Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2019 finalist, Jade Wang! Jade finished 9th grade this past school year. The story she submitted is called “Color.” We asked Jade what she likes best about her story and she said, “The idea that you can overcome whatever hardships you face in life.”
Everything was in grayscale when I opened my eyes. Grainy white, speckled black, and different shades of slate gray. The world, which I had once seen in brilliant colors, had been reduced to a low definition flurry of bland images. The world, which I had once been able to touch and interact with, I now had to watch from afar like a lost woman stuck staring into the empty static screen of an old television.
I still remember when I could still see in color. The way I could blend all of the vibrant hues to create a perfect replica of any image. The way everyone would gaze in wonder when they saw my paintings and whisper, “Who drew this?”
I remember those days like it was yesterday. I remember that time like it was just now. Like just a moment ago, I had been staring out the window admiring the bright orange, red, and pink hues of the sunset while trying to figure out how to blend the colors of the rainbow to mimic the scene perfectly. Like just a second ago, I had been running my brush across an empty white paper, filling it with color and life.
In reality, however, it’s been seven years since I’ve even looked at a paintbrush. It’s been seven years since I’ve last seen a color other than white, black, or gray. Isn’t fate cruel? I was an art prodigy. In my senior year of high school, famous art universities from across the world offered me full ride scholarships before I even applied to college. In my senior year of college, some of my works had already been estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Back then, I was Genesis Chang, the most talented artist of her generation, the girl who could paint perfect replicas of anything. Then one day, I learned that my vision was deteriorating and that eventually, my ability to see would disappear. My world shattered into pieces; black, white and gray shards of the life I once had. Instead of the talented artist, I became the unfortunate circumstance, the reminder that nothing is ever perfect.
When my vision first began to fail, I tried to continue painting. The art that resulted from my attempts were disgustingly average. I still remember a former friend of mine saying, “Genesis, you’ve had a good run. You’ve painted many amazing pieces of artwork. You have enough money to retire right now and still live comfortably. Just retire. Start a family or do something else. Just don’t paint. A colorblind painter is useless.”
Notice I said former friend; after those hurtful words came out of her mouth, I never spoke to her ever again. A year after she said those words, however, I realized she was right. I would never paint the same way ever again. Those colors, who I had become such dear friends with over the years, I would never see again. Upon realizing that, I vowed to never touch a paintbrush again. I sold all of my art and estates and began living in the hospital. There, I would spend my time in bed staring at the moving pictures in the television screen in my room, letting my eyesight wither away without a care.
“You’re zoning out again.”
A voice jolts me out of my depressing daydream. I look up at the source of the voice and see a twenty-nine year old male with curly hair standing in the doorway. If I remember correctly, his hair is an ashy brown and his eyes are a bright hue of emerald green. I feel my mouth twitch into a smile as I see his face.
“Hey, Tyler. Why are you so late?” I ask.
He chuckles lightly, revealing the dimple in his right cheek. Tyler is my fiance and perhaps the only good thing in my life. He actually proposed seven years ago, but we never went through with the ceremony because of my deteriorating eyesight. I have a feeling he resents me a little bit for never marrying him or settling down to start a family. Despite these feelings of resentment, he still acts like nothing has changed between the two of us and visits me in the hospital often.
“I brought lunch from your favorite place!” he replies, holding up a bag containing what I can only assume to be food from my favorite Korean restaurant.
“Good. Hospital food is the absolute worst.” I laugh and lower the table attached to my bed.
As we munch on crisp kimchi and tender meat, Tyler says, “Oh, I forgot to tell you; the reason why I’m so late is because I was talking to your doctor.”
I freeze. Tyler knows how much I hate talking about my condition. I’ve made it very clear that the only time we can talk about it is when the doctor has urgent news for me, so for Tyler to be bringing it up now, I feel a little alarmed.
“Am I going to go blind soon?” I whisper, suddenly struggling to swallow the delicious food.
