The first thing the Old Man told me was this: “Sometimes folks just don’t die right.”
So I’m gonna tell you a story about what that that means, and I want you to listen real carefully.
The Old Man said to me: “Sometimes they go down. Sometimes they go down, down, right down to the bottom. Right to the center of it all, but they don’t stay there. They come right back up. That’s what you done, son. You came right back up.” He told me this with his cold, dusty gloves cupping either side of my face. He had to hold me down so I didn’t keep screaming or else I might have done that until I died the right way.
My skin was still charred when I first woke up. I raised my hands above my head and watched as it bubbled and leaked, as it grew pink — then brown — between the charcoal scabs. By nightfall I was covered in an armor of abscess. I spent six hours popping yellowed sacks of pus to reveal my new skin, baby-soft and unmarked.
“What do you remember?” the Old Man asked me when I could speak. My tongue was still numb from blistering, my eyes hazy and cheeks raw from where the skin had sloughed off in rubbery sheets. I didn’t remember, I tried to say. It wasn’t true — I saw glimpses of it in short, painful bursts. Tiny, knife-shaped headaches that ground through my skull like diamond. I remembered some ugly words and the grate of a lighter being clicked to life over and over again. I remembered tripping over my shoelaces and hearing a song somewhere in the distance, a hard grind of sax and bass. Funk was a false promise of kindness. Will it go ‘round in circles? Billy Preston was asking me. Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky?
“I burned,” I told him. “They freaking burned me. I died burning.”
“A lot of things die burning,” Old Man Gasper said. “But not you.”
Before I burned, I fancied that I could have been a comic book writer. What Dad wanted for me was to go to Berkeley, like he did, and we argued so fiercely about it that it was the last thing we talked about before he went and got himself crushed on the highway by an eighteen-wheeler on the way home from a lecture. I figured at least writing comic books I’d be safe; locked inside a dusty one-room apartment eating beans out of a can.
What I liked about comics was that they only had so many pages, right? Tolstoy could write as much as he damn well wanted to tell us about War and Peace, but Stan Lee only has twenty-four pages to show us how Spider-Man learned about responsibility. When I was a kid, comics could only use four colors. That’s why Dad thought they were juvenile. He used to criticize them for being emotionally shallow, for not being able to capture anything but the broadest expression of human experience. I was too young to articulate it when he died, but what I’d tell him now is that full expression is not the point. When you can only use four colors, you choose them carefully. Distill them down to their purest and most immutable form.
That’s the argument I still have in my head with my father — that comics express the Platonic ideal of emotion. At least, that’s how I understood things at the time.
LAZARUS AND THE AMAZING KID PHOENIX, ISSUE #1
Text Box: THE CURIOUS ORIGIN OF THE AMAZING KID PHOENIX. A BOY THAT CAN BURN WITH THE HEAT OF HADES! WATCH HIM LEARN, WATCH HIM BURN, WATCH HIM BURN DOWN THE WHOLE ENTIRE WORLD.
Panel 2: (Picture this: Chicago, 1972. It’s a dark alley on a stormy night. You know the place, man, it’s every alley in every city all over the US of A. There’s trash cans and rats with slavering mouths and giant, cartoon-red eyes. An owl hoots somewhere in the distance, a premonition. Real spooky stuff.)
Panel 3: (A kid barrels down the narrow between buildings. 5’7”, skinny and knobby at the joints. About 16 years old, African-American and growing into a handsome man if you believe what his mom says (and his mom doesn’t lie). The kid’s not terrified. He’s running with purpose, because he’s being followed by villains and he’s gotta lure them into a false sense of security.)
Panel 4: (He (heroically) skids to a stop. Sound effect: SKEEEET. He wheels around — not panting, not out of breath. He’s grinning because he’s got something in store for them.)
Panel 5: (Who are they? Three shadows block the entrance of the alleyway. The second half of the panel is eaten by a gaping, plump mouth. There’s an angry gap between its front teeth, an abyss of ill intent, darker than the night.)
Panel 6: (Light spills in from the streetlamps. Our villains, illuminated: a pack of dumb looking thugs wearing matching red jackets and high-collar shirts. One has a narrow rat face, the leader is pig-nosed. He’s a clear contrast to our hero, who is clean-cut and comely with large eyes and a trustworthy smile.)
THUG: We’re gonna teach you a lesson, nerd! To show you what happens when you stand in our way!
(The leader of the pack flips out his butterfly knife and snarls.)
Panel 7: (Our hero puts his hands on his hips and stands proud. He is the single bright point in a dark, corrupt world.)
