My entry for the Fleming Storage Unit Project over at TooSpooky.com.
It’s been a year since I opened that damned storage unit at the Fleming Storage Company. I can’t help wondering how much it had to do with my terrible experience, ‘cos I’ve been in therapy ever since.
Prior to the incident that left me in my current state, I had maintained the house boats for Houseboating.org on Lake Koocanusa for the past two years. The owner’s son and I used to drive forklifts for a DuPont warehouse in Nebraska. I eventually got fired (probably for fooling around with the foreman’s daughter), but my forklift buddy told his dad about me, and I was offered a cozy job looking after the house boats. As a bonus, I got to squat in whatever vacant house boat I was cleaning. “Paradise” barely did it justice: isolated on a floating mansion, the soothing sound of the waters lapping against the hull, the womb-like rocking of the boat in-time with the call of the birds from the shore, horny beach bunnies anxious for a good time. The company owned five house boats, and when winter approached I tried to stay on the Sundrifter whenever I could: it had the best heating system for waiting out the Montana cold. It was almost cold enough to snow that October, and tourists were a bit scarce since the wildfire in September, so if I was lucky I’d have Sundrifter all to myself ‘til January.
If Aunt Karine hadn’t fallen ill, I wouldn’t have ever set foot in Havre, Montana. I had gotten the call from the nurse on October 10th: Karine had had a stroke, couldn’t speak to save her life, and I was the closest next of kin to where she lived. I told Mom about it on Skype the same day, and she stated very firmly that I was to leave Karine be.
In most cases, Mom is a peach, until you mention her family – the Youssefs, an old clan from Faiyum which she has long since disowned. The Youssefs, starting with Uncle Abed and his wife, Karine, are a taboo subject in our house. It wasn’t always like that, though.
Most of my memories of Aunt Karine were of the warm and fuzzy variety, as disjointed as they were. She’d babysat me often when I was little, from age two to seven, while Mom and Dad were busting their asses to support me. She made stellar iced tea, always cold and sweet like candy. She and Uncle Abed used to bounce me on their knees and tell me old folk tales about ancient gods, seaside battles, and heroic crocodiles that walked and talked like men – awesome stuff I would have loved to see on Nickelodeon. Within the last few years Aunt Karine friended me on Facebook – I never knew she even used it – and occasionally invited me to come visit her. I never got around to it – too busy living it up on the lake. Apparently she had reached out to Mom a few times, too: it sounded like she and Uncle Abed had split, and maybe she wanted to make amends and have a normal life for once.
Back then I’d asked Mom, “If they’re not together anymore, why not let her off the hook? Give her a second chance?”
She got angry very suddenly and said, “You join in the Youssef perversity, you get no second chances. I’m just lucky I got away when I did.”
So when Mom suggested leaving Karine to face her fate alone, I felt a stone dagger jab into the pit of my stomach. There I was, a beach bum without a care in the world, while less than five hours away my sweet auntie was laying in bed: confused, frightened, and dying.
I told Mom it wasn’t right, and that I thought I should at least go see her one more time before she passed away. Mom was suddenly furious and forbade me to go. I lost my temper and reminded her it was Aunt Karine who fed me, bathed me, and played with me when I was little while my real mom was god knows where. Mom was practically screaming at me when I ended the call and set off for Havre.
I pulled over once to wipe tears from my eyes. I love my Mom and I shouldn’t have taken such a cheap shot at her, but it was the truth. It was also true that I was a selfish piece of shit for not visiting my nanny when she reached out to me in the first place.
I never met any of the Youssefs besides Uncle Abed and Aunt Karine. All I know about them – and my parents’ hatred of them – is based on my own speculation, coupled with a handful of memory fragments that slowly resurfaced as I got older. It wasn’t until recently that I finally understood who and what they were, although I’m still trying to come to terms with it.
My aunt and uncle loved crocodiles, and had them all over the house in some form or another: crocodile salt and pepper shakers, crocodile teacups, plush crocodiles on the couch. I vividly remember their bathroom – the one in the master bedroom, not the guest bathroom in the hall – had scores of small ivory croc statuettes arranged around the edge of the bathtub, the biggest one roughly the size of a stick of deodorant, depicting a croc sitting upright like a man with a strange crown on its head. I don’t think they ever used that room because there weren’t any toiletries on the counter.
I remember Aunt Karine caught me playing with the big croc figure once, and that she seemed terrified that I might break it. It was the only time she ever spanked me. Then she apologized and took me out for ice cream, and said we wouldn’t speak of my transgression to Uncle Abed. Obviously the crocodiles were more than a fetish to Uncle Abed: he treated them with a certain reverence that Karine didn’t share quite as much when he wasn’t around.
