TRUE BELIEVERS: Chapter 42 — This Man, This Monster

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!

Chloe feels like an idiot for not seeing it sooner. She had accepted that his thinning hair was just a premature quirk. She even went along with it when he said he was divorced, something that she’d always thought was reserved for older, unhappy people — why get married so young in the first place if you’re just going to break it off a few years later?

But now it all makes sense.

“You said you were 36.”

Ted swallows, almost as if he’s forcing down the fury that Chloe can plainly see simmering beneath the surface. “So I shaved off a few years. I was nervous, I wasn’t lying, I was — “

“A few years?” Chad laughs, a mocking, hearty guffaw. “Ted, she’s 20 years old. She can’t even get into this bar legally, I had to buy her first drink. Not like ‘bought her a drink’ like I was trying — “

If Chad’s condescending chuckle hadn’t already turned Chloe off from him, then this accidental information leak certainly seals the deal.

“You said you were 25,” Ted says, eyes narrowed in accusation.

Chad cuts in before Chloe even has a chance to respond. “Okay fine, no one’s listening to me anyway!” He throws his hands up in a melodramatic display of exasperation and flops down like a brick on the padded purple armchair he’d been sitting in.

Chloe’s tempted to say something about how at least she’s not as childish as Chad, but she ultimately decides against it. Her trembling lips fumble over every other option as Ted walks towards her with a slow and menacing gait, until he’s close enough that she blurts out the truth. “I added a few years. Don’t be mad!”

The words come out on instinct. A lifetime of conditioning has trained Chloe to defer to the emotions of men, and apologize if ever she upsets them. So she said it, because that’s what she was always told to do.

But the truth is that she doesn’t give a shit — about Ted, or Chad, or any of it. Not anymore.

Ted’s fingers make a cracking sound as he clenches his hands, swinging two angry fists through the air to hold down at his side.

“I’m not mad!” he says, though his volume says otherwise. “Stop apologizing for everything!”

“Then stop yelling at me!” The voice that comes from Chloe’s throat is one she’s never heard before, full of courage and an amplified intensity she never knew that she possessed.

The sound is enough to shrink Rage Monster Ted back down to a mouse.

“No, you’re right,” he says, with a newfound tenderness. “I’m just trying to — it was the shock of seeing you for the first time, and wearing that, and…”

Ted indicates her outfit, eyes welling up and as he looks Chloe up and down. It’s like he’s seeing — actually, truly seeing her — for the first time. And for a moment, it even makes her feel wanted, feel sexy and adored.

Where was that longing look of love when she surprised him earlier? And why does he care so much more about her body than her self?

Ted continues. “You look so beautiful, but it brought up this terrible memory. And this time…this time I’m the one who’s sorry. And if you’ll let me, I still want to make this weekend every bit as incredible as I promised.”

Ted stands before Chloe like the gallant knight she’d hoped for all along. Heextends his hand with a chivalrous flourish, welcoming her back into his arms. All that’s missing is a magical white stallion for them to ride into the sunset.

The room is still and silent but for the occasional clink of glasses on teeth as the teeming crowd of convention-goers swarm into the circle around them, awaiting Chloe’s romantic response.

But instead, she speaks the truth.

“You left me! Twice! And I was just, I was alone, and — “

“I called you literally 27 times! You could have called me back at least one of those times!”

“I told you, I forgot my phone! That’s where I had your number saved!” Even as she says it, Chloe realizes this is a ridiculous line of argument, a pitiful excuse to skirt his own responsibility. “And we’ve never even spoken on the phone either! All we ever do is talk in that stupid video game.”

“I thought you liked that game.” Ted frowns.

“It’s not about the game, Teddy!” (Also: seriously? That’s what makes you frowny-face?) “Until this weekend, I’d barely ever left Kansas. Suddenly I’m all alone in a strange, crazy city, wearing this because everything else got lost and I…I was scared, Ted! I was scared and alone and you weren’t there, and he was!”

She points at Chad. She’s not going to let any of these men shirk their responsibility.

Like most Saturday nights, there’s nothing good going on on Twitter but for cryptic references to club-goings and other cool adventures. Regardless, Chad’s so focused on the act of scrolling through his timeline that he doesn’t notice Chloe pointing at him until he feels the anxious stares from the rest of the room.

That’s when Chad realizes that, despite the fact that he was cut out of the conversation, he’s still a part of the drama at the center of the storm. It’s one of the rare occasions where Chad will admit that perhaps he’s bitten off more than he can chew.

“Wait, me? What?” is all that he can say.

“I kissed him,” Chloe says to Ted, punctuating each word with a thrust of her pointed finger. “Okay? I kissed him, because he was there, and you weren’t.” She jabs the final period into the center of his chest, then storms away to the other side of the circle.

The veins in Ted’s neck twist and throb as he turns his face toward Chad. “Is that true?”

“Um, yeah? What have I been saying?” Chad briefly wonders why guys always have to ask other guys to confirm what women say for each other, even when the woman is standing right there. He doesn’t question it though; after all, he does it, too.

Chloe spins around and swells up her chest, fists balled like rocks against Goliath. Chad is ashamed that he thinks it’s kinda hot.

“And when you were there?” she says, with a newfound confidence reverberating in her voice. “When I finally found you, when I thought everything was going to be right? You walked away. You left me alone again.”

By this point it’s clear that Chad is missing a major part of the story. His entire evening has been a booze-induced whirlwind, for better or for worse. No sooner did he maybe-kind-of patch things up with Kt than Chloe started flirting and this whole explosion happened. Sure, Chad knew she had a boyfriend — or at least some guy that she was going to meet. And as the thoughts start swirling through his head, he recalls the conversation with Ted where he mentioned his big romantic plans for an Internet meet-up. That detail must have slipped his mind once he never saw the girl around (and also the age difference thing, which isn’t like gross or anything — or even that weird, come to think of it — it just never really occurred to him, ya know?).

Chad realizes that he had overheard both sides of their story separately, and still somehow failed to make the connection. But because of that, he also knows they’ve both been longing for each other — at least for the weekend, if not for months beforehand. So what the hell happened to tear these star-crossed lovers apart like this? Flashes of memory and conversations crash together in his mind until it finally clicks:

“Oh. Shit. The Leia costume.”

This is enough to bring Ted and Chloe closer, speaking together in an uncanny unison: “Shut up, Chad.”

Of course this all comes back to Chad. He’s a relentless leach. For all that Ted has done for him, it’s never been enough, and he’s never learned to stand on his own two feet and get the fuck away.

Even now, when he feels so close to clearing the air with Chloe, to making amends and moving on and being a man who can make her happy, Chad has to insert himself into the conversation and remind Ted of his own glaring flaws.

There are thousands of words in even more combinations tripping off of Ted’s tongues, but the best that he can get out in hopes of salvaging his relationship is, “Look, Chloe, about what happened today…Like I said, I was in shock. And I’m sorry.”

But Chloe isn’t having it. “No!” she says, with a stomp of her foot. “If I can’t apologize, then you don’t get to be sorry either!”

How can this be happening to him? After all he’s done, all he’s been through, and all he’s tried to do — doesn’t Ted deserve some happiness for once? He takes the flatcap off his head and twists it between his hands. “Chloe, please. I love you.”

She just shakes her head and says, “How can you say you love someone when you’re obviously still in love with someone else?”

This is the last response that Ted expected to hear.

He’s willing to admit that he lost control when she surprised him earlier today. And maybe there was something else he could have done to try and find her sooner (although what that would have been, he still has no idea). But it’s not fair for Chloe to bring up the past. Because Ted can’t change what happened, where he came from, what brought him into her life. Can’t they just move on and be happy together?

“I told you about Kathy,” he says. “I was up front about that from day one. I never lied — ”

“Yes you did, Ted. Yes you did.”

Chloe knew that Ted had been married before; she didn’t mind. He made it seem like a distant piece of the past, like another life he’d lived and died before they ever met.

But of course he reacted the way he did when he saw her this afternoon. A love like that stays with you, and Chloe was a fool to let herself forget it ever happened. Why would she think she could ever be someone’s second best, and fill the space or armored bikini of an older women she’d never met? She was stupid for agreeing to this crazy trip on this crazy weekend in the first place, for thinking that she found someone who loved her for who she was, not where she had come from. She can’t help her age, but she only has her own naivety to blame for putting her fragile faith and trust in Ted Thompson.

“You lied when you said you were over it. You lied when you said ‘I love you’ to a girl half your age and then abandoned her to a city that she’d never been to.”

For all her life, Chloe has cringed in the face of confrontation. Video games were the only place she ever felt truly powerful — until now. The tears she holds inside turn to fire behind her eyes as she strides up to Ted and says, “I might be young, Teddy, but you really need to grow the fuck up.”

As the words leave her lips, Chloe knows she’s finally found the confident cool she’s longed for her entire life. She thought a man like Ted would give her the power and protection that she needed. And maybe, in a way, he did — by showing her everything that she could be without him.

Chloe lets out a triumphant laugh. She zips up her hoodie, then walks away, sauntering like no one’s slave.

Writer of fiction, article, songs, and more. Enjoys quantum physics, Oxford Commas, & romantic clichés, esp. when they involve whiskey. HATES Journey.

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