(If you’d like to listen to this story, you can find the audio narration at the podcast 600 Second Saga, narrated by Mariah Avix)
I yanked on the old Honda Odyssey’s sticky sliding door and nearly hit the pavement when my four year old launched himself out of the car.
He skidded to a stop and I blinked in surprise. Apparently he’d actually heard my voice instead of the gibberish his kid filter usually turned it into. He turned around, staring at the asphalt rather than at me.
“Do you want to see the surprise, or not?”
“Then tell me what the one rule is.”
He looked up at me with eyes so droopy he looked like a Precious Moments figurine. My heart squeezed, but I stood my ground.
“Stay with Mommy.”
“That’s right. Now, do you think you can follow that rule?”
He nodded, transforming from a Precious Moments into a bobblehead.
“All right then. Let me get your sister out of the car and we’ll be ready to go see the surprise.”
After ten frustrating minutes wrestling with the stroller, we were ready to go to the zoo. Grant danced with one hand on the stroller while Eloise bounced and squealed. While we inched our way through the line, I shook out my watch and swiped to the right app. We stepped up to the gate and I held out my wrist to the admittance scanner. The little box squawked its approval and the bars slid away, allowing us through. As I shoved the stroller into the park, a flashback of my pudgy six year old hand holding out a paper ticket to the gate attendant popped into my head. A smile tugged at my lips.
“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!”
The memory was instantly replaced by the huge crush of people Grant was trying to yank us into.
“Okay, okay. Stop pulling on the stroller. Do you want to see some animals first or should we go straight to the surprise?”
“Surprise, surprise, surprise!”
I rolled my eyes. Asking this kid to wait was like giving him a death sentence.
“All right, all right. Let’s go.” I bent to retrieve the tiny stuffed unicorn Eloise had thrown over the side, then pointed the stroller toward the aviaries.
Our path took us past the mountain goats, arctic foxes, the zoo’s lone pegasus, and finally a bunch of exotic birds I never remembered the names of. Eloise bounced in her seat and clapped every time she spotted a new animal, but we didn’t stop at any of them. I did promise her we’d come back after the surprise, though.
As we approached the aviary, more people crowded the path until we had to stop. Grant danced with impatience as we inched closer, but thankfully didn’t pick up on any of the excited chatter around us.
After enduring the test of patience Grant had hoped to avoid, we reached the stairs leading to one of the aviary’s viewing platforms. We both groaned. The entrance was as packed as the walkway outside.
“Where’s the surprise, Mommy? Are we almost there?”
“Yes, we’re almost there. I promise, just a little longer.”
A tinny voice drifted toward us from the platform, repeating all the info everyone had been discussing while we’d waited. I rolled my eyes as Grant failed to hear the recording repeat the creature’s name several times. When we reached the top of the stairs, bypassing the maglev ramp for regular strollers, I was relieved to see the platform was not nearly as crowded as I’d expected. As we neared the windows, we began to see more trees and bits of cliff through the spaces between people. I grinned in anticipation of Grant’s reaction.
“Is the surprise in there? Is it? Is it?”
“Yep. They’re in there somewhere.”
Grant pushed forward, stretching his arm, still gripping the stroller, as far as it would go. We weaved our way through until, finally, we were right in front of the window. I panned my gaze back and forth over the whole forested enclosure, trying to spot them while Grant tugged on my sleeve asking where they were. It took a couple passes, but I spotted them by a pond on our right.
“There, Grant!” I pointed and he squashed his nose against the glass.
“See them? By the pond.”
“Yeah,” he said, looking in the opposite direction.
“No. Grant, over there. Look where I’m pointing.”
He glanced back at my outstretched arm, then followed it to the pond.
“Oh.” He frowned. “What are they?”
My arm drooped. “What do you think they are?”
“Um, Iguanas? Lizards?”
“I don’t know, Mommy. You tell me.”
I sighed. “They’re dragons, Grant. Like in your favorite bedtime story, remember?”
He frowned again. I watched him for a moment, trying to figure out his response. I’d thought he’d be more excited. Then I looked back at the dragons. Perhaps if I could see them the way he did, I’d understand.
There were three of them, all about the size of a Labrador. They were all pale brown, almost tan, with dark brown stripes across their backs. I could see how their size and coloring might be underwhelming. Then one of them opened its wings and several people around us ooh’d and aah’d. While most of it was colored for camouflage, its wing membranes were a collage of varying shades of red. Then another dragon growled before spitting fire across the water at its third sibling. I glanced hopefully back down at Grant, but he’d backed away from the window and was staring at something on the other side of the aviary.
It was my turn to frown. They were dragons, for crying out loud! Didn’t every kid dream of flying one? I know I did when I was Grant’s age. And that was back when everyone still thought they were mythical.
“Let’s get a little closer.”
He nodded absently and I nudged the stroller toward the right side of the window. At least Eloise was enjoying herself. But she bounced and clapped every time the trees moved, so it was a bit of a hollow victory.
We squeezed right up to the glass and discovered that the fire-spitting dragon’s wings were covered in swirls of bright green. I nearly sighed at their beauty. Grant started playing with another kid his age, oblivious to the wonder of mythical beasts come to life. Then I did sigh.
“All right, Grant. What do you want to see now?”
He continued running around with his new buddy. My voice had turned into gibberish again.
“Grant! We’re leaving.”
That he heard. He squealed in alarm and rushed after me, throwing a quick goodbye over his shoulder. As we stepped back into the sunlight I asked Grant where he wanted to go next.
“Tigers, tigers, tigers!”
My brows lifted at his sudden resurgence of enthusiasm. I shrugged. It would be selfish to let my disappointment about the dragons affect the rest of the trip. I pulled up the map on my watch and, after swiping around for the right path, pushed the stroller in the right direction.
We took our time getting there, stopping to let Eloise shake her little hands at the other animals, as I’d promised. I knew we’d reached the tigers when Grant shouted.
“Tigers, tigers, tigers!”
I stood and watched him as he pressed his face to the gate bars. The tiger didn’t seem particularly amazing. Orange, black stripes, claws and teeth. Nothing I hadn’t seen a hundred times.
Yet somehow, to my little boy this simple animal elicited all the wonder the dragons failed to conjure with their best performance. Somehow, what appeared ordinary to me was, to him, extraordinary.