April 10, 2019

“Eye Contact” Part II

“Eye Contact” Part II

By Ann Davis

Editor’s note: Here is Part II of Ann Davis’ experimental fiction, guaranteed to open your eyes. The featured image, “Collapse of the Mind,” is courtesy Steve Sangapore, our Fine Arts Baristas.

But . . . before you begin reading, listen:

Courtesy Peter Gabriel

Morris could not remember the last morning the sunlight had looked so golden, or when he had had such a refreshing sleep. Woke up entirely on his own too, before his alarm even, a whole hour before he usually did. Especially surprising was that he felt perfectly awake, with no urge to lie back down whatsoever. Must be from his long nap during the insertion the other day. Oh yes, the insertion!

Suddenly driven by an urge to check the mirror, Morris darted out of bed and straight for the looking glass in his small washroom. He wasted a moment staring into the washbasin at first, gripping the sides in white-knuckled intensity, hardly daring to look at his own face, even as he noted he saw the rough patches left in the basin from years of overzealous scrubbing more clearly than he ever had. A pair of eyes, of an entirely different color than what he was accustomed to seeing, stared back at him in astonishment out of his reflected face.

Morris could hardly believe he hadn’t dreamed it all. Tenderly, he massaged the area around an eye socket with his fingertips. The flesh was a touch sore, and a bit puffy, though otherwise all right. So far as he could tell, the eyes were set appropriately far back into his head, though he couldn’t tell much; not needing to shave often, he seldom paid much attention to his own face. At least the eyes didn’t appear they were about to pop out.

Once he satisfied himself that they were settled properly in his head and did not ache too badly, he turned to concentrate his new sight on something other than his reflection. It truly was a golden morning, dust motes dancing in the beaming sun coming in the skylight, falling on the small whitewashed shelf next to his bed where his alarm clock, which had still not gone off, sat ticking quietly. The sight reminded him he needed to turn off the alarm before it did go off. It was a rare occasion that he could spare himself that noise.

As he did so, he noted his sheets were rumpled from springing out of bed and reached down to smooth them. Probably a belated reaction to yesterday; he didn’t usually have guests, but he couldn’t help it last night. Employees from the store had brought him home wearing a blindfold that felt like an oversized sleep mask. There it was now, on the floor by his mattress and muddled sheets.

He preferred not to have other people in his apartment, as it was rather small and sparse, but in the matter of getting home he had to pick from the store employees, a rather educated guide dog (he was allergic), or a relation (none lived close by). Briefly he worried something might have been taken, but a quick visual inventory told him everything looked as it always had, better actually. This morning, rather than the sense of invasion of space and mild shame the memory of guests usually brought on, his apartment felt more cozy than dingy. It was rather small, one and a half rooms as Morris didn’t count the bathroom. The bedroom was the half, due to the slanted bit of roof containing the skylight, and Morris realized he’d missed another part of his usual routine when leaping out of bed: he’d missed bumping his head!

Whitewashed walls to match his shelf, color of clouds on days the sky was particularly blue, and a friendly wooden floor, amber in the sun, worn down into familiar grooves. His mattress itself lay on the floor with no bedframe to speak of, white nightclothes tangled about it. 

The kitchen was fairly unremarkable, a nondescript table and four chairs in the middle, a stove against one wall upon which was set his kettle, a cupboard at a right angle holding the ingredients for his morning tea. Yet this morning too, it seemed like a comfortable place to settle and think, rather than brood on how poorly his life was going.

For some reason he felt proud of his space this morning and content to be in it. It was as if he was seeing it with – and he chuckled to himself as the thought crossed his mind – new eyes, which he literally was.

Morris realized he was getting ahead of himself. It was far too early to be excited; he’d only just woken up and had the whole long day ahead of him to disprove his optimism. The usual mantle of anxiety began to drop into its usual place on his shoulders as he shook out the sheets.

Still, a rather happy thrill ran through him when, to his own surprise, his eyes were immediately drawn to his keys as soon as he started looking for them and he saw, right next to them, his eyeglasses case. He looked forward to telling his eye doctor there would be no more need for prescriptions, that he would never need anything other than work safety glasses again!

**

Today Morris celebrated walking to work without keeping his handkerchief pressed to his nose to prevent his new eyes from popping out. He had been told to be careful about sneezing for a while. As he was being led out in his blindfold, he heard a customer stomp in complaining he “go’ a knock to th’ nose, see, defendin’ a lady’s honor you unnerstan’ an’ I blow into meh handkerchief t’ geh the blood oot, an suddenly I’m ‘oldin me own eyeballs!”

