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TRUE BELIEVERS: Chapter 37 — Even a Cybernetically-abled Human Can Cry

True Believers is a full-length novel by Thom Dunn, based on his play of the same name. It’s a satirical tale of star-crossed lovers, aspiring comic book creators, crazed fanboys, cybernetically enhanced humans, women in refrigerators, real-life superheroes, and girls who dress like Slave Leia as their lives intertwine over a whirlwind weekend at a comic book convention in the early 2010s.

The book will be serialized on Medium throughout the month of April 2020. Here is the first chapter. Check back every day for more chapters!

“You’re not even listening to me!” Billy says in the midst of another melodramatic monologue to no one in particular as they work their way through the teeming rows of Artist’s Alley for the fifth time today. The sound of his voice is grating on Calvin even more than usual. Not because Calvin really was listening to his friend’s rant — Billy is right about that — but because he wasn’t arguing or disagreeing with him either.

Billy has an uncanny ability to make anything contentious.

“All I’m trying to say is, the X-Men are a metaphor for racism. Therefore, anyone who doesn’t like the X-Men is a racist. It’s a logical fact,” Billy insists.

Calvin’s not sure if he’s supposed to react or respond to this profound revelation, but he doesn’t care much either way. If only he could find a way to break from Billy, just for a while. They’ve been through a lot together, sure, and Calvin does feel indebted to his increasingly-unhinged friend for, well, pretty much everything.

Except for the fact that he has to follow Billy’s meaningless, meandering schedule instead of ever doing what he actually wants to do.

But every time Calvin tries to offer an alternative suggestion or route, Billy whines about Drink & Draw or Calvin’s morning portfolio review (which takes all of Calvin’s will not to remind Billy that he ruined). Instead, Calvin lets Billy keep ranting, as he scans the open room for the marquee signs of all the greatest artists he wants to meet. They pass Amanda Connor, and there’s Esad Ribic painting water colors live, and holy crap is that McKelvie with his sexy hipster superheroes? He’s even cuter IRL.

Billy at least seems interested in checking out one of the Kuberts — Calvin’s not sure which one, because the banner behind the table just has their last name writ large like the coat-of-arms for some artistic comics monarchy. All of the Kuberts are capable of cranking out immaculate and ideal superhero work, and maybe whichever one it is will have some smart things to say to Calvin. That is, if Billy lets him do any talking this time.

Unfortunately, Calvin doesn’t get that chance.

“Shit! He’s coming, get down!” Billy says as he ducks behind a table at the end of an aisle. His wrought-iron Steampunk Jesus gets caught, and Billy scrambles to adjust it so he can hide.

Calvin glances around — looking for an enemy, or an escape from his friend, he’s not sure. “Who’s coming?”

Chad Mailer! C’mon! He’ll recognize you!”

Billy yanks Calvin down to the ground next to him. He covers Calvin’s mouth his hand for a moment, then pulls it away in disgust before Calvin even has a chance to protest. He places a finger on his lips instead, and stares intently at Calvin, who just kind of rolls his eyes to say yeah, I get the message. The two of them lean in close to listen from their secure vantage point around the corner, hidden by the 10-foot-tall display banner for the Junko toys on sale in Artist’s Alley.

It doesn’t take long for Calvin to realize that Chad is standing in front of Kt Watts’ table. He assumes it’s another coincidence that Billy will usurp as part of his vaguely-defined diabolical trolling scheme for the weekend.

Chad casts surreptitious glances all around the room, as if he’s both hiding from and seeking something at the same time. He slumps his shoulders and stands there looking glum for a moment before he pulls out his cellphone and makes a call. His voice is barely audible above the regular din and reverb of the room, but Billy moves around and leans in closer, cupping his hand along his ear for better hearing. Calvin does the same, out of simple curiosity (and also kind of because he doesn’t want Billy to make up a whole drama conversation that never wanted, and he wants proof of his own that Billy’s plans are bullshit).

“Hey, it’s Chad. I just swung by Artists Alley but it looks like you’ve closed down for the day. Anyway I was just checking in to see if you wanted to take me up on that dinner tonight. If not, you know, that’s fine, too. Either way, give me a call back if you get a chance. Maybe I’ll see you at the Omni later.”

Chad hangs up the phone, dejected, looks around the room again, and walks away, right past Calvin and Billy.

He hardly makes it out of earshot before Billy leaps to his feet with a gleeful cackle.

“The roots of sedition have started to grow. Victory is within our sight!”

Calvin dusts off his spandex suit as he stands up as he speaks. “What victory? What just happened? The guy just made a phone call.”

