It begins with the pudding. Calvin’s heart quickens as his stubby fingers brush against the carton at the back of the fridge – how did it get there? – but disappointment awaits. He bends as far as his immense bulk allows and retrieves the container. Only a paucity of the thick, off-white treat remains; hardly a spoonful. The store it is, then.
He dresses slowly. The bending and stretching required leave him short of breath, and so he pauses before he dons his shoes. His small apartment is awash in detritus; clothes strewn on the floor, empty pizza boxes piled in one corner, sink freighted with crusty dishes. A mild mammalian odor, not dissimilar to that of a barn, permeates the air. Calvin takes all this in in a sleepy glance before he turns, exits, and locks the door behind him.
“Tomorrow,” he says to himself in a falsetto murmur, “we call Benway. Hm-hm, tomorrow, so tonight something rich.” Long solitude has taught him the pleasures of his own conversation. A stooped old woman is squeezed off of the sidewalk as he lumbers by, and she shoots the muttering giant a hateful look. He doesn’t notice.
The corner store is an oasis of frosty light in the darkening evening, and Calvin blinks as he enters. “Ayyyy, Food Pipe!” comes a voice from behind the counter, and Calvin is greeted by a ferocious grin from the clerk. “What’s good?” Calvin shrugs, eyes on the scuffed and skidded floor. The man’s manic good cheer, his jokes and nicknames – they make Calvin uncomfortable.
A bag of flavored corn chips, a fresh tub of tapioca, and a cold six-pack of sugary lemon drinks. Calvin’s broad, soft arms overflow with bounty. The clerk rings everything up, each item producing an ear-splitting chirp from the register. “Little snack, Food Pipe?” The man laughs, and a powerful stench – liver and onions? – washes over the counter. Calvin shrugs again, eyes on his purchases. “You take it easy now, big boy!” Another brilliant white smile and this valediction send Calvin from the store and back into the night.
On the street again, Calvin clutches his plastic grocery sack in one soft hand and stomps back toward his building. Shame and resentment burn on his doughy cheeks. “One day,” he mumbles, “going to tell him not to talk to me that way. I’ll show him. Going to—“
Distracted, Calvin stubs a toe and stumbles. He loses his balance and hits the sidewalk hard – first knees, then belly, then palms. The plastic sack bursts. Foaming soda and thick, milky pudding paint the concrete. Calvin gasps, catches his breath, and struggles to his feet, glancing up and down the street. The night is empty, the streetlights dead or dimly flickering. His tumble, fortunately, had no audience.
The pudding is impossible to salvage, but the chips and two cans of lemon drink survived the impact. Calvin collects this modest salvage and retreats to his apartment. There, door locked against the outside world, he tends to his wounds. His palms and knees bear raw, cherry-red scrapes pocked with grit. He runs the shower and undresses gingerly as the water heats and the tiny bathroom fills with steam.
“Oh-oh-oh,” comes his song. His voice rings against the tiles, high-pitched as a tea kettle. Soap slicks his soft skin, the dimples in his belly like a cantaloupe gone to velvet rot. Washing himself is a process that exhausts him; even a quick rinse leaves him short of breath, and once he has donned his voluminous, thin cotton night gown, Calvin settles himself onto the bed and into a jumble of pillows and blankets.
Calvin’s bed – its bones broken – sags deeply in its center, so Calvin has built himself a shoal of cushions, the better to keep himself propped half-aloft and avoid creeping obdormition in his limbs (a sensation that he thoroughly hates). Thus ensconced, damp and clean and clad, Calvin sneaks one naughty hand from beneath the covers to an overstuffed drawer that juts, half-closed, from his nightstand.
A coy breeze from the open window nearby ruffles glossy pages. Would his magazines land Calvin in custody, were the authorities aware of his collection? Perhaps. Perhaps that’s part of the excitement, the tickling tingle that teases like a tapeworm in his depths. One hand flips the pages of the night’s selection, propped upon his gut, as the other hand snakes downward in search of his gradually uncoiling tumescence. It reaches, gropes—but then Calvin stops.
Something has blossomed from his navel’s deep crater. A bulge, taut against his skin, which he palpates gingerly. It’s tender, and when a stiff jab from Calvin’s fingers ignites a hot burst of pain in his viscera, his heart fills with panic. “Oh no,” he whines, “oh my!” His other hand dislodges the drawer and sends magazines sliding, but he pays them no mind. Momentarily, he successfully locates his telephone and brings it to his chest, where he dials with one shaking finger. He pets and gently presses his newfound excrescence as the line rings.
“Doctor!” he gasps into the telephone, “I know we were to meet tomorrow, but my umbilicus, I…” He trails off as the phone goes dead with an electric squelch. Seconds later, a clatter erupts on the steps. Calvin can hear the door to his apartment burst open, and into the room flies Doctor Benway. His stained white coat flaps around his bony frame as he regards Calvin from behind thick, murky spectacles.
“I’m here now,” Benway barks, “and never mind the bother.” In one of his hands is a voluminous black leather bag, which he sets on Calvin’s dresser. “Why, I’m never against a house call, should the patient’s condition demand it. Ever diligent, and ready for what’s required, that’s me. And how dare you say otherwise?” the doctor demands angrily. Calvin looks up at him helplessly and shrugs. Benway sighs. “Well, I suppose we ought to have a look at that plumbing of yours, oughtn’t we?”
His spectacles flash as he bends to inspect the pale expanse of Calvin’s belly. “Hmm… Got yourself an umbilicus, do you? Don’t see many of those these days. Folks think of them as old-fashioned. Limited in imagination. Me, I strictly work on the cutting edge – if you’ll excuse a little stab at humor. Why, some of the newer orifices I’ve put in… The things they do, the things they want… But I digress.”
Benway prods Calvin’s gibbosity with one finger. His ragged nail is sharp against Calvin’s tender flesh. “Not bad, young man,” he says, “not a bad start, I say. And you can’t get someplace truly radical if you don’t have the resources to work with, can you?”
“It’s a good thing,” says Calvin, “that we had that little tummy operation planned.”
“Was it? Did we?” wonders Benway absently. He rummages in his bag. Calvin hears the link of glass and metal. “I’m going to knock you out so I can get the receiver erected. As is, you lack the intestinal fortitude to deal with such interzonal phenomena. Unclench yourself, Melvin, and we’ll get you cut to twitching ribbons, yes?”
“My name is—” begins Calvin, but the good doctor stuffs a sodden rag into his face. He gags on a sweet chemical taste and then swims deep into dreamless darkness.
Throbbing brow and desiccated tongue drag Calvin back to the land of the living. He groans and shifts his bulk, but a tugging sensation stops him. Though the room is dim, there is enough light to pick out the outlines of his furnishings, the piles of clothes on his floor, the hallway; he is alone again.
He lifts his head and turns his gaze downward. Hasty hands have swaddled him from the underside of his ample breasts to the swell of his pubis in bandages, which have been sloppily snugged into place with medical tape. Resting gently atop these wrappings is a folded sheet of paper, with MARVIN scribbled across it in Benway’s jagged hand. Calvin unfolds it.
I’m furious, sir, simply livid that a masterpiece – a miracle – such as my handiwork here must remain, in your organization’s sophomoric phrasing, “under wraps.” Well young man, remain wrapped it must, at least until nightfall tonight. You know where to find me, sir, should you again require a solution where artistry and vision meet pure medical transgression.
“I wonder whom he has me mixed up with,” Calvin mutters, and gently rubs his belly. He can feel something under there – a turgid tingling under the snowy swaddling. “Oh well,” sighs Calvin. He is careful as he rises from his broken mattress. The unhappy memories of the broken pudding container, his fall, the laughing clerk at the corner store – he puts these aside as he collects his corn chips and extracts a sugar drink from the refrigerator.
Crunch, smack, slurp, slop – Calvin’s lips and noisy jaws set to work. He eats at a kitchen table overflowing with crusty plates and empty takeaway boxes, the jetsam of many nights adrift on a sea of greasy delight. As Calvin washes down the last of the corn chip residue, something brushes the very edge of his contented awareness, a niggling noise that eventually attracts his full attention.
A whistling whisper, a sibilant sigh; it takes him a few moments, craning his thick neck, to locate the source of the sound. Its source, and a persistent tingling itch, both lie beneath the bandages that span his stomach. He pets and pats the layer of gauze, absentmindedly fretting. What structural aberration – either inborn or acquired thanks to Benway – could produce such a sound, as though he were a meat balloon with a slow leak? Calvin stands before his mirror and frowns at his shrouded midriff. “What did he get up to in there?” he mumbles.
The phone rings, a jangling scream of sound in the silent room which startles Calvin badly. He reaches for the receiver and brings it to his ear, still inspecting himself in the glass. “Yes?”
“The boundaries of science are slick steel cuffs, the call of art the press of a soft leather whip against eager flesh.” The voice is not Benway’s. “Organic, inorganic, terrestrial, extradimensional – these are all meaningless distinctions. But you already know that.” There’s a small laugh, a sound like something rotten rolling over in a deep bog. “You know it in your guts.”
Sweat dapples Calvin’s soft brow. “Who is this?”
“This is CONTROL,” the phone grates, causing Calvin to wince, “and the sun is going down.” The line goes dead with a hiss of static.
Indeed, the sun has dipped below the horizon, painting the alleyway behind Calvin’s apartment in bloody gold and long, angular shadows. Calvin watches the arterial flourish for a few moments and wonders helplessly what he has gotten himself into. “Oh, oh,” he frets. “Oh why did I get myself mixed up with that dreadful Dr. Benway?”
“Beeeeenwaaaay?” The voice is thin, and high, and distorted — and the titter that follows its question is terrible to hear. Calvin whips his cannonball head around, but sees no visitor. “Who’s that? Who’s there?”
“Who else? Your handler, Calvin. Your minder, and also, for now, a passenger.” Each time this interlocutor speaks, Calvin feels a tugging, buzzing tingle in his midsection. He turns to his mirror and begins frantically yanking at the edges of the bandages that hides his umbilicus. “What? What?” whines Calvin as the bandages fall away.
A short, fat coil of flesh extends from Calvin’s belly button. It is thick enough to distend the edges of his navel as it droops outward. The bruise-colored flesh of its surface is mottled and bumpy with veins. As Calvin watches, frozen with revulsion, it moves sluggishly, raising its blunt end to reveal that it terminates in a tiny mouth, its miniature lips pressed together. They part, revealing white, evenly-spaced teeth, each no bigger than a pencil eraser. “Calvin,” it says, “I’m going to need you to focus.” Its voice is rough and shrill, but calm – a fairy godmother addressing a frightened scullery maid.
“CONTROL can’t have told you much. Nor that vile triple-agent, Benway. As your handler, that duty falls to me. You’re a brave soul, volunteering for an assignment like this. Fear not – I’ve been in sticky situations before.” Sticky indeed, for when Calvin touches the fleshy protrusion to confirm its reality, his fingers meet firm, warm, slightly tacky flesh. “Please don’t do that,” the thing protests. It flops clumsily away from his prodding digits, hot against the exposed skin of his belly. “What—who—” Calvin sputters.
“That’s highly classified,” it says in a stage whisper. “But for the purposes of our relationship, you may refer to me as ‘Matryoshka,’ or, for brevity’s sake, Matt. With introductions out of the way, do you happen to have something for me? Something…. Hmmm…. Sweet. It has been a very long journey here, replete with outbreaks of fierce neuro-social combat and numerous hard-to-clear checkpoints.”
Calvin’s pantry is spent, but he locates the last of his lemon drinks. “Put it in a glass,” says Matt, “and set it on the table there.” A neat trick on his guest’s part, Calvin thinks, to see the room with no discernable eyes. “There, yes, that’s it.” Once the fizzing concoction is poured, Matt stretches – doubling the length of his tubular body and causing its veins to stand out in relief – lowers his mouth into the glass, and drinks deeply.
The sensation that climbs Calvin’s belly into his chest and sinks deep into his loins makes him gasp. It’s a delicious sensation that is equal parts effervescence and stroked erogenous zone, deep, deep in the depths of his bowels. “Good,” opines Matt, smacking his tiny lips with obvious satisfaction. “A good start, but I’m going to need further requisitions.”
“Um, there’s a corner store? Nearby?”
One broad shoe before the other, Calvin hurries through the gathering gloom. Matt seems content enough concealed beneath Calvin’s loose-fitting shirt. He emits a muffled monologue, only portions of which Calvin can follow.
“A vibration that acts as an ideology, a fundamental reprogramming of the host organism from the idea up. The atoms that make up a genetic signature – those don’t precede life. The dream, the form, the notion of what is to be made of bones and blood and slow light. That’s the key, kid. That’s why we’re on this mission together, rogue agents acting in the unspeakable name of—”
“Hush,” interrupts Calvin. “We’re here.” He stands at the edge of the corner store’s icy pond of light and wrings his hands. “What’s this?” asks Matt. “Oh, oh,” murmurs Calvin, “he’s working tonight, oh dear.” Matt is quiet for a moment. Calvin feels him shift and squirm lazily against his belly, a sensation both grotesque and delicious. “Be that as it may,” he replies at length, “I’m going to need nourishment. I’m not strong enough to requisition the necessary resources on my own, Carlin. Not yet, anyway.”
Calvin doesn’t like the sound of that. He flinches at the bright electric ding! as he enters the store. “Food Pipe!” The greeting is as jolly as ever. “We got a sale on that puddin’ you like, big boy! Been a best-seller lately. Must be your lucky day!” Calvin hurries miserably to the rear of the store, where, indeed, the big tubs of tapioca that he favors have been prominently disfigured with livid red SALE stickers. Calvin fills his arms and plods to the counter. The clerk’s eyes are on Calvin’s gut, and dance with barely-concealed mirth. Calvin follows the other man’s gaze and sees that Matt, in a mutiny borne of hunger, has extruded himself from beneath the soft hem of his hiding place. Somehow, he has managed to dislodge the lid of one of the tubs of tapioca, and now, swallows of the thick treat hunch their way down the length of his vein-studded tubulature. In Calvin’s chest, anxiety’s egg cracks and the first scrabbling sensation of panic’s beak can be felt – but there is no howl of alarm, no threat to call the authorities. The clerk is delighted.
“Ayy, no way, Food Pipe! Did you just get that? Had mine put in a week ago – it was tough getting the signal, boy, but once it came through?” The clerk dusts his hands together; pat-pat. “And I ain’t look back since.” He sees the confusion on Calvin’s face. “Oh, you don’t believe me? Check this out.” The clerk slides a pack of cigarettes from behind the register and taps one free. He lights it and takes a deep drag. Calvin coughs. The clerk grins and reaches for the hem of his uniform, the cheap neon-green of the shirt’s fabric bright against the rich brown of his skin.
An intimate pucker, slick and pornographic-looking, stretches from the base of the man’s throat to his groin. In the midst of the whorls and flourishes of scar tissue – which have been engraved, delicately, like the filigree on a gold watch – is a second mouth, the twin of the one that beams at Calvin from above the uniform’s collar. The clerk hitches his shoulders, exhales, and smoke jets from the mouth in his chest. As Calvin watches, a tongue, red and wet, emerges and runs itself slowly over lips and teeth.
“Ayy,” says the man’s second mouth in an octaves-deep, basso profundo voice, and the clerk’s mocking laughs – in ringing stereo – chase a fleeing Calvin into the night, foodstuffs forgotten.
“Makes you want to puke your guts out, doesn’t it?” asks Detective Thatch. Detective Pitch squints and shines his flashlight into the angular black shadows of the stairwell. The light is weak – watery – but it’s enough to pick out the form of Calvin’s body where it came to rest against the stairs.
“Central says he was opened up like a bag of chips,” says Pitch. He and Thatch maneuver the steps, careful to avoid the thick blood and shreds of flesh that have congealed like an overturned pot of beef stew.
Calvin’s dead face bears an ecstatic expression – saintly, as though his pale, gore-streaked features are made of Parian marble rather than cooling meat. His body rests face-up, drying eyes rolled to the heavens. His belly is a broken pie crust, an exploded and evacuated shell. Pitch’s light plays over shattered ribs, blown-out musculature, black blood in a cold jelly puddle in the bottom of the cavity. All of Calvin’s organs – from his esophagus down to where his anus should be – are gone. A lazy crimson trail, a slug-print in blood rather than slime, leads away from Calvin’s body, down the steps, down, down the alley and to the street, where the track vanishes.
Thatch prods the big body with the toe of his wingtip. “Guy didn’t miss any meals, I guess.”
Pitch chuckles. There’s a breathy titter to his laugh, an undertone that is muffled until he slides one finger beneath his collar and tugs it downward, revealing a second mouth sewn into the side of his neck like a gill-slit with square, white teeth. “Only when it really counted, I suppose,” say Pitch’s mouths in discordant tandem, with mirror-image smirks. “Pretty funny. Side-splitting, even. Has Central sent this in to CONTROL?”
“Not yet.” Thatch touches the back of his skull gingerly, the grinning lips and shining teeth of his subsidiary smile. “But I have a feeling in the pit of my stomach that they already know.”