By Bonnie L. Phillips
Josh looked at the “wild animal” with sadness in his eyes. He had saved money for five years in order to see the last living tiger on Earth. She was surrounded by glass on three sides to allow the people who stood in line to watch her before they entered her enclosure and had their thirty seconds to stroke her and have their photo taken with her. The line moved closer. Josh saw several patches of thin fur missing from her legal pattern of stripes. Her great head hung from bony shoulders. She paced back and forth atop the long table, her gait stilted and ungraceful.
She yawned. He saw an intact set of impressive teeth. Intact claws and teeth or not, he knew she was a depressed and conquered diva. A sallow faced man opened the glass door to allow the paying public into the large room, one at a time. In the middle of the room, sporting a chin that jutted out as if he liked being confrontational with everyone, was the keeper. He sat on a stool, holding the end of a twenty foot chain, looking bored and sleepy.
A tall gangly youth with an oddly angled face went through the door and approached the tigress, hesitant at first. The tigress sat with her head bowed low. He reached out to touch her. She didn’t respond so he tugged at her fur, slapped her rump and posed for photos with his right hand holding up a fistful of tiger fur.
Josh scanned the line, looked at the expectant faces, then back at the tiger. The keeper stood, stretched and teased the tiger with tiny bits of meat to make her sit up. And when she no longer had the energy to entertain he gave her an electric shock. The people in line appeared to murmur their appreciation when the animal tried to roar in response to the pain. But the pitiful sound that came from the animal was more a resigned shriek than a growl.
It was close to Josh’s turn and he scanned the trees, bushes and rocks in the enclosure. They were man-made. His gaze fell upon the animal and he saw her lift her head. For a moment their eyes met. Half closed, the tigress’ eyes were dull, dead eyes that reflected how much its heart and soul had surrendered to her existence. Josh understood and remembered his own life.
He had grown up with his tall, lanky grandfather in the poor section of the city. After his mother and father made it big in the business world, they catapulted higher and higher until they became the world’s biggest and most powerful CEO´s. They were part of the government-run business machinery and he never saw or heard from them after the age of five.
Josh did not relate to people his age. They were interested in going on shopping sprees for the newest products, owning the latest hover-jets, or purchasing human-looking, computerized house staff. He was interested only in Earth’s ecological past. He had had two short-lived legal unions with women who threatened to turn him in to the authorities if he didn’t stop conversing about “the old days” and the “world of nature.” Wildlife magazines, photos, books and DVD’s, were considered contraband, except when the government could make money off of citizen’ s paying to view the “last” of each “destructive” species.
Josh and his grandfather were close. They shared a secret and kept it hidden away from the world. Their contraband was safely hidden throughout the government -owned apartment. Josh’s grandfather had died two weeks prior to Josh waiting in line to be near the tigress and he felt out of sync with the world, isolated and lonely. He remembered how reverent his grandfather taught him to be of all wild things. He thought getting to see the “last” tiger would somehow be exhilarating but seeing how it was treated made him feel sick. Josh’s earliest memories were of his grandfather telling him intriguing stories of lion pride hunts, massive migrations of wildebeest and zebras, and giant matriarch-led bands of intelligent behemoths, called elephants.
Josh witnessed—through well maintained forty-year-old D-V-D’s and its player—a world that still had rain forests, pristine oceans full of fish and mammals, great empty grasslands and orchards of fruiting trees. He lived in his dreams and fantasies, heart racing whenever a big cat came within thirty feet of him. Josh pretended he was a wildlife researcher and scanned ancient tree limbs for the elusive leopard that was inside of his mind.
A teen-aged girl and her friends stood behind him, pushing each other. One of them bumped into Josh. When he looked at them they stared in defiance at his drab and colorless clothes. They wore their hair in the well-coifed “piled-high-style” of the elite class.
He turned toward the doorway and waited. He could not take his eyes off the animal despite the pungent smell of the tiger’s urine-saturated body. The man nearest the door had a laser sidearm strapped to his leg. He said, “Move it, it’s your turn.”
Josh looked up above his head before he entered the room, a large printed sign said, “Walk calmly and quietly toward the tiger. Leave the same way.” He glanced to his right and saw thick glass windows with people staring at the pathetic creature. He knew what he needed to do.
Josh pushed past the door man and ran toward the tiger. She lifted her head. Their eyes met again. In that moment, they both understood. Josh ran toward the big cat and then away. The keeper yelled, “Stop. Don’t run.”
The tiger’s eyes filled with a golden glow and renewed life. She gracefully pounced off the table and landed on the floor in silence. The chain was pulled out of the sleepy man’s hands. The tiger lunged. Josh smiled as he turned to face the oncoming animal. The last thing he saw was the sleekness and beauty of a “wild” tigress before it grabbed him and sunk its teeth into his kull.
The keepers shot the tiger, twice. The wild animal shuddered and fell limp. Josh and the tigress lay face to face on the blood-soaked floor—neither one seeing the other.
(Ed. Note: Bonnie is currently working on TANGLED TALES: A TWISTED COLLECTION OF GENRES, Flash Fiction & Short Stories)