KID PHOENIX: And I’ll teach you what happens to lowlifes who try to deal drugs in my neighborhood!
Panel 8: (And aren’t they surprised when our Hero bursts into flames.)
Old Man Gasper was a hulking figure packed all uneven and lumpy into a canvas suit that didn’t hang right on his body. It folded backwards around the joints and bunched up over the rims of his boots and gloves. He wore a gas mask and a mining helmet and he never took them off. He left no part of himself visible to the outside world. In the evening, he sat on a milk crate and talked to me about philosophy, his harmonica grasped loosely in the open crib of his hands. We stayed in a bare room with no electricity. The dying light turned all the shadows on his body into fathomless canyons.
On the sixth day he told me — in that molasses Appalachian accent of his — about his troubles: “When I was just a bit older than you, I used to work in the mines. A lot of things go wrong down there. Already halfway to hell is what my pa used to say.”
His voice evoked the image of shadows moving bent-backed through the fog. Of mist rolling down the green mountain in soft folds. Gasper sighed: “They don’t care none about what happens to a coal miner in the depths. A coal miner ain’t nobody but a coal miner’s son. When I burnt up, they just closed off the tunnel.”
I tried to imagine it: the steam bursting up around him like a living thing. A beast made of translucent fang and smoke claw. Its silk tendrils slide beneath his flesh. It makes his veins snap and pop, makes the skin roil with greasy, white bubbles. The image shivered through me.
“When my body dissolved in the steam no one came back to check,” he said. “I laid in the ink like one of the horrors what lives on the bottom of the ocean and never ever dreams that the sun might exist. When I crawled back into my suit, I didn’t even noticed I’d changed.”
It took time for me to noticed I’d changed too. On the sixth day, I looked just fine, but my bones felt like they were trying to jump out of my skin. I traced lines over my face, looking for imperfections. I’d pinch at my neck, my knees, the inseams of my elbows, any place where the skin hung loose and soft. I felt like I was something new underneath and maybe I could peel away my flesh like a sheet of cellophane.
I was scared that I really was dead and I’d turn gray and smelly like the zombies in Romero’s films. That was probably why the Old Man wouldn’t take off his mask, I decided, ‘cause he smelled like pig’s ass.
It took a week before I stubbed a bare toe on brick and got so mad that I burst into flame. Blew the windows right out of the abandoned apartment we were staying in and stained all the walls with soot-shadows. Ashy firebirds with jagged, angry wings.
Old Man Gasper wasn’t even upset. He just took off one of his big, leather gloves and showed me how there was nothing underneath but tendrils of pale, smoky film. He had no hands. He had no body. Gasper hadn’t just died in the steam, he’d become it.
“When it first happened to me I had this fear that God didn’t want me,” Gasper said calmly. “Then I thought about it even more and got afeared that the Devil didn’t want me neither. I couldn’t figure out what I’d done in this life to make both the Devil and the Lord too mad to look me in the eyes.”
He took off his mask to show me that it was hollow as well.
“Well, yeah, sure they don’t want to look in your eyes,” I joked. “I mean, man, come on — you don’t even have eyes anymore.”
He laughed and an involuntary shudder rocked right through me; the man I was talking to, he had no mouth, no throat, no body to make that noise. His shape was only human because something in the steam remembered what it was like to be shaped like a human. It was as close to having a conversation with a man’s soul as anyone ever got.
Gasper leaned forward — the elbows of the empty jacket settling on rubber knees in a motion that was driven by pure force of nostalgia. “The flames gave you another life, son. I’m going to show you what we do with it.
LAZARUS AND THE AMAZING KID PHOENIX, ISSUE #3
Panel 1: (Our heroes stand on a roof, vigilant. The night sky is dark, but their silhouettes are made bright by the light of a dollar-coin moon.)
Text Box: LAZARUS AND HIS AMAZING SIDEKICK, KID PHOENIX, HIT THE MEAN CHICAGO STREETS TO BUST UP ITS MOST NEFARIOUS CRIMINALS AND GANGBANGERS!
Panel 2: (Lazarus is chasing down a thief. You know that it’s a thief ‘cause he’s clutching a purse to his chest like it’s a baby. Lazarus’s arms extend as smoke from the confines of his suit. His hands look like fluffy clouds as they wrap around the thief’s ankle.)
Panel 3: (The thief has toppled over! He crumples against a brick wall with his tongue lolling out of a dog-like mouth.)
Panel 4: (Lazarus — ever the kindly and soft old man — holds the purse up triumphantly. His gas mask is twisted in a big ol’ grin.)
LAZARUS: Tsk, tsk, tsk. Didn’t you know: pearls before swine is just a turn of phrase!
(Kid Phoenix arrives on the scene, his eyes glittering with red fire.)
KID PHOENIX: Golly gee, Lazarus. I guess he better stick to ham sandwiches from now on!
Panel 5: (Lazarus claps his kid sidekick on the shoulder, like a proud father.)
LAZARUS: He’ll get all the ham he can eat at the state penitentiary!
The Old Man only had a few possessions. He had a set of encyclopedias, 1968 edition. He had a harmonica and he grew plants. He said that he liked plants because the Egyptians used a germinating seed to represent the rebirth of Osiris. I didn’t even know what Osiris was. I was more interested in his fourth hobby, which was sitting on a roof at dusk and looking for trouble.
“You only take a crime within five city blocks of where we’re staying, and never one out in the open.” He told me the rules, counting them on his fingers one by one. “Never one where you’ll be spotted, or one that you think the police will attend to. And you don’t take one where the criminals are kids, or they look wretched.”
“This is so cool,” I said. “It’s like we’re Batman and Robin.”
The Old Man stared at me, silent, vapor curling quizzically in the eyes of his mask.
“You gotta be kidding me, you’ve never heard of Batman.” I snorted. “Of course, you were born in what, 1750?”
“1882,” Gasper corrected.
“So, if you’ve never read Batman, why do you do this?”
The Old Man was quiet a moment. “I didn’t at first,” he said.
“What made you start?”
“I met a lady, one like us, only she were worse done by it.”
“How do you get worse done by than burnt to death?”
Gasper set his palm on my head. “Well, son, her husband beat her so bad that when he was done with her she looked like a sack of meat with no shape.”
I could feel him trembling through the glove. My imagination, I guessed, because the Old Man didn’t have the flesh or the muscles or the nervous system to quake from any emotion at all. It was probably me who was shaking.
“He dumped her in a quarry afterward and she laid there a week in the Arizona sun. Then she came back up and looked at her reflection in the water. You want to know what she told me she saw?”
I leaned forward and propped my elbows up on the lip of the building. It didn’t hurt anymore to grind my skin between brick and bone. “A lady with her head caved in?”
Gasper shook his head.
“No, because my lady friend, her head didn’t stay caved. Where she got hit, she grew a new bone where there wasn’t bone before. That’s what she looked like — six joints in her arm, armour made of teeth coverin’ her face. She was magnificent. She said to me: ‘God wants you.’ She said: ‘God wants us more n’ ever.’ She believed that so sure that she gored six men to death in just the first month after she came back up. What she saw in the water, she said, was an angel.”
“What happened to her.”
Gasper said nothing.
I was filling up inside, welling with a strange anxiety like the sky was getting bigger all around me but I just kept shrinking until I was too small to even comprehend the stars. I asked: “Did you see her again, then?”
“No.” Gasper answered.
“So, what? We do it ‘cause God wants us to? Like your lady friend said?”
“Son,” the Old Man said solemnly, “God doesn’t exist. But we do, and so did she. Now, watch carefully.”
What Old Man Gasper did was that he creeped right into a man’s throat and held onto it gently. The man we got, he’d cornered a woman like a wolf corners prey, like a sheepdog herds ewes. He had her flat against the brick with a snarl and something clenched between his fingers that glittered in the streetlight.
The Old Man said to me: “Shhh,” and he seeped from the gaps in his coat, from the muzzle of his mask. He snaked through the night air, a quivering ribbon of silver, leaving his boots and coat and shroud deflated in a pile at my side. The man breathed him in without even knowing it. The Old Man became a hitch in his throat and the criminal pawed desperately at the skin of his neck as heat poured down his esophagus.
Old Man Gasper asphyxiated the man slowly, gently. Carefully. Filled his throat and his nose and his lungs just long enough to interrupt respiration. The man folded in on himself, crumpled right in front of his victim, limbs all crooked.
“She never knew a thing happened,” I whispered when the Old Man got back. She pulled her jacket tight around her and fled. I looked at my own hands, turned the flame on and watched the dirt burn off, felt strangely cool inside the cage of immolation. The fever burning in my chest was a comfort, the spark between my teeth a power.
“I couldn’t do that,” I said. “I couldn’t do it so that no one knew a thing happened.”
“We’ll figure it out,” the Old Man said. He was confident. He always sounded confident, probably since he was nearly a century old.
I spent the next week on the roofs, watching. The Old Man had a system, but he was so cautious. He was cautious in a way that made my bones rattle and my nerves go taut all around my joints. Gasper did small deeds, saved small people. I had fingers that could turn into tendrils of heat, a heart that was newly molten at its core.
