Tom uses the crowbar he stole out of Arnold’s truck to break into the lion house. On the threshold, in the confluence of the warm gamy smell and the cool night air, he hesitates. But no alarm sounds. The windows in Bill’s house remain dark.
He finds a breaker box and flips switches until there isn’t a shadow left. The lion house is a hangar-sized building the back two-thirds of which have been walled off by a high fence to form a cage. There’s a catwalk running around the cage’s perimeter. An overhead crane like a claw in an arcade game. Faux rocks and trees. The AstroTurf version of savannah grassland covering the cage floor. And an over-sized pet door leading to the fenced in area out back.
Three lionesses and a juvenile male stand at the cage wall, looking more curious than vicious. As Tom approaches, they jump over each other like dogs excited by the prospect of human attention. Tom sticks his fingers through the fencing. But there are no aggressive snarls, no blood-drawing bites. Only the roughness of the sandpaper-like tongues and coarse fur against his skin, and a humming sound he interprets as affectionate. His hope deteriorates into disdain.
But a heaviness, like the sudden swelling of an unexpected storm, stills the air. The lions stop and turn to the big boulder in the center of the cage. The little male trots off and melts into a thick clump of tall grass, the lionesses close behind, as a male twice the size of the others steps out from behind the boulder. He snaps his head in Tom’s direction and stiffens with hate. Tom’s skin bristles with the cold flush of adrenaline. His heartbeat turns manic. But an almost familiar gravity in the black holes of the lion’s eyes holds his own.
Tom steps toward the cage door, the crowbar still in his hand. The lion snarls, and stamps the ground. Tom leverages the crowbar into the lock. The lion gives a half-roar and charges. Tom stumbles back and trips over his own feet. The lion crashes against the fencing. Tom tries to stand, but a full-bellied roar condenses the air into a solid, fluid mass that rolls over him like an iron wave. He crawls outside and runs down the dirt road to his cabin. He stops just inside the door. Another roar shakes the cabin and ripples through him like an earthquake.
The doe is thin and mangy and stands well outside the main herd. Anna settles in behind the rifle. Tom braces and feels the shot ricochet through him like a hammer pounding on iron. The doe collapses. The rest of the herd bounds down the open hill to the safety of an oak grove, their white, bushy tails raised in alarm.
“You get all your kills this way?” Tom asks.
“No,” Anna says. “But she was old and suffering. Plus, it keeps my shooting sharp.”
“And the lion won’t get sick?”
“He would’ve eaten worse in the wild. Speaking of,” she racks the bolt, “you weren’t around the lion house last night, were you?”
She shakes her head. “No reason.”
Anna slips out in between the gate and the fence. Arnold, the head groundskeeper, lights a cigarette and starts toward the body. The temperature is dropping. A wrinkled sheet of gray-white clouds approaches from the west, threatening the first snow of the season.
Tom follows Arnold. He’s the only photographer around. Anna said they didn’t allow guests behind the scenes, but that she’d make an exception if Tom promised not to take any pictures. He feels like an undercover cop who has infiltrated the mafia, detached from the corruptness surrounding him. But he knows he’s in the minority. The use of Bill’s park and the many others like it is an accepted practice, the industry’s well-kept secret. Gone are the days of romantic safaris and stakeouts for the perfect shot. Now, it’s all tame animals and editing software. Staged shoots and green screens. He might as well be photographing pets in backyards.
He didn’t want the job once he had it. Once he realized what it was. The career either. But, like Tony, the manager of the photo agency, said, it was a coveted position. Tom was lucky to get this big of a break right out of school. And, as Tony reminded him more than once, there were thousands like him who would take the job if he didn’t. Thousands of others, relentless and unscrupulous, willing to do whatever it took to get their start, to cheat just for an in.
Arnold squats next to the doe.
“Saw you running out of the lion house last night,” he says. “Silent alarm was tripped.”
“You going to rat me out?”
“No. I don’t care. Anna might. Bill definitely would. But, no, I can probably guess what drew you there in the first place. I go in there often myself.” Arnold stands and stomps out his cigarette. “Next time, though, just ask. I got keys. And it saves me from having to replace a busted lock.”
