“Hi, I just saw a lion cross Main Street – uh, corner of Main Street and Smith.”
Dispatcher Kelly Speers took a breath to ask the usual questions – location, injuries – then stopped. Was this for real? In her five years at the phones she’d had a couple of crazy people call with reports of UFO sightings and such. The man on the phone now, though, sounded lucid. But this was rural Ohio. It had to be a practical joke. And that would be illegal – but how could she put that? Could she tell him he was under arrest, or at the very least, reprimand him? She thought nervously of the seconds going by.
She’d hesitated too long. The man on the other end of the line continued, “Uh, it looked like a, uh, lion. Uh, a male.”
Kelly found her voice. “Sir, do you mean a mountain lion?” she asked.
“No, a uh, a real lion. Like on TV.”
“Sir, is anyone with you injured?”
“Is the- um - the lion, still in the vicinity?”
“No, he – it – uh, it’s across the street now, maybe behind the CVS.”
“All right, I’m going to contact an officer to come by and have a look.”
“You, uh, may want him to bring a gun.”
Not long after, there was another call.
A woman’s panicked voice crackled through the bad connection. “Hi, there’s a – I was outside with my son in the backyard – there’s a tiger – something – we’re….”
Kelly sat bolt upright. “I’m sorry, ma’am, please calm down and explain. Did you say there’s a tiger in your backyard?”
The woman’s heavy breathing sounded like thunder in her ears. “Y-Yes. It’s – I don’t know – it’s – I saw it – we’re ---” Crackle.
“Is anyone injured?”
“Are you in a safe place?”
“We’re hiding in the basement. Please help.”
The white painted buildings seemed to fade into the sky’s pale gray. Normally the coats of the tigers would have stood out like flames on the drab grass – but today the cages were empty. So were the bears’ and the lions’. Only the monkeys remained. They screamed as Chief Farley and Officers Brandt, Stellan, and McKinley moved rapidly through the long room where they were kept in kennels. The officers stayed quiet, swinging their rifles from side to side as they proceded through the area, and the monkeys screamed louder, as if the weapons’ long muzzles had stirred waves of death into the air.
In a bedroom toward the back of the house, Mr. Highrout lay on his mattress. Both he and it were soaked in blood. Chief Farley cautiously turned on the light. “Mr. Highrout?” He said the name, but knew it was useless. There would be no response, of course.
“Fuck!” came like a bullet from one of the men behind him. There, in the corner of the room was a lioness. Farley’s eyes darted to the opposite corner, where another one stared at him with a wide, shining gaze.
There was blood around the lionesses’ mouths.
The men didn’t have to be told – they retreated swiftly, Farley closing the bedroom door behind him, though he wasn’t sure what good it would do.
Outside, they convened. “So the animals got out of their cages, and Highrout got killed by the lions,” Stellan swiftly concluded.
“All of the animals got out of their cages?” Farley shook his head. “No, this was a planned thing. And you all didn’t notice the gun in Highrout’s hand? The bullet hole in the chin?”
Stellan shook his head.
“Uh, I was too worried about the fucking lions to notice anything else,” McKinley said, and laughed weakly. On another day, Farley would have reprimanded him for that lack of respect, but he could see from McKinley’s pale face that he wasn’t being disrespectful – he was just scared shitless.
“Lionesses,” Brandt softly corrected.
Farley went over to his car and sent out a message over the radio. “This is Farley at Highrout Farm, over. There’s been a suicide – and a, uh, massive animal escape.”
By the time they’d gotten back to the station, Jeannette had pulled out some records. According to those, Highrout had legally owned at least fifty-five exotic animals, including eighteen Bengal tigers, seventeen lions, three leopards, and two wolves.
“I’ve got the Cleveland Zoo on the line,” she told the Chief. “They’re offering to send some people down with tranquilizer guns and other materials.”
“That’s fine, but it’s not gonna do any good.”
“It’s not?” Officer Stellan’s face was a picture of puzzlement.
“It’s already three o’clock,” Farley explained. “It’ll be dark soon. You hit one of them animals with a tranquilizer, what if it doesn’t work? How are you going to follow them in the dark? They run too fast.”
“They don’t run as fast as cheetahs.” Sometimes Farley wondered if McKinley was being a smartass, or was just a dumbass.
“No,” he said finally, “but they still run pretty damn quick.
They’d asked Daniel what he wanted for his eightieth birthday, and he’d just said a nice party with family. But it was only because what he really wanted, they couldn’t give. Was no man alive that he knew of who could give you more time and return some of your youth and health. He held out his pale, wrinkly hands in front of him, stared at the raised blue veins that cut through the clusters of liver spots on the back of them, and wondered when he’d gotten like this. He watched them tremble slightly.
