After Nora’s death, Evangeline was determined to watch over Tristan like a son. But that afternoon she realized the Tristan she had loved and protected since birth had died in the accident. Back in the United States, she decided she could no longer live in the same house with someone whose body had been taken by evil spirits. She told James she would have to move to Florida to watch over her sick sister and quit.
The old Tristan would have cried and begged her to stay, but the new one seemed indifferent when she announced she was leaving.
Evangeline knew then that she’d made the right decision.
For James, the accident had served to turn Tristan into the son he had needed from the beginning. In the past, James’s ambition had simply been to keep his leading position in the firm until he retired, as he did not expect Tristan to ever meet the requirements to succeed him. But the summer vacation had proven that Tristan would make a useful puppet. Now, looking at the stranger dining opposite him, James concluded that the little shake in Tristan’s marbles had come in handy. He seemed tougher, colder and had no memory of the abuse that had been inflicted on him. He envied the boy in his bliss.
A little robot, deprived of most of his emotions, yet intellectually brilliant, James thought. What better qualities could a lawyer have?
He knew he would always hate the boy, and his stunning resemblance to his true father would be a constant pain in his side. But pain had truly molded the bastard and he deserved a break. Besides, if Tristan managed to take over the company, James would keep his supremacy for life by becoming chairman of the board.
Tristan could not judge whether his life was better or worse since his mother died. He did not remember how things were before the accident. And whenever some memory did come to him, it seemed disconnected and undecipherable, like a scene from a film whose beginning he had missed.
His father had taken him around the world during the summer, and the two had bonded considerably. But now they were back at home, and James was barely there. When the two saw each other at dinnertime, they made small talk or ate in silence, lost in their own thoughts.
Evangeline was right when she said Tristan had become more like James, but this did not mean he felt the least amount of affection for his father. Deprived from a good deal of his memories, Tristan simply analyzed his father in a different light now and found him to be a practical man. Nothing seemed to shake James, not even the death of his wife, whose photos and personal belongings he had buried in a storage unit somewhere in town.
James refused to speak about Nora, and Tristan often tried to imagine what she had been like. He knew that he himself had been in the accident, and the fact that he had tried to save her meant that he must have loved her. But he didn’t remember their relationship, nor the feelings he had harbored for her. In truth, without the photographs to jog his memory, Tristan remembered only his mother’s red hair. Her face was a complete mystery.
The following year passed quickly for Tristan. His grades remained impeccable, and he even returned to the swim team. His performance had improved greatly, but this newfound energy of his always seemed to end in some sort of aggression. And a few times, when he was extremely angry or confused, he had lashed out by escaping his house at night and secretly lighting small fires around the neighborhood.
Even Douglas Harris, a classmate who had bullied Tristan since he was seven, seemed intrigued by the change in Tristan’s personality. However, Douglas refused to be intimidated by the new Tristan. The boys started exchanging heated words in class, competing for the best comeback, and eventually got into fights during gym class and recess. The guidance counselors went lenient on the two boys, since they were the same size and had never truly hurt each other. But that was about to change in the most improbable setting—art class.
The art teacher was talking about mythological creatures whose bodies were fusions of animals and humans. He presented paintings by three unknown artists and then showed a copy of the famous Oedipus and the Sphinx, on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. As impressive as these were he had saved his favorite for last—the work of a contemporary painter named Julian Venot.
In the painting was a creature with the curvaceous body of a woman, her genitalia obscured by a light cloth. From her back sprouted red wings that blended into red curls cascading down her head and over her breasts.
Tristan was stoic. All he could see was his mother. And while her face was still a blur, he remembered perfectly the feeling of love and comfort that emanated from her.
“This is the Phoenix,” said the teacher, bringing him back to the present. “Does anyone know what she is?”
A girl in the front row raised her hand. “The Phoenix never dies. If destroyed, she is reborn from her own ashes.”
“Very good,” the teacher replied. “There are multiple renderings, but they always suggest that she is a bird. Venot’s painting was inspired by Slavic mythology, which maintains that this immortal creature can appear camouflaged in the form of a woman.”
Suddenly, the classroom disappeared and Tristan saw his mother standing on the edge of the parapet. She did not seem fragile or lost, like someone on the verge of committing suicide, but in total control. She spun around to look at him as he called to her, but the strong sun had turned her into a faceless silhouette, whose red curls waved like flames in the breeze—exactly like the Phoenix.
The teacher clapped his hands, drawing the attention of the class. “Now, I want you to pick one of the five prints to copy. This assignment will count toward your final average, so do your best!”
Tristan’s gaze never left the print of the Phoenix: the oval face, the sharp nose, the delicate lips and those hypnotizing, dark-blue eyes. He felt like staring at her forever, but finally, he grabbed the crayon and started to sketch. Drawing was not Tristan’s forte, yet his steady hands slowly reproduced the general shape of the hybrid beast. He glanced at his drawing and noticed everything was perfect, except for her face. It was deformed—its striking blue eyes misshapen; its nose broken. He wondered if his mother had looked that way when she crashed against the ceramic tile.
Tristan left the red parts for last. The plumage of the wings sparkled in the original print, and he chose two different tones of red to depict them: one lively and vibrant; the other, more somber, like the color of blood. With the latter, he drew her hair. As he colored the lips, he was overcome by flashbacks of a familiar smile and a sweet smell of lipstick.
Tristan was making the final strokes to his drawing when he heard the Phoenix in the original print call to him. He looked around the room, expecting to find his classmates in a full panic. But they were focused on their work as if nothing had happened. When he realized he was the only one who could hear her, Tristan grew angry. He hated to feel like a freak. He’d had enough therapy after the accident. There was nothing wrong with him.
The Phoenix called to him once again.
“Tristan. Do not move. I am here with you.”
This time, Tristan froze in fear. She had truly talked to him.
Hesitantly, he raised his eyes to that perfect face, which combined power and sweetness, and dared to ask her a question using his mind. “Why are you speaking to me?”
“Because your mother was like me, and you failed her.”
The clarity of the remark brought Tristan to attention. This was real; he was not insane. What she was conveying, however, was that his mother had died because of him, and the Phoenix was not pleased.
He continued his silent communication with the creature. “I can’t remember what happened that day. Please tell me.”
“This is not my mission, Tristan. At the right time, you will remember everything.”
“Did my mother send you? Am I going to see her again?”
“No. Your mother is gone.”
Tristan let out a sigh of frustration. “I don’t understand. You said she was like you. Immortal.”
“Yes, but the legends are wrong. Phoenixes are not reborn as you see me here. Each time, we come back as humans and at a certain point, the metamorphosis occurs. We become immortal only after we gain wings. If we die before that happens, as did your mother, we die as humans and never return.”
Tristan’s mind raced back to Nora’s room. She was lying in bed, her back towards him, when he touched her shoulder. “Come with me, Mother. I want to show you something.”
Nora started to turn toward him, but before Tristan could see her face, his mind went blank again. He shook his head, now throbbing. He was back in the classroom, staring at the painting. “I killed her… That’s why you are here!”
“What is done is done,” the Phoenix said somberly. “I am here because there is a form of absolution for you.”
Tristan closed his eyes and ears to everything around him, and drank in the Phoenix’s words. When she finally went silent, Tristan understood what he had to do to be pardoned. And the peace he experienced was so overwhelming that he smiled at the warmth that filled his soul.
“Having fun, Donovan?”
Douglas Harris was standing next to Tristan, studying his work.
“She’s hot! Red hair, red lips, red wings.” Harris rested one hand on the table and traced the Phoenix’s body with the other. “Is her pussy red, too?”
Seconds later, the class heard a scream, loud and full. Agonizing.
