What happens when you’re rejected by the people you love most?
|Shanti stomped with every step as she stormed through the forest, nothing but a small yellow flashlight clutched in her hand. Branches broke under her wet purple sneakers. Her orange t-shirt and purple skirt were soaked, but she, teeth gritted, pressed on. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “I should’ve kept it to myself,” she sobbed, knowing no one would hear the words she just threw into the empty, cold universe. “Then things would be okay.” |
Today she had finally done it. She had finally told her parents that she wasn’t who they thought she was. She had given them sporadic hints before, but they never seemed to pick up on them, so she had finally decided to tell them outright. After all the hiding, she had finally exposed her true self to them, who she hoped would accept her and love her no matter what.
She was wrong. More tears fell as she recalled the yelling and being sent to bed dinnerless. It was over. She couldn’t stop thinking about the hate she’d been shown by the ones she loved the most. They’d told her being how she was was very reprehensible.
So, when everyone was asleep and the clock hit midnight, she had snuck out and never looked back. Now she was in the middle of the forest not far from her house, wandering aimlessly. The more she thought, the faster she went, eventually picking her pace up to a run. She was usually so confident in her actions, but now she had no clue what she should do. Shanti was frustrated with herself beyond belief. “Why'd you have to be this way?!” she asked herself furiously, her teeth clenched. “Why’d you have to like girls? Why couldn’t you just be normal and like boys? Then you wouldn’t be in this whole mess!”
Something caught her foot and sent her tumbling forward, snapping her out of her thoughts. She rolled down a hillside dotting with small bushes, crashed painfully through them, and came to a stop a couple feet in front of a murky pond.
“RAWL!” cried an animal painfully. Shanti snapped her head up and pointed her flashlight in front of her just in time to see a full grown cougar disappear under the water no more than twenty feet away from her. Greenish scales surfaced the water a couple times, but the cougar never did.
A bolt of fear shot through Shanti. Alligator! She used all her willpower to keep from screeching. She scrambled to her feet and rushed away from the pond, slipping every few steps on the mud underneath her shoes. Although her now aching muscles wanted to stop, her pounding heart wouldn’t let her.
The cry snapped Shanti out of her thoughts and she noticed she had left the pond far behind. She slowed down, not knowing where the cry came from due to the loud sound of the downpour. She scanned her surroundings; a damp forest area with green, flourishing trees all around. She looked at the ground around her. Nothing.
The sound sounded a little bit like a meow, but Shanti knew no cat was dumb enough to sit out in this rain. Her ears were manipulating her. She pressed on. A shiver rippled through her body from the cold.
The cry came again.
This time, Shanti completely stopped. She turned around, carefully scanning her damp, green surroundings. She looked at a cluster of bushes a few feet away. It sounded like the cry came from there. She curiously walked closer.
The cry was louder. Shanti was sure she was going the right way. She kept walking to the cluster of bushes and came to a stop in front of them. Not more than five seconds later, the cry came again. “Mew!”
This time it came from below her. She peered down into the bushes. She pulled the leaves and branches aside with her arms, flashlight still in hand, trying to get a good look of whatever might be inside. Squinting, she was able to get a look at it. An animal with tawny fur and dark brown spots peered back up at her with wide blue eyes. It sat all alone, shivers rippling violently throughout its tiny body.
“Mew!” Even though the animal couldn’t speak in human words, the cries weren’t unintelligible. The poor thing was clearly cold and scared.
Without hesitation, Shanti reached for the little animal, and to her surprise, it didn’t protest or resist. Shanti stood up straight once more and held it close to her, hoping whatever warmth she had to offer helped. She looked down at it as it shifted in her arms. Now that it was out in the open, she could get a much better look at it. Tawny fur and brown spots like she’d seen earlier, with round ears, and a long tail with a brown tip. The realization dawned upon her that the animal she was holding could be a cougar cub. It just had to be; it fit the description of a cougar cub to a tee! A horrible realization hit her when she remembered the adult cougar she’d seen earlier. That must’ve been its mother.
The cub, while still cold and shivering, gazed up at her with curious blue eyes. She gazed back down at it. She saw how innocent its gaze was, totally unassuming of any potential danger. The fear she had seen in its eyes before had vanished as it rubbed its cheek against her. It completely trusted her, which both surprised her and warmed her heart. The feeling made her feel the same way she’d felt when she would be hugged by her parents. Warm and fuzzy inside and out.
The thought of her parents made Shanti want to cry again, but she chose against it. She tried to keep a semblance of calmness and strength, both for herself and for the now motherless cub that was nestled in her arms. Shanti was supposed to be brave and strong, not someone who would break down in tears every second.
She knew she had to do something. She couldn’t just sit in the forest all night, not with the storm or alligators around. If she did, it was imminent something bad would happen. She had to go back home whether she liked it or not. Cradling the cub against her chest in one arm, she used her free arm to point her flashlight back the way she came and marched towards her house. It was still the middle of the night, so her parents hopefully wouldn’t know she was gone. If they did and she came marching home in the middle of the night with a cougar cub, she was in for a world of trouble.
It wasn’t long before she made her way out of the forest and back to the edge of her neighborhood. It wasn’t as if she had never been there before. She loved exploring and would commonly adventure through parts of the forest close to the neighborhood, so it wasn’t a wonder she didn’t get lost. Before long, she made it to her driveway. Relief swept over her as she saw the family’s car still parked in the driveway. If they had known she left, they’d be driving around looking for her. At least she hoped they would, but she wasn’t so sure anymore. Before she had told them she liked girls, Shanti surpassed all of her parents’ expectations for her. She had amazing grades, a positive attitude, and was respectful to them and others.
But that didn’t matter now.
Instead of entering through the front door, Shanti stuck her small flashlight in her pocket, hopped gingerly over the fence, cub still in her arm, and snuck in through the back window, which was usually unlocked. Once inside, Shanti crept up the old, creaky stairs, through the carpeted hallway with greenish walls, and finally to her room. The house was a little old and its interior was proof of that, but Shanti’s parents preferred this over the gaudy houses in the city. Shanti slowly opened her creaky white door and crept into her dark room, sighing in relief as she finally shut the door behind her. She took the cub in one arm briefly again and used her free hand to brush the wall near the door, eventually finding the light switch, and flicking it on. She sat on the floor and placed the cub onto her purple blanketed bed beside her. She then stood up and went to get one of the few purple towels she had collated in her closet. She opened the white closet door, grabbed one, and went back to the cub and wrapped the towel around it. She ran her hand through its fur. The cub was soaked to the bone. She rubbed it back and forth with the towel, drying it. Once the towel felt damper than the cub was, she unwrapped it, revealing a now much happier fluffy tawny cub with dappled darker spots.
She held out her hand to the cub, which it immediately brushed up against and let out a tiny purr. Shanti smiled; the first smile she had since that moment she’d told her parents… She shook the memory away. It wouldn’t help her now. “It’s just you and me now,” she said, tickling the cub’s soft white underbelly as it rolled over. “We’ve gotta look out for each other.”
The cub let out a little “mew!” as if agreeing.
“What should I call you…?” Shanti murmured, watching the cub stand back up and sniff curiously around her bed. Then, as it got closer to her once again, she noticed one of its dappled darker markings on its forehead was in the shape of a star. “Nyota?” It was a word Shanti’s grandmother had always used. “Grandma always said it means star.”
The cub pressed its light pink nose on her hand that lay limply on the bed. That brought a smile to her face once more. “So… Nyota it is, huh?”
Shanti laid both arms out on the bed and Nyota came tumbling into them. This made Shanti smile from ear to ear. Nyota loved her no matter who Shanti herself chose to love. That made her feel so much joy inside and out. She knew there was no going back now. Raising a wild animal is painstaking work that will only end in it turning on you one day, said most animal organizations. But when Shanti looked into Nyota’s loving eyes, she knew that wouldn’t be true. Besides, Nyota’s real mother was gone. The little cub needed someone who would love and care for him. Shanti could be that someone. “You'll be my little star now, Nyota.”