This week, my challenge("New York City") goes out to the Cheshire Cat (and/or her smile) and I get the following from Transplanted x 3: "You (or your character) attend an auction for the left-over contents of a storage unit. You purchase one and discover 3 things. A dead body, a suitcase filled with money and a box of love letters from Elvis Presley." I cheated a wee bit- the body's not exactly dead- but hopefully it's still a tale worth reading. I call it, naturally, "Don't Be Cruel".
Kayla was a screamer. Not that kind of screamer, you pervert.
Wait. Well, she was that kind of screamer, too, if you must know, but this isn't that sort of story.
Let me start again.
Kayla screamed a lot. She screamed if she saw a spider, or a mouse, or a dead animal by the road. She watched those crime shows where someone gets killed in the first five minutes, and she would scream when they showed the body, every single time, even though anyone who watched those shows more than twice knew it was coming. She startled easily, and when she was startled, she screamed. She was a screamer, so it wasn't shocking when we pulled up the grey corrugated steel door, and she screamed.
She had been sealed up in our room, playing "Darkness at the Edge of Town" over and over, working on finishing the latest version of her novel. I was content to let her be. I could watch all the sports I wanted while she was shut away, and she could be a bit cranky when the juices were flowing. We ate our meals together, and she emerged to help me with dishes, trash, and laundry, but otherwise, we just kept to ourselves. I figured that was the way she wanted it- and when she wanted to be touchy and girly again, she knew where to find me.
So it was novel behavior when she was pulling on a short blue dress and dressy sandals early that Saturday morning. I was staring at the morning SportsCenter, hoping the Royals' 9-3 loss last night would have somehow changed by the next morning. She told me that her father Claude, a squat, intimidating man who always had money but never seemed to have a job, had an abandoned storage unit sale to go to this morning and wanted her help. She proposed a joint trip, and having no more pressing task than mourning the Royals' losing streak, I joined in.
The auction was conducted blind- you bought the contents, sight unseen, and were responsible for taking or throwing away whatever was inside by the end of the day. We pulled up to a dozen or so people, from senior citizens to eager young people like ourselves, and we sidled up to Kayla's father, who was, as usual, silent.
"Here," he said to his daughter. "I already got 433. You two go down and check it out while I try to snag another one." She handed him a couple of legal looking papers, and the two of us were soon walking down the rows of evenly spaced orange and black buildings. We reached the fourth building, and then circled it until the unit came into view. The owner had snipped the padlock that held it shut, and Kayla was standing before it, waiting for me to pull the door up.
I knew how she was, so I stepped in front, pulling the door open, hearing the rattle and bang of the ancient mechanism. I had let go of the handle, letting it settle into place above my head, when she screamed.
There was a dead guy in what I could only describe as a sarcophagus- a full length, floor to ceiling, Plexiglas lined coffin, leaning so that he was the first thing you saw when you pulled the door open. You think a lot of things when you see a dead person, I found out. First, you feel guilty, even though, as much as you may have drunk the night before, you're pretty sure a murder would have stood out. The second thing is that you start cooking up your alibi, even though you didn't kill him, and you didn't have possession of the dead guy until about ten minutes ago. I looked him over closely. It was Elvis- a full bodied, fat Elvis, with the rhinestoned white jumpsuit and the greasy pompadour and the whole thing. It lent the whole thing an air of unreality, and I had a half second where I wondered whether the whole thing was real or not. But I could feel sweat trickling between my shoulder blades, and I could hear Kayla sucking in air to scream again.
I turned to her quickly, focusing in on her beautiful green eyes. If I held her gaze for a second, I could usually talk her in off of most ledges. "Kay? Baby? It's a mannequin, hon. Look at it. The skin isn't right, and the body would spoil, and, well, Elvis is buried in Memphis, baby." I didn't know that for a fact, but it certainly was the only logical conclusion. She looked at me curiously, her head shaking very slightly, like she was trying to say "no" without moving her head. But she wasn't screaming, so I was pretty sure I had her.
