I needed bifocals desperately. I'd stretch my arms out beyond their natural limits to see the print on a page. I got huge headaches when I did my computer work. I thought I could ignore that bit of middle-aged decrepitude, but it was the pain aspirin couldn't touch that forced me to the optometrist.
Of course I chose the latest design of lineless bifocals, rather than the ones with the obvious built-in magnifying glasses. I don't care if I'm pushing fifty, I don't think bifocals go with my blue jeans and Star Trek T-shirt. The new glasses had gradient lenses, and the variegated scene kept shifting whenever I turned my head. I was sick as a dog. The optometrist told me my brain would begin to compensate and some people took longer than others.
When I got home, I tried to work. After settling down in front of the computer, I checked the desktop calendar. "Unicorn's Birthday? What kind of holiday is that?" My eyes refocused. Oh, Lincoln's birthday. I smiled. When I was a little girl, I loved unicorns. I collected pictures of them, drew pictures of them, tried to be good and pure in case I met one in a forest. Well, my days of Goodness and Purity are far behind me. G&P were followed by J&B, LSD and (later) an MBA and DOS.
Sure, I've retained some of my youthful uniqueness and originality. At the last SF con, I saw at least twenty clones of me. Middle-aged, long-haired ladies with glasses, top heavy or bottom heavy (and our twin-soul males, belly-heavy), with the pasty complexions only the reverse-tanning machine, the computer monitor, can create. For me, fashion's just another word for no virtual life. I take the twenty-five second v-commute to work, usually in my sweats and bunny slippers.
Still, Unicorn's Birthday made me smile. Coming up this week. I went on with my work, careful to turn my head slowly when shifting to paperwork away from the monitor's screen.
Over the next few days, I had other weird incidents adjusting to the new glasses. Once, I looked out the window into my February backyard and just for a moment I swear I saw the rosebushes blooming in the snow.
Another time, at the expressway tollbooth, I glanced sideways into my cup holder for exact change. Were those real gold coins? I was glad there were five cars lined up in front of me because I had to scrunch my eyes shut then blink rapidly to clear my vision. A quarter. A dime. A nickel. Good as gold for the toll but clearly mundane.
Later, when I got past the urban sprawl and the cornfields gave me a greater horizon on the outskirts of my Midwestern town, the clouds looked just like the peaks of the Rockies, for a moment of total beauty. It was all very amusing and a pleasant distraction from the nausea the glasses caused.
That evening, my friend Rita called from the pet halfway house where she worked. "Listen, honey, we just got a dog I'm sure will be perfect for you."
"Rita, I'm not ready for another dog. When I had to take Peaches to the vet and hold her in my arms while they her put to sleep, I swore I would never, ever have another pet again."
"Just come and meet him. We're really a little desperate. You could just be a foster mother until we find another home for him. He's totally sweet and perfectly housebroken. I'm really filled up here."
"I've got to finish configuring this database. I'll be over later, but just to visit for a few minutes. No new dog."
Peaches had been a sweet petite poodle-mix mongrel. I found her wandering the streets when I was a student back in the city. We were together for sixteen years. Her death was tough for me. But her death was just the beginning. My grandparents, my mom and dad -- all gone now. And I'm catching up to them, starting with the gray hairs and those wrinkly things at the corners of my eyes. I have the metabolism of a slug, and suddenly I'm forced to care about fiber and flossing. My friends ask if I want to borrow the great books they've read on the glories of menopause and the high spirituality of being a crone. And now these stupid bifocals.
Normally, Rita and I met for coffee at the pie place. It was torture to visit her at home. My eyes teared when someone had one cat. Rita had four dogs and twenty-five cats. The dogs were rescued racetrack greyhounds. The cats were supposed to be short-timers, fostered for the halfway house, but Rita always adopted them for herself.
The four greys were happy to see me. They all had to get a noseful of my crotch before they'd go and lie down. The cats that weren't sleeping upstairs on Rita's bed gazed down at me from their custom-built carpet covered condominiums in the living room.
Rita kept everything as clean as possible, but it's hard to breathe normally there. "I can't stay long. This is killing me." I gave her a hug.
"You've got to see the new baby," she said. "He's a real doll."
"He's a dog, Rita," I scowled at her, then let up, "O.K. Where is he?"
"I put him in the spare bedroom. He seemed too intimidated by my menagerie."
