Back to little Vaughan they went, all three, Zeb oblivious, Sadie contented, and Oliver happy as the proverbial bowl of spiked punch. As they drove on Yonge Street that day, the foliage in Vaughan wore vibrant green; the spring had been not damp, but moist. Luxurious and wet, but mixed with heat in the afternoons, like something was being extra kind to the shrubs and flowers, letting them flourish rather than subsist. On the cusp of the city of Toronto, surrounded, engulfed by it, the municipality of Vaughan, still at less than thirty thousand residents back then, was but a suburb of a metropolis, a drop of water in a dry saucer, but the presence of skyscrapers and hotels and apartment complexes were not a pressing force on its outskirts. It was like a vivid comfortable town where no town should exist, with its own sky and its own dignity. In the midst of such a place were large houses and fancy cars and upstanding citizens who all seemed to profit from something—or have parents who profited from something. It was a place that sat squat and with keen self-image inside the bustle and rustle of the money and movement of its large commercial and industrial centerpiece.
Two cities, two blooms of colour, one little, the other large, both festooned and sprawling into and around the other, encircling, encircled, a ritual overgrowth of moss, dense on the tree trunk where it is allowed to thrive, and help the other thrive. Helping these two entities to amass their unity was not a border drawn in the sand, but an elongated handshake: Yonge Street. A crawling artery itself, a panting vein that throbs like a thick living string from top to toe. Top: the eventual reaches of conjoined suburbia that gradually spread north to rural Ontario. Toe: the steel and glass towers of downtown’s ego and, beyond that, Lake Ontario’s wet lips.
Oliver was pleased about the news of Sebastion’s intelligence. Sadie too, but less so. She was happier about her son’s special gift, God’s Gift, she would call it several times in the next few years. She tried her best, as she had done when Sicily’s less intense form of the condition had been diagnosed, to imagine the world through her son’s eyes and ears. He had been slow to answer questions, true. He had even been slow to walk, to talk, and to form sentences. But now she looked at it in light of this new information: synaesthesia. Like the doctor said, perhaps it just took him a little longer to process all this information. She closed her eyes at night and imagined that the world from inside Zeb’s brain was a swirling landscape of colors and sounds. It was a circus kaleidoscope where the band never stopped playing and he walked through it each and every day of his life. Perhaps he had to sometimes sort out what was real and what wasn’t. Perhaps that would eventually become difficult for him. Perhaps it was reason to worry.
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In a group of boys Zeb would have always been the one at the rear, tagging along, looking back or around to see what the others were missing. If they giggled and shouted, he peered at traffic. If they leaped and whooped, he stared at treetops.
He loved to draw. From the moment he discovered his new moniker—the one which made his mother worry that things would be difficult for him—he was always drawing pictures. All manner of visuals sprang from his imagination and his masterpieces hung in the office, the downstairs den, and on the white-faced refrigerator droning alongside the gas stove. Each of them had a dazzling array of color: blues, greens, purples, reds and pinks. And they all had a set of three letters in the bottom corner: Zeb. The Z was always blue. The e was always green and the b was always purple. Sebastion hummed tunes while he drew. Some of them repeated themselves, but some were completely new each and every time he sat down to draw. Sadie never recognized any of them from the radio or television.
At five, he sat in the dining room half of the kitchen-dining split at the large oak table. It was a beautiful, thick, full-bodied table. Splendid and old, it had been Oliver’s grandmother’s who passed it to Rita before Oliver got it when Rita and Teddy’s estate had been divvied up. Oliver loved that table. It had been immaculately restored by his parents and his care for it, as with everything, went well beyond average. It always had two tablecloths on it, a padded one with cotton on the interior and vinyl on the exterior to protect the delicate finish, and a cloth one over that which could be changed to reflect the season or a specific decorum that Sadie had in mind.
On this day, though, Sadie had both cloths off the table. It sat uncharacteristically naked while the two covers, the padded one with the vinyl face, and this season’s white and blue stripy, hung on the line outside. They both flapped vigorously in the stiff spring breeze, against a backdrop of the oak tree’s lowest bough, sprouting with dots of vibrant green.
She had set two hand-knit wool placemats under Zeb’s drawings, but as she disappeared into the back office to open some of the week’s mail, he decided that the softness of the wool beneath his sheet of paper made it hard for the crayons to really press down properly. So he pulled the problem-causing placemats out from under his drawing and threw them promptly on the floor.
It was when he finished his drawing that the real issue began. In front of him was a beautiful picture of a pristine lake surrounded by trees, far more like the lake and trees of an older boy’s drawing, where the lake had waters of different shades and the trees had implied leaves from scribbles that seemed to separate and become countless individuals. As usual, Zeb picked up his electric blue crayon to begin signing his name, something his father had taught him. “All great artists sign their work.”
The crayon slipped on the smooth surface of the bare table, and its waxy coating went clean off the edge of the paper. It smudged a dark and shiny line, thickly down to the edge of the table near Zeb’s tummy where it stopped. He looked at it and immediately fell in love with the sheen of it. It caught the light far differently than the crayon did when it was on a plain sheet of white paper. It was brilliant; a new shade of blue had been invented and Zeb was giddy. Fifteen years later, he would be sitting in a psychology seminar at university and would answer a series of questions during a student presentation. One question, about his favorite color, garnered sniggers from the girls, and thus contempt from the boys. The answer that made them laugh was, “My favorite color is indigo blue crayon smeared on my father’s oak table in the dining half of our kitchen. He’d tell you that was his least favorite color.”
Zeb spent the next fifteen minutes or so discovering all the neat ways his blue crayon could improve the kitchen table. He drew in several directions, up and down, forward and back. The light caught each wax stroke a little differently and he was fascinated by it.
Oliver arrived home from work about sixteen minutes into Zeb’s fun and immediately began a rant. He lunged into the room and grabbed Zeb’s crayon bearing arm. He shook his son violently at the sight of his ruined table, screamed at the boy. “What were you thinking—Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” He launched a million furious questions at Zeb and Zeb couldn’t look at him in the face. Everything was a wash of yellow, bright lemon yellow, like one of his longest crayons. He didn’t like that crayon, couldn’t explain why, but the color made him sick. And now it was overlaid across his father’s face, and even across the table where beautiful blue streaks had been only a minute before. Now they looked green. Tears formed in his eyes, streamed down his cheeks, and his father continued to yell.
“LOOK at me when I’m talking to you.”
But the yellow, and the raised voice, was too great to bear. He pulled his arm away from his father’s grip and ran past him, stumbled against the kitchen counter and fell across the front of the stove. To steady himself he reached up towards the white enameled top edge, and his hand caught the arm of a pot of boiling water which was steaming and churning on a front burner.
Sadie liked her kitchen stove; it was from Hardwick’s Century Series. It was gas and that meant it heated a pot in no time so she didn’t have to wait on things too long when Oliver was in a mood or ready supper at that precise moment. But she didn’t like how it would never keep a low heat on something. It was either a fairly high flame or none at all, only emanating a sickly smell of gas. She joked that it was her “Hardwick Turn of the Century model.”
Sadie had been getting ready to make strawberry preserves, held over in the freezer from last fall, when she had run out of decent-sized jars. The new glass mason jars she had gotten, their lids and rubber rings, lined the cupboard. When Zeb tried to steady himself, the boiling pot on the Hardwick’s burner was upset and Zeb turned his eyes to it in time to see the lip of it come against his inner arm. Most of the boiling water fell in a splash against the front of the fridge, but a few stray drops hit his hand and his face. Those weren’t serious, but his arm was a searing mess from that pot’s lip, one which made him cry out in a childish scream. The yellow he saw immediately dissolved to a bright flash of carrot-orange. The intensity of that color made him nearly as sick with pain as did the burn on his arm. The tears came in a flurry and his dad, Oliver, was as startled as he was. Sadie bolted to the room, filled with shock and confusion. They both rushed to him.
By the time the three of them reached the emergency room, with Zeb’s arm wrapped in a tea towel, the pain was considerably worse. In the back seat of the Beemer wagon, with Sadie holding him, he bawled most of the way. Partly because of the pain and partly because that sick orange color wouldn’t leave. It had not faded either and instead became almost an opaque sheet lying over everything. His mommy’s face was barely recognizable behind the color and it seemed to transform the whole world. His cheeks were red, his eyes red too, and his hair sat in sweaty strands across his forehead. The blistered welt oozed with pale yellow pus and stood out brightly on his arm, about six inches long. He finally lay panting in the back seat with his mom’s arms around him as Oliver sped up the emergency ramp at the hospital.
Yellow, it seemed, washed over things when he got ancy, when something wasn’t quite right, or the threat of something horrible loomed. But orange. Orange was Zeb’s default color for pain.
For more SERIAL ACTION, read the previous installments of THALO BLUE!
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For more SERIAL ACTION, read the previous installments of THALO BLUE!