“Am I gonna to have to carry you through again?” she asked.
Alex thought for a moment while he sipped from his carton of 2% milk. “I don’t remember saying yes to being your partner.” He kept his eyes on his tray to avoid the magnetic smile sitting across from him.
“I don’t have to ask, stupid. We’ve been partners for three years in a row. No sense in changing that for the last attempt.” Mia reached across the table and snatched the apple from Alex’s tray. His eyes couldn’t help but follow her hand as she raised it to her mouth and took a bite from the pitiful school-served fruit. A drop of juice ran swiftly down her chin. “We’ve got to actually finish this time, though,” she said. “I have a good feeling about it.” Another bite.
Alex returned his attention to his plastic plate. A turkey sandwich on white bread seemed more appealing in the lunch line, but now he felt like tossing the whole thing in the bin, cookie and all. Unlike Mia, Alex did not have a good feeling about this year’s escape room challenge. If it were anything like last year, he would end up disappointed all over again. Mia took a bite. Crunch.
He stood abruptly and walked away from the table, pausing to let Mia catch up. She tossed the remnants of the apple on his tray as he placed it on the conveyor, landing with a hollow thud.
“Isn’t it proper etiquette to ask first, though?” said Alex. “You assumed we’d be partners, but you know what they say about assumptions and asses and all that.” Alex flashed a smile, and Mia responded with a firm punch to his shoulder.
“You’re such a dad,” she said. “Maybe I should find another partner. Seeing as I haven’t asked you properly.”
“Of course I’m your partner,” he blurted. All the blood in his body rushed to his cheeks. “Like you said, three years already. Might as well make it four.” Alex hurried down the hall, Mia on his heels.
“Do you think we can actually escape this year?” Mia asked.
Each year, students loaded onto buses and traveled to the “Obliteration Station,” an escape room challenge that tested school-acquired intelligence and problem solving skills. It was notoriously difficult to complete, requiring advanced high school knowledge to be summoned for a half hour of puzzles, riddles, and mysteries. Everyone received four attempts, one for each year of school, but the catch was that your memory of the room was wiped after your attempt—obliterated. All you could remember was the “feeling of fun and adventure,” you had inside.
“Most seniors are able to complete it,” Alex said. “We should be fine.”
“Yeah, but there are always some who can’t do it. Do you think we were close last year?” Mia held her calculus textbook tightly to her chest.
Alex’s gut tightened. He wanted to think about anything but last year’s attempt. They had failed, and the feeling of anguish and grief lingered like a thick fog. “I don’t know,” he said.
Before last year’s attempt, Alex had decided that in the escape room he would tell Mia that he wanted to be more than friends. If things went well, he’d have that sense of fun and adventure as advertised, if not—well, based on how he felt, it obviously wasn’t a success.
“You better bring your A-game.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, is something wrong? You’re kinda bumming me out.”
He shrugged. “I’m alright, just tired. I should get to class.”
“Get plenty of sleep tonight. Or I’ll drop you.” Mia smiled, waiting for Alex to return the gesture. He laughed quietly and headed down the hall.
As he walked away, loneliness crept over him like the shadow of a cloud passing overhead. He confessed his feelings for her last year, and she obviously did not share his feelings. But why? They had been best friends since the first day of high school. They always got along, did everything together, and it seemed like she was always flirting.
“Oh well,” he said to himself. “It’s good that I don’t remember what happened last year. I don’t want to remember.”
The small senior class stood in the piercing May sun. Heat radiated off the pavement as the buses rolled up and students filed in.
“We’ve got a pretty good shot, I’d say,” said Mia. Alex was keenly aware of her leg pressed against him on the narrow bus bench. He offered his hand for a fist bump, and she accepted.
“You nervous?” she asked. His anxiety must have been palpable. He pushed the thoughts of last year to the back of his mind.
“We got this,” he said.
The bus came to a slow halt in front of the menacing building, air hissing as the brakes engaged. An enormous sign reading “Obliteration Station,” hung above the sliding glass doorway, and a riveted steel facade flecked with black and red flanked either side. As they approached the door, a threatening countdown timer sounded, “3…2…1…” and the door slid open, releasing a flurry of cool air from inside.
The students were greeted by an elderly employee. “Good morning,” she said. “Is this the oldest group? Oh, I love watching the seniors. The excitement! The determination! I’m sure you’ll all get something wonderful out of this final escape, win or lose.”
As the old woman greeted the teachers, Alex and Mia found a seat in the queue. The nervous chatter died down as the aged employee made her way behind the counter and switched on the speaker system.
“You have all been here before, so you should know the drill,” she said. “But I’ll remind you anyway, because I’m required.” Her laughter filled the room through the intercom. “Behind me stands four identical doors with four identical rooms. Within each room you will face a series of challenges designed to test your knowledge and wit. You have 30 minutes to escape. Cameras in every corner will be used to monitor your progress and to intervene in case of emergency. Win or lose, our Obliteration technology will erase your memory of the events and challenges in the room, but you will surely be left with the feeling of fun and adventure you experienced inside. Good luck!”
Static reverberated through the room as she switched off the microphone, and she gestured for the first four pairs to walk to a door. Alex and Mia approached the entrance side by side, trading a determined glance and nod before entering.
The room was dark and a thin layer of opaque fog covered the floor. The walls were lined with filing cabinets, chalk boards, tables with old computers, and blacked-out windows. In the center of the room stood a platform with a small desk, and on the desk was a steel chest sealed with a heavy lock. A large digital clock on the opposite wall flashed red with their time remaining, giving the entire room a pink glow.
“Where should we start?” Alex asked as he looked around, but Mia was already on the platform examining the lock.
“Two numbers and two letters to unlock. Look there.” Mia pointed to the desk, which had faint arrows pointing away from the chest toward each of the 4 walls in the room. She looked at Alex and smiled. “Let’s split up,” she said.
Mia rushed away and began tugging on the handles of filing cabinets, finding them all jammed or locked. Alex stood frozen, watching as she moved swiftly around the room, admiring her graceful effort to find any clues. She caught him staring.
“Hey, buddy. Get a move on.” She returned to her work. His trance broken, Alex dashed in the direction of a different arrow and looked around. He rifled through a pile of junk sitting on a table until he noticed there was some writing on one of the objects. He picked it up and read aloud.
“My work is coiled around the poles,” Alex recited. Mia appeared beside him, inspecting the text more closely.
“What is that?” she asked.
“Looks like a refrigerator magnet to me.” Alex tossed the object toward the nearest filing cabinet, where it stuck.
Mia paced up and down the room for a few moments, the gears in her head spinning. “Coil…poles…magnet, magnetism—I’ve got it! The first letter is a T.” Mia went to the chest and turned the dial.
Alex shook his head. “What?” he said, feeling slow.
“T for Tesla. Tesla coil, units for magnetic induction, obviously.” Mia smirked and returned to her wall, where she stooped down to look at something on the floor. Alex admired her quick thinking and caught himself watching her again. Is this how it all went last year? When did he find the courage to tell her how he felt? Alex shook away the thought and moved to another wall.
Alex soon found a small bookshelf tucked beneath a table. On it sat 10 books with identical bindings and no markings. He opened one of the books and flipped through the pages, but they were all blank. Throwing it aside, he checked another one—also blank. Maybe this was a red herring? He pulled out another book to be sure, and hidden on the back wall behind the books was a latch. He yanked it, and out popped a small wooden box with faint writing on top.
“Hey, look at this,” he said, walking over to Mia and under the red light of the countdown.
She squinted at the letters and read: “The Brothers and The Idiot will help you get to the bottom of this.” Mia paused. “What the heck does that mean?”
“I’m not sure.” Alex turned the box in his hands, but couldn’t see any type of opening mechanism. “Brothers, Idiot, and Bottom are all underlined, but only bottom starts with a lowercase letter. Bottom…” He flipped the box over and noticed a barely visible button on its underside. His heart raced as he pressed it, which sprung open a hidden compartment.
Mia gave him a keen look as he retrieved a pocket-sized book with three words written on the cover: Crime and Punishment.
“Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Brothers…Karamazov—all Dostoevsky?” said Alex, racking his brain for any connection he could make.
“Next letter D! You’re killing it,” she said. Alex’s heartbeat quickened as she brushed past him and onto the platform, inputting the second letter.
Mia turned and grabbed Alex by the hand, pulling him toward another wall. “Maybe you can help me here,” she said. “Look what I found.” Mia got on her hands and knees and waved away the fog, revealing two parallel lines painted on the floor.
“How did you think to look for that?” said Alex.
“No clue,” she said. “But it’s gotta mean something, right?” She swatted at the fog as she followed the lines. At the end of the first, shorter line she found a large bold “V”, and at the end of the short line she found an “X.”
“Variables? Roman numerals? Five and ten,” said Alex. “Are those the numbers we need?” He walked toward the chest.
“No that can’t be right,” said Mia. “The lock only has numbers one to nine.”
Alex returned to find Mia sitting in the fog, scratching her head as she contemplated the numerals. It looked as though she were sitting on a cloud in the middle of a red sunset. She was beautiful. “Mia?” he said.
“Yeah?” she responded, occupied by the problem at hand.
“Do you remember anything from the escape room last year?”
