America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
Max and Tony
By Josh Rank
Max’s field of vision bobbed up and down as the headrest beat against the back of his head. He tried leaning forward, but the rocking of the seat didn’t stop as Tony kept chewing on the upholstery from the back. The radio was on, mostly commercials for furniture stores and a seemingly endless supply of flea markets, but the grunting and slobbering in the back seat wouldn’t allow Max to focus on the details. They had been friends ever since Max named him after the character on the front of his favorite cereal box, but this was their last day together. Max just couldn’t afford any more meat.
It only took about twenty minutes for them to reach the church field on the outside of town. Beyond the mostly brown field, a congregation of dried grass and dirt, was a small section of woods probably about two acres altogether.
“Alright, buddy. This is it.” Max parked the car in the back of the parking lot and got out. The summer sun and lack of wind sure made it feel like the African savannah. Tony continued to chew on the seat even after Max opened the back door.
“Come on! Heyo! Here we go!” Max tried clapping to accompany his shouts but it wasn’t until he turned his back and started walking towards the field that Tony finally climbed out of the car. The entire Chevy Malibu shifted back and forth as the 300 pound monster’s feet slapped the hot blacktop. Max turned around and gave his friend one last smile before sneaking around him and hopping back into his car. He drove out of the parking lot and only allowed himself one glance into the rearview mirror as he watched the orange and white coat with black stripes saunter into the field.
The apartment seemed somehow colder without the giant cat taking up the entire couch, or chewing on the walls, or going face-first into the five-gallon pail next to the refrigerator that Max had to continually fill with raw beef. He always opted for ground meat, thinking it would be easier for Tony to digest. He was thoughtful like that. But even when you can find the hamburger meat on sale for two dollars a pound, a tiger’s appetite won’t be sated for anything less than thirty pounds a day, and that is more than a cashier at the local gas station can afford.
In fact, Max hadn’t been the only person making a decision such as this since Proposition 86 was pushed through Congress two years before. The rarely discussed Big Game Lobbyists were able to sneak the bill through, legalizing nearly all animals to be considered household pets. As soon as Max heard the news, he went to the first exotic pet store he could find and brought home a brand new tiger kitten.
And now, it wasn’t rare to see a constrictor hanging from a tree with a half-digested squirrel bulging from its stomach. People stopped being shocked when they saw an alligator poking its head from a puddle on the side of the highway. Sure, there was outcry to the local legislature, but no matter how many people lost small dogs to wolf or coyote attacks, exotic pets just seemed to be a part of society that everyone would have to get used to.
Three days after Max and Tony took their final trip to the church, Max was sitting on his half-demolished couch watching the TV. Suddenly, the breaking news banner flashed across the screen and Max started paying attention instead of trying, and failing, to figure out how much money he was saving since releasing his pet.
The television cut to a live shot of a local school. The schoolyard had obviously been the scene of a grisly event but it was empty at the moment besides a few unrecognizable piles. It wasn’t until the camera zoomed in that Max recognized Tony, about two miles from the last place he had seen him. The tiger was lying next to the swing set in a pool of blood.
“What have you done to him?” Max shouted as he stood up. “You animals!”
The newscaster filled him in. A half hour before, the kindergarten through third grade classes were enjoying a healthy dose of sunlight and exercise when all of a sudden, a devilish monster erupted from behind the bike racks. An eight-year-old boy was the first victim. A bite to the neck and it was over. But the tiger must have been confused by the pandemonium around him, because after securing his meal, he went on a murder spree. Kids scattered and Tony took a few blind swipes into the scrum. One swipe knocked a six-year-old boy five feet to the side. Another left a gouge three inches long and at least an inch deep into the thigh of a six-year-old girl. She bled out in front of her eight-year-old brother. The whole thing only lasted about three minutes before the elementary school’s armed guard finally showed up and shot the wild animal right between the eyes with his automatic rifle. At the end, there were three dead children, two more wounded, countless emotionally scarred for life, and one dead tiger.
“He was just defending himself!” screamed Max. Tears flowed down his cheeks and he pounded his fists against his thighs. “If everyone had stopped screaming he would have just taken the meat back to the woods!”
The newscaster spoke of outrage, of questions as to whether the Domestic Big Game debate could finally have reached a level of danger that couldn’t be ignored. This only caused Max to fume with the intensity of a nuclear weapon blasted into the sun under a giant magnifying glass. By the time the knock came at the door, his adrenalin would have allowed him to lift a car.
“Are you Max Apogee?” asked a uniformed officer after Max opened the door. Another officer stood behind the first.
“Well, I have your name listed next to ID number T-1438.”
“That’s the registration number of the tiger that was involved in an incident at McKinley Elementary this afternoon. Do you own a tiger, Mr. Apogee?”
“I wasn’t aware that was made illegal. In fact,” Max’s voice started to rise to a shout, “I’m certain it isn’t. Now if I’m not doing anything illegal, can you tell me why the hell you are bothering me on my day off from work?”
“You see, sir, that animal is responsible for the deaths of three children. People are going to want some answers.”
“You said it yourself, the tiger is responsible. Do I look like a tiger?”
The officer waited for Max to continue, but he was going to have to wait until the Earth’s oxygen ran out. He sighed. “No, you don’t.”
“Exactly. So thank you very much and have a good day.” Max turned around and slammed the door behind him. He was surprised they had tracked him down so quickly. He was sure he had filed the ID numbers completely off of Tony’s tag before he drove him to the church. A couple minutes later, there was another knock at his door. Max didn’t even look through the peephole before he flung it open and yelled:
“What the hell else—” but he stopped when he saw his neighbor standing before him. A middle-aged man, whose name Max had never taken the time to learn.
“I’m sorry for being nosy, but were those policemen asking you about the tiger at the school today?” His voice came out just above a whisper. He didn’t look up at Max the whole time.
“Yeah, can you believe it? Those dictatorial sons-of-bitches trying to shake me down for my legal right to own property.” Max turned his head down the hallway and shouted: “You don’t handcuff the owner of a tree when it falls on a car!”
“Unbelievable,” said the neighbor.
“I know! What is wrong with our society these days? Am I right?”
The neighbor nodded and turned away from Max.
Max slammed the door and went back to shouting at the TV for the next hour before he walked into the kitchen and opened the ten-dollar bottle of vodka he had been saving for a special occasion. He drank it over the course of the next three hours before passing out on his couch in a sleep so deep it danced along the definition of a coma. Due to the deep sleep, Max was unaware of the neighbor returning after nightfall and peeling back the accordion siding of the window mounted air-conditioning unit. Max also failed to notice the five king cobras the neighbor legally bought that afternoon which he slid through the hole. Once his hands were free of serpents, the neighbor returned to his apartment to continue consoling his wife and son over the death of Becky, their six-year-old girl.
4 July 2015
Josh Rank graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and has since had stories published in The Missing Slate, The Feathertale Review, Hypertext Magazine, The Oddville Press, and elsewhere. More ramblings can be found at joshrank.com.