Matt already knew that something was odd before he stepped in the door, but he didn’t say anything. His cane found the item off to the side of the entrance, between him and the coat rack, before Karen sprung from her desk. “Matt, sorry, there’s – “
“I know.” He leaned over, and his hand found a cardboard box. Probably a shipping container. “It’s addressed to me?”
“Yeah.” Karen sounded extremely apologetic. “I was going to move it into your office, but it just came, and – “
He turned the wattage up on his smile. It always made her heart race but in a good way. “Karen. It’s fine.” He stopped probing it. “It’s the desktop I ordered. The NFB sells bundles of equipment and my laptop keeps getting knocked over.” Or hurled across a room in a fit of rage. Whatever. It wasn’t like it mattered to him that the screen was cracked.
“I can set up the computer,” Karen rushed to say. This time it was a relief because he hated asking for help, particularly when he really needed it. It was designed for him, but when it was in the box, it was all just cords and cases to him. Karen didn’t make him admit it.
“What’s the NFB?” she asked as they start opening the packaging and sorting the different, indistinguishable (to Matt, anyway) items on his desk.
“National Federation of the Blind.”
“Oh, right. Of course.” She sounded embarrassed, but there was no way around it. “Where do you want the tower?”
They found a place for the computer tower under the desk, and Karen worked hard on the cords, which were stupidly color-coded because that was how you made computer equipment. It was still a work-in-progress when Foggy finally showed up, bearing real coffee that smelled like hazelnut and mildly spoiled milk, not enough for anyone but him to notice and not enough to get anyone sick. People really didn’t know what they were drinking.
“Is that a label maker?” Foggy’s eyes found the prize immediately. The braille label maker was still in the box, and he snatched it up. “Where have you been all my life, my sweet, sweet precious?”
“You broke the last one,” Matt said. “And refused to pay for a new one.”
“Not being able to afford it and refusing to pay are two different things.” Foggy was way too excited about this. “You’re gonna know what so many things are now.”
“Karen, don’t let him do this.”
“Um, I think he’s technically my boss,” she said from under the desk.
“Then don’t fall asleep at your desk, because he will label your forehead and the glue really sticks.”
“I’m just trying to help a brother out!”
“I can gather that a wall is a wall all on my own, Foggy.” But Matt didn’t have it in him to be angry at his friend. It was fun to hear Foggy’s heartbeat and know he was bouncing around like an excited puppy over a piece of office equipment that Matt had unintentionally gifted him.
“Hey.” Karen called his attention back to her. “There’s a bunch of cords for the monitor, but I can’t find it.”
“Oh, there is none.”
“What? This a desktop.”
“And I don’t need a monitor to use it. It’s all audio.”
“I know; it freaks me out too. His computer has no monitor,” Foggy added. “It’s mind-blowing.”
“It also means you won’t try to break into my computer and use it to stash your porn.”
“Hey! Ladies present.” Foggy put a finger to his lips. “And I did that once. Once.”
“And change my desktop to that photo of me sleeping when you put a finger up my nose.”
“Already did it to your phone,” Foggy said. “Months ago.”
For a guy who got very little exercise, Foggy was quick when he wanted to be, and barely ducked out of the office in time to not get hit by a tossed chair.
Foggy could be subtle about problems. Usually he wasn’t, but when he was interested in being clever, or just annoying, or maybe just had too much time on his hands, he could twist the knife in slowly.
This one took Matt a while. He would be sitting in his office, dictating or listening to a deposition, and Foggy would walk in, flip the light switch, make some small talk that could easily have been made when Matt wasn’t in the middle of something, and leave. Matt could only tell because (a) he knew where the light switch was, and (b) he could hear the faint whining of the incandescent bulbs above him. The fixture was old, and at times he thought he could hear the contact strips rusting. The whole thing probably flickered. It wasn’t quite like fluorescent strips, which hummed at a frequency close but not entirely on the nose of a B flat. It was white noise that his brain filtered out. There was always too much information being received, and he tuned a lot of it out automatically, especially something he didn’t have any reason to know about. He knew his office was pretty well-lit anyway because he could feel the sunlight drape across his back, slowly making its journey over the course of the day. He could even tell the hour by the placement of the sun, to which Foggy responded, “Now you’re just showing off.”
