How We Fly
by Lisa A. Koosis
She chooses wings as gold as sunshine and tipped in rose. Kneeling on the crumbling earth I lift them to her shoulders where I envision runners of skin and muscle and nerve stretching to receive them. Here and there I smooth a ruffle of feathers until they look a part of her. A breeze, still cool with memory of night, stirs their edges.
When I’m done, I step back. She glimmers with the iridescence of these borrowed wings, her cheeks flushed with their rosy reflection. Feathers lie across her arms and overlap onto her wrists, their tips resting along the backs of her hands.
Together, we step to the edge. She looks at me. Her eyes shine, a small tic playing at the edge of her mouth. It isn’t easy to put your toes over the precipice, to spread your wings and prepare to leap.
Here’s where we first meet: in a room with moss green recliners and faded Monet reproductions on cinderblock walls, a scatter of ancient magazines on low tables, IV poles and wheelchairs. I notice her first, maybe because she’s so vibrant and young amid men and women with colorless hair and exposed wrists, skin so thin it might be vellum. Dressed in baggy denim overalls and a yellow tee-shirt, the girl sits cross-legged in the recliner, a magazine open in her lap. A tube winds from beneath her sleeve to a bag hanging on the IV pole beside her.
My first thought: she doesn’t look like someone who’s been told she’s going to die.
Everyone looks up when I enter. Of course they do. I’m the new character in this tragedy. But that one girl, she’s color and hope and life, a clearing in the clouds. I fasten my eyes on her and angle toward the chair nearest hers. Behind me, the nurse doesn’t object. Why would she? Let the dying have their whims.
The girl watches as I ease into the recliner. She watches while the nurse hooks up my own bag. The skin of my chest still pulls, sore from the insertion of the port and I press my lips together to keep from grimacing. The girl watches with unapologetic curiosity until the nurse leaves. By then, all the others have gone back to their books or magazines or vague, undefined stupors, all except for her.
When the nurse leaves, the girl unfolds her legs and catches hold of her IV pole, using it to support herself into standing. She leans so heavily on the tall pole that I frown. Trailing it, she crosses the distance between us. Her dark braids swing.
She perches on the edge of my recliner, so close that I can feel the heat of her skin against my ankles. For the first time since the doctor said the words, “Phoenix Syndrome,” I think I can get through this.
She sticks out her hand and, so unexpectedly, she grins. “I’m Jeanette. Welcome to the Ward of Hopeless Cases.”
How can you fall in love in the Ward of Hopeless Cases? How can you fall in love among these vellum-skinned elderly who disappear day by day even as they sit there with their IV bags and fashion magazines which say that brown is the new black and green is the new black and black is the new black?
“It isn’t so bad, Jamie,” Jeanette says. She watches me, head tipped to the side. The ends of her braids drape forward over her shoulders. “It burns sometimes though.”
Beside me, droplets drip-drip-drip in perfectly measured intervals into the tube and make their way down, queuing up to invade my veins and battle the fire of the Phoenix. She’s right. Sometimes it burns as if it’s acid that will eat right through your veins and muscle, through your skin and the chair below, as if it will erase you as surely as will the Phoenix.
I’m in the seat next to her again. Sweating and shivering. I ball up my combat jacket and tuck it behind my head. I try to focus on her.
“My grandmother had this ridiculous lamp in her bedroom where these orange globules rose and fell when the thing heated up,” she says. “That’s what I imagine this stuff doing inside me.”
“Nice image,” I say.
She grins. But these are the things you talk about when hours stretch before you with only the walls and each other to look at. She tells me that, like her mother once did, she teaches math to middle school kids. She likes numbers, she says, because unlike disease, there isn’t this maddening uncertainty in numbers. Every time you do long division, the answer comes out the same. I tell her that I’m an artist, that I paint murals on the side of music stores and libraries, fantasy scenes where mermaids slip through the waves on the backs of seahorses and dragons fly through moonlit skies.
As weeks pass, Jeanette reveals how her mother, who raised her alone, succumbed to Phoenix Syndrome in her late thirties. Jeanette was sixteen. She shows me an old photo–taken, she explains, in the days just before the first symptoms–and her mom looks just like her.
