She couldn’t remember the last time a family Christmas had been so pleasantly uneventful. Even Becky was enjoying herself. Smiling, no less. She was at the dinner table holding the attention of a small army of wonder-struck kin. “What are you all up to?” Isla asked.
There was a clamour of excited explanations and encouragements from the assembly. Isla sat down and Becky handed her a piece of paper. “It’s something they showed us in a lecture, Mum. A test. You’ll think it’s stupid.”
On the paper there were three symbols laid out horizontally across the page: a triangle, a smiley face and a lonely cross set apart from the others on the right.
“Cover your right eye with your right hand. Hold the paper in your left hand right at the tip of your nose,” Becky said. “Now keep your left eye focused on the X but be aware of all three symbols.”
“Okay.” Isla imagined she looked stupid. Perhaps this was a practical joke? She felt the distant rumble of irritation.
“Slowly bring it away from you but keep your eye on the X.” Isla started to move the sheet of paper. A few inches away from her face something on the paper changed. At first it wasn’t obvious what; there was just a vague sense of difference. But upon a second consultation she noticed that the smiley face was no longer there.
“It’s gone,” Isla said. “The smiley face just vanished.” There was laughing and cheering. She turned to Becky then back to the sheet. The smiley face had returned.
“Mum don’t look at me, you’ve messed it up. Do it again. This time keep going.”
Isla did as she was told. Once again the smiley face vanished. She kept moving the paper away from her. This time, another half an inch later, the smiley face returned and the triangle disappeared. Isla put her hands and the paper down. “So go on then, clever clogs. Why does that happen?”
Becky spoke quickly, eyes downcast. “It’s your blind spot. It’s a bit on the back of your eye where the optic nerve grows through the visual cells, or something. When that smiley face reaches that spot, your eye can’t see it.” Becky took a sip of red wine. Her face was wan and she was all bones. Isla privately thought it suited her but would never say so.
“No, that isn’t the interesting part.” The distant rumble grew a fraction closer. She was losing patience. She wondered how Darren was faring.
“What is interesting then, Becky?”
“It’s easier if you look.” Isla went through the routine once again.
“What am I looking for?”
“Look closely at the place where the smiley face was.” Becky said. Isla tried but focusing her visual attention on her periphery was giving her a headache. It felt like she was straining her eyes.
“I am looking. There’s nothing there. It’s just gone.” Except that wasn’t entirely right. There was something odd about the white space where the smiley face had been. She put the paper down again. “It’s smudgy. I can see there is something wrong with it but… what is it? Just tell me, this is getting boring.”
“Well the paper is lined isn’t it?” Becky said. “And like you said, the spot where the smiley face should be is smudgy. It’s smudgy because there are no lines there. The smiley face and the lines have vanished.”
“So, your eye can’t actually see anything there can it?” Becky’s voice was high and excited. “So why is there a white smudge rather than a black one or a green one? Or nothing there at all?” Isla shrugged and started to get up. Becky continued: “Because instead of leaving your visual field with a big blank, the brain fills in the gap based on what it thinks is missing. The paper is mostly white so the gap is white.”
Isla scanned the room for Darren. His giant form wasn’t difficult to spot. He was talking to her brother. Her chest swelled.
“Mom, you don’t get it.”
“Get what? Oh yes. It’s strange isn’t it? The power of the mind.” Considering he was the third new man to come to family Christmas in as many years, Darren seemed to be going down well.
“Do you not find it odd that a whole portion of your entire visual field, your whole life even, is made up by your brain?”
Isla shrugged. Her brain had invented entire relationships before, big deal. When she turned to say as much, Becky had gone.
Isla washed her hands and exited the bathroom. There had been nothing in her sister’s cabinet for her headache and she thought about bringing the night, fun as it was, to a premature end. She needed her cabinet. For a moment she thought she saw someone standing off to her left in the shadows of the landing. Turning to acknowledge them she found there was no one there. She closed her eyes and massaged the top of her nose, shaking her head as she did.
On the stairs she found Becky, sitting in an all-too-familiar slump halfway up, blocking her own route down. She sat with her. “Hey sweetheart. Are you all right?”
“I didn’t upset you did I? You didn’t think I wasn’t interested enough in your eye trick?” Becky looked up, her brows furrowed.
