Commonality Sanctum

Hallo, you deviously delightful darlings! I’ve decided to go ahead and release everything I have so far of Commonality Sanctum. I hope you enjoy it!

Book Blurb

Claudia Dayo thought she knew who she was: a lamb of the Supernal Luminary and faithful member of Commonality Sanctum. A Godly woman. But doubt about the Supernal Luminary’s intentions infects Claudia’s mind when she finds she’s been made a scapegoat in the holy man’s political agenda.

After years of searching for his family, Michael Alvis may have received the tip that’ll help him bring down their kidnappers, a widespread and notorious cult. But is Michael taking on more than he bargained for when he recruits an ex-member to help him dismantle the cult from the inside?

Can Michael and Claudia find a way to bring down Commonality Sanctum and save Michael’s family?

Chapter 1

Claudia Dayo

Thursday, July 10, 2025—Present Day

It all comes down to breaking. Being broken and rebuilt. Rebuilt as something new. Not someone. No, there are no individuals here. Here, there is only Commonality Sanctum. How blind. How blind I’ve been. How blind the “congregation” still is. Can’t they see it? Don’t they understand? Commonality Sanctum is nothing more than a lie, and the Supernal Luminary a criminal.

Twenty-three years. Twenty. Three. Years. That’s how long it took me to realize. I’ve been a member of Commonality Sanctum since I was five. My whole goddamn life wasted to this cult. And the things I’ve done? Might as well call me a criminal too, because I am. And the kicker? I feel worse for myself than anyone else. Is that selfish? I mean, of course it is. Of course it is. Maybe that’s not the kicker. Maybe the kicker is that I hadn’t realized until this latest crime had me elbow deep in the guts of a sixteen-year-old kid. And I’m feeling sorry for myself?

What a laugh. What a riot. I don’t even know who I am. I am Commonality Sanctum.

But I’m not…

I’m Claudia. I’m Claudia Dayo. Holy shit. Oh, holy shit is that even my real name? Was I someone else I don’t remember? Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Oh shit. Don’t melt down. Don’t melt down here. Twenty-three years… I can wait another day. I can wait until I’m finished here. Oh, please, don’t break down. Just breathe… Just breathe… Just…

♦♦♦

Thursday, July 3, 2025

“Miss Claudia?”

I didn’t recognize the voice; unsurprising considering the number of people housed in Birmingham’s commune. I looked up from where I sat on the cot. This solitude room, like everyone’s, was bare—slate-colored slabs of wall, an industrial concrete floor, and a cot with a gray blanket, thin and fraying.

The messenger wore a white linen tunic and matching pants with bare feet. He held his hands inside his wide sleeves. He had long, stringy hair and a feminine quality about his face. He was one of the Supernal Luminary’s eternal boys.

“The Supernal Luminary would like to speak with you,” said the boy. He smiled as he spoke, his expression light, almost dreamlike.

It was the highest honor to speak with the Supernal Luminary. I hadn’t seen him since I first arrived at the congregation. He’d taken me in, an orphan, and kept me safe. My heart sped up. I tried to contain my excitement. I didn’t trust myself to speak. I nodded and stood.

The boy led me down a series of hallways until we reached the wrought iron staircase that led to the forbidden floor. I placed a hand on the rail and felt the cold, pocked metal against my palm and fingers. A strange sensation, at once biting and soothing.

“Come,” the boy said. He was still smiling as he held out a hand to usher me forward. “You are welcome.”

The first step I took was terrifying. The second, exhilarating. Up I went, and I continued. Up, up, up. The door at the top of the staircase was comforting in its modesty. The boy opened it and stepped through, moving just to the side so I could follow. He shut the door behind us and locked it.

The forbidden floor was a large, open space with wood flooring. Exposed pipes and wires snaked through the ceiling girders. There were no furnishings of any kind. I don’t know what I expected of this place, but seeing its emptiness had me at ease. It was familiar.

On the far side of the room was a walled-off area. The boy walked toward it. I slowly followed. I couldn’t seem to get enough air. There’s a fine line between excitement and terror and as I walked that line, I couldn’t decide on which side I’d eventually fall. The boy must have seen the war on my face.

“Do not be afraid, Miss Claudia. The Supernal Luminary is kind and gentle. He is holy, and so too are you through his grace. Be at ease and open to receive his blessings and favor.”

I nodded. Was such an audience so mundane for the boy? Yes, of course. Of course it was. The eternal boys were the messengers of the Supernal Luminary. They basked in his grace. Was I worthy of such an audience? I must be if the Supernal Luminary called me to stand before him. I nodded again, surer this time.

The boy rapped his knuckles lightly against the door. Brief silence preceded a muffled sound from within. The door opened for us. I followed the boy through. The room was… opulent. Thick, soft crimson carpet covered the floor, threatening to devour my feet. The walls were a deep golden marked every few feet by paintings of the Supernal Luminary and pictures of him with prominent peoples. I didn’t know who they were, but I had no doubt they must have been important to be at the Supernal Luminary’s side.

Large pillows nearly the size of the cots in the solitude rooms scattered the floor in bursts of rich blues and purples and golds. On the largest pillow sat the Supernal Luminary himself. He was a large man, round and red-faced and bald. One of his eyes was a cloudy white, the other brown with that same milkiness only just beginning to overtake it. His face was expressionless, yet serene and unmarred by eyebrows.

“Miss Claudia, Holiness. As you’ve requested,” the boy, bowing deeply, his body folding over his right leg as if he were trying to form a standing triangle.

The Supernal Luminary held up a hand and the boy, in a supplicating crawl, moved to kiss the rings adorning his Holiness’s thick fingers. Four in all. The boy then walked to the door to stand guard with what could have been his twin. I hadn’t even noticed him until now.

“Come forward.” The Supernal Luminary’s voice was high and nasally. I did as he bade me. Once I was in front of him, I dropped to my knees and bent forward. In his presence, what else could I do? I bowed with my forehead resting on my hands and waited. Several minutes passed with no movement, no noise outside of the Supernal Luminary’s breathing.

I felt his hand touch my head. I shivered.

“Rise,” he said. I obeyed. “Claudia Dayo, child of Commonality Sanctum, beloved lamb of the Supernal Luminary, welcome.”

My throat and mouth were too dry. It took three times before I could speak. “Holiness, beloved Supernal Luminary to the flock, it is the highest honor.”

He smiled and nodded. I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding, overwhelmed with relief. He held his hand out to me and I kissed three of his rings. Only the eternal boys were blessed enough to kiss all four.

“You have been an exemplary lamb, Claudia,” he said. A smile broke over my face before I could control it.

“The highest praise, Holiness.”

The Supernal Luminary raised a hand and snapped. The boys appeared to my right and unloaded a silver tray with a dome-covered plate, porcelain cups and saucers, a teapot, and cut fruits and cheeses. I’d never seen anything like it. The boy who had shepherded me here poured tea into the two cups, then raised the dome to reveal warm meat cuts, none of which I could name or recognize. The smell and warmth hit me in the face and were both desirous and foul.

The boy returned to his post by the door.

“I allow you to take into yourself what I offer before you,” the Supernal Luminary said. “Be nourished as we discuss your holy mission.”

“Holiness?” I asked, unsure what he meant.

“I have brought you here today because it is your time to ascend to a higher purpose within the church. You will soon be sent out into the world to complete a task of immense importance.” He gestured at the food on the tray in front of me.

He remained silent as I sipped the tea. I ate a cube of cheese, two grapes. I was wary of the meat. I’d never had any. It was forbidden to all but the upper echelon. I watched the Supernal Luminary as I grabbed a piece of the white meat, ready at a moment’s notice to drop it. He only nodded. I ate. It was… new.

“Starting today, you will be separated from the rest of the flock and nourished by what you see before you so that you may have the strength and will to see this holy task through.”

“I don’t understand, Holiness.”

“Unity.”

“Yes, Holiness.”

“You will be separated and nourished thusly. When I have decided you to be ready, you will be sent out into the world to perform this holy task.”

“Of course, Holiness,” I said, bowing low over the tray between us. “Unity.”

If it wasn’t my place to know why the Supernal Luminary chose me, it certainly wasn’t my place to know the task before I was ready. Such knowledge was only provided to those who were truly ready to receive it. The Supernal Luminary saw my uncertainty and knew I wasn’t ready.

To have a holy task of my own… A holy mission? It was a true blessing and honor. I would do everything I could to be ready for this task, to be worthy of it.

For the Supernal Luminary, for the church, I would be ready. And in my success, the congregation would have unity with me and I with it.

It’s what we all strove for.

Unity.

Chapter 2

Michael Alvis

Thursday, July 3, 2025

            There’s nothing quite like the sticky, cloying heat of summer in the South. A heat that doesn’t seem to diminish when the sun goes down. Streetlights were popping on one by one as I walked down the North Side business district. I might as well have been wearing a wool coat, the way my suit was sticking to my back. I loosened my tie, debating on whether to remove the suit jacket.

I typically work from home, but still go to the office every so often for project updates and meetings. I don’t usually mind going in, but I was a bit off today. Irritable. I couldn’t sleep last night. The last thing I wanted was to be out in this heat.

I stopped at the intersection and waited with the diverse crowd gathered to cross the street. A kid in a flat-bill hat and pink plaid shorts was smoking a cigarette and chatting up a nurse in dark blue scrubs. I tried to stand upwind. I haven’t even been a year off the cancer sticks and every goddamn thing was a trigger.

