Archive

Tag Archives: Hallucination

I can’t actually tell you the inspiration for this story without giving too much about it away, or even tell you about which scene in ‘Total Recall’ (the one with Arnie, not the remake) made me want to write it. So instead, I’ll just give you the story. This was the one I named ‘The Patient’ but I thought this title was much more clever.

Keeping in Mind

By Ben Pienaar

 

Randall was unaware of the crazy man and his spying eyes until he actually showed up at his front door. Then he remembered the times he’d seen him all at once: begging on a corner in Paris while he was on his way to meet a friend – yelling gibberish on 31st street in New York – watching from across the road while he ate lunch in England. And now here he was, somehow standing on the front porch of his Florida mansion. He looked wild, dishevelled, but composed. He wasn’t railing about or shouting as Randall remembered him; he simply stood and smiled politely.

‘How did you get past security?’ Randall asked.

The man put out his hand, which was somehow clean unlike the rest of him. ‘My name is Dr. Pence, and there was no security.’

Randall didn’t shake the madman’s hand, and eventually he dropped it.

‘I hate to barge in like this, but you and I have some important things to discuss. It’s about your health.’

‘My health?’ Randall said, wondering whether the man would wonder away or get agitated if he slammed the door in his face. Where the hell was security, anyway?

‘Yes. I’m afraid it’s quite serious, and you might need to be sitting down. Is it alright if I come in?’ He stepped forward, as if to push his way inside, and Randall swung the door shut in his face. He realised his heart was beating fast, as fast as if he’d just been in a fight, and he didn’t know why. He went into the kitchen and picked up the phone, dialling 001. There was no answer. That was not good. What had he done to the security? They had guns, for god’s sake, what could he possibly have done? He dialled 911, and this time there was an answer.

‘Operator, what is your emergency?’

‘I’d like police, please. A man has broken into my property and somehow incapacitated my security. Please hurry.’

‘What is your address, sir?’

‘I’m Randall Gaits, you know my address, and if you want there to be a Born Wild 2, you better hurry.’ He hung up.

He realised that he’d been overly dramatic just for an odd man at his front door, but something in him knew he was in danger. That man’s eyes… He shook his head. Better embarrassed than dead, anyway.

He left the kitchen, meaning to go up to his second floor office where he kept his magnum, and froze at the foot of the stairs. The man who called himself a doctor was standing halfway up, his hands behind his back and a polite smile on his face. If his looks weren’t clean cut, his manner certainly was.

‘H… How did you get here?’ The man was doing nothing but standing, yet Randall felt as though he were in extreme danger. This man, he thought madly to himself, was death. And how in God’s name had he done that? Just how had he got from the front door to the stairway in perfect silence in under a minute?

‘That too, I shall explain if you’d only give me half a chance. Please, Mr. Gaits, I only want to talk.’

There was real pleading in that voice, and something like sympathy also. Randall knew the police would be here soon, but would it be soon enough?

‘In my office,’ he said, relieved to hear that scratchy quality leaving his voice.

The man nodded and walked up the stairs. Randall followed him several paces behind, and found that the man – the ‘doctor’ – knew his way to the office just fine. He’d had his stalkers before, but this one was exceptionally more dangerous. This guy wasn’t going to settle for a shrine of photographs in his bedroom and a collection of autographs. This was the kind of crazy that might just kill them both rather than suffer rejection. He decided to humour him for a while.

There was only one chair in the office, and so the man stood a few feet back from the desk while Randall moved to sit behind it, keeping his eyes on the ‘doctor’ every step of the way. When he sat down in his familiar, comfortable brown chair, he pulled out his top desk drawer. He didn’t reach into it, but the magnum was there, fully loaded and ready if he needed it. While he spoke to the other man, he kept it in the corner of his eye.

‘So, Doctor. What is it you need to talk to me about? Are we meant to be together? Is my health going to suffer if I don’t dedicate a movie to you or something?’ Now that he was near his gun, he was confident again, but he still heard a shake in his voice that he didn’t like. It almost sounded hysterical.

The doctor was no longer smiling, but he wasn’t angry or shocked, either – he just looked concerned. Randall had a terrible urge to grab his gun and jump out of the window just to escape that look.

‘I don’t know how quite to begin this…’ Dr. Pence said. ‘It’s never been done before, and now that I’m here myself I can see how… real it all is. Convincing you will be difficult. All I can say, Mr. Gaits, is that your life depends on your understanding me. When I’m done, you can do anything you like and I won’t stop you. I urge only that you listen. Will you listen, Randall?’

‘Sure I’ll listen,’ Randall said, resting his right hand on his desk, near the top drawer. ‘I’ll listen to how you got in here, first.’

‘That…’ Dr. Pence said, chuckling, ‘is actually quite a difficult thing to explain by itself. But I will do my best. Alright.’ He took a deep breath, seemed to gather himself for some effort, and then went on. ‘You are not here in this room with me. You are actually somewhere else, in the ‘real’ world, though I admit you’ve done an incredible job on this one.’

‘Sure. Hey, thanks.’ Randall said. He looked at his watch. Now the Doctor did look shocked, and he realised the man had actually expected him to believe him.

He shook himself and continued. ‘To be exact, Randall, you spend most of your time in a padded room because your insane delusions have resulted in serious injuries. Both to yourself and to the staff at North Point Asylum.’

‘Uh, huh.’ He should have relaxed, now – this was just one of the rambling loonies and boy, he’d encountered them plenty of times – but somehow he couldn’t shake the idea that this one was different.

‘I am your primary psychologist, and I’ve been trying to bring you back to reality for quite some time. So far, no medication or treatment of any kind has worked.’

‘I see. Back to reality, huh? And where I am now…’

‘Is in your mind. This is simply the fantasy you are living out mentally. I can tell you everything about it if you like. You believe you are a famous movie star, and travel the world signing autographs for adoring fans. Occasionally these fans get violent and you have an… incident.’

‘Like right now, huh?’

The doctor nodded, sadly. ‘Yes. In fact, once you were imprisoned by a mad fan for nearly two days, isn’t that right? And he tied you to a table and shouted madness at you before you attacked him and broke free.’

That made Randall’s blood run cold. He remembered that, alright. It haunted his nightmares even now, the things that nutcase had said. Sometimes he couldn’t sleep at all, thinking of what might have happened if he hadn’t got out.

‘That man was a good friend of mine, and you broke his arm and bit off his right ear,’ the doctor said, and now there was a trace of anger in his voice, though he tried hard to conceal it. Randall’s hand tensed and moved closer to the top drawer.

‘He was trying to help you, and was the closest anyone’s come until now. You actually became aware of your surroundings, including the table you were bound to, and might have made further progress if you hadn’t escaped.’

‘You knew that nutcase? That explains a lot.’

‘Yes, well, I hope it does. Currently, Randall, you are strapped to that same table and I am in the room with you, speaking to you. When I came up to this office, I simply turned my back and walked to the corner of the room and that is where I am now. I cannot see your mansion, but I know all about it, because you’ve spoken many times, and my colleagues have all played parts in it. The police operator you spoke to a moment ago, for example, was the warden of this asylum, Mary Woollins. We discovered that the more familiar you became with us in the real world, the more we tended to appear in your hallucinations, and so we’ve been infiltrating your mind this way, for want of a better phrase.’

Randall smiled without an ounce of humour and looked down at his desk. He could smell the varnish on it, still. He rapped his knuckles on it and heard it, loud and clear. ‘That’s not real?’ he said. He took a deep breath of air, savouring it. ‘That’s not real?’

Dr. Pence watched him with that concerned look on his face and said nothing. Randall stared at him, and now he thought he did feel a little crazy. But not in the way the doctor suggested. Not in the same way the doctor was, either.

He took the gun out of the drawer and laid it on the desk. The doctor continued to stare at him, as if he didn’t care. It was entirely possible that he didn’t – it was possible that the man honestly believed what he was saying – probable, even. Randall had had loonies sincerely believe they were his soul mates, too, but that didn’t make it true.

‘So if this is all just happening in my head, and you’re not really in this house with me, then if I aim this here…’ he lifted the gun and pointed it at the doctor’s head, and he could have sworn the man flinched, then. ‘And pull the trigger, you’ll… what?’ Just keep standing there?’

‘What will happen to me is exactly what you’ll expect to happen,’ the doctor said. He still wasn’t certain, but Randall thought he could detect the fear in his voice now. Maybe he didn’t believe after all. ‘You’ll see me get shot, and I’ll drop to the floor and die, and you’ll be able to go on with your life.’

