The Phoenix Corporation complex perches atop a volcanic ridge overlooking the Pacific. Its vari-copper cladding catches the rising sun, turning the buildings to flame. I used to love watching the building burn like its namesake, but today can think of nothing but Kokua, plummeting through the atmosphere, his wingsuit disintegrating in a ball of fire. My bold eagle, nothing more than ash.
Phoenix Corp.’s rebirth procedure is a miracle, though the insurance is costly enough to be prohibitive for anyone not born with a silver spoon or working in a dangerous field with an employer willing to foot the bill. It’s given thousands of people a second chance. A fatal car accident becomes nothing more than a story to be laughed over around the Thanksgiving table. Military recruitment is up–the G.I. coverage is lifetime.
And thrill-seekers chase ever wilder rushes like moths to flames.
After his first spacejump, Kokua’d caught me up in his strong arms and spun me round, eyes flashing. Biggest rush in the world! The Earth’s an abalone-shell marble you could pluck from the sky. Then, it fills your eyes and your heart and every last molecule, dragging you down, down, down…
Despite the tropical heat, I shiver.
Inside, I approach the receptionist, ignoring the subtle orange and gold lighting that pulses up the sides of the counter. “Sergeant Kokua Smithson, please.”
She blinks through her optical display, then frowns. “Mrs. Smithson?”
“If you’ll come with me, please?”
I trail after her, a nervous clenching in my chest.
She leads me through a koa-wood door, without a department name I can see, and beckons a young man with spiky, gold-tipped hair and a lilac button-down with subtle flowers worked into the weave. “Edward, this is Mrs. Smithson,” she says, then vanishes.
“Mrs. Smithson,” he says. “Have a seat.”
I don’t sit. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s ‘wrong,’ Mrs. Smithson. It’s just that this is your husband’s fifth rebirth.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” I snap, then grasp the back of the empty chair in front of me and squeeze. No good biting Edward’s head off. This isn’t his fault.
“Are you aware the Army’s instituted lifetime limits, outside of the line of duty?”
My throat tightens. “I know.”
Rebirth is a miracle, they say, and the first time, that may well be true. But they don’t talk much about the changes. Small, barely noticeable things. Maybe a Phoenix doesn’t like olives anymore. Or laugh at clever wordplay. Nothing that makes a difference.
But over repeated rebirths, well, things start to build up. The second time, Kokua developed diabetes. The third, he couldn’t stand the sound of our son’s cello playing. And he didn’t hold it inside, like he would’ve done before. I thought he was going to smash the thing, and I had to make Benji promise to practice only at school before anything beyond his unwavering father-worship got hurt.
Edward puts a manicured hand over my own. His skin is so pale against mine. I can’t tear my eyes away from those long, white fingers. “You have to get him to stop, Mrs. Smithson. If he dies again, there won’t be another rebirth.” His voice so soft. Understanding.
I close my eyes. “I know.”
* * *
When they lead Kokua into the lobby, his burnished skin gleams with that newly-reborn glow I’d found so beautiful the first time. I’d dissolved in tears and he’d held me so close I couldn’t breathe, and promised me he was done with jumping. He’d never put me through that again.
I think he meant it, at least for a while.
“Mandy,” he says, restlessly tugging a seam on his Phoenix Corp. t-shirt.
We walk to the car in awkward silence. I don’t want to find out what’s different this time. The sullen had come with the fourth rebirth, along with an even shorter temper. He couldn’t focus. Couldn’t seem to finish simple tasks like laundry folding or filling gas tanks in advance of a convoy. He’d been officially reprimanded, Benji spent most nights at friends’ houses, and Kokua didn’t care. About anything.
When I found out he’d signed up for another jump, I lost it. Told him he was losing his son. Losing me. Losing himself.
Goddammit, Mandy, I’ve already lost me! Can’t you see that? I just want to feel something again.
Sometimes I wish I didn’t feel.
I slam the door and drive down the slope toward the city, the Pacific stretching like liquid turquoise to the horizon.
Finally, I can’t handle the silence any longer. “Did it work?”
I wonder if he’ll understand the question. The AC hums, filling the inside of the car with ice.
“For a moment. When there’s nothing but space–sky and stars and the breath in your lungs–you can’t help but feel.”
My fingers tighten around the steering wheel. “That was five, Kokua. There’s no more left.”
He glances my way. “You should jump with me. Maybe then you’d understand.”
It’s almost tempting. What would it be like to see the whole world spread out beneath me? To see stars I’ll never get to see from here on the ground?
I shake myself. “I’m not insured, Kokua, you know that.”
“You don’t die every time. Besides, the risk makes it sweeter.”
A breath of plumeria blows in through the vents, sweet and grounding. “I can’t afford that risk. Not with Benji.”
Silence stretches for a minute, then Kokua finally speaks. “Who’s Benji?”
My heart skips a beat and my vision goes black around the edges. I pull to the side of the road and suck in slow breaths.
When I’m pretty sure I won’t pass out, I look over at Kokua, at those black eyes I’d once loved more than the world. “You’re going to jump again, aren’t you?”
He nods, his stranger’s gaze shifting away from mine.
I should fight him, but I can’t find the will.
“Then I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
Originally published in Factor Four Magazine - April 2018. Republished here by permission of the author.
© 2019 Rebecca Birch