The trek seemed to be going on forever, and Chuks was beginning to wonder whether they hadn’t veered off course and joined another trail in the confusion of the night’s darkness when Anne whispered,
“The shield is close by. We’re not very far away now.”
Just as she spoke, a light or two appeared up ahead, farther down the trail. The footpath they were walking wound left and right, then around and round so that the trees obscured those lights. Anne pointed at it and looked back over her shoulder.
“That is where we’re going.” The optimism was almost tangible as everybody quickened the pace. The lights Anne had pointed out weren’t more than dots, but even from this distance he knew they would be bright up close.
So Paul and Shine weren’t talking? They should have discussed dance moves and all the other nonsense they usually talked about. Maybe there were few people behind, trying to hide behind their phones like everybody else.
Suddenly, there was another sound, and just like the helicopters, this one swelled gradually, then ebbed, growing and lessening with the force of the wind. What was that? Chuks squinted straight ahead, raising his phone to point the light front. The light was bright, but it wasn’t an actual torchlight, and squint as he did, he couldn’t see more than just two steps in front of him.
Everybody stopped, shuffling, trying to peep over the next person’s shoulder to see what it was.
“What is that?” Anne asked, craning her neck to see as well. It sounded like someone snoring, or maybe trying to hawk out phlegm that refused to come out. Like a low, rumbling noise.
“What’s out there?” Segun whispered from behind him.
Two dots of light appeared all of a sudden to join the other dots of white light, except these were much, much closer. And coming closer still. Chuks stared, holding out his phone, not understanding what his eyes were showing him. Those were. . . Those were eyes, two lamplike eyes glowing like forty-watt bulbs, like pools of molten gold.
And that noise, the rumbling, it was coming closer, closer. . .
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The owner of those eyes walked into illumination of his light. A cat. A big one, about the size of a German Shepherd, putting one paw gingerly in front of the other, almost catwalking, growling as it came. The color of the animal was brown. Reddish-brown, striped black all over.
Chuks turned and looked at Anne, who was also looking at him. She looked deathly afraid, like she would run away screaming any moment.
“Jesus,” Segun whispered. “Jesus Christ.” He had seen.
Someone screamed, but it wasn’t Anne. The girl directly behind her.
“What is it?” “Is somebody there?” “Somebody talk, now, what is happening?” came the flurry of questions from those behind them.
“Lion!” the girl screamed hysterically. Oyin. That was her name, Chuks thought. Oyinlola. “Lion is coming!”
That was all it took for their neat, double line to scatter.
Some ran away from the trail into the trees, some just stood and shouted, and some, in a frenzy to escape, even tried to run past those of them in front toward the beast itself.
“Shhhhhhhhhh!” Anne shouted to those behind. “Do you want to die?” she hissed. There was only silence behind him, so Chuks assumed everybody were shaking their heads. He, for his part, even though their class instructor turned around, never took his eyes off the tiger at the front. The commotion that had ensued before Anne’s call to order seemed to have frightened it, because it shied a few steps back, but it didn’t run away.
“Then keep quiet,” Anne finished, her own voice leading by example.
She faced front again, reaching a hand slowly into her Arab outfit. The hand came out with a gun. She handed her tablet to him. Chuks took it as slowly as she had brought the gun out, and, with her two hands free, Anne grasped the gun and raised it.
If everybody shouting had frightened the animal, the gun pointing at it made it angry.
The moment Anne raised that gun, the tiger bounded forward one step, then another, and then another, a blur of brown, faster than any dog Chuks had ever seen, showing wickedly sharp teeth as it closed the little distance between them.