A Strange Employment (novella)
a Gothic mystery
I had one loaf of unsliced white bread in the fridge that was supposed to last the whole month, my only way to get anywhere was to ride a half-broken bicycle, and a leak in the roof made the bucket I had placed under it overfill every hour on the dot.
But those problems did not feel particularly important, because my rent was extremely overdue, and I was about to be kicked out of the house and sent to live alone on the street in the heat of day and the freezing cold of night.
After I had submitted resumes at nearly every business in town and been rejected, it felt hopeless trying to find a job. In desperation, I checked the employment papers one final time, not expecting to find anything.
Scarcely able to believe it, I saw a new ad that actually looked rather promising. The only problems were it was also short, vague, and extremely bizarre:
Handsomely-paying Industrial Factory Employment Available!
We are offering a high-paying factory job offered for a candidate with the following characteristics and items: Superb mental skills, a good temper, a spark, and a sharp knife.
Further details upon personal application to Mssr. Frost.
Below the listing was the address for where to take a job interview.
I took a deep breath and rolled the matter around in my head for a minute.
It seemed I may fit their criteria, and I had no better options, so I rented a car with my last bit of savings, in order to look a bit respectable, and drove off in search of the place where the interview would occur.
Driving on and on until I reached the far edge of town, I found myself in a mysterious and desolate section of industrial factoryscape. There was not a person around. I passed through street after street of concrete and smokestacks, took a few wrong turns, and after a long time trying to find a familiar road, I noticed the building I was looking for was right in front of me.
It was a enormous, typical-looking concrete factory building with the same sterile but dirty, spacious but repressive feeling as any other similar building in the area, or perhaps the world.
Surprisingly, I saw next to it a Gothic, Edwardian style two-story house. It was constructed from mixed ruddy brown and dark rust bricks, hand mortared, and the structure was in rather unrepaired condition. Vines crept up sections of it and two of the windows had cracks in them. Otherwise, it seemed serviceable at first glance. The roof was chocolate-colored and steeply upswept, with a lonely window peeking out of the middle of the top floor. I doubted anyone was inside it.
I had a vaguely apprehensive feeling about this job in the pit of my stomach as I drove around the back of the buildings and parked the car in the parking lot.
There were not any other cars back there.
Walking around to the front, I double-checked that the address was for the factory and not the house (it was), then walked up a few metal steps to a door on the right side of the factory. The left side had a large shipping bay but I did not see any normal sized doors anywhere else.
I hesitated for a moment and then knocked three times.
There was no answer. I do not know what possessed me, but for some reason I felt to try the door handle. It was not locked. I cautiously opened it up and looked inside.
The door opened up into a rather normal looking office room which connected to the main factory room at the far end. Inside was a clock, a calendar, a filing cabinet, a table, some notebooks, and a few other trinkets and items. A first aid kit stood out of the far wall protrusively.
As I surveyed the room and decided not to go any further, I heard a quiet sound from, I guessed, the factory room. The footsteps got louder and a moment later I saw a man turn round the corner.
He was about 60, with a wrinkly face and a few strands of grey hair. He looked agitated and wore a green canvas shirt and khaki pants.
A quizzical expression darted across his face as he took notice of me.
“You’re here for the job,” he asserted abruptly.
“Yes,” I replied hesitantly.
“Good,” he replied straightforwardly. “Do you have a sharp knife?”
I was stunned for a moment.
“Umm, yes,” I said. I hoped it would fit his definition of keenness.
“Let me see it.”
I pulled out my pocketknife, which I carried quite often, but not nearly all the time. The man motioned with his hands the opening of an imaginary knife, and just from seeing it I could tell he had experience opening knives. Waiting a moment yet again, I obeyed him and opened up the knife blade.
The worker slowly approached me, and suddenly his hand darted up and closed around the knife blade.
Instinctively, I pulled the blade back to retain control of it. I heard a ghastly cutting sound and blood spattered on the floor.
“Oh it’s sharp all right,” the man said, holding his injured hand. He walked quickly over to the first aid kit and, in a rehearsed fashion, took out everything he needed from it and began to treat his injury.
I did not know whether to run away or apologize, so I stood there stunned. In a flash, the man was back in front of me, not looking more unnerved than when I first saw him, which was quite unnerved anyway.
“I apologize. I didn’t mean to–” I sputtered.
“No apology necessary,” he said back, “It’s really the best way to tell if a knife is truly sharp.”
My eyebrows raised. I had no idea what to think.
“And by the way, you passed your first assessment. Now follow me,” he said, squeezing past me and opening the door. We went down the steps and made it onto the porch of the Edwardian house. The man knocked on the door with his unbandaged hand.
“And what’s your name by the way?” he asked me. I told him, and asked what his name was in return.
“Mr. Knife,” he replied, grinning.
A moment later the door opened up a crack and I saw a sleepy-looking bespectacled man hiding behind it, his face peering out at me. He was younger and less rustic in appearance than Mr. Knife, with a blue suit coat and tie.
“Oh, hello,” he muttered. “Come in.”
I felt slightly more safe with this fellow. Mr. Knife waved goodbye to me and I entered the house. The suited man scuttered back to a large table in the dining room in front of me. It had six place settings. Looking around the house for a moment, I saw many pieces of old furniture, a grandfather clock, and a phonograph. I even saw the wheel of a bicycle poking out from a corner far ahead of me.
