Short Story – Keith the Penguin

Synopsis: Keith the Penguin embarks on a journey to find a shrine that allows him to talk like other penguins.

In the Arctic wastelands, there exists a penguin named Keith. Keith is a part of a colony on the outskirts of a glacial ridge, where he lives in an igloo with his mother. The two are poor but get by; his mother labours throughout the day while Keith gets an education in the colony’s school. While Keith is a seemingly regular penguin on the outside, he has one thing that sets him apart from the other penguins in the village - he can't talk.

He can only say the phrase “NOOT NOOT," meaning he struggles to fit in due to his inability to communicate with his peers. This generally doesn't bother Keith as he still has enough friends to be content, however it's problematic because it stops him from talking to his crush; a penguin in his school called Jessica. She joined the colony a few months ago and instantly caught Keith’s eye, but he's never had the confidence to approach her due to his inability to talk.

One evening, Keith returns home after a long day at school. He enters the igloo, where his mother is just finishing the housework.
“Hey Keith," his mother says.
“NOOT NOOT," Keith replies.
“I forgot to get some dinner, could you go and get some fish please?" his mother requests.
“NOOT NOOT," Keith responds with a nod. He goes to the fish shop.

As he exits, he overhears two penguins talking. The duo are discussing rumours of a shrine on the outskirts of the village. They say that the shrine grants the user anything they desire, however they're only allowed one wish and the shrine can't be used again after that. It's apparently located on the outer glaciers of the county. Rumours of the shrine have been rife for months, however nobody has been willing to investigate it. The duo laugh and dismiss it as stupid folklore before waddling away.

A few minutes later, Keith returns home with the fish and chips. After sharing the meal, his mother decides to have an early night and heads to bed. As she approaches the stairs, she throws away another failed lottery ticket. Since they can't afford a television or any other electronic device, Keith heads outside and relaxes on the bench sitting at the front of their igloo. He looks out at the horizon, the white moonlight bouncing off the icy seas and causing the reflections of the distant glacier walls to shimmer. The village is completely silent. In this moment, the colony holds nothing but Keith and his thoughts. 

After some time, Keith yawns and figures it's time to sleep. However, as he stands up, another penguin rushes around the corner and collides with him. The other penguin drops their tablet, causing the device's soundboard app to activate as it hits the ground. The other penguin picks up the tablet and looks up at Keith. It's Jessica.

“I… sorry, I'm in a rush," she says shyly. Keith glares at her in silence. Jessica looks back, awaiting a response.
“Wait, you're Keith, right?" she says. “Y-yeah you are, I've seen you around school."
Keith maintains his silence. The silence lingers and lingers, causing Keith to become uncomfortable.
“NOOT NOOT!” he ultimately blurts out. Jessica smiles and nods her head. She says it was nice meeting him and that she'll likely see him around. She dashes past him to her igloo. Keith facefins. He slumps down onto the bench, sighing as a tear releases from his eye. He's never felt insecure about his disability. At least, until now. 

Later that night, Keith tosses and turns in his bed, unable to get any rest. He heads downstairs to get a glass of water. He turns on the tap, no water coming out due to his mother's inability to pay the water bill. He heads outside and fetches some water from the nearby ocean, sipping some before wiping his beak. As he turns to head back inside, he spots the pathway leading to the fish and chip shop. His eyes widen as he has a revelation. Keith remembers the conversation he overheard about the shrine in the glaciers. It's just a rumour, but in this moment Keith desires nothing more. The shrine could grant him the ability to talk, to fit in, to successfully communicate with Jessica, and Keith couldn't spend the rest of his life wondering.

On the weekend, Keith packs for his journey, telling his mother that he's having a sleepover at his friend's igloo for the next few days. With everything packed, Keith says his goodbyes and noots to his mother before waddling off into the horizon. He trudges through the snow for hours, snowflakes settling and melting in his fur as the climate gets colder with each step. Keith makes the occasional stop, resting as he eats the snacks he packed, however as time goes on and his resources deplete, it becomes increasingly apparent Keith’s journey is futile. 

Days later, the journey reaches its apex. Keith’s food supply is running out and his energy is at an all-time low. The blizzard overpowers him and forces him to his knees. He's dizzy and struggling to breathe. Finally, he collapses and starts losing consciousness. He glances up and sees a silhouette pushing towards him. Before the figure can emerge from the blistering snowfall, Keith fades to black.

