A Failure Of Certain Systems
by Dennis Fridd
On July 19th, 2014 the skin of every adult in America except pregnant women lost the ability to stretch. Our first sign of the disturbance came from the carnage that occurred at the 14th Annual Louisville Pie-Eating Competition.
The explosions began two minutes into the contest. The stomachs of Roy Halter and John Barrymoore burst simultaneously, spraying the audience and their competitors with custard, blood, little bits of organ, and highly corrosive stomach acid.
For a few seconds the crowd was silent, but soon they began to scream uncontrollably. The organizer of the event placed a call to emergency services, and though he had trouble explaining the situation, paramedics, firefighters, and police officers arrived minutes later. Within the hour CDC teams in full HAZMAT suits and Homeland Security units in tactical gear showed up, turning the grounds into a melee. By the time the CDC had cleared the scene three attendees were hospitalized for burns, twenty-seven for psychological trauma, and the two dead men had been scooped up, at least as much as was possible, into a pair of black body bags which appeared on every news channel in the country that night.
As emergency workers sifted through the wreckage in Louisville, similar fates were befalling mixed-martial-artists, wrestlers, and boxers across the country. Not only do most blood sports give an advantage to the heavier combatant, but, crucially, the weigh-in is usually held the day before the match. Given these incentives, it is common practice for athletes to exercise, sauna, and starve down to make the weigh-in, then gain the pounds back overnight to be in top fighting shape. Only this time when the competitors scarfed down plates of pasta and beef to bulk back up, they found their bodies ripped apart so fast most of that food was never even digested. Given that the nineteenth was a Saturday, a common day for such sports, the death toll was abominable.
The occurrences among combat athletes, and the similarity to what had happened at the pie-eating contest, were noted immediately. However, as the only people so far affected had been those undergoing rapid eating, this was believed to be the main risk group. The surgeon general and the head of the CDC issued a joint-statement cautioning against any overly celeritous intake of food. Combat sports quickly transitioned to a system in which fighters were weighed directly before a match; competitive eating was abandoned altogether, as were restaurant “challenges,” in which patrons would attempt to consume massive hamburgers or steaks under the condition that the meal was free only if the contestant could eat it within a certain time period.
These fixes appeared to solve the issue. For a full three days there were no incidents. In the same way that the HIV virus was initially thought to target gays exclusively, UES—or Unidentified Exploding Syndrome, as it soon came to be called after much bickering between the Department of Health and the CDC—was thought to affect only the small portion of the population who consumed four or more pounds of food in a single sitting. The consequences of this assumption would prove to be deadly.
On July 23rd Pamela Barnes was checked into the emergency room at Mount Sinai Hospital because fingers of fat were poking through her thighs like meat coming out of a sausage grinder. Doctors quickly identified the substance, wiped it away, and bandaged the hysterical Barnes’ wounds. Only to call them wounds was inaccurate. “There was no blood, or lacerations, or anything you would expect,” said Ian Bremmer, the admitting physician. “We ran all kinds of X-rays trying to figure this thing out. It was almost as though her skin had weakened to the point where the fat had forced its way to the surface. That was before we knew what was really going on.”
The following day in Flagstaff, Michael Kirchmeyer’s skin split open along his right side from the top of his ribcage to the middle of his thigh. Fellow Walmart shoppers watched in horror as his organs came jumbling out of his body and onto the slick linoleum floor. Medical personnel were unable to save him.
Before, the explosions had been considered mere curiosities. The pie-eating and combat sports deaths of course made international news, but they were generally regarded by the public as a curiosity, stories only slightly more bizarre than tales of raining frogs. The occurrences in New York and Flagstaff immediately changed that. While the events were not identical, all seemed to relate to the skin’s inability to hold its contents. Reporters soon discovered that both Barnes and Kirchmeyer were morbidly obese. Commentators suggested that heavy eating may have been to blame in both cases, and compared the occurrences to the explosions earlier in the week.
Most of the public remained convinced that the crisis would not affect them. Kirchmeyer was known to eat at fast food restaurants almost daily, and Barnes was revealed to drink six gallons of soda a week. This was well out of the range of the average American’s intake. Most people, even the elephantine, assumed they were fine.
But people kept exploding. A woman in Tennessee was described as having “popped like a balloon.” An Oregon man managed to coat the better part of a baseball diamond with pieces of himself. In the two weeks following the death of Kirchmeyer, the CDC recorded four deaths from explosion, three from splitting down the side, and six hospitalizations for finger-like fat projections.