“Seat yourself,” he said, pulling out a chair. I sat down and noted the comfort of the seat, and my acquaintance took a place across the table from me and slightly to the right. He cleared his throat.
I heard a slight metallic clicking sound and saw a rotund butler appear from around the corner on an old bicycle. He was dressed in black and white and sported a waxed mustache. He stopped at the table and put up the kickstand on his bike.
“What a shame I haven’t introduced myself,” noted the seated man. “I am Mr. Fraust, and this is our butler Mr. Crause.”
The butler nodded politely, hands behind his back.
Mr. Fraust leaned forward and stared intensely into my eyes. I tried to hold back my thoughts.
“Ahh,” he wheezed. “Crause, go fetch the– you know what.” he added. Mr. Fraust ceased looking into my eyes and instead stared at the salt shaker. The butler mounted his bicycle and disappeared.
“It’s interesting, the bicycle,” I said, attempting to make conversation.
“It’s not a bicycle, it’s a velocipede,” he replied, sternly.
“Yes,” I said, unsure. “I suppose.”
We sat silently for a few moments, then Mr. Crause returned on his velocipede holding a tray and glass of water in one hand. The water did not spill. He placed them down on the table in front of me.
On the tray were three cookies. The first was a circular thumbprint shortbread cookie with brown jelly in the center, the second a green mint cookie shaped like a pine tree, and the third a shell-shaped one of an indeterminate substance.
Mr. Crause sat down next to Mr. Fraust.
I saw a red and black mark on the butler’s hand as he took a sip of tea.
“Oh, just a burn,” he said, as if reading my mind.
“Take some sweets,” invited Mr. Fraust. “Oh, and I have some news. According to my observations, you have it; you have The Spark.”
“Thank you,” I replied, rather coldly. I had no idea what The Spark was, so I deliberated on which cookie to eat instead. I chose the green one and took a nibble.
“That’s an interesting… velocipede you have there,” I said to Mr. Crause.
“Thank you sir,” he replied. “I am quite proud of her.”
“Yes…” I said. I took another bite. The ticking sound of the clock emanated around the room softly but fully.
“Mr. Crause has been here quite a while, haven’t you?” commented Mr. Fraust.
“Yes,” he agreed. “I have.”
They talked amongst each other, saying something about Mr. Fraust’s fainting spells a long time ago.
I finished the cookie. It had a marginally bland but generally agreeable taste. I did not particularly want to eat any of the other ones.
“Pleasant day, isn’t it?” remarked Mr. Fraust.
I took a sip of water.
“Yes, I suppose,” I said. “Better than yesterday.”
“Completely,” he agreed.
Mr. Crause twiddled his thumbs. Mr. Fraust’s expression lifted inexplicably.
“You won. You passed the test,” he said seriously. “I can’t believe it.”
“How?” I asked.
“You ate the right cookie, and you drank correctly as well.”
“So?” I asked, agitated.
“You are clearly well-tempered,” congratulated Mr. Fraust. “The shell cookie was a bad choice overall and the jelly thumbprint was of questionable taste. You clearly chose the superior specimen. And you did not ask for superfluous drinks, or eat too many cookies, which would prove a lazy and excessive temperament. You passed the third assessment by having both a good temper and excellent taste.”
“Thank you,” I said.
After a moment, however, an uneasy feeling hung in the air. They were anticipating something.
“So…” ventured Mr. Fraust. “There is another test ahead, and it may be even more difficult than the last ones. We should go upstairs. You must meet our chief executive officer.”
“Who is he?” I asked.
“Mr. Frost,” replied the man nervously.
“Of course,” I said, chuckling quietly.
We stood up, Mr. Crause mounted his velocipede, and I followed behind the butler further into the house. It seemed larger from the inside than the outside. We approached a staircase on the left. Mr. Fraust waited at the side of it and Mr. Crause stopped his velocipede several feet before the stairs began.
It was astounding to me that instead of the staircase simply consisting of stairs, this one had the stairs interrupted in the middle of their width, by a ramp as steep as the stairs and as wide as one’s hand. Before I could make any sense of the situation Mr. Crause made a sound like a bull bellowing and put a Herculean amount of effort into pedaling. In an instant he was halfway up the steep staircase, riding the ramped section.
Then he was at the top, staring down at us as if nothing had happened. Mr. Fraust glanced nervously at me and we walked the stairs in a moderately normal fashion.
The top of the house, just as it looked from the outside, had only one room, which was Mr. Frost’s office. It was decorated more seriously, with darker colors, than any other room I had been in. A drafty chill entered the attic, presumably through a hole in the wall somewhere. I shivered.
A noise of pen scratching emanated from the desk, which overlooked the lone window. Mr. Frost sat there, his back to me. I could not make out any of his features.
“You may be excused, Fraust,” he said, in a smooth and cool voice. Fraust obeyed.
“It may get rather confusing when he is around,” added Mr. Frost as a side note. I took a deep breath of the cold air.
Mr. Frost spun his chair around. He was about thirty, with black hair and dark glasses, and looked very learned and completely somber. He wore a well-tailored tailcoat and I saw a silk top hat hanging off a hook two feet to his left.
“You have come for a job interview, have you not?” said Mr. Frost, his voice hitting me like icicles.