“Well don’t start grumbling at me about it as if you’re expecting a free handout!” the doctor bit out testily, even while Morris unsettlingingly heard the salesclerk moan, “Oh no, not again!” in the background. “I’ll secure them again BUT mind you, don’t lie to me as to how you did this to yourself again! There’s no bruise showing up to evidence a blow. You were sneezing again!!! Told you to get yourself inside for two days and avoid violent head motions, including sneezing! Made me waste a dose of extra-strong securing agent, and this time I will charge you the full amount for it!”

“Buh t’is not my fault, any more than i’ was any o’ the other times! Firs’ I ‘ad a blarin’ cold, now i’s allergy season! I caun’t geh a break, there’s jasmine all along the border walk to work, ca’ you believe it?! Caun’t avoid the stuff wi’out bein’ late!”

“Then take up your complaint with the town tidiness department, not me! It’s not my fault flowers make you sneeze! Honestly, you and your prodigiously powerful sneezes!”

Morris had never been subject to any sort of hay fever, but he was not taking chances. While he had no desire to experience the sensation himself, the mental image did make him chuckle.

It was yet another sign of an emerging boldness, peering out of his everyday behavior as his new eyes peered out from his face. Several coworkers noticed the change in personality before they noticed his eyes were actually a new color, not being accustomed to looking him full in the face without the “magnificent magnifier” goggles worn for tightening minute fastenings on furniture at the shop where he worked. Morris’s thrill that these were from now on his only pair of spectacles was slow to fade, though the lack of glasses, in his opinion, made his face look more unfamiliar than the new eyes did. Outside of work, Morris was forever reaching up to adjust frames that were not there.

It was also about the only negative side effect of his new eyes, his reaching up for imagined glasses, but it didn’t bother him nearly as much as he thought it should, even after the twenty-fifth time he’d fallen prey to it. Remarkable, truly, that he’d worn these eyes for several days now, and no bad, or even strange, side effects had manifested. He knew these were new eyes, but was sure it would take a while for them to fully adjust yet they worked well, properly, and right away, without a hint of any problems. His gaze no longer passed over things he was looking for but locked onto them instead. As of late he was seeing more of his surroundings, more of the shelves, walls, and people in crowds, and less of the floor.

Morris removed his “magnificent magnifiers” to tackle a screw that was actually sized for men instead of mice. He reached for the case that usually held his spectacles, and laughed openly when he found it empty, reminded again that he no longer needed them. It was a full, rich laugh without a hint of bitterness, far more than when he’d joked about his former, faulty eyes days ago in the shop that changed his life. Life itself was beginning to seem amusing – and more cheerful. What a difference a fresh pair of eyes makes, one that is not world-weary at having seen too much disappointment. They infused their newness into Morris, making everything seem brighter.

“Hullo, my kit is shy its largest replacement screw. Mind if I borrow?” A woman’s voice.

Well, most of the time.

“Hello Amelia, no, go right ahead,” said Morris.

She crouched down to rummage through the bright yellow box beside Morris, making conversation as she did so.

“So, I hear you’re coming to the club this weekend to play a few hands? Been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Yes, it has,” he replied.

It was true, he’d done so on a whim he was now regretting. Morris was not a betting man or a blackjack man either. Backgammon games at the park were his preference, but he was abstaining this week out of curiosity, another test of his new eyes. He was not so optimistic that he imagined winning a bundle, but just this once he was almost sure he would catch Arlen cheating, and in front of everybody!

“Can’t go this weekend, though I meant to, but I usually attend meself,” said Amelia. “Hope the playing doesn’t scare you away; I want to see you there next week, ‘kay?”

Morris was so relieved she only wanted to be friendly that his reply was more effusive than he meant it to be.

“I’ll see how things go, Amelia, but no promises. I play games to have fun, but that crowd is so competitive there’s hardly any room left to enjoy yourself.”

“Suit yourself!” she said cheekily as she got up, screw in hand. “Bye!”

Then again perhaps she was flirting; he’d never been good at telling, so the rare times when people confessed they liked him, it seemed to come out of the blue. Someone had already tried since his new eyes; he barely had the gumption to brush her off. Morris admired women as one did a work of art, or a fine anatomical drawing, but there was no attraction involved. Nice to know someone thought he looked well, though.

