I could barely feel my almost numb fingers as I raised the cigarette to my chapped lips. The cold wind burned my lungs more than the nicotine did. The six o’clock morning sun brought none of its promised warmth. I stood outside of the hospital for another moment before stubbing out my cigarette, not even half of it gone. I stuck it behind my ear as I entered the stifling hospital waiting room. The sound of keys typing and my cane tapping against the linoleum floor was all I could hear until I reached the front desk. Coughing. Groaning. Crying. The woman at the desk spoke in a dull, flat voice, “Can I help you?”
The sound of, presumably, her typing did not cease as I replied, “Where is room 140? I’m her counselor.”
“All visitors must sign in, first,” her voice turned rude in less than a second, as if there was a sign declaring this outstanding expression.
Yet, I remained patient. “Yeah, so, I’m blind and this still isn’t an accommodating place. So, do you mind signing me in as Cullen Blackwell? And, I’m going to see Lee Masters. Have a lovely day, ma’am.”
Instead of waiting for her to decide to be kind, I made my way towards the east wing, which Lee’s mother had vaguely described for me. As I went, I could hear the scratching of pen across a clipboard and a smug smile tugged at my lips, her quiet swearing still audible.
I could almost feel the death and sickness hang around me like fog. It gave me the shivers, but nonetheless, I was needed. I kept my head down—not like it mattered or anything—and quickened my pace as best as I could. The patients walking past muttered and asked too many unanswerable questions. Today wasn’t the kind of day to sit and talk about God and Heaven for six hours.
“Where are you headed, sir?” a rather chipper voice asked, her voice breaking the fog like sunshine. Light fingers rested on my shoulder and I knew she could feel me tense.
“Room 140. Miss Masters,” I replied nearly just as sprightly. I adjusted the cigarette inconspicuously behind my ear; I’d have to put it back into the pack before I get yelled at.
“Down the hall, two doors on your right.”
As her small step disappeared down the hall, I followed her directions, my free hand on the wall for extra guidance. One. Two. I knocked on the second door and compacted my cane to fit back into my hoodie pocket. The door opened and a broken, shaky voice greeted me in hushed tones. It was the mother.
“Cullen, it’s good to see you. Come in, come in. She just woke up.” The door widened and I stepped in, feeling the frustration in the air. Her mother took me by the arm and led me to the bed. A chair scraped against the floor and she patted my back before she went and sat down herself.
As I slid into the chair, Lee’s shaky breath matched her mother’s. She exhaled exasperation and inhaled nothing but fear. She was waiting for me to say something.
“How are you, Lee?” I asked as I took her hand, rubbing my thumb over the IVs. Her hand twitched beneath mine, but she didn’t take it away.
“Fine.” The strain in her voice explained better than she could have. She tried to not swear and she tried to be kind.
Her mother began to speak for her, but Lee cut her off with a harsh hiss. The chair creaked as her mother leaned back in it. Lee shifted underneath the thin blankets. “A little worse than fine.”
“It’s a wonderful morning.”
“No. No, it’s not,” she muttered angrily back at me. Her fingers tightened around mine. Still, I rubbed my thumb along her hand.
“Why’s that?” I asked as I scooted the chair closer. Her mother began to protest again, but she was silenced by her daughter once more.
“Because I’m—I’m,” her voice, angry at first, lessened and began to quiver, “I don’t know what I am anymore.”
As she began to cry, her mother moved and sat on the edge of the bed. Lee’s sobs were muffled and she took her hand from mine. I leaned back in my chair, deciding to return my half cigarette to the pack, and I quietly waited the crying out. There were a few moments of sniffles before I tried again.
“What do you hear, Lee?”
“Too much. I hear too much.” She tried to remain strong and not cry again, but her strength was starting to wane.
“Pin-point something for me. Listen for the birds outside,” I could hear them beautifully, their songs contrasting with dreariness inside the building.
“Okay. Okay, I can hear them. What now?” Lee was sarcastic, but truthful.
