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.

 

Life on the farm- an essay

A SPECIAL PLACE: Pastural Farm

Azure Gallagher Michalak

Among the fondest memories in my life are those of summer 2014 on Pastural Farm. People often came and went, but the two permanent residents were Dan and Jane Barson, friendly, rugged folks with warm smiles. They had revitalized the main farmhouse from a neglected state after they moved in in the late nineties. Near the house, three dozen hens and a few roosters strutted about proudly, although they would scurry away frantically if anything larger than a chicken approached them. Largest among the three barns on the property was the dairy barn. This huge barn was built more than a century ago, and still stood rigid, roof uncaved, almost like it was new. It had a giant hay loft and ample room for cows and calves.

The foremost of my recollections are those taking place in the milk house and parlor, for I spent many long hours there milking the cows, cleaning the pipelines, and carefully filling glass jugs with scrumptious buttercream-hued milk. Every bovine had a name, Silver, Henry, Raven, Dora, and Cindy being a small selection. The former was a gargantuan brown bull, and the second his younger, meeker twin. It is a bad decision to be dishonest at a dairy farm, because if you claim you can handle moving a bull and fail miserably halfway through the job, it is your fault. The same rule does not generally apply to safer jobs indoors. The cows possessed the most differing personalities, some faultless and others very troublesome. One was so misbehaved that she repeatedly struck me in the face with her tail until I developed an eye infection. It is no wonder that some farmers wear goggles when milking. The job was a perplexing mixture of chore and fun. It was tiring and repetitive, and one time when I was sick and unsteady I was forced to use the cow’s backs as a support to get off my knees after attaching the milking machine. At the same time, many sunny days were spent listening to conservative radio or country music, talking to friends, or singing and humming pleasantly to the cows as the twice-daily chore was underway. The reward was fresh creamy milk, made even more perfect by the addition of chocolate syrup. It was always worth it.

After finishing the night milking, it was time for dinner, an ever-expanding assortment of quality food. My labor went unpaid, but the food made it worth it. Jane, Dan’s longtime partner, would do the traditional wives’ work, cleaning, homestyle cooking, and baking, as well as bedding and feeding the calves and looking after the chickens. Company would often come over in the evening to break up the monotony, and we spent many pleasant nights talking and eating with friends until midnight or even later. During the daytime, there would always be a homemade desert on the table; orange cake, elderberry pie, homemade jam. Amish donuts, or brownies. Lunches would often be simple and quick if there was a lot of work to do outside, so Dan and I would grab a bologna sandwich, egg sandwich, or a quick slice of “egg pie” with hot sauce or homemade pepper mustard. I do not eat eggs, but always made exceptions at the farm, since they were very different from the store-bought kind. The quintessential beverage was milk, and I was a great guzzler of it. I was known to drink at least three cups a day, sometimes six and up to nine. More trips were made to the milk tank when I was at the farm than at any other time.

I first learned to drive at the farm. My vehicle of choice was a 1978 blue Ford tractor, a reliable vehicle with a huge amount of play in the steering wheel. Shifting the gears was difficult and nonsensical at first, but Dan slowly explained it to me until I understood it well enough to drive by myself. I did a number of jobs successfully with that machine, although I almost hit a fence post while towing a huge trailer behind. Still, it was preferable riding stately Trooper, the bay Warmblood horse, in my opinion. There were many other tractors on the property, a temperamental old International often found doing field work, a huge White tractor with dual wheels, and an antique Farmall with a broken engine block which was never fixed. I learned how to tinker with the engines of two John Deere mower tractors I had bought for little over a hundred dollars. After failing to repair them, I traded them for a 1968 Cub Cadet and 1994 Lawn Chief which I partially fixed. After driving the tractors around for a while, Dan and I went on an errand in the surrounding hills when our car got a flat tire. He calmly called his friends while we stood outside in the hot summer weather. We talked for a while about relaxing topics, and I asked which plants were growing on the side of the road. He told me the names and uses of every single one, to my surprise. Ten minutes later, a friend pulled up in a noisy custom pickup truck with a spare tire for our Crown Victoria, not at all bothered by our call for help. People in the mountains are not afraid to help one another, a valuable lesson for everybody.

I had many long discussions with Jane while driving home from the farm, waiting for dinner to be ready, or being idle before the chores. We had an astounding synchronicity; our minds were very similar and despite our different backgrounds we were able to share a lot about life in those talks. History, politics, and living in general were our favorite topics. We lamented how true rural culture is fading away in America and around the world, the comforting clopping of horse drawn carriages and fresh country air replaced by the uncomfortable squeal of automobiles and polluted atmospheres of cities and towns. People, instead of helping their neighbors with their work, have turned to push them away or do not even know their names in the first place. I would have been sorely in need of advice from elders if it had not been for Dan and his wife helping me along with questions about my future or anything else that interested me. The most memorable discussion took place in the barn hay loft during a beautiful thunderstorm, when I realized how the sky looked exactly like a painting from the 1800’s, an amazing opalescent orange glow surrounded by cloudy black ink. We talked there for a long time, until the storm finally passed away. That night, I wished I was a painter.

From driving through the field herding the cows and sleeping in the quiet, expansive hay loft, to pigeon hunting, fixing cars, buying Amish baked goods, riding Trooper bareback down the road, and discussing the meaning of life, I find myself often missing Pastural Farms and the lessons it taught me about patience, humility, work, and fun. Perhaps the world would be a better place to live in if everyone would stay for a while at such a farm, as it exists in a far-off place where virtue is rewarded and dishonesty, laziness, and falseness are slowly tilled away. It all started by going to the barn sale and picking up Macguffey’s 1880 Reading Primer for a quarter, and that summer ended with me bittersweetly waving goodbye to Dan and Jane from the car as the orange autumn leaves skidded, drifting across the road.

azure james farm

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.

The Construct

Prairies:

The Construct

South Dakota. A land unknown to ninety-percent of the world. Perhaps they know Mount Rushmore is somewhere in it, but the state is much bigger than the thirteen hundred acres encompassing the park.

I drove through it, admired the undulating desiccated grass and Wild West towns. Something about this state was different; it did not have the plain air of Minnesota nor the uneasy intensity of Montana.

I traveled over lengthy stretches of flatness, large hills with a climactic feeling as one crested them, and the occasional respitic river.

The first house I came upon was empty, a drywall shell devoid of any life. The next one after that was the same, made of wood instead. Its aged, weathered appearance shook something deep in my soul. That habitation had seen its share of use, people living inside it, using it as a bus stop shelter, a hunting shack, who knows what uses. At some point, everyone had abandoned it and considered it a lost cause.

These buildings, all similar in their air but different in their construction, had lost all their friendliness and instead sucked up the desolate air of the surrounding emptiness. I did not feel that they would give in easily to human habitation anymore. The structures had turned savage and hermetic with time.

At the third sighting of an abandoned building, I stopped with a mind to investigate. They were too fascinating to let drift past. Upon reaching a distance of twenty feet away, I hit a solid wall and stopped in my tracks. It was so clear that I could hear the voice in my head, telling me to leave the structure alone.

I tried to shake off the feeling, telling myself that it could not be anything tangible, just my imagination. Summoning up my reserves of courage, I took another step forward, nearly onto an animal skull.

That was the final sign; I turned back and headed in the other direction, constantly checking over my shoulder for the danger that felt so apparent.

After that, I avoided the constructs and tried to minimize their effect on me, diverting my eye as they approached. A tingle of regret haunted me, a curious pull leading me back into the dangerous vicinity of them. I could feel it pulling me ever so softly.

My mind was made up– no more house hunting. Once was enough. So I went on, past the middle of the state and into the western fringe, approaching the badlands. The scenery became even more explicitly Western, the type of subject a painter would be enamored with capturing. Sun was setting on the horizon, so I stopped to enjoy the tangerine shading over the oceans of native grasses and the vivid, watercolor sky.

Continuing on, it the world became bluer as twilight fell. The hopeful setting of the sunrise was replaced by a more lonesome, tense feeling.

Nearly at the top of a hill, I decided to stop soon thereafter, but just as I was about to set up camp, another one of those terrible buildings appeared close by.

This time it was impossible to ignore it, for reasons of safety, curiosity, and that subconscious pulling of my attention. I followed it, on foot. My boots swished over the grasses, sounding as noisy in the fading light as a marching band. There was a sound just ahead, in the building. I hesitated for a second but went on, trusting my strong faith in the Lord.

The mouth of the structure loomed over me, having no door and only two rooms, the second room not visible until one was past the first. Taking a long breath, I crossed the threshold into the front room. A destroyed floor and peeling wallpaper greeted me. The wainscoting was chipped and warped, and the only other objects in the room were small pieces of broken glass. There was another sound further in the house, a rustling.

