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Mary Carter’s Dilemma

by Ron Van Sweringen

Mary Carter took a dime out of her red plastic change purse and placed it carefully on her bent thumb. Then she flipped the coin with all the force she could muster. It landed near her foot. “Heads,” she muttered picking the coin up. “That settles that,” she sighed just as the doors of a city bus opened in front of her.

The city was grimy through the bus window. A light rain added to its misery, and Mary cursed the fact that she’d forgotten her umbrella. She had suspected it was going to rain the moment she looked out of her bedroom window that morning. “You’re hopeless,” she said to herself. “No wonder you’re dying of cancer at fifty-five.”

A moment later she rolled her eyes. “What the hell does forgetting your umbrella have to do with dying of cancer at any age?” She grimaced. “Actually, nothing.” The thought occurred to her. “What’s a lot more relevant at the moment is finding a bathroom. You never should have had that second cup of tea this morning.”

The street was deserted when Mary stepped off of the bus at the corner of Maxwell and 33rd. She felt a chill and realized the air was getting colder. “What did you expect?” she said to herself. “It’s November.”

Ahead of Mary, towering oak trees lined the sidewalk with branches like black fingers raking the sky. “You’ll be up there soon,” she said to herself, looking at the gray clouds overhead. “Then whether you forgot your umbrella or have to pee won’t matter anymore.”

The oak trees along the sidewalk soon gave way to a high stone wall and a sign that read Williamson City Zoological Gardens. Mary Carter gave a sigh of relief; she had arrived at her final destination. Heads on the coin she had flipped earlier meant the tiger compound at the zoo. Tails meant jumping off of the James River bridge.

After today, there would be no more sleepless nights in her tiny apartment or going to work each morning to a job she loathed. More importantly, no more counting the days and hours of the next six months until her cancer killed her.

It was just after eleven on a Tuesday morning. Mary had picked the day carefully and because of the rain, few park visitors were on hand to interfere with her plan. The tiger enclosure was just ahead of and below her, exhibit number 22 in the walking tour guide pamphlet. It was in a large area several feet below the public viewing platform.

Its steep concrete walls made escape by the tiger impossible and, at the same time, they provided Mary with her greatest obstacle. She would have to scale the chest-high iron safety railing and then let herself fall into the enclosure. It was imperative that no one be near enough to confront her.

The tiger was resting beside the wall at the far end of the enclosure when Mary arrived on the viewing platform. A high ledge above the cat, designed to look like a cave entrance, gave the animal protection from the rain. Mary marveled at the tiger’s size; it seemed huge to her. The cat’s large almond-shaped eyes took everything in, and she was sure they caught her slightest movement.

Until that moment, Mary had not noticed the figure at the other end of the viewing platform. Had he been there when she arrived? She could have sworn not. The more she studied him, the less concerned she became. He was elderly and seemed to present no threat to her. On the contrary, he was so intent on watching the tiger that he was paying no attention to her.

Mary took her raincoat off and grasped the iron railing with both hands. She was surprised at how easily she was able to pull herself up, enough to bring a leg over the rail. “Well, you’re not dead yet old girl,” she whispered.

The view into the enclosure made her stomach roll, it was much steeper than it had looked at first. One of her shoes loosened by the climb and made a hissing sound as it slid down the steep concrete wall.

The noise and Mary’s position on the safety rail quickly caused the tiger to spring to attention, its tail nervously thrashing from side to side. She watched the large cat move cautiously toward her, its orange and black coat glistening in the rain. It occurred to her that she had chosen the right ending in the clutches of this beautiful beast rather than at the bottom of the murky James River.

“Are you sure you want to kill him?” a voice sounding like it came from another world interrupted Mary’s concentration. She turned quickly toward it, prepared to jump if necessary.

“You know, of course, they will euthanize the tiger if it kills you.” The words hung in the air repeating themselves to Mary. It had not crossed her mind that the tiger would be killed.

“I’m sure that’s not what you had in mind.” The man at the other end of the platform continued, without moving from his position.

“No,” Mary answered blankly, “I had no intention of hurting the animal.”

“I thought not,” he replied, “but what makes you want to die so badly?”

“Somehow the reason doesn’t seem as important now,” Mary answered slowly, tears welling in her eyes.

“Good,” he replied. “It’s almost lunch time, how about a hamburger. I just found out this morning that I’ve got six months to live, and I don’t intend to waste a minute of it.”

Copyright © 2014 by Ron Van Sweringen

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