“Just listen to it. Be outside of yourself. Hear how many there are.” I leaned forward once more, reaching for her hand. As she willingly took it, her thumb rubbed against my hand instead. This calmed her down more.
“There’s at least—at least four, I think.”
“What can you smell?”
Lee’s voice was calmer and less spiteful as she answered. “Mum’s coffee.”
“Cigarettes. Cleaning products. Orange juice, I think,” her rhythmic rubbing ceased as she concentrated. “That’s all.”
“What can you see?” Her mother protested my question once more, but quieted herself down this time.
“Nothing,” Lee’s voice grew quiet, “I see nothing.”
The hospital room, warm with coffee and hot chocolate, no longer felt like a hospital room. I sipped my coffee and listened to the morning cartoons that seemed many miles away. My feet were on the edge of Lee’s bed and I was slouched dangerously low in the uncomfortable chair. My jacket and hoodie were hanging on the back of the chair. Lee was leaning forward in her bed, eating breakfast loudly, as she tried telling me her favorite memories. Nearly all were painful, so she made me share.
“Tell me a happy one, would you, Cullen?”
Groaning as I sat up, I racked my head for something that was pleasant. “Last Christmas, my brother and I made a snowman in the backyard and ended up creating snowballs out of him, instead, and throwing them at each other. Christmas has been hard for us and it was nice because we had each other. And we knew we always would.”
“You were blind last year, right?”
“Yeah, I was. And I still won that snowball fight,” I slouched back down happily, the memory passing through my veins.
“Tell me another,” Lee begged, her voice persuasive. “Tell me something about love.”
Her mother cleared her throat, as if reminding me to keep it appropriate, before she interjected: “Lee, the poor man has dealt with you for four hours already. Don’t pry.”
“No, no, she’s fine,” I laughed. “It’s only fair. Okay, okay. It isn’t my memory, necessarily, but I was told it by my older brother. My brother had this girl he liked and he so strongly believed that she liked him back. They ended up best friends, without ever sharing their feelings. One day, my brother—under my suggestion—asked her out from outside her window. He was outside nearly all night, for she wasn’t home. She got home the next day to find her best friend sleeping in her grass. She brought him blankets and let him sleep. Once he woke up, they kissed each other and ended up dating for a while.”
Lee giggled and shifted around underneath her blankets.
“Was that satisfying?” her laughter made me laugh as well, nearly spilling my coffee. I sat up and sipped more of it.
“Okay, Cullen. You’ve been here longer than you were supposed to,” Lee’s mother said, her voice no longer shaky or broken.
“Yeah, go ahead and take off. I’ll see you in a few days,” Lee added as she nudged my feet off of her bed. I stood, setting my coffee down on my chair, and slid on my jackets. Lee’s mother stood and hugged me, pulling me tight. She whispered ‘thank you’ before she let me go.
I shuffled over to the edge of Lee’s bed and hugged her as well. “Every time you feel doubt, fear, or anger, just listen for what you’ve never heard before. And remember you can still win snowball fights when you’re blind.” I kissed her head before picking up my coffee and undoing my walking staff, as Lee called it.
“I’ll see you both later,” I said as I made my way out of the room. I heard faint good-byes and thank-yous before the door shut behind me. With a lighter heart and warmer hands, I left the hospital and drank the rest of my coffee before I made it to the bus stop.
I re-lit my half cigarette and leaned against the glass wall. My lungs felt as though they were going to burst before I exhaled. I flicked the cherry and pulled my hood over my head.
“You know those destroy you, right?” a quiet, vaguely familiar voice asked. I smirked and tried not to laugh.
“Of course I do,” I replied, turning my head towards the direction the voice originated from. Whomever it was, she was sitting on the bench and she shifted once she realized my attention was on her.
“Then why do you smoke?”
I didn’t answer. I didn’t have an answer. I started out of spite and anger. And I never stopped.
Before she asked more questions, my phone vibrated and I fished it from my pockets. I answered, knowing it was Luca, and began walking again. He was in a hurry and I needed to walk faster. A few feet ahead, a car was parked at the curb and I hung up, knowing it was once more Luca. I slid into the warm car and Luca took the cigarette from between my fingers, inhaling it.
“I’ve got an interview for a job at that restaurant you really like in like half an hour,” he said as we started driving. My brother was a carbon copy of me and often mistaken for my twin, which was always an insult to him. He was pure German, born right before our parents moved to America, but he just barely had the accent. He smoked too much weed and drank too much and seemed like a burnout, but he was brilliant and could do anything he set his mind to. Our parents died shortly after I lost my eyesight, five years ago, and they put it on him to make sure I was looked after. He did a terrible job, but I was the single most important thing to him and he tried and that’s all that matters. “So, that’s my afternoon. You can stay at home, if you’d like, unless if you have another blind child to attend to.”
“No, I do, but it’s around five. So, yeah. Home, for now.”
Luca was singing along to the radio as he worked on the kitchen. He was horrible, but as was I, so I had not room to judge his singing. I shuffled into the living room and laid down on the carpet. The smell of the turkey and weed mixed together, creating a homey atmosphere for Thanksgiving. I sat up and felt around for the coffee table. It took a moment, but I found it and took the pipe and lighter from it. I took a hit and then set it back onto the table. As I exhaled, I laid back down and felt my body grow lighter. I started to sing along as well, only vaguely knowing the lyrics, and felt at peace for the first time since my parents died.
“Cullen!” Luca screeched from the kitchen, “Come and try these fucking mashed potatoes! They’re beautiful!”
I got up, swaying slightly, and ambled into the kitchen. I knew this house backwards and forwards; and, no doubt, did it know me inside and out. Touching the walls, I thought I could hear the whispers of my parents through the wall. I hurried into the kitchen, to the warmth and bliss that holidays promised.
“Let me try these heavenly potatoes.” The kitchen is too hot and the mixture of drugs and seasonal food was overwhelming. But, this was what I was proud to call home and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Luca bounded over to me, radiating energy and positivity. He put his suspicious damp fingers on my forehead and shoved a spoon into my mouth. He took a step back and I felt his excitement. If I could see his face, it’d be priceless.
“Yeah, those are some fantastic potatoes,” I laughed in agreement. Luca bounded back to his post and I followed, sitting at the island. “Is it you and I again?”
I could hear him exhale heavily. Neither of us liked a family holiday without a family. Five years alone for Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays.
“Yeah, yeah it is. We don’t need them, though. We’re family,” he was convincing himself by the end of his sentence. “I called dad’s side of the family, since they all live here. I got like six maybes. So, of course, that’s a no. They can’t blame me for trying.”
“Pour me whiskey, man.” I rubbed my eyes, the abandonment taking away the high. Luca nudged my hand with a glass and I took a sip.
Amidst the radio and Luca’s loud singing, I barely heard the knock. He didn’t, so I wondered if I had gone crazy. Yet, I still swung out of my seat and scampered down the hall, hoping that it would be one of those maybes. Luca, noticing my intentions, shut the radio off. I heard him rustling in the kitchen and I knew he was hiding stuff.
I reached the door and fumbled for the handle as another knock landed on the wood. I yanked it open and the brisk afternoon air greeted me.
“Yeah, is this the Blackwell’s?” a familiar voice asked, twisting into a question with hope tacked on at the end. Definitely not one of those maybes.
“Uh, yeah, it is. Who are you?” I leaned against the door. Luca walked up behind me, silent as a mouse.
“I’m sorry. I forgot you were blind. Eve Faulkner,” I could hear the smile in her voice. It frustrated me.
“What—what are you doing here?” Luca stammered; I didn’t need to see him to know he was blushing. I opened the door wider and motioned for her to enter.
“Well, we decided it’d be great to spend today together. I figured you might want more people,” she was quiet and she paused before walking in. I almost shut the door behind her, before I realized there was a second person behind her. Luca shifted so she could enter and I could feel the awkward in the air. The second person walked in and I shut the door.
A few minutes of silence passed before anyone said anything. We were seated in the living room, the pipes and lighters hidden. I had the chair and the three of them were on the same couch. I drummed my fingers on the arm and hoped someone would say something.
