The Penguin and The Keys

Written in response to: Write about a character breaking a rule, but for good reason.... view prompt


Horror Thriller


"Get off me!" Lionel yelled and straightened up. Few white and black feathers stuck to his back, looking like arrows. A large emperor penguin readied itself to attack again. 


If to think logically, it had to be Ben, standing in the middle of the night, in the aviary full of savage penguins and searching for the keys in splashes of guano. Under the watchful eye of Ms. Burgess, the students from Ben and Lionel's class were allowed to enter the aviary to feed the penguins the day before. A low wooden fence, more a decoration than an actual defense, separated the aviary from the sidewalk. Inside the area, an artificial basin with a drawbridge for excursion groups surrounded the formation of various rocks and shelters on three sides. There were unperturbable emperor penguins, playful African penguins, funny waddling from one foot to another, and a pair of rockhopper penguins that cautiously observed the feeding but never dared to approach people. The day was hot, and the zoo staff slow from the heat. The water on the stone stairs, ascending into the basin, had been drying too quickly. Irritation from the heat, the coldness of keys, the divine hand, or all factors combined; something caused an emperor penguin to snatch the keys from Ben's back pocket. Ben felt the movement. He turned at the right moment to see the keys disappear inside the bird.

 The penguin's beak stretched into a victorious smile. 

"Miss Burgess!" Against Ben's will, his voice resembled one of a toddler. "A penguin got my keys!" 

"What?" Miss Burgess's voice was flat and unimpressed. She wished to be somewhere else, for example, under the shade of the palms with cold orange juice in one hand and a beach read in another. Her biggest concern was the sundress that tightly clung to her body, revealing all the unwanted curves and two sweat stains under her armpits - not Ben boy who always got in trouble. 

"A penguin!" Ben pointed to the penguin, who stood still as if nothing had happened. "He ate my keys!" 

"Oh?" Miss Burgess muttered, now surprised. "Well, they have to get out somehow, "a few boys giggled, imagining how the keys would get out, " and we'll tell a penguin keeper and ask him to call when he finds the keys." 

"I need them today!" Ben could barely hold the tears back. It was the third key set he had lost during the last two months, and his mother had warned him what she would do if he had lost the keys again. No pocket money for the time being until you learn to look after your things!

His mother was away on a business trip. Ben could have stayed with his grandmother, who lived just a half-hour away from school, but it would have been not very comfortable, to put it mildly, to ask her. Instead, Ben asked his friend Lionel for help. 

Their plan, as all children's plans, looked perfect on the outside. They returned to the zoo not long before the closing and hid in the bushes, watching as the zoo staff escorted the last visitors to the exit and hearing the night watchmen check locks on nearby cages. The lion growled lonely in the dark. The hot day was replaced by the humid yet not refreshing night. The full moon gave enough light to see the path walks. The children quickly found the penguin aviary, but they encountered a problem they hadn't thought about: a drawbridge was locked in an upward position. The basin had small ledges on the sides, big enough for penguins to rest on them, not big enough for twelve-year-old boys to walk on without fear of falling into the water. 

"I can't!" Ben whispered in despair. All his courage and determination vanished. "Lionel, I just can't! I'll fall into the water! I can't swim!"

Even in the bright moonlight, the basin appeared bottomless. The water splashed as if something slumberously moved deep within it, ready to jump out and eat an intruder. Lionel, the brain of their small group, sighed. He had anticipated the outcome, knowing too well how weak Ben had been. Getting Ben out of trouble - and getting into trouble with him - gave Lionel a feeling of significance, a feeling of being older and wiser. If a psychologist could have examined Lionel's family, he would have found how reversed their family relationships were: Lionel was the grown-up, and his parents most of the time acted like the lost, disoriented children. 

"Relax, man. I'll do it. But you owe me half of your pocket money this month, " Lionel said.  

"No way," Ben started to protest but then remembered that without Lionel, he wouldn't get any pocket money at all and shut up.  

Lionel wondered why the penguins never tried to get away by going along the ledges. Sure enough, the walls on this side of the basin were vertical, with no steps for relay on. Still, there was nothing to deter them if they decided to go the way Lionel was about to take himself.  

At the moment, the thought seemed unimportant to worry too much about it. 

Steel railings going around the basin and the rocks' formation felt pleasantly cold to the touch. Lionel's hands got sweaty. He moved sideways, staring at the railings, and groped for the next place to put his foot without looking into the murky water. Several penguins, among them the giant emperor penguin who had swallowed the keys, followed Lionel as he made one shaky move after another and finally stepped on the solid rocks. 

Metal glittered in the white puddle not far away from Lionel. 

When Lionel bent to raise the object from the ground - it turned out to be a coin - the penguin jumped from behind, squawking like a broken car engine. A chorus of cheering screams, squeals, and flapping wings accompanied the attack. Red, white, and black pairs of eyes lit up across the rocks, and frightened Ben could swear he saw two yellow lights flash on in the darkness beneath the water. 

"Get off me!" Lionel yelled. 

Ben moved his gaze to Lionel. 


Ben froze. The only thought that raced through his mind on repeat was about the night watchmen who would hear the sounds and come to check. Later, lying in bed under the familiar blanket, soothed by a flowery scent from his mother, he would confess to her that he didn't think about Lionel's safety when the penguin struck. He was more afraid to get caught, he would tell his mother. To be punished for sneaking into the aviary - that was his main fear. He betrayed his friend, he would say to her.  

"You did everything you could," his mother would say and kiss him gently on the cheek. 

Then she'd half-close the door, making sure that the light from the corridor would not shine directly into Ben's eyes, and go to the dining room to deal the number she knew too well. 


Ben froze. 

"Shoo, shoo!" Lionel retreated slowly, followed by the penguin's enquiring gaze. "Do something!" He screamed to Ben.  

Ben didn't move, paralyzed by fear. The scene looked like a dream that got out of control. But while in the deepest of the nightmares, one always has a tiny worm of knowledge that he can wake up any minute, sweating and maybe crying, but unharmed. For a second, Ben closed his eyes, trying to wake up - to no avail. With the eyes tightly shut, he could still hear birds' enraged calls and Lionel's single shrieks when the penguin pecked him. 

If the penguin didn't constantly attack him, Lionel had figured out that it would be wise to back down to the ledge where penguins would not follow him. Instead, the birds' army, headed by the general who swelled to almost the boy's size, pushed Lionel into the water.  

Ben motionlessly watched as Lionel hesitated before stepping on the ladder, going into the water. There were three tiny steps adapted to birds' feet. Lionel put his leg sideways but lost balance and fell back. The splash of water caused a new wave of flapping as if the penguins applauded the end of the magnificent performance. The emperor penguin issued a victory cry. 

 "Help me out!" Lionel cried, swimming toward Ben's side of the basin, away from the birds. Lionel was a decent swimmer, and the distance seemed manageable. At last, Ben got out of a stupor. He bent over the edge, ready to grab Lionel's hand. Before he could do it, a shadow, blacker than the penguins' feathers, appeared beneath Lionel and bit into his left leg. Lionel was shrieking from the pain while his blood added its colors to the palette of the night. In shock, Lionel floundered in one place, frantically looking for the monster. Neither Lionel nor Ben could see the monster's outlines: not its size or shape, only a pair of yellow eyes glistening mercilessly in the dark. 

The monster bit into Lionel's wounded leg and didn't let go, dragging the boy down to the bottom. Bubbles and more red stains, spreading across the water surface, marked the place where Lionel was just a second ago. 

Ben looked around. The night was again quiet. 

The night watchmen were nowhere to be seen. 

October 22, 2021 10:23

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Gip Roberts
19:38 Oct 23, 2021

At first, this reminded me of Hitchcock's "The Birds", then I kept getting the feeling the boys would end up getting attacked by the lion, then it twisted into a tale about something sinister lurking in the water. Quite a roller coaster ride of fear there.


Darya Silman
21:08 Oct 23, 2021

Thank you. I hope you got to the end through all the roller coaster twists and turns


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Daniel Hayes
06:00 Oct 23, 2021

This was fantastic!! I really enjoyed reading this, and I thought you did an excellent job writing this! I love a good horror story ;) Great Job :)


Darya Silman
07:08 Oct 23, 2021

Thank you! It's so uplifting to see a comment like yours


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22:14 Oct 22, 2021

Well, that was unexpected! What's in the water?? I want to know more!


Darya Silman
22:17 Oct 22, 2021

Then there won't be any mystery ;) Thank you for reading!


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Angel {Readsy}
19:36 Oct 24, 2021

Please comment my story


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Angel {Readsy}
19:35 Oct 24, 2021

Wowwwww. splendid and very creative work


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