“Thanks for the ride,” Daniel muttered as he stepped off the school bus and into the comfortable warmth of an early summer day. His shoes crunched small stones on the cracked concrete sidewalk as he turned down his street and headed home. A couple of other middle school boys tumbled off the bus and took off running. One of them brushed against Daniel, knocking him off balance.
“Sorry, Donny!” the boy yelled back.
“Danny,” Daniel corrected, but nobody heard him. He adjusted his backpack and continued home. He watched the boys start a game of backyard football and wished they’d invite him to play. He had watched a few games, but not enough to give him the confidence to ask to join. The only position he knew by name was the quarterback.
He entered his house. He kicked off his shoes and threw his backpack on the staircase landing.
“Are you okay, honey?” his mom asked. She was thin and had long brown hair.
“Yeah,” Daniel mumbled. “Mike and the other boys started playing football in his backyard. But they didn’t invite me.”
“Did you ask to join them?”
“No,” Daniel mumbled.
“You have to surrender your shell."
He rolled his eyes and opened the refrigerator door, letting the air envelop him.
“You have to be willing to approach others if you expect them to approach you,” his mom continued.
Daniel shrugged and ventured deeper into his house. Brown balloons, laden with air, not helium, draped from the living room wall. Three party plates adorned the round kitchen table and surrounded a homemade cake. The only thing missing was a “Happy Birthday” banner made from hand-cut letters of colored paper.
“What’s going on?” Daniel asked.
“This is all for you, buddy,” his dad said, a brown-haired man with a slight belly. “Today’s a special day.”
“Because today, for you at least, the world changes.” His dad handed him a box wrapped with Christmas-themed wrapping paper. “Remember that eye test you took last month? We were trying to figure out what kind of colorblindness you have.”
“There’s multiple kinds?”
“Yeah. Apparently, you have protanomaly. It’s a type of red-green colorblindness where your eye’s red and green light sensitivities overlap, blending the colors into a brownish-yellow. You only see about ten percent of the colors we see. Your test result helped us pick out a special kind of glasses that will filter out wavelengths in that busy overlap area. Hopefully it’ll let you see everything. Besides, you’ll be driving in three years, so we don’t want you mixing up the colors at stoplights. Come on. Let’s go outside.”
The three of them went outside onto the lawn of patchy crab grass. An old wooden playground was shoved into a corner of their fenced in backyard. Daniel had long since outgrown it, but his parents refused to get rid of it. His mom’s lackluster flower garden nestled against the fence on two sides.
Daniel tore off the wrapping paper but paused before opening the glasses case.
“What’s wrong?” his mom asked.
“I’ve heard about theses glasses,” Daniel said. “They’re really expensive.”
“They are,” she admitted.
“I just wish you had bought me something else.”
“But don’t you want to see all the colors?”
Daniel shook his head. “What will it matter? Most people walk around with their heads down. They don’t smile. They look just as sad as me, and they can see color, so how great can it be?”
His mom averted her eyes and took a second to gather her thoughts. “I promise color is great. I don’t know what makes other people sad—sometimes I don’t even understand what makes me sad. And chasing away sadness is like trying to protect a sandcastle from a rising tide. But I can’t chase away your sadness if you don’t let me.” She kissed the top of his head. “Please surrender your shell. Let the world in. Let me and your father in. You don’t have to keep the glasses if you don’t want them, but at least look through them once.”
Daniel, embarrassed by the attention, could not make eye contact with either of his parents. He turned the box over and read its bold promise to help him “see the world in a light.” He looked up at his parents, who smiled. All this hype better pay off.
He opened the box and slid out a pair of sunglasses. He ripped open its plastic wrapping. It had black metal frames that were shaped like traditional aviators and felt hefty, and its lenses were tinted brown. Here goes. He put the glasses on. The cool metal hugged his head. And the world exploded.
