Itch
By: Sean Russell

"I don't know…maybe it's my imagination. Maybe…maybe it really is grandma.

Or maybe it's the mites. Maybe it is the mites." She trailed off, looking frightened. She sat on the edge of the bed, brushing her hair slowly with her fingers.

"I was reading about them the other day…then I stopped.

Not sure why.

Face mites. Discovered in the 1800's. They burrow into your pores. They're real. I know they're real. I am trying so hard these days to identify what's real and hang onto it. The face mites. I know they're real.

I wouldn't point to my face like this, jabbing my finger at my cheeks like a mad woman. That's not me. Not normally. That's not the real me. I am what they made me, you see…after weeks. I'm not alone, either. I'm not alone ever, now. I hear the whispering, sometimes it's my grandma…sometimes it's the mites. It depends on how strong I am.

I feel like it's everyone, Doctor Milo. "

Doctor Milo leaned forward. After a short pause, he said "Do you feel like it's me?"

The woman picked at a scab on her ear. "N-no. I think…I think you're okay for now Doctor Milo. Hey…any chance I could get a cigarette?"

Doctor felt around for a cigarette, handed it to her. She blushed and took it. "Cheers." She said meekly.

"Tell me again what happened." Doctor Milo said.

She looked down at the corner of the room, her eyes started to tear, "I…I don't know what happened." She said.

"That's not true. Please tell me. I'm not here to judge you." Doctor Milo adjusted himself in the chair, getting comfortable. He took out a small tablet and pulled up the note taking application. He pressed record. "I'm going to record it this time, so I don't forget. Okay?"

She looked around the room, then stopped, tilted her head to one side. She nodded slightly, looking at the wall, then turned to Doctor Milo with new energy and a look of acceptance, "Okay, Doctor Milo, I'll tell you…one more time."

"The M25, you know, what a mess. I sat there in traffic listening…listening to a book called Alchemy…it was a sales book. I was a saleswoman, actually. I was good at it too but could always be better. It's important…self-development. However long you've got, you've got to be the best you can be. I believe that.

The sound started out like an engine backfiring, but louder. Deafening. I thought it was a gun shot. Road rage; something like that.

I ducked down but then saw the flash of light. When I looked up, the meteor streaked across the sky in front of us. It was crazy! I looked on, like everyone else as the rumbling shook our cars. The meteor looked huge and I remember, I remember thinking…that this could be it for us…is it big enough to set off a catastrophic explosion?

I saw on some program that it could be like that…the meteor would hit and kick up enough dust to block the sun…no sun, no life…you know.

The impact lifted our cars and cracked the road. And the trees, I'd never seen the trees do that. For a moment I felt nauseous, but I swallowed, and it passed.

We got out of our cars. I wasn't the first, but everyone was doing it. I think we needed to know that we were all still here, you know?

We got out of our cars and stood in the snowy ash that was falling on them. This fallout from the meteor that had momentarily and cataclysmically altered our worldview.

I remember smiling at the man two cars in front of me, watching his jovial laughter as he pointed to his dashboard video camera. I remember feeling lucky. Lucky that this happened, that it didn't end it tragedy…that it happened to me! We looked up at the sky for a while to see if there were any others.

Eventually, I got back in the car and went on with my day. See, I was like you, Doctor Milo, exactly like you! I was this person who thought that life, no, that I was the center of my universe! I felt lucky!

We live…we live each day with these mites in our faces and people don't even know!"

"Calm down" Doctor Milo held his hand out, inviting her to sit back in her chair and not to get too excited.

She eyed him for a moment, then calmly sat back and put the cigarette in her mouth.

"Sorry, it's just, you know. Anyway, I finally got to work in Horley with a story to tell. Serious meteor over the M25. I mean, I wasn't the only one, obviously, so many people saw it from the office. Still, I felt special. I also felt itchy. I thought for a minute the ash might've clogged my pores, so I washed my face. The itching got worse. I scratched myself but realized I wouldn't be doing myself any favors by making myself red before meetings. The itching though…but I thought I could handle it. About halfway through the first meeting…

Jennifer Fountain shrieked! I had scratched through my skin and was bleeding onto my hands. I felt a strong pair of hands behind mine, all of a sudden, pulling them away from my face. I screamed. The itching, Doctor Milo, the itching was so intense. Somewhere between the meeting room and the bathroom I passed out. I came to when they splashed water on my face and the feeling of fire, burning my whole head! A buzzing in my ear grew so loud. I know I screamed out. I know. I jumped up and tried to run. I needed them to stop. So much itching.

Then…I…I'm…I'm not sure. I woke up in bed at a hospital. I don't know how that happened. I don't know…"

"You were ranting and struggling." Doctor Milo said. "They called an ambulance. The paramedic gave you a shot to put you out. Go on…go on…"

She went on, "I found myself strapped into a hospital bed. I couldn't move my arms, but the itching had subsided. I felt the pain, finally, of the sores I'd dug into my face…but that was nothing compared to the buzzing sound in my ear. A dull, constant buzzing that sat on a range just a little louder than my own thoughts. I looked around, trying to find the source.

