It isn’t relaxing, it’s boring.
My brother has taken away my perfectly good PC and left me with this monstrosity, which has no internet connection, no art software and a broken spacebar key. The mouse has a ball in it for goodness sake, a ball which needs cleaning! This is far from the calming substitute he had in mind when he left it behind.
Perhaps he has done it with the best of intentions, but how exactly are the ancient games he’s left me with supposed to offer any entertainment? The images on the point and click adventures are horribly pixelated, something I personally can’t stand as a graphic designer. Worst of the lot is the one I’ve been plodding through for the last half hour, no pictures at all! Some text based adventure, walls of words which are supposed to create a picture in my head. I count myself as an imaginative person, but the font used for the word based game is so displeasing that even this is hard to immerse myself in.
I blink at the latest sentence still waiting on the overly bright screen.
[You are in a corridor, you can go forward.]
‘Forward,’ I type.
[You go forward. You are in a dark passage way, there is a candle here. You can travel north or south.]
‘Take candle.’
[You cannot do that.]
[I do not understand that command.]
‘Why can’t I take the candle?’ I type.
[I do not understand that command.]
I bite back a scream as I bang my hands on the keyboard in frustration, just as my phone starts to ring. Angrily, I slide my finger across the electronic image of my brother, accepting the call.
“Simon, I seriously can’t believe you’ve left me with this, this… thing!” I shout.
I hear his throaty chuckle echo through the handset. “Calm down, okay? I said this would take some getting used to, it’s hard to go backwards technologically.”
“It’s impossible,” I complain mulishly.
“It’s not impossible,” he sighs. “We spoke about this, Nathan. Your doctor says you’re stressed, you’ve been too focused on work and you haven’t been sleeping properly. This is just a small step, if you don’t have your PC you can’t work at home, you’ll have to relax.”
“How am I supposed to relax when this dinosaur is all you’ve left me with? Games where I can’t even pick up a goddamn candle.”
His snort of laughter transforms into a polite cough, but the evidence of his amusement is still obvious in his voice when he speaks again. “I don’t really know what you’re talking about, but it’s not like you have to use the computer. People did used to get by just fine without them you know. Why don’t you just read a book or something?”
“Or something,” I mutter half-heartedly. The truth is I don’t feel like doing much of anything. I still can’t quite get my mind off the proposal I have due on Friday, even though it’s only Monday afternoon at the moment. “Never mind,” I tell him, “look, I appreciate you calling, but you don’t have to keep checking up on me.”
“You collapsed at work, Nathan, that’s a pretty big deal.”
“It was over a week ago!” I protest.
“It was only a week ago,” he amends, and I can practically hear the raised eyebrows he must be wearing. “You need to take it easy, let me fuss, will you? If you won’t take time off work then at least put up with phone calls from me.”
“Fine,” I sigh, resigned to give in. It’s not like he’s wrong, we both know that he’s actually in the right, but it’s tough to let a little brother win sometimes. “Thanks for calling anyway; I’m going to get back to wrestling this candle off the wall or whatever.”
He chuckles again. “Okay man, I’ll talk to you later.”
“Yup, talk to you later.”
I place the phone back on the desk, my lips a line of distaste. It doesn’t feel right to be looked after by my little brother, it’s supposed to be the other way around. I fidget and flick at the broken space bar key idly, glancing back up at the grand adventure taking place on the screen in some sort of serif, italicised font scrawl. A garble of key mashing litters the pristine white with black type, and a new line follows some accidental command entry.
[You have stumbled across a cellar door.]
I pause at these words. For some reason I can see a flash of the cellar door in my mind for a perfect instant. I can imagine literally tumbling over it, jarring an ankle in the process. Suddenly, my fingers are hovering eagerly over the keyboard.
‘Go inside,’ I type.
[You cannot see ‘inside’ here.]
I roll my eyes in irritation. Simple commands, it only understands the basics. I need to get my head around that.
‘Look,’ I type.
[You are in a dark passageway. You can go south. There is a cellar door here.]
‘Open cellar door.’
[You cannot open the cellar door.]
I curse loudly. Of course I can’t open it, that would be too sensible. I ball my fists angrily as I step away from the computer to cool my head, knowing I’ve had more than I can take of the game for today. I bite back a yawn, surprised that I’m tired already, doubly surprised to find it’s already quite late.
“Sleep,” I mutter aloud, as if I can command myself into it just as easily as I can command a text adventure game. Perhaps that’s not entirely wrong, all except for the presumption that it should be easy, I’ve clearly been struggling to make any headway with the game. As I lean over the screen, I pause. For some reason I can’t quite bring myself to hit the power button and lose my place in front of the cellar door. It stands there like a quiet challenge before me, waiting to be conquered, and I’m loathe to admit defeat. Instead, I turn off the screen, leaving the computer on, and make my way to bed.
I do, easily, more restfully than I have for quite some time. I do not awake in the middle of the night panicking over deadlines or thinking of changes I need to make to my recent proposals. When I wake the next morning the first thing to pop into my head is the text adventure game, and the cellar door. The second is that my ankle feels sore, and I wonder if I’ve slept on it awkwardly.
Hastily, I move through my morning routine. Shower, shave, teeth, clothes, breakfast. Soon I’m poised above the keyboard with a piece of toast still hanging from my mouth. I turn the screen back on and see my last failure displayed before me.
‘Look,’ I type.
[You are in a dark passageway. You can go south. There is a cellar door here. There is something inside.]
I frown. There is something inside. Did it tell me that last night? I look up at the previous entries but my last ‘look’ command has already scrolled past the text window. Of course, it must have told me, all these commands and storylines are pre-set.
‘Open cellar door,’ I type.
[You cannot open the cellar door.]
Of course, but I already knew that.
‘Why can’t I open the door?’
[I do not understand that command.]
I sigh.
‘Kick door.’
[You kick the cellar door. Nothing happens.]
‘Break cellar door.’
[You are not strong enough.]
‘Go in cellar.’
[You cannot open the cellar door.]
‘What is in the cellar?’
[I do not understand that command.]
I grind my teeth angrily, glancing at my wristwatch. Late, I’m running late. I’m never late to work. Quickly, I flick off the screen and hurriedly lock up the house and climb into my car. I speed a little bit, but I’m still ten minutes late to work. No one notices.
I spend the day trying to focus on the new accounts that have come in. There are some big corporate titles amongst them, but I make little headway. I can’t seem to stop thinking about what could be beyond the cellar door in that ridiculous text adventure. There is something inside.
I turn to Larry in the next cubicle over, I really hate Larry.
“Hey,” I call, and see his surprised expression as he realises that I am, in fact, addressing him. “What sorts of things would you keep in a cellar?” I ask.
He wiggles his eyebrows in an annoying fashion. “Gee, I don’t know. I don’t know anyone with a cellar so I couldn’t really say.”
Stupid Larry, I knew I hated him.
I think about making up for my ten minutes of tardiness at the end of the work day, but instead leave a half an hour early. There’s little point in sticking around if I can’t focus on my work, once I crack the mystery of the cellar door I’ll do some overtime to make up for my inattention. With an early start I’ll surely have it solved tonight, no problems.
I speed a bit on the way home too. I skip dinner.
Prior defeat awaits me again when I turn on the glowing screen.
‘Look,’ I type.
[You are in a dark passageway. You can go south. There is a cellar door here. There is something inside. You are hungry.]
You are hungry.
This time I know that this is definitely new information. My last ‘look’ command has already scrolled out of range, but I know that it didn’t state anything about hunger. Is this possibly some sort of real time element? I did leave the computer on overnight after all. Surely that’s impossible though, this computer is too old to have such functionality built into a game, and a text adventure game no less. Then, I realise, it’s a different sort of time trigger. Enter ‘X’ number of commands and this message will also display, it makes sense, it’s an excellent way to make it feel like time is passing in the game. Time that I’ve been wasting with my poor entries; if I can’t figure out which command opens the cellar door my character might starve to death in front of it!
‘Find a way into cellar,’ I type.
[There is a cellar door here.]
‘Open door.’
[You cannot open the cellar door.]
‘What is in the cellar?’
[Wouldn’t you like to know.]
I rub my bleary eyes, not sure that I’ve read the last line of text correctly. It’s late, I’m tired.
‘How can I open the door?’
[I do not understand that command. Maybe you need a key.]
Squinting into the illuminated screen, I start to read back the last couple of messages. All of a sudden everything starts to scroll upwards rapidly. The spacebar key has become stuck again and is making endless entries, wiping everything but blank space from my text window. I bang the offending key free and pout over the loss of my previous progress logs. I must be tired though, I’m imaging odd things. I really need to go to bed. When I check the time on my phone there are three missed calls from my brother, but it’s far too late to call him back now. I have no idea how I could have missed his calls, I did not even hear the phone ring.
I lie awake worrying.
Do I really need a key or did I imagine that, and where can I find it if I do? Do I need to leave the door behind in search of it? Will I be able to find my way back again if I do?
When my alarm goes off I realise I haven’t slept at all, but rather than tired I feel oddly on edge.
I wash my face quickly and pull some clothes on. I sit in front of the computer, the screen is already on, looks like I forgot it last night. A blank wall of white faces me.
‘Open door,’ I type.
[You cannot open the cellar door.]
‘Unlock door.’
[You do not have the key.]
I am filled with exaltation, finally, progress. The door is locked, now I finally have a piece of the puzzle, a locked door simply needs to be unlocked.
‘Find key.’
[You cannot see a key here.]
‘Where is the key?’
[I do not understand that command.]
‘Pick lock.’
[You do not have any tools.]
‘Break lock.’
[You are not strong enough.]
‘Get stronger.’
[I do not understand that command.]
I run my hands through my hair and rub my strained eyes. I can’t seem to stop myself from rocking back and forth as I stare at the entries before me. This time I hear the phone when it rings.
“Nathan?” says an unsure voice on the end of the line.
“What is it?” I ask waspishly, surprised by the force of my own anger.
“This is Greg from work, I’m calling because you’re two hours late, are you off sick today?”
Two hours late? How can that be? I seek assurance from my own wrist watch only to realise that I’ve forgotten to put it on.
“What time is it?” I ask, confused.
“It’s eleven.”
“Sorry,” I lie. “I’m not well today.”
If I take the whole day off then I’m sure I can figure out where the key to the cellar door is.
“I understand,” says Greg, sounding less than understanding. “Be sure to call in the future and let someone know, okay? I thought we were going to go over the Kopinski proposal today, it’s due on Friday you know.”
“We can go over it Wednesday,” I assure him.
There is a long pause before he replies. “Nathan, it is Wednesday.”
Wednesday, today is Wednesday? When did that happen?
“Yeah, I mean, of course it is. Sorry, because I’m unwell I just got a little bit muddled. Can we look at it tomorrow? I’m sure I’ll be feeling much better then.”
“If you say so,” Greg answers, “I’ll let the boss know that you’re off today. Oh, that’s right; can you please call your brother? He’s been calling the office all morning looking for you.”
“I surely will,” I agree, ending the call immediately.
I realise two contradictory things at the mention of Simon:
1. I do not want to call him.
2. He might know where the key to the cellar door is.
I weigh these conflicting needs for some time before I finally bite the bullet and select my brother from my contact list.
“Nathan!” He half yells, making my ear ring, “thank God! I was getting seriously worried you know. Do you have any idea how many times I’ve tried to call you?”
“Sorry, sorry,” I apologise meekly. “I’m unwell so I’ve just sort of been sleeping and stuff, I’m not at work today.”
“Wow,” he exclaims, “that’s so unlike you. Usually you’d drag yourself in even if you were half dead. Don’t tell me you’re finally learning how to relax?”
“Maybe,” I joke lamely, “anyway, I have a question for you about one of these games.”
“Huh, one of the games on the computer I left there, did I hear you wrong? I thought you weren’t interested in them.”
“Yeah, I’m not, not really. I just sort of got hooked on one a bit. I wanted to know if you knew where the key was in the text adventure.”
“Key? Wait, which text adventure do you mean? You know I haven’t played any of those games for years right?”
“The one with the cellar door.”
“Cellar door? Sorry I don’t think I remember that one. I’m pretty sure I gave you a bunch of text adventures amongst those disks, why is that one special?”
“Because there’s something inside the cellar.”
“Hmmm,” muses Simon, “what is it?”
“I don’t know,” I admit, pleased that he’s interested too. “It’s probably something really cool though.”
“In a cellar, I don’t know, could just be junk.”
“It’s not junk,” I growl, “it’s probably something important to the plot.”
“Sorry man, I can’t help you,” sighs Simon. If it’s not in your inventory then I guess you’re just going to have to look around until you find it.”
“Wait,” I gurgle with excitement, “back up. If it’s not in my what-a-tory?”
“Your inventory, in those sorts of games you carry things in your inventory, it’s like the game equivalent of a backpack or something.”
“And how do I know what’s in there?”
“You use a command to check it, like ‘open inventory,’ or maybe just the ‘I’ key.”
“Thanks,” I rush. “Thanks so much. I’ve got to go; I’ll talk to you later.”
I can still hear my brother protesting as I hang up the phone, but I need to act on this new information immediately. I’m about to solve this puzzle, finally.
I ignore my previous failed attempts to open the door which mock me in their smug, italicised script.
‘Open inventory,’ I type.
[You are carrying the following:
1 box of matches
1 piece of parchment
1 tarnished key
1 silver ring.]
1 tarnished key. I can practically taste my victory now.
‘Take tarnished key.’
[You are already holding the tarnished key.]
Fine then.
‘Use tarnished key.’
[You try using the tarnished key. It seems to have little effect.]
I bite my lip so hard it begins to bleed. That can’t be right, I wasn’t direct enough.
‘Use tarnished key on door.’
[The cellar door is locked.]
‘Unlock cellar door with tarnished key.’
[The key does not fit in the lock.]
No no no no no. That can’t be possible. This isn’t the key but simply a key? I still don’t have the key to open the cellar door? I try to take steady breaths, feeling vaguely lightheaded. There must be something more I’m missing, some clue of how I can get into the cellar which remains to be discovered.
‘Look,’ I type.
[You are in a dark passageway. You can go south. There is a cellar door here. It is locked. There is something inside; it is probably something really cool and important to the plot. You are very hungry and tired.]
I let out a strange sort of giggle without really meaning to. It really is a very cleverly programmed game despite its age, to think that each time I make a discovery it’s all compiled into the game itself like that.
I chew my fist for a while, I feel a bit delirious. When I shut my eyes I feel like I can see the cellar door in front of me, waiting to be opened. I can hear a seductive voice in my head repeating the words: ‘I do not understand that command.’ I black out, but I do not rest. I run down dark passages searching for the tell-tale glint of a key, getting down on my hands and knees to search the cold, hard stone floor desperately. My knees ache. Eventually I crawl all the way back to the cellar door again; I have found no hint of a key anywhere. I run my hands along the rough surface of the door like a plea because I know, I know, that something is inside, waiting for me.
I am startled out of the sleep-like state by my ring tone, just as the battery on my phone dies. I feel less rested than I did before blacking out, I’m rocking again, my knees hurt and my hand is bloody with teeth marks. Instinctually I know I have passed the night curled up in my chair like this in front of the waiting screen. I can hear the twitter of wakening birds beyond the darkness of the room.
Trembling fingers seek the solace of resolution.
‘Open door.’
[You cannot open the cellar door.]
[Please what?]
‘Please let me into the cellar’
[You cannot open the cellar door.]
‘Why not?’
[I told you, it’s locked.]
‘Can’t you unlock it?’
[Of course I can. Knock knock.]
‘Will you please unlock it?’
A cold shiver runs down my spine but my forehead is swimming.
‘Who’s there?’
‘Something who?’
[Something who is inside.]
A strained gurgle escapes my throat as I pull shaking arms back from the keyboard.
Work. I have work today; I need to go to work, now.
I am already dressed; I wash most of the blood off my hand and rush out to the car. As I drive to work I realise that I have left the monitor screen on again. I worry that it might be looking into my house, watching me, spying on me. The digital car display tells me it is already midday. I am late again, this time people notice.
Jeff comes out of the executive office and frowns at me with an angry sort of concern. A hand motion summons me from the main floor and into the privacy of his room. He has his ‘boss’ face on today.
“Nathan, I’m not really sure what’s going on with you, do you have any idea what time it is?”
“Sorry, yeah, I’m running a bit late.”
“This is more than a bit late, Nathan. You haven’t shaved either, look at you, completely unkempt. You look exhausted and you’ve got grime all over the knees of your pants. I don’t like to harp on about professional presentation but this is not acceptable.”
I look up at him a bit helplessly. I understand that’s he not happy, but he hasn’t spent all night fruitlessly looking for a key. What about my frustrations?
“Look,” he continues. “I think I want to re-examine this whole thing with you. You said you could manage yourself after your collapse, but looking at you now I can see that’s not the case. You have loads of leave saved up; I think it’s about time you took a holiday, some much needed time off.”
“Time off?” I echo. I am both ecstatic and horrified at the thought of devoting more of my time to the mystery of cellar door.
“Yeah, get out of the city and really spend some time relaxing. You know there’s this lovely little place my wife and I went to a few weeks back…”
I can’t really hear what he’s saying, there’s the sound of dry leaves sweeping across cold stone in my head. Down a passageway I can see the flicker of a guttering candle, it’s rhythmic dance is almost in time with the rising sound of hands on a wooden door.
[Knock knock.]
…”the restaurant was really nice, and they have this lovely little place where you can buy wine at the cellar door…”
My head shoot up so fast I can almost hear it snap like an elastic band, I bite my tongue.
“What did you just say?” I croak.
“The restaurant, it’s lovely.”
“After that,” I rasp.
“Oh, the cellar door-”
I stand suddenly, grabbing him by the ruff of his shirt and cutting him off. “Do you have it then?”
“Wha… what are you doing? What’s wrong? Why are you acting crazy?”
“Are you telling me you can get into the cellar door. YOU. Are you seriously telling me you went inside?”
“Calm down,” mutters Jeff, panic rising in his voice as he tries to struggle from my death grip. “It’s not really like it’s closed to the public or anything, anyone can get in there.”
“Anyone?” I spit. I taste the blood in my mouth as it dribbles down my chin. I must have bitten my tongue harder than I thought. “Where the hell is the goddamn key then?”
“The key!” I scream, pushing Jeff away violently. I slam my arm across his desk, sweeping away a clutter of picture frames and documents. I hear it hit the floor like a song; glinting at me with a knowing sparkle.
Car keys, house keys, office keys. Keys. One of these keys must be the key. I snatch them with a roar and stumble from the office as Jeff grabs for my ankle, yelling about security. I run to the car park.
Speeding is something that suggests you are aware of road speeds and driving rules, I am not. My mind is a blur, the door, the cellar door. I must open it. There is something inside. Tires screech, lights are distorted as they flicker like candlelight.
The sound of a siren fades into the background; I can hear the crunch of dead leaves beneath my feet.
Before me is the cellar door.
I press my fingers against it, as if I could type a command into its very structure. The keyhole beckons.
There is no longer a jumble of keys in my hand, just one, one grand golden key to fit the lock. I feel the tension in my shoulders fall away as I hear the tell-tale ‘click’ of the latch as the door finally answers my need. Pushing it boldly I rejoice at the easy swing of the hinges as the wooden barrier is swallowed by shadows and I stand in the darkened doorway.
Carefully, I step inside, minding the sudden incline upon entry.
There is something inside.
I stumble forward, searching, but I have forgotten to fetch the candle. I am not yet beaten. I pull the matches from my inventory, striking one against the box to gain a measure of light. Just as the spark catches aflame it is quenched as the pressure in the room changes subtly. A gust of wind wails in my ear as it devours the feeble light and slams the cellar door closed behind me.
Panicking in the dark, I run to the closed door. In the pitch black I cannot even find its outline, cannot feel the texture of the wood or the latch and lock beneath my hands. As I stand, trembling in the dark, the small hairs on the back of my neck prickle.
I hear the shallow rasp of a breath at my shoulder.
Something who is inside.
“You cannot open the cellar door,” it tells me.