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 | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
Holy shit, I was right—I’m definitely in the wrong line of work. Fucking Society Hill? I guess I didn’t look too closely at the address before I left. The cab still feels like a tiny submarine, so I definitely made the right call to not drive.
I get out and the cab speeds away. Did I even pay? I get stuck on the amazingness of the fact that I just made an unintentional rhyme when I force myself to believe that I must have paid, otherwise he wouldn’t have left. Which sounds sort of like a paradox, but somehow it’s not. Balero would be able to explain how. And speaking of which, here I am, in front of this monstrous monument to old-world hypercapitalism, this castle (and it really does look like a castle) from which I must rescue the princess who is my roommate, just like in my favorite video game. (I see an image of Balero in 8-bit princess hair and makeup but for some reason it doesn’t make me laugh. And it really, really should. I try to remember to laugh at it later. This in itself I find funny and sort of causes a laugh.)
The weight of what I’m supposed to do bears down on me. How do I even start? I guess there’s a door.
Yes, dumbshit—there’s a door. That is usually how most people enter buildings.
I force myself in a door-like direction and decide that, assuming we all make it through this, I’m going to start my own cult: the cult of smoking too much weed before doing important things.
The door clicks as I reach for it, my hand still a few inches away from the doorknob. I try turning my wrist in the air, in case I stumbled upon some secret magic power. The doorknob turns. My balls tingle. The door opens, and there’s a guy. Long stringy hair, overweight, sloppy clothes, glasses. Way doesn’t look like he belongs here. And I’m like, oh—so I guess no secret magic door-opening powers for me. That sucks.
“You must be Marcus.”
I wonder for a second why I mustn’t be someone else.
“What’s going on. My name’s Daryl.”
What’s going on?
“Uh, hey Daryl. Nice to meet you, I guess.”
I follow him inside. The lobby is fucking massive and looks like a small European church. I try to think of something to say.
“So you’re obviously friends with Mandy.”
He likes this. Gives him a chubby little delight.
“I wouldn’t exactly put it that way. More like associates.”
We climb into an enormous gold elevator and ascend to what I hope is someplace with cold soda because I’m hot as hell and have some cottonmouth to beat the motherfucking band, and why didn’t I take a shower while I was at home?
I realize I’m standing in an elevator that probably costs more money than I’ll ever make in my entire lifetime, and I’m doing it while wearing six dollar cargo shorts, a beat-up T-shirt with tomato sauce stains, and standing next to a guy who’s wearing black socks with sandals.
Finally we enter the grand home of the Church of Ford Van Zorn.
“It’s not Ford’s apartment, actually.”
Not who’s apartment? What?
Oh, shit—I said that last part out loud, didn’t I?
Just be cool. Go with it.
“Yeah. It belongs to Willow. Willow Lake?”
Whoever the fuck that is. I picture a woman who’s bent over like a giant weeping willow next to a lake, crying because she dropped something on the ground and can’t quite reach all the way down to pick it up.
Jesus balls, this place is fucking huge.
“One person lives here?”
“Yep. And not even all of the time.”
He’s singing the words. I swear to fuck he’s singing the words like he’s in a goddamn musical. And there are backwards echoes—I hear echoes of what he’s saying right before he says it.
“Are… Are… Are… Hey, are you OK, man?”
I spin around in what I hope is his direction.
“I’m going to level with you…”
“I’m going to level with you, Daryl. I just smoked a pile of really strong mashed potatoes before coming over here, and I think it may have had something.”
‘Laced’ hardly seemed like the right word, which is why I forced myself to avoid it, resulting in a terribly awkward and unhelpful sentence. I wish myself better luck next time. Daryl is giving me a look from which I can extract no helpful meaning.
“You mean laced?”
“Yeah, man. Laced. Like, with extra added ingredients.”
He considers his next question before asking it, looking around to make sure we’re alone.
“Hey, uh… Got any more, man?”
“I see you found Marcus.”
I don’t see who says this. Sounds like a woman. She’s just now coming into the room. Has something in her hand. Flipping it around like a toy. A cell phone? And she’s… God, she’s fucking gorgeous, in a tomboy sort of way.