‘Oh? Okay, well doc, I’d have to say that sounds pretty good. Is there a reason I shouldn’t do this?’ He was sure he had the bastard then. He rested his finger on the trigger and paused, deliberately. Then the doctor said something he hadn’t expected.

‘If you pull that trigger, Mr. Gaits, you end your own life.’

‘What?’

‘You’re scheduled for a lobotomy in a month’s time. You’ve simply been too violent for the asylum to hold you for much longer. I’m your last chance, Randall.’ The doctor, Randall realised, had broken out into a cold sweat. He was holding his hands up, and they were shaking. He did not look, Randall thought, like someone who was totally sure that he couldn’t be harmed. He didn’t believe his own lies.

There was silence. The doctor, moving slowly and keeping his eyes fixed on Randall, reached into his jacket pocket with one hand and brought out a syringe. ‘This will help,’ he said.

‘Oh, really? How so, doc? And let me ask you one other thing. If I’m strapped to a bed, how come you don’t just step right up and inject me with it?’

‘It wouldn’t work if I did it. It’s a symbol, more than anything else. Essentially a placebo. You take it, and you’re admitting that this is all false and you want to escape, to come back to reality. That admission, that decision, is all you will need to make the first steps. After that we can help you. I’m here to lead you to the water, but I can’t make you drink, if you see what I mean.’

‘You calling me a horse?’ Randall smiled, but he found his mouth was dry. And why was he so terrified, he wondered? What was in the syringe?

The doctor stepped forward and he raised his gun, but he only leaned forward and laid the syringe on the desk. It was full of clear liquid. The doctor retreated back to the corner of his room. ‘The decision is yours,’ he said.

Randall looked from the syringe on his left to the gun on his right and shook his head. Somewhere far away he heard the first police sirens, and thought it was about goddam time, but still he didn’t feel safe. He was threatened by this man, deeply threatened. It occurred to him that the only crime he’d committed was breaking and entering, and that no one but him could possibly see how dangerous he was. This man wasn’t going to give up – he’d be back. Maybe next time he’d be a little more… persuasive.

‘Tell me something, doctor Pence,’ he said. ‘What am I in your “real world”?’

‘You’re a good man,’ the doctor said. ‘You used to work as a teacher. You had a wife.’

‘A good man,’ Randall repeated, nodding. Then he raised his gun, saw the doctor’s eyes widen in terror in the moment of hesitation, and fired.

The bang was loud and satisfying and Randall thought later that no one was ever going to tell him that wasn’t real. No one was ever going to tell him the blood he saw pouring out of the madman’s throat wasn’t real, or the choking sounds he made when he went down. No one was going to tell him the smell of gun smoke wasn’t goddamned real.

He took the time to put the syringe back in the man’s hand. Bingo, he thought, self defence. And who cared if there was nothing harmful in the thing – anyone could see how you’d want to shoot a madman waving a syringe at you, after all.

The sirens were right in his front drive, now, right on time. He kicked his chair over to make it look like he’d rushed behind the desk, and then he went to crouch in the corner with the gun. He conjured the best expression of remorse and terror that he could (and he was a good actor, after all).

Not that any of it would matter, in the end. He was Randall Gaits, famous movie star, multi-millionaire and philanthropist. He’d given twenty million to various charities and entertained the world with his movies – who was going to look too close?

The front door opened and Randall assumed his position. Behind the yelling of the swat teams and media helicopter outside, he thought he heard someone laughing. A very unstable laugh, that sounded, and it was accompanied by other voices, crying for assistance.

He shook his head and the voices disappeared. There was going to be a movie in this, he thought. Maybe a book, too, if he played it right. People were going to talk about him for months after this. He was going to make money, be famous. Randall smiled to himself and waited for the police to arrive.

This is based on a bizarre feeling I felt last week, while watching a movie. I began, inexplicably, to feel light headed, nauseous, and my heartbeat rose. I didn’t know what was causing it, and then I was reminded of a story my grandfather told me once, about a man who thought he had a snake in his belly and had died two days later despite having nothing wrong with him physically. What if it’s all in my mind, I thought? Rather than comforting me, it only made everything worse, because I, of all people, know what horrors my mind can imagine. If those horrors had any power, any impact on reality… Well, I was done for. Anyway, nothing came of it, obviously, but it was enough to get me to send my hobo of a muse on another trek.

