This story is by J.D. Edwin and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Nicky’s eyes were cobalt blue in the right light.
In the wrong light, like those in the days of Club Neon, they were green. They were good eyes. Expensive eyes. She paid for them with extra shifts at the bar, pouring drinks for patrons she used to dance for. Most of us came through the smog sickness with reasonably priced solutions and no permanent damage. Nicky was less lucky. The rot left scars trailing down her cheeks like they had been raked by the claws of a large, angry cat, starting at her sparkling, expensive eyes and ending at her chin. When she flexed certain muscles, they danced a spectrum of colors, quivering to the beat of the nearest source of music.
“Maybe I am vain,” she often said to me, as she did on Tuesday night when Herr Strauss arrived for his weekly visit. “But if they stare at me, I rather think that it’s because my eyes are far too mesmerizing.”
“Nicky with the dancing eyes,” I teased, batting my own plain brown ones. They were rentals, like most everyone else’s, but I didn’t see the need to spring for extra features when the guests glued their own rented pupils to the curvier, fleshier parts of my body. “Stare because you can’t look away.”
“Precisely.” She smiled. One of the rot scars split the corner of her top lip, causing it to stretch in a manner most respectable company would consider unbecoming. Nicky knew this and kept her smiles small on most days. She glanced past me. “Your regular is here, Jessa.”
Aliases were a way of life for those who worked the night in the smog-filled city. Before she was tucked behind the bar, Nicky was Tiffany, then Beth, then Claudia. Right now she was Nicky, and I never asked if that was the name on her birth certificate, just like she never asked if “Jessa” was the name on mine.
I nodded to Herr Strauss across the room and he nodded back. He was a thin, careful man with round glasses sitting atop his very German nose. One of the other girls walked past us and tossed me a side glance.
“They all wonder how you put up with him,” Nicky said. “Rather unusual, a man who springs for the grope fee every time. He must be loaded.”
I shrugged. “He is nice.”
“Is he?” Nicky said, arching a brow. I couldn’t fault her – it was difficult to view a man seemingly so desperate for female attention that he emptied his pocketbook on a weekly basis just for a chance to put his fingers on a stripper’s skin. “Give him a drink coupon. I’ll be the judge of ‘nice’ Herr Strauss.”
Most of us had never seen what lay above the smog. If asked the color of the sky, a child would reply “black”, or “gray”, or sometimes “dirty”. So when the smog sickness descended, most of us remained in denial—whether healthy or unhealthy was a matter of perspective. After all, the thought that the natural sky we had grown up with and become so accustomed to would attack our bodies unprovoked was unthinkable, almost laughable. That was, until a good portion of the city woke up blind.
“She was one of the worst ones,” Herr Strauss said as he sat down in his usual spot in the private room. The walls were decorated with gaudy, flickering fairy lights, but those who frequented it weren’t exactly the type to be picky about interior design.
“I know, Herr,” I said. “You’ve told me.” I straddled him, placing my barely covered buttocks on his thighs. He waited for me to get comfortable. He was never impatient.
“Ah,” he said, “I suppose I am becoming repetitive.”
I took his hands and placed them on my waist. His fingers kneaded my skin gently.
The pandemic of blindness had been severe and disruptive, but ended just as quickly as it began. The solution was “reasonably priced” and caused “no permanent damage”, or that was the slogan of the commercials that streamed day and night on the tubes and broadcasts. As it turned out, all it took was one minor adjustment to the factories that produced the smog—the addition of cheap, rentable artificial eyes to their product line. Within weeks, members of the public were lining up for fast, convenient procedures to replace their fragile, biological eyes with substitutes that were not only durable and easy to care for, but came with an endless array of customizable features. And life went on.
“Except the unlucky ones,” Herr Strauss said. His fingers traveled over my body, always firm, but always respectful.
“She was unlucky.”
“Shall I stop talking?” I asked, though I already knew the answer.
“If you don’t mind.”
I said nothing more. Herr Strauss focused on my face as he continued to examine my body slowly. A thin, dreamy smile appeared on his face.
In some ways, Nicky was still lucky. The rot had stopped at her face. Not so for Herr Strauss’s poor wife, whose funeral had to be closed casket to avoid upsetting the mourners further—the state of her rot was not for the faint of heart. That was three years ago. It took two years before he began to venture out of his home regularly, and six more months before he found solace at Club Neon. He started out as Mr. Strauss, then Leon, then Herr Strauss, which was how those in his company addressed him whenever he was out with his lovely, kind, but terribly unlucky wife.
I stayed still and let Herr Strauss dream as his eyes, a basic model save for one additional feature, superimposed his wife’s face over mine. He missed her, painfully, ardently, and who was I to disrupt the fantasy? I stayed still and he drank me in, my body an ointment that soothed the burns left by his sorrow.
“Sorrow is natural,” Nicky said. “It’s an unhealthy game he plays, all this denial and pretending.”
“Maybe,” I said, squinting. The refitting of an eye was easy but delicate work, and easier done by a pair of hands not your own. I tilted Nicky’s head slightly with one hand, and with a pair of needle-thin tweezers in the other, adjusted the netting lining the walls of her left eye socket. The sight of raw flesh and thin trails of blood on glistening metal once made me queasy, but now, after performing the same procedure on myself every morning for two years, it was strangely normal, even dull. I picked up her eyeball from where it sat soaking in a cocktail glass filled with a specialized mixture of disinfectant and alcohol—also a product of the smog-belching factories—and inserted it into the socket. The netting around the socket wall contracted automatically to fit the eye into place.
Nicky blinked. Her eye sparkled red and yellow, then became green. Not a single patron looked up at the bar. Refitting an eye was as commonplace as washing one’s hands.
“He’s kept company at the bar every week lately since I passed him the drink coupon. Has he passed the Nicky test of niceness?”
She scoffed and took the glass that held her eye just a moment ago, dumped out the cleaning solution, and poured a dirty martini into it. “Not even close.”
A patron lumbered up to the bar. She pushed the martini at him and her eyes danced to the music. He didn’t meet her gaze, but left a tip regardless.
“See that?” she said as she fished the money out of the community tip jar and tucked it into her top. “Can’t look me in the eye. Your Herr Strauss is the same.”
“Smiles like a phony and talks to me looking at his dead wife’s face. Won’t even take a drink out of my hand because he would rather not touch the freak with the rotted face.”
I drummed my fingers on the bar. “He won’t?”
“Every time.” She slid her hand across the counter to demonstrate. “I lean forward, he moves back. All those long hours sitting here, playing like he’s talking to her. Just like all the rest.”
“It only works when he touches,” I said.
“The eyes. It puts her face on whoever he’s touching.” I gestured at my scantily covered torso. “Skin to skin.”
She said nothing else. Her eyes danced a spectrum of colors. She was quiet that night, and when Herr Strauss arrived, he skipped his usual session with me.
I didn’t see them again until years later. Nicky was Teresa. Her eyes no longer danced, but her smiles were wide and she answered to Frau Strauss.