The tiger crouched in the clearing, butterscotch eyes watching Em lazily. It was bigger than she had imagined one could be—bigger than the ones she scribbled in unsteady crayon with Allegra, back when she had been as brown and bony as Em herself. Stripes of gold and black covered its rippling flanks. White puffed around its cheeks and chin, outlining its whiskers. It yawned, and she glimpsed razor-sharp, yellowish-white teeth.
Thank you for freeing me, said the tiger. It flicked its tail towards the open steel trap.
“It was no problem,” said Em, who was itching to pull off her taped-up glasses and wipe them. Her spindly arms still burned from opening the trap.
I am in your debt. What do you want me to do?
Em stared at the musky tiger she had found trapped, growling, in the woods behind her house, which must be the exotic pet that her whip-wielding neighbor Mr. Blake was looking for and had seemed like a miracle, a dream.
This must be a dream.
I can do anything for you, it said. It yawned and stretched against the moss, clearly enjoying its freedom.
Ideas tumbled wildly through her head. She could ride on its back and run away from her cobwebbed home and ghost-like father, from sterilely fluorescent Winthrop Middle and Mrs. Hicks’s stalactite-gray eyes. She could ask it to be her friend, a new friend.
A phantom pain ached in her forehead. This morning, during gym, when Em plucked up the courage to walk towards the (newly blonde) Allegra and her curvy cheerleader friends, Allegra threw a volleyball at her face. While Em sat on the ground, holding her bruised nose with one hand and her snapped glasses with the other, Allegra turned her back and continued chatting with Ashley Evans, who was more golden and statuesque than Em could ever hope to be.
Em thought of all the emerald and aquamarine laughing summers, before the fall and its flaming leaves, before telltale twin swells beneath Allegra’s shirt, before boys smiling sharp white teeth at Allegra from cars, before Em found herself alone in the decaying woods. Before the shattering pain in her head.
The words fell out, drop by drop, like chilled molasses.
“I want you,” Em said, slowly and carefully. Coldly. “To eat someone.”
The tiger flicked its tail at her. Are you sure?
It was only a dream.
Em shut her eyes and thought of an orange crayon burning as bright as the tiger’s fur tucked into her fist and a warm, gentle hand guiding her own. Together, she and Allegra had made tigers out of crayons and paper. Alone, Em could speak, and this tiger of flesh and blood would pounce.
The tiger licked its chops. It crouched, tense as an arrow, waiting for her to release it, waiting for a name. Em spoke, and he leapt, strong and tearing and light as she now felt. They were hunting.
Anna Cabe is a MFA candidate in fiction at Indiana University. Prior to coming to Indiana, she was a 2013-2014 Fulbright Fellow in Indonesia. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Toast, Reservoir, Racialicious, Cease, Cows, and tiny poetry: macropoetics, among others. She was a 2015 Kore Press Short Fiction Award semifinalist and a finalist for the 2015 Boulevard Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers.
Artwork: Tran Nguyen, “Orange Is Not Your Color”