A Lion in America
The truck bounced dangerously but Mike gripped the steering wheel and brought the vehicle under control. Dirt turned into asphalt and forest into houses as we drove into civilization. A buzz in the truck; Mike’s phone. He reached for it with his free hand.
“Yes sir” he said. “I will let him know.” And then he hanged up.
“Who was that?” I asked, my elbow out the window.
“It was the boss Nwanku. He wants to see you as soon as we get back.”
“It better be for a raise,” I joked and Mike smiled. The time was 4pm and we were both tired after a long day at work.
“Nwanku,” Mike called. “How come you are always so happy? I mean, I don’t think I have ever seen you angry. How do you do that?”
I shrugged. “It’s easier to be happy than to be angry Mike.”
We pulled the truck into the warehouse and I jumped out. While Mike fueled up the vehicle for the next day’s job, I headed for my boss’ office to see what he wanted. The door creaked to my touch and a big man with a round face looked up at the sound of intrusion.
“Sit down Nwanku.” A pointing finger; an unsmiling face. The office was ragged and lacking the touch of a woman but nobody was checking. The frames on the walls were unaligned and the furniture unmatched in colour.
“I’m afraid we have to let you go Nwanku,” Chuck said cutting right to the chase. He leaned back and studied my face. The room fell deathly silent. “You should say something because it’s real.”
The words took a while to sink in and when they did, I sat there and waited for my body to react; anger, hatred, confusion. Nothing happened. “Is that all sir?” I asked and he looked very surprised.
“Yes.” His voice was hesitant. “You can come and collect your final cheque tomorrow or we can mail it to you.”
I rose to my feet and extended a calloused hand. He took it and held it a little longer. “You are a great guy Nwanku. Please, let me know if you need any references.”
I half smiled but said nothing as I headed for the door.
“Nwanku?” He called as my hand found the door knob.
“Yes Chuck.” I turned and saw the guilt in his eyes.
“I was just curious about something. Why didn’t you pull the trigger?”
I wanted to give him an intelligent explanation; something that would make him regret firing me. But instead, I just shrugged in my usual don’t care attitude. “I don’t know Chuck. I just froze.”
The drive home was a blur and I didn’t remember to say goodbye to Mike. An hour later, I opened the door to my apartment very slowly in the hope that my girlfriend wasn’t home. A walk of shame. Nothing was real yet… well, until I told someone.
“Hi Nwanku!” She came rushing from the kitchen hands wide open.
I hugged her with a forced smile. “Smells good Lauren.”
“I made dinner for you babe. I hope you like it.” Suddenly she stopped and appraised me. “What’s wrong?” I wasn’t very good at making poker faces.
I took off my jacket with a heavy sigh. “Lost my job.”
“What? How? You just got the job like a few months ago.” She looked stunned and I felt stupid.
“I know Lauren. The company is downsizing… had to let a few people go.” I sighed into the couch and closed my eyes, ashamed by my blatant lie.
We ate dinner to the distant humming of the TV but nobody was really watching. She was wearing a simple sleeveless dress; white was her favorite color. The evening turned out to be a very quiet one and Lauren looked pensive. I watched her from the corner of my eye and saw the familiar signs; the pacing and awkward conversation. She was groping with indecision… nearing a breaking point. And finally when she couldn’t hold back, she let it out.
“I can’t do this any more Nwanku!”
“Can’t do what?” I knew exactly what she was saying.
“This! Us! I’m not getting any younger.” She walked into the kitchen and came back a few seconds later.
“It wasn’t my fault Lauren,” I said calmly.
“That’s what you always say. That’s what you said a few months ago when you lost your other job! And you know what? It doesn’t matter whose fault it is. The fact is that you can’t keep a job longer than six months.”
She was right. I stood up and reached for her hand. “Babe,” I said in a soft voice. “Can we talk about this tomorrow? I just got fired today. Please, give me some time to digest this and then we can figure out a way forward.”
She yanked her hand away. “You can figure it all by yourself Nwanku because am leaving you!”
“You what!” My eyes widened in disbelief.
“You heard me! I’m not getting younger any more. I need to start a family and I need a man who can support me.”
