By Kaitlynn McShea
When Laura Henderson was eleven, her father came home with a lion.
It was a California summer day, and blistering, stunning heat filtered through the front door. Laura remembered it being out of character for him: he never came in through the front door, he never came home before nine, and he never spoke to anyone when he did.
But that day, the door swung open at noon. Laura had been reading on the staircase, and it made her drop her book. It went down the stairs one at a time, thunking along on the glistening marble, until it landed spine-up on the landing.
Her father put his hands on his hips and looked around the foyer, taking everything in. His eyes landed on her. “Laura!”
She stood. She wasn’t allowed to read anywhere but the library. It was unbecoming, her mother said. “Yes, Father?” She didn’t want to get into trouble, but she didn’t want to argue, either.
His voice was jovial when he responded, “Where is your brother?”
Henry was either swimming or playing billiards by himself or doing some other loud, messy activity. He was nine and maddening. She stopped herself from snapping at him. He wasn’t her responsibility–he was Helga’s. “I’m not sure, Father,” she replied.
“Henry!” her father called. His voice bounced against the marble. “Oh, Henry!”
Helga arrived in the foyer instead. She had a smudge of flour on her otherwise spotless apron. “Can I help you with anything, Mr. Henderson?” she asked. At that same moment, Henry flew into the foyer. His socks slid against the floor, and his eyes grew big as his shoulder hit Laura’s. “Sorry!” he said.
Laura straightened her dress and put her hand on her brother’s shoulder, squaring him off to face their father. “What can we help you with, Father?” she asked.
For the first time, she spied people on the sidewalk behind her father. They weren’t business men, that was for sure. They had pocks on their faces and they wore work boots instead of oxfords. They surrounded a giant box. Laura’s mind was buzzing. Had something gone wrong with one of his business deals? Were they moving right then and there, thrown out on the street like some feral animals? Or worse, were they taking all of their possessions, leaving them a home but nothing in it?
But their father smiled. “I have a surprise for you.”
Laura noticed Helga narrowing her eyes. “Does Mrs. Henderson know about this surprise?” Helga was a few years older than her parents, and she was the only person that Laura had ever heard question him.
He waved her off. “Oh, she will when she comes home from her luncheon.”
He stepped to the side of the doorway and gestured outside. “Laura, Henry: I present your new pet.”
The men–at least ten in all–picked up the giant box and trudged up the front steps to their house. Instinctively, Laura stepped back a few steps. Her hand was still on Henry’s shoulder, and he glared at her when he was forced to step back, too. Henry shrugged her off and stood next to their father instead.
When the men set the box down, it reverberated through the floors.
“What is it, what is it?” Henry said, bouncing on his heels. “It must be big, right?”
Laura tried not to roll her eyes. It was obviously quite large. Now that it was in their foyer, Laura could tell that it wasn’t a box. It was a cage covered in a cloth.
“Are you ready?” one of the men asked.
“Yes, we are,” her father replied. “Laura, come stand over here.”
She obliged. It was only then that the same man tore off the cloth to reveal their new pet.
“A lion!” Henry screamed.
Laura couldn’t help but notice that a few men cringed at her brother’s shrill scream. The lion itself was asleep, and its mane and tail poked through the holes of the cage. One of them held a briefcase and handed it to their father. “This is the lion’s medicine. It needs to take it every single night. No exceptions.”
Her father laughed and clapped the man on the shoulder. “No need to fear.” He took the briefcase and handed it to Helga. “Helga will be diligent. Right, Helga?” Helga had gone from frowning to a full-on glare.
“Mr. Henderson–” she started.
But the man cut her off. “You need to be diligent. It can’t miss a single dose. If you do, the worst could happen.”
Her father laughed again but the man shook his head, stopping him. “Are you prepared? Darts? Tranquilizers?”
Her father just laughed again. “You worry too much, Dobson.”
The man–Dobson–just sighed. “Someone needs to.” He turned back to the lion, which was still sleeping. “Listen, we can move it wherever you want. It just had its travel dosage. It will be awake tomorrow morning.”
“As thorough as ever, Dobson. Let’s set him up in the sitting room.”
As one unit, the men picked up the cage and carried it through the main hall to the sitting room. Laura watched as the lion was placed in between their velvet settee and the grand piano.
“Can we open the door?” Henry asked.
One of the men shrugged. “It’s your pet now. Do whatever you wish.”
The men filtered out one-by-one until their father and Dobson stood alone. They shook hands, Dobson left, and their father announced to everyone and no one that he was going to retire to his office until dinner.
Helga, Henry, and Laura stood next to the cage, and Henry unlatched the cage door.
“I don’t know what they expect me to feed this thing,” Helga muttered.
“Raw meat, I would suppose,” Laura replied.
“Do you think it will play with me tomorrow?” Henry asked.
“Not unless you want to lose your head.”
“It won’t hurt us, Laura,” Henry whined. “It’s our pet!”
Laura and Helga stared at each other. Helga still held the briefcase. “I’m going back to the kitchen,” she said, taking the lion’s medicine with her.
Laura had to admit that she was curious. She had seen lions at the zoo and had read about them in books, but she had never been this close to one before. Henry slid to his knees and stared at the lion through the bars of the cage.
Without saying anything, she fetched her book from the staircase in the foyer and settled herself on the settee.
Henry lost interest quickly, but Laura stayed in the sitting room until the shadows spread and darkness settled. As the man promised, the lion remained unconscious.
The next day, Laura woke up while it was still dark. What her father had done was stupid, but her curiosity won over her contempt for him. In the past year, she had overheard his conversations in his study. After dinner, when everyone else was preoccupied, she would press a glass to the door and listen to the phone calls. Business deals gone bad, business deals buckling. Laura didn’t know much about what her father did, but it was bad business, whatever it was.
She hadn’t overheard anything about a lion. It must have been an impulsive decision, something he had thought of between dawn and noon the previous day. Regardless of his reasons, Laura wanted to benefit. She could observe the animal, just as if she was on a safari.
Laura dressed and grabbed a notebook and pen before heading downstairs.
During the early hours of the morning, the lion had moved from its enclosure to the velvet settee. The lion’s eyes met her own, and her heart jolted. She anticipated a roar or a pounce, but it simply remained seated with glazed eyes.
She approached and held her hand to its nose. Laura was pleased to notice that it was soft like velvet. The lion sniffed her, but didn’t stir. Laura settled herself on the other side of the room, pen poised on her paper. She sketched and labeled it, which took half an hour. But after an hour had passed and it didn’t do anything worth writing down, she traded her journal for her book and sat on the floor next to the settee.
By the afternoon, she sat on the settee next to the lion, curled into its side.
Her summer break passed by like a neverending sunrise. By the end of the first week, she started calling him Leonard. By the end of the second week, she had taken over both his feedings and his medicine-giving. And by the end of the month, she ceased to care about the passings and goings of the Henderson household, only caring to spend her day in the sitting room next to Leonard the Lion.
“Don’t you wonder why you have to give him that medicine every single day?” asked Henry. He sat at the grand piano, plunking a senseless tune.
Laura shrugged. “Some animals take medicine, just like humans do.” What she didn’t say was ‘now leave me and Leonard alone.’
“I heard Dad telling his investors the other day that if we didn’t give him our medicine, he would kill us all.”
Laura didn’t take her eyes off of the book. The truth was that Leonard was her very best friend in all of the world. He kept her company like no one ever had. However, she had found a book on lions in their library the other week, and it painted a picture of prowling, hunting, and lounging. “Hmmm,” Laura said.
“What do you think?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you think he’d kill us if we didn’t give him his medicine?”
“I don’t think so,” she replied slowly. The book said lions only attacked people if they didn’t have enough food to eat. His daily diet of forty steaks proved him to be well fed.
Henry poked Leonard in his right flank. Hard.
“Hey!” Laura said.
Henry shrugged. “It’s not like he felt it.”
Laura looked at Leonard. It was true. He had barely batted one of his glazed eyes.
“If he’s your friend, why are you letting him live this way? Anyway, I’m going outside,” Henry said.
Laura didn’t say anything as he left. Instead, she buried her face into Leonard’s mane and whispered, “I love you.”
She didn’t pick up her book for the rest of the afternoon.
That night, Laura took one of the white pills from her briefcase and held it in her palm. It felt heavy for the first time ever. Instead of giving it to Leonard, she waited until her mother retired for the evening and Helga went home. Then, she took the entire briefcase out to the back pond and watched it sink down, down, down.
A lone crescent moon watched her.
A hand shook her roughly awake.
“We have to get out of here!” Henry screamed.
A snarl wound its way up the stairs.
“What’s going on?” Laura asked. But she already knew.
Henry pulled her arm, getting her out of bed. Laura pulled on her robe and slippers and followed Henry down the back staircase.
Outside, their parents stood on the lawn. Their mother sobbed while their father looked into the hall window. “It’s tearing everything apart! Everything!” A roar filtered out through the closed window, shaking even the shutters with its ferocity. She stared through her father’s study’s window. The lights were still on, and the yellow glow washed over her family.
“You didn’t give him his medicine, did you?” Henry whispered.
Laura shook her head. “You were right. That’s not how you treat a friend.”
“Laura, he’s going to destroy our house.”
Her voice was soft when she replied. “I–I love him.” Without moving, she watched as the lion prowled through the doorway and tore apart her father’s study book by book, splinter by splinter.
There was nothing they could do.