Lose Yourself

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Kiss my heart before you die, Or spend forever wondering why, You felt my love but passed me by.
Leah purses her lips, and kisses the heart.
Mm, feels all light and fluffy, tastes scrumptious like sweet black cherries with clotted cream? Unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. Don’t be silly! When did you ever kiss a heart?
from the forthcoming online anthology: 'Is It Today?'
Photo: alexander krivitsky on unsplash

Submitted: March 05, 2019

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Submitted: March 05, 2019

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Lose Yourself

‘Play me, won’t you? Lose yourself in me. If you dare.’

Shocks course through its bloodstream. Mystery lurks within its sinews. It is adored by millions of viewers worldwide: multi-vision addicts and midnight surfers of the dark net.

Tonight, two contestants will fight it to the death. The first combatant to find the way to its heart wins the Star Prize. Who will break its heart? Who will die?

Saturday Night, Multi-Vision Studio, Live:

A voice drifts out of the ether: no face, body or persona just a voice. ‘Welcome to Labyrinth.’

The studio audience: young adventure seekers, newly-weds, middle-aged parents, motley handfuls of depressed over-fifties, go wild as it introduces tonight’s Star Prize:

A Heavenly Body Holidays Escape to Isle St Jean-Marie

Set on a secluded cove of white sandy beach, surrounded by lush tropical gardens and the warm Caribbean Sea, Isle St Jean-Marie is the ultimate getaway. At this all-inclusive luxury resort dedicated to your well-being there are many ways for you to soothe your senses and restore your spirit. With our uniquely qualified personal therapists and the sensational new splash-oscillators, you can do as much or as little as you please. Whether you’re looking for unlimited sports activities, a soothing escape or just new-found love in the eternal sunshine, we and the £500,000 prize fund will make your wildest dreams come true.

Let’s meet our first combatant:

Dean, 19, from Birmingham, has been unemployed since he left school at the age of 14. His pet likes are cage-fighting, grunge, dope and x-box. He spends his nights sleeping rough on the streets. Dean is one of life’s saddest losers, with nothing left to lose but his life.

Its voice is eloquent, refined: ‘Hello Dean. Welcome to Labyrinth. How are you?’

‘Yeah, good,’ the pauper mumbles without conviction.  He isn’t listening to it. He’s busy jabbing away at his phone, lounging around with his bony knees stuck up at the camera.

‘Dean.’

‘Yeah?’ He shifts, slouching lengthways on the lime leather sofa. He can tell the audience dislike him intensely by their steady booing and hissing. Dean doesn’t care what they think.

‘Switch your phone off and sit up straight.’

He wipes his runny nose on the back of his hand and sits up like a good boy.

‘Stand on the plinth so the audience can see you.’

He stands up so everyone can take a good look at him. He’s wearing greasy, skinny blue denims, a grubby white tee-shirt, half-tucked into his jeans. A plastic railcard wallet’s stuffed in the breast pocket, jutting out from his chest like a surgical swab. Scruffy copper hair runs like rusty water down his pock-marked face into his steel blue eyes. On his left shoulder, he bears a tattoo of a red rose, concealing a swathe of pinpricks.

‘Is that a ring in your nose?’

‘Yeah, so what?’ He pushes the fringe out of his eyes and stares arrogantly at the screen.

‘Jewellery, metal and studs are forbidden on safety grounds.’

He’s told to remove the offending article immediately. He shrugs his shoulders, painfully extracting the fat brass bull-ring from between his nostrils while the interrogation continues.

‘Tell us why you’re here, Dean.’

‘Need a break, a holiday, don’t I?’ he replies, pausing to think. Thinking hurts his brain. ‘I need the money to make a fresh start. And I’m going to fight you all the way to your bleeding heart to get it, love.’

‘Don’t get personal with me,’ it warns, ‘You might turn me off.’

Let’s meet Dean’s Expert:

Cut to a brown, bespectacled, square-jawed face. Originally hailing from Montserrat, Joe T. Moon’s endured several nasty run-ins with mysteries that live within the labyrinth. He wears prosthetic legs as a result. Despite his appalling injuries, he remains an eternal optimist, plays sponsored wheelchair soccer matches in aid of disabled children’s charities. Joe T. performs countless good deeds in England’s deprived city centres. A street-fighting man with a kind, loving heart, he gets a little over-excited at times. Dean worships the ground he walks on.

‘Hey Joe! How’re you doing, Man?’

‘Hi Dean, cool thanks.’ Joe smiles, relaxed, at ease with himself. ‘What’s your question?’

