Pareidolia: Chapter Thirty

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

It’s not like, you know a big deal or anything, is what Erin’s telling me back in the library now that the head honcho has retired upstairs for a brief rest after his trip. She’s seen him before, not too long ago either. Back when he was here in town for that New Age expo.

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah. And you know what else? There’s a rumor going around that you were there too.” She sways like a child with a naughty secret, her hands at her back. “Is that true?”

Her eyes. Jesus. They’re so big and round and stupid and I just want to fuck her silly. Why is that? Her stupidity should be a repellant, but somehow it’s just the opposite. What possible evolutionary purpose could that serve? And how could she have seen me? She must have spotted me with Balero at some point.

“Yeah, that’s right.” The fact that this isn’t a lie is more preposterous than the admission itself.

“I knew it! Some of the others didn’t believe it, but I knew you were.”

Others are clamoring for a chat around and behind her. Van Zorn’s arrival has galvanized my misplaced celebrity. Upon entering he asked to have me pointed out, which took a beat longer than it probably should have: most of the crowd didn’t know what I looked like. Erin and co were nowhere to be seen, probably at the far end of the group, trying to push closer to the action. I had to present myself. All eyes switched from Van Zorn to me as he pushed his way towards the stairs. Almost immediately after his ascent the center of attention melted away, and the atmosphere resumed that of a party with no discernable center of gravity, shortly after which I looked around in all directions and puffed my cheeks at the relief of still not seeing Balero.

A bony guy with tiny glasses and long hair taps me on the shoulder. “He’d like to see you upstairs.” I close my eyes and nod. Van Zorn wants to see me. Makes sense. I try to remember, as I climb the stairs, why I chose to bring this upon myself. Banging Erin, by no means a done deal, doesn’t even seem to come close to making up for the conversation I’m about to have.

I don’t need to be told where he is. I march up to the room of the galactic bed. I knock. The door opens, but it’s not Van Zorn. It’s an insanely young looking dude, like can’t even be sixteen. Van Zorn is sitting on the edge of the bed reading something. I’ve interrupted the boy’s unpacking duties. He returns to them at once, moving one pile of clothes after another from a giant suitcase to the wardrobe. I laugh at the idea that there are men’s clothes here now, and wonder if he’d miss an outfit. Should I just ask, or…

“Thank you, Edward. That will be all for now. Please…”

Van Zorn nods at the door. The choir boy sighs and leaves, shutting the door quietly behind him. Van Zorn is winding a pocket watch. Really? How old is this guy? He sets the watch carefully on the nightstand, slaps his mighty hands on his legs, and regards me with a mixture of curiosity and exhaustion.

“So.”

“Yes.” I don’t know what I was expecting to say, but I’m just going to dive in. Worst idea ever, but too late. “I hope your flight was a good one. Did you fly? Of course you did. Where was it you came from?”

“Chicago.”

He could almost do a voiceover for Roland: tough, rocky, world-weary. I’m fiddling with the many pockets in my cargo shorts. My fingers are looking for something. Should probably stop. I do.

He turns his head and growls a question. It’s aimed at nothing in particular. He wants to know where the hell Mandy is.

“Mandy…”

It’s like I’ve never heard the name before in my life. I sputter for what I suspect is too long to sound like anything other than obfuscation and finally land on the not entirely ridiculous answer that she’s out getting food, which doesn’t satisfy him. He grumbles again and walks over to his suitcase.

“She was supposed to pick me up at the goddamn airport.”

Wasn’t this doofus supposed to be German or whatever? I definitely don’t hear an accent. Whatever fear I felt on my way up here is refusing to melt in the very obvious fact that I owe this man exactly no allegiance. So what if my cover’s blown? What’s he going to do? In fact, why am I even keeping up this ridiculous facade? If he wants Balero, he’s welcome to whatever’s left of him. He’s somewhere in the fucking walls, I could tell him, and storm off.

I remember Roland’s warning in the limo, about Van Zorn’s international campaign of deception, and just about laugh out loud at the absurdity of this moment: we’re both pretending to be men we aren’t.

“So. You’re… him.”

He continues where Edward left off, digging through his suitcase for this or that. He doesn’t look at me as he speaks. I don’t answer this, not just because it’s not a question, but because I’m trying to hold in yet another laugh—these were exactly Erin’s words at the front door. I finally choke out an answer. Yes, I’m him.

“Well. I must confess, I was skeptical.” He gives me an unhappy look and deposits what looks like a pill organizer into a nightstand drawer. “You understand.” He returns to the wardrobe and continues to unpack in a stretch of nearly unbearable silence.

This guy’s a dick. He wants me to fall all over myself because he’s the great Ford Van Zorn or whatever, and I just don’t give a shit. Even if it really was Balero standing here and not me, I suspect he’d also walk out of the room and toss a casual get fucked over his shoulder. Finally he speaks. “But of course, now that I’m here, I’m going to want to see this impossible room of yours. It’s been tickling my imagination ever since Mandy’s call.” I unconsciously finger Mandy’s phone through my shorts.

Impossible room. That’s not the first time today I’ve heard that phrase. Van Zorn drops something small and heavy, landing with a thud on the thick carpet. He bends down to pick it up and makes a big show of how hard it is to do such things at his age. He returns to the bed and sits down next to the lamp glowing in the unnecessary daytime darkness.

“How did you manage it?”

I have no idea, so I tilt my head back and say, “With very little effort.”

He momentarily lifts his eyebrows without looking at me and mutters something between ah and oh. He really does look tired. He’s phoning in this entire conversation. He just wanted a crack at me before taking what looks like a very long nap.

“You joined the family last month?”

Sounds about right.

“Yeah.”

A sideways look and another half yes.

“I remember you from the convention.”

Wait, what?

He’s nodding. Holds up a finger and sort of shakes it at me.

“You’re the cheeky one. During my speech. Made that funny comment about the devil.”

I’m sorry, what’s happening right now exactly? Is he having a stroke? I look nothing like Balero. He could have seen me there with him, but… And the devil?

He stands up again, changes his mind, then goes back down, like fully horizontal, and sighs into his hands.

“I told her she was making things up, imagining things.” He looks at me through his fingers. “She was hysterical on the phone. The infinite prime.” He coughs out this last phrase like it’s the punchline to an unbearably tasteless joke. “I knew it was a mistake moving her up so quickly through the ranks. She’s special, sure, but young like you; full of crazy ideas to reform this or update that. Always refusing to bend under Willow’s power.” He gestures around him as if Willow was watching us at this very moment, perhaps through hidden security cameras. “Hell, even I fear her sometimes, if you can believe it. Her… righteousness… is almost too much to bear.”

His monologue shows no signs of stopping. Stars threaten from the corners of my vision. The room tilts and spins. My blood sugar. The need to sit down crowds out all else. I look around. There’s an ancient chair next to the door. I lunge for it and land just seconds before it my legs give out.

Van Zorn doesn’t notice. He’s still on his back, talking to the ceiling about Mandy and Willow and other people I don’t know. There’s a gentle knock.

“Yes? What is it?” he grumbles.

Edward wants to know if we plan on coming down sooner rather than later.

“Later. I need some sleep. Call it an hour. Thank you, Edward.” The boy who looks like he went by “Eddie” up until last week nods and ducks back into the hallway.

“Ah, at any rate…”

The silence that follows is punctuated by slow, heavy breathing. He’s asleep. I let myself out of the bedroom, carefully at first, making sure I can stand without passing out.

The peripheral stars have cleared. I’m alone in the hallway. The party’s still chugging along below. I walk to the head of the stairs and look down, now certain that Balero’s return is imminent. How could he stay hidden so long, with so much going on? Even in his brilliance, his vanity is impossible to obscure—an entire apartment full of people here just to see him? Well, him and Van Zorn? No way. There’s no way he doesn’t come out to soak that shit up.

And yet, as I make one more circle of the lower level of the apartment, I still don’t see him. Erin and Alex point me out as I float by. I hear one of them say, “That’s him.” I wonder and the unevenness of the thing, the formless, utterly self-organized chaos of the crowd. It really does feel like a party, except that everyone’s dressed in fucking white.

There is one guy not entirely in white. He’s got on a white shirt, but defiantly gold shorts. His back is to me and I recognize him before he turns around as someone nods in my direction to point me out.

It’s Zeke.

I run over, grab him by the arm, and wrench him away from whatever beautiful young thing he’s talking to. I know the place now, so I drag him back to a little walk-in pantry behind the kitchen that I’ve taken the opportunity to hide in at least twice for carefully short intervals since the Van Zombies started arriving.

I shut the pantry door and hug him. For reasons that aren’t clear he doesn’t completely reciprocate. He’s stiff under my hug, as if he didn’t want to see me. I pretend not to notice.

“Hey, man! What are you doing here? How did you get in? Wait.” I smack my forehead. “I gave you the address. And let me guess: you just rode in on a wave of other groupies, right? Huh?”

I’ve got him by the shoulders now, almost shaking him. My stomach lets out a long, low moan. Yes, I’m hungry. Not now. I’m hungry and I’m surrounded by food on all sides. Maybe later. Gotta do this first.

“So? What the hell, man? Why didn’t you guys call me back? What’s been going on? How’s Roland? Any news?”

Zeke just looks at me. It’s a plain look, bracketed by queasiness. Someone comes into the kitchen. Sounds like a pair of girls. Their shadows play at the strip of light under the door behind Zeke’s feet. The pantry seems smaller than when we first ducked in.

Zeke says one word. “Dude.” His face isn’t registering anything but skepticism. If anything, he’s ramping it up. I wave this off.

