There & Then

The world shattered. People, the classrooms, even his own hands—no matter where Christian looked, he seemed to be staring through layer after layer of broken glass windows in a place without gravity. Triangles of the view shifted and rotated, coming in and out of focus, and the world didn’t line up right behind them. It distorted everything along sharp lines, sometimes twisting, sometimes rotating, but always broken.

Maybe he was dying. Maybe he was going mental.

Either way, he was totally blowing off third period English.

He hadn’t ever skipped a class before, but he hadn’t lived under a rock. He knew where to go. Now, under the Art wing stairwell like a far more practiced malcontent, he tried to figure out what to do next.

Tucked up tight, out of view of any stray teachers, he sat and rested his forehead against his knees, trying to get past the pain and the way everything kept shattering when he opened his eyes long enough to think.

He’d had headaches before. Lots of them. They ran in the family, his mother had told him the first time he’d had weird blurry spots across his vision. She’d told him to lie down and take some painkillers before the headache hit. His mother’s migraines would knock her off her feet at least once a month, so he’d taken her advice.

When he’d gotten his first headache at thirteen, it had made him weep with pain. That was right after he’d been skipped a grade and dropped into high school. They hadn’t stopped since.

But three years later, this headache had come. It was worse than anything that had happened before and was so sudden and fierce, he nearly screamed out loud when it hit in the middle of biology class. Instead of blurry spots, he saw weird trails of color and light so bright he thought he was going blind.

Then everything had started shattering, and that was it. He’d had enough. He put his hand up, asked to go to the bathroom, and had been here ever since.

Dying or crazy?Dying or crazy?The two options danced along with the beat of his pulse.

“Breathe,” he said. Sometimes when the headaches were really bad, he’d start yawning, which always made it worse. He took deep, even breaths, waiting for the extra-strength painkillers to kick in. He always carried them.

The pain receded a bit. He didn’t know if it was from the cool quiet where he was sitting, or the pills, but he’d take it. He lifted his head and opened his eyes.

He could see the wide green field outside the school through the floor-to-ceiling windows running along the stairwell’s east wall. Strange trails of light still swam around the edges of his vision, but it wasn’t quite as bad as before, and at least nothing was cracking.

But then his view of the field shattered, pieces breaking off and spinning away, and behind them…the field…only…there was snow? He thought he saw some people walking around, too, covered from head to toe, complete with toques.

He rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands.

“Stop it,” he said. “Stop it.”

When he opened his eyes again, the glimpse of snow was gone and the field was green again. There were no people. Colors still twisted in the corners of his vision, but at least he could see what was in front of him. That was better than nothing. And the pain was letting up. Finally.

Christian exhaled, relieved.

A cloud of bruised blacks and browns bled from above. He glanced up and waved a hand, thinking it was smoke until they seeped through the stairs, not reacting to his touch.

A moment later he heard footsteps on the stairs above, and Dawn Solati slid in beside him a few seconds later.

“I didn’t think you skipped classes,” she said.

The awful twists of black and brown, as well as dark purples, were coming from her. They sort of pulsedout of her.

Christian rubbed his eyes. “Headache.”

“Figured there was a reason,” she said. “Scoot over.”

He moved. He was a little surprised himself. Dawn was solid B-crowd. Track athlete, decent grades, a bit standoffish, sure, but otherwise she blended in with the crowd. She had a lean, lanky grace that made Christian think of horses, and though boys teased her about being skinny, she tossed back insults with a sharp tongue and a wicked, aloof smile.

Those horrible colors didn’t suit her, he thought. He couldn’t help but look again.

The bloom of black and purple was a thundercloud around her. He could imagine the sound of thunder. But he still saw her despite the dark, roiling mass. He felt like he had two sets of eyes or two different lines of sight, both of them looking at the same person but seeing something different.

He saw other colors inside the bruised cloud, but it was almost impossible to see past the dark layers. The more he tried to focus on the cloud of dark colors, the more the pressure in his head seemed to pull back. He stared at her, trying to understand what was happening.

Dying or crazy? Dying or crazy?

Or?

“Something on my face?” Dawn said.

“Sorry,” Christian said. He’d been staring at her for far too long, but just before he looked away, he finally slipped past the roiling storm clouds surrounding her. Inside, he saw a tiny spark of something that burned with a golden light.

“Seriously, what are you looking at?” Dawn snapped.

“Are you pregnant?” Christian said.

Dawn gaped.

 

v

 

Christian’s mother never touched him. He had only consciously realized it at his thirteenth birthday party, a week after his sister’s sixteenth and two days after his first migraine, when he had quite suddenly and clearly remembered his mother hugging his sister and congratulating her on blowing out all the candles when he had only received a distant smile for the same feat. He was so hyperaware of it after the party, he had started keeping himself out of her reach.

It resulted in the same lack of touch, but he could pretend it was up to him.

Since he had started seeing colors, he couldn’t ignore how she was different around him.

Like now.

“Are you coming home right after school?”

The words were said with all the right tones: interest, concern, even something that passed for love. But the soft lemon-yellow that had been swirling around her while she was putting the Dutch oven in the stove had blown away on an invisible wind the moment she’d noticed he’d come into the kitchen.

