Please. Teagan Wylltson’s fingers curled in American Sign Language as she spoke. Trade sweater for banana? She leaned over the fence around the chimp enclosure. Come on, Cindy, she coaxed. Be a good girl. Trade.
Cindy bared her fangs in a grimace, ignoring the ripe banana Teagan offered. She draped the pink cashmere over her shoulders and did the ape equivalent of a runway strut all the way to the bamboo along the back wall, turning to glare at Teagan before she disappeared into the greenery.
“Ms. Wylltson doesn’t appear to be getting anywhere, Dr. Max,” Ms. Hahn, the head of the youth docents, said.
“Tea can handle it.” Dr. Max wiped his balding dome with a handkerchief.
“You should ask Cindy to give it back, Max,” Ms. Hahn said. “The chimp listens to you.”
“She used to.” Dr. Max shook his head. “Lately she just throws things every time I come in sight.”
“How did she get your sweater, young lady?” Ms. Hahn’s eyes narrowed. “That could be dangerous for the animal!”
“I left it on the railing,” Teagan said. “Cindy used a stick to fish it into her enclosure.”
“And you didn’t notice that this was happening, Max?”
“Dr. Max wasn’t here.”
Ms. Hahn’s pencil-thin eyebrows rose. “The girl was here unsupervised?” She sniffed. “That is against regulations. Youth never work with the animals unsupervised!”
“Teagan’s not a youth-docent volunteer,” Dr. Max said. “She is an employee.”
“A sixteen-year-old employee.” Ms. Hahn’s voice was growing louder. “ Youth-worker rules still apply.”
“Teagan is very responsible, and she was never in the cage with Cindy,” Dr. Max said calmly. “Really, Darleen, you’re not helping here. Cindy is just like a child. She’ll pick up the tension in our voices if we argue.”
Teagan sneezed. She wished Ms. Hahn would find somewhere else to be. She wished she’d taken her Benadryl during her break. And she wished Cindy would just give the sweater back so she could head to the animal clinic.
The bamboo shook where Cindy had disappeared. Teagan held the banana to her nose and pretended to sniff.
“Smells good.” The words came out sounding like thmells dwood. Her nose was so plugged up she couldn’t smell the Primate Research House, much less the ripe banana she was peeling.
The bushes at the back of the enclosure shook harder.
“Cindy,” Dr. Max coaxed, “come out and talk to Teagan.”
Cindy came out of the bushes, the sweater wadded into a ball. She held it over her head like a trophy, then put it down and started signing madly.
“Bad girl, bad girl,” Teagan translated.
“Cindy’s a good girl,” Dr. Max said as he signed. “Give Tea’s sweater back. Say sorry.”
Teagan met Cindy’s icy glare. The chimp didn’t look one bit sorry. In fact, she looked just like . . . Teagan glanced at Ms. Hahn. It couldn’t be. Could it?
Bad boy, Teagan signed.
Cindy bared her fangs.
Ugly boy, Teagan signed, then gave Dr. Max a push.
“Hey,” Ms. Hahn said. “What do you think you are doing?”
Cindy screamed and threw the wadded-up sweater at Teagan, who caught it with one hand.
“What . . . how did you do that?” Ms. Hahn demanded.
“Cindy wasn’t saying that she was a bad girl.” Teagan shoved the sweater into her backpack. “She was telling Dr. Max that I was a bad girl.”
“Cindy’s got a crush on Dr. Max. She wants him to stay away from me.” Teagan didn’t mean to look directly at Ms. Hahn when she said it. It was just so obvious. “Common primate behavior.”
“Perceptive!” Dr. Max said. “Didn’t I tell you she was perceptive, Darleen? This girl has a future ahead of her as a vet, or an animal behaviorist. She’s going to get lots of scholarship offers out of her work here. ‘Common primate behavior.’ Of course, of course.” He chuckled and turned mildly pink. “I should have known that. I just didn’t consider myself—”
“It’s the lab coat,” Teagan said. “Very hot.”
Ms. Hahn’s glare made Cindy’s seem warm and friendly.
“I have to clean the cages in the lab and feed the tiddlywinks,” Teagan said before Ms. Hahn could open her mouth. “Gotta run! See you on Saturday.”
Teagan took a deep breath—through her mouth, since her nose was too stuffy—as soon as she was outside. She couldn’t help feeling sad at the zoo. The animals here would never live the way they were meant to live. The primate house was the worst, because the apes were so much like people. Especially Cindy, with her acquired language.
Teagan had learned ASL in middle school so she could teach a preschool signing class at the community center. Community service had seemed like a good idea for her college applications, but Dr. Max had offered her something even better.
He’d been one of the judges of the sophomore science fair. He’d seen her signing to her little brother and offered her a part-time job with his primate research team, socializing with Cindy. Because her science fair project had been on urban wildlife rescue, Dr. Max had agreed to work some clinic time into her schedule as well. If the chimp language program helped convince people that apes should have some basic rights, Teagan was happy to help. But her real love was the clinic. She worked for Dr. Max every Thursday after school, all day Saturday, and half a day on Sunday. As soon as summer vacation started, her position would be full-time, and she’d get to spend four hours a day in the clinic.
She dashed across the zoo grounds, punched the security code into the keypad at the clinic door, and waited for it to hiss open.
“Hey.” Agnes, the vet tech, was sitting at the office desk when Teagan came in. “Look at this.”
Teagan leaned over to look at the computer screen. It was a cryptozoology site, of course. Agnes’s hobby was debunking pseudo-scientists who thought they had pictures of everything from Bigfoot to the Loch Ness Monster. The screen showed a flat, mummified creature with what appeared to be a grimacing face. The caption read, “Alien body found in New Mexico?!”
“What is it?” Teagan asked.
“It’s a dead sea skate. What it’s doing in the middle of the desert I don’t know. Somebody must have brought it home from vacation and thrown it out with the trash.”
“So you told them?”
“Of course I did. More science, less ignorance.”
Teagan left Agnes to her debunking and went to feed her patients in the next room. She put a fresh lettuce leaf into Methuselah’s cage, and the tortoise winked a red eye at her. He’d been someone’s pet until he wandered into the street. She ran her finger along the mended crack in his shell. Shells didn’t heal, of course, but the superglue she’d used to put him back together would probably last his lifetime. Now all he needed was a new home—one that could keep him out of traffic.
Teagan heated some goat’s milk in the microwave, mixed it in a bowl with canned puppy food, then tapped on the nest box behind Dr. Max’s des...