In case you have not noticed, I am not a fan of wordy.
And the irony here is that this will be a long post. lol
I've finished up the Brother series, and I have several other projects I am working on (all of which contain recurring characters, may I add). But today I'm going to talk about my inspiration for Spirit Guide, since I've already been asked where I got the idea ... several times.
In the summer of 1999, I got my head stuck in a tiger's mouth.
Yes, really. It was a live tiger, too. Not all tigers kill people—who knew?
And by the way, I may write fiction, but I am not making this up. This happened.
At the time, I worked as a kennel assistant for a veterinarian in northeastern Pennsylvania. I cleaned, did laundry ... that sort of thing. I was essentially Cinderella, only with a paycheck, and the animals didn't talk.
Well, this veterinarian, Tom, had a wife named Margaret, who had a bunch of animals at her rehab center next door. I kept hearing about them from my mom, who was Margaret's hairdresser. I know, kind of odd that I did not sooner notice these mountain lions and a tiger running around next door to the vet clinic I worked at—but in my defense, I just never ventured that far behind the clinic.
When I went exploring, I heard the mountain lions. They have very funny, distinct calls that sound a lot like "Oh, wow!", and it's adorable. I would go to them on my lunch break and feed them grass (yes, they eat grass!), disregarding the signs showing people's fingers falling off if they stuck them through the fence.
Well, I was always the daring type.
When I realized it was my mom's client running the place, I had my mother set me up with a job.
It was not a full-time job, it was just a come-in-when-you-can summer job. And it was a volunteer position—I even signed a waiver saying I was working there at my own risk, and that they can not be held liable if I died. Yeah, my dad was just thrilled about that—lol.
So what did I work with at this place? Monkeys (those nasty little animals flung dung at me, lol), a bearcat (binturong), coati (South-American raccoon), a sloth, bats (not my favorite but probably more pleasant than the monkeys, now that I think about it), one remaining mountain lion (I held the 2nd one's paw as it died), and a Siberian tiger named Reba.
Reba was born to a milkless mother at another center, bottle-fed with her surviving siblings and nursed back to health by Margaret. She would not have survived in a zoo or elsewhere, but she was not weak—in fact, she was pretty badass. She'd protectively killed a male lion since.
My coworker, Yellow Feather (a native American lady) never let me in the cat room unsupervised. Mainly because they had a young stunted mountain lion in there with rickets (spaghetti legs) that wanted to use me as a chew toy.
It was during these supervised visits that I learned the basics of not dying:
1) Never wear deodorant or perfume.
2) Never wash before work (Sounds gross, I know, but shampoo is smelly)
3) Don't panic. Stay calm.
4) Never, ever turn your back on them. They need to see your face the entire time.
So much for those last two....
I was feeling particularly brave one afternoon. So Yellow Feather asked, "Do you want a tiger hug?"
Seriously, was that even a question?! Who the hell wouldn't want a tiger hug?
She opened the gate to the cat room, and we stepped in. "Reba, give Chrissy a hug!"
On her bench at my level, Reba eyed me. I approached her, in awe, uncertain. But seriously, the woman promised me a tiger hug—and my crazy 18-at-the-time self was not about to pass on the bragging rights!
"Well, what are you waiting for? Wrap your arms around her!" Yellow directed as I reached the bench.
I ran my fingers through her mane, and Reba reached for my shoulder. Her arms wrapped around me, and her paws quickly gripped my back. Before I knew it, I was breathing in her chest.
She was powerful.
I hugged her for a moment. It was about as cute and cuddly as you can get.
And when I tried to move away, I found that I couldn't.
I felt her breath on the side of my face. She intently sniffed my hair. Her rough tongue ran over my face ... over the top of my head.
She sniffed again. Tightened her grip on me. Pulled me further into her chest.
I tried to remember for a moment if I'd washed before work. But I didn't have much time to really worry about my hygiene, or lack thereof.
Because her jaws gripped my head.
So up until then, I was giggling, because her tongue felt funny.
That juxtaposed into sort of a panic. I could tell she felt me stiffen, and at that point, she tightened her jaws. Her teeth pressed into the top of my head.
It was not painful—in fact, it just felt slobbery. But I could feel every tooth in her mouth, pressed onto my skull.
"Oh my God," I said with a nervous laugh. I pushed on her cheeks gently, trying to free my head.
"I would not panic if I were you!" Yellow preached. "She'll pop your head like a grape!"
So, naturally ... what's the first thing I did? I panicked.
Because, why not make the situation WORSE?
"Let her go Reba," Yellow pled, her voice easy. She clearly was not as nervous as I was.
But then, she was not drenched in tiger spit.
And, because I was not squeezed enough, her arms tensed around me even more.
I waited, heart in my throat. Slobber down my ... everything.
"Reba, let Chrissy go."
I still wasn't breathing.
Drool dripped down my head, my neck, into my ears, and down my shirt. It smelled like ... squirrel?
Yes, definitely squirrel. She'd been chewing on that bone-hard frozen squirrel earlier.
I'm not sure how long it lasted. When your head's in a tiger's mouth, it sort of feels like an eternity.
And as quickly as she gripped it, Reba released my head, throated a Rrrrr, and licked my face.
Jittery, I started backing up toward the gate. She got to her paws on her bench, jumped off, and strolled toward me.
"Good girl, Reba!" Yellow opened the gate.
And I was out.
That's why you're reading this today.
As it turns out, she probably didn't even consider killing me. I'd like to say that's 'cause I'm awesome, but the truth is, Reba was just grooming me. She'd done it to Margaret millions of times.
And what is the first thing I did when I got home that day? I told my horrified parents about getting my head stuck in a tiger's mouth. My father's response?
"You need to quit that job, right now!"
Well it's a good thing I'm 18!
I went back. Because I'm a rebel. And they could not stop me.
And in case you haven't figured it out, I don't regret it at all. It was the most amazing experience of my life.
Now, Spirit Guide is fiction. But there is no better way for a writer to research tigers, than to get her head stuck in the jaws of one. lol
The setting for Spirit Guide is in northern Alaska, where I hope to visit again once or twice this summer. So if I'm missing in action for a little while, you'll know where I am, because I need the inspiration!
I'm really looking forward to this book (more on that to come)! Although this is a stand-alone novel, it's also got Troy De La Fontaine in it (yeah, my teen beta-reader is thrilled, lol)!
And I'm sure you can guess who I will dedicate this book to! Because, after all, she let me live to write it.
We love and miss you, Reba.
Image credit: A huge thanks to my dear friend, Margaret Hunter, for the pictures of her beloved Reba.
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