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Tiger in the Intercom by Richard Seltzer

Copyright 1991 

NEW BOY

Nothing in the Project seemed to work. Doors didn't open. Windows didn't shut. Even some of the grownups were broken. They just sat on the steps and stared and didn't work.

Then the New Boy moved in.

The first time that Mary and Georgie and Joanna and Freddie saw the New Boy, he was sitting on the steps doing nothing, like the grownups.

Freddie asked, "Gosh, Mary, is he broken, too?"

"I don't know," answered Mary. "I've never seen a broken kid before. I thought only grownups got broken. Georgie, go take a closer look."

So Georgie crept up close to the New Boy. But the New Boy didn't say a word, didn't even turn his head.

Then Georgie turned and ran, and they all ran to their favorite hiding place, behind the old black car with no windows.

"Did he see you?" asked Mary.

"No," answered Georgie.

"Then why did you run, silly?"

"Because he couldn't see me," answered Georgie.

"What?" asked Mary.

"I think he's blind," said Georgie.

None of them, not even Mary, had ever seen a blind boy before.

"If he can't see us, why are we hiding?" asked Freddie.

They all laughed. But none of them stood up and stepped out.

There was something scary about a blind boy.


LISA AND SANDY

The New Boy just sat on the steps and the other kids stayed away from him until the twins, Lisa and Sandy, found out he had special powers.

Even though he didn't say a word to the other kids and the kids didn't say a word to him, he must have paid attention to what was going on around him. That afternoon when the twins walked by, he greeted them, "Good morning, Lisa and Sandy.

"And which one am I?" Sandy asked him, with a laugh.

Nobody could tell the twins apart, not even Mary. Mary and Georgie and Joanna and Freddie were always asking them, "Which one are you?"

The New Boy answered right away, "Sandy, of course."

"That's just a lucky guess."

"No. Do you think I'm a fool? I know who's who."

"How could you know? We look so much alike, we confuse everybody."

"Well, I can't see you, so what you look like doesn't confuse me. I have no trouble at all telling you apart."

"And how did you know it was me?" asked Sandy.

"Because you skip as you walk, and you always slow down when you pass by the rose bush, and you smell like fresh-cut grass."

"And what about me?" asked Lisa.

"You run ahead three steps, then wait for the others to catch up, then run ahead again. You scrape the ground with your heel when you stand still. And when you talk, you spit your words out one after the other, then pause before finishing your thought."

The twins were delighted that he knew them both so well and that he liked them each for different reasons and in different ways, not just together as twins. He made them each feel very special.

Soon the three of them were playing games together. Sandy liked to play blind man's bluff, and Lisa liked hide-and-seek.

The New Boy was great at both games. No trick of sight could fool him. No matter how well Sandy and Lisa hid, he could always find them.

Mary asked the twins, "What's his name?"

"Roger," answered Lisa.

"But we call him 'New Boy,'" added Sandy.

"He doesn't see things the way everybody else does," said Lisa proudly.

"He makes everything seem new," explained Sandy.

"Well, I don't see what's so special about him," said Mary.

"He's blind. There's nothing special about that, not special-good."

"He's a lot of fun to play with," said Sandy.

"Well, I'll play with him, too," said Mary. "But not because he's special; just because I feel sorry for him, that's all."

As soon as Mary started playing with him, Georgie and Joanna and Freddie did, too.


BLIND DATES

Lisa and Sandy's mother wasn't married. Sometimes she went out on blind dates. Sandy liked to play a make-believe game with the New Boy that she called "blind dates." She would put on a blindfold and walk around the yard with him.

"Here we are at a fancy restaurant," said Sandy. And Lisa took their orders for cake and ice cream. Then Sandy and the New Boy danced while Lisa sang and hummed and made noises like a dance band.

"You're so handsome," said Sandy, as she adjusted her blindfold.

"And you're beautiful," said the New Boy.

Mary laughed. "What a silly game. And I suppose you think everybody's beautiful?"

"No," said the New Boy. "Very few people are really and truly beautiful."

"And how can you tell? You can't see anything," said Mary.

As soon as she had said it, she bit her lip and wished she hadn't said anything at all. She felt so sorry for the blind boy.

"You don't have to see people to know that they're beautiful," answered the New Boy. "Take you, for instance, Mary. I know that you're very beautiful."

