Thomas and the Factory

By Marlon Sean Hollis

Chapter One

o one had to tell Thomas that times were tough as he stood there watching his parents’ car drive away.  His life changed forever that gray morning, for the better or for the worse he didn’t yet know at that moment, except for a distant sense of foreboding.  Behind him opened the maw of a massive iron gate, and beyond that a hulking brick building.  Above the gate in large iron letters: J. Nell, Factory, Inc.

Everyone in a family had to contribute these days.  The lucky families owned their own businesses, and worked and lived together.  The unlucky ones saw “the crack up,” the selling off of the children into the stream of commerce.  While some might be able to send their offspring to the local store, the factory down the street, or the office pit up the way, so they could then return home at the end of each work day, the truly wretched had no choice but sign away their kin to some distant worksite.  Each work contract signed by the head of the household obligated the child worker to at least twenty years of service for a wage paid to the family.

Thomas was one of the wretched ones.  At twelve years old, he would not step outside that gate until he was thirty-two.  He didn’t know how many kilometers away home was, but he knew it took them all night to get here.

An obese man in a blue uniform trundled out of the factory’s main entrance.  His small eyes inside his large round face found Thomas.  He quickly moved towards him.  Sweat poured down his brow.  He opened his mouth to speak, revealing yellowed and misshaped teeth.

“We haven’t got all morning,” he said in a booming voice.  “Time’s wasting.  The sooner we get you processed the sooner you can start making your way in this world.”

Thomas paused, looking out the gate at the world behind.

The man turned and started to walk back towards the entrance.  “You’ve got ten seconds before I sic the dogs on you.”

Thomas ran and caught up with him.

 

Chapter Two

“This is your workstation,” said the tall, thin, man energetically.  “What you do here is important work.  Be thankful that you have a job so that you can help your family survive these very difficult times.  I am Mr. Nell.  Welcome to my factory.”

Thomas’ “workstation” was a stationary bicycle bolted to the floor.  The rear wheel was fitted to a large pulley, which drove a wide leather belt connected to a shaft that ran along the ceiling from the “workstation” to a small hole in the wall.  About sixty-five other children were madly peddling at their workstations.

“Any questions?”

“What do you make here?” asked Thomas.

“Well, we are a manufacturing development firm,” said Mr. Nell.

“So what is that?”

“The development of manufacturing,” said Mr. Nell, smiling. “It’s very important work.  We have contracts with several of the biggest companies, and will soon apply for a contract with the government.  The development of manufacturing is very good business now.  You’re lucky to be here at this moment because I am growing the business.  We’re going to do big things.”

“Uh huh,” said Thomas, looking over his workstation.  He noticed a device attached to the rear wheel, like one of those bicycle light generators.  A gage on the bicycle handle clocked the number of total revolutions.

“I know you’ll probably need some time to get up to speed,” said Mr. Nell.  “So, take your time.  It’s 8:00 A.M. now, so I’ll check and see how you’re doing at 8:30 or so?  I like to set goals, so how about you be about 160,000 revolutions by then?  Good.  Again, we are so glad to have you onboard.  We’re going to do great things.”

Mr. Nell spun around and quickly left the room.  Thomas was indeed grateful for the work.  He recalled on the way here the streets lined with dirty, hungry families, and their “work for food” cardboard signs.  As Thomas mounted his workstation, a dark-haired girl with a soup bowl haircut dismounted her bike and approached him.  She looked to be about his age.  She wiped sweat from her brow with a red rag before returning it to the back pocket of her beige coveralls.

“I’m Dot,” she said, extending her hand.  Thomas warily eyed her, but shook it.  “I heard you were coming today.”

“I’m…”

“Thomas,” she said.  “I know.  So, how much did Mr. tell you about your job?”

“I guess I am helping to develop manufacturing,” he said.

“Really?  He told me I was to push a cart collecting scrap metal for processing, but here I am.  You’ll find the story changes a lot here.”

“How long have you been here?” asked Thomas as he began to pedal.

She laughed.  He got the feeling she was having a joke at his expense.  “Well, let’s see.  I’ve been here going on ninety-days.  I’m the old-timer here.  Very few make it past their probation.  There’s a lot of turn-over here.”

