Her lips were ice as they touched his ear—as cold as the water that dripped over the sugar cube, through the perforated silver spoon, into the pool of green liquid in front of him. He could smell licorice on her breath as she whispered, “Find me,” pressing her small breasts against his back before running off. There wasn’t much between her slip-like dress and his shirt, except for three rows of fringe that landed strategically at her chest, hips, and knees.
He slowly turned and challenged her green eyes—eyes that peeked out from the long mahogany bangs of her pixie cut. “And why would I want to do that?” he asked, distracted by the poetry reading that was taking place. Someone was conjuring up rebel poet Arthur Rimbaud, who despite dying nearly 15 years prior, was still the reigning bad boy of La Belle Époche.
“Because then we can be alone,” she giggled, wrapping her chartreuse scarf over her nose and around her head as if it were a veil. She ducked behind a potted palm inviting him to play. He took a deep swallow of absinthe and watched her scarf unfurl. The color was an extension of the drink itself. He pursed his lips at the bite—wormwood, anise, and sweet fennel. “Artemisia absinthium,” he muttered. “Inspiration for bohemians all around.”
There was a tinge of resentment in his voice as he recalled his recent string of bad luck. Not only had he been uninspired in writing, but what he painted seemed unoriginal and what he composed, sounded flat. As much as he wanted to be a true artist—a Renaissance man—he struggled with finding a passion that could define him. He was a dabbler by all accounts and this lack of direction ate away at his self-worth.
The last time he had consumed the Green Fairy, as his drink was affectionately called, he was beset by an image of a sparkling lake. In that vision, he became a large emerald dragonfly gliding over the water, using his aerodynamically correct body and translucent wings to lightly land on a lily pad. As he sat on the verdant leaf, he noticed a frog, the color of peridot, at his side and from that frog’s mouth came—not a croak—but a beautiful soprano voice that produced a melody unlike anything he had ever heard.
When he returned to earth—that being the small corner table in the 1905 French café—he reached for the soft Conté pencil he kept in his shirt pocket and began scribbling music notes on a napkin. He was sure he had captured the amphibian’s exotic tune, but when he read the notes later, they made no sense.
Tonight, wanting to spare himself disappointment, he left the café in a haze and staggered down the boulevard under the glare of streetlamps, into a luminous mist. His head throbbed and his hands shook as he walked the two flights of stairs up to his studio apartment. There he stretched out on his sagging mattress and closed his eyes, contemplating his predicament. This was certainly not his first encounter with that imp-like woman named Sprite—a free spirit, gifted at teasing and pleasing a man; a muse, who could spark and unleash repressed talent. But he knew that if he followed her as she wished, it would lead to her bed and a cycle of artistic angst.
Not that he didn’t want to. The drug in the drink was powerful, sensual, and enlightening. He relished the high in which they rolled and their prolonged, ethereal coupling. In those moments, he would shed his cumbersome human form and slip easily into her body and mind, rising to a previously unreached plane of gratification. He would feel large and commanding against her waif-like bones and would respond willingly to her feathery touch. In turn, she would react as if he were imbued with an electric charge that sent volts of pleasure through her very being, ending with a shudder not unlike that of falling leaves.
Unfortunately, culmination always led to one of them leaving and was followed, for him, by an aftermath fraught with sadness and creative frustration. In defiance, he would write or paint madly throughout the night, trying to recapture the moment of ecstasy and the transformation leading up to it, stopping only when the dawning rays of sun turned the sky pink. Tonight, however, he lay quietly, trying to recall how it all began.
He remembered the first time he met Sprite, his naïve introduction to absinthe, and the warm, eccentric ambiance of the café that welcomed him. The only problem was, there were gaps in his recollection, missing details, forgotten facts, and jumps in the continuity of things. He tried to draw on vestigial memories, but he was gripped by a fear that he didn’t belong there. He felt transient, an intruder—and perhaps he was. Maybe that’s why he doubted his entitlement to the gratification and inspiration he so desperately craved. But despite his uneasiness, he succumbed to sleep.
As he dozed, the image of another woman—a woman with extraordinary sensory skills—seeped into his mind. While he couldn’t quite place her, he saw her walking into an office where he worked—a modern building, in present time—and he knew that she had changed his life forever.
The woman arrived at the think tank ten minutes early, wearing a finely tailored, forest green, wool suit and a cream-colored silk blouse, the shawl collar of which tied under her throat in two long tails. Her dark green suede shoes perfectly matched the wool of her suit, and her flawless complexion resembled the fabric of her blouse. Her hair was parted in the middle, dark brown and brushed to a high sheen, pulled back into a tight ponytail and tucked under, to give the illusion of a fashionable bun. Her gray eyes offered a steady, inquisitive expression, contrary to her playful lips, which curled and uncurled impulsively against a row of straight white teeth. With a 24-carat gold pin on her lapel, small stud earrings, and a thin gold bracelet on her left wrist, she emulated class.
“Mr. Sutherland?” she confirmed as the receptionist ushered her through his open office door. “Thank you for seeing me. Your firm comes highly recommended.” He rose from behind the desk and walked around to greet her.
Carter was in his late-40s, tall, lean, bearded, and distinguished in appearance, wearing thin rectangular black-framed glasses and longish hair that was starting to pepper at the temples. It took little more than a glance to realize he was ‘cerebral’ and ‘deep.’ He exuded a sense of refined intelligence, a contemplative and sometimes distracted demeanor, but on this day, he was extremely focused. The woman confidently moved forward and extended her hand. Her nails—oval pearls—were smooth and iridescent.
