Toly hid among the tall grasses of the tropical forest. He could feel the cold sweat trickling down his face. The tiger was standing close now, so close Toly could feel its pulsing breath. The vibrant black and orange of the tiger’s coat hurt his eyes. It couldn’t see him; only the tiger’s keen sense of smell told it Toly was there. Toly waited for just the right moment and then in an instant, with one smooth liquid movement, Toly found himself mounted on the beast’s back. The tiger was growing more obedient now; Toly felt its warm fur beneath him. “Run!” Toly told the tiger and it ran. Ran fast over crannies and ditches, carrying Toly further and further away from the city. Toly felt the wind ruffling his hair, violently blowing in his eyes, forcing tears to form. He had done it! He was riding the tiger. He was the conqueror. He was . . .
“Toly!” his mother’s voice reached him as though it was coming from somewhere far away. “Wake up! It’s nearly seven o’clock!” The beautiful forest, the mighty tiger, the smell of the moist soil; all disintegrated as if they never were and Toly drowsily opened his eyes.
“Aw, go on, Mum, five more minutes,” he pleaded desperately. Anything to win him more time.
“No!” his mother retorted firmly, and left the room. Toly’s sheets were cold with sweat, but he knew that he had done it; he had ridden the tiger!
Toly detested school; no, he feared it. Most of all he feared Derek, the school’s bully. He feared him with a fear hard to describe, a fear that engulfed him like a giant wave, a fear that made his knees give way and his stomach tense up at the mere mention of Derek’s name. By rights Derek should have been a stupid lug whose fist did most of his bidding. But it wasn’t right, nothing was ever right. Derek was cunning, calculating and strong—he was a tiger. Yet the fear Toly felt for the bully and the tiger were different as could be. The fear of the tiger was invigorating, it caused every vein to thrill and stand to attention. The fear of the tiger was rewarding, it made Toly feel a strange sense of achievement. Made him proud. Yet the fear of Derek made Toly feel none of those things. It made him want to crouch down really small and hide somewhere in a dark hole where no one could find him. Ever.
Derek’s bullying was usually nothing the school considered “serious.” It was just a shove here or a nasty comment there. But it was those small cruelties that hurt Toly more than anything. His days were spent trying to keep out of Derek’s way, being careful never to leave the watchful eye of the teacher for the wide expanse of the playground. A dangerous place—Derek’s domain. Derek knew the playground like the tiger knew his jungle. He ruled it, and all those who ventured out into it were at his mercy. All day Toly stayed on guard, tense and scared. Jumping at the slam of a door, at heavy footsteps. The only escape from his fear was the daydreams of the tiger. Toly knew they weren’t real, of course he did, but in them he was always so brave. The hero. The winner. In real life he was nothing—just a small scared boy. Toly knew it couldn’t go on like this. Something deep inside, which was as much part of him as the daydreams of the tiger, told him that one day he would have to make a stand for himself. It wouldn’t be easy . . .
Toly was waiting. Waiting and watching. He wasn’t hiding behind the grasses anymore. He was standing in the open expanse of the jungle. Heart pounding, faster, faster, faster. One movement and he stood upright in front of the tiger. Not shuffling, not lowering his gaze, just upright. Toly stood upright. His heart pounding, blood rushing through his veins. He looked his enemy in the eye. It took nearly all of Toly’s strength to do that. Suddenly he wasn’t afraid. Derek’s commanding expression was gone. Instead, a rather confused one appeared. A smile crept up on Toly’s face. A very small one at first. Then bigger and bigger, until his whole face was creased in a massive grin. Derek looked uneasy. He lowered his head and shuffled into the school building, defeated. His mates followed, teetering, their respect for Derek considerably shaken during the last ten minutes. Toly just stood in the middle of the playground in amazement, unaware of all the students around him beaming in appreciation. Toly was unsure what exactly he had done, but he knew one thing; this time he had ridden the tiger—for real!