How will I get out of this? thought Tina.
She’d never been one for puzzles. Too much trouble. It was always his idea to go to the corn maze. Not that that mattered anymore.
Tina was dead center in Ezekiel’s corn maze, though she hardly knew it. She was also dead but that wasn’t out of the ordinary. Completely lost, she found herself standing still, boots slowly sinking in the thick mud. Passerbys passed her by. As their happy faces fazed through, she was reminded of her solitude.
It had been a mistake to come.
Rain pelted the mud but she didn’t feel it. She couldn’t feel anything, for that matter, but she could see and she could hear. The magic holding her frame together enabled that much, and for the most part it was sufficient. Reflexively, she hunched over and clasped her bony arms together. She wasn’t bony as in thin; she was simply bony. She had no nerves. No skin, no muscles. Just a petite skeleton drowning in an oversized sweater.
The other visitors eyed her but never pointed. Skeletons, though not as common as dwarves, elves, centaurs or any of the like, were common enough that she was not a spectacle. Even zombies were more commonplace, but that hadn’t prevented the stares she and Alex had gotten when they held hands. At least, when they used to hold hands. Past tense, she reminded herself.
She studied her map with her phone’s flashlight and traced the swooping letters of the maze design with a bony finger. Each years’ was unique, and this year showcased the city’s Sesquicentennial Celebration. From the crow’s eye, the maze was laid out in square formations with right-angled turns and overlapping trails almost resembling the winding suburbs commanding a majority of the city. The phrase “Hemlock 1867- 2018” marched across the middle in blocky letters. From what Tina could tell, she was in the “l” of Hemlock. After another glance it could also be the number one. This was all too confusing. Once, when the city was hardly a village, lumber and blackberries were the lifeblood of the economy, but that time had passed. Strip malls and chain stores now stood in place of family businesses. Suburbs had taken root in bought-out farm grounds. Only a few farms remained and they were hardly more than attractions.
Tina did her best to memorize the map. The picture was taken at the peak of the maze’s form before travelers were let though. Ahead were makeshift paths forged over trampled stalks. Alex would have done that sort of thing. A prick of annoyance resonated in her marrow and she knew she would have been frowning if she had a face. It seemed so reckless to her, so pointless to destroy the corn when a trail was already laid out. Determined, she respected the implied wall of corn and forged ahead. The rains had come down hard opening week. The well-traveled paths had melted into thick, sloshing mud. As she trekked forward, her footsteps made sucking noises and she worried the mud would steal her boots. Around the corner, a group of teenagers slicked through opaques puddles. One teenager, a dwarf who was just growing into his beard, shoved his elf friend into the mud. He stretched a helping hand out but the elf pulled him down. They laughed together.
She took a turn and traveled down a different path. Watching them only exasperated her isolation. Singleness had accompanied her throughout most of her afterlife. She never minded being alone but it was times like these, times watching other people laugh and make memories, that her loneliness surged. Especially tonight. She wasn’t supposed to be alone; this was supposed to be a date. Her and Alex had gone to the corn maze together for the past two years.
Rustling noises caught her attention. Turning, she shined the flashlight on the corn stalks. Louder, louder grew the rustling. She swore she could feel her heart pounding in the void of her chest- a phantom feeling her doctor told her happens from time to time to the undead. Left, right, she whisked the light around haphazardly. The cold glare, meant to be a comfort, cast ominous shadows twirling, spinning as she waved the flashlight around. The dark corners of the maze lit up like fiendish apparitions. Her jaw chattered, her knees knocked. She was just about to run when the beam hit a moving patch of corn. She froze. Gradually, the movement ceased and in the absence of rustling, she heard the jubilant cries from other maze goers. She took a deep breath and relaxed the fists she didn’t know she was clenching. She had overreacted. She was always overreacting, according to Alex. At least, she was always overreacting when she was angry at him. He never said it otherwise. It was strange what she remembered now that it was over. She unfolded the map carefully when she spotted a flash of movement in the edge of her socket.
A black smear shot towards her.
Feathers, all she saw were feathers. She tried to step back but the mud slipped below her boots and she fell. As the corn fell out of view and the clouds rose up, she heard screaming. It wasn’t until she hit the ground, completely laid out in the mud, that she realized the scream came from her.
A crow had scared her.
Her clothes, her clean, ironed clothes, were completely covered in mud. They would need to be soaked when she got to her apartment but she wasn’t going to think about that now. It was too much all at once.
Laying in the cold mud, at least she assumed it was cold, she stared at the overcast sky and thought about the stars behind the clouds. She knew they were there even if she couldn’t see them. Their first date had been under the stars. The city lights always drowned out their soft glow, but in the outskirts of town surrounded by corn stalks and the anticipation of a new relationship, they seemed so bright. Everything seemed so bright.
She laid in the mud but she wasn’t there, not mentally. Her mind drifted beyond the corn maze, the mud, the indifferent stars to this morning when she had been sitting in the elven coffeehouse off of 3rd and Wormwood. Back when she was alive, she used to drink coffee. She couldn’t any longer (it went right through her) but she still cherished the quaint ambiance of elven coffeehouses and loved to watch barista blend teas and pour lattes. A mustard sweater draped over her frame and she smoothed out the wrinkles in her rust skirt. Her favorites. A knit headband encircled her cranium. It’s yarn flower bloomed over her temple. She loved the contrast of the warm fall colors against her sun-bleached bones. The baggy sweater hid her protruding spine. She was always so self conscious about it but Alex told her she didn’t need to be. You’re beautiful, he would say and though she would thank him, a part of her doubted his intentions. What else? she would think, hoping to hear him praise her kindness, her wit, her honesty. What else? rattling in her skull until it knocked on her teeth, waiting to be said.
Wearing her favorite clothes put a spring in her step. She needed the confidence boost, the armor. They hadn’t been getting their timing right lately but today would be different. Their anniversary had arrived and they were going to the corn maze like they did every year. Like they did on their first date. She held a romance novel in one hand but the bony fingers on her other hand tapped nervously on the cafe table. Putting the book down, she scanned the coffeehouse with hollow sockets. He was late again, but she was used to it like she was used to his soft brown hair, his stitches, his antiseptic smell.
Then her phone buzzed.
I can’t do this anymore. I thought I could but I can’t. I’m sorry.
“What do you mean?” she replied. She knew.
I’m breaking up with you.
She should have seen it coming, at least, she felt like she should have. Things had been tense over the last few months but she kept holding out, kept believing they would work out. When they had met, when he had wrapped his fingers around her bony hands, he had stolen her breath away. Her chest had been vacant of heart and lungs for years, but as if for the first time, she noticed how truly hollow she felt inside.
Why did I come here? she thought, her mind drifting back to the present.
Slowly, she pulled herself off the ground. She ran her hands along her skirt to straighten it out and pulled her sweater down. Her head was still attached and her phone was only a foot away, its flashlight still on, thankfully. The map, which had fluttered considerably further, was ruined by the mud. Her situation had devolved from being lost to being lost, covered in mud and without a map. At least she wasn’t cold.
A dense fog settled over the corn maze and glare from the floodlights cast an ominous glow over Ezekiel’s farm. Off in the distance, shouts of excitement and terror emanated from the “Fright Night” maze, and Tina felt her stomach knot with fear. Or at least she would have if she had a stomach. This was the first year Ezekiel’s farm hosted a “Fright Night” corn maze and it had already drawn in more visitors than the regular corn maze. It had previously been a “haunted” corn maze but old Ezekiel had to change the name. A place of business could only be advertised as haunted if it employed at least one ghost and Jeff had quit after the first week. Alex probably would have tried to talk her into going to the spooky maze even though he knew she hated stuff like that. It probably would have worked, too.
Why did I come here? The question continued to rattle in her cranium as she wandered through the maze. Dead end. The rain fell and for a moment she let herself think the droplets running down her skull were tears. Another dead end.
When she left the coffeehouse earlier, she hadn’t said goodbye to the baristas. Endless scenarios had bombarded her as she drifted to her car. She must have done something wrong, something to make him breakup with her. What if she had been more adventurous? Put her phone down? Her mind navigated each possibility, each fracture in the narrative but she knew the results would be the same. He broke up with her. He broke up with her and nothing she could do now would change that. There was no reset button, no way to wake up from this nightmare. This was her new reality and she could see no way to move forward. She jammed her keys in the ignition and right as she was about to start up the car, saw the flicker of her keychain. “Ezekiel’s farm,” read the vinyl, orange pumpkin. It was a souvenir from their first anniversary date. The little pumpkin stared back at her with its buck-toothed smile. Deep within her was an undeniable draw to the farm. She had to go. It’s not like she had anything else planned for the rest of the day and the thought of being alone in her apartment made her feel heavy. She turned the keys and drifted through the winding stretch of road. In the back of her mind, she suspected she had something to prove to herself but she certainly wasn’t going to analyze that now. Better to act than think about her relationship falling apart.
Cawing snapped her back to the present.
Chin held high, she adjusted the knit headband. Quiet strength filled her and she almost, almost felt warm. She was going to get out of this. As she rounded a corner, she spotted the faint outline of a white sign at the end of the stretch. The corn maze had a few scattered throughout each with a multiple choice trivia question. The right answers pointed the way, at least that’s what she hoped. Tina rushed towards the sign and had almost reached it when her anticipation was interrupted by flapping. Frustration pricked at her cranium as she spun her light. Crows, three, were perched on the sign and she could see a glint of smugness in their beady black eyes. At least, she imagined she did. The fat one in the middle cawed in her direction and she suspected it was mocking her.
She hated crows.
Her chalk fingers curled up into fists and her teeth grinded together. In the deep crevices of her being, in the space between quarks and gluons, the spectrum of her emotions collided. In the impact was a holy exchange, a conversion of tension to rage, and a rolling heat sputtered and spit. It coursed through her spine. It bubbled through her ribs. Frothing, foaming, it exploded in her skull in a brilliant nuclear fallout. She opened her mouth further than skin would have ever allowed until her jaw was completely unhinged. Then she screamed. The sound, the skin-tearing, ear-splitting cacophony pushed the crows back with fear and they threw themselves into the air without so much as a peep.
Suddenly, Tina felt better.
The aftermath of the eruption left her numb and she couldn’t understand why she had felt so furious mere seconds ago.
Calmly, she shined her light on the sign. “Who was Hemlock’s first mayor?” it asked. Tina had no idea. She tried to search for the result on her phone but had no reception. So much for the hint.
An idea knocked around in her cranium. From the top of the sign, she might be able to see the maze layout. The sign was flimsy but she was exceptionally lightweight. Bones only weigh a few pounds, after all. She climbed onto the sign and straightened her spine. Her eye sockets were level with the tops of the stalks. She could see the parking lot in the distance and that made her hopeful. There was a way for her to see further but she never resorted to that. Especially not in public. Alex freaked out whenever she did that. Then a thought bloomed in that beautiful, bleached cranium. Why should she care about what he thought? They had broken up. She didn’t have to concern herself with his worries anymore.
Still balancing herself on the sign, she cupped her skull in her hands and with a gentle twist, popped her head off. She held it high in her right hand but it wasn’t enough. She had already popped her head off. There was no reason not to go further. Using her left arm, she popped her right arm off by the shoulder. With both arms end to end, she once again stretched out. Her hollow sockets gazed on the maze in its entirety and she would have been smiling if she had a mouth. There! Just a few turns away, she could see the torchlight by the exit.
The sucking noise of footsteps startled her and she almost fell again. Crouching just in time, she perched herself on the sign and hesitantly turned twisted her hands so her skull could face the strangers. Two sets of eyes stared back at her and she carefully climbed off the sign and put herself together.
“Well, did ya see the way?” asked a small orc with bright eyes and a sticky face. Her mother had the same question in her eyes.
“Um…yes.” Tina watched the child smile and felt her whole being smile with her. “Yes I did,” she repeated with confidence. “I can guide you.”
As they walked through the maze, the little orc stomped her ducky boots to catch up to Tina. “Hey, lady. Why are you a skeleton?”
“Ghorza!” chided her mother. “Apologize now.” Sheepishly, the mother turned to Tina. ”I am so sorry.”
Tina waved it off. “No, no it’s fine! Happens all the time.” She knelt down to Ghorza and said straight-faced, “I didn’t eat my vegetables so all my skin fell off.”
Ghorza widened her eyes and looked at her mother for assurance. She nodded.
“But what about candy?” pleaded Ghorza, her pigtails whipping back and forth in her hood as she turned her head.
“Candy is ok in moderation. If you eat too much though, your teeth will fall out.”
Ghorza stared forward with all the seriousness a five year old could muster while she processed the information. After a whopping three minutes of silence, she prodded Tina with questions about what vegetables to eat and how frequently. Tina replied patiently, careful not to contradict herself. Left, right, the three of them traveled together and after a dozen or so minutes they stood in the warm torchlight of the exit.
Ghorza shoved a sticky bag towards Tina. “Have some caramel corn,” she said a little too loudly.
“Ghorza….” Her mother seemed exasperated.
“What, momma? I’m being nice. You said be nice to people.”
“Booger bear, skeletons don’t eat.”
“What! You can’t have candy?”
Ghorza’s mother thanked Tina and the three said their goodbyes. Relieved to finally be at the exit, Tina took a deep breath. She made it out. She didn’t exactly feel happy, but she did feel lighter in some ways.
Tina watched the two walk to their car and just as she was getting ready to leave, Ghorza pulled on her mother’s hand and pointed at Tina. The two exchanged a few words, then Ghorza dashed towards Tina and stared at her intently. “Hey, lady,” she said. “Here.” She shoved something small in Tina’s hand. Before Tina could speak up, Ghorza ran back to her mother.
After a wave, Tina glanced down at the gift. Attached to a cheap string was a small whistle shaped like a blackbird. She ran a bony finger over the bird, imagining it was warm from the little girl’s touch. As she pulled out her car keys, the pumpkin keychain flickered in the floodlights. She’d forgotten about the keychain. Her apartment was packed with his mementos, with boxed-up memories howling for her attention. She began to unhook the keychain but gave it a second thought. Everything else would go, but the keychain she would keep. After she got in the car, she wrapped the whistle around the rearview mirror. The bird dangled, tilted at an odd angle and Tina tilted her head the same direction. It must have been the way the headlights from other cars lit up her skull or the shadows cast from the floodlights, but to passersby the petite skeleton appeared to be smiling.