Jerry was in the driver’s seat, while Ian rode shotgun and the dead tiger lay across the back seat. They had covered it as best we could with an old blanket, but its legs, tail and snout stuck out beneath the patchwork, so the disguise wouldn’t fool anyone looking in.
“You’re driving too slowly,” Ian said.
“I’m at the speed limit.” Jerry was sweating. He couldn’t tell if it was from the heat, or from nerves. They had wound the windows down, because otherwise the stench from the dead tiger would have been overwhelming. The hot summer air blew into the car, but the smell of shit, blood, musky fur, and rot lingered.
“No one drives at the speed limit. You’ll get us noticed.”
The speed dial crept forward slightly. Jerry was on his red plates, so they could only go at ninety kilometres per hour.
“How long until we get back?”
“Three hours, maybe four. We’ve only just reached the mountains.”
“Has it stopped oozing yet?”
Ian twisted in his seat. The tiger had been leaking when we’d shoved it into the car. Piss, crap, blood, saliva, all of it trickling from its orifices. It looked pathetic, nothing like the tigers he had seen on nature documentaries. The fluids were soaking into the foam car seats.
“Yes,” Ian lied. “It’s stopped.”
“Damn thing. I’m going to ask Ronnie for extra, to cover the mess. Dad will be pissed if he sees it.”
“Do you really think Ronnie has any more money to give us?”
Jerry changed gears with a jerk. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’ve seen his house before. It’s more of an eyesore than ours. Besides, how much money can you really get from stuffing pets?”
Jerry stayed silent.
“Dad probably won’t even see it. He never leaves the house anyway.”
The radio was tuned to a news station. It was the first time the station had been heard in the car, but the two were waiting for any reports of the lost tiger. It hadn’t come yet, so the Ian learnt about politics for the first time.
“What are you going to do with your half of the money?” Jerry asked suddenly.
Ian had been fiddling with the broken air conditioning. “I’m not sure. Tom has a flat screen. Imagine how nice my room will look with one, instead of that shitty analogue TVs. We’re the only ones who still have antennae on our TV.”
“Really? That’s what you’d spend it on?”
“What else would I get?”
“What? Are you going to pay Ronnie to teach you how to stuff a dead thing? Is that why you’re always hanging around in his freak shop?”
“Are you going to take over his business? Spend all your time ringing people up when you hear their pets have died?”
Ian began to speak in a gruff voice, “I’m sorry to hear about Boomer dying, but did you know that you can preserve his memory and body forever?”
The air conditioners sputtered and began to blow out cold wind.
Ian continued, “And while you’re being taught how to stuff animals, Ronnie can stuff you as well.”
“That paedophile joke is getting old.” Jerry said.
The tiger farted. Jerry jerked in his seat, twisting the wheel and making the car swerve. It barely missed a sedan. Ian clenched his fists and turned around, but the tiger was still dead. Its stomach shifted slightly, but its eyes remained still and vacant. Ian started breathing again.
“Relax. I heard that corpses do that. It’s like, gas escaping the body.”
“Shit.” Jerry said, waving a hand in apology at the car next to them. The driver flipped them off.
The air conditioning stopped working, and Ian hit it. The tiger’s stench became stronger.
They drove in silence for a bit longer and started to ascend the Blue Mountains. The highway curved and winded the higher we got, and the stretches between towns became intensely green.
They passed by a McDonald’s in Blacktown, but Jerry didn’t want to stop the car and risk anyone seeing the tiger, so they didn’t stop. Even with the smell of rotting meat in the car, Ian’s stomach groaned.
“I don’t want to be a taxidermist, anyway.” Jerry said.
“What? What’s a taxidermist?”
Jerry snorted. “Ronnie. Ronnie is a taxidermist. Animal stuffing, but they don’t use stuffing anymore.”
“So why do you hang around that freak?
“Ronnie’s a weird guy, I know that.”
“Everyone in the town knows that.”
“I know. Look, he’s weird, but he’s alright.”
“Alright? The guy’s house is filled with half skinned animals and stuffed dogs, and cats, and roos. He makes his living by asking people if they want their pets mummified. Apparently he hires little boys to go collect dead tigers for him.”
“And apparently, you steal dead tigers for money.” Jerry’s hands tightened on the steering wheel.
“Right, but why does he want a dead tiger?”
“He stuffs animals. Why do you think he wants a dead tiger?”
“How much is he paying us for this?”
“Five thousand dollars.”
“Five thousand dollars. How much will he be selling that tiger for? I doubt he’ll ever make back what he spent to get it. So why does he want it?”
“People don’t just do things for money, Ian.”
“Yeah, they do. Why do you think I’m doing this?”
“To help your younger brother?” Jeremy asked sarcastically.
“Don’t be an idiot. I’m doing this because you offered me half. So, what does he want to spend five thousand dollars on? The chance to skin and stuff a tiger? That’d be crazy. So, that means he’s a freak. He probably gets off on cutting open dead things. So why do you hang around him? The way I figure it, you’re just as much of a freak as he is.”
“Right, a freak. Do you want to know why he wants the tiger?”
“Inside his house, there’s a room where he has a whole zoo of stuffed animals from all over the world. He has grizzlies standing twice as high as you. He has two bald eagles from America. He has a jaguar lying on top of a bookshelf. He has a moose with antlers wider than this car. He has all of these animals standing like they’re still alive.”
Ian turned to look at the tiger. Its slack lips reminded him of his father, when he was slumped drunkenly on the couch. “Why?”
“Why does he have all of that? Such a fucking waste of money.”
“Right, and you never waste your money.”
Jerry stepped on the breaks. The car slip to a stop, making the driver behind them swerve to avoid colliding. The tiger slid forward and smashed against their backs. Its head lolled sickeningly.
Jerry turned on his brother. “Don’t you? Ian, you’re going to buy a flat screen? You’re going to buy enough goon to get you and your friends drunk for the rest of the year? You’re going to buy some new clothes? You have nothing new to watch on a flat screen. You and your friends just bitch about each other because you have nothing else to talk about. You don’t have anywhere to wear nice clothes to. Why are you even here?”
Ian snarled. “And what will you do with your half, huh? What do you get from helping Ronnie?”
“I want to leave. I want to move out and start out somewhere else. Anywhere else.” Jerry said quietly.
“You haven’t even finished high school yet.”
“I will in a year. Then I’ll go.”
“Dad won’t pay for it.”
“No. I won’t need him to, though. I’ve been saving it. I haven’t been wasting it like you have.”
“And that’s it. You’re just going to go and leave me with Dad?”
“Yes. I’m not happy there. Neither is Ronnie, why else does he surround himself with animals from around the world? Is Dad happy? That’s probably why he drinks himself blind in front of the TV he’s had since he was fifteen. Are you happy? What is your plan, anyway? Are you just going to keep working at the liquor store to get by, until all your friends just meet at the pub and keep talking shit? You just going to stay there until you knock up Kristy? Are you going to wind up just like Dad?”
Ian froze. He stepped out of the car and slammed the door shut.
“What are you doing?” Jerry asked, stepping out of the car too.
Ian yanked open the back door, and the tiger’s head and arms spilled out. The creature was beautifully coloured, but it was covered with dirt and dust, and around the leg and crotch it was stained with pungent urine. Ian’s nose wrinkled.
Jerry didn’t dare get too close to Ian. “What are you doing? Look, I didn’t mean it, okay? I’m sorry.”
Ian began to tug and pull on the dead tiger. The corpse shifted back and forth, and blood began to leak from its mouth. He planted his feet against the car’s wheel, and wrenched the tiger out. It crumpled against the concrete. Jerry grabbed the tiger’s legs, and tried to lift it back into the car.
“Ian, please, help me.”
“I just did.” Ian said. He stepped into the driver’s seat of the car and sped off without a word.
Jerry sat down beside the tiger and watched the other cars speed past.