Maybe it was the cottage cheese and coffee sitting on top of the freeze-dried cream pasta. Maybe it was all the stress boiling away in his gut like a volcanic mud pocket. Or maybe he had caught a bug at the airport, where kids with bruised-up legs and snot-bubble noses rubbed their bony hands over everything, every pore on their poisonous bodies secreting pathogenic jelly.
Whatever it was, Marlin wasn’t feeling right.
Actually, it was beyond that. He was feeling invaded. Like a forgotten can of vegetable soup in the warmest, darkest corner of the pantry, dented and dripping onto contact paper like an organic icicle. He felt he was slowly expanding inside from whitecaps of ravenous botulism, his label punctured in a hundred tiny places by the cauliflower extrusions in his aluminum shell. His imagined his insides rotting, putrescent, into a deep greenish-grey chowder, fuzzy white powder-pustules scattered on top like dust bunnies.
This was the nausea of nightmares.
Marlin cleared a space on the Formica table, sweeping away the condiments and his empty dishes with one shaky swipe. He lowered his head down into the sticky bald patch, using inner ear calculus to make sure his forehead was flat and balanced. He folded his arms. He shivered. He drooled.
Barney Bogg, tonight’s solo short staff and incidentally the owner of the establishment, watched the man from his stool behind the counter, where he was pushing a cup towel in and out of coffee mugs. There was only one other customer in the diner: an old woman with a wispy beard who was chain smoking cigarettes and reading a fantasy novel, drinking cup after cup of coffee, eating slice after slice of pumpkin pie.
“Excuse me, sir?” asked Barney. “Sir?”
Barney tossed the towel aside, walked around the counter, and picked his way down the aisle of chairs and tabletops. Barney was a big guy. Thick neck; lots of mass. He wore a black apron over his jeans and t-shirt, but the canvas only stretched down to his mid-thighs. The diner itself was really too small for him, and it was always irritating when he had to go out among the customers instead of handling everything from his perch like a train conductor.
“Sir? Are you okay?”
Marlin didn’t respond. How could he?
The proud deed-bearer of the Din-Din Dine-In wondered if should go ahead and preemptively call the hospital. Despite the expensive suit, the man hadn’t looked good when he came in, and that was before he started packing away greasy specials and sides. Who orders pasta at a diner, anyway? Now the man looked positively wretched.
Barney touched him on the shoulder. With a force of will bordering on the diabolic -- the kind of will it took to cling by fingernails to mountains and remove bullet wounds from one’s own spine -- Marlin raised his trembling head.
“I’m fine,” he whispered, not able to turn and look at Barney. “Do you guys have a bathroom?”
“Sure, we’ve got a bathroom,” said Barney. “It’s right over there.”
Barney pointed. The man didn’t move.
“It’s just at the end of the row,” said Barney, lowering his finger and stepping backwards with long, deliberate steps. “Mens on the left.”
“Great,” whispered Marlin. “Thank you.”
Marlin eased out of the booth on straining heels, not bending his knees, trying to deviate as little as possible from his current constellation of x, y, and z. He could feel the sludge inside him sloshing thickly, plashing against the inside of his rib cage with an invisible sizzle. He imagined his stomach as a silver goblet frothing to the brim with nitric acid. He imagined carrying it bare-handed across a room filled with fox traps.
Marlin didn’t quite crawl to the bathroom. Not quite. It was more like he slid on metal casters in a three-quarter hunch, his necktie grazing the ground, his hands clutching his stomach as if he were manually squeezing his intestines shut (this wasn’t far from the truth). His suit jacket bunched up around his back, threatening to split.
He shuffled past the old woman, who stubbed out her cigarette and closed her book to watch him. She looked back at Barney. Barney frowned and shrugged.
Marlin couldn’t look up to see where he was going, and when he reached the end of the aisle, he bumped the top of his head right into a gumball machine. The gumballs rattled merrily like marbles in a popcorn hopper. Luckily, the machine was bolted to the floor.
“To the left,” said Barney.
“Thank you,” said the man. He turned, ginger, on the balls of his feet, rotating with quiet control as if he were a radar array. Then he moved forward again, pushing into the bathroom with laggard fluidity. It was a good thing the doors were the swinging kind.
Barney walked over to the bathroom door, wiping his big hands on his pants. He put his ear against it. He couldn’t hear anything.
“Does that man need help?” asked the old woman from her seat.
“I think he’s just sick,” said Barney, rubbing his temples. He didn’t need this. His restaurant should have closed ten minutes ago.
Marlin immediately let himself fall flat to the ground as soon as the door swung shut behind him. He pressed his face against the cold floor and felt better, letting the chill suck away some of the heat. He thought about tile. He pondered grout. The room spun away from him and then through him, curling around and snaking through his consciousness, expanding into a cavern the size of a cathedral and then shrinking down to a tunnel the size of a needle. The needle of light pressed against his eyeballs. The needle flickered on and off with each heartbeat.
After serious deliberations, Marlin decided that he did not want to puke on the floor of this dismal highway restaurant. He decided that he could make it to the toilet.
He hauled himself to his knees. He fell down; he got back up. His body started shaking from his jaw back to his thighs as if he had inserted himself headfirst into a giant electrical outlet. He slipped. He cantered.
He started to move.
Although there was an open invitation for drinks, Marlin wasn’t technically supposed to meet up with his contact in the city to discuss the direction of the new storefront until the morning, and he had decided that stopping off to get something to eat might make him feel better. That was back when he was only queasy. As marketing director for Fete Foods, Marlin was accustomed to higher quality fare than roadside grease-pit – but the Din-Din Dine In was the only open restaurant Marlin had seen on the drive from airport to hotel.
It was a gamble. Sometimes he felt sick when he was really just hungry. And eating had worked, at first. As long as he was shoveling something down his pipes, the nausea receded like a swarm of houseflies swooping under the eaves of an old house to fester on carrion. And Barney Bogg had brought him plate after plate as requested, only half-suspicious. But then he just couldn’t eat anymore, and like disease-engorged flies pouring out from cracks in a foundation with a new taste for meat, the whole thing had quickly gotten worse.
Somehow he now found himself staring at the front of a urinal. Gascon Ceramics, it said. He looked behind him. The toilet proper was all the way across a fluorescent abyss of arid, bathroom wasteland. If he squinted, he could actually see nomad camps at each tile intersection, camels tossing their heads in protest as mullahs whacked them with long, cane poles. He couldn’t make it across. No way in hell. The Gascon Ceramics urinal would have to do. At least it wasn’t the sink.
His eyeballs strained with expulsive pressure as he filled the bowl. Out came the coffee, the pasta, the cottage cheese, the potato salad, the three-bean casserole, the cheeseburger, the fries, the glazed carrots, the gravy, the roll of gas station antacids. Out came six bags of in-flight honey-roasted peanuts and two whiskey-free coach class diet cokes. Out came 24 hours of Marlin’s consumption history, complete with visual decay timeline. Tears streamed down his reddened and inflamed face, traveling transverse down the nest of wrinkles at his mouth. Ordinarily, these lines made him look distinguished, but now they gave him the appearance of crumpled burlap.
Along with laughter, sneezing, and orgasm, puking is a time when the mind can soar. There is certainly some sort of equation that stacks the whole thing up. The longer you are forced to sit there stewing in your own juices -- the longer you are “gone in the stomach,” as they say -- the more glorious and satisfying is the puke that cleans you out, the puke that moves the swelling up into your head.
This particular gastrointestinal explosion heaved Marlin out of his head like a space shuttle, and his body shivered behind like cast away fuel cells.
Hilarious, Marlin went ahead and stuck his tongue out as far as it could go, letting it ebb along like driftwood with every pulse of bile. Best not to fight. He ceded total control to the thick within, flipping and writhing like a viper caught in a trash bag with each fresh burst.
It was awful, sure. Sure it was. Marlin managed to completely bury the urinal cake under a sea of steaming strings, bulbs, and cubes. But as he climbed back to his feet, staggering on tinfoil legs, Marlin felt nothing but relief. Nothing but good, clean sunshine.
After flushing, Marlin stood up and walked over to the mirror, checking to see how much vomit had splashed back on to his clothes. Assessing damage. It wasn’t too bad. He had burst some vessels in his eyes, and he looked beat, but that was to be expected. He wished he had remembered to pull his tie back. Oh well. What was one necktie, more or less?
He splashed some water on his face. He rubbed muck off of his gums with one index finger. He patted his vest pocket to make sure he didn’t drop his wallet somewhere during his heroic duck-walk. He started taking mental inventory, glad to have lesser, more distant worries occupying his brain again.
He was just about to leave. And then the invasion returned full force.
It hit him like a forklift from the sky. His hand was on the door, ready to push back into the diner, when he felt his innards heave. He spluttered, choking the new wave back, chomping at his cheeks. That was also when he realized that there was a problem with the urinal. That the thing hadn’t stopped running. Was -- in fact -- running over. He’d have to deal with it later. No time. At least he could make it to the toilet now.
“Ug,” said Marlin, whirling on one heel.
Back in the restaurant, Barney ran the old woman’s credit card, kicked her out, and then started counting down the till. He had decided he was going to comp the man’s tab. After all, the guy was in there returning his whole meal right now. Places got shut down for food poisoning all the time. It was the gentlemanly thing to do.
Not that Marlin would have cared. There was something pop-o-mouth strange going on deep inside him. He hunched over the toilet bowl, dry heaving noiselessly. There was something left in his gut, but it felt bigger than before. Hadn’t he just puked up everything he’d eaten? What could be left?
Whatever it was, it felt sharp. This thing had corners. He put his hand to his chest and tried to trace out the dimensions
His head started whipping back and forth like a speed-bag. He felt his hands wrenched away from where they gripped the bowl, his arms going flat to his sides as if his cuffs were tethered to the ceiling and somebody had yanked him open like a curtain. His face splashed into the bowl as he lost his balance, and his feet left the ground by degrees as he cantilevered forward. He wrapped around the toilet like a sheet, drawn fast against it by crushing magnetic force.
Caribbean music played somewhere in his head. Maybe he was having a seizure. He had read somewhere that epileptics sometimes heard strange music or smelled forgotten smells as parts of their brain burned away from electrical fire.
The pain was excruciating. Trenches dug down deep on the right and left side of his neck. His jaw opened so wide he heard something snap. He had to yawn caddycorner to set his jaw again. Exhausted, Marlin rested his head in the crook of his arm and listened to his head pound, a goatee of mucous hanging from his bottom lip. It felt like a staircase of toothpicks was lodged inside his trachea. He could barely breathe.
Shivering, sobbing, Marlin lifted himself forward on one spasmodic fist and looked inside the toilet.
Floating there on the surface, ensconced in a thin cocoon of translucent slobber, was a copy of A Children’s Illustrated Guide to Greek Philosophy. There was a watercolor print on the front of a centaur eating an apple and looking sort of bored.
“What the fuck?” said Marlin softly to himself, only able to push a wimpy burst of air through his cartoonishly-swollen lymph nodes.
He fished the book out of the toilet and opened it to a random page. There was a picture of a man in a blue toga with thick, sensual lips sitting under a tree.
“You cannot even move,” said Zeno, cleaning the grime out from underneath his fingernails with the twig of a pomegranate. “All things must exist at an instant of time, and in that instant, they are changeless and eternal. An arrow in motion is nothing but an infinite series of static arrows at rest.”
“Rest is a relative term, brother,” said Chiron, drawing back his bow.
Marlin didn’t remember eating any literature, recently. He certainly didn’t remember eating any damned philosophy. In fact, Marlin couldn’t even remember the last time he had seen a book, much less swallowed one whole.
Like a ripcord on a parachute, Marlin felt his stomach seized again. He dropped the book back into the squatter, where one golden corner stuck inside the suck hole. He pushed his shoulders up against the wall and put his hands to his head, squeezing. What was going on here?
Marlin started bucking like a dog that had to ride one out, kicked off a leg and not quite done fucking the ghost of his fever dream. One of Marlin’s arms pistoned up and down as if half of him were go-go dancing. The other hung useless at his side, twitching with every callisthenic jerk.
To Marlin’s utter amazement, his throat started pulsing like a sea anemone. A running stream of condoms, joined together by pull-apart perforations, started spurting out of his neck and forming a shiny pile at his feet. With each contraction of his stomach, each pump of his fist, each buck of his hips, more condoms ejected out of him in a glittering arc. He was a slot machine, and he was paying out. It felt like somebody was ripping out his intestines by tying them to the control stick of a jet and tossing him out of the emergency exit. The explosion lasted until he was literally up to his knees in a mountain of blue plastic rubbers.
Marlin fell to the ground, scattering the snake of condoms across the stall.
There was a knock on the bathroom door.
“Are you okay in there?” shouted Barney Bogg.
“I’m fine,” said Marlin, picking up the rope of condoms and breaking one off. “Just fine.”
“I comped your ticket,” shouted Barney, “Go ahead and take as long as you need. I hope it wasn’t something you ate here.”
“I don’t think so,” said Marlin, holding the condom up closer to the fluorescent. They were ribbed, lubed, and generic. Ragnarok Brand. He’d never heard of those before.
“That’s fine,” said Barney, walking away and rubbing his hands. “That’s just fine.”
Marlin dropped the condom in front of him and stared at it hard. How could he swallow that many condoms?
He started coughing. He started shivering. The rolling inside his gut made him pitch sideways, sucking him down inside a prioperceptive whirlpool of misery. He spun on the ground, making feral moaning noises to let loose jets of pain steam.
The next wave hit. This one leapt to the surface like a shark going for legs, leaving him absolutely no time to fight or grab control. Before he could start screaming, his mouth was full of wood.
He vomited like mortar fire. Three choking gasps produced three mahogany, fist-sized statues of the reclining Buddha. Each ricocheted off of the bathroom door and landed in a row on the floor, staring at him. They sat like a bloated triumvirate, cold swirls for eyes, jagged lines for teeth. Nor were these normal head-shop reproductions – these were demonic caricatures, hideous in their tumescent improbability. Their bald heads were embedded in rolls of swollen, enveloping fat, making each Buddha look like a lump of staring mud. One could barely make out arms and legs, and if it weren’t for the upturned sandals, the creatures would look more like melted circus freaks than the one, true enlightened master.
Marlin crawled back over to the toilet. He fished out the book of philosophy and threw it against the wall, cracking its spine and dislodging pages from the middle. He hung his head inside the bowl, just waiting. He knew he wasn’t finished.
He started to weep. His eyes rolled back in his head. He started to puke again.
To his relief, this wave came like a gentle tide. It felt like cool lettuce falling from his lips, like flowers. Marlin flushed and hung his head, glad at least for the temporary break.
Curiosity overcame him as he heard the roaring of the jets in the bowl. He opened his eyes.
“Fuck!” he shouted.
Coating the bowl, spinning like the stars, were reams and reams of hundred dollar bills.
“Fuck!” shouted Marlin again, trying to plug up the hole. This was instinct. He got both fists in and held his chin up high as water spewed around his head in a bilious halo. The tide swept the rolls of condoms out through the bathroom stall to join the growing pool of stagnant vomit around the urinal, which had continued to puddle, tendrils of its amber salmagundi marching in fifty new directions.
Eventually, the suction stopped and Marlin found himself clutching an armful of soggy hundreds. Payday! Only a few of them were torn.
But the water was already rushing back in. And Marlin felt something catch in his throat. Something that wriggled. Marlin slapped at his jaw as he felt something click hard against a back molar.
He lowered his head and retched clean. Like a breeding calf, his whole throat and intestinal tract were now distended to the size of a concert hall, and so he felt nothing.
From out of his mouth fell a miniature alligator, about the size of a dockworker’s forearm. As Marlin stared, another one joined it there inside the toilet, lazily dropping from his chin. This one was albino. They both had long, thin snouts which were capable of snapping jagged crevices out of the porcelain. Marlin dropped the cash and scrambled back along the floor, his hand to his stomach. He already felt something new burning inside.
The two alligators thrashed like insomniacs at their limit. He could hear them making kettle-whistle noises as they bit and rolled. Plumes of toilet water infected with money mash sloshed over the side. The gators fought deep. Marlin saw a snout, the tip of a tail, the shine of a tooth. Had they been fighting this way in his stomach the whole time? Maybe that had been the original cause of his indigestion. He picked up the philosophy book and took dead aim. With a clunk, the lid of the toilet fell down and trapped the gators in darkness. They rattled the lid, but they couldn’t spring it.
Marlin started to breathe a sigh of relief. Instead, he breathed fire.
With an acetylene whoosh, Marlin let loose a pink and tan fireball from the ends of his lips. It caught the wallpaper lianas on fire and charred a clean circle. Perplexed, mystified, he watched the edges wrinkle and crisp. Fire started to spurt from his nostrils. To spew from his smut flecked lips. By this point, Marlin had become completely numb to his future. His blood pressure barely rose as he held his hair back and chucked up a flaming casket nearly the size of a flower vase. The casket slid down his shirt, frying away his tie, and landed in the finger-shallow water that now coated the entire floor. With a hiss, the fire extinguished into languid clouds of heavy smoke and the casket popped open.
This was going to be bad, thought Marlin.
An infant in a pink sober sack suit and electric blue Norfolk jacket rose up out of the coffin with a deadly, malevolent grin plastered across its bald infant expanse.
“You will not survive this,” said the infant in an impossible baritone.
“What the hell is going on?” whimpered Marlin. A whisper was all he could muster: his larynx was shredded into an esculent meat mosaic. Maybe he would puke up his voice box next. The toilet shivered as the alligators threw each other against the interior plate. The urinal continued to flow like blood aspic from the mouth of a syphilitic corpse.
The infant came to a full standing stoop. He pulled a tiny piece of paper from his breast pocket and started to read.
“Ahem,” said the infant. “Some people pass in ordinary terms. Others burn cold and give their heart to worms. Don’t think you’re special, or that you’ve been chosen. But you will croak different. Consumed. Warm. Not. Frozen.”
“What the hell does that mean?” asked Marlin.
“Forces,” said the infant.
“What kind of forces?”
“Forces you wouldn’t agree with.”
“Am I crazy? Have I gone spilt? Have my collywobbles strained my brain into celery strands?”
”These forces laugh a lot,” said the infant, tucking his paper away and hooking his thumbs into his belt. He kicked up his heels and laughed to prove his point, splitting the air with a distinctly rodential cachinnation.
The baby was completely hairless except for two ruddy eyebrows: one bristly, one thin and arched. His eyes were the same pink as his suit, the same pink as a possum or mole. He mimed looking at a wrist watch (which he didn’t have) with great agitation.
“Here it comes!” shouted the infant, folding his arms and doing a giggling backflip.
Marlin stared. He stared at the ground. He stared at the infant. He stared at the toilet. He stared at the lathering urinal.
He felt something writhe inside. By this point, he didn’t have the muscles left to fight. He felt his lips curl inward as he started to shout for help, for a paramedic, for Thorazine.
Instead, he opened his mouth and laid an egg. Not quite an egg, exactly. There were ridges. It was painted a familiar shade of olive drab and blanketed by sharp pockets of potential shrapnel. In fact, it was a hand grenade. Any fool could see that.
“Hooboy!” shouted the demon baby.
“Ah…this is a grenade,” said Marlin, holding it up.
“No, it isn’t,” said the baby. “Grenades have pins.”
Marlin blanched. He turned the grenade over and over in his hands. The baby started giggling like mad, bicycling its penny loafers into the air and hugging its ample belly. No pin.
Marlin shoved his hand into his throat and started feeling around, moaning. He fell against the wall. Did his fingers graze something steel? Was that it, lodged against his thyroid?
It was certainly something.
He got his hand down his gullet nearly up to his elbow. He kept pushing the loop down further with each futile swipe. Finally, he made a fist, and extended a pinky. He beckoned. He felt his finger catch on the ring, and he hauled it out on a sickening trail of blood, pus, and intestinal gravy.
Carefully, he lifted the grenade latch and inserted the pin. A thick trail of esophageal sludge led from his lower lip to the silver band. He set the grenade down on the floor, letting it slip carefully onto the tile from his glistening jim-jam hands.
“I think you just unplugged yourself,” said the baby. “It’s all over now.”
“I found the pin!” husked Marlin. “I found it!”
The neonate shrugged. Marlin wiped at his mouth, trying to dislodge the strand of gruel attaching him to the bomb.
Instead, he felt something wrench inside as he pulled more plasma from his belly.
His whole body started to shudder.
He was having an earthquake.
The baby grabbed his casket and ducked underneath it.
Marlin started coughing. The plasma strand became a rope. It became a limb. Fluid and chunks started to pour from his mouth in a pink and tan jet. He felt his body begin to desiccate. He looked down and saw his stomach sucking in as it poured in tatters down his shrinking frame. He tried to stuff it back, but he couldn’t get a grip. How do you grab the flesh waterfall of your own oblivious being?
His hands grasped, flexed, and were the last to go. Eventually, even they were pulled inside-out through the pressure of his mouth and landed, steaming, in the pile of ribbons, organs, and curls that shared his DNA and weight. His empty suit plastered against the wall like a cicada shell.
“Consumed!” shrieked the baby. “A special, special case!”
Meanwhile, Barney had run out of things to do in the restaurant. He walked back over to the men’s room and tried to be as still and quiet as he could. The only sign of life he could hear was a lilting squeak that seemed to come at five-second intervals. Rats. Again. Every winter, it was rats. What the hell did he pay exterminators for anyway? Barney hoped to God that the man in the bathroom was anything but a lawyer.
He heard something scamper along the baseboard. Barney crouched, and sprang. He was not squeamish. Maybe he would stick the rat in a piece of transparent Tupperware overnight and let it asphyxiate in front of its friends.
Barney grabbed the creature by the neck and pinned it to the wall. But he was not prepared for what he found squirming under his pancake palm.
“What the hell?” shrieked Barney. “You ain’t no rat.”
The dapper infant just giggled its squeak like a drawer full of dropped cutlery and playfully tried to bite Barney in the hand, its mismatched eyebrows kneading the tops of its apple cheeks like cat’s paws. Barney let him go with reflex revulsion. The creature ran with scuffling squeaks to the back kitchen. It flapped its arms with effete severity, did a pirouette, and then busted out through the chrome kitchen door.
Barney stood there breathing heavy for a beat and then took off after him.
It was dark behind the diner. Dark as the inside of a mental institution file folder, thought Barney. Uselessly dark. Rubbing his temples, Barney stumbled back inside. He couldn’t hear the squeaking once there was a door between him and the parking lot. Maybe he was the one squeaking. Was the alternative any better?
The smell alone made Barney highly ambivalent about checking the bathroom. But there wasn’t much of a choice, now was there?
There were many things in his life that Barney cared not to think about and had replaced with empty, black holes. These sucking voids had jagged strips of sheet-steel bolted against them in interlocking layers and mental pictographs stenciled in blood. X’s.
If there was ever a time to cut steel, now was it. What Barney saw when his fumbling hand hit the light switch would require an entire dream battleship’s worth of rivets and girders.
Barney let the bathroom door swing shut. His shaking hands found his key ring, and he locked it tight, just in case. He would need a bucket, a mop, several trash bags, and a pair of salad tongs. And it would all have to be clean by morning. He could probably sell the man’s car for cash to his screwy Cousin Kelly.
Fear suddenly jolted him like the sound of unexpected tires on a gravel lawn at midnight. Maybe he should call the cops instead.
But what would he say? What would you say? Fuck if he was gonna call the cops. FUCK if he was gonna call the cops.