Keith awakes some time later. His coat is hung up beside the bed he's in. He looks around, seeing he's in someone's igloo. He hears talking emanating from another room, prompting him to climb out of bed and waddle towards the door. He turns the rusted doorknob and gains access to the igloo’s living room. In it is a rugged couch, a dirty floor and curtains made from crumpled paper. Also in it is the owner of the igloo; an old woman, cursing to herself as she pays her bills and scratches her fur in stress. 

She notices Keith and rushes over to him to ask if he's ok. Keith nods. She offers some soup, however he declines and implies through gestures that he just wants to continue his journey. After thanking her and collecting his items, he approaches the door. Before leaving, he looks back at the rundown igloo. It immediately reminds him of his mother and home. Keith sighs and turns his attention back to the journey, taking his first step back into the snow.
“Wait, where are you going?" the old penguin asks.
Keith turns around, confused.
“Why don't you just get a taxi?” Keith looks down and rubs his beak.
“NOOT NOOT," Keith says, translating to “oh yeah."

The taxi arrives at the glaciers. Keith pays the driver and waddles towards the entrance of the ice caves. The walls are like funhouse mirrors - there's not one direction Keith can look without looking back at himself. He continues venturing, scouring every nook and cranny in search of the fabled shrine. He investigates for minutes on end, his hope diminishing along with time. After checking the entire glacier, he slumps to the floor in defeat. 

The ground starts cracking. He rushes to his feet but it's too late. The floor crumbles and sends him into a dark abyss. He rolls down a steep, icy hill, spinning violently as snow blankets his black belly. After a few seconds, he skids to a stop. He shakes his head in an attempt to eradicate his disorientation. A bright light hits his eyes, making his eyes wince and head recoil. As his eyes adjust, he slowly turns his head to see the source of the light. It's then that he sees it. It's then that he sees the shrine.

The rumours. The myths. The stories. They're all true. He creeps towards it, gawking at its majesty. An angelic voice trickles from the shrine’s core, telling him the rules of its powers. It can grant one, and only one, wish. To activate it, the user must place their fin on the shrine and think about that which they most desire.

Keith steps forward and extends his arm. However, just before it touches the shrine, he retracts it. He thinks back to his confrontation with Jessica, remembering the turmoil caused as the result of his inability to talk like everyone else. He then recalls his time in nursery, the dark memories of all the other penguins mocking him for always saying “noot noot," for being different, for not being normal. 

However, he also remembers the old woman he just met, including her anguish due to her poverty. That brings him to his mother, who is in the same position, who has spent numerous nights waking Keith up with the sound of her sobbing. He grabs the shine, shuts his eyes and makes the wish. The shrine blinks three times. Then, it disappears.

He calls a taxi and heads home. As he opens the front door, his mother runs up to him and hugs him. She's won the lottery. This means they can pay their debts, fix up the igloo and more.
“Isn't that great?" she shouts enthusiastically.
“NOOT NOOT," Keith nods.
As his mother leaves to claim the money, a smile rises on his face. 

A few nights later, Keith is sitting on the bench overlooking the village. He spots Jessica in the distance, prompting him to sigh. His mother exits the house and waddles over to him. She hands him a tablet, noting she bought it with the money from the lottery. She heads back inside while Keith plays around with it. Ultimately, he discovers a soundboard app pre-installed on the device. It's able to play thousands of words at the press of a button. While fiddling with it, he spots Jessica walking past, headed to her igloo. He quickly presses something on the soundboard.
“Hey," the soundboard says. Jessica turns around, a grin rising on her face. She greets him back, Keith continuing the conversation with the soundboard. He makes Jessica laugh, leading to a conversation between the two.

Months later, Keith celebrates his birthday. The refurbished, lavish igloo is packed with all of Keith’s family and friends - including his new girlfriend, Jessica. She enters the igloo and, with a kiss on the cheek, hands him his present. At the end of the night, they all huddle together for a photo. Keith smiles, not for the camera, but because he just had the best day of his life.

However, as Keith continues using the tablet, he discovers the many sides of the Internet and, in turn, himself. After six months of happiness, Keith dies of auto erotic asphyxiation after his child porn addiction spirals out of control. His mother kills herself not long after.

Fin.

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