Kamran Tir gazed into the mirror and confronted the fact that his genes had betrayed him. His thick dark hair was carefully groomed, his olive cheeks clean shaven. For someone who worked late so often, he was in reasonable shape.
The problem was his eyes.
Irises looked homogeneous from a distance but up close they were finely wrought mosaics. Whorls of periwinkle orbited around the dark center of Kamran’s pupil, shot through with flecks of gold and grey. Staring into them, leaning so close that his breath fogged up the glass, he plumbed the depths of the uncanny valley, becoming a stranger to himself.
Everybody knew that people with blue eyes were lazy, violent, and stupid. Blues were thankfully absent from the halls of power, the few celebrated exceptions proving the rule. Crime dramas featured blue homicidal maniacs. Parents protected their children from the corrupting influence of blue peers. Blue travelers took secondary screening at every airport for granted.
Kamran washed his hands and unscrewed the contact lens container. He picked up a lens on his index fingers, pulled back his eyelid, and applied it with practiced ease. He had worn contacts since before he could remember. Baba and Maman had spent a small fortune keeping him supplied with the thin, slippery discs that were the only things separating Kamran from his rightful role as pariah. Who knows how they had found their black market supplier, but what other choice did they have? He was their only son. Better that he be a chameleon than a blue.
Blinking the contacts into place, Kamran again considered his reflection. The eyes staring back at him were now a respectable cappuccino brown. They were the eyes of a good citizen, the eyes of the Mayor’s promising new associate.
They were eyes you could trust.
Pushing through the chattering socialites, Kamran made his way to the grill. This was his chance, and he wasn’t going to waste it. To escape the drudgery of entry level bureaucracy, he had to impress the Mayor himself, demonstrate such creativity and dedication that the great man would have no option but to pluck Kamran from dead end “citizen engagement” and invite him into the inner circle where the real decisions got made.
The Mayor liked nothing better than holding court with tongs in hand and meat sizzling in front of him. He sported a thick leather apron over a dapper white linen suit that set off his hazel eyes. The grill was a gleaming stainless steel monster. Fat hissed and spat in the flames as juice dripped from the dozens of sausages that were approaching gastronomic perfection.
“That smells amazing,” said Kamran. Seriously? Is that the best he could do? He should have thought this through, come up with a better opener.
“If only running a city were as simple as firing up the grill, right?” the Mayor graced him with his famous smile. “Hey, Carlos,” he said to a nearby man in his mid-twenties, face half-hidden by aviator sunglasses, “meet, uh, Chad here. He works on the policy analysis team. Chad, this is my son Carlos.”
“Hey,” said Carlos with a dispassionate nod.
“I’m Kamran,” he extended a hand which Carlos shook without enthusiasm, “Good to meet you.”
“Kamran,” said the Mayor. “That was it. Sorry, you know how it is.”
“No problem,” said Kamran lamely.
The window of opportunity was closing fast. He had to make an impression so that the Mayor would never again forget his name. He had to demonstrate his pluck and rocket up the meritocracy. But the courage that had been so easy to muster when Kamran imagined this moment now eluded him.
What made him think he would ever amount to anything? Blues underperformed across every conceivable metric. They got worse grades, earned lower salaries, and generally failed to contribute. They had dramatically higher incarceration and recidivism rates. Some argued that it was a social issue, the toxic debris of a broken culture. But Kamran knew better. It was a curse, a sign of Mother Nature’s disfavor. And like all true curses, it was self perpetuating. Even if nobody else realized it, Kamran had blue eyes. Worse, he was a chameleon, hiding in plain sight, compounding outcast into outlaw. This was stupid, an effort doomed to fail from the outset.
The silence threatened to turn awkward.
“Watch out,” said Carlos, “Hurricane approaching.”
“I heard that, asshat,” a woman in a bright summer dress appeared.
“Caroline,” said the Mayor sternly.
“What?” she demanded, “He started it.”
“Me?” Carlos let out a puff of air in disbelief. “You’re the bull in the china shop.”
Color rose into her cheeks. “Oh yeah? You want something to gossip over with your idiot friends? Fine.”
Caroline looked around, a predator in search of prey, and her brilliant green eyes landed on Kamran. Before he could say anything, she stepped forward, slid a hand behind his neck, and kissed him on the mouth. As her tongue darted playfully between his stunned lips, she raised a middle finger to Carlos who stared in mute consternation before storming off.
Caroline disengaged and turned to her father.
“Uncle Jeff wants you to know that the cornbread is ready,” she said as if nothing untoward had happened. “Incidentally, I think he needs to ease off the steroids.”
Then she gave Kamran an enigmatic wink and slipped off into the crowd.
The Mayor shrugged.
“Twins,” he said, as if this explained everything.
He had to tell her. It had already been far too long. In the first few months of their relationship, Kamran had been happy to ignore the issue. But as they got more and more serious, the secret began to fester. In quiet moments, his thoughts angled back towards it like light bending through water, refracted by guilt.
“It’s lovely finally getting our folks together,” said Caroline, flopping back on the hotel bed. “There’s nothing like a wedding to bring out the repressed drama in every family.”
Despite his inner turmoil, Kamran couldn’t help but smile. He looked at the woman he would marry tomorrow, really looked. Brown hair splayed out behind her on the comforter like a halo. Permanent laugh lines at the corners of her eyes. The hollow beneath her clavicle that he liked to brush with his lips. Something about Caroline’s presence affirmed that life was a joke and she knew the punch line. It had only been a year since they met at the barbecue, and he loved her more than anything.
A knot formed in his stomach. She had a right to know. He’d never fallen head over heels for someone before, and the vertigo of passion had muddied his good judgement. He’d convinced himself that he’d tell her tomorrow, next week, next month. But she had proposed and he had accepted and they had set a date and sent out invitations and the right time never quite came.
He loosened his tie, pulled it over his head, and tossed it onto the bedside table. You didn’t hide something this important from the person you were committing to spend the rest of your life with. The Malbec from the reception dinner formed a pleasant mental fog that buoyed him enough to act while slowing the paralyzing onset of self-recrimination.
Ducking into the bathroom, he plucked the contacts from his eyes. The cap fell from his trembling fingers as he tried to screw it into place.
“Do you think it’s bad luck if we fuck tonight?” She called to him from the other room. “Cuz I’m willing to run the risk.”
He clenched all the muscles in his body, felt the blood rushing through them, submersed his frantic thoughts in physicality. Then, letting out a long breath, he went out and sat on the edge of the bed.
“Lina,” he said. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
She poked him with a toe. “You’re not supposed to start sleeping around until we’ve been married for at least five years. There’s a certain etiquette to these things that I’ve picked up from my dad’s slimier friends.”
“I’m serious,” he said.
This time, she heard his voice catch and sat up.
“What is it, Kam?”
Her tenderness almost broke him.
“I just—” he fumbled. “It’s hard to know where to start—”
Shit. The thousand practiced monologues deserted him. This was a mistake. He should never reveal himself. He should never have gotten this close to someone who might discover the truth. All he wanted to do was disappear, turn back time, escape.
But Caroline squeezed his thigh. It was too late. He couldn’t stop now.
The only path was forward.
“I’m blue,” he forced the words around the lump in his throat.
“My parents made me a chameleon when my eyes didn’t turn, bought me contacts, bribed the doctors to file the paperwork. I… I just didn’t know how to tell you.”
Caroline placed her hands on his cheeks and turned his face to hers. Staring into the emerald depths of her eyes was like peering through the canopy of a foreign jungle. For an infinite moment, he dared to hope that she would crack a joke, dispel the dark magic of this dreaded moment.
“What the fuck?” Each word was a white-hot brand.
She slapped him across the face and dashed out of the hotel room.
The sting leached from his cheek into his soul.
It had been inevitable. He had been foolish to think that anything, least of all romance, might overcome the implacable truth that was the color of his eyes. And now he’d incriminated himself and his parents by revealing that truth to his fiancé.
But some compulsion beyond Kamran’s control pulled him from the bed, out the door, and up the hall, chasing after Caroline like the fading memory of a forgotten dream.
“Lina, wait!” Kamran cried as he sprinted up the hotel hallway, stocking feet on carpeted floor.
She dodged into the elevator bank but before he could make it even halfway there, a door opened and three men tumbled out into the hall, blocking his path.
“Whoa there, Kamran,” said the Mayor, his boss, his until-a-moment-ago-soon-to-be father-in-law. “What’s going on? Everything all right?”
“Not running off, are we? Caroline wouldn’t want to be left at the altar.” Uncle Jeff’s grey eyes sparkled with threatening mockery. He was built like a linebacker and enjoyed the intimidation factor his bulk provided.
Down the hall, the elevator dinged. Any last hint of hope receded like a falling tide.
“It’s nothing,” said Kamran, trying to present a calm front. “Everything’s fine. Just stressful coming up to the big day, you know? Logistics to juggle. Balls to keep in the air. Cats to herd. If only planning a wedding were as simple as firing up the grill, right?” He put on what he hoped was a brave smile. “Well, I’ll get back to it.”
“Hold on,” said Carlos. He reached out as Kamran turned away. “Come here a second.”
Kamran wanted to get away from these men. He needed time to think. He needed to figure out what to do about Caroline.
“I need to review my vows,” he said, taking a step back toward his room.
“Just a minute,” said Carlos, suddenly intent.
He sidestepped in front of Kamran, leaning in to peer at his face. Up close, he could see striations of amber running through Carlos’s golden eyes.
A sickening wave swept through Kamran. His contacts. They were in the bathroom. In his rush to chase Caroline, he had forgotten to put them back in.
“Holy shit,” said Carlos. “Holy shit. Dad, Jeff, look!”
Kamran tried to force himself to move, to flee, but his body stayed frozen in place.
“What?” Uncle Jeff demanded. “Spit it out, boy.”
“He’s a blue,” said Carlos with a heady mix of outrage and glee.
“Kamran’s a blue!”
“What are you talking about?” asked the Mayor, a captain not wanting to believe in the coming storm.
“See for yourself.” A wild, unctuous laugh bubbled up from Carlos.
He grabbed Kamran’s shoulders from behind and spun him around. The older men leered. Their breath smelled of whiskey and vinegar.
“Well, skullfuck me with a moosecock,” said Uncle Jeff. “Carlos is right. This cum guzzler’s a blue.”
“Not just a blue,” said Carlos. “A chameleon.”
Uncle Jeff turned to the Mayor. “I always knew there was something off about him,” he said. “He’s been trying to pull one over on the family.” He paused, as if grasping the full extent of an existential horror. “This chameleon has been fucking your daughter.”
Air hissed through Carlos’s teeth, the breath teasing the hairs on the back of Kamran’s neck. His fingers dug into Kamran’s shoulders.
The Mayor’s faced lacked expression. His hazel eyes were blank, his gaze steady.
“Outside,” he said softly.
Kamran tried to break away from Carlos, pushing past him and sprinting toward to the safety of his room. But Uncle Jeff was faster than he appeared, and a second later he had Kamran’s arm twisted up behind his back, joints creaking painfully.
“Oh no you don’t,” he growled. “You heard the old man.”
Uncle Jeff and Carlos hustled Kamran after the Mayor. They took the stairs, the bare steel and concrete belying the hotel’s otherwise unfettered opulence. Kamran felt that this must be some kind of twisted dream, wedding nerves summoning it from the depths of his subconscious. But if this was a nightmare, it pulled him along with the strength of an ocean current. They reached the bottom of the stairs and then they were outside, the summer night washing over them, humid and oppressive.
They pushed Kamran up against the side of the Mayor’s gleaming red pickup.
The truck door slammed.
“Let him go,” the Mayor’s voice was still so soft, just on the edge of hearing.
The viselike hands released Kamran. For a split second, he couldn’t believe it. He could go. It was all going to be all right after all.
He turned to thank the Mayor for his forbearance, but saw something rocketing at his head. Instinct took over and his arms flew up.
There was a sharp crack and his left arm felt as if it had been flash frozen in liquid nitrogen.
Kamran cringed against the truck.
“Wait,” his voice was shaking, high pitched. “Stop, I can explain.”
Kamran tried to yell for help but the Mayor wound up again and this time the baseball bat hit Kamran in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. The next blow took him across the shoulder blades and he fell to his hands and knees on the asphalt.
His vision swam. Kamran was surprised to find that he wasn’t, in fact, surprised. Somehow, he’d always known something like this was coming. He’d lived his life in the shadow of his secret. Even if he died right here, right now, at the hands of these ignorant bigots, at least he was finally out from under it.
An underhanded swing flipped him onto his back. The following one shattered ribs with a sickening crunch.
The only thing left to do was wait for the end to come.
“Stop,” the scream cut through the haze of Kamran’s pain. He blinked away the shadowy galaxies forming in his peripheral vision.
“Stop,” she said, softer this time. Her voice shook but the .45 caliber pistol in her hands didn’t waver a centimeter.
“He’s a chameleon, Carrie,” snarled Carlos with righteous fury.
“I told you never to call me that,” said Caroline. “And you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s true,” said Uncle Jeff, face flushed with the rush of violence. “The motherfucker’s a blue.”
“Kamran is my fiancé,” she said.
“Honey,” said the Mayor. “I’m sorry. I can only imagine how hard this must be for you. But listen to me. You need to go up to your mother’s room and stay with her until I come for you. Understand?”
Caroline stared at her father.
“Go,” he commanded. “I’ll be up soon.”
The muzzle flashed and the pistol roared.
Needles of pain lanced up Kamran’s side.
Caroline wasn’t here to save him. She was here to claim her due, to avenge herself upon him.
But the men above him shouted in surprise and pain. Jerking around his lolling head, Kamran saw that the bullet had shattered the baseball bat, sending splinters flying, pinning the men’s trousers to their legs in a hundred bloody punctures.
“Now, fuck off,” said Caroline, green eyes blazing. “Before I get trigger happy.”
Carlos looked like he was about to say something, but the Mayor put a warning hand on his shoulder. He gave his daughter a long look, and then the three men strode off toward the hotel.
As soon as they were out of sight, Caroline rushed to Kamran’s side, pulling his head into her lap and brushing back his matted hair.
“It’s going to be okay,” she said, with the unnatural conviction of someone willing something to be true. “It’s all going to be okay.”
Kamran coughed up blood onto the pavement.
“But–” his words came out mangled. “But they’re right. I am a chameleon. I’m blue.”
Tears fell from her eyes onto his face, mingling with his blood.
“Oh you stupid, stupid man,” she said. “I don’t give a fuck that you’re blue. I was only mad because you took so long to tell me.”
Kamran limped as quietly as he could into Zoe’s room. Glow-in-the-dark stars were pasted all over the walls and an elephant-shaped night light pulsed gently in the corner. A mobile of the solar system hung over the crib, tiny planets spinning in uncertain orbits.
His breath caught in his throat whenever he looked at her. There she was, swaddled in blankets, eyes closed but fluttering beneath their lids, a dribble of spit sliding from the corner of her little mouth. It was still so hard to believe.
All babies were born with blue eyes. But it was a recessive gene, so most kids’ eyes darkened by the time they reached one year old. Zoe was approaching that crucial threshold, the shameful crucible that fate damned humanity to reenact in every generation. Kamran wondered how his parents must have felt looking down at their infant son. What had they prayed for? When had they finally accepted the hard truth? How had they made the impossible decision between condemning him to suffer the slings and arrows of being blue or burdening him with the shield of a chameleon?
He heard soft footsteps behind him.
Caroline’s arms slid around him from behind. Her chin rested on his shoulder, her head leaning against his neck. He felt the tickle of her hair, smelled her faint jasmine and lemon rind scent. Her breasts pressed against his back and he could feel her heartbeat through his titanium-braced ribs.
These were his people, his family. Everyone else could go fuck themselves.
They looked down at their daughter in wonderment. This strange new being they had made together. We bequeath our world to our children, he thought, with all its beauty and its terror. But they need not accept our compromises and contradictions. They take their inheritance, and with it forge the world anew.
Kissing the top of Caroline’s head, Kamran gently broke away.
He made his way to the hallway closet. Their small apartment was tucked into one of the drab low-income housing projects that sat like brooding leviathans on the outskirts of town. This was what they could afford on his janitor wages while Caroline finished her civil engineering degree. It might be cramped, but it was theirs.
Grunting, Kamran knelt. Angry nerves popped and fizzed with electric pain. The doctors had stitched him back together as best they could, reconstructing broken bones with metal pins and knitting soft tissues whole. But much of his body still rebelled, even two years later. Pushing aside coats and shoes, he placed a shaking hand on the cold steel of the old safe.
Memories bloomed. Staring into the mirror every morning year after year after year. The man staring back was an up-and-comer, a savvy professional whose confidence and competence assured everyone that he might be young, but he would one day be great. He was a hero awaiting his moment.
He was a shallow, brown-eyed fiction.
Kamran worked the combination lock. He had to start over three times because his trembling fingers fumbled the dial. Finally, the safe door released with a click and swung open on oiled hinges.
Caroline’s handgun rested on top of their marriage certificate and Zoe’s birth certificate. Kamran moved it all aside and retrieved the brown paper bag from the deepest corner of the safe. Then he closed the heavy door, careful to spin the dial to a random position before pushing himself to his feet and making his way to the bathroom, joints complaining.
Turning on the faucet, he opened the brown paper bag and pulled out case after case of contacts. His entire supply of black market lenses. He hadn’t worn them since that fateful night at the hotel. The EMTs had carried him straight to the ICU for emergency surgery and the recovery had taken months. But even after Caroline wheeled him out, weak and blinking in the too-bright sun, he hadn’t donned his chameleon cloak.
He paid the price. They both did. Kamran was quietly let go from the Mayor’s service and Caroline estranged from her family. After weekly hassles, he now saw police officers as threats, not protectors. Interviews for new jobs, once effortless, now ended with fruitless best wishes. Their apartment hunt turned desperate after so many polite denials. Thinking themselves good Samaritans, fellow shoppers at the grocery store would see them together and not-so-discreetly ask Caroline if she was “okay.” So Kamran kept his stockpile of contacts as an insurance policy, a backup. Knowing they were buried in the safe was a talisman of sorts, a reminder of the lunacy of prejudice.
But it was also an act of collusion, perpetuating injustice in his own mind.
He tore open the packaging and scooped up a lens on his fingertip. This supple armor had camouflaged him for so long. Turning on the faucet, he rinsed the lens from his finger and watched it sluice down the drain. Then he ripped apart the boxes and dumped them all, thousands of dollars worth of precious contraband washing down the pipes and into the murky purgatory of the city sewers.
He looked up.
The man in the mirror was different now. Crippled, maybe. But real.
A true blue.