John rolls out from under his sheets as the creak of his bed frame echoes through the sparse apartment bedroom, cutting through the silence of the early morning. He wipes the sleep out of his eyes on the way to the bathroom, stumbling a bit over the clothes he dropped in front of the dresser the night before. Frankly, John doesn’t even know why he bothers getting up at 6am anymore, it’s not like there’s a job he needs to get to or someone there to spend the morning with, at least not anymore. Not that there’s nothing to do, technically he’s a professor who should be writing, but being on an unproductive sabbatical makes it feel more like a lay off with paychecks. Which is not something to complain about, really, but doesn’t exactly light a fire under his ass.
The lack of someone else in the room though, that is the reality of his situation right now and it hasn’t been getting any easier. This time last year Sarah would have been lying in the bed, looking up at him with a sleepy smile on her face while he got ready for class. But it turns out sleepy smiles and lazy mornings aren’t enough to keep a relationship alive.
The bathroom lights flicked on, John wincing as his eyes adjust, not an easy task given that the bathroom was virtually all white, from the tiles to the walls and cabinets, making for a rather luminous start to the day. Probably he wouldn’t have picked the color scheme, or lack there of, himself, but he was in a sort of “take what you can get” part of his life right now. And truthfully, the place he’d ended up in was not bad at all, especially for the prices you see nowadays. So all in all he shouldn’t be bitching about the circumstances he put himself in. Easier said than done though.
John gazed into the mirror as he mindlessly brushed his teeth, which these days took all his willpower to get through. Just as he switched to scrub the left side of his mouth something caught his eye. Or rather, it was his eye. Now John always felt he had a bit of a shoddy memory, he could hardly remember the names of his own cousins half the time, but he was damn sure that he had brown eyes! I mean, who forgets their own damn eye color? But as John stared into the mirror, and his reflection back to him, there he saw, clear as day, a green tinge to the colored part of his eye.
“What the hell?” muttered John, a bit slack-jawed, as he pulled apart his eyelids with his fingertips to get a better look.
There was no doubt though, John’s right eye was green. Or at least some hue of green. Like someone added a dab of dark green into a palette of brown paint. If it wasn’t his own eye, which he still had to assume was the case after all, he likely wouldn’t have even noticed. John inspected the left eye, stretching the eyelid up and down, tilting his head to catch different slants of the blanching bathroom light, but saw no indication of anything other than a dark, coffee brown eye. His eye. The one he’d had plastered to his skull since he was born. How could it be any other way? And yet, a look on the other side of his face told a different story.
Ok, ok. Maybe this shit can happen? John thought, After all, some dogs have those mottled up eyes. And…yeah, yeah some people say their eyes can change in the sunlight, right?! Ok, sure this is weird but that’s it, something like that.
After a little panic session John settled down and decided a quick internet search would pretty much settle the remainder of his nerves.
“Too early for this crap,” John laughed.
He groaned and plodded out of the bathroom, feeling slightly silly. Really what is there to worry about anyway, it’s not like his eye was hurting or blurry or anything like that. And who knows, maybe his eye was always that color! Not like he spent much time dreamily staring into his own face. A slow meander to the kitchen and John put the coffee on, drank some water, half forgetting about the existential crisis that he just went through over the bathroom sink.
Eventually John lost himself in the remainder of his morning routine, catching up on the news while he drank his coffee. Another day of eye-catching headlines ushering in the end times, but ultimately filled with little to no detail, their bark worse than their bite. John couldn’t really judge the journalists, insincere as they may be, it’s not like he was any shining example of practicing what you preach. Once he downed the last of his coffee it was on to a quick morning yoga, frankly something he was still getting used to. He had decided that he needed to add something at least moderately physical to his routines and he had to admit, yoga put him in a decent head-space for the morning. John rolled out the mat and got started, trying to focus on his breathing while his buckram tendons and joints creaked with the rhythm of his sun salutation. Despite the creaking of his body, these minutes were some of the few his mind wasn’t running amok, and he cherished that. After the last few years he’d take peace of mind in whatever form he could find it.
John rolled into the parking lot Sue’s Diner around 8am. Once he’d got his blood pumping the day seemed much brighter and he looked forward to breakfast with Craig, which was a weekly ritual for the two of them. John had met Craig a few years back during a group camping trip for a food bank where he volunteered. The trip itself was mostly a bust, John didn’t really get on with most of the attendants, but neither did Craig and the two ended up shooting the shit around the campfire for the night. Since then Craig has been a steady rock for John during unsteady times. When Sarah left him last year, Craig was the one listening to John blubbering through his self pity. He was also the one to check John on his shit once grief time was over, reminding him that he happened to be the one who stepped out on her and what did he think was going to happen?
“Howdy partna!,” Craig yelled in a terrible impression of a Texas accent as he walked toward John. Craig seemed to always be a wealth of energy, which was generally good but could be verge on grating at the wrong time.
“Hey man! How’s it going?” John responded. He gave him a quick wave and met him at the middle of the parking lot before they turned towards the silver facade of Sue’s.
“Can’t complain,” said Craig, “Say what you want about this city but there’s no shortage of construction!”
Craig was a foreman for a construction company but he’d spent plenty of years doing the grunt work. He was a notoriously hard worker, something John admired about him but frankly wasn’t all that envious of, he was more of the mind that life shouldn’t be consumed by work. Although look where that got him. The academic world is, perhaps to the surprise of those on the outside of it, fairly competitive. If you didn’t publish enough, or publish something important enough at the very least, you were at serious risk of never obtaining the ever sought tenure position. But, at the end of the day, he enjoyed teaching the students and the occasional one who developed an actual passion made it worth doing.
John and Craig walked through the doors of Sue’s Diner, the hinges in desperate need of lubrication, and immediately nodded at the blonde haired waitress who was rushing some coffee to a couple of groggy looking truckers.
“Hey boys!” shouted the waitress, “Take a seat wherever you like!”
The two of them fell into the valley of the booth seats, the white threads making their appearance through cracks in the red vinyl, eroded from the friction of years of well-fed customer bottoms. The waitress, her shiny badge reading her name in bold font, Jessica, was already on her way over with two steaming mugs of coffee and laminated menus choc-full of overexposed, glossy photos of the food they offered.
“Hows the morning treating you Jess?” Craig asked with a big grin, his everlasting cheeriness on full display.
“Ugh, don’t get me started,” Jessica sighed, “Just got rid of some kids still out from last night. Took everything I had to keep them contained to their booth.” Jessica laughed a bit as she pulled out her pad.
“God bless ‘em!” laughed Craig “Been a solid decade since I could pull off an all-nighter like that.”
“Well, don’t worry Jess,” John said with a smirk, truthfully he had a thing for Jessica, not that he was in the head-space for anything approaching a relationship, “We’re here to take care of any hooligans that drop in now.”
“Ha! I appreciate that,” Jessica said with a wink, “Anyway, anything I can get for you two?”
“Just the usual,” John responded. Two eggs over easy with sourdough toast for John and country ham with scrambled eggs for Craig. Jessica nodded with and gave a quick, ironic salute and walked back to the kitchen.
As John watched her walk away he found his thoughts drifting back to the events earlier this morning. Surely if there was anything really different about him Craig would have noticed and said something. Or Jessica for that matter, she was never shy about commenting on his appearance. After Sarah had left him last year she had been the first one to start giving him shit when he was unshaven, overslept, and moody. Not to be hurtful, he knew, just in a matter-of-a-fact, “pull yourself together”, type of way. And he appreciated it, truly. If there weren’t people in his life to call him back when he stepped too close to the edge he’d probably still be looking for solutions in a bottle and a pizza box.
“Hey,” Craig’s voice broke through the fog of John’s thoughts, “You alright? Looking a little forlorn my man.”
“Oh, yeah,” John said a little more wearily than he meant to, “Just trying to remember a dream I had last night. It was a weird one, kinda stuck with me.”
The two of them ended up talking mostly about a new worker Craig had hired that ended up skipping out of work only to end up at the local beer garden. Craig had a minor savior complex, he’d look past a lot of baggage that most employers wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot poll. All in all it usually worked out and those he hired were grateful for a second chance and worked hard for him. But occasionally there would be someone that tried even the tried and true patience of Craig, which was the camp this new worker fell into.
John let him vent for a bit before they changed topics to some mundane “what shows are you watching?” chatter. John considered trying to ask Craig if he noticed anything different about him but he couldn’t figure out a way without sounding more crazy than he wanted to. So after a they both felt adequately caught up they paid and left Jessica her usual big tip for dealing with the two of them so often.
“Oh, before I forget!,” Craig said, just before they went their separate ways in the parking lot, “I’m having a little get together this Saturday, as sashee if you will.” Craig wiggled his pinky in the air as he said the last bit. “You should definitely come! It’ll be pretty relaxed, just some friends from work and this new gal I’ve been seeing,” he said with a wink.
“Alright man, consider me there,” John regretted saying this immediately but figured he had a week to figure out an excuse. It wasn’t that he was a total antisocial or anything, just that the idea of a party with new people to navigate sounded pretty exhausting. Although it was probably a good idea to get out of his head every once in a while, so he’d mull it over at least.
Back at his apartment John flicked on the television to some mindless reality cooking show and opened his laptop to start writing, or at least attempt to. He liked having the TV on in the background while he worked, although it was really more of a distraction than anything else, but he supposed it made it feel a little less lonely.
That’s some pretty sad shit right there. Needing a TV to keep you company, John thought as he clicked the manuscript he was writing and saw it load on the screen.
He glanced at the word count and couldn’t help but feel a little more depressed than he already was, he was unable to get going on this thing. John was a biologist and was studying the local movements of a species of lizard. It was fairly straightforward work, tagging and counting through the field seasons, but when it came time to pull it all together, he was struggling. There was a particular skill when it came to spinning your work as important to the broader world, a kind of Academic Bullshitting, that he just seemed to lack.
After an hour or so John found himself paying much more attention to the clang of pots and pans on the TV than the words on his computer screen. With a sigh of resignation, and, truthfully, a touch of relief to be quitting, he closed the lid of his laptop and moved to the couch.
John woke with a start and felt the remnants of drool still on the side of his mouth, he must of dozed off as soon as he plopped down. His head was groggy and tight, like a balloon that had been filled with too much hot air. Sounds about right, he thought to himself.
Staring around the room, John wasn’t quick to get up. Really he wished that his body would just stay asleep. Asleep until when he couldn’t say, no immediate date came to mind. But after a minute or so John rose to his feet and glanced at the clock across the other side of the room which read 5:45pm.
“Jesus!,” John groaned as he rolled himself up off the couch.
Welp, another fucking day is gone, he thought while he wandered across the living room and back into the white void of the bathroom. He took particular care not to catch a glance of himself in the mirror. Even though the logical part of his mind told him that there would be nothing else in the reflection other than his own face there was still an undercurrent of unease. Some feeling like an invisible hand softly directing his head down and away from the space above the sink, instead forcing his eyes to stay fixed only on the toilet and then, after he squatted down, to the floor below. His knees flanked the edge of his vision, facing each other, identical, just as his face must be to his reflection. There’s no other way for it to be. But what was the other option? His features changed overnight? Or maybe some slow build-up of green overtook his eye over time, like a skin of algae atop a river stone, and he’s just noticing?
John finished his business, got up, and stood hunched over the sink, letting the water from the faucet run over his hands. Staring down at the water pooling in his palms he realized just how scared he was to actually look up at the mirror. Scared to see what he saw that morning. Scared to see if anything else on his face had changed.
“Fuck it,” John exhaled as he lifted his head up to meet his own gaze coming back at him.
And…that was it. His own gaze, nothing more and nothing less. John stared into his eyes for a long moment, suddenly becoming conscious of the tension he was holding. His jaw was set, as if his body was readying itself for some fight that didn’t come. Hasn’t come yet?, John wondered to himself, annoyed at his own naivety. For thinking that this was anything other than some bullshit derived from his own anxieties.
The next morning found John in a surprisingly upbeat mood, considering the events, perceived or otherwise, of the previous day. He hummed along as he brushed his teeth and made his morning coffee, some tune that he couldn’t quite place but that seemed familiar at the same time. Usually such a discrepancy would bother him, dig into his mind until he was able to place artist with art, but not this morning. This morning John was happy to take the mood of the song unattributed, perhaps even better because of its missing authorship, more satisfying to play along with the idea that the tune was his own, that the humor of he and the space around him was the product of some innate energy within, something he could always tap into if he made the right moves and choices.
Finishing his ritual of morning coffee, allowing the day to settle into view around him as the warm caffeine rolled into his system, John steeled himself for the errands of the day, mulling over each task and the potential emotions associated with each, which of course just make them kinetic emotions related to the now. This process is something he imagined others may or may not have to do, depending on whether he was an average person, which one never could say, really. Regardless, given the general demeanor of the morning, that is to say, positive, John quickly felt the confidence to meet the day, which really only meant a trip to the office to pick up some books he needed and then a quick foray to the store for tomatoes, bread, and perhaps an avocado. As simple as this may sound, it took a lot out of him to actually follow through with it all and not end up weighing down the couch instead.
John grabbed his bag, a brown leather mailbag, darkened from the years of dutiful trips alongside him, the deepened tone an account of the bounces off of his hip and the weight its held through the years. He swung it over his shoulder and bounded through the kitchen and out the side door. As the door slammed behind his mind was on anything but the nature of his identity. Instead, he climbed into his car, turned on some music, and drove out of the driveway and into the sunlit street.
John’s office occupied a corner space in the building and it was brightly lit thanks to the large windows which took up most of the walls actively reflecting off the white built-in bookshelves. The shelves themselves were a bit wanting, a by product of the digital-era assault of physical papers and journals. Alongside the remaining textbooks were a few paintings by a local artist depicting a generic setting of rolling mountains and forest, a sense of banality that John found comforting these days. He figured he’d gone through enough changes these past couple years and having something boring and consistent around was just fine.
Snatching what he needed from his desk John turned to leave but nearly walked right into Gretchen, another member of the department, as he walked into the hallway.
“Oh, hey!” Gretchen exclaimed, “I didn’t realize you were here. How’s it going?”
“Hi! Ah, alright I suppose. Just had to grab a couple things. How about you?” John feigned interest. In fact, he like Gretchen but he kind of wanted to be in and out. Work wasn’t exactly on his mind and he didn’t need to soil his good mood with thoughts of how behind he was getting.
“Doing OK, can’t complain!” Gretchen said cheerily. John nodded with a smile and turned to walk away.
“Did you get a haircut or something?” she said to his back and he came to a halt, feeling his stomach drop.
“Uh, no. Why?” John muttered, his eyes searching Gretchen’s face for some clue to what she noticed. Hoping it was nothing at all.
“Hmmph. I don’t know. Just thought something was different,” Gretchen looked at his face for a moment more, shrugged, “Guess it was nothing!”
John burst through his front door, he had gone straight home after his conversation with Gretchen, skipping out on the rest of the errands, because he just had to look. Had to see if there was anything…different again. He had thought about checking right there in the department restroom but he really wasn’t sure he could hold it together if he saw what he feared he would.
In the bathroom John swallowed his fear, looked up at the mirror, and gasped as he stared into a deep green pair of eyes.
After steadying himself with a tall glass of whiskey and a few deep breaths John was able to stave off the immediate panic. When he first saw his reflection he’d thrown him self backward, a wild and impulsive move that saw him fall into and pull away the shower curtain before spinning off through the door and into the next room.
“Fuck. What the fuck?” he breathed out as he paced around in the kitchen, “What is going on?”
Not knowing what to do and feeling himself coming undone a bit, he pulled out his phone and called Craig. Without telling him too much he was able to convince Craig to cut out of work early and come over. John didn’t know how this was going to seem, presumably a bit crazy, but he really needed to get some outside confirmation that either he was right in seeing these changes or he was losing his mind.
Craig sat patiently as John laid out what had happened, careful not to get overly hysterical as he described his confident take that he had, in fact, been born with brown eyes and this green ones here were not those.
“Well, I agree that your eyes are green,” Craig smirked a bit, trying to be playful and lighten the mood, “and I’ll take your word that they used to be brown.” He shrugged, “But I’m not sure there’s anything to it, I mean, it must happen, right?”
“Nothing to it?,” John frowned.
“Oh, I don’t mean you’re overreacting or anything like that! Fuck, I’d be feeling pretty anxious myself if it happened to me,” Craig put his hand on his shoulder and gave his friend a big smile. “All I mean is that you seem physically healthy and, even though it seems pretty weird, maybe it’s more common than we think?”
“Yeah, probably you’re right,” John sighed, “I guess I’ve just been unable to shake this feeling that, oh, I don’t know, it goes deeper? Somehow.” He avoided eye contact as he said this and felt like he was being foolish to even admit how badly this was shaking him.
“Listen man, I’m glad you called me. Why not call a doctor and see what they say?” Craig said, trying his best to be reassuring. “I’m sure it’s going to be nothing to worry about.”
John conceded that point and said he’d call his doctor tomorrow. Afterwards they shot the shit about work before John said that he had to get going.
“I’ll see you at my party?” Craig asked.
“Oh. Yeah, for sure,” John had forgotten all about that but decided agreeing was still easier than coming up with an excuse on the spot.
The next morning John woke up on the couch, he had a bad habit of staying up late and watching TV when he was anxious. Which ultimately led to less sleep and more anxiety, a pattern he was conscious of and yet still actively participated in. When he got to the bathroom mirror all he could do was stare. He felt his pulse rise as he brought his hands to his face. His face? The face that stared back at him shared some features that he knew, however, the nose, once long and sharp, was now much flatter and nearly upturned, and his chin contained a minor cleft that was not there before. His fingers pushed against these new features, testing their reality with the hope that they might fall away, a trick of prosthetics played on him during the night. But there they sat, unmoving as he pushed and pulled at them, tears building up as he turned from the mirror, his breath ragged with fear and panic.
His mind racing, John pulled on yesterdays clothes, still on the floor, and walked out the door. It was Saturday so no one would be at the department so he walked, after a moment nearly trotting, down the street and to the coffee shop he frequented.
But then…where was that coffee shop? He knew it was right at the corner he was now standing at but there was only a bus stop and a vintage clothing store, closed until the afternoon.
“God, you’re kidding me,” John was simultaneously near laughter and tears as he mumbled to himself, hands akimbo, looking skyward as if expecting the coffee shop in question to be there.
He decided then to go back to his place, get the car, and swing by Gretchen’s. He was hoping beyond everything that her house would be where it should be and that maybe, just maybe, she would be able to recognize and make sense of what was happening to him.
John swung into Gretchen’s driveway, or what he supposed was her driveway, and barely shut the engine off before spilling out of the car door and making his way up to the front door. Once he was staring at the door he realized that the beating sound of his heart had overtaken every other noise and felt like he hadn’t taken a breath since he left the corner where that coffee shop wasn’t. John took a breath and knocked.
“Hey John!”, Gretchen exclaimed with a slightly confused tone but accompanied by a warm smile, “What’s up?”
“H-hi…”, John barely sputtered out a weak greeting.
He had nearly broke down at the recognition he saw in her eyes, a breath of fresh air for a drowning man. Deep down he probably wasn’t even expecting her to know him anymore, resigned to his fear. After he stood slack-jawed for a moment he blathered out something about having her give him a lift next week, his car needed some work, and she said it’d be fine, clearly unsure of what exactly he was doing there but before she could ask anything he was waving her off and back in his car.
John started off back towards his house, smiling and singing along with the radio. He felt at least some relief and had, for some reason, an overwhelming feeling that everything was going to be alright.
The man was driving around in his car, he was unsure of exactly where he was going but still driving with an unearned sense of confidence as if to steel himself from that feeling. It was just getting dark and he hummed to himself, squinting to see the street signs temporarily illuminated by the headlights. Even though the man couldn’t put a finger on it, something told him to turn on the next street. He drove along until he parked in the street in front of a house that looked somehow familiar.
A few people walked ahead of him as he made his way up the driveway and music poured out onto the street from inside. The man caught the door from those ahead and walked inside to a full room of people chatting amongst themselves and a clear view to more outside. From the other side of the room a man started to walk towards him with a big smile and his hand outstretched.
“Howdy, I’m Craig”, the man from across the room said and then, scrunching his brow, “Do I know you from somewhere?”
Z.F. Douglas is an academic and professor who works in STEM, currently residing in the piney woods of east Texas, with a fascination for strange tales and stories that make us hesitate to turn off the lights.