Frustrated in her efforts to visit a giant panda at the local zoo, Ruby will not give up.
| XTimbers Contest: Ruby Goes Out
deadline Sept. 20, 2021
about 2400 words
"Oh, wow! Oh, mom, wow, mom, look at this!" Ruby waved the newspaper in front of her mother's face. "The giant panda Tai Shan is coming to Calgary zoo on loan from the National Zoo in Washington DC! He will arrive on June 20! It's like a twenty minute drive from here in Airdrie. Oh, mom, can we go, can we, can we, please?"
"Mmmph," her mother muttered into her coffee cup, and pushed the newspaper aside. She was engrossed in a report from work.
"Oh, Mom!" Ruby put the newspaper down and returned to her breakfast cereal. "We didn't get to see Er Shun and Da Mao when they came from Toronto, and we didn't get to see the panda cubs Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue when they were born. And then the darn pandemic came and they all had to go home to China and we never saw them!"
Ruby was into pandas. She had panda stuffies and a panda bedspread and panda earrings and a panda broach and a panda coloring book and a panda ball cap and several panda tee-shirts. She slept in a panda nightshirt with a panda pillow. She had cuddled a huge stuffed panda and cried when the pandas cubs had gone back in January 2020 and again when the adults left Calgary in November. She figured not being allowed to go to the zoo to see pandas amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and had considered reporting her mom to child welfare.
But that was last year, when she was a child. Now, she was thirteen, a teenager, and far more mature.
She saw her mom put down her coffee, and immediately entered wheedle mode. "Why can't we go see them, Mom, please, please, please?"
"One: I'm too busy and won't be done this project until mid-September. Two, it's far too expensive; we simply can't afford it. Three, you're a beautiful girl and why can't you be interested in something normal like makeup and clothes and boys?"
"Sure, mom. One, you're always busy. I'm big enough to go by myself. Two, the zoo is only $25 for a kid day pass and I've got the money saved up. Three, boys are yuck, unless you want me to be like Charlene Kisman and get pregnant at 14."
"Oh, God, no, forget I ever said that. Boys are poison. My being busy puts meat on the table and a roof over your head and jeans on your butt and don't you forget it. And you're NOT big enough to go by yourself."
"Who was it flew from London to Calgary when she was 11, huh, mom? You remember who that was, mom? Who was that, huh? Who was that?"
"That was different. My parents saw me through boarding. The airline staff looked after me on the plane. Aunt Marian picked me up at the airport. It is not at all the same thing. Besides, you can't fly from Airdrie to Calgary."
"But I can bus! There's a bus from Airdrie right to the Calgary Zoo, only $30 for a return ticket. Plus $25 for the zoo is $55. And I have $120 saved up and you said because I worked for it I could spend it however I liked."
"No way, girl. You aren't taking a bus by yourself. Stranger danger, remember?"
"I remember that most molesters are family or friends. You can't con me with that one. You could see me onto the bus just like Gramma and Gramps saw you onto the plane, am I right? And have the driver keep an eye on me. And maybe get a zoo staff lady to help me at the zoo, Well, am I right?"
"No. And strangers do attack pretty little teenagers that are on their own. Now that's enough. Finish your breakfast and get yourself off to school. I still have to review this report for my morning meeting. Scoot."
I am old enough to get myself off to school. Why am I not old enough to get on a bus and go to the zoo? I'll bet there is more than one way to go see a panda! I have over two months to plan.
She left the topic to cool for three days before trying again. "Say, mom," she said casually, "About the panda visit. Do you think maybe Dad would take me?"
Her mom looked at her. "Ruby, your dad has forgotten your last three birthdays. He's missed five out of the last six scheduled visits. He hasn't sent you a present at Christmas since he left. You're a smart girl. Answer your own question. What are the chances of him taking you to the zoo?"
"Yeah, I guess," Ruby sighed. She hated it when her mom was right.
