By Michael P. Belfiore, illustration by Dee Sunshine
4 March 2002
Philip woke one morning with a sea anemone in his mouth. During the night, it had felt like a canker sore, sweetly painful on the edge of his consciousness, infecting his dreams.
Now he stood in his pajamas in front of his bathroom mirror, peering into his mouth. The anemone, flat and a pinkish cream color, covered about half of the inside of his left cheek. The flesh around its central orifice drooped slightly, until he prodded it with a finger, and it puckered shut. Closed, it made a thin ridge of muscle. As he watched, it slowly relaxed open again.
He didn't have time to examine it any more closely; he had to get to work.
On the subway, standing pressed against the sliding doors, he looked out the window at the dark walls of the tunnel sliding past, and probed the anemone with his tongue. The time between its squeezing shut and slowly opening again grew shorter each time he touched it.
Philip worked for the Transit Authority, in an administrative center two stories below the street. He got to the office by way of a corridor off the subway platform, removed from the hiss and squeal of the trains' brakes, the echoing footfalls of commuters. The corridor was blocked by an iron gate, and so was free of the stench of urine that permeated the public areas.
Philip swung back the steel door at the end of the corridor and, just within the large central room, took his time card out of its slot. 9:11 a.m.
"Getting later every day, eh, Philip?" His coworker George grinned at him through his bushy, grey-streaked beard, on his way to refill his coffee cup. The buttons on his shirt were strained over his ample belly, and his tie was askew, with one large oily stain near the bottom.
"Bad night," said Philip. "Had trouble sleeping."
"Hey, man, I'm just giving you shit. Eleven minutes is no big deal."
Philip punched his card. "Twelve now."
"Whatever. Lighten up a little. No one cares if you're ten or fifteen minutes late."
George snorted. "He'll mellow out once we show him how we do things here."
"Philip! There you are!" Fred strode across the concrete floor, ran a hand through closely-cropped blonde hair. He ducked to avoid a particularly large pipe-fitting amid the tangle of pipes and cables slung from the low ceiling.
George made a face at Philip and headed for the coffee machine.
"Got a big project that needs your help," said Fred. "Let's go." He led Philip back through the rows of partitions to Philip's cubicle near the back wall. A fresh stack of paper sat on Philip's desk, nearly as tall as his computer monitor.
"Okay," said Fred. "Let's see." He took a deep breath, ran a hand through his hair.
"Tight deadline?" said Philip.
"Yeah, yeah, real tight. The Commissioner's office wants a summary of these reports by Friday. We really have to move on this stuff."
"You know," said Philip, "when the Commissioner's office says they need something by the end of the week, what they really mean is that they'd like to have it before the end of the month."
Fred shook his head. "No, no, no, absolutely not. They said Friday, and that means Friday. That's the problem with this office. We have got to pick up the pace around here."
Philip sighed. "Show me what to do."
By lunchtime, Philip had only grazed the surface of the stack, entering data from the topmost reports into the computer. If he skipped lunch, he might be able to clear a fifth of the reports by the end of the day. If he skipped lunch every day this week, he might finish by Friday. But he'd have to put in overtime to get his regular work done.
He sat looking at the pile. He felt around the lips of the anemone with the tip of his tongue. It no longer closed entirely when he touched it, as though it was getting used to him. He found that somehow comforting.
A distant rumbling grew louder. The floor vibrated under his feet with the passage of a train, then grew still.
Fred appeared, looking over one of the partitions into Philip's cubicle. He eyed the stack as he shrugged into his suit jacket. "How're those reports coming?"
Philip held up the few he'd completed. "Got these done."
Fred frowned. "Are you having any problems?"
"Just a little sluggish on Monday morning, huh?" He attempted a friendly grin. "Well, try to pick up the pace. I'll see how you're doing when I get back from lunch." He walked away.
A sudden chill at the back of Philip's throat made him cough, spraying the monitor and the stack of papers with liquid. Cold and salty. More of it sat in his mouth, growing warm.
He got up and went to the men's room a few steps from his cubicle. Something struggled in his mouth, a flurry of hard little legs clicking against his teeth. He opened his mouth, and a rock crab popped out, landed on the tiles with a wet splack, and skittered across the floor. Philip had a glimpse of dark legs and waving antennae before it encountered a drain and dropped through.
He spat the remainder of the saltwater into one of the sinks. Then he opened his mouth as wide as he could and, pulling his cheeks back with his fingers, looked in the mirror.
The anemone lay flat against the inside of his cheek, still tightly closed against the sharp flailings of the crab. Far in the back of his throat was a glimmer of light, a pale glow that illuminated his teeth and palate.
The men's room door opened. George entered, saw Philip, and stopped.
Philip turned, tried to speak, and found his mouth again full of cold saltwater. He spat it out quickly.
"You all right?" said George
Philip nodded, spat again. "Fine. Why?"
"Well . . ." He gestured at Philip's chest.
Philip looked down, saw that his shirt and tie were streaked and damp. "Oh," he said. "It's nothing." He made a vague negating motion with one hand. "A -- a little water, that's all."
"Listen, man, why don't you take a sick day? You look like you could use it."
"I . . . I don't know. . . ."
"Got a huge project Fred wants done by Friday."
"Let him handle it, then."
Philip was silent.
"You never take sick days," said George. "Take a couple of weeks off. Go out and have some fun for once. I'm sure you got enough time piled up."
"What would I do?"
"What do you mean, what would you do? Get the hell out of here, that's what! Drive to the country. Take a cruise, for chrissake!"
Philip leaned against the sink. He looked at his shoes. A train rumbled distantly, and the floor trembled, was still. "I've lived here all my life, George. I really don't know where I'd go."
George crossed his arms across the top of his belly. "You've never been outside the city."
"No. Well. Once. When I was little, my mother took me to the beach. I can barely remember it now. I suppose she rented a car. We drove a long way to get there, and then only a short while after we arrived, we had to turn around and come back before it got dark."
George threw up his hands. "Well, then, stay at home. The point is to get away from the job and think about something else for a while."
"But what would I do?"
"You can't be serious."
"George," he said quietly. "This job is all I've got."
"What are you talking about?
"I mean . . ." He rubbed at his temples. "I mean, here I'm worth something. I have a job to do. I do it well, and I'm appreciated for it. Oh, man. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to spill this all over you. It's just" -- he drew a shaky breath -- "there's nothing else in my life that works for me. I've never had girlfriends. . . . I don't have many friends at all. And now that we have this new supervisor, even the job isn't going well. . . ." He managed to meet George's gaze. "I know I need to make a change. I just don't know how."
George laughed nervously. "Come on, don't let Fred get you down. They transferred him here to streamline operations, and that's what he feels he needs to do. He'll calm down after a couple of months."
"Yes, but now I'm starting to realize it's not just him. He was just the start of it all. It was like, all I needed was one bad thing to happen, like Fred getting transferred here, and now I'm finding all kinds of things wrong with this place that never bothered me before. George, we don't have any windows in here. It's cramped, it's dirty, it's stuffy, and all we do is send reports and memos around. Doesn't that ever bother you?"
George twisted the end of his beard. "Well, sure. That's why we take vacations."
"But I can't! Don't you see?"
George looked at him out of the corner of his eye. "I'll be damned if I can figure you out, Philip."
Philip lay in bed, sleepless. From where he lay, he could see from one end of his apartment to the other. Past the arch separating his bedroom from the TV room, the streetlight outside showed through the only windows -- two squares of light glowing in the darkness.
He sighed, turned onto his side. The anemone was relaxed, resting against his teeth. He hardly noticed it now. He stared at the dim shapes of the knickknacks on top of his dresser, the glowing red face of his alarm clock. The air was still, and too hot, but he pulled the sheet closely about him anyway.
He yawned, and when he opened his mouth, he heard the distant sounds of surf booming against a beach, the faint screech of seagulls.
He closed his mouth almost immediately. All was quiet. A trace of an ocean breeze, brine and seaweed, lingered in the air for just an instant, and was gone.
He lay for a long while, breathing through his nose, before he finally let his mouth ease open again. The crash and cry grew louder in his ears, and the rhythm of the waves soothed him. His heartbeat slowed, and at last he fell asleep.
That was definitely an ocean in the back of his throat. Philip stood in the men's room with his open mouth as close to the mirror as he could get and still see inside. Past the anemone, past his teeth and uvula, the patch of pale light had resolved itself into sun-splashed rocks framing a clear blue sky and ocean waves tumbling on an empty beach. He could hear the thunder and sigh of the waves quite clearly, the cries of gulls wheeling near the horizon.
A flash of red. Movement among the rocks. A hand appeared. Another. A young woman with long blonde hair picked her careful way over the rocks. She wore a red one-piece bathing suit, carried a red towel over one shoulder. When she got to the beach, she dropped the towel and ran, long tan legs churning up the sand. She splashed into the surf, then dived into the waves. She came up flipping the water from her hair, and Philip heard her laughter over the roar of the ocean.
