The Phoenix Child

I was molded out of the remains of my ancestors. Ash, soot and detritus became my sinew, flesh and bone; dust, dirt and grime interlaced together to construct fresh organs: ones the propelled hot, thick blood through snaking, spidery channels of veins, and ones that opened and ballooned pockets and vials to slurp oxygen and devour nourishment that feed these mechanics. Cobwebs, ghosts and shadows altered into joints and limbs that now could shift, shuffle, stretch, sink, sway and spree if they so desired.

Their death granted me life. For that, I am thankful.

I rise out from the rubble, testing each element of my being, growing accustomed to their jobs and limitations. Once comfortable and with no complaints, I take in my surroundings. There’s wreckage of boards, metals and other matter (some still on fire), charcoal colored powder, moiling smoke the same shade as the cinders and a foul stench of charred flesh and hair. This I know. What I don’t know: is why I am all alone amongst the debris. Within every direction, as far as I can tell, not a single soul exists. Were others ever alive? Are they a part of me?

I’m also mindful of a feeling stirring inside of me, but I’m unaware of its nature and what that means. Is it Awe? Bewilderment? Surprise? Grief? Fright? If so, are these feelings acceptable? Or is there something wrong?

Suddenly, a voice booms overhead out of the nothingness. Its abrupt approach startles me; my knees buckle and I’m on my rear, crawling behind a smoldering mass. My new heart operates well, though I’m certain it’s about to leave my chest and break my breastbone.

There’s the sound again. I could just be hearing my own hammering pulse through my perked ears, although bits and fragments of words sputter alongside static. I’m focusing on piecing each one and stringing them together to make some sense.

“Can you hear me?”

The question bombards me from all angles, so I whisper to the sky, “Yes.”

“Speak up!” it commands.

“YES.”

“Are you hurt?”

“NO.”

“Can you stand up?”

I slowly prove that I can, because I don’t know what else to do. There’s a commotion with the voice, as if it’s talking to someone besides me, then static. Then silence.

“Hello?” I call out, for I don’t want to lose it so fast.

“INCREDIBLE!” another voice shouts, wonder lacing his excited tone. “I can’t believe it!”

“Neither can I.”

“Do you know what this means?”

“We’ve discovered how to create life,” it answers back.

The two voices are no longer concerned with me. I scan the ruins for their source and detect nothing. So, timidly, I step out and search for them while they discuss whatever it may be that’s occupying their minds.

“We need to tell the world—”

“Are you insane? Think of an uproar we’d cause.”

“We’d make an even bigger riot if we kept it secret.”

“The public isn’t prepared for this—”

“So what do you suggest? That we keep it locked up in the lab?”

“We still need to work with it. Find the kinks and deficiencies beforehand and improve the talents and strengths it possesses.”

“It sounds a lot like controlling and manipulating the product to me.”

“Not manipulating—nurturing.”

After searching the perimeter, I locate a big, black box with tiny holes and notches fixed throughout, like a beehive. The voices come from this box, which leaves me confused. Are they in the box? Or is it just their speech trapped inside, released somehow? I tap on it gently, and receive a scolding: “Get away from that!”

I backpedal. “Sorry,” I reply.

“Just don’t touch that—it’s expensive.”

“Who are you?”

There’s more static. Silence. I kick at the matter below my feet; it swirls around and clings to my skin. I wait, for what or for whom I do not know, for a lingering while. Then, there’s a groan—much like the one I let escape when I hit the ground—followed by a loud protest, ending with a slam and some clipping of shoes or something.

“Turn around,” I’m ordered.

I rotate in a circle to face a short, burly man with red hair, large glasses and a beard hanging off his chin like icicles hang off of cliff sides. He wears a white coat and sports a clipboard. The man takes one look at me, makes a disgusted sound that matches a pained face, and then adverts his gaze, shrugging off his coat. “Put this on,” he instructs.

I slip it on, though he hasn’t explained why I needed to.

“I’m Professor Aloysius Craven.”

He leaves it at that, so I just nod.

“I created you…” he enlightens.

He’s still very unfamiliar to me, but I’m more at ease knowing he built me, somehow. “Why?” I ask, because I think it’s a good question.

“Why what?”

“Why did you create me?”

“Marvelous!” Aloysius Craven declares, circling me, scrutinizing or simply perceiving my presence. “It can already comprehend speech, reason by itself and formulate questions. Wonderful!”

“What is?” I wonder aloud, befuddled by the answers he gives.

“Martin!” he looks back and beckons something. “Best come and take a look at this!”

“I don’t want too!” I hear behind a wall, which earlier I thought was the world. I tiptoe to the point and inspect.

