Again, residents are warned to stay indoors, keep your kids and pets indoors, and if you’ve got loved ones coming home from work, just be vigilant when you’re making that trek from your vehicle to your front door. Bob? Anything to add?
The news anchor turned to her co-anchor, who pressed his lips together, faced the camera with a serious expression and repeated his colleague’s warning.
“But I’m still confused,” Sally said, as she wiped crumbles of pie crust off the counter. “What exactly is it that escaped?”
“Some kind of exotic tiger.” Rocke was sitting at the end of the counter, his usual spot near the jukebox, which was silent at the moment.
The television mounted up near the ceiling behind the counter had been on mute, until a customer asked Sally to turn it up. She had done just that and then turned off the jukebox as they all watched breaking news about a zoo animal escaping.
Sally’s daughter, Min, was doing her homework in an empty booth. She raised her head to glance at the television and shook her head at the still images of the zoo entrance. “I loved them when I was kid, but now…”
“It depends,” I said, swiveling around in my chair at the counter. “Our zoo is not trying to capture healthy animals from the wild for dumb humans to ogle. They only do rescue animals. That’s why they don’t have as wide a variety as other zoos.”
Min twisted her mouth to the side. “How do you know all that? You volunteer there or something?”
I smiled. “My niece and nephew were in town over the summer. They wanted to go, and I only felt weird about it after I agreed to take them. So I did some research, even called them to ask questions.”
Sally got on the phone, and I could tell she was calling her neighbor to ask if they would look out for Frankenstein (their calico cat). He was an outdoor cat and young. He could probably run faster than other animals that were a threat, but another cat might be a different story.
Sally pulled the phone away from her head. “Anyone know how fast it can run? Have they said?”
Min set her pen down and pushed her math homework aside. She woke her hibernating laptop and started searching.
She frowned at whatever it was she found. “Someone brought it into the country illegally,” she said. “The zoo rescued it.”
“Was the guy arrested?” Rocke asked.
“Fined. I guess he was able to make some deal because he brought the tiger to the zoo voluntarily?” Min’s frown deepened as she leaned closer to the screen, and her eyes moved from side to side as she tried to quickly read whatever articles or documents she’d managed to dig up. “I guess he got it as a cub and it grew up to be more than he could handle.”
There were only eight of us in the diner when the police pulled up. Sally, Min, Rocke, Darla—who was the cook—a nice-looking young family of three in the “good booth,” and me.
The officer who came spoke to Sally, but we all heard their conversation, and he answered the few questions we asked. The police were going door to door, asking everyone within a several block radius—or grid, or whatever—to stay indoors. Of course Sally asked how long we’d have to stay put. The officer told her to keep an eye on the news. It would be safe to come out once we saw that the animal had been captured or put down.
After he left, Sally went to the front door of the diner and locked it.
“It’s a tiger, Mom, not a velociraptor.”
Sally glanced at her daughter. “Frankie can open the cabinet doors in the kitchen,” she said. “Why do you think I put the child-safe latches back on?”
“I thought it was for me. As a teen, I’m likely to get dumber before I get smarter.”
“They’re smart, cats,” Sally said, ignoring her daughter’s attempts to lighten up the situation. She peered out of the locked doors.
I glanced over at the family in the good booth. They were trying to play it cool, the mother and father talking to their son, who looked to be five or six, about the coloring page that Sally had given him to do. But both adults periodically peeked out the window and glanced at the television. They also kept checking their watches, so I figured they weren’t as scared of running into a tiger in the streets as they were of being late for something. Probably a train. Sally had bought the diner at that particular location for a reason. The nearby train station, and the nearby main highway that long-haul trucks used. But the diner wasn’t on the highway. Only a nice big sign pointing to a detour down a little street was on the highway.
The news now showed a map of the area where the escaped cat had been spotted and where residents were advised to stay indoors.
