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••• The International Writers Magazine: On Locks and Doors - Archives

Seven Hours
• Tyrel Nelson


“It’s difficult for me to say this, but final team meeting adjourned!” I exclaim.

Smiles fill the lunchroom. Applause echoes down the corridors of the community center. While we clap in unison, I beam with pride at the ten Pioneers. For a week the seven ladies and three gents plodded through planting projects across the White Earth Indian Reservation. And the expressions on their faces show me that they, too, are satisfied with the mark they have left on northwestern Minnesota.

Despite a four-hour drive to Minneapolis in the morning, I stay up late because it’s my last evening with the college group. I lose to the girls repeatedly in basketball. I lose to a future Navy SEAL in a race. I somehow win a couple games of pool. Eventually saying goodnight, I inch to the locker room. May 19 becomes May 20. Weak from a week of being on twenty-four seven, I almost snooze under the showerhead.

I still have to lock the game room before hitting my sleep sack. Returning to the commissary for my keys, I make for the adjacent storage room. But after trying the handle, I’m not sure if I can handle what I think has just happened—not this late anyhow. In disbelief, I give it another shot. Oh no. I set my toiletry bag and towel on a nearby table. Grasping the knob tightly with both hands, I tug as hard as I can, but it’s to no avail. I turn around. I put my hands atop my head. My bloodshot eyes stare into the dimly lit dining hall of the rec center. I picture my keys on one of the aluminum chairs in the depository, which is where I have bunked for the past several evenings. In fact, apart from the T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops I don, all of my things are on the other side of that damn door. An awful feeling brews in the pit of my stomach. It’s 12:30am, and I know my night is just getting started.

I make tracks through the neighboring kitchen. I tear to the passage behind the storage area. The rear access is immovable too. I take many trips to the scullery for knives, hoping to MacGyver into the room by sliding a blade in the crack between the knob and jamb. Nothing works though. Out of ideas, I enter the shadowy gymnasium.

All lights are off. I don’t want to wake the undergrads, so I patter over the parquet to their teacher. I tap him on the shoulder.

“Nick,” I whisper. “Nick.”

His eyes open wide with surprise.

“Can I use your phone?”

“Uh,” he utters with confusion. “Sure.”

Yawning, he offers me his mobile, and I sneak back to the front.

In the mess hall, it hits me that the local contacts are on my phone, which is resting on my unreachable pillow. And of course I don’t have any digits memorized. I’m about to bother Nick a second time when the sight of our white passenger van, visible by way of the cafeteria windows, catches me. My team leader materials are tucked in one of the slots of the driver door. Perhaps I didn’t lock that door. I bolt.

I shove the front entry open, and the 30-degree temps almost shove me back inside. I scamper to the driver’s side of the Ford Transit. It’s unlocked! I snatch my three-ring binder and rush to the lunchroom.

I first call SB, the individual in charge of the building. I leave a message. I also text him. Next, I dial the non-emergency number of the police. The guy on the line doesn’t know what to do. He asks for my (Nick’s) digits and promises to call if he figures something out. The apathy in his voice, however, convinces me that we’ll speak no more. I decide to revisit the gym.

Nick is soon brainstorming with me in the commissary. He Googles locksmiths on his cell. Unfortunately, the nearest is twenty-five miles away, closed until 6:30am. I dial nonetheless, but only get voicemail. Nick then trails me to the rear corridor, researching methods to undo security hinges. I reattempt to break into the depository with a variety of cooking utensils. I proceed to drag a chair over, stand on it, and lift the ceiling tile above me. Maybe I can scale the wall. I immediately learn, though, that the cement partition reaches the roof. Stepping down, I ask Nick if I can keep his mobile in case SB calls. Nick nods. I thank him for his help and suggest he nod off. He rapidly reappears with a blanket, and then turns in for good.

I dart for the rec room. Unlike the hard plastic seats in the mess hall, the ones in the parlor at least have fabric. But a folding metal gate blocks access to the lounge via the complex’s central foyer. So I hustle out the front door, move left, and sprint a hundred feet to the first set of double glass doors. One positive about leaving the master in my room is that there was no way for me to secure this wing.

