phone, was still very thirsty, and was lost in what may or may not have been the world’s largest corn maze. The dirt path through the corn was narrow and packed hard by the feet of thousands of visitors. Every once in a while, Remy thought he heard footsteps ahead of him on the path or someone moving through the corn to his right or his left, but whenever he stopped to listen, all he heard was his own dry panting. He was living the super stupid scenario he had envisioned while sitting in the car. It always amazed him how little being able to foresee a problem had to do with avoiding that problem. He couldn’t even blame this one on being drunk. Events had just played out in a particular order and now here he was, wandering thirsty and phoneless in a maze of corn. Remy had a dim recollection of one of his friends prattling on about maze-navigation strategies the previous night, but all he remembered about the strategies was that they were all counter-intuitive and that he never would have thought of them on his own, so now that he needed a strategy, he had to reject every strategy he thought of, because if he thought of it, it couldn’t be right. Remy knew he was prone to bouts of self-pity, so he decided to be very angry at Gemma instead. He didn’t know how he was going to find her, but if he ever did, he hoped he could think of a good way to make her feel miserable for not just giving him his phone when he’d asked for it.
It was while he was fruitlessly trying to think of a feasible punishment for Gemma that Remy heard two male voices around a bend in the path ahead of him, just out of sight. He stopped to listen.
“I don’t need to see it,” said the first voice, thin and a little whiny.
“I don’t need to see it and I don’t want to see it,” said the second voice in a faint drawl. “It’s better to never know.”
“Well,” said the first voice. “I know what it looks like. In a general sense.”
“You do not.”
“In a general sense, yes I-” The first voice stopped speaking abruptly and all was quiet. Remy stood still. He tried to breathe without making his chest move.
“Who’s there?” said the first voice. “We know you’re there. We can smell you.”
“I’m just looking for my phone,” said Remy, taking a step backwards. He didn’t know why he felt so nervous.
“Show yourself,” said the second voice. “You’ve no reason to hide, do you?”
“No,” said Remy. “I guess not. I’m just looking for my phone.”
“Maybe we can help you,” said the first voice. “Come join us.”
A stray breeze scraped through the dry stalks of corn on all sides of Remy. He looked behind him at the curving path he had followed to this point. Then he looked to a smaller trail splitting off to his left. Nothing about it looked promising. He walked around the bend in front of him and saw two men sitting side by side on the ground on the edge of the path. They both looked at Remy as if he was an unpredictable beast that might flee or attack at any moment.
The man on the left spoke first and Remy recognized his voice as the first one he’d heard. “Come and sit down with us.” He had light, wispy, dirty hair and his face was dirty too. He wore a puffy red coat over a pair of filthy white overalls.
The man on the right nodded, one corner of his mouth twitching upward in what may have been an attempt at a smile. He was older than the first man but not nearly as dirty. His white hair was parted neatly to one side and he had several slender, knotted ropes hanging loose around his wrinkled neck.
Remy walked over to the two men and crouched down facing them. “I need to find my phone.”
“Don’t crouch,” said the older man. “Sit.”
Remy reluctantly shifted to a sitting position, his legs folded Indian style in front of him.
“Good,” said the older man. “Isn’t that better?”
“Yes,” said Remy, even though it wasn’t. He wondered what the man had against crouching.
“All right,” said the younger man. “How can we help you?”
“He’s lost something,” said the older man. “I can sense it. He feels he needs to find it. Am I right, sir?”
“Uh, yes,” said Remy. “Like I already said before, I need to find my phone.”
“You see?” said the older man, nodding solemnly at the younger man. “His phone is lost and he seeks to find it. Here, in the maze, where he last saw it, presumably.”
The younger man nodded, but there was a note of desperation in the nod, as if he was struggling to keep up but still hoped that it might all snap into place at any second.
“Do you guys know someone named Gemma?” asked Remy. “She’s the one with my phone, but she’s hiding from me and I can’t find her in the maze.”
“How is it that you think we can find a woman named Gemma in this maze?” asked the older man.
