Storage

“Your honor, I’ve seen shit that would turn you white!” — Winston, Ghostbusters.

There’s not a lot of work out there for a twenty-ish ex-security guard with a bad case of PTSD. And if that dumb kid was hideously scarred by a ‘serial killer’ that had carved a swathe of victims across three states and disappeared without a trace? That kid can barely get a hamburger at McDonald’s, much less gainful employment.

My parents weren’t able to help much. The wounds on my forehead and cheeks healed after a few weeks, or months. I wasn’t counting. You can still see them if you look closely, or in moonlight. Nobody looks too closely these days. There’s something about my eyes that seem to reflect the things that I’ve seen.

I can identify with Winston. I’ve seen some shit. And that shit would turn you white, if not stark raving mad. And I may in fact be mad, because I keep seeing shit.

After the … incident, I spent a few days in the hospital, and a few weeks in the psych ward. They assumed I’d suffered a psychotic break due to ‘trauma’ or ‘shock’, and since most of my story did in fact sound like delusional ravings, off to the pretty pastel room I went. Life went on, the University reopened for classes on schedule, and the cops eventually stopped questioning me.

I went home and sat on the couch for a few weeks, and gradually got the sense that my parents wanted me gone. I seemed to make them nervous. I seem to make everyone nervous now. Tempers flared, words were said, and the next day I was on a bus to somewhere, anywhere. I had about a thousand in savings, plus my dad had stashed another few hundred in my bags, so I was able to rent cheap rooms and eat cheaper meals along my way, but I knew I would need to find a job soon.

I had been traveling in a vaguely southern path, and finally ended up in a bus station in a town on the outskirts of Birmingham, crouched in between the off-ramp to I-65 and a storage facility. I would say it was in an industrial district, but it seems that Birmingham is entirely failed industrial district. The place had the charm of a three-day-dead whore, and smelled like one as well.

Walking outside the bus station and past the chainlink fence encircling the UStore facility, I noticed a dingy, yellowed “Hiring” sign in the office window. “What the hell,” I thought, and pushed the dust-hazed door open and went inside.

The manager’s name was Al, but he looked nothing like my scrawny old ex-coworker. Al was a morbidly obese black man, with a gap between his two front teeth and a Cher t-shirt that looked as if it had been new in the 80s. “You got ID, you got no needle holes, you don’t stink like booze, and you even got a fuckin’ r?©sum?©. You must be my fuckin’ gift from God. You’re hired. You start right now. You got a place to stay?”

“No sir.”

“Good, that’s better. You stay in the apartment upstairs. I’ll pay you eight bucks an hour for forty hours a week. You work more than forty hours in a week, pretend you’re payin’ me rent. You’re off on Mondays and Tuesdays. If you want health insurance, you can call the fuckin’ President, ‘cos I ain’t seen mine yet neither.”

Al took me on a tour of the facility. UStore was much bigger than it looked, consisting of twelve buildings arranged inside a square security fence. Each building had four storeys aboveground and two more belowground. The lowest levels were premium-rate and surprisingly heavily-secured, with motion sensors and video cameras at every hallway intersection. “Motion sensors are a pain my dick. They go off if a fuckin’ moth flys down the fuckin’ hall, but we still have to check video and log it.”

The job was pretty much the same security job I was used to: work an overnight shift, nine P.M. until six A.M. Walk the perimeter twice, check the storage buildings once, pick up any trash, then go back and check the alarms and the video. Log anything out of the ordinary, and investigate as needed.

“Mostly, you just keep your mouth shut and let customers alone. They’re paying our bills, so you don’t need to know what they’re fuckin’ doing in their unit. Which may in fact be fuckin’!” Al laughed. “If a customer gets loud, makes a scene, or especially if they fuck up the facilities, you call the cops first and me second.” Al rapped a metal storage unit wall, which echoed beamingly down the hallways. “These walls are pretty strong, but you can punch a dent into one with your fist, and a knife will poke a hole in it. Nobody wants to rent a unit that’s all dented up, and these walls are a bitch to replace.”

We had been walking the security circuit, with Al pointing out each checkpoint, and we had reached the entrance to the high-security section. “Customers take the elevator. They gotta put in their code to get that elevator to show up, and then they gotta put in their code again to go down to B1 or B2. It really fucks ’em up. They’ll get confused and some of ’em will panic inside the elevator, so you gotta keep your radio on you all the time. They’ll eventually see the ‘Intercom’ button and call you, so you gotta explain to ’em they gotta put their code in again. For us, it’s the stairs, cos I hate those fuckin’ elevators.”

Al swiped his badge and swung the heavy door open to the stairwell, and we walked through, and I … froze.

It was the same stairs. How could it be the same stairs?

I stood there, tiny breath whistling in my throat, hand locked in a death grip on the cold steel railing.

“Hey, you ok? You havin’ a heart attack or something?”

I blinked. It wasn’t the same stairs. Not at all. These were new, shiny steel, brightly lit, and I could clearly see the bottom. “No, sorry, I thought I had to sneeze. Was … waiting for it.”

“Yeah, fuck. All the fuckin’ dust in here. Wait ’til spring, and it’s like fuckin’ yellow snow all over.”

High Security (or HS) was similar to the higher levels, but more brightly-lit. The units were larger, so there were less of them. “Wow, it’s cold down here,” I said.

“Yeah, we keep it at fifty year round. We got some law firms that keep their papers here, and don’t tell nobody, but we got some government agencies that do the same. We keep it cool and dry, and their papers will stick around forever. Got some customers that keep art down here, and antiques, and shit like that,” Al said.

The doors to the HS area were car-width, and looked to be made of sturdier stuff than the flimsy sheet metal of the less expensive units. “Can people store cars down here, Al?” I asked.

“Naw, no way to get ’em down here. Building 3 has a ramp and a loading dock for cars, but most people don’t wanna store ’em in these buildings. Regulations says you gotta drain ’em of oil and gas and any other fluid, which makes ’em a bitch to get into the units. Regs say ‘NO explosives’. Remember that, kid. You see some dumb ass storing his lawnmower AND the gas can, you log it and you tell me.”

We continued touring the HS levels, B1 and B2. Al pointed out the security cameras at each intersection, and at midpoints down the hallways, and showed me where the security route would take me. “Don’t always walk the same route. That’ll drive you nuts. Mix it up some, but make sure you tag those checkpoints,” said Al.

We made it back to the office, and Al took me upstairs to a small apartment. It was a little bigger than my dorm room in college, with a small kitchen, shower, bed, closet, and a TV. Al pointed at the TV, “That might have cable. It ain’t supposed to, and I’ve never seen a bill, but I won’t tell if you don’t. Okay, kid, you better get some sleep. You’re on-shift at nine. If you’re late, or I catch you sleepin’, you’re out on your ass. You get people wantin’ to rent a unit at three AM, they’re idiots or tryin’ to rob you. Tell ’em the office is closed at night.” Al squinted at me.

“You know how to work a gun?” he asked.

“Yeah, my dad taught me… is this that bad of an area?” I asked.

“Aww shit no, kid. You might need to show the gun to some tweakers, but that’s about all. The glass is all bullet-proof, and those are solid steel doors. If some junkie’s fuckin’ with you in the office, there’s a gun under the desk. It ain’t loaded, but there’s clips in the bottom drawer if you need ’em.” He looked me directly in the eyes. “And if you do need ’em, you don’t need ’em. You need to call me on the radio, which is what you’ll do.”

“What about inside the facility?” I asked.

“You’re inside a highly-secured, state of the art storage facility with a radio and keys to nearly a thousand steel doors. I bet you could figure something out,” Al replied. He left, and I took my duffel bag to my room, and tried to sleep.

The first night was non-eventful. So was the next. And the next. Weeks passed, and I began to feel … better. I got into the swing of being a security guard again, which is mostly looking for differences. I recognized the patterns of UStore, and its customers. The late night crowd was usually pretty quiet, except for Thursday night band practice. Some kids had gotten the bright idea to rent out one of the cheap ground level units to store their musical instruments in, and they practiced every Thursday night. I didn’t mind. They weren’t that bad.

About once a month, on a Wednesday night, there was a porn shoot in one of the units. I wasn’t very clear on what was going on until I mentioned it to Al the next day. A long black limo pulled up around 11PM, and several stripper-quality girls got out, followed by a few guys. They’d all troop down to one of the larger HS units, and they’d pack up and be gone before dawn. “We rent the units,” Al said. “So long as they’re payin’, and not breakin’ the units, we don’t say a word.”

Most of the customers weren’t like that, though. They were regular people moving stuff around, up late because they had to work and couldn’t move during the day. I saw guys fixing cars, a woman who used a large unit as her extra closet full of clothes, and a couple who were building a baby crib. They had a full woodworking setup inside their unit, complete with dust suppression and built-in vacuums. But mostly, it was people moving boxes of stuff in and out.

Everything was going so well, for maybe six weeks, and then I saw it. I saw her.

I had become accustomed to the false alerts from the motion-sensing cameras, especially in building 8. The building was close to the highway, so I suspected the sensors were falsing due to road vibrations. Once or twice a night, usually in the long stretch of dark between 3 AM and dawn, I’d hear the beeping from one of the many cameras in B1 or B2 in Building 8. I would put down my book, acknowledge the alert, write ‘FA’ (false alert) in the logbook, and glance at the long, empty, brightly-lit corridors in the monitors.

It was early on a Wednesday morning, the beginning of my week, and I’d been playing a game on my DS, when the alerts went off. I sighed, and put down my Gameboy. I reached for the logbook, and noticed something in the monitors from the corner of my eye. I looked up, and saw, in the middle of the hallway, a small shape. I leaned closer, and hit the camera controls to switch to a closer view. Standing in the middle of a highly-secured, brightly lit hallway, two floors underground, was a little girl in a bridal gown. “What .. the .. fu..” I started to say, and the girl’s head snapped up toward the camera. Her black eyes staring at me through the monitor, as if she had heard me. She lifted a finger to her lips, and ran offscreen.

I frantically thumbed through the camera views, but could see her nowhere. “Screw this,” I muttered to myself, and I grabbed my flashlight, and the gun from the holster under the desk. I bolted out the office door, pausing only to make sure it was locked, and started running down the paved alley leading to Building 8.

At this point, I wasn’t thinking of anything supernatural. I was thinking of the scumbags who made porn movies in my facility, and thinking maybe that little girl had escaped something really awful. Or was still involved in it. I called Al on his radio while I ran. “Al, wake up. We got … an intruder in Building 8. Repeat, intruder in Building 8. Wake up!” Al lived nearby, within radio range, and he mumbled something about being on his way.

I badged the main door to Building 8, flung it open, and ran across to the stairwell. The panic, which hadn’t returned since my first day, hit me like drowning in the ocean. I stopped, backed up, and shut the stairwell door. I didn’t have time for this. I ran to the elevator, punched in my override code, stepped inside, punched in my code again, and rode the slowest elevator in the world down to B2. The gently-playing Muzak version of Cher’s ‘Believe’ did nothing to make the situation better.

