Skip to content


By Benjamin Kessler

Turns out Studs Henry had been keeping exotic animals on eleven acres east of Red Butte. That’s pretty fucked, forcing zebras and meerkats to freeze through the high plains winters. Making things worse was the fact that, right before Studs ate his gun, he opened all the cages up and allowed the critters newfound independence.

Normally I wouldn’t be bothered by goings on in the extremities. Samantha and I had just moved into the city and were establishing a comfortable little life: kitchen remodels and fireplace stoking and drinks with her work friends. It was all real polite. Undisturbed, you might call it, which was a nice change given what had driven us here in the first place. So imagine my surprise when, venturing to fetch the newspaper, I should find a lioness shitting in one of Sam’s planter boxes. When I called Sam from ER later that morning she sounded concerned. “You don’t mean the carrots near the driveway, do you? The heirlooms?”

I stared motionless at the lioness for a moment, my bathrobe soaking up cold spring rain. My breath formed even clouds in the air before my face. I had no idea what to do.

Eventually she finished her business, pawed some mulch over her shit, and went about sniffing around the rest of the garden. She moved in fits and starts, distracted momentarily by a swell of birds, squirrel chatter, passing cars. Then, satisfied, she laid down on the flagstone path and crossed her front paws over one another.

I’d only met Studs once, in line at the bank. He came in with a gun on his hip, though no one seemed too upset by it. He had a reputation of being a bit of an eccentric. “How’s your boy?” he asked, as if he knew me. I have no son, but as not to start an argument I told him he was fine. Studs then mumbled something and shoved a wad of twenties into his billfold before walking out to his idling truck.

It became clear that the lioness was not going to leave—she had, in fact, rested her chin on her forearms and began to sleep—so I walked back into the house and went upstairs to retrieve my rifle. I found it in the bedroom closet, propped up behind a suit. There was a round still loaded in the chamber from when my father had kept it beside his bed. It’s not in my nature to own a rifle, but the old man had recently passed from cancer. And my mother, with her deteriorating mind, was in no condition to have something like that in the house. So it’s mine now.

I peered through the slat blinds. The lioness was still there, breath pushing against her ribcage. She was malnourished. I thought about tossing her a bit of smoked turkey from the fridge. But I didn’t want to end up a statistic in some gallows trivia twenty years down the line, so I stuffed the idea away.

I eased the door open and tiptoed across the deck, still in my house slippers. I hadn’t planned on changing out of them all day. No reason to. Truth is I was on the outs with my employer for allowing a frontend loader to be stolen from a job site. Truth is I was asleep in the office trailer when it happened. Truth is I’d gotten in a bit of a brawl over accusations about my potential involvement. I was still on probation when Sam leaped on the opportunity to move into the city and away from the mine. I was in no place to argue.

I didn’t want to kill the majestic beast. I simply wanted to scare her off. I pointed the gun into the air. I was ready to pull the trigger when, along the sidewalk, Evrett Rhett walked by with his dog. He waved, oblivious to the vision of me in my morning clothes, rifle in hand. I responded with a head nod and he went on his way, pulling the hood of his coat further down and plying his Springer Spaniel, Margeaux, with affirmations.

When I looked back the lioness was gone. Fear pricked up my back, hardened my belly. I envisioned my death. She was behind me. She was perched on the eave. She was watching the veins in my neck pump and pump. She would drag my lifeless body through town and the police would find my bones behind the Push ‘n Pull, bits of my red flannel bathrobe dangling off exposed ribs.

I spun around. There was nothing out of place in the yard, only the bird feeder swinging lazy on its metal hanger. Then, along the fence, movement. An upturned canoe, left by the previous homeowners, rocked on the ground. She was there. Her eyes peeked out, little yellow marbles. My finger circled the trigger then rested comfortably in the curve. Just one shot would be enough, surely. But, as I walked, staring intently at those eyes, there manifested the hidden concrete step, and then the bullet in my foot, and then the lioness bounding through my yard and finding refuge behind the bandshell in the park across the street. It all took less than ten seconds.

They printed parts of Studs’ suicide note in the paper. I read them while my injured peg was propped up beneath a bag of frozen veggies. The parts unrelated to his distaste for the federal government spoke about the need for what he called “true freedom.” He was looking for it, every day.

“You think they’ll find her?” Sam asked.

I pictured the lioness taking down antelope beside the Interstate, powerful haunches propelling her into the hindquarters of a rancher’s calf. A car with foreign tourists would pass by on their way to Yellowstone and stare. What wild country, they would think, and take a photo.


Benjamin Kessler‘s work has appeared, or is forthcoming in, Hobart, DIAGRAM, Jet Fuel Review, Entropy, Storyscape, The Hunger, Epigraph, Superstition Review, Aperçus, What Are Birds?, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, Peatsmoke Journal, and The Gravity of the Thing, among others. He lives, writes, and raises a hedgehog in Portland, Oregon.