Thanks to narrator for another production of one my stories. You can follow Eden on Twitter at @Paichan
I am going to be famous. I will go down in history. I will be the first person to receive Digitally-Assisted Complete Vision Restoration (DACVR) – the first person truly and completely blind from birth to have their sight fully restored.
I have a picture of reality in my head, what the world is made up of: how people look (from feeling their faces); the size of rooms in my apartment, the grocery store, the university hospital; the jagged cracks in the sidewalk outside the stoop of my building. But it’s all aromas, noises, textures – what will vision be like? For how can anyone describe for me an experience of a sense I do not have? The qualia that are the fundamental building blocks of the universe and our perception of it?
“They’ll be a slight tingling sensation,” Dr. Matthews says. He checks the wires running from my temples down onto the bed, over to the machine humming next to me.
“Any words for this momentous occasion?” says the nurse.
“Let’s do it,” I say. “I want to see. Let there be light!”
I hear the switch flip and there is a rising humming growing in volume and intensity like a fluorescent light coming on. Then, following it, the darkness gives way slowly to – is this what light is? So bright! – then, figures, these must be the doctor and nurses. Oh! Oh God! NO! NO! MY GOD!
And then I’m flailing and thrashing in the hospital bed, and hear my voice screaming, as if far away, in another body: “TURN IT OFF! OH GOD, TURN IT OFF! TURN IT OFF!! NO! PLEASE….”
Where could it be? Where could it be? Oh no, oh no, oh no, how could I have been so foolish? Beatrice Benedict was in a panic. It has to be here somewhere. It has to be here somewhere. Oh my God, my God, I’ve got to find it or Ralph is going to kill me!
She’d turned the whole house upside-down already in a panic. At first she’d not even noticed her ring was missing. It hadn’t been until she’d finished cleaning everything.
Beatrice Benedict trembled at the thought of her stocky husband bursting in through the door, coated in grease from head to toe, then turning bright red in anger when he discovered she’d lost it, the one true symbol of their beautiful union, and then the sound of his thick leather belt flying through the air and the thwack thwack thwack as the blows rained down upon her. God help them, she knew Little Johnnie could hear it, even from upstairs in his tiny bedroom beneath the comfort of his little rocket ship bedspread.
Oh God, oh God, I’ve got to find it! Beatrice overturned all the couch cushions she’d vacuumed only an hour ago and turned over only 10 minutes before once again. She shook them out above the ugly brown striped pattern of the sofa, hoping, just hoping, that her repeating the same process and expecting a different result wasn’t insanity. That her precious missing wedding ring would fall out onto the floor, and then she could breathe a sigh of relief and all would be well again. But it wasn’t there.
Beatrice collapsed to her knees on the carpet, buried her face into her hands, and sobbed. She cried and cried and cried, the sound seeping out into the surrounding beige walls of the simple bungalow she and Ralph called home, and the walls watched silently, shaking their heads in disapproval.
Oh Bertie, Bertie, Bertie, the one wall, the one behind the China Cabinet, cooed out to her. It seemed older and wiser than the others. She felt that maybe it was their mother. Could walls have mothers?
You’ve gone and made a real mess of things, haven’t you? the wall continued. Ralph was right all this time. You really are worthless. How could you lose the ring like that? Don’t you care about Ralph? Don’t you care about your marriage? About Little Johnnie? What’s wrong with you Bertie?
Well, I’m not surprised. We walls all saw it coming. We see everything. And we’ll see it all when Ralph gets home soon and lays into you with his belt again. Just like he has so many times before.
Beatrice stopped crying and sat up. She’d already turned the living room over a dozen times. Then she thought maybe it’d fallen from her finger and gotten sucked up by the vacuum. She’d emptied the bag out and pawed all through the dirt with her bare hands. She’d gone through all of the bedrooms, tearing apart all the sheets and comforters on both her and Ralph’s and Little Johnnie’s bed, but there was not sign of her missing ring.
What was she going to do?
Wait, the bathroom sink? Or the drain in the tub? No, she’d put on her stretchy long yellow latex gloves as soon as she’d started on the bathroom, just like she always did, because she so hated cleaning the bathroom. She knew that the chemicals for getting rid of the kind of filth in there – stray pubic hairs and evil bacteria and mold caked into the grout and festering disease and rot and microbial death – were harsher than anything else she’d use to clean anywhere else in the house, harsher than anything she’d use in the kitchen.
