I sit at a small kitchen table and ponder what it means to inhabit multiple realities at once while I shovel bland-tasting cereal into my mouth. I quickly check my watch, confirming that I have about ten minutes before the bus takes me to my three-hundred-and-seventy-sixth day of high school. It will, however, only be my sixteenth day at Mistview High in the middle of New Jersey. Before my dad and I moved here, I’d only associated the state with its beaches. Living in the center is more like being lost.
One thing keeps my attention this morning. My phone, set at the table away from myself, shows the same notification I received when I woke up: Mistview Escape Rooms™ has reviewed your interview. We are pleased to offer you a position in our business. Please tap below to confirm and schedule your training.
I stare at the screen while I eat my breakfast, still unsure how to feel, and mentally abuzz with all the good and bad that could come with this job. My dad told me I shouldn’t let my frequent episodes stop me from finding work. That I just need to prove to myself how capable I am. Sure, easy enough, I’ll just do that somehow.
The thumping of footsteps from the floor above jolts me. I’d thought my dad wouldn’t be waking up anytime near this early, not since he started a night shift position around here. For him to approach the stairs… could something be wrong? My heart thumps at the pace of his steps, and I already knew what’s about to happen. Not with him, but inside me. A mental illness no one can seem to define. At that precise moment, my mind bursts with multiple possible outcomes, all branching out of my head.
Possibility 1: He’s coming to tell me that he just got a call from the counselor’s office. After only three weeks, the school has decided I need serious help beyond their capabilities. They saw the “disturbing” doodles I made during class. I would have to start seeing a real professional.
Possibility 2: He woke in a cold sweat and realized that we must move again. The Garden State just isn’t working for him, so he’s getting ready to tell me we’re off to the next one. No need to settle into the new house or catch the bus to school today; we’ll have to try again. Trial and error, he’ll say, that’s all it is.
Possibility 3: I made too many enemies here, too quickly. Someone I offended in the past three and a half weeks made it their goal to eliminate me. That’s not my dad approaching; it’s a gunman headed for me after checking my room first. He must have snuck in through the back window on the second floor. The mysterious stranger will ask me some questions and, unsatisfied with my answers, fire a round until my head splashes into the cereal bowl.
My dad emerges around the bend of the staircase, covering his mouth from a yawn. He’s tall, a stark contrast from myself, and with curly hair I didn’t inherit. He adjusts his glasses and makes his way along the thin hall and past the green walls he intends to paint over. He holds up his thumb at me, alternating between a thumbs-up and a thumbs-down.
“Well?” he asks.
I don’t reply, somehow still combing over which outcome he could be referring to. I stare at him and eat another frosted spoonful. I check my watch again—how did five minutes pass already?
“The job, did you get it?” he says. “It’s been enough time since the interview, have you heard back from them?”
I quickly nod. “Yeah. I got the job. I’ll have to do some training and all that, but I guess that’ll start soon.”
His eyes light up, his smile fixating on me as he makes his way across the kitchen.
“That one was your first choice too, wasn’t it? How cool—an escape room place. When I was a kid, we had nothing like that. At your age I’d just serve tables at the diner and turn my brain off until work finally ended, and I could see a movie with friends.”
I tap my foot against the leg of the table, wondering what it meant to turn one’s brain off. He had a point about escape rooms at least. When we moved here, it was the first business to catch my eye, fueled by his insistence that I find a job. I’d never had an experience like that before, and the concept blew me away. Having finally applied and succeeded, I must admit that some parts of me are excited to work somewhere so imaginative.
“I’m glad,” my dad mumbles as he rearranges fridge magnets. “I knew that place seemed right up your alley. It will…”
“…be good for you,” the guidance counselor says.
I sit opposite her in the overly cushioned office, surrounded by the deep maroon of the carpet that seems to absorb light as well as all thoughts aside from its color. I lean back into my padded chair with the feeling I know how the rest of the conversation will pan out.
Possibility 1: The cheery counselor proceeds into even more mundane topics, like how my week has been so far. She wastes another two minutes asking if I’ve done anything fun, have any hobbies, went on any dates, and so on. Finally, she explains, still smiling, the concerns that teachers have raised about me.
Possibility 2: Without speaking, the counselor swivels her chair and opens one of the lower drawers of her desk. She retrieves a sheet of paper and grimly hands it to me, like a certificate of death. After reading a few sentences, I realize I’m holding a notice to send me to a psych ward. Apparently, they communicated with my last school and decided drastic action was needed. I realize my life is headed into a white cushioned room and a straitjacket like the movies. Possibility 3: She asks genuinely difficult and personal questions, and my brain refuses to stop branching off. This continues until my heart gives out, no longer capable of supporting my brain.
