I’m publishing my science fiction novel Pareidolia in slow motion. A new chapter will be published every week. The premise is available here.
Society Hill, Philadelphia | July, 2000
It’s weird to be back here. So quiet and empty. I’m back on one of the leather couches in Willow’s library. There’s no fire in the fireplace, no butlers, no party, no guests.
Daryl’s in the kitchen throwing together a couple of sandwiches. He tells me cleaning ladies come once a week or so to make sure everything is in good shape, in case Willow needs to host an event, which won’t be anytime soon because she’s in South America for some reason, and then after that it’s back to Sedona, the VZ HQ. So it’s just us boys, Daryl explains as he lets us in. (Not sure why he has a key. Don’t really care at this point.)
I guess Willow has places like this all over the country for such events. The book club. Way more laid back than when we meet to actually go over Van Zorn’s work, but all stops are pulled out for fresh meat. Gotta make an impression.
At this point I pretty much know what we do under the respective governance of Willow and Mandy isn’t really within driving distance of a book club. Oh, we study—I’ve read all six of Van Zorn’s books in the last month—but the get-togethers aren’t anything like you’d imagine. First of all, we sure as fuck don’t meet here. We meet at coffee shops and restaurants (nice ones) and sometimes people’s houses or apartments. Whoever leads the study group is aggressive: they’ve proved their mettle, survived, and now it’s on them to weed out the hacks. We’re being measured up for something, and they keep telling us it’s only going to get worse. None of this phases me; I’m nowhere near the top of the can’t-take-it list.
The first thing Daryl and I did when we pulled in to Willow’s was get me to a bathroom. I’d been bleeding profusely from the nose for reasons I don’t fully understand: I’m not a coke whore, I don’t have allergies, it’s not super dry out. But holy blood. All over my shirt. Gushing almost, at one point. During the drive I had my shirt balled up in my face to save Daryl’s car.
He gets me a clean T-shirt from somewhere in the house. The bleeding hadn’t stopped, so now I’ve got wadded-up balls of toilet paper in my nostrils and I’m breathing through my mouth like a hill person. I’m a sweaty mess, but at least I’m not wandering the suburban wilderness. I start to relax.
I think of Marcus. I feel fucking horrible that I left him there in those woods. I tell myself he’s fine, and the part of me that needs to believe it does. I push the horribleness down deep and force myself to concentrate. What in the mother of all fuck am I going to do now?
It’s getting late-ish, I guess. Dinnertime. Sun’s pretty much all the way down. Daryl hasn’t turned on many of the lights upon our arrival, so the library is sinking into a grey-blue haze. I flick on a lamp and reach up behind me to pull a random book down from the shelf. It’s an old-timey encyclopedia. Items D-G. A flowery adhesive card on the third page announces with some fanfare that this volume belongs to the Hawthorne Library. I get up and grab another book a few rows up (a treatise on nineteenth century chemistry) and it bears the same card.
I wander over to the fireplace and check out the fanfare on the mantle, details I didn’t pick up on my last visit. There are plaques of acrylic and gold, a huge bronze coin featuring a bearded man looking all sciency and shit, and an old as fuck photo of what looks like children posing for a picture with a cartoon professor. Can’t tell if it’s the same dude as the sciency bronze coin. Could be. Hawthorne this, Hawthorne that. There’s what looks like a glass pyramid, at least a foot tall, absolutely no writing anywhere on it that I can see. Although I can sort of tell where a small rectangular plaque possibly used to be affixed.
Daryl enters the library behind me.
“I see you’ve met the family.”
I turn around. He’s setting down a tray of food on the massive coffee table. I cock my head at the wall of fame on the mantle. “Who’s Colonel Sanders over here?”
“That’s Willow’s father.”
“I thought her last name was Lake.”
“Well, it is. But… you don’t really think someone in the 1950’s is naming their kid Willow Lake, do you?”
He’s got a point. I check out the spread. Not bad. Cheese slices, sandwiches, beers, cookies. I munch on a baby carrot as I say “Willow Hawthorne”. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
Daryl manages to speak while cramming half a sandwich in his mouth. “Her real first name’s not Willow, either. Where do you think she gets her money?”
“So that’s her dad over there on the mantle, huh?” I grab half a sandwich too, although I only nibble on a corner. (It’s hard to eat with toilet paper in your nose.) We’re both still standing, and I remember that we can sit anytime we like—it just feels like we shouldn’t. Like old Percival Hawthorne over there—or whatever the hell his name is—is judging us punks from beyond the grave (and rightly so).
“Father-in-law, actually.” Daryl’s sandwich is now totally gone, and he’s cracking open one of the beers. I grab one too, open it, and hold it up in salute to the fireplace.
“His first name was Roman.”
“To Roman Hawthorne! Long may his crypt be free of spiders and thieves.”