Based in Arizona, Julia loves writing about her area, from the burning deserts to the snowy mountains. She had been in a number of online and print venues, including The Wicked Library Podcast, Liquid Imagination, and Wagon Magazine. She has upcoming work in Grey Wolfe Publishing's romance anthology Legends: Passion Pages. When not writing, she loves playing the piano, cross stitching and killing zombies. You can follow her on twitter @SparrowCove and her blog at sparrowincarnate.blogspot.com.
Selena practically hopped down the baking aisle in the Wal-Mart. She snatched up a chocolate cake mix, fudge frosting, and a number one-shaped candle. She tossed the things on top of a twelve-pack of Coca-Cola, a package of steaks, hotdogs, ground beef and Blue Bird flour. She touched her new haircut for the umpteenth time: a wavy bob that she had just gotten that morning. She had been thinking of blue highlights, but had decided to keep her jetty locks at the last minute.
Selena turned and spotted Lillian coming towards her. The woman had dyed her hair blonde, but hadn’t kept it up, so the roots were pitch-black, the blonde strands frayed. Selena was suddenly glad that she hadn’t chosen the highlights. Lillian squeezed Selena a little too hard.
“What are you shopping for?” said Lillian. “Looks like you’re gonna have some fun!”
“It’s my and Jim’s one year anniversary,” said Selena, hopping up and down, her hair bouncing around her light face. Her gold earrings tinkled like tiny bells. She was much too happy to pay attention to Lillian’s strange odor. It was a sweet, pungent smell that gave her headaches. “We met one year ago today.”
Lillian frowned, and then tried to smile. The fluorescent lights gleamed on her greasy cheeks.
“What?” said Selena.
Lillian looked at the floor.
“What’s the matter?” Selena grabbed her arms.
Lillian sighed and led her to the clothing section of the store. Among the nightgowns, with their smiling cartoon faces, she said in a low voice, “Remember when Dan and I went driving in the woods yesterday?”
“Well…” Lillian squeezed her eyes shut, as if preparing to take a plunge. “We saw Jim and Cassie out there.”
Selena’s throat closed, but she couldn’t run. Her ears strained, even as she struggled to make herself deaf. Maybe what Lillian had to say had nothing to do with what she was thinking? But still, Jim out in the woods with Cassie, and not with Selena? The fire of jealousy reared its horrid head before Lillian confirmed anything.
“They had come in separate cars.”
They were together. The words cut Selena’s mind before she could stop them.
“We saw them in the bushes from on top of the hill, you know, where the road goes up and you can see the river?”
Selena squeezed the cart handle until her fingers ached.
“They were doing it in there.”
The smell of chocolate cake wafted in from the kitchen. Coca-Cola hissed on ice as Lillian poured a can into a glass. She passed it to Selena, who stared at the table. Making herself a glass, Lillian spread the newspaper out on the red and orange tablecloth and read. She gasped and said something, but Selena could hardly comprehend. Her insides twisted in different directions. Angry tears stung her eyes.
Lillian grasped her hand. “Are you going to be okay?”
Selena stared at a small leaf on the tablecloth. It seemed to be in free-fall.
“Selena?” said Lillian.
“He’s coming here at four.” Selena glanced at the clock. It was 3:50. “He’s been with her all morning, hasn’t he.”
Lillian groaned. “I think so.” She patted Lillian’s hand. “Dan, is the cake ready?”
“I’m just getting it out,” said Dan. The oven opened with a squeak. The stovetop clinked as he set the cake on top of it.
Selena shivered. In ten minutes, Jim would be there. What was she going to tell him? There was going to be a confrontation. Her stomach twisted. If Jim shed one tear…
Selena gulped the Coca-Cola like it was liquor. “Dan?”
“Yeah?” He stepped into the dining room.
“Can you throw him out when he comes?” She couldn’t even say Jim’s name.
