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 | Monday July 31st, 2000
Daryl takes me upstairs to the first guest bedroom on the left and there he is, curled up like an angel. Only not so much an angel. No one in the Van Zorn family knows exactly how much Willow is worth, or how close she was to losing a very big chunk of it this morning. That is, besides me and these two young gentlemen here.
There’s nothing unusual about Balero. I mean, he’s just a kid. He’s what—early twenties at best? Maybe a hacker? (Can you even hack walk-in safes?) Didn’t get that vibe. Let’s see. Snap-snap, little buddy. Wake up! Time to explain yourself.
Daryl’s in the corner shaking his head. Nope. Tried that already.
“He’s been out for a while.”
“How long?” I whisper.
“Since I called.”
I jerk my thumb at the nightstand. Daryl shrugs and nods. I open the top drawer and there it is. It’s small and rectangular. Looks cold to the touch. Metallic. I reach down to touch it. Sleeping beauty stirs. He’s mumbling. Something about dinosaurs. I smile at Daryl and close the drawer.
“Come on, Balero. Come to me. Come to Mandy.”
Mandy’s here. Good. I need to talk to her. Wait until she hears what I have to tell her. Which is… something. (Right?)
I’m in bed. I roll over to get more comfortable. Must have been sleeping. I’m glad she woke me up. Daryl’s here too. I look up again and yawn. Daryl’s not saying anything, just hovering in a corner.
Then I’m like Fuck! and I throw off the covers and sit up fast. Like I just remembered that I forgot something crazy important, but I couldn’t tell you what. Just that something was panicky and wrong. Mandy’s laughing and says, “Whoa, whoa. Easy does it, there.” Stars cloud my vision. I jab my fingers in my eyes.
“Hey!” She’s laughing; she’s happy to see me. I’m looking around the room. It’s dark, but not totally dark. Barely morning. Is it morning?
“What time is it?”
“It’s almost 7:30.”
I throw my legs over the side of the bed.
I realize I’m scratching my balls. I blush and stop. I have to pee like a mother. I’m rubbing the side of my face with my right palm. I have more stubble than usual. I shake my head to scatter the stars that just seem to keep settling in, won’t let me think straight. The absurdity of the moment starts to feel bigger.
Something important is missing.
“Where are my pants?”
“You’ve been out of it for quite a while.”
Mandy is calm. I blink up at her.
She pulls up a chair and sits down by the bed. She’s looking a bit more casual than the last time I saw her, but still smoking hot. I realize I don’t care if she can see that I’m sporting morning wood. Or, I guess it’s evening wood.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
My hand is back at my face, which itches like crazy. I give it a vigorous rub. I make an mmf sound and look back down at my bare feet. I squish my toes into the shaggy tan carpet.
“That I came here with him?” I gesture to Daryl without looking up.
“That’s right. What else?”
“Uh… I mean, that I came here. I came here, and I… um…”
I’m distracted by just gobs of dream memories. Like dozens. They bubble up all at once, hours of them, each one taxing more of my attention than the last. I feel like I could write a whole book: a cast of dozens; countless locations; worrisome plots; other planets. The details explode into more memories that have even more details that lead to even more memories, and on and on. It’s almost fractal.
“What else, Balero?”
“I’ve been here since yesterday.” My hand drops to my lap. I take another look around. “So what’s been going on since then?”
Mandy and Daryl both laugh at this. I’ve somehow caused a roomful of mirth.
“So you don’t remember anything after coming here.”
I pause, staring at my feet again, eyes wide. Then I gape at Mandy and slowly start to shake my head. “Nope. Nothing. Sorry.”
“Well, that’s a shame. I was really hoping you’d tell us how you managed to break into Willow’s walk-in safe. That’s a skill that might come in handy someday!”
They both laugh again.
The closet safe. Holy shit. I do remember that! Something about diamonds. The actual smell of money in the board game room of the terminally rich. So fucking stupid to leave it unlocked.
“Yeah, that was… Wait—I broke into it?”
“It would seem so.”
“No, that shit was already open. I… Fuck, I swear I just found myself standing there. I didn’t take anything!”
She smiles. “Don’t worry about that right now. Your health is more important. You were really out of it! Daryl here could barely walk you back up to your room.”
“Do you have my pants?”
Mandy stands up.
“Well! I’m sure you’ll want to freshen up. Daryl left you some clean clothes, and there are fresh towels in the bathroom. I’m glad you’re OK. Really I am. Why don’t you get dressed and meet us downstairs in the kitchen whenever you’re ready?”
Shit, that’s right—I called her. Jesus, why did I need to see her so bad? It’s so damn close, like I can just barely reach it with my fingertips. My brain is like, Scanning… Scanning… One moment please… But all I can see are slices of the deeply pungent dreams I just had, which at one point involved an underground bunker next to a beach and a dangerous man from Morocco with a suitcase full of mechanical scorpions.
I see some clothes folded in a neat square on the floor next to the closet. And my sneakers. My jeans are nowhere in sight. I slap my face with both hands to wake myself up, and Jesus fuck it feels like I just crawled here from a car crash.
“OK, let’s go. Let’s give the man some privacy.”
The spot where Balero passed out is just under the stairs, as in you could jump over the banister and land right where it happened. There’s a sparse wall down there, a narrow hallway leading away from the main entrance to the kitchen. Not much to look at. Just a few odd paintings and some bland floral wallpaper. And a goddamn walk-in safe.
I point to it as Daryl and I descend the staircase.
“Yeah, yep. That’s it. Right there. You bet.”
Daryl rushes down past me, sort of wobbling as he trots his way down to the main level, and runs over to where the safe entrance is supposed to be.
He sticks a chubby finger into the center of one of the pale blue flowers in the wallpaper. A tiny part of the wall slides back revealing a numeric keypad. It happens almost faster than I can register it. Makes a little Shh! sound.
“I’ll be damned. And you don’t know the combination.”
Daryl gives me a surprised look.
I slide my fingertips across the keypad. I had no idea this is where Willow truly called home. Would have thought something like this would have been built into her Sedona mansion.
But then I remember.
“This whole place.”
I walk down the spare hallway towards the kitchen. Daryl follows. I hear another Shh! from the wall behind us as the keypad panel slides shut. I start to pull together some tea, for Balero more than for us. Although I suppose Daryl looks like he could use some calming down too.
“Tell me again.”
Daryl swallows hard. “From when?”
I sigh and roll my eyes but don’t let him see it. Poor guy. He can’t be more than twenty. Give him a break.
“From the beginning, Daryl.”
He springs to life like a kid trying to convince a parent why a certain fiasco isn’t his fault.
“Right. So yesterday I woke up to noises in the apartment. At first I was like whoa is the maid here already? But then I’m all like no it’s way too soon. So I go to check on Balero but his bed’s empty and I’m like shit he’s downstairs! That’s when I find him in the safe. Which I swear I didn’t even know about! So anyway I confront him and we talk for a minute but he’s laughing like it’s no big deal. I try to tell him that it very much is a big deal but he just keeps laughing and I’m in the process of trying to figure out how to lock up the stupid safe when he goes down, I mean he just goes down like a sack of potatoes.”
I get the teakettle going and join Daryl at the kitchen bar.
“Right. So I’m like whoa and he’s like not moving and I’m like is he dead? But then I check his pulse and he’s not dead and after a few minutes I can get him to sort of sit up and he’s real dizzy but he’s kind of talking and after a few more minutes I’m able to get him on his feet and up the stairs and back into bed. But he’s, you know, he’s barely conscious. And that’s when I called you.”
The kitchen is beyond immaculate. Looks like whoever cleaned it had a gun to their head. There’s a giant white bowl of lemons on the kitchen bar. There must be fifteen lemons in there, just waiting for someone to need one.
“What was in the safe?”
He gives me a long, weird stare.
“I’m sorry, that was unprofessional. Please continue.”
“So… so anyway it’s a hassle but I get him up back up to the bedroom and I start to pull off his clothes and that’s when I find it.”
“I’m going to stop you right there, Daryl. Please slow down and give me the exact details. Don’t rush through it. Don’t leave anything out.”
Vigorous, sweaty nodding.
“Hoo-kay. So I get him into bed and pull off his clothes and get the covers on him and his clothes stink so I’m like why don’t I take them downstairs, I know how to use a washing machine or whatever.”
I get up to answer the singing teakettle.
“And so then he starts screaming.”
Looking for something not terrible in these cupboards. Cookies, crackers, trail mix anything. And tea. Still haven’t found the tea. Ah, there it is. Hope he likes orange spice.
“Why was he screaming, Daryl?”
“I don’t know! I mean, I didn’t know at the… in the moment. I sort of guessed it later.”
“Well, because I ran back in there to see what was the matter and he stopped screaming so I tried to leave again and he started screaming again but he wouldn’t wake up to tell me what was wrong when I came back into the room. So I just dropped everything and slowly crept out real quiet in case I was waking him up somehow or something. Like maybe a creaky floorboard or something.”
I turn away from the counter.
“But that’s not why he stopped screaming, was it?”
“He stopped screaming because you left his clothes behind the third time you left, right?”
Daryl nods. Is he capable of not looking petrified? Hopefully. He’s going to need that later in life.
“That was it. I mean, I came back later for his dirty clothes and left some of my clean clothes that I picked up from home.”
“And the metallic object you found in his jeans—you left that in the nightstand?”
“That’s right. Just like you saw it. Top drawer.”
Daryl studies his fingers.
“What did he say to you on the phone? When he left you that message?”
I think about it for a second. Why not? I fish out my cell phone and punch a few buttons. Balero’s thin, disembodied voice fills the kitchen.
“Hello? Yeah, this is Balero Toomey calling for Mandy Kostopoulos. I hope I have the right number. Sounds like the call was forwarded. If I do have the right number, uh… Hey, Mandy. Uh, it’s around [inaudible]. Sorry, passing truck. Uh, yeah! So I’m here on the side of some freeway in some suburb. I ah, have no idea where I am. Listen, if you… Oh! Wait. I’m at a Gulp ‘n Go across the street from a Pancake Ranch. If that helps. And so anyway, uh… wow. You would not believe the day I’m having. This guy, he just… I don’t know if he’s… Listen, can you come get me? I really need your help. I’ll walk over to the gas station and get the exact address. Sorry, you’re… It’s just that you’re the first person I thought of. My pager number is…”
I flip my phone shut.
“What was he like in the car?”
“He didn’t talk at all about what happened.”
“OK well then let’s get him down here. The tea’s getting cold. Please go make sure he hasn’t passed out again.”
A few minutes later Daryl returns without Balero.
“He passed out again.”
Spruce Hill, Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1, 2000
Whoever’s knocking on my door needs to go fuck themselves. What the hell time is it?
Roland, just god dammit. We’re not supposed to start until nine.
OK, fine! Jesus. I’m coming.
“Hey, Bill.” I’m standing at my door in my underwear and it’s just my worst nightmare. “Mind if we come in?”
Oh, look. It’s Leah and some chick. OK, sure. Come on in. Because why not start this day in the worst way possible.
“How the fuck did you find me? And please don’t say your psychic powers.”
“You should really keep your address current on your driver’s license. We lost an entire evening dragging it out of some horrible old woman at your dorm.” Leah says this as she lets herself into my apartment and flicks my driver’s license in my face.
The other one enters behind her. “Damn, Leah—you didn’t tell me he was a redhead. You know I have a thing for redheads! What’s up, sexy motherfucker?” She’s taller than Leah, has 2,000% more attitude than Leah, and she’s wearing enough eyeliner to embarrass a raccoon. I instantly hate her.
“Mrs. Fisher gave you my address.”
“We told her we were your sisters, that our poor father was at death’s door. Boo-hoo!”
“Hey you guys, I’m too tired for this. I was up until like four. Can’t we just…”
“No we can’t just,” the tall one spits out at me.
Leah is a bit calmer.
“Will you please go put some clothes on?”
“God, it’s… What? No. Fuck you! Leave if you don’t like it.”
They’re on my furniture. They’re on my goddamn couch. I need a shit. They’re going to have to listen to me take a shit. Which, in this place you can hear from the hallway.
I close my apartment door and try to slap myself awake. “Who’s your friend?” I phrase this less like a question and more like I’m admitting some horrible truth to myself.
No reply. The nameless one is pumping her crossed leg and smiling. I sit on a chair by the door and openly scratch my balls through my boxers.
“What the fuck do you want?”
“What do you think we want, dumbass?”
“Tell me. Either of you. Or I’m going back to bed.”
Leah gets up and flicks on my only lamp. She picks something up from the floor and throws it at me like it’s covered in bile. It’s… it’s one of my T-shirts.
“I want Marcus. I want him to tell me exactly what happened to my father, why he’s been so out of it ever since their little rumble in the jungle. And I want my goddamn watch back. And,” Leah looks up at the ceiling, “I’d like to know exactly why the hell he and his lunatic friend did what they did in the first place.”
After a pause she thunders, “Now!”
Raccoon eyes spreads her arms out on the couch. “This bitch talks to dead people for a living. I would not fuck with her.”
Society Hill, Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
The hallway outside of Balero’s room is quiet. He can’t still be sleeping.
C’mon, little buddy. Rise and shine.
“Morning, sleepy head. Hope you’re feeling better today. Are you awake in there?”
I knock again.
Still nothing. I let myself in.
He’s not in bed.
“Hello? Balero? Are you in the bathroom?”
I move into the room and… still nothing. He’s not in the bathroom. Daryl’s clothes are gone, but Balero’s sneakers are still sitting next to the closet.
I take a sip of my coffee and walk back downstairs into the library, where a moderately unhappy Daryl has been sleeping since my arrival.
“Daryl? Are you awake?”
I hear a distant In here! from the direction of the kitchen. I walk over, passing the walk-in safe on my way. I half expect to hear a muffled Balero screaming to be let out.
Daryl’s at the kitchen bar, having a bowl of cereal.
“Where’s our guest?”
He stops chewing and gives me a frightened look. “Isn’t he upstairs?”
“No, I just looked.”
“C’mon, let’s go find him. I’m heading back to Chicago in a few hours, and…”
“Yes. I have to get back to work, Daryl. Willow’s been driving me crazy, emailing me every hour, wanting to know what the hell happened here. She’s threatening to tell Ford, which would be the end of the world as far as you and I are concerned.”
A hard gulp from Daryl.
“So we need to get our story straight. And that means having a conversation with an awake, conscious, and not missing Balero.”