Pareidolia: Chapter Twenty Nine

I’m publishing my science fiction novel Pareidolia in slow motion. A new chapter will be published every week. The premise is available here.


MARCUS

Society Hill, Philadelphia | Tuesday August 1st, 2000

I’m crossing the hallway to check out another room when I hear Mandy’s voice from downstairs. It’s not pitched or raised, but there’s an unmistakable urgency in it.

I rush to the lower level. They’re in the living room, only there’s three of them now. Mandy, Daryl, and someone else.

The third person is Balero.

Of course it is. Who else would it be? And of course he’d just appear like this, like an asshole, on the verge of laughing at the good scare he’s given us. Anger collects in my throat.

Something in the room registers as dangerous, a low-level vibration that wasn’t there before. I’m standing between Mandy and Daryl in the living room, the three of us forming a kind of semicircle around Balero. He’s quiet and still, and wearing the tiniest thread of a smile. We’re at about twenty feet of him and closing.

Mandy raises her hands to her chest, palms out. Her voice is soft, like before when I was crying.

“Hey, buddy. Shh. It’s OK.”

Daryl is rocking back and forth on his heels like he’s about to pull some stupid shit. It’s clear he doesn’t know exactly what form that stupid shit will take, but it’s in him, forcing itself out, however slowly. I try to whisper don’t in his direction but can’t find the breath.

Mandy moves forward, about as slowly as you’d imagine someone who’s trying not to frighten a schizophrenic homeless man with a knife.

What happens next happens in slo-mo. Daryl grunts and takes off running in Balero’s direction. He’s still got plenty of room in front of him for a running start. Before he’s even moved I know what his intention is: tackle Balero to the ground before he disappears again. Seems logical enough, if you’re working with a slightly lower-watt bulb like Daryl here is: identify the problem, take your best stab at a solution to the problem—usually by grabbing the first blunt tool nearby, in this case his entire body—and hurl that tool at the problem as hard as you can.

It’s a terrible idea. I’m screaming at him, Mandy’s screaming at him, and Balero’s calm as fuck, doing little more than shifting his eyes in Daryl’s direction to acknowledge this new and very stupid thickening of the plot.

He’s unconcerned, is what I’m saying. And because everything is happening in slo-mo, I’m also able to register that yet another person is entering the picture to my right, a very out-of-context Leah’s father. He’s carrying his shotgun and just absolutely storming Willow’s living room for God and country, his face twisted in righteous fury. I detect a sudden absence of Daryl and file that away for future analysis. Police sirens go down a well. So this is where Barry went when Balero zapped him away while came barreling at us in the woods three days ago, an eternity ago. (Where has he been since? Did he get sent right back? I mean will he?) His face is switching very rapidly from fury to a lack of coordination and yup, there he goes, his legs completely abandoning their primary function of propelling him forward, and his face is now on a direct collision course with the massive orange rug we’re all standing on.

The gun goes off as he hits the floor. Mandy screams. Somehow I don’t. Barry comes to a stop just inches shy of Balero’s feet and stays there, face down, arms and legs in all directions. Balero maintains a cool detachment and regards Barry’s sudden and impossible presence as a mild curiosity.

Time is bendy, like a rubber band or a piece of gum. It stands still, returns to normal, and then slows back down again, giving me just enough time to wonder why it does that. I’m not sure what I expect Barry to say, other than, you know, What the fuck? That’s probably what I’d say, picking the least original thing possible and maybe screaming it.

Only Barry doesn’t scream this or anything. He takes a few seconds to hoist his upper body off the carpet and get himself oriented, but other than that he mostly just appears to be in shock.

I note for some reason that Balero’s wearing cargo shorts just like me. Which is weird, because I didn’t know he owned a pair. Or maybe he borrowed one of mine. I force this thought from my head and turn my attention to Mandy, who’s behind me now, screaming absolute bloody murder, her hands clawing at my back and sides. It almost strikes me as funny that my frozen terror possibly registers for her as something resembling fortitude.

Barry’s almost all the way on his feet now. He’s locked eyes with Balero. Other than being out of breath, he’s silent. They both are. The trail behind him is littered with sticks and leaves and dirt.

