I dreamed there was a panther loose in our neighborhood. I tracked the panther until I found it crouching beneath a little girl’s bedroom window down the block. It did not attack me. Instead, it followed me home, and I had to sneak it into my bedroom where I gave it food and water and hid it from the hunters and zookeepers and the neighborhood watch committee that had organized a special task force to capture or kill the beast. The task force dressed in all black and wore black ski masks and carried butterfly nets and you could tell the women from the men because of the form-fitting outfits. The zookeepers wore safari outfits and also carried butterfly nets and were all short, stocky men with handlebar mustaches. The hunters wore orange camo shirts and Stetsons and tapered blue jeans with white Nikes and carried semiautomatic handguns with silencers.
I fed the panther milk and cereal from my favorite bowl, which was decorated with dinosaurs, and the panther looked at me as if it wanted to say something but couldn’t because we did not speak the same language. So instead it laid down in a parallelogram of light coming through the bedroom window and yawned and licked its paws and squinted at the sun. I tried out different disguises on the panther: a novelty Groucho Marx mask, a blonde wig with sunglasses, a trench coat and fedora ensemble.
Then there was a knock at the door, and it was my mother, who was delivering an important package. I said I was sorry I hadn’t been home for several days, tried to explain that I’d undertaken a secret mission regarding the missing panther and that I hoped she could find it in her heart to forgive me, but she looked at me sadly and walked away without saying a word.
I wanted to set the panther free. I wanted to fly it first-class to the nearest jungle and push it out of the airplane with a parachute strapped to its back. I wanted to watch the panther, at the threshold where the jungle meets the civilized world, take its first cautious steps toward freedom, to look back at me with a sort of longing, as if to say something like farewell, as if to ask me with its eyes if this was what I really wanted for the both of us. I wanted to watch it vanish into the brush as if the mouth of the jungle had opened up and swallowed it whole.
When I got back to my room, the panther had disappeared. I searched the neighborhood for hours. Eventually, I found a set of bloody paw prints leading back to my garage and heard the angry rabble of the nearby mob. When I went into the garage, it was pitch black inside. It was like stepping through a portal to a place outside of time. I swallowed the blackness whole and felt our hearts beating in the syncopated rhythm of our shared mammalian fear. I listened to its low steady growl that seemed to be coming from inside me now.
Jamie Cooper is a 2004 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His work has appeared in TYPO, Colorado Review, Parthenon West, and elsewhere. He teaches English and writes about the NBA for UPROXX Sports. He lives in Portland, Oregon