Color Coded

by John B. Rosenman

“You see dead people?” Matt asked with a frown.

Emily hesitated.  “No, not dead people.  People who are going to die.”

Matt’s frown intensified.  “‘People who are going to die.’”  He pronounced the words as if they belonged to a foreign language.  “You’ve hinted there’s something strange about you.  Is this it?”

“Yes.”  Emily glanced about the restaurant and placed her hands before her on the tablecloth.  “When I look at people, I know something others don’t.”

“Yes, that people are going to die.  But Em, aren’t we all?”

She braced herself.  “I didn’t phrase it right.  I know it’s hard to believe, but I can tell approximately how long they’re going to live – one year, five, ten, all the way up to about twenty.  Beyond that, I can’t see any farther.”

“Twenty years.”  Matt gulped his beer and rubbed his eyes.  “You can do this just by looking at ’em?  Tell how long they’re going to live.”

“Yes, approximately.”  She paused, then said, “I think it has something to do with having scarlet fever when I was a kid, but I don’t know for sure.”

Matt nodded, and his hand stole toward hers across the tablecloth as if approaching an enemy camp.  It stopped just out of reach.  “How do you know?  Does a light come on?  Or do people wear a sign?”

Emily bit her lip.  For weeks, ever since she’d realized that Matt was the one she wanted to spend the rest of her life with, she’d debated how to tell him.  Matt had always been loving, kind, and sincere, as plain and as good as his name.  But she knew he was not terribly imaginative or prone to accept anything out of the ordinary.  By telling Matt the truth, she risked driving him away as she had the two other people she’d confided in.

But she couldn’t build a life on lies or concealment.  And it had become so very important, after all these years, that one other person in the world know the truth about her and her ability.

“It’s not a light or sign,” she said, watching Matt closely.  He had an all-American face, the face of the boy next door who had grown up to be a considerate, dependable man.

Her hand slipped forward and covered his, caressing the hairy knuckles to soothe him. “It’s color.”

His lip twitched.  “Color?”

Emily gazed out the window at the faint red glow of the setting sun.  Precisely at this point, the two friends she’d told had parted company with her, labeling her a weirdo and a nutcase.  Though it had been twenty years ago, she remembered their betrayal, the mockery when her friends had told other people.

She took a deep breath and continued.  “I’ve done research, checked obituaries.  Those who are going to die within a few months are a pale red, and if they’ve got a couple years, the red’s more vivid.  The shade varies.  Around five years, the color is green, and if they’re going to live ten more years, it’s blue.   At fifteen or sixteen years, it’s yellow.  Then…”

Her throat clamped shut and she couldn’t continue.  This is my life, she thought.  This is my life right here, in the next few seconds.

She studied Matt, thinking of how she’d chosen this quiet restaurant so he would be less likely to get up and stomp off, or simply flee.  But Matt was too kind and mature to do that, and she knew he loved her.  At least, he said he did.

Matt glanced down at her hand, which was still stroking his.  “You’re not joking, are you?  You’re dead serious about this.”

In the background, a neatly dressed waiter wove between the tables with a tray delicately balanced on his fingers.  She waited until he set it down safely on a stand.

“I’m not joking,” she said.

Matt’s other hand moved across the table and covered her hand.  “So this gift or ability of yours . . . it’s color coded.”

“Yes, I guess you could say that.”  Her heart felt as if it were trying to climb out of her throat.  “And it comes and goes.  Sometimes, for a month or two, it disappears.  Then it’ll return for a few weeks or months.  There’s no predicting any of it.”  She trembled.  “Thank heaven, recently it hasn’t happened.  I’ve been ‘normal’ for weeks longer than ever before.  It’s almost as if I’m – cured.”

“Uh-huh.”  Now he was stroking her hand.  “Odd.  The way you describe it, it doesn’t sound as if the life expectancy fits the colors of the spectrum.”

“Excuse me?”  But Matt owned a paint store; of course.

He shrugged.  “Well, according to the spectrum, the colors are distributed according to their wavelength and intensity.  For example, after red comes orange, yellow, green, cyan, blue . . .”

