Chapter 9
True Colors

"But I see your true colors shining through
I see your true colors that's why I love you
So don't be afraid to let them show
Your true colours true colours
Are beautiful like a rainbow"

—Phil Collins

Once upon a time, I used to write almost every day in my old journal. Its pages withered with secrets and long-lost aspirations. I'd felt hopeless and scared of situations, which now seemed too far gone. I'd outgrown them by a decade. Time healed some wounds and saved others for later. However, I'd been lucky, in some respects. I'd managed to find a person who had understood and appreciated me for the time being. That was all I ever wanted and I'd never felt lonely either. But I'd taken Sam for granted and remained oblivious to my surroundings and to his thoughts. The guilt still encompassed me sometimes. It could never go away, I realized.

As I now sat across Jack, my heart thumping in anticipation, curiosity and moderate doses of alarm, I became strongly struck by the irony of the situation. Tables were indeed getting turned: I was now playing the role of the recipient and Jack was about to share what was on his mind. Almost as if he'd accepted this sudden change in his life and he was comfortable with it. Or perhaps this was desperation, at some measures. Whatever the case was, I'd still tread on the matter cautiously, I decided. I'd gain his trust; I'd be there for someone like Sam had been there for me once. Even if it just meant listening and acknowledging.

'I believe it's choice, not chance…that determines destiny,' Jack began very quietly, letting out a large sigh. There was a hint of nervousness in his voice, almost to the point of being indecipherable. However I'd been straining so hard that I figured it out.

I waited patiently, my mouth clamped shut firmly. I wanted him to heave off whatever was on his chest because it was clearly bothering him very much. I was tremulous myself. For the first time in my life, someone was going to confess their secrets to me. It felt surreal, but the tingle of pride wouldn't evade so fast.

'My brother…he has Asperger's Syndrome,' Jack finally said, before lapsing into a long silence, his face now a dark shade of grimace.

I tried racking my memories hard to find any information I might have gathered over the years. Asperger's Syndrome—the name sounded slightly familiar. Perhaps I'd heard of it in passing. But alas, I didn't have any substantial knowledge about the matter. Never in my life did I once imagine that I'd someday come to be associated with it.

'It's autism…but not completely,' Jack suddenly informed me as he broke the engulfing silence. His voice sounded monotonous and devoid of any emotion. For the first time since meeting him, I felt that I was listening to someone, hiding behind a carefully constructed facade. 'Max is not retarded. It's…it's quite a rare condition. I only heard a few gifted people have it. And it's something you need to battle with for the rest of your life.'

'I see,' I said softly, wishing my voice wasn't wavering. I couldn't help but feel quite shocked, realizing that Jack's story was only likely to get morose as it'd progress.

'It's more of a social aspect…if you have to put it that way,' Jack went on quietly in that same flat tone, seemingly spewing off information and facts. Maybe he was. 'Understanding body language, facial expressions. The way people talk. Max…he can't comprehend them. If he doesn't like something, he'd say it to your face bluntly. He's a great kid, he's simple, he doesn't hide behind anything but…'

Jack sighed and muttered, 'My mom found that he was diagnosed it during his time at middle school.'

'Was e-everything…too bad?' I prodded, stammering. I hoped I wasn't asking anything too sensitive or delicate.

'He'd loved going to school before,' Jack answered, a gloomy far-off gaze clouding his face, his grimace deepening. 'When—when I was younger and I'd rush off every morning, he'd get so excited. And—and sad. He always wanted to come with me. He'd cry because he couldn't go to school with me…but he was so young. And smart and enthusiastic…and well, impatient too. My mom soon admitted him to school, though; she had work during mornings and all the way till afternoon. There was no one to look after him. And my dad passed away nearly three years before that. So she decided that maybe it was okay for Max to go to school early. He was smaller than all the children by more than one year. But he got in and…he wasn't finding it hard. He was coping with everything…We were so surprised and proud…'

'That's amazing,' I said, smiling a little and meaning it.

