Our Little Sanctuaries
by Joshua Kamin
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Theory: the intruder is a writer. And not just any writer: the writer of the universe’s story, controlling all the forces of nature, all the creatures of the earth and the clouds crisscrossing the skies. All of it, the whole show. A puppet master hovering in the shadows, tucked away from the eyes of the crowd, slowly but steadily driving the world insane.
There she was, at the far end of the alley, smoking and pacing. I closed my laptop and hurried outside. It was a bracingly cold evening. My breath shimmered in the air.
I got to the alley just in time to see Ananke exiting it, and followed her onto the street, around to the front of the brick building. She tossed her cigarette to the ground and stamped it out, then punched a code into a number pad next to a set of double glass doors. There was a metallic buzz. She opened one of the doors and slipped inside.
I wasn’t fast enough. I reached the door just as it closed with a soft click. I tugged on the handle. Locked.
The crushed cigarette butt was still smouldering on the asphalt.
The glass doors opened again. One of the charcoal-suited men from the office emerged and brushed past me without a second glance. I slipped inside before the doors closed again.
The lobby was lit by seashell-shaped lights lining the walls just below the ceiling. To my right, a glass door labelled 100 led into a room with ATMs and teller stations. Another door led to a stairwell.
There was a directory beside the stairwell door. I scanned it quickly:
Royal Banking Union — 100
R.B.U. Research and Analytics — 204
Cushing & Mellows Financial Consultation — 205
R.B.U. Currency Exchange — 207
The glass doors opened behind me again. I pretended to study the directory. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the charcoal-suited man go through the stairwell door. I trailed him to the second-floor landing. He went into room 204. Of the doors that opened from the hallway, it was the only one on my right-hand side, the side of the building that looked out on the alley.
204. I recalled the directory. R.B.U. Research and Analytics.
The door to room 204 opened again, and I found myself face-to-face with Ananke. She froze. “You lost?” she said. She smelled like cigarettes.
“Uh... yeah.” I couldn’t look her in the eyes. “Er. Just looking for the washroom?”
Ananke’s eyes narrowed. She pointed down the hall. “Last door on the left.”
“Thanks.” I escaped down the hall to the men’s washroom. It had three stalls and a urinal. The furthest stall had an OUT OF ORDER sign on it, and was locked from the inside.
I crawled under the door and stood up inside the locked stall. The toilet lid was down. I sat on it, drew my knees to my chest, wrapped my arms around my knees, and ceased to exist.
* * *
Light faded from the frosted windows. I stifled my breathing as people passed through the bathroom, leaving behind the worst of themselves to keep me company. A custodian mopped the floor. He kicked open the doors of the other two stalls, but ignored the out-of-order one.
Finally I was alone in the darkness. It worked. I checked the time on my cell: 8:40. It actually worked.
I crawled back out of the stall and found my way to the door. Cracking it open, I peered out. The hallway was dead silent. The only light came from an EXIT sign at the far end.
Bent double, I crept to the door labelled 204. I tried the handle. Locked.
I thought of my bedroom just across the alley, a few yards away at most. But I knew that if I left now, I would never set foot inside this building again.
I leaned against the wall, and found myself shoving my way through a seething crowd. Ananke’s face leapt out from the crush of bodies on all sides, grinning toothily from beneath the hoods of strangers. I tried to fight my way to the edge of the crowd, but inexplicably found myself in front of it. A few feet away from me was a line of protesters, their faces hidden behind ski masks. One of them screamed into a megaphone:
“We are complicit in our planet’s destruction! We are all complicit!” The mask’s empty eye-holes roved over the crowd before finally settling on me. “You!” she shrieked. She was striding toward me. “You can’t pretend you have nothing to say!” She stopped right in front of me, thrust her megaphone at me, but I refused it. It clattered to the ground at my feet.
I woke on the floor of the darkened hallway with my head pressed into the carpet. I sat up in alarm, glanced around frantically. I was still alone. My phone said it was almost one o’clock in the morning.
Had I really slept like that, completely undisturbed with my face in the carpet, for four hours?
Theory: it’s all a dream. A dream I can’t wake from. Does that mean I’m dead?
* * *
A whisper of movement at the far end of the hall: a shadow passing through the glow of the EXIT sign. The door of 204 opened. I rose to my feet. At the end of the hall, I could distinguish the unmistakable shape of a person from the rest of the darkness.
A pale hand beckoned to me, red in the light of the EXIT sign.
The door of 204 closed.
Theory: the intruder is a god, and I’ve been chosen to be its prophet.
I raced down the hall, not bothering to stifle the thudding of my footsteps. The door handle turned in my hand. I yanked it open. And there was the intruder, silhouetted against that shimmering monitor.
“Ananke?” I blurted.
A woman’s voice, sultry and raspy: “Excuse me?”
“Um.” Uh oh. “Never mind.” How was I so unprepared for this moment? “Do you, um... do you work here?”
The intruder chuckled darkly. “My sister does.”
I squinted at her. Who are you? “I’ve seen you coming here,” I said. “Just about every night since the end of September. The earliest I saw you was 1:52 AM.”
A flash of white teeth in the gloom, the ghost of a grin. “What’s your name, stranger?”
I swallowed loudly. “Galen.”
“I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, Galen. Really.” She had an odd way of speaking, simultaneously urgent and languid. “I’m Dylan.”
We both fell silent. Isn’t that a boy’s name? She was looking at me expectantly. I had to say something intelligent.
“So what are you doing here? What have you been doing here?”
“Maybe this whole time I was just waiting for you to come visit me.”
My breath caught.
“Maybe I thought,” Dylan continued, “that I could lure you over by perfectly imitating you.” She jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “The prospect of a kindred soul, you know?”
“A kindred soul?” My gaze followed her gesture through the window, across the alley to the mouth of my darkened bedroom. “I, uh... this is getting a little confusing, isn’t it? What do you do, exactly?”
“Well...” — Dylan wavered — “to some people I’m a social alchemist.”
“A social alchemist? What’s that?”
“It means I take something worthless, and often toxic, and turn it into gold. But instead of working with metal, I work with people.”
“Look, it doesn’t matter what either of us does, or is. What matters is that we’re both here in this room right now.” She beckoned me closer. “Do you want to know a secret, Galen?”
I approached her, magnetized. She looked so much like Ananke, only more... spectral. Her skin was pale, imprinted with fine spiderwebbing wrinkles. Her short jet-black hair had seams of silver in it.
“You can’t rat me out,” she whispered. “Promise?”
“Good. For the last couple of months, I’ve been planting false data deep within this bank’s archives. The process is virtually untraceable. The trade-off is that it takes a long time to do it properly. And tonight is my deadline to get it done.”
She licked her lips. “We’ve come to a pivotal moment in history, Galen. A turning point. Sometime in the next eighteen hours, the evidence I’ve planted will bring the entire Royal Banking Union toppling down, along with several other corporations they’ve just merged with.”
I crafted my response carefully: “What makes this a pivotal moment in history?”
Even in the gloom I could see Dylan’s eyes gleam with excitement. “It’s the revolution. The uprising of the eternal underdog. A complete and thorough overturning of civilization. We’re long overdue for it. Now it’s here, and not in some far-off, hypothetical tomorrow: today, Galen, the world changes. The collapse of the Royal Banking Union will be the first of many dominoes to topple.”
“Are you saying... are you predicting the future?”
“Not at all. This is the present, and it’s real.”
“And... and what if I called the cops on you right now?”
The challenge in my voice caught me by surprise, but Dylan didn’t flinch. “The dominoes will fall regardless,” she said. “It’s too late to stop it. So it would be a bit of a waste, wouldn’t it, if you called the cops?”
“Listen. There’s a bus leaving the city this morning. It goes from 29th and Sapiens Street at quarter to six. I intend to be on this bus. You can come, if you want.”
“I said you can come with me if you want.”
“Come with you where?”
That whisper of white teeth against the darkness again, like the darkness itself was grinning. “Somewhere remote,” she said, “and safe. You could call it a sanctuary of sorts, hidden in one of the last truly green places on the planet. And I mean true green: forests, rivers, meadows. Far from violence and politics. Far enough from civilization that we won’t be too shaken up by its collapse. There’ll be others there with us, friends. Not too many, but a decent bunch.”
Her stare latched onto mine. I couldn’t look away.
“We’ll watch from a distance as the world tears itself apart, as the unstable power systems corrupting our planet cannibalize themselves. Centuries from now, history books will call it something like the Great Fall, or the Big Reset, the Cataclysm, something like that. My colleagues and I have planted the seeds. It begins today. It could last months, or years, or a lifetime, or ten lifetimes. We have to be prepared to hide and wait. But we won’t be idle. We’ll spend the time bettering ourselves.”
“Yes. With books, exercise, healthy food, conversation, community... and once the Cataclysm ends, we’ll re-emerge, and rebuild.”
“But how... how do you know for sure you’ll be safe?”
“It’s impossible to guarantee complete safety. But think of it this way: even if our little sanctuary gets bombed into the dirt, we’ll die representing a decent way of life, instead of a barbaric one. I think that will mean something. Don’t you?”
Our little sanctuary. My head was spinning. “And I’m just supposed to take your word that all of this is true?”
“Yes.” Dylan nodded. “You’ve been searching for this for a long time, Galen. Haven’t you? It’s the reason you became obsessed with a shadow in a window. It’s the reason you’re here now. You’re looking for something better than what this world has told you is in store. You’re looking for the way out.” She turned her back to me and resumed typing. “Northwest corner of 29th and Sapiens. 5:45 a.m. That’s in three and a half hours. Don’t be late.”
* * *
How long did I stand there impotently in the dark, just staring at her head and shoulders silhouetted against the monitor? I had so many more questions, but the tempo of her typing warned against interruption.
I went home. By the time I got to my room, the light in the office window had gone out.
Hours later, I rounded the corner onto Sapiens Street. The November sun hadn’t risen, but through gaps in the mist I could see the sky getting lighter. 5:43, my watch said.
Was that her, leaning against the bus stop? My heart fluttered. Pale skin, short black hair threaded with silver. “Dylan!” I called, but she didn’t look up. I was still half a block away.
A police car pulled up to the bus stop. The siren didn’t sound, but the roof-lights flared, the doors burst open and three cops swooped out into the mist and surrounded Dylan, blocking my view of her. I heard handcuffs tightening. One of the cops was reciting her rights.
Dylan’s plaintive cry cut through the fog: “You’ve got it wrong!”
My throat was a closing valve, my heart a jackhammer. I sprinted toward the bus stop and lunged into the triangle of cops, steadied myself on Dylan’s shoulder—
No, I didn’t really do that. But for a moment I could have sworn I was about to.
The cops shoved Dylan into the back of the car and piled in, shut the doors and drove off into the mist. Erased. Just like that.
The strings of some unseen puppet master carried me the rest of the way to the bus stop. The bus arrived less than a minute later. “Well?” the sour-faced driver barked at me. “You coming or what?”
As I boarded the bus, my mind flew to the classes I would miss, the assignments I would never finish, the degree I would never claim. I dropped coins into the ticket dispenser until the driver was satisfied. The doors closed behind me.
I was the only passenger on board. I sat at the very back, leaned my head against the window and shut my eyes as the bus trundled through the fog. I saw Dylan in the back of that police car: fists balled, teeth clenched, but smiling vengefully, her eyes gleaming in triumph. The dominoes will fall regardless, she had said. I prayed she was right.
Not in some far-off, hypothetical tomorrow: today, Galen, the world changes.
The fog lifted as the bus left the city and merged onto the highway. “Where you going, kid?” the driver called from the front of the bus.
“I’ll know when I get there,” I answered.
Copyright © 2017 by Joshua Kamin