“Hey, ready to go?”
Aziz dropped the tube hidden between his fingers at the sudden interruption. His heart fluttering behind the wine-coloured button-up he’d chosen for tonight, he clasped his eyes shut for a moment. Campus should have been almost empty by now. Even his two roommates were gone, off to spend the end of the year with their families. Aziz didn’t bother to lock the door – what would have happened if any of the masculinity police jerks living in these dorms had walked on him holding eyeliner?
“Did I spook you? I’m sorry.”
He cleared his throat, a smile on his lips as he faced Lede.
“If that isn’t the birthday boy…” Aziz slapped his shoulder, gaining a tight-lipped face from Lede. With his stonewashed jeans, his see-through shirt – the black one with moon and constellation patterns he wore on audacious days – and his shaved sides, he seemed to belong to a different world from Aziz.
“You can hug me, you know. No one’s around.” Lede flashed him that look again, the one that broke Aziz’s heart. No matter how often they discussed it, he knew Lede felt like he was ashamed of him. There was no way Aziz could shake off the fear, though. It was there for a reason.
Lede bent over to pick up the tube and buried it in his back pocket without looking at it. Aziz munched at his bottom lip for another second, thought about squeezing Lede between his arms. He kissed his cheek instead. The familiar scents of wildgrass, ginger, and smoke tickled his nostrils.
Lede gasped faintly, wiping sweat off his brow and grinning through fine-spaced teeth. “Might be the nicest gift I’ve gotten so far. It’s not every day that my boyfriend gets to kiss me.”
After picking up his phone, Aziz locked the door of the messy room behind them. In the dimly-lit corridor, he slid a hand around Lede’s waist and smiled back at him. Few things in this world filled Aziz with joy anymore. He had no family to go back to. No true friend.
All he had was his carefree, sometimes dreamy, always warmhearted boyfriend. The kisses stolen in the black of night, the hand-grazing when they crossed paths in the hallway. This clinging terror of getting caught and exposed and the fiery kisses that came with it. Being cut out of his family and having to flee to this city he could never call home was worth it. Now, they could be alone together, even just for a night.
“Wait,” Lede said as they crossed the university’s fence. The wobbly light poles illuminated his deep amber skin as he kept Aziz at arm’s length. “Why are you dressed like our geriatric sociology teacher?”
He looked down at the cardigan he had thrown over his shirt and his chunky loafers and shrugged. It’s not like Lede had agreed to tell him where they were going. Aziz would have preferred it if they’d stayed at the empty dorm room, watching the horror movies that terrified him so he could have an excuse to cuddle Lede. Maybe more.
“Sometimes I forget how old you are.” Lede shook his head, walking backward with a smirk.
“We were born the same year, Lede. This is just comfier. Aren’t you cold?”
Aziz could trace Lede’s chest muscles under the thin fabric. He licked his lips, looking away from him and the thoughts that just slithered in his mind.
“I’d be less cold if you held my hands, just saying.”
Jumping to his side, Lede curled his pinky finger around Aziz’s. As if he had burned him, Aziz hissed and bolted away.
“Lede! Stop playing, there are people around!”
Sheer hurt flickered in and out of Lede’s black eyes. Between that and his pounding heart and sweaty palms, Aziz had only one wish: to drag his boyfriend into his room, where he could protect their love from all hateful, judgmental gazes.
The streets were almost empty, except for the occasional Zem driver who would storm past them, a freezing passenger in their backseat. In some corner, a small pack of wild dogs fought over a piece of rotten meat, growling as a runner and his Malinois passed by.
“I’m sorry, Lede. It’s just…”
“You’re scared. As always.”
Of course he was. At campus, Lede kept away from the masses. Always in his corner, listening to music and avoiding everyone. He hated how they behaved, how they thought. Aziz knew that disdain was rooted in fear. Less visceral than his own, yes. They couldn’t trust anyone else with their secret, only each other. The worst could happen if people found out two men were dating on a university campus.
In a city like Maka, the worst had probably happened to others already.
“Still won’t tell me where we’re going?” Aziz bumped the other man’s shoulder, for lack of kissing the sadness away from his face.
“We’re almost there.”
With his chin, Lede pointed at a block of deserted-looking buildings across the street. They waited for a dusty pick-up, caged chicken packed in the back, to drive past broken red lights. Aziz kept looking around, trying to scan the darkness Lede was leading him through. A homophobic mob weren’t his concern, for once. People, queer or not, got mugged in streets like this. Especially at this hour.
