Prologue

“We never know we go—When we are going
We jest and shut the door;
Fate following behind us bolts it,
And we accost no more.”

— Emily Dickinson

I don’t remember much about the day I was born, but my parents have always loved a good tale and were kind enough to tell me about it. It was twenty-one years ago, and if I can rely on their story, I imagine it went like this:

“Push! Push! Push! I can see the top of his head!”

“Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuggggghh!”

Then, I’m unclear whether it was “Boo-hoo!” or “Aauugghh!” that eventually thundered through the delivery room, but the gynecologist blurted out, “Uh-oh.”

“What? What! Is he all right?” my parents said.

“He isn’t. But she is. It’s a girl! Ta-da!” the doc cheered triumphantly.

“But you said…” Daddy said.

“A girl?” Mom exclaimed, the disappointment almost successfully hidden in her voice.

The doctor raised his shoulders and handed me to my parents, but I intimately believe that they didn’t accept the offer right away.

“That happens sometimes. What’s important here is that the baby is fine, so try not to put too much emphasis on trivial details.”

“Trivial details?”

“Honey, it’s no big deal.”

“No big deal? I can’t even believe how calm you are about this. You are being far too flippant!” She shook her head dramatically. “I’m sorry, doctor… um…” She squinted her eyes to remember his name. Didn’t happen. “I’m sorry, doctor, I’m a tad confused here. I understand that you could think a baby is a girl because you don’t see anything pointing between its legs, but how can you mistake a girl for a boy?”

“Mrs. Collins, please remember that ultrasounds were not designed for sex prediction. And remember, too, we operate a no-return policy.”

At one point or another, Mom did take me in her arms, and Daddy no doubt eyed me cautiously from over her shoulder.

“What are you going to call her?” Doctor Something wanted to know.

“Well, we were going to call him Phoenix. We fell in love with that name. It’s so unique, so remarkable, but now…” Daddy trailed off.

He and Mom looked at each other and then nodded in silent agreement.

“We’re very sorry,” Mom said to my tiny, wrinkled, screaming face.

“Welcome to the family, sweet little Phoenix,” they said in unison.

I guess in a way I was lucky. It could have been worse; I could have been a Gibson, a Kevin, or a Saxon for all I know. Phoenix is fine. Cute. Sort of funny, too, when you think that a phoenix is a mythical bird that can’t die. When I say “funny,” I really mean to say “bitterly ironic” or “utterly confusing” or “are you freakin’ whistling the X-Files theme tune right now?” because, yeah, apparently I’ll meet my end no later than tomorrow. Why am I even surprised? From day one, my life was a mix-up. I should have known better…

Hour 0: The Beginning of the End.

“Only Love can wound
Only Love can assist the wound.”

— Emily Dickinson

“Yo, girl, have you ever asked yourself what you would do if you were told that today was your final day?” a little voice whispered in my ear.

It was a soft, albeit guttural murmur, seemingly lodged deep in the back of my head, and yet as clear as if it had been spoken by a small devil comfortably sitting next to my neck. He had this faint and very chichi Hispanic accent that made his Rs roll in an almost slurring way, and his drawn-out Ls stress extravagantly as if they yearned to catch sight of someone they’d long missed.

But no, actually, I reflected to myself, I had never seized such an opportunity to bow to my fate. But why would I have? This wasn’t really the kind of question to pique my interest. For obvious reasons.

Probably grinning, the horned and tailed, reddish-skinned little being impatiently plonked his pitchfork several times into my shoulder as if to say, “Well?” He clearly wasn’t talking about the essay that was due in tomorrow for my Spanish literature class: “If Don Quixote isn’t a tautegorical symbol, how do you relate to his tale? You have four hours.” No, he meant it in the way that, beyond these next twenty-four hours, I would be dead. Irreparably dead. Counting worms six feet under the daisies. Having kicked “kick off” off my bucket list. End of life.

Period.

If ever pondered at all, this twenty-four-hours-left-to-live obscenity was the sort of rhetorical question I could have used in my Don Quixote de La Mancha essay, because I was no different than the other reckless young adults my age: brash, cocky, and mostly only intending to live forever. I’d assumed my expiration date would be good for at least another sixty years before I became unfit for use, the noxious slowly-decaying-cabbage perfume and the unpasteurized gorgonzola stage of my rotting beginning only in the next decade or so. That is, if I were lucky. Or unlucky, depending on how you looked at it.

