‘All In Your Head’
by Troy Blackford
The methodical desk attendant, Candice, pointed out the last set of lines on the form. “And if you could just initial here, and here?”
A half-smile creased Mike Ballantine’s face as scrawled his name. “Relinquishing the right to be upset if you accidentally kill me, right?”
“A routine otolaryngological exam is seldom fatal, Mr. Ballantine,” Candice laughed.
“I’d need a semester of studying just to learn to pronounce that word.”
Mike took a seat and waited to hear his name. Soon, he was ushered through a well-lit hallway by a young lady, gold letters on her plastic nametag reading ‘Cheri.’ Cheri led him into a room and bade him take a seat in what looked like a dentist’s chair without the folding light arm.
Mike waited, tapping his foot to an anxious rhythm. He had never had his nose examined, and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. He settled in, but then came a trio of quick raps on the heavy door, and the handle turned.
“Hello,” said a tall woman, who strode with a clipboard, already speaking as she entered the room. She reached for Mike’s hand to shake. “My name is Dr. Trefusis.” She spoke in a practiced rush, friendly and personable but obviously wanting to keep things moving.
“Hello there,” Mike said. To his ears, his voice had an unnatural, radio announcer-like cadence. Trefusis poured over her notes. “I see you're concerned you have a deviated septum.”
“I think I might,” Mike said. He had to sound natural. This wasn’t going to work if he messed things up.
“Well,” replied the doctor. She unwrapped a sterile speculum and snapped it on her otoscope. Mike recognized the instrument--it was the thing doctors used to peer into ear canals and up nostrils. “Let’s take a look.”
It wouldn’t be enough for Mike's purposes. The magnification on the thing in Trefusis’s hand looked like it maxed out at only eight diopters. Still, it was a start. His hand absently went to his pocket, feeling for his smartphone through his pant fabric.
Soon. He pushed the anticipation away. He needed to stay focused on navigating the present.
“I can tell you right now,” the doctor said, leaning back and snapping the cap from the otoscope, “Your nasal passages have definitely been damaged. Particularly on the right.” She popped the disposable specula into the biowaste bin and began attaching a nozzle to a separate device. “Have you been in a car accident or a fight recently?”
Mike looked sheepishly back, saying nothing.
She smiled at him. “I see. We get our fair share of folks with broken noses, from all sorts of mishaps. Don’t feel embarrassed.”
Mike sighed. “Well, it is pretty embarrassing. It was a fight, all right,” Mike lied. “Between two people I don’t know. I happened to be walking by. One of them ducked, and I got hit.” He didn’t dare tell her the truth: that he had slammed his own nose in a door at a very careful angle, all for a chance to get just a little bit past the point he was at now.
“That is a very unfortunate accident, Mr. Ballantine,” said the doctor, smiling as if to show ‘What a crazy world, eh?’ Mike made a conscious effort to stop fingering the phone in his pocket. “We’re definitely going to need to use the big scope to scout out the extent of the damage.”
Dr. Trefusis gave him a spray of local anesthetic. The medicine dripped down his throat, a taste halfway between air freshener and mouthwash. Mike could already feel his nostrils numbing.
“Okay,” Trefusis said. “I’m going to give that a few minutes to kick in. In the meantime, I’ll have Cheri wheel in the scope.”
Trefusis smiled reassuringly, and left the room. At once, Mike pulled the phone out of his pocket. He felt a twinge inside his head.
“Even with the anesthetic?” he moaned. He wanted to be done with this. The strange pressure in his head intensified.
“I hope it was worth it,” said Mike, seemingly to the walls themselves, “because you’re going to find out that--”
Three more raps sounded on the door, and it opened. Cheri walked in, pulling the endoscope in on a bulky cart. That was faster than Mike had expected. He put his phone back in his pocket, trying not to scowl. He didn’t even have a chance to check on his plan.
“Dr. Trefusis will be back in shortly. Are you going to be okay for a moment?”
Everyone there asked that every time they left the room for twenty seconds. He nodded in assent. Cheri shut the door behind her.
Mike knew the doctor would soon be back, that his time was running short. He bounded up from his chair and wheeled the heavy biowaste disposal bins in front of the door. He placed everything movable he found inside the cabinets into a pile in front of the door, then wheeled the endoscope over and wedged it in the front. Mike scowled at his makeshift barricade: it wouldn’t hold up for long. Better move fast.
He turned to the endoscope. There was a tube of lubricant gel on the cart, just as his studies had said there would be. He flipped the cap open and squirted a liberal amount onto his fingers. He greased up the thin, snaking cable of the scope, and wondered if he weren’t overdoing it with the gel. Better to overdo than underdo, he reasoned.
“Showtime,” he said in a hushed but resolute voice.
Mike stood awkwardly before the cart, hunched over so he could still see the scope’s output onscreen. He worked the thin tube up his right nostril. Dr. Trefusis had been right: even with the anesthetic spray and lubricating gel, this felt strange. If a stranger had been doing this to him in an alley, he’d be yelling for the cops.
Mike frowned at the screen; the readout was completely blank. “Duh,” he thought disdainfully, reaching up and flipping the switch marked ‘light.’ A pink and palpitating image filled the screen. He slid the tube further up his nostril, like a chimpanzee termite fishing with a stalk of grass. Mike cringed, wincing as the uncomfortable, tickling pressure in his skull worsened.
He slid in deeper, grimacing at the sight of his nose hairs magnified to unnatural size. “Not exactly the most charming job,” he remarked aloud. No wonder otolaryngologists got paid good money: not only was their job hard to pronounce, but it was also disgusting. As if in answer to this thought, a shrill voice flared up inside his skull.
“You might be able to find us, but you’ll never get rid of us.”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Mike yelled, his voice coming in a crescendo, dangerously close to arousing attention. Time was already running short for Mike; he didn’t need to set off anybody’s warning bells.
He lowered his voice to a breathy, menacing whisper. “Talk all you want, you little bastards. I’m coming for you.”
He grit his teeth with discomfort and slid the scope further up his nose. A series of small, evenly spaced dots appeared on the screen. Dots that writhed like bugs, that squirmed like worms. Mike frowned, and reached for the magnification dial on the cart. Then he heard the sound he dreaded: three loud raps on the door.
“Just a second,” he called, feeling foolish but not knowing what else to do.
“Mr. Ballantine?” Trefusis’s voice.
“Sorry, but could you come back in a minute?” he called through the door.
“You’re a fool, Mike,” came a chorus of small voices inside his skull.
“Shut up!” Mike screamed, forgetting to lower his voice for the benefit of the doctor outside. He twisted the knob, and the set of dots on the screen grew in size and then vanished off the side of the monitor. He cursed, and slid the little joystick to center the image. He rocketed past his goal, sending an indistinct blur of dark blobs flying past the viewfinder.
“God dammit!” he cursed, then reversed his trajectory. Despite his increased fury, he forced himself to use more delicate movements on the joystick. In the meantime, the sounds at the door had stopped. Trefusis had gone to fetch security. Dealing with insane patients was apparently beneath her pay grade.
The thing Mike had been looking for appeared squarely on the screen, in vivid focus. He gasped. His hand dropped from the endoscope tube he had forced up his own nose. He thought he had prepared himself for this, but the actual sight was worse than a million fears.
A crawling emptiness, somehow visible. A tiny amphitheater of small, furry voices. Hateful voices. He had felt it inside him for weeks, and now he could see it. The things on the screen looked small, but the chorus of their voices, linked in stumbling unison, resonated through his head with skull-splitting volume.
He stood there, gasping like a fish out of water. He felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. He didn’t need to look. His plan had went through. The recorded message had been played. An emergency light and klaxon system activated, the harsh siren coming in pulsing sync with the flashing lights.
An almost immediate reaction. “That should keep them away for a while,” he said. He wanted to believe it.
The building intercom urged everyone inside the six-story structure to head to the parking lot. The calm voice told everybody “This is not a drill.” This reasonable voice didn’t mention there had been a bomb threat, but the fire alarms were on a different system, and there clearly wasn’t a tornado.
A set of voices filled Mike’s ears, ricocheting around his head like a bullet around a meat locker. Onscreen, the fuzzy holes jeered. “Now what, big boy? You found us. What are you going to do? Look us to death?”
“Screw you!” Mike yelled. The biowaste cart fell over, pushed by a security guard forcing his way inside.
“Sir?” called the guard at the door. “We need to evacuate now.”
Mike scowled at the sick images on the screen. The things inside his head leered at him, their wide, grinning maws filled with gnashing teeth. “What are you going to do? Look us to death?”
“That’s just what I’ll do!” Mike said.
“Mr. Ballantine!” the security guard called, pushing the door inward. The medical supplies he had piled in front of the door toppled over. The door, however, opened only a matter of inches.
“You little bastards!” Mike cried, working the joystick and making the articulated scope squirm deep inside his skull. He pushed the scope ever deeper, ignoring the pain and focusing only on the hateful images on the screen.
“What are you going to do? Look us to--” crowed the smirking voices.
“Die!” Mike cried, jamming the scope further.
The voices cut off. Mike dropped to the floor.
* * *
“Why would he do it?” Cheri said. She twisted her hands together anxiously. Trefusis stood near Mike’s body, waiting for the crews to come document his death and haul away his corpse.
Doctor Evelyn Trefusis shook her head. “You can’t always understand the motives of the mentally unwell.”
Cheri shuddered. “Why bring us into it, though? Our equipment?”
“I have no idea.”
Cheri shook her head. Doctor Trefusis began to leave.
“Nanny whiney boo hoo, you bothersome bitch,” called a quiet but forceful voice.
“What?” Cheri asked, her tone tentative.
Doctor Trefusis turned around, grabbed the door. “I didn’t say anything.”
Cheri shook her head. “No, no, of course not.”
“Of course not, you simple idiot,” came the mocking voices. A hateful, cruel, high-pitched--yet sonorous--set of voices. Almost like a choir of voices.
“I think I better lie down,” Cheri said.
“Go ahead and go home. We’re closing for the day. A fake bomb threat? A crazy person killing themselves in our office, with our equipment? People will be willing to reschedule. Hopefully, at least some of them will even reschedule at our clinic. Go ahead and go home.”
“You probably should, you dog-faced hooker,” said a cruel band of voices from deep inside Cheri’s skull. “Spare everybody the burden of looking at you. Make sure you shut the blinds.”
“I probably should,” Cheri agreed, holding her forehead as though she felt a headache coming on. “I probably should.”