When hard winter rains came, the town of Havenwood didn’t worry too much. There are no dams nearby to flood or mountains to crumble. Havenwood sits in the middle of wide flat miles near a freeway that people take to get somewhere else, hardly ever to Havenwood.
They did have a few problems with the rain. Clive Drexler had to put his horses into closed stalls when they started to get thrush in their hooves from standing in the mud. And many townspeople worried about lightning slashing across the open land and striking whatever was in its path. A few houses had to put plastic sheeting on their roofs.
The only interruption in the wide flat acres is a green sloping hill above the town. A stone building sits on top. It was the home of the man who had been the town’s mayor for many years – a man who often dropped in on someone who had fallen on hard times, slipping them a check and making them promise not to tell. When he died, his casket was driven down the ribbon of freeway in a long motorcade of dark cars, past clusters of weeping people. In a world grown increasingly heartless, Havenwood missed his kindness. His house became a museum, and many residents believed his spirit hovers over them protectively.
Rainbows, when they come, arch over the museum. And sometimes when a beam of sunlight breaks through thick clouds, it falls like a spotlight on the grave. Bettina Williams swears that when she visited the grave one hot August afternoon, she heard an echo of soft, gentle laughter. Most people took that with a grain of salt, though, because everyone knows Bettina starts putting champagne in her orange juice around noon.
One person in Havenwood scoffed at these myths. Mason Trillon rolled his eyes at the notion of a man’s grave protecting the town. Almost eighteen, Mason planned to join the army. He hoped to go to war. He thought that might quiet the war inside him – the one that raged even when he slept, which wasn’t often.
Mason and his mother had moved to Havenwood when he was thirteen, after she shot his father in the small kitchen of their big-city house. With a broken right arm, she’d aimed the gun with her left hand. Mason was huddled in the corner, frozen in fear – the way he usually was when his father beat his mother. She wasn’t prosecuted; there were plenty of people who verified what a monster Ben Trillon was. And there was her shattered arm and bloodied face on the night of the shooting, plus all the other scars. They left the house with yellow police tape still around it and blood on the beige linoleum floor. Geri Trillon told her son they were going to start a new life, but their old life still floated in her eyes.
On many of those horrible nights, she’d screamed at Mason, “Why can’t you help me?” But the boy froze in the storm-surge of his father’s fury. Geri never blamed her son outright for that final night, but Mason knew in her heart she did. He should have been man enough to protect her. Now he lived with the smolder of shame inside him.
When the rains came, Mason decided to toughen himself up before joining the army. About an hour’s drive from Havenwood is untouched backcountry – wild acres, thick with trees. The angriest boy in Havenwood threw some gear in his truck and drove fast down the road. Mason had something to prove, which is often all it takes to make someone drive right past caution and straight into danger.
Hours after Mason’s truck had driven out of sight, Clive Drexler went out to feed his horses, unhappily confined to stalls. It was earlier than their regular feeding time, but he’d heard them from inside the house, fussing and snuffling. He figured that maybe with the dark clouds their sense of time was all confused. The rain had turned to drizzle, but the sky told him another deluge was coming.
Right in front of the stalls, he saw tracks – clearly a tiger or a lion. The paws were huge. He squatted down in the mud and placed one of his hands over a paw print – it was nearly the same width as his outstretched fingers. The horses were really making noise then; they wanted their food.
“Okay, okay, I’m coming,” he said, standing up and noticing the direction of the tracks – west, toward the pasture where the horses were usually kept.
He fed them, talked soothingly to them, and got back to the house just as fat raindrops started falling. His wife Marni, was standing at the stove, breaking garlic cloves into a pot of stew. Marni was in her second round of chemo; she’d lost all her hair and wore scarves around her head even when she went to bed. Seeing the back of her neck always broke Clive’s heart — so thin and unprotected.
“Marni, I have to call Fish and Game. There are tracks out there – tracks that don’t look right.”
“What do you mean? What are they?” She turned to face him and the shadows under her eyes were the same shade of gray as the storm-filled sky.
