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EP322: Chicken Noodle Gravity

By J. Daniel Sawyer
Read by Paul Haring
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An Escape Pod original!
All stories by J. Daniel Sawyer
All stories read by Paul Haring

Rated 17 and up for language, and mild sexual situations

Chicken Noodle Gravity
by J. Daniel Sawyer

I hate to start out this way, but before we get to the reason I’m standing on this stool with a fez on my head, in the middle of the night, in front of a double-cal-king bed in a furniture store—which, yes, Officer, I swear I’ll confess I broke into illegally—before we get to any of that, there’s something I have to tell you. I know it’s awful, evil, and just plain wrong, but there’s no way around it, and you won’t understand anything else unless I say this right up front, so here goes:

Stephen was stoned.

And when I say “stoned” I mean he’d eaten enough brownies and smoked enough pot to put the economies of five or six minor countries into a severe, long-term deficit crisis.

It was okay. It helped him cope with the chemo. Mellowed him out. We didn’t have to fight over who got to hold the remote. He was better in bed too—not as neurotic.

Didn’t complain about my mustache when I kissed him. Suits me right for shacking up with a clean freak.

The weed was my revenge—well, the fact that the weed made it possible for him to eat. We had to grow our own—only way we could afford it, though I swear we probably spent as much on the electricity as we would have on the bud. Not a great climate for it, not in the winter.

So, the revenge part—that would be his appetite. When he smoked, it came back. It was the only time it came back. And there were only two things he could handle:

Brownies.

And chicken noodle soup. The really rancid stuff that came in a red and white can.

I swear, by all that’s good and holy and a bowl of Ex-Lax besides, that was all he could eat. And he hated chocolate almost as much as he hated the soup. Feeding him the soup and brownies was my revenge on him for getting sick in the first place.

Not that I blamed him about the soup. A hundred forty years after it was invented, that stuff still smelled like salted famine and disease glopping out of the can.

But after Stephen lost all his hair, for the third time, I got to love that smell. Not because it smelled any better, but because every time I smelled it I knew he’d be around at least long enough to eat it. Sometimes, a little bit of hope is all you need to keep going. When your life is filled with words like “pancreatic,” “stage four,” and “terminal,” you learn to live with what you can get.

So we smoked like chimneys, screwed like carpenters, sang like sailors, and gambled like day-traders. I didn’t give much of a damn that the money wouldn’t last much longer than him.

But he just. Kept. Lasting. He didn’t want to let me go any more than I wanted to let him go.

First it was the money. Then it was the house. Then it was the car. But it didn’t matter. As long as I could keep growing the green, and opening those red and white cans.

It went on like that all winter. When they diagnosed him, they said he’d last five weeks. We’d made it five months, and we weren’t going to make it much longer without changing—and whatever it was, we were going to have to get creative. I was still employed. My job at the casino paid enough in tips that we should have been okay, and my insurance covered all his doctor visits. But the meds killed us. Cancer drugs move so fast that the difference in survival comes down to what month you were diagnosed, now. That small-cell lung cancer you’ve got today will kill you, but the tumor your brother discovers in six weeks will be treatable, and the one your mom gets a month after that will be curable.

If you can stay alive long enough, then you can stay alive period. That’s the deal. And that’s why every penny I earned in salary and tips went to his drugs, and it’s why I ate that revolting chicken noodle soup night after night while we smoked up and watched old episodes of Doctor Who.

When I say we spent every penny on the drugs, I’m not kidding. I walked to work. Some weeks, I did the laundry by hand because we couldn’t afford the electricity to wash our socks. But we had to eat, and my salary meant we were too rich for the food bank.

I had one option left. A last chance. I’d been selling off my old comic books to keep us in soup and vitamins, and myself in vegetables so I could stay healthy enough to take care of him. But I didn’t have a lot that was valuable—stuff that’s been well-loved doesn’t resell well to collectors. With only a handful left, I needed a way to unload them in a place that might give me a little cash for them.

Marks—casino customers, you understand—always need a fresh source of dough, and when they have a few drinks in them, they get to talking. Over the years, I heard them talking, over and over, about this one pawn shop down past third street that paid high rates. Creepy place, they said, out where nobody in their right mind worked. Out where the city finally gave up and admitted it had turned into suburbs.

Right on the edge of the hot zone. Two miles out past the end of the bus line. Long walk with a box of old comics, but at least it wasn’t raining.

I got there at four forty-five, just before closing. The broken-down gray bungalow had front windows stuffed to bursting with knick-knacks. The front entry was nearly blocked with large stuffed predators.