Her next strategy was to canvas all her friends at school, and all her casual acquaintances too. Anybody going to see Tai Shan at the Calgary Zoo? The usual result was "Tai Who?" along with "Zoos are for little kids" or "We are spending the summer at our condo in Mexico" or the south of France or wherever. No help there. Strike three, but no way she was out.
Her final ploy was to "borrow" her mom's address book one evening when her mom was deep in paperwork. She copied a bunch of names and numbers of her relatives and her mom's friends and phoned them all. First she extracted a promise not to tell her mother, then she asked for a ride to the zoo to see the panda. All she got out of it was a sore ear from having to report on how she was doing, how school was going, how her mom was doing. And yes, her mother really was working too hard but please don't say anything to her and thanks for your time.... But not a single person was willing to take a niece/cousin/friend's daughter to the zoo. Her mom actually noticed all the phone calling and accused her of having a boyfriend, and they fought about that. Ruby was almost ready to give up.
However, "God helps them who help themselves," was one of her mom's fave sayings. If she couldn't get help from anyone else, she would have to help herself.
She did not mention the panda visit to her mom again, not even after the newspaper announced that the panda and her team had arrived and that after quarantine and habitat updates, Tai Shan would be on display by July 5. While she waited for school to end, she continued to plan and to research the details.
Monday, July 5, dawned bright and clear, perfect to put her plan in gear. She'd been sneaky, she had. She'd bought a zoo pass for today, ordered it by mail, and hidden it away with the bus schedule. She'd set aside money for a zoo lunch. She'd plotted the details and timing and rehearsed everything. Oh, she'd probably be in deep doo-doo afterwards, but it would be worth it.
The first blow to the plan came at breakfast, when her mom announced that she would be working from home all morning, preparing for a business lunch and meeting in the afternoon. "But I should be home on time tonight. Please take a casserole out of the freezer and heat it for supper. "
Well, drat. Ruby had planned to take the 10:00 bus and spend the whole day at the zoo. Now, she'd have only the afternoon. She sulked and read and played on her tablet until her mother left, then made a hasty lunch and cleared up. She wrote a note for her mom saying where she was going, and biked to the bus depot. She was 15 minutes early for the 1:30 departure. She carefully locked her bike to a rack and boarded for the 30 minute trip. Her revised plan was to enter the zoo, run to the panda enclosure, spend an hour there, see some more of the zoo, run to catch the 5:00 bus back to Airdrie, and bike home. If all went on schedule, she'd be home before her mom. Piece of cake.
But there is always sand in the gears. The bus broke down on the side of the highway halfway to Calgary, and the passengers had to wait in the ditch because the AC on the bus had failed. Finally, another bus came, they all climbed in, and carried on. But they were an hour late and would arrive at the zoo at 3:00. Her bus back to Airdrie left at 5:00. If she was late home and got caught, she'd be grounded for life. Would she be able to see the panda exhibit in only two hours? She pounded her seat in frustration until the bus pulled into the zoo parking lot.
She turned in her zoo pass, picked up a map of the zoo, checked the map, checked her watch--3:10, so far, so good--and headed for the panda exhibit. Along the way, she noticed a guy following her around. He seemed to be particularly interested in her. He was a nice-looking blond guy, but he was old, like maybe 30, like her mom's age. He made her feel uncomfortable, so when he stepped up beside her and said hello, she ducked into a side path and ran around an exhibit to avoid him. Next thing she knew, she was lost in the maze of paths and exhibits and going the wrong way from the Panda Pavilion.
When she finally found it, there was a sign reading "Exhibit closed for veterinary examination." Ruby shrieked quietly to herself. It was 3:40. She had just over an hour to figure a way to see the panda, then exit the zoo and catch her bus.
Looking carefully at the exhibit, she spotted a door that said "Zoo staff only." She had already engaged on a criminal enterprise (kidnapping herself?) and figured she couldn't be grounded for longer than life. She tried the handle, opened the door, and peered into a small anteroom filled with gear and clothing. "Hello?" she called.
