Raina goes first: the opener. She’s slower, and no one’s here to see her—who comes to the zoo to watch a Labrador chase a stick? It’s called the Cheetah Run for a reason—but she relaxes Amara. “See? It’s fine,” Raina’s run tells Amara. “Just how we practiced.” Raina is content playing second fiddle to Amara, treating every race like it’s the Olympics. She’s always been a teacher’s pet, brown-nosing their trainer and lapping up every compliment.
As much as Amara loves Raina, sometimes her glass-half-full attitude pisses her off. Today is one of those times. Raina reaches the finish line with a pathetic sprint time. But as she reminds Amara before every run, she’s just happy to be there. She stands victorious at the end of the track, soaking in the dull applause, dutifully waiting for Amara. Amara isn’t sure about much in life, but she knows Raina would never leave her, would never not be waiting at the end of the track, would never tire of always placing second. They’ve been together for five years, partners in life and career: the perfect match. It’s the most comforting and whole love—the only love—she’s experienced and she hates that it’s no longer enough.
Amara is next to race. She trudges toward the gate, her tail heavy and low to the ground, willing any energy to return. A therapist, if she had one, would tell her this is depression. She no longer finds joy in anything, especially performing for an audience. No one has noticed the change in Amara, including her trainer, Tiffany, who particularly annoys her. Amara’s face shrivels in umbrage at Tiffany’s sugary encouragement. “Good work!” “Let’s try it again!” Her constructive criticism is as substantial as cotton candy. She may have been born in captivity, but everything Amara knows about running has always been in her bones. She’s a goddamn cheetah, after all.
Everyone remarks on how powerful she is—a force with which to be reckoned, a strong woman, the fastest animal in the world!—yet handlers control her every move, regulating everything from what she eats to when she races. When does she get to take control of her life? When does she get to do what she wants? If she’s as Herculean as they say she is, why is no one a little more worried about what might happen the day she says “no?” The only answer is that they’re convinced she’ll forever obey, and for a long time she thought that too.
The crowd is restless, ready for Amara. Tiffany asks for a final applause for Raina, giving Amara a moment longer to collect herself. Her jaw is tight and her heart pounds against her chest. She can’t reveal any of these concerns to Raina because she knows she wouldn’t understand; and worse, she couldn’t handle the pain of hearing that she’s no longer enough, that their life together isn’t satisfying anymore. Raina would want to know how and why and when this all started, and Amara doesn’t have a tidy answer.
She doesn’t know how and why and when, but she remembers the day, several months ago, when she overheard a woman articulate her exact emotions. She was standing just outside Amara’s enclosure, complaining to her date that she was certain she was stuck in saṃsāra. The woman had learned about the concept in her theology class and concluded it was the only rationale for her depression that made sense to her. That’s why this life, even with all its wonders and inventions, bored her: because she’d lived a hundred lives before this and couldn’t stop the endless cycle of sleeping, eating, working, and repeating it over again. But!—she paused, raising a finger to prevent her date from interrupting—when she told her psychiatrist this, he balked and insisted she not only stay on her antidepressant but increase the dosage because clearly she was having some kind of early onset quarter-life crisis at twenty. He didn’t believe her, the woman sighed, which meant he was likely stuck in saṃsāra too, and if both a college student and a trained medical professional are in saṃsāra, surely that meant everyone was, and wasn’t that tragic?
Her date nodded in agreement and then asked if she’d been to the new Thai restaurant off Edison Street. He hadn’t listened to what the woman had said, but Amara had. She wanted to tell the woman that she believed her, that it was the only thing that made sense to her as the source of this hive of bees vibrating in her gut. And now she wants to cross the border to the other side, too.
Tiffany announces Amara, running through the spiel she gives every afternoon. Amara will sprint down the 330-foot track. Her best record so far: 5.7 seconds. She yawns as Tiffany squeezes the excitement out of the crowd like a wet rag, listing off Amara’s accomplishments. Reaches speeds of up to sixty miles per hour in mere seconds! Gloriously long legs! A flexible spine that rivals a ballerina! And that tail! Long and heavy, acting as a rudder for balance during turns. After the run, Amara, leashed and guided by Tiffany, will parade up and down the track for the audience to ogle at her legs, her spine, her tail.
Tiffany moves into the biographical details and the audience quiets, nodding as she lists off the countries from where Amara’s kind come. She pauses in her speech and drops in pitch to emphasize the seriousness of her next statement: that the cheetah population is dropping, and human conflict is the biggest threat. No shit, Amara thinks. Not just out there, but here, too.
Amara readjusts in the cramped cage, her face pushing against the gate. She has a decision to make. In less than a minute, a handler will open the door. She can sprint down the track, chase the stuffed animal dragged by a rope, enjoy her steak reward, and repeat it again the next day. Or, she can end this today. It would take more than refusing to run. They’d force her to try again tomorrow. No, it would require enough bloodshed to make a point. She’s considered it the last few runs, but questions she’s afraid to answer lurk. Can she do this to Raina? She’s not sure if Raina would recover emotionally. Can she do this to Tiffany, as annoying as she is? She’s not sure if Tiffany would recover physically. But does she care more about their survival than her own? It all comes down to the weight of a life, and she’s not sure where the scales tip.
If she did it, the newspapers would say she snapped—proof that you can’t trust the wild. They wouldn’t make her race again, but they might not let her live, either. How easy it would be for the zoo to forsake her now that she’s useless to them. They might trade her for another animal from another zoo, as if she’s a baseball card, as if living in Ohio is like California is like Botswana, as if it doesn’t matter what she wants now that she’s fallen to the bottom of the capitalist chain of production, more pariah than profitable commodity.
But what if none of it matters? Amara is supposed to be a fierce queen of the desert, yet here she is running down a track with a golden retriever every day at three o’clock. Maybe Ohio isn’t the worst possibility. Maybe death isn’t the worst possibility, either; only the mundanity of a Groundhog Day-cycle of life. She looks around and barely recognizes this place she’s called home all her life. What if this land of artificial habitats and borders is the wild, not the plains or the savannah or the desert? Maybe Tiffany and the handlers and the others are the wild ones—the way they mark their territory and claim everything they want as theirs—and Amara is the only domesticated one here.
Amara is on the precipice of an epiphany, but she can’t quite grasp it before the cage gate opens. She’ll have to go with her gut, an instinct her handlers have nearly trained out of her and that she’s not sure she can still harness. Amara leaps out of the opened cage, and her claws extend, gripping the dirt for traction. Her front legs pull back between her back legs, the four nearly tangling together before stretching out into a flat plane. Nostrils flaring, pulling in oxygen, she pushes herself to move faster, to get this over with.
She has three seconds to decide. She prepares her jaw for the bite, her eyes shifting back and forth between the stuffed animal and her trainer, selecting her target, choosing her fate and Raina’s fate, and maybe the fate of everyone there: Amara the omnipotent for the first time, for the first time, for the only time, for just a moment.
Melissa Darcey Hall is a writer and high school English teacher in San Diego, California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Santa Fe Literary Review, Fugue, The Coachella Review, Five South, The Florida Review online, and others. View more of her work at www.melissadarceyhall.com.