“Were you even paying attention earlier?” Billy throws his arms up in exasperation. “No, of course not. You were actually trying to get Kt Watts’ autograph. She’s sooo cool.”

“Your point?” Calvin asks dryly. He knows he’s not doing a particularly good job of hiding his frustrations with Billy. H’s also passed the point of giving a shit.

Billy mimes like he’s actually squeezing an eyedropper out in Calvin’s ear. He gets close enough to make Calvin shiver in discomfort, but if he notices or cares, he doesn’t let on.

If you were paying attention you’d have heard me cast the seed of doubt in Kt Watts’ ear. A subtle hint to destroy the sequel to Night Shift, and by extension, Chad Mailer himself. See? She’s not even here now, she’s avoiding him.”

“Or she could just be in the bathroom or something,” Calvin says, still shaking off the awkwardness of Billy’s mimed inner-ear violation.

Billy just turns his head up and scoffs. “You are so naive sometimes.”

Calvin closes his eyes for ten seconds to collect himself, and briefly considers how he might escape from Billy for the rest of the day without enduring Hell when they’re back at the hotel together. But his dreams are dashed by the sound of Billy’s blood-curdling scream, echoing throughout the hall.

Calvin climbs out from under the table just in time to see his friend frozen in fear before a huge display of Cyborg Heads of Stan Lee still in their original packaging, with a massive “Clearance!” sign hanging above them.

Billy leans across the table, clutching the toy dealer’s collared shirt in his trembling fist. “Where did you get these?!” he says through his seething teeth.

The bearded bastard with the beady spectacles stutters in response: “Th-they-they came out a few years ago. J-j-just some, some novelty junk, we’re — we’re trying to get rid of it, that’s all!”

Billy shoves the man back and he fumbles as he tries to catch his footing, crashing into the “Nino’s Novelty Shop” display sign behind him.

“No…that’s impossible…” he says to himself, as the physical space around him all begins to twist and dance. “It’s not real, it’s not — it must be — no…”

He hears Calvin coming up behind him, saying something sweetly stupid. But the words are drowned out by the chaotic, tinny chorus intoning those same familiar catchphrases that Billy knows so well:

“Excelsior!”

“Stay tuned, True Believers!”

“With Great Power must come…Great Responsibility!”

The distorted cacophony swells in his head, the sonic vibrations rattling his core until his shaking legs can stand no more, leaving Billy to crash to floor on his knees. “No!”

He feels a hand on his shoulder, and hears Calvin’s overly-concerned voice behind him: “Hey Billy, you’re uh, you’re kinda making a scene again…”

But Billy doesn’t care. He’s too busy suffocating as his reality comes shattering down around him in slow motion.

“It was an omen,” he says. “From the New Gods — Kirby’s Fifth Dimension. A message in a cybernetic bottle, a message…meant only for me…”

There was always a part of Billy that knew it was a gag, some gimmick made in China. But he had never seen such a thing before, and when he happened upon it that day, so fortuitously, he’d thought perhaps…perhaps he truly was meant for something greater after all.

Billy beckons Calvin beside him. His friend refuses to sit, but Billy cannot stop his own compulsion to reveal the truth. To reveal…his dark origin.

“I discovered it in a dumpster, heard its tinny voice speaking through the wind,” he says, as his breathing grows haggard and erratic beyond his control. “I rescued it, repaired its circuitry, and…and it began to speak to me in cryptic phrases, a language only I could understand. Like a message sent from the future and held within the salvaged cyborg godhead of a man who made Gods. Who had made himself a God in the process. But it’s nothing!

Billy crawls forward on the floor, arms flailing through the pile of shrink-wrapped boxes claiming to contain the true Cyborg Head of the Stan Lee. The impersonators clatter to the floor, drowning out the dissonance of their strident, clinking voices.

“You’re nothing! NOTHING! Just…mass produced novelty…SHIT!

Billy gives one last forceful shove to the main table housing the rest of the con-related merchandise from Nino’s Novelty Shop, sending all the toys clattering to the ground.

“It was all…everything…it was all a lie…”

Calvin scrambles to clean up the mess, apologizing to the owner as he feebly attempts to straighten the disaster. His hopefulness and whimpering ways have always been his greatness weaknesses.

“Wait, Billy — did you say you found it in the trash?” he says. “Because that’s kind of gross. I always thought you’d said that it fell to Earth on a meteor and landed in your backyard. Which, honestly sounded kind of ridiculous but I was willing to go along with it ’cause, you know, it was such a…thing for you.”

But Billy doesn’t want to hear it. “Oh, New Gods of the Jack Kirby’s Fifth Dimension!” he cries, arms outstretched to the celestial skies and groping for some cybernetic salvation he knows will never come. His chest grows tighter, tighter still, as the darkness swells inside of him. “Avenger! Hand me my last breathe that I might die with dignity!”