Dean asks what will happen if he goes the wrong way inside the labyrinth. Aware that the second contestant is listening in from the safety of a sealed isolation cubicle, Joe explains, in his own inimitable style, what might happen:

‘The labyrinth has ten nodes. To find the way to its heart, you must negotiate all ten. Each node has a crossroads with three exits: left, right and straight ahead. One exit will lead you to the right way. One will take you the wrong way. The other exit has a mystery. Go the wrong way,’ Joe tells them, ‘and it’ll give you a shock you won’t forget. First shock’s mild, a mere horse’s kick. Next shock makes you jerk around like two frogs’ legs on a wire. After that, the current increases until you reach the last node, assuming you make it that far. Now, don’t you dare fall at the final hurdle, or else you’ll frazzle!’

‘Thanks for that.’ Dean interjects, looking particularly downcast.

‘Hey, no worries! Lightning rarely strikes in the same place twice. You might get lucky!’

Joe T. Moon’s given the combatants their first clue. But he has been known to lie. Can he be trusted? The lights flicker on and off inside the waiting cubicle. He arches a sly eyebrow.

‘Want to know a secret?’ he asks, tapping the side of his squashed nose.

The audience hush expectantly.

Dean gazes at the cherubic face, intrigued. ‘Yeah, what?’

‘Mysteries can’t digest human hair!’ he laughs.

The audience fall about in hysterics. Dean doesn’t laugh, just sits and stares at Joe, nonplussed.

They are interrupted by its voice. ‘I think that’s enough wild talk about mysteries Joe.’

‘If you say so,’ he smarts.

Joe fades out of view. A black silhouette of a head appears on the screen and asks if Dean has any more questions before he enters the labyrinth.

‘Yeah, what are my chances of winning the jackpot?’ 

The audience perk up their ears, hungry puppies sniffing fresh meat, listening attentively as it does a quick mental calculation.

Your chances? I’d say your chances of winning are less than 1 in 59,049.’

The audience go berserk. The game’s about to begin. The pervading silence is broken by a guttural growl.

‘Play me, won’t you? Lose yourself in me. If you dare.’

‘Yeah, sure.’

Dean shrugs off her threat. Inwardly he’s scared stiff. He pushes himself out of the depths of the sofa, reluctantly steps up to the labyrinth’s gaping mouth.

‘Oh, and Dean?’ it calls.

Its head revolves incrementally, the slowly rotating head of a possessed child, revealing computer-generated imagery of giant eyes: black, violet, indigo, ruby. Dean feels the floor move under his feet, shake and tremble. He cowers and cringes. His bladder aches, distends and contracts, forcing a fine jet of amber fluid to spurt, trickle, then gush down his thighs.

‘Yeah?’ he pants, flushing. He crosses his legs, plucking at his saturated jeans as two giant cursors appear on the screen and point at the eyes.

‘Watch your back!’

The audience laugh nervously, jeering the ex-borstal boy as he disappears in the gloom of the labyrinth’s gaping mouth. He recoils at a noxious stench: rotten eggs: hydrogen sulphide. Its throat opens wide, swallowing him whole, like a boa constrictor gulping down like a hog, licking its wet, slobbering lips as they close behind him.

Ten nodes. Ten right ways. Ten wrong. Ten shocks. Ten mysteries. Waiting.

Will Dean break its heart?

Play it, won’t you? And find out.

We’ll be right back after the break.

*****

Welcome back to Labyrinth. Let’s meet our second combatant: 

Leah, 26, is a cybersecurity systems analyst with a first in applied mathematics from Oxford. She has co-habited with Jo, a psychotherapist, for three years. They have a delightful 2-year- old, blue-eyed blonde boy called Saul and would love to adopt a baby girl. Leah and Jo, 31, plan to tie the knot in July. They enjoy tennis, swimming, jogging, trampolining, yoga and classical music. When she is not away from home on high security-classified business, Leah spends as much time as possible relaxing at her parent’s house on the outskirts of Wool. She perches precariously on the edge of a lemon soda sofa in her soundproof cubicle, flashing a nervous smile at the appreciative audience.

‘Hello Leah. Welcome to Labyrinth. How are you?’

Leah has butterflies in her stomach. She’s wobbling already. She’d much rather be home, splashing about with Saul in their paddling pool, lying in Jo’s tender embrace. First, she must compete. She has no choice. The couple need the prize money to get married, fly the nest and enjoy the holiday of a lifetime. Before they set up their dream family eco-house in the elitist Green Belt. Leah closes her eyes and permits herself to live the dream, just a little:

Looking for unlimited sports activities, a soothing escape or just new-found love in the Caribbean sunshine? We, and the £500,000, will make your wildest dreams come true.

Besides, she signed a contract with harsh financial penalties in the event of her withdrawal from the game. She gnaws her chipped cherry red fingernails, drawing blood.

‘Hullo,’ she whispers, almost inaudibly.

