Our Little Sanctuaries
by Joshua Kamin
My room was at the back of the house. It had cracking paint on the walls and creaking floorboards, and was just big enough to fit a mattress, a swivel chair, and a desk beside the window. I taped a note to the door that read: “Galen’s Room — Do Not Disturb.”
There were other people living in the house, but I didn’t see or hear them much. Nobody bothered me when I was in my room. It was my sanctuary. Its single window looked out over an alley: a crowd of dumpsters, garages and back doors clinging to a narrow lane of disintegrating pavement. Directly across the alley was a squat two-storey brick building, with two second-floor windows facing mine. Neither of the windows had blinds or curtains, and they both looked in on an office space.
Without entirely meaning to, I became a regular spectator of that office’s life cycle. The employees arrived around eight o’clock every morning. There were five of them altogether: three women and two men. I’d see them waking their computers, brewing coffee, eating breakfast. Sometimes all five were slumped at their desks, typing fervently. Other times they wandered and chatted. Occasionally they all left the office together in the evening but, more often, they shuffled out listlessly, one by one, defeated by another day of... whatever they were doing in there. I never saw any of them stay later than seven o’clock.
I’d enrolled in a gruelling timetable that semester: an accelerated double major in literature and philosophy, and a minor in history. No, I didn’t need to do all of that, but what I did need was distraction. Anybody will tell you how important distraction was in those days. As our newsfeeds grew more depraved and our thoughts more erratic, each of us turned to face inward and only inward, until our relationships were all strained and confused. Commonplace interactions, like making direct eye contact or saying hello in passing, became rare and difficult ordeals, even among friends.
But hidden away in my shoddy little sanctuary, I could lose myself in assignments, in books and coffee and essay prompts. And when I needed a distraction from those distractions, I had an endless theatre of quiet human non-drama reiterating itself again and again across the alley, day after day, like clockwork. Except on weekends, of course.
* * *
The men always dressed in charcoal suits over white button-up shirts. Two of the women matched them: white button-up shirts tucked into charcoal pencil skirts.
But the third woman was different. She wore ratty jeans and loose blouses. Her frizzy hair was an ice-blonde typhoon. Occasionally she’d leave the office alone in midday; minutes later, I’d spot her entering the alley and lighting a cigarette.
I remember sitting at my desk, reading a philosophy paper about the nature of fate, when that whisper of tobacco smoke crept in through my open window. I’d come to a passage about Ananke, the Greek goddess of inevitability, who created herself through sheer willpower. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. Setting the photocopied pages aside, I poked my head out the window.
There she was, pacing and smoking in the alley below. As though she was Ananke herself, fallen off the page and into the world.
Ananke. The name stuck. I forgot, sometimes, that I didn’t know her real name.
Some days I set my alarm to wake me before sunrise, to make sure I’d have time to scramble through one last reading before class or polish off an unfinished assignment. I was up late most nights, too, bent over my laptop or poring over printouts, eyes straining through page after page of minuscule font.
It didn’t take long for the boundaries of night and day to collapse. Soon I was skipping sleep altogether, at least a couple times a week. One such sleepless night, as I was wrestling my way through The Myth of Sisyphus, I saw a pale light across the alley. Morning already? But a glance at my laptop told me it was just after 2:00 a.m.
I slammed my laptop shut and switched off the desk lamp. Swaddled in darkness, I crept to the window.
A computer monitor had turned on in one of the office windows. A shadow was hunched over it. I squinted. All I could make out was a silhouette against the glow of the screen, and blue-lit fingers skimming over the keyboard. I couldn’t see a face.
Who are you? An employee catching up on work? A custodian? A thief? A hacker?
I reached to turn my desk lamp on again, but something stopped me just as my groping fingers found the switch.
Don’t be seen.
The darkness coiled around me, and suddenly everything else melted away, my bedroom and the alley outside, the distant city skyline, the cloudy night, all of it was whisked into nonexistence for a moment, just a moment, so that the only thing in the universe was the monitor in the office window, framing the shadowy intruder in digital light.
Then the monitor turned off. I waited, but it didn’t come back on.
Wasn’t I supposed to be reading Camus?
The sun rose. Light flooded the alley. The office windows lit up, the familiar employees trickled in. They made coffee. They chatted. I watched them for signs of suspicion, distress, of something amiss. But none of them seemed particularly worried.
Theory: it was one of them, sneaking in to catch up on work.
* * *
On weekdays my classes kept me on campus until early evening. When I got home, I’d often succumb to temptation and nap for an hour or two. I knew that by doing so I was sabotaging my chance of getting a good night’s sleep but, the truth is, I was enjoying nocturnal life. The uninterrupted hours of solitude, the sense of sharing an intimate secret with this dusty corner of the city.
I stayed up every night that week, eyes peeled for the intruder’s return. My vigilance paid off: the shadow came back a week later. It stayed for several hours, just like the first time, and disappeared before dawn.
Theory: those office windows are more reflective than they appear. I am obsessing over my own replicated image.
I had a small radio, which I listened to at low volume while I worked. The static was soothing and easy to tune out, but hearing other voices made me feel connected to something. And occasionally a story snagged my interest.
“Amanda writing in from Victoria: ‘The headlines just keep getting gloomier. Do you think we can expect anything nice soon? I need good news, and not the religious kind.’
“Well, Amanda, to be perfectly honest with you, a lot of people seem to think it’s just gonna get worse and worse, and then the world’s gonna end.”
It certainly felt that way. In a single week, the news gave us armed uprisings in three different countries, crops failing around the world, suicide rates reaching an all-time global high. The next week was even worse: more terrorists driving trucks through crowds, supercharged hurricanes ravaging the North Atlantic.
“The human race is careening towards maximum entropy,” someone declared on a talk show.
“What happens when we hit maximum entropy?” the host asked.
“We’ll find out soon enough.”
Meanwhile, in the office across the alley, business carried on as usual. The late-night intruder appeared with increasing frequency. By mid-October, I saw that telltale shadow in the office every night.
Personally, I found it reassuring. Amid all the madness consuming the world, the office’s nighttime secret was a thread of incorruptible rhythm. I started cranking my laptop screen to maximum brightness every night, reflecting the light of the intruder’s illuminated monitor back across the abyss, back upon itself.
Theory: the intruder is sitting in that office and unraveling the entire world, slowly but surely, night after night, by the tapping of that keyboard and the drone of that monitor.
* * *
I snuck into the back row of the philosophy auditorium one day, twenty minutes late for lecture, and noticed that the professor — red-faced, grey-haired, tenured Ernesto Monara — wasn’t talking about solipsism, the topic scheduled for the week. He was talking about a chemical attack in Madrid. Somebody had released sarin on buses and metro lines. Eighty-eight casualties and counting. No perpetrators apprehended yet.
Professor Monara showed us coverage of the attack from a few news outlets he deemed adequately professional. Then he calmly told us he’d be returning to his family in Ibiza. He was afraid for their safety. Another professor would step in to finish the term in his stead.
“So farewell, and good luck,” Monara concluded. “It has been an honour to teach you all in this twisted time we find ourselves in, as our fragile world teeters on the edge of chaos. I’ll see you on the other side, whatever that ends up meaning.”
We never saw him again. Never even found out if he made it home. And in the weeks that followed his departure, the news throbbed with fresh violence. A coup d’état in China: hundreds dead. A terrorist attack thwarted in a British airport. Two school shootings, one in Canada, one in the U.S.: dozens killed, students and teachers alike.
* * *
Theory: the nightly intruder is Professor Monara.
I was the only student in the lecture hall, sitting in the very back, gazing over rows of empty seats. A silhouette stood on the podium at the front of the hall.
“What are you doing in that office,” I asked, “where you go at night?”
Monara’s silhouette didn’t speak, but a word appeared on the projection screen behind the podium: CODING.
“Coding?” My voice had no echo, despite the size of the hall and the fact that it was empty. “Coding what?”
The text on the screen changed: A VIRUS IN THE CODE OF HISTORY.
“What does that even...” I broke off. There was nobody standing up on the podium. I was alone in the hall.
The words on the screen changed again: GET OUT BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE.
I woke slumped over my laptop, bandaged in milky sunlight. The keyboard was sticky with saliva. I’d drooled in my sleep.
It was half past noon. I’d missed two classes and was late for my third. I went to the window, stuck my head out and inhaled the autumn chill. I closed my eyes, and opened them to see Ananke standing in one of the office windows. She was smiling beneath her gleaming ice-blonde hair, and staring straight at me.
I ducked back inside.
Theory: Ananke is the nightly trespasser. It has to be her.
I didn’t bother going to campus that day.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Joshua Kamin