But to be honest, he doubted most people even noticed his eyes had changed color. He’d not failed to notice that Amelia had prevaricated in speaking his name, probably because she’d forgotten it, he thought morosely.

**

“Oh goodness no! You can’t tell me you’re selling a couch in that shade, can you?!” a woman cried at the top of her voice.

And there went the relative quiet of the furniture showroom, shattered by a customer’s raucous shouting.

 “You must be mad! Either you’re politically blind or you’ve foolishly left it sitting in the sun too long, which I honestly hope is the case.”

The woman must’ve been a schoolmistress. The emphasis she placed on particular words carried all the scorn of a parent who stepped in a new puppy’s accident, lambasting the child who had promised they would housebreak it.

“Oh, ‘scuse me, Morris, have to deal with this clod. Look ‘ere, marm, the color is only a color and not a shabby one at that!” In the same breath as she’d delivered her conciliatory apology to him Amelia, the saleswoman, tacked on the beginnings of her scoldings for the irate customer, and smoothly swiveled herself up into a standing position. Briskly, she strode over, borrowed tool in hand.

“If it isn’t to your fancy, then we have a wide selection of alternative fabrics someone can show you.”

“Fading is forgivable, ignorance is not!”

“Marm, we are not going to stop selling furniture in this color because the Belfry Bombers happened to use it on their flag! I’m not going to let them stop me from appreciating any color of the rainbow!” said Amelia.

That borrowed screwdriver might become a makeshift weapon at the rate this was going. As the debate escalated, Morris hastily (and quietly) used the excuse of putting his remaining tools back in their case to keep out of their line of sight. Creeping off to the back door, he was gratified that his shift ended in about five minutes. Sneaking out before he was noticed was essential, because if someone drew him into the argument, he’d be asked to look them in the face and give them his opinion. Even his new eyes could not imbue him with enough courage for that. No matter how he tried to keep the peace, he’d be lambasted by somebody.

The streets were no better. Just escaped outside, Morris hadn’t even finished his breath of relief before a loud exclamation down the street choked it in him.

“Black hair unordinary?! Of course it’s unordinary in a place like this, it’s from another climate! Maybe we should say that to light blondies in our part of town! They’re certainly an oddity in our country, and we’ll see how hard a time they have swallowing the vomit they’re currently spewing out of their mouths!” The diatribe had exploded out of a florid man with a crumpled newspaper in his fist, the commentary of which was undoubtedly the source of his ire. He was also attracting a crowd.

Morris ducked his head into his upturned collar and walked on. It was the latest in a series of verbal explosions. Should’ve known Amelia was going to boil over; everyone was in one way or the other. It was far more than the usual griping to the sky and ranting to no one so the universe might answer that most people engaged in on particularly bad days.

The anniversary of the Belfry Bombers was trying the patience of everyone, and coupled with a few oddball laws and restrictions on anyone from that region, well, that was pouring gasoline on the fire.

There was a downside to his eyes after all. Morris could not stop noticing bothersome things even if he tried. Things like this, he usually ducked his head, put up with it, and tried his best not to think about it. What could he do after all; he was only one man. But to make such a fuss about the color of one’s eyes, that struck a little more personally than these things usually did.

With all that was going on, that backroom shop was likely doing a rousing business. Morris would’ve mentioned his eye replacement to the crowd if he’d dared venture near it. Might be one way to dodge the problem with minimal fuss – peaceable, the way he liked his solutions – but his answer would likely get his head bitten off. Since eyes can just be swapped out with more appropriate ones, as easily as changing the fabric on an armchair, it might not be worth raising a fuss about keeping them.

**

“You stay right there! You need to pay better attention to where you’re going! Don’t you know this place is off limits to the likes of you!”

Morris felt a sinking in his stomach as he watched a policeman dash off to arrest a woman in mid-step. He’d heard of a few of these incidents from talk at work and in progress down his own street, but this was the first one he was actually passing by as it took place. Restrictions on anyone of supposed foreign nationality had only recently been instituted in places such as shipyards, densely populated landmarks, and of course, any building impressive enough to have bell towers. 

All Morris could see of the youth being harangued was a bowl-cut head of hair resembling black corn silk which alone made her a perfect advertisement as a foreigner. One who had been pushed about too many times in recent days, it appeared. Whatever else the police said riled her up and pushed her argument to widely audible levels.

