On a quiet October afternoon a tiger nosed open its backyard gate and slipped out into the city. The tiger belonged to a man named Dave Lemmon, who had raised it from a cub. When his wife Karen was still living, the three shared a bed together, the tiger molded into the space between them, its snout cupped in his armpit, its tail across her legs. When the tiger snored, the whole bed rumbled, and the night was hot and alive. They had married knowing Karen hadn’t long left, and nights like those made them the family Dave always wished they could be. Then the three of them became two and the bed became too small, the tiger sprawling over it, crowding him out. From then on the tiger slept in the den.
The day the tiger got loose, Dave was teaching it to sit by dangling a chicken leg above its head. This made the tiger angry. It had not eaten well over the past few weeks, because Dave was gaunt and jobless and he could not keep the tiger in enough meat to satisfy it. It was the hunger clawing its insides that made the tiger lunge at Dave and crush between its teeth the gristly bundle of his throat. As his brain starved for blood, Dave felt only dim sadness. He expected that he might go out this way—perhaps even hoped for it—and such an exit fit as well as anything. He and Karen brought the tiger into their home because to tame a tiger was to tame death, at least for a time. He only hoped that when he saw Karen again they would hold hands and laugh at their folly; and that the tiger, poor creature that it was, might find someone else to love it.
And that’s when Dave Lemmon died. The tiger licked blood from its chops, ate the chicken leg, and then padded down the midday streets, startling at the occasional car.
A few blocks down it came across a park surrounded on all sides by peaked-roof rental homes. A squirrel was burying acorns at the base of an oak tree; the tiger crept along on its belly and dispatched the squirrel with a quick snap of its jaws. It gnawed contentedly for a while, then rolled over on its side to enjoy the sun.
The first person to notice the tiger was Ian Yates, who spotted it from a rocking chair in his townhouse attic. That’s a tiger, he thought with less surprise than he expected. (This was how Dave Lemmon had felt when he first pulled the cub from its shipping crate.) What surprised Ian most was the color of it: an orange as bright as the autumn leaves rippling in the wind. Ian watched the tiger for half a minute, then hefted the rifle from his lap and peered idly through the scope. He could number the whiskers in its muzzle, could admire the fang that hooked out from beneath the black velvet of its lips. If it were a man, he could have counted the pulse in its neck.
In some half-forgotten dream of a life, this had been his job, presiding over desert landscapes, a well-oiled, high-caliber angel of death. He thought often of the plagues of Egypt, relayed to him in the church of his childhood, a husk of shrunken boards in the backwaters of Indiana. God had spared only those who had daubed the blood of the paschal lamb on their doorposts. The story had scared him out of his wits; he lay awake that night wondering what it must have been like in those houses, whole families huddled together in supplication as the cold winged shadow passed over them. It was only after he fled town for the army that he understood the story a little better; only after he had studied those deserts and seen from afar those shambling wastes of flesh hacking each other up over whose book said what. A lesson simple enough for children to learn: there were awful people doing awful things, and sometimes they had to die.
Ian’s tour of duty was cut short by the blast of a roadside bomb. His covered truck was toppled; the two guys next to him died instantly, crushed to pulp, and a whirl of shrapnel shredded his leg to the bone. The surgeons hacked it off below the knee, and when the stump healed Stateside, they fitted him with a prosthetic. He had fractured his tibia playing high school football, and this new leg worked better than the old one.
Once he recovered, he went back to school for computer engineering, and was snapped up by a defense contractor one month after graduation. The work paid well, but his mind felt like the roads of the desert, empty, water-parched, leading nowhere to nowhere. At home he would grow bored, then nervous. The thought occurred to him that this state of affairs might be for life, and he grew more nervous still. When this happened, he would take his rifle and go upstairs to watch people in the park. He would count them, how many on benches, on the grass, on the paths, how many men, how many women. He would take the rifle and settle each of them in the crosshairs, a tiny crucifixion, and then he would put the rifle away.
Ian knew there was something wrong with all this—something wrong with him—but not wrong enough to do anything about it. He didn’t need some smug doctor to explain that he was fucked up, that he should have gotten help as soon as his mind began to slip into idylls of culling the herds. But he wasn’t one to get nightmares, or wake up in cold sweats, or sleep with a gun beneath his pillow, God forbid. That happened to other people. He was in control.
(Which was what Dave Lemmon promised Karen as she suckled the tiger from a baby bottle. We’re its family now. We’re in control. It will listen.)
In the house next to Ian’s lived a five-year-old boy named Robin Pinsky. He had a sister, Susan, who was twelve and four months. She noticed him pressing his nose against the front door window, then noticed the slug trail of snot he’d left on the glass.
“That’s so gross,” she said.
“There’s a tiger outside.”
At first she thought he meant the stray cat that wandered the neighborhood, a ragged orange tom unoriginally dubbed “Tiger.” But she looked out the window and saw a much bigger cat lying by a park bench, and Robin turned to her and asked, “Can I pet it?”