Mary didn't know what to say. Her mirror told her that she was plain. Even her mother told her that she was plain. But the blind boy called her "beautiful." And he sounded so certain and sincere.

One day, Mary's mother, Mrs. Mahoney, saw Sandy and Lisa and the New Boy playing "blind dates." Mary's mother told the twins, "You shouldn't fool him like that. He doesn't know what's real and what's not. You shouldn't put ideas like that into his head.

He's just a little blind boy. It's sad that he's blind. But you shouldn't give him false ideas and false hopes. Sooner or later, he'll find out that it's all make-believe, that everything's all broken and dirty, and that'll hurt him more than anything else."

Sandy and Lisa didn't know what to say. They didn't want to hurt their friend. They just wanted to make him happy like he made them happy. They just enjoyed playing make-believe.


SPACE PROJECT

The New Boy asked lots of questions.

"He's very curious," said Lisa. She was proud of the New Boy and everything he could do.

"He doesn't know anything," said Mary. "That's why he asks so much. How can he know anything, when he can't see anything?"

The New Boy asked all about the Project. He asked about things that everybody else just took for granted.

"Why doesn't the door work? Why doesn't the window work? Why don't you work, Mr. Mahoney?"

Mr. Mahoney, Mary's father, didn't know what to say. He was one of the people who just sat on the steps and stared.

Mary didn't know what to say either. "You're silly," she blurted out to the New Boy. "You're always asking the wrong kind of question. Nobody knows why things are the way they are."

"Why not?" asked the New Boy.

"Because," said Mary. "Just because. Don't be such a silly. Ask real questions."

"What's a real question?"

"Ask where we are."

"Where are we?" asked the New Boy, and he sounded like he really didn't know.

"We're in the Project," answered Mary, proudly.

"What's the Project."

"That's a big building with lots of families, just off the Freeway."

"And where's the Freeway?"

"In the City, of course," answered Mary.

"And where's the City?" asked the New Boy.

"Don't you know anything?" asked Mary. "The City's on Earth, of course."

"Are you sure?" asked the New Boy.

"Well, everybody lives on Earth," said Mary. "Everybody but astronauts and spacemen."

"Are you sure this isn't a Space Project?" asked the New Boy.

Mary laughed. But Lisa and Sandy didn't laugh. They knew that the New Boy was special. They looked around at the high walls of the Project. They had never wondered before. But now they wondered: What was the Project, really? Where were they, really? 


TIGER IN THE INTERCOM

Freddie didn't talk very often, especially with Mary around. Mary knew so much that he was afraid to let her know how little he knew.

But one day, Freddie said, "I think there's a tiger in the Project."

"Don't be silly, " said Mary. "Tigers only live in jungles and zoos and circuses."

"But I heard a tiger," insisted Freddie.

"Where did you hear him?" asked the New Boy.

"I think he's in the intercom," said Freddie.

Freddie led everybody up to his family's apartment and showed them the intercom. "Voices come out to there," said Freddie.

"People's voices. And sometimes a tiger's voice."

Mary said, "Oh, silly, that's just an intercom like any other intercom. It's like a telephone. You use it to talk to people downstairs by the door."

"But I heard a tiger in there," said Freddie.

"Don't be silly, " said Mary. And she pushed the button, and the intercom roared, and everybody shrieked and jumped back, except Mary and the New Boy.

"That's just static, " said Mary. "It's broken so it makes noises like that."

"Can you do that again, please?" asked the New Boy.

Mary pushed the button again, and again the intercom roared, and again everybody shrieked and jumped back, except Mary and the New Boy.

"Gosh, you're lucky, Freddie," said the New Boy.

"Lucky?" asked Mary.

"Sure. He's got a Bengal," said the New Boy.

"A Bengal?" asked everybody.

"Yes. That's a very special tiger. That's a tiger from

India. Most intercoms have just ordinary tigers. But Freddie's intercom has a real Bengal tiger. You can tell by the sound of his voice."

Mary pushed the button again, and again the intercom roared. But this time everybody got really close so they could hear better.

"That's just static," insisted Mary.

But Freddie asked the New Boy, "Is he dangerous?"

"No," said the New Boy. "He's there in the intercom to protect you. He scares away ghosts and goblins and monsters."

Freddie pushed the button and listened close. "Golly," he said. "That is a Bengal."