“Yeah, so, both of you remember how I left Seattle,” Eve spoke quietly, as if the subject was a fresh wound and she didn’t want to bump it on anything.
She didn’t wait for an answer. “I was kicked out of my house, so I moved to Tacoma, where I had relatives. I finished school, changed my name, and, um, had a child.”
My drumming stopped. Time seemed as if it too had stopped.
“I fought some demons and moved back, into my own apartment,” Eve continued. She exhaled deeply, letting the weight of the world roll from her shoulders. I shifted in my chair and Luca left the room, probably to finish cooking. He didn’t say a word. “His name is Liam.”
“Who’s—uh, who’s is he?” I couldn’t tell why I was so shocked. And I couldn’t tell why Luca was so rude.
Eve cleared her throat before she spoke. “Your brother’s.”
Liam turned out to be rather talkative and open as Luca was. He was rather fond of me, finding the fact that I couldn’t see very intriguing. He had the same appetite as his father. I wished I could see what he looked like.
For the first time in five years, we used the kitchen table as an actual table. Luca set out everything on the table, rather proud of his creations, and made trips up and down the stairs as he tried to relocate any sort of drugs he had in the kitchen. Eve didn’t notice, or at least she didn’t vocalize it, and Liam didn’t either.
The turkey was the last thing to be done cooking. Luca put it in later than he should have, only expecting my complaints, so we finished eating around eight.
“Eve, can you help me wash the dishes?” he asked her from the kitchen. Eve, who was still quiet throughout the evening, left the table and joined Luca in the kitchen.
“So, what’d you do in school today?” I asked Liam, noticing that their words were exchanged quietly and fiercely. Their conversation grew more heated and I hoped that Liam wouldn’t take notice.
I intended to listen to what Liam said, but my attention was grasped by what was going on in the kitchen. I tried to not eavesdrop, but to no avail. They were purposely trying to whisper, but it was louder than that.
“I told you that I was pregnant! I told you that it was yours! Why are you acting so surprised that he exists?”
“Because you show up without any warning and expect me to change how I live and become a father.”
“I didn’t say you needed to change how you live. I just want you there for him!”
“I can’t be a father, Eve,” his voice broke and I knew he was thinking about our dad. I stood up and took Liam, still chatting, into the living room.
“…and she took his toy, so he hit her and then sat in the corner for all day…” Liam giggled to himself as he jumped onto the couch, rustling the blankets and pillows.
“Do you want to watch a movie, Liam?” my thoughts were scattered and I interrupted him, accidentally. He didn’t care, though, and jumped at the idea.
“Can you watch movies, Cullen?” he asked innocently, his attention drawn tightly on me.
I laughed. “I can only hear them, though.”
“Will you ever be able to see again? Cause I can make funny faces and I want you to see them,” he seemed disappointed.
“I don’t know, Liam. I hope I can.” I slouched in the chair, the frustration building in my chest. Five years and I still can barely deal with the fact that I might not ever see again. I ran my fingers through my hair, exhaling out the anger.
“Liam, we’re leaving, okay, honey? Say good bye to Cullen,” Eve shouted as she walked through the house.
Liam huffed and scrambled off the sofa. He shuffled over to me and, crawling onto my lap, hugged me before bounding off to his mother. She walked through the living room and hugged me as well as she told me good bye. Eve grabbed her stuff from the couch and left, shutting the front door softly behind her.
Luca shuffled into the room, groaning as he entered. He threw himself onto the couch and lit a cigarette. His breaths were frustrated and I knew his anxiety was getting bad.
“Go to bed, Luca,” I said as I put my feet on the coffee table.
“I won’t be able to sleep. You know that,” he sighed.
“Take a shower and then go to bed. Thinking isn’t going to help and it never has.”
“Yeah, yeah, okay.” His voice was distant. His thoughts were too and I could tell. He got up as if the couch was made of glass. He handed me the cigarette before going upstairs.
I stubbed out the cigarette and left it in the ashtray on the table. I stood, stretched, and left the room, turning out the light as I went. I slowly made my way up the stairs, my feet heavy.
I wondered if my parents would be proud of us. Would they brag about my perseverance, or Luca’s protectiveness? Would they be happy I was working with kids in my situation? Would they be disappointed in Luca if they knew how much we’ve both changed?
These thoughts poisoned me as I changed and continued as I crawled into bed, listening to the sound of Luca’s muffled sobs through the shower water. All I knew was that I was proud of Luca and I was proud of me, too.
Eve was going to come over, after I had called. Luca left for the job he got at the restaurant. I didn’t ask him if he actually did, or if he just wanted to leave the house without questions. He left early, so I assumed he needed space.
I sat on the front steps of our house. I took the last drag from the cigarette burning between my fingers and stubbed it out on the uncomfortable concrete stairs. The autumn wind weaved in and out of my layers, making the fabric chafe against the goose bumps on my skin. I desperately wished I could see the hustle of the streets, but I’ve learned that simmering in the frustration of being blind would only draw me closer to depression and relapsing. I huffed, imagining the puffs of smoke rolling off my lips, and fingered with the safety on the lighter.
“Can I borrow yer lighter?” a husky, Irish voice asked just a few feet in front of me. He shifted as he stood and I handed him the lighter. The lighter clicked a few times before he handed it back. “Thank you. Uh, can I sit?”
Our neighborhood had our fair share of wandering homeless men. This Irish one had stopped me a few times before and had been nothing short of kind. “Of course,” I replied, scooting over on the steps so he had more room.
“My name is Desmond, by the way,” he added gruffly as he plopped down.
“I’m Cullen.” I listened to the traffic on the street and the late women on the other side of the street, screeching to someone who never responded. Desmond sat beside me silently and I could tell he was watching the people as well. I lit another cigarette and flicked the cherry, inhaling once more. An elderly man, obvious by the way he was shuffling along the icy sidewalk, was whistling as he went and he quit to harp on “a young lad like me ruining my lungs”. His steps didn’t falter and I didn’t reply.
“What does it look like, Desmond?” I asked, letting the cancer stick burn between my fingers without a second thought. “What’s it like today?”
“Loads of clouds and they’re…a light gray. There’s a bit of sun. There was an ice warning on the news today, but I don’t see much ice. Quite a bit of pretty women that you could snatch in seconds, I imagine, and those orphans from down the street are scampering around the sidewalks. Good day, lad,” Desmond coughed for a while after and then continued, “The church down the street is having a free breakfast for the homeless. Would you like to join me? You don’t really look homeless, but you could get coffee, or somethin’. Whatdya think?” Desmond pounded his stub of a cigarette out on the step and stood up, his bones cracking.
“No, thank you, though. I’m waiting for a friend and we’ve got plans. Perhaps, next time.” The cigarette burned my cold fingers, but the pain didn’t register in my head. I listened to Desmond walk away and buttoned up the rest of my flannel, hoping that Eve would hurry.
I stood and returned inside, deciding coffee was a good idea. I strolled through the noiseless house, finding the silence rather nice. The kitchen, still holding some of last night’s aromas, was peaceful and I could feel the sunlight stream through the windows. I ambled over to the island, fumbling around for the coffee pot. Once I found it, which was after several minutes, I turned my search for a mug. Finding it took was not any quicker. Luca, sometimes, forgot that I was in fact blind and he moved things too often. It was never intentional and I could tell he forgot that he actually had moved things.
Just as I poured the coffee, someone knocked at the door. I set the pot back and took the mug with me as I walked to the door. Sipping from it, I pulled the door open.
“Hey,” Eve said light-heartedly. “We’re going to the ocean?”
“Yeah, we are,” I replied as returned to the kitchen, motioning for them to come in. The door shut and I set the empty mug back onto the island.
“Is Luca home?” she asked gently, hoping but setting herself up for disappointment.
“No, he isn’t.” I walked back to the door, which they were still hovering around, and took my jacket from the hooks above the buffet table. “Are you going to drive?”
