Aphelion Issue 219, Volume 21
July 2017
 
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The Last One

by J. B. Hogan


Stephen White wasn’t sure it was such a good idea to have come to the Kansas City Zoo.

"I'm not sure this was such a good idea," he told Tom Harris and Lisa Backman, his co-workers at the startup animated graphics company, Animatec, located down in Nevada, Missouri.

"Nonsense," Lisa countered swiftly, "you need to get out more often and this is a nice little zoo. That's two for two."

"I hear the one in Omaha is a lot nicer," Stephen suggested.

"Four more hours of driving," Tom said, his tone indicating that Stephen's idea was not a particularly good one.

"The neighborhood around here looked pretty tough," Stephen worried, rubbing his chin with his left thumb and forefinger.

"Stop it," Lisa chided him, "just because you see a couple of hip-hop looking guys does not mean you're going to get jumped or something."

"We're in the zoo now, anyway," Tom reminded Stephen.

"I guess so," Stephen said, not sounding very convinced.

"C'mon," Lisa said enthusiastically, "let's go see the African exhibits. I want to see the rhino and the elephants."

"Things are pretty far apart," Stephen complained. "It's a really long walk to some of this stuff."

"Good heavens," Lisa said, rolling her eyes. "You want some cheese with that whine?"

"If you look around," Tom told Stephen, fake rough-housing to try and get the big guy out of his funky mood, "you can see that they are working on the walking problem as we speak." He pointed to where the construction of a train system between exhibits was in full swing.

Not much help today, Stephen considered saying, but managed to hold back for fear of getting another whiner comment from Lisa, for whom he carried a burning, if completely unrequited, love. And it had been really cool of Tom and Lisa to invite him along and then come get him, practically dragging him out of his crappy little apartment, to go on an outing like this. A chance to get away from home, to go to the big city, to do something.

"Actually, Stephen," Lisa commented as the three friends made their way through the zoo grounds, "all this walking is actually good for you. You've lost some weight lately, don't think I didn't notice, and this will help you keep it off and firm it up."

Without realizing it, Stephen had tucked in his tummy and pushed his chest out at Lisa's complimentary words. He held his head high and proud.

"Lookin' buff, buddy," Tom teased Stephen, giving him a punch to the shoulder.

"Cut it out," Stephen said, acting shy, but inwardly thrilled by the notice he was getting, especially from the lovely Lisa.

She noticed I dropped some pounds, he applauded himself inwardly. Cool. Most excellent.

Stephen remembered then the first time he had ever seen Lisa Backman, on her very first day at Animatec. She was wearing a stylish, dark suit jacket that matched her professional length skirt and from that moment Stephen thought she was about the prettiest, and sexiest, woman he'd ever known.

It was an unspoken given between the three work friends that Stephen adored Lisa. It was totally one-sided, but Lisa treated him extremely well, like a hip older sister or really good friend. Although he would always want more from their relationship, he was happy any time he was in her company -- any time.

"Hey," Tom's voice broke into Stephen's thoughts, "let's stop here and grab a bite to eat before we go on."

Stephen refocused on the here and now and saw that they had reached a small concession area. Hamburgers, hot dogs, corn dogs, snow cones. That sort of thing.

"Good idea, Tom," Lisa said. "I could go for a snack of some kind. How about you, Stephen?"

"Uh, yeah, sure," Stephen said.

"Don't get too excited," Tom laughed.

"No," Stephen quickly replied, "I can eat a little. Get something to drink."

"Excellent," Lisa said.

Not five minutes after their snack -- Tom got a burger and fries, Lisa a chicken sandwich, Stephen a corndog -- Stephen felt his stomach begin growling and rumbling. He looked around for restrooms. Luckily there was a facility nearby.

"Where you goin'?" Lisa asked as Stephen began to hustle away.

He covered his mouth to control a sudden onslaught of belching, the foul smell of the greasy corndog he had consumed emanating from him like a noxious gas.

"Be right back," he burped over his shoulder.

"What's up?" Tom asked Lisa.

"Don't know," she answered. "I think he's just going to the restroom."