He’d accomplished some things in his life, sure, but there was so much he hadn’t gotten to do. Never the money or the right moment. As a boy, he’d dreamt of climbing mountains, rowing down the Amazon, going on an African safari. Instead, he’d stayed in this farm town, raising crops and kids. The farthest he’d been from home was a long-ago trip to a beach in Florida. Ah, time, that’s what he wanted, and youth, and health. Instead, he was just going to get a big cake.
Something interesting happened. The phone had jarred him awake and out of his armchair. On the other end was Miles, his lifelong friend. And what he told him made Daniel think at first that Miles had finally gone and went senile – wild animals everywhere, he’d said, escaped from some nut’s farm. Lions, bears, apes, panthers, tigers…. It sounded like a dream.
“And we have to shoot them. People and livestock in danger. Everyone’s got orders to hunt them down. It’s open season.” The mix of fear and glee in Miles’ voice sent a chill through Daniel. He hastily hung up the phone and went to his bedroom. Digging deep into his closet, he found his old camouflage hunting gear, got into it as nimbly as he could, and was outside headed to Miles’ farm in less time than he would have thought.
Miles met him halfway, also in hunting gear, shaking a little with excitement, just as Daniel realized he must be doing. “Rob Johnson says he saw a bear – big sunna bitch – on the west side of my property!”
It was a surreal day. They came across so many other townsfolk, also in hunting gear, also toting shotguns. Sometimes people gave them updates: “Bob says he saw a tiger down by Perkins Garage!”
Daniel had the strange sensation of playing a more dangerous, grown-up version of cowboys and Indians.
At five o’clock, as the cloudy day’s weak light was starting to further fade, Daniel spotted a flicker of tan, the tan of a deer, about twenty feet away from him, headed towards the woods. But it wasn’t a deer. Too low to the ground, with a very long tail - “Is that a – It’s a damn lion!” He spoke under his breath, and hurried into the woods after it.
The lion was crouching close to the fallen leaves. Maybe stalking something, he figured. He followed it carefully, never letting down his guard. You couldn’t with these animals.
Suddenly, a chuckle of a bird in the trees. Daniel gave a start and his trembling finger pushed the trigger. The bullet flew from the gun, right into the lion’s skull. Without a sound, the animal slumped over onto the ground. He watched for several minutes, stunned. The lion’s body and massive head were still. Not the slightest sign of breathing. He stepped closer, cautious. It was dead.
Daniel didn’t know what was more unbelievable: the incredible shot, or that he, Daniel White, had killed a lion in the woods near the fields of an Ohio farm. He felt his heart pounding in his chest. This was the best damn birthday he’d ever had.
Whenever Ashleigh got home from work, she realized there was a tension in her whole body. It probably shouldn’t have been this way – she was only doing office work. More and more, though, she was realizing she hated it. But what could you do in times like these? You had to hold onto your job.
So she’d created a ritual to keep herself calm. When she came in the door, she’d carefully check that the blinds were drawn over the windows. Then, she’d strip completely out of her clothes – everything falling to the floor, like the day falling away. She’d leave the pile there and walk over to a kitchen stool. The cool wood on her naked backside was always somehow reassuring. The sensation brought her back to the moment. She was home. She could rest. She was free. After sitting like that for a while, she’d get up and start a pot of tea.
While the kettle heated, she’d go slowly upstairs and get into her bathrobe. She’d had it since college, and the feel of it on her skin always brought her comfort. She’d lie down on her bed until the tea pot’s whistle woke her. Then, slowly she’d go back downstairs and have a cup of tea with lots of sugar. After that, she could tackle anything.
Today, she was just taking her first sips when she noticed that the blinds on one of the windows were crooked. She walked over, her bare feet making funny little slapping sounds against the hardwood floor. As she took the cord to lower the blinds, she noticed something outside, glinting. She peered down to look out into the exposed corner of the window. What was that shining thing?
With a gasp, she drew back.
It was an eye.
She couldn’t believe it. She moved slowly – not, this time, to relax, but so as not to be noticed – and went to the back door. Cautiously she made a gap in the long blinds, and gasped again. A lion was staring into the window where she’d been.
She knew what was happening. Who in town didn’t? She knew the animals had been let loose from Highrout’s farm because Highrout had left their cages open, then killed himself. No one knew if he’d let the animals go so they wouldn’t starve to death, or to wreak havoc on the town.
She knew there were to be no tranquilizers and no capture for the animals. On TV a few hours ago, the police chief had explained these animals were dangerous and that action needed to be taken fast. Tranquilizers weren’t reliable. The head of a nearby zoo was standing beside him. He nodded to confirm it all. Ashleigh had tried to look into his eyes to see if it was the truth.
She knew a lot of the animals had already been killed by the police and by helpful locals. She knew the monkeys that had been found at the farm, still in their cages, had all been shot. So had the lionesses who’d started to eat Highrout’s body.
She drew her hand from between the blinds. She turned the lock. Then she turned the door knob.
