Dad got me started young. It was just Saturday nights at first, when he’d wait for Mom to be caught up in her shows, but over time, it became more frequent, until he was at my bedroom door at least two or three nights a week. I’d hear his footsteps coming down the hall and I would stop whatever I was doing and I would wait for him to appear and, when he did, he always asked the same question with that same smile.
“Hey, Sunny,” he’d say, “want to play some Dungeons and Dragons?”
When your dad is a huge nerd and your mom is only slightly less so, it’s no surprise when you, too, become one. By the time I was eight, I had successfully trekked across whole worlds, beaten back hulking monsters of the abyss, and saved countless kingdoms from sure destruction. I was Sunny the Slayer, Ranger Princess of the North Wood!
While we often played properly, with dice and character sheets and manuals spread out around the table, sometimes we just roleplayed. I liked playing pretend and Dad enjoyed world-building, so he’d come up with something for my character to do and off I’d go, unconcerned with stats or rolls. It was all about the storytelling.
It was during one such session that Sunny the Slayer ended up in a cave in the middle of the jungle. I’d been traveling to a new town to answer a call for adventurers and had had to stop for the night. My only options were sleeping out in the open or in the cave. I opted for the cave.
“You enter and quickly realize you’re not alone. A tiger is standing in the back of the cave. It watches you; what do you do?” Dad asked from over his dungeon master’s guide.
“I’m a ranger, so I’m going to tame it and make it my companion!” I said quickly. It was the same thing I did with every animal I came across.
“I’m gonna charm him!”
“It doesn’t work and he’s still staring. What do you do?”
“Um, if my charm animal didnt work, I think it’s time to leave Mr. Tiger alone.”
“He runs around you and blocks your path.”
“I…crawl under it!”
“It lies down before you can get under it. It’s still watching you. What do you do?”
“Why’s it being such a pain?” I whined, frustrated at this persistent make-believe tiger.
“What do you do?” Dad asked patiently.
“I’m gonna…” I paused and considered kicking it right in its dumb face, but as a ranger and animal lover, that just wouldn’t have been right. Maybe it was just a lonely tiger and wanted me to stay and be its friend. “I’m gonna pet it.”
“It purrs and you have a pet.” Dad waited for me to quiet my cheering before continuing. “And now you have learned the lesson of the tiger.”
“Huh?” I said. I’d been too busy trying to come up with a suitable name for my new pet to have realized this was one of Dad’s Learning Moments.
“Even though you are presented with a scary situation, if you remain calm and friendly, sometimes you are rewarded.”
I found out later that my dad had played through the same scenario with his older brother when they were kids, except Dad had attacked the tiger and promptly been eaten, ending their campaign.
When he’d asked his brother what else he could have done, Uncle Kev had said, “You could have asked him nicely to move. Sometimes that’s all it takes.”
As I got older, we played D&D less and less, until it was only a fond childhood memory, but the lesson of the tiger remained an inside joke between me and my parents. Whenever I was nervous about something or feeling unsure, they’d remind me to think of the tiger and tackle whatever I was facing with positivity and an open mind.
When it came time for me to move away to college, a forty five minute drive up the highway, my parents presented me with a stuffed tiger to keep in my dorm.
“Don’t forget about us little people while you’re off being a big university student,” Dad said as he handed it to me.
“I’ll try not to,” I replied with a smile.
Mom just managed to say she loved me before the tears started and I reminded her I’d be driving home the following week so she could do my laundry and cook my meals. She laughed, wiped her eyes, and pulled me into a hug.
“I’ve already changed the locks,” she whispered and then snorted with a giggle sob.
A few more tears, a few more laughs, and then they were walking down the hall to the elevator and it was just me and my tiger in my dorm room.
The semester started smoothly. Classes were easy, covering a lot of the same material I’d learned in high school, I made new friends fairly easily, and I learned the ins and outs of freshman college life. I was really enjoying myself, right up until I met Dylan.
