By Karen A. Lin
I trudge my way home, but never make it there. The quiet park five blocks away from school feels more homey than home. I climb up a tree that has lost most of its leaves.
“Hi,” I greet a squirrel that perches on a nearby branch.
It freezes in the twitchy way most rodents do, with its black eyes bulging. “I’m not going to kill you. I’ve felt like killing someone or something all day, but it won’t be you.”
Relieved, the squirrel resumes gnawing at an acorn.
I make myself comfortable on the branch. “I’m sorry I talked about killing. I’m just stressed, really.” The squirrel is too engrossed with the nut in its paws to pay me any attention. “You know, most squirrels would run away. But you’re weirdly brave. I’m going to call you Tiger.” I laugh at the unlikely name. I wish I could tell if Tiger understood me.
“Let me show you something.” I remove my latest art assignment from my backpack. “See this painting? My teacher wrote ‘Messy brush strokes, mismatched colors,’ and tacked on a C minus. How was I supposed to create a brilliant work of art with her breathing down my neck?” I imagine Tiger shrugging his little shoulders.
“Maybe she’s right, and I can’t paint at all. Is this ugly?” I shove the paper at Tiger, and he shrinks away.
“Sorry.” I return the hideous mess to my backpack and take out my graded essay, which is swimming in red marks. “English is even worse than art class. I have all these ideas that turn out to be crap on paper. I’m so caught up in formatting rules and writing fancy language that I can’t see the big picture.” I crumple up the essay and drop it into my backpack.
As I take out my sketchbook, the sun dips lower in the sky. Tiger has nearly chewed through his nut. “Hold still, now.” With my weathered lead pencil, I scratch out an outline of the furry tail, the tiny ears, the fearless eyes.
“I need some advice, Tiger,” I say as his head takes shape on the page. “This year I have all of my brother Anthony’s old teachers, and they brag about him constantly. ‘Bla bla bla, he was last year’s valedictorian and Homecoming King. He was a math genius. His essay was the best in the history of my teaching career.’ And that’s saying something, because my English teacher is a hundred and seven.”
I shade in Tiger’s body. “My brother’s also a legend among the students, even though he’s not even at school anymore. It’s hard to tell if my friends are real friends, or if they’re just using me to get closer to him.”
Tiger stands paralyzed, a perfect model for my drawing. I struggle to capture his eyes exactly, to illustrate his soul. “Even my parents don’t have anything to say to me now that he’s at college, except ‘Tony used to do this and that.’ You’re the only one who bothers listening to me.” I tear up without knowing why.
Miraculously, Tiger swishes his tail and moves so close that I can see his individual hairs. I grin and hold up my sketchbook, as if appealing to a child. “Look, Tiger, it’s you.” It’s not my best work, but squirrels don’t judge.
Just then, a seagull flies overhead. I look up right when the bird releases a batch of white fluid that heads straight for me. Without thinking, I hold my sketchpad over my head, and hear the poop splatter onto my drawing. I stare in disbelief at the poisonous splotch on Tiger’s black-and-white body.
“Goddammit!” My scream breaks the bond I had with Tiger. He leaps to another branch to escape my fury as I tear him out of my sketchbook, crumple him up, and throw the paper ball, which sinks like a stone to the ground. I rest my head on my knees and give in to sobs.
A few minutes pass before I hear a soft voice call, “Katie?”
Although the sky is darkening, I can make out the tall figure below. A car is parked nearby with its lights on. I grab my backpack and scramble down the tree.
“Tony!” I launch myself into his familiar embrace. “I didn’t know you were coming back today.”
“I drove home early to surprise you. When you didn’t come home after school, I came to find you.”
“Had a bad day?”
He pulls a crumpled white ball out of his pocket, straightens the paper, and studies the drawing. “I know there’s bird poop on this, but it’s really good. There’s so much detail in the shading.” When I say nothing, he hands the paper to me. “I have no talent at all. The art teacher hated me.”
I examine the portrait again through Tony’s eyes, and Tiger seems to come alive on the page. Even if my teacher gave me an F, I would still love this ruined sketch. It captures a moment when I felt unmoored from the world, and Tiger was my only companion.
Before I can fall too deep into my thoughts, Tony puts a hand on my shoulder. “Let’s go,” he says. “Mom’s making a pecan pie.”
I smooth out the remaining wrinkles in my drawing and tuck it into my sketchbook for safekeeping. Then I wave goodbye to Tiger, wherever he is now.