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The Astonishing Color of After
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 19, 2019. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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A stunning, heartbreaking debut novel about grief, love, and family, perfect for fans of Jandy Nelson and Celeste Ng.
Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.
Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.
Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a stunning and heartbreaking novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.
"Emily X.R. Pan's brilliantly crafted, harrowing first novel portrays the vast spectrum of love and grief with heart-wrenching beauty and candor. This is a very special book."– John Green, bestselling author of The Fault in Our Stars and Turtles All the Way Down
My mother is a bird. This isn’t like some William Faulkner stream-of-consciousness metaphorical crap. My mother. Is literally. A bird.
I know it’s true the way I know the stain on the bedroom floor is as permanent as the sky, the way I know my father will never forgive himself. Nobody believes me, but it is a fact. I am absolutely certain.
In the beginning, that mother-shaped hole was made of blood. Dark and sticky, soaked to the roots of the carpet.
Over and over again, I rewind back to that June afternoon. I walked home from Axel’s just in time to see my father stumble out onto the porch, clearly looking for me. I’ll never be able to erase that image: his hands slick and shaking, maroon smeared across his temple, chest heaving like it was iron filings getting sucked into his lungs and not air. At first I thought he was injured.
He choked on the sentence, face puckering into something awful. When he finally got the words out, his voice crawled through an ocean to get to me. It was a cold cerulean sound, far away and garbled. I couldn’t process what he said. Not for a long time. Not when the police arrived. Not even when the people came to carry my mother’s body out the front door.
It happened on Two Point Fives Day. Our day—what had become an annual tradition for me and Axel. It was supposed to be celebratory. The school year was almost over and things were finally going back to normal, even with Leanne in the picture. We were already making plans for the summer ahead. But I guess the universe has a way of knocking supposed-tos right on their asses.
Where I was that day: on the old tweed couch in Axel’s basement, brushing against his shoulder, trying to ignore the orange wall of electricity between us.
If I pressed my mouth to his, what would happen? Would it shock me like a dog collar? Would the wall crumble? Would we fuse together?
And Leanne—would she disappear? Could one kiss erase her?
The better question was: How much could it ruin?
My mother knew where I was. That’s one of the facts that I still can’t get over.
If I could have climbed out of my goddamn hormones for just one minute, maybe my neurotransmitters would’ve signaled for me to go home. Maybe I would’ve shaken off my blinders and forced myself to take count of all the things that had been off-kilter, or at least noticed that the colors around me were all wrong.
Instead, I withdrew into my shell, let myself be one of those self-absorbed, distracted teenagers. During sex ed, our teachers always made it sound like the guys were the horny ones. But right there on that couch I was certain that some crucial detail about the female body, or at least my body, had been left out. I was an already-lit firework, and if Axel came any closer, I was going to barrel into the sky and rain back down in a million pieces.
He was wearing the brown plaid that day. It was my favorite of his shirts—the oldest and softest against my cheek when I hugged him. His boy smells wafted over: the sweetness of his deodorant, the smoky floral of some other product, and, beneath all that, a scent like the quiet grass at night.
In the end, he was the one to take off his glasses and kiss me. But instead of bursting into sparks, my body froze. If I shifted a millimeter, everything would break. Even thinking that word—kiss—was like touching an ice wand to my chest. My ribs seized, freezing solid and spiderwebbing with cracks. I was no longer a firework. I was a thing frozen deep in the Arctic.
Axel’s hands stretched around my back and unlocked me. I was melting, he had released my windup key, and I was kissing back hard, and our lips were everywhere and my body was fluorescent orange—no, royal purple—no. My body was every color in the world, alight.
We’d been eating chocolate-covered popcorn just minutes ago, and that was exactly how he tasted. Sweet and salty.
An explosion of thoughts made me pull away. The cloud of debris consisted of remembering: that he was my best friend, that he was the only person I trusted a hundred percent besides Mom, that I shouldn’t be kissing him, couldn’t be kissing him—
“What color?” Axel said quietly.
This is the question we always ask to figure out what the other person’s feeling. We’ve been best friends since Mrs. Donovan’s art class—long enough that that’s all we need. One color to describe a mood, a success, a failure, a wish.
I couldn’t answer him. Couldn’t tell him I was flashing through the whole goddamn spectrum, including a new dimension of hues I’d never before experienced. Instead, I stood up.
“Shit,” I breathed.
“What?” he said. Even in the dim light of the lone basement bulb I could see how his face was flushed.
My hands—I didn’t know where to put my hands. “Sorry, I gotta. I have to go.”
We had a no-bullshit rule with each other. I kept breaking it.
“Seriously, Leigh?” he said, but I was already running up the stairs, grabbing at the railing to pull myself up faster. I burst into the hallway outside the living room and gulped down breaths like I’d just broken the surface after the deepest dive.
He didn’t follow. The front door slammed as I left; even his house was pissed at me. The sound rang out puke green. I thought of the hard cover of a book smacking shut on a story that wasn’t finished.
I never saw the body up close. The police arrived and I raced ahead of them. Up the stairs two at a time. Burst into the master bedroom with a force that nearly cracked the door. All I could see were my mother’s legs on the floor, horizontal and sticking out from the other side of the bed.
And then Dad was behind me, pulling me out of the way while my ears rang with the shrieking. It was so loud I was certain it was a noise brought by the police. Only when I stopped to catch my breath did I realize the shrieking was coming from me. My own mouth. My own lungs.
I saw the stain after they removed my mother, after someone had made a first attempt at cleaning it out of the carpet. Even then it was still dark and wide, oblong and hideous. Barely the shape of a mother.
It’s easier to pretend the stain is acrylic paint. Pigment, emulsion. Water soluble until it dries.
The one part that’s hard to pretend about: Spilled paint is only ever an accident.
Spilled paint doesn’t involve a knife and a bottle of sleeping pills.
The day after it happened, we spent hours searching for a note. That was the surreal part. Dad and I floated around the house, moving sloth-like as we pulled at drawers, flipped open cabinets, traced our fingers along shelves.
It’s not real unless we find a note. That was the thought that kept running through my brain. Of course she would leave a note.
I refused to go into the master bedroom. It was impossible to forget. Mom’s feet sticking out from behind the bed. My blood pounding, she’s dead she’s dead she’s dead.
I leaned against the wall out in the hallway and listened to Dad riffling through papers, searching, moving from one side of the room to the other, sounding as desperate as I felt. I heard him open her jewelry box and shut it again. Heard him shifting things around on the bed—he must’ve been looking under the pillows, under the mattress.
Where the hell did people usually leave their notes?
If Axel were there with me, he probably would’ve squeezed my shoulder and asked, What color?
And I would’ve had to explain that I was colorless, translucent. I was a jellyfish caught up in a tide, forced to go wherever the ocean willed. I was as unreal as my mother’s nonexistent note.
If there was no note, what did that mean?
My father must’ve found something because everything on the other side of the door had gone intensely quiet.
“Dad?” I called out.
There was no response. But I knew he was there. I knew he was conscious, standing on the other side, hearing me.
“Dad,” I said again.
I heard a long, thick intake of breath. My father shuffled to the door and opened it.
“You found it?” I said.
He paused, not meeting my eyes, hesitating. Finally his hand swept out a crumpled piece of paper.
“It was in the garbage,” he said, his voice tight. “Along with these.” His other fingers uncurled to show a pile of capsules that I recognized immediately. Mom’s antidepressants. He crunched them up in his fist and went back downstairs.
A cyan chill seeped into my body. When had she stopped taking her medicine?
I smoothed the paper out and stared at its whiteness. Not a speck of blood to be found on that surface. My hands brought it to my nose and I inhaled, trying to get at the last of my mother’s scent.
And finally, I made myself look at it.
To Leigh and Brian,
I love you so much
I’m so sorry
The medicine didn’t
Below all that, there was something scribbled over with so many pen strokes it was entirely unreadable. And then one final line at the very bottom:
I want you to remember
What had my mother been trying to say to us?
What did she want us to remember?
I started spending the nights downstairs on the sofa, the farthest I could get from the master bedroom. I was having a lot of trouble sleeping, but the old leather sofa swallowed me and I imagined myself cradled in the thick arms of a giantess. She had my mother’s face, my mother’s voice. Sometimes if I managed to drift into an uneasy slumber, the determined tick of the clock above the television became the beat of the giant’s heart.
In between the heartbeats, my dreams pulled up slivers of old recollections. My parents laughing. A birthday celebration, chocolate cake smeared over all of our faces. Mom trying to play the piano with her toes, at my request. Dad with the singsong rhymes he liked to make up: “Little Leigh, full of glee!” “Oh my, what a sigh!”
It was the night before the funeral: I woke around three in the morning to a sharp rap on the front door. It wasn’t a dream; I knew because I’d just been dreaming that the giantess was humming over a piano. Nobody else stirred. Not my father, not my mother’s cat. The wooden floor stung with cold and I stepped into the foyer shivering, baffled by the drop in temperature. I dragged the heavy door open and the porch light came on.
The suburban street was purple and dark, silent but for the lone cricket keeping time in the grass. A noise in the distance made me look up, and against the murky predawn sky, I could make out a streak of crimson. It flapped once, twice. A tail followed the body, sailing like a flag. The creature swept over the half-moon, past the shadow of a cloud.
I wasn’t frightened, even when the bird glided straight across the lawn to land on the porch, those claws tapping short trills into the wood. Standing at full height, the creature was nearly as tall as me.
“Leigh,” said the bird.
I would have known that voice anywhere. That was the voice that used to ask if I wanted a glass of water after a good cry, or suggest a break from homework with freshly baked cookies, or volunteer to drive to the art store. It was a yellow voice, knit from bright and melodic syllables, and it was coming from the beak of this red creature.
My eyes took in her size: nothing like the petite frame my mother had while human. She reminded me of a red-crowned crane, but with a long, feathery tail. Up close I could see that every feather was a different shade of red, sharp and gleaming.
When I stretched out a hand, the air changed as though I’d disturbed the surface of a still pool. The bird launched into the sky, flapping until she disappeared. A single scarlet feather stayed behind on the porch, curving like a scythe and stretching to nearly the length of my forearm. I rushed at it, accidentally kicking up a tiny gust. The feather took to the air lazily, scooping a little, bumping to a stop. I crouched low to catch it under my palm and angled my head to search the sky. She was gone.
Would she come back? Just in case, I set out a bucket of water and left the front door wedged open. I brought the feather inside, and back on the sofa, I fell immediately into true sleep for the first time since the day of the stain. I dreamed of the bird and woke up certain that she wasn’t real. But then I found the feather in my fist, gripped so hard my nails had bitten marks into my palm. Even in sleep I had been afraid to let go.
The funeral was open casket, and when I walked up to that wooden box, I almost expected to see a mound of ash. But no, there was a head. There was a face. I spotted the familiar brown birthmark in the hollow above her collarbone. That was my mother’s blouse, the one she’d bought for a recital and then decided she hated.
Before me lay a body grayer than a sketch. Someone had applied makeup and colors to try to make it look alive.
I didn’t cry. That was not my mother.
My mother is free in the sky. She doesn’t have the burden of a human body, is not made up of a single dot of gray. My mother is a bird.
The body in the casket didn’t even have the jade cicada pendant I’d seen my mother wear every single day of my life. That neck was bare—further proof.
“What color?” Axel whispered as he came up next to me.
It was our first time speaking since the day Mom died, since a week ago. He must’ve found out from his aunt Tina, after Dad called her. I know I shouldn’t have shut him out, but I couldn’t bear the thought of us having a conversation. What would I say? Every time I tried to imagine the words, everything in my head went cold and blank.
Standing there at the funeral, he looked terribly out of place. His usual clothes—plaid over a screen-printed shirt, worn pair of jeans—had been replaced by an overlarge button-down, cinched with a shiny tie and worn above a pair of dark slacks. I saw how he glanced nervously at the casket, how his attention carefully shifted back to my face.
If he looked in my eyes straight on, he would know how he’d pierced me with an arrow, how its shaft was still sticking out of my chest, twitching each time my heart contracted.
And maybe he’d see how my mother had sliced up everything else. How even if he could wrench that arrow free, the rest of me was so punctured and torn that nothing would ever be able to suture me back together.
