Lance had finally turned into some kind of a monster. Hal had joked that it was only a matter of time. You are what you eat, he said, and Lance had been consuming nothing but kaiju films for years.
He had spent the better part of the last twelve months holed up in the cheapest boarding house south of Shinjuku, trying to write an epic account of how both Shintoism and Buddhism could be explained by the likes of Mothra or Rodan.
And now Lance found himself looking like the son of Godzilla — or at least a distant cousin.
He was sprawled out on the tracks of a metro station still under construction, the empty platform lit only by work lights hanging from the overhead railing. By his own estimate, Lance was now at least twenty feet tall, not counting the spiked tail.
His arms had become short and ended in three clawed fingers, his feet thick and rounded. His nose, already prodigious, had grown into a snout, his nostrils flaring with the glow of a dim internal fire. His curly locks had diminished into a pebbly textured green flesh and his teeth had become predictably sharp and jagged.
The only thing remaining from his previous incarnation was a sweat-stained Tokyo Giants cap that had grown to accommodate his transformed head, the bill of the cap shading a pair of round black eyes.
“Dude, I don’t feel so good,” Lance said to Hal.
Hal was standing on the platform, tired but still recognizably human, his jeans and t-shirt still creased from the flight across the Pacific, even though he had been in Tokyo for weeks. With a pair of skinny legs and a crest of unkempt hair, he looked like a bird that had lost its plumage. His slender frame trembled in the stagnant August air as he stood on the platform’s edge, looking over Lance’s swollen belly.
“What the hell happened to you?” Hal said.
He was used to seeing Lance in bad shape. They were neighbors at the end of the hall on the fourth floor of the Painted Dolphin boarding house. It was not unusual for Lance to pound on Hal’s door at three o’clock in the morning to rave about the drugs he had scored or the rounds of drinks he had scammed from American tourists looking for a guide to the local nightlife.
“I went too far, man,” Lance said. “Way too far.”
The sound of his voice was both deeply soulful and sublimely artificial. It sounded as though a Yamaha synthesizer had been rigged up deep inside his belly, the keys being set off not by the pressure of tapping fingers but by the slow burn of stomach acid.
“It was my research,” Lance said. “Somewhere between the time I did that analysis of the original Mothra vs. Godzilla and when I went looking for the exact street corner where Godzilla stepped on that pagoda in Destroy All Monsters, I started feeling strange, like something was changing inside me.
“I came knocking at your door last night, but you weren’t in. You were probably out there searching for that missing girlfriend of yours. So I tried to take myself to the hospital. I started walking and I just kept feeling so damn hot, like my skin was going to melt off. I went into the metro station but I just couldn’t get onto a train. Felt too cramped, too crowded. So I kept walking through the station until I wound up in this place. Next thing I know, here I am. I can’t believe you found me.”
“The only reason I’m here,” Hal said, “is because I thought I heard Linda’s voice.”
Linda was why Hal had come to Tokyo, the reason he had put his life on hold back in the States. He had taken a month-long leave of absence from his position as an adjunct math professor to go looking for her after she disappeared. She’d gone to Japan during a low point in their relationship, when all of their conversations devolved into fights about how much time she needed with her video games. How she didn’t want to talk with Hal unless he was working a mission with her as a digital avatar in Sword City.
She had left for what was supposed to be a weeklong visit to what she called her spiritual homeland, her mecha Mecca: Electric Town, the neon-lit Tokyo neighborhood inundated with gaming shops and robot stores, candy-colored anime characters and corporate logos, where the streets were overrun by geeky otaku who had read every volume of Naruto and could tell you exactly where they were the first time they had watched the suicide scene from Ghost in the Shell.
Linda had gone away two months ago and never returned.
“I could hear her voice,” Hal said. “I could hear through the subway gratings. I went down to the station and kept following the sound until I wound up here.”
“Well I’ll be damned,” Lance said as he adjusted his tail. “I can’t believe she would come all the way down here. That would be ridiculous.”
Hal watched Lance’s nostrils flare slightly as a puff of white smoke emerged from each moist hole, the scent an unlikely blend of a petroleum and pot smoke.
“No more ridiculous than anything else tonight,” Hal said.
He was starting to feel like the whole world had disappeared, that there was nothing left but him and Lance in this tunnel. The rest of Tokyo was a ruined landscape of demolished buildings and cracked asphalt. Lance’s transformation was nothing but a harbinger of other monsters that had been released as soon as Hal stepped through the turnstile.
“Nothing makes sense anymore.”
Lance was about to respond when a voice that was both distant and present whispered into Hal’s ears. It brought to mind a disaffected singer in a filthy nightclub. Hal knew only one person who spoke this way.
