by Jason Thomas

“What the heck is that?”

Doug Vickers’s wary eyes fixated on the thin, crescent-shaped strip of metal in front of him.

“Oh, this little beauty just arrived today.” Dr. Hunsitt wore a grin like a kid in a candy store as he held up his latest gadget. “It’s called a ‘Sound and Phonetic Electronic Amplification Kit,’ or ‘SPEAK’ for short.”

“What does it do? Does it hurt?” The whir of a tiny drill answered ominously from the adjacent office, followed by the wet sucking sound of water and spit being siphoned.

“Of course not. It’s a breakthrough in speech recognition technology, originally designed for tracheotomy patients and people with injured jaws or faces.” As he spoke, Dr. Hunsitt pointed to the concavity of the crescent, where tiny metal bristles protruded along the edge like a comb.

“The SPEAK uses microsensors embedded in the metal to measure the phonatory muscle contractions in your larynx, then it samples the facial movements of your lips and surrounding tissue and combines the two into an audio signal.”

Doug stared at the device with raised eyebrows. “And you want to do what with it, exactly?”

“Ask yourself, what’s the most frustrating part about a visit to the dentist?” Dr. Hunsitt looked intently at Doug, the grin never relaxing for a moment. “It is, of course, being unable to speak, even during the simplest of procedures. I can ask a patient if something is uncomfortable or try to make conversation, but who could answer with a numb mouth full of fingers and tools?”

Doug had been considering several unpleasant facets of visiting the dentist, but that particular aspect was not among them. Dr. Hunsitt pushed the foot pedal on the base of the chair and a motor hummed happily while the seat began to recline.

“There we go. Hold still a minute,” he said. Doug felt the weight of the cold metal on his neck and collarbone as Dr. Hunsitt placed the device on him like a necklace. “Comfortable?”

“I guess.” Doug wasn’t fond of any of the strange, medieval-looking devices in this office, but at least this one wasn’t painful.

“Let’s give it a shot. Open wide for me.” Dr. Hunsitt inserted several rubber dams into Doug’s mouth, forcing it to remain wide open. “Now tell me, what is your name?”

Doug lay in the chair and tried to answer, but all that came out was a string of gurgling noises and a strand of drool. He sounded like a zombie. Dr. Hunsitt leaned forward and pushed the center of the metal strip closer to Doug’s neck.

“Try again.”

“Banana Peel.” The words had not come from Doug, but from small speakers embedded in the tips of the collar. Doug rolled his eyes and reached up to pull the device off.

“No, no, just give it a minute! The circuitry requires a few samples to attune to each new person. That and, well,” Dr. Hunsitt’s grin was replaced by a sheepish grimace, “it’s dangerous to take it off without powering it down first.” Doug’s eyes grew wide and Dr. Hunsitt quickly continued, “Let’s try today’s date.”

“October 21456.”

“That was closer; one more should do it. Where are you right now?”

“At the dentist’s. Doug Vickers. Tuesday, October 7th, 2014. I’ll be damned.”

“Excellent!” A look of childish glee lit up the doctor’s face.

Doug relaxed slightly. “Pretty neat. Was this thing expensive?”

“Actually, yes. That particular model features several upgrades that made it very expensive.”

“Figures. You should spend a little less on gimmicks and a little more on your business.” Doug’s eyes bulged.

Dr. Hunsitt frowned. “What … what do you mean?”

“Well, the office is run-down and the front counter crew is useless. The only decent part about the waiting room is that family picture. Your wife is a sweet piece, and from the looks of it, your daughters are following suit nicely.”

Doug’s face went as pale as the fluorescent lights and a strangled sound erupted from his throat. He grabbed at the SPEAK but stopped short of actually pulling it off. His body shook with desperation as he motioned repeatedly for the doctor to remove the device.

“Anyway, you’re running late, as usual,” he said, “and I have better things to do, so let’s get on with it.”

Dr. Hunsitt sat motionless in his swivel stool for what felt to Doug like an hour, his face a caricature of stunned disbelief. Finally, he gave Doug an evil smile.

“Well, let’s not waste any more of your precious time then, Mr. Vickers,” Dr. Hunsitt said, yanking the tray of instruments over to the chair.

Copyright © 2014 Jason Thomas