Stranger in Strange Lands

Week 3’s assignment by Amity Gaige for The Craft of Setting and Description is to take one of 3 settings and to write the beginning of a story with care taken to really make the location feel real.

The idea is that a writer – even when writing about a location they’ve never been – can do research and find a way to really feel placed in the location. This can be as simple as knowing that a local custom is to call all convenience stores by the name of one particular brand or saying pop instead of soda.

The 3 settings to choose from were:

  1. A hospital;
  2. A foreign country; or
  3. A blackout.

I choose option 3 and immediately thought of openings like “When you live xxxxx feet below the surface of the ocean, there are a lot of things which can kill you…”

Talking to my sister, I realized that a setting like that is so foreign to the majority of readers that it would be hard to convincingly pull the reader in. Even with carefully crafted details, it could come off little more than the latest sci-fi/horror made-for-television movie.

Instead, I decided to go with a blackout at a storage facility – like Public Storage. I’ve had to spend a lot of time at storage facilities over the years for personal or professional reasons, and I’ve always felt that it was only the fact that it was daytime that kept The Creep Factor from getting to high.

In this case, I do start to head towards some pretty standard horror and suspense, but remember that this is only the beginning of a story, so even I don’t know where this would actually have ended up.

I hope you enjoy it.

Roach Motel

I entered my gate code from memory. After coming to the Public Storage almost weekly for months, I knew it better than my mother’s birthday. The gate jerked then a crank slowly pulled it open. I didn’t wait for it to get more than half way before I drove through.

The parking area was empty, which didn’t surprise me for the time of night. The storage was open until ten o’clock which left me – I checked my phone – thirty-six minutes to get in and find it.

I had to enter my security code again to enter the building and I heard the lock click as the door closed behind me. I looked through the windowed door at my car when I realized I’d left my phone in the passenger seat, but decided it was better to hurry than to go back. No one ever called me anyway.

My locker was on the second floor, so I waited for The Slowest Elevator In The World and took in the combination of dust, mold, and rat droppings that permeated the building. The air was cool but humid enough that I was already starting to sweat.

“Climate controlled bullshit,” I mumbled.

On the second floor, I raced down the right-hand corridor only to have to turn and rush in the opposite direction because all of the halls looked nearly identical. Like long Kubrickian hotel hallways except painted a depressing grey layered over another layer of depressing grey over another layer for decades.

Just as I reached number forty-four, there was a loud click, a smell of ozone, and the lights went out plunging me into pure darkness.

I paused for more than a few seconds while waiting for the lights to come back, but nothing happened.


I felt for the wall and my hands touched the cold metal of the locker roll-up door. The lock rattled and I tried to mentally orient myself.


There was not answer but then the sudden crash of another locker door. The echo bathed my ears as it passed back and forth down the many corridors leaving me unable to tell which direction it came from.

“Who’s there? Do you have a light? I, uh, left my phone in my car,” I said, silently cursing my stupidity. I desperately patted my pockets and even my chest searching for anything which might produce a light and then I noticed the faint glow further down the hall, away from the elevators. It was so faint that I wondered if my eyes were deceiving me – a faint pink of washed out red that could only be an emergency exit sign.

Thanking whoever invented automatic battery back-ups, I slowly felt my way along the wall toward what seemed salvation.

I could’ve run down the hall, if I’d wanted. Just put my arms out to touch each wall in the narrow corridor and sprinted. I knew the floor was clear. It was always clear in places like this. And yet, I still couldn’t overcome my internal fear that I would trip on something.

And then there was another noise. A scrape so loud and sharp that it was like the screech of a hawk. With my head turned toward the light, the echo was different and I could tell the sound came from behind me somewhere, though I couldn’t be sure it was in the same hall.

My fear overcame my internal trip hazard reflex and I stumbled along the wall at a near run.


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