HOW THE TIGERS GOT INTO THE INTERCOMS

Freddie was proud. There was a tiger in his intercom, a very special tiger, a Bengal tiger, all the way from India.

The other kids in the Project had tigers in their intercoms, too. All except Mary. Mary just had static in her intercom.

Her intercom just didn't work right. The tigers scared away ghosts and goblins and monsters. Each night, all the kids, except Mary, left out saucers of milk for their tigers.

Freddie asked the New Boy, "How did the tigers get into the intercoms?"

Mary mocked him, "Oh, silly, how can you believe such nonsense? Tigers only live in jungles. Tigers don't live in intercoms."

"Mary's partly right," admitted the New Boy. "Tigers used to live only in jungles. Then people came and chopped down the trees and dug up the grass and built roads and shopping centers and there wasn't any jungle anymore. Some of the tigers got jobs working for zoos and circuses. And the other tigers went around with stray dogs and cats, looking for scraps of food in people's garbage.

"It wasn't a very happy life. Often they went hungry and cold. And they felt useless.

"Then one day a man came and told them about the Space Project. He said there was going to be a City way out in outer space. And the best and luckiest kids and grownups were going to get to live in that City. And they needed tigers to guard the people, because nobody knows what's really out in outer space; and there could be all sorts of ghosts and goblins and monsters. And tigers are so big and strong and fearless -- they could scare away anything.

"So lots of tigers went with the man. Now they live in the intercoms in the Space Project. They're very proud and happy, most of the time. But sometimes they get homesick. Then they just lie there in the intercom and shut their eyes and growl softly and imagine they're back in the jungle."


THE DRUMMER BOY

Mary didn't believe the New Boy. He talked about things that she couldn't see. Mary only believed things she could see.

The New Boy was blind. He couldn't see anything. And he believed all sorts of things he couldn't see, like the Drummer Boy.

"The Drummer Boy?" asked Joanna.

"Yes, Yanni, the Drummer Boy. He lives right here in the Project," said the New Boy.

"I've never met him," said Joanna.

"I haven't met him either," said the New Boy. "But I hear him every time it rains."

"Where do you hear him?" asked Joanna.

"Right outside my window, down by the trash cans."

"I don't believe it," said Mary.

"Oh, Mary, you never believe anything," said Joanna. And she asked the New Boy, "What's Yanni like? Do you think he'll teach me how to play the drums?"

"I don't know," said the New Boy. "He keeps to himself. He only comes out when it rains."

"I wonder why I haven't heard him?" asked Joanna.

"You've heard him, silly," said Mary. "I bet it's just the rain beating on the trash cans."

"Mary's partly right," admitted the New Boy. "He sounds just like the rain beating on cans. He's a fantastic drummer. It's awfully hard to sound like the rain beating on cans. It's a very special beat."

"Oh, silly, why would anybody sit out in the rain and play the drums?" asked Mary.

"Because the rain makes him sad," said the New Boy. "He always plays the drums when he feels sad.

"He used to live back on Earth when there were jungles and forests and fields; when tigers and lions and monkeys and kids all played together.

"Then the jungles and forests got cut down. People built roads and parking lots and shopping centers. Then the tigers and the lions and the monkeys and even the kids stared disappearing. Soon there was nobody around but grownups and cars and a few stray dogs and cats, and Yanni.

"Yanni was very lonely until one day he met Brenda. It was in a parking lot. She was playing with old cans and invited Yanni to join her. They piled the cans high like big buildings and knocked them over to make new buildings, just like grownups do.

"Then it started raining, and Brenda's mother came and drove off with her. Yanni was left alone with the rain beating on the old cans. He never saw her again.

"Yanni likes it here in the Project, out in outer space. Here he can play with his old friends the tigers in the intercoms. But he misses Brenda. And whenever it rains, he goes out and plays his drums, making a beat just like rain on old cans." 


BRENDA AND THE BEARS

"Where's Brenda?" asked Joanna, drumming on a little tin can with her finger tips. "Where's Yanni's friend Brenda? Why did he never see her again?"

"She's out hunting for bears," answered the New Boy.

"Bears?" asked Georgie, jumping up and looking around.

"Doesn't she miss Yanni?" asked Joanna. "Afterall, he's so handsome."

"Handsome?" asked Mary. "How can you say that when you haven't even seen him?"

"Handsome is as handsome does," answered Joanna, drumming on her tin can. "And he plays the drums like no one in this world."

"Where are the bears?" asked Georgie, looking cautiously at the dark corners of the Project.

"If I knew," said the New Boy, "I'd tell her, and she wouldn't have to look for them."

"Why does she want bears?" asked Joanna.

"She doesn't know why," said the New Boy. "She just wants them and needs them, just like Yanni needs the tigers in the intercoms. When all the animals disappeared from Earth, it wasn't Yanni she missed the most, and it wasn't the tigers. No, it was the bears. She's been wandering ever since, looking for the bears.

"She passed by here last week. I recognized her footsteps. But she didn't even stop to meet us. She didn't notice Yanni. She just looked in all the dark corners and listened to all of the intercoms."

Joanna said, "She must have been awfully sad when she left."

"I don't think so," answered the New Boy. "I think she likes looking for bears. When she left, she was singing to herself, 'Tiger here. Tiger there. Found a tiger. Lost a bear.'"


A PUPPY FOR GEORGIE

"I want a bear," said Georgie.

Mary laughed.

Joanna just kept drumming on her tin can, humming, "Tiger here. Tiger there. Found a tiger. Lost a bear."

"I like tigers," said Freddie, proudly. "Bengal tigers."

"Tigers are neat, too," said Georgie. "But I want a bear."

"And what would you do with a bear?" laughed Mary.

"I'd... I'd... I don't know what I'd do," admitted Georgie.

"A puppy would be nice," said Sandy, smiling.

"Yes," said Georgie, smiling back at her. "That's what I really want -- a puppy. New Boy, where can I find a puppy?"

"I don't know," said the New Boy. "I haven't heard any dogs around the Project."

"Of course not, silly," said Mary. "Dogs aren't allowed here."

"I don't want a big, old dog," said Georgie. "I just want a puppy, a little puppy. He wouldn't bother anybody."

"I think I have an idea," said Mary. And she was very proud she had an idea. For a couple weeks now the New Boy had been the only one with ideas.

She walked around the yard, picking up old scraps of wood and broken chairs and boxes and piled them all up in a dark corner.

"There. That's your dog house, Georgie," she said proudly.

"Dog house?" asked Georgie.

"Well, call it a puppy house," she said.

"But where's the puppy?" asked Georgie.

"Don't worry. He'll come," explained Mary. "When you build a bird house, you don't worry where the birds will come from. If you build a good house, they'll find it and move in. Well, it's the same thing with puppies."

"Gosh," said everybody. Even the New Boy was impressed.

So they all pitched in and helped patch up leaks in the roof.

They made the house strong enough to keep out the wind and the rain. They put big juicy bones inside the house. They made the opening just big enough for a little puppy to crawl through.

Two days later, a puppy moved in. It was very happy with its new home, so happy that all it said was, "Yup! Yup! Yup!"

"That's 'yes' in puppy language," explained the New Boy.

So Georgie named him "Yup the Pup."

But Georgie wondered where Yup the Pup had come from.

"Oh, he's just a stray," said Mary.

The New Boy said, "Only the very best strays were chosen for the Space Project."

"Oh, of course," said Georgie. "He's the very best of strays."


MR. MAHONEY

Mary talked the most. She had answers for most everything. When she gave an answer, there was no need to look any farther; no need to wonder any more. Mary knew what she was talking about.

The New Boy asked the most. He was blind, and he had questions about most everything. Mary's answers weren't enough for him. Every answer raised a new question. There seemed to be no end to his questions.

The New Boy's questions drove Mr. Mahoney from one doorway to another to another.

"Look, kid," he said. "I don't have any answers. I don't pretend to have any answers. And I don't want to hear any more questions."

But the New Boy was everywhere and always asking, "Why is everything broken? Doesn't anybody know how to fix windows and doors and people?"

Mr. Mahoney said, "Look, kid, I'd like to help, but I don't know any more. I used to know how, but I can't now. Just look at me."

But the New Boy couldn't see, so the New Boy couldn't see any reason why Mr. Mahoney shouldn't try to do something.

So the New Boy just kept asking until one day Mr. Mahoney got up, got into the old black car without any windows, started it up, and drove away.

Mrs. Mahoney came running downstairs, shouting and crying. "Now you see what you've done?" she said to the blind boy. "Can't you leave well enough alone?"

Mary didn't know what to say. The old black car without any windows had been her favorite hide-away. The car hadn't worked in years. Her mother had told her that it couldn't work. She knew that it couldn't work. But now it worked. Even Mary couldn't help but wonder.

The next day, Mr. Mahoney drove back. Now the old black car had windows. And Mr. Mahoney started fixing windows and doors all over the building. He never sat on the steps again. He was always fixing something in the Project or somewhere else, making things work and working himself.


THE MAGIC ICE CREAM CONE

The Project had changed since the New Boy moved in. Georgie had a puppy. Freddie had a Bengal tiger. Joanna was learning how to play drums. Mary's father no longer sat on the steps with the broken grownups. He worked now. And the windows and doors worked. Even the old black car that was Mary's favorite hiding place worked now.

The old black car had windows now; so when Mary sat in it, she didn't see just the Project and the people who lived there.

Rather she saw herself reflected, too. And the reflection told her that she wasn't beautiful like the New Boy said she was. She was plain.

Mary didn't believe in the New Boy. She didn't believe that he made everything seem new. To her, he was just a blind boy; the puppy was just a stray; the tiger was just static; and Joanna was just beating on old cans.

Mary wanted to prove that the New Boy was just blind. She wanted to make him look silly. So she tried to trick him.

"Is there anything magic?" she asked him.

"Only ice cream cones," he answered.

"Ice cream cones?"

"Yes, there are magic ice cream cones. You never know when you might find one."

"But what's magic about them?"

"Well, you can lick it and bite it time and again, and it's still there. It lasts longer than you could ever imagine. And

every bite tastes better than the last.

Mary was delighted. Now that she knew he had a weakness for ice cream cones she would be able to make him look silly.

So she bought an ice cream cone. Then she asked Georgie and Freddie and Joanna and Lisa and Sandy to come over an watch.

She told the New Boy, "I think I've found a magic ice cream cone. When I eat it, it doesn't seem to get any smaller."

"Amazing," he said. "Bring it here, please."

She gave it to him saying, "Here, take a big bite."

His face lit up. "Gosh," he said, "a real magic ice cream cone. I always wanted to believe in magic. I always tried hard to believe in magic. But it's awfully hard to believe in anything when you can't see anything at all. You just keep hoping and hoping, and you hope so hard you almost make it real; but you know you're just hoping. Now Mary's found a real magic ice cream cone, and she's willing to share it. Thank you, Mary. Thank you ever so much."

Mary didn't know what to say. She felt ashamed for wanting to fool him. She wished it really was a magic ice cream cone. And she knew that as soon as he bit into it, he'd know it wasn't.

She felt very small.

Instead of eating the ice cream himself, the New Boy said, "Here, Georgie, Freddie, Joanna, Lisa, Sandy. Pass it around. It's a real magic ice cream cone. Mary found it. It isn't every day that you find a magic ice cream cone. Everybody should have a bite."

Georgie didn't know what to do. And Joanna and Freddie and Sandy and Lisa didn't know either.

Then Mary suddenly reached out and took the ice cream cone.

"Here, Give it to me," she said. "I want another bite. It's so good. And it doesn't get any smaller either. Hmm, delicious."

But she didn't even lick it. She just passed it along to Lisa.

Lisa remembered what Mary's mother had said. She didn't want to fool the little blind boy. But Mary nudged her with a hard elbow. So Lisa said, "Yes, it's delicious." And she passed it on to Sandy.

Sandy saw how happy the New Boy was that everyone was enjoying ice cream. So she said, "Scrumptious," and passed it to Georgie.

Georgie said, "Fantastic," and passed it to Joanna.

Joanna said, "I've never seen anything like it," and passed it to Freddie.

Freddie, to seem natural, didn't say anything at all. He just groaned with delight and passed the ice cream cone, completely untouched, as good as new, back to the New Boy.

Mary was delighted. "Try it now, New Boy," she said. "Please try it. Everybody's enjoyed it, and it's still as good as new."

"Wow!" said the New Boy, as he took a bite. "It really is a magic ice cream cone... But Mary, your voice sounds sad." He gently touched her cheek. "What's wrong?"

"I don't know," she said, "I guess I miss the bears."


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