I have to confess, I love those shows on television about buying storage units and hunting through antiques, looking for something valuable. I’ve always had a fascination with old things and it seems like a relatively easy way to make some extra money. I imagined it must be almost like a treasure hunt. I imagined wrong.
It wasn’t long before my roommate, Andrew, started taking an interest in the shows too. Soon we were both strapped into our recliners, watching the screen and hatching plans of our own to get into the second-hand business. What could it hurt to try, right? All we needed was a little extra cash that we wouldn’t mind losing if it didn’t pan out.
Working at the same restaurant made it easier for us to pool our money for the business venture. We’ve always been partners in our pipe-dreams, but this one seemed a little more tangible than our long-standing plan to become rockstars. The only downside was that Andrew had to make child support payments on top of everything else, so saving up fell more upon me than him.
“Did you know she doesn’t even work now?” he asked. “She just lives with her mother and collects my money.”
It was three days into our savings plan and we were standing around the service station during a lull in the work day. Andrew had his phone open, looking at his ex-fiancé’s social media pages. I had already given up on trying to keep him off it.
“Well at least you didn’t marry her,” I offered. “Then you would still be getting paranoid about all of the guys she talks to.”
He frowned and started searching more tenaciously through her profile. She had already blocked him, but he made a fake profile and borrowed mine to see what she was up to. Andrew is the kind of guy that you either accept in full or prepare to get into arguments with. I understand that he doesn’t like to be judged, but at the same time he does a lot of shady things to deserve it.
“Hey look!” he said. He held the phone out for me to see. “Someone posted about a storage auction in lower eastside this weekend. They only have one locker, but that place is almost in the ghetto. I bet we could get one for real cheap there, if anyone else even shows up.”
I told him I agreed, but I wasn’t really sure. And that was before everything started getting weird; before we drove by to get a look, but found the neighborhood uninhabited. No, at that moment I simply thought that we wouldn’t find anything worth our money in that locker. Still, I put aside the worries and figured a little experience wouldn’t be so bad if it came cheap.
Once we did drive by a couple days later, I was certain that we didn’t want to spend our money there. The “Hold-Steady” storage complex consisted of one cluster of six storage units. The office windows were boarded up, just like most of the houses surrounding it. I knew I was in for an uphill battle with Andrew on this one.
“Come on, this will be a waste of money,” I pleaded. “I’m all for getting our feet wet, but this is literally like setting fire to a wad of bills.”
“You don’t know how much we’ll have to spend,” he said. He was still driving around the block, circling the area like a vulture. His stared hard at the units, like he was trying to see through the walls already. “What if we only had to spend ten dollars?”
“Then it would be a waste of ten dollars.”
“There’s no way, man. Besides, we get to look inside first,” he looked curiously at me. “Don’t we? That’s how they do it in the shows.”
“I don’t know.”
Andrew drove off to get a U-Haul trailer. I knew he was excited because it was still four days until we would actually need to use it. He also started working harder than I thought he was capable. And by working hard as a server, I mean that he was smiling more than I thought he could smile. Taking ladies’ coats and bowing to them. Sometimes his bourgeois farce was so heavy that I felt a little embarrassed by him.
After days of excited speculation, Saturday finally rolled around and we met a short, graying man at the padlocked gate. We were the only ones there, just as we predicted. Andrew smiled at me as we followed the manager over to unit number four. He fumbled at the lock but the key wouldn’t work.
“Guess you have to get the saw!” Andrew said, sounding a little giddy. “That’s how they do it on television anyways.”
The old man grunted. No, it wasn’t entirely like the show. Apparently he wasn’t able to find a saw, because he came back carrying a large, two-sided axe and proceeded to beat on the lock for minutes until it finally gave away. He flung the unit door up and stood back, gesturing into it. Damnit, I thought. Andrew was right.
There were mounds of old stuff in there. A tarp covered a third of it so that we could only see a few things near the front, but it was completely filled. Still, I didn’t see anything too valuable on the surface, so I was glad that we didn’t have anyone to bid against.
“I guess this is yours, my man,” Andrew said, grinning over a ten dollar bill. “I’m feeling generous so I’ll give you all ten.”
“Fifteen,” came a stern, acidic voice from behind us.
I turned to find a tall, slender woman dressed almost in rags. It looked like her leather coat and stonewashed jeans were the only things she had worn for years. They were covered in filth and coming apart at the seams. But she held herself with a proud carriage, upright and looking directly through us towards the old man.
“Hey what do you want this shit for?” Andrew’s temper let go a little. “Do you even have a place to put it?”
“Twenty,” I said.
“I am the rightful owner of these things. They were entrusted to me in a will, but because my father couldn’t even maintain a storage fee, or remember where he kept them… twenty-five.”
Andrew called out thirty, but I didn’t bat an eye. We were both onto the same scent. This woman knew what was in there, and whatever it was, it must have been valuable. She wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t. Suddenly, we were digging through our pockets to put everything together. The bidding got real intense around the $90 area, which was a relief for us. At least this woman was just as poor as we were.
She held on a couple bids longer, but we won out at a hundred. Although we had picked up on something definitely interesting, it still felt hard letting go of a bill. The woman remained rooted to the spot longer than was comfortable. We tried avoiding her, but I just couldn’t get myself to go sifting through her family’s belongings while she was still standing there. Apparently Andrew couldn’t either.
“You two,” she hissed, “have made a very big mistake.” She stepped closer to me, and I looked around to find that the old man had taken his money and scooted off already. Now there was nothing but the quiet, empty ghetto, and us. “Very. Big. Mistake.”
She turned and she left. There was no sound of a car engine turning over. Nothing. She just vanished on foot around the corner. We stood stuck for a moment longer, but then the excited nervousness was too much to handle. In an instant we were tearing the tarp off and putting our hands on everything in sight. Still, as we sifted through and looked, I couldn’t help but keep glancing over my shoulder every now and then, expecting to see that woman coming back for us.
Andrew and I both agreed it was best to get the stuff loaded up before checking it out more closely at the house. I was skeptical at first about getting the U-Haul attachment before the auction, but now I was glad for Andrew’s optimism. We took the light boxes and random junk out before tearing the tarp off the majority of the stuff in the back of the storage locker.
With a quick jerk, I flung the tarp off, revealing a big cluster of boxes. Excitement soon waned into disappointment as we started lifting them out. They were light as air, obviously empty. One by one Andrew flung the boxes away in a flurry. Some of them still had packaging beans, spraying out onto the concrete.
“No… fucking… way…” he shot out between his breathless excavation. “What is this?” Andrew was now holding a long, thin box over his head with both hands. He looked like a weight-lifter who just thrust a ton into the air. “Who keeps empty boxes under a tarp?”
But as he spoke I was still swimming my way through the small cardboard city. Beneath them all, in the far corner was a small chest. I tried yanking it out, but it must have weighed hundreds of pounds.
“Stop complaining and help me with this.”
Andrew high-stepped through the trash towards me. I didn’t have to look to know his reaction. We were both lost in sudden infatuation. Working up a sweat, we both laid hands on an old-style looking chest, complete with iron straps and a pad lock. It was a deep mahogany color and ornate, with mysterious patterns carved into the panels.
“Forgot everything else,” he said. “This is all we need.”
“We don’t even know if it has anything in it.”
“You feel how heavy it is?”
“Old chests are just heavy like that, man.”
“No. I felt something moving around in there. This has something. I can feel it like a magnet, giving me goose bumps like crazy.”
But I was getting goose bumps from a different sensation. While Andrew marveled at the chest, I felt as though a pair of eyes were glued to us. We were being watched.
I was able to urge him into getting everything ready to go right away. It was hard work getting the chest into the back, but we finally managed to get it tucked behind everything else. Besides the chest, there wasn’t all that much. Most of the space had been taken up by boxes, for whatever reason, and we left them behind in the locker. As we drove away, I kept looking back, expecting to see the woman rushing back the unit. When we had gone a couple miles, I almost thought I could hear a shriek from behind, but it was probably just the wind.
Like the lazy asses we are, we decided to leave everything besides the chest in the U-haul to be unloaded on a different day. Finally we had the mysterious promise of treasure, square in the middle of the living room as we sat rocking in our recliners, scrutinizing it in silence. There was only the creak… creak… creak… of the old joints in Andrew’s recliner.
“We should finish unloading that U-Haul so we can get it back,” I said.
“Fuck the U-Haul.”
“I’ll buy the U-Haul with the gold in there.”
“Now there is gold in there?”
“It was always gold in there.”
“You’re losing it.”
Without another word, Andrew got up and marched into the garage, coming back into the room with a ballpeen hammer. I wanted to tell him not to, but it wouldn’t matter. His mind was a one-track express way to imaginary riches. But I knew we were coming up on something really bad. I don’t know if it was the woman’s voice in my head, or the creepy engravings on the chest, but I had a sinking feeling that we should not have had that chest.
I noticed it getting dark outside. The shrill cry of metal on metal rang out from Andrew’s efforts. Although I had a bad feeling about it, I did not expect the padlock to resist him as well as it did. The banging went on and on until I had to get up and turn the living room lights on. I suddenly felt very aware of the three windows, open to the darkness outside.
In between the striking of his hammer, I heard a knocking sound. He stopped, mid-swing, and exchanged a look with me. I saw a worried expression on his face that must have been mirroring my own.
“It can’t be,” he whispered. “It can’t be her.”
No, I thought. I like to think I am a very rational man, so I summoned up all of my wits and went with confidence towards the door. Still, I lingered for a moment with my hand on the knob. I opened the door onto a clear frontyard. I was able to breathe again.
“It’s not her,” I said.
“Then who is it?”
I was so worked up over the thought of that woman finding us, that I realized if not her, then surely someone must have been knocking. I called out into the night and got no reply. There was only the chirping of crickets. I closed the door and sat back down.
“Guess it wasn’t anyone,” I said.
Andrew resumed his hammering. We couldn’t be bothered with that little mystery. I had not a thought in my mind besides the gnawing need to know what was inside.
Then another knocking sound came. Again, he stopped, arm poised over his head. This time it was obviously right in front of him. Andrew dropped the hammer and scooted back away from the chest. It was there, within the wooden planks that the sound was coming from. It was not a gentle knock, as if that would have been any more reasonable, but a resounding thud. It shook the chest from the inside. But how?
Andrew stared on in horror as I resumed his position on the floor. I picked his hammer up and held it hard in my grasp, moved by the desperate need to know. Still the knocking went on as I began striking now.
“What are you doing?” Andrew wailed. “What the fuck, man?”
“I have to know.” I hit it once, twice, three times to no avail. “What if it’s something living?”
“That’s exactly why we shouldn’t do it!” he protested.
“Oh come on, it could only be a rabbit or something,” I said, possibly more to encourage myself than Andrew.
I struck the padlock harder and harder until it started to crack a little. It groaned and buckled under the damage until finally one of the bars gave. Carefully, I slid the lock off and clicked the latch.
“Wait,” Andrew said.
A different kind of knocking came. This time the chest was not moving. Outside a breeze was picking up, blowing the curtains of our windows into a little dance in the room. The lights above gave a flicker. I started flipping up the chest latch. The knocking came louder. Andrew went to the door to see as it came crashing in, but he was too late. The front door flung open, throwing him down with it; the latch gave away in front of me and the chest opened; the lights flickered and danced and smiled in their crackling filaments before extinguishing, spilling darkness down into everything around us. I was awash in the void.
I opened my mouth to breathe, but the air slithered out instead, like a cool snake writhing from the constraints of my lungs. I was suddenly aware of everything inside of me: my stomach, my heart, my liver, all jerking forth and bobbing me limp like a marionette on pulling strings. My very being danced and reacted wildly to the invisible, penetrating hand of something groping through the darkness. All was strings within me. My breath, still creeping snakelike, was bound with thread throughout my body so that, as it escaped, even my toes curled by the taut line pulling me inside to out. I was in the air now. Still, all was black.
I can’t explain how, but I knew then that I must have been inches from death. My pulse was slowing down to a light pattering in my throat. It was there that everything inside of me seemed to be rising up into. Yet there was no resisting that invisible thread strangling me internally. I was certain I would be dead soon.
Then, bang! A sharp, slamming sound came from before me and I caught hold of my own breathing at last. I descended onto the soft carpet beneath me. My toes unfurled, my organs went numb again, into their usual imperceptions. The strings vanished, the void vanished. With a couple quick flashes, the bulbs were illuminated again and I could see.
“You are very lucky he is still full,” came that same, acidic voice from earlier.
The woman from earlier was before me, on the opposite side of the chest. Her hand clasped the lid of the chest tight, sealing it against the incessant thumping coming from inside the iron bindings.
“If he hadn’t taken my father last year, then he would have devoured you so quickly you never would have known you existed. Some things are better left unsought, boy.”
She was smiling now, in a sick kind of way. Andrew was grunting and raising himself up behind me. He looked too addled still to comprehend what had happened. In silence, the woman procured a new lock and looped it through the chest latch. Having snapped it shut, she lifted the chest as though it weighed only a couple pounds and left through the open door. Just like that, she was gone.
Andrew and I didn’t say a word to each other that night. He must have felt the same thing I did, because I was too happy to be moving on my own now to say anything more. Only once have we broached the subject since then, but we felt silly even talking about it aloud. To speak further would be to acknowledge the existence of something beyond all logic.
Needless to say, we don’t go treasure hunting much anymore.