“I wonder who saw it,” I said. I wasn’t nervous or scared, at least not yet. I had no place to be on a Thursday afternoon. “I wonder if it’s someone we know.”
Several of our phones started alarming then. Not personal alarms, but that particular intermittent high-pitched alarm that indicated a general alert. I checked my phone and the alert just briefly indicated that my phone was in the area where a dangerous wild animal had been spotted.
“Oh no, what’s she doing out there?”
Sally had returned to her side of the counter, but was still gazing out of the glass doors. I followed her gaze and glimpsed a figure, a young woman, taking a few hesitant steps across the diner’s small parking lot. She didn’t seem to have a purse or bag or anything. Her jeans were ripped along the leg, but I guess that was the style these days. I was more worried about the rip along the upper right arm of her shirt. She had both arms wrapped around herself, and her left hand was pressed against her right arm.
I hopped off my stool and approached the front door. “Is she hurt?”
The young woman glanced around, as if she were on the lookout for someone, or something. She glanced over at the diner and her gaze met mine.
“Open the door, Rita,” Sally told me. “Call her in.”
I unlocked the door and pushed it open. I waved at the young woman. “Come on in. Quick!”
The young woman stared at me. She didn’t move. Sally was suddenly beside me. “Come on. It’s okay,” Sally said. “I’m the owner. The police just came by and told us to stay indoors. You can come in.”
I leaned beside Sally. “She looks hurt. You think she might have already seen it? Is she running from it?”
“All the more reason to get her inside and get the door locked again.”
Sally and I both waved, but the young woman just stood there. She didn’t look as if she were going to move anytime soon.
“Do you think it will spook her if we go out to fetch her?” Sally asked.
“Mom, no! She’s obviously been attacked by the tiger. It’s got to be close.”
I raised my hand to Min. “It’s all right. Your mom’s not coming. I’ll go fetch her. If she runs, I’ll come back in.”
“Okay, I’ll go get some hamburger meat from Darla,” Sally said. “If tiger walks into the lot, maybe we can distract it with some ready-to-eat meat.”
“I truly hope the tiger would prefer that to ‘so fresh it’s still alive’ meat,” I said from the safety of the doorway.
I dashed outside, into the parking lot, a thing I’d done a million times before. And even though I didn’t see any tigers, I felt my heart beating faster and a panic rising in my gut. I hoped the woman didn’t run away. Because I’d feel terrible leaving her out there. But I didn’t think I had it in me to go after her if she fled.
But she didn’t move as I got closer. She just looked at me, and she kept sniffing. Nasal drip likely. It was a bright but chilly day. And thought it looked like she had a few layers of shirts on, she didn’t have a jacket.
“Me and a bunch of other people are holed up in the diner until we hear that the tiger’s been caught,” I said. “The one that escaped from the zoo. You should come inside. If you…” I glanced at her arm. “If you need medical assistance, we can call an ambulance from inside.”
The young woman gazed at me. She didn’t look scared of me, at least her facial expression didn’t look scared.
I placed a hand on my chest, as it occurred to me that she might not speak my language. “I’m Rita.” I stepped closer to her, and slowly raised my arm. I had the feeling that I would have to guide her to the door. She let me put an arm around her shoulder. She didn’t flinch or recoil. I feel the blood pumping through my heart.
“Boy, am I scared to be out here right now.” I was only muttering to myself. But the young woman started walking faster.
Maybe she understood my language after all.
She didn’t resist when I sat her down in the booth under the heating vent and put my jacket over her shoulders. She shook her head when I asked if she was hurt. But I’d seen dried blood at the edges of the tear in her shirt. Maybe it wasn’t a deep cut if it wasn’t still bleeding.
She sniffed and I handed her a tissue. She took it and wiped her nose. But then she sniffed again, and I understood when I myself caught a whiff of the aroma. The buttery cinnamon aroma of an apple pie just coming out of the oven.
“Are you hungry?” I asked. “Want some pie?”
She nodded, and I went to fetch her a warm slice of pie, just as Min passed me and sat down in the booth across from the young woman.
I was afraid Min would start asking all the questions that we all wanted and needed answered, but she just started recommending menu items.
Everyone wasn’t staring at the young woman—except for Rocke—but I could feel everyone’s attention on her. I delivered the slice of pie and was suddenly recruited as the wait staff when Min requested a few more items. I went to deliver the order and glanced up at the news broadcast as I waited for the plate.
…haven’t caught it yet, but they are sweeping the area, and as you can see, the aim is to capture the animal. But public safety is a priority, and unfortunately, authorities are also prepared to take drastic measures if need be.
“Just be straightforward and say they plan on killing him if they can’t get him under control right away,” Rocke said.
“Why can’t they capture her and just take her back to her native country and habitat?” Min replied. She’d turned around, still seated at the booth across from someone who might have actually encountered the animal that Rocke and Min were only discussing theoretically.
“What if here is his native country and habitat now?” Rocke retorted.
“In the zoo?”
As the two argued—a typical occurrence as we regulars knew—I kept my eye on the young woman. She was eating her pie, slowly and deliberately, like she was savoring it.
“He’s not a mountain lion,” Rocke said. “He’s a tiger. We don’t have tigers in the wild here. He wouldn’t survive anyway.”
“She’s a ‘she.’ And she hasn’t attacked anyone so far.”
“She will. It’s only a matter of time. She might have already, but it might not have been reported yet.” Rocke’s gaze shifted slightly from Min to the young woman.
“Why, because she’s a vicious animal?”
Rocke sighed. He shook his head. “Because she’s a cornered animal,” he said. And his voice softened. “What would you do, Min? If people were chasing you? You’d run, right? But what if they got you trapped and you can’t run anymore? There are two choices, surrender or strike out. What do you think you’d do? Especially if you were too scared to think?”
Min shook her head and turned back around. “I don’t know,” she threw back.
The young woman had finished her pie. I turned back around to check how Darla was doing with the bacon burgers and waffle fries that Min had ordered for her “new friend.”
It wasn’t going to be completely dark for another two hours or so. Surely the authorities would have everything handled by then, and if not, I didn’t mind ferrying people home. Or escorting them, caravan style. We were seeing the occasional car drive by. And on the highway, with trucks going back and forth, it was definitely more dangerous for an animal—even a big tiger—than it was for a motorist. Even if we had to stay in the diner for the night, for some reason, it wouldn’t be so bad. Sally had installed that second restroom, and—
I turned around right away. I had never heard that particular tone from Min. Or I had, but not since she was little. That shakiness. That breathiness so close to a sob. She wasn’t calling her mom to alert her mom. She was calling for her mom to come, to come and get her, protect her.
Min was standing beside the booth, and backing away from it.
The young woman slid out of her side, and I didn’t see her until Min stepped further back, away from her, and closer to the rest of us.
That was when I saw the young woman. The skin of her face was covered in black and orange stripes, except above her eyes where the stripes were black and white. The whites of her eyes were a pale orange. She reached out her hand toward Min, and her fingers, thicker than before and now tinged orange, were tipped not with flat fingernails, but long narrow arched claws.
I heard a plate clatter and break. I heard gasps and cries, and the shuffles of people moving away.
“Please, don’t run! Please! I won’t hurt you,” the young woman said. Her voice was deep, and it had a rumble in it that I didn’t hear but felt in the trembling of my bones. The shape of her face was changing, right before our eyes. Her nose and mouth protruding, her ears growing wider, flatter. Hairs were beginning to sprout along her jaw and her cheeks. She hunched forward.
“I’ve never hurt anyone. In all my years.” She balled up her clawed hands into tight fists. “Only myself.” A few drops of blood dripped to the ground. Her curved claws were digging into her own human palms.
No one was by the front door. Instinct had driven us as far away from her as possible. We were all huddled near the opposite end of the diner, near the jukebox, behind Rocke and Sally. Min and that little boy were the farthest back, behind all of us.
The young woman closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. She stepped back, away from us, and settled back down into the booth. When she opened her eyes, they looked human again. The whites of her eyes were white again, and her eyes themselves were brown. Her face began to change shape again back to what it was when she first walked in. And her hairs seemed to shrivel and vanish.
“Please,” she said. “Before you call the authorities. Please let me tell you my story. I want someone to know. And you have no reason to believe me, but there is a way for me to stay human, to stay harmless.”
“Humans aren’t harmless,” Min said from behind us. She’d spoken the words softly, but a few of us still shushed her when we saw the young woman raise her head.
“You’re right, Min,” the young woman said. “But then, is anything truly harmless?” She sighed. “Call them. I’ll wait. But if someone will just listen to my story.”
“I’ll do it,” I said. “If you let everyone else go.” I felt that panic rising in my gut. I’ve always been a coward. Even now, I was standing behind my friends.
“You know, even if I wanted to hurt you, I couldn’t,” she said. “Not anymore. Not after you fed me. Everyone in this diner-house became protected by an old oath I took. Old but unbreakable.”
“There’s no such thing as an unbreakable oath,” Rocke said, and while there was some tension in his voice, maybe the tension of being ready to rush her and hold her off while the rest of us escaped, there was also some of that calm that he conveyed when he was really listening to someone.
The young woman remained seated in her booth. She folded her hands—her human hands now—before herself on the tabletop. “For humans there is no such thing.” She glanced among all of us. “I am not quite human.”
I gulped as I stepped forward beside Sally and Rocke, and then stepped in front of them. I felt Sally’s hand on my wrist. I turned to her slightly and nodded. And I gulped again as I took another step toward the young woman in the far booth. I wished I had a glass of water. My mouth was dry, and my throat was dry. I kept gulping, but it felt like something was stuck in my throat.
“You don’t have to come closer,” the young woman said. “You can hear me from there.”
Well, if I’m already trying to be brave, might as well do it right, I thought.
“I’m thirsty,” I said. “I’m going to grab a drink. I’ll get you one too.”
I went to my usual spot at the counter and reached over to the small fridge behind it where Sally kept a small selection of bottled drinks. I grabbed a couple of ginger ales with extra ginger.
I walked up to the young woman and set the bottle down in front of her. But I didn’t sit. She began her story. And I began to listen.
“I’m descended from a people, a rare people, who inherit the spirits of animals in their souls, hearts, minds, and bodies. When I was born, I inherited the tiger’s spirit.”
She wasn’t sure what country her home was in. She only remembered that it was high in the mountains, and their houses had wide open courtyards and sturdy sloping roofs. It rained for almost half the year. But their houses remained dry and warm. She remembered a library where she could not wait to spend her time when she was old enough, after she had learned to read. But that time never came. They received many visitors, from neighboring towns to all the way from the opposite end of the globe. Their mountain town was open and welcoming.
But one day, people came who wanted to discover how they too might learn to inherit the spirits of animals. These interlopers had heard of how her people had abilities beyond those of typical humans, abilities imbued by their animal spirits. The keen eyesight of a raptor. The agility and quickness of a monkey. The discerning nose of a canine. Some legends said that her people were even able to transform into the animals whose spirits they inherited.
These interlopers came to her town when the young woman was a toddler. Her people explained that they could not teach outsiders how to inherit an animal spirit, because it was not something they learned, it was something that was just part of their nature. The interlopers did not accept this. They called in their allies and began to kidnap the young people in town. The young woman didn’t understand then, but she understood now what the interlopers’ vile purpose was. They were going to force unions between her people and themselves, so that their children would inherit animal spirits. And they would wield great powers through those children.
Her family prepared to flee. Their daughter was a toddler, but she would not remain a toddler. They had to escape before she too was taken. But the interlopers surrounded the town. And this is when rumors began to spread that strange animals were being seen in the woods and mountains around the town. And the interlopers were angrily speaking of escaped prisoners. And the young woman’s people realized that the kidnapped youths were transforming into animals, just like in the legends, and they were escaping.
But her family would take no chances. They fled at night. Her father had inherited the spirit of the owl and could see the path clearly. But they must have been chased. The young woman remembered being passed around among the adults in her family when one person became too tired to carry her as they ran. They became separated during the flight, and somehow she was left alone.
She wanted to cry out for her mother, but she knew, even at that age, that she should not cry out. Someone other than her mother might find her. She remembered feeling scared when she heard footsteps coming closer to her, and the voice of a man who was not her father or one of her uncles, calling out. She felt herself changing for the first time. Her fear flooded every part of her, and by some instinct, her spirit reached out to her body, and she transformed into a tiger.
But she was so young that she transformed into a tiger cub. She wandered for days until someone stumbled upon her. It was an outsider, though not one of the evil interlopers who had ruined her town and her people and her life. She was swept up and taken overseas where she was kept by someone who meant well, but could not handle her when she grew bigger. She tried to, but she could not transform back into a human.
In time, she was rescued by the zoo. She learned the language of her adopted country and peoples. She tired of being a tiger, because she could not be free as a tiger. She believed she could be free as a human, at least where she had ended up. And she could find out what happened to her family, her people, and the mountain town where they lived. But she just could not transform back into a human.
“Because it wasn’t safe?” I asked.
The young woman nodded.
“But obviously at some point, you did feel safe.”
“There was a woman at the zoo who was especially kind to me,” the young woman said. “I think she suspected something about me. That I was not really a tiger.”
I took a swig of my ginger ale. “She helped you escape.”
The young woman glanced down at her pie plate. “I remember kindness,” she said, “just as well as I remember cruelty.”
“Somebody hurt your arm?” I glancing at her upper right arm, still covered by jacket.
She shook her head. “I still turn tiger when I’m scared. It started happening when I was trying to squeeze through a gate.” She smiled softly. “I’m a little bigger in my tiger form.”
“And that’s what went wrong?” I asked. “You went…uh, full tiger? And people saw you that way? Sounded the alarm?”
The young woman nodded. “I was captured on video. So now they won’t stop searching until they find a tiger. I don’t know what to do about that. But I do know what to do about protecting your people and myself. I’ll have to do some research, but I remember something my mother told me. Just a story. But now I know that stories that are ‘just stories’ might actually be just the truth. There’s supposed to be a ritual I can perform that will lock me in my human form.”
I turned around. Min was now standing beside her mother, who held an arm out to stop her daughter from advancing any further.
“Why should you have to sacrifice and give up a part of who you are to live among humans?” Min said. “You said you never hurt anyone. I believe you.”
“So do I.”
Min turned to look at Rocke. He looked at her too and they nodded to each other.
“It’s my fault you started changing,” Min said, turning her attention back to the young woman. “I scared you with all my questions about the tiger. Your reflexes must have kicked in.”
“Those reflexes will always kick in,” the young woman said.
“Then you need to live among people who understand and won’t be scared,” Rocke said.
I glanced between him, and Min, and Sally. And we came upon an unspoken understanding.
“So it looks like we’re helping this girl, huh?” a new voice said.
I peeked behind Sally to where Darla, the usually-quiet cook, stood holding a meat cleaver in her right hand.
I tilted my head to look behind Darla to where the young family who were just passing through were standing. “You folks can go now. You know there’s no tiger prowling around out there.”
The parents nodded their thanks to me and started pulling their son away, but he stopped them and said, “First promise you won’t tell on her.”
The parents hastily agreed and swept their son through the front door. They might keep their promise. But whether or not they did, everyone remaining in the diner would deal with whatever came next.
Sally stepped beside me, and I slid into the booth across from the young woman.
“I don’t know what they would say if they reported you,” I said. “They don’t have your name. They don’t even really have your species.”
“I don’t remember what my family named me.” The young woman smiled, and a film of tears formed at the rims of her eyes. “But my friend at the zoo, she calls me ‘Santara.’”
“We could put you on a train in under an hour and send you to the opposite end of the world. But people around here are still going to think there’s a tiger on the loose,” Sally said.
I turned to the young woman. “I have an idea about that,” I said. “But we’ll need your help, if you’re willing. And your trust. And you’re not going to like this plan.”
Sometimes I ask myself why it is that I—that we all—suddenly trusted this stranger who came out of nowhere, starting turning into an animal in front of us, and then told us a story that we hadn’t even bothered checking on with a quick internet search. I ask myself why at least one of us didn’t go catatonic or something from the inability of the brain to process the reality of a human being turning into an animal. But I think that’s exactly why we trusted what she told us. Because there wasn’t just one of us.
And sometimes I ask myself why she trusted us. I ask myself why she agreed to the plan even though she looked horrified. Why she agreed to let us bind her wrists and her ankles, even though she knew that it would scare her enough to trigger her transformation. But that’s exactly why she agreed to the plan. We had demonstrated that we were beginning to understand her, and we were beginning to accept what we understood. We called the one zoo employee we knew we could trust. The one who gave Santara her name.
Nearby was that highway, the one that trucks traveled. Rocke volunteered to be the resident who found a dying tiger on the side of the road. He took video on his phone. We lay Santara on her left side, so that the gash on her upper arm, her real wound, was visible on the videos and stills that Rocke took. She lay as still as she could and held her breath. Darla had provided some barbecue sauce and some chunks of meat to make the injury look more serious.
Santara’s friend called it in. She reported that she had been forced to euthanize the tiger. It must have been hit by a truck, maybe at night when the driver thought he’d hit a deer. The tiger must have survived for a while after being hit. And in the rear view, the truck driver would have seen the animal he hit keep walking and he would have kept driving. That was the only way to explain why someone who hit a tiger on the side of the road didn’t call and tell anyone about it.
But the news forecasts would speculate on other possible causes for the tiger’s distress. Maybe she’d been sick already and had wounded herself. Maybe there was no hit-and-run. She just found herself on the highway when she collapsed.
Santara’s friend would shuffle paperwork around so that it would appear as if the tiger’s body had been properly disposed of before the planned necropsy could be performed. She came by the diner often in the days to come to update everyone who had been involved in the plan to rescue this person, this being, this impossible being who had wandered into our lives.
Santara herself did not join us. She was worried about going out, worried that she would transform. She remained indoors, searching for information about her family and her people, and about that ritual she had heard of to keep her human. Everyone took turns visiting her, visiting us, I suppose I should say, in the spare room where I was letting her stay. Min came most frequently. She came to try and get Santara to exercise and meditate, in the hopes of being able to control—or at least manage—her transformation. If she could do that, she wouldn’t need to be just human.
About a year after nine people locked themselves in a diner to stay safe from an exotic tiger that had escaped from the local zoo, some out-of-towners tried to rob that very same diner. They were armed, but they didn’t hurt anyone, thankfully. They had parked their vehicle at the edge of the little parking lot, under an overhead light that the diner’s owner had been meaning to fix but hadn’t gotten around to. They were giddy with laughter and the thrill of the theft as they fumbled with their keys.
That’s when something they later called a monster came hulking out of the shadows, something with flashing fiery eyes, snarling teeth, and a deep rumbling growl. Something that gouged the side of their car as they fled, screeching out of the lot, one of their taillights cracked and hanging from its wires. Something that long after they were gone, picked up the bag of cash they had dropped, walked into the diner, and greeted the other regulars.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel