The Sanctuary by Nia Hammond





Learn more at

Sometimes, the life you have and an ad like that is all it takes to give into it. Eight months ago, I saw that ad on my bus ride home. Despite the less-than-bold font, typical stock photo of a first world citizen in distress, and cheesy content, I was drawn to it. It could be my ticket out, I thought, and began to reach for my phone in my back pocket. Pulling up the browser on my phone, I punched in letter by letter the website I was eying on the ad across from me. What came up after hitting “Go” seemed like such a joke. Out of desperation, I played along.

* * *

It’s now day one seventy three of experimentation at the OHS—Opti-Human Sanctuary. In a week, everyone here will change units for the second time since our arrivals. I’m not sure I’m ready to move out of this unit though; I like it. In the Sleep Focus unit, the main thing to focus on is… well… sleep. The scientists here are pretty creative with names for these things, obviously. But, more specifically, in the sleep focus unit, we sleep how we’re supposed to. No fetal positions or burying your face in your pillow. Go to bed earlier and without distractions; wake up when you’re sleeping the lightest. The rules are only there to help you and the scientists. And the rest of the world, supposedly.

It does feel like it helps, though. Falling asleep is no longer like a hard task, and it’s not involuntary, either. They place you in a dark room, close to but far enough from others in the unit practicing the same concept. Your own bed is soft — not quite the sinking of memory foam but not the bouncing of a mattress full of springs. Once your body hits it, though, there is no way you’d want to get back up. There are no distractions. The bright screen of a phone or digital clock doesn’t exist in these rooms. If your eyes are open, you could think you’ve gone blind, because what you saw was identical to what you’d see if your eyes were closed. Every night of sleep felt like a peaceful, welcoming death and waking up to a whole new life.

Experiments like these make me wonder how normal people in the world outside OHS even got to function on such poor sleeping habits. I wish the rest of society prioritized their citizens’ health the way they prioritize the market, entertainment, and all the other unnecessary things we… or they, succumb to like sheep. But, if all goes well, and there’s enough evidence of humans in optimum condition, the world can gradually change into a society like this. Will they want to — that’s the real question.

Seeing as though I’m in the first batch of experiments, probably not. Or, maybe, the ads weren’t specific enough about what the goal was; they were very vague. Only those in search of an exit from their everyday lives — besides death — probably found their ways into this isolated place.

It was rough at the beginning. The day I saw the ad and got home, I did all the research I could find (which was scarce) on this OHS ad. Apparently, there were few ads of OHS that people saw and felt compelled to write about on the Internet or elsewhere for that matter. I dragged my finger across the trackpad of my laptop and clicked when the cursor got to “More Information” on the website from the ad. Less than two seconds later, a page full of more boring font from the ad appeared on my screen.

Through skimming, I assumed for myself the details: a group of scientists had the idea to begin a society with more reasonable aspects of an American’s everyday life to meet the actual criteria for how humans should be living.

“And that’s where we come in?” my friend Georgia asked over the phone the following day.

“Exactly. Also, since it’s an experiment with humans, there’s money involved, just like they do for like testing cosmetics and stuff,” I added.

“I don’t know about this, Des… You sure you’re okay with your life and everything now…?” The tone of Georgia’s voice seeped through the speakers into my mind with her unforgettable face that matched it.

“Georgia, I’m as fine as I’ll ever be. Please do this with me. Think about how amazing we’ll feel afterwards! It’ll be like studying abroad but coming back healthier instead of more culturized, yeah? What have—”

“Yeah, what have we got to lose, right? How much of that website did you read anyway?” she asked.

I shrugged my shoulders, and realizing Georgia couldn’t see that, I said, “Enough of it.”

“Oh, enough? All the fine print that probably binds you to the project for even after your year of being at that sanctuary, the absence of insurance of your own life at that place.. You’re allowing yourself to be their test rat! How do you even know if they’re real scientists? I mean, Odessa, do what you want, but just know this is how I feel about it. I don’t think you can count me in this one.”

