Alternative Medicine

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic
Another short story, this time written in a more modern style and setting. More of a focus on characterisation, with elements of horror. Submitted for constructive criticism.

Submitted: November 20, 2016

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Submitted: November 20, 2016

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“Let’s get on with it, then”, said Owen Collins, taking the broom from the kitchen cupboard and heading out of the back door.

Owen Collins often had conversations with his personal possessions. They had come to fill the void left by his vanishing social life and his increasingly distant family. That was alright by him though: he liked his things. Unlike people, he had been able to choose them to suit his own exacting specifications. He especially liked his cleaning and neatening utensils, with which he felt a distinct kinship.

Despite the company of the broom, though, Owen Collins was in a sour mood. The tree at the bottom of the garden had been shedding its leaves again, marring the groomed immaculacy of his lawn. This could not be allowed to stand. In many ways, his garden was a reflection of himself: superficially healthy, yet entirely flat and monotonous – although it lacked the bald patch in the middle to truly complete the effect. When the garden wasn’t tidy, Owen Collins didn’t feel quite right in his skin. Today, he would use his friend, the broom, to correct this personal affront.

He began to work across the grass, sweeping with the fastidiousness of a French polisher, and as order emerged from chaos, his mood slowly brightened. Arriving at the bottom of the garden, he took a moment to frown at the mound of browning unpleasantness that he had gathered, before shooting a glare towards the tree that had caused it.

“Revolting”, he muttered reprovingly.

But the tree seemed unmoved, and then, as if to mock him, jettisoned another leaf, which floated gently this way and that before coming to rest upon the crown of his slipper. He kicked it peevishly onto the pile, turning away as the disturbance sent a wave of damp, mildewed stink up into his nostrils. There would be no peace until it was all gone, he knew, unlatching the gate and heading out into the alley.

Owen Collins didn’t like his neighbours very much. They were excessively noisy and kept busy, tasteless gardens. On top of that, at least two of them owned a dog, while there were more cats than he could bear to count. “The city is where people live”, he had always told his inanimate companions, and never had he heard an argument to convince him otherwise.

The neighbours were constantly leaving their rubbish all over the place, too, especially in the vicinity of their wheelie bins. Bottles, bags and big, mouldering boxes - it was as if they failed to properly grasp the concept of a wheelie bin. Now, looking out along the alley, he frowned at the fruits of their misdemeanours.

He would leave them each another strongly worded note, he resolved, but then, as he turned to his own wheelie bin, a streak of colour on the ground caught his eye. Bending down, he tracked the length of rich, patterned fabric to the loop at the end.

It was a tie.

Those slovenly pigs!

Not only had they failed to make proper use of their own wheelie bins, but now they were corrupting his as well! While he definitely approved of the full Windsor knot, there was no way that he could endorse this sort of filthy negligence. And what sort of person uses a full Windsor and then leaves the tie laying on the ground anyway, he reflected. There was clearly something terribly wrong with these people.

Reaching out with the end of the broom, he hooked the tie up by its loop and…

REOWW!!!

A dark shape darted between his legs and through the garden gate behind him. Gathering himself from the surprise, he crept carefully after it, only to find a large ginger tabby cat sitting comfortably in the middle of the lawn. The cat gave him a sly look from the corner of its green saucer eyes, as if questioning his continued presence, before resuming its preening nonchalance.

“What the bloody hell are you doing in here!”, said Owen Collins, taking a step towards it with the broom outstretched.

The cat stopped preening.

“Go on, get out!”, he cried, shoving the broom at the cat, which bristled and hissed, but held its ground. Owen Collins could scarcely believe the temerity of it, the great pile of spit-washed fluff, perched in the centre of his lawn as if it owned the place.

“Get out, you filthy animal!”, he shouted furiously, lunging forward with his broom, and this time the end made contact. But instead of fleeing, the cat sprang up and over, and a moment later, a rush of hot pain surged through the flesh on the outside of Owen Collins’ hand, sending the broom clattering onto the floor.

He stood for a moment, heart racing, cradling the bleeding hand.

