A Strange Employment (Gothic novelette)

A Strange Employment (novella)
Azure James

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?”
“Yes.”
“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.
“1500?”
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.
“You ARE.”
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.”
“Adversary?”
“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.
“No.”
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.
I remember.

 

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Illinois

Illinois sucks.” declared Nancy. “Almost everything sucks until we reach Oregon,” she pouted. “Last time I went by here I almost got in a wreck from being so bored. Only thing that’s worse than the cornfields is Chicago. I hate that place. It’s just a big mumbo-jumbo of traffic and crazy drivers. Uggh. Good thing we’re finally passing it.”

Outside the car, the skyline of the Windy City was calmly retreating into the distance. This was the Gateway to the West, and it felt subtle but obvious at the same time. Anything before Illinois was not truly Western, not even Indiana.

I miss Ray. It’s too bad the acting job never turned out. I got so close…” complained Nancy, pounding the steering wheel.

But he was just a flake,” replied Alex defensively. “How do you know Ray even liked you to begin with?”

He did; it was obvious. Men are different when they’re just messing with you or swindling you. He was the real deal…”

His mother’s nostalgic rambling upset Alex. He already had enough to deal with between starting eleventh grade, dealing with other kids, and making a few bucks. His mom’s regrets and delusions were not improving his life.

I could have been in Broadway…”

Just please…” pleaded Alex. “Cut it out for a second. I’ve heard it all before.” He covered his ears and tried to distract himself.

They were silent for a long time. The highway pressed on, passing the city and its bland suburbs. A mixture of houses and occasional cornfields replaced it. A lighter energy started to infuse the air, like the sunlight was slowly returning to the day.

They passed by Morris, a rather normal-feeling small town, not especially different than the suburbs of Chicago.

I’ve already had enough of the Midwest,” said Nancy. “Portland, here we come. Slowly but surely.”

Alex huffed. Portland was not his cup of tea. It was all show and taxes and fake fancy people. He liked the thought of clean air and knowing who his neighbors were. Although he had spent most of his life in New York City, Alex found that he had been quite happy with Indiana and its quaint, honest people when they’d drove through the state.

Thanks for visiting Morris,” read a passing sign.

We didn’t thought Alex. More and more towns passed by until they were finally at the western corner of the state, hours later. The noon sun shone happily upon them as Nancy stopped the car for a rest break.

Alex was impressed by the free feeling and grandiose skies that abounded all around him. The small town they were stopped in felt friendly, interesting, and nearly mystical. Alex could not think of the main reason why Illinois felt so fascinating to him, but something about it was simply better than Indiana, and a lot better than New York City. There, he wasn’t friends with more than five people, and even those people were not very good quality. They were like Ray.

Do you want to drive for a while?” Nancy asked, tired out from the ordeal of Chicago.

Sure,” replied her son. He took the drivers seat and leisurely traveled down the highway.

Why don’t you speed up? It’s not like there’s anything here worth looking at,” jabbed Nancy. When Alex didn’t respond, she looked at her phone and texted someone.

Some old-style red barns came into sight, and Alex studied the paintings on the front of them for as long as he could afford. There was history, right in front of you. His heart started to stir as he grew more attached to the area. He pictured himself in a straw hat and overalls, friends with everyone in the whole area.

We need some gas,” noted Nancy. Just out of town was a gas station with the old freestanding pumps. Alex stopped the car and pulled in. The gas was a dollar cheaper than it was in New York. Alex’s jaw dropped.

Whoa, that’s cheap,” he remarked when he started to drive again. “It was sixty to fill it up back there, here it’s only forty-five!”

Maybe, but that sure doesn’t make living here worth a crap,” Nancy replied.

A fire started to rage inside Alex. He’d had enough of being a submissive victim. He spoke slowly and sternly.

You know what? I’ve had enough of your complaining about this place. You say it’s full of crap and nothing goes on here, but I like it. Just look outside, it’s a simple life. Not full of crap and people everywhere like Portland-”

What do you even know about here? You haven’t been here for more than four hours!” she shouted, cutting him off. After a moment of silence, she continued. “And Portland is nice. It’s the San Francisco of the North.”

Alex slowed the car down as they entered into the next farm town. It had such interesting, funny establishments with strange names. Alex almost laughed when he saw them.

Why don’t you go faster? We have to get back to Oregon by Sunday.”

Defiantly, Alex slowed down to the speed of an Amish buggy. Every foot traversed in this manner felt like nails on a chalkboard to Alex’s mom.

Stop! Let me drive,” she said, turning red with anxiety and rage. Alex begrudgingly pulled over and got out of the car.

I like your shirt,” said a smiling stranger as he passed by Alex. He had a country-style toughness and muddy clothes. The teenager walked around to the passenger’s seat.

Nancy immediately broke the speed limit and starting texting voraciously on top of that.

Good lord. No, I don’t want to be friends with you,” she mumbled to herself, fooling around on the phone buttons.

The anger and resentment inside Alex’s heart grew even stronger, but he cooled them down and solidified them by making a decision. It was not a light decision, and it would have consequences that would ripple for a long time.

They drove by a wheatfield and another bright, tall cornfield.

Wait. Can you find somewhere to stop? I want to take a piece of corn out of the field,” said Alex, grinning. After she had sent another message, Nancy replied.

For what?”

I don’t know. Decoration,” answered Alex.

Do you think you’re some sort of… country bumpkin?” she said, repulsed. “You’re not.”

Come on…” pleaded Alex.

We’re not stopping again until we get to Portland.”

Alex thought of ways to get out of his predicament. Finally, a light clicked on in his head.

Just stop for a second and I’ll put more work into my math when I get back in school. Really.”

Nancy considered his bargain and finally accepted it. She stopped the car and texted on her phone while Alex opened the door, walked over to the first tall corn plant, and vanished from sight.

Thirty seconds later, Nancy put her phone down and looked out the window.

That’s strange,” she said to herself. “Where is he?” She stood on the side of the road, perplexed.

Alex had already broken through the other side of the field by the time she started calling for him. Soon, he was on the banks of a wooded creek heading even further away. A mile later, the creek turned sharply and Alex decided to take a shortcut through an overgrown field. Dozens of plant varieties bees populated the area. On the creekbank were many bushes and unusual berries. The stout trees of the area had become less common and had a more upright character than those in Indiana. Alex lay down in the grass and enjoyed the solitude until a farmer appeared out of the woods up ahead. He spotted him and walked closer.