“Why on earth would you think that?”
“No. I just needed a break from it. I was thinking about some stuff from uni, to be honest. You know how little things can hang over you?”
“Tell me about it,” Isla said and Becky gave a weak smile.
“I think I might need to go back earlier than I thought. If it is okay to—”
“I hope you aren’t still expecting me to be your taxi service? I don’t want to drive all that way again.”
“Oh. Okay. I’ll get the train then.”
There was a long silence. Isla knew the antidote. “I haven’t even told you about the latest with your father,” she said. “Seriously, it’s just one thing after another with him. Did you know he didn’t give me any money again this month? Third month now. And this on top of some strange objection to me seeing Darren, because they once played on some football team about a million years ago. He keeps asking me to meet up for coffee so we can discuss the impact it is having on you. Impact? When has he ever given a damn about impacts? I mean, it isn’t having an impact on you, is it? Me seeing Darren? No more than it would me seeing anyone else, I mean?”
Becky shrugged and shook her head.
“Well. I don’t see he really has a say in what we do any more, does he? He made his bed and he can bloody lie in it. We had to lie in the bed he made for us.”
Becky nodded but kept her eyes on her toes.
There was another silence, this one longer. Isla thought she understood; maternal instinct. She rose and brushed down her dress. “Sorry sweetheart, listen to me I’m going on a bit aren’t I? I’ll leave you in peace.” At the bottom of the stairs Isla added a final thought: “I am thinking of going soon if that cheers you up?”
Becky offered another shrug. “Whatever you want, Mum.”
Darren had been brilliant and she screwed him all the harder for it. When she came she tried to hold back, hazily aware that Becky might still be awake. But the added tension just made her orgasm all the more intense and not only had she cried out, she’d burst out laughing, too, in hopeless braying snorts. This had set Darren off and the two of them had lain there giggling in each others arms, a juddering, sweaty heap.
“You are amazing,” she said. Darren lifted his head and waggled his eyebrows. She slapped him playfully. “Not just that. But the party. The family. I really appreciate you making an effort for me. And for Becky.”
“It’s not for her, I do it for you, love.” Darren kissed her on the left ear, then the right, then all at once raised his hulking frame off her. It was sudden and she felt momentarily bereft, wondering if she had said the wrong thing.
“Back in a tick,” he said and left the room. She heard the click of the bathroom light and the comforting whirr of the extractor fan. It was fine, he wasn’t going anywhere.
Isla closed her eyes and stretched out on her back. She looked down the bed at her feet and in the corner of her eye she saw a figure silhouetted in the doorway. She sat up and turned, expecting to see Darren, but no one was there. A faint smile crossed her lips and she looked around the room. When she looked once more at her feet she saw the figure again, lurking right at the edge of her vision. It was thin and stooped. It looked as if it were wearing a cowl.
The door opened and she screamed. Darren bounded in and the figure vanished.
“You all right?”
“Darren, I think I saw a ghost.”
On the way to the train station, Becky tried to explain why she was returning to university early, but Isla barely listened. If it wasn’t one thing with Becky, it was another. She had her own worries today.
It had happened again when they left the house. There had been someone on the drive in front of them. She was certain. She had slammed on the brakes. But there had been nothing there.
Since family Christmas, she had been seeing it more and more. It had been there during a meeting at work. She had seen it at the side of the road when driving. It had been in the bathroom while she brushed her teeth. The same thing: a shadowy figure, hovering in her peripheral vision. The very act of looking was becoming unsettling. It was like being conscious of blinking or breathing.
It wasn’t a ghost. It was something worse, more terrifying that any specter. It was some sort of illness. Macular degeneration? Maybe some awful brain altering STI? Worse, a brain tumour? It had something to do with Becky’s experiment—that much she was sure of. Whatever she was seeing occupied the same visual Bermuda triangle that the smiley face had vanished into. It always had that same smudgy quality too, the one that left her with an ache in her head as if she had been crossing her eyes for too long.
“Becky, can you ask your teacher or professors or whatever they are? What are they?”
“Can you ask them if there are side-effects to that blind spot thing you did on me? I keep getting headaches.” Isla rubbed the bridge of her nose and under her eyes. “Feels like I might have pulled something. Is that possible? Can you ask someone?”
“You sure it’s not a hangover?” Isla scowled.
When Becky’s train left the station Isla saw it again, standing on the opposite platform. Even though it wasn’t in focus, she was sure it looked clearer than before. She even thought she could see its cowl fluttering slightly in the chilly wind.
On the drive back she decided she would phone the doctor. She wondered how she would cope if they found something. She wondered how she would cope if they didn’t. Would that be better? She didn’t know. What would it mean if they didn’t find a thing? Did it mean there really was something there, something living in the patch behind her blind spot? Perhaps it had always been there, living a secret unseen life in that space that her brain was making up on behalf of her eyes. Of course, if there was something there, it would be something that did not want to be seen, something up to no good. A monster, or perhaps a demon. Why not?
On her own, in the car, Isla laughed.
The appointment with the doctor lasted six of the allotted ten minutes. All the while the figure stood in the corner of the surgery, flitting in and out of existence with every movement of her eye like a broken hologram. Isla had never seen this GP before. He looked the same age as Becky so she assumed he must be new.
Finding nothing unusual with her eyes, he proceeded to ask a plethora of questions that seemed more psychological than medical. “Has everything been all right over Christmas in the family?” “Was there any abnormal stress?” “Is everything at work okay?” Isla didn’t like her practitioners that general. She suspected this line of questioning might have been brought on by one of a number of episodes listed in her medical history that this bright young thing would have studied intensely. Perhaps he’d even looked at Becky’s records.
“It’s nothing to do with any of that,” Isla said. “It’s like there is something stuck on the underside of my eye.”
The doctor gave a non-committal grunt.
“Whatever it is, it’s getting worse. The figure, it’s like a person standing there. And it’s getting clearer. I can see it now, you know. There are details, layers in the fabric of the clothes. And it’s getting bigger. Bigger, like its getting closer to me.”
She left with a determination to register with a different doctor and nothing else.
That evening, after work, Isla collapsed on the sofa with a glass of red wine. The bottle sat on a table within reach. She looked for the remote but it was sitting on top of the television. Lacking the requisite enthusiasm for movement, Isla pulled her phone from her pocket and used her mobile browser to look for information about brain tumours.
She had been thinking about death all day. Thinking about how the figure haunting her periphery looked not unlike the physical incarnation of the reaper, slowly encroaching until it got close enough to take her soul. Like a game of What’s the time, Mr. Wolf?
And if that happened?
It had occurred to her that Andrew would get everything. She hadn’t updated her will since the divorce. Becky wouldn’t get anything. How she’d love that.
A sudden wave of affection coursed through her at the thought of her troubled, troubling child. The image of her hangdog expression upon learning her father would take the lot. She switched from the browser to her contacts and tried to call her. Maternal instinct, she thought. It went straight to voice mail. Without leaving a message she hung up and started typing a text message: I love you. Immediately she deleted it. Becky would find it unsettling. After a moment of thought she began to type a new message to her, one about her visit to the doctors. Changing her mind again she wrote a message enquiring as to whether she had asked her teacher about blind spot side effects.
But then she deleted it, writing once more: I love you.
Before she had a chance to send it the phone started vibrating. The message vanished and was replaced by one word flashing on the screen: DARREN.
Did she want him to bring him home fish and chips? Yes please. She needed to be careful though, he was going to make her as big as him.
After hanging up, she noticed she was no longer alone. The figure stood in the corner of the room. “Did you want some too?” she asked.
Over the following days Isla felt it coming before she saw it, like an approaching storm broadcasting its intentions through the electric heat in the air.
It was consuming her every thought.
She wanted to think about Darren. About ridding herself of Andrew for good. About downsizing accommodation now that Becky had gone. Most of all she wanted to think about herself for once in her adult life.
It was worse at night. In the dark, when Darren was asleep, she really did believe it might be a monster. Or a demon.
It was getting closer too. She could see too many details to deny that now. It wasn’t smudgy or hazy. If anything the objects of her focus were losing their sharpness and the figure was getting clearer, as if leeching clarity. Now she could see that the figure wasn’t cowled but draped in some awful black tarpaulin like a forgotten object on a landfill.
It was turning too. Turning around so it could face her and look her in her eyes.
The clock on the bedside table read 4:10 AM. Her mouth was dry and she needed a glass of water. It was cold without Darren. He had gone back to his parents. There had been a stupid argument. He had said Becky looked ill. Ill like before. He had questioned her judgment and had been wrong. But she missed his heat now.
She went downstairs and drank a glass of water. Her legs felt weak with exhaustion and her eyes seemed permanently stuck in middle-distance.
It was just a matter of time before she saw it. She could feel it nearby.
It was no surprise when she reached the upstairs landing and saw it outside Becky’s bedroom door. She walked towards it and was surprised when it seemed to move purposely away from her and into the bedroom. She followed it inside. Becky’s smell, a mixture of vanilla and incense, still lingered and Isla felt a twinge of longing. She switched on the light. The room was immaculate. The figure was standing by the desk and Isla went towards it. It didn’t move and she was alarmed to find herself gaining ground on it as if were an object in the real world and not something limited to the dimensions of her vision. When she was in touching distance it vanished. She looked around the room and found she was alone.
Where the figure had been standing was a bin filled with bits of paper, tissues, and coffee grounds. Typical, she had tidied the room but not even thought to empty the bin. It was like something Andrew would have done.
She noticed the paper in the bin had been crudely shredded and out of curiosity picked a larger piece out. Becky’s scrawl was instantly recognisable. Even though much of what was written had been blacked out with multiple biro slashes, some words were still visible. A sensation colder than the air around her began to creep through her belly. She picked out another piece of paper, then another, then another, reading each one with growing alarm.
Mom. Confused. Wishful. Pain. Listen. Sorry.
Something caught her eye. The dark figure had returned. It was standing in the corner of the room. With hideous speed it moved towards her until it was within touching distance. It was so clear now. Even clearer than it had been the last time she had seen it.
Her stomach did a nauseous flip and she fell backwards onto the bin, spilling its contents across the floor.
The figure began to turn around. She could see now that the material was less wrinkled than tarpaulin. The surface was smooth and shiny in-between the ripples and creases. It writhed and pulsated like a plastic cocoon as whatever lay beneath moved itself into position.
Before she saw the face she knew.
Becky’s sallow face stared at her through the slim opening in the body bag. Smiling, no less. There were purple abrasions that stood out like neon against the dead flesh of her neck.
As the borders of her vision began to close in, Isla thought she heard her phone ringing in some far-off world. “Who would be phoning me so late?” she asked, even though she knew the answer.
The police hadn’t taken long. They were polite and efficient which Isla appreciated. They suggested she sleep before travelling. Darren came around too but she knew calling him had been a mistake. He insisted on staying but Isla was polite and efficient.
Now she was in the bathroom looking in the mirror and rubbing her neck. She had asked if Becky had suffered but they had told her that they had no details of that nature.
Isla had read there was only a slim chance of a quick death that way and in some cases you might stay alive for over an hour. It wasn’t how she wanted to go.
Isla opened her medicine cabinet.
There were better ways. She could have told Becky that.
Later, she sat on her bed. In her hand was an unopened envelope that had come in the morning post. It was Becky’s handwriting on the front. On the back there were three symbols. Isla had written those.
The brain fills in the gap based on what it thinks is missing.
She waited patiently to see it again.
A thought nagged her. It was something she had read on one of the scraps in Becky’s bin.
I don’t feel like I really exist.
For the longest time her blind spot remained empty. But something came eventually—shadowy, thin and stooped, not unlike the figure that had been there before. She hoped it was Becky. But given everything, it probably wasn’t.
I don’t feel like I really exist.
It didn’t sound that bad to Isla.
S.R. Mastrantone does most of his writing in Oxford in the UK, even though he is originally from the incredibly dull suburbs to the south of Birmingham. Not that he resents growing up in the suburbs you understand. In fact, if you asked him, he’d probably say the suburbs are particularly fecund territory for breeding imaginative youth. Only he’d say it in a slightly less verbose way and not use the word “fecund.” And he probably wouldn’t use “verbose” either. He writes blogs here thewrittenabsurd.blogspot.co.uk and tweets using this name: @srmastrantone. His most recent appearance in our pages was “Full Disclosure” in SHOWCASE #4; his other short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Fiction Desk (for which he won their Writer’s Award), Lamplight, carte blanche, and The Colored Lens.