He was in my Composition I class, a pre-req for most majors that retaught us the basics of writing. While I found the work to be simple, he struggled a bit, and our teacher asked me to work with him to help him improve an essay we’d done. I was happy to do so, I was an education major after all, and at first, he seemed to appreciate my help.
That appreciation quickly crossed a line into inappropriate.
While Dylan was an alright looking guy, one that I might even have found cute, he lacked a lot of social graces. During our tutoring sessions, he’d sit way too close, until his leg was pressed against mine. When we were talking, he’d loom over me, taking one step forward for every one I took back. If I said something he disagreed with, he’d just get louder and louder until I was drowned out and gave up. When that happened, he’d grin and tell me he knew I’d see his side of things eventually.
I could have forgiven all that. Sometimes social cues are lost on people, it happens, and I tried to stay understanding even as I was telling him he was standing too close for the hundredth time. It was just another tiger lesson; stay calm, stay friendly, and he’ll learn. That’s what I kept telling myself, anyway.
What I couldn’t forgive was when he started to follow me.
It was subtle in the beginning, just running into him at the dining hall or outside of class, stuff that really just could have been coincidence. He’d act surprised every time, but the more it happened, the more transparent it became, until his thin smile could barely mask the smug, arrogant pleasure in his eyes at having “bumped into me”. I started finding new routes to class, but it never took him long to figure them out and we’d go through the same ridiculous song and dance until I could get away.
I tried to let Dylan down gently. When that didn’t work, I tried to let him down politely, but bluntly. He’d huff and stomp off while muttering about what a bitch I was, but then he’d be right back to it, showing up at wherever I was around campus seemingly at random, the very next day.
Still, I thought he was mostly harmless. It wasn’t like he’d ever gotten violent, just a little overly attached to his tutor. I didn’t want to be one of Those Girls who made a big deal out of nothing and get someone with perfectly innocent intentions in trouble. It was nothing I couldn’t handle on my own.
Friday nights were often quiet in my dorm. A lot of people went out to clubs and parties and, often, I’d be right there with them. After class that day, though, I was feeling a little under the weather and just wanted to get my homework out of the way and then get some sleep. The moment I was back in my room, I logged into my computer and made a Facebook post declaring my hermit status to let my friends know I wouldn’t be going out with them, and started knocking out assignments.
I was down to my last bit of homework, a few tricky algebra problems that were only making my headache worse, when someone knocked on my door. I stayed quiet, figuring it was the RA or someone who wanted to borrow something, and tried to focus. They knocked again, but again, I ignored it. And then I heard the door knob turning.
I often left my door unlocked when I was in my room and awake, feeling secure enough in a building full of fellow students, but no one had ever just let themselves in. I spun in my chair in time to see Dylan slipping in, his back to me.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I demanded.
I started to stand as he turned around. The switchblade he pulled from his pants pocket and flicked open made me stop.
He reached behind him. The door lock slid into place.
“Hey, Sunny,” he said casually, as if he weren’t breaking into my room.
We stared at one another for a tense moment and then he moved to my bed and took a seat. The whole time, he kept the knife in plain view.
“You know, I’ve just gotta ask,” he said, “I’ve been nothing but nice to you and you still treat me like shit; why is that? I’m not good enough for you or something?”
He was staring at me with such intensity that I shrank back into my seat. I could scream, I thought, but who would hear? More importantly, who would come? Not that they could get to me before he killed me. The thought almost closed my throat and my next breath was a desperate, shuddering gasp of air. Howling panic threatened to fill my head and overrun any logic.
He was still looking at me, his eyes narrowed, actually expecting an answer.
He’s still staring. What do you do? My dad’s voice from over a decade ago floated up from the back of my mind. It was the only calm in the storm that was my mind and I latched on to it, forcing myself to focus on the question.
He’s still staring. What do you do?
