by Buzz Dixon
“There’s a spider in my mouth.”
Dr. Hubert Carlyle looked at his patient impassively, masking his thoughts: Drunk, drugged, or delusional?
The woman didn’t look like any of those, but Dr. Carlyle practiced medicine long enough to know looks could be deceiving.
Still, he played along as he knew he had to: Give her a perfunctory examine, then try to find the real problem.
“All right,” he said, taking out a tongue depressor. “Open your mouth and let me take a look.”
The patient did. Dr. Carlyle peered in.
A spider peered back.
Dr. Carlyle blinked in amazement and dropped his depressor. It clattered to the floor.
“Is everything all right?” his patient asked. “Did you see it?”
I couldn’t have seen what I thought I saw, Dr. Carlyle told himself. It’s a hairball. That’s it, a hairball.
He couldn’t think of a plausible reason for his patient to have a hairball in her mouth but a hairball sounded less implausible than a spider.
Taking out another depressor, he said: “Open up again.”
His patient did.
The spider — about the size of a small tarantula — sat in the back of the woman’s throat, crouched behind her uvula. It didn’t look like a real spider — there was something almost cartoonish about its appearance — but it certainly appeared to be solid and alive.
Dr. Carlyle removed the tongue depressor and the patient shut her mouth. “How long have you had this?” he asked.
“About two years,” the woman sighed. She appeared about as average a person as Dr. Carlyle ever met: Middle aged, middle class, mid-weight, Middle American. Her hair looked half grey and her clothes about a decade behind current fashion. Her medical folder referred to her as “Ms Emma”.
“Didn’t you tell anybody?”
Ms Emma shrugged. “Who could I tell? ‘Hey, I’ve got a spider in my mouth’ isn’t the sort of thing that pops up in daily conversation.”
“True, true…” Dr. Carlyle murmured. He felt, in the words of his long deceased spinster aunt, bumfuzzled. “Any idea where it came from?”
Ms. Emma shook her head. “I woke up one morning and it was there. At first I thought I just had a scratchy throat — you know, the kind you get when you sleep with your mouth open.
“I didn’t actually see it until a couple of days later when I tried gargling.
“It didn’t like that.”
“I imagine it didn’t,” said Dr. Carlyle. “How do you eat? Drink?”
“Normally — ha! Listen to me: ‘Normally’! — normally it sits in the back of my mouth and stays away from my tongue and teeth. It doesn’t dislike what I eat but it doesn’t care for hot or cold drinks, just tepid fluids. Oh, and no sodas or alcohol. Really doesn’t like those.”
“How do you know?”
“It scurries about back there, irritates my throat.”
“Have you shown this to anybody else?”
“No. Not really. I mean, I tried once or twice, but whenever I opened my mouth to show somebody I could feel it scurrying down my esophagus to hide.”
“Then how am I able to see it?”
“I dunno,” Ms Emma said. “You’re the doctor.”
Dr. Carlyle sat still for a moment. Never had his medical degree felt more worthless.
On the other hand…this was the sort of thing that got one mentioned in the medical journals. He could get quite a bit of name recognition for this, invitations to conferences, perhaps a TV gig, certainly a YouTube channel…
“It’s never bit you?” he asked Ms Emma.
“No, though its body hairs irritate my throat. That’s why I came to see you, doctor: It’s getting too irritating for me.”
“Let me see what I can do,” Dr. Carlyle said. He took out a set of forceps and said, “Open wide, please.”
Mr Emma obliged.
The spider glared at Dr. Carlyle, its eight eyes looking surprisingly human. Dr. Carlyle reached for it with his forceps…
…and the spider hastily retreated down Ms Emma’s throat.
Ms Emma coughed violently and leaned forward.
“Are you all right?” Dr. Carlyle asked, recognizing as he said it how foolish his question sounded.
Ms Emma nodded, the coughs subsiding. “It does that occasionally when it’s upset with me,” she said. “I should have warned you, but I was hoping you could get it without it realizing what you were up to.”
“Hmmm…,” said Dr. Carlyle. It seemed like a good thing to say at that moment. “I’m going to put the forceps down,” he said. “Please open your mouth again.”
Ms Emma obliged. Dr. Carlyle peered in.
Her mouth appeared quite empty.
“’An I ‘ut ‘y ‘outh?” she asked.
“No, keep it open for a bit. I want to see something.”
Dr. Carlyle waited patiently while Ms Emma — somewhat less patiently — kept her mouth open.
It took almost a minute, but finally the spider poked its cephalothorax (i.e., its combined head and thorax) over the back of Ms Emma’s tongue, glaring quite suspiciously at Dr. Carlyle.
Realizing Dr. Carlyle didn’t intend to remove him, the spider scuttled back up behind Ms Emma’s uvula.
It made a rude gesture at Dr. Carlyle which, while executed with arachnid physiology, nonetheless appeared perfectly clear to those with mammal perspectives.
Dr. Carlyle took his tongue depressor and reached back towards the spider.
It retreated halfway down the back of Ms Emma’s throat, stopping only when Dr. Carlyle withdrew the depressor.
Ms Emma shut her mouth and cleared her throat, then asked: “What do you suggest, doctor?”
Dr. Carlyle remained silent. His first idea would be to spray a can of bug poison down Ms Emma’s throat, but he couldn’t imagine that doing his patient much good.
Still…something like that might work, he told himself. Administer a general anesthetic, knock the little fella out, reach in with an endoscope, and drag him out.
Gotta find out what kind of anesthesia will work on arachnids and humans.
That means a consultation…
“I’m going to send you down to radiology,” he told Ms Emma. He typed up an x-ray request worded vaguely enough not to tip off the radiologist. “Go down, get the x-ray done, then have a cup of…well, whatever doesn’t irk the spider. Come back to my office in an hour.”
