It’s post-dismissal time when you see it again, although you won’t appreciate this one small consolation until later. At the moment, same as any other weekday, the fetching cars are advised to claim their children within ten seconds near the blue school gate. Twenty max, to avoid congesting the two-lane one-way (one lane is used for parking). Other passing cars who find themselves in this suburban clockwork can anticipate no jams, just a bunch of expectant kids (and their yayas, plus the occasional bodyguard) being rightly returned to their parents or drivers, ideally still intact—and maybe pleasantly tired from all the work that’s designed to foster that bright-eyed, upscale brain development.
Sitting in the waiting area, you gingerly tap around the achy spot down your knee, a slow-growing welt from when you tripped over a child’s bag earlier in the day. That’s when you notice the tall Mrs. David—perfect makeup, big pearls, high heels—scowling at you as soon as she sees you staring. Naturally, she has become more vigilant, opting to collect her child herself instead of waiting for him. A week ago, Toby, her rosy-cheeked son, was pulled out of your class. You try to apologize with your eyes and look as sorry as you feel for what you did—you really, truly are—and you regret not thinking straight, that you’re not a psychotic monster, and you want to make amends, somehow thank her for not getting you fired.
As for how your feelings translate physically, well… They don’t. Your one-dimensional face just can’t manage complex emotions (it’s best to look down or away now). But Mrs. David’s expression doesn’t soften, and you can’t help but feel like a de-winged langaw of all things. She finally breaks eye contact and gets into her car with Toby in the front seat, and you can see through the window as she lovingly hands him takeout (you don’t know what chain it’s from, but it’s probably not McDo,with the fancy wrapping and all) for the long ride home, Toby gratefully accepting with his left hand because his other arm is in a cast. Eventually, the car leaves your line of sight.
Maybe you’re just tired and dehydrated. You might also be moderately anemic. You also consider mild burnout, but you love working with children. Despite that, you fantasize about succumbing to the hugging pressure of your new premium weighted blanket, the package having arrived just this afternoon as indicated in the store’s mobile app. It’s an investment, you said to yourself when you were still waffling over dropping thirteen thousand pesos (shipping and import fees not included) on something so frivolous, and also because you’ve been seeing weirder and more frightening things lately. You’ve had half a mind to make that first appointment, the results of which could take months, then you’d become a healed and functioning member of society. But! You spend a third of your life in bed; might as well turn it into something you can actually look forward to instead of putting it off till 2:00 a.m. Besides, there’s nothing a nice cup of warm tea and a good night’s rest won’t fix. If you’re lucky—as in, finally get the WILD (wake-induced lucid dreaming) technique to work—you can even dream your night away into a different life.
But God, just look at yourself.
You need a real break.
A car honks (it still happens) and you look up from your phone—
One by one, the children climb up their cars with their yayas hauling their trolley bags, oblivious to the danger that has now chosen a nearby tree to steady its unnervingly fragile form. The hair on your arms stand on end, but you turn your eyes away and look at the manongguard, who is now walking in its direction.
Doesn’t he see it?
You breathe in a lungful and exhale slowly.You shut your eyes hard, breathe some more, and then, open.
Finally, you will yourself to stop shaking.
And to think you could have remained calm and lucid enough the first time you saw it. You could have avoided all the pain you caused.
Your feet move mechanically, as if you’ve disembodied and your limbs are on autopilot, and before you know it, you’re already inside the school building, though you think this is exactly what you shouldn’t do—you could have stayed with the manong guard—but by some twisted logic you are absolutely sure it won’t follow you. You don’t have time to articulate it to yourself, but you’ve subconsciously worked out that it thrives on terrorizing the most number of people. The children are on their way home. There is really no point for it to show up now.
Unless, of course, you’re wrong.
There’s the other exit in the building’s left wing and you hope it can’t smell your own mounting fear. You realize there are no people as you slowly quicken your pace, not in the rooms, not even in the halls…
You are now full-on power walking. You rationalize the brain is so clever, it can fool itself into believing the absurd, so you distract yourself by thinking of what you’ll be having for dinner when you finally get home: the ube cake in the ref. The ceiling and walls seem to stretch higher and wider than they actually are. Is this how a child sees the world? You keep walking.
You’ve christened the thing it because it doesn’t look like anything you might find in specialty shops and Halloween-themed paraphernalia. That is to say, it’s very unassuming, so no one cares when you have flashy superhero gear or glow-in-the-dark skeleton onesies. To you, it’s a vague concept of a human. Sort of like if a photograph of your friend were super imposed on its negative version by accident. It’s still technically them, no doubt, but it only becomes obvious if you look at it too closely and in very specific angles. It’s only then that you’d really see the wrongness, the slight blurriness, the edges hiding something underneath.
You can explain your unease, just not clearly enough for others to visualize. But the thing is, it resists description.
You try again, anyway: it’s as if it’s in camouflage, closing in on the level of just approximately, passably human, but then it blows its carefully constructed cover by lurching in a bizarre series of disorganized unreal jump cuts in a fraction of a second—and this is when the uncanny dread hits you—but before you can process just what the hell, it’s in character again, whatever it thinks humans do when they lounge idly in public, barely reining in the unfathomable thing it just did. You can’t even remember what you just witnessed, never mind try to capture its exact movements in words.
It’s either that, or you’re just not perceptive enough to see the distortion in real time. If only you had equipment…
And to make your situation worse, no one else seems to notice it, so you have no second pair of eyes to provide better insight or the vocabulary to describe its strangeness. This is not so different from a scientific study of a new strain of consciousness—you hesitate to say species; you’re not even sure if it’s alive—and you don’t understand why it has to be you, since you have no trainingin the sciences or the occult.
Nevertheless, you resort to other illustrations to try and make sense of its behavior. A personal one goes like this: you intuitively know something about it is off—not unlike that amateur’s drawing of a famous teen idol with vacant dead eyes. Your father, an artist who gets commissioned by people from all over the world, gave you lessons when you were twelve. You can almost hear him saying if you don’t get the eyes right, a portrait won’t look like the model no matter what fancy shading technique you use to distract from the error. It’s simply not them.
You remember scrolling through his other drawings, realizing your dad was right. But unlike you, that amateur is still at it, honing his craft, the eyes in his drawings increasingly mimicking depth.
You remember the day it first appeared to you in the dimly lit classroom. Sometime between reading a book and glancing at the children every now and then, fifteen of them napping on the plush carpeted floor before the evening talent show, you saw it stuck on the window and jolted yourself awake. Then you remembered it was early October, relief instantly shooting up your veins, and you wondered which one of your colleagues meant to shorten your life span. It was only a prematurely placed prop, after all, a picture cutout of a young girl’s head stretched flat to the size of a small bowl, the eyes cut out like a mask. You stood up to pull it off the window and touched it and then—
The lights went off and on—
And it had a neck and torso…
Off and on—
And it had arms and legs…
It—flat and dimensionless and not made of paper anymore but not flesh either but not nothing and then the lights went off before you could see it unravel into—
By the time you backed away from it and scrambled for the door—the children wakened by your shouting and by the other children, crying because you’d blindly stepped on them in an act of desperate self-preservation—
It had acquired depth and locked its blank gaze on you.
That was your other mistake. You gave it something to see with, a way to perceive depth. You’re just not sure how.
You once taught the children color names and ROYG. BIV, and all you can think about is how light and color work. Recall: your eyes perceive the apple as red because it absorbs the light and only emits the red wave length, the one your eyes accept. You remember a small bright boy asking if there are more colors we haven’t discovered yet, and you laugh nervously to yourself because you’re now only realizing it doesn’t look like any color on the visible spectrum.
See, you may be dull and lacking in some ways, but you can still progress! You feel some kind of weird exhilaration (perhaps a slight dread) from this and, oh my God, what else, what else?
What else have you overlooked?
For now, you decide the new color is called blank. You think blank is a color human eyes ignored collectively from the dawn of man, and you’re the first to evolve, a species of one. It’s a silly thought.
And as you approach the exit, you can sense that it wants to see you, though it has no eyes.
But you don’t walk away this time.
Instead, you dare to meet its caved-in blank holes.
It… lurches, drags itself toward you.
Something in you is progressively wilting as it gets nearer, and you feel dizzy. It might give you a quick death if you submit to it. But then it points to the wall mirror to your right, the foggy one you always find yourself using to see how haggard you get throughout the day (you think the fogginess improves your skin texture, like a beauty filter). What you can call its finger hangs in the air, and you’re confused by its calm.
But your proximity to it is so disturbingly familiar that for a moment, you can admit it’s oddly enchanting. You don’t question the invasiveness, like you’re being studied yourself. Somehow, you don’t feel delusional when you think, I understand you.
You look for some kind of response.
But the finger tells you all it wants right now is for you to look, and you can’t do it. The thing is waiting, and you have a feeling it doesn’t mind if you take all night to decide. Its bottomless gaze tells you it, too, understands.
And then you decide. Because instinct tells you not to turn your head or even look out the corner of your eye.
You close your eyes hard.
(It’s OK you feel nothing.)
You close your eyes—
You remember closing them, but you can close them again.
You feel so blank.
ROY G. BIV is—
—A convenient way to remember blank, blank, blank, blank, blank, blank, and blank, the colors of a rainbow.
Your favorite one is blank, but the muted version, because blank just hurts to look at.
Exposure to air will ruin the colors. Close what is not closed.
Close, not closed.