Chloe N. Clark
The Color of Electrically Brilliant
For years afterwards Marina would imagine that the dead were following her. They walked the same streets as her, always a pace behind or ahead, peering into windows and delighting in the objects that they could never purchase. They would haunt— and here she would suddenly understand that word— the same cafes as her. They would go up to the counters and consider the menu but never be able to choose between cinnamon lattes or cups of spiced chai. She'd watch them casually, or at least thinking she was being casual, and spend her time trying to come up with the right words to tell them—the one perfect phrase that would make them stop, the one apology that they would finally understand. All that she ever came back to was I'm Sorry and it seemed too simple to ever work.
• • •
Marina's mother called it a gift. Theirs was the kind of family that called things like this a gift. The first time it happened she was only seven. She was lying in the front yard watching the sky for interesting clouds. She had yet to really see a cumulus. So, in her mind, they became the most intriguing kind of cloud, achieving a sort of mysticism for her. She remembered thinking that the sky was a radiant shade of blue. She then looked over at her neighbor's house. He had just died, a cop shot in the line of duty. It was a phrase that she didn't understand at the time and so thought that he had been killed while guarding some sort of sacred line in the ground. She wondered what would happen to his dog. It was the coolest dog: a big gray mix with long legs like a wolf. She fell asleep. Well, she thinks that she must have fallen asleep. She can't really remember; there was just the clear blue sky and then her eyes snapped open. Her nose was bleeding; the blood was hot as it dripped over her lips.
"Kid, are you okay?"
She looked up and there was her neighbor; he was alive or living at least. A single hole was in his chest and through it she could see a cumulus in the distance.
• • •
There wasn't really a pattern. It was just that if someone got murdered then Marina would start drifting into sleep and wake up with cuts, bruises, and a new undead friend offering a heartfelt thanks. She lived in a crime-filled city and it got to the point that her teachers gave her funny sad looks when she limped into class sporting a fresh black eye. She imagined that they thought she had joined some junior league fight club (the first rule of Junior League Fight Club is don't tell Mom, she thought to herself). She never imagined that they'd blame her parents; in her school there was no such thing as child abuse, just aggressive parenting. A college friend would later say that he had aggressive parents; she had nodded sympathetically until he went on to say that it was because they had enrolled him in AP courses during high school.
Marina's parents weren't aggressive in either sense. Her mother did love her talent, though. She was a palm reader down on Main Street; tourists paid her to tell them stories. She had had only one accurate prediction and told the story often to Marina: when she was fourteen she had predicted that a yellow house on her street would burn down and two days later it did. Marina sometimes wondered if her father had done it; he was a juvenile delinquent at the time he was wooing her mother and it was the type of thing that would have seemed perfectly romantic to him.
Her mother read Marina's palm once. She had admired the length of Marina's life line, the way that her heart line had stretched across her entire palm, but she had puzzled over the strange line that began at Marina's wrist and went all the way to the tip of her middle finger. It was startling white in color, almost as if the bone was showing through her skin. Her mother said it was like a scar but from a wound that had never happened. Sometimes when Marina couldn't go to sleep she would trace the line and imagine ways that she could have gotten it: clawed by a ghost kitten or slicing her hand open in a dream about cutting the rind from a pineapple. She asked her mother if it meant anything in terms of palmistry and her mother had said, in that certain tone that mothers usually reserve for talking about Santa Claus, that it meant that she was going to save the world one day.
• • •
She brought back eleven people by the time she was thirteen. They all went on with their lives, rejoined their families in as subtle of a manner as they could. Some of them stayed in touch, sending her birthday and Christmas cards that all read something along the lines of I'm still alive again. Thanks so much.
Then it stopped. She woke up one day feeling lighter and Marina thought that everything would be normal again. Or normal-ish. She'd take it with the "ish." She really wasn't picky.
Her mother was disappointed but not in an outright sort of way. Sometimes she'd just sigh as she was staring out the window and mumble something about all the unjust deaths in the world. Marina would think about this and secretly shudder: all those bruises which took so long to fade from her skin, their bright colors scattered across her body like unfinished tattoos of pictures she had never wanted. She began to like standing in the shower and watching the water cascade over her unblemished skin.
She started getting better and better grades. One kind teacher, the one who would eventually break and grow bitter but not quite yet, encouraged her to apply to colleges; he even helped her with her essay and wrote a glowing recommendation filled with college-friendly keywords like "bright" and "inquisitive." She got accepted to the one she wanted; it was the one that had the teams that everyone in the state rooted for with a single-minded intensity that Marina equated with a kind of true love.
