Thursday, July 7, 2011

Itches

Stanton Douglas opened his eyes as far as the bruises would allow.  He stared at the wall and attempted to focus his thoughts through the suffocating haze of pain.  The wall was most likely blue at one point but now it was the sickly grey of corpses.  Stanton remembered Maggie saying that she painted her bedroom blue because the color has calming effects.  Despite the swollen, pulp-like tissue he once called a mouth, he smiled as Maggie’s face flickered in his head.  Beautiful Maggie.  Beautiful, dead Maggie.


Behind his lips he could taste the bloody, metallic holes where his front teeth used to be. He ran his tongue around his mouth, searching for other gaps.  Tooth. Tooth. Gap.  Tooth. Gap. Gap.  As his tongue worked its way to the other side of his mouth, it ran across something hard protruding from the inside of his cheek.  He prodded at it with his bloated tongue until it was free and spit the tooth onto the ground.   He wondered if he’d swallowed his molars and bicuspids or if they were lying somewhere on the floor near him.  Not that any dentist could reattach them now, but they were his teeth.  All those years of braces and brushing and flossing and fluoride—all for them to be unceremoniously removed from his head.

Stanton longed to stretch, to see if indeed he could stretch anymore.  He had long since lost feeling in his arms, cinched behind his back at the elbows and wrists.  Before the numbness set in, he had writhed in agony, attempting to push his dislocated shoulder back into its socket.  Now he would welcome the pain, anything to give him hope that his arms weren’t irreversibly damaged.  He concentrated on moving his fingers.  He asked his body to move his fingers. He demanded.  He begged.  Staton could not move his fingers, though.  He wasn’t entirely certain he even had all of his fingers anymore. 

Stanton relocated his attention to his lower extremities.  He turned his head as far as his neck would allow, straining to see his feet , tied to his wrists.  What flesh he could see was blue. Not calming at all, he thought.  With what will he still possessed, he willed his toes to wiggle.  He felt tears sting his eyes, frustrated that he had no control over even the smallest part of his body.  His thighs and knees ached, a sign that he still had feeling and wasn’t completely paralyzed. 

Once again, Stanton stared at the once-blue wall.  He wondered how long he’d been in this concrete room with the glaring lights.  If he went by the number of times he’d regained consciousness, he had been in the room for at least16 days.  That couldn’t be right. Rubbing the stubble of his chin and cheek against the floor, he estimated about four days.  Four long, excruciating, piss yourself, curse God and eventually find some religion days.  And not once in those four days had he contemplated how he’d get out of the blue room.  Beaten, naked and hog-tied, he was unable to even flop around like a fish in the bottom of a boat.  Escaping wasn’t even an issue worth considering. Survival was the only priority now.  And, if by some miracle, he managed to channel Houdini or David Copperfield or Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, freeing himself from his current state would take more than some dislocated joints (which he had) and voodoo.  Escaping this room would be impossible.  Though he couldn’t see them, he knew that just outside were guards.  Big guards, armed with big guns.  Stanton had decided early on in his captivity to use no energy attempting an escape.  He would need every ounce of strength he had to stay alive. 

Stanton’s stomach gnawed at the organs around it.  Long gone was the curry he had been eating when he was apprehended.  His swollen tongue and cracked lips, testaments to his thirst.   Periodically, his captors had come in and hosed the shit and piss off of him, once or twice spraying him in the face.  The water tasted dirty but he seriously doubted that cholera was his biggest threat right now. 

 He wondered how long his beaten body could live without nourishment.   How long before I’m desperate enough to use my few remaining teeth to gnaw off my tongue?  A week?  Two? 

As Stanton stomach ached and moaned, he suddenly felt a small sensation between his shoulder blades.  Just a tickle actually.  At first he ignored it, but it wouldn’t stop.  Stanton wondered if something was crawling on him.  He strained his neck but saw nothing.  The tickle continued as it divided and worked its way both north and south, following the highway of his spine.  Without warning, the tickle mutated into something much more sinister—an itch. 

Stanton had itched before.   When he was eight, his mother exposed him to the neighbor boy who had chickenpox.  Within two weeks, Stanton looked like his Aunt Louise had taken her red bingo marker to his body.  Stanton couldn’t touch skin without coming in contact with a blister.  His entire body was infested.  The rash covered his scalp, the inside of his mouth, his groin, the crack of his ass, between his toes.  Even his eyelids.  Stanton would scratch until he bled, waking up with his sheets stuck to his body.  His mother had tried everything—cool baths, warm baths, calamine, oatmeal, cornstarch, cod liver oil, aloe vera—but nothing worked.  Stanton kept scratching.  His mom told him that he would scar, but eight year olds care more about instant gratification.  Besides, scars are cool to adolescent boys. 

Finally, Stanton’s mother held him down and cut his nails off.  Really off.  “Off” as in into the quicks.  “Off” as in his fingers bled.  She then wrapped his hands in cellophane and duck taped the makeshift gloves to his arms.  She added a pair of mittens, secured around his wrists with rubber bands.  Stanton cried and begged his mother to scratch for him until he figured out that he could reach some of the itching with his feet.  He dug his toenails into his calves, his thighs.  He even hoisted his leg up with his arms and scratched his cheeks.  Very limber, little Stanton was.  Eventually his mother figured out why he wasn’t wailing anymore and subjected his feet to the same treatment as his hands.  Stanton lay in the floor and screamed at his mother.  He even cursed her with the few words he’d picked up on the playground at school. Tired of coddling her itching, screaming son, Stanton’s mother threatened to tie him to a bed-post and beat him.  But when it came down to it, she was too tired to deal with Stanton any more.   She simply told him what she’d done was for the best, then mostly ignored him and went about her chores.   Stanton quickly became friends with the inanimate objects around his house—door frames, corners of tables, even his mother’s hairbrush that he laid on the floor and rubbed against.  Stanton briefly contemplated leaning against the wood stove and burning off the itch.

The chickenpox eventually went away, but the scars—both physical and emotional—did not.  Stanton forgot the best he could about the cellophane and threatened beatings, but he never forgot the itching.  Just as his body wore the white pockmarks of a little boy who scratched, Stanton’s mind was scarred with the memory of the itching.  The terrible, terrible itching.  He lived in fear of dry skin and mosquitoes and poison ivy and dirty women.  He swore that he would die before he ever let an itch go unattended or unscratched.  He kept his medicine cabinet stocked with Benadryl and hydrocortisone cream. He kept his nails as long as a man could have them in polite, heterosexual society.  At all times, Stanton was prepared to scratch.

Though Stanton’s ingrained defense mechanisms had been beaten out of him, one was still very much intact—scratching. 

Stanton lay still in the blue room, hoping that the itch would go away of its own accord as itches sometimes do.  The itch would not go quietly, though.   Stanton felt the itch crawl up to the nape of his neck.  He felt it squirming its way down to the top of his ass, stretching out over both the left and right cheeks. 

Stanton tired to remain calm.  He bargained with the itch.  He pleaded with the itch. 

But the itch continued its course, up and down the length of Stanton’s body. 

Stanton thought about his missing teeth, his lifeless hands, his dislocated shoulder, his blue feet.  The bruises and lacerations covering his body.  The blood on the floor around him. His blood.   He had endured pain that might have killed a stronger man—surely just this once he could handle an itch without scratching.  Most of my body is completely numb, he thought. Maybe I won’t feel the itch after a while. But for now he could feel it.   He set his jaw and stared at the wall.  He focused on his mangled body, his dead Maggie, his own imminent death.  Anything but the itch.

But the itch refused to be ignored  Like Hannibal crossing the Alps, it made its way over the hills of his ass and down the back of his legs.  It marched into his scalp, tickling each strand of hair.  Within a matter of seconds, the itch had covered his entire body. 

Stanton was eight years old again.  He began to whimper.  He imagined red, pus-filled bumps popping up all over his body as they did so long ago.  The itch continued to migrate over the crown of his head and into his face.  It spread across his swollen eyelids.  His nose began to twitch.  It infiltrated his four-day old beard.  Sweat mixed with tears and blood as Stanton began to shake.  He ground his face into the floor, desperately trying to catch the itch as it crept up toward his ear canal.

“Get the fuck off  me!”

But the itch did not respond. Continuing its journey around his bruised and broken form, it explored every nook and cranny.  Nowhere was sacred.  

Stanton gritted his remaining teeth and squeezed his eyes shut.  He slowly rocked his body as far as his restraints would allow.  He grunted and groaned.  He cursed the itch, threatened the itch, bargained with the itch.

But the itch was determined to have its fun.  It spooned his scrotum.  It danced in his nostrils.  It lounged in his navel. 

Stanton began to sob.  He cried out for his mother, begging her to scratch, to help him, to have mercy on her only son. 

But the itch had consumed Stanton.  He could feel it creeping inside of him, through his pores, his mouth, his nose.  A guttural cry, a barbaric yawp, emerged from Stanton’s blood-caked lips.  This was not Whitman’s wild cry, though.  It was a man’s soul fighting to leave his body, his prison.   Stanton’s body bent double, his head touching the tips of his blue toes.  He pounded his face into the floor three times, gnawing at the concrete with his remaining teeth.  He somehow managed to roll onto his side, his body convulsing to the extent the ropes would allow.  His shoulder screamed again, but now he did not care.  He had to scratch.  He would scratch if he had to rip his hands from his arms and hold his bloody fingers in his mouth.  The itch would not win.  He was no one’s bitch, no one’s slave.  He would not go gentle. 

Somewhere beyond the itching and screaming and shaking, Stanton sensed he was not alone.  Looking up, through his hysteria, he saw a large, blonde man. 

“Please… for the love of God, please help me.”   

The Blonde just stared, mesmerized by this grown man thrashing like an unhappy child in a department store.  The Blonde recalled the time he backed over a sleeping cat, crushing its head beneath his tire.  The body had jerked much like the man in the floor. 

Stanton screamed and grunted as a man possessed.

“For God’s sake, help me!  You don’t have to untie me just scratch me!”

The Blonde shook his head at Stanton. 

“No not no not no not no. Scratch me, damn you!  Scratch me! I can’t take it!”

The Blonde shrugged his shoulders and reached to his side, keeping his eyes trained on Stanton.

“You’re going to shoot me?  After what you bastards have done, now you’re gonna shoot me?  Because I’m itching?  Then shoot me, you son of a bitch!  Shoot me!  Do it!”

The Blonde drew his 9 mm and pointed it Stanton. 

“Stop screaming.”

In spite of the itch’s grip, Stanton began to laugh the desperate laugh of a desperate man.

“How fucking simple are you?  I’m itching!  I am itching!  Scratch me…shoot me! Can’t… cant… stop!”

A dry, guttural sob burst from Stanton’s lips.  The Blonde himself took a step back, as if the sheer anguish radiating from this man might infect him as well. 

Stanton felt the bullet rip into his body.  He hadn’t even heard the gunshot.  He looked at his assassin—his savior.  The gun remained aimed at Stanton, a trace of panic in the blonde man’s eyes.  But it was too late—the first bullet had done the trick. 

Stanton felt the itch begin to subside. He stared at the once blue wall, noting that the bullet ironically had an adequate calming effect.  He could guards’ voices across the radio and outside the door but their words sounded suddenly foreign.   He closed his eyes; the backs of his lids were blue.  He tried to smile.

As Stanton felt his life pouring out onto the concrete floor, he gave a fleeting thought, quite literally, to where he would go now.  Would the suffering he had endured earn him an eternity in a blue room with Maggie? Would his sins in this life damn him to a concrete room much like this?  He would be fine if this were the end, if there were nothing else. 

Dead and cold in the ground, he would be forever safe from the itch.

1 comment:

Thothscribe said...

Please don't ever say anything nice about my writing again. It's lies. This is wonderful and horrible and I will be feeling the legs of a thousand bugs crawling over me all night long. On a technical note, I particularly appreciate the unknown factor - who is he, why is he there, who are the captors? Those are irrelevant to the story (it actually reminds me of a wonderful TV series from the 1960's called The Prisoner). It makes the story so much more immediate and narrows the focus entirely on the sensation of the emerging, growing, enveloping itch.