I wander through the aisles stocked full of items that are much too old for me to know what half of them are. Briefcase... Briefcase… Where are the briefcases?
I grab a piece of gum from my pocket and chew on it while I search. There are old, wooden bed frames, jars and bottles, bookshelves stocked with ancient, crumbling books coated in the scent of old paper, and vintage hats in such good condition that look like they were made yesterday. And that's only the stuff I can recognize. This place is absolutely packed with history.
I decide to walk up to the woman at the front again. “I hate to interrupt your work, ma'am, but do you by chance have any briefcases?”
She looks up at me and pushes her oval glasses up onto her nose with one finger. “Any particular kind, sweetie?”
“No, nothing specific, I don’t think.”
She gets up from her seat and waddles around the counter, gesturing for me to follow her through the store. “It's been an awfully long time since anyone has come in looking for briefcases.” She mentions in her tinkly, quiet voice.
“Oh, really?” Personally, I don't usually enjoy talking to old people. The thing is, at least in my experience, if you talk to them for more than thirty seconds, you'll be trapped listening to a single story of how they got a watch during the second World War that should really only take five minutes to tell but is actually taking a few hours. You'll be nodding your head and saying “Uh-huh”, “Yep”, and “Oh, Really?” on loop every three seconds until they either fall asleep or forget the rest.
My grandma was a completely different story though. Oh, man, she would tell you some of the craziest, most interesting tales of her golden days of freelancing. How she fought off a bear trying to attack a campground with only a tree branch and a whistle as a national park ranger, or how she scaled a hundred-foot tree to rescue a cat in her brief but wild run as a volunteer firefighter. Once she was done with one story, you’d be begging her to tell another. She was smart and adventurous and so dang cool and I really hate talking about it but without her unhindered love and support in my life as of late, things have been pretty hard for me.
I’ve never been the smartest kid, but her? She was an uncredited genius. She always helped me with my homework and essays and projects and made things a hell of a lot easier. She believed me and my siblings could all do amazing things, but without her here to remind us, it feels like that’s no longer true.
The old woman’s sweet voice catches my attention before i slip further into thought. “A young man actually came in a few weeks ago and gave me a briefcase. A nice, black leather one. Said it was for a game he was gonna play. Good looking fella too. Tall, dark hair, pretty blue eyes...”
I perk up. Is she talking about Souhait? Does she possibly know about SØMNIUM? “Ma'am,” I interrupt. “Could you show me that one, actually?”
“Certainly. He said that there should be some kids looking for it around this time. Said it had some clues or something. He was a strange guy.” The woman leads me to a curtained off area of the store lit by black lights. She pats my shoulder with her wrinkled hand, “Feel free to look, but don't touch anything, please, dear. I'll go get that briefcase for you.”
She walks into another curtained off room and leaves me to gaze at the only other thing in the room with me: a table full of stuff that looks like it came straight out of some Josh Gates TV show. There are rusty musket balls, some obsidian arrowheads, a couple of odd-shaped statues that look a bit like tiny horses, and a tarnished silver necklace with a long chain and an emerald pendant.
“Haven't figured out how to open the darn thing yet.” The woman says suddenly, reappearing from behind the curtain. She is holding the case in one hand as she turns on the regular lights in the room with the other. “Some combination lock on it. Heaven knows what the code is.”
She hands the case to me, and I run a hand over the rough, black leather. The seam is metal, and there is a five-digit combo lock embedded in it.
“No use selling that thing if I can't open it without having to take an axe to it.” She says.
I'm thinking of any possible things that the combination could be. An important date? The day the game started? The day it will end?
“Tell you what, dear. If you can get it open without having to break it, you can keep it. Free of charge. If not, I'll only ask twenty dollars since it's in relatively good shape.”
I try random numbers, 11111, 12345, and even 00001, but it's no use. I stick a hand in my sweatshirt pocket and pull out the paper, wondering if it might have something helpful. After reading it over again and again, I think I might have something. Holding my breath, I input the numbers from the first part of the paper.
With a click, or maybe a clunk, the case pops open. Inside of it sits a pocket watch complete with a silver chain, a lace trimmed baby sock, the R, A, and O keys from a typewriter, a three-leaf clover headed skeleton key, a squat, green jar with glass grapes on the side, and, I am so very freaking absolutely obligated to admit, the most beautiful knife I've ever seen in my life. It's all there. This is it.
“You've got yourself a briefcase, then. And some nice stuff to go with it.” The woman smiles as I examine each and every object. I spot a folded paper under the jam jar and pick it up. I unfold it and, before even reading two words, hug it against my chest.
I turn to the woman and smile. “Thanks a bunch, ma'am.”
“You're very welcome, dear. Have a nice day.” I pick up the case and exit the room. Before I get completely out of earshot, the woman says, “Have fun with your game! I'll be rooting for Team Aquamarine. And make sure to tell Wesley 'Hi’ for me.”
She does know! I knew it! And I have no idea who Wesley is, but that's not important right now. I cup a hand around my mouth, “I FOUND IT! OLIVER, AVRIL! I FOUND IT!”
“YOU FOUND IT?!” Oliver yells from far back on the top level.
“COMIIIIIING!” Avril shouts, followed by the sound of feet pounding up wooden stairs.
In a flash, the two of them are standing in front of me, breathing heavily from practically sprinting up and down the stairs. They look at the case as I enter the coordinates on the SØMNIUM site according to my phone's map. Another ding, and we are still neck and neck with Team Mauve.
“Let's see the paper.” Oliver says, holding out a hand. I give it to him, and he holds it up so we can all see it.
Item number two! Only six more items to go, and so much more to do and see! Stay safe, look out for each other, and don’t forget to have fun.
“Oh my sweet Jesus.” Oliver says, referencing the outrageous collection of ones and zeroes. “These are just getting worse and worse every time.”
We leave the smell of dusty furniture and moldy boxes behind and gather around the car. I pull open the trunk and put the briefcase inside gently, not wanting to run the risk of breaking anything in it. “So the lady in there knows about the game.” I say. “She also mentioned someone named Wesley, but I probably know at least six different Wesleys for various reasons, so I’m not sure.”
“She was pretty old anyways, probably confused about something.” Avril points out. “Like my mom would say: ‘If you’re over sixty-five and your brain still works fine, you aren’t sixty-five at all.’”
When I shut the trunk, Oliver is struggling to hoist himself up on top of the car with one hand. In his other hand is his phone, held high above his head.
“What are you doing, dude?” I ask him as he manages to scramble up and settle into place.
“Trying to get this site to load with the terrible reception this store has out here. ” He is holding his phone up like that one scene in the beginning of the Lion King with Rafiki and baby Simba, but instead of a geriatric baboon there’s a teenage human, and instead of a lion cub there’s a small hunk of plastic, glass, and metal that probably costs 400 bucks more than a human soul.
“A binary decoder. I usually use it for the obscure binary memes that show up on Reddit, but in this case, it’s for a clue.”
“Leave it to you to find the weird meme content, Oliver.”
“Alright, it’s almost loaded... aaaaaaaaand… finally!” He cheers.
Oliver moves quickly and scans the code on the paper with his phone’s translator app and copies the whole code into the site’s text box. A matter of seconds, and we have a response:
Mount Rushmore and its trees. Use the jar. Plant a seed.
“Huh. Cool. I’ve never been to Mount Rushmore in my entire seventeen years of life.” Avril says, looking at Oliver’s phone. “How about you guys?”
“Not me. But I’ve driven past it.” Oliver replies, turning his phone to Avril so she can write down the new clue on the paper.
“I’ve been there once.” I mention. “Though I was like, two, and it was with one of my foster families. And of course I didn’t get to keep or even see any of the pictures.”
Avril folds the paper up and places it in the pocket of her black, acid washed jeans. “Well, if that’s where we’re going, we can take all the pictures you’d like. Make little two year old Rory happy.”
“Sounds like a plan. I’ll drive for a while.” I say, circling the car and hopping into the driver’s seat.
I turn on the GPS in the car and manage to weave my way back through all of the bustling streets and out onto the interstate, heading back in the direction of Nebraska.
Avril and Oliver are singing along terribly to as many songs as they can on this weird, out-of-state station that I’ve never heard of until today. It’s got a good mix of pop and alternative rock, but when the host says the station name and plays the catchy intro, I remember how far we are from our little town that’s at least 500 miles away right now.
After two hours and a single rest stop bathroom break, the British lady GPS voice finally tells us to head North on I-29 towards South Dakota. Watching field after field of corn and the occasional acre of soybeans pass by our speeding car makes me bored enough that I feel like I might fall asleep at the wheel, which would definitely not be a good thing.
Just as I start deciding if we should pull over for a bit, I hear the dreaded noise I hoped I wouldn’t hear for a very long time: sirens . I slow down and pull over to the side of the road. I take a deep, regretful breath as one of the officers from the police car flashing behind me walks up to the window. “License and registration.” She says, holding out a hand. I hand her my driver’s license from my wallet and then open the glovebox, surprised to find the registration first and foremost, but also that it says that this car is registered under all three of our names.
The officer studies the document and then the three of us. She pulls out a pen and the pad of tickets from her uniform pocket, and I clench my teeth in embarrassment but somehow manage to keep my composure. “So, you kids from Nebraska?” she asks, gesturing to everyone in the car with her pen.
“Yes, officer.” I reply. I smile at her, trying my best to hide the instinctual nervousness in my head that threatens to explode out of my eyes as water at any moment. I squeeze my hands around the steering wheel to keep them from shaking. “We’re going on a... road trip. For Spring break. Heading to see Mount Rushmore right now, actually.” Please hurry up and hand me the ticket and leave already please please please please.
She continues our conversation without looking up once from the ticket she's writing me. “Ah, fun. Took my nieces there last summer.”
The officer clicks her pen and tears the ticket off the pad. Handing it to me with a manicured hand, she says with an edge of imposingness, “Have fun on your trip, and next time, try not to go ten miles per hour above the speed limit.”
“Will do, officer.” I nod quickly and roll up the window as she walks away. I squish the ticket against the steering wheel and hear it crinkle under my grip. I close my eyes and take a deep breath.
“See, Rory? I'm not the only bad driver in the world.” Oliver remarks with a smirk.
“Hilarious. Really freaking funny.” I sigh, leaning back against the car seat. My parents are gonna ground me till I graduate when they find out I got a speeding ticket. And the fact that I had to speak to a person of authority without having a nervous breakdown made the entire situation feel even worse. I know that they're supposed to help keep everyone safe, and I know I wasn't in huge trouble, but it's super uncomfortable to be flagged down by someone that intimidating.
“Rory, it's okay.” Avril sticks her head between the seats. “A single speeding ticket isn't gonna ruin your whole driving record. But getting lots of tickets, especially if they're really bad… that's a whole other story.”