My blood was boiling. She was doing it again… leaving and labeling me as a looser. “You want to go? Fine! Then go and start a family!” My voice was trembling; each syllable from my mouth coming separate.
Her face was red. Angry. Born and bred in Denver - long black hair. Curtains closing. Lauren stormed into the bedroom but I did not follow. I was done with her. This was the second time she was leaving me and for the same reason too. If this was love then I did not want it.
I woke up the following morning and wasn’t surprised to find Lauren gone. Still it hurt to know that she had never really believed in me. Love, and everything I had believed about love … I was a believer no more. To me there was a direct link between love and money. Gone were the days when women were only attracted by looks; now they wanted it all or as Cuba Gooding called it, ‘The Quan”. Women wanted ‘The Quan’: the whole package; decent looks, a house, a car, a good bank account and a great personality.
I went back to bed and slept all morning, and when sleep left me, I just lay there and stared at the ceiling. Familiar signs: my body was beginning to shut down; a way of protecting itself from pain.
There was a time I would have cried, but those days were behind me. My heart had been broken so many times that I had become immune. The first time had been the worst… almost suicidal. I was a grown man now.
I’m sorry Nwanku but we have to let you go. Voices in my head. You can figure it all out by yourself Nwanku. I’m leaving you!
A question. Where do broken hearts go?
It was time to wake up; time to rescue myself from social extinction. A cell phone ringing. I reached for it slowly and answered on the fifth ring. It was my friend Mike.
“Hey Nwanku, what happened? You didn’t show up to work today and everybody was like wondering why.”
I closed my eyes and struggled with the words. “They let me go Mike.”
“What? They fired you?” Shock. “Why would they do that? You are like the best employee that they have. Was it because of what happened yesterday? Because you didn’t pull the trigger?”
“Yes Mike.” I could hear the sympathy through the line and I did not want it. Mike was quiet for a long time before his voice broke the silence.
“Drinks on me tonight Nwanku. I get off at 8pm.”
I wanted to say no but with my girlfriend gone, I needed some distraction. “See you then Mike… and thank you.”
“Hey, you are my African brother. We are in this together.”
There is nothing as relaxing as a stroll through the mall on a weekday. Serenity is tangible in the absence of the screaming kids and jostling adults. An attitude adjustment session. I spend my afternoon shopping at the mall, a bad idea for someone who had just lost his job, but then again, I needed to cheer myself up; the sight of a four button Ralph Lauren dinner jacket, the soft touch of cashmere. One day I would get my money right, and then after that… halo Prince Nwanku, goodbye to the looser.
“Can I help you find something?” A female voice.
I turned and appraised her. 5’5 tall, straightened hair, great body… no ring on her finger. Just the way I liked them.
“Oh hi,” I said. “Just browsing. Are you new here? I have never seen you before.”
Her smile brought daylight. “My first week. Are you a regular?”
“Yes. This is where I come to spend my rent money.”
She laughed, happy to kill the hours. “Just let me know if you need something else. My name is Jennifer.”
“Nice to meet you Jennifer. Call me Nwanku.”
She gave me a second look at the mention of my funny name. Three, two, one… I counted the seconds.
“Where are you from Nwanku?”
The question was right on schedule. I wish I was a gambling man. We chatted for a little bit longer before I took my broke self out of the premises.
“See you later Jennifer.”
“Bye Nanku.” She butchered my name but I forgave her. Come on now, she was cute.
My feet padded softly on the carpet as I walked away. I could feel her eyes on me… undressing the mystery that was… wait for it… me!
Mike and I met later that night at the Garden’s Inn Sports Bar where we opened a tab and knocked back a few drinks.
“I missed you today Nwanku,” Mike said in his usual gregarious self. “They had me rolling with freaking Matt.”
I laughed. “Did he discuss politics?”
“Can’t stand him man. He has a way of turning everything into a political rally. I’ve never voted my whole life.”
“You and me both Mike. I respect people who vote; I mean just waking up so early and standing in line for hours in the cold for something that doesn’t have an instant gain. It’s impressive.”
Mike and I knocked back a few more drinks and he didn’t seem bothered that he had to wake up at five in the morning.
“I never told you that my dad took me to the Chicago Museum when I was a kid,” Mike said with a drunken slur.
I waited for the epiphany but it didn’t come. I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about.
“The Ghost and The Darkness?” Mike said at my puzzled expression. “Does it ring a bell?”
And suddenly I remembered. “Yes. Did you see the two lions from Tsavo in the museum?”
“I did Nwanku. It was a good trip. What happened in Tsavo anyway?”
The music was too loud and so I moved my stool closer. “It’s actually a very interesting story Mike,” I said. "It was in the late eighteen hundreds when the British were building the railway bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya. Two lions attacked the workers and almost one hundred and forty people were killed. The workers abandoned their work until later when the two lions were hunted and gunned down. Those two lions are the ones you saw at the Chicago museum."
"But they say lions don't attack people, what happened?" Mike asked in a worried tone.
I shrugged. "I don’t know. It’s speculated that there was a disease that killed dozens of gazelles and antelopes during this period thus creating a shortage of food for the lions. Natives believed that the lions were possessed by demons. Who knows, maybe the two lions just stumbled on some human carcass and decided that we taste good," I joked and Mike laughed nervously. "I watched the movie The Ghost and the Darkness by Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas," Mike said. “They say the movie was based on a true story of the man-eating lions of Tsavo in Kenya.”
“Was it a good movie,” I asked.
“It was. But I was a kid then. I may just have to watch it again.”
A female voice above the crowd. “Hi Mike! Who’s your friend?”
I turned and saw two white girls approaching: tall, straightened hair, sexy bodies, too much make up.
Mike’s face beamed as he waved them forward. “Come and meet my friend girls. He’s a prince from Africa.”
“Really?” One girl stood on my left and the other leaned against Mike.
“Don’t believe anything Mike says girls,” I said with a nervous laugh. I was terrified of the girls and the way they carried themselves; class, beauty.
We offered them drinks but they only accepted our company; talked about having class in the morning. College girls. Hard metal music played in the background; the sound of clanking glasses. The pool table lured us over and all four of us goofed around with sticks.
“I gotta hit the gents,” Mike said after a while and headed to the restroom. The time was 11.30pm and I needed to get him home.
“Tab please,” I said to the bar man.
“Your friend paid it already.” The man glanced at me once and then moved on. Paid? The veins on my forehead throbbed with anger. Just because I had lost my job didn’t mean that I couldn’t take care of myself. I took the next few minutes to calm myself and decided not to confront Mike.
Mike came back and we said goodbye to the girls. Numbers and promises were exchanged before we staggered out in each other’s arms. “Are you going to be able to wake up for work?” I asked Mike with a frown.
He cursed. “They can shove the job Nwanku. They…they fi…red my African brother.”
I laughed because I knew that he was joking. We cut across the park and headed to our apartment on foot.
It was ten minutes later when a weird sensation rocked my body. Something stirred inside my belly and I froze. Mike took a few steps then turned when he realized that I had stopped.
A gut wrenching pain shot through my spinal cord and I fell on my knees screaming. “Get away from me Mike! You’ve gotta get away from me!”
A full moon smiled down on me; gravitational forces pulling at my brain. It was happening again; I was transforming.
“Nwanku? Are you okay?” A scared voice.
I jumped to my feet and started for the bushes. There was hair growing all over my body; my shoes tore open to reveal claws. My bones ruptured throughout my body… elongating … tearing skin.
“Nwanku? Are you okay?”
The smell of blood. I turned fast: 500 pounds of pure muscles, a dark mane around my neck, fangs… a beast craving for human flesh.
Mike turned to run but I leaped through the air and cut him off. He trembled in my eyes… small…disbelief… shock.
“It’s me Nwanku. It’s your friend Mike. Please…” Face white as ghost.
My roar came in full throttle and the human fell… crawling on his back… trying to catch my eye.
“It’s your friend Mike! Please, Nwanku! I know you are in there. I know you can hear me. Please, don’t kill me! I’m your friend.”
My eyes narrowed at the prey; at the soft spot on his neck. One bite was all it would take.
But instead of crawling away, the human suddenly rose to feet and stared me in the eye; voice strong with bravado. “Nwanku, I know you are in there. Please, fight this thing. This is not who you are. You are my friend and I yours. We work together. We love each other.”
I couldn’t control the adrenaline in my blood and I opened my jaw for the kill. But I couldn’t touch the human. I couldn’t kill him. It was the eyes… the problem was in the eyes. The eyes made me weak and ambivalent. My roar turned into a hum and I dashed into the darkness.
The next two days were the worst in my life: I slept, watched ESPN sports channel and a repeat of the Oscars; Lupita Nyong’o, first African to ever win an Oscar, history in the making.
I never showered or left my apartment. Bills; the feeling of failure, a cruel hand of fate. I was in a dark place and the only person who could have anchored me had left at the first sign of trouble.
The phone rung on the third day in the morning and I answered it with a lot of hesitation. It was Mike my friend.
“How is the life of freedom?” Mike sounded almost normal but I detected something different in his voice; like he was hiding something.
“Sucks man. My body is itching to do something. I can’t stand it any more.”
“You don’t have to Nwanku.”
“What do you mean Mike.”
“I called Dr. Schneidel.”
The line went dead and neither of us spoke for a long time. My voice finally came… slow… stunned. “You called Dr. Schneidel?”
“Yes Nwanku. I gave him your portfolio. He wants to meet you at 2pm today. He’s very interested.”
“But Mike, am I ready for this?”
He didn’t hesitate. “It’s time Nwanku. Go big or go home. You have been procrastinating for too long. Excuses are for the unemployed.”
“I’m unemployed,” I said with a grin.
“Not anymore Nwanku. Not anymore.”
I closed my eyes and took in a deep breath. Mike was right. It was time, and there was only one way to find out if I was ready.
“Mike?” I called.
“What happened the other night? I remember us leaving the bar but after that everything is a blur.”
Silence. Hard breathing. A reassuring voice. “Nothing happened Nwanku, nothing.”
I met Dr. Schneidel at 2pm and we signed the contract papers. “Half the money will be transferred to the account now and the rest when you get the job done,” the big man said.
Expensive perfume. Wall to wall carpet. I studied his intelligent eyes and saw the lies underneath. I could pick out a dishonest man from downtown even with his 5000 dollar suit.
“Are you sure that you want to do this son?” Dr. Schneidel asked with a penetrating gaze.
My life was at crossroads and my decisions transcended every logic explanation that my brain tried to wedge in. I did not hesitate. “Yes sir. I’m sure.”
“Alright then,” he said. “Give me a bank account number.”
I gave it to him plus the routing number.
“Name on account?” He asked.
I took in a deep breath. “Lauren. Lauren Frisby.”
If I didn’t come back then she would be set for life. And if I came back, I would get the other half pay that would set me for life.
The last form was a waiver … in case anything happened to me. I signed it quickly, rose and our hands rattled businesslike. “You won’t regret this sir.”
Fast forward. One more day to rest; one more day before beginning the rest of my life. Insomnia. An empty apartment; the sound of crickets chirping in a dark corner. My sister’s voice. When are you coming home Nwanku? My mother’s voice. Son, remember that life is full of challenges. You will fall and get tested. Whatever happens after that is entirely up to you. You can either stay down or fight.
Sunlight through the window. A new day. A distant warmth. I pondered about going to the mall but right before I left, my phone went off. It was my ex-girlfriend Lauren. Strange.
“Hi Nwanku, just checking to see how you are doing?” She sounded normal…searching.
“I’m okay,” I replied in my most civilized voice. “How are you doing Lauren?”
Silence. “I miss you Nwanku.” Her voice came sentimental and almost tearful.
“I miss you too,” I replied truthfully.
“Did you find a job? Do you need my help with anything?”
“I don’t need help Lauren and yes I did find a job.”
I hesitated. What the heck, might as well tell her. “I signed a contract with Dr. Schneidel.”
“I know its crazy but it’s now or never.” I was beginning to doubt my decision.
“But Nwanku, nobody has ever come back alive! Everybody who has ever signed that contract is dead! What were you thinking? That’s the devil’s contract!”
I sighed. Silence. The crack of static on the line. “I’m tired Lauren. I’m tired of living from paycheck to paycheck. I’m tired of playing small and living a mediocre life.”
She was crying now. “I wonna come home Nwanku. I miss you babe. I wonna come back!” A tale as old as time. We had been through this before. People will never let you down in the drama department.
“No Lauren. You hurt me too bad; left me when I needed you most.”
“Don’t say that Nwanku.”
“It’s over babe. I love you but I can’t get hurt again.”
“Nwanku. I’m sorry. I messed up. Can you forgive me?” Her voice was but a whisper.
“Please Lauren. Don’t make this harder than it has to be. Just know that I love you and I hope we can still be friends.”
“Nwanku?” A sentimental streak.
We argued all afternoon and it was exhausting. She kept calling and finally I switched off my phone. Tomorrow was a big day for me and I needed to focus. Love was the last thing on my mind; a cocoon a world away.
My Mustang struggled through the snow to get to Dr. Schneidel’s warehouse. I pulled outside the worn down building as dawn broke through the sky. A cold breeze hit me as I stepped out of the car and I was glad for the heavy coat and deer skin gloves I was wearing.
Dew drops on the grass. The sound of an approaching car. I turned expecting to see Dr. Schneidel’s BMW but what I saw instead put a big smile on my face. Mike’s truck pulled beside me and a window rolled down.
“You didn’t think that I was gonna let you go alone did you?”
“Mike?” I was too happy. “Come here you.”
We hugged quickly then took a step back. “How Mike? What about your other job?”
He shook his head. “It wasn’t the same after you left Nwanku. And… and we have been talking about this gig for months. I wouldn’t wonna do it with anybody else.”
Mike’s leather boots were almost knee high. Blue jeans and a brown coat completed his winter attire and I was happy to have him beside me. Together we walked into the warehouse and started loading the 4 wheel truck.
“Extra blankets and tire?” Mike yelled.
“Check,” I replied, pen poised over clipboard.
SIG Scorpion pistols, silver bullets, radios, canary bird, gas monitors… check check and check. The gas monitor was for the H2S poisonous gas that killed in seconds; the canary bird was for the methane gas usually encountered by miners. As long as the bird sang, we would live.
“Snakes?” I asked.
“Rattle snakes and bull snakes,” Mike said. “The ones you really need to worry about are the baby rattles because they can’t control their venom when they bite. They will kill you.”
The truck swerved into the highway and we sped off. The radio was turned off as we mentality pushed our minds into a place where we wanted to be… the danger ahead was real.
“Mike?” I called as we entered the county roads. “Why now?”
We had known about the job for a long time. The stories of the dead had reached our ears and we had dreaded. A suicide mission wasn’t exactly what I had planned for in my life.
“I saw you the other night,” Mike said in a small voice.
“What do you mean Mike?” I knew exactly what he meant.
“Under the full moon Nwanku… I saw you.” Pause. “I’ve never been so scared.” Silence. “You always talk about going to Africa and finally I understand. I wouldn’t wonna ride with anybody else. I would never want anybody else as my wing man.”
The truck slowed down to a crawl but neither of us noticed. The wind picked up as we approached the mountains and dark clouds shadowed the sky. I was glad that he knew. The secret had slowly been eating me from inside.
“It’s getting worse.” Silence. “I can’t die in America.”
I didn’t have to explain further. By the look on Mike’s face I could tell that he understood. Every full moon was a death sentence for me and one of these days I would not change back.
“Mike,” I called, trying to lighten the mood. “Please don’t let me end up at the Chicago Museum if anything happens to me.”
He stole a quick glance at my face and realized that I was joking. We both burst out laughing. I was exactly where I wanted to be and with whom I wanted to be with. It helps to know that you are not alone; to dare to be human…
Day 10: The Mountains are pretty; the snow pounds the ground with a vengeance. Our supplies dwindle by the hour; the muscles in our bellies clench at the smell of fear… our own fear.
There is no cell phone reception; the dream that is … was Africa is locked away, the memories of our loved ones buried in a place of forgetting.
Off to AFRICA
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...