“Oh, alright… I’ll let you know if I get to go in a few days, I guess, then,” I said, and we hung up.

Two weeks after I’d sent out my application for the program, I received a letter in the mail with more specific instruction, which sounded more and more like a voluntary kidnapping — we met the scientists at a place that isn’t very busy, they gave you a codename and either you got in their van or you didn’t. From within the van, you couldn’t see where you were going unless you were a passenger up front. The look on the staff member next to me’s face was crumpled into itself, looking just as disappointed as I felt.

“I guess it’s going to be a long ride then,” I say out loud, turning to face him. He caught my glare but didn’t maneuver towards me until I smiled politely. His face was still a little twisted — eyebrows furrowed and lips in a tight line and cheeks approaching the color of tomatoes. Maybe I wasn’t the only one nervous for this trip.

“Well, yes,” he finally replied, “about six hours according to our driver.”

“Whoa,” I said, truthfully. “Where is this sanctuary supposed to be anyway?”

He paused to glance at another worker who nodded, and then said, “It’s located in a small city not far from Boston.”

Not knowing what else to say, I said, “Oh cool…”

We didn’t speak again until everyone boarded off the van. Outside of it, the sun was high in the sky, with some clouds behind and around it, and we were all standing on concrete outside of a tall, fortress-like wall that went on for what seemed like miles in both directions.

Before we could go any further towards the fortress, the workers instructed us to line up against the walls with our belongings while we waited for other vans to pull into the lot, one by one.

“Welcome to the Opti-Human Sanctuary, everyone,” a woman’s voice from a megaphone said when most vans had arrived. My eyes wandered around the crowd to find the source of this voice.

She continued, “You will all be spending at least a year here, and we’ve broken up that year into different units in which you’ll study and practice different ways of living — the right ways of living. We still want you to be as free as this experiment can allow you. Once we get inside, we can match up your applications with the scientists you’ll be working with in your first unit.” The only noise you could hear besides her voice was that of her heels hitting the ground in a slow, saunter-like pattern. The megaphone sounded as she lowered it from her mouth and to her side, and, by her heels, I could distinguish her from the rest.

The woman had a short stature, her cherry red pumps raising her a good four inches off the ground. On the left side of her blouse was a nametag — I couldn’t make out the full name, but I think the first word had said “Dr.”

* * *

The worker from the van showed me to my living space after registration. The world behind the fortress wall seemed like a new one entirely — even on the other side of the wall the air somehow felt cleaner and crisper; every breath I took was a deep one, as the scientists asked that we’d do if it wasn’t too difficult for the first day. Hundreds of other people in the experiment seemed very on edge, so maybe that was it. We had no reason to be nervous, though.

The worker led me into a plain room with a closet, bed, and small but tall desk with a lamp atop. The chair was missing. I looked at his shirt for a name tag like the other woman had. “Where’s your nametag?” I asked.

“You’re quite the curious one, aren’t you?” he answered, smiling.

“You must be feeling better than you did on your way here, huh?”

“Oh, yeah. It was my first time outside of the wall for quite a while, and this time we brought back live experiments. Many people don’t know what this means to our team,” he said. “I’m Doctor Ren Sewell.”

The title “Doctor” took me aback, and he chuckled lightly after seeing my eyebrows and eyes raise at the term.

“For fun, I dressed as a worker to help with the rest of the team in getting our first bold batch of future opti-humans. How does it make you feel that you’re starting history by being a part of this?”

“Well, I never looked at it like that… I just needed this to get away from my life at home for a while, or maybe longer… I’m Odessa… um… Colton. People call me Des for short.” I offered my hand, which Dr. Sewell took in a firm grasp before letting his own fall back to his side.

“So, they’ve instructed me to tell you that your first unit of focus is exercise and other physical practices. Not everyone is starting at the same unit. In a few months, we’ll be rotating the experiments around,” he said, and I nodded, looking him in the eye. “The goal for everyone in this unit is to gradually adjust to practical everyday human things the way they’re supposed to be done. For example, sitting for less than three hours a day can add about two years to your lifespan. Some have linked excessive sitting to cancer, diabetes, and heart problems for the future. Watching the television while sitting adds even more to that…” He trailed off for a few seconds, as if he were pondering something in his own life that related to that. “We’ve already been sitting in that van for more than six, so I suggest you get up and move around or something. Exercising is a larger part of this unit, as you can tell.”

I slowly rose to my feet. My bottom did feel a little sore from such a long ride. “You guys’ll let us know more stuff as we go along, right? It’s a lot to take in at this very moment,” I said.

“Oh yeah, of course. We try not to put much stress or pressure into the subjects — it has potential to alter the results. But, there are ideas you should try to keep up on. And finally, here’s a little map of the sanctuary for you, just so you can get around. It’s great for this unit, because instead of sitting they can walk around, explore, and meet other people.” He walked over to the tall desk and opened a drawer, bringing the map out, which was folded in three parts like a brochure.

Dr. Sewell opened the brochure briefly, glanced at inside the cover, and stretched his arm out to hand it to me. “Thanks,” I said, taking hold of it.

“No problem. So I’ll just leave you to it, and I hope you enjoy yourself and live better. Listen out for announcements on the overhead.” He pointed towards the ceiling before stepping out of my room, closing the door behind him.

For the next several weeks, I spent less and less time sitting and more time doing all things else. I mostly explored the new grounds, which probably went on for miles in all directions. It really was a “sanctuary.” By exploration, I found a massive gym where many of my unit members went daily, even if they weren’t going to work out. Also, I noticed there were even children and their parents in the society, and wondered how the kid felt about living differently from all his peers from before.

My first friend in the Sanctuary besides Dr. Sewell was named Nat; who came from the food unit part every other day to use the gym facilities as scientists suggested for him. Whenever we weren’t focusing on our units during weekdays, Nat and I would talk about our lives before OHS.

“I lived in Cali, going to school for acting,” he’d told me one day.

“So is that you or a character you’ve played before?”

“No no, it’s the real me. I was going to school for a reason, Des,” Nat said, “I can’t act!”

“You wanted to be an actor that bad? My parents would have made me become a lawyer or something before sending me to school for something I knew little about. You Cali kids…” I snickered playfully.

“Oh yeah, us. But what about you? Where are you from?” he asked me.

“I’m from good ‘ol Philly, just outside of it. Decided against going to college.” My eyes wandered towards the ground in between where we were standing.

“Oh really?” he said, reaching out to lift my chin with his hand. “Why is that?” he asked.

I shifted before saying, “I dunno, man, school just wasn’t my thing. It drove me crazy trying to do well, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to stand another four years of that in college.”

“Ah I see, so what do you do instead?” Nat asked, still interested.

“I’m kind of a job hopper, but I normally work for a firm and do wedding photography on the side,” I answered. “It’s really not all that interesting…”

No matter what day it was, we still never got tired of each other’s stories. We also had a little trouble making friends besides each other as it was — maybe it was that we didn’t want any more friends.

* * *

After the rotation from the physical health unit, I moved into the sleep unit, which, thankfully, Nat was also a part of. We could spend more time exploring and practicing not sitting for that long, even though that wasn’t my focus anymore. After exercising all the time and taking big day adventures all the time, I felt like sleep was a good way to level all that out, even though I would probably be doing mostly the same things.

The scientists said that depending on the medical history provided, the sequence of units you’re placed in should build on each other. Like I’d already said before, the sleep unit was the better of the two units I’d already experienced. With a week left to spare, however, I spent more time focusing my unit, which the scientists in charge of it didn’t seem to mind. Dr. Sewell stayed in the physical focus unit, but we still saw each other around the sanctuary from time to time, talking if he wasn’t in a hurry to get somewhere, like yesterday.

“Scientists are always a little busier around the rotation period. We have to think about who’s going where and how they might cope with the new environment and how it’ll build on their old one,” he said.

“I’ll never understand how you guys can do all this, it must be so much work and dedication to the outcome of this project.”

“Well, yes, it is difficult at times, but we all look forward to the results of the experiment. Those are the main motivations for all of us, I’d like to think,” he said.

We were sitting at one of the few park benches. You’d think that by now everyone would get sick of trying to stand more often, but I guess it was really just me being lazy that day. I cast my gaze on the tree above us, rubbing my eyes sleepily. It was only midday.

“How are things over at that physical focus unit?” I asked, opening my mouth to yawn. “Excuse me,” I murmured, covering my mouth.

“Things are going smoothly, you know? People here are getting more used to the practices here, which is great — they’re adjusting faster than what we’d predicted. Maybe this batch of experiments is just a motivated one, you all,” Sewell said, placing his hands on his knees.

Just as I was about to throw out another conversation topic, a watch on his wrist beeped a few times, pulling him back into his regular duties as a scientist. “Well, Des, I gotta run now, but we’ll talk more after rotation!” We both stood — I felt like my three hours for the day was almost over anyway — and we headed in opposite directions. He went towards the main scientist headquarters, while I headed for the gym to try to lift my sudden tiredness.

There, of course, I ran into Nat, who was speaking to another girl he must’ve known from his first unit. Seeing me, Nat sprang up farther into his feet, for he was already standing. His eyes glowed with excitement while mine remained neutral. Nonetheless, I smiled because I was glad to see him.

“This is Des,” Nat told the other girl. Turning and gesturing towards her, he said, “And Des, this Elle, like the French for ‘girl.’” Elle giggled, bringing her hand up to her mouth.

“Nice to meet you, Des,” she said, extending the same hand to shake mine, which I took.

“Same to you, Elle,” I replied, curtseying and holding out my imaginary skirt while doing so.

“What unit are you part of?” she asked.

“The sleep focus unit, have you already been in it?”

“No, I’m in the psychological focus unit, and I was in the food one before with Nat,” she said.

“Well, it’s amazing. You’ll never sleep better in your life!”

“I agree with that,” Nat added.

“Oh yeah? I hope that’ll be my unit then next cycle,” she said.

“Well, we have two more days to find out,” said Nat.

“What’s this whole psychological focus unit? I haven’t heard much about it,” I asked Elle.

“The scientists said it was an experiment within the experiment. It’s kind of hard to explain. There’s just a lot of exercises for keeping your brain and emotions manageable, especially if you’ve had a rough time in the past. It’s like therapy without all the talking. You get the knowledge, and help yourself however you want. They also want you to work on how you interact with others so that everyone can be a little more decent to each other in the future, if this project is ever extended to the rest of the world, you know?” she said.

I could only stare as I tried to make sense of what Elle said in my head. By the twisted look on my face, she said, “Well, I guess you don’t. It’s really cool, though. My favorite of the two units I’ve been in so far. It just helps create lots of peace within yourself, which was something I needed.”

Nat glanced at me at this, and getting bored with the conversation, said, “You guys wanna go for a jog? I feel like I want to be outdoors right now.”

We agreed and ran our regular route around the sanctuary, taking in all the sights of this internal group working their ways up to being opti-human.

That night would be my last in the sleep focus unit, so Nat and I decided to head on back to the sleep unit building after grabbing a bite to eat with Elle at the food unit and walking her back to the psychological unit.

Outside the sleeping room, Nat and I stood against the wall talking for a bit.

“What are we gonna do next rotation? We probably won’t be together again,” Nat said.

“Well, we weren’t together the very first unit, and we still met each other then. We’ll always be around each other,” I said, trying to comfort his seemingly petty worries.

“I guess you’re right,” he said, stretching his arms to the ceiling. “Ya bruh’s gotta sleep now, Des. I’ll see you in the morning,” Nat patted my head and walked past me into the dark room.

“Enjoy your last amazing sleep,” I called after him. I stood for a minute, and followed his trails into the room but into my own bed.

* * *

Hands were all over. A groping, followed by a flash of light to the face. It was so blindingly bright that I couldn’t open them long enough to know what was happening. I felt like a bat in a cave. It wasn’t just me that felt hands all over, but everyone in the sleep unit. Murmurs everywhere. The figures that moved around were probably scientists, I assumed. Though nothing like this ever happened before, I could only think of them as a reasonable explanation for all the madness.

“Everyone, we’re sorry for disrupting your sleep, but please exit the building and stand outside until further notice. Let’s make this easy, now,” a voice from the overhead said.

I did as he said, groggily trudging out of the unit building and into the dim light cast by the night sky. Nat found me within minutes.

“Do you have any idea what’s going on?” he asked me.

“No, not at all… I was looking for Dr. Sewell to see if he had anything to do with it,” I answered him, feeling the heaviness of my own foggy breath leave my mouth.

More and more people were pouring out of the units while Nat and I watched. Whispers around us were all mentioning something about the psychological focus unit, and I could not for the life of me guess what was going on. Thankfully, Dr. Sewell, who was standing by a light pole, caught my eye. I grabbed Nat’s hand and dragged him over to where Sewell was.

“What’s going on?!” I said.

“They’re all saying that someone has escaped the sanctuary.”

“Escaped? Why would anyone ever want to escape?”

Nat, Sewell, and I all exchanged eye contact.

“Do you know who it was?” Nat asked Dr. Sewell.

“A woman from the psychological health unit. I believe her name is Elle something.”

“Wait, our Elle, Nat? Are there any other Elles in that unit?”

Nat sighed before answering, “I guess it was her… I had no idea she planned on trying to leave the place,” he trailed off.

“So you knew about this?” Dr. Sewell raised one eyebrow at Nat.

“Look, I suspected something was up with her. She puts on a happy front around everyone else, and is probably acting like the psychological focus unit is helping her. Truth be told, from the things she’s said to me, Elle seems far from healthy.”

“In what sense do you mean ‘far from healthy’?”

“Just generally unhealthy. She talks about how sad and angry she gets at herself all the time, and how there was no hope for her. I don’t think I’ll ever grasp what made her feel that way, but I’m guessing it was a problem before she came here.”

“Do you have any idea of where she might go if she’s left the grounds?” Dr. Sewell asked him.

“She always said she’d wanted to go to Canada one day,” Nat replied.

“Alright. Thanks for your help, Nat. I have to be getting back to work now, they’ll need a search team for her pretty soon I bet.” Sewell glanced at both of us before disappearing into the crowd.

After that night, though, Nat and I never saw or heard from Elle again. I hoped the best for her, wherever she was. What Nat said about Elle and her mental health hit me personally. Even though I’d only known her for a few hours, I reasoned that we had more in common with each other than what we originally saw. What if she came to OHS for an escape just like me? But, if it was so good for her why did she run away? My questions would never be answered.

* * *

The next rotation unit I was placed in was the food unit, so Nat and I weren’t together as often. Without him, though, I would think about what to do after the experimenting year was over. Maybe Elle left because she figured everything out. Or, maybe, she needed to fix something. I imagined her taking it to heart with the directions “learn your brain and then fix yourself how you’d like to.” I found that no matter what time of day, my thoughts always seemed to stray back to her. I was just so curious. It also inspired me to do what I thought Elle might have done by leaving the opti-human sanctuary.

Day in and day out, I would plan things out in my head — while eating, exercising, even before I slept I thought about my old life. The days and nights of it were long and complicated. My work in the firm was miserable and lifeless. I relied on my wedding photography to lift my spirits, but no one getting hitched wanted Odessa to take their pictures. My best friend, Georgia seemed to agree with me less and I still hadn’t talked much to my mother and father since graduating high school a year and a half ago. Because of where I lived, I was constantly reminded of it, too. OHS was the perfect way out. Throughout the second half of my stay at the sanctuary, I grew more and more conscious of my responsibilities as a growing human — not only my physical health and lifespan, but my life around others.

* * *

The final rotation: Nat and I were together once again, for the psychological focus unit. Elle was right about everything they taught. What made me feel better was that I was already figuring things out for myself before the brain lessons. Nat heard about my plans too, while we were on a jog one afternoon close to the end of the year there.

“Give me all you’ve got, girl,” he said.

“You’ll be so proud to hear all this.”

“Go go go, I’m listening.” Nat gently ran into my side.

“Alright, so, I’m staying away from Philly. It’s home, but it’s a reminder of all the complicated things. I’ll quit my job at the firm. As for my parents, I think I need to say something to them. It’s ridiculous not to talk to your own family just because of the choices you make,” I said.

“Completely agreeing with ya.”

“I’ll expand my wedding photography business, too, and move somewhere people marry more,” I continued, stopping jogging to tie my shoe. Nat slowed down next to me.

“Wonderful. You, Miss Colton, have gotten your life together. There’s just one thing you’ve forgotten about.”

“And what is that?” I smirked at him and raised my eyebrows, waiting for an answer.

“Your destination. But I have an idea for that.”

“Go on…”

“Room with me. We can keep each other in check.”

Surprisingly, the idea had never crossed my mind.

“But… I thought you were in college. Don’t you live in a dorm?”

“Comfortable apartment, with a spare room, actually,” Nat replied.

“Oh my god, Nat, you don’t know what this means to me! Thank you so much.” After I finished tying my shoes, I stood up and threw my arms around his shoulders. “Thank you thank you thank you thank you,” I said into his shoulder.

“Nah, thank you! I prefer company besides by own, and you’re an incredible person, Des. I need to keep you around, you know?” We pulled away from each other.

“So it’s decided,” I said. “When the year is over, we’ll opt to leave the sanctuary and deal with our lives head-on. Two weeks.”

“We can stay healthy too, I’m way too used to this lifestyle anyway. I’ll find a compromise. We’ll compromise,” Nat said, nodding his head.

That was that, and we were set in stone.

* * *

For me, it was the right choice I made. I’m happier and healthier, one of hundreds of anticipated opti-humans in processing.

Comments (3)

Micah Getz (Student 2015)
Micah Getz

The science in the books seemed pretty straight forward. It's all things that make sense logically, and would probably check out medically.

I feel that the descriptions in this story were good. You had an idea of what the setting felt like. I also like that the way people reacted to the Opti-human program was also discussed.

Now that I'm done with the story, I'm thinking about Ellse, about how I can be more healthy, and about how the program was thinking to sell these ideas to other people.

Liza Cohen (Student 2015)
Liza Cohen

In the story, the sanctuary is one big experiment, making sure everyone's lives are healthy, by teaching people how to sleep and excersize etc. The sanctuary isn't a real thing in real life so I know that part is fiction; but in the real world actual scientifists to a bunch of studies to see what it is humans can do to increase their life span, etc. So, this story is believable to me since scientists study with humans all the time.

I liked when Nia was describe the sanctuary, talking about the ad for the place that caught her eye, and describing how intriguing the place was. It sounded interesting and as I was reading all of this in the beginning of the story, I started imagining what the place was like in my head.

Now that I finished the story, I am curious to see how the characters who were in the sanctuary are living now that their time there is over and the experiments have been completed. Did something go wrong? Or is life perfectly great and they are completely healthy? I want to know more. I liked this story.

Margaret Hohenstein (Student 2015)
Margaret Hohenstein

I really liked the sci-fi in your story. There was nothing too intense which made it really believable. I thought it was interesting that it was still an experiment that was happen. I also think this story succeeded in the development of characters. I like that each person was distinct. It was super great. When I finish this story I'm thinking about what will happen next. I'm curious about the experiment their doing. I want to know more.