In case you’re curious, the idea for this story came from a very silly Facebook conversation with some of my WANA112 classmates. The concept for it came from the Boston Molasses Disaster, which holds a certain morbid fascination for me.
Also, this may be the weirdest thing I’ve ever written. I almost pitched it half a dozen times, but here it is. Enjoy. Or run screaming from what goes on in my head. Regardless, I’m feeling a little sheepish about the whole thing.
Perhaps I should’ve just written about baby sneezes, which was a topic I had in mind. (Click the link! Click it!)
The Cheese Factory Children
Robbie usually didn’t notice the smell. It was only when someone said something like “What smells like feet?” or, “What is that god-awful stink?” that he started to smell it again. Not even a good strong alchemical bath took the cheese smell off, not that Robbie’s parents could afford alchemical treatments.
But the smell was really the least of Robbie’s complaints about working at the factory.
“You’re late,” the foreman growled when Robbie punched in that morning.
“A minute!” Robbie protested. “My sister—”
“I don’t care. And you’ll stay ten to make up for it.”
Robbie threw his card back into the basket. The foreman gave him a greasy smile as Robbie pushed past to take his seat on the factory floor. Robbie could feel the foreman’s eyes follow him across the floor, and he felt a trickle of sweat run between his shoulder blades. The foreman sat by the door because it was cooler or warmer there, depending on the season. He also sat there so that he could watch the boys and know who needed a beating to keep him going.
It was supposed to be cool on the cheese-packing floor, for obvious reasons, but Robbie could see the cheeses sweating as much as he was. Whatever the alchemists did to keep it cold, it seemed like they couldn’t keep up with the unholy heat baking the city today.
Baking the cheese, too, by the smell of it.
“Hey,” Ty said when Robbie took his place beside him.
Robbie grunted a response and started unwrapping the cheese in front of him. The conveyor carried them by, slowly, one at a time, while the boys on the factory floor removed the cloth.
“This is Paul,” Ty said, gesturing toward a new face across the conveyor. “He’s new.”
“No good for you,” Robbie told the new kid.
The boy shrugged. “It’s something. My mom wants me to be an alchemist.”
Robbie and Ty both laughed. “Never gonna happen,” Robbie said.
Paul shrugged again. “Well, this is a start. They run the factory, don’t they?”
“Nah,” Ty said. “They work here just like us. They keep it cool.”
“Kind of,” Robbie said.
Paul laughed with them this time, even though he still looked confused.
An hour passed as the boys unwrapped cheese after cheese. Hard and soft cheese, smelly and neutral, hundreds of cheeses went rolling by. They took the cloth off and put it back on the belt for the skilled guys down the line to wrap in waxed paper. Robbie saw Paul wrinkle his nose a few times as a riper specimen passed by on the belt.
He’ll never last, Robbie thought, not with a nose like that.
The heat increased every minute, it seemed. Pausing to wipe a bead of sweat from his eye, Robbie looked up and saw one of the alchemists arguing with the foreman. She looked cool, even while she shouted at the foreman. The foreman, on the other hand, looked redder than a cooked crab.
The alchemist stalked away from the foreman, finally, her expression satisfied. She patted Ty on the pack as she passed. “Sorry you boys got caught in this,” she said. “When the time comes, just ride the belt.” She winked a brown eye at them.
After she passed, Ty caught Robbie’s eye and shrugged. Alchemists were weird.
The cheese grew sticky. Robbie’s fingers grew a pair of sticky, stinky white gloves, like the mold that grew on some of the stranger cheeses. He had to wipe the sweat from his face with his shoulder to keep the cheese out of his eyes.
Paul looked miserable, like he was wondering what he had gotten himself into. This was way worse than the foreman would’ve told his parents.
Robbie grimaced. It was the worst he’d known it, and he’d been working here since he was seven.
The bang came without warning, an echoing boom that carried with it a strong smell of burned cheese, hot and rancid and tasty enough to make Robbie’s stomach growl. Some shouts rang out farther up the line as the boys nearer the coolers saw whatever had happened. The foreman ran by, shouting something Robbie’s mom would’ve washed his mouth out for.
Robbie bobbed on the balls of his feet. He could see some of the boys starting to run and—he had to rub his eyes, cheese-gloves or not—an expanding, rolling blog of yellowish-white spreading over the floor.
It looked like the coolers had become ovens and blown forth, like a volcano of melting cheese.
The crowd hit him with a wave of still more heat, the raw body heat of a hundred panicking boys. He could feel Ty behind him, tugging at him, trying to get him to join the crowd. The new boy was lost somewhere in the crush.
“Remember what I said, boys?” a voice asked. Robbie turned. The alchemist sat cross-legged on the conveyor belt, still looking cool and calm. He gaped at her for a moment as she passed, then scrambled up onto the belt.
“What are you doing?” Ty shouted as Robbie tugged him onto the conveyor. “We’ll get turned into soup!”
“I don’t know!” Robbie said. “She said to do it!”
In front of them, the alchemist’s back was straight, and she did not turn. The conveyor belt was chilly, though, like it was fresh from the coolers. Robbie shivered. He saw a boy fall down as the others shoved him. A few jumped onto the belt, but most just struggled to reach the doors, still distant.
The cries started when the hot cheese caught up with them. More struggled onto the conveyor when they felt the scalding, scummy goop hit their heels. Robbie helped a few of them, tugging a wrist here and a beltloop there. He turned once and saw Paul’s face, blistered red and dripping with cheese, utterly bemused.
An eerie silence fell as the river caught up with them, swallowing a few faces as it swept beneath the belt. Sour-milk steam rose from the cheese. Still the alchemist did not move.
As they neared the wall, they saw the foreman struggling to stand, like an elephant in a tarpit. He called out, cursing.
The alchemist turned, but she did not move to help him.
The foreman struggled closer to the belt and flailed for it, his large hand leaving cheesy smears on the belt. The kids pulled their limbs out of his reach, fearful of being pulled into the cheese with him.
He caught it once, just as Robbie approached. Robbie looked into the bubbly cheese and saw the foreman’s face, wide-eyed and frightened. He still cursed though, and swiped at Robbie with his other hand.
Robbie looked at the cheesy fist holding desperate to the belt. He looked up at the alchemist, who had turned.
She winked at him again.
Without thinking, he reached out and nudged the foreman’s fingers off, one by one. Well cheesed, they slid off without resistance.
The man fell behind him, sinking into the cheese.
Behind Robbie, a few boys started clapping. Droplets of cheese flew into the air as greasy palms met.
Robbie smiled. “I guess I don’t have to work late today.”