Her twitching face is being screened live on multi-vision across the globe. Prone to nasty blinks in her left eye when nervous, she squints like mad.

Saul, Jo, Mum, Dad, sister Wendy and brother Simon, watch from the safety of the back garden with a host of invited friends and neighbours. She pictures them, proudly supporting her brave challenge on terrestrial TV, squatting on the parched lawn, crowing from the cool veranda, crouching on the crazy-paved patio. She imagines Daddy in his floppy old sun hat, sweat streaming down his face into his rheumy eyes under the hot sun, bent over double by the azure barbecue flames. His arthritic hands, slowly turning breasts, ribs, steaks, over the red-hot embers. Darling Jo helping out as best she can, kitted-out in a blue and white striped butcher’s apron worn over torn-off faded denim shorts, and a new, navy-printed, cerise vest proclaiming: Come on Leah! You can do this! Sweet, melt-in-your-mouth Jo, idly flipping the burgers, poking sausages, pulling heartstrings. Mum, dementedly daydreaming away her final days, lying, semi-comatose on a floral lounger. Wendy, jauntily bouncing Saul up and down on her fat thighs, stringing him up by his spindly arms like a puppet as he treads in her ample lap. Simon, prematurely bald, forever orchestrating proceedings, attempting to organise the ramshackle gathering into well-ordered ranks. The whole ensemble, eagerly awaiting Leah’s moment of fame, when her good will triumph over the labyrinth’s inherent evil, waiting for a miracle.

Leah is rudely awoken from her reverie by a rakish blonde production assistant in a black and gold Labyrinth Lives! tee-shirt who asks if she wouldn’t mind speaking up so the punters can hear her.

‘Is that better?’ she yells.

The sound technician cups her ears as the interview begins.

‘How are you feeling?’ 

‘Nervous?’

‘Don’t be afraid, I’m not going to eat you.’

She’s not going to eat me? Who does she think I am, Little Red Riding Hood?  

Leah Cleat jumps out of her skin. The audience fall in love with her. She looks vulnerable, compared to the dreadful Dean, but they still roar with laughter at her expense.

‘Is that a diamond tongue-stud you’re wearing?’

She flicks a stray wisp of hair from her mouth and glances up. ‘Yup, why?’

Leah is lectured as if she were a child at school. ‘Studs are not allowed. Remove it.’

She pokes out her tongue, extricates the stud and holds the shining gem aloft for all to see. 

‘That’s better,’ the beast hisses, menacingly, ‘My, you look pretty tonight.’

Leah doesn’t know what to say, ‘Do you, err, really think so?’

‘Yes, I do. Has anyone ever told you you’re a very beautiful young woman, Leah?’

The world watches the beast denude Leah of her protective layer, exposing her shy nature, the child-like innocence that lies just beneath the surface. A rose-blush blooms in her cheeks, spreading down her neck, her chest, fanning like wildfire over her breasts, nestling in a pit in her belly, a predaceous asp.

Jo sputters like flames in a damp-downed bonfire, choking on her concern, feeling for her lover, yearning to reach out and hold her in her loving arms. The fickle fans show no mercy, jeering in unison as Leah’s fragile eggshell façade cracks open under pressure, revealing her soft liquid centre.

‘Look at her! She’s scared! Leah’s scared!’ they cry.

‘I can’t do this!’ she screams, melting amidst the din, standing up. ‘I’m going home!’

‘You can’t! You signed a contract.’ Leah stops in her tracks. ‘Unless you prefer to forfeit £500,000 for early withdrawal from the contest?’

The audience gasp, ‘£500,000?!’

‘Yes, that’s the agreed penalty,’ the beast announces, ‘That’s the price Cleat agreed to pay as forfeit.’

She goes to sit down. The beast, firmly in control now, insists she remains standing. ‘Get up on the plinth so we can have a good look at you.’

The crowd cheer for her enthusiastically as, sniffing back tears, Leah mounts the rostrum so that everyone can have a peek. She looks like a pixie, elfin in her furry grey tracksuit top, soft pink skinny jeans and size 4 suede trainers. Her straw-blonde curls complement her pale magnolia complexion. Her beady, grey eyes are set apart, lined with tired creases, saddled with tell-tale bags, the after-effects of dividing time between work, rearing Saul and caring for an ailing mother and father. Jo has decided they cannot care for her parents any longer - carry on like this, they’ll have a nervous breakdown. Wendy, an employment law specialist living in the City, is too busy to help, and Simon, a dour agricultural roboticist, struggles to understand human emotions at the best of times. Leah and Jo must break free. They trust to luck, risking all on the ultimate challenge, the most dangerous game of chance in the world. Cleat’s placid manner belies an alpha drive, an inner determination to win at all costs.

‘So, what brought you here tonight?’