The truck’s horn blasts behind them. Arnold slides the gate open so Anna can back in. Tom helps him load the doe into the truck bed. Anna climbs in after it, and Tom follows. Arnold drives the truck out along the high fence back toward the lion house. The fence runs far out into the park and fades into a thin silver shard on a distant hilltop. Tree stumps line the outside of it like bollards.
“What’s with the trees?” Tom asks. “Or lack thereof.”
“Chui,” Anna says. “Our leopard.”
“Didn’t know you had one of those.”
“We don’t use him for photoshoots anymore. Can’t. He got out one night. Used the trees to get over the fence and into the deer and cattle enclosures. Killed five whitetail and two of our longhorns.” She bites her lower lip. A discrete sadness roils her hale countenance. “They kill for sport, you know. Not just for meat. I don’t know. Guess he got bored. Thank god, he didn’t kill any people. Then the state gets involved. They track the animal down and kill it.”
“We still don’t know how. Took us three days to corner him in a ravine. Dad, Arnold, and the whole crew were down in there with him with tranquilizers and shotguns. They got him out, but he hasn’t been the same since. It’s strange. I used to be able to walk into his cage and pet him. Now, he hisses and lunges at the sight of me.”
“Maybe you just made the mistake of believing he was ever tame.”
The truck stops outside the lion house. Anna jumps down.
“You don’t like it here do you, Tom?”
“You can always leave.”
“I’d probably just be hunted down and brought back.”
She scoffs and walks into the lion house. Tom helps Arnold carry the doe into a clearing where a lone oak stands tall and crippled, the violent scar of a lightning strike slicing down its side. Arnold retrieves a gazelle hide from the truck. He cuts down the doe as if field-dressing it, slips the hollow face of the gazelle over the doe’s head, and then, with needle and thread, stitches the gazelle hide over the doe’s.
“Just like the real thing,” Arnold says.
Tom hears the wind move through the oak’s bare, shriveled branches. He wants to run away from it all. But Bill’s park is tucked deep within the Ozarks, cordoned off by high hills and endless forests, like a castle or a prison. And with all of the wild animals around, he doubts he’d survive for long.
From his cabin, Tom watches staff members arrange fake African grasses and bushes around the doe. The trunk of the oak is wrapped in green for post-production purposes. A green screen is rolled down from a tall lighting truss to block out the forest.
Tom goes over to the lion house. Arnold is replacing the lock and doesn’t say anything when Tom walks past him. Anna is sitting on the big boulder. Two lionesses lie next to her, one with her head on Anna’s lap. The big male trots over in front of Tom.
“We don’t allow guests in here,” Anna says, scratching the lioness’s head.
Tom walks along the cage. The big male mimics his steps.
“What’s his name?” Tom asks.
“Wasn’t Orion the hunter who killed the lion?”
“Dad named him.”
Tom steps closer to the cage. Orion squares off with him.
“Don’t,” Anna says. “He thinks you’re challenging him.”
But Tom is unable to take his eyes away from Orion’s. In the dense, still air between them, he feels the pull of the lion, like charged particles being drawn toward one another.
“Seriously, Tom, stop staring at him. He’s—”
Orion roars and lunges. Tom jumps back, the roar curling through his body like thunder.
Anna comes down off the boulder. Orion turns and growls at her. A lioness charges in between the two of them and bares her teeth.
“Now you’ve got them all wound up.” Anna’s voice is stern, but she keeps it at a whisper. “Please, Tom. Get out.”
Orion turns back around. His glowering eyes hold Tom in place. Anna repeats her plea, but Tom is unable to break the stare.
“Tom,” Arnold calls from the doorway. “Don’t make me go get the tranquilizer gun.”
Orion glances in Arnold’s direction, and Tom takes the opportunity to escape. Arnold closes the door behind him, the new lock clicking into place.
Orion tears another hunk of flesh from the belly of the doe which looks like a gazelle. He shreds the bloody morsel into pieces, his eyes focused on Tom.
“Don’t think he likes you, kid,” Bill says.
