When the baby boy was born, he was fine and healthy, but though he ate ravenously of his mother’s milk, he began to lose weight. His swarthy complexion grew pale. He cried all the time with the pain of hunger. His parents brought him into the hospital and the doctors performed test after test, whatever tests they dared on a newborn infant. Finally, they found some kind of an anomaly in his blood work. They scanned him with a new type of imaging machine and concluded that something was abnormal about his digestive system, but they couldn’t quite figure out what. There wasn’t anything missing. There weren’t any abnormal masses or tissues or anything else that wasn’t supposed to be there. Except…except for a strange haziness that the scan showed in the area just above his stomach. A haze that the doctors could not explain.
They said that the boy, Boston, must have thrived in his mother’s womb because his stomach was fed by the umbilical that formed between him and his mother’s body. Now that he was outside his mother, his stomach had to be fed through his mouth and esophagus, and somehow the nourishment wasn’t making it to his stomach by that route. They hooked the baby up to tubes to try and feed him the nourishment through his veins that he was not absorbing through his stomach. And his parents worried.
A few days later, one of the doctors introduced Boston’s parents to a man in fine spectacles and a dark blue suit who produced a card that read “Farthest Star Institute.” The man was a scientist whom the doctors had called about the strange case, and he believed that he might be able to help them. He admitted that he wished to study their son’s condition, but he assured them that he could do so without harm to the child. He proposed a surgery to implant an advanced prototype of a digesting machine that the Institute had developed. In exchange, he needed their permission to implant sensors in the baby’s body to take readings, both for research purposes and to monitor Boston’s condition. The Institute would agree to race to Boston’s aid in case any emergency arose for they had local offices and laboratories all over the country. The digesting machine could nourish their son without the need of his stomach and without the need to remain in the hospital or hooked up to tubes at all times.
The baby’s parents discussed the scientist’s offer. They did research on the Institute and confirmed that it was legitimate. They called back the scientist who visited them and agreed to his offer. They took their baby to the Institute and gave him into the hands of strangers and paced outside the operating room, their steps hounded by doubt and fear, unable to meet each other’s eyes until a moment after dark when they glanced at each other and smiled. And they waited thereafter with their hands entwined and their breaths bated and their hearts feeling like balloons weighted with stones, wanting to soar with hope but cobbled with caution.
The lead surgeon came out at last and announced that surgery had been successful. The machine they implanted would intercept the food the baby ate and digest it in lieu of his stomach. There was indeed some kind of anomaly over his stomach and they could not bypass it, though perhaps when the boy was older, such a surgery might be attempted. The doctors and nurses tried to stay clear of the anomaly, but they lost a few instruments from having to veer so delicately close to it.
“Will it hurt, my boy, this anomaly?” Boston’s mother asked, fixing the doctor with a firm gaze.
The doctor was honest and said they had never encountered another person with such a condition and could give no guarantees and make no promises. But it seemed a stable anomaly and one that did the boy no harm other than getting in the way of digestion. There was no indication it was interfering with other organ systems, which were all healthy. The doctor gave instructions about the special diet that Boston would have to eat to assure that the digesting machine worked at its best efficiency. They had implanted sensors as well, to monitor the machine, to monitor Boston and the anomaly in his belly.
Boston Belmont grew up healthy and happy, for the most part, with only the typical pains and sufferings of growing up. The digesting machine worked. It had but one side effect, which Boston’s parents didn’t mind. Boston couldn’t have any truly unhealthy foods to eat, for the digesting machine wouldn’t work as well and it gave the boy bellyaches if he should try to eat ice cream or candy or potato chips.
One day, before he started school for the first time, where he would meet children and grown-ups who didn’t know about his condition, Boston’s father sat him down. His father talked to him about the machine near his belly that kept him well. His father took a deep breath and looked his son straight in the eye in the first man-to-man look he ever gave Boston.
“Son, you have a black hole in your stomach.”