“Yes…” I stuttered.
“Cool,” he replied. “Crause, has he passed the Three Tests?”
“Yes,” affirmed the butler.
“We shall start the final portion now. I have simply one question for you.”
There was a pause.
“What is five thousand four hundred and thirty eight multiplied by four and then divided by sixteen?”
I had no idea what to say. “Umm, do you have a piece of paper?”
“No,” he replied coldly, “this test is for your mental skills, not for your penmanship nor for your paper calculating proficiency.”
“So I have to solve it in my head?”
“What is the question again?”
“What is five thousand four hundred and thirty eight multiplied by four and then divided by sixteen?” he repeated.
I had no chance so I simply guessed.
Mr. Frost shook his head.
“No, you are wrong. It is 1359 and a half.”
I frowned. Why had I come so far just to fail the last test?
“So have I lost?” I asked, afraid to even say it. Mr. Frost glanced at me mysteriously.
“Not completely. Actually, you have not failed the assessment at all. We have tested three hundred and fifty two people and only four have ever made it up here to this frigid room in the first place.”
“What were their answers?” I inquired.
“Significantly more wrong than yours,” he replied. I saw his breath cloud up in front of him as he spoke.
“Thank you, sir,” I said timidly.
“It is nothing.”
There was still a barrier between us.
“Crause,” he commanded softly.
The butler silently commanded me to follow him and rolled a bit towards the stairs. I went in front of him.
It was even more difficult to descend the stairs than it was to go up them originally. I managed by making gratuitous use of the handrail and my balance. When I was at the end, the butler abruptly rolled down the staircase. The brakes squealed loudly but did not slow the bike down very much. Mr. Crause and his bike forcefully slammed into the wall.
Upon further inspection, however, it was not a wall, but instead a very thick mattress colored to look like the wall. Crause and his bike went far into it and then softly rebounded back. He was generally uninjured.
I gave the butler a disappointed and confused look and shook my head. I sighed. Nobody said anything.
“I was wondering why you… ride that velocipede everywhere instead of walking,” I stated, trying my best not to sound too tactless.
“Do you know about the properties the wheel in regards to angular velocity and the efficiencies of centrifugal momentum?”
“Not particularly,” I replied.
“What about the force-converting functions of differently-sized gears?”
“I suppose I know something about that.”
“Those are the reasons I ride this velocipede everywhere I go. As you can see,” Crause said, tapping his tummy which made a thick sound, “I am not very efficient when it comes to walking. Therefore, I use to my advantage the myriad benefits of this beautiful invention called the velocipede.”
I thought about specifically asking about the staircase but decided it would be a ridiculous idea.
“One moment,” he said, riding over to a nearby cabinet which was full of dozens of brake pads. In a moment, he quickly removed his worn out brake pads with a fresh pair and put the old ones at the top of a stack at the corner of the cabinet.
A moment later we were standing in the dining room.
“I don’t quite understand; did I pass the tests? Can I start working?”
I regretted the second question as I was not sure if I wanted to work there at all.
“Well, Mr. Frost said you did better than anyone else, so I suppose you could begin,” spoke Mr. Crause.
“Would I be working with Mr. Knife?” I asked. The prospect was terrifying.
“Come with me,” said Mr. Fraust, pushing me a bit on the back and leading me out the door and back to the factory.
It felt strange being outdoors in the air again, and I sensed some sort of change from when I was last outside.
We entered the factory. Just as last time, the office was deserted.
“Sign this,” said Mr. Fraust. He handed me a piece of heavy paper and a metal nibbed dip pen which he had already dipped for me.
The contract was written in a very archaic and extremely calligraphic script. Try as I might, I could not make out more than a few very common words.
Mr. Fraust hurried me on. I signed reluctantly. He took the paper back and hid it away in a locked section of the filing cabinet.
“Since today is your first day, we are only expecting five units. Typically we would aim for ten.”
“What are… we… making?” I inquired.
“Magnifying glass handles,” replied Mr. Fraust. “I’ll leave Mr. Knife to explain the rest. Goodbye. I hope you enjoy the rest of your day. And perhaps we’ll have some tea tomorrow.”
Mr. Fraust left and locked the door behind him, somehow. I sat on the chair to kill some time, afraid to be in the vicinity of Mr. Knife. Slowly, I realized that they would probably realize that I had not worked at all if I were to stay there the whole time. Reluctantly, I raised myself up and explored the factory floor. There were several large hefty cast iron and steel machines at approximately equal intervals to each other, each painted a different color. I saw a few chairs and numerous hand tools laying about on the floor. There was a noise of scraping far off.
I spotted Mr. Knife, carving away at some wood far away in the corner, facing the walls. There was a table with other magnifying glass parts: lenses and the metal tangs which became thin and encircled the lenses at the ends so that they could be attached to the wooden handles.
At the northern edge of the area there was a pile of what I took to be magnifying glass handle blanks. I picked one up and felt the heft of it. It was a quite small piece, but still larger than a finished handle, and it was in a long, vaguely rectangular shape.
Taking it over to a chair, I pulled out my knife and found a small handsaw nearby. Fervently against associating with Mr. Knife at all, I went to work on the blank and did my best to try to make it look like a finished product.
I kept on working and working and Mr. Knife never really seemed to notice me. He certainly did not help.
At one point, about two hours later, I saw Mr. Knife on his knees as if he were praying. It was hard to make out exactly what it was speaking but it was very repetitive and had the words “great” and “deliver” in it.
When I had worked for as long as I could, and was not sure how many hours had passed by, I heard footsteps and realized that Mr. Knife had seen me. He approached.
“Do you know why they were hiring? Because they want to get rid of me, poor old Mr. Knife. I have been an absolute failure.” I heard notes of rage and despair in his voice. “Every day they laze about in their bourgeois mansion, drinking tea and playing phonograph music. The only reason they have any of those things is because of me!” His voice was hitting a crescendo.
“I pay their bills, I make their living, and they don’t even let me SLEEP in there!”
“Whoa, calm down, Mr. Knife,” I said. “I’m not them, you don’t need to get mad at me. I understand you.”
“Yes I do need to get mad at you!” he yelled. “You are my replacement! PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE!” he screamed. He was right in front of me, knife in his hand, quivering with rage.
“It’s alright, I’m not replacing you, they just need workers,” I said. I had no idea if I was there to replace Mr. Knife but I did not want him to be angry.
“I’m the worker here!” he burst.
“Yes, you are,” I agreed.
“And do you know how sharp this knife is?” he asked, holding it up to the light and licking his lips.
“It’s pretty sharp?” I guessed.
“Yes! Feel it!” yelled Mr. Knife. He jabbed the knife at me but I backed up and dodged it. I stood up, my own knife in my hand. Mr. Knife took a step towards me and stabbed at me again. I jumped out of the way.
“How else will you know if me knife is sharp?” he asked grimly.
“Try it out on a piece of wood!” I exclaimed. He took a swipe at one of my handle blanks and then set his sights on me again. The next cut barely missed my shirt. I took a swing at Mr. Knife and hit him in the shoulder. He recoiled back and put his hand on the wound. I saw a dark spot under the shirt.
“That’s a pretty sharp knife,” he said, impressed. He applied pressure to his shoulder.
I heard the sound of a door opening.
“Wait, Mr. Knife,” I said. “I think Mr. Fraust is coming.”
“Yes he is,” replied Mr. Knife.
I wiped the blood off my knife blade onto the bottom section of my pants and folded the knife up, placing it in my pocket. I was extremely nervous of what Mr. Fraust would think of the altercation.
Suddenly, along with the sound of metal clicking, Mr. Crause and his velocipede appeared around the office corner.
“The shift’s over!” he said. He coasted over to us. “Would you like to come over for some tea?” he asked me.
“What about me?” interrogated Mr. Knife, angry. Mr. Crause noticed his injury.
“What happened to you, Mr. Knife?” he asked, not sounding overly surprised.
“He tested his knife on me,” said Mr. Knife.
“No, he tried to stab me,” I retorted, trying to defend myself.
“Settle down you two, I know you both have sharp knives,” scolded Mr. Crause.
I went back with Mr. Crause as Mr. Knife looked on jealously.
The table was set for an elaborate tea. I took my place across from the other two and inquired where Mr. Frost was.
“He’s in his room. We have tried to bring him down here for tea before but his mere presence would always chill the tea in a matter of minutes. You fancy hot tea, do you not?” remarked Mr. Fraust.
“Of course,” I replied.
The tea tasted like a very nice Ceylon, or perhaps something a little bit different. I poured a splash of milk in it. I looked at the china in the cabinet and the paintings on the walls. Nothing seemed out of place in the slightest.
“So I see you have figured out the rudiments of the trade,” said Mr. Fraust.
“We’ll hopefully only be seeing improvements from here.”
“I think so,” I said, nervous thinking about anything even connected to Mr. Knife. I tried to bring up the bravery to ask my next question.
“Have you ever had green tea?” Mr. Fraust asked Mr. Crause.
“I don’t believe I have. Actually, no, I have once.”
“How did you like it?”
“It was beautiful.”
I cleared my throat.
“So… am I here to replace Mr. Knife?” I inquired.
“Actually, well,” stuttered Mr. Fraust, “I believe that was the purpose of our job advertisement. He has not been the ideal worker, in all honesty.”
“Why?” I asked, certain I was becoming too curious for my own good.
“He… injures himself quite frequently, and he is simply obsessed with knives. In fact, he has created a belief system centered around them. Fancy some sugar, Mr. Crause?”
“A belief system?” I asked, astounded.
“More sugar, Mr. Crause?” repeated Mr. Fraust.
“Please,” replied the butler.
“I believe we have something that you may enjoy,” said Mr. Fraust. He excused himself from the table and walked over to the phonograph by the wall. In the bottom shelf of it sat a number of blue wax cylinders in colored tubes. He carefully removed one from its tube and placed it in the cylinder holder. There was a brass crank with a wooden handle, possibly made by Mr. Knife, and Mr. Fraust vigorously wound it until the spring was at full pressure. He dropped the needle onto the cylinder and a noisy crackling sound filled the room.
I watched intently.
The noise transformed into a jolly song about Mr. Frost.
“What do you think?” asked Mr. Fraust.
“Wonderful,” I said.
“It’s getting quite late, isn’t it?” remarked Mr. Fraust.
It was already past ten.
“Why don’t you pass the night on the couch here so you can be ready for your early morning shift? And here is your payment,” he added, pulling a very small golden coin out of his pocket and handing it to me.
