The sun is set, and stars begin to appear brighter in the African sky above the camp. Roaring fires surround and illuminate a laughing quartet made up of two men and two women sitting at a table together. One man is the safari’s guide. His damp hair is flat against his head, he wears a khaki shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and he uses his fedora to fan himself as he leans back in his chair. The other man in the group and the two women are photographers. They enjoy dinner together, recall their day, and tease each other.
“And while the bird chased Nicole, Katherine and I took some amazing photos of it in action!” Brandon says. He is dressed like the guide, but his clothes are new and make him look like he is wearing a costume.
“I don’t know why you just watched it chase me all the way to the truck, Raymond,” Nicole says. “You could have fired a round into the air or something to scare it away. Aren’t you supposed to keep us safe?” Nicole has a kind face and the gentleness of a mother holding her newborn.
“She has a point, Raymond,” Katherine says. Her clothes are soiled and worn as if she had been crawling on the ground all day. She speaks to everyone as if she’s their older sister who always knows better. “You carry all those scary guns with you.”
“Why do you have all those guns?” Brandon asks as he leans forward on the table. “You really only need one, right? We’re on a reserve. All we’re doing is driving around, shooting photos, and camping.”
“I only have one,” Raymond says as he glances at his gun. “And it only looks big because it is a double-rifle.”
“All of your assistants have one too,” Nicole says. When her large eyes make contact with Raymond, he has to resist the urge to look away.
“They are for you protection,” Raymond says. He fans himself with his hat and closes his eyes.
“Protection from what?” Katherine asks. “Not birds, obviously.” She and Brandon chuckle, and Nicole pretends to be very embarrassed. After laughing, they settle down and watch Raymond quietly. They use silence to pressure him to answer.
“Lions,” Raymond finally says. He looks up into the night sky and fans himself briskly. He means for this to be the final answer that completely satisfies them.
“Oh, come on!” Katherine scoffs. “Lions? We haven’t even seen any, which – by the way – may cost you a star on my review.”
“Well, there is a dangerous lion out there,” Raymond says. “Didn’t you read your waiver before signing it?”
“Nobody reads those” Brandon says. “But it sounds like you have an anecdote for us. Let’s hear it.”
“Yes, please tell us about this murderous lion,” Katherine says as she leans back into her chair. “If it’s good, I’ll give you all five stars.” The three photographers use silence to pressure Raymond again.
“All right. If it helps my review-” Raymond says breaking the silence. He fans his face with his hat briskly for a moment, then stops abruptly and says, “Back in 2057 – I remember the year because it was the year I graduated – an eccentric millionaire named Frank Lewis decided he was done being human. He’d done everything he’d wanted to do, he had more money than anyone needed, but – like all of us – he had a limited lifespan. He estimated that he had about fifteen years left. He wanted to them as a lion. It’s a little more than the lifespan of a lion in the wild. So, he decided to have his brain transplanted into a lion.”
“Shut up!” Katherine scoffs. She looks at Nicole and Brandon to see if they find what Raymond said believable.
“Please go on,” Nicole says.
Raymond continues, “Whether the surgery failed and he died or it succeeded, he considered both a win. I don’t know where he found the team of unethical doctors, but they were actually good enough to make it work. At the end of the operation, the lucky old man’s brain was transplanted into an unlucky three-year-old lion.”
“I hear a truck backing up. Beep, beep, beep,” Katherine says. “It’s loaded with bull-“
“Katherine! Let the man finish!” Brandon says.
“Katherine already guessed what I was going to say: the lion was placed in this reserve,” Raymond says. “In fact, nearly all of our operating costs are still paid by the income from Mr. Lewis’s endowment fund. You can verify that online. Mr. Lewis thrived here. Soon after he arrived, he fought another lion for a pride and won. He kept the pride for years.” Raymond places his hat on his head and stands. He looks out into the darkness as he speaks.
“One day, poachers snuck into the reserve to harvest rhino horns,” Raymond says. “They got what they came for, but they didn’t leave right away. As they rode out, the poachers saw a pride of lions and shot at them for fun.”
“Oh, no!” Nicole exclaims. “Was it Mr. Lewis’s pride?”
Raymond nods his head to Nicole and says, “They killed several lions.” Raymond takes his hat off his head and fans himself. He squints as he searches beyond camp for something. “Mr. Lewis tracked the men to their camp. Now, understand that lions aren’t the best hunters. Most lions don’t even take the wind into consideration when they hunt, so prey knows they’re coming. But Mr. Lewis was not an ordinary lion. He planned things out like a human. He tracked the men until he found their camp. Then, he waited hidden in the tall grass for the sun to go down. After it was dark and the poachers went to sleep, he mauled them through their tents. All of them, but one. The sole survivor was the one who told the story. He said he didn’t hear anything and only woke up when the lion destroyed his leg.”
“You wouldn’t have a spare rifle?” Brandon asks.
“You are safer without one,” Raymond says. “Mr. Lewis does not like anyone who looks like a hunter.”
“Raymond is just pulling our leg,” Katherine says as she playfully swats a hand at him through the air. “Nice try. I’ll give him five stars for his horror story anyway.”
“You had me worried for a minute, Raymond,” Nicole said.
The quartet stays up a few hours more. They take turns sharing anecdotes from their travels. Darkness surrounds them as the campfires die down. As the last fire begins to go out, fatigue compels them to go to bed. They wish each other good night, split up, and go to their tents.
Raymond wakes up in the middle of the night. He needs to go to the bathroom. The moonlight is so bright that he can see without a flashlight. He crawls out of his sleeping bag, slips on his boots, and unzips his tent to exit. He quietly walks out to the edge of the camp and looks out into the savannah. He watches the wind sweep over the tall grass. As his eyes move over the quiet landscape, he makes eye contact with a very large male lion. Raymond freezes. His rifle is in his tent. He cannot outrun the lion. He knows he will not survive the lions charge. The two stare at each other intensely for what seems like minutes to Raymond. Then, the lion turns around and walks away disappearing into the tall grass.
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