She was making bread. Something for the church. She and his father were presenting something or working on some project or fund-raiser. She’d been humming to herself as she baked.

When she’d seen him, though, the humming stopped. When she asked the question, she’d walked to the counter, picked up a towel, and started wiping her hands as though they were dirty. The yellow cloud had blown away, replaced by a dull, oily sort of green. A stain, or a patch of mold, it grew between them.

That’s what he always saw. A kind of rotten green that spread away from her, always between them.

Christian looked away. “I might stick around and wait for Bao. He’s got track tonight.”

“We’ll be out at the church,” she said. “Your lunch is in the fridge, and there are leftovers for dinner.”

“Thank you,” Christian said, but she’d already hung up the towel and was on her way out of the kitchen.

He inhaled a deep breath of baking bread, and by the time he exhaled, the green stain was gone from the room.

 

v

 

Dawn didn’t speak to him again for three days. Christian ate lunch with Bao and his track buddies most days, at a table tucked into the corner of the cafeteria. Since that day under the stairs, the colors hadn’t stopped. The headaches weren’t as bad, though. Sometimes he could almost ignore the colors entirely—look past them and pretend they weren’t there.

Other times, though, they were like a Technicolor punch to the forehead.

Dawn’s cloud of blacks and browns, for instance.

Bao had gone to get himself another drink, and Dawn had sat beside Christian, coming from behind him and dropping into Bao’s empty seat. She reached out and took one of Christian’s french fries.

“How did you know?” she said, glancing at the guys at the other end of the table. They weren’t even looking Christian’s way. He was pretty sure they didn’t like him much and wondered why Bao still hung out with the smart kid who hadn’t ever been cool. “I’m…not far.”

He was surprised it took her this long to ask.

Christian stared at his tray. The blacks and browns swirling around Dawn were hard to look at.

“It’s kind of strange,” he said. “You’ll think I’m insane.” Just talking about it made him feel queasy.

Her black and brown cloud parted for a second, revealing a burst of light blue and green. He turned, unable to stop himself, and watched the swirl blur into a bright cyan. She smiled at him. “Whereas I’m the picture of sanity and grace?”

Christian raised an eyebrow. “Compared to me? I think so.”

They’d probably never spoken face-to-face before the stairwell, and he’d kind of distracted by announcing her pregnancy. He was used to the way she was looking at him, and he waited for the inevitable.

“Your eyes are two different colors,” she said.

“Yep.”

She stole another fry. “Seriously. How?”

“Genetics. It’s called heterochromia.”

She shoved his shoulder. “Don’t be an asshole.”

Christian looked at her. Deep below the purples and blacks was a rich blue that made him feel warm.

“I see things,” he said.

“You see things?”

“Colors. And other stuff. Sometimes. But mostly colors. It’s like people have these clouds of color that follow them.”

To Christian’s surprise, she didn’t laugh. In fact, she looked thoughtful.

“So, like an aura?”

He shrugged. It was as good a word as any.

She looked around the cafeteria with a gaze that reminded him of his father and his uncles when they went out hunting. He shivered.

“What about Rick? What do you see?”

Rick Barritt was the most popular guy in school. A big jock who wasn’t a complete dickhead, he was sitting with his jock friends and nodding at whatever they were saying. He seemed like a nice enough guy most of the time. Christian looked at Rick and saw a fuzzy orange and brown around him. It wasn’t a great color, sort of bland and maybe even sickly.

“Bruised orange. Kind of swirly, too, like cotton candy?” Christian said, trying to describe the motion and color as best he could.

“Okay,” Dawn said. “What does that mean?”

Christian looked around, as if about to reveal a great secret. Dawn leaned forward.

“I have no idea,” Christian whispered. “It’s not like there’s a manual.”

Dawn threw a fry at him. Then she grinned. Another flash of cyan.

“So, let’s write one.”

“Pardon?” Christian said, but then Bao came back with his drink, and he looked very surprised to see Dawn sitting with Christian.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” Dawn said. She turned to Christian. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

After she left, Bao sat down again.

“Dude. Dawn Solati?”

Christian saw greens gather around Bao, especially near his eyes.

Huh.

 

v

 

At church, Christian watched his mother and father interact with the rest of the congregation, holding himself back as usual. During the sermon, some of the people in the rows around him—including his mother—had begun to gather a bright gold around them, in a pretty pattern that made him think of the way frost formed on the inside of his bedroom window in winter. It seemed brittle, like a single warm breath could melt it away, and it faded shortly after the priest stopped speaking.

The congregation had mostly been buried in browner shades of orange that settled down around their shoulders in drifts, piling thicker as time went by.

Boredom, he’d decided, was the faded orange of autumn leaves and just as nearly dead.

His head started to ache again, and he rubbed his eyes. His parents were always the last to leave, so he wandered out of the church to stand in the cool breeze and turn his face to the sun. Sometimes that helped.