He blinked and squinted as if someone shined a flashlight in his eyes. The dull shades of brown, yellow, and blue came to life in bolder shades than he had ever seen. And other colors, some he could not recognize, barraged his eyes like lasers. The sky softened into a lighter blue, into the color he felt when climbing into a freshly made bed. The warm sun, its rays gracing the cotton clouds, brightened into a stronger shade of yellow that matched its generous warmth. It was the color he felt when he came into the house after cutting grass all afternoon and his mom rewarded him with a glass of ice-cold lemonade.
He closed his eyes while staring at the sun, letting it illuminate the blood in his eyelids and show him its reddish color. He eyes flew open again, and he pivoted in every direction, torn between staring at something and moving to the next novelty. The ground around him was a sea of green, but a green unlike he had ever seen. He dropped to his knees and ran his hands over the blades. It was a welcoming color, the color of what he felt when he lay in the grass and watched wispy clouds pass by overhead. Green? He’d seen shades of it before, but not like this. He turned over a blade. It almost looks fake. Then he noticed his skin color, which had grown peachy, and he regarded his arms and legs as if he had woken in a new body.
“Are you okay, son?” his dad asked.
Daniel mumbled but couldn’t not hear his own voice. A hand caressed his face. He flinched. His mom, her skin also brightened, wiped a tear off his cheek and moved to the other side and did the same.
“Can you see all the colors, Danny?” she asked.
“Yes, mama,” he whispered.
He lifted his head and peered into her brown eyes. Lit by the sun, her irises looked like rich wood grain glazed with honey. Along the edges of the whites of her eyes were spindly veins, colored in what must be red.
“Yes, mama,” he whispered again.
“What’s it like, buddy?” his dad asked.
“It’s a lot,” Daniel mumbled with a nervous laugh. “I don’t know how to describe it.”
“Look at my flowers, sweetie,” his mom said.
She led Daniel to the flowerbed. Before, he hated when she worked in the yard. She always forgot to take her cellphone with her, so Daniel had to trudge outside to give her the home phone when an annoying relative called and interrupted his gaming sessions. Worse still, she would call him to take the phone inside so it would not get dirty, forcing him to wait outside for the gossip to end.
“Why do you get so upset?” she asked once. “Can’t you just pause the video game?”
“I can’t pause a multiplayer game,” he insisted before racing to his sanctuary like a vampire caught in sunlight. But on this day, he could have kissed her for spending so much time in her disorganized garden. The two rose bushes, climbing up a short trellis, snagged his attention first. Only one rose had bloomed fully, and Daniel crouched down and cupped it in his quivering hands.
“Red,” he whispered. Years prior, he had asked his mom what red looks like. She said it stands out more than any color, so most warning labels are colored red to grab attention. Fire engines are red. She said red is the color you feel when you punch something, and Daniel thought he had a good idea of what it looked like. But the red of the rose was much better. It wasn’t just the color of what he felt the last time he punched his something, it was the color of everything he felt leading up to the swing. He gently dragged a fingertip along a rose pedal. It can’t be real. He touched his glasses, remembering that the lenses looked brown when he first unpacked them.
“Look at this one, Danny,” his mom said, pointing out a different flower. “Do you know what color it is?”
The flower had six petals of a deep…blue? It was something in between blue, red, and black. But this mystery blue could not simply be a shade of blue, because that one flower boasted multiple shades of it. Its center was near black, and the fringes of its petals were much lighter. The mystery blue darkened near the center, as if the center was a black hole sucking the lighter color, and dark lines indicated where the ink flowed. Or, as if the center was a faucet spewing mystery blue onto a white flower. The color compared only to Daniel’s curiosity.
“What color is that?” he asked.
“That’s purple. It’s—”
“That’s purple? I thought purple was just dark blue.”
“No, it’s its own color.”
As with the green grass and red rose, the purple petunias needed touch to verify their existence.
“Look at this one, sweetie,” his mom said.
She drew his attention to a small bush with multiple carnations, spheres with a maze of tightly meshed pedals. The color, a combination of red, purple, and white, was less obvious. This mystery red was light and soft. It was the color of what he felt when he had a crush on Rachel Wagner. It was the color he felt when she noticed his existence, if only because he was giving a presentation in front of the class.
