A Novel Excerpt


Dwight Hilson

“The thing which in the waking world comes nearest to a dream is night in a big town, where nobody knows one, or the African night.”




July, 1968


Cole awoke as sunrise flared through the airplane’s window. Groggy, he squinted and looked past his brother Rick, sixteen, and older by three years, who was still passed out in the window seat. A shimmering mat of silver-blue clouds, broken in places by occasional clear patches offered brief, tantalizing glimpses of the still-shadowed landscape sliding by underneath. Africa, he thought, that’s Africa. The whole concept still seemed so unimaginable. But there could be little doubt they would land in Africa, and then soon head out on safari. A prospect that, while thrilling, was nonetheless filled with uncertainty.

“Honestly, Donald,” his mother said from across the aisle, just loud enough to be heard over the constant hum of engines. “I don’t think you’re going to find any stories you haven’t already read.”

Cole tilted his head toward his parents and slit open one eye. His father’s face was mostly buried in the pages of yesterday’s International Herald, and without looking at her, he responded blandly, “It’s just my habit, dear,” before snapping the paper to the next page.

“Yes, I know,” she said. “But we’re on vacation now . . . You’re not worried, are you?”

“No, of course not,” his father answered, and then lowered the newspaper and stared blankly at the seatback in front of him.

He looked worried, though, and Cole felt a shiver of apprehension.

The plane banked slightly, causing a shaft of sunshine to pan like a golden spotlight onto his mother’s face. She studied his father, her eyes wide, unblinking, and for a few moments they sparkled clear and emerald green. He could see, too, that her hair was already brushed, not a strand out of place. “I can’t imagine anything will happen while we’re away,” his mother added. “And besides, didn’t Chuck Reid say the merger could wait until after the summer?”

His father turned to her, hiding his expression. “Yes, I’m sure you’re right,” he said. “It’s just . . .”

“You think Shelly would . . .” She trailed off as the plane leveled and the beam of sunlight veered off her.

Cole’s heart thumped at her mention of Sheldon Rodgers, the memory of what he’d overheard between his mother and Mr. Rodgers during his parents’ early spring dinner party still too vivid and unsettling. His father didn’t respond and lifted the newspaper again as a stewardess began wheeling a cart down the aisle.

“Well, anyway,” his mother said matter-of-factly. “This safari was Shelly’s idea.”

“No,” his father replied, keeping his head hidden within the paper. “It was Betty’s.”

She went silent for a few moments, and Cole imagined her eyes boring through the paper. “How will you manage without your precious newspapers?” she asked.

His father chuckled and flipped another page. “Oh, didn’t I tell you? Mr. Connors is arranging to airlift the Herald to each of our camps.”

Even over the hum of airplane engines, Cole heard his mother sigh. “Then I guess I’ll need to shoot him before he has a chance,” she said.

“Just kidding, dear,” he said, and folded the newspaper and stuffed it into the seatback.

The stewardess progressed down the aisle, methodically placing breakfast trays before passengers now waking, stretching, and starting to murmur.

His father reached down and rustled within his briefcase. “Guess this would be a good time to take my shot,” he said, hunting for his insulin bottles and a syringe.

The breakfast cart rolled one row closer, and his father unlatched his seat belt. Cole shifted in the seat, turning his face away from his parents.

“Do you want me to help?” his mother asked.

Yeah, right, Cole thought. He doubted she even knew the routine.

“No,” his father chuckled, and pushed himself out of the seat. “I’ll manage.” A slight bump of turbulence jostled the plane and he grabbed his seatback.

“Be careful,” his mother said, but his father had already proceeded unsteadily down the aisle.

Cole resolved to stay seated, to not follow him. The bathroom was cramped, probably too small for both of them, but how would his father stay still enough to pee on the test tape, let alone fill his syringe with the insulin bottles jostling on the sink? And what if the plane hit a bump right when he tried to stab the needle into his leg?

Shit, calm yourself, he thought, but the reality was he still couldn’t believe they were going to Africa. The whole idea of the trip still seemed so extraordinary, so bizarre, the result of a chain of events during his parents’ spring dinner party that, even now, more than three months later, remained a disorienting jumble of overheard conversations and suspicions, complicated, of course, by his brother and his girlfriend’s zany behavior—and then the shock of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. It still seemed absurd that a summer vacation to Africa could emerge from such a messy night, and yet it had. He remembered the Rodgers’ astounding, unexpected offer, and then, the sudden rush of excitement when, later that evening while listening in on his parents, he heard them decide to accept.

Cole expected his parents would announce the plan the next day, but they didn’t, and not the next or for weeks thereafter. He started to think he might have imagined it all along, and worse still, it seemed that the apartment—its entire space and layout, even the air—seemed out of sorts, filled with a vague discontent. His parents, too, had lost some degree of connection and spoke to each other in choppy, halting sentences that sounded like they considered every word before saying it. He tried to chalk it all up to his father’s erratic, frightening disease, or his brother’s regularly demented behavior, or whatever was really going on at Hanlon Stern—maybe even the news, which seemed to get more horrible every day—but nothing really soothed his unsettled feelings.

Then, in late May, his father returned from work and brusquely summoned Cole and Rick to the den.

At first, he suspected nothing more than to witness a scolding for yet another of his brother’s escapades, but his father’s tone was impassive enough to spark doubt. “Don’t worry,” Rick said, as they headed up the hallway. “I’ve got you covered this time.” But Cole knew full well that if—this time—they were both in trouble, his brother’s words were about as valuable as a lie.

They found their father in his armchair, their mother standing arms crossed and expressionless at his side, and on the floor rested an odd, shallow, metal-covered case nearly five feet long—the same case now stored in the cargo hold somewhere below them on the flight to Nairobi. “This is a gift from your grandfather, for our trip,” their father deadpanned and then snapped open the case’s spring-loaded latches. He lifted the top, and inside, nestled firmly within gray foam, lay four long guns with polished barrels, and one with intricate bird designs etched in the oily black gunmetal above its trigger guard.

“Holy shit,” Rick shouted and lunged for a touch.

“Careful . . . ” Their father batted away his hand. “Always check that it’s empty.” He lifted one of the guns, pulled back the breach, and handed it over.

“Where’s the scope?” Rick asked, peering down the barrel.

“No scope, they’re shotguns, not rifles . . . for shooting birds.”

“And where are we going to do that?”

Their mother stepped forward and smiled. “Your grandpa agrees,” she said, “we should get away from Fifth Avenue, from New York, maybe go overseas—”

“To shoot things?” Rick joked.

“To Africa,” she said matter-of-factly, as if the vacation was less complicated than a drive to the Catskills.

At the time, the trip couldn’t come soon enough for Cole. The daily newspapers were filled with stories of Vietnam, and bitter politics, and his parents remained detached and seemingly oblivious to the prospect that they would soon journey to Africa. His father spent longer hours at the office and on numerous days had even completed his morning routine before he had a chance to help. When Robert Kennedy was shot, he seemed obsessed with work and stayed late at the office even as Cole’s mother was disconsolate and stayed glued to the television as if trying to memorize every news report. One day he returned from school to find her watching a replay of the funeral procession, and without taking her eyes off the TV, she moaned, “We need to go away now.”

For his part, Rick was particularly psyched about the guns, the idea of shooting, and although Cole had never really tried to catch him in action, more than once he’d heard him pull the gun case out of the den stereo closet and unlock its latches. That obsession ended, though, with news that as soon as school was over Rick’s girlfriend Claudia’s parents planned to depart to spend the summer at some scorching sand-and-bikini spot in Rhode Island or Martha’s Vineyard, and he became noticeably subdued and sullen.

Gradually, though, preparations crowded out these concerns. They needed to visit foreign embassies to apply for visas; shop for khaki safari clothes, wide-brimmed hats, and desert boots at Abercrombie & Fitch on Madison at 45th Street (a store so immense its basement housed a shooting range); and then, of course, they needed to receive inoculations for typhoid, meningitis, and yellow fever, a series of shots that left Cole’s arm swollen like a melon and painfully limp for a week.

Still, something about the trip felt out of proportion, too ambitious, and although he wanted to be excited, to brag ceaselessly about his impending summer adventure, a faint, persistent unease urged him to remain quiet. He did, however, rummage through the Collegiate School library for anything to stoke his imagination about Africa. One book in particular, The Man-eaters of Tsavo, held particular fascination. A frightening, true tale about big cats with eating habits wildly less refined than the ones in Born Free, which, Mrs. Cook, the school librarian, let Cole sign out for the entire summer and now sat as an odd, yet reassuring link to home in the travel bag at his feet.