Laughter ripples down the line of photographers. Orion wipes it away with a turn of his head.
“Don’t worry, folks,” Bill says. “He’s fine. Tame as a bird dog. Orion here is our most photogenic lion. Ain’t that right, boy?”
Orion looks at Bill, a grisly carmine smile painted on his face.
“See. Nothing to worry about.”
Tom covers his camera’s lens. The other photographers continue to click away.
“Get all your pictures?” Bill asks. “Wouldn’t want you to not get your money’s worth.”
His sarcastic smile is disfigured by the fist-sized wad of tobacco tucked in his lower lip. He spits close to Tom’s feet. Tom shoves his hands in his pockets to stop himself from slugging him. He turns back to Orion, as the lion pulls the gazelle hide away and reveals the doe underneath. The cameras drop.
“Uh, sorry about that folks,” Bill says. “Arnie, can we fix that?”
“Nope,” Arnold says. He’s off to the side, leaning on a long tranquilizer gun and smoking. “Not going near him till he’s done eating.”
“We didn’t pay to see a lion eating a deer, Bill,” one of the photographers says.
“You can’t charge us for this shoot, if you’re not going to fix it,” another says.
Tom snorts and shakes his head in disbelief. Orion’s eyes flick up. He stops chewing. Arnold tucks the gun into his shoulder.
“Hey, hey, everybody needs to calm down,” Bill says. “Now, just relax, kid.”
Bill places a hand on Tom’s shoulder. Tom shoves it away and takes a quick step toward him. Orion twitches up onto all fours and lets loose a brusque roar. His top lip trembles, revealing long, blood-glazed teeth.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Nobody move,” Bill says.
“Tame as a bird dog, huh?” Tom says.
“Don’t move, or he will charge.”
Tom takes a step forward. Orion roars.
“Tom, please,” Anna says.
Orion steps over the carcass. His eyes are determined, starved of instinct. Tom wonders what his own eyes look like, as he stares back. A single snowflake wends its way down between them and melts on the hard, dry prairie. Tom sees the barrel of the gun rise out of the corner of his eye.
He goes for the gun. Orion charges. The dart lands high on the lion’s shoulder. Everyone, including the staff, scatter. Tom’s foot catches on a tuft of grass and he falls. He rolls over to see Orion lunging, the lion having already covered the distance. Their eyes lock again. But then Orion’s roll back and he falls onto Tom with the force of an asteroid slamming into the earth. The two tumble over one another and come to rest nose-to-nose.
Bill and Arnold run up, as Tom struggles to his feet.
“You all right, kid?”
“I’m fine. Get off me.”
The viewfinder and screen of his camera are cracked. The telephoto lens is in pieces next to Orion’s lifeless body.
The snow begins in earnest. Arnold pulls his truck around and winches Orion onto a flat-bed trailer. Tom follows the truck up to the lion house. Snowflakes stick in Orion’s thick black mane. Arnold opens the overhead door and backs the trailer in. He and Anna roll Orion into the harness. The crane lifts the lion up over the fence and lowers him into the cage. When he’s a few inches off the ground, Anna presses a button and the quick-release straps give way. Orion bounces off the cage’s floor.
Outside, the snow falls harder.
“You’re fired, if anything like this happens again,” Tony says.
Tom is in his cabin, his phone on the nightstand, the speaker on, his head hanging over the side of the bed so all of the blood pools in his face.
“Bill says you provoked his lion,” Tony says. “How stupid are you?”
“He’s a wild animal.”
“He’s a tame fucking lion on a game park.”
Tom doesn’t say anything.
“I don’t want to hear anything else about or from you until you’re back in the office. Got it?”
Tom hangs up and lies there watching the snow through the window, the pressure building in his head.
The new lock Arnold installed is much sturdier than the old one. Tom can’t find a way to break it. He stands outside the lion house that night and imagines Orion pacing in the cage, the fog of the tranquilizer having lifted and taken away more than just the sedation, a certain anger sparked and now flaming in the lion’s belly.
Knowing he won’t be able to sleep, Tom starts along the dirt road and heads deeper into the park. It’s still snowing, but the ground has not yet cooled enough, and the flakes melt as they land. He pictures Orion escaping and traipsing through a big snowdrift. His eyelashes and whiskers burdened by ice that have never before encumbered a lion. His short, struggling breaths condensing in the cold air like the exhaust from a gasping engine.
The road wends its way up to a hilltop clearing. Tom can see the lights of the photographers’ cabins and Bill’s house in the valley below. The hollow coursing of the highway rises up over the hills like a soft vapor.
Instead of taking the road, he cuts a straight line through the woods. Dead, semi-frozen leaves crack under his feet. There are many draws, and even though the air is cooling, he begins to sweat. At the top of the steepest draw, he rests against a tree to catch his breath.
A sharp hiss slices out of the darkness.
As slow as he can, Tom tilts his head up and scans the trees. He can feel the leopard watching him. The hissing comes again, daring him to run. But he remembers what Anna said, how leopards kill for sport.
Turning, he spots the outline of a structure similar to the lion house but much smaller in size tucked into a small grove. A tree grows up against the roof of the outdoor cage. His heart relaxes. The terror drains away. A low, stuttering growl coaxes him forward into the darkness.
When he is only a few steps away, something explodes inside the cage and ricochets off the bars like a bullet. A long, lithe shadow shoots up the tree and then charges back down and hurls itself at the fencing. The leopard does this over and over again, like a madman beating at the walls of his cell.
Tom waits for the leopard to exhaust himself. After several more attempts to breach the fencing, the leopard tires out and saunters over in front of Tom. His baleful eyes glint like knives in the darkness. Tom squats down, only the width of the cage separating them.
“So, this is what they do to those who break the rules.”
His voice sends the leopard into another frenzy. He bolts across the cage and begins biting and slapping at the padlock on the door. He backs up and runs full tilt at the door, ramming it with his head. The entire cage shakes with each hit. Tom turns and runs.
He’s sweating again, by the time he makes it back to his cabin. He stays awake through the night, fighting the rapid pace of his heart and listening to the agonized roaring of the leopard.
Anna and Arnold pull up outside Arnold’s workshop, as Tom is leaving the photographers’ cafeteria the next morning. There’s a large wooden box in the truck bed. Anna, her face gray and straight, heads inside.
“What’s in the box?” Tom asks.
Arnold lights a cigarette. “Dead leopard,” he says.
Tom bites his tongue to stifle his reaction.
“Found him this morning,” Arnold says. “Skull all smashed in. Mouth cut to shit from biting the fence. He was still alive, when I got there. But just barely. Had to put him down.”
“I don’t know. Hell, I’d go crazy too being cooped up in a cage like that all day.”
“Anna said he escaped once.”
“Yeah, well, he’s not going anywhere now.”
Anna leads Orion to a horse carcass draped in a zebra pelt for the afternoon shoot. Orion refuses to cooperate. He stands there, staring at Tom. Arnold tags him with a dart, when he charges. Orion falls face-down into a puddle and has to be dragged out before he drowns.
Tony calls Tom that evening.
“Bill tells me you pissed off his lion again,” he says.
“Shut up. I’m not done. He also suspects you had something to do with the death of his leopard but says he can’t prove it. Now, what the hell did I tell you about that lion?”
Tom imagines walking into Tony’s office and wrapping the phone cord around his neck. Watching that crooked fuck’s face go from red to purple to dead.
“You got a reason why I shouldn’t fire you?” Tony asks.
Tom knows Tony is going to fire him. It’s only a matter of when. Tony is shrewd, smart enough to know it makes more sense to wait until Tom completes the shoot and returns with the photos before canning him, which, according to his contract, are the agency’s property and not his.
“Can you honestly say you want to keep this job?” Tony asks. The question sounds more rhetorical than literal, but Tom answers it anyway with a sharp, biting “Yes.”
“Last chance, Tom. And stay the fuck away from that lion.”
The snow comes back hard that night and sticks. Tom tries again to get into the lion house. But he’s forced to run off into the woods and hide when Arnold’s truck comes down the road. Arnold parks outside the lion house, in the shadow of the light over the door. Tom sits in the lee of a tree shivering in the falling snow for over an hour before he leaves.
It’s still snowing the next morning, so the photoshoot is moved to a large indoor studio the park has for such occasions. Not wanting to lose any more time or money on ruined shoots, Bill forces Tom to wait outside until they get Orion settled behind the kill and the other photographers have gotten most of their shots. He threatens to call Tony if Tom refuses to comply.
Tom shields his camera under his jacket and stamps his feet to keep warm, while he waits. A solid three inches has fallen and stuck. The dirt road is now just two indentations where Arnold drove the truck. After several minutes, Arnold opens the door and lets him inside.
Orion stands when he sees Tom. The photographers drop their cameras. Orion steps over the cow disguised as a Cape buffalo. Tom runs at him. Orion charges, too, but is wrenched back after a few strides. Tom feels a sudden sting between his shoulder blades. A heavy numbness melts down his back and spreads through his body. As he stumbles, he notices Orion’s collar and the chain bolted to the floor. Tom’s eyes close for a long second. He fights to keep them open, but he’s no longer in control of his own muscles. He braces for the impact of the floor but falls through it.
Tom wakes in his bed, still inside the ether of the tranquilizer. It’s dark outside. Snowflakes shoot through the cabin’s porch light like meteors. Several minutes pass before he remembers what happened. And then the sedative’s effects evaporate, taking any uncertainty along with them. There’s a voicemail on his phone from Tony. He doesn’t bother to listen to it. He leaves everything but his jacket in the cabin and heads out into the falling snow.
Arnold’s truck is parked outside the lion house. Tom ducks behind a tree and watches, but the headlights stay off and he can’t make out any figure in the driver’s seat. He runs over to the truck. A sledgehammer lies on the front seat, and the doors are unlocked. As is the lion house.
He flips on the lights and walks over to the cage door. Orion trots up and huffs. Tom brings the hammer down hard. He tosses the broken lock aside and pulls open the door.
Orion doesn’t move. They stand there, staring at one another through the doorway. Tom feels fear begin to replace the adrenaline and blood in his legs. His entire body pounds with his heartbeat. Orion stiffens, a subtle violence twitching like electricity along the taut cables of his muscles. Tom digs his toes deep into the soles of his shoes, trying to grip the earth itself.
Orion lunges. Tom shoves his forearm sideways into the lion’s mouth, as he falls backward. Orion’s hot, thick breath mixes with the iron smell of blood. Tom realizes he’s struggling with his eyes closed and opens them to see Orion’s snarling face inches above his own. The lion is gnawing through his arm, his eyes focused on Tom’s throat.
A sharp crack splits the air above them and echoes around the room. Both turn to the doorway. Bill’s hands shake as he works the bolt of the rifle. Orion drops Tom’s arm and is there before Bill can secure the next round in the chamber. He tears out Bill’s throat with a single twitch of his head. Orion looks back at Tom, blood dripping from his jowls.
Tom scrambles to his feet. He braces for the charge, but Orion turns and bounds out the door instead. Tom hurries after him. Orion’s tracks, clear in the light above the door, trail off into the darkness. Tom wades into the snow. A sharp wind sinks its teeth into his flesh, and he becomes too aware of the cold, of the pain rolling over him in heavy waves. The bones in his forearm are visible, the flesh around them shredded to ribbons. Blood runs off of his hand in thick rivulets. He’s losing too much too fast. Tendrils of heat from the open door entice him to turn back, but he pushes on, collapsing just at the edge of the light. Only then does he notice the truck coming toward him from Arnold’s workshop. His vision widens and contracts with each heartbeat. But Tom fights, claws and drags himself away from the edge of consciousness. The truck is coming. He knows he will survive. And that, no matter what happens next, Orion will not.
Ryan Hubble graduated from Missouri State University with a Master of Arts in Creative Writing and a Master of Arts in Rhetoric and Composition. He currently resides in his hometown of Quincy, Illinois. Other work of his has appeared in The Slag Review, Projected Letters, and GNU Journal.