By Krysta Tawlks
I’ve been getting out more ever since the tiger chose not to eat me.
I don’t care for the brittle air poking my eyes, nor do I enjoy the shrieking pigeons that habitually scatter when I—and only I—approach. But today, as I bump against strangers on the public bus, I have a mission: my first date with Harry.
I hate dating, but when a massive feline fifty times the weight of all ten cats I own had the opportunity to tear my body to pieces, all I could think was: I’m going to die, and I’m going to die alone. With that thought, I mustered enough courage to jump from my park bench and scream, “Go away!” Shockingly, the tiger listened and trotted off.
So today, I’m taking advantage of my second chance at life by breaking a fifteen-year streak of no boyfriends and no dates—unless you count Mom inviting our recently divorced neighbor over for dinner.
Harry found me on one of those dating apps where you can only write three words about yourself. Two words were all we needed: “Loves Cats.” Now, sporting gooey lip gloss and black mascara stolen from Mom’s purse, I step off the bus and walk to meet a stranger. Maybe he’ll be the man I marry. Maybe he’ll be a serial killer.
I text Mom my location: The Carousel Bar. If I don’t text in the next hour, you know I’m already dead.
She responds: Or having a late night special. Do not disturb! LOL.
“Clarissa?” A man wearing a top hat and a gold-embroidered black jacket approaches me. He holds out his arm. “Hello, I’m Harry.”
I falter. Was I supposed to dress up? “Nice to meet you, Harry. You’re… fancy.” I glance around as he guides me into the restaurant, making note of my exits.
Harry laughs. “Thank you!” His eyes rest on my face. “Makeup looks good on you.”
I dislike the way he speaks, like he knows I rarely wear makeup. Maybe he’s been stalking me on social media.
Shaking off the prickles on my arms, I let him pull out my chair. A very tall server approaches; he must be close to eight feet.
I focus on a woman behind him—I don’t want to get caught gawking at the server’s height. She has long, silver hair piled high on top of her head, the excess wrapping around her neck like an infinity scarf. She sneaks a glance at Harry.
“Have you been here before?” I turn to Harry after we’ve given the towering man our order.
Harry laughs. “Let’s talk about you.”
I blink and nod. “Sure.”
“What do you like to do for fun?” He sips his water and cocks his head.
“I like to read. Sometimes I journal. I play with my cats.”
“Oh, yes. All ten? Any kittens?”
The woman with the infinity hair passes by our table, and I forget to answer Harry’s question. Her date is a squat, waddling man, wearing a frizzy, golden wig. His polka-dotted pants hang just shy of his ankles, and a mouse perches on his shoulder. The woman and the man nod to Harry, and the three exchange smiles.
Maybe it’s time to text my mom so she can call with an “emergency.”
“What were your last three jobs?” Harry presses on, rubbing his temple. “And where do you see yourself in five years?”
“Um…” I pull out my phone. “Well, Harry, I think I’m getting a call from my mom.”
“No, you’re not.” Harry’s smile fades from his eyes. “Brad?” Harry extends his hand to the golden-haired man. Brad places his mouse on Harry’s palm.
“Watch carefully. Notice how calm she is.” Harry cups his hand and the mouse nuzzles his fingers. “Then when she sees you…” He moves the rodent my direction. The mouse lifts her nose, her whiskers twitching. Suddenly she squeals and leaps onto the table. Harry grips her tail as she flops and flails.
“What the hell?” I stand up, then immediately sit down. A man with biceps the size of watermelons blocks my escape.
Harry lowers his voice dramatically. “You know what mice and pigeons are most afraid of?”
“Pigeons?” I recall the shrieking birds from my walks to the bus. “Have you been spying on me?” My voice wobbles and my heart quickens.
“They’re afraid of cats, Clarissa. They’re afraid of you.” Harry stands up and sweeps his right arm. The towering man opens the kitchen door.
A tiger—my tiger, that could have eaten me a few days ago—saunters into the room.
“Stop!” I shout. The beast huffs and sits on his haunches. Seriously? Whose animal is this?
“A tiger finding you in the middle of your neighborhood park was no mistake,” Harry says. “He’s been searching for you. He’s chosen you as his master.”
The main entrance swings open, and a rush of cold air heightens my senses. “Clarissa? Are you still alive?”
“Mom!” I wish I could say she’s interrupting my date because I’d texted her to save me. I had not.
“Join us, Clarissa.” Harry stands with his arms outstretched. The tiger waits for my next command.
Mom reaches for me. “C’mon, Sweetie. I chatted with Grandma. We don’t think this guy’s the one. I’ll set up another dinner with Dan. You remember our neighbor?” Mom shrieks and steps back. “Is that a tiger?”
I wrinkle my nose. Not dinner with Dan and Mom again.
I look at Harry. “Do you guys offer healthcare?”
Harry grins with polished teeth. “And dental.”
I turn to the striped beast. “Can I bring my cats?” The animal lowers his head.
“Oh, he loves cats. And in a non-predatory way.” Harry holds up a contract and a pen. “Excited to have you join us!”
I fill in my contact information and smile to myself. Loves cats.
“Clarissa?” Mom peers over my shoulder. “What are you doing?”
“Isn’t it obvious, Mom? I’m joining the circus!”