An elephant never forgets, but Lexington Willow can't remember what happened before a tornado swept her away when she was a toddler. All she knows is that it landed her near an enclosure in a Nebraska zoo; and there an elephant named Nyah protected her from the storm. With no trace of her birth family, Lex grew up at the zoo with Nyah and her elephant family; her foster father, Roger; her best friend, Fisher; and the wind whispering in her ear.
Now that she's twelve, Lex is finally old enough to help with the elephants. But during their first training session, Nyah sends her a telepathic image of the woods outside the zoo. Despite the wind's protests, Lex decides to investigate Nyah's message and gets wrapped up in an adventure involving ghosts, lost treasure, and a puzzle that might be the key to finding her family. As she hunts for answers, Lex must summon the courage to leave the secure borders of her zoo to discover who she really isand why the tornado brought her here all those years ago.
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The Wind and the Zoo
The wind and I have a complicated relationship.
Because of the wind, I’m the girl without a birthday, without a name, without a beginning to my story. See, the wind took my family away when I was small, and I don’t remember them or where I came from.
I’ve tried asking the wind for my family back, but it isn’t a very good listener. It does most of the talking. It whispers things only I can hear, reminding me that ghosts are real and elephants can speak. But even though I can hear the wind’s words, and even though it follows me around and tries to give me advice, the wind can never make up for taking my family away. The way I figure it, the wind owes me big.
At least it left me in a place where I could have a home. Roger Marsh, the zoo’s train engineer, found me in the Lexington Zoo after the biggest storm Nebraska had seen in nearly four decades. I’ve been here with Roger ever since.
A few things happen when I tell visitors that I live in the zoo. First, they laugh a little. It’s usually one of those brief, explosive laughs. But after a while, they realize I’m not kidding. Then comes the following in this order:
1. They stop laughing.
2. They look me up and down.
3. Time passes like a snail while they consider whether or not I’m a rare breed of monkey.
I don’t know who my parents are, but I’m definitely not a rare breed of monkey. And despite the “Elephant Girl” chant the kids at Lexington Elementary repeated when I used to go there, that’s not who I am either.
Roger was checking the zoo’s train tracks for damage when he found me. He had some help, though. He says a ghost saw me wander into the elephant habitat after the tornado hit the city, and the ghost showed him where to find me.
Roger, who clearly believes in ghosts, thinks I might have been five when I showed up at the zoo. And since I’ve lived here for seven years, we’ve decided I’m twelve.
He named me Lexington.
The Old County Bank
The zoo train is a genuine Union Pacific steam locomotive, so running it is a bigger job than you might think. Sometimes, I help Roger in the train shed when he maintains old Engine 109. He’s taught me about the tools he uses. I even try to hand him what he needs, although the wrenches used to tighten bolts on a steam train are half as tall as me. I also help Roger by taking tickets, cleaning picnic tables, and sitting in the caboose to give the train speech. He has a fireman who shovels the coal and fills the boiler, and he has a part-time locomotive crew, but Roger says I give the best train speech.
Today is the first day of summer vacation for my friend Fisher, though, so I’m going to need the day off.
“Hey, Roger,” I call to him from the staircase, waving my borrowed copy of Island of the Blue Dolphins at him. Roger looks up from his latest book and oatmeal. He’s reading a psychology book this time, which is a weird change from his usual history choices. He has to shift in his chair to see me.
The living room between us is taller than it is wide, and Roger’s place at the kitchen table is partly hidden behind what used to be a bank teller’s counter. The engineer’s residence at the Lexington Zoo was a county bank in 1907.
Roger’s eyes widen when he sees the book in my hand. The constant creases across his suntanned forehead fold up in deeper lines when he does this, and his teeth flash white when he smiles. “You finished it?”
“Yep. This was my last assignment from Mrs. Leigh to finish my sixth-grade work. I’m done!”
Our voices echo in the center of the Old County Bank. The zoo paid to have the place fixed up like a house (preserving much of the historical stuff, of course). Roger did a lot of the work himselfmore since I came to live herebut he couldn’t upgrade the echo out of the place.
“Just in time, too,” I say, weaving around the teller’s counter and plopping into the chair across from Roger. “Fisher’s vacation starts today.”
Roger reaches across the table and pats my pale, freckled hand with his tan one. His hands are always warm, and he almost always knows what I’m thinking. “Ah yes,” he says. “Elephant training.”
Spending time with the elephantsone elephant in particularis the thing that’s going to make this summer great. Having my best friend finally out of school and in the zoo all day with me is going to make it even better.
“Yes. Mr. Leigh said we’re old enough to help this summer, so long as we do it together.”
“And so long as Thomas is there, right?”
I nod. Thomas O’Connell is the elephant manager. He handles all their training, which keeps the elephants busy and allows Thomas to check their healthespecially their feet. The elephants can choose whether or not to come into the training barn, but since they get apples and sweet potatoes for rewards, they all seem to enjoy it.
Roger slides a bowl of oatmeal in front of me. “I know you’re excited. But eat first.”
I shove a spoonful of grayish-purple oatmeal into my mouth. Roger likes to put blueberries in it, and they dye the whole batch.
“I suppose you should take some time off from the station, then.”
“Do you have enough people today without me?” I ask.
He smiles again and says, “I think we can make it work.”
Roger taps Island of the Blue Dolphins on its cover. “Aren’t you supposed to write a report on this?”
“Done. I finished it up this morning. I can give it to Mrs. Leigh when I go to see Fisher.”
Roger scrapes the last of the oatmeal from his bowl and takes it to the sink. His overalls rustle when he moves, and his big work boots clomp on the tile floor. It’s a good thing the Old County Bank has high ceilings, or Roger might be crowded.
“Fern and Gordon probably have some chores for Fisher,” he says, scrubbing his bowl and the oatmeal pot. “So you help him if he does, okay?”
Fern and Gordon Leigh are Fisher’s parents. They all live in the zookeeper’s residence on a gravel road near the African Grasslands. Fisher’s dad is in charge of all the keepers at the zoo, and that means he’s the one who makes sure the animals have the best possible care. So they live in a residence on the property. Like Roger and me.
“Of course,” I say. I always help Fisher with his chores. Helping the zookeeper’s son with his chores is not exactly what I call work, especially since he’s my best friend.
“Meet me for lunch, okay?”
“Of course,” I say again. I always meet Roger at the Wild Eats Café for his noon lunch break.
I join him at the sink and fill a large water bottle for each of us. Nebraska is hot in June.
The walk to the Leighs’ house is all uphill, since their house is halfway to the main entrance, which is the highest point of the zoo. The Old County Bank is near the main train station, which is the lowest point. I feel like I know every inch of the zoo, not only from hiking it every day but because of Roger’s train speech. I’ve given it so many times, I have all the facts memorized. I can tell you that everything inside the perimeter fence is 130 acres. We have the third-largest aviary in the world, the second-largest indoor rainforest, and over 900 animal species. In seven years, I’ve never run out of new things to see.
If this were a school day and I didn’t have Fisher here, I’d stop at the Swift Aviary to check on the flamingo babies and then head straight for the field behind the African Grasslands. A few years ago, Roger built a treehouse in a tall maple tree where I can watch the elephants. The treehouse was Roger’s way of letting me see the elephants whenever I wanted, because until today, I wasn’t allowed inside the training barn without Mr. Leigh. And Frank Bixly, General Manager, said I should stop distracting the keepers, but he didn’t really like the idea of the treehouse. Frank Bixly has never seemed too happy about me living at the zoo. He likes things to be orderly and predictable, and I am neither of those things.
But since today is the first day of Fisher’s summer vacation, I take a quick peek at the flamingo babies through the aviary netting and skip the treehouse altogether. I hike the paved road past the African Grasslands and take a swig from my water bottle. The wind checks in as a light breeze, whispering through my hair, tickling my ear.
“Maybe she won’t come into the barn today,” says the wind. It knows the elephant I most want to see. It also knows Frank Bixly has kept Nyah and me apart since the night of the tornado. Sometimes I wonder whether Frank Bixly and the wind are friends.
“She will. She’ll come,” I answer in my head. Ever since the incident at Lexington Elementary, I’ve chosen to answer the wind in silence rather than out loud.
