This is my piece I submitted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. It’s good practice. Plus the Child Narrator is a challenge!
Disclaimer: It’s perfectly ok for me to post this, for anyone who tries to counter it. As per the Commonwealth Rules which state –
“The story must be original and should not have been previously published anywhere in full or in
part. Published work is taken to mean published in any printed, publicly accessible form, e.g.
anthology, magazine, newspaper. It is also taken to mean published online, with the exception
of personal blogs and personal websites.“
The Glass Window
By Jasmaine Payne
Daddy says he wants to leave us because he can’t take it anymore. He and mommy are arguing by the front door. I can see their colours: daddy is black at the bottom and white at the top. The white is mixed with green. The green is his tie. Mommy is red. She always wears bright coloured dresses. Their colours move around with many shadows. It looks like bottles of paint spilled on to white paper, but the colours and the shadows move and shout. The white paper is the light coming from the open front door.
I am standing by the Christmas tree wondering how I can make daddy stay.
It’s because of me, but I don’t know how to change what happened. I want to cry, but I will have to scream or they won’t hear me. They are always quarrelling now. Sometimes I can’t sleep at nights because their voices come through the walls.
I hear everything they say. Mommy says that I have to learn to listen with all my might now. She is right, because since that day, everything seems like it is happening through a dirty glass window. If mommy were inside my head, she would try to scrub it clean because she doesn’t like dirty places. But no matter how much she would wipe it, she still wouldn’t see clearly outside.
Mommy is a good lady, but she cries a lot now. Daddy says he loves her, but he can’t take it anymore. It’s because of me.
I think it is a far way from the tree to the door. All the light confuses me sometimes, because it mixes with the colours and shadows, but if I don’t get there, daddy will leave and never come back.
“What do you plan to do a month from now, Yvette?” I hear him say when I am closer. I use the wall to help me get around the house. “Where will we get the money? What will we do?”
Mommy can’t control her tears and when she speaks she sounds like she is singing a loud and terrible song- and she cannot sing, so it hurts my ears.
“There are many, many ways!” she says. “But I need you to be here, I can’t do this alone.”
“You’re delusional,” daddy says, he sounds angry. He speaks to me like that when I forget to pick up my toys. “I need to get out of here for a while. I’m not thinking straight.”
I don’t know what ‘delusional’ means, and why he’s calling her that but it must have hurt her, because she stops singing and starts making sounds like an animal. I have a game where I press a button and it sounds just like her. The voice says “The wolf howls at the moon”. I never liked pressing that button.
“Welcome home!” I say loudly. It is the only thing I can remember by the door.
“What is it, Sweetheart?” her voice is wet from crying, daddy doesn’t say a word.
“Welcome home. It’s on the mat right there.” I smile to show them I am proud of myself, and that they should be proud of me too.“ I can see it from here. It’s white, the letters are black.”
“Ivor!” Mommy screams, “He sees it!”
The light by the door shakes in front of me and the bright red glow of her dress blinds me. She is hugging me and crying into my shoulder, kissing my face while saying words I cannot understand. I love how she smells. She uses baby powder and chamomile lotion on her skin. These are the things that help me to know it is her every time she comes close.
The front door closes and the light in the room is gone.
“Can you still see it, Jeremy?” Daddy asks me.
I say yes and mommy hugs me and cries harder. Soon I smell his cologne and I feel his big hand pat me on the back. He tells her he’s sorry, that he’s been really stressed lately. He says things may not be so bad after all, and then says he is tired and he is going upstairs. This makes me see that once I am getting better, he will stay.
This is why I lied.
Daddy would be very angry if he knew this and he would send me to stand in a corner to think about what I did.
He used to be very proud of me. In September, on my birthday, he called me his ‘perfect seven year old boy’. The day before that, I was his ‘growing six year old’. Now, he only calls me Jeremy, and he only talks to me when he isn’t shouting at her, so we don’t talk a lot anymore.
It all changed that day when my eyes went dull and the darkness became like a picture frame around my eyes. Daddy promised to play ball with me when he came home from work that day. It was Saturday and he would work up to lunch time. Mommy called him a ‘workaholic’ but he would tell her that he needed to “keep the house afloat”, like we lived on a boat.
Even though he worked so hard, we still didn’t have a lot of money. Sometimes Mommy would send me to put things back on the shelves at the Supermarket after we went to the cashier. It was always fun to remember where everything had been. Mommy sewed all her own dresses, and we never shopped for new clothes. Mommy would make me wear clothes she said she got from Charity. I never met Charity, but I bet she was a really nice lady. I guess all this meant that our boat was sinking.
I was watching TV while I waited on daddy to come home that day. I always liked the colours, so I would stand very close to the TV even though mommy warned me not to. Suddenly my eyes began to burn and then I started crying. But I wasn’t really crying, the water just didn’t stop. I rubbed and rubbed and called for mommy. I rubbed until the burning got worse.
Mommy didn’t know what to do, so she covered my eyes with a wet towel and carried me to the doctor. She told me if I wanted to be better, I had to be good and keep the towel there for a while. I waited for a very long time until I missed seeing the things around me. Then the towel came off my face and the doctor shined a bright light in each eye to see what I had done.
When we left, I still couldn’t see mommy’s face, or the people in the office, or what the words on the doctor’s door said. Everything just looked like a blurry rainbow with colours but no lines. And when I looked sideways I saw lots of shadows.
I remember mommy crying all the way home. She didn’t talk to me; she just kept saying it will be alright. Daddy didn’t come home at lunch time like he promised. Late that night when he finally arrived, he and mommy had their first argument. How could this happen? What did mommy do? How much money would it cost? Those were the things I heard through the wall.
Mommy came to sleep with me that night. Daddy had gone out again, she said, and she had some things to ask me before we slept. Her voice reminded me of a rainy day.
“How much can you see, Jeremy?” she asked. I wanted to tell her the right thing, but it was not the truth. I looked around my room to where I knew my dresser was. I could not see the splinters in the wood or its handles. It was all brown, like mud. I looked at the wall where my paintings were. They were just colourful blurry things against my blue wall. I looked up into her face and couldn’t see the wrinkles on her skin. She was just a brown thing in front of me in a yellow thing which I knew was her dress. Then there was the darkness. All around, wherever I looked, was darkness mixed with colours, and that is what I told her.
She brought her hands up to the sides of my face and kissed me on top of my head. I could not see the colour of her eyes, but I knew they were brown. I saw a shadow move in front of my face.
“Can you count my fingers?” I couldn’t. I felt in front of me until I touched her hand, and then slid my fingers across hers. Two were missing.
“Three.” I said. I wished I could see her face, to see if she was smiling; if I had made her proud.
“Can you see that colour?” All I saw was colours. I didn’t know which one she meant.
“Mommy, when will I see all these things again?” I asked, and instead of explaining, she hugged me and cried. I wanted to cry too, but I was afraid my tears would make all the colours go for good. I felt like I had been left alone in a fair at night, but the bright lights had not been turned off. It was night time but there was too much light around me, so I saw everything but I saw nothing.
I was so confused.
I got to know the doctor really well after that. Mommy would take me to him a lot so he could check for different things in my head to tell us why I couldn’t see well anymore. Doctor Teller was his name; he was a really nice man. He had two children and a dog but his wife died many years ago. He had lots of grey hair on his head, because I’d always see white when I looked at his face. I don’t think doctors wear hats. Every time we left his office he would give me candy. Mommy told him not to encourage me, but he’d still sneak it into my pocket when she wasn’t looking. Then one day daddy got angry and told mommy he was ‘paying out his ass’ to see Dr. Teller and if I wasn’t getting better we should stop seeing him. I never saw Dr. Teller again.
After that, she told me that very soon the world would go dark and that I needed to know many things if I wanted to ‘live a normal life for as long as possible’. I asked her if we would all be in darkness but she said it was just me.
“Why won’t I see anymore, Mommy? Was it because I looked at the TV too close?”
“We don’t know, Sweetheart. And we can’t find out.”
That was when she told me how much better my ears would be than a seeing person’s ears. She told me that I would be able to smell better than any normal person too. She said it was like being super human, except all the power from my eyes would go to my other senses.
“You’ll have to go to another school too, Sweetheart.” Mommy said and soon after that I stopped going to the school I knew. She said my new school would have all the other super humans and we would learn how to see the world in a different way. People like me needed sticks to help them get around, but she said that if I wanted and if we could afford it, I could get a dog to help me. A dog that would be with me all the time! That made me feel much better. One day, she gave me a book and told me to turn the pages. I looked really close but I don’t think they had any words. My fingers felt lots of bumps when I turned every page. Mommy said I would learn a whole new language at my new school and those bumps would mean everything to me.
One day I heard her talking on the phone.
“The doctor says it could take days or it could take months, but what’s important is that the very last images he sees are memorable.” She said. I always remember this.
This is why daddy couldn’t leave, because the last thing I will see is him walking through a blurry door. It was Christmas time and children want to see toys. I want to see our family decorate the tree one last time. Every Christmas Eve this was what we did.
Because I saw the words on the mat, things got better. Daddy still worked a lot, but when he was home, he would be very nice all the time. He would ask me if I could see different things and I would tell him yes. It was hard work, but I knew to describe things because of how I remembered them. It was like a picture game. Daddy would sit with me and point to something.
“Tell me what you see on the dining table, Jeremy.”
I would squeeze my eyes together so the colours would stay close till I could see the shape, then I would try hard to remember what was there before I lost my eyes.
“Mommy has fresh flowers there. Roses.”
She had a Rose garden, and she would put fresh roses there every week. It was Sunday afternoon and while he was gone, I sat with mommy in the Rose garden that day as she picked fresh flowers for the table. I was lucky daddy asked that question. He laughed and patted me on the back.
“You’ll be normal again in no time my boy!”
Daddy is always in his best mood at Christmas time. He would set the tree in the living room long before Christmas. It would stand there all alone without decorations until Christmas Eve. That night, we would sit in the living room and dress it the same way as the year before. Daddy never bought new decorations.
Good thing I loved the ones we had: blue lights that blinked to the rhythm of Christmas carols. Mommy and I liked to sit and try to guess which song they were dancing to at times. Blue, red and yellow Christmas balls; I loved their colours. Daddy and I would make funny faces into them as we hung them one by one around the tree. When we were finished, we would put the best decoration right at the top: it was a little boy with a drum in his hands; he was dressed in a blue and red pants suit and had a chord attached to his bum. When we plugged him in he would light up brighter than any star anyone had on their tree. Mommy and daddy would always tell me that the little boy was me and they didn’t need a star to light their way; I was their shining star. Christmas was the best.
There is a white splash in everything I see now. There are the shadows in the corners, the colours with no lines, then the white splash in the middle. It is like when I stare at a bright light for a long time and when I look away, the stain is still there everywhere I look – except it doesn’t go away. Mommy thinks I am crying all the time too because tears are always flowing down my cheeks.
“Don’t rub your eyes Jeremy, use your handkerchief.” She would speak really quiet when daddy was home. She never wanted him to hear about my eyes. She walks with me everywhere now, because I cannot see the ground and when he is around, she makes me sit in one place so he doesn’t see me hit the wall. But I think he knows. He hasn’t talked to me in a long time. Last week I couldn’t remember which painting was on the wall in the living room so I answered wrong. Daddy asked if I couldn’t see it. I told him yes. He told me to describe it. I couldn’t.
Mommy is cleaning my face with a damp cloth. I can only see the green of her dress. Her face is gone now. No brown, just the white splash and green with shadows.
“It will be alright, Sweetheart,” she says. I asked her how much longer before it all went dark. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“Yvette!” Mommy gasps and carries me through the house. I feel her put me in the chair. She tells me to sit still.
“So what’s the matter with him now? What’s with his eye colour? Why are they wet all the time?”
“He’ll get better. It’s just the weather. It’s so cold, it irritates his eyes.”
“He was seeing fine the other day. He told me!”
“You know what the doctor said, Ivor. We can’t stop it.”
Daddy says the doctor doesn’t know shit. Mommy says maybe a miracle will happen. He doesn’t like this; he says he has been waiting for things to get better all the time. He doesn’t believe in miracles. I don’t like how this is going. Daddy’s voice gets louder. They are arguing about many things now.
“Stop!” I say, “Stop! Please!” I push myself off the chair and begin to walk to their voices. I can’t tell what the colours are anymore. There are no more shapes. My knees hit something hard and I fall to the ground. They don’t notice. I am up again. The wall is to the side. I walk with my hands in front of me. They touch the wall. Their voices are close.
“Mommy!” I say. They have to hear me. Daddy is saying he isn’t happy anymore. Mommy is saying he can’t just leave us. He says we can watch him. I can’t watch him. I can’t see. “Daddy!” I say and I begin to cry real tears. There is lots of light and then the door closes loudly. Mommy is crying and so am I.
It is the day before Christmas Eve.