The Hungry Eye
by Chip Houser
Timothy is studying the lion-headed dragon winding up the barista’s arm as she makes his decaf cappuccino—she’s added more ink above her elbow since he was in yesterday—when her eyes flick to him.
“Could you just … not?”
Guilt spiders through his stomach.
“Sorry,” he says, snapping the rubber band on his wrist. Dr. Bart says it helps release stress. “I was just—”
“What the hell?” the barista says. Timothy cringes, but she’s looking past him toward the stairs. “A suit?”
Timothy turns. A tall, pear-shaped man in a suit is coming down from the street. Not many business types come to Underground. Like Dr. Bart says, it’s a hipster place. Timothy isn’t a hipster, but he’s working on it. Now that he’s almost eighteen, he’s even been thinking about getting his own tattoo. He’s done a lot of sketches, but nothing that’s really grabbed him. Timothy’s a bit of an idealist when it comes to tattoos, he thinks they should reflect who you are. He’s been having trouble figuring himself out lately, but Dr. Bart and the latest meds seem to be helping. When Timothy does get it figured out, he’s sure he’ll know what he wants for a tattoo. Hopefully it will be as cool as the barista’s coiling dragon. Not a dragon of course, that’s not him, but he likes the idea of an animal, maybe a hedgehog or a rabbit. Something that hides and watches. Maybe a moth or some kind of bird.
Timothy draws a lot at Underground. He likes to sketch the hipsters and imagine what kind of tattoos would fit them best. The hipsters focus on themselves and never pay him any attention. Dr. Bart says he should try talking to them, that he needs to practice, but that usually ends up like it just did with the barista. Their compromise is Timothy’s sketchbook, which Dr. Bart uses to get Timothy talking. He’s got plenty of time to draw before their two o’clock session.
Behind him, someone clears their throat loudly and deliberately.
“Really?” the barista says. She cranks a knob on the espresso machine, unleashing a burst of hissing steam.
Timothy takes a deep breath, snaps his rubber band, and points to the barista’s tattoo. “I was just curious about—”
He flinches as the man in the suit steps in front of him, the man’s back inches from Timothy’s nose. His cologne is overpowering.
Dr. Bart would tell Timothy to be assertive, that he wasn’t the one being rude. That it’s okay to ask him to wait his turn. Anything seems possible lying on Dr. Bart’s couch, but here Timothy just feels squashed, like this man stepped on him instead of in front of him.
“Excuse me,” Timothy says, which the man ignores.
“Right with you,” the barista says to the man. Timothy can’t see her, but he knows that tone.
“Excuse me?” Timothy says, this time a little louder. “My cappuccino is next?”
The man just stands there, gloss-black Oxfords planted wide, untouchable inside his reeking cloud of cologne. His white hair, sweeping in stiff grooves over his mottled scalp, glistens under the track lighting. The way he stands like he owns the place, he’s probably a CEO. Timothy likes how the barista called him a suit.
Timothy steps around him, so he can see the barista again. Dr. Bart will be proud of him for taking positive action. He still feels rude. He’s afraid to look back at the suit, afraid he might yell. The suit is silent, but Timothy can feel his stomach pressing against his back. Timothy is afraid to move. The man clears his throat, right in Timothy’s ear.
“Would you please stop?” Timothy spins around without thinking—right into the suit’s double-breasted paunch. Timothy looks up at the suit’s starched white shirt and perfectly symmetrical gold knot, his once-square jaw settled between plump jowls and neck, dull gray-green eyes between a veined and slightly bulbous nose—
The suit is smiling but Timothy isn’t sure what he’s seeing in his mouth. Something blinding white, but not teeth.
“What—” Timothy bumps against the counter “—what is that?”
The suit’s lips continue peeling away, giving birth to a glistening white orb. The skin of what Timothy thought was the suit’s head slides down and bunches in thin folds over his collar, pushing against the broad knot of his tie. The orb rotates slowly, exposing a black circle surrounded by a ring of watery green. It looks like a gigantic eye.
Timothy had some pretty vivid hallucinations last year when he started his meds, but nothing like this.
