Fiction Speculative Suspense

She lost it, that one thing everyone cared so very much about.

People were like the last few kernels of popcorn, rolling over and over again in the microwave, always loud and always a surprise. Unexpected visits popping up at unexpected hours to express their concern with cheerful grief at her misfortunes. Polite conversation was all they were after. She wished they would all go away so she could search the house for the thing she had lost. They’d ask her about it, lean forward like crouching tigers—their eyes would glow and she thought perhaps they might just devour her. But they wanted to know, insisted on knowing. Demanding she search the house.

How was it? Could they perhaps catch a glimpse of it? They knew something she did not, testing her sanity, waiting for a slip. The tigers would flick their tales and give each other knowing looks and she would feel the shame of not-knowing on her cheeks. Withered hands and a withered mind had made her questions things, but still she searched for the thing she was sure she had lost.

She was a tiger once--strong, delighted at knowing exactly what it was and where to find it. The air smelled like popcorn and she knew they were coming to check in on her. To ask her more of their questions they didn't really want to hear.

This is how things were now, alone, waiting--waiting. The clock ticking aimlessly. She'd lost track of things in the quiet. Time had come for her and nobody seemed interested in the slow routine of age, only what it was that she had lost.

Popcorn tigers, waiting to see if she truly had lost it or if she was even still looking.

The visits, that smelled so strongly of popcorn, had tainted after time. Now all that remained was the kernels at the bottom of the bowl. Kernels, stale and impossible to bite down on, made from sympathy, the idea of duty. She knew, because she was once a tiger. Sympathy and duty. She remembered those things, but she could not remember it or why they insisted on coming to check.

Arms twisted from the guilt of older tigers losing their stripes and fake smiles of the young were her only relief from what was truly bothering them all. The mystery that had become her days, weeks, months. What was it? And where had it gone? Tiger tails flicking methodically as they waiting for her answer.

She’d smile through the panic; laugh the way her mother always did when on the phone. Sometimes in desperation--she would insist it had been found. She’d offer the smallest of morsels to the pack of animals and they would comment delicately; how divine it was as they wiped their chins, barking, purring, yipping for more, more, more. But she had nothing left to give. They were hungry and she was weary.

She lost it, the thing. The thing, that was so very important. She decided, with great distress, the problem was not that she couldn’t find it, certainly not. The problem was, she couldn’t remember what she had lost in the first place. That was the truth of the matter; she didn’t know what it was at all. And the tigers didn't seem to know either.

She ran through the list, the possessions in her life that remained, somehow still attached to her, in loyal opposition to it. But still she wondered, what could it be? The brooch from her mother? The leaky pen from her father? A jar of glass marbles her friend had bestowed upon her like magic wishes in the fourth grade, or perhaps it was that jar of buttons her great-grandmother had given her before she died? Could it fit in a jar at all? No, those things were all accounted for and she had a feeling what she was looking for couldn't be squeezed into such a small space. The missing it was a thing she just couldn't quite remember.

She dusted off the sticky cobwebs at the doorway to her mind, swept the porch with a battered broom. She tried to keep her mind neat, but it was the entirety of a two-story town house, not a solitary attic full of empty boxes and empty corners like the estranged visitors assumed. Filled to the brim, a lifetime of memories so spread out and disorganized it was impossible to maintain.

She watched the tigers perusing her things without the earnestness she required—trying to be helpful, but it only made things worse. The animals, watching and waiting and wondering when, if ever, she would just give up. Those bits of popcorn kernels sticking in between teeth, she couldn't stand it. They came and smiled sweetly and nodded along, but nobody actually helped. Her mind was so cluttered she couldn’t move about. It was too big a task for one missing—something. 

She couldn’t remember. The tigers grinned. She checked the cupboards and the lonely tea saucers, she checked the keepsake box tucked safely under her bed and the dust and the kernels under her furniture. She checked the bookshelves, the scraps of paper and the movie ticket stubs. Clustered bits of nothing. It was nowhere, it could be anywhere. 

Sometimes, she thought one of the tigers might know, refusing to tell—or maybe the house itself, it rearranged daily without her consent; that could drive anyone mad. She searched under loose floorboards and behind long, draping curtains that blocked out the light like a tomb. She insisted they leave, the visitors who had stayed so long. Leave her alone to grieve. To find what she was looking for in peace. She ushered them out.

She couldn’t remember, couldn’t remember what it was she had lost—the house wouldn’t tell her, the people wouldn’t either, just shifted uncomfortably when the company came by and popped.

The mirror in the hall caught her eye as the prowlers fled out the door. She looked at her reflection--the tiger was gone and withered skin and fading stripes was all that remained. No wonder it had left, wherever it was she thought perhaps this was for the best.

May 16, 2022 01:44

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