And it was cold. Outside, the desert’s spring dusk shone orange and warm, but inside, even with the fire roaring in the hearth, my breath billowed in front of my face.

I dropped the box on the glass display case, above the crosses, the pentacles, the talismans from a dozen different religions. I rang the service bell sitting next to the brass idol of Siva.

One thing you can give the guy that ran this place, he could collect like no pack rat I’d ever known.

“May I help you, sir?”

A young guy, maybe twenty. Short black hair, nice broad shoulders. Cute as a button, except for the hollow eyes. And the creepy, hairless cat perched on his shoulders like Long John Silver’s parrot.

Okay, so I liked Treasure Island as a kid. I thought Long John was hot. Get over it.

“Do you buy comics?”

He nodded.

“How much for these?” I shoved the box at him. He pulled the yellowed strapping tape back, opened up the lid of my last bit of treasure.

He pulled them out, one by one, smiling over each, laying them on the counter like they were made of lace. At least, maybe, they’d be going to a good home.

It made parting with the last piece of my childhood a bit easier.

The cat walked down his arm and seemed to pore over them as well.

“Yeah, oh, yes, these are nice ones,” said the shopkeeper, “you know a lot of these are older than me?”

I chuckled. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“So, how much are you looking for?” Like a real pawnbroker—always let the customer open the bid.

My stomach rumbled. I hoped Stephen hadn’t lit up yet, or he’d be starving.

“Honestly? Anything I can get.”

He clucked his tongue at me. I winced. I started in a bad bargaining position, and I had nowhere to go but down. Time to grovel.

“I’ve got…I need to get food money. My husband is sick…dying. All our money’s going to the treatment. We’re out of things to eat. This…” I put my hands down on the spread of memories, “is all I have left.”

He sighed, like he was gearing up to insult my mother. “Well, I gotta tell you, it’s not worth much. These are great old issues, but there’s nothing top drawer here…”

“I liked off-kilter stuff when I was a kid.”

“And you liked it a lot. Rare is good, but collectors want ‘em mint. These…these I can’t move. I’d be buying decorations and as you can see,” he nodded around the frigid room, hung heavy with all manner of gaudy memorabilia, “I don’t need any more. I could give you maybe…ten bucks?”

I nodded. I could feel my shoulders, maybe for the first time in my life, fall a little bit. Up until that moment, I don’t think I’d ever felt beaten. A year before, we’d had everything, and nowhere to go but on and up. Now, the last piece of my life that wasn’t already dying was worth the price of two meals. That’s all. Just enough soup for two more nights together.

“Forget it.” I ran my hand under the flimsy little books, pushing them back into a modest, almost non-existent pile. “It was a mistake coming here. I’m sorry I wasted your time, I just…I’m sorry.”

I put them in the box and made to pick it up, but he put his hand on it. “Hold on a minute. Like I said, they’re good books. What would you say to a trade?”

“What kind of trade?”

“Follow me.”

He beckoned me toward the back. Lacking anything better to do, I followed him.

The store room behind was as crowded as the display room out front, and seemed to stretch back forever. Filing racks stuttering away from me like giant dominoes poised to fall with the slightest push.

He led me about halfway down, then swept his arm down an aisle. “Back here.”

On the floor, a pack of maybe twenty of those damned little red and white cans. I had to grab the shelves to steady myself.

“I get these in here every so often, they send them out from the lab—they order more than they can use. Some of the stuff I sell on, some of it I hand off to the food bank. No reason I can’t hand it off to you. There isn’t a lot, but…”

#

So there it was. Twenty-four cans—twenty-three little ones on wrapped flat with one missing, and one family sized. I’d save that one for next time I had two days off in a row, so we could grab lunch and dinner out of it.

That night, for dinner, I opened two of the cans and poured them into the saucepan. While it heated, I checked over the label. They were government cans, standard condensed-soup paint job notwithstanding. Singularity Soup: The Singular Experience.

Cute.

At least the ingredients list was the same as yesterday’s soup can, which meant Stephen would be able to keep it down. I passed him a joint, and put the Ninth Doctor on TV, and waited for it to boil.

For six glorious nights, we had each other. I turned cards in the day, and at night I turned him over in our bed and grabbed every spare touch I could manage without wearing him out too much.

Saturday. Halfway down through our new lease on life—six more days of soup, maybe seven if I stretched it, until I had to find food again, somehow. But I knew I wouldn’t need to. Stephen still kept his food down, but his skin was going sallow, and he had trouble now making it into the bathroom without help. I couldn’t help him much longer.

He wouldn’t last until the soup ran out. I got the sneaking suspicion he was holding on long enough to see the tenth doctor.

That would be tomorrow.

