I stepped into Brown Sugar at a quarter past twelve. Dry-ice smoke coiled around my feet. The lights were low and colours skated across the dance floor, hues of blue, red and gold. Ganga, fried fish, sizzling meat and scented sweat shot into my nose. Bodies swayed to the vibrations of Chronixx from the speakers.
An ache swirled in my stomach but I sucked in a deep breath and told myself I could handle this. It had been my idea to come tonight after all. My mind was jumbled with thoughts all elbowing for my attention. But these thoughts had become rather dangerous. I imagined them like strings tied together in knots wrapped around my brain so tightly, I couldn’t tell where one ended and another began.
I don’t want to think. About any of it. Not tonight.
And so I had crept past my mother’s room, hissing profanities at the empty air as the floorboards creaked beneath my feet, waiting in the shadows until Cassie’s car bounced up the driveway. Snatching up my jacket and keys, I hopped into the passenger seat and we sped off into the night, not stopping until we hit the other side of Bridgetown. They liked to call it party central.
Surveying the crowd, I could see why. Brown Sugar was packed tonight. The atmosphere was alive. Hips tossed themselves back and forth to reggae. Warm bodies poured out of the canopy bar and onto the sand by the beach. Floating cups of malt, the smell of fried fish and sizzling meat lingered in the air, now reminding me that I hadn’t eaten anything since lunch. I took a sip of coconut rum to chase the nerves away. But not before something—rather someone—caught my eye.
He was tall and slender with skin the shade of midnight. A breeze blew gently through the canopy keeping the atmosphere cool, but still, heat was creeping up the sides of my neck. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know why. It was the look he was giving me—it must have been the same look that the serpent tempted Eve with. He didn’t move, didn’t break his hold over me, not even a blink. His lips tilted upwards in a smile. And I had been drinking so much rum that for some ungodly reason, I smiled back.
“Two malibu drinks,” the bartender called out from behind the counter. He slid two glasses down the table that landed directly in front of us.
Cassie grinned with excitement. “I dos feel like such a bad gyal sneaking out of the house.” Her hair was pulled back, big fat curls spilling down. Gold hoops dangled from her ears.
I shook my head. “I can’t ever go home if my mom wakes up and finds an empty bed!”
“Not happening,” Cassie reassured. “We’ll be back before sunrise. Relax friend, rum dos’ turn a bad day good.” She plucked two menus out of a slotted cubbyhole and sauntered off in search of Delroy and his fried fish specials.
A bad day, I thought. If I had a rum for every bad day this year, my belly would swell up like uncle Lu after 3 bowls of pepper pot stew.
I sat up tall on my stool, taking inventory of my mood. A few hours before I had laid in bed, trying to relax, to close my eyes. But all I could think about was the child in the yard, it’s backwards feet and straw hat. I thought of the little boy in the forest with the ripped clothes, growing black fur and sharp claws shifting beneath his flesh and how it had come to steal my brother away. I thought of the girl at the door and wondered how long it would take until she stopped being the last thing on my mind before I fell asleep. I took a sip of Malibu and swallowed quickly before I could spit it out. It burned the whole way down. Being alone had proven not to be a good thing. And so, I made a promise to welcome the chaos of tonight. At least the music was loud enough to drown out my invasive thoughts.
At that moment, I felt something strange in the air. Not tangible, but it washed over me like a dark and gloomy cloud. Then it vanished as quickly as it had come.
“Can I get another drink for the lady in the black dress please?”
Not sure if I had imagined the voice, I looked up in somewhat of a daze.
There was the boy from before. He stood leaned against the counter. Our gazes locked. His eyes looked like they didn’t play by the rules. They sliced into mine and I felt my heart flutter beneath my chest.
“Do you want anything for yourself?” The bartender asked him.
The boy studied me for a moment, a knowing quirk on his lips. His mouth tilted up in a smile. “Nothing on the menu.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat until it slid its way down and exploded in my stomach like a fiery flame.
Down girl, I thought to myself.
The bartender appeared a few beats later with another glass of Malibu. I smiled, mumbling thanks.
“Having a good time?” The boy asked.
I tried to pull a confident expression. “The best time, thank you.”
“I can tell. I watched you finish two of those already.”
“So you’ve been watching me then?”
His mouth moved into another barely-there smile. I couldn’t quite tell if it was mocking or friendly. “Hard not to.”
A part of me wanted to jump up and disappear into the crowd, unseen, invisible. But there was something about this man that was intriguing. Perhaps it was the way he stood—all tall and broad, perhaps it was the tone of his voice or the way his lips curved when he spoke, spilling out a voice as heavy and as thick as honey—I couldn’t understand why, but I wanted to drown in it. And it terrified me.
So much so that when he slid into the stool beside me, I felt alarms going off in my head. Yet I sat there, hanging on to every word that spilled through his lips. “Nice necklace”, I heard. My hands found the pendant asleep between my breasts. It leapt up, as if to say thank you.
Bob Marley’s voice on the stereo whistled through the canopy carrying the feeling of serenity. Still, bodies began to sway to ‘Satisfy My Soul’.
He didn’t waste another beat.
“Dance with me?”
Something in me hesitated. “I can’t, I came with a friend. She’ll be back soon.” It was a lie. I knew that Cassie had already retired to the dance floor long ago with a boy of her own.
You should do the same.
He leaned in closer, his eyes taunting me. “And if I say please?”
I didn’t move at first. There was a glint in his eye that made me think I should be weary of him…and I was. But that weariness was equal parts desire.
“Relax,” he said. “I don’t bite.” His voice was smooth, even, and I believed him. Dark daring eyes pulled me in. My tough demeanor crumbled.
Before I knew it, I had stolen the hand he had laid out for me to take.
We weaved through the crowd of people tightly knit in twos. They flowed in sync, bodies twirling like ribbons, hands touching hips, faces decorated in smiles. There was the sound of laughter and the smell of freshly fried plantain that still wafted through the air, but when he slid his hands down my back and pulled me into him, the world seemed to fall away. We found our rhythm. As if our proximity didn’t satisfy him—he leaned in closer, and the flame of desire in his eyes seemed to light my whole body on fire.
It didn’t make any sense. I had spoken to plenty of boys before, danced with plenty more. But no man had ever made my blood run hot and cold all at once.
Had our paths crossed before?
No, I would have remembered. Bridgetown was big, but I had spent my whole life getting acquainted. I wondered where he was from, where he had been all these years, and where he would be spending the night.
When I asked I noticed a flicker of something in his eyes. “I don’t come to town often,” he said smoothly. “I keep to myself.”
My curiosity only grew. He didn’t look like the type of man to slink away in the shadows.
“What made you come tonight of all nights?”
He fixed me with a dark inviting smile. “You.”
My insides were on fire. I wished they would cool down.
This boy, I thought. He’s a tall glass of water.
I felt the way I used to on the farm, standing on top of the hill by the cotton tree and looking down, the whole of Bridgetown a shimmer of colours. The feeling that came just before I lift my feet off the grass and the wheels of my bike glided down the hill. I imagine my hands gripping the handles, wind whipping my face, not trying to slow down, just letting gravity pull me. I remember that feeling now. Breathless. Heart racing. Anticipating the drop.
As we continued to dance, all thoughts dissolved themselves. His scent was rich like the earth, like fresh berries and wood smoke. His eyes were like magnets—I felt myself being pulled in. The music twirled like a thread around us. I knew our bodies were swaying—I knew because I felt the vibration of the bass through my feet—but I didn’t know for how long. I had lost all concept of time.
Minutes had passed, maybe hours. We had danced so much my feet still remembered the sway of his step even after we had snuck away into the night. The waterfront seemed to grow vacant with each step we took. Fewer people loitering on the sand. Sounds of music and laughter became quieter until all that was left was a steady pulsing beat of the music—I could have mistaken it for my heartbeat.
He had asked if I was tired of dancing.
I had said yes. But only because I knew he wanted to get me alone. His words had worked me up, his touch had driven me in a steady beat. I wished he had stopped. I wanted it to continue forever. Nothing in me was able to resist.
I hadn’t known where I was leading him. But my body had a mind of its own. It led and I followed.
“Akeelah,” he said. There’s a hint of amusement in his tone. “Any further and we may run into trouble.”
I already had. His smile spelled trouble with a promise.
The sun had long retired for the day, leaving behind a dark curtain that draped over the waterfront like an inky black canvas. There was a gentle breeze that swayed the leaves on the trees. The sounds of the party had subsided.
“I owe you for that bottle of wine,” I said.
His eyes were hidden behind shadows but I thought I saw his mouth hold a suggestion of a smile. “I don’t want your money.”
“What do you want?”
He tilted his head as if to study me from a new angle. His lips looked soft, smooth, and I wondered what they felt like against my own. “Your dress. Your necklace.”
“You want my clothes?”
“I want them off.”
Moonlight spilled through the clouds like a searchlight, but we wouldn’t be found. We were tucked away in the shadows. And suddenly I realized that this moment had been dancing across my fantasies all night.
“You never told me your name,” I said.
He answered but his words went up in smoke. I couldn’t focus, couldn’t formulate a single thought—not one based on logic. Only attraction. Like if I didn’t touch him soon my atoms would rip apart.
My fingers traced their way around his shoulders, down his torso. His electricity seemed to dance across my skin. Standing there, suspended between him and the wall, my head was full of smoke and unruly thoughts.
No, a voice in my head said. Even though I felt another word lifting up inside of me like fresh water springs from the earth.
Yes, yes, yes.
I wanted him so badly I could almost feel the weight of his body against my own. And so when he leaned in, thumbs tracing circles around my skin, I felt drowsy under his touch. All the tension and unease had dissolved until I forgot all about my day, forgot that I’d have to deal with today tomorrow, and again the day after that. All that mattered was the boy in my arms.
He stole my lips for a kiss. Hands laced themselves up the sides of my legs. Fingers traced a line down my back. His mouth roamed north up my jaw, kisses danced down my chin, he dined on my neck. There wasn’t a space he hadn’t been to.
Images swirled by in a blur—images of me and him, skin to skin, clothes falling to the ground, and I recall the sound of my name on his lips—and how it had rolled off his tongue like music.
And just like that, my thoughts came to life again.
Had I said it at the party? No, I was certain. Yet somehow he knew.
How did he know my name?
What was his?
A terrifying realization slithered out of a dark place at the back of my mind. I tried to push it back but it coiled around my denial, suffocating any lie I could think to tell myself. Then a strange sound tore its way through the night. It was urgent, manic, shrilling, and nothing about it was mundane.
“Wait,” the words tumbled out of my mouth in a start. He didn’t. His hands only pulled me closer—no longer caressing, but gripping, scratching, suffocating. He groaned like he was hungry. I heard fabric tear. My heart pounded so fast, I was afraid that it would beat right out of my chest.
There was a flash of bright light, and then a burning sensation between my breasts, like hot wires against my skin. No, it wasn’t my heart that was rattling against my chest, I realized. It was my necklace.
The man leapt back as if it had burned him.
The base of his head was shifting, bubbling up like simmering oil on a scorching stovetop. His neck executed a sickening crunch. I nearly jumped out of my own skin at the sight before me. There was a big lump like a second head where his hair should have been. I saw brown fur, a snout, rows of teeth dripping drool and two large orbs staring back at me.
My legs gave way and I hit the ground.
Not a big lump I realized—a second face mirrored like his front—the face of a hyena at the back of his head.
I could hear the sound clearly now. Ice slid up my spine.
It was laughing.
I tried to leap up, tried to bolt in the other direction but I felt hands hailing me upwards—gripping, scratching, suffocating. This time it was my flesh that tore. Someone was screaming. The sound of my own voice was engulfed in a foggy white noise, like yelling underwater. I heard myself call out for help. I called out as if it was the only word I had ever known.
No one came.
My feet left the ground and I was flying until my back smacked against the pavement. The scream in my throat was choked by blood spewing out of my mouth like forced bile.
My vision became clouded until everything was fading fast, noises becoming silenced except for the faint sound of music in the distance.
Music getting softer. The world swaying. The hyena laughing…
◈ ◆ ◈
I tried best to cling to reality, but dreams held onto me, one after the other, images that dragged me along like a ribbon tossed in a current. My eyelids felt like they’d been sewn shut. I peeled them open, imagining tearing flesh. Blurry faces somewhere in the distance hovered about like balloons attached to strings. They swam into focus as I opened my eyes.
It was my mom. Papa. Abe.
“Does it hurt?” Papa asked. “How’s your head?”
I waited cautiously, bracing for pain, though nothing happened. I felt weightless, well-rested even. The pain had faded, and so had the feeling of my veins burning beneath my skin. Instead, there was a tinge of comfort. Warmth was the only word that came to mind.
I raised a hand to my necklace. “Fine. I feel fine.”
Then images flashed by in a start. I saw the man with no name, two faces, blood on the pavement where my head had been. But then I had heard an ethereal sound—fluttering, reassuring, like a heartbeat on air—and how I felt my body flying, floating, soaring like wind.
Wings, I realized. It had been the sound of wings coming to rescue me.