Tom Greenbaum was captivated. Herds of blue wildebeest and zebra scattered in all directions as Mpundu, the dirty, mild tempered pilot of the small Cessna rental, took Tom down for a closer look at the flora and fauna of the Zambian plains. It would have been easy for most people to lose track of time, staring at the creatures, whose lives and deaths played out on the brown tinged grass below. But Tom wasn’t most people. As a quantum physicist with an IQ of 167, the calculations needed to time a quick jaunt over the African plains were as easy as clipping fingernails.
Tom had planned this distraction well. His international flight from Israel to Zambia’s capitol, Lusaka, touched down at ten fifty three, ten minutes early. Megan expected his arrival at four o’clock and the flight to her mission took two hours. Tom scheduled his flight with Mpundu for twelve, giving himself an extra two hours time in the air. He was glad to be seeing his wife again, but experiencing this wild, untouched world from a bird’s eye view was too much to pass up. Besides, she would never know.
Hours flew past and they were soon cruising over a lush, green canopy of jungle trees, waterfalls and rivers. The peaceful surroundings and white hum of the Cessna’s engine propelled Tom to sleep, much to the relief of Mpundu, who had grown tired of Tom’s wonderment. Not until they were making their final approach did Mpundu break the silence.
“Mr. Greenbaum…Mr. Greenbaum, we’re almost there.”
Tom sat up and wiped the drool from his cheek. As he squinted against the lowering sun he asked, “What time is it?”
“Three forty-five...Tell me, why do you come to Zambia? You have seen the animals, but where you are going now has no animals.”
“Visiting my wife,” Tom explained, his voice softening with the thought of her face and smile. “She’s been here two weeks, but she’ll be staying another two after I leave.”
Mpundu’s face became visibly confused. “You say your wife? Here in Zambia for two weeks without her husband?”
Tom nodded. “It’s the longest we’ve been apart.”
“And you let her come here?”
“I would have stopped her if I could,” added Tom, “Trust me. Since she found religion it’s been impossible for me to get through to her. I swear the whole lot of them has a death wish.”
Mpundu’s smile faded. “This is the worst place to come with a death wish.”
Tom’s forehead wrinkled with concern. “Why’s that?”
“Because, Mr. Greenbaum, it usually comes true.”
Tom’s smile shrunk away.
“We’re almost there,” Mpundu assured, “try not to worry.”
Megan wasn’t the type of woman to run from a fight, but this was slaughter and she knew Tom was flying into a deathtrap. She had to warn him. Megan peeked around the corner of a grass roofed hut, which served as the chapel. She knew the thatched wall of the hut was thick enough to hide her, but would do little to slow a bullet. She saw her brave co-workers, lined up, arms behind their backs. The men holding them prisoner remained out of eyeshot, but she could hear their voices, strange, demanding, broken.
“Spet on his face! You do id nah!” a man shouted.
She knew all of her new friends would never give in. She knew they would all die. Just like Charles. He had been the first to refuse; he’d been dead for ten minutes now.
Megan could see Jennifer’s legs shaking. It was her turn now. She was eighteen, an eager intern from small town Kansas. She’d been on the job for two days, yet her convictions ran the deepest. She managed to say, “Forgive them, Lord,” before a bullet cut her down as well.
Jennifer’s body slumped to the dirt. Megan covered her mouth, terrified she would scream and alert the butchers to her presence. But she couldn’t let that happen. Not while Tom was coming. This wasn’t his fight. This wasn’t his place to die.
Eyes wet and unblinking, Megan turned and ducked into the woods as another gunshot echoed through the forest. Branches stretched out for her, scratching at her, clawing at her. They wanted to slow her down. They wanted to kill her too. But her legs were strong from years of running and the thickets that blocked her path exploded away from her, tearing open her flesh and exposing an open path. Megan turned right and ran, ignoring the streaks of blood slipping down her legs.
Movement in her periphery caught Megan’s attention as she rounded a tree. She slowed and focused her vision. Four men were beating a fifth…but she didn’t know him. She took in the assailants. They had rifles slung over their shoulders. Each man was dressed in half military fatigues, half tribal garb, the kind of people you’d expect to see in a National Geographic full page spread. The angriest, most savage and most passionate man wore a New York Yankees baseball cap.