“Ms. Green,” Carter replied. “Very nice to meet you.” He pointed her to a round table and they both sat down.
“Likewise,” she said. “You can call me Tracee—that is, with two ‘ee’s—pronounced like Tracie or Tracey, but without the ‘i’ or ‘y.’
“Then Tracee—with two ‘ee’s—it is,” he acknowledged, smiling as he jotted down her name. “Please call me Carter.” But before he could continue, she interrupted.
“I spell it that way, because I’m a synesthete. The other letters are irritating.”
“Excuse me,” Carter said, trying to catch the word.
“Syn-es-thete, like ath-lete,” she said. “Not to worry, most people are not familiar with synesthesia.”
“I actually know the term. I used to teach science,” Carter explained. “You see words and letters as colors, right?”
Her smile widened. “Music, too. And sometimes I taste shapes as flavors.”
“I’ve always found that fascinating,” Carter said. “A neural tangling of the senses….”
“I’m surprised you say that. Usually people don’t know how to describe it. They usually call it a ‘disease’ or ‘affliction,’ but most of us think of it as a gift. We sometimes forget that others don’t experience the world as vividly as we do.”
“Well, in that case, you and I should get along famously, since I’m a bit color-blind. You can balance me out.” His dark eyes crinkled up behind his frames. Her effortless smile rewarded him.
“Deuteranomaly or Tritanomaly?” she asked.
“Now I’m surprised,” Carter answered. “Deuteranomaly. I can’t see greens.”
“Don’t be surprised. I studied color sensitivity extensively, as well as psychology, and I might be able to help you. That is, of course, if you can help me.”
“And how can we do that?”
“I’d like to teach people to speak and read in colors, to perceive the world as a synesthete, but I need to do some research first. I want to determine whether this would be of value and, more importantly, if it’s viable.”
Carter was intrigued. “What do you need from us?”
“I’d like to commission a study of synesthetes to see how they utilize their abilities. I want to understand the most positive aspects of their lives as well as the pitfalls. Ultimately, I hope to get a consensus as to whether our unique skills should or could be shared and if so, how these skills might be transferred or taught.
“That’s a wild idea—and no small task,” Carter cautioned. He knew that only a handful of nations were studying synesthesia and that there were at least 60 variations of this anomaly, so he suspected existing information was sketchy at best. “This will not be inexpensive,” Carter warned as he rattled off a list of steps needed to implement the project. “Just identifying and locating participants, who are authentic and willing to talk, will require a significant amount of up-front time. And that’s before building a database, gathering feedback, crunching numbers, and analyzing the findings.”
“I realize that, but I have a foundation called Green Light to underwrite this sort of thing. Green Light is a duly established 501(c)3—that is, a tax-free, educational nonprofit. Once you and I discuss the details, I will run costs by our Board.”
“Clever name, Green Light,” Carter commented. He was all business now. “We’ll want to formulate a plan against your objectives to start,” Carter explained, after which he asked her some questions and requested that she provide the answers in writing.
“I would be delighted,” she replied, standing to leave. “But there’s another reason I know we’ll work well together.”
“We’re spectrum partners,” she answered.
“Sorry, I’m not familiar with the term.”
Her laugh rippled across the room like a bubbling brook. “Oh, that’s just what I call it. You see, my name and your name have identical letters and, therefore, identical colors, just presented in a different order. According to my perception, we both share a very pleasing color scheme. She walked over to a whiteboard near his desk. “May I use this?” she asked. He nodded yes. She printed her name vertically in capital letters, leaving a line to the right for each color association. Then she listed his name, providing comparable notations.
T = deep violet
R = royal blue
A = fresh green
C = teal
E = aqua
E = aqua
C = teal
A = fresh green
R = royal blue
T = deep violet
E = aqua
R = royal blue
After filling in the color properties, she went on to explain. “My name starts with ‘T,’ which I see as violet. The next letter ‘R’ is royal blue. ‘A’ is fresh green. ‘C’ is teal. ‘EE’ is aqua twice. You might think of my name as ‘Violet, blue, green, teal, aqua.’”
Carter was amused and sat back, arms folded loosely across his chest, legs stretched out in front of him. She noticed that he was not bad looking.
“Now take the letters in your name,” she continued. “They are the same as mine. ‘C’ is teal, ‘A’ is green, ‘R’ is royal blue, ‘T’ is violet, ‘E’ is aqua, and ‘R’ repeats as blue. That makes your name ‘Teal, green, blue, violet, aqua, blue.’ You do know, don’t you, that these are the colors of water and sky? They emerge from the beginning of the rainbow and hold a position of strength with violet being the longest visible ray of light.” As she said this, her formal demeanor softened, and she approached him as if chatting with an old friend.
“I would never have noticed that similarity, let alone the corresponding colors,” Carter said, captivated. “That should indeed bode well for collaboration.” He shook her hand and watched as she walked toward the lobby. That night he told his wife, Sarah, about the fascinating client his firm had landed and about her offer to help him.
Sarah was not a stranger to unique traits and unusual behaviors. She was convinced the universe held multiple truths, many of which couldn’t be seen or necessarily explained. Fact is, she had confronted her own paranormal abilities 12 years prior, when she encountered a Revolutionary War agitator in an antique home she was selling. Shortly after, she left her career in real estate to join Carter in DC, accepting a position with the FBI where she could use her talents to help solve crimes.
Seven years later, their son, Jared, then 18, had traveled back to an 1860s Colorado mining town, where—as it turns out—he and his girlfriend ‘met’ their former selves. Now 23 and an established journalist, he had learned to cope with his abilities. Daughter Abby, currently 21 and away at college, had yet to exhibit these special attributes, but Carter suspected that she, too, was ‘gifted’ as they say.
By comparison, his life was orderly and mundane. No ghostly visitations, no precognition or time travel for him. He had always been the realistic, rock steady member of the family. He was pragmatic, academic, and reserved, often disengaged from trivial details and emotional matters, preferring to focus on loftier ideals. He was at heart, a man of science, driven by facts and critical thinking, and that made it difficult to discern or accept the gray areas between black and white.
Carter was never quite sure where this narrow-mindedness and detachment originated, but he suspected it came from his father, who gave him a fine upbringing, but was rarely demonstrative. Somewhere in his evolution, Carter learned to perceive this kind of control as a sign of strength, and he tried to emulate it. It wasn’t until later in life, blessed with a wife and family, that he realized how inept he was at acting spontaneously, showing affection, or sensing the needs of others. Sarah understood him, but he feared the children might not. After all, in their formative years, he had woken precisely at 5:45 a.m. every weekday morning, driven predictably to his classroom, taught a well-practiced curriculum, and returned at night with little to show or tell. His world had been boringly safe, and routine, and he was hard-pressed to break the habit or encourage his offspring to venture out of their comfort zones. Now, after working at a think tank named “BrainTrust,” for 12 years, he was itching for something new and exciting. Maybe Ms. Green would provide the solution.
Sarah’s reaction was lukewarm at best when he mentioned Tracee’s offer to help. “Are you sure you want to get tangled up with this person?” she asked. “You usually don’t mix business with your personal life.”
“I know, but this seems rather harmless. We’re talking color perception, not insider trading. Besides, they’re a small nonprofit, not a big government agency.”
Sarah shrugged. “Just seems a little close for comfort, that’s all.”
“But you’re the one who always says I need a wake-up call. That I’m out of the loop and should tune into the world.”
“True,” Sarah admitted. “But don’t be naïve.”
“You think she’s a snake oil salesman?”
“I have no idea, but from what you say the concept seems a little far-fetched, that’s all.”
“Well, if it makes you feel better, I’ll mention it to my boss. If there’s any conflict, I won’t do it.”
Carter waited for a further response but there was none, so he considered the matter closed and decided to learn more about Tracee’s line of work.
During the week that followed, Carter studied synesthesia and the psychology of color. He refreshed his memory about the science of light. He reviewed Isaac Newton’s 1672 theory about prisms, which asserted that light was emitted in precise wavelengths arranged in a consistent order, resulting in a long-to-short visible spectrum that began with violet and ended with red. Carter knew that modern science had taken this model one step further, venturing into the invisible realm. Scientific diagrams reminded Carter of ultraviolet light, x-rays, and gamma rays beyond violet at the long end and infrared, microwave, and radio waves beyond red at the short end. When he next met with Tracee Green, he would be ready to ask intelligent questions.
This time, when Tracee arrived at his office, she was more casually dressed in celadon-colored slacks and a matching sweater that made Carter think of her as a rare jade statue. “So, where do you want to begin?” he asked as he shuffled the papers on his desk. Based on what you sent me, I have some pricing for you broken out by task. I thought it might be helpful to itemize costs in case we have to cut corners to stay on budget.”
“I appreciate that,” she said. “I also brought hard copies of what I emailed you, along with a few hand-written notes about goals and objectives. Plus, my bio for credibility.” They exchanged packets and settled in. While each of them was absorbed in reviewing their respective sheaths of paper—hers, a flurry of colors—the phone rang. Carter excused himself and picked it up. She could hear him say, “I thought you were holding my calls.”
His assistant’s voice at the other end was urgent. “I’m so sorry, but we have two Air Force officers—Robinson and Holt—in the lobby and they insist on seeing you right away. Something about a camouflage project that needs immediate attention.”
“Well, I can’t break away right now. Please tell them we can meet in a half hour.” Carter looked stressed as he hung up the receiver. “My apologies,” he said to Tracee. “I rarely get calls on my land line these days, but when I do, it’s usually some crisis that needs handling.”
“I don’t have to hold you up any longer,” Tracee said. “We can continue our review by phone. In fact, that might be better because then we can loop in our respective teams.” She gathered her papers and started to leave. “I’ll set up a con call and send you an invite,” she confirmed over her shoulder as she walked out the door.
Within minutes, Carter’s assistant was standing in his doorway flanked by two high-ranking officials. He gestured them to come in. They introduced themselves as being from SCI—the department of Sensitive Compartmented Information. They both took seats at the small side table before being invited to do so. Carter promptly followed.
“What can we do for you, gentlemen?” Carter asked, immediately feeling his stomach clench at the thought of another government project. This kind of work usually required the patience of a saint. If this were anything like past projects, he would have to navigate a morass of political red tape, tiers of operational procedures, and a hierarchy of approvals.
Robinson, the taller of the two men began. “We’ve not had the pleasure of working with BrainTrust before, but we’ve checked out your company. Your reputation and client list are exceptional. We have a pressing matter of national security and think you can help.” Carter adjusted his chair to move closer, aware of the strong, clean features, and buzz cuts on the men. “We have been working closely with a Canadian company in developing camouflage solutions for our troops—investing heavily, actually,” Robinson explained, “but the intelligence community is picking up chatter that suggests our efforts may be jeopardy.”
The shorter man, Holt, continued, leaning forward on his elbows, clasping his left hand over his right, and resting his chin on the bridge they created. “We have reason to believe that a terrorist organization is intent on stealing our technology—if not the code itself, then re-engineering our products for their own use. We want to determine the efficacy of our thinking—to know if our solutions are worth defending—and if so, how to create more security around them. That means we’re looking for field testing, research, and development. We’re also interested in new ideas.”