In the intimacy of two people who manage to be alone in a room filled with others, I tell her how, at the age of twelve, I lost my parents and my baby sister to a house fire. I was staying at a friend’s house for the night, and while flames devoured my family, I most likely had VR goggles strapped to my face, pretending to navigate a starship through a field of jagged meteors. I confess that the threadbare combat jacket I wear belonged to my dad. He’d left it in his car the day of the fire, and I wear it now, the same change he’d once palmed, still jingling in the pockets.
I don’t know how it’s possible to fall in love here where the things that can save you burn worse than the things that kill you. But it is possible. After all, I guess you learn a lot about each other in these long hours of nothingness, while around us the room fills with the sound of magazine pages turning, turning, turning.
Jeanette doesn’t have her pole or her nurse when she walks into the room this time. She moves from doorway to wall, from chair to chair, holding on to each, and instead of taking her own usual recliner, she comes to sit beside me. A bandana covers her hair, her braids having changed now to a single ponytail. Her eyes watch the floor.
“They tell me I’m going to buy it,” she says.
I stare at her. Buy it. I start to ask her, “Buy what?” and then it hits me. Buy it. Buy it. As in die. My tongue thickens; it swells against my teeth and I can’t make words.
She pats my knee. Her fingers touch my fevered skin through the holes in my jean.
“It’s okay,” she says.
“No.” Words finally come. “No. It isn’t okay.”
“No, Jamie. I mean it’s okay because they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re not the first ones to tell me such a thing, and I’m so not done yet. I still have a trick or two up my sleeves.” She tips her head. “Well, at least one more trick.”
She digs in her pocket–this time her overalls are olive-colored corduroy–and pulls out a folded clipping. Handing it to me, she raises her eyebrows. “Will you come with me somewhere?”
In an office much like this, I waited to be told if I would die. Now isn’t much different except this time Jeanette sits beside me and it isn’t me who’s waiting for a verdict on my life. She doesn’t lean forward like I do, my fingers pressed to the edge of the mahogany desk where the nameplate reads Dr. Joseph Randolph, M.D., PhD., Specialist in Advanced Visualization Therapies. Instead, Jeanette sits back, one ankle crossed over the other knee, the sandal on her foot flopping, flopping, until I clench my teeth against reaching to still her.
Dr. Randolph enters through a side door. In crisp blue jeans, white lab jacket, his hair spiked into sharp points, he looks to be no more than 35. He lifts his gaze from the file in his hands and smiles.
“Dr. Randolph,” he introduces himself, extending a free hand first to Jeanette and then to me. Instead of taking a seat behind the desk, he perches on the edge of it nearest to us, more slouching than sitting.
“Imagery,” he says, “pictures and symbols. This is the most fundamental language human beings have. This is the language the mind uses to communicate with the body. That’s what we’re doing here. Not mind over matter, but mind influencing matter.”
Jeanette and I both nod.
“Understand,” he says, “that this isn’t a treatment per se, but rather a guided therapy. Now that’s not to say that this is some kind of new age hoopla. Our therapy is based on longstanding principles and proven techniques. ”
He glances from Jeanette to me and then back to Jeanette, as if, despite the file, he can’t quite assure himself of which one of us is actually sick. Again, we both nod.
As if finally deciding to trust the file, he angles toward Jeanette. “But being young, strong of mind, you’re an ideal candidate for our program, and I can tell you that we’ve had some excellent, excellent results.”
Beside me, Jeanette finally leans forward, her eagerness overflowing.
“Excellent,” she says.
“If everything is acceptable, we have a slot available for you to start immediately.”
I clear my throat. I envision her here, floating in a dark tank while I sit with the fading folks of the Ward of Hopeless Cases, fading right alongside them. Behind my ribcage, my heart beats too hard. “Is there room for two?” I ask.
“You can’t stop your other treatment, Jamie. You don’t know yet if it might work for you. And we both know the odds of this new therapy working.”
These words don’t belong to her. The cosmic scriptwriter who’s put us in this over-the-top tragedy has her dialogue all wrong.
“This therapy, that treatment.” Heat rises in my face, not fever-heat from illness and exhaustion, not burn from the drip of the treatment, but just heat. “The odds suck either way and I am not going back there without you. I am not sitting there watching everyone else wither away one by one while I wait for it to be my turn.”
