Tick, Tock…

 

 

 

Tick. Tick. Tick.

A bead of sweat trickled down my forehead. I swiped at it with the sleeve of my jacket, trying to ignore the anxiousness pressing down on me like an iron weight.

Getting in had been easy enough.

A short drive. Down two floors in the elevator and then a brief mingle with the afternoon crowds. Innocuous, just one of the flow as I crossed the street. The rest of the team had arrived as planned, in singles or pairs, just like me. No issues, they reported.

That had been my job. Getting us all here. Getting us all in.

But getting in had been the easy part.

We all knew that once inside there was limited time. An hour, to be exact. Sixty precious minutes.

My gaze flicked from my watch to where Kayzee hunched over the safe, Spartacus at his side holding our only torch. The two of them were talking quickly, raising and then discarding ideas for getting inside. Spartacus said something about algorithms. I nodded along with the others, even though it was dark. Even though I had no idea what he was talking about.

I felt my foot begin to tap and ruthlessly stopped it. Glanced sideways at Iris, who looked calm as always. We took that calm from her. It’s what made us so effective. That, and the individual skills we brought to the table.

Forty-two minutes.

“I think I’ve got it.”

A soft click followed by a tiny flash of green light proved Kayzee’s words. My shoulders relaxed slightly. We were past the first stage.

“Great work guys,” JC murmured. He was good like that. Always with the genuine words of encouragement.

Spartacus and Kayzee worked quickly to pull several documents and a key from inside the safe. A brief glance showed the documents were a mix of numbers and letters, no images. As expected. Anticipation curled in me as Iris took the papers and the torch.

“Forty minutes left,” said Spencer. He liked to point out the obvious. I glanced at him, raised an eyebrow. He gave a rueful shrug.

I tried not to hover as Iris frowned over the documents, the light from our small torch casting her shadow across the wall behind. My glance switched nervously between her and the room’s single door, hoping the light couldn’t be seen beyond it.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

The walkie-talkie lying on the room’s only table suddenly crackled to life. Our heads came up sharply. Kayzee jumped almost a foot into the air. Spartacus raised a finger to his lips for quiet. The man’s words were indistinct, mostly unclear. I thought I caught the word ‘exit’ and maybe ‘shift’.

“Doesn’t sound like they’re raising the alarm,” Kayzee said. “How you doing, Iris?”

“It’s as we hoped,” she replied. “They’re ledgers. Offshore account details, transactions, that sort of thing.”

“The ones we needed?”

“I think so. Just give me a few seconds to make sure.” Paper rustled as she finished scanning one and started on the next.

I couldn’t help glancing at the door again. In thirty minutes we either walked out of here or we were never leaving. It felt like the room was getting hotter, even though I knew rationally it couldn’t be. This was an air-conditioned facility—the temperature would be at a steady 22 degrees.

“This is what we were after,” Iris spoke firmly, her hands quickly folding the papers up and shoving them into her jacket.

“Right, time to roll.” The words had just left Kayzee’s mouth when the walky-talky crackled again. This time, the voice on the other end was agitated. Alarmed even. Instinct prickled and I ran for the door, my hand closing over the cool metal of the handle just as a loud buzzing noise echoed through the room. It was immediately followed by a click. I tugged down hard on the handle, part of me already knowing what had happened.

“It’s locked.” I tried to keep my voice calm but it came out edged with tension.

“They’ve put the facility in lockdown,” Iris observed.

JC went straight to one of the walls. “Time to switch to plan B.”

“We’ve got plenty of time,” Spencer added. He could be good with the encouragement too.

We had planned for this, and now we split up, separating around the room to look for the other exit. We were about eighty percent sure there was one. There had to be. A room this important—with what it held? Of course there was another way in! Well, probably there was another way…

My palms slid over smooth paneling, testing, probing, searching for a weakness, or a hollow area. My heart beat in time with the seconds ticking down on my glowing watch.

Twenty-three minutes.

Tick. Tick. The damn thing was inexorable.

“Here,” JC called out softly.

In seconds we were clustered around him. He’d removed a panel from the wall, beyond which was an electronic interface with a key code.

“How much you want to bet we put in the wrong code and it locks down, sets off an alarm, or both?” Spencer muttered.

“Both, most likely,” Spartacus said decidedly. I couldn’t help a brief smile. Never one for sugar-coating was our Spartacus.

“There will be a clue here somewhere,” I said, more hopeful than confident. “Iris, see if there is anything in the documents. The rest of us can search the room.”