His father returned and re-buckled his seat belt just as the stewardess began to cheerily pass breakfast trays to passengers seated one row ahead.

Cole took that as his cue to sit up, stretch, and force a smile over at his parents. “Eggs, scone, and tea?” she asked, first his parents and then him. Rick remained mostly inanimate, but managed a groan before shifting away from the clatter.

Too quickly, he thought, the stewardess returned to collect trays, but then the hum of the engines eased off a touch and the cabin pitched slightly downward. His skin prickled with a sudden mix of fear and thrill; there could be no turning back now . . . right?

The pilot announced their descent and Cole leaned over Rick as the plane became enveloped within passing clouds. The wait seemed endless, but they finally broke below and a broad expanse of green and tan came into view.

“Look,” he said, unable to resist shaking his brother’s arm. “Africa.”

Rick’s eyes opened a slit and he turned his head to the window. “Great,” he said, closing his eyes again before adding, “Wake me when we crash.”


A chill breeze buffeted the metal steps wheeled against the airplane. Cole grabbed the handrail and tried to scan over toward the airport perimeter, but a fresh gust brought water to his eyes. Not that he expected to see anything, like an elephant or zebra or lion lounging off at the end of the runway, but he wanted to take it all in, his first glance, his first breath of Africa.

“Come on, man,” Rick said, and prodded him in the back. “Nothing wants to eat you . . . not yet,” he added, and landed another poke.

“Stop—” Cole tried to swipe his brother’s arm, but lost balance and spun wildly to snatch hold of the handrail with both hands. Other passengers, some smiling, backed up behind his brother and he felt his face flush with embarrassment. He turned and stomped down the remaining steps, rushing to catch up with his parents, who had picked up their pace and were angling away from the passenger line toward a lone, smiling man standing outside in the shadow of the terminal. Even at a distance and through the blustery wind Cole knew this had to be Terry Connors.

He’d only seen his picture in the pages of an article in Sports Afield, but the sliver-blonde hair was a dead giveaway, and just as in the article it rolled off his head like a wave, breaking against his forehead with each sudden blast of wind. But there was also his sharp, crescent smile, which revealed a flash of perfectly ordered white teeth that Cole remembered from the photo of him posing beside a dead Cape buffalo. He wore green shorts, leather sandals, and a light blue Norwegian wool sweater that appeared totally foreign to the image of a fearless white hunter.

“Welcome to Kenya, Fosters,” he said, stepping forward, his eyes steady on them, while ignoring the passing, curious glances of other passengers.

“Mister Connors, I presume?” Cole’s father said, and extended a hand.

His mother straightened and pulled her shoulders back.

“Please, you must call me Terry,” he said, with a British accent that seemed somehow different, informal. “And that goes for you lads as well.”

He gave them each an exaggerated handshake, a coiled bracelet of dark brown elephant hairs jostling on his wrist. Cole noticed Rick studying this commanding, confident man. Terry wasn’t much taller than their father, however his chest was broader, he had the legs of a wrestler, and his hands seemed strong enough to strangle a leopard. In turn, he looked directly in the eye of his parents, and Rick, a deliberate, intense glance that when directed at him, Cole sensed was able to size him up in an instant.

Terry abruptly turned back to his mother. “Mrs. Foster?” he said, his voice lowered and sounding serious. “Our friend Sheldon led me to believe you resembled Audrey Hepburn.” Smiling, he reached out for her hand. “But now I see he must’ve meant Liz Taylor.”

She surrendered her hand for a soft kiss, and then turned beet red.

“He’s . . . that Shelly,” she stammered. “I mean, he’s Donald’s partner . . . and . . . well, please call me Carol.”

“Carol it is,” he replied, the smile never leaving his face. “So, what do you say lads . . .you ready to wrestle a couple rhinos?”

Cole was dumbstruck. “Um . . . will we see lions?”

“Every day, my boy, they’re thick as thieves . . . might be one right there in the bush.” Terry pointed past the giant airplane toward the perimeter fence. Cole walked backward for a couple steps, glancing off in the distance, before turning to catch up.