The Ocularist by Ian Gammie

The Ocularist

In the second desk drawer from the bottom, hidden behind a small stack of index cards, sat two prosthetic eyes in their original packaging. Each eye was handcrafted and painted with expensive acrylics that had to be mailed in all the way from Chicago. It increased the cost of the prosthetics, but Martin was one of the few ocularists who specialized in blowing recycled cryolite glass and he liked to brag that his work had more personality than any mass-produced counterpart.

The ocularist tapped his fingers on the top of the boxes and sighed. Business wasn’t as good as it had once been. Too much childproofing, he suspected, too many kids staying in and playing video games instead of running around outside, climbing trees, throwing rocks. He’d made his name in careless accidents and when the carelessness went away, so did the customers. Selling his artisan eyes was all he could do to stay afloat. If he couldn’t have quantity, well, he had to make it up somehow.

The only patient of the day was a nine-year-old boy named Nolan Winters who’d had an unfortunate run in with a foul ball. The boy was wearing a black eyepatch and had a worn-down baseball glove on his left hand, which he was thoughtlessly punching.

“Stop that,” his mother whined from the corner. When Nolan shook his head, she turned to Martin and spoke in her grown-up voice, “Sorry, doctor, but he hasn’t taken it off since the accident.”

“That’s okay, Mrs. Winters, all I need are his eyes,” Martin said, not bothering to correct her. Most people liked to call him doctor; it was more familiar to them than ocularist. He took a few steps closer to Nolan, leaned in and shone a flashlight in his good eye. “Say ahhhhh.”

“Ahhhhhhh.”

The “doctor” chuckled to himself. Ocularist humor was in short demand. Then for a minute he was all business, examining the grayish-green in the iris that eventually become a golden crown surrounding the pupil; he took note of the particular shade of off-white in the sclera. Finally, he nodded confidently. “I think we’ll have a perfect match,” he said, more to himself than anyone.

Martin went to his desk and came back holding a box marked NW. Gently, ever so gently, he removed the glass eye from the cotton lining. It wasn’t shaped like a ball. That was one of the misgivings people always had about prosthetics. In the first place, it was elongated and thin rather than spherical: an elegant mixture of art and illusion that looked utterly alien outside a socket. The center was slightly puffed out where the paint was the finest. In most prosthetics, the colors remained static, but they moved in the artisan eye, swelling back and forth like tides, though so slowly that you had to know where to look to see it.

“Ready, Nolan? Once I slide this baby under your eyelids, no one will be able to tell which is the glass and which is the real one,” Martin said.

The boy had stopped punching his mitt and was focused on grinding his knuckles as far into the leather as they would go.

A light caught Martin’s eyes and reflected a bit too evenly. “It’ll be our little secret.” He winked.

When Dr. Tanner went to put the eye in for the first time, Nolan squirmed at the mere thought of it. He knew it didn’t make any sense, but it seemed like he could see the doctor stretching his eyelids apart between his fingers. The edges of the new eye pressed against the soft, pink tissue inside the socket, briefly pinching the bridge of his nose before settling into place. It was heavier than his old eye had been. It felt cold and clumsy and only let in a tiny amount of light.

Shades returned slowly. At first he thought his good eye was playing tricks on him. The thought of having two bad eyes put him on the verge of tears, but he didn’t know how the new eye would react to that, so he forced himself to hold it in. Crying’s for babies, he thought, crying’s for babies, crying’s for babies. When they reached the car, his mom opened the door for him. Nolan gave her an annoyed glance. I can do it myself, but he didn’t say it out loud. Nolan punched the pocket of the mitt and felt the dulled impact against his hand. Then he punched it again, and again. Don’t cry.

Once he was buckled in, he felt secure enough to try closing his good eye. A gray outline of the backseat appeared to him, a lighter rectangle hung in the air next to it where the sunshine hit the window.

The first color he saw was brown. Not the rich brown fabric on the car seats that changed tint when he wiped his hand across the grains or even the light brown of the seatbelt stretched across his chest. It was a rusted brown suit. Everything else was still a blur, but the suit gained form while the headrests and rearview and the other cars in the parking lot remained gray.

“Nice eye, kid,” the man in the suit said. He was wearing a brown tie with a gold clip to go along with the suit. He chewed the end of an uncut cigar. “I’ll bet you can just about see out of it, can’t you?” The air around him was cold.

Nolan punched his mitt. His mother was taking her time walking around the side of the car; he opened his good eye to monitor her progress. The man was still there. He rested his elbow against the window where frost had started to form and he kicked his feet onto the cup holder between the front seats. Nolan’s mother got into the driver’s seat. She put on a fake smile and looked back at her son.

“Ready to go home?” she asked. She started the car and began backing out without listening for a response.

“What’s your name?” the man asked.

Nolan stared at him and shivered.