Who are you?” the man asked.

Alex,” replied the teenager, unsurely. There was an awkward pause, typical in conversations with people without much conversation in their lives.

Do you have any family?” the farmer inquired, confused and sure he had never seen Alex before.

Nope,” replied Alex, grinning.

– – – – – – – – –

Two years later, the farmer, his wife, and two hired hands sat on the porch and drank iced tea.

Did you like that movie?” asked Herman, the newest farm hand.

Never saw it,” said the farmer.

Thought it was pretty good,” added Herman. The other worker butted in.

I liked it a lot,” said Alex.

I’m publishing another book soon!

I have been working on a project secretively for a long time and this is the first public post about it.

The project is a compilation of short stories, but not just a clumsy copy-and-pasting of them, it is instead a well crafted alchemical mix where each part has its own role to play in the whole recipe.

One of the major themes in the book is the difference between the geographical parts of the USA.

I am working on the second draft right now, and will give more updates as the project progresses.

*

There is a poll below if you would like to give some insights. Continue reading

Routine

Routine

Earl Winslow says he wants one covered up with them Indian beads. Think you can do that?” asked Pete, Jed’s boss.

Prob’ly,” he replied. “I don’t know the beadwork too well, though. How fancy does he want it?”

Nevermind it,” scoffed Pete, waving his hand. “Just bleach it normal and I’ll find someone to decorate it.”

Jed walked outside of the workroom to see if anything interesting was happening. Outside the building, scattered across the yard, lay a dozen buffalo heads in various stages of decay. Some looked nearly alive, others were bleached husks. The dark, repulsive smell emanating from them occasionally drifted in the wind.

He picked a skull up and worked for the rest of the day, skinning, bleaching, painting, and cutting. There was always more work to do with the heads, but it was not good work, and something about it made Jed feel emotionless, like a machine. The sun took its time drifting through the sky, and finally, caked with sweat, the young man called it a day. He ate dinner, sat around quietly for a while, and then went to bed in his little room.

It was blistering. The summer heat had overstayed its welcome for much too long. The young man could not fall asleep. He rolled around uncomfortably, and only after three long hours did he drift off uneasily, bad thoughts pouring through his mind. A dream bubbled up from deep inside him.

Years had went by, and Jed was a lot older and more stoic, with a bushy black beard. Every day, he scraped away at the numerous buffalo skulls. A cousin from back East had come to visit him, and was just about to arrive. Jed was accustomed to his work, so desensitized to it that his whole world consisted of the heads of animals, and he could not even remember anything else. He held a hatchet in his hand, just about the chop an extra vertebrae off on his latest piece. The door to the shack swung open and someone stepped inside.

Howdy, Jed!” called his cousin. Jed looked up at him flatly, and uttered the words:

What a nice head you’ve got, cousin.” He spoke lowly, inhumanly. Jed stood up, took a step forward, and readied the hatchet up to strike as the buffalo skull tumbled out of his lap and shattered.

He awoke from the dream stunned. Jed got all his clothes on as quickly as he could. On the way out of his bedroom, he saw Pete sitting on his old chair, smoking a cigar and reading the newspaper.

Jed, you got a big order to work on today for the Off-R ranch. Got you another bottle of that cleanin’ chemical you like,” he commented, not bothering to look his employee in the eye. “Some sort of bleach, I think. Ready to work?”

Wordlessly, Jed pulled on his boots and walked out the door, never to return.

Bobby and Jesco

Bobby and Jesco

by Azure James  (part of a series of Southern short stories)

  

      The way I see it, Jesco Earnest had no good reason to do what he did that day. I’ll start from the beginnin’. Ol’ Jesco and Bobby Carson were good buds out ’round the woods where I grew up, in Eastern Kentucky. 

     Well, the both of them were married, had two wives and three kids between the two of ’em. They’d been friends since they were schoolkids in Pikeville. I miss that ol’ school. I believe I was maybe twelve when those two kids started kindergarten. Only saw ’em fer a year ‘fore I dropped out. I had too many responsibilities on the homestead to pay no attention to my schoolwork. Back then, we had ’bout twelve head of cattle. A big Angus/Hereford cross bull. If I’ve ever seen cows that make good dairy and beef at the same time, they had to have come from that bull. We named him Marb, since that was what my daddy smoked and it sounded like a good name to my lil’ head back at the time. Come to think of it, I suppose it still does. 

     Guess I’m gettin’ sidetracked. Jesco and Bobby grew up alright. Jesco broke horses and Bobby cut timber. Both of ’em stayed out of the coal mines, lucky for them. They grew up quick and got throwed out before they knew it. Stayed together close enough to stop at each others for dinner or some target practice or some drinkin’. That’s how this all started, actually. The summer of nineteen-sixty-two was turnin’ cold faster than normal. Got both of em’ a little ornery, but especially Jesco. He always wanted to move down to Flarida. Never got the money to leave, though.

     Bobby was stayin’ over at Jesco’s fer a smoke before he got home from work. They were standin’ outside when Jesco took off to the woods to go to the bathroom. When he got back, Bobby was standin’ there daydreamin’ and one of Jesco’s horses was runnin’ out of the pasture, right through the open gate. How was that possible? The gate was closed just a minute before. 

     Jesco already was mad at Bobby fer stoppin’ over uninvited and because he thought he might have stole some of his eggs. And because of the cold weather of course, but this really threw him for a loop.

     Jesco yelled at Bobby to high hell fer lettin’ his horse out, but Bobby said the horse must have untied the knot somehow or other. Jesco didn’t have none of it, so he ran in his house and shut the door. 

     Well, about a minute later, Bobby had the horse caught with some sweetfeed and a halter. He knocked on the door to apologize about what happened and tell Jesco he got the horse back, but when the door opened up, instead of a warm greetin’, Bobby got a shotgun blast to the face. 

     The real amazing thing about was how dern smart Jesco was after the killin’. He just dug up a hole and tossed Bobby inside it. When his wife came back from her shopping trip, she asked what the dirt marks on Jesco’s clothes were from. 

“Just buryin’ a dead cat I found by the road,” said Jesco, real sly.

 “That’s too bad,” empathized his wife. 

