HORLA FICTION (April 2019)

 

20/20 VISION 

by Mark Keane

THE sign above the door read “Optician”. The display in the window never changed, two rows of transparent acrylic noses, each with a pair of glasses. I passed the shop every day on my way to work and the display was scored on my brain from a thousand unconscious glances. One morning, a handwritten sign in the corner of the window jumped out at me: “Not to be missed – Free one day trial of Insight Glasses”.

I had to find out what it meant. It was ten to nine, I could be late to work for once. I entered the optician’s shop. The room inside was small, just enough space for two glass cases with more fake noses and glasses. There was a counter and a larger area behind, tables with microscopes and other instruments. The optician stood up from one of the tables and approached the counter.

He was about my height, middle-aged with iron grey corrugated hair. His white coat was spotless. He wore thick-lensed glasses and his magnified eyes behind the bevelled glass were disconcerting.

“Good morning.” He coughed to clear his throat. “How can I be of assistance?” His voice was familiar.

“The notice in the window, something about an offer.”

“You’re quick on the draw. I only put that up ten minutes ago.”

I didn’t like his glib manner. “What are Insight Glasses?”

He took a handkerchief from the pocket of his white coat, removed his glasses and began polishing the lenses. I looked away, not wanting to see his naked eyes.

“I fully understand your curiosity,” he said, “but first you must take a visual acuity test before I can reveal any secrets.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my eyesight,” I told him. “I have 20/20 vision.”

“No doubt you have, how else could you have seen my discreet notice.”

I regretted entering the shop. I should have continued on my way to work as normal.

“The test is required by the supplier,” he said.

“Who is that?”

“I’m not in a position to say. You must accept there is a certain sensitivity in these matters.”

I didn’t see what sensitivity had to do with it and had no real interest in knowing who supplied the glasses.

He went back to his table and returned with an eye chart.

“Please stand by the door.” It was more a command than a request. “Three lines from the top, what is the vowel?”

“I.” The letter was clearly visible to me.

He coughed and moved the chart further away. “Which two letters appear in the bottom row?”

This was more difficult and I had to squint. “M and U,” I answered.

He put the chart away, beckoned me forward and placed two cardboard sheets on the counter. Each one bore a single black line. “Can you align these two segments?”

I did so without hesitation.

“Excellent, full marks.”

“I told you, I have perfect eyesight.”

“Seeing is believing,” he replied, “and now I can present you with the Insight Glasses.”

He placed a metal cylinder with a screw-top on the counter. It was not the standard hard flat glasses case that snapped open and shut.

“So why are they called Insight Glasses?”

“The clue is in the name. What we have here is not a pair of conventional spectacles. The wearer is granted unprecedented vision and comprehension. Once you put on these glasses you will see the true nature of whomever you observe.”

“Really?” I tried to conceal my interest.

“Warts and all.”

“Is that so?”

“You will see with a clarity that cuts through the superficial, a sharpness that strips away the veneer of pretence to reveal what is underneath. These glasses provide 20/20 perception in vivid colour.”

I lifted the cylinder and began unscrewing the lid. The optician put his hand on my arm. “You mustn’t open it, not now.”

“Then how can I use them?” I knew then how much I wanted the glasses.

“You are not to use them here.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a stipulation of the transaction.”

I saw no point arguing with him and put the unopened cylinder in my pocket.

“I understand your annoyance at this tedious fuss. If I were in your position I would feel the same.” He was being too familiar and I didn’t like it. Maybe all opticians were like this. I couldn’t tell, I had never met one before.

“There’s one more thing.” He was holding an envelope. “This contains a short questionnaire. Basic details, age, height, weight, employment, standard questions. Something of a nuisance and if you’re like me, then you hate filling forms.” He was right about that. “You don’t have to respond to all the queries but I do ask that you answer the final question, which merely requires circling “yes” or “no”.”