A nurse entered then, "You're awake, that's good! I'll get the doctor in a moment but I'm going to take your blood pressure. Is that ok?"

"Yes," I said, "listen, do you hear that buzzing noise?"

"Yeah, there's a little bit of buzz comes from the machine," she said.

"Little bit?" I said, straining a little against the straps.

"Why do you ask?" She said, looking at my eyes.

"I…it's loud…but it gets quieter when you talk" I started to realize that the buzz was actively growing louder or quieter. When I tried to identify it, it was loud. When this woman would talk, I could barely hear it.

"I'll get the doctor right away, maybe he can do something about it." The nurse left.

I felt the buzz grow louder as my mind reeled. How had I gotten here? Why was I so itchy before? Am I fired? What's going on? The buzzing was deafening.

I tried to quiet my mind. The buzzing grew a little quieter. I could hear the world around me, but whenever I tried to hear my own thoughts…the buzzing. I tried not to think.

The doctor came in and looked at my chart. "How are you feeling?"

"I…I'm ok…what happened?" The buzzing almost ceased when he talked, I hoped he'd talk forever.

"Do you remember why you're here?"

The buzzing increased, it started to throb inside my brain. I must've made a sound or something because he spoke up.

"Don't worry, don't worry, you're safe. You suffered a breakdown at work. You tried to scratch through your face. It was a good thing you were around so many people. They were able to stop you before you did serious damage to yourself."

"Itchy" I said.

"Do you feel itchy now?"

"No. Not anymore." The buzzing was driving me to distraction.

"Well, no worries, I'm not able to give you an explanation medically but I think, under the circumstances, that's good news. We think it's neurological."

"Like the buzzing?"

"Yes, the nurse said you are hearing a buzzing. Is that still going on?"

"Yes."

"Is it constant? Or does it get quieter and then louder?"

"Quieter and louder. Loud when I think." I was closing my eyes at this point, blinking away tears.

The doctor stood up at this point "Ok, well, let's get you a CT Scan to make sure we aren't missing anything but otherwise, it may just be residual effects of the episode. I wouldn't worry too much about it." He smiled and then left to get the scan ready. A nurse came in with two paracetamol for the pain and it was a long while before I saw anyone.

I lay there, trying not to think. I've always been…in my head a little…you know what I mean? It's not easy for me to stop thinking long enough to go to sleep. This thing…this buzzing…always just above my thoughts…louder and louder…drowning them out. Before I knew it, I wasn't sure if it was still buzzing or I wasn't thinking. It…it sort of equalized…like the sound of a jet plane…it became background, except there was no foreground anymore. Any time I tried to think, it faded into the buzzing.

Then, all of a sudden, I heard her.

It was…it was my grandmother. I've always had a close relationship to my grandmother. She died when I was about 14. I hadn't heard her voice in decades and now, clear as day, she was in my head. She spoke to me…."

"What did your grandmother tell you?" Doctor Milo leaned in. She cringed and grabbed her belly, looking down, tears forming in her eyes. After a moment, she steeled herself.

"She said, "Whoa there…whoa. Let's just wait here for a bit," like I was a horse…or something.

I tried to wonder why I would think that…why I would think that in her voice. I didn't hear anything else for the rest of the wait…not my thoughts, not my grandmother, nothing.

The CT Scan showed nothing abnormal. The doctor sent me home with a prescription for bedrest and an appointment with a neurologist.

"Throw that away, you won't need to go to the doctor's again." My grandmother said. I held the paper in my hand, looking at it. "Throw it away!" She said.

I shoved the paper in my pocket and grabbed my laptop. I searched for neurological conditions associated with hearing dead relatives. As I did, I could hear the buzzing growing louder. I fought it…trying to focus. Mednews.co said schizophrenia and I didn't want to think anymore. "It's not schizo…whatever…" my grandmother said.

"What are you then?" I said aloud and then caught myself. Shaking, I searched for conditions related to face itching, burning, self-harm. I saw them then. Mites."

"Talk about the mites for a minute?" Doctor Milo asked rather than commanded. He drew a line in his tablet, apparently intending to mark out this space in his notes.

She went on, "Mites are terrifying creatures, Doctor Milo, they're everywhere. You can find them in your couch, on the glass you drink from, in your hair, on your skin. They burrow into you, can live even in your mouth. Can you imagine, kissing someone, brushing by them on the tube…and then, you're carrying around mites from them, skittering across your body, your face, doesn't it make your body tingle? It does mine…the idea that thousands of little bugs are using you, farming you, using you…"

"I think they are a normal consequence of life, no?" Doctor Milo said and then looked up for a reaction.

She looked at him, studying, wondering if his comment was intended to taunt her. After a short while, she went on. "One kind of mite, Demodex mites, they can even live in the pores of your face skin…on your skin…in your ears. The buzzing, Doctor Milo, it got so loud, I couldn't hear myself talk, scream. I held onto the thought, on a sea of endless noise, "Face Mites." I said aloud.

They burrow deep into your pores and sit near hair follicles. They are terrifying."

"That sounds terrifying. So, you think you're infested with these face mites? And that's what happened?" Doctor Milo said, making a note on his tablet.

"Doctor Milo, you aren't listening. We're all infested with the mites…they're not anything to worry about though. They're disgusting…but we don't see them. We don't notice them. They eat our dead flesh…skin cells we'd otherwise be casting off in our beds.

They're part of a world, a world happening beneath our own. A world of micro-organisms that feed on the dust and everything else we can't see. A whole world happening around us that we can't even see!"

"Ok, calmly now." Doctor Milo said.

She pushed hair behind her ear and pointed to her left ear.

"I realized the voice…my grandmother's voice was coming through this ear! She said, "Now, you don't need to be reading about that, it'll make you sick!"

"NO!" I said to her, "You aren't my grandmother."

"No, I'm you!" my grandmother said back.

"You aren't me either!" I said just before the buzzing drowned out all thought. I dropped to the floor and lost consciousness.

When I awoke, I saw the transparent glass of the countertop over my head. The buzzing seemed to have ceased. I thought, for a moment, maybe it was over. That I could go on with my life.

I heard her then, not my grandmother this time "Up" was all she said. I got up.

"You hungry? Why don't you get yourself some water and something to eat?" I did just that and, even considered what I wanted and cooked it and ate it.

"You want to go out now, find someplace public," I heard. I grabbed my coat and went out to the subway station. That was the most public place I could think of.

"Touch your face and then touch as many things as you can." I heard. I did it. I did what it wanted. I didn't even try to stop. I didn't even hesitate. I just did it. Like it was my thoughts and it was all perfectly normal. I wiped my hand along my face and then down the railing. I walked over to tables and counters and ran my hands over all of them.

"Touch him." The man over there, I wanted to touch his face. I did do it. I did all that.

"What are you doing?" He asked, indignantly as he backed off.

"Don't answer, just keep touching your face and touching things." I heard, but the man had jarred something inside me. I stopped myself "Don't stop, just keep touching things." It said, patiently, with no thought of emotion. "You need to touch as many things as possible. That's what we came here for you to do."

I wet myself, Doctor Milo. I lost control of my bowels and I saw the disgust and bewilderment grow in their faces. I felt the shame and embarrassment as my pant leg grew warm and wet and finally cold. All the while in my head, "Touch everything, touch everything, touch your face, touch everything."

"It's Mites!" I screamed, "They're in my head! They're in my head! I can't stop." I pushed the man aside, trying desperately not to touch him or anything else. I ran up the escalator, my hands reaching for my face. Police behind me, I could hear them shouting stop. My hands…I couldn't stop. They'd found their own way to the face of a baby.

The mother was crying and trying to push me. I held my own with my other hand as I rubbed the baby's face. She pushed my neck and I found myself licking her hand. She screamed and pushed me down the escalator. I fell and hit my head.

That's when I understood."

Doctor Milo was close now, he could feel it. He leaned in, "Understood what?" He said eagerly.

"I understood it Doctor Milo, because while I was lying there, they spoke to each other. Not using words, but I could understand, like, feelings. Urgent, alien, some disgusted with me, others viewing me as a damaged opportunity. I was their conveyor, you see, their vector."

"Their vector?" Doctor Milo said, his throat dry and rasping.

She laughed, it sounded flat and emotionless. "All of us, we think we're the best of this planet, we think if we meet an intelligence from out there…an alien…they'll be a little green version of ourselves. That's what we think because we can't separate our minds from our bodies…but my mind…

What if there was another kind of intelligence, something that didn't have a body like ours? One, rather, that preferred to use others…and what if that intelligence found that it was most compatible with another kind of life on this planet? What if aliens were as small as mites? Smaller even? What if they could take over the tiny brains in the mites, all around us? These mites that ride us, that live on us. What then Doctor Milo?" She stared urgently at him.

"You…you think…that aliens have taken over your face mites and that they're controlling you to spread them?" Doctor Milo waited patiently for an answer. For a moment, she looked indignant at the disbelief in his voice. Then, suddenly, she smiled. She rose, slowly, almost seductively, and walked to him. She leaned down, slowly, smiling tenderly. She was next to his ear now.

After a soft breath she whispered quietly, "To whom are you referring doctor?" She smiled then, wickedly and rubbed her face onto Doctor Milo's cheek and ear, then she licked him. He fell back and out of his chair, edging toward the door.

"Help! Help me!" He shouted as the orderly came in and pulled him out. She never stopped laughing, cackling, wicked, wild.

Doctor Milo used his sleeve to wipe his face. "Oh my god, oh my god," he said.

The orderly put his hand on the doctor's shoulder. "You alright? Did she get you?"

He shook his head, "No, no, she…she just scared me a bit. I'll be alright. Thank you." He smiled and retrieved his tablet from the floor.

As he rose, he felt himself blush…more than a little embarrassed for being drawn in. As he walked away, he noted the faintest itch.

-

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