The first time Zack saw Kiel, he noticed the kid standing in a parking lot on a misty morning, watching people come and go. He was somewhere around thirteen years old, slender, and entirely blue. Or, more accurately, blue tinted. His hair, skin and even clothes were all just faintly bluish, as if he’d had a quick swim in a vat of dye and dried off again before coming to this parking lot to people watch. Their eyes met only briefly but the memory lodged in the back of Zack’s mind like a little seed caught in the crook of a fence.
The next sighting was some time later. The kid’s hair was light brown this time and he had seemingly managed to avoid running afoul of any more dye washes. He was watching from an alley while Zack walked back to the office from lunch at a nearby restaurant. It caught his interest, but he wasn’t as observant in those days. He didn’t make the connection yet, leaving the seed flitting softly as a breeze of awareness passed by. Nor did he spare the kid another thought until weeks later on his morning run.
Kiel fell into step beside Zack while he was walking off a stitch in his side and enjoying a light mist that had developed on the bend in the path. It took an awkward second for the seed to sprout in Zack’s mind. Connections started firing. An image of Kiel’s bluish face swam into view along with watchful eyes from an alley. Kiel, for his part, seemed absolutely certain that following Zack was what he needed to be doing. He smiled amicably every time Zack glanced down at him.
“Can I help you?” he asked at last.
“I think I’m supposed to help you,” the kid said confidently. “I’m Kiel.”
Zack was barely paying attention as he looked around for signs of the kid’s parents.
“Uh huh,” he said absently. “You lost? Where are your…”
“I’m here because of you,” Kiel said patiently. “I’m guessing it’s because I’m needed,” he added with a significant tone.
Zack had no idea what to say or do. What creeped him out the most was that the more the seed took root, the more he realised he’d seen Kiel in no less than a dozen places all over the city, and in all but that first blue boy incident, the kid had been watching him. A shiver crawled up his nerves.
“What is this?” he whispered.
He was prepared, on some level, to hear a number of responses. Aliens. Government child espionage program. Prank television show. What he wasn’t prepared to hear, or understand on any level, was the single word that fell from Kiel’s lips.
“Rainbows,” Zach repeated while his mind scrambled to make sense of any of this. “Rainbows.”
Kiel nodded encouragingly and watched Zack with all of the openness inherent in childhood.
“Rainbows,” Zack tried again.
Kiel seemed to pick up on Zack’s struggle and nodded with wisdom that didn’t fit with his youth.
“I’m going to teach you how to ride them,” he explained.
“Right,” Zack said, picking has pace up again to a jog.
Whatever this was, he was done with it. It was early and he wasn’t firing on all pistons yet. Work had been stressful recently but not in a way that he thought a psychotic break was eminent. He ruled out the idea that he was still dreaming. He had a stitch in his side, and besides, he pinched himself for good measure. He’d see this with clarity after a shower and breakfast. For now, it was time to put this kid and his rainbows in the rear view. He picked up his speed and didn’t look back.
A flash of color and mist met him around the next bend and his right toe caught on his left heel, sprawling him face in on the path. Kiel stood ahead, waiting for him with a knowing smile. He waved.
“It takes a while to get used to the idea,” Kiel called. “Take your time.”
Zack’s world turned hot and red for a second, and the kid rose up into the air. He lost sight of him over the tops of the trees. Zack didn’t remember sitting up but he stayed on his backside for a long, long time.
The rest of Zack’s week was a steaming mess. He missed meetings, dropped the ball on an important presentation, snapped at his girlfriend over the phone and failed to apologize nearly soon enough for it. By Friday he had an appointment scheduled with a psychiatrist. Saturday morning the kid was waiting outside of Zack’s apartment building.
“Don’t you have parents?” Zack asked.
“Of course,” Kiel said.
“Don’t they worry about you?”
“All the time,” Kiel sighed with that childish gravity that makes you want to smile, even in a situation you’re pretty sure indicates that your mind is splintering into a million bitty pieces.
“What do you want with me?” Zack asked.
Might as well get to the point. Maybe he could save his new shrink some time and make some progress toward the underlying psychosis. He wasn’t completely certain what that even meant but it sounded convincing enough to give him courage against the strange and unknown. Put him in charge of the situation.
“It’s not me,” Kiel said in a way that implied he had explained this before. “It’s the rainbows. They want you.”
