When I was a little child, and had my first cavity, my father used the gas on me. I did experience the vortex (created by the numb feeling and the sounds of the suction and drill combined). These were called upon to catapult the protagonist of this story to this inner world.
Ironically, when my father read this story, he asked if I had done this. I was able to honestly say, "No." But my older brother, who had previously been my father's janitor admitted he had used the gas on his own. Which is stranger...truth or fiction.
I hope you enjoy..."On the Innerside."
On the Inner Side
Mitchell S Karnes
Eric wasn’t so much addicted to the Nitrous as he was the place it took him. He was hooked as a child, the first time his father put him under. You see, Eric’s father was also his dentist and a gentle one at that. He had no intentions of hooking his son on the gas; he simply wanted Eric to have a pain-free experience at the dentist. After all, unlike most kids Eric had to live with his.
Eric wasn’t necessarily a rebellious child, but when it came to sweets and his father’s desire for him to eat healthy foods he was seemingly rebellious to the core. So, as consequences naturally fell, Eric ended up with quite a few cavities over the years. Little did his father realize, Eric’s rebellion wasn’t about the candy at all…he just wanted to make another journey to the Inner Side.
Eric was the youngest of three children. His sister, Katy, was two years older and very popular at school, with her friends and teachers. His brother, Mike, was popular everywhere else. It was amazing, but for his less than average size and muscle mass, Mike was the block bully. He was a master of intimidation; he had this way of getting into your head and scaring the pee right out of you. Not Eric…he was small for his age and the ultimate quiet introvert. If given the choice, Eric would choose time alone over time with friends…probably because he felt he had none. The kids at school called him a freak and a loner. He was the butt of their jokes and the target of their constant harassment. Of course, no one teased or bullied Eric in Mike’s presence. On the occasion someone was stupid enough to do so, Mike would “rescue” Eric, pound the life out of the idiot who tried, and then beat his little brother to a pulp anyway, saying “No one can beat up my little brother but me.” It was lose-lose for Eric, which is why the Inner Side was so appealing. There he could be anyone…do anything…there he was a beloved king! There he had friends.
It all began with Eric’s first cavity at seven years of age. He remembers it well, for he always returned to that moment before crossing over to the Inner Side. He lay in the dental chair awaiting his father’s return. Alice, the aging dental assistant with the old fashioned nurse’s cap, loomed over him. Eric couldn’t tell if she was angry or happy…her face was hidden behind the white nurse’s mask. She just stared blankly…silently. The only sound in the room came from the ticking of the cat clock in front of him. It eyes blinked as its tail clicked back and forth like a metronome. Its smile devious…like the Cheshire cat’s in Wonderland. In the corner of the room, near the only window, a country picture of a field covered in golden prairie grass, and in its middle, dissecting the field, a small dirt path with a two-person-wide bridge spanning a small river. It called to him in silent whispers. He watched it intently as Alice slid the rubber device with the connecting hoses over his nose. He lost sight for only a moment when the hoses past his eyes, but he never stopped looking for the bridge. He could hear it calling.
Then slowly…ever slowly…the heaviness pulled at his legs, and they obediently slid to the sides of the dental chair. He hadn’t noticed his father’s return, but as the chair tipped back, Eric could see his smiling eyes. It didn’t matter that his father wore a mask; Eric could still see his grin. He fought the heaviness and the darkness, but they won out against his will. And the sounds…those incredibly weird sounds of the dental office did something strange…something magical…something he would never forget…something that he would forever long to repeat. The distorted sounds of the suction and drill formed a gentle vortex. It was not like the violent assault of Dorothy’s tornado, but a gentle twisting and turning like the man’s cardboard tube at the carnival as he made cotton candy. The gentle spinning and the heaviness of the gas pulled at him, and, Eric felt himself drifting…drifting…drifting ever downward. When his feet alighted softly upon the ground he couldn’t believe his eyes. He was in the painting of the field, in the middle of the dirt path, facing the bridge. He could hear the gentle flowing river water licking against the banks that corralled it onward. But there was another sound…a sweeter sound…one that beckoned him closer. “Eric,” it whispered. “We’ve been waiting for you. Come and play”
It was the voice of a man. He should have been frightened. After all, he was alone in a strange place, called by a stranger’s voice, but he wasn’t afraid at all. He was at peace. Unlike the world above, this place seemed to call him closer…to want him. What did he have to lose? It was just a dream…right? I mean those kinds of things don’t really happen…do they? He was under the influence of Nitrous-Oxide. This was all an illusion…a hallucination. This inner world was just a visual representation of the last thing Eric saw before he went under. He had stared at his father’s picture of the bridge as Alice turned on the gas. That’s all it was.
