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I heard footsteps and looked up. A doctor in green scrubs was there looking at my wife and I with deep sadness.
“Dr. George,” I asked, getting up quickly. My stomach was knotted with dread and fear.
Dr. George Marks was the oncology specialist at South View Hospital. We were there for Kimberly. Our daughter.
Dr. George looked at us.
“I’m afraid the news isn’t good,” he responded. “The tumor has grown aggressively. The chemo is not shrinking it as we hoped it would and due to its location, we are unable to remove it surgically. I’m sorry but there’s nothing more we can do now except try to make Kimmy as comfortable as possible.”
My wife cried and tears blurred my own vision. But I wasn’t sad.
I was angry.
I was furious.
Kimmy was just a little girl. She didn’t deserve to die. We were in one of the best hospitals in the country with one of the best oncologists in the country and it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to save her.
I wanted to throw things. I wanted to slam people into walls or throw them through glass windows. Instead, I lost all strength in my legs and collapsed back into my chair. Every part of me felt so weak.
My world was ending. It was crumbling around me and wasn’t even recognizable as my life anymore.
I put my head in my hands and finally did cry out of sadness, emptiness, hopelessness, depression, and so many other draining emotions.
As I sat there sobbing, my mind tortured me with an image of my smiling, beautiful, little girl. I imagined her as a 10-year-old, a 15-year-old, a 20-year-old, a 30-year-old, a 50-year-old. I saw her in all the stages of a life that she would never see and it broke my heart into pieces too small to put back together again.
“Can we see her now?” I asked, forcing myself to speak the words even though they felt like shards of glass as they worked past my throat.
“I’ll take you to her.”
We followed Dr. George through the hospital until we came to a simple room. The walls were pink and purple with giant, hand-painted butterflies everywhere. It was a sweet room. Perfect for a little girl.
I saw her in that bed and had to work hard to clear the emotion from my face. I didn’t want to worry her and Kimmy knew how to read people. She knew how to read people with scary accuracy, even though she was only 6.
“Daddy! Mommy!” she yelled happily.
Her voice was jubilant, but it was whispery, like she didn’t have the strength to make it any louder than that. I smiled back at her.
“Hey, punkin,” I said.
“Hey, baby,” my wife added.
We came all the way into the room and sat by her bed, just looking at her.
Her eyes were nothing but dark circles and she looked pale. Her hair, once a beautiful blonde, was lifeless now. It had none of the vibrant color I was used to and it was falling out in a lot of places. My daughter looked more like twigs than flesh and bone. Her shoulders popped out of her body. Her face was gaunt and pale. The overall effect made her look like a lopsided scarecrow.
I tried to smile. I tried to keep my face calm.
“Daddy,” she said. There was a small, sad smile on her face. “Things aren’t all right, are they? I’m going to die.”
“I c-can’t,” my wife whispered to me. Her eyes were red and bloodshot. “M-mommy will be right back.” She went outside and I didn’t do anything to stop her.
I sat down next to my daughter, grasped her hands, and started telling her jokes just so I could see her smile. I talked with my daughter for a long time. After every passing second with her, another little piece of me would wither and die.
At some point, Kimmy drifted off to sleep. I was getting a little groggy myself, but I stayed awake so I could watch her. More than that, I watched her so I could burn every last detail of her into my mind.
Every last thing.
“I’m so sorry, punkin,” I told her, grabbing her hand tight and kissing it. “I’m so sorry daddy couldn’t make you better.”
I cried for an hour straight. My wife still hadn’t come back yet. I guess I could forgive it. Part of me, a part that I hated more than anything else, wanted to be gone too. I didn’t want to keep torturing myself over and over again. But I couldn’t stop, either. Kimmy was my drug of choice. My addiction. And it was just as destructive to me as all the other painful addictions on the planet.
I heard footsteps.
“Peyton?” I started to ask, thinking it was my wife. I looked up when the person didn’t answer.
