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FICTION / Memory Games / Ethan Leonard

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The morning after Harrison’s first night sleeping with someone new, an evacuation siren blared instead of his alarm clock. A voice boomed, “WARNING, ZOMBIE OUTBREAK IMMINENT. PROCEED TO YOUR LOCAL QUARANTINE ZONE IMMEDIATELY.”

Harrison scrambled from the bed with the sheets twisted at his ankles, tripping and swinging shoulder-first against the metal flooring that inexplicably replaced the stained carpet of his bedroom. Overhead, an emergency light spun, casting dim red light around a windowless room. 

Harrison’s date, Vahid, was less roused by the ruckus. He stirred, muttered something, and propped himself up by his elbow on the mattress. “The hell is going on?”

Harrison’s eyes and mind needed time to adjust. His bedroom door was no longer hollow plywood, but a thick sturdy metal on a horizontal sliding track, with three red lights and a card reader on the adjacent wall. Above that, a digital display counted down from one hour, with an electronic reader board blinking: Viral Outbreak Code Red. All that remained of an ordinary bedroom was the queen-size bed, its sheets, and Harrison and Vahid’s pants flung over the footboard. Harrison slipped into his pair, shuffled to the shelves of beakers, and began rearranging. “It’s a puzzle,” he murmured, barely awake. “Ever been to Escape-ades?”

“You mean escapades?”

“No, it’s wordplay. Escape-ades is the escape room company on Flatbush and 34th. This is one of their rooms, ‘ZomBie Or Not To Be.’”

Vahid couldn’t wrap his head around the situation, but Harrison’s assured movements intrigued him. “Is this something you’ve done before?”

Months ago, Harrison asked his then-wife, Rebecca, about the one thing she’s always wanted to do. He’d expected a response like traveling to Lisbon or Marrakech, or back to Cabo for another weeklong stay at their honeymoon resort. Instead she rolled over on the couch and said, heavily, “The Vermillion Prison,” which came to be the first stop on their obsessive, marathon-like tour of New York City’s escape rooms. 

ZomBie Or Not To Be, a featured room running exclusively before last Halloween, was last on their list. The first part of the puzzle was exactly how Harrison solved it then. Rebecca initially alphabetized the shelf by labels alone, but Harrison observed the inconsistency of their sizes rising and falling. He started with placing beakers largest to smallest, from top to bottom. When that didn’t work, he tried smallest to largest. Both times he organized the shelf, he maintained the alphabetical order within each respective size. 

Harrison placed the largest beaker labeled Zinc in the lower-righthand corner. A lock clicked out of place in the glass case below the shelves. He reached in, pulled out the pack of double-A batteries, and turned to Vahid with a winning smile. “This time, we’ll make it out alive.” 

“Alive?”

“Before the outbreak.” 

Harrison grabbed two of the batteries and fit them into the wall clock that lay face-up on the north counter. He flipped it right-side up and pressed a button disguised as the dot above the i in the clockmaker’s name. 

Nothing happened. 

He checked the batteries. Both were facing the correct direction. He applied pressure to each battery to ensure they were secure and tried again. The clock hands didn’t spin; the clock itself didn’t buzz and shake. The glass casing didn’t open with a pop to reveal the door’s first security clearance card. He began prying at the clock’s face with his fingernails. 

Vahid, who’d been watching curiously from the bed, rose to help when Harrison started cursing quietly. “What’s the problem?” he asked, peeking around Harrison’s shoulder.

“Damned thing’s broken,” he said. 

“Are you sure you’re doing it right?”

“This is what I did last time.”

Vahid motioned for the clock, but Harrison didn’t give up until, frustrated, he set it down and moved to a spot in the floor, where the screws in the metal sat loosely in their holes. He yanked them out and slid the heavy panel aside. Below lay an animatronic zombie, rattling in shackles. “Work on this one instead,” Harrison instructed. “The key is revealed if you click his teeth out of place in the right order.”

Vahid’s attention was fixed to the batteries and the clock. “Says here you need a button cell battery,” he said, holding it up to Harrison.

“Don’t be stupid,” Harrison said. “A button cell battery doesn’t even match the size.”

“Don’t call me stupid. I’m reading what it says.”

“And I’ve done this before. Let me take care of it.”

The two exchanged places. Harrison read the instructions. Vahid was right; it asked for one button cell battery, and included illustrations citing that the power source be placed in the middle hatch of the clock’s rear side. With no knowledge of where to find a fresh button cell battery, Harrison removed his watch, pried out the battery, and set it in the clock.

Vahid poked his head out from the hole in the floor. “Push the teeth toward the back of the throat,” he asked, “or into the gums?”

“Into the gums.”

For somebody who’d woken up in a near-stranger’s bed after a night of drinking, Vahid had surprising enthusiasm for the unexpected, grotesque task. Hunched half-naked over a realistic-looking corpse, its steel frame and latex skin shuddering against his ankles, he clicked at the teeth with his thumbs the way most handle routine texting. In less than one minute, he had five teeth in the correct order. 

Rebecca, by contrast, had taken the same challenge much more slowly. It had been a long day for her; “ZomBie Or Not To Be” was the third escape room they’d done in a row. She’d fallen asleep in the taxi ride following the first, and Harrison suggested going home to rest. But after their victory in the second, which involved solving higher math equations than either of them had ever done in school, she shook her head and insisted, her demeanor serious, “I’ve got one more in me.”

Harrison abided. But after the clock hands whirled and revealed the first keycard (it was double-A batteries back then, he was sure), he checked on her progress with the animatronic corpse. “How’s it going?” he asked.

“Fine,” she mumbled.

Rebecca had a habit of bottling up. He noticed, as she plucked away at the golden incisor that indicated a mistake--triggering a reset in the teeth--she was barely able to keep the order of three teeth memorized. He asked if she wanted help. She didn’t nod or shake her head, but wordlessly hoisted herself out of the floor and sat drooped over the opening while Harrison tinkered away for the second key. 

With Vahid, there was almost a music to his determination, to the sound of teeth snapping staccato in the corpse’s gums. Harrison was so lost in Vahid’s efforts he almost forgot to press the clock’s secret button. With a click, the hands spun with an audible whiz until they both came to a halt at midnight. The clock’s face flipped open like a lid and revealed the first keycard. He crossed the floor and swiped the card at the reader. 

The approved beep made Vahid look up from his work. “Did I get it right?”

“Yeah.”

“I told you.”

“It was originally double-A batteries though.”

The corpse’s teeth clicked into reset position again. Harrison offered to help, and Vahid declined. “I’ve almost got all the teeth in the right order.”

“We don’t have much time,” Harrison reminded him.

“We have forty minutes.”

“You can work on finding the final keycard.”

“I can do this one faster.”

“No, you can’t.” 

Vahid’s silence was weighted and familiar. Harrison imposed on the second puzzle with Rebecca, and knew his interference was the source of tension during the third. He insisted finding the key had something to do with the empty picture frame displayed inside the laboratory glove box. She argued it was a red herring, that it stood out too obviously from the rest of the puzzle. With how the gilded frame came off the board so easily, and the Latin words written beneath the border, Harrison dismissed her theory. “You studied Latin,” he asked. “What does it say?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she responded.

“Whether it matters or not, I want to know.”

“No, that’s the translation: It doesn’t matter. It’s all a big joke.”

A yelp brought Harrison back to the present moment. Vahid jumped as a shackled hand came loose and the zombie waved its free arm, the second keycard dangling from a lanyard wrapped around its now-open palm. With his own hand over his heart, Vahid laughed with relief. “I told you I’d do it faster.”

“You got lucky.” 

Vahid ignored his comment, hopped out of the hole, and swiped the second keycard. “One more!”

The two of them moved to the glove box. Vahid’s eyes went wide as they approached. He became giddy. “I saw one of these in a movie recently,” he said. “Can I use it?”

“Sure,” Harrison said. “Place the picture frame into the compartment and slide—”

Vahid shoved his hands inside the gloves and grabbed hold of the clue. “Into the compartment,” he said, “and open it up?”

Harrison was distracted by the presence of a picture inside the frame. Of all the escape rooms he accompanied Rebecca to, there was always some proof of triumph: a certificate, an optional shirt to purchase. At Escape-ades, each group was offered a picture. If you won, the backdrop displayed the group being rescued by the CDC. If you lost, as was their experience, it showed the participants swarmed by an impossible number of zombies, their gore-coated arms outstretched to rip them apart and devour ravenously. Harrison remembered the last thing Rebecca said that night, after the buzzer sounded and a narrator ham-handedly detailed the slow decay of their minds and bodies: “At least we’re going out in style, together.” 

