The Tiger

11 Sep

By Aurelia Tittmann
6th Grade

I spent my summer break dreaming of being somewhere else.

It was one of those hot, sticky summers where the days are too long and you end up with tedious afternoons of doing nothing but staring at the wall. My friend Mia camped out at my house most of the time. Mia is two years younger than me, a tall girl with luminous green eyes who talks like an English professor and smells permanently of pencils. She likes to talk about words and puzzles, anagrams and acronyms.

The very word, Mia, means rebellion, and yes, she is a rebellion in herself, defying her brute of a father and absentminded, neglectful mother.

I wish I could pick my name. I might be Abigail, or Lucy, with my chocolate brown eyes and short black hair that glints red in the sunlight, but my parents named me Cassandra. The first Cassandra was a Greek oracle, gifted with the power of prophecy but cursed never to be believed. That’s the first thing anyone notices about me.

“Cassandra! That’s a pretty name. Wasn’t she Greek?”

This was the first year we didn’t go anywhere for summer vacation, and my feet were itching to travel. Last year we headed to Paris, the year before to Mexico, the year before that to Canada, and on and on and on…

We rode our bikes to the ice cream parlor that day, not because we particularly wanted ice cream but because we had nothing to do and thought a change in scenery might make the day go by faster. I knew that in a month or two school would start, and this “nothing to do” nonsense would end, but for now I hoped the change in scenery would make time fly faster. So that put us in our positions as the day unfolded, Mia sketching absently at our table, me searching my pockets.

“I know I’ve got it somewhere,” I muttered to the lady behind the counter. She had a square jaw, obviously dyed red hair and was making a faintly disapproving ‘tsk tsk tsk’ sound through her teeth.

I patted my pockets. Reaching deep into one where the fabric was worn and faded, I felt my fingers brush a wad of bills.“Got it!” I exclaimed, triumphantly. I handed her all the money I could find, A five, seven ones, and four dull copper pennies. She eyed the pennies distastefully, handing them straight back to me as she gave me my change. I took the two ice cream cones from her hands, breathing in the scent of freshly baked waffle cones, and walked back over to the table.

“I got you vanilla,” I said to the girl who I couldn’t help thinking of as my sidekick.

“Thanks, Cassandra. What color ears do tigers have?”

“Black,” I replied, puzzled as to the nature of this random interrogation. “With big white spots on the back.”

She picked up her black charcoal pencil

“How are things going at home?” I asked. I was aware that I had just skated the conversation out onto thin ice.

Mia ignored me. I noticed the last other customer had left, closing the door behind him. The bells on the door made a depressingly cheerful jingling noise.

“Are their muzzles the same as a housecat?” she finally asked. She was looking a bit pale.

“What?”

“Tigers. I’m drawing a tiger.”

“Oh. I dunno. A bit longer, I guess.”

I flopped down on the other side of the booth we were sitting at, smelling the cheap upholstery. Devouring my ice cream only took a moment. After about two more minutes of doing nothing, things started to get uncomfortable. I kept shifting positions, glancing around the ice cream parlor, which was barren of life since the lady behind the counter had slipped into a back room. I was only vaguely aware of Mia’s pencils moving out of the corner of my eye, and didn’t notice when her hand suddenly stopped.

Then, in the semi-silence of a nearly empty room, I heard a deep scratchy noise like a wave trying to cling to the beach.

It was like a stone in my stomach. It was just a noise, scratchy breathing maybe, but deep down in my bones I knew it was bad, like when you hear the first pebbles of a landslide skidding down a slope.

Mia, for it was her breathing I had heard, was coughing now, which made a noise like a train screeching down the tracks, slowing to a halt.

“Are you okay?” I asked, a note of panic in my voice. She didn’t answer, but with her next cough came a spray of scarlet blood. She had a look of frozen terror on her face, looking as small and afraid as a squirrel caught in the headlights.

“Mia! Seriously, are you choking? Should I get help? “

With a final cough, she slumped over sideways.

I had that strange, calm, this-can-not-be-happening feeling, and the dark crimson liquid was making me lightheaded. I shakily stood up, moved over to her, grabbed her wrist, and checked her pulse. It was there but it was faint.

Think, Cassandra, think! My mind told me. I’m trying to, I shot back. Now, what do I do?

Call 9-1-1, I guessed. I didn’t have a phone, but Mia did, she had saved up for it herself.

I grabbed her blue tote bag that had been resting on the table. The phone was in a green case with daisies on it. I could feel seconds ticking by, precious sand slipping through the hourglass.

How to turn it on was the next mystery. I tried to remember…Oh yes, there was a button on the side. I pushed it, tapped the “emergency call” button, dialed the three accusing numbers, and pressed it to my ear.

After a few seconds, “Hello, what is your emergency?” said the man at the other end in a voice so calm I wanted to reach through the phone and strangle him.

“My friend was choking and bleeding and she fell over and I don’t know what to do!” that last half of the sentence was a wail.

“Okay, I need you to calm down,” that infuriatingly placid voice said. “Can you give me your location?”

“Smiley’s Ice Cream,” I answered, wishing I was in London or Peru, somewhere where I wouldn’t have to deal with this mess, then hating myself for wanting to abandon the girl that, I realized, was my only friend.

“We’ll be right over,” said the man, and hung up.

I kept the phone pressed to my head, as if it would tell me what to do next. The lady on duty hadn’t come back to the counter yet, and I was surprised she hadn’t heard the coughing and come running. I rocked back and forth, clutching my knees to my chest, and stared at Mia’s limp body, listened to the ragged breathing coming from her. I knew, from books, that coughing up blood was bad.

A thought hit me, not making sense at all the first time ’round, but it forced its way out between my lips anyway.

“This is all my fault!”

.         .         .

So here I am now, at the hospital, in a waiting room full of sad, quiet people.

They said she had chronic bronchitis. I don’t know what that means, but the “chronic” at the beginning worries me. They said that too much blood caught in her throat caused her to pass out. It took a while for my heart to stop pounding, but I think she’s going to be fine.

A slim, brown-haired nurse slips into the room. “Cassandra?” she says. The word has a curl, like a question, so I raise my hand. “Here, miss,” I say quietly.

I follow her into the room where Mia is sitting on one of those bed things, the ones with a layer of paper over them. My heart drops for the second time today. Her dad is talking to her.

“These treatments are going to be expensive,” he says gruffly. He’s tall, like her, but his hair is black instead of blonde. “I expect you to start pitching in.”

Hang on a second.

“It’s not her fault she’s sick,” I interject. “She’s eight years old! You can’t expect her to get a job!”

He turns to me. “And who are you?” he asks.

“I am her friend. I am her only friend. I am the only person in this world that cares about this child,” I say, my voice rising in anger.

“Yeah? Well I am her father!” he says. Mia doesn’t seem aware of this conversation. She has closed her eyes. I’m aware that I’m poking a sleeping lion, so to speak.

“Do you even know what your daughter wants to be when she grows up?” I ask angrily. I brought her sketchbook with me. Now, I open it to her tiger and thrust it at Mia’s surprised dad.

“This is her future. This could be your future. Did you even notice when she stayed all those nights at my house? I’ll bet you didn’t!” I yell angrily.

The slender nurse pokes her head around the door and takes in the scene: the patient asleep, the friend, red faced with anger, the father holding a drawing of a tiger so real it could bite you.

Then, I see Mia’s eyelids flutter a bit.

It’s all my fault, I think again. Hang on. That’s not right. Where did that come from? It’s definitely not me. No, it’s coming off of Mia’s father like thick waves, the sense of it hanging around him like a haze, so thick I could feel it.

This is one messed-up family, I think.

I’m keeping him waiting, and something tells me he won’t be happy about this. His eyes are bugging out of his face like there isn’t enough room in his skull.

The nurse has obviously found some other errand to do that doesn’t involve red-faced lunatics.

I move slowly, as if sleepwalking, towards the door, and think about what the nurse said earlier.

“It’s strange. Usually an illness like this would have made itself known earlier”.

I make a strange caterwauling sound, barely audible, at the back of my throat. He knew! It was his fault! Open the door, and in the most commanding voice that has ever reverberated off my vocal chords say, “Leave. Now.”

He is ignoring me, so—Wait, he’s moving slowly toward the door.

Huh. Funny how that works, isn’t it, that I’m not surprised at all? I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but at least that’s one obstacle over. Now, I look down at Mia. She opens her eyes and stares at me, smiling slightly. I find nothing amusing about the situation, but she says, faintly, “Thank you for getting rid of him.”

“You know, between you and me, I enjoyed that,” I say, giggling. In that second of safety, I know that, at least for a little while, we will be okay.

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