“The Quiet Drumming on the Ears”
Arthur sighed as he gently turned the wheel; it proved to be a part of a greater ritual he felt the day would be. He knew he would be accepted as an employee today, so why bother with an interview? The key would turn itself to shut off the car, and he found his feet involuntarily shuffling out of the city car garage to the office building across the street. “MERTCO HEADQUARTERS” seemed to glare down at him, and as if in defiance, he glared back at it in reciprocation.
Once inside, getting to his interviewer took a good deal of time, or rather, bothers, which involved getting lost, asking for directions, checking his watch, asking another lowly pencil slave for directions again, riding a few elevators for kicks, and of course, chatting with the secretary who was more than sufficiently crabby and refused to believe that he had an appointment until his interviewer actually arrived to verify it as truth. Alas, nothing is easy.
Eventually, however, Arthur found himself in the cramped quarters of his interviewer, who revealed himself to be one “Mr. Bernstein,” though his name seemed to immediately leak out of Arthur’s other ear almost as quickly as he had heard it. Of course, Mr. Bernstein himself was a thoroughly bland individual in a thoroughly bland room, with a thoroughly bland job, so such would be expected. His face was perpetually stony and blank, and at first, Arthur didn’t look at the man above his necktie, though as he finally met his eyes, even then, the man’s head proved to be so expressionless that it was more like peering straight through a person to the wall. One might as well have found his grandmother’s flower wallpaper to be more vivid and alive.
Bernstein started in bored monotone. “So I understand that…you wish to work for our company…Mr…uh…Arthur…Svarkidt…Our art staff is quite…sparse…May I see your…portfolio?” Each pause brought a unique silence as Bernstein’s mouth opened like a suffocating fish with its lips parted and gleaming wet.
Pondering how many flies the man might swallow throughout the day, Arthur slid his portfolio onto the desk. It was a simple array of his “corporate” art commissions, which were of course, professional prints for books, ads, and the like, but as impersonal as the printed scrawlings might seem to an outside individual, Art released them like a parent would their deceased newborn to a police autopsy lab.
“Seems…satisfactory…May I ask about your…previous work experience? These are…private commissions…right?”
Frowning mildly, Arthur nodded, “Yeah. As I was going through college, I did private commissions to start working on private loans and the usual living expenses. This would be my first office job, however, as you would note from my resume.”
“Mmhm…well…Everything appears in order…on my end…Your work is…very professional…And should work well promoting…our…” He paused for what seemed an eternity. Each moment darted in its own vector, colliding with the brewing irritation that seemed to be slowly seeping out of Arthur’s rapping fingers on the armrest of his chair. “…product line. I need to talk with…Human Resources…and they will let you know…when to come in next…to get your cubicle…I should expect you to start work…before the week…is out, if not…tomorrow, even.”
Rising to shake Bernstein’s hand, and to dart out of the room as quickly as possible, Arthur grinned on cue. “Thank you. It’s all quite appreciated.” He went for the door, finding it to be farther away than he could have thought.
Arthur’s mind screamed a chain of obscenities that rang in his skull if for but an instant, and he simply turned around with a thoughtful smirk and a pair of raised eyebrows that he had managed to plaster on his face while turned away. “Yes, Mr. Bernstein?”
“Our company maintains…a strict dress code…Your tie is a little too…hm…flamboyant for the image we…want to portray here.”
Arthur nodded, and glanced down at his sanguine tie, a golden A emblazoned at the very end. He flushed with anger, though his smile remained, and simply racheted tighter. “…Uh…oh?”
Mr. Bernstein uttered something of an empty, paternal chuckle. “I understand that…you wouldn’t have known. No need to be embarrassed…and…get so red.”
“I only wanted to do my best…sir.”
* * *
Arthur exhaled as he sat down in his car. The following moments of extraneous details of the rest of his visit that day faded out of his as soon as he put the keys into the ignition. He was, to be frank, glad to erase such a memory; rather, he would have simply done his work and teleported to his car, if he had the power to do so. Despite the sweeping wave of memory loss, his mind seemed to cling to vague images of grey, figures hunched over desks while their keyboards clacked, their pencils scratched, and the telephones were gently ringing out a symphony for an aleatoric opera, complete with a choir babbling various things in keys and tunings that met each other in jagged lines; the only real information he gathered out of the drama was that he would be working tomorrow to fuel ideas for some product logo or something of the like. He turned the key after placing it in the ignition and turned to the streets, which only reminded him of MERTCO, with its sharp angles painted in shades of grey, white, and black, though the shock of yellow down the middle every now and again pleased him deeper than he felt it should have.
Upon entering his apartment, his heart dropped an inch lower, and he noted that the dull eggshell white of his apartment didn’t care whether he came or left, nor did the teevee he had resting on a milk-crate give a rat’s rear either. The droning hum of his mini-fridge seemed to indicate a form of ambivalence that he felt would continue so long as the thing was plugged in and free of any cockroach invasion. He took off his shirt and pants and hung them up on a nail he had driven into the wall to serve as a hook to hang clothing, as he hadn’t the money or the time to bother getting a freestanding rack for hangers, or even something for his wall with a little more class.
He cupped his face, which was promptly growing a five o’clock shadow, and pondered whether flying out West to take a job, and forfeit the support of his home in the process was really the brightest idea. He rose for a moment to fill a plastic cup of milk and take an aspirin or two to quell a dull ache that was creeping up his neck to settle gently just underneath the crown of his head. Having no real thirst, he only drank half the glass and simply poured the rest of it into the quart jug where it had come from. He flung himself onto his mattress in nothing but his boxers; the bed sighed nearly as loudly as he did.
He fell into a restless, tossing sleep, and he would have continued throughout the night in such a mode, had he not been woken by a wet sloshing coming from his bathroom. He rose and stumbled through the darkness to investigate, and normally he would be alarmed, but a veil of grogginess held by the tension headache imp that still lingered in his skull covered whatever reasoning he still had left. He reached the open doorway, and his bare feet touched a wave of water he presumed had splashed out of his toilet. A vague slithering noise reached his ears, but his mind didn’t seem to quite register the noise. He flicked on the light switch, the plastic making a harsh clicking noise as the light bulb came to life.
He fell to the floor as a black shape seemed to pounce him, and he struggled with the thing, his hands clawing at a writhing, scaly mass. The harsh light of the bathroom ceiling made the creature a dark silhouette, which, despite his best efforts, coiled some dark tendril between and around his legs and middle. He gasped out and would have screamed had his lungs not been squeezed so, and he only made a strained, gurgling yelp that scratched and clawed its way up its esophagus in a desperate plea for some aid from a neighbor that would likely be too busy sleeping or having their eyes awash in a Technicolor blaze to notice.
He felt a tentacle slowly creep up his chest and enter his mouth. It probed for a moment, and slowly slithered past his tongue and epiglottis to reach some deeper region of his chest. He gagged and flung violently as his breath was blocked, and, to his horror, he felt another thing slowly sliding down his throat, an orb roughly the size of a small child’s fist. He felt for sure that his neck would simply burst right then, and he shuddered a silent sob of pain and defeat. With the fist buried in his stomach, he wet himself with a sense of relief and inexplicable calm.
The form shifted and retracted its proboscis out of his throat, though he quickly faded from consciousness as his lungs greedily soaked in what air came through his now-wider throat. He passed from a state of semi-consciousness to a sleep not unlike the grave, while his eyes remained open, staring into the unblinking incandescent globe hanging from the ceiling.
* * *
When Arthur woke next, the imp that was previously simply teasing the folds of his poor, aching cerebellum was now doing some form of major construction, from what he could tell. He rose, and immediately, a wave of nausea swelled through his body, and he flung his head between the ends of the toilet seat to purge the bile that had collected in his stomach. With that urgent business taken care of, he decided to complement his previous eviction notice to his cranial tormentor with some knee-breakers that would get the job done, though in reality, this was simply a glass of milk…and an aspirin or five. He glanced at the clock glaring at him from the wall. It read seven o’clock.
“Work in an hour…” he muttered as a vague instruction to his legs to shamble towards the bathroom.
A portrait of light green stared back at him, when it was typically an incredibly pale shade of peach; a thick collar of purple wrapped around his neck, and his eyes looked sunken and hollow. He took a step back in total shock, and shook his head, the attack of last night came back to him in a surge of image and sound, but he dismissed it as having passed. He went through the grooming ritual of every morning with less thought than usual; his face grew a number of red slits from his razor. With a mixture of unfeeling alacrity and near-hypnosis, he dressed, prepared, and left for work, not bothering to eat breakfast.