“I dunno,” said Remy. “Maybe you know the maze pretty well. Or maybe you’ve got one of those maps. I might be better at using it now that I don’t have to use a flashlight and I’m, uh, not so tired.”
“A map!” The older man let out three short bursts of laughter. “Those maps are useless. Pure fiction. They have no relation to the layout of the maze. They are nothing more than drawings of an old man and a moon with a rather foolish-looking face. When I find those maps lying in my way or discarded among the stalks, I rip them into little scraps and sprinkle them on the trail, which is the only true representation of the maze, that is, the maze itself.”
Remy blinked at the two men. “So the map was a scam?”
The younger man shrugged. “We don’t speculate about the maze-makers’ motives. We only know that the maps are wrong, although we disagree about the extent to which the maps are wrong.”
“Who does?” asked Remy. “You two guys? How do you know they’re wrong?”
“A man named Loomis told us,” said the older man. “He’s seen the maze in its entirety and he knows that the maps do not represent it as it really is.”
“Oh,” said Remy. He said nothing for a few moments, letting some time pass before his next question so as to not seem too rude. Then he cleared his throat and said, “Do you think Loomis knows where to find Gemma?”
“Probably,” said the younger man. “She’s his wife.”
It didn’t take long to find Loomis. The two men had told Remy that Loomis would find them, but then they’d gotten to their feet and started off through the maze, and, not knowing what else to do, Remy had followed them. A few minutes later, after a taking a series of three left turns, backtracking out of a dead end, and following a zig-zag trail that got narrower the further they went, the two men stopped and Remy saw that they had arrived at a campsite in the middle of the path.
“See?” said the younger man. “I told you he’d find us.”
The campsite was comprised of a ragged green sleeping bag made from material that made Remy itch just looking at it, a gray backpack with a tangle of straps and buckles hanging off of it, and an open cooler in which there was a white ceramic pitcher resting in melting ice. Sitting on the ground by the cooler was a man who looked to be about Remy’s age or a little younger. His hair had been buzzed short and he wore an unbuttoned red flannel shirt over a buttoned-up brown flannel shirt. He puffed on a short cigarette as he looked Remy up and down. “Lord Hitheryon,” he finally said with a smile. “But where’s your trusty ice axe? Where’s your coil of fluorescent yellow rope? Where’s your trusty sidearm with one empty chamber in case Fate should decide to spare the life of the mountain goat in your sights?”
“I lost the rest of my costume at a party last night,” said Remy. “Or parties. I’m surprised you recognized it.”
“Please,” said the man. “Watch Your Step is my favorite show. To this day. And my name is Loomis. I’ll just call you Lord Hitheryon. That’s more fun, right?”
“Sure,” said Remy. He glanced to his right and left at the two men who had led him to Loomis, but both men stood looking at their feet with their arms folded.
“So, Lord Hitheryon, you need something from me,” said Loomis. “I wonder what it is?” His legs were out in front of him, bent at the knees, and he used his heels to rock back and forth in the dirt.
“I’m looking for my phone,” said Remy. “A woman named Gemma has it. These guys said she’s your wife and that you probably know where she is.”
“She is my wife,” said Loomis. “But I only know where she is in a very general sense: she’s in the maze with the rest of us.”
“I already knew that,” said Remy.” His powerful thirst made him irritable. He kept glancing at the pitcher in the cooler, wondering what was in it. “The fact that Gemma’s in the maze is the only reason I’m here.”
“Is it?” asked Loomis, cocking his head to one side, his cigarette grown dangerously short.
“Yeah,” said Remy. “It is. I’m worried I might’ve texted some ex-girlfriends while I was drunk last night, so I need to get the phone back to see what I said and try to get it straightened before my girlfriend gets too mad to reason with.”
“You need a new vantage point,” said Loomis. “You need to see the maze from above.”
“Well, yeah,” said Remy. “I guess that would let me see where Gemma’s hiding.”
Loomis fake laughed for a while. Remy wondered if the other guys realized it was fake too.
“These two are afraid to see the maze from above,” said Loomis, gesturing with both hands at the men flanking Remy. “They’re content to know part of the truth, but they fear that the whole truth would be too much to bear. Isn’t that funny?”
Remy didn’t think it was funny. Maybe he just didn’t get it. The older man on his right still looked down at his feet with a stoic expression, but the younger man on Remy’s left had turned red in the face from embarrassment, anger, or both, Remy assumed.
“This one,” said Loomis, pointing at the younger man, “believes that the maze is an image of an old man writing at a desk and there’s a moon looking in his window and there are candles and so on, but he doesn’t think the map accounts for the true complexity of the image. He believes that the maze is far more detailed and intricate than it appears to be on the map. He believes that the map represents the maze in the same way that a little boy-child’s crayon drawing of a house represents his real home.” Loomis had smoked his cigarette to nothing. He had smoked it out of existence.
“And this one,” continued Loomis, pointing to the older man, “believes that the maze is an image, yes, but an image of something else entirely. Of what? He’s afraid to find out. He’d rather go through the maze believing it to be one thing one day and another thing another day. He wants to have the freedom to hope the maze looks how he wants it to look, and how he wants it to look can change at any time depending on his mood.”
Remy was lost.
“And so,” continued Loomis, “they are constrained by their ignorance, they are inhibited, they find comfort in their self-imposed boundaries and they are unable to reach out and grasp all that is there for the taking. Isn’t that silly? You’re not afraid of the true nature of the maze, are you Lord Hitheryon?”
Remy almost choked when he responded because his mouth was so dry. “I don’t care about the maze picture thing. I just want to see where Gemma is so I can get my phone.”
Loomis nodded once and got to his feet. He bent down and extracted the pitcher from the cooler, slushy ice fragments dripping from the bottom, darkening tiny portions of the dusty path into mud. From behind the cooler, Loomis produced a white plastic cup with a faded Multioak Zoo logo on its side. Then he poured a rich, brown liquid from the pitcher into the cup and walked over to Remy. “Leftover cider,” said Loomis, extending the cup. “From the concession tent. They served it hot, but it’s very cold now.”
Remy took the cup with both hands and, taking one more second to note his level of thirst in order to render the coming relief that much sweeter, he took a drink.
He took another drink.
He took another drink.
And then he saw himself take another drink from a point several feet above his own head. And then he saw himself sit down in the dirt from a point several more feet above his own head and he realized that he was out of his body and traveling slowly skyward. He was alarmed.
As he ascended further into the air, the corn maze spread out below Remy, revealing itself to him, its winding, forking pathways, its dead ends and futile detours. He rose further. Soon the entire maze would be visible to him. So far it was still impossible to make out the image formed by the maze, but Remy could see Loomis, the other two men and himself on a wide part of the trail near the top left corner of the maze. A short distance away, off the path and squatting in a clearing that was probably of her own making, Gemma busied herself with Remy’s phone. Even in his disembodied form, and even acknowledging that it should have been impossible to see who Gemma was and what she was doing from this height, Remy felt his anger at Gemma’s complete disregard for the concept of personal property returning in force. But there was nothing he could do about it.
Remy continued upward. Now he could see the whole maze from end to end to end to end, all four sides, a nearly-perfect square. He had arrived at the exact vantage point of the map, but what he saw bore no resemblance to the map. Rather than an old man writing at a desk with a dumb-looking moon peering in the window, Remy saw a maddening, senseless, labyrinth of trails cut into the corn that resembled nothing. Viewed from this height, the corn maze actually made less sense than it did from inside of it.
Remy didn’t know what to think, so he thought about how he wished he could get his dollar back for that map. He had assumed that once he’d seen the whole maze, his ascent would stop and he would go back into his body, but instead he just kept going up. He wondered if he should be concerned. He could see his car in the parking lot and the combines moving resolutely through the fields surrounding the corn maze. Soon he could see Multioak and Dalcette and Riveryard. Then, in the distance, Remy saw Heavenburg, and just North of Heavenburg, he saw Heavenburg’s corn maze, and it was indeed bigger than Multioak’s, although its trails didn’t form a coherent image either.
