The screaming man doused himself in spoiled milk, backed by a chorus of dog barks and digeridoos. Sarah sighed as she picked up her coat and sidled her way down the aisle. Taking a last glance at the stage, she saw the man being wrapped in gauze by a half dozen Buddy Holly lookalikes. As she headed out into the crisp November night, she lit a cigarette. She checked her watch and saw that it wasn't even ten. She might be able to reach Daniel.
She headed to the nearest pay phone. One of Daniel's latest quirks was to block every number that wasn't a pay phone. It had something to do with his new obsession about "the depersonification of communication by way of the removal of the spatial context in conversation." Sarah understood the sentiment, but it made him a pain to get a hold of. Still, it was better than last March, when he had only allowed callers to communicate in Esperanto. Even with all of his bizarre affectations, Daniel was someone worth knowing. He seemed to be aware about anything happening before anyone else. A night with him was guaranteed to be interesting if nothing else.
She dialed the number and tapped her foot impatiently as the phone rang. After twenty seconds, she heard a click.
"Hey Daniel. What's up?"
"Miss Moutree. How are you this fine evening?" Sarah cringed. She hated when he called her that; it made her feel like a hillbilly.
"I just got out of Eric's show." She took a drag from the cigarette.
"You were right. Christ, what a fucking mess. I could barely keep my eyes open."
"I keep telling you darling, the traditional media have become so predictable and trite. So why do you even bother?"
"I know, I know. Anyway, it's only ten o'clock. Is there anything else going on tonight?"
"Well, I was planning on getting shitfaced by myself, but since you're out and about, there's something I think you might be interested in…. Tell me, have you ever heard of Francis Lepage?"
She hesitated. This was another one of his little catty traps to show her how superior he was. She had to show her knowledge, but keep it vague. "I think so? The French guy, right?" she ventured as she eyed the glowing ring around the tip of the cigarette.
"Your powers of deduction are stunning, darling." Bitch, Sarah thought as she rolled her eyes. "But yes, he's French. He doesn't so much make art as art experience. It's like nothing else. You have to see it to believe it."
There was a hint of excitement in his voice. Something had managed to worm its way through the carefully practiced layers of cynicism and hipness. Whatever it was, it must be good.
"Anyway, it's the old movie theater on 8th and Vine. See you there in twenty! Ta-ta!" Before she could respond, the line went dead.
"Sure, I'd love to go. Asshole," Sarah muttered at the dial tone.
Forty minutes later, she was still waiting outside the abandoned Park Theater. She had tried both of the doors, but found that they were locked. She paced impatiently. She didn't like waiting outside of a sketchy movie theater for her drug-addled friend to show her some conceptual art whatnot in an area that looked like the run down part of a war zone. Five minutes later and she finally saw Daniel, coming at a leisurely pace.
"Dan, you fucking asshole! What the fuck is wrong with you? I waited here for almost a half hour," she spat as he came near.
"Love you too, darling," he replied as he embraced her, "Now, let's get inside, shall we? The show's just about to start!"
"This had better be fucking amazing," she grumbled as she followed him down the alley that led to the back. When they reached the rear door Daniel knocked four times. A sliver of light illuminated the alleyway and the sounds of conversation bled through the crack.
"What would you like on this glorious night?" a voice asked from behind the door.
"David, you know it's me. Now open the damn door! I'm freezing my dick off," Daniel answered without looking.
A rail-thin man with an unkempt beard sighed and opened the door. "You're supposed to say 'The good stuff. The best stuff.' It's part of the experience," he complained as they pushed past him.
"Yes, yes. I know. But really, the show's starting any minute now…."
Among the crowd, Sarah recognized several classmates as well as a smattering of professors. Noticing Dr. Willis, her art theory instructor, she shrank back slightly. Willis was never in a good mood, and Sarah didn't feel like ruining a nice night by dealing with her. Everyone seemed to be focused on a tarp-covered object in the center of the room. Soon, the lights dimmed. A spotlight flickered on and focused on the covered object. A sharply dressed man in a bird mask stepped into the spotlight.
"Ladies, gentlemen, others. It is our pleasure tonight at Last Minerva to have the honor of being the latest of Francis Lepage interactive art installations," the emcee began. Several masked figures made their way through the crowd, passing out markers.
"The work only works, so to speak, if the audience participates. To that end, we ask that you draw your most fearsome creatures all over it. The deadliest warriors, the strongest samurai, the most awful of animals. Now, without further ado, we present 'Les Dents Du Dragon #8.'"
With that, the lights came on and the tarp was snatched from the object. Sarah was taken aback to see that the "work" was just a large porcelain cube. There must be something else, she thought, something deeper. This was just more of the same twaddle she had seen before. The audience crowded around the statue, each drawing their own separate beast.
"Tell me you didn't drag me to the middle of the ghetto just so we can draw stick figures," Sarah whispered to Daniel.
"Just wait. All good things," he said.
Sarah bit her tongue and took a marker from a woman wearing a giraffe mask. She worked her way through the throng and uncapped her marker. Crouching, she began to draw a Greek hoplite like the ones she remembered from art history. The shield came first, covered in a snake design. Then the body, muscular and armored only with a long, flowing helmet. The spear was held above his head, menacing all who would oppose him. Sarah took a moment to glance at the other drawings. A tiger with a machine gun menaced a robotic squid with laser eyes. A scaly beast with a dozen eyes and razor-sharp teeth. A drawing of Gamera with hammers for hands. A limbed penis with the words "WAR GOD" scrawled across the shaft and a sword in one hand. Sarah scoffed.
The crush around the cube began to thin as the audience stood back to take in the work. After a few minutes, Sarah was the only one still working. After putting the finishing touches on the hoplite's crest, she turned away and looked for Daniel. The murmur of the crowd fell silent.
She turned to see the drawings begin to move. It seemed that the simpler drawings were coming to life first. A crude bison lowered its head and snorted. A stick figure waved its sword around. Soon, the more complex forms came to life. The gun-toting tiger stretched and yawned, while a large snake idly breathed a great puff of flame. The hoplite was one of the last to animate. Then, all at once, the drawings began to attack one another.
The hoplite sprung into action, spearing the Gamera clone through the eye. Within seconds, it was engaged in an intense duel with the multi-armed Kali. Sarah glanced around the cube. Everywhere, the drawings fought a silent orgy of battle. She found Daniel in the crowd and leaned towards him.
“This is incredible,” she whispered.
“What did I tell you? His work is like nothing else,” he replied without looking away from the piece.
Meanwhile, the hoplite was bashing the scaly beast with its shield. In the corner, the limbed penis seemed to be doing rather well for itself, having just decapitated an armored knight. Sarah found herself caught up the action. She silently rooted for her hoplite, barely supressing a whoop of triumph as it decapitated a winged samurai. After several minutes, only her creation and a giant spider remained. With a running leap, the hoplite plunged its spear through the spider's eye, killing it instantly.
"Yes!" Sarah shouted as the spider slumped. Out of all of the works, hers was the best, the most fit, the most dangerous.
"Did you see that, Daniel? Fucking right in the eyes!"
"Yes, I noticed. Congratulations on winning at art, dear," Daniel replied, keeping his eyes on the victorious hoplite. As always, it was difficult to tell if he was being sarcastic. Whatever. Sarah's drawing had won, and that was what mattered.
"Now, ladies and gentlemen and others," began the emcee, moving next to the cube, "it is time for the second of three acts to commence. Know that this is done without malice, but with hope. Like Cadmus, you are responsible for creation. Art may seize the responsibility and wring from it possibility, or it may shy away and refuse to be made. It may scream in fury against it." He looked around the room "But it must never deny it. You did this. Enjoy."
As he stepped away from the center of the room, the cube began to shift, bulging in some areas, shrinking in others. A buzzing emerged from the crowd. Sarah gave Daniel a puzzled look.
"Dan, what's going on?"
"Ummm…. I don't…. I don't know…." he murmured as he stared at the shifting porcelain in front of them. They both took several steps back. Soon, the cube had morphed into something vaguely humanoid. As its features became more clearly defined, Sarah recognized it as her own hoplite. The almond-shaped eyes, which looked so wonderfully stylized in the drawing, appeared bizarre on the thing's equally misshapen head. The short, stubby forearms, the pointed penis, everything about it looked strange. The hoplite stood for a moment, surveying the room around it. She smiled as she got it. That art couldn't withstand being transplanted to reality. The hoplite would probably crumble or something shortly. She was still smiling as the hoplite speared Daniel through the stomach.
There was silence, broken only by Daniel making a gurgling sound through his clenched teeth. He staggered forward slightly onto the spear, grasping at it as if unsure that it was real. As he uselessly flapped his mouth, a small film of blood and spit stretched between his lips. It popped, and the spell was broken. The room was suddenly awash with chaos. A jungle of flailing limbs seemed to sprout as people fled for the door, for the corner, for away from that thing. A dull, insistent pounding rang out as attempts to breach the now-locked door were enacted. The hoplite braced a foot against Daniel's chest and pulled the spear out. Daniel crumpled to the floor as the statue sliced Dr. Willis through the neck. Sarah noticed one of Willis' turquoise earrings go sailing through the air still attached to a bit of earlobe.
The hoplite moved methodically through the room, slashing at the trapped artists. Sarah stared at her creation, unsure of what to do. The hoplite caught her gaze for a split second. She saw herself reflected in the clean white porcelain and the dark red blood sprayed across its face. She ran. She pushed herself against the cinderblock wall and pounded at it, hoping that it would somehow open. To her surprise, it did. She tumbled into the cold night and landed on her ass in the alleyway.
The wall closed behind her, muffling the screams and crashing. She got up and started to run. She didn't stop running until she reached her apartment. Falling onto the bed, she stuffed her face into her pillow and screamed. The muffled screams continued even as she became hoarse and her throat ached, continued on until she passed out from exhaustion two hours later.
It was two weeks before she could bring herself to go back. But she had to be sure. Daniel's parents had called at least a half dozen times with increasing distress, but that didn't mean anything. He had disappeared before, only to reappear several days or weeks later with a new boyfriend. Her missing classmates were harder to explain, but most of them were trustafarians who only wanted to major in art to shock mommy and daddy. They could have easily switched majors once the going got tough. As for the professors, well, budgets were tight, and conceptual art wasn't a high priority.
She had barely eaten or slept since the night, and had only answered her phone to stop its ringing. Her mother had called once, asking if anything was new. "No," she replied flatly. After all, she couldn't really be sure. After that, she had just unplugged her phone altogether.
She came around three A.M., not wanting to be caught breaking and entering midday. The door to the back of the theater was locked, but she had come prepared. After several minutes of fumbling with the hairpin and torque wrench, the lock clicked open. Sarah sucked in her breath and braced herself as she opened the door. Darkness, interrupted only by the light from the door. She clicked on her flashlight and exhaled. There was nothing. No statue, no bodies, no emcee, no markers, no goddamn Daniel, no nothing. Just a poured concrete floor and interrupted by a few steel pillars. She moved towards the light switch and flipped it on. Not a single stain on the concrete.
"Damn it," Sarah muttered to herself as she hunched down to inspect the floor. This couldn't be just a dream or a bad trip. It had to be real. But there was nothing there. Not so much as a drop of blood.
After several minutes of searching, she turned off the lights and prepared to leave. As she stood at the treshhold, she turned towards the empty room. "What the fuck?" she yelled at the top of her lungs, waving the flashlight for emphasis. Just then, a glimmer of light caught her attention. She moved her flashlight back towards the glimmer. There it was again. She moved closer, keeping her flashlight trained on the object. When she was finally able to make it out, she felt her knees go weak. The earring. Willis' turquoise fucking earring. She snatched it from the corner of the room and held it up. Had they forgotten to take it too? Left it there as a Rosetta stone? Had some kindly worker left it there for the dead woman to reclaim?
It didn't matter. This proved it. She slid down the wall until she was sitting, knees to chest. Daniel was really gone. Everyone was really gone. And that… thing… was… was… The tears poured from her. It was her fault. She had done this. But why had this thing been shown at all? To cull artists? She gave a bitter internal laugh. Suddenly, she noticed a scrap of paper on the floor where she had seen the earring. She wiped her eyes and leaned over to pick it up. In neat handwriting, it said "Vous, l'artiste."
A puzzled look came over her face and she wiped her nose on her jacket sleeve. "You, the artist." What the fuck was that supposed to mean? Her "art" had done this. She had made something to kill and it killed. She had made it, she was responsible for it. Recalling the pride she had felt as the hoplite slew its competition, she felt nauseous once more. She had seen at least ten people die that night at the hands of her creation. The rest were probably murdered as she fled. Whatever the gallery had done to the block had just given her the tools. The deaths had been her responsibility. Gears began to turn in her head. Responsibility. What had the emcee said about responsibility? Something about possibility? She thought a moment.
Something clicked, or maybe snapped, in her head. "Vous." Not her. She started to chuckle. Artists. Responsibility. Fuck. Art that defied reality could define it, giving new contours. Her giggling grew louder. All of the theory she had learned, but she had never realized it. This had destroyed for catharsis, so she would know. The laughter echoed in the concrete room as she doubled over. To redefine reality for art, with art, she had to accept her responsibility as the artist, maker and unmaker of worlds. Now that she realized it, she could embrace it. And wring from it possibility. She couldn't stop laughing.