After a month's hiatus due to Christmas, I am back, with a new, extra-long chapter. Thanks again to Munchenhausen for his assistance in editing.
As ever, feedback and criticism is greatly appreciated. Hope you enjoy it!
EDIT: I've revised this chapter from initial posting. Here's
a link to the changelog, if you're curious. Thanks to brythain for his assistance in editing, and to Mirage_GSM for his feedback.
Chapter 4: Sight, Stains, and Soap
Six weeks later…
I stayed in that hospital for three weeks, all told. They’d wanted to keep me there for longer, of course. They must have told me hundreds of times that I’m still an unsolved mystery, how much they could learn from me if I’d just let them keep me in that bed, sit there quietly as they ran endless tests and the world outside went on turning without me.
I guess it was selfish of me, but I didn’t care how much they could learn from me. I just wanted to go home – or, rather, back to Yamaku. I wanted to live my life, to go back to my friends rather than sit through endless tests. Hanako and Hisao visited often, and Akira stayed with me as much as she could, but, still….it was lonely, and I couldn’t take it. I gave them three weeks of my life, all the same. But that’s all they’ll get.
I’m glad Akira was there. She stood by my decision to leave, and whenever they tried to pressure me into staying, she would always insist on being there – “so they can’t catch you alone,” she’d say. Over their objections and their pleading, she’d pound her hand on the table and snap at them in a way I’d never dream of doing, reminding them all that it was my right to leave, that it was my right to be something more than the subject for a paper in a medical journal, for someone’s Nobel Prize. And she was right. Let the world speculate and wonder. I have a life I want to live.
So it was that after three weeks, I came back to Yamaku Academy. Some of the more sympathetic doctors at the hospital put together a training regimen so I could keep learning how to properly use my newfound sight, and the school nurse – I know his name now, it’s Yasuhito Tanaka – agreed to meet me four times a week to help me.
And I do need his help. Even after all this time, I still feel helpless.
It’s not as though I haven’t made any progress. The eye pains, for example, are much less frequent now – it took me a month and a half, but my eyes finally adjusted to the light. I’m getting used to mentally blanking out the darkness that sits in front of my eyes when I closed them, so now I can – sort of – shut vision out when it gets too overwhelming. I can name and recognize all the major colours. I’m learning to read Kanji, as opposed to Braille – none too well, but it’s progress all the same.
But somehow, I still feel empty, because it feels like no matter how much progress I make, it’ll never be enough. Although my eyes don’t ache as much, I’ve still been having frequent migraines – Tanaka thinks it might have something to do with the fluorescent bulbs they use in the building. I’m still not good enough with my vision to use it to find my way around, and I still have problems with depth perception: I’ve nearly blundered into doors and walls more often than I’d care to admit, and I can’t seem to see a picture as anything but two-dimensional.
I think the problem is that I can’t turn the sight off. I can’t adapt to vision as slowly as I’d like to – in chunks, with breaks to rest my mind. Even with my eyes closed, sight is always there in front of me, a distraction from the sound and the touch that was, until now, everything. Tanaka tells me not to worry, and that I’ll learn in time. But I still feel so…helpless. Before I could see, I knew my place in the world. I knew how to get around, I knew how to study, how to read and to think. It was hardly perfect, but I was happy.
Now? I grope around the halls like a child, trying to reason out where the stairs are. Now, I’m supposed to feel like I’ve accomplished something when I can guess how big an object is without touching it. Now, I’m sitting with a teacher learning how to read
, like some first-grader. Now, I’m behind everyone else, trying to learn skills they take for granted, and I feel slow and stupid and foolish. The world I have known is lost in light, and for the first time in my life I truly feel blind.
There was surprisingly little fanfare when I came back – thankfully – but rumours had spread. In my most uncharitable moments I suspect Emi of having listened at the door when we met with Tanaka before my trip to the hospital, of having heard everything, and told everyone. It’s probably just paranoia. She’s not that kind of person. But still: they all knew, somehow, even before I walked back through the front door.
People keep asking me about what it’s like to be able to see after all these years, and I haven’t the heart to tell them that for the most part, it’s been painful. If it was just the questions, of course, I might be able to deal with it, but it’s not just the questions. It’s the envy.
It happened about a week after I came back from the hospital. Tanaka suggested that I spend a few hours a week walking around the halls after classes in order to get used to seeing rather than feeling my way around. So, after classes had ended on the Friday after I came back, instead of meeting Hisao and Hanako for tea as usual, I politely excused myself and spent the next few hours wandering the halls. I was passing by the art room when I heard a voice from inside.
“It’s not fair.”
I recognized the voice coming from the half-open door: Saki Enomoto. One of the more tragic cases at Yamaku (which says something, considering the student body), she has some kind of degenerative nerve disease – I don’t know all the details, but from what I’ve heard, there’s no cure, and it’ll kill her in about ten years. I’ve never spoken to her much, but I can still tell it’s her because her condition’s also given her a telltale faint, slurring lisp. The lisp will get worse as time passes: in a few years – if she’s still alive – she’ll barely be able to speak. I don’t like to think about it.
“If things were ‘fair’, then none of us would be here.”
The second voice belonged to Rin Tezuka, another student in the art class. Like Saki, she has a very distinctive voice, though in a different way: Rin’s voice is a languid, smooth contralto from deep in the chest that’s always been at odds with how laconic, if not abrupt, she can be. I closed my eyes to give them a rest, and leaned back against the wall to listen.
“Rin,” said Saki, “in all this time I’ve known you, that’s one of the few times you’ve ever said anything that makes any sense.”
I suddenly realized I was eavesdropping, and I had been about to leave when Saki’s next words froze me in my tracks.
“I just can’t deal with it any more,” she snarled. “Lilly. That bitch
I somehow managed not to gasp. Rin said nothing.
“All everyone’s been talking about is that ‘miracle’ of hers,” Saki continued bitterly. “How wonderful it must be to wake up one morning and find that all your problems have vanished. What a miracle it must be to wake up and be cured.”
“Was it a miracle?” wondered Rin aloud.
“Don’t give me that! Of course it’s a miracle. But she didn’t need
it. Not like I need it. This spinocererer…sp…spino…”
She was so worked up that she kept tripping over the word. Uncharitably, I thought for a moment of Hanako and her stutter. I heard Saki slap the table and swear loudly.
“God damn it! It’s so bad I can’t even pronounce what I have any more.”
She hurled something – a pencil? a paintbrush? – against the wall, then there was a long moment of silence.
“It’s going to kill me, Rin,” Saki finally said, her voice hollow. “I won’t live to see thirty. Lilly wasn’t – isn’t – dying, so why her? I need a miracle more than she
I remember tasting blood all of a sudden, and realizing how hard I’d been biting my lower lip.
“You shouldn’t be envious,” Rin intoned. “It’s a waste of time.”
“It’s all I have,” cried Saki. “I used to have a life. I used to have hopes, and dreams of what I wanted to do. Then I was diagnosed with sp…sp…this
. I thought coming here would help me cope. But life decided to screw me over, yet again, by granting the miracle I’d always prayed for…to someone else. So now I’m here. With you
. And I never even liked you.”
“I’m in the art room with me all the time, come to think of it,” said Rin, ignoring not only the insult but Saki’s entire point. In any other circumstances, I might have found it funny. “Maybe I’m just used to it, though. I wonder if I can ever be with me without being me?”
“Damn it, Rin! Why can’t you ever just ssss…shut up?”
I think what’s stuck with me the most has been what Saki’s voice sounded like right then, as she was coming to the end of her rope. It was filled with frustration and pent-up anger, both at Rin and at her own difficulty in speaking. As she tripped over those last words, her voice began to hitch and crack.
“Why can’t you just listen
instead of…of…I…I’m trying to say…I’m not…”
There was a moment’s pause, and then she suddenly burst into tears.
“Oh, god,” Saki sobbed brokenly. “Oh, my god. I’m going to die.”
I couldn’t take it. I turned and ran away, not caring if they could hear me. I ran until Saki’s disconsolate, hopeless cries faded into silence.
After that, I started to realize Saki wasn’t alone. A lot of the students at Yamaku have started to resent me, and it shows. People fall silent when I walk by. They stare at me when they don’t think I can notice – or maybe they’ve forgotten they have to hide their faces from me now. Every look, every word, asks me the same question: why? Why was it was my eyes that healed, not their eyes, their hands, their nerves and brains and bones and hearts? Even if I was still blind, I’d be able to tell how they feel from the way they say as little as possible to me, from the curt, sullen tones of their voices, how much they wish it was them, and not me.
I wish it was them too. I feel…stretched. Like there’s something inside me that’s being coiled tighter and tighter every day. I feel an itchiness deep inside myself that sets me drumming my fingers or tapping my toes as I sit in the spare classroom where I always drink my tea.
Today, I’m alone, and I look out the window at the slushy remains of the snow, melting in the sun of March. The end of the year is coming, and so Hisao and Hanako are in the library, studying for a test. I should be there too, but somehow it all seems so distant, the world of schoolwork and of learning. Shizune always accused me of ignoring my responsibilities. Maybe she’s right.
I’ve heard myself described as “serene” and “calm”, even now. But inside I feel brittle, and thin, and insubstantial. I look into my cup at the last remains of the tea inside, brown against the plain white of the ceramic. I sigh, and drink it down. It’s gone cold.
I get up to make myself another cup. The water’s still warm, and boils quickly. As it heats up, I look back out the window. I still love white. It’s pure, and cool, and beautiful. But the white is all stained. Stained with green, like the grass poking through the slush. Stained with brown, like the mud spattering the remaining snowpiles, or the tea at the bottom of the mug. I defensively touch my shirt, freshly washed and bright. White, like the snow. For all this pain, for all this exhaustion, I remember the snow that January morning with a smile. It was beautiful.
The kettle shrieks, and I fill the cup, but as I move to put in the sugar, my hand slips, and the cup tips over, emptying its contents onto me. I jump back, more from surprise than pain, but the front of my shirt is soaked, the tea staining it brown. I’ll need to change it…
The brittle thing inside of me snaps, and gives way.
“Fuck,” I whisper under my breath.
It’s the first time in my life that I’ve said that word. I don’t use words like that. Ever. But now that I’ve said it, I can’t unsay it. It felt ugly, dirty, in my mouth. Like I’d made a wound in the air with my voice. I imagine my lips, tongue and teeth stained with black, the same black as my closed eyelids, stained with the filth the word left behind as it slithered out.
Yet in its ugliness, it felt…satisfying.
I clutch at the teacup. My hand closes around the handle and grips it tight. Why would anyone envy me this? Why did this happen at all? I open my eyes again, and the world is red. I glare at the cup with loathing. I don’t care anymore. The world is ugly, now. It deserves ugliness from me.
” I shriek at the top of my lungs. I turn around, intending to hurl the cup against the wall with all of my might.
As I turn, I realize that someone’s standing there, behind me, and have to stop myself mid-throw. My arm, carried by its momentum, flails awkwardly in midair, throwing me off-balance for a moment. I stumble against the table, but catch myself.
“Who…” I begin, then look closer.
There are two of them, both girls – I can tell by the skirts – but I have no idea who they are until I notice that the girl before me has hair dyed a shade of pink that sends a needle of pain stabbing into my eye. Even before I could see, I knew about Misha’s hair. But if she’s here, then that means the second person…
I look at her for the first time. She’s thin, with short hair and glasses. I can’t read her expression – faces are still hard for me, and I have difficulty reading any but the most exaggerated emotions in a person’s face. Fortunately, that isn’t a problem with Misha, whose face is a mask of horror. She must have heard me shouting.
“Class rep…Lilly? Are…are you all right?” she asks quietly. Her voice, normally so ear-splittingly loud, is soft. Shizune stands behind her, still as a statue.
“No,” I say, slumping down into a chair. “Leave me alone, Shizune.” Misha’s arms shoot up, making me flinch before I realize that she must be signing what I said to Shizune. So, this is how my cousin interacts with the world. Shizune’s replying motions are fast and sharp.
“Lilly!” says Misha, her voice suddenly back to its grating normal volume. She’s puffed up her cheeks and crossed her arms in an expression of what I can only assume is meant to be anger, but her tone as usual is cheerful. Her voice was always disorienting, even before I could see. “That’s not nice! When Shiichan and I only wanted to help!”
“You wanted to help,” I repeat sullenly, massaging my temples. Her voice – and her hair – are giving me a headache. Misha doesn’t seem to notice my tone, or maybe she chooses to ignore it, because she grins as she relays Shizune’s motions to me, and her voice somehow gets even louder and cheerier than before.
“The Student Council’s duty is to help all students! And that means you too!”
I look at her blankly.
“Shiichan knows you’ve been sad,” Misha explains. “And that’s no good! So…we’re here,” she finishes lamely.
How typical of Shizune to think she can fix people, I want to snap at her. Typical of her to gloat over me in my misery. I want to tell her, tell both of them, to get out and leave me alone, but I bite back the bitter words all the same. She didn’t have to come here.
“Well, thank you,” I say, more frostily than I intended. Before Misha – Shizune? It’s so hard to tell which one’s “talking” sometimes – can reply, the bell rings for class to start. Misha signs to Shizune, presumably telling her it just went off.
“Wait,” I say, as they turn to leave. Misha taps Shizune on the shoulder, and they both turn around.
“Would…would you like to continue this discussion over tea tomorrow?” I say, swallowing my pride. “If you don’t mind. I do appreciate you trying to help, Shizune. I do.”
Another fast series of hand motions between the two. I guess they’re having a conversation, but it’s hard not to feel left out. It’s always been hard. Even back when we were on relatively good terms, there was always a gulf between Shizune and I that seemed impossible to bridge. It doesn’t help that she’s as insufferable as she is. Still, I’m touched she cared enough to reach out to me, however coldly. After a few seconds, Misha turns to me and grins.
“We’d be delighted!” I can’t tell if Shizune’s as happy as Misha makes her sound or if she’s merely tolerating my offer. I can’t read her expression. “See you tomorrow!”
As they leave, I turn to clean up the spilled tea before going back to my room to change into a fresh shirt – if I hurry, I can probably catch the second half of class. As I take a wad of paper towels and wipe down the tabletop, I wonder if I should learn sign language once I get more used to seeing. Maybe then I’d be able to talk to Shizune without an interpreter.
Oh, what’s the use? The year’s almost over.
As I throw the paper towels away, I pause for a moment by the sink. My eyes closed, I reach out and touch the soap dispenser. Even after several minutes, I can still feel the word on my tongue, in my throat. After another second, I squirt some soap into my hand and then rub it into my tongue until the bitter taste makes me forget what it felt like.