She imagined that she would study something useful; she thought dreamily about spending hours writing reports about diseases or, better yet, cures. Still, she filled her schedule with inconsequential classes such as Introduction to Mythology. It was in this class that she heard stories about those who journey to the underworld, the ones who go to bring back those they loved. She asked the professor if Orpheus came back with bruises. The classroom filled up with laughter. The professor said that fighting would have been uncivilized, common, unworthy; he said that Orpheus used his music to woo the keepers of the dead. She wondered if maybe she should have learned an instrument.
• • •
Everything was going well or well enough. Marina passed her classes and even made a couple of friends whom she could joke with easily because they knew nothing about her.
Then in her junior year it happened again. She was in French class, listening to the TA's mellifluous voice— he had a voice like a song, it was all rhythm and flow—and staring out the window at the hill which burst from the center of campus. There was a tree on the middle of the slope, some old tree that hardly seemed living. The tree was all gnarled branches with only the occasional bright green leaf which served like the rise and fall of a comatose patient's chest might. Then she looked at the rest of the class, heard the lack of the TA's voice, and saw that they were all staring at her. She felt the blood drip from her nose and hit her hand in splashes, a rain the temperature of her body. She saw no dead. Maybe, she thought, it was really just a nose bleed. She went to the restroom, stared in the mirror, ran cold water and cupped it into her hands.
"Hey, so what happened?" said a voice behind her and, although she tried not to show it, she felt her body sag.
It was the girl who had accidentally fallen down a flight of stairs at the Eta Kappa Beta House. Of course, it must not have been so accidental, Marina realized. This is why she never joined a sorority, she thought to herself. Well that and the pink sweaters they wore with the chapter letters emblazoned across the fronts in Christmas red; the color clash was unforgiveable to Marina. She turned to the girl and tried to explain.
"So, you're, like, an EMD?" The sorority girl (and Marina suddenly remembered that her name was Anna— it had been printed across the front page of every campus newspaper) said smiling.
Marina blinked at the word.
"You know, you practice Emergency Medicine for the Dead?"
They both laughed—Anna because she was so suddenly alive, Marina because she had never thought to name what she did. It had seemed so unspeakable but to name something gave her power over it.
"So, anyways, thanks," Anna said and hugged her. Anna's body had not yet completely warmed and it sent shivers through Marina; it was like swallowing chips of ice on an empty stomach.
• • •
Marina went back to her apartment that night and called her mother. She meant to say that it was back but halfway to saying it she changed her mind and began to talk about the weather; she talked about the way that the sky was changing to reflect the seasons as they twisted. She mentioned the way that the colors at first deepened and then suddenly became muted and dull. She thought that she was explaining everything quite well.
In the shower she examined the explosions of color across her body, miraculous blues that reminded her of the hollyhocks that her grandmother used to plant and deep eggplant purples which spelled her gift across her skin. She thought, maybe, it's just this once. She thought, how many murders can take place on a campus? She thought that if she were religious then she would think that God was punishing her. She thought that someone was definitely punishing her.
• • •
It was a Tuesday. She was headed to the building on top of the hill when she heard the first shot. She didn't think that it was thunder. She recognized the sound. She turned and saw the campus stretched below her and the grayness of the lake spreading out in the distance. And then another rang out. And another. And she had to stop counting. She fell to the ground. She thought, I should do something. She called for help. She prayed that she wouldn't have to help.
There were thirty-one. The number seemed purposefully hopeless and unhelpful. Thirty-one: divisible only by one and itself. She called her mother and said she was coming home. She said she wasn't going back. She thought of thirty-one battles; she didn't think there was enough space on her body for that. If it was just one or even three, she said to herself. If it was thirteen or four. But thirty-one was impossible. Orpheus only had one Eurydice.
She moved home and transferred colleges as so many of her classmates did. She wrote the thirty-one names down in a book; they were the ones who would never get a chance to write cards to her. She thought that they had to understand that it would have killed her. She stood in the shower and asked herself, what color is this? What is the color of a non-existent bruise? It just looked like clean skin.
• • •
It never happened again. The gift was gone. She felt relieved. She felt like a coward. She felt like Orpheus in that moment before he was torn apart; she imagined pieces of her body staining the clarity of a river. That's when she began to see the dead or thought she did; they were all faces that were nearly familiar.
And years later, she stopped one of the dead in the street, made her turn to face her. But it was only a woman. Marina had been wrong; it was just some living stranger. And though Marina knew the woman wasn't who she wanted to speak to she still said it to the woman: I'm sorry over and over until the words lost any possible meaning.