His dreams came to him in lucid waves, as if he were floating in space, or under water, or falling down a well. It was hard for him to make out the things around him, and hard for him to understand what was going on. But there was one goal. Just one goal. He had to get to that outline of a door that emerged from the shadows. It was a burning beacon that was calling him forward, calling his name with such a sweet melody. He had to reach it, and with each forceful step he propelled himself closer to it. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he was through the doorway into a realm that was completely new to him. Before, it seemed, the air had been stagnant, cold, dead. There was nothing. And then, in the blink of an eye, there was everything
He woke with a start, and the first thing he recognized with an unmistakable yet unrecognizable beeping sound. Then he caught a sickly sterile smell, like a mix of bleach and polished metal, and it filled his nostrils, making him gag.
He squished his eyelids down over his eyes as tightly as he could. Something blazing punctuated his eyelids like lasers, making him dizzy. It was the first time he had ever witnessed anything like this; previously he had only known the abyss, an absence so strong it could have made him go crazy many times over. But the chasm of nothingness had not taken full control of him, had not engulfed him so completely that he had forgotten who he was. And he had learned to live with it, to turn it from something terrifying to something comforting. But she had really made all the difference.
He turned, still dazed by the too strong something, searching for her voice. She was here, he could feel it, lost somewhere in the oppressive invasion.
"Ben, what's wrong?" Her voice was full of alarm, and it sounded close by, as it had been moments before. "Why are you squinting?"
"It's too strong."
"What's too strong?"
whatever this is
"Ben, you have to clarify for me. I don't know what you mean."
"Neither do I. It's not what I'm used to
There was a pause. Ben could hear her steady breathing hitch in her throat, could hear her shuffling around, could sense her coming closer to him. Eyes still closed, he felt her draw nearer to him, and felt the cool skin of her hand press against his closed eyelids, taking the intruder away with it.
"Ah, better," he breathed in relief.
I think you're seeing light."
"Light?" he asked, the word new and foreign on his tongue. Light
he'd been told about it, it had been mentioned many times before. But no matter what she had said, what she had done to try to help, Sarah had never been able to fully explain the concept of light so as to make him understand.
"Ben, I think
I think it worked." There was a gasp as her cool palm fell away from his face, followed by a sickening thump, and then a pause that seemed to stretch on for far too long.
"Sarah?" he asked, turning his head this way and that, searching for signs of her. The brightness of the
outside his eyelids was the only thing that greeted him.
He listened, strained to hear something he could recognize. There was nothing familiar about this moment. None of the sounds he knew were there. And still, the harsh newness glared through the thin membrane of his eyelids, pushed its way into his skull and made its presence oppressive.
The incessant beeping continued, a high-pitched and uninterrupted squawk.
"Sarah? Are you all right?" Ben strained his ears, listening hard, harder than he had ever listened before. "Sarah, where are you?" He tried to reach a hand out to touch his bedside table, but the cool, rough cedar did not greet his fingers. Instead he felt slippery, freezing laminate, and his hand retracted with a snap.
He was not in his room. He was in a bed that was not his, surrounded by things that were not his, hounded by that shrill, relentless beeping. There was something different about it though; it had gone up in frequency, and was now droning on in a pace that quite matched the frantic gallop of his heartbeat.
And then it clicked.
The memories poured into his mind like water breaking free from the walls of a dam. The sounds, the slippery counter, the strong smell. It all hit him, practically bowled him over.
He was in a hospital.
And the beeping was from the heart monitor currently hooked up to the cords he could feel pulling at his forearm.
"Sarah?" he tried again, tentatively this time. Nothing.
"Help!" he screeched, his voice almost as high pitched as the beeping of the monitor. "Nurse! Doctor! Anyone! Please! I think someone fainted!"
He paused, breathing heavily, his ears pricked for any sign of movement. There was skittering in the hallway, followed by muffled and heavy footsteps, two sets. He heard the swish of the door opening and then heard the bang as it swung into the wall.
