PHOENIX: THE RISING
THREE HUNDRED YEARS AGO...
At first Laylah thought she imagined it, but within three steps the pain engulfed her, forcing her to her knees as warm blood and water trickled down her inner thigh. Mustering a ragged breath, she called out for her sisters, but this deep in the woods her cry was met by silence, punctuated only by the croak of the tree frog and the caw of the Ada. She had wandered too far alone.
“Walk, Laylah. Gather acorns for flour. It will speed along the pains, and you will be a mother in no time.” She had done as her mother-in-law said, but the naïve sixteen year-old separated herself from the chatter of her sisters as she searched deeper in the woods. Now, they would not be able to hear her or help her. She would have to do this on her own. Not that this wasn’t expected of her - this had been the way of the Numa woman for generations. But knowing this didn’t make it any less frightening.
Laylah took a sharp, flat rock and scooped out a depression in the floor of the woods, lining it with fresh grass to cushion the oha’a as she pushed it from her womb. Until that time came, Laylah walked, never wandering far from the spot she had dug. Each time the pains diminished, Laylah used her digging stick to root out fallen acorns, filling the basket she now had sitting at the base of an oak tree.
Finally, as dusk fell, Laylah had no time in between pains to search for acorns. Her time had come. Beads of perspiration covered Laylah’s face as she removed her buckskin dress and squatted naked over the depression. Beside her lay the sinew lace and sharpened obsidian blade she had carried with her since the last full moon, sitting atop a softened piece of doeskin she would use for swaddling the baby.
As the final pain hit, Laylah clutched a nearby sapling and cried out as she pushed, using her other hand to guide the baby into the soft, grass-lined cradle. The stark emptiness of her womb shocked her, and she leaned back, exhaling in relief as she heard the faint mewling of her newborn. After taking in a few gulps of fresh air, she tied the lace around the cord and used the obsidian blade to separate it from the afterbirth, remembering to cut the sacred six inch piece to put in the pouch around her neck. Laylah wrapped the child in the doeskin, buried the afterbirth as she had been taught, put her dress back on, and began walking in the direction of her camp.
Seven days later, Laylah's mother-in-law uttered the words the young mother had been dreading, “The child is not going to survive.” She handed her only grandchild back to Laylah, nodded, and walked away.
Laylah looked down at the emaciated face of her baby. Although she had plenty of milk for the child, for some reason, it wasn’t thriving. Now half the size it had been at birth, its cry had become weak and its breathing irregular. Laylah knew what she had to do. The elders and her husband expected her to take the child to its place of birth and let it die naturally. But Laylah had other plans. Her mother-in-law told her that other women had taken their sickly babies to Paoha, a volcanic island in the middle of Mono Lake. There, they prayed to the Great Spirit for two days. If their prayers were strong enough, the child would survive. Laylah had to try.
That evening as she lay in the arms of her young husband, Laylah decided she would leave with the child before dawn of the next day. As far as her husband knew, she was taking the child to its final resting place. He would not expect her back for a few days. It should give her enough time.
When the moon was highest in the night sky, Laylah set off. Blazed by desperate mothers who had gone before her, the trail to Mono Lake was simple enough to follow by moonlight, and Laylah made good time. Just before dawn, she reached the edge of the lake and carefully waded across the partially submerged landbridge that connected Paoha and another smaller island to the mainland. Laylah knelt on the still-warm earth of Paoha, held her child up to the rising sun, and began her prayer.
Before dawn of the second day, Laylah clutched her only child to her breast and collapsed as exhaustion finally overtook her. She lay in a fitful sleep, jarred awake every few minutes by visions of her child’s impending death. It was during one of these semi-conscious moments that she became vaguely aware of a form moving in her direction. Forcing her eyes open, she smiled as a being, more virile and handsome than the mightiest of warriors, walked by. The fire-haired vision, clad only in a loin-cloth, paused briefly. It smiled as it looked down at Laylah and the child in her arms. So beautiful, Laylah thought as it continued towards the center of the island. Laylah’s eyes closed once again.