“Call me Brady.” He ran his fingers through the grayness of his scalp that showed between thin sprouts of darker hair. “Not much of a talker, are you, kid?”

Nolan put his mitt flat against the top of his legs and hammer punched the fingers. He felt a tingle around his fingernails and the shock waves reverberated into his knee. His feet swung slightly.

The man sat up and reached into Nolan’s mother’s purse. He pulled out her wallet then leaned back into the seat.

“Margaret Winters,” Brady read, “forty-two years old. Look at that, not an organ donor. Shame.”

He tossed the wallet back at the purse on the passenger’s seat. It hit the side and bounced off onto the floor.

“You’re being awfully quiet back there,” Peggy Winters called back. “How does the eye feel?”

When Nolan didn’t respond, she looked in the rearview mirror. Nolan was staring at the empty seat next to him. “Nolan?”

“She’s talking to you, Mr. Winters, better give her a smile.”

Nolan smiled and his mother turned back to the road, humming softly to herself.

He blinked a few times to wipe the glass clean. He could feel the round glass edges press against the insides of his eyelids. They felt like they were sticking out as far as his nose, but when he lifted his hand up to feel them the intrusions were hardly noticeable: smaller than scratched up mosquito bites.

Still no colors. Only whites and blacks and grays. And the brown suit that looked like dried blood. Things weren’t getting clearer outside the car, either. His good eye still saw the world in the same familiar way, but when both eyes were open it was as if everything was suddenly overcast. His mother’s spray-on tan was a mix between orange and charcoal. He never looked completely away from Brady. It was as if he was frozen in place. He couldn’t make himself look out his window or stare straight ahead into the back of the seat. There was an unusual glow that brought him in like a moth to the flame. Brady’s skin was pale to the point of being colorless.

“Mom?” Nolan said.

“Yeah?”

“Can I have my eyepatch back?” Nolan asked. A smirk twisted Brady’s lips: sudden and mocking.

“Don’t you like your new eye?” On second thought Nolan’s mother added, “I think you look very handsome.”

“Just until I get used to it.”

“Alright, but I don’t want you getting in the habit.” Peggy picked the eyepatch out of her purse and handed it to Nolan without looking back. “That eye cost me an arm and a leg.”

Nolan took the patch with his free hand and slid it over his head, pushing it onto the comfortable groove in his hair that was still matted from being under the black band for the last month.

When he looked up, Brady was gone. Nolan sat alone on the backseat. He began punching his mitt again, harder than before to wear out the chill in his fingers. There was nothing to be afraid of. It was all in his head. He should have known better, he was almost ten for goodness’ sake. Maybe his baby cousins would have been scared of the man, but not him. His cousins still played coach-pitch. Nolan had started pitching two years ago. He already knew how to throw a curveball. How could he possibly be scared? It was so stupid.

I’m too old for imaginary friends, he thought.

Brady’s voice came closer than before, a cold shock down Nolan’s spine. “Real friends are for life,” he whispered.

Nolan spun around, looking but unable to find the man or the suit or any trace of a speaker. His mother went on humming. The leather straps let out a strained groan between his thumb and palm, he punched the mitt so hard.

~~

Nolan watched his mother put on her best fishnet stockings—the ones with the artistic slashes up the thighs—and her red lipstick. The little black dress stayed in the closet because she’d picked the violet one with laces all the way up the back. Nolan tied it for her as she put the final touches on her make up.

“Does he have to come over again?” Nolan complained.

The glass eye slipped down lower in his socket. Nolan winced then lifted the eyepatch just enough to slide his finger underneath and readjust it. His mother looked into the mirror and held Nolan’s cyclops’ stare in the reflection.

“You remember our rule, don’t you?”

“Nothing leaves my room,” Nolan recited.

“Not even a—?”

“Not even a peep.”

“That’s right,” Peggy said. “This is a big night for mommy, you wouldn’t want to ruin it, would you?”

“No.”

Peggy flashed a bleached smile. “Good boy.”

Nolan’s room was mostly empty. There was a desk and a double bed and a bookshelf, but they didn’t take up very much space and the floors stretched a long ways between them. An autographed poster of Randy Johnson hung over the desk. The autograph was a fake, something his mom drew up for his seventh birthday. He’d checked online to find out what the Big Unit’s autograph really looked like. It wasn’t even close to the same. Not that it mattered all that much to him. Nolan liked the poster and he liked that his mom had signed it for him, even if she didn’t do a very good job.

He picked a ball up off the bed and spent a few minutes practicing grips for various pitches. Two seam fastball, curveball, slider. He couldn’t throw a decent slider yet, but he knew how. It was a simple matter of reaching puberty before he’d get the arm strength to pull it off.

“That’s a good looking mitt.”

Nolan tried to ignore the cold. He shifted his grip. Change up, knuckleball.

“Your daddy give it to you?”