Liam had one of his hands in mine and the other was in Eve’s. We stood at the edge of the boardwalk. I wished I could see the ocean, see the gray waves crash over each other, but listening to it was as good as it was going to get. The air was colder than I had expected and I had given Liam my jacket. None of us spoke, but the wind whispered for us. It carried unkind memories I couldn’t avoid.
One of the last days that my parents were alive, we all went to Friday Harbor, even though the weather was horrible. It drizzled on and off, but we still decided to go. It turned out to be a really good day, actually. The good memories always hurt the worst.
“Do you want to go eat?” Eve said softly. Liam jumped up and down, expressing his answer without doubt.
“Yeah, okay,” the pain of the memories muffled my voice, as though I wasn’t allowed to think anything else other than the aching recollections. Liam let go of my hand and ran down the boardwalk. Eve walked with me, just as slow.
“Should I even try, Cullen?” She didn’t elaborate, but I knew exactly what she was talking about.
“My brother used to barely keep me alive after our parents died. He could barely keep himself alive. He needs time to change his mindset, I think. But, I’m not too sure,” I said, feeling my words weigh heavy on my heart. The both of us were pieces of shattered glass, once beautiful Catholic stained glass windows. Neither of us are remotely close to what we were before our parent’s death.
Eve didn’t say anything. Liam raced back to us and he took her opportunity to reply. When she talked to him, her voice was happier and less distant. She picked Liam up, handed him to me, and I set him on my shoulders.
“Do you want me to talk to him?” I asked quietly, taking advantage of Liam’s loud words.
“No, no, it’s fine. I will,” I could hear the fake smile in her voice and I sighed. Our family was already broken. This was like adding more shattered pieces into the vast mess.
Luca wasn’t home when Eve dropped me off, around four. I sat down on the front steps like they were fragile. I felt the warmth of the evening sun fade away with each hour that I sat there, my keys in one hand and my phone in the other.
“It’s six; what are you doing outside?”
Luca sat down next to me, smelling of alcohol and weed. “About what?”
“Everything. Mum, dad, Eve, you, me, Liam, the homeless men, war, peace. Everything.” I was almost inaudible. He heard me though; he always does.
“Let’s go inside, brother, and let’s eat dinner. We can drown our sorrows. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Luca snatched the keys from my hand and stood, stretching. He stomped up the stairs and unlocked the door. I pushed myself up and followed him inside.
“Do you want more turkey, or shall we get take-out?”
“Fuck turkey!” I said, my spirits rising gradually. “Get something Chinese. Get some horror movies, too.”
“Pack the pipe, man. I’ll be right back,” Luca said as he bounded through the house. He left and the house grew silent once more. I went upstairs, wondering as to where he had hidden the rest of the drugs, and went straight to his room. I wandered around, trying to find the dresser. I yanked open the drawers once I did and felt around for any sort of plastic bag. I reached into one, the only one with pills, and took a few before I went back downstairs, remembering the weed was underneath the couch.
The walk down the stairs grew increasingly difficult and I think I ended up on the wrong side of the living room. I lowered myself to the ground and felt around from the pipe. Crawling to the other side, I found it and gingerly packed it full. I set it on the table, along with the lighter, and jumped on the couch.
Each minute Luca was gone felt like an eternity passing. I jumped up and down on the couch, feeling free. He came into the living room, instantly went to the pipe, and set the food on the table. I slunk over and grabbed whatever was on top and returned to the couch.
Luca put the movie in and flung himself down right next to me; both of us crying with laughter once he rolled off.
“Wait, wait, wait.” Luca’s voice was distant and interested. “Where’d you find Mandy?”
“In your dresser,” I couldn’t not laugh as I replied. I listened to him scurry upstairs and rifle through his things. He tripped on his way down the stairs, but he only laughed as he slid into the living room. He jumped onto the couch just as the movie started, yanking the blankets off of the back of the couch and onto our laps. I curled into the corner of the couch, feeling liberated and detached from everything. I prayed that it’d last.