“John Townley,” called the doctor.
John Townley got up from his chair, the familiar scuttling of nerves under the skin of his arms.
He’d been anxious enough when the big woman had sat next to him and started talking about how her family had abandoned her to let her cancer eat her. The thousand tiny drumming feet of anxiety had been rattling against his skeleton then. He’d given the most noncommittal answers he could, and left her to cry on her own.
The doctor – his doctor, though he’d never met the man before – escorted him to one of the offices. He shuffled behind the man, head down.
The plaque on the door was in the middle of being changed, so it gave half a name: Dr Mort. Mort meant death in French. This resurfacing nugget of useless trivia made panic flutter through John.
He realised he was being ridiculous. His mother had always called him neurotic. That was why she’d made him play with the twins next door when he’d been a child, even though they obviously hadn’t liked him.
Knowing his ridiculousness made the fear worse though.
Taking a breath, taking a seat, John waited for Dr Morton (he presumed) to find his own chair. He was an ordinary, if haggard, looking man, but moved with skilful grace and hummed to himself as he tapped at his computer.
John worried he was wasting the obviously busy man’s time.
“What’s the problem, Mr Townley?” said Dr Morton, folding into his chair and rolling it forward.
John took his coat from over his hand. Both he and the doctor stared at the tennis ball lump protruding from the back of his hand. It didn’t look sore though. Sometimes it itched.
It worried John. His fear of what it could mean had eventually trumped his fear of visiting the doctor, and the fear of every bad thing that could happen whilst visiting the doctor.
Dr Morton rolled closer, gently taking John’s hand. He probed at the lump, wincing when the skin refused to be malleable. John had to look away, embarrassed. Another, stronger, wave of nervousness raced down his arm. It got like this whenever he had to talk to someone.
When the lump had come up on his hand, it had made dealing with other people almost impossible.
“Is there any pain?” asked the doctor.
“No,” said John.
John shrugged. He lived in discomfort, but, he supposed, the lump surpassed standard levels of discomfort.
“I see,” said the doctor.
Maybe he did. He was a smarter man than John, as John’s mother would’ve reminded him.
Dr Morton rolled away, gathering up some utensils. The scuttling of nerves raced all the way to John’s gut as he saw the doctor size up a scalpel.
“I’m going to try cutting it open,” said the doctor.
John could only nod. Dr Morton rolled back over to him, draping a mini hospital gown over his hand as he placed it on a tray on the doctor’s desk.
“Would you like anaesthetic?” asked Dr Morton.
“No.” He did, but he’d once read about a man who’d had an allergic reaction to anaesthetic and died. These little stories tended to stick in John’s mind better than things like birthdays or appointments.
Dr Morton touched the scalpel to the edge of the lump. A tingling went up John’s arm. The muscles tensed involuntarily.
Dr Morton cut neatly around the lump’s base. A line of blood appeared, but John tried not to throw up. He didn’t want to look like an idiot now. It would all be done soon anyway.
The doctor peeled back the skin. John peered closer. Something black and shining dwelled underneath. Dr Morton paused, then pulled a pair of pliers from his table. He gripped the lump, and another scuttling sensation went through John’s arm. He started to breathe hard.
Dr Morton tightened the pliers on the shining black object. As he pulled, two wiry antennae popped up from it. John gagged, nearing madness.
The muscles in his arm contracted, then thrashed against his skin. Dr Morton gritted his teeth, tightening the grip again on the invader. With a yank, he drew the black head from John’s hand, along with a segment of bronze chitin from which a pair of legs flailed.
“No, that can’t be real,” said John.
Dr Morton yanked again. The creature’s long body rippled up John’s arm, its legs pounding against the inside of his skin. Was this what he’d been feeling all these years – the kicking of the insect’s feet?
With another savage pull, Dr Morton ripped the creature from John’s hand. He felt the thing slithering towards the wound, then Dr Morton leapt up. From his pliers, he held the writhing centipede-thing, scaled in fiery chitin with a head of obsidian. Hundreds of legs lashed out, along with a pair of snapping pincers.
John blinked in awe. The creature hung from the pliers, as long as he was tall, as thick as an elephant tusk. As he stared, Dr Morton drew his scalpel and decapitated it.
The body dropped in coils on the floor, shuddering as black ichor pooled around it. The head kept biting at the pliers for another minute.
John rose shakily. He felt something kindling inside him, a light against the fear, pushing it back. He actually laughed.
“You’ve done it!” he said.
“You should’ve come to see me years ago, Mr Townley,” said Dr Morton, unfazed. “Something like this, you leave it this long it can become dangerous.”
John stepped over the dead creature and hugged the doctor. He didn’t know what else to do. He didn’t care either.
“There may be eggs still waiting to hatch,” said Dr Morton. “Please, Mr Townley, come back if you ever feel the symptoms returning.”
John grinned and strutted from the office a lighter man.