“White,” I whispered back, and I could feel his surprise. He’d probably been expecting a glacial blue, or maybe the dying vermilion of dusk.
I saw him reach for my elbow and then hesitate. He dropped his hand.
“Will you come over later?” he asked. “Or—I could go to your house?”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.” I could sense the pink rising up through him.
“I didn’t mean—”
“I know,” I said, not because it was true but because I couldn’t bear for him to finish that sentence. What didn’t he mean? For us to break through that sizzling wall and connect one mouth to another in the same moment that my mother was dying?
“I just want to talk to you, Leigh.”
That was almost worse.
“We’re talking right now,” I said, my insides curling even as the words came out.
Bullshit bullshit bullshit. It echoed in my mind, and I tried to shove the word somewhere I couldn’t hear it.
It was only as Axel turned away that I noticed how his shoulders shook. He reached a hand up to yank his tie loose and walked toward the other end of the room. In a flash like a vision of the future, I saw the distance stretching between us, unfurling like a measuring tape, until we were separated by miles and miles. Until we were standing as far apart as two people can get without leaving the surface of the earth.
What did Axel think talking could accomplish, after all that had happened to my mother?
What could we fix?
I hadn’t yet decided if or how I was going to tell Dad about the bird, but as we were walking back to the car after the funeral, I stumbled over a crack that had made the sidewalk hideously uneven.
That silly childhood rhyme sang its way into my head:
Don’t step on the crack or you’ll break your mother’s back.
My brain snagged on the words. I blinked and fell half on the grass and half on the edge of the sidewalk. Dad helped me back up. There was a greenish spot on my knee, and it brought on a longing for the past, for a simpler time, when grass stains were among my biggest worries.
“What’s that?” said Dad, and at first I thought he was asking about the stain. But no, he was pointing at a long, slender spot of red a few feet away from me.
In my fall, the feather had made its way out of my dress pocket. It uncurled on the sidewalk like some kind of challenge.
I swiped it off the ground and shoved it back in my pocket.
Dad asked about it, of course. And I couldn’t lie. Not when it had to do with my mother.
“It’s from Mom,” I tried to explain as we got in the car. “She came to see me.”
Dad was silent for a few beats, his hands white-knuckling the steering wheel. I saw the millisecond in which his face twisted with grief. His expression was loud as a roar, though outside of us there was only the sound of the car rolling over pavement. The muted noise of the pedals shifting beneath his feet as he braked.
“She came to see you,” he echoed. The concern was obvious in his voice.
“She came as—she turned into—” I swallowed. Now that they were on the tip of my tongue, the words had the taste of something ridiculous. “She’s a bird now. Huge and red. And beautiful. She landed on the porch the other night.”
At Mill Road, he turned left, and I understood that he was taking us home the long way, dragging out this conversation. I was trapped.
“What’s the significance of her being a bird?” he said after a long stretch of nothing, and I knew in that moment that he didn’t believe me, and there was nothing I could do or say that would change his mind.
I didn’t answer, and he sighed through his nose very quietly. I heard it clear as anything. I turned my face out the window, my thumb stroking the vane of the feather.
He drummed the steering wheel a few times with the pads of his fingers, as he often did when he was thinking. “What does red mean to you?” he tried again, and it sounded almost textbook, like some technique he’d learned from Dr. O’Brien.
“I didn’t make the bird up, Dad. It’s real. I saw her. That was Mom.”
The rain came then; we had turned directly into the path of the storm. The water drummed loudly, slanting into us and cutting straight down the image of my face mirrored in the window, slicing me apart again and again.
“I’m trying to understand, Leigh,” said Dad as he pulled the car into our driveway. He didn’t push the button to open the garage door. He didn’t shift the car into park. We sat there, idling, and the little tremors from the engine were starting to make me feel sick.
“Okay,” I said. I thought I would give him a shot. If he was making a real effort, so would I. If he wanted to talk this out, fine. I just needed him to try, for one second, to believe me.
I watched his fingers tap-tap-tapping against the steering wheel as he searched for the right words. He closed his eyes for a beat.
“I also wish… I could see your mother again. More than anything.”
