What if I looked out the bathroom window in the middle of the night and caught the icy glint of a military tank’s barrel turning towards our block, and now I’m shaking my daughter out of her bed, telling her we’re going on a mission, You like missions don’t you, and by the time she’s fully awake, we’re sweeping through a patch of woods behind a car park.
My daughter’s sniffing crisp air, but before she can say she’s tired, she’s sleepy, and she doesn’t want to play anymore, I tell her there’s a circus out of town, and they have elephants and tigers too, You like tigers don’t you, and I remind her how proud I was when, after a school outing to the national circus, her head teacher turned up on our doormat frowning like a rotten apple and clutching my daughter by the arm, claiming my daughter slipped her finger inside her handbag, stole her favourite fountain pen, sneaked out from the show, and unlocked the cage of a tiger.
What if I was hiding a large backpack under my bed already stuffed with sweaters, pants, underwear, an English dictionary, chargers, passports, energy bars, and my daughter’s squishy cheetah, because, as my mother said the last time I saw her, Running is part of living here, dear; and now my thighs strain under the weight as I climb the path ahead, but I tell my daughter I packed a tent, You like camping don’t you, just in case we need to hide the rescued animals for the night.
And what if I trip on a curled root and fall onto the hard, frozen earth and smash my knee, but I tell my daughter it’s time to rest, even though the twinkling constellation of her eyes starts forming the truth, so I look away and lean on my hand for support, sensing the ground rumbling through the fleece of my glove, groaning like the belly of a hungry giant.
But before I can convince my daughter the ground is growling and the trees are shivering because the circus is making the elephants march through the woods and we’re this close to saving them, You want to save them don’t you, she stomps up to me and throws puffy arms around my neck, whispering in a chestnut breath, Mum, they’re not elephants, are they.
I hear the metallic thrashing of tactical boots behind me and I attempt to push myself to my feet, but my knee buckles and I land on my tailbone. The thrashing gets louder and louder, so I remove my gloves and reach out to hold my daughter’s cold-kissed face, wondering if the thrashing boots’ owner also has a daughter, who is sleeping in a warm bed, and if their daughter also has doughnut cheeks and a spicy heart and National Geographic posters of endangered animals above their desk, and if the boots’ owner would also push their daughter’s little body away like it’s a ball of fur, yelling and shouting and spitting and screaming Run, run, run, like a tiger, freed.