I’ll Protect You

It was late. Too late for Matthew to be working, yet undeterred, he sat at his desk scribbling away at his notes. He chose not to care about the hour or the growing sound of rumbling coming from his empty stomach. The zoo had recently received a new animal, a tiger, and Matthew was to be her keeper. He was excited and eager to begin her care. This, big cats, after all, was not only Matthew’s specialty but his passion. He’d spent years of his life, earning degrees in zoology and working his way into a position where he would oversee the study and care of the animals at the zoo.

Having always been a fond lover of tigers, in particular, Matthew was even more excited to be receiving the zoo’s first and only one. Her name was Kira. She was born in the wild and rescued after her mother was killed. Slain after wandering too close to a human village in India, where she had attacked and killed several people. Kira was young but fully grown and for the last several years, Matthew had worked tirelessly to have her transferred from her previous facility.

He’d been touring the world, studying the territorial patterns on tigers in Asia when he’d first seen Kira. She was being kept in a small sanctuary, too tiny and poorly maintained for such a magnificent creature, Matthew thought. He’d returned the following year and almost immediately placed a request for the animal’s transfer.

A dozen grants, formal letters, and meetings involving more ass-kissing than the thirty-five-year-old man cared to admit, his requests were granted. Kira was being transferred.

As Matthew finished filling out the last pages of his paperwork, there came a loud knock at his office door. The tall, handsome man, with sandy blonde hair and blue eyes, stood. He stretched his legs, listening to an unfortunate series of pops in his back, then strolled across the spacious room to the door.

“Hello?” Matthew said, opening the door.

Beyond stood a large, rotund man. He was bald and sported a large bushy mustache. “The truck is here, Mr. Belle.” The man said.

“Thanks, George. I’ll be right there. Why don’t you have them bring the truck around to the rear paddock? I’ll meet you there, I just need to grab a couple of things.”

George was the night security guard, or at least one of them. He was a nice man who cared for the animals nearly as much as he loved his brownies, of which his wife supplied him with an ample amount supply every night. He nodded and strolled back toward the zoo’s rear gates where Matthew assumed the truck delivering Kira waited.

Matthew returned to his desk, signed the last part of the transfer paperwork, grabbed his utility vest, and exited his office. The building, which sat out of view of park goers, stood behind a small grove of trees at the back of the zoo. It was situated between the lion exhibit and the newly renovated tiger enclosure. From here he had access to all of the big cat habitats. Putting on his vest as he walked, Matthew made a cursory glance into each enclosure. Many of the cat’s, the cheetah, lions, and leopards, were all out and about. They socialized with their mates, played with oversized toys, or strolled about, doing what nocturnal hunters do.

Finally reaching the rear paddock where the tiger was to be placed, Matthew waved at the truck and motioned for them to pull forward, near the habitat’s main door. The truck backed up, maneuvering into position. After a complicated and somewhat frustrating series of directing and redirecting the truck, everything was where it needed to be.

Speaking to George and the attendants who’d stayed late to help, Matthew instructed the crew on their next steps.

“Okay, she’s likely to be irritated after such a long trip.” He said. “I understand she was sedated for the majority of it, however, we couldn’t risk giving her any more medication so she’s been awake since the airport. As soon as the cage’s gate is open, we’ll have to try and get her to exit, and make her way into the enclosure.”

Matthew pointed to the large, cargo-like cage on the back of the large flatbed truck. “Don’t get too close to the openings on the side of the cage. I don’t need anyone to lose a hand. If she doesn’t move on her own, let’s just take a few of the snare poles and bang them on the far side. If that doesn’t work, we’ll have to snare her and try to get her inside that way.”

The crew looked nervously from one to another.

“I know, I know, that’s the last resort,” Matthew said as he approached the cage.

Inside he could hear the tiger moving, pacing within her small confines. She had been on three planes and two long truck rides before reaching the zoo. Matthew had wanted desperately to travel with her, to ensure the tiger’s safety. But the zoo had declined to pay for his travel and a pregnant lynx had prevented him from leaving.

The tiger, mere inches from Matthew, separated only by a few inches of steel, stopped her movements as he came close. He could hear her breathing, deep and low. Steady and calm.

“Hey there,” He whispered to the animal. “I bet you don’t remember me, but we’ve met. In India. I saw you in that sanctuary…If you can call it that. More like a prison. I couldn’t stand to see you like that. So I had you brought here. I know you’re scared. I know you feel lost and alone. But I promise you, I’m going to take care of you. Give you a good life. Let’s be friends okay?”

The tiger rumbled a low, guttural growl. Nothing angry, or defensive. It was, instead, almost an acknowledgment of Matthew’s words. He smiled, hiding his face from his co-workers. Too embarrassed they’d see the childlike glee he felt at this moment.

