A short story
It was the first day of the month, and the cold air has settled in. I just moved into a new apartment close to the university I’m attending; and everything seems to be going well as I expected.
A few blocks from here, I got a part-time job at a storage facility as a night watch. I go in at 10 in the evening and leave at 8 in the morning. The pay offered was good for a four-night job per week, Thursdays to Sundays. Considering the schedule of my law classes, this was a great deal for me — the best, perhaps.
The owner, Rick, was my dad’s best friend. When my dad died a few weeks ago, he offered me this job — told me it was time to live on my own and get away from my stepmom, who thinks I shouldn’t be going to law school and should just get a job.
The day I said that I’d be moving out, excitement spread across her face. I was the good riddance she’d been praying for years. She only put on a good show whenever my dad was around. And now that he wasn’t, she could lash out on me whenever she wanted.
I decided I was done with all that, so I left home.
It was around 9 in the evening when I left my new place. Going to the storage facility only took a short walk that I arrived 30 minutes earlier than my shift.
The reception area was rather spacious; however, the pile of huge boxes labeled “FRAGILE” seemed to have taken up quite the space. The front desk was empty, and I didn’t want to litter so I decided to wait for a bit.
“You’re the new guy.” A boy, just right about my age, stood in front of me with a small box in his arms. “Nice to meet you,” he continued. “I’m Matt. You must be August.”
I smiled a straight line and followed him as he placed the box on top of a wooden desk.
“I wasn’t busy so I grabbed a few things that you’ll be needing for your shift,” he said as he opened the box. “Your uniform is here — just a polo shirt, a flashlight, batteries, keys to the main and back doors, and a taser, which I hope you’d never have to use in the future.”
“Wow, thanks,” I said.
Matt gave me a run-through on how things work at the facility. I only have to constantly check the doors, roam around the place, and make sure nothing unusual is happening. That’s it. As long as everything’s in order, I could use the time to study.
Matt left at exactly 10, and then there was only me. Alone.
I decided to change into my uniform and made my first roam around the place. The storages were locked and secured. Some, maybe, have been here for years now, considering how old the padlocks were.
As I was about to take a turn around the corner, I came face to face with a girl who was clutching an unusually thick notepad on her chest.
She shrieked in shock, and the notepad fell to the floor.
“Oh my gosh, don’t do that!” She breathed in fright. A hand covering her eyes, she took a deep breath before looking at me.
“I.. I’m sorry.” I picked up the notepad on the floor and handed it to her. “I thought I was alone at this hour. I didn’t know there’d be somebody else in this shift.”
“You must be August,” she said, now with a smile. “I’m Ashley. And, we’re not on the same shift. I get off at 5 in the morning.”
The first thing I noticed was how pretty her smile was, how it reached her eyes. And her hair was deep black, which was tied into a messy bun, with some strands falling off, detailing her small yet beautiful face.
“So, how’s your first day? Or night?”
And that’s how it all started. Ashley was chatty, but not in an annoying way. I immediately loved that about her.
That night, we talked for hours about anything. Even I was surprised that I got to tell her lots of things about me and my life. I brought up my dad’s recent passing, which she was sympathetic about; and how I moved into the city to pursue my dreams while leaving my stepmom, who never wanted me in the first place and who was glad that I left home.
“Wow. So you’re like the guy version of Cinderalla.” Apparently, the thought amused her. A lot.
“Yeah.” And apparently, I laughed with her too. “The only thing is, I never found a prince to save me from poverty.”
She bickered more.
“Oh my gosh, you’re killing me! Maybe I’m your fairy godmother!”
We laughed and talked, and laughed some more. I was easily myself around her. It surprised me that I could ever be this jolly again — someone who could just throw some jokes here and there.
The last time I felt like this was with my father. He used to drop by my room every single night and we’d talk until I’d fall asleep. He was a busy man, but he always wanted to make time for his son even if it was late. He never missed a night.
Ashley took a glance at the clock on our front desk and got up immediately. “Shoot!” She exclaimed. “I’m not rendering overtime that’s unpaid.” She winked and took her things before heading out.
“See you tonight?” I asked before she walked out.