Stephen's good fortune held with him in the restroom and although there were a couple of other guys inside, he found an empty stall. As he sat down, he released a really loud belch. So loud, he could tell, that the other patrons hurried about their business and got out of the building.

"Ohh," Stephen groaned out loud, "I feel crappy."

With a big, gaseous sigh, he leaned back as far as he could on the stool and closed his eyes. His body swayed slowly from side to side. He began to feel worse, belching not so loud, but more often, and then he started to feel light-headed. He took one last deep breath, slumped backwards on the stool, and went out.

####

Stephen opened his eyes to the glare and heat of a blazing sun directly overhead. He was sweating profusely and his head hurt. There was an uncomfortable scratchiness in the back of his throat and a nasty, metallic taste in his dry mouth.

"I feel like hell," he said out loud to no one but himself.

Looking around, he saw that he was seated in a Land Rover-type vehicle stopped at the top of a hill, barren except for browning grass and weeds. Beyond him, the countryside looked like it had been in a prolonged drought. The great orange-red ball of the sun above had so parched and dried the soil it seemed the very earth itself had withered to the point of death. There were no people, nor animals, in sight either. Stephen was by himself.

Checking inside the vehicle, he found a clipboard with what looked like official documents on it. "Poachers Reported," the top paper had written on it -- in his, Stephen's, own hand -- "Northeast Quadrant. Investigate. Verify or Dismiss." Poachers, he thought? Where am I? Then checking the papers again, he answered his own question: Kintara Game Preserve, Kenya.

"Kenya," he said out loud to himself, "my God."

Feeling sweat beading up on his forehead, Stephen bent to wipe it off with the sleeve of his shirt. In doing so, he realized he was wearing a uniform. A khaki-colored outfit of jungle shorts, with several big pockets, and matching short-sleeved shirt. Next to him in the front seat was a large bush hat. His size. It occurred to him, then, to look at himself in the rearview mirror.

"I'm a game warden, for cryin' out loud," he said to the mirror. "And," he added, tilting the mirror to get a fuller view of himself, "I really am buff. Cool."

He picked up the clipboard, and between glances at his new self in the mirror, flipped through the rest of the pages of what was obviously a log of recent activities. He had been driving around the preserve for days, his notes told him, in search of the poachers who had come to Kintara during this terrible dry season in their new, shining Land Rover, searching for the last one and staying just one step ahead of him.

"The last one?" Stephen wondered. That wasn't altogether clear from the notes.

There was another smaller notebook on the dash and he took that down to look through as well. It only had a few items in it but he found that he had come to resemble the land over which he watched, sick and burning. It seemed that he had picked up a fever during a visit to a local tribe and it was clinging to him like the plague. It made him feel unlucky and weak, he had written, and he assumed his condition was a delight to the poachers. Next to the word poachers was written: The Kudu Bar -- evening.

That was a mystery to Stephen but he felt a strange imperative to seek this place out, find the poachers and confront them. And get something to drink. He was burning up and his throat was dry. Licking his lips, Stephen looked around the vehicle for water but there was only a tiny warm swig at the bottom of a small bottle. Without understanding how or why he was doing the things he was doing, Stephen started up his vehicle and just took off driving -- letting his destination be a matter of instinct rather than thought.

####

It was sometime after nine, according to the clock on the wall behind the counter, when Stephen walked through the door of the Kudu. With his first glance around the bar, he spotted the poachers. It was obvious who they were and that they had been waiting for him. They were drinking rum and laughing loudly, arrogantly. Apparently they felt no need to hide who they were or what they were after.

When Stephen walked in, the laughing dwindled and they watched him with a mixture of caution and hostile arrogance. Stephen knew from the clipboard notes he'd seen in his vehicle that he was the head game warden and even though he was sick, in this body he felt strong enough to take the poachers on.

"Evenin'," the bartender said as Stephen stepped up and rested a boot atop the brass railing that ran the length of the wooden bar. "Looks like you got company." He made a short nod of the head in the direction of the poachers. Stephen gave the men a brief, casual look.