Soon, though, his shock turned to anger, and snatching up his friend the broom, he sprinted out into the alley, where he set about searching the gaps and the crannies. But he could find no sign of the wretched creature, and when he arrived at the street beyond, he saw only a solitary figure pacing off into the distance.

***

Owen Collins was one of the lucky ones. While others had floundered in youthful indecision, he had always known what he wanted to be. After university, he had walked more or less directly into his dream job, a role that allowed him to explore and satisfy all the complex facets of his inner nature. He worked for a large outsourced accountancy firm, receiving regular fixes of warm gratification as he arrived, with mechanical consistency, at precisely the figure he was expecting to.

But it wasn’t all good news.

Though his career had started brightly, his steep trajectory to success had unexpectedly flattened, and now, aged thirty-six, he was still doing much the same things as ten years ago. The lack of variation was fine enough in itself, of course, but the stunted growth in his pay packet had narrowed his purchasing options, frustrating his social life. This frustration had to go somewhere, and given his lack of seniority, there was only really one place for it: the temp, Sarah.

“Look, this really isn’t good enough!”, he declared, dropping a heavy stack of papers onto her desk.

“These are official documents, not some… unofficial ones! Look at this!”, he added, setting down another pile of sheets that he had photocopied himself that morning.

“Square!; Not square!; Square!; Not… oh…”

As he had been highlighting the disparity in squareness with a powerful chopping motion, he had suddenly noticed a reddish haze smudged across the top sheet. Turning his hand over, he found the plaster half peeled away and soaked in semi-congealed blood.

“Ooh, that looks nasty”, said Sarah, peering interestedly at the wound. “You want to get that looked at by a doctor.”

“Never mind that!”, retorted Owen Collins, whipping the hand away. “You just worry about straightening up those papers, alright?”

‘Bloody temps’, he muttered as he marched back to his desk. What could she possibly know about health or cleanliness, with her wonky bloody photocopies?

***

A dull thudding rumbled across ceiling as Owen Collins took his seat in the doctor’s surgery the next morning. He frowned up towards the gently swaying light fitting, then down to his hand, where mound of latex and wadding oozed burnt red like some strange, festering growth. Shortly after he had arrived home from work the night before, the plaster he had borrowed from the first aid kit had bled through, and no amount of reinforcement had yet been successful in stemming the flow.

Owen Collins always resented taking time off work. It disrupted the neatness of his daily routine, and set him back in his tasks - a situation that his meticulous, plodding style made difficult to recover. But of all the places that he might go on such an occasion, the doctor’s surgery was definitely one of the better ones. In fact, the sterile atmosphere and quiet orderliness rather reminded him of home.

At least, that was usually the case.

On this occasion, when he had telephoned the surgery at precisely half past eight that morning, he had been informed that his favourite doctor was away on sick leave. Instead, he had been offered the choice of a locum or a trip to Accident and Emergency, which was really no choice at all: Accident and Emergency matched closely with his idea of the underworld, with its horde of botched, moaning creatures and its troublingly ad-hoc work schedule. Still, no amount of hesitation had returned the option of his usual doctor, and the appointment he had ultimately settled for had left him quite irritated.

Then, when he had arrived at the surgery, he had almost been knocked off his feet by a chubby receptionist who was chasing after a bird that had somehow found its way inside. She had followed it up the stairs soon after, and judging by the sounds coming through the ceiling now, had not yet been successful in catching it.

In an effort to take his mind off things, he turned to the panel of employee photographs hung up on the wall nearby. To his perennial annoyance, someone had arranged these with the persons of least significance at the top, but this anti-hierarchy had never fooled Owen Collins, whose eyes skipped quickly past the underlings to the doctors below, before coming to rest on one figure in particular.

The beloved Dr. Basford.

This was a man after Owen Collins’ heart: Always impeccably turned-out, his assortment of three-piece suits with their subtly different pinstripes never bore so much as a smudge or hair upon them. His fit, wiry body seemed to defy the usual entropy of age, as did his greying, side-parted hair, which was combed so neatly that it had attained an almost plastic sheen. Even the wrinkles on his crisply angular face seemed tasteful and well-planned somehow. He was truly an inspirational human being.

“Dr. Woods will see you now”, said the receptionist, jarring Owen Collins back into the moment. “Room three”, she added, flinching as a particularly loud thud rattled the shutters above the desk.

Along the corridor, Owen Collins took a moment to ponder an appropriate style for his knock, settling on a stout double-tap with the knuckle of his middle finger. A moment later, a muffled voice invited him to enter, but as he turned the handle, a surprising darkness seemed to spill from within.

“Come in”, the gravelly voice repeated, and he peered into the gloom, trying to determine the gender of the speaker.

“Come in!”, it barked, and his legs propelled him obediently forward.

When at last they came to a halt, he was standing in a quite incongruous space: not the stark, clinical emptiness of a normal consulting room, with its smattering of neatly-stowed medical instruments, but a cluttered murk, strewn with odd-looking trinkets and curious knickknacks, stuffed on the shelves or dangling from the rail beside the examining bed. Except for the vague glow from around the blind, the only light came from a small, old-fashioned table lamp, while the thin mist that lingered in the air was filled with a medley of intoxicating scents.

On the gas-lift chair at the centre of it all, a striking woman sat, watching Owen Collins intently. Her pale complexion was youthfully smooth, while her bright green eyes and fiery red hair seemed to glow amongst the mist, and yet she had a strangely aged aura about her somehow. Around her shoulders, she wore a black lace shawl, and a long black dress beneath that, which seemed to shimmer subtly as it billowed outward like some unholy bridal gown.

“Have a seat”, she said, eyes tracking him as he pattered compliantly across the room.

“You’re Doctor Woods, then?”, he asked, lowering himself onto the chair.

“That is correct”, she answered. “With what might I help you?”

“Oh right… well, it’s about this I suppose”, he said, raising the hand to show the pile of sullied plasters. “A bloody cat bit it, if you’d believe that! Filthy animals…”

“I see”, said the woman, staring unblinkingly.

“Oh well… it happened two days ago, but the bleeding won’t seem to stop”, he added.

Still she watched him, and he soon began to fidget, but something in the atmosphere stifled his objections.

“Take two of these in the morning, at midday and at night”, she said at last, producing a small vial of black pills from beneath her shawl and sliding it slowly to the corner of the desk.

“You’ll soon see a change.”

“But… but aren’t you going to look at it?”, he said weakly.

“No need”, she replied. “It is best not to disturb the wound by removing the plaster during the process. The healing process…”

“Oh, I see”, he muttered, rising with the tilt of her head, before tottering across the room and out of the door.

***

Owen Collins didn’t remember much of the appointment that morning - not that it really mattered to him: soon after coiffing the first pair of pills with his crustless cucumber sandwiches, the wound on his hand had stopped bleeding, and by one o’ clock that afternoon, he was back at work again.

In fact, not only had the uncomfortable itching also vanished, but so had the subtle haze that often seemed to sit upon his mind. Suddenly he was filled with energy, and in little more than an hour, he had polished off all his tasks for the day, spending the gap before the mid-afternoon meeting browsing articles on the internet.

“Based on my analysis, it’s almost certain that Ireland will make a deal with the EU to close down offshore tax avoidance some time in 2018”, he declared, drawing to a close a five minute monologue that had stunned the rest of the meeting into silence. “I recommend moving all the relevant interests of our clients to Luxembourg as soon as possible.”

The District Manager, Mr Cummins, a vast mound of suit-tormenting flesh who single-handedly occupied one entire short side of the table, dabbed his glistening brow in astonishment. Owen Collins knew he had scored a goal then: not even the aroma from the bakery across the street made the boss sweat like the whiff of a large saving.

“Perhaps you should come and see me tomorrow morning”, Mr. Cummins’ grunted, a sly grin briefly levitating the scrotal mass about his jowels. “I think we’ll have to see about that new role.”

Owen Collins thanked him vigorously, pretending to know what role he was talking about, before filing out of the meeting room with the others.

“Not bad, Collins”, said Tim Roland, corralling Owen Collins with a powerful arm as he made his way into the corridor. Tim was a big man known for his big ideas, and his tone betrayed both astonishment and even a hint of jealousy. They had joined the company in the same year, but their paths had since diverged so considerably that Tim was now technically the manager of the manager of Owen Colins’ manager.

“You’re looking good!”, he added, quizzically rubbing his impressive jaw, while his eyes, narrow as if permanently staring into a sunset, carefully surveyed Owen Collins from beneath their hefty browshield. “Have you had a haircut? Actually, a few of us are going to the golf course at the weekend. Do you fancy a swing?”

“Absolutely!”, said Owen Collins, absorbing the percussive blows on his back as the big man turned and loped off. Owen Collins didn’t play golf, and would normally have refused such an invitation, but the ideas bubbling through his mind seemed too good to keep to himself. If the worst came to the worst, he could always enjoy the neat aesthetic of the greens while the others played.

***

A palpable buzz permeated Owen Collins’ body as he made his way back through the traffic that evening. This was a trip that he had made a thousand times before and yet, suddenly, a smorgasbord of new detail offered itself to him from every direction: the faded, sun-cracked skin of the hording atop the old picture house; the intriguing shape of a side street road sign, its corner folded back to reveal a sliver of reflective red; the gentle depressions angling across the road, as if a fleet of burrowing creatures had tunnelled this way and that beneath the tarmac.

So much variety!

So much disparity.

So much disorder…

Owen Collins’ expression began to sour. A sickly knot tightened in the pit of his belly, sending tendrils of tension out across his body. The useless, crumbling cement between the smog-blackened brickwork; the lurid orange muck-smeared grit bins with their plastic lids caved in by the pressure of uncouth backsides; the piles of rotting leaf litter strewn everywhere like some revolting potpourri. All of it seemed to crowd in on Owen Collins now, invading his being, refusing to be ignored.

By the time Owen Collins parked up, Owen Collins was feeling quite unwell, but as Owen Collins stumbled through the front door of his house and sank into the sofa, even the scrupulous order surrounding Owen Collins did little to soothe Owen Collins’ discomfort. Owen Collins wondered if the wound on his hand had flared up again, and peered down at the plaster nervously, but the doctor’s orders to leave it alone seemed to ring in his ears.

“Midday and night”, Owen Collins muttered, glancing out through the window, where the glow of the street lights gathered in the gloom. “Close enough”, he sighed, tipping a pair of pills from the vial into his hand and gulping them down. Then Owen Collins crawled up the stairs and went to bed.

***

Strange dreams filled the mind of Owen Collins that night: a neat, plain sandcastle washed away by a dark tide; a plantation of tall, straight trees burned and broken by a raging fire.

When he awoke in the morning, his skin felt hot and sore about him, and then, when he tried to move, his joints were so stiff that he could barely rise from the mattress.

“Is your life in any immediate danger?”, the respondent on the phone had asked in a grainy, vaguely familiar voice. The question had caught Owen Collins off guard.

“Oh well… not immediate danger”, he croaked back. “But…”

“Can you travel to Accident and Emergency?”, the voice interrupted.

“I don’t think so”, he answered. “I told you I can barely move...”

A long pause, and Owen Collins had the strange sensation that he was being watched.

“I can send the emergency doctor out to see you…”, the voice said suggestively. “But they won’t be available until the evening.”

“The evening!”, Owen Collins wheezed.

“The evening”, the voice cooed, and Owen Collins felt a wave of agreeability washing over him.

“I, uhh…. I’ll take it, I suppose”, he muttered, before slowly hanging up the phone. Then, drawing the vial of tablets from his pocket, he popped a few absently into his mouth before bundling himself up on the living room sofa.

A pair of loud, bony taps awoke him suddenly to enveloping darkness. Was it the evening already? How long had he been asleep for? He tried to push himself up, but his arms would barely move, while his knees and hips seemed locked into position.

“Hello?”, he called. “I think I’m stuck here!”

Several seconds passed in silence.

“Hello?”, he repeated? “Are you there?”

A soft click behind him, and the main light came on.

