Once you begin to strip off, everything becomes okay. You do it systematically, layer by layer: first the cashmere sweater, brown and low-hanging; then the black cotton jeans that hug your skinny legs and always, always feel just cool enough against your skin. After that, off come all parts of your underwear, and the knee-high woolly socks. There.
You pull a thermometer out of the bathtub. Thirty-eight degrees? You decide it’s perfect for today. Steam is tickling you face, just the way you like it. The surface of the water is almost glassy, scent-less, bubble-less. Stupid, how some people pour so many poisoned-up flower extracts into their baths, and then call them bath bombs or bubble bath. That’s just silly.
The warmth and safety of the tub beckons. One leg over the edge, you slide in, swan-like, and curl your shoulders inwards as the water slithers under your spine, through your legs, around your neck and makes your hair billow through it, as though caught in a frozen wind. Yes, like a frozen wind, that’s what it feels like.
Everything will be forgotten. You know the tranquillity is coming, because it always does. Ahh. Now all these horrible happy laughing faces from the party are fading out of your mind’s eye. No one’s smashing punch glasses at each other, and as for the blasting music, it never existed. Best of all, everything is in order, as it should be.
As it should be.
An 80 dB-level sound interrupts your sleep, so it must be morning. It’s the alarm clock ringing. A Sony ICF-C1T FM/AM Dual Alarm Clock Radio, with a four-year guarantee, so there are twenty-one months and six days of certainly punctual mornings ahead still. The realisation makes you smile with relief, as it does every morning again. Because if you don’t think about the future, who knows what will be? You’ve got to be a step ahead. Otherwise, you might be hit by something unexpected, and then what?
A heavy shadow approaches your bed, certainly coming from the western direction, what with the window draped above your bed. You look up. Was that a smart idea, to look up? It’s George. George is confusing. Sometimes he’s straightforward and says sensible things like “Would you like to come to the library with me?” or “Let’s revise for the final tomorrow.” But then, he’ll say idiotic things like, “We have this great thing between us.”
Really? Can air be ‘great’?
You fervently hope he’s not going to sit on your bed again.
He’s also confusing because he’s one of the most popular kids on the campus, so what’s he looking for in this lonely bedroom? Textbooks?
George is smiling. He comes nearer to your bed and you smell very strong peppermint. Like a bitten thing, you spring up, so won’t can’t do anything foolish.
“Would you come on an early-morning stroll with me? I thought we might discuss Dr Gregg’s lecture from yesterday. It was interesting.”
That makes sense. Phew. He’s talking sense. A very nice boy, you realise, with good ideas. Of course you want to discuss the lecture. Gregg is a maths genius, and anything he teaches is worth pulling apart.
“Yes. I will come.”
You’d like to get dressed in privacy, but George seems to want to stay in the bedroom. Where are his manners? But really, it would be a pity to insult such a pleasant boy. The en-suite next door will do.
It is cold outside, and you’re glad again that you’re wearing cashmere. George has a lot of very intelligent things to say about yesterday’s lecture. He’s smart! You are stimulated by his breadth of knowledge and quick thinking. That must be why he’s popular, you reason. But then, why are you not? Then you remind yourself that you don’t want to be.
When you get the edge of the clearing, George suddenly stops walking. He turns his whole body sideways, so he’s facing you, exactly opposite you. The image of a pair of musical cymbals comes to mind. Exactly opposite. Big sigh from George. And you realise that you’re feeling goose-bumps. That’s very strange. There isn’t even a chill here, and you’re well padded. You make a mental note to check up this peculiar scientific phenomenon.
George sighs again, and his eyes are looking straight into yours. You know you’re supposed to be reading something in them. This charade has some meaning. A rush of irritation springs up from somewhere near your bosom. Would he just stop with the foolish eye-game? This is an impossible riddle, you’re not good at this. Could we go back to Gregg and Maths? you want to ask. But something’s stopping you.
“Sabrina.” Another long sigh from George, and you’re losing it. Stop that silliness! There’s a big holler rising from inside you. Breathe. Calm. You don’t want to make a scene, but frustration is soon going to become anger. Why is this NECESSARY?
“I’ve wanted to speak to you for a long time.”
That can’t be.
“We spoke yesterday,” you point out with logic.
George’s eyes move down, then up again. (What does that mean?)
“I mean, I wanted to talk about something specific.”
“So why don’t you?” You have something to say, say it, is your mantra. Maybe it’s a dark secret? Oh no, you hope not. Secrets are stressful.
“Sabrina,” he says your name again. “What’s your favourite colour?”
“Orange.” Maybe he’s conducting a survey. Phew.
George nods at your answer.
Silence. Has he forgotten the next survey question?
“Sabrina.” Your name again? More silence. Then, “Do you have a hobby?”
“Crossword puzzles.” Definitely a survey. This is going well. But do these questions need to be asked at the edge of a clearing, at seven-thirty in the morning?
“Have you heard of escape rooms?” George asks you.
“Yes. They’re like puzzle-rooms, so to speak. Lots of riddles, lots of penetrating questions. Will went there last month with his brothers,” you tell George happily, glad the conversation has taken on a sensible slant.
“Sabrina.” Now George is smiling, and to your dismay, doing the eye-thing again. “Would you like to come to an escape room with me this weekend?”
“Isn’t it very expensive?” you ask, a natural question. It’s got to be worth ditching the crossword puzzle.
“I.. er… I got a discount. Half price, and then we pay half each,” he says.
That sounds reasonable.
So you tell him, “Yes. I will come.”
That evening, you find a small glass bottle on your night-table. Who put it there? Did someone come into your bedroom?
You pick up the bottle. It looks like an almost-flat cylinder. The circle is very broad, and there are two words engraved on it. You look more closely.
