Cleanliness is next to godliness.
It was Patrick’s motto, emblazoned on a plaque over the mirror in his bathroom. He saw it at least 6 times a day – twice when he showered, cleaning his ears and fingernails religiously; twice when he brushed his teeth, and at least twice more when he washed his hands and feet.
Not that he ever handled anything with his bare hands. That was gross. But so was the feeling of his own sweat inside the disposable nitrile gloves he wore whenever he had to touch anything. He worked from his apartment on the 21st floor, buying and selling art and old books online. Nobody came to his door except the grocery delivery boy on Wednesday at 3pm and an Asian prostitute named Mae Cho, every other Friday.
He wouldn’t touch her either, but for $150, she would sit on a stool in the corner in just her heels and talk to him in Mandarin for an hour. It was as close as he would ever get to travelling and as soon as she left, he would Lysol the holy hell out of the stool which was bolted to the floor inside a 20” circle of masking tape.
He didn’t want that thing touching anything else he owned.
One day Patrick awoke with a dull pain and a sharp ringing in his right ear but despite cleaning it carefully with a Q-tip, it remained sore and tender the whole rest of the day. By evening the pain had increased and he noticed it was beginning to swell. The next morning he discovered his ear canal was swelled shut and he was effectively deaf on that side, but for a sharp and constant ringing.
By noon he had given up trying to work. His ear was bright red and leaking pus and the ringing was so loud it blotted out sound from his left ear. Additionally he was beginning to experience vertigo. Still he refused even the thought of a doctor.
‘Those places are full of sick people and germs and degenerates wearing sweat pants who don’t wash their groins,’ he thought, ‘If I go into a place like that, I’ll likely get hepatitis or Clamydia.’
Instead he took some Advil and laid down, hoping it would right itself after some rest. But the next morning he woke to find the whole side of his head ballooned out and looking like an antique leather football helmet. “Oh god no,” he mumbled to himself, crawling out of bed and stumbling to the bathroom sink.
His ear was now a vague shape on the side of the bulging, throbbing, red mass that roughly described the right half of his head. From the pinhole that was once his ear hole, Patrick saw a black, oily mess oozing out intermittently whenever the relentless noise changed slightly. His head was pounding on top of it all.
It was so disgusting it nearly made him vomit and he tried mopping it up with a mass of toilet paper but it just kept oozing out and the whole mass was so very tender. Finally he took a Q-tip and tried carefully cleaning around the area and it was at that moment when Patrick heard a sudden scraping noise inside his head. It was followed by a gripping rush of pain and he screamed and the Q-tip slipped and he jammed it into his swollen, oozing ear canal and the whole side of Patrick’s head promptly exploded.
It just let go like a popped water balloon as an abscess the size of a grapefruit burst and poured a liter of warm, black, tarry fluid all over his shoulder, drenching his silk pyjama top but it didn’t much matter to Patrick because the pain, the terror, the scraping and all the rest of it was just too overwhelming and he dropped like a rock onto the floor of the bathroom, where he lay unconscious for the next nine hours, as his ear leaked blood and a molasses-like pus on to the sparkling white ceramic tiles.
Patrick crawled slowly across the floor of his bathroom, slipping occasionally in the puddle of his own excreted fluids. His bladder had also let go at some point, so there was an additional aroma mingling in the bouquet that hung low along the floor. His head was a throbbing, aching, excruciating mess as he crawled, gingerly and shaking, toward the shower.
He had been awakened by scraping. A sharp clawing sound, like an excavator bucket dragging across rock. It was coming from both ears now, and it was all he could hear.
“No more,” he said, and may have yelled, the words getting lost in the deafening, scraping noise, “No more pain. Please.”
He slid open the shower door and dragged his body inside, collapsing over the drain for a few minutes and holding his head. The pain was getting worse. And to add to it all now, his guts hurt too. He took a shallow breath and propped himself up enough to yank on the hot water and then he slumped back down and lay there with the door open as it cascaded, scalding, down on him in his black and red stained pyjamas.
And he passed out again.
It was 3 hours before he woke up. There was no sound. No sound from the outside. Not even any more scraping but he could feel the throbbing of his head on both sides. He slowly peeled his filthy sleepwear off, leaving it on the floor of the running shower and crawled naked out through the lake of tepid water that had spilled out across the tiles to pull himself up in front of the mirror.
His head was a gruesome sight. The whole right side looked like a frozen roast that had been gnawed on by a terrier. The ear and most of the skin was gone, with bits of hamburgerish flesh and cartilage and even some of his skull visible. And now, sadly, his left ear was swollen shut and seemed just as bad as the right one had been – right before it had burst.
He didn’t dare touch it. It hurt so much. Instead he turned his head and stared out of the corner of his eye as best he could at what remained of the right side of his face. He was trying hard to focus on the spot where his ear had been when he saw something move.
Holding a flap of skin back, he squinted and stared into the mirror and tried to decide what he was seeing. It looked like some kind of whitish bony structure in the center, where he supposed his inner ear should have been. He was staring curiously at the spot when abruptly it began to move.
Whether it was the shock of seeing the claw or the sudden incredible pain or the scraping sound, he wasn’t sure, but Patrick gasped suddenly and violently. He wanted to clutch the side of his head yet feared touching the spot where he had just seen the little claw move.
“What the great jesus –” he said, still not hearing his own voice.
As the pain and the scraping sound slowly subsided, he was able once again to stand in front of the mirror and peer into the meaty hole in the side of his head. He swept back the flap of skin and once again, he saw it move.
There was something in there. Something with a bony white claw. And as he leaned in closer to the mirror for a better look and a little syrupy pus dribbled out, he began to make out two beady little eyes from the darkness of the hole in his head. And they stared right back at him.
“Oh jesus no,” he whimpered, “Oh god, oh god, oh fucking christ!”
And then it began to move around in there and the scraping and the terrible pain started again and his skull was wracked with jack-hammering, vibrating, bone-drilling pain and in desperation he grasped the sides of his head as he fell to the floor and that was when the abscess in the other ear burst and Patrick promptly collapsed into unconsciousness once more.
Somehow, he had found his way down to the elevator. Somehow he had made it down to the street and hailed a cab.
Each moment along the way, the pain was so ever-present, it was all he was aware of and he had to frequently remind himself of what had led up to each moment.
It had been Mae Cho’s knocking that had woken him. He had lost a lot of blood, his blown-out ears still oozing black gunk, but the pain and the deafening, thunderous noise seemed to subside somewhat when they were wet, so he sat in the shower for another hour and then bandaged his head in plastic wrap with wet wash cloths over each gaping wound.
Somewhere along the way he had dressed in an enormous BUSU hoody but no pants. He found in the taxi that he was still only wrapped in a towel from the waist down. But he had found a right flip flop and a left Birkenstock – which confused him because he owned a pair of neither.
The wait to get to the ER was interminable but somehow he found himself there and suddenly there was a doctor and nurse standing over him, unwrapping his cellophane bandages and peeling back the washcloths to examine his wounds. It didn’t matter how filthy the place was. He didn’t care. He was a mess. All he wanted then and there was someone to stop the pain and put things right again. He was finally here now. It was finally over.
He sat up on the crinkly paper pulled over the vinyl examination table as the doctor turned his head to the left and shined a light into the crater on the side of his head.
“I don’t think they like the light-” Patrick began, but then suddenly the doctor leapt backwards screaming.
“OH HOLY FUCK! WHAT IN HELL IS THAT?!”
Patrick began to cry as the scraping started again. Not terribly this time, but enough to blot out much of the doctor’s words and all the rest of the outside sound for a few moments. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he looked desperately into the doctor’s eyes.
He tried once again to examine Patrick’s head and once again, he saw it move away from the light. The doctor backed away shaking his head.
“Holy… Shit… There’s a crab in your ear!!”
“Both,” Patrick said, pointing to the other ear.
The doctor rounded the table and looked into the hole on the other side.
“Jesus-jumped-up-christ! What the hell are they doing in there?!” he said.
Patrick felt his heart sink as he began to doubt whether the doctor might even be able to help him. “Haven’t you ever heard of this happening before?” he whimpered.
“Well let’s see here,” the doctor stroked his chin hairs thoughtfully for a moment, “FUCKIN’ NO!! Christ man! I’m a doctor! Not a marine biologist!”
He started to cry more and his whole body began to quiver. In a few moments he had calmed enough to ask, still through sobbing tears, “Could this maybe be because I bathe too much? Or because I use a lot of cleaning products?”
“WHERE THE HELL DO YOU BATHE?! TIDAL POOLS??”
The doctor stood back and ran a hand through his hair, fixing Patrick with a wild look, “No… No, I think Vim and Clorox could only improve this situation.”
Patrick felt hopeless. He could see the hospital would offer no help.
“Well, what should I do?” he asked.
“Call an exterminator,” the doc said, “or a chef!”
He whimpered and winced as he slid off the examination table and barely noticed his towel slip off and fall to the floor. He just pulled his hood up and trundled off into the night to catch another cab. At that late hour, there were few taxis on the streets, and even fewer willing to stop for a strange man wearing only a giant BUSU hoody and mismatched lesbian footwear.
He walked down the road a ways until he came to a bus shelter where he collapsed inside and slept leaning against a glass wall until morning, when he woke with the sun painfully in his eyes and the realization he had sat on a wad of discarded bubblegum. Shortly, however, the bus pulled up alongside and he tripped up the steps and crawled into a seat as the bus driver remarked that college kids sure have some rough parties.
He curled up in the first seat and watched the city roll on by as the bus heaved into motion and he sought to pick the dried gum off his ass and consider his options in between bouts of painful scraping and digging sounds.
He had no idea how long he’d ridden the bus before he noticed the sign with the sharks and dolphins. He had passed out at least twice so it could have been hours. The sun was high overhead when he stepped off on to the concrete and began trudging toward the archways of the city aquarium.
Inside, he had intended to find a staff directory but he hadn’t made it five beleaguered paces before a large black man in a uniform grabbed him by the arm and yanked him back toward the exit, mumbling, “Come on, pervert…”
Patrick immediately folded up like an umbrella in the man’s grasp, holding the sides of his head softly and moaning amidst the pain. The guard pulled his hood back and curled his lip at the sight of the blood and infection.
His hold lessened and he hoisted Patrick to his feet and helped him over to a plastic chair beneath a landline phone on the wall, from which he picked up the receiver, punched a button and spoke.
“Get Jeannie, there’s another one here for her.”
When he came to, Patrick was laying on his side in the fetal position staring at the front of a pair of jeans. Women’s jeans.
There was a woman standing over him, staring into the remains of his ear canal. It reminded him that he wasn’t wearing any pants and, reaching down to cover himself with his hoody, he discovered he was no longer wearing that, either, but was curled up naked and nauseous, on a table and in a great deal of intestinal discomfort.
But he could hear better.
His head still hurt like a bastard but the scraping was gone and he could make out sounds with much better clarity again. He opened his eyes to a redheaded woman with green eyes, wearing a lab coat and staring down at him.
“Well,” she said, “Aren’t you the lucky one. How do you feel?”
Patrick tried to sit up and she helped him balance while he clutched his stomach and released a substantial volume of gas, producing a wavering vibrato that echoed throughout the room and had the sort of duration that left them both staring at each other with startled looks.
From somewhere down the hall came an alarmed, “…What the fuck?”
“Oh my,” the woman said.
“I’m sorry,” Patrick said nervously, “I haven’t been feeling good lately.”
“Yeah, we can see that,” she said.
He reached up toward the wounds on his head, feeling now the bandages she had placed over them and she caught his hand.
“We removed them. You’ll need surgery later, but you should be okay, just don’t touch the wounds.”
He released a great shuddering sigh of relief and several small farts and his eyes began to well up.
“Oh thank you so much,” he told her, holding her hand in his, “What were those things?”
“Parasitic forest crabs. Native to Peru. They need a host for part of their life cycle… though it’s usually a tapir or a sloth. Humans aren’t their natural choice. But their larvae are so tiny that sometimes they’re imported inside artefacts and old books and then you breathe them in and they get lodged in your Eustachian tubes and burrow deeper to mature.”
He looked deep in her green eyes and still holding her hand, he was about to thank her once more for coming to his rescue – absolutely meant to – but abruptly let out yet another long-winded bout of staccato flatulence that sounded very much like machine gun fire.
From down the hall: “You alright in there? Doc??”
She looked down at his distended and gurgling abdomen with a raised eyebrow and looked back up to him.
“When’s the last time you had a bowl movement?”
“Um,” he stammered, “I haven’t really eaten anything. I’ve been in a lot of pai-
But she was already turning him away and rolling him over and as weak as he was, in a couple seconds, she had him hanging off the little table, bent over, ass up and face hanging down, confused and staring at her ankles.
He hung there in silence for several seconds remarking to himself how lovely and slender her calves looked from this angle until he heard the snap of a rubber glove and before he could say anything, he heard her mumble to herself, “Is that Bubblicious?”
And then suddenly there was a hand in his ass and he was gripping the table legs with vigor. She moved her fingers around, probing for a time and then suddenly he heard her voice say, “Well I’ll be…”
“What?!” he shouted from under the table, “What do you see?”
“Hey Marv, you gotta come see this!” she shouted, “This guy’s got a Cordovan eel in his ass!”