The black circle, the iris, focuses on Timothy, tightening down into a pinpoint of oily darkness. Timothy ducks and runs for the door, screaming—
Except—he doesn’t. He’s locked in place, unable to move. He’s pulled his rubberband tight but he can’t let go. Worse, he can’t look away from the horrifying eye thing.
Underground has gone silent. Everything, everyone, is frozen. At the edge of Timothy’s vision, a guy with noise-canceling headphones is at the condiment station, the half-and-half he’s pouring into his mug caught arcing from the stainless-steel carafe like a white tongue.
A gray tendril slides out of the black hole of the eye’s pupil, winding through the air toward Timothy. Toward his mouth. He tries to pull away, to turn his head, to close his mouth, just squeeze his eyes shut even—anything to get away from that tendril.
Timothy is screaming on the inside as the tendril enters his mouth, tickling his cheek, arcing up across the roof of his mouth, probing between his teeth and tongue. When it finds the back of his throat, it shoots down inside him. It feels like a hand rummaging in his stomach. His mind is telling his body to gag, to vomit up this intruder. The tendril pushes around in his stomach, twisting and slopping about, pulling more and more of itself into Timothy. It spins into a pulsing, churning knot.
Suddenly the tendril draws tight through him, tugging upward. It contracts violently, shuddering along its length, swelling through his chest and neck and then mouth. A luminescent fluid pulses out of him through the tendril, crossing from Timothy’s mouth to the giant pupil like Mountain Dew through a straw. Whatever it is pumps into the eye, the iris staining yellowish at first, then brightening to a virulent green.
A few more strong pumps and the tendril wilts, the green liquid draining as it sags between Timothy’s mouth and the eye. Suddenly, it jerks tight again, yanking on the knot in his stomach. It pulls, harder and harder, thinning as it strains between the suit and Timothy. The eye pops from the suit’s neck and lodges in Timothy’s mouth. The eye burrows in, forcing his jaw wider and wider. His vision explodes with bright colors and swirling shapes. It’s too much, sensory overload. The tendril pulls, his jaw stretches and stretches, the eye forcing itself into his throat. Pain erupts spectacularly in his jaw. Everything goes black.
• • •
Timothy is sitting on the floor, his back against the counter. He touches his jaw, which doesn’t hurt, and realizes he can move again. He runs his hands over face, eyes, head, mouth. Everything feels normal. Except his mouth. Behind his lips, his fingers slide across a taut, slick curve. He slides his fingers along it, under his cheek, under his ear. He stops when his wrist catches on the corner of his lip. He’s curiously calm, considering he has a giant eyeball instead of all the normal head stuff.
The suit is standing over him. Except hundreds of translucent green antennae now rise from his body, swaying and twitching.
Timothy yelps—no sound comes out; the giant eye seems to have plugged his throat—and scrabbles away along the counter.
The suit, his hands pressed to his stomach and tears running down his cheeks, says, “You took it.” His voice is a muffled echo, like Timothy is underwater.
Timothy snaps his rubberband out of habit. It stings but doesn’t quell his rising panic.
The suit’s antennae glow a sickly green, like nuclear waste.
“Give it back.” The suit reaches toward Timothy.
“Leave the kid alone.” The barista comes around the counter and holds out her tattooed arm. Yellow flames flicker outward from her head and shoulders, like a fiery lion’s mane.
Timothy knew she was a total badass.
“But he took my—”
“My—self?” His voice is small and weak, his hands pale as they rub circles across his stomach. “I’m not sure, but he took it.”
“You need to leave now,” the barista says.
“But he has my—my—”
“I was watching,” the barista says. “You were rubbing up against him, creep.”
The suit stamps his feet like a teenager. “No, that’s not true!”
“Jesus man, what planet are you from?” the barista points to the stairs. “Leave.”
“I—I’m sorry.” The suit turns and walks quickly toward the stairs, cradling his stomach, his body and his antennae shrinking away from each person he brushes past.
“You know him?” The barista says. “Your dad or something? A creepy-ass uncle?”
