Palindrome

By Leah Erickson

            It began with a few grainy photos captured on a night vision trail camera: at the edge of the woods, bathed in lurid green light, was a group of children. Six of them, of various ages. None looked to be over ten, the smallest one a toddling baby. No one knew whose they were, or what they were doing on a stranger’s property in the middle of the night, or why they were just standing there. They stood for duration of three hours, according to the camera time lapse.

            It wasn’t a natural thing, for children to be so still and quiet. There was something not right about them. Like creepy kids from a horror movie. Possessed kids, killer kids. Creepy little ghost prophets who knew no boundaries. A faded image from the back of an old VHS video sleeve.

            After the photos went viral on social media, sightings of strange children began to spread until it was happening in small towns all over the country. Although the police increased their patrols, nothing was verified. That did not stop the townspeople from calling in reports of these strange children appearing in people’s yards, in vacant lots, under the lunar glow of utility lights in empty store parking lots.

            Barron was sitting in the faculty lounge scrolling through his phone as he ate his lunch. There was another story in his news feed about the creepy kids that he clicked on, and as he was reading it, a female voice said from behind him,

            “Maybe it’s some kind of viral marketing stunt. For a horror movie or something. What do you think?”

            He startled and whipped his head around: it was one of the new teachers. Youngish looking, flax colored hair with a bit of washed-out pink at the ends. Eyes that were pink rimmed and rabbity. She always wore things that were oversized and black, lots of silver rings on her fingers. She had the look of one of those female techno artists who played the keyboard at festivals. Raspy voice over an industrial beat.

            Barron worked tech support and rotated through the district. The teachers usually ignored him until they needed him to install an operating system or fix a laptop that a fifth grader used to smack their sibling in the head.

            The teacher’s sudden question spooked him. He hadn’t been sleeping recently. His nerves felt raw an exposed as a frayed electrical cord.

            But he took a draw off his coffee and tried to sound insouciant, bored: “Seems to me it’s a textbook example of social panic. It’s like a medieval village around here. When people stop getting hysterical, this will fade away. Just to get replaced by the next thing to come along.”

            This must have come out harsher than he intended, because the woman gave him a look and muttered about forgetting something, and bolted. But that’s the way it was around there. He had been a temp worker in the school system going on years now. He was aware of the odd way people looked at him. At his curly blonde hair, still full but so thin you could see right through it. His worn Chuck Taylors, his pants with raggedy hems. He had a reputation for barbed sarcasm when he spoke at all. Mostly he didn’t.

            She must be the new art teacher, he thought. It had been so long since he had talked to a woman that he didn’t quite remember how to. She snagged his brain for rest of the day. Trying to figure out why she asked him that. She had that look of an ex-punk. Not that it impressed him. He used to be punk, too.

*

            Tick tick tick tick tick.

            It had come back again. The thing that chased him through the murky corridors of his dreams. The thing that ticked. Like the crocodile with a clock in its belly that chased Captain Hook. Except it was different. Not a cozy analog tick. A slick, digital one, like the face of a bomb. And he could never quite see what the thing was. He knew it wasn’t human. It was more like a shadow, or a haze of static. A fragmented shimmering mirage of ones and zeros. He did not know what it would do if it caught him. He just knew he had to run. If it caught him, it would annihilate him.

            The dreams had been bad since his fortieth birthday, but now it was getting worse. He wasn’t eating well. And sleep? Sleep was a fairy tale now, a story from childhood.

            And he didn’t know how to feel better. Sometimes he would have the guys over, guys he had known from way back at Greenhill Country Day. They didn’t seem to notice that something was terribly wrong with him.

            In school Barron had been that guy. Reckless. Not afraid of anything. They still retold the story about the time down in the islands, when he was fourteen and taken a jet ski fifteen miles offshore and ramped a very large boat wake at wide open throttle. Went ten feet in the air, knocked unconscious. Saved by the fishermen in the boat. Barron was always the most fucked up guy at any party, guaranteed!

            But those guys had wives and kids now. And somehow, they saw the fact that Barron worked his shitty job and had a living room that contained one couch, one enormous TV, and an Xbox as evidence of his uncompromising nature. That’s punk rock, man, man! Fuck the world!

            He wasn’t depressed. And he had never thought of himself as anxious. He had always been smarter than the other kids in his grade and tended to get bored a lot, or so the kiddie shrink had explained to his parents. So, what was wrong with him? Why were things increasingly feeling not right? Why did he feel so afraid all the time? He didn’t know how to describe the feeling. Except it was like some terrible knowledge, some secret was about to be revealed, and when it was, he would lose his mind.

            It couldn’t be the methadone; he’d been telling himself. He’d already been on it for years now. Going to the clinic like he always did. Walking up to the bulletproof glass, yelling his ID number through the metal grating. Dealing with cops, questions, cameras, until he at last got that plastic cup of ruby red nectar. It went down bitter. After he swallowed it he had to say something to the nurse to prove that he swallowed it. It was now a running joke that Barron always said the same thing:

            This is bullshit.

            Though the doctor had not brought it up, he knew he should taper off. He knew he would have to, eventually. If only something, someone would make him.

            His deck overlooked a backyard with nothing in it. It stretched out to a rim of woods in the back. The good thing about the little house was that it was tucked away behind trees, no neighbors to hassle him. The only bad thing was that it was in his mother’s name.

            And it was his mother that had strung the deck with “fairy lights,” decorated it with absurd Tiki decorations. A little grill that he rarely used sat in a corner, collecting a scrim of pollen dust.

            He liked sitting out there at night, though. There was an X-box game he played a lot, where the main character was driving a car across a vast, desolate landscape. Shooting guns at monsters. Trying to stop an apocalypse. He would play it so long that afterword he had a feeling of seasickness. Everything lurched and he felt nauseous. Then he would sit on the deck, smoking, gazing in an unfocused way into the night, letting the tension drain from his eyes; the tension took the form of showering sparks and flares on the backsides of his lids. When they went away, he felt clearer, more able to concentrate. And then he would indulge in his obsession with palindromes.

            Live not on evil. Too bad I hid a boot. Rise to vote, sir! Draw, O coward!

            It was a real compulsion, reciting palindromes in his head. They sounded like nonsense. But they were full of hidden patterns. The bridge between sense and nonsense, order and….

            The cliff. Madness. The point of no return. All the things he would not think about.

            When he was a punk, he had accepted that the world was chaos, but he was not part of the world, so it didn’t matter. He just flipped everyone the bird and had a good time. But ever since he turned forty, it was dawning on him that maybe it wasn’t all just chaos. That there was actually a terrible, occult order to things. A force that he couldn’t know or understand, but it was there. He could glimpse it in palindromes. He could glimpse it while programming, running code, watching it compile, making it optimize, could make him feel thrumming elation, a flicker of joy, something so beautiful it made him soar.

            Until the magnitude of it became too much. And the fear came back, like a hand closing tight around his throat.

            One night he was sitting out there, smoking in his rattan chair. Drinking his third beer, listening to the swaying of tree branches in the night breeze. The yip of a coyote out there, somewhere. There was a song nagging in his head, a scrap of melody, a bit of lyric that went, take me back where dreams of you never made me feel blue. Acoustic guitar, guy kinda singing through his nose like they did back then, what was that damn song? And why was he thinking of it? He tried to grasp at the significance, the hidden meaning, but the beer buzz was making him foggy…

            …when a sudden noise intruded into his awareness. A stirring, a furtive breaking of twigs. Somehow he knew it wasn’t an animal noise.

            He became all at once alert. Scanning the yard, out where the grassy lawn met the woods. It was so dark out here with no streetlights, only the golden glow of the fairy lights around the porch, couldn’t see a goddamn thing beyond that, really…

            But he heard breathing. Then whispering. From down there.

            He was frozen now, hand gripped on the neck of the beer bottle. Something about his aroused state made him feel he could hyper focus, could see in the dark like an owl: there was a group of shadowy figures down there, at the edge of the woods. Small figures. Children. And now they were very, very still.

            And Barron, too, was very, very still. Time seemed to slow down, bending like taffy, then stopped. Instead of feeling advantaged by being up above them, he felt more vulnerable, like a lone figure on a stage.

            “Who’s there?” he asked the night, the question catching in his dry throat and breaking in the middle.

