Chapter Six

Warmth, discomfort, and dawn woke me. My white button up blouse was dirty and sticking to my body, which was contorted oddly on the flat, hard ground. I heard voices, instantly recognizing Jessica and Chris's tones. It was not like the previous morning of waking, where I had panicked, new and a captive of this maze. Now, I knew where I was, and not even the distance of dreams and sleep could take away the knowledge that now... I was not alone.

I had known them in the pitch black of last night's faded fire as only voices, really. Now I saw them, sitting up and rearranging my hair out of my face.

They were stretching out their limbs, walking easily around where we had all fallen asleep (for them, it was about two meters away). Chris, the one who had woken me from my miserable sleep last night, whom I had lashed out at in panic, had pale blonde hair that was obviously dirty, bright blue eyes, that noticed my movement.

"Good morning, Sunshine," he said, looking at me the way I was at him. The man was in his early thirties, maybe late twenties if he aged a little quickly, and was stretching, shaking his legs out from sleep. He was average height, as was Jessica. And he wasn't wearing a shirt. I hadn't noticed that the previous night, when I had hugged him...maybe I just hadn't been paying attention.

"Hey," she greeted, dark skin beautiful and smooth in a way that I would have been jealous of (if I had actually had a mirror to see my grime in). When I stood up and stretched my own body out a bit, I saw that she was an inch or so taller than me, and ... she was wearing tennis shoes. Lucky. Her raven black hair was pulled up into a high, frizzy ponytail, and her clothes consisted of black tank top torn along the bottom half, revealing a midriff and hips that were as lean as her companion's torso was.

"How long have you been here?" I asked, slightly shocked. There was nothing but skin, bone, and muscle on them. Well, mostly. Of course, there were the curves of a woman on Jessica, and her ethnicity or genetics seemed to hold a little bit more weight in the hips...but her muddy, khaki pants hung so low on her waist that I could easily tell that she was wearing a fraying pair of white panties. Chris' slacks weren't any better, rolled up above his knees as it looked like they had been often.

She smiled. "I've been keeping track. My lovely, idiotic comrade here hasn't. We both actually came at the same time- well... a few days apart. Two years, eleven months, and fourteen days, including today. That's how long."

I stared at them. I shouldn't have been surprised, really. They looked like it, and they had said it themselves the previous night - there wasn't a lot of traffic around here. Only one other person, whom I had yet to meet. It was the thought of being here so long that made me tense, made me scared, chilled me to the bone. I had only been in the maze for two days and a morning...and that was already too long, too hard. I was hungry to the point of dizziness, sickness, so thirsty that my lips, my carefully tended lips, despite the lip balm in my purse, were beginning to chap. There was dirt embedded beneath my fingernails, no bed to sleep on, and my only footwear were two and a half inch heeled boots.

"We don't have any more food for you, darlin', so you may as well stop gawking, get your stuff, and come with us," Chris said, looking around, particularly at the fire and then my string of nylons, lying on the ground nearby.

"Come where?" I asked, bending to don my boots.

"Do yourself a favor as you have been, miss, and do not wear those. We won't run, since you aint used to it, but walking is still going to be rough with no arch support."

"And tell me..." Chris said, thin but muscled arms braced on his hips. "Exactly what were you doing with your pantyhose to rip them this much?" His eyebrow was perked in that frustratingly handsome way that certain guys can master.

"If it hasn't been severed, it leads back to where the elevator left me - where Infinity pushed me out." Had they even come through the elevator?

"Like that minotaur myth," Jessica said, smiling. "Smart move. What do you say, Chris? Wanna go back and see if where she came in was the same place as ours?"

He was silent for a moment, then nodded, looking me over as if I were a piece of meat he wasn't sure he wanted to eat. I didn't like it.

"I don't have any food for you, darlin', so you may as well stop gawking, start walking, and lead the way," I told him curtly, slinging my purse over one shoulder and stuffing my boots, heel up, into the bag. His eyes widened a little, sparkling, before he turned, a smile on his lips. Jessica was grinning, looking me up and down like a piece of meat she was excited to taste.

My hunger, I decided, was probably the only reason I was comparing myself through their eyes as a morsel of food. They didn't seem at all like cannibals.

We followed the nylon string, leaving what had been my makeshift home for the last day and a half. I worried that maybe it had snapped, or maybe a bird might have tried to steal it away for the makings of a nest, but no wound back through the maze as I had on my first evening here. The corners looked vaguely, increasingly familiar.

"So, what's your name?" Jessica asked me as we walked and the sun began peeking out over the tall tops of the walls.

"Elizabeth Sanders," I answered. "Now the former direct assistant of public relations." I gave a pathetically crude laugh, thinking of how, of course, that wasn't my job anymore. Survival was my only job, and my salary was my life. I had a feeling it would soon become a paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle.

Jessica did the same, an animal laugh of understanding. "Jessica Snyder, now the former direct assistant of public relations' predecessor."

We rounded a corner, and I looked at her. "Really?"

"You got my job," she said with a nod. Distracted, I scraped the top of my toe on a rock, thinking about who might take my place, now that I was now alienated from Infinity Inc.

"And ...what was Chris's position?" I asked.

"Former manager for the director of public relations," he said. "Who took my place?"

"A woman named Kyra Bentley," I said, and we came around the shadow of a curved wall - not all of them were angles and hard lines. It was hard to think about. She and I had started at about the same time - I had known that. I didn't know what to think of that.

"And so... how did you find yourself in here?" he pressed.

My throat went dry. It was one thing to ramble or scream your loss out to the world when you think you're alone in it. It was quite another to speak it aloud, to people you might just well spend the rest of your hungry life with. Was I ready?

I swallowed. Ready or not. I was hardly ready for all of this, but it happened anyway. Better get used to it. "I was betrayed," I answered. If they noticed my pause in answering, they either understood or acted as if they didn't. "The literary assistant on the twelfth floor, who is new and works with me, was taken to one of those … one of these weird places at the same time I was."

"Via the thirteenth?" Jessica followed.

"Yes, whatever it is that happens around that story," I answered.

"And let me guess," the man beside us interrupted. "The lit ass wussed out, told the boss, and they figured he was loyal enough to remain, while you needed to be silenced. Locked up."

I was silent for a longer period of time, and did not respond until he looked at me. "Yes."

"Well," Jessica said, breaking the awkwardness that I felt looming. "It seems Infinity is a pretty stupid company. First off, it thinks that it can lock us up and finish us plain and simple. Secondly, they fail as a company because it is precisely their brightest that they have locked up."

"I wouldn't be so sure," I argued, jerking my chin over at Chris. She laughed, that pleasant melody that reminded me of Valerie and a touch like my mother's – mature, wise, and womanly.

Chris shoved me. "You're one to talk."

My next question was serious, was hard to ask. "So...if you two have been here for so long, and I mean no offense by this, but then...why haven't you found a way out?"

Chris threw me a curious glance, then looked back at the black string on the ground. I was pleased by the fact that my attempt at leaving marks in the dirt had been successful my first night here.

"It's because, until now, we have lived in the shadow of stupidity, and so have run around this maze as chickens with our heads off, waiting for someone of your great magnitude to show us the way." The words were in jest, but he sounded bitter for them, rather than lighthearted.

"Elizabeth..." Jessica started, haltingly. "We are pretty sure by now that there is no way out."

My heart came to my throat, and this time it took a few tries to muster the strength of swallowing past the feeling. "How can you... Why do you think that?"

"I told you how long we've been here," she answered. "Nearly three years. I know you haven't met him yet, but Josh has been here a lot longer, searched a lot longer and farther than we have. I meant what I said about Infinity's retardedeness, sticking smart people like us in here. Before Josh found us, Chris and I knew not to stray to far from the place where our elevator was. Then Josh came, and we could go a little farther. He knows this place like the back of his hand, and Chris and I nearly do too, now. But we have never strayed more than a day's walk from where the elevator dumped us.

"A day's walk? Is it that big?"

"Bigger," she said. "Probably by far. It's like the universe, you know? Never-ending, or just ... ineffably huge. That is why we haven't found a way out. We'll tell you our theories on how all this works later, but Josh would probably do a better job of it."

"Besides," Chris said. "We wouldn't want your pretty little brain to explode with so much information at once." I noticed with a smile that his hair, though short, was cut unevenly, and he probably hadn't meant to do that on purpose.

It took about an hour more to reach the wall that I had striped with crimson nail polish, and by that time my feet felt flat, dry, and caked with dirt. "What is that?" Jessica asked, sounding suspicious.

"Nail polish," I answered. "It's how I got the fire to keep going, but I only did the one stripe before realizing that it would run out before very long." The red shone beautifully on the steel in the nearly noontime sunlight.

"And this seems to be where the nylon hose fun ends," the man with us said, stopping before the gap in the wall where the elevator had been. Now, there was only a pine tree branch stuck with pantyhose against the two sides of the wall.

"How observant of you, blondie boy," Jessica poked. His gaze swept over her playfully, but he said nothing.

"This is where they left me," I said. I pulled my hair back, took the hair tie that had been biting into my wrist, and lifted my hair up, reveling in the fresh air on my sweating neck.

