Karen had fallen behind, and neither she nor any of the other moms on the trip for that matter, seemed overly concerned. She pushed William along and together they took their own path through the zoo instead of the one designed by the daycare staff. It was early on a Tuesday; Karen surmised that they had arrived early enough to have beat the grade school crowds which suited her just fine. “Look, William — tigers!” He cooed as she pointed down into the enclosure. They followed signs toward the lions and went inside the building lined with floor-to-ceiling cages; dozing felines reclined and from beneath shaded eyes watched them pass. As she wheeled her son out the other side, Karen was able to see that the empty cages they had passed were not empty at all; rather, their inhabitants were outside, enjoying the unusually warm spring sun. She regarded the large male cub in the cage next to the exit. “The sun reminds you of home, huh?” she asked.
“Ah-roo,” the cub squinted at her and replied.
Karen smiled. “Do you want to go home?”
The cub closed his eyes all the way and lifted his snout to the sky. “Ah-roo.”
William clapped his hands and laughed his contribution to the previously two-way conversation between his mom and the cub.
“Ah-roo,” the cub laughed back.
The three continued the conversation until suddenly the cub went silent. “So Karen, you talkin’ with the animals now?” Jodie said as the rest of the preschool group came up from the opposite direction. Jodie cut Karen off before she could say a word. “Don’t even deny it. Me and little Kevin here been watchin’ you. Do it again so everybody can see.”
Karen was embarrassed. They all already thought she was odd. Instead of sitting William in front of the television to watch popular children’s cartoons, Karen read to him from every book in her bookshelf. When they took the children for outings to the park, Karen tried teaching him bocce while the other kids watched their moms send text messages most of the afternoon. She looked at the lion cub, who seemed to have lost his desire to speak. Jodie laughed. Miriam, one of the few moms who brought her son over for play dates with William, patted Karen on the shoulder. “Don’t pay no mind to her, honey. She’s just jealous.” It was time to get back to the van. “C’mon, it’s time to get the little ones back for nap time.”
As everyone pushed their strollers toward the gate, Karen turned and found the cub standing close to the bars of the enclosure. He looked so alone. “Good-bye, little one,” she said with a catch in her throat.
“Ah-roo,” he replied forlornly as he watched her move away.