“Choose your colour,” professor Anderson said. It was the morning ritual. The students chose from a colour spectrum wheel, either by chance or by choice. Louis threw a dart at the wheel, letting it determine the colour he would see that day.
“Alrightie, jungle green it is,” he said with a slight smirk on his face. He was never the one to think much of the colour thing. Louis took things as they came, rarely worried about future mishaps. He was the typical chill guy that would say “see you lates” and “peace out” every chance he got. His face was that of a adventurous lad, with a daring smile and curious big brown eyes.
It wasn’t that simple for Ari. She usually lay awake all night, thinking about what she would do in the morning. Choosing a colour meant choosing your day. In autumn she would go with a brownish colour to enjoy the falling leaves and spiced coffee. On a hot summer day, her favourite thing was watching blue waters and clear skies. Some days she would go with yellow, to see the sun shine down on everything and read sticky notes and send emojis. Other days she would go with a dark colour, like dim grey or midnight blue, to fit her mood.
Ari never threw a dart, because she knew she made an important decision every morning. She always picked her colour by choice. She chose what she would see and what she would miss that day.
Mornings had been like this ever since they could remember. It was always them, a group of twenty students, and professor Anderson. Ari and Louis had been friends since they were there. This was life as they knew it. Waking up, choosing a colour, and taking the escalator to the common level, where all the other people lived their lives.
That day Ari wanted to see the veins in people’s eyes, the petals of roses, and dripping blood. She pointed to a tint of red. “I’ll go with this one, please.” She would see strawberries and ladybirds, firetrucks and red lipstick. She would see plastic party cups and cherries and telephone boxes. But perception wasn’t just limited to objects. Seeing colour meant seeing abstract notions. Choosing red meant Ari would also see anger, observe injury, and feel passion in the people she passed.
Everything else was a blur. All other colours faded into one greyish tone. The students saw in the way a total colour-blind, shortsighted person sees the world. They couldn’t distinguish between people’s faces, and the sky and the horizon were one. Streets became blurry hallways without detectable architecture. Clouds blended in with the colour of the sky and the inside of a house was like a grey shoe box.
“Are you ready?” Louis asked. Ari replied she was. They always went up together. After they took the escalator up to common level, they would tell each other what they were seeing that day.
“The trees are so fresh, I just love seeing the leaves growing!” Louis exclaimed. He went on: “Remember the way blades of grass look? Leaves are just like that, but more free, more expressive. They have such unique shapes.”
Ari focused on her own view. She saw a small kid, crying after he fell off his bike. His knee was bleeding. She assumed it was his mum kneeling next to him, looking for a plaster in her bag. She saw how much she loved him. She told Louis: “That little boy just fell off his bike, I see his knee. He’s bleeding a little, not much though. I think he’ll be fine as soon as his mum finds a plaster.”
They went on to enjoy how they could see a whole strawberry together; Ari the body, Louis the crown. They went into a candy store like they often did, amazed by the amount of candy in green and red surrounding them. Louis wanted to go to a greengrocer and the park. “Honestly Ari, I couldn’t be happier to have green today. I’m feeling so fresh, like I’m one with nature.” She laughed in response. She loved it when he got excited about things in his colour. By picking his filter by chance, he would always be surprised by what the day offered him. He didn’t choose what he saw; he merely felt lucky that he could see a colour at all. She admired his enthusiasm and never-ending appreciation for reality. “Actually, I want to go look for a phone box. But I’ll meet you in the park after,” Ari said.
Two weeks later, Louis got a nice blue hue. Ari went for a skin colour, a caramel-beige tint, knowing she would be able to see some people in detail. It was a weird thing to do, choosing who you would see that day. She hadn’t done it often, as she took pleasure in seeing objects and emotions, but lately she had developed an interest in other humans. Louis and Ari could always see each other. The kids from camp and their professor were an exception, too. But it was fascinating to see other people behave the way they did. Ari felt like she could learn from them.
“What are you looking at?” Louis asked her.
“I’m just watching this couple walking down the street… He has his arm around her waist, and I think she is smiling.”
“Do you enjoy looking at them? Like, should I ever get a human skin colour again, you think?”
“Honestly, it’s really interesting. I didn’t think I would ever need to look at other people,” Ari said.
“Right,” Louis answered. He was, in fact, very bored with other people when he once got a skin tone. “We have us, you know. The others, the professor. It just seems kind of pointless.”
“But their behaviour and their habits… It’s just so different from us,” Ari observed while she stared at yet another human.
Weeks later, Ari woke up tired once again. She had been thinking about everything she had seen. She thought about the people she observed, the skies she had admired, and the water in summer she loved so much. Her memories were never accurate; remembering a colour was impossible. Everything would be focused, but without colour. It all turned black and white.
“Is it weird to choose the colour of shadow?” she asked Louis.
“Why would it be? I guess it’d be cool to see the shapes the sun makes with objects. He paused for a moment to think. “I never actually got that colour. I don’t even know what it looks like.”
She went for it. When they were on their journey down, she could see how the steps of the escalator outlined themselves on the next step. She could see the shadow of both herself and Louis, elongated by the morning sun. She could see anything ash grey. The cement of the pavement was boiling in the sun. The ash at the end of a cigarette crumbled down as a smoker inhaled. She even felt like she could see the wrinkles in old people’s faces.
“What’s it like?” Louis asked curiously.
“It’s not bad,” Ari said. “I don’t know what I expected. But it’s almost like I can see the silhouette of everything. Like I can see behind the scenes, but don’t actually understand what is going on on stage.”
He seemed to listen, but was captivated by the fact that oranges actually had the colour orange. Ari didn’t mind. She discovered how to make finger puppets on the wall. All her memories started to make more sense. She couldn’t see colour all at once, and she couldn’t remember what colours looked like. But now that she had chosen the colour of shadows, she saw what she had never seen before. She could see behind the curtains of reality, observing an ever-changing image of the world she thought she understood so well before. Every minute was different. Her perception was controlled by time, and what she saw at the beginning of the day was almost the opposite of what she saw at the end of the day. It wasn’t a peep box she peeked into while people walked around. It was a changing environment, adapting not only by movement as she knew it, but also by time.
Ari spent the rest of the day in her head, thinking of everything she could remember. She played back her memories like a black and white movie, filling in the gaps with the shadows she had now learnt to see. It was nice to look back on life like that.
And yet, it felt unsettling. She could see only one colour a day. All of her memories were in grey. She realised, more than ever, how she would never be able to see reality in its entirety. She would never have the chance to direct the show, instead of being an observer from the audience or behind the scenes. It wasn’t Ari choosing her life in the morning. It wasn’t her that decided what things were like. The only thing she chose was a colour. The only thing she could understand was what she saw. But what she saw wasn’t everything. It wasn’t even close to it.
The next day Louis and Ari strolled around the city. They didn’t talk like they usually did. Ari had picked a dark colour, nearly black. She saw black cats, umbrellas and moustaches. She saw remorse and grief. Louis got a purple hue, and there was not much to see. He described a faux fur coat worn by a classy lady and some boots he saw in a shop window. He could also see fascination and impulses, and enjoyed the way kids behaved. Louis seemed to always enjoy what he saw.
It was from that day on that Ari only chose ash grey ever again. She didn't miss the colours, not even a bit. She believed it was better that way. Reality would suit her memories. Louis tried his best to understand and would occasionally ask her about it.
"I can see a thousand colours, but they always come out grey," Ari said.