My eyes flicked towards the stuffed tiger that was sitting on my pillow. Looking back to Dylan, I certainly saw the beast within the man.
Remain calm and friendly, I thought with a slow inhale.
“Good enough?” My voice cracked despite myself. “What do you mean?”
“You’re not an idiot and neither am I, Sunny, so cut the crap. You act like you don’t even notice all the attention I’ve given you, but I know you do.”
“Well, yeah,” I conceded, trying to think quickly, “but I thought we were friends.”
“Guys don’t want to be friends with girls like you,” he scoffed as if it was the most obvious thing.
“I-I guess I thought that you were just a nice guy to everyone.”
That set him off. He started ranting about how girls always tell him the same thing, that he’s just so nice, but they aren’t interested. He spoke in a low, spiteful tone, snarling and cursing about how “us bitches” use nice guys while we wait for some roided out asshole to come mistreat us. He thought I was different, that I would actually give him a chance, but then I started acting like all the rest.
Every insult was punctuated by Dylan driving his blade into my mattress.
I stayed as still and small as possible, my hands balled into white knuckled fists my lap. My nails bit into my palms so harshly that I was sure I was drawing blood. But I had to stay composed, I had to stay calm.
“I’m sorry,” I said meekly, “I didn’t know you felt that strongly about me. I’ve never dated a guy before and it made me nervous-”
“Never dated a guy?” He interrupted. “You a lesbian?”
“N-no, it’s just my parents were strict, I wasn’t allowed,” I said. I was sure they wouldn’t mind me telling a little white lie about them at a time like this.
“Oh,” he said, and he seemed to calm a bit while he mulled it over. He continued to fidget with the switchblade even as he thought and his eyes never left me.
He’s still staring. What do you do?
“Have you? Dated, I mean,” I asked suddenly. The only thing I could do was keep his talking, make him think I was interested. If nothing else, it would buy me some time.
He let out a short bark of a laugh and was off on another tangent very similar to his previous one, all about how unlucky in love he’d been because girls only cared about money and popularity. Whenever he paused, I’d find something else to ask about or make a comment agreeing with him. I had to be careful, at one point he thought I was a little too eager and became angry again.
“Don’t patronize me!” He growled and was on his feet, looming over me with the knife clenched in his hand, its tip pointed at me.
I calmed him by claiming this was just such an new perspective to me and that, in my sheltered upbringing, I’d never heard anything like it before. I knew he liked feeling superior and smarter than me and I willingly fed into it if it meant he’d sit down again. He cooled enough to perch on the edge of my bed once more and I immediately asked another question to get him going again and tried my best to make my terror look like interest.
Eventually, he started to ask me questions, too. Not from any desire to learn about me, but so he could tell me what was wrong with my family and how I’d been raised, how women like me, the prissy prudes, were just as bad as the sluts.
He was in the middle of one of his rants when my phone’s text notification went off on the desk behind me. I tore my eyes away from Dylan long enough to look at the screen.
“It’s my dad!” I said.
“If I don’t answer, he’ll call the RA to check on me,” the words tumbled out in a jumble. “He sends a text every night at 9:30.”
Somehow, my bluff worked and he told me to sit next to him on the bed while I unlocked my phone.
Hey kid I’ll be up your way tomorrow morning lets get breakfast
A lump, hard and jagged, lodged itself in my throat. Sorry, Dad, I wanted to type, but I might not make it that long.
Instead, I wrote, Have a lesson plan to work on for intro to edu. It’s a real tiger. Holed up in my dorm til its over 😦
After Dylan approved, I hit send.
It was a long shot, just a vague reference that I wasn’t even sure he’d catch, but it was the only thing I could think of. I held my breath, waiting for a response.
All I got back was a cartoony tiger emote followed by, Maybe next week.
I wanted to cry. It hasn’t been enough. With whatever composure I had left, I put the phone on my desk and painted a shaky smile on my face.
“Want to watch a movie?” I asked.
Despite all of his ranting and raving about how horrible women are, Dylan was all too eager to cuddle up against me on the bed while some film streamed on my laptop. His hands were rough and wandering and I sat stiffly beside him, too afraid to push him away. The knife was resting on his knee, a sharp reminder of what might happen if I try.
At some point, he knocked my tiger from its spot on the pillow to the floor.
The movie was barely half over before Dylan started to get more aggressive. He was tugging at the hem of my shirt, sliding his hand too far up my thigh, trying to land kisses whenever I turned enough for him to get even just the corner of my mouth. I could tell my attempts to pull away under the guise of shy embarrassment were starting to wear thin and he was getting frustrated, his temper starting to boil over again.
I’d played out the lesson of the tiger as far as it could take me. Calm and friendly weren’t going to save me. I was running out of time.
We both jumped when someone knocked on the door.
“Sunny? You in?” It was AJ, my floor’s RA.
Panic and hope surged like twin bolts of electricity through me and I almost shouted for him to come in, to help me, but Dylan grabbed me by the back of the neck and put the blade of his knife to his lips, motioning for me to keep quiet.
“I’m sorry to bother you so late, Sunny, but, uh, there have been some noise complaints and I need you to sign this form to signify I warned you.” AJ said through the door.
A tear slid down my cheek.
“I know you’re in, I can hear your TV.”
After another moment with no answer, AJ said, “I really don’t want to have to let myself in.”
Dylan’s fingers tightened on my neck and he got off the bed, hauling me up alongside him.
“Just sign the thing and shut the door,” he hissed into my ear. “I’ll kill you if you try anything.”
The tip of the knife jabbed against my side and I nodded once.
Dylan stood just behind the door, one hand resting on it in case he had to slam it quickly, the other keeping the knife pointed at me. I took a deep breath, unlocked the door, and tugged it open just enough to peek out.
I had only just started to apologize when the door was shoved violently inwards. I stumbled back and fell against the end of my bed. Dylan, still tucked against the wall behind the door, took the full force of the metal door to his face. There was a sharp cracking sound and he yelped, grabbing at his face with his free hand while trying to close off the room again.
As soon as Dylan made that sound, giving away the fact that he was there, the door swung in again, faster and harder than it had before, shouldered open by my red faced, furious father.
“He’s got a knife!” I shrieked, the only words I could get out before I started to hyperventilate.
Dylan was laid flat against the wall three more times before he dropped his knife and then a fourth for good measure. Over my dad’s shoulder, AJ looked like he was going to be sick while he tried to get campus security on the phone.
Dylan wasn’t able to be arrested that night, though. First, he had to be rushed to the hospital to find out the extent of damage Dad had done to his body.
After spending what felt like an eternity answering questions and filling out forms for the university and police, I was allowed to leave campus with my dad. I didn’t even pack, just got in the passenger seat of his car and we took off.
The ride was quiet for a long time, until Dad asked, “You ok?”
“Yeah,” I said. A numbness had settled in my chest. I was sure I’d have a rush of emotions later once the shock wore off, but in that moment, I welcomed it.
After another stretch of silence, I turned to him. “You got my text?”
“I got your text.” He said grimly and I was never so glad that he’d been able to read between the lines. I should have known he would.
“Why didn’t you knock yourself?”
“Figured if you were in trouble, I needed a plausible cover to get the door open. Your RA is a little shit, by the way, tried to tell me it was unethical. I told him what I was going to do to his face was unethical.”
“What if I’d been fine?”
“Then I’d have looked like a real asshole.”
He just looked at me and smiled.
I learned that night that there are two parts to the tiger’s lesson. Sometimes, most times, you are the player and being nice and calm is the better way to go. It will certainly earn you more friends in the long run.
Sometimes, though, you just have to smash a psychopath in the face with a door half a dozen times.
Sometimes, you have to be the tiger.