THE CAGE • by Uriel Harper

We crouch across from each other, on our sides of the cage. It is only the two of us. My shirt, old and filthy, is torn just above my chest and is stained red from a healing wound. I left a scratch across his face, just barely missing his eyes, and I feel his skin caked beneath my crooked fingernails.

Except for the center light, the cage is completely dark. From where he hunches over I can see only the outline of his body. He is a mere shadow to me, pacing side to side just beyond the light. The stale air is overwhelmingly musty, and the ground sticks from our sweat, blood and other fluids. He is gasping. We are both exhausted but neither of us can rest, so I wait, rubbing my thumb against my bare finger where a ring had once been.

The cool iron bars relieve the burning, but only temporarily. He is shirtless, and the iron must feel better against his back. There are scratches there, deep scratches from when our aggression became passion. As I close my eyes reminiscing those moments, my hands rub my bare legs. I am becoming anxious again and dig my nails deep into my skin. My untamed hair must make me look like an animal. But in our core, that is what we are — what we revert to. The silence is broken by the rattling cage. The ground rumbles as he runs towards me.

Pulling myself up, I feel my heart pounding inside of its own cage, and as he approaches, I brace myself. His sweaty hands wrap around my neck sending a shiver down my spine, and I’m forced up against the cage. I can smell his breath as he pants, his saliva hitting my face. Though he is not choking me, my hands push out as a precaution as he throws me onto the ground. Once on top, he pins my arms down with his knees, using his hands to bring my face closer. I try to move, but can’t, as he presses his dry, cracked lips against mine.

I snap at him and manage to pierce through his bottom lip. He jumps off of me and stumbles backwards. As I get up, he tries to run but I am quicker and lunge onto his back. He falls face first onto the ground. We roll over several times but I gain the advantage and as he covers his face; I begin clawing at his chest, arms, hands and everywhere else I can reach. I am tearing at him, but he is able to grab my hair and twist me over onto my back. He presses his leg hard against my pelvis while holding down my arms. This time, I lean in and bite his thumb hard enough to break skin. He lets go of me and I tackle him. We are eye to eye, and I bite at his face. He pushes me off and scurries back past the light and into his corner. I watch his body disappear in the dark.

For the moment, I stand where I am just out of the light, victorious. It is adrenaline, not blood that is coursing through my veins. From the darkness he screams at me like a cornered animal. I can sense his frustration and feel his desperation. I scream back and run my tongue across my teeth, tasting blood.

I wait until the pounding in my ears returns to my chest; then I slowly make my way back to my corner, blindly reaching out behind me until I can grip the cool bars again. I’m shaking, a combination of fear and anger. After a few minutes, I’m able to relax, but then I hear him in his corner, sobbing.

“Cassandra…” he utters loud enough for me to hear.

For a brief moment, something glimmers in the dark.

“Cassandra, please!” he screams.

I’m unable to move. It is a familiar name. My name, but I’ve not heard it in so long that I’d nearly forgotten it. My anger gives, not my fear.

“I’m — here,” I respond. The words have formed themselves, coming from a place of comfort. A place buried but unforgotten.

“Cassandra, I’m sorry,” he says. He is no longer screaming, there is no need. I can hear his tired voice clearly. “I love you.”

“I hate you,” I say. These are words chosen carefully, yet they are empty and unsatisfying. It is quiet; I wait for a response but get none. Then, more carefully, I speak from that place of comfort. “I love you, too.”

A loud noise catches us off guard. The cage is lifting. Gradually, the center light expands until it reveals us both, nearly naked, and directly across from each other.

For the first time, I get a clear look at him. The scratch on his face stretches from his eyebrow to his chin. I know he sees the red on my neck from where his hands have rubbed the skin raw, because he cringes at the sight of me. Still, a smile creeps onto his face as he slowly approaches.

“Cassandra?” he says again. I don’t realize it at first, but I am walking towards him as well. We stop just a few feet away from each other in the center of an open room.

“Evan?” I whisper.

His hand rises gently and touches my cheek. I rest my face in his palm. He raises his other hand palm closed. I look at it. My fingers peel away his one by one until I see what he’s holding. After all these years, still shining.

“We lost hope. But we promised, remember?” he says, placing the ring on my finger.

“I remember.”

We look up at the ceiling watching as the cage deteriorates. As we look back at each other, our hands clasping together, he whispers into my ear,

“Never forget.”

I whisper back, “Never let go.”

Uriel Harper is a responsible adult by day, and a reckless spewer of words at night. He dwells in what enough people call reality and manages to survive the madness of every day bustle. He loves to read and write. On occasion, he humors his friends by going out. His dream is to live off of his words, his goal is to inspire with them.

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