The desert continued to stretch beyond the horizon. Sun-bleached sandstone crumbling under the oppressive heat. But that didn’t affect the young man. With each step his confidence grew. From time to time he’d spot a unique rock formation and excitedly pull his book out of the backpack, flip a few pages and exclaim with joy when he found the image he was looking for. Then he’d bring out his map and mark his find. And then on he’d forge.
A little while later he found another formation. Again he brought out his book and map.
He punched the air excitedly. “Made it farther than any of them! I’ll find the Lost City…and its gold. I’ll be rich and famous and then everyone back home will see.”
Off he took at full speed. After a few minutes he’d winded himself and stopped, catching his breath. He took a water bottle from his backpack and drank heartily. When he had his fill he returned the bottle to his backpack and went on.
“What shall I do with all the money?”
A smile creeped across his face. “I’ll hire my family as servants in my mansion. They can sleep in the moldy, dark basement. Ha! And I’ll grind them down with the worst tasks ever and not listen to a word they say. Not one complaint or plea. See how they like it.” At that he laughed, not humorously, but spitefully.
The sun had made its trek across the sky more than halfway toward the western horizon. Shadows began leaking from the rocks. Then, in the distance the young man heard a sound that turned him whiter than the bleached wood he’d occasionally seen in the desert.
“No. It can’t be. There are none here.”
He stood frozen for a second, then shook it off. “Man, I really do have an overactive imagination.”
On he journeyed. A few minutes later, his eyes grew wide with epiphany and he laughed harshly. “The conference! The guys at work let me speak at the conference because they wanted me to get mocked off stage!”
He stewed for a little while. Then something else began brewing in his thoughts. “Let’s see how they like sabotage. I am their errand boy. I know all their secrets. How about I run up business charges in their name…I can change their proposals en route to the CEOs.”
Suddenly, he heard the sound again, this time close by. Instead of freezing, he bolted. Only, not a hundred yards away in front of him appeared the very source of the sound.
“Lions?! Here?! Really?!”
The lion roared and charged toward the young man. With all that he could muster, the young man scaled the nearest hill of craggy outcroppings. At the top he looked back and saw the lion almost to the hill. He turned away and ran.
Into the night he ran, stopping only to catch his breath. Time would go by without him seeing or hearing the lion. Just when he had hop it was gone, the lion would make its presence known and on the young man ran.
The sun rose over the horizon, breaking across the desert hills. Light began chasing shadows from the desolate world. Still the young man ran. He hadn’t heard or seen the lion for a while again, and he dared to hope again. Slowing to a jog, he passed between two hills. The sun was already warm and the shadows up ahead would be invitingly cool. Just as he jogged to the darkened patch of ground, too late he realized it was not shadow, and he tumbled head-first into the hole. He bounced and somersaulted until he hit bottom, some 20 feet below.
The hole was steep, like a well but with no water. His chest heaved as he laid on his back, his legs crumpled against the walls. As he stared up at the sky, the world spinning, the lion’s face appeared over the top edge. The lion grunted and the young man laughed.
“At least down here you can’t get me!”
With another grunt, the lion left. First, the young man checked himself for broken bones. Finding none, he slowly stood up, leaning against the wall as his head spun. Once he stabilized, the young man reached up, dug his fingers into the dirt, and tried to pull himself up. But the dirt crumbled and he slid back down. Again he tried, and again, and again. He tried putting each foot against a wall and hoisting himself up. But the dirt crumbled. So many ways he tried to get out of the hole, but no matter what, they always failed. The dirt crumbled and he fell. Finally, he collapsed and wailed.
“I’ve come this far only to die in a hole. This is so unfair!”
Hours went by and the young man continued to lament. The sun shone directly overhead and the hole was completely illuminated. And it heated quickly. Within minutes the young man had sweat through his clothes.
Above, the lion appeared again at the edge. The young man picked up a pebble and chucked it at the lion. He missed. The lion didn’t even flinch. In fact, it seemed to be smiling.
“Oh, come on!” the young man hollered. “Now you’re laughing at me, too?”
The lion continued staring at the young man. Its expression changed slightly. More serious now.
Incredulously, the young man demanded, “Are you judging me?”
A rumbling came from the lion’s throat.
“I take that as a ‘yes.'” And the young man thumped his fist against the wall in exasperation.
Minutes went by, the heat becoming deadly. The young man struggled to breathe. He looked up at the lion.
“Seriously? I have a couple selfish thoughts and I end up roasting to death. After everything everyone else has done to me? Where’s the justice in that?”
The lion flopped itself onto the ground and rested its head on its paws. Its eyes gleamed with interest.
“Okay, maybe I was a little more selfish than just those couple of thoughts.”
The lion cocked its head.
“You don’t believe me? Of course you don’t. No one does. No one listens to me. I wanted to show them up. I wanted to be better than everyone. Larger than life.They hurt me. I wanted them to feel the pain they made me feel.”
He kicked the wall, then howled in pain, clutching his foot. He glared up at the lion. It shook its head slowly. The young man threw up his hands. “What?”
He locked eyes with the lion for a few moments, than dropped his arms, resigned.
“I just wanted to feel like I mattered, that I was special.”
The young man banged his head against the dirt wall. “This is my punishment, I gather. I tried to repay evil with evil…I brought this on myself…But if I did, I should be able to get myself out. Only, I can’t. I can’t save myself.”
As the young man slumped against the dirt wall again, he noticed grooves and dents in the dirt that looked like claw marks and paw prints. Slowly, he turned toward the lion in bewilderment.
“You made this hole?”
The lion smirked and nodded.
“Then you’ve got me no matter what,” said the young man, resigned.
With that, the lion jumped up and disappeared.
The young man sighed, “Now even you’ve deserted me.” And he closed his eyes.
Minutes later he heard a noise within the earth, coming closer.It stopped just before the wall. Then he heard scratching noises, and the dirt began to crumble away.