"Hello yourself," said a voice from further into the room. "I'm in here." Taking this as an invitation, Ruby crossed the anteroom and went to the far door. There was a desk in one corner, across from a small white workbench that had white cupboards above and below. An Asian woman in a white coat stood at at the bench, examining a rack of test tubes. She looked over her shoulder and saw Ruby. "Hi, there. I don't think you're supposed to be in here."
"Please, can you tell me when the Panda Pavilion will re-open, 'cause I came on the bus from Airdrie just to see Tai Shan and I absolutely adore pandas and I've studied all about them but I'm going to be grounded for life and I have to leave at five and I'll just die if I don't get to see the panda!" She paused for breath.
"Well, I'd hate to have your corpse cluttering up my office. As it happens, I was just checking Tai Shan's bloodwork, and then I'll be giving her some diet supplements. If you stay out of the way and promise not to sue the zoo for anything, you can watch. I'm Dr. Leung, with the care team. And you are?"
"Hello, Doctor. I'm Ruby Cavendish from Airdrie. It's a small town a little ways north of Calgary."
"Indeed? Well, Ruby, come with me. Tai Shan is in an enclosure. She's friendly enough, but will be aggressive if startled or annoyed, so please stay back."
At her first sight of the giant panda in its cage, Ruby couldn't help herself--she squealed with delight. At a glare from Dr. Leung, she gulped it back. The vet gave a "stay" signal that glued Ruby to the spot. She watched with delight as Dr. Leung fed the panda some colored cubes. "I thought pandas only ate bamboo," she said.
"These are specially formulated vitamin-infused biscuits. And in the wild, pandas will occasionally eat meat, fish, or eggs if they can get them without too much effort."
"I had read that, actually," said Ruby. "They are technically carnivores but have adapted to a diet almost entirely of bamboo. But is it true that...." And with that, while Dr. Leung fed Tai Shan vitamins, made notes, and checked papers, the two engaged in a spirited discussion of pandas, habitat, evolution, adaptation, extinction, and other topics. For Ruby, face to face with a giant panda and a knowledgeable scientist, it was a wonderful time.
The session ended with the thrill of Ruby's life when the veterinarian handed her a shaft of bamboo with lots of leaves. "Here, go feed this to Tai Shan". Ruby was speechless with delight.
Her glow even survived a glance at the wall clock: 4:40. "Oh, wow, thanks, Dr. Leung. I've gotta run to catch my bus home. Thanks ever so much, I'll remember this for the rest of my grounded life!" The veterinarian's laughing good-bye followed her out the door.
She almost ran into the tall, blonde creep who had followed her earlier. "Well, hello, little sweetie," he smiled. "Fancy running into you again." She screamed, kicked him in the shin, and sprinted away.
She lost him, but also got lost again herself. An announcement came from speakers all over the zoo. "Folks, the zoo is closing. Kindly make your way to the main gate. The zoo closes in ten minutes. Thank you for visiting the Calgary Zoo. We close in ten minutes...." Grimacing in frustration, Ruby turned her map around and around, trying to match it with something in the vicinity. By the time she finally found the gate, it was being locked.
"Wait! Wait! Lemme out!" Ruby yelled. The attendant turned in surprise, smiled, and opened the gate. "Bye now! You almost spent the night in the zoo with the animals!"
Ruby panted up to the bus stop and reached it just as the bus was pulling out. Running frantically alongside, she banged on the door. The driver finally slowed and let her in. "Oh, thank you, thank you so much!" She peeled off her backpack, found a seat and collapsed. All the way home, she reveled in joyful memories of Tai Shan and Dr. Leung.
Her bike was where she had left it. She beat her mom home. She tore up the note she'd left and flushed it down the toilet. She watched the evidence disappear and could hardly believe that she'd actually pulled it off.
Maybe she wouldn't be grounded for life after all.