The back door was open. The lion turned its head in her direction. Its expression was one of surprise.
“Pss, pss.” Would a lion come the way a cat might? They were related, but still…. The lion was still standing, as if frozen in place, staring at her.
She moved back from the door and went to the refrigerator. Aha! She felt glad she’d lost her appetite lately. Inside was a steak she’d made a few nights ago and hadn’t been able to finish. She put it in the microwave.
Was this necessary? Did the lion absolutely have to have a hot meal? Just then, she saw it at the threshold of the back door. She tried to hold down her scream. She couldn’t take her eyes from it. The lion crept slowly inside.
The plan was something that had vaguely come into her mind when she’d found out what was happening to those animals. It wasn’t right. They were dangerous, but they hadn’t asked to be let out. When she’d heard about the monkeys who hadn’t escaped being shot inside their closed cages, something inside her had given way.
She took a breath, flung open the microwave door, grabbed the steak, turned the knob of the basement door that was just beside the counter, and threw the meat down the stairs. Then, she ran in the other direction, near the front door.
Like a cat going after a toy, the lion rushed towards the steak. She heard it skidding down the stairs. Before she could even think, she’d run over to the basement door and locked it shut. Then, she ran up to her room and locked herself inside. She grabbed the phone from the nightstand.
Pete was worried about the horses. What a crazy mess. He’d have to keep watch. He loaded up his tranquilizer gun and brewed some coffee.
Suddenly, the phone rang. He jumped a mile, then took a few deep breaths and walked over to pick it up.
Whenever she called, he got a lurch in his stomach, like being on a roller coaster. Normally he could will it away and have a casual conversation. But today everything was different. She could be in trouble.
“Ashleigh? Are you okay?”
“Pete,” her voice was panicked. “I’ve got a lion – in my basement.”
“No – listen – it’s fine --”
“Where are you? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I mean, I don’t know if it can break down the basement door but with the stairs it might be hard and then….”
What was she talking about? Was she in shock? “Ashleigh. Listen, it’s okay. We’ll call the police and --”
“No.” Now she sounded like her old self. With what Pete could have sworn was a cheerful note in her voice, she asked, “Do you have any horse tranquilizers?”
“Even if we can get it up the stairs,” Pete said thirty minutes later, wiping a bead of sweat from his temple and carefully putting down the tranquilizer gun, “What are we going to do? Where can we bring it?”
“It can’t go back to Highrout’s farm, of course,” Ashleigh seemed to continue his thoughts, “and no one in town can see it.” Suddenly, a light came into her eyes. “I’ve got it!”
“I’m pleased to announce that the situation is under control, with no human casualties.” Chief Farley faced the local camera crews with a large, proud smile. Some officers got drug busts. He’d gotten this.
“Mr. Jackson,” one of the reporters – probably one from Cleveland, Farley figured, pushed his microphone towards the zookeeper. “Is it certain all of these animals had to be killed?”
Paul Jackson sighed. He remembered briefly the conversation he’d had with Farley when he and his team had arrived in town that afternoon:
“We’re not gonna mess around with something risky. These animals need to be killed as soon as possible.”
“You wanna tiger to eat someone? Is that it?”
The whole town seemed to have felt that way. Raised on images from “The Jungle Book” and the sometimes merciless ways of farming. And there was something else, a small flicker in eyes and attitudes. Jackson knew it well: predatory instinct had risen up from the depths of these men.
“In all good conscience, I can’t let you do this,” he’d tried.
“You some kind of baby killer? I’m the law here, and we’re gonna do it my way! Now, you and your people can help us track down these menaces, or you can clear the hell out.”
“I still can’t --”
The Chief’s voice had softened. “Tell you what,” he’d said after a few seconds, “we’ll cut you a deal.”
Back in the present, Jackson spoke steadily into the microphone, “It is unfortunate these animals had to be killed. Especially the tigers, which are highly endangered. But I’m happy to announce that we were able to safely capture three leopards, a bear, and two macaques. These animals will make excellent additions to our zoo.”
The carcasses of all the animals looked like some strange parade, set on its side. They’d be buried here, on Highrout’s farm, for sanitation purposes.
But Farley knew that over the next few days, the pit would probably be dug up, as locals snuck in and tried to chop off parts of what they’d killed to keep as trophies. Carl the taxidermist was going to have a very good year.
Carrying the lion up the stairs felt like it took hours. “It’s too heavy for just the two of us,” Pete had panted.
“No,” Asheligh had said, “we’ll be fine.” And they’d continued.
He’d pulled the horse trailer right against the back door. They slid the still-sleeping lion inside, then closed and locked the doors.
“Where do we go now?” he asked, as they got into the truck.
“To the Safe Haven Exotic Animal Preserve. It’s about thirty miles from here.” She felt her voice come strong and steady.
“All right then,” Pete turned the wheel and they bumped over the grass, towards the road. “Onward.”