Uncle Abed was scary as hell in an unspoken way, but he fascinated me when I was little. He was a big, enigmatic man with a thick black beard and eyes that never blinked. He always bared teeth when he smiled and gave me candy whenever I visited, sometimes while playfully holding a finger to his lips as if to say, “Don’t tell Mom”. He used a lot of archaic home remedies for all sorts of things. One time when I had the flu, he made a nasty elixir that tasted like fish, seaweed, and truck tires. I’m not sure if it made me better or sicker.
He had a ton of strict rules, and I always seemed to be breaking them. Whenever I ran in the halls, or made a mess, or told a lie, or otherwise did something petty or irresponsible, Uncle Abed would bring out a small brass dish he called the “Sorry Bowl”.
“You make the little crocs angry when you tell a lie, Malek,” he’d say, or whatever it was that I had done. “If you don’t show how sorry you are, they’ll drown you in the tub and eat you!”
Then he took my hand and stuck me in the palm with a knife, collecting a small sample of my blood in the Sorry Bowl. He would patch up my hand, smile, and say, “They’ll forgive you now.”
At the time I thought he was “feeding” it to the statues so they would forgive my transgressions or something. I must’ve hid the wounds from Mom and Dad, or they probably would’ve kept me away from Uncle Abed on Day One. I think I was genuinely scared of angering the little ivory crocs. Some nights I would wake up screaming from a vivid recurring nightmare where they dragged me into the tub and tried to drown me. I remember feeling their little ivory jaws nibbling my skin mockingly while I choked on the bathwater.
I’m not sure how many times I got the Sorry Bowl punishment, but my parents must have caught on to it, because we moved to Arizona and left the Youssef clan far behind us.
I asked my boss if I could take a few days off to go visit, and drove six long, cold, miserable hours to her tiny little house in Havre. The few friends Karine had in Havre said she was in good health for her age, so the stroke seemed to come out of nowhere. She and Uncle Abed had indeed had a falling out of some kind, and they were separated – no one had any idea where he was, but it was just as well. I wasn’t anxious to see him again. But that meant there was no one but the nurse to look after Karine, and she wasn’t expected to make it through the week.
The house was barely big enough for a family of two, and seemed strangely alien with the total lack of crocodile imagery. The bathroom contained a neat arrangement of toiletries and nothing more. Uncle Abed must’ve taken all the croc stuff with him: even the crocodile salt and pepper shakers were missing.
The pretty Egyptian woman from my memory was gone: a shriveled mummy laid in her bed, staring at the ceiling and seeing nothing. I sat beside her all night, holding her leathery hand as I recounted the stories she and Uncle Abed used to tell me. It was impossible to tell if she even knew I was there or not: the whole time she just stared stoically at the ceiling, never acknowledging me, chest heaving weakly with every shallow breath. I watched the frost crawl across the bedside window, and by midnight it was almost completely opaque.
Pain shot up my wrist as she suddenly squeezed, digging her nails into my skin. I looked at her with a startled cry, and felt the approaching winter slither under my clothes and across my skin. Aunt Karine was staring through me with her gray eyes bulging in utter terror, her breaths coming in weak, terrible moans. I don’t know if she was trying to speak or scream, but the desperation in her eyes will follow me to my grave – the desperation of a soul being dragged kicking and screaming to an afterlife that terrified it.
I waited in the living room until the coroner took the body away, and thanked him for his condolences. When I finally had the house to myself, I crashed in the guest room and managed to get a few hours of uneasy sleep. Dreams of little crocodiles peeking at me from a murky river kept jarring me awake, and eventually I woke at around 2pm and got the hell out of that house.
I grabbed breakfast at a Tex-Mex place called Marg Madness in Fleming Plaza, but I was lucky to get a damn table. The plaza was busy like an anthill, and the hubbub seemed to center around the Fleming storage facility, where at least a dozen people were hauling crap off the premises like they were having a two-for-one sale on other people’s junk. I was all set to drive back to the lake and forget all about Havre when I got the call from the Youssefs’ lawyer, a chubby Canadian pear named LeBlanc, who said Uncle Abed had listed me in his will.
“I didn’t know my uncle was dead, too,” I said.
LeBlanc explained that Uncle Abed had just been declared legally dead: five years ago to the day, he had disappeared around Lake Koocanusa, where he went swimming every weekend.
“Spooky, eh?” LeBlanc said with a stupid smile.
