Writing Sample

Originally published under the name Jordan Lapp, “After the Final Sunset, Again” was the 1st place winner of Writers of the Future, Q3 2009. It was called a “stand out” in a starred review by Publishers Weekly and got me accepted to Clarion West that same year. This story has opened a lot of doors for me, so I present it here in its entirety as a thank you to everyone who supported me over the years.

 

 

AFTER THE FINAL SUNSET, AGAIN

By Jordan Ellinger

 

 

 

The automatic coffee machine chimed softly from the kitchen as the Phoenix stood in the steaming tub, letting liquid nitrogen run off her breasts and back. She plucked a plush pink towel from the rack and brushed off the thin layer of frost that had formed on her skin, and then stepped onto the bathroom tiles.

She followed the chiming into the kitchen. After pouring herself a coffee, she dialed the stove to max. The element was glowing by the time she’d finished her cup of black-two-sugars. She stood before it, naked and shivering, and pressed her palms down on it. Her skin sizzled, but when she took her hands away, they were unmarked. Warmth flowed through her veins.  

The Phoenix had developed this routine sometime after the third morning of her life–the second consisting mainly of ecstatic celebration that she’d survived the first.  

Her birthday. She remembered the searing heat as her body assembled itself from random air molecules–atoms and then cells fusing with the heat of suns. Spontaneous human combustion in reverse. For one brilliant moment, she was untouched, an innocent babe at first breath, and then the work of building her mind began. 

Her consciousness shaped itself from its immediate surroundings. As one assembles a puzzle, it began constructing her personality from pieces borrowed from those around her. Language and grammar skills were copied wholesale from the psyche of a neighbor. Driving skills, she learnt from a passing motorist. Her love of gardening, she drew from Ms. Bianchi on the third floor, and her knowledge of guns from the survivalist in the apartment two doors down. Tastes, morals–a wealth of human knowledge distilled into an eager mind. 

As her spirit reached out to her neighbors, it came upon a man on the third floor with a shooting pain in his arm. His chest was fire and his vision had disintegrated at its edges. She felt something dark and cold enter the man’s apartment, and she gasped even as her heart took its first beat. Death had come for him. She struggled to pull back, to withdraw from that darkness, that voracious void. She tasted blood and bile in her throat and she couldn’t breathe. And so, one of her first conscious memories was of a terror that left her convulsing in her bed.  

The Phoenix wasted many minutes recovering from what she’d taken from the man on the third floor. Deep breaths calmed her heart. Other experiences, everyday experiences, were crowding into her head: putting daffodil bulbs into the fridge; the feeling of a cat jumping onto the bed; spraying Prolix through the cylinder chambers of a Glock. The mundane smothered the horrific, and she was able to rise.  

Several objects lay nearby. A key ring, an American Express Gold Card, and a folded slip of paper on the end table, and on the bed where she’d lain, a pile of ashes. On the dresser, a digital camera with pictures of dozens of people on it whom she’d never met. The background of each picture was the same–the curtains matched the ones in her apartment, and the white lettering that flashed the date incremented by one each time she scrolled to a new picture. Born and then reborn, thought the Phoenix. It occurred to her that the camera was a kind of petty immortality for a creature whose life spans only one day. A small plea thrust into the future, a desperate remember me! She assumed that the most recent picture was of her predecessor. Nothing more than a boy really, with a shock of chestnut brown hair and an avian face. His eyes were fresh and fiery and he stared into the camera with the burning conviction of a man who knows he is about to change the world, but has not yet been shown the way.  

The Phoenix put down the camera and unfolded the slip of paper, then snatched at the weathered business card that fell out. It was a letter—a diary page written by the boy in the picture, scrawled in script he’d stolen from Ms. Fitzpatrick–she knew instinctively that her own handwriting would match his. It contained instructions, mostly. A few fragments of hastily written advice. When one’s life spans only a single day, she supposed, every second spent writing feels like ten seconds lost.  

The business card was stained and lined as if it had been crumpled and straightened many times. “Baytilus” was printed in a Spartan font with a telephone number and an address underneath. Someone had written “FOR EMERGENCIES ONLY” in blue ballpoint on the flipside.  

She pocketed the card and posed for her own picture, maneuvering the LED viewfinder so that she could see herself. Her face was slim and feminine with large, wide eyes. She looked stunned in her picture, as if she’d just been introduced to a room full of strangers. The Phoenix winced at the quality of the picture—the lighting was terrible—but she had no time for a reshoot. Her whole life was ahead of her.  

She placed the camera back on the bedside table and opened the closet. She was relieved to find that she had clothes for both sexes. Silently, she thanked whichever of her previous incarnations who had used a portion of their day to shop. A medium length dress caught her eye, but in the end she chose something short that would show off her legs. Modesty was for the patient. She grabbed a red purse and pumps from the closet, loaded the purse with her credit card, keys, and the strange business card, then left the apartment. She thumbed the alarm button on her key chain until one of the cars in the parking garage chirped.  

She sat behind the steering wheel, waiting for divine guidance. Long moments passed. Her survivalist neighbor came out of a door and threw a bag of garbage into the dumpster. He looked at her strangely as he left the garage. The Phoenix grew bored. Not knowing what else to do, eventually she put the car into drive and left the garage.  

After a half-hour of driving aimlessly, she felt a gentle tugging. She turned left onto a busy street and passed a sign for the University. A park came into sight, then academic buildings. She found a place to leave the car and dutifully fed the meter. It would be selfish of her, she thought, to ask a successor to spend precious moments paying for her ticket.  

The building to which she was drawn was low and squat, and almost lost in the shadow of a larger building where classes were held. The Math Department. She felt a web of air and fire pull around her as she passed through its doors, bending the light away from her. The receptionist didn’t even look up from her work. Room one hundred, one hundred and one, one hundred and two. The pull she’d felt was strongest here. She turned the handle, felt it resist but then click open.  

She was in an office. Computer on the corner of a desk, term papers spread across the rest of it. Bookshelves held textbooks two rows deep. And a whiteboard. It dominated one wall, a tangle of mathematical symbols fighting each other for space. An equation well beyond the Phoenix’ comprehension, but somehow she knew that the variables in the third position needed to be integrated. More details came to her as she wrote on the whiteboard. She plucked equations from the air and wedged them between competing symbols, writing in verticals when she needed to. She was an instant expert, an armchair mathemagician.  

It would have been nice, she thought, to hear a scream of joy from a middle-aged mathematics professor as she left the building, but in the end, her triumph had an audience of one. But it was enough to know that the equation on that whiteboard would allow for a fourteen percent improvement in solar panel energy conversion.  

The Phoenix was allowed one moment of triumph outside the Math Department. She threw her jacket over her shoulder and strutted like she’d just invented sliced bread. She’d changed the world. It was what she’d been born to do.  

The Phoenix felt the pull again.  

She got into her car and followed the winding roads off campus and into the suburbs. Soon, she began passing streets lined with cherry trees. She parked the car in front of a two-bedroom rancher in a vacant spot outlined by pink blossoms. The pull was stronger than she’d felt before, more urgent.  

She entered the house, the door opening of its own volition. There was a man lying on his back in the kitchen. The Phoenix knelt on the linoleum beside him. His face was purple, his gullet swollen. She could see only the quivering whites of his eyes.  

The Phoenix felt the fire inside her.  

Her blood tingled, and then burned. She felt her spirit fill her like a vessel and then spill the brim. Her face was close to his, now. She could smell vomit on his breath.

“Live.”  

Something invisible passed from her mouth to his and his chest heaved, expanding until a button popped and flew across the room. His breath exploded out of him in a scream and he sat bolt upright, flinging her back into a cupboard. His terrified look remained and then dissipated into confusion.  

He staggered to his feet, and backed away until he hit the counter then felt his way along it to the door. A stolen memory surfaced–her survivalist neighbor hitting a deer with his car. The look it gave him as it staggered away was the same look on this man’s face. “I’m late for work,” he told the Phoenix, and then he was gone. She heard the front door slam and a car start and pull away from the house.  

The Phoenix remained where she was, propped against a cupboard, legs splayed out before her, enjoying the sense of accomplishment that filled her. It was orgasmic. Once again the purpose of what she’d done was hidden from her, but she knew that she’d done something cosmic. She’d brought a man back from the brink of death.  

She felt a chill wind. She grabbed the edge of the counter and pulled herself to her feet. There was someone else in the house. She felt it. She knew it.  

He stepped out of the shadows, tall and glorious and terrible. Still assembling himself, she could sense him borrowing images from nearby minds, molding his form in the image they thought he should take. His skin became so pale that it was almost translucent. Spidery purple veins traced the sides of his scalp, and his mouth swelled and puckered. His hair grew matted and thin. He looked like the newly-risen corpse of a man only half dead.  

The Phoenix trembled. This was the dark presence she’d felt at the moment of her birth. She stepped back until she felt the stove at her back and could retreat no further. Death studied the Phoenix. “I know you,” he said, puzzled.  

