Read an excerpt from The Unnoticeables, a funny and frightening urban fantasy by Robert Brockway.
I met my guardian angel today. She shot me in the face.
I’m not much for metaphor. So when I say “guardian angel,” I don’t mean some girl with big eyes and swiveling hips, who I put on a ridiculous pedestal. I mean that she was an otherworldly being assigned by some higher power to watch over me. And when I say “shot me in the face,” I don’t mean she “blew me away,” or “took me by surprise.” I mean she manifested a hand of pure, brilliant white energy, pulled out an old weather-beaten Colt Navy revolver, and put a bullet through my left eyeball.
I am not dead. I am something far, far worse than dead. Or at least I’m turning into it.
Here’s something I found out recently:
The universe is a problem. Again, I’m not much for metaphor. I meant what I said: The universe and everything that lies within it is a problem, in the very technical sense of the word. There are many parts to the universe—too many, in fact—which means that there is a simpler way to express the concept of “universe.” There are extraneous parts in every single object in existence, and to do away with them is to compact the essence of the universe into something leaner and more efficient. The universe and everything in it is a problem. And that means that the universe and everything in it has a solution.
Humans also have extraneous parts: Think of the appendix, the wisdom teeth, the occasional vestigial tail—there are parts of us that we simply don’t need. They clutter us. We can be rid of them altogether. But that’s just physical stuff. There are also fundamental elements of what we are inside—spiritual, psychic, psychological, what have you—that are being expressed inefficiently. Our parts are too complicated. They can be reduced. They can be solved.
Human beings have a solution.
And being solved is a terrible goddamned thing.
The exact methods vary from person to person. My solution? A .36 caliber lead ball through the pupil while sitting cross-legged on a bed in a Motel 6, watching a rerun of Scooby-Doo.
I’ve always been a simple man.
I guess I’m about to get a whole lot simpler.
Before this thing takes me completely, I need to tell you a story. But I’m having trouble starting. This is how it goes, or how it went, or how it will go. I’m having a hard time with time: That’s the first step to the change, Yusuf told me—losing your chronology. Where did it start? With her? With me?
I can’t remember why the start should even matter. Quick, let me tell you about Carey.…
1977. New York City, New York. Carey.
“Hey, fuck you,” I said to Wash as I passed him. He was huddled in a little ball at the edge of the booth. I mussed his hair up, making extrasure to jiggle his head about while I did it. I could hear him throw up into his own shoes as I made the door.
Told him not to take those off in the club.
The New York City air was a goddamned bathtub. It was eighty degrees outside at one o’clock in the morning. Inside the club was worse, though. In there, you had to breathe the accumulated sweat of a hundred drunken punks. A thin puddle of beer evaporated beneath your feet, found nowhere to go in the already damp air, and eventually settled onto your eyelashes.
I’ve got the beerlashes. Shit. Who has cigarettes? Debbie has cigarettes.
“Debbie!” I hollered straight out into the street as loud as I could, in no particular direction. I waited for an answer.
“Shut the fuck up!” A female voice answered. Didn’t sound like Debbie.
Two teen girls stood by a busted-open newspaper machine, drinking something distinctly beer-colored out of a Coke bottle. Too cute to be part of the scene. Aw, look, they did their mascara up all thick. Punk fucking rock.
“If you gimme a cigarette, I might consider letting you suck my dick,” I told the blond one with the patches on her denim jacket.
They laughed and said a bunch of words that weren’t “Here’s a cigarette,” so I left. I crossed the Bowery and headed up Bleecker, to the old wrought-iron fire escape where we hid emergency drinks from the parasites.
And I found the parasites there. With the drinks.
Parasites: the young kids who milled about outside the shows, too chicken or too broke to slip past the doorman. Occasionally they lucked into some weed or some smokes, and they were always eager to impress, so they were generally tolerated, like fleas or acne. But this was a step too far: They’d found the goddamned beer cache! They saw me coming and turned at once, like a bunch of prairie dogs spotting the shadow of a hawk.
“One of you has a cigarette for me,” I told them, not asked.
The little guy with the Elmer’s-glue spikes fumbled in his pockets like I’d told him there was a loose grenade in there. He practically threw a Camel at my face.
I pulled my Zippo and did that Steve McQueen shit, where I snapped it open and scraped the flint across my jeans to light it in one smooth motion. Ladies love it; men fear it.
Too bad I was out of fluid. Somebody laughed.
“You fuckin’ parasites!” I hollered, turning to round on them with all the righteous fury of a man cheated out of a beer stash. But Jezza was standing there instead, looking like an empty jacket draped over a chair.
“Easy, mate! Yer scarin’ off all the lovelies!”
“First he calls me a parasite, then he wants me lighter?” Jezza mimed outrage to a plain- looking girl in glasses and a scuffed-up flannel shirt.
God damn it: You sold our beer stash out for parasite ass?
“I will ruin your night right now unless you get me fire.”