The gun’s still on the floor and angled away from him (and towards me) by sixty or so degrees. Barry’s breathing grows deeper and slower. He’s preparing to speak, but it’s not coming easy. His breathing stops altogether and resumes again, determined not to abandon him the way his legs did. He finally finds his center long enough to get out one word.

Leah.”

It’s neither a question nor a command. Barry’s looking Balero square in the eyes when he says it, then turns to me. When I see his eyes I realize it’s meant as a plea. Suddenly it’s the three of us again: me, Balero, and Leah’s dad, this awful sandwich that no one would eat ever, plucked out of the woods in an instant, and it’s too much for anyone.

Barry’s eyes go up to the ceiling. He’s about to lose consciousness. He’s gone before he hits the floor. And by gone I don’t mean knocked out—he’s literally not in the room anymore, yanked out of the moment as wildly as he was dropped into it. The metallic warble that accompanies his disappearance echoes across the other side of the living room: someone else is here who wasn’t a second ago. The silver man-sized oval that took Leah’s father is shrinking into the floor, not giving me enough time to jump in too, in case I’m so inclined. And let me tell you, boy am I not.

Mandy’s stopped screaming, but her trembling’s intensified. She’s making sounds like a woman waiting for a bus on a cold day. Balero lifts his gaze from the floor to meet mine. Whoever’s just entered the picture to my left is moaning. Without looking I know it’s Daryl. He’s on the floor behind the impossibly white couch. I can see his feet.

Mandy tears herself away and makes a run for the door, scream-yelling as she goes. I wonder if Balero’s going to allow it. He does. (Not sure what he would do to stop it.) Whatever safety her presence offered, her self-assuredness and her adulthood, are gone. This provides an opening for Balero to fill, and he does. This happens with no physical manifestation of any kind. It just happens and the room registers it. I register it after the room does. I try to imagine the dozen or so things Balero would do if he suddenly found himself a god, and shudder at all of them.

It’s just me and my slightly unhinged roommate now, my lifelong friend, the idiot savant and me, staring each other down. Barry’s gun is still here, slightly closer to me than to him. It burns a hole in my peripheral vision, and I summon all of my remaining strength to not look at it. I tighten my jaw and force out a handful of words. I’m surprised at how calm they sound.

“Will he be all right?”

It sounds stupid as I say it. I meant Leah’s poor father Barry, but I might as well have been talking about Daryl, who appears to have just gone through the same hellish ordeal.

Balero crosses his arms and shifts his weight from one foot to another. He shakes his head at me, doing his thing where he tells me I’m a fool without saying anything. The room consumes him as he does this. Or he consumes the room, depending on your point of view, if you know what I mean. (No, of course you don’t. I barely know what I mean.) I guess what I mean is that in any event he’s gone, taking the power vacuum created by Mandy’s absence along with him, and it’s not at all clear what’s supposed to happen next.

I force myself to turn around and face the Daryl situation, knowing more or less what to expect. He’s on the floor, on his back and coughing, his hands flapping helplessly at his chest. He’s covered in goo. He both sees and doesn’t see me. Not knowing what else to do, I grab the expensive white blanket draped over the sofa and throw it on him, feeling suddenly sorry as hell that I’m responsible for this, however tangentially. I wonder briefly at the logistics of getting him to a hospital. I remember Barry’s endless sleeping when I was at Leah’s house and tell myself that, for now at least, Daryl will be fine. A little sleepy maybe, but fine. I turn him on his side, tuck a pillow under his head, and wonder how in the world you go about keeping a man from swallowing his own tongue.

 

It turns out I don’t know the first thing about keeping a man from swallowing his own tongue. I mean he hasn’t done it yet, but it’s still on the menu of options. The foam spewing from Daryl’s mouth and pooling on the floor is my cue to stop pretending like I know what the fuck I’m doing and call 911.

Letting them in is tricky. I use my shoe to prop open the apartment door in case it automatically locks behind me. Then I have to remember where the hell it is once I let the paramedics in and guide them back up to the by now deeply fucked up Daryl situation. Somehow I had the presence of mind to hide the shotgun before their arrival, a detail I briefly forgot and boy did I panic about it all the way back up to the apartment until I remembered that I did in fact hide it. They ask me a few questions that I don’t answer, do some quick diagnostics right on the floor there, and pull him together and are gone in five minutes, the name of the hospital they’re taking him to trailing in the air behind them.