“I could just burn the whole thing down,” I told him one night.
“What would be the point?”
“The whole wicked place. I could find the fuckers that burned me and I could burn all their shit down, Old Timer. I could do it.”
“And would that bring your mother peace?”
I went to my place sometimes, got up on the fire escape and pressed my hands to the window, trying to catch of glance of Mom and my brothers. I always played it safe. Never stayed long enough to see a smile or a sob. To see if Mom’s hands were shaking. It was too soon, I knew, too soon after Dad for me to have died too. The Old Man said I could go back if I wanted, but it was impossible. I’d been all the way down, right down to the bottom. You can’t look your mother in the eye after you’ve seen the bottom of the world.
What was I supposed to say to her? “Oh hi Mom. Just so you know, the world is a vast, dark and Godless place. It’s brutal and violent and I just want to set fire to the foundations. I want to dive beneath the Earth’s crust and shake up the magma until it pops through the pores of the planet and we all burn together.” That’s how it felt. I was scared that if I looked her in the eye, that’s what I would have said.
“Sorry, Ma’,” I’d say to her, my hands turned to flame. “I guess I’m a monster now.”
Instead I began to read the encyclopedias. I’d set two beside me and read them front to back in a day. I’d never known I could read so fast before I had a literal flame burning at my back.
“Lazarus,” I said, my finger on the name. “Lazarus and Kid Phoenix.”
“Hmm?” the Old Man wheezed between broken harmonica notes.
“They’re our names, Old Timer. You spent three days dead in a cave and I was born in the flame.”
“Lazarus spent four days dead, son. I don’t get where you’re going with this metaphor.”
“It’s not a metaphor, it’s our Hero Names.”
“Like Batman and Robin?” he asked.
I snapped the book shut and laughed. “Only better. Batman ain’t got powers, man.”
But I could, you know. I could do it easily. I could burn everything. That’s what I thought.
And why shouldn’t I have? It hurt, sometimes, to bottle it. To feign ignorance. It put a crack in me. It put a crack in everything.
LAZARUS AND THE AMAZING KID PHOENIX, ISSUE #24
Panel 1: (The body tumbles through the rough underbrush. She’s wearing a powder blue dress, dappled gently in polka dot and ruffle. It holds the shape of her doughy body. It is loyal to the memory of her curves and dips.)
Panel 2: (The murderous husband walks away. In his shadow, we see her hand resting lifeless in the yellow grass. It is puffy, puckered purple with thick, dark bruises. One of her fingernails is missing, the others bent and splintered. Her nail polish is still immaculate.)
Panel 3: (She lays beneath the sun and it bakes her rotting flesh. Flies find a home in her nostrils. She goes down, all the way down, right to the bottom —)
Panel 4: (— she looks in the water. The wind makes ripples that obscure her features. At first, the reader will think that the reflection is a lie, that she has awoken whole, that a good woman like her will be given a second chance.)
Panel 5: (The water stills. The sun burns behind her and the anger burns inside her. She no longer lives inside soft, mortal skin. She lives inside a cage of bone, a suit of armor. She is reborn a warrior.)
Panel 1: (When she smiles, her teeth grind together. But she does smile.)
HER: Gasper, you are a sweet man, but you're milk soft.
Panel 2: (Gasper’s lady friend has a vicious mouth. Her blue eyes are buried inside a skull that’s overflowed through the skin. Her face is a mask of teeth. Rows and rows of them, tumbling over each other as they splinter from the trauma of growing too close together. There are molar roots peeking through the fray; tiny, white devil horns to pierce the skin of any man stupid enough to hit her again.)
HER: God wants you. God wants us more than ever.
Panel 3: (She fans out her hands. They have too many fingers. Try to count them: seven, nine, twelve, too many. Enough, she once told Gasper. Enough for her new purpose.)
HER: What does Isaiah say about the Seraphim, Mister Gasper?
Panel 4: (Her fingers become wings. The teeth along her cheekbone sprout feathers inlaid with a thousand eyes.)
HER: He said that they were horrors, and that they hurt him to look at.
Panel 5: (Inside her eyes burns a wheel of fire. I’m watching in a dream. I look at my hands — at the fire that webs between my fingers — and I shudder.)
HER: He said that they were born in flame.
Panel 6: (She stands on a hill and watches the sun set. The Old Man describes her like this: that despite the horror and the bloat of her body, she was still beautiful. There is a purity about her, as if she is haloed by the blood she’s spilled. A polka-dot dress sways around her elephant knees. She spreads her arms and lets the Lord’s light shine down on her. The horizon ignites.)
HER: I am a Horror, Mister Gasper. I am an avenging angel.
Gasper and I ran down cutpurses, but we stole hot dogs. When I asked him why, he said: “I don’t believe in money. When I was a boy, we didn’t pay for food. We ate our own chickens. It’s sick to make a man pay for food.”
“I wouldn’t have taken you for a Marxist.” I laughed, because my dad was a Marxist too. Whenever he got raving, my mom rolled up the newspaper and whapped him on the back of the head. She told him to be practical because: Wouldn’t it be nice to own a dishwasher someday, Marshall?
“I never thought about it that way before. I just don’t think it’s right.”
“Hey — you were alive when Marx was alive, weren’t you?”
“Only for a year. Don’t think that counts. Besides,” Gasper chuckled cryptically, “ ‘The past is a foreign country’.”
“Still, it’s wild. Give me a high five, man.”
“Kid, I ain't got no hands, remember?”
We spent a cozy six months like that. It was glorious, let me tell you, the way I would ring the street in these teeny, tiny fires, like the kind you think you’re so bold for setting with toy pistol caps. I set fire to their shoes. Once, I got naughty and ruined some carjacker’s leather coat. Only the cuffs, though. Wouldn’t have wanted to get extreme or anything.
The Old Man was kind with me, but he muzzled my potential. He put a cap over my steam engine and the pressure, it just built and built and —
“— are you listening?”
I grit my teeth and dug my nose deep into my comic. I was getting an earful about the jacket. “I bet Batman never lectures Robin like this.” I turned the page noisily.
The Old Man’s expressions were pretty easy to read: the whole suit shifted from one side to the other when he was pleased. Smoke flickered in his goggles when he was concerned. I sometimes wondered what he’d been like as a whole person. Craggy and toothless and southern, I figured. He hadn’t been educated until after he died. It gave him a strange manner: a hillbilly mouth with a post-Civil Rights demeanor. He pitched forward and snatched the comic book from my hands. Who did he think he was? My dad?
Yeah, right. My dad never let me read comic books. He’d have me reading Plato or Descartes or something. You have to work harder than your friends, he always told me. He never said why out loud, even though we both knew. We just weren’t that kind of household.
Gasper began flipping through the comic. “I don’t think I like Batman very much.”
“Dude,” I grabbed it back. “Who doesn’t like Batman? He’s right up your alley, Old Man. Doesn’t kill the crooks, not even the really bad ones.”
“He’s got too much money,” Gasper said. “I don’t trust men with money.” He paused,then added: “Robin don’t look much like you either.”
Did he really have to point it out like I didn’t see it everywhere I looked? “Yeah, well. That’s why when I grow up, I’m gonna write comics.” I folded the pages open and touched the soft newsprint. “I’ll write one for you, Mister Gasper: hillbilly Batman and black Robin. Would that make you happy?”
Gasper didn’t reply.
“Or maybe we can go collect your lady friend. Recruit a new guy who died in a glue accident or something. Make our very own Fantastic Four. Our very own happy family of freaks.”
“Hmm,” is all he said. He sat down on his milk crate and retreated inside the suit. I couldn’t tell what the fuck he was on about. I hopped up and stretched out my knobby limbs. I paced the length of the warehouse and fumed.
There was a feeling I had, a thing that needed doing. Something I had to do or my bones were going to char themselves into ash.
LAZARUS AND THE AMAZING KID PHOENIX, ISSUE #4
Panel 1: (A bank robbery in progress! The Kid Phoenix arrives and assures the bank tellers that he has the situation under control!)
KID PHOENIX: Have no fear, Kid Phoenix is here! I’ll stop those dastardly crooks using the oldest of all man’s superpowers … the power of FIRE!
Panel 2: (The robbers are already inside the vault, stuffing their greedy suitcases with cash! The head crook is dressed in a gray, pinstripe suit with a blue ascot — the very image of capitalist scum.)
Text Box: THINKING FAST, THE KID PHOENIX FORMULATES A PLAN!
Panel 3: (Kid Phoenix slams the vault door shut and presses his burning hands to the metal.)
Text Box: USING THE POWER OF CONVECTION, THE KID PHOENIX BEGINS TO HEAT THE VAULT LIKE AN OVEN!
(The metal begins to turn red under his hands. His palms breathe heat.)
KID PHOENIX: Sorry folks, but it’s about the get awfully hot in there! If I were you, I’d surrender!
Panel 4: (Inside the vault, the criminals are sweating. The walls are red and pulsing, but the worst they’ll suffer is the effects of an overzealous sauna. Kid Phoenix’s flames merely tickle. It’s not like he could actually kill anyone!)
Text Box: THANKS TO THE KID PHOENIX’S AMAZING INGENUITY, THE CROOKS ARE GIVEN LITTLE CHOICE… WHAT INCREDIBLE FEAT WILL HE ACCOMPLISH NEXT!
Panel 1: (The Kid Phoenix reunites with Lazarus on a rooftop. They bump fists in solidarity, a symbol of their partnership.)
LAZARUS: Where to next, chum?
Panel 2: (Kid Phoenix has one foot on the lip of the roof. He looks like a very noble gargoyle, awash in the colors of the sun.)
KID PHOENIX: Wherever there are women crying and babies who need their candy back! We’ll go —
Panel 3: (Something catches his attention. His eyes flicker dark. They go bottomless.)
(What he sees: a boy leaning a girl against the wall, laughing into her mouth. They share a joint, passing it back and forth as they snicker at some private joke. The colour and light drains out of the world. Why were you drawing this as if it were midday, you dumb-ass? Something like this could only happen at night. Kid Phoenix and Lazarus are monsters who hide during the day.)
Panel 4: (The boy is blond and fresh-faced. His lips pucker thick and pink beneath a light dusting of orange freckles. He’s cute, the girls say. He wears his hair in feathers, like Robert Plant. His hand nudges under the girl’s skirt and traces the curve of her buttocks. She throws her head back and giggles. They’re happy. Just two kids messing around under a streetlamp.)
KID PHOENIX: … motherfucker.
Panel 1: (Kid Phoenix makes fists and digs his nails right into the skin. He draws them along the shallow ridges etched into his palm from a short, uneventful life. Just two kids messing around under a streetlamp, not a care in the fucking world. No one passing by would guess that one of them is a goddamned murderer.)
Panel 2: (And so the Kid Phoenix begins to move. He dashes for the fire escape. He’s gonna burn the fucker until he’s just a stain on the wall.)
(Lazarus grabs him by the arm. Jerks him back, turns him around so they’re staring at each other in the black of the night)
(Kid Phoenix is breathless with anger, confusion and fear. How dare you deny him this!?)
KID PHOENIX: I have to.
(Lazarus doesn’t let him go. He holds him so tight that steam crawls out between the seams in his gloves. He doesn’t understand. He wasn’t murdered, not like Kid Phoenix. Not like his old Lady Friend. Gasper died alone in the dark. No one meant for him to die. Kid Phoenix spits.)
KID PHOENIX: Fuck you, Old Man. I have to.
Panel 4: (Lazarus lets him go and holds out his hand.)
LAZARUS: Promise me you won’t.
Panel 5: (Like all children, Kid Phoenix knows that the only way he can be free is by lying. Like a dog chewing off its own leg to escape a trap, the Kid Phoenix lies, he lies, he lies. The lies burn beneath his skin, white as a supernova.)
KID PHOENIX: If that’s what you want, Old Timer.
I stalked my murderer down the way he’d stalked me.
No, that’s not right. He yanked me out of a burger joint by the scruff of my jacket. When I stalked him, I did it methodically. I learned his habits and his hangouts. I learned the best time to find him alone.
“You’re not still thinking about it, are you?” the Old Man asked me. He asked me three times over two weeks and each time I smiled at him, white teeth all a glimmer. I looked so honest in my mind’s eye. I really thought I had fooled him.
The night I planned to do it I swept into our warehouse, a sulfur tornado of fury and purpose. I grabbed my jacket and a lighter. I grabbed my book bag and stuffed it full of comics and encyclopedias because I guessed that the Old Man would never let me come home after what I was planning to do. His suit — slumped in the corner where I’d left it — came to life as I zipped the bag up.
He said my name and I snapped, straight backed, to attention.
“Don’t go back out,” he said firmly. I bit my lip to stop myself from saying something I’d regret. Then I un-bit and said it anyway.
“You’re not my keeper, Old Man. Mind your own fucking business.”
He rose a limb at a time. The pieces of his suit didn’t always move in concert with each other, especially not when he was upset.
“I’m telling you now, son, that you should really reconsider your course of action.”
I let the bag fall from my hands. I let it fall because my palms had turned to flame and angry as I was, I really didn’t want to burn the Old Man’s copy of Encyclopedia Britannica Vol. XXII. My breath caught hard in my throat as I pieced it together: he’d followed me. The flames climbed up my arms, swirled under my armpits, crawled out from the shell of my ear and whispered against my temple.
“You trying to tell me what to do, Old Man?” I ground out slowly. “You wanna tell me what I can and can’t do with my anger?”
Gasper was so calm that it made my eyeballs pop from the heat. “I just want you to stop. Just for a breath, now, son, and I want you to think.”
“I am thinking, motherfucker!”
“No, you’re feeling.”
“Yeah, feeling kind of betrayed. You were spying on me! You don’t trust me”
“It ain’t like that.”
“Then what is like!?” I shouted. My tongue was a curl of red lead. I burst open the seams of my own body. The fire tore through me, crumbled my skeleton and dissolved my flesh in a moment of white hot blistering revelation. I unfolded like a lotus. Seared the encyclopedias, peeled out the windows and engulfed the warehouse we lived in inside a cocoon of flame before collapsing in on myself like a dwarf star, recomposing my shape from muscle memory. I gasped greedily, sucked all the oxygen I could and rekindled the heat that was eating my heart alive. I’d never felt so fucking alive.
Gasper took a step forward and seeped through the seams of his suit. “Son,” he said softly, “Kid, you ...”
“Always ‘Son’ this, ‘Kid’ that,” I hissed. “Call me boy, you fucker. Come the fuck on. I know you want to.”
Gasper held up his hand and cocked his head towards me, as if I should hold up mine as well. I did so, begrudgingly, because I was the kind of kid who always listened to adults. Then I saw what he saw: my left index finger no longer existed. It was simply gone, replaced by just the thinnest haze of heat. I stared at it dumbly.
The Old Man unhooked his coat. He unspooled the thick, rotten leather in one heavy click and let the front fall open. The inside was the colour of rust, or dried blood. The atrium of his coat was not empty.
There was something at the center of him, suspended by the steam and pulsing gently in the scorched air. A tangle of capillary veins, a spiderwebbing of tense, quivering nerve clusters. All that was left of Old Man Gasper.
“It doesn’t last forever,” he said. “Don’t know that I’d be trying to keep you here so desperately if it did.”
I shook my head, numb with denial, still staring at my own hand.
“We all wake up whole, son. And we all wake up angry.”
I went anyway.
LAZARUS AND THE AMAZING KID PHOENIX, ISSUE #1
Panel 1: (We paint a romantic picture because it plays well with kids. A more accurate drawing dilutes the focus, it confuses the narrative. This alley is a different kind of dirty. A garbage bag has split open, spilling coffee grinds, rotten hamburger, cigarettes, a used needle. Our hero is on the ground, his wrists bound with a telephone wire.)
Panel 2: (The boy with the lighter kicks him twice in the gut. Calls him a word that the guys down at the Comics Code Authority aren’t gonna approve no matter how many asterisks you put after that ‘N’.)
BOY WITH THE LIGHTER: Fucking punk. Man, what made you think you could deal in our neighborhood?”
(He didn’t. He didn’t think that at all. Our hero wasn’t even dealing, kids, you have to believe him. Yeah, he sold a few grams to a friend of a friend because… fuck, who knows why he did it? Isn’t everyone doing that shit these days? Because he’ll never be 6’1” like his dad was? Because his marks are good enough to do what his parents want him to do, but he wanted to try something different. He wants to be cool. What the fuck even is “cool”? He just turned seventeen a week ago.)
Panel 3: (One of the gang grounds the hero’s face into the cement with his boot.)
THUG: Was it worth it, cocksucker?
HERO (ME): L-look, this is a mi-misunderstanding. I —
Panel 4: (They begin dousing him in kerosene. Oh god, oh god. They won’t really do it. Some of these kids are middle class, they have reputations to save. They’re just trying to scare me, they wouldn’t really —)
ME: P-please, my M-mom’s expecting me home. She’ll … she’ll call the police if I’m late. I —
Panel 1: (My The hero’s mouth fills with gas. That shuts him up. If I were white, they’d just have some fun kicking me until my teeth came out. Like, they’d beat me so I walked funny. I could deal with that. The hero opens his mouth to beg them to beat him, but the gas is in his lungs. He coughs and spits.)
Panel 2: (The leader flicks his lighter on. The grind of the flint is like a clap of thunder. CLICK, CLACK, CLICK. He is all shadows. Only the white of his eyes and his gap-toothed grin are lit by the flame.)
THE BOY WITH THE LIGHTER: Boom.
Panel 3: (He lights me up and I scream and I scream and I go down, all the way to the bottom.)
I tucked myself in a dark corner and waited, arms crossed and my thumb held up in the universal symbol for ‘good luck’. I flicked the tip of it on and off like a lighter and tried not to think about what was missing from my other hand. I was already coiled up bright and mad when he rounded the corner.
“Hey man,” I sauntered out of my monster’s hidey-hole, feeling fifteen feet tall, “remember me?”
He didn’t. Not immediately. He had to squint and look me up and down twice.
“Are you fucking kidding me!?” The rage stung the pads of my fingers and steamed out through my pores. “How many black kids have you iced that you can’t even remember the face of someone you burned to death?”
Recognition clicked into place and his features lined up to make the perfect picture of panic. He licked his lips dry in the rising heat and readjusted the collar of his pressed, salmon shirt. All he could say was: “Oh.”
Yeah, I could taste his fear. It wasn’t sweet. It was kind of dull, not even bitter. My anger was a better flavor: molten metal, searing my tongue with the sting of a thousand and one spices. I began to glow like a piece of heated copper. My veins turned neon carmine beneath my skin.
He — my murderer — took a step back. My flames licked at the heels of his boots. Soon, they’d be licking at his face. Licking down the walls of his esophagus. I’d dive down his throat and crumble him to ash from the inside out like a demented lover’s kiss. I’d curdle him like milk.
And then I’d keep going. I’d spread my Phoenix Wings until they embraced the entire fucking city. I knew that I could. I felt it inside of me, quiet and self-assured, a radioactive core of bright and terrible possibility. I was gonna burn him down, and then I’d burn the city, the state, the whole goddamn world. Burn and burn and burn until I stopped, until I couldn’t burn anymore. Until there was nothing left.
My murderer opened his mouth to scream, to plea, to beg, to call me that fucking word again. I waited, a single, bright boiling point at the center of the world, simmering patiently as I waited for him to waste his last breath. Waited and waited.
All that came out was an aching, rattling howl. Two thin ribbons of steam came crawling out from his nostrils. His eyes rolled back and he fell over, dead. Suffocated from the inside out.
I was so incandescent with rage that it took me a minute to realize what the old man had done. He hadn't listened to me. He'd stolen my revenge. He'd saved my life. He'd killed a kid.
I toed the boy over and watched the last bit of steam roll out from his mouth. It dissipated in the evening air, used up. Gone forever. “You stubborn asshole,” I whispered. “I told you not to follow me around.”
Old Man Gasper did not answer.
LAZARUS AND THE AMAZING KID PHOENIX, ISSUE #25
Panel 1: (Our hero stumbles out into the street, dazed and drunk off emotion. He sees the familiar suit, crumpled in a lifeless heap in the middle of the road. He falls to his knees and pats it down, desperate. There is nothing inside.)
Panel 2: (It’s empty for real this time. It will be empty until the end of time.)
KID PHOENIX: It doesn’t last forever.
Panel 3: (The Kid Phoenix lifts Lazarus’s mask and holds it up to the light. He looks at it for a long time before laying it back down in the street. He leaves it there as a memorial, all that is left of Old Man Gasper.)
I wish I could tell you that I never killed anyone, but that just isn’t true. It’s the furthest thing from truth I could tell you.
I mean, I’m not even certain that’s what the Old Man was trying to tell me. So yeah, I burned a few people in my time. But I learned that fire has other uses.
You know that the only reason we have civilization is because of fire, right? Fire is the reason we don’t fear the night, and it’s the reason we can live wherever we want. Fire is used to build every single piece of a watch. The immutable form of heat is not destruction, it’s creation. It’s a creature that can hold you with both hands.
I don’t know why I came back. It doesn't matter if I tell the story in four colors, or in four hundred, I always arrive at the same place.
And that’s where you come in.
LAZARUS AND THE AMAZING KID PHOENIX, ISSUE #??
THE LAST PAGE
The Last Panel: (You, a tiny ragged girl with a knife-chopped haircut. When I saw you first, you were huddled beneath the black skeleton of your home. Your parents were pillars of ash. You are small and angry.)
YOU: You want me to act like nothing ever happened?
ME: No. But you should know it won’t last forever.
YOU: You never explained why we come back.
ME: That’s because I don’t think it matters.
YOU: He died for you. Are you trying to be like him? It won't change anything.
ME: I know that. I've kept you warm because I want to.
(You are warming your hands over a dying fire. The flame sputters, chokes into embers. My voice is soft now.)
ME: Fire has so many uses.
(You lean in close. The fire is a whisper.)
ME: It can be used to keep a single person warm, down here at the bottom. Until they come back up.
(The embers cool. There is nothing left of them. They are cold and gone forever. You hold your hands in front of you and shiver as a salty, winter wind washes through you. This is the last time you will ever be cold. You take a deep breath and gather your courage.)
(You come back up.)