My cellphone vibrated against my leg. I got it out and glanced at the screen. It was Nate—Nathan Peters—an ex-member of Commonality Sanctum and someone I’d spent the past four years cultivating a relationship with.

“Hey, Nate. What’s up?”

“I think I’ve got something for you, Mikey. Something big,” he said. His voice was a mixture of excitement and unease.

“Well, I’m free right now. Should I head over?”

“Yeah, man, come on. And, if it’s no bother…”

“Yeah?” I knew what was coming.

“Could you bring Stella and Slice? The usual.”

“Sure, Nate. I’ll be there soon.”

I hung up. Nate had a thing for Stella Artois and this one specific pizza from a local Southside joint called Slice. He always asked, and I always brought it. Call it payment for information on the cult. I’d tried to turn him onto some of the local brews, but he wasn’t having it.

He only drank Stella.

♦♦♦

Thursday, July 3, 2025

Nate cleared a spot on the island separating the kitchen from the living room. Just looking at his apartment, you’d think he was a hoarder. He’d stacked boxes, somewhat neatly, in the corner of the living room. Newspapers and magazines were stacked in piles on the floor and on several pieces of furniture, Pop-culture posters he hadn’t bothered hanging leaned against the wall the length of the hallway. He’d been trying to play catch-up ever since leaving the cult. That was seven years ago.

His curly blond hair was pulled back in a shoulder-length ponytail. He’d told me several years ago it was a form of rebellion. The cult only allowed certain men to have long hair. A lot of his clients had taken to calling him Fabio. Nate became a huge gym rat after leaving the cult. He’d bounced from job to job until the owner of the gym he frequented offered him a job as a personal trainer. Nate had jumped at the opportunity. He’s gotten several certifications since.

Heavy metal streamed from the sound system hooked up to Nate’s TV, the volume turned low. I don’t think he ever listened to anything else. He took a long pull from the beer bottle and picked up a slice of pizza.

“You know,” he said between chews. “I never get tired of this.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m always the one buying.”

He grinned and took another bite. He’d gone through three slices before wiping his hands on a dish rag and polishing off the beer.

“So this news…” I prompted. He nodded and passed me a beer, then got one for himself.

“It’s big,” he said. “I mean, if they pull it off, it’s real big.”

“Going to need a bit more than that, Nate,” I said.

“I talked to Caleb last night. You know, the one running the commune out in Altoona?” I nodded. I didn’t know him personally, but he was the one feeding Nate most of the information he had. “Says they’re making a big political play. Get this…” He waited, making sure he had my full attention. “They’re going to kidnap Senator Thorne’s kid.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nah, man. Serious as a heart attack.”

“That’s way too high profile. What are they thinking?”

“Caleb thinks that by kidnapping the senator’s son, the senator will be forced into some kind of partnership with the cult.”

“Fuck,” I said. I thought of Catherine, of Jacob. Were they mixed up in these kinds of activities? Did they know what was going on? “When’s this supposed to happen?”

Nate shrugged. “There’s not a set date or anything. This is big, man. The only reason Caleb told me was that he’s not on board with it. I still don’t think he understands that the cult’s message of love and peace and spreading the gospel word is fucking bullshit.” He shook his head, a look of disgust on his face.

“Have you found anything out about…” I couldn’t finish.

“They aren’t at the compound,” Nate said. He reached over and put a hand on my shoulder. “The cult thrives on separation, man. Most likely, they’re in a commune either across the country or overseas.”

We finished our beers in pensive silence. I checked my watch. It was getting late, even for me. Nate didn’t sleep much, but I was bone tired.

“Hey, Mikey,” Nate said just as I’d made it to the door. I turned, waiting for more. He looked like he wanted to say something. Probably what he’d said a hundred times before, some variation of affirmations about finding my family. Instead, he said, “I’ll keep you posted.”

I nodded and left.

♦♦♦

Thursday, July 10, 2025—Present Day

Downtown near Lakeview. Blue van, license plate: Give Rad Rates 4 Life 23. Not much to go on. Nate just said to be in this area on this day, around this time, and find that van. After a half hour or so of cruising Lakeview and the surrounding area searching and waiting, I found it.

GRR4L23. Blue van.

 “Found you, you shitbags.”

The van slowed as it turned into a business’s parking lot two streets ahead. I pulled up to the curb by the little seafood restaurant on the corner of 29th and 5th. The place was well past close, but a couple of cars were around. I shut off the engine and killed the lights. I didn’t know what I’d find in that van. I didn’t know if they already had the Thorne kid or were just arranging for pick up.

I got out of the car. There was little traffic out and even fewer pedestrians. I crossed the street and headed east after the van. The alleys were deserted and the dark blue van I’d followed was nowhere to be seen. Had I made a mistake in parking two blocks away? I must have. It had taken me too long to get here on foot.

Of the surrounding buildings, only two were operational businesses. The other three were abandoned, foreclosed, undergoing renovations. In the crumbling facades of these structures, there were stories and histories I’d never know. But within one of them could be a young boy in danger. And maybe someone who can tell me where my family is.

I’m no P.I. or cop, no soldier or spy. But I am an investigator. I’ve been an investigator since my family disappeared five years ago. I don’t know for sure, but I have my suspicions. It was Commonality Sanctum. It had to be. If it wasn’t?

Well, that just wasn’t a possibility.

Commonality Sanctum was a terrorist cult, and they were growing bolder every year. Hell, every day. But what can law enforcement do with no proof? No evidence? Hearsay only goes so far.

Would proof of kidnapping the senator’s son be enough to open a couple of cold missing person cases? Maybe. I had to find him first.

Of the three empty buildings, only two had loading bays. I walked the parameter of the first, looking for a way in. Both front and rear doors were locked. There were a series of windows in the building’s front, starting at the base and rising fifteen or so feet. The bottom left corner of one of the lower panes was busted in. I tested out the width of the hole, then picked away some of the glass still clinging to the frame. I slid through.

The building might have been a warehouse or large retailer. The space was open and mostly empty, save for a few boxes stacked against one wall. I crouched on the floor where I’d slid through and tried to let my eyes adjust.

I walked the parameter, staying low. I couldn’t hear any sounds from the north side of the building, so I kept going. The air was dusty, dank. I breathed shallowly. The smell of oil and other chemicals was vague, but there. Behind the wall of a makeshift office, there was nothing but a rolling chair. I kept going, moving toward the rear of the building now.

The van.

My breath caught.

This was the right place. But where was the boy? I circled the van, peering into its windows, but the back had been stripped bare, its metal skeleton staring back at me. Only the two seats up front remained, wrapped in clear plastic. The passenger side door opened easily when I tested it. I leaned in, half sitting on the floorboard, and opened the glove compartment. Empty. I tried the console but found more of the same.

A noise came from somewhere beyond the driver’s side of the van. I closed the door as gently as I could and moved toward the sound’s origin. Bathrooms; the only walled-off spaces in the building. I crouched by the wall separating the men’s from the women’s bathroom and waited. It felt like a long time. My watch said otherwise.

There it was. A tearing noise. And something else.

I leaned toward the men’s room door and listened, but that moved me farther from the sound. I rose and put an ear against the women’s room door. Was that… crying? I tried the handle, slowly, but it caught. Locked. I took a deep breath, gave myself about six feet, then barreled against the door with my shoulder. The pain made me gasp, though it was all but forgotten in the next moment.

It was clear I’d come too late.

The room was featureless, the plumbing having been ripped out with the tenants. The bright florescent bulb remained, though, and God, how I wish it hadn’t. The light was not kind to the scene it illuminated. The boy was laid out flat on the floor, naked, his clothes neatly folded by his left shoulder. His feet had been removed and place by his right shoulder. An incision ran horizontally along his abdomen, the surrounding skin stretched wide. His intestines had been pulled out… Pulled out and wrapped around his neck like a noose.

I turned away. I got far enough to collapse against the van. Bile came up. I swallowed it. It came again, persistent. I breathed in through my nose. A mistake.

“Get a grip, get a grip, get a grip,” I mumbled. “Oh fuck. Oh shit.” I turned back toward the bathroom, my back against the side of the van. I held my forearm to my forehead as if that would keep my brain from exploding. “Oh shit. Pull it together, Mikey, come on.”

And then I realized. Someone else had been in the bathroom. My vision had pinpointed to the horrific, but someone else had been in there. Was in there right now. I stood up. I wasn’t equipped to deal with this.

Murder.

The murder of the senator’s son.

That would be enough for an official investigation into Commonality Sanctum. It would be enough to find my wife and son.

That thought would keep me going. Yes. It had to. I walked back to the bathroom door, trying not to see the boy’s body. The bathroom wasn’t big. The task was not easy.

But I saw her this time.

A girl. No, a woman. She was small, kneeling on the floor in front of the body. Maybe she just looked small, young, elbow deep as she was in blood and crying big, silent tears that wracked her body. When she finally made a sound, it was like a tiny hiccup. Breath, hiccup, breath, sob, hiccup.

And then she turned toward the door. She looked at me, eyes unfocused. She looked all around the bathroom, then back at me again. I could tell she saw me this time.

“Help me,” she said, her voice a rasping whisper.

My throat was dry, though I could still taste the bile that had threatened to come up. The woman’s thin cheeks were red and splotchy. Every few seconds, a tear would fall. Dark circles shown like bruises under her eyes. Green eyes. Or maybe hazel. Her gaze was still unfocused. Her jaw kept flexing, tightening.

