Word count: 2552
Perched on his couch, Will smoothed his jumper down before bending over to tie the laces on his trainers. While he wasn't much of a sportsman, he always enjoyed the occasional bout of casual football and had been looking forward to it at the company's summer picnic all week. David would be coming along - he got along well with Will's coworkers and so Will had invited him - and though his friend had declined playing football, saying that he was not fond of it, Will hoped to persuade him to play; his ego demanded that someone worse than him be out on the field. Smirking at his own pettiness, he jumped up from the couch and headed out.
As he checked the lock on his front door, his mobile chimed in his jeans pocket, high voices singing, "Ding! Dong! The witch is dead!" Grinning as he always did at the ringtone he had chosen for texts from Terri, the company's human resources person, he dug the phone out and pulled up the new message as he walked on. It asked for directions to the picnic, and he typed his reply as he headed for David's house. The party organiser had chosen a park near Will and David's terrace which Terri had never heard of, and since Will had never quite managed to persuade her to learn to use Google Maps, he was not surprised to get this text from her. Though he was happy to help her, it didn't stop him from rolling his eyes at her virtually.
He stood and finished his text on David's doorstep, then dropped the mobile back in his pocket and let himself into his friend's house with his key.
Will strode into the hallway, letting the heavy blue door slam behind him. His voice cut through the silence that usually reigned in the dwelling, ringing through the empty hall. Oddly enough, there was no answer; David normally responded with a shout from upstairs within a few seconds, even if it was faint and muffled and he didn’t come down for another few minutes. Will frowned and peeked out the front window to find that the space in the street in front of the house was empty; he'd been so busy texting that he hadn't noticed when he'd passed it by a moment ago. David’s silver car never moved except when he was hitting the Tesco, so he must simply be late getting back. It was odd, as David was always prompt, but Will was content to wait. He walked into the lounge and sat on the couch, thumbing the remote control to turn on the telly.
As the picture on the screen resolved, he frowned for a moment, then sat up and glanced out the front again, verifying through the gauzy curtains that the space in front of the house was vacant. Whilst he had stayed in the house, it hadn’t occurred to him to wonder just what it was that David did upstairs, but the current silence of the house was enticing. Leaping up from the couch, he strolled into the hallway and, stepping carefully, as if someone might hear him, he climbed the stairs to the top floor.
“David?” he called again, his voice quivering. Somehow it felt wrong to be poking around upstairs. Though David had never told him that the area was off-limits, he'd also never invited him there. He supposed that his friend might be protective of the projects he was working on, afraid that secrets might get out that others could steal, but he doubted that he'd understand a single thing he saw. The door at the top of the stairs stood slightly ajar. With a last twinge of guilt at invading his friend's privacy, Will tapped his lips with his fist and cleared his throat, then knocked on the door. It swung open, and he peered into the room that seemed to be the one that David spent most of his time in.
Like the downstairs, the room was devoid of decoration on its walls and its wooden floor was bare. A single bed, made up neatly with a deep maroon comforter and a fluffy pillow, occupied one corner. Next to it stood a nightstand with a small lamp and what looked like a couple of books lying on it. In another corner was a plain wooden wardrobe. None of this surprised Will, as the state of the house when he had first arrived had already demonstrated David's simple - well, to be honest, ascetic - tastes. It was the huge metal cylinder, standing against the wall opposite the bed, that caught Will's attention. About nine feet tall and at least three wide, it looked like it was constructed of brushed aluminum. It was featureless except for a rectangular seam with rounded corners suggesting a door, though Will could not see any hinges for it open outward.
He crossed to the cylinder and laid a hand on it. The smooth surface was strangely warm for metal standing in a cool room and almost felt like it was vibrating. Running his hand down one edge of the door, he was stunned at how perfectly flush it was with its neighbour surface. He scrabbled at it to see if it he could get a grip on it to try to pry it open, but he could barely feel the crack between the door and the wall with his fingernails. Of course, without visible hinges, it probably didn't open outward. He changed his tactic, pushing on the door, not too hard at first to avoid denting the surface. When nothing happened and the surface felt completely solid, not hollow and deformable, he pushed harder, to no avail. He stood back and stared, puzzled. Was this David's "project"? There were no tools or materials nearby, and he concluded that David's workshop must be the other room on the floor, even though he'd never seen the man enter or emerge from it.
As he turned to leave, the nightstand caught his eye and he strolled over to look at the books. The one on top looked similar to the one he saw in the kitchen on the first day he'd been here: leatherbound with an embossed pattern of circles and lines on the cover and spine. On closer look, the object underneath looked more like a tablet and Will picked up the book to see it better. It wasn't any model he recognised, and it didn't have any buttons on it that he could see, but he was reluctant to touch it and leave any fingerprints on the screen, so he instead turned his attention to the book.
Opening it randomly in the middle, he found that its pages were exactly like the cover, covered with interlocking circles and arcs with lines radiating across the paper. These were smaller, as small as print, bubbling across the paper. There were diagrams and drawings on many of the pages, with more circles and lines among them. Will couldn't tell for sure what they were, but they looked like circuits and mechanical components. As he flipped through the pages, something strange caught his eye and he riffled back until he found it. This particular page featured a large diagram of what looked like a complex mechanical system, with parts of it circled and a plethora of scribbles in pencil. A good portion of it were hand-drawn circles and lines just like the rest of the printed matter in the book, but other bits looked like writing. Many were English, such as "Ag might work" and "maybe YAG sub?" and from what he'd seen on David's shopping lists, they were in his friend's handwriting. Another phrase, Will recognised from his schooling as Germanic, though they weren't words he knew. Then there were a number of notes in different scripts that Will didn't recognise; in total, including the ones Will could identify, there were eight different scripts represented on the page.
He stared at the circles and scribbles, trying to figure out what they signified. Were they some kind of code, to protect David's work from prying eyes? If so, why write some of it in known languages? And if the circles and lines were a code, how did he get the entire book printed in it? Possibly two entire books, since Will was pretty sure this wasn't the same book as the previous one he'd seen. He couldn't even comprehend how it could be an understandable code, as there seemed to be no pattern or direction in the way the circles and lines were composed; they covered the entire surface of every page in rather mesmerising patterns. Shaking his head, he closed the book and placed it back on the tablet in the configuration he had found it.
Stepping to the wardrobe, he peeked in. This at least was normal, holding the clothing that Will had seen David wear: jackets, jumpers, a number of geeky t-shirts, jeans, trousers. The man's visual expression had always seemed limited to his clothing choices. He closed the door and decided not to rifle through the drawers at the bottom.
Perhaps David's workshop would shed some light on things. Striding out of the bedroom into the other room on the level, Will stopped short: this room was completely empty, its floor and walls bare except for the translucent curtain drawn across the window. He stood and stared around the room, his hand clapped over his mouth as his eyes took in every detail or lack thereof. After standing there for a full minute, completely puzzled, Will wandered over to the window and gazed out, trying to make sense of what he had just seen. There was barely anything upstairs that indicated that anyone lived there, much less worked there. Even if David put away all of his tools and components in the strange metal cylinder every day (and why would he, as he lived alone?), there was no evidence of any activity anywhere: no scuffing on the floor where tables or tools might have stood, no dust or debris, not even marks on the cylinder where objects being stored or taken out might have hit the edges. And anyway, he couldn't imagine that the cylinder was large enough to hold the materials and tools that he thought David would need to build anything; when Will was young, his father had dabbled in woodworking, and his tools and supplies had filled a shed. The only previous evidence of any work being done up here that Will had seen was one grease-stained towel, and that was nowhere to be seen. He couldn't believe that David did any kind of designing or building in this house, but if he dismissed David's claim of being an inventor, then what had the man done upstairs all those days and evenings that Will stayed in the house? He glanced back toward the other room, convinced that the answers lay hidden in the metal cylinder, but he had no way of probing its secrets.
As he mused over everything he'd seen, Will spotted David's car coming down the street, and he turned to dart downstairs to the lounge. Flopping onto the couch, he started flipping the channels to appear bored as he tucked his questions and suspicions into the back of his mind. Now more than ever, he was sure that David was hiding something and wouldn't appreciate Will's nosing into his business. He wasn't sure how, but if he wanted to learn the truth, he'd have to try to work it out of his friend without revealing that he'd been snooping upstairs. And it was something that would have to wait: if he started asking questions now, after David came home to find him alone in the house, the man would figure out what he'd done. David might have his head in the clouds, but he wasn’t stupid.
Guilt and nerves made the wait drag on, and he cycled through the range of available channels three times before he heard David fumble his key into the lock and push the front door open.
"Sorry, sorry!" After a few footsteps, David appeared in the door to the lounge, toting two bags. His hair stood on end, as if he'd been constantly pulling at it. "There was a lorry blocking the road and it looked like the driver was arguing with the police. It took forever, but they finally cleared it out. Let me get these put away. So sorry!"
"Not a problem, mate. It's only a picnic. I won't be marked on my punctuality." As David hurried into the kitchen, Will punched the "off" button on the remote control and hopped up to follow his friend. Entering the room, he crossed to lean against the table, staying out of David's way.
The man was pulling all the perishables out and stacking them on the counter, leaving the dry goods in the bags. "I'm going to say right now that if you still have designs on getting me to play football, you will fail quite miserably. I spent my childhood avoiding having to play with my brother, and I've gotten quite good at it. Avoiding it, that is."
That interested Will. He'd thought that twins tended to have the same tastes. "Your brother John? He liked football and you didn't?"
"Er..." David hesitated just a tiny moment. "Yes, John. He wasn't a big fan, but he liked to play. I wanted nothing to do with it." Will wondered if David was deliberately turned away to hide the expression on his face.
"Well, I'm sure it's just as well. With your physique, you probably couldn't kick the ball four metres, and I bet it wouldn't go anywhere near the direction you wanted." Will's tone was lightly teasing.
His arms loaded with fresh food, David shook his head at his friend. "Reverse psychology won't work on me. I have no athletic ability, so mock my skills all you want, because I will agree with you." He pulled the fridge open and began to stock it.
"Hm. How about blackmail, then? What can I threaten to tell everyone if you don't play? Oh, Markus was wondering if you've gotten anything patentable yet. You know he wants in on whatever you do. I'll tell them that you've got a prototype working and that you're looking for investors."
"It won't wo-ork!" David taunted in a sing-song voice.
"No, you're right. No one would believe you've actually got something working."
David shot Will a sneer as he closed the fridge. "Okay. Everything is put away. I'm ready to go if you are."
“Finally! You’ve delayed long enough.” Will hopped up from the table and jogged in place a few steps. “Let’s go!”
“One-track mind, aren’t you?” Rolling his eyes, David strode into the hallway and, fishing his car keys out of his pocket, dropped them on the entryway table. Turning back to his friend, he grinned. “I haven’t been to a picnic in a long time. A nice relaxing afternoon with friends and sunshine? Should be a wonderful day.” Will clapped him on the back then, pulling the front door open for his friend, followed him out into the bright summer sun.