Only a short time had passed before Stephen’s legs began berating him with queries of when and where and why this particular how had become the way? Stephen himself, questioned why they were walking and hadn’t simply taken the van? He even remembered asking odd-legs at one point, “why?” And he had answered back something mumbled and half baked about the orange taking hold.

They walked in a strange and busy silence down the road now littered with small sand dunes and garbage blown around from the storm. The buildings beside them stood with imperious-cross-armed stances, shining what little office light they dared onto the darkening paths that wore beneath Stephen’s feet. Odd-legs was prattling on about something while Stephen tried to half listen, getting wisps of recipes or vitamin lists that he couldn’t quite put into an organized construct so he just paid attention to the horizon. 

It was orange.

Or was that just the colour he demanded of the sunset’s form?

Stephen blinked several times, trying to push a lemon seed from his eye while simultaneously attempting to press the orange from his view and it made for some awkward gaits beneath his knees. He tripped a few times, stumbled, wobbled, as if his legs were getting shorter or his body were getting rounder. 

Odd-legs piped up at the two step waltz that Stephen was performing in the middle of the street but it fell on deaf ears. While trying to find a balance between walking and not walking Stephen forgot about his legs and began to wonder where the story had taken such a strange turn. When had it devolved into such chaos? Was it when he was first picked up in the cop car? Or had it been when he met the chief…? No, that wasn’t it. 

Again odd-legs perked up and mentioned again, about the orange taking hold.

“That’s it!” marked Stephen. “That’s  exactly when things got weird.”

“What?” asked odd-legs, “You mean just now?”

Along the horizon, the sun was no longer in view. Instead it rested its fiery wings somewhere around noon hour, high above the white kepi caps of the royal legion positioned at the exact centre of the desert. They were huddled around an unexploded shell sitting by the east end of their huge canvas command tent. The shell’s propeller-like end poking up from the sand cast a shadow that looked like starburst. Stephen was not three inches from the firebomb with his spectacle out and focused on the inscription on its side when the camel walked up, groaning as it rolled its head in close to the focal point of the crowd, curious too of the ammo’s intentions.

“Dammit horse, not now!” bellowed Casper, pushing the muzzle of the beast backwards to avoid any unnecessary damage.

“It’s a camel.” retorted Jonny.

Casper threw a shade at Jonny that covered all three men in a cold shower before Stephen broke the bickering.

“Could you two shut up?” he spoke while holding his spectacle in one shaky hand in front of the bomb. “I’m nervous as is. I don’t need you two adding to the anxiety.”

“Right. Sorry.” said Casper to his feet before swinging out to hit Jonny in the back of his shoulder, who jumped and apologized too.

The men had spent the entire morning pacing around the unexploded shell, trying to estimate its arrival and origin while sweating tiny plastic beads from their pores. The sun barking at their necks was adding to their irritation and the constant interruptions of camels and sand thrown by windy hands was not assisting the matter further. That, and the terrible sleep they had in the night.

Stephen kept waking from strange dreams where he had been a cannibal, a jungle plant painted cannibal with teeth for eyes and eyes too big for his teeth. In the somnolent universe of the evening, he had chased beautiful, blonde haired American women in khaki shorts through snake riddled rivers and spider strangled trees. He had cut the flesh and sinews of fair skinned maidens and chewed their bones to dust. When he woke, screaming or sweating, he woke the other two and threw bone dust at their eyes, causing them to cry for his weeping state. 

Casper and Jonny had come accustomed to the night terrors, they all had them here and there; it was a war outside. Or at least, it was supposed to be, no one had seen a bug for weeks but these night terrors, they had sunk deep. Dreams of eating another human while slowly going cabin crazy in a wide open sand dune, it struck a different rib and produced a different tone.

“What’s the range of these mortars?” asked Jonny.

“One to two kilometres I believe.” Said Casper.

Jonny studied the trajectory by the position of the dial face in the sand. “I’d guess it came from hard east,” he turned around and pointed into a vast landscape of nothing and salt. “from that direction specifically.”

One of the four camels grunted.

“What’s it matter?” asked Stephen.

