“Hey, sing me a sunrise, Sia,” Gust says.
He’s biting into an apple that must not be quite ripe, because the air around him is glassy, sharding off into fractal edges.
I laugh and it’s fuchsia, color filling in the cracks he’s made in the air, a corona of purple zigzag.
He plucks at a shard, yanks it, and uses it to cut his apple, smearing the fruit flesh with violet frosting. He looks at me, eyes filling up the mirrored air as he chews that sourness. A hundred Argus eyes wryly blinking.
“Kidding, I was not,” he says, and I have to watch his grin through a dozen triangles. Teeth, eyes, eyes, teeth. “Sing up some color. I want dinner and a show.”
“I’ll force your hand,” says Tile, creeping out of the canteen with a donut hanging off her lips. She runs her hand along the cinderblock wall and a rolly sound jumps off her fingertips, round rocks peeling against themselves. It’s a yellow sound, and she knows I hate those.
“Fine, fine,” I say, wiping the yellow off my soundscape and they laugh. Gust’s laugh is bluer and Tile’s is redder. I mix up some leftover yellow and some of Gust’s blue and cram it together into yellowblue that makes their neurons tremble. They give me headaches, I’ll give ’em right back.
But I’ve relented and they know, so I hum in my chest in an orange way, thumping my foot pinkly against the ground, laugh the fuchsia laugh and weave it in a layered strata. A sunset aurora with a melty orange center.
Gust steals a bite of Tile’s sweet donut, and the air warbles and spins with the taste, mixing the colors up like a borealis. The refraction makes it shine from the inside. Tile’s fingers flit over her calico coat, finding the textures she knows will sing in my ears just right, and the colors lighten and darken in time with her music, making them dance. Color samba, singing bright.
The door slams open, sending a bright white knife through my colors and they drop to the floor. The sunrise mixes up to muddy dirt.
“You gonna sit around fingerpainting while the other team picks up your forfeit?” Denny asks as he stalks into the room. His voice is gray, which fits him. He’s one of the world’s many dullards, who can’t synesthize, so he makes up for it by turning everything he does into Annoying. At least he keeps us punctual.
“We’ve got time,” Gust insists, licking the sour juice off his fingers as he finishes his apple. He grabs a shard from beside his left ear and mimes throwing it between Denny’s shoulderblades.
Denny makes the sound he does whenever he’s frustrated and galumphs over to our lockers, throwing our gear at us. It’s an eggy putty of a sound, so I grab it from the air and make a ball out of it, tossing it at Tile while her back is turned. It splats into her hair like glue and she flips me off.
“Remember, they’ll underestimate us,” Denny says, flipping through his chart. The fluttery sound staircases tealishly above my head. “They’re going to treat it like an exhibition match, so look for the openings whenever they’re showing off.”
“We’ll pound ’em,” Gust says, pulling himself to his full 6’5’’, rolling his neck muscles.
“Like you pounded Santa Barbara, right?” Denny asks, eyebrows up.
“Why’d you have to bring that up?” Tile whines, and it sparkles in the air. I’ve got to tune out. The room’s getting color-clogged.
We shrug into our padding, pulling on the vests that protect our vital bits and the various sleeves that protect our joints. The air sings with a familiar catscreech noise as Tile touches the plastic. The sound is red, and it helps pump us up and make us blood-hungry, which Denny shamelessly encourages.
He sticks Tile’s paddings with decals, each a different roughness. Textures galore over every possible surface. Gust straps on his ammo belt of flavor-vials. Bullet casings filled with sours, sweets, and bitter aftertastes. Our helmets go on last, a safe padding around our brainmeat. Gotta protect the moneymakers. Mine’s got a set of headphones rigged in, and Denny can send me sounds—the one thing he gets to do as the groundman. Besides plan all our strats, I guess, but that’s not the fun, interactive part.
Prepped and packaged, Denny shoos us out of the locker room and marches us through the halls. I’m glad none of us is an olfactory Synesthete, because it smells like the dead lovechild of mold and cheese in this hallway. A real damp sort of carpet-rot. It’d be enough to destroy your pregame headspace.
I can hear the announcer going as we near the entrance to the stadium. I’m not supposed to be able to hear much through the noise-cancelling helmet, and the air takes on an orangey haze. I readjust the straps, and the sound muffles away. We leave the orange smear behind us, some clinging to our shoes and leaving discolored footprints.
The moldy esophagus spits us out, and we’re on the pitch. We wave politely at the crowd, which is a kaleidoscope of amp, even though we’re not who they’re here to see. Our padding is Away-Team white, and they’re here for the home guys, who tear through a banner and do a saucy little lap around the field in their royal blues. Their helmets have falcons ripping across the sides. Denny told us we can have a mascot when we’ve earned him enough to pay off his mortgage.
This team clearly has clout, and money. And fans, if the fleshpacked stadium is any indication. Everything about them looks fresh-out-of-the-box. Nothing like the weird little midwestern team that hasn’t gotten themselves kicked out of the bracket, somehow.
Denny shoos us onto the field to meet the other team in the center, and they jog up, grinning. Denny’s voice cracks in my headset, at a frequency that isn’t quite him. It unclogs his grayness, and the sound is nearly clear in the air.
“The ref is introducing the La Crosse Riverrunners, so wave and smile. But only when you’re looking at the crowd. Don’t smile at the other team. Put on your mean face. Show ’em who we are.”
I’m not sure I have a mean face, but I wave to the crowd on a slight delay. Tile’s arm is going like she’s trying to shake off a bee, and Gust barely lifts his hand. He’s trying to cultivate a badboy status, but no one who eats as many marshmallows as him could ever pull that off.
Denny’s voice hits me again. “Okay, they’re introducing the Chicago Falcons. War face, now.”
We have to watch politely as the Falcons do some kind of choreographed flappy dance. It gives me time to size them up, and Denny gives me a reminder that I try not to tune out although he lectured us endlessly on the bus ride over.
“Far right smells up shapes,” Denny says, though it’s easy enough to tell his sensory trigger. He’s got a vial-belt like Gust, but he’s got a nose clamp. Must be smells in there. I run through names to call him if we ever get a grapple going. Smell Caster. Smelling Bee. Saved by the Smell. All I got are bad puns. I need to work on my verbal game.
“Next up is another Tactician, but he works with light, not sound.”
“Look out for the last one,” Denny reminds me, though he doesn’t have to. “She’ll work against you.”
The ref goes over the rules quick—there aren’t many, though Denny politely repeats it all for me.
“All four limbs hit the ground, it’s five points for the other team, and play stops when a team gets to 35. A knockout or stepping out of bounds removes you from the game. Tie decided in overtime.”
The ref gestures, we shake and break, and hustle over to our respective sides of the field and our respective groundmen. The scoreboard in the corner lights in zeros, but no one’s going to be looking at that. They’re going to be looking for a triple-KO, otherwise the match will be disappointing no matter who wins. To the crowd, at least. Point-win is still a win, to me.
The arena’s a giant grassy circle (real grass, too!), and the acoustics must be great, because I can physically feel the wall of sound pounding on me. I’m half-tempted to pull the helmet away from my ears, just to see what the mix of colors will be.
“Okay, Tile,” I hear Denny say against my ear, annoyingly clearly. “They’ve got no soundman, so you’ll be our enforcer. They can’t do anything with what you’ve got.”
She says something I can’t hear. The rich teams have microphones and radios in their helmets so they can call plays during the game. We can’t afford that, so we’re stuck relying on old-fashioned team synergy and hours of practice.
“No, you can’t play defense today,” Denny says. “We ran drills for a week for this match. No backing out now.” Pause. “I don’t care if you’re nervous.” Pause. “Well then, don’t mess up.”
I get her apprehension. Our usual play is Gust on the offense, me running support, and Tile near the back with her percussion, knocking us forward or the others back. Now she’s got to be out in front, all pointy altos and needling sopranos.
“Gust, you cover her,” Denny says, and Gust nods. He’s fine anywhere, as long as he gets to scrap.
“Sia, I’m going to give you some classicals and a bit of angry traffic. Web up our end so they can’t get to our territory. Help keep the play in the middle or on their end. Then wait for my word.”
I grin and stare down at shades-girl. I got some sights coming up for her.
The buzzer must go off, because the vibration of sound in the air peaks up, then crashes down. Silent for the opening plays. Their smellman steps forward and pops open a vial, snatching off his noseclip. The ground beneath them starts to rumble and roll, turning from spiky grass to solid hills, giving them terrain and a little high ground.
Tile watches them rise as the crowd begins to rumble again. This must be a signature move. Could be good for us, if he’s keeping half his mind on the show for the audience. We’re not here to impress, though. We’re here to win.
Tile rubs one of her fingerless gloves against a knobbly sticker on her elbow, and I can feel the baritone against my face as she pulls the sound from the texture. It’s a thick, vibrating noise that makes it past my soundproofed helmet to Jell-o my brain. The other team stumbles, and the foundations of their rolling terrain begin to shake and crumble, their new hills shrinking lower into mounds. They’re thrown off, expecting us to give them an opening salvo that’s just as flashy as they are. Everyone expects that from a team with a colorworker like me.
Their guy-with-a-million-stickers finds his footing annoyingly fast, and slides his feet through the grass. He’s barefoot, which I should have noticed before, and the feel of the turf through his toes lets him glassify the air, and it thickens up in a tightly woven knit between us. Tile modifies her bass, but the defense holds—it’s fibrous, and we’ll need to cut through the tensile.
Denny sends violin through my earphones, and Gust takes a tongueful of something particularly sour. He’s suddenly cut into pieces as the air around him shatters into a thousand needlepoint shards.
The violins are high and clear in my eardrums, radiating white light. I run around Gust, wrapping him in white light and soaking his hypodermic sourknives in radiance. The smellman on the other side is building up a litany of shapes and patterns that the barefoot guy is slinging into rubberbands of refracted light, preparing to volley them towards us as soon as they drop their shield.
We don’t give them the chance. Tile grabs me away from Gust and wraps us in a pillowy soundcloud that tingles against my face as Gust explodes, light-saturated prisms rocketing towards the woven shield and piercing through, the needles poking into the structure and the light blowing out the shape.
Their wall is down and their weapons aren’t ready, and we’ve got our opening.
Gust is off, using a swallow of sweet to turn the air into mushroomy bouncepads, leaping into the sky. High ground without the ground. Tile runs behind him, using the ripple texture on her shoulder to help keep him aloft with steady soundwaves.
The smellman and the feeler on the other team are scrambling to ready their slingshotting rhombuses, but I can’t see what the sightman is doing. She’s hidden behind one of the rolling hills, and I don’t like that. Feels too sneaky.
But Denny’s sending a symphony into my head, and I’ve got a job to do.
Classical music is cold, and I’m in a cocoon of purples, blues, and greens. I lasso them together, flinging them up and down and side to side in half-rainbow tendrils, creating a patterned web across our half of the field. We’ve spent days running drills through this pattern, but the other team’s never seen it. Try to come our way, and they’ll tangle themselves tie-dyed. Keep the play down on their end.
I perch on my web when I’m done, ready to attack any encroachers with Bach or Debussy or whatever Denny sends my way. The smellman and the feeler Falcons have gotten their bearings, and are launching prismatic projectiles at Gust and Tile. But they’re on the defensive, and our team is gaining.
I find the sightman, and she’s standing at the edge of the field, casual. Not even attempting defense. What’s her game?
Tile sends Gust launching to the ground with a volley of high notes raining on his head, spiking him like a volleyball. As he falls he swallows something sour, shattering the air around him. He lands behind the smellman, and Tile pulls the shards towards that opponent with a Velcro-induced sound vacuum.
A rumble through my feet means there’s a groan through the crowd, and their smellman goes rocketing through the air, his blue suit pierced through with Gust’s fractals. He crashes into the strands of my web, and I’m there like a spider, crawling through the color ropes and wrapping a ribbon made of brass section around his nose. Denny switches up the sound and suddenly all I can hear is roadrage. That builds into a bright orange pumpkin bomb I set behind his keister, and I skedaddle. It explodes and sends him flying across the field, where Tile meets him with a solid blast of sound—cat screeches from the feel of her plastic helmet.
The vibrations tear into his eardrums and he screams, disoriented. All four of his limbs hit the ground, and our points tick up on the scoreboard.
But no one’s waiting for points, are they?
Gust dodges a squarish projectile launched at him by the barefoot feeler, and sends a sugar-crusted cannonball right down onto the back of the smellman.
He’s already on all fours, and the force of the impact sends the rest of him to the ground, hard and fast. The smell vials strapped to his front shatter between him and the field. Even from where I’m hanging in my web, I can smell the tangle of scents rising through the air around him. Nice and Nasty mix together in a slight tinge of decay.
It’s confusing for me, but it’s overwhelming for the smellman. Even the bands of color I wrapped around his face can’t block out the cavalcade of fragrance assaulting his nasals. The air around him doesn’t know what to do with the overwhelming amount of stimuli, and he’s knocked around by squares and triangles—a trampoline of light refraction sends him into the air and down again, and when all legs and arms hit the ground it’s another five points for us. The constant banging against the atmosphere sends my web shaking, and I tighten the straps of my helmet as it starts to come loose and I begin to hear the edges of the crowdsound against my consciousness. I manage to block it out quick enough that irised smear is all that comes from it, which is easy enough to wipe away.
“That’s how you do it,” Denny’s voice cracks into my headset, pleased as punch.
The smellman is battered by his own smell-shapes until the ref’s whistle sounds, which Denny lets me know by sending two low rumbles through my headphones, sounds that are harmless cottony white blobs. They fall to my feet as all players freeze, while the ref and medic run out to the smellman. I can still get whiffs of his shattered smell vials, but there are no more shapes pummeling into existence, which is probably a good sign that he’s out for the count.
The ref crosses his hands at the wrists, and the crowd boos. The medics cart off the fallen Falcon, and I shout “Smell you later!” I’m too far away for anyone to hear me, but still. Nailed it.
We’re 10-0 and they’re a man down, and I’m getting the headrush of victory.
“Stay up on defense,” Denny warns me, but I’m already zipping off to the feeler across the field. Denny keeps my headset stubbornly silent, so I hum to myself and let the sound travel up jawbone and into auditory cortex. It’s a chunky violet noise, and I begin to hurl it at the feeler before he can make a move.
Tile joins me and begins to pummel him down with the trumpet noise I know comes from the bite of her teeth against her thumb. Gust adds sugar bombs, and the feeler falls to his knees under the onslaught, his hands joining soon for a cool 15-0.
Suddenly a thick, phlegmy taste hits the back of my mouth. Their sightman has finally made her move, running zigzag through the terrain. I try to hum something to throw at her, but the buzz turns to a gag as a thick ooze of sweetrot hits me from incisor to molar. The barefoot feeler finds his feet and starts building ramps made of self-iterating patterns on the other side of the field. The sightman’s looking at a muddy brown color swatch, which must taste terrible because I’m yards away from her and I can still get aftertaste.
She gets closer, and it goes from aftertaste to garbage juice in my mouth, and I swear I can feel it sloshing between my teeth.
Waves of nausea hit me, and my nonexistent lunch surges upward. I manage to swallow most of it, but the rest floods into my sinuses, burning my head from the inside out. I’m on the ground before I take my next breath.
Tile and Gust don’t quite catch it, and they both vomit onto the grass. As Denny screeches in my ear, Gust and Tile join me on their knees. Our scores tie.
The air turns runny and smeary around Gust as the acrid puke waterfalls over his tongue, turning his view into dripping watercolor. He’s blind and defenseless.
I know Tile is surrounded by a jittery high crescendo from the feel of the grass on her fingers, and if I could just hear it I could do something with it. Cut through Gust’s smear with a bright pink slice of light, and surround Tile with a dark velvet cushion.
I’m in pain, the taste of stomach acid mixing with the taste of what I’m sure is my tongue rotting in my mouth, but the world is still quiet around me. I stagger up and run away, not incapacitated by my own sensory overload.
I put some yards between myself and the sightman, and the taste begins to fade. She doesn’t even look my way as she focuses her brown-flavored attack on my teammates.
Their barefoot feeler has readied his volley. Huge vortices of hollow light stand at the tops of his fabricated ramps, ready to roll towards Gust and Tile. A barely legal maneuver that could crush bone. I look over at Denny, my ears achingly empty, looking for some sign, some plan, about how he wants me to stop this.
He isn’t even looking at the gameplay—hands on his knees, head bent, breathing heavily. A line of mucusy drool dangles from his lips, and his face is turning green.
She’s gone after our groundman. Off-limits, definitely illegal. I gesture to the ref, shouting. The sound is thick in my head, vibrating my bones but not escaping into the air for me to hear.
He doesn’t see me, too busy watching Gust and Tile and waiting for them to be pummeled by black holes rolling over them.
The sightman smirks, and I hate her. This is playing dirty. Just filthy. This must be their usual play—let the other team run around a bit and then flatten them in their own vomit. And I’m probably an afterthought. Us color-workers are underestimated. Treated like fireworks. Bright and flashy, but with no real firepower. Easy to extinguish.
Screw that all the way into the ground. I loosen the straps on my helmet, breaking the vacuum seal against my ears ever so slightly. The sound of the crowd slips in, counting down in anticipation of my teammates being pancaked.
It’s nothing I’ve ever heard. I’ve never been in a place this loud, and the sound hits me from every angle of the arena. There’s baritones and altos, reedy juvenile sopranos, and metallic tings as people knock against aluminum railings. The chants pulse in a steady beat as rhythmic cries of “Falcons! Falcons! Falcons!” hit me right in the cochlea. Chaos stirs up ossicles and hits me with impossible combinations of Technicolor.
It’s chimerical. Trichromatic. Semi-imaginary.
I start to pulse with impossible colors. Stygian blues. Self-luminous reds. Hyperbolic oranges. I can barely comprehend it, and I have to regard it all with the spaces in between my neurons, otherwise I’ll reason myself out of seeing them.
The colors hit the Falcons and the audience at the same time. The chanting chokes off abruptly as the audience can’t speak while they process blue-yellows and red-greens. The barefoot feeler’s hands leave the decals on his suit and slap over his eyes, the texture of his own face shooting sideways beams through his ramps. The patterns collapse into nonsense and the precarious vortices crash into the ground and are absorbed into the lightfield. Though the arena’s gone silent, I’m still smiling enough to crack my jaw off. Because now the colors are here, dripping from me in radiant hypotheticals.
The sightman’s shades keep her world monochrome, and she can’t see the hues I’m sending out. But she’s distracted. And that’s enough for Denny to send a thin, warbling trill of birdsong into my ears. It lusters up a disc of gold, and that’s what I need. I hurl the birdsong like a frisbee, knocking the sightman’s head sideways.
She goes flying to the ground, and the ref is too distracted by magentallic afterimages to give us our five points, but I don’t care.
The sightman’s glasses are off.
I can see saliva and stomach acid frothing at the corners of her mouth as she gags on the colors, and I can catch a hint of it from where I am. Impossible combinations of sour and umami, turpentine-soaked hákarl with a burnt-lemon finish. It must be ten times worse in her head, because she sobs as vomit leaks out her nose. She turns, stumbling, running off the field. When her feet cross the boundaryline, the ref’s whistle blows. Instant DQ for the player.
Gust and Tile stand up shakily, wiping puke off their chins as I reaffix my helmet. Denny sends me a glittery chiptune run and I send sparkles through the air, dissolving my other colors in a silvery sunshower.
The last Falcon stands, semi-paralyzed. This isn’t part of anything he’s ever run through; no practice drills covered him being last-man-standing. And from where I stand, I can see he’s made the mistake of getting too close to Gust, who out-stands him by a head and a half.
When Gust bursts from his smear and goes for the old-fashioned grab n’ tackle, it doesn’t take long to get Mr. No-Shoes to the ground. And again. And again. The ref definitely counts our points this time. We get our 35.
“I don’t like how close that was,” Denny says in the smelly esophagus when we make our way back to the locker rooms, leaving behind the tepid applause of the Chicago stadium. “Sia, you’d better never pull a trick like that again.”
“It worked, didn’t it?” Gust says, his laugh leaving bluish streaks on the wall behind us.
“Barely,” Denny grumps, though I can see the readjusting of our gameplan in his eyes. We’ll be in for some endless drills before our next match-up.
“Well, thanks for covering our asses,” Tile says, nudging my shoulder. “I thought I was going to drown in vomit.”
“Oh, it’ll happen,” says Denny, “and we clearly weren’t ready for it, so we’re going to need to spend some time…”
I tune out the rest of what he says, humming to myself and feeling the slow glow of victory settle in my stomach. The sound echoes through the hallway and leaves a sunrise behind us.
Story copyright © 2021 by Devin DeMarco
Artwork copyright © 2021 by Carrion House
Devin DeMarco teaches English Language Arts in a small New York town (not that part of New York) where she has a captive audience that she can subject to her odd literary tastes. She likes cats, books with open endings, and the Oxford comma. She has previously published work in The Southampton Review, and received her MFA in Creative Writing from Stony Brook University. If you visit her, she’ll show you Mark Twain’s grave.
Carrion House a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the south of England. Having graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.