“No! Did you see those antenna things, though?” Timothy says. Except it comes out not as words but as a wet gurgle.
“You are one weird kid,” she says. She taps the counter as she walks around it. “There’s your decaf capp.”
Timothy takes his mug, having no idea how he’ll drink it, past a luminescent menagerie to his favorite spot, a standing-height table in the corner. He leans against the brick wall, its familiar coolness seeping into his shoulders.
Timothy isn’t sure what just happened, but it wasn’t all bad. In fact, he feels pretty good. Shouldn’t he be traumatized after something like that? He isn’t, he feels more like liberated. He should definitely sketch the suit and that eye thing for Dr. Bart, but there’s so much to watch. He can draw later.
Strands of shining seaweed undulate from the small man who’s always on a velvet couch reading a book. The seaweed caressing the book is new but somehow fitting, the copper a compliment to the emerald green scarf he wears year-round, the languid ripples so like the man’s relaxed attitude.
“Grande-pumpkin-latte-triple-whip for Sylvia?” The barista hands the drink, topped with a quivering white ziggurat, to a thin woman in a brightly patterned dress who’s effervescing tiny salmon-colored bubbles. She’s not going to stay thin if she drinks many of those. Timothy touches his rubber band, waiting for the guilt to blossom, but nothing happens. He usually feels guilty about everything. Dr. Bart points it out all the time. But why should he feel guilty? He’s not judging this woman, he’s just curious. Isn’t that how calories work? What goes in gets used up or gets stored? He thinks so. Maybe she exercises, or maybe she doesn’t eat much. Or maybe those fizzy bubbles mean she has a high metabolism.
The man with the scarf closes his book and stands up. The seaweed strands trail behind him as he walks out, like he’s moving upstream. Timothy thinks about sitting down, but a young couple reaches the couch first. Her aura is a wig-like profusion of cerulean dandelions, his is a fuchsia starburst of miniature elephant trunks. They set their bags on the low table and drop onto the couch, their auras reaching for each other, twining together. Something hot stirs in Timothy’s belly. He’s never felt anything like this before. It’s not uncomfortable, in fact it feels a little bit good, maybe a little bit sexual, but not quite that. The eye’s tendril is restless, slithering around, knotting and unknotting.
Timothy finds himself leaning over them without realizing it. Those dandelions look and smell so fresh, so delicious, they must feel heavenly—
He touches one of the dandelions and the woman flinches away. “Excuse me?”
Timothy jerks back, knocking his elbow against the brick, sending zings along his nerves. “Sorry,” he says, shaking his tingling hand. She rolls her eyes and turns back to her boyfriend, who is shaking his head and looking suspiciously at Timothy.
He’s not used to feeling this much emotion. Not this kind, anyway. All he’s felt for so long is guilt, and now there’s no room for it. His whole being brims with this new hunger.
He snaps his rubber band, which stings but doesn’t help.
Timothy has a terrible thought, one that would have crippled him half an hour ago: Can he drain them, like the suit drained him? Maybe that’s why he feels this way.
Timothy doesn’t want to drain anyone, that’s a little too creepy, but he can’t help it, he’s moving toward them again. He imagines the taste, better than movie popcorn, better than a cherry lemonade Slurpee, better by far than a cappuccino. It will be glorious. He can’t stop himself. His mouth opens, keeps opening. As it widens, the veil of skin slides off the eye to reveal the couple in a blinding maelstrom of scintillating shapes and colors. Without the dampening effect of the skin, Timothy feels himself surging toward—
“What the fuck, dude?” the woman yells, jumping off the couch. Everyone stops and stares. Her boyfriend is up, coming over the couch.
Timothy runs for the stairs, clutching his sketchbook to his chest. The boyfriend stops in the street and yells after him. Timothy keeps running, eyes down, seeing only the pavement and the occasional feet stutter-stepping out of his way.
Several blocks away is the park where he often goes to sketch. In the secluded green shadows at least twenty feet from the nearest path, he drops down against a tree.
