The scratchy purr of the car’s engine traces a pewter grey squiggle across my vision. I sigh, a soft yellow burst of boredom, and trace the squiggle with the tip of my pinkie finger.
“We’ve been driving for hours,” I complain, my voice a sage green in the corner of my eye. “Are we there yet?” Glancing at my worn Converse, I tap out a short, soothing rhythm with my foot. The pattern leaves star-shaped mauve patterns on my otherwise plain shoes.
“Almost there, only a half hour left. And stop tapping,” she says, glancing at my jittery feet in the rearview mirror. Her voice is a soft, comforting pink lemonade, my favorite color. I try to relax, sitting on my hands. We’re on our way to the local carnival. My friends have been talking about it all week. It’s supposed to be ten times bigger than last year. Biting my lip, I check the time. It’s five. Only five hours until the carnival closes. The impatient tapping starts again. Mom sees my fidgeting and smiles, making a left turn.
Two rights and a left later, we pull into the parking lot of the carnival. The sun shines down with a smile. I squish my face against the window to get a better look, not caring whatsoever when an old couple stares in dismay. It really is ten times bigger than last year, I think. The cherry-red peaks of the circus tent, the dusty tortilla-brown of the petting zoo. The pastel rainbows of people waiting in line for tickets. I can’t hear anything yet, but I bet the sounds will be just as beautiful.
“Purse? Check. Phone? Check. Wallet? Check. Headphones?” My mom asks, looking at me. I groan, the sound leaving a sluggish ruby imprint. I pull my noise-cancelling headphones out from under my seat.
“Check.” I say glumly.
“Good,” she says, giving me a pointed look. I send her a half-hearted glare. Personally, I like the colors the noise shows me. But sometimes in public spaces, too much noise can overwhelm me and cause me to break down.
I have synesthesia. Syn-es-the-ja. The letters are a strawberry-red color with crepe-pink splotches. A lovely color for a lovely word, I think. I put the headphones around my neck and open the door, the squeal of the hinges making a grey burst not unlike the squiggle the engine makes.
We walk excruciatingly slowly to the ticket booth. Mom rummages through her purse and mutters something about overpricing. I kick up dirt, enjoying the spirals of banana yellow that surround my shoe like a small army. After what seems like hours of waiting in line, we go through the coin-grey fence to the entrance.
The whisper of colors that I saw in line turns to a roar.
“Step right up! Three tickets for a hand at ring toss! One-hundred dollar prize!” The man’s voice is a deep royal purple.
“Mommmm, can we go on the ferris wheel? I don’t want to see the clowns,” a kid whines beside me, a shimmering neon orange cube. The bang of a prize hammer startles a lightning bolt flash of cotton-candy pink. The joyful screams of ride-goers maroon. Moss green for a giggle. Lilac purple circles, cobalt blue lines, cantaloupe orange, greens, reds, and more explode in my vision like fireworks. It’s mesmerizing. Dizzying. I trip and fall with a periwinkle thud and a poof of dirt. Mom immediately crouches down and helps me up, fussing over the dirt on my sweatshirt and jeans.
“We haven’t even been in here for a minute, Iris,” she says, eying me with concern. “Should you…” She glances at the headphones suggestively.
“I don’t need them. I just got distracted,” I reply, clenching my teeth to ignore the headache unfurling like a flower in my skull. She eyes me disbelievingly.
“Alright,” she says hesitantly. We continue walking.
At events as large as this one, I like walking around to get a full stock of what the fair has in store. So far, we have about ten rides, (including my favorite, the Sizzler), twenty food trucks, the large circus tent, and seventeen prize games. A pretty good size carnival even by my standards. I grin widely, pushing the headache to the back of my head and ignoring the colors as best as I can.
“Race you to the entrance of the Sizzler!” I yell at Mom, taking off running.
“Iris! Wait up! She clutches her purse and runs, huffing about new shoes. She catches up to me quickly. I’ve never been much of a runner anyway. I bend over, panting. She stops with a smirk, and gently pushes me in the back.
“I still got it!” She announces, doing an embarrassing fist-pumping victory dance.
“Mommmm,” I reply, rolling my eyes. She used to be a track star in college. She always wins. We get in line for the ride, more colors appearing in my sight. I wince involuntarily. Thankfully, she doesn’t notice.
The unenthusiastic employee lets us through the gate and we race to find an empty fuchsia seat. We find seat number ten, and sit triumphantly. The first pair on the ride, I think with a grin. After we’re secured in our seat and the other wandering people choose where to sit, the ride comes to a start with a sky-blue zigzagging creak. I put my hands up, feeling the wind flow through my fingers. It’s sunset, and the glow of carnival lights against the darkening sky is amazing. The rushing wind sends white cubes through my vision and I giggle as I slide up and down my seat.
The ride ends too soon. Dizzy and laughing, I drag Mom to the cotton candy booth nearby. Smiling, she gives the confectioner ten dollars for two cotton candies. She hands mine to me and I plunge my face into the sticky-sweet mass of spun sugar. The flavors burst and dissolve, making my mouth water. Bubblegum pink, my favorite. Mom laughs, a bright pink lemonade flash, and then doubles over at the sight of the half-eaten cotton candy coating my face. We half walk, half skip to the next event, wolfing down the pink clouds.
Ah, the fated milk jug game. I’ve been trying to win it for the last three years. The prize is a large pink llama. It stares at me in challenge. Half-heartedly wiping my sticky face with a wet napkin, I give three tickets to the worker. He gives me three baseballs in return. I throw away the napkin and the now empty cotton candy stick, eyes narrowing in concentration. I throw the first one. It bounces off the rim and lands out of the jug with a disappointing forest green ping. The second one misses completely, landing in the dirt with a candy-apple thud. The third bounces off as well.
Six tickets and many forest-green pings later, I finally nail one. I jump, whooping sage sparks and victory dancing. Mom joins in, holding her phone up for a picture. The employee reluctantly hands me a llama, and I hold it with my elbows so as to not get it sticky. We go to wash our hands. I giggle as the cool water makes trickles of aqua squiggles around my fingers.
“Where to next?” Mom asks as we leave the bathroom. I already know the answer.
“The Claw.” I say dramatically, making an ominous face. She groans. The Claw is an infamous ride at this carnival, famous for the giant claw-like structure that holds ride-goers as they swing around and upside-down. I grab her arm, pulling her and the llama towards the towering structure at the end of the carnival. The sun is almost fully down, casting an eerie glow on the ride. Ten minutes of waiting later, we buckle into a lime-green seat and put our things on a bench. The nervous conversation of fellow ride-goers is a subtle macaroon yellow fuzz at the bottom of my vision. Heart pounding, the ride starts.
My favorite part of the ride is always the weightless sensation you get from the battle of the hulking machine against gravity. The rise and drop of the Claw and the white-cubed howl of the wind block out all the noise, even the frantic screams of passengers. I close my eyes, screaming joyfully with everyone else, my stomach rising and dropping until I feel like I’m going to be sick. And just as I hear someone retching on (thankfully) the other side of the claw, we come to a stop. The noise and conversation come back in full color. Mom and I stumble over to the nearest bench with our stuff on it, panting in lines and laughing in squiggles over the ride. I automatically check the space around my neck for my headphones. My stomach drops and my laughter freezes in my throat. They’re gone. Whether I accidentally dropped them walking to the ride or they somehow flew off and I didn’t notice, I’m not sure. My mom quickly realizes what’s happened, seeing my obviously panicking expression and bare neck.
“It’s okay, Iris. They aren’t a small item, so I’m sure we can find them,” she says calmly. We ask the ride manager if he saw anything, to which he says no. We also ask if there’s a lost and found, which is also a no. The panic rises. Mom blows out a breath, running her hands through her hair.
“Let’s split up and look. We’ll cover more ground that way. Here’s your phone,” she says, reaching into her purse and handing me the old glitchy iPhone I’ve had for years.
“I’ll call you in about half an hour and tell you where to meet me. Remember,” she says, giving me a stern look, “if we don’t find them, it’s okay. Don’t panic, and if you get overwhelmed by the colors just call me. Okay?”
“Okay,” I whisper, clutching the phone. I feel like a coddled baby. With that, we head off in different directions.
About ten minutes later, I unlock the phone for the umpteenth time, checking for messages from my mom. It’s about 8:00, and the sun has set completely. The lights on some rides are just beginning to flicker on, but I barely notice. Then, suddenly, the screen on my phone turns to ink-black. Heart sinking, I press the home button frantically, but all it shows is a dead battery sign. I groan in frustration. I’m lost at the biggest carnival for miles around, with synesthesia, a dead phone, no Mom in sight, and no noise canceling headphones. The headache I’ve been suppressing for the last hour suddenly comes back, rattling my skull.
I’m usually not much of a panicker. My mom left me at the store one time when I was ten, and I patiently waited for her to come back. I even got to stay with the manager. I told her how her name, Magdalene, was a beautiful shade of blood-red. But today, with a near migraine pounding in full force, the dark crowded swell of the crowd, and the colors and shapes bombarding my vision, I panic, and the colors overwhelm me like never before.
I sink to the ground, overwhelmed by colors. Flashes of fern-green crack like whips, cobalt-blues shimmer, even the normally friendly pinks send sinister shivers of pain through my head. Tears fall down my face. I jump up, racing through the crowd to the bathroom. I burst through the door and sprint into a stall. It’s quiet, and the colors disappear. Despite the silence, the tears still come. I’m embarrassed, lost, and in incredible pain. All-out crying now, I try in vain to wipe my eyes.
Minutes later, the tears begin to subside. I stand up. My headache has reduced to a dull throb. I stumble to the sink and wash my face. I look at my red-rimmed eyes in the mirror and wince, drawing my hoodie over my head. I stand there for a minute, trying to think of a plan. I take a deep breath. I can find my mom, I think. The carnival is almost over, anyway. I turn the doorknob and head outside, the door swinging open with a sky-blue zigzag. What I see outside takes my breath away. In my breakdown, I never truly got to see the carnival lights in their full glory. Now, standing on the bathroom platform, I’m finally able to see it for what feels like the first time.
Lights of all colors shine around me. Their soft glows are neon yellow, lilac purple, cerulean, and more. The stars match their happy twinkle, smiling down at the crowd. The smell of buttered popcorn wafts towards me, and the smell of cotton candy twirls and dances along with it. The merry-go-round spins, carrying tons of children who giggle and kick their horses, undoubtedly trying to make them go faster. Hoards of multicolored stuffed animals of all shades hang from different booths. The ferris wheel towers above it all, mesmerizing lights lazily flashing in all colors and patterns. The air is slightly cold, and I shiver in my jacket. As entrancing as they are, however, none of these senses can compare to the colors I see.
A girl’s laugh is a foggy cream orange splash. The carefree yell of rid-goers are maroon spikes. People's voices arise with colors like chestnut brown, pistachio green, crimson red, oranges, yellows, and so many more. I stare in awe, observing the firework show exploding in my mind. But above it all, I see a strange color, one I’ve never glimpsed before. I strain my ears, trying to hear the source of it more clearly. Then, suddenly, I’m interrupted by a soft familiar pink to the right of my vision. Mom.
“Iris! Iris, where are you?” She yells, obviously out of her mind with panic.
“I’m here, mom,” I yell back, running down the stairs into her outstretched arms.
“Iris! I thought you were… I thought you…” she examines my face and sees the dried tears. “What happened? Are you okay?” she asks frantically. After reassuring her that I’m perfectly fine, she hands me the headphones.
“Try not to lose these again, okay?” She says, shooting me a half-hearted glare. I ignore it, watching the color of her voice swirl around my vision. After a short while of walking in silence, we return to normal, cracking jokes and making small talk. I’m only barely paying attention, though. The other half of my mind is focused on the color, the color I’ve seen, but never recognized. The truly amazing array of shapes and shades swirl and spin, twisting into one single, solitary shade in front of my eyes and my eyes only. The color is pearl-like, slightly iridescent and glows like no color I’ve ever seen. It seems to wink at me, flying around the other comparably dull colors and shapes. The color, I realize, is the true color of joy. And with that realization, I smile.