He met me at the front office of Fleming Storage and handed me the sum of my inheritance: the key and paperwork to Unit #95, and all the treasures therein. A dead body had been found in one of the units at the Fleming Storage Company, and the facility was being closed down. Everyone who owned a unit needed to move their shit out before it got sold off in a police auction. In other words, Uncle Abed’s timing was impeccable.
Which brings me back to the storage unit, the perfect anticlimax to a depressing journey: a graveyard of vague childhood memories, clumped together in one of a hundred identical neglected sheds. My heart sank a little when I recognized some of the items inside, despite having not laid eyes on them in a decade and a half. The caramel armoire on the right wall with the ornate doors. The banana-man clock that scared me as a little kid: a sneering banana-shaped face with a Tom Selleck mustache and a clock face on its forehead. The little porcelain skunk that smelled like stale lemon air freshener. The five-foot floor lamp from Uncle Abed’s study, frosted punchbowl on top, nearly eye-level with me. I didn’t have the time nor the inclination to ship all that junk off the premises. I told the lawyer I would rummage around for anything I liked, and leave the rest up to him. He said that was a fair arrangement.
There was slim pickings for valuables in that storage unit. A few vintage coins for my antique-obsessed friend Casey in Eureka, and an ivory tobacco pipe for myself. Just before I gave up and left, I opened the armoire and tried to remember what trinkets used to decorate its now barren, dusty shelves.
Sitting alone in the middle of the highest shelf was my favorite ivory croc statue, staring at me with tiny, apathetic eyes.
As a child it had been little more than a cool toy I wasn’t allowed to play with, and the occasional subject of terrifying dreams. Only as an adult could I recognize its goofy harmlessness…and its monetary value. It was ancient: genuine elephant ivory (as far as I could tell, from the samples I’d seen at Casey’s place) and probably an honest-to-god relic of ancient Egypt. Casey had museum connections that would kill for it, if it proved authentic.
I pocketed the croc and left the storage facility behind me. Six hours later I was back at Lake Koocanusa, lounging in a pool chair on the pier, leaving a very coy message for Casey’s answering machine and filling my belly with fish tacos. I toasted Uncle Abed with a margarita, wondering what the little idol would fetch me on the market.
By the time I took the Sundrifter back onto the lake, the sun was setting and painting the sky an intense blend of orange and pink, and the lake had become a deep indigo abyss. The shore faded into a black silhouette of mountains and treetops highlighted in neon orange.
Whenever I was using one of the boats, Casey – who happens to be a brick shithouse Blackfoot Indian – would come aboard some evenings to catch fish while helping me put away a twenty-four pack of beer. I was describing the idol to him on the phone that evening, while unfolding my chair on the barbecue veranda at the bow of the ship: a wide outdoor area typically used for catching and grilling fish, the edge guarded by a short metal rail. I was bundled up in thick winter clothes so the icy October air wouldn’t freeze my dick off.
Casey was skeptical about the idol, but I could hear the excitement in his voice. He said he would be closing shop a bit late and probably wouldn’t make it ‘til midnight. While easing into my first beer of the night I told him what LeBlanc had said about Uncle Abed, and asked if he ever saw or heard of a big, bearded Arab who liked to swim in the lake.
“Police came asking about a weird asshole like that last week. Asked all the locals about him. Don’t think it’s the first time, either.”
“What’d they wanna know?”
“Just if anyone had seen him. He was a missing persons case they’d check up on once in a while. I know Kimi saw a weirdo swimming in the lake one January while she was out on her house boat. Big bearded guy, no clothes to his name. Shoulda been dead from the cold, if not from the shit the canucks are dumping into the lake. He just stared at her fifty feet out from the veranda, then vanished under the water. Freaked her right the fuck out.”
I laughed. “Maybe he was a tenacious Jehova’s Witness.”
“Whoever he was, motherfucker was lucky he was gone ‘fore she could get her rifle. I seen that girl plant one between a squirrel’s eyes at a hundred yards. Hell, if it was your crazy uncle, he probably snuck up on the wrong dude and got his ass shot off. You see and hear a lotta weird shit around here. Ghost stories, sea monster myths, cult rituals, murders. Seen the cops fish up a human torso once. Arms, legs, and head clean gone like a family o’ gators got him.”
I took the little ivory croc from my pocket and turned it over in my hands for the hundredth time that evening. “There’s no gators in these parts, ‘cept the one I’m holding right now.”
“I know, I’m just sayin’. Probably pissed off his wife one too many times and she hacked him up. Wouldn’t be the first impromptu divorce we heard of ‘round here.”
