by Matthew Rennels 

Sammy looked at Dee, his eyes darker than merlot, his teeth the color of milk. He bit into the bread loaf’s golden-brown crust and dropped the loaf to the concrete floor.

Sammy was an African lion, and he lived in this warehouse with Dee, his owner. Dee rested in a nearby black leather recliner; she was watching TV. Used to be, she’d barely even sit down, but then everything changed.

“Sammy, baby. Sit tight. I’ll get you real food in a minute.”

Dee pushed up out of the chair and made her way to the kitchen sink for a glass of water. Her hand shook as she carried the glass back to her seat.

Sammy sat on his hind legs and looked down at the bread loaf and then at the TV, which showed censored videos of the attack. Two weeks ago, Sammy’s brother, Nos, had clawed his trainer’s neck straight through the vocal cords. The trainer, Zebulun, pulled out his gun and fired shots into the lion’s stomach. Dee dashed to his side, and ran her hands all over his blood-soaked fur.

The nation was still grieving the loss. Nos and Sammy had starred on the hit reality TV show, Taming of the Bro, in which two siblings, Zebulun and Robert, trained the lions. Dee was the show’s emcee, and she was married to Robert.

Robert’s handsome face appeared on the TV. She and Robert’s marriage had gone cold; she hadn’t slept in the same house since Nos died. This warehouse was where she had stayed; she hardly even left.

Sammy focused his gaze on Dee. His drool dripped onto the floor, some of it dappling the bread’s crust. As a diabetic, he wasn’t supposed to have bread. Dee knew this, so this loaf confused Sammy. He stood and visited his bone-dry water dish, licked it twice, looked back at Dee once more, and went to the window. Outside, a dirt path led from the warehouse to a hilltop, where two crows performed a mad dance across the path, a frolic amidst pecking at each other. This made Sammy miss his brother; they had often romped together. 

Sammy left the window and padded to the front door.

“Why are you near that door? Why are you looking to escape?” Dee said. “I already lost one of you, I am not about to lose the other. And besides, you know about the bears.”

She gripped one of her stress balls, a pig’s face, its eyes bugging out with each of her squeezes.
“I get it. You’re really just hungry. Let me find something for you.”

Dee rummaged in the kitchen and got Sammy a couple turkey legs. She hummed a tune and poured herself more water. Her hand continued to shake as she pressed the glass to her lips. “Darling, forgive me. You must also be so thirsty.” She stuck her head in the cupboard and pulled out a wine bottle, a winking owl on its label. For a few moments she smirked at it before bending her arm to pour. Burgundy liquid splashed the sides of Sammy’s dish and Dee chuckled; small red droplets painted the perimeter of the bowl.

Dee flung the turkey legs at Sammy. He devoured one of them, and then brought the other to her. He tore the meat from the second turkey leg inches from her feet, and she pointed at his water dish. “Don’t let that go to waste,” she said. Sammy lay his head by the wine dish and gazed at the red liquid. Disgusted, he rose and strode to the window.

On the TV, the news anchor lowered his voice. “Robert, we must ask, how is Dee?” Robert’s face went blank; the news anchor spoke again. “We’ve heard the rumors, but we don’t even want to go into that. We just want to know, is she okay?”

“That’s kind of you to care so much,” said Robert, “but please, Dee’s requested that everyone respect her privacy during this emotional time, and that request includes even me.”

“But with all due respect, as your wife, shouldn’t she be letting you into her pain? Don’t you miss her?”

“Of course, I miss her. And I miss my brother. And thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, I am pleased to have my brother back. Zebulun is expected to make a full recovery. I’m just making sure to count my blessings, is all.”

Dee stood before the TV, her hands on her hips. She sighed and lumbered to the kitchen counter to fetch her phone.

Sitting by the window, Sammy watched a donkey join the crows on the hilltop. One of the crows jumped onto the donkey’s back and perched there, and the other bumbled around on the ground.
Sammy growled slightly as he left the window, and he returned to the bowl of wine. Fixing his gaze again upon Dee, he dipped his mouth into the dish.

“Finally. You know I don’t like to drink alone,” Dee said, tipping her water glass to him.

Sammy shuffled over to the gray and imposing solid steel door. With his back to it, he sat and panted at Dee.

“What’s gotten into you?” Dee said. “You know better than to be messing with that door. The bears, Sam. The bears.”

