We’re shitfaced and looking for animals inside the floral wallpaper. Pet Sounds hums from Rust’s sound system. He’d wanted to drink in silence, something about being too dependent on noise, but we always listen to music when we go on safari. I spot a roaring tiger hiding behind some blooming roses and leaves. It’s easy. Like staring at one of those stereogram images, you just have to let your eyes and mind go slack. Once you do that, you’ll own a whole zoo’s worth of animals.
“I spy a tiger,” I say, outlining the beast’s stripes with my finger.
Rust leans forward and squints. I can’t tell if he sees it yet. The animal doesn’t count unless we both see it. He tugs at his chin stubble. I’m not worried. Rust is the best in the game. He once found a quokka behind a field of flat lilies and ivy. Not a baby kangaroo. Not a giant rat. A smiling quokka.
“Oh, there he is.”
Rust gulps down the rest of his beer then adds the can to the aluminum tower growing on the end table next to him. With a grunt, he lifts himself out of the sofa. He cocks his head toward the kitchen. I raise my beer as if giving a toast and can almost hear the tiger’s growl as Rust disappears to fetch another cold one.
The world record is fifty-seven. We were on fire that night. I’d had a twelve-pack to myself, while Rust must have drunk three times as much. We tracked animals all over his house—in his bathroom, his dining room, his living room, his bedroom. Rust would get super close to the wallpaper and stare like someone studying a masterpiece. Then he’d start listing animals—not like dogs and cats but some really rare shit. Pika. White-rumped vulture. Saola. Vaquita. When I couldn’t see them, he’d take my hand and draw them for me.
When I took the bus home that night, I repeated Rust’s findings again and again. I didn’t want to forget our achievement. I wanted to learn more about the animals, about their habitats, about what they ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Most of the animals Rust had identified ended up being critically endangered. Part of me believes by searching for them Rust and I are helping to keep their numbers up.
Rust emerges from the kitchen. He’s carrying a glass of water and a plastic grocery bag. He topples his aluminum tower into the grocery bag. I don’t count the tumbling cans. Rust once told me only wussies count. Then Rust lowers himself back into the sofa and sips the water. It’s not even 9:30.
“Does Sheryl get off early tonight?” I ask.
“No, she’ll be gone late again.”
We sit in silence. It’s like a poacher has cut out our tongues and sold them to the highest bidder.
“I talked to Sheryl,” Rust finally says, gazing into his water glass. “And we think it’s best if I quit drinking.”
“What about the animals?”
“Honestly, man, I never saw them. I thought we were just goofing around.”
“But they don’t count unless we both see them.”
“I guess they never counted then.”
I spring out of the recliner and dart to the blooming roses and leaves. I’ll show him what’s real. I gently run my hand across the wallpaper. I don’t want to scare the tiger off. Once I find the bastard, I’ll grab it by the tail and yank it free. But I can’t seem to locate the tiger. I pat the wallpaper like a cop hunting for a weapon he knows isn’t there.
The tiger’s gone or maybe never was.
I turn around, and Rust is still gazing at his water glass like he wants to drown himself in the sobering fluid.
What had we been looking for then?
Will Musgrove is a writer and journalist from Northwest Iowa. He received an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ghost Parachute, Inklette, Flora Fiction, 5×5 Literary Magazine, and Barstow & Grand. Follow him on Twitter at @Will_Musgrove.