“Remind me never to get married.”
Two beers later I had drunk the offensive image of nude Uncle Abed out of my head, and cast my line into the lake. The booze amplified Sundrifter’s womb-like rocking, and I had to stand up after I’d nodded off for the third time. I shivered and pulled up my coat collar with one hand, fishing rod in the other. The only sound from the shore was the muted thumping of dance music as a party raged on at the cabana, orange lanterns and tiki torches dotting the darkness far in the distance. It was lonely being the only one out there, and I started wishing Casey had never mentioned murder on the lake.
A loud thud as something crashed into the side of the boat from the starboard side. I gasped like a little girl and turned toward the source of the impact, hoping to god I hadn’t drifted into a log, or worse, another night fisher.
I moved to the edge of the railing and looked down the starboard side, and saw nothing.
It was just as I was leaning over the rail when something caught my fishing line and pulled with the force of a battleship. It damn near dislocated my shoulder, and caught me so off guard I tumbled over the rails and into the lake.
It was like dropping into a swimming pool filled with icewater. Instantly sobered up. My coat was sopping up the water like a sponge and made swimming impossible; I flopped and flailed like a moron until I finally yanked it off and tossed it away.
As I drifted there in the abyss – a half mile from shore, with no other boats in sight and the last remnants of sunlight fading away – I caught a half-second glimpse of the lump on the surface of the water, not ten feet from where I was. It was black, slick, the size of a boulder. It may have had eyes. I wasn’t sure, because no sooner had I spotted it, it submerged without a sound.
The lake was unnaturally calm. I tried my damnedest not to move, but my limbs kept trembling as they dangled in that infinite blackness, fingers and toes numbed by the cold. My breath came in short sobs as the waters churned with hellish life all around me.
Something made of leather brushed my leg, and I started screaming. The nearest help was a half-mile away, drunk, and deafened by thumping techno.
The pain was sudden and brief, shooting through my left knee like a bullet. Then I was in total darkness, all the breath sucked out of my chest, arms flailing above my head as if they had a life of their own. Icy water flooded my mouth, nose, and throat.
It had me by the leg, spinning me in place at bone-splintering speed. Spinning and drowning in endless blackness, with the surface world reduced to a tiny, quivering beacon of moonlight miles above my head. Ears popping from the water pressure. No idea how deep I had been dragged. I had the insane notion to cut myself and bleed in repentance to make the unseen thing release me.
I think I blacked out for awhile. I suffered visions of little ivory crocodiles staring hatefully down at me from the lip of the bathtub, while I laid submerged on the bottom, my lungs filling with water. This image shattered as I realized I was staring up into the evening sky from beneath the surface of the lake, the Sundrifter’s bow poking into view from my left. I was floating face-up at an odd angle.
I was free.
I flailed my arms and legs as I scrambled for the surface. It was more difficult than it should’ve been. My left leg was numb and cut uselessly through the water as if it were air, leaving me to swim like a crippled fish. I had to propel myself with arm power alone, until every muscle screamed in burning agony from shoulder to fingertips. I didn’t know where the thing was. How big it was. If there was more than one. It could’ve been within arm’s reach in any direction in the hellish darkness of the lake. I expected to touch its leathery flesh with each stroke. I was too scared to fully extend my limbs for fear they’d get bitten next.
When my fingers touched the edge of the veranda I had fallen from, I reverted to age five and started bawling. Adrenaline catapulted me like a dolphin onto solid ground, and I dragged myself like a seal through the door, into the warmth of Sundrifter’s living room. Sputtering one curse after another at the oblivious assholes partying on the shore, I collapsed on the carpet and may have blacked out again. I laid there, coughing up pint after pint of water, listening to the crackling of the fireplace across the room and the whispers of the lake outside.
A heavy thud against the starboard hull. Sundrifter rocked in place.
I leapt to my feet, reaching for the boat controls just inside the veranda doorway, already screaming “Mayday!” before I’d even got my hands on the emergency radio.
I went down as easily as I went up, landing on my face before I’d even reached the captain’s seat. It knocked the last of the lake water from my lungs. I tried again to stand, and again collapsed as if the floor kept vanishing out from under me. I couldn’t stand up.
I couldn’t stand up with only one leg.
Only one leg. My left leg was gone from the knee. All that remained was a bloody, tattered stump leaving a streak of red from the rails, across the veranda, into the living room where I laid. No pain yet. That would wreck me later when the adrenaline wore off, if I didn’t bleed to death.
