The Lions

by Alexandra O’Neil

The lions have been there for ten years, since Daniel graduated high school, when he was confronted with the empty, uncharted waters of change. Sometimes he goes a week or a month without seeing them, but they are never really gone.

Daniel first began to see the lions during those occasional nights that were still and lonely, once or twice a month. They chased him through dark thickets where unseen roots caught at his feet and invisible branches knocked him off balance. They chased him through open, moonlit plains with nowhere to hide, where he could see their shadowy forms following close at his heels. Unable to outpace or outlast them, he would hide, cramming his body into a thick tangle of bramble and curling in on himself. The thorns did not deter the cats, did not pierce their thick hides and calloused paw pads. They shouldered their way through the brush, twigs snapping in dry, hollow cracks; their footfalls silent; their pants like the exhalations of heavy machinery. They stepped over and around Daniel, searching, searching.


Lions usually kill by overwhelming their prey. They pile on, digging in claws and teeth wherever they can get a hold. If they are able, they will bite down on their prey’s nose and mouth, suffocating them. They do not always wait for their prey to give its last breath before they begin to eat. Daniel once saw a documentary in which a determined Cape buffalo flung several lions free, goring them with its curved horns and trampling them under its immense weight. As long as it doesn’t lose its footing and roll over, exposing its vulnerable underbelly and throat, the narrator explained, it has a chance. Few animals can escape the clutches of several lions working together, but the Cape buffalo is dangerous quarry.


Daniel started seeing the lions more often the summer when she left and took the ring with her. He could not stop reliving that Sunday afternoon when he came home from the grocery store and his whole world tilted. He would later describe it as like a car hitting a large puddle in the street: the sudden slowdown, the roar of water drowning out sound, the spray covering the windshield, the wake jerking the wheels off course.

The initial shock disappeared abruptly three days later, moments after he plopped into his squeaky office chair in his cubicle. When it did, a low, rumbling growl filled the small space. His eyes burned and his throat seemed to swell. Large paws padded across the carpeted floor; a scarred, dirty muzzle appeared at his side, mouth open, small flies whirling around the yellowed teeth. He sensed a ropy tail swishing, tickling his amygdala. Never before had the lions come for him in broad daylight, in the company of other people.

Then, Daniel saw the lions every time his head touched the pillow. They crowded his tiny apartment bedroom. Their moist breath fanned over his face. Pairs of pine-amber eyes hovered at the edge of his creaky mattress, staring with wide-pupiled intensity. Strings of saliva swung from the drooping lips and finger-thick teeth, the purplish tongues worked with each exhale. Dirt and blood flecked their tawny faces, bent and wiry whiskers rasped along his covers.

He saw them in supermarkets loud and busy with the weeknight crowds, the lions cooling themselves in front of the air-conditioned meats section. He saw them weaving through the spaces between cars in bumper-to-bumper morning traffic. Lounging under tables in noisy, cheap bars. Rubbing their cheeks against the cubicle walls, the flimsy panels tilting under their weight.

It was not until his concerned family convinced him to “see an expert” after his second DUI that he began to sleep through the night with any regularity. His therapist was the first to hear about the car, and the lions.


Sometimes Daniel is strong and untouchable. As long as he stands his ground and faces the lions, they keep their distance. Sometimes Daniel is knocked off guard by a strange woman wearing a familiar perfume or canceled plans on a Friday night or seeing his high school friends on social media with their wives expecting a second kid, and the lions pounce. They dig their claws into his back. They let their yellow bodies drag in the dust, in the throat-clogging, blinding, brain-slowing heat—heat with a physical weight. They bite his neck, straining for the spine, the jugular, the currents of life. They clamp their jaws over his face. Sometimes Daniel shakes them loose and stamps them into the dirt. Sometimes he carries them around for a while, until they grow tired and give up. Sometimes they pull him down to his knees. But he doesn’t roll over.

Daniel knows the lions will always be there, watching, pacing. He knows they will attack at any opportunity. But he is stronger than them, he thinks. He does not anticipate being the lions’ dinner any time soon.

When his pinched-faced aunt asked, over Thanksgiving dinner, why he got a large and photorealistic Cape buffalo inked into the flesh over his ribs if he has never been to Africa, he just smiled.

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