Burn Baby, Burn

We stand under the air-conditioned vents and watch from our enclosed bubbles as the most powerful human stands outside among the sun’s hellfire, hand-like rays punching him.

“Give it up for the Great, the Spectacular Titus,” Lew Graham screams through the speakers. He emerges from his broadcast booth in yellow coveralls with a radiation shield strapped to his head. Hands raised in the air, he prances around the arena. We throw our heads back and chant, “Titus, Titus.” The vents send an echo across the sheltered arena.

The timer above Titus displays the nine minutes he’s stood with us, muscles taut. A record. Even Oil Can Harry, dubbed the great Helios by his stans, can’t withstand the unfiltered sun for more than eight minutes and forty-five seconds. And that’s because of his mutant abilities from surviving an exploding oil catch can. Titus doesn’t need his armor of patchwork skin and scar tissue.

Myra leans in forward until her nose presses against the insulated glass. I yank her back by her shirt’s collar. While we’re safe inside, the glass isn’t foolproof. I’ve seen parents throw their howling children over their shoulders and carry them to the medical tent, palms cinched from pressing on the glass for too long.

When he hits ten minutes, a chirp sounds, and Titus bounces his pecs. Left, right, left. White flecks of skin fall off. His black skin now pockmarked and maroon. Surrounded by nothing except the glass ring filled with spectators, he shines under the light like an organism under a stethoscope. Beads of sweat drip down his forehead, past his chin, and onto the cracked earth. I see his eyes squint against the sun’s glare. We all do and crane our necks forward, faces inches away from the glass.

We watch him bend his shoulder blades inward and turn his head away from the eye of our monster. He bites his blistered lips, shriveled and purple from the sun, and clenches his hands into fists. Parents cover their children’s eyes with their hands and press them close to their bodies.

Inside the tinted announcer box, Lew holds fast to the doorknob. Head tilted to the side, he waits for his earpiece to give him the signal. Lew’s the closest to Titus, and the first to see him start to shake— his body spasming from the heat—tears prickling in the corner of his  eyes.

Finally, he gets the okay and flings open the door. But before it swings shut behind him, Titus’s knees buckle. We suck in a breath. I grab Myra and pull her toward the exit.

When we reach the tunnels, I hear the audience roar behind us. We turn. Titus stands tall, hands clasped in victory. The sun basks him in a halo of light.

Farah Merchant

Farah Merchant is a creative based in Austin with a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin. Influenced by today's political landscape and her experiences as a South Asian American in Texas, she writes about people trapped in systemic circumstances, aiming to showcase the nuances of their realities.

Hailey Renee Brown

Hailey Renee Brown (Ren) is a professional illustrator born and raised in mid Michigan. A former field biologist, they moved across the country from Michigan to Pennsylvania, also moving from science to commercial art. A professionally trained artist, they attended the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in Dover, NJ, where they were selected the recipient of the 2017 Norman Maurer Memorial Award as well as the 2019 Joe Kubert Jumpstart Project. They have since worked for a variety of clients from Dark Horse Comics and Dynamite Entertainment to the Brink Literacy Project.