I didn’t understand. I had those floaty things. My teacher said everyone did. An artifact of our eyes developing, or something like that. I guess he’d been told the same thing, but it did him little good. His parents were concerned, of course, and they brought him to ophthalmologists who were all in agreement: his eyes were fine. When he denied the experts’ claims and doubled down on his insistence that something was wrong, his worried parents got him into therapy.
I guess the therapist helped him a little bit. Malcolm’s paranoia seemed to diminish somewhat and his anxious habits like twitching and blinking weren’t as pronounced. That was good – a lot of kids made fun of the way he blinked. He told me it helped push the things out of sight for a couple seconds.
From what I can remember, Malcolm started seeing the therapist when he was 7 or 8. I thought things were going pretty well until he turned 14. I don’t know if it was the combination of his underlying problems combined with the hormonal onslaught of puberty, but his anxiety and paranoia returned with a vengeance. He started getting into fights at school whenever someone made fun of him. His mom confided in me, since I was his best friend, that she saw cuts and scratches on his upper arms when she accidentally walked in on him getting changed. She was at her wits end with worry and implored me to do whatever I could to help him feel better.
Over time, I worked to evolve my role in his life from friend to confidant. It was easier than I thought. He was used to telling me about his problems. Apparently, aside from his parents and the doctors, I was the only one who knew about his fear of the floaty things. When I asked him about those, he started to cry. He was worried he was schizophrenic; his therapist mentioned the possibility and it terrified him. Those things were always, always present in his field of vision. And while they were there, they talked to him. Goaded him into self-destructive behavior. All he could do to stop himself from going crazy was to obey them and make the little cuts on his arms and legs.
He showed me the cuts. They weren’t deep, but there were a lot of them. Especially on his inner thighs. Being 14 myself and not understanding why someone, anyone, would cut themselves, I tried to get him to explain why he couldn’t just stop. All he said was, “I’m giving them what they ask for so they’ll stop biting.” Before I was able to question what the hell he meant, he kissed me.
I wasn’t prepared that. I’d never been kissed before. I didn’t think I was gay, but I wasn’t particularly interested in girls, either. I kissed him back. And that was it. Whatever it meant to him, I’ll never know for sure. I knew he was dealing with intense turmoil. More than I could handle. But he’d just shown how much he trusts me. He showed me the cuts, knowing I might run away in disgust. He kissed me, knowing I might knock his teeth out. He was trying so hard to overcome whatever was consuming him, and I wasn’t going to let him down. I had to be there for him.
Something like a year passed and Malcolm just got worse. He skipped a lot of school and was even hospitalized when he had some kind of breakdown in the supermarket with his mom about a week before summer vacation. Despite my desire to see him in the hospital and give whatever comfort I could provide, he turned me away. Once he was released, on the infrequent occasions he agreed to meet up with me, he looked awful. His dark brown complexion was tinged with gray. He was emaciated and his arms were covered in cuts. They were deeper now; he didn’t even bother hiding them. They grew up his wrists onto his forearms and biceps and triceps like angry, scabbed ivy. I pitied him.
The day after Christmas, he asked me to visit him at home. His parents were overjoyed by the fact he’d not only initiated the contact, but that he talked openly about how excited he was to give me a present. They thought he might have finally turned the corner.
I walked up the stairs to his bedroom, knocked, and was greeted by something unexpected: his smiling face. He hugged me and had me come in. He handed me an envelope and watched with excitement as I opened it. Inside was an illustration he’d done in the hospital depicting the two of us holding hands. “I can’t thank you enough for all the support you’ve given me,” he whispered, as tears welled up in his eyes.
I beamed at him as he smiled back, the tears now flowing freely over his sharp cheekbones. In what had to be the space of two seconds, he produced a small knife from his back pocket, and, without looking away from me, stabbed through each of his eyes. The only scream that filled the room and echoed through the house was my own. Malcolm sat back, the bed directly behind him, and put his head in his hands. As blood drooled from his punctured eyes and seeped into the carpet, he wept.
His parents arrived in his bedroom seconds after my scream and gasped in horror at the damage to their son. He moved his head up and faced the direction where he assumed his parents were standing. “I had to,” he sobbed, over and over, tears pouring from his undamaged lacrimal glands and diluting the stream of blood flowing down his face.
His father ran to call 911 while his mother wrapped her arms around him, not knowing if she should press something against his bleeding eyes or if that would only make it worse. The bleeding was slowing down to a trickle, though. The first few times he moved his head in my direction, I diverted my eyes, foolishly not wanting to meet his sightless gaze. But, as the moments passed and we waited for the ambulance, I studied his face. He looked calm. Soon, he started to smile; a beatific, worryless grin that was in frightening contrast to the gore only inches above it.
“Watch,” he mouthed at me. As I stared, tiny lines began to appear in the blood around his eyes. The lines looked like tracks, only I couldn’t see what was making them. His mom noticed what was happening and jumped back in surprise. The tracks poured from his ruined eyes and traced clean lines down his dark cheeks. “I told you,” he sighed. He tilted his neck downward and shook his head. When he faced forward again, no new tracks were being carved out of the blood. Malcolm ground his sneaker into the rug where he’d been facing. “Please hold my hand,” he begged, reaching in the direction of where I stood. I did.
The ambulance arrived and rushed Malcolm to the hospital. I didn’t see him again for a long time. After recovering from the surgery to remove his eyes, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where he stayed for 18 months. His parents called me a few times early on to let me know how he was doing, and the general consensus was that he seemed a lot better. Yes, he was blind. But he didn’t exhibit the paranoia anymore. He didn’t try to injure himself. He slept through the nights.
I was glad to hear the positive updates, but I was deeply shaken by what I saw that day. Not just Malcolm’s violence toward himself, but the aftermath: the streaked tracks across his bloody face. I never spoke about it with his mother. Even today, it’s something I try to convince myself was a false memory brought on by the trauma of seeing someone I cared for harmed so badly. But I know better.
It was four years before I saw Malcolm again. I visited his house, again around Christmas, because it was the break between my semesters at college. He looked great. The glass eyes he had were eerily lifelike. He’d put on some weight, but he appeared healthy and happy. His parents left us alone to talk. For a couple hours, we chatted about what we’d been up to. When it was time for me to go, I pulled him in for an embrace, which he returned with enthusiasm. “I wanted your face to be the last thing I’d ever see,” he whispered. “Your smile gave me the courage I needed to make myself a better person.” I stared straight ahead into the kitchen, not knowing how to respond. Those floaty things drifted through my vision, contrasting strongly against the white-painted wall. I hugged him tighter.