by Dawn Marshallsay

A rentable eye battles with his host’s subconscious as life falls apart around him.

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The girl giggles as she strokes the fur against the nap. Her index finger traces the smooth oval surface of the left plastic eye, then the right. "Is it a teddy bear?"

"Yes! Happy birthday, sweety! You can open your eyes now."

Sitting at a nearby table, Eye 650 waters a little, blinks several times, then quickly focuses on the weathered hands now wrapping themselves round the mug in front of him. He confers with the senses in the fingertips—the substance in the mug looks like coffee, which is normally hot, but this mug's only lukewarm because it's half empty...

"...or half full," interrupts the spinster's optimistic mind.

The French philosopher Henri Bergson once said, "The eye sees only what the mind is willing to comprehend." Eye 650 observes every single fact, but if the brain chooses to discard some of them, it's as if he never saw them in the first place.

Closing your eyes in a safe environment should reveal a multitude of sounds, smells and textures. But Eye 650 operates in a world where the speed of your reflexes determines whether you win or lose, live or die—he works with the blind.

It's been possible to see life through someone else's eye for over a decade now, but Eye 650's relatively new to the job, hence the magnitude of his identity number. And, yet, he's seen enough to know that giving sight to the blind comes at a price. While renting an eye for the day costs a month's wages, the memories last a lifetime. Which is best: better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, or what you don't have you can't miss?

Rolling, dilating, winking; Eye 650's conveyed every emotion known to man. He may not have smelt muffins before they burnt in the oven, or heard a vehicle approaching before it ran over his host, but he's held back a soldier's tears on seeing his baby son for the first time, and located a young artist's wedding ring in a cornfield to escape her husband's fist—if he'd discovered she'd spent his month's wages on the chance to paint again, for just one day...

Eye 650's 'life' began the day he was donated. His original owner was more skilled at drinking himself to sleep Friday nights than 'living.' Like a dog whose owner hadn't time to walk him, it felt like Eye 650 was watching the world from a distance through a pane of glass.

Roland wasn't exactly dead when he donated his eyes to the Rent-An-Eye Project—he was predicted to die within the week from liver cancer. Whether he did or not, Eye 650 will never know. Somewhere there's an Eye 651, but why dredge up the past—Eye 650 strictly avoids links to his former life, or lack of it. He was the right eye, naturally the stronger of the two.

The elderly, well-spoken lady currently renting Eye 650 is probably listening to these musings. There's no privacy switch, but the chances of seeing through her eye socket again after today are extremely slim. It's just flattering to know his experiences intrigue her so, seeing as she's lived three times longer than him.

Finding new life experiences comes easy these days—his hosts take him on all kinds of adventures they've been planning for months. Once he's introduced himself to a new set of senses, he just holds on and enjoys the ride—you never know where their mind will take you. The day people lose their freedom of thought and start reading and controlling each others' minds, they might as well be replaced by robots.

But black days still find him—the days when no-one wants, or can afford, to rent him. But, for all he knows, such days don't exist—once severed from the optic nerve he's 'dead' to the world, unaware of his existence. The only way he can measure time beyond 24 hours is by comparing the dates on hosts' contracts, which they sign once he's been inserted into their skull.

The lady's head starts to nod, making Eye 650 dizzy. Joe clears his throat. Falling asleep wearing a Rent-An-Eye defies the contract, so Rent-An-Eye carers are permitted to give clients anything from a polite cough to a slap on the cheek. Joe's been trained to appear 'invisible' while shadowing their every move and inserting eye drops every half hour.

Eye 650's glance at the old woman's gold watch reminds her she has ten minutes remaining before the slow, agonizing walk back to the Rent-An-Eye Center. This realization normally triggers tears, but today, surprisingly, the duct remains dry.

"There's nothing left to see—be at peace," orders a voice from the back of her brain, so Eye 650 keeps his questions to himself.

He glances at the watch again. Impatience shivers through the rest of the body, rather than the regret he was expecting. It's best not to think what will happen once Joe's left her blind again, alone with her thoughts. It's as if she's resigned herself to death.

A purple sunset; a group of youths scuffing their trainers on the curb; giggling girls with teddy bears—just a few sights this woman had learnt to live without. The droplets finally burst through and form puddles in the crevices of her face.

* * *

The light comes back on, even though Eye 650 hadn't seen it go out. But he can tell this is a new day, just by the different pattern of thoughts and observations from the other sensory organs.

Joe comes into view. "If you can just check we've got your details correct, and sign the contract, then we'll get started."

Researching his new host is Eye 650's favorite start to the day. A pair of hairy hands grip the pen below him. The skin looks young, but you need to be over 21 to rent an eye. Squiggles appear on the dotted line next to the name Fraser Cooling. Fleeting glances across the rest of the page reveal that he's a 22-year-old orphan. Eye 650 immediately warms to him. Anyone who's lost both his parents deserves to have a nice day.

But Fraser refuses to look in the mirror when washing his hands in the men's room. All Eye 650 wants to do is see his host's face—the suspense is killing him.

"What's so wrong with understanding the vessel you're moving through this world?" Eye 650 asks Fraser's subconscious.

"This is no ordinary boy," replies the subconscious. "If you want to survive the day, stop asking questions—I'm struggling to control his blood pressure as it is."

Fraser leaves the men's room, scanning the corners of the ceiling for cameras.

"How long have you been blind?" Joe asks Fraser when they meet back at the front door of the Center.

Fraser flashes his new eye from Joe's face to the floor. "Three months. My nan's house burnt down with us inside it. She's dead."

"I'm sorry to hear that, mate—wasn't meaning to pry. We'll make sure today's a good day."

There's a gale outside the Rent-An-Eye Center, so Eye 650 has to pull Fraser's lashes up and down as frequently as he can to keep out dust, but without impairing his vision—crashing the boy into a lamppost during his first few steps back into the visual world could mean death to Eye 650. Eyes with 'imperfect' vision go to heaven down the garbage chute, and even a sailor's gold earring wouldn't save him.

"Where to, first?" Joe asks, trying to match the boy's lengthy stride.

"I've never seen Nana's grave, so I need some flowers."

"That's a nice idea."

They're approaching the street market; the favorite starting point for anyone who hasn't seen such an abundance of materialism in a while. But passers-by don't normally stare at his hosts so much. Their glances make Eye 650 feel like he's being captured by personal, judgmental CCTV cameras, recorded to fester in strangers' minds forever, influencing their future thoughts and actions.

Eye 650 spots the bright colors of the flower stall ahead, in answer to the overexcited nasal signals. He still struggles to keep up with senses that work in overdrive to compensate for lack of sight.

But Eye 650 wishes he could dissuade Fraser from purchasing the bunch of black roses currently in his grasp: they might symbolize sorrow, but they can also symbolize hatred. How does the poor boy survive on his own in this confusing world?

* * *

"How much would it cost to keep this eye permanently?" Fraser asks Joe when they're sitting on the bus.

Joe shifts around in his seat to get a better view of the boy. He puts on his serious, but sympathetic, face—reading expressions is part of Eye 650's job description.

"Unfortunately, Rent-An-Eyes are in such short supply and high demand that keeping them permanently probably won't be an option for another five years, minimum," Joe answers.

Fraser chews his hangnail and a surprising spurt of heartfelt philosophy leaves the mouth below Eye 650: "Can you imagine how it feels to be shut out of the world? I spent my youth collating a visual memory bank that's useless now. After 22 years of living, I'm having to learn how to 'see' the world in a totally new way. If you're worried there aren't enough hours in the day, think of me taking half an hour to aim toothpaste onto my brush."

"A previous client found it best to squirt the paste straight into her mouth," Joe suggests, forever optimistic.

Fraser grins, but thumps the thigh nearest the window, out of sight for Joe.

"I know this probably doesn't make you feel any better," Joe breaks the silence, "but there are some things I wish I'd never seen, like my girlfriend kissing another man, or children bleeding after a bomb explosion. Visions like that haunt my dreams."

"Really?" Fraser muses. "If you'd seen what I've seen you'd stop caring about other people so much."

* * *

But the boy soon proves he has feelings. "I can't do it," he says, thrusting the roses at Joe.

This isn't in Joe's contract, but he once ran all the way back to a woman's flat to fetch her life-savings from under the mattress—now that took trust from both sides.

So what's the harm in putting some roses on an old lady's grave? Joe bends down to direct the flowers into the holes of silver holder, one stem at a time.

Fraser's tears are gushing, but Eye 650 can't clarify their meaning. Why should his nan's grave make his entire body shake while the phrase "I can't do it" repeats itself a hundred times per second inside his brain?

"You were warned to stop asking questions," comes a message from the subconscious, which Fraser can't hear in his immediate thinking.

But, in that split second, when the subconscious ceased its "can't do it" signals to deliver its warning to Eye 650, evil desires broke free from suppression.

"You distracted me," the subconscious laments. "Now look what you've done."

Eye 650 can't tell if the gun leaving Fraser's pocket is loaded, but it's definitely not made of plastic. It's the ears' job to hear the click and bang, the nostrils' to smell the smoke, but Eye 650 can almost feel Joe's pain as the bullet penetrates his organs. His head catches the corner of the headstone before the rest of the body falls face-down into the weeds. He doesn't get up. A disturbed dandelion clock loses grip of its seeds, crying farewell into the humid breeze. Spread the word: Joe's dead.

The back of Joe's rib cage has stopped moving, but Fraser isn't satisfied—he moves Eye 650 closer. He pushes the body over with his foot to reveal a blistered face. His skin cells must have reacted to the stinging nettles with the last few drops of blood circulating through his veins. Eye 650 has the capacity to recognize 10 million different colors, but he can't stop watching the red circle expanding across Joe's white shirt.

Fraser can't stop trembling.

* * *

Joe was right about haunting visions. Eye 650 hasn't seen dreams since he was donated to the Rent-An-Eye project, as he is returned to unconsciousness every night, but he can't stop visualizing the clump of hairs glued to edge of the headstone with Joe's blood.

Fraser's back on the bus, thumping his thigh again. Passing fields, passing streams, passing hairs fluttering in the breeze, passing houses, passing schools. Fraser turns Eye 650 away from people when they pass—a natural reaction to the empty cavity in his heart where trust used to reside.

"They don't need us, so we don't need them," the subconscious tells Eye 650. "Now you're here, we can function perfectly well on our own without other humans meddling in our plans."

Eye 650 wants to signal for help using Morse code winking—scared eyes attract more attention than a smile. You'd think fellow passengers would notice a one-eyed boy and start wondering where his carer was. But the rest of society's too polite or scared to intervene. They've trained their own eyes to ignore anything unusual so they're not accused of staring.

Fraser forgot to bring the eye-care kit from Joe's bag. Fraser swears under his breath. He screws up his eyelid and pushes fingers into Eye 650's tear film from every angle. As if verbal and physical abuse are going to provide any moisture.

* * *

Fraser jumps off the bus and kicks his way through some stubbly fields for half an hour until he reaches a dense wood. His nose says it's going to rain, but Eye 650 can't see through the thick canopy of trees to the sky. The ears can hear the leaves rustling like a thousand paper bags, but the branches and trunks are just blurry shadows in Eye 650's vision. He's dying, but Fraser doesn't care, pushing onwards through the gloom like a dog summoned by a high-pitched whistle.

Lies must far outnumber truths in this world, as each fact can be matched by an infinite number of falsities, but Eye 650 thinks he's discovered a fact: Fraser is an evil person.

This weighs up, in terms of the greater good or evil. Fraser killed Joe to keep Eye 650 forever. Even though the 22-year-old has more years ahead of him than the middle-aged carer did before his death, Fraser doesn't have to be able to see to contribute to society.

The fact that Eye 650 is now going to shrivel up and die is just the cherry on top of a pile of ashes that should have been a Victoria sponge cake. It should have been a memorable day out for the young man, and a chance to prepare for a life of Braille and blind dogs. Being stuck behind bars, or roaming the world with a guilty conscience, isn't Eye 650's idea of freedom.

The farmhouse Eye 650 has been told to search for comes into view. Fraser steps behind a bush, but allows Eye 650 to peer round the greenery to look out for other humans. Not for long, however, as the boy's suddenly striding to the front door. A long wait after knocking causes the handle to move, and the door to open a fraction to reveal a pair of brown eyes squinting over a Roman nose. The man's jaw drops as realization spreads across his wrinkled brow.

"Fraser!" he cries, shutting the door quickly to undo the chain, then swinging it open again to display the full length of his middle-aged body. Eye 650 can tell he's trying not to stare at Fraser's cheeks.

"Hi Alan," Fraser says, stony-faced. "I assume you're Alan—I saw your photo in the paper."

The man nods. "I just can't believe you've come all the way out here to see me. I thought you were dead when I dragged you from that fire—I thought I'd risked my life for nothing—but when they phoned and told me you'd survived, I hoped we'd meet again someday."

"Well, here I am. Can I come in?"

"Sure!" Alan flattens against the wall to let Fraser past. "Go on through, but excuse the mess—I don't normally have visitors, so don't bother much with housework."

Fraser perches on the edge of the nearest armchair. Eye 650's rapidly fading sight is making him dizzy, but any receptivity to light is a bonus for a boy who's lived in darkness for three months.

Alan sits in the opposite armchair. "It's amazing they managed to save one of your eyes. I thought—"

"It's a transplant," Fraser interrupts.

"Amazing!" Alan muses. "I've heard such a miracle was possible, but never met anyone who's had it done. Were your eyes blue originally? It suits you."


Eye 650 stares out the window at the tree trunks melting into the soil like chocolate.

Alan fiddles with a scrap of fabric hanging from the worn armrest. "So, what are you up to these days?" he asks.

"I'm working in a bank," Fraser lies. "Sorry I haven't visited you sooner after the fire. I knew I should be thanking you…"

"Don't mention it," Alan says, standing to take a dirty plate and cutlery into the kitchen. "Do you want some coffee?"

"…but I can't…"

"That's fine—I've got cola, juice…"

"…I can't thank someone for ruining my life."

Alan stops in his tracks.

Fraser stands up too. "Or, should I say, death. Thanks for ruining my death."

"What do you mean?" Alan whispers.

"I didn't need a Good Samaritan."

"But you would have burnt to death!"

"Exactly, that was the plan."

"I don't understand."

"You don't understand?" Laughter erupts from Fraser's mouth like hornets from a nest. "We promised we'd die together when Nana's cancer got too much, and she was really low that day, so low it made me feel like I didn't want to live anymore, so I knew it was time. We were on our way to a better world when you showed up."

"Bullets would have been quicker," Alan mumbles.

"No-one ever drove past our cottage, it was so out of the way. The chances of you passing on that particular day, at that moment of time—I knew God was punishing me. He made me survive, burnt and blind, in more misery than I was before."

"But you got a transplant!" Alan protests naïvely.

The boy seems not to hear. "If I don't kill you now, you'll only come and stop me half-way through again, and I'll be living in even more misery."

"Being blind doesn't stop you making a difference to the world," Alan mumbles, still failing to grasp the danger of the situation. "John Milton was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost. It gives you a unique way of observing the world around you. Maybe God wanted you to survive for a purpose."

"Maybe he wanted me to come and kill you," says Fraser, chuckling as pulls out a bag of bullets. "Still think these are quicker? Fire, firing—all mean the same to me, death and peace."

Eye 650 spots the glint of the knife before it travels into Fraser's chest, complete with chip fat from Alan's lunch. The eye watches blood dripping into Fraser's hands as he falls to his knees.

"Look what you made me do!" Alan gurgles through fearful tears. He starts tearing at his thumb nail in search of justification. "I've nothing more to live for than you, but I started again. You didn't need to stop your heart to be free from social expectations—you could have just thrown everything away and followed your innermost desires. But look what you made me do… at least one of us survives…"

The eyelid closes over Eye 650. His days of darkness are here to stay—not that he knows it.




Copyright © 2009 Dawn Marshallsay

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

As a writer and freelance journalist, Dawn Marshallsay has had work published in numerous publications, including, and When not writing or working in the local bookshop, she feeds on natural beauty and decay in the Garden of England.

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