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!
The boozy heat of adolescent scotch flickers like fire at Ted’s temples. He only had two drinks before he left his apartment and made his way over to the Omni Hotel and — okay well maybe the second one was more like two-and-a-half-fingers’ worth of sweet, smokey goodness. But still. He needed it.
Especially considering the way he’s swarmed by friends and fans alike just as soon as he enters the lobby, where he arrives to find the party already raging. He does his best to brush each one off with his most polite aplomb; certainly the whiskey helps to mitigate the personal and professional guilt. He worries briefly that his dismissiveness might come back to bite him in the ass on Sunday Bloody Sunday.
Ted considers texting one of the convention organizers about cancelling the Sunday tickets outright, even though he knows that it’s a profitable day for most of the vendors. Given the choice between the last-minute cash grab and not having to fend off a horrible hangover while also contending with the ambling legions of children that waddle through the aisles on “Family Day” Sundays, Ted feels confident that most creators would pick the latter option.
Of course, the thought of children sends Ted’s brain spiraling back to he and Kathy once again.
After excusing himself from several conversations that he rather would have had, Ted sidles his way up to the bar, craning his neck above the crowd along the way. He had checked Twitter before the left the apartment and seen Kt’s post about heading to Omni, so he hoped that he would find Chloe there with her. Worst case scenario, he could at least get Kt back on his side, and convince her to help him reconnect with his sweet girl.
Ted cuts through the swath and crowded, eager drinkers and orders himself an IPA, doing his best to ignore the angry snarls from the bare-fisted boozers behind him. He drinks the bitter liquid down faster than he should as he explores the edges of the dark but open room, searching for a link to his lost love like some surreptitious spy, or perhaps a paparazzo.
The thought of such comparison sends the thrill of paranoia trickling through his spine. Will one of those tabloid hack comics writers from BloodyAwesome.com snap a photo as he pushes his way through the bustling crowd? Without thinking, Ted begins to formulate an alibi or excuse for his apparent awkwardness, ultimately settling on the fact that he’s on a mission of love, god dammit, and doesn’t have time to deal with peons from the press and —
Thank God the room is loud enough to drown out the sounds of his whispers under breath. Ted knows full well that he does that sometimes when he starts drinking, and curses himself for forgetting the fact that eager opportunistic comic journalists have their ears all over.
A quick survey of the crowd in his immediate vicinity gives him confidence that no one in this distant corner of the room is paying him any mind. This relief is shortly lived, of course.
Ted spots a small snaking pathway through the densely packed people, running from the lounge to the bathroom. It seems an easy and accessible passage, one that could offer him a better vantage point from the middle of the room. All of the chairs and stools and ottomans are occupied, of course, but he doesn’t need to sit down. He doesn’t want to sit down, not until he’s sitting down with her.
As he walks, he twists his head like an ocean observer, both for hopes of seeing Chloe, or Kt, and to exude an atmosphere of deliberate importance. If he looks as if he’s walking with purpose — which he is, as far as he’s concerned — then perhaps no one will stop him.
“Excuse me, Mr. Thompson?”
Against his better judgement, Ted turns his head and acknowledges the stocky Ramona Flowers wannabe who called for his attention. But as his eyes pan past her, he can’t help but notice the familiar gleam of Chad Mailer’s sweaty scalp not five feet behind her. Instincts take over and he follows the motion as Chad’s mouth connects with a petite and pretty half-Japanese girl in a —
It comes as a surprise to Chad, though he’s not necessarily against it. From the first time he saw her, he couldn’t help but notice her tight frame like a battle axe.
But as her moist and eager lips massage his own, Chad’s mind begins to race. There’s a voice inside him screaming that she’s too young, that she might be drunk and he’s taking advantage (“But she started it, right?” he counters in his head; he doesn’t answer himself).
Then he wonders what Kt would say if she saw them. Would she still think him a dog — or worse? He knows his squandered that opportunity years ago, but there’s a part of him that’s still so desperate to hear her approval.
Chloe swings her head around, their lips briefly parting before they reconnect, this time accompanied by the snake-like flicker of her tongue. It’s happening, Chad tells himself. May as well go with it, right?
Chad places his left hand on Chloe’s shoulder, fingers tracing the goosebumps that dance upon her velvet skin. The voice of Kt’s conscience fades from his head, replaced by that familiar timbre of one Ted Thompson.
There’s another lick of tongue before Chad realizes that the voice isn’t coming from his own internal monologue.
Chloe disconnects and before Chad can even react he sees her sitting upright on her ottoman as if nothing had happened, hands folded demurely in her lip.
“Ted’ums, hey! I didn’t see you there,” she says, eyelids fluttering like dying butterflies.
Chad can’t help his own impulse to act natural either. He leaps to his feet, like a college kid caught kissing at a party, and gives Ted a friendly slap on the shoulder. Sure, their last encounter could have gone a lot better, but Ted has always been so understanding. Empathy is part of his job, after all.
“Ted, buddy! Listen, I wanted to — ” Chad’s reactions are all so automatic that it takes these first few words before he pieces things together. He takes a moment to study Chloe, all flaunting her innocent demeanor. “Did you say ‘Ted’ums?’
That’s when it clicks.
“Oh. Shit. This is — oh.” Chad’s not sure who to address, or which one to apologize to. But his instincts drive him as a man of honor to turn back to Ted and say, “Teddy, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize — she was — we were just talking, and — “
“Chloe, what’s going on?” Ted’s chest heaves in slow, deliberate motions. If he had the power of laser visions, his eyes would be boring holes through Chad as they focused their burning kinetic energy on the half-Japanese beauty dressed like an interstellar slave. Whatever waves of relief that might have crashed through Chad’s mind are gone once he sees how invisible he’s become.
“Like he said.” Chloe gestures to Chad with an unaffected sigh. “We were jut talking and then — “
Ted turns to Chad, arms flailing with fury and frustration as he says, “And what, you think that just because a girl talks to you, she wants to fuck you, is that it?” He stomps once with a threatening thrust of his shoulders, a brief bullish tantrum that draws the full attention of the drunken crowd around them. If Ted even notices, he doesn’t let on as such. “Chad, your level of arrogance is un-fucking-heard of.”
Chad’s so confused and overwhelmed that he doesn’t even mind when Chloe chimes in to defend him.
“Ted’ums! Calm down!” she says, her voice like an ambulance siren, or a mythological siren — overpowering and overwhelming Ted’s otherwise uncontrollable rage.
When Ted looks at her, all he sees is the blinding brightness of an angel. The serene and soothing sparkle of her eyes sends a calming through his soul, such that he returns to reality, suddenly aware of the hundred of stares that he has drawn with his outburst. Frantic eyes skit across the room, unsure of how to respond.
Ted takes a long, slow breath, then another. “I’m sorry, Chloe.”
He can hear the audience leaning in, craving every syllable that he’s about to speak. He knows he needs a moment to collect himself — and that he won’t be afforded such a luxury.
“Listen, I know this is not your fault,” he says. He can feel their stares start to bore into his soul, awaiting his response. But how much can he truly say? Ted wishes the two of them were alone together, somewhere — anywhere but here — and that he could explain without an audience. He would confess to Chloe of his own foolishness, how he thought she’d be so impressed seeing him in his professional element, in the only environment where he actually matters. Then he would apologize, a thousand times or more, for how he let his nerves get the best of him, how he was so consumed by his responsibilities that he allowed himself to get distracted, convinced himself that she had abandoned him anyway so he had nothing to lose by not giving life and limb to find her, wherever she was. How the sight of her that first time overwhelmed him with such joy, and how sorry he is that her outfit accidentally triggered his paralysis. He wants her to know that he knows that it wasn’t her fault, that he didn’t mean to freeze the way he did, that he wasn’t prepared — for the flashback it gave him, nor to fall in love with the woman before him.
All of these things, Ted wishes he could say. A pit sinks in his soul where he longs for her to understand and accept his foolish actions, his apology, so they can both move on and embrace the bliss that they deserve.
But instead he points an accusatory finger at Chad. “This guy is a scumbag,” he says. “I’ve worked with him before. I know what he’s like. I understand what happened here. But I am just, I needed to tell you, Chloe, I am so, so sorry about earlier and — “
“Hey whoa, back-up.” Chad stands up from his own seat, arms propped up in a peaceful defensive. As if Ted himself is the problem right now. He points to Chloe, then himself, and says, “She kissed me!”
Without warning, Ted’s rage comes bellowing out of his mouth. “Fuck off, Chad! Like most things, this isn’t about you”
“Ted’ums, please calm down.” Chloe comes closer to him, her sleek, creamy arms pumping like they’re pushing air across his anger, fanning the flame that furls inside of him.
Then she says, “I don’t want to have this talk right now, not if you’re still mad.”
“I’m not mad!” Ted says, perhaps louder, more spiteful than he should have. As much as he knows that he lets his stress get to him, he wishes like hell that she’d stop coddling him. Stop pretending that he isn’t who and how he is. Like his anger isn’t natural, isn’t something understandable. A feeling he deserves to feel.
But of course she won’t understand that. She’s too young, too sweet, too naive. Which is exactly what he loves about her. What he needs from her.
“I’m not mad at you, Chloe,” he clarifies, expending his remaining energy to keep his voice as calm as he can. “Please stop asking — “
“Hold on,” Chad says. “You’re more than twice her age, dude.”
This brief interjection is enough to push Ted over the edge. “Shut up, Chad! I’ll deal with you later!”
The rage swell inside of him, all of his mistreatments and moments of disrespect exploding from within — at least, until the sound of Chloe’s voice come breaks through his crazed and callous candor, bringing him crashing back down to the reality he’d hoped to leave behind.