Daniel Carson woke in the night to a fireworks display dancing before his eyes followed by pitch blackness, and he knew that at that moment he had gone blind.
He shot up in bed and held his hand out in front of himself, and although he could feel his arm hovering in the still stale air he couldn’t see it.
His throat closed up in panic. The darkness wrapped around him, gripped him hard and squeezed as if to crush him. His heart beat a furious rhythm and his blood pushed against his veins. His skin crawled as if thousands of needles were forcing their way through him and tearing him apart.
He couldn’t breathe. His sightless eyes throbbed under an unplaceable pressure. Daniel leaped out of his bed. He tried to scream but couldn’t. His throat burned when he tried to breathe. Wherever he looked there was nothing but a void, hideous in its totality.
In this darkness a gray beam appeared, floating across and taking a solid shape as if some creature emerging from the deep. A narrower beam appeared then, perpendicular to the first, and where they met they stopped.
On the outermost edge of his perception a blue-black swirl took shape like a phantasmic blob and drifted towards the center, shifting size and shape and eventually color until ethereal greens and blues began to emerge like northern lights reflected in a pool of oil. The number of gray beams proliferated, crossing each other and forming rigid structures, banishing the black with the muted shades of night.
The shapes took on order and became comprehensible and soon he could see fuzzy outlines of his bed and dresser and the windows. He blinked hard, and when he opened his eyes again he could see. He took a deep breath and felt the oxygen burn his raw lungs. The needles burrowing through his skin retreated and the oppressive clench of panic dissipated, leaving behind sore muscles and a slick of sweat. He turned on the lights and the rush of colors hit him with a physical intensity that pushed him back against the wall.
Daniel brought his hand up to an inch from his face and saw it, the skin and hair and the wrinkles on his joints and fingernails. He clenched his fingers and watched as the skin pulled and stretched.
When he pushed his hand away it became blurry again, and he used that hand to reach for his glasses on the nightstand. When he put them on the world immediately snapped into clear focus. Everything was normal and right.
His heart still hammered in his chest and he was still sweating somehow, but he could see. Daniel sat down on the edge of the bed, and the mixture of relief and lingering terror left him shuddering. In due time he turned off the lights and removed his glasses and got back in bed, but sleep did not come. He kept his eyes focused on the digital clock on the nightstand and the red numbers that glowed in the dark. Without his glasses the numbers were indistinguishable blobs, but the redness assured him that he could still see. He kept his focus on that until the alarm went off and he started his day.
In the bathroom he put on contact lenses and changed into his exercise clothes, and then went to the basement to run. The treadmill was positioned to face the stairs in case one of the boys came down; with the headphones on he wouldnt’ be able to hear them. It had been months since they’d done that, but he couldn’t run as long as he worried about them sneaking in. Evan had come in once and jumped onto the treadmill while Daniel was running, and the kid had been sent flying across the room. There had been no injuries, and truth be told it was kind of funny, but there was no need to take a risk. He turned the treadmill to face the door and it never happened again.
After a quick shower and shave he woke the boys, and led them like Moses to breakfast. Evan rubbed his eyes and yawned while he waited for his cereal. Shawn started talking and asking questions almost as soon as he sat down, and Daniel had to remind him several times to eat more and talk less.
As usual, they had to hurry to get to the bus. This was something he could still work on. The boys scrambled out the front door with Shawn’s shoelaces still untied. Evan ran as fast as his little stick legs would carry him, his backpack bouncing against him and pulling him left and right with each step. It’s a wonder that neither of them had fallen yet. It would happen eventually, though, and then the morning narrative would be one of missed buses, torn uniform pants, crying child (or children–they both tended to get overly worried if one of them was hurt), blood and Band-Aids.
Daniel stood by the door and watched them go. He’d stopped running with them after the Christmas break. Maybe next year he wouldn’t bother watching them at all. They were getting the hang of it. All of them were.
He wasn’t quite ready yet, though. He watched them go, laughing at their uncoordinated motions and high voices. The morning was bright and beautiful. The sky was a fathomless blue, and the emerald-topped palm trees were swayed by an undetectable breeze. The boys raced towards the brilliant red stop sign and beat the bus by a few seconds. The bus itself was a yellow so vivid it almost hurt to look at. Daniel watched as the neighbor children and his own piled in, and then stood as it drove off deeper into the neighborhood.
Pastel and adobe colored houses hemmed in by a grid of gleaming white sidewalks, the spaces between filled with hypergreen grass and carefully arranged tropical flowers. Colors everywhere, vibrant pinks and reds and greens and violets, iridescent against the shadows cast by the South Florida sun. Daniel wondered if it was just an unsually clear day or if his dream was still weighing on him.
The boys sometimes woke him in the night because of bad dreams. He tolerated it because that’s what parents are supposed to do, but he had forgotten how frightening a dream can be. Even knowing it is irrational isn’t enough to dispel the fear.
He looked out at the daylight and began to question himself. Was his vision blurrier than before? Was the periphery any fuzzier than normal? Had he ever been able to read the street sign on the corner? Could anybody? Were the spots on his vision the natural result of looking out at a bright day, or were they something new and permanent? For that matter, were they even really there?
If Michelle were here he would talk to her about it, but of course that was out of the question, and he took as a sign of how much the dream spooked him that he said to himself, “If Michelle were here,” for the first time in a long time.
He missed her, of course, every minute of every day. Everything reminded him of her, and of her absence. Waking the boys in the morning, getting them ready and off for school, all by himself. He used to wake up and go for a run, and come back to find them dressed and eating. He’d take over from there while Michelle got herself ready. After she was gone he’d shower and get to work. Now he ran inside, because times had changed since he was a kid and you can’t leave children at home alone anymore, even only for thirty minutes at five-thirty in the morning. Shawn was smart but couldn’t be counted on to take care of his little brother in case of crisis.
Even the palm trees and the shimmering green yard. It was Michelle who had brought them here from Chicago, picked this house with its geraniums or whatever they hell they were.
But life carried on. Shawn still cried for her sometimes, but he still managed to pick himself up and move forward. Evan, like most five-year-olds, lived in a very literal “now,” and so while he may longed for his mother on some level, the heartache usually melted away and vanished completely just as suddenly as it had appeared, replaced by a toy or cartoon or equivalent shiny thing.
It was their strength–well, Shawn’s strength, and Evan’s obliviousness–that had let Daniel carry on. Grief carried them for a while, but eventually they just had to get on with it. Bills don’t stop coming and kids don’t stop growing, so back to work he went, and back to school they went, and soon it felt natural to be a little family of three.
Little adjustments: the morning run through the neighborhood replaced with a treadmill in the spare room. It was unbelievably boring to run in place, even more boring than running on lookalike suburban streets. Daniel put on headphones, old school hip hop only, the songs that had held up to twenty or more years of heavy rotation without getting old, where he knew every beat and rhyme, and every sound and syllable conjured a thousand memories of happier times. He didn’t run so much as he listened to his youth; if he ran while he did so was entirely incidental.
He took better care of himself now, too. He made sure he got regular check-ups, kept his blood pressure down, had himself poked and prodded for all the things that become issues as men age. He went to bed early, woke up rested, cut fast food from his diet, and even though it slowed his career he left work at work. Daniel had become viscerally aware of the very thin tether that kept him and his sons blessed and alive, and it showed.
The only real issue beyond his control was his eyesight, and that wasn’t his fault, and nothing he had ever done or could do would change that. He’d started wearing glasses when he was four years old, and the lenses had grown thicker every year until he was in college and they were so thick that they made his eyes look like little more than pinpricks to anyone looking in. He fixed that with contact lenses that were custom-made and ridiculously expensive–“If your eyes get any worse, I’m afraid nobody makes lenses stronger than these,” a doctor said once. His vision stabilized then, though. There was some abstract understanding that he could still go blind someday, but it was distant, as remote and incomprehensible as the idea that someday he would be an old man.
“What you need to be on the lookout for is a retinal tear,” the doctor said to him last summer, at his first checkup without Michelle. He’d had to bring the boys with him, and they started fighting in the waiting room so Daniel had to get out of there before he could ask all the questions he should have asked.
He looked it up instead. Flashes, a proliferation of floaters, dark spots suddenly washing over his field of vision: these were signs that his eyes had finally given up, and without immediate attention the effects were irreversible.
“You don’t need to worry,” the doctor said. “Just be aware.” So he didn’t worry. There was literally nothing he could do to prevent it if it was going to happen.
He drove himself to the office with jazz on the radio. Traffic in Florida was too crazy for hip hop, he had decided early on. The music needed to keep him calm, not fire him up. Drivers around here were already too fired up. Maybe he should even consider classical.
At this moment he would have prefered to call Michelle. He wouldn’t have talked to her about his crazy blind dream. They had all sorts of other things to talk about. That was probably what he missed most, the decade and a half of sympathy and understanding that they had brought to their conversations.
He wouldn’t have to tell her that he’d had a bad dream that startled him out of bed because she would have already known. He would instead talk about the weather, or how Evan needed a smaller backpack. He would not have been wondering what would happen if his eyes tore open while he was driving down the freeway.
Later, at the office, someone turned the lights off in the coffee room, and when Daniel turned them on they flickered. Little spots of green dotted his vision for a moment or two and he involuntarily froze, watching until they went away.
“You okay?” someone asked. He blinked and forced a smile.
“Yeah, just lost in a thought there.”
If it happened at the office–if, he reminded himself, it probably wouldn’t happen ever, after all–if it happened here somebody would help him, drive him to the clinic to get it fixed as soon as possible. Someone–Valerie maybe, she seemed to have a big heart like that–would probably go to his house and watch the boys until he could get home. People here were nice that way.
He was working at his desk when he felt the room dimming, and again he felt his throat begin to close. He looked out the window and saw that it was now overcast. He turned back to the screen, but couldn’t focus. He couldn’t decide if the room was dimmer because of the clouds, or because his vision was going, or because that dream had really rattled him and now he was being paranoid.
He did see floaters, but then he always saw floaters. He remembered describing them to his sister when he was six, and even by that age he had grown used to them. Was this an unusual number of floaters, or, again, did he need to relax?
In the evening he helped Shawn with his homework, played trucks with Evan, watched cartoons with both of them, and read to them. Then back to the couch to catch up on his own reading.
This had been the hardest adjustment: without Michelle, after the boys were in bed he hadn’t known what to do with himself. He cleaned up a bit, following a schedule that sent him into a different room for thirty minutes each night, like the roving restoration team at the Forbidden City in Beijing. Tonight it was the living room, which he tidied and dusted before sitting on the couch with his own book to read.
His parents had blamed his poor eyesight on reading late at night. He dismissed them then and he dismissed them now, especially since he was sitting under a bright lamp that made the living room as bright as a day at the beach, but suddenly he couldn’t focus on his book anymore. Was it a good idea to read at night? After reading the same sentence at least a dozen times he closed the book and turned on the TV.
If reading books was bad for his eyes, then watching TV was probably worse. His grandmother, certainly, blamed his vision on the TV. “In my day we didn’t have no TV, and kids didn’t need no glasses, neither.” (“They needed them, mama,” his father answered back wearily, “they just couldn’t afford them.”)
He put on his headphones and paced around the room, thinking to himself, hoping the music would drown out his fears. The songs went by without a note registering, and he gave up. He had woken up too early, anyway, so it was probably a good idea to get to bed early, too.
It was the same as the night before. He kept his eyes on the red numbers of his clock. What if he went blind while he was sleeping? There was nobody he could call in the middle of the night to come watch the boys. He’d call a cab and the three of them, sleepy and scared, would go to an emergency room, led by a father who couldn’t see. Even after he recovered, the whole process would be so upsetting, showing them just how vulnerable they were.
And if the treatment was unsuccessful, what then? He would be blind. He would never see his boys grow up, would never know what their faces looked like as men. He would never see his grandchildren. The trips they had planned–he had promised Shawn a trip to the Grand Canyon. Maybe he could send the boys with his sister instead, if he paid for all of it. What sense was there in dragging a blind man to the Grand Canyon?
Never mind other trips he hoped to take, to Europe and South Africa and Japan.
The shelf of books he wanted to read.
Movies he hadn’t seen.
His job. A blind graphic designer. How would that even work?
Somehow he fell asleep, and his alarm woke him, but he was too physically exhausted to run. He made the boys breakfast and sent them on their way.
On his way to work he watched the interplay of cars on the freeway, the spontaneous ballet of weaving, passing, near misses, and unnecessary risks that people took on their way to and fro. Did anyone really believe that getting there two minutes faster was worth risking death for? Still, there was beauty in the restless motion and blurs of shape and color. If he lost his vision now he would crash. At these speeds and on these roads that could be bad, and potentially fatal. He slowed and let the other cars honk at him. He was near his turn-off anyway.
At the office he couldn’t focus, and after lunch he took the rest of the day off. There was an optometrist nearby who accepted walk-ins, and Daniel went and explained his concerns. The doctor looked at him.
“This is a pretty severe case of astigmatism but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before. I think you’re doing the right thing by being aware of it but I don’t know that there’s anything specific to be worried about.”
But there were a lot of specific things to be worried about. Every person lives with the chance that they could go blind, but for Daniel it was a somewhat more real chance. Like the way that everybody who boarded a plane knew that there was an outside chance that the plane might crash, but Michelle’s plane had actually crashed. Outside chances had left his children one outside chance away from an orphanage.
He didn’t sleep that night, either. He didn’t read his book after putting the kids down, and didn’t watch any TV, either. He listened to music and put himsef to bed. He tried to remember the flashes that had touched off this panic. The literature described a flash of light but the language wasn’t evocative enough to make him understand if he had seen a real flash or just some paranoid halluncination.
The house wouldn’t be any good for a blind person. Curving stairs, oddly-placed walls. This was a car-only city. No public transport. They couldn’t afford to move back north and the kids liked it here. Unbidden, his mind conjured the image of the boys leading their blind father around, and he shuddered.
He was still watching the red numbers when the alarm went off. At breakfast all he could do was stare at the boys while they ate. If they found it strange they didn’t let on.
He called in sick and then retreated to his room. He had never needed Michelle as badly as he did now. If he could just say this all out loud, he could make these fears go away, maybe. Talking to the doctor–so matter-of-fact, so knowledgeable, so professional–that hadn’t cut it. He needed to talk, for real, about his eyes and his fears and his boys and everything, all that and more.
He was alone in his house, in the dark, and he started to weep. What else was there to do? He cried and cried and when he opened his eyes again he couldn’t tell if he could see anything or not.
When the boys came home they found him there on the floor, and though he tried to calm himself he couldn’t, he just reached out with a blind hand until he got ahold of one and then the other and pulled them close and cried onto their beautiful little heads until they were crying, too.
Eventually Shawn was able to break free and reach the phone. He called his grandparents and explained to them that his father was thrashing about in the dark and insisting that he couldn’t see.
Within an hour police were there. The grandparents grabbed the next available flight and arrived early the following morning. They stayed with the boys while Daniel underwent a battery of tests. Doctors found nothing physically wrong with his eyes, but he failed every vision they tried on him.
Daniel’s father took one arm and led Daniel to the car while his mother led the boys out of the hospital. The doctor watched the pathetic scene and thought about just how fragile life is, and how badly we as humans needed to forget that in order to survive. “We’re all hanging from a thin thread over an abyss,” she told her husband that night. “It could snap at any moment, for any reason.”
“I don’t want to think about that,” he said to her.
“None of us do,” she answered back. “That’s the point.”