“We can work on it. I understand we’ll need to learn to trust each other. Let’s begin by getting you out of this cage. Your new home is waiting for you. I think you’ll like it.”

Again the tiger growled a deep rumble from her throat.

Satisfied, Matthew turned to face the crew who still stood hesitantly, awaiting and dreading their next orders.

Matthew motioned to several of the attendants, waving them toward the cage’s gate. “Okay,” He said. “On the count of three, we’ll open the gate and see what she does. If she doesn’t move, or moves farther back into the cage, like I mentioned, we’ll try and scare her out.”

Everyone moved into position as Matthew counted them off. “One, two, three.”

The gate opened, rising up above the cages, as two attendants hoisted it into the air, sliding it out of the way. For a moment, everyone held their breath, waiting and watching to see what the tiger would do.

To both Matthew’s amazement and surprise, the animal slowly and calmly moved toward the front of the cage. She sniffed the air with her large pink snout, then padded her way into the enclosure. With a swift motion, the door to the habitat was closed and the transfer was complete.

Matthew moved toward the door and peered through a small window where he could see into the enclosure. The tiger turned, looking about at her surroundings. For the first time since India, Matthew could see her. Larger than he remembered, she stood on all fours, turning her head to look at her new home. When she saw Matthew, standing behind the door, she moved slowly padding her way toward him.

A slight rush of adrenaline coursed through Matthew’s veins as the animal came closer and closer until she stood just beyond the door, meeting him face to face through the window. Her large pink nose and long white whiskers twitched as she attempted to make an impression of the zookeeper. With his heart racing, Matthew smiled.

Her face was slender, and her build was sleek but powerful. Even raised behind bars, this animal was large and strong. So much strength in her magnificent, perfectly designed muscles. Her eyes, which reflected in the dim moonlight were huge and bright. A wild green fire which, from within their orbits, seemed to blaze out of control. She was beautiful. The most beautiful animal Matthew had ever laid eyes upon.

“Thank you,” He said. “For trusting me. I know we have a lot to learn about one another, but I want you to know this. I’ll take care of you. Give you the best life I can.”

Almost as if in response, the tiger nodded her head. Again, Matthew’s face lit up with joy. With that the tiger turned, looking back out at her new home, and strolled away slowly.

 

*****

 

The next few days were busy and stressful. As with any new animal, the process of taking care of them required a lot from Matthew. Ensuring their diet was right, ensuring their level of healthcare was correct, and planning with the zoo’s board of administrators, the new arrival’s grand unveiling.

With most big cats, a short amount of time was required to acclimate the animal to their new environment before unleashing the hordes of visitors, eager to see the new exhibit, upon them. While the zoo’s administrators would want to showcase their new exhibit as soon as possible and bring in as much cash as they could, Matthew would almost certainly find himself pushing for their unveiling to be postponed, even if for a little longer.

He would study each animal on a case by case basis. Some cats were shyer than others and would require more time to adjust. Surprisingly even to Matthew, Kira it seemed, needed very little time at all. Almost immediately she seemed to have adjusted to her surroundings. She ate regularly, checked out as healthy with all the zoo’s vets, and warmed to toys which had been brought in for her.

After only a few days, Kira was ready to join the public. Disappointing to Matthew, however, was that during that period he’d had little time to spend with the animal he’d found so amazingly beautiful. The best chance he’d had to spend time with her was during her isolation and now, it seemed, that time had come and gone.

Determined to see her, however, Matthew stayed late the night before her unveiling. Making his way to a part of the enclosure where he could see her clearly and she could see him, Matthew watched as the tiger strolled through the habitat, pushing a giant red ball around lazily.

When she finally noticed him standing there, Matthew was pleased and somewhat shocked, as she nodded. Again, it felt, at least the to zoologist standing there, his mouth spread into a wide grin, that the animal was acknowledging him. Never in all his life had he seen anything like it.

After a moment spent staring at one another, Kira made her way toward the large window. Matthew knelt down, bringing his face to her level. The tiger sniffed the glass but snorted after a moment.

“I know, I’ve been busy. I’ve been making sure you get everything you need.” Again the tiger snorted.

“I know. I promise I’ll come see you more often. Every day, in fact.” The tiger paced, rubbing her sleek orange body against the glass of the window.

“You really are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” Matthew said, almost in a whisper.

Suddenly, the tiger stopped. She turned, her face meeting Matthew’s on the other side of the window. Her eyes burned like wildfire. He gazed into them, into the intensity which raged just behind them from within.

A thought lingered on the edge of Matthew’s mind, teetering on the tip, tickling his tongue until he let the words slip out. Softly he said, “You…you can understand me can’t you?”

Without warning the tiger moved. Darting back and leaping out of sight onto one of the rocks within her enclosure. Kira had vanished into the shadows. Matthew stared for a long time, waiting and watching for a sign. Then he laughed to himself.