That’s what he thought too. But it wouldn’t be the last time he went there. On his second journey six months later, he actually braved the bridge. No, he didn’t cross it then either, but he did touch the rail. It was as solid as any other bridge he’d ever seen or touched. So why shouldn’t this one be real? It was his third cavity two weeks after his ninth birthday…his third journey to the Inner Side…
“Eric, we’ve been waiting for you. Come and play.” He couldn’t tell at the time, but the voice was a little more insistent, a little more anxious, a little more…
“I’m coming,” he said. “Where are you?”
“We’re right here, on the other side of the bridge. Can’t you see us?”
Eric looked. He saw nothing but more than the field and a little deserted shack. “Are you in the shack?” he asked.
“Where are you?” Eric persisted. Now he was getting a little nervous. There were voices, but no bodies with them. Are they ghosts? Eric wondered.
“No, we’re not ghosts.”
It was the voice of the man. “Eric, come and see for yourself.”
Suddenly, he recognized that voice, but they said he wasn’t real…that he was Eric’s imaginary friend. “Max? Is that you?”
“Of course it’s me, Eric. Who else would be waiting for you on the Inner Side?”
Eric paused. Was it a trap?
“No, Eric, it’s not a trap.”
“How are you doing that?” Eric asked.
“Doing what?” the voice asked.
“You answered my questions, but I never said them out loud.”
“What’s so special about that?” the voice asked. “Just come over the bridge and you can see for yourself.” There was a long silence. Then the voice asked, “We used to talk and play all of the time. Are you afraid of us? What’s happened to you, Eric? ”
“Nothing!” he shouted defensively. Then in a defiant stomp, Eric marched out across the bridge, more to prove he wasn’t afraid than to see the Inner Side. But something magical happened. The moment his foot touched the middle point of the bridge, he began to see odd glimmering shapes…not only of people, but of things as well. He rushed across the second half. Every step made the images brighter and clearer. As his foot touched the other side of the field, he seemed to step through some sort of invisible wall. He felt its gentle resistance, like he was running through Jell-O. His eyes widened and his smile broadened. A carnival! And there, looking down at him was Max, a towering figure of kindness. Max was Eric’s protector and best friend all in one. And so Eric’s journeys on the Inner Side began.
For years, Eric returned to the Inner Side…not only to play, but to escape the lonely tortured world outside. He played. He rode the carnival rides…rides he was too short to qualify for in the real world. But his favorite game…the game he wanted to play most of all…came right out of his comics. The Marvel Comics world gave Eric the same pleasure, the same escape, the same sense of power he always longed for. His favorite game of all was “Super-hero.” One day he was Iron Man soaring through the clouds, blasting away all of the bad guys. The next he was the Hulk smashing and scaring others as the outside world had smashed and intimidated him. He ran the gamut of the Marvel hero world, but his favorite of all was Colossus from the X-Men. He couldn’t fly…he couldn’t see through things…he couldn’t shoot laser blasts…he couldn’t teleport…and he couldn’t get hurt. Colossus was super strong, but the best part was he morphed into an impervious form of metal…he was impervious to harm. Oh, Eric thought, if I could only be Colossus nobody could ever hurt me again! That was the thought he expressed to me, the one thought that led me to tell his story and to explain why Eric made the choice he did.
If Eric believed things were bad in middle school, he never should have gone to high school. Our first day of school was awful. From the start we were bullied, teased, locked in lockers, and became the laughing stocks of the entire school. Those few boys who called us friends abandoned us on day one. We were left to ourselves…left to survive the cruelest world of all. It didn’t take long for the boys in our P.E. class to realize Coach Jackson never came into the boys’ locker room, so it didn’t take long for all hell to break loose. I call it hell because that’s what I think hell will be like…no end of torture…no limit to the depth of physical, emotional and verbal attacks…no escape…and no one cares. Eric always got the worst of it. They seemed to enjoy his animated reactions more than my silence. We tried to tell Coach Jackson, but he laughed it off, saying, “Boys will be boys. Suck it up.”
His last day at school Eric reluctantly entered the locker room. I was already duct-taped to the wall, my mouth gagged with someone’s dirty jock. They pushed him, teased him, and stripped him. Then the unthinkable happened to Eric. Putting a handful of Icy Hot on the end of the plunger handle, they reenacted a scene from Lord of the Flies making Eric the pig. They gagged him with a dirty jock so his screams couldn’t be heard outside the locker room, tortured him for five long minutes, and left him lying there sobbing through the gag. All the while I had to watch helplessly, stuck silently to the wall. We both remained in those helpless positions until the class returned from PE. It seems Coach Jackson never even missed us. It was probably a better class without the two “Pansies” anyway. A few of the boys turned Eric over while others approached me. Charlie Williams said, “Either of you says a word and I’ll kill you. Don’t think I won’t.” And just to make his point, he took out a hunting knife and made a motion across his neck. Then he cut the tape and let me down. They tried to help Eric to his feet, but he pushed them all away.
After everyone left, I said, “Are you okay?” Eric shook his head. “What can I do?” I asked. I was only fourteen years old and scared out of my life. I wanted to hurt somebody. I wanted to find Mike and give him names. I wanted to do a lot of things. But the image of Charlie’s knife made me do what I always did best…stay quiet. I tried to help Eric up, but he pushed me away too. That was the last time I saw him until…
They say Eric walked home and told no one of the events of the day at school. He sat quietly around his family’s dinner table, nibbling at his food while his sister, Mom and Dad all shared stories from their wonderful day. When Eric was asked about his day, he simply said, “Same ole, same ole.” Never expecting him to say much, the family went on about their nightly routines.
Eric waited until everyone else was asleep. He stole his father’s keys and walked the seven blocks to his father’s dentist office. Eric had followed his father around enough to know where everything was and how to even work the instruments. That too, included the Nitrous Oxide. So Eric found the tanks, turned them on, and made his way back inside the main office. Once in a patient room, Eric turned the dials and set his mixture, adding a little more Nitrous than usual. He tried and he tried to find Max and the Inner Side, but something was wrong. Finally it dawned on Eric that the sounds of the suction and the drill created the vortex that took him to the bridge. After several minutes of trial and error, Eric got the devices working and lay in the chair. He had previously tilted it to the exact position his father preferred. Then, unattended and unsupervised, Eric put on the nose piece and lay back. Inhaling the Nitrous in deep breaths as he closed his eyes and listened to the distorted sounds of the drill’s whizzing and the suction’s slurping, Eric slowly but surely drifted downward. He returned, as always to the old office and the person of Alice. The Eric closed his eyes and drifted further down to the bridge to the Inner Side.
This time there were no voices…no pleading…no hesitation. Eric ran across the bridge and came out the other side as Colossus, the metal powerhouse of the Uncanny X-Men. At his bidding, building-sized robots, called Sentinels, approached and tried to capture him. But, unlike the Eric of the outside world, Colossus was ready and able to withstand their worst. He caught the giant robot’s foot as it attempted to stomp him into the ground and toppled it backward. Colossus jumped to the fallen robot’s chest and in one mighty punch, crushed its chest cavity. Another attacked and then another. This time he was not left alone to fight. The rest of the X-Men came to his aid. And when the battle escalated, the Avengers and Fantastic 4 joined in. All listened to his command. All followed his instructions. All stood by his side while enemy after enemy were destroyed.
The next morning Eric’s father awoke and readied himself for work. It wasn’t until he grabbed for his keys that he realized something was amiss. Not only were his keys missing, but Eric as well. Eric’s mother and father drove around looking for him. Finally, after hours of searching, as they happened by the office, they realized that was the one place they hadn’t checked. They pulled in, used his mother’s keys, and found Eric unconscious in the dental chair. The Oxygen had run out before the Nitrous. Both had long since stopped pumping any gas at all.
How long had Eric been under? No one knows. What damage has been done to his brain? No one is for sure. But even now, years later, I am convinced that Eric lives on in his Inner Side, living out heroic acts and savors the praise and admiration of an entire world. They say he is a vegetable to this day, and the arguments continue as to whether or not his parents should pull the plug. I still visit him often. Every once and a while, I think he squeezes my hand. They don’t believe me. They think Eric is oblivious to everything. It’s not true. That’s why I had to write this and let everyone know why Eric did what he did. He’s not oblivious. He’s not dead inside.
He sees…he knows…and he pities us all.