My first prediction unravels before me before I come up with more. The thin woman takes a sip from a mug of coffee before unloading a slew of meaningless questions. I reply with half-baked answers, tuning her out and fast forwarding to the part where she gets to the point, like I’m holding the remote in front of a TV.
“…living in the moment, you understand? It’s very common for people your age to get distracted, or to think that what you’re learning in class isn’t worth your time. I want to help you practice training your brain to only care about the here and now, is that okay?” She speaks slowly as if English were my second language.
Her words sound like nothing to me except a rehashed version of the same speech I’ve heard repeatedly by many different adults. I continue to play along, answering questions I expect her to ask ahead of time, then giving her responses that lead to more predictable topics.
“No, I’m not nervous about the job,” I say at one point. I’m unsure if I believe my words.
“I’m happy to hear it,” she says, reaching again for the coffee. “But don’t feel upset if you do feel anxious at all. It’s a perfectly normal reaction to anything, especially new experiences. I’m willing to bet that if you step outside of your comfort zone, you will discover that yes, things won’t always play out like you expect—and that’s okay. A good thing, even.”
Years ago, sometime during the third grade, I leaned against the window of the school bus as always and peered at the road as it slowed to a stop. I noticed a small grey rabbit moving along the pavement. The road was two-lane, and the bus got held in traffic on the right while cars whizzed by on the left. The rabbit seemed oblivious to the chaos around it, instead giving its attention to a small crumb of food left on the road. I sat there, glued to the scene, until a car came by in just the right position and made the creature disappear forever.
I remember sinking into my seat, utterly fixated on the quickness of its death. The rabbit had no concept of fate coming for it, and it couldn’t even react before its existence disappeared. It bothered me that I couldn’t come up with a reason for why it received no warning.
I move through the day as if I were a ghost. Other students drift throughout the halls as if shadows. I don’t see their faces; I look at each shape and predict their movement pattern. Some form groups and move together, others like me are rogue but routine. What if I went the wrong way to class and disrupted the pattern? Would anyone else be thrown off?
Around lunchtime, I head for the cafeteria. A student further down the hall appears to be handing out fliers for the school prom. I imagine the variety of encounters that spring from him handing me one, all of which delay my walk to the cafeteria by three to seven seconds. I make for the other end of the hall, pretending to look at my phone while careful to maintain the same pace.
The wide, open cafeteria gets most of its light from six large windows on either side, which cast pale-blue rays upon occupied tables. Dozens of students pack together like sardines, the sun’s glow reflecting from their tin lunch boxes. The rest of the space, outside of the windows’ domain, appears much darker, out of the limelight. I situate myself at a small table in one such corner, free from distractions, from stimuli, from people.
My few seconds of serenity come to a halt when I see someone approaching my table. The tall boy must have just entered the cafeteria; I don’t recognize him as one of the sardines. He carries a lunch bag hung over his shoulder by a strap, which I’ve never seen before. It wobbles and bounces in his stride. I sigh and focus on the cafeteria sloppy joe in front of me while my mind thinks through the reasons for him coming to my table.
Possibility 1: The school counselors chose this guy to keep tabs on me. He walks over and begins asking questions under the guise of getting to know me better, but his queries focus on my mood and relationship with my family. I leave the table, putting an end to his charade.
Possibility 2: The guy stands over me and asks why I’m sitting alone. He grits his teeth and explains to me, a “greenie” at the school, that I won’t last long here if I don’t join a clique. He sets an example by sliding my tray onto the floor, then walks over to the lighter side of the room with his group of friends.
Possibility 3: He tries to warn me, in vain, that the meat in my sandwich contains a lethal dose of—
“You know how, when you think about it, your tongue never really sits comfortably in your mouth?” he says.
I blink. “What?”
“Oh, I’m not trying to make you hyper aware of it or anything, but that’s why I’ve always liked lunchtime,” he adds, plopping his large bag on the table and fitting himself on the bench. “Food keeps my tongue busy, so I don’t have to think about it.”
The boy pulls a cold chicken finger from his box and starts eating. His mop-like hair sways slightly as he takes in his food, and his blue eyes seem to believe he’s in a normal situation. I’m left transfixed, trying to find words.
“Yeah… I guess that makes sense,” I finally manage. “Have we met?”
“My name’s Tucker,” he says, extending his free hand. I take it.
His voice has a strange pattern, stopping and starting at syllables in the middle of words. After shaking his hand, I shift my weight during the uncomfortable silence. Tucker seems to notice my unease.
“Let me guess… someone stole your sweet roll?” he says between bites, mimicking a low voice I don’t recognize. I stare back at him. “Oh, that’s Skyrim. You know, the game? It came out in 2011.”
I slowly nod, vaguely remembering the reference. “No, uh, I’m thinking about a new job. At the escape room place downtown. Have you ever been there?”
He turns to me quickly. “I’ve been there! I tried out all their rooms with my mom. We thought they were good, but there’s only three options. We liked the Indiana Jones themed one, even if it was cliché. Between you and me, I would’ve preferred it if they had a detective one. I love Sherlock Holmes.”
I find myself nodding more. We continue talking about whatever subject Tucker decides to bring up, and I make my way through the sandwich. Once the bell rings and I begin heading to my next class, he follows and references more games until I physically enter the classroom, after which he dashes off to where he needs to be.
Two weeks and one successful interview later, I stand before a half dozen middle-schoolers from behind a counter in a cramped room. I work by myself, while my boss, a woman in her thirties, sits somewhere in the above floor of the thin shopping center building.
“Before we start, I have to remind you that you won’t have to be using any force inside the room,” I begin. “If an object won’t move, turns out it’s not supposed to move. It’s either supposed to be unlocked by another puzzle in the room, or it’s decoration.”
After I run through my speech, I lead the group to a horror-themed setup. All six walls are painted black with occasional splatters of blood-red paint. I imagine a fifty percent chance that one of them screams the moment the door closes behind them. Sure enough, I hear a muffled shriek as I release the door handle.
“Remember, the door is not actually locked!” I shout through the barrier. “That would be illegal!” Unless, perhaps, their card declines, I wonder.
I shamble back to the counter, where I use a baby monitor to watch their progress. I already know every clue, every order of events, and every jump scare contained in the hour-long “experience,” which causes the job to feel like watching the same film on repeat. Or it should, until the players make mistakes or interact with objects in unexpected ways. My mind tries to gauge their intelligence, guessing when they will find certain keys or how they will react to the plastic knives that spring from the walls towards the end.
Halfway into their run, my mind conjures a different scenario. One of the middle schoolers enacted a plan to switch one of the room’s toy knives with a real one. I’m crouching over, resetting the room once they leave, only to have a sharp blade fly out from the spring trap in the wall, poised for my neck and ready to cut my life short.
“I think they want another clue,” a feminine voice snaps me back. My boss, Eva, looks down from the other side of the counter. I look at the monitor, noticing a flashing blue light. The group had been trying to get my attention for at least two minutes.
“Sorry,” I muster. Eva huffs and walks out in front of the store, lighting a cigarette. She starts talking on her phone. I finish guiding the group through the puzzles, slightly upset when they barely react to the flying knives scare. After receiving at seven or eight hints from my end, they “escape” the room. I’m envious. For an entire hour, the group had me give them an idea of what would come next. They never needed to think ahead.
My shift ends shortly after. Eva still talks on the phone when I walk outside, and I hear a few details from her conversation.
“…complaining about the lack of options. We could start using the upstairs floor, too. I don’t need my kitchen anyway. We can just pull a new room from the internet.”
I backtrack. “You need ideas for a new room?”
She gives me a slightly annoyed look. “Hold one sec,” she says into the phone. “Yes, Isaac, but there are websites where people already have rooms designed.”
“What if I designed one? If you don’t like it, you can say no. But if you’d just give me a few days, I can come up with one that people will like.”
A wave of possibilities enters my mind, then I see Eva shrug. Suddenly her phone is gone, in her pocket perhaps, and her cigarette is slightly shorter than I remembered. “If you can make a pitch for it on Monday, I’ll consider it. Do you have a theme in mind? We always start with a theme.”
“A detective room,” I say. “Sherlock Holmes.”
Tucker and I follow one another to our classes. More accurately, he trails after me between nearly every period. I scarcely object, since the alternative is trying to read each person in the hallway. At some point on Friday, he asks if I’m free to “hang” at the arcade after school. After mentally visiting several outcomes, I agree.
That evening, we stand in line for the dance machine in the highly stimulating arcade building. While we wait, there’s a rare pause in our conversation, so I ask a question without thinking. “Do you think it’s normal to picture your own death? Like, all the time?”