That was fair. He was.
The problem was that things he didn’t think about didn’t get remembered. If he was the last person standing at the end of a long day, he would be greeted in the morning by a gentle, semi-embarrassed Karen struggling to find a way to tell him he’d left every light in the office on overnight – again. If he was first in the door in the morning, he would set up the coffee pot, fire up his computer, and be deep in text-to-speech browser software (he wasn’t immune to goofing off online) when Karen would shriek in surprise. “Holy shit! I didn’t know you were here.”
“Sorry,” he said very politely, and he really was sorry for startling Karen, but in all fairness to him, she was fairly easily startled, and the coffee smell should have tipped her off.
Still, Foggy must have barged in for one reason or another half a dozen times before Matt said, “Is there another reason you’re here?” He was wearing noise-cancelling headphones, a sign that he was concentrating on actual work.
“Yeah.” Foggy flipped the switch a couple more times. “I don’t want to have this conversation, because it’s rude, but we need to have the shared space conversation. I was hoping to avoid it this time.”
Ah. He had unintentionally surprised a sleepy, drunk, or high Foggy by wandering around in the darkness of their dorm room. “Aren’t we trying to save on electricity?”
“Yes, but after the sun goes down, you look a tiny bit like a mole person in your cave room. No offense.”
“I’m going to take some offense.” But he smiled as he said it.
“This office may not be the most presentable place in the world, but on the rare occasion when a client does make it past the dry moat of mysterious stains in the hallway and the smell of Karen’s rancid coffee and my sour cream and onion Pringles – “
“You could just stop eating them.”
“ – I don’t want to explain that yes, I have a partner, and he is hiding in a dark corner.”
“They’re going to find out I’m blind eventually.”
“Which is why I don’t want to tack on more stuff.” Foggy squirmed and entered more properly, pulsing anxiety and embarrassment. “Look, Matt, you are a very put together guy, with your black ties and your nice suits and whatever pheromones you’re releasing to draw attractive women into our midst. You’re a professional. But this might be something you have to do to ... add to it.”
“I need to turn my lights on.”
“And off again. Maybe.” Foggy sighed. His body felt heavy to Matt, like it was weighing him down. “I’m sorry. This was a really shitty thing for me to say. You shouldn’t have to make excuses for what is perfectly reasonable behavior and I shouldn’t be telling you how to present yourself.”
Matt interrupted himself before Foggy undid everything in a bout of guilt. “But this is a place of business, and we want it to look like it.”
“I really don’t have a right to say that considering we both have plastic folding chairs at our desks. I’m sorry. This was a mistake – “
“Foggy, it’s fine.” He offered a submissive gesture with a wave of his hand. “Lights go on in the morning, go out at night. I can handle that. Besides, someday we’ll have secretaries doing all of this or smart rooms that just turn on when you’re in them.”
“At the rate that we’re going, we’ll be able to afford that in our nursing home,” Foggy said, sounding relieved, “but we’ll get there. I am a little hesitant about owning a robot, though.”
“Can’t imagine why.”
Matt loved Foggy. He really did. Foggy was a bright, shining sun spot in his life, which was particularly important because Matt couldn’t be sure he still had a clear picture of what the sun looked like. He tried not to think about how much this bothered him.
A great thing about Foggy – and there were many, many great things about Foggy – was the magic ease with which he slipped into the role of the unrequested helper because Matt did not need help. That was what he told his father after the accident, what Stick insisted on literally beating into him, and that was what he told himself.
But it wasn’t true. There were some things he couldn’t do by himself, or didn’t want to do, and there was Foggy, standing in the doorway not asking why or how but just, so when are we going?
“I’m actually pretty excited about this,” Foggy said rather triumphantly. “Because you do need to have your head examined.”
“I’m serious. You’ve been knocked around more than you’re going to admit to anyone. Do you have an answer prepared for when they ask about that?”
“That’s not what they’re looking at.”
“That’s a no. Great.” Foggy hit the clicker for the rental car. It beeped reassuringly. “I look forward to your bullshit explanation. If it’s hardcore BDSM, I want no part in that narrative.”
Matt laughed. “Too late. I put you down as my spouse on the emergency contact form.”
Foggy could drive. Or, more accurately, he had a valid driver’s license and enough driving experience to have acquired said license. He wasn’t ready for street racing, but he could get them to Jersey, where Matt’s specialized imaging center had inconveniently moved. Matt blamed gentrification and skyrocketing rent; Foggy blamed the Avengers because he could.
Five years had passed so quickly. Last time, when Matt had only had to travel to the Upper East Side, he was an undergrad at Brooklyn College finishing up a double major, went to the appointment on his own, and dealt with his panic attack inside the machine alone, an experience he was not keen to repeat. He hoped the staff had changed over in that time.
New Jersey, like everywhere outside of Manhattan, meant unfamiliar sights and smells. It meant a more constant requirement of focus, which could be exhausting. Sometimes it was easier to just be blind and have Foggy navigate the roads and the parking lot and the lobby. “Wow, you get some fancy shmancy medical attention. Their lobby has awkward founder portrait paintings. You know I qualify for Medicaid?”
“So do I. The chemical waste disposal company that hit me with their truck? They pay for all this. It was part of the settlement. I just have to hope they don’t go out of business.”
“Fortunately, we don’t seem to be cutting back on making dangerous chemicals,” Foggy said as he led them to the expensive-sounding elevators. “I can’t believe I just said that.”
“There was some legislation passed. They have to secure those barrels better.”
Foggy sighed. “There goes my chance of getting superpowers.”
“It’s not a trade-off I would recommend.”
In the office, there were forms to sign. Most were pre-sent to him electronically, but he still had to give his scrawl of a signature at least three different times over six different pages before he could even sit down. Foggy always said his signature looked fine. It was his print name that looked like the work of a five-year-old.
They were the first appointment of the morning – it was always better to be first slot – and they still had to wait. There were some pamphlets in braille on the magazine counter with what Matt assumed was the usual waiting room material. Foggy sipped his coffee and picked up a magazine. “It says, ‘Who wore it better? Scarlet Witch or Black Widow?’”
“I can’t say I have an opinion.”
“This is sexist, isn’t it? They don’t compare the male Avengers’ tuxes.”
“Then it’s sexist. But you should ask Karen. Or just not bring it up at all that you were checking out women in a People magazine.”
“I’ll have you know that this is a US Weekly, Murdock.”
They called him in quickly. He was polite, and they were experienced at handling a blind patient without being overbearing, so he smiled through his teeth, but he hated it. He hated the uncomfortable cotton gown, washed so many times it was barely holding together. It smelled of sterilizing chemicals heavy enough to choke him if he took a deep breath. He hated the cold floors, the toxic nature of the floors and walls and air that tried so hard to hold back the smell of death and decay but never managed to do the job. Matt knew before he laid down that yesterday someone had an MRI while on intense chemotherapy, and in the last week someone had vomited on the tray. The nurse who injected the dye had drive-through McDonalds bacon for breakfast and a heart murmur. Her touch betrayed boredom. All of the machines made some kind of noise, forming a chorus of shuttering and churning and beeping.
“You should know,” he said as she set the brace around his head, “I’m not great with this. With small spaces.”
“You’re claustrophobic?” Still bored. Maybe a little annoyed. Definitely not sympathetic.
“Yeah.” It was a lie. He just didn’t like having his movements so restricted.
“Do you want headphones?”
“Sure.” Just for the muffling effect. The music quality was always unbearable. She put them in his ears and put the control in his hands, and he was drawn into that tiny, awful space he entered every five years so they could learn precisely nothing about his vision and produce pictures he couldn’t see anyway. The tube smelled of antiseptics and everyone who had been inside it at the same time. But he really didn’t want to freak out like last time, not with Foggy here, and because he didn’t want to deal with that uninterested nurse and to be that panicking child again. He was not supposed to move his arms, and he would get yelled at if he did, so there was no reason to reach for his dad, whose face would not be there for him. He could feel the dye moving through his bloodstream, stinging a little bit. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on his breathing.
The mind controls the body.
He couldn’t think of Stick without mixed emotions, to put it mildly. He would pay the rest of his savings to get that voice out of his head. It came with helpful instructions but also a healthy dose of psychosis. Someday, some therapist was going to make a lot of money telling Matt’s story.
The tube was getting tighter and smaller and his head was getting bigger, and he kept his breathing to a count, but he knew he was counting faster. He didn’t know his hands were shaking until he felt Foggy’s hand touch the one without an IV. Matt didn’t have a good explanation as to why, but he swore he knew him by touch.
“You probably shouldn’t have written ‘no sedation’ all over your chart,” Foggy said. “Especially with your hilarious handwriting. I’m surprised they could read it. But it also means you’re not getting what I assume are awesome drugs now.”
Matt needed a moment to focus. “Foggy.” He tried to sound like he was not mildly hyperventilating. At least he had some practice at it.
“Do you think they have ketamine? Because I ... heard that shit is awesome and you should totally get on that train.”
This time he managed a little command in his voice. “Foggy.”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to do too much talking. I think you’re stuck listening to me say whatever the hell I want because this is what I felt like doing today, standing in a cold room in Jersey at seven in the fucking morning giving a speech to a guy getting his mush brains photographed.”
“Yup. That’s the official diagnostic term for vigilante syndrome. I looked it up. It happens when you fall off buildings or whatever it is that you do.” But Foggy was not irritated at him, and he was not lecturing him. He laced his fingers between Matt’s, and Matt resisted pulling tightly so he could feel Foggy’s pulse. “Gotta make everything harder. Is that what they taught you in ninja school?”
Matt was too busy focusing on the voice to respond with his own. His chest was still tight, but he tried not to think about it. It was hard to not think about something you were trying not to think about.
“Frankly, you’re lucky this was a required thing and you didn’t have to make up some excuse to have it done. If you start bleeding into your brain at court, I will basically never stop punching you. I know that doesn’t sound particularly fair or maybe isn’t what a friend would do, but I also like to win cases. And I cannot do that without you, Matt. I am a shitty trial lawyer, and you know it.”
No, Matt thought. You’re wrong.
“I’ll have to get my hair cut, I won’t be able to pick a jury based on smells and heartbeats ... it’ll all be a huge mess. In six months, I’ll be out on the streets playing the recorder at subway stops. Or guitar. I don’t know how to play guitar, but it doesn’t seem to be very hard. Any asshole can do it. People will hurl their spare change at me. Or maybe they’ll just pay me to stop. It could be fun.”
“You’re supposed to be a butcher.”
“I don’t think it’s going to work. The thought of sweat meats makes me sick now. And by the way, thanks for that.”
Matt made no apologies, but he listened to him. He listened to Foggy talk the whole way through, until the nurse pulled Matt out of the headpiece and he emerged into the word again like a cranky, shaky butterfly. He could get back into his own clothing before they went to the radiologist’s office, where Matt learned that, as usual, his brain development was different from a person using their eyes but was otherwise fine. The doctor had theories about the enhancement of other senses and how far that might be able to go, and, to his credit, Foggy didn’t burst out laughing.
Foggy deserved a lot of credit. For everything. That was why Matt didn’t say anything when he put on his shoes and discovered they were both crisscrossed with braille labels that said left shoe and right shoe.