Short Fiction — 3rd Place
by Eve Forbes
Julie sent yet another email from her phone. It was tiresome, typing so many letters on the small keyboard. She wished she could just call, like normal people did, or text. But that’s what you get when you are involved with an artist. Brent needed to concentrate.
He had explained to her in their early emails that he flat hated the phone. That had been before they actually met in person. He had said that if he did hear it, it invariably broke his flow. Trying to get to the thing, he would be wiping the oils off his hands, scrambling. Usually, he missed the call anyway. In the meantime, his creative moment disappeared. So he preferred email, something he could read when it was right.
Brent’s irritability about interruption felt overblown. Julie needed to concentrate as much as he did. More. The big cats she worked with could turn dangerous in a moment. She merely left her phone on silent. Why couldn’t he do the same? Still, it wasn’t such a big deal. She had her own idiosyncrasies. Plenty of them.
They had met online, not on a dating site, but on plain old Craigslist. Julie had answered a post that said was looking for friends who could get together on weekdays. Just friends. Julie’s job at the zoo gave her two free days during the week.
Since moving to Louisville, she had been lonely. Her coworkers were a friendly, happy-go-lucky bunch. A couple of them had invited her out for drinks. But Julie didn’t do bars anymore. She couldn’t seem to find a way to connect.
Today she was sending an email suggesting they meet again at the Falls of the Ohio. It was the first place they had gotten together. Back then, Julie had suggested it because it was open, public and safe. That was in the spring. They had both expressed embarrassment that they had to find friends online, and an aching loneliness. They discovered that they actually had a lot in common, starting with a love of unusual natural places.
In the spring, the water had been high, nearly flood stage. The famous fossil beds were somewhere under the pounding river. But there had been a multitude of birds to see, and what the river had left behind. Driftwood of every size, from sticks to giant trees lay in a thick band, interspersed with odd, manmade objects. There was most of a rocking chair, a child’s sand bucket, a plastic headband, a pair of men’s work pants. Julie and Brent speculated on how the items got into the river in the first place. That was fun, but the best part was the fresh new feeling of the season and the friendship. After wandering the grounds of the park, they stopped for ice cream. They agreed to meet again.
It had all been so simple. Just friends, exploring. After their first meeting, it never occurred to Julie to be concerned about the 15-year age difference between them. She hadn’t felt the need to explain her sudden move to the area. But things had changed.
Now, it was fall. Drought had brought the river way down. They would be able to see the rock shelves that were usually hidden. The fullest extent of the fossil bed was exposed. In her note, Julie mentioned the opportunity to see what they had previously missed.
She did not mention her need to go back to the place where they started. A shift had come between them. It had been very gradual. Brent had sat closer, laid a hand on top of hers. His emails to her had changed their nature. Once, he wrote to plan meetings. Lately, he had been describing moments of his day, random thoughts. He was telling her more about himself. The emails had been posted at odd hours, one in the morning, or five. The signature line read “Love, Brent.” Last week at Mammoth Cave, he had kissed her.
Julie wasn’t sure how she felt about all of this. She really had not been looking for that kind of relationship. Maybe he wouldn’t want romance either, after she told him about the tiger named Kahn. It would be the first time she told anyone. Maybe the telling would free her to have those feelings. Maybe not.
Julie’s previous job had been at the San Francisco Zoo. She had taken the job immediately after receiving her degree, and gradually worked her way up to being the head keeper of the big cats. Kahn had come to them in terrible shape. He had mange and internal parasites, as well as several injuries. If he had been another species, the zoo would not have accepted him at all. But he was a Sumatran tiger, a subspecies that had so few members it teetered on the edge of extinction. His survival was important for genetic diversity. He had to be isolated until he regained his health. He had become Julie’s special project.
How could Brent understand her feelings for that animal?
Poor Kahn needed medication multiple times a day. That meant tranquilizers and binding. It wasn’t nice for him. Julie made a point of spending extra time in the service area of his enclosure. In that windowless concrete bunker, she was separated from the tiger only by steel bars. She talked to him softly. He seemed to understand. Whenever she called, he always came. The other cats were aloof. They came if they felt like it. Even food was not guaranteed to bring them running. The keepers joked that Kahn was “Julie’s pet.” They did not know that she had gradually worked up to actually reaching between the bars to scratch his ears.
Julie’s new boss, Mr. Kepley, arrived after Kahn had already begun to improve. He was a big man, maybe in his 40s, the type of guy who is very impressed with his own importance. She didn’t see him much at first. He was busy with board meetings and publicity. What she did see, she didn’t like. The man was rough with the animals, and brusque with people he didn’t need to schmooze. After he had been photographed enough times, he scheduled meetings with his staff.
Julie took him on a tour of the big cat enclosures. In the service areas, she showed him all of her clipboards. He stood too close to her as she explained feeding schedules, veterinary visits and facilities maintenance. He nodded and stared. She wondered if he was listening or just trying to see down her shirt. When she showed him the lever system that controlled the gates between sections of the pens, he acted like he had never seen it before. It was a standard at zoos, the way it was possible to maintain the pens and health of dangerous animals. But what he cared about was fame. The only question he asked about Kahn was how soon he would be healthy enough to breed. Kepley wanted to brag about rare births. Julie was unimpressed.
The other staffers weren’t warming up either. Kepley seemed to sense it. He announced a “staff fun night.” Dinner and drinks. The group at the San Francisco Zoo was much like the keepers in Louisville — they liked to party. No one grumbled too much about the fact that the invitation was really an order. At the dinner, Kepley bought rounds. He seemed truly disappointed when Julie didn’t accept a drink. He sat next to her, put his arm around her back. He himself had downed plenty of alcohol. Julie wasn’t at all comfortable with the situation. Finally, she figured she’d endured enough. She got up to slip away.
She was almost to her car when her boss caught up to her. “It’s Kahn,” he said, “The night watchman said we should come quick.”
Julie looked at him. She couldn’t imagine what could have gone wrong. Kahn had been doing so much better. “I’ll go check,” she said.
Kepley followed in his car.
Julie drove fast. She tried to remember the exact time of the last medication. Could it have been a bad batch? Finally, she arrived at the tiger enclosure. Kepley followed her into the service area. Julie called softly, “Kahn, come here baby.” The huge cat arrived. He seemed curious. Julie had never come to see him this late at night. She watched his breathing, his walk. He seemed normal. She called back to her boss, “What exactly did the watchman say?”
But her boss didn’t answer. He grabbed her shoulders and slammed her to the ground. Her head bounced on the concrete floor. She was stunned and dizzy as he began to rip off her clothes.
Julie’s cries for help were drowned by the tiger’s roaring. Again and again, Kahn threw all of his weight at the steel bars. He hissed and bellowed in fury.
Julie fought with all she had, but Kepley was so much bigger. It wasn’t that hard for him to take what he wanted. Finally, he stepped away. Her body burned, her head throbbed. The tiger was still pounding at the gate as the man turned his back to rearrange his outfit. Laying on the floor, Julie marveled at the man’s modesty, given the situation.
“Kahn,” she said quietly. “Easy, Kahn.”
His back still turned, Julie saw the man pull a comb and a small mirror out of his pocket. Something cold clicked in her brain. She began to move. The tiger was moaning now.
“You better pull yourself together,” Kepley said. “If you like your job, you won’t say anything.” As he turned back around, his face went white. The tiger gate was swinging open.
Kahn didn’t kill the man in that first blow. But once he was started, he could not be stopped, even by Julie. She was instantly sorry. She knew Kahn would never again know a gentle hand.
She would never be able to remember what she was thinking when she pulled those levers. She wanted to believe it was her desire to sooth the tiger. But she could not be sure that she had not planned Kepley’s death. She wasn’t sorry that he was dead. That made figuring it out all the harder.
Either way, Julie had a tiger on her conscience, and a deep distrust of men, particularly older men. Until Brent. He seemed safe.
No one had suspected Julie. No one knew she had been there at night. The new boss had been drunk. He appeared to have let the tiger in himself.
As soon as she could, Julie looked for a new job.
Brent as a casual friend had been a risk she had gotten used to. She no longer worried about being with him in an isolated spot. She no longer checked for exits from any indoor space. They had been having a lot of fun. It was a shame, really, that the relationship had moved on. Or at least Brent had moved on. It was a shame she could not be sure if she was ready, or ever would be ready to move on.
Julie arrived at the falls resolved to tell her secret. Brent either would or wouldn’t understand. It was a lot to take in, she realized. A tiger, a rape, a death. Who has a story like that? And the fact that she had kept it secret. The whole world knew, of course, about the tiger and the death. It had been in the papers, on the news. But no one knew really how it happened. Or why.
If she and Brent got past that impossible conversation, they could go on to the next, the one about what was going on between them.
Brent arrived in the parking lot. He handed her a water bottle and grabbed one for himself. They started walking down to the fossil beds.
“This is amazing,” Brent said. “I had no idea this was all down here when we came before. Everything is revealed at low tide.” He pulled a small digital camera from his pocket and began to shoot some of the horn corals imbedded in the rocks.
Julie realized it wouldn’t be right to just jump into the tiger story. She would enjoy the moment as it was, wait until the time was right. They walked further and out onto the rock shelf, stopping frequently to record and discuss a new marvel. Brent had begun talking about the layers of strata, the history they contained. “It’s like a person,” he said. “All that stuff that happened before you met them. I mean, it’s all there somehow. Encased and not yet discovered.”
Julie felt a tension rising in the back of her head. How could Brent have stumbled on this idea today? Did he suspect something about her? Had she sent some kind of a signal?
“But,” Brent said, “It doesn’t really mean anything. I mean, we all make mistakes. We move on. The important thing is to move on.”
I must be having a dream, Julie thought. There is no way this could be coincidence. He could not have guessed.
“Like, this place used to be an ocean,” Brent said. “I mean, look at all these corals, this sea life. But now it’s mostly dry. Hills even, with just this river running through.”
Make it stop. This beating around the bush has to stop. Julie’s headache had risen to the pounding level. “What, exactly, are you trying to say, Brent?”
His expression told her that she had not said it as calmly as she had intended. “Oh. Umm …” Brent stalled a moment. “I guess I just wanted to tell you that things change.”
She stared at him.
“People change,” he added.
She still stared. “What I mean is … I’ve changed. Before I met you …”
“Brent.” A lady called out from across the dry rocks. “What are you doing here?” She began advancing steadily.
Julie stepped away a bit to inspect a rock. She was in no mood now to be introduced to one of Brent’s old friends.
The woman kept coming. She walked right up to Brent and wrapped her arms around him. “Honey, I tried to call you, but you didn’t pick up.”
“Must have left my phone at the studio,” Brent mumbled.
“Oh, well. Never mind,” the woman said brightly. “We both ended up here anyway. I forgot to tell you. It’s an in-service day at the school. Peter and I decided to get out and enjoy the nice weather.” She turned back toward where she had been. “Peter, honey. Come on. Daddy’s here.”
Julie kept walking. She went on up the sidewalk to the parking lot without ever turning to look back. Even though it was her day off, she decided to head over to the zoo. They were expecting delivery of a new tiger.