The Storage Papers is a fiction horror podcast.
Discretion is advised.
WRITTEN BY NATHAN LUNSFORD
Thomas looked back and forth from key to key, gold to silver and back again. To him, they seemed so small within Cain’s already smaller-than-human hands, yet felt to be the biggest choices of his life.
‘Either way, I’ll be a hero to someone, right?’ Thomas thought to himself. He raised his eyes and looked around at the dark, silent night surrounding them, contemplating the weight of the choice before him. How many out there were trying to spread holiday cheer but instead lining the pockets of some faceless CEO? How many had been promised that strides would be made for their health, poor kids would have food and shelter, or water would be made clean, and in the end, none of that happened because some people harbored more greed than care for their fellow humanity?
Then his thoughts turned to the mounting bills at home, and the sleepless nights as he listened to his family argue and worried about his own future. “I’m sorry,” he whispered as he turned back to Cain… and reached for the silver key.
Cain raised a brow, but otherwise remained expressionless as he simply said, “Interesting.”
Then, as if almost challenging Thomas, he added, “Are you sure this is the correct decision?”
Thomas said, “Absolutely. How many families have been put into the same position as my own by some corporate greed BS hiding behind a charity’s name?”
Cain nodded his agreement as he seemed to shrink back to the shadows, only a glimmer of light reflecting in his eyes confirming his presence was still in the air. “Oh, and Thomas?” he called out just as Thomas turned in the direction of the office building. He paused and looked back to the shadows.
“Much like boxes and toys wrapped beneath holiday trees, it would be unwise to open the package too early. Be sure to bring it back here—to me—first.”
Thomas nodded curtly and resumed walking into the direction of the only office buildings he knew that were nearby. As he gripped the silver key in his pocket, he noticed it seemed to be growing warmer. He found himself forced to stop and remove his hand from his pocket as it felt far too hot to touch. The moment he stopped, an automatic door opened to his right. He jumped, caught off guard by the sudden movement. He reached back into his pocket, tentatively touching the key, to find it had somehow returned to being as cold as the night air.
Thomas looked at the still-open door thoughtfully as he rubbed the key. Then, with a small twitch at the corner of his mouth, he realized the key must be guiding him here. He entered, calling out to see if anyone was there, the brief echo of his voice dying quickly with no response. Shadows hid within shadows, while the chair behind the chest-height front desk belonging to either a security guard or receptionist was vacant. Thomas paused, perhaps considering the value of the task in lieu of such a dark and lonely office building. Whatever the thought was, he pushed it aside and pressed onward past the desk and into a carpeted hallway to the right.
He held up the silver key, the red light of a nearby exit sign illuminating a small number etched into it by hand: three eighty-three. There were signs on each door; in large text was a name or title or description of purpose. However, in smaller text below that was a number. Thomas quickly realized he would need to go to the third floor to find a room starting with a three, and made his way to a stairwell to ascend.
He wandered a maze of hallways as numbers went by, never quite matching his key. Nearly giving up, he stopped at the end of a hallway and looked back, frustrated. Something registered in his instinct before it did in his brain. He looked more closely, then it hit him. He slowly walked to a set of three doors. There was a three twelve and a three thirteen, but between them, sandwiched in such a way that it only could have been a miniscule closet, was room three eighty-three.
There were no other markings than the number to indicate what the room itself was for, which was peculiar when compared with all the other doors. Thomas started to insert the key into the deadbolt, but before he could, the key grew warm, and the lock clicked. He looked down at the key in amazement to find that, to further his confusion, the numbers on the key had vanished.
“Almost like a dream,” he mumbled to himself.
He opened the door and found himself once again perplexed as a modestly sized office was revealed, a feat not possible given the location of doors on either side of the now-open one. There was little in the way of decorations around him, he found as he stepped foot inside. Drab but clean would be an accurate description. A lone fake plant sat in one corner, but there were no pictures, awards, or degrees adorning the walls. In the middle of the room was the only real presence to indicate that it was an office: a polished mahogany desk. Atop the desk, perfectly centered, sat an ornate, wooden box with a silver lock. Thomas leaned in closer, tracing his finger across the box’s decorative markings. Had he paid closer attention, perhaps he would have noticed the decorations disguised three words: pascere qui creatur.
