“Get out, get out!”
Michelle was awake in an instant.
“Get it out!”
Seth was sitting upright in the bed, hands over his ears.
“Get the damn thing out!” he shouted.
He shook his head madly, clutching at his ear. The whole bed shook and Michelle bobbed up and down.
“What is it, Seth? What is it?”
“Jesus Christ, get out!”
“There’s something in my ear. Something’s crawled in my ear.”
“Oh my god! Here, let me see.”
Michelle turned on the light. Seth swung his legs over and sat on the side of the bed. He stuck his pinkie inside his ear and dug around, hoping to catch it under his nail.
“It’s right inside my head! I can’t get at it.”
Michelle touched him on the shoulder.
“Seth, quick, come here, lie under the light.”
“Holy shit,” said Seth, “it’s burrowing. It’s burrowing into my ear!”
“Seth!” Michelle shouted. “Come here under the light.”
Seth stood up, shaking his hands on either side of his head; theatrical panic and indecision.
“Get some water, anything. Flush the bastard out!”
Michelle jumped from the bed, naked. She picked up a towel and threw it over her shoulder, then ran to the kitchen. How could this happen? How could she be so unlucky?
Seth paced up and down at the foot of the bed. He could feel the bug clawing away at his ear-drum, scraping away and making one hell of a racket. Damn he could hear it close – it was right there, banging on his goddamned drum. It was probably eating his wax!
Michelle rushed back with a glass of water, she had wrapped herself in the towel.
“Seth,” she said sternly, a schoolteacher through and through. “Lie on the bed and let me look in your ear.”
“Flush the bastard out,” said Seth. “Get him!”
He was not at all calm, but he came to the bed all the same. He lay down and Michelle bent the lamp over.
“Can you see it?” asked Seth. “I’m not bullshitting, it’s in there. Some big, fuck-off bug.”
Michelle strained and squinted. She brought her eyes right up close and tried to see something. It was dark in there; perhaps it was the angle.
“It’s in there, I’m telling you!” He lay on his side, squirming and kicking his feet.
“Stay still,” said Michelle. “Stop moving.”
Seth looked across at the clock radio. It was four seventeen. He tried to focus on the light but his whole being was agitated. Once, when he was six, the doctor told him to look at the tennis balls on the shelf while he gave him an injection. He spent weeks wondering what it was he was supposed to have seen in the tennis balls. Then, one rainy day, years later, he sussed that it was just a ploy.
Michelle shifted her head and tried another angle. She picked the lamp up and held it right over Seth’s ear. She noticed his temples were greying. How thick and black his sideburns were. He had a strong profile and the way he was lying emphasised his high cheekbones.
“Is it there?”
“I can’t see anything. It’s too dark. Maybe it’s gone in too far.”
“It’s bloody big, I’m telling you. It’s huge. I can feel it.”
“Maybe it just feels big. I guess it might.”
“No way,” said Seth. “This thing’s big, I’m telling you.”
“Aahh!” he cried.
“What is it?”
“Sonofabitch! It’s started burrowing again. It’s clawing right up against my eardrum.”
He held both hands to his head, shaking and squeezing it.
“It’s driving me insane!”
He shot her a bolt of panic. His eyes were wide and manic, then clamped and red and pained.
“Flush it out!” he shouted. “Flush the bloody thing out.”
“Okay,” said Michelle. “Calm down.”
She stood by the bed in growing horror. Despite the excitement, she felt deflated now that she had woken up; deflated with impotence, in being so isolated from the trauma. How could this happen on their first night together? In her own home? She wished he would stop shouting at her.
“Lie still, Seth,” said Michelle. “Lie still and I’ll pour in the water.”
Then she remembered a film, Mountains of the Moon which she saw as a teenager. In it, one of the explorers, the blonde one, got a beetle in his ear and went wild with panic. He poured in hot wax, then tried to stab it out with a letter opener and wrecked his ear for good. She quivered, imagining a bug in her ear.
Seth lay stock still, his face screwed up tight. Michelle tipped the water in, slowly at first, then, raising her hand, she increased the force of it. Seth clutched the edge of the mattress; he pulled at the sheets. The water tickled and ran down his cheek, snaking along the back of his neck. He shivered, picturing the bug floating up like a cork in a glass. He saw it bobbing, rising with the tide, bursting from his ear on the top of a geyser.
“Has anything happened?” asked Seth.
“No,” said Michelle. “Nothing’s come up.”
Seth lay quietly, waiting. The bug had stopped moving. He’d seen flies drown before, but this didn’t feel like a fly. If it was a cockroach, then nothing would stop it, not even nukes.
“Anything at all? Pour in some more,” he said.
Michelle tipped more water into his ear. Again she raised the height from which she poured, hoping to flush the bug out. What was it? An earwig? Is that why they called them earwigs? Seth kicked and squirmed again as the water leapt around in his ear. The bug wasn’t moving, but he knew it hadn’t drowned. The water soothed him, though it blocked his hearing like it did in the surf.
“Nothing’s coming out,” said Michelle. “Is it still moving?”
“It’s stopped for now,” said Seth. “Maybe the water freaked him out.”