Of these, two of the victims were normal, healthy people. Neither had engaged in any binge eating before their injuries. One had been recovering from an illness that left her thinner than usual, and the other had merely eaten a large lunch. This was enough to finally scare the general population. The Department of Health, now fully under the spotlight, urged Americans to eat smaller portions and exercise regularly.
President Tacklebox ordered the DOH to complete a full investigation of the phenomenon. Using international flight manifests, they would discover that what the general public and later history books would call “The Event,” affected everyone who happened to be in America between 8:45 and 9:00 AM on the nineteenth, regardless of nationality. In the first few weeks of the crisis, nobody realized this. The incidents were localized to America, but were so far apart from one another that a contagion could not have been the cause. Though various causes have been suggested—air pollution, radiation, extraterrestrial interference—to this day no medical explanation has ever been provided for The Event.
Ramifications of The Event extended far beyond the average American’s diet, having profound effects on every layer of society.
Professional sports were perhaps the most impacted. After the deaths of several bodybuilders and one power lifter, athletes lived in terror of gaining too much muscle mass. It was a tightrope. They could not gain weight, but to lose it would have meant a disadvantage on the field. Working with personal trainers, athletes achieved a delicate balance, usually maintaining a weight five pounds less than at the time of The Event. Trainers constantly watched for the same early warning signs of UES the public had been told to look out for: feelings of tightness in the skin, difficulty breathing, sensations of warmth or stiffness.
For top athletes in popular sports, who had entire teams of people to monitor them 24/7, risk of UES was low. Up-and-coming athletes were a different story. The pressure for young sportsmen to gain mass to be competitive was enormous. Those playing in the major leagues but not starting, or those trapped in the minor leagues, tempted fate at an alarming rate.
Almost all pursuits were at risk. Sports requiring all-around strength like football were especially perilous, but less mass-reliant contests also invited danger. Whereas football players suffered the same full-body incidents as the general public, others risked injury to specific body parts. Basketballers went down with exploding calves; would-be tennis phenoms watched in horror as their forearms ruptured like cheap prophylactics.
With each explosion the medical community learned more about UES. Skin would lose the ability to stretch when a person was fully grown—at their tallest. The problem was no one knew how tall they were going to end up. A person could put on unlimited muscle or fat until a point, but then one day, without warning, they would be in danger. Some kids stop growing at fifteen, others at twenty. After great deliberation the CDC advised that children over the age of fourteen should avoid putting on muscle. In many states youth between the ages of fourteen and eighteen were banned from fitness clubs. Teachers were required to report students who gained too much fat or muscle, as though they were doing drugs or being abused by their parents. Still there were youths who defied the rules, and suffered disastrous consequences.
There was one exception though—that of “normal growth.” The filling in of the shoulders and bulking of the upper body and thighs of young men did not cause rupture. Nor did the growing curves of adolescent women cause any flagration. Of course it was nearly impossible to determine what constituted normal growth and what did not. Many a youth was hauled in front of their principal or local police on false suspicions. Furthermore, a youth—or anyone else for that matter—can develop muscle without intending to. Think of the naturally strengthened legs of a newly employed furniture mover, or the developing arm of a golf enthusiast. Within months youths had abandoned sports and manual labor altogether.
For a time there was also a phenomenon of young children being purposefully fattened up by their parents so they would be as bulky as possible when they reached peak height, thus limiting the likelihood of a UES incident in their future. An image of a mother pouring melted butter down a funnel inserted into the mouth of a crying twelve-year-old quickly circulated the internet, prompting much debate on whether her actions represented cruelty or mercy.
A much smaller category of the affected was movie stars who lost weight for roles. It was not uncommon for an actor or actress, sometimes one in need of a career boost, to lose large amounts of weight to play a cancer patient or a POW. They would slim down to dangerous levels of thinness, only to regain the pounds after production ended. When The Event happened these thespians were stuck at their reduced weight. Those struggling with anorexia or bulimia suffered a similar fate.
One might have thought that Americans would change their diets. Within a month of The Event the cause of UES was well known. Citizens were advised to eat healthy foods and exercise frequently. The problem should have been contained.
But people kept exploding. The American people proved unwilling or unable to keep their waistlines in check, and emergency rooms were inundated. In the first six months following The Event over two thousand Americans would lose their lives.
Those with fingers of fat were the lucky ones. Like the speeding motorist who is let off with a warning by the police, they were rattled but safe. Doctors would simply apply bandages and wait for the skin to heal naturally.
