At first, there’s nothing but pure darkness and silence . . . but then, the screaming begins. It starts out incoherent as light filters the black fog. The heavy breathing and hard heartbeat are barely audible through the shrill screech.
RUN! YOU HAVE TO RUN! THEY’RE RIGHT BEHIND YOU.
The dark lifts from my eyes. With no direction or purpose, I keep running. I have to get out of these woods as fast as I can.
As my vision and mind clear, though, I stumble over my own feet. Where the hell am I?
Another voice thunders through my head.
It doesn’t matter. Just run! RUN!
I do, choosing to worry about this disembodied voice after I make it to safety. I urge my legs to move faster. They oblige. The adrenaline surging through my veins makes it almost easy, but the blind panic makes me stagger over a tree root.
MOVE! Faster! Its urgency makes the words run into one another. RIGHTBEHINDYOU!
I force my legs to move even faster. My heart hammers against my ribcage, and I choke on my breaths. “What—is after me?” I ask out loud, my deep and unfamiliar voice cracking in my parched throat. I clear it to ease the ache. Why am I running? What the hell’s going on?
The voice offers no response. Maybe it doesn’t have an answer either. Is it my own voice?
A low-hanging branch scrapes my cheek as I breeze past it, and I try to focus on the uneven path ahead.
The trees make it impossible to see what lies beyond them, but cars honk in the distance.
I must be close to a city now. Which city, I don’t know, and I lose my concentration as new questions flood my mind, confusion and panic muffling the screeching in my head. Do I have a home? A family?
My heart pounds so hard I can’t breathe.
Do I have a name?
A shout pierces through all my screaming thoughts. A real one.
Brakes screech to my right. A car is barreling towards me, swerving as it tries to avoid me.
I jump out of the way and someone pulls me onto the sidewalk. The vehicle stops several yards away. As I bend forward, hands on my knees while I try to catch my breath, the driver steps out the car. I give him a thumbs-up and attempt to wave him away.
The driver’s face morphs from worry to anger. “Watch where you’re going next time, unless you looking to make abstract art with your insides.” He gets back into his car and drives off, foot heavy on the gas.
“Better take his advice,” a voice says behind me.
“I—” Turning to the girl who had just saved my life, I clear my aching throat again. The entirety of my mouth and esophagus hurt so bad it takes me a moment to remember what I meant to say. “I’m sorry.” Soft yet urgent whispers start up in my head again. I glance over my shoulder at the tree line I emerged from.
“What happened to you?” Her gaze drifts over to the trees and back to me. “What’re you running from?”
“I . . . don’t know.”
Her eyes narrow. “You don’t know?”
Barely paying her any mind, I look around, my eyes darting from one place to another, desperate to land on something—anything—remotely familiar.
She, however, is not done with her questions. “Why’re you dressed like that? Did you escape some mental hospital or something—and I swear I don’t mean that in a rude way.”
I look down at myself. The soft thump, thump, thump rises over the other noise. Plain long-sleeved white shirt, and sweatpants pale enough to pass as white, too. Frowning, I open my mouth to voice my confused thoughts, but the blare of a horn nearly deafens me.
“Argh!” I lean forward, hands slapped over my ears, grinding my teeth against the pain, but a dull ache in my gums forces me to loosen my jaw. My vision blurs and sharpens too quickly, everything suddenly too bright and almost painful to look at.
At the crunch of gravel, I whirl around, but my gaze lands on someone across the street, her strides the only thing that could match the noise. Over the squeals of the two children running ahead, the woman quietly mutters, “It’s so hot out here . . . Friggin’ global warming, I swear.”
“Are you on something?” the girl asks, and though her voice is soft, it booms in my ears.
Cringing, I step away from her, but a steady thump, thump, thump makes me pause. My own heart slows as I focus on the sound. It grows louder when I look up at her.
Something shifts in my aching gums and I run my tongue over my teeth, stopping when something sharp pokes it.
