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The Maze

Story by Denise Napoli Long (Read author interview) June 17, 2024

Art by Maksym Kaharlytskyi

The woman shuffled a few feet behind her toddler in the park down the street from the hospital. Only one parent was allowed in the NICU at a time, and no kids. She trudged along, blood soaking the pad between her legs, yellowish milk leaking from her breasts every time she thought of her new baby.

The toddler had a small toy, a battery-operated plush hamster named Hello. Hello was an especially annoying toy that repeated everything you said, or at least a few words worth. “I love you, Hello!” the boy would say, and after a few seconds delay the hamster would answer, in a slightly higher key, “I love you, Hello!” The boy would laugh and the hamster would laugh and it went on and on. The boy slept with the hamster at night, and the woman had to sneak in after bedtime to turn Hello off, lest the toy replicate the soft snoring of the toddler and wake him.

The woman had never been to this park before and the playground seemed too big for the toddler, too many monkey bars and climbing walls. If the toddler got up there and got stuck, she’d never get him down, not in her condition. She thought of him up there, crying, and her breasts squirted milk, a sharp but not unpleasant sensation that made her toes curl in her shoes.

She spied some kind of maze made of hedges, waist-high to her but eye-level for her toddler. There was only one opening, an archway also made of hedges as high as the rest, three feet or so. “See that?”

The toddler followed her pointed finger to the opening and in a flash he was through the archway. She could see his blond head dashing around corners, running into dead ends and out again. Finally, after a few minutes, he barreled back through the entrance where he’d begun. But he was missing something.

“Where’s Hello?” she called after him. “Tommy, where’s Hello?”

Where’s Hello?” said the bushes. “Tommy, where’s—”

The toddler began to climb a ladder to the top of the playground.

“Tom!” she yelled. “Get back here, you need to go back in there and find Hello!”

Tom!” the hamster repeated from the hedges. “Get back here, you need to—”

The boy was at the top of the playground, twenty feet or so in the air, looking down over a fireman’s pole. She jogged to him as best she could, her deflated belly swinging in front of her, her C-section incision pulling taut.

“Don’t go down that!” she called. “Where are the stairs? Come down here.”

Don’t go down that!” yelled Hello. “Where are the st—”

The boy said nothing. He was an unusually silent child, she thought, except when it came to Hello. Then he didn’t shut up.

“You have to go back in the maze,” she said. “You have to get Hello. Mommy can’t fit.”

You have to go back in the maze. You—”

The boy stared down at her.

Her cell phone buzzed. Her husband, texting from the NICU: “The doctor said the baby needs to nurse, come to the lobby. I’ll take Tom.”

“Come down,” she said. “We need to go get Daddy.”

Come down,” begged Hello. “We need to go—”

“No,” said the boy. “You get.”

No,” said Hello. “You get.

She couldn’t leave without Hello. It would be tantrums from now until the time the baby came home—if the baby came home. Her milk spurted a little again at the thought, that stabbing that went all through her.

“I get him, and then you come down and we go, okay?” she said. She’d read in all the baby books that you should never say Okay like that, making your action contingent on a toddler’s approval, but it was a habit she had yet to break. She was still so new to this.

I get him, and then you come down and—”

The boy nodded. She sighed with relief.

“Okay,” she said again. “I’ll get Hello. Stay there.”

Okay,” repeated Hello. He sounded scared. “I’ll get Hello. Stay—”

She hobbled back to the maze, all the while keeping an eye on the toddler. He stood stock-still, one hand on the fireman’s pole. He could probably manage it, she thought. He was a strong boy. But what if he couldn’t? What if he let go halfway down and broke his leg?

She crouched. Stuck her head into the maze.

“Hello?” she called, trying to gauge his distance from her. “Hello?”

From somewhere in the bushes he answered: “Hello? Hello?

Jesus, is that how I sound? she thought. Nasally, angry. Desperate. She got on her knees to go under the archway. She felt a ripping at her incision. “Fuck!” she yelled.

“Fuck!” answered the hedges.

The toddler watched, impassive.

“Hello, where are you?” she called.

Hello, where are you?”

She tried again to get in, to make herself small enough to fit. She had to go lower. She got down on her forearms. Her stomach dragged along the sandy soil.

“Hello?” she called. “Hello, where are you?”

Hello? Hello, where are you?”

Just then her toddler yelped. He’d gone down the fireman’s pole after all and was sitting, stunned, on his butt at the bottom, his face frozen in shock, ready to cry.

“Are you okay? I’m coming,” she called, panic making her sweat, and she began to back out of the archway and the incision tore at her again, at the place where they’d taken the baby out, too soon, before he was ready. They’d been trying to save the baby, to get him where they could help him. But maybe the woman wasn’t cut out for saving anybody.

Are you okay? I’m coming,” said Hello.

“Stay,” said the woman to the toddler. “Please, please, just stay.”

Stay,” said Hello. “Please, please.”

About the Author

Denise Napoli Long is a writer, nurse, EMT and mom from New York. She has previously been published in Write or DieMom Egg ReviewIntima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, and is forthcoming in Ars Medica. She is a student in the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing program.

About the Artist

Maksym Kaharlytskyi is a photographer based in Porto, Portugal.

This story appeared in Issue Eighty-Four — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Eighty-Four — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction

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