"Ben? What-? Oh! Sarah!" a deep male voice greeted his ears, and he turned his head toward the sound, instantly thankful. There was more shuffling, a gruff exhale of air, and a small hiccup. He recognized this voice from before; it was the voice of his doctor, Neil Winding.
"Sarah? Is she okay?" he asked.
"Sarah's fine," the doctor promised, "I just propped her up in a chair, and a nurse is tending to her. You were right, she must have fainted."
He exhaled in relief.
"And how are you doing, Ben? How do you feel?"
"All right, I suppose," he said.
The heavy footsteps came closer, now paired with the more relaxed beeping from before, and suddenly he felt the cold round metal of a stethoscope pressed to the bare skin beneath his collarbone. It made him flinch away. He could also feel Dr. Winding's breath on his face. It smelled of peppermint.
"Well, everything seems to be in order," Dr. Winding said. Ben could hear the click of a pen and a soft scratching, knew the doctor was taking notes. "But what troubles me is that you aren't opening your eyes."
bright," he complained. To accentuate his point, the blinding light jabbed at his eyelids with more ferocity. He shut his eyes more tightly, making his eyelids an impenetrable barrier.
"Too bright? The doctor asked, surprise in his voice. "You mean, you could see the light from my flashlight?"
"Yes, I mean, I think so. If this is what light is. It's all
not what I'm used to," he clarified. Was this light? Was this what it meant to see light? If so, it was painful.
"Ben, this is remarkable. I've never had a patient recover so quickly from a surgery like this. You're right to keep your eyes closed. I'll be right back with some sunglasses. Just sit tight and don't move, all right?"
"Okay," he replied.
"Ben, today I am going to attempt the improbable."
"You're going to try to fly?"
"No!" her indignant laugh reverberated around the small living room, filling it with a happy glow. He anticipated her playful right hook to his shoulder before her fist made contact, and it came right on time. "I'm going to try to explain light to you."
"Light?" he asked, surprised that this is what she had been thinking of during her ten minutes of silence. He switched positions on the worn carpet, easing himself from his stomach into a sitting position, splaying his legs out in front of him and bracing himself with his hands. This would be interesting.
"Sarah, how in the world are you going to do that?"
"I don't know
but I will find a way. I've been thinking about it for a long time, and I think I'm on the verge of a breakthrough."
"Sarah, your 'breakthroughs' usually consist of you groaning for a half hour before you give up and stomp over to the freezer to get some ice cream."
She gasped, pretending to be horrified. "Well, that's just rude."
"But true," he countered.
"I didn't say it wasn't true, I just said it was rude."
"But seriously, Ben. I want to find a way to explain light to you. I just
it's important to me," she said, her tone sincere.
It was strange. She usually did not let on how concerned she was for him. When they had first met, she had not shied away from him because he was blind; she seemed fine with it. She did not treat him like a child who needed to be constantly looked after and cared for, and she never treated him like he was broken, like he was anything less than human. When they had started dating, he had warned her that he would never be able to tell her that her outfit was nice, or that her hair looked pretty today. She said she could not care less, and originally he doubted her words. But after the first few months, he realized that he could do something her previous boyfriends could not; he realized he could tell her she was beautiful for who she was, rather than what she looked like. And he knew it to be true; she was beautiful. Her voice was beautiful, her laugh was beautiful, the fluttering of her movements was beautiful, and most importantly, her soul was beautiful.
And he loved her.
It was not often that she even hinted that she felt bad for him, though he sometimes got the feeling that it pained her, which pained him. He did not want her to pity him; he was used to living in a world void of color or light. But it was in the way she sometimes worded things, the way her tone would drop when she mentioned the color of something or commented that the sun was unusually bright. It upset her to know that he could never fully understand what she meant, and for her he would make it his mission to understand. He was determined.
He allowed a brief smile to slide across his face, a face he would never know. "All right, then start explaining."
He heard the grin in her laugh, and then the gasp as something clicked in her mind. A quick shuffling followed her gasp and before he knew it, her hands were intertwined with his and she was hauling him to his feet.
"I have an idea," she said triumphantly, and he felt himself being dragged out of the living room, down the hallway, and out the screen door that led into her backyard. His walking cane, which he rarely needed when in either her house or his own, was left forgotten in the living room.
" he replied, willing to play along for her sake.
Once they reached the back stoop, they walked about one hundred steps and then she let go of his hand, only to grab him by both shoulders and pivot him 180 degrees. He knew from experience that he was facing back the way they had come, away from the large oak tree in Sarah's backyard and toward her house. He could hear the faint meowing of Flower, the cat, from the story above. And he could feel the cool breeze of the wind playing through his hair.
"I want you to do me a favor, Ben," Sarah's voice murmured from a few inches away, her hands still on his shoulders.
"All right," he mumbled back, his pitch matching hers.
"I want you to tilt your face back and feel the rays from the sun."
He did as he was told, tilting his face to the sky he knew was there but had never seen before and felt the warm beams of sunlight hit his face. The heat was soft and gentle, kissing the skin on his face and forearms.
"Feel it?" Sarah asked after a moment, her tone soft, "that warmth, that gentleness? That's light. It's bright, and warm, and it glows. The light touches everything, illuminates everything, makes it all
" she paused, fumbling for words.
"Bright?" he supplied with a chuckle.
"Ha, ha. Very funny," she replied with a groan. "But does it help?"
He let himself stand there, soaking in the heat from the rays, trying to picture in his mind what it might look like. He couldn't pinpoint it, but something did form in his brain, an imaginary wisp of something that was lucid and eluded him before he could fully wrap his mind around it. Maybe that was what light looked like.
He turned around under her fingers until they were facing each other. Slowly, gingerly, he brought his hands up to her waist, tugging her closer to him. "Yes, actually, it does. I think I'm beginning to better understand what light is. Thank you."
"You're welcome," she answered, her voice reflecting her grin. She hugged him then, her chin resting on her shoulder. "I really do hope it helped. I sometimes forget that I can't share the world with you as much as I want to, and it makes me feel bad, like I'm being selfish, taking it all for granted. But I do want to help. I want to share the world with you in any way I can."
A quiet grin stretched across his face as he hugged Sarah back, his unseeing eyes useless to her speech, his ears taking in everything: what she said, the quiet strength in her voice, the will to help him, no matter what it took. It made him feel proud to be standing with her now, underneath the sun's bright "light."
"Well, you've showed me your world, and now I think it's time for me to show you mine."
"Okay, sounds good."
Now it was his turn to lead. He let go of their embrace, and took hold of her hand instead. Carefully tracking his steps, he led her to the big oak tree. They paused when they were just an arm's length away from it. Taking Sarah's hand in his, Ben got behind her, and as he did so, whispered, "Close your eyes, and open your mind."
"Okay," she whispered back, and after a few seconds he felt satisfied that she had complied, so, gently, he eased her hand forward onto the bark of the tree.
"Now imagine that you've never seen a tree before, and you have to come up with a mental image for the thing that you're feeling. It's not an animal because it isn't breathing, not that you can tell, anyway, and it's nothing you've ever encountered before. You're told it's a tree, a living thing, and yet, you can't imagine any living thing feeling so coarse, so rough, so
wrinkled. But it's right in front of you, so now you have to try to assign a mental image to go with it, which is hard. So you have to use the senses you have: smell, sound, touch, taste but the last one can only be used in extreme circumstances, of course and that's what you have to use to figure out what things look like. Based on what you feel, how would you imagine a tree to look?"
After a brief moment, Sarah said, "I have absolutely no idea. I can only imagine a tree the way I've seen it. But if I'd never seen one before, I would think a tree was the strangest thing on the planet. All these grooves
how could something with such strange texture be alive?"
"Exactly. Actually, it's sort of fun living like this. Everything is a big mystery, and you have to use your imagination constantly."
"Ah, I see. Or
I don't see," she clarified with a laugh. "Thank you, Ben. I definitely appreciate your world more now." She removed her hand from his grip and leaned into his chest, sighing softly.
"Good, I'm glad," he answered with a countering smile, his arms twining themselves around her waist as he breathed in the scent of her tangerine shampoo. Sure, maybe he did not always believe living like this was fun, or entertaining. But for her peace of mind, and if he could be honest, for his sanity, it had to work. But no matter what he said, no matter how he brushed it off, there was some small part of him locked away somewhere in his mind, that wished he could see what a tree really looked like, could see what Sarah's hair color truly was, could fully, finally understand light.
"Ben, I think the operation is a great idea. You'll finally be able to see. It's like a miracle!" Sarah was sitting next to him, her voice reaching higher decibels and a more enthusiastic pitch with every word.
The two of them were sitting in the office of Neil Winding, PhD, listening to him talk about Ben's specific type of blindness, called Leber Congenital Amaurosis. Apparently, Ben had a rare form of inherited blindness that had affected him as a newborn, and worsened as he aged.
"As of two years ago, there has been some progress in this area, as new procedures involving gene therapy have helped patients with your condition regain their vision," the doctor had explained. "I'm not going to lie and say it won't be risky, because with procedures like this there are always risks. But it is a fairly safe operation with stunning and positive results, and I think you would greatly benefit from it, Ben. I say this with only your best interests at heart."
"So, there's a good chance I'll regain my sight?" he asked, not yet fully willing to have hope for something he had previously thought impossible. He gripped Sarah's hand tightly, thinking back to stories about his father, another victim of total blindness. He had not known about the condition, and had stumbled around in his abyss until he died at an early age. Ben had loved his father, true, but he did not want to live the rest of his life like him, unable to cope with his blindness until it ate away at him so completely that it left him an empty shell.
"More than regain it; your sight will be fully restored." The doctor beamed at him. "The procedure deals with delivering a special gene directly into your eye. This is a type of gene therapy that will hopefully restore the light receptors in your retinas and repair your vision."
"Did you hear that, Ben? Fully restored!" He could tell from the tone in her voice that Sarah was probably beaming, that there was a grin on her face stretched from ear to ear.
"Yeah, I heard him," he replied, his mind still being stretched in a million different directions. It was almost too good to be true. He would finally see the world around him, finally look at Sarah's face for the first time in his entire life. He would know what a tree looked like, would be able to tilt his face toward the sun and happily shy away from its oppressive light.
"And?" she pressed.
He put his hand out, palm upward, a sign for her to grasp it, which she did. He felt the cool metal of her engagement ring between his fingers as he held her hand. Being able to see Sarah's smile would mean the world to him, and would be worth the price, no matter what it was.
"And I'm in."
"Okay Ben, think you're ready to open your eyes?" Doctor Winding asked. "The shade has been pulled down and we've given you extra strength sunglasses that we use when working with lasers, so your eyes should have an easier job of transitioning to the new light sources."
"Sounds good, doctor," he said pleasantly, his eyes still shut tightly. Sarah was awake again, sitting in a chair next to his bed, or so she'd said, her hand firmly grasping his.
"It'll be all right, Ben. I'm right here, and the doctors are right here. It's going to be okay, I promise."
He wanted to trust her, wanted to believe her. He was ready to open his eyes, really open his eyes, for the first time in his entire life. But he was afraid. As illogical as it was, he was just a little afraid. What if the real world was not anything like he was anticipating? What if he decided living in emptiness was less painful than the brightness of the world around him? What if the operation had failed him?
"Ben? Are you all right?" Sarah asked him tentatively.
"No," he answered feebly.
"What's wrong?" the doctor and Sarah asked at the same time, but it was her voice that was important, her voice that called to him, a life preserver in the unknown. He clung to it and was thankful that, during a time when his eyes were especially sensitive and unreliable, his ears continued to work fine. "Ben, you have to open your eyes sooner or later. The doctors have to know how your eyes are working."
I can't," he replied, suddenly painfully aware of how utterly pathetic he sounded. "It's too bright."
"Ben," she pleaded, and he felt the coolness of her skin as her other hand covered his as well, "I know it must be scary, but I'll be right here with you. I promise. No matter what. And if it hurts too much, you can always close your eyes again." Her hands clung to his, and he felt the sting of the cool polished platinum of her engagement ring on the top of his hand.
He deliberated for a moment, and the temptation to open his eyes was great; it was a pull so strong that it was akin to gravity. But equally strong was the fear, the fear that the operation was not successful, and all he would know would be blinding pain.
He paused for a moment, listening for the doctors. Apparently they had decided to keep quiet, waiting for him to make the first move.
There was a rustling of fabric, and then the soft tickling of her breath against his ear.
"I've always wanted to know what color your eyes are," she breathed. "I'm excited to find out."
He exhaled in a short laugh, releasing a breath he had not realized he had been holding. "I've always wanted to see colors in general," he said.
"Well, if you open your eyes we'll both get our wishes," she replied.
With a deep breath, he slowly nodded in consent. "Okay, okay, you're right. I know you're right. I'll try it, for the both of us."
He felt the pressure of the small squeeze her hand traded off to his. And with that, he scrunched up his face, mentally preparing himself. This was it. He would finally know what he was missing, would finally understand all the things that had hounded him ever since he was old enough to ask questions. He would finally know what a tree looks like.
Slowly, and ever so carefully, he let a sliver of light slide through a crevice in his left eyelid. When pain did not threaten to split his skull in half, he mimicked the action on his right side.
Gradually, and in increments that were barely distinguishable, his eyes were fully open.
And it was as if his mind had been opened as well.
A window streamed in sunlight from the left-hand wall, and though the light was hiding behind the drawn curtains, it was still piercing, though not painful. The back wall had a television hooked up near the ceiling, a bunch of cords dangling down from above like ropey spider webs. The right-handed wall had a photo of a vase of flowers as well as a door that led out into the hallway, where people rushed by in a sea of color.
He found himself lying in a hospital bed, and noted that a wool blanket had been thrown over his legs. One of his arms was still hooked up to the monitor, a large, rectangular machine with blinking lights. The doctors and nurses, in lab coats and scrubs, were all gathered around him, blinking at him expectantly. He took them all in one at a time, gauging their reactions. Dr. Winding smiled at him, pushed his glasses to the bridge of his nose and began scribbling on his clipboard at a frantic pace.
And then there was Sarah, and when Ben looked at her everything else melted into the background, suddenly unimportant. He ripped the sunglasses away so he could see her for the first time without the obtrusive lenses blocking his eyes. Blocking his vision.
She was sitting on his left, her hands still firmly entwined in his. And though he never before knew what she looked like, it was as if he had seen her all his life.
Her hair, the color of sunshine, was long and braided down her right shoulder. Her face, heart-shaped and open, held an expression of anticipation and curiosity. Her bangs were side swept across her forehead, over her right eyebrow, and her mouth was open slightly, as if from shock. A crease formed between her eyebrows as they quirked. She was thin and delicate, with a fine bone structure, and she was wearing a sweater and jeans, which were tucked into boots that came up to her calves. She was leaning forward in her seat, her eyes alight.
"Your eyes," she breathed, "they're green."
"Yeah," he replied, appreciating her through his new eyes. She was still his Sarah, had always been his Sarah. Her voice was the same, just as hew knew it would be, but he had a greater appreciation for it when she spoke. He could finally connect a voice with a face. Her face. "And your eyes are
"Brown," she supplied for him.
"Brown," he repeated, overwhelmed with the sheer vibrancy of it all. He suddenly realized how much he had to learn.
"Yeah," she said. And as his reliable ears listened to the honey-toned laugh in her voice, his newfound eyes saw a smile slide across her beautiful face.