This story is by Sandy Richards and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Last night’s torrential downpour setup a perfect post-storm morning. I captured, on canvas, a multi-hued sunrise to add to my watercolor collection. Working on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean provided daily fodder for my painting passion. Sunrise views from an ocean rig beat the hell out of anything from land. Stateside, I head to work to inspect for squall damage at the TMP Petroleum plant.
“Mornin’ Precious. I’ll have a triple, venti, nonfat soy, mocha latte…to go, please.”
“Sure thing, Nicky.”
A grin creeps across my face as my usual XL black coffee and two packets of sugar slide across the metal lip of the food truck. Precious O’Rourke has been making me smile every morning for the last ten years. Cup in one hand, I display a two-finger salute and hear my cue, “My hands are shakin’ and my knees are weak.” I bend one knee, put on my best crooked smile and reply, “I can’t seem to stand on my own two feet.” We love our ongoing morning ritual of funky coffee orders and completing each other’s 50’s and 60’s song lyrics.
My friend Precious is unique. Growing up in east Texas, you play football, rope cattle or work the rigs. Precious learned to cook. Born with broad shoulders, alabaster skin sprinkled with freckles and hair as red as a hot chili pepper, indoor activities were ideal. Enthralling is the only way to describe Precious’ eyes. The iris is the color of an early morning mist rising from a mountain lake; a surreal gray outlined by a ring of intense violet. The first time I connected with those eyes, my breath caught in my chest. I stared and blushed. “No worries. I get that all the time,” Precious said.
“I’ll be back for lunch, my friend. I’ll show you my latest masterpiece.”
As I walk into the plant, my floorhand shouts, “Boss, we gotta problem in #56. Need your expertise. Might need to do some pigging in the chloro-petrol pipe.”
Damn, I didn’t get a chance to change or finish my coffee. Probably just a duct changeover, easy peasy. Opening the door to #56, the odor of the chemical buildup gags me. Grabbing a new valve from the equipment box, I get to work. Grinding away, I feel a sting on the back of my neck. There it is again…and again. Concentrating on the needle-like pricks on my skin, I twist the valve past the dead zone; a total rookie move. The busted valve releases a murky spray of Nornol-B directly into my eyes which burns like hot, gritty sand and thorny pickers flung from the gates of hell. Crab-walking out of #56, I kick the door shut behind me. Breach sirens wail. Multiple hands drag me to the safety wash and douse me with frigid water. Darkness saves me from the absurd pain.
Dr. Jeffrey Slade, the world’s foremost eye surgeon, holds my hand and shares the extent of my injuries. “You have suffered irreparable damage to your eyes, Ms. Rainwater. Nornol-B is impossible to remove from mucus membranes. We bandaged your eyes with a normalizing solution to slow down the corrosion. The lesions on your neck were excised which kept the raw chemical from burning deeper into your skin. The spray that hit your face was diluted and your facial skin will remain intact. Unfortunately, you will lose your eyes within the next 24 hours.”
I try to raise my hands to my face, but they are restrained to the bed.
“Lose my eyes? You mean like my sight?”
“No, ma’am. You will lose your eyes, completely. The chemical is destroying the scleral tissue. Your only hope is that we find a compatible donor within the next 18-24 hours and perform an ORB-28 transplant. If not, we will have to remove your eyes and fit you with prosthetics.”
Rewind, dammit, rewind.
“If I can’t see, I can’t paint. If I can’t paint, what’s the point?”
“An ORB-28, or Ocular Replacement Bypass, is a new procedure developed in Houston. I have performed three of these surgeries with impressive outcomes. The success of the surgery relies on the quality of the transplant material and the timeframe of the surgery. We have placed you on an emergency donor list. You are young and healthy, so surgery is a viable option. As I stated, the catch comes from the quality of the donor tissue.”
The doctor’s voice drones on. “Ms. Rainwater, I have placed a digital clock on your nightstand. The clock has an hourly audible chime. The clock is counting down your donor opportunity. On the hour, the device will notify you of how much time you have left before ORB-28 surgery is no longer an option. You will be in a medicated twilight sleep and able to hear, but not respond. Your pain level will be tolerable. I’ll check on you this evening.”
“Brruup, brruup, hour 22,” the metallic voice chimes. I would’ve totally missed it if I hadn’t heard Precious’ voice follow-up with, “It took me by surprise, I must say…when I found out yesterday.” In my head, I respond, “Don’t ya know that I heard it through the grapevine…” and I promptly pass out.
“Brruup, brruup, hour 16,” the metallic voice tolls. “In the misty morning fog, our hearts a-thumpin’, and you…”. This is an easy one, “…my brown-eyed girl.” Bless you Precious, for keeping me sane.
“Brruup, brruup, hour 7,” the metallic voice warns. “Ms. Rainwater, if you can hear me please squeeze my hand.” I did my best to move my fingers although they felt like they were filled with concrete.
“Good job, ma’am. Please listen closely. We haven’t found a donor, but we have a bit more time. I want you to rest. One way or the other, you will need to be strong for your recovery. I’ll return when I have good news.”
I give Dr. Slade’s hand another feeble squeeze, hoping my scared shitless-ness doesn’t show through. I attempt to recall the peacefulness of this morning’s sunrise of glorious purples and pinks. And…it’s lights out.
“Brruup, brruup, hour 3,” the metallic voice peals. “Today’s music ain’t got the same soul…”. C’mon Precious, you can do better than that! “…I like that old-time rock and roll.” What would I do without you my friend?
“Ms. Rainwater…wake up ma’am.” Dr. Slade’s Texas drawl coaxes me into consciousness.
When you lose one of your senses, the others jump into overdrive. I’m acutely aware of machines whooshing and the soft-soled footsteps of nurse’s shoes moving about the room. The acrid smell of alcohol and antiseptics waft into my nostrils, bypassing the cool drift of oxygen from the nasal canula.
“Ms. Rainwater, I’m going to slowly raise the head of your bed. You may be a bit woozy from the anesthesia. We found a suitable donor and believe the surgery was a success.”
“What day is it? I haven’t heard the buzzer in a long time.”
“It’s been two-weeks since your accident, ma’am. We’ve kept you sedated so you can heal. Are you ready to remove the bandages?”
Ever so gently, Dr. Slade removes the tape and damp pads covering my new eyes. “Take your time Ms. Rainwater. You’ll need to adjust to moving your eyelids. The lights are dimmed for your comfort.”
The restraints are gone but I entwine my fingers; I don’t want to accidentally rub my eyes. It feels like the weight of the world is resting on my lids. I summon every ounce of strength I must have to raise the folds of flesh protecting my priceless twin gifts. The room is blurry, but I make out shadow figures hovering around my bed. The figure closest to me is confirmed to be Dr. Slade when he asks, “How many fingers am I holding up, Ms. Rainwater?”
It takes me a minute as I focus on his hand. “Three.”
“Excellent! I’m going to hold up a mirror. Take a peek at your new eyes.”
“Can you turn the lights up a little bit, Doctor?” I don’t want to look, but I can’t help myself.
As the light grows brighter, my breath catches in my chest. I can’t stop staring. Reflected in the mirror are misty gray eyes ringed in violet. “Precious, my dear friend…what…have…you…done?”
A raspy voice from the corner of my room croons, “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone. I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. It’s gonna be a bright, bright, sunshiny day.”
Gazing toward the corner, I spot a burly man wearing oversized sunglasses who’s seated in a wheelchair. His hair is chili pepper red; his skin is ghost-white pale. Around the room I recognize my colorful paintings hung in every available nook and cranny. Tears roll down my face.
In his familiar tenor voice, Precious sighs, “No worries, Nicky; have faith in friends…and sunrises.”