Michelle wanted to cry. It wasn’t like her place was dirty. Seth himself must be able to see that. Every old terrace in Sydney had cockroaches, it was hardly a revelation. You just couldn’t beat them, try as you might. Put the food away, wipe down the benches, disinfect, polish, scrub; they still managed to breed, living off flakes of dead skin, off dust mites and minuscule crumbs, lurking until dark behind the drainage pipes under the kitchen sink. Those sly bastards would eat anything. Hell, even earwax.
“I’ve got to get it out,” said Seth. “It might do some serious damage. What if it gets into my head, or wrecks my hearing? I’ve got to get the bastard out.”
“Maybe if I poured some hotter water in,” said Michelle. “Not too hot, just lukewarm.”
“No, no,” said Seth. “Those mongrels can handle nukes.”
“Well I don’t know,” said Michelle. “I’ve never had to deal with this before.”
Seth sat up, then got to his feet. He felt dizzy, off balance.
“Okay, sorry, I’m sorry. I’m freaking out. But this is hectic. I’ll have to go somewhere. It’s got to come out.”
“The hospital’s only five minutes walk from here. We could go there.”
“That’s it! The hospital! I didn’t even think of that. They’ll be open for sure.”
Six minutes later they were dressed and in Michelle’s car. She drove in a state of self-imposed disgrace. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t her fault. She knew she wasn’t the best catch in the world, though she was a pretty fine one at that, and if Seth went away with a complex about sleeping over, if every time he saw her he thought of cockroaches, dirty, invasive bugs – by the gods were they going to cop it; spray, bombs, exterminators, the bloody lot – then how on earth were things supposed to work out?
It was just two blocks to the hospital. Seth expected it to be busy on a Saturday night, but when he bustled through the door, emergency was empty.
“I’ve got something in my ear,” he shouted. “An insect crawled in my ear, I need help.”
“What is it, exactly?” asked the man behind the counter. “In your ear?”
“I don’t fucking know! It crawled in while I was sleeping.”
Then the man woke up and came to life.
“Righty-o. Easy, tiger,” he said. “Let’s check it out.”
Michelle came in after parking. A nurse had Seth by the arm and was marching him through to the ward, curious doctor on hand.
“I’m not smoking crack here,” Seth was saying. “I’m not tripping or peaking or anything. I was asleep, and now there’s a cockroach the size of a small dog in my ear and it’s clawing away at my eardrum. It’s killing me – it’s driving me nuts!”
He turned around.
“This is my, ah, girlfriend,” he said. “She’s with me.”
But? She wondered.
The commotion had already caused a stir. It being a quiet night, the staff began to drift in to have a look. Patients sat up and watched. How could they miss this?
They led Seth to a bed and lay him down. He lay on his side and clutched the edge of the mattress with both hands. The doctor leaned over Seth’s ear and began his inspection. He brought up a pair of tweezers and carefully lowered them into Seth’s ear.
The doctor held up his tweezers. On the end was a long insect leg.
“Where?” said Seth, sitting up and staring. “Bullshit!” he cried. “That’s just its leg.”
How could they be so stupid? A doctor for Christ’s sake?
“Keep going. It’s still in there.”
“Okay, okay, let me try again.”
The doctor leaned over again and reached in deep with the tweezers. Seth had mastered himself now. He lay as straight as an arrow, neck held thick like a bull’s.
The crowd was still growing. There were ten people watching now. One of the staff went outside to tell the paramedics who were smoking on the sly.
“You gotta see this,” said the nurse. “There’s a bloke inside who’s either nuts or a huge bug crawled in his ear. They’re trying to fish it out.”
The paramedics came in. The cleaners gathered round. The nurses came from across the ward to watch the struggle of man against insect.
“There!” shouted the doctor. “Got it!”
He held up the prize on the end of his tweezers. All could see that it was a large insect, doubtless a young cockroach, but not, perhaps, as large as it ought to be.
“That’s just the back half!” shouted Seth, who was now sure he was the only sane person in the room. “They don’t even need half their shit, they just keep going. Keep looking!”
Michelle wished she had brought her camera with her. At the extreme end of her embarrassment was a liberating sense of what it means to be alive. She wanted to take a video, talk over it, make a little documentary. She wanted to get that cockroach and have it mounted.
Everyone was leaning in; sweat on brows, eyes strained. Seth’s distress was so assertive they were all infused with urgency, as though the cockroach really might kill him if left unchecked.
“That’s it, that’s it!” cried the doctor, and this time he was right.
On the end of his tweezers was the front half of a German cockroach, clawing away at the air in some discomfort, as one might be inclined to do when cut in two. A great cheer went up around the bed; eruptions of laughter and spontaneous clapping. Michelle was clapping too; relief like a shot of soft emotion; the flushing, the draining of the poison mood.
Seth was on his feet. He grabbed the hand that held the tweezers and looked the bug in the eye. It was reaching out towards him, motoring away like the stripped-down Terminator with itslegs blown off.
“You dirty son of a bitch,” said Seth. “Next time you try going up my arse and I’ll show you who’s boss.”
Michelle started crying, and she wasn’t entirely sure why.
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