The Cage

Ten years. Ten years of hiding in dank tunnels and abandoned subway stations. Ten years of hiding my mutilated face from the light. Ten years since those religious zealots cut off my ears and cut out my tongue for speaking against the Ordus.

I’m not bitter. That would be too weak a word.

There are powers greater than man and possibly even greater than the Maker. They didn’t believe me, nor did they wish to believe that an old man like me could divine their lusts, see past their lies, and know what secrets tarred their blackened souls.

On days like today I can still taste the blood swimming in my mouth after the inquisitor removed his blade.

“I’ll extend you one kindness, heretic,” he said. “I’ll leave your eyes and pray that one day you see the Maker’s glory.”

If only this man were in front of me today.

I have no tongue, yet I can speak. I have no ears, yet I can hear. I am more powerful than that inquisitor could have ever imagined.

Day after day, month after month, year after year I sit in my abandoned subway station in the trash and refuse sowing fear into the other homeless degenerates. All day and all night I practice my craft. Oh, if only I knew where that inquisitor was today. I would find so much delight peeling the flesh from his bones, listening to the music in his screams.

Ten years. Today is the anniversary of that day. Today my chamber feels suffocating. The walls feel like they are pressing in on me with their dust, their decay, and posters advertising yesteryear’s juiciest chewing gum.

Today I will walk among the living.

I ascend out of my grave, and lock the door to my abandoned subway station. The tunnels below the city are infinite like the tunnels in an anthill. The degenerates and homeless burn their fires to keep warm today. The chill of winter is in the air. Maybe when I reach the surface I will see the purity of snow?

Like fearful children they flee at the sight of me. I am their boogeyman. They think I cannot hear the whispers in the tunnels. I hear all of their whispers. I am both their god and their devil.

A bulbous wino stumbles into me, his grimy fingers clinging at my coat. His touch is not unlike a disease. His fetid breath smells of whiskey and rotten teeth.

“Help a cutter out?” he coughs and spits. Drool runs down his five day stubble, dripping onto my sleeve. This fool is obviously too drunk to realize who I am.

I stare deep into his eyes. I imagine a bat striking him in the knee. The fool screams out in pain, clutching at the kneecap he believes is shattered.

I hear his cries. I don’t care.

I imagine his ribs breaking. I imagine a thousand hungry spiders and rats crawling out of the cracks feasting on his flesh, crawling into his ears and screaming maw. I imagine a brutish thug stomping on his face.

The man screams and screams. He’s begging for his life as he tries to cradle every pain and every sensation of shattered bone.

He’s choking on his own spit. I smile at his misery and deign that he did little more than beg me for change, naive as it was, so I will let him live.

Others retreat from me as I leave the man convulsing in a puddle of his own vomit.

The cold bites at me. Small flakes of ice blow on the wind nipping at my extremities. The fresh air is painful yet exhilarating. Regrettably, if the authorities spot me I’m liable to be arrested. I take in my final breath, for this year, and quickly descend into the subway station through which I came.

Surface people retreat from me not because of reputation, but because of what the inquisitor did to my face. They see the red X of heresy that he cut into my forehead. The women tremble at how grotesque my tortures left me. My cut nose. The lack of ears. Split lips. I am the monster their parents warned them about in fairy tales.

A small rope catches my foot. I brace for impact, but take a mouthful of mud and tile. Dirt and gravel cut into my gums.

“Run!” a child yells. There’s two of them.

I focus in on the one who held the rope across the base of the stairs. I look up with warm blood running from my nose to my chin.

You don’t realize the hell you’ve unleashed, boy.

Like a deer in the headlights he stops at the sound of my voice. Normal people don’t react well to unfamiliar voices in their head.

I imagine choking him. I imagine slapping him with a brick.

The child falls to the ground. He’s writhing in agony. Nobody, not even this child is allowed to humiliate me like this.

I imagine a sadistic carpenter pounding nails into the child.

Relishing in my revenge I see something I thought I’d never see. I see a glimmer within this child. I have never seen another like me.

I imagine him being disemboweled with a butter knife.

The child’s mind is burning me back. What in the Maker’s hell is this?

He’s my weapon.

The pain has rendered the child unconscious. I stopped just shy of killing the little street urchin. I almost pity him. Almost.

###

“Let me out, mister. Please?”

His pleas for mercy sicken me. I have him dangling in a cage over the tracks in my abandoned station. Nobody can hear his screams. We’re too far below ground for that.

“Please! I’ll do anything you want. What do you want, mister?”

I look up from my desk, tucked in a corner of the platform. I read by candlelight. This infernal noise isn’t going to stop anytime soon, so I might as well stop designing his lessons and begin teaching him.