The girl’s eyes widen at the same time mine do, and she stumbles backward. “What—”
With a shake of my head, I turn and run the other way.
“Hey!” the young woman calls after me. “Where are you going?” Under her breath, she mutters, “And what the heck are you?”
Both are very good questions.
I keep running until the screams in my head fade into incoherent whispers, taking back alleys to ease the panic swelling in my chest. Nothing looks familiar. No matter where I run, I don’t recognize a single face, a single street name—nothing. Dazed from the heat, I can barely keep myself on my feet, and my tongue is drier than the concrete beneath me.
At the back of a restaurant, I collapse next to a leaking hose. Without hesitation, I snatch it from the ground and twist it open with shaky hands. I gulp down as much water as I can. Some of it goes up my nose, and I choke, but I’m too desperate to slow down.
“Hey!” a gruff voice says behind me. “What you doin’ back ’ere?”
I look up as the water stops flowing from the hose. A bearded man in chef’s whites stands by the spigot, glare fixated on me. My clothes are stuck to me, completely soaked through, but I don’t care. I cradle my stomach as it twists painfully, and realize I’m still shaking despite the summer heat.
“Aw, c’m—What are you on?”
“N-Nothing . . . ?”
He eyes me suspiciously. Not that I can blame him. I don’t think I trust myself either. “Get the hell off my property before I call the police.”
“What’s goin’ on out here?” a softer voice says from the door.
“Nothin’,” the bearded man says. “Go back inside.”
She doesn’t listen to him, letting the door close behind her as she brushes past the reluctant man to stand before me. She looks me up and down, worry creasing her brow. “You okay, sweets?”
“I don’t . . .” I glance over her shoulder at the man, but his glare startles me and I look back into her warm brown eyes instead. “I don’t think so.”
With a sad smile, she pulls a couple of thin braids behind her ear. “Why don’t you come inside?” She extends an arm towards the shop, still taking in his appearance. “You look like you haven’t eaten in days.”
How long has it been since I ate? My stomach growls and turns at the same time, urging me to go inside, but there’s one more problem. And I’m sure that’s why the older man is shaking his head at me, grumbling under his breath in an unfamiliar language. “I don’t have any money.”
She glances at him—he shuts up but his frown doesn’t waver—and then back at me. With a wide pearly white smile, she says, “This one’s on me. Come on in.”
Once inside, she motions at me to sit anywhere before the duo disappears through the door leading to the back kitchen area. Despite the distance and the hum of the grills and fridges, I hear them argue. I look around, but everyone seems lost in their own conversations, oblivious to the fight on the other side of the walls.
The tall woman steps out with a full tray in one hand and a jug of orange juice in the other. My mouth would water if it had any moisture to spare.
I can’t help eating so fast, even with her staring at me. I try not to stare back and instead focus on the tables around me. Most are empty, which I guess is not uncommon for this small bakery, what with the sun already going down. A particular trio at a booth in the corner stare at us, giggling and whispering amongst themselves. I try straining my ear to catch what they’re saying, but the kind woman sitting across from chooses that moment to speak.
“How long has it been since you ate?” she asks. By the side glance she gives the group, though, I get the feeling she doesn’t want me looking at them. Still, I have no answer to her question and can only stare as though she’s spoken another language. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry.”
I shake my head, trying to dismiss her guilt while still trying to chew the piece of bread in my mouth. Not able to chew anymore, I force it down my throat with the orange juice and suppress a cough. The textures are all wrong. Even the orange juice feels too thin to coat my throat. I don’t bother touching the water either, having already gulped down about a gallon’s worth outside.
“What’s your name?” she asks. “That’s not too much to ask, is it?”
It is, but still, I try. I shut my eyes and try to think of a name. Any random name. Drawing a blank, I open my eyes again and shake my head.
“You don’t know?” she whispers and looks over her shoulder towards the kitchen. The man turns away from the small window pane on the door, but not before I see the phone he has cradled to his head. “What do you mean you don’t know?”