It was genuine.
With some reservations, I agreed, and the men headed to their separate quarters as I lay on the couch looking out at the sky through a gap in the windowshade.
How had I ever obtained this job? Had so many people really applied before me? Who was Mr. Frost? And why was he so cold?
The next morning I was awoken by the shuffling about of Mr. Fraust and the clicking about of Mr. Crause.
“You may wish to wear these,” he said, placing a pile of Victorian-style clothes next to me. They fit perfectly.
I washed my face, prepared for work, and went out to the factory.
The air was chill and moist outside, and I felt a rural energy infringing upon the industrial landscape in an unseen manner. There seemed to be less factory buildings in the distance, too, somehow.
I looked around the office a bit more and tried several of the filing cabinet drawers, finding them all locked.
Overall, the factory building was several decades more modern than the house.
Apprehensively, I entered the workroom and found my supplies. I could not see anyone else in there.
I scraped away at one of the blanks, shaving long strips away from the edges of it. They fell softly to the floor. A voice directly behind me boomed.
“What are you doing? How was the tea?” it asked.
“Good,” I replied, trying to maintain my composure.
“They didn’t invite me!” shot back Mr. Knife.
He yelled a bearlike resounding roar and spread his arms out to his sides.
“And the tea was good! You need to get out! Let me be at this job!”
“If I had known I would be replacing you I wouldn’t have taken this job in the first place,” I replied calmly.
Mr. Knife picked up a wooden mallet and approached me with it. I backed away.
“Do you know what happens after death?” he said.
“I would like to believe so,” I replied, knife in my hand. There was enough sweat on the handle to make my grip unsure.
“You go to,” he pointed upwards, “that great big knife up in the sky. That’s what I want. It’s what you need.” he said in a surprisingly soft voice. He stood still.
I shook my head.
“You don’t agree?”
I took a deep breath.
“Uggh, look!” he swung the mallet at me and I blocked it with the knife blade. The two tools connected together. Mr. Knife threw the mallet away and the knife went with it.
“I’m gonna throw this at you!” he said, running over to a gigantic iron machine and pitifully attempting to pick it up. I grabbed a handsaw which was under a nearby table.
“Go back to work,” I scolded.
“No!” he bellowed. He charged me and collided into me. We fell to the floor.
“Replacement!” he yelled. I backed away and regained my footing. Mr. Knife threw a piece of wood at me and I batted it away.
There was a sound of a door opening.
“This knife looks sharp,” he said, eyeing a very long cutting implement nearby. He threw it up in the air and it spun one and a half times. He caught the blade and then turned it around quickly to cover up his gross inadequacies in coordination.
I backed up more and he started to follow me, menacing with the knife. I saw Mr. Crause approaching. Mr. Knife did not notice since his back was to him.
The butler put in a burst of effort even greater than that required to climb the stairs and headed directly for Mr. Knife at a blazing speed.
“That’s enough!” boomed Mr. Crause with surprising vigor.
The velocipede slammed into Mr. Knife, both men being flung a great distance and smashing forcefully into the ground. Mr. Crause’s bowler hat rolled away under a table.
“You! Crause! It’s all because of you!” said Mr. Knife. He crawled to Mr. Crause’s bike and bit the tire, deflating one of the wheels.
“Damn you, Mr. Knife!” Mr. Crause screamed in agony.
He approached the worker and pounded on him with his fists. The two began a brutal ground fight.
I could barely watch. They yelled obscenities and insults at each other related to production efficiency, choice of clothes, and transportation methods.
Mr. Crause elbowed his adversary brutally in the face several times, and Mr. Knife bit his hand in return.
The woodworker stretched his arm out and tried to grab the nearest object, a small hacksaw, but Mr. Crause sat on him and stopped him from reaching it.
“There is no knife in the sky!” shouted Mr. Crause, pulling his wallet out of his pocket and pushing it into Mr. Knife’s mouth. Mr. Knife made gurgling sounds.
Mr. Crause stood up and jumped repeatedly on Mr. Knife. Horrible noises emanated from him. Mr. Crause was so heavy that every impact was colossal.
The worker was running out of energy to fight. With his final burst of life, Mr. Knife found the hacksaw and attacked Mr. Crause’s ankle.
The butler screamed and retreated from Mr. Knife.
“Why don’t you help me?” he pleaded, referring to me.
I couldn’t stand it any longer.
“No, Mr. Knife is crazy but he doesn’t deserve to be murdered,” I said. “He should be…”
Mr. Knife spat the wallet out and then held the hacksaw to his own throat.
“sent to a mental hospital…” I finished.
“I see The Knife!” yelled Mr. Knife gladly. “It’s up there! The great big knife!”
“Don’t!” I argued, “There is none!”
“No! It’s really there!”
I looked at the ceiling.
“No it isn’t!”
Mr. Crause looked at me.
“You are right. Why am I doing this? Give me that!” Mr. Crause ordered to Mr. Knife.
Mr. Crause decided that his adversary should live. He lunged at Mr. Knife and tried to take his hacksaw away.
In the ensuing struggle, Mr. Knife received a terrible wound.
Mr. Crause held up the hacksaw and looked back at me.
“I stopped him from killing himself!” he declared proudly.