“You’ll excuse me, you have no right to keep me from my own boat! Would it help if I told you I’m using it for what you and your government so urgently want all us ‘foreigners’ to do? Leaving?! It’s been made plain you don’t want anyone who doesn’t look like they could trace their lineage back to this country’s founding, never mind that generations of my family grew up here! You can’t keep us here just to make life miserable for us! What’ve we done except look like our ancestors?!” Another officer was coming. This was not going to end well.

Closing his new eyes did not help. There was never any problem with his ears, and he couldn’t cover them well enough. In speech she rolled her vowels and used analogies that any native-born countryman would find familiar. Anyway, he’d already seen enough to be bothered; the sounds only tempted him to open his eyes again to see if it was still there, like hearing a prowler in the house but hoping it was only a dream. Of course, the bad parts of people never are. Morris could make no excuses for the policemen. He could not see this as anything but what it was. Prejudicial.

There was never enough time to forget a real tragedy, but ten years should be long enough to stop viewing anyone who came from the “wrong” country as a potential mass murderer. Five minutes was too long for such a delusion.

He did have an opinion: this was not only wrong, it was foolish. If his eyes could be swapped out with new ones in the span of an evening, it was not worth raising a fuss about what color they were, let alone making scurrilous laws based on them! It would be amusing if it were not also so alarming. It was foolish; the police should feel like fools enforcing it, and if no one else realized it, they ought to be made fools of as well. Morris was fuming, fuming and imagining what he wanted to do about this, to walk right up to that officer with an authoritative stride and say in a loud authoritative tone

“Excuse me officer -”

The man turned to him and said, “Yes?” Oh. He was actually in the middle of doing it. Gulp. A timely exclamation from the woman behind helped him regain his oratory stride.

“Thank heavens you’re here, officer.” Morris towed the man to the confrontation. “I don’t know how these two vagabonds got a hold of your uniforms, but they are using their stolen authority to prevent this blameless citizen from getting to her boat!”  

The interjection was so odd that all debating parties paused for what felt a ten-minute long moment to stare at Morris. It was a ludicrous statement; the uniformed officers clearly were uniformed officers, and the latest entry to the party was familiar with their names.

Treading lightly with the distinct possibility the indignant interloper was hitting the sauce even at this early hour, the policeman spoke in as conciliatory a tone as he could.

“Here now, what gives you the impression that these two are vagabonds playing dress-up? Both happen to be colleagues of mine, respectable ones too. I am certain, sir, that I’ve watched as much of this affair as you have, and I can’t say as I’ve seen a spot of unsavory conduct.”

“Well I have, and it’s why I disbelieve they belong in this uniform. Real police have a greater level of integrity and respect for their fellow man. They do not accost a person for merely walking to a pier going about their own business.” And any so-called respecter of the law who says otherwise is also a cad in sheep’s clothing was heavily implied.

Ah, thought the newcomer, this was about the new travel restrictions. Not on shift five minutes and already they were causing a fracas.

“Look sir, the law is only hours old. Everyone is having a difficult time adjusting, but it is still the law and our job is to respect and enforce it.”

“Dear sir, the motto of your fine institution is right on your badge, to protect and serve. That is the spirit of the law, which was created to protect the honest citizen. Any law that doesn’t does not deserve the name of law, and should be rightly flouted and ignored. Officers, the regular citizen needs your protection from this spiteful rule pretending to be something upstanding.”

“Not so upstanding yourself, to be trying to drag the whelp out from the middle of us while making a fuss as distraction,” one said nastily. The one holding cuffs that were about to be on Morris’s wrists. Oh lords, what a stupid mess he’d gotten himself into. Just because he saw it didn’t mean he could do anything effective about it. He was going to get arrested and . . ..

Another hand came down heavily on the outstretched arm with the handcuffs. “It’s hardly a fuss when it makes a valid point.” Morris was shocked. His words had actually managed to rouse someone, a policeman no less.

“Keldon, we all know this proclamation is ridiculous. How many nights did we spend at the pub laughing at the chancellor for even trying for it? We know it doesn’t make sense, it’s a slippery slope right back to the days when my ancestors were considered so much cattle!”

“For Lords sake, Vert, we’re not clapping the chap in chains to sell him off in the market!”

Vert was unassauged. “Honeys they used to call us, honey-bees honey-colors, for all the words sounded sweet. They never treated us so!” The words didn’t sound sweet now, they were spat with all the bitterness characterizing the man with the newspaper just days before. Wasp’s honey maybe, with as much of a sting as its makers. He certainly would never inquire if the man took honey in his tea.