Well, if that was the time we had, then it was what we had.

I took the family-sized can from the pantry and squeezed the can opener onto the lip, but instead of the familiar hiss of air rushing into the vacuum-sealed steel, I heard a distant clang—like someone had knocked a tool off a shelf in the garage, except we didn’t have a garage anymore. Just the studio apartment in the low-rent district.

Odd.

But Stephen didn’t seem to notice. He was sleeping on our bed.

Lifted the can and looked at it, but the weight felt right. Maybe a bit on the heavy side, but not much.

I shook it. Felt like soup to me.

So I set it back down on the counter and cranked the can-opener handle.

As I progressed around the lip, the serrated edge of the lid started to curl in, like something was pulling it. Most unusual.

It wasn’t until the can opener was halfway around that I began to think that something was really, really wrong with this can.

The middle of the lid dimpled in—just a little—and made an adorable blooping sound, like a kid with a noisemaker.

I stopped. Looked at the pit. It stretched, slowly, down into the can—and the further it plunged the faster it went, until the entire edge tore free at once and dropped into the…

Light?

Light. A kind I’d never seen before.

And wind.  As if the can were trying to suck the whole room in.

“Bill? Bill? What the hell is going on in there?” Stephen’s voice, thin as onionskin, as alarmed as it could sound without breaking.

“Nothing,” I fumbled around in the Tupperware drawer, found a plastic lid, “Nothing, I just bumped the hood fan. I…shit…sorry, didn’t mean to wake you up.” I slammed the lid on the can, and all the light and wind stopped at once. “How are you feeling?”

“Ask a different question.”

I shrugged. Pretty fair, as demands went. “You want fries with your soup?”

“God, if I could…” He chuckled. A good sound.

We had to eat, and whatever was in the big can, it wasn’t soup. I cracked open a couple of the little ones and poured ‘em into the saucepan, turned on the gas.

Between preparing the tray tables with the bowls and spoons ready for ladling in front of the TV, and waiting for the dinner to boil, I chanced to pick up the can with the portable storm inside.

The other cans—the smaller ones, you understand—all had their labels painted on. This one had a printed paper label.

The ingredients list was the same. It had the same Singularity Soup legend across the top, but underneath, where the others said simply Condensed Chicken Noodle this one instead read Chicken Noodle: Ultra Condensed.

As to the difference between Condensed and Ultra-Condensed? I hadn’t a clue.

I didn’t have time to investigate further. The smell of skunkweed and chicken stock choked the house, and the liquid in the pan broke into a rolling boil.

#

Dinner and the good Doctor. Two episodes tonight, not just one.

We’d met at a party where they were showing old Tom Baker episodes—two gay Americans who both grew up secretly obsessing over a suave, asexual, time traveling Brit.

It occurred to me that night, as I watched him sleep on our bed in front of the TV, that I might have quit my job months ago and taken every moment with him. I’d have had more minutes, and he’d have had a quicker death. Kinder. We’d have had the money to treat him for a couple months, maybe, before resorting to the secret stash of heroin I’d managed to obtain from the pusher at work.

Totaling up the minutes, we’d have had more together. The problem was, though, that the sooner he died, the more minutes I’d have to live after he’d gone. There were already too many to count. I didn’t want to add to them. So I kept him alive as long as I could, for my own sake. Because I couldn’t let him go.

Because I was a selfish fuck, and I knew it.

But he seemed to understand. He didn’t want to leave either. So he never objected. Even when the pain and the humiliation were worst, during the chemo sessions, he never asked me for that injection, even though he knew I wouldn’t be able to refuse him.

#

I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t have anywhere to be tomorrow anyway. There wasn’t any alcohol in the house to numb the impending loss—even if there was, I’m not sure I’d have taken any. Didn’t seem dignified, somehow. But I couldn’t focus enough to read, and I didn’t want to put anything on the box that might wake Stephen, cheat him out of his rest.

Eventually I found myself in the kitchenette, studying that can. With the lid on it behaved, once again, like an ordinary soup can. Just a little heavier than normal. It moved like it was full of liquid with maybe a little space inside for sloshing air.

But I’d opened it. I knew it wasn’t soup inside.

For the sheer hell of it, I took a knife and cut the label off. It was an ordinary paper label, like any other. Underneath, the can was smooth and shiny—which was a bit odd.

A normal soup can is ribbed.

I risked a peek under the lid. The minute I cracked it open, the wind started, as if it wanted to suck all the air into the can. Good thing I had a healthy grip—it almost tore the lid out of my hand and pulled it down into the light in the center.

A light as sharp in the night’s half-light as if I’d poked a knitting needle into my eye.

