It started on a sunny spring day. One of those days, rare in the Pacific Northwest, when there isn’t a cloud in the sky — a beautiful pale cerulean blue from horizon to horizon, with not even a contrail to mar its purity. It might have been the first time in six months I’d stepped off my porch without a hat, coat, or umbrella. I grinned and raised my face to the sun.
That’s when I saw it. A thing — no, not even a thing, just an impression of a thing; a momentary imperfection in that seamless blue — that teased at the edge of my vision. My eye flicked toward it, but it either whipped away faster than the eye could follow or it hadn’t really been there to begin with.
The day was sunny, but it was perhaps not as warm as I’d thought when I first went out. I buried my hands in my pockets and headed off to work.
I’m a barista.
Yes, it’s a cliché — talented young painter, art school, MFA, would you like fries with that — but Coffee Cantata is a great day job. I get all the coffee and day-old pastries I want, I meet all kinds of interesting folks from the neighborhood, and people sometimes even buy one of my paintings off the walls. And though the pay’s not great and the benefits nonexistent, it leaves me plenty of time off for my true calling. I do my best work in afternoon light.
The bell on the door jingled as I came in to start work. George the owner nodded to me as he handed Kellie her change. She greeted me with a big enthusiastic “Hi, Mason!”
Kellie was one of our regulars. A lanky ex-Texan with freckles, a pierced nose, and spiky hair that was blaze orange that week, she worked as a receptionist at the eye doctor down the street. Her usual was a twenty-ounce chai with a grind of fresh nutmeg on top, and she always left a whole dollar in the tip jar.
“Hey, Kellie.” I hung my jacket behind the counter, pulled out a carrot cake from the refrigerator, and began cutting it up for the morning rush.
Kellie brought her chai over to the counter and leaned on her elbows. “Why so glum, chum?”
Usually we bantered about the news or the latest music over her chai and my work, but today I just wasn’t in the mood. “I dunno.” I washed icing off my knife. “I saw something this morning. Something that bugged me.”
I shrugged. “Like not much of anything. Out of the corner of my eye. Probably nothing.” I shook my head to clear it. “It put me off my feed.”
“Now what kind of nothing could do that?”
Her question made me stop and think. “It was… transparent. Squirmy.” I shuddered at the memory. “It was creepy.”
“Ew! Was it, like, in the bushes?”
“It wasn’t really anywhere. I saw it against the blue sky.” I blinked. “Maybe it was in my eye.”
“You should come in and have Dr. Raj look at it.”
I grimaced and began setting the plates in the pastry case. “Just thinking about doctors makes my wallet ache.”
Kellie put a hand on my elbow. “It might be serious.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing.” Just then the bell jingled, three chattering high school kids came in, and George looked at me and cleared his throat meaningfully. I leaned close to Kellie. “Thanks for your concern, but I gotta get to work.”
On my way home, I kept looking up at the sky. A few scraps of cloud had invaded since the morning, but it was still mostly pure clear blue. And against that background… I saw a drifting, transparent shape. It was hard to see clearly — I thought maybe it looked a little like those clear, wiry noodles you get in Japanese cooking — but whenever I looked directly at it, it seemed to dart away. Maybe there was more than one.
Whatever they were, the things made me feel weird and self-conscious, like I was being watched. I kept shifting my eyes around as though I could catch one by surprise.
Block by block I got more and more creeped out. How long had they been there? I could only see them against the pure bright blue of the sky. If one sneaked into the corner of my eye when I was looking at a tree, or a bush, or traffic I’d never even notice it.
I shuddered and hurried my step.
As soon as I got home I went online. It didn’t take very long to find out that what I was seeing was probably “floaters” — a common, harmless condition, nothing more than tiny bits of protein floating in the vitreous humor of the eye. There were some warnings that if I saw bright flashes or a sudden swarm of dark spots I should see a doctor right away, but apart from that it seemed I didn’t need to worry.
I fixed myself a cup of tea and put a fresh canvas on the easel. Maybe if I started a new project I’d be able to forget about the things that writhed in the corners of my eyes.
But as soon as I snapped on the light, I saw another one. Plainly visible against the creamy illuminated canvas, a twisting drifting thread floated and twined just below the center of my vision. When I looked down toward it, it jerked away, but as soon as my eye stopped moving it stopped too, mocking me just out of clear sight.
Just a floater, I told myself, and tried to ignore it as I prepped the canvas and squeezed out globs of paint onto my palette. The weight of the palette in my hand and the smells of linseed oil and turpentine began to get me into the painting mood. But as soon as I dipped my brush into the daub of Red Ochre and lifted it to the blank canvas… there was the floater again, seeming to nose and nibble at the brush like an inquisitive goldfish.
