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 | Tuesday August 1, 2000
And so—Really? We’re actually doing this?—we pile in Roland’s limo, all six of us, and head for the goddamn zoo. The stifling, suffocating awkwardness of Zeke’s apartment is now occupying an even smaller space and is on wheels. Courtney makes some comment about this is not how she imagined her next limo ride would go, and Zeke won’t stop sighing. Otherwise it’s quiet. Painfully, horribly quiet.
The zoo is just a mile north of Zeke’s apartment, but Roland deems it unsafe for walking. I agree, remembering the one time Zeke and I threw caution to the wind and made the trek by foot the summer before, when we were almost relieved of our wallets and who knows what else. I watch one graffiti-strewn, foreclosed home after another slide by. Roland makes a weak offer of chilled miniature Cokes, but no one’s interested. He mixes up a quick Cuba Libre, tosses it back under Max’s disapproving gaze, and makes too big a show of how relaxed and in charge he is. I notice all of a sudden that Max is wearing an earpiece. (How in the world had I not seen it before? And who’s listening on the other end?)
We pull into one of the zoo parking lots (the “Monkey” one), find a spot, and tumble out of the giant black refrigerator on wheels. It’s now mid-morning on a sunny August Tuesday. It’s hot and getting hotter. Leah and Courtney look the part, but Zeke and I are in grubby jeans and Ts. I suppose we look like their unwashed boyfriends. Our two ancient escorts are the most out of place, both in expensive suits and looking like they just stepped out of a wedding party that went very, very late. (Where the hell are the Hawaiian shirts and flip flops when they need them?)
But whatever. At least we’re finally able to get all this garbage out in the open. I’m actually starting to look forward to it. Roland buys everyone tickets at the Victorian entrance. I decide that Roland and Max sort of look like an older gay couple. A grumpy, well dressed, older gay couple. At least we’re in a goddamn ‘secured location’, whatever the hell that means. Doesn’t feel very secure to me.
It’s not a weekend, but it’s still somehow swamped and super fucking loud. Young families everywhere. Weaving our way into the main body of the zoo, we aim for the first open seating area we can find (shaded, thank Christ), and alight on a giant round metal table with bolted-down chairs between what looks like an ice cream stand and a gift shop. Roland looks pleased. Max flips over into sentinel mode and studies the crowd, his head a rotating security camera of laser beam-like intensity. He either stifles a cough or whispers something into his wrist.
Leah looks like she’s been sucking on a lemon. Courtney looks bored.
I gape at Roland. How the hell do we even do this?
“Should we start with Hol…you-know-who’s research?”
“Yes, I suppose that would be acceptable.” He stands. “Listen, can we put a pin in it? I need the john.”
Max rises too, but Roland waves this away with a grumble.
“What are you going to do, shake it for me?”
Then, to Zeke: “Which way are the nearest restrooms, young man?” Zeke points off to an area behind the ice cream stand.
“Around the corner.”
“I’ll be right back. And if you’re all good children, I’ll buy you some ice cream when we’re finished!” There’s that bright face again, that naughty wolf grin. Whenever he flashes that look I swear I can see exactly what he was like as an eight year-old, and it’s… Well frankly it’s adorable.
Leah is sitting to my right. Courtney is to her right, and Zeke and Max are to my left. I realize we don’t really need Roland to get started.
“So I’ll just dive in, and Roland can catch up when he gets back.”
Zeke starts to say something, but I cut him off.
“Don’t worry, I know. I’ll keep it very vague. But, I mean… At this point, how vague exactly do we need to be? We’re sort of at the exact heart of Holcomb’s work. And yes, I realize I said his name. I don’t care. Leah deserves to know what she’s stepped into. Inadvertently.”
Zeke clears his throat and leans forward on his elbows.
“Marcus and I did what we did because we believed you were in possession of some seriously dangerous military-grade hardware and didn’t know it.”
