Inside Out: Behind Closed Doors
“BID. BID ON this one, Skye.”
“They haven’t even opened the doors for us to see inside,” I say, glowering at my new friend Ella and wondering why I let her obsession with Storage Wars lead me to a real-life auction. Or maybe I do know. She isn’t easy to say no to, but due to my limited finances, I have no choice but to be cautious with my bidding.
She balls a fist at her belly. “My gut says this one is for you.”
I roll my eyes. “You’re too dramatic and I don’t bid on gut instinct. I’m a calculated buyer, not a spontaneous one.”
“There’s nothing wrong with spontaneous,” she insists, her words as bold as her long red hair, while mine is a basic brown that fits my far more reserved personality. “You haven’t bid on anything,” she continues, pressing, “and I bought a unit that looks great and I did it by being spontaneous. This is the last unit of the day, Skye, and there’s not another auction in San Francisco until next month.”
“That’s not a good reason to bid,” I argue.
“A chance to make a profit is, though,” she counters, and I glance up to find the thirty-something man in a cowboy hat who’s been ogling me like I’m up for auction towering over Ella from behind to stare at me. The smirk under his dark mustache says he’s enjoying our argument a little too much.
Grabbing Ella’s hand, I pull her down the hallway of the climate-controlled indoor facility and away from the crowd of bidders that has now dwindled to about twenty. “If I don’t get a unit, I don’t get a unit,” I whisper.
She plants her hands on her hips and doesn’t soften her voice, proving she is as feisty as her red hair promises. “You’re just scared. You have to have courage. Remember your goal—the whole reason you wanted to come with me. You want to save money and get out of that secretary’s chair and into law school.”
She’s right. I do, and a shortcut to get there would be nice, but that just isn’t how life works for me. “I’m waiting tables on the weekends to save money,” I remind her. “My tips are exceptional. I’m fine.”
“You’ll be ancient when you get into law school, at the rate you’re going.”
“By my calculations, I have to save for two more years and then I’ll have three years of school.”
“Like I said. Ancient.”
“Thirty is not ancient,” I say, though she’s hit a nerve. Life is passing me by and I’m ready to live it, not survive it.
“I was teasing about that, but you want to start a career sooner if you can. You can cut that down by a year and a half if you make auction hunting work.”
This is what I get for making friends in yoga class, which I started in order to curb the stress of working for an attorney who excels at being an asshole as much as he does at winning in the courtroom, not to create more stress. “Well, you know,” I say, lacing my words with the sarcasm I learned from my boss, “I guess we brunettes aren’t born with balls like you redheads. I’m playing it safe. If I don’t like how the unit looks when they open the doors, I’m not bidding.”
As if on cue, the door to the unit is lifted and a look of scary determination flits across Ella’s face. “Don’t worry, Skye honey. My balls are big enough for both of us. I have a feeling about this unit. I’ll buy it and give it to you.” She turns and disappears into the crowd, pushing and shoving her way to the front of the group despite loud protests. I gape. I only just met her two weekends ago when she talked me into doing Storage Treasures online training for this, and good grief, somehow I haven’t even asked what she does for a living. She must need money or she wouldn’t be here. And even if she doesn’t, I can’t let her spend money on me. No. No way. That’s not going to happen. And I might not know her well, but I can already see her in my mind, handing me a key to the unit and telling me I’ll be wasting her money if I don’t turn it around.
Dashing forward, I cut through the crowd and manage to get shoved and cursed at, proof these people take their auctions really darn seriously. Or that they’re rude. Or both. I try to inch forward again and end up several steps in the wrong direction. My gaze collides with my crazy cowboy, and we have a silent communication. He is going to help me—that understanding comes a second before he turns and becomes my personal linebacker. In a blink, I’m at the front of the group, and Ella’s nowhere to be seen. As I quickly try to determine what’s in the unit before the bidding begins, in a flash my cowboy goes one step beyond what he’s already done, placing himself in front of the auctioneer to talk up a storm, buying me time to decide if I want to buy this final unit. I lean left and right, seeing stacked boxes, hating the way we’re only allowed to glance inside before making our decision to spend money.
Remembering my online auction-hunting class, I notice the boxes are neatly stacked and sealed, which means care was taken in packing and the contents are not likely broken. The person who owned the items seemed to care about them, and since they are sealed, the owner hasn’t come back and taken out the good stuff before the auction. It’s not a bad unit, but I feel really sad for this person losing their belongings, and I remind myself that if I don’t take the unit someone else will; this person’s life’s possessions are lost, no matter what.