There was high color in his cheeks and a drool of mucus was making a slow descent from one nostril. His nose was crusted in it. The sight made Susan want to puke. “No, you can’t pet it,” she said.
“Tigers eat people, stupid. It probably ran away from the zoo.”
Robin turned back to the window. His eyes were locked on the tiger the same way they locked on the Hershey Kisses (his favorite) that their mother doled out for dessert. Susan didn’t like the way he was looking at the tiger now. She really didn’t like it.
“Don’t you dare go outside,” Susan said. “If you go outside, I’ll kill you.”
Robin gave a pacifying grunt.
She’d never realized how easy life was in kindergarten. You got to stay home when you were sick and the whole world flung itself to its knees to care for you. You had playtime and naptime and girl-boy relations were dictated by the unerring promise of cooties. Susan pulled up her pants and sucked in her stomach. In the meantime, puberty had turned her into some kind of gangling mutant, no boobs or hips to speak of, just this unsightly pad of blubber that had mushroomed out of her midsection. She did have hair, though. Plenty of it. It grew so thick across her legs that in front of the entire locker room Maureen had shouted, “Chia Pet!”
“I’m going to call the police,” Susan said, then strode off to the kitchen. She thought it might be better to call the zoo, but zookeepers didn’t carry guns, and for some reason she thought they might need one. She grabbed the cordless phone off the countertop, for the first time feeling scared.
She wondered what would have happened if the tiger had showed up at school instead, imagined it prowling the hallways, its shoulders filling them, all hot breath and muscle. She realized that she longed for it. Not for the tiger to hurt anyone, just scare them, to jolt them out of their cocksure teenage swagger. Fear made people honest. One time she found Brittany Jansen crying and snotting in the handicap stall of the bathroom. Her parents were divorcing, Brittany said, and she was moving away forever. Susan had never seen Brittany, lengthened by hormones into a svelte-limbed gazelle, wear anything on her face but a smirk. They talked all the way through recess, because Susan knew about divorce, hiding in the boxwoods when the bell rang. The next day Brittany found she wasn’t moving after all and the two of them fell back into their well-practiced roles, moving past each other like yesterday hadn’t happened.
So much for honesty.
“Hello, 911. What is your emergency?”
“Hi, my name is Susan Pinsky. My mom’s not home and there’s a tiger outside.”
Across the street from the Pinskys, Donna Heller lay in her blanket cocoon, basking in the glow of the television. Her cat, Rocky, was frozen atop the cushion in the bay window, his tail puffed and erect, revealing his tiny kitty bunghole.
“No one wants to see that, Rocky,” Donna said. When the cat didn’t move, she looked back at the TV and sighed. The chemo made her want to sleep and sleep and sleep, but if she didn’t get up, Rocky would start yowling. Besides, she had to pee.
Donna ratcheted the recliner upright and shuffled over to the window. She was wearing a bathrobe and sweatpants and a Death Star T-shirt, all of which hung off her body in new and wondrous ways.
“You have no balls, Rocky. Nothing out there is interested.”
When she saw the tiger, she forgot about Rocky. The last time she’d seen a tiger she was on a book tour in Cincinnati. She had some time to kill and she decided to visit the zoo because she’d heard the last passenger pigeon had died there, and the last Carolina parakeet: a lot of old, dead birds. This, of course, was before she got sick. She marveled at how clear the line was between the before and the after, the B.C. and Anno Domini, cleft one from the other by a Year Zero called cancer. (Ian Yates understood this well, the before and after, as did Dave Lemmon. Susan didn’t, not yet.)
Donna knew something wasn’t right when the pain began in her stomach. It never rose above a dull ache, but it was constant, and it ruined her appetite. She didn’t even want ice cream, and by her own diagnostic metric, that meant she was ill. When her period returned just after her 61st birthday, she knew it was time to see the doctor. A battery of tests later, after being shoved into machines and vice versa, she was diagnosed with metastatic ovarian cancer. Her odds of seeing the next year were less than fifteen percent.
She made the announcement to her twenty thousand Twitter followers, then dedicated her remaining existence to watching every Star Trek episode in the canon. Most of the time, shoveling down scoops of rocky road and Cherry Garcia, she felt she had made peace with death. She was D. H. Heller. How many people had ten novels to their name, an eager fan following, and fawning interviews in Analog? She had long ago fulfilled her reproductive duties, leaving behind two grown children and one agreeable ex-husband. Biologically speaking, she had nothing left but her own planned obsolescence, and whether that took one year or ten was no longer relevant.
And sometimes she would awaken at three in the morning bucking in the grip of pure animal terror, screaming, sobbing, because she wasn’t ready. She would never be ready. Her last novel was languishing in a desk drawer and her mind turned to it guiltily. She owed it to her fans to finish it, but who really cared about posthumous works? Even Heinlein’s (especially Heinlein’s) was dreck.
But the tiger. That was the thing. It was grinning a contented tiger grin and its belly fur, white as down, looked deliciously soft. She wanted to run her hands through it and give that tummy a good rub. (One of Dave Lemmon’s small pleasures; during the nightly news he and Karen would massage the tiger’s belly with their feet.)