Within seconds, a blinding light seared through her lids, jolting Laylah back to reality. She thought it was the rising sun that had awakened her, but it wasn’t the sun at all. A fire just as brilliant as the sun burned at the center of the island.
Laylah shielded her eyes as the fire burned, shooting frantic tongues of orange, red, gold, and green high into the sky. Within moments the flames subsided and Laylah rose to her feet. She walked slowly toward the spot where she had seen the fire, then picked up her pace as she approached, holding her now lifeless child next to her pounding heart.
As she neared the spot, Laylah’s pace slowed and her brow furrowed. A familiar sound echoed in her ears. Was that a whimper? Her own child lay in deathly silence against her chest. Laylah's eyes widened as she looked towards its source.
Lying in the middle of the charred out area that held the fire she had just witnessed, was a baby - a baby unlike any she had seen before. The babies of her people all had the same ebony hair and dark skin, just as her own child had. This one was moon pale. Hair the color of fire covered its head. She had heard of this type of child in a legend passed down by the women of her family through the generations . . .
Every three hundred years, a creature in human form would return to Paoha. There, it would be consumed in fire, and be born again as a child - but it would not return alone. Giants — The Great Ones — offspring of human women and The Fallen Ones, would pursue it and try to keep it from being reborn. Only then would the Fire Child become mortal and die a mortal’s death. The Great Ones were driven to commit this act out of jealousy. Although their fathers were immortal, they only lived the lifespan of mortals, as they were the offspring of mortal women. This Fire Child could not be allowed to have something that they could never have. It had to be stopped.
The memory of the legend played through Laylah’s mind until another gentle whimper brought her back to the real world. She swallowed as her heart began to thrum. The child turned its green eyes to her, smiled, and reached out.
Laylah strapped the cold, stiff corpse of her firstborn to her back. It reminded her of a bundle of sticks, and she would think of it that way as she journeyed back to the forest, just to make it easier to bear. Sleeping contentedly in her arms was the child given to her by the Great Spirit: a new life to replace the one that was lost.
The burial was quick and bittersweet. The birth depression she had made now served as the child’s grave. After mounding the loose dirt she had dug out only a week earlier over the body of the child, she covered it with stones to mark the spot. Similar impromptu graves could be seen spotting the floor of the forest, signs of the precarious mortality of the Numa people. When she had finished, Laylah sat, leaned against the oak tree and held the fire-haired child to her breast.
Her tears fell silently as the child suckled. Would the elders and her husband allow her to keep the child? After all, she had disobeyed them, and gone to Paoha. But the Great Spirit answered her prayers, didn’t it? As her child passed on, she was given a new one to care for. Surely, they would understand this.
Laylah would not have to wait long for her answer. As soon as she returned to camp with the strange child, the Elders and her husband gathered at the council shelter.
“Laylah,” her husband ordered, “you must keep watch while we meet.” Laylah’s husband took the child from her and ducked into the shelter with the Elders.
She closed her eyes and leaned back against the bark-covered walls of the shelter, listening to the singing of her people back in the camp just over the rise. The heaviness of her milk-laden breasts was a constant reminder of the child she lost and the child whose fate the elders and her husband were deciding upon right now. Was this the Fire-Child? If so, surely the elders and her husband would see that she had been chosen to be its mother. After all, even her name, Laylah — the Protector — bore witness to that.
An uneasy feeling shrouded Laylah’s thoughts and her eyes shot open. Something was wrong. The singing she had been enjoying stopped. She looked toward the main camp and squinted as a lone, dark figure emerged on the crest of the rise. Laylah stayed frozen in her spot, unable to move as the strides of this huge stranger brought it ever nearer. Finally, her senses returned, and she ran into the shelter.
“Tse’nahaha! Giant!” she shrieked as she grabbed the sleeping child and dove under a large basket in a darkened corner of the room. Her husband and the elders looked towards the door as a massive body filled the space. Before they could react, The Great One stuck its head inside. Laylah closed her eyes and tried to still her breath as bones snapped and bodies slumped to the floor. She heard The Great One moving about the room and shuddered as its foot hit the basket, but the basket shifted only slightly. A few moments later, the room was silent.