Her hand tightened on the edge of the stove. His brow creased and his gaze dissected her. At last, the flash of recognition that the Phoenix dreaded. He’d seen her, she knew, in the first moments of her life, stealing memories from one who’d already had a foot in Death’s domain. She’d fled before him then, pulled back, but he’d seen her anyways. His brow creased angrily. 

“You’re the one who got away.”  

He reached towards the Phoenix and she wilted before him, but he persisted. His fingers came within inches of her cheek. She felt their shadow against her skin, dull and lifeless.  

She reacted instinctively, batting his hand away and dashing for the door. She flew across the front lawn and dove into her car. It wasn’t until she was several blocks away, her hands curled around the steering wheel, that she remembered to breathe.  

Death terrified the Phoenix.  

She wondered how her predecessors had dealt with him. Had they seen him at all? Maybe she was special. She had felt his touch at the moment of her conception. Something had changed in her in that instant of terror. Her impending mortality had ceased to be something distant and indistinct. It had become a zombified man with bad hair.  

A horn sounded behind her, and she realized that she’d been parked at a green light for several minutes. The Phoenix felt the call of her next assignment, but she ignored it. What if he were there? She just needed a break. A few moments to catch her breath, she told herself.  

It was a strange feeling to ignore the pull. She felt like she was leaving home without turning off the stove. Still, she passed through the intersection and turned into a drive-thru coffee shop. She needed a black-two-sugars to settle her nerves. When she reached for her Amex, her hand fell on the wrinkled business card. The Phoenix paused. Surely, this was an emergency.  

Fifteen minutes later, she pulled into the parking lot of the Holy Rosary Church on Dunsmuir and Richards, uncertain if she had the right address. She passed through cherry oak doors so varnished that she could see her reflection in the wood, and then hesitated at the end of the aisle. A small sea of pews stretched out before her, ending at a raised platform large enough for a plus-sized choir. Brass pipes blossomed from an ancient organ, stretching thirty feet up and more. A few parishioners sat alone among the pews, or prayed silently in front of a rack of votive candles near the pulpit. The Phoenix took a few hesitant steps into the church, her heels echoing loudly.  

An older priest looked up from a conversation with a blubbering man in a grey sweat suit, worn for reasons other than physical fitness. He stared at the Phoenix while the man wept and then abruptly left him and made his way deliberately towards her, leaving his chubby-faced parishioner to stare after him. Thin as they come with a face like an axe blade, the priest blocked her path.

“You,” he said, taking her arm, “are not supposed to be here.”  

The Phoenix wondered for a second if she was dressed inappropriately. She thought that maybe her little red dress was too much “little” and not enough “dress”, but there was a hooker in the last pew in a torn t-shirt that clearly showed her distain for the modern traditions of the bra-wearing public.  

“Please come with me.” The priest’s fingers dug into the Phoenix’ arm. When she didn’t immediately follow, he pulled her off balance and guided her roughly to a bank of confessionals in a shadowed corner. A moment later she found herself alone and confused in the darkened chamber. When the barrier between the confessionals slid open, she was ready to let him have it. 

“What kind of priest are you?” she asked, indignantly.  

“Let me have a look at you,” he said. A lighter flared and he peered at her through the barrier. Defiantly, she leaned back into the darkness, but his constant gaze unnerved her, and after a moment, the Phoenix knelt on the bench and pressed her face close to the barrier.  

“Yes,” he breathed. “I can see the resemblance. My name is Father Baytilus. Do you have the card?”  

She passed him the card. He ran his fingers along the edges tenderly. Her heart softened. He must have cared a great deal for the original owner.  

“I apologize for my rough treatment,” he said as he passed her back the card. “It’s just that my position makes things a little difficult for meetings like this. Wrong religion. You’re Egyptian multi-deistic and I’m… well… this is the Holy Church.”   

“Why are you helping me then?”  

He spoke as if he were reading from a speech he’d gone over a thousand times in his head. “I once had the opportunity to spend the day with your ancestor. A lot of the things she did, I’d read about before in the Bible: healing, resurrection, giving men hope. I was reminded of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. My superiors might say that you’re a pagan demon, but I believe that your powers have the same source as the Son’s. When I help you, I believe that I’m helping Him in a roundabout kind of way.”  

The Phoenix peered at him through the barrier. “You spent the day with us?” A flash of memory, a fragment. A man lying dead in an alley, a needle jutting out of his arm, spittle stringing down his cheek, shit in his pants. A woman kneeling over him staring with fiery intensity. The dead man looked young, but there was still something of the priest in him. The Phoenix looked at the balding man in the confessional. Their eyes met, and they knew each other, and knowing each other, they were able to continue.  

