A phone call
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My cell phone rang, snapping me out of my daze. The caller was unknown, and I hesitantly placed it against my ear after answering.
“Ah, Mister Bannon,” said the gruff voice on the other end of the line. “It’s good to see you are still with us. I was certain those roaches would prove to be your end.”
I was breathing heavily. “Yes. I’m still here. Of course.” The sound of the metronome clicks on the other side of the door were growing louder. “I don’t think I have much time.”
It sounded as though the stranger on the other end of the line was shuffling some papers around on their desk. “Yes. You wouldn’t if it were not for this phone call.” More shuffling. “There’s a hatch behind the refrigerator.”
“Excuse me?” I panted.
“If my sources are accurate, there should be a hatch with a tunnel just large enough for you to fit through. That is your ticket out of your current predicament.”
“How do you know that?”
“Trust is a hard thing to come by in this day and age, is it not?”
“That’s right.” My voice came timidly in response. I moved to the fridge near the sink, briefly glimpsing to the dead cockroach there. After setting the phone down on the counter and shimmying the fridge away from the wall, there was indeed a hatch awaiting me there. I put the phone to my ear again. “It’s here.”
The line was dead, and the constant tone after someone decides the conversation is over met me.
I dropped the phone in my pocket and looked back to the metal hatch. The clicks were growing closer. There was no other option. I reached out and latched onto the handle, prying it open while leveraging my dress shoe against the wall. I peered inside and saw that it looked like the walls were made of sheet metal. Was this some sort of ventilation shaft perhaps? There wasn’t a moment to think. I dove in and clawed and slapped at the walls to propel my body forward. The claustrophobia was immeasurable, and I had no idea where I was going; all I knew for sure was that the sounds of the clicks behind me were fading away.
I was possibly thirty feet in before the sound of Quincey’s screaming voice surrounded me. He was echoing all down the metal tube. “You think you can squirm away Art?”
The panic shot through my body like I’m sure the adrenaline leaves the shoulders of a dying animal. He was calling into the hatchway.
“I wonder if you can outrun these?” He shouted. The sound of a million hissing creatures followed his words up the passageway.
In response, I kicked and began to pull myself along even quicker, paying no attention to what was ahead and paid mind to the place near my feet, sure that at any moment the roaches would begin devouring me from the bottom up.
I met something in the passageway and when I felt around at the thing the top of my head met, I found a handle. It was another hatch. I pushed with everything in me and it creaked open to allow me to slide out onto a hard floor. Scrambling to my feet, I shut the hatchway on that end just in time for a particularly large cockroach’s pinhead to catch in the edge of the hatch. It shot off gloriously, leaving behind a thick clump of yellow green insides.
Caught in the hysteria, I slapped the closed hatch with both hands, letting out an exasperated, “Yes.”
The sound of the insects on the other side disappeared and I could only assume this was because their new masters called them back.
I examined the room I was in. It came as no surprise that what met me was blank gray walls; in far corner of the empty room was a door and I went to it. Before reaching out to open the door, I pressed my ear to it to see if I could hear a thing. The sound of ocean waves beating the coast and pelican calls were all that I could hear. I twisted the knob and pushed it out. What awaited me could not have been conceived. There was a beach. I stepped from the room, out onto gathered algae-covered stones. I turned to look at the structure I’d come from. It was a plain concrete block on the coast, no larger than a bedroom. I rounded the thing, looking for evidence of the passageway that had given me my means of escape. It defied all laws of physics as there was no tether between this small structure and Sceptre Incorporated.
“Hey there!” called out a figure in the distant, further along the beach.
I spun, paranoid of the figure’s intent. She approached slowly, obviously eyeing me over as she stepped onto the slick rocks.
She wore a great big khaki sun hat above a pair of comically oversized sunglasses and a two-piece spotted bikini. “You look awful!” She said upon getting a closer look at me.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Look at your chest!” She was aghast at the wound I’d sliced the cockroach from. It was true; I was bleeding straight through the work shirt I’d wrapped around my body in an attempt to strangulate the wound. “What’s happened to you?”
