“Please ... make it stop scratching.”
The whisper was slurred, disoriented, as if she was still lost in the spiderweb of a dream, breaking through my own slumber, creating goose flesh out of my skin.
I knew if I ignored it, she would stop, and I could go back to pretending I was asleep in my own bed under a pile of warm blankets and a soft pillow, moonlight on my face and sun rays in the morning.
“Please, make it stop scratching,” she whimpered.
Just two more minutes, I thought to myself as my heartbeat started to climb. Two more minutes and you can fall back asleep. I started to count in my head, imagining each number until I reached 112, and her peaceful snores resumed.
I was safe to re-enter dreamland, but my thoughts had already drifted elsewhere, to memories of my last roommate. Beth had been so quiet and subdued, even after her surgery, falling peacefully asleep as soon as they shut off the awful fluorescent lights above us. I’d hoped she’d be my roommate until the miraculous day I was set free, but she’d awoken in the middle of the night in a pool of her own blood, shrieking. The lights clicked on and they ran in, trying to shield my vision as they wheeled her away, but I caught a glimpse of her face, twisted and white with death in her eyes. I knew right then she wasn’t coming back. I honestly would’ve been more surprised if she’d recovered well - it wasn’t natural to take out a woman’s womb to heal her mind and Beth was not the first to have complications.
I wasn’t as sad as I should have been, but as I stared at the empty place where she once slept, I would have loved a stiff drink. I knew it was the only cure for the dread that had settled in the pit of my stomach, though it was the drink itself that brought me to this horrid place to begin with. Even in this modern day, there was no cure for a drunkard, and a lady drunkard was the worst of its kind.
When Ethel arrived, her eyes were as wide as mine must have been on the first day, dark saucers in a narrow face. Her skin was covered in what I assumed were chicken pox scars, her dishwater blonde hair wispy and thin. I was glad for the company, even though she didn’t talk for three days until the night she murmured, “They’re scratching - please make them stop.”
It unnerved me, but I assumed she was just having a bad dream. Those things tended to occur in a place empty of hope, the air heavy with despair. The next morning, however, my eyes opened to see her pacing the floor, biting her lip behind the veil of her stringy hair. “What is it?” I asked with a yawn.
“You’ll think I’m crazy.” Her voice was as tiny as her frame.
“We’re in the nuthouse, doll. Having people think you’re crazy is something you need to get used to.”
She stopped, wringing her hands as she stared at me with her big saucer eyes. “Do they really take away your lady parts here?” she whispered.
I sighed. “Sometimes. Sometimes they give you medicine that makes you drool, sometimes they make you take baths with ice. Every patient endures one kind of torture or another - the trick is, convincing them you need the lesser evil.”
She began to pace again. “Then I definitely don’t want to tell them.”
“Tell them what?” I asked patiently. We didn’t have any windows, but I could tell it was almost morning. The nurses would be in soon and she was right - if they caught her pacing, she could easily be on her way to surgery the following week.
“It feels like something is burrowing in my brain.”
“Like an insect?”
“Yes, late at night. I hear the scratches.”
“Is that why you’re here?”
“No, I’m here because my foster father put me here.”
“Ah,” I said softly. “My father put me here, too.”
From that day forward, she and I were friends. She never told me her exact diagnosis, and I did look for it, but other than the scratching, there was nothing wrong with her. She laughed when things were funny, cried when we talked about freedom, grew cold and hard when it was time for therapy. They put her on the ice baths and drool cocktails, but we both tongued our meds to take at night, a way to sleep through the cries that echoed through the halls. But even the meds didn’t stop her dream self from telling me about the scratches, and it never stopped me from waking up to hear it.
One night, she came back into our room in tears, babbling about how her foster father had come to visit, telling the doctors that he’d found her as a child in a filthy, bug infested house and that doctors had pulled out insects that had gotten stuck in her ears. That even though they successfully removed them, and she was given a good family and a good home, she still heard them scratching. The shrinks pressed her about it until she admitted she still heard them when she slept. “It’s not all in my mind, Laura, they still get in there, I swear,” she sobbed.
I tried to soothe her, though I’ve never been good at that sort of thing. “Don’t you think the doctors can see inside your ears, honey?” I asked her gently. “If you had bugs in there, they would know.”
“Don’t tell me you don’t believe me either.” Her expression darkened.
“Please don’t be upset with me - ” I tried, but she flopped down on her bed with her back to me. I sighed, pulling a drool pill out of the tiny hole in my mattress and rolling over to get some sleep.
My eyes did not open until the morning. The room was quiet, her back still turned to me. I yawned, surprised that I’d slept through the night. Maybe the pills they were giving me were getting stronger.
I threw off my blanket to stretch my legs. “You still mad at me?” I asked her.
She offered no response. I put on my plain cotton robe, the one that was so thin, it was pointless, and went over to her bedside. “I do believe you,” I began, but as I touched her shoulder, I realized she was ice cold. I recoiled, instinctively pulling my hand back, but her body still rolled over, revealing a gruesome purple mask where her face had been.
I started to shake, not wanting to fixate on the tiny bugs that crawled out her ears and through the delicate skin of her eyelids, scuttling along her poor pockmarked skin before retreating back into a mouth which death had frozen into an eternal scream.
I can’t remember what happened after that, but I woke to nurses surrounding me, staring as I fought the bounds they had used to tie me to the bed. “There were bugs inside her!” I was screaming. “She tried to tell me there were bugs! I saw them crawling out of her ears!”
The nicest nurse among them looked at me with a sad smile. “Laura, it’s impossible for bugs to burrow into a person’s ear. They get trapped sometimes, but they are easily removed. Ethel was a very disturbed girl.”
“I saw them! I fucking saw them!” I shrieked, even though I knew I was going to regret it. I couldn’t help it, I was hysterical. “You people are fucking monsters - you should have listened to her!”
“Enough of that language, young lady,” the nurse reprimanded me. “Jane, give her 10 milligrams. Dr. Floyd wants to see her.”
When I woke the next morning, I felt better. They’d moved me to a single room and the bed was a lot softer than my old one. I knew I was on a lot of drugs, but I didn’t mind. I didn’t even mind when I lifted the blankets to see the bandages wrapped around my abdomen, nor the crimson seeping through to the surface.
I didn’t have to leave the room at all, the nurses wearing big smiles as they brought me soup and medication. Maybe things would be getting better for me. Maybe they’d even let me out soon.
In fact, I was thoroughly convinced that maybe I was wrong this whole time - maybe I was just hysterical and they really did fix me. I knew there was no way bugs could survive in a person’s brain for years, there was no way I saw them coming out of her in death. But as I closed my eyes to drift into dreamland, I started to hear the faintest of sounds in my ears.
It sounded as if something was inside them, scratching.