“BrainTrust can certainly help, but would you not be better served by a technology company?” Carter asked.
“We’ll be using a tech firm, too. GovTech,” Robinson assured, “but our first objective is to assess human perception of camouflage. We need to know what the eye sees and what the mind comprehends—and whether we can intentionally confuse the two to our advantage.”
“Then should I assume you are seeking volunteers as test subjects?”
“We’re happy to pay a stipend,” Holt clarified. “But yes, we will need people to participate. Any of your staff, who works on this project, will require security clearance. We ask that all communication with us be done through our own email server for maximum encryption. Assuming you accept this job, we’ll set you and your staff up with guest accounts and we will expect that all your internal activities regarding this project to be appropriately discreet and protected.
“Of course,” Carter replied. “Our company is fully vetted as a government contractor and I, personally, have Top Secret clearance. I will make sure anyone working closely with me complies. We’ll give this project a code name and fake client ID to start. We also have privileged access in place to restrict administrative contact with sensitive information.
“Excellent,” Robinson replied. “I want to leave you some photos to review,” he said, sliding a dossier across the table, “and I will send you a secure link to additional information, once you’re in our system.”
“We’ll be transferring some files to you as well. Obviously, not to be shared with anyone other than your team,” Holt indicated. “I understand you have some big brains here.”
“We do. Thank you,” Carter said, accepting the compliment graciously. “And as for budget?” he asked, knowing he was embarking on a mission critical assignment.
“Put together a cost analysis and, I can almost guarantee, it will get approved,” the first officer replied. “We’re looking for the best intel money can buy. I’ll get your contact info from your assistant and will leave ours with her, also.” Carter nodded. Then, without further ado, the two men stood up and let themselves out.
That afternoon, Carter pored over the pictures the officer had given him. This was the first exciting project he had had in ages, aside from the promise of Tracee Green, but what he saw was—basically—nothing. There was one example of a female soldier peering out from beneath what looked like a ‘blanket’ that matched the arid terrain in which she stood. Another image revealed only the face of a man, presumably above a body, standing in a thicket of brush. But without the benefit of seeing green, it was next to impossible for Carter to discern the fine colorations that separated the camouflage from the environment. He wondered if this were due to his own shortcomings or whether the technology was that good.
Later that evening, Carter remained deep in thought as Sarah served dinner—one of his favorite meals of baked basil chicken with olives, rice, and warm pita bread. But his usual banter and bad puns were lost to distraction. “Something on your mind?” Sarah asked, all too familiar with Carter’s tendency to drift off and become self-absorbed.
“Nothing I can really discuss,” he mumbled as he cut into the tender meat, “but I guess with your level of clearance, I can tell you I’m working on a project that concerns camouflage. I’m just worried I may not be the right guy for it.”
“Because of your color-blindness, you mean?” Sarah asked as she poured them each a glass of Pinot Grigio.
“Yup. All my greens are muddy. Hard to distinguish them from yellows, browns, and grays. I’m resigned to the fact that I’m not great at spotting unripe tomatoes, but this is more serious.”
Sarah was realistic. “You might need to delegate the project to someone else.”
“True, but I’d hate to do that. This case could be almost as interesting as the synesthete study.”
“Funny that both projects involve color,” Sarah commented. She had a knack for finding parallels.
“It is ironic. One case involves color gone wild and the other involves color control. Guess that leaves me somewhere between too much and too little.” He reached over to pat Sarah’s arm in unspoken affection.
She topped off their wine. “You’ve considered color-correcting glasses, haven’t you? I gather the technology is pretty amazing.”
“Yeah, I checked them out a while back, but the glasses seemed so temporary and cumbersome and not quite right. Contact lenses might work better, but my eyes just don’t tolerate them…thus my distinguished, bespectacled look.” He lifted his eyebrows and dropped them a few times in a ‘come hither’ move. Sarah laughed.
“Well, I like that look. I just wonder if there’s a more organic way for you to improve your color vision and maybe your sensitivity in general.” He knew what she meant; he was sometimes insensitive to her needs, but she phrased it so nicely, he didn’t object.
“Well, vitamins don’t work, and genetic modification is still being tested,” Carter said, diving into his salad. He paused to gauge her reaction. “That’s why I’m so intrigued by Ms. Green’s offer. She’s trained in behavioral science and the physiology of color perception,” he said as he wrestled a large lettuce leaf into his mouth. He couldn’t resist the opportunity for sarcasm. “Brown food, yum,” he mumbled, pointing to his cheek. Sarah rolled her eyes.
“And your boss is OK with it?”
“Yup. He didn’t see it as being much different from patronizing a client’s store. Of course, he warned me, if anything felt awkward, to make other plans.”
“Just be careful,” she cautioned. “I know what can happen when people tamper with the natural order of things.” Sarah recalled her encounter with a presence from the past. Carter nodded in agreement, but already he was imagining wonderful and exciting possibilities. The next day, he set up an appointment to visit Ms. Green’s foundation.
When he opened the gate beneath the ivy-covered archway, he was greeted by a soothing female voice coming over the intercom. “Welcome to Green Light. We’ll be with you in a moment. Please proceed to the front door and knock loudly.”
Carter walked, deep in thought, down the gravel path leading to the gingerbread Victorian. As he approached, he noticed pleasing shades of slate blue painted on the shingles and soft ivory, the color of French vanilla ice cream, on the trim. He lifted the heavy door knocker that looked like a lion’s head and slammed it down three times.
“Carter? Is that you?” he heard Tracee call from within. He could sense footsteps hurrying toward him. While he waited, he studied the dentil molding along the roof line, appreciating the fine details that graced the estate. When she opened the door, she was grinning. “I’m so glad you came,” Tracee gushed, overcome with enthusiasm. “I really want to show you our facilities and some of the work we do here. Do you mind removing your shoes?”
Carter looked down and noticed her feet were bare, her toenails painted with the subtlest shade of blush. Her jeans were cropped and bleached out; her long sleeve V-neck top, printed with a pale, screened-back floral pattern. She wore her hair down today and it swung freely just below her jaw line. He used the tip of his right foot to slip off the suede moccasin he wore on his left, and then vice versa, carefully setting the shoes on a sisal mat inside, next to the door. He was immediately struck by the serenity of the place. The setting seemed more like a retreat than an office.
As he stood in the front hallway, a petite Asian woman passed across his line of sight, seeming to float on tiny feet that hardly touched down. A squeaky-clean looking blond fellow, exceptionally buff in his tight gray tee shirt, a Nordic skier in Carter’s mind, entered through a side door and nodded at Tracee as he picked up some boxes and took them away. “New equipment,” she said, feeling the need for an explanation. Carter nodded to be polite.
“Let me take you through our meditation room first,” Tracee said, “before looking at the lab. Sometimes we synesthetes need to calm ourselves amidst the bombardment of color.” Carter adopted her slow, quiet demeanor as they walked down a long corridor. “Here, to the left, is our inner sanctum,” she whispered, pointing to an atrium with a glass dome. From the ceiling hung a large crystal chandelier with tear-drop pendants that caught and reflected the daylight. A fresh, earthy smell emanated from ceramic tubs filled with Boston ferns and Elephant Ear plants. Carter felt dwarfed by their presence. “Colacasia,” he thought, remembering his scientific training.
“It certainly is peaceful here,” he commented in a low voice.
“We try. Come to the window,” she directed. “It overlooks the gardens, and, as you will see, we have a small flock of peacocks that roams freely.”
Carter looked out across the lush landscape with its formal plantings, pruned shrubs, and flowering trees. He could see large bright blue birds, regal in posture, sporting tiaras tipped with feathers. They leisurely strolled along the paths, long low tails sweeping the ground, until—for no reason he could discern—the tails fanned out in a broad display of ‘eyes’ that formed where each plume ended.
“Magnificent,” Carter commented.
“Now imagine them in a full range of colors,” she prompted. “You probably don’t realize that the tail feathers are a glorious combination of gold and green.”
“True. I don’t know what green looks like,” Carter said, resigned to his limitations.
“When you see what we’re doing with retinal manipulation, you might not feel so despondent,” Tracee encouraged. “I’m convinced that in a matter of time, we will be able to genetically engineer a cure for color-blindness or even instill desirable aberrations like night vision.”
“Sounds incredible,” Carter commented. “I’ve read that in some lab experiments in which monkeys couldn’t see red, they were injected with L opsins to improve their spectrum sensitivity,” Carter said, citing the gene research by Jay Neitz at the University of Washington.
“I see you’ve been doing your homework,” Tracee remarked, smiling in her usual easy way as she ushered him back into the hall and toward the lab. He noticed a series of headphones installed at intervals along the walls. “Oh, those are recreational,” she said. “They provide an infusion of sensations when our clients are low on energy. Music can do that, you know.” Carter scanned the alphabetical headset labels: Avant Garde, Classical, Contemporary, Folk and Jazz at one end; Opera, Reggae, and Rock at the other. “We have one client who is convinced that Jazz smells sweeter than Opera and another who swears Rock is more silver than Soul.”
“It’s hard to fathom that there are people who can perceive odor and color where it doesn’t exist,” Carter said, envying the ability to enliven their worlds. “Right now, I’m up against a project where color acuity alone would be an asset. I’m actually concerned I may not be able to handle it.”
“Well, if you’re willing to trust me, I might be able to expand your perception,” Tracee said. “What I do is little unorthodox. You won’t find the methodology in any medical journals, but I promise it won’t hurt you. It’s something I’ve been developing for a while. You just have to be open-minded.”
“What does it involve?” Carter asked, ever the scientist.
“Some subliminal suggestion, a few benign herbs, and access to your spiritual self.” She winked. “Nothing worse than what you probably did in college.”
Carter thought back to his time at Duke and the hours spent in the parapsychology lab. Very little could scare him now. “So, something like a vision quest?” he asked, recalling the Native American ritual that evoked an answer, totem, or guide.
“That’s a good analogy,” she said as she opened the door to a sterile white room where masked technicians were hunched over Petri dishes and microscopes. “This group supports our quantitative research,” she indicated with a sweeping motion. “They conduct chemical, biological, and physiological experiments trying to link the brain, body, and eyes. They prepare natural products for A/B testing—to both negate and enhance synesthesia. They monitor cases over short and long periods of time—never knowing who the actual subjects are. Lots of data. Right up your alley,” she joked. Carter liked her.
“Our qualitative work is done in a separate, more comfortable suite, where we observe respondents in a controlled environment and can counsel them personally. Some of them need help coping. Others want to modify their behavior. A few would like to expand their skills.” Tracee and Carter left the lab and walked down the hall to a dark, cozy room that resembled a den. “We use this room for focus groups, interviews, and individual consultations.” She pointed out the two-way mirror along one of the walls next to a large framed print of Rainbow Bridge.
“How fitting,” Carter said as they walked past the photo. “Utah—lovely state.” He paused and looked at the impressive rock formation in the image. “This was called ‘Nonnezoshe’ by the Paiute and Navajo. ‘Rainbow turned to stone.’”