When he opened his eyes again, he saw barely visible spiderweb lines, and he swallowed. It was going to happen again. He got out of the way of the people who drifted to the parking lot, and he slipped around the corner of the building. In the church’s graveyard, a long, wide field, he stopped trying to resist.

The view shattered and behind it, dancing among tombstones, was a little brown-skinned girl in a dress patterned with tiny hopping frogs. She stopped at one of the tombstones and looked behind her while she pointed to it. Christian glanced to see who the girl might be talking to, but it was all gone between blinks.

He swallowed and pushed off from the wall of the church, walking to where he’d seen the little girl dance. It had been brighter there. Summer, perhaps. When he turned where she had been, he recognized the plain stone in front of him.

His grandfather’s grave. The dates on one side of the stone were filled in—Christian had been five and barely remembered his grandfather—and the second little square where his grandmother planned to join her husband someday was empty.

Nothing else on the stone would make a little girl point and smile, he thought. Just a cross. His grandfather’s name was at the top and his grandmother’s below, which he’d always thought just a little macabre, given she was still alive. She lived in Toronto, and they barely ever saw her.

Christian stood there until his father called to tell him it was time to go home.

 

v

 

“You coming to my meet tomorrow?”

Christian turned. Dawn had a way of finding him no matter where he was in the school. Today he was sitting out on the bleachers. He couldn’t decide if it was comforting or creepy, but either way, he closed his book and nodded. “And miss dinner with my family?” He raised an eyebrow. “Absolutely.”

Dawn smirked. She was in her school shorts and T-shirt, runners laced. She wasn’t the only member of the track team putting in some after-school practice time.

“How you doing?” she said, leaning into a stretch.

He knew she wasn’t asking about his well-being. It was the other thing. Always the other thing.

“Okay. I’ve nailed boredom as that funny orange-brown. Everyoneturned orange-brown in biology today, even me.”

“You can see your own aura?” She swapped legs, still stretching. “That’s new.”

“Sort of,” he said. “Out of the corner of my eye.”

“What about the other stuff?”

The shattering thing. Christian shook his head. That, thankfully, hadn’t been happening at all. Sometimes everything shimmered, like maybe it was about to happen, but it usually passed if he closed his eyes tight, counted to ten, and waited. He knew Dawn would be angry if she knew he’d been actively trying notto let it happen. She wanted to know what it was.

He was pretty sure he already knew, and it terrified him. But he wasn’t going to tell her unless he had to. So far, so good.

She looked past his shoulder. Christian glanced over. Bao Nguyen was walking past them, and he smiled at Dawn. “Good luck tomorrow,” he said. Like Dawn, he was ready for a run. The T-shirt was tight across his shoulders.

Christian ignored the wisps of color in the corners of his eyes.

“Thanks,” Dawn said.

“Hey,” Bao said to Christian. “If I begged, could I get some help with Bio? Maybe come by after dinner?”

Relief flooded through Christian’s stomach. Bao had been weird with him all week, but it seemed to be getting better. He didn’t know what he’d do if Bao finally realized Christian was dead weight and needed to be tossed overboard. He couldn’t imagine his day without sharing art class with Bao and drawing or painting side by side. All this week he’d wondered if Bao would take an easel by someone else in the room, but he hadn’t.

“Of course,” Christian said. Bao left them, but Christian was glad they’d be meeting up later. He didn’t have other friends. Not really. Well, except now there was Dawn.

Then again, Christian wasn’t sure if Dawn was a friend or not. If they were friends, they’d talk about her being pregnant. But the one time Christian had tried to bring it up, the cloud of blacks that had filled his vision had made it perfectly clear the topic was off the table.

“What about him?” Dawn said once Bao was gone.

“What do you mean?” He knew what she meant.

“Bao. What did you see?”

It felt weird to look at Bao that way—intrusive, maybe—but he did. Bao was tall, handsome, and strong, and in so many ways everything Christian was not. He felt his face heating up, but then the colors distracted him.

“Um.” Christian squinted. “Sort of a blue. And red.”

“Like purple?” Her grin was wide. “Wasn’t purple horny?”

Christian could feel his blush spreading down his neck. “I’m still not entirely sure that’s right. But no, he’s not purple. It’s a mix of reds and blues. Like ribbons sort of twisting around him.” Christian considered. “I think blue is…like, friendship.Or maybe a crush.”

“With a dash of horny?”

“Red isn’t horny. It’s…angry. Or frustrated.”

“Sounds like all the horny boys to me.”

He laughed. “You’re awful.”

“Don’t you forget it,” she said. Then she was off at a sprint toward the track. He watched her run, letting the colors stay at the front of his attention. Blurs of oranges and yellows were around most of the runners on the track, Bao included. Happy colors.

He reached into his backpack and pulled out the small spiral-bound notebook Dawn had given him. He flipped it open to the page marked “yellow” and wrote “happy.”

He ignored the colors he saw out of the corner of his eyes.

None of those were yellow.

 

v

 

“Your grandmother is coming to stay with us,” his mother said.

“Okay.” Christian hated how he spoke around his mother now. Tentative. Careful. Every word was half a question, like he was asking permission to exist. The sickly green bloomed between them no matter what he did, but sometimes it was worse when they spoke. That made it too much like his own fault.

