Short Story: The Tiger
The car alarm is going off again. At least she thinks that’s what it is - of course the noise is gone now that she's awake. But it's been intermittently going off for a while now, and there’s a faint but persistent ringing in her ears that couldn't be caused by the crickets. Feeling somewhat claustrophobic by the tangle of sheets damp with perspiration, and vaguely irritated by the moonlight slipping through the cracks in her window shade, she pads to the kitchen. Didn't she hear somewhere that sleeping in the light of the full moon causes madness? Opening the fridge she is sickened by the thought of warm milk and put off at the thought of adding a cup of steaming chamomile tea to the already sticky night air. She half-heartedly pulls a jug of tomato juice off the rather bare shelf and pours a glass. The thick, earthy taste of vegetables are strangely satisfying to gulp down, and stomach acid churning, she meanders past the overweight and sleeping tabby cat to the living room. Here the moonlight spilling in full glory across the shadowy specters of hulking furniture seems somehow less intrusive. Much better than having it needle it’s way through the cracks, nosily prying around the edges of the shade no matter how you try to shut it out.
Blinking away the sleep from the corners of her eyes, she feels a pang of loneliness. The apartment feels devoid of life, despite the lazy cat snoring a few feet away. Outside, the other houses are dark, closed off. The windows reveal nothing, but she imagines the contented occupants blissfully slumbering away inside. Houses with families, she thinks, though she barely knows her neighbors, moms and dads who’ve tucked their little ones safely off to sleep in the cool central air. She’d give anything to have someone to tuck in right now. She wouldn’t mind being awake at this ungodly hour if she were poking her head into her daughter’s room, smoothing the sheets bunched around her sleeping body, perhaps lifting the cat off the bed, or picking up the few stray toys strewn across the rug. She’d be going to pre-school this fall, learning the wonders of the alphabet and naming colors and body parts. She can hardly imagine what her daughter looks like now. The baby fat would be disappearing, she would be taller, her hair probably darkening…would she still have that little dimple in her cheek? Would she watch Sesame Street, or prefer that horrid purple dinosaur?
Were there other nights like this before? Did she putter about the house while the others slept even then? Was she happier, or does she just remember it that way now, in loneliness? She tries to recall a specific moment, a happy memory, but they all run together. Her brain feels clouded by the stifling hot air, wet with humidity and salty with perspiration, and all she can think of is the last time she saw them, her daughter and husband. Standing in the hallway, watching him struggle out the door, baby girl in one arm, bags slung over the other. She remembers wondering how he could manage to hold that many bags with one hand and still get the door open, and a wailing noise like a fire engine. When he gets to the car, dumping the bags on the asphalt to bundle the baby into her seat, she realizes that the sound is her own voice pleading, screaming. She begs them not to go, “I can change, I’ll make it better, please, please just don’t leave,” but he backs out of the driveway anyway, slowly disappearing down the street for the last time.
Her stomach is on fire now. She glares down at the glass, beaded with perspiration, and thinks about how even the juice is a blended mix of vegetables, keeping each other in acidic company while they wait to torture the esophagus of their hapless victim. The vision of the car driving away is stuck in her mind’s eye. Each time it reaches the end of the block the memory loops back on itself, happening over and over. She shakes her head, hoping to jar it loose, but the wailing that accompanies it is sounds strangely similar to the sound of the car alarm beating against her ears, and there’s no escape. Why is this coming back tonight? she wonders. Why now? Maybe it’s the moon...disturbing the blurred edges of the night with the sharp relief of other people's houses and lives illuminated against the night sky. How many nights has the car alarm been going off? Again, she can't quite remember, her mind is playing tricks on her, but she thinks it must have been a lot...It happened last night, she knows that much. She was tired all day after sleeping fitfully between the blasts of sound, moving like molasses through work, hearing her supervisor's voice through a haze saying to go home and get it together. She can't remember hearing it the night before, but neither can she remember sleeping. Did she dream about crickets roosting on the window...? It must have been a dream, she must have slept because the crickets all had little bullhorns and shouted at her "Get up, get up!" Did she sleep before that? Two days ago, three? Last Sunday? What day is today? she wonders, her brain aching in the confusion of sleepless days and nights.
She misses having a child, she thinks, though not so much her husband with his constant nagging to clean the house, feed the baby, change out of her pajamas and wash her hair. “Get out of bed,” he used to shout at her. “Get yourself together. What’s wrong with you?” Then the doctors… “Postpartum Depression” they said as if that made any kind of difference… and the pills. Pills to get her up, pills to calm her down, white pills, blue pills, yellow pills to counteract the blue, then orange for the yellow, until she just stopped taking all of them, and refused to go back. Her husband turned into a different person, swelled and red-faced with anger, she didn’t know him anymore. That red person, like fire, she doesn’t really even mind having him gone now. But the baby, she used to love the baby, nestling her head on the soft sweet smell of her hair, sleeping a blissful sleep and dreaming happy dreams through any kind of noise. If she had the baby she would be sleeping now, even with the car alarm, just like the time she slept through the smoke alarm.
“This is the final straw,” he yelled. “You could have killed us.” Even though it was just a little smoke damage, nothing that a quick blast from the extinguisher couldn’t fix. It had stained the wall behind the stove, but she rather liked it. She used to stare at it, finding shapes in the swirling grays resembling birds and fish and strange beasts, like the cloud pictures she used to find in the sky as a child. The maddening beeps return, loud enough to cause a plane crash...or at least wake the lethargic kitty lying prone in the doorway. Better off without him, she thinks.
He gets up with a yawn and great rearranging of flesh, then slips out of a moonbeam so stealthily she could have sworn for a second that he had suddenly transformed into a tiger. "Hungry, tiger?" she asks, shaking out a bit of dry kibble into his bowl. Tears come to her eyes as she remembers spooning pureed banana out of that very bowl and into the hungry little O in the center of her daughter's perfect face, framed by soft tendrils of blond hair: just made for ribbons… if you have the energy for combing. The car alarm again interrupts her reverie, sighing, she thinks at least the bowl has some use now, unlike the boxes of remnants from her former life. She wonders where they are now… Maybe there’s a letter buried the stacks of unopened mail on the desk by the door. She’s not quite sure how that happened, though the pile is almost a foot high now. At first, after they left, she was doing good with it. Even if she didn’t open it everyday, she at least sorted the important bits out first, before tossing it in the stack. After a while it just started seeming hopeless…bills upon bills, magazines she had no interest in reading, offers for trips she’d never take alone and things she’d never need to buy. And it just kept coming, day after day, until finally she just gave up. When was that? she wonders. Is it a month’s worth, two… more? The mail started piling before the car alarm started, she knows that much, but after people started looking at her strangely in the stores and on the street. Maybe if they didn't move so quickly, she thinks over the din of the cursed alarm, she’d be able to keep up. Everyone’s started to look like those old black and white movies, where people walk around just a little too fast, their movements jerky and just a little bit off-kilter. Its like living in a different time zone, like she got off the bus thirty seconds after the rest of the world, some kind of time warp…
The fat tiger lumbers off towards the small bedroom, but pauses on the doorstep, where he once again transforms with a shake of his silvery fur. He glistens in the dancing moonbeams for a moment, a wild beast complete with bulging haunches and razored fangs, though barely larger than his original form, before springing out the open second-floor window. He leaps onto the top of the protesting car, perches. Swelling in size, muscles pulsating against his skin, he becomes massive before bounding off into the night. She stares wide-eyed after him, the alarm echoing around her. There is nothing left but an enormous dent of a paw-print in the smooth metal top, and the noise of the alarm, again. For once it has sounded at something that isn’t a shadow, or a leaf blown too near the tires. The tiger is gone, and she knows that there is one final thing that must be done. Taking the bat she keeps beside the door in case of burglars or her husband, she steps into the street and takes aim. The alarm is silent long enough for a cracking of glass and dull thud of wood on metal to ring out across the sleepy streets, but the neighbors, accustomed to drowning out the beeping, don't even stir. She manages to obliterate each window, the front bumper and half of the back, the rearview mirror, before realizing the alarm simply will not be silenced. So very calmly she returns to her kitchen, fetches a knife, and slashes each one of the tires. The car alarm now sounds continuously, gloriously unstoppable. Instead of torturing her eardrums, it is now her companion through the rest of the long night, as she sits beside the car, patiently waiting for morning.