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The Astonishing Color of After

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The Astonishing Color of After


  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

  Copyright © 2018 by Emily X.R. Pan

  Ornament copyright © iktash/Shutterstock.com; feather and art palette copyright © Mary Volvach/Shutterstock.com; smoke copyright © Weerachai Khamfu/Shutterstock.com; hourglass copyright © Frolova Polina/Shutterstock.com

  Cover art copyright © 2018 by Gray318. Cover design by Gray318 and Sasha Illingworth.

  Cover copyright © 2018 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  Hachette Book Group supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.

  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

  Little, Brown and Company

  Hachette Book Group

  1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104

  Visit us at LBYR.com

  First Edition: March 2018

  Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. The Little, Brown name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Names: Pan, Emily X. R., author.

  Title: The astonishing color of after / by Emily X.R. Pan.

  Description: First edition. | New York : Little, Brown and Company, 2018. | Summary: After her mother’s suicide, grief-stricken Leigh Sanders travels to Taiwan to stay with grandparents she never met, determined to find her mother who she believes turned into a bird.

  Identifiers: LCCN 2017022920 | ISBN 9780316463997 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780316464000 (ebook) | ISBN 9780316464925 (library edition ebook)

  Subjects: | CYAC: Suicide—Fiction. | Grief—Fiction. | Artists—Fiction. | Racially mixed people—Fiction. | Grandparents—Fiction. | Secrets—Fiction. | Supernatural—Fiction. | Americans—Taiwan—Fiction. | Taiwan—Fiction.

  Classification: LCC PZ7.1.P3573 Ast 2018 | DDC [Fic]—dc23

  LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017022920

  ISBNs: 978-0-316-46399-7 (hardcover), 978-0-316-46400-0 (ebook)




  Title Page




  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18: —SMOKE & MEMORIES—

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21


  Chapter 23


  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28: —SMOKE & MEMORIES—

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30


  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36


  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39: —SMOKE & MEMORIES—

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42


  Chapter 44

  Chapter 45

  Chapter 46

  Chapter 47


  Chapter 49

  Chapter 50: —SMOKE & MEMORIES—

  Chapter 51


  Chapter 53

  Chapter 54

  Chapter 55

  Chapter 56


  Chapter 58


  Chapter 60

  Chapter 61: —SMOKE & MEMORIES—

  Chapter 62

  Chapter 63

  Chapter 64

  Chapter 65: —SMOKE & MEMORIES—

  Chapter 66

  Chapter 67


  Chapter 69

  Chapter 70

  Chapter 71


  Chapter 73

  Chapter 74: —SMOKE & MEMORIES—

  Chapter 75


  Chapter 77

  Chapter 78

  Chapter 79

  Chapter 80


  Chapter 82

  Chapter 83: —SMOKE & MEMORIES—

  Chapter 84


  Chapter 86

  Chapter 87


  Chapter 89

  Chapter 90

  Chapter 91


  Chapter 93

  Chapter 94: —SMOKE & MEMORIES—

  Chapter 95


  Chapter 97

  Chapter 98

  Chapter 99

  Chapter 100

  Chapter 101

  Chapter 102

  Chapter 103

  Chapter 104

  Chapter 105

  Chapter 106

  Chapter 107

  Chapter 108

  Author’s Note



  For and and Loren,

  who always believed I could do this

  If I should see a single bird

  —Emily Dickinson


  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.

  “Leigh—your mother—”

  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 f
arthest 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.

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