Baxter answered his phone on the first ring. "Sydney!"
"Actually, it's Violet," I said. "Please never call me Sydney again."
He laughed, and I had never heard a more relieved sound in my life. "Oh, thank goodness. Mind if I come over? Or can we meet up somewhere? I really need to talk to you."
"Probably we shouldn't have this conversation at my house. My mother isn't here right now, but she should be soon." I felt another pang of guilt. She was probably trying right now to get off of work early for me so that we could spend some time together, and I was about to abandon our plans.
But this was so, so important. I had been waiting for answers like these for my whole life.
"I think I'm supposed to be feeling panicked right now," I said distantly. "Everything's turning upside down. Why aren't I panicking, Baxter?" Talking to him about my emotions came as naturally as ever.
"You're built of stronger stuff than that, little bird."
"Hey!" I said. "You are such a goof. 'Little bird?' You've been trying to tell me my whole life, haven't you?"
There was a long silence. "Yes. Please, can we meet up?"
"Yes, of course. Pick me up? And bring the others, please. Is Tavish back yet?"
"You remember Tavish?" Baxter asked.
"Not exactly. But I would really like to see him."
"He's back. I'll bring them all. See you soon."
The line went dead and I prepared a note for my mother saying something vague about Baxter and needing to talk to him. She would never keep me from him, I knew. It didn't make me feel any less guilty. Then I laced up my shoes and went outside to wait on the porch.
Baxter must have broken several driving laws to get to my house so quickly. I had only just gotten outside when his clunker pulled into my driveway. I ran to the car and threw myself in. "Baxter, I'm sorry I was such a jerk yesterday," I said.
Baxter turned around and looked at me. He looked relieved. "No, I'm sorry. I handled that situation really poorly. It's just… this is a unique situation. You're the only one of us to ever be raised thinking you were anything but a phoenix. I just didn't know how to handle it."
Athena was sitting in the passenger seat. She turned around and beamed at me, her teeth startlingly white against her tanned skin. "Baxter never has been very good at handling tense situations. It'll come back to you."
"So I've heard." I was eager to tell them about my conversation with Kaz, but I wanted to make sure that Baxter didn't get too distracted to concentrate on the road. It was a short drive. I was sure I could contain myself until we got somewhere better suited for talking.
"Where's Tavish?" I asked.
Baxter let out a hysterical-sounding giggle. The sound was comic coming from such a brawny man. "You can't imagine how wonderful it is to hear you finally, finally knowing something of our world. Tavish and Eira are meeting us at the park over on West Magnolia Lane. In fact, I bet they're there right now."
"Okay." I knew where that was. We were less than a minute away. I felt suddenly anxious. I wasn't sure what would come up in our conversation, but I knew that it was going to be big. I longed for calm and comfort. I felt my head lolling back and there was the too-familiar sensation of being pulled out of myself, and suddenly I was back at Kaz's house.
He looked up from a bit of whittling. "Violet! You're back. I thought you were busy tonight."
"I am. I didn't mean to come. Or, I did… but not consciously. I'm actually with Baxter and Athena right now. We're about to see Tavish and Eira. I guess they've been off traveling all these years, waiting for me to grow up enough to remember them." No one had actually said that, about the waiting, but of course that was what had happened.
Kaz's expression filled with longing. "I miss them all so much. And you. Do you have any idea how hard this is, seeing you and not being able to touch you? Not knowing when or if you'll truly return to me?"
"I think I have some idea," I whispered, knowing only how I felt about this situation, which was torn. For one, I never had really belonged on Earth. But then, my poor mother... I didn't know how I would get back to Phoenix, but if I went, I surely wouldn't be able to see her again.
She wasn't my real mother, was she? This went way beyond adoption. I wasn't even of her species or from her planet, for goodness' sake! But she felt like a mother to me, and she had raised me… in this lifetime.
How strange it was, the idea that I had been around for so long. I looked over to Kaz, who was staring at me with a strange expression on his features. "How old am I?" I asked him.