“This is pink,” his mom said.
“Pink?” Daniel whispered. He moved to another flower, then another—each unique, as even flowers of the same species differed in hues. Though some had torn, dying, or missing petals, they were are all beautiful.
“Can I take a look, buddy?” his dad asked, reaching for the glasses. “I’m curious if only your eyes see a difference.”
Daniel’s hands rushed to the sides of his head and pinned the glasses to his face.
“Oh. Not even a peek?”
“I can’t go back.”
“Go back where, buddy?”
“The dull world where I was trapped.”
Daniel shook his head. I can’t go back—not after seeing all this. I can’t. But as the initial shock of color passed, the dull world crept back. It formed halos around the lens of his glasses, and his peripheral vision fed him blurred glimpses of his old prison. He twisted his head to chase away the haze and illuminate the part of his yard that was trapped. It worked for that hidden area, but then other parts were dulled. The color was trapped inside the lines, but he wanted it everywhere. He pushed his glasses harder against his face until the bridge dug into his nose and his eyelashes swept the lenses. I can’t go back.
“So, what’s the verdict, buddy?” his dad asked.
“It’s crazy,” Daniel said. “Before I had the glasses, I didn’t really care when I heard about bad things happening. The bad stuff wasn’t a big deal. It even made sense to me, because the world was ugly and gray. But it doesn’t make sense any more. How can people do bad things when the world is so beautiful?”
“Um—I don’t know, buddy. Do you want to come inside? Mom made you cake.”
“Maybe later,” Daniel said.
“Well, is it all right if I have a slice? I’m starving. I had too many quizzes to grade during my lunch period to eat anything.”
His dad went inside. His mom lingered for another minute before leaving him alone in the yard. Once the shocked passed and his head stopped spinning, he was better able to appreciate the marvels. He revisited the garden. No wooden boxes segregated the flowers by type or color. Black trash bags, mostly hidden by wood chips, held the weeds at bay. He gazed again at the sun and the sky to pick up what he missed the first time. The colors were so bright and bold and perfect that some looked like wet paint. Blue and yellow, emboldened through the glasses, were certainly beautiful. Purple and pink, the two most foreign colors, were in a league of their own. But red was something else. It was more than a color. It was all his emotions boiled into lava. It was anger and excitement at the same time.
Daniel remembered that his dad had laser pointers for when he taught evening classes at the community college. He ran inside, startling his mother, and chucked off his sneakers—no level of excitement could erase the memories of spankings earned from tracking dirt inside. He slipped on the linoleum but sprung to his feet and sprinted to his dad’s office.
“I need your lasers!” he insisted as he crashed through the doorway.
His dad swiveled around. “What for?”
His dad rolled his eyes before fishing a laser pointer out of his desk drawer. “Bring it back in one—”
“Do you have two?” Daniel asked.
“Two? The second one is my backup for when you lose the first one!”
“I won’t lose either. I promise.”
His dad sighed, found a second laser pointer, and handed both to Daniel, who grabbed them and ran.
“You’re welcome!” his dad snapped.
Daniel stopped by the kitchen on his way out and used scotch tape to bind the pointers to the frames of his glasses near the hinges. Test firing, he lit up the crème wall with two red dots. He adjusted the angle of the pointers before putting his shoes back on. His mom eyed him over a Pottery Barn catalog.
“All right!” Daniel boomed as he stepped out on the yard. “Who’s first?”
The backyard with its long-abandoned playset and its flora ignored him. He couldn’t vaporize the pretty flowers, so he aimed his wrath skyward and activated his laser pointers, imagining that the light came from his lenses. Scorching red beams exploded from his lens and punctured a lonely cloud, which dissipated. Another cloud, then another, also fell victim to his whirring laser. But butchering the helpless clouds soon bored him. He needed a new enemy.
