The unwelcome and annoying sound of the alarm clock next to Sara’s bed prodded her out of a deep sleep, instantly putting her in a bad mood. Rolling over to shut it off, Sara is convinced it must be a mistake. She could have sworn she had turned off Friday’s alarm just yesterday. But her alarm clock had never failed her before and the indicator that kept flashing the day and time told her it was already Monday morning. She must have blinked and missed the weekend.
The more she tried to think about the last couple of days the blurrier they became. The only thing she could think of was that she must have had too much to drink over the weekend for her memory to be so foggy.
As she went through her workday morning routine to get ready for work she tried to bring up the day’s agenda in her head, but her mental calendar was blank too.
“Why is my memory so bad all of a sudden?” She wondered aloud as she made her coffee and looked for her cell phone, but it wasn’t in its usual overnight charging spot.
“Well, that’s perfect. Monday is off to a terrific start. Guess my phone’s not going to be any help.”
After finishing her coffee, which she drank while staring out the window (no phone, remember?), she started her brief commute to work: a few steps into the guest room/office.
The decor in her office is minimalistic, like the rest of her small apartment: only the bare essentials. Talking to herself is nothing new, most likely a result of spending too much time alone, but not being able to find something in her organized space is rare.
Sara sat down at her desk, still not quite awake, and turned on her laptop. She realized that today would need to be a two-cup day, so she logged onto her laptop and went back to the kitchen to make herself a second cup of coffee while all the apps and programs loaded. By the time she got back, her email was open and she could see that she had 56 new emails to read. This was normal though, especially on a Monday morning, and she expected that she would be able to delete at least half of them without even having to open them. There was always So. Much. Junk. Mail. She looked for and soon found the automated email containing her day’s agenda.
8:30 am - Google Meet with management team to recap weekend’s team-building retreat.
“The retreat! Was that this past weekend?”
Sara stared at her screen, half expecting her computer to answer. The retreat, her boss’s brainchild, had been on her calendar for weeks. She could not remember a single thing about having attended.
She pulled up the chat app on her laptop and looked to see if Shelly was online yet. She was in luck.
Sara: Hey Shelly. I need your help!
Shelly: Hey Sara. I heard you and Brian got the Escape Room activity.
Sara: Me and Brian? Ugh. I can’t remember anything about the last couple of days, never mind the retreat. 😟
Shelly: That’s really strange. Wish I could help, but I ended up leaving early when my sitter called, remember?
Sara: No, like I said: I CAN’T REMEMBER ANYTHING!!
Shelly: Oh right. Sorry. Well, when I last saw you, you were both headed into the room.
Sara: Only the two of us? Brian and I had to go into the escape room alone? Wonderful.
Shelly: Yeah, you didn’t look too happy about it.
Sara: Anything else you can tell me? You don’t happen to know where my cell phone is, do you?
Shelly: They made us leave our phones at the camp office, remember? My sitter had to Google the name of the camp to find a number to call when David got sick.
Sara: Guess I left it there. But why can’t I remember anything?
Shelly: Wish I could help, Sara. I gotta run; I have another meeting to prepare for. See you at 11!
Sara stared at her screen. Hearing that she and Brian had been stuck in an escape room didn’t make her feel any better, and she wasn’t any closer to remembering what had happened. She was getting a feeling that whatever it was she was forgetting was not good.
At 8:30 she wasn’t any closer to remembering anything about the weekend, and it was time for the recap. Sara looked at the calendar entry and the “Join Meeting” button which appeared to be pulsing, daring her to click.
“How bad can it be? It’s better to know, right?” She joined the meeting.
The meeting room filled up and her screen became populated with the faces of her colleagues. She typed a brief message to explain why she wasn’t turning on her camera or microphone:
Having connection problems so I can only listen in.
Not true, but they didn’t need to know that.
There was Brian, in the top right corner of her screen. She stared at his face, looking for something, anything that might give her a clue as to what happened in the escape room. He was a little younger than Sara and had started at the company several years after she did. They’d collaborated on a handful of projects, which went like all her group projects in school: she did all the work and got none, or very little, of the credit.
Most recently they had both applied for the same position, which would be a promotion for whichever of them got the job. He worked in the office while she worked from home, which most likely gave him an edge over her, so she had been working extra hard to earn the job. She’d taken on extra work and put in long hours, but it felt mostly unnoticed.
Sara shifted her attention back to the meeting, where each manager was giving a post-mortem on their weekend assignments. Maybe she could find out what happened without giving herself away.
A new chat window opened up. It was Brian.
Brian: Morning, Sara. Connectivity issues?
Sara: Hello, Brian. It’s OK. I can still catch everything that’s going on
Brian: Right, but I was looking forward to hearing what you had to say about what happened in the escape room.
Brian: Why should be pretty obvious.
Sara: It’s just that I’m having a hard time remembering all the details.
Brian: You’re kidding, right?
Before Sara got a chance to follow up she noticed Bill seemed to be winding things up in the meeting.
“Sorry folks, I need to cut this short. I have an appointment I need to get to. So I’ll wrap it up by saying great job everybody, and congratulations to Brian on the promotion. We’ll be talking soon, and Sara, I can’t tell if you’re still on…we need to talk. I’ll check in with you after lunch.”
“What the hell?”
Sara stared at the screen as people started signing out. She closed out the meeting window and checked to see if Brian was still in the chat.
Sara: What did he mean, congratulations on the promotion?
Brian: I got the job, or don’t you remember that either?
Sara: We need to talk. And before Bill calls me. Can you meet me at Joe’s at 12:15?
Brian: Fine. Guess I can do that much. See you there.
Joe’s was the sandwich shop near the office, a favorite among the staff. She used to go there almost every day for lunch when she was in the office. She looked at the clock; it was nearly noon now. While she was out she’d have to see about getting her phone back too. But most importantly, she needed to figure out if Brian really got her promotion.
Joe’s was as crowded as she expected it would be at this hour. She looked around, trying to ignore the stares she felt on her and spotted Brian sitting at a table in the back corner, alone, fortunately. Sara straightened her blazer, patted her hair, took a deep calming breath, and walked over to the table.
“Sara,” Brian looked up from his salad, “long time no see.”
Was that a smirk on his face?
“Hello, Brian. Thanks for meeting me. Mind if I sit?”
Brian shook his head and cleared space at the table for her. “Please, be my guest.”
“Brian, could you please tell me what happened and why the hell I can’t remember? Why do I feel like everyone’s staring at me?”
“Listen, let me say this first.” Brian picked up his fork and took another bite of his salad, chewing slowly. He took a sip of his drink and cleared his throat. “You might feel differently, but I earned that promotion fair and square.”
Sara looked at Brian, getting more frustrated by the second. She leaned in, putting a hand on his arm before he could take another bite. “What happened in there?”
Brian put his fork down, sighing. “Fine, I was enjoying keeping you in the dark …. “ He paused. “Nothing?“
Sara just stared. If looks could kill, Brian would be mortally wounded by now.
“Do you want to order anything? Granola bar, maybe?”
“Granola, now? I’m fine, can you please get to it already?
Pushing his plate aside he turned to Sara. “You really don’t remember? Fine, here’s what happened.”
24 hours earlier:
“Well, Sara, looks like it’s just the two of us, but relax; it shouldn’t take me long to figure out the clues and,” Brian put his fingers up to make air quotes, “escape out of here.”
Resisting the impulse to argue with him, Sara decided to let him give it a shot and see exactly how long it would take him to give up and ask for help. “OK, I’ll be over here.”
She sat down and watched as he walked around the room, pulling books off the shelves, looking under the desk and behind the artwork on the walls.
Fifteen minutes passed. “You sure you don’t need any help? Have you even found one clue yet, solved any puzzles?” Sara couldn’t help but badger him a bit.
Brian glared at her, not ready to concede.
Sara was getting up from the couch when the room got dark. For a few seconds, the already quiet room became unbearably silent as the day turned pitch black.
“What’s happening?” Sara stretched her arms out in front of her, trying to feel her way in the darkness
“I’m sure the lights will be back on in a second. Places like this have to have backup power or at least some kind of emergency light near the exit.” Brian looked toward where he thought the door was, but he couldn’t see light anywhere.
Sara took a step forward, arms stretched out in front of her to feel her way, and bumped into Brian, who was trying to get his own bearings. They both stumbled and landed side-by-side on the couch.
“This is ridiculous. I’m tired of this already. And I’m starving.” As Sara’s eyes adjusted to the dark she could make out a desk in front of them. “Maybe this is part of the escape room activity, another puzzle we need to solve.” She started opening the desk drawers. “Come on, there’s got to be something here. Or at least something I can snack on…”
“You’re hungry? Here, I think I have something that might tide you over. One of the camp counselors gave these to me earlier.” He reached into his pocket and pulled something that felt and looked like, from the little she could see, a couple of granola bars. Sara took them and ate them both before thinking to ask him if he wanted one of them.
“I’m sorry, did you want one? I didn’t realize I was that hungry.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll eat later.” Brian continued looking through the desk drawers, reaching into each of the drawers. “Yes! A flashlight! You might be onto something about the lights going out as part of the game.”
Brian turned the flashlight on, turning around to point it at Sara. “Are you ok?”
Sara was sitting on the floor, her knees pulled up, arms wrapped around her legs.
“I’m not sure… maybe the granola bars were expired or something. I’ll be ok in a second. Keep looking for clues. Is it getting hot in here?”
Brian left the light on her for a few more seconds before turning away. He turned his attention, and the light, to the books on the shelf. “There’s always a clue in a book right? I simply have to find the right book.” He walked closer to the books so he could read the titles.
“This one looks promising. It’s called How to get that big promotion in 7 easy steps. Don’t you think?” Brian picked up the book and turned back to Sara. “What the hell are you doing?”
Sara wasn’t huddling on the floor anymore. Her back was to him and she was swaying in the dark, her arms wrapped around her chest like she was giving herself a hug, and she was naked.
Sara dropped her arms and turned to face him. “I feel like dancing. Would you dance with me?”
“What happened to your clothes?” Brian flashed the light on the floor and them in a pile next to the couch.
He turned back to Sara only to find she was now standing on top of the desk.
“Get down from there and get dressed, Sara. You might want to be wearing clothes when the lights come back on.”
“I’m never wearing clothes again. I feel so liberated!” Sara started spinning on the desk, her arms extended at her sides, moving faster and faster.
“Stop that, you’re going to ….” before he could warn her about falling off the desk, Sara had spun herself enough to do exactly that and tumbled onto the floor at Brian’s feet.
“Are you ok? Here, take my hand.” Brian reached down and helped her get to her feet. “Sit here, and let me get your clothes.” Brian led her to the couch. “Here are your clothes. Put them on while I get us out of here.”
Brian dropped the clothes on her lap and turned back to the book. Flashlight in hand he started flipping through the pages, finding a page in the middle of the book with only these words:
Just remember: you can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets. – AS
“This has to be a clue. Hey, Sara, listen to this – what do you think?” Brian turned the flashlight back to Sara, hoping she was dressed by now. She was not. Sara was stretched out on the couch and appeared to be asleep. Brian picked her clothes back up off the floor and tried to cover her up as much as he could.
“Guess I’m on my own here.” He turned back to the book. “I don’t think this is about my pockets, the only thing in my pockets were the granola bars, so maybe I should be looking for a ladder.”
He looked around for a ladder or anything resembling one. He walked to the other side of the room but all he found there was a table with framed portraits. He recognized some of the faces in the portraits; he thought they were probably all celebrities but he always had a hard time putting names with faces. He knew one of them for sure though: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“AS! That must be his quote in the book!”
He picked up the frame and when he popped the back off a card fell out and dropped to the table. The card was simple, with a name printed on it:
Eric Arthur Blair
Brian turned back to Sara, who was no longer asleep. She was sitting up, staring into space with a sad smile on her face.
“Sara? You OK? Would you please get dressed?
Brian sat on the couch, pushing Sara’s clothes in her direction, trying to keep a little distance from his naked colleague. He showed her the card, shining the light on it so she could see, but she barely glanced at it.
Sara turned toward him. “Brian? I need to tell you something very important.”
“What is it? Will it help us get out of here?” Brian turned back to the card, trying to figure out what it meant.
Sara touched Brian’s arm. “I think I’m in love.”
Brian looked at Sara. “Uh…” He inched a little further away.
“Not with you, idiot. With whatever was in those granola bars.”
Brian shook his head. “Sara, I think ..”
Before he could finish his sentence Sara stood up. “I know what you’re going to say but I don’t care. I feel wonderful and I know it’s because there was something… illegal most likely, in them. But all I can think is: why haven’t I tried it before? I’ve been so uptight and competing for this promotion has me even more wound up. I want to get out of here and go dancing, make love to a stranger, quit my job. But first, let’s get the hell out of here.”
Sara went to the bookcase. “Give me the flashlight. There must be a copy of Orwell’s 1984 here.”
Brian stood behind her with the flashlight. “Why are we looking for 1984?”
“George Orwell was Blair’s pen name. Here it is!” Sara handed the book to Brian. “The next clue has to be in here.”
Brian opened the book and it fell open to the middle of the book, where they found a large gap had been cut into the pages to make room for a key.
“Yes! Here we go — we’re in business now!” Brian grabbed the key and tossed the book down, looking for the door. He turned back to Sara. “I know you said you feel free and liberated and all, but, I think you should put your clothes back on, don’t you?”
Brian paused and took a sip of his drink.
“Well, what happened after that, Brian? I got dressed, right?”
Sara had a hard time believing everything Brian had told her, but in the back of her mind, it also rang true.
“Well, it seems this escape room activity was some kind of final test for us. Bill was waiting outside the escape room when we got out. I walked out with the key in my hand, and all my clothes on, and you, well…”
“Wait, are you saying I was still naked?” Sara leaned back in her chair. She stared up at the ceiling as if a replay of the scene was being projected above her head.
“Oh. My. God.” Sara put her head on the table. After a few seconds, Brian could hear her mumbling but could not make out what she was saying.
“Do you remember now?” Brian asked.
Sara raised her head. “Just bits and pieces. Guess I’ll be turning my resignation in this afternoon since Bill’s going to fire me. I’m surprised he didn’t do it first thing this morning, or yesterday for that matter. Guess that explains the stares. But wait, you gave me those granola bars… did you know they were laced with something?”
Brian was standing up and getting ready to leave. Sara looked up at him.
“You did! Or, more likely, you did it yourself!” She stood up too.
“Me? Why would I? I don’t need to cheat. You yourself said you hated your job. Do you remember that part?” Brian picked up his satchel and took out his wallet, pulling out some bills and dropping them on the table.
“Good luck, Sara. Next time, remember not to accept food or drinks from people you don’t trust or know very well. And keep your clothes on.”
Brian walked away with a wave over his shoulder. “And you already quit.” Brian turned around briefly. “Right before you grabbed that guy standing outside the escape room and started kissing him. I’m not sure who was more surprised: the poor kid or his dad: Bill.”
He shook his head, laughing as he walked out the door.
Sara watched him go as it all came back to her.
Written for (but not submitted because it was over the max. word count) Reedsy’s Writing Prompts. This was my first attempt at one of their prompts so you won’t find any of my work here yet, but one day….
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