"How long they been here, Eddie?" Stephen asked, turning away from the glare of the poachers. It occurred to him that he had no idea how he knew the bartender's name, but he did.

"I dunno," Eddie said, "maybe an hour, hour and a half most. They're real cuties. Quite a trio."

Eddie picked up a glass and began to shine it with a clean dish rag. Stephen didn't say anything.

"The usual?" Eddie asked.

"Huh? Uh, yeah ... I mean, no," Stephen answered, not having any idea what his usual was. "No, give me something cool. I need something very cool right now. How about a gin with tonic water? Lots of ice."

"Coming right up."

Eddie went down to the end of the bar and made the drink. Stephen surveyed the poachers again. They laughed too hard when they saw him look over and when he turned back to the bar, one of them, wearing an Aussie bush hat tilted low over his eyes, rose and headed for the bar.

"Here you go, my friend," Eddie said, handing Stephen the gin and tonic, "nice and cool and on the house."

The poacher with the Aussie hat pulled up to Stephen's right a few feet down the bar. Stephen took a long pull on the drink and sighed deeply.

"Thanks, Eddie, tastes great."

"And cool," Eddie offered.

"And cool."

With two more swallows Stephen drained his glass and set it on the table. Sighing again, he prepared to go. The poacher in the hat stepped down the bar directly alongside him. He and Stephen exchanged a quick glance. Stephen turned to face the man.

"Can I help you?" he said evenly.

"Buy you another round, Captain?" the poacher said in a generally American accent.

Stephen took the chance to look the man over more carefully. He was younger than Stephen and now, up close, it was obvious that he was definitely an American. He had that square-shouldered posture and cocksure attitude Stephen knew so well. Stephen didn't like this fellow countryman very well, but instinctively he knew he had to respect the power the man's natural arrogance gave him.

"All right," he said, "thanks."

"Set 'em up, Eddie," the American said, maybe a little surprised by Stephen's acceptance. His familiar tone clearly annoyed the bartender. "I'll have what he's having."

Stephen saw Eddie cringe, but he did not notice another of the poachers get up from their table and walk over, this time to a position down the bar on Stephen's left. Eddie tried to clue Stephen to the other man's presence by pointing an index finger on the bar in the direction of the new arrival.

The second poacher, another white, was huge, scraggle-toothed and dirty mean looking. The last of the group, a wild-eyed African, a tribesman who must've been the poachers' guide, a man who looked like he would ask few questions of his clientele, stood up at the table but didn't move towards the bar.

"So, Captain," the American went on to Stephen, "you work on the old preserve, eh?" Stephen nodded and took a swig of the drink Eddie had brought up. "Real nice out there," the American went on, "a lot of good animals." He hadn't touched his drink.

"Yeah," the big poacher to Stephen's left suddenly interjected, "good for nothin'." He laughed at his joke. Stephen didn't look at the big one but turned again toward the American.

"Is that thing there with you, buddy?" he asked. The American's eyes flared.

"We're all together, pal," the man said, lips barely moving.

The big poacher stepped up close to Stephen's left shoulder but the warden ignored him. Eddie fidgeted behind the bar. Nothing more was said for a few moments and Stephen, downing the rest of his drink, set his glass on the bar, wearily wiped his blazing forehead and again stepped out as if to go. The American blocked his way. Stephen smiled a confident, but fever-weakened smile.

"Move aside," he said quietly. The American didn't move.

"Have another one, Captain," the poacher said, "be neighborly. We'll only be around on business a couple more days. Show us some Kintara hospitality -- and respect."

The big poacher laughed and Stephen felt a strong surge of heat that wasn't fever related. He shook his head.

"No, thanks," he said coldly, beads of sweat popping out of and running down his forehead, "you've had all the hospitality you'll get here, and all the respect you're due. You're not fooling anybody around here with your 'business.' We've seen you out on the plain."

"Free country, ain't it," the big poacher said from behind Stephen.

"That's good that you seen us out there," the American said with a little sneer. "We're not hiding."

"Doubt that you would know how," Stephen replied.

