In the bunker is an unsettling world, where we must face our past, present and future selves. A short story by Joanna Kavenna
When I received the invitation, I thought, well, so that’s what happened to Guy Matthias. He had retreated, back to his bunker.
It was a long story.
The invitation said:
“GUY MATTHIAS WOULD LIKE TO INVITE YOU TO HIS 2013 END OF TIME CHRISTMAS PARTY at THE BUNKER nr ITHACA, New York. Come as you are…”
“The bunker” was not actually near Ithaca – it stood in a lonely valley, further north. Guy bought it in 1999, when he was getting ready for the Y2K Apocalypse. He thought the end would come bang on time, as the new millennium dawned, he actually thought it would all fit neatly into the Gregorian calendar! When the apocalypse didn’t fit neatly, and didn’t come at all, Guy had a long dark night of the soul but then he emerged full of hope again. He’d just mistimed it. He was wary of the obvious next time around: he decided not to sign up with the Mayans. The year 2012 wasn’t in his sights at all. He was going for 2013.
It’s like the old adage about crying wolf. He’d cried one apocalypse already. How many times can you cry Certain Doom? I read the invitation over and over and I wondered – was it serious? I couldn’t imagine Guy being ironic but if it was genuinely happening I was keen to see it. And 14 years was a long time. Long enough for a person to get really gnawed by the ravenous monster of Ordinary Life, chewed up, spat out again.
I asked my ex-wife if I could take the kids with me and she thought for a few seconds and said no.
“But they might enjoy it,” I said.
“I doubt that, Doug.”
I set off from my little cockroach palace in Queen’s, the exile zone. The back of the car was full of detritus. The car was a symbolic representation of my inner self. My outer self was dressed casually – jeans, a sweater. Come as you are. I had RSVP-ed but received no reply. I drove in thick congested traffic, and then the city ended and I drove through half-forgotten towns, past clapboard houses, Christmas lights slung everywhere like a strange imperative. To celebrate! To worship your half-forgotten Deity! Or, if you were Guy, to herald the New Dawn!
I passed Monticello, a town I’d passed so many times. I went over snow-clad hills, as the sky turned dark blue, deep pink, as the clouds were stained by the dying sun. It was beautiful out there, and I remembered the sharp turn off the road, down a pock-marked track, which jolted the car, through thick enclosing forests.
I was almost there and then I saw the gatehouse, and drew to a halt. Guy had put up a perimeter fence. Of course he had. A crazy paranoiac leopard doesn’t change his spots. He just gets more and more of them. Age brings them on. Well, I don’t know. Of course, as you age, you realise, the universe really does have it in for you. It’s going to bring you down, however many bunkers you build.
I spoke into a metal device, a nasal computer voice coming back at me. “The gate will open. Proceed.”
I drove on, along a track which had been cleared of snow. Snow stacked at the edges. Snow piled against the trees. In the dim light the colours had faded to monochrome. I saw, ahead,the house. I remembered – two storeys above ground and three below. It looked like a typical old East Coast house, rickety stairwells, pictures of the ancestors. Then below – it was something else.
There were a few cars already there. No one came out to greet me. Instead, there was a sign which said PARTY – pointing down.
I went down a steep staircase, below the house, into an antechamber. It was whitewashed, sterile, and in the centre was a big box. I tried to lift the lid but it was padlocked. There were no windows in the bunker. One drawback with living underground and defending yourself against societal collapse and potential contamination – it’s claustrophobic. It can get you down.
I walked into the next room, which was low-ceilinged, dimly lit.
This was where it got a little weird. I mean, it was already slightly weird, the random invitation, my random decision to accept the random invitation, my solitary journey into nightfall, and the thick forests, and the bunker with no one there to welcome me.
It was on the cusp of weirdness already but then I walked into the next room and I was confronted by myself.
I emitted a groan.
Of course, at one level, I had expected as much. I had been prepared for something.
But not quite this.
“I” was sitting on a chair in the centre of the room, and “I” was young. Behind “me” was a bookshelf, a few leather-bound volumes. “I” was sitting there and “I” was 25. “I” had curly, abundant hair, bright straw-coloured hair, the brightness of unbridled youth and “I” was saying something.
“Christ,” I said. I the elder, not I the younger. I the younger was not swearing at all, I the younger was busy waving “my” hands around with all the urgency of youth and saying, “Time is not real, death is not real, they are constructs that are placed upon us.”
Then there was a pause, and I paused, younger and older, and then I younger said, “I am glorious and uncontained, I will not fade or be diminished. I am determined to reside in light for as long as it will shine upon me.”
I was going forward, I present, myself, but then I saw a sign on the floor:
“Don’t approach the totem.”
Totem? I wasn’t even sure what that meant. I went forward more cautiously, just in case “I” did something sudden. It was a little… unnerving. When I got right up close, I put my hand out.
There was this weird push-back – resistance. Then a sort of fizz, electricity, static, or was that just my nerves? “I” was not mere light and shadow, “I” was … what?
What was “I”?
I had this impulse to wipe my hands. To wipe away the traces of this alter-self. Pseudo-me.
“I” was off again.
“We are too subservient to linear time. It’s just lassitude that gets us in the end. We get weighted down by gravity and inertia. Then we succumb.”
I recognised it as a video from long ago. Guy had filmed everything, obsessively. He was one of the pioneers of the webcam. It was just a video from some party, where I had been banging on. But then, there was the further question: how had Guy fattened it out, converted it into something so… almost tangible?
Technology was never my strong suit.
Of course, it was Guy’s.
I stepped around the “I” creature.
“We are stardust,” it was saying. “We are strands of light” – except it wasn’t. I shut the door behind myself. Against “myself”.
Guy was always a weirdo, I was thinking. And why?
In the next room, there was some trap sprung for another poor guest. Another totem, droning on about the unreality of debt. I got the joke – I imagined that man had been some kind of financial expert. He had told everyone what to do with their money and then lost it all himself. Of course, Guy, I thought.
Room by room, I saw the traps he’d set for other people, I guessed I was being mocked for having ended up as such a callow failure, trapped in a nothing job. I had no doubt Guy had hacked into everything, collected his data.
I tiptoed round the totems, got more and more freaked out. And then, I found another room, another speaking thing, this time a “woman” – I realised, with a jolt, it was Eloise.
She had long black hair, kohled eyes, she was astonishingly beautiful. I remembered, of course. I had been…
Oh well, I had been…
“Eloise” was speaking quietly, she always spoke quietly, I had to lean towards her – it.
“Guy, I mean, this is ridiculous. It can’t go on. No, no I haven’t, are you filming? But just for once… can you stop filming every conversation we have? OK, you’ve stopped. Yes? Promise. Just this once. Please?”
Her expression was pained, contemptuous, loving – she was in agony. I thought of Guy – past – surreptitiously filming anyway, even when she’d begged him not to.
“We can’t go on. I love you but it’s too much. I can’t do it anymore.” She was crying now, the kohl was going everywhere. “No, it’s not Doug. I don’t even care about him. You know that, surely?”
Of course, it was heavily edited. In Guy’s favour. But it made me clench my fists anyway.
Eloise, still sobbing: “Please Guy, don’t be crazy. Just give it up.”
She bowed her head and sobbed into her black-nailed fingers and I put my hands out. I wanted to…
I bowed my head, went on.
In the next room there was our former group of friends, in technicolour totem-creature. The whole cohort, everyone apart from me. There was Antti Anttila who had a thick Finnish accent so he sounded like a bird tweeting. Kaylie Brookes, looking self-important. Scott Baynes – that was a shock, the man had been dead for more than a decade. Here he was, honed and fine and eager.
Scott was saying, from the afterlife, “Well, he just went. He walked out on everything, he just went.”
“He wasn’t very good at his job,” Antti was saying.
“It was that whole thing with Eloise,” said Scott.
“Eloise never loved Doug,” said Kaylie. “Of course she didn’t. She was only trying to get Guy’s attention.”
Antti was twittering about how I had been a lazy asshole, and Scott Baynes was saying that I’d always been jealous of Guy, and the zit-besmirched geek, Midge Foster, was just saying, “Too right man,” every so often while everyone ignored him like they always did.
“He’s just a talentless prick who wants to be the next great thing,” said Antti.
“But he won’t,” said Scott. Long-dead prophet. “He won’t.”
They all nodded – Scott who was killed on September 11th and Kaylie who vanished wherever she vanished and Antti, who went back to Finland and gave it all up to be a farmer.
The next door was blocked off. I tried to turn the handle, failed to progress. Then I saw a narrow staircase in the corner of the room. So I went upwards – to ground level, inside the house. I’d always preferred it up here. I’d always preferred normality. I was in a big living room, with sofas, a piano, pictures on the walls. Big windows, curtains open so I could see the black night beyond and the room reflected against the blackness. Myself reflected and, of course, a couple of Guys.
Guy Past and Present, speaking together.
I was shocked. By the thing itself. By the contrast between then and now. I was just generally shocked as hell. Guy younger was film-actor handsome, as I remembered him. It had always bugged me. Dark eyes, long eyelashes, black floppy hair. Guy present was grizzled, he looked older than 40. He was evidently real, he had that flawed bodily reality that we have, when we are not tricks of technology. Stains and imperfections, to prove we are not fake.
“Christ,” I said.
“Doug Varley!” said Guy younger and older, with fake warmth or real warmth, I couldn’t tell. Either of them. “So good to see you. Don’t be disturbed by any of the synthetic auras. They are just to jog the memory. I wanted to release the old demons. Send them away.”
I was opening my mouth to say something but then…
I wasn’t sure I even had the vocabulary…
“Downstairs for the demons. Upstairs, we’re just having a good time.”
As something moved, there was some rearrangement of the room. More Guys.
Guy as a child, as a teenager, Guy as an older man, 50 or so, and then – Guy really ancient and decrepit and barely able to stand.
Like a dream…
They were saying:
“For tonight there is no linear time, only circles of time, and we are interwoven with our present and past and future selves…”
A weird chorus, the oldest Guy with a faint trembling voice, the youngest Guy with a reedy treble and the whole bunch of them chorusing, “For tonight we’re up here and we’re here always and we’re all always having a good time…”
I blinked, the piano had gone, it had been… unreal, I realised. The sofas had been rearranged, and I knew now if I sat on them they would be synthetic semi-objects, half there, half not.
I turned, and I was looking at myself – older, older still. I was looking at myself, young then younger. I was so like my son, it was crazy.
Then Guy – real Guy – had appeared in the midst of the ages of Guy and real Guy was half-old, stuck in the middle of life…
Here, not here…
Putting out his hand…