By Joshua Flowers
Melody was cleaning up for the first time in months and found it hidden beneath a lump of dirty clothes, a pocket upturned where it fell out. Melody’s eyes widened as she opened it up.
She imagined a white tiger sleeping inside that cramped, small, black box.
The tiger was easier.
Jerry looked at the clean room, the open window creating a flow in their stagnant space, with a sense of panic.
“You cleaned?” Jerry tried to sound casual amidst his shock.
“Yeah.” Melody hid her trembling hands in a book. She looked up and saw the tiger had yawned on the floor. Its jewel-white fur was littered with black rings choking around its slender body.
Melody imagined she had woken it up from a long nap. They both watched Jerry nonchalantly feeling around the floor with his foot. His sock fumbled against the box, hidden underneath the bed, and he sighed in relief.
“So, dinner?” He chuckled like a man lost at sea who just pulled himself up onto a piece of driftwood and thought it was land. Melody pretended to be too busy reading to hear. The tiger licked its chops and lay between them with the familiarity of a pet resting in its favorite spot.
A married friend rocked her head back and forth in hums. “You know, I think you and Jerry have really gotten better. No more bad fights. What’s your secret?”
“What do you think about this pear?” Melody held it up to her narrow face like a compact mirror. “I’m afraid it might be rotten.”
The tiger walked close behind, uninterestedly looking up at the multi-colored fruit stand. Its empty belly grumbled, but its paint-stroked face didn’t change.
Her friend glanced at the pear. “Looks fine.”
“I don’t know.” Melody put it back and scrutinized another.
“Anyway, I’m just saying, compared to a year ago, you guys are so much better. You’re not fighting anymore, and you’re…well, you’re not fighting anymore, and I think that’s the most important part.”
“What about this one?” Melody held it up for a second before she said, “No, never mind,” and put it back for another.
“Mel, all the pears are fine. Anyways, do you think you two might final—”
“Yeah.” Melody tossed a random pear into her bag, sure it would attract flies a day later. “We just decided to not fight anymore. I guess it’s working.”
Behind her, the tiger looked strangely calm as it wagged its tail like a tiny cat that just found a field mouse.
Melody didn’t look at Jerry as he sat on the couch. If she did, she would see his bloody face in the tiger’s mouth, pearly fangs covering his blonde eyebrows, ketchup-colored blood highlighting the corners of his indignant face. So, Melody kept glancing at the dusty fruit bowl on the counter. “Do you want a pear?”
Jerry didn’t hear her—too busy scooping another bite of orange chicken into his mouth. He pointed his chopsticks at the TV and mouthed something, expecting her to understand. He laughed and didn’t glance to see if Melody understood him.
After a night of mumblings, they went to bed, kissed lightly, and said in shallow voices, “I love you.” The tiger pounced atop the sheets and flexed its claws by Melody’s feet. She tried to kick it off, but the beast hissed back.
Jerry sighed from his dream, “Why are you always like this?”
Melody stopped and let the heavy beast crush over her from the waist down.
Melody knew it would happen at Tesoro’s, because Jerry hated Italian food and thought that meant she loved Italian. The host brought them to a white-clothed table that would have been better used in a magic show. The tiger slid underneath the cloth, its tail poking out the side. Melody felt its breath burn her ankles.
Jerry nervously shook in his seat. He kept feeling the side of his pants to make sure he pocketed his box-shaped resolve while they waited for their pastas. “I bet it will be good.” The sweat on his face made his smile look crazed. “It has to be, right?”
The waiter came with two bowls, commenting that they were a lovely couple like he was in on the joke. Jerry silently raked his fork through his noodles.
Melody wanted to say something, but when she opened her mouth—the tiger licked her calf with a tongue rough enough to tear flesh. Jerry mistook her terror, and something in it spurred him. He got out of his seat and onto a knee. Melody could hear the tiger snarl beneath the table.
“Melody,” Jerry said, his words silencing the entire restaurant. Melody wanted to stop him, wanted to ask if anyone else could hear the horrifying rumbling beneath her? The tiger’s tail slammed back and forth against the floor.
Melody saw a reflection of herself in his brown eyes, a shadow in the shape of fear. She wondered if Jerry saw something similar in her eyes? But there was an audience who had taken away the remote and its pause button, so Jerry had to stutter out the words like a DVD scratched beyond repair. The tiger continued to growl through its fangs, as Melody saw the last words shaping in Jerry’s mouth.
Melody, with legs she thought might already be gone, got up and ran from the table. Gasps flooded Melody’s ears, and she thought the tiger had emerged and started its chase. She burst through the doors and fled as far as she could, buildings and roads blurring beside her. She tripped and crashed onto the sidewalk. When she pushed herself up, she saw her palms had become bloodied.
She looked back, expecting something to pounce and grab her.
No one came. Melody saw the empty street and laughed. She laughed like a caged beast in the wild, unsure if the sting on her palms felt frightening or liberating.