By: Jake Townsend
Mason stopped. The butter knife dangled loosely in-hand; his fingers curled away from the peanut butter creeping along the handle. He turned to find Tiger.
The house cat laid sprawled across the tile floor. Her arms and legs were stretched outward, reaching for the table leg just in front of her face. Her eyes were wide, and her jaw was open in a half-screech that never left her pointed snout. “Tiger?”
He dropped the knife beside his unfinished sandwich. “Tiger?” The child bent to his knees, bringing himself level with her striped, fur coat. Even after he ran the orange hair through his fingers, Tiger didn't move. Her face had frozen, and her tongue limply rolled against the yellow-white of her fangs.
“You left the TV on again, Mason.” The boy looked up to see his mother. Her long, tangled black hair sat upon a sweatshirt and jeans, and her soft, dark face was twisted in annoyance. Her hand still clung to the hallway she'd rounded when her expression fell. The small, plastic table sat in the middle of the tiled room, hiding her son as he knelt behind it. “Honey, what's wrong?”
“I think Tiger's dead,” he explained. He wasn't quite sure. Tiger had been rubbing herself along the back of his legs only a minute ago. “She just fell over.” He kept his hand over the cat's stiff legs, stroking her fur and waiting for another hiss to escape her mouth.
“Well, what did you do to him?” his mom asked, walking around the table to see for herself.
“Tiger's a girl, Mom.”
His mom didn't seem to hear him. Instead, her eyes fixated on the motionless cat. Mason tried to keep petting her, but he grew afraid to touch something that might be dead. “What happened?” she asked
“She fell over,” he explained.
“Cats don't just fall over and die.”
“We don't know if she's dead yet.” His mom shook her head, finally bending down to join them. She shooed her son away, lifting the cat by the shoulders. Tiger slumped into her arms like a sack of potatoes, but her feet never lifted up to join her.
“Yep,” his mom said. “She's dead.” His mom slowly laid the cat back on the floor.
“You don't know that,” Mason said. “How do we know for sure?”
His mother threw him an annoyed look as she got to her feet, steadying herself on the table before walking away. “If she pees on the floor, then she's dead. Every animal pees after it dies.”
Mason didn't understand why she was walking away. Someone had to have something else to say, but he didn't know what the words would be. “Should we tell Dad?”
His mom paused for only a moment. “No, we shouldn't.” She continued the trek to her bedroom, but stopped to add something else, “I'm going to call Aunt Katie. She might know what to do with it.” Then, she left him.
Mason turned back to the cat. Her jaw was still frozen, but now it was a little lopsided. He knew his dad would have something else to say about this. He was a cat person, after all, and it'd been his idea to get Tiger in the first place. His mom never liked her very much. Mason knew she would've thrown the cat out with his dad, if she hadn't forgotten. "That cat's one lucky son of a bitch," she'd said. "If it wasn't hiding in the bathtub, I'd have thrown him out with your father."
Yet she'd kept her, all the same, and always thought she was a boy. “I never forgot you were a girl,” Mason said then, reaching out to pet her. He stopped though, deciding that he wasn't brave enough.
He got to his feet instead. The pale yellow walls were dull and muted, surrounding him and lighting up the kitchen. Even though he was ten and rather short for his age, the ceiling lamp above the table still dangled close to his head. Mason looked at Tiger for a few moments longer. She didn't move, and neither did he.
He crossed over the tiled floor and onto the soft carpet of his living room. Mason found himself staring at his feet, barely noticing the red Hawaiian Punch stain underneath his tennis shoes. He wondered what his dad would think. He always knew his dad would come back for his son and his cat one of these days, but now one of them might be dead. They couldn't know one way or the other until his dad was here.
The sound of gunshots brought him from his trance. He jumped, snapping his attention to the television. It sat upon a small set of cabinets, stringing together the hazy image of a cowboy riding his horse. The revolver was drawn, blasting forth crisp pops of steel through the whirlwind of dust surrounding him. Mason sped across the room on his little legs, clicking the television off with a flick of his wrist. The desert scenery winked away into blackness.
Mason looked over his shoulder – where the doorway to his mother's bedroom was – to see if she'd noticed. For some reason, she'd forgotten his initial crime: leaving the TV on. Mason took a step in that direction. The door was slightly ajar, but there hardly seemed to be any light on the other side. He knew better than to enter the bedroom again; he'd decided that for himself after his father was kicked out.