The wind battered in spirals against old bricks. Like the breath of an ancient creature, it licked the exposed skin on his wrists and left goosebumps. If they weren’t attacked at knifepoint, they would surely disturb the owners of the night.
Aziz’s breath got caught in his throat when a sinister howl rang from a few blocks away. Probably the dogs they had seen earlier, but what if it was something else?
“This isn’t very reassuring, Lede. What if we meet djinns?”
Lede threw him a mischievous look over his shoulder. “It’ll be fine. Between your Quranic verses and my fighting skills, they wouldn’t stand a chance.” He seemed confident, strolling through the darkness as if it were a playing field. Lede was like that. Always shooting the wildest grin at the face of the world, challenging it to get in his way. It was the reason Aziz fell in love with him.
Aziz wasn’t too scared about what could creep up on them. But he knew the risks. And for this day, he didn’t want anything to go awry.
“I’m serious! I would never go out at this hour in my old town, it’s—”
Lede took Aziz’s hands in his own. Since there wasn’t anyone around – at least, no human – Aziz let him.
“Baby, I know this isn’t exactly how you pictured uni life and your big firsts. Hell, I hate not screaming to the world that this beautiful man is mine. More than you do. It sucks, the world sucks, but you trust me, right?”
He smiled. Like butter, his unease melted when Lede briefly kissed his fingers. “You promised you’d let me choose where we’d celebrate my birthday. It’s…a special place. But keep trusting me, okay?”
“How special are we talking?”
Aziz didn’t let go of his hands, a grin perking up his lips as he threw an arm over Lede’s shoulder. The already faint traffic sounds faded completely as they went through a couple more streets. Poor-shaped walls were marred with graffiti, political posters, and the inescapable ads from people claiming they could heal premature ejaculation. Under his feet, Aziz began to feel some sort of pulsation. It was light, going steadier as they stepped over the ruins of a large, abandoned construction, hidden by the other abandoned buildings from earlier. The remaining bricks of this one were different. Black as tar, a little shiny. The sensation felt stronger here, almost like a heartbeat.
Already his lips parted to ask a question, but Lede’s finger silenced him. The sensation had receded, almost holding its breath.
“Remember, please trust me.”
Aziz lost his footing as the ground shook beneath them. An earthquake?
It was scarier than that.
Slender arms burst from the black concrete, fast as death’s hunger. Around ten of them seized his boyfriend and drove him underground. Right through those smooth, black bricks, Lede was sucked in instantly. He didn’t even get to scream.
Actually, Aziz was pretty sure Lede winked at him before being engulfed. And that his eyes were burning white.
What the actual f—
They came for him. Grabbing his collar, the top of his hair, his ankles, the iron-hard arms crawled all over his body. Aziz opened his mouth to scream, but it was already too late.
A nightmare. He had no idea what had happened, where he was. Darkness grew tight around him like the flanks of a grave. Blinking several times to try and adjust his eyes, Aziz squeezed a hand over his chest.
“Lede? Are you here?”
The soft walls he grazed his other hand upon drank up his voice. Quiet and parched, something straight out of Hades’s domain.
Not the time to be geeking out, you’re not Persephone.
Lede. I gotta find Lede.
That last part, he said out loud. It was the only way he could pretend not to be alone in the bowels of an unknown creepy building. Aziz didn’t want to think about the burning and icy hands that brought him here. Their grasp left a solid, otherworldly print on his black skin.
Staggering forward, one step at the time, Aziz began to pick up another melody. A grinding, rhythmic tune that pulsed from the bottom of his shoes. Again, he closed his eyes. His breath quickened when a soft voice whispered in his ear, carried by the instruments.
These sounds brought memories back. Happy ones, of broken radios and ceremonies spent sweating under the harsh sun. Women who played the shekere with bright smiles on their faces and songs birthed by their lips.
When he peeked from under his eye, he saw the tiny ray of light that came with every vibration caused by his feet. Aziz wiped his brow, restraining himself from cursing Lede. What was this madness he had brought them into, only to disappear? Cold jitters washed over him. Aziz had no choice but to move forward. To find his boyfriend, fast.
Aziz did as the voice whispered. With each step, the lights seemed to burst harder, creeping across the walls. Kintsugi lines, tearing the darkness apart. Under his short breath, Aziz muttered the Throne verse as his eyes grew wide and dry.
It was like walking on a corridor flanked with giant screens. Trumpets and drums now joined the shekere, loud against his eardrums. The rhythm grew enthralling. Flirtatious. Aziz found himself bobbing his head along. A smile grew on his lips, fear forgotten at last.
Because those screens, or whatever they were, showed scenes of his own childhood.