Tyler shakes his head quickly. “No, of course not! That’s still not happening for at least another five years.”
“Then what’s going on?” I ask.
Tyler grins and takes a deep breath. “Your doctor thinks there may be a potential treatment for your condition. He thinks he can reverse your color blindness.”
I gasp a little in surprise. A cure? “How?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know exactly, but he said something about how there’s another patient in the hospital that has a condition similar to yours and that they were thinking about attempting to surgically remove the tumor in her brain that’s growing on the part of her brain that controls vision.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Wait a second, I thought they said that the tumor was in a spot that is too difficult to operate on. That’s why they couldn’t cure me.”
“I think there’s been some breakthrough imaging technology or something. Of course, the doctor was emphasizing that the risk is super high and it might cause you to lose your vision right now, as opposed to–”
I cut him off by saying, “Tell him I’ll do it.”
“Got it,” he replies, smiling, “Wow, I can’t believe this is happening. If this is successful, you’ll be able to get out of here. Then we could continue our plans; you could go back to painting, we could finally get married and have kids. And if it’s not…”
“And if it’s not?” I prompt.
Tyler clears his throat awkwardly and smiles uneasily. “I highly doubt that’ll happen.”
I laugh uncomfortably and we stare at each other for a moment before a loud chime breaks our awkward silence. Tyler quickly pulls out his phone, widens his eyes at whatever is on his screen, and says, “I have to go. Um, I’ll see you before the surgery?”
I nod. Whenever moments like this happen between us, I realize how far apart we are now. Most of the time we spend together involves us eating while watching television and reminiscing about the past. I have no idea how Tyler’s life is like now. Did he get a promotion at work? Does he still keep in contact with our friends from college? There are so many things I don’t know about his life, and it’s hard to believe that things will ever go back to the way they were after I get my vision restored.
After Tyler leaves, I’m back to blankly staring at the television screen again. I barely comprehend the information being passed on and instead focus on the shapes and images swirling on the screen, trying to find some hint of color. My doctor comes in after an hour and says, “Genesis, we need to discuss something very important. Before you make a decision, I need you to pay close attention to everything I say.”
Before the doctor can even begin, I respond to his introduction with, “I’ll do the surgery. Give me the papers I need to sign.”
My doctor heaves a sigh and says, “It’s like you didn’t hear a word I said.”
I shake my head. “No, I did… but there’s no point in waiting for me to go blind. If we wait, I’ll go blind, regardless of whatever happens. If I do the surgery and something bad occurs, I go blind; but on the flip side, if the surgery is successful, I get my vision back!”
“Genesis, you know it’s not that simple… the complications of getting this surgery are far more than just simply going blind. The surgery can have very many complications; from losing the ability to speak to losing your memory to even straight up dying on the table, there are so many unpredictable variables when it comes to brain surgery. I honestly recommend against taking all of this needless risk because it’s honestly not worth it. The projected percentage of success for this operation is only about 15 percent. In the other 85, there are a number of horrible ways your life could be ruined! You’re still young, Genesis. You still have a life and some form of vision; appreciate what you have instead of chasing the impossible.”
I squeeze my eyes shut and try to imagine the worst possible outcomes of the surgery. Death? What am I living for anyway? Becoming mute? There’s no one to talk to anyway. Losing my memory? At least I won’t have to yearn in agony for the brilliant colors that I used to see. I take a deep breath and respond to my doctor’s advice.
“Look, Doctor Park. I understand that the risk is high, and I understand that I’m basically gambling my life on the ability to see colors.”
“Then why do you still want to do this surgery?” he replies.
“Because my life isn’t much to gamble away anyways! I’ve been sitting in this hospital bed for over two years now. I never do anything productive and I’m a total social recluse! The only person who ever talks to me that isn’t forced to because they work at this hospital is my fiance and even he seems to have his own life outside of our relationship. I’m a useless piece of trash who’s wasting space and money.”
Doctor Park shakes his head and says, “But it doesn’t have to be like that. As I said before, you’re still young. You still have your entire life to live, don’t you?”
“Painting was my life! Outside of that, I have nothing. When I was a child, I was horrible at academics. I didn’t understand math at all and despite getting a tutor, still scored the lowest on every single test. I would have failed Algebra 1 if I hadn’t found the answer key to test and taken a picture of it. And with English, I was terrible at that too. I couldn’t read a line of Shakespeare aloud, much less understand it! My parents thought I was a failure because I was dumb, unathletic, and antisocial; they were going to disown me! But then I found painting and suddenly, it was like nothing else mattered. I found something that I loved to do, something that I was actually good at doing. Everything in painting came so easy to me and suddenly, my life began to have meaning. I wasn’t a worthless piece of junk anymore. So no, I don’t have my entire life to live because painting was my life. And if I can’t paint, then there’s no point in me even trying to live. I’m just a waste of oxygen and resources. The world’s better off without me.”
My doctor sighs and gives me a look. I realize tears have begun to pour down my face and every ounce of my willpower drifts away. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to unload all of that onto you… what I’m trying to say is that I have to do this surgery.”
He nods slowly and hands me a stack of consent forms. Before leaving, he says, “I’d like you to swing by room 302 on floor three if you get the chance. There’s a patient with a condition similar to yours, only she’s had it since birth, so she’s never seen color before. Her condition is much worse than yours; she’s only fifteen and she can barely see a foot away from her. She feels like her life is meaningless because she’s never set foot outside the hospital.”
“Why do you want me to talk to her? I’d just make her feel more depressed.”
He smiles. “She wants to do the surgery, but is getting cold feet and doesn’t have any family because she was abandoned at birth. I think it’d be good to have someone give her some support.”
I take a deep breath. “Uh, sure. I’ll do what I can.”
“Thanks, Genesis. You might find that you perhaps don’t need the surgery to make your life meaningful. You can still make a difference without the ability to see color.”
I laugh; to the end, he will still argue against the operation. “Bye, Doctor Park.”
After he leaves, I ask a nurse to get me a wheelchair and bring me to the patient’s room. Despite the fact that I can still walk relatively fine, I prefer to be pushed around. It makes me look more like a patient and less like an overdramatic thirty-year-old woman having a midlife crisis.
When we get to the outside of room 302, I knock on the door. I hear a soft voice call, “Come in!”
There’s a frail looking girl sitting in her bed. Unlike my room, which has a king-sized bed, a television, built-in bathroom, and small kitchen, her room is bare and only has a small cot and a plastic chair next to it. The nurse wheels me in and turns to head out.
I nod and turn to the girl. She stares blankly at the ceiling, her mouth moving just a tiny bit. Despite the pathetic position she is in, the girl looks fairly attractive. She has long hair, which I can only assume to be blonde because of how similar in shade it is to her hospital gown. Her eyes are large with double eyelids and long eyelashes. She also seems to be of a relatively tall stature, as her feet droop a little bit over the edge of the bed, which is approximately five and a half feet.
“Hi there,” I begin.
She turns towards my direction and stares blankly at me. “Who are you? New nurse?”
I shake my head and then realize she can’t see me. “No, fellow patient.”
“More like fellow inmate,” she replies.
I chuckle lightly; she’s witty and sarcastic, just like me. “What’s your name?”
“Are you some kind of psychologist or something?” she asks sharply. “Doctor Park sounded really concerned the last time we spoke. I think he’s under the impression that I don’t want to do the surgery anymore. But I do, I’m just a little scared.”
I laugh. “No, I’m definitely not a psychologist. And Doctor Park had the opposite problem with me. I want to do the surgery, but he doesn’t think that I should.”
“Why would he think that?”
“Because he’s stupid,” I reply.
She laughs, causing her thin body to shake at the strain of laughter. “My name is Carly. What’s yours?”
