One

A boy was on a safari with his family. They toured the prairies and canyons, spotting all kinds of wildlife. Zebra, buffalo, lions, everything. Of course, they observed these wild animals from the safety of their truck, for the boy’s parents always told him, “You are not to leave the truck. The animals out there are dangerous. They don’t know any different. If you leave the truck you will get hurt, and we want to keep you safe.” The boy nodded along and obeyed his parents. He quietly enjoyed watching the elk graze and hyenas stalk them nearby, all from the safety of the truck. Part of him wondered what it would be like to leave the truck and explore the wild on his own, but he quickly pushed those thoughts to the back of his head. Better safe than sorry.

One day, on another routine safari something different happened. The boy and his family were driving through a savanna with particularly tall grass. The boy’s father on occasion would let the boy sit up front and help shift the truck from one gear to the next. It was rather childish for a seven-year-old but the boy played along. He would later admit that it was “super-duper fun”. One day , while he wasn’t busy shifting, the boy watched a group of buffalo in the distance, trudging across the plain. They moved slowly but at a persistent pace. It was calming to watch them. Suddenly, the truck ground to a stop. The boy had missed the shift. His father struggled at the steering wheel to get the truck moving again, to no avail. Stepping out of the truck, the boy’s father hunched over and began to inspect the undercarriage. Since the boy missed his shift, they had slowed down considerably and the muddy path had finally taken hold of the truck. Their tires were half sunk into the ground, with nothing to grip onto for traction. They weren’t going anywhere.

The boy’s mother hopped out and told him to stay in the truck. The boy nodded obediently and continued looking out over the savanna. Most of the buffalo were gone, except for one that seemed to lag behind the rest. This puzzled the boy. Why was this buffalo so slow? Where were they all going? Are buffalo mean? Would a buffalo let him ride it if he tried? While all these existential questions began to fill the boy’s mind, his parents continued to struggle with the truck’s tires. The boy looked to his parents then back out to the lone buffalo, then back to his parents. This was by far the most important decision the boy had ever needed to make in his brief, glorious life. He thought long and hard for an entire ten seconds. Gripping his binoculars tight, he finally made up his mind. He quietly opened the door and slipped out of the truck and into the grass, in the direction of the lone buffalo.

Two

The boy ran through the tall grass, craning his neck to get peeks of the surrounding savanna. The grass was just a little bit taller than he was. When he ran through it, it would graze his face, tickling him. He giggled and swatted away the invading bristles. The boy was having a blast. Why wait around in that boring truck? It wasn’t going anywhere anyway. It would probably take a while for his parents to get it out of the mud. The boy thought to himself, “This is a safari, isn’t it? Safaris are for adventure!”. Part of the boy was worried that his parents would be mad at him when they found out… if they found out. These thoughts were short-lived, as the boy would much rather imagine the kinds of wild beasts he might encounter out in the savanna. That’s when he heard it. A soft, but deep sound, somewhere between a groan and a growl. The buffalo! He must be close. He changed his direction to follow the sound. As he got closer the sound grew louder. The boy eventually burst out of the tall grass and into a large clearing.

In the center of the clearing was the buffalo! It was incredible. It was so big! Even at a distance it seemed to tower over the boy. He was in awe. The buffalo was both strong and majestic. Its large horns protruded from its low-hung head, which sat upon the broadest of shoulders, and all of it covered in the thickest, warmest looking fur. This was by far the single coolest thing the boy had seen on any of his safaris. He couldn’t wait to tell his parents. That’s when the buffalo groaned again and the boy realized something was wrong. Then he saw it.

The buffalo’s hind leg was covered in blood. As the boy stood, frozen at the edge of the clearing, he began to put things together. Why the buffalo was lagging behind the rest, the groans, the clearing it was standing in the middle of, the lack of any other animals in sight. The boy’s marvel and fascination disappeared almost as quickly as the wave of dread that he now felt deep in his stomach. He slowly took two steps back and turned around to head straight back to the truck. That’s when he came face to face with the lion.

Three

The boy wanted to scream but no sound came. He wanted to run but his feet wouldn’t move. The boy had always seen lions on TV, but seeing one up close gave a new meaning to the phrase “larger than life”. The lion absolutely dwarfed the boy in size. Its paws were massive, studded with razor sharp claws and its mane was unbelievably thick and seemed to radiate out of the lion’s head like rays from the sun. The boy was caught somewhere between impressed and petrified. He had read enough books about lions to put two and two together. He had stumbled right into the middle of the lion’s hunt. Separating the prey from his predator, the boy was now the prey. The lion took one step towards the boy, seemingly halving the distance between them. The boy noticed a bit of red staining the lion’s mouth. He finally remembered to be properly terrified. The boy stumbled backwards and the lion pounced, landing inches from his face, baring his ridiculously sized teeth and emitting a deep and menacing growl.

The boy was near tears, when the lion suddenly stopped. The boy couldn’t quite understand what was happening but something in the lion’s eyes changed for a brief moment. Its savage, piercing gaze was momentarily replaced by an inquisitive softness. The lion bared its teeth once more, opening its mouth. The boy squeezed his eyes shut. But instead of dagger-like teeth, the boy felt something big and squishy and wet. The boy peeked his eyes open just as the lion finished licking the boy’s head, from his cheek to the top of his head, twirling his hair into a messy mop. The boy stared up at the lion in awe.

The lion briefly cocked its head. Confused, the boy did the same. Then suddenly, the boy began to hear a dull rumble. It was distant at first but rapidly approaching. The boy could’ve swore it felt as if the ground was vibrating. The lion craned its head to look out in the distance just as the giant stampede of buffalo came charging into the clearing. Without hesitating, the lion grabbed the boy’s shirt collar with his teeth, threw him onto its back and leaped onto a nearby boulder, barely making the long distance jump. The angry stampede of buffalo stormed by like a freight train. It was frighteningly loud and the ground shook like an earthquake. Sitting on the lion’s back, the boy stared down over the sea of buffalo steamrolling over everything in their path. Had the lion not acted, both of them would’ve been trampled.

The lion gently set the boy down on the boulder. The boy fixed his hair, brushed himself off, and strained his neck to look up at the lion. He should’ve been far more scared than he was feeling at the moment. But it was undeniable, there was some kind of unspoken bond between them. As the stampede of buffalo slowly faded into the distance, the boy slowly raised his hand. The lion watched cautiously, it was obviously uneasy around this new boy. The boy paused, then continued to raise his hand until it touched the side of the lion’s face. It felt like the softest, warmest blanket you could imagine. The lion, still on edge, exhaled, accepting the boys hand.

Nearby, there was a loud bang and the stuttering of an engine. Both the lion and the boy looked out over the tall grass. The boy’s parents just got the truck running again. The boy lowered his hand and paused before quickly lowering himself off the boulder and jogging to the edge of the clearing. If he didn’t get back right now, his parents would know he snuck away. He stopped as he reached the tall grass and turned around to look back at the lion once more. The boy had never seen a more majestic thing in his life. Framed by the massive setting sun, the lion stood on the boulder strong and proud. It gently bowed its head, never taking its eyes off the boy. The boy smiled and sprinted back into the tall grass, towards the truck.

Four

The next day, the boy and his family headed back out on another safari. The boy’s mom squinted through binoculars out at what laid ahead of them. The boy’s dad navigated the truck over the rough terrain. The boy sat happily between them, shifting gears whenever his dad signaled him to. It was a beautiful day, but hot. When they finally got to the point in the road where the boy had spotted the buffalo the day before, the boy craned his neck. He peered over the car seat and through the tall grass stretching endlessly outward. Nothing. Then, something. A brown blur… then another. It was just what the boy was hoping to see. Buffalo.

The boy casually glanced over at his dad, driving the truck. Then at his mom, still engrossed in her binoculars. He snuck one more peek out of the truck and caught yet another buffalo trotting by. The boy knew what was out there and knew he probably shouldn’t go back. He knew his parents were right, telling him to stay in the truck. He knew he was in over his head. The boy cracked a smile. As his dad signaled him to make the next shift, the boy missed it… on purpose. The truck ground to a halt just as it had the day before. The boy’s dad got out to once again, to try and free the truck. The boy turned to the open savanna as if it was calling to him. And then it did. A distant, but unmistakable sound. A lion’s roar.

The boy sprinted back through the tall grass and bounded back into the clearing he recognized from the day before. He spun around, scanning the edges of the clearing for any signs of movement. Just as the boy was about to give in to disappointment, the boy heard something behind him. Before he could turn around, there was a roar, as the lion playfully tackled the boy, giving him a welcoming lick on the head. The boy squealed with laughter as they rolled on the ground. The lion scooped the boy up, throwing him onto his back. The boy got his bearings and looked up. Now that he was atop the lion he could see above the tall grass in all directions across the savanna. His jaw dropped. It was one thing seeing the savanna from the truck, but it was something completely different seeing it from within the savanna.

He could see a herd of zebra in the distance, a watering hole he hadn’t even noticed before, and right across the field, his family’s broken down truck. It was surreal for the boy, for the first time he felt part of the wild, not just a spectator. The lion looked back at the boy and bared his massive teeth in a grin. The boy nodded at the lion, and the lion leaped forward. The boy immediately fell off the lion’s back, tumbling across the dirt.

He gingerly got up, brushing his clothes off. The lion circled back and scooped the boy onto his back yet again. The boy shifted until he was in a comfortable position. The lion rocked his body back and forth as to illustrate “yes, I am a lion, and if you do not hold on, you will fall off 100% of the time”. The boy took two handfuls of the lion’s mane and gave him a gentle pull to signal he was ready. The lion looked back to the boy, giving him one last chance to change his mind. The boy collected himself, looked out over the horizon, and gave the lion’s mane a confident pull. The lion leaped forward and this time the boy held on. They weaved through the tall grass, bounded over giant rocks, and sprinted through the open plains. There was a herd of buffalo up ahead. Despite the lion’s primal instincts, he tried his best to hold his distance. The boy beamed with a sense of freedom he had never experienced up until this point in his brief life. The lion let out a bellowing roar. The boy, wind in his hair, yelled as loud as he could. They were completely on their own, no rules, just wild.

Day after day the boy and his family would go out on their safari, day after day the boy would “miss” his shift, and day after day the boy and the lion would go on an adventure. They chased zebra, pouncing in front of them and running circles around the probably terrified creatures. The lion showed the boy how to drink from the watering hole and how to properly roar. The lion could not talk but from what the boy could understand, a good roar, came from the pit of your stomach. The boy taught the lion how to “shake” and play hide & seek. The boy’s favorite game was to pretend he was a knight in shining armor, jousting upon his glorious steed. The lion did his best impression of a royal stallion, but no matter what, he always came off as a lion. They traveled the savanna together, bounding through nearby forests, exploring precarious waterfalls, and relaxing by paradise-like watering holes. The boy and the lion were inseparable. One evening, they just sat on a cliff overlooking the entire savanna and the planet-sized sun setting above it. It was the most brilliant view the boy had ever seen. Deep reds and oranges cast over the rocks, shadows from the trees stretching further and further back. It felt like a dream.

Five

The boy woke up. His dad nudged him again to make his shift. They were in the truck, navigating the savanna yet again. Another day, another safari. The boy had gotten more exercise in the past few days than a normal adult gets in 10 years and it was starting to take its toll. The boy shook himself awake and gazed through the windshield. Little water droplets started to speckle the glass. It was beginning to mist. The boy looked up, it wasn’t stormy, just a little cloudier than usual. The boy once again missed his shift, purely out of habit this time. He must of done it a little too casually, because this time his dad gave him a look. The boy feigned ignorance and once again, snuck off to go see the lion.

He burst into the clearing which had now become their usual meeting spot. It was starting to drizzle a little harder, with specks of dark, wet dirt beginning to replace the dry. As if on cue, the lion burst from the tall grass, playfully pouncing in front of the boy. The boy gave his mane a ruffle and prepared to hop on his back. Thunder boomed in the distance. The boy and the lion both looked skyward. It was beginning to rain. They both closed their eyes, enjoying the cool relief from the otherwise arid climate. The lion walked over to the edge of the clearing, sniffing the shrubbery. The boy didn’t know what he was up to. Eventually, the lion returned with a large frond for the boy to use as an umbrella. The boy took the foliage from the lion and was about to hop on, when he noticed something.

The lion was staring at him. The boy had never seen the look currently in the lion’s eyes before. It was not friendly, it was not playful. In fact, it was nothing. Nothing but pure focus. That’s when the boy realized the lion was not looking at him, but rather something over his shoulder, behind him. The boy slowly turned around. A lone buffalo stood at the edge of the clearing, completely oblivious to the little boy and hungry lion behind him.

The boy turned back around to face the lion. The lion continued to track the buffalo with laser-like focus. The boy whispered to the lion and tugged on his mane. It was as if the boy wasn’t there. The lion took a slow step forward, lowering his head. The boy had never seen the lion this way. He was looking at the buffalo the same way the boy looked at chocolate cake, right before he ate it. It was so strange. The lion was now inching closer to the buffalo. The boy tugged gently on the lion’s tail. The lion whipped his head around and gave the boy a silent snarl. It was completely reactionary and without any semblance of the lion the boy had known before. The boy stumbled backwards in shock. He finally realized what was happening. He also realized the situation was completely out of his control, all he could do was watch.

The lion stalked the buffalo, low to the ground, almost in a crawl. The boy had no clue how the buffalo didn’t hear anything. The lion must’ve been feet away at this point. The boy couldn’t speak. Suddenly, the buffalo perked it’s giant head up as if it heard something. The lion was immediately on him, in a flash of yellow and brown… then red. The boy looked away, covering his eyes. Unfortunately he could still hear. The rustling in the dirt, the lion’s growls, and the buffalo’s agonizing moans. The boy couldn’t help but cry, for the first time in a long time he felt alone in the wild. The whole ordeal was over within seconds but it felt like hours.

It finally fell silent. The boy slowly turned around, choking back tears, and took his hands away from his face. The lion was hunched over the buffalo’s carcass, facing away from the boy. He rose to his full posture and the boy got a brief but stomach-turning view of what was left of the buffalo. The lion turned to face the boy. His mouth, teeth, and mane were smeared with red. His eyes still emotionless and focused, the lion began to walk towards the boy.

Six

The boy hadn’t felt this scared since his first encounter with the lion. He backed up slowly as the lion approached, bringing with him the stench of the dead buffalo. As the lion closed in, a loud noise rang out in the distance. It was the truck backfiring. The boy’s dad must almost have it up and running again. The noise startled the lion, snapping him out of his predatory state. He shook his head and looked back up at the boy with those familiar eyes… but something was different.

Though the lion could not speak, the boy now finally understood. This adventure could not go on. The boy did not belong out here, in the wild. He belonged back in the safety of the truck with his family. He belonged at school with his friends, at home with his toys. The lion belonged out here, without any rules. He belonged out in the savanna, chasing buffalo. He belonged roaming free throughout his kingdom. The lion bowed his head, as he did when they first met. Neither one of them were happy about it, but there was a mutual understanding, this could not go on. For he was a lion and the boy was a boy.

Though it was bitter-sweet, the boy liked to think of it as just a little more sweet. Their time had come to an end, but nothing could take away their adventures. The boy knew he had experienced something unforgettable and that no one else had before. He hoped the lion learned a few things from him as well. He wasn’t sure, but he hoped. The boy was sad but he didn’t need to cry. He was happy but didn’t want to smile. He was just… fulfilled.

The lion hopped up onto a nearby rock, where he became beautifully outlined by what little sun was left between the clouds. The boy slowly backed his way towards the edge of the clearing, not wanting to take his eyes of the beautiful creature that, for the past few days, had given him a rare glimpse into the wild. He finally turned and started running back through the tall grass towards the truck.

Seven

The next day, the boy once again rode through the savanna with his parents. They passed canyons and prairies just like every other safari. It was a beautiful day. Hot, but beautiful. The boy took in the surrounding plains as he helped shift gears while his dad navigated the truck. They eventually got to the road. The road where, every day the boy would “miss” his shift to go run off with the lion. But today was different.

As they rolled down the road, the boy’s hand tightened on the stick shift. He missed the lion terribly and would miss their adventures even more. The truck approached the bend at the spot where the boy would usually miss his shift. He didn’t resent the lion, for the lion was doing what he was supposed to. He was wild. It was no place for a boy. The truck rolled into the bend, as the boy’s hand clutched the stick shift. His mind quickly recalled all the adventures they had together, in a blur. He re-lived them as fast as he could, soaking the memories in. The boy made his shift perfectly. The truck continued around the bend with ease. His dad remarked at how they finally made it through that deceptively difficult part of the road. But the boy wasn’t paying attention. Instead of being sad, the boy felt something else. Pride. If only for a few days, he got to be truly and completely wild.

The boy took one last look out to where he knew the clearing was, beyond the tall grass. The truck turned the corner, and just like that they drove away. But not before the thundering and unmistakable sound of a lion’s roar echoed throughout the entire savanna. The boy beamed.  For the first time in his young life, he realized his parents were wrong.

Sometimes it’s better to be sorry than safe.

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