“Sure.” Dan patted her shoulder. “He’ll be here soon. You better go to your room.”
Selena bit her lip and went to her room like a lost soul. She clutched the glass of pop to her, as if it was a charm that could keep her safe. Setting the glass on her dresser, she lay down. She ran her hand over the blue, green, and yellow quilt. She picked at the yarn poking up from the center of one of the squares. It still looked like a piece of fuzzy white grass to her, even after all these years.
The pain in the back of her throat tightened. A few tears slid from her eyes, and then the dam broke. She screamed into her yellow pillow and pounded on the bed. Why would Jim choose that troll Cassie over her? What did Cassie do, make Jim drunk? How could he be so stupid as to take anything from Cassie? She would twist Cassie’s head off if she had the strength to do it! She would tell Jim exactly what she thought of him. She couldn’t think of anything bad when it came to him.
Suddenly, a car drove into the drive. Selena stiffened. It was Jim. She ran to the window and looked out. The dented car door swung open. A cow had run into his door a few months ago, when it had panicked and run for the car instead of the forest. Jim stepped out. A few inches taller than her, not too slender, his dark eyes gentle and smiling, he had no trace of guilt on him. He had a bouquet of wildflowers in his work-worn hand. He helped build houses in the rich neighborhoods. Selena gripped the curtain. The audacity of him, coming here in such a fashion!
The front door opened before Jim reached it. Selena couldn’t see, but she knew that Dan had come out. They were speaking. Their voices rose, but Selena couldn’t hear what they were saying. Jim started shouting. Selena couldn’t tear herself from the window, couldn’t open it to hear, and couldn’t run out there to stand up for herself. The two men suddenly came into view. Dan had Jim by the shirt and flung him against his car. He pulled a gun from his pants and pointed it at Jim’s face.
Slapping her hands to her mouth, Selena rushed for the front door, but Lillian caught her in the hallway.
“Be strong, Selena! You can’t go out there, or you’ll just be Jim’s whore, probably second to Cassie.”
Selena pushed against Lillian. “He’ll shoot him!”
Lillian braced her feet against the floor. “Dan won’t shoot, but Jim doesn’t know that.” Lillian shoved Selena back into her room. A car roared to life and backed out of the drive. It was as if a lifeline connected to Selena’s heart snapped. Nausea rose to her throat and she collapsed on the bed, insensible of anything.
“Drink this,” said Lillian, pushing hot cocoa into Selena’s limp hand. “Grab it, or it’ll spill all over.”
Selena cupped it against her.
“I have to go to work,” said Lillian. “I made breakfast, okay?”
Selena looked blearily up at her. “What day is it?”
Selena struggled to count from Friday, when she had discovered Jim’s betrayal. How many days was that? Lillian had stayed with her that long? She had a dim recollection of Lillian bringing over a duffel bag. They had watched a movie and eaten cake. At least, Lillian had eaten the cake. That strange smell that followed Lillian all over now filled the house, especially the couch, where she slept every night. It lurked in Selena’s nose, and stuck to her clothes. Maybe it was this smell that left her knees weak and her head spinning.
“Are you going to be okay?” said Lillian.
“Go to work, Lillian,” said Selena in a broken voice.
“I’m going to the store after work. I should be back around 7:30.”
Selena nodded absently. How did the patrons eat with Lillian’s pungent odor wafting through the restaurant? Lillian’s company was comforting, but now Selena just wanted to be left alone, maybe air out the house. She couldn’t mourn properly when she couldn’t breathe.
Lillian sighed. “Maybe we’ll do something tonight, okay?”
Lillian went out the door. As soon as it clicked shut, Selena curled into a ball and cried herself to sleep. Her dreams attacked her with Jim’s face. He was reaching for her, calling to her with that ever-gentle smile that graced his face whenever he saw her. She tossed and turned in agony, until she jerked awake. Her wall clock read 11:03. The gravel in the drive crackled. An engine turned off. A door slammed shut. Who was visiting at this hour? It couldn’t be Dan, because Dan worked today. Lillian worked too far away to come back for lunch.