The bidding starts and it quickly goes up to $300. Ella appears in the front row and raises her hand for $350. Bidding for me, I know, and I’m not letting that happen. My heart is racing, but I raise my hand and end up making it $400. From there, the bid moves to my ceiling of $500 so fast, I have whiplash. Ella raises her hand and bids again. I grab her arm. “No,” I warn. “No higher.”
“Six hundred dollars!” she shouts out, and before I can stop her, she’s gone to $700. The deal’s done. She’s bought the unit and I’m going to have to pay. She’s gotten lost in the high of bidding, in a way I can’t and won’t.
The crowd begins to dissolve and I let my face drop to my hands, dreading my return to the ramen noodles of my college days that I’d left behind last year. Ella grabs my arm and pulls it down. “Stop fretting. It’s going to be an amazing buy.” She glances at her watch. “It’s only four o’clock. We have plenty of daylight left to dig through our units after we pay.” She smiles at me. “Don’t worry. I have some cash set aside for the sole purpose of turning this into a success.”
“So is this your career?” I frown, a comment she once made coming back to me. “I’ve never asked, but I think I remember you making some comment about teaching?”
Her gaze cuts upward and back. “I have an endgame, and this is the means to that end.” It’s not really an answer, and as she motions me forward, I get the idea that she’s not eager to go where this conversation was headed. Like I’d hit a nerve. “Let’s go pay and get our keys,” she says.
Pay. Yes. We have to pay and I’m not letting her fund my unit, which means I’m going to be here all night digging through boxes to find a way to make back the money. My rent is due in two weeks and I need that extra $200 she just spent for me to write the check, without dipping into my savings, which I have a rule not to touch. And I learned the hard way that once you break your rules, you end up in trouble. And the last thing I need is more trouble when trouble is what I’ve left behind.
• • •
TWO HOURS LATER, I’m on my hands and knees, digging through boxes, and considering all the dirt and dust on me I’m thankful I wore my old jeans and a dark T-shirt. Unfortunately, I’ve found nothing worth $700. Frustrated, I surmise that I’m in good garage sale territory only, and by good garage sale, I’m thinking $300. Frustrated, I stand up and brush dust off my jeans. This unit is only a few months old. I can’t imagine the filth that would be built up in a unit that’s years old.
“You have got to hear this,” Ella says, walking into the unit and holding up a red leather book. “It’s a journal. And let me tell you, what a journal it is!” She sits down on an ice chest.
“That’s someone’s private thoughts,” I tell her.
She glances down at an open box. “And you have someone’s underwear.”
I sigh and claim a crate as my seat. “That’s about all I have in this unit.”
“You have tons of boxes you haven’t opened,” she says. “Once you get them to your house you’ll feel better. I can help you tomorrow if you like.”
This means renting a U-Haul I no longer have the money for. “Actually, thank you,” I say, “but I did that one-dollar one-month rental deal, so I have time. I want to go through everything I can here.”
“Are you sure?” she presses. “I mean, it’s easier to sell from your place. You can list things on eBay and Craigslist, or even have a garage sale.”
“I don’t have a garage.”
“Well, a front yard sale.”
“I live in a town house and this is San Francisco. I have grass patches.”
“No one here expects the word yard to mean grass. It’s concrete. Good is enough.” Her eyes twinkle and she holds up the leather-bound book again. “Back to the journal.” She opens the book and starts to read:
“I will remember tonight forever. Only my hands were bound and I stood in the middle of the room. He was naked and commanding, and it was in those moments that I would have done anything to please that man.”
“Stop! Stop reading. You can’t read that. It’s her private life.”
“I can’t help it. There’s something about this woman. If I read a little more, you’ll understand. She’s a woman reaching for her dreams—”
“It sounded like sex,” I say, but that part about “doing anything to please a man” hits a wound I don’t want opened.
“It’s more than sex,” she argues. “It’s her pushing her limits and being unafraid when she had been afraid, Skye.”
Afraid. It’s a word I’ve allowed myself to know far too intimately, and I wonder what makes Ella, who seems so lighthearted and fun, connect to that word. “I’ll tell you more about it later.” She glances at her cell phone. “It’s late and I have a date tonight. I’d better go change. You leaving?”
I shake my head. “I’m staying.”
“It’s getting dark.”
“It’s a lighted indoor facility, and I’m sure it has cameras. I’m fine.”
Her brows pucker. “I don’t like leaving you.”
“I’m fine. Go enjoy your date. I’m going to enjoy”—I smile and motion to the box beside her—“underwear.”
She laughs. “I’m sure there’s more than underwear in here to find. Don’t forget to look inside all the books. You know people hide things in books.” She holds up the journal. “That’s how I found this little jewel.”
That’s worth no money, I think, but I don’t say it. Judging from the way it seems to have affected her, maybe it has a value beyond money. “Go have a good date night.”
“David’s pretty good at wining and dining me. I’ll call you tomorrow and see what great things you discovered. You did bring your own lock for the door like I told you, right?”
“Good. Be careful here alone.” We hug, and I watch her depart before heading toward a box of paperwork I’d seen earlier. We’re supposed to return legal papers to the front office, but I have to go through it first and make sure I’m not getting rid of anything of value.
Two hours later, I’ve gone through every book, file, and stack of papers I can find in my new unit, and I’ve still found nothing. Stuffing some loose pages into a box, I’m ready to call it a night when a plastic sleeve the size of a bookmark falls from between papers I swear I’ve already checked. I reach down and grab it, and frown at the tiny key and a folded piece of paper stuffed inside.
Snatching a pencil from the box, I inch the paper out of the sleeve and unfold it to find a purchase order for a locker at the bus station. Why would you keep something at a bus station that could be here, in this unit? It makes no sense. Do I dare believe that maybe, just maybe, whatever is in that locker will pay for the unit? At this point, I just want to break even. I return the slip of paper to the sleeve, holding on to it and my little piece of hope, then shrug my purse over my shoulder and grab the box of paperwork before heading to the door.
As I step into the vacant hallway the overhead light flickers, clearly ready to burn out, the eerie silence surrounding me. I set the box on the floor, shove the heavy door shut, and dig the lock from my purse to snap it into place. I struggle to get the silver clip into the hole and drop the plastic sleeve. The lights flicker again, and, feeling more than a little jittery, I bend down to grab the sleeve, when a deep male voice says, “Need help?”
Boots and jean-clad legs appear at my eye level, and I swallow hard at the idea that someone got this close without me hearing him. My gaze lifts to find a man towering over me, his shoulder-length light brown hair draping forward. Actually, he’s more jean-clad rock-star hotness than just a man, with that unexplainable edgy bad-boy quality so few of the male population possess and who a great number of women hope to find. It’s the same quality that smart girls like me know is trouble, usually by finding out the hard way. A lesson that runs deep and wide for me, and is exactly why I stick to suits and ties and—
He extends his hand, and I suddenly wonder why I’m still on the ground when a man this hot is standing over me.
I ignore his offer of help and pop to my feet. And good gosh, either I have shrunk or he’s really tall. My chin lifts and I decide he’s at least six foot three to my five foot four inches, and the already small hallway suddenly feels like a mouse hole. “Dropped something,” I explain. “But I’m fine. Thanks for the, ah . . .” The what? “Thanks. Though.” I cringe inwardly. I want to be a lawyer? I can’t even form sentences.
He bends down and picks up the plastic sleeve before standing up again, glancing at the contents, and then offers it to me. “The ‘something’ you dropped, I think.”
“Thanks, yes.” I accept the key and try not to speak for fear I’ll chew my tongue off. This makes me more awkward. And warm. I am really warm. I decide right then to name him “Trouble,” especially when his firm, full lips quirk as if he knows what I’m feeling and why—which, of course, since I guess him to be in his early thirties, he does. He’s had plenty of years to figure out how women respond to him.
“You seemed to be struggling with the lock. You want me to take a look?” The light flickers again, his gaze lifting and lowering. “Preferably before we go dark.”
“Oh, yes,” I say, stepping aside. “I do appreciate it. If you can’t get it, I’ll have to get help from the office.”
“They’re closed.” He reaches for the lock and cuts me a sideways look. “So let’s hope I can work some magic, or you’ll have to buy a new one at the corner store.”
“Closed? That’s not good.” I stuff the plastic sleeve into my front pocket. “I hate the idea of leaving the unit unlocked while I go to the store.” I wouldn’t want someone to steal my box of panties, I silently add. It’s a depressing thought and I watch Trouble struggle with the lock, hoping for his magic, only to find myself unsuccessfully trying to figure out what the tattoo on the palm of his hand is. I’ve always found the idea of being passionate enough about something to ink your body with it fascinating, and I wonder if I will ever feel that strongly about anything.
Trouble finds his magic, pops the lock into place, and turns to me. “All set, but you might want to get some WD-40 in case it sticks again. Actually, a new lock is probably a safer bet.”
It is new, but I say, “Yes. Good idea. Thanks.”
We stare at each other. Why are we standing here staring at each other? And why is he here? Does he have a unit of his own? Do I care? I mean, he helped me, but then, wasn’t Ted Bundy a good-looking guy who played hero to unsuspecting women like me? Of course, I doubt a man like this one needs to stalk women in storage units to kill them. They’d fall willingly at his feet.
The light flickers again and jolts some sense into me. Move. I need to move and be smart. Being alone in this hallway with a stranger is not safe. I bend down and pick up my box.
“Where’s that going? I can take it—”
“No!” I reply a bit too emphatically. “I’m good. Thanks for the help.” I rush down the hallway and, dang it, the stupid box is heavy and I have to stop and shift the weight. Finally, though, I’m across the vacant parking lot, standing beside my new ten-year-old white Camry, thankfully parked under a streetlight.
I shove my haul into the backseat and quickly open the driver’s door. Unable to fight the urge, I turn to look back at the building, and I suck in a breath when I find Trouble standing at the doorway through which I’d departed, staring at me. And once again, I, too, just stand there and do nothing but stare at him. I’m not frightened, though maybe I should be, but I think . . . I think he’s making sure I got to my car okay. I think I want to go back to the building, thank him for his help, and find out his real name. But that would be inviting real trouble. I almost laugh at the silly play on words but they hold too much truth to dismiss them, and I force myself to turn away from my locksmith hero. Trouble is exactly what that man makes me want to invite.
I slide into my car and lock the door but don’t drive away. I sit in the darkness with this sense of being afraid, and not of the man I’ve left behind. Of always running and never being daring enough for a man like Trouble. Of always being so cautious that I’m never more than I am right now.
Ella was right. I have to take risks. I have to make things happen, or life will slip away. I pull the plastic pouch out of my pocket and work the paper free again, searching for an address to punch into my GPS.
I’m going to the bus station. I’m going to find out what’s in that locker.
• • •
THIRTY MINUTES LATER, I’ve parked in the deserted bus station parking lot and there are a number of reasons I’m staring at the locker key and not moving. First and foremost, this is my last chance to find a way to earn my $700 back, and how likely is it that the prize is in a bus station locker of all things? The location feels like it’s home to some nefarious secret I may be better off not knowing. However, sitting in this car and diving into the old memories and emotions Ella has inadvertently stirred up with her “fear” comments holds zero appeal. I didn’t leave Los Angeles over fear. I left because I chose to start a new life. I left because . . . damn it. He was still there, but it wasn’t about fear. It wasn’t me being a coward. I simply chose to be smart. To leave a situation that could have turned dangerous. Again. It could have turned dangerous again.
Needing out of my own head, I pop open the door and step outside into a gust of the typical San Francisco evening winds, which send a chill down my spine and inspire me to grab the lightweight jacket I keep handy in the backseat. I slip it on and decide to leave my purse in the car, lock the door, and stuff my keys and cell phone in my pocket, while the locker key is in my other hand, ready for fast use so I can get the heck out of here.
Crossing the parking lot, I assess the whole three cars parked here and there and decide it must be a slow time for travel. Entering the building, there are rows of worn blue empty seats in the middle of the room and lining the walls, and some sort of unmanned check-in counter to the far right. Spying the lockers directly ahead, I charge forward and find the number I’m looking for rather quickly, but I’m ridiculously nervous. I inhale and then try to stick the key in the hole, only to discover my stupid hand is shaking, a bad reaction to adrenaline I’ve had since I was a kid and need to fix before law school. I just really need this locker to be worth $700. I steady my hand, turn the lock, open the steel door, and stare down at an envelope. I am not encouraged.
Sighing, I reach for it and open the seal, retrieving a note card from inside that is typed with only a short note.
Jason, It didn’t have to end like this.
A chill races down my spine, a sense of foreboding with it. The past is just too present and messing with my head. There is nothing wrong and I’ve taken self-defense classes. I can handle myself now, anyway. Inhaling on that logical thought, I reach inside the envelope again and find only a Ziploc bag, which I hold up to inspect. It holds nothing but what is surely a fake World Series $50,000 poker chip.
I stare at the chip and wonder why it’s in a plastic bag. Frowning, I grab the note I’d found with it and read it again.
Jason, It didn’t have to end like this.
Something about this feels really wrong. Like blackmail? Nervous laughter bubbles from my throat. “You, Skye,” I murmur, scolding myself, “have been watching too much Law & Order.”
Shoving the plastic bag and the note back inside the envelope, I shut the door on the empty locker. I can officially say my auction hunting has been a bust. I have a poker chip you can most likely buy for about fifty cents and a bunch of someone else’s underwear. Perhaps I should have listened more to the Storage Treasures training and gone with no money my first time. Then Ella would not have been able to push me into bidding on something that didn’t feel right for me.
Okay. Yes, she would have. She’d have just made the high bid herself and given me the locker. I should have stayed home; now I’ll have to work double shifts at the restaurant for months to make up the cash I’ve lost.
Ready to get out of this place, I head toward the end of the row of lockers only to catch my jacket on the steel edge. I reach for it, and the key to the locker I’m holding goes flying from my hand. I cringe. Not again. Good grief. It bounces on the hard floor and goes under a row of lockers. I squat down, thankful I’m still in the jeans and tennis shoes I’d worn to dig through the storage unit, but I am not about to touch the filthy floor. Somehow it feels different than digging through dusty boxes. I’m also not getting the key unless I do. And why do I need the key anyway? The locker is empty.
Decision made, I stand up and walk through the deserted rows of fake leather seats and past a man with ripped, dirty clothes who wasn’t here a few minutes ago and has decided to use several chairs as a bed. Coming here alone, after dark, was not my smartest decision. Who would even know if I went missing? Ella, I assure myself. And my asshole boss. Still, I’d let my fear over lost cash dictate my actions, and I’m sharper than that, but then I’ve never been to a bus station before, I remind myself. I thought it would be more like an airport, with lots of security and a food court to soothe my now extremely empty stomach.
I’m almost at the exit when a tall, broad man in a leather jacket enters the station, and while not unattractive, his features are intimidatingly hard, his dark hair spiky. He holds the door for me and instant unease splinters down my spine, but then I’m jittery after reading that note. Using the same avoidance strategy I harness frequently at the meat market that is my gym, I avert my gaze and dart past him, murmuring a “Thank you,” and exit the building without incident, to be greeted by a chilly wind.
I hunker down into my jacket and hurry forward, and it’s all I can do not to look back, but I don’t want to encourage interaction with the stranger. Thankfully the streetlights are brighter than I remembered, fully illuminating the parking lot that is now empty but for my car. I guess that means the spiky-haired guy took a bus here. Hmmmmm. Where is everyone else who was on his bus, if that’s the case? And the bus doesn’t seem to fit him anyway, which is silly, since this is a bus station and he is here. But then, so am I. He must have gotten dropped off to take a bus. It’s the only logical answer.
Finally at my car, I allow myself a peek at the door to find no sign of the spiky-haired man in leather, and I’ve just started to slide into my car when I hesitate. The only way I can prove that locker is now mine is with that key, and yes, the locker is empty, but some gut feeling tells me I need to hold on to it. What if there’s some sort of registration paperwork the key will allow me to access? What if it connects to another locker? Most likely not, but I’m not ready to rule that out as an option if it might mean money. I slip the envelope under my seat, get out, and lock the car again, then some silly instinct has me removing my cell from my jacket pocket and typing in 911 before shoving the phone and my hand back inside my jacket. I’m ready, and giving myself no room to second-guess my actions, I jog back to the station.
I rush inside and frown at the absence of the sleeping man, wondering where the heck he went to so quickly and where he might pop up.
Actually, where’s the man in leather?
Glancing at the check-in counter, I note that it’s still vacant as well. Feeling ever so uneasy, my heart races, and I quickly cut through the rows of chairs and approach the locker, stopping dead in my tracks. The man with the spiky hair is standing in front of it, and it’s open. Air freezes in my lungs. He found the key. The implication that he somehow knew I had dropped it is clear, and I am now standing right out in the open. If he turns his head he will see me. My heart leaps into my throat and I take off running. I am out of the building and hiking it to my car in a flash, and I’m not foolish enough to look back. My car keys are still in my hand, and I scramble inside the vehicle and lock the doors. I am shaking so hard that I can barely get the darn thing started. Finally, I put the gear into reverse and back up with a screech of tires, and as I do, I look at the entry of the bus station. Acid burns my throat. The spiky-haired guy is standing there staring at me. I hit the accelerator.