I skip over the first two steps in front of Fisher’s house and jump straight to the porch with a thud. Fisher hears me land by the door and opens it, propping the screen open with his foot. He’s wearing a white-and-blue Omaha Storm Chasers jersey and holding a bowl of cereal.
“Hey, Lex,” he says with a bright smile that says he knows how excited I am about today. “I’m almost finished.” He takes a big spoonful of his Cap’n Crunch. He probably got a box from the guys on the grounds crew. His mom doesn’t usually buy that stuff. I’m guessing by the amazing smell of curried onions in the Leighs’ house that Fisher’s mom already made him a warm breakfast.
Mrs. Leigh learned to cook from her Thai mother, Fisher’s grandmother, who came to America when she married Mrs. Leigh’s American father. You can’t find anything as good as Mrs. Leigh’s food.
“I don’t know why you’d ever choose Cap’n Crunch when you have curried onions and omelets as an option,” I say.
“Hey, just because my mom makes Thai food,” he says with his mouth full, “doesn’t mean I’m not going to want sugary cereal once in a while.”
“Oh,” I say.
“Do you want to come in?” Fisher asks.
“Yep,” I say. “I have an assignment to turn in to your mom anyway.” I wave my typed, double-spaced pages. I may have widened the margins a bit, to make my report look longer. Just a bit.
“I’m not hanging around for that,” Fisher says, raising an eyebrow. “She might get some ideas and make me write a paper. I’ve already had a list of chores from my dad this morning.”
“I would have helped you,” I say, stepping inside and catching the screen door before it slams. Mrs. Leigh always asks us not to track “the zoo” into her living room, so I pull off my tennis shoes by the pair of teakwood elephants facing the doorway. The statues are Asian elephants, so they have smaller ears and smaller tusks than Nyah. Their trunks are raised upward, and they face the door for luck and success. I think it’s a good sign I’ll see Nyah today.
Fisher swallows another bite and shrugs. “I’m finished, mostly. How about I meet you at the elephant barn when you’re done?”
“Okay, but I really think it’s just going to take a minute.”
“Lexington?” Mrs. Leigh calls from her home office. “Come on in.”
Fisher gives me a look that says he’s glad his mom isn’t his schoolteacher and disappears into the kitchen with his bowl.
People at the zoo have asked why I have the same name as the town and the zoo. I know. Lexington is an odd name for a girl. But I had nothing to identify me when Roger found me. Roger tried everything he could to find my familyto find some clue about who I was and where I belongedbut he came up with nothing. Even the ghost couldn’t help, and Roger hasn’t seen her since that night.
The tornado tore into the town of Lexington several miles from the zoo. The weather experts labeled it an EF5 tornado, and that means it was the fiercest kind of storm, causing incredible damage. Imagine buildings yanked from their foundations and wind throwing cars through the air. Apparently, that is the sort of wind I survived. According to the newspaper articles, and what Roger told me, the tornado tore through thirty miles of Nebraska farmland, nearly missing several farmhouses before destroying a small town called Haven Hills. Then it hit Lexington. It flattened the east section of the city, tearing up the concrete and everything. But as happens with tornadoes, even EF5-scale tornadoes, the funnel disappeared almost as quickly as it formed. It vanished before it could totally demolish the zoo. And even with an EF5, some things are unexplainedlike why some buildings were left standing while everything around them was gone, and why no animals at the zoo were harmed, and why a little girl survived alone.
Roger filled out a lot of paperwork when I came to live with him. He had visits from people whose job it was to be concerned about where I should live and who I should live with. He bought me new clothes and fixed a room for me in the Old County Bank. It was a long time ago, but I remember how people visited and scratched notes on clipboards with their pens. Roger did whatever they asked so I could stay with him. And when it was all arranged, he had to give me a name. Since he found me in the Lexington Zoo, in Lexington, Nebraska, he decided to call me Lexington. I agree it’s not that original. It wasn’t a problem until he took me to Lexington Elementary, and the kids realized I was named after the school, the city, and the zoo. That didn’t go well.
But Roger gets points in the naming department for also giving me the name Willow. Lexington Willow. It has a rather satisfying sound. It sounds like Willow could be my last name, since we still haven’t found out what that is, and Lexington can be shortened to simply Lex. I’ll answer to any of itjust not to that name those kids called me at the school. That was one reason I left that place and never went back.