Mason tried to keep his thoughts away from Tiger, but in the end, he couldn't. He turned faster than expected, stumbling when he rounded the corner to see the cat again. Tiger hadn't moved; however, his eyes were quick to find the one thing that had changed. A brown-yellow stream of urine seeped between Tiger's back legs, forming a puddle at her feet. Mason watched in confusion as the streak rounded out on the floor; it was almost the same color as the wall. His first thought was that he could trick his mom into thinking the walls were just bleeding.
Mason sprinted to the kitchen counter next to the dining room, finding a roll of paper towels and zipping back to the cat's side. He quickly scrubbed at the pee, balling up a massive wad of paper to make sure neither death nor urine would touch him. He had to hurry fast, because if his mom saw the accident, he knew it would all be over. She'd declare Tiger dead, and his dad would never get a say in the matter. Mason looked at the sound his cat was still struggling to make; she still had one last thing to say.
His mom never returned from her room. Mason successfully saved the tile from another stain and stuffed the evidence in a Wal-Mart bag. Afterward, he peered through the blinds of the window behind him – which matched the walls even better than the pee – to catch the bruised sky darkening into night. It was getting late; he could see his face's reflection better than the square patch of backyard. Mason let the blinds clink back into place, stopping with the motionless cat at his feet again.
He had to find out if Tiger was alive, and soon. Although, he knew he couldn't do that on his own. Mason hesitated, peering at the corner hiding his mother's bedroom door. He took a few cautious steps in that direction, pausing at the thin sliver that exposed a darkened floor. “Mom?” he called. He could barely hear her soft whisper into the telephone.
She took a moment to respond, “Yes?”
“Tiger peed on the floor.” He was supposed to lie to her, but in that moment, he couldn't. He was mad at himself when he remembered all the work he'd done to hide it.
“That's what dead animals do.”
“But Tiger might still be alive.”
“Honey, what makes you so sure Tiger's not dead?”
He knew it would be pointless to explain what he saw in Tiger's face. Her eyes, her mouth still open in confession, and her arms stretched outward: it all meant she wasn't finished. His mom would never see that. “We can't just leave her on the floor,” he eventually said.
He heard a deep sigh answer from the other side of the door. “What do you want me to do with him?”
Her, he stopped himself from correcting. “I don't know,” he said. “But it's cold on the floor.”
Mason waited for the sound of movement. When he heard bed springs creaking underneath a mattress, he sprinted from the door back to the cat's side. He was standing behind the table when his mom walked out to join him. She stood still with the cell phone at her side, observing her son without walking to have the cat in view. Her eyes found something else.
“You never finished your dinner.”
The two pieces of white bread lay face up on a paper towel, with only one coated in splotches of peanut butter. The knife and jar were there and open, too, cluttered together where Mason now stood. “You said you were going to make yourself dinner,” his mom added. “Peanut butter and jelly isn't dinner.”
Mason didn't know what to say. He glanced at the sandwich, unsure if he should feel guilty about it. “I didn't want to make anything else,” he said. “I wanted to eat peanut butter and jelly.”
His mom sighed again, bringing the phone back to her ear. “Look, I think I'll just do that. I don't think it's right to leave it lying on the floor.” She paused. “I'll call you later.” She returned the phone to her pocket and walked around the table, stopping just in front of her son. Mason watched her again, wondering what she was thinking as she looked at the cat
Mason broke the silence. “I'm sorry I didn't make myself a real dinner.”
She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head in response. “It's okay. Just clean up your mess, and I'll get a bag for the cat.”
A bag, he thought quickly. “No,” he said, getting to his feet. His mom seemed surprised, watching him as he stood tall. “We can't. We don't know if Tiger's dead.”
“Mason, he's dead. I promise. He hasn't moved, and he peed on the floor. And it's your dad's cat, not ours. It'll be okay. We'll both feel better when we move him somewhere else.” Mason knew that wasn't true.
“I think Dad should get to see him first.”
“Honey, your dad's not coming back,” his mom said, turning to the kitchen and opening the cabinets under the sink. “Clean up your sandwich, so we can get this over with.” Your dad's not coming back. He remembered the slow walk to his parents' bedroom door, confused by the noises on the other side. His mom had gotten off work early that day, and picked him up early, too. Mason had walked into the house first, because his mom was struggling with the grocery bags and her purse.