My faith wavered severely. This situation was not the safest one to be in, and with nobody at all nearby I was entirely on my own. I sighed and took a step backwards, looking at the ground. Oppressive vibes overtook the area even more heavily.

It is now or never,” I thought, turning the corner so I could see into the second room.

It was entirely empty. A large tumbleweed blew across the floor, scratching noisily as it hovered by.

A Dandy Rug

A Dandy Rug

Azure James

Joshua didn’t even know the bear was there. He sat on the disgusting worn red pattered rug in the living room, fussing with the radio dial and trying to get the best possible sound quality. No matter how precisely he moved the ridged brown dial, however, he could not get a static-free sound. Still, it was worth a try.

There was a quiet clicking sound outside. Joshua turned his head somewhat, like a curious dog. He turned the volume down, listening intently.

Another sound, some strange, rough breathing. Joshua felt more nervous than he would admit. He dug his pocketknife out and grasped it tightly in his hand. Carefully, he made his way through the kitchen to the front door. As he opened it, there stood the bear. A huge, daunting black bear with eyes staring right into his soul.

Joshua instinctively slammed the door and retreated speedily back into the living room, breathing heavily. The extremely quiet sound of the AM station playing actually made things even more tense. He waited, hoping the bear would somehow forget about him. Hearing another noise outside, he guessed it hadn’t.

Please get out of here,” he thought. “I can’t deal with a bear without my parents being here. If they could just get back soon, maybe they could scare it away.”

The boy felt paralyzed. Why had his parents left him home alone in such a dangerous situation? What sort of normal parents would just leave their kid in an area with so much dangerous wildlife?

I wish we lived in the town. There’s barely anything dangerous there, except those roughnecks I see back in the alleyway once in a while…”

As time went on, Joshua finally relaxed slightly. The blood that was flowing quickly through him had slowed down to a tolerable pace.

Maybe the bear isn’t even here anymore. But if I check, he could get me. Dear Lord, please help me somehow!”

To be on the safe side, Joshua waited there for about five more minutes. He eventually got bored enough to turn the radio up a little higher, hoping it would drown out his anxiety.

I know what I’ll do,” thought Joshua. He quietly tiptoed into his parents’ room. In the corner to the right of the door sat their old double-barrel shotgun. Joshua gazed at it with a mixture of fearful contempt and awed wonder. He had rarely touched it before, and never by himself.

dbs

Not knowing exactly how it worked, Joshua tried to open the action up. It was stuck. He walked over to the foot of the bed, lugging the heavy firearm, and rested it on the wooden bed frame. After some heavy exertion, the action snapped quickly open.

Whew,” thought Joshua. He grabbed the two red shells off the floor and tried sliding them in. They didn’t fit.

Hmm.”

He flipped them around and they slid in the barrels smoothly. Joshua closed the gun up, which was slightly easier than opening it. He avoided pointing it at himself and the radio, but didn’t care about whatever else it might point at.

Feeling slightly less nervous but still jittery, the boy went back to the door and stood there for a second, considering his options. With great hesitancy, he opened the door a crack and peeked out at the driveway.

There it was, barely thirty feet away. Joshua’s stomach dropped. The bear was in a large depression to the side of the driveway, rummaging around in the leaves. Joshua heard a motor in the distance, getting closer. He saw the family car crest the hill in front of their driveway. The boy took a step outside.

Stop! There’s a bear! Stay in the car!” he yelled. His dad and mom looked caught up in themselves. They didn’t hear him. Joshua’s parents opened the doors and stepped out of their car.

No! Get back in the car!” said Joshua, panicking even more.

What?” asked his dad, confused. The bear noticed Joshua’s mom standing there, eying her like a fresh steak. After nodding to itself the bear started to charge her and bellow voraciously. The woman screamed loudly, jumping back against the car mirror. Joshua took careful aim at the running bear and pulled both the triggers just before it reached his mother. The recoil from the shot knocked him right over, and with a loud slam, he blacked out.

Joshua! Are you alright?”

The boy opened his eyes, delirious. He could just make out two people standing above him.

Joshua!”

He mumbled something quietly. Slowly, his vision returned. He could see his parents. Gradually, everything came back to him.

You hit your head on the side of the door frame,” explained his dad. “Does it hurt?”

Not that much,” replied Joshua.

You saved my life!” consoled his mother, giving him an awkward hug.

I’m proud of ya, boy” said his dad, smiling. “That bear will make a dandy rug in the living room. We’ll have to get a new rear tire, though. It’s got about a thousand holes in it.”

Short Stories Section