I looked up at the server lazily and gave a weak nod. She filled my water glass and I watched as the gentle gurgling of water being poured into water tinged the air with a soft pink glow.
I was tired. My eyelids felt heavy and they burned a little. I hadn’t slept well again. I wanted nothing more than to lie down. But I couldn’t sleep and maybe wouldn’t unless I started making progress, real progress, in making sense of my senses.
Sitting across from me in one of our regular booths at our regular diner was my sister, Kylie. She sipped her lemonade and picked up her salad fork. “So, this thing you wanted to discuss, that you didn’t want me to panic about, what does your doctor have to say about it?”
I steeled myself and felt a small surge of energy fill me. “The doctor said it sounded like something called ‘synesthesia.’ It’s not a condition really. It’s when one sense triggers another, like seeing the color green makes a taste in your mouth like bananas, or hearing a specific sound makes a yellow square appears in front of your face.”
Kylie raised a brow. “Well, that’s interesting. I’m familiar with synesthesia. But if your surgery was going to result in some superpower, it’s too bad you didn’t get telekinesis or telepathy or something—no, not telepathy. I don’t want you knowing what I’m thinking.” She narrowed her eyes at me.
“Actually I looked it up and depending on the kind of synesthesia a person has, it has been associated with creativity, math tricks, a better memory, and stuff like that.”
Kylie pointed her fork at me. “There you go. You’ve always wanted to learn how to play the guitar. Now’s the time. I knew there would be a bright side if you made it out alive.”
I chuckled. She had known no such thing judging by the stricken expression she always wore on the days leading up to my brain surgery. She almost lost her big brother and her best friend in one go. But I did make it through. I was lucky all the way. It wasn’t pain that led to my tumor being caught. It was a series of seemingly harmless symptoms that made my doctor suspicious and cautious. He ran some new test on me, not a brain scan, but some blood test. He found something he called a “marker,” and while I pictured a kid’s coloring tool, he went on about doing further tests and setting up an appointment with imaging, “just to be sure.”
My case had little ambiguity after that. They were sure. They had to operate.
So I let them. I made arrangements in case I didn’t make it through. Kylie was the one I chose to make the decisions, even though she’s still too young to have such burdens on her. But I couldn’t put my parents through the torment of having to tell the doctors to pull the plug if something went wrong. I may be a grown man, but I’m still their child.
Nothing went wrong. The surgery went smoothly. Post-op went smoothly. I thought I’d be a big baby about the pain. The pain is all I worried about. After I got all my stuff in order, I wasn’t worried about dying on the table. It was the waking up and feeling pain. And then I got paranoid about getting addicted to pain medication.
But that all went smoothly too. I did feel pain, but it was bearable. I healed nicely. My hair was growing back. It was still early, but it looked like it was growing back right. I was just tired for a long time. My personality, according to those who knew me, was the same. I felt so lucky. I still do. That’s why it took a while for me to tell my doctor about the sensory confusion and the nightmares. And longer still to tell Kylie.
“I don’t know if what I have is synesthesia. People usually develop that when they’re kids. I read something about a rare version of it where people hear a certain sound and it triggers negative emotions, like hatred or fear. But every other version seems either neutral or positive. Some people who have it lived a good chunk of their lives not realizing there was anything different about them. Other people realized they were different and hid it, but probably just because people would think they were weird or disturbed.”
Kylie nodded. “Yeah, if I’d never heard of it, I might be inclined to think you were hallucinating.”
“I’ve been having nightmares, Ky. More vivid than any I’ve ever had in my life. Every night I wake up in a sweat with my heart pounding. By the time I calm down enough to sleep again, it’s time to get up. The doctor gave me a sedative, but I don’t really want to use it. I need to take a different approach.”
“What’s the nightmare?”
“It’s always dark and I’m being chased by creatures. Some of them look like people until they come close and then I see their faces. Sometimes it’s just a giant mouth on the face. Some of the faces have nothing but eyes. One time, this tumbleweed came rolling after me, but when it came closer I saw that it was a bunch of hands all attached at the wrist and the fingers were wiggling.” I shuddered.
Kylie had a look of distaste on her face. Then her face relaxed and she skewered a chunk of tomato. “Dream interpretation can be filled with metaphor, but that one seems obvious enough.”
“My senses are attacking me. Or I feel that way.”
“It’s just…most of my experiences seem to be negative.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Sometimes a sound can sting so much I actually break out in hives. I was in the department store the other day, looking for a present for Mom’s birthday.”
“Wow, that’s new. You should report this personality change to your doctor.”
I waved my hand as if swatting away her comment. “Never mind that. I saw this color. It was…some shade of orange with a tinge of pink. I couldn’t bear to look at it. Every time I did, I heard this high-pitched screaming in my head, like a tea kettle coming to a boil, but louder. When I looked away, it would stop right away.”
Kylie frowned. “How long has this been going on? Is it all bad?”
I shook my head. “A few weeks after the surgery. And no, it’s not all bad. There are good associations.” I smiled. “Equilateral triangles smell like chocolate.”
Kylie grinned. “How did you figure that one out?”
I shrugged. “Randomly, well, not exactly. The doc suggested I look at images of shapes, numbers, colors, and see if I can discern any pattern. And to play notes on a keyboard or something to see if I can come up with a key associating a particular sound with whatever other perception it triggers.
“There were all different kinds of triangles on this one set of flash cards I looked at. They all smelled different. There’s one with an acute angle. I forget the actual number of degrees, but it smells like cut grass. A few degrees here and there and it smells entirely different. It’s helping me manage. I’ve just been worried that something new will come along that causes at best an embarrassing moment in a grocery store, or at worst a car crash because someone in front of me is driving a neon pink car and the color makes my whole body freeze from unexpected terror.” I sighed.
“You said you needed my help with something,” Kylie said. “Did you mean with cataloguing all the different sensory causes and effects?”
It made sense that her response was so logical and scientific. Kylie was in her senior year of college doing a double major in biochemistry and applied psychology. If I knew anything about science, it was usually from speaking to her. She had already been accepted into a few graduate programs, including one out-of-state, which I knew she wouldn’t consider because it would be far away from me, and now I needed to be taken care of just like our mom and dad. I had been encouraging her to leave, because I so desperately wanted her to stay. But I didn’t want her to feel obligated to stay. I could figure it out.
But if that were true, I asked myself, why bother telling her now? Why not later once I’d figured it all out?
The truth was that I needed help from someone outside myself. I couldn’t trust my senses, because of all the new things my senses were doing, until I established a new frame of reference, a new baseline. I was starting to do that on my own. But there were some things that had happened in recent days that I couldn’t make sense of on my own.
Everyone’s greatest fear was that I wouldn’t survive. My greatest fear was that I wouldn’t survive. I was told there was another bad alternative. That I would survive, but no longer be the same. But strange as it may sound, I never really gave that alternative much thought. I took a long, slow breath. Telling Kylie I may have synesthesia was easy. Telling her I may have something else, something more far-fetched, that was the difficult part. I didn’t want her to think I was crazy. I just dove into it.
“So…I was leaving after a follow-up visit at the hospital—this happened about a week ago,” I said. “It was a nice day outside. I walked past the discharge desk, out the sliding doors. There was an older man with a cane walking maybe ten feet ahead of me. I’m seeing things, things I’m still not quite used to. Birds are chirping and there are trails of purple wavy lines and black bubbles all in the air. Everybody is breathing out colored gases. A woman walks past me and her perfume sounds like violins. Then it happens. And I stop short.”
Kylie had her brows raised, waiting for me to go on, but now that the moment had come to say it aloud, it seemed preposterous. There were other people in the world who had experienced confused senses, or heightened senses, insight, instinct. But what happened with the old man just seemed so otherworldly, unnatural.
“He faded from my view, like, like when you turn down the opacity on an image and you can see through it. I blinked a few times, naturally. Thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. And then I heard this sharp, discordant sound. I clapped my hands to my ears, but it made no difference. My ears weren’t hearing the sound. It was going straight into my brain. I shouted out to him and said, ‘Hey! Mister!’ I saw a lot of people turn to me from the corner of my eye, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was fading away, I thought. He was almost to the curb. He stopped and turned.
“I didn’t want to move my hand away from my ears, even though it made no difference, but I waved him over with my right hand. He looked a little confused. A split second later, before he could figure out what I was screaming at him for, this little red sports car came zooming up to the curb at full speed, right where the old man would have been crossing if he hadn’t stopped.”
Kylie eyes widened. “Andy, if you’re going to tell me you predicted this man’s imminent death—”
“The thought crossed my mind. But how would I have sensed that the car was coming, right? I don’t think I did. I think that was a coincidence. I jogged over to him. I remember hearing a bystander yelling at the kid in the sports car, but the old man and I were more interested in each other. He had a hand to his chest and he smiled at me. He asked me if I was psychic.
“I shook my head, but he was still faded-looking. And that sound was still screeching in my mind. I didn’t know what to do to make it stop. It wasn’t like that pink-orange shirt in the department store. This time, even if I closed my eyes and didn’t look at him, I heard it. I felt as if I had to do something to make it stop. He introduced himself to me. Mister Miller. I asked where he was headed. He was going to walk home. He only lived two blocks away. I walked with him. My eyes were watering from the pain of the sound. But I could also hear Mister Miller, telling me about his wife and how she was making him his favorite lunch. Steak and eggs or something. I couldn’t focus all that well on everything he was saying. She always did that to reward him for keeping all his different doctor’s appointments.
“The sound got louder. Louder. I stumbled as we were walking and Mister Miller asked me if I was all right. He reached out a hand to steady me. Then he joked about lending me his cane. I thought about turning back, telling him I didn’t feel well and that I hoped he made it back home okay.”
I glanced up and Kylie was gazing at me, engrossed in my story, not yet thinking about whether the details made sense.
“I kept going,” I said. “He said two blocks and he was pretty quick for a guy with a cane. I started sweating, from the strain, I think, of trying to keep it together. He noticed and told me I looked pale and that when we got to his house, I should lie down and let his wife get me some juice. He said there was this shortcut he sometimes took when he was in a hurry to get home. He said he was hungry. It was this alley, a very narrow alley between two brick buildings.
“We were partway through and then the sound intensified, like a thousand trains screeching to a sudden stop, like a thousand elephants trumpeting in a rage. That doesn’t really describe it, but it just became so intense that I dropped to my knees and put my hands on my head. It felt like my brains were being vibrated into a jelly. I think I cried out, but I couldn’t hear anything. I opened my eyes in time to see Mister Miller turn around, look at me with this look of horror on his face, go stiff, and fall.
“Just like that, the sound vanished. I fell over, dizzy for a few seconds, just from the instant relief. I started panting to catch my breath. I got up and checked on Mister Miller. He didn’t collapse. He’d fallen over. And if that alley hadn’t been so narrow, he might have fallen on his head. But it looked like he’d fallen against a wall and slid down. I don’t know. He wasn’t breathing. I called for an ambulance. They were there in two minutes. I rode with them, but they wouldn’t let me come any farther once we got to the emergency room.”
Kylie gaped at me. “Andy, why the hell didn’t you say something sooner. Are you okay? Is he okay?” She was leaning toward me and the look of instant alarm on her face made me realize that her first thought was the most likely scenario, that the pain in my head, the sounds I thought I was hearing, was an aftereffect from the surgery, or maybe a symptom that indicated something had gone wrong.
“I’m okay. I got checked out. My head is fine, physically at least. I’m not sure how Mister Miller is. He’s still alive.” I shook my head. “I went to get his wife, or I tried to. But why would she want to get into a car with a strange man who said her husband was in the hospital?” The surge of energy I felt began to fade. I was tired again. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“You weren’t thinking. You were just acting, trying to help.”
I could tell that Kylie was focusing more on my traumatic experience of seeing the old man collapse than on what happened before with my senses.
“I didn’t even know at first what happened to him. If he had a stroke or heart attack, or something else. But I think…” I paused, not out of hesitation, but to make sure I locked eyes with my sister, that she was paying attention to this part of my story. “…I think those sounds were warning me. I think his body was broadcasting some kind of signal that it was about to fail in some way and I heard that signal.”
Kylie inhaled deeply. She sat back as she let out her breath.
“Your breath is blue,” I said.
Kylie gave me a small smile, a smile of sympathy and humoring. “Is that good?”
“Everyone in here has bluish breath. Mister Miller’s breath was like a muddy gray-yellow. That’s another clue, I think. I did see his imminent doom. I just hope it wasn’t his imminent death I was seeing.”
“That’s quite a leap based on just one experience. You’re extrapolating cause and effect from a situation that could more likely have been coincidence.”
I put my hand over my mouth and nodded.
“You think you have some sense, or ability, that allowed you to predict that this man was going to collapse?”
I moved my hand. “I don’t know. That’s what I need your help finding out. And I know that it could have been a coincidence. That the sounds might have been triggered by another sense. Maybe it was the way the sunlight was hitting my skin that day. But then why was he fading away? His physical body?”
Having told the story aloud, it did seem more reasonable that my senses were crossed and I happened to be in the right place at the right time to help Mister Miller. It could all have been a coincidence. Even his breath. I didn’t always see people’s breath. The numeral one didn’t always have a golden sheen. Sometimes the world snapped back into the quiet world I knew before my senses started revealing more to me than they ever had before.
After what happened to Mister Miller, I spent a week going to the hospital and just wandering the halls. I carried a notebook with me. I was watched carefully by security and the nurses on whatever floor I was haunting. But I didn’t do anything more than observe and they didn’t kick me out. I was convinced that I had detected Mister Miller’s oncoming attack. What I wasn’t convinced of was whether it could happen again the same way.
I saw more than a few faded people that week. I told Kylie all about them. I avoided the children’s ward. They were already sick, but I didn’t want to see if any of them were fading away. (I’d been afraid to see Kylie for the same reason and was so relieved when she was solid.) I went to the intensive care unit and peeked through the window. All of the patients there but one looked faded away. I stayed away from the emergency room, afraid I would just hear a cacophony of injuries. I couldn’t get any more information about Mister Miller. I saw Missus Miller a few times. She came alone the first day and then always with family and friends. I chatted up one of the friends and found out that Mister Miller had had a stroke and had fallen into a coma.
I wanted to see him, to see if he was still fading away. Or maybe he was slowly healing and growing more solid. I wanted to see and if I could see, then I wanted to tell his family not to worry. But each time I ran through that fantasy, I came across the same flaw. I didn’t know what any of it meant, the things I’d sensed. The discordant sounds, the color of his breath, were those connected to his stroke? Was it coincidence?
But the more I spoke aloud about my week of lurking around the hospital, the more I doubted myself. Kylie suggested that there were ways to detect what parts of my brain were active when I was give different stimuli. So even if there was no sound, if my mind heard sound when my eyes saw an apple, the machine could confirm that my brain really was sensing something.
She was right. There was a far leap between the realities of my confused practical senses and my longed for ability to diagnose someone’s oncoming illness. I wanted that ability. I just wanted there to be more to it. I wanted to be able to use it. I wanted to be useful again. Strong again. It was taking too long to get back to strength, even with how smoothly my recovery had gone and was still going, it was going too slowly.
I pulled out my notebook and slid it toward Kylie. Whatever was happening to me, whether it was psychological, physiological, supernatural, I needed help figuring it out. I needed help from outside myself. I needed more than a doctor. I needed someone who cared about me. But I also needed someone who would be open-minded and objective at the same time. I would pull more people in later if I needed, if this turned out to be real and not just in my head, so to speak.
I picked up the glass ketchup bottle and opened it. Naturally, the ketchup didn’t flow, so as Kylie quietly read, I slapped the bottom of the ketchup bottle. With one particular slap, I accidentally hit my plate with the mouth of the bottle. The resulting sound sent crispy black-orange squares of various sizes out into the diner. The squares just dissolved when they struck an object, be it inanimate or human. But one of the squares struck a man a few booths over straight in the head and bounced back. Following its new trajectory, the square hit a booth cushion and vanished.
I wonder what that means, I thought. The thought was part anxiety and part curiosity.
I was hungry. That was good. That was something I understood. I started in on my french fries. I would be needing my strength.
Copyright © 2016 Nila L. Patel