“I’m in trouble,” she said.  

“Speak, child.” The awkwardness was out of the way, and now they’d slipped into the familiar roles of penitent and priest.  

“I have a problem with Death.”  

He snorted. “Don’t we all.”  

“No, I mean, I have a real problem with Death, the entity. We had a dust-up at my birth, and he’s been stalking me ever since. I was healing a dying man and he showed up at the scene. Now I’m afraid that he might be waiting for me at my next stop. And tonight…” The Phoenix shivered, leaving the implication in the air.  

Father Baytilus leaned back in his chair. “You saw Death? That’s not supposed to happen. Death shouldn’t even be aware of your existence.”  

She was a bit surprised that he’d know about Death, but she supposed he’d met him personally in that alley so many years ago. “I can’t bear the thought of facing him, Father. I feel the pull, but I’m terrified that he’ll find me and this time I won’t be able to escape.”    

He looked at the Phoenix sharply, his eyes flashing in some reflected light. “You’ve got to go to your next stop.” He grew intense. “Who knows what kind of damage you’ve already done just by delaying this long? You shouldn’t even be here. You need to go!”  

“I’m afraid,” she squeaked.  

He softened, seeming to remember himself. Absently, he licked his palm and smoothed a few straying hairs from his comb over, and then straightened his robes.  

“I’ve met dozens of Phoenixes over the years. Ten years ago, you were living in the East End. You’d been there for I don’t know how many years, but at least back to the fifties, before the heroin epidemic hit and turned the whole place into one big shithole.”  

The Phoenix blinked. She hadn’t expected that kind of attitude from a priest.  

“It got pretty bad for you guys for a bit. You were imprinting from people who’d led terrible lives. Hookers, pimps, junkies. It was changing you. Twisting you. You’d come in here looking as pale as a ghost with long welts on your skin because you couldn’t stop scratching yourselves. You were suffering from withdrawal without ever taking a hit. I found you the apartment on Arbutus and encouraged some of our more stable parishioners to move into the building. I had some movers pack up your apartment and move you in the middle of the night. I gathered your ashes myself.”  

Of course, the Phoenix was curious about how he’d moved her. The image of the priest scooping ashes into a plastic grocery bag sprang to mind.  

“Hand-held vacuum cleaner,” he admitted. “I stayed around until you were born, just to make sure you had all your parts.”  

“And you’ve been our guardian angel ever since?”  

He pursed his lips and nodded. “I suppose. A guardian angel for a guardian angel.”  

She drew closer to the barrier. “How long have you been doing this?”   

He leaned back, scratching the back of his neck thoughtfully. “Let’s see. That business card you gave me is about twenty years old, so I guess a little over seven thousand generations.”  

Seven thousand generations. Each of them arriving with a peculiar form of dementia, not remembering the day before. He had helped them for the memory of a Phoenix he’d met for only a day.  

He continued. “It’s gotten so that I can recognize you the minute you come in my door, but I almost missed you. The Phoenix are like children. Each is born with the innocence required to accomplish their duties without questioning their lot in life. I can’t help but liken them to Adam and Eve before the Fall–unblemished by mortal cares. You, however, have eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and now you’re terrified of what your predecessors couldn’t help but ignore.”  

The innocence required to live with the knowledge of the exact moment of her death. The Phoenix studied the plush red velvet of the confessional bench, her finger tracing golden thread. “What do I do now?”  

Shadow patterned the priest’s face. “You do what the rest of us do. Find something worth dying for and spend the rest of your life doing it.”  

His advice was meant to comfort her, but the Phoenix left the confessional angry and confused. She didn’t want to find something worth dying for. She wanted to find some way to live the life that others took for granted. She needed more time.  

As she left the church, she collided with a man in a grey suit. He was solid and broad; she felt like she’d run into a wall. She fell back, but he caught her and helped her to her feet.  

The Phoenix straightened her clothes and began to stutter an apology, but he interrupted.  

“–I know you.”  

She recognized his voice. A chiseled face with a strong Roman nose and the slightest hint of dimples around his mouth. Her deer-in-the-headlights. This was bad news.  

“We’ve never met,” she lied. She tried to push past him, but he was a rock.  

His eyes got moist and she could read the expression on his face–My god, it’s an angel–but he restrained himself. “I know it’s you,” he said quietly. “You don’t forget the face of the woman who saved your life.”  