Half-naked, Aziz was chasing chickens and ducks around his father’s compound. Swimming in the river and failing to catch fish that weren’t there.
Aziz stopped before a frame of his middle school graduation. Tears, fast and burning, flickered on the corners of his eyes as his father smiled hard, with a feather-adorned chechia and his favourite white boubou. He was proud of his son, then. Everyone was. Good days, they were.
He didn’t want to move forward, knowing all that would come next. The music boomed hard. With malicious ups and downs, it seemed to taunt him. Aziz’s legs trembled. Whoever controlled these displays had one sick sense of humour. The images fast-forwarded all those serene, uneventful high school years until the very last day.
That night after his senior year graduation. Finally, he was becoming a man. Ready to study economics at the local university. A small dinner party was thrown in his honour. Baba had a lamb slaughtered, Mama had made all his favourite meals with the help of his older sister and his best friend.
The joy and laughter were at its peak, until Aziz asked to speak.
In all those American movies he had secretly watched on his beat-up tablet, Aziz had seen coming-out moments filled with hugs and happy tears. The parents thanked their queer teens for trusting them, saying how proud they were, even getting them Pride apparel. It could only be the same for him. His parents always said how much they loved him. Nothing could change that. Right?
Aziz told them he liked boys. That he hoped they would understand him. Being queer didn’t mean he was less of a believer. He would never abandon salah. Or turn away from his Lord. Nothing would change.
That very night, his family stopped talking to him. They all acted as if he were some ghost. The images showed it all, how Aziz would cry and beg for them to say something, anything. Day after day. Hatred, curses, and beatings would have been better than being ignored.
The first and last words his father spoke to him were to declare that Aziz would continue his studies in Maka, 500 kilometres from their small town.
Without a look, Baba handed him all the money he had saved for his school fund. And said never to contact them again.
Aziz couldn’t move forward. The music had receded to a deep thud inside his chest, oblivious to his tears. Reliving that heartbreak, sharp and vicious, was simply too much.
He didn’t deserve to live. He wasn’t worthy of Lede’s love. This was best, lying here and letting the bowels of this unknown beast digest him.
It was the end.
Nothing was left but the empty.
That voice, at first detached yet snarly, understood. Filled with empathy and love, it wanted him to accept what had happened. As shattering as that event had been, Aziz would have never met Lede if he hadn’t been forced to enrol in Maka Uni.
It didn’t matter. There was no fixing this soul. This heart.
Surely another trick, from that cruel voice.
Warm hands caressed his snot-covered face. White smoke slid behind his ears, as soft and spicy as ginger.
“Is that you? Lede?” Aziz asked, his voice no higher than a whisper, so coarse it didn’t feel like his own. His words filled the silence. All the trumpets and drums had died down.
His boyfriend was here. Tears of his own rolling down his cheeks. He was soft and beautiful.
Someone Aziz didn’t deserve.
He had broken his Baba’s heart. What kind of son was he? He was unworthy of love. He was weak, unable to resist these impulses that made him less than a man.
“Get up,” Lede said.
Aziz ignored him. Until, with an unforeseen strength, Lede lifted him up in his arms. He pressed his lips against his forehead, light and gentle, and Aziz’s heart seemed to beat again. A trumpet solo rang in his ears, vibrant with passion.
“I am so deeply sorry, Aziz. But look, you haven’t seen it until the very end.”
What else was there to see? Pain? Rejection? Too weak to resist, Aziz pressed his face against the other man’s chest. There was a weariness etched into his every muscle. A void he thought nothing could ever dissipate.
For the first time, the images were given a voice. It was Lede’s laugh, deep and throaty as if he had smoked for hours.
Aziz straightened up. It took a tremendous amount of effort, but he stole glances at the unfurling images. Lede’s tears wet the top of his head, and Aziz quivered.
There he was, locking eyes with this stranger and his wild smiles. From the moment they met each other in that crowded faculty hallway, they knew.
It was more than a simple gaydar. They echoed each other’s loneliness, filled mountains and crevices, for their souls had been longing for love. Together, for almost a year, Aziz and Lede had held each other in deserted classrooms, their hearts beating as one, both with the fear of being caught and the desire for something more.
“You and I,” Lede whispered as the images went black, “what we have is stronger than fear, Aziz. I know you were cast out when all you wanted was to be seen. But I am here for you. Aziz, I will never let you go.”
And Lede kissed him with all the words he couldn’t say. His lips were burning. They gave Aziz his life back, as well as the music and the voice singing undecipherable words. Words of love.
“You can let me down now.” Aziz smiled against Lede’s lips. “I must be heavy. Been eating too much beans lately.”