She sits in the passenger seat of the car, staring out the window. I look at her, really look at her. Her cheeks have sunken, and wisps of bangs poke out from beneath a white cotton bandana patterned in bright yellow ladybugs. Her overalls bag at the hips and I wonder if she wears such oversized clothes to cover up her thinness. With the sun beating down through the windshield, her veins show through her skin and I’m suddenly struck by this: those vellum-skinned old folks, are they really so old or just a little more advanced in the progression of this disease? I cannot imagine Jeanette–I will not imagine her–faded and brittle, though my mind wants to supply just such an image.
Finally she looks at me, too, her lips pursed as if in thought. “I can’t make you go back and finish that treatment, but I wish you would. You should take every opportunity, Jamie, and make the most of it. Because there aren’t an infinite number.”
The frown lines at her eyes, the downturn of lips tells me what she doesn’t say and I bite down to keep from asking. How many treatments, Jeanette? How many have you tried? How many have failed? And the biggest one, though I think I know the answer already: how many are left?
“This one will work.” Does she read my mind? “This one will work then for both of us.”
For the new treatment–therapy, I have to remind myself–they set us up in separate rooms. Unlike the clinic, the walls here wear shades of eggshell and taupe. The waiting room furniture is spare but soft, chairs with cushions that you sink back into, fabric-covered rather than the vinyl that’s so easy to clean. Tall potted plants with long draping leaves rise from ceramic planters.
Jeanette and I sit, side by side. My fingers tangle with hers. She wears a cardigan over a denim jumper, pale pearl buttons glimmering beneath the soft lights. Her cheeks look flush.
A petite older woman appears in the doorway, looks up from her clipboard with a welcoming smile. “Jeanette?”
With a last glance at me, Jeanette stands. I squeeze her hand and then let her go.
“Come on with me. I’ll get you started.”
Jeanette shuffles after her, holding on to the wall, and disappears down the hall.
I’m left to wait alone. Thankfully the clock only ticks away a few minutes before another technician appears, my name on his clipboard. “I’m Kevin,” he tells me. “We’ll be getting to know each other well in the coming months.”
He leads me to a locker room where I slip into the slim-fitting bathing suit and plush robe provided. I fold my clothes and set them into a locker that has my name on it. By myself in the room, I take a minute, one hand on the lockers to steady myself–I wonder where Jeanette is, if she’s okay–and then I open the door and return to the hallway where Kevin waits.
Two doors down, he opens another door and we step inside. The treatment room is spare, oatmeal-colored, the walls unadorned, only a single counter of molded plastic running room’s length. The temperature is warm, but not uncomfortably so.
At the room’s center stands a pod, ovoid and metal, hinges along one side. Kevin sets the clipboard onto the counter, trading it for a small device. He keys in a sequence, and the top of the pod slides up with a hiss. Inside, a dark, thick fluid ripples at the movement.
From orientation, I know what to expect more or less.
“You can submerge whenever you’re ready.”
I slip off the robe, handing it to Kevin, and sit down on the ledge of the pod. Taking a breath, I swing my legs over into the fluid. It’s the same temperature as the room, and it feels thick but not unpleasant. I ease myself down until I’m sitting up to my neck.
The tech comes with a vial of light blue fluid and hooks it into my port. “These are the supplementary conduits. In layman’s terms, they’ll help to facilitate communication between mind and body. You won’t feel them at all.”
I press my lips together. It’s all been explained before and I’m anxious to be getting on with this.
“Okay. Go ahead and lie back. The density of the fluid will keep you afloat. Let me know when you’re ready and I’ll lower the hood. You’ll hear my voice through a series of speakers, and if you need to get out, if you feel claustrophobic or ill, just call out–the speakers are two-way–and I’ll get you out straight away.”
“I’ll be fine.” I settle back until I’m floating. “Ready.”
With another hiss of hydraulics, the top slides closed, leaving me in darkness. Is this what it will be like to be in a casket? I chastise myself. Jeanette wouldn’t think like that.
“We’re going to start by relaxing you. Are you ready to begin?”
“Good. I want you to try visualizing a spiral staircase. The kind you’d find at an old estate perhaps. Picture it. Imagine it narrow at the top and widening as it goes down. Imagine the depth of each stair, the curve of the banister, the sound your footsteps make when you take a step. Fix it in your mind. Good. When you have it fixed in your mind, go ahead and start down the stairs, one step at a time and with each step, you’ll let go of another thought, another worry.”