Those whose skin split down the side were in far more danger. The most common site of tearing was the stomach. Often the fluids and organs would fall out immediately, causing instant death. Medical authorities advised the afflicted to summon help, then lie down immobile until aid arrived. Eric Wilcox, Chief of Surgery at Rochester General Hospital, pioneered the technique of closing the wound using oversized staples. Soon giant surgical staplers were being ordered by hospitals all over the country, netting a tidy profit for their maker, a company that specialized in fabricating giant props to be used at the grand openings of office supply stores.
History will forever question why Americans were unable to restrain themselves. Why did they, in the words of Senate-hopeful Robert Thompson of South Carolina, in what would prove to be an election-ending gaffe, “continue to pork up”? Despite the causes of UES being known, and the Department of Health issuing strict and thorough guidelines on diet and nutrition, incidents became increasingly commonplace over the ensuing months as citizens across the country got closer and closer to their individual thresholds. Thompson blamed “low morals” and television. Investigators at the DOH revealed a more complicated picture.
For some the early warning signs never came in the first place. While many experienced the symptoms they were told to watch for, others exploded or experienced skin tearing/fingering without bodily warning of any kind.
There were those who simply found it impossible to control their weight as they aged and their metabolism slowed. A 30-year-old with a washboard for a stomach could hardly be expected to be just as trim almost a year later.
Perhaps the greatest challenge was the poor information about nutrition many Americans possessed. Most understood that excessive fat and refined sugar were bad, and plants and grains good, but their knowledge rarely extended beyond that. Often they opted for foods that appeared healthy but were actually not. Many retailers sold salads that were less healthy than hamburgers and tea that had more sugar in it than soda. Products were advertised as “low fat” but contained heaps of sugar, or vice versa.
The Department of Health urged the public to weigh themselves, then not exceed that weight by more than four pounds. This proved somewhat misleading. People with larger frames could indeed exceed their weight by slightly more than four pounds. Tales of daredevils packing on five or six pounds without trouble circulated the internet, causing some to dismiss the DOH’s numbers. Also, while people could weigh themselves, this did not reflect their weight at the time of The Event, only their weight once they weighed themselves. If they had already gained a few pounds by that time their calculations would be useless. The DOH eventually revised its instructions, telling people to fast for a full day before measuring their weight.
The Event led to a general sense of hopelessness and confusion across the country. Americans continued to die or be grievously wounded. Men and women at beaches across the nation could be seen with jagged scars running across their bodies. The country wondered why they had been singled out for this punishment. A country that once believed itself to be the greatest in the world now thought itself cursed. Attendance at church services, especially the Church of Latter-Day Saints, plummeted. And, more than anything, people were hungry for much of their day.
All of this led to the expansion of the already profitable weight-loss industry. Any product that promised to burn fat, be it a workout video, a diet soda, or an unregulated herbal suppository, was ripped from the shelves. Even as prices soared, retailers were unable to remain stocked. In July of 2014 the average price of a diet soda was $1.67; by January of the following year it cost $6.48. Meanwhile, sales of regular sodas and other junk foods came almost to a halt.
The problem is few of these things actually worked. Most low-fat products were a poor substitute for exercise. Some diets were actually worse for a person than eating normally. The failure of these products led ever-greater numbers of Americans to turn to cocaine, speed, or liposuction. Soon demand for narcotics and surgery, like that for weight-loss products, greatly outstripped supply.
Prices of illicit drugs soared. Unlicensed liposuction clinics, often using little more than a boxcutter and a modified vacuum cleaner for surgical equipment, began to crop up across the nation. The best of these were staffed by former doctors who had lost their medical licenses. The worst used painkillers instead of anesthetic, left horrible scars, and sometimes killed their patients on the operating table. Animosity began to spread among the poor, who were well aware of the wealthy’s disproportionate ability to afford life-saving care. This was compounded by the fact that obesity rates were higher among the poor already, which put them at greater risk for UES.
This culminated in a march on the nation’s capital on April 29th, 2015. The original plan called for a rally at the Lincoln Memorial. Tens of thousands would meet at the mall to hear a lineup of speakers discuss the ways in which the crisis was unequally affecting the poor. Everything was supposed to be peaceful.
The Stark Report ruined all of that. This was an analysis performed by Stanford statistician Douglas Stark which showed that of the deaths so far attributed to the crisis, seventy-five percent had occurred among lower and middle class Americans. Only five percent of the victims had come from upper class households. The study was released the day before the march.
Even on the morning of the gathering there was no indication of the bloodshed to come. It began peacefully, as protestors crowded onto the mall in an orderly fashion. Several speakers pontificated and went without disturbance.
As the day dragged on, however, the crowd grew restless. By the time famed television doctor and best-selling author Sanjay Parakesh took the stage, tensions were high. Word of the report had raced through news and social media networks. Furthermore, attendees had been standing in eighty-degree heat for hours, and planners for the march had not acquired nearly enough toilets to serve them.
All of the previous speakers had been advocates for the poor. Parakesh was supposed to provide an interlude which focused on proper dietary habits. While improved healthcare for the poor was the main focus of the rally, organizers realized that it would not come instantly, and that in the meantime the disadvantaged would have to rely on diet and exercise to save themselves.
Parakesh had scarcely begun explaining the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats when the crowd began to boo. The doctor was seen as patronizing, his effort to talk about nutrition instead of economic inequality as tacitly supporting the status quo. His considerable wealth and profile when compared to the other speakers also earned the crowds’ enmity—Parakesh was perceived as belonging to the same elite that benefitted so much from the stratification of the American healthcare system.
In truth these allegations were quite unfair. Not only had Parakesh donated generously to the underprivileged in the past, he had on many occasions criticized the nation’s healthcare system, both before and after The Event began. It did not matter. Chants of displeasure filled the air. Interspersed with the ever-loudening chorus of boos came words of curse and personal attacks on Parakesh.
In the planning stages of the event, no one seriously considered that the lives of the speakers would be in danger. Most of the speakers, after all, sympathized with the crowd. All the security was relegated to patrolling the crowd, and quashing any disturbances that might arise between the rally goers.
As a result, they were totally unprepared when three adult males clambered atop the stage and seized Parakesh. Security personnel tried desperately to reach the stage but the throng pushed them back. One man held the doctor’s arms behind his back while the other two grabbed either side of his face. The chants grew louder and louder as security was swarmed and pinned to the ground. The two men began to pull at Parakesh’s face. 35-year-old Sanjay Parakesh, still restrained from behind, let out a piercing scream of terror and then, in the words of veteran reporter Creighton Wallace, “his face was almost completely torn off.” Each of the men came away with one half, and simultaneously held it over his head like a trophy. Their accomplice released Sanjay, who fell to the ground howling and thrashing in an ever-widening pool of face blood.
A hush fell over the crowd. For a few seconds all anyone could hear were the gargled screams of Parakesh as he called out for his many-armed God. Then the crowd let out a roar of approval. Any security guards who remained upright were subdued. Angry activists spilled out in all directions. By the end of the day the Department of Agriculture was in flames and rioting had spread to New York, Los Angeles, and virtually every other major and midsize city in the country.
Space does not permit a minute chronicling of the riots here. A more exhaustive history can tell of the fighting. However, a few examples give one an idea of the unique character of the disturbances:
–In Chicago a prominent business couple known for flaunting their plastic surgery procedures were force fed bacon until they exploded.
–In Philadelphia half a dozen anarchists covered themselves in human fat stolen from a medical waste disposal center and set themselves on fire as a form of protest.
–In Little Rock, Arkansas three plastic surgeons were forced to undergo the same unlicensed liposuction surgeries as the poor. One died of sepsis in the days afterward.
The first and third incidents were frighteningly common during the riots. Hundreds of those on both the giving and receiving ends of plastic surgery met their deaths that day. This was in addition to the looting, arson, and settling of old scores that inevitably accompanies all uprisings.
Three days later the National Guard and the military had restored peace in most cities. Hundreds of law enforcement officials and thousands of civilians lay dead. Property damage climbed into the billions of dollars, centered mostly on purveyors of unhealthy food. Rioters had raided supermarkets, hauling the poisonous merchandise out into the parking lot and lighting it ablaze in huge bonfires that would tax already overworked fire departments around the country. Billboards of offending companies were torn down and ripped apart. Fast food restaurants were annihilated.
President Tacklebox recognized urgency of the moment and seized it. In a television address to the country that night, he started off by condemning the rioters and reaffirmed the need for the rule of law. After this he began his message of reconciliation:
However it must be said that when so great a segment of the public, across so great a geography, decides that the answer to their problems lies outside the law that we have failed as a nation.
The president continued ruminating on the events preceding the riots. While commending the DOH for a quick response to the catastrophe, he admitted the failure of his administration to address the grievances of the needy. “We overlooked a crucial segment of the population,” he somberly intoned, “and for that I apologize.”
He closed the speech by announcing the Lipo Lottery, which would provide vouchers to randomly selected people who needed the procedure but were unable to pay. The program would officially be called the Randomized Surgical Intervention Initiative, but most referred to the plan by its common and more alliterative name.
Though the announcement was met with skepticism by some, most applauded it. Polls showed that seventy-five percent of the country supported the measure. There were no more riots.
Then people stopped exploding. The Department of Health had required that physicians report all UES incidents to them so they could keep accurate records. Over time they noticed a tapering off. The last incident was reported on June 15th, 2015.
On June 29th in another televised address, Tacklebox told America that no one had exploded, ruptured, or even fingered for a full two weeks. He went on to applaud the DOH and CDC for their efforts, and paid tribute to medical professionals around the country.
He ended the speech by urging Americans to maintain their healthy lifestyles, even if the incidents had apparently ended for good. “The short-term danger may be gone,” he reminded them, “but the threat of heart disease, high blood pressure, and type two diabetes remains.”
It was a measured statement by a person in a position of authority. Nobody cared. In every town and city in the country parties were held where participants gorged themselves on fatty entrees and high-calorie desserts. The sight of an entire pig being roasted was not unusual. Revelers in New York City bit into raw sticks of butter as they mobbed Times Square. Millions ate until physically ill, including a large crowd in Milwaukee who skinned and deep fried an entire cow.
Just as aisles of diet products and health foods had run barren only a year earlier, the paltry displays of chicken wings and frozen pizza and soda pop were inundated. Supplies soon ran out. Many a clever entrepreneur bought up every hot dog at their local grocery store and sold them on the street for as much as ten times their normal price.
Perhaps no one was as joyous as employees of the junk food industry, many of whom were called back to work that evening. A photo of a cheese manufacturer shooting milk from a cow’s udder up into the air only to catch it triumphantly in his mouth graced the front page of the Burlington Herald the next morning; it would become an iconic photo of the time, still reprinted and parodied years later, much like the famous picture of marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima.
Thousands flocked to Louisville on July 20th, 2015 for that year’s pie-eating contest. The crowd was more than triple its usual size on the perfect summer day. Not only was every major TV station and newspaper there, presidential candidate Clancy Pickens had stopped by to be the announcer.
Pickens stood 6′ 4” and had a natural, easy-going charm. With skin as tan and smooth as calfskin leather, he seemed like the kind of person who would go out of his way to help your grandmother across the street. When the former car salesman and current governor of Idaho spoke, everyone listened. Tacklebox’s handling of the crisis had proved unpopular, and Pickens hoped to unseat him the following year.
The contest was set to begin in ten minutes. The grounds were packed. Spectators shuffled between a seemingly limitless array of food stands. Many carried bottles filled to the brim with gravy, which they drank as though it was water. By the end of the day dozens of attendees would collapse due to over-eating, their bodies lying spread eagle on the ground like corpses in a zombie movie.
Optimism even pervaded their attire. Little girls tied bows of freshly cooked bacon in their hair. Survivors wore shirts with slits down the sides, proudly displaying their scars. Everywhere fairgoers could be seen carrying flags emblazoned with 7432, the number of Americans who had died during The Event.
Pickens leaned in and spoke into the microphone. “Hi there.” And as he began to speak everyone turned to listen:
You know, we’ve been through some hard times in this country lately. But you know something, my friends, we didn’t back down. Oh no we didn’t lie like a dog with our tail between our legs because America doesn’t back down. Because America is not a dog. America is a bull.
The applause was thunderous. Children covered their ears. Cats stopped licking themselves. Pickens gesticulated to the crowd, conducting them like an orchestra. Only when the cacophony had fully ceased, his salt-and-pepper hair and crystal blue eyes again leaned towards the microphone:
America perseveres. America triumphs. America has always been and will always be the best country in the world and if it’s alright with you I’d like to sing a little song to remind us of that.
And then, dear lord, he began to sing. He belted out the first bars of “God Bless America” with the warm baritone of an angel. The crowd quickly joined in. By the end of the first verse everyone on the grounds was crying openly. Three thousand webbed wrists shot into the air to wave their memorial flags in unison. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, pies were cooling on the competition stage and on windowsills all over the country. The entire crowd and the millions watching at home knew that one thing above all else was true: it was a great day to be an American.
 The CDC wanted to call it hyper-distended epithelial disorder, which the DOH thought showed a complete lack imagination. The CDC is actually part of the DOH, but they have their own views on public relations.
 Perhaps surprisingly, skin retained its ability to heal during the entirety of The Event.
 This was the somewhat ill-conceived term the CDC came up with to describe the finger-like projections of fat suffered by some; the DOH remained silent on this one.
 All this fat being sucked out of peoples’ bodies led to an interesting side business where human fat was sold to the poor to be used as candles to light their homes, thus saving on electricity costs; unfortunately the limitations of space do not allow this article to discuss the phenomenon further.
Dennis is a microbiologist and Rochester native. He likes cats.