The Jaguar Smiles
by Emma Fuhs
Samantha Gates lives on a street where everyone smiles. They smile as they trim their rosebushes, as they water their lawns in the early afternoon, as they unload groceries from Whole Foods. They smile as they jog and they smile as they walk their purebreds. Samantha thinks the smiles are trying to tell her something.
She sees her children off to school each morning. Joseph is fourteen and Kathleen is eighteen and neither of them gives a shit about Samantha. Most days, they leave their homemade lunches in the fridge.
This morning is no different. She watches one of the neighbors look up from his lawn mowing and smile as the Gates children head off to school. Sipping her milk-diluted coffee, Samantha folds herself into the couch closest to the front window and doesn’t smile. Lately, she seems to be the only one not smiling.
Kathleen backs into the street. She doesn’t check both ways like Samantha taught her to. Samantha thinks that she might have to tell her husband, Todd Gates, that Kathleen is driving a little recklessly. The children listen to Todd.
Just as she’s about to retire to her room for a couple hours, something catches her eye. There’s a creature stalking Kathleen’s car, lean and black. It’s some kind of large cat, Samantha guesses. A jaguar.
She gets up, spilling coffee on the white couch and carpet. She curses the way she does when Todd’s not around and hurries to the front porch. By the time she opens the front door, the car has rounded the bend and is gone. So is the jaguar.
Samantha turns away from the still-smiling neighbor and goes back inside, locking the front door behind her. She goes to the kitchen and sits in front of the iPad Todd bought for her fortieth birthday. She had to open it at the surprise party he threw for her, in front of all the people that he invited. Even the people she didn’t know. Even the woman who called Samantha fat in high school but scribbled a friendly-enough note in Samantha’s yearbook. Todd apologized for the slip, claiming he’d seen the yearbook and thought the two had been close. Samantha forgave him, of course.
She unlocks the iPad with the password 8-6-3-3. Todd in numerical form.
Google is already open. Her last search was a recipe for steel-cut oats and before that, an erotic romance on Amazon. She reminds herself to clear the browsing history before Todd returns home.
She tries to steady her trembling hands as she types into the searchbar: Jaguar sightings in Pasadena? She’s heard of mountain lions spooking unsuspecting hikers in the Hollywood hills, but never a jaguar.
Her search yields some interesting results. A few years back, a mother claimed to have seen a family of black mountain lions with lime green eyes near her home in Waco, Texas. The article says that she called Animal Services immediately after the sighting, so Samantha digs through her purse for her iPhone. She unlocks it with the password 8-6-3-3 and dials Los Angeles Animal Services.
“Thanks for calling. You’re talking to Bradley. How can I help you?”
“Hi Bradley. My name is Samantha Gates. I just saw a jaguar following my children to school and want to report it.” As she talks, Samantha tugs hard at the thin silver chain around her neck. Todd gave it to her years ago in a small black box, and she assumed it was an engagement ring. They had been dating for almost five years and talked about having four perfect children, so marriage was inevitable. When she opened the box and saw the necklace, her look of surprise was not the same one she’d rehearsed in the mirror.
“Ms. Yates, where are you calling from?”
“It’s Gates. And I’m calling from my home in Pasadena.”
There’s a muffled sound from the other end, almost like someone ruffling quickly through a thick stack of papers. But Samantha has heard this sound before. She knows Bradley is laughing at her.
“I googled it. There have been similar sightings before. I read articles.”
“Look, Ms. Bates. I’ve read articles about Bigfoot before, but that doesn’t mean he’s real. If you see the thing again, give us a call. Otherwise, there’s not much I can do for you.”
“Have a great day, Ms.”
Samantha slams her phone down, hoping it will shatter against the granite countertop. But when she lifts it to check, the screen is still in one piece. It’s too protected by the rubber lining of her phone case.
