"You weighted one-hundred and sixty pounds. You were five slugs."
The voice oscillates like gravel falling to earth, and as it falls silent a balance realigns. His eyes snap open, he feels his heartbeat as if for the first time, sharp, irregular, and he sees an old woman in orange robes typing something into her smartphone. He gasps for air. Slowly, her gaze shifts from the phone to his own. She stares at his eyes as though they were computer screens.
"Quintus tardus. I do hope that's proper Latin. You can never tell with these online dictionaries, you see. All they can guarantee is mostly right. I'm going to call you Quint; I'll know what it stands for."
"Who are you?" he asks, breaking eye contact and coughing slightly. Each breath is conscious, the air burning his lungs.
"Searching for answers isn't the same as it used to be," mutters the old woman, almost inaudibly. Her gaze is back on her phone. Her face is wrinkled. The walls are white. His nose feels clogged.
"Who are you?" He repeats, sitting up in his bed. The covers fall off his body. His robes are blue. She tilts her head towards him like a bird, or perhaps a child. "Are you a doctor? A monk?" His own voice, scratched, raw, distorted.
"Neither," she says. "I'm a psychologist," she adds. An afterthought.
He stares up into the soft fluorescent lights until he closes his eyes. He hears footsteps, a door opening.
In the upper-right corner of his right eye a red spot glows; different from the red of light that filtered through the eyelids. More real. With his eyes open it persists, exists, drifting lazily in and out of his peripheral vision. Could he distinguish between a fault of the eye and a fault of the brain? Could he feel it? The old woman is nowhere to be seen. He dreamed she muttered in his ear as he slept, poisoning his thoughts, fogging his memory. After thought, he thought, comes the afterthought, and before thought, the afterthought. No beginning, no end. His mind relaxes, drifts.
The old woman stops by with a loaf of bread and a bottle of water. She closes the door behind her. He has no strength, but when she hands him a slice of bread his hands feed him and when she gives him the bottle he nearly drowned himself. This bottle will outlast me, he thinks, scientifically. How I feel is how I think, he decides. The way she watches him is familiar, as if she knows what to expect of him. As if he knows what to expect of her. But sensation is fallible. The blade of the bread knife is jagged like waves. When she wields it, the knife is an extension of her arm. His thoughts are as syrup, forming chains and trains with no forward momentum, contained, trapped, twisting and looping like boomerangs, ellipses.
"I don't wear socks, so I want you to call me Socks," said the old woman. "Easy to remember, right?"
"You don't wear socks?"
"What else can you remember?"
"I don't know," he told her. She shook her head. "I'm serious," he said, he wanted to laugh at the impossibility of explanation. "I really can't."
"Can you remember your dreams?"
"My dreams?" Bits and pieces, currents and eddies. Drifting.
"Tell me about your dreams, Anton." Her voice reverberated.
"Weren't you going to call me Quint?" In his dream, she called him Anton.
"I felt like being formal."
"What kind of psychologist are you?"
"Can you tell me why I'm here?"
"Why are you here?"
"So I'm crazy."
"You're not crazy."
As silence fills the room, his energy ebbs, his attention fades.
"Home," he tells her.
"Don't worry, you sound better already," the psychologist tells him. "You almost died, you know." She pulls a tin of chewing tobacco out of her robes then shakes the tin violently. She twists the top of the tin open, daintily grasped a generous portion between her index finger and thumb, and packed her lip. All things, he thought, must happen in a certain order.
"Oh!" she smacks the tin against her forehead. "Clean forgot, be right back." Had she replaced the top of the tin? She must have. The psychologist left the room, leaving the door open behind her. He stares into the hallway. It stretches out, not quite infinite. He closes his eyes. What would it mean, to see infinity? Nothing is infinite, he thought. An illusion. Except absence. Absence was a void, infinity was the void. Everything and nothing, the same thing? The clarity of the senses defied logic. The bed is plain and wooden, the mattress firm against his back. The sheets are clean, but his body reeks of sweat. He recognizes the floral wallpaper. White flowers on white background. Hard on the eyes, he had said. In his dream there is a younger voice, and red sand in the breeze that forces the eyes shut.
He rises to his feet and starts towards the open door. He needs to use the bathroom, he realizes. He doesn't step into the hallway. He sniffs: the hallway smells sterile enough to be a hospital. What does my room smell like? he wonders, briefly. A truly white corridor: marble floors and painted wooden doors adorned with whiteboards. The markers have black caps. No erasers. But he can use his hands to wipe the board clean, he remembers. Or a sponge, with water.
He can't remember where the bathroom is. Slugs, she'd said. A psychologist? There was more to him than quantity. What did she want from him? Help is all people ever want from each other, he decides. But what was help? Infinite, relative. None of it mattered. He crosses his legs, shaking himself gently from side to side.
He closes his eyes. The world is silent, the air still, and he is pure sensation, a being of feeling, a network of electricity. The thought of death is impossible, too terrible, a welcome distraction. He hears footsteps echoing in the hallway, then a door closing. His door. He opens his eyes. There weren't any windows in his room. Perhaps he'd noticed before and forgotten, then noticed he'd forgotten before forgetting he noticed. Moments pass, one after the other, memory illustrating, time illuminating. If I could live forever, he thought, I wouldn't need to remember anything. An eternal moment.
The old woman hands him a bottle of Dr. Pepper.
"This stuff gives you cancer," he tells her, struggling to twist off the cap. "Besides, I need to piss." Grasping the cap between his fingers takes more effort than it should. The visual effect is not unlike watching a stranger's hands, and he would have laughed had he not remembered how it felt to be stronger, although, on reflection, if he hadn't remembered he would have had no reason to laugh. Suddenly the cap is off and he's pouring the soda down his throat. It burns, and he coughs. His mouth tastes of metal. Another door had been hidden behind the open door to the hallway. As he realizes its significance, a current runs through his body.
The old woman sees Quint staring and, taking the soda bottle from his hand with one hand, opens the hidden door with other. A tiled floor, a sink, shower curtains reflected in the mirror, and a white porcelain toilet. She enters the bathroom and upends the bottle over the sink, dark liquid cascading like a waterfall. All things make him think of the same thing, he realizes. She spits brown into the dregs of the bottle.
"Try to get yourself together," she tells him. "I'm not sure how much longer we can stay here."
"Could you get out of the bathroom?" he asked her.
She nods. "The self comes first," she intones cryptically, and as she leaves, she closes the hidden door behind her. I can know she was there, he thought, because I am here. He forgets her quickly.
Days have passed, he knows. Clarity is hard won and brief, and moments had a way of stretching into one another. After seven days of abstinence, a man's testosterone levels increase dramatically. Memories come to him quite suddenly, sometimes. When needed, he tells himself. There had been a medical study, but the undertone was religious. The eyelids shine red. So many moments in a day. The light flickers on and off; it seems continuous. The world is how you see it, and that's the truth. The truth of truth was inherently uncertain, he knew. Experience, however, had given him a sense of continuity. An identity. What he controlled was what he was. And there were many parts to Quint. There was more to him than quantity. There was an order. Things started to make sense, one after the other.
The silence had changed; the old woman had been speaking. If I noticed when she stopped speaking, he thinks, then I must have known she was speaking even if I didn't think about it. It wasn't necessary to think about the things you know, he knew.
"Where am I?" he asks her. She smiles.
"Don't worry. I'm going to show you." She stands, and he's drawn to his feet by the movement. She doesn't like being ignored, he thinks, or maybe she'd answered that question for me before. He feels as though they are on different wavelengths, even if he doesn't know why. They leave the room. The hallways are identical, and then they arrive at an elevator. The doors open, then close. He'd been on floor four, relatively speaking. The sinking feeling faded once the elevator stopped accelerating.
"Poetic. Pathetic. Pneumatic. Mnemonic." Four, three, two, one. Another sensation; deceleration.
"Alliteration, inflation, degradation, pertaining to the soul, or air or ... a woman's bust." He looks at the old woman, having forgotten she was there. She taps her phone twice. "A way to remember," she tells him. Does she depend on the phone, he wonders, or does the phone depend on her? Different wavelengths. Doors opening, closing.
A final hall, lined wall to wall with shoes. A hat stand, wooden, a single blue baseball cap perched on it. The logo on the cap was of a bat wearing a patriotic top hat. But a bat with a hat on a cap is not the kind of hat, nor bat, that would perch. Perhaps it rested. Semantics. Idleness can only lead to abstraction, he thought, but in the process something is lost. Clarification, he thought, is taking away. Distinction. Detraction. Classification. Objectification. A means of making sense of it all.
She opens the door outwards and the sunlight is blinding. Suddenly, his vision is replaced with a terrible blackness and he trembles, the floorboards cool beneath him, his face hot. Did even sunlight flicker? The red sun lingers in his cortex, the right side of his vision.
A man lifts Quint to his feet. The air is dark and cool.
"Let's get in the car," says the old woman, barely visible in the starlight.
"You okay?" asks the man. What did it mean to look sincere? Unforced. Effortless. When to trust and who to trust: a sincere mind had no need to make distinctions.
"I'm fine," says Quint. As his eyes adjust, he realizes he is standing not too far off from the front of a black car. Had he been blinded by its headlights? The question seems to obvious to ask aloud. The man gets in the driver's seat, and the old woman insists that Quint sit up front. She lies down comfortably in the back. Together, they drive into the darkness, the headlights bright against the moonless sky. One car, one direction, he thinks. One planet, one rotation. He drifts.