Monday, October 31, 2016

Ear.

[As noted yesterday, I was challenged to write a story for Halloween in 1,000 words or less.
Here you go. --Fred]



"Objective"


By Frederick Key


Dr. Awler picked up the phone to call Dr. Jacoby, a fellow ENT, then put it down again.

He would not make that call, although he wanted to desperately.

Awler was shaken. Three terrible things had occurred on one pleasant afternoon. Each was worse than the last.

Talking to the police about the dead woman was the least of the terrible things.

***

She was a normal young woman, seeming to be in good health, although signs of exhaustion were obvious—pallid complexion, tired eyes. Her clothes looked loose on her. She was slumped forward on the table, her arms wrapped around her like she was in an invisible straitjacket. First glance showed an attractive redhead; second, a very fatigued and possibly ill young lady.

Awler pulled himself up and glanced at the clipboard. Kathleen Smyth, 27, new patient. Hearing things.

“Hello, Kathleen,” he said, “I’m Dr. Carl. How are you today?”

Her weary and gray face was a stark contrast to the blue and sunny sky outside the window next to her. “Can you help me, doctor?” she said in a weak, hoarse voice.

“I’d like to try,” said Awler. He’d had patients in the past with undiagnosed problems like thyroid or autoimmune diseases that caused their hearing problems; he looked for signs of such illnesses in her face, considering tests that might be helpful. He’d also had patients who suffered auditory hallucinations---awful cases. Either situation could account for her exhaustion. “My nurse says you’re hearing things.”

“Yes,” Kathleen, her voice even weaker. “A constant sound. For months. It’s crushing me.”

“All right,” he said. “I see you answered some questions here and had some quick tests. Shall we have a look at the ear?”

“Could you—can you hear what I’m hearing?”

The question caused Awler to hesitate for a second. Then he said, “It’s unlikely. Most of the time people who come to me because they hear things have tinnitus, and that’s nearly always what is known as subjective tinnitus. That’s often caused by hearing loss, nerve damage, and other unfortunately common problems. The sound is not actually audible to anyone else. Now, in very few cases there is what is known as objective tinnitus, in which case the sound is caused by vascular problems or the like, sometimes pulsing in rhythm with the heart. Those cause an actual sound that can be perceived by others with a stethoscope. But as I say, that’s pretty unusual.”

“Could you try?”

“Well, Kathleen, I expect that we’ll find out exactly what the problem is as we go.”

“Please,” she said. “Use your stethoscope on this ear and tell me if you can hear anything.”

Awler disliked humoring patients who might be delusional. Nothing you could tell them was really helpful or appropriate. But she looked so miserable, too weak to be a danger to anyone. He put on the stethoscope held it up to her left ear.

And was struck by the second-worst thing that would happen to him that day.

***

Awler, trembling in the hall outside the examination room, tried to think of someone he could call. His nurse was busy with the next patient. No, he needed another doctor. There was one downstairs, that DO; or should he bring in an audiologist? Sweat ran down past his eye, and his breath came in short gasps.

He’d heard what he’d heard. He didn't say it, but she’d seen it on his face. He got the otoscope and, shaking, looked in her ear to see if there was some small bit of technology causing the sound, some grain-size receiver, but there was nothing. Now what was he supposed to do?

You’re next, Kathy. 

That was the whisper coming from her ear. Over and over.

You’re next, Kathy. You’re next, Kathy. You’re next, Kathy.

He excused himself from the room, stammering, so he could pull himself together.

An X-ray. That was it. There had to be something in that young woman’s head that was causing that sound. Some tiny speaker of some minuscule design. He would get her X-rayed and they would find it. Someone was trying to make this girl crazy. They’d find the device and they’d find out who put it there.

He opened the door, which glided open easily. A waft of air greeted him. Then the sound of horns on the street below. “Kathleen, what I’d—”

The window was open.

The girl was gone.

***

Awler sat in his condo, thinking. He’d tried to tell the police. He’d asked to speak to the medical examiner. He said something was wrong with the girl. She was hearing things. They nodded, of course, a crazy woman taking a header out a four-story window, sad, happened a lot.

No, he wanted to say. She wasn’t crazy. I heard it too.

But he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

They would not let him near her. She was beyond the help of a doctor, they said, but when the ambulance arrived they acted like she might be saved. She couldn’t be. He knew that from twenty feet away, but he wanted to get close to her. To listen to her ear again. But they kept him away. Maybe thought he'd thrown her out the window.

He asked again, please have the examiner call him. He knew they would do an autopsy for a suicide. But whatever was there, in her ear, in her skull, was so tiny, it would easily be missed. They had to know what to look for. He gave his card to the detective, wrote his personal cell number on the back.

They nodded again, sad, told him it wasn’t his fault, he wasn’t a shrink.

Awler sighed. He finished his drink. How could he sleep now?

He sat back in his chair, exhausted. Switched off the lamp.

Then he heard it.

You’re next, Carl. You’re next, Carl. You’re next, Carl…
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