“Who’s that?”, he blurted nervously, trying to turn his head, but his neck refused to budge.

“Is… is that the doctor? How did you get in here?”

No reply.

Suddenly, he felt something sliding up the back of his head, soft fingertips spreading about his balding crown, making a smooth, gentle orbit as if caressing some beloved pet.

“Don’t worry Mr. Collins”, a gravelly voice purred in his ear. “You’re in my care now.”

A low, silky shuffle, and a dark shape began to glide across his view, draped in lengths of black fabric that rippled strangely in the still air. He struggled to peer upward, just catching the ends of the fiery red locks as the figure stopped and turned towards him.

“Oh! Dr. Woods!”, Owen Collins exclaimed, sighing with relief. “I thought it was a burglar or something!”

Still no reply.

Now the figure began to bend at the waist, leaning forward until, at last, the head slid down across his own.

A horrified chill stole through Owen Collins.

Where the pale skin of the doctor’s face should have been, the hair simply continued across in a thick coat of luscious red fur. Beyond the whiskers of the chin, the tips of feline fangs protruded over black, half-human lips, while glassy green eyes peered past the moist pink nose, their narrow slit pupils staring unblinkingly into his, as if searching for something.

“What… what the hell are you?”, stammered Owen Collins, trying desperately to wriggle, but even the smallest movement caused him unbearable pain.

The figure straightened slowly up again.

“You should have more concern about what you are…”, it purred as it drifted out of view.

“What does that mean!?”, croaked Owen Collins. “I know what I am!”

But the figure said nothing more.

He could hear something going on in the kitchen behind him now, a vague clink and scrape, followed the low bubble of gently boiling fluid, and a peculiar aroma.

“What are you doing in there?”, he tried to call, but his voice was thin and failing. “What have you done to me?”

At last, the noises stopped, and the smell began to dissipate.

“Hello?”, whispered Owen Collins. “Is anyone there?”

A flurry of footsteps, and a sharp, stabbing pain burrowed into the side of his neck. He tried to scream, but his voice cracked, leaving only empty breath. A moment later, he gasped as a tide of caustic heat seemed to flood into his neck, flowing down into his chest, then out along his limbs. Then, from the depths of the flesh, a terrible burning seemed to gather, pushing out towards his skin as if a fire was consuming him from within.

A suddenly convulsion wrenched his body forwards, then violently back, slamming his head against the top of the sofa.

“What’s… happening… to me?”, he struggled.

Then another wave of convulsive pain, this one so intense that he could only gurgle silently. His skin seemed suddenly tight across his face, and then all about his body, tightening more harshly by the second, pushing the air from his lungs.

Crack! Crack!

One by one, he felt the bones inside him giving way, snapping and then snapping again, over and over, as if disintegrating into soft, pulverised pulp.  Still, the skin shrank about them, squeezing inwards, and now his whole body was shrinking, shrivelling down into the folds of the blanket. He peered vaguely along his ruined arms, and the plaster at the end seemed to ping suddenly upward, revealing a thick clump of black hair below. A moment later, a tide of darkness seemed to spread from the clump, rippling across the taut, pink flesh as a legion of dark, needle hairs pushed their way through, growing thicker and longer with every passing moment.

And then, at last, it was over.

He sat panting amongst the blanket, struggling to gather himself as the wave of pain slowly receded.

Strange.

He could move freely now… very freely.

He turned at last to peer beadily about, but the awkwardness of the view soon struck him. Where was he? Why did the room look so different now? And he… why did he feel so different, small and jittery and low to the ground.

Twitching his whiskers, he peered out across the great, fluffy billows towards the fireplace, suddenly distant across the polished wooden floor.

A dull thud off to his left sent him bodily up into the air, twisting around to land on all fours.

There, on the arm of the sofa, a large ginger tabby cat settled.

It began to preen itself, watching him carefully from the corner of its green saucer eyes. At last, it sets its paw down, and for a moment, they stared silently at one another. Suddenly, its face wrinkled fiercely, fangs sliding from the thin black lips as it sprang towards him with a terrifying yowl.


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