Kevin had been looking for the bottle opener when he noticed the jug, tucked behind the flour and sugar canisters, masquerading as just another staple. He turned the huge bottle slowly, looking for clues, but its brown glass sides, its obscured contents, yielded none. He unscrewed the cap, sniffed a little. Nothing. He tipped the bottle toward his finger, trying to capture just a drop of the stuff, whatever it was, but misjudged its heft. He released not a drop but a torrent, overflowing the plain of his hand and raining inky blue drops onto the clean white countertop.
Julia and Howie came home with the groceries while Kevin was rinsing the counter with bleach for the sixth or seventh time. Julia argued that buying the stuff in bulk was the practical solution, would solve the problem of those little red, yellow, and green vials, piling up unused in the back of the cupboard. “At least the little four-packs are things normal people buy at Stop & Shop,” Kevin responded, vigorously scrubbing his own blue knuckles. “Normal people don’t special order a vat of food coloring.”
“What do you want him to do, starve? Eat nothing but blue raspberry popsicles from now on?” Julia screeched at him then. Maybe not screeched exactly, but that’s how she sounded to Kevin all the time lately, borderline hysterical. “There are no truly blue foods in nature,” she reminded him for the thousandth time, as she peeled the potatoes that she’d mash (for all of them) and dye blue (for Howie).
There are no black flowers in nature, either, he thought — and there was a reason the quest for a black tulip had driven countless Dutchmen mad.
Howie sat in the corner, dressed all in blue, of course. Today’s project was, as it had been all week, painstakingly picking out all the blue LEGOs from dozens of plastic bins, compiling the raw materials to construct blue skyscrapers, rockets, battleships.
Part of the problem, Kevin thought, was that this whole thing had crept its way into their lives. It started with the blue clothing, but escalated to bedding, bath soap disguised as blue fingerpaints, and from there to blue milk on cereal, blue rice, and blue tapioca pudding, all of which turned Kevin’s stomach but were the only things Howie would now eat.
Their friends didn’t help, Kevin thought as he watched Julia furiously chopping potatoes. Most made jokes — speaking of the implications of Howie’s Blue Period for his future as a modernist artist, calling Kevin “Papa Smurf.”
Others, the people he couldn’t abide, offered up stories of other children’s quirks, tales of the toddler unnaturally attached to his own dirty diapers, the preschooler who wore the same filthy pair of pink leggings for two weeks straight. “It’s just a phase,” they’d say, and it had become Julia’s mantra, too. Now, as Julia considered the quart-sized vat, the pile of potatoes, calculating the necessary amount as if it were a medicine dosage, Kevin saw their future, partitioned out in tiny measuring spoons brimming with cobalt liquid.
“He won’t even hug me anymore,” Kevin said. “Not unless I’m wearing a blue shirt.” He wasn’t sure if Julia had heard him, her shoulders stiff and sharp under her denim jacket. “You know,” Kevin whispered, “not naming something doesn’t make it any less real.”
Julia turned to face him, then. She’d started crying. He was surprised, for a moment, that her tears left no streaks. He’d imagined her an azure-tinged Pierrot. Kevin reached out to her, folding her small trembling hand into his blue-tinged one. Together they watched their son, sitting in the corner, humming a tune too sad for a four-year-old to know. To Kevin, it seemed Howie was rushing away from them, disappearing like a speeding car into the shimmering blue haze of a stifling summer’s day.