Fiction Finalist Ray Morrison

Jan 28, 2018 by

Fiction Finalist Ray Morrison

FIRE AND ICE

 
In a period of one month during my sophomore year of high school, I lost both my left eye and the heart of Carla Jean Buckner. I suppose enough time will pass that I’ll consider the loss of my eye the more devastating event, but then, I’m not so sure.

All this occurred during January, the sluggish month when students are trying to shake off the torpor of the holidays. Amplifying this listlessness is the fact that I live in North Carolina, a place which, because it’s perpetually poised on that climatic border of cold and warm air, is often subjected to ice storms. We’ll have weeks at a time when everything—streets, houses, trees—is glazed in a beautiful coating of dazzling, but treacherous, ice. And while northern schools cancel classes for snow days, it’s common for us Tarheels to shut down for “ice days.” And it was on one such day of freedom from the tyranny of Reynolds High School that my best friend Stevie and I were horsing around outdoors, sliding down steep streets on nothing more than the soles of our boots (or our asses when our feet inevitably slid out from under us). Just as we got to the bottom of one such hill, we happened to notice a row of astonishingly massive icicles, like crystal stalactites, suspended from the eave of a nearby warehouse.

There must be something in the DNA of teenage boys that draws them to do things ordinary, sane humans would never do. Because without so much as one word of discussion, Stevie and I beelined to the vacant building and began jumping up to snap off these colossal chunks of ice. After we’d each managed to detach one, we stood amazed at the size of them and extended them out before us like knights’ lances. So we did the natural thing for guys our age to do and began swinging them toward each other, hoping to demolish the other’s icicle first. In one rapid arc I swung mine, sending it to a shattering collision with Stevie’s, which, in a cruel twist of the laws of physics, propelled the large pointed end of my own icicle straight back toward my face, where it lodged deep into the socket of my left eye, a mere half inch, I’d learn later, from piercing my brain.

The seriousness of what had just happened to me came not so much from the pain in my head, but from the sudden, shocked look on Stevie’s face just before he doubled over and vomited. When his stomach was empty, he fumbled in his coat pocket to retrieve his cell phone to call 911, the whole time muttering ohmygodohmygodohmygod, his entire body shaking like he’d just been Tasered. For my part, I knew I was in trouble, but I could only sit against the cold warehouse brick wondering why my left eye, or what used to be my left eye, felt so hot when it was packed with ice.

At the time of my blinding injury, Carla Jean and I had been dating for nearly six months. She was a junior at Reagan High School, across town from Reynolds. We’d met in July, when we both got summer jobs at the same Whole Foods. I noticed her on my first day. I was rolling a train of shopping carts toward the front of the store when I caught sight of her assisting in the floral department. All I could see was her face, poised amid the roses and daisies and snapdragons as if it were just another bloom, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She had dark blond hair tied back in a ponytail with a teal-colored ribbon, and a short row of bangs high up on her forehead. Her skin was lightly tanned and smooth with a sprinkling of freckles across her nose. Her lips glistened with pink gloss. When a customer tapped my shoulder, I jumped. She asked me if I was all right. I nodded and looked over to see if Carla Jean had noticed. The woman followed my gaze and smiled. She could see I was in love.

After that, I found ways to pass Carla Jean’s station as often as I could. And when, one day, we found ourselves outside the store on our breaks, the sun hot and bright, I was amazed at how much prettier she was than I’d already thought. While we chatted mindlessly about our jobs and the brutal summer heat, I was struggling to find a way to ask her on a date. Then, at a lull, she simply said, “We should go out sometime.”

In all honesty, I’d never really had a girlfriend before I met Carla Jean. Sure, there were girls I’d hung out with at school, at football games, even went to the movies with, but usually with Stevie or a group of our buddies. Certainly none I would claim to be in a real relationship with. So that summer following my freshman year of high school was a transformative one. Carla Jean and I spent all our free time together, often doing nothing more than hanging out at her parents’ house watching TV or movies. We’d sit on one end of a long sofa and hold hands and she’d press her shoulder against mine so that I could smell her body wash, an intoxicating flowery scent that at first I mistakenly thought was just the fragrance from the bouquets she’d worked on at Whole Foods still clinging to her clothes and skin. Hours passed during which I could not tell you what shows were on the television. I sat rigid, transfixed as Carla Jean did all the talking, regaling me with tales of her favorite musicians or the house at Wrightsville Beach that her family rents each summer or the brainy girl in her English class she dislikes. I took in every single word, watching her exquisite lips form each syllable, knowing somehow that she wanted me to lean over and kiss them, but struggling to find the nerve. And when at last I did, my whole body became suffused with a warmth yet to be exceeded by any other experience or sensation.

