Todd wasn’t late to work yet, but the way the lady ahead of him was driving, he didn’t have a chance of making it on time.
Her brown Mercury, apparently some ancient species of car, had only a moment earlier eked through a yellow light, leaving him idling at the red, fingers drumming on the steering wheel. When it finally turned green he sped through several blocks, feeling like he might have a chance but there she was again, trundling forward—the same car. Going twenty miles an hour.
Traffic toward him was steady. He couldn’t pass if he wanted to. It was infuriating, but Todd could only be mad at himself. If he’d left even a minute earlier, he’d be ahead of her, he’d have a chance.
“There was this woman in this shitmobile, Mr. Shannock,” he said to himself. “You understand.”
Todd watched with increasing dismay as the lady in the shitmobile took each one of the turns he intended to take at a glacial pace. He knew it wasn’t like this, but it started to feel like the lady in the brown Mercury was out to ruin his life. Like she was glancing up at her rear-view mirror and laughing mirthfully every time she saw him there.
A dull itch rested at the crown of his cranium, roughly the size of a dime. Pulling along at a measly twenty miles an hour, Todd touched a finger where he thought it was and scratched once, tentatively, a single fingernail running across his scalp. It felt good.
His fingernails weren’t as long as he would have wanted due to habitual chewing, but it still felt so good to scratch. He almost forgot how annoyed he was with the slowmobile ahead of him.
When it looked like she was going to slow down and turn into a driveway he mashed his teeth together, but it turned out to be a false alarm; probably she had forgotten how to push the gas pedal. She kept on, and so did the minute hand on his watch.
He didn’t even want to look.
They passed through a school zone and the old lady slowed to ten miles per hour.
“Oh, come on,” he said aloud to himself. “This is getting excessive.”
Cars behind him started to honk. It seemed he was only the very front of a long snake of cars formed by accretion. Probably all suffering the same frustrating internal monologues. Todd hoped they could see he wasn’t the problem. It was this damned woman in front of him!
He rolled down his window, and outside it was cool, humid. “Drive faster!” he wanted to yell out of it, “You’ll live longer!” But he was timid, so he rolled the window back up.
He scratched the itch again, which felt good, but also he could feel the skin behind his head was raised and warm, and with ridges like a potato chip. Not in a big area, but had it felt like this a second ago?
Huh. Something bit me?
Anyway, it felt real good to scratch it, so he did it harder. The lady in the car ahead finally took a right but by then he didn’t care anymore.
Inside him were wonderful feelings he’d never had, it was a peace, and a pleasure, and things felt just fine. The more he scratched the more of a better person it felt like he was becoming. This was what he’d been missing. This was living!
The driver in the car behind Todd’s laid on his horn. The itch that had been the center of his attention for the last thirty seconds was gone.
He was only going fifteen miles an hour, and the lady in front of him was no longer in front of him.
He stomped on the gas and drove, feeling a little out of sorts, not even noticing the smear of blood his fingertips left on the steering wheel.
He arrived at work eighteen minutes late. On the way up to the fifth floor, where his office was, he kept his head down.
When no one seemed to notice his tardiness, he straightened up, plastered on a smile, and walked to his cube. He hadn’t run into his boss, and that was good.
He sat down in his task chair and yawned. I’m really going to get something done. Then he noticed the little sticky note on his monitor.
He snatched it off.
My office, it said. Then, with a downward scrawl, it had the initials M.S.: Martin Shannock. His boss’s boss. Todd stood up, feeling bad. Time to face the music.
“Come in,” Shannock called through the door when he knocked. The man was in his overlarge chair behind his desk and was now fiddling with a pen.
Something about the man unnerved Todd. His boss held his head cocked to the side and with flared nostrils, like he was gathering the stink of his victim’s fear.
“You wanted to see me?”
His boss’s head swiveled like a desk lamp, pinpointing the exact location of Todd’s face. He smiled without humor. Todd tried to keep a neutral facial expression.
“Seems you weren’t here on time today. I hear it’s not such an out of the ordinary thing for you. How can you expect me to keep my employees motivated if their coworkers don’t show up? Do you need this job?”
Sweat broke out on the back of Todd’s neck.
“Mr. Shannock, sir, I did show up, it’s just I had...” There was no end to the sentence. Shannock finished it for him.
“Had more important things to do? Things that couldn’t wait until after work? There are going to be some changes around here.”
“I understand that, sir. I just made a mistake this time. It won’t happen again.”
“You’re right—it won’t. You have till the end of the day to pack up your things and be out of here.”
His boss reached out and jammed a button on his intercom.
“Don’t bother,” Todd said, and left.
Cleaning out his desk was fairly simple; the only things that occupied it regularly had been himself, his computer, and a series of binders and legal pads he kept in one of the drawers. He pulled them out one-by-one as he bent over, and put them on the floor. The thinly-carpeted floor helped to muffle the noise, but his coworkers were already sticking their necks out of their cubicles.
Hot-eared and prickling he kicked shut the drawer, snatched up the box and speed-walked to the elevator. He felt the silent gaze of the whole floor on him as he pressed the down button.
“Merry Christmas everyone!” he yelled. It was November.
As soon as he stepped in he heard them start to talk.
The elevator stopped on the fourth floor. A small, homely woman stepped on and made eye contact. She nodded at Todd; he grimaced. She stood beside him, facing the door.
“Hope you find a place to work,” she said.
He tried to think of the last time he was really happy. He thought about driving to work, in the car. That itch. As he thought of it the box he was holding seemed to get heavier, and he knelt to put it down.
Then he was rubbing the ridgy potato chip on the back of his neck again, feeling it swell to his fingertips and plead for his nails, so he scratched.
He was in an elevator, but inside him the sun was rising.
“Are you...are you all right, mister?” The homely woman with mousy hair was turned to him, half-worried, but Todd could tell she was just as eager to leave the elevator.
Todd didn’t answer. Or he did, but it came from his eyes. If only you could see.
He scratched harder.
The small woman whimpered, moving herself further into the corner of the elevator. Todd took no notice.
The door opened and the woman fled, crying out in scared little gasps. Todd’s scalp was split open atop his head and still he scratched, both hands going wildly now. Blood pooled and ran off him, ran down his face and collected in small drops on the elevator floor. The drops joined other drops and no one got on. The door closed. By the time Todd reached the first floor the itch had once again disappeared, and both of his hands were stained red.
Back in the car, Todd swooned. The purple tree hanging from his rearview mirror seemed to dance. He fumbled with the keys, and they kept slipping out of his hands. Finally he was able to jam one of the bloody keys into the ignition and start the car.
He was on the highway, on the way home, where he would tell his mother—no, he no longer lived there, his parents no longer lived there.
He’d hopped on the freeway to get to a home that hadn’t been home for more than fifteen years.
He pulled over. His head rocked against the steering wheel and he was aware he’d pass out soon. The loss of blood or the pain would do it, although the pain wasn’t as bad anymore. He struggled to look out his side-view mirror, feeling giddy.
His door was jerked open and he pulled out of the car by a pair of burly, men in blue suits.
“Get on the ground!” they yelled at him. “Put your hands behind your back!” Todd was so surprised he was giggling, and they slammed his head down onto the road as a car came by. The headlights looked pale to him. Cold metal circlets were tightened around his wrists, and the cops were off him.
They began to talk. Todd wasn’t exactly interested, but he listened, or tried to, as he passed in and out of consciousness.
“What the hell?”
“Looks like he beat the shit out of himself. Look at his hands.”
“Never mind his hands, look at his head. He’s scalped himself or something.”
“We need to get him to the hospital; he’s losing too much blood.”
“Let’s leave him—they’ll just say we did it if we bring him in”
“I can’t do it, Homer”
“Okay, you grab his legs…”
Todd swam deep.
“…arms…put his…ok…fuck…sure you…hospital?”
The itch woke him. Streetlights washed over him in quick spurts. He could see the bars that separated him from the police who’d captured (or rescued) him. He heard the muffled radio going. This was the regular radio, not police band radio which the men in blue use to spout such jargon as “What’s your twenty?” and “Ten-four, good buddy.” Or was it truckers who said that? He couldn’t remember.
Todd tried to pull his hands up to his head, but his cuffs were attached to some sort of hook in the back of the seat. He couldn’t scratch.
A face appeared behind the wire mesh.
“Settle down back there,” he said, the cop in the passenger seat, the one who’d wanted to stop at Arby’s, “we’re almost to the hospital.”
Todd didn’t mean to do it but he lurched forward, wide-eyed with desperation. “I have to...I have to scratch! Unhook me quick!” He sat up and leaned forward, face almost to the bars.
“Looks like you’ve already done enough damage scratching,” Arby’s said. “Why don’t you just lie back down? We’ll be to the hospital in a minute.” Then, to his driving partner, “Hurry the hell up, Homer. This guy’s a lunatic.”
Todd’s itch multiplied tenfold. He could hear his aunt, or someone, laughing at him. He was running through bushes, he was running between legs in a volleyball game. He was tiny.
“This is Ali X. in the morning. All great rock, all the time. Up next, it’s another Elton John classic,” the DJ on the radio said.
The piano introduction of Crocodile Rock started, and Todd was at first comforted. He knew this song. He liked this song. He could feel safe inside this song, for as long as the ride to the police station or to the hamburger station.
After the first verse, the itch seemed to explode. All of a sudden everything inside and on the surface of his skull needed to be scratched. The urge pulsed from all edges of his mind until he felt like that feeling was his purpose.
“…Well Crocodile Rockin’ is somethin shocking…”
Screaming in frustration, Todd brought his head forward with all the force he could muster. His flesh met the metal webbing and separated, sending blood and hair to all corners of the squad car. Arby’s screamed, startled and turning to assess the situation with the bloody man in the back.
“…When your feet just can’t sit still…”
Todd brought his head back and rocketed it forward again, into the bloody mesh. This time he shook his head back and forth rapidly, metal wires scraping off whatever tissue remained on the top of his skull.
“Don’t!” Arby’s yelled, and Homer shoved his foot down on the gas pedal. The sirens came back on, and Todd’s head was traveling backward again, cocking for another try.
“…I never knew me a better time and I guess I never will…”
Arby’s shoved his fingers through the mesh and held them there with wide eyes.
“Stop doing that, you’re going to kill yourself!” He sounded more scared than commanding.
“…Oh lawdy lawdy those Friday nights!…”
Todd brought his head forward and broke the cop’s fingers. Arby’s screamed again, this time in agony. He pulled his fingers from the mesh and looked at them stupidly. Homer yanked on the wheel. The police car swerved and began to roll. Then the car imploded, and Todd saw a yellow painted bumper driving through the windshield.
And as time seemed to stop around him, glass from the shattered windows spiraling through the air, the cops’ stupid, uncomprehending faces slashed open, Todd threw his head forward one final time.
The itch fell silent.