Though the pod is dark, I close my eyes and listen as the technician guides me through the visualization, and with every step, my muscles unknot.
When I return to the waiting room, my hair still damp against my neck, I’m surprised to find Jeanette isn’t there yet. Still, I feel good, as if the white light I visualized continues to sizzle through my cells, vaporizing the tiny parasites that have come to call my body home. While I wait for Jeanette, I tip my head back against the wall. It’s cool and firm, and I close my eyes and visualize again.
“I’m done,” Jeanette says, so close by that I startle, my eyes flashing open.
“How did it go?”
She smiles, though it seems to fall a bit at the edges. “Great. Doesn’t burn a bit.”
She turns to lead the way from the waiting room. From behind, I can see how thin her hair has gotten, the V of the bandana draped over the damp strands. I reach for her hand but already she’s on her way down the hall ahead of me, one hand clutching her sweater together at the front as if she’s chilled, the other holding the wall.
“Are you watching?” I ask Jeanette.
At my apartment, we sit in front of the computer watching the disk loaned to us by Dr. Randolph. Onscreen, the ever-shifting Phoenix, which looks like no more than a paramecium, cilia lining its exterior, changes. Several of the cilia extend at the very front of the creature forming crablike pincers that reach for the cell’s plasma membrane, and slice through it.
“I’m watching,” she says, but her gaze drifts out the apartment window
The Phoenix pulls away a small section of membrane and shifts again, lengthening and narrowing to slide through the opening. I try to memorize every image, every motion. The now needlelike creature propels itself forward, the cilia concentrated toward the back like propellers as it aims for the nucleus of the cell.
Again, two even tinier pincers form and create an opening in the nucleus, and the needle pierces the nucleus.
I pause the video and watch Jeanette. Several heartbeats go by before she realizes.
“I’m sorry, Jamie. I just can’t concentrate. You go ahead and watch. I’ll play it later. Maybe I just need a nap.”
I want to ask her what’s wrong. I want to ask her so many things. But I can only manage to say, “Okay.”
While she walks away, I resume the video. The image zooms to show only the nucleus and the creature. I can see the nucleolus, the chromosomes organized as chromatin.
The creature creeps inward until it completely invades the nucleus. Its shape changes again, thickening here, thinning there, until it resembles a cartoon spider, its center round, eight–maybe more–appendages jutting out from all sides.
The appendages reach for the chromatin, blend with them, burn them away to replace them with some generic material. I memorize all of it.
Some days it’s a pure white light, laser-bright and all-consuming. Other days it’s a white cat with keen eyes and sharp claws, and the tiny Phoenix particles are rats that fall prey one by one to needle teeth. Sometimes the Phoenix particles are dragons, dark-scaled and fanged like the ones I paint, and my white blood cells are knights on tall steeds, lances at the ready. I come to look forward to each session, to the new techniques and imageries.
“Your counts look good.” Dr. Randolph leans in his usual spot alongside the desk. “Phoenix markers are down, white cell count is up. It’s early in the game, of course, but it’s looking good, Jamie. I’m fully expecting you to be one of our success stories.”
In my memory I hear Jeanette’s voice. “Welcome to the Ward of Hopeless Cases.”
Can it be this easy?
When it’s her turn, she squeezes my hand. “You’ll come with me, won’t you?”
Her lashes seem pale, her freckles like pale stars.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“I know what he’s going to say. And it isn’t going to be good, Jamie.”
“You know what he’s going to say?” I frown. This girl with the dour expression and the slow cadence of words, I don’t know her. “How can you know, Jeanette?
“Because I can’t do it. I can’t…” She shakes her head. The rhythm of her voice speeds up. “I can’t visualize. I can’t visualize anything but those stupid blobs from my grandmother’s lamp moving up and down again and again.”
“You can’t…” I start to respond, try to process what she’s saying, but the administrative assistant is standing in the doorway, a smile on her face as always, beckoning to Jeanette.
We rise and follow her down the hall to Dr. Randolph’s office while I experience déjà vu. Jeanette hangs back, dragging on my wrist like a fish on a line. For the first time in weeks I feel sick, as if the tiny Phoenix particles are swarming in my cells again, boring through walls that aren’t meant to be penetrated, burning through my DNA.