Daryl pulls her aside. They’re whispering (about me, obviously). I twirl around and take in the place. It feels like the kind of apartment that would belong to a famous news anchor or a reality TV star.
Tomboy lady raises her voice to Daryl. “He’s fucking stoned?” Then, to me. “You’re stoned?” I attempt to make a sound that winds up being some sort of bastard child of a chortle and a hiccup. I have absolutely no idea what kind of information this sound was supposed to convey.
This is too much for her. She turns her back to me, puts her hands to her eyes, and calls out certain deities unlucky enough to be the source of her ire. I count at least four uses of the word “unbelievable”. At one point she turns to me, flaps her arms, and wonders out loud why we don’t all just get stoned and fly into a “goddamn sidewalk painting”.
If anybody in the world ever needed to get high…
“Listen, I’m just here for my friend.” And something else. Right? Don’t think it or you might say it, dumbass.
“Yeah, your friend…” She’s coming at me now. She’s coming right for me. “Your friend is upstairs playing games with the laws of physics, and my fucking ass is on the line here, and you’re stoned?”
I want to stop whatever my mind is serving up like the next meal it’s going to force me to think/eat, but I can’t. I can’t stop it. I see what looks like a cartoon rendering of the alien device flash through my mind. It has little wiggle lines coming off of it, making it look like it’s vibrating or sending out radio signals or something. I’ll bet Roland could explain what those waves are. What they can do. We should get him over here. In fact, where is he?
“What do you mean? What do you know about that?” Pretty tomboy lady is giving me fuck-you eyes and grabbing my chin. “Huh? Come on. Say that again.”
“Say what you just said again.”
“Um…” I just shrug. (Act stupid. Shouldn’t be that hard.)
Suddenly I’m not looking at tomboy lady anymore. I’m looking to my right, out the giant windows at another probably just-as-expensive apartment building across the street. My left cheek blooms into a wide sheet of ice.
Did she just slap me?
Yeah, she did. And she’s really screaming now. Bitch is losing it. Daryl pulls her off of me, away into the next room.
Thank you, Daryl.
Downtown Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
C’mon, Todd. Anytime now.
I’ve been standing at the top of the stupid Rocky steps for ten minutes, and I’ve had the Rocky theme in my head the whole time. Couldn’t we have picked someplace with, I don’t know, less music? I resist the urge to walk around in little circles again because it’s too hot and I want to die from how hot it is. Standing here, with the Museum of Art at my back and downtown rising over the trees like a roving pack of giant glass robots, it comes to me that I haven’t been up here since a grade school field trip.
Someone slaps the back of my head with what feels like a rolled up newspaper. It’s Todd.
“Follow me, dick hat. Stay twenty steps behind.”
I follow him inside where it’s thirty degrees cooler and buy myself a ticket and wow—first the zoo, and now this? So in addition to being one of the most stressful days in my life, today is also one of the most cultural.
I find him inside the first exhibit, pretending to admire a giant statue of what looks like a gladiator. He gives me a hard glare and walks off into the next room. We creep wordlessly through a number of exhibits. At one point a very sharp looking gay couple passes us going the other direction. Me and one of the gay guys give each other the strangest look—I realize after they pass that it was a look of please let me trade places with you. They’ve clearly just had a fight. And yes, I would trade places with him. Not that, you know, I’m gay or anything. But at this point I would literally suck a dick to get out of whatever the hell is happening to me right now.
We’ve come to a stop. We’re alone in a room full of very old looking furniture protected by yards of velvet rope. Todd leans in for what I hope is not a kiss.
“Her Majesty’s not the only one underground.”
This doesn’t register. Underground? Like somehow literally under us?
Todd shakes his head in frustration.
“Her Majesty’s not the only one in disguise, dumbass.”
“Oh, Roland! You’re talking about Roland. Sorry.”
A small family enters the room and looks thoughtfully around at the ancient chairs or whatever and takes way too long to move on to the next exhibit. Todd sighs and closes his eyes when they finally leave. He opens his eyes and glares at me. He wants me to pick it apart.
“Well… How was Roland in disguise? You mean…”
“Let’s just say he’s had some work done. Facial reconstructive surgery, fake teeth. He’s even had his fingerprints removed. If Her Majesty is living off the grid, Roland’s a ghost.”
A security guard. There’s a security guard right there, in the room we just came from, and he’s giving us the eyes. We move into the next exhibit, which has even more old furniture, only there’s also giant oriental rugs hanging on the walls. More people file in behind us. Todd waits for them to leave before continuing.
“Roland didn’t just work with Kenneth back in the ‘60s, OK? It’s bigger than that. Dude was high up in the DOD. Like high up.”
“What do you mean? High like what?”
He just looks at me and does the you know what I mean eyebrows. Because I can read minds or something. Todd waves this away.
“Just, don’t worry about it. OK? Doesn’t matter. The point is, he’s a ghost. No one’s been looking for him for thirty years, right?”
“Right, so… Why would someone take a shot at him now?”
Another look from Todd. Figure it out asshole.
I give it my best shot. Nothing. I take a random stab just to keep things moving along.
“Wait, was he involved in DARPA, or some shit like that?”
“I didn’t say DARPA. Did you hear me say DARPA?”
A nun, a goddamn nun, walks into our exhibit. Then another one. And another. We’re in a room the size of a freight elevator with six tittering brides of Christ. Todd pulls me forward.
This goes on for three more exhibits until we stumble onto a sterile hallway that leads to a drinking fountain and some bathrooms. I think of Roland and realize it’s going to be a while before I can bring myself to use a public restroom again.
Todd is angry and getting angrier.
“The man has been careful, but it’s almost for no reason. He goes everywhere with that relic of a bodyguard, but Max hasn’t had to do shit but make this guy’s coffee and pick up his dry cleaning for three decades. Suddenly he’s a target? I don’t think so. Why?”
“I don’t know.”
“Think, asshole. How would they know that he was here in Philadelphia?”
I think about it, but nothing clicks. Suddenly the words are coming out of me before I can stop them.
“Because we led them to him.”
“Because you led them to him.”
This is too much. I walk away from Todd, but there’s nowhere to go. I get as far down the hallway as I can without actually going into one of the bathrooms. A very overweight man elbows past me and blasts through the men’s room door. I reluctantly turn back to Todd.
This guy’s going to take my fucking head off.
“Well, how did they find us in the first place?”
“Shit, I don’t know! Did you ever tell anyone what you were doing? A girlfriend, a parent?”
“Fuck no,” I hiss.
“Ever send any emails or post about it anywhere online?”
I shake my head. Absolutely not.
“Ever have any conversations over an unsecured line?”
Todd pauses, eyes wide, and chokes out a couple of those very tiny abbreviated laughs of the deeply insane.
“Are you fucking serious right now? Are you fucking with me?”
I turn away from him and thwack my forehead against the cold white wall.
“Marcus and I… We may have had one or two conversations about ransacking Leah’s house over the phone.” I say this to the wall and not to Todd. I’m finally at the point where I’m afraid even to look at him.
There’s another pause. Is it the quiet before the storm?
Nope. Still a pause.
I reluctantly remove my face from the wall and turn back to Todd. He’s pinching the bridge of his nose.
“I swear to God, man. I swear. We never once mentioned the… thing directly. We were very careful!”
Still nothing, and I wonder if I’m about to find out what it’s like to be standing right next to a man who spontaneously combusts.
I want to break the silence, but I can’t think of anything. Or, but wait—yes I can.
“Listen, what does this mean for Holcomb?”
Todd pulls his hand away from his face. All his teeth are showing.
“Don’t say his fucking name, dipshit!” He somehow yells this and whispers it at the same time.
“Oh, Jesus. Aren’t we past that by now?”
Now it’s Todd’s turn to storm away. He walks back into the exhibit we just vacated and grabs at his hair. Now he’s walking in little circles. That’s it. Calm down. Good boy.
Oops, wait—no, here he comes again.
“My boss”—hard look—“can’t leave his hotel room, dumbass. Ever since we figured out you’re being followed he’s refusing to leave until we can secure a safe exit, which doesn’t look very likely anytime soon. Get it? I can’t even get near him now. And by the way, this means we are extremely fucking close to letting them getting their fucking hands on it before we can.”
There’s that goddamn security guard again. Seriously, man? Wow. Yep, he’s actually headed our way. Reeeeeally takes his job seriously.
Some part of me that that I didn’t know existed springs to life and I intercept the move. I walk right up to the guard, smile, and whisper, “Lover’s tiff. You understand. Are we being too loud?”
This softens the guard, but only a little.
“You’re being kind of intense, yeah. Mind cooling it down?”
“Sorry. My honey bear can be a little excitable every now and then. I’ll tell him to put a cork in it until we get back to the car. Thank you!”
This actually works. Wow. I could be an actor. The guard backs off and I return to a practically sobbing Todd.
“We’re attracting attention. Come on, let’s go.”
He turns to face me. His face is flushed, and yep—he’s actually crying now. Jesus. Everyone’s going to think I just broke up with him.
We work our way back to the entrance. He lets me put my arm around him. I’m starting to get a picture of the amount of stress he must be under. Is there a café, or someplace we could sit down and get some food? I start to worry that he’s going to pass out. And actually, now that I think about it, I haven’t eaten since I barfed at the zoo. Did I even eat breakfast today? What the hell did I throw up? In any event, my stomach is a seething cauldron of acid threatening to burn through my skin.
I spot a bank of payphones in a long marble hallway near the ticketing area. This triggers something in me, not sure what. It’s something big and important, and it’s coming up like that hot ball of vomit back at the zoo.
“Should we call…” I was going to say Marcus, but that’s not what the ball of vomit wants me to say. No, it wants me to say something else. It wants me to say…
I give Todd what must be a very unhappy face.
“Give me your cell phone.”
“Hell the fuck no! You think I want one of your goons tailing me? Where are you going?”
Before I can explain myself I’m running to the bank of payphones and ripping through my pockets for change, and if we’ve been followed this whole time, that means…
Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck!
“Zeke! Who the hell are you calling?”
Society Hill, Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
I’m shooting my toy gun at my uncle at his old cabin that doesn’t exist anymore. We’re playing cops and robbers. He always lets me be the robber. I’m coming around from the far side of the boathouse and he’s going to pretend he got shot again and roll around in the autumn leaves and I can’t wait! It’s always my favorite part.
I shoot at him again, only the Pop! Pop! Pop! isn’t coming from my toy gun. It’s that awful woman again, the tomboy lady, snapping her fingers in my face.
I’m laying down. Why am I laying down?
My hand instinctively goes to my face.
“Don’t hit me again.”
She laughs and smiles. She’s… wow. She’s insanely pretty.
“I’m really sorry about that. You caught me at a particularly bad time. I was a bomb waiting to explode, and you sort of set me off.”
I’m still in the crazy expensive apartment. We’re by the door. I’m on a little mini-couch, like the kind with no arms. A fainting couch? Did I really just faint on a fainting couch?
Greasy-haired dude is behind her. He’s picking his nose.
I sit all the way up. Stars fill my vision and I lay back down. It’s still light out, and it smells like something. Soup?
“How long was I out?” I sort of half say it and half moan it.
“Not that long. About forty five minutes. How are you feeling?”
I moan again. My head feels like a black hole.
“How hard did you hit me?”
Tomboy lady and greasy boy find this funny. I suppose I should learn their names at some point.
Mandy. Her name is Mandy. That’s right.
“You were quite intoxicated when you came in.”
She helps me sit all the way up. My eyes roll around like marbles and refuse to settle on anything. The lady hands me something. It’s a can of Coke. Not a mini one, but a regular size one.
“Hey, hey… what’s wrong?”
Now she’s got her arm around me. Is that tomato soup? God, it smells good. I’d kill a man for a big bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich with pickle slices.
I’m crying. Why am I crying? Without warning it just pours out of me and there’s no stopping it.
Greasy hair guy understandably walks away. I remember for no particular reason that his name is Daryl.
I try to say something intelligent but that’s not what comes out. It’s my fault. I tell her it’s my fault. I don’t know how, but it is. This whole thing. Roland, Max, Holcomb. Fuck. I’m such a goddamn idiot.
I keep talking, but it’s less like real talking—it’s heading in a stream-of-consciousness direction and I can’t stop it.
“What about who, honey?”
She’s got the sweetest look in her eyes. What did she say?
“You asked about someone.”
I stop crying for a second in a failed effort to concentrate.
“Yeah. You did.”
Her voice is soft. She’s handing me a tissue. I haven’t even opened the Coke yet. I’m just staring at it, pouring all of my hate and anguish into it, and it’s all my fault. A man is dead and it’s my fault.
We’re actually rocking back and forth on the mini-couch now. Me and this woman I hardly know.
I force myself to look into her eyes.
“You’re Mandy, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I’m Mandy.”
Daryl comes back in the room with a tray.
“We brought you some food. Come on, have something to eat. You’re probably very hungry. OK?”
I take one last look at the Coke can. I crack it open and annihilate it in three gulps.
Goodbye, Roland. God bless you and your service to this country.
It’s not a regular tray Daryl’s holding, it’s a TV tray, the kind with fold-out legs. Wow! Haven’t seen one of those in a while. He sets it before me, right at the couch. I don’t even have to go anywhere.
It is tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich! I start to cry again.
“There you go. Shh. It’s OK.” More tissue. Another Coke. Wow, these guys are really giving me the deluxe treatment. I blow my nose and toss the used tissue on a very intimidating looking oriental rug. Daryl brings over a tiny metal wastebasket that looks like it’s right out of a museum. I use up more tissue and force myself to stop crying because that food looks so good I want to die. I tear in. Mandy strokes my hair as I eat, like I’m fucking ten years old again, and I don’t care. I had no idea how badly I needed this. Everybody should get to feel this way from time to time, no matter how old they are.
I get through the food and destroy the other Coke. Daryl whisks away the TV tray. I give my nose one more hard honk and face Mandy. She’s got one of those half smiles, the kind that knows what kind of day I’m having.
She’s still stroking my hair. It feels like this should be weird but it isn’t. Something about this moment is perfectly intimate, if not a bit tiny and fragile.
The fainting couch is the color of vanilla ice cream and has the tiniest little flowers woven into the fabric. I can’t believe they let me eat tomato soup on it. Special occasion. Mmm, vanilla ice cream.
“So…” I don’t know what to say. Neither does she. We sort of look at each other and laugh. “Jesus. I’m sorry I crashed your place like this!”
She laughs again and says it’s OK with her eyes.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been that high before. Like in my entire life. Just… wow.”
We share another quiet moment, then it’s down to business. She slaps her hand lightly on my knee.
“Listen, I hate to do this, but we have a lot to discuss. I know…”
“…I know you’re not in a good spot. We even briefly considered taking you to a hospital, but I can see you just needed to sleep it off a little. But here’s the deal.” Square, no-nonsense look in the eye. “Your friend is a nightmare.”
“Yeah. Tell me about it.”
“Would you be willing to, um, talk him down, I guess?”
“Talk him down?”
She nods. “I know that doesn’t exactly make sense. Here…” She stands up. I do too, with her help. “Let’s go see him, and you’ll see what I mean.”
The reality of what I have to do here today goes in my stomach like a fork. Balero, the alien device, Leah’s dad… I don’t want to face it. I just want to go home and sleep for a week. I just want to get naked and curl up with my favorite blanket and disappear.
If the fainting couch room was intimidating, the rest of this place is terrifying. Like I crashed Madonna’s pad or some shit.
Daryl catches up with us. I spot a restroom and ask if I can duck inside for a minute. It’s tiny with fancy hand towels that are too nice to touch and in no way reminds me of the men’s room at the Philadelphia Zoo.
I come back out, the toilet whooshing behind me. Probably should have washed my hands. And my face. And my everything.
We round a corner and there’s a staircase.
“Oh, come on.”
“I know, right?”
Daryl says this, in a voice of having been in exactly my shoes.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. There’s a whole other floor to this place?”
We’re sort of stuck at the bottom of the staircase, not really going anywhere. I guess they’re giving me a chance to take it in. Feels like a real house back here, as in, I feel like I’m in my grandparent’s house when I was a kid. Don’t touch the banister on the way up! It’s just been polished! It feels way too big to be an apartment.
We ascend. Our steps are tiny soft crunches on the rich carpet. I’m in my socks. (When did I take my shoes off?) And I’m definitely still high a little, because it feels like the whole house is rotating around us as we climb.
“Balero’s up here?”
Mandy and Daryl both laugh at this. It’s not clear why.
“Balero’s very fond of playing hide-and-seek around here. More like hide-and-drive-us-crazy.” Then, addressed to what feels like the house itself, Mandy yells, “Balero, you have a visitor! Your friend Marcus is here. Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
Downtown Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
I run over to the bank of payphones in the hallway outside the museum lobby, tearing through my pockets as I go. Leah’s number. Leah’s number. Somewhere in my jeans I have a scrap of paper with…
Please fucking be a cell. Did she say it was a cell? Did I see her use one? Christ, I can’t remember.
OK, dialing. Dialing very carefully.
Now ringing… And ringing… And ringing…
“I’m going to take a stab in the dark and guess that this is either Mr. Eppler or Mr. Mulvaney.”
It’s a man’s voice. I feel the receiver crack under my fist.
“Who the fuck is this?”
“I think you know who this is. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and say that it doesn’t matter who this is. I represent not a single person, but a body of knowledge and experience far superior to yours.”
I switch ears.
“You represent a what, now?”
A bead of sweat finds its way into my left eye and renders all left-facing vision inoperable, which is fine, because the other eye is currently going blind with rage.
“Ah. Mr. Eppler, I presume.”
I blink away the sweat and look back at Todd. He’s leaning against a wall by the museum gift shop with his hands on his knees and taking deep breaths. He’s… trying not to hyperventilate?
“Who’s Mr. Eppler?”
“That’s very funny, Mr. Eppler. Oh, by the way—Mr. Fullerton says hello.”
Mr. Fullerton… Cory? Of the encrypted letter and the birthday party? Jesus! How long have these dickholes been following me?
“Oh, yeah? What’d you do to him? He’s a big guy. Hope he put up a fight.”
“Not at all. He’s on our side now. And soon you will be too.”
I’ve got to hand it to this guy. His calm demeanor is deeply fucking unnerving.
Wait… Can they still trace calls? Is that a thing? It’s in like every stupid action movie ever. How long is it supposed to take? Am I leading them right to me? To us?
I look over at Todd again. He’s gone. Shit. Nope, not now. Gonna have to deal with that later.
“I swear on my father’s grave, if you fucking touch either one of them…”
“Please remain calm, Mr. Eppler. Ms. Schaudt and Ms. Hollick are fine. They are in no danger, and they will come to no danger. You have my word. They will not in any way be used as bargaining chips. Do you understand?”
“Yeah? The word of a scary stranger with a calm voice? That’s awfully reassuring.”
“I hope it is. Whatever you do, Mr. Eppler, please remain calm. Do not do anything stupid.”
“Oh yeah? What, like find out where you are and beat your fucking teeth in with my boot? Where are they?”
A robot lady interrupts our call to let me know that my time is up unless I can cough up another quarter. Do I have one? Fuck! Do I have one?
Of course I don’t.
“Don’t you fucking touch them!”
“Goodbye, Mr. Eppler. We’ll talk soon.”
I hear a click. The call is over.
Well, Jesus God fuck.
I sort of whisper-scream this as not to attract the attention of any more security guards. I don’t slam the phone into the receiver, but it’s one of the hardest things in the world I’ve ever had to do. Because right now it would feel just so goddamn good to bash this whole fucking payphone to hell.
I’m shaking. Looking down at my legs I can see that my entire body is vibrating. I don’t know what my face looks like right now, but it can’t be good; passersby are making plenty of room for me as I make my way back to where Todd was just standing a minute ago, and fuck this is the worst possible fucking day ever.
I yell Todd’s name at a volume that’s just on this side of OK to do in a museum hallway.