 

Hypochondriac

 

By Ben Pienaar

 

As I write this, I crouch huddled in the corner of my spotless kitchen. I’m wearing gloves over hands that I’ve washed nearly twenty times today, and it’s only ten in the morning. By this point, it hardly matters. I can see my reflection in the tiles as clear as in a mirror. I look drawn, old. Most of all, I look very, very sick.

The truth is, I shouldn’t continue to write this, shouldn’t have even started it. I want people to understand what’s happened to me, and that I’m not crazy… I think.

A month ago, I was a doctor, and about as far from a ‘germ freak’ you could be: I’d had every bodily fluid imaginable on me, blood, excrement, urine, pus, vomit, you get the picture. I worked in intensive care, and so there was no shortage of horror. At first, everyone’s a little squeamish, but you have to learn to concentrate on the patient, and after a while it’s all just background stuff. Eventually you don’t think about it at all.

Recently, I turned forty, and decided I needed to relax, separate myself from the stress of work a little bit, so I opened my own clinic and started to treat patients in my own hours. A big change from the chaos of the hospital, and it was definitely a relief not to be called up at three in the morning after a twenty hour shift. I was enjoying it. Until, that is, I treated a woman named Ellen Ngona.

She entered my little white office at the back of the clinic, looking out of place and panicked. She was shivering, and had broken out into a cold sweat. I stood up immediately and told her to lie down on the bed, but she only shook her head. She was almost as tall as me, and lanky, so that it looked like she was on the brink of falling over all the time.

‘Doctor. I am a cursed woman,’ she told me.

I stood awkwardly in front of my desk and waited for her to go on.

‘In Africa, two weeks ago now, I saw my son talking to a man. This man, he was a witchdoctor, and he was going to take my son away. So I took him back, I screamed for help and my boyfriend came and helped me. The witchdoctor, he cursed us.’ She put a special emphasis on ‘cursed’, making it sound like ‘Kessed.’

‘I see,’ I said. From what I could tell, she had a fever of some sort, maybe gastro.

‘He said secret words to us, and the next day my boyfriend died straight away. The day after that, my son fell over and broke his skull, and then he died. I went to the witchdoctor, to ask him to bring them back, but he said no. He told me, “for you I put a snake in your belly, so it will take even longer for you to die.” And he… laughed.’ Here she put a hand up to her face and I was quite dismayed to see her in tears. Of course, if what she said was true it was entirely understandable. Murder, I could believe – curses, I could not, and so I vowed then and there to cure this poor woman’s illness as quickly as I could.

I put a hand on her shoulder and gave her my most reassuring expression. ‘I believe I can cure you, Ellen, and no curse of any kind has every stopped me before.’

The look of gratitude was instantaneous, tears forgotten. ‘Yes!’ she cried. ‘That is why I came to this country. In Africa, the hospitals are horrible, and if I wait too long there it will be too late. Here, I know, you have the machines, you can cut the snake out of my belly.’

I smiled uncertainly. I’ve treated the unstable and the superstitious before, many times. In my experience it’s always best to humour them. ‘Yes… We will do that but first we’ll have to run some tests to… make sure of exactly what to do.’

And that was what I did. I ran test after test on Ellen Ngona, first checking for the things I thought it was, then for the things I thought it wasn’t, and then anything at all. None of her symptoms seemed to fit with anything, really. Actually, there was a curious physical lack of symptoms, aside from the pains she claimed to have. After I’d gone through half a dozen different examinations, I found her to be completely healthy. Her temperature and blood pressure were both slightly higher than normal, but not by any serious stretch. Her heart rate was also up – from fear I suppose – and I couldn’t for the life of me determine the cause of the stomach pains she was having. In the end I gave her some mild pain killers, which she protested frantically.

‘You must cut the snake out!’ she said. In the end, she only left when I assured her that the pills were poison that would kill the snake. Luckily I hadn’t given her enough to overdose.

Two nights later, I got a call from a good friend of mine, Michael McHolland, who still worked in intensive care. I’d met with him for lunch the day before, as was our weekly custom, and mentioned Ellen, so he’d recognized her name when she was rushed into his operating room.