“Right,” I said, and my mind went blank, like a computer screen shutting down. I clicked my seat belt loose, threw open the door, made my way out of the car.
The rain clung to me as I dug through my bag for my key to the house. It was a warm rain, and it looked gray as it came down from the sky. I imagined it to be liquid armor, shaping itself to my body where it made contact. Shielding me from everything.
Caro didn’t believe me, either. I tried to tell her after we’d both changed out of our funeral clothes and made our way to Fudge Shack. We sat on the high stools, a slice of Rocky Road untouched on my square of wax paper. She sucked up mouthfuls of her chocolate milk shake and swallowed slowly, letting me finish. She was being all quiet in that way she has of disagreeing. There in the patient nod of her chin and the glassiness of her eyes I could see I was losing her with each new word that came out of my mouth.
I reached the point where I couldn’t stand to look at her face any longer. Instead, my eyes drifted up to the bit of blue dye in her super short hair. It had faded to a color like broken sea glass. She’d had strands of blue since we met freshman year, and this was the greenest she’d ever let them get.
When I was done, she said, “I’m worried about you.”
I dug a finger into my fudge, then pulled away again, staring hard at the indent.
“I know you’re not clicking with Dr. O’Brien,” she said. “But maybe it would be worth… trying someone else?”
I shrugged. “I’ll think about it.”
But I could tell she knew I was just saying that to get her to stop talking that way.
I made a show of checking the time on my phone and offered my hollow apology as I gathered up my fudge and slid off the stool, headed toward whatever imaginary thing it was that I was late for.
Later, I felt guilty. Wasn’t Caro only trying to help?
But how could anyone really help me if they didn’t believe me?
What I wanted was to talk to Axel about my mother, to skip a hundred days ahead of that kiss, try to wipe it from his memory and mine. I wanted to tell him about the bird. I sat on the sofa with my wanting, turning a charcoal stick between my hands—around and around and around—until my fingers were soot black and everything I touched ended up smeared and burnt.
Would Axel believe me? I wanted to think yes. But honestly, I had no idea.
After I didn’t answer my cell, he called the house phone, just once. Nobody answered. He didn’t leave a message.
We’d rarely ever gone so long without seeing each other. Not when I had the stomach bug, immediately followed by the regular flu, immediately followed by an upper respiratory infection—he came over anyway, braving the toxic air from my lungs to sit on the sofa beside me and paint. Not even when Dad made me go to Mardenn, that god-awful hellhole of a summer camp. I was so miserable that Axel rode the bus all the way up to help me sneak out and get back home.
He would never cut me off. This I knew. This was all on me.
To think about it was to twist the arrow between my ribs. So I let myself be swallowed by thoughts of the bird, my questions spiraling, like where is the bird now? What does she want?
I tried to draw her in my sketchbook, but I couldn’t get the wings right.
The mother-shaped hole became a cutout of the blackest black. Something I could only see around. If I tried to look directly at it, I saw emptiness.
I had to fight that emptiness, that absence of color. I looked in the other direction, toward white, which is made up of all the other colors of the visible spectrum. White was a solution, or at least the smallest of Band-Aids. In the empty hours the morning after the funeral, I drove to the hardware store, winging through an obscure route to avoid being seen by anyone in the neighborhood who would recognize first the car and then my face. The need for white paint burned so hard I didn’t think twice about driving unlicensed.
I did one coat on the walls of my bedroom—the paint was thin; the bright tangerine my mother and I rolled on years ago turned a sickly shade of Creamsicle—and was making my way toward the bathroom when Dad came out of his office.
He looked at the paint bucket by my legs, smears of white already staining my jeans, and said, “Leigh, come on.”
He didn’t understand about fighting the gaping black hole, the emptiness. Not that this surprised me. There was so much he didn’t understand, would never understand.
“You’re not bringing that in there,” he said, pointing his thumb toward the master bedroom. Fine with me. No way was I going in there anyhow. He took the paint bucket, and I escaped downstairs and into a sketch pad and let my knuckles work against the paper.
- Praise for The Astonishing Color of After:
A Reader's Digest Best Books for Teens of All Time
- On Sale
- Mar 19, 2019
- Page Count
- 480 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers