I’ve never been a needy person. My interests are solitary: video games, reading, binging trashy Netflix series, all things that can be experienced with others but are much better enjoyed alone. I work in an open plan office full of loquacious colleagues, but I never make any effort to engage any of them beyond basic niceties. Even as a kid, I’d always pretended to be ill to get out of attending sleepovers.
I don’t hate people. I just tend not to bother with them.
It all began when I couldn’t hear my boyfriend calling me from the kitchen. It was a rainy Sunday afternoon, so I was sitting in a nest of food and blankets on the sofa, Xbox controller gripped tightly in my hands, completely absorbed in the boss battle that I’d been working towards for the past hour or so. Eli stomped into the sitting room and stood in front of the television screen.
“Woah, woah, woah! Babe, I’m gonna die!”
“Didn’t you hear me calling you?” he huffed.
It was no use – my character was almost dead, pummelled into oblivion by the boss’s henchmen. That’s an hour of grinding down the drain. I flung the Xbox controller onto the sofa and stuck my hand in the half-eaten bag of popcorn I’d microwaved a couple of hours earlier.
“No, I didn’t.”
“I’ve been calling you for ages, like, really loudly. If you don’t peel the veg now the lamb’s gonna be burnt by the time everything’s cooked. You said you’d help this week.”
“Well I’m sorry, but I didn’t hear you!” I snapped. “Why do we even need a Sunday roast? It’d be way easier to just get a Chinese – probably cheaper, too.”
Eli’s jaw tightened. “It’s our time to relax and reconnect. Dr Lawson said…”
Anyway, that was the first sign that something was a bit off with my hearing. I’d noticed a bit of itchiness on my left ear, but over the next few days it progressively worsened; what had started off as an irritating itch grew into acute pain, then swelling and finally, an almost complete loss of hearing. By Tuesday morning everything sounded muffled and wispy, like my head had been dunked underwater.
Fruitlessly, I tried to get a better look at my ear by standing in front of the bathroom mirror and angling Eli’s shaving mirror next to my face, but it was trickier than I’d anticipated and I gave up pretty quickly. I didn’t want to risk asking Eli to take a look for me. He was still sulking.
I tried all the home remedies: sticking a cotton bud inside my ear, pressing a hot water bottle against it, but nothing worked. I assumed it was a build-up of wax that would eventually dislodge itself, but not before making my daily life a massive hassle.
Before long, I had grown to hate my new life as a partially deaf person.
People treat you differently when they know that you can’t hear what they’re saying. At first, I didn’t particularly care (because like I said, not a people person), but a few days into the work week, I was beginning to feel the first uneasy tinges of isolation.
My colleagues’ withdrawal from me came as a shock. They stopped bothering to ask if I fancied a coffee from the machine when they were getting one for themselves and most of them stopped looking up when I said goodbye at the end of my shifts. I was completely disregarded, a lonely husk working quietly at her desk in the far corner of the office.
I became scared to speak, because I had no perception of how loudly I might be talking. So, I stopped all together. First my hearing, then my voice, both taken.
I couldn’t believe that all it had taken for me to lose my social standing at work was a build-up of wax in my left ear. What did that say about the quality of my personality? What if I’d always been a pariah and was only just noticing it now?
If people aren’t talking to me, are they at least thinking about me? Do they remember that I’m here? What’s worse: people thinking about me but not talking to me, or not thinking of me at all?
I could still hear wisps of conversations through the rumbling nothingness of my blocked ear, and I didn’t like what I heard. Sure, I couldn’t make out the words, but from the cadence of their voices and the betrayal of their body language I could decipher exactly what they were saying. They had decided I was weird and twitchy now, and they wouldn’t be bothering much with me anymore.
That night, I slept lightly. I awoke slowly in the middle of the night to the sound of something small rustling around inside my pillow. Through the haze of sleep, I flipped the pillow, plumped it up a bit and settled in to fall back asleep.
The rustling persisted.
I groaned and rolled over to the other side of the bed, the side where Eli usually slept. I could still hear it, an annoying scrabbling right up close to my ear. As the rustling grew louder, I slipped further away from sleep and became reluctantly awake in my dark bedroom in the middle of the night.
I sat up, intending to grab a glass of water from the kitchen, but instead came to the spine-shaking realisation that the rustling was not a bug in the pillows, it was something inside my ear.
I leapt out of bed and floundered. What the hell do I do? Something is moving around inside my head! Is it trying to get out, or burrow further in?
I paced back and forth with my hand pressed against my hot, swelling ear.
Who do I call for this? What do I say? But wait… I won’t be able to hear them.
The rustling had become painfully loud. Pain seared through my ear as it ripped and widened to make way for whatever was about to burst out of me. I could hear my cartilage cracking from the inside. Suddenly there was an unbearably hot pain as my ear split open and a thin, hairy leg poked itself out of my ear canal, blindly searching for a foothold on the tattered remains of my outer ear. More legs poked through and anchored themselves on my outer ear, then pushed and pushed, straining to pull the rest of their body through my swollen, broken ear canal.
I could feel ragged scream in my lungs and vocal cords.
Finally, a great weight dropped from my ear and I fell back against my bedroom wall. Hot blood trickled down my neck. I touched my hand to the side of my face and felt the fleshy remains of what had once been my ear. Again, I screamed.
A great arachnid towered over me. Her rotund body was held up by eight spindly legs which seemed in danger of snapping under the immense weight. At first glance her head appeared to be deformed, but upon closer inspection I realised that this was no deformity – it was a crown. She couldn’t be described as wearing the crown because it was growing out of her head, formed of gnarled sinew and muscle, dotted with the same dark hairs which covered her body. Her royalty was innate and terrifying.
Eight dark eyes bored into my soul. They flickered, yet also scrutinised me. I couldn’t break her gaze.
I got the sense that she was waiting for something.
J.L. Corbett is the editor of Idle Ink, an online publisher of all things curious. Her stories have been published in MoonPark Review, Schlock! Webzine, The Cabinet of Heed, STORGY Magazine and others. She owns more books than she can ever possibly read and doesn’t get out much. To read more of her work, visit www.jlcorbett.org