Peter maneuvered swiftly through the living room, attacking all surfaces with vicious swipes of his duster. His breath buzzed and popped dryly in his throat, constantly near the brink of a coughing fit as he unleashed torrential downpours of disinfectant upon his desk, tables and bookshelf. Dragging a rag quickly with meticulousness across the coffee table, he hocked and sloshed his mucus around, trying desperately to shake loose whatever it was that had been causing him such discomfort all morning.
It had been the strangest sensation to wake with: shallow breathing and a tight restriction all down the throat, accompanied by an incessant dryness. Peter was shocked by his condition, having rarely ever experienced more than a few light colds over his 26 years. Despite a practically non existent social life, he always made it a point to take good care of himself, keeping his body healthy and fit. This consisted of a routine morning work-out regiment, strict diets and maintaining a high standard of cleanliness within his apartment.
He was well aware of the futility of his current cleaning frenzy. It had only been two days since the last thorough cleansing, and now he was feeling almost disappointed by the thin patches of dust he swept away, knowing that they meant he was no closer to relieving himself from irritated, prickled swallowing. Slumping down into his computer chair, he decided to log on and get some work done, in hopes of distracting himself for a little while.
Thanks to a doctor's note declaring a diagnose of extreme social anxiety, Peter was able to score a job working from his computer at home. He had anxiety about his co-workers at the call centre being bitter about him landing such a cushy deal right out of the gate, but the fact of the matter was that barely anyone there was even aware of him; still, he embraced the anonymity of his position. He would just click away quietly in his apartment, entering payroll and adjusting schedules, safe from the world, within the confinement of solitude.
It wasn’t that he hated people, but more that he hated the way they made him feel about himself. Growing up, he became more awkward every year, never quite getting the gist of social interaction. His anxious and nervous behaviour in most situations would make others uncomfortable, and after a while it was as if he emitted some sort of negative pheromone that caused others to just ignore him all together. As this caught on over the years, Peter would shrink a little more each time, making him even easier to ignore. Eventually, he became something of a recluse.
He did crave recognition though; so even though it caused him immense amounts of discomfort, he would occasionally stand on street corners whenever he was forced to leave the house for food. He'd stare at the passing crowds, coughing lightly in hopes of catching an eye or turning a head. When the heads stayed staring straight ahead, marching passed him, he would experience a conflicting mixture of disappointment and relief.
He tried powering through his work, focusing intently on the numbers blinking across the screen, but the relentless wheeze cutting through him was becoming harder and harder to ignore. Every time he heard the squeaks slipping out from behind his teeth, his left eye would flutter and twitch as his hands balled up involuntarily. He made his way hastily to the kitchen, grabbing a mason jar and shoving it under the tap.
Peter couldn’t believe the level of relief he was experiencing as he drained the jar repeatedly. He had only planned on one drink, but as soon as the cool water hit him, he went into a feverish rampage of filling and chugging, filling and chugging. Every time mouthfuls made their way down his throat, it was as if his lungs were suddenly swollen with clean, fresh air. Twenty minutes later, the hydrated trance broke and Peter was leaning against the counter, looking and feeling incredibly refreshed. He couldn’t believe how good he felt and how easily he had lost track of time. But then he felt it; the crackling and tensing began to creep back in, quickly eliminating the short lived sense of relief.
Infuriated, he rushed to the bathroom, opening his mouth as wide as he could and looked into the mirror. Just like the previous attempts he had made through the day, he could see nothing, but he knew there was something there. Hesitating for a moment, he took a deep breath and shoved his index finger deep into his throat, exploring the sides as he cringed and gagged with discomfort. Eventually he stopped with a shock, feeling several strange, hardened notches lining the inside of his throat. They were just out of reach, so he could only touch a few, but could feel many more making their way down.
Scouring the internet, Peter hit every version of WebMD the World Wide Web had to offer. Could it be tumours? Nodes? Blisters, pustules, cankers? Maybe even old popcorn kernels? The online medical forums were great for fuelling paranoia and filling his head with ideas, but no answers were found no matter how deep he searched.
He reached for his glass of water, leaning his head back as the liquid soothed him, rewarding him with full, healthy breaths. Then, a strange thought hit him. Going to Google, he typed “Gills” into the search engine. He felt incredibly foolish as he made his way through Wikipedia and online dictionaries, reading about different types of gills, yet the more he found, the more things began to click in his head. It was the discovery of the decapod crustacean and hermit crab type gills that really began to snap things into place.
An online dictionary entry described a gill as “a respiratory organ found in many aquatic organisms that extracts dissolved oxygen from water and excretes carbon dioxide.” Hermit crabs, a decapod crustacean, were said to have adapted to be able to breathe on land, as long as they are kept moist. They are capable of surviving outside of water, but thrive within it.
Peter ran his hands slowly down his neck. The notion was completely ridiculous. A person doesn’t just wake up with gills, yet, the facts seemed to check out. He chugged several more glasses of water, feeling waves of comfort with every gulp, yet after a moment without it, the dryness would return. In his bathroom, he ran the tub until it was full, taking off his shirt and dunking his head down under the water. Taking in mouthfuls and deep breaths through his nose, he remained submerged. He felt no panic or sense of urgency. While beneath the water, he experienced a serene calming that he had rarely, if ever, felt in his entire life.
When he brought his head up, he checked the time. He had been underwater, with no problem or struggle what so ever, for forty-five minutes. The time had completely slipped away, and he knew he could have easily stayed under for another hour or more if he had wanted.
Back in his computer chair, head dripping puddles onto the floor, Peter reflected on his situation, becoming more and more depressed as the reality set in: He had gills. He was a freak. He already felt out of step in the world, unable to connect with people, and now they would want even less to do with him. People would turn away from him the way they do a paraplegic or burn victim, just trying to ignore them so as not to experience discomfort for themselves. He could just picture himself, walking down the street, wheezing up a storm, frightening children. Or maybe he would have to fashion some sort of fish tank helmet, like a scuba divers helmet but filled with water. It all just seemed like too much to add to a life that was already overwhelmingly uncomfortable.
Weighed down by his thoughts, as well as his still sopping hair, Peter left his home and began walking down the street. As much as he hated being outside when he didn’t need to be, he couldn’t stand wallowing in his apartment any longer. He was too preoccupied to care about the people passing him by on the street as he made his way down the sidewalk, eventually turning in to a small diner he sometimes ordered out from. He sat down in a booth and after several minutes of trying to get her attention, managed to flag down a waitress.
“Hey there, hun, what can I get ya?”
“Tomato soup… does it come with—“
“FRANK! I told you to turn that damn stereo down! You’re going to drive away the customers! ...Sorry, hun. What was that?”
“…I just want the tomato soup… with some crackers too if you—“
“What?! No you can’t wear headphones! What if I need to get your attention? ...Sorry, that was a tomato sandwich darling?”
“Alright, dear. Coming right up.”
Peter stared down at the bowl of chicken noodle soup in front of him. He didn’t care enough to correct the order. He was used to getting the wrong food. It was just something that seemed to always happen. Sometimes he would purposely order the wrong thing in hopes of getting what he actually wanted. It never worked out like that though. He stared into the soup for nearly ten minutes, unmotivated to take even a single spoonful. He could faintly make out his reflection, a noodle in place of an eyebrow and a chunk of chicken obstructing his nose. He stuck his finger into it, swirling it slowly in the now lukewarm broth.
Without thinking, he lowered his face down into the large bowl, feeling the noodles, chicken and carrot chunks rubbing up against his cheeks. He began breathing in and out slowly, relaxed and calmed by the liquid as it soothed his aggravated lungs. He didn’t much care about his surroundings in that moment. In his soup, he could breath easy and let the rest of the world melt away. That is, until he began attracting attention, as one face down in a bowl of soup often will.
“What in the hell are you doing?” asked a voice, perplexed.
Peter didn’t answer though. He just stayed in his soup, listening as more voices gathered.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“I don’t know, he’s been like that for over five minutes now.”
“Do you think he had an aneurysm or something?”
“Mommy, how come I can't eat my soup like that?”
“Should someone try to move him?”
“Don’t touch him! What if he had a seizure?”
Down in the mild warmth of the noodles, chicken and carrots, Peter wore a wide grin. From what he could hear, the entire diner was now surrounding his booth, wondering about him; concerned about him; interested in him. At one point, he felt a woman’s hand lightly rubbing his back, as if to comfort him, until someone told her to cut it out. He’d never had this much attention in his life. He had always anticipated ridicule in crowds, but all these people seemed genuinely worried about him. It was the nicest he’d ever felt.
“I just called 911” said the waitress.
This news concerned Peter. He’d seen E.T; gaining the attention of strangers in a diner was one thing, but he didn’t want scientists tearing apart his throat, trying to figure out how his gills worked. He sat up, turning to face the crowd. There were roughly twenty people, all looking at him in silence and awe. He wiped his wet face, a noodle sticking to his sleeve. Standing up, he bowed awkwardly, said a quick “Thank you.” and walked out the door. The crowd followed him to the doorway but remained there, staring confusedly after him as he hopped onto an idling bus. Taking a seat at the back of the bus, grinning again, Peter took out his phone and began searching for other nearby diners.