     Jesco must have thought everything was fine then, but the Good Lord knows who should be punished, and he always finds a way to do just that. Week later, and another one of Jesco’s friends shows up. While Jesco n’ his wife were busy talkin’, his friend walked around and happened upon that big grave, right at the border of the woods. 

“What’s that fer?” he asked. 

“Umm… one of my horses got colic a few days ago,” replied Jesco, lookin’ sideways. 

“Grave ain’t big enough fer’ your horse, and I know you’ve always had three horses,” said the neighbor, gettin’ perty suspicious.

“You still do. Heck, that hole would better fit a person than a horse.” Jesco didn’t say nothin’. 

A week later, A big ol’ group came over in the night and dug Bobby up. They knew it all along– people don’t just disappear fer’ no reason. Especially homebodies like Bobby Carson.

I think Jesco got what he deserved in the end. Wonder if he ever did get out of that prison…

The Rifle (short story)

The Rifle (part of a series of southern short stories)

by Azure James

 

Well, if you think what I’m talkin’ about is crazy or somethin’, then I reckon you should hear a story ’bout West Virginny. I’m dern happy to live in Kentucky. ‘Least the people and the police here ain’t too rough. Ain’t like that in West Virginny.

My aunt lived there a while ago. ‘Bout maybe twenty minutes past the border. She had quite a story to tell.

There was this real slow man named Ralph Hopkins livin’ somewhere in West Virginny whereabouts thirty years ago. He lived round the town of Welch, but didn’t have no kin livin’ with him. Ralph liked walkin’ around the town and maybe goin’ to a jamboree or two, but his real favorite thing was huntin’ with his thirty-caliber rahfle.

To him, that rifle was more precious than gold. He kept it locked up in a nice box, though he didn’t even have no good bed to sleep in. Inherited it from his father, from what I hear. Anyways, it was the summer of ’69, and Ralph was goin’ over to his friend’s house. Didn’t have too many friends.

Ralph’s friend was this ol’ boy named Henry Pailler. Henry lived out in the sticks few miles from town with his wife and a dog named Tick. His house was on a big ol’ ravine cliff, so that if you got too drunk and stumbled out the door, you’d fall raht down the cliff ’bout a hundred feet. Henry was real careful not to have that happen. He put up a rope at the edge of that cliff, but the rope was startin’ to get old an’ he didn’t have no money to replace it.

Well, Ralph went to Henry’s house that summer of ’69, and Henry told him to bring that rifle of his. So, Ralph showed up and they talked about this and that an’ how ta cook an’ bake pies and talked about huntin’. Henry said he needed that ol’ rifle because he didn’t have no money to buy another rope. Well, somehow or other he convinced Ralph to loan it fer’ a week. Ralph said he’d get real mad an’ tell everyone if he didn’t give it back in time, but he gave over it all the same. After dinner, Ralph gave him the rifle and left. It was just bright enough outside fer’ to see that rope hangin’ over the cliff. Ralph went back home and kinda sat round till’ bedtime.

About a week after that, when the rifle was supposed to be returned, Henry said he needed to go out fer’ a drink. Once he left, his wife started gettin’ nervous. He’d been drinkin’ and dancin’ and whatnot every dern naht, and she was startin’ to think he was unfaithful. She’d also seen him lookin’ at that perty girl Joanna Hatfield. Yes, she was a Hatfield, but this ain’t the eighteen-hundreds so that don’ really matter. Henry said he’d be home at seven, but he didn’t show up till’ eight-thirty, when his wife was havin’ a conniption fit over what she thought he was doin’.

Raht when Henry opened the door, his wife started harrassin’ him about what he was doin’. He said nothin’ but drinkin’, but she knew that he was seeing Joanna Hatfield. You know how– because there wasn’t no smell of alcohol on his breath, and he didn’t stumble off the cliff into that ravine.

Henry said he was real tarred, so he lay down and tried to get to sleep, but he was really jes’ tryin’ to avoid his wife. Well she was in such a fit that she started tearin’ the whole dern house up lookin’ fer some “evidence.” After ’bout an hour of mess-makin’ she found what she was lookin’ fer. It was an old, faded-out picture of Joanna Hatfield.

While all this was goin’ on, Ralph couldn’t sleep, so he decided to take a walk over to Henry’s house, even though it was gettin’ dark. He just needed to get his rifle back, since he missed cleaning it and starin’ at it all the time. Ralph walked through the woods and up the slope to Henry’s house. Somethin’ didn’t quite seem right to him, but he wasn’t quite sure what. Well, Ralph found out real soon. Moment he opened the door, Ralph saw quite a sight. Henry’s body was on the floor, all bled out and red from gettin’ shot. The thirty-caliber rifle was laying right next to him. Ralph had quite a fit over that fer about five minutes, but then he decided to just take the rifle back anyways and go to his funeral when it came ’round. He was perty worried about if he’d killed himself, though. Even Ralph could figure out that Henry was usually too happy to just shoot himself, especially with someone else’s rifle. Ralph picked his rifle up off the ground and walked out of the house ‘quickly as he could. Well, he dern near fell off that cliff, just kinda hit the rope then remembered to stop walking. Right then, Ralph heard some sirens real close to him. There was some commotion, then a policeman ran up right behind the side of the house.

“Who are you?” demanded the policeman.

“Ralph Hopkins is my name,” said Ralph, slowly.

“Put that rifle down,” said the policeman.

“I ain’t shot him,” replied Ralph.

“Put that gun down this second,” yelled the officer. Ralph didn’t really pay attention. He just pointed his rifle towards the house, where the dead body was. Turns out ol’ Ralph didn’t know much about policemen. BANG! The officer shot Ralph right dead in the chest. Musta’ thought he was tryin’ to shoot him. Or maybe he jes’ didn’t like Ralph. He went backwards a step, and sort of rolled right over the rope, slid to the edge of the cliff, and fell off. His rifle fell off the cliff as well. No matter how hard they look, ain’t no-one’s ever found that rifle.

 

My Travels in Mississippi

by Azure James

1

Houses on the Hill: 1935

(from http://www.shorpy.com/node/2609)

*

My lady left me, and I have nowhere to go.

No parents, no friends to run to.

Just a beat-up guitar and the pair of shoes on my feet.

I walked away from her doorstep, stalling as much as I could manage. The bright lemon-colored Mississippi light bathed the ground, and the sun’s rays permeated just about everything. The air was dense and cloudy. I went out towards the town for a quick visit before I left and headed South. The store had some faded, rusty signs on it. In the window was an assortment of trinkets and odds-and-ends. Murray was the owner of the store. He was about sixty years old, and wasn’t the friendliest person around. But, there was always a chance he’d be nice enough to give me a gift for my journey.