* * *
Arthur walked in through the door to the larger office space that contained his cubicle. A few drones paused for a moment to glance up at him with the oppressive curiosity that an insider naturally harbors against the alien, who dares show colors that don’t quite belong, though in this case, Arthur could have done nothing to prevent the bruising around his neck, nor the shade of his skin. He seemed incapable of remembering any face that had looked at him when he sat down at his desk, as each pair of eyes seemed to be the same, and each face held that expression of imposed neutrality that comes naturally to those who wished to hide how they felt, and had swallowed their own thoughts for so long that they scarcely even noticed them anymore.
He noticed a memo on his desk, and he would have gotten so far as reading the first letter of it had he not been immediately waylaid by a stream of pain slicing down the side of his face not unlike a scalpel in the hands of a student. He clutched at his face, and was interrupted in his pain by a co-worker, or, that’s what he had assumed when he heard him speak. He turned to face him, and heard nothing but an empty babbling, though he was sure it was perfectly understandable English. Arthur tried to mutter an apology and explain his lack of comprehension or cohesive hearing, but it came out in a form of mushy syllables, as he lost feeling in the side of his mouth and his tongue flopped to the side, letting a stream of saliva dribble out the corner of his mouth that now drooped down out of his control.
His left eye screamed in agony as his vision began to splinter into a million perspectives and spectrums, and the look of sheer and absolute horror spreading out on his co-worker’s face almost felt like empathy. He rose and pushed past him and began to stagger towards the door, shouting and gurgling out apologies that dripped and fell formlessly onto the floor, and for once, he saw those figures, once hunched over their desks, now rapt in attention, their faces in unique forms of horror, disgust, and even vague forms of sympathy. They struck him as oddly memorable, now painted in odd shades that had not previously existed in his earlier vision. He stumbled for the elevator, and mashed buttons for the lobby, though he hit roughly five buttons all at once with a clawed fist that seemed to be growing scales or something of the like.
His mind raced and offered explanations that he was simply crazy, a madman for hallucinating changes everywhere…His world was really static; his subconscious just wanted it to change for him, and the gentle muzak played over the elevator speaker confirmed that, despite his body swelling out of his collared shirt and tearing it to shreds, and the screams of fear as the elevator doors opened momentarily at each floor he had accidentally pushed. At the lobby at last, he ambled past the secretary, and found himself almost just at ease on four legs as he did two, and he only vaguely noticed the security guard at his own desk picking up the telephone to dial for some government agency, though he seemed confused whether to call the police, the national guard, or even the army at this point.
* * *
The figure once known as Arthur bounded through city streets for nearly two hours, and newscasters had been filming him for only an hour and a half through men on the street or through helicopters, trying to get the best picture they could. Eventually, Arthur paused crossing the Memorial Bridge, which hung over the river at least a hundred feet or two. Squad cars surrounded him from all angles while he peacefully sat on his haunches near the railing. Men leapt out of the cars and drew out a conglomeration of nine millimeter and forty-five caliber pistols, and a few had even bothered to draw out twelve-gauge shotguns, as if the insect-like creature would somehow be able to kill them where they stood, ten feet out of his reach. They murmured alarmed commands that he assumed related to desisting, though Arthur couldn’t, at this moment, remember what he had been doing that was illegal, and his mind went so far as to question where his memory of legality had come from.
The men pressed forward and reiterated their commands as he heard the metallic series of mechanical clackings that came from bullets entering chambers. He grew nervous, and rose to his hind legs to stand, but they only grew more fearful, standing a foot or three shorter than he. He put his hands up to calm them, but he sensed a painful blossoming in his back. They continued to close, and his back hit the railing hard, which would normally have stopped a person from tipping over the edge, had succeeded in making him tumble clear off the edge.
The policemen immediately darted forward to gaze at the figure shrinking towards the water, a pair of soft streams of canvas seeming to grow out of his back, that, at the crucial moment, grew stiff and flapped as readily as a grasshopper’s and carried the creature off to the horizon. A murmur of wonder ran through the men, and one of them had the audacity to crack a joke to lighten the mood, but such a feeling immediately darkened the moment their ears heard a distant rumble that became a closer humming, and then a thickening buzzing. They turned and saw a dark cloud rising out of the city, composed of the black shapes like the one they so eagerly hunted…and who wasn’t alone any longer.