“Can you believe this place? All these people? Jesus. And, man!” With a rush I remember all of the things that’ve happened since we last spoke, all the craziness with Barry and Daryl, the portal or whatever in the floor. My words are slow and even. “I cannot stress the insanity of the things that have unfolded around here. Oh, fuck man. I wish I had time to fill you in on it right now, but I can’t. We have a very limited window, here. Van Zorn is upstairs sleeping, and I’m pretty sure this is our last chance to… What?”

Zeke’s face is now turned almost completely inside out. He looked like I asked him if I could stick my finger up his ass.

“What’s wrong, man?”

He says “dude” again, and trails off.

I let the moment hang there, determined to get to the heart of whatever’s bothering him. We’re in pretty good shape here, actually, I want to tell him. Van Zorn’s asleep, no one dares go upstairs (except for his little bagboy sidekick, who I can handle), and we have every opportunity to upturn every single fucking dresser and nightstand and rip up the goddamn carpets if we have to, to find out where in the bloody hell Balero hid the device. (That is, of course, unless he actually has it on him. But I’ll table that for now.)

Zeke’s ramping up to say more than “dude”. He looks like he’s not sure he believes his own words.

“You tried calling… Todd?”

“Well, yeah. Wait, what do you mean?”

The girls in the kitchen cause some kind of incident. Something crashes to the floor, followed by squeals of teenage laughter.

“How?”

“What do you mean, how?” I’m not getting something here. Whatever it is is deeply wrong and I’m missing it.

“I mean how did you call Todd?”

“Oh, that! I nabbed this cell phone off Mandy, who, I’ll explain later who she is. See? Look…”

I reach for the front pocket in my cargo shorts, rip open the Velcro, and pull out something that most certainly is not Mandy’s cell phone. It’s the alien device. It’s warm, like a cell phone that’s been used for too long. I turn it over in my hand and actually start to giggle—it’s quiet and unbelieving at first, but then ripples out into something closer to the kind of madness that evolves out of sheer frustration in the teeth of something clearly impossible and existing in reality for the sole purpose of just shutting down your day and breaking you on like a cellular level.

I suck in my lips to stop the giggling. It’s quiet again—the girls have left the kitchen. I open my mouth to ask him about Leah. He drags his eyes up from the device and says, “Balero, where’s Marcus?”

Wait, he thinks I’m…

No. You don’t get to do that to me. You don’t get to fuck with me like that, not now.

Zeke doesn’t wait for an answer. He grabs my arm and pulls me out of the pantry. The two girls, who are now making out by the sink, completely ignore us as we crunch over what looks like a broken plate and exit the kitchen.

“We’re leaving. Right now. Actually…” Zeke whips around and grabs the device out of my hand. We pass a mirror in a hallway that I absolutely don’t look at. I feel a surprising wave of melancholy as we leave the apartment and run down the stairwell, where we pass a few more newcomers on their way up. They ask us if we know whether Van Zorn has arrived. I confirm that he has. Zeke pulls me along faster.

We get down to the lobby and out into the street in very little time. The mugginess is a shock. I’m surprised how acclimated I’d become to the cool dry air of Willow’s apartment, which I now realize I’ll never ever see again.

We fly down the sidewalk. Zeke’s got me by the hand like a misbehaving child. I start to ask where we’re going and get a sharp command to shut up. Two blocks later we arrive at what is not Courtney’s car. He throws me in the passenger side, runs around to the driver’s side, and we’re on a freeway in minutes. I’m so out of it I don’t even register which way we’re heading.

Zeke’s got the device on the seat under his crotch. He looks like he’s about to rip the steering wheel off with his hands. I try to speak and again get shut down. This, if nothing else, is made abundantly clear: Zeke is completely done with my shit and I am to remain quiet.

A car swooshes into the lane behind us, really crawling up our ass. I’m about to say something when another car slows down in front of us. Zeke opens his right hand and makes little up-and-down motions like he’s trying to stop me from jumping out of the car.

“It’s OK, relax. They’re with us. They’re here to protect us.”

I turn all the way around in my seat to face him. He doesn’t take his eyes on the road to look at me even though it’s obvious as anything he wants to.

“Who the fuck are they, then? Huh?”

“It’s… Just don’t worry about it right now, OK? I’ll explain later.”

I sit back and try to relax into things. It doesn’t work. I want to replay the whole afternoon at Willow’s in my head, but something stops me. It’s bigger than I am, this thing, and dangerous. I’m trying to force my way past it, to recall specifics, to retrace my steps, but I can’t. I let my head loll to the side and thump against the hot window. A super crunchy granola hippie car pulls up alongside us. It’s covered in bumper stickers, front to back, and maybe a year away from falling completely apart. I manage to read one of the bumper stickers as it strains to match our speed. It’s a big one, right above the back license plate, unmistakable black letters against a green background:

MY OTHER CAR IS A UFO.

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