Phoenix took hold of the branch. Fearing he would fall, he wrapped his fist tightly around it before swinging his legs over the rail.
Now he was straddling the branch. He pushed his knees as close together as they would go to stabilize himself. Continuing to grip tightly, he slowly made his way down to the trunk, and, from there, jumped to the tile below.
Pain like needles shot up his ankles. Despite this, he managed to walk his way over to the arch, which loomed over the gate to the courtyard. There he paused for a moment to catch his breath, glancing back at the tree. It stood, unwavering, urging him to go on. He nodded to it before continuing.
Footsteps echoed from behind him, drawing closer. He remembered that the night guards were out, enforcing curfew, and he was in direct violation. With a deep breath, he braced himself against the cement of the arch. In the quiet of the night, every sound made by the approaching guard was amplified to deafening.
Phoenix’s eyes flared open and stared intently. The guard was about six feet tall, bald, bearded, and fit. With a metal-tipped baton at his side, he looked like a formidable opponent. Two feet in front of Phoenix, in front of the center of the gate, he turned his head and looked into the courtyard. As his eyes scanned every inch of tile and every level sidewalk across the complex, he nodded, approving the lack of people. Then, when he was finally satisfied, he continued on his tour, his steel-toed boots clicking against the concrete all the way.
Fortunately for Phoenix, he had failed to check for people standing at the gate.
Phoenix waited until he was sure the guard was gone, and then he turned in the opposite direction, towards the doors to the surface.
It was a long walk there, especially in the middle of the night. Every few minutes, he had to crawl under a bench or climb up into a tree. Even though the guards had flashlights and goggles which allowed them some night vision, it was hard to see much of anything when the lights were out. Phoenix used this to his advantage as he maneuvered his way across New Chicago.
Being careful to remain quiet, Phoenix wrapped his hand around the doorknob and turned. The door swung open as he retracted his hand. Inside was Liam, fast asleep with a gun across his lap. His red hair was the color focal point of the sterile room.
Phoenix positioned himself directly behind Liam and tapped him on the shoulder.
With a jolt, Liam sprang to his feet and fired bullets in an arc. The roaring, mechanic shifting of the gun combined with the ringing of bullets hitting the stainless steel wall knocked Phoenix to the floor. The seconds it took for Liam to come to his senses and stop firing were agonizing.
He set the gun down on the raised section of the floor beside him. “Phoenix, buddy!” he shouted, arms wide. “You should have told me it was you!” Phoenix found himself in Liam’s strong embrace. When the guy finally let go, he asked, “Back so soon? You were already here once today.”
Phoenix nodded, smiling. “I just wanted to cool off.”
Liam gave an enthusiastic laugh, shaking his head. “Roxanne giving you trouble?”
Phoenix nodded. “Yeah.”
Liam smirked, then said, under his breath, “I wish she would give me trouble.”
Phoenix rolled his eyes. “Watch it. That’s my sister you’re talking about there,” he responded, jokingly. Liam had always had a thing for Roxanne, which he wasn’t afraid of sharing with anyone who was willing to listen.
“More like your hot sister.” Liam was now on the raised part of the floor, ruffling through a closet filled with gigantic coats. “You know, the authorities are always asking me why they have to keep buying new coats. ‘Where do they go?’ ‘Are you really competent as a guard if you can’t take care of a few coats?’ ” He pulled out a few dark gray blue items and chucked them in Phoenix’s general direction. “I could lose my job for this, you know. I could lose everything. I worked so hard to get here.” He pulled down a pair of snow shoes from the wall and added them to the pile.
“I know,” Phoenix replied. “And I’m sorry. But if we don’t help those people, who will?”
Liam walked back towards Phoenix, and gave him a sharp pat on the shoulder. “You’re a good man, buddy. Now get dressed.”
Phoenix carried the bundle Liam had made to the changing room in the corner, and pulled the curtain close. He took of his pants, replaced them with wool leggings, and put them back on. By the time he had finished with the pants, he could feel sweat running down his cheek.
Once he was in full gear, he returned to the rest of the room, where Liam was dozing off waiting for him.
“Hello?” he called, to pull Liam back to consciousness.
Liam’s head jerked back and forth. He reached for a gun that wasn’t there. Upon recognizing Phoenix, he smiled with relief. “It’s just you,” he sighed. “And you look very pretty, might I add.”
Phoenix tried to move his head to look at his wardrobe, but found that his neck was not mobile enough underneath the scarves.
“Come on. Let’s get you up.” Liam ushered him over with an arm gesture, and then unlocked the elevator. The lighting from here exaggerated the purple that lay under his eyes. He smiled, but it was a fatigues smile. Once Phoenix was securely inside the elevator, he continued, “You’ve been through this enough times that you don’t need to hear the lecture again. But please stay safe so your sister doesn’t get mad at me.”
Phoenix gave him a salute as the doors closed between them.