Of course. The sink. She’d taken her ring off and set it on the counter next to the faucet, hadn’t she? Terribly absent-minded of her. But had she put it back on? And that clattering in sink had been that fork the fell from the drying rack, she’d seen it. But if she’d accidentally hit her ring with her elbow at the same time the fork had fallen then…
The garbage disposal. She had to look.
Dark and foreboding, the circular maw of the metal beast gaped at her, taunting her. I’ve got your ring, Bertie, now what are you going to do? You should have listened to the walls! The metal monster laughed maniacally at her.
Beatrice peered down into the depths of the hole, but could see nothing. She glanced from all angles but all was black; there was not so much as a gleam of light reflecting off the blades at the bottom.
She ran to the hall closet and bent down to the bottom shelf, rifling amongst the ratty old comforters and a big box of ancient used batteries. She found it, the big yellow plastic flashlight, the one her and Ralph had always taken camping with them each summer those first few years after they were newlyweds. Beatrice Benedict pushed the big black circular button with her thumb and it made a satisfying click-click. The beam from the light was still strong and lit the rusty brass hinges of the closet door next to her.
I don’t see it. I don’t see it. Beatrice squinted. She tilted her head every which way, this way and that way and a hundred other ways, but it was just so damn hard to see anything down that little hole, even with the light of the flashlight. Please God, please. Let my ring be in there. Beatrice tilted her head again and squinted into the depths of metal tunnel leading into the belly of the garbage disposal.
And then she saw it. Thank you God! A glimmer of light reflecting off her wedding ring.
Beatrice took a deep breath. She knew there was nothing in the kitchen, no implement, no wooden spoon or whisk or spatula or pair of tongs or scissors that would reach the bottom of the disposal. She’d have to reach down there with her arm and nimble white fingers and pluck the ring from those hungry metallic depths herself. It was the only way.
Think. Think about Ralph. Think about your ring. What that ring means.
She rolled up her sleeve and then stopped, recalling horrible stories she’d heard about household appliances turning on by themselves. About young boys reaching for things in the bottom of blenders and having their fingers turned into strawberry milkshakes with crunchy pieces of bone. About housewives falling headfirst into clothes dryers and being tumbled-dried to death, roasted alive all alone in empty basements while their cries for help went unheard, echoing in the scalding air of the hungry metal drums.
No, Beatrice Benedict thought. I have to. For Ralph. For Little Johnnie.
Beatrice took another deep breath and stuck her arm down the black hole, down into the hungry maw of the garbage disposal, and felt around with her nimble white fingers for her precious wedding ring. Her hand pawed and slipped against the wet steel, and she swore she could smell something foul rising up from the throat of the beast, up into the sink basin and assaulting her nostrils. Her digits danced a clumsy dance in the darkness. It was there. It was in there. I saw it! Just a little deeper. Just a little deeper. Before Ralph gets home.
There was a loud bang as the front door swung on its hinges and slammed shut. Beatrice looked up from the sink with a start.
“Bertie!” her husband called out. “I’m home!”
Oh God, it was Ralph! He’s home early! Beatrice thought. I can’t let him find me like this! And the ring! Oh God, the ring!
And then Beatrice realized her arm was stuck. And then she began to panic. She pulled and pulled and pulled but her arm was jammed in the hole of the drain at the elbow – she was like a minnow that had swum into a steel trap and but couldn’t squeeze its way back out.
She pulled and pulled but the circle of the drain was a snake coiled around her arm. She heard Ralph’s footsteps coming toward the kitchen. “Bertie? You there?” She was panicking now. She yanked and and twisted, and then her elbow turned the screw in the sink assembly and the metal monster roared to life.
Beatrice Benedict screamed as the garbage disposal ate her arm.
“She’s heavily sedated,” the doctor in the white coat said. “But she’s conscious. You can speak to her now.”
“Thank you,” Ralph Benedict said heavily. His wife lay docile beneath the hospital green of the bedsheets, an IV snaking down to her left wrist and surrounded by beeping machines keeping vigil.
“Ralph?” she said weakly. Her eyes fluttered. “Are you there?”
Her right arm was hidden within the cast. Ralph knew it was a courtesy. A sham to hide an ugly truth. He knew beneath that plaster his wife’s arm was all ground up to hell, a potpourri of flesh and skin and bone. The doctors did what they could, but had already told him she’d never regain use of her arm, let alone her hand, for as long as she lived.
A tear welled in the corner of the burly man’s eye, and slowly wandered down the side of his face. He hadn’t cried since his father’s funeral when he was 11.
“Ralphie,” Beatrice said weakly. “I’m sorry…”
“I’m sorry too,” Ralph said, reaching into his pocket for something. He set it down on the tray above the bed.
“It was in the car,” he said. “Found it beneath the passenger seat on the way home. It must’ve fallen from your finger the other day. You’re just so careless, Bertie, just so damn careless…”
Ralph Benedict’s wife cried.
“I’m sorry, Ralphie!” she sobbed. “I’m so sorry! I just didn’t want you to be mad! I’m so sorry for everything….”
“I know,” he said, rubbing his face with his hands. “I know. So am I.”
He took off his ring and set it down next to the other one the tray over the bed, and it rolled in place in a circle, rattling against the cheap plastic. The monitors behind Beatrice kept their steady pace, but nothing would ever undo what had been done.
Ralph Benedict stood and left. A doctor passed by the open door to the room, and the halls of the hospital continued to smell of antiseptic.
Don’t let him drive. That was the last thing Kate had said to me when the two of us left the house, heading out to the local bar to knock back pint after pint and watch the Avalanches take on the Blackhawks.
But of course I had let him drive. When we’d stumbled out of the red light of neon signs advertising beer brands and into the sodium yellow of the parking lot, I knew Frank had had too much. I knew he was in no condition to drive. But I was drunk too, and the thought of waiting for a cab, of arguing with Frank long enough for him to give me the keys just seemed so difficult, so tiring, while heavily sliding into the passenger’s seat, as I found myself doing, just seemed so easy. So natural.
That was three months ago. Frank is gone now. Kate knows everything. Kate knows what I did. Or rather, what I didn’t do. I couldn’t make it to the funeral, but I wonder how much the tears she must’ve cried were of sadness and not rage. Anger at the senselessness of it all. Anger that the man she loved was gone. Anger at me, for breaking my promise. My only promise. My simple, simple promise I just couldn’t have been bothered to keep in my state.
The last surgery is today. After this it’s just one more month and I’m free to go, good as new.
“There’s a new anesthesiologist in the OR today,” the surgeon says as I stare up at white fluorescent tubes. I feel the mask come down on my face.
“Just count backwards from 100,” I hear a familiar voice say.
The doctor does not see my terrified eyes. I try to struggle, to call out, but already I am immobilized.
“Goodbye Michael,” Kate says, looking down at me.
I’d never broken a bone before.
The pain was excruciating, it was all I could think about. I scarcely noticed the chaos on the soccer field while the paramedics came. I barely realized I was being loaded onto a stretcher and taken away. I didn’t hear the voices calling my name, or even my own screams of agony. I hardly noticed the exposed white of my bone, poking out from my skin and exposing the surrounding muscle. Because all I felt was the unbelievable pain of my shattered limb.
Once at the hospital and the unreal haze of surgery was over – my arm all done up in a cast, my body all done up with morphine – the doctor assured me everything would be fine. But I told him I still felt a strange sensation; an itching, no, more like something writhing, inside me.
“Itching’s normal,” he said. “It’s just a part of having a cast. Best get used to it.”
“No, you don’t understand,” I said. “The feeling’s inside me. Where the bone broke.”
“Yeah, they’ll be all kinds of sensations while you heal up. Wouldn’t worry about it.”
scribble scribble scribble on the chart. Release form. Out the sliding glass doors. Have a nice day.
The sensation is still there, and it grows worse each day. I can feel it inside my body: squirming, crawling, writhing. I can hear it while I fall asleep, scraping away my flesh and bone in the quiet stillness of the dark.
But lately what terrifies me these nights is not the thought of what’s inside my body, but what will happen when it finally gets out.
If only I’d been more careful, this never would have happened. If only I’d thought things through, I wouldn’t be in this situation; here, now, in the hospital, typing this out while sitting in this hospital bed, hoping that if the thing that got to me isn’t just about me, if there’s others out there it’s also happening to, that they can learn from my mistake. I just hope it’s not already too late. I just hope there’s still something that can be done in time. I just hope my warning doesn’t go unheard. Don’t be stupid and end up like me.