“Cracking jokes already, aren’t we?”
Lede laughed, and only then did Aziz notice something was different about him. Not only his eyes – the unveiled skin of his throat and chest was covered with tattoos. Veins and lung tips. Bones and thin muscles. Lede was burning. The smoke smell that seemed to always surround him, was it really cigarettes?
“Lede. What are you?”
The man smiled. Aziz wasn’t scared by the obvious supernatural experience they just had. His Baba was a ruqyah healer, so he had seen his fair share of possessions and exorcisms. They couldn’t have angered the djinns of whatever place this was if Aziz was in the presence of a potential one, right?
“I guess you’re ready to meet my people now, huh?”
This time, Aziz felt them coming. His heart jumped in his chest at the thought of another trip down memory lane, but his boyfriend hugged him tight. “Baby, I’m not letting you go. Ready?”
His chin on the back of Lede’s shoulders, Aziz nodded. The black hands covered only his eyes as the ground spun under their feet.
And when they were gone, Aziz was in the middle of a party.
The music was a monster of its own, louder than anything he had ever heard. Yet it never covered the rhythmic footsteps and hushed conversations of the dancers. It floated amidst intertwined bodies dancing and kissing under purple neon lights. Some had bat wings on their backs, indigo and gold skin. Others were made of shadows, their eyes glittering with ecstasy. They swayed and flew under the high marble roofs like a midnight tide, and none of them seemed to be human.
“An underground nightclub?”
“Oh and it’s alive. The club is in the bowels of a giant spirit that gives shelter to the likes of us. Supernatural creatures. I asked it to show those images. I thought maybe it would help you overcome the trauma.”
Aziz gasped as he looked back at his boyfriend. Scales made of amber flattered the corners of his eyes, his arms, almost everywhere.
“Do I scare you?” Lede asked. For the first time since they met, he seemed unsure of himself. White eyes looking away from Aziz’s, he scratched the back of his neck. Just when he looked ready to burst, Aziz stilled him and tried to keep a face as serious as possible. His silence was payback for throwing him into a sentient nightclub without a heads-up.
“Depends. Are you a vampire who’s gonna suck my blood dry when we finally do it?”
A chuckle rang from behind them. Aziz tilted his head backward: an ageless woman, with skin as black as night and wearing a gown dripping with gold, shook the insect-like antennae spurting from her brow.
“Hi! My name’s Nguri. You must be the human who stole Lede’s heart, along with other parts?”
Aziz smiled hesitantly, recognising the voice that had led him through the corridor and toward Lede.
“Nguri is the avatar of the spirit I told you about,” Lede said with a small bow. She protects us, offers us the only place where we can truly be ourselves.”
“That extends to you, dear human. As Lede’s partner, you are always welcome here. And happy birthday, smoky.”
Nguri winked before turning to vaporous black smoke. Raising his brows at Lede, Aziz waited for him to speak, unable to hide the smile coming off his lips.
“I’m afraid I’m just an old, boring salamander. Can’t say nothing about that sucking part, though.”
Aziz’s shoulders shook with amusement. In a second, Lede fished the eyeliner out of his back pocket, stilling his face as he solemnly applied it at the corner of Aziz’s eyes.
“You look beautiful,” he said. “I know this might be a little confusing, that you may wake up tomorrow and wonder if it was just a dream under steroids. But this is a place where you and I can simply be. Here, everybody’s queer. We can love each other freely.” Lede let out a shaky breath. “I come here when uni becomes too much, but I chose to live among humans and learn their ways. I think I found what I was looking for, Aziz. And once we graduate, I want you to live with me here. You don’t have to say anything just yet.” He came closer, pressing his forehead against Aziz’s chest. “For now, just let me have this dance.”
Shaking, Aziz placed his hands on Lede’s waist and closed his eyes. He breathed in the salamander’s smell, inebriated himself with the music.
This place felt like something he could get used to. He didn’t know how to cohabit with supernatural beings – that wasn’t in any textbook or Quora page. Letting go of his family, as they did with him, wasn’t something he could do right now.
Lede was the love of his life, and he was his. Aziz knew that.
So they followed the music.
RJ Mustafa is a Senegalese writer. His short story ‘black is a flower’ was published in the It Gets Even Better: Stories of Queer Possibilities anthology. His flash fiction piece titled ‘Shadowbird’, appeared in the Ink anthology for queer flash fiction. His short story ‘The Supreme Deceivers’ is forthcoming in Sovereign: An Anthology of Black Fantasy Fiction.
*Image by Daniel Lincoln on Unsplash