Friday, April 19, 2013
Yet Another Story From the Past for the Present
HAPPY HOUR, NO HOST
A short story by Tim McMullen
“It's just a buzz... a kind of gnawing sound, that's all. I can't explain it. I just feel it... buzzing…here!” He lifted his torso from the couch and thrust his outstretched fingers against an area on his forehead just above his nose, disturbing the beads of sweat that had collected there; his eyes sought Weston's with an angry plea. “You gotta' help me! It's getting worse!”
It was a torturously hot day, and, typically, the air conditioner was out. Dr. Philip Weston had just opened the windows of his fourteenth floor office when Fanning had entered. The fellow had been in the office nearly five minutes, and he had been raving continuously since he'd seated himself on the psychiatrist's couch.
Weston was experiencing the same reaction he always encountered with a new patient. He wished that they could all be like the "old timers,” the long-term patients who had learned not to expect so much. If they could just accept the process and not be so hung up on "the cure”—but it was always the same: the same old denial, "I'm not crazy! There's nothing wrong with my mind!"; and the same old whine, "Help me, Doctor! You've got to help me!”
Slowly, he realized that his imagined words had coincided with the words and tone and supplication of Fanning, his new patient. He opened his eyes just in time to meet the intense and painful gaze of the man. He looked to be in his early to middle forties, with close-cropped dark hair; flecks of grey salted his temples and crown. When he wasn't speaking, Fanning's mouth drooped open peculiarly, almost as if it were trying to speak against his will, and his eyelids, though apparently closed, fluttered uncontrollably. For most of the last five minutes, however, he had been speaking, albeit in an agitated, stumbling cadence. The words lurched forth three or four words at a time, and his rambled narration was anything but lucid.
Thus far, in fact, Weston had not really decoded any of the man's exposition. Instead, he simply sat and stared at the man's eyes. The eyes themselves were very unremarkable; they were a typical light brown, and the shape and size were also ordinary. But the look.... Deep in those eyes Weston saw something that both gratified and alarmed him. He had probably read the phrase a hundred times in stories and novels, and perhaps even in a case study or two, but he had never actually encountered such a phenomenon. Now, however, he had no doubt; if there was such a thing as "tortured eyes,” this fellow definitely had them.
“Well ... " Weston drawled and then paused as he tried to pull his attention back to his patient's still unidentified problem. After all, the fellow was paying for the hour. Holding his pencil and pad near his chest, Weston flapped his arms a couple of times in an effort to get air to his perspiration-soaked armpits. "It really is a scorcher, isn't it, Mr. Fanning? Sorry about the air conditioner...Isn't that just the way, though?"
Fanning remained motionless on the couch and did not speak.
"Well," said Weston, trying another tact, "sometimes it helps to run through the details a second time. It helps us make certain that the facts are straight, and it helps you to articulate more clearly what you feel is the problem.”
"I told you the..."
“Yes, I know, but slowly and calmly now,” interrupted the doctor. “Start at the beginning and just talk it through again."
"Look, I'm a neurobiologist! I'm not some loon off the street!" replied Fanning.
No-No...not you, Weston observed silently, but his face was a mask of reassurance.
“I've never been to a psychiatrist in my life ... and I never needed to, either!" Fanning made a move to scratch his head, but his hand halted in mid-flight; apparently puzzled, he gazed at it for a moment then laid it back at his side.
“I've tried five doctors, and they all say the same thing: 'No reason for that bleeding, Mr. Fanning. You're fine. Nothing wrong with you ... physically! Nothing a little peace and quiet won't cure." Fanning spoke calmly and quietly, his voice barely above a whisper, but his eyelids and his fingers twitched convulsively. "Peace and quiet," he sneered, raising his voice. "Doctor, I haven't worked in nearly two months. I haven't seen any friends for weeks. Christ, I haven't done anything for days but sit and listen to it gnawing away. I CAN'T STAND IT ANYMORE!" Fanning clenched his graying brown hair in his fists, threw his head against the twill beige of the couch, and let loose a sob.
Oh, fine! A screamer, thought Weston. He turned his back and rolled his eyes. Recovering himself, he cooed, in his best couch side manner:
"NOW, now, take it easy. Take it easy, Mr. Fanning. We can't help you unless you're willing to help yourself. We have got to work as a team." He reached over and patted the man's shoulder, an expedient to which he resorted only in extreme cases. He noticed a wad of cotton stuffed in Fanning's ear. "Now then, let's go back to the first time you heard this...uh...uh...buzzing."
Fanning turned back and lay with his eyes closed; his body was more relaxed, and he spoke now in a hoarse, whispered monotone.
"It's quieter now ... not so bad... I can think. What ... what did you ask me?"
"I asked you when the buzzing began,” replied Weston.
“Oh, yeah,” Fanning said, but he gazed off distractedly with a puzzled look, as if he were a student trying to work out a difficult mathematical problem. His face was uplifted and his eyes were nearly closed so that Weston could see only the whites peeking from under the still flickering lashes. “Funny,” Fanning continued, “When you touched my shoulder.... " His voice trailed off, and he looked at Weston.
“Yes?" said Weston.
"Oh, yeah. I've been thinking about when it started. I'm not sure. It kind of crept up on me, you know? One day, about two months ago, I realized there was this noise. I figured it was the air conditioner or the fluorescent lights or something. Stevens and I were in the lab. It was real faint, but piercing ... you know ... like fingernails on a blackboard from a half-a-block away. It just kept... A-A-A-H-H! A-A-A-A-H-H-H!"
Fanning's eyes slammed shut as he screamed, and his face went ashen. He squinted so relentlessly and clutched at his brow so furiously that, for a moment, he looked as if his entire face was being sucked into his eyes.
Philip Weston viewed the stricken man with alarm. Fanning had been so calm, so lucid, that Weston had nearly forgotten the seizures. He reached out, almost instinctively, for an unprecedented second time. Much to his surprise, the tortured man's writhing subsided at the touch. Weston felt an ominous tremor run through his own body, and he was forced to fight back a wave of nausea as he removed his hand.
Appearing even more drained and vacant than after the previous seizure, Fanning whispered rapidly.
“Stevens...Stevens and I used to talk. It bothered him sometimes. 'You and I both know it's the only way,' I'd tell him. 'They're doing it! You think they're worrying?' He'd close his eyes and say, 'Yeah, I know.'“
"Uh, excuse me, Mr. Fanning. I take it you and Mr. Stevens work together. Just what sort of work....”
“I'm sorry, Dr. Weston, that's classified military information. Besides, Stevens doesn't work anymore, doctor. He's dead.”
“Oh, I'm... I'm sorry,” said Weston, slightly mortified.
"How long ago were these conversations to which you were just alluding?”
"Stevens died nearly ten weeks ago ... Just about the time.... "
Fanning suddenly beat at his scalp with his clenched fists. “IT KNOWS!” he shrieked.
The pad and pencil dropped from Weston's hand, and his mouth gaped open as he stared at his patient. Fanning jumped up from the couch and stood babbling, his eyes fluttering spasmodically. The cotton wad had dislodged from Fanning's left ear and had fallen to the floor. Blood spilled out of his ear. It ran down his shirt and onto the carpet. Fanning continued his crazed, stumbling monologue.
“I watched him die. 'No host!' he screamed. I saw him...out the window... screaming....”
Fanning's eyes darted around the psychiatrist's office. Frantically, they searched and searched, seeking but not seeing. Then he moved. Weston felt pinned to his chair. Despite his confusion and alarm, he had been piecing together small fragments of sense that he had gleaned from the poor creature's ravings.
“AAAAHH! AHH! AHH!” shrieked Fanning. He threw his head back in agony. “It knows...“ he whimpered, blood gushing now from his nose as well as his ears. “Stevens ... Stevens must have succeeded, but he never had ti ... AAAIIIEEE!”
Fanning dropped to his knees. Only then did he notice the blood pooling on the carpet. Like a phantasm from some Vietnam vet's nightmare, his blood-spattered, tear-drenched face grimaced convulsively then suddenly relaxed.
“Stevens...I understand! No host ... can't live ... “
Philip Weston saw the man move, and he understood his intent. Hurling himself from his chair, he moved to intercept Fanning's flight.
Fanning screamed. Then, with miraculous agility, he coiled and lunged through the window, screaming, "Yes! Y-E-E-S-S-S! N-O-O-O-O-!”
Weston had reached the spot in time to grab at Fanning's leg as he disappeared, but not in time to save him. His hand had merely grazed the man's leg, but in that instant, he had heard Fanning's triumphant "Yes" transformed into a “No” of despair. In that same instant, as his fingertips grazed the dying, flying man, he, too, felt it!
A million chalkboards and a billion fingernails screaked through what had been his brain. Weston peered wildly around the room. Chainsaws ripped his cranium, choking and chomping their way through the bone. He flicked his tongue over his suddenly moist upper lip and perceived the peculiar, salty taste of blood that had already begun to trickle from his nose.
“Janet!" he shrieked into the intercom. “Call the Paramedics!" Instantly, the heroic examples of his two tragic predecessors, Stevens and Fanning, entered his mind, and he realized his deadly error. He tried to scream, "Don't come in…Don't let them come in," but he could not lift his hand to press the button of the intercom. As he lay, aware that his consciousness was rapidly waning, he realized that he was perhaps the only man still alive with the knowledge and power to destroy the deadly virulence, but even as the thought insinuated itself upon his mind, he knew it was already too late ... much too late....
©1985 Tim McMullen
All Rights Reserved