"Who are you?"
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My sweaty dreams were full of the damnable metronome so that when I awoke to the sound of my alarm, I could barely recognize it as a new sound. I feel as though the thing in my dreams is trying to hypnotize me.
I climbed from the bed, changed my bandages, and made breakfast all the while watching the area of the room the cockroaches had originally come from. It set me on edge, and I could scarcely eat a thing. I ended up tossing the majority of my fried ham slices. As I stared in the trash bin at the meat, I shook my head, saying aloud, “This is madness. He’s mad.”
The walk to the office was an excruciating one and without the normal weight of my work satchel, I felt naked in the cool morning air. As I approached the great concrete structure, I could not shake the feeling that I was being played. I pushed on.
The office was chilly most of the lights were off among the cubicle sections. One rectangular fluorescent screen shone down upon a single cubicles square. My cubicle square. I sat at my desk and craned down to find my satchel, hooking it onto the arm of my chair. The phones sat quietly in front of me and I tapped a finger against the cool surface of the desk, willing one of them to ring. They did not.
The sound of someone walking alongside the cubicles came from behind and I closed my eyes, resting my chin on my palm and my elbow on the desk. I gritted my teeth as the footsteps approached.
“Well how the hell are you Art?” asked Quincy as he leaned over the cubicle wall to look at me.
I opened my eyes to see him holding a plain white mug of coffee. I waited for the roaches to come and pick my flesh clean. I waited for his command to them. I was totally, utterly defenseless.
He blew on the steam coming off the surface of the coffee and took a long audible sip. “You see the game last night?” He asked me.
“The game?” I blinked.
“That’s right.” He said. “What were they thinking putting the rookie up to bat like that?”
He sipped from his mug again. I could hear the metronome in my head, but it was nowhere to be seen. “Hey champ, I’m gonna’ need you to look over those customer reviews we got in from corporate. Think you can handle that?”
“O-Of course, sir.”
“Atta’ boy.” He turned to leave but stopped to give me one last look. “I’m going get you sooner or later.”
I jolted from my desk to a standing position, banging my knees on the way up and sending a few phones out of their cradles. “What?” I said somewhere between a sputter and a shout.
Quincey flinched, sending the hot coffee down the front of his shirt. “Damn that’s hot!” He said, stepping back to peel the wet shirt off his skin while flapping it to dry. “I know you’re the jumpy anxious type Art, but c’mon!”
“You will be.”
His face softened into a broad thick smile. “I said, ‘It’s fine.’.”
“I’ll get to work on those reviews now.”
“Yes. Ahem. Good.”
I listened to his footfalls recede out of earshot and turned my attention to putting the phones in their proper stations.
The normalcy took over as I worked at putting data points into the computer and the work was hardly interrupted by the customer service phones. The zone of the workplace took me into its cold embrace and I nearly worked directly past my first company approved break time. I roamed to the break room, counting my steps as I took them.
As always, the break room was empty. Someone had pushed the refrigerator against the wall where I’d removed it from the previous day. Curiosity began to overtake me as I edged closer to the fridge. I sipped from my water cone cup as I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of the wall behind the fridge. It surely was flat, wasn’t it? There wasn’t a hatchway there leading out to the coast. That would have been wildly against regulation. Just as I’d worked up the courage to slip a hand between the fridge and the wall to see if I’d hallucinated the previous day’s encounter, my phone beeped. It was a text from Quincey:
“Back to work, drone-boy.”
I returned to my desk.
As the day was winding down, I gathered my things and left. The walk back to the squalor factory was a long and arduous one. The shadows cast by the moonlight were long and nefarious; it felt as though any moment a creature of the night would reach out and snatch me away. Or Quincey. Or Janice. Each streetlight dotting the path of the sidewalk ahead was a guidepost in an otherwise dark and foreboding life. My skin was growing clammier all the time and I was sure that I’d flown straight over the deep end. The machinations of the world around me were things so vague and unknown they may as well be from another planet altogether.
I climbed the steps to the apartment complex, passing by one of the twins. I can’t recall which. Her normally porcelain skin was covered in bruising and I was certain that it was my doing. I nodded as I walked by, using a greeting of, “Good night.”
“Who are you?” asked the Mary or Margery.
I stopped and turned to look at the little girl sitting on the steps, searching for words that would suffice. Who am I? I pushed through the doorway and forgot the girl out there as I pondered exactly what she’d meant by that. What was me? A sum of atoms, carbon based, a brain propped up by protein and calcium. I was a drone-boy, piloted by a network of neural networks firing off at what might as well have been random. Who’s to say if anyone would notice whether things would go awry with the communications in my body? I was a pragmatic brutalist automaton with illusory and labyrinthine channels.
I needed sleep. It was most likely the overwhelming paranoia from being over exhausted at work that fed speculation.
I made a dinner of ham slices on the camping stove and as the meat cooked, I changed my stinking bandage. The skin had begun to swell and pinken around the edges. Things were not looking swell for Arthur Bannon. Infection? Sceptre did not have the best insurance policies and I had not opted into it at the beginning of the year. My time was well up. I’d have to wait it out.
As I ate the small dinner by the small light of my oil lantern, I watched the area of the room where the cockroaches had come from, waiting for them to skitter and drag me away, kicking and screaming into the void.
I stood by the old squalor factory window and watched the bleak yellow outlines of car headlights eating the roadways out front.
I received a call in the middle of the night, removing me from sleep.
“Hello?” I asked in a mild haze.
“Arthur, I’m glad you answered. I’ve been looking over some of your paperwork.” It was Janice. “Things are not looking particularly good for you as of late. It seems as though the board of officials would like you to come in tonight to settle a financial dispute over your last few paychecks. You understand?”
“Board of officials?” I sat up and swung my legs off the side of the bed to meet the cold floor. “What would they like with me?”
“There seems to be a series of discrepancies in your pay.” She said. Her voice was ice and for the briefest of moments, I could remember her as the woman that had chased me through the halls with a litter of maniacal cockroaches. I think I heard the metronome somewhere behind her voice.
“Ah. Yes. I’ll be right down.”
I straightened my tie in the mirror and thought of my inevitable fate at the hands of the board. The man looking back at me from the reflective glass was sickly and pale. I grabbed the nearby bin and pushed my head into it, feeling the sick come up burning. There was something wrong with the hunks of vomit sitting in the bottom of the bin. I leaned in to take a closer look at them. They were moving. They had little legs. I felt a pressure leave my chest as the hunks crawled from the trashcan. They were cockroaches; they were at least twenty in number.
Skittering along their chitin bellies, they moved across the floor to the sink, crawling into the basin. One twisted the cold water tap on as the others began bathing themselves in the stream of water shooting from the faucet. I sat the bin at my feet and crossed the room to watch them in their methodic practice. They seemed to pay me no mind until they were finished cleaning my vomit from themselves. As they finished, they came to me like tin soldiers. At attention, they sat in a line before me. I flinched as one of them hissed, but they did not come for my flesh. Instead they moved their posterior’s in unison with one another.
I began, “Click, click, click.”
In the wee hours of the night, I entered Sceptre Incorporated. Janice was waiting for me there with a warm greeting. I pushed past her and entered into the lobby, taking a seat in one of the innumerable red uncomfortable chairs that contrasted against the gray walls and floors of the rest of the place. She followed over and sat with me, making sure there was an untaken seat between us.
“You understand these are serious charges, don’t you Arthur?” she asked me while rifling through her purse. Her hair was pulled back fantastically.
“Of course, quite serious, yes.” I crossed my legs and lifted a magazine from the nearby rack, examining it closely, perhaps hoping there was some inkling within that would help me understand the proceedings of the case against me.
“They intend to file a mountain of reports in response to this grave injustice committed against them.” A pause lingered in the great open space of the lobby. “It would come as no surprise if you were among the sued in the process.”
“A suet? Is that really necessary?” I clamored. “Surely that’s overkill. And what of a counter-suet?”
“You understand your contract prohibits such an action, yes? You really must learn the world is against you.”
“What was that?” I asked, looking up from the magazine.
“You really must learn to read the fine print.” She said with a gleaming smile. Janice clicked her teeth like an insect’s pincers. I ignored this. “Are you still in search of resources for humans?”
“Then you understand what it is to be human then?”
“As ever.” I straightened the magazine in my hand, not daring to take my eyes from the fine print.
“Then you understand that you are not?” she asked.
Episode 4 comes out on 1/1/2021