Today’s prompt is Dignify and this made me think about rejection and what a lonely experience submitting manuscripts can be. Here is a slightly strange tale that I wrote some time back. It was an attempt at sci-fi and however much I shaped or edited it I was never really happy with it. It seemed to have my offbeat sense of the absurd yet the characters felt very two-dimensional and as a result I couldn’t really get it to fit anywhere, even though the manuscript was submitted to a few places.
Some editors didn’t even dignify it with a response. No matter where this story went, kind rejection letters followed it. It has been edited, hacked, pruned and polished but you know what they sometimes say about turds?
Well eventually this story and I fell out and it has been gathering dust in my bottom drawer, which felt a bit of a shame. So I have decided to share it with you in all its imperfect glory. It’s fairly long, so it’s on two pages, but if you have time to read it let me know what you think? Is there any saving it? Sound off in the comments below.
Better to have Toothache
by John de Gruyther
He was afraid of hospitals, doctors, dentists; hell, pharmacists gave him the creeps. Anyone vaguely medical was a no-go zone. But what he feared the most was general anaesthetic; he would not be willingly knocked unconscious for love nor money. It was bad enough having to let your guard down and be unconscious when you slept, but that was a biological necessity and he begrudgingly accepted that.
Greg Fisher had always felt this way. He had a faint notion that it was to do with a disturbing experience he had had when he was a child, but he couldn’t ever put his finger on the matter. He had asked his Mum and she had given him a non-committal response. Apparently he had been ill as a child, ill enough that he had needed to visit the doctor and have tubes stuffed down his throat, but he had never, his Mum assured him, been “put under”, (as the medical profession liked to euphemistically term it), yet the concept terrified him.
His dreams were visited by a recurring nightmare where a doctor approached him with a fistful of tubes, writhing like a pit of angry vipers, and in the distance he could hear a heart monitor beeping. He always tried to run from the doctor but was eventually restrained by the nurse and as the doctor’s smiling face begins to loom over him he awoke. Perhaps this was his only problem, a simple case of irrational fear brought on by one vividly memorable experience from his youth, a fear built upon during his formative years and carried on through to adulthood. If his Mum would just explain the truth behind his illness maybe he would be released from the fear.
The problem currently facing him was that he had been told by a dentist that he had an impacted wisdom tooth that needed extracting. And the terrible news for Greg Fisher was that this procedure would require a “full” anesthetic. His fear may well have been irrational but it was very real. He was beside himself with worry at the thought; little tiny dots of panic itched under his scalp, trying to penetrate the bone of his skull, like millions of ants crawling inside his head. All his friends had tried to re-assure him that he was being paranoid and those were the more helpful ones. The less helpful ones made fun of his hypochondria and sent him text messages offering him “support”.
What time is your dentist appt?
Tooth Hurty!! LOL 😉
Greg was relaxed about this sort of banter because he knew that whatever anyone said he would still think that “going under” was the worst idea created by man. He scoured the internet finding article after article detailing the deaths of people having routine dental procedures. 178 people had died whilst under a general anesthetic. The fact that this was from a period spanning 1965 to 1999 had no bearing on his fear, 178 people was a hell of a lot and he didn’t want to become a statistic. Far from increasing his anxiety these internet searches actually helped him because they cemented his certainty that he needed to avoid the dentist at all costs.
Three weeks of excruciating pain and the persuasion of his closest friend was eventually enough to convince Greg he had very little choice but to accept the procedure, as the alternative was an abscess, which could lead to further complications. He reluctantly accepted his fate and booked an appointment to have the procedure.
He approached the receptionist’s window. She spoke in a dull monotone to someone on the phone. She pointed at Greg’s feet. Confused, Greg looked down guessing that maybe his laces were untied.
“Sorry, I don’t understand.” He said.
The receptionist sighed.
“Wait behind the line, until I call you.” She instructed.
Greg nodded and did a mock army salute and goose stepped back behind the line. The joke was lost on the receptionist. Greg was only behind the line for a moment when the receptionist said.
Greg approached the window.
“I have an extraction booked with Mr. Price.”
“Take a seat in the waiting room and Mr. Price will be with you as soon as possible.”
Greg went through a door to his left and into the waiting area. Plastic toys were strewn across the green carpet and a small child was in the process of smashing his mother on the ankle with a toy drum stick.
“Stop that Rupert or Mummy will have to get cross.”
With his eyes down he sat on the nearest seat. He glanced up at the notice board, seeing little note cards advertising bikes for sale and various flyers extolling the value of yoga for the over 80’s and warnings about not washing your hands after visiting the toilet. He looked at the table beside him and nervously picked up a magazine called Men’s Health.
After about 30 minutes of re-reading the same article about whether masturbation was good for the prostate, a tinny disembodied voice called out his name.
“Mr Fisher, to room four please.”
Greg took a deep breath and walked through the door and up the corridor finding himself outside room number four. He was shaking and contemplated running away. He thought to himself, how bad could a toothache really get? Surely he could put up with the pain if it meant avoiding the extraction? Somehow he got a hold of himself and entered the room.
A sombre looking man with a graying beard, presumably Mr Price, beckoned Greg to take a seat. Over the next few minutes, in a monotone voice so boring that Greg surmised that it must be part of the anesthetizing process, Price explained the procedure and what would happen during and after. Greg nodded silently and was eventually lead to the chair where the nurse strapped a mask to his face. Shortly after that everything became a blur as Greg Fisher finally succumbed to his greatest fear.
Greg’s head swam. He could hear the echo of footfall but he could not yet see. He awoke and was immediately aware of a crushing pain in his neck; it felt like someone had clamped it in a vice. He sat into an upright position and felt the back of his neck, there was no obvious wound but the ache was considerable. He guessed that it was a side effect of the anesthetic, and he rolled his head back and forth trying to relieve the pain. His vision had now fully cleared and he looked around, foggily realizing that he was not in the same place as when he had been put under. His first thought was that something must have gone wrong and they had had to perform some emergency surgery on him but then he noticed he was not in a chair or in a hospital bed but sat on a hard wooden floor. His tongue felt like sandpaper and apart from a distant whooshing sound, which may or may not have been in his head, the space he occupied was completely silent.
He was in a square room and the ceiling tiles seemed to resemble those of an NHS dental clinic apart from the fact they were emitting a vague amber glow. There were no other lights in the room apart from the translucent glow of the tiles. Opposite where he sat stood a door. Managing to stand he made his way to the door and on closer inspection he could see that the door was made of wood with an ornate pattern skilfully carved into it. It was beautiful and must have taken a lot of effort. The pattern was familiar, but he couldn’t work out why.
The whooshing sound returned to Greg and it seemed to be coming from behind the door. For the first time Greg started to panic about his situation. None of it seemed right, was this some kind of unconscious nightmare or had he fallen foul to some kind of prank, where the hell was he?
He grabbed the door handle and pulled it open. The whooshing sound was now louder than ever and it was an eerie cacophony, like the noise of oncoming traffic as perceived by a flea at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. “Curiouser and curiouser”, Greg muttered to himself.
He walked through the door and found himself in a corridor, he had temporarily gotten the better of his fear and let his curiosity lead the way. The corridor stretched from left to right. To the right was jet black darkness and to the left Greg could discern a faint light. He logically felt that light must indicate something positive so he, foolishly it would turn out, headed towards the light. After what seemed like over an hour he found the source of the light to be a window. Except it was more of a porthole with its glass bulging outwards in a convex shape. It reminded Greg of a viewing portal at an aquarium he had visited as a child; he remembered seeing a giant turtle loom out of the depths and peer at him. Greg had been terrified and exhilarated in equal measure, the turtle seeming like some fantastical beast of mythical proportions. The idea of something looming out of this portal struck Greg as something he definitely didn’t want to witness. This dark notion settled on his mind and, like an unwelcome guest, refused to leave.
Greg approached the porthole with great apprehension. He peered through the great glass window and could see nothing through the fog; it looked cold beyond the viewing hole. He racked his brain for some logical answer to what he had experienced since waking; he concluded that he must be dreaming. The ache in his neck seemed to contradict the idea of a dream and it was the pain that returned his focus to the porthole. He stood there for a moment numb with confusion; Then he saw movement from the room behind the glass, just a dark shadow in the distance, he instinctively crouched down, not wanting to be seen by whatever lay within. The whooshing sound, which had temporarily abated, now returned with a vengeance as two figures came closer to the window and entered Greg’s line of vision.
He stifled a cry, he couldn’t quite believe what he was witnessing. He crouched even further down, and he craned his eyes to see, like a cartoon character whose eyes stand out of their sockets as if on stalks. Before him his eyes testified to something that his mind refused to process. Two creatures walking in a crouch, their gait reminiscent to that of an ape, now stood before Greg. But these creatures were not quite apes, their faces were humanoid but their mouths overhung their faces by several inches and they had very deep set eyes. Fur covered the parts of their bodies that were not already covered with what appeared to be a suit and tie. Greg strained as much as he dared to see if they were anything on their feet but the fog obscured his view. Fear gripped his heart as the whooshing sound now reached a crescendo. It occurred to him that the noise might be coming from the creatures, it may even be the noise they make communicating with each other. Feeling sick, Greg slouched into a sitting position, unable to make any sense of what he had seen.
With his sickness showing no sign of abating Greg led down on the floor. On his back, the cold floor soothed the pain in his neck and was a comfort to his dizzying sickness. He slowed his breathing and like a revelation from the heavens the sound stopped. He enjoyed the quiet. He positioned himself back into a sitting position and the noise immediately returned. He led down again and the noise ceased. He now realized the connection, the noise was in him, or at least connected to his hearing or his ears. In his supine position he could now discern another sound; he listened carefully and recognized the sound as people talking. It was a clipped sort of speech but he could make out some words he recognized. He put himself into the prone position and slid himself back towards the porthole to see if he could hear anything more clearly. He slid across something sharp that pulled at his t-shirt. He stopped and peered down and noticed a wooden trapdoor in the floor, complete with a brass handle. The next thing he noticed was another ornately carved door next to the porthole. Now that the whooshing sound was gone he could finally take in his surroundings. Noting the trapdoor he decided to try the other door first. Anticipating the return of the whooshing sound he stood up and he heaved the door open.
An acrid smell hit his nostrils and the stench of ammonia made his eyes sting. The room was dark apart from the now familiar amber glow. There were windows to the left of him that he assumed led to the porthole room but they were small and right at the top of the wall, so no one could see in or out unless they had a step ladder or were incredibly tall. The thought of tall versions of the ape creatures sent a shiver down his spine. Looking round the room he saw it was littered with cages and the sort of apparatus you might find in a science lab.
He approached a work bench and picked up what appeared to be a test tube. At the far end of the room he saw a row of boxes on a table. He slowly approached the boxes to see what was within, and he immediately wished that he had opened the trapdoor first. In each of the boxes were whole skeletons, the first one he examined appeared to be that of a human child but as he went from box to box his discoveries became more appalling and bewildering. In the box next to the human child, appeared to be the remains of a fox but with a skull like none Greg had ever seen. The next box was even more distressing. The torso element of the skeleton was fat and wide and there were three arms on either side, the legs were short and stunted and the skull, well the skull almost made Greg lose his breakfast. It was a giant skull, bigger than anything Greg could imagine existed be it human or animal, but it was not just its size that made Greg shiver, it was the grin that appeared to be twisted on its face and the shape. It was almost an oval and the word that sprung into his head was alien. Was he looking at an alien skeleton?
Repulsed and fearful Greg backed out of the room, the whooshing sound now at an unmanageable pitch. He returned to the porthole and slouched down panting with terror. He led himself parallel to the viewing window and he could again hear speaking. This time it was much clearer, he had found no obvious way to get into the room behind the window but the voices were so clear he guessed there must be some access or vent coming out of the room that carried the sound to him. Again the speech was clipped, almost inhuman in its guttural soundings.
“The experiment of bringing them across to our dimension has failed.” Said a stentorian voice.
He heard a muffled grunting noise that seemed to indicate an acceptance of this first statement.
“Always they die.” A higher pitched voice eventually agreed.
“But it no longer matters Officer 474, because the device is now ready.”
“When does it begin, Chief 6.6?”
“Soon my friend, soon – You need to prepare the accelerators.”
There was a pause and Greg listened with frightened eagerness.
Chief 6.6 continued. “Soon, 474, we will see our world again, no longer trapped in this manufactured dimension. Ingenious as our brother scientists undoubtedly are, this world was not meant to keep us so long. The exchange will bring us the strength we need to open up the portal and go home.”
Nonplussed by this bizarre conversation, Greg crawled towards the trap door. For some reason he knew with absolute certainty that if the apes saw him they would kill him, but there was something more terrible at the root of his fear, they would kill him but they would gain something too. They would hold the key to an awful wisdom that would assist them in their morbid work.
Suddenly Greg became aware that the voices had stopped and in a panic he stood up and hit his head on an overhead pipe, causing a sickening crunch as his forehead was shoved uninvited into his neck, he felt an overpowering wave of nausea come over him and little white flecks appeared before his eyes as he blacked out.