Nothing was ever really free, I told myself, there were always strings attached.

“Don’t read or fill in the form until you’re ready to return the glasses.” He checked his watch. “Which will be tomorrow morning at nine fifteen.”

“And there’s definitely no charge to use the glasses?” I didn’t want to be surprised later with some hidden cost.

“There’s no financial cost to you, not a penny.”

“What’s to prevent me from keeping these magic specs?” I asked.

“No one else has,” he answered.

I left the shop, anxious to get away from him.

It was well after nine when I got into the office. To all appearances, no one took any notice but they were all keenly aware of my uncustomary late arrival. I didn’t need special glasses to see that.

“Morning,” I said to Stephens.

“Good morning.” He gave me one of his gormless grins.

“Any sign of McCrae?” I asked.

“No, he hasn’t been in yet.” Stephens went back to his single finger typing.

I turned on my computer and read my e-mails. The office was quiet save for the whisper of turning pages and the thrum of hard drives. I took the cylinder from my pocket. After a surreptitious look to my left and right to make sure no one was watching, I unscrewed the top and took out the glasses. They looked like standard issue spectacles, the lenses mounted in thin black frames. I put them on and they fitted neatly over my ears and sat comfortably on the bridge of my nose. My vision was unaltered.

“I didn’t know you used glasses.”

It was Stephens. I looked up and was thrown back in my seat by what I saw. A ferocious slavering beast rose above me, black eyes flashing, drool dripping from its pointed muzzle, curved yellow teeth bared in a savage growl. Frightening sensations raced through my mind – disgust, loathing, an all-consuming hatred and rage that demanded punishment, blood and pain.

I pulled the glasses from my eyes and flung them on the desk.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to surprise you.”

I barely took in what he was saying. What had I just seen?

“Are you alright?”  

“Yeah, yeah, you just startled me, I was miles away.”

“Do you use them for the computer?”

“What?” I kept my eyes averted.

“The glasses, are they to correct the glare?”

“No, they’re not mine.”

“Oh, I see.”

“I’m testing them for a friend.”

“How does that work?”

“It’s a bet, my friend, he’s always coming up with stupid games.” I was floundering. What had I seen? “I have something I need to finish here.”

“Sure, don’t let me hold you.”

Stephens was sneaking glances in my direction, watching what I was doing. Inoffensive Stephens, shy and diffident Stephens, not a bloodthirsty rabid animal straining at the leash to tear me limb from limb. I opened and closed files on my computer and tried to concentrate on the numbers in a spreadsheet, all the time aware of Stephens’ presence. Five, ten minutes passed and I was feeling calmer. I turned my head slowly to look at him, my eyes half-shut, fearing what I would see. Stephens appeared as he normally did, puzzled expression on his face as he read what was on his computer screen. What had I seen before? Had that been Stephens, the real Stephens?

McCrae showed up later in the morning, doing the rounds, checking on everyone and applying whatever he had learnt on his latest leadership course. He stood beside me, fingertips beating a light tattoo on my desk.

“Everything ready for tomorrow’s pitch to Baker-Levine?”

“Yeah, sure,” I said.

“Good man, you know how important this contract is to us.” McCrae was in charge and encouraging. “I’m counting on you to take the lead on this one.”

He moved on to Stephens. I put on the glasses. McCrae was pointing to something on the screen as Stephens rooted around in a pile of folders. Seen through the Insight Glasses, McCrae crouched on the ground, a quivering wretched creature, tears streaming from raw, swollen eyes. I could hear his thoughts as he pleaded…… take me away from here, somewhere safe, look after me, away from all this, far away, please protect me…..

I removed the glasses as McCrae stood up from Stephens’ desk, clearly irritated. “How many times do I have to explain this to you?”

Stephens was apologetic. “I’m sorry, I’ll do it properly.”

“I don’t have time for this now.” McCrae flounced away, the officious line manager with his deep-seated insecurities and on the verge of a breakdown.

The Insight Glasses worked, they stripped away the camouflage just like the optician said. I could feel a hum of discontent coming from Stephens.

“You shouldn’t let him treat you like that.”

Stephens recoiled from my glance. “I know but he’s right, I keep making mistakes.”

“That doesn’t matter,” I told him. “You should stand up to McCrae.”

“No way, I don’t want to lose my job.”

“That’s not going to happen. Stand your ground and he’ll back off.”  

Stephens returned to his numbers. He was embarrassed but I could tell he was also resentful. The inner beast had been provoked and silently snarled its rage. I wanted to test the glasses again but was reluctant to let anyone else see me wearing them, deterred by the attention they had drawn from Stephens. My phone started ringing. It was a partner at Baker-Levine with queries about details we had already discussed.

“Are you sure about these figures?” the partner wanted to know. His tone suggested fault finding but it was difficult to tell. Idly, I wondered if there was an Insight Hearing Aid.

It was after eleven and time for a coffee. In the kitchen, I put on a fresh pot. As I waited for it to brew, I watched Goodwin who was at the photocopier. Hapless Goodwin, the most boring man in Christendom. He was struggling with a heavy book, pushing on the cover to flatten the pages on the copier glass. The idiot was likely to break the copier. Now here was someone who lacked insight.

I put on the glasses and observed him from behind the door. Goodwin was slumped over the photocopier, his arms and wrists as thin as twigs, his skin yellow and waxy, hair sparse on a shrunken skull. And the words driving through my head, a terrible dialogue…. tired, drained, the cancer eating away at my gut, eating its way through me, eating me whole…..

Back at my desk, I sat staring at the computer screen.

“What, no coffee?” Stephens was looking at my desk. I had left my cup behind.

“We should be kinder to Goodwin,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

I detected an underlying hostility in his question and his attitude, something I hadn’t noticed before. Stephens was not the sheepish nice guy he portrayed. Goodwin was dying of cancer. I repented all the nasty and vicious things I had ever said about him. He had been the butt of so many despicable comments. Goodwin was an easy target and I was sorry and ashamed.

The team meeting in the afternoon was interminable. Reaching for a glass of water, I caught Goodwin’s eye and looked away, coughing to hide my discomfort. Buller, the Senior Director, was staring at me and I feigned interest in what he was saying. Outwardly authoritative and in control, what was he really feeling? And the secretary sitting next to him, what was hidden behind her forbidding demeanour? Was her severe expression the result of conflicting forces that threatened to tear her apart? Was she struggling to suppress shrieks of agony, straining every fibre of her being to hold herself together?

If I had the Insight Glasses, I could see it all, but I had locked the cylinder in my desk. I noted how tightly Stephens was gripping his pen. The howling crazed wolf lurked beneath a layer of social meekness. McCrae raised a point and referred to the agenda, but his heart was not in it. I knew he was wilting under his sham exterior. It was so clear to me now.

Donovan raised his hand. “I can put some numbers together to support the proposal.” That was typical Donovan, always on the lookout for an opportunity to show his efficiency and willingness to Buller. What would I see if I were to look at him through the glasses? Would I see him writhing in torment, a scaly lizard tortured by his duplicitous nature? Sitting next to Donovan, Adams looked on passively. I wondered what lurid secret lay beneath the sheen of his ambiguous façade.

Meeting over, there was only an hour to go to knocking-off time. I had arranged to meet up with Henderson for a drink after work. Henderson was my best friend, someone I had known since our schooldays. We had the same tastes in books and films and our get-togethers were always full of lively banter and laughter. He would get a kick out of the Insight Glasses. I needed to work out the best way to tell my story, spin it out and have him hanging on my every word. I was looking forward to it.

Waites, the office know-it-all, was helping Stephens with his computer.

“Not a technical glitch, more a case of human error.” Waites frowned and Stephens nodded foolishly, in synchronicity with the emphatic sway of Waites’ bald head.  

 “You know the first computer can be traced back to Adam and Eve.” Waites was trying out one of his lame jokes. “It was an apple with hardly any memory, just one byte.”

Stephens laughed but I could sense his animosity.

I unlocked my desk and retrieved the glasses. I watched Waites rubbing his feline chin against the computer monitor, his fur black and sleek, whiskers spread and twitching. I heard the rolling harmonics of his purr and the words he breathed…. rub me, caress me, admire my lustrous fur, show me more attention, see how soft my fur is, rub me

The glasses were amazing. Henderson would have a good laugh at this. There was time for a final coffee. Powell was in the kitchen. He was part of the backroom staff and I had little to do with him. With his permanent wide-eyed expression and erratic hand gestures, everyone thought he was an oddball. I didn’t attempt a greeting and there was no question of small talk. Glasses in place, I observed him. He appeared as he always did, surprised and demented. There was no veil to lift, no hidden alternative. I supposed in Powell’s case, what you saw was what you got, whatever that was.

I arrived at the pub before Henderson and ordered two pints that I took to a table in a quiet corner. I placed the cylinder beside my drink. Should I start with the optician or leave him to the end? He was essential to the story but there were many ways to tell it. Henderson was in for a treat.

I felt the weight of a hand on my shoulder. “Sorry I’m late.”

Henderson was wearing faded jeans and a ratty t-shirt. He sat slouched in the chair across from me. I loosened the knot of my tie. His fat face with two days growth of beard broke into a grin. To say he was laid back was a gross under-statement. Henderson was the most placid man I knew.

“Still surviving the cut and thrust of the commercial world.”

It was a standard Henderson opener. He had never managed to hold down a regular job and survived on bits and scraps, irregular work for hire, part-time and replacement stints. I kept pressing him to take greater responsibility and join the nine to five brigade but he refused to listen to reason.

“See this.” I pointed to the cylinder and coughed to clear my throat. “I have a story to tell you that will take some believing.”

I pulled the glasses over my ears. Straightening the frame with both hands, I looked up and time stood still. Henderson’s grimace was an excruciating rictus, his eyes wild, his back pushed against the chair as he tried to claw himself away from me. Worse still were his words, his undeniable, terrible words…. have to get away from him, it’s unbearable, I can’t stand the self-centred prick, lording it over me, the stuck up arsehole, why do I put up with him…

“Is there something wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

I put the glasses away, blinked and rubbed my eyes. Henderson was reaching for his drink, the Henderson I knew, my good-natured friend. I stayed in the pub for an hour, long enough for the second pint he insisted on buying. We talked about neutral things, the books we were reading, football results. I cut short any reference to the glasses, said they were irrelevant, there was no story to tell. Henderson did not press me, he was used to being browbeaten.

When I got home, I went into the living room. My wife looked up from her book.

“What’s that you’ve got?” she asked.

It was only then I realised I had the cylinder in my hand. “A pair of glasses.”

“Where did you get them?” She gave me a quizzical look. I must have seemed half-crazed, still struggling to come to terms with what had happened with Henderson.

“I’m looking after them for someone at work.”

“I’ve never seen you in glasses. Let’s see what you look like.”

I unscrewed the cylinder, removed the glasses and put them on.

“It really makes a difference,” she said.

I forced myself to look at her. Her head was turned away, arms outstretched and palms flat to ward me off, pushing me away. I could not see her face but her thoughts pulsated in my brain…. what does he want now, his neediness is pathetic, I’m so fed up of him, those glasses look ridiculous, is he trying to appear intelligent, forget about him, he’s such a burden, such a bore…

“I think they suit you.” She went back to her book.

That night, my brain wouldn’t let me sleep, roiling with contradictions, an inner hubbub that refused to quieten. I couldn’t rid myself of the things I had seen through the Insight Glasses. I relived every one of Henderson’s thoughts and scourged myself with my wife’s disdain. As the first light penetrated the curtains, I fell into an exhausted semi-consciousness and awoke, sitting upright before the alarm went off.

Downstairs, I took the envelope from my coat and tore it open. Two pages of single spaced text, font size 10. I didn’t need glasses to read the list of questions, those the optician had mentioned and others that were not so innocuous. What gave me pleasure? What did I find irritating? Prying questions regarding sleep, appetite, feelings of anxiety and failure. I came to the final question: would you recommend this product to other customers? Yes or No. It was outrageous, treating the glasses like common merchandise, like a kettle or a microwave oven.

I recalled the optician’s sly words and his overbearing manner. Who was he to make demands, having me take an eye test when my eyesight was not in question? He was responsible for everything I had witnessed. I left the house, brooding as I walked. Henderson couldn’t stand me. My wife thought I was pathetic. Those damned glasses. What good did it do to know? Nobody was how they appeared. Look at Stephens and McCrae. The exterior was a screen, a defence, a way of surviving, a way of getting through.

A woman wheeling a pram approached me, smiling. The baby in the pram began crying and she bent down. I noticed something in the impatient turn of her head as she leaned into the pram. Looking closely, I saw her mask slip. I saw the sneer, the revulsion and malice, the markings on the matted hair below her dark mean eyes, the twitching snout and thick grey tongue. She noticed me watching her and continued on her way.

The optician was waiting for me, standing at the counter in his white coat.

“Good morning.”

I ignored his greeting. “You said everyone else returned the glasses.”

“Yes,” he replied as I handed over the cylinder and envelope.

“And nobody held on to their free pair.”

“That’s correct.” He was so sure of himself. How I hated him.

The cylinder was empty. I took the glasses from my pocket, moving too quickly for him to prevent me. I looked at him through the Insight Glasses. I looked and I saw. There was no head of crinkly grey hair, no Coke-bottle glasses. It was me, it was my face that I saw through the Insight Glasses.

“Now you know,” I heard him say.

I flung the glasses on the counter. “Get them away from me. I want nothing more to do with them.”

“You don’t need them.” He put the glasses back in the cylinder.

Outside, someone was reading the notice in the window. I glimpsed the malevolent grin of the next customer as he went into the shop. The turbulence in my head was intolerable. I rushed away, eyes on the ground but I could not stop myself from looking up and seeing. All the faces, grey faces, yellow faces, scabrous faces, bulging eyes, dead and mad eyes staring at me. A poor devil covered in small white blisters stood to one side, his thoughts hissing in my head…….Jesus help me, what’s wrong with me, I can’t stand it.

On I went, passing others who leered at me with their wet lips, laughed and glowered, a parade of liars and cowards. Faces stretched and sagging, meaty bodies, the stink of their humanity. A woman in a business suit, sloppy mascara, broken veins and the eyes of a mole…..the stupidity of those people, I have to do everything myself, they should be whipped, made to scream, they’re all so ugly, so useless. A beggar propped against the railings, his face lined from a thousand tragedies…….I’m no servant, no parasite, I’m profound, creative, I understand this pain, my sorrow is sweet, I demand recognition.  

One after another, they came at me and I felt their itchiness, their inadequacies and desperation. Dizzy, lightheaded, I stumbled into a park and collapsed on a bench. All those faces, the envy and fear and hatred, the certainty and crazed euphoria, mewling and braying voices. I was incapable and unfit, sick and depressed. Now I knew, the optician had said. Now I was cursed with insight.

***

Mark Keane has taught for many years in universities in North America and the UK. Aside from dry technical publications in science and engineering academic journals, his short story fiction has appeared in Bewildering Stories, Fiction on the Web, Prolific Press, LabLit, WiFiles and The Dark Lane Anthology series.He lives in Edinburgh. Follow Horla on Twitter@HorlaHorror