She shook her head.  “No, it’s not like that.  It seems random.  Or if there is a system, I haven’t figured out what it is.  All I know is that I can look at people and often tell how long they’re going to live.”

He pulled his hand away.  “Good God!”

She held her breath.  Would Matt get up now and leave?  She remembered Jennifer’s reaction twenty years ago.  “You crazy loon, get away from me!” she had cried.  Emily had often wondered why her friends had been so terrified by her revelation.  Yes, her secret was strange, but hardly something to make them bolt and ridicule her.  For years she had thought the somber, intense way she had told them had driven them off.  Her manner had made them believe, convinced them that she was telling the truth.  Finally, though, Emily had come to realize there was another, more important factor.


Matt watched her intently.  Was it compassion she saw in his face?  For the first time, she felt a stir of hope.  Neither of her friends had shown an ounce of sympathy, and Matt’s comment about the visible light spectrum had been intelligent rather than frightened.  Still…

“I know it sounds scary,” Emily said.  She laughed.  Midway, her laugh broke into a sob.  She raised her hands and covered her face, thinking of how she had wanted to be a nurse ever since childhood, of how she had dreamed of helping people to get well.  But the thought of looking at a patient and knowing with utter certainty when they’d die had been too much.  Her curse had forced her to work at home as a day trader so that she saw as few people as possible.

“Emily . . .”  Matt picked up his chair and moved it around the table next to her.  He sat down and held her close.  “Poor baby,” he said, kissing her forehead.  “It’s been hard for you, hasn’t it?”

He understood – or was trying to.  Her relief was so great, she felt she was going to collapse.  “Yes,” she managed.

She remembered the delirium of her childhood sickness and coming out of it to see that the members of her family were surrounded by different colors.  Uncle Nelson had been green, and her mother a pale red.  At the time, she hadn’t known what it meant, and when she told them, they’d only laughed and dismissed it as a lingering effect of the fever.  But three weeks later, when her mother died of a stroke, she had begun to figure it out.

Then had come the horror, not only of knowing when someone would die, but of feeling she was responsible for it, that time after time, she held people’s lives in her hands.  Her mother’s death, in particular, had hit her hard and she had even considered suicide, as if that would save others.  Emily had wondered for years whether she had actually killed her mother.

Finding her handkerchief, Emily dried her eyes and told Matt everything.  How it felt to be able to see beneath the surface and into the future, to live in a world of yellow, green, red, and blue people.  How she had kept records of obituaries until she knew in detail what the colors meant.  And the guilt, the endless, bitter, relentless guilt that no amount of logic could totally dispel.  Eventually, she not only felt she was the one who killed people, but that she chose the colors that were their death sentence.

“That’s nonsense, Em,” Matt said.  “It’s not your fault.  You have nothing to feel guilty about.”

He was so understanding, so supportive.  She raised her lips and kissed him, not caring what others in the restaurant thought.  More importantly, Matt didn’t care either.

“If I just knew why this has happened,” she sobbed, “the reason behind it.  Is it God or the devil who did this to me?  Oh, Matt, if you only knew what it’s like to be this way.  Every time my ability – no, my curse – has disappeared, I’ve hoped and prayed that it’s for good, that I’m finally cured and can live a normal life.”  She hesitated.  “That I can find love.”

“Here,” he soothed, “your handkerchief’s soaked, try mine.”  He dabbed her eyes.  “Who knows what the reason is.  But you have found love, Em.  You’ve found me.”

Emily couldn’t believe her ears.  Matt was so loving, so perceptive and sensitive.  He was completely different from the friends who had rejected and mocked her.  He wasn’t repulsed or terrified by her at all.

The waiter brought salads and rolls and regarded them with open disdain.  This was, after all, a high-class restaurant that did not approve of emotional displays.  But Matt speared him with a look that banished his displeasure and made him immediately respectful.

“Where shall I serve you, sir?” he asked.

Matt waved a hand.  “Put it right here.  We’ll eat side by side.”

“Very good, sir.”

With pats and hugs from Matt, Emily calmed.  Soon, she was even able to eat.  Matt watched her, then dug in himself.

“Emily,” he said, “do you mind if I ask you something?”

She lifted her glass of wine.  “Not at all.”

He hesitated.  “I’m trying to imagine how it must feel just to be able to glance at everyone in this room and know.  It must be absolutely terrible for you.”

She trembled.  “It is, more than I can say.”  She nodded at their waiter, who was tending a nearby table.  “Let’s say he’s a mid-range yellow, so I give him about sixteen years.  The others…”  She pointed out two diners, a man and a woman.  “If he were green, he’d die soon, in about six or seven years.  She – let’s make her orange – should live about twenty, which is as far
as I can see.”

“Good Lord.”  He wiped his mouth, staring at them.  “Em, when you do have the ability, are most of the people you see colored?”

“No,” she said, aware of the tension that had been in his voice.  “Many of them live longer than twenty years.  Matt, please remember that my guesses are only estimates.  I can’t be sure – that is, some of them may not die at all.  After all, I’ve never done a scientific study.  In some cases, I could be completely wrong.”

“But you don’t think so.”

She took a sip of wine.  “No.”  She made herself look at him and see the fear in his face.  “I don’t have all the answers, and I’ve never had an inkling as to why someone will die, whether it’s due to cancer, food poisoning, or even a car accident.  But from what I can tell, I’m usually pretty accurate about how long they have left.”

He licked his lip.  “Have you ever tried to save someone?  Warn them maybe, or –”

She nodded.  “There was this little boy in my neighborhood.  Tim was a pale red, and I knew he was going to die soon.  I tried to warn his parents but they wouldn’t listen.  So for weeks I followed him whenever possible, hoping I could make a difference.  Then one day, he stepped in front of a car.  I grabbed him just before he was hit.”

Matt grinned.  “So you saved him!”

She sighed.  “I thought I had.  I prayed I had changed his life, cheated fate.  But just a few days later he fell from his tree house.  He was killed instantly.”  She picked up her wine and gulped it.  “Despite my efforts, Tim died anyway, and I had to accept the truth.  What I see, what I know, is going to happen no matter what I do.  Destiny can’t be deceived or avoided.”

If he was ever going to reject her, he’d do so now.  Five seconds passed.  Then five more.

Finally, Matt cleared his throat.  “Emily, would you answer another question for me?”

She set the wine down, knowing that she’d been dreading this question all evening.  “Yes.”

“What . . . what color am I?  I mean, have you ever seen me . . .”

She reached up and touched his cheek.  “You’re the same color you’ve been since I met you.  A deep, rich brown.”

He shuddered.  “W-Would you excuse me a moment, Emily?  I have to go to the restroom.”

Matt rose and left.  She watched him go.  He didn’t look back.

Shortly after, the waiter removed their salads and served the main course: veal for her, a twelve-ounce steak for Matt.  “Is everything satisfactory, Madam?” he asked.

She smiled.  “Everything is wonderful.”

“Very good.”  He nodded and withdrew.

She took a bite of her veal, then frowned.  Is everything satisfactory, Madam?  It sounded so stiff and false, just like Matt’s statement.

I have to go to the restroom.

Matt’s not coming back, she thought.  He just blew me off.  I may get a letter or phone call from him, but I’ll never see him again.  It’s finished.

Nonsense.  Matt was strong, a dependable man.  If he said he was going to the restroom, he meant it, and he would promptly return.

She gazed about the restaurant, searching for the men’s room.  But of course she couldn’t see it from here.  How long had he been gone?  Must be at least five minutes.

It shouldn’t take that long.  He had left her!

But she couldn’t believe that.  Even if he’d been struck by panic, he wouldn’t just run, leave her like this.  On top of everything else, he’d be sticking her with the bill!

Unless he had already spoken to the waiter and paid for their meal with his credit card.  In a moment or two, the waiter would return with Matt’s hastily scrawled note.  She could even imagine how it read.  Dear Emily, I’m so sorry

Even as the words passed through her mind, she saw the waiter approach.  Was that a slip of paper in his hand?  Her blood froze as he drew nearer, his eyes locked on hers.  He raised his hand…

Then he was past her and moving on.  Emily trembled and lowered her eyes.  The axe hadn’t fallen yet, but she knew Matt had left her.  It was too much to expect; destiny can’t be deceived or avoided.  Once someone knew and believed that you had the ability to tell how long they would live, why would he want to stay?  Surely, after he thought it over, he’d run.