I was hungry.

"It's not the same place," Jessica said assuredly. "This is not where mine came out, and I know yours wasn't the same, either, right Chris?"

"Right," he nodded.

"But... How is that possible?" I asked stupidly.

They just looked at me. "The better questions are: how is any of this possible or why did it change locations," Chris said. His suntanned skin was shining with the sweat of midday heat, as was Jessica's face.

"So what do we do now?" I asked.

"Well," Jessica began. "It's like we told you before. We won't make you run - you would probably get sick. We will just have to walk and let it take the longer time."

"We're going to what you might call a home in this place," Chris finished my next question.

"No," Jessica said. "It is what we do call a home, and if you had any kind of sense in this barren place, you'd call it the same."

We walked. Searching for something to speak about, I wanted a distraction from my hunger.

"How did you two end up in this maze?" I inquired, honestly curious, especially if the both of them had gotten in.

They looked at each other like lovers telling the story of how they met- and who was I to say that they were not lovers, or that it did not hold the same meaning for them as in my comparison?

"Remember how I used to have your job and Chris's was manager to the director of public relations?" Jessica began with a question.

"Yes," I answered, ears pricking at one nice note of a little bird's song. The small thing flapped atop the wall, looking down at us.

"Well," she continued. "I had been working there for all of a year when the elevator started doing it. Trying to get down to the twelfth from the thirteenth story. The elevator took me to a large field, something you might ride horses out in. I stuck my head out, but that was really all. Nothing happened for about two weeks, which made me think that maybe I had just dreamed it all, or maybe I was crazy. Just as I was passing it off as nothing, my imagination if anything, the damned thing did it again. It took me to an old Roman or Greek city. I took Latin in college, so I think it was probably Greek, though where in all of that peninsula, I don't quite know."

"What was it like?" I asked.

"It was by the sea, so even throughout the alleyways that I started out in, I could feel a breeze on my face. I liked it. Then I was nearly seen. A group of teenagers fooling around in the streets, and I was backed up into a corner, dressed in pencil skirt and high heels, while they were wearing the typical white chitons of the day."

"Why do girls have to make the stories so detailed?" Chris muttered, and Jessica backhanded his upper arm, gaining a wince that I think she took too much delight in.

"I made my way back to the elevator after missing being spotted so out of place," the woman continued. "And I had one more run in. It was another city, though it was modern... probably our own time, then. There were coffee shops, clothes stores, cars, lights, all the works that we normally see. Even the same advertising as what I would have seen around Infinity Inc's building. It was tricky finding the right elevator, that time, because I came out of a hotel." Then she paused her speech while we walked down a straight strip in the maze. It was odd that I trusted that they knew where they were going - not that it really mattered, I think, especially if they were right about there being no way out. "I don't know how they found out that I had gone through the portal. All I know is that Mr. Jacobs-"

"Same here," I interrupted, and she smiled softly.

"He came down to the twelfth saying he wanted an important word with me. I had just done a really wonderful job on a project, and was a little surprised to have praise from such a higher level, but you know how our minds work – we believe what we want in each situation. Of course, some other people came into the elevator, and then he told me that he knew about where I had gone. He made it clear that he knew. And then pushed me out."

I breathed deeply. I still wasn't used to that feeling of hatred yet. She sounded beyond it. "What did you do?" I asked her.

"Oh, I screamed," Jessica replied. "I cried my little heart out. I had a boyfriend at the time, nothing too serious, but I was happy with him and saw a future if all went well. But it didn't. I ended up here, and some part of me, although unwilling to quite accept it then, knew that I wasn't going to get out of here. I knew he would move on after a while... and that's how I wanted it."

"Coming here is kind of like dying," Chris said seriously. "Everything you knew or had or even needed or wanted is now irrelevant. All your family, friends, possessions, all of them... They're gone. All you have now are your deeds. Your actions from that life, which have led you here and taught you what you know, and your actions here, which may or may not keep you alive."

"You make it sound like a jungle," I said.

"It's worse," said he. "In the jungle, there is always something ready to hunt you, but that means that you have the opportunity to hunt as well. But here... There are hardly any animals here and barely any plants worth eating. It makes staying alive that much harder."

I considered it. It was true. in the hell was I going to survive this place? More importantly...what would come of it? Would there be a way out, would some other prisoner be deposited here?

"How did you get in this place, then?" I asked Chris. He chuckled at little.