Carly grins very slightly. “That’s a cool name. I wish my parents gave me that name. I wish my parents gave me a name, period.”
“Aw man. Carly’s a nice name too, though. Who named you that?”
“Doctor Park. He says I started saying that one day all by myself. Before that they were calling me ‘the blind one in room 302.’”
“What’s your relationship with Doctor Park?” I ask.
“He’s kind of like my dad. Annoying, overprotective, but also really nice sometimes.”
I smile. “That’s pretty cool.”
She nods. “Yeah, I guess. By the way, why are you here?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. I guess I just wanted to talk to someone before I potentially die or go blind in surgery. Why are you talking to me?”
“I don’t know. Same reason, I guess.”
I take a deep breath. I’m fairly certain that I’ve spoken to Carly enough, but before I leave she says, “Actually, I lied. I already know who you are. Doctor Park told me about you and said he’d make you come see me so that I could somehow convince you to not do the surgery.”
I scoff. That sly man played us both. “Tell him I’m still doing it.”
She smiles. “I figured you’d say that. Before you go, can I ask you a question?”
“What’s so amazing about color? I’ve never seen anything other than black and white my entire life, so I’m curious. Is it really so great that you can’t go on without it?”
For the first time in our conversation, Carly’s eyes seem a little brighter and more attentive. She’s genuinely curious about color.
“Well, Carly, I can’t really describe it in words because if I could, I don’t think I’d still yearn for it. Color is more than just a reflection of light for me. It has emotional value. Colors are what make me feel alive. It makes the world bright and interesting. Imagine the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen and then multiply that beauty by one hundred. That’s what color can do.”
Carly smiles. “Wow, seems like something worth risking your life for.”
“It really is.”
I page the nurse to come pick me up and as I head out the door, Carly calls, “Tell Doctor Park I’ll do the surgery tonight!”
“Got it,” I reply.
When I’m back in my room, I text Tyler that I will be going through the operation tonight and ask him to come over. When he arrives, we wait tensely, afraid to say anything. Doctor Park comes in with a team a few minutes after Tyler arrives and moves me to the operating room. As I go under, I realize that I never got to say anything to Tyler and that he didn’t say anything to me. No “I love you,” or “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me,” or “I’ll miss you,” or even “Goodbye.” I’ll tell him when I wake up. I think to myself. If I wake up.
Then everything goes numb.
Everything is black when I open my eyes. No white, no gray, just empty blackness. I hear some chattering coming from nearby. “Hello?”
A familiar voice greets me. “Hey, Genesis!”
“Yeah, it’s me. So your surgery didn’t work out the way we thought it would. Doctor Park says he couldn’t save your vision and that you’re lucky to even be alive. The tumor was way bigger than we thought it was. They got it out, but they had to remove a portion of your brain as well.”
“So… this is it then? I’m blind?” I ask, feeling a pool of dread form in the pit of my stomach.
“Yeah, pretty much. I’m sorry, Genesis.”
“No, it’s okay,” I say as I reach out to grab his hand and cannot seem to find it, “Tyler, where’s your hand?”
There’s a moment of silence before he says, “Gen, please don’t be mad. I’m not actually here. You’re just hearing my voice from your phone.”
“What?” my heart rate seems to increase by tenfold as I gasp in disbelief.
“Look, after I heard the surgery went south, I left. Gen, we haven’t been together for real in seven years. I’ve continued to live my life and I… met someone. Someone else. Someone who wants to have a family with me. It’s nothing personal or anything… it just… wasn’t working between you and I anymore. You were a mess and didn’t care about anyone but yourself and I… I had to move on.”
I shudder in disgust… not at Tyler but at myself for being upset. Of course he would have continued living his life. I was a fool to think he would wait for me. “How long?”
I hear a pause on the phone and though we may be miles apart, I can feel the tension between us. “What do you mean?”
My heart continues to pound in my chest, and blood rushes to my head. I’m mad now; mad at Tyler, mad at that woman I don’t even know, and mad at myself. I swallow bile and clench my fists as my hoarse voice says, “You know what I mean.”