Just as her friends had run.

At a table across the room, a man leaned over a table and kissed a woman.  Emily stared at them, thinking of how she would be all alone again in a world where she could never find love, alone in a world filled with other people’s mortality.  Once again she’d be a hermit selling fickle, unpredictable stocks under self-imposed house arrest, the barren excitement of her existence symbolized by the figures on her computer screens.  Selling futures, as if she had any future of her own to look forward to.

But I had to tell him.  I had to tell him the truth.

Footsteps approached.  She clutched the table, afraid to look up, afraid to hope.

The footsteps stopped by her side.  “Hello, sexy,” a familiar voice said.  “Did your boyfriend leave you?”

She almost fainted in relief.  “He s-sure d-did,” she said.  “Why don’t you keep me company until he returns?”  She raised her eyes.

Matt grinned down at her, looking as he always did.  Except that now his face and hands were a pale red, as if he had just contracted a fever.  She stared at him, feeling her heart grow cold.

“Em, is something wrong?”

Pale red – her cursed ability had returned; she wasn’t cured after all!  Matt was going to die, maybe within weeks or even sooner!

Then he moved, and the reddish sheen that covered his body vanished, leaving him a deep, rich brown again.  She blinked, realizing that the sun setting through the window was responsible.  Thank God, Matt was all right.  Her “gift” hadn’t returned!
She gasped in relief.  “Everything’s f-fine, Matt.   Come on, you had better finish your steak.”

He grinned.  “Yeah, before it gets cold.”  He sat down beside her and picked up his knife and fork.

Emily watched him eat, profoundly grateful he was still alive and that nothing had changed.  She felt a growing certainty that after all these years, everything was going to be all right.  This time her ability wouldn’t return.  Perhaps it was an infection that had finally cleared up or she had simply grown out of it.  Whatever the case, she could marry Matt and live a normal
life, perhaps even become a nurse like she’d once dreamed.  She’d never have to be alone or different again.  Her cheeks wet with tears, she reached for Matt’s handkerchief.

After Emily dried her eyes, she glanced about the restaurant.  At once she noticed that some people looked different.  A few were green, others blue.  One was a bright, canary yellow.

She shuddered and checked the window.  No, the sun might turn someone a pale red, but not these colors, not these harbingers of death.  She desperately scanned the restaurant, praying she was wrong.  But everywhere she turned she saw her shattered hopes.  She wasn’t cured after all, and never would be.  The only consolation was that Matt’s color hadn’t changed.  But she knew that day by day, she’d have to live with the fear that at any moment, she could look at him and see the color of death.

Directly across from her, a fat man sat eating a large steak.  Though he was nowhere near the sun’s rays, his body was a faint glowing red.

Stunned, she stared at the fat man for several minutes, watching him shovel meat into his mouth like a voracious machine.  In and out, in and out.  Suddenly he jerked in his chair and clutched his chest.  His face twisted in agony.

Matt looked up from his own steak and studied him.  “What’s wrong with that guy?”

Emily swallowed.  “I think some food’s stuck in his throat.  Or maybe he’s having a heart attack.”

“A heart attack?  Are you serious?”  He flung his chair back and rose to his feet.  “Why didn’t you say something, Em?  We’ve got to do something.”

As the fat man collapsed on the table, Matt rushed to help him.  “It won’t do any good,” Emily whispered to herself.

John B. Rosenman is an English professor at Norfolk State University and the author of ten published books, including science-fiction adventure/romance novels such as A Senseless Act of Beauty, Alien Dreams, Beyond Those Distant Stars, Dax Rigby, War Correspondent, and Speaker of the Shakk.  He has pubished over 300 short stories in Weird Tales, Galaxy, Fangoria (online), Whitley Strieber’s Aiens, Hot Blood, and elsewhere.  His website is http://www.johnrosenman/