"The funny thing is, I don't really know," he said. "We told you, we have our theories on how that damned elevator portal works, but aside from that, I've got nothing. So the theories look pretty good." The blonde man paused, looking down a corridor that split both left and right. We took the right path. "Jessica had been gone for about three days, and since she and I were scheduled to be working together on the next project, I had been asking around. I remember being so annoyed that she would take some sort of ...unplanned vacation, because I like to get work done promptly."

"He thought I was slacking," Jessica offered.

Chris grinned. "Yeah," he agreed. "I was riding the elevator, was so annoyed that it took me awhile to notice the fact that the elevator took an exceptionally long time moving from floor to floor. I thought that it was just my luck, that my partner would disappear and what I wouldn't give to just lock all my colleagues to their desks so that my work could stay at work."

"Control freak," Jessica called him.

"Slacker," he retorted. "Then I noticed, pushed the button again for the twelfth, and after trying to call out the problem, I just pushed the thirteenth, wondering if it would do anything. Then the doors opened... onto this place."

"It was a bit of harsh luck that he saw me," the dark skinned woman said as we traveled along the corridor and my feet began hurting. "Like you, I was no longer in the same place that the lift had left me at. I had wandered some, trying to see if there was anything more to this maze. Then I heard it - the dinging doors opening, and then Chris's voice."

"I've never seen a black person look so pale in all of my life," Chris said, grinning even when she shoved him. "She ran at me and hugged me the way you did me when we found you. But I had already come out of the elevator, not thinking anything of it."

The mood turned more serious. "The lift left, and with it our chance at getting back to a normal life... out of this place."

"I've also never seen a woman so angry at me," Chris supplemented.

"Plenty have probably come close, with you," she said. "The elevator had just disappeared. After that, we had no choice, really, so we stayed together-"

"After she nearly murdered me."

"-And wandered around, trying to keep our bearings on where we were. Neither of us had food, but Chris had grown up in the country, so he had a little experience with the hunting scene."

"There is practically nothing on those birds' bones," he said.

"Then how did you...?" I interrupted.

"Last so long?" she said. "The others found us. When we found a bird's nest and were cooking the eggs on a rock over the fire, they saw the smoke and came. Josh was with them, and from there on out...well, we stuck together. We helped out in digging more holes for water, and ended up eating insects and grubs from the ground."

"They aren't as bad as they sound," Chris added. "And you will probably have to eat your fair share of them, too."

Grimacing, I followed their lead in turning sharply to the right and then left within the maze. "So... what happened to the...others?"

"They got sick," he answered. "It's not hard, really. We don't have a whole lot of food coming in as it is, nor are we that cleanly, and there isn't really any fruit. Put those things together, and we now have the life expectancy of a caveman."

"Josh said that they weren't the first to get sick and die," Jessica continued. "He's been here much longer than we have, so I don't doubt it." I was silent for the next few turns, which took a while. Ten minutes, I'd say.

Then... I wanted their input. "So...what do we do? I do we act as if there is no way out and still live, and how do we try to find a way out without forgetting to survive in this place?"

They, too, were silent for some time, looking at one another and then at me. It was Chris who answered. "I told you. Coming here is like dying, or, if you prefer, like ending a relationship. How did you live before? There was always the knowledge that one day, death would come, or that relationship might not, probably would not, last. But you still lived. You ignored that knowledge and seized the day again and again and again, whether you thought you were or not. Forget your last life. Or rather, suppress that knowledge, the knowledge that you used to be clean, comfortable, and full to your belly every damned day. Push it back to the farthest corner of your mind, like that knowledge of death or divorce, because otherwise, you won't last."

"You'll wallow," Jessica said. "And a little mourning is fine - needed, really. But you have to move past that and attach yourself to this new life - make it matter to you."

I thought back to when I had dug down to water the previous day, and told myself that I too was an animal, not beneath drinking muddy water. Such was my new life. Animals did not consider why they should keep fighting, why they should live - they just do. They seek survival because they have nothing else.

I would have to train myself to do the same.

"I want to," I told them through that damned knot in my throat that stung as a reminder of my situation. "But... I'll need help."

Oddly, it was Chris who answered, locking his sparkling blue eyes onto mine and stopping the walk. "You have it," he said firmly. Jessica nodded, squeezing my shoulder.

"We can help," she added.

"Thank you."

With another nod, he looked around. "We can rest here for a few minutes. Your feet probably hurt, and I'm kind of hungry."

Kind of? I thought crazily. My stomach had long stopped grumbling, aware that it was not likely to get any food soon. The corridor that we had stopped in was like many of the others we had traveled - a pine tree or two, saplings, a few shrubs, grass, dry dirt, and birds flitting about.

"Hey Chris," Jessica called out after walking off as he had, inspecting for food sources, I imagined while I stood stupidly, unsure what to do.

