My dad lost all of his tears when he was away in Afghanistan, so he couldn’t cry when we stopped by mom’s tomb to visit her. I stay in my seat in the car while my dad kneels in front of the tomb. Ashes fall from his shoulders as he sinks, and the ever shifting coal around his figure envelopes him like a black hole in space. The sun’s light is bathing the cemetery but my dad is shivering like its winter.
When my dad is done, he gets up and turns to face me. His eyes stare at me and I cringe. Should I run away from him? I feel like I should. There’s no love or passion that I can see in his colors.
“The worst thing your mother ever did was leave me with you to take care of. You’re impossible to look after, you know that?” He says as he drives us back home.
Mom is dead and my dad can’t understand why I’m not grieving with him. It reminds me of a story that my mom told me shortly before she passed. A real story about something that happened when I was only six years old. My mom was attending a baby shower at a friend’s house, and I was outside in the front yard playing. At one point, I went back into the house and startled everyone when they saw that I was holding a dead bird in my hands. My mom fondly remembered the fact that as I held the bird, I wasn’t crying over it, nor did I seem the least bit sad. My expression was completely neutral, and I held the bird up for my mom to see it.
“Look momma, look what I found,” I said.
“Alex, you have to take that back outside,” my mom replied, calling me by my middle name.
Later that same evening, my mom explained to me what death really meant. Though I listened, my mom didn’t think I actually fully grasped what she was talking about or understood the finality and tragedy of death. How when one dies, that’s it. That person is no longer in your life anymore.
Like my mom now. But somehow I feel like she’s just on some long trip and will be back soon. Then I’ll be in her embrace again. I’ll be happy again.
Several weeks after the visit to the cemetery, I’m throwing a tantrum after trying to draw.
“I don’t like it! I just don’t like it!” The papers with the drawings on them are whisked aside to drift towards the floor. I pound my fist on the table. Three times now. Three times I’ve tried to draw colors that I see radiating around other people, and three times I’ve failed now. They’re just not translating on paper the way I really see them.
I’m using crayons and colored pencils to try and mimic the colors I see on people, but they’re not doing any good. Worthless things. Worthless.
My therapist told me that if I’m seeing colors around people that no one else can see, maybe I should make a hobby out of it by writing them down in a notebook. I did for a while, but I prefer drawing. Dozens of drawings of churches and houses in a stack sit on my desk, some of them hastily scribbled and others more detailed because of the longer periods of time spent on them. So far, I’ve had no luck capturing the same colors I see on paper.
Behind me, my boyfriend Mark clears his throat. He’s sitting on my bed with an expression on his face that translates as uneasy to me. He doesn’t feel comfortable around me when I act like this. The color I see outlining his form is a vibrant sunflower which I would typically love to see on an actual flower, not on a person.
I’ve wondered and wondered how he tolerates me, which is pointless since he can’t talk anyway. His lips don’t move as he looks at me. His emerald eyes tell it all though. He’s irritated with me. Yes, that has to be it. Why else would he…
On the day he asked me to be his girlfriend, he took me out to get ice cream at Oddfellows and we spent time finding as many of the same colors on cars as we could find. Mark tried to beat me faster by picking out all the taxis but he did it all with a smile. When I saw his room for the first time afterwards, I asked him if I could borrow some of his pairs of underwear so that I can write down what colors they were. He seemed happy to oblige, but also seemed weirded out by the request. Nevertheless, he let me take his multi-colored boxers. That was a different Mark. I don’t know the one sitting on my bed looking at me the way he is.
I gather up all the crayons and colored pencils and stuff them back inside the box that Mark brought for me.
“These don’t work. I need different ones,” I say. Mark takes the box and makes a few signals with his hands. I don’t really understand what he’s trying to say with them, but I take a guess based on the way his body moves as he flies his hands around.
“Yeah. I can use some time alone,” I say.
Something in Mark’s eyes droop. The yellow slowly transitions into something like ash, as if he’s wearing it all over his shoulders. Some looks like it’s falling off when he turns around and leaves. He turns to hold his hand up to his ear to look like he’s on a phone.
“Yeah. Later,” I tell him.
The vaguest hint of a smile passes through his freckly features but the ash doesn’t go away. Then he’s gone, and I’m alone in my room with a mess of papers on the floor and a growling stomach. I feel something wet crowding my eye when I sit back down at my desk. I open its top drawer to see a lone cigarette sitting inside with a note next to it.
Smoke this before I’m back home.
“There are some things you just can’t recreate,” my therapist Jodi tells me the next morning.
I’m sitting in a chair across from her swinging my legs back and forth and I can’t bring myself to stop. No matter what, I have to constantly be on the move. No stillness for me as long as I have arms and legs. My dad told me once after taking a swig of vodka that I should at least lose my legs so that I don’t wander off where I’m not supposed to. The color on my dad never changes. Black ashes always crowns his head and there are soot stains all over his hands and feet. I’ve watched him wash his hands but the soot never comes off.
“Didn’t I tell you to write what you see?” Jodi asks.
“I want to draw,” I reply.
Jodi doesn’t back down. “But if drawing isn’t working for you in this case, maybe it would be wise to continue writing. You write very well and you’re very descriptive about the colors.”
“How long do I have to write?” I ask.
Jodi shrugs. “As long as it still helps you. Think of it this way. Some things are just too beautiful in words to fully capture in a picture, even if you draw it yourself.”
My dad is waiting for me in the waiting room when I come out. One hand of his is fingering the box of cigarettes in his breast pocket.
“Let’s go,” he says. He takes me by the arm, squeezing to the point where it stings a little. Feeling the pain causes something sharp and startling to shoot up my throat, as if something had leaped out and scared me. As soon as we get in the car, my dad holds out his cigarettes for me to take one.
“Take it,” my dad says. “If you smoked these more often, you wouldn’t have to go whining to your therapist.”
“I don’t want to,” I reply.
“I don’t give a damn what you don’t want. Take the damn cigarette,” my dad says.
It’s only after I smoke that the black stains on my dad dissipate, and I feel something different about being around him. I feel more relaxed. I feel the urge to rest my head on his shoulder, and when I do, he doesn’t coil back.
When I first told my dad that I had a superpower, that I can see colors around people, I asked him if he had the same ability.
“What in the hell are you talking about?” He asked.
“Uh oh,” I said, “you have all this stuff on you.”
I reached over to dust the ashes off his shoulders and his head, but my hand passed straight through all of it as if it was a hologram from Star Wars.
My dad thought I was messing around with him and he demanded for me to stop. This was when my mom was still around. She began to suspect that something was up. My dad on the other hand started to grow more and more impatient with me as I told him all the colors I saw drifting around other people when we took walks downtown. My mom then finally began to realize that I wasn’t joking. She came to the conclusion that I wasn’t—normal. She’s right about that. I have an ability that neither my mom or dad have. I’ve wondered if my dad was jealous and that’s why he makes me smoke so that my power doesn’t work as well. The cigarettes I smoke has ash that looks exactly like the kind I see on my dad when my power is working.
My mom took me to go see a doctor about it and after putting me through tests and asking me dozens and dozens of questions, he came to the conclusion that I had something with a complicated name.
Schizo—schizofreenia. Something like that. Nevertheless, I didn’t care what my doctor said it was called. I had a gift. I could finally see how other people were feeling without having to guess all the time. If God gave me this power, then I must be one of His favorites.
At about six-thirty the next morning, I get a text from Mark.
I couldn’t sleep all night. Can I come over?
It’s Saturday morning. My dad would be staying home from work, and I don’t feel comfortable with Mark being here when he is. I’ll just meet him outside the door and I’ll take him somewhere else. Yes, that should work.
I go into the kitchen to pour myself a bowl of cereal and find my dad sitting at the table gripping something in his hand. Sitting on the table too is a gun. He looks at me and his hand unfurls, revealing that he’s holding a pair of Mark’s boxers. My heart sinks to the bottom of some metaphorical ocean when I realize my mistake. I must have left it somewhere that would be easy to find. I can see my dad’s misunderstanding coming from a mile away, and even though I know I’m in trouble, I can’t help but admire the color of the boxers again. Dark red like cherries, my favorite fruit.
“Is this Mark’s?” He asks through his teeth.
My hand digs itself into my pocket and pinches my leg. Sweat tingles on my brow and itches the skin under my armpits.
“It’s not what you think,” I say, but I know that dad won’t believe me. Somehow, I just know. His face doesn’t change, and the piles of ash on his shoulders magically grows, threatening to spill all over the floor. Curiously enough too is that a new color I haven’t seen on my dad before begins to take shape around his form. The same cherry-red on the boxers highlights my dad along with the soot and the ashes and the hate. The hate and the anger rolling off him in waves. It’s almost too frightening to keep looking at and I feel tempted to shield my eyes. Something in the air suddenly tastes vile and sticks to my tongue like Pepsi feels on my throat.
“Please, dad! He didn’t do anything to me! I was borrowing it, I promise!” I plead.
The colors on my dad keeps changing frantically now from red to green to blue to black and then to red again and so on.
“You actually think I’m going to buy that crap, you pathetic slut?” He yells.
My dad leaps to his feet and takes a step towards me. I step back, slightly bent over as I brace myself for whatever he’s going to do to me.
Then his voice breaks, as if it’s made of glass and an axe was taken to it. “I already knew I failed—.”
My muscles relax for a second as I start to believe that he’s calming down. All there is surrounding my dad now is complete static. It looks like a TV channel that’s not coming in at all. What’s going on inside his head? It’s as if every burden in the world was tumbling down on top of him and he can’t think straight or escape from it all.
Then he moves his hand so fast I tense up again, waiting for him to strike me.
But instead of hitting me, my dad reaches for his gun, shoves the barrel in his mouth and pulls the trigger.
All the colors and the static around him vanishes like a lightbulb going out as instantly as one can be switched on. My naked legs tremble in their spot for a few seconds before they carry me to the door and out the apartment. I run barefoot into the busy, obnoxious world outside and keep running without stopping.
I can’t think straight. My mind is numb.
All around me, colors flash and shift, and for the first time, I feel overwhelmed by them. They frighten me and force me to look away. I see too much black, not enough orange or yellow. Some people see me running and their colors transition just ever so slightly as their emotions are disrupted by the sight of me.
Then something snags on my mind and I’m forced to stop. The sun is still making its way up to light the whole day in the early morning, which means the colors that are typically more vibrant and alive at night still linger.
And they’re beautiful. Gosh, are they beautiful.
What happened back in my apartment? I don’t remember, because all I see are colors. Car lights are shining pale imitations of the orange-yellow of the sun. Street lights crown passersby and the concrete with the dirty, unattractive color of brown mustard, and the lights from people’s phones shine on their faces, giving them all a pale milky white glow.
I’m jolted out of the world I’ve made for myself by my phone buzzing in my pocket. I pull it out and read the text from Mark.
Where r u?
My enemy Reality reaches in through my eyes and yanks tears out and jogs my memories. My dad. His broken head on the table with blood pooling on the wood.
I tell Mark where I am and he’s right by me within minutes. The early morning cold rattles me from head to toe and Mark throws his coat around my shoulders.
Mark doesn’t speak. Of course. Because he can’t. He can’t talk to me like I can and I’m sick of it. I want someone to talk to me. He tries to communicate with me by waving his hands and making signals again that I hardly understand any of. Is he sad for me? Frustrated? Relieved? I can’t tell. His signals go everywhere and nowhere at the same time and I can’t keep up. Around his head and shoulders, autumn colors vibrate like a massage chair. Brown. Brown can honestly mean a lot of different things. He’s just trying to act calm but I don’t want him to act calm, I want him to be sad, like me. That way I know he cares about me.
Maybe I’m seeing the wrong colors. Maybe he’s practically drowning in blue and white and I don’t see it. I don’t know, and I hate not knowing.
Mark finally realizes that nothing he’s saying is getting to me, so he pulls out his phone and taps something on it and hands it to me. On the Notes app he wrote something.
I found your dad dead. Did he do that to himself?
“Yes,” I respond aloud.
He takes the phone and types another note.
We need to tell the police. You can’t live by yourself.
“I don’t want to go to the police. What if they send me away? I don’t want to leave these colors.”
If they take you somewhere else away from here, I’ll go with you.
“But you don’t love me.”
It takes an extra minute for Mark to even start typing his next response. He looks lost, as if he had gotten out of a taxi on the wrong road.
What makes you think that?
“Your colors don’t say it.”
Mark stares at his phone unmoving now. Now he definitely doesn’t know how to respond. It’s as if I’ve trapped him in a corner and he doesn’t know his way out.
Let’s call the police and sort all this out.
It turned out that the police had already been called to the scene when one of the neighbors reported the sound of a gunshot. My dad’s body was found and I was identified as his daughter. A dark-skinned police detective with a shaved head named David sits me down at his desk and gives me a peanut butter cookie. A soothing navy blue darker and thicker than his uniform embraces him. He has a good vibe, I can feel it. He asks me about my dad and why he killed himself, all of which I answer with as few words as possible.
“Where are your shoes?” He asks me.
“I don’t have any.”
“What about socks?”
“So you don’t own any socks or shoes?”
“I don’t need any.”
“Why do you think that?”
“My dad told me.”
David sits back in his seat and blows a long breath. Is he irritated with me? The color doesn’t change on him though, and I don’t see anything restless about him. Good sign. I smile.
“Why are you smiling?” David asks.
“You’re not upset with me.”
“Of course I’m not upset with you. None of this was your fault. Honestly, I’m surprised you’re acting as well as you are.”
I shrug, not sure how to react or respond. What am I supposed to say?
“Brianna, did your dad allow you to smoke?” David asks.
“I never wanted to,” I say.
David nods. “Okay. We found used cigarette butts in your room.”
“My dad didn’t give me a choice.”
“It’s okay. You’re not in trouble. Thank you, Brianna. We’ll figure out where you go next soon.”
That’s what I was afraid of. I want to stay where I’m at. I can take care of myself. Surely I can.
When I go out into the lobby, I see Mark sitting on one of the chairs and I gasp. He’s completely black and white from head to toe. Any other discernible color I can think of isn’t present on him. His skin is pasty and colorless—and there were the ashes, those stupid ashes, draped over his shoulders.
Something like a box cutter slices straight down the middle of my heart.
“Mark!” I shout.
Mark’s colors shift as he turns to look at me. There’s just the slightest bit of his skin color back on his face. His emerald eyes light up a little bit. I run over to his side and sit down next to him.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
Mark’s head droops, and he picks up a notepad next to him to write something on it.
I don’t know if I should stay or go home.
I’m thinking about what you told me. You told me that I don’t love you.
“That’s because I don’t know if you do. Your colors don’t show it.”
What about what I’ve done for you and said to you? Aren’t those things enough?
I don’t know how to respond to that. I mean, he has always been nothing but kind to me, but when it comes to love—the kind of love that’s romantic—I’ve always had certain expectations. I want to see a particular color around him when he’s looking at me. Something like that always gives me the strongest signals, because anyone can do anything for anybody and act like they really care for someone, but you never know how they’re actually feeling in their hearts. Mark has always been difficult for me to read. It’s as if he purposely holds back his emotions to keep from breaking open.
Or maybe those feelings just don’t come as naturally to him.
The thought makes me remember the story about me and the dead bird. I didn’t understand that the bird being dead meant the bird was actually gone forever and wasn’t going to ever wake up again. Just like my mom.
Just like my dad now.
Now I’m looking at Mark, the last person I know who seems to care about me. I decide to try something, thinking that maybe just maybe I have to do something first before Mark can do what I want him to do.
“Mark. Please don’t die,” I say.
Mark frowns. Why do you say that?
“Just don’t die. I don’t want you to,” I say. I look down at his hand and take it with my own. Mark fidgets but doesn’t pull away. He stares at my hand intertwined with his.
“Did I upset you?” I ask.
Mark shakes his head to say ‘no’.
“Don’t die. Okay? If you do, you’ll be gone forever and I don’t want you to be gone. Promise?” I ask.
Mark takes his pencil with his free hand and writes on his notepad. I promise. Then he adds something else.
Is this your way of telling me that you love me?
I smile and inch closer to him until my side is touching his. “Yes. And I believe you love me too.”
Something then changes while he writes I love you too on his notepad. Something that looks like fresh red wine dribbles off his hair and forms these scarlet rings around his eyes. All the color returns to his skin and the ashes reform into a vibrant purple streak that cloaks his shoulders. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen those colors on him, and the gorgeous picture it paints makes me feel more attracted to him.
I rest my head on his shoulder. “I’m sorry I made those assumptions of you like that.”
An uncomfortable realization dawns on me and I release my hand from his. “Sorry. Your hand is sweaty.”
Unfettered, Mark reaches over and courses his other hand through my hair. He doesn’t need to say anything. His hand is telling it all. Before sleep fully overtakes me, Mark plants a kiss on my head.
Wherever I go next, I hope that Mark is able to come with me. Dead or alive, I don’t want him to be gone.