“You won’t get rid of me that easily, August Bailey.”
And so, it was that. I looked forward to working at the storage facility. Matt would leave as soon as I arrive, and I’d catch Ashley checking on old storage units every single time.
“Look who decided to show up early,” Ashley said with a huge grin which I returned with a huge smile.
She took a step back and asked, “You’re too cheery today — wait, what’s up?”
“I brought you something.”
To her surprise, I brought dinner for the both of us. Not much, but I made it for her.
“Oh my gosh, you cook too.” Her expression was priceless. “What can’t you do?” She immediately sat down and unpacked the food I brought.
“Yes, ma’am, I do know how to cook. I’m quite skillful, you know.” I said with a wink.
“This. Is. The. Best. Lasagna. I. Have. Ever. Tasted.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at her. She took one big bite after another without glancing at me. This girl was definitely something.
“I can cook for you every night, you know. Even for the rest of our lives. You’ll never go hungry with me,” I said.
But she just smiled.
I didn’t know what that smile meant. That smile was different from the smiles we’ve shared. Was I wrong for saying that? Was I way too fast? I mean, I like her. A lot. I really do. And I think she likes me too. I shouldn’t have said it — did I misread everything?
We finished the meal quietly and decided to roam around the facility. She was awfully quiet as we checked one secured and untouched unit to another.
The silence was deafening that I definitely had to say something. But what was I going to tell her anyway? I probably should just shut my mouth and wait for her to speak.
Seeing the confusion drawn across my face, Ashley let out a short giggle.
“I know what you’re thinking.”
She did? “You do?” I replied.
The next thing I knew, she was holding my hand. “Don’t overthink.”
Her touch was warm, and that made me calm. I looked into her eyes and saw her beautiful soul right through it.
We never said anything after that. We walked, and just stayed silent.
The silence was now comforting. I finally understood what it meant to feel close to someone without saying anything. You just have to feel.
As we walked and took a turn to a corner I’ve never been to before, Ashley stopped, frozen in her tracks. Her eyes were filled with fear as she stared at the storage unit in front of her.
Her hands were shaking, and tears trickled down her face. I didn’t know what was happening.
“Ashley, what’s wrong?” I grabbed her shoulders and made her look at me. “Hey, look at me. What’s wrong?”
She didn’t say anything, and continued to sob. She wanted to speak but no words came out. She shook her head as tears continue to fall from her eyes.
Then, I felt her knees weaken, as her body wanted to drop down to the floor. I took her into my arms, and carried her back to the front desk.
Ashley remained quiet for the rest of the dawn. We counted the hours to 5 am, and that’s when she stood, grabbed her things and headed towards the door.
She didn’t say anything. She just left.
A week passed and Ashley never showed up again. I was getting anxious and anxious each passing day. It took me this late to realize that I didn’t have her number nor knew where she lived. The frustration was eating me alive.
One night, I decided to drop by an hour earlier than my shift. Matt was still doing his rounds. When he got back, I decided to ask him what has been bothering me for days.
“Have you seen Ashley, lately? Last time I saw her was last week, and after a strange night she just vanished. She never showed up anymore. Do you know where she is?”
Matt’s face went pale as soon as he heard what I just said.
“Wait, wha —,” he shook his head, carefully choosing the right words to say. “Ashley? You’ve seen her?”
“What? Yeah, we’ve been hanging out. I — I think I kind of low key told her I liked her over lasagna and then she acted all weird, but we fixed that on the same night. She held my hand on hers and the next thing I knew, she stopped dead frozen in front of a storage unit and just went off.”
Matt took a gulp and ducked his head, looking at his shoes. Tears were brimming his eyes as he looked at me again.
“August, uhmm. I don’t know how to say this but, Ashley has been missing for months now. We all think she’s dead, but the search is still ongoing. No one has seen her anymore.”
“What — you can’t rule out a missing person as dead that easily. I — she was here with me. That doesn’t —“
When my dad died, I felt like my body went numb. I couldn’t think straight, I couldn’t even move. It took a while before the news sinked in. It took a while before I cried and bawled.
All that — I felt them again tonight.
Matt insisted that he stayed with me, but I said I wanted to be alone. He also told me how janitors claimed to have seen her, but he never thought I’d see her too.
This was all too much.
I spent the next hours staring blankly into the pile of untouched boxes. I didn’t cry, I didn’t bawl. I didn’t know what to do.
And then I remembered one night, Ashley was trying to check what was in the boxes. She only opened one though. And inside that box was picture frames of dried sunflowers in different sizes. Her eyes widened with admiration and let out a squeal.
“I. Love. Sunflowers.” She was smiling widely as she took out one frame at a time, staring at the intricate details of the sunflowers.
“I’ve always wanted a bouquet of this, you know,” she continued. “They’re just so pretty. Do you know what sunflowers mean?”
I shook my head with a smile, and waited for her to tell me. She knows too much and I like that about her.
“Sunflowers represent warmth, loyalty and happiness. People say these could be great gifts for someone who needs to get their day brightened, or if you want people to know that they give you warmth and joy.”
“That’s interesting,” I replied. “So you agree that roses are overrated?”
She smiled and answered, “Yes. I believe roses are overrated. But there’s beauty in roses as there is in clichés.” She let out a giggle and continued ogling the frames.
It was only then I felt the pang on my chest.
I terribly miss her. All this time, I’ve spent my nights with a ghost — a ghost who’s even more humane and compassionate than any other human being.
I had so many questions that my head started hurting. She was real. I knew it. I touched her. We ate together. Was I having hallucinations? What was happening?
Grief enveloped my body the next day, and the days that came after. Reading articles about Ashely’s disappearance didn’t help either.
I haven’t been eating well like I used too. I feel groggy whenever I went to work. Sleeping wasn’t good either. Then all of a sudden, I remembered the storage unit that made Ashley froze. The picture just flashed right before my eyes.
347. 347. 347…
Adrenaline flushed through my veins, and I knew something was not right about that unit. I had a feeling… I had to go check it out.
On my way to the facility, I called Rick and told him what happened. I don’t know why I just had the feeling that calling him was the right thing to do.
I expected him to call me out for being delusional. But to my surprise, he didn’t. He told me to go ahead, and do what I had to. He told me where the keys were so I could open the unit.
When I arrived, Matt was still packing his things. He was a bit merry tonight.
“I need your help,” I said. I told him everything that I think I know, and he just nodded while he listened. He showed me where the keys to the units were, but 347 was missing.
“No, this can’t be.” I looked at him and saw that he was as confused as I was.
“I’m sorry, August. These are all the keys. I have no idea where 347 is.”
We continued to look, until I found something we can use. I called Matt and he picked the bolt cutter up.
“This is a bit rusty,” he said. “I’ll carry this. You go first, I’ll find some gloves.”
I ran as quickly as I could and found the storage unit. Panting, I never realized how tired I was until that moment. I haven’t been sleeping well because all I ever see in my dreams was Ashley’s bright face. And to never see her smile like that again just ruined me.
I broke into sobs. I shouldn’t be crying now. I have to see what’s in this unit.
“Hey.” I turned and saw Ashley looking at me, a sad smile on her face.
“You figured it out,” she said. Tears were also streaming down her face as she looked at me.
Without any second thoughts, I rushed to her and hugged her tight. I never got the chance to do this and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to, after today.
“I’ll make sure you get the peace and justice you deserve,” I said. I broke our embrace and stared at her face. “We don’t have much time. Who did it? Who killed you?”
Ashley was about to say something but stopped when she saw Matt dragging the bolt cutter on the floor towards us.
“You see, at first I thought you were just gonna let this go — I let you grieve and you know, let you be. I acted like a good friend.” Matt looked different. His eyes were darker; the look on his face that was once jolly was now menacing and dangerous.
I can hear Ashley’s deep yet quickened breaths. I took her hand in mine to calm her down, and Matt started to laugh.
“Haha! So she’s here, huh? Ashley, baby! Why don’t you show yourself to me?”
“Why did you do it? Why’d you kill her?”
Matt thought that my questions were funny, a Joker-like grin still plastered on his face.
He let out a sigh and said, “Took you time to figure things out. For an aspiring lawyer, you’re quite slow.”
I can feel the rage building up inside me. Part of me wanted to beat the sh*t out of him. But Ashley seemed to know what I was thinking and held my hand tighter.
“Don’t,” she whispered.
Matt banged the bolt cutter onto one of the storage units and the loud ringing made me duck.
“You want to know the story? Simple. I wanted her, she didn’t want me. I followed her here, kissed her, she smacked me in the face. I got furious so I choked her — and BOOM! She stopped breathing. What was I supposed to do?”
Anger filled my entire body. The next thing I new, my fist landed on Matt’s face and he staggered backwards, falling to the floor. Tears started flooding down my cheeks as I screamed and lashed out on him, punching his face where a grin was still plastered.
Then I felt arms around me, willing me to stop.
“Please,” said the sobbing voice. “You’re not like him. Stop, August. Stop.” Ashley was holding me back.
I stood and grabbed the bolt cutter. Matt was spitting out blood as he tried to stand up. But he was weak.
Cutting the padlock, I opened the storage.
And there it was.
I fell on my knees as I wept looking at Ashley’s body wrapped in plastic. Never in my life I dreamt of seeing such horror. She didn’t deserve this. She didn’t. No one deserves to be murdered and treated like an animal.
I was lost in my grief that I didn’t notice, out of nowhere, a huge pain in my head made my body drop to the ground. Now, it wasn’t a pool of tears that streamed down my face, but blood.
Matt managed to get hold of the bolt cutter and swung it, hitting the back of my head. Numb and paralyzed, I couldn’t move and I couldn’t breathe.
“August!” I heard Rick’s voice before everything went black. Rick was here. “Stay with me son, stay with me.”
I opened my eyes and saw Ashley sitting right next to me. We were in an ambulance. When I turned, I saw my body being pumped with oxygen, and people were actually trying to bring me back.
“Thank you,” Ashley started. “You saved me, you know. You gave me what I needed.” She held my hands and just stared at them for a while. “But you have to go back. You have a life to live.”
“But I want to go with you,” I replied almost instantly. “Wherever you are is where I wanna be. We could be happy.”
“No, August. Letting you see me, all that you went through for me — all of this is more than enough. Asking you to come with me is robbing you the life that you deserve. I don’t want to steal your future like the way Matt did with mine. Your father would’ve wanted you to reach your dreams.”
I was so confused, my heart felt heavy. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. So much has happened —
“How did all this happen? How? I — I don’t understand,” I croaked.
“There are some things we’ll never understand. Sometimes, we just have to let them be. Knowing everything won’t change what happened.”
I was more than frustrated. What I want is right here in front of me, but I can never have her.
“Promise me,” she continued. “You’ll have a great life.”
It took me a long time to answer, but I nodded. The pain was indescribable. And I was too hurt to speak. I just couldn’t find the right words.
Ashley cupped my face, and kissed me on my forehead. “Goodbye, August Bailey,” she breathed.
Then everything went back to black.
It’s been a month since Ashley’s body was found and given a proper burial. Matt is now paying for his sins in jail, after admitting to everything that he’s done. Rick gave me a break — said I could come back anytime that I want. He has been a father to me these past few days, which I’m really grateful for.
I stared into Ashley’s grave before settling the bouquet of beautiful sunflowers right next to her name. If she were only alive, I would’ve given her beautiful sunflowers every day.
For Ashley, sunflowers meant warmth, loyalty and happiness. She was the sunflower for me. She brought back the warmth that I lost after losing my father. She made me smile and laugh again. brought back the real me.
I still haven’t found the answers to everything, as to how Ashley and I connected. It still doesn’t make any sense. We checked the CCTVs only to find out I was alone from the very beginning.
The night I met Ashley, I was the one carrying the notepad. I finished eating the lasagna on my own. I was the one who opened the box of picture frames with sunflowers.
It was me. It was just me.
DISCLAIMER: The inspiration for this came from an article/blog with a list of writing prompts for short stories. Credits to the owner of that blog, I can’t seem to find you on the internet anymore.