“Well, he’s all piss and vinegar, innit he?” Jezza said to Scuffed Flannel. She laughed. Utterly fucking charmed, I’m sure.
“Jezza, god damn it, you’re not British. He’s not British.” I looked Scuffed Flannel in the eye. “And the only English movie he’s seen is Mary Poppins, which is why he talks like such a prick.”
“Oi!” Jezza protested.
“Jezza, God love you, man, but you sound like a fucking cartoon penguin. Knock it off. Your mom’s from Illinois.” I turned back to Scuffed Flannel and said, “His name’s Jeremy.”
“You asshole, Carey! Why do you always gotta blow it for me?” Jezza whined. “The girls love the accent!”
“Girls? Jesus, man. You’re making things complicated.” I looked and saw Debbie’s flashy, tinfoil-colored hair across the street, just coming out the door.
“Here,” I said, stealing the beer can from Jezza’s hand, “this is how you do it: HEY DEBBIE!”
She turned, looking for the source of the voice, but it was too dark and there were too many people.
“DEBBIE, DO YOU WANT TO SCREW LATER?” I hollered.
“ARE YOU ANY GOOD?” she yelled back, still not spotting me.
“YOU’VE HAD WORSE.”
“ALL RIGHT, THEN,” she answered, laughing, and turned back to talk to her friends.
Jezza looked like somebody had pooped in his cornflakes.
“Told you I’d ruin your night. A man asks for a lighter, you give him a goddamned lighter,” I said, and jogged back across the Bowery, up behind Debbie. I grabbed her hips and she squeaked.
“Got a light for your friendly neighborhood sex god?” I whispered into her hair, which, like everything else coming out of the club, smelled like an old undershirt.
“Aw, hell. That was you, Carey? I thought you said I’d had worse.”
She had that sass in her voice that said she’d found something stronger than beer.
Debbie handed over the lighter, and I flicked it on. I wrapped my hand around it, shielding the precious flame, then put it in my pocket when she glanced away. All’s fair in love and lighters.
Wood chips and truck-stop coffee filled my lungs. I fucking love you, Carl P. Camel, inventor of the Camel.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but I won’t stick you unless you get me stoned,” I whispered to her.
I couldn’t tell if I was being devastatingly clever or if the beer was finally starting to kick in. Either way, she bought it.
“Come out back in five,” she replied, and I let her drift back to the conversation.
For the moment, for just that one little moment, I didn’t need her. I didn’t need anybody. I wanted to worship at the musky pyramid temple of Camel cigarettes. I wanted to drop to my knees and inhale nothing but smoke until I burned up inside and flaked away like old paper. The cigarette asked about its old friend, beer, and I reintroduced the two. Jezza’s can was warm and probably half spit, but it was ice-cold Yoo-hoo compared to the asphalt-flavored air of a New York heat wave.
Hey, there’s Randall! I should kick him in the knee.
“Randall!” I screeched, getting two big running lopes and knocking his knees inside out.
“God damn it, Carey!” he said, then he tried to get his feet and nail me, but I danced away. A car honked, mad that I was in its precious street. Me and Randall gave it synchronized middle fingers and forgot all about fighting, to become a united front of Fuck You, Guy in Car.
“You like the band?” I said, nodding toward the club.
“Television? Pretentious bullshit,” Randall said through a mouthful of chaw and then spat hot garbage water onto the sidewalk.
Everything was pretentious bullshit to Randall. I wasn’t sure he actually knew what the term meant—he once called my chicken-fried steak “pretentious” because it came with gravy on the side.
“Sure, sure, but do you like ’em?” I inhaled the rest of my cigarette in a big crackly, flaring burn.
“Hell, yeah,” said Randall, “they’re my favorite band.”
I gave Randall a sideways look, then released a fucking monumental cloud of smoke. I breathed storm clouds; I shot black soot like a dragon; I exhaled the entire Los Angeles motherfucking skyline. Randall coughed and sneezed and shut his eyes.
I took the opportunity to bolt. When he looked up, I was gone. Vanished in a puff of smoke. He spun around, looking for me, but didn’t spot me down there, peering around the broken newspaper machine. That would fuck with him all night.
I waited until he turned around, and I crab-walked through the growing crowd around the door. When I was safely out of sight, I downed the rest of my beer and jogged around the corner to see what drugs Debbie had for me tonight.
When I got there, most of her face was gone. She was making a wet slurping sound with what was left of her mouth, and her balled-up fists were drumming the pavement like a broken windup toy. Something big and black stood over her, flowing like a waterfall. Its head was pouring out of where its shoulders should have been, oozing down and over Debbie’s chest like fresh tar. Where it touched her, flesh sizzled and flowed away, running down her body like plastic. I must have said or done something then, because it started to retract. It reversed flow, sucked back up into itself, and became something vaguely man-shaped. Its skin shimmered like polluted grease. There were two gleaming brass gears where its eyes would have been. They interlocked and began to spin. The whirring increased pitch and became a scream. It took a step toward me.