I fidget and pick at the biscuit between my fingers. “I don’t remember anything.” She continues to stare. With a sigh, I brush off the crumbs from my hands. “The last thing I remember . . . I was running. I felt like I was in danger, like someone—or something—was after me, and . . .” I run my tongue over my teeth like before. They’re smooth. No pointy ends. Did I imagine it?
Her incessant stare still on me, I clear my throat and add, “Then I got thirsty and found this place.”
The woman’s eyes disappear behind her curled lashes as she squints at something on my chest. “Kyan,” she says. She looks up at him. “Is that how you say—Well, I guess you wouldn’t know, huh?”
I blink. Something about that rings true to my heart. That has to be my name. I look down at myself and notice the tag she’s examining. Reading upside down proves to be a challenge, but only for a moment.
KYAN—TEST SUBJECT 0109
AGE: 17—HEIGHT: 5’11’’
The thump, thump, thump fills my ears again, and I have to fight for focus on her words. “Not even a last name . . . What’s that about, d’you know?” she asks, and I wish I had the answers, but I just learned my own name. She eyes me closely and I try to resume eating again. Despite all the chewing and painful swallows, the plate is still half full. “Well, I don’t remember you from the Most Wanted. You might’ve not escaped jail. Must count for something.”
I don’t say anything, every muscle in my body tense. Maybe, like that girl said earlier, I did escape from a psychiatric hospital. It’d explain why I hear voices, or why I thought I had fangs, and think I can hear heartbeats.
I chew faster, hoping the munching distracts me. But my stomach churns and I have to swallow hard before I spit it out in disgust. I don’t think I can eat anymore, but I’m still too hungry to even see straight.
“Well, Kyan,” the woman says with a slight smile, “I’m Iza, and that grumpy man back there is my husband, Mido. He’s not normally that grumpy, but . . .” She flipped her braids over her shoulder, exposing her neck. Hunger must be playing tricks on my head because I swear I can see the slight pulse beneath her dark skin from where I sit.
The bakery around me blurs completely, the thump, thump, thump growing louder, thundering in my ears. I tear my gaze away from her neck. Clutching the edge of the table, I try to stabilize my breathing. But as I try to get my heart to slow, I realize the steady beat was nothing like mine. Mine thuds slowly despite the fear trying to devour me, and deeper, with more purpose in each beat.
“. . . hasn’t been quite the same since,” Iza says. She pauses as I suck in a sharp breath. “You alright?” She stretches out a hand. “You look like you’re about to be sick.”
A sickeningly sweet scent burrows through my nasal cavity.
Feed, the voice whispers.
Holding back a gag, I jump to my feet and sway a little, black patches obscuring my already blurred vision. “I’m sorry,” I stammer, my tongue so heavy it takes all concentration to form coherent words. I put as much distance as I can between her and me. “I’ve gotta go.”
Iza is caught off guard. “Whoa, wait. Are you sure?” She follows me to the door, where I try to gulp in as much fresh air as I can. “Where would you go?”
I shake my head. “I don’t know.” I’m getting tired of that answer.
“Look, calm down. Whoever is after you . . . Mido is calling the police. We can figure so—”
Whirling around to face her, I say, “No! No, I really . . .” My gums throb and the thumping returns, stronger than before. I choke on the sweet scent Iza seems to be emitting and at the way my mouth waters. “I really have to go.” My voice sounds strained.
“Wait,” she starts, a bit more forcefully than before.
I fall on all fours and start retching. Everything I’d just eaten spills onto the ground, barely digested and covered in a thick black substance. Someone inside the bakery makes a whining sort of noise while I heave until there’s nothing left.
“Kyan, oh my—”
My body stiffens and there’s a shift in my gums again. Teeth scrape against teeth as something sharp forces my jaw open. Soft tentative steps behind me make me whirl around but I barely see Iza through the sheet of black and red.
The voice returns, but it says only one thing.
Her eyes mirror my own terror as her heartbeat grows louder and faster.
And then, the world around me goes black.