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The Catcher in the Eye

I kept my right eye closed because I saw ghosts through it. My parents thought they were imaginary friends I would soon outgrow—they weren’t. But what did they know anyway?

“One—or two?” my optometrist asked, switching lenses.

“Two,” I said. He repeated the process until I recited the words on the eye exam chart a few feet in front of me which had come into focus. To him, there were only words. But through my right eye, there was a woman—translucent, but not enough—in clothing stained by dried blood below the hips, smiling. In her hands, there sat a child’s head. I closed my eye.

“Please keep both eyes open for the exam,” said the optometrist.

My breaths stopped and opened my right eye. I screamed when the woman’s face, merged with the child’s in a strange blurring of features, shuddering momentarily like static channel, appeared before the lenses.

I squeezed my eyes shut, throat burning, tears drenching the neck of my shirt. This wasn’t the first time this had happened, but the other times were bearable—the visions weren’t as clear. It had only been a month since the ghosts appeared, but it felt like it had been years.

Before leaving, I paused by the entrance, listening to my parents’ whispers. Mother clutched Father’s arm.

“Well, what are we supposed to do about it?” Mother said.

“I’m not sure I’m qualified to offer advice on this . . . perhaps a specialist,” said my optometrist.

Behind my parents’ stood the woman with the child’s head in her hands—the faces no longer merged. She squeezed then stretched the child’s face, the skin looking far too elastic.

In a photo pinned up in my mother’s room, she cradled my newborn self on the hospital bed, smiling though her gown was soiled. She was smiling, but there was so much blood.

The woman stepped into my mother’s body, disappearing. And the child’s head floated towards me, its misshappen mouth ajar, mouthing, “Remember me?”

My parents never brought me to the optometrist again.

I didn’t want to see the ghosts, but they wanted to see me.

Later that night, my mother tossed me an eyepatch made of beige silk. “Here, just wear this for now. It should help with your . . . issues.” She swirled the glass of wine in her hand, a drop spilt over the side, dropping onto the red loveseat. A tight smile flashed across both our faces, teeth clenched so tight I was surprised they didn’t all fall out. So similar. I stopped smiling. The fabric of the eyepatch felt rough in my hand, like it had been used for a long while before.

In the bathroom mirror, the edges of the fabric seemed to dissolve into my skin, making it appear as though I only had one eye. Blending in wasn’t a possibility now.

“Why don’t you just put her in therapy?” my father asked.

“I never went to therapy, and I turned out fine,” my mother said, glaring from the corner of her eye.

“Well, did you see things, too?” Though he answered, his eyes stayed glued to his work computer, finding far more interest in his never-ending emails rather than his family. It was how he was raised. I hoped he didn’t expect the same from me.

Mother hesitated for a brief moment before the smile re-emerged on her face. “N-no, of course not.” Then her face hardened once more as she tsked. “Besides, what do you think the our girls at my book club would say if they found out our daughter went to therapy.”

Mother rose from her spot walked over to where I hovered by the living room entrance with some lipstick in her hand. “Here, this might help.” She waved her arms as if conducting an orchestra. “Cover up, if you will.”

She wasn’t trying to be funny, but I couldn’t see how lipstick would help me be more ‘normal’.

“When I was your age, all the girls wore it,” Mother said. Her hands shook as she painted the red over my lips, her eyes blank, as though recalling something she didn’t want to remember.

I noticed a lipstick stain on her front teeth, but I didn’t dare mention it: she hated when she didn’t look perfect. I let my gaze drop, focusing on her black leather heels instead. It was the fifth pair she purchased this month. “Margret has them. The cheaper version, of course,” she had said.

Picture day would be a few days before junior year started.

“It’s fine. Just take it off for pictures,” Father said, gesturing absently to the eyepatch.