“Who am I kidding?” He said aloud. “Of course you can’t.”

He stood, lingering for just another moment, then left.

 

*****

 

The following day was filled with anxiety and excitement. Thousands of visitors came to the zoo to see, “Kira, the Bengal Tiger!” Matthew was busy from start to finish, ensuring feeding times were run properly, that only a certain number of visitors were present at a time, and most importantly, ensuring that Kira herself wasn’t overwhelmed.

To his surprise and enjoyment, the tiger seemed fine. Annoyed and uncertain at first with a large number of people walking past her enclosure, Kira first hid where she could. After several hours, however, she seemed to calm and almost ignored the shrill ooh’s and ah’s of children and families as they gawked.

To some degree, it hurt Matthew to see this. Finding the tiger near the rear gate of her enclosure, out of sight from visitors, the zoologist decided he would visit her during his lunch break. She sat in the shade beneath a small overhang in the habitat. When she saw Matthew coming, she moved, strolling her way over to him. As she had done before, she nodded as if saying hello, before plopping down on the soft dirt beneath her.

“Big day, huh?” Matthew said, retrieving a sandwich from his vest pocket. He unwrapped the food from the paper which held it and took a large bite. “A lot of people here to see you today.” He said.

The tiger turned her head, looking out over the enclosure where hundreds of people frantically looked in, attempting to get a glance at her.

“I know. I’m sorry. If I could send them all away I would.” Matthew furrowed his brow. It pained him to see the animal uncomfortable. But it was for the best. “I know it’s not easy. But I promised I’d take care of you, and I will.”

The tiger looked back at him, sending a strange feeling down Matthew’s spine. What was she thinking? He wondered? What would she say to him? There was almost a pleading in her eyes.

“They won’t be here forever. They’ll leave when the zoo closes. At least you’ll have the evenings to yourself.” Matthew glanced down at his watch. “Just a few more hours. I’ve got to go now. The news is here and the Suits want me to do an interview. You’re going to be on TV.”

Kira snorted.

“I know,” Matthew replied. “Me neither.”

Matthew finished his sandwich, eating it in three large bites and stuffed the wrapper back into his pocket. He stepped away from the gate, calling out to the tiger as he walked.

“I’ll be working late again tonight. I’ll come see you before I leave.”

 

*****

 

His feet ached. The day, which seemed as though it would never end, had finally come to a close. The hot office radiated with a sweltering warmth. The air conditioning had broken weeks ago, but Matthew had been too busy making sure Kira’s transfer went smoothly to tell anyone. Now, sitting at his desk, sweating more than he was comfortable with, Matthew wished he’d spoken to someone in maintenance. A small desk fan whirred from the corner of the room but it did little for the heat.

He had brought the fan closer earlier in the evening, but the damned thing had blown his papers everywhere. So, cursing to himself for his lack of foresight, Matthew returned it to the corner of the room where it had started.

For most of the day, Matthew had been on his feet, running around, meeting with news crews, kissing ass with the administration, checking on the animals in his care, and doing everything he could ensure Kira’s well being. He’d been so busy he hadn’t had time to fill out his normal day’s worth of paperwork, which was adding to a growing number of day’s worth of procrastinated paperwork. The zoo had closed hours ago. The visitors had left, the staff had all gone and only a few still remained. A few overworked, underpaid zoologists like Matthew and several security guards, like George, would be in the park tonight.

While grateful for the silence, which came each night after the zoo had closed, Matthew suddenly felt uneasy. It was a strange and unsettling feeling which almost ran up his spine and nestled in the nook between his shoulders and nape. Unable to shake the feeling which had descended upon him suddenly, Matthew decided to stand and walk about his office. Perhaps he had merely overworked himself, he thought. Exhausted from his long day, and beat by the abnormally large amount of paperwork he’d allowed to pile up, Matthew was simply in need of a good night’s rest. Or, at least, that’s what he told himself as he paced the small space of his office.

Suddenly, a noise from outside startled Matthew. It was loud and came without warning. Matthew jumped before composing himself. Curious, and somewhat concerned, the zoologist left the building.

From inside, the sound had been indistinguishable. As he stood on the sidewalk, looking up and down the path behind the animal enclosures, Matthew wondered where it could have come from and what had made it. He strained his ears in the dark, listening for anything that might tell him what he had heard.

While normally the darkness of the park had never bothered Matthew and while there were lights spaced evenly along the paths leading to and from the zoo’s gates, there was something which left Matthew’s heart racing. He couldn’t say what it was, or exactly why, but as his heart pounded in his chest, Matthew feared moving forward.

