Down Phoenix Alley by Court Ellyn
Now that it’s over, Jaelyn Pierce doesn’t remember what it was for. Word came yesterday. After twenty years of global war, accord. The word sounds like the punchline of a bad joke. Jaelyn has spent her best years aiming down the scope of an assault rifle, seeing red. For what?
“Until lines are redrawn,” Colonel Ascott said this morning at the briefing, “patrols are still needed.”
So Jaelyn patrols empty streets beneath shells of skyscrapers.
Hnh, lines, she muses as she goes. This is yours, this is mine. Cross it and I’ll kill you. Has no one learned a damn thing?
The pole of a traffic light lies across her path. Though the lights haven’t worked in years, she stops. Twisted behemoths of glass and steel groan, victims of assault. Gaping wounds in the sides of buildings expose private spaces—what happens when a bunker-buster hits an apartment high-rise. It is an obscenity she hardly notices anymore.
It began with EMPs and cyber attacks, the kind of warfare that the Somebodies could (falsely) claim was casualty-free. But it wasn’t long before the missiles and chemicals and satellite lasers began to fall. The Somebodies lost their tempers, along with their patience for waging a well-mannered war.
The fallen light diverts Jaelyn onto the sidewalk. Rubble obscures the path, makes walking hazardous.
What did the city look like, before? It is hard to imagine. Sleek and shiny, orderly and clean. Wealth and plenty and comfort beyond imagining. Noisy with traffic and voices. Music maybe. She has heard rumors of intact cities run by warlords who use the fist to maintain the pre-war status quo, but she hasn’t seen them. Her infantry division is moved into cities after the shelling stops, so she is well-acquainted with ruins. To consider the loss, the bombed-out museums, the shattered cathedrals, the collapsed housing projects, is a no-no. A person can go crazy considering loss.
But with the accord, the world has entered a strange kind of limbo. Is it safe yet to comb through the wreckage and look for scraps of Rembrandts and Jesuses? Is it too early for families to emerge from bunkers? How soon might this twenty-year normal be replaced with something new, something sane? After all, what is a city without humanity?
The streets are silent. Shards of concrete crunch under Jaelyn’s boots. Somewhere down that alley, a crow announces his lordship over his corner of the neighborhood. Someone has eaten all the pigeons. Weren’t pigeons a problem once? A nuisance, yes, that in the end saved thousands of lives by becoming a ready food supply.
When lines were established and new mascots were chosen, humanity ought to put the sacrificial pigeon on its vain flags and golden crests. Jaelyn grins at the absurd idea.
Drones whir past. Their cloaks are turned off. For the first time in two decades, Jaelyn sees what they look like. Ugly things with too many legs, like spiders. They seek heat signatures. Not of enemies to be executed but of survivors to be fished from the debris.
They won’t find any, not humans anyway. If Smash and Timms were here, Jaelyn would bet her supper ration that the last holdouts had fled. Gone north, gone underground. She hears it is bad in the refugee camps. Decades of bomb blasts and raging fires have smudged the sky the color of a coffee stain. Crops don’t like it. Nor do wildlife. Now the refugees eat each other. That’s what the reports say. She doesn’t know if it’s true.
In the beginning, mobs tried to storm military commissaries and break into the food stores. They were shot for their trouble. Jaelyn knows that for a fact. Her superiors had ordered her to pass the order to her squad, so she had. She’d pulled the trigger herself. That was years ago. She’d done worse since.
Half a pane of glass clings valiantly to the casement of a shop. “Trends,” the faded sign says. Though what the going trend was at the time, who can say? Residue of dirt and smoke encrusts the glass, but it manages to reflect a yellow cloud scudding across a brown sky. Jaelyn doesn’t recognize the woman looking back. Her eyes are flat and hard like chips of concrete. They are the eyes of one who has been lost for so long that she doesn’t know to look for herself. She taps the glass with the barrel of her rifle. It falls and breaks on the sidewalk, joining the rest of the broken houses, broken bodies, broken futures.
She remembers an ice cream shop. A different city, a different age, and for an instant she recalls the candy-sweet smell of it. A boy sits across from her, and they talk stupidly of plans that do not involve reality. She doesn’t remember his name.
She props her rifle against the wall of Trends and sits on the mountain of rubble to roll a cigarette. The fellow at the commissary told her the brown powder she sprinkles into the paper is tobacco, but she doesn’t think so. It hasn’t been real tobacco for at least a decade. God knows what she’s inhaling, but it does the trick. The quick buzz stops her from thinking about things she shouldn’t. There’s no going back, and that boy is probably dead, and his name doesn’t matter anymore.
She tucks the lighter into her hip pack, and through an exhale of smoke she sees another flame. It is at the foot of the mound she sits on, tucked between chunks of concrete. A faint breeze stirs the flame, and it nods at her.
A flower. With petals the color of fire.
“My God,” she says.
She flicks the cigarette and scrambles down the mound and kneels over the thing. It’s real. Not a trick of the light or a vain hope. When had she last seen green or a garden or a rose? How has this tiny treasure found its way here? Bold of it to raise its head in the middle of all this destruction.
She reaches out a hand, but stops. If she touches it, she will spoil it.
“You can have it if you want it.”
Jaelyn starts at the voice and goes for her rifle, but it is propped against the wall, out of reach.
The speaker emerges from the alley. A child, eight or nine years old, with grubby clothes and brown braids.
Good thing Jaelyn hadn’t bet her supper ration after all. “Where did you come from?” she asks.
The child indicates the alley. “We live back there. You a soldier?”
Jaelyn nods. “Sergeant Pierce.”
“You gonna shoot me?”
“No,” she says.
The child bends and plucks the flower before Jaelyn can stop her. It is raised as an offering.
Jaelyn pinches the stem between her fingers, lifts the petals to her nose, because the motion is instinctual, and it’s the unspoken demand flowers make. The petals smell sweet, peppery. Honey and persimmon come to mind but Jaelyn cannot remember the taste or smell of either.
“It’ll die now,” she says.
The child shrugs, oblivious to the casual waste.
“There’s lots of them. Come see.”
With a fearlessness that speaks of unbroken innocence, the child heads off along the alley, taking it on faith that Jaelyn is not a threat, and that she will follow. So she does. More of the orange flowers grow against the alley wall where the scant sun warms the bricks. Jaelyn hadn’t noticed them earlier because she hadn’t thought to look for them.
Surefooted, the child picks her way over collapsed walls and rusted heaps that used to be cars (the flowers grow inside exposed engine compartments, too), and at last turns a corner and is gone.
Jaelyn crashes gracelessly along, trying to keep up. She turns the corner where the child disappeared and stops so suddenly that she stumbles over her own feet. A field of nodding orange flowers stretches out beneath the wide-spread branches of a tree. A tree, a living tree. Wind moves leaves that are yellow at the edges. It is sickly, perhaps, but thriving. People thrive beneath it too. Shacks built of scraps border the field. Laundry flutters on wires strung between them. An old man is hoeing, and something green and leafy grows as tall as his knees.
He doesn’t see Jaelyn in her polymer armor or the rifle slung across her back. Better that way, for now.
The child returns with both fists full of the orange flowers. “See?” she says smiling and lets the flowers rain down over Jaelyn’s palms.
“What are they?”
“Granny made them. She was a botaniss. I don’t know what that is, but I think it means she used to make plants. All kinds of plants. She calls them phoenix flowers. ’Cause they grow where things used to be ugly. You can keep them. As long as you don’t bomb them.”
“No one is going to bomb them, not now. It’s over, kid. Run and tell your family the war’s over.”
The child lets out a small cry and races away through the field of flowers. Jaelyn tucks one of them into her hip pack with the lighter and the tobacco, and retreats into the alley. She doesn’t want to cause a stir, and she has a patrol to finish. Maybe she won’t report finding the child or the tree, not yet. Let these people be. They’d fought as hard as anybody to survive and managed to retain their humanity, which is more than Jaelyn can say for herself.
If more pockets of people like theirs exist, maybe the world isn’t beyond repair after all. And maybe kindness, innocence, beauty had been huddling in the corners all along, if only she had looked for them.
Jaelyn takes the flower from her pack, smells it. Yes, honey and spice. Clove maybe. And clean summer sunshine. Her brain stirs with memory. A park with a fountain, a bouquet wrapped in crackly cellophane, the heady feeling of being in love.
She opens her fingers and lets the flower fall. It lands softly upon broken brick. For a moment she dared to believe a flower was going to fix everything. She slings the rifle from her shoulder in readiness and continues on her assigned route between the shattered townhouses. Proceed as if the encounter never happened, she tells herself.
But she can’t. The city is different now.
Jaelyn finds herself grinning. Something is rising. It flickers. It feels like hope.
Court Ellyn has been building plots and characters since she could hold a pen. What began as a love for historical fiction quickly gravitated toward the fantastical. Now she dreams of extraplanar travel and taming dragons while she leads a small critique group at Legendfire. Her fiction has appeared in Kaleidotrope, Silver Blade, Theme of Absence, the anthologies Explorers: Beyond the Horizon and Twice Upon a Time, and a number of other publications. Her novel series, The Falcons Saga, is available at Amazon. Learn more at her website.