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}}}Carey. 1984. Los Angeles, California. Chinatown.}}}}}}}}}
Ever heard the noise fingernails make when they’re digging into steel? No? Oh, well, when you’re on the other side of it—the screeching muffled but somehow also amplified by all that metal between you—it’s almost pretty. Sounds like whales singing.
“We ain’t got much time before those things get through that door,” I said, wrapping my belt around the interior hinge and cinching it tight. It wasn’t a great barricade, but it would hold for a few minutes. “And you’ve seen what they’ll do to us when that happens, so listen close, I’m only going to explain this once. No questions. None of that ‘oh no, that’s crazy, I don’t believe it’ garbage. After the shit you’ve seen in the last ten minutes, you lost the right to be skeptical.”
The kid’s eyes were the size of hubcaps. Couldn’t do much more than nod.
“Let me start from the top. There are angels—you haven’t seen those yet—but they look like little stars, just burning in the air right in front of you. They make a sound like the ocean in a storm, if a thousand people were drowning in it. They do something to people. They treat us like a math problem. They pick out all our little quirks and problems, every redundant or unnecessary bit, and they solve us. Usually when that happens, there’s a boom and a shudder and the person is just gone. No idea what happens to them.”
The door shook with a sound like a garbage truck hitting a telephone pole. The kid shivered. I went on.
“But sometimes a solve doesn’t go quite right, and the person doesn’t disappear. There’s something left over, like a remainder to that math problem. When that happens, the person pukes up a bunch of black shit that takes on a life of its own—that’s what those tar men that burned your friends to a crisp are. And the shell of the human being left over becomes this unkillable pyscho—that’s what the Chinese girl with the silver hair is, and that’s why she ate part of your girlfriend back at Madame Wong’s.”
The kid clearly wanted to cry, but was trying not to for my benefit.
“Oh, also the Empty Ones—that’s what we call those shells—do something to people, too. They take away bits of their humanity, until all that’s left are those faceless punks out there calling for your blood. There’s your rundown. You cool?”
“Y-yeah,” the kid said. “Super cool.”
There has never, in history, been a person less cool.
He was a little guy. 120 pounds and 5'4" on a good day. None of that muscle. He had the build of a man who survives solely on government cheese and instant noodles. There was a streak of light blue through his spiked blond hair, and he had some wispy facial fuzz that would require a second puberty to qualify as a mustache. He was wearing skintight blue jeans, fashionably torn, of course, and a faded T-shirt for a band called Red Wedding. Never heard of them. Made a mental note to check them out afterward, in his honor.
“All right,” I said, and clapped the kid on the shoulder reassuringly. “So here’s the plan: when I say go, you’re gonna take this broom and run out the door swinging.”
“What? Like hell!” The kid tried to cringe back from me, but there wasn’t much room in the walk-in freezer. He just kind of cowered around the frozen peas.
“Listen, kid, remember earlier? When I said ‘you know what they’re gonna do to us?’ I didn’t mean you. They’re not gonna do a damn thing to you. They don’t care about you. You’re an object. You’re not even an obstacle. The only thing they want is me. The only reason your friends died—and I am so sorry to say this—is because they were in the way. They were in between those things, and me. I’m what they want, and what I’m really doing here is asking you for a favor. I need you. I need you to save my life.”
“Save you? How?”
“You go out that door swinging, and maybe it throws them off their game for just a few seconds. A few seconds for me to run. They’ll all chase after me, but they won’t spare you a second glance. Those few seconds are all you can buy me, but it’s better than nothing. I’m hurt, and I was never all that fast to start with, so I probably won’t make it far, but I’ve gotta try. Please, kid. Just a few seconds of broom swinging and maybe some yelling, if you’re feeling up to it. That’s all I’m asking from you, and then you turn around and you run like hell and forget about all this. Except for the part where you’re a hero. My hero.”
“They’ll kill me, they’ll—”
“They wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire. You’re a gnat. You’re not even something worth swatting away. As long as you don’t actually hit one of them, they’ll forget about you the second they see me.”
“I don’t hit ’em?”
“No, kid. It wouldn’t do a damn thing if you hit one anyway. Just swing that broom around, make a big show.”
The kid swallowed hard. Had an Adam’s apple like a kneecap. He bit his lip and nodded.
I gave him the broom. He wielded it like Excalibur.
I opened the door, and he charged out screaming, swinging it in broad strokes like a battleaxe.
The Chinese girl with the silver hair—that’s Jie, more on her later—punched straight through his chest. Sent his heart splattering into the wall. It almost hit me, as I ran for the window.
I tucked into a ball just as I hit the glass, and didn’t even try to break my fall.
My name is Carey, and I wasn’t always an asshole.
Well, I wasn’t always this much of an asshole.
Let me tell you about how I got here, and maybe you’ll understand.
Copyright © 2017 by Robert Brockway