At least, that’s what I had believed until this minuscule, ethereal creature knocked at my head’s wicket gate and so amiably reminded me I’d better hurry up with reconsidering my long-term goals and think wiser, think otherwise.

Think otherwise, I objected. Right. As if the phrase were self-explanatory…

Only a few scenarios fit this iniquitous conspiracy.

For example, say if I were suffering from depression and planning to commit suicide. Or if I were panic-stricken, suffocating under rubble in the aftermath of an earthquake. Perhaps flying a two-motor bird running low on gas and requesting permission to divert to Pyongyang. Maybe I’m unable to escape a house about to be razed to the ground, engulfed in flames the size of the towering sandstone buttes of Monument Valley. I’ve been poisoned, having swallowed a whole mob of Arizona bark scorpions. Also possible, simply and more reasonably, if I were terminally ill.

But none of these are the case.

I’d get it, too, if I were on death row, but I wasn’t imprisoned in any jail, for I had committed no crime, least of all one that deserved the death penalty. No, that wasn’t it. I would gladly reconsider my too-strong-to-be-defeated existence if I’d been brain-eaten by a zombie. Sadly, I believe zombies and other spooky monsters don’t exist outside the realm of metaphors.

There were only three last possibilities I could think of. One: a friend was playing an absolutely brutal prank on me, which meant I’d have to either reassess my list of friends or my reasoning for having put them there in the first place, or both. Two: I was being punished for something stupid I did or for something important I didn’t care to do. And three: life’s unfair, which explains nothing but is still self-complacent.

Bottom line is, unless smoking a spliff on an auspicious occasion is considered a self-zombian and punishable act, or unless rashness is suddenly a crime, I am not guilty of anything.

But, be that as it may, there is apparently little room for doubt regarding my, and I quote, “condition.” A condition that, judging by how clueless I am, I still need to acclimatize to. Some say, “Live in ignorance and purchase your happiness.” They shrug their shoulders dismissively, thus throwing their own little devil off balance, and then add, “Sometimes, things are better left unknown.” All right, I agree. It’s true. Shrugging my shoulders now.

But it didn’t really all start with the little voice, did it?

The reason why I was so absorbed in my thoughts at that time… No, wait, this isn’t true either. I wasn’t “absorbed” in any thought; I had no thoughts at all, like I’d given myself a literal brain freeze, all contemplation put on hold. Nevertheless, whether the little demon hit the play button and resumed me or not, the bombshell had already been dropped.

Twenty-eight minutes ago, to be exact.

That was when I opened my eyes to find my mouth and nose covered with an oxygen mask, and a dozen or so sensors linking my chest to monitors that bleeped a monotonous chorus of soft, dull sounds. I had no recollection of the prior hours. Hell, days, even. All I could make out was that I was in a private hospital room and that no one was by my bedside. The door to my room was slightly ajar, and the two men talking right outside in the hallway probably thought I was still sleeping. I’m sure they didn’t intend for me to overhear them. Their conversation pierced my ears all the same.

“There’s nothing more we can do for her. As things stand now, her condition is unlikely to improve,” one of the men said.

“You mean…” This second voice, deeper than the previous one, was cold in such a way that I couldn’t tell whether it was an I-don’t-care kind of cold or an I’m-building-a-fortress-with-a-deep-moat-and-massive-thick-walls-around-me-so-as-not-to-be-hurting kind of cold. He hesitated an instant, struggling for the right words or simply not daring to speak them, I imagine. “You mean she’s dying?” As much as I hate to admit, it sounded more like an acknowledgment than a question.

“Yes.”

There was a pregnant pause. I held my breath. And then the second guy cleared his throat—again, I couldn’t tell why—before he asked, “How long?”

“It’s hard to say. Twenty-four hours? Maybe less.”

“Is she in any pain?”

“No. It’s unlikely. The drugs we administered to her are very powerful.”

“And Hawke?”

I gasped and remembered to breathe. The doctor’s words bounced uncontrollably off the inside walls of my skull: diagonally, side to side, up and down, and back and forth like a rogue pinball. As for the man to whom the doctor spoke, he might have been emotional or emotionless, he might have even been someone I knew; either way, I didn’t recognize his voice. I do not remember who brought me to the hospital. In fact, I only vaguely remember even arriving here, let alone how long I have been here or whether the medical team had to fight hard to get me out of “this.” Whatever “this” might be. What’s happened to me? What incurable harm do I appear to be suffering from? I wonder whether it’s such a rare “condition” that it will be named after me. I don’t know anything, and if it hadn’t been for them mentioning Hawke, I would have assumed they were discussing another patient.

But frankly, none of these questions actually mattered to me at that point, because upon hearing the doctor’s verdict I knew enough for my blood to simply run cold.

I couldn’t draw a breath. I lay on my bed, transfixed and rigid like the dead carcass of the deer that Uncle Bob had once hit and left lying on the side of the road. And, like the deer’s wide-open eyes that had been glued to Uncle Bob’s car in the moments before Uncle Bob had run over it, my wide-open eyes were glued to the door that was only half-hiding the doctor’s disgraceful hit-and-run.

Impossible, I thought, they must’ve made a mistake: I’m only twenty-one. Not to mention my name is Phoenix. Phoenix! No such thing as “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” for this Phoenix self of mine. Old myths must die as hard as phoenixes. I can’t die at twenty-one. I simply cannot die today, tomorrow, or in the next sixty or lucky-unlucky seventy years; it’s too bizarre a discrepancy.

Notwithstanding the evidence—or lack, thereof—the force of the words whiplashed my head off the pillow, and my whitetail-like eyeballs instinctively migrated upward to the digital clock that hung on the wall.

The big green numbers read “8:34” under the clock face. I couldn’t believe the doctor’s words, but if I really had a mere twenty-four hours to live, then it was better knowing when my last sundown would be.

At first, I denied the whole thing. Ignorance is bliss.

But then, after a while, I began to detect the blood-curdling pulsations of the clock, ticking away like a deadly time bomb.

“It’s for you I’m ticking,” it said to me. “I am time, and you’re wasting me.”

I didn’t know what to reply.

I’ve heard before about the five stages you go through when you’re confronted with mourning: denial, anger, negotiation, despair, and then acceptance. Whatever the “normal” or “acceptable” length of time is to deal with situations involving death, when it comes to preparing for your own grieving, these stages tend to shrink. You can take my word for it, for whatever it’s worth. In my case, I emerged from my lethargic denial state after twenty minutes. It was then 8:54, and I had spent the entire time not batting an eyelid.

I hadn’t yet reached the acceptance of my passing—far from it—and I was angry—stage two—that’s for sure. But I couldn’t turn the bush over and over again with the same two questions, which were “what in the actual fuck” and “how the hell?”

I hated them, those guys in the hall, for letting me know. But in all honesty, who wouldn’t want the cruel and blunt truth when faced with such little time to live?

Awkward silence.

Then an outraged teenaged voice exploded in my head: This question is so freakin’ unfair! To know, or not to know…? What kind of a Hobson’s choice was that anyway? It was like having to choose between threading different parts of yourself on skewers over and over again until you run out of blood, and minding your own business until you are suddenly hit by a cloud-to-ground, one-billion-volt lightning bolt. It was a perfectly blue sky outside—I should be able to avoid the second option.

Of course, I would want the ugly truth. I must be a bit of a masochist like that. Nevertheless, my being somewhat beholden to these faceless men for their accidental honesty doesn’t mean I don’t hate them for it. I did, and I still do. If anything is fair out here, it’s the blame game.

So, yes, in any case, I had—more or less—accepted my fate.

Fuck, no, I haven’t! I never will. I had “sorta duly noted” this falling-on-my-ass, jaw-hitting-the-ground-hard shocker, but I certainly haven’t accepted it.

Hence why I came to reflect on what a sentenced fellow’s last requests might be. There are so many things to do in so little time that I didn’t know where to start.

No, that’s a lie; I was so freaked out that nothing came to mind. Not one thing.

Was I supposed to do the crazy things you only did once in a lifetime? Like skydiving? Swimming among great white sharks off the coast of South Africa or Australia? In my situation, I’d be dead long before I even had time to reach either of these countries. By the way, does anxiety disappear when you jump out of the plane with “no pressure”? I imagine that a parachute could very well be optional in my case. Because, obviously, what’s to risk when you know that by the same time tomorrow you’ll have crossed the river Styx regardless?

You could also go swimming sans cage in the midst of the big blues for all it would matter in the long run. But no, it’s clear cut, there’s a lot at stake; you’d still risk cutting your life short, even if only by mere hours. Those hours suddenly become precious when they are already spilling through your fingers like sand through a sieve whose holes have been drilled too wide, as if by a suburban woman more accustomed to finely manicuring her nails than using her man’s heavy drill.

Therefore, it was easy for me to put aside all activities that, although they would be fascinating, could incidentally result in a “premature” death. Not to mention how horrifically bloody those two causes of death would be and the effects they would have on the aforementioned sophisticated woman—my mother, for example—when she is called in to identify my body. Or to identify pieces of my body. Vomit bags on demand.

Instead of objectionable activities that risk life and limb, I could spend the day crying over my sad misfortune, refusing a while longer to accept the unacceptable words stolen from the executioner’s mouth. It did kind of feel like one of those “morning after” type moments; the ones when you awake not entirely clear as to where you are or where you’ve been, but the fucking light shining through the windows prompts an unmistakable reminder of your hangover and hurts your head like a thousand skewers. All that I wanted was to grab my pillow, shove it over my face, and contemplate suffocation. But then again: twenty-four hours. Twenty-fucking-four hours. “Maybe less,” the doctor even said, as though the communiqué was still too bearable.

So, no, I wouldn’t do that, either.

It just sounded bat-crap crazy. How was it even possible to die within twenty-four hours inside the walls of a hospital in the twenty-first century? Had I been teleported to Africa or something? ’Cause last I checked there was no pandemic of Ebola, cholera, chikungunya, or any other incurable diseases ending with “a” in the United States of America. Did I just come back from an exotic trip? It didn’t feel like it; I don’t think so. As pitiful as it sounds—and I know it does—all I know and remember is Albuquerque, New Mexico.

It was a bad dream. I was going to wake up. I felt good, for God’s sake! If anything, I merely had a little stomachache.

This was so unreal.

But if it were an unreal world, Doctor House would be at my bedside and would be finding a cure to my illness. In extremis, of course, but he would.

“The patient has a stomachache and will eat the grass by the ratoons within twenty-four hours. Diagnosis?” he’d ask his team. They would all think about it for three quarters of the hour-length episode, thus building tension like only they and Hitchcock knew how to do, and then House would say, “It’s easy, the patient suffers from…” You can fill in the blank here. “Give her fifty milligrams of…” Please, fill in the blank here, too. “And she’ll ‘be great again’, to quote our new leader.”

Sadly, I knew that in this real world of ours, there was no Gregory House.

In this real world, there was only a frustratingly unimaginative doctor outside my room, and he had just given Regis Philbin his final answer while I was still trying to figure out what the original Jeopardy! question was.

That’s when my insides flipped. I gasped for a breath, but nothing came. This half-real, half-unreal world had suddenly become menacing, and the lack of oxygen descended like a suffocating blanket over my brain in a panic. In desperation, I sucked in another breath, burning my lungs with a ferocity that consumed me. I needed air. I wasn’t ready to start a taxidermy business like Uncle Bob’s—Uncle Bob is my mother’s brother, by the way—but the atmosphere in my room had grown unbreathable and putrid, as though the whitetail had actually been slaughtered here, and my chest squashed my lungs so hard that I wondered if a sumo wrestler was sitting there, waiting for a judge to acknowledge his match-winning point.

The walls were a faded green color, like a cleverly subtle subterfuge advertising the virtues of walking in the woods, as if that’s all it would take to cure your mind, body, and soul. But where were the scents and smells that supposedly had powerful effects on your health and emotions? There wasn’t even a window on any of the four walls I was caged in beneath this low ceiling of survival opportunities. Therefore, there was no view of the outside world to aid my terribly discombobulated mind or to allow some fresh air in.

I was waiting for God knows what, all the while watching the big blue sharks with both marvel and terror because no one thought of equipping me with a decent diving tank before they foundered the cage. I felt like I was going mad, and maybe I was. My blood was boiling in my veins and pretty much every internal organ felt twisted. I was stifled by the hands of the clock that inexorably continued to turn against my silence, against me, patiently awaiting my demise.

My mother is a fortune-cookie writer—no, seriously—and a grandiloquent language lover, and when she wasn’t feeding me unbearably colorful words such as “goblocks” and “uliginous” and “brobdingnagian” or, to take an easier one, “coulrophobia”—which I suffered from as a child—she was always giving me wise advice and such. She would preach, “All things come to those who wait” and “Never give up” and “If at first you don’t succeed, try, and try again.”

Bullshit!

Someone else said, “If at first you don’t succeed, then skydiving isn’t for you.” I am not skydiving; I think I’ve made that part clear.

Realization dawned on me like a bolt of lightning switching the lights on in my brain: I was going to die. I was not tilting at windmills here; if I didn’t do something about it, all the sandglass grains would fall into the lower bulb while I lay here dilly-dallying and looking for freaking answers to eventually—a good number of curses later—come down from the ceiling.

That was out of the question.

This was unreal. I wouldn’t let it be real.

I removed the oxygen mask and tore the wires off my chest. The monitors began to shriek, sounding like a repetition of female groundhogs waiting for the opening of a florist store on Black Friday. I clenched my fists and stiffly thumped as many buttons as I possibly could to silence the screech. To prevent Uncle Bob’s anthropomorphic animals from popping into my head again, I imagined the buttons I was hammering to be alien heads in a vintage arcade game. Because no matter what sort of BS Uncle Bob may or may not advocate, hammering actual groundhogs—or females—is immoral. It reassured me when I bravely hoisted myself from the bed to find I didn’t feel dizzy.

The doctor came in, followed by two nurses built like bodyguards in flashy pink medical scrubs, but I ignored them. I wasn’t even embarrassed when I found myself naked in front of them. My clothes were dirty, but I didn’t register that either. I just put them on. I grabbed my denim jacket that had been laid on the back of a chair and donned that too, buttoning it all the way up to my neck to hide the stains of blood on my sweater.

“You can’t go, Phoenix,” the doctor said resolutely in spite of the gentleness of his voice.

I’m going to die today and you can’t do shit about it, but I can’t go? For some reason, I thought it was funny—but the moment didn’t feel particularly amusing to me.

“Or what?” I challenged them. “I will die?”

They were speechless. Of course they were. After a second, the doctor nodded staidly with his mouth shut.

“What’s wrong with me?”

Again, I faced silence.

“Tell me what’s wrong with me!” I urged them.

“Phoenix, stay calm, we can ease yo—”

“Oh, don’t give me that shit,” I cut him off but obliged nonetheless, staying as calm as the situation didn’t allow. “I don’t want you to ease anything. I want you to tell me what the hell is wrong with me. I want you to have the guts to look me in the eye and tell me there’s nothing more you can do for me.”

It was like talking to a wall.

“TELL ME!”

“There’s nothing more we can do for you,” he told me matter-of-factly, looking me in the eye as requested.

Still, I waited for more, but nothing came; his mouth was steadfastly shut as though he were wearing Doctor Hannibal Lecter’s mask, and he spooked me just as much. Come to think of it, a wire cage covering half his face would be better than a surgical mask, seeing as the latter would mean I was infected with something deadly and contagious.

At any rate, we each stood motionless in opposite corners of the small hospital room like we were partaking in an old Gary Cooper movie, each opponent waiting for the other one to draw first. After a minute of no one budging, I crossed to the old sliding doors and waited impatiently as they slowly moved aside to let me through.

Some things are better left unknown, I reminded myself. If at some point I ever did decide to suss out the ideological meaning of life or the factual speculation of my death, and if at first I didn’t succeed, I’d just try, try, and fucking try again to remember what happened because “all things come to those who wait.” Thanks, Mom, very helpful after all.

And thus, without further adieu, I left.

It’s now 9:02 a.m. and the next twenty-four hours are apparently the last of my life. Well, the next twenty-three hours and thirty-two minutes—rough estimate. Bah! Nothing’s for freaking sure. It could also be “maybe less.”