I don't know if it was addiction or what, but Freddy definitely had some kind of weird obsession with those escape rooms. You know the kind of places I mean; a dozen or so people pay about $30 apiece to be "locked" in a confined space and told that they have a set amount of time to solve several puzzles hidden around the room in order to successfully "escape". Depending on the group you play with, an escape room could make for a fun night of silliness or an intense opportunity to show off how brilliant you think you are.
Most escape rooms had specific settings, like a corrupt politician's
office or a haunted operating room, but Freddy didn't seem to care about
the set dressing. He just loved uncovering secret
compartments and solving puzzles, all for the ultimate thrill of escaping the room before time was
up. If the team didn't get through enough of the room by the end of the hour (or however much time was allotted), then they'd lose the game and have to try again another time. Sometimes the company that owned the room gave discounts for repeaters, but not always. This upped the stakes for guys like Freddy to succeed the first time through.
There was a catch, of course. You see, a big reason that these rooms were so hard to beat was that ten or twelve people trying to solve a puzzle at once was just about impossible, much harder than half that number. Communication gets muddled the more people that are involved, every participant shouting out ideas over each other. Escape room companies looking for repeat business made sure to set the minimum numbers of players at as many people as their space could hold. That meant that Freddy would have to either convince just about every friend he had to spend $30 to play a new room with him, or he'd have to be paired up with strangers that needed an extra person. Well, he quickly ran out of friends willing to spend money on the same type of entertainment every weekend, so Freddy soon found himself on several waiting lists around town as an "additional player".
One Friday night, Freddy called me in an anxious fit and begged me to join him in a game downtown, at some place called OMNi Room (a quick search online told me that the acronym stood for Our Misbegotten Nights; kind of dorky, but most of these companies were). Freddy seemed really excited about getting into one specific room there called "Fourth of July", and had been notified that a group who had reserved it needed two more players to complete their party. I was feeling exhausted after a long work week and really had just wanted to veg out, but I told him that I'd rally if he'd cover half of my entrance fee. He agreed and I left my apartment soon after, navigating downtown for OMNi Room.
Freddy met me outside of the old, squat, freestanding building on Price Boulevard. He told me the rest of the group was already waiting for us on the third floor. The elevator somehow seemed older than the building. Its dim and boxy buttons were covered with pieces of masking tape, upon them the floor numbers were written in Sharpie. On the elevator ride up, I asked Freddy about the room.
"It has something to do with the Fourth of July?" he said with a shrug. "That's all I know, and I don't even know that for sure."
It wasn't a surprising response. Escape room companies were notoriously secretive about their rooms' settings and storylines, routinely handing out lifetime bans to repeaters that tried to post specifics through social media. This made it next to impossible to learn tricks to get out early. It made escape rooms special, and it was one of the few things that I truly appreciated about them. It was a welcomed alternative to all the guides and manuals available for every other form of entertainment. However, I was confused about the Fourth of July theme for this room, as it was early September. The elevator doors opened before I could float any theories by Freddy.
The third floor looked more or less like any office space; linoleum floors, florescent lights. I followed Freddy, practically darting in front of me, down a narrow hallway to a waiting room. That's where I met the rest of our group: nine very drunk, very loud kids in their early-to-mid 20's - and Earl.
Earl, who I'd say was safely in his forties, made a beeline for me and Freddy as soon as he saw us standing in the doorway of the waiting room. He wore a suit with no tie and had obviously already had a long night leading up to this portion of the evening. Dark lines hung under his eyes and it appeared that his graying hair had been liberally mussed.
"Hi, guys. I'm Earl," he said, quickly shaking our hands with a too-firm grip. He spoke in a clipped manner that suggested years of being the only sober guy in the room. "The OMNi people probably already went over this, but ours is kind of a special group. You seem like smart fellows, so I'm going to trust that anything you see or hear is nothing but a few young people letting off steam. Sound good?"
"Sounds good," I found myself assuring him, though I had no idea what he was talking about. Earl nodded in a way that told me he'd never been told "sounds bad" before. He left us and returned to his post. I grabbed Freddy by his arm and dragged him back into the hallway.
"Okay, what the hell was that?" I asked, my voice in low, but
Freddy just pursed his lips and lifted his eyebrows as though I hadn't
finished my thought. I gave him a small, but concentrated shove to the chest
and he ended the act. "Okay, so you see that one kid in the Lakers hat?"
I took a step towards the waiting room and saw the Lakers cap. "Yeah, I see him." The kid looked vaguely familiar and I felt a strange sensation that I knew him from my personal life.
"His name is Derek Crestline. Apparently, he's on a TV show called Scrape. I've never heard of it, but I guess he's like the next big thing or something."
I couldn't help but roll my eyes. "Shit." I'd had my run-ins with celebrities before and the experience always left a bad taste in my mouth. Rising stars usually were the worst, their inflated egos getting more and more rampant with each talk show appearance or paparazzo footage airing on TMZ.
I watched as Earl tried to say something to Derek, whose attention was glued to his phone. He had one leg draped across a girl's lap, a girl that I almost could place as well. She was wearing a red, white, and blue jacket, which seemed like a sign that she had at least some interest in the room we'd be trying to escape. Most of the others were also on their phones, but two girls and two
guys were playing with some handheld puzzles that OMNi had put out to get players
into a problem solving mood. They seemed to be mocking the puzzles, but I gathered that their derision was more out of frustration than a sense of superiority.
Freddy's eyebrows were back up, defensive. "Maybe it's for the best! Maybe Fourth of July has challenges that actors and, you know, entourage types would excel at." Off my unsatisfied
expression, he continued with, "Look. I know it's not the best group to play with. They're probably going to annoy the hell out of us. But we can still have fun, right?"
I hated Freddy for it, but he was probably right. If I weren't at OMNi Room, I'd just be flipping through channels while lying on my couch, probably stopping to laugh a bit at Scrape (whatever that was) before finding an old monster movie on cable. At least there was the possibility for adventure here.
Just then a young woman walked into the room and asked the Crestline group if they were ready
to start. They barely registered that someone was talking to them. Earl clapped his hands twice and repeated what the OMNi woman had said. I shot Freddy a look, but he was too mesmerized by the game's
initiation to notice. The woman introduced herself as Julie and asked the rowdy drunk kids (and Earl) to follow her.
She walked by us and, in a way that noted our discord with the others, asked if we were with the
group. Freddy nodded excitedly; I could only muster a weak smile. We followed
Julie and the rest of the group down another hallway and through a doorway
adorned with a small placard that read "Ye Fourth of July Room".
Inside, we found ourselves in a small waiting room. A giant door painted to look like the American
flag stood before us. Julie asked us to stand against a wall as she went
through the rules of the room, which were also written out on a large document that looked like the Declaration of Independence. Derek was quiet, but several of his friends asked stupid questions and offered up ridiculous scenarios.
"What if one of us accidentally breaks one of the clues?"
Julie looked concerned for a moment, before breaking into a fabulously fake smile. "Don't break anything. How about that?"
"Yeah, but what if one of the clues is already broken?"
"None of the clues are broken," Julie said, now a little tense. "I can guarantee you that they aren't. I actually don't know if any of the clues are even breakable, but please just don't break anything."
As she wrapped up her spiel, Julie urged us to work together and keep in mind that many puzzles wouldn't make sense until we had all of the pieces, which may be hidden anywhere in the room. She then told us that phone usage wouldn't be allowed inside, which was met with gasps. She nodded solemnly and asked everybody to turn off their phones. The resulting act looked like dismemberment, but eventually everyone complied. With that, Julie opened up the door and we finally saw what the Fourth of July Room consisted of.
It was a party room, decorated for an Independence Day celebration. The room looked like somebody's game room or maybe a pool house. There were a couple of sofas angled toward a big screen TV where a movie was playing. A snack table covered in patriotic colors and themed food trays sat off to the side, next to a bar where the liquor bottles were filled with jelly beans instead of alcohol. There were pictures of the founding fathers in ridiculous party poses on one wall, and another wall had a large window with a view of fireworks, which exploded into brilliant displays on a loop. It was clearly playing on a monitor behind a false window front. However, that clever bit of technology confused at least one of the Crestline party.
"Wait, are they shooting off firecrackers outside?" the girl in the red, white, and blue jacket said.
"No, sweetie," Earl told her. "That's just a TV behind the wall." Derek Crestline just stared at it, either mesmerized by the pretty colors or glad that he hadn't embarrassed himself by asking the same question.
Julie then told us to have fun and closed the door. We had one hour to solve the puzzles. I didn't see anything that looked like an obvious clue, though I did notice a few locked drawers and safes scattered throughout the room. There was a young guy lounging on one of the couches. He was dressed in shorts and a tank top, oblivious to us as he played on his cellphone. This was our moderator, somebody from OMNi who made sure we didn't mess anything up or stray way off the path with any of the puzzles. However, with the listless character he had been assigned, he could have easily been from Derek's crew.
Freddy got to work right away. He grabbed a clipboard and soon figured out that Jefferson, Adams, and Washington were absent from the founding fathers that were partying in the pictures on the wall. That linked up to the fact that Jaws was the movie playing on the TV. So he had "J", "A", and "W", but needed an "S" (which is also the 19th letter in the alphabet). Yeah, I told you these things could get dorky.
I was trying to figure out the significance of the fireworks display loop, looking for patterns and anything out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, the Crestline group was still pretty much in their own world. A few of the more buzzed ones had opted to sit on the couch with our moderator and watch the movie; others seemed to have lost the will to live now that they weren't able to use their cellphones. Derek was standing next to me, still mesmerized by the phony fireworks. I asked him if he saw a pattern. He looked at me for a moment and then called Earl over to give him some gum. I could tell that Crestline was going to be a big help.
The moderator jumped up, dropping character a bit, and warned a few people that were trying to get into the jellybeans that his "dad" would be upset if they ate any of the food in the room.
"All of the food in this room is for after the fireworks, guys," he said as he put the bottles back into specific places on the shelf. "My dad is real strict about that stuff."
That probably meant that all of the food was fake, but I could imagine a few of Derek's friends eating several plastic pieces of fruit without noticing the distinction. Several of them had flasks and were keeping the party going as Freddy valiantly tried to rally them to solve puzzles that he uncovered from underneath chip bowls and inside a coffee table. I guess that "S" had paid off somehow, but the Crestline group offered no assistance for the logic grids or missing word algorithms that Freddy brought to them.
I had since moved on from the fireworks display after nothing seemed to jump out as a clue. I decided it was either just a decoration meant to distract us, or I would need more information to solve it. Instead, I tried to unravel the mystery of the snack table.
Thirty minutes had passed and no end was in sight.
The food did turn out to be a clue, as did a game that our moderator was playing on his cellphone. Earl did his best to organize the puzzles that we uncovered, even decoding part of a pun-based rebus, this intricate picture puzzle that Freddy had found under a rug.
"Hey, this is kinda fun!" Earl exclaimed to everyone that was listening to him, which was just me and Freddy. "Would you look at that?"
The clue that Earl's puzzle revealed, a simple math key with a four digit solution, opened up a medium-sized safe which contained several tiny American flags. They looked like factory rejects, misprints. All of them were attached to keys.
"I bet one of these is not like the others!" Earl cried out, his voice a little giddy. I could tell that escape room madness had overpowered his sense of duty to Derek Crestline. However, he was the only member of his party that was helping us, so Freddy and I elected to let him work on the tiny flag puzzle.
Freddy found a scale in a secret compartment, figured out that the jellybean bottles had different weights, and went to work deciphering the resulting figures. He was in the zone, as it were, a special place where reality melted away to its most basic elements. I could see what Freddy liked about these rooms. Everything had a purpose, would lead to something that made sense. Thinking about a problem too much was an obsessive liability in the outside world, embarrassing at best and dangerous at worst. But overthinking an issue was essential in an escape room, a commodity to be wielded with absolute pride. Freddy was home here among the problems in want of solutions.
Earl was not home. The tiny flag puzzle had apparently broken his brain.
"They're all the same," he said. "I mean, they're all a little crazy. See how the stripes zigzag here and there and some of the stars are missing? But not one of them is less crazy than the others."
"Maybe it's not about the keys," I told him. He looked up to me with confused hope. "Sometimes they put out things that appear obvious, but aren't. Have you tried laying them all next to each other?"
Earl started to set them out on the coffee table, mumbling something about the nature of order versus chaos to himself.
The moderator held up his hand and made an announcement. "Okay, I've had several requests from people that want to leave the room early. I can allow it, but you basically forfeit the game. And I can only open the door once. If I have to do it again, the game is completely over and you have to leave. So, if you want to get out of the room now, raise your hand."
Many hands shot up, including the girl in the red, white, and blue jacket. Freddy looked at me with a panic in his eyes that worried me more than the prospect of losing the game. However, it was Derek Crestline that spoke up then.
"C'mon, you guys. Let's stick with it. Freddy seems to know what he's doing and it's only like ten minutes till time runs out. Let's hang."
Everybody nodded immediately and threw a few words of encouragement towards Freddy. Derek went back to staring at the phony fireworks. Once everybody was back in their normal state of blaséness, I cornered Freddy near the bar.
"Crestline knows your name, huh? You might have mentioned that."
Freddy shrugged. "Okay, yeah. We shared a studio apartment when I first got to L.A." He smiled crookedly. "Tons of runoff girls, man."
"Gross, dude," I said, and went back to check on Earl.
"There is something here," Earl muttered, staring at the collage of the tiny flags. He looked like Richard Dreyfuss, not from Jaws but another Spielberg movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. "See how the lines are off by just a bit, this way and that. Don't know why I couldn't see it before."
I looked at them for a bit and noticed it immediately. Earl needed a win though; he'd earned it.
"I don't know, Earl. Maybe they all fit together, somehow. Why don't you sit down here and think about it?" I gestured to the edge of one of the couches. He nodded and sank down into the cushion. He rubbed his eyes for a moment and then glanced up at the flag display. Earl's expression shifted - I knew he had it.
"Wait a minute, just a minute..." He leaned forward and changed the position of a few of the flags. His hands were shaking. "Hold up just a second here." Freddy was standing beside me now. We looked at each other and smiled. Earl jumped up. "Got it!"
The stars and stripes on the flags revealed a pattern, but only when arranged correctly and only from a certain angle. Earl jumped up. I tried to calm him a bit as Freddy drew out the pattern on the clipboard. Once he had copied it, he set the diagram down on the coffee table. It didn't mean anything. We just stared at it.
"Three minutes left," the moderator announced.
"Shit," Freddy said. "We're so close. I don't have it. Do you see it?"
I didn't. Not really. There was something there though, something that almost made sense. But my brain told me that I hadn't spent enough time with it.
Then it clicked. I went over and grabbed Derek Crestline by the shoulders and led him to the drawing.
"Hey, man," I said, showing him the pattern from the flag puzzle. Earl was sitting with his legs crossed next to the coffee table, his fingers in his mouth. I said to Derek, "You see anything here?"
Derek looked at the drawing and nodded. "Oh, rad." He snagged the pencil from Freddy's hand and began circling all of the firework patterns that were no doubt burned into his retinas after staring at them all night. The results were clear instructions. We went to the large door that led out and saw that there were four, nearly invisible, palm-sized circles on it.
"Thirty seconds," our moderator warned us.
Derek, Earl, Freddy, and myself all placed our hands on the circles and twisted them back-and-forth in a rocking motion, just as the instructions had told us to do. The door clicked and we backed away as it opened up. Blaring march music, something by John Phillips Sousa, filled the room and the sound of the fireworks became deafening.
"Yes!" Freddy said, throwing an arm up into the air.
"Congratulations, guys!" It was Julie. She walked into the room and joined our moderator, who now seemed a lot more officious, even in flipflops. Freddy and Earl high-fived. Most of Derek's friends nodded and switch on their phones. Derek Crestline smiled for the first time all night. Julie continued. "You did it. You escaped the Fourth of July!"
Freddy and I went out for a drink after the Crestline party took off for the next thing. It amused me that only Earl had introduced himself to me; I had caught a couple of names, but didn't actually meet most of them. Even Derek Crestline had only offered a fist bump as we celebrated our victory. The OMNi crew allowed us to take just one group picture in the escape room, from an angle that didn't give away any secrets, but I probably wouldn't ever see it. Derek told Freddy that the two of them should hang out again sometime. Freddy told me later at the bar that hanging with Crestline wasn't likely to happen.
"Oh, yeah? Why not?" I asked. We were midway through our second round of beers.
"Nah, he's in a different place these days." I could tell the idea made Freddy uncomfortable. Or maybe it was the unlikelihood of it happening at all. "I wouldn't know how to be in that world. That's just not where I'm at, you know?"
"I guess not." I looked at my friend for a moment. He was getting older, but so was I. So was everybody, even boring celebrities on the rise like Derek Crestline, our escape room savior. "And where are you at, Freddy? Where are you these days?"
He smiled and shook his head. "I don't know, not really. I guess I got out." Freddy turned and raised his beer to the nearly empty barroom behind us. "Happy Fourth of July, everybody!"
One guy started to repeat it, but lost his momentum when he realized nobody else was joining in. I lifted my bottle to take a drink and Freddy did the same.