“This is going to sound crazy, but they’re tiger tracks, or a lion. A big one. Nothing that belongs around here, that’s for sure.”
It was nightfall before two men in uniforms showed up. The rain was coming down in sheets as they stood under umbrellas with Clive at their side and shone flashlights on the mud. The strange thing was, with all the rain that had fallen in the past few hours, the tracks were still there. They should have washed away – Clive knew that and so did the Fish and Game officials.
“This tiger might be over three hundred pounds,” one of the men said. “We have to warn people to keep their kids and their pets inside ‘till we capture him. Don’t know where the hell it could have come from.”
That night, after hours of buzzing phone lines, most people in Havenwood knew about the tracks outside Clive Drexler’s stables. No one could figure it out. There were no zoos around and it wasn’t like a circus had rolled through town.
Long past midnight, two people in Havenwood would see who the tracks belonged to.
Marni Drexler woke from a restless sleep. Pulled by a feeling she couldn’t define, she put on a jacket and tiptoed outside without waking Clive. The sky was filled with clouds but the rain had paused. Sensing something in the shadows, she looked toward the oak tree near the house and saw a huge tiger – the most magnificent creature she’d ever encountered. He was lying there calmly, head resting on his paws.
Marni, who hadn’t allowed herself to cry since they found cancer in her breast — since they cut her and poisoned her with chemo – fell to her knees and wept a quiet flood of tears. When the tiger walked over and nudged her with his great head, she stared up at him…deep into eyes that looked like centuries. She circled his neck, let tears soak his fur, and didn’t leave him until the rain started up again.
She slept more peacefully than she had in months and woke at dawn wondering if it had been a dream. But it couldn’t have been — there was mud on her knees. And something else — no shadows under her eyes.
Tommy Lerner, who had been diabetic for six of his twelve years, also woke that night to see the massive head of a tiger at his window. He knew he should be frightened, but he wasn’t. He got out of bed, went to the window and pressed his nose against the glass. On the other side, the tiger did the same. Deep inside Tommy’s body, he felt something changing. He opened the window and let the tiger’s warm breath float over him.
The next morning, Tommy insisted that his mother take him to the doctor. He told her he didn’t have diabetes anymore.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” the doctor said, shaking his head in bewilderment. “He isn’t diabetic now. He definitely was…”
“It was the tiger,” Tommy told them.
Between Tommy, his mother, and Clive Drexler – who called everyone to tell them Marni had a visitation during the night and had been cured – word spread quickly. By noon, people in Havenwood were saying the tiger was the spirit of the man buried on the hill.
Clive wished he hadn’t called Fish and Game, but it was too late. Men with guns were on their way. Helicopters started flying low over the town, looking for the tiger.
“We can’t let them shoot him!” Bettina Williams told everyone at Ida’s Coffee Shop.
“If he’s a ghost, they can’t shoot him,” someone pointed out.
“How do you know?” Bettina asked. “Are you a ghost expert? This animal has brought us miracles! We have to protect him!”
Mason Trillon didn’t know what was going on in town. He’d left his truck at the edge of the highway and trekked deep into the woods. His backpack was already leaving blisters on his shoulders and the tent he’d rigged up during the night hadn’t kept him dry – the rain had blown in sideways. Still, he kept slogging through the mud, determined to leave behind the boy his mother saw when she looked at him. He had a compass, and he was confident he could retrace his steps, but Mason hadn’t considered how rain can rearrange the land.
Cold and tired, he realized that bringing only power bars and water hadn’t been the best idea. He felt queasy. He was trying to use all the rage he’d collected in his young life to keep him going. But anger isn’t the best navigator. It turns your eyes inward, makes you blind to the outside world.
Mason stepped over a log and onto some deadfall, expecting to land on muddy ground. But the thin webbing of twigs collapsed. He went down and felt something in his ankle tear. The compass flew out of his hand and vanished.
He took his backpack off so he’d be lighter, but he couldn’t put any weight on his left ankle. Tears and rain blurred his eyes and he hated himself for his weakness. He’d wanted to be tough but he was who he’d always been — the boy huddled in closets and corners while his father beat his mother.
Mason limped on, hoping he was retracing his steps, but the landscape didn’t look familiar anymore. He was lost and he knew it.
Back in Havenwood, his mother had heard the talk about the tiger, how it might be the ghost of the man buried on the hill. Maybe it’s true, Geri Trillon thought, looking out at the rain. She knew her son needed a miracle. She knew her cruel words were hot coals in his heart, and she wished she could take them back. But words aren’t like that. They form red welts that harden into scars, much like the scars along Geri’s arm and ribs.
She pulled on her rain parka, grabbed an umbrella, and headed for Ida’s Coffee Shop where she knew many townspeople were gathered.
“All I can tell you is something miraculous happened to me,” Marni Drexler was saying when Geri walked through the glass door, a flurry of wind and rain coming in with her.
Marni wasn’t wearing her usual scarf, and while it was startling to see her baldness, it was also strangely lovely. Her skin seemed to glow and pulse, like new blood was flowing.
“Well, I’ll tell you this,” Bettina Williams told the crowd. “It’s very inappropriate to respond to miracles with guns. We have to send these men away.”
Everyone agreed, and that’s how the residents of Havenwood ended up in a human barricade, standing across Main Street as a Fish and Game truck arrived in town. Clive Drexler took charge, stepping forward.
“Go away!” he shouted.
Quincy Trask and Leland Hayes got out of their official vehicle. They were not accustomed to being challenged.
“We’re here to help,” Leland told the townspeople.
“This is a dangerous animal,” Quincy added.
“No, this is an animal who’s bringing miracles! Now go away!” a woman shouted.
Quincy and Leland wondered if the whole town had gone crazy overnight.
Then Tommy Lerner stepped forward and threw his glucose monitor at the men.
“Son, you need that,” Leland said, stepping forward to rescue the device from the rainwater.
“No, I don’t!” Tommy shouted at him. “The tiger saved me. I’m not diabetic anymore. Don’t you get it? You need to leave!””
There was nothing the men could do at that moment. Fish and Game officials are allowed to shoot and kill animals but they certainly aren’t allowed to run over townspeople who are blocking their way.
Mason’s ankle was throbbing and swollen, pressing hard against the leather of his hiking boots. He finally had to sit down on a fallen log, the pain was so great, and once he did tears flooded out of him. He was ashamed to be sobbing like a baby. The rain had eased up and he heard branches cracking in front of him. He lifted his head and looked through the wet gray air, right into the eyes of a huge tiger.
Why wasn’t he frightened? His mind knew he could be mauled to death in minutes, but his heart knew something else. He reached out his hand and touched thick warm fur. The tiger lifted his head and yawned. Then the huge animal sidled up to him and Mason understood. Carefully, he climbed onto the tiger’s back.
He looped his arms around the animal’s strong neck and let his tears fall into thick fur. He knew the tiger was going to take him home, and something deep inside his heart opened and dared to hope that life could be different now.
The skies over Havenwood began clattering with thunder. Lightning flashed. The helicopters turned quickly and fled. Quincy and Leland drove away fast before the roads washed out. They were glad to be leaving the town behind, with all that crazy talk about miracles.
It was late afternoon when Norman Pykes from the Hardware Store drove down Main Street, shouting that a tiger was carrying Mason Trillon at the north end of town. People took off running, shouting to others along the way.
As the rain lightened, the townspeople watched a tiger stride toward them with Mason Trillon stretched peacefully along his back. When the tiger stopped, Mason got off. Then the most majestic animal anyone had ever seen calmly walked away.
The men with guns never returned. Mason never became a soldier; he went to veterinary school instead. Sometimes at night when he closes his eyes, he can feel warm fur and the ripple of muscle beneath his hands. The tiger brought him home. Those tracks never disappear.