The students first looked at Harris, then traced their eyes down to his arm. He was cradling his hand against his stomach, his face a mask of torment. Next to him stood Tristan, holding a pair of scissors, the blades dripping with his favorite color.
The psychiatric clinic smelled like mothballs and urine. Tristan didn’t mind being expelled from school; he was light years ahead of the other students anyway. But having to wait in this place was making him physically sick. He hoped the doctors decided he was fit enough to wait for his trial at home.
“You need to sound coherent and behave as if you were sorry. Do you understand?” asked James.
Tristan nodded, and James instructed him on what to say. But all Tristan could think of was his conversation with the Phoenix. The episode had brought him some comfort, if just for a moment, but it had also filled him with questions that perhaps a psychiatrist could help him answer. Everyone, including his father, had their own theories about why he had attacked Harris. All were so very wrong that Tristan decided to keep his mouth shut until he saw a doctor. Psychiatrists were supposed to be more insightful than the ignorant people who surrounded him, right? They’d know that he wasn’t crazy.
A moment later, a nurse called him in, and when he found himself alone with the psychiatrist, Tristan decided to tell him the truth. But before he could utter half a syllable, the doctor said, “They wrote in the report that the woman you were drawing was a redhead, am I right?”
“She was not a woman.”
The doctor studied the picture attached to the report. “Right. She’s a Phoenix, is that correct?”
“But my point is that this creature was a redhead, and so was your late mother. So, Tristan,” the man leaned forward, “did you believe for a moment that she was your mom?”
“No! I just couldn’t allow an idiot like Harris to insult her!”
The psychiatrist brought his eyes back to the report where he made a quick note. He then said, “Son, I know that you are turning fourteen soon. You are no longer a child, but the suicide of a parent is very difficult to understand. Some children get angry; others feel guilt build inside of them. What you’ve done to your classmate was wrong, but I talked to your father and he explained the circumstances of your mother. It’s understandable that you are confused. So please, don’t be embarrassed by telling me the truth. Did you think the woman in the painting was your mom?”
Are you deaf, you idiot?! Tristan started to open his mouth to protest, but thought better of it. If the man thought he had already figured him out without even listening to him, telling him the real story would certainly have him in a padded room within seconds.
Resigned, Tristan nodded and said, “Thank you, doctor. This is really hard.” And he delivered the dramatic story James had instructed him to tell, as though he were playing a part in a play.
Tristan waited patiently for several hours while his father handled all the legalities at the clinic, and he was released by early evening. Outraged at the psychiatrist for being just as ignorant as everyone else, Tristan marched home, determined to put together the pieces of his life before the coma. He waited until James and the servants were asleep, and then climbed up the dusty steps to the attic. After an hour of digging into his old things, untouched since his mother’s death, Tristan found an album of himself as a small child, filled with photos of Nora.
She was a pretty woman, always smiling, always cradling him in her arms. She looked at him as though he were the center of her universe. The child’s gleaming face in the photo told Tristan just how happy she’d made him. Yet, even these photos couldn’t compare to the warmth he felt when speaking with the Phoenix. He had been bathed in a glory that was eternal; perpetually feeding his soul with warm sustenance.
Finally, Tristan put everything back in its place and returned to his room. Later, as he lay in bed, Tristan’s mind wandered along loose memories. He forced himself to connect them all, tying short lengths of drawstring to each like a mobile of memories. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. Tristan’s eyes remained open, long into the night, staring through the ceiling. And suddenly, with a blink he recalled the first beating James had given him, in Montana.
Initially, Tristan was uncertain if what he had just seen had actually happened. His body bore no belt marks, which could mean that either he was delusional or James had always been careful not to hit his bare skin. He only had a round scar, the size of a quarter dollar on the back of one thigh. So far, Tristan had been clueless as to how he had acquired it, but as he lifted his shorts and stared at the scar for a while, he suddenly remembered vividly what had happened.