Baxter raised his head at the sound of Thomas stirring from his bed. The man and dog walked towards the bathroom, Thomas holding the sides of the doorway as he shuffled in to conduct his morning duties. Baxter sat at attention at the doorway, mind laser focused on the sounds of his master.
Walking towards the kitchen, Thomas opened the back door to allow Baxter to go outside to relieve himself. Thomas moved somewhat clumsily towards his morning routine, his face turned upwards as he ground coffee and pulled the overnight oats from the fridge. Thomas fumbled for his phone, and entered his password, playing the two messages on his voicemail on speaker as he grasped for the back of the chair, making his way to the table and rising again to pour the finished coffee from the pot into his familiar and singular mug.
*Message 1, left at 8:48pm, from 972-497-7484*. “ ...Your extended warranty. This is a courtesy call. We have been trying to contact you -” Thomas felt for the 5, moving his thumb deftly down the raised dot and to the left, pressing 7 to delete. This is why he couldn’t get one of those iPhones Heather was trying to push on him, without the dot he couldn’t orient to the touchscreen. Despite Heather’s insistence that it was voice controlled - did everyone in the universe need to hear him voice controlling the parasitic robot phone that lived in his pocket?
*Message 2, left at 9:33pm from 214-747-8843. “Dad, it's Heather, I know it's late and past your bedtime. Anyways, I know you weren’t interested, but I signed you up anyways, and they picked you! To beta test for The Device. Dad, call me back, I think you need to look into this, it will change your life. Call me back as soon as you get this. Love you dad.”
Thomas pressed the third of the four buttons below the screen of his phone, pulling the contacts up, and pressed down once to highlight his number 1 favorite. He couldn’t see the pixelated small icon of her smiling back at him, but knew it was there.
“Dad?” Her sleepy voice answered on the third ring.
“Sorry kiddo, how early is it?” Thomas was notorious for his early rising, programming he was particularly proud of given his disregard for the sun's brightness.
“Um..6:34? I guess I did tell you to call when you got the message….hold on, I’ll get up.” Thomas heard the muffle of Heather putting the phone down in the sheets, and her groans as he imagined her stretching the way she did when she was little. Heather had been 9 when Thomas experienced the aneurysm, caught in time to save his life, but originating near his optic nerve, severing the connection and rendering him completely blind. Thomas still imagined her frozen at 9 years old, despite the 30 years that had passed since.
“Ok, dad, you there?” Thomas heard Heather whispering, straining to not wake Dan and the kids.
“Yeah, now what did you sign me up for?” Thomas cut to the chase, hating to talk while he ate, preferring the full concentration so that he didn’t risk dropping any crumbs, spoiling Baxter. Thomas was vigilant about the training that Baxter experienced, remembering the warnings that feeding Baxter table scraps could risk undoing all their hard work, severing the cue of work versus play.
“Ok, so you know how Dan has been working on that new project, marketing that new prosthetic thingy?” Thomas was half listening, focused on spoon to mouth coordination. Dan worked in medical marketing, a concept that confused Thomas. If it was effective medically, why did it need marketing? He grunted to keep Heather talking.
“They ran some ad saying that they were looking for people with different impairments for their beta study, like people with hearing loss, vision loss, nerve damage…” Thomas vaguely remembered Dan talking about this the last time they all had dinner together, his response at that time being his exact thoughts now. He didn’t need anything or anyone, as long as he had Baxter.
It had taken a long time and a lot of coaxing from Heather to get Baxter, too. When Gloria was still able to, she had been his eyes. Thomas barely felt the difference, having relied on his touch and smell more than his vision for his entire career. Gloria guided him through life, and he had never even tried to get used to using the red tipped cane provided to him in a two day training session by the rehabilitation hospital. After Gloria’s dementia got so bad that she forgot who he was between lunch and dinner, Thomas returned to the hospital. He conveniently timed his appointment so that he wouldn’t be there when they moved Gloria to the nursing home. He dodged Heather’s invitations to accompany her to visit for so long that she had stopped asking.
Finally, after 5 years of failing to adjust to the cane, Heather convinced Thomas to listen to the pitch about guide dogs. Thomas signed up for an elite training company, waiting three years before his turn came up. He entrusted his orchids and Heather and Dan for two months when he traveled up to Virginia to attend Baxter’s training sessions daily, forging the bond with Baxter that ensured his loyalty and obedience. Two years later, and Baxter had fully replaced the white cane, and Thomas didn’t see any need for a change.
“Dad, are you listening? We signed you up - I didn’t honestly think it would go anywhere, but I guess since Dan works for the company, they prioritized friends and family. Dad, I really think you need to do it.” Thomas felt Baxter at his side, guiding him as he put his bowl in the sink. He’d have to wait to wash it, it would drown Heather out.
“I don’t need-” Heather cut him off.
“Dad, it's going to be $40,000 when it comes out. You get it for free. Don’t make me spend all this time explaining it to you, just trust me, Dad.” Thomas could hear the exasperation in her voice, and behind that, the sounds of her dogs, two yippie yorkies in the background. Baxter could hear too, Thomas could feel his head cocked towards the phone as he absent mindedly pat him on the head. Pats were allowed when Baxter didn’t have the vest on.
“Email me the information. I’ll think about it, kiddo.” Thomas let her off the phone before taking up more of the morning. He needed to clean his dishes if he was going to have them prepared for lunch, and he still needed to check on the orchids.
The greenhouse was his pride and joy, built when Heather was still a toddler, photos of her in rubber boots and overalls etched into his brain as if he could still see them each day. Gloria had begun the orchid farm when Thomas was working at the bank downtown, as a hobby, busier during Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, quieter over the summer when cheaper, happier sunflowers were chosen over the temperamental beauties.
It was when Thomas lost his vision that the orchids really started to bloom - pun intended. It's said that when one loses a sense, the other senses become stronger to compensate. For Thomas, this came through in his flowers. He could tell, with a gentle rub of petal between thumb and forefinger, if the plant was getting enough sun. Prodding the exposed roots, Thomas knew how much - or - how little water the plant needed. Usually just an ice cube was enough, the orchids reaching out to touch him as he walked the rows and rows. Gloria had created a color and species grid for him to memorize, and he knew that Heather helped keep the new propagations organized accordingly. Heather handled the marketing, using Dan’s marketing genius to create an ever present demand for the flowers, coveted by restaurants, spas, and resorts in a 6 hour radius. Brides reserved their arrangements before they even had deposits paid on venues. Gloria’s Glories were renowned, and their blind cultivator was a marvel deserving of article write ups and an ever growing reach. Despite not ever visiting Gloria, choosing the comfort of his familiar environment and steady routine, the nursing home overflowed with lavish displays, each flower picked by Thomas as a silent hope of reaching his wife trapped inside her faltering brain.
Thomas returned to the house, and made his way to the large desktop computer on his desk. Using the text to speech feature, only a few garbled errors gave him cautious uncertainty about The Device. Claiming to rewrite neural pathways electronically, The Device relied on the brain's neuroplasticity to recreate sensory experiences that had been damaged, or never even existed at all. With a small chip placement on his brainstem, The Device would become a part of his brain, with easy laparoscopic access should there need to be any improvements or upgrades to The Device. The whole procedure could be done in a four hour outpatient visit.
Thomas placed his fingers on the F and J keys to craft a response to Heather. “Let me think about it.”
Promptly at 8pm, Thomas took Baxter out for his last walk of the evening. Thomas relied on these routines, and Baxter did as well - both Thomas and Baxter had digestive issues anytime their routine was disrupted. Thomas experienced pride at his capabilities, particularly in contrast to how debilitating his initial vision loss was. When the aneurysm first occurred,Thomas had visions of himself helpless and dependent, forced to rely on his wife and daughter. As Thomas and Gloria adjusted to the loss of his vision, he became more and more independent - but also more rigid and set in his ways. It was hard for him to adjust to taking on the responsibility of Baxter, despite Heather’s years of pushing and encouraging.
At first, Heather’s nagging had felt similar to her childhood, where all she requested each birthday and holiday was a dog. Unfortunately, Gloria had severe allergies to all animals - and Thomas didn’t particularly like the thought of himself as a poodle owner. Heather immediately began sending him information about service animals as soon as Gloria had been settled in her new residence. Thomas had teased her at first, reminding her that she had her own dogs to love now in her adulthood. Heather had persisted, and it wasn’t until he met a fellow sight impaired friend in a support group who divulged his upcoming trip to meet a potential service dog, that Thomas even considered the idea. Now, he couldn’t imagine functioning without Baxter’s help.
The next morning, after breakfast and orchid care, Thomas could hear Heather’s voice in the house, walking towards him in the study. She didn’t even need to look for him, knowing where to find her father at each time of day in his regimented routine. “Hi kiddo, I didn’t expect you today,” Thomas greeted her warmly, some suspicion at her unannounced arrival. Thomas could hear Baxter’s tail thumping on the wood floor, and he knew Heather was petting the dog, even though he had asked her not to do so while Baxter was working.
“I went ahead and made you an appointment to talk to them about The Device dad. I know the email didn’t tell you enough, and you have to learn about how this can change your life. Come on, we can get lunch and then head in there, you’ll be home by dinnertime to check on the flowers.” Thomas felt torn, not wanting to miss out an opportunity to spend time with Heather outside of their work routine, but also not wanting to disrupt his own day and plans. He also had no interest in some brain implant, no matter what Heather thought.
Heather knew her father’s silence was full of his internal dialogue. “Please dad.” She also knew he had a hard time ever telling her no, outright.
“Fine,” Thomas grumbled, standing and grasping for Baxter’s handle on his service vest. “Let me get some shoes on, and we will be ready to go.”
Thomas attempted to distract Heather during their lunch, telling her about his ideas for new orchid hybrids, telling her he wanted to show her suspected root rot. He was hoping to convince her that there was some urgency behind a need to return home, skipping the visit to the outpatient center. No such luck.
Greeted warmly by reception, Heather kissed her father on the cheek. “I’m going to go pop into Dan’s office, I’ll meet you after the information session to see if you want to move forward.”
After sitting through an hour long lecture on the science, research, and supposed benefits, Thomas could feel the sales pitch working. Damn Dan was good at his job. His patient coordinator appeared at his elbow, and Thomas could feel Baxter turning towards her.
“So, do you want to schedule your appointment for this week or next?” Clever girl, she didn’t even give him the option to say no.
“I guess let's just get this over with.” Thomas had enough experience with Heather’s persistence to know that he wasn’t getting out of this, and the sales pitch reassured him multiple times that this was fully reversible, should he have any adverse reactions, or not experience the promised benefits.
Friday of that same week, Thomas was late arriving at the outpatient center. He prided himself on his independence, and declined Heather’s offers to take him, telling her that picking him up after would be fine, he could Uber to get there. Unfortunately, two Uber drivers had simultaneously refused him service after seeing that he was accompanied by a dog, despite the ADA provisions to allow for guide dogs and service animals As mad as he was, Thomas understood - back when he was a car owner, he would never have wanted a dog in his vehicle either. He finally resorted to asking his neighbor, Alice - a lovely widow who was always willing to drop everything to help Thomas - for a ride to the clinic.
After a battery of tests to fully confirm the absence of his sight, as well as blood tests, a heart monitor, and other invasive beeping machines to monitor him, Thomas was taken into the procedure room. Shaving the hair at the very base of his head, the technician marked the place above his neck where the chip would be implanted.
She rubbed a numbing gel over his head, and Thomas braced himself for the pain of having his brain entered. After a few minutes, the technician backed away from him, and crouched down to start talking to Baxter.
“Please let's just get going, and please don’t talk to him when he is working.” Thomas was tired of this refrain - it should be common sense to not mess with a guide dog on duty, yet he was constantly having to reprimand strangers from trying to approach, touch, or otherwise distract Baxter when he was on duty.
“Oh, you are all done! We are just going to keep you here for another hour for monitoring, but you are allowed to just relax during that, I can bring you some water, coffee, or tea, and then your daughter will come pick you up!” The technician cheerfully patted his knee, and left the room.
Thomas was livid. After all that, he was just a placebo tester - they didn’t do anything at all! Oh well, he didn’t want a brain implant anyways, that sounded right out of science fiction. He was mad at the waste of his and Heather’s (and Alice’s!) time, and mad at the time taken away from his orchids. But he was also relieved, nothing would change at all.
The hour passed quickly, and Heather was handed a folder of information when she came to pick him up. Driving home, as they talked, Heather asked him if he noticed anything or felt anything. Thomas filled her in.
“Dad, there aren’t any placebo testers - you definitely got the chip. They said it wouldn’t be activated until tonight, and they turn it on slowly so that you aren’t overwhelmed - I guess it is a lot to suddenly be able to see after 30 years.” Thomas lifted his hand, and felt the tiny pinprick at the base of his scalp.
“Well it had to be no bigger than a speck, then!” Thomas marveled.
“Yeah, they insert it with a regular needle - weren’t you paying attention during the information session?” Thomas had to admit that he hadn’t been, reminiscing instead about trips that he had taken with Gloria - sighted and sightless, and the time he spent with his wife and daughter before he had lost Gloria to dementia.
Heather brought all of the information into the house when she dropped off Thomas and Baxter, preparing her father his dinner before heading home to her own family. After eating, Thomas made his way to the greenhouse.
Dusk was beginning to fall, and Thomas could hear the cicadas and crickets bringing on the night. As he walked in the first row, Thomas began to experience a shadow sensation, and then shapes, similar to circles and hearts, on either side. He stopped in front of the row of Morning Glories, and gasped.
As if a flip had been switched, Thomas felt like he was in a sea of pink. Bright, vivid, colorful pink. He blinked his eyes, and focused, able to - for the first time in 30 years - see the beautiful flower in front of him. He moved his face closer, and could see the tiny veins of white in the flower petal.
Baxter could feel the change in Thomas’ energy, and whined. Thomas looked down, and broke into a grin. Baxter, his loyal companion and best friend, was a gorgeous dog! His smooth haired pup had a gleaming, shiny black coat, and white eyebrows that looked comical as Baxter tilted his head to try to understand the change that had come over his master. Thomas crouched down, vigorously petting Baxter.
“I see you, good boy. I see you.”