“2-1-20-8-18-15-15-13”

An short story from 2009.


“Watcha reading?”

“Kafka. Just started it. You?”

“Nintendo DS.”

“What happened to the book I gave you?”

“Reading hard — Mario easy!”

“You are such a Man-Child. I don’t know why I’m with you sometimes.”

“Because I’m adooorable.”

“If you say so…”

Paige set The Trial aside and sat up from the grass. Looking over Piedmont Park, a group of kids tossed a Frisbee at the base of their hill. A couple in the distance walked a terrier towards the dog run.

“Want to grab a beer or something?”

“Maybe in a moment. I’m almost done with this level.”

“It’s a really nice day. There aren’t a lot of people sitting outside Park Tavern…”

Jim took the hint. He closed the game system shut with a loud clamp. “Can I drop this off in the car?”

“Afraid somebody is going to take it?”

“You never know,” he joked.

Paige gathered her things. “You’re buying first round.”

He nodded.

Walking down the sidewalk and holding hands, Jim could feel Paige dig her sapphire engagement ring deep into his palm. She started swinging their hands playfully. He looked at her. She gave him a smile.

As they approached the street where they’d left their car, Jim noticed the metallic box-like building by the park’s exit. It was the infamous Robot Bathroom the city had installed a few years back. He’d seen it in the past, and it had always made him curious. However, this time there was no line by its entrance. 

“I have to go to the bathroom,” said Jim, quickly pointing towards the building.

“In there?”

“It’s a self-cleaning urinal that costs more than the condo. I gotta try it.”

Jim handed her his Nintendo DS and jogged towards the bathroom. He pressed a button lined by a wintery-blue light that was next to the door, and it slid open like it was from Star Trek.

“This is how people will piss in the future!”

She gave him a disgusted face but still laughed.

Inside, Jim thought the bathroom looked cold due to its excessive chrome and unnatural light, but its sparseness made it strangely relaxing and roomy. A robotic voice commanded him to close the door. He did what he was told, and Paige gave a small wave as she disappeared.

Jim walked to the toilet and took care of his business. A motion detector flushed the toilet. A motion detector gave him water with a squirt of soap. A motion detector let him dry his hands under the blasting hot air.

With a quick run of his fingers through his hair, he was ready to go. He walked to the exit, found the door’s button, and gave it a firm press. 

Nothing happened. 

He pressed the button again.

The door remained closed.

He stood there perplexed for a second, and the third time still failed to open the bathroom.

“Hey, Paige!” Jim yelled. “I’m having a little bit of trouble in here…”

“What?!?”

“I said I’m having a problem! The door isn’t opening!”

“The door isn’t opening?!? I can’t really hear you in there!”

He pressed the button again. “Yes! The door isn’t opening! Can you press the door button outside!”

“What?!?”

“Press the button for the door!”

A couple of seconds passed.

“I just pressed it! The door isn’t opening! Try it from the inside!”

“I just did!”

“…Do you think it’s stuck?”

“I don’t know! The bathroom has power and everything!”

Jim heard Paige’s frustrated sigh. “I just pressed the outside button again! I don’t know what else to do!”

“Is there anybody else out there who can help me?”

“I could go find somebody!”

“Yes – yes, go find one of the Park people!”

“Okay!” she yelled. “I’ll be right back!”

Jim cursed. He circled around the bathroom once then read the bullet-pointed instructions and rules tacked beside the door. The line saying that the bathroom had a ten minute limit gave him hope that the door would automatically open, but the deadline came and went.

He whipped out his iPhone and learned that the walls gave him no bars. Disheartened, he collapsed his back against the door and strained to hear the sounds of the outside world — Paige’s return with help, other people wanting to use the bathroom, cars speeding through the nearby intersection. All he heard was a strange silence. The entire city had gone mute.

Jim’s stomach rumbled. He got up and impatiently began to pound his fist against the door. Three knocks turned into five, and five knocks suddenly morphed into a series of kicks and yells. He quickly ran out of energy and just about fell face-first into the door. He listened again for the outside world but continued to eerily hear nothing.

Jim spent many hours pounding the door, listening, and then pounding some more. Frustrated, he eventually resigned himself to the fact that there was nothing he could do but wait for help.

So that was what he did.

He closed his eyes, and he waited.

*    *    *

Once Jim awoke, he noticed the envelope immediately. Its dark red color clashed vibrantly against the white tile floor, and it reflected wildly off the door’s brushed chrome. He hesitated for a moment then quickly crawled towards it like an unstable baby. Scribbled in capitals was JAMES BALDECCHI.

“What the hell?” whispered James Baldecchi.

He looked at the door. Had somebody slipped the letter underneath its frame? The gap between the door and floor appeared to be too small to fit much of anything.

His finger wedged easily underneath the envelope’s flap, and with a quick flick it ripped open. Only a torn white piece of paper fell to the ground. Jim picked it up and was so surprised by what he saw that he read the numbers aloud:

25-15-21  1-18-5 7-15-9-14-7  20-15 4-9-5

For some reason unbeknownst to him, he started doing the math in his head.

25 minus 15 minus 21 is negative 11.

1 minus 18 minus 5 is negative 22.

7 minus 15 minus 9 minus 14 minus 7 is negative 39.

As suddenly as he’d begun, he stopped. What were those numbers supposed to mean?

He slowly lowered himself against the door and stared at the scrap of paper for what seemed like hours but knew were minutes. He wondered: Why do some of the numbers have dashes between them and others have spaces? Why wasn’t there a 50 or 114? Why didn’t any of them go over the number 25?

Jim started counting to himself.

The letter Y is the 25th letter in the alphabet.

The 15th letter is O.

The 21st letter is U.

Y-O-U!

Jim carefully began to count the other numbers and let the spaces separate the words. When he finished, his hands began to tremble. He went back and did the string again but came to the same deciphered conclusion:

YOU ARE GOING TO DIE

The paper hit the floor. A fear Jim never knew existed shot across his body.

A slight vibration rattled his left pocket. Surprised, he cautiously reached into his jeans for his no-reception iPhone. The screen indicated the call was from an unknown number.

“Hello?” answered Jim nervously.

There was no response.

“Is anybody there?”

A high-pitched squeal emitted from the speaker. Jim swore as he yanked the phone from his ear. The sound continued for what seemed minutes. Then it suddenly stopped.

Jim returned the phone to his ear. “Is anybody there?”

“Jim?…”

“Paige!”

“Jim, it’s me! Where are you?!?”

“Thank God!” he yelled. He jumped from the ground and started pacing. “I’m still in the bathroom from yesterday! You have to get me out of here!”

“Listen…” she said in a hushed tone. “You don’t have much time. I got a letter in Spanish explaining everything. You need to get to the car. It’s still on 10th Street.”

“…What?”

“The letter said there was a lever hidden in the bathroom that will release the door. You need to get out of there now and –”

Silence.

Jim pulled the iPhone off his cheek. The call was still active.

“Paige?!? Paige, are you still there?!?”

The iPhone clicked. The screen went black.

Talk of the lever rejuvenated Jim, and escape made him too psyched to question how he’d gotten the call or what he’d do when he got to the car.

His eyes scrutinized each wall in rows and then columns. He crawled around the floor and placed his fingers into every nook and cranny. He even tried to move the toilet.

Hours passed.

Defeat set in.

Jim plopped into the corner behind the toilet, and his head fell on top of his propped knees. He placed his iPhone between his feet and desperately hoped for another call.

*    *    *

For the first time in his life, Jim woke to a real hunger in his stomach. He gave it a slight rub, and for a second the only thing he wanted more than an open door was a Chick-fil-A biscuit.

Jim knew he had to distract his mind. He rose to his feet and waved his hand in front of the sink. Warm water gushed from the faucet, and he splashed himself awake. He looked deep into the mirror. He caressed the beginnings of his beard and suddenly spotted the dark red envelope at the foot of the door. Even in the backwards reflection, he could make out JAMES BALDECCHI.

Cautiously, Jim walked towards the envelope. It appeared as if somebody had slipped it under the door again. He got down on one knee, slowly opened it, and removed its white scrap of paper:

20-18-15-21-2-12-5  6-9-14-4-9-14-7 20-8-5  12-5-22-5-18?

Jim started to count:

T is the 20th letter.

The 18th letter is R.

The 15th letter is O.

The 21st letter is U.

The 2nd letter is B.

The 12th letter is L.

The 5th letter is E.

T-R-O-U-B-L-E!

His brain worked overtime, quickly deciphering the remaining numbers. He cursed when he got his answer:

TROUBLE FINDING THE LEVER?

Jim gnashed his teeth as he tore into the message. Its remains fell to the ground. He yelled and banged and kicked the door again until his hands bled.

He collapsed next to the code’s white shreds and crumpled them into a tiny ball. Just as he was about to drop it into the toilet, he spotted something new sitting below the water’s surface. It was a sparkling circle with a slight blue protrusion. A thick white string was tied to it, and the string’s other end appeared to be stuffed deep within the toilet.

At first Jim’s hand recoiled to the water’s cold temperature, but then he shoved in his arm almost to its elbow. He cusped the object and quickly lifted it out of the water. He paused uneasily. He opened his hand. It was Paige’s sapphire engagement ring.

In a sudden rage Jim fumbled to untie the wet string from the ring, but the knot was tight. He pulled and pushed and grunted to get any part loose. He had no luck.

Without thinking, Jim wrapped the string several times around his hand and began to reel in its slack. At first it came out of the toilet like a handkerchief from a magician’s sleeve, but it finally got tight. Jim continued to pull and pull, and a final bit of slack jerked out of the toilet.

It felt as if he had pulled on something.

It felt as if he had pulled on a lever.

Jim’s entire body lit up. He looked at the exit, and the bathroom began to make a series of mechanical sounds that exponentially got louder. He ran and placed his hands on the door.

Suddenly, a series of sprinkler heads jetted out of the walls and ceiling. With a loud release, they sprayed hot foam everywhere, soaking Jim with the rest of the room. He groaned and flailed as the water’s temperature got unbearably hotter. He closed his eyes, and the pressure made it so hard for him to stand that he lost his footing.

His head met the toilet seat. The bathroom turned to black.

* * *

Jim came-to at the base of the sink, still dripping wet. He touched his forehead. The was no blood. He circled the knot with an index finger. As he sighed and rolled over, the bathroom door began to quickly slide shut.

“Hey!” he yelled. “HEY!!!”

He got to his feet as fast as he could and practically threw himself across the room, but he was too late. The door had shut. The bathroom remained his prison.

Jim felt something move under his right shoe. The new red envelope was different than the others. It was the size of a sheet of legal paper. He picked it up, undid the top, and pulled out a square piece of cardboard.

There was a dried red stain in the middle.

Jim’s mind raced to Paige.

He thought about the cut-off phone call. He thought about the ring in the toilet.

Horrified, Jim dropped the cardboard and backed away. He felt like tearing the chrome off the wall. He wanted to smash the toilet. But more than anything, he wanted to get out.

Jim got a running start and rammed his shoulder against the door as hard as he could. It shook and made a lingering rattle.

Jim stepped back against the wall, ran a couple of feet, and hit the door again. He didn’t care that he was slowly breaking his shoulder. The second hit had a good angle and made a small dent.

His third ram was not as hard but made a much bigger noise. It was so big that Jim slowly stepped back and realized it couldn’t have come from him. It had to have come from the outside world.

“Hey!” Jim yelled. “Hey! If you can hear me, let me out of here! I’m stuck in this bathroom!”

Silence.

“Please let me out! Can you hear me?!?!”

Just then there was deafening bang followed by something slamming against the door. The dent Jim’s shoulder had made now slightly protruded into the bathroom.

Jim was startled back against the wall. The lights flickered to black. The door suddenly slid open with a thunderous burst.

There was another bang. A bullet buzzed Jim’s ear and crashed above his shoulder. Surprised, Jim instinctively jumped towards the toilet for cover, but a sharp pain took a bite out of his left calf. He grasped the wound and yelled in pain.

The lights suddenly flickered back on, and standing in the open doorway was a short man wearing a black jumpsuit. He wore a matching ski mask.

He smiled.

“I guess this is the part where you kill me like you killed Paige.”

The man menacingly reached behind his back and approached his target. Jim closed his eyes tight. Something hit his chest. However, it didn’t feel like a gunshot.

Cautiously, Jim cracked an eye. The red envelope said JAMES BALDECCHI.

The man crouched to Jim’s ear. “Esto es mucho peor,” he whispered in a thick accent. He slowly rose to his feet and blended into the darkness of the outside world.

With the door still open, Jim finally had his escape, but he remained motionless. He had nothing left inside. All he had was the envelope.

He gathered his remaining strength and pulled himself onto the toilet seat. A flick of the finger tore the envelope’s seal, and Jim pulled out the white scrap of paper containing the coded message. His mind raced to decipher each number. He frantically repeated each letter and word.

Once Jim got to the end, he couldn’t believe it. He fell to his knees and screamed uncontrollably.

9  19-20-15-12-5  25-15-21-18 14-9-14-20-5-14-4-15  4-19!