“Is it…” Zack said, thinking of his neice and the fluffy little girl cartoons she liked to watch, “is it because of… the unicorns?”
Kiel frowned at him in surprise.
“Unicorns are real?” he asked.
The kid was earnestly asking. Zack nearly laughed. He could feel something close to hysteria bubbling inside.
“I’m going with the flow here kid, you gotta help me out.”
“I’m trying to help you,” Kiel said with some exasperation. “The rainbows want you to help people, but you have to learn to surf them before you can ever do that.”
“They wha… the rain… help people?”
“Like a super hero.”
Kiel’s face was deadly serious.
A bark of laughter escaped from Zack’s lips. Then another. Then a double over, tears down the face, hope not to pee, laugh. Kiel had his little arms crossed when Zack finally regained control. His blue eyes were rolling with irritation. A few rain drops pattered down on Zack’s head and he glanced up at the single cloud in an otherwise blue sky. He felt a small hand enfold his own.
For the second time in a week Zack’s world went hot and red. Kiel’s grip lifted his arm, tugging him upward. He felt his feet leave the pavement. His apartment building receded. Zack wasn’t laughing anymore. It took some time, in fact, to stop screaming.
His flailing limbs did nothing beyond make him look ridiculous but even with the knowledge that the flapping wasn’t helping him fly, he found his body resistant to stop trying. Kiel floated beside him, calmly hovering in orange. Finally, through degrees of agonizing negotiation with every one of his instincts, Zack’s arms fell to his sides. Kiel smiled.
“There you go,” he said. “Now come on, we have work to do.”
As if Zack had been goofing around. As if shattering his world view and spiraling him up into the heavens on nothing more than a color had been a sunshine filled game of chance! Zack bit back the urge to point out exactly how much he wasn’t playing. Kiel had hold of his sleeve and was pulling him into the slightly less roasting air of orange.
“Each of the colors has its own personality,” Kiel was explaining. “Blue and I are good friends. She takes a lot of reassuring though. It takes a while to make it to violet so don’t worry about that for now.”
He released Zack’s sleeve and turned to face him. A wall of shimmering lime green separated them. Zack looked back and saw orange behind. The world below was washed in a bright golden light.
“Feel how green draws you in,” Kiel said.
“Know what I feel, kid?” Zack snarled. “I feel terrified. I have a hard time with sky scrapers. Bridges make me dizzy. And you have me floating around in some kind of hallucination…”
A sharp descent pulled any remaining words straight out of Zack’s mind. Kiel was explaining something about bending his knees. He was pointing toward the ground and angling his body. Zack was reaching for anything that might slow his freefall. He noticed that the kid kept a healthy distance. Soon the tops of buildings flew past. It seemed as if they were slowing. Kiel continued his ready position with knees bent. Zack was doing something more of a tumbleweed pose.
The lawn of his apartment building impacted his hip first, then shoulder, then an unknown number of points around his body as he somersaulted his way into an indignant spread-eagle. He did manage to stop in time to watch Kiel ease out of the sky as if taking that first adjustment step after an escalator.
“Not bad for your first flight,” Kiel assessed, “but you have a long way to go. I’ll pick you up tomorrow and we’ll practice landing.”
Zack had his mouth open to argue but Kiel stepped into the air again and a swift prism of colors winked across his sight, leaving behind a soft mist.
Zack stayed inside all day Sunday. Monday, he forewent his morning jog and rushed to work wearing a hat and sunglasses on the off chance that a disguise might keep Kiel and his rainbows away. Deep inside, he knew better. Of course he did. It was a shout of frustration, more than anything, that followed him up between the buildings a block away from his office.
“Don’t you have school?” he shouted when Kiel’s little face appeared on the other side of orange.
“Not during summer,” Kiel called back. “The rainbows must really want you. They usually don’t like it when people are rude.”
“I have a job to get to, kid,” Zack said. “This little game of yours has to stop.”
Kiel tilted his head as if listening. He nodded.
“The rainbow says you need convincing. Come to yellow. It’ll be easier to see. Picture an orange in your mind.”
“I need you to take me back to work right this minute!” Zack shouted.
Anger was solidifying inside. He found it helped him push aside his cripling fear.
“The faster you do this, the faster you get back,” Kiel said. “You don’t seem to get that it isn’t me doing this to you. I’m only here to help you learn. Then you’re on your own with the rainbows, and I really recommend that you be nice to them. They don’t handle rudeness well. Now. Think about an orange.”
Zack ran through about ten different ways of yelling at the kid that would each be more inappropriate than the last. Finally getting a handle on his temper, he took a deep breath and pictured an orange. Just for spite, he pictured squishing said orange in different satisfying ways.
“Good,” Kiel said. “Now picture a lemon.”
Zack realized he had moved from red to orange, and just as smoothly, into yellow. The air in yellow was delightfully mild, like an afternoon in spring with a gentle breeze. Kiel floated beside him.
“Perfect!” he said. “Now, the rainbow says you need to save that woman.”
Zack followed the line of Kiel’s pointing arm to a car glinting in the sunlight. It had tipped off a sharp corner and now lay wedged between a couple of groaning saplings. The drop was formidable. Looking around, Zack realized with sharpening awareness that he had no idea where they were. The city was long gone, and a blue and white river churned below with steep cliffs to either side. The car ahead of them had gone far enough that it wouldn’t be visible from the road. Someone inside was beginning to move, making the car shift dangerously against the saplings. One of the trees’ root balls was visible as it shook free of the cliff.
Worries about work, blue kids or even questionable sanity slid away from Zack’s mind. He needed to save that woman. When he collided with the cliff face his knees were bent in expectation and his hands ready to grab on. He felt the heat of red flash by and then the world was its right colors again. He hung alone beside the car and the groaning trees. The woman inside moaned softly, touching her forehead.
“Hold still,” Zack coached, calculating whether he should try to open her door.
It was dented, so might not open easily. Plus, he worried that it would add unwanted pressure to the failing trees. Her window was down. He crept closer, easing his head and arm in through the window and trying her belt buckle. It wouldn’t budge. She moaned again, drooping her head onto his shoulder. He needed to cut through the seatbelt. He was wearing a stupid suit, and the most useful thing he had in his pockets was a credit card.
He looked up to see Kiel handing a knife to him from the passenger side window.
“It’s a good idea to carry a knife, just in case of anything,” the kid said with a matter-of-fact tone.
Zack shook his head, but his desire to argue with the kid had gone. He took the knife and sawed through the strap. The woman fell forward as soon as the strap snapped and Zack felt the car lurch. The sapling beside him gave way and the car began to shudder around toward him.
“How do we call the rainbow back?” Zack asked.
He was doing his best to stay ahead of the movement of the car while he tried to pull the woman free. Kiel stepped clear and hung onto a patch of long grass.
“One is already on the way,” Kiel said. “Don’t you feel it?”
Zack felt a lot of things in that moment, not least being the suspicion that he was about to die by either falling off a cliff, being crushed by a car, drowned in the rapids of a river he didn’t know, or possibly all three at once. He had a split second to jump free and save himself. One of the saplings looked like it was going to survive and the top of it was within his reach.
Many things happened at once. The woman opened her eyes. She met his gaze. Kiel turned his face to the sky with a calm smile. The mind baffling impossibility of this situation became suddenly unimportant. Zack lunged forward, securing his arms around the woman’s waist and wishing with his whole soul for red heat.
The car’s momentum picked up, swinging them in an arc. The woman wrapped her arms around him. Rocks and branches screeched against the car as it slid, then tipped. They fell.
When Zack felt heat on his legs and a gentle tug he helped the woman as gently as he could through the window, willing himself not to freeze at the sight of the quickly approaching rapids. Soon they were falling alongside the car. Then the car gained on them and their trajectory shifted to follow along the river. Then Kiel was grinning at them from the other side of orange.
Zack wasn’t clear on landmarks as he focused on keeping the woman concsious. When the rainbow dropped them gently onto pavement he glanced around in astonishment. Kiel was nowhere in sight. Large sliding doors nearby had the word “EMERGENCY” painted on them. He rushed the woman inside and handed her over with a barely coherent explanation of a car accident and concerns that she might have a concussion. To his relief, she was ushered away briskly and he was able to slip away before more concentrated questions arose.
He checked the time and realized that if he pushed, he could still get to work just in time. There were dirt smudges on his suit but considering what he’d just lived through that seemed a small detail.
He set off for work, thinking through the new shape his life was about to take. By the time he turned a corner and found his office in sight he was heavily weighing the possibility of a cape.