This time, at last, Phoenix woke up in the Underground.

When his eyelids fluttered open, a bolt of light split his mind in two. His eyes began to adjust, and he recognized the friendly features of the room: a soft blue, and a deep blue, and metallic glittering.

Alexis put her hand against his forehead, running her thumb through his hair. She smiled, in a troubled way, her mind like a thunderstorm, until she was interrupted by the clearing of a throat across the room.

“Are you gonna break this to him sooner or later?” Liam asked upon noticing Phoenix beginning to stir. “I mean, are you just gonna get this over with or give him time?”

“I’ll explain it to him as soon as he wakes up.” She made her way over to a counter, and then bent over it suddenly, her whole heart weighing down on her palms. “We are so lucky he’s waking up,” she murmured, in a daze. “He might not have woken up.” She looked Liam directly in the eyes and repeated, “We’re so lucky he’s waking up.”

Clearly uncomfortable, Liam avoided her stare and averted his gaze to his feet, which he tapped impatiently against the floor. He agreed with some non-committal syllables.

Alexis shook her head abruptly and thrust her hand down into a drawer, lifting from it a handheld mirror. Fingering them rim of the silvery glass, she watched her own furrowed face for a moment before stepping again to Phoenix’s side.

“Phoenix? Can you hear me?”

Phoenix blinked, through shallow breaths, his eyes focusing, unfocusing, and rolling back into his head. Liam smacked the wall with the back of his hand.

“How am I supposed to explain this?” he shouted. “How am I supposed to keep my job?”

Alexis continued stroking Phoenix’s forehead, attempting to warm his lungs with her encouraging smile. “Come on, Phoenix. Pull through this.”

Phoenix, in response, coughed violently. Blood flew from his lips, landing in scattered spots against the blue wall. His eyes were wide now, although they were still useless to him; the rich gemstone irises were drowning in bloodshot vessels.

“His dad is a Magistrate!” Liam moaned, his knees buckling under him, his face contorted with pain. “A goddamn Magistrate!”

Phoenix gripped the bed tightly, and only tightened his grip when his shorter fingers threatened to drop him. Then he screamed.

The words he screamed, unintelligible to the others in the room, thundered through his icy chest.

“I have to go back for her!” he struggled to say. “She’s still up there!”

Now fully upright, he flung his legs over the side of the bed. His shaky arms were barely sufficient to support him, however, and he slid back onto his side, whimpering.

“Phoenix, what is it?” Alexis cooed.

Phoenix smacked the Doctor out of the way, and rolled himself so he was partially upright on the floor. “I have to get her!” His throat, burned by the cold, shot agony through his body with every word he uttered, but he pushed forward, trudging across the floor.

“Phoenix, stop!” Alexis yelled, grabbing the boy’s arms and pinning him back to the bed. She scowled at him as he writhed in her grasp. “You have to stay here. Okay? You have to stay here.” But Phoenix’s body continued thrashing until Dr. Latimer’s medicine put him to sleep.

Liam stood, frozen, in front of the door, stiffly holding his gun in front of him. It was as though he’d been plastered there, drained of the blood and color to move a muscle.

Alexis massaged her arm where Phoenix had pushed here away. “We’re so lucky he’s waking up,” she murmured to the statuesque Liam.

Even in his sleep, Phoenix’s abbreviated fingers attempted to find an answer by feeling his abbreviated nose. Dreams, in glaring white, haunted his sleep.


“No, I’m certainly not from Born.” Phoenix’s words, dogged by the cold, caught in his throat several times before he could get them out.

The girl looked up at the sky, her hair dead at her sides in the still air. She frowned at the rubble of the building. With dismay, she uttered, “I take it there is no Born, is there?” As she turned to face him, Phoenix caught a first glimpse of her eyes: the irises were all grey, a blank grey, except for her pupils, which grew wide with anxiety.

He shook his head.

She sighed. “How long has it been?” She scanned her surroundings, comparing them to the images she had been shown before.

“Hundreds of years,” he answered. “Thousands.”

She stared at him, expressionless, as if she had no idea how to use the muscles of her face. “Where did everyone go?”

“Underground,” he answered. It was dawning on him that this was a very strange situation, and the only thing about it which startled him was knowing it didn’t startle him. Here was an apparently human girl––about his age, maybe closer to Roxanne’s––whose features were like blank paper, waiting to be colored. Many of her features weren’t fully human, despite her otherwise human-like appearance, and she’d come from a crystalline box, which he’d somehow activated. And yet, he wasn’t bothered at all.

“And people certainly have changed in that time,” she murmured, drawing hesitant steps in the snow on a slow walk to Phoenix. “Your nose is completely black, like the sky.”

Phoenix’s hands shot up to his nose, cracking several layers of ice on the sleeves of his coat. It was mostly pointless anyway––there was no sensation in his nose nor in his hands––but he now knew he had to get back down to the Underground, wherever the entrance was.

“I need to go back!” he shouted, or at least as close as he could come to shouting with his raw, icy throat. With a shaky arm, he pushed himself to his feet. He made the mistake of looking down as he stood, and the sight of his hand made him sick. Even though he couldn’t feel anything wrong, he knew his wrist wasn’t supposed to bend like that.

“What?” she cried. “You’re going to leave me here? Alone? You can’t leave me here alone!”

Phoenix stared at her blankly, unsure what to say. Not even knowing who she was, really, or what people Underground might think of her. Not thinking much at all, as his headache had blasted away so many of his words. Then, without saying or explaining anything, he turned around, hoping to find his way back to the doors by retracing his steps.

“I’m coming with you!” she called after him, and hurried to his side. “Which way is it?”

He gave her a sideways glance, but didn’t respond. His mind hadn’t grasped most of what she’d said, and even if it had, he wouldn’t have been able to respond. They continued along in silence for a brief while, each hoping it was the right way.

“I take it you don’t talk much,” she finally said. “But I’ve been alone in that Hibernation Prism for however long, and even though I was unconscious, it’s still kind of lonely.” She took in a deep breath and continued, “It took me forever to become fluent in Engl––”

At her abrupt stop, Phoenix slowed his shuffle to a stop and turned. The girl was face-down in the snow. Her arms were splayed out at her sides, her legs still in the parallel position they would have been in if she were still upright. Her chest rose and fall as if she were sobbing. Phoenix reached his arm down as best he could to help her to her feet.

She rolled over onto her back, and it was now evident she was laughing, not crying. It came in high, breathy thunders, and tears rolled down her cheeks. She stuttered with her words between laughs until finally she managed to choke out, “I never got the knack of walking. It’s so odd to only have two legs.” After she’d calmed down some, she added, “I always like laughing, though. It’s nice.” She propped herself up with her elbows and made her way back up to standing, when she looked directly into Phoenix’s eyes and asked, “Are you alright? Your eyes are facing different directions. I don’t think they’re supposed to do that.”

And, for what must have been the third time since he’d left, he blacked out, collapsing into her arms.

When Phoenix came to, he expected to be in his bed, layers of blankets over him, the soft metallic glow of the morning light system to his back, and Roxanne a few feet away. He forgot that he was on the surface, buried in snow, lost, and nearly dead.

Gradually, with all the strength he could find, he got to his feet and looked around. The snow had stopped, and visibility was back to normal––which, in the middle of the night without a flashlight, still wasn’t fantastic. What he could see was a scattering of bricks. That’s what tripped him last night, he decided. He followed the trail of bricks with his eyes, realizing that he was standing just inside what used to be a building.

Shivering, he trekked over to the bricks. He walked along the path until he saw the remnant of a wall, which he leaned against to regain his breath. As he leaned back, something metallic brought ice to the back of his head. When he felt he had the energy to do so, he turned to look at it, to see it was a plaque of some sort. He removed his goggles to better read the delicate letters.

Although the smallest set of words was still illegible to his sore eyes, he could see that some sort of award had been presented to Born Laboratories and Communications, Inc. A pattern of constellations was etched in beside the name of the company, circling a planet with thin rings. After removing his right glove, Phoenix drew up his hand and lightly touched the design.

