The Future Vault by Harrison Kim
The Future Vault by Harrison Kim
Neil, the wide faced, fast walking school bully, and inquisitive fifteen year old skinny shouldered Cal, waded together through black, thick water, along a tunnel dark canal far below J.L. Jackson School, way down where the pipes ended, emptied, and the draining began. The water exuded a sweetly fermenting smell, a rich decay. Cal swept his flashlight across the canal and pointed. A gap lit up in the side of one wall, and against the gap’s back, a big door with a lock on it – the door to the Future Vault.
“I don’t think we should open it.” said Cal. “Maybe it’s not good to know what’s going to happen.”
“I want to know,” Neil splashed his way forward, holding a foot long three pronged key “I want to know everything.”
“You’re too angry,” Cal cast his light closer to the door, grey water ran from underneath it. “Forbes said being angry is a bad way to open the future.”
“They took Forbes away in an ambulance.” Neil’s voice cracked. “I saw the insane look on his face.”
“Don’t say that about Forbes,” Cal said. “He is the wisest guy I’ve ever known.”
“Last time I looked,” Neil replied, “he was gibbering like a crazy ape.”
Crazy but efficient Forbes the gangly, pot-bellied school janitor always with his head down mopping the floor, didn’t look where he was going but never bumped into anyone. He mumbled to himself, wiping up every trace of dirt. Cal jostled into Forbes one morning as the boy moved down the halls in a reverie, daydreaming of being a rock star.
The boy apologized “I’m sorry,” and Forbes said “It’s ok, this so-called accident means we were meant to meet.” and invited the boy into the janitor’s room for a coffee. “Meant to meet?” Cal repeated. He’d never received a personal certainty, an acknowledgement like that. “Just like you’re meant to be a musician,” said Forbes.
“Wow, how did you know I was into music?” Cal ventured. The janitor leaned forward on the small office chair, his huge head bent over, his puffy eyes staring at the boy.
“I’ve only been here a month.” the janitor said. “They whisper that I’m strange but I do my job well. They don’t care about what I think, but what I do.” He gave a slight grin from between his thick cracked lips, spoke in whispery tones. “You won’t understand fully, but hundreds of characters play out their lives in my head. I carry around the possible futures of all the students. That’s why you hear me mumbling. The future communicates with me.”
Cal viewed the man’s twitching hands and thought “he’s kinda nuts,” but the story fascinated him, the way the janitor told it in a deep quiet voice.
Forbes went on. “I found a three-inch-long key. It lay on its side in a dirty sweeper pan. Where did it come from? I clean everywhere, in places never tidied before. It must have sneaked or been dropped in, just for me. It wouldn’t open anything, so I waved it in the air, stated my personal motto “to be or not to be,” and heard a whirring. A secret door appeared, and opened. Right here above your head in this very room. A closet sized door without a lock, coming visible only when I twirled the key. I looked in with a flashlight. Before me, a drop straight down into darkness, and a ladder built into the shaft. My life has been so boring lately, I had to go down there. Do you know I used to be a civil engineer? But that’s a lifetime ago. I went through the door, and climbed down that ladder, at least two hundred feet.”
Forbes lowered his head, his voice fading to a whisper. “At the bottom of that shaft, behind a locked iron door in a hot stone room many meters below us, I found a Future Vault. A room that held images of all possible futures for anyone who attended this school. I was tempted there by curiosity and boredom. I should have been at work, attending to my routine.” Forbes looked up; his voice cracked. “When the door under the shaft opened, white vapors puffed out. They surrounded and blew through me in visions and shapes and images. I felt thousands of futures entering and lodging in my body and mind. I opened the door because of intrigue, and now I’m the one possessed. I’m telling you, Cal, because I trust you. I’ve seen your destiny, and you will walk with confidence.”
Cal thought “what a wild story” but he felt moved at Forbes’ trust to confide in him, and the idea of being specially chosen. The man’s voice sounded so sure, so confident. Cal welcomed the adventure, the risk of what came next. Since moving to this town and starting school two weeks ago, he sat alone on weekends with only his daydreams. “It’s cool to be with such a different person as Forbes,” he thought. “No one else notices me.” Cal spent hours each day imagining his future, his plans of music stardom. His Dad split, just before he and his Mom moved here. His Mom told him “go out and have some fun, quit your ruminating!” Cal stayed in his room, he wanted to hold on to those dreams.