            There was no answer, but there was more whispering, and quiet laughter. Then, one of them, who looked like a baby who had just learned to walk, sallied forth on bowed little legs, panting excitedly. It let out a squeal that sounded like EEEEEEEEECH, and then it toppled over with a grunt, as though it couldn’t balance its oversized head on its little body.

            Something about that squeal resonated in Barron’s very spine. Neural alarms were going off all through his body now, driving him to his feet. He let the beer bottle drop, spewing foam everywhere. He rushed back into the house, hurling the sliding door shut. Locked it, then sagged against the wall, breathing hard, wondering if this was how a heart attack could start.

*

            “Sorry, I really didn’t want to bother you. But it’s the first time I’ve tried to hook up to the projector, and I just couldn’t get it, and I need it for class tomorrow, so you know….”

            “Yeah. No problem. Everyone has trouble with these.”

            It was her again. The art teacher, whose name was Sarah. The one he had thought he had scared off the other day. But here she was, and she was looking at him in this certain way. Piercing, avid. Almost brazen, in spite of the nervous, skittering way she spoke. It made him feel pinned in stasis like a moth in a case. It helped if he didn’t make eye contact.

            All he had to do was plug in the HDMI and VGA cords. “Here we go. Okay. You can go ahead and turn on your computer now.”

            She tapped a few buttons and the machine hummed to life. “Okay, I’ll just pull up what I was going to show, I guess?”

            “Sure, sure.” He was exhausted from a sleepless night last night. The room felt like it was spinning. The creepy kids in his yard. It couldn’t have been real. And the way she had brought it up the other day…It didn’t sit right with him. What did she know? She must know, or why would she look at him like that?

            “So anyway, I set these up as a slide show, where I show one to the kids and say a little bit about each painting, yadda yadda yadda…” As she prattled on, leaning over the keyboard, nose ring glinting in the screen’s glow, it occurred to him that maybe she wasn’t as young as he first thought. Sometimes he confused young with small.

            The projector screen was suddenly flooded with amoeba shapes. Bright, exuberant and playful looking.

            “Cute,” said Barron bemusedly, one eyelid starting to twitch.

            “You like it? It’s Yayoi Kasuma. Let me just…there.” She clicked, and the image changed. This time it was a field of polka dots. But so many polka dots, multitudes. By some trick of the eyes they seemed to swarm and pulse in a way that was alarming. It made him feel scared and sick.

            “Well, it’s different, I guess.” He was beginning to feel his pulse speed up. She was looking at him again. Like this was some kind of test. Who was she, and what did she want with him?

            “Her paintings are about obsession.” She was moving her hands, gesturing excitedly. There were black leather bracelets on each wrist. “Her obsession with dots. She said, the earth is a dot. The moon is a dot. The sun is a dot. She is a dot. Dots to infinity.”

            He stood there, feeling weak as though shot with a poison dart. She clicked to the next slide. This one had the design of a net. A very dense, very flat net. Where each stroke was tight, distinct, and had nothing to do with any other line.

            “It’s… a lot. It’s making me feel kind of ill,” he said, and then added a laugh, so she wouldn’t see how afraid he was. Once again, things seemed to be coming together in a terrible sense. Whatever he was afraid of knowing, this person was going to show it to him. She may as well have been wearing an executioner’s hood. She wasn’t an art teacher. She was an agent of doom.

            “That’s kind of the idea, though. Because the lines are full of energy. See? There’s a lot of passion in these lines. A lot of fear.” She paused to give him another long look. Unblinking, lips slightly parted as though in anticipation.

            She wanted him to tell her. He would never tell her.

            Before she could say another word, he said in a breathless rush, “Sorry, I’ve got another ticket. Got a lot on my dance card today. Just email me if you need anything else.”

            “Did you maybe, want to…I just thought that sometime we could—“

            He didn’t hear the end of her sentence, he was sprinting out the door so fast.

 

            Spring had come when he wasn’t paying attention. The back yard would soon need mowing. There were purple crocuses sprouting. Birdsong at daybreak.

            He inspected the place at the edge of the woods where they had been. The ground was damp from rain earlier in the week. And he could swear he saw children’s footprints. Very faint ones. Maybe? The more he stared at the ground, the more confused he felt. He didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t anymore. Without realizing it he had been holding his breath, holding it so long that now he saw sparkles.

            He would quit the methadone, he decided a propos of nothing, staring down into the mud, not knowing what was real anymore. He would quit, effective immediately.

            Son, where are you? Why haven’t you called me back? his mother pleaded in an aggrieved voice on his voicemail. We used to be so close! I worry about you. Anyway, Madrid, or no? You have to give me an answer this week!

            His mother wanted him to go to Spain with her. He told her he was working and she had brushed it off, saying that the school took him for granted, He didn’t know why she didn’t go with a girlfriend. Her persistence rankled him.

            But then again, even just the idea of escaping this place for a while acted on him like a balm. He could stop resisting, let his mother be in charge. Imagining it made him feel safely cocooned. Like the Vicodin he used to take after he crashed one of his father’s delivery trucks and fucked up his back. His father. Thought he was god, just for owning a beer distribution company. He had pulled strings to keep Barron from going to jail. Breathalyzer tests under wraps. Practically cut him off after that, though. Never even gave him credit for getting those IT jobs all by himself…

            He deleted his mother’s message. She could find someone else. He couldn’t be all she had. Maybe if he were married, if he had his own kids, like his brother did, she would let him go for once.

            He did not call her back. He did take some days off of work, though. To detox from the methadone.

            The first day that he skipped the clinic, his eyes watered, his nose ran, and he felt jumpy as hell. All he wanted to do was look up stories about the mysterious children. He read op-eds. (Can we blame the epidemic of broken families? Or are we overdue for self-inspection: They are all of our children, and we are all at fault.)

            He read message boards of other people who were tormented by the children. They’ve been here for weeks now. I can feel them, I know they judge and mock me. I’m a prisoner in my own head. I don’t know what’s real or what’s not any more. Anybody out there who’s seen what I’ve seen, know that it’s real. It’s a living hell. They’ll tell you it’s not real. No one will help you. Only we know how it feels. You are not alone!

            He started making Excel spreadsheets to study the data, trying to find patterns of where it happened, when it happened, how old the people who made the reports were. He made tables of cells, columns, and rows. Intersecting letters and numbers. Cells of percentages, dates, times, durations. He couldn’t sleep, so he wrote formulas, combined and separated the numbers. Did the pivot tables. Soon his eyes trembled in their sockets and he was starting to sweat.

            After hours of work, he had to admit that there was nothing there. It was all for nothing. And that’s when the nausea began to hit him.

            It was manageable at first. He wrapped in a wool blanket. He gave up working the numbers and drifted into looking at fan art and memes made of the phenomena known as #CREEPYKIDS. There were comics drawn of the creepy kids running amok through a shopping center, eating people. An altered photo of a toddler, grinning, with large, jagged adult teeth, captioned THEY ARE GETTING SMARTER. The children standing impassively watching the scene of a horrific car crash. The children in silhouette against a wall of flame and smoke that said THEY WILL BURN IT ALL DOWN.

            Worst of all was the original night vision photo, animated so that they the kids had weirdly glowing eyes and limbs that were being grotesquely stretched out, further and further, until they snapped off. This gave Barron a sick feeling.

            It reminded him of being a teenager, in the early days of the Internet. He was only alone, online, when there was suddenly too much freedom. When he always had to brace himself for the next scary image. Anything could jump out and shock him, scare him, if he stumbled on the wrong site. It made him feel numb, but aroused and excited. He hated it, but he loved it, and couldn’t stop…

            He was vomiting now. Feeling slightly delirious. He was afraid, so afraid, but he had to do something, because he knew the children were there, and they were starting a fire. He could smell the smoke. He could hear them chanting things in his mind, silly things, something that sounded like tail of the comet, tail of the bear. The baby had worked itself into a frenzy, bobbing up and down on its stunted legs and shrieking. Crazy shit, and it was all out there, but also inside of him, so he couldn’t get away. He pressed his hands over his ears.

            Something was happening to him. The lines were being blurred between his interior and exterior. He was terrified of disappearing into his own visions. He felt the way he did when Sarah showed him the field of dots. Everything was swarming and churning. The world was too big. There were too many dots. Too many points of reference to know anything for certain anymore. His own mind was devouring him. The only thing that kept him from going under completely was focusing on a mental image of her, the way her eyes pierced and pinned him down to reality. She was a pale cipher, a flame that burned through his bad dreams. Her shapeless black, her absurd chunky boots. She wasn’t there to harm him. She was trying to save him. Maybe, just maybe, things could be different from now on.

            But for right now, he needed all the help he could get. Because the monster was here. The thing that had chased him through his dreams was here.

            The last time he had been this helpless, he had been lying in a hospital bed after crashing the delivery truck while driving shitfaced. He had awakened to his father standing over him, self-made man in work boots, faded jeans, and a Burberry scarf. Head cocked towards the door, a remote smile on his face. In the low Southern drawl that he used when he was being “real,” he intoned,

            There’s nothing uglier than an adult infant. A mama’s boy gone to rot. You’re a colossal fuck up, my boy. You’d better wake up before something wakes you up.

            The memory shocked him. Had he willfully repressed it, stuffed it down the memory hole? He saw himself now as his father might see him, a pale sick man wrapped in a blanket, peaking out the blinds, afraid of the world. First he felt ashamed. Then he felt…something else. A spark, and then a flickering. It was anger.

            Though he staggered a bit, as though he were moving across the deck of a lurching ship in a raging storm, he got up, walked through the kitchen, and exited the side door, out where the trash bins were kept; the cold spring air was bracing, but made him tremble. It must have been three AM. The loneliest time, where it seemed like he was the only person on the planet.

            He could hear them, out there, talking their nonsense and riddles.

            The moon cast a bluish light. His feet were bare, and the earth felt cold and damp. The sense of vagueness and unreality was draining away from him as the adrenalin flooded his veins. He could see their shapes, standing there at the edge of the woods.

            They could sense he was coming. He knew because they went quiet. The sense of suspended stillness like an intake of breath.

            Then noises started coming from the baby, who was snorting and gasping, blowing wet raspberries.

            The sounds were repulsive, but somehow spurred him on to yell, “Who are you kids? What do you want from me?” He kept walking, straight over to where they were.

            But at the sound of his voice, they fled into the woods. Quick as a school of guppies, a swarm of hummingbirds.

            “I’m not afraid of you! Here I am! Here I am!”

            But they were already gone. Absorbed silently back into the landscape from which they had emerged. And he was standing by himself in his own backyard, in the middle of the night, in sweatpants and a robe, screaming into the dark; He closed his eyes because it felt all at once that he might fall over. He leaned forward, bracing himself against his own thighs, and drew ragged breaths. Alone.

            Except he wasn’t alone. The baby couldn’t run as the others had. They had left him behind. Now the thing was overstimulated and confused, running away from the woods. It shrieked and huffed, its bowed legs pumping as it ran in circles, until it tripped and face planted onto the ground.

            Barron slowly, warily, walked towards it. He squatted down to look closer.

            It was trying to stand up again, but it seemed unbalanced. Its head was so round, as wide as its shoulders. Its body was so stunted and rubbery. Its eyes rolled up to look at him. Eyes so deep set and shadowed, like the eyeholes in a skull. Was it a baby or an old man?

            “What are you?” he asked. He was no longer angry but stuck somewhere between revulsion and pity. When something was real and in front of you, everything felt a lot more complicated.

            Its hands were rubbery starfish. Its mouth wet and gaping with drool. The baby sneezed, panted a bit, and gurgled a string of nonsense syllables. Or was it speaking a language of some kind? Maybe it was the palindrome he had always been searching for.

            “Who are you?” Barron whispered hoarsely.

            But then the baby was gone, as though it had never been there at all.

Leah Erickson

Leah Erickson’s work has appeared at many literary magazines, such as Pantheon, The Saint Ann's Review, The Coachella Review, and many more. She is the author of the novels, "The Brambles," "Blythe of the Gates," and "The Gilded Lynx." In addition, she is the winner of numerous awards for her novels, including a gold medal at the Independent Publisher's Book Awards and a silver medal at the Reader's Favorite Awards. Her next novel, The Vesper Bell, will be published in the spring.