Home > Every Breath(3)

Every Breath(3)
Author: Nicholas Sparks

He slid behind the wheel and slipped on his sunglasses. Before turning the key, he made sure he hadn’t forgotten anything. There wasn’t much; in addition to the knapsack and guitar, he carried with him the letter and photograph he’d received from America, along with his plane tickets and his wallet. In the rack behind him was a loaded rifle in case his truck broke down and he found himself wandering in the bush, which remained one of the most dangerous places in the world, especially at night, even for someone as experienced as he. In the glove compartment were a compass and a flashlight. He made sure his tent was beneath the seat, again in case of emergency. It was compact enough to fit in the bed of his truck, and though it wouldn’t do much to keep predators at bay, it was better than sleeping on the ground. All right, then, he thought. He was as ready as he’d ever be.

The day was already growing warm and the interior of the truck was even hotter. He’d avail himself of the “two-twenty” air-conditioning: two windows down at a speed of twenty miles an hour. It wouldn’t help much, but he’d long since grown used to the heat. He rolled up the sleeves of his tan button-up shirt. He wore his usual trekking pants, which had grown soft and comfortable over the years. The guests hanging around the swimming pool back at the main lodge would likely be in bathing suits and flip-flops, but he’d never been comfortable in that attire. The boots and canvas pants had once saved his life when he’d crossed paths with an angry black mamba; if he hadn’t had the proper clothing, the venom would have killed him in less than thirty minutes.

He glanced at his watch. It was a little after seven, and he had a long couple of days ahead. Cranking the engine, he backed out before heading toward the gate. He hopped out, pulled the gate open, rolled the truck through, and then closed the gate again. The last thing the other guides needed was to return to camp and find that a pride of lions had settled in. It had happened before—not at this particular camp but at another where he’d worked, in the southeastern part of the country. That had been a chaotic day. No one had been quite sure what to do other than bide their time until the lions figured out how long they intended to stay. Fortunately, the lions had vacated the camp to go on the hunt later in the afternoon, but ever since then, Tru made a point to check the gates, even when he wasn’t driving. Some of the guides were new, and he didn’t want to take any chances.

Shifting the truck into gear, he settled in, trying to make the ride as smooth as possible. The first hundred miles were on rutted gravel roads pocked with potholes, first on the reserve, then winding past a number of small villages. That part would take until the early afternoon, but he was used to the drive, and he allowed his mind to wander as he took in the world he called home.

The sun glinted through wispy clouds that trailed over the tree line, illuminating a lilac-breasted roller as it broke free from the tree branches on his left. Two warthogs crossed the road ahead of him, trotting past a family of baboons. He’d seen those animals thousands of times, but he still marveled at how they could survive when surrounded by so many predators. Nature had its own insurance policy, he knew. Animals that were low on the food chain had more young; female zebras, for instance, were pregnant for all but nine or ten days a year. It was estimated that female lions, on the other hand, had to mate more than a thousand times for every cub that reached its first birthday. It was evolutionary balance at its finest, and though he witnessed it daily, it still struck him as extraordinary.

Often, guests would ask him about the most exciting things he’d seen while guiding. He’d recount what it was like to be charged by a black rhino, or how he’d once witnessed a giraffe bucking wildly until finally giving birth in an explosive discharge that had surprised him in its violence. He’d seen a jaguar cub dragging a warthog nearly twice its size high into a tree, only inches ahead of a pack of snarling hyenas who’d caught the scent of the kill. One time, he’d followed a wild dog that, abandoned by its own kind, had bonded with a pack of jackals—the same pack it used to hunt. The stories were endless.

Was it possible, he wondered, to experience the same game drive twice? The answer was both yes and no. A person could go to the same lodge, work with the same guide, leave at the same time, and drive the same roads in exactly the same weather in the same season, but always, the animals were in different places, doing different things. They moved to and from watering holes, watching and listening, eating and sleeping and mating, all of them simply trying to survive another day.

Off to the side, he saw a herd of impalas. Guides would joke that those antelopes were the McDonald’s of the bush, fast food in abundance. They were part of every predator’s diet, and guests usually grew tired of photographing them after a single game drive. Tru, however, slowed the truck, watching as one after another made an impossibly high and graceful leap over a fallen tree, as if choreographed. In their own way, he thought, they were as special as the big five—lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and water buffalo—or even the big seven, which included cheetahs and hyenas. Those were the animals that guests most wanted to see, the game that inspired the most excitement. The thing was, spotting lions wasn’t particularly difficult, at least when the sun was shining. Lions slept eighteen to twenty hours a day, and they could usually be found resting in the shade. Spotting a moving lion, on the other hand, was rare, except at night. In the past, he’d worked at lodges that offered evening game drives. A few had been hair-raising, and many had been blinding, the dust from a hundred buffalo or wildebeest or zebra swirling as they’d stampeded from lions. It had been impossible to see more than inches in any direction, forcing Tru to stop the jeep. Twice, he’d realized that his vehicle was suddenly sandwiched between the pride of lions and whatever they’d been hunting, sending his adrenaline skyrocketing.

The road grew steadily rougher, and Tru slowed even more, weaving from one side to the other. He was headed for Bulawayo, the second-largest city in the country and home to his ex-wife, Kim, and their son, Andrew. He had a house there as well, which he’d bought after his divorce. In retrospect, it was obvious that he and Kim hadn’t been well suited for each other. They’d met ten years ago at a bar in Harare, when Tru had been between jobs. Later Kim would tell him that he’d struck her as exotic, which along with his last name was enough to pique her interest. As for her, she was eight years younger and beautiful, with an easygoing yet confident charm. One thing led to the next, and they’d ended up spending much of the next six weeks together. By then, the bush was calling to Tru again and he’d wanted to end the relationship; instead, she’d told him she was pregnant. They got married, Tru took a job at Hwange because of its relative proximity to Bulawayo, and Andrew came along not long after that.

Though she’d known what Tru did for a living, Kim had assumed that when they had a child, Tru would find a job that didn’t keep him away for weeks on end. Instead, he continued to guide, Kim eventually met someone else, and their marriage came to an end less than five years after it had started. There were no hard feelings on either side; if anything, their relationship had improved since their divorce. Whenever he picked up Andrew, he and Kim would visit for a while, catching up like the old friends they were. She’d remarried and had a daughter with her second husband, Ken; on their last visit, she’d told Tru she was pregnant again. Ken worked in the finance office of Air Zimbabwe. He wore a suit to work and was home every night for dinner. That’s what Kim wanted, and Tru was happy for her.

As for Andrew…

His son was ten now, and the one great thing to come out of the marriage. As fate would have it, Tru contracted the measles when Andrew was a few months old, leaving him sterile, but he had never felt the need for another child. For him, Andrew had always been more than enough, and he was the reason Tru was detouring to Bulawayo instead of heading straight to the farm. With blond hair and brown eyes, Andrew resembled his mother, and Tru had dozens of drawings of him tacked to the walls of his shack. Over the years, he’d added photographs—on almost every visit, Kim would hand Tru an envelope filled with them—different versions of his son blending together, evolving into someone entirely new. At least once a week, Tru would sketch something he’d seen in the bush—usually an animal—but other times, he would draw the two of them, trying to capture a memory from their previous visit.

Balancing family and work had been a challenge, especially after the divorce. For six weeks, while he worked at the camp, Kim had custody and Tru would be entirely absent from his son’s life: no calls, no visits, no impromptu soccer matches or ice cream runs. Then, for two weeks, Tru would assume custody and play the role of full-time father. Andrew would stay with him in his house in Bulawayo, Tru ferrying him to and from school, packing lunches and making dinner, and helping with homework. On the weekends, they did whatever Andrew chose, and in each and every one of those moments, Tru would wonder how it was possible to love his son as deeply as he did, even if he wasn’t always around to show it.

Off to the right, he spotted a pair of circling buzzards. Searching for something left over from the hyenas last night, perhaps, or maybe looking for an animal that had died earlier in the morning. Lately, many of the animals had been struggling. The country was in the midst of yet another drought, and the watering holes in this area of the reserve had gone dry. It wasn’t surprising; not far to the west, in Botswana, lay the vast Kalahari Desert, home of the legendary San people. Their language was thought to be one of the oldest in existence, heavy on knocks and clicks, and sounded almost alien to outsiders. Despite having virtually nothing in the way of material things, they joked and laughed more than any other group of people he’d ever met, but he wondered how long they would be able to maintain their way of life. Modernity was encroaching and there were rumors that the government of Botswana was going to require that all children in the country be educated in schools, including the San. He guessed that would eventually spell the end of a culture that had existed for thousands of years.

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