The Phoenix tried to dart around him again, but an arm on the door frame blocked her. “Please don’t go,” he pleaded. “I tried to go to work, but I couldn’t concentrate. I kept thinking of lying on that cold floor and then opening my eyes and seeing you. I came here to… I thought you were an angel. But now you’re here.” He looked uncomfortable. “My name’s Joshua Miller.”  

He held out his hand. “If you tell me to leave,” he said hastily, “I’ll go and never bother you again, but just let me buy you a coffee or something. As a thank you.”  

The Phoenix felt uncomfortable. He looked desperate. She didn’t want to brush him off, but she had so little time.  

“Tomorrow then,” he said, reading her expression.  

Tomorrow? She’d be dead by the end of the day. The Phoenix felt bad about the deception, but she took his card and promised she’d meet him, then ran to her car.  

One bullet dodged, one nuclear bomb still on target. She had an appointment with Death for right around sunset that she didn’t intend to keep. She bought a paper and quickly flipped to the weather section. Sundown was at 9:06pm. She felt a brief moment of pity for the Phoenixes who’d had the misfortune to be born in winter when the days were shorter. But then, they hadn’t met Death until the last possible moment, and thus hadn’t known to fear him.  

The Phoenix spent much of the next few hours in the library, searching for information about her kind. She found articles and stories about birds mostly, but they’d gotten some things right–unfortunately, she found nothing that would help her deal with Death. When her fingertips began to smear the ink of the books she read, she felt her forehead with the back of her hand. Heat. She radiated. By two o’clock the lady in the next cubicle had removed her jacket; by three, she’d begun to sweat.  

The Phoenix needed to cool down.  

She left the library and ordered a cardboard cup of ice from a nearby falafel vendor. She found a spot just inside the mouth of an alley and took a cube of ice in her fingers. It dwindled before her eyes.  

She needed something colder.  

A fifty-gallon drum of liquid nitrogen was surprisingly easy to come by. She bought it from a welding supply shop, no questions asked—though it wasn’t a well sought after commodity among the red-dress-and-pumps set. The laborer who helped her lift it into her trunk mumbled a few smart remarks designed to elicit information, but any explanation the Phoenix could offer would be too far-fetched to be believed, so she just smiled and let him wonder.  

When she got back to her apartment, she poured ten gallons into the bathtub. It began boiling almost immediately. A thick white mist poured over the porcelain and crept across the bathroom floor. After a moment’s thought, she jammed a towel under the door. She didn’t want a neighbor thinking that there was a fire in her apartment and bursting through the door in an act of unwanted heroism.  

By this time, the Phoenix had melted footprints into the bathroom mat. She stepped gingerly into the bathtub, dreading, on some instinctual level, the moment her toe hit the nitrogen. Phoenixes are healing creatures and made of fire and liquid nitrogen is really cold. She had no idea what to expect. The tingle that she felt as the base of her foot made contact with the nitrogen was a relief. She’d half expected freezing pain. 

Liquid nitrogen boils at less than room temperature, so her bath felt a little like a whirlpool. She slid in to her shoulders, then slipped her head under the surface. Her hair crystallized immediately. The Phoenix shut her eyes. In the morning, she’d find that her eyelashes had frozen together.  

But she’d be alive. 

#  

Half the liquid was gone when the Phoenix woke, boiled away in the night. So far as she knew, she was the first of her kind ever to see a second morning. She felt lightheaded. When the sun hit her skin through an open window, she felt its warmth fill her and she danced around the apartment screaming with joy, heedless of the neighbors.  

The Phoenix paused when she entered the bedroom. She leaned against her door and stared at the digital camera that lay on the bedside table. All those pictures. They were like a graveyard. Visual epitaphs of those who’d passed before her.  

After a while, she took the camera gently in her hands and put it away.   

The Phoenix spent the next hour propped on the couch flipping through daytime TV. She still felt the pull, but she could ignore it. She’d lived through the night and there was nothing to stop her from pulling the same trick the next night, and for the foreseeable future. For the first time in her life, she had all the time in the world.  

She spent the next few weeks experiencing in person as many of her stolen memories as possible. She started a garden on her patio in honor of Ms. Bianchi and found that she enjoyed the feeling of soil underneath her nails. She watched a dozen movies that had been unknowingly recommended to her by her neighbors, movies that had helped to shape their lives. She even went to a gun range just to see if that rush of power that she so remembered was real. It was there that a bearded old timer in a trucker’s ballcap asked for her name. “Meryl Streep,” she answered without hesitation. Out of the dozens of actresses in the movies she’d watched, Meryl Streep had impressed her the most. 

The range owner raised an eyebrow at her.  

“What?” she asked, a touch of Phoenix power blunting his curiosity. “People can’t have the same name as actors?” 

