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 | July, 2000
“OK, so you’re all set then?”
“Roger that. All set. All systems go. Christ on a cracker, I don’t want to do this.”
“No, I know.”
It’s the night before the heist. Heist eve. Zeke and I going over the steal-the-device-from-Leah checklist at his place, which really is only like four items long, and I’m stress eating fried chicken in a bucket. We’re keeping it quiet in case the PO next door is home, although technically we aren’t planning anything illegal.
Well, I guess sort of we are.
Getting to Leah’s is going to be the very easy part. The plan of what to do when the device is within sight involves almost all improv, since we obviously won’t know where she keeps it, or even if it’ll be out in the open for someone to just grab. And then what? Run out the door while apologizing? Rip off the watch and throw it back? Or, no—maybe keep the watch, let Holcomb’s people look at it, since it’s probably had direct sustained contact with the device for who knows how long.
My fingers and face are lost in salty greasiness that only could be made better with purple buds, something I’ve sworn off until this is all over (Zeke more or less patted me down for paraphernalia when I walked in the door). Gotta keep the wits very much about me in this time of whatever the fuck it is we’re doing. But, you know. Still gotta eat.
We talk about watching a movie but I know I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything, not even something I’d seen a thousand times. So we just kind of sit there in Zeke’s apartment until it’s obvious that there isn’t anything left to do but do it, and we bid each other a shaky fairwell.
Balero’s up when I get home, reading a book on the couch. We aren’t really on speaking terms, but we do manage to swap a pair grunts as I walk through the living room. I don’t have the energy to deal—all systems are on overdrive for Project Leah, and all unnecessary interactions are to be kept to a minimum. He’s reading something with Time Travel in the title, obviously more bullshit from the “book club”.
“What’re you up to?”
I’m almost to my bedroom. I turn around. He’s not looking up at me. He’s stroking the cat like a goddamned James Bond villain. I walk back out to the living room, lean against a wall, and cross my arms.
“So you aren’t pissed anymore?”
He speaks again without looking up, which is some passive-aggressive bullshit.
“Nope. Just wondering what you’re doing. Saying hello. Roommate things.” He turns a page.
“Balero, I’m pretty tired. I think I’m just going to…”
A roach lets out a tiny string of smoke from the retro ash tray on the coffee table, the one I always think looks like a giant Star Trek communicator. I see more of the book title: General Relativity and Time Travel: A Guide To… something. The cover has a green grid against a dark background with a whirlpool in the middle.
“I think we need to have a talk. There’s some shit, man…” He starts shaking his head, still not looking at me. “We just, you know. We need to talk.”
We need to talk. I’ve literally never heard him use this phrase or anything like it in the almost twenty years I’ve known him. His voice is clear and even. Friendly, almost.
“Yeah, listen…” I jab my thumb at my bedroom, not really sure what I’m going to say next. It just sort of hangs there. Professor Waffles looks up at me through happy, sleepy eyes, yawns, and buries his face in Balero’s chest. “So I’m just going to hit the sack early. We can talk tomorrow or whatever.”
“Sure. Fine. Goodnight.”
And with that I’m dismissed. I actually nod and whisper “OK” as I walk away. (I almost say “thank you”.)
In my bedroom I blink in disbelief and shake my head. Did that really just happen? Did he really just dismiss me? No fucking shit? Had this happened on any other night I would have stormed back out there, grabbed whatever piece of shit book he was reading, and beat him over the head with it. Fuck’s wrong with you, etc.
This wasn’t totally unlike a prank he pulled on me a few years back with a guy dressed as a police officer at our door wanting to know where we were the previous night, talk of suspected drug dealing in the area, the both of us baked beyond all earthly comprehension. I almost pissed in my sneakers. Ha! Gotcha! The cop was really Balero’s coworker, a guy I didn’t know, and the cop uniform was really a security guard uniform, a detail I was far too high and terrified to notice. Both fuckers kept a straight face during the “questioning”, which went on for I want to say a good fifteen minutes. My mouth and throat got so dry I could barely speak. There was even talk of coming back to the station to make official statements, at which point visions of my life as a free man danced across our living room floor and out the window.
But this is different. Something in the lilt of Balero’s voice told me there wasn’t a gotcha on the other side of whatever was happening. He’s stoned, no doubt—probably just slipped over into the clarity that he always gets when he smokes too much—and was in the mood to either fuck with me, or was genuinely trying to scare me.
I crawl into bed with my clothes on and try to force myself to sleep.
It works. I must have been exhausted because sleep did come almost at once and I wake up hot and sticky, not only in last night’s clothes, but also at some point I must have thought it was a good idea to crawl under two layers of blankets in July. I was dreaming that the police were back, real ones this time, at our door and trying to climb in through the windows. Balero was praying in the dining room, bathed in a ray of light. I was hiding the freshly stolen device in a recess in my bedroom wall behind a picture of a safe. I was like, this is so obvious—they’re never going to fall for this.
I get up and shake off the dream. Gotta get to Leah’s by eleven. Balero is still in his bedroom when I leave, probably sleeping but who knows, and so off I go into the hot day with just enough time to stop for some badly needed iced coffee.
It takes a good ten minutes of driving for my brain to tease apart the mixed memories of my dreams and the conversation with Balero the night before. He really was acting like a pretentious fuck, which sort of explains his behavior in my dream. I let fly a few what the fucks as I tear down the freeway to what will surely be the only thing I’ll do today before drowning myself in purple buds, junk food, naps, and daytime television. Kind of a let’s-just-get-this-over-with sort of thing. The plan is to rendezvous back at Zeke’s with the device (provided I can locate it, steal it, and get away with it, ha-ha), hide it somewhere (Zeke won’t tell me where, which is beyond fine with me) and hightail it the fuck home and try to forget all the whatever. Zeke used a fake address and phone number when he signed me up for the appointment, and Leah doesn’t know my last name or anything else about me. My license plates have been artfully smeared with mud—hopefully not enough to attract the attention of the odd cop, but just enough to render a correct reading difficult in case Leah runs out of her house long enough to catch a glimpse as I speed away, and I really don’t want to do any of this.
Overpasses and strip malls fly by. At least it’s nice out. I have the windows down but no music. Too upset. I scream Woo! a few times just to keep the adrenaline from pooling in the back of my throat. It helps.
For some reason I remember Holcomb’s painted eyes in that hotel room, which jogs another dream memory: Holcomb, descending a broad staircase in what looks like a Broadway musical wearing a top hat, bowtie, tux jacket (no pants), garter belt, and shiny knee-high black leather boots. He carries a whip and stops every now and then on his way down the stairs to crack a few, eyes locked on the camera (if my dreams are being filmed, which somehow it always feels like they are).
And boy this Leah really lives out in the middle of nowhere. I memorized the map at Zeke’s place the night before, in a misplaced attempt to calm my nerves (didn’t work, but useful) and I’m now one exit away from the neighborhood I decide I’ll never visit again as long as I live. Two turns after the exit and I’m on her street. Three blocks later and I’m in front of her house, which is across the street from a dense wall of very tall trees. Like a forest maybe. I try to catch my breath, do some deep breathing in and out through my nose like Zeke taught me, try to think of something pleasant, but just wind up thinking about sex. Which I guess is pleasant enough, but also usually fills me with a kind of horrible anticipation wrapped in nervousness under the best of conditions, so that doesn’t help. It also doesn’t help that Leah is stone cold beautiful, so great—now I’m trying not to think about having sex with her.
I’m ten minutes early and decide to just go for it. I’m going to burst if I sit in my car for one more second. I’m stumbling up the sidewalk to her house when someone says my name from behind.
I turn around and just… there he is. Standing between me and the car, arms crossed, unhappy. I start to sputter some objection to whatever’s happening, but all that comes out is choked spit. What the fuck is he doing here? Did he beam here?
“I’m really disappointed in you, Marcus.”
“Balero what the hell? Did you… Were you actually hiding in the car since… since last night?” I’m trying not to scream but it’s not really working. He’s doing his new creepy calm thing and kind of smiling.
“What…” Words. I don’t have any of them. They’ve left me.
“I’ve been listening in on your phone calls with Zeke, dumbass. I know what you’re doing.” He almost looks sad as he says this. Disappointed. “I tried to talk to you out of it last night.”
I turn around and start to walk away, away meaning towards Leah’s house, somehow an even worse direction, so I switch vectors and sort of circle back on myself, hand to my forehead, and now I’m just walking in loops, unable to look at either Balero’s face or Leah’s house. A part of my brain is trying to work out the logistics of simultaneously knocking him over and making a run for the car, but which that doesn’t help matters much because then he’d be left alone at Leah’s front door and would probably spill the whole goddamn reason for my being here in the first place. So that’s not going to happen.
I face Balero again, my hands on my hips, my eyes going back and forth between him and the car. He’s just standing there, unmoved since making himself known, a total checkmate-like situation happening in a way that suddenly makes me realize that up until this point I haven’t asked him one simple thing.
“Fucking why? Why do you even care?”
He looks down at his shoes and walks in little circles of his own, licking his lips. Looks back up at me. Still smiling.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
He’s so calm and cool that for a second I feel like I should believe him.
I walk towards him. Slowly. I try to summon a menacing face.
“You know why, don’t be dense. You and Zeke are lost.” He rolls his eyes as he says this.
“Yeah, lost. You’re chasing after something that doesn’t exist. You’re deceived. Tricked. Fooled by the Great Liar.”
I stop just centimeters shy of his nose.
“Are we now.”
“Yes. Yes you are.”
Fucking shared phone line. What else has he listened to? Even keeping things general and vague with Zeke on the phone apparently wasn’t enough to outfox Mr. Community College here.
“I know you’re helping this Holcomb joker, and I know what it is you think you’re trying to find.”
I cross my arms and try to look even more menacing. Is it working? I have no idea. At the very least I know that one of my eyebrows is all the way up and I’m breathing hard through my nose. Or trying to.
“Can I help you fellows?”
The voice comes from behind me, from the direction of Leah’s house. I’m almost relieved at the sound of it, as I had literally no idea where my next sentence was going.
I turn around. There’s a man standing at Leah’s door. I recognize him immediately. The agent, or whatever. Leah’s agent from the stage at the expo. The one with the coughing fit. It comes to me with the velocity of all realizations that seem so painfully obvious in hindsight, like they just come up and smack you in the forehead like you’re an asshole for not seeing it before: Dude is her dad.
I try for nonchalance and miss.
“Yeah, hi. Is uh, Leah home?”
The guy takes slow steps down the front walk. His body language is all skepticism. I turn back to Balero. He hasn’t really moved. Leah’s dad walks pretty much right up to where I’m standing. Both men stand and face me with arms crossed. It’s a me sandwich.
Another voice from behind, this one female, coming from the door just vacated by Leah’s father. It’s Leah. She’s smiling, but with a curious look that says, What’s going on here, exactly?
“Yeah.” I sigh it more than I say it. Neither piece of bread of the me sandwich has moved.
“Dad? Everything OK?”
“I don’t know, sweetie.” Her father’s eyes are still on me and full of whatever probably every father’s eyes are full of when his daughter’s safety or even general comfort is on the line. Then, to me: “Is everything OK here?” I’m genuinely surprised he doesn’t call me “son”.
I turn back to Balero. He looks at his shoes and then back at me, eyebrows up and smirking, still doing that I know you’re doing something stupid and so do you pose that I didn’t realize he was capable of, given how much of his life he’s probably spent on the other side of it. (Or maybe that’s why he’s so good at it.)
“OK, whoa! Stop. Everybody just take a breath.” Leah’s at my side, doing the time-out sign with her hands. “Let’s all relax. Daddy?”
“Would you please give us a moment? I know this guy.”
“This one.” She points at me.
Her hand goes to her father’s shoulder. I can hear echoes of my shouting match with Balero. We’d been yelling some not particularly nice things on this dude’s lawn about his daughter. Two guys in their twenties. My bowels turn to liquid at what he probably thought we were arguing over.
“No, wait…” Leah succeeds in pulling her father away. She’s smiling, as if she knows exactly what to do, and she could get right down to doing it if he’d just back down.
Daddy backs down. Backwards. No shit, he’s actually walking backwards up the steps back into the house. Like, slowly.
Leah smiles at me and wrinkles her nose. The house is at her back, my back to Balero.
“You’re my eleven o’clock. I remember you from the expo. Marcus, right?”
“Hello again, Marcus.”
Balero circles around and introduces himself. Because this day can’t possibly get any worse, so let’s just squeeze every last bit of awfulness out of this toothpaste tube of shit and just get it all over with. Yeah, sure. Balero, Leah. Leah, Balero. I turn around and look longingly at the car.
“It’s nice to meet you… Balero? That’s an interesting name. Now…” She takes a few steps back and does one of those deep relaxing breaths she did during her readings at the conference, big swooping gestures with her arms, all slow, maybe so that we’ll pick up her zen vibes through osmosis or something. Then she opens her eyes.
“I’m sure my father didn’t mean anything. Although he probably wanted to know the same thing I want to know. What’s going on here, guys?”
“Yeah—what’s going on here, Marcus?”
“Shut the fuck up, numb nuts.”
Balero rolls his eyes for what is I swear the tenth time.
“Uh, don’t tell me what to do.”
“I fucking will tell you what to do, so shut the fuck up!”
Leah’s about to throw herself between us. I’m at the absolute edge of killing Balero with my hands. I stop, look at Leah, and force a tight laugh.
“I’m sorry for my friend here. He’s got some crazy notions about my visit today, and really it’s just embarrassing.”
Leah cocks an eyebrow and crosses her arms.
“Really. Balero? Is this true?”
Balero laughs and looks at his shoes again, as in, how insane someone would have to be to not see what was so obvious to him.
I can’t hold it in. I shove his chest with both hands and yell, “Hey fuck you, man.”
“OK. Calm down! OK!” Leah’s voice is full of lilting condescension as she approaches us, which is probably called for. We are acting like children. “That’s right. Everything’s OK…” Now she’s between us, looking back and forth at us. “Balero, do you see any harm letting your friend have his appointment with me? Physical or otherwise?”
Balero just chortles at this. He starts to say something, but Leah interrupts him by holding up an index finger.
“I’ll take that as a no. Balero, I’m going to have to ask you to wait for your friend at the edge of the walk. As in, off my property. Marcus is a paying client, and I intend to see him. OK?” She throws me a cautious look—she’s realized we’re dealing with a possibly unstable person. “Then the two of you can continue your disagreement on the way home. Does that sound OK?”
Balero takes a deep breath, puffs his cheeks, and bounces on his heels. Then he huffs “fine”, and makes his way back to the car.
I get the sense that he feels he’s already won, and now all he needs to do is sit back and watch the consequences of the thing he tried to stop. Which, you know—accurate. I feel a sting: in this particular confrontation with Balero, I am the one who’s being completely dishonest, and he knows it. We’ve had fights before, but whatever’s happening here has a different flavor. It’s bitter, and it signals the expansion of a gap that’s grown between us over the summer. Something about this moment is final. Like he’s not just giving up on the present argument, he’s giving up on me. (Unbelievably, I think I actually still have a shot at snatching the device from Leah, but the car ride home with Balero… Ugh. Just how the hell is that going to play out? Could I run home?)
Leah seems satisfied. Big eyes, big smile. Full of unjustified optimism, of which I share none.
“Great! OK! Shall we go inside?”