Society Hill, Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
I’m at my laptop in the library confirming my flight back to Chicago when I hear a thud coming from what sounds like the kitchen. Daryl and I both look up. There’s another thud, and the unmistakable clink of dinnerware.
Within seconds we’re on our feet and running into the kitchen and there’s Balero, in all his glory.
“Oh, Jesus Christ. Where the hell have you been?”
“Oh, hey guys.” He’s fixing himself a sandwich like there’s nothing wrong in the world. “How was your morning?”
“Dude,” Daryl unhelpfully says.
“I can’t believe this place! Can you believe this place?”
He’s beaming. God help me, he’s beaming! And he’s awake. At least we can get the interrogation out of the way.
Unbelievable, this guy. I’m going to name my next migraine after him.
“Have you seen the reading nook upstairs? Beautiful. Breathtaking! And on such a sunny morning!”
Daryl walks over to Balero as he cracks open a Coke.
“Man, seriously. We looked everywhere for you. Where did you go?”
He rotates a moronic grin between us like a lighthouse.
I can just see the girls in high school just falling all over themselves for this guy. If you were a few years older, kid.
“Seriously, Balero. Tell us. It’s OK if you were hiding out. I mean, you probably needed it. Just tell me you didn’t leave the apartment.”
“No. I told you. Reading nook.”
“What reading nook?”
“The one attached to my room. Very clever. Didn’t see it at first.”
Is he fucking with me? He’s fucking with me.
OK, you know what? Fine. Let’s play.
“Really. A reading nook.”
He nods while tearing into what looks like a turkey and Swiss.
Some of the sandwich falls out of his mouth. He’s trying to chew and not laugh at the same time. He manages to get part of it down and says, “Mandy, I haven’t eaten in like two days. Can I just finish this please? I’ll totally come show you.”
I walk out of the kitchen. Daryl follows. He runs past me and up the stairs. I join him in Balero’s room.
“He’s got a weird sense of humor.”
We’re both looking around for this reading nook. Yesterday was my first time in this particular room, but I would have known if…
“Did Balero stay in another room his first night here?”
“That’s what I thought.” I turn to face him. “You know this place better than I do. What could he be talking about?”
“Well… I guess there’s the library. That has a few nooks, or whatever. And there’s a little reading area in the living room by the windows.”
“Right. Anything else?”
He shrugs. Nope, I didn’t think so.
“Jesus!” Daryl and I jump. Balero is standing right behind us.
“Done eating already?”
“How do you get up here so quickly?”
He flashes a Cheshire smile.
“Ha, ha. Now where is this nook? Or are you messing with us?”
“It’s right there.” He points over my shoulder at the wall on the right side of the room, at a spot with a mirror and a dresser and absolutely no door.
“Balero…” Jesus, we don’t have time for this. “This room shares a wall with the master bedroom. If there was a door there, it would open right to Willow’s enormous bed.”
“No, really. It’s there! Look…”
He brushes past me and walks into the room. Daryl gives me another shrug. I pull him into the hallway.
Daryl gulps. “I dunno, man. He seems pretty sure of himself.”
“Yes, but does didn’t he seem…”
“Hey, guys! Look!”
I poke my head back into the guest room and…
Oh, holy fuck.
“I told you!”
Balero’s holding open a door in the wall next to the mirror, right where he said it would be. A door that I would swear on a stack of Bibles wasn’t there a second ago.
He’s giving us another million dollar smile and pointing at what’s inside.
On The Road, Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
We’re finally out of the immediate zoo / Roland shooting area, speeding away in Courtney’s junker of a car, and I have to piss like crazy. This is made far worse by the fact that I have to crouch to keep from bonking my head on the very low roof of the car. Zeke’s long legs are hard and bony under my ass. I wonder why we can’t jettison what looks like the old moving boxes that are taking up the rest of the backseat, boxes with words in fat black marker like TOYS and BASEMENT.
We’re on the freeway, heading north out of the city. Destination unknown. There wasn’t a whole lot of conversation about it, just a unified sense of yeah—let’s get the unholy fuck out of Dodge.
And so the suburbs? Feels like we’re heading in the direction of Leah’s house. No one’s saying anything.
“So, uh… Where are we going?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Courtney’s white-knuckling it up there, staring a hole through the windshield.
“Because it kind of feels like we’re headed…”
“I don’t know yet!”
Leah turns around to face me and Zeke.
“I have to get home. My aunt’s been staying with my dad, and she has to get to work soon. I don’t like leaving him alone for too long. In fact…” She shifts again so that she’s almost completely facing us. “Why don’t you come over and say hello? And, oh I don’t know, maybe apologize?”
Zeke scoffs under me.
“Because.” She’s got that look in her face again, the one of checkmate, and I’m going to make you pay, and I’m in control of the situation again. “What happened to my dad is somehow your fault. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I will.”
“Remember, guys. Psychic.”
Another scoff from Zeke.
“Yes—thank you, Courtney.” I try to give Leah the sincerest of looks. “I don’t know what happened to your father. Yes, he chased me and Balero into the woods, and yes, something strange did happen to him while we were in there, but you have to keep in mind that something happened to me too.”
She squints. Really. Poor baby.
“It did. I fell and bashed my head against a rock. You can still feel the bump. I was out of it for I don’t know, like an hour. So the thing with your dad—I’m not the best one to tell you what happened.”
“Oh, yeah? Who is, then?”
“Well…” I look around the car like the answer is in here with us. But of course it isn’t. “That would be Balero.”
Leah turns around and faces the front again.
“And we don’t know where he is.”
Now it’s my turn to scoff.
“Leah, what do you think we were doing when you and Courtney crashed our little party? We were literally picking up Zeke so we could regroup and figure out how to track him down.”
She turns back to me, another half-believing look in her eyes.
“You mean he didn’t leave with you that day?”
“No he did not.”
She shoots Zeke a look through my armpit.
“You told me he robbed a liquor store, or something.”
This got an incredulous “What?” From Courtney. We all ignore it.
Zeke clears his throat. “Um, actually no—I told you Marcus did that.”
“Oh. Right.” Her hateful glare softens a bit. She refocuses and looks at Zeke through my armpit again.
“So you were telling the truth, then. About Balero.” She looks up at me. “He did run into the woods with my watch and your… whatever it is that you said the other thing was.”
I nod vigorously. Good! Yes! Things are finally going in the right direction. I get the slightest hint that we’re now on the same side. It hits me like an early summer scent, like lilacs or flowers or something. I’m…
Yeah, fuck it. I’m totally attracted to her. Felt it coming on for a while now. Just gonna admit that to myself and hope to Christ it doesn’t make things worse.
Please don’t make things worse.
“We’re coming up on your exit, Leah. Are we really going to your house?”
She looks back at me and smiles. It’s not a smile of malice or revenge but sweetness.
“Yes. We are.”
I’m aware of a sudden erection and very, very glad I’m not the one sitting on the bottom of the me / Zeke pile.
“Does your dad, you know… still have that shotgun?”
Society Hill, Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
Balero’s magic door leads to a tiny magic hallway which opens out to… a magic reading nook.
I’m actually laughing now. This can’t possibly be happening.
“I told you, I told you!”
Balero’s practically jumping up and down now. Yes, Balero. You told us.
It’s a charming room. Small. Bay windows, lots of light. There’s a padded bench against the windows, stacks of books in the walls, an overstuffed chair, a small white wicker table, and I’m losing my mind. This is what it looks like for me to lose my mind. This room.
I just mumbled something. What was it? I hear it echoing in my head, echoing in the impossible walls. “The student of the infinite prime.” This must be what Ford was talking about.
Balero’s still laughing. He sits in the overstuffed chair and points his goofy smile all over the room.
“This room shouldn’t be here, Balero.”
Daryl is behind me, not daring to enter. He touches my arm.
Balero puts his feet up on the wicker table. He’s got a large coffee table book in his lap. Looks like black and white photographs of ‘50s fashion models.
The place is just flooded in sunlight. There are snowflake-shaped crystals hanging in the windows, scattering shards of rainbow light all over the walls. I’m scared to look outside. The few glances I caught look like Philadelphia, but I’m not taking it any farther than that. I don’t want to rip a hole in… in whatever the hell magic is making this room possible.
“This place is the bomb dot com! I was in here for hours this morning. Sorry if I spooked you guys! It’s just… It’s so easy to lose track of time in here!”
I turn around and push Daryl back into the guest room, back into reality.
“What the hell, Mandy? What the actual hell?”
“Daryl,” I whisper, “downstairs, in the library, next to my laptop is my cell phone. Open it and look in the directory for Ford’s number. There’s only one—it’s his cell. Call it. Leave a message if you have to. Tell him I said to get here as soon as he can. Tell him…” I look back over my shoulder. I see Balero’s disembodied feet rocking gently back and forth and he’s humming to himself. “Tell him it’s an emergency.”