The boys and I sat around the kitchen table sharing a snack.
“What did you two get up to this afternoon?” I asked.
I’d spent almost three hours writing, which was a miracle on a weekend afternoon. The boys usually required significant refereeing. Today, however, the house had fallen into a calm, peaceful state after lunchtime. When I looked up from my work and the clock read 4 o’clock, I could hardly believe it. Everything was so still. I assumed that the little one had dozed off on the couch while the big one curled up in a sunny spot with a book, savoring the quiet as much as I did.
I was slicing apples and cheese, trying to leave my work brain behind and start considering what to make for dinner, when the pair sauntered into the kitchen.
“Me and Walker did exploring,” Cubby (the little one) announced. He climbed up on the counter to grab an almost-empty box of crackers from the cabinet.
“Oh really?” I was surprised. Exploring usually involved outside, and I didn’t recall hearing any of the creaky doors of our 104-year-old house slam shut. We’d moved into the sprawling, dilapidated place a few months ago.
“You’ve got some work cut out for you, but the bones!” the real estate agent had chirped.
The list of rehab work was mountainous. Greasing the door hinges fell far down the list, much lower than “weatherproof windows for winter” and “get toilet to stop making terrifying moans after flushing.” My six- and ten-year-old boys were only so handy with a toolbox.
“Where did you go exploring?” I asked.
“A forest,” Cubby said, his mouth full of apple.
“You know you’re supposed to ask before you go outdoors,” I replied, trying not to sound presumptuous. They were rather responsible and trustworthy children, but still — they were children.
“We didn’t go outside,” Walker retorted. The boys shared a quick glance, one I might not have recognized as slightly suspicious if I’d not grown up with siblings myself.
“We went to a magicked forest,” Cubby swallowed and continued. “Me and Walker —”
“Walker and I.”
“Walker and I,” he repeated, drawing out the “I” with exasperation, “found a path in a magicked forest. Under my bed. There was a lantern that glowed red but it wasn’t hot. And Walker found a sword, but he losted it.” He shoved another apple slice in his mouth and talked as he chomped. “And there was a pony with black spots, but it ran away. And a tiger with blue stripes, and she was very friendly.”
I looked to Walker expectantly. He often interrupted at this point of his brother’s monologuing with some correction, always trying to prove himself the more accurate, more knowledgeable elder sibling.
He simply chewed lazily on a cheese and cracker sandwich.
“That sounds like quite an adventure,” I said.
“And I told the tiger she could come sleep in my bed tonight, but Walker said no, you wouldn’t allow it.”
Cubby made a pouty face at his brother, who rolled his eyes in response.
“She wouldn’t,” Walker insisted.
“Do I get a say in the matter?” I asked. There was a conspiratorial air between the two of them that I both relished and regarded with wariness.
“Well, would you? Let a tiger sleep in my bed?”
“I don’t see why not,” I said, “if she truly was a friendly tiger.”
“SEE.” Cubby turned and stuck out his tongue at Walker, who rolled his eyes again.
“Sure,” Walker said. “She says that now.”
“Tell me more about this ‘magicked forest.’” I said. “What was it like?”
“Oh, you know,” Walker said, smacking on his last bite of cracker. “Lotsa mushrooms and trees and ferns and stuff. And a little river with lots of shiny rocks. He almost fell in,” he jabbed his thumb at his brother, “but I pulled him back by his collar.”
“My shoes got a little wet,” Cubby said apologetically. “I put ‘em in the bathroom sink.” He shoved another apple slice in his mouth.
Well, I thought to myself. The boys were far enough apart in age that they often struggled to get along for more than half an hour. And here they’d had a full-blown afternoon of make-believe. I was downright beaming. All those episodes of Mr. Rogers’, the late nights reading “just one more chapter” of Five Children and It or one of the Narnia books at bedtime, maybe they’d finally paid off.
The rest of the day passed like most others. The boys did go outside and played swords with sticks, which ended with some overly aggressive jabbing and tears.
“If only I hadn’ta lost that sword,” Walker muttered as I rubbed Neosporin on his scraped arm. “It was real sharp.”
I scolded him for wanting to hurt his little brother. He just scowled in his ten-year-old way.
We went for a long walk around the neighborhood before supper. All was quiet and glowing in the early winter sun, and it was almost dark by the time we got back. The features that once made the house an ornate manor drooped with age. Vines and bushes that I’d not managed to trim back (again, bottom of the list) sprawled like spindly brown fingers across dark green shingles.
It looked a little haunted — a thought I quickly pushed out of my mind.
Back in the warmth of the kitchen, I made cocoa for the boys to sip while we chopped vegetables for soup and stirred cornbread batter. They licked their bowls clean.
After, while washing up the dishes and riding that glowy high of an overall pleasant day, I felt a small tug at my sleeve.
“Can the tiger really sleep in my bed tonight?” Cubby asked cautiously.
“Of course,” I said. He narrowed his eyes, unsure. “I’d love to host a friendly tigress. Especially one with blue stripes.” I winked. “It’s my favorite color, you know.”
“Alright,” he said, a note of skepticism hanging in his little voice. “If you promise it’s alright.”
“I promise,” I said.
I wondered how many more years of make believe were left. When was the last time I had an imaginary friend? I made a note to call my mother and ask.
“Now scoot. Get on your PJs and brush your teeth.” He scurried off, down the hall and up the stairs. “And tell your brother, too!” I shouted after him.
I half listened to the familiar paces, thumps, and flushes of their bedtime routine as I finished scrubbing crumbs out from the tricky corners of the loaf pan. When the dishes were done and all was quiet in the house, I went upstairs to find both boys lazily sprawled in my bed. My reading lamp cast deep shadows across the walls. I flopped down next to them and faked a great snore, eliciting a great giggle.
“Can we read in here?” I yawned.
Laying down, I realized how tired I was.
“Wake me up if I fall asleep,” Cubby said. “I don’t want to leave the tiger alone.”
We cozied up under the quilt and I read aloud until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I woke to find only Walker still in my bed, his long limbs tangled up in the patchwork quilt. My chest clinched in a moment of panic before I remembered Cubby’s promise to his “tiger.” He must have taken himself to bed, poor thing. I rubbed my eyes and squinted at the clock on my dresser. Almost midnight.
I could get an hour or two of writing in now, I thought. I was tired, but I’d been on a tear earlier and was eager to get back to the page. I could make a cup of tea, I contemplated, trying to give myself an extra incentive. Or an old fashioned. Or both.
I willed my legs over the edge of the bed. Downstairs, kitchen, desk, I commanded my drowsy brain. On the landing, I noticed Cubby’s door was ajar. His was the sole east-facing bedroom on the far end of the hall. He chose it himself and could not be persuaded out of it, even though it was more a glorified closet than a proper room.
The door was thick, heavy, carved with swirling vines, animal faces peering out of the leaves, flecks of pale green and yellow paint a faint reminder of its former artistry. It was the only one of its kind in the house. The other doors were heavy too, solid wood, but otherwise unremarkable.
Better make sure the shades are drawn, I thought. The rising sun woke him up at an earlier hour than his internal clock would. On school days this was helpful, but on weekends I made sure the heavy curtains were pulled tight. Especially if I knew I would be up late.
I trod lightly down the hall to his room. As I neared the door, I heard the low rumbling of snores. Great. He’s coming down with something. I cursed under my breath. We should have worn hats on our walk. I’d have to find the humidifier, it was probably still packed up somewhere …
I gently pushed on the door, trying to minimize the inevitable creak.
There, its back against the footboard, slept a great tigress. At the sound of my gasp, she flicked open one fiery orange eye.
She stared straight at me. My mind went blank in that pre-fight-or-flight panic.
The tigress let out a low growl — a purr? — and draped one blue-striped paw across my son’s legs, drawing him slightly closer to her.
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