Laylah stayed under the basket until she noticed the daylight fading. The child stirred as she slowly lifted the edge to see if the giant truly was gone. The vacant stare of her husband’s dead eyes met hers as he lay on the dirt floor of the shelter, and she stifled a scream. She lifted the basket off completely, and sat in silence, staring at the mangled bodies of the five dead men in the room…
PHOENIX: THE RISING
Six miles outside of Bishop, Dan Penemue pulled into a deserted rest stop. "Make it fast. We only have a couple hours before sunrise. All Hell's gonna break loose as soon as they discover the mess we left. I wanna be sleeping in my own bed with my alibi when they do."
Lucy staggered over to the restroom, pulled the string to the overhead lightbulb, and locked the door. She fought the urge to retch as she yanked the blood-soaked hoodie over her head and threw it by the stool. Dan would get rid of it later with his own. Turning on the faucet, she plunged her hands into the stream of icy water, and watched as the color changed. A spiral of crimson swirled around the drain, and eventually faded back to plain water as she washed the last bit of the girl's blood from her hands.
My first kill, she thought bitterly. Dan considered it an honor, even if it was just taking care of a "loose end". Killing a suspected Fire-Child was one thing, but this girl was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. An innocent. Even knowing that, it amazed her at how easily she did it. Her hand trembled only slightly. All she could think of as she slid that blade across the girl's throat was her birthright. Immortality.
PHOENIX: THE RISING
Julie lay silently, her skin swimming in a pale blue light, as if death had visited her and left its mark. If it weren't for her slow, shallow breathing, Eli would have sworn she had died.
"Julie." The name was just a whisper on his lips, but it was enough. Her eyelids fluttered and opened.
"Eli? Are you here?"
THE HOUSE ON CARROLL STREET
I could hear them. Little voices. Little voices coming from the trashcan by the door of my brother’s bedroom closet. Little voices whispering so rapidly, so quietly, I couldn’t quite understand what they were saying.
Mom told me the last time I heard the voices that it was just my imagination. I imagined a lot of things at night. Shadows turned into spiders sliding across the wall. Thomas's fat, six-toed paws padding across the linoleum turned into the feet of wicked little gnomes running under my bed. Yes, I knew it was just my imagination, but knowing that didn't make any difference. The fear was too real--and it won. Always. I pulled the covers over my head, and squeezed my legs together tighter, praying that the feeling would pass--praying that I wouldn’t have to walk by that trashcan filled with those scary little people and their scary little voices.
I pissed myself only once before. It happened four years earlier in first grade when Tanya McDonald decided to take a nap in the class bathroom. I didn’t know I could ask Miss Mills to use the one in the hall--so I sat at my desk, crossed my legs, and waited. I waited until the butterfly wings began tickling the back of my throat. By the time I stood, it was too late. Hot pee raced down the inside of my pumpkin-colored cable tights and flooded my new, white, patent-leather Mary Janes. Across the hall, Billy Maynard leaned across his desk and watched me through the open doors with those big, black-rimmed glasses magnifying his chocolate brown eyes. I loved Billy--but he saw me. He saw me piss myself.
And now, the butterflies were back--but, so were the voices.
Mom’s warm body lay motionless behind mine, holding me close. On the other side of her was my sister, Ann, who was two years older than me. A second bed held my younger brother, Mark, and two of my older brothers, Steven and Matt.
“What is it, Jaynie?”
“I have to pee.”
Mom pulled the covers down and we climbed out of bed. I buried my face in the lavender warmth of her flannel nightgown and wrapped my arms around her hips as she walked me across the frigid linoleum floor, past the trashcan full of those scary little people with those scary little voices, to the door of the closet. She opened it, grabbed a flashlight off a side shelf, turned it on, and aimed it at the floor. Two startled cockroaches scuttled out of the light, disappearing into the darkness.
“There you go, honey,” she whispered. “Try to do it quietly.”
The light reflected off the metallic sides of the make-shift toilet.
You see, this is what happens when my drunken father passes out at the bottom of the stairwell. I have to piss in a coffee can.