‘Nothing wrong with her, physically, you were right about that,’ he said over the phone. ‘She came to us because someone saw her staggering down the street with her entrails hanging out. She was practically tripping over them, trying to wrench them out at the same time. When they rolled her into the hospital, she was screaming “get it out, get it out”, over and over. Incredible, isn’t it? It’s the first time I’ve ever heard of an unwilling suicide, personally.’ He chuckled. Mike has always had a despicable sense of humour.

‘So she’s dead, then?’ I said, incredulous.

‘Yes. Sliced her belly open from hip to hip. Pierced the stomach and both large and small intestines. Not easy to come back from that sort of thing, you know.’

‘Yes,’ I said, feeling completely dazed. It was then that he said the thing that really drove it home to me. It was his simple observation that lay the seeds for my own horror. It is why, even now, my right hand writes while my left is scratching frantically, and why I’m trying to keep the damned paper away from my body so I don’t get any damned blood on it.

‘It’s incredible how the mind alone can destroy a person, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘I heard a story once, about a man who sincerely believed he was going to be struck down on his birthday, for who knows what reason, and when the day came, down he went. Heart attack. Truly incredible.’

I sat in deep thought for a long time after I put down the phone. It really was amazing, the way that worked, I thought. The way the mind had such power over the body, could make it strong or sabotage it, to the extent of death. I shook out of it after a few minutes and got back to work, and a patient or two later I’d stopped thinking of it. Notice, I didn’t say I’d forgotten it. I stopped thinking of it, yes, but it was there, in the back of my mind, burrowing and laying seeds.

A few days later, I treated an old man and found two melanomas on his back. I recommended he have them cut out as soon as possible, though they weren’t serious. The following night, I noticed something odd on my forearm. A freckle I’d had there my entire life had suddenly become darker, and a bit misshapen around the edges. I didn’t think much of it then. Paranoia, was all it was – a result of seeing the old man and worrying about myself.

When I woke the next morning, it was larger. There was a spot of red in the middle that hadn’t been there. The second I saw it I realised that it was a melanoma, and that it was growing faster than any that I’d ever heard of: usually it takes months even to notice the changes.

I skipped work and went straight to St. Andrew’s, where I’d worked the ICU, and as it happened it was Michael who was assigned the operation. After he cut it out, I told him, for the sake of his professional interest, how quickly it had come about.

‘Overnight, you say?’ he said, with a smile on his face. ‘You sure about that? You know that’s unheard of.’

I rolled my eyes. ‘You think I wouldn’t have noticed it, right there on my forearm?’

He seemed to think it was only bad luck, but the seeds were growing and I knew better. I’d caught it from the old man. I know, I know, and it’s true: melanomas are not contagious. But ideas are. The parasites of the mind are the worst kind. Trust me, I know.

After that, things began to accelerate. Now, I suppose I’d explain it by saying that, after Ellen, my ‘mental immune system’ broke down. It’s a ridiculous thought, of course, but that’s how I think of it. On Friday I treated a man complaining of fatigue and endless thirst; on Monday I had all the symptoms of diabetes. Luckily I have access to insulin. On Tuesday I treated a boy with a stomach bug and spent the remainder of that week struggling with the same thing, but in the end my immune system took care of it, barely.

After a while, I started to stall my patients. I’d let one leave and then just sit in the office, sweating and afraid, not wanting to let the next person in. What if they have something serious, I’d think. What if I get it, too? A woman would come in complaining of anxiety and my heart rate would double. A girl with a fever made me break out into a cold sweat (as soon as she left I checked my temperature and found it to be two degrees above normal). These things did not go away, unless I took the correct medications and treated myself the way I would if I actually had the diseases.

At last, I couldn’t deal with it any longer and I closed down the clinic. I wasn’t short on money, I told myself, and besides, I was more than deserving of a vacation.

I didn’t go on a holiday, though. Instead I stayed in my house, venturing out only to go to the shops or meet Michael for lunch. I told him about my worries, but of course he didn’t understand. ‘You’re telling me you’re sick, right now?’ he said.

‘No, not now. I was. I’ve been ok for a few days now, but I have diabetes.’

‘That’s why the water today?’

‘Yes. It acts up when I… well when I think about it. Which is usually when I eat food that diabetics shouldn’t eat.’ I knew I sounded mad already, but I needed a rational mind desperately – I no longer trusted my own.

‘You need to see a psychiatrist, John.’

‘I was looking for a second medical opinion, actually,’ I said.

He cut a fresh slice of his steak and put it into his mouth. Mike had always loved his steak rare and the blood was pouring out of it. Some of the veins twisting through the fat were still purple. I thought, salmonella, and then shut my eyes tight in a grimace because I realised that in that instant I’d just contracted it.

‘A medical opinion? You want me to look you over?’ he said, his mouth full of meat.

I shook my head. ‘No need for that. I’ve done the tests myself. I know when I’m sick. I just wanted to know if… If you had any ideas.’ What I really wanted, to be honest, was for him to prescribe me a placebo. Just sugar pills or something, and tell me that it cured what I had. I couldn’t actually ask him for that, however, because if I knew they weren’t real medications they wouldn’t work.

‘I don’t really have any,’ he said apologetically. ‘I’m sorry, but I really think it’s a mind thing. You need a psychiatrist, my friend.’ He spoke with his usual light heartedness, but I sensed the concern in his voice.

I considered it, but very soon after that day I was in no position to see anybody. I had salmonella, for one thing, as well as half a dozen other horrific things I’d accidentally thought of. At this stage it was taking everything I had to keep my mind on anything that wasn’t medicine. I spent all my time ridding my house of everything that might be harmful. The first things to go were my medical journals. If I even glanced the name of a disease I was sure to get it in a matter of hours, and I couldn’t take the risk.

After I started showing symptoms of several allergies, I began to cleanse my entire house from top to bottom. I threw out huge volumes of things I deemed too dirty. I dusted everything, had the place fumigated, shined, and I polished every surface.

It wasn’t enough. My body was vulnerable. If I touched anything at all, my mind would start listing possible allergic reactions, or infections, and if I didn’t wash my hands or shower immediately I’d begin to suffer the very things I feared.

It’s a peculiar thing, this hypochondria. You know it’s all in your mind, but you also know that your mind is capable of making your fears a reality. So you think to yourself: my heart’s beating a bit faster than usual, I’m sure I don’t have anything serious, but what if, by thinking about it now, my mind is making it beat faster. If I don’t stop panicking now, I might faint, I might blow blood vessels in my brain. You get scared, and your pulse rises evermore, and you think, damn!, it’s happening. My mind is making it worse. I have to stop thinking about it now! Only you can’t, and that’s the horror of it. And it worsens, and the next thing you know you’re having a heart attack.

I cleared most of my illnesses a week ago. I waited them out, I took the right medications, and I meditated the thoughts out of my head as best I could. (And that is no mean feat, believe me). The place was spotless, furniture covered by plastic and every surface disinfected a hundred times, including my own skin. Hospitals look like sewers compared to this sterile place.

I might have taken to drinking, but I was afraid: my diabetes might worsen, or I might become an instant alcoholic, or the first sip might cause alcohol poisoning. Any of these things could happen, because they were in my mind.

I made my visit to the psychiatrist three days ago. He was a highly regarded man, so Mike told me, and when I walked into his office, I admit he looked respectable. There were plenty of certificates and awards on the walls, and he had a professional, minimalist setup, complete with the soft couch in one corner. He was a friendly looking man with fuzzy grey hair and a wide smile. He came around the desk to shake my hand. ‘Dr. Vandenberg, nice to meet you. Why don’t you take a seat?’ he said.

I sat, and then, before he asked, I told him everything. I’d contracted at least four different diseases on the way to his office, and I was damned well going to make the most of my time. If he helped, I might never have to treat the osteoporosis now eating its way through my wrists and ankles, or the cirrhosis that would soon overcome my liver. A long silence followed the conclusion of my story, in which he sat in his chair, notebook in his lap, both hands steepled in front of his face.

After a pause, he said slowly: ‘It is a very interesting story, if you don’t mind me saying so, Mr. Collins. In these sorts of… phobia related cases, hypochondria and suchlike, I lean towards a shock therapy approach. For phobias especially, I like to expose the patient to steadily more and more of whatever they’re afraid of. That doesn’t quite fit your case, however, and I think you’re especially sensitive.’ He paused, considering. ‘This is what I suggest. Take your mind off it. Go easy on whatever medications you’re taking, as well. What interests you? Besides medicine, of course.’

‘Travel,’ I said, truthfully. ‘Biology.’