“Nope. Just the feeling of ‘fun and adventure’ afterward,” she said, throwing up air quotes as she spoke. “And a hint of disappointment. Probably because we didn’t finish.” Alex sat beside her. Was the disappointment a result of the puzzle, or Alex’s attempt to become more than friends? Did he even try to tell her how he felt?
“Wait a sec—“ she trailed off, following the lines until they led to the nearest wall. One intersected a two-door filing cabinet, and the other led to a line that ran up the wall, ending with a bright yellow question mark. “Maybe we figure out the height of the line?” she offered, turning to Alex. “But how?”
The fog swirled around them. Sitting in the cloud, Alex looked back and forth between the floor and the wall, the filing cabinet and the lines. The yellow question mark caught his attention again. The sun? He looked down at the lines painted on the floor. “Shadows,” he said.
“Not enough light in here for shadows, Alex,” said Mia.
“No,” he said, piecing together the problem. “That’s how we find the height of the line! Look. The yellow question mark is the sun, the lines on the ground are the shadows cast by the filing cabinet and the mystery line.”
Mia stood and kicked at the fog. “You might be on to something. That’s just a ratio! The filing cabinet is two doors high and casts a shadow of 5—the V—and the mystery line is unknown, but casts a shadow of 10—the X.” She ran to a chalkboard and scribbled down the ratio. She laughed to herself and tossed the chalk to Alex. “The first number is 4.”
Alex couldn’t help but smile. They had such great chemistry. Surely she had feelings for him, too. Was the sadness he felt after last year because of rejection, or a missed opportunity?
“Here’s the best part,” she said, interrupting Alex’s thought as she fixed the number into the combination lock. “We don’t have to do anything else to get this baby open. I’ll just try all the numbers one through nine in the last spot until it works.” Mia worked with the lock for a few moments until it let out a soft click.
She shot a look at Alex and then the clock. “With 15 minutes to spare.” The lid was heavy, but she pushed it open, causing the sides of the chest to fall away with a loud clank and revealing what appeared to be a pipe bomb with a flashing green light. Red wiring twisted around the device and fed into a small laptop. On the screen was a command prompt with a matrix-green tint, a few lines of text, and a Fibonacci spiral.
“Write a function to compute the nth digit of my sequence, or you will be OBLITERATED by this bomb. Beware of snakes.” Mia pressed the return key and up popped a simple compiler. She began typing furiously.
“This isn’t too bad,” she said. “Beware of snakes obviously means we need to code using the language Python, which I know pretty well. And the spiral tells me to that ‘my sequence,’ is the Fibonacci sequence. Zero, one, one, two, three, just adding the last two digits to get the next one… a few lines of code should do the trick.”
Alex put his hand on Mia’s back as she worked, and she didn’t shy away. Her fingers moved dexterously across the keyboard, striking with confidence. The sound of keystrokes filled the room, and Alex watched in a daze.
“What’s my time?” she asked.
“Five minutes,” he said. “You’ve got this, I believe in you.” She nodded without taking her eyes off the screen. A bead of sweat had formed on her brow and trickled down the side of her face.
“One more test and…done.” With a final return, the program successfully ran. The laptop screen went dark and the flashing of the pipe bomb ceased. All at once, the sound of a hundred locking mechanisms turning filled the room, and a hidden door was revealed in the corner. They ran to it, but it was locked.
“Two minutes left, what do we do?” said Mia, looking around. She fumbled with the door for another moment before racing to the nearest filing cabinet and flinging it open. “They’re all unlocked now, Alex. The key must be inside one of them.”
There could have been three dozen filing cabinets in the room, but he heard the grit and desire in Mia’s voice, so he scrambled to help. His heart pounded as he yanked open every nearby cabinet, finding nothing.
“Got it!” she yelled, reaching into a drawer and pulling out a silver key. They met at the door.
“Wait,” said Alex, grabbing her hand before she could turn the key. If he didn’t tell her last year, he had to say something this year. “Mia,” he began. Her eyes were filled with confusion and terror as she glanced at the ticking clock above them.
“I want to be more than friends,” he said. “Always have, really. You’re beautiful, smart, and I can never stop thinking about you. I wanted to tell you last year but I don’t think I had the nerve to do it. I’ve been sad and hurting for an entire year, and I don’t want to leave this room feeling the same way.”
Her face softened, and tears welled in the corners of her eyes. “Finally,” she said. Alex leaned in closer, and a buzzer went off overhead.
When Alex opened his eyes, he found himself in the waiting room in front of everyone. What just happened? Did they escape? He looked to his right and saw Mia, who glowed as he’d never seen before. A surge of adrenaline rushed through his veins, and a magnetic urge pulled him closer to her. Every ounce of grief, doubt, and disappointment dissolved, and there was nothing but Mia. Alex put a hand on her cheek and kissed her. She kissed him back.