4 - Loading Up

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"Hey. Can you start loading up the van?" Liz spoke before Nat had fully reached her side. Her gaze was settled on the gloomy interior of the freshly-won storage unit, squinting very hard as if trying to see something far away. 

Nat tried to follow her gaze, but saw nothing. 

"Okay, sure." Nat stood behind her wife, peering over Liz's shoulder, trying to get a feel for what was in there, how much space it might take. She saw boxes, a vague shape under a tarp, some jumble of dark shapes in the shadowy rear of the unit. "What caught your eye in here?" 

Liz shrugged. "Gut feeling, I guess." Her voice sounded far-off, distracted. There was a long silence before her attention snapped back to Nat, something subtle but tangible shifting in the air around her as if being roused from a daydream.  "There's still a couple units I want to look at and maybe bid on. I'll be back to help load the van."

"Okay." Nat tucked her hair back behind her ears, felt the dampness of sweat at her temples. She could see rivulets of sweat cutting through the dust that had settled at the back of Liz's neck, too, the way the curls at the nape of her neck twisted in on each other, a blonde tangled thatch. She wished that Liz would look at her, but Liz was already starting to move away. "Are you taking Liam with you?"

Liam had wandered, crouching now in the shadow at the edge of the building, collecting pebbles. No one seemed to pay him much mind. Liz glanced distracted in his direction before giving a little half-shrug. She turned at last to look at Nat, and the worry-creases that had formed at the corners of her frowning mouth had gone slack; she smiled, and it spread into her eyes with a blue-gray sparkle that made Nat's heart lurch. A little window back into a different time, a freer time. 

"He's fine.  I won't be too long, I think I got us the big one for the day already." Liz winked, then, a theatrical gesture, and excitement glittered in her eyes as she stepped away from them, disappearing swiftly back into the crowd as it moved toward the next auction. 

Nat sighed and turned toward the storage unit they had just procured. 

No one had been inside yet: That was the way these auctions worked. Liz and the others would have had the chance to view it from the outside, peering in with a flashlight, to try and guess what it may have contained. Standing now at the mouth of the unit, her eyes slowly adjusting to the gloom and its harsh contrast to the brightness outside, Nat got a better idea of what Liz had seen in it. 

Right up front, there was a vintage couch — faded floral pattern, hand-carved mahogany. The upholstery was torn, the wood sun-faded, but with some renovating they might be able to sell it for a thousand, maybe more to the right buyer. Nat ventured inside, looking for smaller items, things she could carry back to the car on her own.

The unit, she decided, must have belonged to another antique lover, or perhaps to some last vestige of old money. Not everything was vintage— there was a mini-fridge and microwave, and stacks of boxes that seemed to be filled with paperwork — but several of the items were quite old. She found a night stand, Louis XV style, the legs carved in shapely bowed angles like the curves of a woman. Behind that, in heavy wooden frames, a set of paintings, unsigned, the usual collection of landscapes with their rich colors and brooding atmospheres. These she reached for and gathered up in her arms, awkwardly, before turning for the van.

She hoped Liz wouldn't make more bids today. They didn't have much space in the back, not if they were going to fit that couch in there with the rest, not with Liam's booster seat taking up real estate in the second row. By the storage facility's auction rules, they only had 24 hours to get the unit emptied and swept out. 

It wouldn't matter how high-quality the items in a unit were if you couldn't get them home, and the idea of making a return trip -- the long drive, the loading and unloading, the heat and the van's busted air conditioner -- settled and soured in her mind like milk left out overnight

But at least a few paintings didn't take up much room. She slid them into position in the rear of the van, careful to turn them face-inward so that the canvas would not be torn, and pulled away to make another trip for boxes and small furnishings.

She rounded the corner, glancing over to where Liam played in the shade.

Stopped. Looked again. He was gone. In his stead, a pile of rocks, like a small cairn. 

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