Now I’m alone. Well, or sort of alone. Balero’s still here, somehow. I decide that he can probably see me, hear me, and (why not) read my mind, and leave it at that.

I walk over to the immaculate kitchen, down two glasses of cold water, and return to the living room. I sit on the floor over by the spot recently vacated by Daryl. I have literally no reason to do this. I’m not even on the gigantic orange rug. I’m just on the hardwood floor, leaning up against a wall, staring off into the next room, which appears to be a large and very classy library. I wonder with not very much conviction at the time. Must be mid-afternoon. I don’t realize I’m crying until I need a tissue because there’s a wad of snot threatening to slide out of my nose. I get up and find that tiny bathroom I used earlier, blow my nose, clean my face, and take the biggest shit I’ve ever taken in my life.

I return to the living room (still lacking any reason to do so) and again take up residence on the floor. At least it’s cool in here. It’s a wonder the paramedics didn’t take me away too, given how awful I must look, which honestly I’m too afraid to face. (I’ve taken up a sudden vampirish dread of mirrors.)

Twenty minutes later my legs announce they are no longer happy with the sitting on the floor situation. I try to stand up and immediately fall back down. I drag my legs, pins and all, over to the impossibly white couch, and collapse. I want to fall asleep but I don’t. It’s still light out. Feels like it should be evening by now. Time has lost all meaning. I laugh at this, thinking Balero might have heard the thought and snickered at it. What did his poem say about time? See, this is why I think he should’ve been on meds. That’s actually where I got the idea to have Zeke tell Leah I was an un-medicated schizophrenic. I just told them to pretend I’m Balero.

“Come out, asshole.”

I surprise myself by saying it out loud. Other than the sun going away nothing happens. What sounds like an enormous clock ticks somewhere in polite defiance of the abomination of time that occurred in here earlier. So I guess I mean other than that nothing happens.

I stand up and say it again, this time walking around in great circles and gesturing wildly with my arms. Come out, come out! I say it again and again, varying the language a little each time. The bigness of being alone in Willow’s massive two-story apartment weighs down on me like a strange inheritance.

I stop. Something wants my attention. I caught a piece of it mid-twirl, and now I’m going around in circles again, trying to find it. It’s black and shiny and hiding in a corner. No, wait—it’s sitting on a clear space-age Plexiglas end table next to a deeply hilarious chair that’s suspended from the ceiling and looks like the lower half of a cracked-open eggshell filled with red cushions.

I investigate. The shiny object reveals itself to be a purse or a large plastic carrying bag with big hoop handles. A woman’s. Mandy’s. I dive in without thinking about it.

I find the cell phone almost right away. Does it have power? It does. I flip it open. My thumb is hovering (quivering, really) over the first digit of Todd’s number. I’m not entirely sure what to say. Seconds go by. A minute. I still have literally no idea what to report. I imagine what I could say when Zeke asks me for the fifth time if I found Balero. (“What do you mean, ‘yes and no’?” “It’s complicated,” etc.) I could at the very least call and give them this number and hope Mandy doesn’t come back to claim her phone.

I’m right in the middle of dialing Todd’s number when the noise starts. It’s distant and charming, like a polite notification that something you’ve been waiting for is finally ready. Could be a phone call, or maybe a microwave dinner.

I wait for another iteration to see if it follows the same equally spaced pattern of a telephone ring. It does not. It’s imperfect. A person is making this sound, right now.

It’s the goddamn doorbell.

I flip the phone shut and stuff it in a cargo shorts pocket. I don’t move to the door. Is someone out in the hallway? No, they’d have to be down on the street.

I stand there for a minute with my hands on my hips, staring at my shoes, waiting for the deeply unwelcome intrusion to cease. It doesn’t. Whoever’s down there really wants in.

I do the trick with my shoe in the door so it doesn’t lock behind me and run down the stairs instead of taking the painfully slow elevator. I’m suddenly desperate to know who it is. I hope they don’t wander away in the time it takes me to get to the main entrance. I take the stairs three at a time and nearly smash into a very old and deeply unhappy old woman carrying what looks like an elaborate birthday present as I burst into the lobby.

There’s still someone at the door. Not sure if it’s the same someone. The old woman is moving in that direction too, and refuses to do it with anything vaguely resembling urgency. I jump up and down and wave my arms over her, in hopes that whoever’s waiting out there won’t wander off. I mouth I’m coming! before realizing how unbelievably impotent a gesture it is.

The old woman finally makes it to the entrance. I swing around her in a great arc, careful not to startle or topple her, and hold the door open like a gentleman. Her unhappy expression doesn’t change as she makes her way out to the sidewalk.

Once she’s finally out of the way I can see the stranger at the door. It’s a girl, but it’s not just any girl. It’s a girl so unnaturally beautiful and wholesome that the idea of causing her even the mildest inconvenience feels like it should be a crime punishable by death. She can’t be twenty, and looks like she’s here fresh off the farm.

I go from zero to boner in less time than it takes for the door to shut and lock behind me.

I move out onto the sidewalk to really have a good look at her. We just sort of stare at each other. She’s somehow just as taken with me as I am with her, which why? Someone else emerges from the entrance behind me, barging past us into the hot day. We continue to stare. Someone yells, “Fuck you asshole!” from a passing car, probably not at us.

There’s an us now.

A miniature version of me is angrily waving his arms and yelling in some far-away corner of my mind. I swap at it like I’m hitting the snooze button on an alarm.

The girl finally finds her voice. It’s breathy and careful and not too high pitched.

“So you’re him.”

I’m… him.

Yes, I suppose on some level that’s true. It certainly isn’t untrue. Yet, as much as I’d like to believe I’m the focus of this girl’s longtime musings, I force myself to admit what must be the truth: she thinks I’m Balero.

I do what any sane man would do. I shrug and lift my arms as if to say, What did you expect?

We’re still locked out of the building, but we don’t have to wait long. We sneak in behind a distracted man in a weary suit. I walk the unnamed beauty to the stairwell door in case the man in the frazzled suit wants to have a conversation on the elevator, which I’ll just not allow. We run up the stairs together like lovers skipping a party.

I make several apologies for my appearance as I guide her into the now (hopefully finally) empty apartment. I offer her a drink for some reason. We go into the kitchen, which feels like the wrong place to go to look for such a thing. (Is it too early for a drink? Kind of it is, but I don’t care.) All we find in the refrigerator are cans of Coke and small bottles of lime sparkling water. We both take a water and head into the living room. The nameless beauty doesn’t speak but says volumes with her eyes: I can’t believe I’m here, I can’t believe it’s really you, I can’t believe this place.

We sit on the impossibly white couch. I try not to look at the trail of forest that Barry dragged into the room and instead blink stupidly at my feet. I realize that I never cleaned up the foam from Daryl’s mouth behind the couch.

Boy did she miss the party.

“I’m Erin.”

I smile, but she must see the confusion in my face. Did she say Aaron?

“It’s Erin with an E.”

“Ah. Hi, Erin. I’m, um… Well, you know.”

Her hands are clasped together and buried in her thighs. She smiles, raises her eyebrows, and looks off to the side. Her look says, So…

I say it out loud.

“So!”

“Yeah.”

“Wow. Hey, thanks for coming over.”

She looks at me as if I just brought up her mother’s gambling addiction.

“Oh, absolutely. I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.” She gives another smile at the end of the sentence like a living punctuation mark and nods.

I nod too. Got it—she’s maybe not the sharpest crayon in the box, and I maybe don’t care.

“Uh, Erin? Listen. Who, ah… You know, how did you…”

There’s that sound again. Insistent, but floral and expensive. Something wants something, or something’s ready for my attention now. Was it the phone?

No goddammit, it’s the doorbell again. Who has a doorbell like that? This place, I guess. Sounds like the synthesizer opening of a New Age opera.

