The night is cold, but the air in the concrete building is stale. Naked lightbulbs illuminate the huddled children—dozens of tired, scared, sweating bodies line the cages.
Cages just like mine.
I sit in a corner of the meshed pen, rocking back and forth. Hunger. Ravaging my body, lancing my stomach with piercing spasms. Sleep. Impossible.
I whisper my plea into darkness—into shadows as black as my skin:
“Make it stop. Please…just make it stop.”
I long to contact the ancestors, but I don’t remember how. Granny was supposed to teach me, but her heart gave out before she could. I can still hear her voice in my ear: “The old rituals are good, mi chile but the ancestors will come whenever you need dem.”
My hands itch for her prized artifacts, the feeling of home. I send a plea out into the ether again, fists clenched tight. It goes unanswered.
I curl onto my side. My eyes are too dry for tears; the ancestors will just have to read a weeping heart.
Sleep almost comes, but then it happens: The being coalesces before me, stitched together from shadows. He has the unlined face of a young boy about my age, but his mud-brown eyes brim with experience. His sallow skin hangs on an ill-shaped skeleton, wrangled into a kneeling position.
“Is that what you want?” he asks. His lips curl back revealing two rows of uneven teeth, mottled with flecks of a maggoty yellow.
I jump with a start. “Who are you?”
“You wanted it to stop. I am the one who can make it so.”
“I just want to eat.”
“Then eat you shall. All I ask is a small favor in return.”
I want to eat. But in the back of my mind, in harsh whispers, my grandmother warns me against making an accord with the unknown. “The devil have many faces, chile.”
His eyes bore into mine, unwavering. Waiting.
But I want to eat. I have to eat.
The words are a tiny whisper slipping past my cracked lips—so soft, so small that I wonder if I’ve said anything at all. “Yes. Please.”
For a moment, nothing changes.
“Accepted.” And suddenly, the chill in my cage begins to wrench itself away from my body as if the cold itself were trying to escape.
Eyes like molten metal hold my gaze while his once pale skin turns black as soot, and his body dissolves into a mist, enveloping me. Taking me. So hungry.
A bitter taste flows down my throat, expanding and contracting in my gut, and the hungry ache blossoms into an agony—pure and icy. Cold fingers shoot through thirst-ravaged veins, dragging a scream from my throat. I clamp a hand over my mouth, but it can’t be stopped.
Yet his eyes remain still, unmoving.
I could eat everything now. I could eat…A sky is opening up, wide and gaping somewhere above or beneath me or inside of me. God, who did I call?
His voice sifts through me now, breaking the blackness that swirls in the air: I’ll do what your God won’t.
I know those words, and I know the one who uttered them all those years ago. I remember from the old stories. The name...it weighs on my tongue like a jagged brick: Alastair.
The ancestor who stole and leveraged the gods’ power to avenge a slain village. His home, set ablaze.
My skin splinters into threads, quickly reknitting itself around unnatural, thickening bones.
“It hurts!” The words tear from a throat that no longer feels like my own. The rough, bestial timbre of my voice shreds the quiet night. Whispers bloated with fear and curiosity flit about from surrounding cages.
Yes, it hurts. Change, transformation, fighting for freedom always hurts…Until it doesn’t.
The pain ceases as abruptly as it had started. As my vision focuses, I stare down at large, gnarled hands. Blood pulsates beneath pallid skin with veins the color of a day-old bruise, crisscrossed from wrist to elbow. My hearing—enhanced—picks up the sound of a door creaking open. The change was not quiet.
I cover the distance quickly with long strides. The metal breaks easily in my grasp, and guided by pure instinct, I drive my hand through the guard’s chest, shattering bone, rending meaty muscle. His eyes widen, pulsing in time with the heart beating in my fist.
And the heart slides whole down my throat with ease. Hunger.
“What lies ahead?” I ask.
He speaks aloud. “You can avenge, or you can set free.”
And for the first time, those eyes show just a glint of emotion: It’s a choice that he never had.
I decimate the cages—not even the locks can remain. They will never hold another soul captive.
The children crowd around me, unbothered by my monstrous visage. It is a lesson that those like us learn early on: to tell the real monsters by what they do, not by how they look.
As one child hooks his finger around mine, Alastair asks, “Where will you go?”
“We’ll find our place,” I reply. “This country is big enough for us all.”
“And if they won’t allow it?”
Our eyes meet. “Then we will make a place.”
He nods knowingly and turns to leave.
“Wait,” I say. “You haven't told me your favor, Alastair.”
Then that smile returns to his face, sly and perturbed. “Oh, there’s time enough for that, young Kwame.”
And those eyes, still ablaze...they unnerve me to the core.
Still and yet, I think: What a relief it is to have time at all.
KAREN HESLOP writes from Kingston, Jamaica. Her stories can be found in Black Petals, Piker Press, Apparition Lit Mag, The Future Fire, and The Weird and Whatnot among others. She tweets @kheslopwrites.