by Ronald Schulte
“When did you first notice the hives, Mr. Hunt?”
Dr. Ravi Divakar was the fourth allergist Ed had seen for his chronic hives. To Ed, the guy looked like a college kid, but he was probably forty. Ed tried not to stare at the doctor’s eyebrow piercings as they spoke.
“Around six months ago. Right after we moved into the new house,” answered Ed.
“No hives before the move? You are certain?”
Dr. Divakar stood up from his desk and paced around a little bit, brows furrowed in thought.
“Where did you move from?” asked the doctor.
“Oh, just a few miles down the road. Same area, same climate, same plants.” Ed had heard this question from the other doctors; it was familiar territory.
“Any family history of allergies? Parents, grandparents?”
Ed sighed. He’d answered this one plenty of times too. “My grandfather complained of hives once when I was younger. They think it was shellfish. I’m negative for that, by the way. That’s the only thing I can think of.”
The doctor paused his wanderings for a moment to turn and look at Ed. “Do you remember where he was when these hives appeared?”
“Strangely, yes. It was at a beachside resort in Cape May, New Jersey. Can’t remember the name of the place, but we were there on vacation. I remember because my grandfather caused quite a scene in the hotel’s restaurant.”
“Did your grandfather visit Cape May often?”
“No, just that once.”
“He had no problems with shellfish before that trip?”
“I don’t think so, but I’m not positive. I do know that he stopped eating seafood after that trip, and the hives stopped.”
“Hmm.” The doctor jotted something into his notes. “How about your children? Any allergies?”
“No hives, just some seasonal stuff. Sneezing, itchy eyes, that sort of thing.”
“I see.” The doctor added some more notes. “Have you gone away for any extended time since you moved into the new house, Mr. Hunt? A vacation, or long business trip perhaps?”
“I attended a conference in Baltimore two months ago for four days. I think that’s the longest I’ve been away.”
“And how were the hives while you were away?”
“You know...I don’t remember thinking much about them during the trip. Maybe I was just too busy to notice. But they came back the night I came home, I remember that clearly. They came back with a vengeance.”
“Where did you stay in Baltimore?”
“I think it was a Marriott. Close to the inner harbor.”
“I see. Old building, or new?”
“Not very old. Fairly modern, I guess.”
Dr. Divakar nodded and continued pacing. Ed found the doctor’s movement unnerving.
“How old is your new house?” the doctor asked suddenly.
“Pretty old. I think it was built in the early forties.”
“Do you have Wi-Fi in your home?”
“Um... yes, we do, but—”
“I know, I know. What’s the relevance? Just indulge me for a moment. Do you live near any high-voltage power lines?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“Any large magnets? And by ‘large’ I mean industrial-grade, something strong enough to crush a beer can or lift a small car. Anything like that?”
“No. Definitely not.”
This was certainly a direction none of the other doctors had explored. Ed felt slightly encouraged. The doctor paced for a little while longer, then returned to his desk. He leaned back in his chair, absently tapping his cheek with his finger.
Finally, Ed could stand the silence no longer. “Well? What do you think?”
“Hmm? Oh, sorry. I’d like to run another test. May I draw a quick blood sample?”
“Be my guest,” said Ed. As the doctor drew his blood, it occurred to Ed that he’d never seen a doctor do this directly; usually it was a nurse or lab tech. Ed barely felt a thing, and soon the doctor had two vials of Ed’s blood sitting on his desk.
“I should have results for you in a day or two.”
“Okay. If you don’t mind me asking, what exactly are you testing for this time?”
The doctor moved his lips for a moment, considering. Finally he said, “I’d rather not say until I see the results. Is that okay with you, Mr. Hunt?”
“I guess so. You’re the doctor.” But Ed didn’t like it. Why wouldn’t the doctor tell him? It made him nervous.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Hunt,” said the doctor, as if reading his thoughts. “We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
“All right. Thanks, doc.”
* * *
Two days later, as a nurse guided Ed into an examination room, Ed was anxious. Dr. Divakar had still refused to dish on any specifics over the phone when he’d called. He’d claimed this was standard procedure. Ed wasn’t so sure. He was a nervous wreck by the time the doctor entered the room.
“Hello, Mr. Hunt,” said Dr. Divakar. The doctor reached out to shake Ed’s hand, then took a seat on a rolling stool.
“As I told you on the phone, I’ve completed my analysis of your blood tests. I have some good news: I’ve determined the cause of your hives! And I can tell you are anxious, so let me say quickly: this is nothing dangerous. A simple allergy, and we can treat it. You are going to be just fine! Okay?”
“Okay,” said Ed, breathing a sigh of relief. “So what is it? A food? Sunlight? Some sort of insect?”
“None of the above,” said Dr. Divakar with a grin. He pulled a small vial out from his coat pocket. He poured a small amount of liquid from the vial onto a tissue, smeared it around a little, then held it up for Ed to inspect. The substance was translucent and slimy. To Ed, it looked like snot.
“Here is your allergen. Any guess what this is?”
“No. You, my friend, are allergic to ectoplasm.”
“Ghost secretions, Mr. Hunt. Perhaps you’ve seen the movie Ghostbusters? They mention ectoplasm in that movie, although the movie embellishes the properties of the substance. The truth is far more boring. Ghosts generate precious little of this stuff. It is often mistaken for simple condensation, and it evaporates as quickly as water. My sample here is super-concentrated, much thicker than you’d ever see in the wild.”
Ed scratched his face and stared incredulously as the doctor spouted off this nonsense. “Is this some sort of joke?” he asked finally.
“No joke, Mr. Hunt. And I do understand your skepticism! As far as I know, I am the only doctor in the world equipped to test for this particular allergy. You see, I’ve been researching the paranormal for years now as a hobby. But a few years ago, I discovered this overlap between my hobby and my day job: people can be allergic to ghosts.
“There are two aspects of the ghost that can cause reactions. The more common problem is hypersensitivity to electromagnetism. Not a ghost allergy per se, but it bears mentioning, since ghosts do produce an electromagnetic field. This aspect doesn’t bother you.
“Anyway, the second problem, this sensitivity to ectoplasm that you do exhibit, is very rare; in fact, you are only the second patient I’ve ever met with this sensitivity. And I think your grandfather suffered from it, too. A lot of those Cape May resorts are quite haunted, you know.”
Ed was speechless. He’d imagined all sorts of crazy diseases and exotic allergies, but this? He scratched his neck as he tried to think of a tactful response. “Dr. Divakar,” he said finally, “I don’t believe in any of that stuff.”
“It is a lot to absorb, I know. Maybe it would help if—”
“Sorry, doc. This is too weird for me.” Ed grabbed his coat and started toward the door.
“Wait, Mr. Hunt! Hear me out. I won’t charge you for any services from this point forward and will gladly refund your copay from our initial consultation. I can make sure nothing is accidentally billed to your insurance. You are free to abandon my care at any time, of course. But I’m positive I can help you. Please consider my offer. Okay?”
The doctor jotted his personal cell number onto the back of a business card, handed it to Ed, then took a few steps back, arms spread as if to say, “What do you have to lose?” Finally the doctor nodded and left the room. Ed shook his head and followed, more confused than ever.
* * *
As Ed drove home, he reflected on his bizarre encounter with Dr. Divakar. Either the man was a total quack or he was a skilled con artist, feasting on helpless patients like Ed with mysterious, unexplainable symptoms. Despicable behavior. Ed scratched his face while he considered reporting the man to prevent him from victimizing patients more gullible than Ed.
But the other half of Ed’s mind, the half that wasn’t busy fuming, was nagging Ed with questions that were hard to ignore, and even more difficult to answer.
Why, if the doctor is such a con artist, did he offer treatment for free? That one was easy; Ed figured the doc was employing the old bait and switch. The doc would sign him up for free, then find some basis to start charging him later.
But why did he seem so sincere? Well, some people are pretty good liars. But why not pick something more believable for a con job? Good question, that one.
And what was that stuff? Ed didn’t care, except that it might be relevant to Ed’s final question, the real kicker.
“Why am I so damn itchy?” said Ed aloud as he scratched at his neck, his scalp, his arm. But he already knew. He’d been scratching ever since the doctor had waved that snot-covered tissue in front of his face. The hives had been at a dull roar before that moment, but once he’d been near that tissue, his hives had erupted. He’d managed to ignore it this long only out of stubborn denial of what the doctor had told him.
Ed pulled his car into the driveway and glanced at his watch. He had a few minutes before the wife and kids would be home. He unlocked the front door and wandered around the house, not really sure what he was after until he saw it. He bent down and stuck his left pinkie into a small droplet of liquid sitting atop the baseboard molding in the corner of the dining room.
Now that he was calmer, he had to admit that he’d seen this stuff all over the house, in places where condensation simply didn’t belong, during weather that wasn’t remotely humid. On the inner doorknob of his closet. Coating the air vents in the hallways. On soup cans in the pantry. Inside the entertainment center in the family room. He’d chased after a few of these spots for months, convinced he had leaks lurking within his walls, just waiting to cause catastrophic water damage.
The entire left side of Ed’s left hand itched like crazy.
That clinched it. He would give the treatment a shot. He still didn’t really believe ghosts had anything to do with it. But Ed did believe that the doctor had somehow pinpointed the correct allergen.
When Ed’s wife got home, Ed told her that he was allergic to a rare type of dust mite — he wasn’t ready to broadcast the craziness of the real diagnosis just yet — and then found a quiet place to call the doctor and schedule his next appointment.
* * *
Dr. Divakar’s process was fairly standard for allergic immunotherapy. The doctor created a serum containing trace amounts of Ed’s unusual allergen, and Ed received weekly injections of the serum in his shoulder. The doses were slowly increased as Ed built up a tolerance. The only deviation from the standard immunotherapy script, as far as Ed could tell, was the fact that the doctor personally administered Ed’s shots. A battalion of nurses injected the “normal” allergy sufferers.
Over the course of several months, Ed noticed a marked improvement in his symptoms. He was surprised at how quickly it was working; such treatments often took years to make an impact. The hives were all but gone, and Ed was ecstatic.
And then the hives returned.
* * *
Dr. Divakar backed away, frowning, idly fingering one of his eyebrow rings. Ed had never seen him resort to this particular nervous tic. He hoped it wasn’t a bad omen.
“This is most unusual, Mr. Hunt. Most unusual indeed. When exactly did the hives return?”
“Last night.” A total setback, completely out of the blue.
“Any trouble breathing? Any wheezing?”
“No, just the hives. Why are they back?”
“I’m not sure. Perhaps this is unrelated. Have you eaten anything strange lately? Shopped in any new stores?”
“No, just my usual routine.”
“Hmm. Hmm.” The doctor was at a loss for words. He paced around, rubbing his face. Ed waited as patiently as he could. He knew by now to give the doctor a little space while he attempted to work the problem.
Eventually, Ed’s patience paid off. The doctor perked up and turned to Ed. “Okay. We need to work this problem the old-fashioned way. I’m going to do something I’ve never done in my entire career.”
“What’s that?” Ed was intrigued, but a little frightened.
“I’m going to make a house call.”
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Ronald Schulte