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, 1999
There’s an unfamiliar car in our driveway. Ancient, green, covered in bumper stickers, and I’m not in any mood to deal.
I park on the street and move slowly up our front walk towards the door. Some guy is gesturing frantically from the car. He holds up a finger. Be right there.
“Hey, you can’t park here. Private property.” I wave my arm up and down our driveway.
He leans over and rolls down the passenger side window.
“Are you Leah Schaudt?”
I take step back. Nope, don’t recognize him. And I have zero appointments today. And even if I did, they’d all be cancelled. Still dealing with the fallout from yesterday.
“What do you want?”
“My name’s Bill Mulvaney. I’m Marcus Mulvaney’s brother. We need to talk.”
This takes a second to sink in.
“You’re Marcus’s brother.”
He shrugs. “Afraid so.”
“How did you find me?”
“Well, truth be told I hack the shit out of his email, and I saw your appointment confirmation message from a couple weeks ago.”
“And you’re here why?”
“Can I get out of my car?”
I set down the shopping bags I’m carrying and cross my arms.
“I don’t know yet.”
“Listen, Marcus told me about yesterday. I’m here to explain, and to offer an apology.”
Dad’s shotgun is still MIA from the little adventure in the woods. Even though he never kept anything but blanks, I would have felt a whole lot safer letting this dude in my house knowing that it was loaded and around the corner and ready to go. The fact that Dad’s still out cold from yesterday doesn’t help either.
At least it’s not dark yet.
I make sure I have 911 on speed dial and let the guy in. I offer no refreshments and glare at him from the couch. My arms are still crossed.
“You have five minutes.”
Bill sits in a chair on the other side of the living room and opens his hands.
“The first thing you need to understand is that my brother is mentally unstable.”
“Yeah. I got that.”
“No, listen to me. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when he was fifteen. He’s been in and out of institutions ever since, on and off his meds. He was actually doing well, lately. Got a job working in a video rental store, was thinking about sharing an apartment with some friends. He lives with our parents right now. We didn’t know this until just recently, but he’s been off his meds for almost a week.”
I try this on for size, given some of the things Marcus said and did yesterday. It fits, but only partially. Not sure how yet.
I uncross my arms. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”
Neither of us says anything for a minute.
“Where is he now?”
Bill clears his throat. “Oh, he’s in jail.”
“In jail? Why?”
“Robbed a liquor store after he left your place.”
“Yeah. You have no idea what it’s like having a brother who’s always two pills away from full-on crazy.”
I start to say something but it devolves into a sigh. I don’t know what my next question should be, but there’s something rattling around in my head. Some unanswered question this guy could maybe speak to. I’d give anything to go back in time and grab Marcus as he came tumbling out of the trees and force him to explain his behavior. Which I guess this kind of does. And yet…
“What about the other guy? His friend with the stupid name?”
“Ah, yes—Balero. I can’t fully account for his behavior, but I can tell you the two of them have been inseparable for years. Our family has been trying to keep them apart almost the entire time. I mean literally, physically apart. Balero is just as unhinged if not more than my brother, and does his best to drag him back to insanity every chance he gets. He was responsible for the last time he went off his meds, back about two years ago, and I suspect he’s the reason he went off his meds again last week. We’re actually thinking of getting a restraining order.”
“What brought him to me, though?”
Bill shifts around in his seat. “Well actually—you came to him.”
“Apparently you two met at some convention last month? Downtown?”
Oh, lord. “Yes, that is correct. I completely forgot.”
“He believed that your… practice”—Bill says this with the verbal equivalent of air quotes—“was opening a portal to hell and that only he could stop it.” He takes a deep breath and offers, “I guess you really spooked him with your demo up there on that stage. Saw something he didn’t like.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
I’m like 90% less mad than I was five minutes ago. But I’m also not OK with something. Still not sure what yet. Like a radio signal that’s just a little to fuzzy to hear. Something about this last comment in particular really rubs me the wrong way. I can’t shake the feeling that he’s leaving something out. Like he needs me to believe a made-up story, even though parts of it must be true. I honestly can’t think of any other scenario that would explain Hurricane Marcus in my bedroom. Drugs didn’t make sense, not really. Revenge didn’t make sense. I guess I hadn’t considered clinical insanity.
I’m suddenly aware that I’m staring, and that one of my eyebrows is all the way up. I look away and reposition myself on the couch.
“Did he have anything to say about what happened to my father?”
This makes him wince.
“He doesn’t… Marcus said he fell and bumped his head while they were running around in the woods. He didn’t have anything to say about your father. I’m sorry.”
“My dad has been completely out of it since yesterday. Can’t stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time. I don’t know what happened out there, but he wasn’t able to put together a coherent sentence for hours. I had to take him to the ER. This is a cancer survivor we’re talking about here.”
“Jesus. Is he OK?”
Come on. I’m not going to… I shoot him a look that hopefully conveys how off fucking limits that question is.
“Look—I’m sorry about your dad, but I just don’t know anything about what happened after they left your house.”
“Well, does your brother’s friend know?”
“He’s… what most people would call an unreliable source. You can try, but we honestly don’t know what happened to him after yesterday either. Marcus said he left alone yesterday, that Balero was still out running around in the woods somewhere.”
I guess I do feel bad for this guy, for what he and his family must have to go through. That can’t be easy.
“I’m sorry, I just… I need information here. I need to know what happened out in those woods.”
He just shrugs and gives me something vaguely resembling puppy dog eyes.
“Well, listen. Can I get you something to drink? Maybe a lemonade?”
He starts to stand. “Actually, do you mind if I use your restroom?” He’s crouching, hovering, like he needs permission to stand all the way up. I point him in the direction of the first floor bathroom.
While he’s away the radio static in my head begins to clear up. It hits me what’s been bothering me this whole time about “Bill”. Someone’s been trying to tell me something. That static in my head is usually the first thing that happens before I’m seized with the urge to grab a stranger in public and tell them things about their personal lives from the beyond.
I stifle a laugh with my hand. It’s a deceased relative, all right—it’s his dead grandmother! And I’m like, no way! Best lie detector in the universe: to be ratted out by your own mama-mama! (That’s what he used to call her.) And boy is she pissed.
Does she have any particular message for him? I don’t hear the trademark whispering that usually accompanies these visitations. No, she’s not really trying to give him a message.
The message is for me.
I’m getting a visual. I can actually sort of see her. Well, not really. But she’s doing something that gives the unmistakable impression of a disappointed shake of the head. And the shake of the head says this:
That boy is not telling the truth.
Within two seconds I’m tearing through his jean jacket that he left on the chair, digging around for anything. I find a falling apart duct tape wallet and pull out his driver’s license.
Hello, Zeke Eppler. You’re megabusted.
I put his wallet back in his jacket and run back to the couch and nearly pass out from trying to not crack up.
Busted by the Dead. Could be a TV show.