The girl has short hair that sticks to her flushed, sweaty cheeks, bracketing her face like a helmet, or like ribs around a heart. She has a lovely smile, but in Sal’s estimation her beauty is a false coin, just a reflection of her youthfulness rather than real allure. At that, she hears Mina’s plaintive voice in her head: Don’t be mean. Sal twists back to contest the Mina in her mind, insisting that she’s critical, not cruel. Value-neutral. A cool blue temperament: righteous, clear-eyed, candid, uncompromising. She knows the limitations of that argument, and how much it relies on Mina’s generous acceptance of Sal’s own opinion of herself. The truth is that the day Mina outgrows her sister, Sal will shatter into a million pieces.
But even Mina would have to admit that, in this case, the evidence is self-evident. Sal is stating the facts. The girl’s amber-green eyes, while striking, are far too large for her face, forcing her other more finely formed features to crowd together, as awkwardly as poorly spaced digits on a clock face. A defective doll, Sal thinks, letting her powers of observations wax poetic. She’ll ask Mina later if that’s too mean. She decides she’ll apologize if Mina says it was.
The girl is not tied to the chair, but the way she holds her body—her arms and knees pressed to her torso tightly, maybe painfully—still suggests confinement. Not material, but psychological. The two men hover at the edge of the backyard, at the intersection of property lines where the grass changes color from well-tended, manicured green to sickly yellow, conversing in hushed tones under the narrow shade of a maple sapling. They’re standing casually, like chaperones at a school dance, but it doesn’t escape Sal’s attention that one still carries a switchblade in his fist, and is repeatedly flicking it open and closed.
“It’s going to be okay,” Sal whispers to the girl, in her usual attempt at comfort. A big sister even to strangers.
At that, the girl shrugs. It’s a bored, noncommittal gesture, but her eyes glitter with playful intelligence, as though egging Sal on.
“What’s this dream about?” Sal asks, trying a different tack. She’s struck up conversations with figments of Mina’s dreams before, to all sorts of effect. The exercise is mostly for her entertainment while she waits for Mina to appear. Dream-time behaves normally around the dreamer, but for Sal it passes lethargically, languidly, like the laziest of mornings, or the slowest of afternoons.
She has lived weeks within the prism of Mina’s dreams, trapped, for a time, in the imaginative, but limited experiences offered by their endless repeating fractals. She has spent hours navigating the same two blocks of sidewalk in a familiar capital city, noting the dull faces in the vast, undulating crowd. She has talked women off bridge railings, ushering them back to the safety of an empty lane of traffic; other times, at Mina’s prior instruction, she has induced them to leap. She has crossed oceans via leaky sailboat, the days-long journey harboring no secret thrills, filled only with the constant raising and lowering of canvas sails.
She has read five-year-old Mina’s favorite picture book—twenty pages about a lost puppy braving the dangers of an overgrown forest—cover-to-cover, over and over, seated on a plush, cloud-shaped bean bag in the glass-enclosed chamber of their local children’s library. In that dream, after her hundredth agonizing re-read, she’d looked for other books and found the shelves filled with the same title. Knowing she could not leave the dream without her sister, but driven to desperate measures by boredom, she’d tried the door and found an immediate drop into a bright, blank, blood-red void. Her sneakers, carefully laced, quivered as she hovered at the edge, a half-step away from the maw. Taking a deep breath, she had carefully re-closed the door, and gone back to the bean bag to wait for Mina. An essential reminder: She is only the traveler, and it is not within her power to decide the nature of the journey.
The girl cocks her head and shrugs loftily, evidently having decided to humor Sal’s strange question about the subject of the dream. She takes a long, desultory look around the backyard, like a ruler from a throne. Their captors don’t meet her gaze, continuing to converse as though oblivious to the girls and their captivity.
“Two men, two girls,” she muses. The grin reappears. “A double-date?”
Sal can’t resist an answering smile. She’s always liked the sardonic, mischievous ones. The girl looks about seventeen, and she has that blithe, impish flair of a young woman who has made it out alive from the sweetness and sourness of adolescence. She’s navigated through the complicated emotions sandwiched between the treasure of innocence and the wound of its loss, and done it without self-pity, without resorting to cynicism. She’s part of Mina, in a way, and Sal wonders what part of her sister she symbolizes: Mina’s surprisingly witty sense of humor, her hapless eagerness to please?
The girl’s face darkens. A sudden cloudburst on a day as hot as body temperature, popping open like a pimple. There’s Mina’s moodiness, that bullwhip of emotions snapping abruptly through conversation. Sal braces herself.
Still frowning, the girl pauses, as though considering her next move in front of a chess board. Without speaking, she twists in her seat, showing Sal her back. It’s so vulnerable a position—the white dress slipping from her shoulder, revealing a patch of skin, the throat tightening into a tunnel of rigid pink flesh over which the flawed gemstones of her gaze watch Sal expectantly. Sal almost averts her eyes.
From the girl’s shoulder blades down to her waist, something is embroidered richly onto the threadbare fabric. It takes a moment for Sal to make sense of the mess of scarlet, gold, and flecks of black, but the colors eventually resolve into the image of a tiger’s head, mid-growl. Everything else about the girl—the pointed teeth, the big eyes, the imperial bearing—clicks into place. For all her supposed strength of perception, for all her cerebral commentary, Sal has missed the most obvious player in the scene.
Two men, two girls. A king, a witch, a sacrifice, a tiger.
“You’re the tiger,” Sal says, slowly, testing out the revelation in her mouth, feeling its flavor overwhelm all other possibilities. “I could be the witch. Or the king. I usually have some part to play.”
She means it as idle musing, but the girl doesn’t take it well. Her face changes—comes unglued. Every color in the backyard grows in intensity, as though someone had turned the dial up on the brightness setting. The red void appears and asserts itself, consuming the girl-tiger’s head, her neck. It sits on her shoulders, its edges blurred and wild, like a solar flare. Sal is on the ground, propped up by shaking hands, as the girl-tiger approaches. She doesn’t remember falling. The grass is cold, wet, and fragrant; dew squelches between her fingers. The red mass totters unnaturally on the girl’s body, like a pumpkin angled onto the Headless Horseman.
“Doesn’t it occur to you,” the girl says, her voice overlapping with darker, harsher sounds, “that you could be the sacrifice?”