If you are to speak, boy, speak like me.

Panic invades his thoughts. He realizes who I am. This boy has lived in the tunnels. He knows who I am. I am the boogeyman.

“I don’t understand!”

Then try!

I imagine his cage getting so small that it crushes him.

The boy’s imagination crushes him to sleep.

###

Three days have passed. He has stopped talking, and lays in his cage. I have cooked some rat, mixed with a variety of other vermin my traps have snared in the tunnels. I slide his pot of vermin stew into his cage.

Eat.

He looks at me, still horrified. Half-starved, he grabs the bowl with both hands and chokes the mix down. It’s obvious that he doesn’t like my cooking. I don’t take offense. I don’t like my cooking either.

How is the food?

The child hurks, then vomits through the bars.

Answer me!

The boy’s eyes widen at my outrage. His chest heaves.

I… he begins. His internal voice is unfocused, clumsy. I… box… little stone… good?

Excellent. He’s catching on.

I imagine a plastic bag pulled over his head. He passes out.

Blessed silence.

###

I awoke this morning to strange whispers. As I lay in bed I heard the boy whispering to someone. My old and missing ears strained to hear the conversation. It was only noise to me.

To whom are you speaking, boy?

His whispers stopped.

Nobody. I’m not speaking to nobody.

I lay in bed listening carefully. He began whispering again. The sound was so airy I could barely make it out. Carefully I listened to the room but could hear no other. Maybe I damaged him. Maybe now my weapon is useless.

###

Today I returned from raiding my other neighbors in the tunnel. They gladly handed over what little food they had as a living tax. If you didn’t pay living tax, I refused to let you live.

When I unlocked my door I heard the whine and grind of metal. Up above the track the boy was busily swinging his little bird cage.

What the hell are you doing?

The boy stopped. The cage whined as it slowed in its pendulum movement.

I’m not doing anything.

Doesn’t look like nothing. Boy, what do they call you?

I had a good haul. One of the degenerates above must have been knocking over ladies when they exited a grocery store. A can of preserved meat, two bananas, and a loaf of bread where among the best of the treasures I gathered. It sure beat rat stew.

I don’t have a name.

I looked up from the bag of goodies. Chocowafers. I love Chocowafers. I reminded myself that I should spare the man these came from for at least a month.

Everyone has a name, boy.

It was true. He really didn’t have a name. I scoured the child’s brain as he slept on not just one occasion, but almost nightly for the last eight weeks. This child had no parents, no home, and no direction.

Can I… he began weakly… Can I have real food? Like cookies or… or whatever you allow me?

Shirtless in his cage the boy was emaciated from being unable to hold down his rat stew. Starvation was taking its toll. His ribs protruded out making him look like little more than a skeleton. His belly button nibbled at his backbone.

I emptied the contents of each bag onto the tattered and soiled folding table, stacking them like a display in a marketplace. Once satisfied I sat in the torn and broken easy chair next to the tracks, about ten feet away.

Go ahead. Take all of the food you want.

The boy masked his vexation with a facade of confusion. Rat stew was like fast food. Sure it filled you up, but it left you hungry thirty minutes later. I hadn’t fed him since yesterday.

I can’t reach that!

I wasn’t sure if I were teaching the boy or showing off. He watched in wonder as the bag of Chocowafers lifted off of the top of the pile and floated gently into my hands without ever touching the ground. I ripped open the bag, and stuffed the most delicious cookie in the Maker’s creation directly into my mouth.

Times like this made me bitter. It was my favorite cookie, and thanks to that inquisitor I could never fully enjoy them ever again.

I can do that? My little weapon asked.

I watched as my little weapon’s face wrinkled in constipation. He was forcing himself to pull the food toward him rather than simply reaching out and getting it.

I popped another Chocowafer in my mouth. The Ordus would pay for stealing such pleasure from my life. When I was done forging this child into my weapon we would march upon the temples flaying priests, and crushing any opposition.

Truthfully, the child scared me. He was much more powerful than I but I would condition him not to question my authority.

A banana leapt into the air, hit the ground and tumbled onto the tracks. Looking over the side I saw the rats already sniffing at it. Another tugged on it, inciting a scuffle with his brothers. They tumbled over one another like a ball of gnashing teeth and razor claws.

I can’t do it!

It took you all of a week to speak to me like this. It has taken you five minutes to throw a banana in the air. Your potential is more than you can possibly imagine.

I grabbed another banana from the table, and threw it up to him. The boy caught it and peeled it like a greedy little monkey.

Eat fast. When you’re done I’m putting you to sleep.

