I was in the break room munching my way through a kale and cranberry salad. Several of my coworkers sat at the lunch table. Mostly I keep to myself because I much prefer being left alone than being drawn into the droll of their banal conversation.
“Did anyone notice that Carl’s been missing?” Karen asked the room.
Val paused her open-mouthed chewing and looked at the ceiling pensively.
“I think the last time I seen him was last Thursday,” Tanner spoke with his jaw full of microwaved fried fish, “probably the flu.”
I cringed. Seen? I heard the voice in my head scream. It’s SAW! I didn’t correct him out loud. God, I couldn’t stand these people.
These people were caricatures of cliche personality defects. Gossip, mouth chewing and microwaving fish in the shared breakroom were the very tip of the iceberg when it came to base, uncouth behavior insofar as I was concerned. I’d seen them do much worse. When I first began to hate them all, it was for doing much less. I hated Karen just for breathing.
I screamed out reflexively and the entire break room went quiet. “MOTHERFUCKER!” I said pressing my hand to my face and wincing in pain.
“Watch your mouth!” Val demanded.
Seriously? This wasn’t church. It was the lunch table in the break room. I could speak as I liked.
My coworkers eyed me cautiously as I dropped my fork with a quiet thump back into the tupperware container. I was in the final bites when it happened. I gulped down the half chewed mouthful of kale as my mouth began to fill with blood.
“What happened?” Karen asked.
I was so enraged and the pain was making my vision pulse. The room began undulating between its natural colors and glares of blinding painful white. I wanted to slap her. What do you think happened Karen?! I wanted to scream. God, I couldn’t stand her most of all.
“I bit the shit out of my cheek,” I said, still holding my face in pain.
“Language!” Val said.
I shot her a look of pure poison and watched her wither, “eat shit.” I mumbled, but between my spit turning to mouthfuls of blood and my mumbling, it was clear she hadn’t understood. It was for the better. If she heard me correctly, I’d be called into the HR office for sure. I got up and stormed from the table, upending the plastic container into the bin on my way out the door and returning to my cubicle.
Throughout the rest of the day the bleeding continued and my face throbbed in time with the ticking of the clock. I couldn’t wait to get out. I spent the rest of the day watching the time pass and surfing Facebook. Everytime the missing piece of my cheek ceased bleeding, I caught myself pressing against it with my tongue, reopening the spot and tasting that foul, copper liquid filling my mouth once more.
Once I got home, I continued to press my tongue against it, over and over again. Never once did I do it consciously; it just couldn’t be avoided. The more I thought about it, the more I found myself making it worse. I couldn’t help it. It was like a compulsion. My tongue would press against the inside of my mouth and the pain would renew.
Yep. It’s still there.
If I kept at it, this spot would never heal. I was worse than a dog. I wondered if they made those cones, but little. Smaller, and for your tongue. This seems like a pretty common problem that most people could identify with. I’m surprised that we can put a man on the moon and make a phone water-resistant and yet as a people, we haven’t discovered a way to stop tonguing tender sores.
I downed a bottle of cheap wine before bed, hoping to take off the edge and numb the pain, even just a little.
When I woke in the morning, I woke with my tongue pressed firmly once again to the inside of my mouth. I pulled my tongue quickly away and resolved that it was never going to heal. If I died from this thing, surely it should be chalked up to natural selection. Darwin was right. Only the fittest survive and here I was unable to avoid causing myself further pain. How hard was it to keep from — thinking about it again spurred some unreasonable urge onward to keep at it. I found myself unconsciously prodding at the inside of my mouth with my tongue again and felt my stomach drop as I did.
Overnight it grew … to twice the size it was the day before.
Throughout the day, each time I found myself trying to ignore it, the more attention and prodding it was given. I could feel it growing larger and larger as the day went on. Surely this was in my mind. It wasn’t possible.
I bit it again and again as I ate my daily salad. Eventually, I couldn’t stand it anymore and I gave up on my lunch all together.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that spot in my mouth the entire day. I couldn’t stop poking or prodding it, no matter how I tried.
That night, I drank two bottles of cheap wine and went to bed wrapped in a warm alcohol-stupored embrace.
The sore grew once again by the time the sun rose. I found myself in a half-wakeful panic, running to the bathroom mirror. On seeing my reflection emerge in the flickering lights above, I immediately felt the wine from the night before making its triumphant return outward in the direction I imbibed it. Undigested kale from my habitual lunch, chardonnay and blood vomited their way with incredible force into the sink basin. I stared down at the mess in the sink, taking a disgusting gulp of foul bile and wiping the sweat from my forehead before bracing myself to look into the mirror again.
I seemed to be frozen in that position with my head down for what felt like hours, but the amount of time that passed was truly only minutes. When I finally looked up, it was still there. The sore was now a hole. In my sleep I pressed my tongue to my cheek so many unconscious times, that I’d dug through to the other side. My teeth, stained with blood, peeked out from the new-formed hollow in my face.
I threw up again and called in sick.
I spent the morning and afternoon in the throes of worried fever as I tossed and turned in bed, crying until I fell asleep again and waking a few hours later just to cry for a few hours more. I didn’t have any savings and my insurance was a joke. I couldn’t go to the hospital. If I could just stop pressing my tongue against the sore, it would heal, wouldn’t it?
At some point I must have gotten out of bed to put a bandage on my face because I awoke again in a cold sweat and the gauze was taped there. Eventually, I got out of bed to wash my face and look at myself in the mirror once more. I peeled the bandage away and found that no matter how I wished to stop, it was to no avail. I’d kept bothering it in my sleep. The hole doubled in size overnight. It looked as though I might be able to put two fingers into it now. In disbelief, I decided to try just that. I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but I know if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have found the second sore — a small red space of raw skin scraped away from the back of my wrist.
When did I — no — more importantly, HOW did I do that?
I fished another bandage out of the medicine cabinet and covered the new spot on my hand. I went to the cabinet above the stove, where I kept the hard liquor and before I knew what I’d done, I downed a half a bottle of cheap gin. Each gulp set me cringing back bile, swiping tears from my eyes. As I drank, gin mingled with the blood to slowly ooze out from the hole in my cheek, but I drank more than I lost this way so I didn’t care. Eventually, feeling more and more numbed, I stumbled back to bed.
At this point, you can probably guess what I woke to find. Their number grew. They were everywhere.
I finished the rest of the bottle of gin, drinking it so quickly that I blacked out.
When I woke again, I found new sores being tongued, but this waking was by far the worst.
It seemed the newest sore was on my elbow. My tongue was somehow over three feet long and pressed hard against it where my arm lay at my side. I found myself more mortified than I’d thought possible. It’s impossible to lick your own elbow, but here I was, accomplishing this impossible feat. My tongue stretched out from my mouth like a ribbon, writhing and squirming as it caressed the hotspot at the regular pace of a metronome.
As I lay there, frozen in shock, I found my body pressed into the sheets. A sheer panic held me motionless and though I wanted to run screaming from my bedroom, I found myself unable.
The most startling revelation was not that I was continuing to lick new sores into unreachable places on my body. No — it was that my tongue was not the only tongue that lapped at this new wound. A second, long snake-like tongue was reaching up and over the side of the bed. It mingled and pressed itself against mine in a French-kiss of grotesque fashion. It moved then from my elbow to my foot, leaving my own tongue on its own to lick at the blood as it pooled in the open skin at the bend of my arm. Then, drawn to the blood drawn by this second tongue, it left my elbow and followed the stranger down. It began unfurling further from my slack jaw, slithering its way slowly down my leg like a slug, leaving a slimy trail of saliva in its wake, pressing the hair it caressed on its way against the skin.
My tongue joined the second tongue to lick at the wound on my foot. It pressed against the other tongue over and over again, a romantic dance between the two of them. I was not in control.
Finally, enough was enough. I’d seen enough. I felt the feeling return to my hands, and flailing, I managed to sit up in one quick motion. I wrangled my own tongue away from my foot and stuffed it back into my mouth. I clenched my jaw while the second tongue still licked at the sores on my lower body until my arm swung at it in a quick and calculated motion. I snatched it away from my bleeding scars and scabs and held onto it as it squirmed and tried to make a futile escape away.
I yanked it hard and felt my bed lurch beneath me.
Staring over the side then, the face of my coworker Carl peeked out from beneath. He must have been missing for an entire week by now. In that time, he transformed into something monstrous and nearly unrecognizable. If it weren’t for his shock of ginger hair, I may not have recognized him at all. His eyelids were scarred with raw skin. There were sore patches on his neck and forehead. I pulled him by the squirming pink tape that fed out from his open jaw. I clenched it, pulling each foot of it harder and harder until he was nearly out from beneath the box-spring.
Naked and bleeding, his entire body was covered in these things as well. His skin was spattered everywhere like little mouths raw and red, begging for tongues. What was happening to him?
What was happening to me?
I wanted to lick. The mouths needed tongues.
Looking down at my own body, though I had far fewer, I could see my own skin was freckled and flecked as well now. Slivers of flesh were flapping loose. Blood and puss oozed from each as thick as mustard. I felt my mouth gasp open and my tongue unfurled. It slithered past my jaw and wrapped itself around Carl’s pitted tongue, still held firmly in my hand. They were so grotesquely long and dry and cracked — and they seemed drawn to one another, against either of our wills.
Against my will? That wasn’t right. I wanted to lick. What was happening to me?
In that moment, he stood and pressed his face to mine and we kissed. Surprisingly, I didn’t shy away or push him off of me. I don’t know what compelled us in those moments. Carl isn’t even gay. Maybe it was to give our tongues something more productive to do. I watched through the dresser mirror over his shoulder. Tongues peered out through open holes in each of our faces, squirming and locking in ways that prevented one from being distinguished from the other. They sagged out from the hole beneath Carl’s jaw; they poked out of the massive hole in my own cheek. As horrible as this was, it was still better than watching them lick the wounds as they had been.
An hour later, I got a text. I managed to read it over Carl’s shoulder while our tongues continued to move in and out of the other’s mouth, slithering in and out, looking for other, smaller mouths. Sores that needed tongues.
”Hope u feel better soon!!!!”
The text read,
”I bit my cheek at lunch 2day n Val yelled at me for cursing bout it too! Gosh! H8 her!”
It was from Karen.
I pulled away and showed it to Carl and he smiled through ruined, pitted lips that were beginning to rot away.
I think I understand now. We can’t explain or control this. We don’t know why it’s happening. As soon as that first bite and my first sore began, I couldn’t stop picking at it. It’s as if the tongue inside my mouth had developed a mind of its own and needed something to poke and prod.
I think that Carl has the right idea. We finally found a way to stop tonguing our own tender sores.
Karen’s house isn’t very far away. I hope there’s room beneath her bed for the both of us.