"So what if you've seen us," the big poacher growled. "You plannin' to do something about it?" Stephen continued to ignore this big one.

"Say, let's knock this off, fellows," Eddie said. He was probably having visions of his bar smashed to pieces. He no doubt much preferred its present configuration. "C'mon, all of you, have another drink. On the house."

No one listened to Eddie. Stephen now stood with his back squarely against the bar, the American and the big poacher in his peripheral vision, the tribesman looking back at him from across the room.

"We came to get that last one," the American said matter of factly.

"At least his horn," the big one laughed thickly.

"Maybe you will," Stephen said, "and maybe you won't."

"You plan to stop us?" the American challenged. "In your condition? Aren't you just a little on the weak side from all that sweatin' I see you're doin'?" He reached out and gave Stephen a little shove in the chest.

Without thinking, Stephen responded, unleashing a right hand that shocked him with its power. He hit the American squarely in the cheek and dropped him to one knee, stunned. Suddenly, then, as he somehow expected and was surprisingly prepared for, Stephen was besieged. The tribesman raced across the room to join the big poacher and they leaped upon Stephen, pushing him to the floor and hammering his head and upper body with wild, sharp blows.

Stephen struggled to regain his feet and from his knees delivered a left hook that split the tribesman's mouth and broke his nose. The big one grabbed Stephen's arms in a full Nelson just as the American recovered enough to reach the fight and slam a hard right into Stephen's face, followed by a tremendous kick to the groin.

Stephen bent in pain and the big one brought down both hands in a chop to the back of his neck. The American delivered a hurried, glancing kick to the side of Stephen's face that cut his face and numbed the inside of his mouth. The big one pulled Stephen's head back, jerked him to his feet and held him upright while the tribesman and the American punched him, bloody and swollen-faced into unconsciousness.

As he went out, Stephen heard Eddie's voice as if from deep inside some distant cave and then the far away sound of a police horn. His last thoughts were futile curses: for the bloody fever that had weakened him and for the animal called the last one, the single creature that had brought these violent men to Kintara.

####

Once, in an easier time, Stephen read in a document he found back on the preserve, the rhino herd at Kintara had been the largest in the region, but as time passed, and with it more progress and more development, the poachers increased, too. Altogether, the combined effect of these elements had been a dramatic thinning of the herd to a fraction of its former size.

Presently, it consisted of just three females and the remaining male, a gnarled old specimen everyone called "the last one." The last one was just that. He was, as best anyone knew, the last living male rhino in the region. In his youth he had sired dozens of offspring but in later years, when the herd thinning became critical, he seemed able only to produce female children. There were no males to carry on the strain.

The keepers guarded him as closely as possible; he bore wounds from at least two poaching attempts, and they continued to hope he would sire his heir, another male to carry on the line and rebuild the herd.

But the last one didn't seem up to the task. His production, as was natural for advancing age, had slowed down measurably. In fact, there hadn't been a birth in the park in over two and a half years and that baby had been almost immediately shipped off to a waiting animal park in Europe -- the extra money being used to help keep Kintara afloat. Yet, despite the efforts of the local keepers, the poachers seemed destined to prevail -- the rhino in Kintara, and probably everywhere, would pass forever from the earth.

The presence of this latest group of poachers in the park, the hostile American and his two equally violent companions, only served to heighten the sense of urgency about the safety of the last one and the sense of malevolence that more and more fouled the clean air of the preserve.

With his fever, Stephen seemed especially sensitive to the malignancy of these outlaws in the apparently close-knit, yet isolated and vulnerable community that was Kintara. He knew the coming of the poachers was to be the struggle he had feared for so long. It was a struggle that, even in good health, he feared would be beyond him, be his ultimate defeat. He feared the end.

####

In the early daylight after the fight in the Kudu, Stephen spotted a distant cloud of dust moving towards the preserve's main waterhole and he knew the time had come. Hitting the accelerator and shifting into fourth gear, Stephen pushed his beat up vehicle to its limit -- it coughed and rattled down the dried up dirt road like some old man in the last throes of emphysema.

