Palindrome

Another one from the archives. Thanks to Lisa for a majority of the editing on this one, you can request her reasonably priced services here. Enjoy!

 

 

Her pale face was forever burned into his brain, cold and lifeless, purple bruises circling her neck. “Yes, that’s her,” he’d said when they pulled back the sheet, his voice unwavering, his eyes dry. Hands had been around her neck. Other hands, touching his Leanne.

His spinning mind was barraged with thoughts and plans and visions of who might have done this, how and why, and what he could do to find out. And the things he would do to them when he did.

When he told the police he was out drinking with his CERN coworkers at the time of the murder, he began thinking of those neutrinos he’d been working with recently–how they sped around faster than light and how maybe he could use them to send a message back to her, to warn her somehow. While the police inspected his hands for some reason he hadn’t listened to, he fantasized about abusing the laws of physics to look back and see it happening, to reach through and stop it. They asked him about Eric Masters, the man who’d been killed along with Leanne, and showed him pictures of a battered face. While he told them Eric was her piano instructor and she was there for a lesson, in his mind he was squeezing the life out of her nameless killer.

Now as he sat in his silent house, his back stiff in his cold chair, he still plotted and schemed, and planned impossible plans. Slowly his hands relaxed from fists to lay limp on the armrests.

He was in their house, the old house in Seattle, before he got the job and moved them to Geneva. Leanne was at the sink washing the dishes, her ever-present ponytail swaying gently as she scrubbed. He walked toward her as if through water, his hand outstretched and holding a necklace he bought for her, a peace offering, to make up for how much he had yelled at her for going out to her book club without telling him. He knew what would happen, in that strange way of knowing in dreams that you can never act on. She would turn around as he got close, and be startled, dropping the plate in her hands to shatter on the ground. And he would see fear in her pale blue eyes, fear that lingered far too long before turning to a smile and a hug.

Except something was different this time. She hadn’t turned around. He reached out and grabbed her shoulder, turning her himself. Her mouth was open wide in terror and she clutched at her throat, where a pair of hands squeezed, choking her. He grasped at the hands to pull them away, but his fingers passed through them and all he could feel was her neck. She looked at him, pleading, and a long shriek escaped her constricted throat.

He awoke in his chair, the scream still ringing in his head. Then it turned to laughing, and faded away. Kids outside, trick or treating, playing games. He’d forgotten it was Halloween. Leanne was supposed to be getting her costume ready; she always dressed up even though they rarely went out. He didn’t like people to see her dressed in the sort of costumes she always seemed to pick. At that, his mind began spinning again. The police said they found her half undressed, her shirt and bra removed. He now recalled them saying there was no sign of rape, but at the time all he could think about was murder and torture and fire and the banging of the blood in his ears. The thud, thud, thud, of the blood fell in time with the banging of his fist against shapeless faces in his mind. Thud, thud, thud. Knock knock knock.

Someone was at the door. He stood up and rubbed his hands over his face. He couldn’t stand talking to the police anymore. Half a dozen of his friends had been with him at the Mayfair club when the murder happened, he didn’t know what else to say. He wondered what would happen if he just shut the door on them and went to sleep when the knock came again. Then a voice said “Trick or treat.”

He didn’t have any candy. He opened the door still blinking sleep from his eyes, and saw a man dressed all in black, wearing a mask. Frizzy purple hair stuck out at odd angles and a mouth full of bloody fangs took up most of the painted face.

“I don’t-” He started, but the clown interrupted him.

“I know what happened to your wife, John, and I know how to stop it.” The voice was muffled behind the latex mask, but the words were clear enough.

“Who are you?”

“I’m here to help, John. I’m a friend.”

“How do you know about my-“

“Just listen. I know about the experiments at CERN. I know about the third floor.”

The third floor. Something was going on up there in the C wing- everyone knew it, but no one talked about it. Security there was double that of the rest of the building, and the whole wing was a ghost, mentioned nowhere officially. John and the other researchers were curious at first, then angry that they hadn’t been informed, then worried that they hadn’t been asked to work on whatever the project was.

“The third… Anderson? I’m not in the mood for pranks.” John made to shut the door, but the man held up a gloved hand.

“This is no prank, John. Think about your wife.”

“What does that have to do with my wife?”

“Don’t play dumb. You know about what the neutrinos can do. What do you think they could be doing up there that is so secret?”

“They… they’ve found a way to send back a message… impossible.” Were his wild fantasies of revenge actually feasible? Could he even bring his Leanne back from the dead? A speck of hope planted itself firmly in his mind. Like a bit of dirt in his eye, it could not be ignored no matter how small.

“Not just a message,” the clown continued. “Objects. A person. And as far back as three days ago, when the machine was turned on.”

“But they must be sending people back already…” So many possibilities: infinite loops, recursion, even such mundane things as rigging the stock market or checking the winning lottery numbers; All these were pushed out of his head by thoughts of retribution, and his Leanne. The time of her death had been placed around 10 pm October 29th… two days ago.

“No one has used it yet,” the man said. “Red tape. Politics. It would be convenient if someone could break the rules, someone who didn’t care about the consequences.”

“Yes.” The words barely registered. He could go back. He could see her again. See him. “How?”

The man took something out of his pocket with a gloved hand. “This key-card will get you onto the floor and access to the room with the machine.”

John held the card up to his eyes. A dark skinned man wearing glasses grinned at him. Alex Jacobs. John didn’t recognize the name. He rubbed his thumb over a dark splotch next to the picture. Blood?

“And this,” said the man, pulling a folded white paper from another pocket, “will instruct you on how to operate the machine, and what time settings to use. You must follow the instructions exactly. There was only a small window of time when it was not being watched, outside of this precise time, it is under constant surveillance. Don’t lose these, even after you’ve gone through you will need them.”

The paper looked crinkled and used. John took it and unfolded it. There was a diagram and a numbered list of typed instructions. “How do you know all this?” He looked up at the masked man. “Who are you?”

“It doesn’t matter, does it? You can go back.”

John felt his hand squeeze into a fist, crumpling the paper even more. Worries of safety and possibility became muted voices lost in the howling wind of his emotions. He shoved the card and the paper into his pocket and went to find his keys. When he returned to the door the masked man was gone.

~

The parking lot was empty and dark when he got to the facility. John parked in what he hoped was an inconspicuous spot, and tried not to look over his shoulder too many times as he walked to the front door. He reached reflexively for his wallet, where he kept his own key-card, but stopped himself and used the one the stranger had given him instead. With a beep and a click, the door unlocked, and he stepped inside the dark lobby.

A short walk down a quiet hallway and he was at the elevators. The thirdfloor button refused to activate until he swiped the key-card again. He felt the floor pressing at his feet as the elevator rose to its destination. As the door slid open with a soft ping, he realized that anyone could have heard the lift coming up and be waiting for him. He cursed himself for his carelessness and peeked out of the doors. The area was silent, but the lights were on.

A covert glance got him a view of an empty front desk, and he stepped cautiously out of the elevator. The air felt thick and he thought he could almost hear a deep, vibrating hum. As he crept between a maze of vacant office cubicles until he encountered another locked door on the far wall. He looked through the small glass window built into the upper half of the door and jumped back as someone walked by.

He waited for his heart to calm before he looked again. A blueuniformed man walked slowly down the hall.

John stole furtive glances through the window and measured five minutes before the guard walked by again. He wondered if he should have brought his gun; would they hire armed guards or the regular security for something like this? His mind raced as the guard disappeared around the corner. He slid the key-card and pushed open the door.

He could hear the humming clearly now, and caught himself flexing his jaw, trying to make his ears pop, like he had a head cold or was up in a plane. It got more intense as he crept down the hall after the guard. He poked his head around the corner and pulled it back immediately, stifling a curse. The guard was right there, maybe a dozen feet away, drinking from a water fountain. John chanced another look. The guard didn’t appear to have a gun, just a nightstick and a pouch that likely contained a can of mace. Two steps, John thought. Two quick strides and he could be up behind the guard, catching him unaware, slamming his face into the fountain. Then the guard stood upright, and John saw that he had dark skin and glasses–the same as the man in the picture on the key-card.

John pulled back around the corner and looked down at the card just to be sure. It was the same man. How could they forget to disable a stolen card? He looked at it closely for the first time. It looked old. The picture was faded and scraped and the lettering was difficult to read.

A sharp increase in the volume of the humming startled him out of his thoughts. He looked carefully around the corner again. The guard had opened a door down the hall and was leaning inside, his hand on his nightstick. After a long moment, he shut the door and continued on his route.

As the door shut, the hum was muted again, and John knew that was the room he needed to get into.

He watched as the guard turned around the corner at the other end of the hall, then made himself wait thirty seconds before moving up to the door. The window on this one was smaller and looked reinforced. He could see blinking lights and a large, curving, bronze-colored structure.

He would have to move fast. The guard would likely hear the hum get louder as he opened the door. He unfolded the paper again and scanned the diagram, preparing himself. As he read, he saw that the paper was not as crinkled and worn as he thought. Some of the creases were actually lines of ink, as if someone had photocopied a crumpled version.

There was no time to think about that. He he took one more hard look at the diagram, then swiped the key-card and slipped inside.

The hum was so loud that he didn’t even hear the door close. The room was full of machinery. Bundles of wires crisscrossed between tall computer towers, all centering on a reflective, bronze-colored, half sphere of what looked like a very thin material. It stood balanced like a bowl on its side, pointing at a small platform. A hand-sized box with a single button on it hung from a cord near the platform. Everything looked haphazard, rushed, unprofessional. This felt more like someone’s pet project than any great, secret experiment.

He turned to his left and saw the computer, just like in the diagram. He glanced at the paper and flipped up three switches. Each one added a new, slightly higher pitch to the hum; it was almost unbearably loud. The next instruction was a long list of numbers. He found the small keyboard, and typed with shaking hands while looking continually over his shoulder at the door. He double-checked the string of digits then hit the enter key. A row of green lights blinked above the monitor.

That was it. All that was left was the final button press. He stepped up onto the platform and grabbed the hanging box in his hand. The vibrating hum blurred his vision. He paused with his thumb hovering over the button, some voice in the back of his mind questioning his actions. How had he gotten in here so easily? Then he saw the door opening and the guard rushing in. His thumb slammed down onto the button and everything became a white shriek.

~

Large blobs of light slid across his vision and a high ringing filled his ears. He was still in the room and the guard was gone. He felt numb, except for his head, which had a pain to go along with the sound. He rubbed his hands up and down his arms and over his face. As the ringing in his ears faded, so did the pain, and the spots in his eyes shrank until he was seeing normally again.

John stepped down off the platform. The room looked different, but not in any way he could pinpoint. The humming was much quieter; he doubted it would be audible outside this room. He quickly patted himself down to make sure he was all there, intact. He felt the paper and key-card still in his pocket.

It was much easier exiting the building; the hallways were dark and he saw no one. Only after walking to the empty parking spot did he realize that, of course, his car wouldn’t be there. He pulled out his cell to call a cab, but stopped. Assuming he was in the past, there were now two of him, and that meant two cell phones. What would happen if he called someone? If someone called him would both phones ring? Unwilling to take chances, he powered off the phone. Before the screen went black, he saw that the clock must have linked up with the satellite to update itself. The time said October 29, 7:35 pm. Two days in the past. His wife was to be murdered tonight in a matter of hours.

He walked twenty minutes or so to the nearby Chez Lily Cafe, and used their phone to call himself a cab. From there it was only a half-hour drive to the piano instructor’s house in La Florence. On the way he stopped at a shop and found a dark hooded sweater to cover his white button up shirt, some dark gloves, and, at the last second, an aluminum baseball bat. When he opened his wallet to pay the cashier, he found three crisp one-hundred dollar bills; money he was supposed to have given Leanne to pay for her lesson. He stared at the bits of paper, wondering if they somehow could be responsible; if things would be different had he remembered.

He kept the bat hidden under the sweater during the cab ride and told the driver to stop several blocks up from the house. As soon as the cab was out of sight, he pulled on the hood and gloves and strode quickly down the dim residential street, his breath fogging before him. He was surprised to see no children around, before remembering again that it was not Halloween anymore.

The house was two stories of attractive, dark, wood paneling and large inset windows. A balcony hung out over a decorative rock wall which surrounded the house, splitting the yard into an upper and lower level. The balcony would be easy to reach from the top of the wall.

He crouched against the rocks. Someone had moved past one of the windows on the second story. He watched, holding his breath, then he saw it again. That swinging brown ponytail. His heart jumped. Leanne. She was here, alive.

He scrambled onto the wall and crept toward the balcony, his hood pulled down low and the bat held in one gloved hand. The bottom of the balcony was just about level with his head. It was dark, as was the room that it led into, but he could see Leanne standing there in the kitchen beyond as he looked through the railing. She was wearing that shirt, the low-cut red one, with no sleeves. He told her not to wear that out in public. He slid the bat between the bars then climbed up, swinging his legs over the railing and crouching down in the corner. He pulled gently at the sliding glass door and as he suspected, it was unlocked.

John waited. He had a good view, and the attacker could be coming any minute. He saw Leanne pouring a glass of wine and wondered how she could be so solid, so real. She looked perfect. He felt a swell of love, then anger as he noticed the red shirt again. And where was the music? Was he paying this Masters fellow for them to be hanging around chatting and having drinks?

John watched as Eric Masters entered the kitchen and filled a glass for himself. He was a shorter man, older than John by probably a decade. He wore a salt and pepper goatee, tweed jacket and slacks, just as he had when John met him at their house for the interview. John hoped that Eric was attacked first, maybe he would get to see a look on the man’s face other than one of self-satisfaction.

Then they kissed, and John’s ears began to ring.

Eric’s hand slid down the length of her arm and she leaned into him. Eric stepped back and pulled her with him out of view.

John strode into the kitchen, his head pounding. He turned to look where they had gone. An open door led to a bedroom. The red shirt was on the floor, and Eric was reaching around her back, unclasping her bra. Three steps, and there was a metallic clank as the bat bounced off Eric’s skull.

He fell to the ground and John was on top of him. He dropped the bat and his fist pounded into that smug mouth, that perfectly trimmed beard, over and over. He heard cracking and gurgling sounds. Leanne screamed and pulled at his shoulders. He stood up and spun around in one motion, pushing her back onto the bed.

“You slut. How long?” He leaned over her as she backed up against the headboard, her face pale.

“John, it’s not- you don’t-”

“How could you?” He grabbed her hair in one bloody glove and pulled her to his face. “Why?” Spit flew from his lips. Her eyes were big, full of fear and something else.

“You’re insane!” Her head knocked against the wall as he thrust his hands around her throat.

“Whore.” He squeezed while she clawed at his hands. Her eyes burned brightly, then dimmed.

He backed away, choking for breath. Leanne. She leaned against the wall on the bed, naked from the waist up, Eric’s blood smeared on her face. Dead.

He stumbled to the kitchen sink ran the tap water over his gloved hands, washing the blood off. He grabbed the open wine bottle and took a long swig.

He felt sick. He went back to the balcony and leaned on the rails, taking deep breaths of the cold night air, but could not calm down. He saw her dead eyes every time he blinked; they flashing back and forth between her body in the bed, and the one under the sheet in the morgue.

He had to get out. He hopped over the railing onto the grass, and hurried away from the house down the dark empty street.

~

That night and the next were spent sleeplessly, flipping through channels in a shady motel room, looking for anything on the news. He feared to talk to anyone or do anything, else he screw up time any more than he already had. He hadn’t even changed his clothes.

He had pawned his watch for more cash, so he wouldn’t have to use an ATM, and he had been surviving on delivery food. Now, he was finally going home.

The cab dropped him off a few blocks from home, and he sat on a bench, watching the street for the clown. As soon as he could return the key-card and instructions to him, his past-self would be out of the house and John could go home.

Costumed children walked up and down the streets kicking at piles of leaves, but he saw no man in black. John shrugged against the wind and pulled the hood over his head. He risked turning on his phone to see the time, but he couldn’t remember exactly when the man had come. The light of the phone’s display illuminated a patch of dried blood on the thumb of his glove. His black glove.

John stood up, and grabbed the shoulder of the nearest child. He knew what he would see even before he did. A bloody toothed clown with frizzy purple hair looked up at him.

“Hey kid, I’ll give you, uh…” he fumbled in his wallet for a bill, “fifty dollars for that mask.”

“Fifty bucks?” The boy pulled the mask off, his freckled face beaming. “Hell yeah!” He thrust the mask into John’s hands, grabbed the bill and took off down the street, letting out a long, piercing scream that filled the night.

John pulled the mask over his face and crossed the street. He knew exactly what to say to make himself leave the house. He walked up his driveway and knocked on the door.

“Trick or treat.”

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