Megan wasn’t sure how long she had been staring at the sight, but it was long enough for her to be noticed.
“A woman escapes!” one of the men yelled, blood dripping from his knuckles.
Megan’s gaze was frozen on the man who lied on the ground, covered in blood and beaten to a pulp. He looked up into Megan’s eyes using only his right eye—the left was swollen shut. Oddly, she noticed his clothing. Blue, button down shirt. Polished shoes… polished shoes in the Zambian jungle? His un-swollen eye grew wide and he yelled desperately to her, “Megan! Run!”
As Megan’s eyes snapped away from the man she saw that the four locals were almost upon her. She launched into the forest, praying her feet would carry her fast enough, praying for the poor man she left behind. How did he know her name? Was he a friend of Tom’s?
Boom! Birds launched into the air behind her. She knew the stranger was dead. It made her run even faster.
The path was thin and winding, but Megan had run it every morning for the past two weeks. She knew every depression, every curve, every fallen tree. They would never catch her here. But the path would soon end and she would be running through an open field. She was fast, but she was no Superwoman. She couldn’t out-run a bullet.
Mud splashed across her legs, mixing with blood, as she hurdled a moss covered, rotten tree. She could see the sky through the branches in front of her. The clearing and Tom lay just ahead.
The Cessna pulled up and over a line of tall trees, emerging over a clearing where a crude runway was chiseled into the earth.
Once the Cessna had come to a stop, Tom and Mpundu began unpacking the luggage and the supplies Megan had asked him to bring. Grunting with exertion, Tom heaved a wooden crate onto the ground. After straightening back up he removed a bandana from his back pocket and dabbed away the stinging sweat that trickled into his eyes. Tom had expected help; workers from the mission, locals, whatever, at least Megan should have been there by now. It wasn’t like her to be late.
“Tom!” It was Megan’s voice, but from where?
Scanning the field of tall, sun tanned grass, Tom found what he was looking for. His face lit up as he saw Megan running toward him. She was yelling, but Tom couldn’t make out the words. He started forward. As Megan grew nearer it wasn’t her words Tom finally understood, but the tone of her voice. She was afraid.
Before Tom could launch toward Megan, Mpundu’s firm grasp on Tom’s shoulder held him in place. “Do not enter the grass, Mr. Greenbaum. There are predators.”
Tom looked back at Mpundu, whose eyes were locked on a flock of birds bursting from the jungle on the opposite side of the field.
“Lions?” Tom asked quickly.
Pulling away from Mpundu, Tom plowed into the field, deter-mined to reach his wife. “Megan! MEGAN!”
“Mr. Greenbaum! Come back! We must leave now!”
Tom ignored Mpundu’s call and continued forward. Mpundu ran back to the Cessna and started the engine.
Megan grew closer and her words became distinguishable, “Get away! Go back to the plane!”
Tom ran more quickly.
Boom! A gunshot pierced the air and Tom instinctively ducked down. His chest burned with each panicked breath. What should he do? Who fired the gun and at whom? When he picked his head up again, Megan was gone. Tom’s eyes grew wide. “Megan?”
Ignoring the danger, Tom ran forward. “Megan! Where are you? Megan!”
Fifty feet away, Megan stood up and looked at Tom. “Run!” she yelled as her feet carried her toward Tom.
Tom surged forward, shrinking the distance between them. As they grew closer, Tom could see Megan’s normally smooth face twisting with fear and pain. His eyes darted to her blood red shoulder. She’d been shot!
Boom! A second shot pierced the air as Tom and Megan came within ten feet of each other. Megan’s body arched back. Blood exploded from her chest, covering Tom’s body and face. Tom stopped in his tracks and the world around him moved in slow motion, as though the entire scene were happening under water. The thick ruddy liquid felt warm on his face. Roaring blood rushed through the veins in his head, making it hard to hear. Dizziness swept through Tom with each pounding heartbeat. He felt himself falling, but his feet were firmly rooted to the ground.
