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
We get to the top of the stairs and Mandy just sort of stands there and looks around, eyebrows raised, listening. Daryl’s a few steps behind us, frozen mid-step. Why are we being so quiet?
Mandy turns left at the head of the stairs and goes into what looks a bedroom. I follow her in. Daryl follows me. He’s scared. Suddenly Balero’s this wild, unstable animal and this is his zoo. Only he’s not fenced in.
Even Mandy’s afraid. She’s keeping her hands up to her chest, walking slowly into the bedroom like she’s going to spook a gorilla. I saw two or three other rooms down the hall at the top of the stairs, probably a couple of bathrooms too; at this rate it’ll take the rest of the afternoon to cover the second floor.
She walks over to the wall on the right side of the room. Balero’s been in here: the bed is unmade and the air still has his scent, and are those his fucking shoes? Mandy’s got her ear up against the right wall now, in between a dresser and a window.
She knocks. Am I still super high, or did she just knock on the wall?
“Um…” I start. Daryl touches my shoulder. I turn around. He’s shaking his head. His look says, Don’t even try to understand what’s happening right now.
“Balero? You in there?” She’s whispering it like a lullaby.
“Wow.” I turn around and head back into the hallway. Roland was right—maybe these people are unhinged. Or maybe the device already has a hold on them. I wonder how long until it has a hold on me.
I’m about to storm the bedroom across the hall when I see Balero.
I see you, you little fucker!
He’s off to my left, crossing the hallway from one door to another. Barely makes a sound. Mandy and Daryl don’t register it.
I dash over to the room he just entered, another bedroom at the end of the hallway. It’s small, like a baby’s room or something. A nursery. There’s not much in here: an old crib, a rocking chair, a dresser, an open closet. The closet is empty. The room is painfully yellow in the midday sun.
“Hello? I saw you come in here. Where the fuck are you, dude?”
I tear through whatever I can get my hands on: the closet shelves, the dresser drawers, under the rocking chair…
A phone. There’s an old fashioned phone on a tiny table next to the dresser. Almost didn’t see it.
I pick it up and start dialing.
Downtown Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
I would literally give my left nut right now for a goddamn quarter. Do I even have any cash? Can I get change?
Wow. I do not. And if there’s a cash machine around here, I guarantee they don’t take my piece of shit bank card.
I round a corner over by where Todd was trying not to hyperventilate. Nothing. Where the fuck did he go?
Jesus, there he is. Just down the hall, his back to me, hunched over himself like he’s writing something down on his stomach.
Please have cash. Please have cash. Please, for the love of Jesus and all his disciples, have cash.
He’s on his cell phone. Turns to me and raises a finger. Hang on. Great. How can he even hear anything? This hallway outside the main museum entrance is all shiny acoustic surfaces and bustle. Why are there so many fucking people in here? How can you even breathe with all this activity? Am I hyperventilating now too?
Todd’s yelling into his phone. His sentences are short and hot. Whoever’s on the other line is probably wondering how to interpret the busts of static where his words should be.
I hear him say Balero’s name. Who the hell is he talking to?
He flips his phone shut and turns to me. He’s wearing a halo of stars. I blink them away.
“Hey, man. You get a hold of Leah? What’s wrong? Hey, dude—you don’t look so good. Zeke? Hey. Hey!”
Hot sunlight through leaves. A woman’s laugh. The smell of a cigarette. Birds.
It’s cool here, in spite of the awful heat of the day. We’re on a bench in the shadows of a giant tree. Todd hands me something. It’s a bottle of water. Drink. There’s pretzels too, and peanuts. And a candy bar.
He has money. Good. I’m going to have to ask him for some later. Gotta make a call.
He’s giggling. Don’t think I’ve ever seen Todd giggle. Thought he’d be too thug for that.
“You OK, bud?”
I’m OK. I’m OK. The water is cold. I don’t realize how insanely thirsty I am until I drink the whole thing in one swig. Todd has one too. He’s sipping his. He produces another bottle for me. I try to sip this one. He hands me the candy bar.
We’re on a strip of grass by the river. A park. The institute and the Rocky steps are somewhere behind us.
“How did we get over here?”
“We walked. You were very out of it. You don’t remember?”
I sure the fuck don’t.
“You’re not afraid to be seen with me like this? In public?”
“I have never, in all my life, seen someone pass out like that. I mean, pass out cold!” He’s laughing again.
God dammit. Shut up, dude.
“Yeah. It was awesome, actually! I needed a good laugh. Thanks for that.”
Whatever. I eat the candy bar in silence and watch a group of teenage girls do some kind of synchronized dance moves on the grass.
“Who were you talking to? On your cell?”
I have to tell him about Leah and Courtney at some point, but I’m afraid if I think about it too much I’ll pass out again.
“Marcus, man. He was looking for you. Said he couldn’t get you on your cell, and I was like, oh yeah, that was my bad. I told him to ditch his cell.”
I throw the candy bar wrapper on the grass at my feet.
“He found Balero.”
“I don’t know. Some fancy apartment in Society Hill. Was about to give me the address, but he had to run. Said he’d call back soon. Said he got some lady’s phone number back at his apartment.”
I turn on the bench to face him with my whole body.
“Well, that’s great! That’s great, man! We found him!”
Todd gives me the hold on hands.
“Well… not really.”
“What? What does that mean, ‘not really’?”
“He says Balero may be hiding or some shit. They can’t find him at the moment. But he says chances are very good he’ll come around. He’s very taken with this lady’s apartment, I guess. Sort of moved in or something.”
I don’t know what to say to this.
“Well, OK. And… the device?”
Todd shakes his head.
“Not yet. But Marcus thinks it might be there somewhere. Said he had to come down first.”
“Yeah, I guess he…” Todd does the international gesture for smoking a joint.
I turn back to the dancing girls on the grass and remember Marcus’s laughing fit on the phone.
“Yeah. I knew about that part, actually.”
We watch the girls in silence. A bright yellow Frisbee floats over our heads like a tiny flying saucer.
Todd turns back to me.
“Hey, so what happened with Leah? You get ahold of her?”
My eyes fall to my feet.
“Hang on to your hat.”
Society Hill, Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1st, 2000
“You saw him in here? You’re sure?”
We’re all in the nursery. Mandy’s got her hands on her hips, and Daryl clearly just wants to be anywhere else. He’s suspiciously eyeing the corners of the room, as if they contain hidden knives bearing his name.
I look around too.
“Well, no man…”
“Then what? What did you see?”
She’s morphing into pissed off bitch lady again. Wow, not a lot of room between love and hate with this one.
“I told you: I saw him walk into this room. I was out in the hallway, over by you.”
She gives me a long, skeptical look.
“Where was he coming from?”
“I don’t know, from across the hall?”
“Oh, just fuck me.”
She rolls her eyes and starts looking half-heartedly through the nursery while I go into the room across the hall. Maybe he snuck back in here and I didn’t see him. It’s big. Way bigger than the other bedrooms. I flick on a light. There’s a large vanity and wardrobe to the right, and a bed the size of an aircraft carrier to the left. I mean, you could have a six-person orgy on there and still have room to do the crossword. On the far side of the bed is a closet that leads into the left wall.
This is the other side of the wall that Mandy was knocking on.
I walk around the bed and over to the closet. I suppose there could be a doorway in here that leads to the next room. I yank a threadbare string over my head and the closet comes to life. It’s not huge, but there’s plenty of room for a grown man to hide in here. Plenty of room for a secret door.
I dig around, feeling my way across the wall, behind the clothes and shoes and boxes. Old lady perfume goes up my nose, distant and powdery.
But nope, no door. No Balero, either.
I step out of the closet and close the door. I’m just about to leave the room when I see the endless corridor: the mirror on the closet door is reflected in the mirror on the wardrobe behind me, and all of a sudden there are ten thousand mes looking back at ten thousand other mes, off into forever. The vision snakes off to the left or the right, depending on which way I tilt my head. For no particular reason I try remain perfectly still and imagine what it would be like if Balero poked his head out of one of those doors in that endless hallway.
I decide that it would be terrifying.
I’m frozen like this, staring into my ten thousand eyes, when I hear Mandy’s voice from the other room. It sounds like a poem.
The final paradox, the infinite prime;
The listless and the paralyzed, the permanently blind.
Heralding the vultures from a door made out of fives;
When shall I return to you? It will not be in time.
I force myself away from the endless corridor and back into the nursery. Mandy’s holding a piece of paper. She looks at me as she hands it to Daryl, her expression blank, her color gone. Daryl holds up his glasses to read it, then hands it to me. It trembles in his hand like a frail leaf.
It’s a ripped-out piece of notebook paper. Written in scrawling grey pencil is the poem Mandy just recited. I don’t want to recognize the handwriting, but I do.