Chapters, Rat in a Maze

Rat in a Maze: Chapter 7

Jack stood still, his back against the rubble. The hunched man started to approach him. He raised his knife towards him. No words were spoken. This time, he could appreciate his features more clearly: he was hunched over in an inhuman way, his spine bulging grossly against his back. It looked like it would explode out any time soon. He also looked emaciated, but the skin that stuck against him didn’t outline any ribs, as if they all had been removed.

 

Jack darted his eyes from side to side, looking for an opening. There was a hallway to his side, but there was no telling how fast the hunched man might be. The way behind the hunched man was also an option, but he didn’t think he’d be able to swerve past him. He came closer and closer, wielding his bloody butcher knife.

Deciding to risk all or nothing, he moved to the side opposite of the hallway beside him, making the hunched man stab in that direction, and then jerked back towards the hallway, and started running. The knife stuck itself between two stones. Without much hurry, the hunched man drew it out and turned towards Jack. He was already halfway through the hallway when the hunched man started running after him.

His way of running mystified Jack: the hunched man ran with his entire body bobbing constantly up and down, like he was on the verge of falling at any second. He was incredibly agile, however. The hunched man leapt over utility carts and other overturned objects without missing a beat, and only seemed to stay behind because it wanted to.

Jack focused his eyes on the way in front of him, trying to ignore the bony footsteps behind him, and look for a way out. The shrill laughter broke out, sending shivers up and down Jack’s spine. He broke into a frantic run, without thinking.

His reckless run brought him face to face with a dead end. The derelict hospital wall stood before him, impenetrable and final. He turned around. Slowing down, the hunched man walked towards him, taking his sweet time.

The lights over head turned on and off, bathing the hallway in light and darkness at intervals. The monster walked towards him, his feet slowly pacing towards Jack. Light died and then came back on. The woman from his dream replaced the hunched man, and walked towards him, holding her knife.

Jack gripped his pipe, staring at the woman. The lights flickered and the monster walked towards him, now almost up to him. He raised it as she drew closer, her knife shining from the light.

The room around Jack started to spin, and he felt dizzy. Everything blurred except the woman or the hunched man. Jack gripped his head with his other hand, trying to make sense of all of it. The apparition was nearly on him, raising his/her knife.

The knife came down. Jack lashed out and swung the pipe. There was the noise of metal connecting with flesh, and a loud thud against the wall. He looked around as the world steadied, settling into one steady frame. His monster was at his feet, unconscious. Thinking he was dead was merely wishful thinking: Jack could see the steady rise and fall of something that had no way of being alive in the first place.

He counted his blessings and broke into a run, far away from the hallway and the monster from the maze and his dream. His voice rang across the hallways, calling Rose’s name. A shrill laughter bounced up and down the corridors, following him wherever he went.

Jack slowed down to a walk after running for a while. The laughter had stopped, and the hallway was completely silent. He started to walk, looking for the other set of stairs. If he remembered correctly, there was another stair well at the end opposite to the entrance to the East Wing.

A scream came from somewhere beside him. Startled, he whirled around and faced his side. There was nothing but a boarded up window, obscuring the view outside. It was followed by more screams, and they intensified as he got closer to the other stairwell. They were nearly intolerable as he reached the end of the South Wing’s second floor. No door was present, but next to where it should be, there was the stairwell.

Jack hurried down the steps. His foot missed the second-to-last step and he tumbled down, falling on the floor. Brushing it off, he got up and started running, recalling their last journey through the first floor. In short notice, he found the other stair well. Over the screams from outside, he could hear two people talking upstairs.

Jack rushed up the stairs and turned to the right. There were three doors to his left – from the third the voices were coming. He tried the doorknob, failed to open the door, and then slammed his shoulder against it. Old and brittle, it ripped clean off its hinges, and dropped down to the floor.

Rose was sitting on the bed at the far end of the room. Their stalker man sat on a chair beside Jack. He could see this man didn’t have the eyes of a mad man, or a crazy grin – he looked like someone you might find on the street, except dirtier, and with ragged clothes.

Jack?” Rose got up on her feet, and walked towards Jack. “You’re alive!”

Yeah, I’m fine.” The episode in the hallway flashed in his mind. “What’s happening? I thought you were being chased.”

I was.” Rose said. “But…Jack, this man…”

The man extended his hand to Jack. “The name’s Travis Hartmann. I’m Rose’s father.”

Confused, Jack extended his own hand and shook Travis’. “Jack Harris…” He shook his head, trying to make sense out of it. “You’re Rose’s…father? That Travis?”

Travis nodded. He reached into a chest pocket, and pulled out a picture. It was old, and a bit crumbly, but clear enough. In it, Travis was standing next to a woman, an arm around her waist. A happy little girl stood between them, holding their free hands.

That’s me, and my mother.” Rose said, walking over.

Jack was still distrustful. “If you’re her father, why did you attack us?”

