The next morning I awoke to sharp knocking on my door. I reluctantly threw back the covers and sat up on the bed. A few minutes later I changed into the dress and hat I had brought with me, and combed my hair. Cutters were very respectable people, and I wanted to look my best when I met with Mr. Teller.
At exactly 8:30 I tucked the room key back in my pocket, grabbed a breakfast bun from the platter that sat outside my door, and left the inn.
I headed towards the city center and crossed through the crowd as quickly as I could. The stalls were just being set up, but it was already busy and loud.
I stopped in front of the building Mr. Teller’s office was in and took a deep breath. I was about to walk into a Cutter’s office and discuss whether I was to be employed.
Never in my life had I thought this would happen. I had assumed eventually I would work at a factory, and Darren would join me in a few years, and I would always live in a rotting shack.
The big city clocked chimed as the hour hit 9:00 and I walked in.
When I reached room 3, I knocked on the door, and waited for it to swing open. Swing open it did, and a middle-aged man held out his hand. “Miss Alander! Welcome!”
I shook it, and stepped inside, closing the door behind me.
The office smelt like books, dust and ink. It was small, with one large desk, two chairs, and a bookshelf in one corner.
“Please. Sit.” Mr. Teller gestured to the smaller chair, and settled into one behind the desk.
I sat down and placed my hat on my lap.
“Thank you for coming.” He shifted a stack of papers and placed his hands on the desk. “As I mentioned briefly in my letter, your father was a Cutter.”
“The ability to ‘cut’ usually passes down through a family. We have an unusual shortage of Cutters at the moment, and despite his financial state, I quite admired your father’s skill.”
I clenched my hands in my lap and tried not to look terrified.
“When I traced him back to where he used to live, I found you and your remaining family. Being the oldest living Alander, I figured you would also have the gift.”
“How can you tell whether I actually do?” My voice sounded small and high-pitched.
“There are a series of tests that have been designed to recognize possible potential. That is mainly why you are here. I do not have much time, so we shall begin the tests ASAP.”
He laid a sheet of paper in front of me. It had a series of questions written in Mr. Teller’s neat handwriting.
“Do you have a pen?” I asked, staring anxiously at the sheet. He handed one to me and I read the first question.
What do you know about Cutting?
I picked up the pen and rested the tip on the page. I knew what I wanted to say. I wanted to mention that Cutting was a skill that was used to sever the bond between someone who has passed away and all those who knew him. I wanted to say that it was important and Cutters were respected and admired. I wanted to write that if someone weren’t cut away they would pull all their loved ones into the Otherworld as well.
But I couldn’t.
“Um. Mr. Teller?”
“Yes?” he said absently.
I breathed in deeply. “I can’t write.”
He slowly raised his head and looked up at me. “Yet you can read.”
I nodded. “I know what each letter looks and sounds like, I’ve just never written them.”
“Well then, just find the right letter somewhere on the sheet and copy it.”
“What about spelling?”
“That doesn’t matter. What matters, is you finishing the tests as quickly as possible!” He muttered impatiently.
“Yes sir.” I looked back down at the sheet and pictured an I in my head. Carefully I drew the shape on my paper and moved on to the next word. As I wrote shaping the letters seemed to get easier. In a few minutes I had finished the question and started the next one.
What do you know about the Otherworld?
This one took more consideration. All I’d been told about the Otherworld was that it was the place people went after they died. It was a good place if your soul had been released, but if you were still alive it would be torture.
I decided to only say what I knew. Not knowing much would be better than saying things that weren’t true. After I had finished the few sentences I noticed that it looked very small, so I wrote a bit more about the geography of the Otherworld.
It was divided into four sections. One was where most people went. As you were falling from life, the Cutter’s job was to cut the string that was tied to everyone you knew. Once the string was cut, memories were erased, and you were safe from being dragged into this section, which would feel like hell to you.
The second section was where the heroes went. These were people that The Council had recognized as special.
The opposite of that was the real hell of the Otherworld. If you had tried to escape the Otherworld, or harmed any member of The Council, you were sent there.
The last section was where The Council watched. It was over the Otherworld, which was over the real world, meaning they could watch, decide, and control everything that happened.
The questions continued in the same way, asking me what I knew about this, or thought about that.
Who is on The Council?
What is so important about Cutting?
What do you think is the most important thing Cutters do?
Do you want to be a Cutter? If so, why? If not, why?
I finished quickly and slid the paper across the desk to Mr. Teller. He scanned the answers and smiled.
I sighed in relief.
“There are a few more tests I’d like you to answer. The next two have more to do with your actual inner skill level, and you may not understand their relevance. Then I would like to ask you a few more questions if you don’t mind.”
“No, of course not.” I took the new pieces of paper and worked through them. He was right about not being able to see the relevance; some of the questions seemed absolutely pointless, though I answered them anyway.
Are you a good judge of personality?
How easily can you recognize people?
How good a swimmer are you?
Do you know how to garden? Etcetera.
Half an hour later I handed in the last sheets and he set aside his work and fixed a gaze at me.
“Do you realize that becoming a Cutter isn’t easy?”
“You’re lucky you’re being considered. But I would like to warn you that once you take the job, it’s your career for life. You can’t retire, quit, or change jobs until you die. It will take almost all your time and energy. You will have to live in the city to have access to the Cutting Center, and you will probably not have a family of your own. I can arrange for a small house for you and your family, and I’m sure your mother and brother will be able to find employment here. The hardest thing will be doing it. Most people know and respect that the bond must be cut. However, there are a few who cannot accept it. Occasionally you will be begged not to cut it. You will be bribed, threatened, and blackmailed. Pay no attention to these! All are just words, they will never actually be executed. You may have to cut someone who you know. A friend, colleague, or even relative. It will be hard. Nobody wants to forget everything about someone they liked or loved. But we cannot just take the cases you don’t want. Every day people need to be cut. Reminders pour in. Whoever answers the call must take it. You are to put them on your waiting list, and get to them as soon as possible. We cannot switch, you can only do a certain number a day or you will run out of the necessary power. You must do as many as you can in the designated work time. The days are short, but intense. You will have four-hour days and should complete a minimum of twenty cuttings. They take a while to complete, and involve patience, but the process is quite simple. I will teach you that when you return to the city for your training.”
“Does that mean I’m accepted?” I interrupted, bursting with hope.
“Yes, it does.”
My mouth collapsed into a smile. “Thank you!”
“You seem eager, but do you understand what I said?”
I nodded vigorously. “Yes.”
“Good.” He opened a drawer in the desk and pulled out a few clinks as well as a train ticket home. “Come back in three weeks. I will send you another train ticket a few days prior.”
“Thank you again!” I pocketed the train ticket and tucked the clinks in my shoe. As I left the office I felt on top of the world. I had a real job, a train ticket in my pocket, and a few coins in my shoe.
By the time the meeting had ended I had just enough time to check out of the Inn and head to the train station, but I wasn’t particularly sad about missing the museum. In three weeks I would live in the city and I could visit the museum whenever I wanted.
On the train I thought about the heavy clinks in my shoe. It was more than I had expected, but Mr. Teller seemed rich, and I supposed it wasn’t much to him.
Perhaps we could use it for new clothes and shoes (the portion that didn't go into food, of course).
I was the only one to get off at my stop. Anyone rich enough to buy a train ticket was rich enough to live in the city. When I reached the shack, Mother and Darren were waiting.
Sunday was the one day we got off work at the river, and Mother stayed home every day.
I ducked through the entrance and pulled off my shoes.
“How did it go? Are you accepted?” Mother asked anxiously.
“Yes!” I couldn’t keep the smile of my face. “I got thirty clinks, plus a promise that he’ll send another train ticket in three weeks.”
“Thirty clinks!” Darren exclaimed. That’s worth three days of both of us working at the river! For doing practically nothing!”
“There’s more.” I said. “I will have to work in the city, but he’ll provide us with a small house so you can come too!”
“He’s buying us a house?” Mother looked shocked. “Does he know that we have never actually owned a house before?”
“I don’t think so.” I replied. “I never mentioned it, but he did talk a little more about Father’s ‘financial state.’”
“What will I do?” Darren asked.
“There’s plenty of work to be had in the city.” Mother said. “You might even be able to go to a proper school and make a name for yourself.”
I fished out the bottle from my pocket and placed it on the table. “I bought this from a stall in the city center. It’s a delicious spice!’
“Darren shook some onto his finger and tasted it. His eyebrows shot up in surprise. “How much did you pay for this?” he asked.
“A clink and a half. I guess that means you like it!”
“Thank you!” Mother said to me. “Now I might be able to get a job so that Darren and little Marca can go to school.”
Marca was the baby. Mother had always wanted her children to get an education, and only now was it possible.
“Will you enjoy being a Cutter?” she asked me.
“Yes! Mr. Teller listed off a ton of warnings and made it sound awful, but I still want to do it.”
She smiled faintly. “Good. I don’t want you to feel like you’re being forced to do this.”
“It’s okay. Don’t worry about me!” I said. “I have respectable job, and we’re going to live in the city.”
“What should we tell Mr. Rontaly?” Darren asked Mother.
“Say that a friend who lives in the city said there’s work at a factory there. Tell him we’re moving to the city, but don’t be disrespectful. He’s what kept food on our table all these years. It’ll be best if we tell him right before we leave. If plans are suddenly changed, we need him to be still willing to hire you two.”
I knew that “If plans are changed,” meant if I was fired before my training began.
“In the meantime, act like nothings changed. I’ll get rid of our box after the last letter comes in. We might not be able to get another one, but there won’t be much need for one.”
“Darren and I looked at each other gleefully. Mother was acting calm, but we couldn’t hide our excitement. We were going to live in the city!