Every day after school, Emmy feeds the tiger with her sin. Deep in the park’s brush, past poison ivy and a rotting lawn chair and dented beer cans, the tiger dens under a dead tree. No matter what time Emmy arrives at the park, it’s always late afternoon in the tiger’s grove, tired light decaying to dusk.
Under the tree gapes a great black mouth riddled with grubs. Yellow eyes gleam in the darkness. They would gobble Emmy up if she let them. Sometimes she wants them to. Sin bulges inside her. If she doesn’t let it out, she’ll explode. Paw by paw, the tiger emerges. Loose skin hangs like a bad costume; dirt smears its stripes past seeing. Thin lips peel away, exposing broken fangs and bloated gums. Emmy’s eyes water at its reeking breath.
The tiger washes its whiskers, waiting.
Emmy slips a hand under her shirt. Her fingernail rests on the band of her training bra. Slowly, smoothly, she drags her nail between her ribs, carving a red line to her belly button. She presses until it hurts. Then she opens herself like fruit.
Badness gushes out: hot, coiled, viscous. It steams on the dirt like a pile of black-red guts, quivering and thick-veined. It reeks of boiled garbage and the basement drain. Emmy keeps her eyes squeezed shut. Sightlessly, she gropes around her insides like she’s cleaning out a pumpkin, scraping the last chunks free. Then she shoves herself back together.
Still not looking, she scoops everything in two hands and tosses it to the tiger. It burns. It sears. She keeps going, faster and faster, until her palms grind against bare earth.
The tiger licks its chops. Everything’s gone. Everything’s vanished. Emmy’s shoulders relax. She feels like the church after lunch. Settled, cool, echoes fading to stillness. Wobbly, she stands. “I’m not coming tomorrow,” she says. “So you better catch a squirrel or something.”
The tiger never blinks. Its blistered tongue jabs into its own nostril.
Her heart thumps. “I mean it.”
A thick rumble comes from its chest. Laughter. Without another glance, it crawls into its den. Emmy leans over the hole and yells into the darkness, “You be good!”
But even as she steps back onto the paved path, her stomach twists. She’s coming back tomorrow. Already, heat prickles under her skin, crying to break free.
• • • •
Emmy doesn’t talk much at school. Whenever she puts her hand up, Jessica rolls her eyes at her friends. Really big, like a teenager on Saved by the Bell. Emmy’s sin bristles at that. It coils under her skin, lightning-hot and stabbing. It makes her fists clench, it makes her imagine socking Jessica in the jaw.
So Emmy mostly slouches down and stares at her running shoes under desk. She counts to ten over and over. Mom says that if she was good, she’d turn the other cheek the way Jesus did, but she isn’t, so she can’t. “The wise turn away wrath,” Mom says. Emmy has pretty much accepted that she’s a fool.
There’s no such thing as a good day at school, but Swim Days are the worst. The class troops to the basement and lines up outside the boiler room before splitting off to change. It smells like chlorine and damp; bare feet slap grimy tile.
The water looks grey; echoed shouts ricochet loud enough to hurt. Emmy’s teeth chatter as they practice front crawl, breaststroke, scissor kick. Gobs of snot drift like jellyfish. When they have free time, Haley bobs on a pool noodle nearby. Not beside Emmy, but closer than anyone else.
Haley sits with Jessica’s friends at lunch, but she kept wolf stickers on her agenda even after Jessica said they were dumb and Spice Girls stickers were cooler. Emmy knows lots of facts about wolves, but when Haley’s around, she can’t unstick her tongue long enough to share them. Instead, she scuttles along the pool’s bottom. The longer she stays down there, the longer she can pretend she’s dead.
But the whistle blows. Once in the change room, Emmy heads straight to her cubby. She’s laying her clothes on the bench when Jessica comes up to her. “You have to change in the washroom,” she says.
“Because . . .” Jessica leans in. The other girls circle. “You’re a lesbo.”
The word falls into Emmy’s gut, and it lies there, and it burns.
“And . . .” A triumphant smirk dances on her face, daring Emmy’s sin to punch it. “We don’t want you watching.”
Her skin goes hot. Blood booms in her ears. But she won’t cry, she won’t. Gathering her clothes, Emmy scurries into the single-stall washroom around the corner. Balancing her stuff on the toilet paper dispenser, she gulps silent sobs. But as she stops her shirt from falling in the toilet, she realizes: Haley wasn’t smirking. Not even a bit.
• • • •
As her hair dries to chlorinated straw, her sin smoulders. She wants to flip over the desks. Snap Jessica’s pencil in half. Throw textbooks out the window and smash the glass. After school, her badness keeps bubbling until it boils over and she yells at Mom.
Mom’s face goes cold. “Good girls don’t yell.”
No, they don’t. They don’t sit there, seething until they want to throw up. They don’t want to punch themselves, just so they can punch something. They don’t hurt their moms’ feelings. But Emmy’s not a good girl. The badness flares too hot and it loops too thick around her guts.
“Did something happen at school?”
“Oh, Emmy.” The coldness dissolves to tiredness; Mom rubs the bridge of her nose. “This is basic. Do unto others . . .”
She does exactly unto others as she wishes they’d do unto her. She hides in the corner and doesn’t talk. Why doesn’t that work?
“Don’t scowl at me. Go play outside if you have steam to burn off.”
When she gets to the park, she rips her belly open and the tiger feasts and feasts. Its fur smells like burning and roadkill, but she hugs it anyway, burying her face in its neck. A low rumbling judders from the tiger’s chest. Not purring. A mean growl that envelops her like a hug. By the time she trudges home, the streetlights hum white and dusk spreads like a bruise.
She doesn’t sleep a wink that night. Hidden under her comforter, she pretends she’s curled up in the tiger’s den. Roots for blankets and the tiger’s flank for a pillow. Bad things belong in the dark.
• • • •
At lunchtime, Andrew M. yells about tigers. “Me and my brother saw it in the park.” He stabs a sticky finger at the cinderblock wall. “It was that big. From here to there.”
Emmy’s stomach knots and she slips her unopened Fruit Roll-Up back in her lunch bag. She sits at the table’s far end, beside the garbage can. Jessica glances her way and whispers, but Andrew M. is so loud that Emmy keeps getting distracted. She shifts in her chair. It squeaks.
“Oh my God,” says Jessica. “Did you fart?”
She shakes her head, but it’s too late. The girls spring back from the table, holding their noses and fanning her with their napkins. “She who denied it, supplied it!”
Emmy grips the table with white-knuckled fingers. She’s supposed to show forgiveness and mercy. So she looks inside her heart for a speck of either. Please, she prays. Please let me be good.
“One-cheek sneak! One-cheek sneak!”
There’s nothing inside her but roiling red heat. Unseeing, Emmy shoves her chair back. She needs to get out, or she’ll explode and the badness and sin will drown them all like lava.
She makes it to the washroom before realizing she left her lunch bag behind. Tears spring to her eyes like she’s a baby. Nothing ever goes right, and she reaches under her shirt to split herself open even though the tiger isn’t there, and—
The door squeals open. Haley peeks in. There’s a wolf patch sewn on her coat. “Um,” she says. “I have your lunch bag.”
“Oh.” Emmy lowers her shirt. “Thanks.”
“What are you doing?”
“Spider bite,” she lies. “I had to scratch it.”
“Oh. Okay.” But at the door, Haley stops. A tiny smile makes her cheek dimple. “Bye.”
• • • •
For the first time all year, the tiger goes hungry. Emmy slouches against its sharp ribs, doodling in her notebook. When she opened herself up, her insides were smooth and bare. Until this afternoon, she barely remembered what it felt like, not carrying that leaden weight, that magma heat. She floats cool and light as an angel.
“I’ll feed you other things,” she tells the tiger.
Even as she says it, she wonders. If the tiger eats up all her badness, will it stick around? If another kid needs it more than her, she’ll be sad, but she won’t stop it leaving. With one hand, she reaches behind and strokes its matted fur.
It bumps its broad forehead against her, rough tongue licking over her arm like it means to grate her skin. Emmy squirms away, refocuses on her notebook. Drawings of the tiger trail off into hearts and flowers. And a letter “H.”
Not believing her daring, Emmy lifts her pencil and writes, H-A-L-E-Y. Then she snaps the notebook shut, shoving it in her bag. With a wave to the tiger, she leaves the woods on Jell-O legs. She wants to stare at her notebook for hours; she never wants to open her notebook again. Later, in bed, she presses her hot cheeks to cool sheets and wonders if there’s goodness in her after all.
• • • •
At recess, Emmy sits under the straggly pine trees, alternately sketching and snapping pine needles. Her chest hurts like she caught a balloon under her ribs. She almost feels sick, but she doesn’t remember the last time sick felt good.
On the playground, Haley hangs from the monkey bars upside-down. It’s so cool that Emmy sets her notebook aside. Her heart thunders until everyone must hear it. Jesus certainly does, and she manages to squeeze out a quick prayer: Please let her like me.