“She’s not well,” his mother said. To his surprise, for the briefest moment, a thread of orange-browns and strange shimmery pale green twisted around a soft blue pulse, suddenly gone as if they’d snuffed out the blue light. The dark browns, which he thought of as hopelessness or disappointment, weren’t new to his mother, but he didn’t know the pale green yet. He’d seen the blue enough to know it was a good thing. Blue was compassion. Friendship. Love, even.

The blue was for his grandmother, though. Not him. He knew that. He saw how it shifted depending on who his mother was talking to or who she was talking about.

“Not well?” he said, ignoring what he saw. It was becoming second nature.

His mother exhaled. “She’s dying.” The words came out with a rush of the hated green stain between them. He’d seen the same color a few other times, in a few other places. When his biology teacher called on one of the kids who never got a question right, that same color spread out from him, even before the student tried to answer.

Disgust, Christian thought. Or something like it.

“Oh,” he said. He wanted to say something right. Something better. Something that would make the aura around his mother match the calm mask of her face and the soft voice she was using. But he had nothing.

His mother held his gaze for a few seconds, and then she turned and walked away, leaving him there with his toast.

Christian closed his eyes. His grandmother was dying. He should feel more about that, but they barely saw her. If he was honest with himself, he was surprised she was coming here.

Then another thought. A terrible, selfishthought.

What would dyinglook like?

Christian closed his eyes and breathed until he was sure he wouldn’t cry.

 

v

 

At the meet, Bao surprised him by joining him on the bleachers after his run.

“You were awesome,” Christian said.

“Thanks.” He wasn’t even breathing heavy. You’d never know he’d just blasted his way down a five-hundred-meter run. He used his T-shirt to rub his face, and Christian glanced away, scanning the field for Dawn and hoping Bao didn’t notice.

“What’s wrong?” Bao said.

“Huh?”

“You skipped art class. And you’ve been weird.”

Christian looked back at Bao, frowning. “Weird,” he said.

Bao raised both hands. “Come on.”

Christian sighed. “Okay. Sure. Weird.” He swallowed. “It’s nothing.”

“You never skip art.”

“I’m turning over a new leaf.” Christian shrugged. “A slacker leaf, maybe.”

“Dude.”

Christian looked at him. Rich blues, little twists of green near his eyes, and flickers of red beneath. It was such a mess. He rubbed his eyes. Was that darker blue kindness or was it pity? He’d never figure it all out, and it was driving him crazy how much he just wanted to see those blues when someone was talking to him. Anyone.

Or not just anyone.

“I keep getting headaches. My parents are driving me mental. My mom, she’s…” He stopped. His mother was surrounded by bands of dark brown that gathered tighter and tighter around her chest every day.

“Your mom?” Bao said.

She hates me. Christian opened his eyes but tilted his head back, staring at the sky. “Something’s up. And my grandmother’s coming to live with us. Because she’s dying.”

“Oh, man, I’m sorry. That sucks.” Bao winced.

“I think my parents are fighting about it.” He blew out a breath. “My mother is…I don’t know. Maybe she wants a divorce? I don’t know.”

“You think?”

Christian shrugged. “Like I said, I don’t know. Maybe it’s not that.”

“Maybe.”

He looked at Bao again. Blue and green and red and now a kind of yellow seeping in at the edges. Christian told him his grandmother was dying and now he was happy? He couldn’t reconcile it all.

Christian went back to looking for Dawn in the crowd. She was at the blocks now, and he leaned forward.

“We’re okay, right?” Bao said. “You’d tell me if I’d fucked up or something.”

It was so far removed from anything Christian expected Bao to say, he laughed. “You’re asking me? You’re pretty much my only friend. Even if you do draw better than I do, I’m not gonna ditch you.”

“I don’t draw better than you do.” Christian could hear the relief in Bao’s voice, though. The palest yellow spread from him in a slow bloom. He’d never understand why Bao stuck around, but he was lucky he did.

“Yes, you do.” Christian bumped Bao’s shoulder with his own and looked away before he could see the flash of deep purple in the corner of his eyes. At the side of the track, Mr. Pike was lining everyone up now, and…

He saw little holes in the colors around the teacher.

Christian frowned.

“What’s wrong?” Bao said.

“Nothing.”

Mr. Pike counted down, hit his stopwatch, and the runners launched from the blocks.

When Dawn ran, the cloud fell behind her like the ending of a storm. Christian was pretty sure the roiling, bruise-colored mess would re-form once Dawn was done with the race, but as her long legs ate up the track, she briefly lit up in waves of yellow and a bright orange that made him warm inside. It was a little like the people in the church, and just as fragile.

Dawn left trails of light as she shot around the track. She took an early lead and managed to keep it.

“She’s great,” Bao said. “I’m sorry if…” He trailed off.

Christian glanced at him. “What?”

“Do you like her?” Bao asked.

Colors replayed themselves in Christian’s memory as he remembered the few times Bao and Dawn had interacted over the last couple of weeks, and it finally clicked.

Bao liked her. Those twists of blue, and the way he got kind up upset…Bao was jealous.

Christian’s chest grew tight. He forced himself to smile. “She’s just a friend.”

“Oh,” Bao said. He turned back to watch her run. “Okay.”

This time, the relief in Bao’s voice twisted the knot in Christian’s chest. Dawn was almost around the track.

“It makes her really happy,” Christian said, just to say something.

“Winning?” Bao said. Dawn was in the lead, and it was looking good.

“Doesn’t matter if she wins. She just loves running.”

Dawn stumbled.

Christian rose first and Bao followed. She carried on a few more steps. People had noticed now. Even Mr. Pike was looking at her.

But only Christian saw how the golden orange inside Dawn flashed.

“No.” Christian rushed down the bleachers.

“Christian?” Bao called after him.

She didn’t quite make it off the track before she fell. As Christian ran, he saw Dawn curl up on her side, openly weeping now. There was blood.

By the time he got to her, the golden sun inside Dawn Solati had set.

 

v

 

His grandmother had him put her large suitcase on the bed in the spare bedroom, and now she was slowly unpacking clothing into the small closet. Christian saw her aura was swimming with absences. They weren’t dark, they were completely gone, in a way that almost hurt his eyes.

His sister was upstairs. She’d said she had just wanted to visit for the weekend, though Christian knew his mother had likely demanded she do so. His mother and father were in the kitchen.

Dark colors, mostly. He’d written a lot in the journal Dawn had given him, and the more connections he made, the more things made sense. He knew part of what he’d seen around his parents and his sister was sadness—muted mints, but he’d been surprised by the pinks—embarrassment—and, of all things, the reds of annoyance and anger. As though his grandmother’s death was somehow inconvenient.

It was the same red, he thought now, as the Bible his grandmother had placed on the bedside table.

“Can I help?” he asked.

She looked at him strangely for a moment, then she shook her head. “No dear, I’m fine.”

He wished that were true. He left her in the room with an awkward smile, heading up to his bedroom.

He wondered if everyone had whole pieces of their auras missing when they were dying, or if it was specifically cancer.

He opened the journal, but he didn’t write anything down for a long time.

When he did, it was just two words.

Mr. Pike.

 

v

 

After Dawn was taken to hospital and the story began to spread, the whole school began staring at him. Everyone had seen them together, everyone had seen them talking and hanging out, and while it hadn’t been worth much discussion before, now it was the perfect speculation.

Was it possible? Dawn Solati and Christian Simon?

Whispers died when he entered a class. Even his art teacher, Ms. Blanchard, who sounded no different than before, stared at him, surrounded by deep reds when she spoke to him.

Anger. She was angry at him. She hid it well, but she couldn’t hide it from his other eyes.

The worst, though, was Bao. When Bao took up an easel at the other side of the class, he knew it was over. He’d maybehad two friends. One was now a scandal.

The other was done with him.

They were supposed to be working on analogous colors, a tiny slice of the color wheel. Christian found painting much more difficult, though he thought he might have a knack for it if he really worked. Still, he’d always preferred drawing. He looked at the simple figure he’d outlined and picked up his paint brush. Pausing only to glance at Bao, he painted the riot of colors he saw.

A dark, rich purple, almost black? Hurt. Deep, rich red? Anger. Pale, minty blue-green? Sadness. And two, thin lines of a rich, vibrant green that seemed to slice through the middle of Bao’s face, burning from his eyes.

Well. That one was already folklore. Jealousy.

Ms. Blanchard paused as she circled the room.

“Christian…” she started, her voice still pleasant and professional. Red pulsed as she gathered her thoughts.

He couldn’t bear to listen to her tell him he was doing the assignment wrong. He didn’t care.

“Sorry,” he said, before she could speak. “I…I need to go.”

She frowned at him, but he didn’t wait for permission. He hadn’t even asked, really.

He walked out of the classroom. He stopped in the hallway, leaning against one of the walls with his eyes closed, trying to force the memory of the colors out of his mind. He was still there when the bell rang, and he didn’t move as the noise of the period change went on around him. It would pass, and he’d be alone again.

He didn’t even care if he got in trouble. He didn’t go hide under the stairs. He just wanted everyone to go away.

Except when the noise died down, and he finally opened his eyes, he wasn’t alone.

Bao looked down at him.

“Is she okay?”

Christian exhaled, on the edge of tears.

“I don’t know. I’m going to the hospital tomorrow.”

Bao nodded. “I have your stuff.” He lifted Christian’s books. “Are you going to class?” His voice was brittle, tight.

Christian blinked, hard. The tiny fragile lines were appearing again. Before he could turn away, Bao shattered, and a taller man in a dark suit or uniform stood in front of him.

The pieces spun away, and Christian stared through them.

It was a police officer. And it wasBao. But it wasn’t. He was too tall, and bigger, and…

Older.

“You two have class?”

Christian and Bao both turned. Mr. Pike was frowning at them, leaning out from his classroom into the hall. The shattered world put itself back together.

“Sorry, Coach,” Bao said. “We’re late.”

Mr. Pike nodded at them once. Christian wondered if they’d get in trouble, or if Mr. Pike would cut his track athlete some slack. The decision seemed to swirl around Mr. Pike, annoyance warring with a deeper shade of blue Christian didn’t quite understand yet. Maybe it was like kindness.

And again, he noticed some small absences in the cloud of colors around Mr. Pike.

“Well, hurry up, then,” Mr. Pike said, and went back into the room.

“Come on,” Bao said. He pushed Christian’s books into his hands, and Christian took them with nerveless fingers. “Let’s go.” All the colors from before, the hurt and anger and jealousy were still there, but they were buried under a compassionate blue. That was Bao. He might be seething, thinking Christian—Christian, of all people!—had fucked up Dawn’s life, but he’d still get him to class on time.

Maybe he’d still even be his friend, eventually.

“You’re gonna make a great cop,” Christian said absently, still thinking of the tiny holes in Mr. Pike’s aura. They were gathered near his waist, in a cluster on one side.

“What?”

“Sorry. Nothing.” They started walking.

During biology, Christian pulled out a piece of paper and started writing. After class, he took the letter and slid it under the door to Mr. Pike’s coach’s office.

His heart pounded, and he hoped no one saw him leave it. If they did?

Well, that would be interesting.

 

v

 

Dear Mr. Pike;

You have no reason to believe me, but please go to the doctor. You have cancer. I swear this isn’t a prank, or a joke, or some mean trick. I know you’re ill. I’m hoping you feel something or you’ve been ignoring something. Please don’t.

Please go to the doctor. Especially your stomach. I think it’s close to your stomach.

Make them do tests.

Please.

I swear I’m not lying.

Your Student

 

v

 

Dawn looked up from her pillow and smiled wanly.

“Hey,” Christian said.

“Hi,” she said.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t get here sooner,” he said. She nodded. The colors shifted around her so quickly he couldn’t keep track.

“Please don’t look…Okay, Christian?”

Christian glanced away. “Okay.”

They fell into a silence for a long moment.

“Hello?” came a cold voice.

Christian turned. Dawn’s mother and stepfather, he assumed.

“Mom,” Dawn said, “this is Christian.”

Dawn’s mother said nothing. Anger and outrage surrounded her in a crimson and magenta halo. Like everyone else, she probably thought the worst of him.

“Hello,” Christian said, rising. Dawn’s mother’s gaze didn’t falter, and he looked away, guilty without reason.

To his surprise, Dawn’s stepfather was much calmer. Bored, if the brownish-orange was to be believed. It seemed a little bit callous to be bored. But it wasn’t just that. Bands of odd sickly greens—the disgust he was used to seeing from his mother—twisted and writhed through the man’s aura.

He offered Christian a hand.

Christian couldn’t think of a reason not to shake his hand. He took it, and the world shattered.

It wasn’t like with Bao, or the church, or any of the other times. Nothing stayed still. Images violatedChristian. Bile rose in his throat, and he gagged. He saw the man in front of him in a horrifying montage—not now, and not someday, but a string of moments he knew on some instinctual level were thens. Things that had beenwere echoing in front of him, showing him, and he had no choice in the matter.

Christian saw the things this man had done to Dawn.

“Stop,” he said, the word barely a breath. He couldn’t make his hand let go, and he felt Dawn’s stepfather trying to twist free of Christian’s iron grip. Christian clenched his eyes, willing it to stop, but even with his eyes closed, he could still see the things this man had done. He tried to push it all away with a mental muscle he hadn’t known he possessed, but instead of release, the world spun and shattered over and over again.

Back farther. Before Dawn.

Others.

Christian’s eyes felt like flame. With a desperate cry, he pushed himself away from the man, shoving hard, his hand finally letting go.

Christian knew rage for the first time in his life.

“Get the hell out of here,” Christian told Dawn’s stepfather. His eyes ached with pain, but his voice went flat and cold. “If you ever touch her again, I’ll kill you.”

 

v

 

His parents came to get him once the police were done. They didn’t speak in the car ride home, and it took everything Christian had not to yell at them.

Don’t you know I can see how much you hate being around me?

Instead, he tried to ignore the dark colors filling the car, and the way his mother wouldn’t look at him, and the way his father frowned whenever their eyes met in the rearview mirror.

His eyes still ached. After the police, there had been time for a doctor. She told him not to worry.

“Is she okay? Is Dawn okay?” he’d asked. He’d been pulled away once the yelling had started, and it had taken him some time to realize he’d been the one yelling the loudest. Telling everyone who’d listen what that man had done to her.

The doctor had regarded him with a long, careful silence. “Thanks to you, I think she will be.”

The car stopped. Christian realized they were home. His parents got out of the car, and he counted to three before he followed them, closing the door behind him.

“I’m going to go lie down,” he said.

Neither of them argued. Relief was a pale-yellow bloom.

The door to his grandmother’s room was open. She called out to him as he passed. “Christian? Is that you?” Her voice was reedy.

“Yes,” he said, coming through the doorway. She was in the bed under the blankets. A glass of water and many little bottles of pills covered the table beside her. Her well-worn red-covered Bible lay open on the bed beside her thin hand.

“Oh my word,” she said when she saw him.

“I’m okay. The doctor said it’s just a burst blood vessel.” His eye whites were red with blood since the…thing…with Dawn’s stepfather.

But his grandmother shook her head. “I’m a fool.”

“What?”

“How bad is it?” she asked. “Is it just colors, or…Well, no. Of course not. Your eyes.”

Christian froze.

His grandmother raised her hand. “Come in.”

He stepped into the room and sat in the single chair right beside her bed. She looked exhausted, and her skin had an ashen, grey tone to it. The gaps in her aura outweighed the few colors Christian could still see.

There isn’t much time, those gaps said. There isn’t much time at all.

“I knew it had skipped your sister,” she said. “I thought that was for the best. You mother…Well. She refused it, in a way. But I didn’t think…” She sighed. “You’re a boy.”

“I’m a boy,” Christian repeated. He was shaking his head slowly. “Do you…” He swallowed. “Can you…see?”

“I can,” she said. “I’m so sorry. I never expected…” She closed her eyes, like she was drawing on uncertain reserves. He supposed she was. “I’m so sorry.”

“There were horriblethings.” His voice broke on the words, and he barely fought off a sob. “I just saw it.”

Her hand, dry-skinned and paper-light, found his.

“And what will you do about that?”

 

v

 

Bao found him at lunch, sitting by himself at the top of the bleachers. It wasn’t warm enough to be outside, but it was better than all the staring and the whispers.

“I’m sorry,” Bao said.

Christian looked at him. Blues and browns and faint yellows.

He scowled, angry. “For what?”

“I didn’t mean to…” Bao started, but that was all he said.

Christian waited a beat longer, but Bao just sat there. “Were you mad because you like her, and you couldn’t imagine that she’d want to be with someone like me when there’s someone like you around?”

Bao shook his head. “No. No, I—”

“You have no idea, do you?” Christian said. “I’m not a sidekick. I’m not a pet project. I can’t live off crumbs. God!” He took a deep, shuddering breath. “My grandmother is dying, my parents don’t want me around, one of our friends is going through, like, the worst thing ever—which, bonus, partly my fault—and my best friend? My onlyfriend? He took off.” His eyes filled with tears, and the humiliation of that was more than he could handle. He stood up.

“Christian,” Bao said. “I’m sorry. I thought you and Dawn—”

“You took off,” Christian said. “I don’t…” He swallowed. “I don’t even like her that way, Bao. I don’t like girlsthat way. Okay? Do you get it now?”

Bao’s eyes widened, and that was it. Christian was done. Just done.

“Leave me alone. Stick with your jock friends and leave me alone.” He left, one foot in front of the other, all the way down the bleachers and then back to the school. His chest ached, and all around him he saw faint lines in the air, fractures ready to give way.

He blinked until the threat of the future—or the past—went away. He’d seen enough of both.

The present was more than enough to deal with.

 

v

 

She’d let him in without a word, and then walked up to her bedroom.

Dawn climbed onto her bed and lay down, looking up at the ceiling. Christian knew her mother was at work. Her stepfather was gone. There had been police, he’d heard. And other girls. He stopped just inside her room, not sure if he should go farther, and then he sat on the floor, leaning against the closed door.

They sat in silence as the minutes ticked past.

Finally, Dawn turned her head to look at him. “You been drinking?” she said. “Your eyes are all bloodshot.”

“Ha,” Christian said. “And ha again.”

She smiled. It didn’t reach her eyes.

More silence.

“I’m sorry,” Christian said, when he couldn’t stand it any longer.

“For what?” Dawn sighed. She curled up on the bed and shrugged one shoulder. “Let’s face it. I’m one of those after-school specials, aren’t I?”

“You redefine special,” Christian said. “If it helps, I’ve been cast as the gay best friend.”

“It helps,” she said. Finally, she sat up and patted the bed.

He got up and joined her. They sat staring at the wall, side by side.

“Homo, huh?” she said.

“Yep.”

“Am I allowed to say I’m not surprised?”

“Oh, this is fun.”

“Sorry.”

He looked at her. “Don’t be. I mean, I’m pretty sure my parents are going to explode, so maybe I won’t be coming out any time soon, but honestly, I don’t think I can handle us all pretending much longer. Anyway. You get to know.”

“Thanks.” She bit her lip. “How…how did youknow?”

He frowned. “That I like boys? Ever see Bao without his shirt on?”

She laughed and shook her head. “Not what I meant, but fair point.”

“Oh,” he said, cluing in.

“Right.”

“That shattering thing.” He took a deep breath. “So, it turns out it’s more than the colors. I can see other stuff.”

“Stuff.”

He met her gaze and nodded. “The past, I guess.”

“So, you just…saw it.”

He nodded. “My grandmother says I need to be careful with people. The first time I touch someone, especially. I might see things.”

“Your grandmother?”