“Murray, how do you do?”

“Just fine. The heat’s been unbearable, hasn’t it? What are you doing outside?”

“I am taking a little walk around. Do you have anything that might help me for a overnight trip?”

Murray scoffed. He shook his head slightly, but I saw a little twinkle in his eye.

“You know, I ain’t got much of nothin’ for you. Your folk don’ usually carry money around, anyways.”

I was used to insults. I had heard them my entire life. He was right this time, though.

“I don’t reckon I’m carrying any money around, either. This would be out of your own free will.”

Murray was indecisive. I could tell the odds would be small he would give me anything valuable.

“You know, I might give you this old junky guitar, just because I have nothing else to do with it. Make sure you do NOT tell anyone about it, though. I don’t want the whole town knowin’ I gave a colored a guitar.”

“Thank you very much, sir.” I replied.

Murray turned around and pulled his guitar out of a pile of garbage. It was missing a string.

“Now, you won’t be able to play it. It has only five strings.” said Murray, trying to rush me out.

“That’s fine. Five strings is better.”

Murray was confused. He didn’t know where I was coming from. He probably didn’t even know I played the guitar.

“Thank you kindly, sir. I will be leavin’ now.” I said.

“Goodbye” replied Murray.

"Mississippi Town Negro Quarter"

(from http://www.thecityreview.com/wevans.htm)

*

2

I put the guitar on a sling on my back. The heat was so blistering that sweat would have hit my brow instantly, if I wasn’t wearing a straw hat. I stumbled out of Blackwater, into the country beyond.

The sky stretched out so far that it made me dizzy. Many puffy white clouds dotted the sky. I knew it would rain before too long. Every once in a while, the clouds would get in the way of the sun, which would cast a dark, shadowy look on the land.

I passed by an old house, which looked more decrepit than most I’d seen in ol’ Mississippi. The house leaned to the side, looking like it could fall over any day. It had an abundance of plants and vines creeping up the sides. I hoped to Jesus no one lived there.

After I passed by, I happened to take a quick look back. In the doorway was a small child, staring at me accusingly. I nodded to him, but I felt a bit out of place. He didn’t move an inch.

Awkwardly, I kept walking away from the boy. It would take almost an hour before that old house would be out of sight.

On the horizon were some storm clouds. They were black and menacing, and fast on their way to where I was. The wind started to blow and whistle, disrupting the peaceful calm. Dust was kicked up by the dirt road, and I had to cover my eyes with my hand.

I hurried a little, stepping at a pace that made me look like I was going somewhere. Even though I wasn’t.

The dirt road went on and on, until it disappeared into a blurred mirage. I looked at the sky again. The storm clouds were almost overhead, probably about five minutes away. I sighed.

Be It Ever So Humble: 1938

(from http://www.shorpy.com/node/12372)

*

3

I decided it wouldn’t actually be that bad if my hat got soaked. Anyways, it was so hot out that the rain might feel nice on my head. Up ahead of me was a break in the barbed-wire fence. There was a long driveway, with an automobile parked alongside the house. The house was in better shape than most of the others I had recently seen. Still, the paint was flaking off the walls, and there were cracks in the windows. An old white man sat on the porch and stared at me warily. I saw nobody else on the property.

I trudged on.

Shortly, the rain started to fall. It began as a light drizzle, and intensified a bit more. It was going to soak through in about ten minutes. It felt nice, seeing that there was no other shelter from the midday heat. I saw the grass absorb the rain and start to recover from the pounding of the sun. It turned greener by the minute.

Suddenly, my hat brim started to droop down on my forehead. I tried to move it back up, but it drooped again in a matter of seconds. I was dismayed.

There was hardly a house in sight, except a few rotting barns that had been overtaken by nature. That never changes in Mississippi. Boundless cotton and sugarcane plantations filled up the space. There was still land left over, though, which had nothing but knee-high grass and wildflowers in it.

My hat was now so soaked through that I took it off and looked over it. It was more flimsy than a wet dumplin’ from my great grandma Haddy’s chicken stew. I had nowhere to put it, so I laid it down by the side of the road, and went on bareheaded.

Up ahead was a property with a few black people working in the cotton field and one sitting on the porch. I waved over to the man on the porch. He waved back, so I walked up the drive to the front of the house.

“How do y’ do?” I asked the man.

“Fine. What brings you he’ah?”

“Headed South to the ocean, maybe.”

“Funny. You ain’t got nothin’ wit you. You lookin’ fo’  work?” he asked.

“If I kin’ find a meal, I’ll try my hand. Mah’ stomach is a rumblin’. What’s yo’ name?”

“Mah’ name’s Old Ben. Well, talk to Mister Jones inside if you wanna work.” the man replied.

“How long were y’ on the job for?” I asked.

“I been workin’ since sunup, got a little break raht’ now. Just enough time to finish a glass of sweet tea. Gon’ back to the field in half hou’ah.”

“I got this here guitar an’ I’ll play y’all a tune caus’ I got nothin’ better to do now.”

“Well, you kin work with me once I get outta mah’ break. Fo’ now, I’ll listen to you play that guitar.”

I thought for a minute. I didn’t have a slide. Luckily, an empty glass Coke bottle was sitting on the porch. I took the bottle and walked back to the driveway.

I found a rock and broke the body of the bottle away from the neck. Than, I took the neck back to the porch. Taking my guitar off my back, I messed around, playing a few random chords for a second. Then, I started playing a song I wrote.

She told me last night

“That I ain’t never buyed

Her a ring, no shiny thing”

For all her life

*

I got up today 

An’ headed out into the town

I go to the store and he asks me:

“You wanna buy some shiny thing?” 

And I say no sweet Jesus

I don’t need no fancy things

Cause I got dis’ old guitar 

And that’s enough for me

*

I head out of town 

about noon time

An’ I keep walkin,’ just keep walkin’

Until I find

Until I find some shiny thing

Somethin’ that means somethin’ to me

Cause I ain’t got no shiny things

Nothin’ that belongs to me

*

And when I find some shiny thing

Maybe I’ll find the key 

Find the key to the house

To the house of the good life

Sweet Jesus, that man can play the guitar! That’s a damned fine job.” said Old Ben. He shook my hand. I heard a voice from inside the house, yelling for the old man to get to work back in the fields.

“I should get out there with you if he says it’s okay. I don’ need no pay, just dinnah'”

I went in the house and had a quick talk with Mister Jones. After I told him I had done field work before, he accepted my offer to help him for the rest of the day. He also told me he would give me a dime, which could buy me two bottles of Coke.  I got outside with Old Ben, and got to work picking the endless sea of white cotton.

4

Cotton picking

(from http://us.history.wisc.edu/hist102/lectures/lecture02.html)

Almost twenty people showed up for the dinner of ham hocks and gravy, grits, black eyed peas, and collard greens. With a deliciously hearty meal in my stomach and a dime in my pocket, I said goodbye to Mister Jones and Old Ben. They waved me out, and I hiked southward.

The wind hummed gently. It was a slightly less hot than it was when I had started my trip, and I liked the coolness more. The time was probably around six-o’-clock. In the sky, the sun was beginning to sink lower to the ground, and I could tell the sunset would be there before I knew it.

Even though it started as a simple line in the horizon, I eventually noticed that State Road #10 was ahead. The road had plenty of traffic, compared to the dirt roads I had been travelling that had rarely seen an automobile.

In about twenty minutes, I reached the big highway.

Cars rolled past at about thirty miles per hour. I had only gone that fast once, when a horse I rode spooked and galloped like his hooves were on fire. I was always astounded at the speeds these machines could reach. It seemed to be faster every year.

I waited for a break in the traffic, which took about half a minute. When that came, I crossed the State Road #10 and stared ahead into the country beyond. I had heard that this road was only a few miles away from the ocean, and I wanted to see with my own eyes.

There were groves of beautiful pink magnolia trees in full blossom. The humid air from the sea made me want to take a swim, but I would have to wait a while before that could be possible. 

My stomach fluttered a bit for the next hour of travel. I knew I was reaching the end of my journey, because I wasn’t a great swimmer and there wasn’t any more down South to go to. Still, it was real exciting.

I saw more and more sugarcane plantations, and the amount of cotton dwindled. But after a while, there weren’t too many sugarcane plantations either, because they were getting replaced by expensive houses. I knew I was getting close to the ocean.

I was finally on the last road before the beach. Many fancy homes lined the street, and I knew I could never see any on the inside. That was too bad, but I would be seeing the water, at least.

Looking for a few seconds, I noticed there weren’t any entrances to the beach from the road. It only took a second for me to forget the idea of using a regular entrance. I ran right on the dividing line between two people’s property, and kept going until I reached the end of their yards.

My feet dug into the white sand. I heard the sound of gulls in the late afternoon air. The sun was beginning to turn orange and set. A nice warm wind drifted up from the Gulf.

I sat on the ground, tired from all the walking I had done during the day. I relaxed, happy I didn’t have anything better to do.

After a few minutes, I got up again and walked into the water. I splashed around and got my clothes all wet. I didn’t care, since I was the only person in sight on the beach.

I watched the sun get lower and lower, until it looked a bit like a red tomato hugging the horizon. It felt just perfect.

There was a sound behind me. I started to worry that someone would ask me to leave, so I turned around. A black man stood behind me, wearing a small fedora. He tipped his hat to me.

“How do y’ do?” I asked. “What’s your name?”

“My name’s Robert. Robert Johnson.” replied the man.

“What brings you down here?”

“I drift this way n’ that. I felt lahk’ seein’ this beach sometime, so I came here.”

I nodded my head in agreement. Robert continued.

“Can I see that there guitar of yours?”

“That’s fine with me” I replied.

Robert took my guitar and slide, and started playing and singing. He poured his whole soul into that music. I can’t think of anything better I’ve heard in my whole life. As I watched the sunset and listened to Robert Johnson, I thought about the song I had sung earlier that day. Maybe I finally found that fancy, shiny thing on that Mississippi beach.

THE END

Dinner Town, a Fairy Tale

Dinner Town- a fairy tale

By Azure James

Chapter 1

 Jim and his family lived a normal life in England. One day, as usual, Jim decided he didn’t feel like eating his dinner, instead preferring to stare at his eggs and gruel with a look of disgust on his face.

“Eww! Every day it’s porridge and eggs! I can’t stand it!” spat Jim, being as annoying as he possibly could. An awkward silence descended around the table like a heavy fog. Jim stared at it and noticed the awkward silence was stifling his lungs. If nobody would break the silence soon, he might suffocate. He coughed.

“Jim, eat your bloody dinner before I shove your face in it!” said Mum, sternly. Jim smiled as the awkward silence cleared up and the room became clear again. 

“Jim, I am going to birch your bum if you don’t eat your food.” added Dad, a serious look on his face.

Jim pondered his predicament for a few moments. If he ate his breakfast, he would be submitting himself to higher authority, which was extremely uncharacteristic of him. On the other hand, if he didn’t, he might get slapped and birched.

“Ummmm…” said Jim, attempting to reach a conclusion. He tried to think, but the moving parts in his brain hadn’t been lubricated in years and squeaked rustily as they attempted to turn.  

“Jim, eat your bloody supper already! I already told you.” yelled Mum, her face turning red. Her insistence helped Jim’s mind to function properly.

“No.” answered the boy, stone cold on his decision. Mom stood up, amazed but not surprised at Jim’s stubbornness. Dad was scrunching up his face like some strange primate.

Jim somehow knew he had to leave.

Right as Jim jumped up and tried to run to his room, Mom snatched him by the collar and pulled him roughly. Jim burned with rage, not about to lose the fight so quickly. He had to move fast, or else Dad would join the fight and beat on him.

“Let me go!” shouted Jim, voice squeezed so he sounded like a drunk puppy.

His parents ignored his pleading. Jim racked his mind for a way out, but didn’t find enough filing cabinets to rack through. He resorted to brute strength, struggling and fighting his way out of Mom’s grasp. Dad was approaching from behind him.

“NO!” screamed Jim, like an action hero. He slapped his mother and sprinted out of the house before Dad could catch him. Once he had crossed the property line, the boy waited a moment to catch his breath. He was fifty feet from the front door. Suddenly, the door opened and Dad stepped out.

“I have something to discuss with you, Jim!” said Dad.

 Oh no! I better get further away! thought Jim.