Thomas stopped peddling.  “How come?  What happens?”

“I don’t know.  They are just gone.  Mr. comes out and tells us some story about why they aren’t here anymore, but I don’t believe him.  Hidden underneath my bed are a lot of initials cut into the frame.  Many of them have dates of when they started working here, or at least when they realized they needed to record that they were here.  A lot of kids slept in my bed before me.  The last one was gone a week before I showed up.”

“Did they go back to their families?’ asked Thomas, hopefully.

“Maybe,” she said, deep in thought.  “One mom and dad came here one time and accused Mr. of not only not paying them their kid’s wages, but selling him off to someone else.  They’re taking Mr. to court for the lost wages.”

“Come on, how can you know that?”

“When he was away one day, I saw the papers that said so.”

“You can read?” asked Thomas.

“Can’t you?”

“Yes, but so few girls know how to read now.”

“Yeah, well, that’s one reason Mr. has me work in his office from time to time.  He’s too cheap to pay a secretary.”

“Well, I better get started,” said Thomas. “I got to get 160,000 done before I meet with him this morning.”

Dot rolled her eyes and laughed, “Have fun.”

Chapter Three

Thomas didn’t know how much to believe about what Dot said about Mr. Nell.  Yet, he couldn’t deny that something seemed not right here at the factory.  Hardly anyone spoke, laughed, or chatted.  He never had his morning meeting with Mr. Nell, but the next morning, he found a small note on his workstation, which read: “I would like to see you now.  MRN.”

Sitting in his office, Thomas watched Mr. Nell reading some kind of document.  His face betrayed no expression.  When he finally looked at Thomas, he produced a strained, odd smile. “So, how are you making out?”

“Fine, sir,” said Thomas. “I was wondering when I can call my parents. To tell them I’m alright.”

His smile almost faded, before regaining strength.  “Well, normally, resident workers don’t receive phone privileges during their ninety-day probation.  But, we’ll see…” He trailed off.  “I’m glad to see you made your quota of 2,000 revolutions yesterday morning.”

Thomas could have sworn he said 160,000.  “Thanks.”

Mr.’s expression turned serious.  “I’ve had some trouble with security, with people divulging information about our business to outsiders.  I’ve had some additional security measures put in place to make sure our company secrets don’t get out.  Don’t tell anyone else about what we discuss or about your work.”

Thomas nodded.  “Okay.”

“Good.  Now, the workstations are connected to a mill turning grain into flour for a major bakery,” said Mr. Nell.  “This contract is very important.  It will provide the money to expand our manufacturing development.”

“Very good, sir.”

“Can you read?”

“Yes, sir.”

Mr.’s smile reappeared.  “Good.  I need smart people.  I’ll let you get back to your station then.”

As quickly as it appeared his smile disappeared as he sifted through the papers on his desk.  Thomas stood up and left.

 

Chapter Four

Days passed into weeks and then into a month.  Thomas dutifully pedaled.  Mr. mostly left him alone.  Dot said it was because he was the new favored one.  One Wednesday, at lunchtime, Dot took her place next to him in the cafeteria.  She had established herself as his “mentor” on the ways of the factory.

“Do you mind me asking you what you are working on?” she asked, munching a Granny Apple.

Thomas remembered Mr.’s instructions, but weeks of peddling didn’t seem to produce anything but sweat.  It all started to seem rather pointless.  “He told me we were grinding flour for a major bakery.  That’s what the workstations are connected to, a mill.”

Dot laughed hard. “Have you ever seen one truck deliver or pick up anything here?  So, we’re helping to make bread, are we?  He told Tara on Station one that we were powering a saw to make lumber.”

Thomas frowned.  “Why would he lie about such things, about what we do here?”

“My guess is he tells various people different things, so if there is an information “leak” he knows who’s talking.  Though with so many lies flying about I don’t know how he remembers what he told to whom.”

“I wonder where the workstation shafts lead to,” said Thomas.  “What’s in the next room?”  He looked at Dot, who shrugged her shoulders.

*   *   *

The following week, Mr. went off on a business trip.  Thomas felt the coil of tension unwind amongst his fellow co-workers.  For such a quiet man, Mr. sure kept everyone tense.