"Breathe, honey. Breathe. It's OK. It's just a mannequin, babe. Promise." I looked at it again. No question it was a mannequin, I thought. It has the Elvis wig, but the skin was plastic, fake and wrong looking in the morning sun.
I looked back at her. She took a deep, shuddering breath, color returning to her face under the super short haircut that she loved, I hated, and I knew better than to complain about. I stayed locked on her eyes until I was pretty sure she had her faculties again. "It's OK, hon. Kay? You alright?"
"Wow," she said weakly.
"Yeah," I agreed, stepping back to take her hand. "You want to go find your Dad? This suit alone probably pays for the cost of the whole thing."
"I bet it does, wow. Yeah. Um, in a minute, maybe. I'm kind of freaked out."
"OK, sure," I agreed. "You want me to wait here with you?"
"Oh, no," she said firmly. "He's going to want to know what else is in there. You better start going through it."
I did, looking through cartons of books, Elvis biographies and "As Told To" tomes from hangers on. There were boxes with video tapes, bootleg concerts and TV specials, and, of course, the movies, along with the beginnings of the same collection on DVD. Then there was the audio, albums, then cassettes, then remastered CD versions. Obviously, a pretty serious fanatic. I had my own obsessions, though, so I couldn't really judge.
One box had only a smaller box inside it, about the size of a shoe box, lined with soft fabric. Inside were torn envelopes with tissue thin paper inside. Love letters, obviously. I took one out and began to read,
"13 June 1957
I miss you terribly. Things are pretty crazy around here, but I think about you all the time. I wish we could be together here, live like man and wife the way we are supposed to-"
I stopped reading, my eyes jumping to the bottom, scrawled simply, "Love, E." I was staggered by the thought. Actual love letters written by Presley? If they were real, this could be worth thousands. I didn't know enough about the King to imagine what they would actually fetch, but the figure had to be enormous. There was also a suitcase, a black, hardened plastic thing that reminded me of the typewriter my father used to bang out science fiction stories on so he could add to his rejection letter collection.
There was a silver clasp at the top, and I released it, expecting to find the familiar, murder weapony heft of the ancient writing tool. This storage closet was not done surprising us, because inside was pile after pile of rubber banded stacks of what appeared to be hundred dollar bills.
"Holy shit," I gasped.
"What?," Kayla asked, her fear lessened enough to let her take a few steps into the container with me.
"Look," I said, and leaned back, letting her see the cash.
"Whoa," she said. "Can I see that?"
I lifted it onto a box full of Elvis records so she could see it more clearly. It was heavier than you thought it would be.
"Is that money?"
"Sure looks like it," I said.
"There must be...thousands," she said breathlessly.
"If they're all hundreds," I said. There was a shiver of nausea in the pit of my stomach. Something was wrong. That much money doesn't accumulate because of anything good.
Kayla shut the case and fastened it. "I'm going to go find my Dad," she said firmly.
"Well, leave that here, don't you think? Don't go showing it around."
"I'm not STU-pid," she said mockingly, swinging the case from one hand as she walked out of the storage unit. I watched her hips twitch under the short dress as she walked away from me.
When Claude walked in 10 minutes further on, I assumed she and her father had missed connections- she had walked in another direction, or she was looking by the exit while he stood over me, sweaty and tan. I showed him the haul, and he reprimanded me gently for handling the letter, but he was thrilled with the haul, as I knew he would be. He promised me a generous cut, and I was spending it in my head when I noticed our car missing from the lot at the storage complex. Claude shrugged his shoulders, and we commenced loading his truck with the treasures. He drove me back to our tiny apartment, and it finally came home to me what had happened when I saw that her toothbrush, her books, her clothes, and her laptop were all gone.
I was still trying to assemble the whole picture in my head, and trying to understand how I was going to tell Claude what had happened, when I saw it. On the back of one of my business cards, in the refrigerator leaning against a Rolling Rock bottle she knew I would go for, she had left a note.
In her simple, girlish hand, she wrote in purple ink, "Don't Be Cruel".