His father explained that there was a strange hole in his belly where his stomach should be and it was a bit like this thing that existed in outer space called a black hole that sucked up anything that came near it, and that’s why he needed the digesting machine. Being five years old and curious, the boy asked many questions about the strange hole in his stomach. Would it suck him up too? Would it ever go away? If the machine didn’t catch the food he ate and the food fell in the hole, where would it go? And of course, his father had no real answers for the scientists who had studied Boston for five years had none. And they had no answers because nothing unusual had happened in all that time. Aside from visiting the doctor more often than typical boys his age and suffering a restricted diet that denied him some of the indulgences of childhood, Boston had none but the usual limits on his life. He promised to heed his father’s warnings to be careful with the small device that sat on his breastbone above his heart.
Some years went by with many incidents, but none tied to Boston’s belly. When he was old enough, the doctor’s had sent a camera down Boston’s throat so they could look inside the portal. They saw only darkness and the camera which they’d extended two feet into the portal came back seemingly undamaged. Then one day, when he had just started the fifth grade, Boston asked his father if the digesting machine that diverted his food could be turned off and on from the outside. His father innocently answered the question, hoping it meant that his rambunctious boy, who had a keen interest in the funner things of life, was showing signs of responsibility. He said that it could be and showed Boston how to do it, so should the machine turn off, Boston would be able to turn it back on again without anyone’s help.
Later that week, when reviewing the daily monitoring charts for his son, Boston’s father noted that the digesting machine had been turned off and on that day. He didn’t ask Boston about it, thinking the boy was practicing. But over the course of the next few weeks, he noticed that the digesting machine was turned off and on every Wednesday, and upon closer investigation, the machine turned off at a particular time each Wednesday.
So, Boston’s father sat his son down and gave him the second man-to-man look. He confronted his son with the information he had, noting Boston’s fear and outrage at having his private bodily functions monitored.
“What’s going on, Bos?”
Boston frowned. His father only ever called him “Bos” when he was in trouble for something. It sounded like “boss” and was supposed to remind Boston that he had been in charge of his actions when he did whatever it was he did wrong.
Boston sighed, but then he perked up.
“Dad, I was doing tricks for my friends.”
His father narrowed his eyes. “What kind of tricks?”
Boston smiled a proud smile. He had been eating all kinds of things at ridiculous quantities to impress his friends. At first, it was based on a dare. He never ate junk food and his friends dared him to defy his parents’ rules, not knowing how sick it would make Boston. But Boston knew he would have terrible stomachaches, unless he let the food fall into the strange hole in his stomach.
“I didn’t know if it would work,” Boston said. He was a bit of a daredevil. “But I figured I could stand a little stomachache if it would shut Arthur up. He’s always daring everyone, but he never does stuff.” Boston halted at that sudden realization. But before his father could warn him against peer pressure for the millionth time, Boston went on with his story. For there was more.
It started with dares. But it ended with business. Kids had started paying for “admittance” to a weekly event wherein Boston performed unbelievable acts of consumption. One night it was twenty hot dogs. Another night it was five whole pizzas. They were cheese pizzas, but they still counted. This last Wednesday, someone had put a platter of cupcakes before him. Two dozen cupcakes. Different flavors. Different frostings. Some had sprinkles. Some had chocolate squares or candies stuck on top. And as Boston chewed and swallowed and raised his arms in triumph after each cupcake, the crowd of his classmates and friends cheered and chanted his name.
Boston, savoring the memory of the amazingly delicious foods he’d eaten and basking in pride over the money he had earned, beamed at his father, until his father started shaking his head.
“Where are you kids meeting for this…special occasion? At someone’s house? You’re supposed to be at Charlie’s house, studying or playing as long as you both finish your homework.”
Boston’s smile faded, but not completely. “I have been finishing my homework, Dad.” Boston was a spirited lad. He all but put his arm around his dad like a confidence man.
“Dad, this is amazing. I can use this. The summer fair is coming up. And Dad, they have a pie-eating contest. I’ve got to enter it. Everyone will think it’s cute…until I win.”
Boston’s father stiffened. “Bos, that would be cheating. You would have an advantage that other contestants did not have.”
“My stomach doesn’t work right. You told me that’s why I need the machine.” He tapped his breastbone, where the controls to the digesting machine were. “I would die without it, right?”
Boston’s father seemed to wince and Boston felt a bit sorry. But he also pushed on, arguing that his stomach had been a disadvantage to him all his life. It was about time his strange stomach paid him back for the trouble it had given his family and him. His father countered that they didn’t know what would happen if Boston ate that much food. But Boston had a ready argument for that as well. He pointed to the very printouts that his father had presented to him.
“All those times, I was eating all kinds of stuff, and nothing bad has happened.”
Boston’s father didn’t like the idea of the pie-eating contest. But he knew his son was determined and what he was determined to do was not so dangerous, perhaps particularly for Boston as his own body would not be taxed with processing all the pies he would consume. His father would rather be there when Boston tried his daring feats than to let his son continue on in secret with his friends. Boston’s father and mother discussed the whole issue. And then they acquiesced. Boston’s father went to the summer fair with his son and watched as Boston (who did indeed earn an “aww” from the audience) began packing away the pies. The audience was truly awed when Boston won the contest. His father tried to give a restrained nod of approval and light applause. But he laughed on the way home, remembering the crowd’s stunned reaction to the boy who ate seven pies in three minutes.
At Boston’s next check-up, the Institute doctors mentioned that they received some different readings from the anomaly in his stomach on his feats-of-eating days, but nothing alarming. No radiation. No change in size. Boston too had felt nothing different. He was, in fact, in perfect health other than the obvious issues. He was an active child and the eating contests hadn’t harmed him. So Boston asked if he could continue entering them. The Institute experts consulted with Boston’s mother and father. They were receiving some interesting data at last, and with no apparent harm to the boy.
Boston’s parents agreed to let him enter more contests, provided he kept up in school, and with the understanding that they could stop him at any time without explanation.
And so Boston entered and won another pie-eating contest, after which he learned of a pie that was not a pie, but a cake that had his name. And when he tried Boston cream pie for the first time, it was for no contest, but the mere pleasure of tasting and eating.
He entered yet another contest. And another and another.
He didn’t win all the competitions, though he easily could have. He purposely failed in the interest of good will and not raising suspicions. Boston was a bright lad, if not entirely an honest one. Soon he had so much money from his contest winnings that his father proclaimed he would be able to afford any college he wanted to attend. But Boston didn’t see the need for college. At fifteen, he was already making a living at eating contests. He was a minor celebrity and there were those who were waiting for him to come of age, so they could go around his gatekeeper parents, and get the young and handsome champion eater to endorse their products.
In desperation, Boston’s father entreated the Institute to help. The doctors and scientists who had worked with Boston throughout his life, tried to intervene, to convince Boston about the value of a formal education, for all of them had benefited from one. And in that day and age of astronomical educational costs, they envied Boston’s ability to put himself through school with no debt and only opportunity waiting for him at the end of his journey. But Boston wouldn’t listen to anyone. Along with success, he had developed a taste for delicacies. He had tasted some of the best that his own country had to offer, the ripest and sweetest fruits, the most savory barbecue, the richest macaroni and cheese, delectable crab cakes, and of course, every variety of apple pie. He had also tasted several imported cuisines, but he wanted to go to the source.
When he turned eighteen, he graduated from high school, accepted some endorsements, and started traveling the world to eat the finest food and win the most prestigious contests. The Farthest Star Institute had to obtain his permission to continue monitoring him and before they could finish explaining all their disclaimers, he had agreed to sign all the needed documents, even though he could have afforded to buy the digesting machine by then. The stipend that his parents had received for allowing the Institute to monitor and study him would now go to him.
