It was the summer of earaches. Sweaty nights when it hurt to lay my head on the pillow. Days on the lake, riding Tara’s raft, swimming races through warm brown water. Her parents owned the lake house. We didn’t think about algae blooms or sewage runoff or industrial pollution. Three boys in a canoe made fun of our inflatable raft. We swam ashore, ran to the old railway bridge, then pelted them with trash and pebbles when they passed underneath.
We showered under the garden hose in her backyard, flapping our wet bathing suits away from our bodies like birds fluffing out feathers. Lived on burnt hot dogs and popsicles.
At home my head felt thick and pockety. I shivered under a blanket, then hugged the air conditioner as my face dripped with sweat. Inside my ear a tiny tuba player blew out and in. My mother decided it was more than a cold.
I was kept inside for two weeks, too miserable to care, at first. Antibiotics and Tylenol, soup on trays, cartoons and old sitcoms. The actors came to seem like friends: Rob and Laura, Lucy and Ricky, Darren and Sam. Tara came to visit once but didn’t stay long. Stacy’s father was going to let them go on his motorboat, she said.
Something was off but I didn’t know what. After that everything went wrong. Richard Nixon broke into my cartoon world. He was leaving. I didn’t care. I just wanted to watch Bewitched.
It was almost a relief when school started. Fourth graders got to line up on the big kid side of the schoolyard. We got to change classrooms, for science and math. Once I’d looked forward to these privileges of age. Now the off feeling lingered, like a Novocain shot in the jaw, making everything fuzzy and tasteless.
Tara sat across from Stacy. I was one seat behind, but somehow she didn’t turn around much. I watched their hands meet under the desk, passing notes and sticks of gum.
My ears still itched. From time to time a loud, high-pitched tone trilled in one ear, like the hearing test our school nurse gave us. I thought maybe I was like a dog, hearing high notes no one else could hear. Maybe I was developing some super-hearing power. I would pledge to use it for good. With great responsibility.
I scratched the inside of my ear with my pencil eraser, something that would have horrified my mother. She wouldn’t even let me put Q-Tips in my ears. The fuzzy end could come out, she said. She had no idea what things I put in my ears. Pen caps, paper clips. I twirled the pencil around, trying to get the itch, and then the worst happened: I pulled out the pencil, the metal ring that held the eraser now vacant. The eraser had come out in my ear, like my mother always warned Q-Tip ends would. I would go deaf. I would have to have an ear operation. I would be medevaced out of school, helicopter landing on the hospital roof.
I looked around my desk, sure the teacher would be ready to reprimand me, but no one saw. I stuck my pinky finger, the one with the longest nail, into my ear, wiggled it around the edge of the eraser, and pulled the eraser out. It came out easily, but looked wrong. Wet and brownish-black. I put my finger back into my ear, felt something squash and give, and pulled out a huge black ball of wax, bigger than a Skittles candy.
Did I tell the teacher? Did I ask to go to the nurse? I did not. I covered it with my hand but kept peeking, fascinated.
How many months had something this gross been inside me? My whole summer was in that blob of dirty wax. Swimming with Tara and the ear infection and long days on the living room couch and Richard Nixon’s ugly face. I pressed it between a sheet of paper, folded it, pushed it down, folded again and again until there was only a flat packet left, like a note you’d pass between desks, then drop in the wastebasket on your way out of class.
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Kathryn Kulpa is a fiction writer with words in Monkeybicycle, Pithead Chapel, Smokelong Quarterly, and Superstition Review. She was a visiting writer at Wheaton College and a workshop teacher at Writefest 2019. She is also an editor, librarian, and pet-sitter, so she will fix your grammar, find you a scholarly citation, walk your dog, and still be back in time for coffee.
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