With his head held in one hand for support, Billy flaps the fingers of his outstretched arm and awaits Avenger’s assistance.

No such support arrives.

Billy uses the last of his strength to lift his head and glare straight at Calvin: “Give. Me. My. In. Ha-ler.”

He lets his head collapse into his hands once again and waits for Calvin to fumble with the stupid utility pouch on his belt. “Why do I have to carry that thing anyway?” he says as he approaches with the medicine.

“Shut up. I’m dying here.” Billy rips the medicine out of Calvin’s hand and pumps two sprays into his mouth. He closes his eyes, holds his breathe, and counts to ten, letting the albuterol dissipate and soak into his system.

Then his weakened body falls limp. Billy drops to the floor, his homemade halo of rusted copper gears sliding off his head, and his the inhaler falling beside him.

“Father,” he says. “Why hast thou betrayed me?”

Billy’s eyelids flutter, trying but failing to let the light in. “Avenger…Come closer…power…failing…Cal…” He coughs, his dying lungs so desperate lungs for air. “El…”

Billy waits for his coughing fit to subside and motions to Calvin with his limp limbs to lean in closer and listen.

“Avenger,” Billy says. “Avenge…me.”

With these final words spoken, Billy gives himself over to the endless black.

Well that was fucking stupid.

Calvin looks down at Billy’s listless body sprawled prostrate on the filthy convention floor and wonders what it will take for the gathered crowd to disperse, for the pitiful embarrassment to flush from his system. He tries to think of something clever to say, a way to dissociate himself from Billy’s belligerent breakdown.

But the only hope that Calvin has is that this might be his chance to enjoy the convention on his own, without Billy’s vindictive tantrums getting in the way. He looks at the large clock hanging on the western wall of the room, and sees that it’s almost five o’clock.

So he walks away.

“What the hell! Where are you going?” Billy shouts from behind him, his voice noticeably stronger and more alive than it was mere moments earlier.

Calvin doesn’t bother turning around. “Bendis is doing a signing at the Marvel Comics Booth. I was gonna have him sign my copy of Ultimate Spider-Man #1. The Miles Morales one, I mean, not the — “

“You’re supposed to avenge me!” Billy’s shrill voice stabs in Calvin’s ear. “Isn’t that what Avenger does? Avenge people?! Were you even listening to me?!”

“Yes! I was! And I thought you were dead!” Calvin pivots to look straight at his friend, who’s just kind of standing there like nothing happened. Like he didn’t just throw a galactic fucking tantrum and destroy a seller’s booth and like there isn’t a circle of hundreds of people with smartphones recording the whole entire fucking thing.

“Well…I was!” Billy replaces the rusted gear halo on his head and pops his aviator goggles into place over his eyes, then plants his arms akimbo on his hips.

Calvin nods. “Oh. Okay then. Past tense?”

“Don’t question my continuity. This stuff happens in comics all the time,” Billy says.

As much as it pains Calvin to admit, he does have a valid point. At least, until he adds, “Now why aren’t you out avenging me?!”

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to avenge!” Calvin says. This is the conversation he’s been dreading all this time, and he already knows exactly how it’s going to go.

“You have to continue the mission!”

“What mission?”

Billy finally acknowledges the audience around them. He cups a hand around his mouth, glancing around as if no one will notice, and moves his lips in a shitty fake stage whisper: “Destroy Chad Mailer!”

Calvin clenches and unclenches his fists as he looks down as his uniform. The gold tip of the stylized “A” emblazoned on his chest glimmers in the light. Even though he designed the suit himself, Calvin doesn’t realize until now that that hopeful symbol is pointing right up at him — at the hero he’s become.

“For the last time, Billy: I’m not a Destroyer,” he says. “I. Am. Avenger.”

Calvin’s next breath fills his chest with strength and pride, a surge of super-heroic energy swelling inside of him. He stands up tall, an upright posture that he never knew he could accomplish, and looks at Billy from his new vantage point.

“And also, if the Head isn’t real,” he says, “doesn’t that defeat the entire purpose of all your ‘cyborg mission’ bullshit on a fundamental level?”

He’s not sure if this response makes complete sense — but then, he’s also not sure if Billy’s so-called “plan” ever made sense, either, beyond a few inspired moments of half-assed chaos-making.

Whatever the truth, Billy is speechless.

“Right,” Calvin says. “Then I’m gonna go get in line for that signing now.” He flies across the room, leaving the past behind him to face its own mortality alone.

<< Go Back to Chapter 36 | Read on for Chapter 38 >>

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