“Look at him,” I retorted. Mr. Crause was horrified to see Mr. Knife dying right in front of him.
“The first aid kit!” he yelled, hopping onto his velocipede and riding it at a snail’s pace with one flat tire and a damaged foot.
I ran to the kit but wasn’t really sure what to get out of it, and by the time I returned, Mr. Knife was dead.
Mr. Crause and I dug him a grave behind the mansion with a small wooden marker to mark his 17 years working for the company. The air outside seemed much fresher than before and the landscape more sparse.
The butler called Mr. Fraust and Mr. Frost down for his burial.
As they came to the backyard, they talked amongst themselves of the altercation and the reasons for it, and mentioned a lot of information from the past that I could only get a general sense of.
There was no priest. We went around in a circle, or a square rather, giving short eulogies. Mr. Frost began.
“Mr. Knife worked hard here for seventeen years,” he declared, giving only the cold facts. “He was, at times, an excellent worker. He produced a lot of magnifying glass handles.” Mr. Frost opened his mouth to say something more but decided against it at the last second.
Mr. Fraust went next.
“Mr. Knife was unique. He had his own lifestyle, his own beliefs, and he would never give any of them up for anything. I suppose that’s what I appreciate most about him: his steadfastness till the end. Yes, he did things like sharpen his knives on pieces of glass or any random object, and collect four hundred and thirty eight of them total, but that was part of his charm.” Mr. Fraust’s voice cracked. “You will be missed, Mr. Knife.”
I saw tears rolling down Mr. Crause’s face. He sniffled and wiped his eyes with his red silk handkerchief.
“I… killed him!” he bellowed, voice breaking. “He… Mr. Knife killed himself! No!”
Everybody was silent for a moment.
“Mr. Knife… you were the sweetest, the best… gosh… Why?” said Mr. Crause through a fog of ears. “He was so… kind and caring…” Mr. Crause faded behind his tears and stuffiness.
“Your turn,” said Mr. Frost to me.
“Well…” I could scarcely think of anything to say. “Umm… I guess Mr. Knife was good at what he did and it’s too bad he didn’t get treatment before it came to this. Umm… yeah. He was a character. I just wish he wouldn’t sharpen his knife on me–“
“What?” said Mr. Crause. “That was part of his charm!”
Exasperated, I shook my head. We stood there in vigil for a bit more and then broke off to our own separate things.
There was no work for the rest of the day and a heavy feeling was evident in the air. After a few hours, I became quite restless and wanted to go home, so I asked Mr. Fraust when I should work next. He looked quite grim.
“I am afraid that may not be possible,” he told me.
“Yes it is, you can’t keep me here,” I brushed him off, “There’s no work today anyways.”
I started towards the front door.
“Try if you want,” lamented Mr. Fraust.
I opened the door.
“Look, I’m going,” I asserted.
I looked outside. There were no other factories, just fields and forests in the distance. The air was fresh and clear. I saw no other people. Curious and amazed, I headed towards the back of the factory where the parking lot and my car used to be.
There was nothing but rolling grassy hills. Far off in the distance, I saw a faded split rail fence encircling a large swath of meadow.
I explored the landscape. It felt so free, so uninhabited. There seemed to be less noise in the air, and the silence was so obvious that it almost felt like a noise in itself.
Over the next hill, I could see a stone farmhouse with smoke billowing from the chimney. I approached it, but after coming quite close I felt afraid to go further, turning around.
It was all so new, and so old, at the same time. All I knew was nothing about this landscape was normal.
I was overcome with curiosity about what was happening on the way back. What was in those filing cabinets? What was Mr. Frost working on? I burst into the factory office and tried the filing cabinet drawers again. They were all locked. Was there a key around? I checked the desk and the upper cabinets behind it and did not find any. Most probably, Mr. Fraust or Mr. Frost had one, but it would be very difficult to get it from them.
Was there any way to get into the cabinets? I could use brute force. It would definitely leave evidence, but it still seemed like the best idea. Perhaps it would be possible to break into the back of the cabinets and then replace them to make it seem, at a cursory glance, like nothing had happened. Perhaps the hammer and a hacksaw would be sufficient.
Right when I was preparing to find the tools, I heard something breathing behind me.
“Yes, I bet this is quite surprising,” Mr. Fraust intoned. “But have you not noticed that every time you go out of this house, something changes?”
I was frightened.
“Yes… I believe so.”
“Why would that be?” he led me.
I put the pieces together in my head.
“Either I am going insane, or time… is unstable.”
“Precisely,” replied Mr. Fraust. “and that is why we do not have vehicles, excepting Mr. Crause’s velocipede. They would not be reliable.”
“But how come nothing in the house changes?” I asked.
“We have pinpointed the extreme range of this effect as being the year 1898.”
“But… what about the factory?” I added.
“It seems to follow different rules. Everything from about 1965 and on disappears at times from there. Is your knife still in your pocket?”
I checked. “Yes. But it is very old…”
“And the clothes you were wearing…” we began to return to the house. “They were on this sofa, and now there is nothing.”
I took a glance at the house. It looked brand new; all the windows were fixed and I saw no ivy on the walls.
We entered the house. I heard whistling upstairs from Mr. Frost.
“Where is the far edge of this effect?” I asked, curious.
“It only happens to these two properties and a bit of land surrounding them. We have became quite used to this effect.”
“But… why does it end at those years?”
“We may need to do some research for that…” replied Mr. Fraust.
We went back to the factory and he unlocked one of the filing cabinets. After rifling through many documents in them, he pulled something out.
“Why are those always locked? What’s so secretive about these documents, anyways?” I wondered.
Mr. Fraust sighed, not excited to divulge such information.
“It’s all very sensitive information, about various topics. Some of it is about… an adversary of Mr. Frost.”
“Shouldn’t have said that,” muttered Mr. Fraust to himself.
“But this time effect, anyhow, appears to have something with temporal differentiation… invention of the flashlight and paper clip… the population of the world at two and three billion respectively… death of Winston Churchill…”
He read amongst the documents.
“There seem to be a number of reasons. And there is Mr. Frost.”
“But who is Mr. Frost?” I asked, a bit impatiently. “What is Mr. Frost?”
“Shh,” he said, gesturing.
I heard a terrifying loud banging on the roof. It sounded like something slid off onto the ground. Suddenly, the ambient temperature seemed to increase slightly. Mr. Fraust’s eyes showed a stunned gaze, and his mouth hung open.
“What is it?” I asked. He did not respond.
Despite my fears, I marched towards the front door and opened it up. There was a cloud of black and grey smoke in front of the factory, hovering above the ground and apparently originating from it.
I did not see anything else unusual, except that the world in 1898 looked very different from what I was used to. Still, there was a queasy feeling as I went back into the factory to check on Mr. Fraust.
“What is out there?” he asked me urgently.
“Smoke,” I replied.
“Mr–” he whispered. He fainted and collapsed to the ground.
I heard a frantic knocking on the door.
Had Mr. Knife come back from the dead?
Terror paralyzed me. I could not manage to move a muscle.
Mr. Frost barged in.
“You! Get the fire extinguisher! Hurry!” he ordered, pointing at me. My paralysis breaking, I ran around the factory room desperately, neglecting to ask where the fire extinguisher was.
It was nowhere to be found.
“Hurry!” yelled Mr. Frost from the office.
It was way off in the farthest corner of the room. The fire extinguisher was more like a large red and yellow pressurized can, being from the 1950’s or 60’s. It was quite heavy as I lugged it back.
Mr. Frost was waiting impatiently by the door. He snatched the apparatus from me and jumped out the door. Smoke poured in from outside.
Covering my mouth, I took a step outside and saw the house and factory surrounded on two sides by an inferno of fire. Mr. Frost combated the blaze by shooting a stream of water at it. The door of the house swung open and Mr. Crause ran out with a bucket and dumped it onto a section of the blaze, which crackled and smoked as it went out.
The gigantic fire had been reduced halfway, but Mr. Frost’s extinguisher was running out and it was encroaching even closer to the house.
“Get the other one!” he yelled.
I frantically searched through the factory workroom again but could not find it. Hopeless, I returned to the office and was about to tell Mr. Frost the news, when I glimpsed another extinguisher right under the desk, next to the wall.
I brought it to Mr. Frost. Mr. Crause readied another bucket.
Just as the fire was about to reach the far wall of the house, Mr. Crause put it out. On the other side, Mr. Frost finished off the last of it.
I heard coughing from the butler. It was even smokier now than before.
There was some refuge back in the safety of the workroom. Mr. Fraust came to from his fainting spell, slightly disoriented.
I knelt down by his side and reassured him, not telling him about the fire, although its existence was obvious from the smoke that had poured in in no small quantity from the opening and shutting of the door.
Mr. Frost appeared and placed the empty fire extinguisher cans on top of the desk in the office.
“What is all that smoke?” wondered Mr. Fraust.
“Nothing,” I replied, clearly lying.
“No!” said Mr. Fraust to himself, unbelieving. He struggled to his feet and headed towards the door.
“What’s going on?” I called out to Mr. Frost. He headed towards me.
“I’m afraid to tell you the reason for the fire,” he said, his face cold and expressionless.
“I am quite sure, however, that it came from the being known as Mr–“
A scream from outside interrupted him.
“We have to go!” he said.
Not interested in missing anything, I sprinted past Mr. Frost and left the building.
Mr. Fraust was nowhere to be seen outside, so I supposed he therefore had to be in the mansion.
“Is anybody here?” I called, opening the front door. There was a noise from upstairs.
Cautiously, I approached the stairs.
“Stop!” yelled Mr. Fraust from Mr. Frost’s office. There were scuffling noises. Strangely, I felt a strong sensation of heat as I climbed the staircase.
At the top, an insane sight awaited me. Mr. Fraust was cowering in front of a red-haired suited man whom I had never seen before. His face was covered in pimples and his presence felt immediately annoying. He was about the same age as Mr. Frost.
“Ahh, it’s about time we met!” he grinned evilly. It was almost like his body was burning. The temperature of the room had skyrocketed.
“I suppose you can guess what my name is,” he said, warmly. Still, I detected a streak of fire behind his eyes.
Silenced by the awkwardness of the conversation and a hunch to keep my mouth shut, I simply stood there.
“Well,” he said, his temper starting to simmer, “no words from you?” His mouth contorted.
“Why doesn’t anyone ever talk to me?” he shrieked, his voice reaching a boiling point.
“Well what is your name?” I asked, giving up.
“Mr. Heat,” he replied, smiling.
“You have one decision: either follow me or follow Mr. Frost. So, will you join me or are you going to leave me out in the cold?”
I was getting sick of this.
“I am not joining you, and I’m not a huge fan of Mr. Frost either, honestly, but how would I possibly trust you?” I said, exasperated.
Mr. Heat’s body increased in calorificy rapidly.
“If you are not going to help me destroy all of Mr. Frost’s documents, this guy will die!”
I was disappointed he did not know Mr. Fraust’s name but it was not surprising.
“No!” protested Mr. Fraust.
“His name is Mr. Fraust!” I said defiantly, grabbing the nearest object to me, an historical compendium, and launching it at Mr. Heat.
He shrugged off the large impact and the book set ablaze as it ricocheted off his body. It crackled on the floor next to him.
Using some sort of telekinesis, Mr. Heat sent the book flying towards Mr. Fraust and it collided with his head, sending him sprawling on the ground.
I was stunned.
“Why are you even trying to fight me?” he asked. “You know you will fail.”
I had to admit, he had a good point.
But what about Mr. Frost? Perhaps I could pass the time until he showed up to help me. I had to think of something.
“I can find you a great document to burn,” I said, trying to backstab him. I rifled through the bookshelf for the least important item. Mr. Heat seemed patient for a few seconds.
“Here it is,” I said, holding up a biological treatise, “burn this!”
Mr. Heat sent a fireball at it and the entire book combusted in one second.
“Good, you’re helping me,” said Mr Heat. “Now we can get rid of winter once and for all! Now get me another book, or maybe I should just set the whole bookcase on fire.”
“No!” I said, unable to restrain myself.
“Yes,” he replied, discovering my ruse. He held out his hands and began to materialize a fireball. Instinctively, I charged him and we crashed to the floor.
“Damn you, Mr. Heat!” I yelled, infuriated. His aim was upset and the fireball hit the wall next to the bookcase, charring it.
I was starting to burn, so I crawled away from Mr. Heat as quickly as I could.
“It’s your turn! Feel the burn!” he said, preparing to blast me. There was a small mirror right in front of me, next to Mr. Frost’s desk. I took it and pointed it towards Mr. Heat just as he shot the fireball. It bounced back at him and only burnt my fingertips slightly.
“That doesn’t work!” he said as the fireball collided with him. “You can’t fight fire with fire!”
“Shut up!” I yelled.
He fired another projectile at me, which made the mirror drop out of my hands and shatter.
“You’re done!” Mr. Heat declared, in a burning rage.
“No he isn’t,” countered the cold voice of Mr. Frost, who stood at the top of the staircase. Mr. Heat shot a fireball at him but he dodged it, advanced, and swung his fist at Mr. Heat.
Mr. Heat cried out in pain and dealt Mr. Frost a blow in return. They pounded each other mercilessly, and with each blow the former’s’ heat diminished and the latter’s frozenness became more temperate. Mr. Frost swung his foot under his adversary’s leg, tripping him. Descending on his injured opponent, Mr. Frost slugged hit after hit on Mr. Heat’s face.
I stared wide-eyed.
“Go back to where you came from!” said Mr. Frost venomously. Mr Heat’s face became mangled and unrecognizable under a layer of frozen blood.
Doubts entered my mind.
Mr. Frost started to elbow Mr. Heat unremittingly.
I was disgusted.
“Stop!” I yelled. “Don’t kill him!”
Mr. Heat lay silent under another round of crushing impacts.
“Give me your knife, now!” implored Mr. Frost, looking me right in the eye.
“No,” I replied, placing my hand over my pocket protectively. Mr. Frost dealt Mr. Heat another kick and advanced towards me.
I backed up and found my back against the wall.
“Give it to me,” he repeated. “It’s the only way.”
I shook my head.
Mr. Heat’s body began to warm up again. I saw him convulsing.
“Now!” said Mr. Frost urgently. I dug the knife out of my pocket and handed it to him. Mr. Frost took it, and Mr. Heat, regaining consciousness, sent a huge inferno at Mr. Frost’s back. He collapsed.
Mr. Heat smiled an unrecognizable smile at me.
“Join me!” he said, preparing yet another fireball.
I looked my immanent death in the face. Mr. Frost was out cold.
The fireball was nearly ready.
Then I saw the window on my left.
I climbed onto Mr. Frost’s desk and jumped through the window without thinking. It smashed and everything raced past me in a blue as I freefell towards an inevitable impact.
Everything was black.
I am laying on grass sideways with no recollection of the past.
There is a factory in front of me. Everything is blurry but it slowly comes into focus. I try to stand up but my ribs are broken.
Slowly, at a pace that would make a snail jealous, I raise myself up and hobble one foot at a time towards the factory. I remember that I left something around there.
I look behind me and see an old Edwardian house with nobody in it, consumed by ivy.
Gradually, I make it in back of the factory, where there is a large parking lot containing only my car.
Perhaps there is a bit of fresh dirt behind the main house, I cannot tell for sure.
I hobble towards the vehicle and wonder how I got here.
The keys are in my pocket. There is a severe pain in my fingers as I pull them out and unlock the car.
Putting the key in the ignition and starting the engine, I finally take a look at my hand.
My fingertips are black and the skin is severely burned.