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Otalgia | Audio**Read By Harriet Whitbread
By Fox Hill
Fox Hill had her first short story "Underside Walk" published in The Edge of Propinquity. She resides in Potomac, Maryland, writes more than she would care to admit, and shares a room with a rather busy cat. She's currently working on her first novel, and a variety of short fiction.
       Joan's inner ear itched, and though she had tried to ignore, her success was minimal at best. The itch was a visceral thing, and not as easily fixed as a stray hair finding its way deep within the cavity. She laid still for as long as she could in hopes of not waking her roommate Stefanie, but after half an hour she couldn't take it anymore. The itch was driving her mad, and there was only one thing she could think of doing that might take care of it.
       She slid out of bed, thankful that Stefanie was a heavy sleeper, and padded to the bathroom they both shared. She coughed as she tugged open the door the cotton swabs were kept in. She'd read once that any itch not scratched just spread, and cursed the fact that hers seemed to be trailing down the back of her throat now, making her cough and turning her stomach. Joan rubbed at her cheek, but the sensation wouldn't lessen. She poked that cotton swab into her ear and the feeling of instant relief elicited a quiet moan of pleasure.
       A few twists of the cotton swab only increased the relief she felt. It was such a primal feeling - the scratch satisfied, the itch fading. She exhaled heavily, and with eyes half-lidded, withdrew the cotton swab to toss it in the trash. Something strange caught her eye and gave her pause. The cotton wasn't white, nor was it the strange shade of amber it normally turned if her ear had been particularly waxy. No, this was speckled red with blood and thicker clumps of an unidentifiable black residue. Her stomach turned.
       She rushed to the bedroom, the cotton swab clutched in her fist.
       "Stefanie." She shook her roommate roughly by the shoulder. "Stefanie, you have to wake up, it's -"
       "What's the trouble?" She asked in a half-yawn. She blinked up at Joan registering her worried expression. "Joan, I haven't even been asleep for -"
       "Look at this." She thrust the cotton swab right in Stefanie's face; Stefanie wrinkled her nose in disgust.
       "Joan, that's not funny. Look, just get back in bed. It's nothing, okay?" She sighed irritably. "Even if it's something just don't be so rough with it next time."
       Joan frowned, and looked at the dirty cotton once more. Maybe Stefanie was right. She started to voice one more protest, but her roommate was already asleep. She tossed the cotton swab into the trash, and got back into bed. She hoped Stefanie was right. She shut her eyes and tried for sleep once more.
       Click. She felt more than heard the sound. Click. It was like a lock being slid into place or a binder being opened. Click. The sound repeated and this time was chased by a sharp pain in her jaw. She groaned, and buried her head under the pillow. Click. That sound wasn't stopping any more than the pain was.
       "What's wrong?" Stefanie mumbled as Joan rolled over for what felt like the tenth time.
       "Headache." Joan groaned.
       "Get aspirin." Stefanie mumbled. "Just take care of it. I need sleep."
       Joan thought that was a great idea.
       Click. Joan got to her feet, and swayed. Her headache worsened instantly, and her stomach responded to that dizzy pain. She took a few steps, and winced as the clicking became a constant metronomic gauge of her own pace. She was going to get sick. She hurried to the bathroom, and hung her head over the sink. Slow breaths, a steadying hand against the faucet. She was okay; she swore she was okay.
       She rummaged through the medicine cabinet and poured out two aspirin. The headache came back quickly - the clicking turned to a near constant chatter. She swallowed the pills dry and scrambled for another cotton swab. There had to be something in there causing this sound. She rooted around with the cotton swab. She felt something give that wasn't her own skin. The clicks stopped. She slowly drew out the cotton swab. The cotton was red, black, and yellow.
       Joan swallowed back the sour taste of rising bile. She opened her mouth to call for Stefanie yet again, she couldn't deny there was something seriously wrong now. The bathroom door swung open, and the shout died on her lips. Stefanie took one look at her, and her cheeks paled. She cursed and rushed forward. Her eyes remained locked on the contents of Joan's ear.
       "What is it?" Joan asked a bit too loudly.
       "Stay - stay still." She stammered.
       "Stefanie what is it?" Joan repeated. "What are you looking for?"
       Stefanie yanked open the medicine cabinet and fumbled through its contents. A few bottles fell and bounced off the inside of the sink. She grabbed the tweezers triumphantly, and turned to Joan. Joan's eyes widened.
       "You're not going to -" Joan began.
       "Stay still." Stefanie repeated a bit louder.
       She slid the tweezers slowly into Joan's ear, and twisted them. Joan whimpered involuntarily, the slightest touch of the tweezers against her irritated skin sent a jolt of pain through her body. Stefanie exhaled softly and tightened the tweezers. A crunch was audible in the air. She drew the mess of blood and black out of Joan's ear.
       Even clutched tightly in the tweezers, the cockroach's remains wriggled.
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