“Since you’re not coming, I’m going to inform you right this moment!” said Dad. “YOU MUSTN’T HIT YOUR MOTHER!”

Shut it. thought Jim.

The boy realized his dad was carrying a knife. Dad lobbed the knife at Jim, but he managed to avoid it. Jim sprinted out of their yard, into the neighbor’s yard. His dad wouldn’t be able to chase him down, since Jim was faster.

After a rough run down the road, Jim entered the woods. He didn’t cease his running there, though, just to make sure Dad didn’t catch up with him. Jim eventually got far enough to feel very safe and isolated.

After he was confident Dad was not in pursuit of him anymore, Jim sat on a moldy log and thought. Serious thinking was an activity rarely undertaken, but every once in a great while, he was compelled to think.

Hopefully, Dad stopped chasing me. But I don’t really think it matters, because I could hear him and run away in time. Now what would of happened if he hit me with that knife? I probably would have got beat up even more! Whooo! I better not go back there until they really miss me. The woods is pretty cool. But I kinda don’t like it. None of my friends have ever been in here, and it seems to scare them. Oh, what the heck. I’ll stay here anyways. 

Confident he had thought the matter over as much as he could without his brain seizing up, Jim stood up and hiked further into the woods. The sun was starting to set, and the bigger, nastier bugs were crawling out of their hiding spots. This annoyed Jim slightly, because he had a short-sleeved T-shirt on. Most of the time, he was too late to prevent damage as he tried to swat the bugs off his bare arms. As the sun slowly sank down under the horizon, it got very dark and windy. The crickets and their friends sang loudly, and Jim decided he was definitely far enough into the woods. As he tried to turn back, the boy realized he was utterly lost. Being at least three miles into the mysterious woods was not a nice prospect, but Jim knew he couldn’t even attempt to get out until the next morning.

Jim sat on a freshly-cut tree stump. His face started to droop onto his knee, even though he was quite scared. Seeing no alternative, Jim tried his best to fall asleep. However, the bugs and strange noises, not to mention the ancient atmosphere of the woods would not permit him to. Every time he would get close to drifting off, some creepy noise would wake him up. The boy heard a noisy rustling in the bushes behind him.

No problem. Thought Jim. It’s probably just some huge bug or maybe a small deer. Or a small bug and a huge deer. Jim gulped, terrified. The rustling was getting closer and closer. Jim knew something was behind him. He could feel it.

Suddenly, Jim heard a dark laugh. It was not a person, sounding instead like some strange messed-up troll voice.

“You thought you kin’ get away with hitting your Mum, Jim. Didn’t you?” Jim spun around. He was standing nose-to-nose with a grinning troll. The troll was almost as tall as him, with yellow tinted skin and a long nose. He wore a long-brimmed hat and heavy clothing, and weighed at least five times more than the scrawny protagonist.

“What are you talking about?” asked Jim, breathing heavily. 

“Jim, you get what you deserve n’ this is what you deserve,” croaked the troll.

a present? thought the boy.

Right on cue, the troll pulled out a burlap sack and rope from his back pocket. Jim wheeled and tried to run, he tripped and the rope was thrown around him with expert aim. Jim struggled to get out, but it only got his legs more stuck. The troll kept snickering evilly as the boy fell flat on his face.

“I’ll murder you!” shouted Jim, infuriated.

“I ain’t putting up with you complaining,” warned the troll. He roughly lifted Jim’s legs and slid the bag over him, tying it off. Next, the troll hoisted Jim on his back, which felt extremely uncomfortable to the boy. He struggled to no avail. The troll started to walk away from Jim’s beloved log.

“Put me down!” yelled Jim. His cries were muffled by the heavy burlap. The troll didn’t care about what Jim said, and he kept on trudging along slowly and bumpily. Jim panicked and started to sweat heavily. Maybe someone could save him. It was his last chance. Before he knew it, he could end up being troll dinner or worse!

“HELP!!” screamed Jim at the top of his lungs. He did not stop shouting at all. After he had gone on crying in this way for a lengthy amount of time, the troll pulled out his bludgeon and thumped Jim on the head. He blacked out. 

After Jim had come back alive, the troll stopped suddenly. He let Jim and the burlap sack fall to the ground.

“This is Dinner Town. Enjoy your stay.” The troll cackled and trudged away as Jim struggled to rid himself of the burdensome sack, unable see anything except burlap. A while later, the boy managed to rid himself of the bag and look around. He was in a bizarre, foreign land, standing in a grey field with a dark, twisty forest close by him. On the border of the woods was a single, rusty train track. All the other train tracks Jim had seen had two rails, but this one had only a single rail. Beside the track was the rest of the hilly field with a black broken-down barn in it far away. Very far away, following the train track, was a strange old town. Jim decided it would be a bad decision to go into the field. 

However, the town referred to as Dinner Town looked just as bad as the surrounding countryside. The little settlement was surrounded by a stone wall. The wall had but one gate. All in all, there were only twenty or thirty buildings in the town. Jim knew the circular town couldn’t be bigger than three or four city blocks. 

Chapter 2

Jim looked this way and that, until he made up his mind that Dinner Town sounded more appetizing than the alternatives. He walked towards it, noticing the strangely-built structures that looked like they dated from at least four hundred years ago.

Once the boy got to the entrance gate, he noticed no one was there to guard it. Since the wooden gate was wide open, Jim walked right into the town onto the cobblestone pathway. He heard a strange noise behind him and spun around. Someone had jumped down from the tall upper wall above the gate! The person ran quickly to Jim and tackled him roughly to the ground.

“Why did you not announce your immigration to Dinner Town, foreigner?” he barked in a rough voice.

“I’m immigrating?” asked Jim, considerably bewildered.

“What? Everyone immigrates to Dinner Town! We hate tourists!” The guard and Jim got up, and Jim dusted himself off. The guard continued his speech while pointing at the boy.

“We hate our neighbors, too! We also hate our families! We even hate ourselves! We despise everyone! Have a nice stay, you berk!”

With that, the guard kicked Jim in the back, pushing him further into the town. With an ominous clang, the rusty old gate shut behind him.

The colors of the town did not deviate in the slightest from grey and black. The dress code seemed to enforce this strange law as well, with the villagers wearing wool and black leather. Although there was a church in town that used to be white, this also was turning grey with age. Jim knew he was immediately identifiable as an outsider, since he looked different and was wearing a red shirt. Considering how rude the town seemed to be, being an obvious outsider would really be a challenge.

Up high, the buildings stretched pendulously. Most of them were two or three stories, but one near the center of the town was much higher. It had a strange tower that moved out of the centerline as to make the whole building look like it was falling over.

The only lights were a mixture of red and blue torches stuck on the edge of the buildings. Since it was so late and dark, Jim needed to find a place to sleep. There was no hotel or hostel, and when Jim asked a regular person if he could sleep in a house, she slammed the door in his face.

Finding no other alternative, Jim found an old alleyway and slept for the night, always hearing strange rats and vermin squeaking around him. The next morning, Jim awoke to hear a bustle. There were several people walking in the road outside. Jim got up and tried his best to make himself look presentable. However, he still had some dirt on him and his hair was a mess.

It was slightly foggy out and the clouds were grey, but it was a lot brighter than it had been during the night. The citizens were heading towards a market in the center of the town. Jim followed them as best he could, but found himself being pushed around no matter how fast or slow he went. It got so frustrating that Jim pushed an old lady as he walked past her. To his surprise, the lady slammed heavily onto the ground yelling and screaming.

I didn’t mean to cause that much trouble! thought Jim. The boy looked back and saw a policeman dressed in dark navy with a cudgel on his belt running towards the scene. He took another look at the woman, who was trying to get up at that moment. Jim ran again. From a safe distance, he watched the policeman interrogate all of the eyewitnesses while he sneaked off to the market.

Although there was an abundance of stands at the open-air market, Jim discovered quickly that only a few actually sold more than two or three items. Even those that did never seemed to sell anything. Every potential customer would look at the food, grimace, and then walk away, finding some invisible fault in the food. The food was extremely unusual; a mixture of animal products he had never seen before, bizarre baked goods, and strangely colored noodles.

After looking around for a short while, Jim found a stand selling four croissants, one of the only familiar foods he could find.

“How much money are they?” he asked. The owner stared at him.

“Three farhaks,” he replied sternly.

“I don’t have any of those. I have three pence in my pocket.”

“Just give me those,” said the shopkeeper. Jim bought one, but even though it seemed nobody had bought a single item from him the whole morning, the seller was most ungrateful. He looked very mad to part with his precious croissant.

Jim soon got sick of the market and walked towards the store district of the town. In that quarter were a bar and a market. The boy decided to eat his croissant on the way there. Just as he was taking a bite, Jim noticed the croissant was filled with some disgusting undercooked game meat! He spat it out instantly.

“Why would anyone ever buy anything from that stupid market?” Jim asked himself, extremely embarrassed. The baked good was momentarily thrown on the ground. As Jim departed from it, he felt a light impact on his back. Someone had thrown the croissant at him. However, Jim hardly had a concern for something that trivial any more, and after he looked back at the kid who had thrown it, he kept on traveling.

Jim was not of drinking age yet, but he had a feeling that Dinner Town did not abide by a single law, especially food-related laws. Otherwise, the food at the market would have been better-quality. The village was essentially an oligarchy, with the heaviest, strongest people working as the law and the rest confined to the low-class proletariat.

Anyhow, Jim strolled over to the bar. Inside, there were some worn-out paintings, stone chairs, and bare floors. A wooden counter was placed around two sides of the room. It was probably the only object in the town not colored grey or black, aside from the croissants.

The only other customer at the bar just sat there not doing anything at all. He looked at the counter and half-closed his eyes. The bartender sat on a stool and daydreamed.

“I want a beer.” Jim asked. He felt butterflies in his stomach, but he knew that Dinner Town was so bizarre that he might not even obtain the beer in the first place. The waiter didn’t seem to hear him, so Jim repeated his request.

“We don’t have beer here! That’s not what a bar is for,” declared the bartender. Anger swelled up inside Jim.

“Yes it is! I’m sick of this town. All I want is something that works like it’s supposed to. All of you are freaks.” replied Jim.

The waiter looked daggers at Jim, and proceeded to do nothing. After about fifteen seconds, he said something else.

“We have breadwater and we have well water,” offered the bartender reluctantly.

“Get me some.” said Jim, still upset.

The waiter slid a tiny wooden glass of breadwater over to Jim, who drank it slowly, finding the taste bizarre and not particularly thirst-quenching. He looked at the customer sitting next to him, and decided he would attempt to have a conversation.

“Hi.” said Jim. After he didn’t receive a response, Jim got even more angry.

“What are you doing here? You’re not even drinking or talking to anyone! I thought that’s why bars exist!”

The other man finally spoke.

“There’s only one reason why I go here- I have to escape my wife! She’s horrible. I’m not going to talk to anyone here. That’s not what a bar is for.”

Jim wondered how doing nothing could possibly be better than spending time with your wife. That could only happen in Dinner Town.  He got up and started to walk away.

“What IS a bar for?” he yelled. The stranger rolled his eyes.

“A bar is for nothing,” said the bartender, resuming his cross-legged position on the chair.

“That will be five farhaks for the breadwater.”

“Five darned pence for one ridiculously tiny cup of water? No thank you.” Jim said.

“Not pence. We’re not in England. You have a lot to learn,” admonished the bartender.

Jim stormed out of the restaurant and spent the rest of the day doing a small amount of exploring, but still keeping active more successfully than the man at the bar or the bartender. He found the church, but the door was locked. There was a museum full of curiosities which Jim enjoyed until he realized that only a small section of it was free.

Chapter 3:
That night, Jim decided he would be better off sleeping in an actual house. He only had four pence left, but that had a chance of buying him a bed. Jim already knew he would leave the next morning. By then, his parents would probably want him back at the house.

Before the sun set, Jim knocked on everyone’s door. However, most people did not know what that mannerism even meant, so they ignored him. Only one person answered.

What is it?” said a woman’s voice.

She was not opening the door. No one knew manners at all in this stupid town.

“Open the door!” yelled Jim.

The door opened, and in front of Jim was a woman about forty. He started to fret about how to convince her to let him stay for the night.

“Ummm.” said Jim.

“What?” she asked, annoyed already.

“I need somewhere to stay.” replied Jim. He sounded extremely desperate, which was the truth.

The door was slammed in Jim’s face.

I’m so sick of this. I hate this town. Thought Jim.

Jim went back to the gate but it would not open, and he wouldn’t survive the fall off the top of the wall, so he had to find somewhere to sleep yet again. Someone walked out of their house, so Jim approached him quickly.

“Hey! I need to stay somewhere but I only have four pence,” he said. The man spotted him.

“You need to go to a bank,” he replied. “There’s usually one in that there dark alleyway. Stay out of the brightly-lit areas.”

Jim walked right past a few torches on his way to the abandoned alleyway. Suddenly, a thief dropped down from a building roof and landed right in front of him.

“Give me your farhaks or I will damage you with my mangler!” He held up a contrived device made of small pieces of hardware which resembled a flail. “Right now!” he yelled.

Unfazed, Jim kicked the man over and ran to safety in the dark alleyway. Hiding behind a large stone was a destitute-looking man, which Jim approached.

“Are you a bank?” he asked. The poor man nodded. Jim took his money out of his pocket.

“I have four pence, and I need to exchange them for farkhaks.”

“Four pence- one farhak,” replied the bank man in a strained voice. Jim took it, deciding it was better than nothing. He tried to find a house to sleep in, but had to settle for a recess in a building instead.

The next morning, a pretty girl approached Jim immediately after he woke up and left the nook.

“Hi!” she said. She was wearing a long grey skirt and a brown necklace.

“I’m starving. Do you know where I could find some food?” asked the boy. The girl thought for a moment.

“Come with me. I’ll get you something.” Jim followed her down the road into a house. In the single wooden cupboard, she pulled out a round roll.

“Here,” she said, giving it to him.

“We don’t get strangers very often in this town,” she explained. Jim quickly bit into the roll, but to his surprise, hot porridge sprang out at once, burning him. He screamed in anguish.

“Sorry,” said the girl casually. She went into the cupboard and pulled out another roll. Jim noticed how strange the town was, because she started to eat his roll without getting burned.

“Maybe this will be better,” she said. Cautiously, Jim tried the second roll and found it filled with freezing porridge. He ate it slowly.

“Sit down, enjoy yourself,” said the girl. There were two chairs in the room; one made of pressed, painted egg, and the other resembling a beanbag. Jim’s friend sat on the egg chair, and it jiggled from side to side like gelatin, leaving the boy to sit on the large beanbag-like chair. He descended upon it with a sploosh, and found himself fighting for his life. Porridge was all around him, getting in his lungs, nose, and eyes. The girl pulled him out of the porridge chair quickly.

“Now look what a mess you’ve made,” she said calmly. “I have to go clean that up now.”

They were quiet for a moment.

“I have to go. Bye,” said Jim, trying to regain his composure. He left soaking wet with porridge bits all over him.

Deciding he’d had enough of the town, Jim went back to the gate and attempted to shake it open, but it was still padlocked. He looked at the top of the wall, and noticed there was a way up there. Jim walked over to the steps up the ladder. Luckily, there was no door to stop him from getting to the top.

At the top of the steps, Jim saw a guard sneaking around. He promptly noticed Jim and started to chase him. Jim had about five seconds to make a decision.

Should I jump off the wall? Well, this town sucks. I’m better off dead than in here!

Jim’s internal monologue was already over. He sprinted towards the other side of the wall and jumped off. Just as he left the ground, the guard grabbed him. Jim slammed into the wall, his foot being held-on to by guard.

“I’m gonna get you!” shouted the guard. Jim really wished he had made up his mind quicker.

“You have one decision- to get up here and let yourself be killed by my mangling machine!”

What a weirdo. Thought Jim. He struggled as much as he could, realizing the guard was very strong. He was pulled back over the wall and dragged to the secret room. In front of him was the mangling machine, basically a supersized donut-maker big enough to put a man in.

Just as the guard was about to throw Jim in, he managed to break free and jump off the wall onto a bush below. The fall was about twelve feet, and it hurt, although Jim had not injured himself seriously.

The guard wasn’t about to lose his fight, so he ran and jumped forcefully off the wall as well. His fall was much larger than Jim’s, owing to the guard’s stupidity by jumping instead of falling off from a low stance. The guard ended up falling at least twenty feet. He screamed loudly as he fell.

Jim actually felt kind of sorry for the guard. He crunched into the ground. The boy approached him slowly.

“I can still… get you with my bludger” he whispered, pulling out a heavy stick and swinging it weakly at Jim. The boy grabbed it and wrested it out of the guard’s grasp.

Well, he was going to make me into a donut anyways. Thought Jim. I suppose he deserves what he got.

Jim proceeded towards the train stop. It had a stone bench which he sat on once he arrived. After forty minutes, Jim started to wonder if the train even existed. Why didn’t it have a regular schedule? Jim knew why; because no one would ever want to go to Dinner Town in a million years, and none of the freaks inside would ever want to leave– or be able to leave. The town gate must have been open by special arrangement with the troll. How terrifying.

Please. I need this train. Come on. Thought Jim. It was his only ticket out of Dinner Town. Jim sat down and did nothing. He noticed he was acting just like the man at the bar.

What a strange way to live a life.  Jim thought, chuckling to himself.

Suddenly, Jim heard a sound coming from far away. It sounded quite a lot like a train’s whistle. Jim perked up and walked a few feet towards the sound. On the horizon, he saw a small shape. It slowly got bigger. It seemed like the train would be heading towards the forest where the troll had brutally abducted Jim.

Good! Now maybe I can get my way back home,  he thought.

The train slowly came closer and closer to the station. It was very small, with only one locomotive and one car behind. Since it only had a single rail, it was precariously slim and tottered this way and that as it slid down the tracks. Jim heard the screech of brakes being applied, and the doors opened up for him. Jim climbed aboard, saw a conductor dressed in blue.

“How much is a ticket?” he asked.

“Five farhaks.” said the conductor. Jim said he only had one.

“Or you can tell me what you learned about life in Dinner Town,” offered the conductor.

Jim thought about what he had learned.

“I learned that Dinner Town sucks.” Jim replied.

“And why did you need to learn that?” asked the conductor. Jim knew he knew the answer already.

“Because I never eat my porridge and I slapped my mum before I ran off into the woods.” said Jim.

“Here’s your ticket” said the conductor, passing it to him. He fell asleep on the way back home. A few hours later, Jim knocked on the door.

“Mom, Dad, are you here?” he asked loudly.

Mum opened the door. When she saw Jim,  she picked him up off the ground and spun him around.

“Jim, you little delinquent! Where have you been?” she asked.

THE END