The admin pushes open the door and ushers us inside. Her smile never falters though neither Jeanette nor I can manage to match it.
“Thank you.” I try to return her smile. Already Jeanette has taken a seat in the overstuffed chairs. She looks tiny in it, not the cross-legged girl in braids that I met all those months ago but like a sick person, like… I don’t want to think it; please don’t let me think it. It comes anyway. Like someone who’s dying. My throat aches. It was me who was supposed to die. Not her. Not Jeanette. She had better things planned: cake decorating lessons and ski trips and taking her math class to the math bowl in the state capital in May, maybe getting a cat. I have no plans but for paintbrush and canvas, maybe searching for a new apartment, one where the neighbors don’t fight quite so loudly.
Dr. Randolph lifts his head to greet us, but his expression is solemn. He nods at me, a single, acknowledging nod, and that simple gesture tells me too much. That it’s good that she has someone with her for this news.
Sick. I imagine all the cells in my body unraveling, all the good I’ve done undone.
“Jeanette.” He smiles at her, though he doesn’t seem to quite meet her eyes. “Jeanette, how are you feeling?”
“Fine.” From the tightness of the word I can hear that she’s already closed herself off.
“Jeanette,” he says again, and I clench my teeth, wondering how many times can he possibly say her name. “The news isn’t so good, I’m afraid.”
He looks down at the file in front of him, riffles through papers rather than looking at her. “Your numbers… Part of the goal of this therapy is to significantly increase your white blood cell count, but your count continues to be low. Phoenix particles…” He makes a point of running his finger down a line of text. “They continue to increase without slowing.”
I can’t look at him anymore so I look at Jeanette. She sits with her shoulders squared, her lips pressed into a line. Her eyes are dry. I wish, briefly, for her to cry, to faint, to do something to tell me that it’s all right for me to comfort her as she comforts me. Instead, I fold my hands into my lap and listen as Dr. Randolph continues with his litany.
“I’m sorry, Jeanette, but ultimately, this therapy isn’t having any beneficial effect for you.”
I wait for the punch-line, because there is a cosmic scriptwriter. I know this because how can there not be. And this is simply the complication before the final, shining resolution. Now is when he’ll hold out some bright and shining ball. He’ll tell us that there’s a brand new and yet untested therapy, that Jeanette can be his first subject. Or that there’s another researcher in another city or another state or, hell, another country who’s got this idea and…
“My recommendation would be for you to return to your coordinating physician and discuss another, more traditional treatment.”
The three of us, we all sit silently while we process the words. I look at Dr. Randolph, who’s going by some script that nobody could possibly have approved. I look at Jeanette who chews on her lower lip and stares straight ahead. No, this isn’t the girl I know. Someone has come and replaced her with a stranger.
“There are no more treatments to try,” she says. “This was my last.”
Silence comes again, my heartbeat the loudest sound in the room as it echoes off mahogany and brass, leather and the thin barriers of our clothing. I try to breathe and can’t. I can’t stand it anymore.
“It’s not working because she can’t visualize. Her mind doesn’t work like that. But mine does. I can. Let me do it for her. There must be a way for me to do it for her.”
Both sets of eyes move to look at me. A brightness in Jeanette’s speaks of a renewed hope that fractures my heart beneath my ribcage. But Dr. Randolph looks at me and shakes his head, a gesture that shatters the room into shards of glass.
“I’m afraid that’s just not possible,” he says.
Jeanette’s face changes, the lines deepening, her eyes hollowing as if this last thing that has been stolen from her, this last tiny bit of hope, is just too much.
But inside me, something heavy shifts, like the concrete lid being slid from the top of a vault and letting in light. Inside me, the white cat arches her back in a stretch as if prepared to get to work. Her teeth gleam. I know one thing from these techniques, and that’s that anything is possible.
Jeanette sleeps beside me. Strands of her hair, lost, litter the sheets and pillow. Early in the morning when I can’t sleep, I slip from beneath the blanket and sit in the wicker chair beside the bed. I listen to her breathing, measuring each one against the next.
I wake with her hand on my cheek. “Jamie?”
