Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Friday, April 19, 2013

Yet Another Story From the Past for the Present

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

Another Short Story From the Past For the Present

A short story by Tim McMullen

As he reached out, he envisioned the scattered fragments of appendages; however, when he turned the sponge over, he saw nothing but a mere black speck on the blue surface. He held the sponge under the stream of the faucet and watched the remains swirl down the sink drain.
Tom Jenkins had always felt uncomfortable when he killed an insect. A sad, queasy feeling tremored from his stomach to his throat, and he often apologized aloud.
“Sorry, buddy,” he would say, “but you just wouldn't listen to reason!”
In fact, he often did try to reason with them; that is, he gave them a chance by trying to herd them out of the room. Spiders were the easiest: He just picked them up by their web or got them to crawl on a kleenex, and then he walked them outside. And flies could usually be coaxed out the door merely by his waving his hands and blocking their flight.
“No, really! Thomas tries to rehabilitate them and give them a college education,” his ex-wife would chortle to friends as she lashed out to swat a fly or squish a spider.
Now he just stood there with the water streaming down the drain. After turning off the water and wringing out the sponge, he heard the drone of the clock radio from the bedroom. He used the radio's “snooze bar” mechanism to indicate the time in ten-minute increments.
“And now, here's Joanna with an environmental update….”
“The President,” the radio bubbled in buoyant feminine tones, “obviously elated over his latest tactical triumph, said,
'Industry must be given a chance to fulfill their responsibilities without a bunch of uninfor….’”
“Must be 6:20,” Jenkins mumbled to himself, and he hurried off to tap the button.
Ten minutes later, standing in front of the bathroom mirror, he reflexively caught his nose between his thumb and forefinger and pinched his nostrils closed.
“Damn! The stench of that dump is getting worse,” he muttered.
When he and Anita had moved into this new housing complex, they had been unaware that a dump was situated nearby, if you could call over four miles away “nearby.” Then, about three years ago, he and his neighbors had begun to notice a pungent though not unpleasant odor, a smell resembling strong orange blossoms, wafting sporadically through the air. Eventually, someone had linked the smell to the dump, and the mystery had been solved. The smell was no longer orange blossoms, however. Tom experienced a sudden olfactory deja vu: he remembered a blast of dank, musty air gasping past him as he opened the ragged, rotted, wooden door of an old shed on his grandmother's farm. He had never gagged before, and he staggered; a sour, fetid stench flared his nostrils, and he fled from the shed and the sight of the dead cat's rotting carcass.
This morning, the malodorous miasma from the dump was a cross between that decomposing cat and one of those portable chemical toilets after it's been sitting in the hot sun for several days. He'd have to call Ted from the Tenant's Association about the outcome of their last meeting. He almost wished that he had been there. They had really pressured him to join them in their campaign against the refuse reclamation operation.
“C'mon, Tom, you're the perfect person,” Ted Rainer, the association president, had pleaded.
“Yeah, Tom,” added Jill Benton, peering out through glasses whose lenses grotesquely magnified her mottled hazel eyes. “You're a lawyer. You can talk to the people from the government and make 'em understand how bad it is.”
“Yes…yes…well, I'd like to help,” he had stammered, “but I… I…just don't have the time right now.”
It was true. His caseload was quite heavy right now, and it would be hard for him to squeeze the extra time, but that wasn't the real reason. The fact was that he just wasn't a joiner. Besides, what did he know about it? People took it for granted, “Oh, you're a lawyer? Well, can you tell me about…my dog, my aunt, my boss, my doctor, my leg, my food, my car, my landlord, my fishing pole, my dump?” Tom laughed at his list. He was only a junior public defender. What did he know about dumps or dog food? Nevertheless, the stench from the refuse disposal site was getting more odious; there was certainly no doubt about that. Maybe he really should call Ted and find out how things were going.
The traffic report clicked on as he cut a swath through the lather on his right cheek. He listened for a moment to the banter of the deejay and the copter pilot. Reassured that there were no major pileups on the freeway, he walked briskly to the bedroom.
“…that although the bill had passed unanimously during last year's reelection campaign, a majority of the committee's members, after some aggressive lobbying from industry, reversed its vote and killed the bill. “
“Business as usual, I see,” Tom Jenkins observed cynically. “Somebody unhappy about something, I'll bet.” His hands dripping water and his face full of lather, he nudged the snooze alarm with an elbow and went back to the bathroom.
That sad, queasy sensation swept over him again as he gazed from the sink to the windowsill. A line of black writhed back and forth in random movement.
“Jeez! Where the hell did you come from?” he muttered.
He reached out instinctively with his hand to sweep the inch-thick line of ants into the sink. Then, thinking better of it, he grabbed a washcloth from the rack in the shower, soaked it in the tub faucet, and then went for them.
In a second or two he had cleared the windowsill. It was easy to spot the doomed vermin as they broke rank and scampered across the muted pink tile and the dusty rose calico of the wallpaper. As he rinsed the little, brittle, black bodies into the sink, he pondered whether it was more merciful to wash them down with hot water or cold water. If they were still alive, would the hot water scald them? Maybe, with cold water, they could survive in the pipes? The thought pleased him. He didn't necessarily want them dead ...he just wanted them out of his house!
“This is ridiculous, fellas!” he said, wiping the final remnants from the basin. “What the hell has gotten into them?” he wondered aloud as he rinsed the remaining lather from his face.
He was sitting on the side of bed putting on his left shoe when the radio sounded again:
“We're in your corner,” sang the jingle, “We're on your side...”
“Uh-huh,” Tom grunted sarcastically.
“We know what you need, and we make it with pride!” the chorus tittered.
“Well, this is what I need!” he said, reaching over and pushing the bar to silence the ad.
His liberal, socioeconomic sensibilities had been slightly appalled when these giant corporate conglomerates had first begun to advertise.
“Another fine product from your friends at 'Whateveritis'” or “Remember us? We're 'Whoeverweare!’
“Talk about 'antitrust,'“ he had quipped to George Sherman while watching an ad on security's little T.V. during a recess. “How can one company own tractors, chewing gum, textiles, sanitary napkins, canned fruit, plastic containers ...?”
By this time, however, he was no longer alarmed at their diversity; nevertheless, the absurd incongruities were still amusing. Pretty soon the whole country would be run by an oil company, a soft drink conglomerate, and an insurance company.
With his “Haveaniceday” coffee mug in his right hand and his suit coat draped over his left, he glanced at himself in the full length mirror on the back of the closet door. He was meeting with the department head to talk about a promotion, so he had dressed carefully. Some of the guys in the department were too casual… some were downright slovenly. If this promotion didn't come through, he had actually contemplated going over to the D.A.'s office. At least those fellows took their appearance seriously. He set the cup on the dresser and slipped on the coat. This was his blue Brooks Bros.; he had bought it two years ago and had used it only for special occasions like today. The coat hung well, and it still looked new.
With eyes closed slightly, he waggled his head back and forth at the neck, craning it forward and tipping it back. A little stiff, but not too bad. Stepping closer, he examined his face. Although he'd been careful, he did find a bit of dried shaving cream just behind his right ear. As he picked at the crusty, white flecks, he noticed that the hair around his ears was beginning to edge closer; it had only been two weeks since his last haircut, but it just might be time for another. Finally satisfied with his inspection, he picked up his coffee cup, flipped off the bedroom light, and walked down the narrow hall.
With his finger still on the hall light switch, he edged sideways into the kitchen; then, he flicked the hall light, pulled the door shut, and turned.
“H-O-O-O-L-L-Y-Y SHIT!” he sang out loudly.
The cup fell from his hand and bounced across the floor; the coffee splashed, but Tom barely noticed it. The entire kitchen was black. The light from the overhead kitchen lamp was muted, but the morning sun filtered through the drawn curtains. His first impulse was to turn and run; instead, he vaulted the window and threw the curtains open. Pulling away, he clapped his palms together and then examined them in the roseate light of the window.
Ants. Although legs and heads had been mashed together on his palms, the remains of the carcasses were identifiable, and some were still moving. One large black ant flailed his forelegs frantically in an apparent effort to drag his crushed body out of danger. His demonstrative antennae fluttered wildly in some secret ant semaphore. Feeling slightly nauseated, Tom wiped his palms on his suit pants.
Now the walls caught his attention. The kitchen was a writhing mass of ants. They were everywhere and on everything. The refrigerator and the stove, once white, were no longer distinguishable from what had been yellow walls and cabinets: Everything was black and moving.
Already, he could feel them on his legs and in his shoes. He kicked at the floor with his foot as if to cut a path through the ants, but to little effect. He ran to the window and tried to slam it closed. Instantly, his hands were again covered in the wriggling, tickling things. He felt them flooding up his sleeves. Thrashing furiously and beating at his arms, he sprang to the service porch and looked for a way to fight them off. The porch, if anything, was even deeper in ants. After a moment of heightened alarm, he grabbed a broom and a giant can of insect spray. Both objects were covered in ants.
Pulling the lid off the can, he aimed the nozzle at the windowsill, and holding it only a few inches from the ants, he sprayed.
At first, the mist blew a space in the advancing horde, and he actually saw a few of them swim for a moment and then stop moving. Instantly, however, the empty space was filled with new recruits. Rather than deterring them, the dead bodies merely served as steppingstones over the poison-drenched sill, and the monsters swarmed in by the thousands. Dropping the empty can, Tom Jenkins swatted at his neck and arms; and then, he brushed at his face with both hands as if washing with ant lather.
He grabbed at the black, ant-covered broom; whirling around, he swept at the floor in wild, exaggerated movements. He found that by brushing back and forth as rapidly as he was able, he could keep clear about a three-foot circle. If he could hold his own for just a minute, he reasoned, the ants would get wind of the danger and halt their advance. Now that he had overcome his initial shock, he entered the battle in earnest. He got a rhythm going.
One/two/three/four/five/six/strokes at the floor, then one/two at the cabinets. One/two/three/four/five/six—one/two—one/two/three/four/five/six—one/two! He gained confidence every moment; the ants were faltering. He increased his circle of unoccupied territory to nearly four feet, and one of the cupboard doors was nearly clear.
Stepping backward to increase his attack, he inadvertently placed his foot on the dropped coffee mug, and the jolt sent him sprawling. Instantly, he felt a terrible pain, and he realized that he had cracked his head against the corner of the stove. He felt the warm ooze at the side of his head, and he slumped to the floor.
NO! he screamed, but when he opened his mouth, he felt the dirty little things crawling allover his lips and tongue. He spat, “Phah! Phah!” and sealed his lips tightly. He could feel several of the ants wriggling between his lips as he crushed them closed.
Only half-conscious, he made feeble attempts to stop the ants' advance. Like the cup and the appliances, he was now completely submerged in the crawling sea of ants. As they poured into his ear canal, they made a sound like horses on sandpaper roller skates. He opened his eyes for an instant then blinked them closed, but it was too late. Ants streamed across his eyeballs, and the room grew dark. He tried blinking rapidly—he rubbed at his eyes with his fists—but the ants were too much.
His head throbbed mercilessly, and it felt sticky somewhere. One of the advance guard entered his left nostril; Jenkins snorted furiously, but more ants followed instantly. He could feel their progress: waving their little legs and antennae about, they lurched forward, tentatively, into his nasal passages. Breathing had become almost impossible. He snuffed, and then gagged as several ants were sucked up into his sinuses. He opened his mouth to gasp for breath and then involuntarily swallowed a mouthful of the crawling invaders.
No longer able to move, he felt them scurrying across his eyeballs, scrambling into his nose and down his throat, scrabbling deep into his ear. Then, through the sound of their continuous onslaught and his own stertorous breathing, he heard the click of the radio.
“Next up...an alarming report on honey-bees, but first….”
“We're in your corner,” sang the jingle, “We're on your si....”
©1985 Tim McMullen
All Rights Reserved