Silence. Leah and Courtney have nothing to say to this, although Courtney’s body language is hinting that she’s reaching the end of her patience. Leah hasn’t uttered a word since we left Zeke’s apartment.
A little kid drops his ice cream cone on the sidewalk just next to our table and throws himself into a hateful screaming fit. A woman swoops in and rescues him from the grim scene. I’m like, I can identify with you, kid. Ice cream suddenly sounds amazing. I take a quick mental stock of how much weed I have left (just bought enough for a solid six-hour cartoon / video game marathon) and whether I have any on me at the moment (I don’t).
“Wait, what the hell are you talking about?” Leah’s come out of her deep freeze. She’s drilling holes in Zeke’s skull with her eyes.
Zeke shoots me a quick look. “Leah, you were housing some pretty hazardous material in your home for we don’t know how long. You were actually putting yourself and your father at risk. In a way, we saved you.”
Leah makes a noise that sounds like a cross between a cough and a stutter. “My watch. That I’ve had since I was seven. That my mother bought for me when we were in Europe. That’s some sort of hazardous military technology?” Then another back-of-the-throat sound. “Wow, you guys must be…”
“Leah,” I interrupt. She turns from Zeke to me. Her eyes are concentrated hellfire. “I didn’t just steal your watch, did I?”
Her gaze melts into naked confusion. As dangerous as I now realize Leah can be—and she’ll have her way in this life, make no mistake—she’s terribly easy to read.
She looks down at the table. “Oh my God.” Her voice is hushed, almost inaudible.
“What, that metal thing? That computer box, or whatever?” Courtney’s chiming in, suddenly worried about Leah’s safety. “Why? What was in it? State secrets or something?”
“Not quite.” I literally have no idea how to round this next corner. I look to Zeke for help. He shrugs. I briefly consider making something up about the device being radioactive or something, but then decide to fuck it and just go all in.
“Leah, Roland isn’t just some random guy we met on the street. He used to work for the military back in the ‘60s, on some top-secret shit. And he and more than a few others like him believe that you’ve been handling, um… well… recovered alien technology.”
There’s a predictable pause of, I want to say about five seconds, and then something in Courtney just snaps.
“Oh, you have got to be…” She stands up and walks away from the table. “This is the most…” She’s yelling now, attracting attention.
“Sit down, dammit,” I hiss.
Courtney spins out for another half a minute or so, actually walking in small circles and yelling at nobody. At one point she nearly flattens a small child. She’s spewing phrases like …the most ridiculous… and …some kind of joke… and …fucking retarded…
She finally stops circling and faces us, her hands on Leah’s shoulders. “Seriously. How can you do this to someone who’s already been through so much?” She’s on the verge of tears now.
Zeke rouses himself. “God dammit, Courtney. Sit down!” This also draws attention. I predict that Max will inform us that we’ve compromised our secured location at any moment now.
“Wait, but what about your friend? The other one. The one who you were having a fight with in our front yard.”
“That’s Balero. We’ll get to him in a minute. He’s a… he’s what you’d call a loose cannon. Doesn’t really speak for what Roland, Zeke, and I are talking about.”
Leah nods. She actually believes me.
“The fact that he managed to get his hands on it and run away was just dumb luck.”
Another nod from Leah, then: “Wait! What the hell happened with my dad in the woods?”
My gonads feel like they’ve fallen out of my underwear and into my shoes. What the fuck actually to say about that? Even Zeke doesn’t know about what happened to Leah’s dad. Shit, even I don’t know, and I was there. For a dizzy second I have to admit to myself that I’d actually forgotten about that part. It comes rushing back at me like a dream: Barry vanishing into a silver ball of light, Balero wielding the device like a weapon.
Courtney slaps both her hands on the metal table (which makes a terribly loud sound) and stands up.
“Are you actually buying this bullshit, Leah?”
Max rises. Here it comes, our chiding. Except he’s walking away, not admonishing us. He’s heading towards the bathrooms.
Zeke turns to me. “He has been gone a bit long for a leak.”
“I don’t know. Maybe he needed a shit.”
Yeah, he’s right. It has been a good ten minutes.
The yelling begins before Max reaches the corner that leads to the bathrooms. Yelling and running. Two men—no, three—tear around the corner and head towards us. Now there’s a woman too. They nearly knock over Max. Two of them are carrying children and hauling ass for the exit. Both of the children are crying. One of the women is screaming about calling 911. Max regains his balance and runs in the direction they’re running from, towards the mayhem. He disappears around the corner.
Everyone at the table makes a silent agreement to get up and follow him.
I reach the bathroom first, with Zeke and the others just behind me. It is indeed around the corner from the ice cream stand: a compact concrete building with two large openings, men to the left. There’s more pandemonium behind us, more shouting, but we soldier on.
Zeke and I are just about to walk into the men’s room when Max comes barreling out and almost knocks us over. He’s livid, panic-stricken. (His sunglasses are off!) He’s flailing around in all directions like a rabid dog. Barely registers me and Zeke, and then shoots off in the direction of the crowd and is gone.
Zeke and I enter the men’s room. Roland is lying on the floor in a pool of blood. For some reason this is exactly what I expected to find. The fact that it actually happens is just enough to throw my central nervous system off kilter, and I nearly pass out. Zeke retches into a sink. I steady myself against the hot concrete wall and try to take it all in: the dark red splotches on his abdomen, angry against the white of his shirt; the look of complete surprise on his face; the sweet, copper smell of blood mixing in with the deodorant cakes in the urinals; his arms spread out like he’s about to give someone a hug; his eyes open and looking at me.
My mouth starts watering and my stomach tightens. Shit, I’m going to throw up too! And I do, in the sink right next to the one just defiled by Zeke.
Someone else is entering the men’s room. It’s Courtney. She’s walking slowly towards the scene with one hand over her mouth and the other on her stomach. (Is Leah still outside? Please let her still be outside.)
I choke through the bile in my throat. “Don’t let her in here! In fact…”
I grab Zeke by the arm and, without quite knowing what I’m doing, march back outside, pushing Courtney backwards as I go, and thank all of my lucky stars that Leah is still outside.
“What happened in there? Oh my God!”
I start walking quickly toward the entrance and hope the others are smart enough to follow. I throw a C’mon! over my shoulder, but that’s about it. Don’t look back, don’t linger, don’t anything. Just go. Go, go, go!
“Is he dead?”
I tell whoever it is who asked the question to shut up and keep walking.
“Walk! Don’t run.” The voice is mine, but also it isn’t.
The screaming has really amped up by now. Must be a good dozen or so voices behind us. Families are scattering. We are not the only ones rushing the exit, so we don’t stick out. This is good. We are not sticking out. Well, shit—most of the others are running now, so I guess that does make us stick out a little.
I turn back to whoever is still behind me. “Fuck it—run!” I catch a glimpse of all three of them. Good—we’re still together. Max is nowhere in sight. We dash out into the parking lot and stop cold when we get to where the limo was parked.
“What the hell happened?” Sounds like Leah. She’s panting. I’m panting too. We’re all sort of standing around looking at each other, and where the fuck is our ride out of this horror show?
“Where’d he go?”
Zeke and I are now giving each other serious fuck this looks. We turn and start running to where the parking lot lets out into the street, and I’m already sweating like a motherfucker. We hang a sharp right and work our way down 34th Street towards the rough neighborhood that separates the zoo from Zeke’s apartment, which I’m guessing will look a lot less friendlier than it did when we saw it through tinted limousine windows. But fuck it—no choice.
The sirens that had been threatening in the distance are suddenly closer. I look over my shoulder and see an ambulance and two cop cars peal into what I want to say is the “Tiger” parking lot. Other cars are speeding away—justifiably freaked out customers. And we just keep running.
It’s Leah. Courtney is super winded and, as it turns out, not a very good sprinter. She’s the last of us, lagging way behind, and clutching her side for dear life. We’re almost at the part of 34th Street that turns into a bridge and goes over the train tracks, the ones that separate the zoo from, well, the wrong side of the tracks. And we’re not stopping now.
