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Authors: Loren Lockner

Heart of Africa

BOOK: Heart of Africa
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Heart of Africa

 

Dedication

 

 

To Jack, who loves all the wild places.

 

Heart of Africa

 

by

Loren Lockner

 

This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual

events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

“Heart of Africa,” by Loren Lockner. 1st Edition.

 

 

©2014 Loren Lockner. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of Loren Lockner.

 

Manufactured in the United States of America

 

 

Prologue

 

August 2012

 

The unmerciful sun refused my commands and set
unconcernedly behind the dry acacias, stealing with it any remaining warmth of the day. I lay curled in a tight ball, my left cheek ragged and torn from an unrepentant thorn tree, my hands clasped between trembling legs in a fruitless effort to stay warm. The burrow was neither adequate for a bitter winter’s night, nor comfortable. I shivered in my filthy sweatshirt, hair full of stickers and trash and who knows what else. I wept uncontrollably, my situation so desperate that hope seemed as elusive as rescue. Dreadfully hungry, alone and chilled, I remained lost in the bush somewhere near the Limpopo River on the vast wild border between Mozambique and South Africa.

Large black ants scurried into their warm holes constructed from the sandy soil of this alluvial plain while the sharp, distant cry of some hungry predator permeated the early evening air. I had no such snug refuge and it was highly likely that before long, my remains would be torn to shreds by hyenas, jackals and lions while opportunistic vultures hopped in the distance, content to wait for their share of the last tasty tidbits.

Useless salty tears stung my chapped lips and I knew I needed to regain some measure of control and prepare a shelter for the night. If I was cold now, at scarcely 5:00 p.m., what would I be by midnight? Maybe, just maybe when dawn came, I could find him—if he were still alive. I sobbed again at the possibility of his lying somewhere, mangled and torn, being ravaged by lions. Managing to pull myself upright, I scanned the dead winter veldt grass and froze in terror. The feline’s evil eyes glowed yellow in the faint light, her tufts of pointed cinnamon ears tilted towards me. One lifted paw froze in mid-stride as her eyes widened in hungry interest. I played a transfixed staring game with the ravenous predator and wondered how it had all come to this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Before

 

 

The airport whirled in complete chaos and I cringed
inside, abhorring anything akin to commotion and frenzy. My heart felt frozen, unable to thaw, even as this great, reviving adventure stared me in the face. I noted a young couple hurrying past, arms linked and laughing together in perfect harmony, and I stifled a sob. How could I ever love again? Had the shattered prequel to this trip been my last chance at happiness? Was I destined to become a bitter old maid, dulled by loss and crippled by love’s desertion?

Eyeing the swirling masses in a kind of numb sorrow coupled with anxiety, I plunked my carry-on bag in the queue and waited nervously, occasionally glancing at my steel wristwatch as the Delta check-in line crept toward the open counters. At last, only one other individual fidgeted ahead of me; a frumpish middle-aged lady who riffled her bag, searching for misplaced tickets as the airline agent waited stoically for her approach. Thoroughly rattled, I fretted at the delay.

I was about to nudge the sluggish lady in front of me in an effort to urge her forward when I saw my mother maneuvering her way through the surging multitude. Mom’s perfectly coiffed auburn hair gleamed dully as she skirted the line and joined me at the front of the queue. Dropping her leather handbag with an exasperated thump, she peered up at my distraught face.

“Don’t you just hate airports? So you’ve been waiting all this time? I could have driven home and back, not just used the restroom—oh look, Mandy, there’s one open.” She gave me a small shove.

“Thank God,” I muttered, leaning my carry-on against the gray paneling of the ticket booth.

“Good morning,” said the efficient-looking agent, whose stiffly-pressed suit bore a tag embossed with the name Heather Jones.

“Good morning,” I returned meekly. “I’m flying business class to Cape Town via Atlanta. I’d like an aisle seat if it’s available.”

“No window?” murmured my mother, knowing full well how much I disliked heights. Unfortunately, I could only fly if situated away from the porthole window, a fruitless effort to delude myself that the aircraft wasn’t really held up by little more than air currents.

“Please, Mom,” I begged and handed over my ticket and passport.

“An aisle seat is no problem for Orlando to Atlanta, since seating is wide open, but let me check your second leg. You’re in luck, Ms. Phillips; we have a couple of aisle seats available upstairs near the front. Will one of those be alright?”

“Yes, thanks so much.” I took a relieved breath which quickly turned to dismay as my mother jumped in.

“I’d like to point out the long line caused because there are only four clerks in attendance. With the exorbitant price of airline tickets these days, you’d think Delta could provide better service.”

Ms. Jones straightened her shoulders. “Two more agents are on their way as we speak. Only the one bag?” Her plastic smile never wavered as she turned to me.

“Yes, and this carry-on,” I said timidly.

“No problem. You’ll need to affix this cabin tag to your bag before you board. I notice you requested a low-carbohydrate, low-fat meal with no beef or pork. The cabin crew will do their best to accommodate you.”

“I certainly hope so,” said Mrs. Phillips. “My daughter put in her request a good four weeks ago.” My shoulders slumped at Mom’s terse tones, but the airline agent seemed oblivious to my mother’s rudeness.

Ms. Jones’ fingers flew across the keys and within a matter of seconds, my boarding pass and passport slid across the counter. Mumbling my thanks, I moved away so the next customer could utilize the agent.

“Put the ticket and passport into your bag, Mandy. You’ll drop it for sure. No, not that compartment—thieves know that
everyone
places their valuable documents in the outer pocket. There, for goodness sake!”

“Please, Mom! I’m not two anymore. I can take care of myself.”

My mother gave an unladylike snort. “Oh, really? Considering the complete fiasco of the last three months, I sincerely have my doubts. My normally competent daughter has disappeared into thin air. It’s like having a stranger for a child.” I appeared to be in for another speech similar to the one I’d already received in the car, as if that hadn’t been enough. My head began throbbing as I pulled the carry-on off to the side, my mother following.

“Mandy?” My mother’s voice had taken on a different tone. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

Embarrassed, I shook my head and turned away. “I… I just need to get on the plane.”

“Running away won’t solve anything. That’s what your cousin says and I agree with him wholeheartedly. Ken believes you’re just… ”

I interrupted her. “I’m not running away, Mom. I need a vacation. Could you please just let me go on one without lecturing, belittling, or showering me with endless instructions?”

“I don’t do that!” My mother retorted, stung.

“Yes, you do. You and Ken, each and every moment of every day.” I turned an anguished face to my mother, who gasped at the despair she saw there.

“Oh sweetie… ”

“You’ve both got to let me do something on my own. I
need
this vacation. I
need
to get away from the hell my life has become. I recognize you don’t want me to go to Africa, but I have to. For myself! I need to find out if a competent woman can rise up from the ashes of what just happened to me. I’m twenty-nine years old and it’s time for Mandy Phillips to start over.”

I grabbed the carry-on and plowed ahead, seeking the security gate, my now-silent mother trailing behind me. The airport’s loudspeaker droned its mandatory announcement regarding keeping track of bags and accepting no packages from strangers, as memories from three months earlier flooded back and threatened to overwhelm me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

                    May, 2012

The sweaty construction worker fired up his drill and,
leaning his ample frame against the hammer, chipped away at a portion of sidewalk only fifteen feet from the front door of Azure Travel, his belly shaking like Santa Claus jelly. I stood still, needing to enter the trendy shop, but almost paralyzed because
she
sat in Josh’s cherry-red Porsche and preened.
She
was an amazing ensemble of frosted blonde hair layered haphazardly; endowed with
the
perfect nose, full Botox lips, and a spectacular cleavage which I judged had only a one percent chance of being really hers. And to think she had managed this monumental achievement all by age nineteen.

I felt old at twenty-nine; unattractive and frowsy. And now, here I was, forced to enter the travel agency before the eyes of Josh’s latest squeeze, to settle my account alongside my disgruntled ex-fiancé. Squaring my shoulders, I carefully picked my way through unearthed brick and concrete, the rhythm of the jack-hammer rattling me even further while effectively accelerating my already throbbing headache. But it was my money, after all, wasn’t it? Hadn’t I diligently saved and paid for half the African safari to Kenya for my now defunct honeymoon? It seemed one of the bitter ironies of life that I was to be granted the immense thrill of fidgeting next to Josh in embarrassed silence as our credit cards were refunded by the discreet African-American travel agent.

Josh was twiddling with his leather jacket’s zipper as I walked through the glass doors. Upon seeing me, he gave an exasperated sigh that clearly illustrated his annoyance at my tardiness. Josh was the personification of every girl’s dream, especially that of the frosted nymphet adjusting her make-up in his sports car. At thirty-one, with midnight hair and cobalt eyes, he was the perfect Ken to her dazzling Barbie. Joshua Mason had the potential to become a house pediatrician at Charity Medical sometime in the near future, and desperately needed an arm fixture that created the illusion he had won it all. I, Mandy Phillips, hadn’t been such a trophy.

We stood in painful silence as the efficient travel agent readied the paperwork.

“Here you go,” she said at last and I dutifully signed the refund slip as Josh studied me. I’d just come from the hairdresser and my short chestnut hair had been cut to a shoulder-length blunt angle that emphasized my high cheekbones and auburn highlights. As the accounts manager at the hospital where Josh interned, I earned twice as much as my ex-lover, though I’d always recognized that to be temporary.

“I was wondering,” Josh began tentatively as the travel agent moved to the rear of the efficient office to finish up the bureaucratic pile of paperwork attached to the refund, “if you wouldn’t mind returning my engagement ring?”

The ring in question was a stunning engagement band with a huge emerald-set 1.2 carat diamond, specifically ordered by him and half paid for by me. There was no way Josh could ever have afforded the pricey ring his up-and-coming reputation stipulated, so I had dutifully obliged, handing over my hard-earned funds as if every good fiancée was expected to help pay for her ring. The lovely accompanying wedding band consisted of fifteen good-sized diamonds set inside a heavy gold band. It was a stunner, just like him. I pretended to fish through my beige shoulder bag before handing him the small velvet container. I’d rehearsed the whole tawdry scene several times over in my mind, and felt ready for him.

“You may have the wedding ring, Josh. I think you should get enough from the refund to present your juvenile playmate with a nice little trinket. However, the engagement ring remains mine. I’ll consider it partial payment for all the money I invested helping
you
through med school over the last two years. You proved quite an expensive roommate.”

Josh peered sideways at me, obviously shocked, having never heard me utter anything that assertive before.

He cleared his throat and whispered huskily, “It’s just customary to return the ring, Mandy.”

“I paid for half of it; I want half the cost back,” I croaked. It was the moment of truth. Would I stand up or wimp out like I usually did in the face of confrontation?

I’d already canceled our joint credit cards and removed my belongings earlier that week from the small contemporary flat we’d shared. Josh actually had the gall to appear hurt. My cheeks suddenly burned at the memory of returning home early from an evening shift to find Josh and Stacy engaged in energetic fellatio upon my Scotchgarded lounge suite.

“Well, Mandy, if you feel that way.”

“I do. I’ve applied for a transfer to St. Anthony’s. We won’t ever have to see each other again.”

“Perhaps if you’d… ”

“Perhaps if I’d what?” I whispered, barely able to look at him.

“Been a little more assertive like this from the beginning. I kept hoping you’d break away from your mother and cousin and become your own person. But Eva, and even Ken for that matter, was everywhere. In our kitchen, in our jobs, in our bed, for crying out loud. I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t want to hurt you, but I needed something different… something else.”

“Well, you’ve got it now. A very
young
something else.”

“She’s young, but believe it or not, Stacy’s more confident and independent than you. I have a word of advice for you—get away from your family, Mandy. Find out who
you
are. Because if you don’t, you won’t have anything to offer someone else.”

I felt so humiliated, I couldn’t respond.

Ms. Raymond returned with our credit card refund and quietly handed it over. She had apparently learned, after many years in the travel business, to be the height of discretion. The reading glasses perched above her nose magnified her already highly perceptive eyes, and I hated the fact that she’d been witness to Josh’s speech. Could it only have been three months ago that two young lovers had fidgeted happily before her as they’d planned their dream honeymoon?

“Goodbye,” I managed to choke out.

Josh flashed me what could be interpreted as an apologetic glance before hurrying out of the agency, the small refund slip waving in his fingers. I heard his Porsche rev and turned to watch him veer out of his lane with a screech and terrific jerk of the wheel. Ms. Raymond appeared strained and extremely uncomfortable.

“Free at last,” I said, trying to smile. The middle-aged woman didn’t smile back.

“Is there… is there anything else I can do for you, Ms. Phillips?”

“No, thank you.” I turned to leave, the jackhammer still pounding the broken pavement. A rack full of colorful brochures hung near the exit, and my tired eyes gravitated toward them.

Ms. Raymond eyed me pointedly. “It’s really a shame you
can’t
go. Africa is one of the few destinations left where real adventure still beckons. I visited Tanzania and Zanzibar just two summers ago. Both proved to be truly fascinating places and
completely
different than the US. The pace is altogether slower, the skies bluer and the people, though unfamiliar, wonderfully intriguing. Of course, I could whip you up a safe little trip to Scandinavia or something.”

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