The display in the window never changed. Two rows of transparent acrylic noses, each with a pair of glasses. I passed the optician’s every day on my way to work, the display scored on my brain from a thousand unconscious glances. One morning, a handwritten sign in the corner of the window jumped out at me.
Not to be missed – Free one day trial of Insight Glasses.
I could be late into work for once. Pushing open the door set off a tinkling bell. I entered a small room, just enough space for two display cases with more fake noses and glasses. Behind a counter, a larger area accommodated tables with microscopes and other instruments. The optician stood up from one of the tables, and approached the counter. About my height, middle-aged with iron grey corrugated hair. He wore thick-lensed spectacles, his eyes magnified behind the bevelled glass. His white coat was spotless.
“Good morning.” He coughed to clear his throat. “How can I be of assistance?”
“The notice in the window, something about a free trial.”
“You’re quick on the draw. I only put that up ten minutes ago.”
I didn’t like his glib manner. “What exactly are Insight Glasses?”
He took a handkerchief from the pocket of his white coat, removed his spectacles, and began polishing the lenses. I looked away, not wanting to see his naked eyes.
“I understand your curiosity,” he said, “but first you must take a visual acuity test before I can reveal any secrets.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my eyesight. I have 20/20 vision.”
“No doubt you have. How else could you have seen my discreet notice?”
He went back to his table, and returned with two cardboard sheets, each with a single black line. “Can you align these two segments?”
I did so without hesitation.
“Please stand by the door.” He held up an eye chart. “Three lines from the top, what is the vowel?”
“I.” The letter was clearly visible.
He moved the chart further away. “Which two letters appear in the bottom row?”
This was more difficult, and I had to squint. “M and U.”
“Excellent, full marks.”
“I told you, I have perfect eyesight.”
“Seeing is believing,” he said, “and now, I can present you with the Insight Glasses.”
He placed a metal cylinder with a screw-top on the counter, not the standard hard flat case that snaps open and shut.
“Why are they called Insight Glasses?”
“The clue is in the name. What we have here is not a pair of conventional spectacles. The wearer is granted unprecedented vision and comprehension. Once you put on these glasses you will see the true nature of whomever you observe.”
“Really?” I smiled, concealing my interest.
“Warts and all.”
“Is that so?”
“You will see with a clarity that cuts through the superficial, a sharpness that strips away the veneer of pretence to reveal what is underneath. These glasses provide 20/20 perception in vivid colour.”
I lifted the cylinder, and began unscrewing the lid.
The optician put his hand on my arm. “You mustn’t open it.”
“How am I to use them?” I knew then how much I wanted the glasses.
“You are not to use them here.”
“It’s a stipulation of the transaction.”
I saw no point arguing, and put the unopened cylinder in my pocket.
“There’s one more thing.” He took an envelope from under the counter. “This contains a short questionnaire. Basic details – age, height, weight, employment. Standard questions. Something of a nuisance and, if you’re like me, then you hate filling forms.”
He was right about that but I said nothing.
“You don’t have to respond to all the queries. I do ask that you answer the final question, which merely requires circling yes or no.”
Nothing was ever really free, I told myself – there were always strings attached.
“Don’t read or fill in the form until you’re ready to return the glasses.” He checked his watch. “Which will be tomorrow morning at nine fifteen.”
“And there’s definitely no charge to use the glasses?” I didn’t want to be surprised later by some hidden cost.
“There’s no financial cost to you, not a penny.”
“What’s to prevent me from keeping these magic specs?”
The optician pursed his lips. “I have no doubt you’ll return them.”
It was well after nine when I got into the office. No one took any apparent notice, but they were keenly aware of my late arrival. I didn’t need special glasses to see that.
“Morning,” I said to Stephens.
“Did you sleep in?” He gave me one of his gormless grins.
“Any sign of McCrae?” I asked.
“No, he hasn’t been around yet.” Stephens went back to his two-finger typing.
I turned on my computer and read my e-mails. It was quiet in the office apart from the whisper of turning pages and thrum of hard drives. I took the cylinder from my pocket. A quick look to my left and right to make sure no one was watching. I unscrewed the top and took out a pair of standard spectacles, the lenses mounted in thin metal frames. I put them on; they fitted over my ears and sat comfortably on the bridge of my nose.
“I didn’t know you used glasses.”
I turned, and was thrown back in my seat by what I saw. A ferocious slavering beast rose above me, black eyes flashing, drool dripping from its pointed muzzle, curved yellow teeth bared in a savage growl. Horrifying sensations raced through my mind – disgust, loathing, an all-consuming hatred and rage that demanded punishment, blood and pain.
I pulled the glasses from my eyes, and dropped them on the desk.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
I barely took in what Stephens was saying. What had I just seen?
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah, yeah … you just startled me.”
“Do you use them for the computer?”
“What?” I kept my eyes averted.
“The glasses, are they to correct the glare?”
“No, they’re not mine.”
“Oh, I see.”
“I’m testing them for a friend.”
“How does that work?”
“It’s a bet. My friend, he’s always coming up with stupid games.” I stuck the glasses back in the cylinder.
“I have something I need to finish here.”
“Sure, don’t mind me.”
I could tell Stephens was sneaking looks, checking what I was doing. Inoffensive Stephens, shy and diffident; not a bloodthirsty rabid animal straining at the leash to tear me limb from limb. I opened and closed files on my computer, tried to concentrate on the entries in a spreadsheet, all the time aware of Stephens’ presence. Five, ten minutes passed, and I felt calmer. I turned my head slowly to look at him, my eyes half-shut, fearing what I might see. Stephens appeared as he normally did – mouth agape, puzzled expression as he read what was on his screen.
McCrae showed up later in the morning, doing the rounds, applying whatever he’d learnt on his latest leadership course. He stood beside me, fingertips beating a light tattoo on my desk.
“Everything ready for tomorrow’s pitch to Baker-Levine?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said.
“Good man, you know how important this contract is to us.” McCrae adjusted the cuffs of his bespoke suit. “I’m counting on you to take the lead on this one.”
He moved over to Stephens. I put on the glasses. McCrae pointed at something on the screen as Stephens rooted around in a pile of folders. Seen through the Insight Glasses, McCrae crouched on the ground, a quivering wretched creature, tears streaming from raw, swollen eyes. I could hear his thoughts as he pleaded…… take me away from here, somewhere safe, away from all this, far away, please protect me…..
I removed the glasses as McCrae stepped back from Stephens’ desk.
“How many times do I have to explain this to you?”
“I’m sorry,” Stephens muttered. “I’ll fix it.”
“I don’t have time for this now.” McCrae flounced away, the officious line manager with his deep-seated insecurities, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The Insight Glasses worked. They stripped away the camouflage just like the optician had said. I could feel a hum of discontent coming from Stephens.
“You shouldn’t let him treat you like that.”
Stephens shifted in his seat. “I know but he’s right, I keep making mistakes.”
“That doesn’t matter,” I said. “You should stand up to McCrae.”
“No way, I don’t want to lose my job.”
“That’s not going to happen. Stand your ground and he’ll back off.”
Stephens returned to his numbers, embarrassed but also resentful. The inner beast had been provoked, and silently snarled its rage. I wanted to test the glasses again but was reluctant to let anyone see me wearing them, deterred by the attention they had drawn from Stephens.
My phone rang, a call from one of the partners querying details about the Baker-Levine pitch.
“Are you sure about these figures?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, unsettled by the edge to his voice. “I’ve run them by the accounting team.”
“Fine, just making sure.”
The call bothered me, the partner’s tone difficult to interpret. Maybe skittishness before a big pitch, or possibly preparing the ground for someone to blame. If I could see him through the glasses, I’d know what he really intended.
Eleven o’clock, time for coffee. In the office kitchen, I put on a fresh pot. As I waited for it to brew, I watched Goodwin use the photocopier. Hapless Goodwin, the most boring man in Christendom. He struggled with a heavy book, pushing on the cover to flatten the pages on the copier glass. Now here was someone who lacked insight.
I put on the glasses, and observed him from behind the door. Goodwin slumped over the photocopier, his arms as thin as twigs, his skin yellow and waxy, hair sparse on his shrunken skull. Words penetrated my brain, a terrible dialogue…. so tired, drained, the cancer eating away at my gut, eating its way through me, eating me whole…..
Back at my desk, I stared at the computer screen.
“What, no coffee?” Stephens asked.
I had left my cup in the kitchen.
“We should be kinder to Goodwin,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
I discerned hostility in his attitude, something I hadn’t noticed before.
Goodwin was dying of cancer. I repented all the nasty and vicious things I ever said about him. He had been the butt of so many despicable comments, a convenient target. I was sorry, and so ashamed.
The team meeting that afternoon showed no sign of ending. Reaching for a glass of water, I caught Goodwin’s eye and turned away. Buller, the Senior Director, looked over at me and I feigned interest in what he was saying. Outwardly authoritative and in control but what was he really feeling? The po-faced secretary sitting beside him avoided my gaze. Was she struggling to suppress shrieks of agony, straining every fibre of her being to hold herself together?
If I had the Insight Glasses, I could see it all, but I had locked the cylinder in my desk. I noticed how tightly Stephens gripped his pen. The howling crazed wolf lurked beneath a layer of social meekness. McCrae corrected an item on the agenda, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it as he wilted under his sham exterior.
Donovan raised his hand. “I can put together a cost analysis to support the proposal.”
Typical Donovan, pouncing on any opportunity to display his efficiency and willingness to Buller. What would I see if I viewed him through the glasses? Maybe a scaly lizard writhing in torment, tortured by his duplicity. Sitting next to Donovan, Adams stared at the ceiling, the hint of a smile curling his lips. I wondered what lurid secret lay beneath the sheen of his ambiguous façade.
Team meeting over, only an hour to go to knocking-off time. I had arranged to catch up with Henderson over a drink after work. Henderson was my best friend, someone I’d known since school. We had the same taste in books and films and our get-togethers were always filled with lively banter and laughter. He would get a real kick out of the Insight Glasses.
Stephens had Waites, the office know-it-all, helping him with his computer.
“Not a technical glitch.” Waites frowned. “More a case of human error.”
Stephens nodded foolishly, in synchronicity with the emphatic sway of Waites’ bald head.
“You know the first computer can be traced back to Adam and Eve.” Waites typed rapidly and scrolled through pages of code. “It was an apple with hardly any memory – just one byte.”
Stephens grinned, but I could sense his animosity.
I unlocked my desk and retrieved the glasses. I watched Waites rub his feline chin against the computer monitor, his fur black and sleek, whiskers twitching. I heard the rolling harmonics of his purr, and the words he breathed…. caress me, admire my lustrous fur, show me more attention, feel how soft my fur is, caress me….
The glasses were amazing. Henderson would have a good laugh when I told him. There was time for a final coffee. I spotted Powell in the kitchen. He was part of the backroom staff and I had little to do with him. Everyone considered Powell an oddball, with his wide-eyed stare and erratic hand gestures. I didn’t bother greeting him, or attempt any small talk. Glasses in place, I observed him. He appeared as he always did, surprised and demented. No veil to lift or hidden alternative. I supposed in Powell’s case, what you saw was what you got, whatever that was.
I arrived at the pub before Henderson, and ordered two pints that I took to a table in a quiet corner. I placed the cylinder beside my drink. Should I start with the optician or leave him to the end? Henderson was in for a treat.
I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Sorry I’m late.”
Henderson draped a denim jacket over the back of the chair, and tucked a ratty t-shirt into his jeans. I loosened the knot of my tie. His unshaven pudgy face broke into a grin.
“Still surviving the cut and thrust of the commercial world?”
A typical Henderson opener. He had never managed to hold down a regular job, surviving on bits and scraps, irregular work for hire, part-time and replacement stints. No ambition whatsoever, and he wouldn’t listen to reason, placid to the point of stubbornness.
“See this.” I pointed to the cylinder, and coughed to clear my throat. “I have a story to tell that will take some believing.”
I pulled the glasses over my ears. Straightening the frame with both hands, I looked up and time stood still. Henderson recoiled, his back pushed against the chair, eyes wild, arm outstretched as he tried to claw himself away from me. Worse still, his words, his undeniable, appalling words…. have to get away from him, I can’t stand the stuck-up prick, lording it over me, why do I put up with him.…..
“Is there something wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
I put the glasses away, blinked and rubbed my eyes. Henderson reached for his drink. The Henderson I knew, my good-natured friend. I stayed in the pub long enough for the second pint he insisted on buying. We talked about neutral things, films we’d seen and football results. I cut short any reference to the glasses, waved away his questions, told him there was no story to tell.
When I got home, I went into the living room. My wife was stretched out on the couch, reading a book.
“What’s that you’ve got?” she asked.
I realised I had the cylinder in my hand. “A pair of glasses.”
“Where did you get them?”
She put the book to one side, and gave me her attention.
“I’m looking after them for someone at work.”
“I’ve never seen you in glasses. Let’s see what you look like.”
I unscrewed the cylinder, removed the glasses and put them on.
“It really makes a difference,” she said.
I forced myself to look at her. She had turned her head away, hands raised, palms flat to ward me off, pushing me away. I couldn’t see her face but her thoughts pulsated in my head…. what does he want now, his neediness is so pathetic, those glasses look ridiculous, is he trying to appear intelligent, forget about him, he’s such a burden, such a bore..…..
“I think they suit you.” She went back to her book.
That night, my brain wouldn’t let me sleep, roiling with contradictions, an internal hubbub that refused to quieten. I couldn’t rid myself of the things I had seen, reliving every one of Henderson’s thoughts, and scourging myself with my wife’s disdain. As the first light penetrated the curtains, I fell into an exhausted semi-consciousness and awoke, sitting upright before the alarm went off.
Downstairs, I took the envelope from my coat and tore it open. Two pages of questions, font size 10, and spaces for answers. I didn’t need glasses to read the questions, those the optician had mentioned and others that weren’t so innocuous. What gave me pleasure? What did I find irritating? Prying questions regarding sleep, appetite, feelings of anxiety and failure. I came to the final question: would you recommend this product to other customers? Yes or No. It was outrageous, treating the glasses as common merchandise, like a kettle or a microwave oven.
I took my usual route to work, and thought about the optician, recalling his face and overbearing manner. Who was he to make demands, forcing me to take an eye test when I had 20/20 vision? Henderson couldn’t stand me. My wife thought I was pathetic. What good did it do to know? Nobody was truly how they appeared. Take Stephens and McCrae as good examples. Everyone hid behind a screen, a defence – a way of surviving, of getting through.
A woman wheeling a pram approached me, smiling. The baby in the pram began to cry, and she bent down. I observed the impatient tilt of her head as she leaned into the pram. Looking closely, I saw her mask slip, revealing her sneer. I felt her revulsion and malice, glimpsed the markings on the matted hair below her hate-filled eyes, the twitching snout and thick grey tongue. She noticed me watching her, and hurried away.
The optician waited for me at the counter.
I ignored his greeting. “You were sure I’d return the glasses.”
“Of course,” he replied as I handed over the metal cylinder and envelope.
“So, nobody has held onto their free pair.”
“That’s correct.” He frowned, as he shook the cylinder.
I took the glasses from my pocket, moving too quickly for him to prevent me. I looked at him through the Insight Glasses. I looked, and I saw. There was no head of crinkly grey hair, no Coke-bottle glasses. It was my face I saw through the Insight Glasses.
“Now you know,” he said.
I flung the glasses on the counter. “Get them away from me. I want nothing more to do with them.”
“You don’t need them anymore.”
He put the glasses back in the cylinder.
Outside, a man in a raincoat stood, reading the notice in the window. I thought about saying something, warning him, then turned away, the turbulence in my head intolerable. Eyes on the ground, I walked and walked but couldn’t stop myself from looking up, and seeing. All the faces, yellow faces, scabrous faces, bulging eyes, dead and mad eyes, staring at me. A poor devil covered in small white blisters watched me, his thoughts hissing in my head…….Jesus help me, what’s wrong with me, I can’t stand it.
On I went, passing others who leered at me with wet lips, howled and cried, a parade of liars and cowards. Faces stretched and sagging, meaty and misshapen bodies, the stink of their humanity. A woman in a suit, sloppy mascara, broken veins and the eyes of a mole…..the stupidity of people, I have to do everything myself, they should be whipped, made to scream, they’re all so useless. A beggar propped against the railings, his face lined from countless tragedies…….I’m no servant, no parasite, I’m profound, creative, I understand this pain, my bitter sorrow is so sweet, I demand recognition.
One after another, they came at me and I felt their itchiness, their inadequacies and desperation. I stumbled into a park and collapsed onto a bench. So many faces, envy and fear and hatred, certainty and crazed euphoria, mewling and braying voices. Now I knew – that was what the optician had said. Sick and depressed, incapable and unfit, but now I knew. Now I was cursed with insight.
BIO: Mark Keane resides in Edinburgh where the unusual often intersects the commonplace. He has taught for many years in universities in North America and the UK. Recent short story fiction has appeared in Superpresent, Raconteur, Into the Void, Night Picnic, Firewords, From Sac, Dog and Vile Short Fiction, the Dark Lane and What Monsters Do for Love anthologies, and Best Indie Speculative Fiction 2021.