Quaker Oats

Merak Alosa
For ‘The Clock’

The back of the car smelled of vinegar. Cold air, filtering through a back window that refused to close all the way, gave the unpleasant smell a sharp crispness, but did nothing to dissipate it. Shapes moved in the two front seats. Large, blocky, anonymous. A Quaker Oats canister perched high atop a kitchen cabinet, out of reach, blankly staring with a mocking, cherubic smile painted between its rosy cheeks came to mind; nothing after that. The bumps in the road, they must be driving on dirt now, judging by the pinging of small stones that bounced off of the car’s body, could be felt in his bones- each one a jolt to the whole system. He didn’t know where they were taking him, and didn’t really care. It was all the same. Whether they shot him out in some abandoned sandpit, or blasted him from a 20mph roll while he watered the flowers in his front yard, made no difference. 

They drove for hours. He was only conscious for bits and pieces, or maybe the whole thing. Time wasn’t stitched together like it should be; threads dangled from the coat, each one being pulled in a different direction. Whose coat was it? His? His wife’s? A stranger? One of the shapeless forms in the front seat? Someone, anyone, no one. 

Warm air. The vinegar smell was gone, replaced with flowers and fresh cut grass. He felt like he was submerged underwater, his clothes heavy, soaked through. There was a voice in the distance, getting closer and more distinct. He couldn’t place it, but felt its familiarity. Another sound framed the other one, a siren of some kind. Someone was shaking him, pulling him from beneath the lake and back onto dry land. 

More clarity now; the scene around him beginning to take shape. He could see his small house from the bed of the ambulance. His wife Marie standing off to the side, in the lawn; the sprinkler system blasting his abandoned ride-along mower. He hoped it wasn’t damaged. A man in an EMT uniform was asking him questions that he couldn’t make out, but they kept him tethered to consciousness. The doors closed; the house vanished; Marie shouted something about meeting them at the hospital. 

In a vehicle once again, this time a sealed chamber of clinical white, another memory bubbled up from within his subconscious, just barely breaching the surface before receding back into the murk. He thought about an image he’d seen in one of his daughter’s dinosaur books- a stegosaurus struggling, futility, to escape a simmering tar pit. The EMT was still talking; he felt a prick in his arm. 

In a hospital bed now, shuddering under the thin gown despite the unbearable heat. Marie was there with the kids, holding a bouquet of flowers from the company with a note attached that read, “Get Well Soon, Chief!” A handful of careless signatures surrounded the words. 

“They’re saying it’s possible you had a stroke, but they can’t find any evidence of it on the scans.” Marie said, the kids were gone, possibly at his mother’s. Marie had stayed the night, slumped over on a lightly cushioned hospital chair. He didn’t remember sleeping at all. “You gave yourself a concussion falling out of the mower, but that’s it.”

He felt the bandages on his head, constricting his thoughts. 

“I don’t know, dear” he replied, feeling very far away. 

“They’re saying it might be psychological, is everything alright at work?” Marie said. Tears began to brim in her bright hazel eyes. “Is everything alright at home, with us? I didn’t feel you getting into bed last night, searched the house and couldn’t find you. The car was still in the driveway, same as last week.” 

“I really don’t know, everything is going well” He said, truthfully. Nothing was coming to mind except suggestions- places and shapes he didn’t recognize, like they came from a dream. The smell of vinegar. 

“You can tell me if there’s someone else. We can work through it. I just want you to be honest with me Bill.” Marie said. She moved closer, leaning out of her chair. 

“There’s nobody, nobody at all….” he replied, thinking of the shapes in the car. Was it a car? He couldn’t remember.

“I’ll let you rest.” Marie said, sighing. “I’ll be back tomorrow after work. I love you Bill.” 

“Love you too, dear…” he replied, watching her walk out of the room. 

The next morning, he thought, a doctor stood above him holding a clipboard. Another half-memory batted its eyes before drifting back to sleep, sinking away. Sourceless dread prickled along his body. 

“So, good news first.” The doctor said, a much younger man than he had assumed upon first impression. “Everything seems to be in order cerebrally, and we can’t detect anything out of the ordinary other than slightly above average blood pressure, so this was probably brought on by stress.” 

The doctor waited a few moments for a response but didn’t receive one. He cleared his throat. 

“That brings me to the bad news. We discovered something, an object, in your sphincter. It didn’t show up on the initial x-ray, but luckily one of our technicians recommended a second go at it. It’s small, very small, but we’re going to have to bring you into surgery. I don’t know if it’s the cause of your accident, but nobody wants an unidentified object in their sphincter.” The doctor said with a small chuckle. 

Another shudder. He didn’t know how to respond, but a small voice inside him piped up for him, insisting that nothing was out of the ordinary, that he’d always had a small object lodged in his sphincter, and he chose to believe it. 

“Surgery sounds expensive.” He replied, trying to make out the contours of the doctor’s skull beneath his skin. 

“Well, yes, your insurance isn’t great.” The doctor said, making a show of looking at his clipboard. “But I would really recommend surgery. It would border on malpractice if we let you walk- excuse me, be wheeled out of here- without discovering what this is.” 

The voice chirped in his ear. It’s fine, let them take it out. There will be more. The thought comforted him, some of the terror began to dissipate. 

“Ok, sure.” He replied. 

The doctor left the room. 

Later, he awoke once again. It had to be evening. Dim hospital lights lit everything in the room except for a deep pool of shadow in the corner that they could not seem to penetrate. More flowers by his bedside, this time the note had a heart on the front. Must be from Marie. A small glass canister sat by the vase. Inside was a small black ball, no bigger than a Lima bean. Lima beans… Lima beans… his mother’s kitchen. 

“This must be the object” he thought, startling himself. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a thought that felt organically generated, straight from within himself. “How odd… to have that inside of me…” Then, an internal voice slightly divergent from his own “no, not odd, totally fine and normal.” So trustworthy; comforting, that voice. 

He allowed the morphine-drip to lull him back to sleep. 

They sat across from each other at the kitchen table. The canister, his name scribbled on the label in familiarly doctor-like fashion, sat in the middle. Marie had cleaned off the entire table; removing the family picture that acted as a centerpiece, the fresh-flowers, and even the checkered tablecloth. He didn’t know if she had done this to emphasize the importance of the object and remove distractions, he had been distracted lately, or if she shuddered with horror at the thought of this alien intruder coming into contact with the pleasant ephemera of their lives; tainting all that they had constructed over years of domestic bliss. 

“The doctors don’t know what it is,” She said, glancing at the canister and the pebble inside. “They recommended we take it to a specialist.” 

He stared at some dust particles that hung, illuminated by the light, in the doorframe behind her. Little golden, glowing orbs, falling and rising; another half-memory. 

“Bill, are you listening to me Bill?” She said. 

“Yes dear, I’m listening. I just feel overwhelmed. Like I need to sleep for ten years.” He replied, attempting a short laugh that came out more like a wheeze. 

“I know, I know. I don’t mean to push, I’m worried just about you. About us. The kids have been nervous around you since you got back.” She said. “And what if you just vanish again, disappear until morning like last time? It’s not safe, Bill. You’ve never sleep-walked before…” 

“I know, I should go see someone.” He said. “You will never see anyone”, the small voice replied. 

“I‘ll make some calls, a therapist maybe. I wish we could afford more tests.” She replied, sighing. “You need to call your boss, or anyone at the company. They’re worried about you, talking about how you might not be fit to work. We can’t lose that income.” 

“I will.” He said. The room was still. 

Later that night, laying in bed beside a sleeping Marie, he stared out the window at the stars; making connections between the points of light. He didn’t want to fall asleep, but felt exhausted to his core. “What’s wrong with me?” he thought. “Nothing. I see you, I hear you, you are valid,” the voice replied, softly. It was soothing, and he no longer felt afraid. He closed his eyes.