A white rhino charged at me through the tall withered grass. I took off in the direction of a stunted tree and scrambled up. Once safely above ground, I discovered a white leopard sprawled on a limb next to me. “Aren’t you on the wrong continent?” I asked at great peril to myself, but the leopard only raised an eyebrow for “aren’t you?” and closed his eyes. Perhaps I interrupted his midday nap. I hoped he’d had a big breakfast or at least a festering molar or two.
The rhino, at the foot of the tree, pointed his horn at me, his lips rippling along his jaw in a slobbery display of smugness. A crazy vegan, I thought, wondering which would be the better way to go — crushed or crunched. The tree, too, gave me pause, because, like, what tree would want to grow all alone in the middle of a grassland?
An awfully loud bang derailed my train of thought and the rhino dropped to the ground. The leopard snorted but kept dozing. Some guy in pale khakis and a smoking gun appeared below, preparing to saw off the rhino’s horn. I gasped. He looked up at me with bloodshot eyes and casually raised his rifle.
“Hey, don’t,” I said. “I’m a white dude.”
The poacher screwed his leathery face. So?
“Sanctity of enlightened life, remember? Didn’t they teach you that in a mission school — ?”
I was spared when a piercing whistle blew past my ear and the leopard fell off the tree. The poacher looked around wildly — it wasn’t his gun. Another shot rattled the parched air and the poacher collapsed over the felled beasts. Or maybe, given his station in life, he’d been dead all along.
A man in a white lab coat, hunting rifle slung across his back, moseyed toward me, shimmering like a hologram in the rising heat. He waved at the bodies in the puny shade of the tree and said, “How we mourn our fallen heroes, champions of doctor’s orders, those who leave behind orphaned cubs and dour widows — ”
I said nothing. Didn’t know if I heard him right with the ringing in my ears.
He eyed me at length as if I were a zoo animal. “Well? Aren’t you coming down?”
“Not sure,” I said. “Are you for real?”
“As real as any news feed, my man. As real as that infamous study showing how we dentists die on average younger than anybody else — ”
“You’re a fucking dentist?” I cried out.
He flashed a brilliant toothy grin. “You didn’t ask why.”
“Why we dentists die young.”
I gave it to him grudgingly. “Why?”
“Cause nobody loves us. Statistics, huh? I always beat the odds. C’mon down now, let’s have a look. We gotta take care of that disaster area inside your mouth.”
The dentist had set up shop in the big open plain. I was tilted back in the dreaded chair, my mouth wide open, waiting for him to block the big open sky with his big open face. “Why is your office out in the open?” I asked.
He shrugged, slipping on a pair of latex gloves. “Well, why, low premiums of course. Think firestorms, twisters, floods — the outcome for human habitation is always a fantastic junkyard. This grassland, by comparison, appears to be the safest place on earth.”
I couldn’t tell if he had logic on his side or just wanted to hype the value of his property. Maybe he’d been in real estate and only took up dentistry after some calamity turned his hometown into a field of debris. A man’s gotta make a living, I thought, can’t blame him for that.
He packed my gaping mouth with gauze, saying, “Do you hear the quiet before the storm? If we make a lot of noise, the wildebeest might wake up and blow the weather system out to sea.” But when the whine of the drill came on (or perhaps it was a chainsaw), panic swept over me. I wanted to scoot, except I was paralyzed.
“Calm down, now,” the dentist said, producing a Kleenex and wiping the sweat off my brow. “I took care of it. You won’t feel a thing.” He waved a pair of pliers in front of my face and roared with laughter.
“I don’ wanna — ” I tried, the words bloated and deformed, stumbling out of my stuffed mouth.
“Doctor’s orders, remember?” he said, adding a bit of punditry. “Flashing this putrid smile will only get you banished from civilized society. And then what? You won’t survive a day in the wild with these loose incisors. Have you looked inside the leopard’s maw? Why do you think I put him down? Mercy killing, is all.” His gaze drifted to the gunmetal clouds on the horizon. “Would you like to see his x-rays? He didn’t want to go through with it either, and look where that got him.”
The dentist waited for lightning to slice up the pale blue sky before announcing, “I believe a super storm is racing in our direction,” then laughed, letting go of his tools. The pliers dropped to the ground, but the drill remained suspended on its chic dental crane. “Can you hear the distant rumble?” he asked (rhetorically, mind you). It was actually nearer than that with the hot air and flying plant debris slapping me in the face.
A rescue helicopter groaned overhead, winch rope dangling. “My next appointment is a little early,” the dentist hollered above the din as he slipped into the harness and rose swinging into the air. He threw me a kiss and a cheery “See ya at the airport” when a sudden jolt of the chopper wiped the smug grin off his face. What with the ominous clouds up ahead, catastrophe was in the offing.
I spat out the stuff in my mouth and slid off the chair. I staggered something awful, head throbbing, ground spinning, dust billowing. I was so busy chewing over the meaning of my adventure I failed to recognize the symptoms of a stampede. Whether it was a natural phenomenon or human error something had scared a herd of wildebeest and it was charging at me. I paid no mind to the fireball that lit up the dark sky where the chopper had been as I sprinted back to the lonely tree and clambered up.
Lucky for me there was a safety zone around the tree. The dental office, though, was in a shambles after the stampede had been through. Ensuing fires and downpours turned it into a smoldering soggy mess, which eventually vanished all together. Perhaps it got swallowed by a sinkhole or an earthquake. I didn’t know. All I knew for certain was that my dentist’s insurance would go up.
I stayed up in the tree for a long time, observing (my perennial scientific curiosity) the hyenas and jackals and buzzards strip the bones below clean. They didn’t fret over the mix of carnivorous, herbivorous, and omnivorous ingredients. Nor did they care that the meat wasn’t cooked.
Being a first-world dude, food and water weren’t an issue for me and there was always takeout if I didn’t want to partake in the putrefying and unfriendly smorgasbord at the base of the tree. Besides, I had all I needed back home, and, depending on the type of terrain that would ultimately unfurl (however mother nature chose to re-engineer it), I reckoned I could call a four-wheeler Uber or a boat or Skidoo to take me to the airport.
This vacation sucked a little, but it made for a great story, something I knew would survive future displacements and other arbitrary disasters.