At the top of the stairs was a painted metal door with a dirty window and a lever mech at the left center. From the height of the door, I'd guess that either elves or humans lived here. At my height, I'd have to climb on chairs to reach anything.
While Isca waited at the bottom, I climbed the stairs and reached up to try the lever, and it turned. But why didn't the people who used to live here lock the door? Was there some great hurry to get out? Or was it broken into?
Isca was reluctant at first to follow me up the stairs and inside. "Gus, are you sure about this? Should we really be going in someone else's house?"
"Don't worry," I reassured her. "There hasn't been anybody living here for a long time."
I leaned into the door, pushed it open, and it was a mess! Most of the furniture had been looted out, and dirt and trash were all over the floor. But there was still one closet that had something that the looters hadn't taken.
I opened the closet, cleared away some cobwebs, and found a rusted metal tray, two links long, one link wide, and an inch thick. The tray had a raised rim about half an inch deep; the inside was scored with a grid of ten by twenty squares. One end had a hinged door; I guessed this was for opening a compartment inside the tray, but it was rusted shut. The other end had a projection in the middle of one end roughly three inches wide by two inches long that looked like a handle. The handle had a hole that led into the inside of the tray, and the rim had a gap as wide as the handle.
Next to the tray was a square metal box, half a link tall and one and a half links on the side. Its top had a few levers in front of a slot as long as the tray was wide and about half an inch deep. It appeared as if the tray were supposed to fit inside the slot with the handle side up, but what for? It all looked like a puzzle to me.
Isca finally followed me inside. I showed her the tray and the box, and she couldn't come up with any good ideas either. So we left the house.
The next day, I had Isca pack some steel wool and some lubricant, and we returned to the house. Isca went barefoot because it was a nice day, but I wore shoes because I didn't feel like hurting my hands. Once we were inside, I pulled the tray and the box out of the closet and had Isca polish them while I checked out the rest of the house, looking for clues. Once everything was shiny, I started to read the markings on the box, and I oiled all the hinges and the levers. But something was still holding the flap at the bottom of the tray shut, and none of the levers would do anything, not even the one in back marked "Power".
While I was fiddling with the flap on the tray, Isca discovered a glass panel on the back of the box that I had overlooked. "What's this?"
I had a look. "I haven't seen this kind of solar panel in years." I had Isca wipe down all the windows in the house so that light could get to the box. (I'd have done it myself if I were any taller. The windows were ten links tall; I'm only four and a half. Isca is a bit taller than I, and she's a better climber at that.) Once we had some light in the room, I pushed the tray into the slot on the box, and I felt a mechanism inside grab the flap and pull it out. I turned on the power, and a lamp slowly brightened as the device's cap charged up.
Once the cap was fully charged, a puzzle piece made out of four squares in an L-shape popped up inside the tray's handle and started to slide slowly down the tray. Once the piece was fully past the handle, a Z-shaped piece popped up in the handle. Right then it hit me: this was an electro-mechanical game. I grabbed the lever on the front left and moved it to the left, and the L-shaped piece slid toward the left side of the tray. Once it landed, I couldn't move it with the lever anymore, but I could move the Z-shaped piece. And then a T-shaped piece popped into the handle, and I could use the lever on the right to turn it.
After I placed a few more pieces, Isca asked me what would happen if I packed the pieces into a line of blocks across the tray with no holes. I fit them as best I could, and a lamp lit up on the front. I made a few more lines this way until the tray filled up with pieces, and they all spilled out down the flap in the tray. I think I made four lines that first game, shown as four lamps lit in a column between the levers. There appeared to be three columns of five lamps, and these filled in the right column from the bottom up.
Then I power-cycled the machine and let Isca have the controls. With that humongous head of hers, I bet she'd be a natural for this kind of puzzle. And she was. She found she could light more lamps by making two lines with one piece, for four points at once. Once she made her fifth point, the four lamps went out and a lamp above it. After she made a few more points, it was obvious that the machine was counting points like an abacus: ones on the right, fives at the top right, tens in the middle. She managed sixteen points that first game. I was jealous.
We took turns on the machine. She was the first to break 20, but we couldn't go far beyond that until I discovered the technique of building only in the leftmost nine columns and saving the column at the right for a straight piece. A couple games later, I broke 50.
We played the game until it got dark. When we left for home, we could barely see to walk. Isca stepped on a nail with her bare left foot. "Ow!"
"Now you know why I always wear gloves when I go outside. It's a good thing the nail didn't break the skin; otherwise, you might have caught lockjaw."
And for years, when Isca and I went back to that abandoned house to play the game, she always called it "getting lockjaw".
Until the owner came back.