###

The boy is catching on faster than I anticipated. As a defense mechanism he has started blocking me out. His defenses are weak, but they exist. I can barely succeed at putting him to sleep anymore.

What’s your name, old man?

The boy was getting too comfortable. Maybe he had resigned to his fate.

My name? I asked. Names are used to distinguish between people. Are you talking to someone else?

The boy remained silent.

In truth, I hadn’t heard his whispers in a long time. Maybe when I left my home he was talking to whoever this was, but I hadn’t heard him.

There was a space of two weeks where I kept the boy asleep as I examined every inch of my domain. Not a single crevice was found that could hold another human being. I looked for a cell phone on him, but no connection could be made this far below ground. I looked in every hole and even rechecked that the tunnel was sealed on both sides. One night I even pressed my ear against the wall in hopes that I could hear someone out there.

Maybe he was beginning to hear people’s thoughts?

Yes. That was possible. That was ideal, in fact. But he would never be able to communicate to them by whispering.

Time to go to sleep.

Let me out.

The audacity of youth!

I imagined hammers pounding him.

My weapon screamed, but not as loudly as usual. His defenses were becoming more fortified.

“Let… me… OUT!” he shouted with all of the contempt he could muster.

The folding table lifted off of the floor and came flying at me. I ducked, but not fast enough. It clipped my head. The room was spinning for a moment as I regained my bearings. My weapon was confused about whether to be brave, or to be frightened by my retaliation.

He quickly learned which.

I imagined him falling off a high ledge, and hitting every jagged stone on the way down.

I wasn’t satisfied.

I bounced him around the inside of his cage like a ping pong ball of flesh and bone, and no, I didn’t imagine it. That was real.

###

My weapon hasn’t spoken to me in a week. His silence has incurred my wrath, but he still refuses to speak to me. There have been no more whispers.

What is he thinking? I can no longer hear his thoughts.

This boy had so much potential. I have spent six months priming him into a weapon with which to strike back at my enemies.

I look into his tear-struck eyes, burning with hatred for me. I fear what this weapon can do to me. So far he hasn’t struck. He has been so very quiet. My weapon is powerful enough now that I cannot put him to sleep. This is going to require preparation and thought if I am to survive.

I need a gun.

###

Today is the reaping. I was so caught up in plotting the demise of my weapon that I completely forgot that it was the one day of the year when the city authority moves through the tunnels displacing the homeless. Those that oppose are disposed of.

I just got back from the surface, where I bought a gun. I lock the door behind me.

Each year they wander past when they feel the door is locked. The illusion that nobody can get in assures them that no homeless can be on the other side.

I pull out the gun, and I look at the child in the cage. It sways to and fro above me. He lays on the floor of it. In the darkness I can’t make out if he is even awake.

There’s a commotion outside my door. They are moving through this section of the tunnels. If I shot him now they would hear it.

You’ve returned. I’m glad.

Rage infected each syllable. The boy was now sitting up, draping his gaunt little arms through the bars. He looked at me with his soot-smeared face. I had been starving him for three days, but somehow he survived.

Why are you glad?

The cage teetered into the light. I saw black blood running down his chin, dribbling down to his protruding ribs. He held a scaly little tail in his right hand.

Was the boy eating rats?

“Ma’am? Ma’am are you okay in there?”

Men were pounding on the door.

Ma’am? Why were they asking for a woman?

Their muffled voices carried past the iron door.

“Someone’s screaming in there.”

“Well, bust down the door! Don’t just stand there you soddin’ berk!”

A scream echoed out from the other side. I was imagining a gun going off, shooting the man through the head. I killed one of the officers but more were coming.

My hands shook, barely able to push bullets into the revolver.

Each fist on the door sounded like a gunshot.

“Ma’am! We’re here! We’re coming in!”

The door caved in, falling to the floor like a massive gong. There were too many for me to focus on. They all had their guns drawn.

I imagined one of their legs falling off. I imagined the ceiling caving in on top of another.

Police were screaming and dying. They looked up at the shouting boy. I drew my gun.

The platform erupted into a cacophony of gunfire. The sound was not unlike being locked in a steel drum with a handful of firecrackers.

Gasping, choking for breath I watched as the officers pulled the boy out of his cage.

“Maker’s mercy,” one of the officers exclaimed in horror. “He’s been starving this boy. He can’t be more than eleven years old. Can you walk, son?”

One officer stood over me with his pistol. Another announced that two of their comrades were dead.

The boy glared down at me as I choked to death on blood and bullets. It was him. My weapon made them imagine hearing a screaming woman in my home.

He gave me the finger.

Fuck you old man.

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