Remy kept rising. He was glad he didn’t have his body with him because it probably would have been freezing cold all the way up here. And also, his body was scared of heights. More corn mazes came into view, appearing on the horizon to the North and South and West and East, some of them smaller than Multioak’s, some of them even larger than Heavenburg’s. Some of them even appeared to depict images at first glance, but upon closer examination Remy decided that if they did, it had happened by coincidence.
When Remy could see all of North America and each of the hundreds of corn mazes within it, he stopped rising. He gazed down at the corn mazes, each one a unique mess, as different from each other as thumb prints or snowflakes except ugly and arbitrary in their designs.
“Do you see now, Lord Hitheryon?”
Remy turned around and saw that the moon was speaking to him, its face slack and dull, its eyes vacant. It looked even dumber in person than it had on the Multioak Corn Maze’s lie of a map.
“Yeah, I see,” said Remy. “The corn maze doesn’t look like anything. None of them do.”
“Yup,” said the moon.
Remy looked around. The night sky was black and empty except for the moon. Remy had expected at least a few stars.
“I’m surprised you recognized my costume,” said Remy. “Hardly anyone recognized me last night, but I keep running into fans today.”
“I’m not all the way caught up yet,” said the moon. “I get the DVDs from the library. I’m still on season four.”
“Ah,” said Remy. “That’s a good one.”
The moon blinked. It took a while.
“How long do I have to stay up here?” asked Remy.
“Not long,” said the moon. “Just long enough for Loomis and Gemma to get away with your phone.”
“Ah, come on,” said Remy. “Is that really what this is all about?”
“Sorry,” said the moon. “I know it’s stupid. They don’t even have anyone to call. If I could send you back now, I would, but I don’t have any power, really. I’m just passing along what I know.”
“This sucks,” said Remy. “If only I hadn’t been so thirsty.”
“Yeah,” said the moon. It appeared to be nodding off.
Remy looked down at the corn mazes of the North American continent from his position somewhere way above the earth, in the stratosphere or ionosphere or something. So the corn mazes weren’t depictions of anything. Big deal. Why should they be? Couldn’t a maze just be a maze? And how did knowing the truth about the corn mazes give someone the right to keep something that didn’t belong to them just because the original owner got too drunk and dropped it in a corn maze and forgot about it until the following afternoon? What was so great about liberation if you just used your liberty to act like a jerk?
“You know what?” said Remy.
The moon gave a start and opened its eyes. “I agree,” it said.
“Shut up,” said Remy. “I know you were asleep. But listen: Loomis and Gemma can keep my phone. I don’t even care. I’m just gonna come clean to Ariel and tell her that I might have texted some exes while I was drunk and apologize and if she’s mad, well, she has the right to be mad.”
“That’s mature,” said the moon. “I think you’re making the right choice.”
“Thanks,” said Remy. “Man, they really made you look dumb, but you’re not that dumb. Why’d they make you look so dumb? I’m surprised they didn’t give you buck teeth and a dunce cap.”
The moon gave Remy a pained look, then turned around. There, tilted back and to the side and affixed to the moon by means that were not apparent, was a tiny dunce cap.
“Ah, man,” said Remy. “That’s rough.”
When he returned to his body, Remy was back in the corn maze, but night had fallen and Loomis and his camping stuff were gone, presumably with Gemma and Remy’s phone as well. The other two men had built a small fire in the middle of the path and they were huddled close to it, heating a can of beans over the open flame. Remy had never felt more thirsty. Not ever.
When they saw that Remy was awake, the two men smiled at him.
“Here,” said the younger man, offering Remy a dented flask. “It’s water.”
Remy accepted the flask and took a long, slow, trusting drink. He had no reason to be suspicious of these two. They still thought the maze looked like something.
“Don’t tell us anything,” said the older man. “Not so much as a hint.”
“I won’t,” said Remy, handing the flask back to the younger man. “I’m gonna take off.”
“You want some help finding the exit?” asked the younger man.
“Nah,” said Remy.
“Did you commit the maze to memory during your vision?” asked the older man.
“No,” said Remy. “Not even close.” And he blundered off down the path in the wrong direction, whistling the Watch Your Step theme song almost on key.