I am in dire need of a distraction before my writer’s block turns nasty. I haven’t been able to write more than three paragraphs at a time for a month now, and if my imagination continues on this downward trajectory, I might have to do something drastic. Suicide, drastic. Or maybe becoming an accountant drastic – which is worse. That was when the tea shop called.
“Is this Edward?” asked a weaselly little voice.
“Jon here. You applied for a job with us a couple weeks back, and good news! Would you be available to come in for an interview today, say at 1pm?”
It was 12pm, and I was still in my dressing gown. “1pm works great for me. Do you need me to bring a copy of my resume or anything?”
“Nah. See you there.”
On second thoughts, it might do me good to take up an occupation. God knows I need the money. A nice job at a tea shop might work out quite nicely. It might even provide me with some amount of that gilded substance known as ‘inspiration.’ That and Uni fees are due next week.
The shower was broken, so I ran a bath and tried to put together an outfit. Ordinarily, I’d just wear whatever and fashion be damned, but a job interview requires special consideration. A good pair of jeans, a nice clean shirt, and that winter coat I got for Christmas last year. Dressed all proper, all washed up and shaven, I look like Hunter S Thompson if he’d stayed in college and never discovered drugs.
“You look different,” said my mom as I came out of the bathroom. “Special occasion?”
“Yeah, an interview at a tea shop.”
“That old place near the library?”
“That’s the one.”
“Well, good luck.”
I said goodbye and wandered outside to my car. The engine spluttered to life after a few false starts, and I pulled off from the curve. When I got far enough away from my house to be sure my mother couldn’t see me, I rolled down the window and lit a rebellious cigarette. Puffing away, I made my way out of suburbia to the tea shop, happy to have a destination again.
The tea shop, in itself, was not a very impressive building. It had a slightly faded blue exterior, and its interior was all floral wallpaper and elevator music. Various tea related products were scattered throughout the shop, almost at random. A congregation of tea pots by the cash register, some loose-leaf tea bags on little pedestals here and there, and so on. It was completely devoid of people apart from me and Jon.
“Busy?” I asked.
“Busy. Busy. Busy,” said Jon. “Anyway, have you got a copy of your resume with you?”
“Well, do you, or don’t you?”
“Not on me, no.”
“No resume,” Jon exhaled. He went behind the counter and pulled out a rickety stool. As he moved, I noticed there were rows of thin puckered scars across his arms. “Have a seat, and we’ll get started on the interview proper.”
I sat down. “Aren’t you going to sit anywhere?”
“I prefer to stand,” said Jon and he started pacing back and forth. “I remember on your resume—I have to remember because you didn’t bring it with you—that you used to work as a pizza boy.”
“Yes, I did. And while I was there, I learned ho–”
“Ever deliver pizza to a naked chick?”
“Once. Although she wasn’t naked, just in lingerie. Very transparent lingerie.”
“It’s not! Cross my heart and everything.”
There was a pause as Jon weighed up what I said and tried to work out if I was lying or not. If the reader’s interested, which I hope you are, no, no I was not lying. That happened to me, no bullshit.
“Could I get a tour or something? Maybe learn where everything is?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Jon. “Yeah, ok. This here is the main room, where I serve customers. And if you follow me out back…”
Jon lead the way behind the counter towards a black metal door that I hadn’t noticed when I came in. He opened it and walked inside.
“Could I have you phone number again, mate?” Jon called from behind the door.
“Yeah, give me a second though, I can never remember it.”
I pulled my phone from my pocket and started turning it on as I walked towards the door. Then, with a speed I didn’t know he possessed, Jon plucked my phone from my hands and kicked me into the room. The echo of the slammed door ringing in my ears.
“What the fuck!” I yelled.
“Sorry,” said Jon. “I’ll be back soon. Don’t worry about it.”
“Where are you going, you cut-arm cunt?”
“That’s not very nice! You calling me a cut-arm c–t like that. On your resume it said you were studying Psychology. That’s not the kind of thing I’d expect to hear from an aspiring therapist.”
“I’m ssssooooorrrrrrryyyyyyyy. I wouldn’t want to offend you after you’ve been so hospitable. Can you open the door now?”
