It Was the Neighbor Who First Noticed Something Amiss
Bobbie Anne Thompson worked in her kitchen, as she did most weekday afternoons. Dinner slow-cooked as she emptied the dishwasher. At eighty-two, Bobbie Anne was still perfectly capable of handling everything herself. But since her husband died a couple years back, she’d resorted to allowing her adult son to stay with her, to “watch over” her. To her mind, it was simply an excuse for a middle-aged, laid off divorcé to move back in and sponge off Mommy. But he seemed to have convinced himself—if not her—that his motives were purely altruistic.
“We’ll help each other, Mom,” he’d said when he suggested the lifestyle change. As though he were sugarcoating the truth of her feeble inability rather than masking his own shortcomings. “God knows you can use a man around the house, with Dad gone. And there’s no doubt I miss your cooking. Who’d have thought we’d end up in the same boat?”
“Same boat?” she’d hissed at the time. “Divorcing your wife of ten years is not quite the same thing as a fatal tractor accident taking the life of your loyal and stable husband of forty years!”
Dexter hadn’t known what to say.
Still, Bobbie Anne realized having her son with her would be more help than hindrance. If nothing more, it would give her a new purpose in life. The center of her life had always been her dear husband and their time together. Without someone else to care for, she knew she wouldn’t bother to do these things for herself. She found it easier to cook and care for two than for one. She’d been taking care of loved ones for so long, she was better at helping others than at helping herself.
“I’ll pay half the mortgage,” he’d offered.
“The house has been paid off for twelve years.”
“Then I’ll pay for all the groceries and half the utilities.”
She considered Dexter a good son. Sure, his motives were not entirely focused on her wellbeing alone. But her wellbeing had prompted him to conjure a way for the two of them to benefit from one another. He was much more help this time around than the last time he’d lived at home, back when he’d been a sullen, rebellious teenager.
Dexter got off work at five o’clock. He normally walked from the unattached garage to the house’s side door around a quarter past five. Now, as the soup simmered on the stove
and the bread baked in the boxy machine he’d gotten her for Christmas, it was about four in the afternoon. Once she emptied the dishwasher, the bread would be ready for her to dump out of the machine and slather with butter. She liked to give it time to cool. Then she’d get half an hour or so to watch Judge Judy before Dexter arrived home. She bent over to take another plate from the bottom tray of the dishwasher. Standing with the plate in hand, she glanced out the window as she dried the remaining droplets and placed it in the cabinet’s stack. The horses were gathered together in a circle. That was somewhat unusual. Strange enough that she began watching more intently than she normally might.
Another plate, another drying and peering. A saucer, a glance. The horses were running, as though startled. They whinnied and galloped.
“What’s gotten into them?” she asked out loud, as though the horses were mischievous children, while she bent for a handful of silverware. She dropped the silver in one end of the towel and used the other end of the damp cloth to dry the utensils one at a time. She placed the dried silverware in the open drawer’s tray. A spoon. A knife. Everything where it fit. All the while she watched out the window looking for what nagged her, for what didn’t fit. A knife. A fork. A teaspoon.
“Oh my Lord!” She dropped the rest of the silver—towel and all—onto the linoleum floor. She wondered:, had the tiger been there all this time? Had it been hiding in the brush and she hadn’t noticed it? Had it pounced out when she was bent over the dishwasher? Or had it been there in front of her for hours, this ferocious tiger with white coat and black stripes blending perfectly in with the black and white horses? Black and white and red all over. She shook her head.
She began yelling, opening the window to demand that the white tiger stop. But the open window only let in the terrible noise. Her own screams for the animal to scat went unheard. So she rushed to the cordless and dialed 911.
“What is your emergency?”
“A tiger’s attacking my horses!”
“There’s a white tiger attacking my horses!”
“Are they fenced in, ma’am?”
“The horses were—the tiger got in!”
“Where are you located?”
Ordinarily, Bobbie Anne may have gotten snippy with the dispatcher at this point. She could sense that the woman did not believe her, that the woman took her for crazy. It was something she picked up on more and more often when talking with people, this assumed senility based only on her advanced years. Frankly, it pissed her off. Whether it was just something that came with the territory—young people didn’t want to take their elders seriously—or her own defensive sensitivity to the oncoming possibility, she didn’t know. But she had noticed it in the years since her husband had died. Normally, she may have ripped the dispatcher a new asshole for even considering for a moment that she was out of her mind. But her only concern now was to get the dispatcher to believe her and to help her.
“I’m next door to the Sammy Johnson place!”
“For all we know, there may be more than one tiger out!”
“What’s your address, ma’am?”
She gave her address and the dispatcher assured that police were on their way.
“You’ve got to tell everyone to get inside,” Bobbie Anne pleaded with the dispatcher, the idea dawning on her even as the words came to her mouth. “Tell the news, put out an alert! Everyone’s got to get themselves and their animals inside!”
As though the dispatcher sensed the coming hang-up, she spit out the words, “Stay with me, ma’am! Don’t hang up. Stay on the line.”
“I’ve got to go,” Bobbie Anne cried, the terrible possibility as clear in her mind as the blood staining the tiger’s mouth outside her kitchen window. “I’ve got to call my son!”
It was half past four in the afternoon. Dexter would be parking in the driveway in
another forty minutes.
“Stay on the line, ma’am,” the dispatcher urged. “Can you describe what’s happening right now?”
Bobbie Anne stared out the window, but her eyes had blurred. She refocused. The horse was down, on its side, undeniably dead. The tiger fed ravenously. The bushes rustled on the other side of the fence and the horses continued their wild run.
“The tiger’s eating my horse. It’s terrible. At least the horse is dead, I think. It’s not moving.”
“Good, Mrs. Thompson. Just stay with me. Any moment now the police will be there.”
It seemed an unusual synthesis, the sense of urgency and requirement to wait idly by at the same time. Her mind scrambled, because she didn’t know what to do and she didn’t want to focus only on the atrocity in her back yard.
Black, white . . . and red. It echoed in her mind again. Not the image of the bloody horse, but the joke. She considered it odd, as she waited for the police to arrive, that a tired joke came to mind at a time like this. What’s black and white and read all over? A newspaper.
Later, she would only admit the absurdity of such a thought to a reporter who asked to interview her—and only then because he wasn’t like the other reporters with their aggressive urgency. Blake, calm and conversational, who would spend time getting to know her and asking how she felt about things. As though he wanted to understand, not just snatch a story.
“A joke,” she would tell him during one of their meetings. “My horse being ripped apart by that monster, having her flesh pulled shred by shred off her body, and what creeps into my head? A joke.”
That would come later. In between witnessing the atrocity now and this confession later spanned a lifetime of emotion and activity compacted into a few short hours.
“Are you still with me, Mrs. Thompson?”
“Yes.” Still on the cordless, waiting for the police to arrive, Bobbie Anne looked out the kitchen window and saw the tiger chewing away at the horse’s middle. Again, she noticed the bushes between her property and the neighbor’s rustling. But none of the trees were waving in the wind.
Then she spotted another set of eyes peering out from the bushes, watching the tiger
“Oh, my Lord,” Bobbie Anne said. “There’s another one!”
“Another tiger, ma’am?”
“Get out of there! Leave my horses alone!”
“Mrs. Thompson? What’s going on?” The dispatcher faded into background noise as
Bobbie Anne watched a second tiger attack a second horse.
Bobbie Anne turned away from the window and broke free of the sight. She yelled into the phone. “Tell the news, send out a warning! Everyone’s got to get themselves and their animals inside!”
© Eric D. Goodman
Eric D. Goodman is the author of four books, including Tracks: A Novel in Stories (Atticus, 2011) and Womb: a novel in utero (Merge, 2017). “It Was the Neighbor Who First Noticed Something Amiss” is an excerpt from his new novel, Setting the Family Free (Apprentice House, 2019). Learn more about Eric and his writing at www.EricDGoodman.com.