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Authors: Will Hobbs

The Maze

BOOK: The Maze
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The Maze
Will Hobbs

to Derek James

 

whose luminous cover paintings
invite readers into my stories

Contents

1

Rick Walker tried to swallow, but his mouth was too…

2

Four and a half months into Rick's sentence there were…

3

In the cafeteria line for the evening meal, Killian ghosted…

4

He ran stumbling toward the lights of the interstate. The…

5

Rick had hoped the rocks would give off heat during…

6

He looked away from the furious blue eyes and the…

7

“I've got work to do. You saw where the food…

8

The camp was in shadow and Lon still hadn't returned.

9

The next morning the biologist wandered off by himself to…

10

Rick was having the flying dream again. The Maze was…

11

Lon was stuffing the hang glider back in its tube…

12

Past the Standing Rocks they jumped out of the truck.

13

“Is it morning?” Rick asked.

14

They took their positions half an hour before dawn. The…

15

It wasn't so easy to talk, to know where to…

16

The door of Maverick's prison was open, but the condor…

17

The glider was rigged and they were done with the…

18

Rick lay on the cot feeling weightless. All he had…

19

On their way back to the condors, the road forced…

20

Lon clipped his portable two-way to his belt as Rick…

21

Rick had been moving so fast, he realized he'd packed…

22

Forty feet away, at the edge of the cliff, the…

23

Rick reached with his right leg, found the bottom of…

24

“All rise,” the bailiff instructed.

 

Rick Walker tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry.

“The state of Nevada has a problem with you…” the judge began, then paused to glare at him over his reading glasses.

Rick Walker glanced at his social worker, seated beside him on his right. He wondered if the pause meant he was supposed to answer. He wasn't sure what to make of this bald and bony-headed old man who was the judge. The sign on the door of his courtroom said he was
THE HONORABLE SAMUEL L. BENDIX
. At the moment he seemed more hostile than honorable.

“Why?” the judge suddenly demanded.

Rick was confused. Why what? What was the judge asking him? Once again his eyes went to his social worker for help. Janice Baker seemed confused too.

As Rick looked back toward the black robe, he felt his lip quiver. In an instant he forgot that his social worker had warned him about the judge's “enormous discretionary power.” He reverted to his instincts for dealing with powerful adversaries: don't show fear, or you'll be eaten alive.

With a slight shrug he asked, “Why what?”

He saw the judge's skin flush red up and over his skull. “Why were you throwing the stones, repeatedly, at the stop sign? Why would anyone throw more than thirty rocks at a stop sign?”

Rick knew he couldn't afford to say anything further that would get taken the wrong way. He hesitated, looking deep inside for the real answer. That's what the judge wanted: the real answer.

His hesitation lengthened. Rick didn't know the real answer. The only thing he could think of was his grandmother dying. Everything that went wrong happened because of that. But the judge wasn't going to accept excuses, especially something that happened four years ago. Why
was
he throwing those rocks?

He didn't know the answer himself. It was all too confusing. All he could remember was being in a sort of trance. It had happened only a few blocks from the group home, on his way from school. He didn't know he had thrown so many rocks. He couldn't even remember what he'd been thinking about. “I don't know,” he said at last.

“You
don't know…
” the judge repeated incredulously.

Rick tried his best. “It wasn't for any specific reason,” he explained.


Not for any reason
.”

The rising cadence of the judge's voice felt ominous. Rick unfolded his arms and put them down by his sides. “Just general frustration, I guess,” he managed.

The judge looked aside, put his fist to his chin, looked back at Rick. “
General frustration
is what I'm feeling right now myself,” the judge said. “Just this morning, over coffee, I read about two juveniles no older than you bludgeoning a nine-year-old to death with a baseball bat.”

So? Rick thought. What does that have to do with me?

The judge paused. His eyes had drifted, unfocusing, to the floor. “So many with no conscience,” he said as if to himself. “A petty offender one day becomes a murderer the next. It didn't used to be like this.”

The judge's eyes were suddenly back in focus and locked on Rick. “Didn't I tell you just six weeks ago that I didn't want to see you in my courtroom ever again?”

“Yes,” Rick agreed.

“Yes,
Your Honor
,” his social worker said under her breath.

“Yes, Your Honor.”

Rick felt so light-headed he thought he might faint. In the corner of his vision he was aware of a man in a police uniform coming up the side aisle. It was young Mike Brown, his probation officer, with his trim dark mustache and his face blank like a robot's.

“Say you're sorry,” Janice Baker whispered.

Rick glanced at her. He should have said it himself, before this. Now the judge was glaring worse than ever, knowing he'd just been instructed to say he was sorry.

He couldn't, not now. Not when he was being forced to. He had a certain amount of pride. What could the judge do to him anyway? Janice Baker had told him about a place near Lake Tahoe for kids like him who'd gotten into a little bit of trouble. It didn't sound so bad, being in the pine trees and the mountains. It couldn't be much worse than the group home he was in now in Reno. The couple running the group home was only doing it for the money. They didn't even care enough to come to court with him.

His social worker appealed to Rick with a glance. He shook his head.

With a disapproving look at him, Janice Baker rose to her feet. “Please take into account, Your Honor, Rick's background. He's only fourteen. In the last four years, he has lived in foster homes in Fresno, Stockton, Merced, and Sacramento, California, as well as a foster home and a group home here in Reno. During that time he has been enrolled in six different schools. He has never
known either of his parents. He was raised by his grandmother, who died when he was ten, leaving him an orphan, completely alone in the world.”

Rick recoiled at the word
orphan
. He hated that word, hated that it even existed. He didn't think people should use it. It made him sound pitiful.

The judge peered over his glasses. “His file is right in front of my eyes, Miss Baker.”

She paused. “Of course, Your Honor.”

“If you will, Officer Brown,” the judge instructed.

The probation officer cleared his throat. “I've visited Rick three times at the group home,” he began. “At present I have five kids to check in on there. I've known Rick for only six weeks. Haven't got him to talk much. Don't have much of a feel for him.”

“I understand, Officer Brown. So many of them seem to be bundles of attitude with no substance inside, nothing they really care about. No conscience, no remorse.”

Rick wondered if he should say something. Now was the time to at least say he was sorry.

But he wasn't sorry, not really. It was a stupid thing he had done, but it wasn't as if he'd killed somebody. Now it came back to him, how he felt when he was throwing the stones. He was angry. He was angry about ending up in the group home after all his bad luck with the foster homes. He was still angry that his mother hadn't had the character to at least come and meet him
after his grandmother died, that he'd never had so much as a photograph to help him form an image of his father.

The judge stared at him again. “Who is Rick Walker?” the judge intoned. “That is the question.”

Am I supposed to answer this? Rick wondered. What kind of question is this?

“Answer the question,” the judge demanded.

Rick thought hard. Again he was swimming in confusion. Deep down, he didn't really
know
who he was. He hadn't for a long time. And he was angry about that too. That was why he couldn't say he was sorry. It's impossible to say you're sorry, and mean it, when you're angry. He didn't deserve all that had happened to him.

Or did he?

He didn't know the answer to that either. Why was he always being bumped along? Why was it he'd never been adopted?

“Rick Walker is just somebody trying to get by,” he managed awkwardly.

The judge shook his head, put his knuckles back to his chin.

Rick knew he wasn't dangerous to anybody, if that was what the judge was getting at. Throwing rocks at a stop sign wouldn't suggest that he was, would it? He'd never hurt anybody.

“For violating the express conditions of your proba
tion, six months in Blue Canyon Youth Detention Center,” the judge pronounced.

Rick's social worker gasped. “Your Honor!” she blurted out.

Rick went instantly numb. Paralyzed. Struck by lightning. He'd heard about Blue Canyon, down near Las Vegas. There were even murderers in there. He looked frantically around his social worker to Mike Brown. The probation officer was surprised too.

“His only prior offense was shoplifting,” Rick heard his social worker saying. “Two CDs.” Her voice sounded far away suddenly. “Isn't there a no-security facility in the woods near Lake Tahoe, Your Honor, that would be more appropriate?”

“Thought of that,” the judge snapped. “The school there is not accredited. This young man's aptitude tests indicate strong academic potential. Much better school program at Blue Canyon.”

The red-faced judge turned his merciless eyes on Rick once again. “Maybe this time I can make an impression on you, young man. Serve your six months, stay out of trouble, and don't let me see you in my courtroom again.”

Four and a half months into Rick's sentence there were still mornings like this one, when the 5:30
A.M.
wake-up alarm took him utterly by surprise.

As quickly as he realized where he was, he swiveled his legs to the floor. Lagging in bed brought trouble. The first thing he saw was jackal-faced Mr. Northcut, his unit's “youth leader,” as the guards were called, standing back against the wall and studying him with that habitual look of scornful amusement.

With a twinge of regret Rick remembered telling his Blue Canyon social worker, two weeks earlier, that he'd seen the guard from the next unit take cash from one of the maintenance men. Could the guards, including Northcut, possibly know he'd told?

He couldn't let himself get paranoid. His social worker had promised he wouldn't reveal his source.

Now Rick was awake enough to remember why he was worried. His social worker had been fired yesterday. There was plenty of reason to worry.

It was the last day of September. Blue Canyon was on a week's break between school sessions. Breaks were inherently unstable and dangerous. He would lift weights for an hour in the gym and spend the rest of the time in the library—those were the only two places he felt safe. Those were the places where people minded their own business. In the weight section of the gym even the most aggressive guys focused on themselves, not on anyone else. The library was intolerably boring unless you were actually going to read. And guys who liked to read weren't the kind looking for trouble.

Hanging out in the TV room—that was entirely different. Guys blurted things out at the TV, at each other. People got offended very easily. Fights started over nothing and got bloody fast.

Rick filled his breakfast tray with pancakes, sausage, toast, and orange juice, then looked for an empty table. He didn't have allies to eat with. Allies meant obligations to help carry out illegal schemes. His strategy for getting out of Blue Canyon on time and in one piece was to go it alone. Building up his body signaled it was obvious he would fight if he had to. He kept his mouth shut and generally lay low. So far only one guy had picked a fight with him. Rick had surprised himself with
his own ferocity. It was over in a few seconds, and nothing had come of it.

Rick spotted a table with only one person at it, the Kid Who Eats Glass. The boy's real name was Killian. Rick sat down at the other end of the table. He knew he wouldn't have to have a conversation with Killian. They saw each other in the library almost every day, but Killian was accustomed to talking only with himself.

Killian didn't like to read the books; he liked to eat them. This morning he was carrying around a half-eaten issue of
Reader's Digest
. Killian's literary appetite was a source of good-natured amusement for the librarian, Mr. Bramwell, who had the kids call him Mr. B. “That's what librarians live for, Rick!” Mr. B. had once proclaimed. “Patrons who devour books!”

Rick felt sorry for the boy with the gaunt face and bad teeth. He had asked Mr. B. once if he knew how Killian had gotten so messed up. It wasn't something Rick would have asked another kid. Among the kids the whole subject of backgrounds was much too embarrassing, too explosive.

“Killian's almost too sad to talk about,” the librarian replied. “His parents literally treated him like a dog. Kept him chained in their backyard, made him live in a doghouse. Fed him out of a dog dish.”

To Rick this seemed too monstrous to comprehend. “Were they foster parents or what?”

“No, his natural parents.”

Rick had said nothing. He would have to think about this. Compared with this, he had been lucky to have been abandoned by his parents to his grandmother.

Mr. B. was reading his mind. “You had your grandmother,” the librarian said. “That's why you turned out okay.”

“Turned out okay?” Rick repeated sardonically. “Look where I am, Mr. B.”

“You'll do okay, Rick. You'll do okay. I have faith in you. Heck, you're normal!”

It meant the world when Mr. B. had said that.

A sudden clatter of dishes brought Rick back to his half-eaten pancakes. He hadn't realized that Killian had gotten up and left. He finished quickly, then went straight to the gym. Some guys would come to shoot baskets, but the weight corner would be practically empty. Most guys wouldn't work out early or on full stomachs.

There was talk that the weights were going to be removed soon. Some people probably thought that a detention center shouldn't be helping criminals become stronger criminals, but he didn't agree. When guys knew they were strong, they weren't so preoccupied about having to fight. They knew that if it came to it, they could stick up for themselves, so they didn't go around with such aggressive attitudes.

He pushed himself through the workout with a few more repetitions than ever before. His body had tough
ened like steel. Whenever he looked in the mirror at his armor he surprised himself. He looked like a stranger in more ways than one. He'd almost forgotten how to smile; the boy in the mirror looked wary even of himself. Still, he was pleased with his ever-increasing strength and endurance. It was something he could take away from this hateful place.

Guys were coming in now and eyeing the weights. Rick left, but not so quickly it would look like they'd flushed him out. After showering, he headed for the library and Mr. B. He was always happy to see Mr. B.

If Rick had known this was his last day, there would have been a few things he would have said to the librarian. But he didn't know. They said hi, Rick mutedly, Mr. B. with the perpetual smile on his round, generous face. Rick sat down with a story called “Escape from the Maze” that he'd started the day before, nearly the last in a collection called
Amazing Tales from the Ancient Greeks
. He liked to take reading tips from Mr. B. The librarian always seemed to know what he might enjoy. Even his wild hunches, like this one, were on the mark.

Rick hadn't been a reader before. That had come with taking refuge in the library. But he'd discovered that he liked reading, liked it a lot. It enabled him to go places in his head, places very far from Blue Canyon.

He still couldn't sit down and just start reading. It usually took him five or ten minutes. He'd let his mind
wander, think about things. As soon as he got bored doing that, he started reading.

Today he was dwelling on Mr. B.'s plant project, how the librarian had kids ordering seeds, sprouting them, growing plants on the library windowsills. Mostly flowering plants. Kids gave them to their parents or guardians, whoever came to visit. Rick noticed that a lot of who came were grandmothers. Like him, quite a few of the kids in Blue Canyon were raised by their grandmothers.

