The Clearest Path

I wrote this piece for round 1 of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. In the contest, you are randomly assigned a genre, location and object. The story must primarily be set in the location, the object must physically appear (not just be mentioned) and, though you may use elements from other genres, the piece must predominantly fit into what was assigned. In round 1, they rank the top fifteen stories in each genre (though everyone is eligible to move on to round 2). I placed sixth–which is a little disappointing since I initially thought I was fifth–though still exciting because, while I don’t know how many people were in my group, thousand of writers enter the.

My assignment was: romance, for genre; a maze for location, and a marshmallow as the object. I initially had no clue what I would write about. But the next morning—the assignments are sent out at 11:59 pm—I woke up inspired. I brushed up on the story of the minotaur, discovered that labyrinths and mazes were different (which caused some panic). But I took a breath, came up with two names that managed to be modern (i.e. still in use), Greek, and somewhat similar—the same first letters—to two characters in the original story—Theseus and Phadra. And finally settled in to write. After all, I only had 48 hours.

(Final note, this is mostly the original story, though I did try to incorporate bits of the judges’ feedback.)

***

Summary (it’s a requirement for the contest):

On their final in-person date before heading back to school in fol, can Phoebe and Theo find their way to love amidst the winding paths of a maze?

“Welcome to The Labyrinth,” Theo said, deep voice dramatic. If I weren’t holding his elbow, I bet there would have been a lavish gesture accompanying the words.

“I thought it was a maze,” I said, sweeping my cane before me with my other hand.

“They’re synonyms.” he said.

We stopped as my cane tapped something in front of us. With what I could see from my right eye, I assumed that the white, waist high structure was a counter.

“Purchasing here or e-tickets?” The woman behind the counter asked.

“E-tickets,” he said, using the arm I held to reach into his pocket for his phone. I let my hand fall away and waited. “So is it really magical?”

“That’s for you to decide,” she said, a smile in her voice. There was a beep, then she wished us well. “And remember, the clearest path is not always the straightest.”

Ookay. I thought. Suitably cryptic for a labyrinthian treasure hunt with a marshmallow minotaur as the prize. As far as dates went, this was already one of the most memorable.

I took Theo’s arm again and we headed in. Well, not in, exactly. The entrance was indoors, but the maze was outside. Which reminded me-

“They’re not synonyms.” My words were punctuated by the crunch of gravel beneath our feet.

“What?”

“Labyrinth and maze,” I said. “They’re not synonymous.” As we turned a corner, gravel softened to grass, the hum of traffic disappeared, and a ray of sunlight seared my retinas.

“Oh come on,” I muttered. “I only have one of those.”

Laughing, Theo asked, “So what’s the difference?”

“A labyrinth is winding, but one solid path.” I said. “A maze has branches, dead-ends, multiple exits. It’s a common misnomer.”

“Pheebs,” he said as we started walking downhill. “Why do you know that?”

I shrugged. “Just picked it up somewhere.”

He brushed my fingers with the hand opposite the one I was holding. Butterflies took flight in my stomach. “You have so much random knowledge.”

I flushed at the warmth in his voice. I didn’t know what to say, so I wracked my brain for another subject.

Maybe tell him that the minotaur in the myth was in a labyrinth, not a maze. So having this place advertise itself as a “mystical maze” but welcome us to “the labyrinth” was confusing. No. Then I’d seem weirdly obsessive about something that didn’t even matter. Today’s about us. Figuring out if we should try to pursue something once we were back on opposite coasts for the fall semester. I wanted to try. But did we have a strong enough foundation?

So I asked about the scenery.

“Well,” he said. “It’s definitely a maze. There’s forks and spoonsa whole cutlery drawer of directions.” We stopped. “Okay so, we’re at a crossroad. On the right there’s a path lined by white flowers. It’s got a nice balance of sunlight and shade so it shouldn’t bother your eyes. Then there’s the left path, but there’s so many trees I can’t really see what’s down it. Neither one looks more or less traveled, so this one’s on you.”

“Did you just paraphrase Robert Frost?”

“Yeah.”

“English majors.”

“Hey, you recognized it!”

“Yeah, so?” I suppressed the urge to stick my tongue out. ‘Cause that’d be super attractive. “Okay, so, the object is the marshmallow minotaur. If we think about this strategically

“No.”

“What?”

“No strategy, just choose.”

“But-“

“Take a chance.” He slipped his arm from my grasp and took my hands, holding one and resting the other over the hand that held my cane. “When I told you about the paths, what was your first instinct?”

“To strategize. They obviously want to make it as hard as possible to get to the-“

“Stop.” He dropped my hands and took my shoulders. He was close enough for me to see his skin, like the color of almonds, it was a few shades lighter than my ownbut not enough to see his dark brown eyes. “Stop thinking.” That’s an easy one with him standing so close. “Which one calls to you?”

“I mean, I guess I’m a little curious about the left one.”

“Let’s go!”

The scent of growing things tickled my nose. Birds gossiped in the trees. And we just continued on: twisting, turning, dead-ending. And though I was having fun listening to the harmony of our laughter echo around us, I couldn’t help worrying. There had been more people in line. So where were they? Then, as the sun began to get lower, I started wondering: where were we?

“Relax.” Theo said, every time I asked. “Just enjoy yourself.”

Eventually, we stopped for a late lunch. Not knowing how long it would take, we’d brought sandwiches and extra water. When we were done, we shoved everything back in his bag and continued on.

“How big is this place?” I asked, as goosebumps rose on my arms from the spray of a nearby waterfall. “And how is there room for all this?”

“No clue.”

“How are you so calm?”

“With the magic of good company, what’s there to worry about?”

My cheeks warmed. He made it sound so simple.

“So,” he said. “I’ve asked this before but, why aren’t you studying history? You know so much random stuff about etymology and mythology and stuff.”

“It’s not practical.”

Then we launched into what was quickly becoming our usual debate about passion versus practicality.

“Do you like marshmallows?”

“What?”

“We’re at the minotaur.”

It took a second for me to figure out what he was talking about.

“Would it be cheesy if I fed you a bite?” He asked.

“Extra sharp analysis.”

Laughing, he handed me my prize. I bit the oversized head off victoriously. Then was swept up in a kiss sweeter than any marshmallow.

“Trust your instincts.” He murmured, running his hand over my closely cropped coils. “Even if it takes you on the scenic route.”

***

My assignment for the next round was: suspense, a fitting room, and a chocolate brownie. I really struggled with that one. I barely managed to upload it on time, and was not happy with the finished product. If I place well, I’ll upload it. If not, well, it may be a story I never let the light of day touch.

Well, till next time.

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