Zeb did not see his kaleidoscope colors only, did not witness fancy shades that whirled like mingled carnival rides and nothing else. There was more than just his magnificent view of the alphabet, of those candy-shaded contours that held meaning separate from the words they built. He heard things too, saw shapes and felt shadows of pressure across his body when certain other senses were aroused. As he got older he discovered more rooms in his synaesthetic mansion, established what could be expected and what was known. When he heard certain phrases or certain sounds at certain volumes, there would be a rustle, as though a sprinkle of autumn leaves had been blown from nowhere, across the tops of his bare toes. Certain kinds of bass, especially in rap songs and hip-hop, made things go white for split seconds. With each bomb-studded beat his vision would deliver a corresponding throb of blinding white, as though everything and everyone had suddenly been the unknowing victim of nuclear holocaust. The skin of his scalp, too, would feel like flames where licking it and he would want to run his hands through his hair vigorously to try and ease the discomfort—and convince himself the flames were not really melting his skin there. It’s not that he didn’t like the music. He liked all music, was actually obsessed with it for the most part, but the inescapable rules of his condition made some of it uncomfortable.
Inside the crowded innards of the Leland summer cottage, and straining through blurred white-out sight and the burning sensation under his hairline, Zeb could barely think, let alone keep up his end of witty conversation. Dave Matthews’ beautiful strumming on Satellite had abruptly ended partway through its second verse and Shane Jose had commandeered the stereo, spinning a set of ‘essential’ hard core house discs retrieved from the changer in the trunk of his Mustang. As the house music boomed, blasts of simple non-color assaulted Zeb. Everyone got drunker and drunker and the movement of the room with its accentuating throbs of blinding white, matched the empty intensity and emptiness of the music.
And besides that, when certain kinds of fabrics brushed against his skin, particularly the red scar tissue of his right arm, he heard what sounded like thousands of voices all at once, a cacophony of sprinkled babble. They were whispering and it made Zeb feel like there were people in his mind, crowding him. That was more than a little upsetting; he hadn’t had a drop, but he felt like he was suddenly drunk on the new and overwhelming information which streamed from every angle of the house. Zeb left the living room with an exhale of relief and headed for a cement pad by the beachfront, where only a few scattered partygoers wandered. It was more serene, not twenty miles from the house, but far enough.
As he walked to the edge of the property, he thought he could hear other music, not Dave Matthews but something different. He could have sworn someone was playing Neil Young’s Helpless. It wasn’t in direct competition with the wail and pounce of the rap music in the main house, but from somewhere out there, in the middle of the night, came that distinct and haunting harmonica melody. A party at another cottage? Some middle-agers re-living their teenage years? Hearing it then and there, above the bass throbs from the Leland living room, made no sense...yet it felt unmistakable. Even so, its woeful harmonica left him in an instant. It was gone, and he became sure then that he had just made it up.
He stood there at the lot’s generous rim, having lost Jackson somewhere in the calamity of the night, and he took his breath. The moon was nearly full, and its light reflected on the water of the lake. The sound the ripples made was a loosening cadence, a waltz of unknown instruments that he would never be able to reproduce for any one else. It reminded him of another lake, a few years earlier, where he would stare at the water and up at a saucer full of milk that was the moon. Charlemagne Lake that had been, his mother and dad’s summer cottage, and it had sounded like this on every mild night.
The memory of that let him stop worrying that there weren’t others around—no one was there at Charlemagne Lake then and no one need be here with him now. Briefly, he wished for his father’s camera to record what he saw, a picture to accompany the tune in his head, and one that maybe his mother would have liked. But that desire too, he decided, should be ignored. I can enjoy it myself, he thought. Let them have their throbbing bass, their cans of pop mixed with who knew what, the stuff from the Leland’s stash, and whatever they’re rolling in those white papers. They wouldn’t understand this anyway.
Vivian Leland appeared on the cement pad beside him less than twenty minutes after he had made his hurried exit from the living room. Fortunately he had regained his wits by then, and was able to say something, anything, to her.
She asked him if he hated the music. He told her no, that it was complicated. Someday he would explain it. His voice wavered and he found himself behaving awkwardly. The sun had dipped below the horizon hours before, cooling off the night, but he didn’t think it was yet chilly enough to warrant his lips to become this badly aligned.
She asked him if he wanted a drink. He told her no, beer did nothing for him but make his tongue fuzzy. He nearly added that he might as well have one though, since his tongue was malfunctioning anyway. But that would have outdone the ‘un-coolness’ of even the peach colored flyers so he stopped himself in mid-sentence. And that, he decided, sounded even more ‘un-cool’ than had he finished the sentence, no matter how bad it would have come out. His mind faltered clumsily and he feared that this conversation could only go badly so he clammed up completely.
She said something about enjoying the party, then turned to go. He finally closed his eyes and the song in his head strengthened. Everything else seemed to dilute and become less important as he took another deep and patient breath. She was ten feet away, give or take, when he finally spoke again, his eyes still gently closed towards the lapping water.
He asked her if she ever went out on her dad’s boat, looked at the moon on the water, and heard it sing to her. She turned back and said no, cocking her head.
He asked her if she ever heard music from ordinary things, but things that were ordinarily beautiful just the same. She said no, and then took another step towards him.
He asked her, finally, if she would like him to describe the song he heard when he looked at the light of the moon over the lake. She said yes.
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In the wood garden house where Zeb and Vivian found themselves, there was a moth trapped in the wire light fixture overhead. It flapped and swooned but could not find its way free. Vivian still seemed intoxicated by his description of the moonlit waters. He had hummed for her the long drawn out notes he could hear coming from the dark blue sheets rippling with crisp white eggshells and she had smiled peaceably at that. The corners of her eyes, he noted, tilted upward and crinkled a little. She had paused, looked out at what he had been staring at as if to search for those notes herself, and then said that she was getting chilly. As they had walked in the direction of the garden house, he had asked her why she had invited him and she had responded that it was his eyes: You finally looked at me and I could see those brilliant blues of yours. They’re beautiful. You should look people in the eye more.
They arrived at the shed not long after that, had crept inside and snapped on the light, making the moth above go mad. There was a long wooden bench covered in scattered tools, ceramic pots and torn bags of soil. A dark corner of junk stood opposite, shadows looming from it.
I don’t like crowds much either, she told him as she leaned her long exposed arms on the bench behind her. But they come with the territory. Mum and Dad both always have guests and it’s just a part of my life.
She jumped up on the dirty bench then, the spot where her mother spent time repotting white hyacinths and purple mignonettes, her two favorites, which, along with others, populated the short stone barriers, windowsills and pots that swung from light posts on the property. Vivian disregarded the dirty mess the bench made of her white skirt and Zeb liked how the brown color smeared there. Even liked how she ignored that it would never ever come clean again. The white was gone from a skirt that had probably cost someone a few dollars at least, and she didn’t care.
She caught his eyes as he looked at the skirt, but it didn’t matter. His comfort with this girl was alive now. And it didn’t seem to be waning. Not on her end either.
Do you have many people in your life, coming and going? she asked. Lots of stupid dinner parties and stuff at your place, Zeb? That’s what they call you right, your friends? Zeb.
Yeah. Zeb. He was standing before her with his stomach touching her knees. Behind him was the darkness and above them was that halo of light, flecked by the squirming moth whose wings batted his cage. Their faces were only a little ways apart. He reached past her, brushing her warm arm, and picked up a snipped, nearly starved looking hyacinth bloom from the shallow shelf behind her. Its petals were white and cool to the touch. Looking at them made his fingers feel the contoured texture of his guitar case—the part just above the plastic handle where the tan stitching was starting to fray. Did you know that the hyacinth, particularly the white hyacinth, represented ‘unobtrusive loveliness’ to the ancient Greeks?
Her eyes met his and she responded with: I didn’t know that...
He handed her the flower and her response glowed brighter than the living room of people listening to throbbing hip hop inside the main house. She was looking at his eyes and he matched her full-on stare, thinking about how he might seem to her. She loves my blue eyes. They pulled her in because of what they see reflected in a dark pool of lake water. Because of what I hear there.
She leaned forward and kissed him. Then she picked up another wilting flower from the shelf on her other side and handed it to him. And what did the ancient Greeks believe the meaning of peach blossoms to be?
Zeb looked down and took a whiff of the sweet flower, then back at Vivian.
“I am your captive.”
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