Northwest Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
Not sure exactly how this whole apologizing to her father thing is going to go. Uh, yes—hello, sir. I very badly want to bone your daughter, and I’m sorry for leading you on what must be the strangest chase in either of our lives, and for whatever the hell else it was that happened to you while we were out there, world without end, amen. Are we good?
Of course that’s not how it goes. It never goes the way I want it to go in my head. The reality is a bit… sadder.
He’s not awake when we enter his bedroom. It’s just me and Leah, and her father’s name is Barry.
“Has he been like this ever since…”
Leah shakes her head. “No, he comes out of it a couple of times a day. Usually in the middle of the afternoon, then he’s down again for the rest of the night.”
We’re at his bed. It’s big. The whole bedroom is big, like it should belong to two people instead of one. And a touch too feminine for a single guy.
Where’s her mother?
Not now. Table it. Pick it up later. I force myself to not forget to ask her at a less horrible time.
“Has he been to a doctor?”
“Yes, but they didn’t find anything.”
“Should you take him back?”
“I already tried that. He won’t even talk about it. I decided that two more days like this and I’m calling an ambulance.”
“Hmm… Good call.”
She leans down over him.
“Hey, Daddy. Remember Marcus?”
He’s out, all right. Sawing logs with the best of them. Just looks like he’s taking a nap, is all.
Leah straightens up and looks at me. I’m on.
“Uh… Hi, Mr. Schaudt. It’s me, Marcus. The doofus who stormed your daughter’s bedroom and what not. Uh… Don’t shoot me!” I lean back and throw my hands up and make a funny face. To my absolute surprise this gets a small laugh from Leah.
“So, yeah, ah, listen. About all that.” I’m looking at Leah as I say this. She’s nodding in encouragement. “I’m sorry for what we did to you, if that helps.” I wince. If that helps? “And, uh… I hope you feel better soon. I promise to be a gentleman the next time we meet. I totally won’t steal your shit and run next time. Also your daughter is pretty rad. The end. Marcus Mulvaney.”
Another wide smile from the woman I now want to marry. (I know, shut up.) But seriously—in all the encounters we’ve had up until now, I’d never seen her smile. I mean, really light up. It’s pretty fuckin’ kickass.
She leans over to kiss his forehead.
“Sleep tight, Daddy. I’ll be downstairs if you need anything.”
I feel a psychic prediction of my own as we walk downstairs to join Courtney and Zeke in the living room: I’m going to repeat that same speech to Leah’s father while he’s awake.
Zeke says something. He wants to know how it went.
“Not bad.” I do a little seesaw motion with my hand, but I’m smiling like a moron.
There’s a silence. We all just kind of stand around and look at each other. I’m making every effort to not look at Leah.
“I, uh… I wrote down my cell phone number and gave it to Courtney, so they can reach us whenever.” Zeke says this as he gives me the tiniest eyebrow wiggle.
Another awkward silence, this one much worse.
“So what do we do now?” Zeke again. His hands are stuffed in his pockets and his eyebrows are all the way up. He wants to go home. No shit—so do I. A long nap sounds brutally, insanely good. Even better if I was cuddled up with…
“Well!” I do a stupid clap. “We need to fucking find Balero, is what I’d say we have to do now. Don’t you think?”
Zeke rolls his eyes but eventually nods.
Courtney walks over to Leah and snuggles up against her arm. “I’ll stay here and keep these two company.”
“So we need some wheels, I guess.” My voice falters as I say this, realizing for the first time that we don’t have a ride out of here.
“Here…” Courtney fishes her keys out of her pocket and tosses them to Zeke. “Be nice to her. She got me through two terrible boyfriends and really bad fight with Leah.” She gives Leah like the sweetest hug, and I hate her a tiny bit less.
Zeke lights up. “Awesome! Thanks, man!”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s a piece of shit car. Hope you can drive a stick!” I tell Zeke he’s definitely driving.
“What are you going to do if you find him?”
I turn to Leah. “Well, I…” This stumps me. Of course there’s a reason for what we’re doing, I’d just never put it to words before. “I suppose I’d try to get him to tell me what happened to your father…” I say this very slowly. Leah’s expression tells me I’m on the right track. “…and I guess I’d try to get the device from him somehow. And your watch, if they’ll let us keep it.”
Her expression changes, but to something I can’t quite read. Less than happy.
Zeke once again cleans up my rhetorical mess.
“Look, we need to get this thing into Holcomb’s hands. This is his life’s work. He wants to expose the government’s decades-long campaign of lies to the citizens of the world that they have, and are keeping secret for who knows what kinds of horrible reasons, evidence of intelligent life other than our own. That’s what we’re going to do.”
I’m waiting for an outburst from Courtney or scoff from Leah, but I get neither. Leah’s expression resolves into a half-smile and Courtney says, “Whatever. Just don’t fucking crash my car.”
And that’s it. I wrap up my awkward apology tour of Leah’s house and head back out into the most difficult day of my life.
Society Hill, Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
Thank God I didn’t confirm that flight reservation back to Chicago, because I’m not going anywhere now.
Willow is going to destroy me. She is! I can hear it now: We’re sorry, Mandy. We really are. It’s just not going to work out. Ford and I feel we’re not quite the right fit for what you’re looking for right now. In your career. I can actually hear those exact words in her voice.
Ford said almost as much just now when he called, irate, wanting to know why “some kid” called from my cell phone to let him know that he has to abandon his book tour and fly to another city because I saw a magic room in Willow’s Philadelphia apartment.
“Well, Ford’s on his way.”
I say this to Daryl through a sigh as I throw my cell phone onto the carpet and silently thank God for these soft leather couches in the library. I wonder at their price and then realize I probably don’t want to know. I promised myself I wouldn’t take a nap when I laid down, but now I’m not so sure. I most definitely have the beginnings of a headache. Please don’t turn into a migraine. Please. I’ll do anything.
“When’s his flight?”
I recite it from memory.
“Direct flight 439 out of Chicago, landing in Philadelphia at 4:14 pm.”
I look at my watch. It’s not even eleven. What the hell am I supposed to do with Balero for five hours? How many walls can he vanish into? Or maybe he’ll just melt into a secret door and disappear forever. Along with my career.
“Was he mad?”
I blink up at the ceiling. Was Ford Van Zorn mad.
“He was… not happy.”
“The end of the world, huh?”
I want to laugh at this, but I’m too tired.
“The end of mine, anyway.”
Nothing. Silence. Christ, I can even hear the fear in Daryl’s breathing. I lay my arm across my eyes.
“Hey, Daryl. You’re a level Prime One, right?”
“No, I made Prime Three last month.”
“Oh. Ever hear of the Student of the Infinite Prime?”
I hear Daryl’s clothes shuffle.
“No. Wait, the what?”
“Never mind,” I sigh. “You don’t want to know.”
I force myself to sit up and look at Daryl, who—really?—is just still standing there like he’s waiting to take my order or something.
“Is he still up there?”
He nods and shudders. I would too. “Uh, yep. He’s still in… his special place or whatever.”
“How’s he sound?”
“He’s happy as can be, man. Just super… He’s just really super happy.”
I flop back down on the couch and shut my eyes and try to imagine life after the Church of Radioactive Light.
Balero’s happy, huh? Good for him.
On The Road, Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
“I don’t have it.”
Zeke looks at me. We’re back on the freeway in Courtney’s ancient car. He’s driving.
“Don’t have what?”
“Balero’s goddamn book.”
“The one with the bookmark that has that guy’s number on it. Bailey? Dewey? I must have left it in Roland’s limo.” Which is now God knows where. “We need to go back to my place.”
“That’s where I thought we were headed.”
That is good, because it’s time to storm Balero’s room again.
I’m fiddling with the A/C, which feels like it’s long since shuffled off this mortal coil. Man, if I ever needed a shower…
“Do you think we need to, you know… involve Her Majesty? At this point?” He steps gingerly over each word like it’s made of candy glass, and oh Jesus. I stop fiddling with the A/C knobs and drop my hands in my lap.
“Fuck. Yeah, we probably do.”
No comment. He’s gaping at me and trying not to drive off the freeway at the same time.
Two beats go by. Three.
“Well? How the hell do we do that?”
“Seriously? You’re the wonder boy they let in his little group. You tell me! Don’t we call… I don’t know, that big scary black guy or whatever?”
Zeke returns his attention to the road and nods.
I start to laugh.
“Oh, he is not going to like any of what we have to say to him.”
Yeah—oh hi, Todd. Yeah. Hey, you remember Roland? Well, funny story—he’s dead. And we still don’t… What’s that? Yeah, we still don’t have a lead on where Balero might have taken the thing. But we’re on it, don’t worry. We’re heading back to his bedroom right now to look through his stuff for a number of a woman who’s name we don’t even know, so… we got our best people on it.
“Yeah, let’s… Let’s hold off on contacting Todd for now.”
Zeke’s giving me a look. Really?
“Yeah. Let’s wait until we have something to report. Besides, something tells me Todd & co know about Roland’s… about the shooting by now. Max was wearing an earpiece at the zoo, or wait… Shit, I suppose it could have been a hearing aide. Which, by the way.” I turn to Zeke. “Why don’t you drop me off at my place. I’ll ransack Balero’s room, and you go to the University hospital and see if Roland’s there. I really want to know if he’s still alive.”
“That’s a good idea, actually.”
We pull up to my apartment a few minutes later.
“You too. I’ll be on my cell.”
I take the stairs in front of my building two at a time when Zeke yells from the car: “Wait!”
“Who do I ask for? At the hospital? We don’t know his real name.”
He’s not wrong.
“I don’t know, man—just say he’s your girlfriend’s grandfather or something. How many seventy year-old shooting victims can they have in one day?”
Yes, Professor Waffles. I didn’t forget about you. No I didn’t! Because Balero would murder me in my sleep if I did! Yes he would!
I take care of the cat’s various daily needs and dive bomb Balero’s bedroom again, still very much feeling the sting of not knowing what the hell I’m looking for.
It occurs to me that I could smash a few purple buds while I’m home. I have the time. I walk back into the living room, find my pipe, load it up, and light up. (Actually they’re a bit more reddish than purple this time. Like they’re wearing tiny little fuzzy red jackets. Which is adorable.)
I’m halfway into my third hit when I nearly drop the pipe onto my lap and set my cargo shorts on fire.
His fucking organizer!
God dammit, Marcus.
Well, at least pot helped me be more productive for once.
I barge back into Balero’s bedroom, coughing up purple smoke as I go. I know I saw it, I know I saw it… Hard to see through my suddenly watery eyes, but I do remember seeing his pocket organizer earlier this morning. (God, was that only a few hours ago?) And I know it’s still in here. It’s small and blue and…
Yes! Fucking bingo! Come here, you.
I’ve got it in my hands. I’m fumbling like a maniac to get it open. Calendar, notes, cash, whatever. Phone numbers. Here we go. Flipping, flipping, flipping. Professor Waffles is mewing madly at my feet. Yes, professor! I’ve found it!
The fuck was that woman’s name? Marina? Melanie? Madison?
Mandy! Fucking Mandy. There she is! Mandy Kostopoulos, filed under the Ks, because Balero is one Type-A motherfucker. Under her name is a phone number and the goddamn words VZ Book Club.
I bound out of Balero’s bedroom, followed by a very excited Professor Waffles, waving the organizer over my head like a king’s proclamation. I actually march around in little circles and talk-sing to myself.
I have it, I’ve found it! I have it, I’ve found it!
I do another hit, blow the smoke away from the cat, and dig the cordless phone out of the pile of blankets on the loveseat.
Zeke, Zeke, Zeke. Time to call Zeke. Zip-zap-zoop. And boy is this weed is some strong shit. I maybe should have stopped at two hits.
A tiny voice fills my ear like a tiny Zeke. I want to put him in my pocket and take him to video game land.
“I found it.”
“You… You found it?”
I’m laughing now. Doing little up-and-down boy jumps.
“Yeah, I found it! I found it, I found it, I found it!”
“How did you… Where the hell was it?”
“In his bedroom, man. In his bedroom!”
Silence from the Tiny Zeke in my ear.
“The goddamn device was in his bedroom the whole fucking time?”
Oh, wait. I see. I see what I did there. Oops. Sorry. My bad.
“No, man… I found Mandy’s phone number.”
“Fucking Mandy. Just… Never mind. Are you at the hospital yet?”
“Yeah. I’m just pulling in.”
A laughing fit. I’m having a goddamn laughing fit! Not now! But it’s too late. I fully succumb.
“What the hell, man?” Tiny Zeke in my tiny ear wants to know what’s so tiny funny.
“It’s just that… You said you’re just pulling in.”
I hold it in for as long as I can, then blurt out, “Sounds like a lot more fun than pulling out!”
“Oh Jesus, man. Really?”
“I’m sorry… I’m sorry!”
I try to get a hold of myself, but it’s not happening. I just can’t. I can’t even. The floor spins beneath my feet.
“I’ll call you back.” Tiny Zeke knows I’m stoned and is angry about it. Sorry, Tiny Zeke! Couldn’t be helped.
Wow. I’m an asshole sometimes. Professor Waffles seems to agree. He’s giving me a judgmental look from the back of the couch. I’m in the dining room still doing little circles because I don’t care.
Should I call her? The… what’s her name… the Mandy woman? I might be a little too high.
The cat lets out a long meow from the back of the couch.
“You’re absolutely right, professor—there is no time like the present!”
Well, actually Balero would argue that there are many times like the present, many parallel universes that intersect ours at the exact same time but at varying tangents of possibility, but I digrest. (Digrest?)
I wander back into the living room to make sure the pipe isn’t starting a fire in the couch cushions, but I can’t find it.