Aaron Menzel was inspired to write short story “Patched”, featured in The Escape Issue, after undergoing laser eye surgery. Illustration by Matthew Brazier
“How much longer?”
“Not much, Mrs Asvang. One more incision needs to be made.”
“It’s just my husband —”
“He’ll be fine, Mrs Asvang. Please, all excessive facial movement must be avoided.”
Rita saw the drops fall from the bottle before they splashed across her eye, eating away at her vision, blurring sharp lines into disorder. The clink of tools, and then the pressure, like a thumb pushed against a puffed-up cheek, as the scalpel made a final slice into her cornea. A spritz of water and the dead skin skimmed away, the operating room came into focus. The nurse smiled and removed the padded bars that held her head in place.
Rita sat up. On the wall, painted in gold, she read, “If you see this, thank the doctor!” and she handed her bear to the nurse as she was helped off the table. “You’ll have a thirty-minute period of rest while the adhesive contacts settle. Just relax and keep those eyes closed.”
“And my husband. Can you tell him, tell Silas —”
“He’ll be informed of your success Mrs Asvang. Breathe and remember not to touch those eyes. They’re fragile for the first few hours.”
After more numbing drops to ease the swelling, Rita followed the nurse out to the lobby. Silas leaned against the counter, his features blurred in the dim light, but she knew all the angles and points of her husband.
“You’re late. Are your eyes OK? You gonna need additional surgeries?”
“I’m sorry, Silas. But look! I’m — ”
“Were there complications?”
“Oh. I don’t think so. The doctor had to be careful with the contact bandages. I’m fine. I can see! No glasses!”
“And your prescription won’t change? No more frames? No more lenses?”
“Your vision will be spotty for the first few days,” said the nurse as she held out a bag of supplies to Rita. “Make sure to wear the sunglass and keep the eyes hydrated.”
“Ok. Well, good.” Silas took the bag from the nurse. “Good, well…I’m glad then. Instructions are in here?” The nurse nodded. “Fantastic. We’d better be getting home. Missed most of the morning as it is.”
“Goodbye!” Rita called as Silas guided her towards the front door. “And thank you!” The nurse waved, and Rita marvelled at how, even in the low light, the bare bulbs caused halos and flares to dance and weave around the nurse as the door shut behind her.
Rita pressed her face to the window during the drive home. Everything came in and out of focus, like someone was adjusting knobs on the side of her head. She could see the texture on the cars as they passed – then it faded into smooth patches of colour. And as she strained to capture every detail, she felt the itch of the adhesive contact.
Rita opened the bag and felt for the bottle of drops, twisted off the lid and squirted a few bits of relief directly onto the contact. She struggled to close each eye as the drops absorbed, each lid springing up over the bulge swelling from the socket.
“You’re not touching your eyes, are you?” Silas asked as he sped through a yellow.
“No, just drops. I’m being careful. The lenses feel like they’re on fire and the lids won’t stay down. Too much swelling I suppose.”
“Is that normal? That can’t be normal. If we have to get another surgery to —”
“I’m sure it’s —”
“Please, don’t interrupt me. If we have to have another surgery, we’ll be getting it for free. They’re not going to cheat me out of three grand, I’ll tell you that.” He trailed off as they pulled into the driveway. Rita made sure that her sunglasses were snug against her face, then followed Silas into the house, watching how the shadows snatched and dripped off his jacket as the sun dropped behind the hills.
The burning began around midnight. With each blink, Rita’s eyelids scratched at the protective covering, threatening to rip it away from the delicate cornea. The tears had dried up hours ago, and as she shook the bottle of drops, she knew she had to be at least a third of the way through. This couldn’t be normal. The brochure had described nothing like the pain she felt, but the surgery had to be a success even if she made it one on her own. Slowing her mind, she inhaled and forced the lids shut a fraction more with each exhalation, until she saw nothing but black and sleep took over.
“Oh God, Rita! Rita!” Rita’s head bounced against the pillow as Silas shook her, waking her from her dream.
“What? What is it?”
“Oh God. Rita, your eyes they —”
“My eyes? Are they OK? What’s wrong?”
“I thought you were dead! You were sleeping with them open!”
“You scared me.”
“I’m sorry.” Rita felt for the drops on the nightstand. Everything in the bedroom was a fuzzy caricature. The framed portrait above the dresser had turned into a blend of emerald and scarlet, the lamp a static pillar of yellow. She grasped the bottle, turned towards Silas, and immediately had to suppress laughter. The eyedrops had settled on the lenses and magnified Silas’s nose, turning it into a bulbous plug below his eyes. His mouth ran into a red blur as she blinked away the tears, and his chin looked horribly long.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, Silas. Nothing. It just feels good to get the moisture in.” Rita refrained from describing what she saw. Silas could have a sense of humour, but not so much in the morning. Plus, the sting of her eyes had taken over her thoughts.
“Well I’m glad you’re feeling better, but my heart is pounding. What a way to wake up.”
Together they made the bed and set about tidying up. Rita had read that light housework was acceptable, and most recipients of lasek could be back to reading by the end of the second day. The sharp pains from the night before had disappeared, but a dull ache flared with each
blink and Saturday passed as it usually did. Rita finished dishes, taking breaks only for lunch and more drops, and Silas worked on the computer before leaving for groceries.
Capitalising on the silence, Rita sank into the sofa and dialled up Lucy, her sister, chatting about her job, her husband, everything but the lasek. Silas had been adamant about not mentioning the surgery until they knew it would be a success. “You read all about these catastrophic failures. Wouldn’t it be horrendous to tell your family you’re going to get your eyes fixed only for you to be blinded? No. I say wait. Then it can be a surprise!” But as Rita hung up she felt a twinge of doubt. While her sister did have a few blemishes on her record — her first impression of Silas being one of them — she tended to have a keen sense of when something wasn’t right.
Rita wished she could call her sister over and have her take a look, but as she thought about it more, she figured Lucy would simply google her symptoms, which is one thing Rita had yet to do. But why google when a professional could be consulted? Rita rummaged through her purse and found the card she needed. She dialled and pressed the phone to her ear, counting the rings until:
“Transect Lasek. Opening eyes seven days a week, this is Angela how may I help you?”
“Hi, Angela. This is Rita Asvang. I was in yesterday and I just had a few questions about the procedure.”
“Or course. Ask away!”
“It’s my eyes — of course it’s my eyes —they really hurt. I’ve used up most of my drops and they aren’t getting better. It feels like my contact bandages might be irritated?”
“The first bottle of drops is almost used up?”
“The second. Goodness. Well, sounds like you’re in pain. I’d recommend coming in first thing tomorrow. We’ve got one spot open. Can I make you an appointment?”
Rita bit at her fingernails, trimming the centres to a point. “That’d be wonderful, but I can’t say for sure. Can I check with my husband and call back?” She held her breath, listening as Angela clicked away on her keyboard.
“I’m sorry, Ms Asvang, but we close in the next fifteen. I can leave a memo for the morning staff, but I can’t guarantee that you’ll be seen. If you really are in pain I’d recommend booking now.”
“Right, right.” Rita switched the phone to her left shoulder and moved to the nails on her right hand. “It’s just that, well, I’d better wait. I’ll call again tomorrow. Thank you, Angela. You’ve been extremely helpful.” She clicked the phone off and rested it against her temple. I should’ve booked. What if I can’t get in? It’s OK. Silas, he always books, he’ll figure this out. But these are my eyes, not his! I don’t want to make him needlessly nervous…
She glanced at the clock. Silas had been gone for thirty minutes. Surely, he wouldn’t be back before six. That left her fifteen minutes. Holding one hand against the wall, she guided herself to the study, letting the texture of the wallpaper play across her fingertips. The computer booted up quickly, but it took her three tries to login. Silas was always changing his password, and he sometimes forgot to tell her. Clicking on the browser, Rita squinted as she typed, opening each search in a new tab and blinking away the pain as she scanned each source. According to the forums, some patients did experience severe discomfort when infection set in, and one particular user described in great detail how the infection had spread to the entire eye. An archived post recounted how the independent removal of the protective contact had alleviated most of the pain, but that it had to be done very carefully. In some instances, bits of dust or grit could become trapped behind the bandages, making the healing process last longer than it should.
The sound of Silas pulling into the driveway startled Rita into closing each tab. Powering down the computer she turned off the light and rolled in the computer chair just as Silas entered through the garage. He kicked off his shoes and stood at the end of the long hallway, bags of groceries dripping with rainwater. He set them on the ground and walked towards his wife.
“Were you in the office?”
“Yes, just for a bit. I had to check a few things. Silas, I called —”
He brushed past and turned on the office light, placing his hand on the top of the tower. “You used the computer. How did you get on?”
“What? You told me the password. Earlier this week when I had to work on taxes. Silas, I need to talk to you about my eyes.”
Silas glared, his hair plastered in tendrils to his pale forehead, then booted the computer back up. “Rita, you shouldn’t be using the computer. You need to wait before your eyes fully heal or we’ll be right back on the operating table.” Rita watched as Silas clicked on the computer icon, the tiny grey cog, and then the icon marked privacy. “Plus, you said yourself that your eyes were a little sore today. Using a screen can’t be helping that, right?”
“I don’t know Silas —”
“Don’t use that tone.”
“I was thinking of you. I didn’t want you to worry, so I thought it best if I searched myself.”
“You thought wrong, Rita. I want to make sure everything is going according to plan, and right now it doesn’t sound like the plan is on track. So how about you go back into the kitchen and take a seat. We can keep all of the bright lights off for now. I’ll light a candle. How about that? It’ll save on our electric bill at least.”
A candle sounded like a good idea. Her eyes felt more inflamed than ever, even focusing on Silas as his fingers twitched over the keyboard proved taxing. Plus, the bottle of eyedrops were dangerously close to empty. Silas finished in the office, grabbed some leftovers from the fridge and soon they were sitting across from each other, spooning in mouthfuls of dinner in the candlelight.
The single flame cast pulses of light across their faces, and Rita’s stomach turned each time she glanced up from her food. The flickers played tricks on her husbands face, lengthening his chin and hiding his eyes, the stubble on his cheeks no longer looked blonde, but black, and his nose twisted with each flare of the candle. She forced food down and the silence held, but as the wick grew shorter and their plates became cleared, the pain in Rita’s eyes became unbearable.
She glanced at the bulge in the pocket of her jeans. Silas reached across the table, but she pulled away, his fingers snatching at her shirtsleeve. “Shouldn’t you be saving those for emergencies? I spotted a bottle in the bathroom garbage. That’s your second, isn’t it?”
“Silas, I think this is an emergency. The smoke. My eyes. I can’t even close them. I think something might be wrong. Something with the contacts. I called —”
“You called? Called who? Your sister, probably. You’d better not say your mother.”
“I called the clinic. I spoke to a nurse. She thinks I should come in.”
“No. you’re fine. The contacts are fine. You need to be patient.”
“The contacts aren’t fine. I read online that grit can get stuck — ”
“The internet is full of idiots, Rita. Come on, you’re a smart girl.”
Am I, though? “Silas,” Rita knew she couldn’t cry, the ducts were swelled shut, “Silas I think this may be serious.” She felt her left hand twitch towards her forehead, but she fought to keep it at her side. “Just a few more drops, then I’ll get an early bedtime. It could be better in the morning, but I can’t stand it right now.”
She could feel each microscopic change in the air as she raised her gaze to look into the eyes of her husband. The contacts had shifted, she knew they had, because now Silas looked split, his flannel shirt cut down the middle, with one half tailored and trim, the other looking fit to burst. Silas’ hand shot out and squeezed Rita’s wrist, then Rita pulled away and took out the drops.
But the bottle was empty. Rita reached towards her eyes but Silas smacked her hand away. She threw the bottle at Silas and pushed back her chair, running towards the bathroom, ignoring his calls as she fled.
Turning on the tap, she bent over the sink and splashed handfuls of water directly into her eyes, the cool liquid a relief she had never known before. She blinked again and again, the lenses bunching up beneath the eyelids as she shook her head over the sink.
“You don’t know what you’re doing!” screamed Silas through the closed door, his voice distorted over the rush of water, but Rita had already dislodged the right lens and the left one soon followed. Holding them in the palm of her hand they looked like fish scales, filmy and soft, and she let water from the tap carry them down the drain. She closed her eyes. The eyelids felt hot against her fingers, but the burning had finally stopped, and as she opened her eyes she saw her face, clear and sharp in the mirror. She leaned in and inspected each red-rimmed iris. They didn’t look damaged. Silas’s screaming had stopped.
Rita opened the door.
She stepped out into the hallway and heard movement on the steps. Then the snick of the deadbolt sounded and as she listened to the creek of the stairs, she prepared herself for what she knew she’d see.
Silas was gone, but what had replaced him came towards her. Its tongue lolled out the side of its mouth, dangling towards the tip of its pointed chin. Humped shoulders distended the fabric, threatening to burst through the flannel, and eyes set deep into the face shone with feverish intensity. It had discarded its socks and now overgrown nails cut into the hardwood floor. Rita watched its stomach rise and fall. She felt for the wall and began to back down the hallway.
“I see you now.”
The thing stared.
“I think I can see everything now. My eyes are new. And better than I ever thought possible.”
The thing crept forward, its nails clicking on the floor.
“Stay there. You need to stay there. I’m leaving. I’ve made up my mind.”
Another step, another step, it lunged.
And Rita ran. Sprinting into the bathroom she slammed the door, twisting the cheap lock into place. She threw open the window just as the thing began to ram against the wood, but she was up and over the lip of the ledge before the first cracks appeared above the knob. The roof was slick with rain, but Rita scooted towards the gutter and then down onto the slanted strip overhanging the entryway. She jumped, and the drop stung her knees, but she rolled with the impact, coming up covered in grass clippings and mud. Rain misted her bare arms. She turned to face the window to find the thing looking back as the twilight slipped away.
Patched is from The Escape Issue – Issue 24. Order your copy here
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