It was a woman that stood there but she was not my wife. Her hair was a bright, shimmery red. It shifted when she walked forward and made it look like liquid flame. Her bright green eyes pierced straight into my soul, seeming to asses it. She smiled, showing off flawless white teeth. She was more beautiful than anyone I’d ever seen in real life before. But there was something off about her beauty and it took me a second to realize what it was.
She was too beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that she couldn’t be real.
She sat down in the chair on the opposite side of the bed as me and crossed one long, white leg over the other. Then she placed both hands on her knee. Her dark, hunter green dress shifted slightly.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“Your daughter is very beautiful,” she said instead. She smiled at me and a cute dimple appeared on one side of her mouth. Then she turned that smile on Kimmy. She also spoke with a very weird accent, something I’d never heard before.
She gazed at Kimmy for a minute. Then I watched her lean forward and bring one smooth, perfect hand forward to brush a strand of hair off my daughter’s forehead.
Without thinking, my hand shot out, grabbing her wrist with brutal strength.
“Don’t,” I whispered, my voice harsh and threatening, “touch her.”
The woman didn’t respond. She merely looked at me, a small smile touching her face. Suddenly my hand started getting hot. I hissed in pain and jerked it back. When I looked down at my palm, it was a bright, cherry red and several blisters had popped up.
“Who are you?” I asked, babying my injured hand.
“She really is beautiful,” the woman replied, ignoring my question.
“Why are you here?” I asked instead. This seemed to get through to her. She looked at me, her smile deepening.
“That is a better question, I think.” She looked at me. “You love her?”
“Of course, I do.” I glanced down at Kimmy. She was still sleeping. She didn’t look very peaceful anymore. Her forehead was scrunched up and furrowed. She was in pain. “I would do anything for her.”
“I’ve watched Kimberly for a while now,” the stranger responded. “She’s very brave. Did you know she pretends she’s not in pain while you and your wife are with her?”
She looked at my face and saw the shock there.
“No?” She smiled again. “I didn’t think so. Like I said, she’s very brave. She didn’t want you or her mother to suffer too much at her expense.”
“H-how do you know that?” I asked.
“I watch her,” the woman replied easily. “She’s quite a remarkable child. You don’t see that kind of… fortitude… in children these days. It is a testament to those who raised her.” She bowed her head to me, as if that were something I would ever be proud of.
“What do you want with her?”
A disquieting feeling rose in the pit of my stomach. It traveled along my spine until the back of my skull tingled.
“You misunderstand me, Derek.”
Another shiver ran up my spine. I hadn’t told her my name.
“How do you know me?”
She leaned forward. “You ask a lot of questions.”
I looked at her for a long time. I knew there was something strange about the woman. Something that wasn’t right. I just couldn’t put my finger on what. I felt like at that moment, however, part of me knew that she was… different. I just didn’t want to believe it.
“I tend to be inquisitive when a strange woman shows up in my dying daughter’s hospital room,” I responded.
“You’re a cautious man, Derek, and smart. I see now where Kimberly’s intelligence comes from,” she said with a laugh. The laugh was small, but it evoked a very base, primal reaction of pleasure in me. I had to force the sensation away.
“Who are you and what do you want with my daughter?” My voice was scathing and full of anger. The woman, however, didn’t seem impressed or even remotely intimidated.
“I like you, Derek. You’re smart and brave, just like your daughter,” she replied, leaning back in her chair. “I’ve actually come here to give a gift.” She paused, looking intently at me. “Sadly, however, there is a price that must be paid first.”
“I hate to break this to you, but that is, by definition, not a gift.”
“That would be true if the gift were for you, Derek. It is not, however. The gift is for Kimberly but the payment will come from you,” she explained.
“What payment? What are you talking about?”
She glanced down at her body, running her hands over it. “This body is growing weak and will not be able to house my essence much longer. Therefore, I will need a suitable host to transfer my being into so that I may survive. I cannot take an unwilling host, however. The new bearer must do so willingly. It makes the transfer go… smoother.”
I looked at her again. I noticed odd traceries running just beneath her skin that hadn’t been there before. They formed a pattern that looked similar to the wavy patterns water casts in the light.
“What are you?” I asked this time. I didn’t bother trying to deny myself the truth any longer. The woman wasn’t human. I kept the fear off my face and just stared at her unflinchingly. “And answer me this time. If we’re going to deal, I want to at least know what I’m dealing with.”
“I’m a phoenix,” she said, her tone entirely serious.
“A phoenix?” I was more than a little incredulous. Last time I looked at a mythology book, a phoenix was a bird.
“Of myth and legend and in the flesh before you,” she said, laughing again.
That odd sensation her laughter caused traveled through my body again, disrupting my thoughts for a second.
“So you want me to what? Forfeit my body?” I asked.
A part of me was yelling, loudly, that this was all a bunch of bullshit, but my instincts were telling me that she was speaking the truth. The odd, red patterns just underneath the surface of her skin that I’ve never seen before, the way she could burn my hand when I touched her, and even her fiery red hair was proof enough. If she was lying, then she had me completely fooled.
“Yes. You’re strong. Healthy. You’ll do quite nicely,” she responded. “In return for your sacrifice, I will give you Kimberly’s life. I can heal her. I can burn the sickness out of her and she’ll live a long, healthy life. An abnormally long life. The fires will not only burn out her current sickness but it will prevent others. She will outlive all her loved ones, feeling each of their deaths like a sword driven into her heart. Starting with yours. Are you prepared to make that choice for her?”
I looked at Kimmy and my tears flowed freely again. I saw the look of pain on her face. I saw her furrowed brows. I saw the pale skin and the scraggly, deadened hair. I saw her skinny, scarecrow arms.
But that wasn’t the only thing I saw. I saw her life again. I saw her at 10, 15, 20, 30, and 50 again. I saw it and this time I knew I could make it happen. I had the power to give her that life.
So I took it.
I shoved my doubts away, burying them deep, and looked the woman (or phoenix) right in the eyes.
“Okay,” I said, quietly. “You give Kimmy her life and I give you my body, but you heal her first.”
The woman rose from her chair without a word, holding out one hand. Floating about an inch above her palm was a tiny, flickering flame that swirled into a sphere the size of a baseball.
“What are you doing?” I asked, alarmed.
“Shh,” she whispered back, holding up one pale finger to her lips. She returned her attention to Kimmy. My daughter was lying in bed, her brow still furrowed against her pain. The woman brought the ball of flame down toward my little girl’s head.
I was glued to my seat.
I couldn’t move as the anticipation of what was about to happen built to insane levels.
I jumped slightly as Kimmy’s mouth suddenly opened on its own and expelled a loud, grating breath. My heart raced in my chest. I could feel it hammering against my ribcage.
As the woman’s hand got closer to Kimmy’s open mouth, the ball of flame lifted away from her palm and flowed down my little girl’s throat. The skin of her neck suddenly glowed, the way a finger will if you hold a flashlight up behind it. I watched that hideous light run down her esophagus and into her stomach.
For a long time, nothing happened. I kept thinking that my daughter was going to burst into flames but instead she started flopping all over her bed like she was being electrocuted. Her eyes and mouth abruptly opened and searing hot flames suddenly shot out toward the ceiling.
The room should’ve been burning to the ground, but it wasn’t. Nothing caught on fire.
“Stop it!” I yelled. “Stop it now!”
I tried to grab hold of the woman’s wrist again but it burned me the minute I grabbed it. I jerked my hand away in pain.
“Please,” I yelled, “make it stop.”
I was ignored. Whatever process was happening was too late to stop. I watched my daughter buck and convulse. I watched her trying to scream and I felt horrible.
It was a mistake! my mind yelled at me.
Then Kimmy suddenly went limp. Those horrible flames cut off like someone flipped a switch. Her eyes closed and her mouth shut. Her head rolled to one side.
The woman backed away slowly. The red traceries were even more pronounced than before and she looked weak. Her eyes fluttered once. I went to her as she fainted, stopping her from crashing to the floor.
“It’s done,” she whispered.
“She’ll live?” I asked.
She nodded slowly. “The fire consumed her sickness. It will also keep her safe against others.”
“How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
“D-daddy?” Kimmy asked. My heart seemed to explode in my chest with excitement at the sound of her voice.
It sounded so strong. It sounded full of life. It sounded like my baby girl before she’d gotten sick.
I helped the woman to a chair and went to Kimmy, crying and laughing at the same time. I grasped her hand in mine. I kissed her cheek and she smiled at me. She looked good. She looked… healthy. Even her hair looked vibrant again and there were no more bald spots.
“How do you feel, punkin?” I asked her.
She took some deep breaths. She lifted her arms and legs. She looked around, a dazzling light in her eyes.
“Great! I feel better!” she replied, laughing merrily. Her smile vanished when she saw tears running down my face. “Why are you crying, Daddy?”
“I’m crying because I’m so, so happy. I think you’ll be okay now. Do you believe that?” I asked her.
“I know I am,” she replied.
A hand fell on my shoulder. I glanced at the woman behind me and saw that she was dying. One arm was blackened. Cracks and fissures appeared in her flesh and they oozed blood the color of fire. I saw blackish red veins running up the side of her neck and across one cheek too. It was clear that the woman did not have long.
“It’s time,” was all she said.
I nodded and turned back to Kimmy. “Punkin, I have to go now. I have to go, but I need you to know that I love you. I need you to understand that more than anything else. I love you and I always will. Say it back to me, okay?”
“You love me,” she repeated, but there was a look of deep concern on her face.
“Remember that,” I told her. “Will you do that?”
“Always and forever,” Kimmy replied.
I kissed her forehead.
“Bye punkin,” I told her. I could feel my heart ripping itself apart at the sound of my daughter’s worried cries. “Take care of Mommy when I’m gone.”
“Please don’t go,” she pleaded. “Please.”
“I have to. Sometimes daddies do things that we have to so we can protect the people we love. I’m a daddy and I did something to protect you. Now because of that something, I have to leave.”
She tried to plead some more, but I walked out. I cried hard because of that. I cried for the loss I’d inflicted on her.
I followed the woman. She led me outside the hospital. We walked for a little while before she stopped underneath a massive tree. The shade felt so cool against my skin.
The woman turned to me.
I thought about running away. It was only for a second though. Another instinct warned me against doing that because I knew she would go after Kimmy if I did. So instead, I leaned forward and placed my mouth against her lips. They were cracked and bleeding now. I did my best to ignore that. As I kissed her, I could feel heat splashing against me. I opened my eyes slightly and found that she was burning. At first, there was nothing distinct about the flames. They were like any other fire. Then they started to change. They formed into the rough outline of a human being and then morphed again, this time into a bird more beautiful than anything I’d ever seen in my life. There was a flash of bright light and then black ashes fell to the ground all around me.
I was scared. I was beyond scared. I was terrified. It was Kimmy that gave me the strength to stand still and finish the deal. Knowing that I had saved her and that I was protecting her made my sacrifice worthwhile. It made it mean something. I knew she wouldn’t understand that, but I did. And I also knew that I would do it again. I would do it again in a heartbeat if it meant she would live.
The beautiful shape of the phoenix broke apart into three columns of living fire. The columns flowed toward me. They went into my nostrils and mouth first and then coursed through the rest of my body. I felt each artery and vein light up but not in pain. I felt my muscles sing and vibrate with something a thousand, no, a hundred thousand times more powerful than me. Then the fire reached my brain. It ran through the nooks and crannies there and set fire to every nerve ending.
That’s when I felt it. An overpowering presence. It was a soothing one and not terribly invasive.
It was also very ancient.
“Be easy, Derek,” the voice whispered soothingly. “Be easy. Just know that Kimmy will always be safe.”
“Get it over with,” I responded.
The presence overcame me at that point. It overcame me and then everything was gone. Everything I was. Everything I had been. Everything I might’ve been.