“Apparently this runs in the family. Or, y’know, it ran into me. Full speed. Head-on. She’s the same, but I guess it’s not as strong with her. And, here’s the kicker. My mom might be able to do it, too, but somehow, she refuses. Which, maybe, explains why she doesn’t like me. I think she can tell I’m…” He shrugged. “Well. Y’know. Homo. So, that probably doesn’t work well with her whole churchy-thing.”

“That’s…” She blew out a breath.

“Right?”

They sat a while longer. This time, the silence didn’t feel uncomfortable.

“I am leaving this town,” Christian said. “I am so leaving this town.”

“Me too. You gonna graduate first?” Dawn said. “Only a few weeks left, right?”

“I’m fifty-fifty on it. Not seeing many reasons to stay, present company excepted.”

She leaned on him, putting her head on his shoulder. “Hey, Christian?”

“Yeah?”

“Wanna be my prom date?”

He turned his head. “You wantto go to prom?” It was the last thing he expected.

“Yeah,” she said. “More than anything.”

The blacks and browns parted, and beneath them, the golden and yellow fire spread, fragile and tentative.

Christian got it then. It was hope.

“Okay,” he said. “It’s a date.”

 

v

 

Only two days of school were left when Christian wrote the second letter. He waited until after classes were out to head down to the coach’s office. Once he was there, he knelt down to slide it under the door, a slight sense of déja vu making it all surreal.

“Christian?”

He jumped. Mr. Pike looked pale, but he was still working. Awful timing. Christian looked at Mr. Pike’s aura again and saw what he’d seen earlier in the week.

They stood there, facing each other.

Mr. Pike reached out and took the note from Christian’s hand.

Christian swallowed, hard. He waited, frozen to the spot, while Mr. Pike unfolded the note and looked at it for far longer a time than it would take to read.

They regarded each other. Even pale and drawn, Mr. Pike was an imposing figure. A tall man who’d obviously been an athlete at Christian’s age and beyond. The track coach. Popular.

The whole school had rallied around his news.

Christian felt small and thin and unimportantbeside him.

Mr. Pike cleared his throat, opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. Finally, he just flicked his fingers. A dismissal.

Christian turned and left, working hard not to flee as fast as he could. He was almost to the stairs when Mr. Pike spoke.

“Christian?”

Christian paused and turned.

“You’re welcome,” Mr. Pike said, going into his office.

They both pretended there weren’t tears in their eyes.

 

v

 

After his grandmother’s funeral, once everyone had gone, Christian went to his room. He hadn’t cried yet, and he didn’t know what that said about him. He changed out of his black shirt and dress pants, hanging it all carefully, and pulled on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt.

He thought about the priest’s eulogy for his grandmother, whom the man hadn’t known at all. There’d been a lot of stuff about the sanctity of family and truth, and none of it had really sunk in. There would be dates carved on the tombstone now. Someday, Christian thought, a little brown-skinned girl might even point at them.

Christian crossed the room to his mirror, regarding himself. So much was a mess. Dawn. Bao. His parents.

And what will you do about that?

Good question. Maybe it was cowardice, but he’d been accepted into university in Ottawa, and he’d wait until he got there to finally tell his family. And then…?

What’ll happen after that?

A web of fine, shimmering lines spread across his reflection. Christian winced and was about to fight off the intrusion, but his vision shattered so quickly he didn’t have time.

Mismatched eyes regarded him with surprise. One green, one blue.

Christian’s heart hammered in his chest, and he stared, unable to look away. The grown man looked back at him. He had a trim goatee. Choppy hair.

And Christian’s face.

Older, more angular, with little lines by his eyes.

The reflection smiled at him. It was a kind smile, and it warmed the man’s whole face. He looked like someone with a lot of love to give, actually.

He realized then. The reflection could seehim, too.

Christian raised a hand, touching the cool glass.

The man pointed at him, then held up his hand, circling his thumb and index finger, the rest of his fingers spread.

Christian shook his head.

The man repeated the gestures. He pointed at Christian.

You.

He circled his thumb and index finger, and spread the rest of his fingers again.

Okay.

Christian felt the ache starting behind his eyes. He’d have to let go of this soon, let the pieces of the world come back together in front of his eyes.

The man raised his eyebrow. It was so very himto do that.

Did he understand?

YouOkay.

Christian swallowed.

You are going to be okay.

Christian nodded at the older version of himself.

The older him smiled and was gone. He was staring at his own face, which seemed rounder and softer and certainly had more acne. At least he knew that would clear up. And he’d eventually be able to grow a beard. He took a shaky breath.

Okay. If he thought about it too much, he’d go mental, so he decided there and then to just accept something as truth.

Someday, he’d be okay.

He just had to get there.

 

v

 

Dear Mr. Pike:

Me again.

I know you are still worried, but I hope you’ll believe me—again—when I tell you: your cancer is gone. You’re going to be fine.

I figure the doctors will tell you soon or maybe make you do more chemo just to be sure, but I figured now is better.

I’m sure it was horrible for you, and I don’t know if this will make it better or not, but you believed my note, went to the hospital, and you got better.

You showed me I could do more than know these horrible things.

I can try to help.

You can’t know what that means to me.

Thank you,

Your Student