Carrie began the walk home. It was late evening, her favourite time of the day. She was fond of darkness and silence. The night was full of both, and consequently empty of the loud, ugly colours which dominated the daytime. The darkness meant that the quieter colours, like the wind trailing pale blue ribbons around the chimney pots, or the teal-coloured swoops of the birds alighting in the branches of the sycamore trees, were easier to see. As Carrie turned a corner, the breeze disturbed a wind chime in someone’s back garden. She couldn’t see the actual bells, but the pure white, upside-down teardrop shapes of their chiming glimmered quite clearly against the dark sky.
She guessed that the school concert, which she’d just left, would have now reached the second half. She had enjoyed the green and silver music of the first half, but the interval had been filled with the same restless audience murmur as before the show, making buzzing, humming patches, melding and juddering from the echoes in the ceiling. Carrie’s head throbbed with it, violently enough that she could feel her skull physically jolting on her neck. When the orchestra started tuning up, making needles of light which stabbed at the corners of her eyes, Carrie slid from her seat and headed for the door.
On the way out, someone had asked if she was alright. It was the mathematics teacher. Although he was young, his hair had evidently greyed prematurely. He wore it short, a silver buzz-cut, like a sergeant major. The students called him Whitey; his real name was Knights. Carrie found she couldn’t look him in the eye, because the ‘k’ made ‘Knights’ such a dark name. With his pale hair and pale blue eyes, he seemed like an imposter, like someone trying to hide.
She turned down the usual shortcut towards her house, through an alleyway which curved along the railway. Normally, at the end of the school day, the four o’clock daylight and the distant shouting of her classmates still hung in the air; many of them also took the same alleyway. Now, the night closed in like a cloak. Carrie wondered why she had never noticed before that there were no street lamps. The only sound was her own footsteps, but, because they never showed any noticeable colour, she walked in darkness.
Then, Carrie heard shouting. Dark purple slashes flew upwards, growing thicker and clearer as the words became more distinct. And another voice underneath – red with pain, orange with fear.
Carrie stopped. She hovered uncertainly in the coloured darkness, watching the purple lines crackling like lightning across the scarlet pain in the blackness in front of her. She should turn back. But she couldn’t help vaguely hoping that, if she waited long enough, whatever was happening would go away, and she could continue. She was only one corner from the end of the alley, ten minutes rather than nearly an hour from home –
She saw the gunshot. The explosion whited out her vision so that she was blind. She reeled in the blank, bleached whiteness, putting her arms out and up involuntarily, as if she were falling. Her wrist smacked into the wall. A heartbeat later, the echoes of the shot melted the white back into black shapes, which re-formed themselves into the alleyway.
Carrie staggered and breathed heavily, recovering. She saw a flat brown line of a car revving, and then the noise of squealing rubber tyres, leaving a jagged, neon-yellow smudge. Then, silence.
Carrie hesitated, rubbing her bruised arm. She could still go back, walk away, never take this alleyway again. But, at length, she moved slowly, cautiously, forwards, skin crawling at the thought of what she would find. She turned the final corner. Ahead, the street lamp from the street beyond lit the pavement with a fading glow. But intruding into the patch of light was a black mass, slumped against the wall, like a dead shadow.
It was a man. He was dead. Shot dead, within twenty feet of her, Carrie realised through an amber haze of shock. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. She felt numb. The world was grey around her and the silence was deafening.
Then a faint red groan trickled upwards.
The man she assumed was dead stirred weakly. She stood, looking down at him. Her heart thudded painfully in her chest and in her ears, with no colour at all because her heartbeat never did have any. She couldn’t bring herself to get any closer. The thought that he was dying was even more terrifying than the thought that he was dead.
He moaned again, softly red, and his head turned. He looked at her. He had a gaunt, drawn face, with lines of age etched into it, and lines of pain. There was black liquid dribbling from his mouth.
Carrie fumbled for her phone with shaking hands. The cloud of orange was obscuring her vision; she couldn’t see the nines appearing on the screen as she dialled them. She strained to see through it, past it, at him, with the electronic ringing buzzing against her ear. He seemed to be waiting for her to finish. Without taking her eyes from him, Carrie told the ambulance dispatcher where she was in a tiny voice.
She hung up. He took a deep breath.
“Hello,” he said.
Carrie said nothing.
“What’s your name?” he asked with an effort.
Carrie wondered if he was delirious. Her name was surely unimportant right now. But his dark eyes were looking vividly and clearly at her.
“Please tell me,” he said, simply.
Carrie swallowed. “Carrie.”
“Hello, Carrie,” he said. “Will you please come closer? I can’t see you properly.”
Slowly, Carrie crouched down. She didn’t really want to. There were sparks of orange flashing at her in response to her own fear and shock.
“Carrie should suit you,” he whispered, inexplicably. Then he said: “I’m John.” He smiled a small smile suddenly, and shut his eyes. “You know, I never liked that name. It was too light. I had dark hair, and the ‘J’ makes my name a sort of pink. Which is wrong of course. Although, now I’m grey, it’s not so bad.”
Carrie was frozen again. She couldn’t believe what he’d just said.
He opened his eyes and looked at her.
“Sorry – you probably think I’m raving,” he said, apologetically.
“No,” said Carrie, “I understand.”
“You’re a kind girl, Carrie.” He leant back, looking upwards at the sky.
“My ‘j’ is pink too,” she said.
He put his head up in shock and they stared at each other.
“You have it too?” he said. “You see colours when you see letters?”
“And numbers?” he asked. “When I see the number one, it’s red.”
She nodded again.
“And two is blue? And three a sort of yellowy-green?”
“Mine’s turquoise,” said Carrie.
The man began to smile properly. “You really do know,” he said. “I can’t believe it. I cannot believe it! I’ve never met anyone else who knows before.”
“Nearly no one in the whole world knows,” said Carrie,
remembering what the doctor had said.
“Well, for a long time I assumed everyone was like me,” he said. “I was amazed that it wasn’t normal. The psychiatric nurse said I had schizophrenia, apparently – which horrified my parents, of course. So I said I made it all up.”
He spoke about a girl he knew when he was young, who confused him with her dark-coloured name and light auburn hair. And he described the shock of the scorn in the other children’s eyes as he tried to explain, to describe his colours. Carrie noticed the colours were always ‘his’ colours. There was no other type for him. His world; his mind; his colours. She wondered if he had always been lonely.
“Sometimes I wonder if they’re fading,” he said, “When I was younger, everything was so much clearer.”
Carrie felt a sudden lurch of horror. “Fading? How?”
“As I get older,” he said. “Everything is just slightly closer to black and white.”
Suddenly he groaned a red scratch in the air. His hand clutched at his side. Carrie had momentarily forgotten that he was injured.
“Sh-should I get help?” she stammered.
“Too – late –” he gasped, painfully.
“The ambulance is coming,” she said, uncertainly. “It’s coming.”
“Too late,” he said again, in a less agonised tone. He breathed out, and then in, and then said, “At least… least I won’t be hounded by those men anymore.”
“Who were they?” Carrie asked before she could stop herself.
“Nobody,” he grunted. “Stupid. Got myself mixed up in what I should have stayed away from. Needed it at the start. That’s how they hook you. Anyway. Doesn’t matter now.”
His breath was coming in short red bursts. Carrie began to see orange again. She felt panicky. What could she do? What could she do? He couldn’t die. Not with the ambulance nearly there. Not with her right next to him.
“Carrie…” he murmured.
“Can you… please… keep talking…?” His voice trailed, the colours fading.
Carrie stared at his closed eyes and grey face, with fear rising like an orange flood within her. She wasn’t good at talking. The word ‘quiet’ was branded all over her school reports. In class, she used to try and force herself to answer a question by putting her hand up even if she had nothing in her head to say. The silences, as the rows of eyes and smirking mouths waited for her non-existent response, were painful. So she shrunk instead, staying under the radar, at the ends, at the backs, behind, beneath.
“Um,” she said, despairingly. “W-well, I was just at the school concert. But I left. Because the music was too much.”
The lines etching his forehead deepened. “What do you mean?”
“Well, the hall echoes. So it all overlaps. I couldn’t see,” she said.
“See?” His eyes opened. “You’re talking about the colours, aren’t you? Colours… with music?”
“Don’t you see them?” Carrie was disconcerted.
He turned his head from side to side, his features twisting slowly. “Sorry. Music is just music to me.”
Carrie was silent. She couldn’t think of anything to say.
He made an effort. “Carrie, can you… can you tell me what you see? When you hear music?”
“Colours. Shapes. Static.” Carrie’s mind was a blank wall.
“Please,” he said, quietly. “Tell me.”
The silence was an absence of light, like a draining of colour. With a sense of desperation, Carrie spoke against this absence which always terrified her, watching her voice pale yellow at the fringes of her vision. It was not hard to describe the mahogany and black and indigo of lower notes, and the paler golds, pinks, and whites of higher pitches. She had seen them for as long as she could remember, rising and falling and flickering in a cylinder around her, as
soon as the music began. When she was small, she would spend stubborn hours in music stores trying to find that ‘green’ song, or that ‘purple’ song, driving her mother mad. On the way out, Carrie would drag her feet in order to press the cold keys of the unbought pianos, and see the pure colours from their metal strings. The rainbows from guitars had always fascinated her; once she had stroked a harp, and the colour was extraordinarily specific. She had yet to see it again.
“It sounds beautiful,” whispered John.
“It is,” said Carrie.
They were silent.
And then, with a beige rippling that gradually lightened, and the bright urgent yellow splurges of the siren, Carrie heard the ambulance roar towards them, getting louder and louder, until the colours were white and painful.
“The ambulance is here,” she said, as it pulled up by the alley, its lights whirling blue in a confusing fashion because they should be yellow, and the ambulance men jumping out, hurrying and shouting in maroon stars. She got no response.