She’s sitting cross-legged on the bed, reaching across to touch me, still in her pajamas. They’re flannel, tiny frogs and lily pads all down the legs of the pants. With her bandana off, I can really see how patchy her hair has gotten, and the morning sunlight reveals that trademark translucence of the Phoenix Syndrome. Her eyebrows, once thick and brown, are so pale that I have to squint to see them. It’s as if her own cells are forgetting who she is. And of course that’s exactly it, even as my own cells are starting once again to remember.
She meets my eyes. How can a girl in frog-patterned PJs look so serious? “I need you to sign something for me,” she says.
I sit alone in the eggshell waiting room, my foot tattooing the floor thinking about the paper with my signature on it. Health care proxy. I hate the sound of the words.
Without Jeanette there, I’m the only one waiting, and only the hiss of cool air through the overhead vent keeps me company. The clock ticks too slowly. I jam my hands deep into the pockets of my combat jacket, and slouch back in the chair. At some point, I think I doze.
I open my eyes at the sound of approaching footsteps, but it isn’t the technician who appears in the doorway. Rather, it’s Dr. Randolph. He doesn’t smile as he comes to sit near me, and for a panicked moment I know he’s going to tell me that Jeanette is dead, and already I’m wondering how he could know that when I left her back at my home.
“I’m glad you’re here alone because I wanted to talk to you.” He blows out a breath and leans forward. “Jamie, I wasn’t entirely honest with you yesterday. “
The room grows hot. Sweat beads at my temples, and I shrug out of my jacket. “When you said…”
“When I said it couldn’t be done, you attempting the visualization for Jeanette that is. It is possible. But here’s the bottom line. It’s going to be more risky for you than for her. Your numbers are good, Jamie. New, healthy cells are taking the place of the Phoenix-damaged ones. Do you understand that this means you could make a full recovery?”
I hadn’t thought that far, but when he says it, a tremor runs through me. No more fevers that leave me soaked in sweat. No more looking in the mirror to see if muscle and capillaries are visible below fading skin. I swallow hard.
“So how is it risky for me to visualize for Jeanette?”
“Understand this. To make it possible for you to effect any kind of change on Jeanette’s disease, we would need to make you one person. The supplementary conduits we inject into you would have to be able to move between the two of you. A direct, real-time transfusion.”
“But as you know, we can’t just randomly transfuse blood from one patient to another. And for any other illness it would be impossible to even attempt. Now the Phoenix presents a significantly different scenario in that the Phoenix burns out genetic material from cells, replacing it with generic matter. In the progression of the disease, essentially, one of the things the Phoenix does is erase the differences between two people, enough so that such a cross-transfusion would be possible.”
“Then I’ll do it. Please. If I can do this for me, I can do it for her.”
He holds out a hand. “Wait. Here’s the problem, Jamie. Your success with the therapy is exactly what makes this so problematic. You’re healing. Your cells are remembering who you are, and because of that, it’s no longer possible to mix your blood with Jeanette’s.”
“But you said…”
“It is still possible to do it–the Phoenix still exists in your system–but listen to me closely now. What we would have to do is flood your body again with the Phoenix. Essentially–and I want you to hear what I’m saying to you–you will have to first visualize yourself sick again. Very sick.” He pauses, and I know it’s for effect. “Dying. Do you understand? Sick enough, Jamie, that the visualizations might not work then for either of you.”
I do understand. I understand and I listen within myself for fear or hesitation but the only answer is silence.
“Yes. I understand, Dr. Randolph. When can we start?”
In the tank, with the lid closed, I float. The voice that vibrates from the speakers this time is Dr. Randolph. He leads me into the same relaxation technique we always do, which seems counterintuitive, although I understand that the same principles apply. Relax, and you’re better able to visualize.
Except I don’t believe that’s the case now. Something else fuels me, an urgency I feel for the first time. For once, along with the light and the touch of the fluid, I close myself off to the voice that tries to guide me, to the images it suggests.
I visualize myself instead in a long tunnel, its walls beautiful and pink and perfect save for a jagged scar here and there that looks as if it’s fading from red. The sibilance of rushing blood echoes through the passage. These visualizations have become so much a part of me that I don’t even have to reach for it now. Parts of my mind I can’t even touch consciously supply these images.
I plant my feet on the tunnel floor and call up the Phoenix. Distant, I hear their wings first. Dark beats of feathers against flesh.
Their shadows materialize against the walls, hulking creatures hovering just out of sight. I concentrate, and then they round the bend.
This is how I visualize them: misshapen, feathers torn, their beaks ragged from savaging cells. Talons raking the floor and the walls and the ceiling of the tunnel, they shuffle forward.
I visualize them one at a time, giving this one a pale stripe, that one green eyes, letting them have life in my mind. I visualize a dozen, twenty, a hundred, a hundred thousand, all jostling together as they move toward me.
I fix the image in place, let it strengthen even as the conduits course through my bloodstream. Then, like a camera lens, I pull back. I envision myself a tiny figure among a maze of veins and arteries and capillaries, cells like doorways leading off of every one. The Phoenix particles collect behind me, a mass, pressing one against the other, advancing.
“Come and get me,” I say to them, and with that I dash forward into the maze of my body, leading them along until I overflow with them, until they flood through my heart and lungs and swim in my blood.
Sometime later, when the lid of the pod hisses open, the cool air of the room touches my fevered face. Dr. Randolph, his brows furrowed, reaches in to help me stand. I gasp. Tremors move through my arms.
He shakes his head. “If sheer determination counts for anything, this just might work.”
At home, Jeanette is dressed and sitting in the chair beside the living room window, watching out over the parking lot. Looking in at her from the sidewalk, she appears like a ghost, nothing more than the residue of someone who once sat there. As I make my way up the steps, leaning hard on the wrought iron banister leading into the apartment, I hold my breath that she’s still real.
She looks at me when I come in, and I let out my breath. My teeth chatter. I sink into a chair beside her.
“What have you done to yourself?” she asks. “Oh Jamie, what have you done?
In a private consultation room at the hospital, Dr. Randolph says. “I think we should do it now.”
Other words, words that have dark Phoenix wings, flutter between us. I won’t say it either, that if not now, it may be too late. I look at my own skin, veins coursing below the surface, a roadmap to my illness. In another room, in an anonymous hall among many anonymous halls, Jeanette will be dozing against her pillow, equipment beeping and humming at her side.
My hands shake as I accept the pages he slides across the table. The papers are for both of us.
Even my signature on the page wavers. It might as well belong to someone else. When I rise, my legs tremble. My cane, carved into the contours of a dragon, supports my weight as we head from the room.
They wheel both of us through the hallways and into the idling medi-bus. My cane rests across my knees. Jeanette fades in and out. When she can, she squeezes my hand. Her fingers feel hollow, birdlike.
Dr. Randolph rides with us in the back. At the visualization center, no waiting room for us today. Staff hurry us directly into the room I’ve come to know so well. The room where I healed. The room where I gave up that beautiful burgeoning health for an even more beautiful chance.
The room’s simplicity has disappeared into equipment and wires. The pod, as always, stands at the heart of the room, but beside it now is a hospital bed. Kevin and another tech help Jeanette into the bed and lay her back. Her gaze stays on me and I nod, trying to convey reassurance with just my eyes and gestures.
“Do you need help?” Dr. Randolph asks, and I realize he’s talking to me.
I shake my head. “No. I can do it myself.”
Using the cane for leverage, I rise, willing my legs not to shake, my arms to stay strong. Once I’m standing, I remind myself to breathe. I move first one foot and then the other toward the pod. Already I’m visualizing. I envision myself a ghost, already forgotten at a cellular level, but with each step I take, I become more solid, steadier, capable of doing this.
Jeanette lies on the table in a thin cotton gown, no overalls to hide the waste her body has become. Already wires trail from her arms and up to a central machine, the bypass that will move blood from me to her and back again. The petite female tech fusses with a vial of blue fluid, injecting the the conduits into Jeanette’s port.
I sit on the edge of the pod and the Kevin moves toward me. His gaze holds mine. With a prick, a needle slides into a vein in my arm. A tube rises now from me, as well, toward the machine where it meets Jeanette’s. Connected, I think. Connected.
In another heartbeat, conduits swarm through my own body. The technicians step back. Dr. Randolph steps forward. He seems younger now, or maybe it’s only because I feel so old. If I look, I think, my skin will be as thin as vellum.
“Let me help you,” he says, and with his support I swivel around until my feet touch the liquid.
I slide into the fluid, letting my heart slow to the rhythm of its movements as I displace it.
