By Bethany Thomas
Mr. Adam Dinkman stood in the dirty alleyway in front of a heavily bolted door, stamping his feet to keep warm. The biting chill of the winter night caused him to pull his frock coat lapel across his lips. In one hand he carried a large handbag filled with tools and various scraps of leather, while the other hand was stuffed inside his coat pocket. The air of the alley was dense and carried an old, musty sensation that crept into his bones as he clutched the small, wadded up note in his pocket. He looked up to stare at the ominous door and felt the pointy ball of paper poking the palm of his hand.
It had been his wife, Evelyn, who had given him the note. Apparently she had been met at the marketplace by a short, strange creature claiming to work for a Cornelius Blackwell. The little shriveled man told her "the Company has an interest in requesting Adam's services." Of course Adam was very skeptical as to why a strange man would ask a poor family on their way to debtor's prison for their 'services'. Adam was a cobbler, not a banker or a moneylender. Why would an entire Company want him? That would mean a lot of shoes.
But Evey had gone on and on that if a company did want that many shoes perhaps this job could make him famous; perhaps he could become the greatest cobbler in London. They could finally raise their children themselves, whom they had farmed out to the more refined members of the family. Before Adam had known it, the plump little woman was waving her arms around the house like a banshee howling about living in the poor house and cooing over the fine linens and jewelry a famous cobbler's wife wears.
"You simply must go Mr. Dinkman! We will become destitute and thrown into the streets with all our debt if you don't!"
As Adam was well aware, this was a possibility. Oftentimes he had found himself contemplating their debt while tromping through the brick streets on his way to the meager shoe shop. It had all happened so quickly. When he married Evelyn it was most important that prove to provide a home just as comfortable as where she had grown up. Of course her father was a lawyer, so this was more difficult for a small business cobbler. At first it was just a few nice things to spruce up the place, then a new dress every month, then a silver rattle for the baby and a nurse… Soon they owed everyone money. But while Mr. and Mrs. Dinkman scrambled to put things back in order, Evey had insisted that the children stay with her family so that they might grow up proper. Mr. Dinkman didn't put up too much of a fuss over this because it meant fewer mouths to feed.
Sometimes as he walked through the streets he would pass by the church and wonder what he ever did to God to make life so difficult. Had he not been compassionate enough? Not gone to mass enough? Or perhaps didn't try hard enough to decipher the priest's Latin gibberish when he was present in the pew? What made God the dictator of life anyway? Many times he thought that if he could just know what was coming next he wouldn't have to worry. If he could just see which road was the best to take, he could be living properly like other civilized people.
Adam gave a long sigh. He could see his breath suspended in the heavy air. He slowly tugged the note loose from his trousers and feverishly unfolded it to read it aloud.
"To Mr. Adam Dinkman—we know about your recent misfortunes and wish to help. We are a scientific organization that has been working on a project to help people in economic need, such as yourself, but as of now our operations have been strictly experimental. If you would be so kind as to help us in our research, our project may be of some use to you."
The paper was stiff, and the lettering had been forcefully imbedded into its ridges. The note wasn't signed, but at the bottom was printed "Fruit of Knowledge Company". With one final deep breath Adam shoved the note back into his pocket and gripped the knocker hanging loosely over head. After two knocks the door slowly creaked open. At first he could see nothing; inside it was almost darker than the alley. As he walked in the only thing that could be heard was a perpetual dripping sound accompanied by his own heavy footsteps on the hollow wooden floor.
"Ah, there you are, sir!" called a raspy voice.
Mr. Dinkman nearly jumped out of his skin. He looked down to find an old dwarf of a man with large round spectacles balanced on his button nose.
"Excuse me—" Adam shakily addressed the man, "but I don't believe lurking around in a dark entryway is any way to welcome your guest."
"I do apologize, sir. Might I take your jacket?" The dwarf smiled to reveal a crooked set of teeth with a large gap resting in the middle.
"No, thank you; it's bloody chilly in here."
"Alright then, this way, sir."