“You are well-read!” Tracee exclaimed, taken with his breadth of knowledge.
“That’s what happens when you’re a high school teacher who should have been a professor,” he joked.
“Speaking of reading, you might enjoy our library. It’s quite extensive.” They continued to a high-ceiling alcove lined with bookcases and filled with long tables upon which were set vintage brass lamps topped with case glass shades. On a side console was a row of computers and docking stations. “You’re welcome to use this room any time you’d like.” Carter nodded thank you, wanting nothing more than to hole himself up in this small sanctuary and read his brains out. Unfortunately, he could not fully appreciate the handsome lighting fixtures, but he knew they glowed green.
Tracee directed him out of the library and past several nondescript offices before steering him to a conference room table. At the center of the table was a tray of glasses and a water pitcher infused with lemon and lime slices. Carter could discern the yellow floating circles, but, of course, not the green. “This place is truly a remarkable compound,” he said, reaching for a glass, trying to assimilate all that he had seen. “Seems to be a mix of the traditional and esoteric.”
“Exactly,” Tracee responded, shaking her head yes, as she sat down opposite him. Her hair moved emphatically as if to emphasize the point. “I suspect you are more comfortable with the former than the latter.”
“True. My life is generally black and white in more than one way. I’m not great at seeing colors and my wife tells me my emotional intelligence could stand some work.”
“Well, I think we can improve upon both elements with a few sensory-rich exercises.” Carter listened, leaning forward. “But you have to be willing to accept some sensory overload.”
“I think I can do that, as long as I know what to expect.”
“I can’t predict the actual occurrences that will take place—your subconscious will drive that—but I would like to guide you on four different journeys that will color your world—and hopefully provide some answers that you can use personally and professionally. Each journey will include multiple experiences to heighten your awareness until you tell me to stop.”
“That sounds great. When do we begin?” He lifted his palms, gung-ho.
“I think the first session should take place on a weekend, when you are free from office demands and won’t feel rushed. I ask that you be freshly bathed, have eaten nothing but fruit or vegetables, and arrive wearing white.” A small smile played around Carter’s lips. “Yes, I know,” she said, “philosophically a bit Eastern, I suppose—sort of like TM—but I want to ensure purity of spirit and uncluttered receptivity. I will take care of the rest.” They settled on a rate, then Carter pulled out his phone to check his calendar.
“So, when should we start?” he asked.
“How about this Saturday?”
“I’m game if you are,” Carter replied, feeling an unfamiliar sense of excitement. “May I pay as I go?”
She pointed Carter to the front of the building and opened the heavy oak door. He heard the bolt slide into place after the door closed behind him. As he walked toward the gate, he was joined by an errant peacock. “Hello, there, beautiful blue bird,” he cooed, only to be answered by a raucous caw—a screech, really—that startled him. “Just goes to show you, not everything is as it seems,” he reminded himself. He wondered what he had gotten into.
The work week proceeded routinely as Carter assembled his teams. He put his senior staffers, Alice, and Melinda, on the camouflage project, with their first task being to upgrade their security status. They in turn lined up underlings to begin primary research about camouflage in nature. Now, with an approved email account, Carter received the promised link to background government information and was sent a secure file transfer of documentation. He carefully read the technical details on existing products and studied the schematics for those in development. Although, to him, the color imagery was not compelling, the black and white renderings provided a clear picture of what these things looked like and how they worked.
For the synesthete project, he selected Charlie Thompson to spearhead the study. Carter’s son, Jared, had recommended Charlie as they had gone to school together—bright kid with a double major in bio and statistics. Charlie had, in fact, come to their house for Thanksgiving dinner some years prior and had met the family. Carter knew he could trust his young charge and confide in him if necessary. He assigned Charlie an initial task of contacting synesthesia support groups for access to their members.
While at work, Carter was attentive to both teams, but as soon as he left the office, his appointment with Tracee Green occupied his thoughts. In thinking about their upcoming session, he silently squealed like a child anticipating a birthday party. In two more days, he would open his presents.
That Saturday morning, he quickly showered and dressed in a trim white tee shirt and cotton sailing slacks, affixed at the waist by a white web belt. He dug out his white tennis sneakers; no socks were needed, and he wolfed down a bowl of berries. He felt clean, light, and unfettered—just what Tracee had wanted.
Tracee’s foundation was not far from home, so there was no need to rush. He slowly pulled his car into a visitor parking space and walked to the gate. This time the welcome recording didn’t play. He undid the latch and proceeded silently up the path to the house, the only sound being his shoes crunching on gravel. He noticed spikes of white foxglove standing proudly in the front gardens and hydrangea bushes, also in white, bowing at each side of the door. White butterflies circled around them, landing at random. As soon as he lifted the knocker, the door opened. Tracee must have been watching him approach.
“No need to disturb this spectacular morning with that racket,” she said nodding at the knocker. This time her hair was piled on top of her head, two strands loose at her ears. She wore a long diaphanous caftan, also in white, and a white scallop shell on a gold chain around her neck. He looked her up and down, taken with her elegance. “I feel like a high priestess in this,” she said, trying to ease the anxiety that hung in the air. “But rest assured, it’s still the same old me. I’m just trying to create the right mood.” She ushered him to the meditation room.
“I’m already entranced,” Carter replied, trying to stay calm as he took a seat on a low white couch. He thought back to what Sarah has said about tampering with the natural order of things, but this encounter felt completely natural. Even healthy.