Mom would yell at her for that. This isn’t the sort of prayer to waste Jesus’s time with. It’s a stupid wish. But no one else even pretends to listen, so she buries her face in her kneecaps. Please, please, please.
Sudden footsteps scuffle, laughter cracking like glass. Emmy whirls around, but Jessica dances out of reach, waving her notebook. “Give that back!” Emmy cries.
Grinning, Jessica rifles through it, and then stops. There’s a deathly pause.
“You like her,” Jessica whispers.
First Emmy turns to stone. Then she turns to fire. The badness almost shoots out her nose; it almost bursts her eyeballs.
“Hey!” Jessica yells to the other girls. “Emmy likes Haley!”
They rush her like lions, their mouths gaping red. Perfect painted fingernails flash in the sun as they clap and chant, “In our class, there was a girl, and lesbo was her name-o!”
“Knock it off!” She can’t even tell a teacher. That’s the worst part. If she tells anyone, the whole class will get lectured about “courtesy” and “respect,” Jessica and the girls will laugh it off, and things will be worse than before. So she sinks to the ground, the fence hard against her back. Curling tight around her knees, she waits for the recess bell.
It rings, but she doesn’t move a muscle until the playground empties. Shaky, she climbs to her feet. Across the soccer field, Haley watches, her expression unreadable.
• • • •
The stench of rot fills the tiger’s grove. Dead things, evil things. This is probably how the Devil smells, sulphur thick enough to shut your throat. Emmy stands quivering, her eyes on fire with tears. Shaking maggots from its fur, the tiger snarls. The glint of sharp yellow teeth sets Emmy’s heart thumping faster.
“Come on,” she whispers. “I got something for you.”
Kneeling in the mud, Emmy rips herself apart. Fingernails deep in her own flesh. Skin and muscle shredded like old jeans. Fury gushes out like battery acid, scorching Emmy in its wake. She’s a volcano, she’s a thunderstorm, she can’t even see straight.
Hot black anger smokes on the dirt, stinking like barbequed flesh. Bile pushes over her tongue, slicks the pile of heaving rage so that it gleams oily in the late afternoon light.
The tiger growls. But no matter how much it eats, there’s more to give. The other girls will never, ever let her live this down. The year’s ruined, the next one too. Forget Haley liking her.
And what’s going to happen to Jessica? Nothing, of course. Worse than nothing. She’s going to flounce through life with her okay grades and shiny hair and her pretty little smirk. Everyone’s going to love her because that’s just what happens sometimes, even though the sheer unfairness makes Emmy throw up.
A very long time later, she is empty. The tiger washes its paws, wincing, dainty. Emmy flops against its side. With a reeking tongue, the tiger licks her hair and face until her tears quit trickling through. Its stripes are widening; it’s almost black with orange stripes, not the other way around. Under her hands, its skin feels tight, like a water balloon filled too far.
Maybe if she keeps feeding the tiger, it’ll explode. Maybe if she stops, she will.
• • • •
“Well, if it isn’t Miss Sunshine!” Even at seven-thirty in the morning, Mom’s makeup looks like a magazine. “I think you need an earlier bedtime. These bad moods are something else.”
Emmy grunts, propping her chin on one hand. Her untouched cereal decays to sogginess. “Can I stay home from school?”
“My tummy hurts.”
Mom’s disappointment cuts like Jessica’s sneers. “Are you fighting with the girls again?”
Inside, her heart hardens up. She shakes her head.
“Love your neighbour, kid.”
“Then why aren’t you doing it?”
Because it sounds easy, when she’s cross-legged on the Sunday school carpet. Because no one else has this problem. Other people just decide to be friends, or to get over things, and then they do. No one gets stuck the way Emmy does. Maybe if she was good enough to love other people, other people would love her back.
But she can’t say all that. If she opens her mouth, all the fire and brimstone will flood out like vomit. And there’s no tiger to take it away, not here.
By the time she gets to school, her ribs are cracking under the pressure. The other girls cluster around the playground. Haley’s with them, talking to Jessica. That stings, but no one pays any attention to Emmy. She loiters by the trees along the back fence. Someone taps her shoulder.
“Hi,” Haley says.
Emmy swallows. “Hi.”
“Um.” Haley scuffs her shoe against the asphalt. “I wondered. If you wanted to hang out after school tomorrow? We could make forts in the park.”
“I—I have Bible study.”
“Okay,” she says, head spinning. “Sure.”
“Okay.” Haley starts to head inside, but then she pauses. The dimple returns. “I’ll wear a dress.”
• • • •
Once again, the tiger starves. Emmy can’t sit still. She can’t stop talking. For two nights, she scours her closet. No dresses, of course. That’s okay. From movies and Archie comics, she figures she needs a button-up shirt. She got one last Christmas, dark purple. It’ll do.
Before the big day, she takes an extra-long bath, scrubbing between her toes. The next morning she combs her hair one hundred times and swipes Mom’s mouthwash to gargle. “Don’t you look nice?” Mom says. “See what I said about early bedtimes?”
When she steals glances in the mirror, Emmy doesn’t see badness. She sees a girl who deserves a “happily ever after” as much as Jessica does.
• • • •
“This is where you hang out?” Haley asks. Beneath the trees’ green tunnel, it’s earthy-cool. If Emmy squints right, she can almost pretend they’re in a real forest.
She’s not taking Haley near the tiger. Closer to the tennis courts, the path dips down beside the stream. The reeds haven’t choked it yet; last winter’s dead leaves meld into a mulchy smell that Emmy likes. They find a tree with branches sticking out low and straight, perfect for propping sticks against. While Emmy gathers deadwood, Haley sticks pine needles and clods of earth in the cracks.
Sometimes their fingers brush when they’re arranging sticks. Emmy wonders if Haley notices.
In the distance, twigs snap and leaves rustle. Emmy frowns, scanning the path. She hasn’t fed the tiger in two days—is it hungry enough to leave the grove? She’s pretty sure it wouldn’t eat Haley, but she’s not ready for anyone else to see it yet.
“You okay?” Haley asks.
“Thought I heard something.”
“A dog, maybe? Hey, I think we’re done.” Haley scoots inside the fort and grins at Emmy. “Come inside!”
While Emmy takes a seat, Haley peers out the gap they left as a window. After a minute or two, she turns around. “Wanna play Truth or Dare? I’ll go first. Truth.”
“Have you ever . . . uh, cheated on a test?’
“No way!” Haley giggles. “Okay, Truth or Dare?”
“Have you ever had a crush on anyone?”
Emmy’s jaw keeps sticking. “Yeah.”
The fort isn’t very big, and somehow, Haley’s migrating closer. Their knees are almost touching. “Truth,” Haley says.
“Have you ever had a crush?” Emmy says.
Haley’s dimple deepens. “Yeah.”
There’s a long silence. Emmy clears her throat. “Dare.”
Haley glances out the window again. “I dare you . . .” She waits a long time. “I dare you to kiss me. On the cheek.”
Oh. Oh. Their knees bump. Blood rushes in Emmy’s temples. Wiping her hands on the hem of her fancy purple shirt, she takes a deep breath. Haley’s half-turned, cheek presented and waiting. Fighting the butterflies in her stomach, Emmy inches forward. She tilts her head, and—
“Oh my God!”
The butterflies turn to knives.
“She was actually gonna do it!”
Emmy shoves herself backwards. Just outside the fort stand Jessica and her minions, laughing and laughing. They clutch disposable cameras from Shoppers Drug Mart. As Emmy gapes, Jessica lifts her camera higher.
Click. The flash blurs through tears.
Haley’s laughing too, hard and mocking. The dimple’s never been deeper. “Oh my God. Jessica, it worked.”
Click click click click.
The fire goes so hot, it freezes. Sudden burning coldness drives like snow, burying Emmy whole. Distant buzzing fills her ears; otherwise, there’s nothing but blankness and ruin.
She stalks past the other girls without saying a word. When they follow her, she breaks into a run; it doesn’t take long to lose them in the bush. Silent, she staggers into the tiger’s grove.
It waits for her, yellows eyes calm, paws crossed. Emmy splits herself along the same seam as always, but her badness seeps out frigid and slow and translucent blue. When she lifts it, it burns like frostbite.
The tiger snarls, but Emmy hesitates. This sin is beautiful, like breaking winter. Sharp edges and frost too deep to thaw. For the first time, she doesn’t want to give it away. It came from her; it belongs to her. And the coldness feels good, it feels clean and hard and right.
Voices ring nearby. Twigs snap under approaching feet. The tiger tilts its head, waiting. Come, its eyes say. Take. Eat.
With the woods her table, Emmy lifts the coldness to her mouth. She holds it on her tongue, savouring the sting before swallowing. It runs through every vein, down to the tips of her toes.
“I think she went this way!”
The tiger smiles. A gentle, calm smile, one that knows her. She recognizes that smile, but she’s never understood it, not really. As the coldness spreads, Emmy loses herself in the tiger’s golden gaze. Her bones crack, her blood freezes to stopping.
It all happens in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.
Then she rises, glorious, the sunlight shattering on her fur.