She turns back to her iPad, narrowing her search based on something that Bradley said. Bigfoot. She types: Jaguar sightings in Pasadena? Cryptozoology?
This search pulls up fewer links than the last. She clicks on the first one because it has a very no-nonsense tagline about jaguars and cryptozoology. The site is a WordPress blog managed by a Pat Donohue. He writes about eyewitness accounts of large black cats sneaking up on unsuspecting suburb-dwellers and his personal email is listed at the end of the blog post. Samantha copies it over to her Gmail account and considers how to word her message.
Date: 12 November, 7:56 AM
Subject: Jaguar sighted in Pasadena
Hi Mr. Donohue,
I stumbled upon your blog this morning after seeing something rather troubling. It looked to me like a jaguar was stalking my children on their way to school, but I cannot be sure. In your opinion, is there any chance of a jaguar roaming my neighborhood in Pasadena?
She reads it over a few times before deciding that it is good enough to send. It doesn’t sound too hysterical or ridiculous. It is worded similarly to the exchanges she has with other PTA moms. She expects that he’ll email her back by the end of the day.
Samantha leaves the iPad in the kitchen and goes to the bedroom she shares with Todd. The king-size bed rests on a frame of ornately carved oak that Todd bought from a furniture store that was going out of business. He bought it on his way home from work one day and a van came to drop it off the next morning. Samantha called him when the men came to the front door and he apologized for not telling her about the bed frame over dinner. It had slipped his mind.
She forgave him and let the men bring the bed frame upstairs. They even installed it for her, shelving the sexless bed on top of the impressive wooden box.
Samantha takes her clothes off and gets into the carefully-made bed. She spreads her naked body out, wiggling her toes at the pockets of soft sheets that are so deliciously cold without Todd lying beneath them. She closes her eyes and stays like that for almost an hour.
When she gets up, she smoothes the wrinkles out of her shirt before pulling it back over her head. Then she makes the bed exactly the way it was before, lining all the white pillows up and working the comforter until it is taught. She goes back downstairs and checks her Gmail.
There’s a message from the cryptozoologist.
Date: 12 November, 8:34 AM
Subject: Jaguar sighted in Pasadena
Thank you for your message. As someone who dabbles in cryptozoology, I am very interested in any reports of unusual animals. As someone who lives in the suburbs of LA, I have something of a personal interest in your report. Let me tell you right off the bat that this type of sighting is not unusual. It’s estimated that across the Southwest, anywhere from ten to twenty percent of eyewitnesses calling in about big cats describe black jaguars instead of mountain lions.
In my opinion, the government does not want us thinking these creatures could ever come back. But they’re not extinct like dinosaurs–it is well within the bounds of possibility to think that a stray jaguar might migrate up from Mexico and find its way into your neighborhood.
I would recommend calling it in to the Dept. of Wildlife Conservation. Or, if you like, I can make the call for you.
Samantha’s hands are shaking as she types, so her email takes a few minutes longer to compose than usual. Finally she writes out a message asking that Mr. Donohue please call the Department of Wildlife Conservation on her behalf. She includes the street address so that the report is accurate.
Samantha turns the iPad off and grabs her iPhone off the counter. Todd picks up on the fifth ring.
“Todd, listen. I need you to come home right now. I need a car.” Once Kathleen got her license, Samantha didn’t need to drive the children to school anymore. Kathleen got Samantha’s Lexus for her sixteenth birthday and Todd kept his BMW. When they leave home in the morning, the garage is left empty until they return.
“You sound funny Sammy. Take a deep breath and tell me what’s going on.”
“It’s the kids. I saw something this morning and thought I was crazy but I’m not. I’m not crazy, Todd. Jaguars can migrate north of the border.”
“Samantha, stop. You can’t do this every time I leave for work. Don’t you have something to keep you busy? What about that scarf you were knitting last week?”
“There’s a jaguar stalking our children.”
“I have to go. Text me if you need anything.”