"Ah, wait a moment dear fellow. Are you the one who gave this note to my wife?" Adam tried to straighten the rumpled edges and hand over the paper.
The little man took it and carefully scrutinized its origins under his thick bug eyed glasses, and with a sharp nod he handed the note back. "I certainly did. Come along now he's waiting."
The servant hurried off without giving any more time for questions. Adam was quite annoyed at this rude welcoming and had half a mind to complain, but by this time he had to squint his eyes to see which way the little toad was going. Left, then right, this way, then that. He certainly knew he would never find his way back out on his own. Finally the old geezer lit the lamps, which made it a bit easier to follow. The echo of dripping noises seemed to grow louder the further they went. Presently Adam could make out a faint, pulsing, green glow at the end of the hall. He felt his heart begin to beat a little faster, and his stomach tightened a bit as he wondered what awaited them farther down the narrow corridor. Finally they came to a door to the right of the passageway. The small man smiled up at him with slightly crooked eyes and held out a gnarled hand.
"Just right in there, sir."
Mr. Dinkman clutched the cold, brass knob and the door swung open to reveal a small, elegant office where the soft radiance of red gas lamps dusted the room. Every wall was covered with books from floor to ceiling. Adam searched for windows, but found none, just a square closed in chamber. It made him quite uncomfortable as he slowly took his seat in front of an ornate, brass-legged desk. There was an immaculate leather chair on the other side, one that had tiny pointed brads around the rim. Adam began to fantasize over what type of a man would sit in such a prestigious, sturdy chair, when he heard the door open. A deep and velvety voice soon put to rest his suspicions.
"Good evening Mr. Dinkman. We have been awaiting you." A tall gangly figure sauntered into the room and made its way to the tall, throne-like chair.
The gentleman's shoulders were slightly hunched, and his eyes sunken into his skull. His withered face carried many wrinkles, but his eyes still glimmered with a wild, youthful craving. His head shone with the light of the crimson lamps across his cranium, but encircling his skull was a scraggly mess of hair, like an unkept crow's nest. He carefully folded his long, bony fingers in front of him with his elbows resting on the desk as he spoke.
"I am Cornelius Blackwell, Mr. Dinkman, and I am the founder of the Fruit of Knowledge Company. We have been watching you closely and would be quite pleased to have your help."
"Yes, Mr. Dinkman. Have you ever heard of our company before?"
Adam shook his head. "No sir."
"Mr. Dinkman we are a scientific community exploring what some might call… paranormal happenings." At this, the corner of the old man's lip curled into a slightly smug grin.
"Paranormal? I'm sorry sir, but I am a cobbler." Adam opened up his hand bag and held it out for Mr. Blackwell to see its contents.
"Unless you want to try and put shoes on ghosts I don't know what you could possibly be looking for in me." Adam chuckled.
Cornelius' eyes grew dark and serious as he slowly stood up from his throne and loomed over the desk.
"The question is sir…" he gave him a grave stare and his neck tightened as if Adam had offended him in some way. But then he regained his composure and the youthful glint in his eyes and said with a smile, "The question is, Mr. Dinkman, what is it that you are looking for?"
"Me sir?" Adam was quite taken aback.
"Why, yes, of course!" The black bird stood at his full height. He paraded around his desk with his hands neatly folded behind his back and then gently put his arm around Adam's shoulder. "Tell me Mr. Dinkman, if there was one thing that would give you hope to make it through this hard time with your family, your bills, your failures, the fact that the debtors prison is just around the corner what would it be?"
"Now look here, Mr. Blackwell. I know I am in need of money, but I didn't come all this way just for you to tell me that!" Adam's pride had risen into his throat and now as his voice echoed in his ears he began to feel the lump it had made.
"No, of course not." Cornelius relinquished Adam's shoulder and walked back around to his seat. "I seem to recall hearing that you wished you could see into your future. 'Know what was coming next,' I believe was the term."
Adam stared deep into those wild eyes that seemed to look into his soul. He never remembered ever saying those exact words aloud, only thinking them in his head on his way to work. He supposed he may have let thoughts drift into verbal speech now and then, but he could not recall.