Eager to languish in the lounge for a bit, I pull three chairs together, and lay across them. I curl beneath my quilt. I try SB again. I get the answering machine again. It’s around 2:30. I set an alarm for six. I set the phone on the pool table. My lids get heavier and heavier.

Grating pops my peepers open a couple hours later. I practically have a heart attack when I see a disheveled intruder glaring at me. His stocking cap stops just above his eyes. He’s grabbing the bars of the folding gate.

“You need to lock the front door!” he scolds.

“I can’t!” I snap back. “Do you have keys?!”

The drifter, who is swimming in his jacket and jeans, floats down the hall with no response. He veers right, disappearing into the gymnasium.

I leap to my feet. I burst outside and run to the main entry. It won’t budge! I pound and pound on the glass, yet no one comes. I start to shiver. My athletic tee and shorts are inadequate. Panic sets in. I realize that I must go to the game room ASAP. If the stranger latches those doors before I get back indoors, I’ll freeze … either among the nearby cedar trees or in a van with no heat. I hotfoot it. I burst through the double glass doors merely seconds ahead the boogeyman rounding the corner. Standing in the vestibule, I poke my noggin back outside.

“Can you please open the front door?” I huff.

“I don’t have keys.”

“How did you lock it then?”

“From the inside,” he replies sharply.

He must have barred the entrance after entering, and then exited the edifice by means of the gym.

“Do you know who has the key?”

He shakes his head.

“You trapped me in here,” I assert. “How am I supposed to get to the rest of the building?!”

“Well, you’re gonna have to wait for someone.”

He walks to his idling pickup close by. He speeds away without hesitation.

It’s 4:50, and my adrenaline is pumping. No chance I’m sleeping now. I cancel my alarm. I pace around the parlor, trying SB a few more times. He finally answers at 5:40.

SB, who looks more a long haul trucker than a maintenance man, arrives half an hour later. He isn’t mad that I’ve left his skeleton in the storage area, yet he is confused by my report of the nocturnal visitor. He doesn’t know anyone fitting my description of the decrepit dude.

“RRI Security must send him here to check on things,” SB concludes.

He removes the padlock from the metal gate. We follow the main corridor to the storage room. He goes directly to the rear hall. He takes a stab at the back access with the kitchen knives I’ve already used. He glances at the ceiling tiles. He faces me.

“Already thought of that,” I admit.

He hurries to his pickup truck and returns with a hammer. He drags a chair over, sits on it, and tries with all his might to pry the door with the claw. He slouches in disgust. Getting up, he approaches me, and raises the hammer as if to strike me.

“Come here!” he jokes. “I’m gonna call Ted. Hopefully he’s awake.”

A rusty minivan pulls up at twenty to seven. Ted, who sports a buzz cut and overalls, enters the building. SB points to the storage room. Ted saunters over, reaches in his pocket, and instantly opens the depository with his master. He grins at me.

“There you go,” the janitor states with a smirk.

“You’re lucky he lives close,” SB adds from across the cafeteria.

Ted and SB engage in small talk. A few gals suddenly emerge, squinting through the sand in their eyes. They are lugging their backpacks, sleeping bags, and deflated air mattresses. They are ready for the ride to Minneapolis.

“Ty, why haven’t you changed yet?” one of them inquires.

She is puzzled because, all week long, I’ve been prepared for each day well before anyone else.

“Long story.”

I quickly thank Ted and SB. I zip to my room. We are to leave soon, and I have to change, pack, and help load the van. It’s quarter to seven, and my adrenaline is still pumping.

I’m the only one inside forty-five minutes later. Like the surprise guest had done earlier, I secure the entrance, and exit via the gym doors at the rear of the facility. A sidewalk leads me around a corner. I pass the lounge. The packed van awaits me.

I climb in. I look at Nick, who is riding shotgun. He can tell I’ve had a hell of a night.

“Thanks a lot for the blanket and phone.”

“Happy to help.”

I turn the key. I put my hands atop the wheel. My bloodshot eyes stare into the dark dining hall of the rec center. I breathe deeply into the pit of my stomach. It’s 7:30am—last night never ended—and my four-hour drive is just getting started.

© Tyrel Nelson June 2017

tyreln at

Headed for the Devil’s Nose
Tyrel Nelson

The northbound coach charges into the night. Not a word can be heard; the roaring of the motor provides the soundtrack to an otherwise silent ride.

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