Thomas inserted the key. Before he could twist it, he heard a slight click. He pulled back his arm to withdraw the key and open the box when he found that he couldn’t. His fingers wouldn’t release the key. He yanked his arm, but it wouldn’t budge. Panicked, he looked closer to see that his fingers were changing. Shiny pieces of metal were protruding, some parts rough and sharp, some parts smooth and reflective.
His heart raced and he stumbled back, dragging the box with him. It fell open, a small box wrapped in parchment paper clattering to the ground. Thomas didn’t notice that, though, as more pieces of silver metal broke through his skin from the inside until his entire hand was covered in keys. It didn’t stop, however, and began to spread up his arm. In desperation, he turned to run out of the office, only to find that there was no door. He was trapped, and his body was being taken over by metal keys, cracking his skin to break through. He held his hand to his face but saw not his own reflection in that moment, but a different reflection in each key. He focused on one and felt the reflection come to life.
Although Thomas found himself unable to tear his eyes from the key, he was aware that he was no longer surrounded by an office. The displaced reflection had grown: surrounding, enveloping… swallowing him whole. The sound of his own heartbeat gave way to a slow, muted crashing of waves and gentle but constant breeze. Relaxing on what appeared to be a well-deserved vacation was his family. His mother and father were sharing a bottle of wine, laughing together. Thomas couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen them laugh. The beach started shifting: the waves stayed stationary as the rest of the scene rolled and tumbled chaotically until he fell to the ground back in the office.
He looked up, only to find his eye caught in another reflection and he was instantly, irresistibly absorbed. An embarrassment of riches was stacked around him: cars, cash, fine wine, and decadent food. At the far end of a slowly swirling tunnel of wealth stood two figures, laughing and shaking their hands. One figure he instinctively knew was the CEO of one of the charities referenced on the news. The man was responsible for millions of dollars being misused for his personal gain. The other figure was Thomas.
Other Thomas turned to face his key-ridden self and slowly smiled. Although he didn’t speak, he could hear Other Thomas’ words in his ear: “Nobody misses the money, they all feel good for giving blindly. If they don’t do their research, it’s on them. I don’t have to give the box to Cain. I’m sure Steve here would be happy to ensure Cain never sees the box.”
The last words echoed around Thomas as the tunnel closed in, crushing him. He closed his eyes as he began to suffocate, only to find the pressure removed. He carefully opened his eyes to find himself back in the office, curled into the fetal position. His hands had returned to normal and the original box was nowhere to be found. He slowly stood to his feet. Looking around, his eyes fell to the small box wrapped in parchment paper. He quickly scooped it up from the ground and stumbled out the door.
On unsteady legs, he made his way out of the office. Following the dim red glow of the exit signs, he found his way to the front lobby, then outside where the cold night air sent a shiver down his spine. Every step felt heavy. He could still open the box. It felt itchy in his hands, and the only way to relieve it was to see what was inside. Was it worth giving up such a fortune? Or was the vision just a trick? Or, perhaps a better question: was the entire quest he’d been sent on a ruse devised for the delight of a devil? These questions weighed heavy on Thomas’ mind, steadily slowing him down.
On one hand: if he took the money, would he be any better than the people who had crippled his family’s opportunity to thrive at every turn? Would he not just be another cog in a system designed to make the rich richer and the poor poorer?
On the other hand: would he actually be making a difference? A corrupt charity closing down—or “negatively influenced,” as he recalled Cain’s exact words—seemed like such a small victory—and to what end? Would the vague and perpetually ungraspable notion of justice be enough to put food in his stomach and a roof over his head? Hardly. But could he live with himself if he didn’t take this opportunity to mete out justice?
That was the heart of what Thomas had to decide as he paused at the edge of the empty square, the holiday decorations silent and empty without the cheer of children around them.
His fingers gently felt the rough texture of the parchment paper. It would be so quick and simple to open it. Cain was nowhere to be found. He wouldn’t even know.
The visions of wealth came back to him, but he brushed them aside. How could he make an informed decision if he didn’t know what the choice was?
Thomas surveyed the area, the small shadow of a creature beside the large Christmas tree going unnoticed to his eyes. He bit his lower lip indecisively, then stepped into the square and made his way to the bench with a sigh. Cain soon emerged from the shadows, glittering eyes trained only on the package.
“Here it is,” Thomas said, holding the package out for him. Cain quickly snatched it away, examining it—carefully at first, then with unconstrained glee. Without uttering a word, Cain quickly tore away the parchment paper and opened the small box inside.
Thomas’ curiosity was overwhelmed. “What’s in it?” he asked as he stood to peer inside.
Cain quickly jerked the box away, putting his body between it and Thomas. “You mustn’t touch it!” he cried out.
Thomas stepped back. “Chill, man. I wasn’t going to touch your stupid box. I just… after all that I went through, I wanted to know what I brought over.”
Cain’s gaze dropped to the box and slowly revealed its contents to Thomas. Inside was a wooden block.
“I’m sorry… that? That’s what all this is for? How the hell does that have anything to do with a charity?” Thomas asked, incredulous.
Cain grinned, but didn’t take his eyes from the block. “It’s a very special wood, Thomas. Very special, indeed. It’s not quite ready yet, but it will be… soon. Would you like to know what it looks like when it becomes ready?”
Thomas couldn’t imagine how a simple block of wood could mean so much, but, desperate to know that he hadn’t wasted his evening, nodded. Cain turned and motioned for Thomas to follow him as he walked to the Christmas tree.
“This wood is what I use for my decorations!” Cain stated proudly.
Thomas peered at the wooden Christmas ornaments. Earlier, they had seemed odd to him, but now, knowing they were hand carved, he could acknowledge that their almost life-like appearance made some sort of sense. “You must put a lot of work into these,” Thomas said as he bent down to get a better view of one.
“A lifetime’s worth,” Cain agreed.
Thomas squinted a little as viewed the ornament before him. The carved face looked familiar, but he couldn’t place it.
“It’s cold out,” Cain said, interrupting his thoughts. “You’d better be getting home. We wouldn’t want your family to worry.”
Too distracted to disagree, Thomas stood and slowly nodded, but when he turned to face Cain, he only barely caught a glimpse of movement as he vanished into the shadows once more.
Suddenly feeling very cold, Thomas rubbed his arms and headed back home as he realized that, in the end, nothing had changed. He was heading back to financial woes and a world where corruption prospered. As he turned onto his street, he reached into his pocket and withdrew the key to his family’s apartment. The feeling of a key in his hand felt more uncomfortable than normal now, and he nearly dropped it, but managed to smile and shake his head, despite his own unsteady hands.
As he neared his door, he froze for a moment. On the doormat was the ornate, wooden box that had been in the office. Hands trembling, he carefully approached it and picked it up. It was nearly exactly the same, only this time, there was no lock. He sank to the ground, as he debated whether to open it, throw it away, or immediately destroy it.
With a deep breath, he opened it.
Inside he found several official-looking documents and an envelope sealed with wax. He looked through the documents, not entirely understanding all the legal terminology or why they were in a box on his doorstep. He carefully broke the wax seal and opened the handwritten letter, unfolding it and began to read:
You faced several choices tonight, but I have one more to offer. In the box are legal documents transferring ownership of the charity to you. You can continue to profit as your predecessor did while helping a few people here and there, or you can change things to benefit more families in situations such as your own. Depending on your choices, perhaps we will meet again this time next year. I could always use some help decorating my tree.
Thomas put the papers back in the box and closed it in disbelief. Slowly, warm tears rolled down his cold cheeks. Things were going to change—finally. He could hardly wait until morning to let his family know that he was going to make a difference, even if he didn’t know much of the details yet.
He stood, then looked down at the box in his hands, letting his thumb slowly caress the wood grain. The feeling of the wood jostled something in his memory and he thought back to the ornament on the tree, realizing why he recognized the face. Then his face twisted in confusion as he wondered, ‘But why would Cain have an ornament with the face of the old CEO on it?’
Jeremy and Nathan from The Storage Papers would like to wish everyone a happy holiday season. We hope you are able to spend quality time with friends and family, and have the opportunity to make a difference in your community for those who can’t. You can volunteer your time with local organizations for a variety of causes, or use websites like charitywatch.org to find a charity to donate to that you know uses money to support their stated mission, like the following with A ratings from Charity Watch:
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
- The Trevor Project, whose goal is to end suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) and questioning young people.
- Coalition for the Homeless
- Action Against Hunger
- RAINN, who carries out programs to prevent sexual violence, help victims, & ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice; and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline & the Department of Defense Safe Helpline.
And many more amazing causes to make a difference in the world. As always, the choice is yours.