Her voice was faint, indistinct, a wordless melody of aspiration and irritation, pleading and demanding all at once. The inchoate pattern repeated itself, calling into the stagnant air until it dissolved into the rumble of a thick gaseous burp passing through enormous yellow teeth.
“Dude, I got bad news for you,” Lance said. “I think that voice was coming from inside me.”
Hal squinted at the green jaws.
“Dude, I think I swallowed her.”
Hal spun away from Lance and balled his fists.
“I can’t believe you did this,” Hal said. “I can’t believe you swallowed my girlfriend.”
“Sorry, man. You know it wasn’t my intention.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Hal said. “It makes me feel a whole lot better to know that you didn’t eat Linda on purpose.”
Lance narrowed his black eyes and emitted another puff of smoke.
“Let’s not get all snippy about this,” he said. “Maybe if you’d just moved in with your old lady like she wanted you to then none of this would have happened.”
Hal sighed. He had to admit this was true. Six months ago, Linda had suggested cohabitation after a particularly successful dungeon crawl in Sword City. Her pale face was flushed with excitement when she suggested that maybe it was time to take their own personal game to a new challenge level. They had all the essentials: similar taste in take-out menus, a propensity to indulge each other’s kinks. Surely they had all they needed to make a life together.
Hal demurred. At some level, he was terrified of a life that might interfere with his contemplation of abstract theories of Boolean algebras and propositional calculus. But instead of telling her that, instead of considering how he and Linda might possibly balance the equation, he harped on her gaming, he complained that she would never be able to make room for him in the crowded worlds of her digital universe.
They argued about it for weeks and then she was gone, disappearing across the International Date Line. Hal was not the only person who Linda had left in the dark. Her partner at the graphic design firm she ran complained that he was up to his ears in work but she left him no forwarding address. When Hal showed up at Linda’s building to see if the landlord had any traces of her whereabouts, he found a new tenant moving furniture into her vacated apartment.
“I guess I blew it,” Hal said.
Lance shook his head.
“Not worth thinking like that, man. It’s like that scene in Son of Godzilla when those scientists should have fled the island when they saw that the radiation level was too high, but they waited too long and had to tangle with the giant insects.”
Hal peered at the overhead lights.
“Yeah, that’s exactly what this is like.”
Lance tried to clasp Hal’s shoulder with a three-fingered hand, but the motion gave him a headache. He burped again. Short bursts of flame escaped from his mouth. And once the fire dimmed, Linda’s voice emerged again, the stark tone repeating itself like a metronome.
“Coin!” Hal said. “It sounds like ‘coin’!”
“She wants you to add more coins,” Lance said, “Keep playing the game.”
“You mean she’s still playing games in your stomach?”
“Dude, I don’t know what I’ve got inside me. All I know is that I was having the most weird-ass dreams, marching through Electric Town, swallowing everything in sight. Your girlfriend must have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Lance groaned at the thought of it. He’d had the munchies before but nothing this extreme. His stomach ached from cracked glass, collapsed sheet rock and chewed-up metal girders. He moaned as Linda’s plaintive whispers passed between his parted jaws.
“Wait a minute,” Hal said. “How does everything fit? You’re not that big. How is Linda even alive inside of you?”
“There’s never been any serious research on kaiju digestive systems,” Lance said. “But I have my theories.”
“It’s hard to explain,” Lance said, “but I’ve always believed that somewhere inside of us there’s some kind of interdimensional portal, some way of containing all that we swallowed, everything. Do you see what I’m telling you?”
“There are worlds inside of us,” Lance said. “Everything we swallow becomes a part of a whole new universe, slightly changed from the digestive acids, of course. An alternate reality that’s just as real as anything we have out here. It’s like the multiverse, man, just with monsters.”
Hal propped a thumb against his chin.
“Lance,” he said, “that might just be the most fucked up thing I’ve ever heard.”
“You got to fill yourself with something, man.”
Lance sighed. Laying motionless on the track, he looked like one of the dinosaurs Hal had wiped out with a laser gun in Linda’s apartment, a blast fired from the Xbox controller to eliminate the T-rex that was charging his vehicle. He had started playing soon after Linda had broached the question of moving in together. Even Linda had to laugh at the spectacle of him absorbed in one of her games.
“So that’s what it takes to turn you into a gamer,” she said. “If I brought up marriage, you could compete for the world championship.”
Hal slew dozens of animated beasts that day as Linda sat beside him. Only when his vehicle plummeted over a waterfall and he was finally out of lives, did Hal look at Linda.
“I guess you’d rather get more involved with dinosaurs than with me,” she said.
Hal wanted to ask Linda how it felt getting a taste of her own digital medicine, but thought better of it. Although he kept seeing her for the next several weeks, something had changed. Everything from movie selections to dinner menus became a source of disagreement. Disagreements escalated into arguments and arguments devolved into shouting matches.
