From The Center Out
I didn’t notice anything strange until halfway through my shower when I saw beads of water creeping up and down my body, all towards my stomach, like ants marching back home. I hovered my hand over my stomach. A current of air gathered in front of my stomach and plunged directly into my belly button. I laughed out loud, as if in deep appreciation of the great joke my body was playing on me.
Still, I thought I might be hallucinating in the hot steam cloud of my sealed shower. But when I stepped out of the bathroom and laid a hand flat against my belly, I could feel the pull of a tiny wind tunnel. It reminded me of the personal air blowers they have on planes: a thin, concentrated streams of air. Although, on my body, inverted.
I explored the area with my finger. My belly button tugged on my finger, lightly, like when my baby cousin sucks my finger, gentle but insistent. When I put my shirt on, the wind sucked it in towards my stomach, fabric clinging loosely right above my waist. I decided to wear a sweatshirt, even though it was eighty outside, so no one at school would notice or ask questions. Not to mention my parents, oblivious as they might be, who were busy conducting a cold war in the house, trying to see who could make the other one break first and demand a divorce. I wasn’t about to get involved in that. I’d stick with whoever won the war and stayed in this house, the only house I’ve ever known. I didn’t feel particularly close to either of them, and was leaving in two years for college anyways, so I had been doing my best Switzerland impression for a while now.
After school I laid in my bed trying to figure out the origin of this change, as I hadn’t been bitten by a toxic creature or fallen into a vat of radioactive waste recently. Google was no help. The internet had never heard of such a thing. After several hours of being silent in my room, my dad knocked to ask if I was “OK,”or whether I was “feeling depressed.”
“You crazy?”I yelled back. “I’m reading a book,”I added, because I knew they wouldn’t dare disturb me if they thought I was actually reading.
Eventually I got bored and placed a single M&M on my chest. Using my pointer finger, I guided the M&M down my body until my belly button started to draw it closer without needing my help. I removed my finger and watched as the tiny green hockey puck dipped over the ridge of flesh around my belly button and down into the hole. Perhaps the hole is hungry, I figured. It is located directly over my stomach. I tried to think logically. Or maybe this is a new way humans have evolved to feed themselves in a more efficient way, and I’m the first one, some sort of pseudo-superhuman, ahead of the curve. God’s test dummy.
The hole seemed to be generating more sucking power than earlier that morning, but I found it hard to gauge wind power with my palm, which had never had to measure something like that. The M&M didn’t appear to make a difference in the wind velocity, nor did I register a difference in my stomach. I fed my belly button the rest of the pack of M&Ms. I didn’t feel fuller, or get a sugar buzz. Where does the hole end? I wondered.
With a small mirror, I checked out the hole from all angles, but it was pure, untarnished darkness.
I prodded the area around my stomach to determine if all my organs felt healthy and in the correct place. I realized quickly that that I knew nothing about my own body and how it worked. Is that the spleen? Liver? Where are my large intestine, under my ribs? I even explored my lower back extensively, in case the hole was going all the way through me, but that wasn’t the case.
Nothing felt wrong, but even if something was, I doubt I would have noticed.
I thought, briefly, about telling my parents, maybe even letting them drag me to the doctor. But they were hysterical about everything (hysterical about anything that could distract them from each other, that is), and I didn’t want the whole school and half the neighborhood to hear about this. Plus, I reasoned, there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with me. My belly button was sucking in air and M&M’s and paperclips (oh yeah, I threw a smattering of small office supplies down the hole too. No side effects, as far as I could tell). Weird? Certainly. Dangerous? Not yet. Cool as hell? Potentially.
The next morning, the hole did seem to be conquering more of my stomach region. My belly button expanded to the size of a golf ball, and the strength of the wind grew noticeably. My shirt no longer fluttered like a flag around my waist. Instead, it stayed plastered to my hole at all times. If I stood in my room, perfectly still, I could hear the movement of air, swirling down to wherever the hole ended. The sound of a large shell up against my ear.
I put on a windbreaker and made myself toast and jelly for breakfast. After making it just the way I like it, with the toast burnt and jelly thick, I lifted up my shirt and fed the sandwich to my hole. It consumed the sandwich, slipping down the hole like a fish darting into down into the depths of a lake, a flash of the tail evident, but nothing more. The sandwich didn’t make me any less hungry. I concluded the hole had no connection to my actual stomach.
My mother must have been napping in her room. I had heard a restrained argument when I woke up this morning, and she usually liked to rest after tense stare-downs with my father.
I doubled over, trying to see where the sandwich had disappeared to, but all I could make out was a black mass, not arranging into any particular pattern, but more like a pit of black eels writhing against one another.
I stuck three fingers down the hole, bracing my pinky and thumb outside of the hole, just in case anything went horribly wrong. Once my fingers were fully submerged in the hole, the wind started to tug forcefully at the hinges of each finger. My knuckles cracked, I panicked, and yanked my fingers back out.
As I recounted my fingers as a precautionary measure, the salt shaker skidded off the table and launched itself into the hole, blinking out of sight before I could even react.
I heard my mother stir in her bedroom and click open her door. I sprinted up the stairs, back to my room.
I googled “salt poisoning.”and learned that most salt deaths are a result of severe dehydration, so I skipped school and spent the rest of the afternoon chugging water and tracing the hole of my belly button, trying to determine whether it was growing wider or not.
kept expecting my mom to come up and ask why I wasn’t at school but she never did. Maybe she was searching for her beloved bird-shaped salt shaker.
I never felt the hole grow or skin slip down into oblivion, but every so often my mind would wander off, pondering how my friends at school would react to the hole. Would they think it was cool? Or would they dismiss me as some sort of freak? Both? When I snapped out of these daydreams and looked down, it would seem as if the hole had grown. Or not. It was very hard to tell. Maybe I was expecting it to grow and this distorted my tracking of the hole. Or, perhaps, I was hoping that it had stopped growing and this sort of wishful thinking blinded me to the actual, rapid rate at which the hole expanded.
At dinnertime I told my parents that night that I had fallen sick. They asked with what. I said with a stomach virus. We eat dinner exclusively in front of the TV, so they couldn’t really justify forcing me to eat with them. I had on two jackets to stop the pull of the air, and was sweating from the heat, which probably gave more credence to my sick claims. My dad looked at me like I was crazy—I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m gay, since I’ve never had a girlfriend—and maybe he figured I had caught something from messing with other boys.
In the next shower all the water was sucked in by the hole. I couldn’t even wash my hair properly. The hole had expanded to the size of a baseball and the air whispered to me constantly. A deep but bright sound, like the whistling of a cheerful Minotaur, fresh off of a kill.
Mom came up to my room later to suggest medications, and we talked through the door, as I told her I might be contagious. After telling her I was going to get some rest my hole tugged me forcefully toward the door, forcing me to slam my hand against it suddenly to steady myself. My mom seemed concerned, but I assured her that I was feeling weak, had briefly fallen due to a dizzy spell, and needed to retreat to my bed until morning.
I wrapped my entire chest in athletic tape before I went to bed that night. I didn’t want anything that could hurt me flying into my hole, or so many things flying into my stomach that I woke up looking like the kid who turned into a bloated blueberry in Willy Wonka.
By the time I woke, the makeshift bandages over my hole were in tatters. The remains of the white, gauzy tape lined the edge of the hole. It had grown to the size of a grape fruit, I would estimate, although I have never eaten a grapefruit. I grew distressed that I would never be able to eat a grapefruit, that if I tried the hole would snatch it right out of my hand. How long before I couldn’t leave my house? How long before I could no longer leave my room? Was it even the season for grapefruits?
I skipped school once again, hoping this hole would fix itself before my science test on Friday that I needed to ace to pass the course.
I woke the following morning to my parents pounding on my bedroom door. The school had called, asking where I had been the last two days. My father was furious, my mother concerned. And also furious. I layered on a few more jackets, slapped myself on both cheeks to redden them up, and opened the door. I braced myself against both sides of the doorway.
Despite my shaky balance and artificially reddened cheeks, which I could feel fading back to pale already, my parents were not convinced that I had any sort of sickness. They lowered their voices and asked me what was wrong, and more importantly, what the hell I had been up to the last forty eight hours. I had run out of excuses so I didn’t give them any. They resorted to yelling at me and ordering me to go to school. I told them I needed a minute to get all my books and school supplies in order, shutting the door before they could scold me anymore. My mom offered to make me breakfast but I declined, telling her that I didn’t think I could keep anything down. She rolled her eyes and called me a diva.
I drove around the block three times and slipped back in the house, hoping I could make it back up to my room without my mom noticing, entrenched on the couch watching her daily soaps. No such luck. I had officially reached the limit on her bullshit-tolerance.
I sped walked past her disapproving glare and barricaded myself back in the room. I felt weak and realized I haven’t eaten in the last few days. I almost had to laugh at this.
I heard my mom talking on the phone. It must have been to my dad, because fifteen minutes later his car was in the driveway and I his heavy boot steps were on the wooden staircase. He didn’t bother knocking, opting to head straight for the unprovoked yelling.
When I got close to the door, my stomach pulled me into it with a frightening, magnetic force. It lifted me off my feet and I rammed into the door. I let it happen. I was tired of fighting.
I reached down and unlocked the door. My parents, hearing the unclicking of the lock, swung the door open, me swinging right along with it.
My father yelled out for me, as if I had unlocked the door and then fled the premises through some sort of rope-made-of-tied-together-sheets, princess getaway. It wasn’t until they stepped into my room and the door swung halfway closed behind them that I greeted them out loud.
“Hey guys,”I said, twisting my neck so I could see them in my periphery. I didn’t get a great look at their reactions, but they seemed to take it in stride. That is, until they pried me off the wall, muttering about keeping the super glue in the family safe, and I fell to the ground, hole quickening my fall, the speed of which made the side of my head bounce off the carpet.
“What the fuck is wrong with you, boy?”My father asked, leaning down and peeling me up off the ground.
Their faces changed significantly when they saw my stomach and what had become of it. Their reactions made me laugh which only made their reactions crazier which only made me laugh more. Maybe if they think I’ve gone insane they won’t punish me.
My mother’s earrings tore through the bottom parts her ears and were sucked into my hole. My father hugged me, although whether it was out of concern for me or my mother I could not tell. He wrapped me up in his arms. He was a large man, and he could cover my entire front. It felt good to be held, though I knew better than to tell my father that.
They discussed going to the doctor. This gave way to an argument over whether a doctor could do anything in this situation. My mom got on WebMd. During this whole conversation I remained strapped to my father’s chest like a giant baby in an invincible harness.
I raised my objections about going to the doctor. I felt embarrassed enough that my parents had seen me like this. “What could a doctor possibly do?”is a phrase I kept injecting into the conversation when they paused.
An eventual compromise resulted in my father agreeing to go to Lowes and constructing some sort of tarp-vest as a temporary solution.
“They have really high quality tarps there,”he added as he collected his keys and wallet, as if I should be grateful that he was splurging on the good shit.
My dad pushed me off into my mother. She hugged me too ferociously and I knocked the wind out of her. She tried to double over but she was already bonded to my chest. Her body convulsed against mine until it rediscovered how to breathe.
And here we are, having a conversation about any girls I was considering asking to prom.
“You know, you’re a good looking boy, plenty of girls would like dating you if you broke out of your shell a little,”she tells me. I shrug but my face burns. Thank god she can’t see this. Our faces are so close, however, that I can feel the heat of my cheek hitting hers as we stare over each other’s shoulder.
It’s odd, being so close to my mom. I can feel myself getting warmer, sweat dripping down my armpits and collecting on my hairline. My mom smells of coconut and flowers. She must have changed soaps. I remember as a child, when she held me, the smell of strawberries coming off her. I liked it at first but eventually the smell seemed too sweet to me.
“How are your shows?”I ask her.
“Bad,”she says, which makes me chuckle in surprise. I expected a mounted defense of the plot lines and romances. “Really bad,”she continues. “But I can’t stop watching them.” She laughs too.
My father comes back from Lowes. He’s already made the tarp, in the garage, complete with arms holes cut out and duct tape around the edges so that it doesn’t scratch me. “It should work alright. We can find something better in the long run. But for now, it should work,”he says, almost apologetically, holding it up.
He fits it over my head. I hold my arms up and he helps me wiggle them through the arm holes of the vest.
“OK, you guys push off of each other, and then I’ll slip this the rest of the way down,”he says.
My mom and I fit our hands into each other’s shoulders and push off. My dad yanks the vest down, over the suddenly howling hole. The tarp is pulled in towards my stomach but holds strong, doesn’t sink too far in. The sound is muted.
Without the pressure of the hole supporting her my mom collapses backwards. My dad quickly moves behind her to catch her. He helps her stand upright.
It’s the first time I’ve seen them touch in months.
My father’s hand lingers on my mother’s shoulder.
Alex Juffer, recent graduate of Macalester College, is currently a prospective MFA student at Southern Illinois University. His work has been previously published or is forthcoming in Epoch, The Red Line, and Black Denim Lit.
Cover Photo: Ube (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jmube/)