Ian, meanwhile, was wondering just where he could shoot it. If he would shoot it; he hadn’t yet made up his mind. He had a box of bullets handy in his closet, but he wasn’t sure if a tiger could be pinkmisted like a man. Its skull might be too thick. The heart, then? He didn’t know where a tiger kept its heart, but it seemed a nobler target. He felt a flash of empathy. Just a couple of dumb killers, the both of them, snatched from the wilderness, their instincts aching for purpose.
Susan finished her call with the police and replaced the phone with a hot coal of pride glowing in her chest. She felt capable, mature. Her gut chafed a bit less against her waistband. So that’s what it felt like to do the adult thing. She liked it more than she expected.
To reward herself, Susan poured some orange soda from the bottle in the fridge. She drank it from the glass like an adult, not straight from the bottle like her brother. (Donna Heller still drank from the bottle. Ian Yates despised soda as a concept. Dave Lemmon drank Arnold Palmer.) What a story this would be when Susan got back to school. Maybe now Maureen would talk about something else besides how big her boobs were getting, and how the men in the neighborhood were starting to stare. She finished her glass, placed it neatly in the sink, and went to see if the tiger was still outside.
It was. So was Robin, who was hunkered down and creeping towards it.
“Oh, damn!” cried Donna, startling Rocky off the cushion. How old was that kid? Five? Wasn’t he old enough to know better?
Luckily, the tiger hadn’t noticed the boy; it was still asleep. But the boy kept moving closer, and as she watched him she imagined in turn three possible futures: the tiger awakening, tearing the boy to primal cuts; herself, jumping before him, taking the blow instead; herself again, walking out, quietly, and leading the boy away by the hand.
Donna knew the future she wanted, but her knees locked up in fear, her body cringing at the thought of all those possible claws. Never mind that she would be dead in six months. Death row wasn’t a concept the body could understand. It could only understand pain.
Now there was a girl chasing after the boy, almost a teenager. From her face, she was yelling.
Actually, Susan was screaming: “Robin! Robin!” Like some demented version of Marco-Polo.
Her yelling cut straight through Ian’s attic and he fetched the ammunition from his closet, his heart recalling its purpose, pumping lustily. Something was going to die today. Oh, yes. Something or someone. He enjoyed knowing that the outcome was again up to him. He tore the window screen out of its frame, levered open the rifle bolt, and slotted the bullet home.
Robin had stopped in the middle of the street, exactly as their mother had told him never to do. The stupid shit was always trying to get himself killed. Last year he had jumped after Susan into the pool and almost drowned; two weeks ago he had pulled a bookshelf on top of himself trying to climb it like a ladder. But now a rotten sinkhole feeling had opened up inside of Susan. A feeling that this time he might succeed. That in a few moments there might not be a Robin. That the universe had at last made this future permissible.
Susan grabbed her brother by the arm. “We have to go inside,” she said. “Come on. Hurry.”
Whether the tiger heard them or smelled them, Susan never found out. It rose to its feet like a small mountain, its eyes golden and bright. Robin shrank back, whining in his throat.
“Don’t move,” Susan said, because that’s what her body was telling her. Be still. Like a tree. Like a stone.
Two children now! Two! Donna thought, as if one would have been acceptable. She raced around the house in her blanket, searching for sneakers. Her toe caught on a warp in the floorboards and she went down hard, cracking her ribs and her knees. Donna curled up like a shrimp and held her breath. Maybe it was the pain, but her thoughts stopped swirling and arranged themselves in rows. A to-do list: she would deal with this tiger thing. Then she would take out the book and look at it. Maybe she’d do that farewell tour her agent kept asking about. There was time and time and time. But first: the tiger.
It’s smart, was all Susan could think as she watched the tiger. You could see smarts in people’s eyes. Some eyes were leaden and dopey, like the kids who smoked at the bus stop. Some kids had eyes that were clear and wise; older kids, mostly. Maybe because the tiger looked so smart she thought it also looked old. Ancient, even. The steadiness of its gaze suggested familiarity, like they had met a thousand times before this, over and over again, since tigers had first come to be.
The tiger’s eyes held no secrets.
They were honest and utterly unreasonable.
Suddenly the tiger swung its head to the side. Running toward them, like the world’s worst superhero, was a lumpy bald woman with a blanket fluttering about her shoulders. The woman also looked old, but in a way that happened quickly, too loose in her skin. Even so, Susan felt a flash of hope.
So did Donna.
(So did Dave Lemmon when, one moonlit night years ago, he watched his wife caper joyfully about the yard, and the tiger after her, purer than any child she might have borne.)
Ian kneeled with the rifle propped on the sill and caught them all in the crosshairs in turn: the woman, the girl, the boy, and the tiger. He had no orders. He knew not who had blood painted upon their lintels. He knew not what the future held. He only knew, as the tiger’s haunches tightened, as Susan dragged Robin and Donna rushed to shield them, that, after all, not all deaths were inevitable.
Jamie Hittman asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.