You want to laugh. That sounds like it might be the heading of a court-case summary. Someone being sentenced, most probably. But which nasty fool thought of inscribing that on a glass bottle?
Wait. Isn’t Gucci famous?
Gucci does designer fashion. You think very hard for a minute. So this must be… You open the lid. A very strong smell assaults you immediately.
You’re feeling that definitive crossword-solving adrenaline. But hold on, you tell yourself. That still doesn’t explain the Guilty part. Stolen perfume? Nah, the thief wouldn’t be daft enough to inscribe his crime on the bottle.
Then you notice a small red envelope on the table. You rip it open and read quickly.
It will be my honour to spend the evening tomorrow with you.
I will pick you up at eight-thirty sharp.
With all my love,
You have the distinct feeling that the escape room will be tougher than you bargained for.
It’s Friday evening. Most of the students are in the drama room, watching a movie. You’re in your bedroom, sitting by your brown oak desk, wearing your standard cashmere and cotton. Professor Bow gave you the copy of a fascinating study he conducted as a student, Mathematical Models and Methods in Applied Sciences, and you can’t wait to get a start on it. You have fifteen minutes till eight-thirty sharp, but that’s fine.
At eight-thirty sharp, no one appears. Where is George?
You go back to the essay. Ten minutes later, still no sign of George. You don’t want to panic. But at this point the essay won’t distract you anymore. So you stand by the door, holding your cash tightly. You are nervous. Surely, George wasn’t lying about eight thirty, was he?
At 8:56 he finally appears.
He’s walking towards you, down the corridor. And you notice two things. First, the smell. A strong, new smell, like a dead poisoned flower, maybe? But when he gets even closer, you see that he looks different. His hair is styled differently, and seems like it’s been gelled. He’s wearing a starched white shirt and a soft suit.
A suit? You know you’re missing something.
George smiles at you. You smile back and hand him the cash. He laughs.
“Not yet, not yet.” Then, “Are you wearing the Gucci?”
A tiny, tiny silence. George’s face has definitely changed. Why, though?
But he just says, “Let’s go.”
You walk side by side. Down the stairs, out of the dorm. But instead of leading you to the gateway, he takes you round the back. A small, battered up silver Toyota is waiting in the car park. A taxi?
George pulls out car keys. He clicks twice, and the headlights blink brightly in the darkness.
“Is this your car?” you ask.
“No. My brother’s.”
Before you can ask another question, he’s pushing you into the front seat. Surprisingly, it is very neat inside. And smells very strongly of shea butter. Ugh.
“How far is the escape room?” you want to know.
“Oh, near enough. Ten-minute drive max,” says George.
“So why do you need a car?” you ask. And George’s face does the whole mystery thing again and he says,
“I thought, y’know, it would be more…”
“You know what I mean.”
You can be sure I don’t, you want to say. But something tells you to keep quiet and smile.
George puts the key in the ignition, and off you go.
Sometimes you wonder if faces and voices is a puzzle to everyone. You once asked your parents about this, but they did their own eye-sharing thing, and told you to go upstairs. You were fourteen then. And you remember how afterwards, there was a shouting match for a long time, and you caught phrases like ‘it’s not fair’, ‘spectrum’, and ‘genius’ between insults. But when you looked up the word ‘spectrum’, you got a very confusing definition of a range of different colours produced when light passes through a prism or a drop of water.
You wonder if George will have a shouting match with someone tonight.
The escape room is in a small building. That surprises you, because the way Will described it, it was a full-scale labyrinth of endless treasure boxes, mysterious islands, and ancient royal ballrooms.
A friendly clerk hands you the keys to a small door on your left. George is listening intently to instructions, but you don’t bother. You know you’ll get in there and you’ll be fine. The instructor finishes by telling you that in the worst case, there’s a help button you can press if you’re out of your depth. You have a feeling you’ll do brilliantly, actually.
You step into the room.
For such a small door, the room is reassuringly big. Six metres squared. OK.
The first puzzle is on the wall, in big letters. George is still reading the first paragraph when you’ve solved it. Smooth, easy stuff. The old crossword-puzzle energy kicks in. This is great.
You lead George to a secret door that has a combination lock. The clue’s simple enough, and three minutes later, you’re punching the numbers into the metal knobs. The door creaks open, you’re in. And instantly, you wish you hadn’t solved the clue at all.
This room is like a nightmarish black garden. It is terrifyingly tiny. The lights in here are very, very dim, and there’s a ring of dark green bushes around you, which you can tell are not real. There is an eerie string of purple and green lights emanating from inside the bushes. Behind you, you hear a rush of water. However, you will not panic. You’ll just locate the next clue, and be out in a minute.
But George looks elated. He is actually smiling. There’s also something in his face again, unreadable as always. But he’s definitely happy.
“Shall we get on with it?” you say with urgency.
He ignores the question. Instead, he slowly sits down on the floor. Now there is just about four inches squared space for you to stand on. He looks up at you.
“Sabrina,” he says. Then he gently takes your hand and pulls you down, next to him. Every fibre of your being is screaming, resisting. You want to get out, not answer more survey questions or whatever. But for some reason, you find yourself sitting, obliging, cross-legged opposite him again.
“Sabrina.” Says your name again. There is definitely something powerful in his eyes, and now, more than ever, you wish you knew what it was.
George doesn’t speak, he just looks at you, looks at you, looks at you. The synthetic lights around you are dizzying. The waterfall on your left – a thin drizzle of water on metal sheet – is louder than ever. The ceiling is getting lower and lower, and the walls are closing in. There is no light, no air, no space.
You begin to scream.
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Good build up. Could have a more exciting end.