“Alright, ‘Meryl’, you ever fired a weapon before?”  

It took her fifteen seconds to disassemble the weapon. He let her shoot alone.  

Through all this, her Amex was her constant companion and Meryl began to worry about its health. Though she had very few expenses–she had no need to eat, and she’d found a contract in a drawer that indicated that the rent had been paid for several years in advance– she knew on an instinctual level that it was intended for emergencies only. Certainly, it had never been abused like this before.  

She wondered if she would have to get a job. Join the workforce. Do her part for Uncle Sam. She had no experience, no education, and no identification. But the idea excited her. She’d been isolated out of necessity, but all of the fun things require a partner, and by this time Meryl was beginning to feel a bit lonely.  

She’d thought nothing of missing her date with Joshua until she felt his card in her pocket while she was fumbling for change in the corner store. The Phoenixes were out of coffee filters and so Meryl had taken a quick inventory of their supplies in order to restock. She held the business card in her hands, tracing its clean edge with a fingernail. She left the coffee filters at the checkout.  

On her sixty-first day of life, she decided to meet Joshua. 

#  

He sounded surprised to hear her voice on the phone, but he agreed to meet her at a Starbucks on 5th and Vine, just on the outskirts of the downtown core.  

He had selected an intimately-sized table near the front window–as far from the baristas as was possible. Two cups of coffee sat before him, still steaming. Meryl took a sip of hers. An Americano–hot enough to scald. Just the way she liked them.

    “I had no idea what you drank. I can get you something else…” Some of the initial awe she’d seen in him had faded, but his eyes were dark pools that drank her in.  

Meryl smiled nervously. “I’m fine.” She waited, promising herself that if he mentioned angels or resurrection, or asked her what it was like in Heaven she would be out the door before he finished a sentence.  

But he didn’t say a word.  

He just stared at her intensely, long enough that she began to feel a little uncomfortable. “You’re beautiful,” he said at last, and it was so unexpected that she burst out laughing, managing to slop coffee over the brim of her cup and onto her sleeve. He stood as Meryl was trying to dry the sleeve of her cardigan with several infuriatingly small coffee napkins, and walked around the table. He knelt beside her and took her hand gently, then began to dab at her sleeve. His hair smelled like cinnamon.  

She wasn’t sure how they ended up at her apartment, but she would remember the taste of his lips at the doorway, the coarseness of his chest hair against her cheek in the hall, and his warmth as she took him into her in the bedroom.  

They lay together underneath the sheets, sticky and exhausted. Meryl’s eyes were closed, but she could sense his discomfort. He rose, lines of shadow from the blinds tracing his contoured back, and dressed without looking back. She followed him to the door, wrapped in the comforter, but there wasn’t much to be said. He kept his eyes downcast, kissed her reluctantly, and then left. He’d sullied his angel, and now that he’d had her, the illusion of purity which he had so worshipped had been shattered.  

She sat on the floor in the bathroom and wept tears that evaporated into little wisps of steam as they ran down her cheeks. It was a long time before she was able to gather herself enough to drag the canister of liquid nitrogen out of the closet and pour it into the bathtub.  
Originally posted at Jordan Ellinger dot com
The next day was pain.  

Meryl awoke in a pool of red marbles–blood that had crystallized as it left the heat of her body. She pulled herself out of the tub, and then gasped as stabbing pain wracked her abdomen. She’d had no experience with pain. A Phoenix is not a creature that feels pain any more than you can hurt Fire. Even when it is drowned with water, a flame is merely doused. It doesn’t feel pain.  

She felt pain.  

Something had changed overnight. She ripped open the medicine cabinet and pawed through various pill bottles, throwing those she didn’t need on the floor. She found some Tylenol 3’s behind a box of Q-tips and poured a handful into the palm of her hand. She took a breath, and looked at herself in the mirror. Her hair was still thawing and beads of moisture dripped down her face. Her already pale skin was paler still. She’d stopped bleeding, but she’d lost a lot of blood during the night.  

She popped the Tylenol 3s into her mouth, then walked gingerly into the kitchen and flicked on first the coffee maker, then the stove element. Her morning routine. Only one thing was different. She was ravenous. The sensation was so unfamiliar to her at first that she didn’t know what it meant. Though she had stolen memories of cooking from her neighbors, she’d never actually eaten or drunk anything beyond the cup of coffee she had every morning–and that mainly for its warmth. Her cupboards were full, but thick with cobwebs and a thin layer of dust burst into mist as she opened them. Maybe Baytilus had stocked the apartment when he’d moved her in, assuming that Phoenixes would need to eat. It didn’t look like anyone had opened them since. Meryl grabbed a box of Kraft Dinner off the shelf, gambling that if anything were still good, it would be the KD.  