‘I wouldn’t wish Dean to come to any harm,’ she lies, ‘However, I do feel women should stand up and show the world that we’re not only equal to men, we are their natural superiors. After all, only women can bestow the wonderful gift of life that perpetuates the human race.’

‘That was impressive, Leah. Does that make you a feminist?’

‘Yes, I am a feminist,’ she declares, ‘I’m extremely proud to stand up for women’s rights. I consider myself a modern, liberated individual who wants what is right and fair for women.’

The women in the audience stand and give her a spontaneous ovation while the men shift uncomfortably in their seats as their final epitaph is rewritten upon the deoxyribonucleic acid transcript multiplying deep within their infirm cell walls.

Let’s meet Leah’s Expert:

Leah’s eyes grow stalks at the awesome sight flourishing up on the screen like a lush oasis of perfection flowering hazily in a barren desert. The well-muscled legs, flat tanned midriff, the perfect hourglass figure, inflated lips, marble teeth, chestnut quiff, lemon hair extensions...

What do you think you look like? What are you, for goodness sake?

‘Hello. My name is Blair Wright. I am here to be of service to you. How can I help you?’

Don’t insult my intelligence, babe, you’re an artificial, manufactured by sexist men for their private pleasure, aren’t you? I find you utterly repugnant.

‘I am here to be of service to you,’ Blair re-bleats, ‘How can I help you?’

Leah throws her arms up in despair; this artificial’s clearly been pre-programmed, ‘Okay, so my question is: Am I allowed to cheat?’

‘Why not?’

‘Really?’ Leah jerks forward, astounded.

‘Would you like me to help you cheat?’

She pinches herself, thinks she’s dreaming. ‘Help me cheat? Really?’

‘Yes, really. Look!’ Blair transmits her a detailed map of the maze. ‘The game really is that easy to play,’ she says, ‘if you ask the right questions, that is.’

‘I don’t know what to say. Thank you.’ 

‘Please don’t mention it, you’re welcome.’

Blair goes on to ask if she would like to know a secret. Leah’s all ears now. The second clue is revealed:

‘Not all mysteries are bad but you have to decide which is which.’ 

‘Thank you, Blair, that will be all,’ the voice says.

‘You’re welcome, Labyrinth,’ the artificial lets slip, ‘Good bye, Leah. Good luck.’

Leah’s brow furrows with intense mental strain, breaking into beads of cold sweat.

The voice is the labyrinth?   

Blair’s face quickly vanishes from the screen. The audience settle down, munching sticky toffee pudding popcorn, slurping buckets of cherry cola, lapping savoury iced cream, waiting for the final instalment of tonight’s contest to commence. Leah shudders, tearing out her hair, rubbing anxiety circles round her eyes. Feeling faint and queasy, she vaguely hears it saying:

‘Is there anything you would like to ask me before you enter the labyrinth?’

‘I’m frightened,’ she admits, quaking, ‘Please, don’t hurt me.’

She’s embarrassing the labyrinth now, in front of its adoring global audience of millions.

‘Can’t you be positive? The map will guide you safely to my heart. You’re going to win!’ The beast focuses on more banal matters, ‘In order that we can improve the quality of our service tell us: Did you find that speaking to us helped you answer all of your questions?’

‘Well, yes, I suppose I did, but…,’ she begins, mulling through the mares in her mind.

Too late! Time’s up! 

‘It’s time for you to go now, darling,’ Labyrinth tells her kindly, ‘Chin up! You’ll be fine.’

She doesn’t feel fine. She shakes like an earth tremor, squints in trepidation. Her stomach churns. She turns sickly green, dips her head between her knees, and fetches up her lunch, all over the plush deep-pile red carpet. A spearmint-rinsed cleaner, an angel of mercy waiting in the wings, emerges armed with mop, bucket, shake and vac and sky-blue self-propelled robot hoover with gaudy pink buffers which feel for dirt. Leah utters an apology, wipes the braque from her lips with a sleeve, then gets giddily to her feet. The crowd rally round her, cheering her on as she inches up to the yawning chasm. Leah, reluctant gladiator entering the coliseum of chaos!  Leah, timid she-warrior fighting the evil labyrinth! The mob bay and chant for her blood regardless of the heroine’s health, safety, morale, mood, mindset or physical wellbeing.

'Fight Leah! Fight Leah! Fight Leah! Fight Leah! Fight Leah! Fight Her! Fight! Fight!’ 

The beast stares avidly at the gallant lady knight approaching her dragon, map in hand.

‘Oh, Leah?’ it calls.

Cleat glances nervously over her shoulder at the computer-generated image on the screen; the alien face, dark, glowing, incandescent red, puce, then snow white with rage. She shivers, mumbles incoherently; her mouth feels grocery-shelf dry, as if stuffed with rock salt.

