Full of Britt
STORIES

IV.

The British host with a penchant for tight sweaters that strained over his not-as-fit-as-he-believed torso leaned back in his chair, his fingers interlocked behind his head and his arms splayed out like a lizard's frill. Across from him stood a young woman with her fists balled up inside the pockets of the oversized Army jacket that hung over her faded peasant dress. The man bantered briefly with the pretty, bespectacled Asian woman on his right and the tailored American gentleman on his left, who stroked his salt-and-pepper goatee as he politely chuckled. The host lifted his chin towards the waiting woman.

"OK, show us what you've got."

The girl lifted her hand out of her jacket pocket and unfolded a scrap of paper.

"Rigid curves/Like a bleached skull hiding jagged sockets/Where soft passions previously pulsed/The fluorescent growl/Burying shadows under limp fingers of smoke..."

The American co-host absentmindedly bit on the ends of his overgrown mustache and tapped a red buzzer on the table in front of him: "Let me stop you there."

Paul changed the channel. A UniChem executive held a single rose in his hand as he drew his eyes across a row of men and women in lab coats. Cross-fade to a montage showing the executive lustily examining whiteboards filled with equations and teasingly running his finger along a row of volumetric flasks and graduated cylinders, as a voiceover explained the exact qualities he was looking for in a chief chemist.

"Fuck this noise." Paul jammed his finger into the remote with a dramatic flair, shutting off the television. "This patronizing, mainstream, pseudo arts and sciences bullshit is messed up." He slammed the control down on the couch between him and Lisa.

Lisa knew exactly where this was going. First, Paul would detail the overlooked geniuses of literature and art: Author Rebecca Squall, who meticulously hand-wrote her autobiography in miniscule script on the wings of 3000 bees, which she released, unannounced, in the Metropolitan Library one balmy Tuesday afternoon. Then, the Irascibles Encore Alliance, who detonated paint bombs in museums, spraying Pollock-esque hues across mundane canvases of landscapes and portraits, in defiance of staid realism, and who disbanded after two of their members were killed while breaking into an Upper East Side residence to deface a private collection of Thomas Kinkade paintings. And of course, Edward Condiff, best known for creating the I Will Always Never Love You virus, which, upon infecting a computer, cross-referenced the user's mp3 files against the current Billboard Hot 100 and transfigured all the top tracks into glitchy jpegs full of corrupted data that mapped out pixels depicting hellish, artifact-laden tableaux, signed Hieronymus Datamosh.

Which invariably led into Paul's well-rehearsed lecture on the impressionistic sciences: covert memory implants, the Museum of Breath, and vagary nucleoids, at which point Lisa typically zoned out for a couple minutes until, oh yeah, that one guy who fucked a horse to prove something or another about the "thin veil of god-like artifice that confronts man on the precipice of the ethics-liberated frontiers of the genetic zeitgeist" or some shit. Why the fuck does Paul always mention that guy?

When she met Paul during his brief stint with the Surveillance Camera Performance Collective, Lisa was taken by his passion. But it seemed he'd too easily slipped into a routine of simultaneously watching and mocking shows like American Poet and Top Engineer and The Baccalaureate, and barely making ends meet working at that bookstore downtown. Lisa already had her response on deck.

"What is so bad about getting more people to read, even if it's not great literature? What is so wrong with using science to fabricate lighter and stronger manufacturing materials? Who do you think made this chair? The members of the Anachronistic Rutabaga Non-Sequitur Society? Did the Free Associates write about the special local option sales tax in today's newspaper, or forecast the weather so you know it'll be warm enough to wear those stupid fucking sandals tomorrow?"

Paul hugged at the air in front of him. "You live in this pretty little bubble with all your commodities..."

"You come here to watch my TV! Every night! You're cooking a frozen dinner in my microwave right this very moment!"

"This antiseptic bubble, with everything parceled out into proper columns," Paul continued. "I'm sure it's very easy for you to live this way. I'm an artist. I can't do that. I question and confront, and I expect the rest of the world to do the same."

Paul was on a roll. "Did you hear about this uncanny genius who mixed the DNA of butterflies and lightning bugs, creating a new strain of flying insect with massive, glorious wings that radiate an astounding array of glowing colors? These luminescent creatures are then trained to fly in painstakingly orchestrated swarms at night, the colored patterns on their shining airfoils perfectly arranged to create a massive, floating work of art. Four times in the past four weeks, you could look up into the night sky and witness this heartbreakingly ephemeral moment of absolute beauty and brilliance. The butterflies hang in the air for only a couple minutes, then flutter away. The moment, vanished. And no one knows who's doing this. It's just some altruistic, anonymous benefactor bestowing pure gorgeousness upon the unsuspecting world. Someone like that is inspiring on so many levels. I totally get why that might seem meaningless to you. But for an artist, it's an emotionally moving display of divine beauty."

Paul exhaled and punctuated his declaration with a disapproving look. He muttered something about it being best if he went back to his place and slouched his way out the front door.

Twenty seconds later, the microwave beeped three times. The word "Finished" scrolled across its thin LED display.

Lisa opened the microwave door and took a single bite of mediocre, undercooked lasagna before throwing the rest in the trash. She walked across the living room and reached behind the couch to grab a long-handled net. She slid the hardy Bird of Paradise out of the way and opened the door to the storage room, where the mesmerizing glow of a brilliant, shining palette emanated from a large terrarium near the back wall.

