Wind blew along the corridors, crackling with heat. It snuck moisture from the bricks. In its wake, it left the crinkled skeletons of once-green ivy. A girl stumbled along with the wind. Tears and snot wet her cheeks and upper lip, transforming into salt-crusted trails as the wind dried them.
Around her neck, she wore a silver cord made of interwoven strands. At its end hung a watch, bulky and spherical. The girl whimpered as she walked, sliding her fingers between the chain and the tender skin at the back of her neck.
The wind nudged her along the corridors. These twisted and turned and dead-ended. There were no doors, only walls and corners. The wind crackled and moaned. Her footsteps scuffed over bricks. Thunk, thunk. The watch bumped against her chest. She had a bruise where it hit, blue and green and red.
She stumbled over a lip in the stones—the top of a stairway. She was too tired to cry out but went tumbling down in silence, thwacking each step in turn. Crunch. She hit the bottom and lay rigid, staring upwards. The wall rose five times her height, ending beneath a torch-colored sky. Heatwaves distorted the top.
Her hands went to the watch and fingered it. A jagged edge pricked her finger. The girl gasped and sat upright, cupping the watch in her palms. Shards of glass cascaded off the buckled dial, glittering on her skin. She bent over it, trembling, tears surging from her eyes. The wind sucked them off her cheeks. It snatched at the glass, whisking it away, leaving the watch hands naked and bent. The girl curled her fingers around its spherical corpse and squeezed her eyes shut.
After a long while, she heard a noise: a shrill cry followed by a clatter and bang as though something were falling down steps. The girl bolted to her feet and raced around a corner. Her foot caught on something soft and she tripped, surged forward, and caught herself against the corridor wall. Leaf skeletons crumbled under her hands.
“Oof,” said a voice by her feet. “You kicked me in the ribs.” A young woman lay at the bottom of a staircase. She had red hair, glinting here and there with shreds of silver, framing a wide-open face.
“Sorry,” said the girl. The word rasped and whispered over her lips. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d spoken. She hesitated, shifted her feet. “Are you alright?”
“Oh yes, just a bit bruised. Nasty bit of stairs. Looks like you fell down them yourself.”
The girl shook her head, “different ones. Over there.” She jabbed her chin in the direction she’d come.
The woman got up, dusted her elbows, and peered at the girl. “How are you?”
The girl shrugged. Then she bit her lip. Her eyes filled with tears. They splashed over her cheeks and down her neck. “Watch broke,” she managed.
“What’s your name?” asked the woman. Her eyes shone wet and soft.
“Yu,” said the girl. She sniffled. “What’s yours?”
“Where did you come from?” asked Yu.
Lantern smiled. “Let’s walk a bit. This way, I think, if you came from over there.”
Yu fell into step beside her as they left the two staircases behind them and walked down a curving corridor. The watch thunked against Yu’s chest, pounding into the bruise. Without the glass, it didn’t thunk as hard as before. She stared at Lantern, at her hair fluttering back from her face and her eyes flicking here and there.
“Why did you come in here?” Lantern asked, pausing when the corridor came to a T.
“For my brother,” said Yu. Fresh tears rolled down her cheeks and she clutched the body of the watch.
Lantern took the right fork. She paced along in silence for a while. “Did the watch belong to him?”
“I ran away,” said Yu. “I didn’t want to stay without him.”
“Of course not.”
“The watch broke. It stopped ticking. I couldn’t hear his heartbeat.” Yu wiped more tears off her face, then slid her hand into Lantern’s. “Where are we?”
Lantern squeezed her fingers. “We’re in a maze.”
“Will we ever get out?”
“Don’t be afraid,” said Lantern. Then she smiled and squeezed Yu’s hand again. “We all come here after a grief. Some of us walk for a long time alone, but it’s nicer with company.”
“Is it all like this?” Yu asked.
“It’s never the same, but some parts feel familiar.” Lantern stopped, sniffed the air, then laughed. “Are you thirsty?”
Yu gaped, then nodded. With a start, she realized that the hot wind had died down. Up ahead, she heard the trickle of water.
Around the bend, the brick corridor butted up against a wall of granite. A stream surged from its base and plunged away down the passageway. Moss grew thick and soft down the sides and along the edges of the water.
Yu gasped and sank to her knees, burying her fingers in the spongy fronds. Then she lay on her belly and slurped from the stream, cool liquid slipped down her throat. She splashed it on her face, wiping away the crust of snot and tears. Then she dabbed it on her neck, where the watch cord rubbed.
Lantern drank from the stream, then she sat on the edge and dangled her legs with her eyes closed. A shadow crossed over her face. After a moment, she reached in her pocket. She took something out, bent down and held it under the water. She let it go. Something red flashed past.
Lantern sighed and smiled. She lay back on the moss and breathed long and slow.
After a while Yu sat up and put her feet in the stream too. It flooded over her legs, cool and sweet. The stream sang and burbled as it passed, sending whirls and eddies dancing against Yu’s skin.
Yu rubbed the watch cord between her fingers. Then she pulled it over her head. The watch thumped into her lap. Yu traced the edge of the case. She touched the buckled dial and the bent hands. Lantern breathed long and quiet beside her.
Yu cupped her hands over the corpse of the watch, reached down, and held it in the stream. Water rushed over her knuckles and wormed between her fingers. Droplets splashed and danced upwards, clinging to her arms.
She opened her hands.
Silver streaked past. Yu watched it go. She shivered, then she smiled and turned to Lantern. But Lantern was gone. Yu gaped and jumped to her feet, turning this way and that. Then she went still.
There in the wall was a doorway.