It wasn’t any one thing that woke him from the half sleep he’d grown accustomed to. His senses were always on alert as Ajani stared out from the confines of his cage. Scanning the dark, dank cellar, which was cold enough in winter to cause icicles to form down the walls, he used his senses. The door was locked and bolted, as were the cages they were in, but it was the chemical restraints that stopped them from being able to leave. They were chemically locked in their human form by the men in white coats, who didn’t speak to them. Daily they were subjected to new torments, but not once did the men, when they’d finished their day’s work, acknowledge them.
It was work; they were experiments and referred to by a number, but Ajani remembered the two who had named him. It might be a faded memory, but they were there in the back of his mind, where he kept them away from the parts of him he no longer recognized.
His young brain had tried to fathom what life had once been like before the cage, but it was so long ago, sometimes Ajani convinced himself that time wasn’t real. When the pain got too much, and the testing took him into a dark place, only then did he recall what his life had been like. His parents teaching him to swing through the trees. The feel of the wind on his face. The scents and feel of the tree’s branch in his hands. Damp earth and that of the air as he moved with grace in a place where he’d once been safe from needles and tests.
His young heart yearned for those things. He sniffed and scanned the other cages to make sure no one witnessed his moment of weakness. Those caged with him, along with their captors, did not tolerate it. Each one was a competitor vying for escape from purgatory, only escape wasn’t an option.
“Don’t cry,” a familiar voice whispered in the darkness.
His heart skipped a beat as he once more checked the darkness, seeing nothing, not even the figure attached to the voice. How?
He sniffed the air, wiping his eyes. All his senses enhanced by whatever they’d given him, worked to figure out where the owner of the voice was. It was always the same: the voice appeared to belong to an imaginary figure. Only Ajani knew that wasn’t the case.
“Where are you,” Ajani whispered, his body tensing at the merest of noises before a hairy finger slid through the cage bars and touched the side of his lower leg where he’d been kicked hard enough it had instantly gone black. Not allowed to shift to heal. The pain was his punishment for getting caught out.
The gentlest of touches, yet it seemed to help soothe him. It did what it always did and set his insides to hum with a sense of knowing. One Ajani had no real understanding of.
Was it part of something they’d done to him? It was a question he had no one to ask. The changes to his body were numerous and the way his whole body ached, it was impossible to figure out. Finding a place on the cage floor to make himself comfortable, he’d long since given up trying. Yet the simple touch from number AX4395 made Ajani remember he was more than a test specimen.
Why was that?
“You were upset earlier, I came to see if you were alright.”
His voice was low and melodic, one that could ease the pain in Ajani’s heart. It was a silly notion, but still, he clung to it.
The visits didn’t happen often, and Ajani couldn’t remember the first time, but he always felt connected when AX4395 was near. It somehow made the length of time between visits more bearable.
“How do you get in? How did you see?” He kept his voice low to ensure the words didn’t carry. Ajani was aware of the skills of those caged with him. They often fought so those in white coats could figure out what the skills of their animal were without shifting. Know your opponent. Words drilled into his brain, he was sure.
“This place was where they first brought me. I know how to get around without being seen.” The sadness was there in the voice of the hairy creature, who didn’t reveal his face.
The finger continued to stroke against the sore spot, and warmth filled Ajani’s chest. With it came the urge to see him. It wasn’t the first time, but this time it came with an urgency Ajani hadn’t experienced before. Up to now, AX4395 had kept his face hidden. Ajani suspected it was to do with the amount of hair on the hand, which always offered comfort. “Will you show me your face?”
Complete silence followed the merest sound of an indrawn breath. For long moments Ajani thought he was going to deny him, then a hairy face appeared for the briefest second, before it disappeared.
The air in his lungs expelled fast enough that he glanced at the other cages, his eyes narrowing, assessing if he’d alerted anyone to AX4395’s presence. They had never discussed the need for secrecy; only Ajani understood AX4395 didn’t talk to all the others in the same way he spoke to him.
Warmth spread through his cold body when the face reappeared for another moment. A wide smile gave his heart a jolt. There was nothing about the hairy face that scared Ajani because eyes don’t lie.
After years of being trapped, he’d gotten good at reading those around him. The blue eyes that reminded Ajani of the sky on a clear day were bright, honest, and held nothing but compassion. A stark contrast to Ajani, who was sure he was filled with nothing but hate.
AX4395 was one of them. Only it seemed something had gone wrong with him, or that’s what Ajani thought now he’d seen his face. None of the others in the cages were hairy, unless in their animal form.
AX4395 distracted Ajani from his thoughts when there was surprise in his voice. “You didn’t scream.”
Ajani tilted his head at the darkness and, as always, marveled at how AX4395 could be there and not be seen. Something Ajani had yet to master. “Why would I scream?” he asked in all seriousness.
“Everyone outside does. Well, except for Marvin, he’s nice and gives me food. Do you think I could be Marvin rather than a number with letters?”
The finger didn’t stop stroking his leg, and each movement caused Ajani’s eyelids to droop. “If you like the name, why not?” he replied slowly, his words hardly more than a hum in the chilly air.
“I like Marvin.” The silence that followed was as comfortable as the finger that never stopped lulling him with its gentleness, easing his pain.
Ajani’s head settled against the bars, his nose twitching as he inhaled Marvin’s scent. Something deep within him he didn’t understand, glowed, giving him something to tuck away and keep safe.
His eyes drifted shut as Marvin whispered, “That’s it, sleep little ape. I’ll watch over you.”