 

Device

The device was shaped like a pyramid, with two small, thin rods sticking out near the tip. Three of its four upright sides were composed of green circuit board, the etched pathways and drops of solder hinting at complex electronics within. A series of small, unmarked buttons lined the fourth side, slightly overlapping each other, their texture and appearance almost like fish scales. A cold, green light seeped between the thin seams of the four surfaces. The base was a curved, translucent, pliable gel that glowed like a nebula and was as warm as flesh.

Jared curled his lip and squinted as he tried to recall everything he had been told about the device. These memories were the trailing end of a filmstrip unraveling from its reel. He'd already forgotten the physical details of the person who gave him the apparatus, and it took all of his concentration to even attempt to retain the barrage of instructions and precautions which accompanied the transaction.

He jerked his head towards his right shoulder, trying to knock his long bangs out of his eyes, too afraid of dropping the object if he released one of his hands to tuck the locks behind his ear. The device was remarkably light, almost as if it would float in the air should he let go. But Jared doubted it would remain elevated, and the thought left him light-headed and nauseous, like that day last June when he stood on the edge of the abandoned granite quarry, fearful of some snarling recess of his animal brain that might try and convince him to fling his body into the abyss.

Jared brushed his right thumb across the buttons, then circled them, hesitantly tracing out a pattern. Realizing he wasn't sure how much pressure it would take for the buttons to register his touch, he quickly lifted his thumb, keeping it hovered over the keypad.

He remembered what his great aunt Jeane had once told him: "One day you're going to hold the future in your hands. Don't go shitting the bed like you do."

The whir of a single-engine plane passed overhead, as it departed from nearby McElroy Field. The shrill yelp of the Hambys' terrier intermittently pierced Jared's consciousness, then disappeared. Jared stared at his hands, hovering in front of his chest. Warmth crept through his wrists. He closed his eyes and bit the inside of his cheek.

This is the right thing to do. This is the right thing to do.

 

The Acadia Firebrand

The dark bedroom pulsed with light as Catherine flipped through the channels. She stopped, suddenly registering the blurry image from three clicks prior, and turned back to the station. She pulled the covers up around her shoulders, smiling as she watched the program, which currently displayed a grainy home video repeated on a loop as a narrator described the scene.

"...footage, taken by a vacationing pharmaceutical salesman in July of 1988, shows a rare glimpse of the Acadia Firebrand. The creature's long arms, spiked back, and green flames rising from its shoulders are discernible despite the poor quality of this video."

Catherine absent-mindedly scratched at her neck as the narrator discussed the various theories regarding the origin of the Firebrand, which had no more than ten documented sightings over the course of 20 years. According to the calm and authoritative voice, expert opinion was split between "alien invader" and "failed eugenics experiment created by Nazi scientists working for the CIA."

Catherine grabbed the cold pillow laying next to her and curled herself around it. She giggled as she buried her nose in the fabric.

The show briefly focused on a man wearing a button-down shirt tucked into crisp jeans, pacing before a small, seated crowd. He held his fists in front of his chest and shouted of the Fire God's omnipotence. Next, a generic dance track accompanied footage of naked, masked adults attending a suburban Firebrand party, their crotches pixilated as they stood around making lecherous small talk over plastic cups of boxed wine. Finally, a man with a whiteboard and a projector waved a laser pointer at a series of photos and equations, revealing the exact date an entire race of Firebrands would descend to conquer Earth.

As the program faded to a commercial for a personal injury lawyer, Catherine climbed out of bed and stepped into the walk-in closet. She pushed her way past the boxes marked "Harry’s Things" and approached the large dresser against the back wall.

She opened the bottom drawer and stared into it. Those were the days. Living out of the Econoline for weeks at a time, having an adventure. Harry, with all the other things he could've done with that brain of his, was always happy to hit the road at her request. Without him, her art would have remained a dream.

She reached into the drawer and lifted up the rubber costume. She ran her hand down the knobby back. It still smelled faintly like copper sulfate, which Harry had explained made the flames burn green. Oh, but the look on his face when she first showed him her drawings and said, "I want to set myself on fire." And how equally shocked she must have looked when he agreed to help.

The early days were the most fun, trying to figure out how to make her designs come to life, how to get people to even pay attention. Harry, in his own costume of Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirt and bulky camera wrapped around his neck, lingering along trails and shouting, "Look at that!" whenever someone passed by. Eventually, the legend became self-perpetuating; campers would see lumbering monsters behind every thicket, while Catherine and Harry were back at home, working in the yard.

They created new life unlike anything seen before. After the Acadia Firebrand, they unveiled the Slinometh, the Gargantuan, the Carolina Chupacabra, and the East Bay Terror Bird. These dresser drawers held decades of memories. Catherine would have preferred different monikers, but it was always meant for the world to name her progeny.

She'd barely even glanced at the dresser in the five years since Harry died. It had been a damp, late October weekend. She had just finished encasing herself in the Slinometh when Harry said, "I can't see," and collapsed onto the ground. She beat on his chest for ten minutes, then dragged him nearly a mile through the forest, back to the van, the rubber soles of her costumed feet slipping repeatedly on wet leaves. It was too late. Inside the van, she cradled his still body in her blue scaled arms for hours, his cold face resting against the orange fur of her chest.

Catherine laid the Acadia Firebrand back inside its resting place and shut the drawer. She turned to one of the cardboard boxes surrounding her and rummaged through it. She pulled out one of Harry's Hawaiian shirts, draped it over her shoulders, and climbed back into bed.