I’m publishing my science fiction novel Pareidolia in slow motion. A new chapter will be published every week. The premise is available here.
Northwest Philadelphia | July, 2000
Leah’s distracted as she walks up the steps to her door, doing the backwards walking like her father. Something across the street has her attention. I look but don’t see anything. She asks if I brought anyone else with me.
“Christ, I hope not.”
We enter the house and ascend carpeted stairs. Her father’s wet coughs echo behind us as we round a corner into her bedroom. It’s just as clean and tidy as the living room. Everything’s freshly polished and vacuumed, traces of lemon and vanilla hanging in the cool air. I go immediately to the window that overlooks the front yard, regrettably also the one closest to her bed. Leah joins me. We look down at Balero, making sure everything’s still OK down there. He’s sitting on the curb, fists balled up under his chin. I try to remember if I locked my car. Pretty sure I had. And anyway, how would he get anywhere without keys? And if he walked, where would he walk? He doesn’t know the suburbs any better than I do. So at least this part of the disaster is, for the moment, contained. We settle in.
Leah pulls out a chair from what looks like a miniature card table in the other corner of her room. I’m a reasonably tall guy, and the smallish table and chairs give an overwhelming teatime-in-wonderland vibe. I sit in the chair closest to the wall, my knees halfway up my chest. Leah sits with the rest of her bedroom to her back. She straightens up and looks at the ceiling behind me. A horrible feeling bubbles up in my gut. What is it? Oh, yeah: I’m sitting in the chair farthest from her door, making a quick escape exceedingly difficult. Wow. That was fucking smart of me.
The table is empty, nothing device-like in sight. A lawn mower growls through the window behind me. Leah keeps shuffling around in her seat, her eyes down (or closed), trying to get comfortable. Now she’s completely still. (Meditating?) But then a quick deep breath and her eyes are up again and she’s ready to rock and roll.
“Great. Thanks. I always do that little exercise to get centered before an appointment. I usually do it before the client arrives, but…” She looks around, face all pinched as if to say, Except then you assholes showed up like you did.
“Right. Sure. No problem.”
“Just need one thing…”
She stands up. I ready myself. Here it comes. But she only produces a fat white candle, like the size of a forty ounce can of beer, puts it on the writing desk behind her, and lights it with a match.
I feel like I had broken glass for breakfast. She turns to the white bookshelf next to the desk and reaches for something and then oh my God there it is, right there on the bookshelf, just waiting to be seen. It’s still wearing her fucking watch. She picks it up and places it carefully at the center of the table. My hearing goes dead, like all the noise in the room is sucked into a vacuum and the only thing that’s left is that far away, high-pitched ringing of absolute silence. She’s yammering on about something to do with my aura, but it’s muffled. This is fine, because she’s talking more to herself than to me, or so I can sort of tell by her tone. It’s a tone of, well, here’s how this is going to go: first I’ll do this and then you’ll do that, and holy Christ there’s a hunk of recovered alien technology right fucking in front of me.
She’s still standing, kind of moving back and forth between her bookshelf and the writing desk by her bed, messing with a notebook. Somehow I tear my eyes off of the device and look at her. My head teeters on my shoulders, a great rock threatening to tumble down a hill. Angry white dots swarm at the edge of my vision: I’m going to pass out.
No I’m not. No I’m not.
My hands are numb. I look down at them. There they are, on my lap, under the tiny table. Up they come, as if underwater, in super slo-mo, and down they go onto the device. Leah’s still got her back to me, still shuffling with papers. Without thinking I shoot out of my chair, the device in my hand, and send the card table flying off in the direction of, well, her.
I jump over the table and bump my head on the wafer-thin ceiling on my way out of her bedroom, almost knocking her over in the process. She lets out a little scream and falls backwards onto her bed. I hit the stairs. In one step I’m on the landing, then on the main level in another. I fling myself against the front door and take what feels like way too long figuring out the lock. Then I’m flying down the front walk towards Balero, who’s just standing up to see what’s all this now. I make the sharpest, fastest ninety-degree turn I’ve ever made in my life and aim for the neighbor’s yard to Leah’s right, and I hear Balero scream, “What the hell, man?” but it’s not enough to stop me, nor is the sudden thought that how in the unholy fuck am I supposed to double back and get to my car, and oh sweet Christ I hadn’t thought this through at all, but I just keep running. A yippy dog gives me the old mailman treatment as I sail over a white picket fence into the neighbor’s yard and have every intention of just running forever and—oh, look—the lawn mower sound is coming from this person’s back yard, a part of my brain registers as I run through a sprinkler. More yelling from behind, two voices this time, plus still the dog’s.
I don’t get three houses away when a gun goes off. I turn around as I’m running (dumbest idea ever), fully expecting to see Leah’s father standing at the threshold of his house with a shotgun aimed at the sky when my foot catches on something and I go ass over teakettle into a flower garden. The device flies out of my hand and knocks against a car parked in the driveway right next to where I wiped out. I see this and the next few things from an upside-down angle: the device bounces off the car door in a straight up-and-down direction and somehow lands on the hood of the very car that it struck. I don’t have a chance to marvel at this miracle of statistical improbability because less than two seconds later Balero flies over me like an airplane, grabs the device, and (quicker than I’ve ever seen the little fucker run) takes off for the woods across the street.
I’m up on my haunches, ready to fucking kill Balero the minute I can lay my hands on him, when another shot goes off. This time I do actually see the source of the noise, and it is indeed a very pissed-off-looking Leah’s father coming at me, cocking an upward-aimed shotgun with one hand mid-step like right out of a goddamn movie. Leah’s screaming for all the saints in heaven to stop, but there’s no controlling her father this time: either Balero or myself or both of us are going to be killed, stuffed, and our heads mounted on the wall above his fireplace.
I take off in Balero’s direction. This requires taking my eyes off the gun, no small feat. I’m taking the very unreasonable gamble that the gun is full of blanks and only meant to scare us. My feet do those cartoon scampers, the kind where they pelt the ground in a running motion for a few cycles before gaining any real purchase, just totaling the neighbor’s garden in the process. I run across the street (no cars, thank Christ) and into the trees, in the general direction of wherever the hell Balero’s disappeared to. At the last possible second I see a walking path that leads into the woods and aim for that. Leah’s still screaming. I haven’t heard any more gun shots, but I just have to assume at this point Leah’s father is only a few steps behind me (and by now running), so into the woods I go.
I try to scream Balero’s name but within seconds I’m almost out of breath. Running up the raw and uneven path is suddenly one of the most deeply exhausting things I’ve ever done in my life. Balero is nowhere to be seen. I hear the crash of leaves behind me, no need to look back and see what that is. Leah’s voice is already starting to trail off. We must have been hauling ass, the three of us, which probably explains why I’m already so spent, so it isn’t that much of a surprise when I happen upon Balero, completely wiped-out on the path a few yards ahead of me. I actually have to pass him and double back, I’m going so fast.
Balero is just pulling himself together when another shot goes off behind us. Birds complain and vacate the area, trees all around us now. My tongue fills up my mouth and I’m gulping for air. I actually think I’m going to piss in my jeans, I mean I actually feel my bladder starting to turn itself inside out. I’ve stopped and I’m doing the hands-on-the-knees pose of exhausted runners. Somehow I know that it’ll take Balero a few seconds to get himself into a position that even remotely resembles motion, and I’m taking those few precious seconds to catch my breath.
Leah’s dad bears down on us at a respectable rate. It’s hitting me that I’m maybe too winded to move, and Balero isn’t going anywhere soon either. The crash-crash-crash of footsteps grows louder until there he is, just a few dozen feet away from us, swinging his giant gun back and forth with each step. (Balero is in the middle this time, with me and Leah’s dad playing the role of the bread in this awful sandwich that no one would ever eat ever.)
Those white dots are back and they’re threatening to swallow my sneakers, but my eyes are back up just in time to see something I never would have forgiven myself had I missed it: Leah’s father is obscured by what looks like a silver surfboard that comes out of absolutely nowhere and disappears just as quickly, taking Leah’s father with it, accompanied by a brief noise that I can only describe as a police siren sucked down a well. It’s over in a second and Leah’s father is gone.
Balero’s holding his left arm out in defense, the alien device in his hand. I laugh at this, like it’s a punchline to a very bad joke. The laughing requires more oxygen than I have in my reserves, allowing the stars in my vision gather their numbers and finally take me.