I smile and raise a finger. Erin understands. I repeat the same process, only now I’m getting good at letting people in this place and it goes much faster. When I reach the main entrance it’s another girl, just as pretty and just as young. She gives me the same look and we have the same staring contest. I bring her back upstairs, and yes, I tell her, it’s really me. This time I get her name before we enter: it’s Sherri. It doesn’t hit me until I get her in the living room and introduce her to Erin that they’re both wearing white: Erin’s got on a pair of white jean shorts and a breezy button-down, while Sherri’s rocking a sporty skirt and a plain white tee. Neither has a trace of jewelry or makeup. They both look like they’re just stopping here on their way to the marina to be greeted by much older men and I want to say a world of money. They both have hair the color of white wine in a dark room.

Polite introductory conversation reveals that Sherri’s no grad student either, but she’s maybe a tad brighter than Erin. She’d also like a lime water. I fetch her one and throw a glance up the stairwell as I move toward the kitchen, begging Balero to not reappear for long enough to, I don’t know, let the situation unfold.

That corner of my brain screams at me again. I switch it off like I’m yanking the alarm clock cord out of the wall. Whatever I’m up to is deeply irresponsible but I don’t care. A man can only take so much without lashing out in a wincing direction in a surge of artificial power. I ride it like a drug.

The two girls—and let’s face it, they’re girls—are chattering happily away as I reenter the living room with Sherri’s water. They’re marveling at the space, at the “futuristic vibes” and the high ceilings. Sherri gets up, walks over to the king size window, and looks down onto 4th Street. She stands on her tiptoes and leans over a bit for some reason, offering me a glimpse of an irresponsibly good future.

I fight past the ball in my throat to make conversation, but it goes nowhere. Sherri twirls downward and falls into the broken eggshell chair that’s hanging from the ceiling, causing it to spin in fun little circles. Mandy’s large black bag is still on the Plexiglas end table next to it.

Fuck.

I shoot out of the couch and clap my hands.

“If you guys like this, wait until you see the library!”

Sherri and Erin give each other Ooo! eyes and follow me into the next room. It’s my first time in the library, so I make like I just spent all afternoon in here and isn’t this great?

“Where’s Mandy?”

The question takes me so off guard that I barely have time to register the epically expensive looking and overwhelmingly massive leather couches in here. Good Christ, they look soft. This is some Masterpiece Theater level shit up in here.

I spin around to face the girls, not really knowing what I’m going to say. My mind does some very quick situational calculus and spits out the best possible lie under the circumstances: I tell them Mandy has “run out for a few minutes”.

Erin plops down on one of the enormous leather couches. It makes a very satisfying sound that’s somewhere between the shh of soft bed sheets and the creak of an old wooden floor. Sherri dives into the couch opposite. I stand in the middle and try to take the place in without looking like I’m taking the place in, which I can’t. It’s too much. Not the library itself, but the situation. (Do we have sex in here, or…)

“You’ve had quite a ride, huh?” Sherri says this. It’s right out of a porno. I mean, it’s right out of a porno. I nod and let my eyes wander up to the ceiling, eventually turning around to face a fireplace large enough to walk into, giving the both of them a really good look at my ass, as seen through loose fitting off-brand department store cargo shorts.

The other one chimes in. “What was it like?” I pretend to give the cold fireplace a long, thoughtful look before turning back to them with grave eyes.

I literally have no idea what to say.

“It must have been hell.”

“Oh, you poor thing!”

They both stand up and walk towards me. So this is how it happens. Sex in front of a giant empty fireplace. Could be a lot worse. My dick’s so hard it could knock over a lamp.

The doorbell rings again. It’s a guy this time. We have the same awkward So it’s you exchange at the door, which I now brush off as old news. He’s just as young and lovely as Erin and Sherri, but, you know, male. My boner doesn’t mind, in fact it keeps us company as I usher him up the stairs and wonder if there’s perhaps some easier way to let people into the apartment. There is: a small white box near the apartment door catches my eye as we re-enter. I make a mental note for next time, because by now it’s pretty clear there’s going to be a next time. I whisk him into the kitchen, hand him a lime water without asking, and take him into the library. This one’s name is Alex. He’s met Sherri before, but not Erin.