“I’d like you to sip some of this tea before we begin,” Tracee said, offering him a small white porcelain cup. “It’s not bitter.” He brought the cup up to his lips and detected a hint of chamomile.
“Very lovely,” he said, willingly emptying the contents. “What’s this going to do to me? A little Alice in Wonderland, maybe?” he joked.
“No. It will simply relax you,” she said. He watched her move purposefully around the room, repositioning a vase to appease her sense of Feng Shui. As she did this, he noticed that her caftan opened at the neck and plunged deep between her breasts. He also became aware of the slit that ran up each side, exposing her thighs whenever she bent. She looked remarkably fit and smelled of herbal shampoo.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, as she assumed a seat opposite him, so close that their knees touched.
Did he imagine it or were her lips saying, “I want you?” He shook his head to dispel the image.
“Don’t be surprised if you experience some emotional or physical vulnerability,” she said as she took his hands in hers. “Nothing inappropriate is going to happen between us. I know you are a married man, and I’m your client. But even married men have needs and fantasies. Anything that happens on your journey will be in your mind. Guilt free, not real, so let yourself go. Our goal is to bare your senses and stimulate your neural receptors. Any-thing beyond that is a bonus.”
“This is a little crazy, isn’t it?” Carter asked, not quite ready to break from reality.
“Only if you think so,” she said. Her voice was soothing, and her touch, gentle. Her pale gray eyes locked into his dark brown ones. “Let’s remove those glasses,” she said, reaching to lift and fold them like a spindly fawn. She carefully placed them on the marble tabletop between them
“I’m not sure I’ll be able to see,” Carter commented.
“Oh, you’ll see perfectly. Maybe even better. Now close your eyes.” She placed her cool fingers over his lids and whispered a few indiscernible words. Then she folded her hands in her lap.
“Guess there’s something to be said for the Mind’s Eye,” he quipped, nervous at the thought of letting down his inhibitions.
“Now, I want you to think back to Paris at the turn of the last century.”
“But I’ve never been to Paris, and I certainly wasn’t born then,” he said, opening his eyes.
“That doesn’t matter. Don’t resist this. You’ve read things, you’ve seen movies; maybe you received a postcard of the Eiffel Tower or stumbled upon a copy of Paris Match. We all have residual memories imprinted in our DNA. Now close your eyes again.” And that’s how it all began.
Journey No. 1, Trip 1
Carter’s eyelids were heavy, and he felt himself being lulled by the cadence of her voice. “Relax now. I’m taking you to a small café in Paris at the edge of a park. The dateline is well before World War I. You are at a table reading a magazine called L’Illustration. Paris Match has not yet come to be. You put the magazine down and begin watching the people sitting on benches beyond the café window. There is a gypsy woman in a flowing red skirt dancing in the square. She is jingling a tambourine in which she collects coins. Two men in tweed jackets and gray berets are standing near a fountain, talking emphatically, using their hands for expression. There is an overweight, bleached-blond, middle-aged woman in a too-tight pink suit walking a tiny dog. Can you see it? A toy poodle, I believe. A young couple is leaning against a tree, kissing. His brown hair is long; hers is longer. He presses into her hips and slips his fingers under her sweater. You feel a desire you have not felt in a while. You order a chocolate-filled croissant—it’s dark chocolate; not too sweet—and a cup of coffee, black. You answer to the name Arturo.”
Carter took a deep breath. “I’ve been struggling lately,” he told Tracee, as if in a confessional. “I just can’t seem to get it right. My art, my writing, my music…. There’s no originality, no flame, no fire.”
“Have you consumed the Green Fairy?” Tracee asked, not altering her voice in any way. “I hear it is transformative.”
“I have heard that, too, but I want to use my natural talents.”
“Absinthe is merely a lubricant for the creative soul,” she assured. “Let me introduce you to some friends tonight. Come back here at 9:00 o’clock and you will see that coffee has been replaced by liquor, that artists and intellectual provocateurs have supplanted shoppers and tourists. You will hear, feel, and experience enlightenment. You will shed your old skin and emerge renewed.”
Carter, as Arturo, finished reading the magazine, polished off his croissant and coffee, and walked back to his studio apartment where he wrote vigorously throughout the afternoon. After a bath and scant supper of baguette, Camembert, and burgundy, he put on his favorite black shirt and black pants, then wandered toward the small café. His mind was leaping between anticipation and trepidation, not quite sure which emotion to embrace.
This time, when he stepped into the café, a din of activity greeted him. He could hear people talking in French and English and in exotic tongues. A petite young woman with short fringed hair greeted him and looped her arm through his. “I’m Sprite,” she said, steering him around the crowd, “and this is my friend, Ivy.” She pointed across the room to wisp of a girl with dark curly hair. “Hurry and you’ll be able to see La Louche.” Sprite took his hand and led the way.
“The what?” Arturo asked.
“The ritual by which absinthe is made palatable,” she answered, extracting her hand to gleefully clap, while bouncing on the balls of her feet. She guided Arturo to the bar where he stood next to her, watching ice water painstakingly drip over a lump of sugar placed in the bowl of a lacy spoon that rested on top of a goblet. As a result, the liquid in the glass changed from bright green to a milky celadon—a process that not only represented the magical qualities of the elixir, but the transformation of the mind under its influence.
“Incroyable,” Arturo heard himself say in French. Odd, in that as Carter, he hardly knew the language. “Incredible” he repeated to himself in English.
“One for my friend,” Sprite said loudly to the bartender as she pointed to the man in black.
“Thank you so much,” Arturo replied. “I’ve been thinking about doing this, but never had the nerve.”
“Fear not, mon ami,” Sprite said, raising her drink to his in a toast. “Soon you will know no fear. Only creativity and light.” As they lifted their glasses he gazed at the beverage and wondered what the potency would be like without the dilution.
The room was becoming crowded and the overpowering mix of alcohol and cigarette smoke was affecting him. He felt perspiration beading on his forehead. “Is it warm in here?” he asked as he undid the top button of his shirt, then another. The number of buttons freed seemed to correspond with the level of his drink as it dropped. Sprite stared at his chest and licked her lips.
“I’d like to kiss you there,” she said, moving forward, placing her forefinger where the cloth opened. Arturo was embarrassed.
“That’s probably not a proper thing to say to a perfect stranger.”
“You’re not a stranger now and I know you’re not perfect,” she sassed back.
Arturo relaxed a little and a smile formed on his lips. “And there, too,” she said, touching his mouth. “Hey, Ivy. Come over here. This man needs a kiss,” she called to her friend. Ivy bounded across the room and pressed her lips against his. “Not like that. With your tongue.” Sprite pushed Ivy aside to demonstrate.
Arturo’s head was reeling as he struggled to control his libido. The girls continued to take turns with him, kissing him deeply and letting their hands explore freely. “Ladies, you’re too young for me. Besides, I’m here for artistic liberation, nothing else.” The girls giggled.
“This goes with it,” Sprite replied. “And this does, too,” Ivy taunted, making a suggestive gesture with her hands.
Arturo felt himself respond. “Really, I’m here to learn about creative transformation and intellectual experimentation, not to get laid.”
“You can’t separate the body from the mind,” Sprite stated as if an older and wiser authority. “You worry about the mind and we’ll take care of the body,” Ivy added. She left to get another round of drinks, which she brought back on a tray along with a half-empty bottle of absinthe. She set the paraphernalia on the table and the threesome huddled close, preparing to greet the Green Goddess again.
Several hours later, Arturo found himself naked on a bed in the back room. Sprite and Ivy stood unclothed, silhouetted against the city lights, sharing a Turkish cigarette. “Was that fun?” Sprite asked, making no attempt to cover up. “Bet you didn’t expect both of us?” Ivy echoed. Arturo could barely feel his limbs as he craned his neck to see who was talking. His arms and legs floated freely, separate from his core. His body tingled at every nerve ending, outstretched as if laying on a dock being rocked by the lapping tide. His head sloshed with the slurry of sensations. It was difficult for him to form words.
“What did we do?” Arturo eventually asked as he sat at the edge of the bed, head in hands. “Was I gentle enough with you?” The girls laughed. “We did all the work,” Sprite clarified. “But you helped a little,” Ivy admitted. Her cheeks were flushed and her curly hair, matted. “We’ll have to do that again,” Sprite decided, standing akimbo, proud of her conquest.
Arturo’s recollection was foggy. “I thought this drink was supposed to clear your head,” he said, covering his eyes. “But I can hardly think straight.”
“That’s because it’s your first time,” Sprite explained.
“Oooh, an absinthe virgin!” Ivy taunted in the background.
“You need to tame the Goddess, so you can benefit from her powers,” Sprite explained, more serious than her counterpart. “Are you at least inspired?”
“I’m not sure,” Arturo said, gathering his clothes. He went to the bathroom, and when he returned dressed, he saw the girls rolling on the bed. “See you later, ladies.” The one thing he did know is that now his brain was saturated with green…green liquor, green velvet, green glass, green leaves…limes, pistachio ice cream, honey dew melons. He had never seen such color before. Whether his eyes saw it visually was another thing, but he sensed it, felt it, and breathed it. He could suddenly sense the color of ferns, moss, Christmas ribbon, and summer grapes…mint jelly, bell peppers and crisp new money. When he returned to his studio, he fell deeply asleep, swimming in an emerald pool near a lush forest, writing a mental poem with green ink. He awoke abruptly knowing he needed to commit it to paper.
“Carter, it’s time to come back,” Tracee said as she ran her hand up his forearm. “You’ve had a good first visit,” she soothed. “No need to rush. Just come back slowly.”
Arturo slipped away and Carter gradually opened his eyes. The room was as he remembered it, cool, clean, and tranquil. He looked at Tracee, trying to recall why he was sitting there and, then, he glanced outside. He noticed the playful topiaries in the garden and the graceful weeping willows…the spreading maples and supple birches. Although his color vision wasn’t perfect, he understood for the first time the meaning of green. He felt it in his bones and saw it in his brain, a color he could not previously appreciate or articulate.
Tracee was grinning. “Do you like it?” she asked, seeing the amazement in his eyes.
“I love it. I don’t know what it is…what you did…but everything seems fresh, as if stepping outside after a rain. I can almost smell the ozone in the air. I can feel the grass—green grass—under my feet.”
“That’s what I was hoping,” Tracee said, observing his recovery. “That was a lot of sensory input for your first try. Are you OK?”
“I’m great! I want to do it again,” Carter impulsively said. “I want to go back.”
“Not so fast,” she cautioned, gently helping him stand. “You need time to assimilate the neural information and get used to your new ability. You should test it out at work.”
“Yes, work—I almost forgot. As soon as we get your Board approval, we’ll start to locate synesthetes and screen them for interviewing. Simultaneously, we’ll begin to structure a questionnaire.”
Tracee smiled. “No need to worry about that now. Just think about what you saw.”
Carter put on his shoes at the front door and shuffled toward his car, still dazed. An attentive peacock followed him. “Hello, blue bird with green and gold feathers,” Carter heard himself say. He started to smile. This time the bird was silent, proudly fanning its tail.