An alien spaceship broke through the cloud and charged at his house. Its body was a classic saucer shape. It had blue glowing bulges on its underside that seemed to propel it. Its metallic skin was an ugly gray, not even a cool, reflective chrome. Aside from its blue bulges, it had no other color. I’ll give you some.
Daniel opened fire. Red beams erupted. The saucer dodged his blast with unearthly agility. He fired again. And again.
His third blast finally grazed the saucer and knocked it off course. He let loose two more blasts to finish it off, and its smoking wreckage fell in Ms. Nolan’s yard and exploded. He raced to the old playground and climbed its platform to get a better view. Just missed her house. Shame.
Blue laser bolts struck the playground. The impact sent him flying off. He landed on the grass and had the breath knocked out of him. Another bolt hit the ground right next him and kicked up dirt. Its heat singed the hairs on his arm. Something buzzed overhead, and Daniel looked up. An enemy saucer sliced through the plume of smoke rising from the burning playground.
Daniel rushed to his feet and shot at the circling saucer. But more bolts pummeled the ground near him, and a second saucer appeared on the horizon. He ran for cover behind the only tree in his yard. The saucer that had destroyed the playground circled around for another strafing run.
He stepped out, his fists clenched, and unleashed his death ray. The red rays clipped the side of the saucer and set it ablaze. The spaceship crash landed in his neighbor’s yard and slid through his fence before careening to a stop in front of him.
The last saucer ascended and dove on Daniel, using the cover of sunlight. His eyes teared from the sun’s harsh light, and his laser blasts were inaccurate. The glasses would not fire unless his eyes were open. Still the saucer dove. Blue bolts raced toward him.
Daniel supercharged his glasses and unleashed a prolonged blast in a wide curve. A Hail Mary pass. The blast sliced the saucer in half, and the pieces crashed in the yard. He exhaled in relief.
“Daniel Oross!” someone hollered.
Daniel glanced behind him to see his dad poking his head out of the back door. He pivoted to deal with the last saucer, but it had vanished. Nothing sailed the sky. No column of smoke rose from the intact playground, and no burning saucer littered his yard.
“Mrs. Nolan called,” his dad yelled. “She was complaining about the lasers.”
“Did they melt her lips shut?” Daniel asked.
“Um, no. Don’t talk like that. I guess your commotion freaked her out. Come inside. You can play with them another day.”
Daniel opened his mouth but stifled all resistance. He aimed the lasers and shined them at his dad, their light harmless.
His dad covered his face. “I surrender!” he shouted. “I surrender!”
Daniel pulled the tape off his glasses and handed a laser pointer to his dad.
“Both of them,” his dad said with an outstretched hand.
Daniel grumbled and relinquished the second one.
“Thank you. I have an idea I think you’ll like.”
“Absolutely not!” Daniel’s mom crossed her arms.
“We’ll be okay!” his dad insisted. “I’ll take the back roads by Easton. There’s a couple of long straight roads that cops never patrol. I won’t do anything too crazy. And don’t you remember begging me to take you for a ride in that car?”
“I was a stupid, starry-eyed girl then.”
“I meant the starry-eyed part.”
She shook her head. “Fine. Just be careful, please.”
The boys rushed to the garage. Daniel smacked the garage door opener while his dad got in the car. The red Corvette ferocious engine rumbled to life, and it rolled forward out of the garage like a dragon emerging from its dungeon. Sunlight washed over and emboldened the glossy red paint. The polished aluminum dazzled like diamond. Daniel gaped at the car.
His dad reached over the passenger seat and opened the door. “What are you waiting for?” he asked. “Let’s go!”
Daniel grinned. He climbed in, settled on the black leather seat, and strapped himself in. He rolled the window down—manually. After riding in beat-up minivans for most of his life, it was weird to be so close to the ground. Weird in a good way.
The engine growled and vibrated the whole car as Daniel’s dad urged it forward onto the street.
“This is so awesome!” Daniel said. “Why don’t you take it out more often?”
“I wish I could,” his dad answered, “but I have to keep it in pristine shape if I hope to get any money for it one day.”
Daniel’s heart sank. “You’re going to sell it?”
“I have to. It’s how we’re going to pay for your college.”
“But you love this car!”
“I love you more. Our family is in that gray zone. We’re too ‘wealthy’ to get much financial aid, but we’re too poor to afford school outright.” He smiled. “Hey, if you get great grades in high school the scholarships you get may be enough to get you through. In that case, I’d just give you the car.”
Daniel nodded. “I’ll do it.”
His dad lifted a finger. “One condition. You have to take me for a ride every now and then. But I could get Alzheimer’s and immediately forget that you gave me a ride as soon as I step out of the car. Then I’ll turn around and compliment your beautiful car and demand you take me for a ride.”
“I think I could manage a whole day of driving with you.”
It took them a while to meander through their town on their way to the back roads, but Daniel didn’t mind. His glasses transformed the simple town into a colorful paradise whose every structure and citizen were spectacles. Reaching the outskirts of town, they fled civilization and the prying eyes of police speed traps.
The engine roared.
The tires squealed.
Inertia pinned Daniel to his seat. It flung him side-to-side. He ventured his hand out the window at one hundred thirty miles an hour. The rushing wind felt like water as it washed over his palm and between his fingers. An hour warped into a minute.
Eventually they came to a straight road flanked by seemingly endless fields of ankle-high corn, and his dad slowed to a smooth cruising speed. Their heading was roughly east, and the sinking sun loomed ahead. The clouds were whitecaps on the restless ocean of air, but the sun sank and soon glazed them in gold. Distant clouds speckled the horizon and were emblazoned with a reddish purple. The golden glaze spread and spread. Part of the sky, right above the horizon, turned green and yellow, and the soft blue sky above Daniel strengthened to navy blue. Deeper and deeper the sun sank. All the colors blended in perfect imperfection, unbound by tidy lines. The golden blaze ignited, took on a fiery orange color, and made the clouds look like clumps of lava.
As the sun slipped from view, the dying reds and oranges gave way to pink and purple. The road ended in a fork, and Daniel’s dad parked the car on the side. They enjoyed those last few minutes of light before heading home.
The next morning, Daniel woke up in the dull world. His room was a prison cell. He held his breath to keep from drowning and fumbled for his glasses on his nightstand. Once they were back on his face, and the dull world was gone, he exhaled.
After a big bowl of generic Cheerios, he drew on his driveway with chalk. The chalk was among a treasure trove of simple gifts from his parents that he never cared to open. Even though the colors were mostly pastels, they were vibrant enough to create a lively canvas. He ignored his mother’s request that he only draw on their driveway, and the sidewalk and parts of the road fell under his domain.
He reimagined Ms. Nolan as a witch in a fortress atop an active volcano. She enslaved the populace with her witchcraft and magical staff that shot yellow lightning. Only Daniel—a stick figure with red circles for eyes—could fight her. Red beams raced toward the witch and collided midair with her yellow lightning, creating a ball of energy. He was about to lose the fight, but his dad raced up the volcano in his red car and picked him up.
Between the car and lava, he depleted his red chalk. He rose to grab a second from the box and tripped on the sidewalk. He fell face-first against the concrete with a thud, his hands too slow to catch him. A split second of numbness faded to throbbing pain from his scraped forehead. The bridge of his glasses dug into his nose and drew blood. As he lifted his head, the shattered lenses fell to pieces, and he fell into the dull world.
Daniel went cold. “No, no, no!” he cried.
He scrambled to collect the pieces. He pressed shards together as if they would magically fuse. After a minute, he stared at the pieces in shock. Then he looked around at his prison. Green and blue had lost their zeal. Yellow too was dulled. Worst of all, the newest wonders—red, purple, and pink, were gone. And after seeing them, the dull world was even worse than before.
Cradling the pieces in his hands, he stormed inside and kicked the door shut behind him. He grabbed super glue from the cabinet and set to work reattaching the shards on the kitchen counter. But his hands shook. And the glue wasn’t clear.
“What’s wrong, honey?” his mom asked. “You’re trembling.”
“My glasses,” Daniel muttered, hard at work.
She peeked over his shoulder. “You broke them? Danny, you knew how expensive they were! How did it happen?”
“I tripped on the stupid sidewalk.”
“You should have been more careful,” she said with a sigh. She reached over him. “Well, that kind of glue won’t work.”
“No!” he shouted, swatting away her hand. “I got it. I’ll fix it.”
“But that’s—okay, honey. Let me know if you need anything.”
Daniel took off the bent frames and tried inserting a shard into its inside grooves. When that failed, he tried to first glue the shards together. His panic deleted his patience, and his constant tampering didn’t help the already slow-drying glue. Frustration whittled him down about an hour later.
“How’s it coming, honey?” his mom asked.
“Not good,” Daniel admitted. “Why did the lenses break like this?”
“They’re not like other glasses.”
“Can you get special glue for the lenses?”
“Yes. But don’t get your hopes up. I’m not sure how well the glue will work, and the frames look mangled.”
Daniel swallowed and stared at the wreckage. “Can you buy me a second pair?”
“I’m sorry, honey,” she said with a sigh. “But they were really expensive. I’ll talk to your father, and we’ll try to get the money together for a second pair as soon as possible, but it probably won’t be for a while.”
“Okay,” Daniel whispered. He turned and headed for the front door.
“Where are you going, honey?” his mom asked.
“Outside,” he answered. “I just want to be alone for a while.”
Daniel sat on the front steps of his house and held his head in hands. He rested his elbows on his knees and stared at the house across the street. His neighbor had some purple flowers—at least he knew they were purple, but he could not appreciate the color. The brown car in their driveway was red—at least he knew it was red. But it was not fiery red. It was a red that seemed ashamed of being red, and Daniel could not grasp why someone would butcher such a proud color. Yet even that shy red boasted more life than the dull hues of yellow, brown, and blue. The colors were coveted toys behind a glass window in a store someone like him had no business visiting. And as when he first peered through his glasses, the dull world looked fake. The bright and noble colors remained hidden under a layer of ash from a volcanic eruption. He had to brush off the ugly coating so the colors could beam once more. Even if the ash covered the whole world, it would be his mission to brush it all way. Nobody has to pay me anything. Pay me in food, maybe, so I don’t starve. I’ll brush all the ash away. I’ll make the world colorful again.
The front door opened and closed behind him. He recognized his mom’s footsteps. She sat beside him on the steps and enjoyed the afternoon sun in silence.
“Last night I dreamed in color,” Daniel said. “I hate the dull world because I feel like I belonged there, like it was my home somehow. I hated that feeling once I realized how much better the world looks to someone with normal eyes.”
“Your father and I are your home,” his mom said. “You don’t belong in the dull world, as you call it. You belong with us.” She shifted to face him. “I’ve been thinking about what you said about how bad things didn’t use to bother you because the world was ugly and gray. Things don’t need color to be beautiful, and they don’t need beauty to deserve love.”
She stood and offered her hand. He hesitated, well past the age when exchanging affection with one’s parents became cringey. But he took her hand, too grateful for her love, and followed her inside.
As they headed in, they passed Daniel’s dad.
“Mom told me about the glasses,” his dad said. “I’m sure it sucks to lose them, but you should be glad you at least got to glimpse the other colors. Some people never get that chance.”
Daniel nodded. “Where are you going?”
“I have to teach an evening class today,” his dad answered as he lugged a messenger bag onto his shoulder. “But I’ll be back before the sun sets. How about I get some glow sticks at the dollar store and we play tag tonight? You can invite some of the boys down the street.”
He smiled and nodded. His dad fished a laser pointer out of a pocket and shined it at his face.
“I surrender!” Daniel yelled, protecting his eyes from the light. “I surrender!”