That was the end of that conversation. I heard Jon’s footsteps thumping out of the store, and I was alone. I heard the sound of my car spluttering to life outside. Oh God, he must’ve hot-wired it. There was a skid of tires, and then silence. No, not silence. There was metallic rattling coming from the far side of the room.
The room was lit by sickly white strip lighting that ran across the celling and completely failed to light anything at all. There was a dark, darker, section in the corner where the rattling was coming from. I flicked open my lighter. The first thing I saw was a battered leather couch with some magazines of dubious quality on it, then the meat grinder. A large metal contraption, with a red offal hole at the bottom. Up close, I could see the metal teeth of the thing rattling as they bumped into each other.
“Oh my God,” I breathed. “What the actual hell?”
I slid to the floor to get away from that metal monstrosity. The sudden fall blew out my lighter, and the meat grinder receded into the gloom. I reached into my coat for a cigarette. As I fumbled with the packaging, the contents of it spilled into my lap- some loose tobacco, nothing more.
I lay back on the grimy floor and stared up at the ceiling.
“Fuck,” I whispered.
I stayed on the floor.
Despite this, more time passed.
Then there was the sound of bells as the front doors opened. I stayed on the floor, listening to Jon’s footsteps coming towards me.
“You still there, mate?” called Jon through the door.
“Where the fuck else would I be?”
“There’s no need to be rude. We’re friends now, aren’t we?”
“Look, I’ve brought you something to eat,” a letterbox crack of light appeared at the bottom of the door, and a block of chocolate came spinning through it.
“Say thank you,” said Jon.
“I want to go home.”
“Friends say thank you when they do things for each other!”
I told Jon, the other day, that I was a writer, and ever since he’s been trying to impress me by name dropping famous philosophers. Well, not so much impress me, but try to prove that we’re friends through a common interest. I tried to explain that I don’t write philosophy, just genre garbage with pseudo-political themes for pseudo-intelligent readers, but that didn’t appear to matter to him. Here’s how our conversations normally go:
“You ever read Nietzsche?” Jon would ask.
Then there’s a slight pause as Jon tries to think of another one.
“You ever read Camus?”
And so on ad infinitum. I have got my imagination back, by the way, and I’ve been using it to think up a very special idea. A story about escape. It feels real. Real enough to escape the slush pile, anyway. What’s it about? No spoilers, but it involves fire.
“By the way,” said Jon. “I may have left certain personal items in that room before you got here, and I’d appreciate if you could pass them out to me.”
“What personal items?”
“Some, some magazines I’d been reading.”
“Nope, no magazines in here.”
“Have you ever read Kierkegaard?” I asked on a whim.
“Me either. Only thing I know about him is something called the leap of faith. Whatever that’s supposed to be.”
“Cool,” he said. “Listen, are you hungry or anything? I have to go out to pick up some… groceries.”
“Nothing to do with the meat grinder, I hope.”
“Oh, fuck! Did I leave that in there? Fuck, you weren’t ready for that. I was saving it for when we were really friends.”
“What’re you going to do with it?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said with a slight hitch in his voice. “I’ve got to go now. I’ll get you some lunch.”
The meat grinder rattled on as Jon’s footsteps traipsed out of the story. I was worried that he might feed me to it before I could finish my story.
I crouched by the door with my lighter and Jon’s magazines. As I waited for him to get back, I rolled the magazines into little torches, and poured lighter fluid onto the ends of them. If this was the kind of political story popular these days, this would be some place for some deep commentary on the necessity of taxes, or the evils of communism.
As it stands, I’m hungry. I’m tired. And I want to go home.
Time crept by, and when I’d finished with the magazines, I poured some of the remaining lighter fluid onto the floor near the door flap. There was nothing left to do now except wait and think about how hungry and tired I am.
The bell rang and there was the familiar sound of Jon’s footsteps.
“Hey mate,” said Jon. “You remember our discussion about Kierkegaard.”
“We didn’t have a discussion about Kierkegaard.”
“Yeah, we did, you asked if I’d read him and I said no. Then you talked about a leap of faith. Well guess what! I have a surprise for you!”
And through the flap in the door Jon thrust through a copy of Either/Or. I watched as he wagged his hand back and forth, waiting for me to take the proffered book.
“You shouldn’t have,” I said as I lit the end of the magazines. A healthy blaze took root on top of them.
“Well, I felt bad with you being shut up in the room with the meat grinder and everything. A bit too existential if you ask me. Besides, you’re too fat for that, you’d turn out all sweet. And–”
I grabbed Jon’s wrist and pulled it as hard as I could into the room. Jon dropped the book and there was a crash as he fell to the floor outside. I heard him cry out in pain. Careful not to blow out the flame, I lit the pool of lighter fluid, then slowly pushed the flaming magazines into Jon’s jacket.
The fire spread from the floor up Jon’s arm. He tried to pull his arm out of the door so he could put the fire out, but I held on. The fire lapped at my own fingers, sending red hot pain coursing through my nervous system, but I held on. When I was sure the fire had caught, I pushed Jon and the flaming magazines through the door.
I stopped to make sure that the fire was out on my side of the door and then sat back down. There was smoke coming through underneath the frame of the door. That didn’t matter. Either people would come to put it out, or they wouldn’t. Either I’d be saved, or I wouldn’t. I don’t really care which one, either option is better than that meat grinder.
“Are you all right?” asked a nurse as she sat me down on an ambulance gurney.
“I’m fine. I’m fine. Just a little lightheaded.”
“You’re not fine, you’ve got third-degree burns all over your hand. You’re lucky is all I can say. If we’d got here any latter…” she let the thought hang in the air.
There was a loud cracking sound from outside the ambulance. I sat up and saw that the roof of the tea shop had collapsed in on itself, sending sparks of ashen timber up into the night. There were shouts as firefighters sent streams of water into the husk of the building.
“Is my mom here?” I asked.
“Can you take me to her then?”
“I’m sorry, but we have to go to the hospital now. I’m sure she’ll find us there. Are we ready?” called the nurse to the driver.
The driver nodded and slammed shut the doors of the ambulance.
“The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,” I quoted as the ambulance sped off into the night.
Through the sphere shaped back-door window of the ambulance, I saw a black spectre rise up from the remains of the ruined building. A small hind of darkness amongst the fire and the smoke. I turned over on the gurney. All was well.
The hospital was nice. All the nurses and doctors made a big fuss over me at first, but after they put bandages on my hand for the burn, they left me alone in a private room to recover. I dozed in and out of consciousness. I think my mom came to see me. That must’ve been good. I also think the police came. Not so good.
I drifted back into consciousness to hear a tapping against the window of my room. A small golden-brown bird was stuck outside on the windowsill. It looked like it was hurt. The bird stared at me for a while, then flew off. On a whim, I pressed the nurse’s call button. A plump man dressed in hospital scrubs came in.
“Yes?” he asked.
“Could you open that window for me?”
“That’s what you called me for? You know that button’s for emergencies, right?”
“I know, but could you just…?”
The nurse rolled his eyes and opened the window. Then he walked out to deal with more important things.
I looked for the bird. Whistled even. A couple of minutes passed, then the bird flew into my room and perched on the edge of my bed. It was larger than before, about the size of a small child. And its razor-sharp claws dug into the plastic of the bedframe.
“Hi Edward,” said the bird. It sounded as if it had a small rat caught in its beak.
“Hello? This is my first time talking to a bird. I thought the drugs had worn off already, so sorry if I say anything rude, but I don’t believe you’re real.”
“Oh, I’m very real, friend. You burnt me. I was only trying to be your friend, and you burnt me.”
“It’s too late for sorry now. I’ll be having those eyes, I think.”
“No, please. Forgive me.”
“It’s too late for that.”
The bird dipped its beak towards me, and I hid underneath the covers. The bird’s talons cut through the thin sheets, and it towered over me.
“Make it quick,” I said.
“Oh no, my friend. I intend to enjoy this.”
Harman studies Psychology at the University of Newcastle, Australia. His short fiction has previously appeared, or is forthcoming, in numerous magazines including Flame Tree Press Newsletter, After Dinner Conversation, and Cosmic Horror Monthly.