Five people, plus me. Two, I know. I’m cuffed to one of the strangers. The door shuts. The clock starts. We’ve got an hour.
It’s a classroom. Desks lined up, homework on the blackboard. American poets stare at me from a poster. Robert Frost knows I haven’t read his stuff. The escape door’s different from the one we entered by. It’s got a combination lock.
“First thing.” My beefy, no-neck partner raises our joined wrists. “Find the key.”
“We gotta do things in order,” Crystal says.
“Fuck that.” A scrawny guy I don’t know heads for the teacher’s desk. Papers are scattered all over and the pencil holder’s on its side.
Dante and Crystal search the students’ desks while a redhaired guy roams the room. “Fifty-three minutes left,” Ginger announces.
No-Neck drags me toward a row of lockers. He bangs in and out, dumping books and papers on the floor. I squint at the blackboard. Friday: The Outsiders, Q. 15: discuss the story’s key theme.
“Key theme,” I say. “Could be a clue about the key. “Any of them papers look like homework?” I ask No-Neck.
We crouch awkwardly to look. I find a sheet of messy handwriting. “Poor Greasers and rich Socs hate each other’s guts,” I read. “But when Bob and Johnny get killed, Ponyboy realizes they have one thing in common: death.”
A shiver runs up my spine. I shake it off.
“Ponyboy.” No-Neck snorts. “What kinda shit name is that?”
Scrawny’s standing by the teacher’s desk, examining a locked box. “Is there a seating chart?” I ask.
“See a Bob or a Johnny?”
“Johnny,” he says. “Last row, third from the back.”
“Forty-two minutes,” Ginger trills.
A gold key’s duct-taped under Johnny’s desk. The cuff falls off and I rub my wrists. It’s weird the key’s gold, when the cuffs are steel. On a hunch, I toss it to Scrawny. “Try this in that box.”
The key opens the box, too. Inside’s a cassette tape, no label. “There’s a tape player over here,” says Ginger. “But no cord or batteries.”
“Anything in the students’ desks?” I ask.
“The usual shit,” says Dante.
“A bunch of paperback books.” Crystal holds one up. “The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.”
“Hey.” Ginger blinks. “I read that in high school.”
“How many copies?” I ask.
Crystal counts. “Fifteen.”
Scrawny looks over. “This desk calendar’s open to February 15. And maybe…” He retrieves the fallen pencils. “Yep. Fifteen of ‘em. Think that means anything?” He rights the pencil holder and drops the pencils in.
There’s a whir and a click, and a panel on the desk pops up. “What the hell—?” Scrawny digs four D batteries and a folded paper out of the hidden compartment.
“About time.” Ginger grabs the batteries and cassette. “Thirty minutes left.”
“What’s on the note?” asks No-Neck.
“Buncha numbers.” Scrawny reads them off. “23-4-7-27-6-60-18-2-30-69-11-27-32-88-45-97-5-15-48-12-88-20-17.”
“Anyone good at codes?” I ask.
“Lemme look.” Crystal peers over Scrawny’s shoulder. “No repeating numbers. Not a simple substitution. We need a key.”
Meanwhile, Ginger got the cassette going. We all look over as a voice says, “One hundred forty-eight. One hundred forty-eight. One hundred forty-eight.” Fifteen times.
“Gimme one of those books,” Crystal says.
Dante tosses one and she looks through it. “Here. Page 148. Line 15. Let’s try this.”
“Try what?” I ask.
“In a book cipher, numbers match up with the first letters of words. You just gotta know where in the book to begin. Line 15 starts with ‘Johnny didn’t even try.’ That means 1 is J, 2 is D, 3 is E, 4 is T…” Crystal grabs a pencil and starts scribbling.
It takes her a while. “Seventeen minutes.” No one responds to Ginger’s announcement. We crowd in as Crystal painstakingly prints her translation: S…t…a…y…g…o…l…d…p…o…n…y…b…o…y. Stay gold.
“That’s a line from the book,” Ginger says. “It’s on this same page, even. Right before he dies, Johnny tells Ponyboy to stay gold.”
Another chill, if someone stomping on my grave. I eye the clock. Eight minutes. “What’re the numbers for that line?” I ask.
Crystal tells me. I enter them in the lock and—yes!—it releases. But when I open the door, there’s a second door behind it, with a new lock. Not numbers this time. Letters.
We stare at the door and each other, stumped.
“Two minutes,” Scrawny says. “Two fucking minutes and we’re—”
“Wait,” Ginger says.
“‘Stay gold’ is from some poem. Gold means innocence. Johnny’s telling Ponyboy to—shit, I don’t know. Not get jaded, I guess. Turn his life around.”
“Good fucking luck,” Dante mutters.
“Who wrote the poem?” But I already know the answer. It’s the scowling guy on the poster. Robert Frost.
“F-R-O-S-T.” I punch in the letters. An alarm blares.
The door swings into a grassy field. There’s a road about a hundred yards away and some buildings past that. A gas station. A fast food place. Even a house.
Things I haven’t seen in twenty years.
“I’m outta here.” No-Neck bolts past and high-tails it across the grass. The rest of us follow—stumbling, running, laughing. We did it. We really did it.
A shot rings out.
No-Neck freezes mid-stride, like in a movie. I see it in slow motion: he falls, then crumples face-first into the grass.
“Shit!” Ginger screams. “Fucking hell!” He spins around and races back to the door. The sniper in the tower picks him off, then puts his next two bullets into Dante and Crystal. The warden himself, standing in the doorway, brings down Scrawny with his Glock.
I don’t run. No way I’d make it anywhere alive. I raise my hands over my head.
Warden ambles over. “Didn’t really think it was true, did you? Solve a few puzzles for a get outta jail free card? Fuck that. Game’s rigged. Y’all should know that by now.”
Shit, I know it. Course I do. But I’d hoped…
“Thought it up over lunch,” he chortles. “They told me to free up space. Let some of you assholes out so more assholes can come in. But shits like you don’t deserve a second chance. Better off dead, I say. That’s when it came to me. If you run, we can shoot you down, no questions asked.” He spits on the grass. “Or at least, nobody’ll care about the answers.”
“You bastard,” I say. “You fucking bastard.”
He points the Glock and grins. “Stay gold, asshole.”
There’s a flash and a report. The bullet hits right between my eyes.
There is no gold. There never was.