His third-hour science teacher had moved the plant project outside. Kids attacked the bare patch of ground between the flagpole and the Bermuda grass with picks and shovels. Along with the rest, Rick had taken his frustrations out on the ground. The only heads that got busted, despite the misgivings of the administration, were head-sized clods of dirt.

By mid-June a lot of the greens served in the cafeteria were coming out of the garden: lettuce, spinach, parsley, Swiss chard, onions, and radishes. Soon, snow peas and green beans followed, cucumbers and three different kinds of squash.

By early July there was hardly anyone from the science class working in the garden anymore, just Rick and a few others. The desert's midsummer sun was brutal.

But the garden was a safe place for Rick to hang out. The trick was water, drinking gallons of water. He especially liked to see the melons and the pumpkins
growing—things that were going to be huge when they finally ripened.

Come late July he was picking the first tomatoes—large, flavorful tomatoes that the cafeteria was serving in thick slices as a side dish. They always went fast. Rick and the few other kids still working in the garden were getting nicknames like the Green Giant, Mr. Tomatohead, Farmerdude, nicknames it was easy to live with. Rick could tell that the fresh food was making his loner status a little more acceptable.

The end, in late August, came with no warning. Overnight the garden had been ripped out back to bare soil. The maintenance men had done it. Too many kids had lost interest, they claimed. There'd never been a garden at Blue Canyon before, and they weren't going to let the maintenance of one get added to their job description.

Rick had expected a big reaction, maybe even a riot. Nothing happened, nothing at all. There was plenty of bad feeling over it, but bad feeling was nothing new. Blue Canyon was a place where kids expressed themselves by mashing moldy oranges into the radiators. The garden had been too good to be true. The real world didn't have gardens and fresh food. The loss of the garden was just one more thing to shrug off.

A month later Rick still hadn't shrugged it off. Mr. B. had advised him to, but he couldn't. There were some things that shouldn't be forgiven and forgotten. Like being led into this place in leg restraints and hand
cuffs. There were some people who shouldn't be forgiven. Like his parents, like the Honorable Samuel L. Bendix.

Rick realized he'd gone on longer than usual with his reading warm-up. He turned to “Escape from the Maze” and read from the point where the greatest inventor of all time, Daedalus, was fashioning wings for himself and his son, Icarus, so they could fly out of the elaborate puzzle they were imprisoned in.

The wings worked all too well. Once they'd left their island prison behind, Icarus became intoxicated with the sensation of flight and started outflying the birds.

Suddenly Rick recalled that he'd heard this story before. His grandmother had read him a version of it when he was little.

He knew all about the intoxication of flight from way back, from a dream that had come almost nightly. In the dream he always had a miraculous, inexplicable power inside himself: he could actually fly. In the dream all he had to do was spread his arms and he'd begin to levitate higher and higher until he was hovering above the earth. Then he was not only hovering but actually flying above the fields and the treetops and the towns, weightless and peaceful and free.

Dream-flying had been his own great escape—he'd figured that out—a childish fantasy that had been gradually dying over the years and was nearly dead. He
couldn't remember having had the flying dream a single time at Blue Canyon.

Rick remembered how Icarus' escape was going to end but he kept reading anyway. Ignoring his father's calls from below, Icarus flew higher and higher until the sun melted the wax holding the invention together, and the boy fell into the sea.

Now Rick realized why he found the story of Icarus so appealing. His own life was a puzzle riddled with dead ends. His own life was a maze.

“From the expression on your face,” Mr. B. said from his desk, “you're enjoying that book.”

Almost always they talked about what Rick was reading. “Yeah,” he said, “I kind of like it.”

“So, what do you think of Greek mythology?”

“I can relate to it.”

“How so?”

“Things just happen to people for no good reason. Because some god or other gets ticked at them.”

“That's the way the ancient Greeks looked at the world, Rick, but we're not ancient Greeks. Americans believe you make your own luck, you know.”

Rick didn't really believe it. He was thinking about Killian and wondering about himself. “I suppose.”

“Hang in there, Rick. Your break will come. And when it does, you have to be willing to go for it. To see your break for what it is and dare to ride it with all that you've got. Hey, it sure is hot in here, isn't it?”

Because the maintenance men, Rick was tempted to say, have been stealing the brand-new air conditioners so they can resell them. They replace them with reconditioned ones that don't work nearly as well.

He held back. He'd already told his social worker, who'd then gotten fired. He'd made an enormous mistake, especially in telling him he'd seen cash changing hands between a maintenance man and a guard. The guards were being bribed to look the other way, he'd figured out, but corruption in a place like this was no surprise. He'd only ratted on them because he was still so bitter about the garden.

“Yep,” Rick said. “It sure is hot.” He left the library without saying good-bye to Mr. B.

“See ya soon,” they said to each other. But they wouldn't.

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