Authors: Jason Brannon
Part 1: The Trap
“Man is the only kind of varmint sets his own trap, baits it, then steps in it.” ~John Steinbeck
For, what other dungeon is so dark as one's own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one's self!”-Nathaniel Hawthorne, ‘The House of Seven Gables’
I went through the usual Monday morning routine. Two cups of coffee and a lukewarm bowl of oatmeal, a glance at the morning paper, a quick kiss to Amy and Peter, and out the door. The day was business as usual. For the first couple of hours at work, I handled some insurance claims, returned a few phone calls, checked my e-mail and met with a couple of potential clients. Both meetings went extremely well, and it seemed like my day was going to be productive.
Until Amy called.
“Why did you take sixty dollars out of the bank?”
“Well, hello to you too!”
“Aren’t you going to answer my question, Jamie?” There was a slight edge to her tone that made me a little uneasy.
“I got the oil changed in the Jeep, and then I took Lincoln Brown to lunch. Why? Is something wrong? There should have been plenty of money in the account.”
“No, it’s fine. I just wanted to know.”
I knew she wasn’t being straight with me-I heard it in her voice. “What is it, Amy? Tell me.”
“It’s just…” She paused as if unsure whether to continue.
“Tara found out that Ethan has been seeing another woman behind her back.”
“Are you serious?” The Buffetts were two of our closest friends.
“It's been going on for quite a while. Tara didn’t start to get suspicious until she noticed that he had been making regular withdrawals from their bank account every Tuesday. He's been using the money to rent a room over at the Sands.”
She let that last little bit of information sink in, and suddenly I understood her concern about the sixty bucks. “Ok, babe, look, I know how your mind works. You make connections that aren't there to make, and before you know it, you've pieced together some unlikely scenario. You think because Ethan cheated on Tara and used cash to do it, that maybe I'm doing the same thing. Listen to how crazy it sounds. People take money out of their accounts every day. That doesn't mean it's to go rent a room for some illicit tryst.”
Amy sighed. “It does sound a little ridiculous when you say it out loud. I'm sorry.”
“It's ok. Besides, I love you. I wouldn't hurt you like that.”
“You should have heard the way Tara was going on and on the other day about how much she loved Ethan.”
“We’re not Tara and Ethan,” I said. “Their problems are not our problems.”
“I know.” Amy sighed. “But I couldn’t help thinking the worst.”
“Well, stop thinking the worst. No good will come of it.”
Amy sighed. “Ok, babe. I'll try to put it all out of my mind.”
“That's my girl.”
“Promise me that you’re not going to turn out like Ethan.” Amy needed that one final reassurance.
“I promise, babe.”
“Call me when you get lunch.”
“I've got a meeting so I can't guarantee I'll have time, but I’ll do my best.”
“Ok, Jamie. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
Although I wasn’t cheating on Amy, I felt guilty when I hung up with her. I hadn’t lied to her about being unfaithful, but there were other things I hadn’t been honest with her about. They weren’t big things really. Little white lies mostly, inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
So why was I stressing about them now? Maybe I knew Amy wouldn’t be as nonchalant about my secrets as I was if she found out I was drinking again and bumming smokes from the guys at work, going to a few illicit websites when she was asleep, or taking money out of the account to go to the casino on days I was supposed to be working. I guess when you got right down to it, I was keeping more secrets from her than I wanted to admit. The one thing I hadn’t done, however, was cheat on her. I hadn’t crossed that line, and in that I was steadfast.
So why did I feel so rotten about it all? Maybe because she was so trusting and I took advantage of that trust on several levels. It made me feel like a bad husband.
If I had looked out my window at precisely that moment, I might have seen a throng of demons lined up on a nearby telephone line like magpies, laughing at me and my predicament. Thankfully, I didn't have time to do any daydreaming or demon-watching. I was knee-deep in work and that carried me through until lunch.
My lunch meeting was with Frank Kennedy, the owner of a local manufacturing plant who was interested in offering insurance to his employees. He liked the barbecue at Adam's Ribs, so that's where we met.
The lunch crowd was brutal, and I was glad to see that Frank had already gotten a table. He waved me over, and I headed toward him, lugging my briefcase along. We shook hands, talked baseball for a few minutes, and were about to go over some business details when our waitress arrived.
“Jamie? Is that you?” At first I didn’t recognize her.
“Oh, my goodness! I can’t believe it! Jamie Burroughs!”
I forced a smile and then genuinely grinned as I realized who stood there in front of me.
“Karen? Wow! What a surprise! Is that really you?”
“Of course it’s me, silly. I haven’t changed that much!”
Although it had been twenty years since I last saw her, my heart started beating in an old, familiar way. I had dated Karen back in high school; she was the first girl I had ever loved. She moved away when her father‘s job forced them to relocate to Georgia. I was heartbroken at the time and spent many a teenage afternoon wondering what things might have been like if she hadn’t gone away.
“Earth to Jamie.” Karen waved her hand in front of my face. I snapped out of my trance and focused on her again.
Karen was just as beautiful as I remembered, and time had done nothing to diminish her smile. The years had been extremely generous. “It’s been ages since I’ve seen you!”
“How’ve you been? You look great.”
“I’m good.” Her smile hypnotized me now like it did twenty years ago. “ I decided to go back to school and become a nurse. I’m working part-time here at the restaurant to help pay the tuition.”
“Good for you.”
“So what have you done with your life?”
