1 FIELD STUDY
Whit waited for the toucan to turn its head before he stepped past the iron gate. He'd lived his whole life at the Meadowbrook Zoo, and until today he'd never disobeyed the three basic rules his parents set for him:
1. Don't feed the animals.
2. Schoolwork comes first.
3. Don't leave the zoo property for any reason.
He'd done everything that was expected of him. He hadn't fed the animals, even though Whit knew what treats they liked and had full access to the animal kitchens. He did all the reading and reports his home-school teacher, Ms. Connie, assigned, often ahead of schedule. And he had never even tried to leave the zoo, even though he was unattended much of the time and could have easily snuck away. And how he'd wanted to sneak away, especially in the past few months.
As he passed a family of four who were plotting how to hit all of the major animal shows in one visit, his legs resumed a more natural stride. He didn't dare look back at the gate. Because the gate would only remind him of the zoo rules, and if he thought about the rules, he might lose his courage. Better to let it all fade away: the rules, his parents, the gate, the animals.
Not that the exotic animals weren't interesting. They were fascinating. Some of them were even cute. But none of them made very good friends. And Whit was convinced that he was missing out on something important by spending his whole life stuck at the zoo. Or, someone important. Like the Bird Girl. If ever there was a reason to rewrite the rules, it was her.
As a line of dusty vehicles pulled into the zoo driveway, Whit turned toward the cluster of pine trees that marked the end of the parking lot and the beginning of the Picnic Pavilion. He could just see the Bird Girl claiming a spot at one of only two empty tables.
He took a deep breath. It seemed silly to him that his parents considered the Picnic Pavilion off-property. Technically it was still the zoo.
As he dodged sticky-fingered children on his way toward her, he pressed his lips together. That's the argument he would use if he got caught. Because off-property or not, Whit didn't care. He had to meet the Bird Girl. She had been coming to the zoo for six days in a row now. Six! He couldn't let another one pass without at least introducing himself.
He pushed his shoulders back. Walking up to someone and saying "Hi, my name is Whit" was only difficult because he so seldom had the opportunity to make new friends. Yes, he was surrounded by people every day, and his parents worked hard to provide "socialization" by inviting zoo employees to bring their families to the annual Spring Picnic and Holiday Gala and the Fall Apart Party that marked the end of the busy summer season. But that was only three times a year. And Whit was pretty sure real friendships were formed over daily rubbery hotdogs in the lunchroom or weekly sleepless sleepovers.
As he stood near the Bird Girl's table, he thought she was only the most interesting creature he had ever seen. She was different--that was clear from the very first day. For one thing, she always came alone. That all by itself was unusual. Most people came to the zoo with their families. And she always wore the same cut-off jeans and plain white T-shirt that draped almost to the edge of her shorts. Whit imagined it must belong to the missing father, or maybe a brother. Or maybe she just wasn't the kind of girl who cared about clothes.
He fumbled in his pocket for his digital recorder, glad that Ms. Connie had insisted he carry it with him for those "unexpected adventures" she got especially excited about. And the little machine really was handy. He pressed the green button and whispered, "June 8, 11:00 a.m." He remembered the morning's weather report on Channel 6. "Stage 2 drought. Subject tucks hair behind her ears and unzips backpack."
The recorder clicked as Whit took his finger off the button. A few minutes had passed and he was still successfully blending in with the guests. He glanced back toward the zoo gate, not exactly sure what he had expected would happen when he broke the rule. Alarm bells clanging? Zoo security rushing to collect him? He'd never imagined he could slip out so easily.
He drummed his fingers on the table. He didn't know what he was waiting for. The Bird Girl was right there, at the next table over. This was his chance. And instead of leaping across the table, he was mired in a strange sense of disappointment. He'd left the zoo, and no one had noticed. There should have been driving sheets of rain, booming thunder, and vibrant streaks of lightning. Heck, his disobedience should be enough to end the drought completely.
Instead, there wasn't a cloud in sight. Which put the count up to fifty-two days without rain. Not that the whole drought business mattered all that much to Whit. It was just part of his summer assignment.
"A field study," Ms. Connie said when she'd given him the instructions on the last day of May. "Pick any animal, any one you want. Think about the drought, how it affects the animal. Make a prediction. Then watch and record."
Whit grinned as the Bird Girl pulled a black notebook from the backpack. Ms. Connie may have been his teacher since he was four years old, but she'd still be impressed when she found out he'd picked a human instead of one of the 750 animals in the zoo collection. She was always encouraging him to get creative with his assignments. "Make it your own," she said. As if there was any other way.
Whit's fingers found the button on the recorder. He was all for making the project fun. "Subject places notebook in lap, pulls out pencil pouch." He made his voice sound whispery and firm, like one of those golf sportscasters on TV. "I predict we will become friends."
His prediction didn't have a thing to do with the drought, but it was a start. The Bird Girl didn't seem to be affected by the drought at all. Come to think of it, neither did most of the animals at Meadowbrook Zoo. Probably because the staff worked so hard to keep the animals fed and watered. Even with current water usage restrictions, the landscaping staff somehow managed to keep the zoo grounds lush and attractive.
Whit held his breath as the Bird Girl folded back her sketch pad, opened her red pouch, and chose a fresh pencil. When she touched the pencil to the tip of her tongue, same as she had done every morning since the start of summer vacation, Whit's heart began to thump like a rabbit's foot.
Every day was the same. The Bird Girl started back inside the zoo at the bench in front of Flamingo Island. She watched for a while, and then she began to draw. Once that pencil touched the paper, it was like she wasn't even aware of anything else in the world. Every move seemed to have such purpose.
He held his hand over his mouth so no one would see or hear him talking into his recorder. "Subject appears to be drawing pigeons."
Pigeons. That was new. But it made sense, because the Picnic Pavilion was where those pudgy birds liked to hang out.
Unlike the animals inside the fence, guests could feed the pigeons. And they did, all the time. Whit's mother, who was a veterinarian before she became the zoo director, said those pigeons were getting so fat that soon they wouldn't even be able to fly. Not that they needed to with the corners of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches being thrust at them so many times a day.
Whit gripped his digital recorder as he dared move toward her table. As he settled onto the bench across from her, the Bird Girl shifted in her seat. Her head was no longer bent over the sketch pad. Instead it was like a scene in a movie, as if the camera had cut away for a second, and now it was back with a close-up shot that filled the screen. The Bird Girl's dark eyes were staring straight at him.
Text copyright © 2012 by Irene Latham
Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Stephanie Graegin