'But…uh…' Jack ran a hand through his hair, almost desperately, before bringing it back and locking it with his other hand. His legs were shaking slightly. 'He loved going to school so much before…even though he'd always be so lazy getting up from bed at morning. The excuses he'd come up with! They were so inventive…'

Jack's mouth quirked upwards, a slight smile playing across his face for the first time, as he started to reminisce silently.

'But…soon he started…everything changed,' Jack said, sighing after a few moments of stillness. The smile that had popped in to change his expression of disillusionment disappeared all too quickly. 'It started during middle school. Mostly. He'd just come home and lock himself in his room. He wouldn't talk…he'd get mad, aggressive at the slightest things. It was the only way he could cope. It wasn't—it wasn't the best solution. But—he was vulnerable.'

Jack suddenly glanced at me silently, as if trying to evaluate the expression on my face. I suddenly became quite taken aback by the piercing gaze.

I jerked my head away, wishing he'd continue because I wasn't too sure about what to say. But I suddenly derived flashbacks of what was happening to me at that age. My memories recalled back to Sam; I started remembering how the last few months of our friendship had been like. It'd been deteriorating and dissolving by marginal amounts.

Sam did listen to anything I had to say and he was always ready to counter that with something comical, even a few days before he killed himself. But there had been something lurking in his eyes. Human intuition made me realize that, though I failed to take it into account. I even neglected the seldom hints he'd drop in now and then—very subtly or perhaps unintentionally. His defense mechanism had always been to act cheerful or forcefully divert the subject when he didn't feel like answering. He'd been very stubborn when it came to revealing himself. Underneath that façade, though, were vulnerability, gullibility and a heart just waiting to be broken. It'd been that jolly barrier, which I'd never seen past. He'd always seemed so happy about life—as if he could embrace any terrible situation and turn it into rainbows. He was good in a way I'd longed to be. He was my definition of kindness, respect and someone who didn't judge a book by its cover. But he was a coward. There were still some things that I knew he might never have done so if he were in a better situation. Would he have been afraid then? I hadn't any idea. Sam was…human, after all. I couldn't ever be sure.

But one thing I was certain about was the reason why he'd done it. He'd been isolated, estranged and stripped off any dream. It had been the only way of escape for him.

Therefore, I had a fair idea about what Max perhaps went through during his time too. It was a period I'd experienced myself—the dark periods just after Sam's death and the overwhelming sadness which haunted me before I went and had the kids. It uncannily reminded of the dire situation just after my dad left and my mother and I had to survive alone. The first steps to falling into the abyss.

'He was different, you know…' Jack persevered, glancing away from me and looking at the playground with a melancholy expression. 'Not many people his age could accept that. It was the starting years of his high-school…that really changed everything. And he was younger than everybody…'

I nodded, knowing how intimidating it had been for me too. Growing up meant letting go of those fears or slowly accepting hat they'd become an innate part of you. But you'd never forget the way your heart vibrated painfully after feeling rejection and inferiority at the age when all you ever wanted was to fit in and feel welcomed. It was funny, I contemplated, how those incidents had occurred decades back, but some of them really molded me into the person I was today. I could perhaps never forget them.

'My brother…he was really smart,' Jack said, his voice suddenly becoming hoarse and slightly emotional. I made no reply, but I suddenly reached out and touched his hands with mine. I didn't know why I'd done it, but I remembered the way Jack had comforted me a few days back when I'd almost started crying in front of him. I wanted to give that reassurance to him too. I wished I could talk and say something, but I wasn't feeling too confident. I was afraid I'd say something that'd make him halt. Perhaps my silence was the only thing that was compelling him to go on. Maybe my presence was giving him the courage and calmness to open up.

'He was so passionate about mathematics and…and English,' Jack said, smiling hesitatingly and thinly as he looked at my hand lying tentatively upon his. But he didn't grip them back. They lay motionless against mine. 'Writing. He'd do them repeatedly…for hours and hours. But things really started falling during middle school and…then high school. There were so many things. He couldn't cope any more. And…he wasn't interested in anything else. All he did was solve some sums or just read all day long. He didn't care at all about the things that didn't interest him. So he ended up failing in other subjects. And he'd be himself at school and no one could accept that. And when you have no one and people are taunting and bullying you all day long…

'Then…uh, it was really during that time Mom…died.' Jack swallowed hard, his face contorting into an agonized expression, his hands immobile and hard. I gave him a supportive squeeze, my face blushing at the touch but I didn't move my hands away. 'And… you know the rest. I'd never in my life felt so alone. My brother had depression; he wouldn't talk…he'd have fits. He'd go off to places and…he'd come back late. I was afraid he might have gotten into drugs…or wanting to do something frightening…'

'Then….I couldn't really stand in the way of someone else's dreams either…' Jack trailed off, suddenly reaching out to touch my hand momentarily as if he could sense my comfort in them. But he took them away swiftly and crossed his arms tightly against his chest. I retrieved my hand, waiting patiently. 'I…just couldn't just scamper into the horizon, with my suitcase. I had no job—I was at college—and…I wasn't raised by my parents to grow up and forget my sick brother. I couldn't do that. But…I had no one…and my brother absolutely needed to see a psychiatrist. He was too depressed; he lost so much weight. He was like a stick. He wouldn't eat. Talk. He'd just sit and look at my mom's photograph…he'd go to her room and lie down on the bed, where she died…He couldn't cope with schoolwork; he have to a special tutor who'd just be there for him…'

'Who was going to save him, if I couldn't man up and do it myself?' Jack's voice increased, more forceful, hoarse and remorseful than I'd ever heard before. 'No one. But it took a long while, though. I did what I had to…I went to the sperm bank and gave…it was the only way I could've gotten the money fast and saved my brother. And…he's such a good kid. He can't help but be this way…and I'm the only one he has in this world.

'And I do believe that this universe really has a way of making you get what you really want,' Jack continued relentlessly, his voice almost choking with emotion now. 'I'd always loved music so much; I didn't and still don't care about getting a degree and doing something I have no passion at. Music has always been one of my greatest loves…Perhaps it was actually just an excuse to drop out of college and pursue it. But I'd always been so passionate towards it even when I was just a kid. And my mom being the amazing musician herself…I grew up just wanting to be that. So I started playing gigs and stuffs all night…and it was great fun and I was earning something. I was able to give Max a better life in little ways. He's such a smart and brilliant kid…way more than I can ever be. If he just gets a push in the right direction, I do believe…he can really do something. And though we have troubles sometimes, here we are years later…'

Jack lapsed into silence, rubbing his hands together as if he was trying to catch a grip on himself. So many emotions were playing in his eyes. So much pain was etched across his face. All around us was the constantly chattering and hustling-bustling noises of people. But all I ever heard in that moment was Jack's labored breathing and the way his heart was beating quite audibly.

'It's…incredibly amazing how much you care about him,' I said solemnly. 'He'll appreciate it someday. He will.'

I looked at Jack straight in the eyes. As I took into account the way the entire conversation had played along, I truly meant every word I just uttered. I knew that my own father would never have done anything like that. He had walked out and never looked back for one split second. He'd tried to live his childhood vicariously through mine; he'd lost it when I failed to reach his standards through work. There were so many other incidents, too, but none of them favored him. And here was someone like Jack, who'd sacrificed everything for his family at the blink of an eye. I couldn't even find words to describe how much I admired him at that moment. He cared and loved his brother so much; it was evident in every bit of expression playing across his face, every word that came out of his mouth.

'I was never… I used to be so selfish,' Jack began hoarsely, suddenly looking frightfully desperate to say it. 'He'd been depressed…and I…didn't see it back then. I was your typical, spoiled teenager with…friends and music…and having fun. Mom's health was also on the line that time…and Max was close to her, but she wasn't…Dad. And Max didn't remember anything about him. I'd always known that I was closer to him than anyone else in the world. That there was no other person in the world he respected so much. But even then…I was so…blind. He'd loiter around when my friends would come; he'd say anything on his mind…they didn't like it. They didn't laugh at him…but the way teenage minds work. I'd never include him in anything. I'd feel ashamed…and he didn't say anything…but we drifted apart.

'Until it was too late…and he really stopped interacting. And there was no Mom then. It was devastating. I felt so guilty… But perhaps it was a good thing in some ways. I can't protect him forever…and my brother needs to stand on his feet. Someday he will. I am positive.'

We waited for a long while in silence until afternoon disappeared and I could hear the shouts of my two children emanating from the swings. Recalling the fragments of the recent conversation was making me feel detached from everything. As if Jack and I were the only two people in the world.

'I am sorry for unburdening this to you,' Jack finally said. He'd been quiet for so long, but his voice was slowly becoming normal. 'But….I was…it was extremely brave the way you came to look for me that day. At the coffee-shop. Not a lot of people would have done that. It threw me off, honestly. Because…few people would choose that path. Would choose to figure out things. That was...really quite courageous.'

'I—' I couldn't persist because the real reason was something so close to my heart. I'd chased after Jack in a moment of desperation; I'd been too tired of letting the past get into me in such frightening waves. And after seeing those people who'd been responsible for my friends' death—for his pain and mine—I wanted change; I sought excitement. I'd impulsively chased after Jack, without caring about the consequences.

'I acted recklessly,' I finished lamely.

Jack smiled a little and gently affirmed, 'It..was brave. Putting yourself out there. Doing what you really want. I…haven't done the same. I'd…shut my brother out. I should've…Sometimes I think maybe it's all my fault. If I'd only been different when he was growing up…if only I'd—'

'It's not your fault,' I interjected vehemently, my voice quivering. 'It's never…one person's fault.'

Jack looked at me with a quizzical expression on his face.

'It's always an accumulation of things happening,' I finally said. 'You know.'

I didn't know what was making me, but suddenly I wanted to talk to Jack too. Share.

'It's never…one thing, I realize,' I said, my voice now rough as I tried to make my point. A lump was forming on my throat but I didn't take any notice. 'My mom and I don't have much of a relationship…even now. We'd lost valuable times…because my mom…she'd get so shaken by my dad's tantrums. Her anger would fall on me. She'd hardly ever talk to me or…know anything. I'd feel like a stranger in their presence. They'd no idea…And they expected so much. My father wanted to live a better life; he thought I could maybe change our situation. And…one thing led to another. I couldn't. And my dad left. Just left. With everything. But…my mom changed after that. She didn't want that to affect my studies…she wanted me to continue. And she buried herself at work…and she stood on her own feet—'

I broke off. I couldn't continue anymore. My body felt like lead.

'I am so sorry,' Jack said, reaching out and taking my hand in his. He threaded our fingers together and squeezed them. My stomach plummeted.

'I…we'd actually been happier ever since,' I continued hoarsely. 'And…'

I shook my head desperately, biting my lips hard to prevent myself from spilling any tears. 'I think I'm starting to see…that everything happens for a reason…And believe me, I think it's for something…good.'

Because if my dad hadn't left, I would never have come across someone like Sam. And if I had never met him, I had absolutely no idea what I would have been like. I wouldn't have my two beautiful kids. I'd never in my life met someone like Jack, either. Everything was coming together like pieces of a puzzle, I realized.

'I think…fate plays a little part,' I concluded. 'In…ways you can never be sure of.'

Jack stared at me for a long while, pondering before finally saying, 'I think it does too…in strange ways. Because... these last few weeks have truly been amazing. Ever since you and the children welcomed me to your lives. I can't even describe how thankful I am. And…' Jack laughed for the first time that afternoon, even though it rang with guilt. 'I am such a…I'd never properly invited you or the kids for anything.'

'It's fine,' I said, smiling to show that it was okay.

'But... I want to,' Jack muttered solemnly. 'So how about we take the twins and Max out for lunch tomorrow? That'd be okay?'

'That—that'd be great,' I said, grinning back. 'The kids will love that. And…I'd love to meet Max.'