“You don’t really want that, do you?” Mom looked at the huge pencil Kai held up in the Bronx Zoo gift shop. It was as long as his arm.
“It’s got lizards on it,” he explained. What he really wanted was a pet chameleon, but the shop didn’t sell those. Anyway, Mama always said she hated “scaly things.”
Mama looked at the pencil and shrugged at Mom. “Just buy him the pencil if that’s what he wants.”
Mom frowned, but she pulled out her wallet. “Yessss!” Kai cheered, pumping his fist. “Can we go to the Reptile House now?”
“Only if you say, ‘Thank you’ to Mom,” Mama insisted.
“And only if I get to visit the big rattlesnake,” Mom laughed.
Kai grinned. “Thank you for the pencil, and yeah, you can see the snake. But first I want to see the new iguana.”
Mama shook her head. “I think you’re both nuts.”
At the Reptile House, Kai couldn’t stop staring into the iguana’s glass cage. The lizard was two feet long and had dry, pale-green skin. Kai asked his favorite question. “When we get home, can I get a lizard? Just a small one?”
“No scaly things,” Mama insisted.
“That iguana doesn’t do much,” Mom pointed out. “Snakes are more interesting.”
Mama nudged in between Mom and Kai. She wrinkled her nose. “That flap under its chin looks like rubber. Ew, look! It’s moving its eyes.”
“Just one eye,” Mom corrected her.
Kai got down on his knees to have a better look. “You’re right. He’s pointing one eye at that bowl of lettuce, and one eye at me. Hi, iguana!” He waved. Suddenly, it darted over the rocks toward him. Kai pressed one finger against the glass. The iguana craned its neck, twitching its eyes around. “He likes me!” Kai whispered.
Mama shuddered. “I’d better sit down before I faint.”
“Scaredy-cat,” Kai called.
“Maybe I am,” she laughed, putting her arm around Mom. “That’s why I married someone brave enough for both of us.”
Kai stood up and crowed, “I’m brave, too!” He held out his giant souvenir pencil, pretending it was a sword. “I’m Sir Kai, the knight.”
“Let’s go see the lions, Sir Kai,” Mama laughed, “but put that sword away. Lions are my favorite. I won’t let you slay one.”
Kai turned to look at the iguana as they left. He couldn’t see it in its cage. “It must be under a leaf,” he thought, sorry that he didn’t get to say goodbye.
Outside, a wonderful smell drifted to his nose. “Pretzels!” he cried, running ahead to the metal cart. He drooled at the big, soft pretzels covered in salt. The vendor was talking to a woman in a green zookeeper’s uniform. “It doesn’t bite, does it, Lena?” he asked. He wiped his hands nervously on his apron. “It’s not poisonous, right?”
Lena, the zookeeper, answered, “Of course not. We’re just worried about him. Please keep an eye out.”
“Did an animal escape?” Kai whispered. Mom and Mama were getting nearer. He didn’t want to scare them.
“Yes,” Lena nodded. “The iguana got out.”
Mom came up behind Kai. “What about the iguana?”
“He got loose, ma’am.”
“Oh, my goodness!” wailed Mama. She hopped around, lifting her feet high. Sitting on a bench, she pulled her knees to her chin. “Catch it, please,” she begged.
“We’re working on it,” Lena promised. “It’s very important that we find Zorro.”
“Its name is Zorro?” Mama covered her sandals with her hands. “You should’ve called it Godzilla.”
“Just ignore her,” Mom laughed. “She has a thing about lizards.”
Lena looked serious. “Zorro could get run over by the Zoo Tram. Or another animal might eat him.”
“I’ll help look for him,” Kai announced. He pointed his big pencil at Mom. “She’ll help, too.”
“Yes, Sir Kai,” said Mom, bowing.
“Please hold this.” He handed his giant pencil to Mama.
She laid it across her lap. “I might have to use it to defend myself.”
“Let’s start near the Reptile House,” Lena suggested. She handed Kai and Mom some lettuce leaves.
Low, leafy shrubs lined the paths. “How will we find a green lizard in all these green plants?” Mom complained.
“I’ll find him,” promised Kai. He crouched low and waddled. Pushing the branches aside, he poked his head into the shrubs. It smelled like his grandma’s garden. “Here, Zorro!” he called. “Here, boy! I’ve got some tasty lettuce for you!” Kai saw a huge trash bin behind the building. He wanted to dive in, but Mom wouldn’t let him.
“Zorro must be in another part of the Zoo,” said Lena, shaking her head sadly. “He could have gone anywhere in the whole …”
A scream pierced the air. “That’s Mama!” Kai shouted.
Lena pointed to Mom peering under a picnic table. “Your mama’s just fine.”
“No, that’s my other mom!” Kai headed back to the main path. Sure enough, Mama was huddled on her bench. Her eyes were wide. Her hands covered her mouth.
The pretzel man pointed to the roof of the Big Cat House. “We saw your lizard up there. Trouble is, how do we get him down?”
“We don’t want him getting in with the big cats,” said Lena. “I’ll call for help, but that iguana is quick. He might be gone before we get a ladder.”
Mom crossed the path. She laid her hand on Kai’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, sport,” she said. “They’ll catch him.”
Kai wasn’t so sure. “Maybe I can help.” He walked over to Mama’s bench. “I’ll take my pencil back, please.” With a curious look, she handed him the souvenir.
Slowly he stepped toward the wall. He looked up at the gutter. A spindly green tail twitched over the edge. “I see you up there, Zorro.” The tail disappeared. Kai spoke as gently as he could. “Are you stuck? Don’t be scared, Zorro.”
A bumpy little face poked over the gutter. “Hey,” Kai called, “it’s nice to see you! I bet you’d like to go home.”
Slowly, he moved his giant pencil upward. “Now, don’t freak out, okay?” he warned Zorro. “I’m going to give you something to climb down on.” Zorro stayed frozen, peeking from the roof. Moving inch by inch, Kai raised the point of his giant pencil. He stood on his tiptoes. The pencil nearly reached the roof.
“You’re doing great, Kai,” Mama cheered.
“Let him concentrate!” Mom hissed.
Barely breathing, Kai balanced on his toes. He clutched the eraser end of the pencil in both hands. He made kissing sounds to coax Zorro to come toward him.
“It’s not a puppy,” joked the pretzel vendor.
But Kai knew he’d connected with Zorro. The iguana trusted him. Kai held the pencil still. He waited.
Suddenly Zorro jumped onto the pencil. Startled, Kai yelped. In the next second, Zorro scrambled down Kai’s arm and settled on his shoulder.
The crowd of people gathered on the path started clapping. Lena quickly slipped a collar on Zorro. “You were amazing!” she said to Kai, lifting the lizard off the back of his neck. “I’ll get you guys some free Zoo passes. It’s the least we can do.”
Mom and Mama gave Kai a big hug, both at once. “That’s our Kai,” gushed Mama, “always using his noodle.”
“Good thing we bought you that giant pencil,” Mom admitted.
Mama held the pencil like a stinky bag of garbage. “The lizard had its feet on this thing,” she said. “We’ll buy you a new one.”
Kai gave her his most charming smile. “I’d rather have a real chameleon.”
Mom and Mama grinned at each other. “All right. You’ve earned it,” said Mama.
“Awesome! Thanks!” Kai gave both his moms a kiss on the cheek. “Now, can we please go see the lions?” asked Mama. “I’ve had enough of scaly things for one day.”