“Treated us like that too, even after we got free, like it never happened! We near never made the switch to robots in the blasted mines ‘cause of that. Still would prefer us to the bolt buckets if they had their way, if only to kill us off! It’s damned dangerous in there, no matter that a man can accomplish more, and most not even going into his own pocket!”

The officer named Keldon, taken aback by the furor, tried placating him.

“Easy Vert, calm down, I’m glad you’re my partner, already made that plain! You gotta admit though, it’s the anniversary. The Belfry Bombers made an impressive showing a few years back, practically a prelude to war! And some of them even trying to immigrate here in the years since. How is that anything but suspicious?! Don’t tell me you forgot half a city exploding!” Vert remembered, he looked likely to recreate the event by exploding himself. When he did, the shrapnel shredded any attempted counterargument from his colleagues and left them stammering, the picture of a broken social cue. Fortunately the pressure had a vent, via his mouth, so the explosion spattered merely the ears of the crowd forming around them with a few complimentary sprays for whoever was too close. The words were caustic enough and might do more damage from those who remembered them. 

“Ten years ago, Keldon, ten years! If the whole bleary nation was involved, they wouldn’t have waited ten years! Something would’ve happened by now! Does it occur to you maybe they’re trying to come here to get away from the maniac heading that country?! I wouldn’t want to live in a country being run by a lunatic! And we’re the bloody police! If there was anything real or substantial about it, something being attempted, we’d be told of it! I haven’t, have you?! Most that I’ve heard has been disgruntled native office workers! If we’re talking about who’s more likely to build a bomb, it’s every trusted individual in the county office that’s ever complained about low wages. Every one of them needs one of us as a shadow! And they don’t have a boat-eating lake to cross to get here!”

The malingerer with the handcuffs was trying to respond, but could manage no more than a broken engine’s sputters. Morris was deeply shocked, moved to find such a staunch ally, and with how quickly law enforcement could turn on itself, as exemplified by these brothers in uniform. It was turning into a real row, attracting half the neighborhood, and the man Keldon had to be discomfited by the number of angry faces that were now surrounding all of them. So was Morris and his unintended black-haired ward of the moment. She’d been so stunned at the route her arrest had taken that she hadn’t spoken a word the whole time. Getting out of here, especially out of this circle of officers, was in order.  

As his glance darted side to side, noting plenty of building fury and nothing of a way out, he chanced to catch the eye of their erstwhile defender, the policeman Vert, momentarily not shouting, and received a significant look. His eyes fixed on Morris’s for some brief seconds, then darted to his side, where the shifting crowd made a small gap. The Look spoke silently, or Morris wouldn’t have heard it over Vert’s partner’s shouting. You could hear with your eyes, he mused, as he yanked his dumbstruck charge behind him through the press of bodies. That Look was of someone perfectly comfortable with getting fired from the police force – if his last act in it was doing what a policeman should be doing.

The pair stood outside the developing circus, gasping, staring at each other in blatant astonishment. Morris found his tongue first and croaked out, “You’re safe now, ma’am.”

“I’m male, but thanks very much!” Well, that was embarrassing. It did explain why he found “her” attractive. “Thanks though, for sticking up for me. Didn’t expect it from anyone, least of all the likes of a pink eye. Or a cop.” The youth glanced at the fomenting crowd before quickly going on, “I mean you’ve got the perfect pearl pink eyes, even . . . yes, even the six lucky blue spots in them. No one would say you don’t belong here.” Frightfully light pink eyes to the youth, the pearly pink of the inside of an oyster shell, highlighting the iris as a perfect speckled white pearl. That was what Morris had seen in the mirror for the past week.

“It’s just a color,” Morris replied.“ And it’s one I’m thinking of getting rid of, honestly. Are your eyes twenty-twenty? I’d be happy to trade with you. It would certainly show those silly legislators just how silly they are being.”

“How in the blinkin -” he sputtered. Morris noted how the skin of red indignance was changing with these last words to a purple blush, making veins stand out elegantly against the man’s light green complexion. The pearl would look better in his face. The color was almost the same as Morris’s own old eyes, the earthy brown of possibility.

***

Ann Davis majored in creative writing in Roger Williams University, and received a Masters in library and information studies from the University of Rhode Island. She’s a book addict, chiefly of science fiction and fantasy, drawing inspiration from those sources and the idiosyncrasies of life in general. Currently a freelance proofreader and copy editor. Her website is under construction, Eye Contact is her first story to be published. 

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