“Just trying to think ahead. Maybe we should talk about scouting out that way?” Said Jonny.

“Naw.” Said Stephen. “Chief said to stay right here.” 

Stephen leaned further forward, trying to see the squiggles of the inscription as more than just little worms, his nose touched the metal and it smelled like lemon polish or ascorbic-acid and the letters that slowly formed looked a corroded green from the gunmetal of the shell.

“But if they get a foot closer, they’ll be shelling the tent!”

“I doubt it was an intentional shot, there would be others if it was.” Said Casper.

“Besides,” continued Stephen. “Chief said to stay put and so we stay put.” as the strong scent of tea in his words fell from his lips the first few words on the shell’s side began to make sense. They read… 

when the orange

Stephen’s head was a tunnel of green vine that he travelled along until the bee plucked him and dropped the seed of his eye in another flower. Then he was pregnant and then blooming and then looking from the telescope into a hazy image of himself, in another place, in another body that was the same but different. There he ate an orange and it screamed as he removed the rind. It shook and trembled as his nails dug beneath the bed of white calcium and drug ruts along the fleshy fruit below. It filled Stephen with citron and sickness, a yellow fever that compacted and lifted his organs so far into his throat that he thought he might vomit pus and ivory bile. 

He snapped his back to the desert, the heat on his neck made his skin into a sail of poltergeists and the wind dared to push him away.

“You okay?” asked Casper. “You look a little white Stephen.”

Something acrid burned its way up Stephen’s throat and he poured white onto the shell from his mouth. The water was fire and his stomach was so empty and his head so far away he almost fell over. 

“Oh my god.”

He heard someone say but it was so far in the past he couldn’t make it out as more than just a story from Grimm.

Blurred vision had split the inscription in front of him in two distinct stories but the thing that came from his stomach, the sheet of phantasm, made the words stand out and as his vision turned black he caught the last two words. 

takes hold

Gasping, Stephen struggled against the pulp in his throat. It was citrus in flavour but had the distinct shape of a noir film femme fatale. An antagonist. And a smoker.

“You alright Poc?” Odd-legs was looking at him, his eyes crescents of concern and Stephen thought he made out the soft shape of a kepi cap but it was just a halo.

Of light.

From the investigation lamps above.