She opened the door on an adorable mutt that looked like a mini-sheepdog. Medium size, gray and white raggedy fur, rapidly wagging tail and soulful eyes. Of course, he came and jumped on me, and I had to pet him.
"The police found him tied to a tree with a piece of rope in the middle of a snowstorm. Poor thing. He was hungry and his fur was all matted. We had to cut half of it off just to get him cleaned up."
Like a zombie, the next thing I know, I'm at the pet supermarket for the whole nine yards: bed, collar, leash, dog food, dog dishes, crunchy bones, chewy bones and a stuffed animal so he wouldn't be lonely while I was working.
Rita had already named him Max after her grandfather, and that was okay with me. I'm not picky about dog names except for people who call their dogs "Maniac" or "Dumbbell." One true thing I learned from all those positive thinking books is don't keep saying something you don't want. If you want an intelligent dog, call him Einstein.
Max went out to enjoy my backyard. It's fun to watch a dog sniff and explore a new place. But I didn't want to stare as he did his personal business, so I just looked up from my magazine from time to time. He raced around and barked a pleasant mid-sized dog bark at the squirrels in the pine trees. As he disappeared behind the currant bushes, I caught a glimpse of a pearly white light coming through the bare branches before he charged out the other side.
I opened and closed my eyes, and everything was back to normal except for that queasy feeling. These glasses would have to go. I was getting a little edgy. More than a little. It was probably time to go online to the game network and blow everyone and everything up. However, my hands were shaking and tears were leaking down my cheeks.
I live in a house I love, a spacious three bedroom ranch, with a nice big yard for a dog. Right at that moment though, I felt very alone, a single woman in a house on the far edge of suburbia. I was thinking that if I lost it -- mentally or physically -- who would be there to take care of me? Getting this dog was a good idea, I thought, lapsing into a self-pitying daydream of "I've fallen and I can't get up." Then, of course, good old Lassie-Max pushes the speed dial button on the phone for nine-one-one.
Maybe I'd better rest my eyes, I thought. So I gave myself permission to go to bed early, tucked Max into his doggy bed, and crashed.
In the morning, when Max came in from his run in the yard, he begged for a biscuit and took up residence on the guest bed in my computer room/office. I scratched him behind the ears for a bit, and I admit I felt a certain sense of well-being when I did.
I like working at home, getting away from the nine to five grind, and the Dilbert-ization of America. I was not a happy camper at Big Brother and the Holding Company. When I overheard someone referring to me as Mary Bitch Peterson instead of Mary Beth, I knew it was time to go. I'm a highly paid database consultant now. I get my work in on deadline, and have been known to have strokes of genius in problem solving. Hours in front of the computer go by like minutes to me.
Max slept while I named fields, emailed my client an update on my progress, downloaded a merge file, tweaked a page, played with the colors, and started some data entry. When my eyes began to cross, I pulled back from the screen and glanced over to Max. And saw a unicorn sleeping on the bed. I pulled out my calendar. Yep. Unicorn's Birthday.
I needed some aspirin bad. I squeezed my eyes together. I did accupressure massage on my forehead and eye ridges. I took three deep breaths. I stretched. I looked to my right. Still a unicorn, actually quite glorious.
I stood up, turned straight on toward the bed, and it held just a dog, looking soulfully at me and wagging his tail. I fell back into the desk chair and grabbed for the digital Rolodex. Hallucinations ought to get me an instant appointment for a psychotherapist, but with an HMO you never know. Max whined. I looked back. There was a man on my bed. Quite short, fluffy beard with long gray and white hair, dressed in a full-length midnight blue caftan.
I put my hands to my eyes in the manner of horse blinders and made for the door, feeling a distinct sense of disorientation. I heard Max jump off the bed to follow me.
Instinct got me to the kitchen, digging frantically through the junk drawer till I found one of those large chocolate bars I keep for medicinal purposes. After consuming mass quantities, I got a dog biscuit for Max. I faced him directly. Still a dog. I said, "Sit." He sat. I tossed him the biscuit. He caught it with a snap of his cute little jaws. He came up to me with his tail wagging. I stooped down to pet him. "It's not your fault I'm going crazy, little puppy."
"But it is. I'm so sorry," he replied.
Startled, I fell back, my rear end meeting the kitchen floor. I squinted. A dog. I saw a dog. He trotted to my left side. "Look this way," said the voice. "No. Don't turn your head. Just bring your eyes left." The small man with gray whiskers appeared in my vision again.