Then there was the silence, long stretches with no talking, no texts, no pretext of communication. It was after three weeks of separation that Linda finally called Hal to announce that she had booked a flight to Japan.
“What happens if I go inside you?” Hal said to Lance. “What if I go inside to look for Linda? How do I know I won’t get — digested?”
“No promises. We’re talking about some seriously unexplored territory.”
The deadpan melody of Linda’s voice again emerged from Lance’s throat.
“You know what?” Hal said. “I don’t think she’s saying coin. I think she’s saying join, join.”
Lance gestured with his stubby hand as though he were brushing away a fly.
“What do you mean?”
“Can’t you figure it out? She wants you to go down there and be with her.”
Hal ran a pale finger along his nose.
“You might be right.”
“Go ahead and take a look, man. Don’t worry, I won’t bite.”
As Lance opened his jaws, Hal considered the yellow tips of each incisor. He stared at those sharp teeth as the soft cries of Linda drifted through the station.
The air was a stale miasma of cannabis and Kirin beer when Hal finally peered inside Lance’s mouth. He held onto one bicuspid for support as he leaned over a drooling tongue to get a clear view past the uvula. Traces of neon flashed across the surface of the esophagus, patches of green and violet light rising and falling across pink flesh.
“You were right,” Hal said when he pulled himself out from Lance’s jaws and wiped the moisture from his face. “You’ve got everything down there. More than I could ever imagine.”
“No wonder I don’t feel so good.”
“I want to go in deeper to get a better look,” Hal said.
“Go for it.”
“But I want you to be careful,” Hal said. “If you think you’re going to cough or something, spit me out, will you?”
“I’ll try my best.”
Using the bicuspid for support again, Hal worked his entire body into Lance’s mouth, bracing his legs in the crook beside the right jawbone. Wrapping both hands beneath the purple surface of a forked tongue, Hal leaned under the uvula and peered directly down the alimentary canal.
Following a trail of neon characters dripping down the digestive tract, Hal saw an entire neighborhood collapsed against the walls of Lance’s stomach. As Lance himself had predicted, there was some sort of rupture of the time-space continuum, a warping of conventional perspective as Hal stared at the buildings Lance had swallowed.
The structures were at once inconceivably distant and impossibly close. Contained within Lance’s belly was all that remained of Electric Town: a ramshackle pile of animated signs and brick buildings. A four-story gaming center rested diagonally against the side of an elevated railroad track. In the wash of search lights sweeping across the sunless sky, Hal could see unfazed throngs of otaku moving across the wreckage, the undigested swarm of gamers and geeks sweeping from one dilapidated robot store to the next.
And then he could see Linda. She was stepping apart from the crowd, dressed in black jeans, a black t-shirt and black boots. Glancing up at Hal from a cracked sidewalk, Linda looked surprisingly unchanged: the face long and pale, the hair straight and black, the lips thin and slightly flushed, a single golden stud accenting an otherwise unremarkable nose.
Only the eyes were different. They had always seemed perfectly opaque to Hal, sleekly polished surfaces designed to reflect the landscapes behind digital windows. Now they had become transparent, revealing all that was unspoken in her soft repetitive calls.
“Join,” she said as she extended a hand up towards Hal. “Join me.”
The tips of her fingers seemed so close that Hal could touch them. Still holding firm to one side of the purple tongue, Hal slipped his hand into the haze of Lance’s gullet. He extended his reach deeper and deeper until he felt himself losing his grip.
“Hey man,” Lance said, careful not to move his jaws too rapidly as he spoke. “Are you okay in there?”
Hal was clinging to the uvula now as he planted his sneakers on the back of Lance’s throat. He kept his eyes closed a moment as he recovered from the shock and then slowly looked back down.
All of the other pedestrians were gone now and Linda was alone on the sidewalk. She continued to reach through the neon haze until she saw that Hal, with both hands wrapped around the uvula, could not reach back. She lowered her arm and started walking toward a pachinko parlor still open for business.
As Hal watched her approach the threshold, he felt himself trembling in the chasm of Lance’s mouth. Muscles tensed around the air duct and Hal could feel hot air rushing down the trachea.
“No coughing!” Hal shouted. “Please no coughing!”
Lance heard the panicked voice and tried to do what he could to resist the growing urge that was building in his throat. He attempted to calm himself, breathing deliberately through his nostrils the way his meditation coach had once instructed him to do, back in the days before he was a monster.
Hal could feel the softening breaths as he watched Linda offer him one last glance before stepping through the sliding glass doors. Before he could register the expression on her face, Lance’s mouth darkened with the shadows of three green fingers attempting to pull him out.
Trembling claws extended beyond the tips of yellow teeth but it was already too late.
Hal had finally let go.