I cautiously stepped into the corridor. I’d kept the gun in my jacket pocket, not wanting to spook anyone, especially with a kid involved. I walked down the hallway, and found nothing. Turned at the end, down the next hallway, still nothing. No locks out of place, no units opened, no sounds, no smells, nothing. I checked the stairwell, nothing. I gritted my teeth, and walked up the stairs to the B1 landing. Looked out the door, and found nothing. By this point I was hoping I would find anything — a shoe, a body, hell, a whole murder scene, but there was nothing. My radio crackled, and I jumped and bit my tongue. “I said, where are you?” Al’s voice grumbled over the radio.

“B2 in Building 8, south stairwell,” I said.

“Found anything?” Al asked.

“Not a thing. Sorry man, it’s probably a false alert.”

“Hey, it happens. Just once though. Meet you back at the office. We’ll check the tapes.”

“Roger-roger,” I said into the radio. I sighed, and walked down the long hallway to the elevator. I checked the remaining hallways, retraced my steps to the elevator, and punched in my code. As the elevator doors closed, I thought I heard a sound. A girlish giggle. “God dammit,” I said. I punched the cancel button. The elevator doors slid open, and I stepped out, and quickly looked both ways. There! To my left, a gauzy white shape disappeared around a corner. Another giggle. I looked up at the security camera, pointed at it, then pointed in the direction of the corner. Holding my flashlight like a club, I jogged to the corner, and quickly checked both ways. Nothing. Of course. I ran as fast as I could down the long corridor to its end, turned and saw nothing. Ran to the intersection, nothing. To the next intersection, nothing. To the end, nothing. Finally, wheezing, out of breath, I yelled, “Okay, you bastards. I give up. Enough from you for the night!”

Al was at the desk when I got back. “Enjoy your exercise, kid?” he asked. “Yeah, I’m trying out for the Olympics,” I replied.

“Maybe the Special Olympics. I just watched you run two miles inside Building 8, for no fuckin’ good reason.” Al said.

“Figures,” I said. “So you saw nothing? On any of the cameras?”

“Not a thing”

Al made me sit through repeated viewings of the security footage. He made it a point to show me pointing at the camera, from all angles. Each camera showed the bright, empty hallways. “You sure you’re not on anything, man?” Al asked.

“I swear I saw something –” I said.

“Chill, man, this is me fuckin’ with you. I believe you. It gets late here, you see shit. Stare at those screens long enough not seeing anything, and your mind will start adding shit just cos it’s bored. I’ve seen shit too,” Al said.

“Yeah, like what?”

Al shifted in his seat. “I never seen a girl. I saw a dude walking down the hallway once. Normal lookin’ dude, walking around like he was a customer. But that console there shows door accesses, and it hadn’t gone off in a while. I thought maybe some asshole was trying to live in one of the units, which is against regs. It happens sometimes. I checked it out, and there wasn’t anybody there.” Al reached into the micro-fridge under the desk, and pulled out one of his favored lime sodas.

“That wasn’t the worst, though,” he said, cracking open the can. “I saw blood once. A whole lot, splashed around, all over the damn place. I used to take those damn elevators, and one time, ding, door opens and … ” He took a deep swig of his drink. “I just stood there. The door closed. I coded it open again and it was gone. I know it wasn’t real. I’d been working about twenty hours straight. I just … figure something don’t want me riding the elevators no more. So I don’t.”

It got worse after that night. I can’t help but think that my pursuit, and my taunts, woke something up. Or maybe something recognized me.

Afterwards, I had company every night. The still, sterile mood of the facility from before had changed, grown lower, grown mean, like it was lying in wait. When I made my rounds, I would hear footsteps behind me, or down adjacent hallways. I heard faint voices as well, muttering and whispering from behind the cold steel doors of the storage units.

The upper units were the worst, because they weren’t brightly-lit all the time like the HS units. The upper level lights were motion-sensitive, and on timers — they would turn on when you entered a hallway, and turn off when you left. Several times during my rounds, those lights would flick on at the opposite end of a long corridor, only to flick off again after a few seconds.

One night, during my first round, I was walking the dim asphalt paths between buildings. I turned a corner, and standing before me was a girl. I jumped back in shock. The girl uttered a short squeak, and stopped. “You scared the hell out of me, you asshole!” she yelled. “Aren’t you supposed to be using that flashlight?”

“Sorry. It ruins my night vision,” I said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I wasn’t expecting to see anyone out here.” I recognized her. Her name was Jen. She was the bassist for the band that practiced in one of the units. She had long, straight black hair, and her several piercings glittered in the moonlight.

“I was on my way to your office,” Jen said, “so I’m kinda glad I ran into you. I’m sorry I snapped at you earlier. It’s just … I can’t find Lewis anywhere.” Lewis was the gorgeous and talented singer for the band, and (to my deepest regret) her boyfriend. “We had a fight, and he stormed off like the chickenshit he is. I can’t find him now.”

We walked back to the building that housed her band’s storage unit. “If he’s in the facility, he can’t have gone far. Your access code will get him into the main level of this building, but he can’t go anywhere else. The elevator takes a code he doesn’t have, and the stairwell doors are locked too,” I said.

The other band members were in their storage unit, rolling up cables and packing gear. “Did you find him?” asked the short, stocky drummer.

“No,” I said. “How long has he been gone?”

“About an hour, now,” replied the drummer. “I tried calling him, but I get shit for signal in here.”

“Not like he’d answer anyway,” said a tall, skinny kid, who was packing away a guitar. He looked at me, and said “Wow, that’s a cool tribal, man,” pointing at the scars on my face.

“It’s not a tattoo,” I said, not wanting to get into Meet-The-Freak with customers.

“Will you guys focus?” Jen said.