So he traveled, and he ate, and he had other adventures. He stopped by the Institute for appointments and sent home money and gifts to his heartsick parents. He became a true celebrity, not simply a food-eating contestant, but a traveling foodie. He had his own show, where his jolly charismatic personality won him millions of adoring fans. His mother bragged about her dashing son. His father, though proud, was reserved and conflicted. Boston would eat almost anything—chocolate-covered ants, a fruit that smelled of feces but tasted heavenly (supposedly). He had but two types of food he would not eat—still-living animals and spicy peppers. There was a running gag on the show where the cooks he was visiting would try to offer him a pepper to test his prowess. Boston would laughingly refuse and claim that he couldn’t take it. It was brilliant. A champion had to have a weakness for the people to truly love him.
Five years went by and then one day, Boston came home.
He stood at the threshold of his parents’ home with only a backpack and one small suitcase. His mother embraced him right away. His father cautiously shook his hand and asked what brought him by. Boston had been good about calling on special occasions. But he hadn’t come to see his parents in person for at least three years.
“You’re going to love this, Dad,” Boston said, smiling. And it was not the roguish smile he smiled for his audience on his show. It was…humble.
He told his parents that he had had a wonderful time in his five years, but something had changed within him over the past few months. He had missed home. He had missed his friends, his cousins, aunts, and uncles. And especially his mother and father. He had come home from work one evening and as always there were many invitations to restaurants and samples of goodies waiting for him. But all he wanted, strangely enough, was a simple turkey sandwich, like the one his mother used to make.
“Too much of a good thing?” his father asked.
Boston laughed. “You were right and I was wrong. Is that what you want to hear, Dad?”
His father shook his head. “I wasn’t right. You’ve had a good life so far. And you’ve been mostly responsible.”
Boston’s smile faded. And when his smile faded, it usually didn’t fade all the way. But this time, it did. “No, Dad. You were right. About the cheating. I may have ended up making good on my own, only using the portal in my gut so I could eat good food without getting sick. I worked hard on my show and on the articles I’ve written. But it all started with cheating. I kept telling myself that if you guys let me do it, and if the Institute let me do it, then it wasn’t all on me. But it was. I knew what I was doing, even when I was fifteen…even when I was eleven.”
“So what are you going to do, give all your money to charity?” his mother asked, raising her brows in that challenging way she had.
Boston laughed again. “No, not all of it. I am going to stop eating the world. I’m going to slow down. I’m home for good. I might write a book…after I get some schooling out of the way.”
His parents were happy to hear of it. With all his experiences, Boston knew what he wanted to learn so that he could do what he wanted to do. He would always love food. And he had become recently interested in the other end of eating food, and that was preparing food.
So Boston went to school and he kept his digesting machine on almost all the time. He had had a whirlwind career already, traveling the world, and was no stranger to exhaustion. But school seemed to drain him as nothing before had. His energy waned over the first few months of returning home. Then one day, he became so ill that for the first time in his life, he vomited.
That in itself would have been upsetting. But what was truly unnerving is what he vomited.
In the middle of a lecture portion of a dough-making course, Boston had risen from his chair and thrown up what looked like a giant maggot. As he and his classmates watched in horror, the thing that was the size of his hand, with a ringed and beige-colored body that tapered at both ends, pulse and squirmed until it fell off his desk and onto the ground. The smell of sulfur filled the room.
Class was cancelled. Institute scientists arrived to collect the giant maggot and to collect Boston. They were certain the maggot had come from the portal in his belly. The creature had died on its way to the nearest Institute laboratory and was being dissected even as Boston was being scanned and examined.
“Nothing has ever come out of the portal,” Boston said.
He wondered if he should call his parents. He was scared, but he hadn’t involved his parents in his monitoring since he’d come of age, so as not to worry them. The doctors wanted to keep him overnight for observation, and Boston gladly agreed. That night he felt ill. Groaning and sweating, he threw up slimy balls of hair and more maggots all night. He couldn’t sleep and was exhausted by morning.
But he wasn’t the only one who lost sleep that night. The Institute scientists who were on his project met with him the next morning. There were seven people crammed into his room as Boston lay on his bed, wearing a sky-blue robe, and for the first time since he was a baby, an intravenous line in one arm that was feeding him the nutrition he couldn’t take through his stomach.
“You need to eat,” the lead scientist said. But food was the last thing from Boston’s mind. He felt nauseated and the hairballs was still throwing up smelled like old socks and body odor. The scientist leaned toward Boston and turned off the digesting machine. “I’m sure you’ve put two and two together by now.”
Boston’s mind was hazy. But he nodded. The lead scientist was right. Boston had never been ill like that before. Never had strange and foul things come out of the portal. Things had only ever gone into the portal. Until recently when he turned the digesting machine on permanently, diverting everything he ate away from the portal.
The lead scientist sighed and gestured for one of his team, a young woman, to come forward. “We’ve all been teasing Doctor Crane about her theory, but from the readings we received over the past twenty-four hours, it would seem she’s onto something.”
Boston reached out his hand and the young doctor said to call her “Franklin.”
“We thought the portal in your stomach was a one-way phenomenon,” Franklin said. “We sent a camera down a time or two and it came back, but we didn’t know anything could come out from the other side. We now know for sure that it isn’t one-way. If your classroom episode didn’t prove it, last night’s scans did. We saw those hairballs and maggots appear seemingly out of nowhere in your gut right above the lower esophageal sphincter. Okay, brace yourself.” She adjusted her glasses and looked him straight in the eye. “See, when you were eating with the digesting machine turned off, the food you chewed and swallowed was being transported through the portal into the mouth of some…entity in some other dimension. The portal in your belly is the way that entity feeds and sustains itself. During the better part of your life, especially the last five years, the entity has been fed well. But after you turned on the digesting machine for good, you effectively starved the thing.”
“You might be asking yourself why the thing would be making you throw up if it wants to get you to eat again,” the lead scientist said. Boston however had been asking himself nothing. He was sleep-deprived and hungry and somewhat delirious. He decided to let the scientists do all the talking until he could reason it out for himself after.
Franklin continued. “It’s unlikely this vomiting is part of the natural order of this arrangement. Whatever this entity is, it is probably sending these nasty critters through the portal out of spite or vengeance. It’s sending you a message that it assumes you are intelligent enough to reason out. Said message being, ‘Feed me.’”
The lead scientist tagged in. “We originally rejected Franklin’s theory not just because we thought the portal was one-way, but because it didn’t make sense for this entity to hijack your digestive system and cause you to starve to death. You would have died as a baby if we hadn’t implanted the digesting machine. The only way a mutually beneficial relationship can exist between you and this other organism is if it allowed you to sustain yourself at the same time you sustained it, or if it sustained you somehow.”
Franklin nodded. “We believed that without the intervention of the digesting machine, you would have died of starvation, but I propose that the implantation of the digesting machine actually interrupted a process of maturation that would have eventually formed that mutually sustaining system between you and the entity. Though you may have allowed for that process to proceed somewhat when you started regularly turning the machine off for your eating contest career.”
Boston sighed and closed his eyes. “Can you shut it down?”
“The portal? I don’t think that’s wise,” Franklin said.
But the lead scientist, who had been studying Boston since he was a boy said different. “We have been exploring that possibility all your life, and we have some methods that we have tested with laboratory-made anomalies similar to yours, but not similar enough. There has been no way to truly test our methods for effectiveness and more importantly safety. We know of no other portal like the one that’s in you.”
“I don’t want to be puking inter-dimensional hairballs for the rest of my life,” Boston said. He turned to Franklin. “And I don’t want to eat fifteen pies every day for the rest of my life either.”
“That’s a small price to pay compared to the risk of us trying to shut down a phenomena that’s been in your body since before you were born,” Franklin said. “Look at these.” She dimmed the lights and activated the flat screen against one wall. She brought up his scans. “We have never seen this before, but it must be because the entity is starving. The portal is radiating, kind of like a dying star.”
“Good, maybe it’s closing on its own,” Boston said. His head was starting to throb.
“Not good,” Franklin said. She brought up a whole body scan that showed a glowing spot in his abdomen where his stomach should be, and from that spot there emerged hundreds of thin tendrils reaching into every part of his body. “It’s a part of you. Your body has adjusted to it and I believe that removing it or shutting it down would adversely affect you at best. At worst, I think it would kill you.”
“I concur,” the lead scientist said. “We will keep studying this, Boston. Don’t worry on that. But I think that if you give this thing a good meal or two, it will stop making you throw up. That will buy us the time we need.”
As if on cue, Boston began retching. The scientists cleared the room as the doctors entered, save for Franklin, who held up a bucket under his chin.
He threw up some things that looked like purple eggs that were hatching into blue baby chicks with insect-like compound eyes. Boston was giving the Institute a lot of new and interesting creatures to study in the wake of his misery. Those things were all disgusting, slimy, bitter, or foul-tasting.
“Serves me right,” he said grasping the bucket, “living such an extravagant life and cheating to do it. And just when I try to turn my life around and do right, I’m punished for past sins.”
“Things balance out,” Franklin said. “Cheating at a pie-eating contest is hardly a damning sin. You’ve already made up for it if you ask me. You didn’t have to let us continue monitoring you after you came of age. We have applied a lot of what we’ve learned from you over the years to help a lot of other people. The digesting machine alone has gone through several remakes. It was designed for adults. I’m shocked they were able to get permission to implant it in you when you were just a baby. Now we have versions on the market for all ages.”
“Do you think maybe we can communicate with it?” Boston asked.
Franklin smiled. “It’s one of the things I want to try. Though I don’t know where to begin.”
“Smell.” Boston crinkled his nose. “I think it communicates by smell.”
Franklin laughed. “We’ll start there then. In the meantime…”
Boston nodded and looked at one of his nurses. “Bring me some food, please.”
Boston ate a huge and hearty meal. And to his surprise, the more he ate, the less nauseated he felt. And the more he wanted to eat. Before he was done, he’d had twelve links of sausage, half a dozen eggs, as many pancakes in butter and syrup, and three glasses of orange juice.
He didn’t throw anything up after eating that meal. He had two more meals that day, switching his digesting machine on for a small part, then turning it off while he ate enough for a family of four. Now that they knew there was something at the other end, the scientists sent a few pill-sized cameras through, one of which survived and sent back hazy images of some movement. It was hard to tell if it from inside the theorized organism’s body or outside. Franklin seemed to think the other end of the portal sat just above the entity’s mouth. Others thought Boston shared a stomach with the thing.
Franklin came to check up on him a few times. She told him that he looked entirely better and that maybe the portal and entity really were providing him with some sustenance or energy. Boston meanwhile had regained enough of his sense to ask how she had possibly come up with the outrageous explanation of his condition. She dropped her gaze and mentioned that she had come across the concept in some papers she had read.
Boston leaned forward. “So there is evidence that there are others out there like me?”
“Not solid evidence, no. These are more like anecdotes.”
Boston sat back in bed, making the twelve cups of chocolate pudding on his tray jiggle in unison. “Like Bigfoot or Loch Ness, you mean.”
Franklin looked at the pudding and swiped a cup. “Most people would envy you, being able to eat anything you want without harming your health or packing on the pounds.”
Boston nodded. “I’ll try not to complain, but I’m only human.”
“Are you?” Franklin asked. She raised a brow and Boston couldn’t tell if she was jesting or sincere. He didn’t know her well enough yet.
Boston shrugged. “I think I am, but to be really sure, you’ll probably have to study me.”
Franklin laughed, but when her laughter faded, she looked serious. “Does it scare you to know that there is an open inter-dimensional portal inside you? That something more dangerous than a purple egg might come through?” She only asked such non-scientific questions when they were alone.
Boston raised up a spoonful of pudding and smiled. “I’ve always been this way. And I don’t think whoever is at the other end would send anything that would really hurt me. After all, I’m its meal ticket.”
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.