Grace Merritt almost choked to death on a Saturday morning, roughly 2 a.m. She awoke to a burning anger in her stomach, a sharp twisting feeling that felt as though her innards were looping into bloody knots. Ignoring it and falling back to sleep was not an option—vomiting was inevitable. She had been experiencing an awful sore throat for the past two days; this would surely make it worse. Semi-sluggishly, she forced her body out of bed and awkwardly stumbled into the bathroom. Her knees dropped to the linoleum tiles. She bent over the bowl and stared down its watery throat.
Tears flushed her eyes red. What had started as an uncomfortable aching abruptly rose to a cataclysmic wave of agony. Breathing became difficult and then—within the same second—impossible. Panic erupted like a box of firecrackers inside of her. An obstruction of some kind was harshly pushing up her esophagus. Sweat washed over her. She choked out a few horrid croaking noises. Her nails scratched and bent into the white ceramic edges. The obstruction was cutting—excavating—the walls of her throat as it continued its horrible climb. Her lungs screamed furiously for air. She forced two fingers passed her uvula and prodded the back of her throat in a desperate attempt to force out the blockage.
Finally, in a miraculous effort, the foreign obstruction came loose. Blood and stomach acid filled the toilet bowl followed by a loud plop. She sputtered out a few desperate breaths of phlegm and relief. The pain in her throat could only be described as razor blades coated with salt scraping their way up her windpipe. Once most of her wits were finally reorganized, she brushed away her black hair and peered into the tainted water. Beneath the floating layer of the unspeakable matter was an object, oval-shaped and sitting at the bottom of the bowl.
It looked like a pocket watch.
“Mmm,” hummed Dr Parley with one hand managing the depressor over Grace’s tongue while the other shined a light into her gullet. Despite the late hours and abrupt appointment call, his demeanor didn’t waver.
“Mmm,” he hummed again. “No doubt your throat’s been through a rough beating. And you have no recollection of the object?”
“Not at all,” she muttered in a hoarse bruised voice. “I don’t—mmph!— I don’t own anything like it.” She stared vacantly at the counter where the plastic bag holding the pocket watch was. Its golden case was slightly discolored and blemished with bodily stains. Blue alloy hands ticked effortlessly over its Roman numerals. The bow was slightly dented, probably from being forcibly dragged up her throat.
A section of her drained thoughts was still convinced they were asleep. From a dream standpoint, this all seemed more plausible. Only in a dream would you vomit out a pocket watch. Only in a dream would you scoop it out of the toilet and put it in a plastic bag. Outside of a dream, she was just crazy. Could it have something to do with her disorder?
Oh, don’t worry, you are crazy, the hollow voice in her hollow head chimed.
Not only was her usual doctor gone, but her husband was also. The only one she truly needed right now.
“Have you ever had a history of swallowing hazardous inedible things, possibly even in your sleep?” Dr. Parley asked.
She shook her head solemnly, adjusting her thin glasses as she did so.
The doctor gave a cursory glance over his papers. A crease of loose skin twitched under his deep-set eyes. “It says here you were diagnosed with the onset of schizophrenia not too long ago.”
“Yes,” she croaked. “Six years ago, I think.”
“Right, right,” the doctor muttered, tapping the pen against his chin crinkles. “It’s possible they could be related; it’s also possible they couldn’t be. For now, all we can focus on is the solution. There will no doubt be some pain from the swollen tissue in your throat while the esophagus repairs itself. We’ll write you a prescription for the pain, and if there are no signs of improvement in a week, then we’ll bring you in and run some tests. I recommend you focus solely on softer foods that’ll go down easier. Also, if you aren’t a smoker, now would be an awful time to start. If something like this occurs again, then come back in and let us know.”
“Thank you,” Grace said, clearing her throat gruffly.
“One more thing,” he said as he pinched the plastic baggy and held it up. “What would you like to do with this?” The unearthly thing stared back at her, ticking away in its plastic prison.
“I’ll keep it for now. Maybe if I can find out where—mmmph!—it came from, it will hopefully prove I haven’t lost my mind.”
Dr. Parley chuckled at this. “Who hasn’t these days?”
Grace paced back and forth, from the kitchen to the living room, with the phone firmly against her skull. She didn’t know the time, nor did she care. All she wanted was to hear Waylon’s voice instead of these insufferable ringtones. Maybe he’d know what happened; her husband always had a thing for collecting antiques. That wouldn’t explain how it ended up in the toilet bowl, of course, but anything at this rate would be better than sitting in the chasm of unanswered questions. Right now, his voice would be enough to get her fix.
The pocket watch was lying on the kitchen table, ticking away its guts of cogs and springs. The fact that it was still working fine made her feel that it was mocking her. It was like she had been unconsciously thrust into a Twilight Zone episode. “Once the watch stops, so will your heart!” the narrator reads from the teleprompter.
“Hello?” Waylon’s voice answered.
“Hi,” she rasped hastily. The painkillers had done their job for the most part, but every so often, another fractal surge of pain would fire off. “Can you hear me okay?”
“Jeez, is this Grace or The Dark Lord?” Waylon muttered with some garbled feedback of him shifting positions on the other end. “You sound sick as a dog.”
“Mostly in the head,” Grace sighed while her fingers kneaded her temples.
“What’s going on?”
She bit the chapped skin on her bottom lip. “Something happened, something I don’t know how I’m going to explain to you. Please don’t think I’m crazy.”
“Spit it out,” his voice persisted.
Yes, go on and tell him, tell him about what you coughed up hours ago. I’m sure he’ll understand that Mrs Merritt is off her rickety rocker, the hollow voice hissed. But she had to tell him—no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Something like this could not be held in the cerebral vault. Eventually, it would gnaw its way out like flesh-hungry bacteria.
But this was her husband, the man she answered yes to on that rainy afternoon in the park. Even as he knelt there drenched and freezing, his smile was brighter than the diamond ring on her finger. He was the one she’d spend the rest of her life with. Three months from now would be their ten-year mark. That alone was quite a milestone nowadays, but what made it even more special was the fact that they’d never argued or fought before. How many couples kept those bragging rights? He’d understand. He always understood.
“I’m going to send you a picture.”
“A picture of what exactly?”
“Just wait. Tell me if you recognize this. Promise me, okay?”
“Alright, I promise,” Waylon responded with some hesitance as Grace tapped her screen and sent the attachment over. His phone vibrated on the other end. “What is this, a watch?”
“Yes. Do you recognize it at all … even slightly?” Nervousness carried her voice.
Waylon shuffled on his end again. “Not at first glance. What is this about?”
She collapsed on the couch. The tether of sanity she desperately clung to was thinning, becoming more and more intangible. Right back to the chasm, right back to square fucking one.
“It came out of my stomach.” The words oozed out bitterly.
“You’re going to need to run that by me again.”
“I puked it up—almost choked to death, too! The doctor had no idea what to tell me. He looked at me like I was crazy. I am, aren’t I?” She ignored the throbbing ring of pain that followed. “I don’t know what to do or think.”
“It’ll be okay,” Waylon said with his signature tenderness.
For a moment, Grace could see his smiling face again. Just the thought gave her tepid warmth. It wasn’t much, but it would sustain her. “Come home soon; I need you here.”
“I know you do. I’ll be back tomorrow night, so it won’t be long. We’ll figure this out together, just like we always do. Now get some sleep, okay?”
“Okay,” she replied pitifully and sighed. “I love you.”
“Love you, too, Gracey.”
The queen-sized bed had never felt emptier. Grace managed to get two or three hours of sleep but inevitably kept waking up. Every glob of saliva she swallowed awakened a fresh coat of hot pain. Her stomach churned and ached irritably. Just the distant thought of vomiting again felt worse than death. Maybe it would be a bigger watch this time. Maybe too big to cough up. Water … she just needed a few sips of water.
She crept lethargically out of bed, put her glasses on, and wandered into the bathroom. The door on its broken jamb closed languidly behind her. They had yet to fix it after Grace had woken up in her sleep a few nights ago, tripped over the throw rug, and slammed right into the doorframe. She still had the shrunken goose egg to prove it, too. Waylon figured that the mishap had been caused by her new prescription of neuroleptics.
Another clenching pain scratched the walls of her stomach. “It’s okay. Everything is always okay,” she comforted herself wearily and sipped some water from the faucet. The tunnel of pain stung and burned its rebuttal.
There was a click at the doorway. Grace shut off the running water and turned toward the door. The knob rattled softly and then fell still. “It’s okay,” she repeated sheepishly. The loss of sleep and rationality must have been getting to her. The knob twisted again, more loudly this time, accompanied by the clunking sound of the lock not releasing.
I’m not a bad person, a voice from the other side spoke to her. Grace covered her ears and sank to the floor with her shoulders against the tub. Open the door. Please …
A loud thump shook the door. The knob jerked back and forth violently and relentlessly.
“It’s okay, it’s o-o-o-kay,” Grace whimpered. Slides of memories began to ransack her brain—the colony of fat rats hiding in her family’s loft, the blood spurting from her sliced finger when she was twelve, the glassy stare of the dead bird her grey cat killed and brought home.
Grace, open the fucking door! the voice screamed as the wood of the door splintered and snapped.
It’s just an episode, her own surviving voice called to her. The door isn’t even locked. (OPEN IT!) Just keep breathing, everything will be okay (I don’t want to hurt you.) Everything is always okay.
The episode lasted for thirty minutes, but to her exhausted brain, it might as well have been days. Remarkably, Grace was able to fall asleep when it finally passed. Her dreams were nothing but vague hallways and ticking chasms. Sometime later, she awoke again, aching and sprawled out in an uncomfortable position. The floor tiles were imprinted on her cheek. She then stood up, took a shower, brushed her teeth, got dressed, took some Seroquel, then started to clean.
That is what she needed to do. Cleaning was the ultimate coping mechanism, or so she had been told all her life. When her grandparents perished in a car accident, Mother cleaned. When their chocolate Lab contracted cancer, Mother cleaned. It was not the worst placebo in the world. Grace never saw her mother cry; when faced with an unexpected circumstance, she’d merely mutter the words: “I best clean.”
And that is just what Grace did as the sun rose. She mopped the floors, loaded the laundry, vacuumed, dusted the deep crevices of every nook and cranny, unloaded and folded the laundry, and ignored the pocket watch sitting on the kitchen counter. The mantra wasn’t a lie—she did feel better. It felt as if that fleeting touch of control was within reach again. The last thing left to do was clean out the bedroom closet.
As she began to empty everything out and rest it on her bed, she came across her box of receipts—another habit adopted from Mother Dearest. Nowadays, she only used it for expensive transactions; it was a safe bet in a world of rip-off artists. Waylon never took an interest in it himself. One of the top pieces of thermal paper caught her eye. She picked it up and stared at it. She didn’t stop staring at it for some time. The raw, irritated sheet in her throat pulsed. Her heart rate increased dramatically.
GAITSKELL’S WATCH SERVICES
HNTR POCKET Total (Including Tax) —– $350.67
She sat heavily on the bed, eyes glued to the small piece of paper. The date printed on it was from two days ago—Waylon’s birthday. Had it been a gift for him? No, that wouldn’t make sense. If she had bought it for him on his birthday, how did it end up in her stomach? What backward crazy shit linked point A to point B? Come to think of it; she couldn’t remember what they had done for Waylon’s birthday. The depths of her tangled bits of memory held nothing related to dinner arrangements, cake, or even the purchase of the gift itself. She clearly hadn’t forgotten about it; the date was evidence of that, wasn’t it? It was a lead—albeit, a vaguely aggravating one—but a lead, nonetheless. She pocketed the receipt and grabbed her car keys.
The hanging bell on the shop door chimed.
“Be right with you!” the man working the counter greeted her before returning to his current customer.
Grace nodded to him and browsed the wares. The shop was fairly small but had a plethora of glass cases containing jewelry, including rings and all manner of watches. She was hoping that perhaps something there would prod a memory awake.
“Sorry for the wait,” the man apologized as he approached her. He was heavyset and wore a formal, button-up red shirt and black dress pants. The nametag on his shirt said RANDY. “How can I help you?”
“I was hoping you could help me with a sort of odd question I have,” Grace said, rolling her shoulders back uncomfortably. “I believe I purchased a watch here a few days ago. Do you remember me by any chance?”
“I sure do, Mrs Merritt,” Randy said, flashing an I-love-my-job smile at her. “How does your husband like the watch? Is it causing him any problems?”
Grace’s eyes stared deeply into his. “My husband was with me?”
Randy nodded, giving a semi-speculative look to complement her hollow stare. “He was the one who picked it out.”
“I see,” she replied softly and then thanked him for his time.
“Happy to help.” With a puzzled look plastered on his face, the man waved as Grace turned to leave.