“It’s harmless, Martin,” Aloysius Craven promises, shadowing my every move.

A passageway opens up and spits out another man; this one’s taller, thin and sallow looking, with greying hair and small facial features. He, too, wears a white coat and clutches a clipboard. “Remarkable,” he states.

I return to my review, placing my hands against the barricade, knocking, scratching, punching and running them along the surface. Huh. It is a wall. Not an endless expanse, which at first appeared to be so. Am I in a room? A house? A cell? Prison? “What am I doing here?” I ask, though to no one in particular.

“Did it turn out alright?”

“Better.”

“Any marks? Blemishes?”

“None that I came across.”

“But it’s complete?”

“Perfectly,” the one named Aloysius pulls off his coat I was using and instantly, and very strangely, I feel embarrassed without it. As if I’m broken or a part of me is missing. “See? It’s intact and assembled correctly, no deformities. Not even a scar.”

I’m afraid. Something’s wrong. I panic and flee to a corner, cowering. Their eyes, once seeming soft and kind, are now cruel and cold; they trace every curve, every edge of me and I’m demoralized and horrified and infuriated. “Leave me alone!” I holler, because they don’t know how I’m feeling and how they’ve affected me, despite the proclamation of “creating me.”

The one named Martin appears saddened. “We’ve pushed it too hard. We should go.”

Aloysius blinks, emotionless. “How are we going to examine our work without getting our hands dirty?”

I don’t like the phrase getting our hands dirty.

“Craven, look at the creature. It’s clearly frightened.”

“That’s what worries me,” Craven saunters closer. “How did it develop emotions so quickly?” he pinches my forearm and I yelp. “It’s almost human.”

Almost human doesn’t sound any better than getting our hands dirty.

“Craven…back up!” Martin urges. “You’re making it uncomfortable.”

“Would you shut up and let me do my job, Dexter!”

“What about the others?” I inquire.

“What others?” Aloysius answers.

“The ones who died…were they like me? Almost human?”

“No. No one’s like you,” Martin responds, joining the group.

“Did they choose this? Did they wish to create me?” I study both the Professors, trying to decipher them. They look at each other carefully and together they share something that’s invisible to me, then they look away; Martin bites his lip and checks the sandy floor, while Aloysius huffs gruffly, eyes trained to the ceiling. He decides to say, “Not really…”

“What do you mean?” I say.

“We took them from a local graveyard,” Martin interjects. “We have very little resources…”

A graveyard. I reflect on such a place and such an act. They stole bodies from a cemetery, so that I might become alive. They emptied out tombs…

I begin to feel sick. What a vile, heartless thing to do! These men unburied deceased family members and friends, dragged them over here and cremated what little the surviving families and friends had left. It’s deplorable. Here, I imagined them giving up their lives freely—why I entertained that thought, I do not know. But this is so much worse! They didn’t have a choice. Cadavers were simply thought of as fertilizer. Plant feed, to grow myself.

I’m no longer thankful. I am ashamed.

I must be crying. That would explain the wail of an injured animal emanating from my gaping mouth and the tears wetting my cheeks and chin. I shake my head to clear it, but I can’t shake the overwhelming guilt. What have I done? What did they do to me?

Sadness alters into anger. Anger ignites into rage. Within the cavity of my chest, a warm wave boils and swells in urgency, stinging into a sizzling, spitting liquid substance. My skin starts to smoke, then spark, then catch fire; a healthy, searing current washes over my form and sews itself until it’s attached. Blooming, burning clouds exploded, sending showers of embers and ash down upon the Professors.

“What’s happening?” Craven roars.

“Spontaneous combustion?” Dexter tries.

“What are the odds of that?”

The inferno doesn’t flicker nor falter. It only intensifies, building and building upon itself, thriving off of some kind of fuel. Mysteriously enough, I can’t feel a thing. Tongues of crimson, charcoal, ochre and ebony cascade across my arms and dance along my legs, but it’s as if I’m numb to the experience. I’m only intrigued by its coming, not its touch.

“It’s on fire! It’s dying! Craven we must do something—”

“Calm down, Dexter. It appears unharmed.”

“It’s burning alive! All our work—”

“Silence, Dexter! You’ll scare it.”

Tissue, tendons and teeth dissolve into oblivion; feathers, talons and a razor-sharp beak takes their place. Yet my transformation doesn’t stop there. With a cracking sound, my shoulder blades rupture, what’s left of the brittle bones sprout into enormous wings that take up about twice my size, fanning out slick white plumage. The weight latching onto my back makes me stumble.

“It’s a bird,” Craven exclaims.

“An angel,” Dexter gasps.

While the Professors retreat, I tryout my wings, swinging the joints, flapping them as a bird would and to my amazement, they, too, flare up into marvelous flames.

“It’s a phoenix,” Aloysius corrects.

“We have to go!” Martin tugs on his coworker’s coat, fleeing toward the door when his colleague doesn’t follow suit. “Craven, c’mon…we must leave!”

But Aloysius waves him off. “It won’t hurt me—I created it.”

“That is the reason why it’ll hurt you!” Martin explains.

“Dexter, get the camera. No one else will believe this…”

“This isn’t safe!” Martin howls behind the closed door, face pressed against the cool glass window.

“A phoenix child…” Aloysius murmurs, hand chasing the distant flames, bathing in its
tangible heat.

“Don’t get too close,” I warn, slowly hovering off the floor. When realizing the lack of solid ground, I plummet, sending up a cloud of coal and dust from the impact.

“Careful,” I hear Martin say.

I attempt flight once more. Gradually, I gain air, and Aloysius Craven cheers my success while Martin Dexter begs me to stop. The air I kick up swirls.

I explode in newfound strength.

Aloysius drowns in fiery waters.

I scream, and my voice releases a jet stream of runny lava. The vomit snakes here and there, riding a current of swift, smoky air. The ectoplasm chews away half the room. I close my mouth. The river rumbles in my throat, searching for the tiniest break to unload the pressure.

What have I done?

I skyrocket for the night sky through the hole I’ve demolished in the ceiling. When I look far below me, I spot Martin helping a charred Aloysius off the ground; they stare up at me, watching their creation revolt.

 

I fly on for hours it seems, when moments before takeoff I couldn’t even walk. The twisted tree-tops beneath me past in blobs and blurs; miniature mountains and rivers slither out of view. The enveloping night sky meets a gigantic ivory oculus suspended in space; I ascend level after level of wispy clouds to behold such beauty, staining the space behind me red, orange and yellow. I’m a spacecraft, traveling the endless universe.

Magnificent. Truly magnificent.

The galaxies of stars and I continue to paint the silent night like a bare canvas, until a thunderous roar disturbs the air above me and I drastically descend, craning my neck to catch a glimpse of the approaching storm stalking my shadow. A colossal bird cruises overhead. I squint, and then tilt my body to pinpoint the flashing lights along the wings of this bird lighting the way, piercing the ink pool like a sword.

The Professors lied. There are others like me.

I climb nerve-wracking heights to catch up with the beast, and when I do reach my own kind, I’ll confessed what I’ve done and ask for its guidance. Hopefully, my outburst wasn’t fatal; that Professor Craven survived, and, with any luck, that the laboratory didn’t burn down. I don’t want to be a murderer. A monster.

“Excuse me?” I touch the side of the bird and my palm comes away cold. Perhaps there are slight differences within our species. Maybe some are like ice, and I’m like fire. But, as I linger along its ribs, I discover that I was wrong. It’s not a bird. The Professors were right.

It’s some kind of machine. I strike its shell, denting the metal casing. I hear it echo, or maybe that’s the machine objecting to my onslaught. I’m not sure. My hand comes away bloody after the third or fourth punch to awaken it. What caused that? The machine’s whistling on all sides. The chilled air threatens to suck me underneath it. I’m fighting a vortex. I roll to face the drawing force, and, unbeknownst to me, I launched a bolt of fire at the rotating, yawning mouth; it shatters in a puff of smoke, slows its pull on me and spits out parts of metal. I cover my eyes and face, drifting above the device.

The instrument plunges helplessly when I open my eyes.

Tiny, frightened, wailing figures are flung out of the torn insides, cartwheeling and somersaulting here and there. I believe they are like the Professors—human. What have I done? I’ve killed the thing, and it wasn’t alone.

I dive, the icy wind clawing at my cheeks. I’ve got to save them, I’ve got to save them, I’ve got to save them. This can’t be happening—this can’t be real.

Their cries suggest otherwise.

I come up fast on one, colliding into her back. The spine breaks against my chest and her voice abruptly halts. I let her go and aim for the next target, keeping in mind to catch them, not crush them. I swoop under this man who’s spinning uncontrollably. My excess sparks eat at his suit. He lands cursing into my burning arms.

“Don’t worry…I’ve got you.”

His eyes nearly bulge out of their sockets; veins pop in his neck and forehead as he shrieks in alarm.

“Stay calm!” I insist.

But it’s too late—he’s struggling against my grip, I’m heartbroken over his agony, and somehow his coat burns away and he slips. I can’t spot him amongst the others falling. It’s a minefield of flailing people, burning debris, jagged metal and empty space.

The ground zooms closer with each passing second.

I pluck a man and a woman by the ankles, and since that seems to work well, I adopt the strategy and end up with half a dozen. Landing, I release them. Half crawl away in terror at the sight of me. Two stare, too shocked to move or say anything. One woman sobs. Another points to the sky and shouts, “There’s still some more up there!”

A follow her nimble finger. A thin, flamboyant ribbon spills out of the tail of the airplane and leaks dark, contorting smoke. Seven, possibly eight, meet the twinkling craft and are gone. Four more silhouettes parachute swiftly through the air; spread out by impossible lengths I’m certain I could only rescue two, but even that would take a miracle. I rocket for the closet one, snagging him by the belt; he’s dead weight, and I really have to focus and breathe to keep afloat. Too soon my energy’s zapped, as if a bucket of water has put out the heat.

I’m within feet of the next man, but he tumbles out of reach.

The jet parks in a cluster of trees, discharging. A geyser of sparks consumes the rest. The scene glows brighter than any fallen star.

I lay the unconscious man in the tall grass, and even from this distance, I can feel the heat generated by the campfire

I orchestrated. The heat strokes my tears.

There’s more wailing and screaming. I levitate over to the group of survivors, inspecting their various wounds. Some bleed profusely. Others barely have a scratch. One’s choking on the smoke. Another’s patting out his pant leg.

“Is everybody OK?” I ask.

In unison, they all cower and collect a breath. I glance over my shoulder. Then I realize it’s me they’re afraid of. “Don’t be afraid—”

“It speaks!” a man shouts. A woman faints besides him.

“Please—” I begin. “It’s a monster!” “A demon!” another agrees.

“From the depths of hell itself!”

“It’ll kill us all. Run!”

“Stay away!”

“Where’s my daughter?”

“I can’t feel my leg!”

“Someone call 9-1-1.”

“It’s looking at me. It’s looking AT ME!”

“What are you?”

“Don’t talk to it!”

“Run! Listen to me and run! What are you people waiting for?”

“Please, please, don’t hurt me…”

“Get back! Get back I say!”

I wave my wings forward, backtracking, crestfallen over their overpowering fear of me. Fire jumps and skips to the tall, dry grass, wilting the high stalks and turning them black. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to recover. Maybe I won’t. It’s very possible their timid minds and scared hearts will never accept me. But I didn’t mean any harm. I’m not a monster. They have to know that.

The remains of the ancestors birthing me would roll in their graves if they knew what I’ve done.

Out of the blue, a throng of vehicles barrel down along the dirt road towards me, halting before the wreckage, practically falling out, wielding aid supplies and weapons and flashlights. My audience races for the forthcoming doctors and policemen, pointing and gesturing in earnest at me.

“…it’s some kind of alien!” shouts a nervous woman.

“A fallen angel,” another says.

“A phoenix—”

“Get behind me!” an officer orders the survivors, leveling his gun for my forehead. “Stand back!”

“What is that?” his comrade wonders aloud in disgust.

“Shoot the beast down!”

“No! Hold your fire!” one commands.

“It’s getting closer…”

“I didn’t mean—” I confess, hesitating as more firearms salute me, “—anything of this. Please believe me! I’m not an alien—”

“Stand down or I’ll fire!” one warns.

“Please,” I beg.

“STOP!” the officer shouts.

What does it matter? They’ll never listen to me—why would they? To them, I’m a nightmarish creature that needs to be put down. I’ll never change their minds. Learning this, and accepting it, I detonate, taking to flight.

Bullets follow my departure.

One skims my wing. Another punctures the small of my back. I whirl in midair, blasting them unintentionally out of aching pain. A cloud of red thaws a patch of land and men, but it only solicits more artillery my way, and as they ricochet, I throw away all previous mercy. Why should I spare them? Why did I want them to understand me? If they believed I was an alien, a monster, a devil, and they treated me so, then that’s what I’ll give them. I no longer care for the bloodline. All I desire is blood. I no longer care about the purpose the Professors created me for. All I crave is destruction. I no longer wish for understanding.

I hunger for havoc.

Once I’ve fully given myself over to the rage blazing inside of me, the pitiful race of man is no match; I’m done with my masterpiece within a few splendid, fabulous seconds. Smoke blooms from craters. Flesh bubbles like overheated soup. Bones are as fine as gossamer. Fire dances throughout the space. And ash rains down upon me like snow—biting, blistering and baptizing snow.

I take it all in as The Phoenix Child—a dark monster that will be feared for and spoken of for centuries to come.

Now, I am truly alive.

About Kieron Walquist

Kieron Walquist writes, reads, paints, photographs and lives on a farm in Mid-Missouri. His work has appeared in 1947 and Two Sentence Stories.

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