Once school restarted in the fall, I called Carla Jean every day. Unlike me, however, she was involved in activities and clubs—Carla Jean was a cheerleader, of course—and I rarely got to see her except on weekends. But this dramatic drop in time together seemed to only strengthen our feelings for each other.
Until, that is, I gouged my eye out.

When I woke one morning with a bandage the size of a softball covering the place where my left eye used to be, Carla Jean was sitting next to my bed, holding my hand. I learned later I had been at Baptist Hospital for over two days while the doctors did surgery to clean out the mess I’d made of my face and to fix a blood vessel that stubbornly refused to stop hemorrhaging after the icicle melted enough to drop out of the socket. I smiled at the sight of Carla Jean. The vision of her face was almost better than the morphine, which I gauged from the fogginess in my brain, was assuredly dripping into my veins.

“Hi,” she said. “You’re an idiot.” But she didn’t say it mean and I could see she’d been crying. Then she winked and added, “And you actually look kind of sexy like this. Almost like a badass pirate. Maybe we should get you one of those buccaneer hats and an eye patch.”

My mom and dad were standing at the end of the bed and they came over to hug me. That’s when I learned how lucky I was to not be dead or brain damaged. They all stayed for about an hour before I started to doze off and the nurse shooed them out so I could rest. Carla Jean kissed me quickly on the lips and whispered, “I’ll come see you again tomorrow.” As I gave in to the opiate haze that was enveloping me, Carla Jean’s beautiful, freckled face was all I saw.

But the next day Carla Jean didn’t come by. Or the day after that. I got several text messages saying she was sorry but some big class projects were due, plus she’d already missed one cheerleading practice after she’d heard I was hurt and if she missed any more it might kill her chance at becoming squad captain. On the day of my discharge from the hospital, barely listening to the final instructions from the nurse, I stared at the door to my room, willing Carla Jean to walk through it and surprise me. She didn’t.

And just like that, she stopped answering my texts and phone calls. We saw each other only once more, when she returned a few DVDs of mine. It was an awkward meeting. I opened the front door, surprised and more than a little excited to see Carla Jean standing there. But she wouldn’t look me in the eye (that expression having a more literal meaning for me at that point) yet she seemed unable to keep from taking furtive glances at the slightly puckered medical patch covering the site of my injury. I tried to take her hand and lead her into the house but she just held onto the videos and leaned away. I desperately wanted to hold and kiss her, so she could see that I was still the same idiot she’d loved before my accident.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Sorry for what?”

She stared down at the cover of Dumb and Dumber. “It’s hard to put into words.”

I waited for her to say more, but she didn’t. “Can you try?” I asked.

She bit her lower lip. “I don’t know. Things are just…different now.”

“‘Things’ aren’t different, Carla Jean. I’m different. But I only lost my eye, not my heart.”

“Don’t you think I keep telling myself that? I guess I just need time to figure out how I feel.”

Carla Jean thrust the DVDs at me and hurried away. I watched from the front door as she got into her car. She sat there for a couple minutes with her head down and I couldn’t tell if she was crying. I held my breath, thinking she might change her mind and get out of the car and come back to tell me she was wrong and we could work things out. But then I saw her lift her head—and her cellphone—and I realized she was simply texting someone. As she backed out of the driveway she was talking on the phone and laughing.

When I returned to school, I’d become kind of a celebrity. The Winston-Salem Journal had published a story about me that was on the front page of the Sunday Local section. I still thought about Carla Jean, of course. In hindsight, I realize that I’d fooled myself when I thought someone like me could keep a beautiful girl like Carla Jean. Heck, that she even gave me the time of day for six months strikes me as no small miracle. And now that enough time has passed, I sort of understand her side of things. We were in high school, after all. Carla Jean was one of the most popular girls at her school and, let’s be honest, I was anything but popular at my own school. That is, until I lost my eye.

And the ironic thing is, until my eye socket healed enough for the prosthetic implant, my doctor had me wearing a black eye patch that Allie, a cute girl in my English class, said made me look really tough.

“You mean, sorta like a badass pirate?” I asked her.

She nodded and gave me a smile that made me realize things would be just fine.
 
 

Ray Morrison is an award-winning short story writer whose work appears in dozens of journals and magazines, and his first collection of stories, “In a World of Small Truths,” can be found at Press53,com.

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