“The usual. Got married. Became a father. Selling insurance to pay the bills.”
“That’s great.” It seemed like some of the sparkle left her eyes when I mentioned that I was married.
Frank grunted to show his impatience. He was here to talk business, not to listen to me stroll down memory lane with an old girlfriend. Karen took the hint.
“Well, it was great to see you again, Jamie. I won’t hold you guys up any longer. Let me just take your orders, and I’ll be out of your hair.”
I nodded, not really caring about the insurance deal or the lunch anymore. Frank and I ordered, ate our barbecue, and worked out all the details. The deal went off without a hitch.
Frank headed to the Men’s room after we finished eating, and I took that opportunity to watch Karen from afar. She was beautiful, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I know, I know. Add that to the list of secrets I was keeping from Amy. I couldn’t help it. I kept reminding myself that I loved Amy and that I was married and faithful, but my eyes never left Karen. It was ironic given the conversation we'd had earlier that morning about Tara and Ethan's problems.
“Pretty girl.” Frank wore a Cheshire grin as he sat back down at the table. “Quite the looker!”
I nodded. “She was the first girl I ever loved. I haven’t seen her in forever. Small world I guess.”
“Be careful. Take it from a man who is on his third marriage. Situations like these can be costly. I should know.”
Unwilling to discuss my personal life any further, I diverted the conversation back to politics, even though it meant listening to Frank launch into a speech on the decline of the U.S. Economy. Hearing his opinions on tax laws and small business was a welcome reprieve from stories about Ex-Wife Number One, or The Harpy as he‘d nicknamed her. He had just started ranting about the Chinese manufacturing sector and how it impacted jobs in the United States when Karen brought our bill. I motioned for her to give it to me. She had planned to anyway- I saw her phone number and address written on the receipt.
“Call me.” She whispered in my ear before disappearing like a beautiful mermaid back into a sea of hungry diners. “Your wife never has to know.”
The maze was complex and mysterious, and like snowflakes, no two mazes were identical. Each labyrinth was built from the blueprint of a man's life and tailored to fit his soul. Sins and virtues alike were included in the architecture. Yet, in this case, the transgressions were far more plentiful.
The cobblestone steps lay covered in thick tangles of thorny vines. The air stank of decay and decadence; the hallways were encrusted with black ice and sin. Angels roamed the hallways with hammers and chisels, feverishly writing on the walls. Some carved instructions for the tortured soul who would soon find himself trapped inside. Others planted clues for his escape. Demons skulked in the darker places and searched for hiding places to deploy traps. Others sharpened weapons.
Only two outcomes awaited the man who would soon be imprisoned within the walls of the maze. The angels hoped for redemption. The demons hoped for death.
Men had stumbled in the darkness of the maze before and given up their souls willingly in order to escape. Others solved the puzzles within, realized the true potential of this place, and became new creatures. Transformation was the key to freedom from this particular prison. However, some never figured that out and stumbled in darkness forever.
Asterion had a special role to play. Inside these twisting, turning passageways, he was the law. Neither angel nor demon had a stronghold here. The decision to escape the maze or wander in darkness belonged entirely to the lost soul. The choice couldn't be forced. The demons, however, always looked for an advantage. Often times they cheated, going outside the maze to find a way to gain the upper hand. The moment the minotaur heard flute song, he knew what they had done.
They had called for reinforcements, and The Piper had finally arrived.
Asterion watched as imps hefted pickaxes, pushed carts filled with rock, raised new walls, set snares, and consulted the blueprint for the labyrinth to make sure all of the appropriate sins would be included in the architecture. Conviction or destruction of the heart depended on that more than anything else. As they worked, Asterion heard them snickering to themselves. The demons thought they were clever calling in The Piper. What the demons didn't realize was that the angels snickered too. Prayers were being offered up by the faithful, and their prayers were being heard.
The war had begun.
The air was filled with mournful strains of malevolent music. The Piper had spent many long years honing his craft, perfecting his dark tunes, devising just the right sounds to lead the pure-hearted astray. He’d had nothing but time since The Fall to play his pipes and to plot the demise of humanity.
He roamed like a nomad from town to town, wreaking havoc with the noises he manufactured. Suicides and murders followed in his wake. Families fell apart, torn to shreds by the disruptive power of his flute. Entire towns went bankrupt. Churches sat empty.
He delighted in symphonies of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Operas of agony were his music of choice. Nothing sounded any sweeter to The Piper than the hopeless weeping of the lost.
As he looked down on the town of Fairpointe, he stretched his wings and took a deep breath of cool, crisp air. He felt the juices of creation flowing through his veins. The music thrummed in his muscles, vibrated in every fiber of his being as it waited to be released into an unsuspecting world. He saw the tremendous potential for agony and delighted in it. He heard the delicate beating of each heart and knew which strings could be plucked to make dismal music. As he peered down at each and every house in Fairpointe, two stood out immediately.
One contained a family that deserved nothing less than destruction. The other contained a man who could potentially be trained to rain down that destruction without the first bit of remorse.
Of course, The Piper knew he wasn’t the only principality lurking nearby. There were other forces that had their sights set on these two.
The Piper had gotten here first, and that should have been enough to give him claim on the sleepy town of Fairpointe. That was little reassurance, however, when he heard the clang and clamor of hammers nearby. From the sound of it, a maze was being constructed, and he knew what that meant: someone stood at a moral crossroads, about to make a life-changing decision. The Piper had to act quickly.