Ahead, the dust cloud had vanished behind a small group of hills but Stephen drove on, battling the bouncing, jerking steering wheel all the time. He knew that the old male rhino, the last one, must be at the waterhole and he was hell-bent to get there before the poachers. Still, every rocky bounce hurt his bruised hands and the hot, dusty air stung his lacerated and swollen face. And the unending fever seemed to be draining what little bit of extra strength and mental alertness he had and would need in the coming crisis with the poachers.

Roaring up over the top of a hill where the road veered sharply to the left, Stephen was suddenly and to his great surprise, right in the middle of an ambush. Several large logs had been stretched across the road ahead of him and as he braked to avoid them he heard the sound of one of his tires blowing, quickly followed by the unmistakable report of a high powered rifle.

As he fought the skid on the soft dirt, swerving back and forth out of control, Stephen could only feel the ludicrousness of his situation and what a miserable failure he had shown himself in this conflict with the poachers.

"Damn it," he cursed to himself as his vehicle slid into the logs and rolled over onto the driver's side, useless and lifeless like some great extinct mechanical beast.

Pulling his wounded, feverish body from the wreckage, Stephen found that, luckily, only his left shoulder had been bunged up. He searched for and found his rifle, then used his CB radio to call for help. As he called, he painfully loaded the weapon and honestly hoped he would get a chance to use it.

"They're heading for the waterhole," he told the crackly voice on the other end of the radio, "after the old rhino. They've disabled my vehicle but I'm going after them on foot. I only hope I can get there in time."

Dropping the radio into the front seat, Stephen headed towards the waterhole as fast as he could. He felt very hot and tired and he was tremendously thirsty. Now he only wanted to finish this thing that the poachers had begun. Nearing the final rise in the road before it dropped down and ran along within a quarter-mile of the waterhole, he heard the shot. There was just one. It echoed across the plain and up into the small hills.

"Damn you," Stephen cursed, then repeated himself, "damn you."

He cleared the rise at a ragged jog and spotted the poacher's vehicle near the waterhole. Then he saw them, all three of them by the downed animal. Dropping to one knee, Stephen raised his rifle to fire but his hurt left arm was so weak it afforded little support in aiming.

With sweat pouring off his face, he fired an errant round somewhere in the direction of the men and worked the bolt-action for another shot. More quickly than he could believe, the poachers answered his fire -- dust spewing up all around him, followed by the terrifying crack of their game rifles.

Yet Stephen sought no cover. Instead, he stood up and fired off the remaining five shots from his clip, then clumsily pulled another full clip from his pocket and shoved it into the rifle. He fired twice more before his fogged senses told him he was getting no return fire and then he heard the sound of a motor revving up.

"Come back," he yelled into the hot air, "come back here, you lousy bastards."

Rushing down the hill and into the scraggly bush towards the waterhole, Stephen wasted two more rounds firing at the sound of the poachers' vehicle as it pulled away. When he reached the clearing where the last one lay, Stephen saw the poachers again. They were sitting in their Land Rover on the opposite side of the bank laughing at him. The big poacher waved something at him, but Stephen couldn't tell what it was through his fever-blurred eyes.

Kneeling beside the last one, Stephen painfully raised his rifle to fire a final shot at the poachers. Anticipating the move, the American steered the Land Rover away from the waterhole and into the burnt-out bush just as Stephen's round sailed ineffectually, though closely, over their heads.

Tossing the rifle down in disgust, Stephen knelt beside the huge rhino, the last one: the last male survivor of what was once the pride of the Kintara game preserve. Battered and defeated, he felt a deep sense of shame and humiliation for having allowed the animal to die so at the hands of the poachers. A lonely and undignified death for what was once a magnificent and vital creature, a beautiful, healthy species. Looking up, Stephen could see dust far off in the distance.

"Too late," he thought of the approach of the other wardens, "too late."

But then, to Stephen's great surprise, the last one stirred. The animal was not dead. Stephen knelt to him quickly, inspected the thick folds around the animal's shoulders. The poachers had only hit him with a tranquilizer round. The last one stirred again, rolled towards Stephen, who quickly moved out of harm's way. A rhino, even a tranquilized one, could do some serious damage up close.

Walking around the animal, Stephen saw what the poachers had done in the time it had taken him to reach them and then drive them away. The last one's top, shorter horn, had been severed cleanly at the base. Sliced flat against his prehistoric head. The bottom, larger horn was intact.

Stephen started to curse, then leaned back his head and laughed instead. He laughed and laughed. The sound carried on the air of the great preserve, floated across the parched plain. It was a sound, a laugh, that Stephen knew -- even as he laughed it unbidden -- owed at least as much to madness as it did to joy.

####

Stephen came back into consciousness with a start. By the time his head cleared and his blurry vision had sharpened once more, he realized he was still in the bathroom stall at the Kansas City Zoo. Sighing, he hurriedly finished his business and got out of the stall. Pausing to wash his hands, he looked into a mirror hanging above the wash basin. The reflection he saw there was a little disappointing. He was not a big strong, muscular game warden. He was just himself. Same old me, he thought -- and yet. Hustling outside, he was surprised to see Tom and Lisa waiting for him. He hoped it hadn't been for long.

"I'm sorry, guys," he said to his friends, the strength and firmness in his voice even catching him off guard, "I hope you haven't been waiting for me very long."

"Naw," Tom said, an eyebrow raised curiously, "only about five minutes or so."

"Are you okay?" Lisa asked, looking into Stephen's eyes. "You didn't have one of those fainting spells in there, did you?"

Stephen smiled at Lisa. She was so smart. So observant. He thought the world of her even if she could never, ever feel the same about him.

"No," he lied.

"Another five minutes and we were going to call the trash department to go in there and hose you out, though," Tom joked.

Stephen laughed heartily. Tom and Lisa exchanged concerned looks. Something about Stephen seemed really different to both of his good friends.

"You sure you're feeling okay?" Lisa asked again

"I feel really good," Stephen assured her.

"You ready to head out, then?" Tom asked, again glancing over at Lisa. She shrugged her shoulders. "Call it a day?"

"No, I don't think so," Stephen said, surprising his pals yet again. "I still want to check out the African exhibit."

"Really?" Tom asked.

"It's still a bit of a walk," Lisa reminded Stephen.

"I'm up for it," he told her. "I want to see the rhino...yeah, I especially want to see the rhino. Might be the last one."

"All right," Lisa said, shrugging her shoulders again for Tom's benefit. "Let's do it."

"It'll be a lot later when we leave if we do this," Tom reminded Stephen. "I didn't think you were that keen on going through the 'hood on our way back, especially not if it's late."

"Ah," Stephen dismissed the concern, "it's fine around here. The people are fine. No problem."

"Okily dokily then," Tom said with a little laugh.

Stephen marched on ahead of his friends, who hung back a few paces, leading the threesome off towards the African exhibit. Tom and Lisa watched their buddy striding purposefully before them.

"Amazing," Tom said quietly to Lisa, "what's gotten into safari boy up there?"

"I don't know," Lisa responded, "but I like it, whatever it is."

"All of a sudden he's cool, calm, and collected," Tom added. "Mr. Relaxed."

"Sure seems like it," Lisa agreed.

"Heck," Tom said, adjusting to the moment's new, if perhaps ethereal, reality, "who knows what's up with him or for how long it will last, but I don't see any reason to look this gift horse in the mouth."

"Nope," Lisa said, picking up her pace to catch up and walk alongside Stephen, "no reason whatsoever."

THE END


© 2008 J. B. Hogan

Bio: J. B. Hogan is a fiction writer and poet living in Fayetteville, Arkansas. His writing credits include the four-story fiction chapbook Near Love Stories online at Cervena Barva Press, and short stories, poems, and creative or academic non-fiction in: Istanbul Literary Review, Rumble, The Swallow’s Tail, Poesia, Bewildering Stories, Avatar Review, Copperfield Review, and Ascent Aspirations. Three of his stories have appeared in past editions of Aphelion, the most recent being From The Very Face of the Earth..., August, 2008.

E-mail: J. B. Hogan

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