Oral hygienists are the chattiest people on earth, so thought Henry. Particularly when they jam tools and prod fingers in your mouth, rendering it impossible to reply to their constant questions. Of course, finding a new dentist is like trying on a comfy pair of socks—when they fit, it’s awesome; when they don’t, blisters may apply.
“So, what do you do, Henry?” The tube sucked at his mouth like a miniature vacuum cleaner. With a slurping sound, the tip of his tongue swept up, blocking the air flow. “I mean, like, for work.”
“Ah a ahhpha ahtiss.”
“That’s cool, that’s cool.”
Henry doubted the gothic-looking hygienist truly thought his graphic artist position was cool. No way she could’ve possibly understood him. Then again, she’d probably been schooled in dental translation skills. Still, her blatant apathy made it clear she’d rather be anywhere but here.
Behind Henry, a timid voice peeped up. “Hello, hello, I’m Dr. Barrows.” A hairy-knuckled hand stuck in front of Henry. As Henry shook the hand, he couldn’t help but worry about all that hand hair. He twisted, trying to see the dentist, but the awkward chair—a contortionist’s dream chaise—held him captive. Honestly, if their relationship was intimate enough to allow this man to poke around in his mouth, Henry at least wanted to see him.
With the tube gulping down his remaining saliva, Henry managed, “Ha, Docta, I Herry.”
“Nice to meet you, Henry.” Dr. Barrows sounded less than gung-ho, no rat-tat-tat patter Henry had grown accustomed to from other dentists. Rather, Barrows sounded tentative, quiet. Maybe not a bad thing, really. At least Henry wouldn’t have to talk. “I see you’re in for…” A rattling of paper. “…root canal surgery.”
Henry’s eyes snapped up like spring-coiled shades. “Wha? No! Cahity! Cahity!” Henry spat the tube out. It landed limply on his baby-sized bib, hissing like an angry snake. “Cavity.” He sat up, jacking a thumb back and forth toward his mouth, ensuring there’d be no question as to why he was in the dentist’s chair. No, not chair. Torture rack. But he damn sure wanted to make sure it was the right torture, at least.
“Hmm. Guess Rita got confused over the x-rays.” Assuming “Rita” was the raccoon mascaraed hygienist, apparently she’d fled the scene. Otherwise, Henry imagined, she’d be apologizing, trying to save her job. Good for her, not so good for Henry. For some reason, he felt more comfortable with a witness. “Ah. Here we are. Yup. A cavity.”
Relief settled Henry back into the rack. He squirmed, trying to make the chair hump nestle comfortably against his back.
Dr. Barrows sighed, a longing sauna-seeking sigh. Paper ripped. Seconds crawled. The dentist cleared his throat, whispering something inaudible. “Okay, Henry, here we go.”
Henry still hadn’t seen his dentist. But it was impossible to miss the huge needle waving in front of his eyes, a mutant hornet stinger. He clamped his eyes shut. Rubber-covered fingers kneaded his gums. Something hit the offending cavity, charging an electric jab of pain. His stomach pot-bellied up, while his feet scrabbled at the bottom of the chair. Then the hypodermic dropped anchor.
“I’ll give this a few minutes to work, then come back and check on you. You may need nitrous oxide. You’re kinda’ a big guy. Ever had nitrous before?”
Already, a not unpleasant, slight tingling sensation crawled up his face. His lips turned elastically lazy, refusing to mold words properly. “Yeth.”
Dr. Barrows’ footsteps receded, dress shoes clacking across linoleum. Then the swooshing of tennis shoes. Rita’s face loomed large, an animated balloon bob-bob-bobbing in front of Henry. Her eyes widened, her apathy gone but replaced by something far worse. Fear. “Oh my God, Dr. Barrows is crazy,” she whispered. “Don’t let him know I said anything. Just be careful.”
“Wai…wha? Wai a mimmute!”
Too late. Henry’s gothic angel of mercy whisked away on rubber-soled flats, his pleas unheard, unanswered.
What the hell’s going on here?
Better to suffer through a sore tooth rather than go under the drill of possibly crazy Dr. Barrow. Henry pulled at the bib, attempting to sit up. Suddenly, hairy knuckles splayed out even hairier fingers onto his chest.
“Whoa, now, settle down, Henry.” Barrows chuckled as he pressed Henry back into the chair, apparently a well-practiced welcoming procedure. “It’s not uncommon for people to panic before they have surgery.”
Surgery? I’m just getting a filling!
“Nuh. Feelin’ bettah.”
A plastic shell clamped down over Henry’s mouth and nose.
“Yep. Seen it before. Jitters. You just relax now. The nitrous will send you off to sleepy-land.”
A hissing sound seeped out of the mask, bubbling into his ears.
Crazy. Hairy knuckles. Gonna’ drill my mouth.
Henry smelled nothing. He thought he tasted something slightly sweet, maybe not. While his body relaxed, his mind gyrated, wanting to rabbit in multiple directions. But his body persevered in the battle, coasting along on waves of giddiness.
Dr. Barrows released another sigh, echoing faraway as if from within a tunnel. A blurry bearded face hovered in front of him, surrounded with a fringe of lumberjack-orange hair. Twin green specks of light bounced off Barrows’ glasses, a wolf in the dark. And Henry still couldn’t make out the dentist’s features.
“You know something, Henry? I feel like I can trust you.” Barrows’ voice sounded tired, yet lilting in a poet’s manner, soothing. Sooo soothing.
“Did you know dentists’ hold the highest rate of suicide?” continued Barrows. “It’s true. I used to wonder about it. Not any longer. ‘Cause I found out why.” His voice dropped even lower, softer. “Guess it first happened—what?—two years ago. That’s when I first heard the voices.”
Voices? What’s he yammering about? Where am I?
“I was finger-deep—finger-deep, sorta’ a dental joke—inside a patient’s mouth. Then I heard singing. High-pitched voices, indecipherable. But definitely singing. A chorus, a hellish chorus. Coming from the patient’s mouth.” Other than the hissing gas infiltrating Henry’s lungs, the room fell silent for a moment. “Thought I was going crazy. Wrote it off, went home and tied one on. But it kept happening. With more and more patients. And the worst part, Henry, the worst part…you know what the worst part was?”
Barrows paused again, clearly waiting for an answer. He was in for a long wait. Henry couldn’t say anything even if he wanted to.
“Well, I’ll tell you. When I took the drill into my patients’ mouths…just doing my job…the voices screamed. Cartoon mouse shrieks. Painful, agonized shouting. I…I was killing unseen, living beings…communities, perhaps…worlds. As Oppenheimer said, ‘I have become death, the destroyer of worlds’. I couldn’t take it, Henry. I tried to talk to my wife, my friends…they abandoned me, thought I was crazy. Yet…and yet, here I am. Still drilling, still operating, still…killing. What I’m killing, I don’t know…not sure what…”
Barrows’ voice travelled down a long hallway, dissipating like fine smoke into whispers. And then radio silence. Nothing.
Henry woke with a jolt, drenched in sweat, freezing. Something banged inside his skull like a drum. He struggled into a sitting position, checked out his surroundings.
The dentist. That’s right. Cavity. But…what happened?
He had a vague recollection, a half-remembered dream that felt ready to drift into oblivion. Something about…Dr. Barrows?
When he stood, he nearly toppled back into the chair. No thanks, not today. He felt his cheek, chipmunked out to grotesque proportions, sore, but not too bad. Apparently, Dr. Barrows had completed the dental surgery while he was out.
With the back of his hand, he wiped drool from his chin. Then he stumbled into reception.
“Hi. Um, I guess…I need to make a follow-up appointment with Dr. Barrows.”
The receptionist stared at him, her face crinkling like cellophane. “I’m sorry, sir…you said ‘Barrows’?”
“Uh-huh.” Henry didn’t particularly believe Barrows was an exceptional dentist, not by a mile. But, hey, he didn’t remember any pain, and that had to count for something.
Still the receptionist wouldn’t loosen her disapproving glare. “We have no Dr. Barrows here, sir. Maybe you mean Dr. Stillson or— “
“No. I’m sure it’s Dr. Barrows.”
The sour-faced woman craned her head around, bird-like, as if hunting for worms. Abruptly, she stood. “Um…wait right here, sir. I’ll be back.” She scuttled off.
After ten minutes, Henry’d had enough. He tossed down his business card and hurried for the exit.
Weird. In fact, the whole day seemed weird.
Not that he remembered much.
Henry dug through his muddied recollections as he rode down in the elevator. Then the Muzak started. No. Not Muzak. The song spilled from his mouth, just not in his voice. Henry couldn’t carry a tune, his attempted warbling able to scare off cats. But this—this--sounded far worse. A sped-up record, a chorus amped up on helium.
And he swore the song was Smile.
* * * *
Here I am, talking about myself, pretending not to. Ah, I'm probably not fooling anyone, but play along anyway, 'kay? Just imagine Morgan Freeman narrating and we'll all get through this just fine.
For more of Stuart R. West's adult and young adult suspense tales filled with light heart and dark humor, check out his Amazon page.
And please do check out Stuart's blog featuring weekly rants, failed stand-up comedy routines and incisive author interviews: Twisted Tales From Tornado Alley