He made it sound so easy, though his own pictures took hours because he couldn’t stand his tie sitting even slightly askew in the photos. He took a deep breath, adjusted his tie, his eyes still glued to the screen. Even asleep, my father never took off his tie. I wondered if he might choke one day. I wondered if he already had.

In the bathroom, I ran my fingers ran along the edges of the eyepatch, lifting the corner briefly. A small child, perhaps five, sat next to my leg. It clung onto my calf. Its arms were two times too long for its body, ending in sharpened black nails attached to unjointed fingers. The child sank its claws into my flesh. There was no head on its body.

I left the sink running to help drown out laughter bubbling up my throat.

There were razor nicks and the swollen pores of ingrown hairs scattered across my skin. The magazines my mom read said women needed to shave their legs for greater ‘sex appeal’—I guess sex appeal could be a necessary thing at sixteen, but who really cares? What did the magazine say about the men? My father didn’t care for magazines; it was always about the papers. But even then, he sometimes stared at the businessmen and politicians, then cleared his throat, tightened his tie.

I ran my razor under the water, the scent of shaving cream—fruity and synthetic—attacked my nose as I ran the blade over areas already shaved, over and over and over—

I didn’t feel pain from the nails, or the rawness of my skin, screaming from the razor. Yet a whimper made its way out before I yanked the eyepatch back down, pressing it into my eye until I saw white specks floating across my vision. Poor child, poor me.

I moved the blade up over my armpit. Tanks tops were trending now. Not that I cared, really.

“Are you ready?” my mother called from downstairs.

No. “Yeah.”

At the bottom of the stairs, my mother put on an automatic smile, raising an arm mechanically with lipstick gripped in her hand like a knife. She sliced my lips rouge.

I waited until the last minute to take off the eyepatch when I sat down on the seat in front of the photographer and his oversized camera. He walked over to adjust my position. I felt suddenly conscious of how red, unnatural my lips must have looked. The lipstick from Mother felt weighted in my pocket.

“Tilt your head up, good . . . good,” he said, too close to my ear. His breath reeked of alcohol—the same scent that wafted from my father’s breath after dinner, where he chugged, and chugged, and chugged, and—

Behind the photographer, a twig-bodied girl danced in a white tutu—a tragic white dove. Her body resembled the small wooden figurines in the art class I took—and failed—her features scraped and carved. She twirled and twirled and twirled—

Her steps light compared to my heavy footfalls since puberty.

“Maybe dancing isn’t quit . . . fitting,” Mother had said. I had loved it. But she made me hate it. “Looks like we both aren’t cut out to be swans, huh?”

“Now turn your body this way . . . ” The photographer’s hand lingered at the crook of my waist. My muscles tensed, and I held my breath.

“Relax . . . ”

“Excuse me, sir. Could you hurry it up?” came the voice of a snooty girl with a flat nose, who poked her head behind the curtain that concealed the photographer’s setup from the waiting area. She gave me a once over and scoffed, adjusting her tube top only to have it dip down again.

The photographer sighed and moved away. I exhaled slowly, my lips quivering.

Was it the lipstick? I would never wear it again.

He showed me the pictures when he was finished, and he could tell I wasn’t pleased. The excessive rouge lips stuck out from my pale face, and my smile was more of a grimace. The ballerina cackled behind me, leaning in to take a look.

“Perfect,” she whispered, sarcastic. I wondered if the photographer could hear her. “Mother would love it, wouldn’t she?”

I frowned, not at the photo, but at the ballerina. The photographer must have thought it was the former because he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll edit the photo so everything looks . . . better. And if you want, you can always filter it if you plan on posting it on social media.”

It was fine. Student IDs are meant to be ugly. Social media is a lie. My parents never bought these photos—not that I wanted them.

“Thanks, I will.” I smiled, showing all my teeth. I wished they looked as pointed as the child’s nails. That would be much better than lipstick any day.

I put my eyepatch back on.

On my way out, I looked back at the photographer. His mask was almost as thick as my mother’s cake face, an murky, shadowed mass encapsulating his head. I swiped a hand across my lips. A smear of rouge marked my skin.

During March break, Mother shoved a flyer she found stuffed in our mailbox by someone from our neighbourhood in front of me. It was posted by a lady living down the street. “I know you weren’t great at dancing, but what about piano? It’s nearly as elegant. Plus, you won’t need your legs.”

We both stared down at my large calves and wide thighs. Mother nodded. “Yes, piano will do. But maybe also veganism? You could try it. Better for your health.”

Someone should stop her from reading all these false articles and pop culture magazines with the models on the covers. I pinched my skin. My diet wasn’t particularly unhealthy—not that Mother allowed for anything unhealthy anyhow—and I still exercised. Did I really need to lose weight? Maybe. I hunched forward, hoping it would make me seem smaller.

“Stand up straight,” my mother barked.

She plucked my eyepatch from my eye. Behind her, a large shadow hovered. “You haven’t washed this in weeks. Let me run it through with the laundry. You can keep your eye closed until then.”

I did what I was told and watched with one eye as Mother trudged down the hall, but the shadow stayed, merging with my limbs, adding to my flesh, making me notice the protrusions and stretch marks I ignored previously, under my baggy clothing. But in an instant, it dripped away, melting onto the ground like a puddle and following my mother before becoming one with her body, revealing in shadow protrusions what her Botox and tummy tuck treatments desperately tried to hide.

I opened my eye again, wondering if I’d closed the wrong one. I hadn’t.

Father dropped me off at the steps of the piano lady’s house when spring came around. There were too many flowers in her front yard, each grouped by type: roses, lilies, sunflowers. I picked a rose and snapped off the stem, its thorns nicking my finger before I tossed it aside. I made my way up the cobbled pathway, placing the flower into my pocket for safekeeping, careful not the crinkle its petals, then wiped the blood on my new jeans. I hated them, but Mother insisted sweatpants would “simply not do.”

“Hello, you must be Ino,” said a stout woman with large, round glasses, magnifying her pupils so they looked like the eyes of a fly. The glasses left barely any of her bronzed face uncovered around it. Or maybe she didn’t need glasses that big at all and just wanted her eyes to look bigger, like my mother who always wore bulky contacts without a prescription. I had glasses, too, but they made the ghosts more pronounced. Squinting was bearable, most of the time—until someone laughed about in school.

“Yes,” was the only thing I could think to say since my father hadn’t told me the woman’s name.

“Wedda. You can call me Wedda,” she said, as if reading my mind. “Come along.”

Wedda didn’t spare a second and grabbed me by the shoulders, pushing me inside. Before she seated me in front of the piano, she gazed at my hands.

“They look just like mine when I was younger,” she said, then rested herself on a rocking chair next to the aged wooden instrument. Her perfume smelt of dead flowers and disinfectant. Around her neck were draped far too many pearls. From this angle, it was clear her bronzed face was unnatural—too much foundation of the wrong colour or maybe a spray tan.

My mind swam as my fingers ran over the black and white keys, playing various scales in a disjointed manner, awkward, unfamiliar—my fingers tripping and stumbling over, and over, and over, and—

Wedda repeated words I didn’t understand every time I played the wrong note. I was only a beginner, why did she insist on making me play what she knew I couldn’t?

“I won several awards when I was younger. Never made these mistakes even though I started playing when I was two.” She shot me a scrutinizing stare. “Why don’t you take that eyepatch off? Maybe you’ll make fewer errors,” Wedda said.

I shook my head. I played the wrong note—again—and my fingers withdrew from the piano with a sudden jerk.

I was such a quick learner. Soared through the levels. A piano prima donna if you will!” Wedda shook her head. “This simply won’t do.”

She reached over and took my eyepatch off.

“Now look at that. Isn’t that much better? Maybe you need a rouge on those lips . . . When I was performing, I wore the most striking dresses. The lips were never bare!” Wedda winked. “Appearance was also part of the performance, you know?”

It took a few seconds before my vision adjusted. Small white specks littered the front of my eyes. The piano sat rotting in front of me with its only redeeming feature the horrendous satin covering—only because it was not as decayed. Wedda used it to hide its age and mold. Spider webs sat at the edges of its frame. Wormwood beetles scuttled in and out of gaping holes.

“Well, don’t stop. Continue!” Wedda said.

I slammed my hands against the keys, making Wedda flinch in her seat, mouth dropping open. A smile stretched across my face, as polite as can be. “Thank you, but I best get going now.”

When I left, I didn’t bother putting my eyepatch back on. Without it, flowers became carnivorous traps, snapping at my heels, begging me to notice them. Ignoring the ghosts didn’t help them go away. They would always be there. Better to get used to them than pretend. Why pretend, anyway?

I kept my eyepatch off. I saw clearer this way, anyhow. Weeds peeked out from under the flowers, their spiked edges jutted. The tiny ghosts of all of Wedda’s students, who left despising her, huddled around the roots of the weeds for comfort, mewing their sorrows my way. Poor them. The terrible woman only seemed to project her past onto her students, and I didn’t want any of that. I thought of my mother’s scrutinizing gaze and how she wrinkled her nose every time she saw me. Like her, I was a twig-like child. But I wasn’t anymore, and she hated that because she was the same.

There were always cliques at school. I wasn’t a fan, but maybe I should have tried harder to join one. Maybe it would’ve made life easier. Connections, my father said, are the key to life. But what I heard was fake friends—get yourself some fake friends who can help you and then become a fake friend, too.

Each of the girls and boys sitting together in groups at lunch had a strange ghost tethered to their heads like a balloon with the string pulled taught upwards. A replica of their faces only without all the makeup, without all the smiles, and without all the feigned confidence. I looked above me. My own balloon had a smile stretched wide like the Cheshire Cat’s. Why did my balloon look so much more sinister? My attention returned to the students.

They noticed me looking and sneered, turning up their noses. I continued staring anyway.

These ghosts weren’t really ghosts, but sometimes, I wished they were.

One girl sitting at the edge of the crowd ducked her head, embarrassed. We shared a brief look, but for once, I felt understanding. The balloon above her head sat deflated, trailing near the ground. I wondered if my mother’s would have looked the same when she was younger.

The same photographer returned to take pictures at the end of the year dance, but the ballerina was no longer behind him. Instead, there was my balloon, chomping at the air above his head, running its tongue over the sharpened teeth that had grown in over the year. Wouldn’t it be lovely to snap off his head? Wouldn’t it be lovely if I—

He approached me with the same slow, upright crawl as before. “Tilt your—”

“Sorry, you’re a little too close,” I said, leaning back, offering him the most reproachful and disgusted look I could muster. My conversed feet shuffled backwards. Mother failed to get me in heels for the first time.

The photographer frowned and straightened, clearing his throat. My balloon closed its lips over his face, teeth thrashing at his face.

“Say cheese,” he murmured, eyeing the next girl peeking through the curtains the whole time like she was lunch.

I quit piano after a handful of lessons, and I never did start that diet my mother pushed so hard onto me. Mother didn’t stop trying, even though her shadow continued to grow every time she came back from the surgeon’s.

I always wondered why my father never had ghosts lingering around him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was already one himself. Nothing was more grotesque than he.

At dinner, I held back a gag when my father’s udon splashed against his pressed white shirt and continued to accumulate as he shovelled into his mouth the fish hovering in the soup, speaking, boasting without noticing. His tie stayed clean, pressed. Mother was too invested in cutting pieces of thick noodles into small pieces. She didn’t want to have to move her face since the bandages bounded much of it far too tight. Why didn’t she just cook congee instead? I cringed at the high-pitched squeal escaping her lips when she stretched her mouth too wide. Her fork and knife clattered onto the china. I flinched. Father ate and spoke without a pause.

The child still clung to my leg. The head from the optometrist had left the woman’s hands and attached itself to its original body, but I hadn’t noticed until now. I’d almost become used to its presence until it squealed. The child mimicked my mother, mocking and laughing in response. Then its eyes met mine. Bandages appeared across its face before disappearing, revealing features far too symmetrical and perfect to be mine. I looked away. If I stared too long, maybe I’d want perfection, too.

My father spent the entire dinner building up to the announcement of his promotion while my mother talked over him, bragging about her new hair and shopping hauls. This was his third promotion this year. I suspect he was only trying to get attention, acknowledgement, not that our attention would’ve been enough for him; not that any of us would have noticed or cared.

I stood up in the middle of my father’s overused speech without finishing my food, letting my chair topple onto the floor behind me with a crunch—wood against wood. My udon sat bloated at the bottom of my bowl clutched between my hands. The flesh of the fish collected at the bottom with the bones floating on top. I poured it down the sink and heard my mother mutter a comment about wasting food, then rescinded it because maybe it’d help lose inches off my waistline.

Before I left the kitchen, I looked back for a brief moment and saw panic in my father’s eyes as he, in haste, launched into speaking about another recent achievement of his.

Without sparing another glance, I headed outside to the end of the driveway where our trash cans sat. I pulled the crumpled eyepatch from my pocket and threw it into the green bin, then took out the crumbled rose from my other pocket—most of the pieces moldy and stuck to the inner pocket of the jeans I’d only worn twice and never washed since Mother purchased them. I pried it from my fingertips, flicking it onto the grounds. Its beauty suffocated, gone.

Hidden in the hollowed sole of each of my shoes was a few cigarettes and a small lighter. I pulled them out. Mother often searched my room for ‘inappropriate’ items thinking I wouldn’t notice, but she always left a mess of things. It was hard not to notice.

They were really all phonies, weren’t they?

And what about you? My balloon laughed.

I lit my cigarette, took a drag, blew smoke in the balloon’s direction, then chucked it at its head.

I wrapped my arms around myself. The small child who held on to my leg no longer looked sinister but resembled an unedited childhood picture of myself I’d lost when we moved. All our family pictures were edited now—printed out and decorated by Mother.

My balloon floated down towards the child, cooing before spreading its lips and swallowing her whole. But the child didn’t disappear. She took on the smile of the balloon, its broad grin stretching across more than half her face.

The child’s screechy laugh mixed with the balloon’s lower cackle. “You’re just perfect, aren’t you?” Again, its mouth widened, stretched until it looked as though it would rip apart. Its eyes stared at me, taunting, challenging, beckoning me to step into its cavern.

“What are you doing?” Mother’s voice drifted from behind me.

Without turning, I made a move to hide the cigarettes and lighter, but my mother caught my hand. She swiped a cigarette and lit it without looking at me. To my surprise, Mother unravelled the bandages from her face and threw it into the trash can, over my eyepatch, then blew smoke towards the streetlight. The dull yellow glow emphasized the oil accumulating from her pores and the unhealed, swollen surgery lines carved in to her face as she drew in her brows, deep in thought.

I didn’t answer her, but I didn’t need to. We stood in silence, watching the faint white tendrils disappear above us. But it was only for a moment because Father came crashing outside, thudding footsteps stumbling in our direction, shattering the silence. Below me, the child had disappeared, but its laughter remained.

Above my mother’s head hovered a balloon not dissimilar to mine. Perhaps we weren’t so different after all, and perhaps that was okay.

About the Author

Ai Jiang is a Chinese-Canadian writer and an immigrant from Fujian. She draws on cultures and landscapes of the lands she has walked for inspiration. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in F&SF, The Dark, Jellyfish Review, Hobart Pulp, among others. Find her on Twitter (@AiJiang_) and online (aijiang.ca).