15 July 2017
Corn, corn, and more corn—Rahul stifled a yawn as he turned his attention back to the windshield. The highway was sandwiched between vast fields of gold and green stalks, the evening sky a haze of gray. He picked a fourth crisp nugget from the fast-food bag tucked onto the dashboard, and popped it between his yawning lips.
Corn… The man inhaled. Pennsylvania produce is an eyesore.
Just as Rahul was reaching for another nugget, the wind was knocked from his lungs. Immediately, his hands snapped up to his neck. The car shot forward at whiplash speed. Rahul’s vision blackened, his headlights firing straight into a wall of flailing leaves.
Corn! Rahul drooled. Hell with it!
“Mr. Kapur, you are currently admitted in Bucks County Hospital,” said a gruff voice. “You were found unconscious in your vehicle on the side of the road, approximately one mile from Exit 53. Judging by the severe state of your vehicle, you’re lucky to be alive.”
Rahul cautiously pushed himself up from the hospital mattress. “What happened?”
“It appears that you choked on a chicken nugget.”
Rahul’s gaze followed the doctor’s hand to where a lopsided paper bundle sat scowling on the counter.
“Oh, no,” Rahul muttered, remembering. A slight burn in his throat confirmed the evidence. “Thank you so much, ah…”
“Doctor Alamanni. A pleasure.” The man peeled the latex glove off his right hand, and gave Rahul’s a tender shake. “There doesn’t appear to be any serious injury, except for a slight fracture in your thumb’s metacarpal.”
The doctor shuffled over to the wall opposite the mattress, and made a sweeping motion over a ghostly imitation of Rahul’s forearm. “A minor break, as you can see. The best part is that you’ll be leaving tonight. The nurse will be in to escort you.”
With a cordial nod, the doctor moved to exit the room.
“Wait,” Rahul begged. Alamanni turned back, irritated.
“Yes, Mr. Kapur?”
“I…” Rahul’s gaze dropped past his gown to his bare shins. “I don’t have any clothes.”
The doctor dodged into the hall, and returned with a bundle.
“My apologies, Mr. Kapur. I hope that will do.” With that, Rahul was left alone, hunching over his newly-acquired bundle of scrubs.
The nurse revealed a knotted plastic bag from under her arm and pushed it at Rahul, along with a paper to sign.
“Your personal belongings from the vehicle.”
Quickly untying the plastic knot, he peered within to find his cell phone, a chewed-up road map, and his wallet. Empty. Biting his lip, he glanced up to inquire about his means of transportation—but the nurse had vanished.
I must be dreaming.
Suddenly, he became hyper-aware of his thin layer of cotton sheathing, gnarled toes poking outside his hospital slippers. There were only a few curious onlookers in the lobby at this hour. Rahul lowered his gaze back inside his bag, and fished out his cell phone.
“I’ll call an Uber,” Rahul thought, struggling to tap the screen with his left hand as he held the bag with his plastered right. Then, just as he sat down to his ten-minute wait, he arose in a panic.
“I don’t have money,” Rahul gasped. “There’s no way I’ll be able to make it home!”
He whirled around, facing the rotating glass doors. Fear inched through his gut. What was he to do?
The damn nuggets. His hands clutched at his forehead. The worst part is, they’re all I’ve eaten since yesterday afternoon!
He dug his hand back into the bag, hoping to discover a previously-invisible hundred-dollar bill. Instead, he found himself unearthing his MasterCard from the folds of plastic.
“Phew!” he sighed. “Close one.”
“Take me to the nearest hotel.” Raul avoided the driver’s suspicious gaze.
“Rusty’s Inn, it is.”
About fifteen minutes later, Rahul locked eyes on the enormous hotel door. He turned back to the driver. “Thank you so much.”
“You have a good one, Mister.”
Feeling like a ludicrous contrast to the chilled lobby, soft classical tunes trickling through the air, Rahul’s gaze rose toward the ceiling. A crystal chandelier blazed a halo around his figure.
Rahul was caught dead in his scrubs by a stern, crisp-suited man standing behind the registration desk.
“Good evening,” Rahul blurted. “May I have a room for one night, please, sir? It’s just that—well, I was traveling and wound up in an accident, and just got out of the hospital. I only need to rest somewhere for a night.” He recalled the taste of bile in his throat.
When the manager moved for the phone in response, Rahul persisted, “The hospital disposed of my clothing, and only gave me these scrubs. Please, sir, I’m not a drunk or a criminal, none of that. Couldn’t I buy some new clothes from the hotel?”
The manager gave Rahul another long, condescending look. Finally, with a huff, he began tapping away at his computer screen. “A room for one night will be one-hundred and thirty dollars. The hotel shop closes at nine on Saturdays, and is not open on Sundays.”
“Bad timing,” Rahul muttered, frowning down at his thin cotton covering. He quickly dropped his credit card onto the counter. “Look, man—I really appreciate it.”
The manager shook his head, and muttered an inaudible remark as he completed the transaction.
With his sleep plagued by visions of fast-food logos and corn leaves, Rahul found it a relief to wake up five hours later with the anticipation of returning home.
Dodging the inquisitive stares of hotel guests, Rahul sank comfortably back into the seat of an Uber. At last. He shook hands with the driver. I’ve had enough of Pennsylvania to last me a lifetime.
“Where’re we headed today, sir?” The driver said, eyeing the label on the front of Rahul’s shirt that read Bucks County Hospital.
“New York City,” Rahul answered. “87th Street, Manhattan.”
“New York City! Gimme a break—that’s two hours away from here!” the driver exclaimed, turning to look at Rahul. “Mind if I get my gas card from home, at least?”
Ah, why not? Rahul nodded. Just gotta love the detours.
“So, just out of curiosity,” the driver said as he hopped back to the wheel, card in hand. “What were you doing at Bucks County Hospital?”
“I choked on a chicken nugget! And passed out on 132!”
“Sounds like a rough day.”
An understatement, Rahul thought. I’m still alive, though. That’s gotta count for something, right?
After an hour of driving, Rahul’s stomach began to whine. He looked out the window, his gaze drawn to the flashy rest-stop signage gradually rising up from the waves of golden stalks.
“Sir, you want something to eat?” the driver hollered. “We’ve got another forty minutes ‘till we reach the City.”
The last thing I need is a stop at another roadside Wendy’s, Rahul thought, attempting to ignore the growling in his stomach.
He nodded to the driver in the rearview. “Sure. Thanks.”
It’s not as if I have to get chicken nuggets, Rahul reassured himself after they had pulled into a parking space.
“It’s on me, sir,” the driver said. But his words did not reach Rahul’s ears, whose attention was narrowed in on their red-freckled greeter. Her cardboard eyes crawled after the pair as they approached. Rahul was past caring about the snicker that passed her pallid lips.
Shaking his head, he gazed up at the glowing menu. Images of cheese-glazed fries and tender nuggets glided across the screen. His mouth watered.
“I’ll opt for a salad,” Rahul forced out, turning away from the screen before visions of fried meat could haunt him any further.
“Here’s your order, sir.” The cashier placed two squat packets before the driver, a heavenly scent of deep-fried meat enveloping Rahul’s nostrils.
“This is great. I’m past starving,” he said, as they gathered their food and headed out the door. “Thanks so much, man.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Rahul slid into the car seat just as his stomach emitted another desperate growl. He turned his thoughts away from the scent of the driver’s triple-cheese burger. A few minutes passed, and they were on the road again. Noticing the silence from the back seat, the driver inquired, “How’s that salad going, sir?”
“Oh.” Rahul reluctantly pulled his eyes away from the driver’s burger. His cravings for meat were insatiable. “I’m just about to start on it.”
He eagerly began digging into his paper bundle, feeling around for a fork. Weird, he thought, as he unwrapped the container. This is one warm salad.
Utensil or not, Rahul decided to pop open the container—the lack of a few plastic prongs wasn’t going to get between him and his meal.
Finally. Rahul unsealed the container. Time to eat—
A box of chicken nuggets smirked up at him.
“Oh, hell with it!” Rahul grumbled, grabbing a fistful of meat. “What’ve I got to lose?”