I had just been trying to get to a restaurant to pick up my leftovers. I had forgotten them at my table, and the meal was pricey enough to warrant driving back through the mall parking lot and finding another place to park. I had to stay on the far side of the lot, since Saturday nights were always so busy, the damn place was always packed with people. Too many people. We need a new plague.
I hoped to reach the restaurant through a little-used side entrance. It was a heavy metal door, painted a dingy gray-blue that blended with the concrete wall around it. The handle was loose—it nearly pulled out as I heaved it open and slipped inside. I wanted my food, dammit.
The hallway was dark, and led to some kind of a vast theater. Each room could easily seat several thousand people, and the lights were still mostly on. Every screen displayed a giant, lithe, naked woman with a blonde bob, reaching out and over her audience. Her pale frame was startling against the black backdrop of the screen. She seemed so close, so terrifyingly powerful. She looked down on all of them with her eyes the size of small cars, smiling slowly, sensually, patronizingly.
I left the theater—my food was not in here, and it was too quiet. Guards stood at the doors, but I slipped past them, hiding behind some other patrons who had decided to check out the adjacent rooms, as if there were something else to be seen in there.
There was another door—smaller, next to the bathrooms in a dark hallway. I took it, and found myself inside an intricately-tiled, well-lit labyrinth. Square inch ivory tiles covered the walls, the ceiling, the floor. Thin lines of black and dark blue bordered the wall about six inches from the floor, snaking their way through paths that led nowhere, somewhere, in upon themselves.
They mirrored themselves along the top part of the wall, a few inches from where it started to curve into the arched ceiling. Windows had been built seemingly at random, providing views to other empty hallways, or flooded with afternoon sunlight too bright to look at directly.
The tiles grew larger, turned into dark teal glass. I felt like I was inside a swimming pool. Many hallways branched off into loops, or were simply too narrow for me to push through.
Eventually, I found a room. Warm, full of books and pillows, and walls covered in beige stucco—it felt like an Adobe house. It was filled with women and flea-bitten, starving dogs. All had lost their way in the tiled hallway, and now lived off of the boxes of supplies some magnanimous, anonymous owner shipped down somehow. No one knew how. They just appeared.
“Happy happyday!” They wished me, singing and dancing with manic glee, before assigning me a new name that I did not like or understand.
“We have to get out of here,” I told them. I crushed the leader girl’s skull with my own, as though she were a large, blood-filled soda can. She had been holding us back. She liked it there, and wouldn’t let us leave.
I linked us together: woman, dog-on-a-leash, woman. The dogs would know the way out, somehow.
Over and over, we tried to escape, using our chain to keep track of one another, to make sure we didn’t take any of the giant tiled loops that led back on itself. Every time, we came back to that room, and every time, the leader girl was alive, waiting.
It was simulation, I had realized. One we were not designed to work our way out of. At the center of it—protected by the girl—was its technician. A lithe, metal woman plugging and unplugging wires into her body. We worked our way through the maze by looking at our feet, trying not to lose our step and fall on the slick floors. But, in doing that, we didn’t realize that the ceiling had risen to the height of a cathedral, and the walls did not always reach the top.
We assigned one woman to look up, to keep her eyes on the ceiling, and use it to guide us through the maze. We assigned another to look down, to keep our feet steady, to keep us from falling.
At some point, I gave up trying to find the exit. At some point, knowing we were making progress was the only important thing.
Paintings began to decorate the walls. Small tables and chairs and carpets furnished the paths with slowly increasing frequency. A set of wide, wooden stairs led up and through a large antique store. I looked behind me: still tile. I looked ahead of me: wood and plush and stained glass.
A short, slender black girl waited for me at the top of the stairs. She was dressed in a fine black blouse, a black pencil skirt, and black and gold heels. The other women and animals had disappeared. Now, it was only me and my dog.
“Next time you might want to just go over the mountain,” she said, looking me up and down appraisingly. “It would be a lot easier than going through a maze you don’t even have a map to.”