I found a box on my porch last week, a giant nondescript cube of cardboard sitting right outside my front door. I probably should have realized something was up right off the bat; I wasn’t expecting a delivery.
Stranger still, the box was completely devoid of anything to identify its origin, destination or purpose: there was no shipping label, no plastic pouch with an invoice, no “this side up” arrow, no nothing. It was a completely anonymous cardboard box. But clearly it was intended for me – it was placed directly on my porch, directly outside my door.
I’ll admit there was a moment of doubt in my mind. What if some psycho had put this there? What if there were hacked up human body parts inside, their blood soon to leach through the bottom in ugly spreading crimson stains, like devastating black death escaping the shattered carapace of an oil tanker in the Gulf of Mexico? What if it was full of burned DVDs of child pornography, scraped from the deepest darkest corners of internet, a box of incriminating evidence placed directly into my hands just before a SWAT team coincidentally showed up at my door?
You’re being ridiculous, I thought. This is either a package meant for you, or some stupid prank. Just open the damn thing.
I wish I never did.
I’ll bring the box inside and open it. Settle this and stop being so irrational. I bent down to lift the package, and expecting it to be heavy, nearly threw it through the roof of the veranda when I lifted it. It was light. Very light. Whatever was in it weighed almost nothing – the majority of that emptiness inside was probably filled with those styrofoam packing peanuts.
I brought the box into the kitchen and grabbed a small paring knife from the drawer. I bent down on one knee to slice the clear packing tape that sealed the top flaps shut and a strange unwanted thought entered my mind: I was a butcher, ready to slice open the carcass of a pig. A hunter about to field dress a murdered deer. A surgeon ready to slice open the chest of an unwilling patient, and steal their heart for a black market transplant.
The blade split the tape cleanly, perfectly in half, almost surgically, just like my last strange mental image. When I ran it over the center where there was a gap between the flaps, there was a small sound as air escaped – the last exhale of the unwilling patient. Whoever had packed this thing had done so that it was damn near hermetically sealed.
I cut the remaining parts of the tape sealing the box flaps to the sides, and I’ll admit that as I did excitement rose in my chest, in anticipation of finally discovering the mysterious package’s contents. I lifted the flaps and opened the top of the box to reveal that it contained…. nothing.
There was nothing in it. The box was empty. The box was empty. There was nothing in it. What? This doesn’t make any sense. This doesn’t make any sense. This is fucking surreal. There has to be something. Something.
In disbelief I ran my hands all through the inside, touching all of it, pressing my palms against the smooth cardboard, then hitting it, grabbing it, punching it. No, there was nothing. It was empty. Empty. Empty inside. Unreal. Fucking unreal. Surreal.
A strange smell, a chemical, antiseptic smell mixed with something metallic was in the box, and now the air around me. I brought my hand to face and could smell it on it too, from where I’d touched the cardboard. The box was empty now, but there had been something in it once. Something which left behind this strange smell that now filled my kitchen and coated my hands. Eau de Union Carbide – the latest fragrance from Paris – the smell of sterile green hospital corridors filled with patients dragging IVs hanging from little metal trees, the smell of a surgeon’s instruments laid out in their roll ready to make the incision, the smell of sitting behind the curtain in a hospital gown and waiting for death. The smell of humans being treated like pieces of meat.
I sat on the floor in disbelief. It just didn’t make any sense. Where the hell had this come from? Why would someone drop an empty box on my porch, very clearly personally delivered by hand, to me, with nothing inside? It defied all logical explanation. What was this? What was this? I kicked the box aside in disgust. Fuck this.
I made dinner. I watched Netflix. I went to bed and dreamt of evil surgeons with giant grins of pointed teeth stabbing me with oversized hypodermic syringes. When I woke up in the morning the box was still waiting for me there on the tile of the kitchen floor, a big crease marring the side where I’d kicked it.
I got ready for work. I sneezed in the shower and the water running down me turned pink. Great, another morning nosebleed. Guess I needed to finally get that humidifier like I’d been meaning to.
My co-worker didn’t think it was so strange when I mentioned it to him the next day.
“Naw man, that kinda thing happens all the time,” he said, sipping his coffee and hovering over my cube.
“What the hell are you talking about? Psychos hand-deliver empty packages to strangers all the time? Because if they do, this is the first I’ve heard of it.”
“Nah, it’s a mix-up man.” He sipped his coffee again, from one of the old mugs from the kitchen, the one from the local radio contest where they’d spelled the station name wrong.
“I betcha that for like 95% of its life that package wasn’t even handled by human hands, man. You know what kinda age we’re livin’ in now? We’re living in the goddamn future, bro. Amazon’s got freakin’ unmanned forklifts buzzing around their warehouses, picking your shit offa shelf and loading into a truck for delivery and there aren’t even people involved. There doesn’t have to be, man – all that shit’s numbered and computer-coded and in the system.
“Didn’t you read that article about that woman in Tucson? Same thing happened to her as what happened to you. She ordered a freakin’ Magic Bullet from Amazon and instead of getting her fancy blender in the mail, a week later she gets this big-ass box with a huge piece of conveyor belt machinery from the warehouse in it. Bug in the system, dude. Literally no humans involved from end-to-end, and the goddamn robots don’t know whether they’re packing up a mix-o-matic for some old lady or a freakin’ nuclear bomb.
“It’s automation, dude, it’s the future. No system is perfect and you just happened to be a bug in the system. Some other guy is on the phone right now, bitchin’ out Amazon’s customer service reps ’cause he never got his package, and you’ve got an empty box, and some other fucker’s got a pile of throw pillows in the mail instead of his box set of Deep Space Nine.”
“I guess so,” I said. “I mean, it makes sense. But it still doesn’t explain how the package got on my porch if there was no shipping label.”
“Whatever man,” he said, and made to leave. “Not worth losing any sleep over if you ask me.”
As he turned to leave, a pain gripped my chest and I bent over in my chair. I hacked and coughed, over and over again. Oh god, it hurt. It was like there was something stuck in my lungs. I could feel my coworker hovering over me, uncertain of what to do as I kept coughing. I could hear my hacking noises going out over the floor above everyone else’s cubes.
Finally, whatever demon was squeezing my chest released me and I righted myself. The exertion and pain going left me light-headed and dizzy; I leaned back in the chair, red-faced and teary-eyed, a self-conscious smile on my face. My co-worker was staring.
“Bro, you alright? Thought I was gonna have to give you the freakin’ Heimlich.”
“Yeah, I’m good,” I said, and coughed again, quieter and under control this time. I cleared my throat and smiled again sheepishly. “Just had a weird something, you know? Down the wrong pipe.”
“Sure,” he said, still staring. He looked like he didn’t believe me. He took one last sip of his coffee and turned to leave. “Later man.”
Days passed, but that cough didn’t go away. I figured I was coming down with something. Great, burning more of my sick days when I should be saving them to play golf in the summer. Whatever, chicken soup and bad TV and this will be over soon.
Yesterday was when I knew. Yesterday when I woke up and a nosebleed would have been positively welcome. I awoke to a horrible searing pain burning my insides. Razorblades were slicing my viscera into a stacks of thinly-cut deli meat. Swarms of snakes covered in barbed wire were writhing in my guts and biting out chunks of my soft red flesh.
I ran to the bathroom and threw the lid of the toilet up. I fell to my knees and could feel the writhing snakes were making their escape, up through my stomach and esophagus. I vomited, retch after retch of disgusting reeking ejecta, fountains and fountains of my blood falling into the ruddying water waiting in the bowl. The pain was like nothing I’d ever felt.
Finally it subsided and weakly I brought myself to my knees. I ran the tap. Cold, cold, cold water poured out noisily. I put my hands under it, grateful for a pain somewhere else, a welcome numbing distraction from the ordeal I’d just experienced. I splashed my face with the frigid water and stared at my weary eyes in the mirror. My weary eyes stared back. I drank the cold from the tap to rid my mouth of the taste of old pennies. I stared at my half-naked self in the mirror.
The image came back to me, the grinning devil-surgeons and their comically oversized syringes: we’re coming for your kidneys. You won’t need them when you’re dead. Be there soon.
I opened the mirror, took a handful of painkillers and closed it again. Something was horribly wrong. I had to go to the hospital. This was more than a cold. This was more than me failing to control the humidity level of my place during the winter.
I called the hospital and explained what happened. I was too weak to drive, I said. Afraid of what might happen if I did. Fine, they’d send an ambulance. Be patient. I hung up the phone and went to walk out to the front porch, out to the veranda, where I’d found that stupid fucking empty box. That stupid empty lump of cardboard.
When I reached the door was when I put it all together, when all the pieces fell into place: the box, the airtight seal, the smell, my coughing, and the final piece, the final nail in my coffin, hand-delivered just as the box had been.
It was a plain white piece of paper slid through the crack underneath the front door, an ocean of white save for two tiny lines of text set dead center in the middle of the page. They were the naked, anonymous metal letters banged to the page from an old typewriter. Staring back at me – foreign, alien, uncaring – their meaning slowly seeped into my addled brain and pushed aside my confusion into a rising horror of realization:
JUST BECAUSE A BOX IS EMPTY
DOESN’T MEAN THERE’S NOTHING IN IT
“I HATE YOU!” I screamed, and threw the tray at her. It bounced off the tempered glass of the far wall and clattered metalically to the floor. “I HATE YOU! How could you does this to me?!”
The orderly grabbed me from behind and pulled me away from my mother’s hospital bed. She was a shadow of her former self, a skeleton; all her hair had fallen out, and she was sickly and emaciated. Her eyes sat sunken in her skull above two scarlet rims.
Despite her wretched state I could still see the disgust for me in her eyes. I could feel the animosity between us hang in the air, even as she lay there dying before me.
“Settle down ma’am!” said the orderly, releasing his grip. “Don’t do anything crazy. Can’t you see she’s a sick woman? Give her some peace!”
“How could you??” I begged again, sobbing. “How could you cut me out of the will and not Todd? What about me? Where’s my inheritance?”
My mother’s voice was low, cold and devoid of emotion save for a tinge of disgust.
“You are a failure,” she stated flatly. “You’ve always been a failure. You may need that money more than your brother, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to give it to you to squander. I may be powerless here in this bed but I will make damn sure of that. You are a disappointment to me and an embarrassment our family name.” I’d heard the last words before but they still stung like hot needles piercing my skin.
“What about the children? Mark just left me! Mother! Please…”
She was unmoved.
“You will have your inheritance,” she said, her bloodshot eyes piercing deeply into mine. “The doctors told me the day I found out, but of course you never came to visit me did you? Not until now, with the end so near. Not until you found out that I’d cut you out of the will. The disease is hereditary. It is passed on only through the women of a bloodline.”
The room in the air grew colder. I felt a vice tightening on my chest.
“As I lay here now, so too will you one day,” she said, savouring the words. “And your daughter after you. This I leave to you child, my legacy. I leave you what you deserve, my young heiress.”
I don’t know why it started. I just woke up one morning and my eyes were burning. The whites of my seeing organs were the site of an intense horrible searing, an unrelenting fire that stung and scalded and stabbed. It was as if in the night someone had pried back my eyelids and poured paint thinner mixed with battery acid beneath them. When I blinked it was like a sandpaper scraping – no, much worse than that – like the jagged teeth of a rusty old saw scraping away the white fibrous flesh set in my skull.
Nothing helped. The doctors were baffled by my strange affliction with no apparent cause: no foreign object, no inflammation, no infection – my eyes were, under all examinations, completely normal. They still assaulted me with a barrage of treatments: eye drops, salves, creams, painkillers of ever increasing power and with more extreme side effects; nothing changed, the horrible burning fire still permeated the whites of my eyes.
I wanted to claw them out with my fingers. I’d rather be blind for a thousand years than experience another millisecond of this searing agony. All the hellfire of damnation in Inferno must have been but a bee sting compared to what I was experiencing each moment.
In a thunderstorm of burning pain I rose from my hospital bed and staggered out into the antiseptic corridor, its existence a blur through the streams of tears pouring down my cheeks. I heard noise coming from one of the closed doors – an operating room. I kicked it open and was faced with a doctor and team of nurses looking up from their work in surprise.
“Hey! What are you doing? You can’t be in here!” I saw the blurry green blob of the surgeon turn from the operating table with scalpel in hand.
Mindlessly I reached out into the haze and plucked the bloody instrument from him. I threw my head back and stared at the ceiling and the hot tears streaming from my burning eyes ran down my temples. I held it high above me. My hand shook.
“Wait! Stop! What are you doing? Don’t…”
The nurse screamed as I plunged the bloody blade deep into my eye socket and twisted.
I remember the smell of the antiseptic and the cold stale air of the maternity ward.
I sat next to my wife’s bed in an uncomfortable chair, one of those cheap jobs with metal bars holding together squares of padding covered in pea-soup coloured vinyl, and listened to her shallow breathing next to me.
Things hadn’t been going well.
The doctors were concerned she was going to lose the baby. There had been a lot of bleeding, and she was in a lot of a pain; the wrong kind of pain, and more than should be experienced before the birth.
I watched her chest slowly rise and fall, and tried to push out the dark thoughts creeping into my mind. I stared across the stark green emptiness of the room at my reflection, a ghost wrought in fluorescence in the blackness of night let in through the windows.
I turned a page in the magazine I’d stopped reading hours ago. Down the hall, the footsteps of a nurse and the rattle of wheels from the cart she pushed echoed. The sound faded away into the corridors of the ward and soon the silence in the room, our tiny cell, our microcosm, was near absolute, save for the soft hum of the air conditioner.
And then a strange feeling came over me. I felt as if all the sound, all the air and the objects around me stretched out away from me and became distant. Now I was in the room, but not in the room – the hospital green, my ghostly reflection in the window panes, the faded cover of the ancient magazine – everything was detached and far away.
I smelled burning.
And then, feeling equally far away, in the distance of the recesses of my mind, I heard a voice. It was a low, raspy voice, more whispered and exhaled than spoken. The words came out slowly, increasing in volume until they were in my mind’s eye.
she’s going to die.
I panicked. My heart jumped and I tried to stand up from the chair but found that I could not. My mouth moved and I heard myself speak into the chemical air of the hospital room but the sound was far away and muffled.
“Who…? What are you? How….”
My words were met with low gravelly laughter in my head. It was a low slow laugh, one more of derision than amusement.
you need not speak. i hear you, as you me.
I became afraid that I was losing my mind.
Who? What are you? How can you possibly know she’s going to die?
i am that i am. i exist in a different realm. i see what you cannot.
How do you know my name?
i know many things. i was sent here for you. you, and your family.
What do you want from me?
There was a pause. I could feel the presence in my mind waiting, thinking. In the depths of my consciousness again came its slow raspy exhales.
i can save her.
The voice in my head was hollow – emotionless, empty of life. The words made my blood cold, yet another part of me rose up in hope. I loved her more than anything. The thought of her being gone was more painful to me than our not having a child.
Why would you do that?
i give you a choice. The smell of burning, of sulphur, became stronger. him, or her. give me your unborn son and i will spare her.
No. I can’t… this is insanity. We had tried for so long. All she ever wanted was for us to have a family. I remembered the look of joy on her face when we found out it was really happening.
she will die. Silence, save for the rough low breathing in the darkness of my mind.
I love her. Please. In my dissociated body, I felt the far away wetness of tears running down my face. She can’t die.
i can save her.
I don’t know. I do. I don’t. Please…
The voice, slower now than before.
give me your son. i will save her if you give me your son.
Yes. Take him. Please. Take him. Just spare my wife, I love her! I heard myself calling out in my mind. The low rasps of the presence in my consciousness were joined by a noise like a low growl, and then stopped. Far away, I felt the air of the hospital room shimmer. Sulphur burned.
it is done.
And with that just as suddenly as it had appeared, I felt the presence recede, as off into the distance, and the hospital room coalesce. It was a strange sensation, like a camera lens moving and bringing all of reality back into focus.
I turned and saw my wife’s pale wrist slip out from under the covers of the hospital bed. Her delicate hand softly grasped mine and squeezed. I looked up and her beautiful blue eyes were wet and staring back into mine.
“Everything is going to be all right, my love,” she said softly. I cried, and I knew that it would be.
In the blackness of our darkest night, in the glass of the windows, I swore I saw thin white slits of eyes, watching us.
He grew into everything we wanted him to be and more.
After the scares of the pregnancy were over, the doctors kept a close eye on our newborn son, and his mother, but they were healthy as horses. A beautiful mare and her new foal. I watched him grow up and he made us the happiest parents alive. We called him our little miracle.
As the years went by and my hairs turned from black to salt-and-pepper, our new son grew from a baby to a child to a gangly teenager and we were just as happy to be a part of it all. So many firsts, so many moments, fleeting when they occurred, yet eternal in their remembrance.
His first word (mama). His first steps. His first day at school, when he was mad because we made him wear the orange sweater his mother knit.
His first crush on a girl at school (Jenny). Us talking about the birds and the bees, in the quiet shafts of sunlight coming into the solarium that one summer afternoon. The first day of high school.
All those moments in time flew past, and it should have been easy to forget about that night in the hospital, that darkest night, when I sat beside his mother and thought of her dying. The presence that visited me in my mind should now be but a past hallucination, a bizarre mental episode brought on by emotion, stress, and fear.
Yet it lingered.
Through all the years the conversation with that presence, that evil thing that I’d promised my son, lingered in the back of my mind. It hung heavily over all the special moments of my son’s life.
The first few years were the worst. Despite my happiness, in my mind I was a man on death row, awaiting the inevitable. Awaiting the thing would come sometime in the night and then he would be gone. Or I’d awake one morning to find him dead, having suffocated in his sleep. Or a rare childhood disease would infect him, and he’d burst in fountains of blood, staining the wallpaper and coating his mother’s horrified visage with geysers of red death. On the outside I was the happiest man in the world, but on the inside I lived in constant fear of our dear child being taken any moment.
I had made a deal, and her life had been spared, but at what cost? Was it worth having her alive and my beautiful son, only to live constantly in fear, to waking up one day to find him gone, or worse?
I learned to live with the fear. I started to be able to enjoy those moments in my son’s life, even with that fear lingering like a dark cloud, like that sulphurous odour of the visitor in the hospital that night so many years ago.
Still it lingered because I saw the eyes. I learned to live with the fear I couldn’t keep the eyes from appearing. When I put him down in the nursery for the night, I’d see those burning white eyes in the leafy branches of the oak outside the window. At his first birthday, when all the other kids crawled around and the parents socialized over spiked punch, my hands became shaky from those long white eyes staring at me from the mirror in the kitchen. When I dropped him off at school for his first day, behind the shoulder of his mousy teacher I saw those white slits burning. The night he came in late from the school dance and his mother chastised him in the front hallway I watched from partway down the stairs, while beyond the still-open front door so too did those eyes.
The fear subsided but the knowledge of the deal to spare his mother’s life never did; the eyes were always there, always watching, always reminding me of the deal we’d made.
Today was his eighteenth birthday.
As he pulled back the bow on the gift his movement slowed. It was then I again felt that strange sensation, the sensation I’d not felt for so long, for eighteen years, since that fearful night I’d sat in the cold emptiness of the hospital room.
The room filled with the smell of sulphur.
I watched as my son’s movement slowed, then stopped, and his head lolled backward. His eyes opened wide and stared into the air in front of him.
“Honey, are you alright? Aren’t you going to open your gift?” his mother said from beside me. I watched his face and saw a milky white membrane creep in from the sides of his eyes and cover them, turning them completely opaque. He blinked, slowly. His face took on a catatonic character.
“What’s happening?” She was talking to me now. “Should we call the hospital?”
I watched his mouth move and we heard a voice that was not that of my son. A voice that was low, slow and raspy, with venom behind the words. The voice I had heard in my mind eighteen years ago.
“surprised to see me?” An evil smile spread on my son’s mouth, and his head moved up to face us.
“You.” I started to rise up from the table. “You said you would take him from me but you didn’t. What are you doing here?” I made no effort to hold back the anger in my voice. I felt my wife’s delicate hand reach out under the table and squeeze mine. I could feel her fear.
“you know i have been here all along. i said i would take him, and i have.” That laugh. Cold and evil. Heartless. “i am taking what’s mine. i have taken possession of him.”
He rose from the table and the opaqueness of his eyes narrowed into long thin slits, like the slashes from some cruel blade, angular on what had been the face of my son. The eyes were the same that had followed me all through his life, the same eyes that were with me these last eighteen long years, the eyes which had watched me from the reflection of the hospital window, when I agreed to give him up to them.