I thought it was a reflection at first. Not the moon. Some streetlight or something, from outside, getting past my curtains. I was too lazy, too sleepy to get up and deal with it. But I do remember thinking it was strange.
Isn’t the light too bright to be a reflection? I thought, peeking up at the ceiling.
I do remember resisting the urge to rub my eyes. I wanted to take a closer look.
Did I just see something floating in the light?
A closer look is what I wanted. But what I needed was to get a good night’s sleep.
I’m a good sleeper, but every once in a while, I go through periods where I’ll wake up in the middle of the night. And I’ll have trouble getting back to sleep because my mind starts winding up.
And this light in my ceiling was just the kind of curiosity that kept my mind churning away unless I made it stop.
So that’s how it started. A light about the size of a drink coaster. And then the next night, I saw it again, only this time I did get up and check the curtains, and check if I had anything plugged in. Maybe an indicator light from my headphones or my portable fan was pointed to the ceiling. But it wasn’t anything like that. This light was too intense and it was yellowy-white. All my devices had blue or red lights.
In the middle of the night, my grogginess fading, I lay on my bed and stared up at the ceiling. I didn’t like sleeping with an eye mask on, but it would work. It would block out the light.
But it wouldn’t block out my question.
Where is it coming from?
From above, came the answer.
My own mind was picking on me. Great.
I stared at the light and noticed that it seemed to be expanding out until it was the size of my face. And as it did, it dimmed little by little until I saw something else, something within the light. Something floated across and vanished when it reached the margins of illumination.
Was that a cell?
It looked like a cell. Vaguely round and translucent with bits inside, bits that looked like organelles. Round empty vacuoles, the striated endoplasmic reticulum, and one giant bag full of grainy material—the nucleus.
I sighed. I knew it, I thought. I’ve been spending too much time at the microscope.
Now I was seeing afterimages (on my ceiling!).
The light seemed to be tinged a slight pink now. It kept expanding until it was about the size of a card table, only round. And it didn’t seemed to be reflected onto my ceiling. It seemed to be part of the ceiling. But my bedroom didn’t have a built-in ceiling light. It never had as far as I knew.
Another cell floated by. The shape was different from the first. It went by too fast. Too fast for me to identify it. Blood cells maybe. Why else would they be floating? Cells tend to grow on a substrate, something solid they can stick to. They tend to stay put. Don’t they?
Stop thinking and go to sleep.
I reached for my phone and waited until another “cell” floated by. I couldn’t see the phenomenon in my phone’s view. But I still tried to take some video.
I glanced up at my ceiling as I replayed the video. But there was nothing on the video except darkness. So I turned on my desk lamp, wondering if that would make the phenomenon in the ceiling go away. It didn’t.
I took another video. I took a few pictures. But they all just showed a regular-looking ceiling.
My eye can see it, I thought, gazing down at my phone. But your eye can’t.
It didn’t make sense to me, but then, I wasn’t an expert in optics.
I left the desk lamp on and reached for my sketchbook, flipping past the pages of pencil sketches I’d done for a free course on perspective that I’d signed up for last month. I started sketching the cells whenever I spotted them. I didn’t recognize them, but I could look them up later. They seemed to be floating in some semi-viscous liquid medium. Every now and then, the medium seemed to jiggle a little. And I would see vague shadows moving beyond the liquid surface.
It was all gone by morning.
And I didn’t know when it disappeared, because I fell asleep at some point.
After it happened a few nights in a row, I meant to mention it to someone. But it didn’t seem to be important. There was always something else to deal with in the light of day.
Anyway, I got used to it. I got used to seeing eukaryotic cells the size of my head floating around in a growth medium in a huge Petri dish stuck in my ceiling. I finally told some colleagues and friends about it—though I presented it as a creepy recurring dream.
But how do you know it’s real?
One night, I dared myself to reach up and touch the bottom surface of the dish.
Why does it disappear in the morning?
It was like that one time I dared myself to pick up a dead cricket with my bare hands instead of with a paper towel. It took a lot to get over my squeamishness.
Just touch it.
I stood up on my bed. I could see that there was light coming from the other side of the Petri dish.
Maybe I should ask L. P. if he’s noticed anything, or if he’s installed anything.
L. P. was my upstairs neighbor.
I braced myself and started raising my hand. I imagined what I would feel. The cool smooth plastic bottom of the dish. I glimpsed a shadow shifting past the liquid surface of the dish. I hesitated.
The liquid in the dish jiggled. Then the dish slid away and a bright light struck my eye. I threw up my arms and sat back down on my bed. The bright light vanished just as suddenly. My lamp wasn’t on. I let my eyes adjust until I could see the shapes of my hands.
When I looked up at the ceiling again, the Petri dish was gone. Something else was there. I saw white patches—no, white triangles, jerking or sliding from side to side. They were next to something. But nothing was illuminated. There was something familiar about the shapes, but I couldn’t see. It was too dark. Even once my eyes adjusted.
I reached for my desk lamp. I fixed my gaze on the ceiling. I tapped the touch control. The light came on. And I saw what had replaced the Petri dish on my ceiling.
Protruding through the hole.
A huge eye.
I yelled out. The hazel iris shifted toward me. I gasped and clapped a hand to my mouth.
It’s an eye. An eye. It’s-an-eye-it’s-an-eye-it’s-an-eye.
I slowly slid off the bed, stopping when I felt my left leg give way. That green-golden iris followed me. I flinched. I made my left leg stand. I pulled the rest of me off the bed, dashed to the door, flung it open, and pulled it closed behind me.
I pulled in gasping breaths as I paced away from the door. My hands were shaking.
Okay, okay, think. I have to…
I had cried out. Someone must have heard. Someone would come knocking on my door. Normally I didn’t want that.
Leave me alone.
But right now, right now I might want that.
I might want that.
I waited. But no one came to the door. And I’d left my phone in the bedroom. My keys, my phone, everything I would need to escape.
Maybe no one heard me. Or maybe they heard me and thought I’d just stubbed my toe or something. Maybe I’d…had a nightmare.
I have to, I thought to myself.
I had to deal with it myself. I had to go back in there.
Maybe I would open the door and the Petri dish would be there again. Maybe I had imagined the eye.
But if I’d imagined the eye, then I’d imagined the whole thing, and I knew that I hadn’t. I knew it was real. The Petri dish. The eye. They were real. As real as my walls, my ceiling, myself.
I turned on all the lights in my living room, my kitchen, my hallway. And I paced around, until I worked out the jittering in my muscles and the hitches in my breathing.
When I felt I was ready, I strode up to my bedroom door. I put my hand on the doorknob. I would peek. Just peek. I wouldn’t draw its attention.
Then I turned the knob and shoved the door open. The door swung open, hit the wall and bounced back partway.
The eye was still there. The iris shifted toward the door.
And then toward me.
What do you want?
I opened my mouth to ask. But I didn’t say a word.
All the lights were on. I saw it clearly. Every delicate capillary in the glistening sclera. The ruffled layers of the iris radiating from the deep dark hole of the pupil. The soft flesh at the edge of the lower lid.
I backed away from the bedroom door and shuffled sideways, out of sight of the eye.
I went to the kitchen, to the wooden block on the counter. I pulled out the largest knife in the block. A carving knife. I’d never actually used it.
I gripped the knife and walked back to the bedroom, taking firm, deliberate steps.
What do you think you’re doing with that?
My hand began to shake.
I don’t know.
I approached the door. I could see that the iris was shifting and sliding all around, examining my room.
Strange sample, huh? I thought.
The iris shifted toward me as if it had heard my thought.
But that wasn’t it. I just happened to come into its field of vision. I was in the doorway. And now I dared to step into the bedroom.
It’s not the knife. It’s the familiarity, I thought.
Familiarity. My mind—my own eye—had become familiar enough with the sight of the giant eye in my ceiling to calm that initial panic. And I was able to take that first step back into my bedroom, and that second step…and third.
I held the knife by my side. Just by my side. But I turned it so that the blade would catch the light of the desk lamp. So that the eye would see it.
The eye did see it. And the eye pulled back and that bright light returned, and then…
…the Petri dish.
I dared to climb back onto my bed, but I didn’t lay down. And I didn’t sleep. I watched the ceiling. I turned on my computer and started playing some show, with the volume just loud enough for me to hear. When I felt sleepy, I got up and paced around, watching the ceiling, watching cells float by. It would have been peaceful, if I hadn’t been braced for that eye to return.
But it didn’t.
When morning came, I saw the margins of the circle start to shrink, and the light grew brighter and smaller. It was the reverse of what happened when the light—the phenomenon—appeared.
By the time dawn arrived, my ceiling was just a ceiling again.
The next night, I watched and the usual happened, the light, the expanding, the Petri dish, the cells. And then, in the middle of the night…a bright light, and the eye.
It was the same eye. The same color. The same pattern of capillaries.
I thought about getting the knife again. But I didn’t.
I wondered if anything new would happen. Would the eye vanish and would a giant finger come poking through the hole?
But nothing new happened.
I’d planned on staying up again. I had napped on my couch earlier.
But I hadn’t slept enough in days. It was catching up with me.
I got up out of bed. And I could have sworn, I saw the eye recoil just a little.
I grabbed my pillow and headed to my living room. I left the lights on in the bedroom and the hallway. I lay down and at some point, I fell asleep.
By the time my alarm woke me, it was an hour past dawn. I checked my bedroom, unsurprised that my ceiling was just a ceiling.
I opened the curtains and squeezed my eyes, turning away from the bright day.
The lamp, I thought. It’s too bright during the day. It’s obscuring your vision. The sample is sitting in the lamp. And you can’t adjust that.
But where was the light coming from then, the one I saw from above during the night? Was it coming from the laboratory of whatever was observing me?
What did they think they were seeing? Was the eye as surprised to see me as I had been to see it? Was it…as disturbed to see me as I was to see it?
I need proof. I need a witness.
I had told a few people about my ceiling, presenting my observations as if they were dreams. But I hadn’t told anyone about the eye yet.
I had a friend, a self-professed skeptic. And when I told her about the “dreams,” she was the only one who didn’t try to interpret or extract meaning. She just listened.
It wasn’t as challenging as I had expected, to tell her that my “dreams” were actually observations, and that I needed a witness to corroborate these observations since all my attempts to record the phenomenon had failed.
“I know it sounds…farfetched,” I said.
She nodded and smiled. “It is the most creative way I’ve ever been invited to a sleepover.”
My friend was a variable. Her presence might change the conditions of the environment in such a way that the phenomenon didn’t happen, the way it didn’t happen in the presence of sunlight.
It wouldn’t mean what I saw didn’t happen.
But even if she did see it. What then?
One thing at a time, I told myself.
So she came. She wore funny pajamas and brought board games and a puzzle for us to put together. She’d been wanting to put together a puzzle with someone, but her husband found it boring.
We started catching up, and then meandering into other topics of conversation, and she seemed to have forgotten why she was really in my apartment for the night.
I let her be the one to notice the light when it first appeared. And she did.
She glanced at me with a crooked smile. “Special effects,” she said.
When it first appeared, the phenomenon did not seem eerie or out of the ordinary at all. The light expanded, dimmed, the cells appeared, floating in their pink liquid medium. My desk lamp was still on.
My friend narrated her observations, and what she thought was going on. Not visual effects. But props. What she was seeing was real, so maybe I’d gotten my neighbor to make a hole between our units and drop a giant Petri dish prop in there.
All of her conjectures made sense, if I were setting up an elaborate prank on her for some reason.
That’s the only thing that didn’t make sense. My motive.
But people pick up new hobbies and interests all the time. Why not pranking?
She saw the shadows moving around beyond the liquid surface.
“Your neighbors?” she asked, turning to me again with a smirk.
It was odd to be standing next to someone who was seeing the same thing I was seeing. And yet who was not perceiving what I perceived.
As I’d feared, my friend could not serve as witness.
She was still looking up, maybe trying to figure out how I’d pulled it off, when the Petri dish vanished and the bright light appeared. The lamp, I now presumed.
I glanced up and saw the eye descend through the light. I glanced down at my friend. At her face.
And I saw something that I’d never seen before in real life. Horror dawning in someone’s eyes.
Her smirk faded slowly as her mouth dropped into a gape.
And then she was screaming.
Panic seized my heart. My stomach lurched.
I reached toward her and tried to shush her. I tried to shush someone who was screaming the top of her lungs.
We’d been sitting on my bed. I jumped off the side, wrapped my arms around her, and dragged her off and out of the door.
I tried to put my hand over her mouth. But she stopped screaming as soon as we were in the hallway. I thought it was because she had calmed. But she was still sucking in breath and trying to scream. She just couldn’t.
She whimpered. Tears blotched her face.
I let go of her, grabbed her by the wrist, and led her to the living room. She reached into her robe and pulled out her phone.
“We have to call the police,” she whispered. “We have to get out.”
“No!” I grabbed the phone from her, told her how ridiculous we would sound to the police.
This was something a person had to see for themselves.
She nodded, and she called her husband instead, to tell him to come pick us up. As the phone rang, she looked up at me. “I didn’t believe you—I’m sorry.”
She was shaking. The way I’d been shaking the first time I saw the eye. I was sorry too. I thought I had prepared her.
While we waited for her husband to come, I rehearsed lies I would tell them so that I wouldn’t have to go with them. I didn’t want to go.
I wanted to stay.
My friend had served as witness after all. But now things would get complicated. I didn’t want to encourage her to lie to her husband about this, but…I wouldn’t be able to control what happened if more people got involved.
Again, I expected neighbors to come knocking at my door. Or maybe someone else would have called the police to report that a woman was screaming in the middle of the night.
A short while later someone did knock, but it was my friend’s husband. She had told him to come get us because it “wasn’t safe.” But she hadn’t said anything else. So he was understandably distraught, until my friend told him that she’d just had a nightmare. Then he became understandably irritated.
And I was surprised.
I thought maybe she was covering for the truth of what she and I had seen. But when I caught her eye, I saw what I’d seen before the horror struck her. If her mind had opened the door to the truth on seeing the giant eye, it had now shut that door.
I apologized to them both and told my friend I’d check up on her in the morning.
The door to my bedroom was still open.
The eye was still there, watching me.
And I’m still here, watching you.
Something had to change.
Something had to happen.
I fetched that carving knife again, and I returned to the bedroom. I climbed onto my bed. The eye saw the knife, but didn’t move away.
After all, I hadn’t used it last time.
I felt my heart beating faster, fiercer.
In my right hand, I gripped the knife.
With my left hand, I reached up, slowly.
With your bare hands? You’re going to touch it?
My left hand started to feel warm and itchy, but I kept reaching up and up. I touched something soft and solid. I curled my fingers around it.
Just as I grasped it, the eye blinked.
I was thrown into sudden darkness.
In the darkness, feeling my heartbeat calm and my breathing slow, I felt something still in my hand. My shivering left hand.
I was still holding the knife in my right. I carefully climbed down. I kept my gaze fixed to the ceiling. I touched the back of my hand to the desk lamp. Funny. It had been on just a moment ago. So had the hallway lights.
It was still the middle of the night.
But there was nothing on my ceiling. I stared at it for a few moments just to be sure.
Then I raised my left hand to see what I was holding.
A huge black eyelash.
I held it up under the lamp to take a closer look. But my eyes could only see so much.
I would pack it up. And in the morning, I would take it to lab. I would slice off a small piece of the sample. And take a look at it, under the microscope.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel