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Image by Darrin Moore
Every weekday night, armed with a flashlight and his father’s green jacket, a man makes his rounds at his local storage unit.
It’s a graveyard shift no one would choose but Lawrence Stilte, an aging man so steeped in solitude the people in his modest Wyoming town are not convinced he speaks.
They’re right, Lawrence shared with Nancy, who used to say he could change that narrative and shock them all, and bring a smile to her face. Let them see your joy, she would sign, then tiptoe to kiss him. Your knowledge.
But Lawrence has long abandoned that joy. He will never again allow himself to think of sharing such knowledge with any person. Those whisperers, the bitter things they say about him, sank in too deep, past the green jacket and age-softened skin and right down to his bones.
And so, on a bleak, frigid evening he would have spent with her, Lawrence drives to the storage unit. Jacket for the frozen air. Flashlight for the dark.
Lawrence reaches the first building and unlocks several deadbolts installed after the robberies last year. So many open units—harsh, frozen cavities. He remembers that first morning, just weeks ago, when he walked into the fourth building and found the mouth of each storage unit gaping wide open, breathing in the raw morning air.
They—the culprits were never found, untraceable apparitions the broken security cameras couldn’t capture—left the carpets and the couches but took the small, valuable things, as if no one would notice. It reminded Lawrence of the deer carcasses his father would split open on their hunting trips, when Lawrence was a boy.
You’ll get there, his father would smile and sign to a ten-year-old Lawrence, who had long been proud of discerning his father’s sentences from his lips and not just his hands. The gore of the deer scared and riveted him, the brilliant scarlet wound seeping hot air. But it was always the horns or the loose teeth he’d take, prized and placed in a box beneath his bed.
It took weeks to clean up the mess across the storage units. Shortly after, Lawrence agreed to take the loathed late-night job. With Nancy gone, no reason to linger, he thinks.
Lawrence turns a corner in the fourth building on tonight’s blistering evening when he hears it — a faint but distinct drag, as if a nail moved along the wall next to him.
Dread rushes to his throat, and he nearly loses his balance. Screwing his job duties, Lawrence sprints down three flights of stairs, where he cannot hear the loud clanging of his hard leather boots on the steps or the front door flying open and slamming closed, or even the soft pitter of fresh snow on the road as he catches his breath.
Until that door between him and the sound is locked, he does not even comprehend he has never heard anything in his life before tonight.
Lawrence turns back to the building and peers through the door’s square of glass. He takes the flashlight from his back pocket and presses it through the window, illuminating the crevices of shadow in the staircase.
Nothing inside, no ringing in his ears. He pockets the flashlight.
A new impulse replaces this waning fear — the need to return. To investigate. He feels like a kid by his father’s side, at once helpless and steady, handling a knife and carving a deer for the first time.
He is abruptly and viscerally reminded of the bullet, years ago, that struck his father in the chest. How Lawrence had turned away to watch a bird fly to its nest and hadn’t even heard the others until he turned around and saw the blood.
They thought it was him. An accident, a brutal one. For a while, so did Lawrence, unable to parse fact from imagination, because they never found the other shooter, who ran when they smelled the carnage. So he shrouded himself in his father’s coat until the funeral had expired and the reporters had gone away.
And then with Nancy, whose body they found in their own home, beaten and discarded by another enigmatic mystery, on her favorite chair. He held that jacket tight to his chest as an old man too.
Lawrence looks down at his shaking hands, pink from the cold. He unlocks the building door, and it creaks open, but he cannot hear it.
When he hits the middle of the first staircase, he catches it again. High-pitched scratching, the same as before. Lawrence charges up the stairs, his familiar blanket of silence ripped away as he draws closer to the noise. He still cannot hear the pounding of his steps, the door shutting behind him. The snow as it piles up outside the building.
He reaches the top floor, where the blinding overhead lights have dimmed. A storage unit is open, he realizes, only steps to his right, sucking in oxygen, exhaling a scream. The scratching is inside. He walks closer. He can hear his footsteps.
It’s one of the smaller units, almost bare. Yet there’s Nancy’s worn crimson armchair, an oval stain of nearly the same color defining its middle.
The walls, though, overwhelm him, enveloping him like a beam of light as he steps into the unit. Steel blue, haphazardly painted, cold and bright as the day his father fell bloodied into the leaves.
It courses through him, brings Lawrence to his knees, makes his hands shake. No, no, he thinks, trying to block out the squall. Keep it out, he begs. Keep it out.
The worker who relieves Lawrence assumes the old man left before his shift ended. And who wouldn’t, he thinks, leaning his shoulder against a locked unit, where an old man, tear tracks staining his face, has two stiff limbs coiled around his green jacket.
Arleigh Rodgers is an English graduate student at the University of Southern Mississippi. She has worked as a reporter and editor in Indiana, Nevada and New York, and she received her bachelor’s in English from Ithaca College. Her reporting has appeared in the Associated Press, Washington Post, Las Vegas Sun, Ithaca Voice, and the Ithaca Times, and her fiction has been published in Stillwater Magazine and ZoetIC.