Rap-rap-rap! The door shuddered.
“Selena,” Jim’s voice called. “Selena, baby, open the door.”
Selena’s insides twisted into a knot. No one was here to protect her from Jim. If she opened the door—no, no, she had to be strong! What was she going to do? One tear would drag her back into his arms.
“Selena.” Jim’s voice cracked.
Panic rose to her throat. She scrambled on the floor for her shoes and shoved them on.
“Selena, open the door,” he sobbed.
Snatching her Realtree sweater, Selena fled for the back door. Slipping out, she closed it just enough to keep out the autumn draft, and raced to the back fence. She pushed through the gate, hoping the hinges wouldn’t squeak. Nothing but forest lay before her. The town was to her left, but she couldn’t risk Jim driving through and seeing her, or having a snitch spotting her and then telling Jim. She needed to hide.
She’d go to the broken-down hunting cabin. It wasn’t far. By then, Jim would be gone, and then she could come right back. Good plan.
As she hurried along the unused dirt road, the forest grew quiet. It must have been her presence. A blue jay would start squawking to alert everything that she was out and about in a few minutes.
The sun moved over the bare trees. She seemed to have been walking forever. What if Jim really hadn’t been cheating on her? What if Lillian was lying to her? But Lillian had no cause to do that. Maybe Lillian had seen wrong? Selena glanced back. Something massive moved in the long grass. Chills ran down her spine and she kept walking. Why hadn’t she brought any protection? She had run out of the house like a madwoman.
Her legs ached, but she couldn’t stop her long march. The trees looked the same, as if she hadn’t moved at all. When she looked back, she saw nothing but a wall of autumn trees swallowing the old twisting road. On and on she went, until the trees opened into a meadow. The road hugged the tree line.
At the other end of the meadow was an old hunting cabin with weathered sides and warped shingles. The windows looked like tiny dots that a child could barely fit through. A mountain towered behind it. She glanced at her watch. Three o’clock. She halted and sat down on a rock. She had been out here longer than expected. Surely Jim was gone by now.
The thought of him tore her heart. She could almost feel the blood sliding through her bones to puddle on the insides of her feet.
“Jim.” Tears spilled from her chin and dripped onto her jeans. They formed small dark blue spots, little broken hearts. If a bear came and ate her right now, Jim would be sorry.
A twig snapped in the forest. Selena jerked her head up and wiped the blur from her eyes. What was it, a deer, an elk? Please don’t be a bear or a cougar! If it was a bear, she could climb a tree and maybe it would leave her alone. There were wild dogs out here—and people had spotted a wolf pack.
“No, no.” She shook her head. She was being paranoid. People walked out here all the time and didn’t get eaten. Some got treed, but there was a climbing tree not far from her. There was nothing to worry about.
Orange and black rose from the long grass and two intense eyes stared at her. Selena’s heart went into her mouth. What was this? She almost couldn’t comprehend the apparition before her. Tigers didn’t exist in the White Mountains of Arizona. It was sitting down, looking her in the eye. A broken chain dangled from a collar around its neck. Was it hungry? Did tigers maul people even if they weren’t hungry? How fast could they run?
The cabin’s behind me. She backed away from the tiger. It watched every little movement. How close was she to the cabin? She stole a glance at it. As soon as her eyes left the tiger’s face, it stood and took several steps towards her.
A small whimper escaped her lips and she stared into its face. She held her hands up, as if motioning a madman to lower his gun. Those green eyes pierced her soul and she squeezed her eyes shut. Her heart jumped into her throat. What was she thinking? It could be in her face right now! She forced her eyes open. The tiger was closer. Her feet slipped on the rocks as she struggled backward down the incline and into the meadow. The tiger’s eyes glittered in the shade, smiling at her.
