Last week, I got a writing prompt in my comments section from the lovely Zoe, and I’m never one to turn down a story request! I have other things to show you– I received two amazing gifts from two spectacular people these past two weeks (The Angry Argentine, who sent me some beautiful JP Topps cards, and Mike Jenkins, who sent me an entire bundle of awesomeness) and I’d like to show them off. Until then, enjoy the story!
Saturday afternoon break time had finally come, and that meant it was time for Elizabeth Malcolm’s phone call with Dad. She had a few work obligations that could’ve used her attention even during break time, sure, but keeping in touch with her father was the necessary core of the thread that their relationship hung from. If she didn’t call Dad at least once a week, he’d either start to worry about her or get heartbroken that she’d forgotten him and that he’d screwed up as a parent—again. So on a blazing hot Saturday afternoon when Elizabeth had dust all over her clothes and possibly in her lungs, she dropped into a seat in the empty, bleak employee break room and hit the number four on speed dial.
As the phone let out its neat little ringing tones, Liz sighed and ran a hand through her thoroughly filthy brown hair, allowing herself to relax for the first time in what must have been weeks. With all the new additions to the zoo—call it the zoo, call it the zoo, she reminded herself—that were coming in every day, and the current animals causing one ruckus after another, it looked like the zookeepers weren’t catching any breaks anytime soon. Liz didn’t necessarily mind the workload. She’d signed up for it, after all, and it was the kind of job she’d dreamed about since she was a little kid and still had a stable and present set of parents. It barely even seemed real show—she would’ve pinched herself every morning if it weren’t guaranteed that her animals would give her plenty of minor injuries shortly into the day. When she had to work for months without vacation days or weekends, though, and when she couldn’t tell a single soul outside her workplace about the job she was so thrilled about, working had a tendency to wear her down a bit.
Halfway into the third ring, the phone crackled and a familiar voice said, “Hi, honey. How’s it going?”
“Hi, Dad. Exhausting is how it’s going, but I’m finally sitting down, so things are improving. How are you? How are your classes?” There were really no easy ways of keeping track of the passage of time in the isolated place where she worked, but she’d heard from a coworker with a teenage child that the school season was starting up again. Considering that she was fresh out of grad school, it had almost seemed surreal. Had it really only taken a year for her life to change so much?
“Oh, they’re fine. They—they started last week. You oughta be proud of me, I’m attracting actual mathematicians now. Not tourists.” She noted his tone of voice when he mentioned the “tourists” who only took his college classes for the chance to hear dinosaur horror stories, and was relieved at the easy tone that implied she wouldn’t be listening to that particular rant today. “But let’s not talk about me, I’m, uh, a dowdy old professor. How’s work for you? Is it gettin’ any easier these days?”
“Oh, it’s fine.” She sighed heavily.
“That didn’t sound fine. You know, you could always talk to your bosses, asking you to work nonstop for that long has to—to be violating some kinda—”
“No, no, Dad, it’s okay,” Liz said quickly. It was always nice to see him displaying genuine concern for her—or, hell, making an effort to connect with her at all— but letting him get overprotective was a cycle that would’ve ended in a far less sweet and more annoying way. She was twenty-five and regardless of how sweet it was, the helicopter-parent stage had arrived far too late. “If you were here to watch the babies hatching every day, you wouldn’t want time off either. I wish you could see ‘em, Dad, it’s like a miracle.”
“Babies hatching?” Ian repeated. “Are you working with the aviary section now, too? Or are rhinos hatching from, ah, eggs these days? Science has gone too far.” He chuckled a little.
She smiled and mentally kicked herself. “Nah, I just head over to watch the ostrich babies hatch and stuff. In the Cre—the aviary. The lab techs let us watch the little guys as long as we don’t touch.”
“Does sound cute,” he said, and there was a momentary pause. “How’s Ralph doin’?”
“He’s doing great!” she said, sitting up straight with excitement. “Yeah, he made friends with a couple other babies, he might be part of one of the little herds they form. And you should see how much he eats now. He’s almost the same size as all the others. I told ‘em he wouldn’t be a preemie forever, didn’t I? I told you I told them.”
“You sure did,” he said, and she could hear him grinning through the phone. “No more bottle-feeding?”
“Nope, he’s eating solid leaves like a champ.”
“Good for him. I—I always thought rhinos just ate grass. Shows you how much I know.”
“It’s okay, you know how much I know about algebra.” She leaned back in her chair. “How’s Kelly?”
“Oh, oh, I forgot to tell you,” he said immediately. “She made it to state championships, isn’t that great?”
“Really? In what?”
“Uneven bars, and she’s the runner-up if the rhythmics girl from—from her county can’t make it. I’m gonna go watch her, I’ll take you if you want. She’d be thrilled to see her big sis there.”
With a pang, Liz remembered the excited phone calls from her little half-sister from several weeks ago, and how she hadn’t called back to check how Kelly had done in the competition she’d so anticipated. “I… I don’t know if I can go. It’s crunch time at work, and you know how it is when you’re working with the younger animals—one day when you’re not there and anything can go wrong, and then—”
“No, no, I understand,” he cut her off. “You gotta do what you gotta do, I get it. I’ll tell her you couldn’t make it but you send your love.”
“I just wish I could be there, I wish I didn’t have to let her down—”
“I know,” Ian said, and there was a raw edge to his voice that made Liz quiet down and listen. “I know that, honey, but sometimes there’s stuff that makes you—makes you miss out on a lot, and it just—it makes you regret so much, but it’s unavoidable.” He stopped for a moment and cleared his throat. “Anyway. Just shoot her a phone call and tell her congratulations. She’ll get the message.”
“All right, I will.” She glanced up at the break room clock. “Listen, Dad, I gotta go. It’s almost time for horn trimming, these little guys are growing like weeds.”
“Sure, sure,” he said. “Maybe shoot me a text tonight? I miss you, honey.”
“Miss you too, Dad,” she said, pushing her chair aside and rising to her feet. “I’ll call you again later, okay? Love ya.”
“I love you too, Liz. Talk to you later.”
“’Bye.” She swiped the red icon on her phone and pocketed it, striding out the door of the break room and back outside to the dusty enclosure that housed her charges. Her coworkers, all of whom were as filthy, sweaty and sun-tanned as she was, were milling about with the baby animals; when one of them, Grace, noticed that Liz’s break was over, she ran for dear life to the shed that housed the break room. Thankfully, no scuffles seemed to have broken out while she was gone. The baby stegos and trikes, it seemed, had finally learned to stop harassing the little gallis that always darted underfoot, at least for the time being. Every other keeper seemed to have things under control, so Liz knelt down on the ground when she saw Ralph plodding her way.
“Hi there, Ralph!” she said in her high-pitched animal-trainer voice. “How’s it going, big guy?” The tiny triceratops came right over to her and nuzzled her hand, shoving his bony little horns and scales into her palm as she scratched behind his frill. He made his way up onto her lap, and Liz let him stay there for a long time as the day wore on and the inhabitants of the Gentle Giants Petting Zoo roamed around her.