Along the port side of Sundrifter’s living room is the dining table and kitchen facilities; the fireplace and couch are starboard side of the room. There’s a clear path right between them, to the narrow hall on the stern side with the bathrooms, bedrooms, and stairs to the penthouse on the upper deck. Opposite end of the little hall is the glass door to the smaller stern veranda. A straight, clear path from bow to stern, more than enough room to accommodate a crocodile hungry to finish the job it started. I would have to crawl up those stairs, out onto the upper deck, and back across the ship to reach the upper controls, and hope the thing was too big to follow if it came aboard. My breath came in dog-like pants as I wondered how far I could get before I passed out again.
Another thud from outside, rocking the boat. Something huge broke the surface and slithered over the veranda railing, oozing onto the deck with an ancient rattle like the motor of an old muscle car.
I didn’t look at it. Not as it began its slow crawl across the veranda, straight toward me. Not as I started my own spastic crawl for the penthouse stairs, a mere six hundred miles from where I had collapsed.
I lunged forward with my one good leg like an injured frog, my hands clawing at the carpet, my stump raining blood on the walls and furniture. Even as I felt the croc’s jaws snapping at my precious remaining foot I didn’t look back at it. I hadn’t actually laid eyes on it, so I could only pray to god it was just a crocodile. That was the best case scenario, and not the nightmare that I imagined crawling through the veranda door behind me. When you’re being chased, you have a rear view mental image of your pursuer, and as I scrambled pathetically for the stairs to the upper deck, the image that came to me wasn’t a crocodile. It was Uncle Abed, twenty feet long and crawling on all fours, bearded jaws horrifically long and wide and full of dagger-like teeth, eyes bulging and unblinking like a monster from a Goya painting. I couldn’t look back at the thing as it snapped again and pulled my shoe clean off of my flailing foot. More than just being eaten alive, I was afraid to look back and see that my worst fear was a horrible reality.
That fear alone catapulted me up the penthouse stairs. The thing lunged at the same moment and just missed me, sailing past the stairway and crashing through the glass door to the stern veranda, its saurian bulk rocking Sundrifter like a hurricane had just slammed the lake. There was a shriek of metal yielding to something monstrously heavy as the railing gave way, then a watery explosion as the thing tumbled back into the abyss.
I didn’t wait for it to come back. Sundrifter’s engines roared to life and I turned her back toward the harbor. I don’t remember how I brought it into port, or how I managed it without dashing Sundrifter to pieces against the pier. I remember the shocked curses of paramedics and Casey saying “Holy shit” or something to that effect. I woke in Cabinet Peaks Medical Center – they’d flown me there on a helicopter. Doc said it was a miracle I hadn’t bled to death. Apparently the femoral artery sometimes turns itself into a makeshift tourniquet when it’s severed.
Since the incident, I’ve had two surgeries and am still getting the hang of my prosthetic leg. That means a lot of downtime for devouring internet articles about crocodilians and Egyptology, when I wasn’t busting my ass in physical therapy.
The city of Faiyum was once called Crocodilopolis by the ancient Greeks, and considered the center of the cult of Sobek, a vengeful crocodile god and a star linebacker of the Egyptian pantheon. Priests would worship sacred crocs in the temple and drink the power of their god through human sacrifice – cannibalism, in other words. Maybe something as hearty as a human leg, or as little as a bi-weekly bowl of blood.
I also learned that they’ve found gators living in the sewers, on the streets of Manhattan, in Chicago shopping malls, and other weird places. It’s almost always because of a careless pet owner losing or abandoning it, so theoretically you could find a stray croc or gator living in any body of water in the world. That’s what Animal Control thinks happened here. Some dumbass brought their pet croc to the lake years ago and lost it, and now it’s out there somewhere feeding on a buffet of fish and the occasional unlucky beach bum. I’m willing to believe that theory over the alternative: that a man can become an immortal monster by eating the flesh of his kin.
Fleming Storage Unit #95 was closed for the foreseeable future on October 14th, with all of the Yossefs’ junk bound for police auction. They found no trace of the ivory statue on the Sundrifter. Good riddance. I wish I’d never laid eyes on it, or anything like it. I understand the desperation in Aunt Karine’s dying eyes now: begging me to deliver her soul from the cruel god that had her by the leg, spinning and dragging her to the depths of whatever hellish abyss it called home. Whether Sobek or any other god truly exists is beyond me. The poor woman died believing it, and that’s evil enough. All I know is, the crocodile that attacked me on Lake Koocanusa has disappeared, as if it never existed.