Twenty feet seems far enough that he doesn’t have the urge to sample those walking past, though he’s quickly consumed by the endless carnival of auras. They’re an infinite combination of color and shape and movement: strands and spikes, organic shapes like grasses and leaves and branches, geometric shapes from spheres and cubes to crazy, wobbly stacks of sharp-edged shapes stacked like crazy library books, every manner of animal shape, some of the auras are even ghosted with patterns—leopard-skin and giraffe, veined like leaves or eyes, tufted like carpet, fuzzy and furred. Auras that are calm, that gyrate, that pulse, that ripple. Colors ranging from barely visible, a hazy translucence, to neon-bright and nearly opaque.
Timothy wonders what his aura looks like. He can’t see it. Does he have one still, or was his aura that greenish glow the eye sucked out? Timothy doesn’t think so. More like it sucked out his problems, his insecurity and guilt. And good riddance. What if it was his soul, though, not his aura? Souls can’t be insecure, can they? No. So: probably okay on the soul thing.
Timothy is curious to see Dr. Bart’s aura. Probably something wise, like a crown of owls.
Considering what has just happened, Timothy feels surprisingly good. He hasn’t snapped his rubber band in how long, an hour? That’s really good. He realizes he hasn’t felt this clear-headed, this free, this happy, in—how long? Since he started taking the anti-anxiety pills, since his sessions with Dr. Bart. Three years, at least. Because the suit siphoned his guilt, is he back to “normal”? Probably not. He probably feels good because there’s a giant eye underneath his head skin instead of a brain so the drugs can’t mess with him.
Dr. Bart isn’t going to believe him. Dr. Bart is very practical, he might discount the rush of emotions, how free Timothy feels, as a chemical imbalance. But Dr. Bart might believe him, too. That could happen. He’ll draw what he saw and show him his sketchbook.
To warm up, Timothy updates his sketch of the barista’s tattoo. He’s been working on it for months now, since he first noticed it. When the lion’s head appeared on her wrist, its eyes round and staring, raw and red, Timothy didn’t pay it much attention. He was mostly glad that, although it looked decapitated, blood wasn’t pumping from the neck. A week later, a forked tongue coiled across her palm and around her middle finger. The linework was nice, but it seemed a little silly. It was the scaled body that sprouted from the lion’s head that captured Timothy’s attention. He wanted to ask, but told himself the mystery was more fun, the wondering. That night, he’d found images on the internet: it was a merlion—half lion, half fish. A strange choice, one Timothy didn’t think fit the barista at all. But within a week the fish wasn’t a fish anymore—it elongated, like maybe it was a neck. It kept growing, wrapping around her arm, more like a snake. About then, he began to worry, hoping the barista had designed the whole tattoo in advance, that it wasn’t developing organically. He wished she’d stayed with the merlion, which wasn’t great but was at least recognizable. Online, he figured out it was a Chinese dragon. She had a plan after all, a very cool plan. He adds her flaming mane to the sketch. She’s definitely the Chinese dragon type.
When he’s done with the barista’s tattoo, he opens a new page to draw the suit. By the time he’s drawing the giant eye and its tendril, he’s deep in that curious place that is both thinking and doing, where he’s not afraid or confused, where he’s simply making. He’s wholly absorbed in translating what he saw to the page. After the eye, he sketches the seaweed couch reader, the dandelion girl, and her elephant trunk boyfriend. He draws quickly, confidently, and even has time to add some quick color before his session.
• • •
In his reception area, Dr. Bart is dumping things into a cardboard box with ‘MARLENE’ scratched in black sharpie across the side. Thin crimson legs sprout from his glossy crown, probing the air, pointy tips reaching for Timothy. He keeps his distance.
Timothy’s liked all of Dr. Bart’s secretaries, especially Marlene, though none of them last long. It’s sad to see the pictures of her family dumped in a banged-up box with her insulated cup, her tiny purple fan, and the carved wood giraffe her daughter brought her from Tanzania.
“You’re late,” Dr. Bart says. His head legs are as long as his arms, thin and segmented like a spider’s. Not what Timothy was expecting. Dr. Bart’s fingers tick on the metal cabinet. He holds out his other hand.
