This story is not yet available anywhere else, although you can find plenty more short stories in my collection Breadcrumbs.
Happy Leap Day! I hope you have some exciting plans that don't involve a trip to see your optician...
Peter’s second least favourite person of all time was his optician Radlowe. Her tone alternated between bored and patronising, and she manhandled his eyeballs far too nonchalantly.
‘N, O, U, R,’ he read aloud, staring at the far wall.
‘And the next line,’ prompted Radlowe.
‘U, Z, U, R.’
Radlowe nodded her head.
‘O, I, C, U, P, R.’
‘Very good. Now we just need to check your eyes are healthy.’
She manoeuvred a giant contraption in front of his chair, which looked like those viewing scopes you see stationed along the seafront at rundown British beaches.
‘Pop your chin on the rest,’ instructed Radlowe.
Peter did as he was told, his eyes now gazing into two binocular-like protrusions.
‘Focus your eyes on the man.’
That confused him. Peter had expected a hot air balloon. It was always a hot air balloon. Only now he found himself staring at a dark figure on an empty beach. The figure stared back. It gave Peter a chill.
‘What happened to the balloon?’ asked Peter.
‘It burst,’ said Radlowe, without humour. ‘Now, you will feel a gentle puff of air on each eye.’
Peter almost cried out. So much for gentle. He had expected the courtesy of a countdown but Radlowe had no concept of bedside manner. The puff of air was dry and stale – the kind of air that would be found festering in a sarcophagus.
‘And now look at the blinking red light.’
The red light burned through the image of the dark man. It was bright and hot. Peter eyes would have watered had they not been dried out by the foul air. Instead they just throbbed in agony. Just as he could stand it out no longer, Radlowe intervened and pulled the contraption away.
‘Now I’m going to put some dye in each of your eyes.’
She leant towards Peter brandishing a pipette of bile-coloured liquid and unleashed a heavy, gloopy drop onto each eyeball. Peter desperately wanted to shut his eyes against the onslaught but Radlowe had her thumb held firmly against his upper eyelashes, pinning back the lid.
Upon impact, the liquid turned his world into ochre, as if he had walked into a yellowing polaroid from a forgotten era. It made him dizzy.
‘That stings a little,’ he confessed, understating.
‘Does it?’ Radlowe said, detached as ever. ‘And now to check under your eyelids.’
This was always the bit Peter dreaded. Radlowe took a wooden stick, which always reminded Peter of an ice-cream stick, and pressed it against his upper eyelid. She then tugged at his eyelashes until the lid was folded over the end of the wood.
Peter winced. His eyelid was now inside out, the pink veiny underside exposed. He always felt very vulnerable like this. And how much did she turn over? Normally they only pull back a tiny bit of skin but Radlowe seemed intent on yanking back his entire eyelid.
And the ghost of that blinking red light was still there in the corner of his eye, poking through the ochre filter that had descended onto everything.
Radlowe clicked her tongue in consideration then flipped his eyelid down again.
‘Let’s have a look then.’
She leant close, with a magnifying glass in one hand and a thin torch in the other. All Peter saw was that bright light but Radlowe could see everything.
‘Hmm,’ she said, her breath on his face.
‘What do you see?’
‘Everything, Peter. They say the eyes are the window to the soul and yours is slick with grime.’
‘A murky soul, stagnating in its own filth. It looks like bin juice. Oh, you are not a good man, Peter.’
‘Hang on –‘
Peter found he could not move. Was there something in that puff of air, or perhaps the dye? Or was it simply his fear that paralysed him?
He suddenly became very aware that this was an evening appointment. The shop was closed to the public downstairs. The high street would be empty outside.
‘You have seen a lot with these eyes. Too much, I think.’
‘Look here –‘
‘You like to look, don’t you Peter?’
As she spoke, Radlowe’s voice grew deeper and deeper. The light from her torch now seemed to be coming from her eyes – a penetrating glow.
‘How did you know?’ whispered Peter.
‘I told you. The eyes are the window to the soul. I can see yours and it is rank. It will be quite the feast.’
‘No, please, I’m sorry for what I did. I’m sorry!’
‘I know you are.’
(N, O, U, R)
‘You said you are.’
(U, Z, U, R)
‘Though I see you Peter.’
(O, I, C, U, P, R)
Radlowe – no longer an optician, no longer a woman, but something else, something demonic – grasped his throat with a firm hand. The nails felt sharp, the palm was rough leather and her strength was terrifying.
‘I see you for what you are – a devious peeping tom. A nasty, tasty morsel.’
‘You – you are going to take my soul?’
‘I am going to eat your soul. Eventually. But I have to extract it first. Now, me, I just gaze through windows, like yourself. Luckily I have called for a consultant.’
There was a knock at the door.
‘Help me!’ Peter cried, but he soon realised it was Radlowe’s consultant knocking.
The door opened and in stepped Peter’s first least favourite person of all time. It was Stetter, his dentist.
‘Hello Peter,’ said Stetter, flashing a toothy grin. Maybe even more toothy than usual. He was holding a metallic drill, which buzzed in his hand like a wasp. ‘Now, open wide Peter and we’ll have it out in no time.’
They were going in through his throat and Peter finally understood. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then the mouth must be the door.
The demons came knocking.