‘Alright then. Read up on them, do some hobby research, if you like. Or start something new. Immerse yourself in a distraction. I think that when you’ve done that for a day or two you’ll realise that you’ve forgotten your “symptoms” and as a result they’ll fade away. I hope that will give you the strength to throw this thing for good.’

He wasn’t wrong, I’ll say that much for the man. I have a bookshelf full of National Geographics, travel novels and similar things, and when I came home from his office I began to read. I sat in my spotless study and scanned page after page until I had a splitting headache (I thought migraine, and it happened a minute later. Thank God I’ve been able to resist that thought since.)

When it faded, though, I realised several of my other symptoms had receded also, and I dove back into the literature before they could return.

Today, I began reading a long chapter on Amazonian insects, of all things. I was finding it fascinating, until I realised that at some point the chapter on insects had become one about parasites, and then the real hell began.

There is a parasite, you see, which lives in the rivers of the amazon, and has been known to infect people. It gets under the skin and multiplies, and travels, and multiplies some more. It is fatal, but not because of any of the usual reasons. It doesn’t cause deadly infections, or wounds, or serious physical damage. It’s the itch. The people who have been contaminated with this evil worm tend to die by suicide. Because the itching of the worms beneath their skin is constant and all encompassing, and there is no cure.

I dropped the book the moment I read that and stood up. My heart, already pumping from my new nervous disorder, pumped harder. I came straight to the kitchen to make myself a hot cup of tea and think of something else, forget what I’d just read as quickly as possible. I seized the nearest thriller novel and read the first ten pages in a frenzy. I can’t for the life of me remember what any of it was about, because that was when I felt the itch.

I settled down on the floor, my back against the refrigerator, and continued to read, focusing every ounce of my concentration on that book, and never have I concentrated so hard on a piece of paper in my life. Fiction, I thought, why the bloody hell hadn’t I been reading fiction the whole time?

It did not save me, then. As I read, I saw the letters on the page begin to move. The es uncurled and the ts uncrossed. They all turned into slippery, slithering esses, and they wormed their way down the page and into my fingers before I could drop the book. Most of them made it into me, by slithering under my nails and into the skin.

I screamed and stood up, tearing at my clothes and hair and skin, but it was no use. They were in me, now. The itch I’d felt a moment before had been only a premonition – this was the real thing.

No, this is the real thing. It’s not the worst it can be, yet, but it’s getting there. If I look closely, I can see the tiny letters squirming over and under the little veins in my arm. I can feel them in the space between my skin and my bones and GOD, it ITCHES. They haven’t even reached my waist, or my neck, yet, but Jesus. I want to peel myself like an apple and tear the wiggling worms from my exposed meat, just for the blessed relief it would bring. The only thing keeping my hands from scratching every inch of skin off my body is writing on this page. I won’t be able to bear it for long. though. When they reach the place behind my eyes – when I can literally see them crawl across my vision, then I think I’ll go mad. That’s when I’ll lose control for good.

In one sense, the good doctor was right: I’m not thinking of all those other diseases any more. They’re nothing compared to this, they don’t exist to me anymore. All I can think of is this godforsaken itch. ITCH ITCH ITCH ITCH! I must keep typing or else I’ll die, I’ll fall apart.

I’m thinking of the knives in my kitchen drawer, how good it would feel to scratch with them. It would feel amazing. Maybe I could even use them to pry out some of the worms. Maybe if I was careful, and I’m a doctor after all, I could pry out each and every one of the bastards, keep the wounds clean, get rid of all of them and stomp them into the tiles. I could live, still, suicide won’t be the answer for me! ITCH JESUS!

They’ve reached the bottoms of my legs now and I feel them in my NECK!

It’s all in my mind, all in my mind. I must keep writing or I’ll THEY’RE IN MY CHEEKS, CRAWLING. No, they’re gone. I have to focus.

I’ll scratch the skin off my face and then where will they go? Anywhere else but my face. I just saw two of them slime across my eyeballs. Black squiggly shadows crawling right across my vision. There’s more. I think I’m going blind. If I do, I won’t be able to see what I’m writing. I wont’ be able to concentrate. I’ll hav3 to start scratching, and scratching.

God please I hope no one reads this and gets what I have. I hope no one ever see sthis. They’re Under smy skIN HELP ME I CANT I CNT KEEP WROTPNG THEYRE IN MY BRAIN ITCH ITCH ITHC ITCH IT

%d bloggers like this: