Jimmy didn’t see what the big deal about the giant pandas was. All they did was sleep and chew on bamboo. Mainly, though, Jimmy didn’t like the crowds they attracted. Rusty the red panda was way better. Rusty mostly slept and ate too, but Jimmy had seen him do some hilarious tricks and he seemed to have a better attitude overall about the whole being-in-a-zoo thing. Plus, he looked just like Jimmy’s favorite character in the new Xbox kung fu game.
Small even for an eight-year-old, Jimmy got pushed around or ignored at school. The first day of class never helped, when every teacher made sure to make some comment on his given name.
“James Brown?” they’d ask, already grinning at some half-formed joke about the Godfather of Soul swirling in their heads.
“Jimmy,” he’d respond, trying to cut them off and sound as tough as possible. “Just Jimmy.”
Most other kids didn’t even know who James Brown was, but they knew anyone the teachers made fun of was fair game, and Jimmy knew how the rest of the year would go. For blocks around the school, Jimmy worried who he might run into. It seemed like the older boys had nothing better to do than hassle him, sticking out a foot at the last moment when he passed, putting him in a headlock for a minute before throwing him gasping to the ground, smacking his bare head after his mom had used the clippers on him. If it was the same thing every day, he could get used to it, but the creativity of their cruelty kept him on edge all through the school day.
So after school everyday, Jimmy walked right past his apartment off of Columbia Road and straight to the zoo, doing his best to ignore the mouthwatering smells of pupuserias and fast food joints along the way. Jimmy wouldn’t go home because there wasn’t much to go home to. He shared a bed with Charles (don’t call him Chuck), his ten-year-old half brother, while their mom slept on a fold-out in the living room. Neither of them would be home for hours after school ended, so no one ever noticed his absence.
The zoo was a whole different world. Jimmy would start slow at the top of the last hill down to the back entrance, and then let the momentum take his feet faster and faster until he was barely able to keep control, clutching his backpack straps while he flew down the hill. He’d slide to a halt at the light, causing drivers to swerve as his toes slipped over the curb. Finally the light would turn green and he’d swagger across the street, nodding solemnly to the parking lot security guard before proceeding.
Rusty the red panda’s home seemed perfect. Plenty of outdoor space for when the weather was nice, but as soon as it was too hot or too cold, he could just waddle inside and hang out there and have treats brought to him. The zoo had recently brought in a lady panda, but before that it was just him and Rusty. Rusty didn’t seem to hang out much with his girl, and that was just fine by Jimmy, who didn’t have much use for girls himself. “You and me, Russ, huh?” he’d murmur when not too many people were around.
Jimmy noticed that Rusty would be pretty boring until just before the zoo closed—when it started to get dark—and then start stretching and making little chirps and whistles. The panda would pace around, pawing at the toys that littered the enclosure. Jimmy had even seen Rusty stand up on his hind legs, almost matching Jimmy in height. The little sign said that red pandas were most active at night. “So why ain’t the zoo open at night?” Jimmy had complained once to a nearby volunteer, who just smiled and chuckled. No one took him seriously.
Jimmy hung up his keys on the hook next to the apartment door as he came in.
“Where you been?” Charles yelled from the bedroom, where he was sprawled in front of the Xbox playing Madden with one eye on the game and the other on his phone.
“No place,” Jimmy said.
“Bullshit, you was at the zoo again. I can smell that shit on you.”
Jimmy threw his bag down and went to the kitchen, a tiny nook off of the living room. Nothing but snacks and cans of soup. The vegetables Rusty got looked better than this. Jimmy sighed and grabbed a bag of Cheetos.
“Where’s mom?” he yelled to Charles.
“Work still, I guess. Who knows?”
Suddenly the window air conditioner shuddered and kicked out.
“Awww fuck!” Charles moaned. “It’s hot as shit out. You sleeping on the couch with mom tonight.”
“What? No!” Jimmy ran toward the bedroom, but Charles was quicker, slamming and locking the door in his face. Jimmy kicked the door in frustration then threw himself down on the couch. He couldn’t even pull out the bed by himself. The apartment was already warming up. Jimmy forced open the sticky windows, letting in the loud, humid night. He paced the small living room for a few minutes, with no urge to sleep.
Screw this, Jimmy said to himself. I’m out. He grabbed his set of keys from the hook by the door and went out into the sweaty night.
In the city, no one pays any mind to a small child wandering the streets at night—Jimmy was just another obstacle for people to avoid. He headed northwest toward the zoo, weaving past the young drunks from 18th Street staring at maps on their phones as they tried to find their way back to the Metro. He soon left Columbia Road, heading through the back alleys and apartment complex shortcuts that he had navigated a thousand times.
A sudden flash of lightning threw Jimmy’s shadow against the building behind him, making him a hundred feet tall for a millisecond. Jimmy braced himself as a massive thunderclap echoed among the walls, shaking everything. Seconds later the sky opened and he was drenched instantly, his pants dragging heavily. Soon he was at the last hill, running against the rain, the strobing lightning making it appear that he covered ten yards at a step.
No one guarded the gate at the parking lot and Jimmy climbed up and over the slippery bars. Amid the peals of thunder Jimmy could hear the animals revel in the storm—the elephants’ blasts, the tigers’ rumbles, the shrieks and chatter of the apes. He smiled as he arrived at Rusty’s enclosure, happy to see his friend crouched under a rock overhang rather than sheltering inside the building. The sudden shower must have trapped him outside.
“Hey Rusty!” Jimmy shouted over the storm, waving. The panda stared miserably at Jimmy, his fur matted down in the rain, droplets hanging from his chin. Jimmy looked for a way in. A large stand of bamboo had bent over in the rain, reaching over the moat and almost down to where Rusty lay. Jimmy walked over and pushed it down further, but could feel that it wouldn’t hold him. Maybe the panda could come to him.
“Rusty, hey, look! Climb over!” Jimmy shook the bamboo to get Rusty’s attention. The panda looked skeptical, but then slowly eased up to the ends of the long stalks and sniffed them. Rusty reached out a paw, testing, then started climbing over. The panda moved much faster than Jimmy had expected, and he stumbled back as Rusty neared. Jimmy slipped on the slick path and crashed to the ground. He heard claws on the path as he struggled back to his feet. The rain fell harder. Jimmy could barely see a thing.
“Rusty? Rusty!” Jimmy yelled into the rain, but the panda was already gone.
The next day the papers and TV were full of Rusty’s escape and wild speculation of how it might have occurred. “An inside job?” MSNBC mused. “Victim of exotic gourmet dining scene?” wondered City Paper. “What did obama know, and when did he know it?” Fox News demanded.
Jimmy was giddy with his secret knowledge, his stomach so full of butterflies he couldn’t eat his usual morning Pop-Tart. His mom had gone to work early, and Charles hadn’t gotten up yet. The news said that teams of volunteers were out searching nearby neighborhoods, so Jimmy climbed out onto the fire escape to see if there were any nearby. He heard a crunching sound to his right and turned to see what it might be.
Rusty sat on the next fire escape over, chomping away on some potted bamboo. From the looks of it, he’d been at it a while already. “Rusty!” Jimmy shouted. He grinned wildly as the panda calmly stared at him and continued to gnaw the fibrous bamboo.
Jimmy heard shouting from below. A group of people were pointing up at him and Rusty and taking pictures with their phones. Jimmy waved down at them. “He’s up here!” Jimmy shouted. A news truck pulled up minutes later, with fire trucks and police right behind. The next few hours flew by, with every news channel wanting an interview with the boy who found the red panda.
The next day, Jimmy reluctantly walked back to school. A group of large older boys hollered at him right before he could sneak in the door. “Hey! Come over here.” Jimmy winced and turned to the boys. “You the one that found that panda?” Jimmy just smiled. It was going to be a good day.