“Fucker!” I said, and hucked my empty beer can into the vaguely humanoid mound of acid sludge that was melting my friend. It bounced off the thing’s forehead and clattered away down the alley. “She was gonna put out!”
That’s a shitty thing to say, I know. I liked Debbie. I genuinely did. She wasn’t just pussy to me; she was a friend first. She thought Monty Python was the funniest thing on the planet. She picked the cheese off of her pizza but still ate it. That’s just how she liked things: crust and cheese as separate entities. She could do a perfect—and I mean fucking flawless—circus-caliber cartwheel, no matter how drunk she was. And yet the first thing I said when I saw her dying was dismissive and sexist and just all around shitty. I know. But here are some qualifiers:
First, when you put up an apathetic, angry shell for long enough, the behaviors you thought were mostly an act start to become your reality.
In other words: If you train yourself to respond like a dickhead in most situations, you find yourself responding like a dickhead in most situations.
Second: I was really, really god damn hard up.
I lived in a small apartment with three other punks. On any given night, one or two of them will probably bring home a few buddies who’ll also pass out on our floor. I’m not a gentle lilac, budding only under the most delicate of circumstances; I don’t mind people knowing I’m whacking it. But my ratty, threadbare thrift-store cot was right next to the bathroom, and every time I’ve tried to masturbate for the last three months, somebody puked right next to my head before I got a chance to finish. It was starting to get Pavlovian: I got half a hard-on every time somebody dry-heaved.
And finally, I should clarify: I wasn’t in shock. I had seen these things before. At least half a dozen times over the past few years. A lot of us had. They seemed to be coming after the gutter punks, the homeless, the junkies: Anybody that spent a lot of time fucked up in dark alleyways knew about the tar men.
But all excuses aside, what I said about Debbie was selfish and callow. That’s the plain and simple of it. If it makes you feel any better, they were probably going to be my last words.
The dull brass gears in the sludge monster’s face were spinning faster and faster. The whine was reaching an agonizing pitch, like a jet engine mixed with a rape whistle, and it was, impossibly, getting louder. I turned to run, but the noise was doing something to my inner ear. My balance was shot. I dropped to my knees. Tried to cover my ears. No difference. The tar man was approaching, slow but steady. And my stupid, useless legs were ignoring me.
I could see it clearer now. It wasn’t entirely black. It shimmered in the light, like the surface of a greasy puddle. Charred bits of Debbie’s flesh still clung to it here and there. They were cooking. Melting and running away in soft pink rivulets. I could smell it. Smell her. The harsh chemical stink of crude oil mixed with burning steak.
Four paces. Three. I couldn’t stand. Could barely move. I reached into my pocket. I pulled out the lighter I’d snaked from Debbie earlier. I flicked it open. I struck the flint against my jeans, and not even checking to see if it had caught, I flung it in front of me. I’d like to tell you I said a little internal prayer, but all I was really thinking was “fuckfuckfuckfuckfu—”
I felt a sharp intake of air rush across my skin, then a harsh, burning expulsion. I was thrown backward, and scrabbled away from the flaming thing like a wounded spider. The tar man’s screaming gears faltered and caught. They whined, paused, jammed, and then flung themselves sideways out of its face. The fire raged harder and faster by the second. The sound was like a train engine spooling up. Higher, deeper, louder; higher, deeper, louder—and then, thankfully, silence.
When I finally pried my eyes open, half afraid that I’d find them burnt shut, the tar man was completely gone. Just a greasy smudge and two round brass gears on the pavement.
I felt around my arms and face. My skin was generally sore all over, like a bad sunburn, but there didn’t seem to be any major damage. I considered a cigarette, looked at the oily spot still steaming to my left, and considered again.
I bent and picked up the two singed gears, oddly cool to the touch, and put them in my back pocket.
“Ha, motherfucker!” I spat on the smoking stain. “I’ll wear your eyes for a trophy.”
I went to check on Debbie. I had assumed the worst, from the way she’d been twitching when I first showed up. I assumed right.
I said a quiet good-bye and left the alleyway. Please don’t tell anybody I pilfered the cigarettes out of her purse before I did.
When I got back out front to the show, the punks were filtering inside, the sound of the next band’s guitars already clamoring into the street. Butts were being stomped out, beers were being downed, fresh air was being gulped desperately, and life was going on. I thought about going in with them—about dancing or drinking or doing some damn thing or another to forget for a few hours what I’d just seen, but the thought of all that heat and sweat turned me off.
Our pad was miles gone and I didn’t feel like walking, but I recalled stashing Daisy about five blocks from here a few weeks ago. If she was still around, she’d get me home. I turned to leave, then Randall popped up from behind a newspaper machine, screamed, “GOTCHA, FUCKHOLE!” and slapped me hard across the cheek.
My burns flared to angry, visceral life.
Copyright © 2015 by Robert BrockwayThe Unnoticeables goes on sale July 7th. Pre-order it today: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | iBooks | IndieBound | Powell's