01 Feb The Unxmaal Cycle: Storage
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’ résumé. You must be my fuckin’ gift from God. You’re hired. You start right now. You got a place to stay?”
“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.