I promised myself I would kill him if he ever came back.

My cracked nails dig into the flesh of my palms as the smell of Rosewood, damp from a summer’s rain, dances against my skin in the dark. My jaw quivers, letting in a rush of old want. That scent does not belong to him, I remind myself. It comes and goes with the many visitors of the night. It lingers on the gold-toothed poachers with their Jaguar skin coats and the Columbian businessmen with their hands stained green from raping and burning what’s left of the rainforests.

My senses have fooled me before. It’s been three years since I truly caught wind of him. Three years since I allowed that aroma to infuse my veins with blind desire. Back then, I was a fool, drinking it in with the feverish thirst of youth.

Light flickers in the dark, chasing shadows across our faces as we flash in and out of view. The crowd growls with hunger; they are eager to see what the Warden has prepared. A few girls, the fresh catch, whimper behind me. I stand tall with my head tilted and my eyes trained to the ground. Then, I let my air out in a slow stream, all of it, until emptiness is the only thing left.

“Welcome.” Behind me, the Warden’s heavy breath sifts through the microphone and hovers over the room. He grabs the chains connecting us, tugging and shaking my cuffed hands backwards until they rattle loudly. My upper lip twitches and then relaxes. I don’t need to see him to feel that familiar sickness curve over his flaking lips as he presents us: raw fish on a hang line.

“Straight from the Amazon,” the Warden continues. “These wild, lethal beauties have a dark side.” Cat-calls and shouts radiate from the audience.

An expectant spotlight forms at the front of the stage and for a moment, the room stills.

“Falyn.” The Warden’s gravel-coarse breath grazes the back of my neck. His hands key the manacles on my wrists.

He pushes me forward and I obey.  

The catwalk is fractured, rotting from the inside out. Each step draws splinters into the calloused skin of my feet. I imagine the floor giving way, the cracked wood impaling my slender brown legs until I’m so crippled that no one would take me. The thought makes me smirk. What would the Warden do then? Kill me? Throw me to his pack of feral dogs? I’d welcome the relief. Rescue and ruination are one and the same.

Cigarette-charred fingers draw the hair out of my face.

“The first girl is a rare jewel. Caught her myself in the Lacandon Jungle, bathing in the Usamacinta river.”  

A lie. I’ve never stepped foot in the Usamacinta. And anyone who knows the Warden knows he doesn’t dirty his hands with that sort of groundwork. Not that it matters to his customers. Waves of arousal rise up as they press themselves into the stage.

The Warden moves behind me, tightening his hips against mine. One hand cuffs my midriff while the other rips open the neck of my shirt, leaving me exposed.  

“Show them your human side first,” the Warden instructs us each night before the show.

His fingers tug and play at my shredded skirt before curling around me and cueing me from behind.

“Build their appetite slowly.”

My tailbone twitches a few times before lengthening into a silky, black tail that flicks back and forth between my legs.

The crowd roars and my head spins. Images, moving too fast to see, swirl around me like a carousel. I press my eyelids closed. I’m edgier than usual and I wonder if a full moon is out tonight, sparking my nerves.

“Emerald eyes,” the Warden brags, grabbing my jaw with a stern vice-grip and snapping my face to the ceiling.

The glare off the bell light hanging overhead blinds me. I have to bat my eyes out of necessity as I squint the white shock away. When I refocus, my gaze shifts to a hooded figure at the back of the room. He’s alone, with his head tilted down and his left shoulder tapped into a thick palm beam. The stranger is unusually still against a backdrop of lewd-gesturing men and their beer-slamming cohorts. Too still.

I watch him reach for his drink, tightening his fist around the glass. A low growl rumbles out of my throat as my canines snap into place. I would recognize that ink anywhere.

A hard cuff to the jaw knocks me off balance. My tongue flicks around, getting a taste for the blood that fills my mouth. Salty and rancid like the rust that corrodes the ceiling pipes. Not the smooth metallic flavor of my own.

“She’s got the hot temper of a panther, too.” The Warden laughs off the mishap, rubbing his injured thumb against his pants, but I hear the venom in his voice. I know the suffering of a ripped leather whip awaits me for that unauthorized changing.

“Start the bidding!”

He releases me and stalks around the stage with a predator’s stance.