“Hm,” Tucker says, not as shaken as I’d expected. “So, you’ve imagined your own death so much it feels more like a memory?” He studies my face. “Sorry, that one was Hamilton. Well, no, I don’t do that. I don’t know if it’s normal.”
I stuff my hands in my pockets, feeling stupid for asking, and let the flashing lights of the dim arcade stimulate my senses, weirdly entranced by the present moment. With Tucker, just about anything could exit his mouth at any moment.
He pipes up again, leaning against a claw machine. “Some people theorize that we see our entire lives flash in our eyes before death because the mind is searching for a way to avoid dying. The brain goes through all our past experiences and memories to come up with a way to survive. Dreams are kind of the same way, I think.”
I fumble with my arcade tickets, wondering if any of that is helpful. Just as quickly as the claw machine resets its position, Tucker moves on to another topic.
“You should come over this weekend,” he says. “My mom is making a rotisserie chicken tomorrow, and my dad says the basement is mine to convert into a gaming space.”
He gives me his address, which is only about a twenty minutes’ walk from my house. “Oh, that’s awesome…” I reply. “But this weekend I’m going to be busy. I need to design a whole escape room for work. Also, I sort of borrowed your idea for a Sherlock theme.”
The sounds of the arcade fill my head, and I seem to miss Tucker’s response. I glance over and realize that he hasn’t said anything. He’s staring at a middle-aged woman cradling a crying baby. He stares at the child with a glossy gaze, the same one I imagine people see when I’m in one of my episodes. I study his face in the darkness until I notice a tear fall onto his cheek.
“Hey, uh, I’m sorry if you think I stole the idea. I can tell them—”
“It’s not that,” he says, wiping his face. “There’s something I’m trying hard not to think about.”
I tilt my head. “Oh, okay. You can tell me if you want, though. If that helps.”
He looks at me suddenly, as if he didn’t consider that option.
“Last month, I was supposed to have a baby sister,” he says.
“I was waiting and waiting forever for her to come. But instead, she didn’t. I had no idea that could happen.”
I don’t know what to say. As usual. But I feel a pit in my stomach, and my mind rings with contradicting thoughts that culminate into guilt. Why guilt? I spend a few more hours with Tucker, trying my best to help him keep his mind on the games, focusing all my energy on his mood.
Once he begins smiling again, the night turns into a contest to win the most tickets. The edges of my mouth form a grin, then a chuckle when Tucker hits the jackpot on the fortune wheel game, then laughter when I beat him at racing and take half his tickets on a bet.
The following Monday, he walks with me to Mistview Escape Rooms. It was time for me to see the empty room and make a blueprint of my idea; Eva had already approved the pitch I wrote for her. Apparently, detective-themed rooms have already popped up in other escape rooms. Successfully, too. I’m still happy to design Tucker’s idea.
“Can you really go in when they’re not open?” he asks with concern.
“Yep,” I say, flashing him the bronze key in the chest pocket of my polo shirt. “My boss gave me access. She said I have the empty room to myself to visualize where everything would go.”
Tucker’s eyes glow with amazement. “You’re the architect from The Matrix,” he breathes.
I laugh and scratch the back of my neck, then head inside alone after saying goodbye. The store has an incredibly small interior, squeezed between two larger businesses. Escape rooms pack tightly together, divided by moveable walls, and pieced together like a puzzle. Or like Tetris blocks, Tucker might say. I climb the stairs and find the room Eva mentioned.
Inside, white walls surround every direction, sandwiched by an equally blank ceiling and floor. I guess Eva had no intention of beginning painting until my blueprint is finished. I close the door behind me and stand at the center of the room, unzipping my backpack and reviewing the notes I prepared. At one corner of the room, I see a pile of cheap wooden furniture and other props, meant for me to move around to see where I want them.
Gazing around the room, I’m able to envision where different puzzles might go. I decide that a fake fireplace can go against the far wall, where players will find a crucial clue. Will they? It’s entirely possible they won’t manage to find it at all. How could I predict what they will do in my room?
Feeling my shoulders tense, I shift gears to a different corner where I want to place a mirror that displays a secret message when fogged up. Then again, the mirror might just get knocked over by the first player to elbow into it, shattering my idea instantly.
I spin around and look at another wall. Then a different one. The blank surfaces begin to change appearance to fit my ideas, only for whatever I imagine to suddenly break or cause disaster. Despite the progress I thought I’d made, the episode arrived all the same.
Possibility 1: I can’t do it. The walls and floor laugh at me, daring me to set up my puzzles and watch them fail. The weight of responsibility becomes crushing, as if the ceiling itself threatens to come down and flatten me. I tear my blueprint into shreds and throw confetti everywhere before leaving the store, never to return.
