Joe’s eyes were made of cotton—wads of cloudy goodness like the bird-pecked tips of matching tampons. I kept telling him to upgrade to marbles—buttons, even—but he liked the way his eyes made the world appear a softer place. I warned him what would happen if the world heard him talking about it like that. The world’s a mean motherfucker; last thing it wants to be described as is soft. It has a reputation to uphold.
Joe laughed when I said that. Said, “We can’t all be pessimists. Some of us have to be brave.”
“In the dictionary, ‘alive’ comes before ‘brave,'” I told him. “It’s a nifty app for life, too.”
Laugh, laugh, laugh. I like to remember Joe that way. I don’t think he’s laughing now, although, knowing Joe, maybe he is. But I doubt anyone witnessing his mirth these days feels all melt-y inside like I did whenever I saw him doubled over in joy.
People always asked Joe what was wrong with his eyes. “Nothing,” he’d say.
“But what happened?” the nosey-knows would insist.
Joe would tell them, “It’s a lifestyle choice: a Zen-thing. Cotton, after all, is king in the land of knives.” His answer made the nosey-knows nod thoughtfully—like they were all sages instead of rude fucks.
My answer was, “I plucked them out and ate them. What flavor are yours?”
Joe always assured the nosey-knows I was lying, but they tended to believe me over him. I’m more convincing. I’ve got eyes of flint and a screw for a heart and it shows. If you saw me on the street, you’d cross the road like a goddamn chicken. Bawk, bawk, bawk.
Joe and me… well, we couldn’t be more opposite. I asked him once why he thought we got on at all and he said, “North Pole, South Pole—it’s all ice.” Joe always said crazy shit like that. Joe he had to be the South Pole because they got the penguins. I always liked penguins, not that Joe reminded me of one. Joe, I guess, liked polar bears. Maybe they looked like big cotton balls to him. Maybe his fuzzy eyes didn’t see mean. Or danger.
I was with Joe when it happened. We were at the city limits. We’d traveled to the boonies before. Joe more than me. My i.d. was in order, but I didn’t like to test it. Border patrol can be overly enthusiastic in weeding out terrorists and the infected. I was free from both ideology and disease, but like I said, I wasn’t one to push my luck. Joe pushed his luck all the time and this weekend I let him convince me to tag along on his camping trip.
We got in separate lines, my idea. I thought if BP saw us together they might categorize us as suspicious. Joe said, “Sure. Play it safe, polar bear. Wouldn’t want the BP to think you consorted with penguins. I’ll see you on the other side.”
My line moved quicker and I went through the checkpoint first. I loitered on the other side, re-packing my backpack while I waited for Joe to pass through.
The BP guard held up his hand at Joe’s approach. Stopped him before he even got to the scanner. “Can you see out of those things?”
“They are eyes.” Joe smiled, but BP guards aren’t hired for their sense of humor.
“What happened to them?” BP said, and I could hear him thinking infection way over where I stood.
Joe held his smile, but was smart enough not to give his usual response. “I was born with these. Can’t afford an upgrade.”
Guard stared at Joe. Joe stared back. I willed Joe to drop his gaze or blink, but Joe can’t blink; he doesn’t have eyelids. People in line behind Joe dropped their gazes and twitched.
“Dandelion Fluff here thinks he’s funny,” Guard announced. The BPs checking bags stopped what they were doing, drew their weapons and approached Joe.
I opened my mouth to say something; took a half-step towards them and stopped. I’d only make things worse. Joe could handle himself. I closed my mouth and turned away, left Joe to his own devices.
Government truth? Sometimes I’m the goddamn chicken.
A mean ole BP guard said to Joe, “You need to come with us.” Before they could ask if he was travelling with anyone I scrammed. Not that Joe would’ve given me up; he wouldn’t. But why make trouble for us both? I headed for the campground he’d told me about and waited for him there. It’s what Joe would have wanted me to do.
Joe never showed. I hiked down to the lake, washed the stink off me, then headed back to the checkpoint. It was dark, different guards were on duty. Still, I sweated so bad I thought they’d quarantine me.
I haven’t left the city since.
Sometimes I wonder what happened to Joe. Other times, I’m pretty sure Joe’s bloodied and torn and laughing like a fucking banshee witch somewhere. I hope he still has his wide eyes, but even if they’re black holes in his busted face—Joe, if you’re out there laughing, I’m here listening. I see it now, buddy, alive and brave. Alive and brave.
H.L. Fullerton writes fiction—mostly speculative, occasionally about penguins and polar bears—which is sometimes published in places like Lackington’s, Flash Fiction Online and Daily Science Fiction.