“In Mississippi?” My voice is incredulous.
“Yep. Some elk, buffalo, camels, llamas. Can Betty come? It is my birthday and you’re dating my granddaughter—the best one.”
“Hey!” Romy says. “Right here!”
“You’re my favorite too,” Nancy says and pats her head.
I smile. “What’s dog hair when llamas are scratching my car?”
“Knew it. Keeper,” she says then sashays past me and out the door.
I make my way through the house, taking everything in. The furniture is faded but cared for, the counters spotless, the wooden floor shiny. I grab the ‘good’ cooler, a ragged Styrofoam container that looks like it’s more duct tape than foam. Inside are bottles of Bud Light and ice. “Nancy, I need to introduce you to Fat Tire,” I muse on a laugh.
“She bought that cooler twenty years ago and treats it like a baby. Something about a man, a concert, and an enlightening afternoon.” A chuckle comes from Serena as she comes down the stairs.
My chest unloosens as I take her in, some of that worry evaporating.
She’s wearing a pair of orange harem pants and a cropped top. Her hair is down, the copper shining, and I resist the urge to kiss her senseless.
“Heard we’re going to see some animals today,” I say.
“Surprise. Like it?”
I huff out a laugh. “I deserve that.”
“You really don’t mind driving? We can take my car, but I don’t trust it on long trips. Nana’s needs new tires, so—”
“I don’t mind,” I say.
We walk out together as I carry the cooler and place it in the back, hoping it doesn’t disintegrate.
“Not back there, up here,” Nancy calls. “I need easy access.”
“Alright.” I put it in the middle of the back seat next to her, and she protectively puts a seat belt around it.
We drive for an hour and a half, passing wooded areas and rolling hills dotted with cattle and farmhouses. I didn’t even know this place existed, but now I notice the signs for the Best Safari Experience in Mississippi. The park entrance looms, and I drive under a wooden sign with two llamas on it, maneuvering my Escalade behind a van packed with little kids.
I pull into a barn, and a woman in overalls and a cowboy hat approaches us. “How many and how much feed?”
“Uh, four people, and we brought our own. Stockyard feed,” Serena says from the passenger seat next to me. She holds up an empty bag of animal food.
The lady squints at it. “Ah, that’s a good brand. You wouldn’t believe what kind of mess a bunch of bison can make after someone gives them a couple bushels of strawberries. That’s thirty-six dollars. Please stay on the marked path and in your vehicle at all times.”
My eyes flare. “People actually get out?”
The lady rubs the top of her hat. “Crazy people. Alright, then. Have fun. We’re not responsible for scratches or animal bodily fluids on your car. It was entirely your decision.”
I huff out a laugh. “Thanks.”
Nancy hoots as they all roll down their windows, distributing white buckets of feed to the girls. Betty barks, her paws on the door as she gets a whiff of other animals in the vicinity.
“Where’s my bucket?” I ask.
Nancy takes a sip of her beer. “You concentrate on not driving through a llama. Plus, you’re gonna be scared when you see the ostriches. It’s okay. We all have fears. I’m terrified of moths. I know, I know, they’re the midnight butterfly, but look at their faces really close—demon eyes.”
We pull past the first gate and a group of llamas surrounds my SUV, bumping into the sides and braying. One sticks its head in my window.
Nancy chortles and hands me a bucket. “Take this. He likes you.”
“Yeah, he wants to eat my finger,” I say as yellow teeth nip at my hand.
My llama deserts me when I run out of food and darts for Nancy.
Moving on, we pass deer and buffalo who flick their tails as they doze in the sun. Driving forward at a snail’s pace, we arrive at the camels.
“Nope.” I roll my window up when one looms. It’s got to be twenty feet tall.
Serena lets one eat out of her bucket. He sticks his head in all the way to the gearshift, eyeing me, and I inch away. “This dude has demon eyes, Nana,” I say. Funny, I didn’t mean to call her that.
“Moths, honey, moths. Tiny but brutal.”
It sniffs my neck, I shoo it away, and when it sticks its tongue out, I groan. “Somebody needs to hose these animals down.”
“If his jaws bulge up, duck,” Nana chirps. “Sometimes they puke.”
“What?” I call.
Romy makes a choked noise and I look back. Her phone is up and she’s videoing.
“Don’t you put that on Insta,” I protest, shoving her phone down.
She wipes her eyes, shoulders trembling with giggles. “Oh, Dillon, don’t be a baby. What if it goes viral? You’d be famous.”