“Run! We’re not slowing down for you. Come on!”
A tortured Courtney manages to choke out, “Fucking why? What are we running from?”
I stop and turn fully around. I see a few more odd zoo customers who must have come on foot. They’re both running towards us and crossing the street to avoid us.
“Oh, I don’t know. Being fucking shot? Is that enough of a motivation for you, bodyguard lady?”
“We don’t know that he was shot,” Leah says. This gets a bitter laugh from me and Zeke. The other on-foot zoo customers whiz by, not bothering to share the moment with us.
We’ve come to a full stop at the exact center of the bridge. The sun beats down on us through an empty sky. Downtown leers from the south. A few cars whoosh by. More sirens in the distance.
“I think we’re clear.” Zeke’s right. We could be anyone, just out for a walk. If whoever shot Roland had been following us, we’d see him now in the stark industrial awfulness of the immediate surrounding area. But there’s nothing. Just cars and the odd jogger. No more former zoo customers fleeing on foot. Well, except for us.
One of the sirens gets louder. It’s coming from the zoo, heading in our direction. It’s an ambulance. We watch it whip by, doing at least sixty. They’re taking him to the University hospital. I don’t know if I just think this or say it out loud. (Probably both.) Was he still alive when we left? I rack my brain. Did I take his pulse? Did I fucking touch him? I look down at my clothes. Nope, no blood. And no, I don’t remember touching him. He could have been…
Someone else is thinking it too.
“Jesus, was he still alive?”
“I don’t know.”
“He was like eighty years old. How does someone that old survive… whatever the hell it was that happened to him?”
“What if the driver did it? Hello? Marcus?”
I’m in what you might call a bit of a daze. Someone’s trying to get my attention, but I can’t tell who. I keep looking at the skyline for some reason. I realize it’s because this is my favorite angle to see it from. (Why the fuck am I thinking this now?) I remember driving this route to school with my mom when I was a kid, the skyscrapers all lit up by the sunrise.
“God dammit.” Leah’s waving her arms in my face. “Shouldn’t we talk about what just happened?”
More sirens. Not ambulances this time. Cops.
I snap out of my trance.
“OK, guys. We need to get very, very far away from here. If the police pick us up for questioning, or whatever, it’s going to be extremely difficult for us to… you know…” The rest of the sentence is in me somewhere—I just can’t seem to get it out. “I guess what I’m saying is that we’re not exactly dealing with people who operate within the law. We won’t be able to… we can’t… if the police…”
Zeke comes to my rescue.
“Let’s talk about it later. My place is just a few blocks away.”
Courtney, again with the whining. “But what about…”
“Walk now. Talk later.”
And so we do. We try running again, but none of us are really in good enough shape to do anything beyond our little sprint out of the immediate zoo area. We settle on a brisk walk through the boarded-up houses and broken glass on the sidewalks and try not to make eye contact with anybody.
Back in front of Zeke’s building, Courtney and Leah are arguing about something. Courtney wants to leave. She drove here. This is her car. She wants to know what’s wrong with Leah.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here!”
Zeke is halfway up the steps to his building. He turns to face the rest of us on the sidewalk. “Aren’t you guys coming inside?”
Leah’s giving me a look. This one’s not as easy to read. If you put a gun to my head, I’d have to say it was a mix of I do sort of believe you, I wonder what else you’re lying about, and Come with us.
“Zeke! We’re not going back in there. Come on, let’s leave with these two. Let’s just get out of here.”
Courtney takes over. It’s impressive, actually. She opens the passenger door for Leah and walks around to the driver’s side.
“Get in, dick bags. There’s only room for one in the back, so you’ll have to sit on each other.”
Zeke is walking slowly back down the stairs to the sidewalk, dangling his keys from his hand. He’s giving me a look. The look says, Is she serious?
She is. And so am I.