Possibility 2: Just as I start to find my bearings again and continue working, a knock comes at the door. A stranger in a trench coat walks in, smoking a pipe. He declares that he is a scholar of literature on Sherlock Holmes, hired by Eva to check if my plans are thematically accurate. He holds my written ideas in his hands and scoffs, telling me I’ve disgraced Arthur Conan Doyle’s work. He informs me that I will be featured on his blog, where he will tell the world of my lack of care for respecting literature.
Possibility 3: The door disappears. That is, the only escape from this empty space has vanished, leaving me trapped inside four unmoving walls. I feel every surface for a way out, but it’s no use. I don’t know how it’s possible, but one thing is clear: I’ve been set up. Eva must have connections with the people out to get me, or worse, she has led my league of enemies this entire time. I’m finally where they want me: forever locked away from the world.
As the hours pass, then days, I lose track of time. I wonder why I haven’t simply starved or died of thirst. Perhaps even quick death would be too merciful, and they hope I will suffer as long as possible. Every attempt at entertaining myself fails and only brings misery.
At one point, I grab a few of the prop materials from the corner. A plastic flower vase with fake plants, a paintbrush, and some red paint. I don’t know what guides me, but I paint words on the vase: “To Tucker and his Family. I’m sorry for your loss.” This provides some brief comfort until more weeks pass and my sanity unravels as I’m flung into the void.
“Isaac!” a voice shouts as the door bursts open. Eva and my dad rush into the room, panic spread across their faces. I realize I’m lying on the floor, only halfway conscious, vision blurry. Nothing hurts except for my head, which throbs as if my brain exclusively had been through a marathon.
“What happened?” Eva shouts with hands over her mouth as my dad crouches down over me.
“Are you okay? Can you talk? Stand?” my dad asks in a frenzy.
“I—I don’t know. I think so.” I slowly rise to my feet, blink a few more times, then glance at my phone. It’s the next morning. Eva and my dad exchange looks, and he tells her about my unique condition. She asks for a more specific diagnosis and why it wasn’t mentioned during the interview. He apologizes and explains that we don’t know what is wrong. They discuss further while I stand in a haze, and eventually Eva declares, apologetically, that I need help—she will have to let me go until this is resolved.
My gaze wanders to the corner of the room, where I spot a plastic vase with writing on it. Inhaling deeply, I wonder if that part of the episode had been real. I lift it off the ground, reading the same painted inscription I thought I’d imagined. It seems like such a random part of my vision, but there it stands—an actual message for Tucker’s family I wrote, and it occurs to me that I accurately predicted something that I had done, not someone else. Did that even make sense? Don’t I control what I do?
“Can I take this with me?” I ask.
My dad looks disapproving for a moment, but Eva just shrugs.
“Might as well.”
I don’t know why I’m running. I might drop the fragile vase any second, but I hurry to the address I remember he mentioned. After my dad took me home from the incident, I barely paid any attention to him as he sat me down like my therapist and reassured me with gentle phrases. Don’t let this get to you. It just means you need more help than we thought. Once I was free from his grasp, I grabbed my souvenir from work and sprinted out the door.
The sun begins to dip over the horizon, casting a dim twilight in my path. I nearly trip over the front steps in front of the blue-painted house. A woman with kind eyes answers the doorbell and sees me in my unholy state, panting and dripping with sweat, the vase close to shaking out of my hands. She slowly accepts it, reads the note, and her face gets all red. I almost panic, imagining her calling me insensitive and phoning my dad. She smiles instead, still flushed, and invites me in.
The house’s entryway is filled with pictures of Tucker during various graduations and picture days. Taped to one of the frames is a ribbon with a puzzle piece design. Tucker’s mother asks if I am Isaac, the boy he won’t stop talking about.
Before I can even nod, Tucker emerges running towards me, no question why I’m here.
“You came at the perfect time! I just finished the gamer den downstairs,” he says.
“Since you were building a room at your job, I decided to make my own space. I have a couple monitors set up already. I hope there’s a game in my library you want to play. I have a new racing game… Start your engines! Or we could make a character together in my favorite RPG…For Tamriel!” His voice fluctuates with each reference, forcing a smile to creep on my lips.
He shows me the entrance of his basement, which glows and pulses with decorative neon lights. My gaze wanders down the stairs as if they lead to another world. My head feels light. I don’t know what’s coming next, but I don’t seem to mind. I step into an alternate reality.