He smiled softly. It was a smile that made me feel like my blood was about to boil. "Are you sure you want to know?"
"Yes, please. And then I'd better go. I'm sure we're there by now, and I bet they're all waiting on me."
Kaz's expression twisted. "Then maybe I'll keep you waiting, to drag this out."
"What if I'm going back to talk about how to return here? Wouldn't you rather see me in person?"
"946!" Kaz said immediately, almost before I was finished speaking.
"You're 946, nearly 947. Your real birthday is only fifteen Phoenix days away from now."
I stared at him blankly, trying to wrap my head around the idea of so many years. And… was I an elder compared to him? Did he think me as grotesquely old as I sounded? "And how old are you?"
"We're the same age. We met in school. You were the adorable little girl with pigtails that I spent many satisfying days tugging."
"Charming." And what are you to me, I wanted to ask. Dear friend? Dearer love? I felt like it was the latter, but how horrid, how embarrassing it would be to be wrong about that. Besides, I wasn't sure I would want to know before my memories were a little bit more complete. I wouldn't be able to look Kaz in the eye properly. I would wait for Kaz to bring this up- wait until he thought I was ready to know just what we were to each other. "I had better get going," I said reluctantly. "It was really good seeing you again. I'll miss you."
"What? But you'll visit again tomorrow, won't you?"
"Yes, of course. Still, I'll miss you."
Kaz's panic faded. "Oh. Yes, I'm going to miss you, too. Violet, you have no idea how much I'm going to miss you. And could you please tell Tavish that I'm thinking of him? And that maybe he should send a message through you to our parents? They're in a frenzy right now."
I felt my heart break for them. "Yes, of course I will." I was about to leave, but Kaz's eyes grew wide.
"Wait. Where are you living? Where did you end up?"
"In America, by the ocean." I smiled. I had always loved my city. It was thickly wooded but very near to the beach. It got properly cold in the winter and properly warm in the summer.
"I should have known. You've always had a thing for the ocean."
I wondered, were there oceans on Phoenix? There had to be, right? The others were waiting for me. Now was not the time to have this conversation. "Goodbye for now, Kaz."
"Goodbye for now, Vi."
I allowed myself one long moment of staring at his beautiful features and returned to myself.
I had been laid out on a park bench and four faces were staring solemnly down at me. "Hi, guys," I said. I sat up slowly, examining the unfamiliar faces. It was obvious which was Tavish and which was Eira based on gender alone. Still, the names fit them very well. Probably I only felt that way because some part of me, a yet unremembered part, had known them by those names for an untold number of years.
Tavish looked like the sun child, contrasting perfectly with Kaz's dark looks. It was a wonder that they came from the same parents. Tavish had corn silk hair- both in color and in texture, it seemed- and his eyes were a pastel greenish blue color with a bizarre orange and gold flicker just on the edges, if they caught the right light.
I realized then that this was a trait of phoenixes. Everyone standing in our little group, myself included, had that eye flicker. So had Kaz, and every other person I had ever seen on the streets in Phoenix during my visits. I had always attributed that to some inner need to have someone, anyone, be just a little bit like me.
Eira was studying me just as closely. I saw well-disguised disgust tucked away in her amber eyes. She had hair which was almost the same shade as them and a pale complexion that reminded me of the underside of wrapping paper. I tried to remember anything about her, but I couldn't. What had I done to put that expression on her face?
"Tavish," I finally said. "I was just with Kaz. He wanted me to tell you that he's thinking of you, and he wants you to send your parents a message. I can convey it, if you'd like."
Tavish burst into tears and crossed his arms tightly against his chest. I looked around our little circle, alarmed. Eira wriggled herself into his embrace- an impressive feat- and glared at me through her own tears.
"I'm sorry!" I said and held out a helpless hand toward him. I put it down again, feeling foolish. What could I do to comfort Tavish? Nothing. I didn't know him, not right now.
Baxter shook his head at me. "It's not your fault, Violet. Just give him a minute. We're all a little overwhelmed. Been stuck on Earth for a long time, see."
"What!" Eira snapped. "Of course this is her fault! 'Come on, guys, let's take a trip to Earth,' she said! 'It'll just be for a couple of hours or so,' she said. 'You'll have new experiences for the first time in centuries,' she said. Well, here's something new: a wretched group of phoenixes stranded on this wretched planet while the only one of us who had any idea what she was doing went and forgot all of it. We are trapped here, Baxter, and it is entirely her doing. Don't you dare tell her that this isn't her fault. Or maybe it isn't. Maybe we're to blame for being stupid enough to follow her."
I stared at Eira and searched helplessly through my mind for some memory that could make sense of this. It didn't work, of course. When I got new memories from old lifetimes, it was never intentional, and it was never as you might expect: a rush. I would simply wake up knowing a bit more, or I would be sitting in class learning about another French revolution and would remember watching it happen.
Ghosting, I realized. I must have ghosted myself there. How sick that was, to go and watch a war. I wished I could remember why that had appealed to me.
"I'm sorry, Eira. I don't know what you're talking about. I'm told I should know soon, though. Would you mind waiting to yell at me until I can feel properly ashamed of myself? Right now it's impossible to properly take responsibility for my past actions."
She looked surprised and uncrossed her arms. "Well… Okay. But remember fast, would you? I've been brewing this rant for years."
I laughed. "Of course. I will do my best."
Baxter looked between the two of us and gave a curt nod. "Alright. Now that we have taken care of that unsavory bit of… business, I am calling this meeting to order."
"You would be in charge," Tavish snorted. His face was still splotchy, but he offered me a wan smile and quirked his eyebrows mischievously. It was a look that was all Tavish, I thought, and then I wondered what exactly that meant.
"Well, it's better than leaving you to it. We'd be here for days before even telling Violet what the point is," Baxter said. Then he reached back and pulled at the end of his bushy ponytail, looking at me contemplatively. "I'm going to tell you a story: the story of how we came to be here on Earth. You'll have to forgive me for not knowing all of the details. The only one who has all of them is you."
That didn't sound good. I grimaced. "You had better continue."
"Well, I don't know if you have thought much about this, but when you live in a world where no one dies, the place gets crowded very quickly. And we moderate the number of children being born. Usually, no more than a couple of new phoenixes per year. People who want to care for children can do it with one of the existing phoenix babies. Usually this satisfies them. Still, overpopulation is a serious issue." I nodded. Kaz had told me this already.
Baxter continued, "You, Violet, you were on the forefront of research, trying to find an answer. And you did it. After lifetimes of trying, you found a way to get us somewhere new. Here. This realm, this planet. And you took us, your friends, to see it. It was the first trip over, except for your original one proving that you could do it. You wouldn't tell us how it worked. You thought it was all a big game. 'Try to figure it out for yourselves! Look carefully,' you told us. And then your fingers sort of fluttered, and when we stepped forward it was into this strange place."
Oh. Oh. "What a fool I was! And none of you could tell what I did?" Everyone shook their heads. Tavish looked amused, Baxter looked sad, and Eira… well, she looked furious.
I really couldn't blame her.
Baxter coughed. "And then you died. You got hit by a car and we lost you instantly. Then it was a waiting game. We would have taken you in, raised you ourselves, but there was a policeman at the site of the crash and he wouldn't let us near you. He took you away and gave you to a nice human woman whose husband had died and who needed the company. We couldn't take you from her. She would have broken. It seemed wrong. But we stayed close. We made sure that you were okay, and as you know, I took a bit more direct approach."
I laughed at that. "Oh, all the times you had to listen to my silly childhood woes! You brave man."
"Brave? No, it was an honor. You're going to be famous, Violet, just as soon as we get back. But you have to remember how to do it first."
"Yes, there is that. I can't. I'm sorry, I just don't remember, not yet. You'll know as soon as I do."
We all sat in silence for a few minutes. "Wait," I said when a strange thought occurred to me. "Kaz said everyone thought we were all dead. Why didn't one of you ghost over there to tell people what had happened?"
There was an uncomfortable pause. "Because we couldn't," Athena finally admitted. "None of us ever learned how to ghost. Not everyone can do it, you know. It takes years and years to get good at it, and a lot of effort. You picked us specifically because we hadn't seen Earth before."
I looked around at their sorrowful faces. Usually I might have made a joke about how very well the helping-them-see-new-worlds part of my plan had gone, but right now it would have just been cruel.
We didn't stay at the park after that. What more was there to say? I had stranded them here on this planet, and I couldn't even give them a proper apology, not until I remembered doing it. Besides, Eira was still too upset about this whole mess to be around me and be civil.
Baxter dropped them off at a restaurant, Tavish and Eira. Then, still in the parking lot, he turned around and gave me a long look.
Athena, too, was watching me. "You said that you saw Kaz? I think that Tavish was too sad and Eira was too angry to think about it. But how did you see him? Did you go back there?"
"What? No! Goodness, no. Kaz says that I've been ghosting there."
Athena twisted around in her chair and snatched my hands, clutching them tightly. "How? We have all been trying to ghost back home for years. It would have let us at least make sure everyone we cared about knew where we were and why we were delayed in getting home."
"What do you mean, how? Baxter, you know how everyone always thought that I have narcolepsy? I don't. When I have those sleeping spells, it's because I'm off visiting Phoenix."
"Oh! Yes, of course. That makes sense. I always wondered about the narcolepsy. It's not an affliction that even exists on Phoenix. Sure, people ghost… but it's always intentional. Yours never was, not in this life."
"It is now. I can go wherever I want, whenever I want. I'm still working on control."
"But how?" Athena demanded. "Tell me how you do it. My mother, my husband… I left them back on Phoenix so long ago, and they must be devastated."
Yes, because your sunny, demanding demeanor is so uplifting, I thought. "Don't worry. Kaz said that he was going to contact everyone who needs to know where we are yesterday. They should all know by now."
Tears filled Athena's eyes and she finally released her grip on my hands. "Oh. Oh. We should tell Tavish and Eira. She'll feel much better when she knows. She has a child, you know. He was just a couple of days old when they crossed over with you. They never would have left him, except that you are impossible to refuse when you get an idea stuck in your head. It's like hypnosis. Your eyes light up and it's contagious. And it was really just supposed to be for a few minutes. Do you know how long it takes to get a child-bearing license? Centuries. Eira will never forgive you for taking away her chance to raise her child."
"But… he'll be a baby again someday. She can raise him then, no?"
"But he'll already have memories," Baxter reminded me. "On Phoenix, you get memory serum the day you're reborn."
"What, and people have adult awareness when they're infants? Isn't that a little weird?"
"What? No, actually it makes raising children much easier on our planet. It's the most common job there. Nurseries on Phoenix are like hospitals on Earth, but bigger… and people love their jobs there."
I wondered what my usual job was. Research, according to Baxter. I had always hated science class the most, though. It offered the least new information. If I was a scientist then that made sense.
"If you don't mind, I had better get home. My mother will be worried about me."
"She isn't your mother, you know," Athena said. I looked over at her and realized that she was crying.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"Me? I'm wonderful. We're going home soon. Just as soon as you can remember how to get there."
I shut my eyes. I was torn. For my whole life- at least, for all of this life- this place, this realm had been my home. My mind knew that this was not where I belonged, but my heart was split. When I thought about Kaz, I was ready to abandon this place and my mother and leave.
I was all she had. What would she do without me there? I pictured her sitting at the table, eating by herself. The image broke my heart.
What was I to do?
At least it didn't matter yet. Until my memory improved, we were stuck here.