Then he heard the noise again. Again it came suddenly and just as before, Matthew jumped. He turned, looking down the long dark path toward the next building. It was forty, or maybe fifty feet from where Matthew stood, he supposed. It was a grinding noise, like metal on metal. If George had heard the sound, he would be too far away, tucked into his office eating brownies to respond quickly. If he hadn’t heard…

Matthew debated, hesitating in the darkness between the lion and tiger enclosures. He could go back inside, call security and allow them to deal with it. He knew he should. Who was he to deal with such problems? Then, however, came another fear. What if someone had hidden in the park? Remained behind to see the tiger? What would they do with Kira if they were able to break into her enclosure?

It was a real fear. There had been stories of people breaking into sea parks to swim with whales. They were killed for their stupidity. Worse still, the animals were held responsible. What if they were to enter Kira’s habitat? What would she do? What would happen if she were to harm someone? He had promised to protect her.

Mustering what courage he could, Matthew convinced himself into action and quickly strutted down the sidewalk into the darkness, leaving the safety of the light from his office. Almost at once his courage left as he stomped, his feet making loud noises on the pavement, toward the unknown. What if they were armed? What if someone had broken in, someone insane? A crazed lunatic ready to kill anyone who stood in their way?

Matthew’s pace slowed, coming to an almost perfect stop. He looked back, already halfway from the building containing his office. There were no lights here, along the path, where uncertainty loomed in Matthew’s mind. The moon, which had risen hours ago, was now far over the western sky. It illuminated the zoo, shining down like a white beacon. However, here, hidden behind a grove of trees Matthew’s surroundings were dark, shrouded in shadow.

Something stirred. It was quiet, almost impossible to hear at first, but slowly grew louder. Footsteps. Someone was coming. Matthew tensed, all his muscles tightening, preparing for whatever came. In the darkness it was almost impossible to see, forcing Matthew’s imagination to run wild with frightening possibilities. Closer and closer they came, step by step, moving perfectly in his direction.

“Who’s there?” Matthew called out, an unwanted quiver in his voice.

The footsteps stopped. No response.

“I…I said, who’s there?”

Stillness filled the air. A space of emptiness being consumed with fear and paranoia. His heart raced even faster, pounding against Matthew’s chest so hard it threatened to tear itself from his body. Each second that passed in the silence stretched on forever. Each moment dragged out like an eternity.

“I know y-your there! I’m getting security if you don’t sh-show yourself, right now!” Matthew stammered.

Slowly, one step at a time, a figure moved into a space where moonlight filtered down through the leaves of the overhanging branches. Matthew strained to see in the darkness, uncertain what he would discover.

It was a woman. She was thin and short. Shorter, at least, than Matthew. Her skin was dark, a smooth brown complexion and her long silky hair was black as Jett. Her features were soft and fragile. Beautiful even. Her lips were red and curved with a perfect cupid’s bow. Her nose was thin and narrow, rounding softly at the end. Her almond-shaped eyes, even in the darkness, were large and bright. A brilliant emerald green. She was striking.

Where once fear had strangled the words in Matthew’s throat, shock or shiness now caused him to stammer. He looked at the woman’s clothes. They were baggy, too large for her small frame, but they were familiar.

“Do…do you work here?” Matthew asked, gesturing toward the zookeeper outfit the young woman wore. She glanced down nervously. She was young, perhaps no older than twenty-three.

She looked back up at him, sudden fear in her eyes. She hesitated, then answered in a soft voice. It was smooth and sweet. “I am new here.” She said.

Matthew nodded. “What are you doing out here? Shouldn’t you be at home by now?”

The woman responded, an accent behind her words. “Shouldn’t you?”

At this, Matthew laughed. Any fear or hesitation he’d had suddenly melted away as the beautiful young woman smiled. “Perhaps you’re right,” he replied. “But I’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Matthew turned, facing back toward his office. “What’s your excuse?” He asked, beginning to walk. The woman followed, stepping beside Matthew.

“I feel like I live here.” she said.

“I know that feeling. I’m Matthew. Matthew Belle.”

“My name is Billee.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Billee,” Matthew said. “You know you scared the crap out of me.”

The young woman frowned. “I’m sorry, I did not mean to frighten you.”

Matthew chuckled, smiling down at Billee. “Don’t worry about it. I shouldn’t be so scared of the dark.”

Billee laughed as the two reached Matthew’s office. Standing in the light he could see her more clearly. She was radiant. A long pause passed between them as Matthew stared down at the girl. Realizing this, he nervously looked away and cleared his throat. Quickly Matthew pointed to a poster hanging from the lamp above. On the picture stood Kira, her intense gaze locking with the camera.

“Have you seen her?” Matthew asked.

Billee turned, looking up at the poster. “You care for her don’t you?”

Matthew nodded. “She’s the most amazing creature I have ever seen. There’s something about her, something special. I can’t explain it, but I feel like she understands me. I know that sounds crazy.”

Billie looked back to Matthew. “Where I am from, tigers are both revered and feared. They say that they are powerful spirits who even the Gods honor.”

“I believe it,” Matthew replied. “I really do care for her. I just hope she knows that.”

Billee stepped away, moving back toward the path. “I’m sure she does. Do you work tomorrow night, Matthew?”

He nodded. “I work almost every night. Why, do you work tomorrow as well?”

Making her way back into the shadows, Billie responded, “I’ll be here.”

Watching as the young woman vanished into the darkness disappearing out of sight, Mathew called out, “Have a good night!”

Matthew opened the door to his office and entered. The pile of unfinished paperwork lay still on his desk, greeting him as he returned. “No more tonight.” He said, grabbing his car keys. “I’ve got a promise to keep with a tiger.”

 

*****

 

A cool breeze comfortably caressed Matthew’s back. Earlier, during the day, maintenance had come and gone, fixing the air conditioning and bringing a strange but welcome sensation to his office. Where once he had dreaded spending his time in the uncomfortable heat, sweating as if in a sauna, Matthew now welcomed the cool air as it filled the room. Before, the idea of working late seemed daunting, irritating, even upsetting to a point. Now, with such a simple creature comfort to change the atmosphere, Matthew didn’t mind the long shift he’d geared himself up for.

Besides, he’d told himself, between the visit with Kira which he’d promised her during his lunch break and the chance of seeing the beautiful Billee again, things didn’t seem so bad.

Determined to complete his paperwork, Matthew sat at his desk and remained as focused as he could. To his surprise, this too helped the time pass more quickly. When he had finished the last of his tasks, hiding away a folder of animal medical charts inside a filing desk, it was nearly nine o’clock. Pleased with himself, Matthew stood, stretched his legs and left his office, stepping into the warm summer air outside.

The moon was high overhead and the park, although as empty as the night before, seemed brighter and less frightening. Matthew grinned, thinking back to how scared he’d been only twenty-four hours earlier. It all seemed so silly now. He laughed aloud. The lion, Mafuta, yowled and yawned loudly, almost as if in response from his habitat nearby.

“He doesn’t think you’re very funny.” A voice said, catching Matthew off guard.

He turned quickly to see Billee walking up the path from beyond Kira’s enclosure. He smiled at her and waved. She smiled in return. Again, in the light of the moon, she seemed radiant. Her dark smooth skin almost glowing a golden bronze in the pale luminescence.

“I wasn’t sure I’d see you.” Matthew said.

“I told you I would be here.” Billee replied as she adjusted the baggy clothes which hung on her loosely.

“You know,” Matthew said. “I”m sure if you spoke with someone in H.R. they’d be happy to get you clothes that fit.”

Billee blushed as the blood rushed to her face.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.” Matthew said. “It just seems like those clothes were meant for someone twice your size. I’m surprised they even gave them to you.”

“I don’t mind,” Billie replied coming closer. She pointed up to the poster of the cat, hanging from the lamp. “How is your tiger?”

Matthew smiled, “Kira? Well, I hope. I visited her during lunch.”

“Why do you call her Kira?” Billee asked.

“That’s her name. At least, that was the name she was given back in India.”

“Have you bothered to ask her if that’s her name?” Billee asked. “Perhaps she wants to be called something else.”

Matthew laughed. “Funny. What do you think I should call her?”

Billee smiled but said nothing. Slowly she started walking away. Matthew followed, keeping pace as they walked past the lions.

“Do you take care of all these animals?” Billee asked.

Matthew nodded. “All the big cats, yeah. Not by myself, of course, there’s a lot of people involved, obviously. Vets, other zoologists, zookeepers like yourself. What department did you say you work in?”

“Why do you keep them here?”

“Who, the animals?” Matthew asked. “You mean in the zoo?”

“Why not let them live in the wild? You say you care for them? But you parade them in front of thousands of humans every day.”

“Well,” Matthew said. “It’s not that easy. I want to take care of these animals. Give them the best lives they can have. But animals, like the leopard over there, wouldn’t make it in the wild.”

“Why not?” Billee asked as they strolled together passed the animals.

“She was bred and raised in captivity. She doesn’t have the skills to live in the wild. She was never taught to hunt or fear humans. It would be cruel to turn her loose without those skills. For other animals, it’s a question of conservation. Tigers like Kira are endangered. There simply aren’t that many left living in the wild. At least here they have a chance of survival. Maybe one day we can rebuild their populations and reintroduce them into the wild. Unfortunately, to be able to afford such things, we have to keep them here in the zoo and parade them, as you say, in front of thousands of people. The truth is, I’d love more than anything to free these animals and let them live as nature intended. It’s just not realistic.”

Matthew looked down at Billee as she walked beside him. Her eyes lit up as a smile spread across her face. “You really do care for them, don’t you?”

Matthew stopped. He looked at Billie, searching in her expression for…something. He didn’t know.

“With all my heart and soul. I would die for any one of them.”