“We won’t be able to close it, Jamie, on account of the wires. I’ll dim the lights as best I can, but it’s going to be up to you to block out the distractions and concentrate.
I try to smile. “Okay.”
Jeanette’s gaze finds me. “It’s the Ward of Hopeless Cases,” she says all over again.
“No.” I shake my head. “It isn’t. Not this time.”
With effort, I lay back. From that position, the walls of the pod block my view of Jeanette. My throat aches. Will this be the last time I see her?
“I’m ready,” I say to Dr. Randolph.
He nods. “Turn on the bypass.”
A hum begins, not unpleasant, and I let myself drift with it even as the lights dim. I imagine rivers of blood moving from her to me and back again. I’ll do this, Jeanette. I’ll bring an armada of white cats, a nuclear blast of white, pure light. I close my eyes. For just a moment, I think I’m flying.
I can’t do it.
I can’t do it.
The white cat appears for a moment, one paw emerging tentatively from the shadows of my imagination. Somewhere, something beeps. The cat slides out of focus and then winks out completely.
I can’t do it.
My white light flares, and then grows muddy, too pale. It wavers as if there are clouds overhead.
I’m sorry, Jeanette. I’m sorry to the one person who has been color and hope and life and…
And there she is, in my memory, Jeanette, sitting cross-legged on the green vinyl chair of the treatment ward, her hair in braids, her yellow shirt the brightest point in the room. She’s perfectly resolved: her freckles that haven’t yet faded away, the ironic smile on her lips, the exact shade of faded denim of her overalls. She’s so perfect and clear that she might be sitting right next to me like that even now.
I grit my teeth hold on to that image with every last bit of my remaining strength. In the background, equipment beeps, and the glow from monitors seeps through my closed eyelids, but suddenly they’re just part of another world, a world that hardly matters. I hold on to the image of Jeanette and I reach for her hand.
“This is how we fly,” I tell her.
In my imagination, she stands beside me now, still wearing her denim overalls and bright yellow tee-shirt. She chooses wings gold as sunshine and tipped in rose. Kneeling on the crumbling earth I lift them to her shoulders where I envision runners of skin and muscle and nerve stretching to receive them. Here and there I smooth a ruffle of feathers until they look a part of her. A breeze, still cool with memory of night, stirs their edges.
When I’m done, I step back. These are not Phoenix feathers. They’re the feathers of an angel. She glimmers with the iridescence of these borrowed wings, her cheeks flushed with their rosy reflection, the color of health. Feathers lie across her arms and overlap onto her wrists, their tips resting along the backs of her hands.
Together, we step to the edge. She looks at me. I try to visualize her confident, but even in my imagination, her eyes shine. A small tic plays at the edge of her mouth. And isn’t that only right? It isn’t easy to put your toes over the precipice, to spread your wings and prepare to leap.
I take her hand, feel her fingers in mine. This time they feel solid, human. I make them that way.
For a second I imagine us, our hands tangled, falling in an uncontrolled spiral.
I wipe away the image and spread my own wings. Not borrowed, these are wings of my own creation, long and strong, bright and so white that they gleam blue. Below, smoke rises from pyres of the ruined canyon, and maybe that’s more spot-on than all the other visualizations. I catch a glimpse of the featureless wasteland beneath the smoke, the craters that might once have been grand oaks or swift-moving rivers, these places that were once us, our cells and our DNA and our lives. This time we’ll reclaim them for good.
“Let’s do this,” I say. “Let’s fly.”
Extended, my wings touch hers. In the places where they meet, they fuse together into one, strong and vibrant and vital.
Together, we leap.
Short fiction by Lisa A. Koosis has appeared in a number of publications, including Susurrus Press’s Neverlands and Otherwheres anthology, Murky Depths, Not One of Us, Meadowhawk Press’s Touched by Wonder anthology, and a previous issue of Abyss & Apex. Lisa resides in Upstate New York with her family and her cat, Salem’s Lot, who often lives up to his name. She is currently a Top Ten finalist in Leisure Horror’s “Fresh Blood” horror contest for unpublished horror novelists. You can check out the first chapter of her novel, and cast a vote at chizine.com/freshblood.
Story © 2010 Lisa A. Koosis. All other content copyright © 2010 Abyss & Apex Publishing.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish