Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Halitosis

by D. A. Cairns



"Oh man, what have you been eating?"

Aaron stared into the contorted face of his friend who was fighting hard to maintain eye contact. He looked like he had just sucked a lemon.

"Nothing," replied Aaron. "I haven't even had breakfast yet. What's your problem?"

"It's actually your problem, and a bloody big one too."

When Aaron could only offer a puzzled expression, Thomas told him straight out.

"Your breath is rancid, my friend. And I don't use that word lightly."

He was about to reply when a waitress cruised up beside their table. Dressed all in black, her long hair was pulled back in a severe ponytail. She leaned forward slightly and said, "What would you like?"

"A packet of breath mints," said Thomas.

Aaron's face reddened. The waitress looked confused. Thomas laughed.

"Eggs on toast, please and black coffee," said Aaron.

"Eggs won't help buddy. You might as well order onion rings in garlic sauce."

The waitress blushed, embarrassed for Aaron as she began to get some sense of the reason for the ridicule. Aaron stared at Thomas who was smiling in the afterglow of raucous laughter.

Leaning in close to his friend, Aaron expunged the words like pus from a pimple. "You're embarrassing me. It's not funny. Why do you have to get your jollies at my expense all the time?"

Thomas cringed and pulled away from Aaron. He felt his eyes beginning to water, but it wasn't from laughter.

"Calm down. I'm only joking," he said. "But your breath does stink."

The hint of a smile forming on Thomas's lips was more than Aaron could stand. Pushing his face right into Thomas's, he breathed out, emptying his lungs of fetid air. Thomas gagged and fell sideways off the chair. On the floor he convulsed violently three times then suddenly lay still. Cries of shock bounced around the State Library Café as the waitress dropped to her knees beside Thomas to see if he was all right. A man joined her, stating that he was a doctor. He could have been a postman for all he was able to do for Thomas.

"He's dead," said the doctor.

Aaron ran outside and tore off down Macquarie Street, dodging people as he fled. He ran and ran, pushing himself beyond exhaustion and finally into numbness when he crashed to his knees beside a vacant bench in Hyde Park. Darkness crushed his consciousness.

Sometime later, he awoke feeling fine. Rising from the grass, he could smell his body exuding its masculine odour and this caused him to remember. He cupped his hand in front of his mouth and exhaled hard, sniffing simultaneously. Nothing. What had Thomas been on about? What had happened to Thomas? A thought descended like a lightning bolt from the heavens: I killed him!

Aaron called his girlfriend Fiona, who worked at the Stock Exchange in Bond Street, and asked her if she could meet him for lunch. She said she'd already had lunch but consented to a brief hello when Aaron insisted it was very important.

She appeared from the revolving glass door exit looking as good as she had when she left the house that morning. Magnificent. The eyes of all the men and many women too were drawn to her, impressed by her beauty, as she glided across the sidewalk. Aaron had the same thought he always did when he saw her; what the hell is that beautiful woman doing with me?

They embraced after Aaron avoided Fiona's lips and took a kiss on the cheek. On parting, she said, "What's wrong?"

"Is my breath okay?"

"What?"

"My breath. Does it stink?"

"Breathe on me."

Reluctantly he did so and was much relieved to hear Fiona's negative reply delivered as it was from her sweet smiling mouth. "It's fine."

"Is it ever bad? Like, really bad?"

"Sometimes at night maybe but isn't everyone's?"

"Probably."

"I'm sorry, honey, is that all you wanted? I have to go back to work. I thought you said it was important."

"I lied," said Aaron. "I just wanted to see you."

Fiona quickly kissed him on the lips, then turned and hurried back across the sidewalk and in through the revolving doors.

Aaron suddenly remembered his car. Parked in a two hour spot near the café. But how could he go back there? He looked at his watch and seeing that nearly four hours had passed since...he shuddered at the thought, then again when the video replay of Thomas's death began playing in his mind. Finally he reasoned it ought to be safe by now, and even if it wasn't he simply had to go. The police would probably want to talk to him, but he could not avoid that for long anyway.

All was quiet and normal at the State Library Cafe as he passed it. There were only a couple of customers inside and no sign at all of what had gone on earlier that day. Approaching his car, he noticed a parking officer apparently writing him a ticket, and broke into a run hoping to reach her in time.

"Wait," he cried out.

"I'm sorry." she said as he arrived, panting at her feet. "I've already written the ticket. It's a two hour limit here."

Aaron stood up and looked at her. She was only doing her job, but to say he was having a bad day would have been a gross understatement. "Please," he said.

"Pay the fine," she said as she handed him the yellow envelope.

Foolishly he grabbed her by the shoulders and invaded her personal space with a threatening stabbing motion with his head. "Please, tear it up!"

The parking officer winced and Aaron immediately recognised the look. He should have let her go, but in horror he gripped her even tighter and shouted, "Why are you making that face?"

Struggling to get free, she lost her balance and fell to the sidewalk taking Aaron with her. "You're hurting me! Get off!" She tried to wriggle out from underneath Aaron but he had at least twenty five kilos over her in weight.

"I just asked you to tear up the ticket and I asked nicely."

"Are you insane? Get off me! Help! Somebody help me!"

"Stop screaming," yelled Aaron. "Shut up!"

The parking officer's eyes began to water and she gagged once, then vomited causing Aaron to release her immediately. In the same moment strong arms and heavy hands were brought to bear on him but he did not struggle. The next voice he heard was a man's, deep and serious. "You are under arrest. Don't move."

Looking worried and frightened, Fiona arrived at the police station and was allowed to speak with Aaron briefly. He explained what had happened, and his theory about what was going on.

"That's crazy," she said. "Impossible. Is that why you asked me about your breath? It was fine, I told you."

"I wasn't angry then."

"What do you mean? What's that got to do with it?"

"I've got a massive problem with my temper."

"I know you've got a bit of a short fuse but..."

"Listen," interrupted Aaron. "With the parking officer, and earlier with Thomas at the café."

"What happened with Thomas at the café?"

Fiona, ordinarily so cool was losing her composure. Her volume increased as her self control elapsed, and Aaron could feel his hackles rising in response to her. Aaron was suddenly very afraid for her.

"You're going to have to leave, Fi, you're making me angry."

"I'm making you angry?" she yelled back.

"Please," said Aaron standing and walking away from her, "you have to leave now."

"Aaron, look at me!" demanded Fiona.

When he ignored her, she stormed over to him and tried to pull him around to face her, but he resisted. "Please Aaron," she said beginning to sob, "I don't understand what's happening."

"I'm dangerous! I can't see you now, not when I'm mad."

Aaron shook violently from the effort of controlling his voice and his temper, and that frightened Fiona even more, if that was possible. A guard rushed in, pulled her away from Aaron, and frogmarched her out the door as she thrashed about in protest.

Aaron was then moved to a holding cell in a minimum security facility where his next visitor was a doctor who interviewed him at length and conducted an examination.

"You're breath seems fine now Mr. Marah but you say it goes bad when you get angry?"

"That's right. What's wrong with me?"

"Halitosis is the medical term for severe chronic bad breath, but I have never experienced or even heard of a case like yours where it appears to come and go, based on mood. Very interesting."

Aaron was unimpressed. "It may be an interesting case to you, Doctor, but I am in prison awaiting trial for murder. I need to know what's wrong and how I can fix it."

"Are you looking for a diminished responsibility plea on medical grounds?

"Are you a lawyer as well as a doctor?"

The doctor cocked his ball shaped head and sniffed the air. "I can smell it now. Is that you? Are you getting angry?"

Aaron stared at the doctor and tried to figure out why he wore an amused expression as though the gravity of this situation was completely lost on him. That feeling of dread crept quickly over him so he stood and told the doctor to leave. "It's getting dangerous for you now, you'd better leave."

"Yes, yes," said the doctor thoughtfully as he turned slowly and walked out the door.

Over the course of the week, Aaron had short visits from Fiona, and his lawyer and the funny old doctor. They were all mindful of not aggravating him, and increasingly genuine in their sympathy for him. Sometimes as he sat in his cell he would get to thinking about things which annoyed him and almost immediately the acrid stench of his breath caused him to stop and focus on more pleasant thoughts.

One day the doctor arrived and strolled into the room beaming from ear to ear. He noticed the mask of annoyance on Aaron's face, and quickly raised his hands, open palms pointing to Aaron.

"I'm smiling because I have good news. I have found another case like yours and with it a possible solution to your problem."

Aaron was sceptical. "Go on."

>From his pocket the doctor produced a small aerosol can and held it out to Aaron, who took it and read the name. "Philippians 4:8? What the hell kind of name is that for...what is this stuff anyway? He pointed the spray nozzle at his wrist and pressed it gently. A puff of fine mist exploded from the can. "Breath freshener spray?" He sniffed his wrist. "It has no odor at all though." He lifted the can and read the name again, "Philippians 4:8. An odor neutraliser?"

The doctor shrugged. "The name refers to a Bible verse. I was told that the verse includes some reference to purity. Presumably the inventor credits God with inspiring him to create this minor miracle in a spray can. The son of a very rich man developed a problem like yours -- fits of bad temper accompanied by some strange hormonal event that made his breath literally toxic to others. They could not find the root cause -- some genetic disorder, perhaps -- so they could not find a cure. Instead,they concentrated on identifying the chemical components of the problem and developing a -- coping mechanism, something that binds with the toxic molecules and renders them harmless."

Aaron shook his head. "No cure. Just -- breath spray."

The doctor patted Aaron on the shoulder. "They are still studying the problem. And now that they have you as a second subject for study, perhaps they will be able to find a more permanent solution."

"Prisoner, or lab rat. Not much of a future," Aaron muttered. He felt anger rising in his chest, and caught the first traces of the lethal fumes seeping from his lips. "Doctor -- it's happening again. You'd better get out of here..."

The doctor drew back a few paces, but instead of signalling for the guard to let him out of the room, he said, "Use the spray, Aaron. See what it can do for you."

Aaron raised the can to his mouth, careful to align the nozzle with his lips, and inhaled a burst of the -- whatever it was.

"It tastes -- cool," he said. "No flavour, exactly -- just cool." And his anger seemed to be receding, as if it, too, had been neutralized.

"I feel -- better," Aaron said. "Calmer. Is there a tranquilizer or something in this stuff?"

The doctor shook his head. "It wouldn't be safe to put drugs of that sort in something that could be used many times in a day -- and the family of the boy for whom they created the spray would never risk his safety like that. Interesting that you feel calmer, however. I will relay your remarks to the research team. As for the spray, keep it with you at all times. When you start to feel angry, spray it into your mouth, do it twice if you want, to be certain, and hey presto!"

"That's it?"

"That's it. That can should last quite a while, but don't worry -- I have arranged for more to be delivered on a regular basis."

When it finally came to court, the case against Aaron was dismissed because of insufficient evidence. Testing of Aaron's untreated breath at its worst indicated that it should not have been lethal under any circumstances, so Thomas's death could not be definitely attributed to him. The parking officer had been persuaded to drop the charges against Aaron once she understood why he had been so upset. (A cash settlement offered by the family of Aaron's fellow sufferer may have helped things along...)

Privately, Aaron still felt responsible for Thomas's death, but also believed that he had been punished enough. The burden of guilt would probably keep him captive for the rest of his life, while his breath however would be controlled by a mouth spray named after a Bible verse.

THE END


© 2012 D. A. Cairns

Bio: D. A. Cairns is married with two children and lives on the south coast of New South Wales in Australia where he works as an English language teacher and writes stories in his very limited spare time. He has had a number of short stories published in Necrology Shorts, Dead Ink, Cynic Online, and other magazines including Aphelion. His first novel, Devolution was released in 2011; his second novel is currently seeking a good home. Mr. Cairns's story Goyyou appeared in the October 2011 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: D. A. Cairns

Website: square pegs

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