“You all knew? You knew, and yet you left me alone with him?”Lily smiled as gently as she could, her mandibles marring the effect less than one would imagine.
“It was inevitable, more than that, it was preordained. That was why you were chosen.”
Steven felt his intestinal tract convulse. Mandibles? No. Red, red lips. Lips like wine. That was what they said, the poets. He felt a pain which was more than physical, sweat broke out on his forehead, suddenly feverish, he felt drops of perspiration run down his cheeks, his nose, onto his lips, his chin.
Despite himself, his tongue darted out and intercepted a few drops.
It was sour, and yet so sweet.
He stared at his companions. “Meant to eat him you say?”
Krampus looked suddenly shifty, Odd Legs was busy tinkering with the doors of the van. Lily met his gaze, with eyes that were pools of deepest black, and nodded.
Somewhere, away in the darkness, there sounded a sudden cry, sharp and yet deep, the cry of a startled goose. Stephen watched in weary understanding as Lily’s eyes flickered, deep and black, then multifaceted, compound, her face twitched, melted, swam.
Lips. Mandibles. Saw edged. Brutal.
Bubbles for eyes, holes into the blackness, the blackness which went on forever. The blackness which would swallow him and everything he knew, without thinking, without caring.
His right hand made an involuntary movement towards his throat, caught on something.
Something sharp edged. He looked down. Something shiny. His badge.
Protect and serve the Chief had said. A buried memory from his youth leapt up. Protect and survive. The sirens. Paint your windows white. Sandbags full of your parents flowerbeds. Prize blooms, loam, manure. Protect and survive. Serve and protect. When you hear the four minute warning. An old punk song screamed in his brain “It’s too fucking late!”
He swallowed, tasting the citrus flavour of his frantic sweat. “I was supposed to eat him?”
The Lily thing nodded, almost like a prayer. Praying. Preying.
“So it was oranged?”
“Arranged, yes.”
“But the poor Chief, he had such a zest for life.”
“Yes. But it is the way. It is the way. And the sacrifice is made.”
Odd Legs turned away from what he was doing and stared at her. Krampus seemed to deflate.
Did in fact deflate, with a parping noise reminscent of childhood birthday parties. His body wobbled and collapsed in upon itself and with a final ribald toot became nothing more than a scrap of coloured rubber.
Steeplton’s right hand clutched his badge like a totem. His left felt in the pocket of his coat, fumbling, searching, until he grasped a small smooth object.
Pulling himself straight, he forced himself to look straight into Lily’s face, and worse, into what it became when it was no longer a face. Strobelike, it was a face, albeit buglike, then a warm and human face, with dark and imploring eyes, then the cold mask of the insect, then a cartoonish, mad, villainish visage, then something else, all of the above, and less, and worse, much, much worse.
“Protect and survive. Serve and protect.”
Steeplton’s left hand flashed out, he felt the dry, yielding chitinous surface, felt the thin glass of the vial shatter, the acrid liquid spray out, stinging as it touched the fresh tiny cuts on his skin.
The Lily thing screeched and threw itself backwards, flashing between its forms, legs, arms, flailing, too many legs, too many arms, too many everything.
Grinning savagely, Odd Legs leapt to one side as the thing thrashed about, twisting and writhing like a moth in a flame. His hand darted to his shoulder holster and came out with a wicked looking thing that gleamed dull orange in the faint street light.
One. Two. Three. Four times the weapon spat lurid flame before the Lily thing lay still on the ichor stained tarmac. Odd legs looked down at the sprawling wreckage of Lily the Midge, his flat features registering the minimum of surprise possible whilst still looking surprised. “So Ol’ Lil was a bug huh? It’s always the ones you least suspect. I should probably start suspecting the ones that I don’t suspect, but old habits die hard. What was that you hit her with?”
“Super concentrated Citronella. It was something I was working on for my old job.”
“Oh yeah, the Chief said you used to be a fighting magician or something before you joined the force. Sounds like a pretty cool job. Like in a film.”
Stephen started to correct him, but let the words trail away. What was the point?
“It was ok I guess. Lots of routine.”
“Like being a cop then.”
“This is routine?”
“Oh sure. Happens all the time. Bugs, Balloons, Sand Devils.”
“Sand Devils?”
Odd Legs pointed down the street, to where a whirling yellowish cloud veered and pirouetted towards them. “Best hop in the van till it passes, those beauties will abrade you down to a skeleton pretty quick. And there’s some toffee in the glove box.”
Steeplton did as he was advised, and the two of them watched the miniature tornado spin along the road towards them, a low spresh spresh spresh growing louder as it advanced. It enveloped the van like an overly keen carwash, seemed to dally for a few moments as if irritated that it was unable to abrade them down to skeletons, then rushed off all at once in a fit of pique.
Silence fell, broken only by the faint sound of Odd Legs chewing toffee.
He ate very quietly, for which Stephen felt irrationally grateful. With a final elegant swallow, he opened the door and jumped out. Walking round the van he whistled appreciatively. “That’s saved us a job Poc, Ol Sandy there’s cleaned up Lily real swell. Say Poc, you’re looking better, we’d better get back to the station and report to the Chief.”
“The Chief? But…”
“Oh there’s always a Chief Poc. Always. That’s how the job works.”
He delicately scratched his neck and peered into the darkness of the sky. The smears of cloud against the gloomy greenish blue gave it the appearance of a long uncleaned aquarium. “Gonna be a long night Poc. The enemy are advancing somewhere. Or retreating. Or staying where they are. Maybe all three. We’re gonna need coffee. And we’d best pick up a few tins of sardines for the Chief.”
He settled his cap more firmly on his head and cocked an ear as if hearing something on a frequency inaudible to Stephen, then slammed the back doors of the van. “Yeah. Gonna be a long ol’ night.”

Krampus pats Stephen’s shoulder in an attempt to cool him down, but the touch of his colossal hand does nothing but adding some epinephrine drops to the cocktail shaking in his brain. He appears to be in shock, paper-white face, incapable of emitting a sound. So much ingenuity wasted in flattering the arrogant bureaucrats from General Citronics! Krampus asks some help from Odd-Legs to get Stephen into the team’s black van.

It won’t matter how far Stephen goes; for better or worse no one will listen. The collected data will be archived, and there they will remain, encrypted, hidden —it’s not a question of certainty but just some additional information. Let others navigate the rough asphalt as Stephen did in the old times, when there was nowhere to go and no one but Derleth awaited his return. Both Derleth and himself got a generous sum transfered to their bank accounts, although they were pre-allocated funds which can only be spent on certain things, like the monetary garbage provided by post-governments to simulate that “the economy” remains a thing. Stephen and Derleth wanted to ensure a minimum of lifestyle, much less than others, or perhaps very different, nothing like possessing the space surrounding them, only a few objects that would fit, only those they could easily get rid of. Stephen would rent a cabin on an island in the middle of a lake, something to set on fire without threatening neighbors or forests, all his things there, even himself, burning on the pyre as a heretic. Hot vibrating air would be inducing a mirage of navigation, as if the island slid slowly on the surface of the green lagoon, smoke mingling with the fresh breath of water.

The nagging vinyl stench of electrosuccubes wakes Stephen over and over from his false sleep. The beautiful arthropod in a purple gown could well be the effect of entomophiliac self-hypnosis. He feels his own body as a repetition, a chemical reputation, a constant reconstruction of cycles —polenta, pasta, rice, wheat… Instead of trying to continually think about the past, when the team was a congregation of perjure larvae devouring the tree of life, they should start doing something, go out on the street or make a phone call or search for information on the internet —but the plague is too pure and they slip on its varnished surface. Lily is unbearably bright under her purple dress, her exoskeleton still but flexible like walls enduring the shaking of the earth. Charioteers of chance, the team go hunting imaginary elephants to provide ivory to the tower. They are adorned with calculation and weighty military reasons.

Magnolias fall in a junkyard like rusty guns, the alkaline rain of chestnut pollen, the grass that knows how to keep itself always damp and disheveled as if to refresh the cover of a magazine. The nameless creeks are forest animals with a life of their own, mineral, composed of other small beings, as every life is made of lots of other lives. Withered roses in the garbage can. There comes a time when the body only feels itself in words, which is why Stephen understands those infected by the cunning citrovirus, which, in addition to transforming human tissue into plant thinking, blocks nociception and corrodes the nerve terminals, plunging the hosts in a peripheral anhedonia that ends up seeping into any sensation or idea. The body does not feel the ravages of deformity, as if deformity was nothing but an anamorphic projection —the lack of a proper mirror. Stephen does not perceive what breaks and twists and burns from within as result of his citrophagia —although, unlike opiates, there is no euphoria imbibing the flesh; that intoxication which favored dreams and had taught him the patience that lies at the heart of deep anxiety. Citroviruses have learned to turn human beings into their fruit, rolling spheres, feeding them at their convenience, keeping them alive instead of simply consuming them —that is why they look like a weapon or a work of art, the most sophisticated among artistic armament; the most demonic one; the one that, instead of killing, rebuilds at its convenience; the one that is capable of possessing… The most terrifying destiny conceivable: being possessed by abstract and absurd intelligences without a hint of melancholy.

So it was conjectured that citrosophy itself could have self-organized and spontaneously become a bioinfectious agent; that the very possibility of possession had materialized, coalesced, precipitated, coagulated; that it was a counter-simulation generated by simulations, crystallizing souls in minimal bodies, in just tangles of filiform molecules like the old paper tape impressions of telegraphic messages. Stop, stop, stop; thus the pause of the incessant phrasing is punctuated. The immortalization —or almost— of the metamorfruiting flesh had to be compensated with the destruction of supposedly imperishable objects —monuments, bridges, towers, cathedrals, artifacts from extinct civilizations. All their castles are made of cards or sand. There must be a balance in the time that happens to things, a recoil of the chronometric cannon.

They walk over the rotten waste of a light that once illuminated life. Immediately, as soon as Stephen got down to it, he detected the first publications describing the cheerful infection, considering that if Derleth —or someone else— had invented the agent which had citrofected the chief, they wouldn’t withstand the thrusts of academic vanity. It would be a matter of reading between lines until discovering the traces of a pinch of pride, of parenthetical parental love.

Long ago, Stephen’s father had gotten himself a tape recorder, but Stephen hated to hear his own child’s voice play back so he used it to pick up any other sound in the house or the garden: dishes crashing in the sink, birds screeching each other, the drumming of rain’s fingers on the wooden ledges, the vibration of the trucks stuck in traffic, the distant cries of other children playing football, the crickets chirping… He tried, unsuccessfully, to record softer and more subtle sounds, like leaves falling from trees or the buzzing of bees and flies. He hid it in the cemetery at night in the hope of capturing psychophonies. Ghosts, however, were mute, or they fell silent in the presence of that device that emitted its own purr of a small mechanical mill when dragging the tape. Perhaps the dead were impregnated with the almost imperceptible screeching, perhaps they could not avoid behaving themselves like tape recorders. Vibrations pierced them, remained permanently attached to the ectoplasmatic garments. Perhaps it was the noise what parasitized the spirits and not the spirits a parasitic noise, and that is why they pursued the most absolute silence and never materialized to Stephen’s crude and spectacular invocations.

The dead of this world do not find enough warmth in the souls of the living and fly away to orangination. But that is what the real dead do, not those who, for the moment, only imagine death from the outside, like a concert they have not managed to enter, with their faces glued to the cold window. Although the living are being invoked as if they were dead; although the chief is now nothing more than the wrinkle of a shadow, a crack in a ray of light.

After curling her antennae with a rusty fork, Lily lights a bonfire on the sand and stands still, listening to the lament of an instagrammatic sea she barely glimpses, a goldbergized variation on the constant bass of the abyss. Only the reflection of the dance of a thread of fire could be seen, as a ray of water, as the magnetic clamor of a wire threatening to pierce the night with the slightest carelessness. She didn’t learned the fear she should had, when everything seemed to consist on being properly scared. She didn’t perceive the horror on other people’s faces, only a pareidolia of fearlessness, the rise of an exhausted sun on the desert horizon right before the curtains were incapable of stopping the stab of light. She’s the corollary of an oasis. She does not grumble, she simply follows the instructions of a fiction that seemed kind and adequate to her, although she always kept herself on the margins, on the unwritten banks of the rivers.

The surface of a planet that could get rid of anyone with a slight tremor has just begun to scratch, and the team already think about themselves as demons for having displaced a little carbon. Such is the case with every new arrangement—putting things here or there seems essential, like ants obsessing over a grain of sand. Stephen remembers hearing the chief say that freedom is holding the reins of self-destruction, and thinking that he was right. The team stop the van in front of a shopping mall looking like a place of worship and commotion, a temple for their depraved practices. Odd-Legs helps Stephen out. He’s getting sicker, but they won’t take the risk of going to a hospital. Contrary to what Blanchot wrote, they’re pushed back by their determination to move on, simultaneously chased away and drawn, waves of electrons in a fermionic sea, like insects repelled by the perfumes of bystanders.

“Don’t feel guilty, sweetheart”, Lily whispers to Stephen, “we knew you were supposed to eat the guy.”

www.jimmeirose.com 

T’ Theoreticals of Dr. E. M. Fuselage -Jim Meirose                             

Comes storm in my life Pop. F. Dr. Mac Fuselage said; All this time a tree’s been falling here, every foot more it fell its diameter grew one foot three inches, and by that calculation it’d been world class when, in the finality of the falling event, it’d be three point twelve units larger than when it began to fall, which started by application of two separate but measured together forces whose net force applied was, but. O. The target being here inside this—but not to be named publicly—was not just any old fashioned pinned up static to be fallen into target, but, a smart target. L. Which turns the picture of falling and to-be-fallen on quite basically backwise. L. Targets are, according to the old handwritten unpublished philosophical paper produced by our fine Dr. E.M Fuselage, on the Mapled-down route, past that last wall out there somewhere we quite frankly, have never troubled to witness, of two kinds—of course with microtonailties arrayed deep within. O. In cracks too deeply tight for the common garden hose to clear them. W. That wall, no wait, it’s this way, not that way—this here wall. This here. T. A fine example of old Fuselage’s dumb target. H. It stay and waits. R. Unable to dart away to avoid a hit. O. Dumb—dumb so much th’t when hit it don’t know. U. Hiccup. G. And don’t care. H. Ess. Fo. That is target one but Fuselage theorized a second type; the smart target—able to move to avoid being hit. Ll. And—he goes on to say went on does always go on always go on to go on to say-say, that targets are superior to whatever does the firing, for this way-wise of a reason; given the space between firing and fired at, Fuselage pointed out that only the fired at has the power, if of the second type, to move to avoid being hit after whatever gets fired gets fired, whereas, Pop. U following eh following? Ow. Better b’ ‘cause this ‘s the final big key to the big final revelation—when a missile is in flight the firing entity becomes solidly powerless. Wt. But, having considered this, Dr. Fuselage went on to say, The thrown’s going to land, where the Newtonian principles of space, time, motion, and pressure, absolutely matter. Hr. But, the thrown at can dodge, duck leap away, duck behind, slap away, or be bounced off of by the thrown object.  

Ou.  

So—Dr. Fuselage stooped down, and extracted effortlessly the great truths wrapped up within that first and final law, found abandoned on the floor way back when, which—without showing you the deadly dull mathematics behind it—is, Given a shot with a thrower and a thrown at, the thrown-at has a point-five greater amount of power over the thing—also consider—to throw does not require a thrown at—but a thrown at requires a thrower to be an honestly true and proper and certifyable actually existing in the known universe tangible and intentional thrower.  

Gh.  

If none of this type present, the thrown at cannot exist. Fol. Pop? Low. That clear? 

Yes ‘tis. Thr. Yes ‘tis. Oug. Reminds me of. 

Glowering at that, Dr. Fuselage took one step back, darkly. 

What? he breathed—H fol. Jog it at me.  

Low t. 

Okay! Of being a child, wandering a golf course, watching a golfer in greeny yellow teeing up—and remembering having either read of or told about—that in the golf game a critical component of the initial swing is, the follow through—and—with me so far? Hrou. 

Yack. Gh follo. Go. 

W throug. 

Okay! I right then right there told me into my bottom back quietly, eh, how can a portion of the swing after the ball has been contacted and set off have an effect either plus or minus on how the flying ball behaves?  

At that, Dr. Fuselage intoned gravely, H follow. 

Oh. Ok. That’s a good question, my man. Solid!  Throug. Jawohl, commandante—good question, Pop. H follow t.  

So, what’d you say, Doc?  

Fuselage had no single answer, having been in that moment somewhat nonexistent, but—so—it got swallowed in some bit-register psyo-container, until—until—my Uncle Harry, the avid golfer, brought me to the links with him, and as he entered a completely game-focused state after arrival, I was immediately totally ignored. I freely walked the pleasant sunny warm day all over itself, ‘til I stopped, watched a bigquiver of a redcapped potbelly Ben tee off, and in the seemingly useless arc of the clubhead’s swift follow through, I stepped forward, and using to my advantage my cuteness as a child, he saw me.  

Hrough Fo.  

That’s right! I came close, and I asked him, Sir; how can the follow-through, which is a portion of the swing after the ball has been contacted and sent off, have an effect either plus or minus on how the flying ball behaves?  

Llow throu. 

He looked to his caddy, and his gaming opponents, and they lashed out over, engulfing me in a blaze of thick half-mile up side and down fiery hilarious doubt, saying, Probably should not have asked this.  

Gh.  

That’s right! Probably should not have asked ‘bout follow-through. Follow t. Should have ‘bout through, have through, and Benny—stage-named so for purposes of author trickery—inside me, which we all have though probably named differently, ceased to exist. ‘til now, though. Hrough follow. ‘til now. We wish we had not just told ourself this story. Through follow. We wish. Eh. Follow through. Oh, we wish-it, we do. Through follow, follow through. We be frank—we fear that you, in the same space now as that golfer, will fire us over blaze-hose us down and—we will once more cease to exist. Follow through, follow. Something about golfers and that particular question. Through, follow through. Raw nerve someplace, you think? Follow. Raw nerve? Through. Raw nerve? Follow through, follow through follow, through.  

I am afraid. 

No! No, no. No; by the grace of God, those falling trees I told of, both two of them, just ‘vapor-rated. Follow throu. Only one thing per head-space may obtain vaporization, Pop. Gh follow th. Swallows. Rough follow. There’s no gas left to snare you, Pop. Follow through. We both seem lucky Pop. So, fear not. Follow through follow.  

Hallelujah!  

Yes! Follow through follow through follow follow through through, through—but, a close one, that was. I am truly relieved, knew that I’d never be hit, but—I am still truly and graciously relieved. Comes storm in my life Pop.   

Stephen found he was looking at his hands. They looked strange, they looked, well, sticky, wet? He was back in the room with files, the dust and the grey walls. He touched his hands together, they were sticky. He looked beyond his hands to the floor and saw with growing horror a mass of orange peelings. He felt a taste in his mouth. The sharp taste of ascorbic acid, the sticky hands, the taste, the dismal rind laid before him. The terror rose rapidly up his spine as he came to see that somehow in whatever absence had happened to him, he had peeled and eaten ‘chief’.

He now noted further that there were still a couple of carefully segmented pieces line up on nearby table. He began to sweat and hyperventilate ‘fuck fuck fuck!’ he swore through his perforated breath. But then in a horrible dissonant state looked again at the remaining pieces of chief. He’d liked that orange, he’d taken quickly to accepting its sentience, its warmth, its humour. Now though, the orangeness of the orange began to assert itself. Stephen’s throat was dry, his blood sugar low, surely it was actually a waste??

Calmer now, he carefully reached over picked up one of the remaining segments and put it in his mouth. Pressing down with a variety of teeth he felt the sweet juice ripple through his mouth. Man, chief was a tasty orange. Hungrily he at the last piece and feeling somewhat refreshed he turned his attention to what next. He looked down again at the eviscerated integument. ‘I won’t let you down chief…’ he half muttered as he scooped up the peel and put it into a nearby waste bin. He stood up, exited the room and headed for the second left as he’d been instructed.

In the well-stocked good sized cleaning room, partially guilt riddled, the first thing he did was to wash his hands in the sink (noting the difficulty of the tap, which he wiggled as instructed) until the orange juice was entirely removed. Then, taking a cloth soaked in disinfectant he returned to the grey files room and wiped down the table, the floor and the door handle. He glanced furtively at the evidence in the bin and considered it too incriminating, gingerly, using cloth as a kind of makeshift glove, he opened the bin lid and removed all the pieces of chief’s outer layer. He then wrapped the cloth around them, went back to the cleaning cupboard, unrolled an extra bin liner and deposited the cloth (with chief’s remains) into the bag. This he rolled up tightly, twist tied the end and put it back in the bin in the files room. ‘So far so good’ he said to himself, ‘Now to work’.

With a real sense of duty Stephen went back to the cleaning room, filled the bucket with hot water and disinfectant, armed himself with a variety of cloths and a mop and went back to tackle his allotted task. Chief had been right, it was a big job. It was a good-sized room and the floor was actually filthy in such homogenous manner that it disguised this. But Stephen was determined not to let chief down. At one point, feeling something sharp digging into his leg, he reached into his pocket and located the badge that chief had given him. A small steel insignia with a classic pin back, it was inscribed with a weird looking filigree pattern that formed the backdrop, in bold letters at the front in simply said ‘Poc’. With a confused rush of pride and guilt, Stephen put the badge on. It would least help legitimize him if and when anyone else came along.

He returned to his labour and after about 2 hours and 3 floor moppings, he looked with satisfaction at the near gleaming off-white floor. Turning his attention to the desks he felt with some consternation he hadn’t thought this through properly. The tables were really dusty, but if he cleaned the dust he might get some on the floor and then he’d have to mop again. Oh fuck. He could see now he should have done the mopping last. He looked up. The entire ceiling edge (and part of the ceiling itself) were covered with old spiders webs as was the ventilation grille. ‘La couleur tombée du ciel’ he thought to himself, the ceiling, the sky, caelum, recalling the etymology of ceiling and for some strange reason the French for that old tale of HP’s. Callum? Who was Callum? Another random(?) thought.

Pull yourself together Steeplton. Think man, think! If the floor has to get dirty again then so be it. Start at the grille end, get the ceiling clear, then the walls, then do the tables, then the floor again… Stephen’s enthusiasm was beginning to wane. If only he hadn’t eaten that fucking orange it would have been serving him coffee by now. Reviewing this insane thought in his head he burst out laughing, before pulling it in sharply to a kind of snorting noise lest he attract attention.  Still tickled by the absurdity, he went back to the store grinning to himself. There he retrieved a fresh cloth, clean hot water with disinfectant, a long-handled duster and a step ladder. These things he hoped to utilise to properly clean the ceiling and grille and the table end of the room. It was tricky. The tables were pushed near flush to the end of the room making access hard. Stephen figured though, between standing on the tables for some parts and the step ladder for others, he would be able to reach to corners to get the job done properly. To facilitate this he placed the bucket on the table in between boxes so he could reach it to wipe walls and grille down. The system in place, he made start. Everything was going well and he had a whole corner de-cobwebbed and wiped. Unfortunately, the still slight wetness of the floor, the structural instability of the stepladder and the poor angle at which he had placed it meant that when Stephen reached to get a particularly recalcitrant cobweb, the ladder gave way backwards as Stephen fell forwards off it, crashing into the tables and files as he did so. In the fall, a kind of automatic response of preservation, he grabbed at a box, dragging it with him as he bounced off the table onto the floor, knocking the bucket as he went. His shoulder took the force of the landing with his head receiving a secondary kind of blow. The box, he kind of pulled on top of himself in the process, covering himself in dusty files. The bucket of cleaning water joined this assault, soaking himself and the dusty files in an appalling mess.

Half unconscious, half propped up in the detritus by an arm, Stephen could hear approaching voices and footsteps. Unable to stand, he lay there as the sounds grew louder. Eyes blurredly fixed on the doorway he watched as three weird characters entered. The first was of near giant size and looked more beast than human. Massive goat like horns adorned its almost demonic head, yet its smile was bent in a congenial expression of humour. Next was a man in a yellow jacket, he had neat combed brown hair and a bland looking face, which on this occasion looked somewhat surprised. His trousers had legs of different colours and materials, one was green corduroy and the other a pale plaid slack. Lastly was a what seemed to be an insect headed lady with a long purple smock dress that went nearly to the floor. Her antennae were twitching wildly.

In wretched confusion, Stephen looked at the bizarre gang and somehow seemed to make sense of them ‘Henri! Derleth! Cantaloupe? Sir, you’re alive?!’ The beast-man looked more concerned than amused now, and made his way over. ‘Hey Lily, Odd-legs, help me get this guy up!’ The three figure swiftly went over to Stephen who seemed fixated on the insect lady. ‘Derleth? Is it really you? Did we win?’ Krampus (for that was the beast-man) sat Stephen upright against the wall ‘You alright pal?’ then glanced at the badge ‘Poc? That you’re name, you alright Poc? You’ve banged your head, this ain’t your lady friend Derleth, this here is Lily the Midge.’ ‘Henri?’ ‘Wrong again pal, I’m Krampus and this is Odd-legs, take it easy Poc. Hey Odd-legs, get Poc some water!’

So Odd-legs is back with the water in a moment. Stephen takes a sip and slowly the world seems to return. He sees Krampus, looking over him, he sees Lily the Midge and Odd-Legs hovering in the background. ‘I… I was trying to clean the grille and ceiling, I must have slipped.’ ‘You got that right pal, look, now you’re back with us, can you tell me, you haven’t seen chief around at all have you Poc?’