“Help me,” Selena murmured. “No…no…”
She glanced at the cabin. She could make it if she could run. How much of a head start would she need to beat the tiger to the cabin? A guttural snarl drained the blood from her limbs. She looked back to the tiger—it bounded into the meadow. Its head lowered, ears flattening, and it sprinted towards her. Its powerful muscles undulated beneath the sleek coat. The tail stuck out behind it, whipping the air and gleaming in the autumn sun.
Selena shrieked and dashed for the cabin. Her short legs stumbled over the rough terrain. The expanse of the meadow seemed to spread wider and wider. The cabin got no bigger than when she had seen it from the road. Thump! Thump! Thump! The tiger’s paws beat the ground behind her. She could almost feel the sharp claws ripping down her back, exposing her warm skin to the cold air. She couldn’t coax anymore speed into her weak legs, and yet, somehow, she leaped onto the porch.
Shoving through the door, she flung it shut. The tiger rose up on its hind legs and slammed its massive paws on the door. It claws knocked pieces of wood to the floor. Selena yanked the bolt down and backed up. How close the tiger had been! Had she looked back…her head spun.
A frustrated snarl sounded on the other side of the door. The tiger glared at her through the cracks in the walls as it circled the cabin, looking for an entrance, if it decided not to rip through the rotting wood.
Gasping for air that wouldn’t come, Selena sank down in the middle of the floor and watched the orange and black coat appear and disappear through the gaps.
Lillian pulled into the drive and turned her music off. The sudden silence seemed jarring. Stepping out, she opened the back door and pulled out a pink cake she had bought from the Safeway deli. Hopefully this would cheer the sufferer inside the house for a bit. Lillian was eating a lot of cake these days. She glanced at her reflection in the car windows. Her figure hadn’t suffered yet, but she needed to lay off the sweets before her hips ballooned.
She glanced at the house and took a deep breath. Would her offering be received? She had to try. Stepping to the door, she knocked.
“Please work,” she whispered.
The lock clicked and the door opened. A pair of puffy eyes gazed at her in confusion.
“Jim,” said Lillian, “I heard Selena went with my brother.” Was that a little too crass?
Jim looked at his socked feet. “Yeah, well…”
“I’m so sorry. I had no idea that they were having…this must be awful for you. I brought a cake for you.” That should fix her first blunder. Wouldn’t he let her in?
“Thanks, but I don’t want anything.” He looked ready to fall apart, and Lillian knew he was weak right now. She had to strike while the fire was hot. She pushed into the house and set the cake on the table. Jim wrinkled his nose, staying by the door to keep away from that strange perfume she wore. Lillian had left a trail behind her that he could practically see.
“Talk to me, Jim,” said Lillian, as she rummaged through his cupboards for plates and forks. “How were you today? Did you go to work?”
“You poor thing. I had no idea that Selena could be so mean.” She set the dishes on the table and pulled the lid off the cake. “She didn’t even tell me. I guess she didn’t want me to tell you. Dan didn’t even tell me, can you believe it?” She cut a piece of cake for Jim and set it on a plate. “My own brother wouldn’t tell me. He’s your friend, too, isn’t he? I would have told you, Jim. I’m your friend.”
Jim watched her. He was in despair, but Lillian showing up at his door was just weird. She would have told on her own brother? Lillian did everything with her brother. Sometimes he thought that they were a little too close. She would have told on her friend? She was closer to Selena than she was to him. What was going on? A frown creased his lips.
“Why are you doing this?” he said.
“I know what heartbreak is like,” said Lillian. “Did you hear about that man who owned a tiger in Snowflake? They said it escaped. It might even come this way.” She cut herself a piece. “They said not to go out into the woods until they catch it.” She laughed. “Isn’t that exciting? What if you wake up tomorrow and it’s in your backyard?” She shivered in delight, and then rolled her eyes. “I tried to tell Selena, but she wouldn’t listen. Too busy with Dan.” She covered her mouth and her eyes simpered. “Oh, Jim, I’m sorry. Come eat. You need this.”
Jim came near, eying her, but he didn’t sit down. “You’ve been staying at Selena’s house.”
Lillian’s blood went cold, but she smiled brightly. “What are you talking about? I wasn’t at Selena’s house.”
“You’re her best friend. She’s been hiding in the house. And Dan hasn’t been there. I know. I’ve been waiting for you to be gone so I could talk to Selena.”
Lillian stared at the pink frosting. She admired Jim for being smart, but did he have to be smart now?
“What lie did you tell her about me?”
Lillian leaped to her feet and tried to push past Jim, but he seized her by the arms and shoved her against the wall.
“You’re hurting me,” Lillian wailed.
“What did you tell her?” Jim gave her a rough shake, and her blonde and black bangs slid over her eyes.
“I said I saw you sleeping with Cassie!”
Jim’s face turned to stone. It took every bit of his self-command not to break the wall with her smelly head.
“Why?” he snarled.
Lillian whimpered. “I had to do it.” She looked him in the eye. “I love you! I’m so lonely, and all I have is Dan. I’m sick and tired of him!”
Jim jerked back, as if by touching her his hands would turn green and fall off. “He’s your brother, what’s that supposed to mean?”
Lillian grasped his hands. “He can’t…he can’t make me feel…you don’t understand! I thought I loved him once, but now it’s over. He started looking at other women. I needed someone!”
Jim yanked his hands free, seized her arm and jostled her to the door. He was about to throw her out, but stopped. Not only would Selena open the door if she saw Lillian’s car, but this would be cleared up. He glared into Lillian’s face.
“You’re gonna tell Selena what you did.”
“No! No, Jim, you can’t!” Lillian tried to escape, but his grip tightened and he snatched the keys from her pocket. Without putting his shoes on, he shoved her into the passenger seat of her car and jumped in. He drove like a madman to Selena’s house. His life had almost been decimated by that creature sitting beside him! Had he heard right? She was sleeping with her brother? He glanced at the backseat through the rearview mirror. Had they done it back there? How about where he was sitting? Yuck.
They reached Selena’s house. Jim dragged Lillian across the seats and out the driver’s side so that she couldn’t escape. He pounded on the door. If Selena wouldn’t let him in, he’d force his way in. It struck him that she had been hiding in the house because she was crying her eyes out. How overjoyed she would be when she found out the truth! As for Lillian…his jaw tightened. What could he do to her without landing himself in prison?
The door didn’t open.
Jim had seen Lillian use a house key. He checked her myriad key chains and found it. Opening Selena’s door, he pulled Lillian inside and yanked her along with him as he checked the house for his beloved. When he knew she wasn’t home, he thrust Lillian on the couch in the living room and sat on a chair across from her.
“We’re staying here until Selena comes back.”
The light outside had dimmed to murky blue. The inside of the cabin had become a black mass. Selena licked her dry lips with a sticky tongue as her stomach growled. She hadn’t eaten anything that day or the day before, because she had been so depressed. Why couldn’t she have at least nibbled something? Thoughts of those giant burgers at Wendy’s crossed her mind. Succulent. Thick. Dripping with cheese and steaming fresh. Fries. A giant cup of Coca-Cola jingling with frozen ice. Pop always tasted different with ice. She wiggled her freezing toes in her shoes and breathed on her stiff fingers.
What was she going to do? A weight landed on the roof. For a second, it sounded like the thump was inside the cabin. She looked up, heart pattering in her throat. The old rafters creaked as the heavy steps moved across the roof. Each of the gloomy holes in the roof darkened as the tiger’s mass passed over it.
A glowing eye peeked in at her and a low snarl filled the room. She screamed and buried her face in her knees. Her heart thumped, blood pumped in her ears. If only the tiger could be trapped inside the cabin! She gripped her knees tighter. Could she do something like that? She glanced in the direction of the door. She would have to open it. Shivers ran down her spine. She couldn’t even see it! Maybe someone would come looking for her? Who was she kidding? No one came out here unless they were drunk.
She sat there until it was so dark that she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face. The tiger had stopped moving around, but its breath echoed in the cabin. It smelled like blood. Those glowing eyes never left the crack. It was watching. Selena kept her head down. She might starve to death in here. She had to get out!
Creeping to the door, she ran her fingers over the rough wood, until it landed on the hard cold doorknob. The tiger’s gleaming eyes vanished. Whimpering, she pushed the bolt up and pulled the door open with an ugly screech. The great paws sprinted across the roof. Its heavy body landed on the ground in front of the door with a thump! Selena screamed and shoved the door shut, but the tiger’s body slammed against the door and sprawled into the cabin.
Selena hit the floor, aware in a dazed sort of way that the beast was inside with her. Its claws scrabbled on the wood as she scrambled around the door, ran into the doorframe and stumbled out into the night. She almost started running, but retained just enough of her senses to turn around to close the door. She had to step back into the cabin to get a hold of the doorknob. Her pattering fingers almost couldn’t find it. The tiger’s eyes gleamed in the wall of black.
“No!” She pulled the door halfway closed. The tiger sprang and slammed into the door. It shut with a bang and knocked Selena off her feet. She tumbled down the three steps that led off the porch and into the long grass.
Icy wind whistled and penetrated her jacket. A wash of stars spread overhead, cut with jagged black on the horizons. The meadow was slightly lit and she could see the blanket of darkness that was the forest. It rustled, as if whispering secrets. The road was over there somewhere.
Selena fled from the cabin, tripping and stumbling on gopher mounds and holes. She hit the incline that led up to the road. Rocks trickled into her shoes and bunched up under her hands and knees as she scrambled up. What if the tiger got out? What if it was running across the meadow towards her? She glanced back, but the meadow was nothing but a black void hissing with disembodied voices.
An awful roar echoed out of it. Selena screamed and struggled to her feet. She ran. Her heart hammered against her chest as if it would break through the breastbone. Her breath ripped her throat. Tears mingled with cold sweat as a stitch cut her side. She slipped on the incline several times, but it kept her on the road.
Another roar drummed in her ears and rattled her brain. She couldn’t see! She almost broke down screaming.
I didn’t go too far, I didn’t go too far! I was walking really slow! These words rang through her head until they were a hum in the back of her brain.
A third booming roar shattered the night air. Was it closer? It echoed off the mountains and seemed to land in front of her. She screamed, tripped on a rut in the road and fell flat on her stomach. The wind knocked out of her. She lay there, shivering, struggling to regain her breath.
Get up, get up! It got out of the cabin!
She dragged herself up and stumbled onward. There were so many roads in this place, all twisting in different directions. She couldn’t see! She had nothing to light her way, not even her phone. She had left it on the table in her mad flight from Jim. Why hadn’t she just answered the door and confronted him? But no! She’d feared that she might lose. That’s why she had let Lillian drag her back to her room, why she let Dan run Jim off. She should have done it herself! She wouldn’t be here if she had! There was some quote from John Wayne she had read once, something about facing up to things and it not being as bad as you feared. These thoughts flashed through her head in mad cacophony.
Out of instinct, Selena looked back, and her heart froze. Something glowing yellow and green had flitted among the trees. They had been small. Deer eyes? Please be deer eyes! No, deer liked to stay by the highway at night because of predators. What if it wasn’t just the tiger? She rushed to a tree and scrambled into its branches. Safe. This was safe. Tigers couldn’t climb trees, could they? Lions couldn’t…or could they? She couldn’t remember!
The pair of eyes moved beneath her, weightless and silent, as if they were entities of their own. An ugly snarl rumbled from those two sharp lights. And then the bark scratched and the eyes moved up, towards her! Selena shrieked and scrambled as high as she could go. Small branches broke under weight.
“No, no, no!”
Crawling onto a semi-thick branch, she moved away from the eyes, and from the safety of the trunk. It was too dark to see how high up she was, but the air felt more open. The wind seemed stronger as it rocked the branch back and forth. The glowing eyes reached a level with her. Selena screamed. Her hands and knees slipped and she almost broke her face on the branch. Twigs scraped her cheeks, just missing her eyes.
The branch suddenly bent downward! She screamed and gripped the invisible wood with arms and legs. It didn’t completely break, and it swung into the trunk. Rough bark smacked her head, arms and legs. The branch snapped free and she plummeted through the darkness.
I’m going to die.
Crunch! She hit leaves and pine needles, with the branch on top of her. Nothing broke. The landing hardly hurt. She might live!
The eyes scrambled down and leaped at her face! A flash of men bracing sharp sticks at oncoming horses crossed her mind. What movie was that? Her body moved on its own to imitate those men. She swung the branch up, braced it on the ground, and pointed it at the eyes. Heavy weight slammed on the wood. It burst in all directions and shattered. The tiger snarled and rolled somewhere into the darkness. Selena pushed herself up, head spinning as her body threatened to faint. Warm liquid coated her front, but she couldn’t comprehend what it was, or whether it belonged to her or the tiger.
The yellow pinpoints rose up and snarled. It was still alive, and on the ground with her! She scrambled up. Her leg twinged, but she hardly noticed as she sprinted down the road. The yellow globs followed. They kept pace, but didn’t catch her. Something slid through pine needles and dead leaves, like someone was raking.
Dogs in the distance started wailing. Their howls vibrated Selena’s eardrums. They couldn’t be dogs! They were ghosts! Thousands of moaning ghosts surrounding her like a vortex of damned souls. The creature lurking behind her was the devil. The raking noise was his scythe dragging the ground.
A single light gleamed among the trees, a porch light. Was that her backyard? Had she found her way home? Her feet grew lighter. Everything was going to be okay. She slammed into the tall wooden fence. All the lights were on inside the house, but it didn’t occur to Selena who was inside. It was enough that the lights were there. The wails had reached a fevered pitch, but they were dogs again.
Yanking the gate open, she dashed inside and locked it. Safe. The tiger’s yellow eyes glared at her through the slats, and rose up on its hind legs. Wicked claws gleamed in the pale light as it gripped the fence and hauled itself up. The stick from the tree had gone clear through its shoulder. That’s what had been dragging through the leaves. Its massive head was half as big as her body and three times as wide. Its glimmering orbs never left her face.
Selena’s head spun and she tore for the back door. The porch light gleamed on it, like a heavenly light. Arms and legs flailed as they struggled to make the jellified muscles work. The raking sound commenced as the tiger charged.
Don’t look back, don’t look back.
She slammed into the door, it swung open, and she fell inside. The tiger darted out of the darkness, reached the entrance, and Selena kicked the door shut. The tiger’s head slammed into the thick wood. Shrieking, Selena rolled into a ball and covered her head. Her little smiling mother, wearing a blue camp dress as she cooked bread over an open fire, crossed her mind. Selena was going to go to her right now.
Selena looked up in confusion. “Jim!” She couldn’t remember what he had done. She scrambled to her feet and staggered towards him. He caught her in his arms. No giant wall or elephant gun could make her feel safer. The only arms that beat his were those of her tiny smiling mother.
“What happened to you?” he cried, checking her all over.
Selena looked down at herself and her head swam. She was covered in blood. Was it hers? Was she dying? Jim’s hands shook. He believed she was dying, too. Small tears threatened his eyes, but he had enough sense to think. It wasn’t his baby’s blood.
“Whose blood is this?” He cupped her face in his warm hands. “What happened?”
Selena suddenly remembered. “It’s outside!” She gripped his shoulders. “It’s outside!”
A cold, pungent draft swept into the kitchen.
Selena shrieked. The tiger was in the house!
Jim rushed into the living room, leaving Selena in the kitchen and leaning on the counter.
“It’s gonna eat you!” Selena staggered after him. “Jim, come back!”
“Lillian!” Jim shouted.
At first, Selena was relieved that it was Lillian who had opened the door. But when she reached the living room, she realized that Lillian had run out the door. Terror gripped her anew.
“It’s gonna get her!”
Lillian had already reached her car, but had forgotten that Jim still had her keys. She slammed her fists on the top of the car. She had to hide, call Dan to pick her up by the casino. It wasn’t too far away. Dan could get her car in the morning. She dashed down the street and sprinted through the trees.
“Lillian!” Jim’s furious voice hollered from the open door, but he couldn’t see her. She refused to take out her phone now. He might see the glowing screen, and then she’d be screwed. How was she going to face Selena at work tomorrow? She’d just ignore her. She didn’t have to confess anything. Jim would tell Selena, and that gullible drama queen would believe him. They deserved to be ridiculous together. Lillian had her pride. She didn’t need that, and she didn’t need Jim. Besides, she was going to leave him as soon as Dan wanted her back.
Lillian stopped running and glared at the small light on the porch. They were probably making up right now, and crying in each other’s arms. Their love wasn’t real like hers and Dan’s. Jim only liked Selena because she was pretty, and Selena was with Jim because he possessed what Selena had never heard of: brains. Together, they made a complete body.
“I’m just too smart,” she growled under her breath, and continued on to the casino.
When the porch light had vanished among the trees, she whipped out her phone and dialed up Dan. It rang a few times, and then he answered.
“Where have you been all day?” said Dan.
“Jim found out what I did,” Lillian wailed into the phone. “He made me wait at Selena’s house so I could confess! You gotta come get me. I’ll be at the casino.”
“Where’s your car?”
“Jim has my keys so I couldn’t leave.”
A low moan sounded behind her. Lillian jumped and spun around, staring into the trees. Dan said something, but it sounded like a warble in the background. The dogs were still howling. She had been too anxious to notice. Now the sounds seemed to shriek, “Run back! Run back!” Or was that Dan telling her to go back?
“You still there?” said Dan.
Two yellow points, at the height of a person, appeared in the black. An awful roar ripped the air! Lillian’s legs froze. The scream died in her throat. The pinpoints bounded towards her and a hot furry body slammed into her. Claws gouged deep into her stomach and face. Lillian slammed the ground. Crackles rushed up her spine and seemed to run into her skull. Steaming breath, stinking of blood, enclosed around her head. Her flesh broke open and her face crunched. Strangely, it didn’t hurt.
The scent of burning wood filled the house as the fire crackled in the stove. Rain pattered on the roof as wind whipped the trees. Cups of cocoa cooled on an end table beside a brown La-Z-Boy. Jim rocked it with his feet, his arm around Selena who cuddled against him, her feet tucked beneath her. He clasped her hand, which rested on his stomach. Through the picture window, they watched orange, red, and gold leaves flutter from the trees, and pine needles stab the soggy ground.
Over and over again, Selena’s mind alighted on her mother’s words, while she had talked to her last night on the phone. “Don’t be silly, Selena. Cassie’s Jim’s cousin. Didn’t you know that? Lillian was prob’ly lying. She gets it on with her brother, you know.” How did her mother know so much? It made sense, then, why Lillian had run out of the house. She didn’t want to confront her. Lillian had made the mistake that Selena had, except the tiger got Lillian and had lost Selena. It would never have a second chance.
She glanced at the cups of cocoa. Beside them lay a newspaper. The ceramic mug, teeming with happy snowmen, partially covered a front page headline: Escaped Tiger Shot and Killed Near Hondah Resort and Casino.