You don’t have to wear the lion head any more, she imagined him saying. You can just be you.
He’d never said this. There was no reason to think he would. Inside the mask her breath felt thick and meaty. Her eyes swam in a humid backwash of sweat and pepperoni pizza. Their fingers touched through velvety paw-fleece. Only below the waist were they human.
“Faster, Nala!” His voice came through muffled, scratchy, but with an artificial high pitch. He never took off his own lion head either.
They’d met last year at the Providence Convention Center, at Comic-Con. Nala, meet Simba! Too fated to be anything else. They had lunch in the food court. He floated his plastic utensil from his chest to hers. “Sporks flew,” he said.
She worked in the Disney store in the mall. He worked in a bank, lived with his mom in Pittsburgh. He fooled everyone, he told her. Looked normal, worked hard, made decent money. But this is who I am, he said, pointing with his lion paw to his lion head. This is who I really am.
And she nodded, because she knew. Being Nala made her something more than the hardly-know-she’s-there girl, the girl who sat in the back row and made B’s but never A’s, who dropped out her junior year of college without a single professor noticing or asking why. The girl who went home every day after work and changed sheets, cooked meals, washed clothes, washed dishes, put her brother to bed. Because after the accident there was no one else to do it.
After the con they texted and Skyped, and then he found this other con in Albany and she drove 300 miles to meet him for the weekend. It was never enough, but it had to be enough.
Because nobody wanted a boring girl who took care of her disabled brother and worked some dead-end job, but everybody loved a cute, little lion cub.
The heat inside the costume made her dizzy, wild with fever. She imagined clawing it from her body, watching stripes of polyester and latex shred away, leaving bald, pink human skin.
But Nala wasn’t who she was either. Not a cub. Not a toy. She felt her muscles bunch. Her nails extend. Laughing, she tore off his head and her own, drank in the rush of cool air. She could smell the blood pulsing in his throat, so close to the skin. Felt his body arch under hers, in terror or in ecstasy.
The lioness threw her head back and roared.
Kathryn Kulpa (@KathrynKulpa) has work published or forthcoming in Smokelong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, Lost Balloon, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. She is a flash fiction editor at Cleaver magazine and leads a veterans writing workshop in Rhode Island.