© 2016 Nancy Fraser
Matt ran his flattened palm over the wall a second time, and she watched the glide of his hand with an unwarranted amount of interest. Beneath the silk sleeve of her blouse, her skin quivered with a sudden tingle…an awareness…a memory.
“So much for that idea,” he conceded.
“How about lipstick?” Kate asked, reaching into her purse and withdrawing a shiny gold tube. “Would that work?”
Purely by instinct, she imagined, Matt reached out and squeezed her shoulder. “Great idea, sweetheart! That’s my—”
His words fell away as quickly as his hand, leaving her teetering on the edge of some great emotional abyss—bereft of both his praise and his touch.
Again they started out, Matt holding the flashlight and Kate coating the wall, from time to time, with peach-toned lipstick. For over an hour, they went forward, and back, and forward. They turned left and then right, only to come across another of her markings.
“Whoever said X marks the spot,” she joked nervously, “didn’t know the half of it.”
“We can stop,” Matt suggested, adding, “that is, if you’re getting tired.”
“The only thing I’m tired of is this maze and Madame Olga’s trickery. I want out, and I want out now.”
Now seemed to be taking forever. They’d wandered in circles for what seemed like an eternity, when they finally stumbled on a new and unfamiliar passageway. Cautiously, they ventured forward.
“I see it, Kate.” Matt reached out and grasped the strange-looking apparatus in front of them, adding, “I’m just not sure what it is?”
Kate brushed past him. Grabbing onto the same bar he still held, she shook it soundly. “It’s a ladder. Anyone can see that.”
“It’s not like any ladder I’ve ever seen.”
She studied the mass of steel beams and cross bars intently. The rather crude contraption resembled something constructed from a child’s erector set. Crisscrossing upward, the girders went at least two hundred feet in the air or more. Straight up.
“I’m going to try climbing up these beams,” Matt told her. “You wait here.”
“No way, Matt. You’re not leaving me behind.”
He paused, as if he wanted to argue the point. Yet when he started forward she followed closely behind and he did nothing to stop her.
Slowly, they climbed one section of beams at a time. With each step they took, each rung they climbed, her trepidation grew. A million questions buzzed through her head.
What’s happening here? Why are we climbing this thing? Exactly, where are we?
“Matt?” she called out.
Kate let the slip pass in favor of asking, “What if we really did get transported somewhere? Other than Madame Olga’s attic, I mean.”
“That’s not possible.”
“Then how do you explain a maze larger than your average attic, and climbing this…this ladder? We’re getting nowhere fast.”
Matt sighed deeply, and then stopped a moment to press his thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose.
An old habit. She steeled herself against the memories conjured up by even the simplest of Matt’s gestures. Luckily, she didn’t have time to dwell on the past before they were moving again. Onward and upward…higher and higher. Just when she thought they’d never reach the top, Matt stopped.
“We’ve made it, Kate!”
“Made it where?”
“To the top of whatever. There’s a trap door.”
“Can you open it?”
“I think so.”
Matt flattened his hands against the metal door and pushed. Nothing happened. “This isn’t as easy as it looks. Maybe you’d better lend a hand.”
Reaching out, Matt took hold of her elbow, pulling her up to the next crossbar until they shared one rung, their legs touching thigh to thigh. Turning her around so that she stood balanced in front of him, he pressed her hands flat against the small, metal square and fanned his own hands over hers.
She closed her eyes and let the overwhelming heat of Matt’s body wash through her. Nothing’s changed. He can still jerk your heartstrings with little more than a touch.
“Okay, Kate, on the count of three, we push. Got it?”
“Yes, I’ve got it.”
“One,” Matt began, “two, three.”
At his mark, she pushed with all her might. Against her arms, his muscles bunched and strained. With a second effort, and then a third, they displaced the heavy lid and slid it to one side. Together, they stepped onto the next rung and poked their heads through the narrow opening.
“Holy Pulitzer Prize!”
“What the hell?” Matt said at the same time.
“What is all this, Matt?”
“I’m not sure, Cricket.”
Like the beam of a maritime sentry, a wide and bright light swept over them, temporarily blinding them, instinctively forcing her backward and into Matt’s arms. The beam swung to the left and then to the right, illuminating a vast room filled with blinking lights and computers. A small, circular drone buzzed around the room. The high tech set up resembled something straight out of Star Wars.
“Where are we?” Matt wondered aloud, his lips hovering close to her ear. The eerie uncertainty of his question sent a chill down her back.
“More importantly,” she responded, her voice filled with a nervous excitement, “when are we?”