This visit with Forbes reminded him how much he needed a fatherly face. Over the next few weeks he knocked on the janitor’s door each morning, to hear new stories. Forbes told Cal how the vapor from the stone room swirled with vision tales of students eighty years and more back. “The pressure on my head is too much to keep it all to myself.” Forbes whispered; his hands held to his temples. Cal leaned forward, “are you ok?” The janitor rubbed his head and mumbled. “I had to tell someone. Sometimes I feel so lonely, filled with these thoughts.”
The next day Cal told his Mom “It’s so cool to have someone interested in talking to me.” She shook her head. “You should make friends your own age. Go out with a girl. I think I’ll talk to the principal about this guy.” Cal protested. “Don’t do that. He shouldn’t be criticized for a strong imagination.” He didn’t speak to his mother about Forbes any more. At the school though he did pay more attention to the girls.
A group of giggling females passed Cal in the halls a few times each day. Sarah the tall thin one with deep brown eyes always smiled and said hello, but Cal knew she was making fun because who would like a guy resembling a giant heron with a long pimply nose and skinny neck that curved out and up from his bony frame. He commiserated with Forbes about it and the janitor said “Confidence is the best determiner.” Cal asked “what do you know about confidence?” and Forbes rocked back and forth slowly. He stood up, took a glass from the cupboard, threw a few pills and some water in, and drank. “Like I have said before, I can unlock the possibilities from the stone vault beneath the school, but confidence is the only true measure of success.”
“Well, can I visit that vault?” said Cal. Forbes shook his head. “it is better not to know. In fact, it’s better to live an unpredictable life.”
“I want to find out if I become a rock star,” said Cal. “If I do, I won’t have to spend so much time imagining. My grades are down, my Mom’s disappointed.”
“It’s not that simple.” Forbes glanced behind him, as if hearing a voice. Then he sat back down. “These visions behind the stone alter according to the viewer’s mood and temperament. If you’re sad, you’ll absorb all the potential of that sadness. Certainty is hard to find when moods are always changing.”
“Maybe it’s all in your mind,” Cal said, and regretted it when Forbes looked at the ground and whispered “Yes, indeed. There’s too much in my head to bear alone.”
All Cal understood is that he preferred daydreams to being in reality. He lived for the visions of himself playing music before thousands, adored by everyone, especially the girls. But he was too shy to talk to Sarah. She continued to walk past him every day and smile. He pretended not to see. He sat in class with his head full of future visions, of the tales Forbes told and of his own fantasies. The teachers asked him “Cal, are you fully here?” and others made fun of his absent mindedness. One day he came to school with his pajama top still on under his jacket. Everyone started to call him “PJ man.”
Neil G. the red-faced school bully harassed him for money, cornering Cal in various doorways and empty classrooms demanding five dollars a day. Cal went to Forbes for advice. The janitor rubbed his head awhile, then whispered “the visions tell me that Neil’s a sad boy physically hit and verbally put down for years by his drunk father.” He managed a slight grin. “You should be clear and focused, stand up and be strong with this boy. Be everything I used to be” he said.
The next time Neil demanded money Cal stepped to one side and said “You’re not pushing me around anymore.”
“Is the janitor your protector?” chuckled Neil, moving forward, putting his fleshy face very close to Cal’s. “That weirdo janitor you always hang out with?”
“He’s my friend,” said Cal. “There’s secrets about you and your Dad only he and I know.”
“What secrets?” Neil’s voice rose, a puzzled look across his beet red face. “Where did you hear that?”
“Forbes says his mind holds stories about all the students, including you.”
“I don’t think a weirdo who talks crazy should be working here,” said Neil, talking faster now. “He could be a perv.”
“You know he’s not a perv,” Cal yelled.
Neil pushed by him. “Yeah, he’s twisted. Always talking to himself.” He leaped up the stairs, and turned around “You don’t know anything!” he yelled back. “You witless nerd!”
The next day, Forbes met Cal in the hall. The janitor’s hands shook as he talked. “Principal Enos says I’m to stop harassing the students,”
“Neil must have complained,” Cal shook his head.
“I can lose my job.” Forbes said. “This is not the first complaint, and I’ve only worked here six weeks.”
“What do they say about you?”
“That I don’t talk to anyone, that I’m not polite, and I mumble to myself. That I almost bump into everyone, and I’m too friendly with you. Principal Enos found out I sometimes sleep here overnight.”
“Wow, that does sound odd.”
Forbes entered the janitor office, sat on the wicker chair. “I’ve got nothing to go home to,” he said. “I clean all night sometimes. “Now Enos says he has to get at least two more janitors in. He says I’ve got to relax; I’m working too hard.”
Cal noticed Forbes’ lined face and the black whiskers sticking from his ears, his big head dropping forward and the bump behind his head swollen. “You’re getting a hunch back.” Cal said.
“I know” said the janitor, “All this stress pushes me to the ground. Listen. I am going to show you something.” He reached behind him, took a small key from a chain, and opened a small box decorated with the portrait of a scarab. Cal looked down. In the box sat a gold coloured, three-pronged key.
“This is the key to the stone room,” said Forbes. If I am fired, bring it to me. Its precious, but dangerous.”
As he passed the key to Cal, he mumbled what sounded like a chant. Cal heard nothing intelligible but “to be or not to be.” It didn’t matter. He liked being part of the secret and the whole mystery of Forbes. “Where does the key go in the wall?” Cal asked. “I’ve never seen one like this.”
“The key will only open the door if a person’s calm, and confident, and real. Do not use it for any reason. I have to trust you.”
“You can count on that,” Cal said. He wanted to help Forbes any way he could. He held the key up to the light. It felt strangely warm between his fingers. He placed it carefully in the top drawer of his locker, under some papers.
The next day, as Forbes moved down the hall with the mop and bucket, dodging the students as usual and mumbling to himself, the janitor lurched, then stumbled. Students backed away. The janitor cried out “There’s too much in my head!” Then he staggered from wall to wall, and collapsed against the lockers. Cal ran up to him. “What happened, Forbes? Are you ok?”
“It’s too late,” whispered the janitor. “Keep the key safe.” Principal Enos ran to the janitor’s side. “The ambulance will be here very soon.” In less than ten minutes, the attendants stretchered Forbes away.
“You know, I just found out he was discharged from a psychiatric ward two months ago,” Cal overheard the Principal talking with one of the teachers. “He didn’t mention it on his resume.”
“Yeah, I always heard him mumbling to himself,” the other teacher answered, shaking his head. “Mental illness is a horrible disease.”
Cal jogged down the hall to open his locker and take out the key. Neil came up silently. Cal didn’t hear him until he was right there. “What happened to your custodian friend?”
Cal grabbed the key, tried to stick it into his pants. Neil snatched it away. “What the heck is this?”
“It’s something Forbes owns. It’s not yours.”
“How does that guy know about me?” Neil waved the key out of Cal’s reach. “You know, all that secret knowledge shit.”
“I can’t tell you.”
“What does this key open?”
Cal reached for it. Neil pulled it away. “It’s supposed to work in the janitor room,” Cal said. “We can’t get in there.”
“The room’s open,” said Neil. “I went by. Forbes forgot to lock it. He was acting really crazy this morning.”
Cal remembered that Forbes trusted he wouldn’t try the door, but the janitor room was already open. He’d promised Forbes he’d take care of the key. Cal thought for a moment. Perhaps being in the janitor’s room was okay because there were no locks on the walls for the key to fit. He shrugged at Neil. “You won’t give back my property, so let’s go in. Then you can see for yourself.”
The two boys sidled down the hall and into the janitor’s room. “Like I said, there’s nowhere for it to fit,” said Cal, showing Neil the size of the cupboard locks.
“You try it,” Neil handed him the three-pronged key.
Cal remembered what Forbes had said “I give you this key because I see your destiny.”
He tried to stay calm. He held the key to the wall. Nothing happened. Of course, you had to move it around in the air, like Forbes told him. Would this thing actually work? Was Forbes really crazy?
“What are you doing?” said Neil. “Waving a magic wand?”
Cal breathed in. He kept twirling the key in the air, tossing it up and catching it. “It’s all just a story,” he said. “Now I have to chant.” and he began “to be or not to be” as he moved the key in circles. Then he pushed the key into the wall. The weirdly soft drywall gave gave way like plasticine, and as Cal pulled the key out part of the wall followed as an opening door. “Wow, like butter,” Cal shouted, peering in. “There’s the shaft Forbes told me about!”
Neil jumped up. “Man, this is very weird.”
“Yes, Forbes wasn’t kidding!” Cal exclaimed. He paused.
“Do you really think we should go in here?”
“It’s kinda scary,” said Neil. “But I want to know.” Cal could see his fingers trembling. “We may never get another chance.”
Cal took a flashlight from a shelf, and pointed the light down the shaft. “Looks like a long way,” he said.
“I can go first.” Neil grabbed a headlamp. “Thanks for letting me in here, man.” Cal stood out of his way and thick, solid Neil tightened his light and stepped into the doorway. The two foot gap between the shaft wall and the sewer pipes meant he barely squeezed in. “It’s a long way down,” he said. He gave Cal the “thumbs up” and began descending the wooden ladder. Cal looked down at Neil’s disappearing head. “You’ve got guts, I give you that,” Cal shouted. Neil looked up and yelled “Get your ass in here!”
Cal clambered after him. As he moved down, a wooden wall surrounded him. It changed to concrete, then stone. He gawked up at the disappearing light, a pinpoint high above.
“I”m in the water!” yelled Neil. “Gonna get my shoes wet.” He watched as Cal lowered himself into the canal after him. “It’s only a couple of feet deep.”
“Yeah, but what’s in it?” Cal swung his light around the slow current. “It stinks.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Neil said. I wonder what’s behind this big door here.”
Cal looked. “That’s the future vault,” he said. “Forbes described it as very dangerous. You can find out everything that might happen to you in there.”
The two boys faced the stone door, both their flashlights trained on its surface. The only thing that distinguished it from the rest of the wall was the lock. Cal took the gold key from his pocket. “I don’t want to use this thing,” he said. “See? I’m shaking. I might drop it in the water.”
“You’re chickening out?” said Neil. “This is where I get to find out my future.”
“Your Dad’s going to stop hitting you sometime,” said Cal. “Your Mom’s going to leave him sooner or later. Why not just let it be? That’s what Forbes said. There’s more than one possible future. It all depends on your mood, he said.”
“I control my own world,” said Neil. “There’s no chickening out.” He advanced towards the door, commanded “Give me that key.”
“It’s not a good idea, Neil,” Cal answered, holding the steel length of it out for the angry boy, feeling him snatch it.
Cal stepped back, standing near the shaft, training his light as Neil approached the indentation in the wall. Cal watched the back of the bully’s head, his arms moving to turn the key. The door opened, a whoosh-like explosion. Light streamed out the side. Neil reared back, almost fell in the canal. In that moment Cal saw the bully’s face change and reform, as a focussed light from the vault hit the husky boy’s forehead, glowing like a laser between his eyes.
Cal saw Neil’s visage change to that of a twenty-year-old man, then a forty year old with greying sideburns, a white haired, saggy eyed eighty year old. Neil’s face creased into folds, then turned grey. The aged boy reached his hands up to his temples, his mouth opened, and he screamed with an old man’s despair, all the years of a wasted life captured in that cry. He turned around, dropped the key in the rushing water. Cal kept the flashlight on him, so not to lose his companion in the darkness. “Holy f…” he yelled.
Neil gave Cal an unrecognizable stare, then the glowing yellow from the opening faded, and the old man changed back in time again, from sixty to thirty and now to fifteen once more. The door slammed shut, and deep darkness returned. Cal kept his flashlight trained on Neil, who turned, began thrusting his arms forward. He splashed towards Cal like a blind swimmer, reaching out to find solid ground. “Help me!” he screamed.
In the flash light, Cal saw Neil’s eyes bright blue like glacier ice, changed from brown eyes before he opened the door. Cal bolted away as fast as he could. “I’ll get help!” he yelled. He clambered up the shaft as fast as he could, his heart pounding like the very force of it would burst his chest. He didn’t stop or look back but felt the bully scrambling up the ladder behind him. Cal reached the opening to the janitor’s room and tumbled in. Neil pushed his way out just behind him.
Cal saw the bully’s white, blood-drained face, then the rest of the squat boy’s body fell into the janitor’s room. The door in the wall closed and vanished, leaving no trace of where it had been. Neil lurched out of the room with a groan, white faced, his soaked runners dripping water everywhere. Cal heard him banging down the hall, bumping into lockers, then the sounds disappeared.
Cal closed the janitor room door, and sat there, rubbing his face “did that happen, did that really happen?” he repeated over and over. All he knew was that he was damned happy not to have looked in that door to the future vault.
After about an hour, he poked his head out of the custodian room and began jogging down the hall to the school’s exit. He ran the three kilometers home, turned all the lights off in his room and lay shivering on his bed. The next morning, he couldn’t get up. The images of Neil growing old filled his mind over and over again. He told his mother he was sick and took the next few days off school. The tension lessened slowly as he thought up ways to deal with his fear. “Confidence,” he repeated. He let the images come until they began to fade. He let them surge, then retreat. After an hour of this, he carefully moved himself out of bed.
He went to the psychiatric ward to visit Forbes. The janitor sat at the edge of his bed, mumbling and staring out the window as Cal told him what had happened to Neil. Forbes finally lifted his head. “Boy, help take away these shadows scattering my brain. Please come play me music.”
“You want me to visit you here?”
“You deserve to have a good life.” Forbes took a small sip of water and some pills. “You’ve been good to me. I want you to come here with your guitar and practice.”
Cal promised to visit as
Forbes wished. Considering everything, it was the least he could do.
“I don’t’ think I’ve been good to you, Forbes,” he said. “But I’ll start now.”
By Monday Cal felt confident enough to return to school. He walked down the main hall, on the lookout for Neil. Sarah and her giggling friends approached. Cal remembered what Forbes said. Confidence is the best predictor of the future. “Hi,” Sarah said, as usual, giving him a smile from the corner of her mouth. Cal looked directly at her, and replied with his own grin. “Hi, Sarah.” Sure, he had to force it, but he wanted to change. After descending to a sewer hellhole, witnessing the fleeting span of Neil’s life change from young to old in reality time lapse, then back again, Cal found talking to this girl no problem at all.
At the entrance to a classroom he saw Neil. The two of them locked eyes, and nodded at each other. Neil’s face appeared ashen, a grey ghost. His eyes back to brown again, but the pupils huge and dilated. The husky boy lifted his hand, waved almost imperceptibly. He stepped behind the classroom door and closed it. Cal could only imagine the cacophony in the other boy’s head. He no longer took his silent space for granted, that precious space with room to choose the future. He vowed one thing, to keep his promises, especially the ones made to himself. “Because that’s all I can control,” he thought. “Every time I start a stupid rock star daydream, I’m going to pick up the guitar and play.”
Over the next year, his music skills improved exponentially, especially after many hours strumming and picking for Forbes at the janitor’s new nursing home residence. Cal wondered from time to time just what shapes of the future lay inside that deeply hidden vault, what other promises could become real, and which ones would never exist.
Neil’s mother eventually moved her son into a group home for mentally disturbed teenagers. Neil wrote to Cal. “My Dad saw the future in my eyes, and he couldn’t stand it. “Neil wrote. “He became even more brutal. Both my Mom and I left.” At the group home, locking and unlocking doors became Neil’s obsession. Some compassionate staff noticed, and advocated that he train to become a locksmith. At twenty Neil was on his way to earning a journeyman ticket, despite the fact he rarely spoke to anyone, except to himself and the voices of possible futures playing constantly inside his head.
Copyright Harrison Kim 2019