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First Tiger
by George Harrar

Category: Mainstream
Description: When a car crash takes a life, to whom does the tragedy really happen--the wife who dies? The husband who was driving? Or the six-year-old son sitting in the back seat? Author George Harrar explores this provocative question in his debut novel, set in the arts colony of New Hope, Pennsylvania, on the Delware River. The book begins 10 years after the accident when Jake Paine, now 16, comes home after almost a year as a runaway. His return sparks painful memories in his father, a man verging on a nervous breakdown. Jake's appearance also ignites old fears among townspeople about a boy who dances on the edge of craziness.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1999
eBookwise Release Date: June 2001


3 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [344 KB]
Words: 84911
Reading time: 242-339 min.


"IMAGINE BEING DECAPITATED," my father said to me once as we were sharpening the kitchen knives in the basement. Flakes of steel floated into the air each time he pressed the tip of the blade to the grindstone. My job was to hand him the next dull knife when he was ready for it. I was only ten at the time, and I didn't know what "decapitated" meant. Dad always assumed I knew more than I did. "Your head falls to the ground," he said as he ran his finger over the edge of the meat cleaver, "and you expect to be dead. But your brain still has a few seconds' worth of oxygen left. You look up and there's the rest of your body still draped over the chopping block. That, my boy, is the most intense moment of existence I can imagine."

Dad could be a pretty depressing guy to live with. Whenever I wished for anything when I was little, he'd say, "Expect death, Jake, and you won't ever be disappointed." That was his philosophy of life: Expect the worst. The worst did happen to him  -- Mom dying in the car accident ten years ago. It happened to me, too. I mean, I was in the car. I saw her die. But I was only six at the time, and I believed Dad when he said she'd gone off to a better place.

On my sixteenth birthday I decided it was time for me to find somewhere better to live. I had no name for this place and no picture in my mind of what it would look like. I guess I was so used to Dad imagining different worlds for me that I couldn't imagine a new one for myself.

I didn't run because of him or even Jenny, who moved in about a year after the accident. I called her my "mother figure" because she hated me calling her that. She had thick legs and skinny ankles and smelled like beer from serving drinks at The Logan Inn all day. She found something to yell at me about every time she saw me, but she was mostly harmless. The real reason I ran away was because the teachers, cops, and shrinks in town were starting to talk to each other, which meant they might actually do something about me. They said I was troubled. They said I lacked direction. They said I should be analyzed. Jenny told me all of this as we sat around the kitchen table the night after the "Shocking Canal Attack," as the Gazette put it in a giant headline. She sipped her whiskey coffee and stared at me with her lips tight, as if about to spit it on me. Dad drank his A&W root beer and picked at the yellow flowers pressed onto the Formica tabletop. My little sister, Krissy, came wandering into the kitchen singing some kid's rhyme, pretending not to be listening. I pulled Mars up on my lap and rubbed the old cat's ears to show I had feelings. Jenny liked to tell doctors that I didn't seem to feel anything. It was her favorite thing to say about me.

We were trying to understand how I had gotten into trouble again. I explained how unavoidable this mess was, like all of the others  -- the fire in Bantry's tractor barn, for instance, or Gerenser's dog drowning. I showed them how easy it was to get into these situations, at least for me. Jenny didn't like hearing that. She wanted me to be terrifically sorry and promise not to do anything wrong ever again. She wanted Dad to go beyond a simple punishment and on to some long-range plan of handling me. But not being my real mother, Jenny lacked jurisdiction, which made her furious. She pounded the table and grabbed the closest hard object  -- this time it was the ceramic Santa Claus that never got put away  -- and she swung it over our heads to make sure we listened to her. She said I had to start taking control of myself, or someone else would. She said I had to change.

That's when Dad's face went blank, and I knew something crazy was going through his mind. He said, "Imagine if ice didn't float."

Normally, Jenny let such statements pass by like some weird sound you hear in the night and don't really want to know about. But this time she shook him by the shoulders and yelled in his face, "What does ice have to do with this?"

Dad lifted his glass and rattled the ice cubes. "Water is the strangest thing on earth. When water freezes, it gets lighter. Nothing else in the world does that. Ice floats. If it didn't, lakes would freeze from the bottom up."

"So?" Jenny demanded.

"If lakes were to freeze bottom up," he said slowly, "life would die out in the first big cold spell. Life began in the ocean, so it wouldn't exist ... if ice didn't float." Jenny shook her head and turned away, then remembered something. "But ice does float," she spit out at him.

Dad nodded that she had finally gotten his point. When he left the kitchen, I followed closely behind him, before Jenny could get her hands on me.

Copyright © 1999 by George Harrar

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