“Please,” she said.

Her hair was pulled away from her face in a loose braid. The color matched the sandy hue of her clothes, which were unremarkable except for the blood. Her arms were outstretched before her, hands like up-turned claws. Her wrists were so slender I thought they might break if she held the position too long.

Help her? Help her what?

“Who are you?” I asked. My voice sounded strange, thick.

She voiced a single sob that wracked her body again. Her shoulders and arms shook as she dropped her head. I could hear her sucking in air. She turned her bowed head sideways.

“I don’t know, anymore,” she said, then turned her face back to the floor. “Maybe I never did.”

“Are you hurt?”

What started as a monosyllabic laugh turned into a kind of keening exhalation. She shook her head.

“What’s your name, then? What are you doing here? How did you know where to find the senator’s son?”

“What am I…? I did this!” The volume of her shriek was impressive. It also had me instinctively moving closer to try to quiet her. My hands were out, but as if to ward away or placate, I wasn’t sure. “I did this.” Spoken softly, more to herself. Then to me, “My name is Claudia Dayo. I think. And I did this.”

I kneeled, keeping my weight on the balls of my feet, ready to move if I needed to. I steered clear of the blood and stayed out of Claudia’s reach.

“Why did I do this?” she asked.

“Someone told you to,” I offered. She nodded. “Someone from Commonality Sanctum?” Again, she nodded. “Who wanted to kill the senator’s son?”

She looked at me, her face finally drying. She must not have found what she was looking for, because she shook her head.

“Were you told to do it like… this?” I asked.

“He was already dead. I just had to—”

“He was dead when he got here? Who killed him?”

“He was so still. I don’t know. The van pulled in, they unloaded him, and I…”

“Who dropped him off? Where are they now?”

“I don’t know who they were!”

She took a breath. Hell, I took a breath, too. I hadn’t meant to bury her under questions. If she was a member of Commonality Sanctum, she may be as much of a victim as the boy. Just a different kind of victim.

“They unloaded him and left the van. They went out the back door on foot. I don’t know anything after that. I’d never seen them before. I just… don’t know.”

She slumped in on herself, her arms finally dropping. Her left arm caught her just before she collapsed to the side.

“How old are you, Claudia?”

The question seemed to take her by surprise.

“Twenty-eight.”

“How long have you been a member of the cu… of Commonality Sanctum?”

“Twenty-three years.”

“Holy shit,” I said, the words coming out before I could stop them. It made her laugh.

“Yeah,” she agreed.

“Claudia, who told you to do this? Who wanted the senator’s son dead?”

Chapter 3

Claudia Dayo

Thursday, July 10, 2025—Present Day

I knew now. I realized. I understood. Commonality Sanctum was a cult. Yes. I knew now. So why was it so hard to give up the Supernal Luminary as the man behind the crime?

Why did it feel wrong?

“Claudia,” the man said. His voice was so gentle. It was deep and soothing. It was hesitant. His eyes were wide, the dark brown irises circled in white. I stared at him as I tried to tell him. Maybe I hoped his presence would give me strength. I didn’t know him.

I trusted him because of that. Because he wasn’t a part of Commonality Sanctum. Maybe he’d give me the strength to… To what?

“I can’t,” I said. I thought he’d get angry. He just looked sad. His cheeks puffed out as he exhaled forcefully. “I see Commonality Sanctum for what it is. I think. You wanted to call it a cult a minute ago. It is. It is. And I… I see that. I know it and I see it and I can’t…”

“Can’t break the bonds?”

I shook my head and shrugged. “Something like that.”

“Look, Claudia, I’m no expert. But maybe a good place to start is connecting to someone outside the cult.”

“Connect with you?”

He looked around the bathroom, then out into the warehouse beyond. “Not a lot of other options, I’m afraid. And you’re in a really bad position.”

I looked at my hands. They were getting tacky.

“Claudia.” I looked at him. He smiled, but there was still a sadness about him. “I’m Michael. Michael Alvis.”

“Can you help me, Michael?”

“I don’t know. But I’ll try.” He ran a hand through his dark hair and looked over the scene. His face scrunched in thought. “The first thing we need to do is get out of here, okay?”

Get out of here? And go where? I had only ever lived with Commonality Sanctum. All I had were the clothes I was wearing. Where exactly was I supposed to go? And by what means? And what would I do when I got there?

“Claudia, Claudia, it’s okay. Calm down,” Michael said. He was reaching out like he’d touch my shoulder, but he was too far away. He stayed like that, arm out, voice soft. I must have looked as terrified as I felt. “Talk to me. Believe me, freaking out will not make this better. Just talk to me.”

“I can’t leave. The Supernal Luminary won’t know where to find me. How will I get home?”

Michael’s eyes went wide again before he winced. I replayed what I’d said. Get home? That was the last thing I wanted.

“I didn’t mean… I must sound crazy—”

“No, it’s okay. You’re fine. Maybe walking you through it will help?” I nodded. “I’m not parked too far away. We’ll go to my car, go get you cleaned up, and… And, well, that’s about as far as the plan goes, to be honest.”

“Yes. Let’s do that. Can we?” A look crossed his face. I wasn’t sure what it meant. “What? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he said, shaking his head. He stood. I stood. He looked me over. “The pants aren’t bad, but you need to get out of that bloody shirt before we leave. Here.”

He unzipped his jacket and pulled the sleeves down around the thin gloves he was wearing.

“I’m going to stand out here, give you a little privacy. Try to get as much blood off your arms as you can with your shirt. Then put the jacket on.”

He set the jacket on a clean area of the floor and left the little bathroom. I pulled my tunic over my head and scrubbed at the drying blood. The cloth kept getting stuck to my fingers. When I was about as clean as I was going to get, I picked up the jacket and pulled it on. It was warm. The lining was soft. I zipped it. I wadded up my tunic, unsure what to do with it, and met Michael by the van.

“Okay,” I said. Michael turned away from the van. He looked me over again.

“Okay. That should work on short notice. We’ll have to burn that shirt. And probably that jacket… In fact, it might be best if we burn everything we’re currently wearing.”

“That’s not normal,” I said, confused. He looked equally confused. He suddenly raised his eyebrows.

“No,” he said. He chuckled. “No, it’s not the norm. But we don’t want to be found with any of the boy’s blood on us. We’ll get in serious trouble.”

“There’s no blood on you.”

“It’s just a precaution.”

“Now what?”

♦♦♦

Friday, July 4, 2025

I leaned over in the seat so I could see the clock on the dashboard. We’d been driving for over an hour. I didn’t mind the lengthy trip. It was rare that I got to get out, and I could count on both hands the number of times I’d been in a vehicle. The driver, a man I recognized but whose name I wasn’t sure of, drove in silence. He had short-trimmed gray hair and numerous lines marked the skin around his blue eyes. He was a large man; his head would hit the vehicle’s roof whenever we hit a big bump. I didn’t ask where we were going.

My bladder felt full to bursting, but I didn’t ask for a break. Congregation members were expected to be able to go a certain amount of time without using the facilities. It had been engrained since as far back as I can remember. Bathroom breaks were a luxury we weren’t to overindulge in, whether it was showering or producing waste. If you produced too much waste, it meant you were unclean.

We had shower time once a week, and it was a communal experience. The showers were in a large room with six-foot-high tiled walls laid out in a pattern that didn’t make much sense other than to maximize the number of shower heads coming off them. I hadn’t been allowed to shower this morning before the journey. Neither, so it smelled, had the driver.

The ride was a little bumpy, but otherwise enjoyable. I watched through the window as we passed trees and fields and neat little houses. I concentrated hard on not having to urinate. After another half hour, the driver pulled into an empty lot in front of an abandoned church. The windows of the church were boarded over and the deck in front was collapsing on one side.

The driver got out and came around to my door, opening it for me. He seemed even bigger outside the vehicle. He wasn’t fat, exactly, just large.

“Welcome home,” he said in a gravelly voice. He held his hand out to help me out of the vehicle. The unexpected gesture made me hesitate. The man’s face broke into a grin. “Don’t be afraid, darlin’. I’ll make sure you get settled comfortably. I’m Caleb, by the way.” He laughed, still holding his hand out to me. “I guess I should have said that before the trip, not after. Sorry about that.”

I took his hand. It was rough, calloused, and it completely engulfed mine. I felt the strength in him as he pulled me out of the car. The surge of movement had a laugh bubbling from me.

“That’s better,” he said, still smiling. “Feels nice to stretch out after a drive like that.”

I nodded.

“Not a big talker, huh?” he asked. His expression became gentler. “That’s alright. You’ll come to find that I can probably do enough talkin’ for the both of us. Now, what do you say to a little tour before we go inside?”

“I…” The word came out a squeak, my bladder so full it hurt. Caleb frowned. As he watched my hand moved to my lower abdomen, he seemed to figure it out.

“Hell, darlin’, why didn’t you say something? Come on, let’s get you inside and I’ll show you to the facilities.”

I had tunnel vision as I followed Caleb through the church, seeing only his back as he led me to a little room. He threw the door open, and I rushed past him, closing the door behind me and nearly leaping to the toilet.

The relief was immediate. I looked around the room. There had been a window in here, but it too was boarded up. It wasn’t the cleanest room. It smelled damp and sour. Gray-black fuzz dotted the corner of the shower stall and around the base of the toilet and sink stand. Wallpaper was peeling off near the ceiling and around the doorframe. I quickly washed my hands and left the tiny bathroom.