“Do you know the man on the phone?” I asked.
“Man on the phone?” she peered at me over her sunglasses. “Whatever in the world are you talking about?”
“Never mind.” I started over the slick rocks, watching my steps so as to not spill over. Just up the way, I spied a boardwalk and I started in that direction. I began searching on my phone for a taxi service in the area. I was on the coast. The squalor factory was at least an hour’s drive inland.
“Wait!” The woman reached out to grab my forearm.
I tried whipping myself from her grasp and sent us both scrambling over the rocks. I landed squarely on my knees and she fell face first over the rocks, her nose erupting in blood.
“What’s your problem, Arthur?” she squealed while pinching her nose. Her sunglasses lay near her feet, shattered.
Jumping to my feet, I massaged my knees. “What did you just say?”
“What’s your problem?” She asked again.
I took a step away from her. “Is that all you said?”
“Leave me alone.” I left the woman laying there in the rocks, stunned.
She continued to call after me, but I ignored her, jogging towards the boardwalk. The humidity mixed with the scent of the ocean was coaxing out nausea. I plodded up the stairs to the boardwalk and ignored the bystanders’ surprised expressions as I limped past. A small child ran by, smothering his face in a pillow of cotton candy and his mother gave me a raised eyebrow as she passed to chase after her charge.
I dialed for a taxi and scheduled them to meet me out by the entrance of the boardwalk. As I stepped by a hotdog stand, the man tending the counter squirted mustard along the bun. Resting within the bun was a living, breathing hamster. I twisted around to give the hotdog a second glance. It was normal.
“Did you want one, buddy?” he asked.
I walked on without answering. Was it some sort of psychosis growing like mesh around my mind or was the world’s fabric melting away?
I sat in the backseat of the taxi and unwrapped my makeshift bandage to examine the wound on my chest. The driver adjusted his rearview mirror to catch a better look at me. I winced as I pulled the work shirt from the places the blood had dried, forcing it to cling.
The driver whistled. “Wouldn’t think the cockroaches would be this bad this time of year.”
My skin grew exceptionally cold. “What?”
“Wouldn’t think the rain would be this bad this time of year.” He twisted the knob near the steering wheel to turn on the windshield wipers.
It was raining. The day’s events had sapped all energy from my muscles. I craned my head back and closed my eyes to see the metronome sitting in a black void. It clicked back and forth and rocked me to sleep.
The squalor factory’s steps were empty as I exited the taxi. Briefly, I wondered whether Mary and Margery would shoot from around a corner and berate me for scaring them with the hissing cockroach. They didn’t.
My apartment was untouched.
As I properly disinfected my chest with alcohol and wrapped it with a gauze pad, my phone rang. I screwed the top of the alcohol and laid down on my mattress, staring up at the ceiling of the squalor factory. I knew who was calling. It was unknown.
I answered. “Thank you.”
The gruff voice on the other end of the line chuckled to itself. “No worries, my boy.” There was a short pause. “However, you should know that this is far from over. You understand that don’t you?”
“How do you mean?” I glanced down to the things I’d gathered in a cardboard box at the foot of my mattress on the floor.
“I see you’ve been planning to skip town.” The shuffling sound of papers could be heard over the line once again. “That would not be favorable.”
“How do you know that?”
“I have eyes, don’t I?”
“Do you?” I tested.
The voice let out another chuckle. “Please Mister Bannon, don’t make me laugh. I’m not in the mood for it and you need all the help you can get. I would be better suited at helping you if you’d stop with the clowning.”
“Of course.” I watched the gentle flicker of the oil lantern by my mattress.
“So, we’re agreed that you will go into work tomorrow?”
“That is the plan. My plans seldom fail.” A pause on the line. “Trust, Mister Bannon. Trust is the key to everything.”
Episode 3 comes out on 12/30/2020