We’d just lurched into movement when pounding feet sounded outside, rapidly approaching. We froze in position, collectively holding our breaths, then expelling them in a simultaneous whoosh as the footsteps continued past the door and onwards.

“They know we’re in the facility,” Kayzee said unnecessarily.

“Either that or they’re doing a fire drill,” JC joked.

I smiled, appreciating the attempt at humour. “They’ll work out where we are eventually.”

“Either way we’re screwed if we’re not out in seventeen minutes,” Spartacus murmured absently. He was hunkered down before the electronic keypad. “I recognise this type of keypad. It will be a four digit code.”

“How confident of that are you?” Iris asked.

He cocked his head, serious. “About ninety percent.”

A thought abruptly occurred to me. “What was the key for? The one that was with the papers in the safe.”

Kayzee held it up. “It looks like a key fob to a car. It’s not badged though, so impossible to tell what the make is.”

“But why was it in the….”

My words trailed off as more boots sounded in the corridor outside, this time slowing as they got closer.

“Got it!” Spencer clambered out from under the table, clutching a yellow post-it. “5436.”

“They wrote the password on a post it and stuck it under the table?” Kayzee’s voice was thick with disbelief.

“You have a better idea, Kayzee?” JC wanted to know.

Spartacus hesitated. “He’s right though. I mean, what if—”

I wasn’t sure where I came down on this argument, but those running feet outside certainly seemed to be slowing down as they got closer to our…oh, they were definitely slowing down. Stopping even. Right outside the door.

“Put the code in, Spartacus!” JC’s voice went up an octave.

I heard the distant beeps of Spartacus entering the code as I backed up towards him, gaze fixated on the doorway. There was a fifth beep, then a whooshing sound. Then more beeps, this time from a code panel outside the main door.

‘They’re coming in.” Spencer. Again with the obvious.

There was no time for hesitation. One by one we ran through into the dark rectangle that had opened up in the back of the room. I promptly ran into the back of JC, apologized, then rolled my eyes hard as Spartacus came through last and barrelled into me. He swung shut the door just as the front door opened.

Complete and utter blackness descended around us.

“Anyone think to bring the torch with them?” Iris’s voice floated, disembodied, in the blackness.

I imagined a whole lot of staring at each other. Heard shuffling feet. Fortunately, nobody decided to assign blame. That was us, though. Mistakes and victories belonged to us all.

“Hands on shoulders and we move in single file,” JC suggested.

“In which direction?” Kayzee asked.

This time it was me who couldn’t resist. At least the brief illumination of my watch gave us a flash of light. “Twelve minutes, guys.”

“Pick a direction and start walking.” A slight thread of irritation in Iris’s voice.

JC ahead of me. Iris behind. Both super tall. After a while my arms began to ache. The darkness didn’t dissipate and so we moved slowly. I didn’t envy Kayzee in the lead. When my watch told me we were down to eight minutes, there was a muffled curse from ahead, and then the forward movement suddenly stopped.

“We’ve hit a door, I think,” Kayzee’s voice floated down. “I can’t feel a handle, though.”

“What about another keypad?” This from Spartacus.

“There must be. Hang on…”

Silence descended as Kayzee searched. I fought the urge to begin tapping my foot again. Failed to fight the urge to check my watch.

“I think I found something…”

Light flashed into the corridor as a circular keypad the size of a tennis ball lit up; it looked more like a combination lock than a keypad. Numbers and letters surrounded the edges, with an arrow for each direction of the compass highlighted. After three seconds the light clicked off and they were plunged into darkness once again.

A booming sound echoed through the space. I swallowed, pretty sure the sound had come from where we’d just been. Were they after us already?

“Check the key,” I suggested. “There has to be a reason it was in the safe.”

A small click as JC dug it out of his pocket and pressed the button to release the key. He pressed it up against the glowing digits of his own watch. “I can just make out some letters and numbers.”

“Start typing, guys,” Brett, glancing behind us. Hearing what I had. Footsteps.

“I’m on it,” Kayzee shifted back to the door while JC began reading out the numbers imprinted on the key.

The sound of footsteps grew closer and closer. Unconsciously we all began pressing forward, pushing Kayzee harder up against the door.

“Guys!” he said sharply. “Give me some room.”

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Six minutes.

I took a deliberate step away. Looked back the way we’d come, even though it was pitch black. What would they be sending after us? Would it be worse than what happened if we weren’t out of the facility in seven minutes?

I didn’t really want to find out.

I jumped when Kayzee gave a triumphant shout, then eagerly pulled open on the lock and tugged it off the door. He gave it a shove and it swung open noiselessly.

Excited, relieved, full of adrenalin, we poured through into the room beyond. A young man sat behind a desk, feet up on the surface, finishing off the remains of his lunch. At our appearance, he put down his good and beamed at us.

“Well done guys, you did it. Only 36% of groups successfully make it out of that escape room in sixty minutes. You managed it with four minutes to spare!”

There were fist bumps and high fives. Maybe some back-slapping too.

“Beers?” Kayzee suggested as they collected phones and wallets from the locker.

“Damn straight,” Spencer nodded.

I grinned as I followed them out the door. “We should do that again sometime.”

 

The Christmas House


The Christmas House…

The fading glow of dusk settled over the house as the 24th of December began drawing to a close. A breeze whispered through the trees, the gently falling snow carpeting their branches in white.

A squirrel nibbling happily on his dinner squeaked in affront as a clump of snow landed with a soft thud beside him, showering him in cold and wet. Shaking his ears to free them of snow, he finished his nuts and scampered back up into the tree to re-join his family. He’d just made it up into the shelter of the branches when something caught his eye– a light had flickered on in one of the windows of the old house nearby.

Tomas slugged through the snow. He was tired and hungry and the jacket he wore no longer prevented icy tendrils of air from penetrating through to his skin. Shivering, he came to a stop, hefting his backpack on one shoulder. At first glance it looked like he was in the middle of nowhere–he’d been walking for hours through the forest, hoping to find shelter before nightfall. Now the sun was setting over the horizon, and the air was growing colder.

Blowing on numb fingers, he looked around again, and this time his gaze snagged on one flickering light amid the falling darkness. At the same time, the faint sound of bells drifted to him on the night air. When he frowned and looked more closely, he could see the house. It was old and rambling, looking in dire need of repair. Still, it had a roof, and would be somewhere to shelter for the night. Changing direction slightly, he made for the house. Snatches of ringing bells followed him as he walked. Two more upper floor windows lit up as Tomas walked up the long driveway to the house, and he swore he could hear the sound of children’s laughter coming from inside.

At the imposing front doors, Tomas hesitated only a moment before pushing them open. They swung inwards with a groaning creak and blessed warmth enveloped him. Stopping just inside, Tomas stared in surprise at the fire burning merrily in the entrance foyer. An unbroken layer of dust covered the wooden floor and the mantle above the fireplace.

“Hello?”

The word echoed back at him over and over, seeming to reverberate through the entire house. No response came. Shrugging, Tomas closed the doors to keep out the cold and stepped closer to the fireplace. As he stood there, debating what to do next, an arched door to his right swung open soundlessly. Golden firelight from beyond shone through onto the floor, illuminating the motes of dust floating through the air.

“This is creepy,” he muttered. But oddly enough he didn’t feel in any danger. His instincts were sharp, and usually warned him if there was something wrong nearby.

The bells sounded again, louder this time, almost immediately followed by a snatch of bright music. He was just working up the courage to walk through when a rustling sound from above had him turning and edging back towards the front door. Moments later, a small figure appeared through one of the windows set high up in the wall, carefully lowering herself down. Tomas stared in astonishment as the girl dropped lightly to the floor, brushing clouds of dust and snow from her clothes, before turning to scowl at him.

“Who are you?”

“Who are you?”

She looked around, her glance taking in the dusty floor and the melting snow from his boots. “You don’t live here either.”

“I was just looking for shelter for the night. The house seems empty, though.”

“Lit that fire all by yourself, did you?”

“No, it was lit when I walked in.” After hesitating a moment, Tomas reached out with his hand. “I’m Tomas.”

She stared disdainfully at his hand. “Amerla.”

“So, what are you here to steal?” he asked.

She smirked. “Like you, I’m just looking for shelter. The snow is getting heavier out there.”

Both of them glanced around as the sound of bells echoed through the house again. After a moment, Amerla rolled her eyes and strode towards the open doorway. Shrugging to himself, Tomas turned and followed. His mouth fell open in surprise as he stepped though. This room was lit by another crackling fire that filled the cozy space with the sweet scent of cedar. A Christmas tree stood in the corner, decorated with lights and baubles and a bright golden star. A long, plush-looking couch sat across from the hearth, a neatly folded quilt sitting at each end.

Both Tomas and Amerla jumped as a scratching sound came from the old record player in the corner. Moments later, the tune to ‘jingle bells’ hummed softly from the speakers.

“This is weird.” Amerla’s eyebrows were narrowed in suspicion. “I don’t believe in ghosts.”

“Neither do I.” Tomas looked around the room one more time before dropping his backpack to the floor. “But it’s cold and dark outside. I’m staying.”

She stared at him for a long moment before finally conceding with a sigh. “You’re right.”

As Tomas and Amerla cautiously approached the couch, the door behind them silently swung shut, keeping the warmth in the room. Outside, red and green fairy lights strung along the eaves of the roof suddenly turned on. The chiming of bells swelled.


“So what are you running from?”

Tomas shrugged. “The usual.”

Amerla acknowledged that with a small, sad smile. “You headed anywhere in particular?”

“Just away. As far as I can get.”

Silence fell around them again, broken occasionally by popping from the fireplace. Tomas leaned down to pull off his boots and stretch his frozen toes out towards the warmth of the fire. “How long have you been on your own?”

“Long enough,” she said softly.

His stomach rumbled then, breaking the tenseness. Her swift grin, as brief as it was, warmed Tomas. She had a face made for smiling, he thought.

“I’m bored.” She rose to her feet. “I’m going to see what’s through here.”

Made sleepy by the warmth despite his hunger, Tomas stayed on the couch while Amerla crossed to the only other door in the room. This time it was the sound of chimes that echoed through the house as the door opened. Unbeknownst to Tomas or Amelda, lights now flickered in all the windows of the Christmas House.

“Tomas! You’re going to want to see this.”

At the stunned note to her voice, Tomas leaped off the couch and followed her through the door, stopping dead at the sight laid out before him. It was a kitchen, the table running down its centre groaning under the amount of food lying on it. He saw steaming mince pies, a whole roasted turkey, platters of roasted potatoes and a dish of green beans. Off to the side sat frosted Christmas cupcakes, a bowl full of candy canes and at least ten crunchy bread rolls. On the stove, bubbling away happily, was a large pot of what smelled like spiced apple cider.

His mouth watered, his hunger surging with the vengeance.

“I think this is for us.” Amerla’s voice was light with disbelief.

Tomas reached out to rest his hand against gently against the wall in thanks. “Yeah, I think it is.”


Tomas sat back against the deliciously soft cushions. He thought his stomach might burst if he tried to fit any more in…he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to eat until he was full. Amerla sat on the opposite end of the couch, one hand toying with a loose thread on the quilt that had been left there.

“Tomorrow… ” she began speaking, then fell silent.

“Yeah?” he gently encouraged.

“I was thinking of heading north.”

She was staring down at her hands, so he felt safe in letting out the smile that spread across his face. “Seems like a good direction to go in.”

“Okay, then.”

“Tomorrow is Christmas, though. I think we should stay here one more night.”

Around them, the bells chimed.

That quicksilver smile lit up Amelda’s face again. “I’m okay with that.”


The squirrel scampered across the roof of the Christmas House before swinging down one of the drainpipes towards the ground. It was just after midnight, and the bright Christmas lights adorning the house glowed against the white snow. The squirrel paused above one of the arched windows, looking through the frosted glass in curiosity.

Inside were two young people. A crackling fire flickered in the grate, casting a warm pool of light around the small sofa sitting before the hearth. Empty minced tart wrappers littered the surface, along with two empty mugs and the remnants of a cherry pie.

A young man was in the middle of the sofa, legs sprawled out and resting on the coffee table, head leaning to the side and resting on the girl’s knee, fast asleep. A santa hat was wrapped around her right knee. The girl was curled in the far corner, one hand resting almost close enough to touch the boy’s shoulder, a dark pool of shadow amidst the firelight and the flickering green and red.

Outside, the squirrel turned and headed back towards his tree, the memory of warmth and burgeoning friendship following him all the way back home…

The end.

 

Merry Christmas!

Lisa


Image source: Joannie Dennis: Thomas Kinkade, “Painter of Light” (1958–2012): (CC BY 2.0)

A night at the basketball

LCass’ right food tapped a steady staccato against the polished hardwood, the movement betraying her otherwise relaxed posture as she sat on the bleacher. Her gaze was distant, her focus ostensibly on her teammates warming up nearby.

“LCass”

She looked up at the greeting, a quick smile crossing her face. “Kayzee.”

“Big night tonight, LCass.” He dropped his bag to the floor and stretched out beside her.

“You’re telling me.”

People were filing into the stadium now; other players, referees, spectators. The low hum of conversation masked the uneasy mix of anticipation and anxiousness that had been building in the players all day.

“We’ll be fine, LCass,” Kayzee said now, as he rose to join those warming up. “We just gotta play our game.”

===

“I’ve got a good feeling about this,” Spencer told them as the siren sounded to start the game.

He saw some quick smiles at his usual joke, but the varying degrees of anxiousness on their faces precluded genuine amusement. A small smile flickered over his face as he watched them file onto the court. They’d be fine.

==

They were coming out strong, Becky H thought to herself, already feeling the burn in her muscles and the rasp of air in her lungs. She faced down the opposition point guard, her entire focus on the movement of his hands and the ball he was dribbling. In a move quicker than lightning, she shifted, left hand reaching out to pick his pocket. He fought for the ball but she caught it cleanly, passing quickly off to Spencer.  Spencer cleared the ball from the key and moved it down-court, looking instantly for JC. The moment he’d freed himself from his defender, Spencer lobbed the ball in, and JC’s quick catch and release put two more points on the board for the Slamburgers

===

The sound of the whistle was sharp in JC’s ears as the referee called a foul, signalling two free throws for the opposition. Sweat beaded on his forehead, trickling down his face as he took the opportunity for a breather. As the second shot went up, he readied himself, feeling the muscles in his legs bunch, his breath catch as he waited for the right…now! He launched himself upwards, leaping high to corral the rebound. The ball was rough against the skin of his palms as he caught it firmly, before landing and immediately turning to run. His head came up, eyes scanning the court ahead. When he spotted Dirk running the break, he picked up his dribble and threw a bullet pass down-court. Catching it on the run, Dirk took two long strides and banked in the layup.

Cheers broke out from the bleachers where the Slamburgers’ fans sat, but JC barely heard them. His focus was on the ball, already being brought up the court. He turned briefly, calling out for the D to tighten up, warning his teammates the ball had been inbounded. The score was close–too close–and they needed to play better defence.

===

Iris felt the breath whoosh from her lungs as she caught an elbow to the chest. Ignoring the momentary breathlessness, she firmed her defensive stance and hunkered down. Her opponent backed up hard, again, trying to force Iris further back. When she turned and tried to shoot, Iris slammed her palm into the ball, sending it flying away. Cheers broke out from the crowed, and Kayzee’s cry of “Yeah, IRIS!” cut clear through the noise. She cast around, looking for the ball, but Spartacus was already there, diving on the floor to grab it before the opposition could. Somehow, he managed to get the ball out to Kayzee, and the Slamburgers had another possession. Iris and Spartacus took a deep breath, forcing away the weariness burning in their legs, and together broke into a run down-court.

===

Darko stood before his team in the timeout. The game was tight, and there was less than five minutes to go. Dirk, LCass and JC were hanging their heads, beating themselves up for missing shots, while Iris looked exhausted from the beating she was taking under the rim. Spencer, Spartacus and Kayzee were working hard to cheer the team up, and Darko gave them an encouraging nod–this was their game to win, he knew it.

“We make the right decisions, and we win this,” Darko told his team, steady and confident. “It’s a single possession game. We just relax and do what we do.”

“Back yourselves,” Kayzee added. “We got this.”

Darko could see the words steadying them, bringing back some confidence. The referee’s whistle sounded, and together they filed back onto the court.

===

Kayzee drove hard into the key, drawing two defenders after him before kicking the ball back out. LCass caught the ball on the three-point-line, wide open, and rose up to take the shot. It looked good coming out of her hands, but the ball circled the rim before falling out. Bitter frustration filled her, burning in its intensity, and she ran back on defence as the opposition caught the rebound and pushed the ball quickly down-court.

==

Becky H sat on the bench, hands curled tight in anxiousness, watching the final minutes unfold. Her team was doing everything they needed to, getting the right shots for themselves, but nothing was falling. The three-pointer from the opposition was a dagger, pushing the lead to five with less than two minutes on the clock. Even so, the Slamburgers kept fighting. With patience, they won themselves an open three for Dirk, but the shot went wide. A drive and pull-up from JC rolled off the rim and out.

Inexorably, the seconds ticked down. The Slamburgers were going to lose. The cheers from the other end of the bench rose in intensity as a win for their team became a certainty.

===

The spectators watched the Slamburgers gather by the bench after they’d congratulated the winning team. The heavy air of disappointment that hung over them was palpable, but they were clustered close together, already giving each other words of encouragement.

The Slamburgers were a team; the spectators could see that clear as day. And they’d have another chance at the finals. It was inevitable.