This story is by Elizabeth Quigley and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ellen was lying on the hard, fake stone floor staring at the ceiling. Suspenseful music was playing in the background and the room, about the size of a small guest room, was bathed in dim green light. Normally, she loved solving puzzles and an escape room was exactly the kind of thing she would like, but after having graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology with an engineering degree six months ago in a booming economy and no job to show for it, she felt defeated and this expert level escape room had yielded no clues fifteen minutes in. She had given up in her life and in this room. This room, this room. No furniture, no papers, and no symbols were on the walls of this room; just vines covering the moulded plaster stone walls, so where were the clues? How hard could an escape room be?
Hannah, best friend of Ellen for three years, had taken the day off from her job to try to cheer Ellen up. Knowing Ellen liked puzzles, Hannah brought her here to take her mind off the job search. At first it seemed to have worked. Ellen had run her fingers over the walls looking for a loose stone and tried to interpret the vine placement into some sort of arrow. Hannah had just watched her, smiling a little, happy to see her friend back to her normal, energetic self. That had lasted about fifteen minutes, at which point Ellen, having gotten nowhere in this escape room, laid down in the middle of the room with her hands over her eyes, defeated.
40 minutes remaining.
“Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry,” Ellen whispered to herself but she could already feel the tears fighting their way out. She held her breath in a desperate attempt to reign in her emotions, and it frustrated her how she could hardly control herself, let alone anything else in her life.
“Hey,” Hannah said as she sat down next to Ellen, noticing she was upset. “Let’s talk and if you can’t talk, can I at least see your face?”
Mumbling through her hands in a watery voice, Ellen replied, “You really want to talk in a room that costs $80 an hour? We really…we really should be…looking around…only 40 minutes left.” Two tears escaped from her eyes as Ellen took several breaths, trying to prevent a sob from escaping, but she wasn’t doing a great job holding it together.
“I always knew you were high maintenance and I’m glad you’re finally realizing it,” Hannah said lightheartedly, pointedly ignoring the time limit. She knew by now that Ellen more readily talked if given plenty of time and a dash of humor to help lighten the mood.
“Oh shut up,” Ellen said, attempting a small smile. “You’re the one who brings over your entire apartment when I cat sit for you.”
“Hey, that got you to smile.”
The smile slid off Ellen’s face and tears began flowing from her eyes again. Here she was wasting Hannah’s time and money to have a stupid, pathetic meltdown, but she knew Hannah didn’t care about that. If Ellen needed her, she would be there, she had been there, and this niceness, this generosity was too much for Ellen to handle. She curled into a ball, hiding her face, and futilely trying to use her hands to hold back the tears.
30 minutes remaining.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey. Things will work out eventually. You know this,” Hannah said softly as she hugged Ellen. Hannah knew without a doubt what this was about. It was unthinkable that Ellen was going through something Hannah didn’t know. “You won’t be jobless forever. You’re way smarter than I am.”
“We’re in an escape room at two in the afternoon on a Tuesday. I have dozens of rejection emails from companies in my inbox just from this week. My calendar for the foreseeable future has no phone interviews, no in-person interviews, nothing. How much worse can it get?” Ellen said almost angrily while tears were streaming down her face. “I even get rejected for materials engineer positions because I ‘don’t meet the qualifications.’ That’s my major! How does that make any sense?! You know, people told me when I graduated not to worry because Georgia Tech grads get a job within six months. And the news for the past few months is all about how the economy is booming and employers are desperate to fill positions. So it must be me. The only common denominator in these job applications is me. What’s wrong with me?”
25 minutes remaining.
“And now some random stranger is watching me have a meltdown while reminding us that we only have 25 minutes remaining in a room without any clues!” Ellen stopped ranting after that because she was having a hard time catching her breath with all the crying.
“Oh Ellen,” Hannah said and just hugged her tighter. Hannah didn’t know what else to say and didn’t think more words were going to help anyway. She sometimes thought that the best thing to do was just be there in the silence. Her thoughts turned towards the room and how surprisingly bare it was for an escape room, even if it was on expert level.
20 minutes remaining.
“You know,” Hannah said suddenly, “If you think getting a job is the only thing that will make you happy, watch an episode of The Office. People are idiots, the work is boring, and every day is the same. The whole idea that work is supposed to be fulfilling and purposeful comes from Americans worshiping work above all else and getting Millennials to work hard for less pay.”
“Yeah, but money is nice,” Ellen said sniffling, having calmed down a little.
“Yeah money is nice sometimes.”
They sat in silence again, which was only broken by Ellen’s sniffles.
Ten minutes left.
“I wish I had a tissue for you.”
“That’s okay. We’ll be out in ten minutes anyway…I’m sorry for wasting your time and money.”
“Don’t be sorry. I’m happy to have done this with you.”
Five minutes left.
“Do you ever wish you were in a sitcom so all the stuff in your life that doesn’t make sense, would make sense because it would be for entertainment?” Ellen asked.
“I think that’s what God does, but for a better purpose than entertainment,” Hannah replied.
“Oh, right.” Ellen paused. “You know, if we were in some kind of movie or story, this would be the point where things turn around and we have an epiphany about the solution to this room and finish the whole escape room before the time runs out.”
“Yeah but we’re not and realistically, we’d be lucky to get out of this particular room in about five minutes. So what do you wanna do?”
“Just wallow in my misery and wish my life could change in a second.”
“You know that does happen.”
“But not to me.”
Hannah didn’t say anything back. When Ellen was in her dramatic mood, there was nothing Hannah could say to bring her out. She just had to wait for Ellen to decide to get back on her feet.
60 seconds left.
“That vine is the only one that’s hanging from the ceiling,” Ellen said softly, extracting her arm and pointing to a vine in the corner. “Wanna pull it?”
Hannah got up and seeing a little spark in Ellen’s eye, replied with a smile, “I don’t know. Are you ready for your life to change?”
Ellen just rolled her eyes as Hannah slowly walked towards the vine.
“Hurry up already! We have less than a minute left!” Ellen said.
“You didn’t say if you were ready yet,” Hannah replied with an even bigger smile. She could see Ellen coming out of her shroud of sadness.
“YES!” Ellen practically screamed because she had to know if she was right about the vine.
One of the walls opened up, revealing another room, but their time was up and bright white fluorescent lights turned on.
“I finally get it. My life can change. You were telling me to keep looking on the bright, fluorescent light, side,” Ellen said as she stood up and smiled weakly.
“OH MY GAWD, Ellen,” Hannah said with exasperation. But then she smiled again, knowing Ellen, for now, was back to normal.