"Whack a mole, huh?" he said, and as I approached, I saw that there was a small hole furrowed into the ground near a shrub.

"He's probably already eaten those roots," she said. "But how about we try anyway?"

The man beside her motioned at me with his hand. "Give me your lighter."

If I hadn't been so hungry and close to the prospect of food, I probably would have done something about his rudeness. Instead, I snatched my lighter from my purse and slapped it into his open palm, watching as Jessica left. She came back with a handful of pine needles, stuffing them down into the hole as Chris tore a small, one-inch piece of his pant leg off and lit fire to it. He dropped the cloth, and within the minute, smoke came up from it.

It was cruel, but it worked. Within another minute or so, a rodent's ugly face poked out of the hole, sniffing around as it slowly came out, its beady little eyes likely missing our presence. When it was all the way out and scurrying across the ground, Chris grabbed it and crushed its head with a rock I hadn't seen him grab hold of.

Jessica didn't even grimace, although I did. "Give me your purse," he said. I knew what he wanted with it.

"No," I said. "Blood carries disease and I am not going to have that thing's blood dry inside my only bag and carrying device in this place.

"She has a point," Jessica defended me. "Besides, you have pockets, don't you?"

He glared at the both of us, leaving the mole on top of the rock he had killed it with. "Fine. But I'm the one who is going to eat it. If it's juices are going to be dripping down my leg..." and he continued mumbling.

Jessica led me over to another small shrub, like the one we had just been by. "Josh calls these Life bushes. Even though the above ground part of the plant is rather dry and...well, useless, the roots are like what we gave you. It isn't much, but it's enough, and they aren't so sparse as animals in this place."

"Hence the name?" I guessed.

"Yes," she answered, wrapping her hands around the base of the shrub and pulling hard. I could see the defined muscles in her arms work with that fluid motion, like the pistons and parts of a car engine. When she removed it, from the ground, she shook it free of dirt and showed me the thick bunch of roots. "Did you say you have a pocket knife?"

"Yes," I said.

"Well, grab that out and cut off the roots from the bush," she ordered and moved to the pine tree not far away, beginning to climb it. I heard her quiet rustling as I tried to chop through the root. It was just as tough to cut as it was to chew, but I succeeded before she came out of the tree. "It's about springtime here," she said when she came down. "And we love springtime. Look." Holding out her hands, she showed four small brownish colored eggs.

"Now those I will carry in my purse," I said, removing the boots.

"Do you have anything to wrap them in, for protection?" she asked, and when I shook my head, she nodded, handing the eggs over to me and making back towards the tree. It was a sad thing, to take these from the birds... but if we didn't survive, then they did. And even as we did, some of them lived. Such is the circle of life.

Jessica came back down, a circle of plastered pine needles and twigs in hand. The nest. She rearranged the eggs from my open palm onto the nest, then tucked it down into the depths of my purse, looking at me seriously. "Walk as gracefully as you can, and be gentle with this purse. The shells of those eggs are rather thin, definitely thinner than chicken eggs, so it won't take much contact to bruise them open.

"Are you two ready to go?" Chris said, holding what looked like a handful of roots and a pocket knife, all of which he stuffed into his loose, right pocket. I saw the discarded tops of the bushes lying not far away in the shadow of the wall as I adjusted my grip on the tops of my boots, careful of the purse.

"Yes, you workaholic," Jessica said, rolling her eyes and gesturing me to come with them as Chris frowned and dropped the bloody mole into his left pocket. The day waned on as we walked, making small talk. I asked about the seasons here, and since they'd been here for nearly three years, they had answers. Apparently, they were sure that the 'year' here cycled longer than twelve months, and winter was little more than a grayer, brisker version of the current climate. Since the trees were evergreens, they never really lost their needles, not in mass amounts like deciduous trees did. I asked about whether the plant variety changed throughout the maze, and they said that they hadn't traveled far enough to tell. Probably, they thought, it did. But in those places, they added, there were likely bigger, badder animals, ones who didn't come to this fruitless section, and at least in this place we were safe when we slept at night.

The rest of the journey took another two hours or so, by which time I was quite convinced I couldn't take another step. And yet I did - again and again. Sometimes, our limits are not what we believe they are.

I didn't quite know what to expect, but if I had thought intelligently for a little while, my mind probably would have conjured up something rather similar to what I came to. We rounded one last corner, entering one of those long corridors that stretched a long way both left and right and just happened to be somewhat wide. That was probably why they had chosen it for... home.

There was a long lean-to structure made of pine boughs, their needles stripped, up against the far steel wall of the maze. Outside of the cover of those sticks was a closed fire pit, covered like a grill by some uneven, battered-up steel bricks. There were pine posts on either side of it, and hanging from some length of string uncapped thermos, suspended over the heat of the fire. In the shade of the wall, off in a corner, was a water hole about six or seven times the size mine had been, and just as much more deep. The water level was about two feet below the top of the hole, and the depths didn't look like much higher than my waist, if that.

"So did a meteor crash and burn down one of the trees and walls, or did you find someone?"

I turned to the voice, a light but mature sound with the hint of a British accent. It was Josh, I assumed, and saw that he was old... but he looked...well for it, considering his situation. His hair was a mix between black and white, cropped short and uneven the same way Chris' was. The many lines around his suntanned face were probably mostly from exposure to the sun, as his bare chested body was just as lean as the others, if a little more on the bony side.

"We found someone," Chris answered.

"Oh," Josh said, rubbing his stubble-dotted and dirty chin. "Pity." His eyes were scraping over me much the same the others had when they had first seen me. "What's your name, sweetheart?"

"Elizabeth Sanders," I said. "I would shake your hand, but I'm currently a little upset at the corporate world and so don't really feel inclined to use their practices."

He laughed lightly. "Well I'm Joshua Burns, and I understand your feelings entirely, however I am persuaded to disagree," he said, holding out his gnarled hand. "Shaking hands has long been a tradition of respect between individuals upon meeting or seeing one another after a long time apart in a friendly manner. So. Nice meet you."

"Under different circumstances, it would be my pleasure to meet you as well, Josh," I said, shaking it firmly, and he gave me a wink.

"That is, of course, what I meant. Welcome to Home," Josh replied, and Chris coughed. "Of course, we have some business concerning survival here. Did you find any food while you were out?"

I felt a little guilty, having already eaten my roots from the Life Bush earlier without pulling up some extra for later. Apparently, I was right about this being a paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle now.

"I found eggs," Jessica said, gesturing to my purse. "And Chris killed a mole."

"Really?" Josh asked, sounding surprised. "That sounds like quite a successful day. Well, let me see them. I trust you fed up this new woman?"

"We found some life bushes around the same area, to the southwest of here," Jessica reported.

"Oasis Run," the old man muttered, and Jessica explained.

"He's mapped out the day's walk vicinity, and even a little beyond. He has names for all the locations."

"And corresponding codes," Chris added, rolling his eyes, although I saw a glimmer of admiration in them. "Oasis Run is J6."

"So it's mapped out like a chess board?" I asked.

"Similar," Josh affirmed, reaching up and pulling the thermos off of the heat and strings. "What else do you have in your purse there, Liz - if you don't mind me calling you that? It takes less effort, and you have probably noticed by now, that-"

"Every effort matters," I finished. "I have a pocket knife, a swiss army type, red nail polish and a little clear, a few pens, a pencil, paper clips, safety pins, uh... a granola bar wrapper, lip balm, a lighter, my wallet, my cell phone, um... business cards, and a receipt from lunch. All of this aside from the eggs, that is."

"Wonderful," he said. "You came prepared. Kind of." He winked again, and I didn't think he was criticizing me so much as praising the good fortune that I had some useful items from the 'other world'. "Have a drink," Josh added, handing me the thermos. "Unfortunately, it's rather hot, and what everyone wants right now is probably something cooler. But, it has been safely boiled."

He was right - it was scalding hot, but I accepted the tin top of the thermos he offered me and sipped slowly away at it. If my taste buds were burned then it would just be that much easier to eat whatever there was here to eat. I passed the cup and the thermos around to the others as Josh went through my purse, carefully removing the nest and its eggs.

The sun was setting.

"You damned fool," Josh said when Chris splashed some of his water onto his face, rubbing some of the grime away from his skin. I didn't blame him. Then he took the dead mole, stiff with death and blood, from his pocket and set it on a white stone beside the steel brick grill. "I won't be caring for you if you get sick now. "

Somehow defiantly, Chris pulled down the left side of his pants, and though I averted my gaze, in my peripheral vision I saw him pour the rest of the water down his leg. "I won't be getting sick because I'm washing the damned blood and dirt from my body from hunting earlier !" Josh tossed him what I assumed was a clean cloth and he dried the skin. When he had lifted his pants again, I looked up. We had all finished drinking, himself included, and the old man was cracking the eggs into the thermos. Extracting a pocket knife from the pocket of his own rolled up, loose slacks, he set about trimming the skin from the rodent. When all was said and done, I think that more meat came off with the skin than was attached to the bone.

He chatted with the other two as he worked, about the maze as we had journeyed through it. Had there been any differences? No, aside from the ones that I had made. Any new animals? No, aside from the mole we caught. Any sign of the elevator? No, aside from the person – me - that it had left behind.

"And you?" Josh said, once he had finished trimming the fat, meat, and as much blood as he could get into the makeshift pot.


"Yes," he said. "Are you ready for this lifestyle? Are you ready to cooperate with us and work with us as a group, as a pack of wolves trying to survive in this prison?"

"Were you ready?" I returned.

He grinned, pausing with a stick in his hand. Then he grabbed the tin cup, tossing it to Chris, who moved to the water hole. "No," Josh answered. "But I did it anyway, and I'm still here."

"Then I'll do the same," I said. He nodded at me.

"Good. Come here and stir this for me. Don't mind the smells." I did as he told, taking the stick from his wrinkled hand and placing it into the warm thermos, stirring as best as I could. I watched Josh as I did the task. He was picking apart the bones, seizing the largest ones he could find- the femur and pelvis, really - and dropping them into the pot. I tried to do as he said- not minding the smells, but it was hard. The thing I was stirring smelled like a mix between overcooked eggs and metallic meat – blood. And we were going to eat it. I was going to eat it.

My tongue protested while my stomach rumbled at the prospect.

When all was said and done with the meal, the sun had nearly faded from the sky in a haze of dark purple clouds. Josh gave me the first serving, of which I felt a tad guilty about, not having found either the eggs or the mole. He scooped barely a handful size amount into a … wooden bowl, or in what passed as one (really, it was a rough, almost cylindrical piece of pine wood that had been carved and carved and fire hardened in the center to hold a minimum amount of food or water). He handed me a likewise roughly made spoon (a wide stick with a shallow bit carved from it).

"If you're still hungry after that, which you no doubt will be, there are always some of those Life Bushes around. Just pace and ration yourself. If you weed out all the underlings too quickly, no more will come back."

I nodded my understanding, spooning some of the awkward, meager stew. Then I thought of that song. "Nobody knows where they might end up," I said, looking at the food. Two days ago I hadn't known whether I would be alive in the morning, and I certainly had not expected anyone else to find and feed me and... take me in, essentially. Wished for it? Oh yes - desperately. But rationally, I knew it wasn't likely. And yet it had. "Cheers," I said to the others with a strained smile.

The thing - stew, soup, chunky gravy, or gruel - whatever one would call it, tasted just as it had smelled, although not quite as bad as I had imagined it would. All said and done, the taste was rather dull, just like slightly overdone eggs mixed with some kind of steak bits, beef broth, and water. Jessica, Josh, and Chris had all grabbed similar bowls for themselves from a neat little compartment in the cubical, steel grill - that is, from a part not touched so much by the heat.

The meal was gone quickly, but when it fully settled in my belly I felt fuller than I had in literally days. It was a good feeling, but, just as Josh had warned, I still felt ravenous. He was looking me over for the signs. "Want directions?" he asked, presumably concerning the Life Bushes.

I shook my head. "You're right. I should pace myself, and that was quite honestly the most I have had since the roots from noon today and last night, when Jessica and Chris found me. Too much and I might throw it all up, and in addition to that, I'm not likely to be fed much more, correct?"

"Very," Chris grumbled, licking his wooden bowl. I wondered if it was too smooth by use, or if the man would be picking splinters out of his tongue.

"Good lass," the old man said. "Even so, in case you were wondering, we do have a bit of privacy out here. Any time you want it, we've set up a place for changing or ...general alone time, as it arises... right around the corner." And then I wondered fully whether he meant individual alone time or time spent with someone else. Moreover, I pondered the possibility that Chris and Jessica were an item, although they acted rather professional towards one another, when they weren't right out bickering. "I'll take you. You two clean up and set about boiling up some more water."

Josh led the way from the closed, metal fire pit, to the right of where the entrance had been to this corridor. Towards the far wall, on the left hand side, was the opening to another corridor, only it was partly blocked. A stack of pine boughs, needles attached but dead, was thrashed together with what looked like the reeds of the life bushes, all around making a pliable door that halfway covered the exit, overlapping the steel wall.

"If you ever have the need, just cover the entryway completely," he said, gesturing simply.

"What about... bathing?" I asked, nearly afraid of the answer as I looked at his own grimy skin. Still, he couldn't have been here for more than a year and not have gained more dirt. Still, he fixed me with a sympathetic but firm look.

"The closest thing we have to bathing is in that water hole back there," Josh said. "And it doesn't take long considering that we don't have soap, nor any hair treatments, really. We just take a rag and rub down the body, hoping that the hole is having one of its less muddy days, and dealing anyway if it isn't. As for privacy, we all just respect one another and avert our gaze, although Chris has been caught a few times staring."

"At Jessica?" I asked stupidly.

"Of course not," he said, grinning. "At me!" He laughed, and I with him. We turned back when I asked another question.

"And... what about... a ...privy?" It was awkward to ask, but I hadn't had much to relieve myself of since I had first arrived here, not having eaten or drunk much since then. Josh snapped his fingers.

"Righto!" he said, walking briskly. "We keep that away from the other area of privacy." The old man led me past the fire pit again, where I saw Jessica attaching the thermos with Chris' help back onto its cables above the flame.

"How did you..." I began as he led me out back the way I had come. "How have you survived this long? I mean, how could you be so prepared?"

He gave me one of those long, wise, considering looks that I think only older people are capable of. "Things were different in my days and in my place. In my young days, these wilderness techniques had to be known because electricity wasn't always dependable." Josh and I walked left and then sharply right, back into another long corridor, though it wasn't quite as long as the 'Home' one was. "We had a lot of harsh storms where I'm from, and the power men weren't as quick to come and fix them as they are now, and here in the United States. So, you had to be able to make your own fire in the house or outside and cook your food on it. You had to be able to wash clothes without some fancy machinery to do it for you. And you had to be prepared."

"But what about the thermos?" I asked.

"Back then, there weren't interns... or whatnot... to go fetch the coffee at all levels of work, and it costs money to go downtown every day to get it as well. So we made our own and brought it, and usually our lunch, with us. 'Specially me. I loved coffee."

He seemed like the type, I agreed - the type like me.

"This is it," he said, coming to another partially blocked corridor entrance, only beyond this one it smelled very earthy. "We change it around every week, or sometimes sooner, and bury our efforts."

"Like cats," I said, understanding.

"Exactly," he said, taking me back. I memorized the path. Now that I had food in my belly, I could expect the need to find it again. When we came back to the home corridor, I saw that Jessica and Chris were bickering over something, although Josh paid them little attention. I tried to do the same, nearing the fire pit and looking at the water beginning to boil with heat. But then I heard snatches of their conversation.

"Chris, she's new here, while you and I have-"

"I know, I know! I 'm not saying we should do anything to her, just..." he trailed off a bit, seeing my watchful presence. "I'm just saying that soon, she is going to have to pull her own weight."

Jessica looked over at me apologetically. It was comforting, although unnecessary.

"Does Jessica pull her own weight?" I asked him, gaining a suspicious look.

"Yes," he said simply. "But that isn't the question that matters. Will you pull yours?"

"Well, before being put here, Jessica had only worked a year at Infinity, according to her story," I replied. "And if she can pull her weight, and I followed her job as well as I did for nearly three years, I can assure you that I will pull my weight as well."

I didn't think he believed me, yet, not quite. But I think my words drove some logic and replaced some of the pure criticism in his brain. Of course, I really hadn't proven myself much in any of their eyes. But at least...

"I think... I think she will prove that statement true with her actions, guys," Josh said. "And if not, we can always chuck her out for those blasted songbirds to peck at..." He sounded like he'd had a bad run in with those little birds, but he also sounded like he trusted me enough to gradually ease me into the hard life - like a child.

We retired not long after the sun had gone down. The fire was left to burn and hopefully remain as hot embers in the morning, but the thermos was taken down and sealed for whomever wanted some in the night or the morning. I crawled into the edge of the lean-to closest to the fire pit, for no real reason aside from having a comforting light source. This time, there actually was a pillow, what looked like a very rough leather quilt of small animal hides kept together by bone pins and stuffed with pine needles and feathers. Wow, I thought. I never thought I would be so happy to see such a thing.

When I asked what we would be doing the next day, as I tried to get comfortable on the leather pillow and pine needle mattress, I got the most interesting of answers. Perhaps Josh had simply rubbed off on Chris, or perhaps the opposite was true. Their sense of humor was similar, if the younger's was more scathing - usually.

"The same thing we try to do every day Pinky," Josh said, from the very far end of the lean-to. "Try to take over the world." I laughed.

"But Brain," Chris added, following the script style of that old show, "what about the children in Uganda?"

We all chuckled a little, eased gratefully towards sleep. I watched the orange glow of the fire in its steel frame, wondering how they had gotten those bricks. They must have found a way to get to the top. And if that was true, then what they had said about how impossible it was to get out of here had to have some substance as well. It was most definitely the greatest of thoughts, but at least, if I were to spend a long time here, I was not alone anymore. Further more, the company was not half bad - not at all.

Certainly better than a volleyball with a bloody hand for facial details and a name of Wilson.