Timothy slides the check out from the pages of his sketchbook and puts it on the desk. He doesn’t want to get near those spider legs.
Dr. Bart reads the amount and nods. “Go in.”
Timothy gives Dr. Bart a wide berth, red legs darting at him as he passes.
Dr. Bart’s desk is enormous, the wood highly polished, and he has a matching wardrobe and coat rack. The coat rack looks like a medieval weapon. It’s not a small office, but the furniture barely fits. Dr. Bart says it makes the setting intimate.
“How are we doing today, Timothy?” Dr. Bart says, settling into his chair.
“Still planning on community college in the fall?”
Timothy nods again.
“Not talking today?”
Timothy shakes his head. Dr. Bart probably wouldn’t appreciate fart noises. Timothy tries not to giggle. He puts his hands over his face, pressing his mouth with his palms, to stifle any sounds. He’s never had the urge to giggle in Dr. Bart’s office before.
He shakes his head again. He’s completely forgotten about those urges since the eye. Which is amazing. His medication dulled the urge to hurt himself, but the dark thoughts had always been there, lurking at the edges.
“Good.” Dr. Bart makes a note. “Did you do your doodles?”
Timothy pushes his sketchbook across the desk with an elbow, afraid to let go of his mouth.
Dr. Bart pages through, eyebrows and legs raised, looking at each of the new sketches carefully. “All this since yesterday? Gold star.”
Timothy flushes with pride at the unexpected compliment, which seems to wake the knot in his stomach.
Dr. Bart chuckles. “A giant eye?” A pair of crimson head-arms tap the pages, while the rest hover and rub together. “Did you double up your pills, Timothy?”
Timothy shakes his head. The knot turns in his stomach.
“Hmm.” Dr. Bart taps the page. “Very disturbing.”
The knot is surging up and down, sideways. It’s not a good feeling. The eye is trying to get out of his mouth. Timothy puts his hands over his mouth. He shouldn’t have come here; he should have known this would happen. Of course it wants Dr. Bart.
“What is this, Timothy?” Dr. Bart’s crimson legs perch on the desk, crooked, ready to spring.
Timothy is so focused on keeping his mouth shut against the eye, fighting the rising desire to drain Dr. Bart, that he only belatedly realizes he’s standing, leaning over the desk. Did the suit experience this same dread, realizing too late he didn’t want Timothy’s aura? Because Timothy is terrified he’s going to absorb the ugly, arrogant thing he’s suddenly sure is festering in Dr. Bart’s core.
“You don’t think this is real, do you?” Dr. Bart says. His spider legs are skittering across the desktop, back and forth. “Timothy, answer me. Out loud. You need to talk.”
Timothy shakes his head, fingers pinching his lips tightly. The pressure from the eye is too much. His lips pull free of his pinching fingers, peeling away to reveal a broad white swath—
Dr. Bart yelps and jumps from his chair before Timothy’s able to pull his lips back together.
Bart bursts into laughter, the crimson legs swaying wildly. “Very creative, Timothy. You had me there for a minute. You’re making a joke! That’s good. Progress.”
Has it always been this way, Dr. Bart mocking and condescending, and Timothy just hasn’t seen it? That can’t be. Dr. Bart is helping him get better.
“What is that,” Dr. Bart says, tapping his own teeth, “a plate?” His crimson legs sway hypnotically. “You need to be careful. That looks like a choking hazard—” Dr. Bart’s mouth falls open as the skin slips off the eye. Timothy slaps his hands over the iris. The surface is tacky and surprisingly hard under his palms.
Dr. Bart’s face is slack, his crimson legs pulled back, tips resting on his chest and shoulders, the tops of his ears and head. He manages a word, drawn out in a sigh. “What?”
Timothy turns, yanking the skin cowl up over the eye. It resists, but he manages to get it closed, pinching the cowl together, holding it with both hands. The door is two steps away.
“It really is a giant eye,” Dr. Bart says. “Show me.”
Timothy reaches for the door, letting go of his lips with one hand.
“No!” Dr. Bart slams the door as Timothy is pulling it open. “Show it to me!” His red legs wave spasmodically. Timothy shrinks away, shaking his head. “Timothy!” Dr. Bart grabs at him, pulling at his clenched hands, crimson legs skittering over Timothy’s head. He tries to hold his lips shut, but Dr. Bart’s hands are strong. So is the eye. “Show me!” Dr. Bart yells. His face is splotched red, his eyes glazed. Timothy, still holding his lids, swings his elbows up into Dr. Bart’s chin.
His mouth rips open and Dr. Bart jerks backward, eyes bulging, and—
The world stops. Dr. Bart is locked in place, back arched, mouth gaping soundlessly, just like Timothy at Underground when the suit siphoned off his guilt. Except this time, Timothy can still move. He sees a tiny silhouette of himself reflected in Dr. Bart’s dilated pupils. His aura is magnificent! Long, luminous wings spread from his shoulders, festooned with magenta feathers.
Timothy had been terrified as the suit siphoned off what he thought was his soul. That was horrifying, but this is worse, because Timothy recognizes the look frozen in Dr. Bart’s eyes: it’s not fear, it’s hunger. He recognizes it because he sees it in Dr. Bart’s eyes every visit when he gets his check. Maybe Timothy needed the spider legs fanning around his head like a crown to make it all come clear.
The tendril snakes from his mouth toward Dr. Bart. Timothy grabs the tendril with both hands. With a desperation he hasn’t known since the medications dulled him, Timothy does not want to absorb this horrible man’s aura. The tendril flexes and twists with inhuman strength. He can’t stop it from sliding down Dr. Bart’s throat. Timothy yanks on the tendril, claws at it, but soon the tendril is pumping, swelling with Dr. Bart’s blood-red aura, trying to suck it through into his body. It’s revolting. He tries to push Dr. Bart away, but he’s much too big. He kicks Dr. Bart in the chest, again and again, but the eye and its tendril anchor them to each other. “You can’t have it!” Timothy yells, though he only makes sloppy belching sounds. He pulls as hard as he can on the tendril, trying to yank the eye out of his body. He looks around desperately—
The coat rack.
He reaches for it, but the tendril is drawing him slowly toward Dr. Bart. Timothy puts his hands on Dr. Bart’s shoulders, locks his elbows to stop being pulled closer. The tendril between them throbs with a hideous crimson aura, swelling along its length. He reaches for the coat rack, gets a finger on the neck just below the hooks. The tendril tightens, reeling him in. Timothy pulls with all his might. His face is an agony of aching horribleness, as if the skin is a rubber mask being stretched to tearing. He gets a second finger on the rack, then his hand. With a violent yank, he slams the coat rack into his face. A long hook punches through the wall of the giant eye, sending a lightning jag of pain through his neck and shoulders, burning down his limbs, out his fingers and toes.
He forces himself to jam the coat hook repeatedly into the eye, cringing from the searing pain, until the ruined sack slides out of his mouth, slapping on the Persian rug, a wet, pulsing mess. Dr. Bart’s red essence leaks onto the rug.
Timothy backs away, fingers finding his cheeks, his lips, his teeth!
The last thing he sees before he’s through the door is Dr. Bart tucking the deflated eye into his mouth with his hands.
Timothy runs, laughing, buoyed by the electric rush of freedom. Or maybe he’s completely unhinged. Or maybe that’s happiness, it’s been a long time. He’s too giddy to care. He bounds along, his magenta wings lifting him just a little higher with each leap. He can’t see his wings anymore, he doesn’t see anyone else’s auras, either, but he knows they’re there and no one can take that away from him. He’s not sure what just happened, or what’s going to happen, but for now he’s good. He’s grateful for the eye, for its hunger, for drawing out the sickness that had filled him, and for freeing him from the toxic influence of Dr. Bart.
He runs toward Underground. He’s going to apologize to the barista—leaving out the bit about the hungry eye—and ask her where she’s getting her tattoo. He’s ready to get his done—all across his back, for sure, and maybe some magenta feathers down his arms, too.
Copyright © 2021 by Chip Houser