At that moment, a bright white light struck his from behind. He whirled around, anticipating a needy surface dweller or a rescue party, maybe both. Instead, the image of a girl the same color as the snow filled his eyes and memory. She had been there last night, when he thought he was about to die. She seemed more like a dream than anything else, so, Phoenix thought, either he was still asleep or she was very real. From here, he could only see the top of her head, so he went in for a closer look.

As he approached, the white light blinded him. He shielded his eyes with a frosty, glove-less hand, but it didn’t help him much. Neither did replacing his goggles. However, he could see very clearly that she was not a typical human, if she was in, fact, human at all. Her features were slim, but not fragile, with pale grey webbing of veins across the eery whiteness of her complexion. She smiled slightly, as if enjoying the weather, eyes closed. She had no sharp angles anywhere on her frame, not even around her fingers and toes, which were webbed. Despite her rarities, Phoenix found her beautiful, in a certain intangible way. As his eyes adjusted, he felt more comfortable around her, and eased down to sit next to the transparent box.

He laid his bare hand, which was red from being whipped by the cold over the past few minutes, against the face of the prism. Had he been able to reach into the box, his hand would have touched hers.

He watched her quizzically for a while, wondering what to make of this strange phenomenon, when suddenly his hand fused to the box. Panicked, he ripped it back as quickly as his frozen, dogged muscles would allow, but it was to no avail. Thin, organic lines, brighter even than the light coming from the girl, grew from his palm and danced elegantly, like so many branches of a tree, across the surface of the box. He continued to struggle until he felt like he was going to black out again, and then stopped, deciding that it simply wasn’t worth it. He grew fatigued as the fairytale wonder of the lines spread out in front of him.

Originating from his hand and going out, the lines shifted from white to green. Phoenix’s tired eyes watched on with awe as the girl was completely removed from his sight and replaced by the only the color green. And then, the next thing he knew, he was being swept away, across what once was the floor, by a wave of hot, thick liquid. His hand was no longer attached to anything, but neither were his eyes. Once again, he found himself suspended in darkness.

Just to be cautious, he replaced his glove before turning to see what had become of the prism. To his surprise, it was no longer standing. But there was a person, some sort of figure, wicking herself clean. She stood at the epicenter of the uneven trenches which had been formed by the hot liquid.

She took a glance at the damp, flushed, and temperature confused Phoenix and said, more distressed than angered, “I take it you’re not from Born.”

The wind bit through every one of Phoenix’s many layers. The thought of turning around and going back through the doors, back to the warmth of the Underground, crossed through his mind and was gone immediately when he looked out at the landscape before him.

The white-out conditions disrupted any view of the horizon. The only light to see by came from the lamp by the doors, and its shine ended at a sheet of snow falling down. He grabbed for the sling where a flashlight should have been, but it wasn’t there; all he felt was the polyester of his jacket. If he were to continue from here, he could die in the cold, and never get back to the Underground. Someone would find his body, blue and battered, on the one day of spring, when the snow melts.

But, on the other hand, he could walk through and survive.

Taking dogged steps against the harsh wind that blew against him, Phoenix walked out into the unknown. The air cut through every layer of clothing and chilled his bones. He could feel the blood as it rushed up to protect his frozen cheeks. Against his will, his shoulders shivered into themselves, until he became a slowly moving ball of huddled person.

Before he had walked twenty paces, what was left of the dim light faded away behind him. Now, he was in total blackness, surrounded by pure white which he could not see. As he continued forward, his knees began to give in, nearly buckling beneath him. The wind took a sudden change in direction, the force tearing the hat off his head. Each breath was successively more painful, since his lungs were already filled with ice and didn’t want to take in anymore.

After a while, Phoenix could no longer tell if his eyes were open or closed. The darkness around him was dizzyingly deep, although it was created by only a few yards of snow. Black seemed to surround every crevice around him, laying against his skin and between the folds of his coat. It blocked his air tubes, although that may have been the accumulation of flakes.

He attempted to reach his hand up and brush away the snow from his goggles, but his elbows refused to bend that far.

He began to worry that he had finally done it: he had, at last, gotten himself so deep in the Good Samaritan nonsense that he was going to die. He wondered how long he had been out here. It felt like the end of the universe may have come to pass around him.

A bright white light appeared as he approached it, dashing silhouettes of snowflakes across his line of vision. Since light couldn’t travel very far in these conditions, he figured he must have been near it, and, with a sudden jolt of energy, broke out in a sprint towards it.

As the brightness intensified, the thought crossed his mind that maybe it was the light, the one that led people into the next life. The thought didn’t deter him from running.

Suddenly, he tripped over something he couldn’t see. His arms splayed out in front of him as he fell. One finger, his index finger on his right hand, touched something. It was colder even than the wind, he could feel through his gloves. Colder than the grate tiles of the Underground.

With all the strength he could muster, Phoenix titled his head upwards to see what it was that he was touching.

To his surprise, it was a girl, white like the snow, floating inside a transparent box as though it were filled with water.

Phoenix’s vision blacked out.

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.

The corners of Ajax’s mouth were turned down distinctly. It was unclear what he was frowning at; in front of Phoenix, he was only a head, captured in the exact middle of the living room. Parts of his face would go into darkness when a particle of dust flew between the projector and the receiver.

Phoenix stuck his thumbs in his pockets so that his fingers covered the dirt on his pants, but the sweat from his palms only made the dirt stick to his hands. He knew that, in the mind of his father, he was a wiry, impulsive little boy, and that this was what he was seeing right now. Neither had even spoken yet.

“I hear that you were admitted to Dr. Latimer’s office today,” Ajax began.

“You heard correctly,” Phoenix replied with a grin.

Ajax smiled, lips closed, and shook his head. “Do you care to tell me why?”

“Not particularly.”

Ajax sighed for his son’s benefit. “Phoenix,” he said, “Were you up at the surface again?”

Phoenix shifted his gaze upwards and tapped his chin, as if in deep thought, and then, having found his answer, looked back at the hologram. “Of course not,” he laughed. “That would be ridiculous. You distinctly told me to never go back up there without telling you first.”

The arc of Ajax’s mouth became even more defined, and his eyebrows drew together as if someone had pulled them with a thread. “Really, Phoenix. Is there something you should tell me?”

Phoenix shrugged and looked away, even though his father wouldn’t have known whether or not he was making eye contact. Keeping his arm tucked in to his chest, he scratched at an imaginary itch at the base of his neck. “I don’t know, dad,” he answered. “I just really like it up there. It’s so peaceful.” At least that was part of the truth.

Ajax sighed again, although this time it was authentic. “Fine. But please, please let me know next time.”

Phoenix nodded. “Okay, dad.”

“Can you promise me that.” It was a command with the structure of a question.

Phoenix rolled his eyes spectacularly. “Okay, dad. I promise.”

Ajax nodded awkwardly as he ran out of things to say. Fortunately, his son had him covered.

Despite his reasons for asking, Phoenix managed to maintain some innocence when he asked, “How is the Surface Dwellers bill coming along?”

“Not too badly, actually,” Ajax answered with a tone of pride. “There are only a few supporters, and hopefully it will be cancelled after the next session. Maybe then people will understand that we are not wasting any of our precious resources on the ones that stayed behind.”

Phoenix hid his cringe behind a forced smile and shoved his shaky hands all the way into his pockets. “Maybe then,”  he agreed with a weak voice.

Ajax’s mouth flat-lined, the closest it ever came to smiling. “Thank you, Phoenix. I’ll see you next week.”

Phoenix gave a halfhearted smirk and saluted his father. “Alright. See you then.” The words were barely out of his mouth before the image blinked and disappeared.

Taking in deep breaths through his nose, Phoenix reclined into the white leather sofa. Glancing out the window, he watched the Store power down for the night as the street emptied. As the minutes went by, the tree was left in a void in the courtyard, spiraling up to his living room window, inviting him to climb down.

With his hands in his pockets, Phoenix stared into the Store, where rows of household items lined the aisles. Bridget Gates lifted a pan from a low shelf and carried it out of his view, towards the register. The foreheads of mannequins peeked through the second story window, like rolling hills of snow.

As usual, Phoenix was the only person leaning against the tree. The bark felt nice against his back, diluted by the cotton of his shirt. Against his bare arms, however, it was rough, the way only a naturally growing object could be. Inch by inch, he slid down, letting it leave white dashes on his skin.

There was an almost hypnotic quality in the steely whiteness of the Store. Item and customer alike were bathed in harsh rays, which shot down from the ceiling. The place was simultaneously cold and beaming, an odd yet tantalizing combination.

Now seated, Phoenix reached his hand down and touched the dirt that rimmed the tree’s trunk. It was soft and warm, like nourishment. Deep colors stained the tips of his fingers, so he rubbed them on his jeans. Streaks accumulated at the hips, near his pockets, which he knew would upset his father. He rubbed them one more time to make it a sure thing.

Slowly, Phoenix’s eyelids began to fall together. One set of eyelashes brushed the other, and for a moment he felt as though his naked arms were connected to the roots of the trees, intertwined with the deep pulses of the planet, reaching out for the tree in the next courtyard over. Something was in the way––a pipeline, or an aqueduct.

But it only lasted a moment.

A clean, blazing sign turned on abruptly, cracking Phoenix’s trance. A band, whose name he recognized from one of Roxanne’s posters, had released a new album a few seconds ago, and if he had rushed in right then and bought it for his sister, it would have come with an exclusive bonus track, free of charge.

However, he did not do that. People were giving him sideways glances. Instead, he stood up, pressing his hands against the tree for support, and walked home.

Phoenix could feel his sister’s eyes on the back of his head. Roxanne had a stare that could be felt from miles away. Her round, piercing emerald eyes were locked onto him with a ferocity that forced him to turn around and face her.

“What?” he demanded.

“You know what,” she replied, placing a firm hand on her hip. “You were gone for a really long time. You do that a lot. Dad is worried.”


“So? So you might be losing privileges. So Dad might keep you from going out. That’s so.”

Phoenix sighed and returned his gaze to the window. From the six-story height of their house, the people on the ground and lower balconies looked like multicolored spots of paint on an otherwise gleaming white canvas. They waltzed through their routines and around the single tree that sprouted from the tiles of the courtyard, filling the complex with the hum of chatter. The lights from the Store cast colorful shadows across the ground, which contoured to the holes and seams in the tiles while following the bodies they were connected to.

Although it was nearly impossible to make out faces from his distance, Phoenix recognized some of the people. His classmates, as well as his father’s coworkers, stood out to him because of little mannerisms that he had taught himself to notice. A sharp sashay told him he was looking at Bridget Gates, Wage Administrator for New Chicago.

“Listen, Phoenix,” Roxanne snapped, bringing his head back into the house. “I’m not going to say anything. But he’s going to catch on eventually. You and I both know it.”

“I guess,” Phoenix muttered.

“You’ll have to be more careful,” she continued.

“Probably.” His voice fell flat.

“I mean it,” she snarled, no affection in her tone despite her worried words. “People have died up there. Dr. Latimer won’t be able to bring you back from the dead.”

He sighed. “I know.”

She let out a stream of air through clenched teeth. “Is that it?” she hissed. “Is that all I get? Just some nonchalant anti-response?” She growled. “And you can’t even look at me when you say it.”

At that, Phoenix whipped around. “I know,” he glowered, with a jeering, sarcastic smile. Immediately after, he was back to the window.

“Fine! I give up!” she shouted, then left the room.

He listened to her footsteps stomp through the kitchen. “And good riddance,” he sputtered under his breath.

The soft material of the couch caved in beneath his tensed fingers. He could feel pressure building in his nails, but he didn’t pay it much attention. He continued looking out the window, although his search had ended. Only when he heard the door slam at the other side of the house did he rise from the couch.

The walk to the bathroom was not a long one. There were no hallways in his house, only several rooms, directly connected. He opened the door to the bedroom he and his sister shared. Roxanne’s side was neat, topped off with several posters of her favorite singer. On his side, the sheets were crumpled and there were stacks of laundry on the floor. The only ornamentation he had was a single photograph of himself, smiling, with his mother, not smiling.

He walked into the bathroom, locking it for good measure. For a minute he stood there until he found it in himself to shuffle to the sink, grip the handle, and turn it. His hands brought splashes of water to his heated cheeks, which slipped down like the tears he denied. And, after patting his face dry, he was ready to look at himself.

Like most living underground, he had commonplace features––dark hair, dark skin, a straight nose––but there was one thing about him that attracted even more attention than Alexis’s cheekbones. He locked contact with his reflection in the mirror, boring into his own eyes.

His right eye was a rich shade of green, bright like the never-ending forests in his dreams.

His left was a clear, continuous blue, like the pictures of oceans in textbooks.

“What were you thinking?” Alexis asked, helping Phoenix onto the bed. It was hard for him to hear her over the pins and needles in his fingertips. The environment he was in had gone from deathly cold to pleasantly warm without giving his body much time to recognize the change, and his nerves prickled in their scramble to recuperate.

Alexis followed one unanswered question with another. “How much did you give away?” she asked.  Her eyes breezed over Phoenix to find out. “Just lay still.”

Water droplets formed in his nose as the ice melted. Some ran down his sinuses, and others ran down his cheek. A weak cough whispered from his chest.

Alexis looked directly at Phoenix, her lips puckered in concern. Like most people living underground, she had wavy, medium brown hair, dark eyes, and coffee-colored skin. Her only remarkable features were her cheekbones, placed high and proud beneath her eyes, which gave her an aura of glamor.

“How long were you out?” she wondered aloud, now looking at a screen that displayed the information she desired. “Half an hour?”

“You sure ask a lot of questions,” Phoenix managed to say.

“And you sure come here a lot. How do you manage to get through security after when you pull this stunt so often?” Her tone was firm, but she was smirking. “If I didn’t have so much faith in you, I might order them not to let you through. For your own safety.”

Phoenix began a shrug that turned into a flinch. “What can I say? I guess they have faith in me, too.” His chapped lips cracked as he smiled. A droplet of blood swelled and dripped onto his tongue. “Are we going to do the thing with the buckets again?”

“Actually, I was just about to get to that.” Alexis turned and walked over to the sink. “I forgot––is this one you like, or is this one you don’t like?”

“Like,” Phoenix replied. “It’s very soothing.”

The dull sound of water hitting plastic filled his buzzing ears. Most of his sensation was back, in the places where it mattered: across his bare back, he could feel his the soft, damp bed sheet; around his ankles was the solid ice still intact along the hems of his pants. Each breath was stronger than the last, and his blurred thoughts sharpened.

This was always a pleasant room to wake up in, as Phoenix had many times in the past. The ceiling was a clean white, and the walls were painted a gentle eggshell blue. A single print of a sapphire iris adorned the room, right below a certificate awarding Dr. Alexis Latimer graduation from medical school. The place smelled faintly of antiseptics.

“Can you sit up yet?” Alexis asked. Phoenix nodded, dipping his toes into a bucket of lukewarm water. The tingling felt giddy to his numb feet. Alexis set two more buckets by his sides on the bed, and Phoenix placed a hand in each one.

“Okay, Phoenix,” Alexis began, looking more relaxed. “Tell me about what happened out there.”

Phoenix recounted his experience with the man who needed the coats desperately, leaving out the part where he was a walking snowman. There was a good chance she had figured that out on her own.

“It’s a good thing we have kids like you,” Alexis sighed, patting him on the shoulder. Suddenly, he was very conscious of his shirtless state. Blood rushed into his face. Goosebumps emerged where her fingers had been.

“This world is a cold place,” she continued. “No pun intended.” She smiled, then shifted to a more purposeful expression. “Not everyone has the guts to do what’s right. Those people up there, they need you and people like you. Their ancestors were crazy and decided to stay behind, and now they’re stuck with that decision. It’s insane. There’s no reason they can’t come live with us.” She shook her head. “Why am I telling you this? you already agree with me, or you wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing.”

“It’s okay,” Phoenix said. It was a rare opportunity to see the doctor go on like this, and something in her words helped his hands get back to their regular temperature.

“No, I should probably move you along before people get suspicious.” She put emphasis on the word “suspicious” as though it was a silly idea. “Can you feel your hands and feet alright?”

Phoenix lifted his limbs from their respective buckets and wiggled his fingers and toes. “All better!”

“Good,” she said. “Now all I have to do is tell the system that you were a little chilly and the clothes were all sent back to where they belong.” Her eyes twinkled with a smile. “You’re lucky nothing more serious has happened.”

Phoenix smiled in return, slipping the dry shirt Alexis had given him over his head.

“And remember,” she added, bending her knees to be at his eye level, “If you ever need anything, just let me know.”

“Thanks,” he responded, standing up. “I’ll see you again, really soon.”

“Unfortunately,” she laughed, shaking her head. “See you then.”

And he was out the door.

The last bits of light that came from the giant metal doors narrowed and disappeared as someone closed them. It should have been fully dark, but heaping piles of snow reflected what little light came from the nearby dwellings, making the land and sky split directly down the middle: black on top and white below.

Phoenix dragged his feet, already feeling a hint of numbness at his toes. His arms were securely wrapped around his torso for warmth underneath an electric jacket. His legs were farther apart going down to compensate for the layers he was required to wear. A balaclava partially blocked his view.

He glanced backward. The doors were far behind. Ice particles were forming in his nose, and he swallowed saliva to prevent the same thing from happening in his throat. A lack of sensation was creeping upwards, now halfway up his calf. If no one came soon, he would have to go back.

Half of a sky scraper stood erect in the distance, as tribute to the fact that this was once a major city. Its steel supports jutted out like broken bones, and the flesh of its bricks was peeling from top to bottom. Long ago, this building had stood proud, a building of medium height in a thriving hub of life. Now, it was vacant, and only a single orange glow emanated in the skeleton of an empire.

Cautiously, Phoenix turned to go towards the small fire. The gentle dancing of the snowflakes as they fell pulled on something, a memory, in Phoenix’s chest. Every one of them was unique and beautiful without trying or being overly extravagant. The crystals worked together as a community to blanket the Earth. He let them land on his exposed nose. The balaclava was dormant in his hand, and he reached up to stretch his knit hat back over his ears.

Snow continued to crunch underfoot as he managed his way through it. The soft flame was close enough that he could feel it soothe his frozen, rosy cheeks.

“Why do this? Especially now?” he called out.

“Go back to the place you belong,” someone replied in a meek voice. A man, who sounded as though he was not faring well in the cold.

“How many do you have?” Phoenix inquired, walking closer to the source of the sound, already unzipping his outermost coat.

“Only three,” the voice admitted. “Two adults and a child.” A man climbed over the hill and met Phoenix’s eyes. The fire cast deep shadows across his windburnt face, exaggerating his tired, sagging features.

Phoenix finished removing his first jacket and tossed it to the man. “How badly do you need it?”

The man looked down at the ground. “Very.”

“Then I’ll give you whatever I can.” With a greater sense of urgency, Phoenix removed the other jackets until there were only two left, then immediately began taking off the pants. What he left for himself would be insufficient on his journey back underground. Chills were running up his sleeves already as he pulled off the last of his layers in silence.

The bulk of clothes required the man to stretch his arms in the biggest circle they could make. Unlike his tan, worn-out attire, everything he carried was black on the outside and glistening on the inside, the design used to hold in heat. Phoenix shoved his numb fingers into his jeans, which only served to bring the ice to his thighs.

“Thank you,” the man said in a low, grateful voice, almost a whisper, over the bundle.

Phoenix saluted him respectfully, and they both turned and walked away. No matter how long a trek the man had before him, Phoenix’s was longer. Without gloves or face protection, parts of his body were shutting off. Concerned, he began to run, a difficult task in wide snow shoes.

Not only did he have to return to the society he had grown up in, but he had to do it freezing all the way.