Fantasy Literary Fiction portal fantasy

The Ramshead Algorithm

By KJ Kabza
Nov 13, 2018 · 13,480 words · 50 minutes


From the author: Ramshead Jones has discovered a secret in his backyard: a portal inside the hedge maze that leads to a near-infinite number of realities. But his wealthy, dysfunctional family has their own maze of secrets, and when the hedge maze and the portal—and Ramshead’s only way out of his meaningless life on Earth—are threatened, Ramshead must confront his painful familial truths to harness the alien magic needed to save his planet’s future.


Beneath the four of us was a patch of bare earth, which Yuri had anchored into reality with a screw he'd muttered. Beyond our tiny island of the rational, the lines, as they say here, ran crooked: unknown suns rocked in the sky in polynomial smears of light. The walls of vegetation surrounding us reiterated with themselves, morphing each second into something different. The sudden paths in the undergrowth pulsed, as if breathing, before being swallowed by life again. Unchallenged by screws, The Maze reigned.

"Are we anywhere close?" I asked them.

A worker from Trail Crew 64, a translucent thing covered in dexterous pseudopodia, spoke up. Her voice came from the vibrations of a million cilia. "I think so. I didn't have my curvessor with me when I noticed the damage, but I'm sure your problem is starting somewhere here in the 64th cycle. We shouldn't need to tune into another cycle to find it."

I scratched my thigh. Something burned there, like the bite of an insect, though the insects in The Maze aren't exactly real either. "Well, if you're wrong, I've fixed problems on a lot of other cycles before. We should be able to figure it out without involving yet another Trail Crew."

Yuri thumped the bare earth with a triumphant set of talons. To the being from Trail Crew 64, he said, "Space-Cowboy-Hero Ram can fix anything."

They all turned to admire me. I scratched my thigh again and pretended not to notice. I'd been doing this for a decade, and I probably could fix anything by now. But the "Ram of Earth" folktales that were starting to go around were bad enough, and I didn't want to fan the flames.

"But what's wrong with your leg?" asked Yuri. "You are injured?"

"No. I just—" The fabric beneath my hand felt hot.

An injury would've been preferable.

Slowly, I slid a hand into my pocket, feeling for my vial of silvery spirit water. I withdrew it. Inside the stoppered container, 2,000 times stronger than glass, my spirit water was boiling.

Yuri tossed his ox-like head in alarm. "Cowboy-Hero—"

"Sorry, everyone," I blurted. "It's just a chaos knot here that needs untying, you'll be fine—I think I see a tree that won't change over there—gotta go—"

I turned side. I closed my eyes and tuned into the 98th cycle, not letting my rational eyesight ruin my sense of irrational impulse that could be my only guide in this place. I almost twisted my ankle in a small hole, ran over something wooden and hollow, made a turn at full speed, ran through something wet, and jumped.

I crashed through brush, and was suddenly running over consistent, grassy ground.

I stopped and opened my eyes. Trail Crew 98 HQ. Our hard-won clearing, anchored over acres, where all the Trail Crew workers from the planets on our shared plane of reality camped and recovered under the familiar laws of physics.

I ran expertly through the compound, past the ancient, central Spindle and its contradictory shadows, and past Perihana'ii's hut and its plume of smoke. Above the compound, the lines ran crooked, too; fifty feet up, the smoke from Perihana'ii's fire splintered into colors, or stars, or schools of frightened fish.

I ran into one of the private bathing houses and took the fastest bath of my life. While I splashed and cursed and dropped the soap, I ran through a mental list of options, all of them bleak. I was the only crew member from Earth in the entire Maze. My permanent two-way portal to Earth had just been officially approved. Only six outside people had even been to my world so far, and none of them were on my crew and therefore plane of reality, and none were even anywhere near the First East Iteration, the family of realities to which I belonged. And no one here at HQ could master the illusion of a human shell yet.

Better hurry.

After I jumped out of the bath, I shoved my work clothes in a duffel bag, then took out my $1,000 shoes (Christian Dior) and gave them a fast look-over for anything telltale. Any green blood? Bone shards? Thanatos sap?

Nope. Chemicals first, then: deodorant (Michel Germain, Sexual), aftershave (Perry Ellis, 360), summer scent (Issey Miyake, L'Eau D'Issey). Beneath the manufactured finesse, the smell of myself dissolved.

Clothing second: from a garment bag hung on a hook, Yves Saint Laurent (various collections). Boxers, jeans, socks; undershirt, button-down shirt, watch (Rolex, Cosmograph Daytona); aforementioned $1,000 shoes.

Hair last. I went to a mirror, a piece of polished tin nailed to a post. Meticulous and stupid: dry, gel, comb, sculpt.

If my portal were taken from me—

I stopped the thought, grabbed my bags, and ran outside, along the crescent-shaped bank of alarm pools that made up an edge of the compound. Each tiny pool, scrying the health of the two-way portals we watched over, lay clear and calm.

Except, of course, the farthest and newest one.

Mine.

I reached it, dropped my bags, and wiped my calloused palms on my $450 jeans. I typed on the boiling surface, wincing at the heat, seeking and discarding the incorrect times and places until the surface cooled with the single moment that contained the danger to my monitored portal. The stilled spirit water condensed into colors. I leaned forward.

My alarm showed me a place near my portal's entrance (or exit): a large kitchen done in white tile and stainless steel. Someone I knew too well was approaching from the adjoining hallway, his ruthless monologue preceding him in compacted commands, as if by Doppler effect. He entered the kitchen. Juan followed at his heels.

I'd always feared that it would end like this.

"Also," said my father to Juan, "phone Martinez about the meeting with Bill next week. Tell him it's on Thursday, and if he says that I said Wednesday, claim that I didn't."

My father rifled through the kitchen cupboards. Juan followed after him, taking notes on a legal pad. "Also, reschedule my fitting with Richard for next Monday. Imply that he's an arrogant shit for wrongly assuming that I'd gain weight, but be subtle about it. Work in an ambiguous comment about how some people, like his wife and daughter, do in fact pork up and spill out as they get older."

Juan scribbled. My father opened a cabinet, disregarded the eighteenth-century Plymouth porcelain within, and moved on to another. "Also, talk to the Bentley people about Alan's car. Make sure they use the dead oak from the side yard when they do the finishing in the interior. Ask if they can work in the part where he carved his initials. If they say they can't, tell them that I am not paying two hundred thousand dollars for a goddamn car that won't be paneled with my firstborn's favorite goddamn climbing tree."

My father finally pulled a meal-replacement bar from one of the cupboards and slipped it into a pocket of his Givenchy suit. "Oh. And call a landscaping company about the hedge maze out back. I want it ripped out tomorrow morning."

There.

My hands clenched the spirit water and the image dissolved.

Somewhere behind me, I heard Yuri's distinctive, loping gait. Of course. He'd seen my boiling vial, and he'd be heading to Perihana'ii's hut to alert her. But I knew she'd just curl her tail helplessly and say there was nothing they could do, that my world was still too foreign. Ram of Earth was on his own.

So be it. Gripping my bags, I edged around the crescent's horn, to where the vegetation breathed and liquefied into itself.

I turned side.

This time, my way back to Earth was via a narrow winding road, wreathed in vines, blood in their veins in lieu of sap. Somewhere, children sang. The road forked and slithered, as all roads here do, and I coalesced The Maze's split-up cycles by feeling which fork was more interesting—and taking the opposite.

The bloody leaves around me gradually turned green. The distant singing faded. The tunnels retracted into the rectilinear walls of a hedge maze, first shaking, then pulsing, then almost still, save for the wind. The path turned from dust to grass, and a colored sky emerged above me. Blue. The smears of light overhead contracted into a single star.

I took another cold turn, and I was out.

I stood at the southernmost edge of a monstrous, hilly lawn, which sprawled up and away under the warm California sun. The slopes of it went on and on: orchards, gardens, fields, and flowerbeds; winding paths and statuary; benches, gazebos, secluded guest houses, and tennis courts; pools and granite fountains; artistic vistas and sculpted trees; plants from around the world.

The hike up took twenty minutes.

At the top, a mansion lords over it all. I picked an entrance and stepped inside, into a scripted life where I am called Ramshead Jones, my father's net worth is $48 billion, and I am required to add glamor to the family name by being the hedonistic party boy.

And Jesus, do I hate it.

I entered my rooms and grasped the first idea that came to me. I rummaged in my bags for a phone, and when I found one, I rang the direct line to my brother's secretary.

"Patty Cheng."

"Patty—thank God. It's Ramshead."

"Good morning, Ramshead! How are you?"

"Where's Alan?"

"He's in a meeting right now."

"I hate to ask you this, but I need you to take him out of it. Tell him to come home. Immediately."

Her voice cooled into seriousness. "I'll go get him right away—hold, please?"

"Yes."

She put me on hold. I began to pace. The other people at that table would frown at each other when Alan left, and within a few hours, NASDAQ would probably quiver.

Whatever.

The line clicked to life. "Jesus, Ramshead, what is it?" asked Alan, out of breath.

"I can't talk about it over the phone. Please."

"Dad."

"No."

"Hanna."

"No."

"Jesus, Ramshead!"

"I can't. Just please—come home."

"What—you?"

"Please!"

He paused. "You? Ramshead Jones?"

"Alan—"

"What could you possibly need from me?"

"Don't do this to me now! I need you!"

"Is that so. This wouldn't happen to have anything to do with your latest fall from the planet, would it?"

"Alan, damnit, I cannot talk about it here!"

"You've been gone over two months this time, Ramshead. Doing what? Just what is it that you do, when you're away?"

"Come home, you hateful son of a bitch!"

Icy silence from the other end.

"I will come," Alan finally said. His pitch was even and calm. "And you will get down on your knees and thank God that I'm even bothering to deal with a parasite like you."

He hung up.

Well—at least he was coming.

I ran downstairs and outside, to await him on the mansion's main steps. I had to move the portal. I had to move the portal. In less than twenty-four hours? I took my copy of Trail Crew Emergency Screws from a pocket and thumbed through the pages. At least I found it quickly.

Screw 8: Moving a Portal from Without

Required blocks:

  1. A tongue unknown
  2. A tongue rare
  3. A life unknown
  4. A life rare

 

"Seriously?" I yelled at the book. An endangered animal, the sacrifice of a life that never was, and a language nobody can speak. With the screw itself to be spoken in a language almost nobody can speak. Christ, how could I do this?

I looked up at the sound of an engine, watching from across our green and empty front lawn: a Mercedes-Benz S550, powerful and purring. It moved with skillful violence. It swung over the long curve of the driveway and right up to me, at the bottom of the main staircase, where it whispered into silence.

I slid the book into a pocket. My brother climbed out of the car.

Alan strode up the steps, a flame of hunger and hate smoldering from within Armani Privé. He is too short, too broad-shouldered, to look much like our father, but he moves like him: hard, fast, relentless. He is not attractive. He wishes he were.

Alan crucified me with his eyes. "And?"

I opened my mouth.

"And?"

I said, "The backyard," and turned and ran into the house.

Alan followed me, saying something, but I ignored it and kept moving. In one minute I was through and out on the back lawn, waiting. I listened to him stomp through the hall behind me.

"There better be a fucking flying saucer in the middle of the fucking carp pond!" He banged out of the house and bent over, huffing, hands on his knees, hairline glistening with sweat. The scent of Calvin Klein's Obsession rose. "What the hell, Ramshead?"

I pointed south.

"What!"

I ran down the backyard. Alan cursed and followed, all the way down, until the house receded onto lofty hills. Below us, the wind pulled through the hedge maze, stretching east and west into hissing green infinity.

Behind me, Alan stopped.

I turned. "Come on," I demanded.

"Talk to me, goddamnit! What is it!"

"Come here."

"Talk to me!"

I felt my hands coil into fists. Around us, plum trees drank in the sun and couldn't care less. "Alan. I have to—" My tongue was sandpaper. "I have to show you something."

"You haven't showed me shit. You've dragged me all the way across the property when we could've just taken the service road down here. Do you have any idea what you pulled me out of?"

I started to shout, but he shouted me down. "Do you even care what it is the rest of us do, day after day, every day? Or can you not get past your own pampered little bubble?"

Alan paused for a gulp of air, and I felt my long-cultivated magnetism rise. The portal was too close. Around me, its exuded zap began to spin. Not like this.

"I swear to Christ, if you ever do this to me again, I will tell Patty that you have died." He drew a cell phone from a jacket pocket. "Now if you're done with your shitty little cry for attention, I have a lot of explaining to do."

"You haven't even looked at it yet!"

He raised the phone to his ear and spoke to me, coldly, as it rang. "Looked at what? There's nothing to see here."

I clenched my right fist and turned a screw. The zap spun into the first degree of visible, crackling over my fist and forearm like blue lighting.

Alan froze.

I raised my crackling fist. The sudden, humiliated fear in his eyes made me feel large and ashamed. I was ready to say, "Alan—I beg you—don't make me force you."

But Alan's wide eyes settled on the zap, and he blurted, "It's about the hedge maze."

My fist dropped like a dead bird. "It's what?"

Alan shut his phone and put it away, all the while staring at my hand. The zap fizzled into invisibility but I could still feel it circling. "The hedge maze. Isn't it."

I stared at him. I did not know where to start.

Alan took a step back. The humiliated fear had not gone away. "Don't make me get any closer to it."

"I... I won't."

"What have you seen?"

"Huh?"

"No. Don't tell me." He stepped back again. "What do you know about it?"

I stared at him again. The sweat around his hairline had thickened into beads. "What do you know about it?"

"Ramshead—don't." His voice was nearly pleading. "Let's not."

"When we were kids," I said quietly, "you told me it was haunted. It took me years to even work up the courage to get close to it. Did you actually see something, Alan?"

One of his hands fluttered out, looking for something supportive to grip. It brushed useless, reedy branches. "No."

I took a step toward him. "I've seen something. And I've been inside."

Alan swayed, as if he were about to faint; then sat down hard on a nearby rock as the color drained from his face.

"Look—I won't say any more. But I really need your help. And you don't want to know what'll happen if you decide not to give it. Please. I'm begging you, Al."

He shivered and said nothing.

I sat down on the grass. The zap still circled me, as if it could find refuge in my skin, but I ignored it.

Alan finally swallowed. "And?" he whispered.

I brushed off some invisible zap. "And?"

Alan asked, "What do I do?"

I let out a breath. "Thank—"

"Just tell me."

"Really. If you want to know what's going on—"

"I don't."

"Well, in case you're ever curious what—"

"I won't be."

Self-consciously, I looked down. I fiddled with the cuffs of my shirt. I wanted him to be curious—to demand that I explain everything, because all those years of secrets, my secrets, still loomed between us.

But I couldn't say that.

Instead, I looked up. "All right. I need you to find two things for me."

Alan reached a trembling hand into his jacket and pulled out his leather-bound, paper appointment book. He removed a pencil from the spine. "Go ahead."

I watched him transcribe as I spoke. "I need you to find me a text, either original or copied, in a language nobody has been able to translate. And I also need you to find someone who speaks a very rare language. Once you find someone, have them call me. Can you do this?"

"Yes."

"As soon as possible."

"Yes."

"Alan, I'm not kidding."

"I know." Alan replaced the pencil, shut the date book, and slid it back inside his jacket. "If I thought you were, I wouldn't've bothered to write it down in there."

I reached for something to say but came up empty.

Alan stood and climbed through the plum orchard, back toward the house. I watched him go. I could've walked back with him, but I still didn't know what to say.

I headed back to the house on a different path, so we wouldn't run into each other.

Alan went back to work. I went up to my rooms and locked the door, to concentrate on how to deal with the other two blocks I'd need for my portal-moving screw.

The "life unknown" was actually not an issue. I am male and healthy, and have plenty of homunculi to spare.

The "life rare" was the problem. I started with some research online, looking for places to call that offered private endangered-animal encounters. But every place's breathless, "Yes! Good morning! Mr. Ramshead Jones—an absolute pleasure—what can we do for you, sir!?" rapidly turned into an, "Ah... I'm afraid we can't allow animal encounters on private property... unsupervised... sir."

An hour later I was out of places to call. I went back online, digging for people who would sell "exotic" animals to private buyers outright. But the red tape here was even worse: you must be licensed, we must process your application, we must meet with you to see if you will be kind to our animals.

No time.

Was there such a thing as buying an animal on the black market?

Hanna would know.

I grabbed a set of car keys—Jaguar, XKR Portfolio, 2004—and headed toward the garage.

I drove around L.A. in loops and spirals, making more calls. Hanna has a cell phone, but the number always changes. She also has a house, but she does not like it. She much prefers the endless string of dangerous men that loops around her, so where she lays her head each night is never certain.

I finally got a lead. An ex-boyfriend of an acquaintance I'd met at a party some years ago told me that she was sleeping with a certain vocalist these days whose band was beginning the slide into bloated overexposure. I got an address and drove to his house. They buzzed the gate open for me, not because I knew him personally, but because when I go anywhere, gates always open.

The front door had been left ajar, so I entered unannounced. The interior was a frat-house wreck: broken furniture, shattered lamps, the stench of weed and beer. I heard someone clattering around in the kitchen, swearing in a masculine voice: "Where the hell does he keep the plates?"

I ventured upstairs, peeking in bedrooms. The remains of the house party reached into every corner: bongs, panties, pornography, designer jeans, condoms, dustings of cocaine, the occasional bass or guitar. One nude, bug-eyed woman with hard, globular breasts, smoking a cigarette in a bathroom doorway, demanding of me, "What the fuck are you looking at, asshole?"

I found Hanna in the master bedroom. She was standing barefoot at the floor-to-ceiling window, the tips of her fingers in the pockets of her tiny shorts, pulling down the low-rise waistband and revealing her tattoos, one fat red star on each hip. She had her weight on her right leg, and was watching the distant street with her head cocked, a strand of dark hair hanging loose from one of her high ponytails.

I cleared my throat. "Hanna."

She started. "Rammy! I didn't see you last night. Were you with the girls in the pool?"

Before I could answer, she grinned and strolled toward me, rolling her hips, making those red stars wink with each rise and fall of her waistband. "Daddy will love it that you're finally partying like you're supposed to, and keeping up the fashionable family image or whatever. Haven't seen you in ages, kiddo. How've you been?"

"I'm fine. Hanna—"

She reached me and curled her arms around my neck. She kissed me on the cheek. "Missed you bunches." She lowered one hand and rubbed it over my stomach. "Did you lose weight?"

I set a hand on hers and pulled it away. "Yeah. I've been really busy. Hanna, I've got something to ask you."

Hanna grinned up at me. I couldn't tell if she wore dark eye makeup or if she were exhausted. "Rammy, relax. We got all day."

"No, we don't." I stepped away from her. "Look, I'm really sorry, but I can't visit this time. I just have to ask you. Do you know where I could buy an exotic animal? In a hurry? I need it by tonight."

Hanna put her fingers back in her pockets and looked down at the carpet. "You mean you don't have time to hang out?"

"No. Tomorrow, maybe."

"I never see you anymore."

"I know—I said, I've been really busy."

"When am I supposed to see you?" She looked up at me, her frown quivering. "You're never at your house. And you know Daddy won't let me go back there."

I bit my tongue. Hanna misinterpreted my silence. She looked out the window again and said, "Forget it. You came to the party, and you didn't even talk to me last night. You don't have to say anything."

"I wasn't here last night. I just got here."

"To ask me something, instead of see me. Yeah. I get it." She turned her body away from mine, to face the street again.

I took a breath. "Hanna, you know I care about you—"

"I know you spend all day at his house," she said flatly, "instead of ever hanging out with me."

"I never know where you are!"

"You found me now, didn't you?"

"I didn't come here for this. Look." I took out my wallet and pulled out all the cash I had on me, $600. "If you need to pay someone for the information, then here. I'm really serious about this. You're the only one who can help me."

She turned her head and eyed the money. "Why do you need an exotic animal?"

"I just need it, okay?"

"It's a weird thing to ask. What's it for?"

I rolled my eyes. "I need it for a spell."

Hanna cocked her head.

I thought she'd take my bitterness as sarcasm, but she turned her body back toward mine. "A spell? That does what?"

I looked away. She finally reached out and took the cash, and I gratefully pulled back into myself. "I was kidding. Forget it."

"What does it do? This spell?"

"I don't need it for a spell, okay? I was being sarcastic."

"You're a rotten liar."

"Come on. Do you really believe that I secretly know how to cast spells?"

"You seem to."

I didn't reply.

Hanna took out a wallet from her back pocket and flipped it open. For a moment, I hated her for her self-absorption and breezy acceptance of something so strange. Shouldn't she feel something? Betrayal? Shock?

She put the money away. I saw Hanna's hard-copy picture of our mother in her wallet, her serene expression, her narrow, wide-set eyes, her face as cool and evocative as the face of the moon. Leading a life somewhere just as out of reach, for twenty-three years now and counting. For a moment, I hated her, too. Had she stayed around, Hanna might have turned into something other than this.

Hanna said, "You'll have to show me some magic sometime."

I looked at her closely. I couldn't read her expression. "Can you find an animal for me or not?"

Hanna slid her wallet back into her pocket and offered me that deceptively sunny grin. "Sure can."

"Find me something slow, that won't run away. Like a tortoise or a slug. Or better yet—" I took out my wallet again and handed her a credit card. "Buy it for me with this, if you can. And call my cell as soon as you do, so I know it's on its way."

She took the card. Her eyes glittered. "Do I get a present for helping you? Since Daddy refuses to 'sponsor a whore' and give me money anymore?"

I couldn't say no. "Sure. Buy yourself whatever you want."

She slid up to me and gave me a one-armed hug, while slipping my credit card into the front of her waistband with her other hand. "Love you bunches, Rammy. Call me and we'll hang out sometime for real, okay?"

Her hair smelled like cigarettes, and this close, I could see the redness in her eyes. I hugged her back, as if I could squeeze out everything within her that I had long ago ceased to recognize. "Sure."

I left the party and got back into the Jag. I drove a winding course through L.A. again, making more calls.

"Alan, it's Ramshead. I'm calling to see how things are going."

"Alan, it's Ramshead. I couldn't get you on your main cell. I'm seeing if you've found any of those things we talked about."

"Hi, Alan, it's Ramshead. I've tried a bunch of your other numbers. Where in God's name are you?"

I finally gave up and called the direct line to his secretary again.

"Patty Cheng."

"Hi, Patty, this is Ramshead."

"Ramshead! Hello. Is everything all right?"

"Yeah. I need to speak with Alan again. He should be expecting my calls, but I can't raise him. Didn't he come back to the office?"

"He did. I think he's here right now."

I was driving east on San Vicente Boulevard, already doing sixty, but at this I upped my speed to sixty-five. "Do you know if he's supposed to be in for the next half-hour or so?"

"He is, as far as he's told me."

"Great."

"Did you want me to get him?"

"No. That's all I needed to know."

We said our goodbyes, and I hung up as I swerved onto Wilshire Boulevard. Alan was deliberately not answering my calls.

I upped it to seventy.

I parked in the garage, showed my badge to security, and ran into the depths of the building. In minutes, I stood outside the antechamber of Alan's office, sweating and breathless. I wiped my forehead with my wrists, figured that was good enough to make me look presentable, and went inside.

Patty looked up from her desk as I came in. "Oh! Ramshead. I wasn't expecting you. Shall I—"

"Yes."

"I'll tell him you're here."

I did not sit down. Patty smiled at me and busied herself at her computer. It should have taken Alan less than fifteen seconds to come out from his inner office, but thirty seconds passed.

"Would you like to sit down?" Patty asked.

"No."

"I think he's in the middle of something."

I moved to the inner door, but Patty stood up, her smile a warning. "I'm sure he'll be right out."

I fumed and paced. Patty made calls and spoke in a sweet, pleasant voice. She typed at her computer. She put documents into envelopes. I pointedly checked my Daytona, over and over, and in this way, twenty horrible minutes passed.

I stopped pacing. "Patty," I finally said, "I'm really sorry about this."

She waved a hand. "That's all right. I know that things happen, and—Ramshead!"

I ran into his office anyway.

And right there, on the wide coffee table (Thomas Messel, American Chestnut), that lying son of a bitch was having lunch.

With him.

My heart seized. The door swung shut behind me. Alan looked up and away, too fast for me to even make eye contact, as across the table from him, my father said dryly, "Good afternoon, Ramshead. I can't imagine that you'd possibly be interested in our business meeting, but please, if you care that much about the Q2 reports, pull up a chair."

My throat was ash. "I need to talk to Alan."

"I don't think you do. We'll see you later, Ramshead."

Alan nodded without looking at me. "We'll talk some other time, all right?"

"Goddamnit it, no!" I shouted. "I asked you, and you agreed—so what the hell is this?"

"A meeting," said my father flatly. "Or is taking him out of one today not enough?"

I tried again to make eye contact with Alan, but he still wouldn't look at me—only down at the details of his Caesar salad.

My father pulled the napkin from his lap, wiped his mouth, and stood. "Ramshead, I really don't want to repeat myself."

"This is important!"

"Like it was this morning? Oh yes—Alan told me all about that. Of all the childish reasons to interrupt his day. Great crucified Christ."

I reeled. "What—what reasons? What did you tell him?" I demanded of Alan, but he wouldn't answer.

"Everything," snapped my father. "Which is to say, nothing much. A bunch of bushes? You pulled him out over your love for a bunch of fucking bushes?"

Between us, thousands of truths and unheld conversations loomed.

"But see...," I started. "It's not just... I mean there's—"

"You've got a real problem with moving on and letting go, you know that?" My father adjusted the cuffs of his shirt, to make each one symmetrical and perfect. "I want you to listen to me, Ramshead, for once in your contrary, obstinate life. Your existence is designed to be unimportant. Ergo, by definition, nothing you could ever do or want will ever be as important as even one, tiny little word spoken within these walls. Unless my house is on fire, you are not to take Alan out of a meeting. Do you understand me?"

I couldn't speak.

"So I suggest that you grow up and accept the upcoming passing of the goddamn topiary. It can't mean anything real to you anyway."

I took a step toward my brother.

My father lunged forward, whites of his eyes visible all around, daring me to take it further.

I turned on my heel and stormed out.

I had trouble breathing. My muscles wouldn't work right. I couldn't see where I was going and moved only on blind instinct, to someplace where there would be no people to see my humiliation. A back stairwell somewhere. I sank to concrete steps and put my head in my arms.

In my pocket, my cell phone rang. I drew it out and stared at the unfamiliar digits, then ground a palm into my eyes to clear them. Maybe it was Hanna's new number. "Ramshead."

"I didn't tell him everything," whispered Alan. "Obviously."

I stiffened.

"He'd never believe it. You know that. And anyway—what do you think I am?"

"I think you're a lying son of a bitch who I never should've—"

"I saw something. Okay? Earlier, you asked me if I actually saw something. Well—I did. Every single night for an entire year, after Mom left, I dreamed that I saw everyone I ever gave a damn about—you, Hanna, Mom, Dad—walking into that thing, and never coming out.

"Don't mess with it, Ramshead. I'm begging you. I don't want to know what you're doing, but for Christ's sake, leave it alone. You have no idea what this is connected to."

"Neither do you," I choked, but Alan had hung up.

I wasted valuable time collecting myself, then left the stairwell and made it back to the garage. Again I drove through L.A. traffic, growing rougher with the first edge of rush hour. I navigated it the way I turn side in The Maze: on instinct alone, with my mind in some disconnected place.

To protect myself.

This is fine, I told myself. I am fine. Everything is fine. I'm on my own all the time, so how is this any different? It's not. It's going to be fine.

I took out my phone again and called down the list.

"Hi, Sammy, this is Ramshead. Haven't talked to you in a while. Listen, I need a favor... call me back when you get this.

"Hi, Diana, this is Ramshead. Oh, shit. You're in France this month, aren't you? Never mind.

"Hey Vic. It's Ramshead. I think you told me once that you have an uncle who teaches at UCLA. He's in the Linguistics Department, right? This'll sound weird, but can you give me his number? Call me back."

I went through my entire phone, leaving messages and getting actual answers from no one.

So now what?

I went to the house. Not my father's house, but rather the "little cottage" that he had given me on my eighteenth birthday, in which I, and not the house sitter, am supposed to live in stylish debauchery. It embodies the designated lifestyle I am slated to experience. It is a place I don't like. But my clothes are there.

Inside the door from the garage, a pile of unopened mail had tipped over and now fanned across the floor, along with a pile of jackets and miscellaneous shoes. From the main living room, a space-age, minimalist monstrosity in white and silver, I heard Javier and his brothers laughing beneath the throbbing beats of Rock Band. I glanced at them gaming as I passed, then went upstairs into my spartan office and turned on my computer.

I began to Google things like "untranslated language" and "unknown language."

Within one minute, I found pictures of something called the Voynich Manuscript (fifteenth century, rediscovered by the modern world in 1912 by Wilfrid M. Voynich). Studious scholars had plastered sample pictures of the still-undecipherable text all over the web, replete with its bizarre illustrations of nude women emerging from pipes, goats eating stars, and plant roots entwined with eyeballs. Satisfied that this would fulfill the screw's requirement for a "language unknown," and encouraged by the easy success, I printed several pages of it.

Then I Googled "rare language."

Mistake.

Never mind the details. Never mind the tedious tweaking of Boolean search terms, broken links, dead ends, poor-quality JPEGs, problems installing the latest version of Acrobat, email addresses that bounce and phone numbers that no longer work, or warnings from Wikipedia that this page does not cite sources. Instead, consider the cruelly double-pronged crux of the problem: (a) rare languages, by their nature, are elusive and undocumented; and (b) how rare must this thing be, anyway?

Frustrated moments strung themselves together into an entire wasted hour. I took a break to go downstairs and eat something, one hand on my pocketed phone in case Hanna called with news about the rare animal, which she didn't. In the living room, Javier and his friends played and banged around, then began a heated, multilingual discussion of Angelina Jolie. I heard beer bottles clink and topple musically, and someone curse. "Chinga, tengo que mantener limpio este sitio—por las dudas que vuelva, ¿no sabes?"

I went back upstairs, into my bedroom this time. Time to try something drastic. I opened the drawer in my nightstand, and from beneath my photograph of my mother I pulled a small box, wrapped in white paper and tied with a deceptively simple string. When I was first hired, Perihana'ii had given me the box at HQ as part of an orientation packet. "That," she had said, "is your Trail Crew 98 Emergency Kit, to be kept somewhere safe on the other side of your portal. Hopefully, you will never need to open it."

"Why?" I had asked.

"The packet contains some artifacts imbued with very powerful taps and screws, so the seal-break causes long-term damage to local reality."

"How much damage, exactly?" I'd asked, but Perihana'ii had just twisted her tail in dismissal.

Well. Let's just hope the neighbors don't get transmogrified.

I went outside, down the steps of my redwood deck and to the center of my backyard, stopping beneath a lone silver maple. The branches were alive with piping chickadees, as if they knew. I looked at the package in my hands, shrugged, and pulled apart the knot.

The seal broke. My backyard shuddered, the way a Plexiglas door shudders if struck too hard, and the chickadees took wing in alarm. Everything was normal within my next breath, but I could feel that the coalesced curtain here had just been stressed. The cycles were trying to separate into their essential, chaotic parts.

I didn't know if they'd succeed, so I figured I'd better hurry.

I opened the box. Great, roiling clouds of invisible zap poured over my fingers and rolled away over the grass. Inside the steaming box, a Stone awaited me, next to a Blade and a String. Good God. What had Perihana'ii been thinking? With one incorrectly tied knot in that String, I could send away the entire sentient population of the Western hemisphere.

Better just use the Stone. Worst that one could do was cause global madness.

Gingerly, I picked up the Stone with my free hand. I could feel it breathing. I daren't put down the box, in case I knocked it over and caused the Blade to touch something living, so with my hands full, I sat down beneath the silver maple and crossed my legs.

I closed my right hand over the Stone, then did something that I am forbidden to talk about.

Soon, a different sort of Internet lay before me.

My breath came quick. This thing was ugly. A lurching, throbbing mass of color and neuroses, needs and fears and perverted hungers. Memories branded with vulnerability and shame. Faces. Places. The landscapes of recurring dreams. Riddles, jokes, melodies; flavors, dirty fantasies; facts and factoids, urban legends and lies.

Boolean search terms don't work here.

Instead, I thought about the concept behind the pronoun "I," divorced from language, and skipped this concept over the muck like a rock across the surface of a pond. Words bubbled up with each point of contact, and I searched for any I did not recognize. Je, ÿ, watashi, mim, ik, magamat, io, jeg, mimi, jag, minä. Each time I found an unfamiliar word, I held it and thought of the concept of language, to dredge up any linked English words for the mystery tongue. French, Russian, Japanese, Portuguese, Dutch, Hungarian, Italian, Norwegian, Swahili, Swedish, Finnish. But I needed a language rare. I couldn't be sure, but I didn't think these were rare enough.

Ergo: lather, rinse, repeat. More times than I care to count.

The sunlight in the backyard shifted further and grew long. They say that the Earth has somewhere around 6,000 languages.

I believe it.

My right hand was beginning to grow uncomfortable when I came across the word "nika." Language: Chinook Wawa.

Oh?

The word was fuzzy and irregular, like the concept of I was sloppy. I tried another: Pick up. "Mamook saghalie" floated up, but the boundaries here were also blurred and watery. Something was wrong. Languages are sharper than this.

But I was running out of time. So Chinook Wawa it was.

I (or was it Me, He, She, Mine, Him, Hers?): "Nika." Pick up (or was it Raise Above, Uplift, Make High?): "Mamook saghalie." I went through all the words I'd need to say for my screw: "I pick up the corner of the net... I pick up the corner of the net... I pick up the corner of the net... I pick up the corner of the net, and bind the strings." Then I tried to think of them together, all at once, to see what a grammatically correct translation would be, but I couldn't get anything to focus. Was this correct? Was this guy a novice speaker?

The translation flickered in and out. I memorized it anyway, the cheap and dangerous way, copying the little entanglements in this anonymous donor's head into my own. Associations rode over on the words: the warmth of family, a burst of excitement, a flavor I had never tasted. Dust inside a corral somewhere. Sunlight.

I felt the terrified donor shouting and holding his head, as he stood on a sidewalk outside a convenience store: "Get out, get out, get out!"

Done.

When I opened my eyes, I saw that the Stone had left a sunburned patch within my palm, and the silver maple's leaves had turned snow white.

I wandered back into the house, clutching my restocked white box. My own thoughts felt tidy and small. I don't like telepathy. It reminds me of my loneliness and limited understanding.

I went back into my office. I Googled Chinook Wawa, as a check, and uncovered the worrisome source of the "blurring" problem.

It wasn't that the donor had been a poor speaker. It was that Chinook Wawa was an old pidgin language used by Northwest Native tribes and Europeans, for the purposes of diplomacy and trade with each other. By its very nature, the tongue was inexact and makeshift.

How effing splendid.

I looked at the clock on my monitor. 7:54. I checked my cell phone, but Hanna still hadn't called with news. Why hadn't I asked her for her new number?

I dialed her old one out of futile anger. To my shock, a phone rang. Her voicemail kicked in. "Hey kiddies, it's Hanna. Leave me a message, 'kay?"

"You didn't change your number again?" I sputtered. "This whole time, I've been waiting for you to call me with any news, and you've still got your old—"

My phone beeped. I switched to the other line. "Ramshead."

"Rammy Pa-jammy!"

"Hanna!" I sat up straight. "You're there!"

"Where else would I be?"

"Forget it. Have you—did you—"

"That thing you wanted? Yeah, it's fine. You haven't gotten it yet?"

I sagged with relief. "It's fine?"

"I just said."

"But you didn't call me."

"Call you? Oh—I forgot that part. Hey, I got you a snail—is that okay?"

"A snail's perfect. Hanna—thank you."

I heard her say, "Actually, do you have it in white?" and then to me, "Oh, it was no problem. I mean, it was, but that's okay, because I'm really curious about what's going on. Is the guy really not there yet? He should be. Like, any minute."

"What guy?"

"I'm having a guy come to the house and drop it off, to make sure you get it."

I sat up straight again. "Hanna."

"Yeah?"

"What house?"

Pause.

"Which house, Hanna?"

"Rammy, what's the big deal? Dad's house. Cuz that's where you usually are when you're around, right?"

I was already running down to the garage.

Sunset now. I drove fast, but each passing minute still shrank my world into a ball of idiocy and ugly consequences. Of course Hanna had sent it there—why wouldn't she?

I reached the gate and got buzzed in. I drove up to the house like I meant to ram into it, but instead I parked, badly, at the foot of the main steps.

No other cars were there. I got out and leaned against the hood of the Jag, staring at that priceless coat of Coronado paint in the gathering darkness. The Daytona on my wrist read 8:13. Had Hanna given me a time? Had she given me his name?

I mounted the stone steps of the house and went inside, dialing Hanna's number.

"Who are you calling, Ramshead?"

My body stiffened. In my ear, Hanna's voicemail message said, "Hey kiddies, it's Hanna. Leave me a message, 'kay?"

I closed my phone and slid it into a pocket. Then I looked up at him, leisurely, as though everything were normal. "I'm waiting for someone. He's late. What are you doing by the door?"

In a doorway across the entrance hall, my father smiled. It was more like a grimace. "This friend of yours. Is he an older gentleman? Bearded?"

I didn't say anything.

"Ramshead. How about you come upstairs with me to my office?"

It was not a question.

He turned and stalked down the hall, and I followed him. I don't know why. I could've just turned and run away.

No I couldn't.

He led me into his private office on the second floor, the one directly off of his bedroom, full of rare treasures and strange gifts from around the world. My father seated himself at his desk (English, mid-seventeeth century, carved by Grinling Gibbons himself), crossed his legs at the knee, and swiveled to look at me.

I did not sit.

"Ramshead," my father said pleasantly. "What in the name of Christ do you want with a snail?"

Stay calm. "I beg your pardon?"

"Your colorful hippie friend," he said, still pleasantly. "The bearded gentleman. Before you decided to grace me with your presence this evening, he arrived with a snail for a Mister Jones. It's not Alan's. It's sure as shit not mine. Well?"

"Where is it?"

My father paused, as if he hadn't heard me and something else had just occurred to him. He glanced at his desk, at his framed photograph of my mother, then raised his eyes to one of the mysteries on the wall—a framed silver bird feather from a species I could never identify, something fantastic that looked more like it belonged in the other life I lived. "Ramshead," he said, "I am trying my absolute hardest not to lose my temper. Do you know how difficult that is for me?"

I did not reply.

"Now then. Please answer my question."

"It's none of your business."

"It's my house."

"It's my purchase."

"It's my property."

"Where is it?"

My father rubbed the bridge of his nose. It was a theatrical gesture only. He never got headaches. "This moment we're having right here? This is precisely indicative of the ongoing problem that I am having with you. What did I tell you this afternoon, Ramshead?"

I didn't respond. I felt a flush creep up my skin, some ugly synthesis of self-consciousness and fear.

"I said, 'I suggest that you grow up.' Didn't I?"

He was waiting for me to nod. I did not.

"Aren't you going to answer me?"

I didn't want to, but silence was the losing move. They were all losing moves. "Yes."

"That's right. Now, have you taken my suggestion yet?"

I closed my eyes. I felt sick. "Where is my snail?"

"No?" My father made a tsk-tsk noise behind his teeth. "Someday, I'm hoping, you'll finally realize what's good for you. In the meantime, why don't you let the grownups make the big decisions, hmm?"

I opened my mouth, but where could I even start?

My father abruptly turned to his desk and shuffled through a few papers. His tone dropped to one of boredom. "The Morro Shoulderband Snail. Indigenous to California and endangered, and found only in Montana de Oro State Park, under coastal scrub and chaparral, as well as some places in nearby Los Osos. Recognizable by the thick brown stripe running around the outside of its lighter, tawny shell, which is globular in shape, and marked by deep grooves. Or so your bearded friend told me. That's cute, Ramshead. Very cute. 'Accidentally' finding an endangered snail under the bushes out back would mean that I couldn't do a damn thing to the land until they assessed it, wouldn't it?

"Too bad for you, but Los Osos is a long way from L.A. It may seem close if you're desperate, but honestly, nobody would buy that sad sack of crap. So forget the snail. It wouldn't've worked anyway."

I said nothing.

"Ramshead, look—this is my house. I own it. I do what I like to it. You have your own house, which I bought you several years ago, to which you can do whatever you like. You're that attached to the hedge maze? Fine. Build one of your own. Jesus, build a Neverland Ranch over there for all I care. But here? Don't even try to fuck with me. This house is not a democracy.

"I don't know what your problem is, Ramshead, but though I've tried, it's clearly nothing I can address. So get out of here. I've better things to do than talk to someone who never listens."

I whispered, "My snail?"

He scribbled on some papers. "I sent it away, back to wherever it came from. Good night, Ramshead."

I stared at his hands. He would not look up and acknowledge me, even though I stood there in the crucifying silence.

I left his office. I went into a drawing room somewhere on the first floor and collapsed onto the couch. Around me, the house settled further into nighttime, as unseen staff opened windows to let in the cool air.

When I felt able to speak with a steady voice, I called Hanna.

"Hey kiddies, it's Hanna. Leave me a message, 'kay?"

"Hanna. Hi. The guy you sent over? Is he—do you have his number? Can you get him to come to my house instead? Hanna, please, pick up..."

I trailed off into silence. I hung up and dialed again.

"Hanna. Okay, goddamn it, the snail is for a spell. The most important one I've ever done. Hanna. Please. Send him to my house. Please, pick up!"

I hung up. I twitched for ten more minutes, then called again.

"Hanna, I'm begging you. I'll tell you everything if you'll call me back. I don't want to, not like this, not over a fucking cell phone, but Hanna, please, you don't know all the things at stake here. I'm sorry—that sounded patronizing and stupid. Just—call me back..."

I hung up and waited, and dialed again.

And again.

I finally pulled my feet up onto the couch and hugged my knees to my chest, as if I were a child curling up in the shadow of the rose garden, expecting that someone would care enough to comb the monstrous yard to find me. And now?

And now—what?

Now I kick myself without moving. Now I ask myself why I ever thought that I had anyone here I could rely upon. I had kept The Maze a secret for nine lonely years, after my first accidental entrance one drunken night at age sixteen, and I should've just kept going.

Why had I thought that exposing my secret would change things? My family would continue to weave their shifting nets around me and themselves, and not even my greatest need was sharp enough to cut through the old hurtful patterns. May as well just go out and hide under the bushes in the rose garden again, looking for answers there.

Wait.

The bushes.

Answers under the bushes.

I closed my eyes. "Montana de Oro State Park," my father had said, speaking of the endangered snail's habitat. And there was a GPS in my car.

Time to be a Space Cowboy Hero.

Night. Route 101, winding north against the edge of the sea, the wind in my ears and salt in my nose. Hours rolled by beneath my tires, and by 11:29, I hit Los Osos. From there I entered Montana de Oro State Park, a place of soft darkness and hungry silence. The road dead-ended in a parking lot. I swung into a space too hard, my tires rolling over the pavement and into the scrubby dust beyond, but I was already climbing out.

I felt under the seat for the flashlight, and once I had it, I walked across the lot to a random trail. My light lanced feebly into the chirping, clicking darkness, and I followed.

The night swallowed me with ease.

I walked slowly. Snails of any kind are tiny, and the park was huge. To better my odds, I worked out a system: take a step or two. Bend over. Shine light under some likely-looking vegetation. Take another step or two. Bend over. Shine light.

Step. Bend. Light.

I inched my way into trail-scored wilderness. I got discouraged fast. Weren't they more likely to be hiding under places away from the trails? Dare I step from the path to search and maybe, accidentally, step on one?

It was cold here. I slid my free hand into a pocket and felt the hard edges of a small box. My Trail Crew 98 Emergency Kit. A fat lot of good something that powerful could do me here.

Step. Bend. Light.

Behind me, some small animal rustled in the brush. Something broke a twig, and something else took flight. The little lives in this place made it breathe and shift, barely, and I felt a rush of homesickness for The Maze. Why is it that I find the maintenance of chaos so attractive?

Step. Bend. Light.

Again. Again. Ad infinitum. All the way to the coast, and along it some, in the breathing darkness. And all the way back to the Jag.

And, six hours later, while sitting on the sandy earth near the driver's side door, with the rest of my life scheduled to be spent in an artificial world with no escape waiting for me, under the front tire, hidden from someone who would not think to look so close to home—

—a snail.

The Morro Shoulderband Snail oozed along for a leisurely inch. I was too numb to react with emotion. I just reached over and picked it up. It felt how you'd expect a snail to feel: cold, slimy, light.

Fragile.

I ripped up a chunk of grass with my free hand. With my other, I gently placed the snail onto the roots, where it was cool and moist. Then we stood and climbed into my car. I started the engine and put the top up.

Four thirty-six A.M.

I drove back to L.A. with the muddy clump of grass placed on the dashboard. The snail oozed and appeared to sleep. I watched it and barely dared to breathe.

By the time we drove through Santa Ynez, the sun was rising.

We got snared in Santa Barbara traffic, broke free, and drove down the edge of the world. We turned inland at Ventura, moved on to Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, Calabasas, and the home stretch. I passed the big park nestled between Route 101 and I-405, and then remembered that I couldn't just roar up the street, saber rattling, to his backyard. I needed the rest of my blocks for the portal-moving screw to work.

I made a detour to my place and parked the car. With one hand, I scooped up the life rare (and the grass it rode in on) and unlocked the door with the other. We banged into the house.

On the couch, a strange man without a shirt awoke with a start and sat up. "¡Puta que lo parió!"

I ignored him and ran upstairs, snail habitat cupped against my chest, spraying dirt and roots on the floor with each footfall. I burst into my office and scooped up the printed pages of the Voynich Manuscript. And the language rare was in my head, and the life unknown—oh.

Right. I needed some homunculi.

I cursed, set down the snail's life raft on my desk, wiped my palms on my pants, shut the door, and unzipped my fly.

As I worked, I heard footfalls. Doors opened and closed. "¿Alguien subió aqui, fué el tipo?"

"¿Tipo blanco?"

"."

"¿Donde fué?"

"Al cuarto, alli."

Footsteps approached my office door. A tentative knock sounded, along with a faintly accented voice. "Mr. Jones?"

I shut him out and focused, savagely, and pulled the pages of the Voynich Manuscript closer, like readied sheets of tissue. Combine the language unknown with the life unknown, the screw instructions had said.

As I finished, the handle turned.

"DON'T COME IN!"

The handle froze. "Mr. Jones? You want me to clean up all this dirt?"

I distributed my homunculi across the pages and fought to keep my voice even. "Yes, fine, whatever!"

"And Mr. Jones? Diego says he's very sorry for falling asleep on your couch."

"I don't care."

"Mr. Jones, I'm very sorry. I did tell him he could stay a little, since you said visitors are okay, but I didn't say he could sleep on your couch with his shirt off."

"I still don't care." I composed myself and gathered my blocks.

"Mr. Jones—"

I opened the door. Javier stood in front of me, wide-eyed and conciliatory. "And listen, about the mail?"

I pushed past him. "It's fine."

"But—"

I fled from the house. "It's fine!"

When I climbed back into my Jag, my hands were shaking. My snail was still safe on his weedy clump. My pages were primed and ready. I put the pages on the passenger seat and the snail on the dash, and looked back and forth between them, unable to believe that I was succeeding.

My Daytona read 8:16 when we roared out into the street.

Rush hour descended, full and hard. My ballooning panic got trapped in gridlock and the wails of horns. Eight twenty-seven. Contractors always started early, before nine o'clock, while the morning was cool.

We broke free of traffic and I kicked the gas pedal, and the Jag's supercharged V8 roared awake. My blocks and I flew down the asphalt, nearly bottoming out. Home stretch now, for real. The long upward slope of the hill, the houses growing more sprawling and ostentatious, with the summit holding the grandest one of all.

We made the final turn. I took the service road that loops down the hill's other side. The gate had been left open, and an ominous caterpillar tread was imprinted in the grass.

We drove all the way down. I slid my Jag behind a parked bulldozer, before they could see me, but not before I saw them: rough men toting chainsaws, circling the hedge maze's bushes and settling into position. Someone started a chainsaw, and the calls of two more answered.

I grabbed the pages and the tuft of grass, and ran from my car without even shutting the door. Sprinting to the first thing that looked like a corner, I crumpled up a ball of manuscript and ripped up a piece of lawn and half-shoved the paper under the turf to make sure it would stay. Then I plucked the snail from its haven and thrust the startled animal against the page, and formed the alien but somehow intimately charged words that could cage the zap and funnel it down, into that curling shell:

"Nika mamook saghalie kushis yahka tenas sitkum."

I felt a jolt. I drew a breath. My magnetism was rising, fast, so close to the wall of leaves. The zap was spinning close and hot around me. A man without a chainsaw noticed me crouching there, and he frowned and started to shout me away. But I was already up and bolting along the southern wall of the hedge maze, fanning zap in my wake, moving east to the next corner.

I shoved a page halfway beneath a rock and tapped it with the snail. "Nika mamook saghalie kushis yahka tenas sitkum!"

A second jolt, stronger, with an almost audible hum. Someone else saw me. "Hey! Hey you!"

North. I moved low and hard, like an offensive tackle, knocking someone's hips with a shoulder and sending him spinning into the grass. Someone else popped a dirty transceiver from his belt and shouted into it. I sprinted to the third corner, zap fanning out like flames, within view of the cherry orchard and three other men. They glanced at each other and then trotted toward me. I tossed down a page and ground it into the earth with my heel, then dropped onto my knees and rubbed it with the snail and shouted, "Nika mamook saghalie kushis yahka tenas sitkum!"

"Who the hell is that? Hey, bozo!"

One more. I ran west with all the terror of my soul, final page clenched in a fist, snail in my half-closed palm, $1,000 Christian Dior shoes ripped, beaten, and filthy, Yves Saint Laurent jeans muddy and torn, the zap hot enough to ignite air, and not giving a fuck about anything, anything, anything, except making that final corner before he ordered all those chainsaws forward.

Ten feet from the corner, I had to pass him.

"RAMSHEAD!"

I dove into the earth, zap hitting me like a sonic boom. I mushed a page into the grass and bumped it with the snail, gasping, "Nika mamook saghalie kushis yahka tenas sitkum—pee kow klapite!"

One last jolt.

Next to me, the coalesced curtain shook. Some meta-pattern slid sideways, into me, into us. Into the startled little ball in my palm. Suddenly, the hedge maze before me was just a bunch of tidily groomed bushes.

The spinning zap had vanished.

I looked down into my palm, at my snail's curling shell, but now, when I tried to follow that inwardly curving spiral, my eyes got lost in The Maze's beckoning edge. And my snail felt warm. It wiggled its little eyestalks at me. In bewilderment?

My portal was bound.

I lay in the grass, too relieved to stand. I held my hand curled near my chest, keeping my life rare hidden and safe, while around me, he shouted at them in annoyance. "Did I tell you to stop? Get your crew back to the south side! Get out of the way! Yes, I still want it done! And this time, don't you move forward a goddamn inch until I say go."

My father squatted in the grass in front of me. "Do I have to call the police?"

I closed my eyes. "No," I murmured. "I'm done here."

"That's for goddamn sure." He gripped my arm, cruelly. "Do you have any idea what I had to miss this morning, just so I could stand out here and make sure you didn't try anything stupid at the last minute? What is it with you? Really, Ramshead?"

"Nothing." I pushed myself up into sitting with my free hand. "I'm fine now. I'll go."

"And what have you got there?"

Slowly, I raised my head. I pulled my hand closer to my chest.

"I asked you a question!" He grabbed my elbow and yanked. "Jesus Christ. You aren't still trying to pull that endangered-snail bullshit, are you?"

"No." I jerked back.

"You are!"

I roared. I rolled over and curled into a ball, holding my snail close to my chest. He roared back and threw himself on top of me. "You stubborn son of a bitch!"

He grabbed my wrist and, like an animal, bit into it.

I yelled. My hand jerked. His fingers slid into mine like a knife blade, and he pried apart my grip and plucked my snail from my grasp. "No, Dad!"

He scrambled back from me and stood. With a sneer of disgust, he threw the snail onto the grass, then ground its secret shell into oblivion with the heel of his John Lobb Oxford.

Finis.

The bound strings ripped. The portal began to disperse, but so close to its former home, it just snapped back into place and restabilized. And the ambient zap once again charged the air.

And beneath it, the chainsaws waited, all over again.

"Okay," said my father coldly, wiping his heel on the grass. "Now you're done here."

Inside me, something much more terrible than magnetism began to rise.

"Well?" he demanded. "Get up. And for Christ's sake, go take a shower before anyone sees you. What have you been doing all night? Wallowing in a pigpen? You look like shit."

Higher.

"And on second thought, I think I will call the police. If I ever see you on my property again, I swear to God I'm going to have you arrested. I have had it with your selfish, manipulative crap. Enough is enough."

Higher.

"Do you think I'm kidding? Look at me. Do you think I'm kidding? Do I look like a man making a joke?"

I stood.

"Well?"

I said, "Duck."

"And what the fuck is that supposed to mean?"

I punched him in the face.

His head snapped back. His eyes widened and a hand flew to his nose. The other flailed uselessly for balance before he tumbled backward onto the grass.

Then I jumped on top of him and went for his eyes.

I fought with zap. I spun it into the first, the second, the third degree of visible, arching and sizzling, inflicting damage on what should have been his soul. I went for his confidence and faith, mangling them. That is, I meant to.

But when he fought back, he used zap, too.

We tried to maul each other. Ripping, tearing, shredding, destroying, breaking and pounding and bleeding. Hair. Teeth. Skin. But when we reached each other, fingers slid uselessly over flesh and clothing, rarely landing a real blow. The protective properties of zap. How did he know? How did he know?

We rolled into the opening of the hedge maze.

I was half-blinded in one eye. I tasted blood. Something in my foot hurt. I didn't know where I was, couldn't even pay attention to where I was, because I was too busy—no, not even trying to shield myself anymore, but trying to murder him.

Above us, the single sun smeared into an uncertain polynomial of light.

He spat blood. He favored his left fist. His jacket was shreds of useless fabric. I went for his eyes again, he went for mine, and I snapped at deadly fingers and clawed his face, my assaults deflected with zap's oily smoothness.

We rolled over something that purred.

He tried to smother me with his body, to lock me up in his limbs and rip off the flesh from my face and neck with his teeth, but I was too strong. I wriggled away, over mud, then over something hollow that rang out like a xylophone.

I was getting weaker. So was he. My gouges got clumsy; his punches, weak. He tried to pull my hair, and it slipped through his fumbling fingers. The zap around us thinned and cooled.

Somewhere, I heard children singing.

I took a swing at his face. He was too exhausted to block, and I was too exhausted to hit. My loose fist bounced uselessly off a shoulder.

We collapsed onto a bed of moss.

I breathed, my body throbbing and on fire. Above our heads, The Maze breathed too, sculpting a roiling canopy of branches, vines, flowers, fruits, and birds, melting into each other as fast as they separated into anything distinct. A frantic kaleidoscope of light and shadow played over our bed of moss as the canopy danced. At our sides, the jungle behaved the same, as the trunks of the trees mingled with the sudden hides of elephants.

The moss beneath us did not shift. One of us had screwed it in place, and it wasn't me.

"You son of a bitch," he rasped.

I realized that we were entangled, like shoelaces tied by a frustrated child.

"You son of a bitch," he rasped again. "How long have you been hiding this?"

"Hiding what?"

He made a sound of pain. "This." He tried to gesture around himself. "Why didn't you tell me you knew?"

"I—what?"

"Why do you never answer any of my goddamn questions!"

"You knew about this place?" I panted. "You knew?"

"I knew." He tried to move and moaned. "Get off of me."

I rolled away, onto my back, wincing. He pulled himself up into sitting, his back against a large and unshifting rock. His expression creased in pain. "I knew."

"Jesus."

"Of course I knew."

"How could you?"

"I'm sorry."

"How could you?"

"I didn't know you'd been here."

"How does that change anything?"

My father looked down at me. Somehow, he seemed more human, exhausted and beaten like this. He raised a trembling hand to his mouth and wiped away some blood with the cuff of his shirt. "I've never been in here. Do you know that?"

I stared back at him.

"I never actually went inside," he said. "She just taught me some things when we stood close—how to defend myself, mostly, in case anything unwelcome came out. The closest I ever came was standing in the entrance, when she—"

"Who?"

His head dropped forward. Exhaustion or defeat? He didn't answer me.

"Dad. Who?"

He shook his head.

I closed my eyes. We let the silence stretch. As The Maze resettled itself, its sounds overlapped and mingled too: birdsong, wind in leaves, children singing, water chuckling over stones; lions roaring, monkeys chattering.

"Listen," he said. His voice was thin. "I didn't know. What do you do in here?"

"What?"

"Damn you, Ramshead—"

"I work."

"You work?"

"I'm on a Trail Crew. I help maintain things. I make everything behave how it's supposed to... it's complicated."

"Have you seen her?"

"Who?"

Silence again.

He asked, "What is this place?"

"You don't know?"

"No."

I spat out some blood. "It's the place between worlds."

He closed his eyes. "So she could be anywhere."

I didn't bother asking again. He said nothing else. I made my painful, laborious way to the big rock, pulling myself along, and then up into sitting beside him.

He coughed. "What else do you know about this place? What can you tell me?"

"Why do you want to know?"

He rolled his head over the surface of the rock to look at me. "Because I'm finally ready to know."

"But—what do you know?"

"Let's start with you, okay?"

"Let's not. 'Finally ready to know'? What are you hiding?"

"Ramshead." His eyes closed, in pain. Physical or emotional? "This is hard enough as it is. Okay?"

"This is my place. You understand me?" I raised a hand, weakly, to gesture at the swallowed path we'd used to come here. "That place back there? That world? Where you already have everything? That's yours. You can choke on it. You can live in it and die in it. I stopped caring about it a long time ago.

"This place is mine. In a sense you can never understand. And if you try to destroy my one way into it—and everyone else's way into Earth—I will kill you."

The pain on his face sharpened. "I can see that," he said. "But even though it's yours now, it was your mother's, first."

The second of my shock stretched into ten. "Wait."

"Your mother's," he repeated.

"No. Oh no. You—"

"Shut up." He tried to resettle himself and winced again. "You never listen to me. You know that? What have I been saying all this time, about letting go and moving on? What exactly do you think I'm trying to do here, for myself, by doing this? Do you think I'd plow a link to a place like this under if I really knew exactly what it was? What do you take me for?

"No, don't answer that. I know exactly what you take me for.

"You know what the sum total of my knowledge is about this place? Only one thing: this is where your mother came from. And she didn't even tell me that until later. At first, I just thought she was a tourist, lost in my backyard somehow.

"You know the rest. I could never tie her down. She told me she liked California, but she still came and went, and was never around much. And the last time she went, she just never came back.

"And I'm ready to give up hoping she ever will."

I didn't know what to say.

"Do you think this is easy? Do you think it's easy knowing that something from beyond this Earth, and probably better than this Earth, once thought you and the children you shared were worthy of attention, and then changed her mind?"

Okay—now I really didn't know what to say.

"I know you hate me. Okay? I know all of you hate me. And believe it or not, I don't blame you. I'm trying my damndest to give each of you the world and a strong role in it, but for her, a place in this world wasn't enough either. Okay?

"Okay?"

I didn't know how he expected me to digest all of this so fast. But maybe it wasn't about digestion—just acknowledgment—so I said, "Okay."

He nodded.

We listened to The Maze a while longer: chirps and song, rumbles and laughter. Twigs breaking. Distantly, the beat of drums. Above our heads, the branches entwined, melted, and separated again, in a reiterative, never-ending net, needing each other to exist.

"Okay," I finally said. "I'll tell you everything I know."

We stepped out of The Maze almost three hours later, limping and holding onto each other. Most of the workers were still there, waiting, looking bored and pissed off in turns, their chainsaws silent in the grass. My father had a short talk with the foreman, and twenty minutes later, the bulldozers and trucks were rumbling away up the service road.

"Should we go to a hospital?" I asked him.

"Probably. If you looked like shit earlier, you look like reheated shit now."

In the aftermath of this, as one might expect, things changed. In a way, it was more terrifying than before. Then, I knew what to expect, but now the pattern had been broken and there were no maps.

I suppose it began in The Maze, with my father's unusually quiet attention, but became truly noticeable in the hospital. Instead of phoning Juan from his room, my father read a number of newspapers and took no calls. And over the next few weeks I got a trickle of further reports from Alan. Our father was quieter at the office, too. His violent temper had not changed, but now he'd only stare at the offender and say, "I have no time for you," before turning away.

Alan broke his own pattern. Instead of determinedly living as my father's desperate, bitter echo, he began to drift from his designated life. Perhaps because he saw something different in our father's silence than I did—something forgiving, or at least tolerant. I saw Alan at the house more often on weekends. A couple of times, I saw him head out with a shy smile on a Saturday night, to try moving in the exotic world he'd always been so jealous of me for being told to inhabit.

Hanna's pattern was something I had never fully understood, so perhaps it changed and perhaps it didn't. However, I did see her at the house again, often grinning and whispering things in the male staff's ears.

A few times, I saw Alan and Hanna actually talking.

A few other times, I saw Hanna and my father actually talking. "For God's sake, cover yourself—you're supposed to be elegant," he'd said, but at least they were speaking again.

And me?

I broke my own silence. Once home, I recounted my three-hour-long talk in The Maze to Hanna, which spawned more talks in turn. I talked with Alan, too, although these conversations were far more painful. I suspected that his childhood, year-long nightmare of the hedge maze eating everyone was a distorted memory of our mother's final exit, and easing that pain would take more than just words.

I tried to talk about The Maze again with my father, but it was not successful. I still wanted to feel some kind of cathartic honesty. I still couldn't bring myself there. All the final things I had to say could only be said within an entirely new pattern, one which neither of us yet knew how to move in.

We did agree, however, that for the sake of convenience and his peace of mind, the portal ought to be moved.

So, I hired a landscaping company to build a hedge maze in my own backyard. I drew up no blueprints, and told the foreman to design it himself. When it was ready, I had Hanna's source bring me one Morro Shoulderband Snail, and I bound the old portal. In my backyard, by the new hedge maze's entrance—the place beneath the white-leaved silver maple—I released the corners of the net, and unbound the strings.

A week after I transplanted the portal, Hanna came over.

"Ready, Rammykins?" she asked.

We stood in my backyard. Around us, the day was sunny and warm. I heard Javier and his friends in the side yard, playing Frisbee, though from where we were, I couldn't see them. Above Hanna and me, the boughs of the silver maple drank in the sun, the snowy leaves somehow photosynthesizing anyway with the aid of the ambient zap.

Before us, the opening to my hedge maze receded into shifting infinity.

Hanna cleared her throat. "Do they have cigarettes there?"

"Sort of."

She peered into the portal. "What are they like?"

"You'll be fine."

"Daddy's right—you really don't like to answer questions, do you?"

I shook my head in dismissal. Hanna pulled out her wallet and flipped it open to our mother's picture, as if she hadn't memorized her face by now. "Well, we'll find some cigarettes somewhere. It'll be a heck of a lot easier than finding her, anyway."

"It was your idea."

"I'm not saying it's a dumb idea. It'll just be hard."

"No doubt. She probably won't even be in her human form."

Hanna's expression turned uncomfortable. She put away her wallet. "And on that creepy note..."

I smiled. "I'm ready. We better go before I attract too much zap anyway."

"Wait!"

We turned. Alan, wearing beat-up Levi's, work boots, and a man's work shirt—more or less the same outfit Hanna and I wore—came huffing over the wide lawn, his backpack flopping up and down with his clumsy strides.

"Wait." He stumbled to a stop near us, then leaned over and placed his palms on his knees as he gasped, "Wait. A second. Okay?"

Hanna smiled at him, almost shyly. "Al'ligator. I thought you didn't want to come."

"Changed. My mind."

Her smile widened. "Rammy says it's kinda rough in there. You sure you don't want to just join a gym instead?"

He freed a hand to give her the finger.

I pretended I hadn't seen this, and resettled my familiar slouch hat (Yuri: "It's a cowboy hat, right? And you're a hero in space, right?") on my head. "Al, don't listen to her. She's going to spend the whole time asking if there are any cigarettes."

"Will not."

Alan straightened, still breathing hard. "Forget it. Let's just go."

I nodded.

"What do we do?" he asked.

I glanced between them, then turned to face the way home. I extended my hands. "Each of you, take a hand. Close your eyes and run with me. I'll pull you through this first time."

I felt them glance at each other behind my back, but they took their positions, Alan on my right, Hanna on my left. I took their hands: broad and sweaty, slender and fine.

We closed our eyes. I led them forward, and together we turned side.

This story originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction.


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THE RAMSHEAD ALGORITHM AND OTHER STORIES

In KJ Kabza's debut print collect, sand cats speak, ghost bikes roll, corpses disappear, and hedge mazes are more bewildering than you’ve ever imagined. These 11 fantasy and science fiction stories have been dubbed "A fresh new voice in the genre" (Booklist) and "Bursting with both ideas and emotion" (RT Book Reviews) and will take you deep into other astonishing realities. Cover and interior illustrations by Dante Saunders. Introduction by Gordon Van Gelder.

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