“Right,” I said. “You guys stay here, in case he comes back. I’ll sweep this floor, and if I don’t find him, I’ll check the video back at the office.” I left, and checked the entirety of the ground level. For good measure, I checked the upper floors as well, knowing there was no way he could get up there. I went back to the band’s storage unit.

“Did you see anything?” Jen asked.

“No, and he’s obviously not come back here. I’ll go check the videos.”

The band members decided to go home, except for Jen, who insisted upon going through the video footage with me. “Look! There he is!” she said.

“I see him.” The monitor showed Lewis leaving his storage building right after Jen said he had stormed off. Lewis stood by the door, smoking, for a few minutes, then turned his head sharply to the right, as if he had heard something. He then threw down his cigarette, and walked down the asphalt path, out of the view of the camera.

“Where did he go? Quick, find him on the other screen,” Jen said, rubbing her hands on her leggings. I toggled through video feeds, until I found Lewis again, walking down the path. He stopped, looked around, then turned again, and started walking. I switched feeds again, and found him walking towards Building 8.

“Aren’t those doors supposed to be closed all the time?” Jen asked, pointing at a dark spot on the grey and white screen.

“Yes,” I replied, as Lewis paused before the open, black threshold to Building 8, and stepped inside. I toggled through the feeds again, until I found the one for Building 8. I could only see his silhouette as he walked down the hallway, pausing occasionally to look around, and finally as he pulled open the heavy, magnetically-locked security door to the stairwell. He stepped inside, and pulled the door closed behind him.

“Shit. That’s bad,” I said. “Those doors are mag-locked, and they can’t open unless you have a badge and a code.”

Jen shook her head. “It sure as hell opened, though. You saw it.”

I switched feeds again, catching a glimpse of Lewis in the stairwell. Switched again, and saw him walking down the bright corridor of the B2 level, toward the camera. Toward an open storage unit, door rolled up and yawning open, like the black eye socket of a dead thing. Or a mouth. I saw the pale blob of Lewis’ face glance up at the camera, then whip back to face the darkened doorway. His eyes widened, mouth opened into a silent scream, and his figure jerked forward into the storage unit. The heavy door rolled down and slammed shut, leaving the camera staring blindly at the pristinely empty hallway.

Jen stared at the screen, mouth slightly open, eyes wide, bulging, ringed in the black of shock that no amount of makeup can match or mask. “… Go. Get. Him.” She grabbed my shoulder, with hands made musician-strong. Squeezed. Hard. “Go get him NOW.”

I grabbed the pistol from its holster, and dug two clips out of the bottom desk drawer. I toggled the radio. “Al, come in. We got a problem. Wake up, Al!” I shouted into the radio as I ran. The radio screeched static and white noise. “Al, I need you at work. Big trouble.” The radio hissed and popped, and abruptly turned off.

The night seemed alive as I ran to Building 8. The trees outside the facility swayed in a brisk wind, their leaves clattering like faint mocking laughter. I felt eyes on me, and the sense of things around every corner, waiting. My scars began to lightly itch, as if I had run through cobwebs.

I reached Building 8 to find the door tightly shut and locked. As I badged it open, I heard a scraping noise from behind me. I turned, hand on the pistol, to see Jen. “Is that blood?” she asked, pointing at a small spatter of spots on the floor just inside the door. I tapped a spot with my shoe, smearing it. “It’s too dark to tell from here. It could be … motor oil. Something like that. Look, you shouldn’t be in here. Go back to the office until I get back.”

“No way. I saw the tape. I saw what happened to Lewis. I’m going to get him, and you’re going to help me. Now.” She pushed past me and walked down the hall to the elevators. “Help me get this open.”

I opened the elevator, and we stepped inside. I thumbed the security code, and pressed the button for B2. “Stay behind me,” I said, drawing the pistol. I had no idea what I was doing, but I’ve played enough video games to know that the monster jumps out after the elevator doors open. I heard a faint click, and looked over to see Jen holding a small handgun.

“My dad got this for me last year. He was nervous about me hanging out downtown. Took me to the shooting range for a few months.” She passed a shaky hand over her face and through her hair. “Why the fuck is this happening? WHAT the fuck is happening? And why aren’t you scared?”

I snorted. “I’m terrified. I just peed on myself a little back there, in case you didn’t notice.” The elevator chimed, and the doors opened. “As for what’s happening, I don’t know. I have an idea, though, and I don’t think it’s good.”

I stepped into the corridor, checking both directions. The long, white hallways were bright, and quiet. I slowly walked down the hallway towards the storage unit where we had seen Lewis. At the corner, I saw a faint, reddish-brown smear. A fingerprint, or a thumbprint, as if someone had paused here, and touched the wall for support. Jen stared at it for a moment, but said nothing. I turned, and continued down the hallway.

There was a small spattering of blood on the floor in front of the storage unit. “It’s padlocked,” I said. “There’s no way he could’ve gotten in there, shut the door, and locked it from the outside.” Suddenly, my scars began to itch and throb, deeply, like acid on my face. I drew in a breath — and the lights went out. Jen screamed, and I heard a pop and a click and a clatter, and the lights came back on.

The padlock was lying on the floor, in front of the storage unit.

The bright, sterile white fluorescents at the far end of the hallway went dark. Then the next set turned off, and the next, the darkness growing closer to us in sections. A whispering, muttering sound filled the air. We unconsciously moved closer together, and backed towards the metal door of the storage unit. The lights went out again, and the darkness rushed in like some eager fluid.

Jen and I stood in the whispering dark, pressed together like orphaned children lost in an abyssal woods, for an untold amount of time, until the red emergency lights flickered into a murky life. Their blood-red glow did not so much illuminate as it did accentuate the shadows that pooled and swirled around us. The whispering grew louder, and louder, like a river of mumbling, tumbling voices, until it reached a roaring crescendo, and then stopped. The storage unit’s door slowly rolled open.