“Mason,” she called. He snapped from his trance, surprised by the crinkled waves loudly rolling from the black trash bag. The boy nodded his head quickly, bringing the piece of bread and knife to the sink. He stopped there, staring at his hands. He didn't want to watch her do it. He didn't want to watch her put Tiger in the trash bag. Instead, he held his hands inside the silver basin, resting his leftovers there.
Then, he noticed the peanut butter on his fingers. He froze. Mason opened his mouth to tell his mom – to warn her that he might have accidentally gotten peanut butter on Tiger's fur. However, he stopped himself at the last second. He realized she wouldn't care. Instead, he kept his eyes on his hands, barely seeing his mom fidget with the bag and cat in his peripheral.
It only lasted a couple of minutes. He turned his head when his mom returned to her feet. “Do you want to come?”
Mason looked at the trash bag in her right hand. The bottom sagged, bulging with the hidden body wrapped in plastic. He nodded his head.
The bruise had already darkened into a fresh scar. The sun was gone, and the wind brought a cold, late autumn. His front yard was smaller than the back, scrunched together by wired fences on either side. The dark green Civic sat stationary in the driveway, and they were going in that direction. The trash bin was by that side of their house.
Mason walked in front of his mom, trying to look at the other houses, instead of where they were headed. The homes were in a neat line on either side of the road, boxed off and small. No one was outside, and the streetlights were just flickering to life. The wind rustled against the bag behind him. He didn't look until his mom made it to the trash can.
She flung open the lid to the long, black bin, turning to find her son. Mason walked slowly to stand beside her, as she held the pet's coffin in one arm. The bag was pulled so tightly around Tiger's arched back; he knew she wouldn't have any air. “Mom,” he said. He found it hard to speak for the first time. “What if Tiger can't breathe?”
“Honey, he's gone,” his mom answered. She dangled the trash bag over the open dumpster. She held the bag in her hand, though, not appearing quite ready to drop it inside. “It's almost sad,” she said. “Not even a cat should have to die that suddenly.” She looked at him.
Mason met her eyes and knew what she was telling him: Now it's your turn to say something. This is your last chance. That made him think of his father again. Mason knew this should be his dad's job; he should get the chance to say good-bye to his pet. Now, Tiger would be thrown away, without getting the eulogy she deserved. And she might not even be dead. Mom missed something. She didn't check enough. We should open the bag.
The head of the trash bag plumed out of her balled fist like a black flower, and its petals slipped between her fingers when she opened her palm. There was a soft thump. Mason jolted; the tears were already warm against his cheeks. He stood, staring at the trash can as his mother closed the lid. When she turned around, it was too late for him to hide his crying.
“Let's go back inside,” she said, placing her arm around his shoulders. Mason nodded his head, keeping his head down as they walked around the house.
Eventually, his mom cooked spaghetti. The noodles stuck together underneath the tomato sauce; he had to rip them apart with his fork. Even as the metal prongs started scraping against the bottom of his plate, Mason couldn't stop thinking about Tiger. She was in there, in that bag – and she might still be alive. She might be knocked out, fast asleep this entire afternoon. She'd wake up, clawing for air as she tried to break her way free from the bag. He had to check on her. Otherwise, Tiger would suffocate.
His mom's hand gripped his shoulder, bringing the spaghetti back to clarity. He was sitting there, at the table, and he looked up to find his mother's eyes. Somehow, she must know what he was thinking, but she hated Tiger. She wanted her to die. Mason knew her caring had to be pretend and turned resolutely back to his food. “It was your dad's cat, Mason,” his mom said. “It wasn't ours. This is a good thing – we had to let go.”
Suddenly, Mason was angry. A good thing? He imagined the plastic wrapping around the cat's jaw, crinkling down its throat like some dark wave of tar. Her final hiss would never leave her mouth. “Dad should have been there,” is all he could manage to say.
His mom didn't respond for the longest time. “You should go to bed early tonight. I think you'll feel better when you wake up.” After Mason did his dishes, that's exactly what he did.
The little boy lay in his bed with the covers pulled up to his chin. He lay on his back, staring at the pale green half-moon sickles and stars stuck to the ceiling. The fan spun crookedly in the center, whining as it lopsidedly rocked back and forth. Everything else was dark, even his sheets, as he clutched them tightly. The bedroom door across from him let in a thin sliver of light, but his eyes remained attached to the stars and moons. His dad had put those there.
