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The Astonishing Color of After
Author:Emily X.R. Pan

The Astonishing Color of After

Emily X.R. Pan

For and and Loren,

who always believed I could do this

If I should see a single bird

—Emily Dickinson


My mother is a bird. This isn’t like some William Faulkner stream-of-consciousness metaphorical crap. My mother. Is literally. A bird.

I know it’s true the way I know the stain on the bedroom floor is as permanent as the sky, the way I know my father will never forgive himself. Nobody believes me, but it is a fact. I am absolutely certain.

In the beginning, that mother-shaped hole was made of blood. Dark and sticky, soaked to the roots of the carpet.

Over and over again, I rewind back to that June afternoon. I walked home from Axel’s just in time to see my father stumble out onto the porch, clearly looking for me. I’ll never be able to erase that image: his hands slick and shaking, maroon smeared across his temple, chest heaving like it was iron filings getting sucked into his lungs and not air. At first I thought he was injured.

“Leigh—your mother—”

He choked on the sentence, face puckering into something awful. When he finally got the words out, his voice crawled through an ocean to get to me. It was a cold cerulean sound, far away and garbled. I couldn’t process what he said. Not for a long time. Not when the police arrived. Not even when the people came to carry my mother’s body out the front door.

It happened on Two Point Fives Day. Our day—what had become an annual tradition for me and Axel. It was supposed to be celebratory. The school year was almost over and things were finally going back to normal, even with Leanne in the picture. We were already making plans for the summer ahead. But I guess the universe has a way of knocking supposed-tos right on their asses.

Where I was that day: on the old tweed couch in Axel’s basement, brushing against his shoulder, trying to ignore the orange wall of electricity between us.

If I pressed my mouth to his, what would happen? Would it shock me like a dog collar? Would the wall crumble? Would we fuse together?

And Leanne—would she disappear? Could one kiss erase her?

The better question was: How much could it ruin?

My mother knew where I was. That’s one of the facts that I still can’t get over.

If I could have climbed out of my goddamn hormones for just one minute, maybe my neurotransmitters would’ve signaled for me to go home. Maybe I would’ve shaken off my blinders and forced myself to take count of all the things that had been off-kilter, or at least noticed that the colors around me were all wrong.

Instead, I withdrew into my shell, let myself be one of those self-absorbed, distracted teenagers. During sex ed, our teachers always made it sound like the guys were the horny ones. But right there on that couch I was certain that some crucial detail about the female body, or at least my body, had been left out. I was an already-lit firework, and if Axel came any closer, I was going to barrel into the sky and rain back down in a million pieces.

He was wearing the brown plaid that day. It was my favorite of his shirts—the oldest and softest against my cheek when I hugged him. His boy smells wafted over: the sweetness of his deodorant, the smoky floral of some other product, and, beneath all that, a scent like the quiet grass at night.

In the end, he was the one to take off his glasses and kiss me. But instead of bursting into sparks, my body froze. If I shifted a millimeter, everything would break. Even thinking that word—kiss—was like touching an ice wand to my chest. My ribs seized, freezing solid and spiderwebbing with cracks. I was no longer a firework. I was a thing frozen deep in the Arctic.

Axel’s hands stretched around my back and unlocked me. I was melting, he had released my windup key, and I was kissing back hard, and our lips were everywhere and my body was fluorescent orange—no, royal purple—no. My body was every color in the world, alight.

We’d been eating chocolate-covered popcorn just minutes ago, and that was exactly how he tasted. Sweet and salty.

An explosion of thoughts made me pull away. The cloud of debris consisted of remembering: that he was my best friend, that he was the only person I trusted a hundred percent besides Mom, that I shouldn’t be kissing him, couldn’t be kissing him—

“What color?” Axel said quietly.

This is the question we always ask to figure out what the other person’s feeling. We’ve been best friends since Mrs. Donovan’s art class—long enough that that’s all we need. One color to describe a mood, a success, a failure, a wish.

I couldn’t answer him. Couldn’t tell him I was flashing through the whole goddamn spectrum, including a new dimension of hues I’d never before experienced. Instead, I stood up.

“Shit,” I breathed.

“What?” he said. Even in the dim light of the lone basement bulb I could see how his face was flushed.

My hands—I didn’t know where to put my hands. “Sorry, I gotta. I have to go.”

We had a no-bullshit rule with each other. I kept breaking it.

“Seriously, Leigh?” he said, but I was already running up the stairs, grabbing at the railing to pull myself up faster. I burst into the hallway outside the living room and gulped down breaths like I’d just broken the surface after the deepest dive.

He didn’t follow. The front door slammed as I left; even his house was pissed at me. The sound rang out puke green. I thought of the hard cover of a book smacking shut on a story that wasn’t finished.


I never saw the body up close. The police arrived and I raced ahead of them. Up the stairs two at a time. Burst into the master bedroom with a force that nearly cracked the door. All I could see were my mother’s legs on the floor, horizontal and sticking out from the other side of the bed.

And then Dad was behind me, pulling me out of the way while my ears rang with the shrieking. It was so loud I was certain it was a noise brought by the police. Only when I stopped to catch my breath did I realize the shrieking was coming from me. My own mouth. My own lungs.

I saw the stain after they removed my mother, after someone had made a first attempt at cleaning it out of the carpet. Even then it was still dark and wide, oblong and hideous. Barely the shape of a mother.

It’s easier to pretend the stain is acrylic paint. Pigment, emulsion. Water soluble until it dries.

The one part that’s hard to pretend about: Spilled paint is only ever an accident.

Spilled paint doesn’t involve a knife and a bottle of sleeping pills.

The day after it happened, we spent hours searching for a note. That was the surreal part. Dad and I floated around the house, moving sloth-like as we pulled at drawers, flipped open cabinets, traced our fingers along shelves.

It’s not real unless we find a note. That was the thought that kept running through my brain. Of course she would leave a note.

I refused to go into the master bedroom. It was impossible to forget. Mom’s feet sticking out from behind the bed. My blood pounding, she’s dead she’s dead she’s dead.

I leaned against the wall out in the hallway and listened to Dad riffling through papers, searching, moving from one side of the room to the other, sounding as desperate as I felt. I heard him open her jewelry box and shut it again. Heard him shifting things around on the bed—he must’ve been looking under the pillows, under the mattress.

Where the hell did people usually leave their notes?

If Axel were there with me, he probably would’ve squeezed my shoulder and asked, What color?

And I would’ve had to explain that I was colorless, translucent. I was a jellyfish caught up in a tide, forced to go wherever the ocean willed. I was as unreal as my mother’s nonexistent note.

If there was no note, what did that mean?

My father must’ve found something because everything on the other side of the door had gone intensely quiet.