Hallo, you beautiful bastards!
As you can guess from the title, I’m giving you a sneak peek into my newest endeavor: Commonality Sanctum. In this post you’ll get to see the tail end of chapter five and all of chapter six. Keep in mind, this is a draft version, so some things might change down the road. I wanted to share this section, specifically, because it’s very character-driven instead of plot-driven. In other words, you shouldn’t be lost having not seen previous chapters.
So, here we go. I hope you enjoy entering the mind of an ex-cult-member!
Chapter 5 (Claudia Dayo) (Partial)
Friday, July 11, 2025—Present Day
I shot upright, whipping my head around to try to find the source of the mechanical grinding sound. It was coming from the alcove with the books. Michael cut his eyes to me but didn’t bother moving his head.
“It’s the printer,” he explained calmly. I let myself relax a little bit at a time.
“I fell asleep,” I said. The words came out slow. In the compound we were only allowed to sleep at night, and even then we usually didn’t get to sleep the night through. Every few hours we’d be plucked from bed to clean or pray or reflect.
I fell asleep during the day. My skin felt cold.
“I’m sorry,” I said. Fear rose from the pit of my stomach in waves. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep. It won’t happen again.” I could feel myself shrinking back into the cushions of the couch and I couldn’t stop it. It was such an ingrained response. If you sleep when you’re not supposed to, you get beaten. If you eat when you’re not supposed to, you get beaten. If you speak when you’re not supposed to …
“Claudia,” Michael said. He half stood, turned towards me, his arms out, hands getting close. I would’ve screamed. I almost did. He was so quick, though. One minute he was hovering over me and the next he had my face pressed against his shoulder with one hand, the other holding my legs as he cradled me in his lap.
He was so gentle. I cried. I think from relief.
I cried and he held me and whispered against my hair, his deep voice rumbling through me.
Chapter 6 (Michael Alvis)
Friday, July 11, 2025—Present Day
The response had been automatic. I regretted it the moment she was in my arms. Catharine had been nightmare prone. I’d held her like this so many times before, when she’d wake up crying or scared. The thought made me want to push Claudia away. Holding her felt wrong. She wasn’t Catharine.
Claudia must have felt me tense. She looked up at me with watery eyes and chocked out an apology in a voice thick with tears. I tried to relax. I pushed her head back to my chest. I didn’t want to look at her. I didn’t want to upset her further either, so I held her until she stopped shaking, until her breathing evened out. I gave it another minute, then placed her back on the couch and retreated to my bedroom. I closed the door and leaned against it.
What are you doing, Michael? The question rattled around in my head, unanswered. I needed help with Claudia. The only person I knew who could help her was Nate. An ex-member of Commonality Sanctum, he’d left the cult three years before I’d met him. He still had friends on the inside, which was how he’d found out about the kidnapping scheme. Apparently he’d not had all the details, or he’d have known the cult wasn’t going to stop at kidnapping.
I grabbed my phone from the nightstand where it was charging. I scrolled through my contacts list until I found Nate’s name and hit call. He picked up on the fourth ring.
“I saw it on the news this morning. I had no idea,” he said, skipping right over the pleasantries.
“I didn’t think you did,” I said.
“This is fucked up, man. Tell me you weren’t there.” I didn’t say anything. “Michael …”
“I need your help, Nate.”
“What a surprise,” he said dryly.
“When isn’t it?”
“Can you come over here? There’s a girl … She’s an ex-member. Sort of.”
“Jesus, Michael, what are you doing?”
“I keep asking myself that. I haven’t found an answer yet. Look, she’s freaking out. I don’t know what to do.”
“Being an ex-member doesn’t make me an expert. She probably needs a psychiatrist.”
“Maybe. But you know what it’s like, right? You can relate to her on a level I can’t. Can you just try? Please?”
He was silent for a while, but I could here scuffling in the background. “Yeah. I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” he said, then hung up. I pocketed my phone and took a deep breath before opening the bedroom door.
Claudia hadn’t moved. She was curled up on the couch, the blanket forgotten, half spilling onto the floor. The TV was white noise. I turned it off and sat on the couch beside her. Her face was dry now, her eyes puffy and red. I leaned in a little to get into her line of sight. When she focused on my face, I straightened.
“I’ve asked a friend to come over,” I said slowly. “I think he can help you.”
“Yeah. Help you adjust. He’s an ex-member, like you.” She was starting to get that nervous look that came right before she freaked out. “I trust him, Claudia. I really think he can help. He’s been out of the cult for a while now.”
She nodded but looked more resigned than agreeable. She wrapped her arms around herself and pulled her knees up to her chest until she was a small ball of tightly wound nerves. I got up and headed for the kitchen. I put on enough coffee for Nate and me, then filled a glass with milk and took it to Claudia. I set the glass on the coffee table in front of her and sat on the chair. She picked up the glass and took a tentative sip. Then another. And another. When the glass was empty she set it back on the table and stared at it.
“Would you like more?” I asked.
“Of course,” I said. I grabbed the glass and headed to the kitchen to refill it. That was the last of the carton. I tossed the empty carton in the trash, then took the glass back to Claudia and handed it to her. I was about to sit down when there was a knock at the door.
I looked through the peep hole, opening the door when I saw Nate.
“Thanks for coming,” I said as he walked passed. He scowled at me. I shut the door, locked it, and followed Nate into the living room. Claudia was pulled back into herself again, the glass of milk empty on the table in front of her. I moved around Nate to sit on the couch beside her.
“Claudia, this is Nathan Peters,” I said. Nate waved and took a seat in the chair.
“Hi, Claudia,” Nate said. His voice was pitched low and there was a melodic quality to it. “Michael tells me you were a member of Commonality Sanctum.”
She nodded. Her expression was even.
“I was a member too, although I haven’t been for some time now. I remember the adjustment period well enough. It’s been hard, right?”
She nodded again. She adjusted her position, opening up until she was sitting cross legged with her hands in her lap, facing Nate a little more. Nate responded by inching closer to the edge of the chair, his forearms resting on his thighs as he leaned forward.
“How long were you a member?”
She looked at me, the back to Nate. “Twenty-three years,” she said.
Nate looked at me. He kept his face expressionless. Or tried to. The skin around his eyes tightened and his lips thinned slightly. He ran a hand over his face. “Shit,” he said, breathing the word. “So you were raised in it.”
Claudia nodded. She seemed to sense Nate’s distressed. She pulled her right leg to her chest, wrapping her arms around it.
“Nate …” I said.
“Yeah, man. Sorry. I mean you could have warned me though.” He rubbed the sides of his face in three quick successions and then dropped his hands to his knees. “Okay. Well that’s something.” He leaned back. “I was thirteen when I joined. My parents’ bright idea. I stayed in for about ten years, but once I realized …”
“It’s a lie,” Claudia said.
“Yeah. Once I realized that Commonality Sanctum was a cult, I ran. My parents left a few years after I did. It takes some people longer to figure it out. Some people never do.”
“It took me too long.”
Nate leaned forward again. “You can’t dwell on that, Claudia. It’s not about how long it took you to figure it out, it’s that you did figure it out. That’s the victory.”
She opened her mouth but didn’t speak. Could Nate really call this a victory for Claudia? She was one day removed from mutilating a corpse for the cult. Nate didn’t know that part. Yet. Claudia took a deep breath and looked Nate in the eye. “What I’ve done in the name of Com … of the cult … It can’t be undone.”
Nate looked at me. I looked at Claudia. “You could have done worse,” I said. She hadn’t killed the boy, after all. Nate kept staring at me.
“Is this about the Thorne kid?” he asked. I grimaced at the question but nodded. Claudia leaned her forehead against her knee. “Jesus Christ, man. She didn’t kill him, did she?”
“No,” Claudia said. Her head snapped up fast enough that it had to have hurt. “I didn’t kill him.”
“This might be one of those things where the less you know, the better off you are,” I said.
“Fuck, Michael, how bad is this?”
“Well … It’s not good,” I said. Nate rubbed his face again, breathing a little heavy, a little too quickly. “I understand if you need to bail. I’m not trying to get you into any trouble or anything. I just needed some help with …” I nodded to Claudia.
“It’s starting to seem like you need help with more than just that,” Nate said. I held my hands out. What could I say to that? Nate shook his head, then refocused on Claudia. “Tell me what’s going through your head.”
She looked at him, her expression almost vacant. “Nothing,” she said. “Everything. What am I supposed to do when everything—everyone—I know is wrong. How do you live like that?”
Nate gave a bitter laugh. “I’ve been there, believe me. How are you supposed to have faith or belief in anything else when you’ve been raised on lies? Trust seems impossible—”
“Life seems impossible. What purpose do I have now? What’s the point?”
“Survival. Happiness. Living. Hell, Claudia, there’s so much to experience. You just have to take it day by day. Survive today. Survive tomorrow. Survive the next day and the next. One day you’ll wake up and realize that everything is okay.”
“Is it like that for all ex-members?”
Nate and I looked at each other. No, it wasn’t like that for all ex-members. Not everyone could live with the lies they’d spent so much time and effort believing. The loss of all those years wasted. The loss of the one thing they’d dedicated their lives to. Many of the ex-members that had been in since childhood opted for the suicide route. Nate and I had talked about that a lot when we’d first met.
“You’ve been lied to all your life, so I’m not going to start off here by doing the same,” Nate said. A lie probably would have been better in this case. It would have been easier on her. “For a lot of ex-members …” His voice faded away. He cleared his throat and tried again. “When I first got out, I was so lost. I didn’t know anybody outside the cult. I didn’t know how the real world worked. Things, no matter how scarce, had always been provided for me. I never needed to worry about shelter, because we lived at the commune.”
Claudia repositioned herself back into a cross-legged pose, opening up as Nate spoke, and occasionally nodding.
“I was one of the lucky ones. The compound I lived in was in a city full of ex-members. I snuck away one night. I walked the streets for … I don’t even remember. Four or five days, I think. I scavenged food from dumpsters, slept in doorways. I found my way to a shelter, a homeless shelter. They had these meetings where you could talk with other people staying in the shelter. You sat in a little circle and told your story. One night after the meeting, an ex-member approached me. We talked for hours. She said that there were other ex-members living together in an apartment not far from the shelter and, when I was ready, I could meet them.
“About a month later I got up the courage to leave the shelter and move into the apartment. A month after that, I had a job. Another month and I had a driver’s license, a bank account. After about a year, I moved out on my own.”
Nate pulled his hands up to his chest, the fingers of one circled the wrist of the other. Then he began rubbing his left palm with his right thumb. It reminded me of the way Claudia picked at her fingers when she was nervous or scared.
“I got a call one day, Nate finally continued. “One of my former roommates had committed suicide. Not even half a year later, I got another call. Another of my roommates …”
He trailed off. Claudia reached out and briefly touched his knee. Tears gathered in her eyes, trailing down her cheeks whenever she blinked.
“Not all of us make it,” Nate mumbled.