It tasted stale and had the texture of wet cardboard. She attempted dainty pecking at first, but she was hungry. She worked her way through the San Francisco Treat, she went hunting with a bowl and spoon, she went after some Lucky Charms, even shook hands with Chef Boy-R-Dee. It was all stale and tasteless and she couldn’t get enough of it.  

She finally figured it out when she tried on her little red dress and it didn’t fit.  

Meryl was very definitely pregnant.  

She hoped it would go away. She cleaned up the bathroom, letting her precious–but contaminated–liquid nitrogen flow down the drain, then suffered a brief stab of guilt when she thought of what it would do to the pipes.  

Her bump wasn’t swelling visibly. She grew over hours. By noon the only thing she could fit into was a set of men’s track pants. It crossed Meryl’s mind that she should phone Joshua. She even went so far as to dig around in her purse for his card. But she couldn’t call him. Not after that look. She’d just have to tough this thing out herself.  

And Meryl thought that way right until around three o’clock when she began to bleed again.  

She didn’t feel the pain until she noticed the blood staining the couch. It started with a searing knife that plunged into her delicates and stabbed at her uterus. Her insides began to burn, as if her pancreas was ruptured and leaking bile and acid onto her internal organs. She felt tearing. And the blood…  

She called Father Baytilus. She begged him to come over through grinding teeth then hung up. By the time he knocked on Meryl’s door the pain had subsided enough that she could get up and unlock it. He stood in the doorway, wisps of long grey hair hanging from one side of his scalp where his comb-over had collapsed, and stared at her stomach.  

“Good Lord,” he said at last. “I didn’t expect to see you alive, let alone with child. How is it that you’re…?”  

She tried to put a light spin on it. “Liquid nitrogen baths. Nothing like a dip in the old sub-zero pool to deal with hot flashes. It’s good for the skin too. Fine lines are visibly reduced.” 

“I meant the pregnancy,” he said wryly. “We’ll discuss defying God’s plan at a later date. May I come in?”  

Meryl stepped aside and waved him into the apartment, then tried to swivel her hips as best as she could to allow him past. It was a tight squeeze and certainly not a great moment for her self-esteem. She was envious of the slim outlines of beached whales and overstuffed couches. But, she reminded herself, at least the pain hadn’t returned.  

 

She followed Father Baytilus into the apartment and sat on the sofa across from him, thankful that she’d remembered to cover the blood with a sheet.  

“Tell me,” he said abruptly, “that this is the second known case of immaculate conception in recorded history.”  

Obviously, pleasantries and Father Baytilus had passed each other like ships in the night. “No, Father. I met someone. I doubt I’ll meet him again.”  

He nodded. “I’ll spare you the lecture on the evils of sex before marriage. Obviously, you’ve got bigger problems to deal with. I take it the pregnancy’s been difficult? You’re not exactly ‘glowing'”.  

Meryl gulped, then nodded bashfully. She started to tell him what had happened and then a sob escaped, and then another. She didn’t know how Father Baytilus understood a word she said, but she was in his arms and her face was buried in his chest. He stroked the back of Meryl’s head and told her that it was going to be all right, and things got a little better. And then the unexpected happened. The baby kicked.  

She must have squeaked, because Father Baytilus tried to pull away, but she wouldn’t let him go. When she’d let it all out, she released him reluctantly. He sat her down, and offered to make some tea. She would have stopped him if she’d remembered the state of the kitchen. She heard a muttered “Good Lord”, but ten minutes later he’d come back with a kettle and two cups and wouldn’t say a word about it.  

Meryl used the time to get familiar with her baby. Because that’s what it was at that moment. It wasn’t a “pregnancy” anymore. It especially wasn’t “a pain in the ass”. It was a baby. She had kicked her mother. Meryl wasn’t exactly sure why she thought the baby was a “she”. Meryl knew that “if the baby rides low then it’s a boy”. That bit of baby trivia came straight from mother-of-three Keira Sumnabi two doors over. But Meryl certainly had no special Phoenix powers that told her the sex of the baby. “A mother knows,” she told herself, and left it at that.  

She wondered if the baby would be a Phoenix like her mother, or if she would take after her father. Meryl hoped for the latter, simply because she couldn’t imagine immersing a baby in liquid nitrogen every evening. No, Meryl hoped her daughter was human. But that raised its own set of concerns.  

“You have to take care of her,” she begged Father Baytilus as they sipped their tea. “At sunset I start to burn up. I’ve been taking nitrogen baths to keep cool enough not to fry, but then I’m out for up to twelve hours. She’ll need to be fed every three hours for the first couple of months.”  

His gaze strayed towards the window, then back to her stomach. He placed the teacup in its saucer, then leaned forward and clasped his hands together. “There’s something you haven’t considered,” he said, calmly.  

The shadow of grief behind his eyes set off warning bells. Meryl glanced uncomprehendingly out the window. Nothing. The tenement across the street. She had to squint her eyes against the setting sun.  

“No. She’ll be born before then.” Her hands began to rattle her teacup against the saucer so much that she had to set it down. Meryl had just been introduced to this baby–she wasn’t going to lose her now. She felt the baby shift, pressing again her diaphragm and she sat up to try and relieve the pressure.   

She thought about her own survival. Sixty-one sunsets hadn’t cured her of her fear of death. She had become a survivor, doing what it took to live through the night. She had enough nitrogen. But her stolen memories were betraying her. She remembered dozens of births and relived the childhood of every person whose consciousness she’d tapped to shape her own. She felt the warmth a mother feels when her baby is placed on her chest for the first time. She saw the wonder in a child’s eyes when she realized the birthday cake with two candles was for her. She saw her child forget to call home on Mother’s Day, but then try to make up for it in a lengthy phone call the next day. She saw that first real conversation about sex–the one after the official “birds and bees” business. Meryl saw her daughter’s whole life, and she saw it not once, but dozens of times.  

Father Baytilus’ face was ash. “The Church does allow for some leeway in these kinds of situations. To spare the life of the mother.”  

She didn’t hear him.  

She’d come to a realization. She hadn’t been afraid of dying. She’d been afraid of being snuffed out like a candle with not even a wick to remind the world she’d been alive. She’d been afraid of non-existence. She’d been afraid for the very same reason there was a camera in her room with picture after picture of nameless Phoenixes. She wanted the world to remember her. And now a very small part of it would.  

Death came to her as the last rays of light were swallowed by the building across the street. He stood quietly in the corner of the apartment, a hollow man lost in dark robes. Her hair lay wetly on her forehead; sweat left her body as steam. Though her hand shook like a leaf, she held it up pathetically, as if to stop him taking her for just one more hour.  

Father Baytilus knelt between her legs. “I see the head,” he said. A stab of intense pain corded the tendons in her neck and she screwed her eyes shut, then they flew open. “Not yet,” she warned Death between grinding teeth.  

“But soon,” Father Baytilus said, thinking that she was talking to him. “We’re nearly there. Push!”  

She pushed, and as she pushed she forced the heat away from her baby. Her hair sizzled into ash and her nails blackened and charred. She pushed again, and her cheeks dried and cracked, skin like parchment flaking away. She screamed and her breathing stuttered, but she never took her eyes off her grim audience. Her time long past, Death advanced towards her.  

“No. No.” She shook her head, flinging a muddy slurry of sweat and ash onto the sofa. Her lips were black and flame licked at her retinas. “Not. Yet.”  

“One last push,” said Father Baytilus, unaware of the stooping figure behind him. He reached between her and took a weight into his arms. “Cry,” he said softly.  

Silence.  

Meryl twisted the material of the sofa in her hand. Father Baytilus lifted her daughter and cupped her head in the crook of his arm. The umbilical cord dissolved into ash and fell away. He brought her over to Meryl.  

Her daughter’s skin was angry and red from the heat, but her tiny body lay limply in his arms. Meryl choked back a sob and glared at Death through teary eyes. She stretched out her arm and brushed her daughter’s cheek with the tip of her finger.  

“Live.”  

The infant stirred, screwed up her eyes, and then wailed. The sound was distinctly human.  

Meryl sighed quietly and lay back on the sofa. Her eyes focused on the ceiling, the corners of her blackened lips curled into a smile, and then she crumbled into ash. A moment later, Father Baytilus and the baby were the only two people left in the apartment.  

Father Baytilus rose and said a prayer over the ashes of the Phoenix, then left the apartment, the girl in his arms. He walked up the stairs at the end of the hall and knocked on the door of apartment 304B.  

A small girl with avian features opened the door, followed closely by a grandmother in a fluffy blue housecoat and hairnet. The old woman’s suspicious look vanished when she saw Father Baytilus. She clucked when she spied the child in his arms, her eyes lingering on the small, fingertip-shaped burn on the baby’s cheek.  

“Ms. Bianchi,” said Father Baytilus, “May I come in?”  

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