“Why is it so dark in here, Dr. Chandler? How am I supposed to know if the operation worked for not?”
Ten-year-old Joey Wright was sitting in what felt like an eye doctor’s chair waiting for his new pair of glasses. There had been something wrong with his eyes and Dr. Chandler had to do an operation. He had to stay in the hospital and wear bandages over his eyes for six-weeks, which was pretty lousy because he couldn’t see anything, so he couldn’t do stuff like watch TV or play video games.
But Mom said that before the operation, his eyes were really, really bad and that it would all be worth it when he got better. Funny though that he couldn’t remember very much from before the operation.
“You’ve been in complete darkness for the past six weeks, Joey. I want to introduce your eyes to light very slowly, but first, I have to put on your new glasses.”
Rhonda Chandler was one of the top ten ophthalmologists in the nation and the fees she charged would normally have made it impossible for Joey’s Mom Janis Wright to be able to afford her services. But Joey’s case was unique, marvellously and terribly unique. So Dr. Chandler agreed to take the boy on as a patient for whatever Ms. Wright’s medical insurance would provide. The real payoff for Chandler was to work with a person who had one-of-a-kind eye structure and to finally utilize the experimental lens material she had developed.
“Okay, Joey. I’m taking off the bandages now. You still won’t be able to see anything but go ahead and blink your eyes.”
“I’m blinking, Dr. Chandler. Do you have my glasses with you? How will you put them on me if you can’t see?”
“I have them right here, Joey and I’ll have to do it by feel.”
He giggled as her fingers fumbled over his face.
“Sorry about that.”
“Nah, it just tickles. That’s all.”
He could hear her lab coat rustling and then a kind of metal or plastic snapping sound.
“I’m opening up the case your special glasses are kept in. Remember, when you take them off at night, you have to store them in this case.”
“And when you sleep, you’ll have to wear a face mask to protect your eyes. It’s very, very important that you look at things, anything only when you’re wearing your glasses.”
“Will I go blind if I don’t, Dr. Chandler?”
“As your doctor, I’m responsible for your health and you will only stay healthy if you follow my instructions to the letter. No exceptions. I mean it.”
She sounded really serious, almost mad and that made Joey feel scared.
“Yes, Dr. Chandler. I promise.”
“Okay. Here we go.”
She rubbed his face one more time and then he felt her slipping the glasses on him.
“Keep the glasses on but close your eyes. The lights for this room are on a dimmer switch and I’m going to turn them up just a little bit.”
He could hear her footsteps on the tile floor as she walked away. Then he heard a soft click.
“Now open your eyes slowly, Joey.”
He blinked and then kept his eyes open. The room was really dim but he could see Dr. Chandler standing by the door.
“How do you feel?”
“Fine, Dr. Chandler. Can you turn the lights up more?”
“Sure.” She adjusted the dimmer knob until the room was at about half the expected illumination. “Take a minute and let yourself get used to things. Can you see okay?”
“Everything’s really clear, Doctor. I can see fine. Are you going to test my eyes with the glasses on?”
“Yes, in a minute. I’m turning up the lights all the way now and then I have a surprise for you?”
“A surprise?” Dr. Chandler was smiling as she opened the door and Joey didn’t have to guess very hard about what the surprise was.
“Mom!” He almost jumped out of the chair but the Doctor motioned him to stay seated. Instead his Mom walked quickly over to her only child and hugged him.
“Oh my baby boy! You can see again. I’m so happy.” Then she started crying.
Joey started crying too and almost took his glasses off to wipe his eyes but then he heard Dr. Chandler.
“I told you to keep your glasses on all the time, Joey. Don’t take them off for a second.”
Ms. Wright looked up indignantly and started to talk, but then something about the expression on Chandler’s face stopped her.
“Here, Joey.” The Doctor got a tissue from a box on a nearby counter. “Take the Kleenex and reach under your glasses to wipe your eyes.”
He took the tissue from her hand and did what she told him.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Chandler.” Now instead of Mom looking angry, she looked like someone who had done something wrong. “I just forgot for a moment.”
“This is really important for the both of you to remember. Unless Joey is in total darkness either in a blacked out room or wearing his sleep mask, he absolutely must wear his glasses at all times. He can’t take them off for even a second, no matter what.”
“I promise, Dr. Chandler,” his Mom said.
“Me, too,” echoed Joey.
Joey’s Mom and Dr. Chandler had no false illusions. As much as Joey meant it at the time, they both knew he was still a ten-year-old boy and that sooner or later, he would forget and take his glasses off. Not a lot of kids wore glasses anymore, and they were afraid someone might bully him and knock them off or that he’d drop them at school during recess.
While Joey had been in the hospital, Mom moved them into his Aunt Amy’s place. Aunt Amy was divorced and owned a small software company. That, plus the settlement she’d gotten from Uncle Dustin, or his ex-Uncle now, let Aunt Amy live in a nice, big house. Mom was a software developer and Aunt Amy let her work for her company from her house so she could home school Joey.
Joey remembered Mom, Aunt Amy, Uncle (now ex-Uncle) Dustin, Grandma and Grandpa, and some other relatives, but he didn’t remember what he actually did and what life was like before the operation. Dr. Chandler said that he’d lost some of his memory because of the operation, but the important thing was that with the glasses, he could see just fine again and that his Mom would take good care of him.
He loved his Mom very much and she loved him more than anything. He also loved Aunt Amy and his Grandma and Grandpa too (though they lived in another state and couldn’t come to visit very often). The one person he couldn’t remember was his Dad and it bothered him a lot. Whenever Joey asked about him, Mom changed the subject.
Where was his Dad? If he divorced Mom like ex-uncle Dustin divorced Aunt Amy, why didn’t he visit? If he couldn’t visit because he was far away, why didn’t he call or text?
It took a while, but Joey finally got into a routine. Every morning when he woke up, his room was blacked out, just like it was when he went to sleep. He took off his face mask which was like a blindfold that strapped around his head, and put on his glasses, which always sat in their case on the night stand next to his bed. Then he reached over to turn on the lamp.
He had to take baths because it was too hard to wear glasses in the shower. When they fogged up because of the hot water, he’d use a special cloth to wipe the lenses, making sure to keep them on as he reached under them to do the wiping.
Joey did schoolwork at home and even though he learned a lot, it was kind of lonely with no other kids to talk to or play with.
Sometimes Mom took him on “play dates” with one or two other kids she said were his friends before the operation, but he didn’t remember them. They were really nice but Joey could tell there were things they didn’t want to talk about from before and sometimes they even acted a little scared of him.
Their parents and Mom never let him be alone with the other kids, even for a minute. Everyone acted friendly and nice, but Joey knew they were holding back something, like they had a secret about Joey they couldn’t tell him.
He got to go to movies, play video games, go to the beach in the summer and build snowmen in the winter, but except when he was sleeping, Mom never let him be alone, like she was afraid that sooner or later, he’d take the glasses off and try to look at the world without them.
She was rinsing the dishes after dinner and then passing them to him so he could load the dishwasher. Aunt Amy was in her office upstairs talking to a contractor all the way across the country on Skype.
“What secret are you keeping about me? Does it have something to do with Dad?”
His Mom froze for a split second as if caught by surprise and then kept on rinsing the cup she was holding.
“What makes you think I’m keeping a secret?”
“Mom, I’ll be eleven in three months and you said that I’m a really smart kid. Give me some credit, huh?”
He normally wasn’t this rude to Mom, but the secret thing had been bothering him for a long time and he really wanted to get it settled.
She put the cup in the sink, turned off the water, and then wiped her hands dry on a dish towel.
“Honey, I know it’s been hard not remembering a lot of things.” She put her hands on his shoulders. He realized he wasn’t that much shorter than she was anymore.
“Then why won’t you tell me what I was like before the operation? Did something bad happen that you don’t want me to know about?”
He saw her face get really pale. It made him nervous because she looked so frightened for a second, like she was scared of him.
“Let’s just say that your life was really very hard before the surgery, Joey. But Dr. Chandler fixed your eyes and…”
“If she fixed my eyes, why do I still have to wear glasses?”
“She explained that at last month’s exam. What the glasses do is work with what she did in the surgery. You see just fine, don’t you?”
“You know she said I’ve got 20/15 vision, like it’s just a little better than perfect. But other kids get to take off their glasses. My cousin Rudy gets to take off his glasses. Heck, half the time he forgets to wear them. Why am I so different?”
“When you’re older I’ll try to explain.”
“Why can’t I know now, Mom? What’s wrong with me?”
She bent down and gave him a hug. “Oh darling, you are my wonderful, wonderful boy and I just want to make sure you stay safe.”
He murmured into her shoulder. “From what, Mom?” The hug felt nice and maybe that’s what he needed but needed some answers, too.
She stood up and looked at him. “You know how there are somethings I didn’t tell you about when you were younger?”
“It’s hard to remember. You mean like how Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny aren’t real or where babies come from?”
“Something like that. Do you know why I didn’t tell you the truth about those things when you were really little?”
“Well, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are fun to believe in when you’re a kid and where babies come from is well…you know…embarrassing.” He realized he was looking down at his shoes and his face was hot which meant he was blushing.
“That’s right. Parents don’t tell everything to kids because you have to be old enough to understand what they mean. I want you to accept that if I don’t tell you something now, it’s for that reason.”
“But Mom, I’m almost…”
“Yes, I know. You’re almost eleven and while you might think that’s old enough for just about anything, I’m your Mother and I’m responsible for protecting you, even if you don’t understand from what.”
He looked at her. The glasses let him see every detail of her face and the roots of the parts of her hair that were grey. She’d probably dye her hair again soon. She wore contact lenses and he could see how the light reflected off of them, so he could tell what was the lens and what was her eye. She was sweating a little, probably because she’d been rinsing with hot water, but maybe she was also nervous. She smiled just a bit and she had that look on her face she got when she wanted him to trust her and not keep bugging her with questions.
“Okay, Mom. I love you.” He hugged her again and she hugged back.
“I love you too, Joey. I love you so very much.”
It was Saturday morning. He took off the face mask but hadn’t put on his glasses yet. The room was completely blacked out so he couldn’t see a thing but he’d memorized the room a long time ago and could find his way around.
He sat at the edge of the bed facing where he knew the window was. He could walk right over to it and open the blinds. He always did it in the dark anyway. He could do it right now without his glasses on. What were Mom, Aunt Amy, and Dr. Chandler afraid he’d see?
Joey couldn’t do it. He wanted to but he’d promised. Besides, what if he looked at the world without his glasses and something horrible happened to his eyes, something Dr. Chandler couldn’t fix? It would be a stupid, stupid thing to do.
But he wanted to do it so badly.
After Joey got the operation, he was examined by Dr. Chandler once a day for the first week, and then once a week for four weeks after that. Then he didn’t have to see her again for three whole months. After being on that schedule for a while, he went to seeing her only once every six months, like when he went to the dentist.
Joey had his last exam month ago so he wouldn’t need another one for five whole months. That’s when he started seeing the shadows.
For a long time, Joey thought they were like how everyone thought they saw people or things out of the corner of their eye, so he figured it wasn’t worth telling Mom about (he was supposed to tell her if he saw anything strange or weird so she could make an emergency appointment for him with Dr. Chandler).
The change happened so gradually, it took Joey a while to figure out things were actually getting worse and that the shadows weren’t just tricks being played by the light.
He was seeing…something. Somethings, really.
Most of the time they really did look like shadows, people’s shadows, but instead of being on the wall or floor, they were standing up and walking around.
He couldn’t see any details, like exactly what shape they were, if they were men or women, or anything like that. He just saw fuzzy shadows that he could sort of see through. Once, right after he put his glasses on in the morning and opened the blinds, one was standing in front of him and Joey reached out. He thought his hand would go through and it did, but his hand and whole arm felt really cold, like he’d stuck it in the freezer.
He almost told Mom but something inside of him said, “No.”
Was it really inside of him or did one of the shadows say “No?”
A few days later, a shadow came over to him and touched his arm. Joey’s forearm got so cold he got goosebumps right where the shadow’s hand grabbed him.
“Aunt Amy, where’s Mom?”
It was a Friday and Aunt Amy was home early for once. Since she owned her company and since it was small, she was never home during the day and usually didn’t come home until six or seven at night, but today was different for some reason.
“She had to get her car’s oil changed, then she was going to do some grocery shopping. She asked me to help you with your math homework.”
Aunt Amy was a real math head but if she went grocery shopping by herself, she’d come home with nothing but junk food. Frozen pizza and corn dogs were fine by Joey, but Mom wanted him to eat healthy food (which meant Aunt Amy had to eat healthy, too), so she did the shopping or they all went so Mom could play Aunt Amy’s “enforcer” (that’s what she called Mom sometimes as a joke).
The shadows were getting worse and they weren’t just shadows anymore. They touched him and whispered in his ears. Most of the time, he couldn’t understand them, but occasionally he caught words like “No” and “Listen,” and once he even heard “Dad.”
That’s when he decided he’d better tell Mom. One of the shadows had just said “Dad” in his ear but the scariest part was that Joey recognized the voice. It sounded like Dad. He didn’t know what Dad sounded like until it said “Dad” to him. He still couldn’t remember what Dad looked like or anything else about him, but now he remembered his voice.
Joey had a hard time concentrating on his math. Every time he heard a car drive by out front, he hoped it was Mom. He really needed to talk to her. He loved Aunt Amy, but for this, he needed Mom. He needed her a lot right now. He should have told her when he first started seeing the shadows. Now he was afraid it was too late. If his glasses weren’t working right, he didn’t know what he would do except go around with his sleep mask on all the time until Dr. Chandler could fix things.
That’s why he had to see Dr. Chandler. She told him and Mom that his eyes might eventually adjust so that the prescription wasn’t as effective. Then she’d have to change his glasses so they worked better again. He wished he’d told Mom and that Dr. Chandler had already fixed his glasses. He was scared of what he was seeing and hearing and he was afraid he’d start remembering too, although he didn’t know why.
“Joey, you need to pay attention.”
“I’m sorry, Aunt Amy. I’ve just got a headache.”
“Do you need some aspirin?”
He almost said no, but one of the voices said “Yes” in his ear.
“Yes. Could you get me some please?”
“Sure, Joey. Be right back.”
She stood up. They’d been working at the coffee table in the living room. She walked behind him and into the kitchen. They kept the aspirin, vitamins, band aids and other stuff in the pantry. He could hardly hear her because the whispers from the shadows (the whole room was full of them now) were so distracting.
“Take the glasses off.”
He was crying when Aunt Amy came back with two aspirins in one hand and a glass of water in the other. He had his eyes shut tight and his hands over his ears.
“Go away! Go away! I don’t want to hear you or see you so just go away!”
The sound of the glass hitting the carpet and the water spilling made him look up at Aunt Amy. She looked pale and scared just like Mom did when they had that talk in the kitchen a few months back.
“Oh my God, it’s happening again.”
Then she knelt down by him and grabbed Joey hard by his shoulders. “You can see and hear them even with the glasses on?”
“You know about the shadows, Aunt Amy?”
“Shadows? They’re not shadows, they’re…”
“Amy, what’s going on? What’s wrong with Joey?”
“Mom! Help me! My glasses aren’t working. I can see and hear them again!”
“Amy, get Joey in the car. I’ll call Chandler’s cell. If we can get him to her office…”
“No wait!” Amy ran down the hall toward Joey’s room.
“Oh hell no, not a recording…Dr. Chandler, it’s Janis Wright. Something’s wrong with Joey’s glasses. He can see and hear them again. I’m bringing him to your office. Please call back as soon as you can. We need help!”
Amy rushed back with the night mask. “I’m just going to push this under your…”
Aunt Amy started to cough and then choke. “What’s wrong, Amy…” Then Mom tripped and fell backward. The shadows. They were attacking. Joey was letting them back into the world.
“Son…help us. Don’t let them stop us this time.
“Dad? Daddy what’s happening to me? Don’t hurt Mommy and Aunt Amy.”
Ghostly hands reach for Joey’s face.
“No, Dad! Stop! I’m never supposed to take them off!”
Joey tried, but his Dad was too strong and he got his glasses away from him, throwing them across the room.
“NO! NO, DAD! Daddy, you’re dead!”
“Yes son I know, and you’re the only one who can help us. Our souls are trapped here, so many of us and more are coming all the time. You’ve got to show us the way to the other world.”
Joey felt panicked. It was the worst kind of scared he had ever felt, but this wasn’t the first time. Right after his Dad died in the car crash two years ago he started seeing him and then he started to see the others, to hear them.
“Make him talk, Wright. If you don’t, we’ll do your wife and the kid’s aunt.”
“Shut up, McInnis. They’re my family. Don’t hurt them.”
“We’ve been trapped in this hell for too long, Wright. The longer we’re here, the crazier we get. You know that. You can feel it too.”
Dad turned to the ghosts holding Mom. There were tons of ghosts holding her and Aunt Amy on the floor. It had been bad before but never this bad and it was all his fault. Somehow his eyes could see into the world of the dead but they let them back into the live world too. They wanted to kill Mom and Aunt Amy.
“Daddy, Daddy, don’t let Mommy and Aunt Amy get hurt. I’ll do anything you want, anything! I’ll find a way to let the others go, but Daddy, please don’t leave me. I’m not ready.”
Joey heard the whispers in his ear and now he knew there was never an operation. It was a trick. Dr. Chandler used it as an excuse to keep Joey blind while she was making the glasses for him. If his eyes didn’t see light, they didn’t open the door. He couldn’t see dead people and they couldn’t get to living people. He didn’t know why they couldn’t find their way home.
Mommy didn’t understand and thought the ghosts, thought Daddy’s ghost was trying to hurt him, maybe even drive him crazy. Daddy would never hurt Joey but it did hurt because he died. Joey couldn’t stand it and couldn’t stand it and so that’s why he kept Dad from going away. But somehow that meant all the other ghosts who died after him couldn’t go away either.
Mom took him to Dr. Chandler because she didn’t understand. She thought he was going crazy and that he might even be getting dangerous because he was seeing ghosts everywhere and scaring his friends. Everywhere that Joey went, at school, with his friends, at home, the ghosts could see, talk to, threaten, even beat up people. No wonder everyone who knew him from before was scared of him.
“I’m sorry Joey, but I have to go. I have to leave you because if I don’t, all the other ghosts can’t leave and they are going to hurt your Mom, your Aunt, and then a lot of other people. Tell us, Joey. Where is it? Hurry. Where’s the afterlife? You can see it can’t you?”
“I couldn’t before. I didn’t want to. I wasn’t ready. I was too young for my Daddy to die.”
“Joey, I’m sorry but you’re older now. Can you see more? Hurry Joey. Your Mom and Aunt don’t have much time.”
He wanted to scream at the ghosts to leave them alone, to stop piling on top of Mom and his Aunt, to take their hands off of their noses and mouths so they could breathe. Joey could see their own ghosts getting ready to leave their bodies.
He wanted to scream but that wouldn’t do any good. He had to find where the ghosts wanted to go. Why couldn’t he see it before?
“It’s me, Dad! It’s me! It’s my eyes.”
“What? What do you mean? Joey, what do you mean?”
Dad’s ghost was shaking Joey hard.
“Stop it, Dad! Stop it and look into my eyes. Look inside, Dad.”
That’s why he couldn’t see it before. It wasn’t something outside of him or around him. Joey’s eyes were the door. When his Dad died and when his eyes changed he did something. It was all his fault these people were trapped and he had to fix it.
“Look into my eyes, Daddy. Hurry.”
“Hey. What’s happening to Wright?”
“I don’t know. He’s looking into the kid and now he’s fading.”
“Kid, what are you doing?”
“Yeah, where’s the door?”
The dead around him were talking all at once. They were getting closer to Joey as his Dad seemed to be getting further away.
“I love you, Joey. You’re a good boy. I’m sorry about what we’ve done. They just want to go home. I’m sorry I left you. I love you, boy. I’ll always love…”
Joey’s Dad wasn’t there anymore and now some of the others were getting harder to see. They let go of Mom and Aunt Amy. Their own ghosts settled back into their bodies but they were knocked out.
“Thanks, kid,” one of them said.
“I’m sorry we hurt people, Joey. Tell your Mom,” said another.
One by one the ghosts gathered around to look into Joey’s eyes. Even Joey wasn’t sure what they saw but whatever it was, it was enough.
“Joey, I’m going to turn down the medication a little at a time. You’ll still feel kind of fuzzy for a few minutes so be patient. Just tell me what you see.”
The eleven-year-old (his birthday was last week) mumbled something no one could understand but nodded “yes”. Dr. Chandler turned to Roger and the nurse slowly adjusted the valve. Janis, Joey’s Mom was standing on the other side of the bed. Sunlight was streaming into her eyes, so she kept them looking down at her little boy’s sweet face.
She knew her sister and parents were waiting outside. Joey’s Dad’s parents were flying in from the coast. She hadn’t spoken to them since the funeral. Joey didn’t remember them after his Dad was buried.
“How do you feel, Joey?”
“Kind of sleepy still, Dr. Chandler. It’s getting better though.”
“What do you see?”
He turned his head to his left. “I see you. The sun’s kind of bright.”
Roger moved over to the window and half closed the blinds.
“Yes, that’s better. Thanks.”
He looked right. “I see Mom.” He smiled.
“The man who closed the blinds.”
“He’s your nurse. His name’s Roger.”
“Hi, Roger.” Joey tried to raise his hand but the IV tube got in the way and he stopped.
“Hi, Joey.” Roger had a nice smile, the boy thought.
Joey looked around. He could see Dr. Chandler, Roger, and Mom but there wasn’t anyone else in the room. He felt his face with his free hand just to make sure he wasn’t wearing his glasses.
“No one else, Dr. Chandler. Just You, Roger, and Mom.”
Janis Wright smiled and started to cry. “It’s over, Joey. It’s all over now, isn’t that right, Doctor?”
“I’d like to keep Joey here for a few more days. There are still some test results that I haven’t gotten back yet, but everything’s looking really good so far. Whatever there was about Joey’s unique eye structure that let him see those visions seems to have remitted.”
A week later, Joey had a late birthday party with all of his family and friends. He got lots of presents, but the best one was that he didn’t have to wear his glasses anymore and no one acted like they had to keep secrets from him or were scared of him. Mom would keep home schooling him until summer and then next year, he could go back to school again.
That Fall, Joey started his first day at Middle School. It seemed strange to be one of the youngest kids. Instead of having one main teacher, he had a different one for each class. It took a few weeks, but he started making new friends and getting used to being just one of the gang.
It was cold toward the end of October and he remembered he’d left his jacket in the library as he was getting ready to leave school for the day. He had to hurry because the bus was coming soon.
Joey grabbed his jacket off of the chair where he’d hung it. He was putting it on when she spoke to him.
He looked around but didn’t see her at first.
“Joey, over here.”
He turned and had to concentrate real hard to see her. She was a shadow one minute and then she became clearer.
“You’re Angie, right? We used to go to school together.”
“Yes, Joey. I never knew what happened to you after your Mom took you out of class.”
“Are you going to school here now?”
“No, Joey. My parents moved away when I got sick so I could be closer to the cancer hospital.”
“You look okay. Did the doctors help you?”
“No they didn’t, Joey. They couldn’t.” She looked down and whispered. “I died. I mean I must have died, but I don’t know what to do now. I don’t know where to go.”
“It’s okay, Angie. It happens sometimes. People get lost or someone doesn’t want to let you go.”
“Mom and Dad. I can still hear them begging me not to go away and leave them.”
“You know you have to. I mean, I didn’t want to let my Dad go when he died, but it wasn’t fair to keep him.”
“I guess. Can you help me, Joey?”
“Yes, Angie. Give me your hands and then look into my eyes. You’re going to go to a beautiful place, I promise. I know because my Dad came back once and told me.”
It’s long, over 4,300 words, but I couldn’t say what I needed to say in a shorter tale. I know it’s more or less similar to the 1999 movie The Sixth Sense but I think it’s also different enough to be its own tale.
I did a lot of imaginative work (meaning little to no research) so don’t ask me how the boy is the doorway into the afterlife for lost souls or how he got the vision in the first place. As I was writing this, I was stuck for a resolution. If this had happened to him before, why couldn’t he tell the dead people how to find the afterlife then? The answer is he wasn’t old enough to understand the solution.
Dead Dad was the catalyst but also the only one standing between the rest of his family and the more radical and violent ghosts who’ll do anything including adding to their number, to find some rest.
Fortunately, I was able to craft a happy ending. In one version, I had Joey blind himself to end the threat, but not only would that keep the ghosts from ever getting home, it would be a pretty gruesome thing for an almost eleven year old to do to himself. I think my final solution is more satisfying. Don’t you?