"Hey!" called Philip. "Hey! Hey, can you hear me?" But each time he shouted, the back of his tongue inevitably rose up and covered the back of his throat, cutting him off from the beach.
He stood with his mouth closed for a long moment. His heart thudded.
Then he went back to his desk and pushed aside the stack of reports. He dumped all the paper clips out of his pencil holder, and set about unbending them, one by one. He twisted the ends together, so that he had a single piece of rigid wire several feet long, made of bits of shorter wire.
He was peeling the top sheet off the stack of reports when George poked his head over the side of the cubicle.
"How's it going, man?"
"Better, I think," said Philip. He kept his head turned so that he didn't face George directly.
"Hey, that's good. You going to take that vacation, then?"
"I'm going to try," said Philip.
"Try, nothing! You got it coming to you. You'll feel a hundred percent better, I guarantee you."
"George . . ." He paused. "Thanks for listening to me yesterday."
George looked away. "Ah . . ."
"It's been good working with you."
George twisted his beard. "I ah, I gotta get back to work." He turned away, but not before Philip saw him flush.
When George had gone, Philip found a felt-tip pen and used it to write on the blank side of the sheet of paper. "Help!" he wrote. "I'm trapped in this cave." He poked one end of his wire through the paper, and secured it with tape.
Back in front of the mirror in the men's room, he carefully pushed the paper into his mouth. There was an unpleasant moment when the paper got stuck against his uvula, but with a bit of nudging, it popped clear to the other side. He pushed the wire in after it, until only a couple of inches protruded from his lips.
The door opened. Fred stood in the doorway. "There you are!" he said. "I've got another report for you to get started on. Are you trying to give me an ulcer? Come on, we've got deadlines to meet!"
Philip tried to speak, but found it difficult to form words around the wire. Especially since it seemed to be moving of its own accord.
Fred leaned forward, staring at Philip's mouth. He started to say something, but at that moment, the end of the wire was jerked into Philip's mouth from the other side. Fred blinked, and straightened. He shook his head, moved to one of the stalls, and closed the door behind him with a bang.
Philip turned to the mirror. The woman's face peered out -- or in -- at Philip through his mouth. She had green eyes, and a light sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose. "Hello?" she said. Her voice was distant, and echoed slightly. "Hello, can you hear me?"
Philip kept his mouth open, and waved his arms frantically, hoping she would see the movement in the mirror.
She moved away, and for a heart-stopping moment, Philip was afraid she'd left. But the light in the back of his mouth got brighter. The hole widened. He caught glimpses of her hands, her legs and arms, as she rolled rocks away from the opening. "That's better," she said when she returned. "We'd better hurry, the tide's coming in. Can you reach a hand up to me?"
Behind him, Philip heard a toilet flush. Without thinking, he stuck his hand in his mouth.
A warm hand grasped his. There was a moment of vertigo, and he felt himself hauled out onto the rocks, blinking in the strong sunlight, feeling the heat on the back of his neck, and the waves here and now, thunderous and foaming.
The woman, strong and warm beside him, helped him to his feet. She looked him over and laughed. "You don't look like a cave explorer! How did you ever get in there?"
Philip laughed too. "I don't know," he said.
He felt the inside of his cheek with his tongue, encountered only smooth flesh. He looked back at the mouth of the cave. Attached to a rock just within was a sea anemone.
Through the opening, he could make out Fred, as from a great distance, coming out of the stall and heading for the sinks.
The rocks the woman had moved aside lay nearby, and Philip rolled them back into place, covering the opening completely.
He stood and looked at the woman, and smiled. She smiled back. The sea hissed and fumed around her bare feet, soaked into his socks and shoes. The water was cold.
"We'd better head back," she said, "before your clothes get wet."
"Head back where?"
"Along the beach, to my house. I'm sure you're thirsty and hungry, and you can tell me what you were doing inside that cave."
"It's not very interesting," he said.
They walked, his shoes sinking into the wet sand, and he let his mind fill with the sun and the waves and the long strides of the woman beside him.
Copyright © 2002 Michael P. Belfiore
Michael Belfiore lives in New York's Hudson River Valley, where he runs a writing-for-hire business with his wife Wendy Kagan. In addition to writing corporate propaganda and fiction, Michael writes and performs science fiction theater. For more about him, see his Web site.
Dee Sunshine is a poet, writer and artist, living in Glasgow, Scotland. His work has appeared in hundreds of magazines in the UK, Europe, USA, Canada and Australia. His first full length illustrated poetry collection, The Bad Seed, was published by Stride in the UK. For more of his work, visit this Web site or this one.