Caleb was standing at the end of the hall. I think it was where we’d come in. The hallway was narrow, with open doors on either side. One room had a ring of chairs taking up most of the space but was otherwise bare. Another room had four or five cots all crammed together.

Caleb spotted me coming and smiled. “How’s that, now? Better?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

“Things work a little differently here than you might be used to. That’s the first thing you need to understand. We’re a little more relaxed than they are over at the compound, but that’s because we have to adapt to the environment out here. You’ll see what I mean. Come on.”

With that, he led me to the back of the church, and we stepped through the door into the Garden of Eden. I’d never seen anything like it.

Caleb smiled proudly.

♦♦♦

Thursday, July 10, 2025—Present Day

Michael opened the door for me, waited until I was in, forbade me to touch anything, then closed the door. He walked around the front of the vehicle and got in. We sat in silence for several minutes, neither of us moving. Finally, he took a deep breath.

“I’m going to take you back to my place. I don’t know where else to take you. I’m assuming there is nowhere else outside of Commonality Sanctum.” I didn’t answer. “I want to be very clear on this, okay? We don’t have to go if you don’t want to. I don’t want… I don’t want you to be uncomfortable. I don’t want to force you to go anywhere you don’t want to.”

“This also isn’t normal,” I guessed. He let out a full laugh this time, no confusion on his face.

“I would say maybe ninety percent of the time, people don’t go home with a stranger. I can’t say that anything about tonight has been normal.”

“I don’t want to go back,” I said. He looked at me. I don’t know what he saw in my face, but whatever it was helped make his mind up. He started the vehicle and pulled away from the curb. The ride was smooth. I closed my eyes and leaned my head against the seat.

“Claudia?”

“Hmm…” He said my name again. I must have dozed off on the ride. I looked around, eyes bleary and burning. My door was open; Michael crouched down just outside it.

“We’re here.” He stood. I got out of the vehicle, and he closed the door behind me. We were in front of a tall brick building. I could barely see the top in the dark. I followed Michael up a short staircase leading to the door. He pushed the door open and held it for me as I walked in. The floor was decorated in large black-and-white tiles. The walls were white-painted brick framed in beautiful dark wood. We walked through another door. There were more stairs. I was out of breath by the time we got to his floor. My legs burned. I peered over the banister. It didn’t look like we’d gone that far, and yet it seemed like climbing a mountain.

I followed Michael through a door that led into a softly lit hallway, to yet another door. He unlocked the door and ushered me through. His living space was packed with furniture, pictures, lamps, tables.

“Your home is so… full,” I said. He looked surprised. “This is normal.”

“Yeah, this is pretty standard,” he said. “Come on, I’ll show you where the shower is. You can wash up. I’ll grab some clean clothes for you and set them outside the bathroom door.”

He led me through the main living space into a smaller room with an enormous bed.

“Just through that door,” he said, pointing to the far side of the room. “Help yourself to whatever is in there. Except, you know, the toothbrush.”

I wasn’t sure what to say, so I said nothing. I walked over to the bathroom, feeling along the wall for a light switch. It took a while to find. The lights were bright, but not harsh. There was a large mirror over a large sink with cabinets. Everything here seemed so… large. I turned the water in the shower on. Water came out of the lower faucet. Panic flashed through me. I could work a shower. Why wasn’t this working right?

“Claudia,” Michael’s voice came muffled through the door. Panic again. “Hey, the shower can be a little tricky. If you need help…” I opened the door. “Sorry, I haven’t had guests in a while. I forget what a pain this shower can be if you don’t know the right tricks.” He walked to the shower and turned the water off. He held up a little lever above the faucet, then turned the water back on. He smiled. “It’ll only stay up if you start the water after lifting it.”

He ran a hand through his hair and excused himself, closing the door behind him. I felt only marginally less stupid. There was a trick to it.

Once the water was bordering on scalding, I stripped off my clothes and stepped in. Red bled into pink as water pooled before circling down the drain. I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to see the blood anymore. I stood under the water and rubbed my arms until I couldn’t feel any foreign substance on them. I grabbed the bar of soap from the shower shelf and scrubbed head to toe. I ran my nails over the soap, trying to get the last remnants of blood out.

Then I sat down. I let the water fall over me, around me, until it grew too cold, and I started shivering. I grabbed a folded towel from a metal rack over the toilet and dried myself off. I ran the towel over my hair a few times until it stopped dripping. I cracked open the door and found a pile of clothes. The underwear was black, lacy, weird. I put them on anyway. Black stretchy pants. A baggy gray shirt. The shirt was comfortable. We weren’t allowed to wear tight-fitting garments at home, so the pants were a little strange.

I finger-combed my hair as best I could. The thought of leaving Commonality Sanctum, or even being kicked out, had always terrified me. As I looked at myself in the mirror, I realized I felt nothing. I was with a strange man, in his house, away from the safety of home and the congregation. Away from the Supernal Luminary.

And I felt absolutely nothing.

Chapter 4

Michael Alvis

Thursday, July 10, 2025—Present Day

I heard the shower cut off as I sat on the couch trying to think. Which is funny, because I sure as hell hadn’t thought this through. The senator’s son was dead. Thanks to this Claudia woman, he was brutally mutilated.

Call the police. That should have been my first move. Call the police.

But if I did that… If I did that, they might take Claudia. Her DNA had to be all over the scene, right? What did it matter, anyway? I didn’t know this woman, didn’t owe her anything. But she’s a member of Commonality Sanctum. What if she knows Catherine and Jacob? What if she’s seen them? No, no, the cult is too big, too widespread. It’s impossible. Well… It’s improbable.

But what if?

“Hi.” I jumped. I’d been so wrapped up in my thoughts I hadn’t noticed Claudia walk up. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“You’re fine,” I said. “It’s fine. How are you feeling?”

“Numb,” she said, wrapping her arms around herself. She looked like she might break if she squeezed too hard.

“Can I get you anything? Something to eat or drink?”

She shook her head, then said, “Water.”

She sat on the chair opposite the couch, and I went into the kitchen. It was a mess. There was still one clean cup in the cabinet, so all wasn’t lost quite yet. Did she want ice? Were cult members allowed to have ice? I didn’t want to shock her system or anything. God, this was ridiculous.

I filled the cup with cool tap water and handed it to her before sitting back down on the couch. She drank in small sips, never taking the cup completely away from her mouth. She held the cup with both hands, her gaze softening and drifting to the floor.

I sat with my hands in my lap and tried not to make any big movements. I’d done a little digging into cults after my family disappeared, but it doesn’t really prepare you. You can read survivor tales and listen to ex-members talk, but when you are face to face with a member who has so freshly realized she’s spent her whole life in a cult… Jesus Christ.

“When did you realize?” I asked. I couldn’t stand the silence any longer. She looked up at me, eyebrows drawn together. “That Commonality Sanctum was a cult,” I clarified. “When did you realize it?”

She rolled her shoulders forward and lowered the cup. “Things were going on that I questioned.” She drew the last word out, uncertain.

“What kinds of things?” I asked, trying to soften my voice. She looked away.

“Isolation,” she said. She cut her eyes to me, but her face was still angled away. “There’s been an increase in member isolation lately. I can’t really say for how long. Normally, we’re alone during the night. It decreases the chance of any sexual temptations. But we’re a congregation… a community. We socialize with one another during the day, while we do our tasks. But now, it’s like… It’s like we’re being cut off from one another. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

“What else?”

“Punishments,” she whispered. I kept quiet. She took a deep breath. “Punishments are more frequent, more severe. There’s a violence to punishment that wasn’t there before.”

She set the cup down on the floor and curled her feet under her. If she made herself any smaller, she’d disappear. I got up and went into the kitchen. There was leftover pizza in the fridge—six pieces left. I took the whole box with me into the living room and set it on the coffee table. Then I refilled Claudia’s cup for her. When I sat back down, she was eyeing the box.

“Please tell me you’ve had pizza before,” I said. She shook her head. Probably explained Nate’s obsession with it. I opened the box. “Help yourself. I can heat it up if you’d like. I always liked cold pizza better.”

She didn’t move but still didn’t look away from the pizza. I picked the biggest slice up and handed it to her. “Here, this looks just the right size for you.”

I couldn’t say whether I was more amazed that she actually took the slice, or that she smiled. It wasn’t a big smile, but it was something. I grabbed a slice and started eating. She took bite after careful bite, glancing at me now and then. When she finished, she sat with her palms face up in her lap.

“There’s plenty, Claudia. Take what you want.”

She got another slice, then winced after about three bites. “It hurts,” she said. I frowned.

“What hurts?”

“My stomach. I think it might explode.”

I wanted to laugh. Jacob used to say that when he overate. The child mentality coming from a woman almost thirty was not funny. The sheer sincerity of it was not funny. The scared look in her eyes was not funny. God, I still wanted to laugh.

“You just overate, that’s all. You’ll feel better in a few minutes. The best thing to do in this situation is to lie down on your side. Here,” I said, wiping my fingers off on my jeans. I rearranged the pillows on the couch, and she moved over to it, lying down on her side. “Better?”

She nodded twice before her head dipped a little low and she fell asleep. I grabbed another slice of pizza and ate it quietly, waiting to see if she’d wake up. She didn’t. I closed the pizza box and put it back in the fridge. I grabbed a blanket from the spare closet and placed it over Claudia.

I grabbed a garbage bag and headed to the bathroom. Her clothes were in a pile on the floor. Everything went into the bag. I looked at myself in the mirror, checking my clothes for any blood. I couldn’t see any. I stripped down and tossed everything into the bag, anyway.

There was hardly any hot water left, but I stayed in longer than usual, scrubbing over twice just to be certain. I grabbed a towel and dried off, then wrapped the towel around my waist. I grabbed clothes from the dresser and headed back into the bathroom to dress. The jeans I’d grabbed were so worn that holes had appeared in the soft denim. I’d need to throw them out soon. The t-shirt wasn’t much better.

I went back into the living room. Claudia was still out. I sat in the chair and propped my feet on the coffee table. I wasn’t sure if Claudia would have a change of heart and try to run when she woke. I was a light enough sleeper that at least I could keep an eye on her this way.

It wouldn’t be the first time I’d fallen asleep in this chair.

♦♦♦

Friday, July 4, 2025

            I sat at the laptop and tried to work on the ad design for our newest client’s retail boutique. What Nate had told me last night had taken over all my brain waves, consuming every thought. I shut the laptop. Thoughts of kidnapping warred for top billing with thoughts of my family on another continent. That grew into thoughts of my family being kidnapped, then of my family kidnapping others. It just got darker from there.

            I needed something—anything—to do.

            “Fuck it,” I said. I grabbed my wallet off the nightstand in my bedroom and picked up my sunglasses as I headed out. The heat was sickening. The sunglasses didn’t help much. I jogged across the street to the corner mart.

            The door to the corner mart was open. The building’s air conditioner was out again. An oscillating fan sat behind the register. The shop smelled of exotic spices and something I couldn’t place but could recall vaguely. It made me think of the trips to Piggly Wiggly when I was around four years old, grocery shopping with my parents. Shit, I should probably call them to say hey.

            “What’s good, Mr. Alvis?” A young man’s voice sounded out from the storage room in the back. I looked up at the security mirror angled just enough to show Aaron’s hand waving.

            “Wasting time procrastinating,” I said. “The usual. How’re your studies going?”

            “Shit, Mr. Alvis, it’s still summer. The semester doesn’t start back for another month.”

            “Oh.” I guess I was a bit removed from college kids these days. Aaron trotted over to the counter. He wore baggy denim shorts with a pink polo. His black hair was slicked back, but I was guessing it was due to sweat rather than product. “Your mom decide to take off today?”

            “Nah, man, she’s out getting a replacement part for the a/c. I’m telling you, she’s fixed that unit so many times she could do that shit for a living.”

            “It keeps breaking,” I pointed out.

            “That’s ‘cause it’s a busted old POS, man,” he said defensively.

            “I didn’t mean any offense,” I said, raising my hands.

            “Nah, I know,” he said with a smile. “So, what do you need? I know you didn’t come in just to shoot the shit.”

            I looked at the cup by the register. It had a few cigarettes of varying kinds. It was illegal to sell singles, but it was one of those things where you had to be caught in the middle of the transaction and then hold your hand out for a lick across the knuckles. “A menthol,” I said. “Doesn’t matter what kind.”

            “But you quit,” Aaron said.

            “You ever been addicted to anything, Aaron?”

            “Nah, sir.”

            “That’s admirable. You know how long I was a smoker? Over a decade. Now, I’m trying to be the master of my addiction instead of the other way around, but Aaron…”

            “Yeah, Mr. A?”

            “It’s been a rough fucking week.”

            Aaron looked at me for a long time, eye to eye, frown to frown. “I’m gonna sell you one of these against my better judgment,” he said and handed me a Newport. I gave him two quarters. “Don’t you let my mama see you trying to buy any more. She’ll tear your ass up.”

            “Thanks, Aaron. And tell your mom I said hey.”

            He was mumbling as I walked out. It sounded a lot like, “Yeah, s’what I said to your mama last night.”

            Back inside my apartment, I dropped my wallet and sunglasses on the kitchen counter. I opened drawer after drawer, looking for a lighter. By the time I finally found a box of matches, I was already threatening death to the universe. I stepped out onto the balcony and lit up. The cigarette tasted disgusting, and the nicotine had my head swimming, but the familiarity of it, the ritual of it, was calming.

            My cellphone pinged. I pulled it from my pocket. A text from Nate: No news yet.

♦♦♦

Friday, July 11, 2025—Present Day

“Police have yet to make a statement or give additional details, but it has been confirmed that the body found in this Lakeview district warehouse is that of Robert Thorne, the son of Alabama Senator Jeffery Thorne.”

The reporter was standing in front of the warehouse from last night. It looked different during the day, paint peeling from the rough blocks of brick, the sidewalk cracked in places, the parking lot a hazard zone. The camera’s shot included the busted window I’d crawled in through. No mention of the van inside. Was that one of the details as yet undisclosed or had the cult come back to move it?

The volume on the TV was low enough that I heard Claudia stir. I turned to see her sitting up on the couch, the blanket pooling around her waist. Her hair was a wild, tangled mess and she had the imprint of one of the couch’s seams on her cheek. The circles under her eyes had improved. Her expression was blank. She looked from the TV to me, then back to the TV again.

“That’s where we were last night,” she said. I nodded. She pointed at the TV. “It’s real. That’s really happening. Or happened.”

“What do you mean?”

“TVs aren’t allowed in the congregation. We’re told that it only shows stories, and why did we need that? Because we had the best story of all and it was the truth,” she said. I winced. “I’ve talked to some of the newer members. They’ve told me about movies and TV shows. They’re fake… They’re just make-believe stories.”

“That’s not make-believe,” I said as I gestured to the TV. “That’s live reporting. It’s the news.” She raised her eyebrows. “The news is a program that reports on current events happening all over the world. Well, this is only the local news, but you get the idea.”

“Everything on the news is real?”

“In this case, yes,” I said.

“How did they find out about it so quickly?”

“The reporter said an anonymous tip was called in around 2:30 this morning,” I explained. She just looked at me. “That’s less than half an hour after we left, Claudia.”

“You say that like it means something, but I don’t understand.”

“It means that you were probably meant to be found there. It means you were set up. Do you understand? You were supposed to be caught and blamed for the murder.”

She looked shocked. The expression melted into horror, her eyes so wide I could see the whites all around them. “But I didn’t murder him,” she said. “I only… I didn’t. I would never do that.”

I only mutilated him, she was going to say. She couldn’t even bring herself to say it. How on God’s earth had she been talked into actually doing the deed.

“Do you have any idea why they’d want to set you up?” I asked. Her eyes were filling up, and she was shaking like a goddamn chihuahua. I ran to the bathroom and grabbed a roll of toilet paper in lieu of Kleenex.

It was going to be a long morning.

Chapter 5

Claudia Dayo

Friday, July 11, 2025—Present Day

Michael shoved a roll of toilet paper at me, holding it against my chest until I wrapped my hands around it. He moved over to the chair and sat with his elbows on his knees. He ran his hands over his face a few times.

I tore a square off the roll and dabbed at my face before wiping my nose. The news rambled on in the background. The lies were unraveling. I hadn’t been completing a holy task. What had we all done in the name of the Supernal Luminary, in the name of a false prophet?

Had others been made to kill, or had this been the first one? Was I really set up to take the blame for this murder?

I looked around the room. Something had to be here. Some answer maybe, or some meaning. Some purpose. But there was nothing. Of course, there was nothing.

“Claudia?” My head snapped toward Michael with little conscious thought. “Look, this may be a little harsh, but please don’t freak out again. Talk to me. Let me try to help or something, but please don’t keep freaking out.”

“What do you believe in?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“What’s your purpose? What do you live for? What do you strive to attain?”

Michael shook his head. He smiled. Then he laughed in short, stilted outbursts as if he couldn’t help himself. “The meaning of life,” he said.

“Why is that funny?”

“Because that’s probably the biggest question out there.” He laughed again. “No one has the answer, Claudia. I live because to do otherwise would mean death. I strive to attain happiness. My sense of purpose changes from day to day. It’s just part of being human.”

He made it sound so easy and so…frivolous.

“For as long as I can remember, my only purpose was to serve the Supernal Luminary to better serve God. That’s every aspect of my life. Or… was. What purpose do I have now?”

Michael’s smile fell, then disappeared completely.

“Claudia… I didn’t mean to belittle your situation. I’m out of my depth here, okay? I realize this must be hard for you.”

“Hard?” My voice broke around the question.

“But that doesn’t automatically mean it’s easy for me.” He sounded angry, though his face just looked tired.

“I didn’t mean to imply,” I said, but let the words trail off. “So what do we do?”

He shook his head. He was as lost as I was, and that scared me. Could I go back home if the Supernal Luminary wanted to hurt me? Had that truly been his intention? I felt at war with myself, the need to go back and the desire not to. I couldn’t stay here. Could I? That couldn’t be normal.

“We need to follow all updates on the Thorne case. The police might be looking for you,” Michael said softly.

“Why would they be looking for me?”

“It’s a safe bet you left behind some physical evidence when you were… you know. The police can use that to find you.”

It was like hearing another language. I heard the sounds, but they meant nothing. The thing that made the most sense was what he didn’t say, and that was something I was trying to scrub from my memory. His point got across, though—they could find me. They could find me and blame me for the boy’s death.

“So we listen to the news,” I said. He nodded. “And then what?”

I’d planned an escape from the compound twice before I visited with the Supernal Luminary. The visit changed everything. It renewed my faith in his message that spreading the word of God’s love would save the poor people on the outside, the Strays. It renewed my faith in him. It made me think I’d been weak, a backslider.

The planning had kept me calm and sane then. It would do so now.

“And then what, Michael? What next? What now?”

“Claudia.” He said my name slowly and with a visible effort at being calm. He blinked slowly, breathed slowly. He was lightly tapping his fist against the arm of the chair. “This is my first time harboring a criminal. This is my first time dealing with a fresh cult defector. You’re going to have to ease up a bit. I need to think.”

I had sympathy for him. I did. But: “If you don’t want me to freak out, then give me something to do. What can I do?”

He took a heavy breath and nodded. “Research,” he said. “We need to find out more about Senator Thorne and his son. Find out why your cult wanted them dead.”

“It’s not my cult,” I said angrily. The anger was… surprising.

“You know what I mean.”

“How will I do this research?”

Michael walked over to the desk in an alcove just off the back of the room. Bookshelves built into the wall surrounded the desk, all the space of which was filled. More books were on the desk. He picked up a device I’d seen before when I was handing out pamphlets with other congregation members. He put the device on the coffee table and pounded at the little letters before swiveling the device so that I could see a mostly white page with a bar that said “search.”

“I’ve seen one of these before,” I said. I had to ask because I didn’t know. Still, I was embarrassed. It was like holding a pencil and asking what it was for and how to use it. Everyone knows what a pencil is, as I had no doubt all the Strays knew what this device was. Well, I was a Stray now, and I’d learn, no matter how stupid I felt. So I asked. “What is it?”

I think Michael was past the point of being surprised. He just cursed under his breath and shook his head. Then he smiled. “I’ll get used to this, I swear. This is a laptop. It’s a portable computer.”

“The Shepherds had access to a computer, but it wasn’t anything like this. It was huge, but the screen was very small. The Supernal Luminary sometimes communicated with the Shepherds that way. We weren’t allowed to use it, but I got close to the screen once.” I pointed at the tiny picture of an envelope. “That’s the only picture that was on the screen.”

“Email,” Michael murmured. “You know, maybe you shouldn’t do the research.”

“Why not?” I snapped.

“Because the Internet is an endless thing,” he said. “You can find anything on it. And you have to use critical thinking when it comes to what’s real and what’s not. You need more societal knowledge.”

I wanted to argue, but there was no point. I couldn’t keep the disappointment off my face. How could I help now?

“I’ll search for credible sources. You can do the reading. How’s that?”

“Yes.” I snapped the response fast, then felt my face warming. “If it helps.”

Michael turned toward the laptop and began tapping the letters again. His eyes moved back and forth as he scanned the screen. He’d make a noise every so often, when he found something of interest, like a thoughtful grunt. The noises lulled me into a kind of wakeful sleep. I finally felt calm. Maybe hopeful, even.

♦♦♦

Friday, July 4, 2025

            I’d spent the rest of the daylight hours in the garden with Caleb, meeting the members of the commune and taking in the sights. As I sat at the table in the dining room, I itched to do something. Anything. Caleb had said we would have a lot to cover tomorrow, so I was to rest tonight. Just relax. I wasn’t relaxed. I picked at the cracking skin on my fingertips and listened to the sounds coming from the kitchen. Pots and pans scraping the surface of the stove top, plates and glasses clinking, silverware being pulled from drawers.

            “Here you go, darlin’,” Caleb said. I jumped. I hadn’t heard him come into the room. He chuckled as he extended a pretty glass for me to take. It was half full of dark red liquid. I took the glass and set it in front of me on the table. Caleb pulled out the chair next to me and sat. He kicked his legs out in front of him and folded his hands in his lap.

            “Thank you,” I said. “Um… what is it?”

            Caleb’s eyes went wide. “It’s wine. Have you never had it?”

            “Alcohol isn’t allowed in the compound,” I said.

            “That’s right,” he mumbled as if recalling something. He smiled. “We like to have a glass of wine with dinner here. Go on, then. Help yourself. I won’t tell if you don’t.” He winked at me.

            I picked up the glass and took a sip. It was… different. Sour and sweet. It wasn’t as fruity tasting as it looked. It was biting. I took another sip. As I set the glass back down, people started shuffling in with plates, setting the table. The food came next. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. I didn’t know what half of what they brought out was, but the smells coming off everything were making my mouth water.

            Once everything was settled on the table, everyone sat. I tried not to stare openly at the food. There was just so much of it. The other commune members all turned to Caleb. I did too. He sat up straight in his chair and folded his hands in front of his face. We all did the same.

            “Lord, we thank you for blessing us with this abundance. We want to thank you for our benevolent and wise leader, the Supernal Luminary. We thank you for giving the Supernal Luminary the foresight to send us Miss Claudia Dayo. Amen.”

            “Amen,” our chorus followed. My face felt warm. It was hard to meet anyone’s eyes. Relaxed chatter started up around the table. Everyone here seemed perfectly nice. They were all older than I was, mostly in their late forties, early fifties maybe. The three women—Rebecca, Julia, and Charlotte—had weather-worn faces with close-cropped hair. They all looked kind, with laughing expressions and soft features. There were two men, aside from Caleb—Seamus and James—who had calloused fingers and large forearms. They also had kind faces, features shot through with smile lines around their eyes and mouth.

            Caleb glanced at my empty plate. I didn’t know where to start. Everything here—the way things were done and the number of things they had and even their personalities—was overwhelming. Caleb’s eyes met mine, and he smiled. He took my plate without a word and started filling it with colorful food.

            “Not too much. We don’t want the poor girl’s stomach to explode,” Charlotte said. “Here, give me that. You know how they are at the compound.” Charlotte rearranged the plate so there was some of everything on it, but only a bite’s worth of each dish. She passed the plate to Caleb, who set it in front of me.

            “Why would my stomach explode?” I asked. The thought should have been horrifying, but the exhaustion eating at me numbed everything else.

            “Don’t listen to that old bat,” Caleb said, smiling over at Charlotte. “Eat up. You’ve got a big day ahead of you tomorrow. It’s probably going to be a lot more physical activity than you’re used to.”

            I nodded and poked at the food on my plate, hunger warring with nausea.

♦♦♦

Friday, July 11, 2025—Present Day

I shot upright, whipping my head around to find the source of the mechanical grinding sound. It was coming from the alcove with the books. Michael turned to me.

“It’s the printer,” he explained calmly. I let myself relax a little 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 rarely got 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.

“I’m sorry,” I said. Fear rose from the pit of my stomach in icy waves. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep. It won’t happen again.” I could feel myself shrinking back into the couch cushions, and I couldn’t stop it. It was such an ingrained response. If you sleep when you’re not supposed to, you get punished. If you eat when you’re not supposed to, you get punished. If you speak when you’re not supposed to…

“Claudia,” Michael said. He half stood, reaching toward me with 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 choked out an apology in a voice thick with tears. I tried to relax. I guided her head back to my shoulder. 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 was I doing? I needed help with Claudia. The only person I knew who could help her was…

            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 said nothing. “Michael…”

            “I need your help, Nate.”

            “What a surprise,” he said dryly.

            “It’s serious.”

            “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 hear scuffling in the background. “Yeah. I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes.”

            “Thanks, Nate.”

            “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 up.

            “I’ve asked a friend to come over,” I said slowly. “I think he can help you.”

            “Help me?”

            “Yeah. Help you adjust. He’s an ex-member, like you.” She was getting 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 started enough coffee for me and Nate, 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.

            “May I?”

            “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 peephole and opened the door when I saw Nate.

            “Thanks for coming,” I said as he walked past. He scowled at me. I shut the door, locked it, and followed Nate into the living room. Claudia 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. He pitched his voice 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, and there was no nervousness about her.

            “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, then back to Nate. “Twenty-three years,” she said.

            Now 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 distress. 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 all 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.

            “This is about the Thorne kid,” he said. I grimaced 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.”

            “Then what?”

            “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 heavily, 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 mind.”

            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, then 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 wasted years. 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 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 there. You sat in a little circle and told your story. One night after a meeting, an ex-member approached me. We talked for hours. She said that other ex-members were 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 stopped. He took a deep breath and clenched his fist a few times.

“I got a call one day that 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 the back of his hand. Tears gathered in her eyes, trailing down her cheeks whenever she blinked.

            “Not all of us make it,” Nate mumbled.

Chapter 7

Claudia Dayo

Saturday, July 5, 2025

            After breakfast, I walked outside with Caleb. Birds darted overhead. The sun was still low but offered a preview of the onslaught of heat to come. Dew spotted the grass. We passed the garden, laid out in neat rows of vegetation. Vines circled up cages in some kind of order I couldn’t make out, half hiding their ripe, red tomatoes. The door to the small garden shed was open.

            Caleb was describing the workload for the day. I half listened as we walked along the footpath that led from the house through the garden and into the woods. Sweat was already trickling down my back. My fingers found each other of their own accord, picking at the nails, the nail beds, the surrounding skin. At the very edge of the tree line, Caleb stopped and turned to me. I folded my hands in front of me to stop the fidgeting.

            “We’ll be working away from the house today,” he said. “Now, I don’t want you to be scared or nervous.” He chuckled, his eyes squinting, little lines running from their corners. “I realize how absurd that sounds. I’m sure you’re nervous.” I nodded. “I guess what I mean is, the work we’re going to be starting today can be a little shocking. I’m not trying to shock or scare you, so I want to be clear ahead of time.”

            I nodded again. Caleb’s smile fell into an easy, pleasant expression. He looked patient. I wanted desperately to know what was coming, but… Don’t ask questions. Never ask questions. My stomach rolled, and my heart seemed to beat a little faster. It took a conscious effort to keep my fingers from tearing at one another.

            “Come on, darlin’. We’ll walk and talk,” Caleb said, his pleasant expression wilting at the edges.

            After about ten paces into the dense cover of the trees, Caleb cleared his throat. The ground underfoot gave way enough to mark our progression on the path. The forest smelled different, fresh. It was an unfamiliar smell for me, such a change from the city, the compound, even the garden.

            “How do you like the food you’ve had here so far?” Caleb asked.

            “It’s good,” I said.

            “The meat, specifically.”

            “I’m still getting used to it, I think. But I like it,” I said, trying to give safe answers. I wasn’t sure where this was going. Caleb scratched his jaw, then pointed to something unseen in the distance.

            “We raise all our own livestock just over there,” he said. “It’s better that way because we know the animals have had a good life before we serve them at the table. Quality of life is important.”

            This last statement seemed to have a weight behind it, some essence of importance. When I nodded, Caleb waved his hand dismissively and shook his head.

            “I think that’s a concept you might learn later in life,” he said, more to the ground than to me. He cleared his throat again and resumed. “Our livestock lives well, but ultimately we raise some to be eaten. That’s what we’re doing today. We’re going to prepare a pig for the table.”

            I wasn’t sure what that entailed. Between Caleb’s words and tone, I gathered it wasn’t likely to be the most pleasant process. One thing, at least, was clear.

“We have to kill it first,” I said.

            “That’s right. Kill it, clean it, and butcher it.”

            That was an ugly word, butcher. It sounded harsh, almost savage in a way I could recognize but not name. My stomach tightened.

            “This is going to help with my holy mission somehow?” I asked. It’s why I’d been brought here. To prepare. I couldn’t find the connection. Maybe I didn’t want to.

            Caleb watched my face, his gaze briefly sliding to my hands before returning. I forced myself to stop the fidgeting I hadn’t realized I was doing.

            “I can’t speak to that, darlin’. You know how it is,” he finally said.

I did know. What was the expression? The left hand can’t know what the right is doing?

“It’s all right, darlin’,” Caleb said, placing a giant paw of a hand on my shoulder. “I’m not going to make you do anything you don’t want to. If you feel like you can’t do it, we’ll just walk away, all right?”

“Just walk away?”

Caleb dropped his hand and smiled, but he looked sad. “I grew up on a farm a long time ago. What you’re feeling now? I went through that with my father. I gave him hell. I didn’t want to kill any of our animals.”

“What did he do?” I asked.

“He sat me down one morning and told me I had a choice to make. Our farm was small. We had enough livestock that we could keep ourselves fed and make a bit of income by selling what was left at the big farmer’s market downtown, along with the harvest. We were self-sustained, so I’d never needed to go into the grocery store to see all the mass-produced packages of meats there. I imagine you haven’t either.”

I shook my head.

“Those animals, they weren’t like ours on the farm or even the ones here. They lived in squalor, tramping around in their own waste, packed in stalls so full they couldn’t move. They lived their whole lives like that, right up until they were butchered.”

The word sounded even uglier this time.

“What was the choice?” I asked.

            “I could give our animals a good, happy life and a good death; or I could give them—and any other animal we might get—to the factory farms. Because we couldn’t afford to keep the animals if we didn’t use them for their products.”

            “That doesn’t sound like a great choice either way,” I said. Caleb chuckled and rocked back on his heels.

            “Quality of life is everything for these animals, Claudia. They should live good lives. They deserve to be treated with care, with kindness. When it comes time to kill them, they don’t see it coming. There’s no fear and there’s no pain.”

            A thought flashed through my mind, so bright and disturbing that physically shook me. Is that what we are? Are we livestock?

            I took a deep breath. And another. I shook my head to clear the thought, but it didn’t work. Not really. It was silly. I was being silly. We weren’t livestock. The Supernal Luminary loved every one of us. He took care of us. He strived to lead us along a path of righteousness and light.

            Unity.

            We were unity.

            I looked up at Caleb. His face was back to its pleasant blankness.

“I think I understand,” I told him. I wasn’t even sure what I thought it was that I understood. Caleb studied my face, then nodded.

            “What I said still stands: If you get uncomfortable or feel like it’s too much, just say the word.”

            “Yes, sir,” I said.

            We marched on.

♦♦♦

Friday, July 11, 2025

            “But some of you do,” I said, taking my hand from Nate and wiping a stray tear. I needed that to be the truth. If others—any others, no matter how many—could make it outside of Commonality Sanctum, then so could I. “You made it. And others.”

Nate nodded.

“Then so can I.” The words came out forcefully. My voice was alien to my own ears, hard and determined and sure. I felt Michael shift beside me. I looked over to find a hint of a smile. When his eyes met mine, the smile settled more comfortably.

“You’re goddamn right you can,” he said, with no less determination than was in my own voice.

            Nate leaned back in the chair and ran a thumb and index finger under his eyes, clearing the moisture of tears before they escaped.

            “You did good, Nate,” Michael said.

            Nate gave him a withering look. “I relived a nightmare.”

            “I appreciate it,” I said. “You’ve given me something I don’t think anyone else could have given.”

            “What’s that?”

            “Proof,” I said.

Chapter 8

Michael Alvis

Saturday, July 5, 2025

            Senator Thorne and his son stared back at me from my laptop. They gave nothing away. Nothing helpful. Thorne had light brown hair, parted neatly to the side. His son’s was nearly identical, slightly lighter. Two pairs of brown eyes, the senior Thorne’s etched at the sides with crinkled lines. At sixteen, the younger Thorne’s face still held traces of baby fat.

            I was never much of a heavy hitter in the political arena. Just not interested. A few of the articles and interviews I’d read over the past five hours expressed Senator Thorne’s stance against Commonality Sanctum. It was a tricky situation. The cult was a legitimate religion under the law, so any outright attack on Commonality Sanctum could be taken as stomping on their religious freedom.

            Horse shit.

            Thorne had been nimble in his outlook regarding the cult, skirting the line of political correctness. He was good, I’d give him that. His views explained why he was being targeted by the cult. To kidnap his son was ballsy. The endgame still wasn’t clear. Nate had no additional information yet.

            So, where do I go from here, then?

♦♦♦

Friday, July 11, 2025—Present Day

            Claudia was asleep in my bed. I left the door cracked in case she woke up to another panic attack.

            “What do you think?” I asked Nate.

            “I think she should go to the police,” Nate said. “The information she has could help unravel Commonality Sanctum.”

            I wished that were true. God, I wished that were true.

            “You know better than that,” I said. “There’s no physical evidence. Testimony from an ex-member won’t be enough. There’s no one to corroborate her story. She’s an unreliable witness, and she’s practically gift-wrapped with a card labeled scapegoat.” I shook my head and sat down heavily on the couch.

            I had seriously picked the wrong time to stop smoking.

            “So what are you going to do then?” Nate asked.

            I stared past Nate, out the window at the corner store. I could just get a single. No big deal. Maybe Aaron was manning the shop. He’d sell me one.

            Nate’s fingers appeared in front of my face, the accompanying snap sounding too close. “You okay, man?” he asked.

            “We need to find out exactly why the cult is targeting Thorne. He’s not the only senator who isn’t a fan of the cult—”

            “We?”

            “We,” I gestured between myself and Claudia in the next room.

            Nate looked at me for a long time. Pity. That’s what I saw in his eyes. Like I was a victim of this.

            “Look, man…” he took a deep breath before taking the plunge. “I know you miss your family, but this isn’t the way to deal with that. This is dangerous. We’re talking about a fucking terrorist cult here, Mikey. You can’t go up against that. It’s too big, it’s too much. You’re going to get yourself killed.”

            I licked dry lips, tried to work some moisture into my throat. My head felt too heavy, hanging low, avoiding Nate’s eyes. “What if…” My voice cracked over the words. “What if there’s another way?”

            I finally looked up. Nate was frowning, eyebrows creeping together.

            “Another way? What do you mean another—” His eyes opened wide. “No way, man. No fucking way. You might as well just put a bullet in her yourself.”

            I held my hands up and half raised out of my seat. “If we come up with a good enough story,” I whispered harshly, torn between talking over Nate and not waking Claudia. “She could find out where they are, Nate. She could find them.”

            “And what will you be doing in the meantime?” he asked. “While she’s walking around the compound with the knife you want to put at her throat, what will you be doing?”

            “Finding out why the fucking high-and-mighty Supernal Luminary targeted Thorne.” It wasn’t a whisper this time. “And why he set Claudia up to take the fall.”

            We were both standing now. I hadn’t even noticed getting in his face. He shoved me away and folded his arms, turning his back to me. I could see his head shaking. He laughed, the sound bitter and unwelcome.

            “I don’t think I can be a part of this,” he said quietly.

            “I’m not asking you to,” I said.

            When he finally turned to look at me, his face was like stone, cold and shut down. His eyes gave him away, the bottom lids crowding with moisture. He dropped his arms and walked past me, slamming the door on his way out.

            I turned. Claudia leaned against the doorframe leading to the bedroom, her arms crossed under her breasts. She tilted her head, the slight movement sending a cascade of hair over her shoulders.

            Well, fuck.

Chapter 9

Claudia Dayo

Saturday, July 5, 2025

            A rectangular concrete building bloomed up from the horizon, growing as we drew closer. Small windows were set at intervals too high for even Caleb to reach. My heart pounded double time as I saw the iron bars across the windows. A steel door broke the monotony of the building. Seeing it did nothing to calm my nerves.

            Caleb walked at a sedate pace, letting me take in my surroundings. The closer we got to the door, the warmer the air seemed—like the building was exhaling. Less than five feet from the door, the smell hit me. A sickly-sweet coppery scent slowly permeated the air, undertones of sweat and meat tickling the back of my throat.

            Caleb opened the door and stood aside for me to precede him. Breathing shallowly, I walked over the threshold. Cool air blasted around me from every direction, the smell dissipating with the heat. Caleb shut the door. We were lost to the darkness. A loud click had me jumping, barely able to keep the startled shriek behind my lips.

            And then there was light. Everywhere, light. Harsh fluorescent light beaming down from overhead, chasing the shadows to the corners of the building.

            “You all right, darlin’?” Caleb asked. He sounded concerned. Could I say no?

            I nodded. He clasped me on the shoulder and pointed to a room in the back right corner of the building. I followed him to it. The room was sectioned off with an L-shaped fabricated wall. Its other two walls were the concrete of the building’s parameter. A section running from floor to ceiling was left open. Caleb walked into the room. I followed. He swung shut a waist-high gate I hadn’t noticed. He smiled, then walked to the rear exterior wall. He opened a hatch set low in the wall. It blended in so well I hadn’t noticed it at first. The hatch led outside. I could see dirt and patches of browning grass. Caleb whistled. I waited.

            A shuffling, snuffling noise crept in from outside. I froze, eyes locked on the open hatch. A pink snout with flaring nostrils appeared. The snout swung back and forth, huffing at the ground, nostrils clenching and relaxing, clenching and relaxing. A head followed the snout, big and blocky, then a cloven hoof, a leg, more and more until the pig was suddenly inside the little room with us. Caleb closed the hatch quietly.

            The pig’s snout huffed at the ground around Caleb’s feet. He squatted and laid a hand on the pig’s back as he looked up at me.

            “This here’s Delilah,” he said. He held his other hand out to me. “It’s all right.”

            I looked down at my hands where they were folded against my chest. I reached out and Caleb’s hand enclosed mine. He pulled gently until I stood beside him. He placed my hand on the broad expanse of the pig’s head. Little coarse hairs rubbed against my palm and fingers. The pig backed up until my hand dropped in front of her face and she huffed at it, hot air and moisture coming out of those wide nostrils. She returned her focus to the ground. Caleb stood.

            “She’s not scared,” he said. “That’s important. Her comfort right up until the end is important. It’s humane.”

            “She’s so big,” I said. My voice shook. Caleb laughed.

            “She is, isn’t she? But she’s gentle, too. And real curious.”

            “Does she know what’s going to happen?” I asked. I didn’t want to elaborate, though I couldn’t say why with anything like logic. Animals can’t understand people. I know that.

            Delilah trotted a few paces, kicked out with her rear feet, then resumed huffing at the ground.

            “No, darlin’, she doesn’t.” Caleb squatted down again, and Delilah ambled over to him. “Animals have a pretty good sense when it comes to people’s emotions though.”

            “Like dogs,” I said. I’d read that years ago, though I couldn’t remember where. It had stuck with me.

            “Like dogs,” Caleb agreed. He squinted up at me, his lips pursed. “At a guess, I’d say she’s picking up on your anxiety.”

            “I’m sorry, I—”

            Caleb laughed again. “It’s all right, darlin’, it’s fine. Come on and pet her for a bit. It’ll calm you both down.”

            I sidled up to the big pig and leaned down to pet her. She huffed at my feet, then my knees. I squatted down and rubbed her ear. It was thin, silky, with hardly any of the coarse hair that covered the rest of her. She bobbed her head up and down, then turned into me, knocking me over. Her big nostrils blew hot air across my face, ruffled my hair. Then she wandered off. Caleb pulled me up.

            “That’s better,” he said.

            “Now what?”

            “Well, we’ll get her together a fine meal. It’ll be her last one. After she eats, we’ll wait twenty-four hours and then…” He gestured toward the building beyond. Then the slaughter, he didn’t say. “She’ll stay in here until then.”

            “And it’ll be painless,” I said.

            “That’s right.”

            No details. It likely wouldn’t be pleasant. Maybe he thought sparing me the details was the same as somehow sparing me. No. The surprise of it would be worse. Twenty-four hours to imagine. Twenty-four hours to think of how a task like this was done. Twenty-four hours to dwell on death. On killing.

            On butchering.

            No, Caleb was not sparing me. He was hardening me. And tomorrow? Tomorrow was the tempering.

♦♦♦

Friday, July 11, 2025—Present Day

            “Sorry,” Michael said. He shrugged, his eyes never making it quite past the floor in front of me. “Did we wake you?”

            “Your family is…” I trailed off when Michael’s eyes found mine. My back tensed. Finally, slowly, his shoulders slumped, his expression slackening. He nodded.

            “You heard that bit, huh?” He ducked his head, finding interest in the floor again. I put a hand on his arm and patted it awkwardly. The side of his mouth quirked up into a half smile.

            “Do you want to talk about it?” I asked. His face took on a nervous expression.

            “There’s not much to tell. My wife took my son, joined the cult… I’ve been trying to get them back ever since, but…” He shrugged. There was hopelessness to the movement that I could sense more than see. Michael rubbed his hands over his face, the motion quick and jerky. He shook his head. “I don’t want to ask you to do something that you wouldn’t want to do.”

            “But you’re going to?”

            “I… Yes.

            “Then ask,” I said. I felt for Michael, for his loss. I’d never known my family. I was too young when I’d been taken. The cult… The cult was the only family I knew. Now that I was away from the cult, my loss seemed more acute. So, yeah, I could understand where Michael was coming from. But to go back to the cult? Especially if he thought they had framed me for murder—and I couldn’t say I disagreed—Michael would have to ask. He would have to feel some of the burden of what he wanted me to do.

            He finally looked at me, his eyes like leather shields, hard, worn. I’d expected some emotion, but the look he gave me was cold, his face impassive. When he spoke, his words were sharp and oppressive. “I want you to infiltrate Commonality Sanctum. I want you to help find my family.”

Chapter 10

Michael Alvis

Friday July 11, 2025—Present Day

            Claudia flinched. My voice sounded muffled under the pulse rushing in my ears. Claudia dropped her hand from my arm and slid past me to the couch. I ran clawed hands through my hair. The raking effect helped temper some of the chaos in my head. I wasn’t sure I wanted to turn and face her. Not yet.

            I had one goal. Goddammit, I wanted my family back.

            My eyes flitted around the room as I thought, as I tried to focus. I wasn’t going to put a gun to Claudia’s head and make her help, of course. Well, scratch “of course,” because at this point… Fuck.

            “Claudia, I—”

            “What’s your plan?” she asked, cutting me off. I turned to her. She took up more space on the couch today, sitting cross-legged with her hands touching her knees.

            “Plan…” I blew out a breath. “I haven’t gotten that far.”

            I sat heavily in the chair. I opened my mouth a few times, trying to say something, but … Whatever I said would be a lie. It would start with “I’m sorry” and end with “you don’t have to do this” and that was just a fucking lie. She had to do this. Because I’m so fucking desperate at this point. So, I said nothing. I felt the night crowding in around me. It was late, I was tired, and the low lamp light of the apartment wasn’t helping.

            After two naps, Claudia was wide awake, studying me. Her stomach growled. She continued to watch me as I pulled out my cell phone and dialed the number for the local Chinese delivery place. I knew the number by heart, and they knew my usual order. I doubled the order this time.

            We sat in silence for the ten minutes it took the food to arrive. I spread the food containers out on the coffee table before us and handed Claudia one of the plastic forks that came in the bag. She watched as I used the chopsticks to pick up pieces of General Tso’s chicken. We ate in a silence that slid from strained to companionable.

            “’S good,” she said, breaking the silence with a mouthful of food. She swallowed. “What is it?”

            “Chinese food. General Tso’s chicken. Those,” I pointed at another container, “are pork dumplings.”

            She speared a dumpling with her fork, eyes widening as she chewed. She quickly ate another one before setting her fork down and calling it quits. I closed the containers, gathered them up, and put the leftovers in the fridge.

            “Nate said something about the police earlier, when you were arguing,” Claudia said. I dropped back onto the chair and nodded. “They’re the …” She frowned. “He thought they could help.”

            “It’s complicated,” I said.

            “Why?”

            “Because it’s likely they’ll pin you for the murder.”

            “But can’t we explain what happened?” She leaned forward, her left hand pinched in her right. I shook my head.

            “Nate was right. I’m in way over my head.” I rubbed my face.

            “I don’t really understand. I didn’t … I didn’t kill that kid. I haven’t done anything wrong.”

            “I’m pretty sure it’s wrong to desecrate a corpse. And it doesn’t matter that you didn’t commit the murder. There will be evidence linking you to the kid: DNA, fingerprints.”

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