“You wanted me to catch you!” his mother had shouted. Mason recalled backing away from the doorway and tripping over his mom's purse. “In our own house! Your own son opened the damn door! Your son!” He vaguely recalled his dad yelling something about how they weren't supposed to be home yet. Mason didn't even remember his father's face as they'd run out the front door, even though that was the last time he saw him.
There was only one image burnt into his mind forever: his dad and a family friend, tangled in a heap on the bed. Arched backs and splayed limbs didn't notice the boy standing in the doorway. Mason would never understand why his mom was so upset at them, or why she'd chased them away. But he would never forget her words. “You wanted me to catch you! You were too afraid to tell me yourself, and now your son was the first to know! Get out before I call the police, you damn pervert. Get out!”
Mason shivered. A chill ran up his spine as the images and noises faded from his head; he realized he'd almost fallen asleep. The boy blinked groggily, finding the moon and stars again. Then he remembered Tiger. He knew that terrible day when his father left was a memory, but there might be time left to save Tiger. She had something else to say; he'd seen it in her face. Now, she was going to die because no one cared enough to save her.
Mason rolled the covers off of his body, revealing a dingy white T-shirt and Darth Maul underwear. He slipped from his bed, and his bare feet landed on carpet. Mason decided it would be warm enough outside dressed like this. The young boy crept from his bedroom, passing by the sheath of light ever-watchful from the bathroom door. His shadow glided by along the wall as he kept his hand on the railing, small feet padding softly over the stairs, until he made it to the front door. He wouldn't have to pass his mother's bedroom.
The scar had grown old. Now pale, pointed stars shown from the sky, illuminating the blades of grass as the breeze rocked them back and forth. The warm night was pleasant, but Mason's mind was blank with panic. He walked swiftly and quietly; the cement was cold on his feet. When he made it to the trashcan, he paused. He was terrified.
What if Tiger was dead? What if he was making something up in his head, and his mom was right? What if Tiger was already a skeleton, rotten and missing chunks of flesh? What if Tiger had returned to life a monster, and tried to sink her teeth into his neck? He decided he was being silly and took a deep breath. Mason couldn't be afraid. He knew what he saw, and he had to do this for his father. They couldn't throw him away.
Mason grabbed the black bin carefully in his arms. It smelled bad and was heavy, but he gently tried to lay it down on the pavement. However, it fell from his grasp. The boy leapt back, as the top exploded and trash bags spilled out into the driveway. The loud thunk! seemed to echo throughout the entire neighborhood. Mason stood, his chest panting, wide-eyed at the crime scene.
No one came, however. So Mason stood, staring at the dumpster lying on its side. He didn't really see the individual pieces of trash. He could make out yellow grime from the corner of his eyes, and the bags bulged with unfinished dinners and empty cereal boxes. Then he was brave again. Mason backed away from the top of the flat pyramid of garbage and found a particular bag. He knew by its shape at the bottom what was inside.
Mason bent down on his knees and quickly tore at the knot holding the bag closed. Tiger had something left to say. She did. He knew she did. He saw his dad's lips pressed together in a kiss with the person who was not his wife, and knew something was wrong. His dad was supposed to kiss his mom, not anyone else, but she shouldn't have kicked him out. That wasn't right. Throwing Tiger away wasn't right either, but he was about to fix that. He was going to fix it for his dad. He hadn't realized he was crying again as he wrestled with the plastic. Then, he tore free a hole large enough.
A furry, orange back peaked out of the opening. Mason stared at it, waiting for it to move. When it didn't, the boy scooted closer on his knees. His hands shook, but he forced his fingers around the soft fur. The skin underneath was cold. Mason dragged her outward by her back, lying the stiff animal down as it flopped onto the pavement. Its legs were outstretched, and there was peanut butter on her paw.
Tiger's face was exactly as it had been before: frozen, teeth barred, tongue rolling out. A cry was still there, forcing its way out, but with no way to escape. Mason took his hands off of the cat, his voice shaking, “Tiger?”
A deep, guttural rumbling responded. Mason's eyes widened, and he scooted back in shock. The cat's face remained frozen as its entire body shuddered, releasing a cloud of gas from its open mouth that almost seemed visible. The hiss stretched outward from its open mouth before fading back to silence.