‘Yah?’ she stammers.

‘May the force be with you!’

The unruly mob fade into the background. Leah’s heart sinks as Blair’s map fades before her eyes: crisping, crumbling into floury white dust, running off her hands as she disappears inside the labyrinth’s gloomy mouth. The throat opens wide in the hungry yawn of a killer whale, swallowing her whole like a writhing seal pup, gorging itself on her squirming body, the beast’s flaking lips clamping shut silently behind her.

Ten nodes. Ten right ways. Ten wrong. Ten shocks. Ten mysteries. Waiting.

Will Leah break its heart? Find out next week.

*****

Dean is alone inside the dark recess of the beast’s throat. He begins to feel small, sad, lonely, has no-one at home to watch him. No sweetheart to love him. No friends to root for him. His love, youth, vitality, everything he ever owned, mortgaged, lost to compulsive gambling. He wants to go home. But he has no home. Other than a pile of soggy cardboard, and a PC-5X I-phone. His inflated ego is sorely dented, his self-esteem severely tested. Dean is shivery cold, sopping wet and miserable, and hasn’t an inkling of what to do next. Is it his imagination? Or did it just get colder? Wisps of chilled breath on his cheeks confirm his worst fear. There is a shadow following him, close by, in the dark.

‘De-an!’ 

He jumps.

‘Joe? That you?’ He glances nervously over his shoulder. There’s no-one there, only dewy spider’s webs, fine gossamer mist, the fug of faerie dust that clouds his fraught mind.

Think, Man! Win tonight and you can bum around on the beach with the natives forever, get rat-arsed to the reggae beat. You’ve got to win this, Kiddo. You’re gambling for your life.  

That voice again. Who you going to call?

‘De-an!’

‘What the fuck? Who is that? Show yourself, you bastard.’

‘It’s a mystery, it’s a mystery, I’m still waiting, for a clue. Is it a mystery, to you, Dean?’

His little heart pumps away, fit to burst. His weary head throbs, sees stars, has a migraine. He slips and slides in the throat’s mucus lining, groping about in the slimy, slick saliva. The beast coughs and burps, constricting its throat until the intruder wedges in its flesh like a fish bone stuck in a gannet’s gullet. Dean can’t take much more of this. He throws back his head and wails, ‘Let Cleat die, not me!’ He slithers free and slides on his belly like a white worm, relieved beyond words when he reaches the node. To his surprise he discovers he’s dry, can stand up. He blinks as a blinding shaft of light appears overhead, warming, revitalising him.

Which way? Right? Left? Ahead? No. Right.

A shadowy figure calls him, somewhere, just down there. Can you see it? Gurning at you?

Oh, great, just great! Chummy’s back! Or is it Chucky?

Right? Why not? After all, you’ve nothing left to lose, he tells himself.

He closes his eyes, mutters some daft prayer then deliberately turns right…

Right?

Wrong!

The thick, sharp horn punches into him like a driven chisel piercing his chest, thrusting through his heart, exiting his body between the shoulder blades. He is lifted out of his own blood, his flailing, thrashing body held aloft, his impaled torso riding along on the crest of a wave: the statuesque creature’s bobbing head. The minotaur shows off his warm corpse to an audience of millions brandishing the bleeding cadaver above its head like an obscene trophy. 

The Producer’s ecstatic, her brow dripping perspiration, ‘Quick, get a shot of his face!’

The Censor shields his eyes with nicotine-stained fingers, makes a stand, ‘Stop this! It’s barbaric!’

An infra-red camera zooms into close-up, intimate mode, snapping away intrusively at the ecru twisted face. A neon sign flickers into life, reflecting in his coal-black funereal eyes:

Smile, Dean! You’re on candid camera!

The women stand and applaud the chauvinist piglet’s demise. Fully grown, faint-hearted men swoon. Jo leers greedily, clumps of baked beans dribble down her chin. Simon belches, helps himself to a fresh clutch of ribs. Wendy wolfs down fistfuls of fatty chips. All over the world violent voyeurs, sadistic couch potatoes, feral surfers of the dark net down an ice-cold beer, punching their foetid airspace in celebration at the loss of another of society’s misfits.

We’ll be back with more after the break.

*****

Leah, crouched inside the beast’s gagging throat, knows she’s not alone, knows there’ll be others. Watching her every move. Waiting for her. Hidden. Inside Labyrinth’s twisted maze. Mysteries. She sees a host of tiny, blinking red lights embedded in the vascular wall: myriad robot-controlled cameras winking at her. Winks back, mildly amused at the idea of millions of viewers enjoying her fun time. Until the lights go out. Chaos breaks into the studio:

‘We’ve lost her, Julie!’ the camera crew scream at the Producer, in total disarray.

‘Lost her?’ she says, incredulously, ‘What do you mean, lost her? That’s impossible! The cameras are independently controlled by our central computer system. There must be a glitch. Get onto IT! Now! Get her back! I want Cleat back! Now! Understand?’

‘Trying our best, Jules!’ Brian protests, shrugging his shoulders defiantly, ‘Experiencing some kind of external interference.’

‘That’s crap! Try harder, damn you! Before my audience ratings drop.’

Pandemonium descends on the party. Jo pushes her way through the throng of mesmerised viewers staring blankly at the blacked-out TV, screaming blue murder as an excuse-flash hits the screen:

We appear to be experiencing some technical issues at the moment. Bear with us while we resolve the problem. Flex TV regret any inconvenience. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. Thank you.

‘Oh, my God! No! No! No! Leah! Leah! No! No! No!’ Jo repeats, falling to her knees.

Seeing one mother cry, Saul bursts into fits of hysterical yelping, ‘I want my Mummy!’

‘Hush little baby, don’t you cry, Mummy’s going to sing you a lullaby,’ Wendy croons, rocking him in her arms, thoughtlessly adding, ‘And if that mockingbird don’t sing, Mum’s going to buy you a diamond ring. Diamond? Oh, my God! Sorry Jo. I didn’t realise! Leah!’

Saul bawls on: ‘I want my Mummy! I want my Mummy! I want…’

There is a huge crash as, anguished and disturbed, Dad careers into the barbecue and starts to cook. Sunil, from no. 6, dials 999 and requests the air ambulance. Simon turns off the gas, fearing an explosion. Hilary squats beside the unconscious septuagenarian, applying wet tea towels, cold comfort. Virgil & Lucia, Jaxon & Sharon, Bryn & Briony, Sabrina & Cherry, Donal & Mathias make their apologies:

‘My goodness, is that the time? Thanks Jo, we really should be going. Great party, Jo! Come and give me a hug! Howzat? Better?’

‘Mm, thanks Hugo,’ Jo lies.

‘Mustn’t outstay our welcome, must we, Jo?’

‘Course not, Fleur, I understand,’ Jo kisses her on both cheeks, ‘When you’ve got to go...’

‘Thank you so much, Jo, we’ve had such a lovely time.’

‘Good, Regine, so glad you enjoyed yourself.’

‘Are you feeling alright, Jo?’

‘Not really.’

Mum stares down from the veranda, a solitary tear meandering down her crinkled face.

*****

‘Just the two of us,’ the beast sings, melodically, to its beauty, ‘We can make it if we try!’

‘Go to Hell!’ spits Leah.

To hell with you, the murderous media and crazy cult fanatics, the indifferent parents who can’t control their young, your sick-sad, die-hard fans. When, if, I get out of here, alive, I’ll be rich and famous, able to do whatever I want, able to sort out my life, your life, their lives.

Saul, her perfect little boy, won’t have to start boarding school next year, aged three, due to her incessant workload. Her demented mother and frail father will be locked away, out of sight, out of mind, in a fully automated nursing home. Fat-faced Wendy, the gross corpulent, riddled with statin-induced muscle pain, will have her 3 dreams: of life-changing liposuction, butterfat vivisection and gut-inserted micro-bots - to digest her surplus body fat - realised. Si will be found a sanctuary, the opportunity to live out his days as a hermit in a remote Scottish sea cove, far from the madding crowd.

If you get out alive,’ the beast gloats, reading her thoughts.

Leah pauses to reflect on past loves, long lost friends, over-worked colleagues, less-than-discreet confidantes. Wonders if she’ll ever hold Saul in her motherly embrace again with Jo her lifelong soulmate at her side. A spidery shiver runs down her spine. Her imagination? Or did it just get colder?

Must move on!

She shuts her eyes, kicks off her trainers, slips off her powder-pregnated pink ankle socks, shuddering as she contemplates the throat’s dense mucus lining. The goo with a consistency, odour and sickeningly sweet flavour of mild chilli dipping sauce has salivated into a pond of fermenting fluid. Leah takes a deep breath then wriggles through the gunge like a squirming pink tadpole, bravely propelling herself through the warm slush. Insidiously, slops of mucus trickle down her neck, creep inside her sleeves and trouser legs, her nostrils, ears, and mouth. She surfaces, gagging for air. The beast absorbs Leah into its flesh, adhering her floundering torso to its tongue like a mouse trapped on a sticky board, tightening its muscles around her. Her petite body is too thin for the beast to grip, squirms herself out of its throat, and escapes. Miraculously, when she emerges, she’s dry as a bone. She lies on her side, exhausted, panting after her horrific ordeal. After a while, she curls into the foetal position, falls into a delicious, dreamless sleep.

Fully recovered, Leah rolls onto her front, slithering along the passage until she reaches a cavern, surprised to find a cushioned floor. She stands up. A brilliant shaft of light pierces the gloom, radiating pure warmth, settling her protesting collywobbles. Leah Cleat has reached a node unscathed. A familiar voice encourages her to go farther up and further in.

‘You’re doing fine. Follow the red heart.’

She glances over her shoulder into empty space. The voice confides in her. She smiles and confirms her understanding. Leah now has a Game Plan. She stands at the Crossroads of Life, deciding which way to go next. She will never squint again. She knows Dean perished on the horns of a minotaur when he took the right-hand turn at this node. Leah Cleat is indifferent to his demise, feels the scum got his just desserts. She never met the weirdo but knows all about his strange ways, having hacked into and extensively researched his criminal record with Jo. It transpires that Dean Moat was not the vagrant’s real name: that was a pseudonym issued by his controlling parole superintendent as a condition of his tagged release from borstal. Moat was none other than Aubrey Frey, the notorious nitric acid freak, an animal who threatened teenagers with permanent disfigurement unless they granted him uninhibited access to their online bank accounts.

How fitting that he should die from a creature’s horn through the heart.

She wonders whether his corpse will be taken to the communal body-recycling pits near Aveley along with the other low-life, to be covered with slaked lime, bio-degenerated, then mulched and reconstituted as a fertiliser for muck-spreading over one of the few remaining famine-affected foreign fields. With her only opponent dead, Leah’s fate lies solely in her hands. She’ll need to rely on her gut reactions, take heed of her primal instincts.

‘The first shock is mild, a mere horse’s kick.’ Moon probably lied when he said that. She wouldn’t trust Joe T. as far as she could toss him. If she was shocked, she might have a 90% chance of survival, assuming the worst-case scenario in which she chose the wrong way.

Which way to go, then? Left or Ahead?

‘Follow the red heart.’

Leah elects to go left.

Wrong!

The turning is a blind alley that leads to a dead end, a pitch-black hole. The tunnel shrinks from view, engulfing her in a diminishing vortex, a total blackout. The ebon walls twist, curl and wrap themselves round her trembling body like a funeral shroud. Her claustrophobia sets in immediately. She instinctively fights her rising panic, desperately clawing the fleshy wall, raking her stub-bitten fingernails through its cartilaginous inner skin. Her head spins, a mind rotates rapidly, like cerebral tombola. She gropes around, as blind as a mole in a hole, in her padded organic straightjacket, loses all sense of space and dimension, swaying to the rhythm of an unseen heart. Leah stumbles, then collapses in a raggedy heap, suffocating in a stifling, airless chamber with no apparent way out. 

‘Follow the red heart.’

A crystalline ruby heart appears like a beacon before her startled eyes, shimmering in the dark. A most wondrous, beautiful sight to behold, tantalisingly out of reach. Leah lies gazing in awe of the astral spectacle, frustrated that she can’t move her arms which are pinned to her sides by an invisible cast-iron-strong cuticle. The heart beats on, pumping itself into the dark like a jellyfish, floating ever closer to her.

‘Follow the red heart.’

The living gem shimmers like a red sun setting over the horizon of her enthralled face.

‘Reach out and touch me. Believe.’

‘Can’t reach. Can’t move my arms.’

‘Follow the red heart.’

‘Can’t! Can’t!’

‘Kiss my heart before you die,

Or spend forever wondering why,

You felt my love but passed me by.’

Leah purses her lips, and kisses the heart.

Mm, feels all light and fluffy, tastes scrumptious like sweet black cherries with clotted cream? Unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. Don’t be silly! When did you ever kiss a heart?

‘Follow the red heart!’

Leah’s beguiled now, her child-eyes enchanted by the heart, rising high above her head, glowing neon in the gloom. A sapphire blue hole appears, a tiny pinprick of light, far off, as the heart continues its silent ascent. She isn’t frightened in the slightest by the heart, hole, or light, expecting to be surprised by a mystery or shocked. But not at the same time. Or twice.

The first shock’s mild, a mere horse’s kick, a short, sharp jolt along the full length of her spine. Her arms and legs jerk about like frogs’ legs on an electric wire. Her fingers and toes tingle. Although the sensation isn’t in the least bit painful, she finds it disturbing - almost as if some electrostatic force is holding her steady, like a coiled spring. The next shock sets her free, sending her hurtling skywards, firing her out of the walled cage. Leah’s stunned body is shot out of its private silo like a rocket: Leah Cleat, LCBM, ultimate human ballistic missile!

Whew! See me fly, Jo! See me fly! Whew! Whew!

If only Jo could see her, regressing. Leah bursts through the hole in the ceiling to a higher echelon finding herself in a new node. No way can she tell which. She assumes the node to be second in the series of ten but might be completely wrong. Nothing is ever as it seems inside the labyrinth. She considers herself fortunate to have got this far. Fortunate? Or destined? So, why is the friendly voice protecting her like a guardian angel? What’s the significance of the red heart? And why does she feel guilty? She wonders what magic (reasoning there is magic at play here) awaits her at the next crossroads. There are no crossroads. The second node is a grotto, coloured sapphire blue. The heart fades, then disappears...

Leah screams as a searing blue lightning bolt scythes into her body, jarring, electrocuting her from crown to toe, setting the tips of her digits tingling. She collapses in a charred heap, radiates like a barbecue, writhes in agony. Her eyes smart, her lashes and brows singe. Her blonde hair is incinerated. Only black, curly, necrotic wisps remain, etched into her grilled scalp. 

‘Must escape! Must find out.’

Blair, cautious: ‘No! Leah! You can’t go back. Only forward. Hope! Pray!’

Dense grey smoke pours from her smouldering clothing. She smells her skin burning.

‘Must find heart.’

Blair, excited: ‘That’s right! Onwards and Inwards! Those are the Rules of Labyrinth!’

Her flesh crawls, spiders of pain creep up and down her spine in waves, pausing to burrow into her flesh. She feels ‘The Burn’. Can you feel it?

‘Can’t go on. Can’t do this!’

Blair insists: ‘You must! Keep going! You’ve reached the 3rd crossroads. Well done you!’

Her skin softens, starts to flake dermal dandruff, red-raw sore, puffy to touch.

‘Can’t see! Can’t see!’

She is inhuman, a blind white worm, groping, snaking forward, inch-by-agonizing inch on her stomach, an amphibious human salamander. Searing inside, she slumps against the tunnel wall, feels the labyrinth. All hope is lost. She’ll die soon, focuses on her blissful life: Jo, Saul. Her face blisters and swells. She hallucinates. Hallucination’s good for her, helps her to cope with the pain. Helps her dream of the key to her survival who, surprisingly, turns out to be...

Blair, again: ‘Come on, Leah! Try, won’t you!’

Leah tries, she really does, feels a cool breeze on her face. ‘Made it to the third node! Thank God! Which way now?’

Her mind descends into chaos.

‘Straight ahead. Has to be!’ 

Wrong!

‘No, I meant right!’

Wrong!

‘No, left! Left!’

She hears a sound! A grunt, or a snort. ‘Oh, my God! What-the-fuck’s-that?!’

‘Le-ah, Le-ah, Le-ah!’

‘Blair? That you? Please, say yes! Please! Blair?’

‘Le-ah, Le-ah, Le-ah!’

‘Blair? That you? Blair? Help me! That you? Blair? Help me! Blair? Please God!’

‘Left! Has to be! Wrong! No, I meant right!’

Wrong!

‘No, left! Left!’

Wrong!

Minotaur!

Thankfully, the beast turns out to be a good minotaur which leads her to the fourth node. Leah guesses correctly and goes straight ahead. Had she gone left she’d be stunned. The right turn harbours a bad minotaur. All exits from the fifth node carry the risk of electrocution - or a mystery. Leah decides to turn left. To her surprise, she’s greeted by the ruby heart:

‘Follow the red heart!’

Will the heart be kinder to her this time?

Tune in next time to find out.

*****

Sutra Patel walks into the opticians with a worried expression on her face.

‘Andrew, can you spare me a minute, please?’

Her voice sounds strained, insistent and shaky.

He stares at her through his horn-rimmed glasses.

‘Sure, Sutra, what’s the problem?’

‘It’s Leah Cleat, she appears to have gone into a trance.’

Andrew arches his brows, mildly amused, he’s had a good day.

‘A trance? That’s a new one!’

‘I can’t pull her off the visual field screener. She’s obsessed with the red light. It’s almost as if she’s using it to play a video game?’

‘A video game with a red light? Really?!’ He laughs, ‘Sounds a bit scary if you ask me!’

Sutra stamps her pretty foot in annoyance.

‘Andrew! I’m being serious! Come and see her if you don’t believe me.’

He follows the optometrist into the eye test room.

Leah’s sitting up, ramrod rigid, gripping both sides of the screen, her knuckles white to the bone, eyes glued to the glass, mumbling to herself:

‘You’re doing fine! Follow the red light! You’re doing well! Follow the red light!’

Andrew looks at her, totally bewildered. He eyes Sutra, who issues him with her consent, and shakes Leah firmly by the shoulder.

‘Come on, Leah,’ he says, kindly, ‘Let’s have a chat over a cup of tea, shall we?’

‘No! I’m doing fine! Follow the red light! I’m doing well! Follow the red light!’


© Copyright 2019 HJFurl. All rights reserved.

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