It was the needles that scared him. Larry Sparks was 53 years old, but he had never gotten over his terror of childhood shots. The memory of that icy dab of alcohol on his skin, the glitter of sharpened steel made him sweat as he clutched the telephone receiver.
"It's the third doctor's appointment you've missed, Mr. Sparks," the nurse said. "I just called your wife, and she insists we reschedule you for another time."
"But I'm so busy these days. . . ."
"How about Oct. 5 at 2 o'clock?"
Larry looked at his desk calendar. Oct. 5 was wide open. "Can't" he lied. "I'll call you back." He hung up.
No more doctors, he thought. No more needles.
In the men's room, as he washed his hands, he glanced at the mirror, at the lesion growing on his forehead. It was the focus of his wife's concern, the reason she kept making doctor's appointments for him.
It had popped up a month ago, starting as a little wart above his left eyebrow.
Every morning his wife would look at him and say, "It's bigger, Larry. You've got to see the doctor."
But he didn't think the wart was growing. Well, maybe just a little, but not enough to worry him. If he combed his hair over it, he could almost ignore the thing poking out from his forehead like a rubbery mushroom.
No one in the office seemed to notice it, he thought as he walked back to his desk. Then he saw one of the secretaries staring at him.
"Is something wrong?" he asked.
"No," she said, looking quickly away.
A week later, Larry could no longer hide the lesion by combing his hair just so. It kept poking through. The protrusion was larger than a mushroom now, and starting to wrinkle on top, like a miniature cauliflower.
Last night he'd accidentally nicked it with a comb and, this morning, the mass was oozing a greenish liquid. At least it was draining--that was a good sign, wasn't it?
"I made you another appointment with the doctor," his wife said from the bathroom doorway. "You haven't seen him in 20 years. This time, please show up."
"But it's just starting to heal," Larry said.
It drained all week in unexpected bursts of green slime. But instead of shrinking, the cauliflower on his forehead bloomed larger, and new craters opened
up, so that it drained from several places at once.
It didn't hurt--that was the important thing, wasn't it? Aside from the occasional trickle of hot liquid down his cheek, and the fact that his wife had stopped sleeping with him, Larry felt perfectly fine.
He canceled two more doctor's appointments. He wished people would stop hinting to him about doctors. He wished they'd mind their own business.
But no. This morning, Larry's boss had called him into his office, sat him down and asked point-blank: What is that thing on your face?
What thing? Larry said.
"That . . . thing."
"Oh, this?" Larry reached up and flicked away a drop of green pus. "It's getting better."
By the following week, the view from his left eye was blocked by the growing cauliflower, and the goo was running pretty much continuously, ruining three of Larry's dress shirts.
This was a serious problem. He solved it by tying on a plastic baby bib, an ingenious invention designed for slobbery kids. It had a molded pocket at the bottom to catch the drips, which he emptied out every few hours. His shirts stayed perfectly clean.
Halloween morning, Larry's wife packed her things and left him.
When the first trick or treaters rang the bell that night, Larry was the one who answered the door. "Oh, my!" he said, holding out the bowl of candy. "Don't you kids look scary!"
Two skeletons and a fairy princess stared up at him from the porch. The smaller skeleton began to shriek. His mother scooped him up and snapped at Larry, "That's not very funny, you know. Scaring little kids like that!"
The fairy princess said in wonder, "Wow, Mister! Cool mask!"
The kids took their candy and left. As Larry turned back into the house, he suddenly caught sight of himself in the mirror. For a moment he saw himself with startling clarity, his face was distorted, grotesque. Monstrous.
He stepped closer to the image and straightened his ruffled hair with his fingers. Then he calmly took down the mirror and turned it against the wall.
Best-selling novelist Tess Gerritsen gave up a successful career as an internist to raise her family. She is the author of "Harvest" and "Life Support," both published by Pocket Books, and still can be persuasive when it comes to doctorly advice.