Mr. Blackwell ignored Adam's perplexity and moved on. "You see, I can offer you that which has never been offered before: a glimpse at what's coming next."
Adam's eyebrows squinted in disbelief. "You mean like a fortune teller?"
Cornelius grinned and a sly glitter came into his eyes. "Oh no, dear Adam. We have much more for you than that…"
Cornelius and his shriveled assistant led Mr. Dinkman down the long corridor, closer and closer to the rhythmic jade shadows and eerie dripping noises he had heard before. The hall turned a sharp left and then suddenly opened up into an illuminated factory of hazardous parts and pieces of metal. It was a laboratory of twisted cogs and glass tubes running a bubbling green toxin through the mesh of rusted wire. In the center of this mechanical nest sat a brutal iron chair bearing wrist and ankle clamps.
"This," Cornelius proclaimed, waving his hand across the room, "is your 'fortuneteller'. She is our experiment of science and philosophy—not of magic tricks. She is the crowning jewel of our research, and we need your help to test it."
"It can show you your whole world," chimed in the little old man "Past, present, and future."
"Think of it this way," Cornelius interrupted "at one time man believed only God held your destiny in His hands. He was the one who made your future… Now imagine for a moment that you had the power to design your own destiny, that the idea of fate and chance were eliminated. That if here and now you decided to do something or be someone, you could do it with no questions asked. Anything and everything is at your fingertips with no restrictions. A dream world made up of all that you could ever desire… That's what I can offer you Mr. Dinkman. You see, a glimpse at the future does not just end there. It has the potential to radically change your entire history."
"But, how can one change one's destiny by seeing into the future?" Adam questioned.
"How can you change the future unless you know what it is?" was the reply.
Cornelius' smooth voice and intriguing eyes enticed Adam. His last words slithered in his ear with such ease he could not help but look down on that foreboding chair with awe and wonder.
Blackwell must have sensed his imagination racing, for soon he asked, "So, Mr. Dinkman, are you willing to see what your future holds?"
For a quick moment Adam's conscience snapped back into place as he surveyed the sparking wires and raw edges of metal, and the obvious danger and possible deceit that lay before him began to unfold into view.
"I'm not so sure, Mr. Blackwell. How can I be positive I'll make it out of that chair to change my future as you say?"
"You are quite right Mr. Dinkman." Cornelius said with a smile.
"There are obvious risks. But not knowing could be just as risky, could it not? Although, I do suppose we would owe you some payment for your services… What if I were to settle all your debts in full? Even if by some horrendous mistake our calculations are wrong and some catastrophe were to take place, your family would still have a beautiful future ahead of them, right? And if everything goes as expected you will leave a free man."
Free? It sounded too good to be true. Adam looked down at the sparks flying among the nest of wire below. He thought of Evey being happy with her fine things and their children. He thought of the all the money lenders and bankers finally being flung off his back. He even thought of all the things he might accomplish as the most famous cobbler in London. And then he thought of the sheer awe and wonder to be able to behold one's future—something that had never been seen by man.
"I'll do it," He heard himself say.
"Excellent." Cornelius snapped his fingers and his tubby assistant took Adam's hand and led him down to the chair in the center of tangled machinery. As he sat down, an icy chill went up his spine.
He could taste a dose of fear on his lips as the cold metal wrapped around his wrists and he was locked into place with no going back.
Once the bug-eyed assistant had left the platform, Adam could hear whirling and clicking noises behind him. A switch and possibly a few levers were pulled and a loud booming sound punctured his ears. A piercing wave of electricity shot up his spine and through his skull. Adam let out a scream of excruciating pain. His brain— his memory was being flung forward, breaking through walls of time to places that he had never been.
First there was the usual fight between him and his wife about things they could not afford. He watched her stomp out of the house and make her way to the market fussing about the accountant's wife's new petticoat. Then Adam saw himself muddling over all the bills before him on the table. He scraped up all of them in his hands and threw them out into the streets. Then he grabbed his coat and his father's old pistol. He headed to the tavern where he found their rich landlord and made him swear to give back all the money he had cheated out of the Dinkman family. One of the other men from the tavern saw what Adam had done and asked him for his help. Then Adam saw several similar scenes, one after another, in which he had been paid to hunt down others like himself who were not keeping up with their payments. It was obvious he hated the work, but it paid more than making shoes. His wife was happy with her new bonnet and petticoat, but she didn't know where the money had come from. They had even started to bring their children back home from the rich countryside. Then the pattern was upset. Adam watched himself go to a new house to collect dues, but things didn't go as planned. The man of the house was drunk and would not let him in the door. When Adam forced himself inside the house he was met with a rifle. He pulled his gun in defense, as he heard a small voice cry "Papa!" But it was too late, the trigger had already been pulled. Adam looked down to see the drunkard cradle his small, bloodied son in his hands. Horrified and fearful for his life Adam ran. In one final scene he stood watching his wife mourn over the body of their youngest son in the streets with a shadowy figure running down the alley in the distance. The boy's little body was pale and limp as she pulled him close to her chest. The rain washed away the dirt from his grubby face to reveal the son to be much older than the last time Adam remembered him. Perhaps ten years of age.
It had all happened in seconds. Adam's heart was beating faster than he ever knew it could. Presently he could feel hot tears running down his face. Then he heard Mr. Blackwell's cold, thick voice.
"So… what did you see?" Adam couldn't see him. He couldn't see anything. Only a white light and the foggy image of his dead son.
"What is this?" he cried desperately trying to look around the room. "What have you done to me?" Mr. Dinkman could hear Cornelius' footsteps pace around the chair.
"What's wrong? You are alive, are you not?"
"I'm… blind. I can't see you or the room. All I can see is…." Frustrated and confused, Mr. Dinkman tried to shake himself free from the chair.
"Oh, do not blame me for what you saw. I don't know your future." Cornelius calmly kept pacing around Mr. Dinkman. "I can't tell anyone if it will be horrible or delightful."
The shacking stopped and Adam's tear-stained face tilted toward Mr. Blackwell's voice. "You mean you knew I would be blinded with these last terrible images?"
"No, not for certain. We only knew it was a possibility. Everything comes at a price, after all, and once the optic brain has been flung so far forward it is hard for it to return to the present."
"You cheated me out of my sight, you filthy wretch!"
"Ah! But it was you who sat in this chair." Mr. Blackwell tapped the cold metal that wrapped around Adam's wrist with one of his bony fingers. "No one forced you to do that."
"Get me out of this blasted chair."
"As you wish, Mr. Dinkman." He let Adam loose, and the dwarf began to lead him out.
Just as he was leaving the laboratory Cornelius called out, "Oh! And Mr. Dinkman, don't worry, we will keep our end of the bargain. Remember today your debts are all paid in full!"
Adam grumbled a few choice words under his breath. What did it matter now if his debts were paid? He could still see his son's limp body if he focused his "vision" enough. It was his fault that the poor boy would have such a terrible death, but it had never happened. None of the things he had seen had ever come to pass. It was enough to drive a man mad— for his only vision to be the bloody, pale body of his own son and yet know that he was still alive in a comfortably rich home in the country. Adam's stomach began to churn as he wished had never trusted Blackwell. He could finally hear the wooden floorboards beneath his feet and the little toad placed Mr. Dinkman's hand on the doorknob leading outside. He gripped it tightly in his palm, almost crushing it as it turned. With his other hand he reached into his pocket to find the wadded-up note that had carried him there. He clutched it in his hand once more, feeling its ridges, almost trying to suffocate the words that were written on the stiff page. When he could squeeze it no more, he let it fall behind him. Then he swiftly opened the door and hobbled down the street, groping the walls of the alleyway.
Beth Thomas is a senior crafts major but loves to write. "Mr. Dinkmman's Future" is a symbolic story of how we work so hard and collect so many things just to be happy and have peace, when we could have had peace all along. It's a classic "deal with the devil" plot, retelling the Adam and Eve Bible story in industrial England with a meniacle twist. She thanks Flannery O'Connor's influence for the writing style.