That Monday at lunch, he looked at Dot and said, “Let’s go.”

Dot followed him to the main hallway to a blue door standing about three meters to the right of the workroom door.  A sign in one-inch block letters said: “KEEP OUT!”

“Now the trick is to get inside without damaging the door,” said Thomas.

“I hope you thought that far ahead,” said Dot.

“Umm, no.

Dot took out a key ring holding about seven keys.

“I guess being Mr.’s office monkey has its advantages,” said Thomas.  “At least he likes you.”

“Gawd, I hope not,” said Dot.  “With any luck my parents can sell my contract to a real factory.”

Thomas spotted two more doors down further down the hallway, one opposite the other.  The door on the left side of the hallway was green and included a door handle but no keyhole.  The other was a blue ventilated door, marked in white letters, “Supplies.”

“What are those two doors down there?” he asked.

Dot looked down the hallway.  “The janitor’s supply closet,” she said. “I don’t know what’s in the other one.  I’ve never seen anyone go in there.  I guess it’s some kind of mechanical room.  Maybe the boiler is in there.”

Returning his attention to the “Keep Out” door, Thomas took the keys from Dot, inserted them into the keyhole and opened the door.  He reached inside and flipped the light switch.

The room was empty.  The workstation shafts from the workroom spun on their axes.  They were connected to no machinery, no mills, nothing.

Dot gasped.

Thomas shook his head and started laughing.  “Now we know for sure.  It’s all pointless.”

Thomas turned the light off and closed the door.  Dot looked at him.  “Then what is the point?” she asked.  “Why are we here?”

“Does it matter?” he replied, walking back to the workroom.

 

Chapter Five

The following Monday, Mr. Nell called Thomas into his office.  Thomas long ago noticed that Mr. liked his power plays.  He stood waiting about a meter in front of Mr.’s desk as he read some document.  About twenty seconds passed before he looked at Thomas.

“So, why are you wasting my time and money?” he asked Thomas, his face contorted with barely controlled anger.

Thomas put his hands behind his back.  His hands began to tremble.  “Sir?”

“You’re work is garbage,” he spat. “The mill needs to run at a certain speed or the flour is ruined.  It’s outside the bakery’s specifications.  They won’t accept it.  I’ve lost five batches last week!”

Thomas gripped his hands tighter.  “Sorry, sir.”

“Why do I need you?  I might as well do the peddling myself!”

He wanted to tell him that he would be happy if he rescinded his contract and sent him home, but instead, said, “Well, sir, going forward, what do you want me to do?”

Mr. paused.  Thomas could see the wheels turning in his head.  His face softened a bit.  He sounded disappointed.  “Do you’re job,” he said.  “We’re going to meet every day for awhile, just to keep an eye on your progress.”

“Okay.”  Thomas spun around and walked out.

*   *   *

Back in the workroom, Dot came up to him.  “What happened?”

“That man is an idiot!” he exploded.  “He thinks we’re fools!  He got on me for messing up the flour for our bakery contract.  Can you believe that?”

“This is Mr. we’re talking about. Nothing surprises me about him anymore.”

“I’m not like you,” said Thomas.  “You know how to handle him, how to talk to him, how to manipulate him.  He likes you.”

“That’s a thing to say to me,” said Dot, mocking a hurt tone.

“I don’t know how much longer I can tolerate him and his pointless work.  I could barely keep from jumping over his desk and choking him.”

“Are your parents looking for another buyer for your contract?” asked Dot.  “Tara and a lot of the other kids have their parents looking for other buyers.”

“Yeah, I wrote them last week after we found that empty room.”

“Try to hang on until you can get out,” said Dot, placing a hand on his shoulder.

 

Chapter Six

The Wednesday after next, Mr. stopped his daily meetings with him.  That night Thomas lay awake in bed.  He listened to the breathing of the other kids in the dormitory, thinking.  He hoped to come up with a way out of Mr. Nell’s factory that didn’t lead to his family being on the street holding “work for food” signs.

The slow creaking of the door opening broke his reverie.  He could just make out the tall, lanky figure of Mr. as he entered the dormitory.  The moonlight gleamed off his bald head.  He stopped at Tara’s bed and leaned over her.  He held a handkerchief, and placed it over her nose and mouth.  She silently struggled for a few moments, and then went limp.  Mr. scooped her up and slowly walked out.

Thomas got out of bed.  He momentarily thought about putting on his shoes, but decided his bare feet would be quieter.  He dashed out of the dormitory and saw Mr. walk down the staircase with Tara and proceed into the main hallway.  Thomas ran down the stairs and halted at the mouth of the hallway.  He saw Mr. stop at the door with no keyhole.  He laid Tara down on the floor next to the door and went into his office further down the hallway.

Thomas ran down to Tara, and scanned the small, blonde girl.  He knelt down and saw her chest slowly rising and falling.  He heard a creaking sound from Mr.’s office.  He turned and hid in the janitor’s closet.  The creaking grew louder.  Thomas watched through the slats of the door’s ventilation.  Mr. pulled a child’s metal red wagon behind him; only this one was rather rusted and pitted.

Mr. flipped the light switch.  Thomas had just now noticed that the room’s light switch was not inside the room, but outside.  Mr. opened the door, and placed a doorstop on the floor to keep the door open.  Apparently, it was spring-loaded to close, though he couldn’t see any springs.  The door also didn’t have a door handle on the inside.  The room was bare, except for a table that seemed to be made from crates.  Mr. picked Tara up and laid her down on the table.  Then he exited the room and closed the door.  He turned out the light in the room.

Nothing happened for what seemed like ages.  “What kooky thing are you up to?” Thomas whispered.  Suddenly, the loudest, coldest screech he ever heard roared out of the room.  He glued his hands over ears, but it still poured into his ears, spiking into his brain and ripping down his back.  Thomas’ heart pounded.

Just as suddenly as it came, the screeching stopped.  Mr. turned on the light and opened the door.  He wheeled the wagon into the room.

Thomas put his hand on the door handle, but decided not to head back to the dormitory just yet.  Mr. pulled the wagon out.  It wasn’t empty anymore.  It now contained Tara’s pajamas.  They were torn and stained red.  The wagon also contained a small mountain of diamonds of various sizes.  Two were the size of a grapefruit, some were the size of Thomas’ fist, the vast majority of them were the size of pebbles.  Mr. picked up the doorstop and the door closed.  He turned out the light and pulled the wagon into his office.

Thomas dashed out of the janitor’s closet and ran back to the dormitory.

*   *   *

The next morning, Thomas didn’t tell Dot what he saw.  He didn’t know how to do so.  He didn’t think, “Dot, Tara was eaten by Mr.’s pet monster” could be said in any way that didn’t bring his sanity into question.

As he pedaled, Mr. entered the workroom and announced, “Everyone, I have some sad news.  Tara has decided to leave us.  More to the point, her parents have sold her contract to another factory.  Well…that’s all I’ll say about that.  I shall be bringing in a replacement soon.”

From that day on, Thomas stayed up late every night until exhaustion forced him asleep.

 

Chapter Seven 

Two nights later, Dot got up and sat on the edge of his bed.  “Something bad happened to Tara, didn’t it?” she asked.

Thomas raised his head and looked at her.  He could barely see her in the dimness, but he could tell she was staring at him intently.  “Yeah,” he replied.

Dot sighed.  “He never keeps more than sixty-six kids at a time.  I can tell when he’s about to get rid of someone when he starts looking for a new kid.”

“He was looking for a kid before Tara disappeared?”

“Yes,” she whispered.  She stayed silent for a long while.

Thomas rose up on his elbows.  “What?”

“He’s not looking for just one kid, but two.”

Thomas dropped his head back onto his pillow.  “Then I’m next.”

“It could be me, too.  My family can’t afford for me to leave now.  They never give enough to eat in the breadlines, and work contracts are getting harder to find nowadays with so many in need of work, especially home in Denton.”

Thomas got up and sat down beside her.  “I doubt he’ll get rid of you anytime soon.  He needs you to run his office.  Plus, I still think he likes you.”

“Would you stop saying that?  That’s not making me feel any better.”  She smiled.

“He doesn’t like me, for sure.  I know I’m next.  He’ll blame me for something about the bakery job, and then I’ll be gone.”

“He’ll be more subtle than that,” said Dot. “He won’t say he got rid of you, but that you left for some reason.  He doesn’t take responsibility for anything or anyone.  Nothing is ever his fault.”

Chapter Eight

The next morning, Thomas approached his workstation and prepared to pedal.  He checked the pedals, gears and chain, and so on.  The workroom was already busy.  Because of his late nights, he normally skipped breakfasts now, sleeping in and heading straight from the dormitory to his station.  He was just about to mount his bicycle when he heard Mr. clearing his throat behind him.  He turned.

“I just wanted to let you know that Dot left us early this morning,” said Mr., somberly.

Thomas didn’t hear much else he may have said after that.  He just hoped that he would stop talking and leave before the rage inside him exploded.

“But, the mission goes on,” Mr. said.  “There’s a lot of work to do.  We’re doing great things.”  With that, Mr. scurried out of the workroom.

Thomas jumped on his cycle and pedaled faster and faster, tears streaming down his face.  His feet slipped off the pedals, which slammed into his legs.  He fell to the floor and cried.  “God!  Why Dot?  Why Dot?”

*   *   *

Every night since the monster ate Dot, Thomas slept in the janitor’s closet.  If Mr. was going to take him, he was going to have to find him first.  He would wait until all the other kids were asleep then sneak out.

*   *   *

Three nights later, Thomas heard the creaking of Mr.’s wagon.  He looked through the ventilation slats in the door of the janitor’s closet and saw a portly, redheaded, freckled boy.  It looked like Sam from Station twenty.  The door was already open, with the doorstop in place.  Mr. stopped the wagon when he reached Sam’s limp body on the floor next to the door.  The light was already on and Thomas saw a pair of red-stained beige coveralls piled on the floor next to the table.

Mr. looked inside and joked, “Mr. Nell, you must learn to clean up after yourself.”  Mr. walked inside and leaned over to pick up the bloody clothes.

Thomas, consumed with rage, opened the janitor’s closet door and ran out.  He kicked the doorstop and the door slammed shut behind Mr.

“Whoa!” said Mr. “Great, the door’s closed in on us.”

Thomas turned off the lights.

“Who’s out there?”

Thomas remained silent, kneeling down to examine Sam.  He was still alive.

“Whoever you are, I demand that you let me out!  This is no time for games!  If you don’t let me out, I’ll find out who you are and…”

Mr. started banging on the door.  “Okay, this is not amusing anymore.  Let me out.  I can make it worth your while.  I can let you out of your contract with plenty of money to help your family.  I have a lot of money.  I have diamonds.  Have you ever seen a diamond as big as a melon?  It’s yours.  Just let me out.  Please!  Please!”

The piercing screech drowned out Mr.’s cries.

Mr. screamed.  “No!”

Mr.’s pounding on the door stopped, and then silence.

Thomas waited for a few seconds before flipping the lights back on and opening the door.  Inside, he found Mr.’s bloody clothes strewn about the room.  In the far right corner of the room, he found a large pile of diamonds.

 

Chapter Nine

The next morning, Thomas put on his coat and slung a rough sack over his shoulder.  He walked into the busy workroom.

“Everyone, listen!  Mr. is gone!  You’re all free!” he said.

He reached into his pocket and tossed a handful of pebble-sized diamonds onto the floor.  The kids all looked at him and then the diamonds in stunned amazement.

“There’s a lot more in Mr.’s office,” said Thomas. “Go home.”

*   *   *

Thomas took a long deep breath of the brisk, bracing air as he stepped beyond the factory gateway onto the sidewalk.  He flagged down a cab.

“Where to?” asked the cabby.

Thomas wanted to go home, but he needed to do something first.  “How much to Denton?”

The cabby grimaced.  “Denton’s kind of a long ways.  You got some money on you?”

Thomas set his rough sack down and reached in.  He felt the melon-sized diamond, but instead pulled out one of the marble-sized ones.  “Will this do?”

The cabby’s face brightened.  “Sure, get in.”


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