The bears. She’d shared this story with Sammy many times. She’d even written a book about the account. When she was eight-years-old, Dee spent the summer with her family at a cabin just outside Duluth, Minnesota. Here, pine cones the size of babies’ heads dropped just outside of the front door. Foxes peaked around bushes and made little Dee squeal. Neighbors knocked on the front door to gift them warm batches of apple crisp.

One sunny afternoon, little Dee stood alone in the cabin’s kitchen, her hand stuffed in a Raisin Bran box, when the screen door suddenly shut. Then came a rumble, a baritone that wasn’t human. Dee turned and saw the coarse hair, the huge black head. The bear was sniffing the floor and cabinets.
Dee dropped the cereal box. “Dad!”

Her father ran into the room, causing the black bear to tear down the door and bound away. Dee’s father picked her up and took her to the window. The bear was down the driveway, its head in the dumpster, and Dee nearly put her hand through the glass to point at it. Her father untangled the phone cord and pushed Dee away from the window. “There’s nothing to see,” he cried.

Once the park ranger arrived, Dee’s father went outside to show him the bear. Quick-stepping to his jeep, the ranger hoisted a rifle onto his shoulder and fired. The bear collapsed into a leafy, green bush, while Dee stared through the cabin window.

Shaking off this memory, Dee set the water glass on the counter and stripped down in the middle of the room. Hurrying, she dressed into the clothing of her on-screen persona: a silver sequin dress, miniskirt, and glittery Venetian masquerade mask.

Sunbeams entered the warehouse window, bounced off the sequins of her dress, and traveled into her glass of water, which acted as a prism, bending the white light into rays of blue, yellow, and green. As the sun lit up the glass, Dee sat on the floor beside Sammy. One of her hands held the hunk of bread while the other hand stroked his mane. Sammy let his head fall forward and settle into her bosom. Clutching his mane, she pulled his forehead to hers. Their foreheads touched, rubbed together, and he purred. Moments later, she rose and walked over to the window.

Sammy joined Dee at the window, up on his hind legs. “Oh, my. Looks like Ms. James lost her donkey again. That poor woman,” she said.

While patting his head, Dee dangled the bread in front of him.

“Sugar, I wish you could enjoy this, too. Silly me, taunting you with it. God must really have it out for you, making it so you can’t enjoy bread. I won’t tell a soul, go ahead and eat it.”

Behind them, the TV announcer kept talking.

“And did you hear about this?” he asked his audience. “Dee’s been in negotiations with a certain television network for her own talk show. When it comes to rags to riches, who has a better story than Dee? She was living in her car on the streets of Omaha, picking through dumpsters for aluminum cans and food scraps, until she met Zebulun, Robert, Sammy, and Nos. And now look at her! About to sign on the line for a deal worth millions. About to be on-screen in a comfortable chair with a mint julep, or whatever they drink on talk shows. And she has a red-hot book coming out, Bear With It: The Reason I Keep My Door Shut (And Maybe You Should, Too). Joy is the only emotion we should feel for her, yes?”

The news anchor mentioned his upcoming interview with Dee, her first since the tragedy.

The toilet flushed and Dee re-entered the room. “Oy! All of this water has gone right through me. Better now than when the camera crew gets here. Oh, for Christ’s sake, they’ll be here in ten minutes.”

Dee collapsed to the floor, turned her back against a cabinet, and again put both hands on Sammy’s mane. She gripped tight and put her nose against his.

“How on earth did I end up here, Sammy?” she asked, her voice shrill. “I didn’t want anything special, just a soft bed to sleep in, never even dreamed of Egyptian cotton sheets. I wanted to feel the breeze and see the sunsets, and I did and I was happy. But then you and Nos entered my life, and I discovered something I was good at, something that brought other people joy, and they gave me money … I’ve cherished you and Nos, but I’ve also adored my expensive bedsheets, and I hate myself for it. Did I let my defenses down because of you? Plus, who will I be able to enjoy those sheets with? Not Robert, not any longer. Not Nos, God bless his tortured soul. And you? We can’t even break bread.”

Her mind raced back to the day the bear was shot. Dee’s father sat soberly on the couch. His hand covered her head. Her eyes were dim, and every few breaths she wiggled nervously.

“There, there, sweet girl. Everything is all right. Mr. Bear, he’s in a much better place.”

Holding Dee’s head, her father readjusted both of them on the couch so they faced each other. He straightened her body and held her by the shoulders.

“Listen. Mr. Bear was doomed long before he ever stepped foot into our cabin. Some other family must have given him a taste of something he never should have licked, and he wasn’t going to stop until he tasted it again. That’s what bears do; they can’t help it, can’t show restraint like you or me. And that’s why we did that, to keep other campers safe.”

Dee’s father kissed the top of her head as he carried her to the door. “Also, it’s our duty to keep the wildlife from hurting themselves,” he said, while pressing his body against the door and turning the deadbolt. “Now all the other Mr. Bears will be okay, too.”

Dee’s memory faded, and she found herself at the warehouse door. She shook the lock and muttered about how much of a piece of shit it was, and how she couldn’t wait to replace it. But then it opened, and her dress sparkled in the dying sunlight. She stepped out and squinted at the field. “The camera crew should be here any minute. I just hope Mr. Donkey won’t mess everything up.”

The setting sun expanded Dee’s shadow. The warehouse door remained open behind her, and Sammy fixed his eyes on her outline. He put one paw on the ground, then the other, his back low to the ground. Dee, this won’t hurt. Not one bit. He sprang forward, struck her, and dug his claws into her back. She fell forward and landed on the dirt path. There was no scream, nor did Sammy growl or roar, he just pressed his teeth into her neck, much like a bread crust. The pale amber beams of sunlight splashed on top of her dress, and little drops of blood filled her sparkling sequins. Seconds turned into minutes, and Dee remained face down.

Her arm twitched, and then her leg. Sammy, cold and determined, seized her foot in his jaws and dragged her onto the path, which wound up to the crows and donkey. The donkey huffed at Sammy, and Sammy grunted back. The crow hopped on the ground over to Dee, but Sammy let out a roar that sent the bird into a nearby tree.

A cargo van appeared in the distance, speeding along the dry gravel road. A plume of dust clouds trailed behind it, fogging what was otherwise a gracious sunset.

The van arrived, and a big man got out. He stumbled to the van’s side door, got his camera and put it on his shoulder. He hustled towards the warehouse.

Twenty yards away, Sammy stood over Dee’s sprawled-out body. He then lay down calmly, an effort not to alarm the man. Too late; the cameraman gasped and dropped his camera, his eyes fixed on the horror in front of him. He stepped closer and shouted at Sammy, but his words were just a jumble, like the sound of Dee’s hair dryer in the morning, or her blender as it pureed a protein shake.
The cameraman took a few steps towards Sammy and Dee’s body, but Sammy roared, sending him back a few steps. Reaching into his back pocket, the cameraman pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his sweaty brow. With a shaking hand, he pulled his cell phone from the clip on his belt and dialed.

“Howard?” he said. “Dee, you know, Dee is dead, I’m pretty sure of it. The lion has killed her. I just saw her neck. Oh, my God. Holy shitballs.”

The cameraman listened to Howard and pinched his eyes with his fingers. He blew his nose into his handkerchief. 

“Listen, I’m not about to go to jail. I’m calling 911 first, there ain’t no way you can stop me. Then I’ll set up your precious camera feed.”

The cameraman hung up and dialed again on his way back to the van. Carrying a couple LED video lights and stands, he set them on the dirt path while explaining the situation to the 911 operator. “Yes, the lion is still loose and looking at me, but I somehow don’t feel in danger.”

The live-feed began to roll. The camera was set on Sammy and Dee, though only her hand was visible on the screen. The audience was told they were looking at presumably Dee’s beautiful hand, attached to her precious body. Words filled the bottom of the screen: “Nation mourns as beloved lion tamer severely injured, presumed dead.” The announcer then lowered his chin. “If that truly is Dee, and she really is dead, then God bless her soul.”

Sammy opened his mouth to let out a bellowing cry. The camera zoomed in on his eyes, pained, moist, and gentle, no longer the color of wine. The crow inched his way back over to Sammy and hopped onto his back. Sammy and the donkey locked eyes once more, and Sammy released one more cry, his softest and gentlest yet.

About the Author:

Matthew Rennels   is a technical writer in the finance industry, and has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Eastern Illinois University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College. He lives with his wife, cat, and dog in Bradenton, FL.