Unit B212. That’s where they sent us. My mother sent me because I’m 19 years old and “have the energy”. My cousin Naomi is here for the same reason. Although she’s 20. Her mom and my mom are sisters, and apparently they have the same ideas about youth, our unlimited energy, and naiveté when it comes to free physical labor.
Our great-grandmother passed away at age 95 last week. This storage unit was hers, and had to be cleaned out by the end of the month or they would lock it and make our family pay a huge fee to open it back up again only to clean it out anyway.
After opening the padlock, Naomi and I yanked up on the metal roll-up door. A puff of stale air wafted out, along with plenty of dust. The unit was jammed to the doorway with cardboard boxes and furniture. We rented a cargo van and were told to sort through the entire space and take what we wanted to keep. We would have to come back tomorrow to throw away what we didn’t want. Our instructions weren’t clear, but it seemed like nobody in our entire family wanted to get stuck with this detail.
In contrast to the hot summer day, the storage unit was cool and sort of inviting. It was on the 2nd floor inside a huge warehouse. Wide concrete floors meandered like a labyrinth, granting access to the units. And a large elevator descended to the ground floor, just a few yards from a door. We backed the van right up to that door. With the giant rolling carts, this job might be easier than we anticipated.
In no hurry, we started by dragging the first stacks of boxes out and skimmed through them to see if anything valuable lay inside. There were lots of books, papers, documents, and knick-knacks in the first few boxes. Then, I came to one labeled “Samil”.
Inside was an old Canon SII camera on top of manila envelope. Beneath the envelope were several certificates and awards for various articles, poems, stories, and photographic essays my great-grandmother had composed over her long career as a photojournalist. Accompanying the camera was a small collection of pictures of my great-grandmother at her 18th birthday party. They were black and white. She wore a pretty dress.
In the first photo, a handsome slender man holding a plain dark box with a bow stood next to her. He was handing it to her when someone snapped the photo.
The date on the bottom right corner of the photo read May 12, 1946. On the back, she had written in faded black ink, “Thank you Samil.”
There was a small black notebook under the stack of papers. It had a plain cover, no writing or pictures. When I put the book back inside the box, a single slip of paper slid out. It read, “Samil Romero is the rightful owner of the Canon S II camera. Please return to his possession to nullify the curse.”
“Hey, Naomi. Look at this.”
I handed her the note, and she read it twice with bulging eyes. “Curse? What do you think that means?”
I shrugged and said, “You ever see this guy? The one giving her the box?”
She shook her head. We thumbed through the rest of the pictures. He was in every single one. She looked radiant and full of joy. Samil stood next to her, beaming with pride at her alacrity.
I turned my attention to the next unopened box labeled “Pictures 1940-1950”. I sat down on the cool concrete and pulled out a stack of black and whites.
Naomi saw me and said, “Hey, you’re not getting paid to sit on the floor.”
I laughed and said, “We’re not getting paid at all. Come over here, you gotta see these.”
The pictures showed our ancient relatives at parties, all dressed to the nines, with drinks in their hands. The hairstyles were terribly dated, noticeably different from modern times. As was the fashion. Classy and well put together, though.
“There he is again. I don’t ever remember hearing about him before. Do you?”
She shook her head.
An hour slipped by as we studied the stacks of photos. It was amazing how diligently our ancestors documented their lives through photography back then. Exact dates printed on every photo.
Amazingly, great-grandma’s photos were stacked chronologically. Four more boxes held hundreds of pictures, spanning the decades right up to 2022.
The third box I came across held a stack of magazines with certain pages tabbed. They were brilliant visual spreads in Life magazine, National Geographic, Vogue, and Popular Mechanics, among others.
“Mike, look at this. She even kept notes on this stuff!”
She held open a section in the middle of a 1947 Ladies Home Journal. There was an amazing winter landscape scene accompanying a poem by Margaret Anderson (great-grandma) called A Winter Lesson. A handwritten note on a piece of lined steno paper read, “My first winning photo in March 1947. The Badgley-Patterson prize for photography. Thank you Samil!”
There were certificates of achievement and awards stuffed into the pages of all sorts of magazines. Great-grandma had written articles and submitted astonishing photographs of many historical events over the decades. She covered the Korean War, Vietnam, Rosa Parks, the JFK assassination, the Malcolm X assassination, and seemingly hundreds of others.
As the morning dragged on, we continued sifting through stacks of photographs. I began to notice a pattern, and wondered if Naomi saw it too.
“Hey, did you notice that Samil guy is in a lot of these pictures?”
She looked up at me with a hint of apprehension in her eyes. “Yeah, I’ve seen him in a lot of these. Did you notice anything weird about him?”
Nodding, I said, “Yep. He doesn’t seem to age. Look at this stack from the late 1960s. I swear, this guy looks exactly the same as he did when great-grandma was a teen.”
She quietly said, “Maybe he ages well. I mean, great-grandma was only forty, and she looked great!”
“Yeah, but you can tell she’s forty. Look at this old one again, the one where he’s giving her the camera. Great-grandma is 18 here. How old do you think he looks?”
Shrugging, she said, “I don’t know, in his thirties. He’s got most of his hair, he’s thin, in great shape. No lines on his face. Yeah, I’d say he’s 33 or so.”
Shoving a picture from 1969 showing great-grandma accepting an award from a tuxedo-wearing gentleman on a stage, I said, “And how about here? How old does he look?”
Samil stood behind great-grandma, grinning devilishly as she gave a half-hearted smile.
Naomi thought for a moment, then said, “Ok, yeah. I’d say he was probably about 33 in this picture. But how is that possible?”
I grabbed another stack, blowing right through the 70s and into the 80s. Color photos on square paper, with the dates still printed in the bottom right corners. I saw my grandparents and parents in these pictures, and of course great-grandma.
There was an entire envelope of pictures from June 4th, 1983. It was an 8th grade graduation party for our Uncle Drew. He was a few years older than my and Naomi’s mothers, but we recognized our respective mothers wearing matching blue terry-cloth dresses. They were six years old in the picture. Often wearing matching outfits at family gatherings, until they got old enough to pick their own clothes.
The photo was taken in Uncle Drew’s childhood backyard. There was a huge concrete patio, and in the back there, sitting on a flimsy folding chair holding a glass with brown liquor was Samil. He wore black pants, a short sleeve button up shirt, and a wildly charming grin. Great-grandma sat next to him, frowning. She was clearly in her mid-50s.
Pointing at Samil, I said, “See? There he is again.”
She thought for a second, then said, “I don’t remember ever meeting him. I mean, I never really paid attention. I suppose he could’ve been around, but why wouldn’t anyone tell us who he was?.”
Ignoring her question, I asked, “And how old do you think he is in this one?”
Naomi shuddered. I felt a chill run up my spine.
She whispered, “33. Maybe older?”
Shaking my head, I said, “He hasn’t aged a day since 1946. That’s almost forty years! Who is this guy?”
Poring through more boxes now, we had papers and photos stacked on the concrete floor outside the storage unit now. Boxes stacked against the far wall with pages sticking out from all sides.
Naomi stood next to a stack of four boxes, the top one with its lid on the ground. She peered inside with wide eyes.
Waving her hand at me, she said, “Get over here, Mike. You gotta see this shit.”
It was the thick book with a blank black cover underneath the old Canon camera. It felt like either leather or some other animal hide.
Inside the book, starting on the very first page, was a list. A list of historical events. Beginning with the end of World War II on May 8th, 1945. There were red checkmarks next to many of the events. But as I flipped to later decades, I saw fewer and fewer red checkmarks.
There were large photos in an album, showing great-grandma accepting awards throughout the decades. Certificates documented the awards, illustrating great-grandma’s prestigious career. I noticed an odd pattern though. As great-grandma grew older, and her hair styles changed along with her dress, she seemed to grow more unhappy. Each decade brought her closer to the inevitable demise of her career shortly before she died.
Naomi noted this too and said, “Did you hear about how great-grandma used to talk about her death?”
I nodded. “Yeah. My mother told me she knew the exact day she was going to die. She told her kids and grandkids. There are like a dozen or more people who could verify it.”
Naomi added, “Do you think it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, or did she really know?”
Shaking my head slowly, I said, “I don’t know. But why is that guy, Samil, always looming in these photographs? And look at this one from 2017. Not a day over 33, wouldn’t ya say?”
Naomi put her hand over the photo, pushing it away.
We noticed we had dug about halfway through the storage unit. Boxes stacked like brick towers littered the hallway outside.
As I flipped through the list of historical events, I saw there were still several pages with events listed after the page for 2022.
I tugged on Naomi’s sleeve and shoved the book in front of her. She held a manila envelope that held what appeared to be a single thick document.
“Why do you think great-grandma had this list of historical events? I know she wrote articles and took pictures of a lot of these events. But isn’t it weird she would keep a list of those events? I mean, she could find all of this on the internet. Or in a history book.”
Naomi ran her fingers over the book’s pages and said, “How old do you think this book is?”
I glanced at the font on a random page and said, “Pretty old. Probably from the 1950s, wouldn’t you say?”
Staring at me with wide eyes, she said, “How would a book from the 1950s have world events that didn’t even happen yet?”
The tumblers fell into place. I sat down hard on the concrete floor with my mouth hanging open.
Naomi continued, “Look, the last few pages list events from 2024, and all the way to 2040! What is this thing?”
She dropped the book as if it were on fire. I grabbed it and flipped to the last pages.
My eyes settled on an event dated November 15, 2025. It indicated a 8.9 earthquake would hit off the coast of Japan, resulting in a tsunami that would reach California. Unable to comprehend the horror of such a prediction, I let the book fall from my hands.
Sounding as if she were far away, I heard Naomi say, “Oh shit.” She slid the document inside the manila folder out and sat down next to me.
Written in elaborate black script was a contract. The lettering was large and only a few lines, but the words will haunt me until I die. Maybe longer.
On This the 12th Day of May, 1946, it shall be decreed that Lady Margaret Anderson of Mechant Lake, IL and Gentleman Samil Romero of Banbury, Oxfordshire have entered into a Contract for bartered items, payable upon completion of said agreement at a time of each party’s choosing.
Gentleman Romero offers (1) Canon S II camera.
Lady Margaret Anderson offers (1) eternal soul.
This Contract, per the parties’ signatures below, is executable neither before nor after the agreed upon date of August 6, 2022, year of her lord.
Below were two signatures written in red ink. Samil’s and Margaret’s.
Naomi stared at me and said, “That’s the day she died. And who the fuck signs over their eternal soul?”
“Don’t you see? Great-grandma got the camera in exchange for the promise to give her soul over to this Samil guy. She probably didn’t even think it was real. She probably thought this guy was nuts! I mean, who believes in that shit? She got a camera. But what happened after she got the camera?”
With the reality dawning in her eyes, Naomi said, “She started wining all those awards. She was famous. For decades! And that guy, Samil. Who the fuck is he? Why is he just hanging around in all those pictures, never aging? She knew, didn’t she? It was the camera. She knew if she just took the pictures and wrote the stories using that list of historical events, she would be rich and famous.”
Nodding, I added, “And when she got older, she knew it was real. The contract. She probably didn’t believe it when she signed it, but when she started having all that success, she knew there was no going back. That’s why she looks so unhappy as she got older. And how she knew when she would die. Oh my God, this is crazy! How can this be real?”
Just then, we heard a knock on the wall next to the open door, and we both screamed in surprise.
“Knock-knock! Sorry if I frightened you.”
A tall slender gentleman stepped into the storage unit. Naomi and I stood up and recognized him immediately. He had a severe British accent, charming. Not cockney, but a real nobleman. He wore an equally charming grin with a charismatic and confident expression that offered not a shred of malice.
He shook our hands, and we stared at him in awe. Instantly mesmerized.
He said, “I am Samil Romero. I knew your great-grandmother very well.”
His smile disappeared, and his face grew solemn. With his hands clasped at his belt, he quietly said, “I am terribly sorry for your loss. I heard she passed just last week. I do hope you and your family can find peace knowing she lived a fruitful life.”
Naomi and I looked at each other, then back at Samil. If I had to guess, I’d say he was 33 years old. Not a day older.
With courage I couldn’t muster, Naomi held out a picture from 1952 and pointed at the man we assumed was Samil. As if in a daze, she said, “Is this you?”
Samil cocked his head back and laughed lightly. Looking at her with a playful grin, he said, “What do you think?”
Barely above a whisper, I said, “What do you want?”
“Ah yes, I am intruding. I shall be on my way in a moment. By any chance, have you come across an old Canon S II camera? I loaned it to your great-grandmother ages ago, and I have come to collect it. It’s a very important family heirloom, and I do hope you will be able to part with it.”
Naomi and I moved aside, allowing him to saunter toward the box with camera. He scooped it up and headed back toward the hallway with a smile. Just as he was about to glide away, he spun around with a flourish and pulled a business card from his coat pocket.
As he held it out to me, I noticed it simply had his name, Samil Romero, in raised black lettering on the front. It was an eloquent script. I ran my fingers over the letters, feeling them as if they were alive.
Naomi glanced at the card, then back at him, and said, “What’s the card for?”
With an entrancing laugh, he said, “If you ever need anything, just call me.”