This story is by Jace Hawkins and won the Grand Prize in our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Jace Hawkins has a degree from Clemson University, and now lives with his wife in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. He is a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction, and a lover of books of all kinds. His adventures as an avid bibliophile can be followed on Instagram @follow.the.reader.
“Before you embark on your adventure, please hand me your phones and anything else you don’t want to get wet,” said the man in the sailor’s uniform. “We’ll protect your belongings while you navigate your way to safety.” He brandished a plastic bin.
James was tense.
When Hayley suggested they do an escape room, pride and insecurity kept James from telling her that being trapped against his will was essentially a waking nightmare for him. He could have said no, could have made an excuse, but he hadn’t quite figured out saying “no” to Hayley. He’d had no need to. He was crazy about her and so far “yes” had served him just fine.
“Do you really need our phones?” James asked. “I mean, are we really going to get that wet?” It wasn’t until they arrived that James learned the room was Titanic themed. The locked room gave him anxiety; the theatrics tinged it with exasperation.
“That depends on how clever you are,” the fake sailor smirked, shaking the bin in their direction. His friends Isabell and Bryan dropped their phones into the bin, but James balked.
Hayley set her hand on James’s shoulder. “Relax, it’s supposed to be fun. You have to give in to the illusion! Besides, there were no iPhones on the Titanic.” The shadow of his discomfort shrunk under her smile, reminding him why he had so little practice resisting her, so little want to.
“You’re right, sorry,” he said, setting his phone in the bin.
“That wasn’t so hard was it?” Hayley said with a buoyant laugh. “Here, give him mine and let’s get started!” She handed James her phone and bounced away to explore the small room.
Her phone vibrated in his hand. James checked the screen on instinct. A message from Hayley’s sister popped up.
“OMG you’re pregnant?! Congrats! Is James excited?”
James hardly heard a word as the fake sailor began explaining the fake scenario; trapped below deck, needing to find a way out soon to reach the life boats in time. His mind was lost in a roiling sea of thought. The lock made a resounding boom in the steel room as they were sealed in. Hayley, Isabell, and Bryan immediately fanned out in search of something called “Bilge Pump One” but James stood staring at the door. The irony of the sinking feeling in his gut was lost on him.
Every scene of their sex life played in a flash across his mind. After over a year together, they were spending most nights in the same bed. Just about every time opportunity knocked, or even walked past the door, they answered. They were usually careful, but some knocks of opportunity were more reckless than others.
Shit, he thought, it’s definitely possible.
“James!” Bryan called, “Gonna help or just scratch your bean bag?”
“Yeah, I’m looking,” James said, coming back to reality. The steel corridor really did resemble an old ship’s engine room. There were various formidable pieces of machinery, each with a panel of gauges, levers, and knobs. A lattice of pipes and ducts ran across the ceiling connecting anything, everything, nothing at all. James drifted to a nearby machine, adorned with a large crank and a series of tiny switches. A faded plaque read “Bilge Pump One.”
“Found it,” James said. No one heard. “Found it!” he shouted. The edge in his voice startled the other three.
“Ok dude, damn. Chill,” Bryan said, bounding over to him. “Look, there’s a manual. Bet that’s the next clue.”
James tried to catch Hayley’s eye as the girls joined them at the machine. If she was pregnant she’d shown no signs, no clues, no nerves. She beamed at him when he finally made eye contact, elated and eager to forge their escape. The look in her eyes sent a tiny wave of calm crashing against the massive steel hull of panic descending deeper into his bowels. She’d always radiated a steady, self-assured optimism that seemed to promise every problem could be solved with simple forward motion. He loved that about her.
She’s fine. We’re fine. It’s a misunderstanding.
The sinking feeling was not convinced.
“It says we have to activate all eight machines in order to get out,” Isabell said. Bryan had the manual open, both girls reading over his shoulders. “Each machine has a puzzle that will help us figure out the sequence of knobs and levers to start it up.”
“Hayley, can I talk to you for a sec?”
“Right now?” She laughed. “We have to focus babe! The room record is forty-six minutes and I want to beat it!” She turned back to the manual as Bryan started fiddling with switches.
The air grew stale in James’s mouth. The pregnancy panic and claustrophobic fear whirlpooled together in his gut. One problem at a time, he tried to tell himself. First we get out of this damn room; then I can talk to Hayley. He glanced at the walls and ceiling, reassuring himself the room was the same size as when he entered.
“I think I got it!” Bryan said, flipping a final switch. The machine rumbled and a horrid klaxon began to bray. Beneath the sound of the siren a different, more familiar sound permeated the room. Like noise made into motion. James looked down as a puddle of water filled the floor around his feet. The bitter breath in his lungs froze.
“Guys, I think we’re sinking!” Hayley squealed with mock fear and genuine delight.
“Holy shit! No way!” Bryan hooted. “This place is legit!”
“Oh my god!” Isabell laughed.
“Come on, I saw ‘Pump Generator One’ back here! Life boats leave in fifty-six minutes!” Hayley called as she dashed off to the back of the room.
James was frozen, eyeing the thin puddle rising up the sole of his shoe. Eventually he followed, watching each footstep splash.
Fifteen feverish minutes passed. The group completed three more puzzles. To James the water seemed to climb faster than they solved. He had not said a word since they began to “sink,” but the group was too engrossed in escaping to notice. James was using every ounce of effort to maintain composure.
My girlfriend is pregnant and we’re gonna drown in a closet before we even talk about it!
Every passing second pushed the panic higher into his chest. Logically he knew he wasn’t actually in danger, knew it was all a game, but fear still gripped his heart in icy hands. Two more puzzles solved. Another fifteen minutes passed. The water climbed higher. His breathing became more rapid and shallow. The water was cool on his legs, but his face and chest were on fire.
The others got stuck on the seventh machine.
“I don’t get it. We decoded the cipher but the damn thing won’t start,” Bryan said.
James snatched the puzzle from Bryan’s hand. Boiling fear steamed him into action as he furiously scanned the clues.
“The pages,” James said through gritted teeth, “are out of order.” He handed the puzzle back to Bryan.
“Oh. You’re right! Nice catch, man.”
Bryan and Isabell scampered off to the last machine, but Hayley grabbed James’s arm before he could follow. For the first time since the door swung closed, she took a close look at his face.
He could feel his panic laid bare in front of her. He’d stepped out of the shadows just in time for her to catch a glimpse of who he really was, cowering because of four walls and a locked door.
“You ok, babe?” she asked.
“Yeah. . . . Fine,” he breathed.
“Hey.” Hayley put a hand on his cheek. “Talk to me.”
“Just a . . . little . . . claustrophobic,” he said between sharp, short breaths.
“Everything’s fine, I promise.” Her face held no scorn or pity, just compassion. “We’re in here together. We’ll get out together.”
She kissed him gently.
Suddenly, the water began to drain from the room. The sound of sirens was replaced with the telltale flutes of “My Heart Will Go On.”
“Hell yeah, got it! Forty-four minutes guys!” Bryan shouted. He and Isabell had solved the final puzzle and were splashing victoriously in the draining water.
“See? We did it! We won!” She kissed him again with a bit more passion. A deep, cool breath filled his lungs as he felt her presence wrap around him, pushing back the panic.
James heard the lock open, not nearly as resonant this time. The water, which he saw now had only climbed slightly above his ankle, was quickly retreating. As Celine Dion launched into the chorus, a welcome wave of embarrassment washed over James.
“Shit,” James laughed. All threats evaporated as he caught Hayley’s eye.
“We’ll always be ok as long as we’re together. Do you believe me?” Hayley asked.
“Yes,” he said. It still served him just fine.
“Good,” Hayley said, a light flush rising to her smiling cheeks, “because I have something to tell you too.”
James smiled back. The sinking feeling was gone. “I can’t wait to hear it.”