I sat nervously as the ceiling fan swung overhead. Opposite me, a middle-aged man with thick-rimmed glasses was pouring over my papers, murmuring to himself about my past experiences in other jobs. I could see a faint smile growing from the corner of his lip. I eased back in my seat; he wasn't grilling me with any tough questions, and his overall demeanor was pretty optimistic. I was never good at reading people, but I could tell pretty easily that he liked me.
My would-be employer set my resume down on the desk, and clasped his hands together as he looked at me.
"Just to confirm one last time," he said while leaning back in his swiveling chair, "you understand what kind of job you're preparing yourself for, correct?"
I smirked. "I've worked office jobs before, sir. I don't mean to be boastful, but I've seen about almost everything an office can throw at me."
He laughed heartily. "Good! That's the type of answer I was hoping for! That's the enthusiasm this company needs!"
I chuckled, still retaining that base level of nervousness that inevitably comes with any job interview. He cut his laughter short, and stood from his leathery chair.
"Look," he began, "I'm sure you can tell that I like you. Your papers all check out, and you seem to have plenty of experience in numerous fields. Our office workforce is strong, mind you, but we need an... 'everyman', you know? Someone who's adapted for numerous tasks. And based on all your previous jobs, I'd say that could be a position for you to fill. Nothing is set in stone yet, but, hypothetically speaking, when would you be able to begin work?"
I smiled. "I can come in as soon as you need me!"
He laughed again. "Good, good! I think that just about does it! All we have to do is finish up some of the... paperwork, and that'll be it! It's a pleasure to have you aboard!"
My smile grew larger as I stood to meet him, converging in the middle with a firm handshake. I was beyond elated for this position; it was similar to other offices I had worked at, but the pay was significantly higher and the hours were far more flexible. As we shook hands, my now-boss slowly rescinded his hand from my grasp. His smile turned to a frown of embarassment.
"I apologize, but I was so caught up in the moment that I forgot about our final aptitude test."
My heart sank. An aptitude test? What more did I have to prove to get this job?
"A-Aptitude test? What..."
"No, don't worry about it that badly, my boy! You've passed your interview with flying colors, so this final test is more of a housekeeping thing. Just to make sure you're fully aware and comfortable with your new position. Understand?"
I was hesitant, but determined. I knew how far I had come, and how close total victory was. "Yes, sir!"
"Excellent! Come, follow me."
He opened the door of his office, leading me down the hallway where dual secretaries worked dutifully. One of them paused and looked up at the boss.
"I suppose he passed, eh sir?" she asked.
"He's almost there, Ms. Patton! We're on our way to the test right now."
"Ooh, how exciting!" She clapped lightly in a small show of celebration, but something was... off. As soon as he mentioned the test, her eyes seemed to shift. They looked... pleading. As though I were secretly being marched to my death, and she knew that I would perish. I ignored it, and continued following the boss.
"So this test of yours," I asked, "what do I have to do exactly?"
"It's difficult to explain," he elaborated, "but I'll do the best I can. My father founded this company on the principle of willpower. He believed that a strong will was the cornerstone of the human mind, and that only through willpower could we achieve what we set out to do. This test is a test of willpower, because like my father, it is the foremost thing I search for in all employees. You seem like a man with guts, so I'm sure this will be an easy feat for you."
We stopped at a door I hadn't noticed before. As I looked around, I realized I was in a part of the building I had never been in before. The walls seemed more industrial, and the door in front of us was made of cold steel, as opposed to the shiny mahogany door to the boss' office.
"Alright," the boss said, "it's pretty dark, so I'll lead the way. Just follow me."
He opened the door, revealing a metal staircase descending downwards. He began to climb down, and I followed him. As we progressed, I began to see light on the ground, as though there was a lantern waiting for us at the bottom. When I reached the bottom, I found to my surprise that there actually was a lantern down there; it was seated on top of a wooden crate, practically begging for me to come pick it up. I reached for it, but I drew my hand back. Leaning on the side of the lantern was a pistol, with boxes of ammunition dotting the top of the crate.
"Ah! We didn't get to that part yet." I jumped as the boss spoke directly behind me.
"S-S-Sir, what's the g-gun for...?"
Before he could answer, I heard it. A slow, rhythmic clanking sound. It sounded like the stock audio that tv shows use to portray a factory. Cold, industrial clanking. The boss picked up the lantern, watching the pistol slide onto the surface of the crate. He thrust the lantern into my hand.
"Follow the sound," he said emotionlessly, "you'll see what the test is."
My heart racing in my chest, I followed the unceasing sound of the clanking, the lantern illuminating my path. When the clanking was in front of me, I pulled the lantern upwards to my chest. And I nearly screamed.
The clanking was coming from chains. More specifically, the thing that occupied the chains. Its face was covered with an iron mask that looked as though it was carved out of obsidian. Its chest was ravaged with scars and slashes, many of them cauterized to prevent bleeding out. Its arms and hands were blackened from fire, the skin peeling off and sticking to the floor as it tried desperately to move. Its legs had been whittled down to bandaged stumps, which were haphazardly shackled to the wall. With each passing second, it leapt forward, peeling its arms off the ground to propel itself forward. Each time it did this, it was restrained by the chains keeping it in place. It fell to the ground pitifully, resting its masked face in the crease of its arm as though it were weeping.
"Look at it. It's hard to stare at it for too long without getting sick, huh?"
The boss stood at my side, pistol in hand. I was shocked at everything that was unfolding. I could feel the bile crashing against the back of my throat as I stared wide eyed at him.
"What...what is that thing?"
"That's the test. Or at least, it's part of the test. It's like I said, my boy. Only through willpower can we overcome our darkest hardships. And this thing? It's a living, breathing hardship. A stain on the company name. That's where you come in."
He handed me the pistol, guiding my arm towards the thing as though he were instructing me on how to swing a baseball bat for the first time.
"You know what to do. Just get it over with, and I'll show you to your cubicle. Okay?"
He flashed a reassuring smile, but it was obviously fake. I inched closer to the thing, aiming the gun at its masked face. As I got closer, the lantern illuminated its eyes, which were showing through the mask. They were bloodshot and glassy, yet unmistakable. They were human eyes. It stared up at me, letting out a gurgling groan through the mask. I felt tears of pure revulsion welling up in my eyes as my stomach churned. I backed up, lowering the gun.
"I-I can't do this. Jesus Christ man, what the hell even is th-"
My thoughts were interrupted by the impact of something heavy crashing into the back of my head. I dropped to the ground, inches away from the thing as the lantern spiraled into the darkness. I could make out the silhouette of the boss standing over me. He picked up the gun and cocked it, pointing it down at me.
"You wanna know what that thing is, boy? It's a failure. That thing is the culmination of human failure. He didn't have the will to do what had to be done, and neither do you!"
He looked away for a moment, then returned his gaze to me. "I had such hope for you, boy. I prayed so desperately that you wouldn't turn out like the ones who came before you. But in the end, you're just like he was; a spineless, weak-willed fool who couldn't pull a goddamn trigger to save his life!"
I flinched as I heard gunshots, but I opened my eyes when I didn't feel the immediate burning of a bullet. The boss had turned the gun towards the thing, and shot it point blank in the chest. It lay on the ground in a puddle of its own blood, letting out one last grunt before dropping its head on the hard concrete floor.
The boss picked me up by the collar and dragged me over to the chains, unshackling the thing and kicking its body into the corner. As he was fitting the shackles just above my knees, I felt myself fading into unconsciousness from the blow to my head. As I slipped away, I heard his voice one last time:
"I pray for your sake that the next applicant isn't a weak-willed failure and actually has what it takes to get the job done. Otherwise, you'll be down here for a long, long time."
Written by Parlour