I’ve been trapped in here for years. When I saw you two, carrying a lead pipe and a knife, I thought you were more psychos from the maze. I’m sorry.”

You didn’t recognize your own daughter?”

I was kidnapped and put into the maze years ago, when Rose was an infant. I had no way of knowing, Jack.”

Jack felt a bit ashamed of himself. “I’m sorry, Mr. Hartmann. It’s just…”

Travis shook his head. “The maze, isn’t it? It’s made all of us distrustful.”

Atleast, we’re finally out of the maze, right?”

Travis shook his head. Jack’s heart dropped.

It sure looks like the asylum, doesn’t it?”

What else could it be?”

He shook his head again. “You’ve probably pieced it together by now, but this isn’t the asylum. Not the ‘true’ one, anyways…”

I don’t get it. What do you mean, not the true one?”

I don’t get it either.” Travis said. “I’ve been in here for years, and going off from what Rose told me, the asylum was still in use before she got put in the maze. Besides, there are…things, outside. And it’s always night.”

Then where are we?”

I don’t know. Or how to get out of here. I tried ripping off the boards to the windows, but they just wouldn’t budge. Or the main entrance, for that matter. In short, I guess this place is an…extension of the maze.”

What about the other wings? We saw the door to the East Wing, but that was closed.”

Yeah, it’s closed. I’ve got the key.”

You do?!” Jack almost jumped forward. “Then why are you still here?!”

Jack…the things behind those doors…They’re worse than the maze. In every possible way.”

How?

They’re not of this world, Jack. They’d drive a man insane in seconds. I barely escaped.”

Jack fell silent. He sat down on a chair, facing Travis.

So, what do you suggest? Sit around here and wait for rescue that will never come?”

Maybe. I’ve got enough food for a few years. Wait for more people to come through the maze.”

Jack looked Travis dead in the eye, and leaned forward. “Tell me, Travis.” He said. “Since you got here, how many people have you seen?”

It was Travis’ turn to fall silent. He looked down at the ground. Rose sat on the bed, watching their exchange.

How many have you seen?

A couple.” He said after a long pause.

Yeah? A couple, in almost fifteen years?”

Fine!” He barked at Jack. “I’ve only seen a couple folk over the years here.”

Jack leaned back. He wasn’t sure what he was going for with this. “I’m sorry.”

No harm done.”

It’s just, we’ve come so far. I’m not going to stop.”

You’re gonna get yourself killed, son.” Travis looked back up at him.

The hunched man’s words replayed in Jack’s mind. I can’t have you die yet, Harbinger…

What a sick fascination the monster has in you, Jack. Perhaps he sees himself reflected in you? The voice that had been silent for a long time spoke again in his mind. Jack looked to the side with a glance, towards the voice.

What is it?” Travis said. “You heard something?”

Uh, no. Thought I did. Nevermind.” Rose was looking straight at him. Jack looked away, towards the open door, and out into the hallway. “Yeah, I might get myself killed, if I go into the East Wing. But I don’t plan to sit around and do nothing about it.” As if to punctuate his words, he sat up. “You said you have the key, right? Where is it?”

Travis looked up at him, meeting his gaze. He was convinced to not give him the key, but something in Jack’s eyes made him reconsider.

A will to survive.” He muttered to himself.

I’m sorry?”

Nothing.”

Rose, too, looked straight at Jack. She had only known him for a few days, but the man standing before her seemed a lot different than the one she had met in the dimly lit hallway. He had grown in a short space of time.

What if that’s the purpose of the maze? Rose thought to herself in that moment. For the strong to survive it, and the weak to die in it? She turned around, and faced the boarded up window. Faint screams from outside reached her ears. But to go this far…

She rose up to her feet, her fists curled up. “I’ll go with you, Jack.”

Jack turned towards her. He simply nodded, no reason to argue. They both knew the risks, and Jack knew this well.

Then she turned to her father. “Mom’s still around, you know.”

Travis blinked. “Laura, huh? I figured she would forget all about me…”

She shook her head. “Mom always told how great of a man you were, so kind to your patients. And how lost she felt when you were declared dead.”

Travis slowly nodded, not surprised.

Since then, I’ve wanted to find you, or find out what really happened.”

Travis turned away from her. “Was it worth it, Rose?”

Huh?”

You went through a Hell nobody should experience, to find your father. Well, here I am. Was it worth it?”

She shook her head. “I’m not finished yet.”

What do you mean?”

When I was put into this maze, after a few days, I realized this had to be the place you were stuck in.” Rose said. “And I thought, ‘If there’s the slightest chance of my father being alive, I’ll get him out of here.’”

I appreciate it, Rose, but—”

But I didn’t really mean it, until I found Jack.”

Jack turned back to her, surprised. “Me?”

Jack, you want to see your sister, right?” She said.

I promised her, we’d see again one day.”

Rose turned back to Travis. “Dad, if there’s a way out of here, we will find it. You don’t have to follow us into that wing, but I’m going to get you out of here, and that’s final.”

Travis sighed. “When your mother gets an idea in her head, she won’t let go.”

I guess that’s kind of true.” Rose said. “She never really believed you were dead, or that you died that way.”

You’re just like her.” Travis stood up. “Alright.”

Jack blinked. “’Alright’?”

Travis nodded. “If you’re going in there, I can’t sit around doing nothing. Besides, I can’t let my daughter go into that place alone.”

Jack let out a sigh of relief.

Travis made his way out the door. “I keep the key in a doctor’s office in the third floor.” He said, walking across the hallway. Jack and Rose followed. “Along with some notes.”

Your own, dad?”

No. They’re all signed ‘Hoffman’. I don’t know who he is, but I think that’s the name of the old director of the asylum.”

Hoffman? What happened to him?” Jack asked, climbing up the stairs.

Don’t rightly know. From what I heard, he killed himself. One day, out of the blue. They found him hanging from the ceiling fan in his office.”

We’ve heard the name Hoffman before.” Rose said. “From the notes of some Dr. Linder. From what we could put together, he was the head of the maze, or something.”

Jack was surprised at her memory. The name of the doctor had slipped his mind.

That would make sense, since Hoffman was the director.” Travis walked them down a hallway. Jack was on his toes for any shrill laughter.

Travis…does the word ‘harbinger’ ring any bells with you?” Jack asked, a tad sheepishly.

I know what it means, but nothing in special. Why do you ask?”

Rose answered for him. “According to Linder, there was an outbreak in the maze, causing all the projects to go Hell. It says in his notes that he heard Hoffman laugh and call himself ‘the Harbinger’. Not only that, but there’s…a certain patient, that seems interested in Jack…”

Go on. We’re still a bit far from the office.”

I haven’t seen him too well.” Rose said. “He’s always surrounded in darkness.”

Rose, remember when the ceiling came down?” Jack said.

Yeah. It happened not too long ago.”

I saw him in full light this time. He’s grotesque. He’s all hunched over, with his spine bulging. He carries a butcher knife, and he only has one eye…”

So calling him ‘the hunched man’ was right after all. Well, this hunched man, Dad, called Jack ‘the Harbinger’. And every time we’ve seen him, he looked straight at Jack. Always.”

This place is a madhouse. What can I say? But, if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say this ‘hunched man’ was a patient at not only the asylum, but at the maze. Jack, you were a patient at this asylum as well, right?” At his sign of agreement, Travis went on. “He probably sees himself in other patients and stalks them. It’s probable he’s had the same behavior with other patients that came into the maze.”

Jack thought this over. It seemed to make sense to him, but there were a few things that bothered him. The use of a butcher knife seemed too linked to him to be coincidental. For the time being, he decided to accept his theory.

That makes sense.” He said, finally.

It’s just a theory, though, so don’t hold me to it. As for harbringing, I have no idea.” They reached a fancy wooden door. “Ah, here we are.” He turned the doorknob and stepped into the office.

For an abandoned asylum, the office was well-kept. There was seldom dust in it, or any cobwebs. Travis walked to the desk, and opened a drawer. He took out a golden key and some small notebook pages.

They all lack dates, but they’re all signed by the same guy.” Travis said as he handed over both items to Jack. He took them and pocketed the key, focusing on the notes.

From the notes of Dr. Hoffman, the first one read:

The process is going nicely. Soon I’ll have to run this facade no more, and take my rightful place.

-Dr. K. Hoffman.

Jack looked up from the paper, confused. “The process…?”

My guess is that the maze was used for something more than illegal research. Probably something Hoffman had in mind for himself.”

Personal gain from murdering innocent people?”

Rose shrugged her shoulders, and Jack turned to the next paper.

I made the deal a few days ago to get these installations. My scientists and researches were, naturally, very suspicious about the entire place, and why they could only exit by the South Wing door. There’s no reason to tell them of the true nature of this place. Enough money shut them up nicely. It’s all downhill from here.

-Dr. K. Hoffman.

Jack looked deeply into the next papers, but they were only papers detailing the progress of the research.

The more I read it, the less it makes sense. ‘The true nature of this place’? ‘The deal’?”

Questions we don’t have answers to, Jack.” Rose said.

And this is only fragments of the entire diary, or ledger, or whatever. Where’s the rest?”

Travis shrugged. “That’s all I could find. But…”

Yeah?”

I know the director’s office is in the top floor of the North Wing. That place has to have answers.”

Yeah, I know that.” Jack said, moving out into the hallway. “Which means it’s time to get moving.”

They walked all the way back to the first floor, and faced the locked East Wing door. Jack reached into his pocket, and brought out the key. He inserted it into the keyhole, and turned. The lock clicked open. Twisting the door knob, he pushed the door forward.

The door slowly swung open.

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