An idea begins to form in the back of my mind as the four of us share awkward small talk, a possible explanation of how any of this is even happening. I force myself to move past the thought of the best four way ever and settle in on the unpleasant realization of who sent these people and the others who are sure to follow.

This is a Van Zorn house. These must be Van Zorn groupies.

One way to find out.

I frown and say, “So what’d you guys think of Van Zorn’s latest book?”

Erin and Sherri make sounds like I just walked into the room with a tray of chocolate cupcakes.

Alex shakes his head and says, “Unbelievable, bro.”

Erin and Sherri are exasperated—exasperated!—at how shatteringly awesome of a book it was.

“He’s like an astronaut.”

We all look at Erin. She’s rolling her eyes across the ceiling and sort of smiling. No one is laughing. Exactly no one is laughing, and I’m determined to keep it that way, even if I have to sink my fingernail into the fleshy backside of my leg, which is exactly what I do.

Alex is intrigued.

“In what way?”

I hold up my finger and run out of the room seconds before losing it entirely and dive into the tiny bathroom that still stinks of my shit. I sit on the floor and hiss-laugh into my knees. He’s like an astronaut! Wow. Balero’s probably laughing too, assuming he can read my mind. If he can’t, he’s missing out on some primetime comedy out here. These people are cold stupid. And what the hell am I still even doing here?

I pull myself together and fish Mandy’s phone out of my pocket. I dial Todd’s number, without interruption this time. There’s no answer. I leave a message, steel myself, and head back out into the library just in time for another doorbell.

“I’ll get it.”

Sherri bounces off in the direction of the door, super happy to help. (I briefly consider explaining the buzzer situation but don’t.) Back in the library Alex and Erin give me a creepy twin stare.

Eventually Erin asks, “What was it like?”

“Hmm?”

“You know, to see through the final veil of lies.”

It’s such a matter-of-fact question that I miss the opportunity to fully wonder at the alien quality of it.

“Well, it was… I mean…”

“Did you see him, bro?”

Alex is on the edge of his metaphorical seat, metaphorical because he’s standing. He’s actually leaning forward, as if my answer might knock him off balance.

“Yeah.” I just nod like it was a life-changing experience. “It was brutal.” I say this with a finality that I hope will dissuade further questioning.

Erin and Alex exchange a long look. Erin has another question.

“Well, what did he look like?”

Alex waves this away and asks what he clearly thinks is a less ridiculous question.

“What prime were you? I mean, before?”

“Well, Alex, that’s a good question. I’d have to say my prime was pretty, you know, intense.”

“Wow,” he whispers, still nodding.

“What were you, a six? Seven?”

“Nah, man. I was a twelve.” A twelve?

Erin and Alex may have just as well found out they were being videotaped.

“How could you be a twelve and not tell anyone?”

“Well—it’s tough, Erin. Being a twelve is difficult business. It’s embarrassing, actually. And I don’t like to toot my own horn—you know, too much. And plus it’s exhausting, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

They’re somehow both nodding and shaking their heads at the same time: Right, right. Of course. Why would you want to do that?

Alex shakes this off.

“So, bro! When’s he coming?”

Don’t ask who. Don’t ask who. Just roll with it. Don’t be a moron.

“Um, I think he said sometime tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Erin is crestfallen. “I thought he was coming today!”

“Yes! You know what? You’re right. Absolutely. I think he’s coming today, but only to the area. He’s coming here,” I point both index fingers at my feet, “sometime tomorrow.” I say this with such an air of authority that I almost believe it myself.

“Oh.”

Alex gives me a look like he’s about to start another sentence with the word bro, but instead he just sort of stares at me like something somewhere is wrong, but he’s too embarrassed to admit that he can’t quite put his finger on it. His eyes shift back and forth. Calculating… Calculating…

I break down. (They both look so sad.) “You could be right. It might be today. I just, you know. He’s not always exactly, um… clear all the time.”

This suddenly makes everything all right. Erin and Alex smile and let out a sigh of relief.

“Yeah, that’s what Mandy’s always saying. He can be pretty scattered sometimes. But he’s definitely coming today.”

We’re talking about Van Zorn, aren’t we? Yeah, we are. Fucking Ford Van Zorn is coming here. Today.

Double fuck.

Sherri leads the forth groupie into the library. She is enthusiastically introduced as Ashley. Ashley is just more of the same, and by that I mean right out of a porno. She’s also in white, but with small traces of blue around her waist. She’s vaguely Asian and looks like she just came here from playing tennis. She and Sherri are already best friends, and Ashley just can’t believe this place.

“So bro, you gonna show us that impossible room, or whatever?”

The impossible room?

Another doorbell. I excuse myself before Alex can say another word and run to the apartment door where I test out my theory on the intercom. I find a button and push it. Someone’s here to see the chosen one. I roll my eyes and give them the unit number, which I finally memorized on my third trip back upstairs, buzz them in, and wonder what in the unholy fuck I’m supposed to do with an apartment full of young beautiful cult zombie freaks.

I’d better get cleaned up, is what I’d better do. I run upstairs and take a quick shower, keeping out a sharp eye for Balero, watching the cracks in the walls. He doesn’t appear. I wince as I put my dirty clothes back on and dash into the room where Balero’s been staying, in case I missed anything resembling clean guy clothes. I didn’t.

I go back into the room with the bigger than Jesus bed and dig through the various drawers and cubby holes in the wardrobe. I find some stunningly expensive looking jewelry and an even deeper haze of old lady perfume but no men’s clothes. In desperation I try the one room I haven’t entered up here, the one directly across from Balero’s room. It’s the same as his, only mirrored. Mandy must have been staying in here. I see her clothes and her things and her suitcase, but nothing suitable for a man. Defeated, I return downstairs at least marginally less dirty.

It’s as if the doorbell never stopped ringing. Others have figured out that they can just let anyone in at the push of a button, and the place has really taken on the vibe of a college party. There’s even music. (Where the hell did they find music?) No one acknowledges me. I surprise myself by being vaguely offended at this. Don’t they know who I’m pretending to be?

I’m not really sure where to go so I dive back into the tiny bathroom and sit on the floor again. (Something about sitting on the floor today just feels so, so good.) This goes on for a good ten minutes, and then it looks weird that I came in here and never came out. I try Todd again on the cell and again get no answer.

I wonder if I should just leave. Only three people out of, I want to say twenty now, know who I am. Or think they know who I am. I could dart out that door, probably passing a few more newcomers on the stairs, burst out into the hot random daylight, and disappear around a corner. Yes. No. I can’t do that. I shouldn’t do that.

Why shouldn’t I do that?

Oh, right. The goddamn alien device that Balero obviously has and is using to Christ knows what end. (What I’ve gone through for this fucking thing. For real. It’s gone way past the point of I don’t give a fuck anymore, and all I want to do is fall asleep on top of a pizza.)

I have that fantasy again, of sleeping (and not sleeping) for elongated stretches of time with Leah. I should call her. Do I have her number? I don’t. Zeke does. Why they hell aren’t they answering my calls? Please God tell me nothing’s happened to them.

The volume’s definitely ramping up in here. The music switches from classic rock to hip hop. People look like they know where they’re going and what they’re doing. They’ve been here before. It’s casual but self-organized.

I wander into the kitchen and fish a Coke out of the fridge. Right as I crack it open the volume of the place takes a sharp and very panicked dive. The music is turned way up before it’s turned off. Something is happening. Is Mandy back? That would be bad, but not impossible-to-come-back-from bad. (It could have been anyone who rifled through her purse and took her phone, right?)

It’s not Mandy. I don’t know how I know this as I snake through the crowd to the entrance, but I do. It had better fucking not be Balero, pulling some more of that parlor trick nonsense. I don’t care if he’s a god now or whatever—I’ll smack that smirk of his face and back into those fucking woods from three days ago.

I’m angry now as I reach the apartment entrance. There’s really a lot of people here now, like north of fifty. Everyone’s crowded around a single person, both trying to get near him and maintain a respectable distance at the same time. That person is beaming a sun’s worth of energy into the faces of the young men and women all around him, everyone quiet, the moment hanging there like an impossibly sharp object. He lifts his hands and says three words:

“My dear children.”

It’s Ford fucking Van Zorn.

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