Hey, I wrote this short story a year ago, but I think it needs work. Feel free to tear it apart like a medium-rare steak.
The morning alarm buzzed. I reached over to shut it off, but the numbers on the clock…something was wrong with them.
They were shadeless. At least, they weren’t like any of the shades I’d seen.
They hurt my head. What was happening?
“Mark, get out of bed!”
I threw off the sheets and headed to the bathroom. It had light walls and dark floor tiles, but what stood out to me was the towel. It was shadeless too.
I turned the sink faucet, scrubbing my eyes raw. Nothing improved: actually, I could see that non-shade in the veins of my eyes. It was faint, but it hurt to look at.
Hopping in the shower, I shut my eyes and scrubbed all over. When I was done my arm shot out from the curtain, blindly fishing for my shadeless towel.
For a moment I stopped searching. What would happen if I used the towel? Would this shadeless thing rub off on me? Would it be permanent? Taking a gamble, I grabbed it and dried myself.
I tried looking at it up close, but the towel was too much for me. I threw it away, like it burned my hands.
A shiver trickled down my skin. Were my clothes weird too?
Running to my clothes drawer, I threw out all of my shadeless clothes. There were two shirts, a pair of socks, and a lot of underwear. I might have to buy more, I thought.
I managed to find everything I needed in normal shades, but I’d need to check my dirty laundry later.
“You alive up there, hon?”
“Be right down, mom!” She made breakfast, eggs from the smell of it. I nonchalantly stepped downstairs, masking my fear.
I was relieved by the kitchen. My mom was dressed in a light shade. The kitchen was rich with shades, from the light-shaded walls to the pots dark with rust.
But the frying pan was glowing: it was losing its shade.
“Uh, mom, about the frying pan…”
“What? I cleaned it last night.”
“No, I mean, it’s a medium shade, right?”
She raised an eye. “Yes, last time I checked. Something wrong with your eyes?”
“Are you sure? I’ll bet that computer’s getting to your eyes. That’s what happens when you’re online for hours.”
She couldn’t see it. Only I could see the shade fading, and it scared me. My mom served me the eggs. They were scrambled, and luckily still shaded.
“Eat quickly. I can’t drive you to school today, so you need to take the bus.”
“Okay.” Hesitantly I ate the eggs. I swore I could taste something extra, something wrong.
After rinsing the dishes I headed towards the bus stop. I was scared of what I might see outside, but everything looked normal.
The sky was clear, lit by an indescribable sun. The bushes were a medium shade, the streets were tar-dark, and the street signs were lightly shaded. Everything looked as it should.
But I stopped dead at the crosswalk. A car – a minivan headed my way – was that mystery shade. As the brake lights lit, I felt another, similar shadeless light wash over me.
The honk of the driver’s horn brought me back to Earth, and I made it to the bus stop just in time. It was a familiar bus, driven by a guy I’d known for years and filled with kids from the neighborhood.
But the stop sign, the one on the side. It was wrong, too.
“What’cha starin’ at, Mark? C’mon, we gotta go!”
“Sorry.” I climbed the small steps and took a window seat, one away from the stop sign.
There were more shadeless things down the road. Cars, stop signs, even traffic lights and the clothes people wore.
Suddenly a bright light flooded my eyes. It was that same non-shade, now burning into my eyeballs for no reason. Oh God, oh God, I’m having an aneurism, I thought, writhing in my seat. I wanted to cry for help, but the words escaped me.
The light vanished, and two people started laughing. It was my friends, Dennis and Roy.
“Aw man, that was priceless. You acted like my cat does when I shine this on the floor.” Dennis held up a laser pointer. Roy wanted to chime in, but he was too busy catching his breath.
Pissed off, I grabbed the laser pointer and threw it out the bus window.
Dennis stopped laughing. “What the Hell? Can’t you take a joke?”
I collected myself. “You do this to me every week, and it stopped being funny the first time!”
“Whoa, whoa, calm down.” Roy was always the level-headed one in our group. “Look, you’re right, he does this every week, and normally it’s not so freaking hilarious. But what’s up with you today?”
He had a point: normally I would get kind of annoyed with Dennis for this, but today I lost it. “Look, I…didn’t get much sleep, and the laser pointer freaked me out. I’m sorry; I’d be okay with buying you a new one.”
Dennis sighed. “Don’t worry about it. Besides, I was getting tired of it anyway.” The rest of the way to school we sat in silence.
I couldn’t deny it, something was wrong with me.
A few miles ahead, the bus unloaded. When I stepped towards the school everything looked normal, but inside I found everything changed.
The lockers, backpacks, even pictures of the school mascot; all of them were wrong. Now the building felt unwelcome, like everything was…buzzing at me.
I must have seemed flustered, because when I entered Math class people shot me a funny look. I sat near the back of the room, not wanting to attract any attention.
Sitting next to me was Cora Bateman. Most people had stopped talking to her after seventh grade, when she had a panic attack in front of everyone. She was walking out of school one day, but all of a sudden she started screaming. She was almost hit by a car, and the guy driving ended up smashing into a fire hydrant avoiding her. After that she got taken out of school for the week.
The weird part wasn’t the incident, so much as how she was after: before she was gloomy and kind of OCD, but these days she was always happy and super-spacey. It was like she saw things that weren’t there.
We started class with warm-up problems. I opened my book to page two-seventy one. There were square root problems: easy enough, I thought. A few diagrams on the page were shadeless too, but I was able to bear through it.
Square root of nine? Three. Square root of one sixty-nine? Thirteen. Square root of two fifty two? Uh…let’s see, with rounding that’s…fifteen point nine. Cubed root of sixteen…
“Pencils down, people.” Mr. Berkham never gave me enough time to finish. Not that it really mattered, since I always got the right answers.
I noticed something new had been set up at the front of the room. It was an overhead projector: ever since the school’s budget increased teachers had started using them instead of chalkboards. It was a waste of money if you ask me.
Mr. Berkham pulled down the projector screen and turned down the lights. “We’ll start with problem forty-one.” As soon as the projector turned on I winced. The screen was lit with that same weird shade, albeit washed-out looking. Then he wrote the problem on the board, using a marker of the same non-shade, only deeper.
“…Anybody have the answer? I know it’s early, but really, none of you feel like raising your hand? Fine. Mr. Davis, could you give us the answer? Mr. Davis?”
It took a minute for me to realize Mr. Berkham was asking me. “It’s three.”
“What was that? Look up, son.”
I’d been staring at my book to avoid seeing the light. “I said three. The answer’s three.”
“Correct.” He wrote down the answer. “Come on people, what are you, sixth-graders? Next problem…”
I didn’t raise my hand. I knew the answers, even for the problems I hadn’t solved, but the light made me dizzy. Luckily the rest of the class was motivated now, so I didn’t have to look in that direction.
From the corner of my eye I saw Cora writing something. She looked at me once, and then hid the note in her desk. Please don’t let that be a love letter, I thought.
After the warm-up problems were done Mr. Berkham shut off the projector. We spent the rest of class going into multiplying and dividing square roots, mostly by reading the next chapter of our textbook. For me this stuff was remedial, but other people in my class couldn’t wrap their heads around it.
“Well, now that we’ve gone over the chapter,” Mr. Berkham said while closing his textbook, “let’s try some practice problems.”
I braced myself for the projector, but it didn’t do me any good. The light still hurt my eyes.
“Can somebody solve this problem?” Mr. Berkham wrote it down. It was the square root of sixteen times the square root of two-hundred and twenty-five. Nobody raised a hand.
Mr. Berkham sighed. “Mr. Davis, get us moving again.” Sometimes I really hated being one of the smartest guys in the class.
“It’s sixty,” I replied, my eyes burning as they stared towards the screen.
“Correct,” Mr. Berkham said, “but for the sake of your classmates, please show us your work.”
I was afraid this might happen. As soon as I up to the projector I felt sick. The light was shining directly into my eyes. I decided to bear with it and write out the problem, but using the marker only made things worse.
“Mr. Berkham, I…don’t feel so good. Can I go to the clinic?”
“Not feeling well? Sure, you can go…but finish what you started first.”
There was no way out. I continued to solve the problem, showing my work every step of the way. It felt like my eyes were throbbing. “Done.”
Mr. Berkham looked at the screen. “Perfect. Was that so hard? If you can’t guess a square root, then use different denominators until you get it.” He turned to me. “Take the pass and go. Don’t be too long if you can help it.”
I took the wooden hall pass near the door and walked out the door. Cora’s eyes followed me as I left.
I walked towards the clinic, trying to avoid looking at the lockers. My world was being turned upside-down, all because I was seeing something that wasn’t there. What’s causing this, I wondered. Is it in my eyes, or my brain?
Before seeing the nurse, I decided not to tell her exactly what was wrong. If I had a brain tumor or something I didn’t want to worry people, so instead I was going to vaguely describe a few symptoms and pass them off as something else. Besides, the only reason I went to the clinic was to get away from the classroom.
Nurse McGinley looked up from a book she’d been reading. Some say that woman has been here since the school was built in nineteen-ten: I don’t believe in urban legends, but her face was as convincing evidence as any.
“Mark Davis.” I put the hall pass down near the door.
“Sign the attendance sheet.” I took a pen to sign my name, but the ink – it was shadeless! I froze for a minute, but I had to keep going. “Can you tell me what’s wrong?”
“I’m kind of out of it today,” I said, only half-lying. “It’s like everything’s kind of…off, you know? Things don’t look right, and my eyes hurt. I’m a little nauseous too.”
Nurse McGinely didn’t look too interested, but she was smiling. “Have you been getting enough sleep?”
I realized she must have thought I had insomnia. Despite being tempted to tell her what I’ve been seeing, I lied. “Not so much, no. Was it that easy to figure out?”
“Oh, you see a lot of insomnia cases this time of year. Spring is crunch-time, after all. Get some rest and go back to class. Who’s class did you come from?”
“Oh, Jonathan. Stay here as long as you want, he won’t care.”
I found an empty bed near the back of the clinic and slept for about half an hour. When I got up I had to go back to Mr. Berkham’s room, since I needed to return the hall pass. Class had ended and only Mr. Berkham was around: looks like I’d better copy someone’s notes during lunch, I thought. Before grabbing my backpack I found a note in my desk:
Meet me at the library after school ends. I want to ask you something. – Cora
Why me? I really didn’t want to stay in school longer than I had to, but I didn’t have the heart to skip out on her. If she was going to ask me out, the least I could do was reject her to her face.
The rest of the day passed quickly. I could still see shadeless spots everywhere, but there weren’t any incidents like the one in first period. Things gradually improved, and by the end of the day I stopped feel sick.
That is, until I had to meet Cora. I’d never rejected anybody before, and I really hoped she wouldn’t freak out. After taking a deep breath, I walked into the library.
Cora was near a table in the back. She had a big, thin, musty book on the table. What’s going on?
She waved me over. I was so glad that the library was deserted, minus the librarian.
“Hi Mark. I noticed you were acting kind of weird today.”
“Yeah, I was…sick. Sort of.”
“Right. So…this is an odd question, but…have you been seeing any colors recently?”
Colors? “Uh…what’s a color?”
She made a face. “Right, what was I thinking? Colors are like shades, but different. You know, not normal.”
“Yeah, exactly!” I lowered my voice a little. “How’d you know? Is that a bad thing? Will I be okay?”
“Mark, Mark, calm down. You’re fine. And I only figured it out on a hunch. I mean, the way you were looking at things – it was like me after that day…”
“You mean the panic attack –”
“That’s the thing,” she interrupted, “it wasn’t a panic attack. Something in my brain changed, and I was able to see a color too.”
I couldn’t believe it. “But…how?”
“I don’t know the right terms to explain it, something about how the brain interacts with the cones and rods in our eyes. Anyway, here’s what I wanted to show you.” She opened the book: it was just a picture book.
“Is this a book for teaching kids colors?”
“Yeah. It belonged to my dad. He told me that people used to be able to see more than shades, but something happened to us. Only now, it looks like whatever happened is reversing among us kids.” She started flipping through pages. “Tell me when you see the color you saw today.”
She had only flipped two pages before I told her to stop. “That’s red,” she told me, “the color you’ve been seeing is red.”
“Red, huh?” The picture in the book showed a red car. It reminded me of the cross walk incident from that morning. “So what color did you see?”
“Blue. Well, one shade of blue. Even colors have shades.” She turned back a page, which had a picture of the sky and the ocean. They both looked shadeless to me.
“I saw the sky blue – in the real sky, actually. It was scary at first, but when my dad showed me this book I felt better. I’ve actually been seeing more colors lately. There are still a few I haven’t seen yet, but finding new colors doesn’t scare me anymore. It’s actually fun.”
I was starting to think she was right. “How come you never told anyone?”
“I did, but nobody believed me. Even after bringing in a doctor’s note: actually that made things worse, since people thought I was crazy. But considering what the others are missing out on, I can’t hold a grudge.”
At this point I was wondering whether or not I should tell people. If seeing colors wasn’t a medical condition, there wasn’t really much reason. “I guess I’ll keep quiet too. I mean, there are probably more people like us, but most kids here wouldn’t get it.”
“You’re right. Besides, there are forums for people that see colors. I wrote down a few websites you might want to visit, and I’ll give them to you…but can you promise me something?”
Uh oh, a promise. “What is it?”
“Can you please help me find some friends? I’d like at least one person to talk to offline.”
I was surprised. She always seemed so happy, and now she was begging for a friend. Well, in spite of her social stigma, I did owe her a solid.
“Sure. You should sit with me and the guys at lunch tomorrow. As long as you’re not shy they probably would mind talking to you.”
“Okay. And I promise I won’t say anything about you seeing colors until you’re ready.”
“Thanks. I gotta go.”
“Me too,” she replied, handing me a list of websites. “See you later.”
We both walked out of the library, and I walked alone to the late buses. Suddenly the world looked a little different, and I didn’t mind a bit.