Megan stumbled forward, her eyes locked with Tom’s. He could see her: brimming with enthusiasm over a new job, snuggled up by the fireplace with a new book, glossy with sweat after a long run. And then she was gone. Her eyes hardened and her muscles fell limp. She fell forward and landed at Tom’s feet, flattening a section of grass with her body.
Tom looked down. His wife was dead.
Breath raspy and full of anguish, Tom fell to his knees and rolled his wife over as tears condensed on his lower eyelids. He pushed his hand against the flow of blood pumping from her body like a ruptured gallon of milk. “Megan? Megan, please…”
Had Tom been more resilient he might have noticed Mpundu streaking down the runway in the Cessna. He might have noticed the crunch of moving brush and the smell of gunpowder. He sat in the grass; cradling Megan and rocking back and forth like a caged animal.
It wasn’t until Tom felt warm metal against the back of his neck and heard the click of weaponry that his attention was thrust back into reality. He could see four sets of bare feet standing around him. His head was too heavy to look up.
Standing above Tom were Megan’s four pursuers, led by the Yankee fan.
“Do you believe ahs dis wuman deed?” asked the Yankee fan as he pressed the barrel of his rifle into Tom’s temple. “Ansah me now.”
Tom looked up toward the voice. The Yankee fan’s face was silhouetted by the bright sun behind him. “W—What?” Tom asked.
The Yankee fan walked to the side. The sun cleared and Tom could see the man’s dark face, painted brightly with dry, red ink. What was most striking about his face were the expressions—twisting and contorting with confusion. The Yankee fan looked at Tom from all angles. Then he smiled and stood up straight.
“Do you balieve as dis wuman deed? Do you balieve en her God?” The man’s voice seemed deeper, more demanding. “Ah you not a disciple?”
Tom’s lip began to bleed as he bit down.
“Tell us! We want to know!” the man screamed.
“No, damnit! I don’t believe what she did! I never will!”
The four men instantly lowered their rifles. The Yankee fan squinted his eyes skeptically, then relaxed and smiled a rotting grin, “Thun tuday es your lucky day.”
The other men laughed and patted each other on the back for a job well done. Satisfied, all four turned and walked away, disappearing back into the tall grass.
Tom was left on his knees with Megan in his arms. His muscles began to shake. His eyes twitched to a maddening rhythm and blood pumped adrenaline through his veins. He let his wife, who he clutched to his chest so fondly moments ago, fall to the ground. Tom stood to his feet and cut into the tall grass.
The four men walked away slowly. Tom caught them quickly. He pounded his fist into the head of the first man before they heard a sound. The man toppled over and dropped his rifle, which fired upon impact with the ground. The bullet split several shoots of grass and then shattered the ankle of another man who fell backwards into the grass.
The third man swung around and raised his rifle, but he was too slow. Tom was upon him. Tom’s left hand held the rifle at bay while his right hand smashed the man’s throat. The man fell to the ground gasping for air, leaving his rifle in Tom’s shaking hand.
Tom raised the rifle toward the Yankee fan, whom had already taken aim at Tom. They paused. Breathing. Staring. Listening. A dragonfly flew between them and both men fired.
Tom was clipped in the shoulder and screamed in pain. The Yankee fan stood unmoving with a hand held to his chest. Tom quickly regained his composure and raised his rifle a second time. But the Yankee fan stood still with a look of shock frozen on his face.
“So it’s true,” the Yankee fan said with a smile, “You ah not a disciple.”
The Yankee fan’s hand slipped from his chest, revealing an open wound. He fell to his knees and slumped over dead.
Moans from the other three men writhing in the grass regained Tom’s attention. He aimed the rifle. One man raised his hands over his head and begged in his native tongue. Tom looked away from the men, toward the area of crushed grass where Megan’s body still lay. Tom took aim again and asked, “Do you believe as she did?”
Tom pressed the rifle into one man’s head. “Do you believe as she did?”
“No! No! We do not!”
“Then, maybe I’ll see you in Hell.”
The guns shots could be heard for miles away, three and then three more.
That was all twenty years ago…today.