From the corner table, a hood falls onto bare shoulders accentuated by a deep leather v-neck. My eyes follow the once familiar twists and curves of the tattoos that make a home of Chano’s arms in thick swaths of tribal markings.

Saliva pools in my mouth as I clench my jaw. I will myself against summoning my claws and charging him, ripping his chest open and letting the blood drain into a pool on the floor. Not quickly, but drop by drop. I want him to feel the agony of his life slipping away from him. I want him to feel the tick-tick of three years of pain hollowing out his soul.

Instead, I plant my feet and wait. I promised myself I would kill him and I can’t deliver that vow without restraint. Timing is everything.

“Fifty-thousand.” Chano leads the bid. His voice is exactly as I remember: a deep, breathy timbre. It runs the length of my arms like a cool breeze, upsetting each little hair along the way.

“You insult her.” The Warden laughs. “She’s worth at least triple.”

Another hand raises. “Seventy-five.”

Then, the Warden’s smile fades into pursed lips. “I’ll accept nothing less than one hundred.” He nods at the beefy-armed bouncer with a machete tied to his hips. “The next man to offer less will find himself paying for an evening with my friend Lucio.”

Two more offers roll in, bumping the bid to $125,000 before Chano raises his hand.

“Two-hundred thousand.”

Silence coats the room for ten counts before the Warden nods and motions at Lucio. “Take them to the rings.”

Inside, my heart rattles against my ribs with a traitor’s infirmity. I can do this, I tell myself but fear the moment I meet those steel-blue eyes again and feel the draw of his fingers against my skin. He used to have such power over me, the lure of a hypnotist, making me forget the rest of the world every second we were together. But then I remember the beach, the flick of his tail, as he left me to die. I remember my own screams as they took me. A hard resolve takes over. I will do this.

Lucio unlocks me from my chains and leads me down a set of stairs to the side of the stage. We wait by the curtain until the paying customer makes his way up to claim his prize.

A few seconds later, I sense Chano behind me, his energy brooding and electric. It sparks at my skin.

I keep my head down. The slightest indication that we know each other and it’s over.

“She’s yours for the next two hours,” says Lucio as he leads us into the back.

We arrive at The Jungle. The gate to my ring has been adorned with lifeless wild flowers hanging limply amidst thorn-ridden vines.

He opens the door and guides us into the dirt pit. A bed of wilted roses garnishes a mattress in the corner. “Ring the bell if she gives you any trouble.” He references me without looking my way. “She knows the rules and she knows the consequences.”

He leaves and a quiet fills up the air between us like a concrete fill.

It’s Chano that finally breaks the silence.

“Mi vida.” His voice melts the room and my body softens against my will.

No, I command myself, biting my lip until I pierce the flesh. I use the pain as an anchor against the emotion that’s trying to fight its way in.

He runs a hand down my back and my spine bends to his fingers. I haven’t been touched like that in years.

“Mi vida,” I whisper.

Disarming him means I have to play my part. My chin rises as I turn to face him. His eyes waver as he takes me in. Placing a hand on his forehead, I push my nails through the blades of black hair, pulling them through to his spine as I retrace my old steps.

Exhaling, he nods his forehead into mine. “I’ve missed you.”

“It’s been a long time,” I say, careful to keep my voice steady. I map out the rough edges of his neck, extending the tips of my claws, and watching as they create pressure points in his vulnerable flesh. The rhythm of his jugular quickens as he presses into me. One nick and it would be over.

Before I can make a move, his mouth is on me. His tongue finds me with a hunger that calls to my own. I wrap my arms around him, bringing our chests together.

Picking me up, he carries me over to the mattress and lays me down, ripping off what’s left of my bustier. He traces the curve of my hip before bringing his lips to my skin. When he kisses me, my body arcs upwards like a magnet that’s been summoned. He drags his bottom lip across my stomach and stops to relish the moan that follows. Then he tastes me again, circling over my breasts. Each flick of his tongue hardens my nipples. A throbbing heat builds between my legs. I reach for him, inspired to bring on the same torture, but he pins my hands before I can get past his belt.

“Not yet,” he whispers, bringing his face up to mine. He kisses me again, biting my bottom lip before sliding down my body. The contours of his face trigger sparks as he travels south, never breaking contact with my skin.

Untying my skirt, he draws the fabric over my legs. He spreads my knees and stifles a groan as he looks at my sex. I can feel myself dripping with anticipation. A wildness builds in his eyes and he has to bite down on his lip as he struggles to restrain himself.

I widen my thighs. I don’t want him to hold back. My mind only has room for one intention now. Drawing a finger lightly over my clit, I gasp as electricity shoots through my veins. “Chano,” I whimper, begging for the kind of release that only he can give me.

He dips his head and sidles himself between my legs. His tongue flickers like a live wire and my whole body trembles. Then, he slows down and caresses me with a careful pressure. I grab the edge of the mattress, piercing it with my nails. Desire crawls out from my core and reaches for my limbs.

Before I lose control, I grab for his shirt and find the edge. I tear at it wildly. My body is beginning to convulse–all I can think about is the beauty of his raw muscles. I need him on top of me.

When the leather splits, he stops. His spine stiffens and he pulls away.

I sit up. “What is it?”

My gaze shifts to the exposed skin of his torso. Lacerations and puncture marks that hold the tooth and claw semblance of their makers tell a story of pain. Wounds stare back at me, raw and unrecovered where the damage is still fresh.

“I’ve changed,” he says, unable to meet my eyes. He grabs for his shirt. I toss it out of reach.

“You’ve changed?” A dark laugh catches in my throat as my resolve for vengeance returns. “Is that why you came? After all these years?”

The light flickers in time with my memories. I feel myself drifting back to that beach–the last time we saw each other.

“What are you…” He starts up but I interrupt.

“You left me to die.”

Thick tufts of fur sprout along my arms as I remember the sharp prick of the dart that stabbed my neck and the way my joints buckled under my weight as I toppled into the sand. The shouting–voices of strange men–and the warmth of Chano’s body leaving mine in a flash of fur as he ran off into the night without me.

“No,” he protests.

It’s too late. My claws lengthen and I swing forward, slicing a deep trail of red across his chest. He crashes backwards. I lunge, embracing the transformation of my feline side as I swing a paw straight for his throat.

He rolls and dodges me, taking his wolfish form on instinct.

Face to face, we pace around one another. I snarl, recalling the grip of a hundred arms reaching over me, holding me down and pushing my face into the sand as a gang of strangers ravaged my body. Chano saved himself.

I dive at him again. He whips to the side and I nearly miss him but my teeth manage to catch his flank. Together, we crash to the floor. I sink my jaws deep into his flesh. His blood tastes sickly sweet making me want to gag.

He gives no rebuke when I release him. I crawl over his body, trapping his wrists with my own. Placing my index claw over his windpipe, I press down.

“Kill me,” he sputters. “I was already dead without you.”

“You left me,” I growl a second time.

“I didn’t,” he says. Retracting my claws slightly, I give him just enough space to plead for mercy.

“I charged the man who shot you. I tried to stop him, but it was a trap.” An ugly grimace steals over his face.

“They used you as bait,” he continues. “Two more jumped out with nets and…” He forces his last words out, grinding each one between his teeth. “They made me watch.”

His eyes lock onto mine, swelling at the brims.

“Kill me if you want. But I didn’t leave you.”

I swallow and fall back onto my haunches. My jaw quivers with uncertainty. I want to end this–I want to kill him–but my mind is stumbling over his version of the memory.

He sits up and leans into me. “They sold me to a cage fighting ring in Venezuela.” Nuzzling my neck with his nose he whispers, “I thought about you every day. The things I saw them do to you…I promised myself I would find you and kill the men that did this to us.”

Us. The word cuts a hole in my chest.

“I promised I would kill you,” I admit, letting the guilt into my eyes. Heavy tears make paths down my cheeks.

He wipes them away. “I would never leave you.” His voice is hard this time and when he kisses me there is no hesitation. He forces me into the ground and grinds himself into me.

Grapping his hips, I thrust my own up to meet his. He lengthens against me and I feel his body fight against the cloth that separates us. Scraping my hands down his forearms, I intensify the agony until he howls.

He grabs for his belt and my hands follow. I play along the hilt of his hips with my fingers. When he unzips himself, I rip the fabric open and take him in my hands.

I stroke out a rhythm that builds us both to a frenzied state. Then, I guide him towards me, wetting the tip of his erection with my desire.

“Mmmm,” he purrs satisfaction.

I climb onto his lap and he tugs me down. My jaw drops as he enters me. I rock into him, clutching his shoulders tightly as he buries his face in my chest. He locks his hands behind me, driving my hips into his. I thrust myself forward and our bodies come together again and again. I feel inhibition leave me as the animal inside me finds its voice.

Chano flips me onto my knees. He gets behind, urging me to change. Then, he launches into me at depths that draw my claws out, sharpening their tips into the earth as I reach for a stronghold. My spine shifts and lengthens as we transform together, embracing our wild selves. Desire creeps into my vision like the black hands of night that want to suffocate me with pleasure.

Chano takes me faster. I cry for more as the world begins to disappear. My body arcs and bucks. His movement becomes urgent and every corded muscle tightens around me, holding me in place. With a final thrust, the whole room explodes in light.

When I come to, we have collapsed to the floor, breathless.

A few seconds pass and I nudge Chano. Part of me finds comfort in the pressing weight of him wrapped around me like a cocoon. The other part–my lungs–begin to spasm under the mass.

He doesn’t move.

“Get up,” I groan and strain against him.

Then his body flies off of mine. A pair of steel-toed boots, black-tipped in old blood, plant themselves in front of me.

“Animals,” says the Warden, spitting his contempt. A revolver sits neatly in his fist, its barrel pointed at Chano’s back. “We heard you two barking like a pair of wild dogs in here.” He turns to Lucio. “Guess we weren’t wrong.”

Reaching back, I wipe the sweat dripping off my neck to find my fingers slick with a crimson paint. I turn to Chano, face-down in the dirt, half-changed and lifeless. His back is a mess of matted hair and blood where the Warden shot him.

“Bit of a waste, really,” the Warden continues. “Should have aimed for a limb… always seem to be short of Lupine stock in the cages.”

My lip curls. I look back to Chano. I was wrong about him. Lucio walks up and kicks his body over. His eyes, those beautiful azure lights, are closed up and burnt out.

He came back for me. He was always coming back for me. I wipe the silent tears from my cheek and his Rosewood scent wafts from my skin, infusing me with a new feeling – a lulling comfort deep in my chest. Now that I know the truth I no longer care what happens to me.

I growl like a cat preparing to pounce. The Warden turns to face me and laughs. He tips his head in my direction. “Get her outta here.”

I smile as Lucio steps towards me. Baring my claws, I dare him. He lays a hand on the machete slung to his hip and looks to the Warden for instruction. I hear a click as the Warden cocks his gun.

“Kill me,” I say. “One more girl to add to your tally.” 

“El monstruo,” mutters Lucio.

The Warden nods. “He’s right. You’re not a girl. You’re not even an animal.” He snarls in disgust. “All of your kind are monsters. Filthy, little…”

The Warden’s scream fills the air as a shadow rises behind him. He buckles at the knees, losing hold of the gun and fighting gravity’s pull as he falls forward.

I waste no time, diving at Lucio before he can fumble for his weapon. My claws slice him clean across the throat. His eyes widen and set as a river flows from his neck. He joins the Warden in a heap at the ground.

Chano picks up the gun and limps over to the Warden. He takes aim and sends three bullets into the back of the Warden’s head.

I walk over to join him placing a hand on his ravaged shoulder and tenderly investigating the wound. He’ll need to seek medical assistance. But first I wrap my arms around him.

Cupping my face in his hands, he leans into me so that our foreheads are touching. “Mi monstruo.”

“Mi monstruo.” I agree.

Neither one of us is the same, nor will we ever be. We are both damaged and marked by the cruelty of this world. But, I decide, as we pick the keys out of the Warden’s pocket, we are together.

As we leave The Jungle, I pluck a wilted passiflora head off a wreath of vines, sniffing it before tucking it behind my ear. The aroma is that of over-ripe fruit, the kind of stench that would have made me sick before. I embrace it now.

Chano leads me away into the darkness that is our new freedom. I follow him, letting go of the girl that lived in chains.

Submitted: November 12, 2019

© Copyright 2022 Jenna Chante. All rights reserved.

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