Lewis was there, sitting on the floor. He was facing away from us, crouched and still.

“Lewis!” Jen exclaimed, and tried to run forward. I grabbed her by the arm.

Lewis spoke, his voice somehow horrible, drifting up and rattling around the steel walls. “They … made me come here. They want people to know. They made me … see.” He made a deep sobbing, choking sound. “I didn’t want to see. But they made me.”

My eyes, slowly adjusting to the light, began to make out the shapes in the storage unit, stacked against the walls. Lewis’s arm reached out to the nearest oblong, shrouded shape, and pulled. It tumbled to the concrete floor, making a horrible dry husking sound as it hit. A desiccated, shriveled arm fell out of the shroud.

Lewis began to stand, and began to laugh. He turned his mangled face towards us, and stared at us with the deep, black, gouged out sockets where his eyes had once been. “They showed me! They made me see! But I don’t have to see any more!”

Jen shrieked, and recoiled into the hallway. I had the gun trained on Lewis, its grip slick in my shaky hands. The whispering roar was back, rattling the steel walls and doors. With a sickening lurch I realized that all of the units’ doors were sliding up, and their neatly-stacked contents were all falling, sliding and tumbling to the floor. The sickly-sweet stench of decay that the state-of-the-art ventilation systems had masked so well before was now overpowering, filling the air.

“Bodies! They’re all … full of bodies!” Jen screamed, hands on the side of her face, eyes huge and shining in the red light, wrenching her black hair, gun forgotten on the floor.

I grabbed her by the shoulders, shook her once. “RUN.” I shouted, and dragged her away from the bodies, down the corridor, trying desperately not to hear Lewis’ mad laughter. I tripped over a smaller corpse sprawled in front of the unit near the corner, and slammed into the opposite wall. I looked down for a moment, and saw a white bridal veil covering a small child’s withered corpse. I shook my head and staggered to the stairwell door. The whispering was now a full roar, rage-filled voices howling, shaking the security door. I fumbled my badge twice, finally got it, punched the code, and hauled open the door. I grabbed Jen by the arm and dragged her up the stairs.

The lights in the stairwell were all wrong, flickering and tilting crazily. I realized my face was wet as I reached the B1 landing. There was not much of a ground-level landing left. As Jen and I crawled out of the stairwell, we saw that most of the UStore facility was gone. A few portions of buildings were still standing, but we were otherwise in a field of desolation and destruction, as if the whole block had been mulched.

Later, I learned that even though tornados were common for that area, the one that leveled the UStore facility was uncommon in both its fury and its brevity. NOAA reported a small, high-intensity cell appeared directly above the facility at about 6:30 A.M., spawning a slow-moving tornado that rated as a F3. The tornado encompassed the storage facility, and stayed in effectively the same spot for a full fifteen minutes, until moving in a generally north-east direction for about a mile. It appeared to have left the ground for most of its travel, touching down once again in a neighborhood to the north-east of UStore, before dissipating completely by 7 A.M.

They found Al’s body, or the remains of it, in the top of a tree two counties over, three days later. The coroner’s report stated Al had died of heart failure. It appears he had a massive heart attack before the tornado got to him.

Officially, the UStore facility was being used for the illegal storage of corpses that were to have been cremated or buried by certain unnamed funeral homes. The fact that those funeral homes were never officially named, and the case was quickly filed away in the darkest, dustiest cabinet available to the Birmingham Police Department did not make the news. Of course, the scariest part about the whole situation seemed to me to be the way that even after a freak tornado revealed thousands of unidentified corpses, stacked like cordwood inside an absurdly well-secured and well-cooled storage facility in a relatively large city, people just seemed to forget about it. As if they wanted to forget. Or didn’t want to know.

I didn’t see Jen again afterwards. The cops were initially Very Interested in me, as I was apparently the only living employee of UStore, Inc., that they could locate. They kept me in jail for nearly a week, without pressing charges, before I started making noises about attorneys. For the first few days, I was completely fine being behind bars. Those bars would keep things out, as well. I overheard them say that Jen had been committed to a psychiatric ward, due to her story, and her insistence that her boyfriend was trying to kill her. She had become violent, and attacked one of the officers questioning her.

Lewis was never found, and neither was his body.

The other thing I overheard, the thing that made me decide to leave the jail, was about UStore’s owners. It seems there weren’t any. The whole operation was owned by shell companies, and the cops couldn’t track down the original owners. Eventually, they stopped looking. I knew that somewhere, some person, or some group of people, arranged to have that storage facility built, and to have it equipped for a specialized purpose. I knew that someone had to be responsible for those bodies being there, and I suspected that someone was responsible for those bodies being dead in the first place.

Thousands of people disappear in this country each year. I may have found some of them. What keeps me awake at night, more than the dreams, or the sounds outside my window, or the itching of my scars, is wondering how many more storage facilities are out there.

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The Stairs and The Doorway

The Stairs and The Doorway
I don’t feel like I’m a nosy person. No more nosy than the next guy. I just have what my Ma would call an unhealthy amount of curiosity. I was the kid who climbed to the top of the big oak in the back yard, just to see what was in the crows’ nest. I was the kid who dug a hole in the back yard so deep that I hit groundwater because I was convinced there was a cave under our house, and I wanted to see it. To see.

My folks aren’t dirt poor, but they’re pretty close. They’re part of that missing middle of America, the people who work forty hours a week until they die, with no savings to speak of. I got my first job at a horse stable when I was fourteen. It didn’t last very long. I knew I needed to get a job, because I knew we needed the money, so I bounced around for the next few years, washing dishes, waiting tables, until I graduated high school.

Pop was really tough on me about college. He never went — nobody in his family had — so there were a few fights about where I would go after school. It was a huge shock to me when, just after graduation, he drove me down to the Uni. He’d been classmates with the Dean and they’d come up with an arrangement where I’d get a full scholarship, provided I made good grades and worked for the University.
I never felt like a scholar. In high school, I kept my head down and did enough to get by, pulling off B’s and a few C’s. I wasn’t interested in learning, because learning wasn’t interesting. Uni was different. I took mainly core classes, math-English-history-science, but they were fascinating. For one thing, nobody cared if I showed up or not. It was entirely up to me to succeed, so I did.
In exchange for my education, I worked security and did some light maintenance duties. Maintenance was a no-brainer. I’ve always been handy, and most of the fix-it jobs were the type that could be solved with a liberal application of WD-40, or elbow grease, or both. Security was a different story. Security gave me super powers.

The job itself was pretty easy. I got a uniform, a badge, a flashlight, and Ma gave me some keychain mace for my birthday. No, I didn’t get a gun — they weren’t allowed on campus anyway. I worked mostly nights and weekends, and doubles during long holiday breaks. I was to walk around the full campus twice in a night, checking the labs, computer center, and library. The rest of my time was pretty much my own.

There were two other guards, Jake and Al, but they worked different shifts from me. We had “overlap nights” on Wednesday nights, where we’d get together for about an hour to discuss any major events or changes. There might have been some beer at those meetings, but I’m underage, and you can’t prove anything.

Jake worked mostly dayshift, and Al worked swings and some overnights during the week. Jake was a younger guy, training to be on the local police force, so he took his job pretty seriously. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure Al mostly slept during his shifts. Al was two years older than dirt, so he deserved his rest.

Remember that bit about super powers? My first night on the job, Al gave me a huge keychain with about a thousand keys on it. It weighed nearly five pounds, and was secured to my belt with a heavy-duty metal chain. “Don’t lose that keychain, kid,” Al said. “You got the keys to the kingdom right there. Any door that don’t open, you don’t want to go in it.”

My work hobby, the thing that kept me awake on those long cold winter break nights, was exploring. I made it a point, every night, to open some door that I’d never opened before. I started in the new section, where the library and computer center were, opening each room, each closet, making a map in my head of where everything was. Some nights I might explore two or three rooms. Some nights I might not have time for anything more than an odd, out of the way broom closet.

The Uni is actually a pretty large campus, for having a full student body of only twelve or thirteen hundred. It was built as a Methodist college in 1896, and became state-owned in the thirties. There were three main sections. The ‘Old School’ housed the Administration offices and a few unlucky classrooms —unlucky due to the lack of central heat and air, and the three-story building had no elevators. The ‘Labs’ were a Brutalist horror of poured concrete slabs and tiny windows, built back in the 70s when buildings that looked like Soviet radiators were in style. The “New Library” was steadily losing its “new”, built in the late 90s boom, and made in that unique red-brick-and-glass style like everything else during those years.

When I think back to those early days, those days before, I think how stupid I was. How naive. I should have thought about winter. I should have thought about the solstice.

By December of my sophomore year of college, I had cleared every room in the New Library. I had opened every door, checked every closet, and had a good mental map of the whole building. It was, ultimately, pretty unimpressive. I found no buried treasure, no secret stash of missing computer supplies cached in a forgotten closet. I did find a small, sweaty stack of bad porno mags in a supply closet in the basement level. “Wicked, Wicked Cowgirls.” Who was I to judge?

December is a slow time for the Uni. After the mad rush of Finals, the campus was suddenly deserted, the remaining few staff seeming lost. The buildings stood silent, and dark, in the thin winter breezes. We had a steady series of snowstorms, but none bad enough to close the campus. I made sure the sidewalks were clear and the entryways salted, and otherwise tried to stay indoors.

Besides, I had the ‘Old School’ to explore.

The main ‘Old School’ building, Downing Hall, was a four-story V-shaped building. It had no elevators, tiny stairwells, and was only exempted from ADA compliance due to its “historical importance”. It had no air-conditioning, save for sporadic window-mount units that were only permitted to be installed on the rear of the building, so as not to spoil the building’s historic charm. The building’s heat came from a massive, ancient boiler in the basement. As far as I knew, Al was the only person who knew anything about the boiler, and he must have kept it in good shape, because I never heard of any complaints about it.

I spent the second week after Finals Week poking through the top floors of Downing Hall. I didn’t have a lot of time for exploring every night, as the snow gave me more than usual upkeep chores, but I made steady progress. I discovered a small room in the attic on the Left Wing that must have been an old Dean’s office, complete with a beautiful antique desk and wardrobe. I checked both, thinking I might find something “historic” to give to the Dean, but the wardrobe was empty save for a moth-eaten wool scarf, and the desk’s contents were limited to a few old newspapers and some tax forms from the 1950s.
A level below, on the building’s fourth floor, I found two dozen small, empty classrooms. In my handyman mindset, I checked the windows for loose glass panes, and for water or rodent damage. I fully expected to see rat-droppings, or at least some insect damage, but I found none. The second and third floors were much the same, except the rooms on the rear of the building were air-conditioned and thus actively used for classes when school was in session.