"Do you see me now? Don't move your head. Just speak."
"Now, very slowly bring your eyes forward and slowly bring them back to me."
I moved my eyeballs to the right until the man turned into a dog, then back to the left to man again.
"I apologize again to you for the inconvenience, but we must get the brain trained to the glasses to carry on normal business."
Normal. I heard that word. Business. I heard that, too, but my brain wouldn't put the pieces together. "How could you possibly have anything to do with these glasses? I got them at Eyeball Express in the mall."
"Ah, you have to understand the complications of the metaphysical configuration that has been generated for us to communicate. Please keep bringing your eyes slowly back and forth." He spoke soothingly. "Just relax and your eyes will learn to change focus and see me whenever you choose."
"Why didn't you just ring the doorbell or email me?"
"Just let me know when you can look straight on and shift dimensional convergence consciously. Have you done biofeedback? It's like taking your brainwave pattern from beta to alpha only with your eyes."
Okay. I did deep breathing along with the eye exercises he described. Anything to get rid of that queasy, disoriented feeling. Finally, I could look him straight in his twinkly eyes. Knees creaking, I got up from the kitchen floor and collapsed into a chair. "Who are you and why are you my dog?"
"Oh, lovely," he said, and took the chair opposite, "we're synchronous."
"Are you a unicorn?"
"No, not me, my dear. I'm not really embodied here at all. Max is. He really is a dog, a wonderful friend, and a great help to me. He is my interface with your dimensionality. I believe the unicorn must be another of his networked alliances. I can't tell you how complicated in time and space it was to get both Max and the glasses to you. But I know you're worth it."
With the goofy glasses adjusted, I was feeling much better. The nausea and the headache were gone. In the glow of this well-being, I made a conscious choice to follow along with this conversation to the best of my ability even though it included a being with an extremely high unbelievability quotient. "There is going to be an explanation here, right?"
"I inquired carefully. Everyone said you were absolutely THE database wizard. As one spellcaster to another, I want to say how honored I am to make your acquaintance. I, my dear, am Loka Zel, a humble librarian at the University of Monte Logos at Telharmonia. It's the greatest storehouse of knowledge for adepts in our metaverse."
"Wait!" I interrupted. "A database isn't a spell. It's a computer software program for organizing and storing information, like market research or medical records."
"Exactly what we need, my dear. Unfortunately, despite our best protections, some of our older documents are crumbling to bits and others have been filed rather haphazardly.
"We have no technological infrastructure to create a computer network as you have here on your world, and our storehouses on the akashic plane are accessible only to the most powerful. It's only been in the past few centuries that wizards, magicians, sorcerers and alchemists were willing to share anything for the sake of pure knowledge. At the University with the efforts of practitioners, historians and researchers, we have reached the Age of No Secrets, but our information systems are terribly disorganized.
"Will you help us devise the most glorious database in Creation? The interface with your computer and software will be a magical tome, appearing as an oversized book in our world. I'll be developing that. I think gilt pages would be nice, don't you? The centerpiece of our library. A simple spell with a clarified intention will trigger the search and sort functions. Lovely, lovely, lovely."
This would have been so appealing when I was younger. In my unicorn days, I took a vow that I would never let something so wonderful slip away, and I would follow the magic wherever it took me. But he wasn't describing happily ever after. "This sounds like a lot of work," I said.
"Yes, a remarkable plan. Nothing quite like this has been done before. One cautionary note, however. This project could take years."
"Have we discussed my hourly rate?" I raised my eyebrows.
"Unfortunately, we cannot send coin through the interface. Even the papers that will seem to be on your desk will just be projections." He pointed to a pad of paper on the table. "Hold that." As I took it in my hand and centered it in my field of vision, the blue horizontal lines on yellow background disappeared and I saw parchment covered with the words, drawings and diagrams. I studied the text indicating the ingredients and ritual preparation for a spell for animating a kitchen broom.
"Damn! This is more hellaciously complicated than the technical measurement and pattern database I did for the cadcam programmer at the Steelworks."
"Let me introduce you to our faculty and staff." He got up, but then it was Max I saw pawing at the door of a lower kitchen cupboard. I opened it and he bit into the big old orange and blue college yearbook I was using as a replacement shelf. Plastic tubs and lids tumbled out onto the floor. I picked up the yearbook and took it back to the table. Max jumped onto the chair and came back into focus as Loka Zel. "Perfect," he said. "Thank you."
Tentatively opening the cover, I discovered the photos of football homecoming, Frisbee on the quad and campus landmarks had transformed into perfectly clear windows into another world. The first page was a panorama of the University of Monte Logos at Telharmonia in all its glory: gray stone towers adorned with runes and gargoyles, surrounded with emerald grass and ancient trees.
On the next page was the library interior. Books, scrolls and parchment papers were sorted on long shelves or stacked on the tables. Sunbeams streamed in from high windows. Movement made me realize the pictures weren't static as a librarian walked into view. He stopped suddenly as if someone had called his name, lifted his eyes to mine, smiled and waved "hello," then walked out of view.
"It's interactive." I said, awed.
Slowly turning the departmental pages I saw silver-haired sages, the abundant women of the herbal guild, acolytes of alchemy, familiars of animal linguistics, bards with harps and flutes. A mental question about audio brought forth a tune that nearly had me jumping out of my seat dancing. "Magic can ensorcel, my dear, use care."
I closed the book quickly, took off the glasses and put them on the table. Max looked at me and wagged his tail. I got up, crossed the room and grabbed onto the edge of the sink. I let my head drop down and stretched my back out by pulling away from the sink. Straightening, I wiggled my neck around until it crinked.
Without glasses, I squinted back toward the table. Max was curled up on the chair, apparently taking a nap. Sun shone in the window. It was winter quiet, except for the faint rumbling of traffic from the highway. I'm sure I have a choice. I could get new glasses. I could choose to say no. I could go for therapy. Damn, that taste of magic was sweet, better than chocolate.
The phone rang. I picked the cordless off the counter and walked to the window. It was Rita. "How's things with Max?"
"I have to tell you, Rita, he's a remarkable dog."
"Told you. Hey, I'm taking a class at the community center and maybe you want to come with me. It's called 'Setting Boundaries in Relationships.' I really think my dogs are trying to take over my life."
"Really? I can't imagine how such a thing could happen."
"Well, maybe the one next Thursday. It's 'Imagery for Creating Your Own Reality.'
"What I'd really like is setting boundaries on someone else's reality," I replied.
"Sounds like you had a run in with someone like my ex," she said.
"Nothing so dreadful as that -- just negotiations with a new client. He's asking for a major paradigm shift."
"Well, just ask him for big bucks, Mary Beth. You deserve it. That database stuff is so boring. I don't see how you can stand it."
"Let's do lunch next Friday. Then you can tell me what reality you created and I'll tell you mine."
Sitting down at the table, I put the glasses back on. Loka Zel appeared to be napping. I heard Max bark sharply. He opened his eyes. "So you see, my dear, we act in your world through an interface, but the magic when directed passes through quite easily. Therefore, even though we cannot offer you gold or jewels, we can suggest several spells that can give you what money can't buy."
"World peace?" I suggested. "True love?"
"I'm sorry, my dear. At present, we are limited to interacting with just you and Max. However, for example, I can create a spell of protection against hard drive crashes and invading computer viruses. As a matter of fact, these will be essential for our work."
"Sounds like a good start."
"We can place the cornucopia spell on your cupboards so they will always be full."
"Can you do the same for the gas tank on my car?"
"With some study, we could probably develop an application."
"What about my wallet?"
"Creating money would be interference in your country's economy which is not permitted." He smiled at me kindly.
"So there's no actual money involved here, is that what you're saying?"
"We do want to protect your investment in our project. We have a spell that can halt the aging process for the entire time you're working for us. This is just a part of the university's health plan by the way."
"Oh, you know, the usual cure and heal spells for illness and wound recovery. Max has been under our auspices for years. He's approximately eighty-seven earth years old."
My mind started tripping on, let's see, in dog years that would be five hundred ...
Suddenly, things came into focus. A complex project of nearly infinite length that would tax my organizational, programming and problem solving skills to the nth degree while providing some very creative compensation. Plus an intelligent, mystery dog with a unicorn connection. Best of all, using these new glasses, I could easily read the fine print on a most unusual contract.
Marcia Sacks wears bifocals but unfortunately has never spotted a unicorn. She is a writer, teacher, and astrologer in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Her writing has appeared online in Flashquake, Laughter Loaf and on her website, Marcia's Akashic Record.
"Bifocals" was originally published in DragonSoup Ezine.
Re-printed by permission of the author.