Harrison took it as a joke, but in the months leading up to that day, she’d been difficult to read. They posed for the camera as the photographer described the scene. He suggested Harrison hold her close as though he were protecting her. Rebecca curled into his chest. Only when the camera clicked did he realize she was crying. He tried to cheer her up. “Three escape rooms in a day?” he said that night. “That’s a lot even for people who have perfect health. Even I’m exhausted! It’ll get better, I promise. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Vahid removed his arms from the gloves. “What next?” he asked Harrison.

Harrison received the clue, removing the photo and passing it back to Vahid. He studied the frame closer. Maybe the detachable wooden panels were part of another puzzle they hadn’t unveiled yet. Perhaps the Latin wasn’t perfect. Now that he saw it again, there seemed to be a deviation in the spelling. Or the spacing was different than last time.

A third successful beep sounded. The red emergency light stopped spinning. The countdown clock stopped shy of thirty-five minutes. Harrison looked up and saw the door open, saw his kitchenette and his living room, the daylight flooding Vahid’s shoulders. He moved toward the apartment hallway. As he passed the threshold and glanced back, the bedroom had returned to its usual conditions: bookshelves arranged by author, dirty clothes on the floor, and a desk fan whirring with a slight rattle on the nightstand beside the window. 

“How’d you do it?” Harrison asked.

Vahid held up the photo. Harrison swatted his hand. “Don’t bullshit me,” he said. “This isn’t the time for games.”

“I’m serious,” Vahid told him. “I put the picture to the reader and it opened.”

“There was no picture when I played the game.”

“Maybe you don’t remember the picture.”

“I don’t need you telling me what I do and don’t remember,” Harrison said. “I pored over that picture frame, and we never solved it. If we’d won, we would’ve succeeded in every escape room in every borough. It was all Rebecca wanted to do with the time she had left. But we failed. I failed. I couldn’t solve the picture frame; there was no picture. Just those dumb Latin words.”

Harrison tried to go on, but the more he spoke, the tighter his chest felt. He could hear his pulse in his ears. Vahid turned his attention to the picture. “This is Rebecca?”

Harrison nodded. 

“Is she your girlfriend?”

“Wife,” Harrison corrected, adding, “Was.”

“She’s crying.”

Harrison hoped Vahid wouldn’t pry, and he didn’t. He stood there, holding the photograph for Harrison to take. 

Rebecca only wanted souvenirs of her victories, something to brag about on her blog. She turned down the offer to buy the picture, so Harrison never had a chance to see it. Now, though, he saw her in a moment he’d originally lost. She’d turned her head upward to kiss him on the neck. He didn’t recall her show of affection, which brimmed with an intensity and desperation that seemed to reluctantly accept she’d pass in her sleep.

The morning provided neither men with words for one another. Vahid put on the rest of his clothes, ate the breakfast Harrison made, and left with only a brief hug. Neither of them discussed a possible “next time,” and that night, Harrison texted Vahid, asking if he was awake. Harrison left a second message after ten minutes of no response, confessing he was scared to sleep alone, to wake up trapped again. Eventually he passed out face-down on the couch and woke to the living room unchanged. Harrison checked his phone and found still no answer from Vahid, only that the message had been read. 

Harrison called in sick to work and spent that morning elbow-deep in the box of Rebecca’s keepsakes, looking through copies of their wedding invitations, her passport with her Korean work visa, a disposable camera on its nineteenth shot, and more. Below everything, he found the journal in which Rebecca designed plans for her own escape rooms, mazes, haunted houses. Each part of her projects was constructed like a collage from the fragments of attractions she conquered and loved. 

Harrison flipped through the pages, curious to know if there was anything—a margin note, a doodle—to suggest a room that changed as you inhabited it. He swore he might’ve remembered something like it, given Rebecca’s insistence on the unexpected creating an authentic experience, but as the pages between his thumb and the notebook’s back cover thinned, his thoughts became cluttered as they often did when Rebecca sat in the other room, spit-balling possibilities aloud and excitedly to herself, interrupting one idea with a better idea, the growing feverish sound of her pen running dry against paper. Harrison could see Rebecca in that moment: her whole face lit by a grin as an ingenious contraption flickered to life in her eyes. 


Ethan Leonard is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire's MFA program. Their work has been published by Cotton Xenomorph, MoonPark Review, and others. They tweet inconsistently at @autonomousbagel.