I forced my attention to the canvas. I was working on a series I called “rotting cathedrals,” small abstracts that combined crumbling architectural elements and decaying biological forms in a commentary on the corruption of the Church. But no matter where my brush went, my eye followed it, and there were the floaters. Two or three of them now, weaving and dodging around the brushstrokes, flicking away when I tried to look at them.
At one point they got so annoying that I actually tried to wave them away, as though they were flies. I succeeded in doing no more than flicking stray drops of dark green across the upper part of the canvas.
I cursed and slapped the brush and palette down, grimacing and squeezing my eyes tight shut. But as soon as I opened them again… there were the floaters, right where I’d left them.
I realized that they had been there even when my eyes were closed. I just hadn’t been able to see them.
Probably they’d always been there. Probably they’d always be there.
I’d never be rid of them.
Suddenly I had no more desire to paint today.
My concentration completely disrupted, I stared fixedly at the center of my canvas, struggling to keep my attention on the floaters without moving my eyes. Disturbingly, they didn’t seem to be drifting randomly. Instead, they seemed to follow the brushstrokes in my painting, sliding sensuously along the lines like an uninvited lingering touch.
“Go away.” My voice echoed in the empty room.
They seemed to startle for a moment, then resumed their disturbing sinuous motion. I felt molested — my art polluted by this unwanted attention.
“Go away!” I shouted, and clenched my eyes shut, pressing the knuckles of my fists against the closed lids until bright blue-black patches of color appeared.
I opened my eyes. No change. Still the floaters probed and pawed at my half-finished artwork.
With a growl I slapped the canvas from the easel, sending it crashing to the floor. Wet paint smeared on the leg of my pants, my shoe, and the table beside me.
Leaving the ruined canvas face-down on the floor, I stormed out of the house.
Breathing hard, I charged down the block — I had no destination, no goal, but too much unfocused anger to stay still. I kept my head down. On every step the toe of my right shoe flashed blue and green, wet paint from my destroyed canvas. Mocking me. Mocking my helplessness.
Finally I stopped and looked up into the clear blue sky. Floaters crowded my vision. “What do you want?” I cried to the heavens.
For a moment they seemed to pause. Then they scattered like cockroaches.
Dr. Rajagopalan was a kindly older fellow, rail-thin with a narrow salt-and-pepper moustache, and his hands smelled of disinfectant and cumin as he gently fitted my face into a metal frame. He then proceeded to torture me with an intense white light that seared right through to the back of my head. The floaters flittered in its beam like night-flying moths.
“It is nothing to be very much concerned about,” he said in his crisp subcontinental accent after the ordeal was concluded. “Many people develop these floaters as they grow older.”
“I’m only twenty-three.”
He waggled his head from side to side. “Nonetheless, they are quite harmless.” He wrote a few notes on a paper and placed it in a folder with my name on it. “I see no signs of retinal detachment, macular edema, or hyalosis.”
“Could they be parasites? I saw this one episode of House…”
He shook his head firmly. “You should simply ignore them.”
“I’ll try.” But I couldn’t fail to see the floaters nibbling at the corners of his moustache and eyebrows.
Kellie, the receptionist, gave me a pair of cheap plastic sunglasses to protect my dilated eyes, and a bill that meant I wouldn’t be buying paint or canvas for two or three months. “Sorry,” she said in response to my grimace. “We can set up a payment plan…”
“I’ll be okay.” I dropped a dollar in the jar on the counter.
“That’s not for tips.” She fished the dollar out and handed it back to me. “It’s a candy dish, but we’re out. Want a lollipop? Were you good for Dr. Raj?”
I smiled but declined her offer.
As soon as I got outside, I looked up. Against the pristine blue, floaters scurried like rats. Plague-infested, flea-ridden rats.
I did try to ignore them. Whenever I went outside I kept my eyes down. I worked only on paintings I’d already started, avoiding fresh canvases. I tried to limit my intake of sugar and switched from coffee to herbal tea.
It didn’t help. Every printed page and computer screen held blank white areas where the floaters appeared. And even when I couldn’t see them, I knew they were there.
Watching. Staring. Spying on me.
Now that I had begun to notice them, I saw that they seemed to congregate around points of interest in my vision. My own paintings seemed especially fascinating to them; whenever my brushes and paints came out, they swarmed around the brush as it lay down lines and strokes.
At work, I noticed customers looking over their shoulders while placing their orders, following my own distracted gaze, and my tips dwindled to almost nothing.
And in the shower… they crawled along my naked anatomy in a way that made me shudder with disgust. The fact that I couldn’t feel their touch almost made it worse.
I tried wearing a blindfold at home, but I kept breaking glassware and bruising my shins on the coffee table, and the light that leaked through the blindfold and my closed eyelids was enough to show the writhing transparent shapes.
Even in complete darkness I knew they were still there… waiting.
It was while I was fixing dinner for myself one day that I finally snapped. I had prepared a nice sauté of pea pods and tempeh, but as I was just about to ladle it out I saw the clean white plate swarming with floaters.
Suddenly nauseated, I dashed the plate to the floor. “That’s it!” I shouted as I stood astride the shattered fragments. I yanked open the gadget drawer and pulled out an ice pick. Raising the point to my eye, I yelled “I can’t take it any more!”
DON’T DO IT
I stared, stunned, at the semi-transparent letters that crawled in my vision, seemingly suspended in the air between myself and the ice pick’s trembling point. Each character seemed woven of glassy, scabrous worms, a nightmare font that squirmed in constant motion.
I blinked. The letters remained. “W– why not?”
With a sick, disturbing motion the floaters rewove themselves into a new message.
ALL WE DESIRE
IS TO SEE WHAT YOU SEE
I lowered the ice pick. “Who are you?”
WE HAVE BEEN WITH
YOUR SPECIES FOREVER, the floaters said.
WE ARE BORN WITH YOU
WE DIE WITH YOU
WE DO YOU NO HARM
WE INHABIT EVERY ONE OF YOU
YOU ARE NOTHING SPECIAL
My eyes felt as though they were full of ants, but I couldn’t look away, couldn’t blink. Not that it would make any difference if I did.
WE TAKE PLEASURE
IN YOUR DAILY ACTIVITIES
THE PLAY OF WATER
AS YOU WASH YOUR HANDS
I looked at my trembling hands. They’d never feel clean again.
WE ALSO ENJOY
YOUR SEXUAL ACTS
“No!” I cried, and shut my eyes hard. Every time I’d ever…
I threw up, the vomit splattering the floor unseen. The sounds of my own retching filled my ears, the acrid smell saturated the air, the cold vinyl of the floor dominated my sense of touch, but still I could not forget what lurked uninvited behind my eyes.
Kellie’s eyes widened as she looked me up and down from behind the security chain. Her bright green hair poked out in every direction. “Mason?”
“I need to talk to someone,” I slurred.
“Go home. It’s three AM and you’re plastered.”
“Please,” I said. “It’s important. You’re the only one who would believe me.”
She stared at me for a long, long time. My vision wavered and I didn’t even know any more if it was floaters or just the tequila.
“Please,” I repeated.
The door closed. I had only a moment of complete despair before the chain rattled and the door opened again. She was wearing flannel pajamas with a print of sheep and crescent moons. “C’mon in,” she said with an air of resignation. “Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve dealt with a drunk, freaked-out straight boy at three in the morning.”
Her Texas accent had gotten stronger, I noticed.
I collapsed with relief onto a cow-print sofa. “Thanks,” I managed.
Kellie vanished into the kitchen and returned with a big glass of water. “How did you even find me?”
“Saw your last name on the desk at the opto… optha… opthamatician. Not that many Kellie Ryersons in the phone book.”
“I’ll have to do something about that.” She shook her head. “All right. So what’s so all-fired important?”
I did my best to explain. The tequila didn’t help my case, but frankly I don’t think it hurt much either.
“I think Dr. Raj is the wrong kind of doctor for you,” she said at last.
“This is real!” I insisted.
“I’m sure it seems that way.” She took the glass of water from me, folded my hands on my chest, and laid her warm palm gently atop them. “Why don’t you just rest here for a little bit and I’ll see if I can find someone to help you.”
I looked at her pale face with its bright blue eyes and wild halo of fluorescent green hair. She seemed so kind, so caring. Surely she had my best interests at heart.
Maybe she was right. Maybe I did need professional help.
And then I saw something else. Prodding and probing at her eyes, her hair, the ring in her nose, at every interesting feature…
“No!” I screamed, and jumped up. She shrieked as she backed away, knocking over the end table and splashing water everywhere.
I wanted to apologize, wanted to beg forgiveness, wanted to plead for help. Instead I ran, leaving the door open behind me.
She didn’t believe me. No one would ever believe me.
I’d never be rid of them.
A light rain began to fall as I stumbled the half-mile to my own apartment. By the time I got there I was soaked.
I found myself in my kitchen, heating the ice pick over my gas stove. The tip glowed cherry-red as I brought it to my eye.
“Any last words?” I said, and looked at the white porcelain of the sink.
WE HAVE ALWAYS DESPISED
To this day I don’t know if my shriek was of pain or triumph.
David D. Levine is a lifelong SF reader whose midlife crisis was to take a sabbatical from his high-tech job to attend Clarion West in 2000. It seems to have worked. He made his first professional sale in 2001, won the Writers of the Future Contest in 2002, was nominated for the John W. Campbell award in 2003, was nominated for the Hugo Award and the Campbell again in 2004, and won a Hugo in 2006 (Best Short Story, for “Tk’Tk’Tk”). A collection of his short stories, Space Magic, from Wheatland Press, won the Endeavour Award in 2009. In January of 2010 he spent two weeks at a simulated Mars base in the Utah desert, and you can read about that at BentoPress.com/Mars.