I’m publishing my science fiction novel Pareidolia in slow motion. A new chapter will be published every week. The premise is available here.
Powelton Village, Philadelphia | June, 2000
Zeke buzzes me in. He lives alone, thank Christ. I lurk beneath a parade of throbbing orange lights until I reach his door, which I bang on hard enough to jiggle off the little number under the peephole. It’s never occurred to me that the orange lights in the hallway look like ’50s flying saucers.
Zeke opens the door and walks back in without looking at me.
“Want some chicken? I’m making chicken pasta.”
“Sit down. Tell me what the fuck happened, man. You sounded crazy on the phone.”
I sit on his couch, backpack in my lap, wondering how to begin. I eye the row of sci-fi movies on his bookshelf, wishing I was here for another three-part, part-three marathon. You know, where you watch three movies in a row that are the third installment in a franchise, which is pretty much the best thing ever. But of course that isn’t why I’m here.
Balero was still passed out when I left. I acted like an asshole, rushing him out of the New Age freakshow like that, and I’d have to explain myself at some point. Or not. No, I would. I value our relationship too much to be that big of a dick.
The weed… I look down at my backpack.
“Hey, you wanna smoke up?”
Zeke shoots me a look from the kitchen and whisper-yells, “Shh! Not so loud! The fuck. You know I can’t do that shit.”
“Mind if I do?”
“Yes, I the fuck mind. Not in here, OK? I live next door to a fucking probation officer. And these walls are made of wrapping paper.”
I stare a hole through his coffee table.
He’s back in the living room, snapping fingers in my face, laughing.
“Did you consider the possibility that the your weed is laced?”
“What do you mean? With what?”
“Opium? LSD? Fuckin’ DDT?”
“No, it wasn’t laced. I was fine before…Balero and I were fine the whole time.”
Zeke laughs his way back to the kitchen.
“So tell me what happened, man.”
“Yeah. So I’m just gonna… Remember that stupid UFO cable special we saw a couple years ago? Holcomb and his recovered alien devices? I think I may have just… sort of… seen one of them.”
Yeah. Yep! I knew this would be an awkward silence. A long one. Hello! Zeke needs a ticking clock in the background for moments like this. Or crickets. Chirping crickets would work.
He’s back in the living room, balled fists at his sides. His eyes do a little dance, shooting back and forth between me and the cordless phone on the coffee table.
“You wanna uh… You wanna run that by me again?”
“I’m pretty sure it was it.”
Nothing from Zeke. Silence. I say “it was it” over and over in my head until it turns into simply it was.
“Why… Where the fuck were you today? Why didn’t you call me? You could have…”
His phone rings. He grabs it, gives me the holy shit eyes again, and storms off to the bedroom. He wasn’t kidding about the thin walls—I can hear every word he says. I can’t talk right now. I gotta… I know. Yeah, I’m sorry.
“Hang on. Yeah?”
“I’m not here. Don’t invite anyone over.”
“I’m not. I won’t.”
Back to the living room again with the balled-up fists, this time on his hips. Angry, insistent eyes. Disappointed eyes. Mom eyes.
“So today. Where, you know, exactly, were you?”
“Me and Balero… Balero and I? Balero and I were into some serious… imported tea earlier today, so we, um, we were just out being a couple of stoners, and we… So we wound up going to this New Age thing, this conference downtown. Speakers, workshops, mystic crap for sale. Just raining bullshit in there. Balero wandered off somewhere and I wound up in some corner where this, I dunno, this hot teenage girl was up on stage doing a live demo. Psychic shit.”
A hissing sound threatens from the kitchen. Zeke maintains the mom stance for another few seconds then turns to rescue his pasta. He doesn’t finish making dinner; he just turns everything off and rushes back into the living room. He sits cross-legged on the couch, across the coffee table from the loveseat I’ve claimed. He clasps his hands under his chin and gives me a hard stare.
“I got called on.”
His eyebrows go up.
“You got called on?”
“Whoever was getting their psychic reading finished up and got off the stage. Or, no—I guess she channeled dead relatives. Some bullshit like that. Then this other guy, I dunno, her manager? He was on stage with her and asked the crowd for another volunteer. I mean, real nineteenth century parlor trick bullshit, right? Every ‘volunteer’ was really in on the scam, or whatever, right? But before I could do anything, he pointed right at me. Looked right into my eyes. ‘You,’ he said. ‘Come on up. What’s your name, son?’ I was higher than Jesus. I freaked.”
“Yeah. Cut to me up there at that table sitting next to this hot teenage girl, like a hundred people in the audience. I mean, this girl was maybe eighteen. Long brown hair, fucking beautiful blue eyes. She totally sensed my tension. She was very cool. She whispered a few things to me with her hand over the mic. She was all like, ‘It’s going to be all right, don’t be nervous,’ that kind of thing. She touched my hand, and that’s when I saw it.”
“On the goddamn table, man! Right in front of me! Just fucking sitting there between us, in front of everyone. I could have reached out and touched it!”
Zeke shuts his eyes and sighs.
“I swear to Christ, man. Remember that stupid show, Aliens Exposed or whatever? With Holcomb talking about what it looked like, and the digital diagram and everything? With the triangle carved into the top? She had a watch wrapped around it man, but it was it. It was definitely it.”
“She had a watch wrapped around it?”
I stand up and do circles around the tiny living room, my arms flying around my head. “It was it, man. I saw it! It was it! It was it!”
“OK, calm down. Did she look OK?”
“What? Yeah. Yeah, she looked fine. Why?”
“Yeah, shit. I didn’t think of that. No, man. She looked totally amazing. Like a model or something.”
Right. The side effects. I had completely forgotten. They caused…
“Oh shit, the dude standing behind us on the stage didn’t sound so good.”
“Yeah, his voice was super raspy, and he looked like a fucking AIDS survivor or some shit.”
“What do you think? I lost my mind. I froze. I didn’t say anything for the rest of the time I was up there. I just kept looking at it, looking at her, looking at it, looking at her.”
“What did she say? Did she even acknowledge it?”
“No! That’s the crazy part! She just did her psychic bullshit spiel, you know, tell me about yourself and shit. The—it—just sat there on the table, and she didn’t even look at it!”
“You were on stage at a New Age conference in downtown Philadelphia, getting a live psychic reading, and you didn’t say anything the entire time.”
“No, man! I mean, yeah. Like I grunted a few… I don’t know! What the fuck was I supposed to say? ‘Uh, hey man. That isn’t by any chance recovered alien fucking technology, is it?’ Jesus!” I say this last part under my breath, wondering which way the probation officer lives.
“Sit down. I’ll get you a beer.”
I drink it, but it doesn’t help. I’m back up within five minutes, doing tiny circles around his tiny living room again like a cartoon airplane. Zeke is still striking his Zen master pose on the couch.
“What else, what else? What do you mean?”
“Marcus. What else happened?”
“Nothing! I froze, she did her best, given the circumstances, meek applause, I left, and I waited around for Balero to materialize. We had something to eat, and we left.”
“You said Balero was somewhere else this whole time?”
I wave this off.
“I don’t know. We split up for an hour to check things out.”
“You didn’t say anything…”
“Don’t worry. You are the very first to hear this. Balero wouldn’t even know what to do with this information.”
Now it’s Zeke’s turn to pace. His fingers are in his mouth, then out of his mouth and slapping his chin, then back in his mouth.
“We’ve got to contact Holcomb.”
I make a noise like he’s asking me to rob a bank.
“I’m sorry—we’ve got to what?”
“Marcus, we’ve got to bring this to him, even if it’s a fake, or not what you thought it was, even if you were just high as fuck. You know what finding this thing would do for his cause?”
“What the hell, dude? How are you thinking we can get it to him?”
A sideways look, then: “Leave that part to me.”
“ ‘Leave that part to’… What the fuck does that mean?”
“I got this. Just… Don’t worry about it, OK? Where is she from?”
“God dammit, the girl! The psychic. Where is she from?”
“I don’t know. Here…”
I dig around for the program in my backpack, one that listed all of the conference events and speakers. Her name is on it somewhere.
“Leah. There. Leah Schaudt.”
I point to the back page. Zeke leans in for a closer look.
“Is there a bio?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t read it.”
“Well read it, for God’s sake.”
Zeke pulls his laptop out from behind a couch cushion.
“Read me the website.”
“The website! There has to be a URL somewhere.”
There is. It’s on the cover.
“Uh, www dot awareness-hyphen-publications dot org.”
“OK, here we go. Come to daddy. Awareness life, awareness retreats, awareness fucking anal bleaching… OK. Here!”
I sit next to him on the couch. He’s already found it. That’s her, a small black and white photo, some text under her face.
“Leah Schaudt is a… blah, blah, blah… nineteen years old… graduate of blah, blah, blah… who cares?”
“Dude, there! ‘Ms. Schaudt currently resides with her father in Philadelphia.’ She fucking lives here, man!”
My eyes feel like hot coals. I make my excuses and bail. Zeke promises to do some research on Leah, and I pray like hell I can actually get some sleep tonight.
Balero is still passed out when I get home. I dim the lights in my bedroom, put on some ambient music, kill another bowl of apple buds, and try to meditate.
I slip in and out of a dream, back up on that stage with the girl at the convention. I hear all the noises of the auditorium, the elbowing chaos of a large crowd. The memory morphs into a dream and back into a memory. The girl, nodding after a few reassuring words and taking her hand off the microphone, says something with her eyes that I don’t catch.
“What’s your name?”
I lean into the mic.
“Hi, Marcus. I’m Leah. I’m going to give you a quick scan. I promise it won’t hurt.
Small chuckles from the audience. The guy over there behind me laughs—her agent, or whatever—and the laugh morphs into a cough. The device on the table is the center of all gravity, but somehow I manage to keep my eyes on Leah.
“I’d like you to close your eyes, Marcus.”
A quick look at the—at it—and then down go my eyelids. I nearly say something but don’t, which is good, because I’m sure it would have been along the lines of, I don’t know, something about hidden cameras and is this a joke.
“Good, good. Now take a deep breath.”
“In through your nose and out through your mouth. Now another.”
She says the word “in” like it has seventeen Ns. I do the deep breathing thing for a little while, somehow keeping my eyes closed.
I’m flying around the device like a giant bug, circling the thing, just a few inches above the table. Dreaming and not dreaming. I try to memorize every nook and wrinkle of the box. It looks like a silver package of cigarettes, only a little fatter. The material is some kind of metal. Shiny, like it’d recently been cleaned. (Good God, if only she knew what she had.) A few rivets around the edges keep it from being a perfect rectangle. It has two or three small round black dots, maybe tiny holes that you could plug something into, or then again maybe not. And the unmistakable outline of a triangle. I can’t really see the sides because she has a fucking watch wrapped around it for whatever reason.
“I’m going to start by reading your aura. Do you know what that is?”
“Yeah, yes. I think so.”
“Good. I’m going to be quiet for a few seconds. Please keep your eyes closed, and try to remember the last time you felt truly comfortable and safe. Can you do that for me, Marcus?”
She takes a deep breath. It was long and loud, meaning I should mimic her again, which I do.
“OK—Marcus? You’re super distracted by something right now, aren’t you?”
I open my eyes and stare right into hers. I don’t look down.
“Sure you are. OK, I need you to let go of whatever that is, just for a moment, or I won’t be able to get a reading on you.”
“Marcus, what’s your mother’s name?”
“Veronica. That’s a pretty name. How is your mother these days, Marcus?”
“What is your fondest memory of her?”
This is when I get up and leave. I shoot the device one last look before turning to go, but I just get the fuck out of there. I think I mumble “thank you” or something, I don’t remember. I walk right out of that theater and back into the main hall and wait for Balero for a few minutes by the entrance, before the idea of stress eating pulls me over to the food court. A wave of nausea stops me from ordering anything. I get a vague sense that Balero is somewhere nearby, talking to someone, but I’m too distracted to focus on anything, too busy trying process what the fuck just happened.