Todd hangs up and Samantha continues standing in the same spot, staring vaguely at the oven’s digital clock. The green numbers glow eerily at night. She knows because sometimes she sleepwalks downstairs and starts making herself a sandwich. Each time, she wakes up right after taking a bite. If she didn’t wake up at that exact moment, she’d choke on it.
Todd doesn’t know about the episodes. He takes melatonin every night, before going to bed and after jerking off in the shower. Samantha hasn’t told him because she doesn’t want him to lock up the bread and condiments to keep her safe.
The day passes slowly. She busies herself by tearing out the scarf she had started and spooling the yarn until it’s wound in a ball that looks exactly the same as when she bought it in the store. She goes into the front yard, ignoring the smiling neighbors as she checks the dirt for paw prints. She drafts several emails to the school, detailing the jaguar sighting, and deletes every one of them. Finally, the children return home.
Samantha has a plate of Oreos on the counter that they ignore. Joseph grabs a soda from the fridge and Kathleen’s headphones are playing music so loud, Samantha can hear it from ten feet away. Their feet type out a long sentence going up the stairs, followed by the punctuation of two slamming doors.
Alone again, Samantha finds Kathleen’s keys hanging on a peg next to the front door. She takes them and leaves the house, locking the door behind her. She scans the street carefully to ensure the jaguar hasn’t returned. The street is empty except for a woman walking her newborn child in a stroller, smiling as she passes. Samantha ignores her. She makes sure she has her license and the credit card Todd gave her before getting behind the wheel of Kathleen’s car.
The drive to the grocery store is short. She gets there in just a few minutes and parks in the half-empty lot. It’s not crowded because most people do their shopping on the weekend.
Samantha gets a cart and puts her purse where a baby would go if she still had one. Usually she carries a list of everything she needs to buy for Todd and the children. She writes it out the night before and brings it to the store to ensure she won’t forget any essentials. But today is different. She doesn’t have a list and she doesn’t know what she came here to buy.
She starts on aisle 1: Produce. Then she goes to aisle 2: Baking, Spices, Oil. Then she goes to aisle 3: Canned foods. Then she goes to aisle 4: Chips and condiments. Then she goes to aisle 5: Baked goods. Then she goes to aisle 6: Cereal, Coffee, Tea. Then she goes to aisle 7: Personal hygiene. Then she goes to aisle 8: Beverages and water. Then she goes to aisle 9: Frozen dinners.
The man at the checkout stand appraises her cart when she approaches.
Samantha nods, taking the box of tampons out of the cart and setting them on the conveyor belt. They cost twelve dollars and she pays for them with Todd’s credit card.
The sun is setting when she gets back to Kathleen’s car. Samantha thinks that time is funny inside a grocery store. It drags and it races.
Samantha drives fast on the way home, hoping that the jaguar will jump out in front of Kathleen’s car so that she might kill it. Then her children would see what a hero she is. And Todd would realize that she needs something more than yarn to keep her busy all day.
She parks in the driveway and takes her purse from the passenger seat, the box of tampons tucked inside. She gets out of the car and starts toward the house, hearing the click of the automatic locks behind her. She is almost to the porch when she hears another sound behind her. It is barely a sound, closer to the whooshing of wind through grass or runoff collecting in the gutters. But she knows that this is exactly what a jaguar would sound like: Almost like nothing.
Samantha turns to face the jaguar. It is crouched in the middle of the lawn, flicking its long tail back and forth. Its eyes are not lime green like the woman in Waco, Texas described. Its eyes are twin moons, golden and gathering light from the sun.
She takes a step closer and it snarls, mouth stretching back to reveal sharp teeth and a coarse pink tongue. Samantha thinks that it looks almost like a smile.
She smiles back.
Emma Fuhs spent her childhood on the central coast of California and now attends the University of California, Davis, where she is majoring in English. She aspires to be a novelist and is probably eating a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch right now.