The main floor was Administration, and included the Dean’s office. I thought it wise not to snoop around in my boss’s office, or in Payroll, so I skipped a lot of these rooms. I made my way to the stairwell to the basement, used my superhero keychain, opened the heavy door and went down.
The basement of Downing Hall was different from that of the New Library. For one thing, it was a lot more cramped. The hallway was narrow, and the ceiling was low, with doorways leading off at regular intervals. I checked every room, flipping the old two-button switches to ON, using my flashlight on the dark corners. I had carried a few packs of spare light bulbs — the fancy new CFC bulbs — in my satchel, thinking to replace any that had burned out, and save the environment while I was at it. The little rooms mostly contained junk — spare desks, filing cabinets full of forty- and fifty-year-old papers, old holiday decorations, and so forth, lit by naked hanging bulbs.

I’m not an imaginative kind of guy. I guess I’m pretty smart — I’d made straight A’s in my college courses. It never occurred to me to be scared. I didn’t think, “I’m alone in a creepy old basement.” This was my place, my job, my hobby, and it all seemed so normal.

By the night of the 20th of December, I had made my way to the boiler room. The furnace was a massive monstrosity of iron and rivets, pipes and gauges. It was hellishly hot in that room, and equally loud. It was, however, neat and very clean. Al kept it that way, because he said “a clean boiler lets you get more shuteye.” The furnace had been converted from coal to gas at some point, but the soot had stained the walls of the room, and the old coal chute still opened in one of the corners.
I had no intention of giving the boiler room more than a glance — I’d been there dozens of times, and there was nothing to see, just a workbench and the furnace itself — when I noticed a small door to the back and left behind the furnace. “That’s weird,” I thought to myself. I had never seen that door before. But then again, I had never stood in that particular spot, beside the workbench, and I had never really looked.

The door was smaller than a normal door — maybe five feet tall, painted in the same non-color drab grey-brown of the walls, and was made of metal, just like the other doors in the basement. I went over to the door, and touched the handle.

I think the body knows sometimes when things are wrong. Have you ever had that feeling, like you’re being watched? When you know you’re totally alone, and nobody can see you, but you feel eyes on you? Have you ever gone left instead of right, because you got a feeling that you just shouldn’t go to the right today? It didn’t work that way for me. When I touched that doorknob, nothing felt any different. My head didn’t hurt, my neck-hairs didn’t stand up, and I didn’t hear an inner voice saying, “Don’t do it!”

The doorknob turned, but the door wouldn’t open. I looked more closely, and saw a small keyhole. I checked my magic keychain, and found three possible matches. Struck out on the first two, and the third worked, of course. Of course.

The hinges squealed like they hadn’t been used in a long time (decades.) My handyman instincts noted it. “WD-40,” I mumbled. I hauled open the door and stepped through, into another small, cramped hallway. The light switch worked, and the single bulb blew with a crack! “Dammit!” My hackles did raise then. I flicked on my flashlight, and quickly swapped out the hallway bulb with a new one. I looked around, and saw this hallway was narrow, straight, and ended a few yards away at another door.
That door opened easily, onto another stairway. “What the hell?” I said. Nobody had ever mentioned a sub-basement for this building. The hairs on the back of my neck were still standing out. I shook it off as nerves from the blown bulb, and walked to the stairwell. It was a standard stairwell, and looked pretty much the same as the others in the building. I walked to the bottom, and met another door. I pushed through it, to see another long, narrow hallway, with doors leading off to either side at regular intervals.

The first door to my left was unlocked, and opened fairly easily, onto a storage closet. There were stacks of late Sixties-era books, a few desks, and a decaying mop in its bucket. The door across from it was unlocked, but did not open so easily. I hauled the door open to find a larger room that looked to have been used as a classroom. There were desks, a blackboard, anatomical diagrams, and posters on the walls. Everything was covered in an inch of dust, and appeared to have not been touched in a long time. “Why would anyone put a classroom down here?” I mumbled to myself, “How would they even convince students to get down here in the first place?” I remember thinking, at that point, that I must have somehow discovered a back way into the other wing of the V-shaped Downing Hall. “Maybe this is where the old Science classes were held, before the Labs were built.”

I moved on to the next set of rooms. They were both classrooms, abandoned, dust-covered, and mostly empty. So were the next pair, and the next. I saw a total of twelve disused classrooms in that hallway, and a small breakroom, complete with a lonely coffee pot. I also found two small restrooms. I didn’t spend much time checking them out, as the lights didn’t work and I didn’t feel like replacing those bulbs. I found myself getting slightly nervous — I was in a strange section of the campus, and I was working alone that night. In the back of my mind I just couldn’t truly justify the existence — the waste — of a whole floor full of unused classrooms.

When I got to the end of the hallway, I met another steel door. I opened it, and saw another stairwell. I was fully expecting this stairwell to go up, to connect to one of the other main stairwells in Downing Hall. The stairs only went down.

This was the point, I remember, at which I began to get scared.

“No way. There’s no way these stairs go down. How would anybody get down here?”

“Here. Here. here,” the stairwell echoed at me.

I should have checked the time. I should have been concerned with finishing my rounds. I should have been hungry for lunch. I should have run.

I started to climb down the stairs.

This stairwell was unlit, and appeared to be much older, and in much worse condition than the others. It was also longer. Much longer. After a few minutes of walking down the steps, I began to count them. At every twelve steps, there was a small landing, a turn, and another set of steps. Down. After ten landings, I reached another door. It was unlocked, and opened easily. The hinges squealed, and the echoes died like lost things in the dark.

I groped against the left wall for a light switch, and there was none. I checked the right, and the wall was equally smooth. I cast the flashlight around, but saw nothing. Nothing forward, nothing to either side, and nothing above. I snapped my fingers, listening for the echo. I may or may not have heard one. I slowly came to realize that the room into which I had entered was enormous, cavernous, possibly the biggest room I had ever physically experienced. I shrank back to the doorway for a moment.

“This room can’t be here,” I said to myself. I started to think about going back. But I also started to think about wanting to know what was in there. I took a step forward, and another, until I was walking steadily into the room. I kept a steady pace, counting my steps. I looked over my shoulder every few yards, using the light from the open doorway to orient myself. I walked, slowly, for a hundred yards, two hundred yards, until I saw a dim glow ahead.

The glow got faintly brighter and larger as I walked toward it. Another hundred yards, and another, and three more passed until I could make out a small dim light bulb near a door.

That door was of a different type entirely. It was huge, fourteen feet tall at least, and half again as wide. The surface was black metal, studded with rivets and bolts, mounted on huge hinges. Across the face of the door, graved into the metal, were words in some strange looping script that I could not recognize. Every surface was carved with that script, or with strange diagrams made of splayed circle-ended lines. In the center of the door was a large spoked wheel lock, and in the center of the lock was a tiny keyhole. Above the keyhole was a sigil, enclosed in three circles.

I looked behind me, and could not see the light from the stairwell. I couldn’t see anything at all.
I held the Superhero Keychain to the dim light, and flipped through the keys. Of course, there was one small, battered key that looked as if it might fit. I inserted it into the lock, and turned it. I heard a click, and a thud, and a sound from within the door like pouring pebbles. Or dry teeth.
I pulled the key from the lock, and grasped the spokes of the wheel lock. My heart was racing, and sweat was dribbling into my eyes. I turned the spokes to the left, counterclockwise —widdershins, some buried memory in my head said — and kept turning, until the wheel stopped. There was another THUD and a CRACK, and then silence.

The darkness behind me no longer felt empty. In fact, it felt positively crowded, as if I had an audience, watching me. I stepped back from the door and flashed my light around. Still nothing. Dry empty floor. I turned back to the door, grasped the large cast-iron handles, and pulled. Nothing. I tried harder, putting all of my weight into the pull, and at the last moment, at the end of my strength, I heard another CRACK! and the door groaned open on a draft of cool, stinking air.
The smell was heavy, moist, and musky. I had a flash memory of my mother taking me to the zoo as a child, and the smell of the Cat House, with the lions. At the thought of the lions, I let go of the handles and stumbled back a bit. I carefully shone my light into the yawning black crevice of the open door. I saw a short hallway that opened into a small, cramped room. I saw a filthy, rusted metal chair. I saw bones. Small bones. I saw — or heard, or smelled — a form so black it seemed to suck in the light of my flashlight. I saw a black form rushing towards me, running towards me, filling the hallway, howling and laughing and speaking, in a voice that sounded like mountains collapsing.
I remember fangs, and words that turned my bones to rusted glass. I remember feathers, and a hand with too many fingers, jeweled with something unspeakable. And the smell, the stink of something long caged.

I remember wings.

I don’t know how long I wandered in the dark, alone under hundreds of feet of rock. There was no light. There was no way to judge time. My flashlight was dead, and my cellphone, and even the small specks of luminescent paint on my cheap wristwatch were dark. There was something wrong with my right leg. It hurt, but I couldn’t see enough to find out why.

I kept hearing my audience, there in that cavernous room. I screamed at them. I felt one of them touch my face, and I threw my flashlight at it. The flashlight bounced and rattled and became still, somewhere that I was not. Something laughed, later. I raved and screamed but didn’t throw anything else.

I found the doorway after hours or days of crawling.

There were no lights in the stairwell.

After years of climbing, I crawled into that first forgotten hallway. I sliced my fingers on the crushed remains of the light bulbs I had packed in my satchel. I crawled down the hallway, and reached the next stairwell. I hauled myself up them, and finally out into the boiler room.

When I staggered out of Downing Hall, two full days after going in, it was into dim winter daylight and a full police presence.

Five people had been found dead on and around the campus. All had been brutally, savagely murdered, bodies splayed open, viscera missing. The teeth marks suggested a wild animal, but the murder scenes and body positioning also displayed a certain intelligence to them. There was also the writing, carved into the flesh when it was not yet dead meat. The cops wouldn’t talk about the writing.

The cops wouldn’t talk to me, either. Not afterwards. When they first saw me stumble out into daylight, covered in blood, they assumed I was the perpetrator. They quickly changed their assumptions when the medics pointed out the greenstick fracture, the dehydration, the concussion and the obvious shock. The cops asked a lot of questions, and I answered as best as I could. I told them about the door in the boiler room. They couldn’t find it. They showed me the bare smooth wall from where I had crawled, dazed and broken. My tracks stopped at that wall. Two cops tried breaking through the wall in that spot, only to meet old brick, and older earth past that.

The cops wanted to know where the long, black feathers came from, stuck to my clothes by dried blood. I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know.

The cops, the medics, nobody, would look at me any more. The scars on my face, the deep, gouged-out writing, was not a sight that most would want to see. I was marked.

Whatever I had let out, whatever had killed and eaten five people, and a week later six more, had marked me as a friend.

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Stuff Insurance

In the mad rush to consolidate two households into the smaller of two houses — and that location being hopefully only temporary — we’ve been trying to get rid of a whole lot of Stuff.

I’ve been following a lot of the recommendations of Peter Walsh’s “It’s All Too Much“, but the biggest hurdle is dealing with the “sunk cost fallacy”, and how to get rid of those things that we “might need” in the future.

These folks recommend selling all of the extra stuff that you don’t need right now, then taking that money and setting it aside for the time in the future when you do need that stuff. It ends up being like a Stuff Replacement Fund.

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Ubiquity

I’m impressed with Ubiquity. It’s very similar to my favorite Mac app, Quicksilver. Instead of telling Firefox where to go, Ubiquity allows the user to tell Firefox what to do, including: open a map, email someone, Digg something, tag something, show you the weather, or look something up.

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