His voice tightens and I can imagine the guilty look on his face as he says, “Six years. I proposed last night after I heard that your surgery had gone south… and after she told me she was pregnant.”
My mouth begins to tremble. Six years. He pretended to love me, to still want to be with me, for six years. He built another life with another woman while telling me that I’d be his only for six years. He lied to me for six whole years. Did he lie to her too? I feel the urge to laugh, to cry, to react to what he just said, but I repress it. He can’t hear me like this. Thoughts fly through my brain as I wonder how he met her. I wonder if I know her, what she looks like, what kind of person she is. Perhaps he took her to all of the places he took me when we were still a real couple. I want to be mad; I want to hate him, but I can’t because I know that all of this is not his fault, it’s mine.
My voice begins to tremble as I whisper, “I hope you have a wonderful life with her, Tyler. I hope she gives you everything that I never could and that you become a great father and that you have a lovely family with her. I’m sorry for being so selfish these past years and never appreciating you… I hope she doesn’t make the same mistake that I did.”
My words strike a chord with Tyler, whose breathing becomes more uneven. I’ve made him cry. “I’m sorry too, Gen. I wish things didn’t happen this way. God, you deserve someone better than me. Someone who could put you before himself, someone who wouldn’t leave you when you need him the most. I’m sorry for being the bad guy in your story when I should’ve been your knight in shining armor.”
“It’s okay, Tyler; don’t blame yourself. I’m okay… or I’ll be okay. Don’t worry about me. Hang up the phone.” I whisper.
“I’m sorry, Genesis.” I can barely hear his voice through the phone, and I realize I have to be the strong one this time.
“Goodbye, Tyler.” I say with all of the strength I have left inside of me.
I don’t hear his voice after that.
It takes a while for everything to really sink in. Tyler’s gone. I’ll never see him again. I’ll never see again. I begin to laugh in disbelief. My life is over. There’s nothing left for me. As these thoughts sink into my brain, tears spill out of my eyes and my laughter morphs into crying. Loud wails escape from my lips, and I force my face onto my pillow to silence my cries. When I run out of tears and my body cannot cry anymore, I settle down into a fetal position and close my eyes.
A little while later, a high pitched voice says, “Hey, Genesis, I heard about your surgery. I’m sorry.”
“Carly,” I whisper before realizing that she had gone through exactly the same surgery as me. “How’d yours go?”
There’s a certain warmth to her voice when she speaks. “Great. Amazing, actually. I can see. Everything. In color.”
I smile at that. Instead of feeling jealous or upset at fate for giving her good fortune, I feel grateful that at least one of us has the chance to continue living. “How is it?”
“As good as you said it was. Better, actually. The world’s so beautiful and bright. Doctor Park bought a painting kit for me. I want you to have it, though.”
I cock my head. Me? “I have no use for it.”
“Sure you do. Just because you’re blind doesn’t mean you can’t paint. Just let your mind guide you or something. Isn’t that what all painters do?”
I pause, soaking in Carly’s comment. I’d never thought of things in that sense: painting using my imagination to guide me instead of referencing a real object. I feel Carly hold my hand and make my grasp a brush and paper.
“Come on, try it. Maybe you’ll paint up another masterpiece,” she says.
“I wish,” I laugh before saying, “Hey Carly, how’s the weather today?”
She pauses and I hear some rustling. She probably went to open the window. “Pretty nice for six o’clock in the morning. The sun’s rising.”
I grin and dip my brush into a random jar of paint. Perfect. “Describe the sunrise to me.”
“Um… it’s bright orange at the horizon and it kind of swirls into pink and red and…” her voice blends into a melodious white noise as I begin to trail my brush across the surface of my paper, letting her voice guide me.
When I finish, I ask her if the painting looks anything like what she had described.
“No,” she says. “It looks way better.”
And that’s when I realize that my life has just begun.
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