During the drive home, Grace’s thoughts were disconnected. The cell phone resting in her lap had Waylon’s ten digits glaring on the screen, waiting to be dialed. She wanted to put them through but also didn’t.
“Not at all,” Waylon’s voice repeated, bounced, and flopped around in her skull. He didn’t recognize it at all, that’s what he’d said. But he’d picked it out; he’d picked it out for his birthday.
Bubbles congregated and festered in the septic tank inside of her head. Waylon never lied to her—not without a damn good reason, anyway. He wasn’t that kind of man. Was he trying to be funny? No, there was nothing funny about this.
About halfway home, she pulled the car over and wept into the steering wheel. How quickly could someone’s reality change overnight? The reality she was so familiar with felt sucked away, lost to the cosmos. Why was this happening to her?
It was then that an odd feeling came over her. It felt as if her thoughts were being ejected from her skull like a mushroom dispersing its spores. Her brain was empty, yet also full. She was ushered back home. Not by a voice, but by a feeling.
Grace’s body drove the rest of the way home while her mind left any semblance of thought or consciousness in the backseat. She pulled into the driveway and raced through the front door. Without hesitation, she descended on the couch and removed the three pillows and cushions. She unzipped them down to their naked foamy bodies and started to examine them like a pathologist conducting an autopsy. What she was looking for did not cross her mind. Every so often, her neck would jerk back toward the front door. But why?
Here …! A small slit in one of the cushion’s corners. The sight of it alone filled her with pungent anxiety. She felt as though an invisible trip plate were inside the slit waiting to snap her fingers like a rat’s neck. Despite the feeling, she reached a few fingers hesitantly toward the small, narrow cut.
Stay out, it said.
But she did not. Her fingers poked through and felt around its delicate texture. The vivid drowning feeling came back. The pocket watch was still in the kitchen ticking, ticking, ticking away with its horrid springs and gears as if sent from the bowels of Salvador Dalí’s madness.
STAY OUT! the slit screamed, STAY OUT, STAY OUT, STAY OUT!
Something small grazed her fingertip. She pulled it out of the polyurethane fabric. It looked like a black marble with a pupil-like gray center.
It took some searching, but she was able to find an image that looked similar to the object sitting next to the laptop. The image, which resembled a plastic bag filled with black marbles, was attached to a week-old article that had been published by the Daily News under the headline “Clean Slate: Illegal Forget-Me Drug Perplexes Experts.”
At first glance, this drug sweeping through America’s streets may resemble harmless toy marbles, but this could not be further from the truth. It goes by the name “Memory Eater” and, more recently, “Clean Slate.”
“The drug is a highly potent cocktail of synthetic opioids,” Don Crow, Director of Forensic Chemistry at Crewman Chemical, explained. “Whether it is melted and injected, swallowed, or smoked, it does not take a high dosage to wipe users clean of their memories for up to twenty-four hours. We are not yet sure what dosage amounts affect these numbers. Just another ugly head we need to cut off.”
Over the past five months, South Carolina authorities have seized at least 30 batches of Clean Slate statewide, Columbia being a significant problem area.
“We’re still not positive what gives its center that signature gray color,” proclaimed Arthur Gillis, the toxicology program manager at the Lexington state lab. “From sample to sample, we have seen small traces of fentanyl, LSD, and the date rape drug, GBH. Because quantities of ingredients can differ from batch to batch, it’s possible that there are more sedatives added than what we have seen thus far.”
Grace stopped reading. She heard an excessive tapping in the back of her brain, which she soon realized was her finger on the desk. “Clean Slate,” the eater of memories, was hiding inside of her couch. But how had it gotten there? The realization overtook her like a pool of black water starting at her ankles and then rising over her head. The pupil-like gray spot stared back at her; she wouldn’t be surprised if it blinked at this point. Where had Waylon gone? On a business trip, that’s right. How silly of her to forget.
Tires rolled over the driveway. Waylon was home.
The day had already slipped away from her. The couch! He’ll notice everything! Grace mentally screamed as she realized that the moment Waylon strolled in, he’d see the autopsy that she’d performed on the cushions. She quickly shut off the laptop, tucked the marble into her pocket’s deepest pit, and raced into the living room.
The large garage door bellowed as it was hoisted open. He was pulling in now. She forced down the anxiety like a fat pill (or pocket watch) and turned the cushion cases inside out and over her arms. She then grabbed each of them through the case and flipped them around in one shot. The extra-dense foam in the last cushion struggled to fit back into its coverage. Waylon’s car door opened and closed inside the garage. She batted and forced the foam back into the casing and quickly zipped it back up.
“Hey, babe!” Waylon’s voice bounced from the garage entrance. Even now, it still carried that invisible tranquility to which Grace clung so desperately to.
“Hi,” she responded hoarsely from the kitchen sink, where she was washing her hands.
In strolled Waylon with his black duffel bag dangling at his side. He was wearing one of his blue dress shirts, which he’d tucked lazily into his jeans. “Your throat still sounds awful. Has it gotten any better?”
“Hard to tell, but I think so,” Grace responded aridly.
Waylon plopped the duffle bag on the couch and pecked a kiss on her cheek. The stubble on his chin tickled her face.
“Tell you what, I’m going to be sick of driving for a while.” He sighed with relief and wrapped both arms around her waist. His hot breath wafted down her arm as he swayed both their bodies as if in a slow dance to a romantic ballad. His fingers came dangerously close to the marble hiding in her pocket. “What is that?” he asked suddenly.
An anxious bubble filled Grace’s throat. “What is what?”
He unraveled his arms around her waist and moved toward the counter, where the pocket watch sat. “Is that from the picture you sent me the other day?”
Grace’s nerves began to realign themselves while the anxiety-filled bubble shrank for the time being. “Yes, that’s it.”
“Right,” Waylon said, leaning over its ticking body. “What did you say happened again? That you, er, coughed it up?”
She nodded vacantly.
Waylon’s expression turned inquisitive. “How sure are you about that? I mean isn’t that a little—forgive me for this—hard to swallow?”
She adjusted the bridge of her glasses with an index finger. “It isn’t funny. I could have died.” Her response was quiet.
Waylon then swayed both his hands like white flags. “Sorry, sorry, that was uncalled for. But you must admit, it sounds like something from a dream or something. Regardless, shouldn’t we just toss it out?”
Her teeth sank into the tender pink flesh of her tongue. The whirlpool of anger and apprehensive thoughts in her head were starting to sound like a chorus.
Ask him, the ensemble of hollow voices demanded. Ask him everything, and sink this ship!
“Does it look familiar to you at all?” she asked. Now was his chance to come clean; now was his golden absolution.
“Nope. Still, nothing,” Waylon said after a cursory glance as though to humor her. He then went to grab the duffel bag from the couch.
Grace stared at his back in thick bewilderment. The chorus shifted; it now sounded like the consultant at the watch store repeating, He was the one who picked it out. She wanted more than anything to keep prying, but clearly, Waylon had no intention of sharing. An idea then sparked.
“Let’s have some drinks tonight. And I’ll warm up some dinner.”
Waylon turned to her with one of his dark eyebrows raised. “Are you sure that’s a good idea, with your throat and everything?”
“I’ll sip it if I need to, but right now, I could really use a drink.”
Her husband flashed that same signature smile that she’d fallen in love with all those years ago. “Sounds good. Let me just finish unpacking.”
As Waylon scooped up his things from the couch, Grace started to prepare dinner. She warmed up some leftover rotisserie chicken and brought out a bottle of red wine. She poured two-thirds of it into their tulip-shaped glasses. Unconsciously, she had already taken the marble out of her pocket and dangled it over one of them.
What are you doing? her last line of rationality questioned, though it sounded more like a whisper. This is insane. Just go to the police. You have evidence. Tell them everything. Why play this game?
“Answers,” she muttered. When she finally decided to take the step of no return, she realized that her fingers had already let go.
The black sphere had vanished into the red glass and clinked against its base. She stirred it a few times with a spoon, making it clatter around. At first, she was worried that it wouldn’t dissolve properly into the liquid, but it eventually disintegrated. She begged inwardly for there to be no strange flavor or aftertaste. By the time Waylon was finished, she had already prepped the table for them.
He took the seat across from her and started digging in. “Thanks for this, babe,” he said between bites of chicken. His eyes wandered to the wine glasses. “Jeez, feeling parched tonight?”
“I think we could both use it.” She giggled and sipped a little wine. The dryness pulled at the healing walls of her throat, which still burned angrily.
Waylon picked up his glass and slurped down a few swigs. She watched him with a keen attentiveness that she hoped wouldn’t reflect on the surface. His mouth contorted slightly as his tongue dragged over his teeth. The world stood still for a moment. Then he continued cutting into the chicken; no reaction yet. She had no idea how long it would take or what the exact effect would even be, but it was too late to turn back now.
“Honey,” she spoke softly, “what did we do for your birthday?”
He finished chewing and then nodded a few times. “We drank a lot. You were pretty far gone, too; we didn’t even finish the movie we started.” His sentence finished with a jaunty ear-to-ear grin.
Grace cut her food aimlessly. “Did I get you anything?”
A hmph noise escaped his closed chewing gums. “You bought me a cake from the store. Why do I feel like I’m being cross-examined suddenly?”
A cake. Yes, of course, there was a cake. Just like there was a movie. “Oh, right,” Grace mumbled airily. “Silly me. I must have completely forgotten. I’ve forgotten a lot of things lately, haven’t I?”
In that instant, as the last of her words drifted out, a clear shift passed over Waylon’s expression. He rested the silverware gently on the table and looked at her. The light in his eyes—that light with which she had become so familiar—melted into an icy glare. This was not Waylon, but a stranger who was sitting across from her wearing his face.
“What is this really about?” he asked pensively.
A stroke of fear passed over her from that numbing stare. Something was at risk of being overstimulated, something that could even hurt her. For a moment, she felt like recanting and hiding behind the safe shell of consent. But no, that was the Grace that this candy man wearing Waylon’s face wanted to keep—that Grace was isolated from her memories and felt stupid and merry. It was time for answers.
Grace stood up and slammed both palms on the table. The glasses and plates rattled. “What was in the couch cushions?” she forced out.
Her sudden outburst did not provoke a reaction out of him—not yet anyway. “Come again?” he asked, in an almost purposefully vexing tone.
“Enough games!” Her voice split into a harsh, grating sound. “I already know about your stash. Do you want to know how I found it? Honestly, I wish I could tell you. I don’t even know myself. But it was like some sick sense of déjà vu. So, tell me, honey, how was your business trip? Were you just restocking your inventory?”
Despite Grace’s outbursts, Waylon merely sat there with the stranger’s look still embroidered over his face. A few veins bulged from his hand, which rested on the table, but nothing more.
“Are you finished?” he asked sharply. “Or are you going to keep lashing out like a child?”
“Stop dismissing everything!” she shouted through the brilliant point of pain flaring up in her esophagus. Her eyes rolled toward the unmoved pocket watch. “When did you start doing this exactly, around the time I was diagnosed? Do I have Schizophrenia, or has it been a side-effect this whole time?” Still no reaction out of him. “I saved the receipt, you know. I even went to the store and confirmed it myself. Isn’t it a little strange that you don’t recognize a watch that you picked out?”
Chair legs scraped abruptly against the floor. One second, Waylon was sitting, and the next, he had bolted from the table and lurched directly toward her. It happened so quickly that her only reaction was to back away until the wall bumped her spine. Their faces were now an inch or two apart.
“Listen,” he breathed over her like a tiger over its prey, “I love you. Please try to understand that. I admit I am far from the perfect husband, but I do my best to be my best. Sometimes, that isn’t good enough, though. Sometimes, I have cooped up imperfections that chew their way out. Who doesn’t? But losing you because of any of those imperfections would kill me. I’ve made some terrible choices, Grace, but they were for us. So, forgive me! Forgive me for trying to keep what we had ten years ago intact.”
Her hand slapped his face, and the finger-shaped marks left on his cheek flushed red. It was the first time she’d ever hit him. His eyes changed again. They did not reflect anger; this emotion was far more terrifying. His stare turned numb and ghostly, as though he were conscious but not. Suddenly, the world flew off center. She slid down the wall and sprawled on the floor. Her glasses clattered somewhere next to her. The side of her face that he hit pulsed and tightened painfully.
Waylon paced back and forth and then strode away. She could hear him cursing loudly in the next room.
A billowing haze started to fill her skull, amassing like a fat cloud of smog. The pooling haze caused her vision to glaze over, and for a second, she could remember. It was hazy and brief, like fleeting rudimentary images of a dream, but still coherent. Bathroom tiles, pocket watch, locked inside, Waylon screaming, splintering wood. For a moment, she was not the Grace lying on the kitchen floor; she was the Grace she’d forgotten about two days ago before the memories had been slurped away. Clean Slate, pocket watch, out of time, remember. Please, God, remember.
She needed something to remind herself again—something that Waylon couldn’t find. The haze was eating at her thoughts. In one fell swoop, the watch was inside her mouth and forced down her throat in a maelstrom of pain and agony. How she didn’t choke to death was a miracle, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was the result. Maybe it would prompt an X-ray at the hospital, maybe it would come out the back or the front, but she knew she would see it again. And she knew that she would remember.
“—make me do this.” Waylon’s voice sprang back and dispersed the haze. His shoes returned to the room and wandered toward her. Something heavy and filled with little objects rattled. “I’m sorry, Gracey,” he said with a remorseful exhale. “I’m just doing my best. I hope you can understand that.”
The slash of pain on the side of her head made her quiver.
Move, her thoughts nipped. Must move, get the hell out.
She started to pull herself up. Corrosive fear caused her joints to seize up and made concentration difficult. He grabbed the nape of her neck and forced her back to an upright sitting position. Between his thumb and index finger was a familiar black marble. The rest of them were in a tightly wound plastic baggy.
“Open,” he said in a vehement tone.
She shook her head. His fingers dug into her lips, trying to pry her mouth open. She scratched and slapped at his face as hard as she could.
“LISTEN TO ME!” he bellowed as her nails opened up three slits on his cheek. His thumb pushed up her jawbone painfully; his fingertips forced their way relentlessly past her lips. She bit down on them as hard as she could.
Suddenly, his grip loosened, a glazed expression overcame the look of frustration on his face, and he stumbled backward and collapsed into one of the chairs. “What … what did you do?” he asked weakly as he clung to his last strand of awareness.
She stared at her unconscious husband for some time, struggling to cope with the paralysis and corrosive anxiety pooling in her system. I best clean, she thought.
Yes, it was time to clean.
By the time Grace hit Route 50, it was roughly 2 a.m. or so. The vast two-lane stretch of road cut through miles of farmland and pitch-black pastures. It was no wonder one of its nicknames was the “Loneliest Road in America.” Fitting, Grace mused. The neon lights of downtown Reno were now glimmering specks in her side-view mirror. She had no idea how long she’d been driving now, nor did she care very much. Every so often, a pair of headlights (typically trucks) passed by.
“Where are we going?” an exhausted Waylon asked from the backseat. “Where are we going?”
She didn’t answer him an hour ago, and she still wouldn’t now. Eventually, when she felt the need to, they pulled over on the side of the desolate road. The door on Waylon’s side unlocked.
“Get out,” she said hollowly. From the rearview mirror, she could see him staring at her with an almost childlike gape. He smacked his lips uncomfortably. “Now!” she finished, much louder this time.
Waylon popped open his door and stepped over the pebbles and rumble strips.
Before the door even closed behind him, the car lurched forward and returned to the jet-black road. Although there was no way of seeing his shrinking silhouette behind her, Grace still checked every so often. Yet, her foot pressed on the gas with an absurd amount of ease.
Waylon’s cell phone and wallet were tucked away in the glove compartment. All that was left to his name were the clothes on his back and an empty brain of looted memories. She still wasn’t sure how many of those black marbles she forced down his gullet, how many actually reached the stomach or just melted away in his mouth. He could have overdosed, but she didn’t it even consider it then—or now. It didn’t really matter; she got the result she wanted. The bastard didn’t just forget the past few hours—he forgot everything! Like a child lost in a supermarket. She wondered how long he’d have to wait for someone to spot him hitchhiking on the side of the road like a ghost. God knows, it would all come back to her eventually, just like it would to him. Probably. The universe was funny like that. Fucking hilarious.
In spite of all that, she still felt nothing. Any pinprick of concern was left in the backseat, crammed between the anxiety and restlessness. For the time being, all she had to do was drive. For the time being, her slate was clean.
This story previously appeared in Michael Paige Fiction.
Edited by Marie Ginga
My work has been included in a few literary magazines such as The Furious Gazelle and The Scarlet Leaf Review as well as a few anthologies for Savage Realms Press, Crimson Pinnacle Press, Ill-Advised Records (The Dark Door Issue #2), as well as Volume 1 of the Chilling Tales for Dark Nights Anthology. I also have a pending publication for a charity anthology coming through the Great Lakes Horror Anthology (GLAHW).