Hannah wasn’t born blind, but sometimes it feels that way. She has retinitis pigmentosa, what she calls RP. Like, I’m so sick of this stupid RP. Which makes the disease sound like one of those jerks she goes to middle school with ?— ?the BGs and BJs and RJs ?— ?who talk too loudly and wear chunky basketball shoes and toss French fries dipped in mustard across the cafeteria and draw dicks on people’s lockers with permanent marker.
She was diagnosed at five. She’s twelve now. But she acts like she’s forty. That’s what everyone tells her. “An old soul,” her mother says. “Stick in the mud,” her aunt Lela says. If she had a smartphone, if she had boyfriends, if she hung out at Starbucks and Clackamas Center Mall, if she didn’t rely on her mother’s help to pick out her clothes, if she didn’t prod the sidewalk with a stupid cane or wear stupid sunglasses to hide her stupid absent eyes, if she could see, maybe then she wouldn’t be such a boring grump, maybe then she would act more like the rest of the giggling, perfume-bombed lunatics her age.
At first she couldn’t see at night, crashing into walls on the way to the bathroom. Then her sight fogged over. Then her peripheral vision began to decrease, like two doors closing slowly, slowly, over several years, until there was only a line of vertical light with color-blurred shapes passing through it. If she held something directly in front of her face, she could get a pretty good sense of it, but one day, within the next five years or so, darkness will come. She’ll live in a permanent night.
Hers was an accelerated case. And there was no cure. That was what the doctors said. So her mother prayed. And gave Hannah vitamins A and E. And restricted her intake of phytanic acids, so no dairy, no seafood. Hannah tried a dog, but she was allergic and got sick of cleaning up his crap. And she visited a school for the blind, but that felt like giving up, despite the crush of bodies at her middle school, the eyes she could feel crawling all over her while the occasional BG or BJ or RJ whispered a Helen Keller joke.
Then a doctor at OHSU approached her about an experimental trial. Would she be interested? She knew all about gene therapy and about the retinal transplants that had so far failed to develop synaptic connections with their hosts, but she didn’t know about this, a prosthesis built by a Seattle-based tech company. It converted video images captured by a camera into electrical pulses that bypassed the diseased outer retina and poured into over one thousand electrodes on the inner retina. They called it Mirage.
“It’s all very Star Trek,” the doctor told her, when describing the device, not glasses so much as a silver shield that wrapped your eyes. She liked his Indian accent, the buoyancy of the vowels, making his words sound as if they were gently bouncing.
Her mother worried that people would stare, and Hannah said, “They already stare.” At least they’d be studying her now with awe and curiosity rather than pity. “I’ll be a cyborg, a Terminator!”
Her mother could never afford the surgery ?— ?the removal of the post subcapsular cataracts and spoke-wheel pattern of cysts, the insertion of the casing and array and antennae along the periphery of her sockets ?— ?which didn’t matter: the tech company would pay for everything, so long as she agreed to serve as their lab rat and advertisement.
Now, three weeks after she went under the knife, it is time to take off the bandages. Now it is time to wire up the Mirage. To see. The doctor tells her it might take time for her brain to process this new sensory experience. “Think of it like this. What if I gave you a new set of lungs that allowed you to breathe underwater? The first time you jumped in the river and took a deep breath, your body would fight the feeling, thinking you were drowning. There will be a little bit of that at first. A little bit of drowning. But I believe it will pass quickly.”
Hannah knows the sun is a yellow ball of fire ?— ?she can still see the smear of it ?— ?but the image has been replaced more by a feeling of warmth that tingles the hair on her arms and makes her turn her face toward the source. Yes, a pine tree has a reddish trunk and green needles and cuts away the sky when you stand beneath it, but for her the sensory analogue is the smell of resin and the feel of scabby bark plates beneath her palm and the sound of the hushing, prickling breeze when it rushes through the branches. The ability to see has become an abstraction, something she can only vaguely imagine, like time travel or teleportation.
She sits on an exam table with the doctor leaning in and her mother hovering nearby. He tries to make small talk ?— ?asking how’s school, is she excited, will she do anything to celebrate ?— ?but she can barely manage a response, all of her attention on the tug of his hands, the wounded ache of her eyes.
“We don’t go out to restaurants very much, but we’re going to one tomorrow,” her mother says. “Benedikt’s. For lunch. To celebrate. With my sister. She writes for the paper. Maybe you’ve read her articles? She writes about other people’s problems, but let me tell you, she has plenty of her own. Anyway, as long as Hannah is feeling up for it, that’s what we’re planning.”
“That’s nice,” the doctor says. “Almost done.” Then the last bit of bandage pulls away and he says, “There.”
A part of Hannah feels lighter, more buoyant, now that she’s unrestricted by all that gauze and tape, but another part of her feels more panicked than ever ?— ?as if, when he said, “There,” a light switch should have turned on in her head. For now there is only darkness. Her brain churns. She can taste her breakfast in her throat.
He leans in and thumbs aside her lids and shines a light on the still-sore incisions and nudges the outlet. “Good, good. Okay. I think we’re ready for Mirage.”
Hannah has worn it before, more than a month ago. She ran her fingers along the shape of it then, the sleek silver shield that wrapped her eyes. But that was just playing pretend. This is real. The doctor fits it into place, tightening the band around the back of her head and neatening her hair. Two bulges, almost like the nubs of horns, swell next to each of her temples. These are the brains of the thing, a cluster of microprocessors. The right one carries the small power switch. The doctor asks if she’d like to do the honors.
She nods and blows out a steadying breath and snaps the switch.
“Well?” the doctor says.
“Hannah?” her mother says. “Did it work? Is it working?”
There is a game she sometimes plays. The wi...