The ball slapped into the pocket of the glove. He grabbed after it—four seam fastball—and held the glove under his nose then nodded to an invisible catcher outside the window. His arm came forward, but he let the ball flip out of his hand at the top of the arc and it tumbled to the floor. He was still wearing the eyepatch.

“I’m beginning to think we got off on the wrong foot,” Brady said. “My name’s Brady.”

“I know.”

“It talks! Fuck me sideways, the kid can talk!” Brady shouted.

It was too loud. Nolan’s mom would hear it for sure. He put his finger over his lips.

“I’ve got a question for you,” Brady said, not bothering to lower his voice. “When that foul ball busted up your eye, did your mom kick the guy out? Or was he here the next morning?”

The leather was thick enough around the fingers to take out the sting when Nolan punched the glove. Splitter, screwball, frying bacon. He’d worn her robe with nothing underneath. He’d laughed when he saw Nolan’s eyepatch and called him an ass pirate. Nolan didn’t know what it meant, but he didn’t like the way he’d said it.

“I hate him,” Nolan said.

Brady made a clicking sound.

“He’s downstairs, you know,” Brady said. “Take off the patch and I’ll take care of him for you.”

“Why do you want to help me?”

“Come on, kid, what are friends for?” Brady said. His voice came from everywhere at once. “You are my friend, aren’t you?”

“You aren’t real. You can’t be.”

“How about you take off the eye patch and see for yourself?”

An icy grip took hold of Nolan’s wrist. His free hand was lifting the eye patch before he knew what he was doing. There were colors this time, not just shades. He was used to the feel of the glass on the inside of his eyelids by then and embraced the warm light that found its way to the pink tissue behind the prosthetic.

Brady sat on the bed covered in blood. It dripped off his suit and onto the comforter then the floor where it pooled in grooves and slipped between cracks in the boards. He was polishing his golden tiepin with a white handkerchief. When he finished, the handkerchief was stained red in long, thin lines.

“See?” Brady said. “It’s already been taken care of.”

Nolan ground his fist into the webbing of his mitt. He tried to look away and found himself unable to. Frozen in time and space. Branches rattled against the outside of his window. Blood dripped in fat globs off the corners of his bed.

“I helped you,” Brady said. “A real friend would help me in return.”

“How?” It was all Nolan could force out.

Brady slid effortlessly off the bed. His shoes squished when they hit the floor. “I want the eye,” he said.

Nolan’s hand went towards his new eye, the artisan eye. He slid his thumb up his cheek until he found the base of the prosthetic.

One step closer and Brady was laughing. “No, not that one. I want the other one.” He loosed a lippy grin. “A real eye for a real friend, doesn’t that sound fair?”

A lace snapped under the pressure against the mitt. It was just enough to break Nolan free from his trance. There was a way to make the monster go away. Pins and needles shot into the fingertips of his free hand when he tried to move it, an icy sensation ripped down through his elbow. He swung his arm, but the cold was bone-deep and it throbbed.

The mitt was still covering his other hand. Nolan shook it off, relieved to find it was warm underneath. He grabbed for the eye patch resting on the top of his head and pulled it down over the glass, closing both eyes as he did it.

When he opened his good eye again, Nolan was standing alone in his room. He could hear crying from downstairs. His mother’s, he thought. There was no blood on his bed, though, nothing on the comforter or the floorboards. He took a deep breath. His heart stopped racing and he allowed his shoulders to sag. It was all in his head after all. Just a stupid game of make believe. As he exhaled, Nolan watched his breath rising through the crisp, cold air, and he felt fingers scrape against his skull.

~~

Martin Tanner hung up the phone. He took a moment to stretch his back over the top of the chair behind the counter in reception until he heard a satisfying series of cracks down his spine. It had been such a long time since he’d had a proper receptionist that he couldn’t even remember the last one’s name. A cup of coffee sat in front of him. It was lukewarm and he didn’t punish himself by forcing it down.

Peggy Winters had agreed to an appointment for a week from Wednesday. It was a long ways off and Martin had nothing but free time until then. There were no patients on the schedule and he’d finished all of Nolan Winter’s prep work days ago. Pushing the appointment back was simply an issue of vanity. Martin desired very much to present himself as a busy man and, by association, an important one.

He wandered back to the office. The desk lamp was on, but the back of the chair was facing the door.

“Good evening, Brady,” Martin said.

The base of the chair groaned when Brady swiveled around. His cheeks were smooth: fresh from the razor’s edge. Light reflected harshly off them. He reached out his hand and set the eye on the desk. Then he stood up, tipped his hat, and walked out of the room.

Martin bent over and slid open the second drawer from the bottom, scattering a few index cards when he reached inside. The box he removed was a twin copy of the first, identical in every aspect all the way down to the letters NW written on the label. The ocularist lifted the lid, gently removed the prosthetic from its case then picked the eye up off the desk and held them both in the light to compare the way the grayish-green flowed towards the golden crown around the pupil. It was a perfect match.

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