I slammed the lid down again. What the hell was it?

The wind was suction, no doubt about it. And whatever was in there was sucking everything into it, so long as there was any window to the outside world.

But what could do that?

I looked at the label again. Ultra-Condensed.

On impulse I looked at the nutrition information. A couple grams of fat. A god-awful amount of sodium. Some carbs from the noodles. Added vitamins. Just enough of everything to keep a body going for a while, barely.

Instructions on how much water to add in the preparation directions. Fourteen cans? Usually they only needed one.

Was I supposed to put the water straight into the can? No. It directed me to pour the contents into the saucepan, just like with normal soup.

Except this wasn’t normal soup. So what the hell was it?

Under the normal label stuff—nutrition, preparation, ingredients—in print almost too small to read along the bottom of the label, was a tiny legend.

“Warning: Singularity Ultra-Condensed uses an experimental packaging method, and is intended only for distribution to qualified high-energy physics facilities. Occasional issues have been reported at the point of delivery that can effect the enjoyability of your meal. If this has happened to you, see reverse.”

Okay.

I turned the label over.

In the same small type, in a narrow column, I found a veritable novel.

“Due to the ultra-condensed nature of this innovative packaging, the product carries with it a slight danger of gravitational collapse. The packaging has been specially shielded and reinforced for your protection against this eventuality. Should your product undergo gravitational collapse, you will recognize the following symptoms upon opening: extreme suction, possible displays of light, ambient wind, possible radiation leakage.

“Should you encounter any of these problems, close the container immediately.

“Should any household pets get sucked in, do not panic. Simply point the unopened end of the can at a soft surface and open it. Loss of containment will cause objects orbiting the singularity to be ejected out the far end, none the worse for wear.

“Upon reclamation of any damaged objects or animals, simply re-seal the can with available household plastic lids to restore structural integrity of the containment vessel.

“Do not attempt to use a compromised product for food, garbage disposal, or time travel. Singularity Soups can not be held responsible for any attempts to use a compromised product for research or to power any experimental equipment.

“Failure to re-seal this product and return it to the factory indemnifies Singularity Soups, its subsidiaries, associates, and parent companies, from all liability, express or implied, for any damage to property, persons, animals, the environment, or the solar system.”

This had to be a joke, right?

But when I cracked the lid again, there was light. And wind. And I was starting to get little burns on my fingers.

Well, now, I ask you, what would you do? You’re down to your last few meals. You don’t have any hope of getting more. You’ve got your own private black hole, which won’t actually eat the things you put in it, it’ll just spin them into orbit—I didn’t know how that part worked, didn’t quite believe it—and which you can get stuff back out of. Hell, all this time I just thought black holes ate galaxies. What would you do with it? What would you think?

Well, I had all those thoughts too. I could take this thing into work, and sneak money out of the till on the sly, and no one could prove I’d done it. I could take it back to the pawn shop and sell it—somebody must want something like this. Who wouldn’t want a pet black hole, after all?

But at this stage, money wasn’t going to do me much good. Stephen couldn’t eat anything but the soup, no matter what, and judging by the way he was today, I’d be lucky to hold on to him through the weekend. I’d already resigned myself to a Doctor Who marathon tomorrow, so we could part the way we’d met—cuddling at the back of a room, watching the marvelous magic of a man who never had to die, who always had to leave people behind, who saved the universe because he couldn’t bear to miss seeing it unfold.

I couldn’t go into work in the morning. I couldn’t go out anywhere. I couldn’t bear the thought of missing Stephen’s last moments. I wanted to hold him when he went. You spend twenty years with a man, you don’t wuss out at the end.

My own pet black hole. Any other day, I’d have been thrilled down to the ends of my geeky toes. But tonight?

I just needed sleep.

#

I snuggled up, cradling Stephen’s arm and listening to old Hitchhiker’s Guide episodes playing quietly on our one remaining computer. I couldn’t pawn that—we needed it to stay in touch with siblings on the far side of the world.

His breathing was difficult for a while, but once he settled down, I finally managed to fall asleep.

#

Ten the next morning brought me kisses. He was strong enough to sit up on his own again, and to stroke my body slowly until I woke up. He wanted to see me play with myself—he didn’t say “one last time.” He didn’t need to. We both knew it. He just said he wanted to see that look on my face when I came, and he wished he could get it up to play with me too. I did what I could to oblige him, for auld lang syne.

We shared a toke. We laughed, as much as we were able. We watched the Doctor change into David Tennant. Only a few seasons left to go till I could let him go—I could only pray he lasted that long.

Still, in the kitchen, there was that little black hole in a soup can. Singularity Soup indeed!

During spells where he drifted off, I used the computer to read up on black holes. Hawking radiation. Event horizons. Turns out nothing ever falls straight into a black hole—everything gets swirled around and around forever, getting slowly hotter and hotter, and stretching longer and longer, until it eventually evaporates off. Little black holes are supposed to evaporate fast.

Some people think that black holes are baby universes, and anything that goes in comes out the as stellar dust in another dimension.

But some people—actually, a lot of them—thought a black hole, properly harnessed and shielded, could be used to time travel into the future. Just like the Doctor.
The nucleus of an idea appeared in my head, and it started accreting plans.

That night, after the end of the next season, I made more soup and put in a last pan of brownies. In the kitchen, I kept looking at the label on the counter.

“Hungry tonight?”

“Yeah,” he groaned, “Maybe a little.”

“Dinner in five.” I broke out some clean bowls. “What would you say if I told you I found a black hole?”

“I’d say you’ve been smoking too much.”

“Ha! You would, too.” I took the can over to him, and the label. “Check this out.”

He pored over the fine print. “Black hole? Asshole, more like. Whoever wrote this is pulling your leg.”

“Open it. But be careful.”

He raised a hairless eyebrow at me, shrugged, and peeled the lid back. He didn’t have much strength in his grip, so as soon as he broke the seal the plastic thing got sucked down into the singularity.

“Holy shit.”

“Yeah. Hold on tight.”

I ran back to the kitchen and found another lid, then hurried to the bed and slapped it on before anything important got sucked in.

“So what do you do with a black hole?” I asked him.

“Clean the house. Send me off to hell with a clean bathroom.”

“Very funny.”

Stephen took a hit off hit joint and passed it to me. “Tell you what—throw on another episode. Black hole in the house, we’ll pretend it’s a TARDIS.” He smiled the kind of smile you only see on people who are so tired that they can’t summon the energy to laugh.

#

More soup. More snuggles. More TV.

I thought, and planned.

He drifted off, then back in, had some more to smoke.

Which brings us back to where I started:

Stephen was stoned. More stoned than he’d ever been. Stoned like fucking Pompeii. Like Yosemite National Park. I’d kept him very well supplied today with the last of the good bud and the hash oil, because there wouldn’t be a tomorrow. By the time the Daleks took Manhattan, he was so ripped I could have switched places with a woman and he wouldn’t have known.

In the closet, I had a stack of space blankets—cheaper than turning on the heating when it was cold—the things they use on space probes for protection against sunburn and superheating. Couldn’t hurt, right?

And then some brownies, just in case. I mean, I didn’t even know this was going to work, and if it did work I didn’t know what it would be like, so it’s best to be prepared.
Scissors and duct tape let me make pockets in the space blankets. More duct tape let me secure it.

Once it was done, and he was grinning like he had the energy to play bondage games, I stuffed the pockets with the brownies from the pan. And I got the can of ultra-condensed soup.

“Whatcha doin’, man?” He asked me.

“Seeing that you go out in style.”

“Cool.” He grinned.

Oh yeah, he was stoned. It was only way I could get him in there.

I opened the family-sized can and set it at his feet, and right in front of my eyes Stephen stretched into a ribbon and zipped all the way in. Should be okay, right? I mean, the label had instructions on retrieving household pets unharmed, and Stephen was about the size of a Great Dane. Maybe smaller, with all the weight loss. Only about ninety pounds.

And he had supplies in case his subjective time passed enough that he got hungry.

That was five years ago.

Six months after, they found a new treatment. They could replace the pancreas with a dish-grown one of his own. Without the primary tumor, they could clean up more of the child tumors.

A year after that, they figured out how to locate those teeny little child tumors, so they could actually target them with the radiation—or replace the organs. After the pancreas, all the other organs are easy.

So, it’s been four years of saving and eating mostly ramen and peanut butter so that I could afford the treatment for him, and tonight, I bring him back.

Really, Officer. I swear.

I figure he went into orbit around the black hole—he’s been gone for a few days, worst case, from his point of view. All I have to do is open the other end and he’ll fly out—that’s why I need this bed. To catch him, you see? I could never afford anything like this at home, and can you imagine what they’d do to me if I tried this during business hours?

Look, I’ve got a can opener right here. All I have to do is hook it in like this. Then point the can at the bed, like this, then turn the crank, and Stephen’ll come shooting out the other side, good as the day I sucked him in there.

You think I’m full of shit. You don’t believe me.

Well…

Watch this.


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Chicken Noodle Gravity by J. Daniel Sawyer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at escapepod.org.

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