Ms Emma left and did as she was told. Thirty minutes later Dr. Carlyle’s phone rang; he could see on his screen it came from the radiology department.
He expected that and had prepared what to say when the radiologist asked his inevitable questions.
Only the radiologist didn’t ask those questions.
“We x-rayed her head, throat, and upper torso down to her stomach,” the radiologist said. “No sign of any abnormalities.”
“Did you see anything unusual?”
“You mean like spiders? Yeah, the old bat claimed she had a spider living in her mouth but we didn’t see anything. Why are you sending her down here? To humor her?”
“No, no, she…uh…she’s showing signs of physical irritation,” Dr. Carlyle said. “Could you actually see a spider if there was one there?”
The pause that followed lasted long enough for Dr. Carlyle to wonder if the radiologist hung up on him, but at last he heard: “Look, it’s possible she’s got something lodged in her esophagus that I can’t pick up, maybe the chitinous exoskeleton of a shrimp she ate that got wedged in tight. The irritation could feel like something was alive in there even though there isn’t.”
“How would you suggest finding it?”
“You might try an endoscope,” said the radiologist.
“Hmmm…” said Dr. Carlyle, hoping he sounded rational enough. “I think that might be my next step. Thank you.”
“Yeah, any time,” said the radiologist, clearly not meaning it.
When Ms Emma came back, Dr. Carlyle told her what the radiologist said, adding that he would consult with the anesthesiologist and schedule an endoscopy.
Ms Emma nodded and agreed to return the next day.
After she left, Dr. Carlyle called the hospital’s anesthesiologist and tried to find out the best method of putting Ms Emma under using gas.
The anesthesiologist didn’t like the idea of using gas for an endoscopic procedure and preferred an IV. They went around for a few minutes until Dr. Carlyle finally broadly hinted at the possibility of a parasite of some sort infesting Ms Emma’s throat.
The anesthesiologist’s tone changed. Had Dr. Carlyle checked with an infectious disease specialist? Dr. Carlyle had not. Well, shouldn’t Dr. Carlyle check first?
With a sigh, Dr. Carlyle reluctantly agreed. The more medical professionals he involved in this case, the more diluted his contribution would be.
He called the hospital’s pathology lab since they would have to analyze whatever he dragged out of Ms Emma. He hoped they’d have some answers about what kind of anesthesia they’d need.
Instead, they asked even more questions, sounding increasingly more dubious about Dr. Carlyle’s intent.
They promised to get back to him. Instead, the head of his clinic called, asking about all the odd and presumably needless — not to mention expensive — tests he was ordering.
The subtext of that conversation being that Dr. Carlyle did no one — in particular his patient — any good by catering to her delusions.
In the end Dr. Carlyle got them to agree to a standard endoscopy to see what, if anything, bothered his patient.
Dr. Carlyle felt this would be the best solution. It would mean sharing his discovery with others, but at least he would get some credit.
Ms Emma did not make her appointment the next day.
Instead she called, sounding very chipper.
“It’s gone, she said.
“Gone?” Dr. Carlyle found himself repeating others recently.
“Gone. I woke up this morning and it wasn’t there.”
“Are you sure it isn’t just hiding?”
“Oh, I’m sure. I can feel it, even when it isn’t moving about. It’s gone, all right.”
He tried to convince her to come in for the endoscopy anyway, just to make sure, but she refused. Dr. Carlyle sighed, wished her well, hung up, then cancelled the appointment.
The next day he got a call from Detective Davis.
After the preliminaries, Detective Davis got down to business: “How long have you known the deceased?”
“I only met her two days ago,” said Dr. Carlyle. “She seemed in fine health for a woman her age.”
“What was bothering her?”
“She complained of a throat irritation,” Dr. Carlyle said, judiciously adding: “I thought it might have been a parasite of some kind.”
“Un-huh,” said Davis. “Nothing that looked like it might be fatal?”
“No, not at all. What did she die of?”
“Can’t tell. No signs of violence, looks like natural causes. But the coroner will determine that.”
Dr. Carlyle knew the coroner slightly and called to alert him Ms Emma’s body would be arriving shortly.
“I was seeing her as a patient,” he said. “She complained of an irritation that I felt might have been a parasite.
“I would really appreciate getting a copy of her post mortem.”
“Sure thing,” said the coroner.
Next week the coroner called. “We got all the test results back,” he said. “Apparent heart failure. Can’t really determine what caused her death, but her heart stopped beating so we’ll go with that.”
“Did you find any signs of parasites in her, in particular in her throat?”
The coroner’s tone changed much the same way the anesthesiologist’s tone changed. “We found some signs of irritation, yes,” the coroner said. “Nothing chronic or inflamed. No signs of parasites of any kind.
“Of any kind,” the coroner repeated, and from the particular emphasis on the word, Dr. Carlyle knew the medical profession already talked behind his back of his weird fixation, and knew for the rest of his career they’d be looking askance at him, wondering what other bizarre ideas he might harbor.
Dr. Carlyle thanked the coroner, hung up, and sighed. A fascinating case, to be sure, and one that would have made him famous, but…what are you gonna do?
The spider was gone, no proof it ever existed, and that was that.
Dr. Carlyle returned home after his shift. Home was a small apartment; all he could afford after the divorce settlement. He’d lost ambition after his marriage fell apart and spent the last decade or so coasting through life, going through his daily routine by rote.
The spider could have changed all that, he thought. The spider could have been my ticket up and out.
He ate, reviewed some medical reports, watched some TV, then prepared for bed.
As he lay back and put his head on his pillow, reaching over to turn off his bedside lamp, he saw something scurry across the ceiling directly above him.
Dr. Carlyle gasped in surprise, his jaw falling wide.
That was all the opening the spider needed.