Billee walked on, past the big cat exhibits, further into the darkened park. “I like you, Matthew Belle.”

Matthew watched as the young woman slinked into the shadows beyond the lamplights of the path, leaving him alone.

 

*****

 

Matthew waited. Standing beside the exterior wall of his office, he paced back and forth. An energy coursed through him, filling him with a liveliness he hadn’t felt in ages. Excitement filled his thoughts as the hour grew late. Soon he would meet Billee.

There was something about Billie, which Matthew couldn’t shake. Something about her strange questions, her natural curiosity, her insightful opinions on animal behavior that simply drew him to her.

Every night for a week they had met, Each night playing out almost exactly the same way. Matthew would finish his work, rushing eagerly to get it done, taking only one break to have lunch with Kira. He would wait outside his office, and each night, after sundown, the mysterious and fascinating Billee would appear, arriving from the far end of the park. Matthew presumed she’d entered from the rear gates, beyond the tiger enclosure, but he had no way of knowing and at the end of the day, he didn’t care so long as he got to see her.

Each night they would walk and talk strolling the paths of the empty zoo, discussing all manner of things. The animals they could see. The animals they couldn’t. Matthew’s job as a zookeeper. His growing relationship with the tiger, Kira. It all seemed so surreal. He liked Billee and he could tell she liked him. It was a strange and somehow exciting friendship. Something new and different, something which had sparked in him a feeling he hadn’t experienced before.

Yet, the more Matthew thought about Billee, something which he did a lot of, the more he realized he hardly knew anything about her. She worked at the zoo and she worked nights. That much he knew for certain. But what she did, what her duties were, what her dreams or goals, her ambitions, and passions… Matthew knew almost nothing about this young woman and still, he couldn’t help how he felt about her. It was strange. Almost unnatural. A part of him, deep within his mind told him to be cautious or even scared. Matthew ignored this feeling, however, as the more time he spent with Billee the less he cared about anything else. She was beautiful and smart, and there was something else, something which almost seemed to hide, right behind the surface, something which seemed to smolder just out of sight.

“Hello.” Billee’s voice cut through the stillness. Matthew quit pacing and approached the young woman, a warm smile on this face. He wanted to hug her, but he held back, uncertain what would happen if he did.

“Hi, how are you?” He asked, motioning toward the path in front of them.

Billee began to walk, falling in beside Matthew who waited eagerly for her response.

“I am well. How are you, Matthew?”

“We always talk about me,” Matthew said, already regretting the words he’d spoken, fearing that if he said the wrong thing, this, whatever this was that he had with her, would end. “Why don’t we talk about you. I want to know more about you.”

Billee shook her head nervously. “There is little to tell, I am not interesting, not like you.”

Matthew stopped, holding her gently by the shoulders. “ I want to know. Interesting or not.”

Billie blushed and quickly, Matthew let go of her, embarrassed by his own actions. He’d never acted this way around women, never felt so impassioned. But in his life, he’d never had the opportunity to know many women. Not at least, in the sense, he desired to know Billee. His life was spent mostly around animals. Animals he liked, animals he understood. People in general and now Billee, in particular, confused him.

“I was born in India.” She said, beginning to walk again.

Matthew followed. “How long ago did you come to America?”

“Recently. I lived there with my mother until she died.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Matthew said. “I understand if you don’t want to talk about it.”

“Do you have a family, Matthew? Children, or…”

Matthew laughed, was this why she’d been so distant, so mysterious? Was this what he’d sensed about her but couldn’t figure out? Did she think he was married? “No,” Matthew said smiling. “No children, no wife. I work too much, never really had time, I guess.”

“Have you never loved someone?” Billee asked.

Matthew had had girlfriends in college and high school. Dated here and there. He’d even given an attempt at online dating once, though it turned out to be the disaster everyone said it would be. Yet, in all those years, Matthew had never loved. Not truly, not in the sense of true, undying love. He’d always felt that was for stories, fairytales, and romantic movies. Not real life. However, as he stood, looking into Billee’s bright green eyes…

“No. I haven’t.” He said softly.

“No one?”

“Not unless you count Kira,” Matthew said nervously.

“You love the tiger?” Billee asked.

Nervously, Matthew laughed. “Well, maybe not like that, but she’s a very special creature. Like I said, there’s something about her. Like she understands me.”

“Like she knows what you are saying?”

“More like, she knows me. She understands who I am, how I feel. It’s weird. I feel like I can talk to her about anything.” Matthew said.

“Perhaps,” Billee replied with a smirk. “That is because she is a tiger. How would she tell you if she didn’t want to listen?”

Matthew shook his head. “It’s more than that, I know it sounds dumb, but there’s something about her I just can’t put my finger on. Like our souls are connected, like we were meant to be together. In some strange way, I was destined to take care of her. To protect her. I look into her eyes and there’s this thing, a fire inside of her. Just burning! Wild but somehow, not. I can’t explain it. You said it yourself, tigers are honorable spirits. Maybe our spirits were meant to be connected somehow. So yeah, I guess you could say I love her.”

Billee had stopped walking. Locking eyes with her, Matthew watched as a single tear rolled down her cheek, glistening in the soft moonlight.

“What? I’m sorry, what did I say?” Matthew said, lifting her chin softly with his hand, catching the tear with his fingers.

Without a word, Billee leaned up and kissed Matthew. Their lips touched and a warmth passed between them. Shocked, Matthew pulled back. He searched Billee’s face for an explanation. Tears welled in her eyes.

“I have to go.” She said, stepping back.

“Wait,” Matthew said. “I’m sorry, I just-”

“I must go!”

“Will I see you tomorrow?” Matthew pleaded, following after Billee as she began to walk quickly back down the path toward the rear gate and the tiger habitat. “Billee!”

But she was gone. Running into the darkness, she had vanished out of sight.

 

*****

 

A whole week had passed. Matthew bashed his head against the outer door of his office dully. She wasn’t coming. He’d waited, each night, just as he had done before but to no avail. Billee was gone. He hated himself for how he had reacted. He hated himself for pulling away. He liked Billee and for whatever reason, he had pulled away when she had kissed him. Why?

It was guaranteed, Matthew thought, that she had quit her job at the zoo. With his luck, she had also moved and changed her name. She would never come back. Somehow he would have to live with that.

Sighing heavily, Matthew decided to go inside, get his keys, and go home. He didn’t have the heart to visit Kira on his way out, but she would forgive him just this one time. Inside the office, Matthew gathered his things, putting away the last bits of paperwork he’d left unfinished and picked up his car keys.

He walked back, headed for the door when the phone rang. Curious, Matthew returned and hovered over the receiver for a moment. Over and over it continued to ring. Why would anyone call his office this late at night? Who knew he was here?

“Hello?” He said, picking up the phone slowly.

“Mr. Belle?” A voice said.

“George, is that you?” Matthew asked. Why was security calling him? More importantly, what was wrong?

“Yeah, Mr. Belle. Look, the alarm was triggered, looks like some of those animal rights nuts broke in and they’re letting all the animals out!” I’ve called the cops, but I thought you show know to keep an eye out and be careful!”

“What animals have they let out?” Matthew demanded.

“Mostly the small ones on the other side of the park, but I saw a couple of them headed your way on the cameras. Last thing we need is one of them big cats getting out!” George sounded out of breath. Had he been chasing them? Maybe he should cut back on those brownies, Matthew thought.

“I agree. Look, I’m going to go out and keep an eye on things to make sure that doesn’t happen. When the cops get here, make sure they don’t shoot me, okay?”

George panted. “Okay!”

With that, Matthew hung up and rushed outside. As much as he believed in animal rights, Matthew hated people who broke into places to free them. It was irresponsible, stupid, and dangerous.

Angrily, he marched down the path toward Kira’s enclosure. She’d been in the news a lot over the last few weeks. He worried what might happen if someone decided to let her out. Breaking into a panicked sweat, Matthew ran. As quickly as he could, he moved around the back of the enclosure, making his way to her gate. Through the small window in the door, he peered inside.

Lying lazily on the dirt near the central boulder in the habitat, Kira lay sleeping. Matthew sighed with relief. At least she was okay. Then, suddenly, just as his heart began to beat at a normal pace a loud scream filled the air. It was coming from the other side of the big cat exhibit.

Kira’s head rose. Quickly she turned, looking all about until she saw Matthew’s face through the window. Was she… concerned?

Matthew put his hand on the glass. “Don’t worry. I’ll protect you!”

The tiger moved swiftly, moving toward the gate. She sniffed the air and snorted.

“Some stupid punks are in the park but don’t worry. I won’t let anything happen to you!”

Another scream filled the air, this time closer. Matthew looked out, across the park in the darkness. It had come from the lion enclosure. Panic and fear filling his face, Matthew looked back at the tiger.

“I’ll be back!” He said. The tiger yowled softy as if in reply. But Matthew didn’t listen. Dashing as fast as he could, he ran back up the path toward his office. More shrieks of fear and pain filled the air, cutting out all other sounds. Somewhere, a lion roared.

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit! Matthew thought. They let the lions out! They let the God damn lions out! Another scream stretched out before suddenly cutting off.

Matthew stopped running, coming to a halt. He stood, staring into the shadows along the path. The moon was only a sliver in the night sky, and darkness blanketed the world like a thick black fog. He couldn’t see.

Carefully, slowly, he took a step forward. Something ahead of him growled. A deep low rumbling from within the belly of a large hungry beast.

Paralyzed with fear, sweat dripping down his face in torrents, Matthew stuttered softly. “M-m-mafuta, is t-that you?”

As if in reply, the low growling continued. Matthew’s heart beat loudly in his ears. His temples burned and pulsed. He shook violently as terror gripped his body. Stepping into what little moonlight shone on the path, one enormous paw at a time, came a large male lion. It’s dark black eyes pierced through Matthew sending a shockwave of fear coursing through his whole body.

The lion licked its blood-soaked face. Far in the distance, echoing high over the canyon where the zoo sat above the city, sirens wailed faintly. They would never reach him in time. The lion took another step. It’s huge paw slapping down on the pavement with a loud thump.

Tears began to well in his eyes as the realization dawned on Matthew. This would be his end. His entire face and body trembling, he slowly raised his hand toward the massive beast.

“N-n-n-ice k-k-it-t-t-ty.” he whimpered.

The lion roared. The deafening sound tore through the air, ripping all sense of rationality from Matthew as the tears flowed and he shivered. The lion crouched, lowering its torso to the ground. It’s back legs digging into the earth, preparing to pounce. This was it, Matthew thought as every fiber of his being struggled to remain intact, tearing itself apart from sheer terror.

Without warning, another resounding and thunderous roar shattered the silence. In an instant a dark shaped flew through the sky, colliding with the lion and forcing it back. In shock, unable to move, Matthew watched as something tangled and fought with the lion. It was Kira.

Raising her gigantic paws and bringing them down in heavy blows, she struck and tore at the lion. The lion backed, stepping out of harm’s way. Its attention no longer focused on Matthew. The tiger gave a booming roar and lunged at Mufata. The lion returned the check, slashing out at Kira. Her jaws snapped, biting onto the lion, puncturing the beast with her massive fangs. The lion yowled, shoving the tiger away as it rolled onto its back and kicked. As Kira leaped, dodging out of the way, she glanced back toward Matthew. The burning wildfire in her eyes was let loose. It blazed out of control like bright green embers!

Suddenly the lion pounced, grabbing Kira by the neck. It’s teeth biting deep into her spine. The tiger yelled out in pain. Matthew screamed, “No!”

The lion, its jaws clinging to Kira like a vice, kicked and slashed with its razored claws. The tiger yowled, before flipping onto her back, throwing the lion over in a summersault. As the lion spun, confused, Kira leaped, landing with her claws on the lion’s stomach. She slashed and bit violently. Blood and fur flew into the air as she tore into the beast. The lion slashed out again, its hind legs batting at Kira with tremendous strength. She jumped back, again out of harm’s way.

The lion rolled, rising up to attack, but as it did, the tiger, with all her strength pounced. Her giant fangs pierced into the lion’s throat. It rolled again, readying itself as before. It swiped its paws, hitting Kira in the face. Biting harder she twitched her jaw.

With a sickening snap, Matthew watched as Kira broke the lion’s neck. It fell limp, landing on the pavement with a loud dull thud.

Still frozen in fear, unable to move, Matthew looked on, terrified. The tiger turned toward him, their eyes connecting. Then, with a heavy sigh, the tiger fell, landing hard on her side.

“Kira?” Matthew said, forcing himself to come to his senses.

The tiger lay, breathing quickly with short shallow breaths.

“Kira!” Matthew ran to the animal’s side. Blood poured from multiple wounds up and down her striped orange body. She whimpered in reply.

Cautiously, Matthew knelt down beside the tiger, taking her in his arms. The massive animal was too large for him to hold entirely. He lifted her head and placed it on his lap. Fresh tears began to stream down his face.

“Why? Why did you do that?” He cried.

The tiger’s panting slowed. She turned her head toward Matthew allowing his tears to fall on her face. The wildfire in her eyes was gone.

Matthew shut his eyes. The pain and sorrow overwhelming him. Washing over him in a sudden wave, like icy cold water pouring down over his head. He sobbed.

“I had to protect you.” There came a soft and familiar voice.

Matthew opened his eyes. Where once a tiger lay, soft and naked in his arms was Billee. Large gashes and bite marks poked her smooth brown skin. She stared up him, tears in her emerald eyes.

“Billee?” Matthew cried, confused.

“You promised to protect me, but it was me who had to protect you.” she said, her voice was weak.

“Billee, I don’t understand.” Matthew said, brushing blood slicked hair out of her face with a trembling hand.

“I told you, tigers are powerful spirits.” She reached up, pulling his face toward hers. Weakly, she kissed him, her lips dry and cold.

“Don’t leave me.” Matthew said between sobs. “I love you.”

“I love you, Matthew Belle.”

Billee’s hand fell limp into Matthew’s hand. He held her, pulling her broken beautiful body close to his. He listened as the sirens, cut through the silence. He sat alone in the darkness, tears slipping from his cheeks onto the pavement.          

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