The Panda and the Princess by John Wheatley

Winner of the short story category, Mensa Canada 2018 Literary Contest

Phoenix quietly closed the red door on the turmoil always simmering and ready to boil over: words that should be left unsaid, actions that should be left undone. The walk to school was refreshing. It wasn’t a run though. The hand-me-down shoes had room to grow and pants had legs turned up too many times, making running difficult.

Today was the day Nan and Jasper would come to read stories. “I hope the story will be about a happy place,” thought Phoenix. Officially today was Phoenix’s birthday. It wasn’t the real date, just the fill for a blank space in the system. Birthdays didn’t exist behind the red door.

Nan and Jasper had been volunteering for several months and rather than stay back at ‘the home’ they would come early to sit with the students during breakfast. Not everyone came for breakfast so there was room and time, unlike lunch time when it was crowded, noisy and rushed.

Birthdays for the month were posted on the tackboard so Nan and Jasper knew what day it was. They knew more. It was a small town. Placing a little parcel on the table they sat down next to Phoenix. They liked Phoenix who, when they read the stories always sat in the front row and stayed behind to look at the pictures and ask questions.

“We brought you a present for your birthday.” They pushed the little parcel towards Phoenix. Phoenix knew a present was something given to someone. Phoenix had never been ‘someone’ and reached for the parcel unsure what to do.

Jasper showed Phoenix how to lift the tape and unfold the brightly coloured paper. Slowly a box appeared… 64 Crayons. Never seeing something this special Phoenix’s eyes grew wide.

“All for me?”

“Yes, yours to keep.”

Nan folded back the lid. Eyes grew wider and a smile crept up cheeks to eyes. Crayons were always dumped from the plastic bin onto the table during art. Then there was a rush to get the colours you wanted. Crayons were never standing, the pointed tips in four rows like the class pictures in the corridor and not just eight but …. SIXTY-FOUR COLOURS!

“I have never seen so many colours!”

“Here is some grey paper. Do you want to try them?”

“But what should I draw?” Usually the teacher told them.

“Draw what you like. There’s more paper, so you can draw lots of pictures.”

Phoenix thought a bit, “Maybe something for today’s story.”

“It is about a panda and a princess.” Nan and Jasper had asked the teacher to pick a happy book for today.

“Pandas are fun, all round and rolly. I’ll draw Amari, she can be the princess.” A brow wrinkled thinking about the first colour to pick. Soon Phoenix began to draw and narrate, each crayon back home before another was taken out. “The panda lives over here in a forest with trees and bamboo. They like bamboo. Princess Amari lives here in a big stone castle with towers. There is a draw bridge across a moat too. The panda and the princess are playing by a creek in the sunshine. Look how happy they are.“

“What colour are you going to make the door to the castle?” Nan asked. “Maybe red, that is a nice bright colour.”

“No not red, I want Princess Amari to be happy so yellow like the sun.”

The new world quickly filled the page. When it was time for class they gathered everything to put away in Phoenix’s desk.

Story time was after recess and Nan and Jasper held up Phoenix’s drawing when they read the story. The next day art was after recess and Phoenix smiled while taking the box of crayons out. Tipping back the lid all the crayons were still standing ready. Several tips weren’t quite as pointy. The teacher asked them to draw some mountains and slowly Phoenix created another world on the paper. Day by day, in all their colours, dinosaurs, planes, trains, oceans, rivers, beaches, animals and birds filled the pages. At the end of June Phoenix collected the drawings and the small bits of crayon that were left. Behind the red door everything was carefully put in a box that fit into a hiding place under the stair.

Life continued and as time passed the red door was painted yellow. Phoenix finished school and started working in a shop. Nan and Jasper continued to read stories at the school until Nan had trouble remembering things. When it was not too hot or rainy Jasper would take Nan out for a walk. Phoenix would often see them passing the shop and one day ran out to talk to them.

“Hi Nan, hi Jasper, I am not sure if you remember me. You read stories when I was in school and gave me a box of crayons for my birthday.”

“Oh yes Phoenix, you were always our favourite,” answered Jasper. “Look Nan, you remember Phoenix?”

A smile crept onto the wrinkled face and eyes began to sparkle. “Oh, Phoenix, you look so much happier now.”

“I was cleaning up a bit yesterday and found this.” Phoenix gave Nan the picture of the panda and the princess. “I always wanted to thank-you for the crayons. They let me escape to worlds I never knew. I thought you might like this one for your wall. I would look at it when… well you know… when things weren’t so good.”

Nan took the picture and held it out to show Jasper. “Look Jas, a panda and a princess. Don’t they look happy. Sixty-four colours, yes, I do remember.”