Peter Montgomery came home to find that his mother had turned into a penguin. He knew it was her from the moment he walked in the door, for she still wore his mother’s red-rimmed glasses with the rhinestone right between the frames. And unlike most of the penguins Pete had seen in National Geographic, this penguin wasn’t naked; she had on his mother’s favorite sundress and his mother’s favorite apron. Though she now waddled, she still moved with the same grace every boy in the neighborhood associated with Ms. Montgomery, the most beautiful woman on Smith Street. And when Peter looked down at her feet, he even saw three pudgy black and pink toes poking out from holes in her running sneakers.
The evidence was undeniable: the penguin standing in the kitchen was, most certainly, Peter Montgomery’s mother.
Pete was pleased that she hadn’t turned into a scary penguin: the kinds that have sharp beaks and make strange noises with their throats. His mother was big and furry, like the stuffed animal he’d asked her to buy him on a trip to FAO Schwartz. A yellow stripe ran down her belly and black, silky fur stretched across her shoulders. Her head swiveled like a camera on a tripod. Her little black eyes followed Pete’s slightest movements.
Pete had received his report card that day: exceptional marks in spelling, handwriting and grammar. He wanted to show his mother, but he couldn’t get her to look at the paper. He pointed to it proudly, saying, “Look mom! Look how well I did this term!” But every time he thought she was about to read it, his mother’s penguin head would swivel left or swivel right. Her penguin eyes would dart up or dart down. Her penguin feet would march here or march there. She was too distracted by the cupboard above, filled with cookies, candies and other delicious snacks, to focus on Peter’s report card.
But Peter was never one to give up easily. He scratched his head and rubbed his chin until suddenly, an idea crept into his head. He sneakily grabbed a box of chocolate chips and began placing them in a line on the floor. He made a trail that led out of the kitchen, through the hallway, into the dining room, up a chair and onto the table, until, finally, the last piece sat atop his report card. Surely, if there was a delicious chocolate chip sitting on the paper, his mother would not be able to resist looking at his grades.
Pete returned to the kitchen and, as expected, his mother took the bait. She voraciously followed the trail, gobbling up each chocolate chip in her long, black beak before moving to the next. She made her way out of the kitchen, through the hallway, into the dining room, up a chair and onto the table, until, finally, she reached the last piece of chocolate that sat atop Peter’s report card. She gobbled up the chip, her little penguin tongue guiding the morsel down her throat, and then stood on the table, staring quizzically at the paper before her. She tilted her round, penguin head left and right, as if examining his grades from different angles. Her eyes shot up to Pete, back down at the paper and then back up to Pete. And then, with a sudden bob of her neck, she snatched the paper off the table with her beak and gnashed it with her jaw. She ripped the report card into unrecognizable shreds and gobbled it down with the rest of the chocolates.
Peter said, “No! Bad penguin,” hoping to teach his mother a lesson. But there was no saving his report card, which was now making its way down his mother’s penguin throat, right into her penguin belly.
Frustrated, Peter climbed the stairs to his room, his mother trailing behind him. He figured that he’d do his chores so that when his mother returned to her normal self, she’d have something to be happy about even though he had no report card to show her.
He began to make his bed, carefully straightening his sheets to get all the folds out. He threw his comforter over the mattress and let it fall slowly into place. He gave each of his stuffed animals a kiss and rested them against his headboard. But when he turned around to grab his pillows off the floor, he found no white fluffy pillows. It was an unimaginable scene—there were feathers everywhere! His mother had a pillow in her beak and was thrashing about, tearing the pillowcase and sending feathers flying all over the room.
“STOP IT!” Peter yelled.
Startled by her son’s scream, Peter’s mother jumped onto his bed, knocking his stuffed animals to the floor and wrinkling his sheets. The headboard nudged his dresser, and his lamp fell to the floor, shattering. The clock by Peter’s window fell off the ledge and hit Peter’s radio, which then fell on the bookshelf and knocked hundreds of comic books off his desk. Pens and pencils spilled onto the floor that was already covered in countless small, white goose down feathers; casualties of his mother’s aforementioned pillow eating.
Peter looked at his mother sternly, wagging his finger in her face. “That was very naughty!” Her penguin eyes followed his finger left and right, but she didn’t seem to understand that she was being scolded for being a bad penguin.
Frustrated, Peter left his room and walked into the backyard, his mother trailing behind him once again. He figured that he’d plant some vegetables so that when his mother returned to her normal self, she’d have something to be happy about now that he had no report card to show her and she found a big mess in his room.
He knew that she absolutely loved cucumbers. So Peter grabbed a shovel and planted a little row of cucumber seeds. He dug little nooks in the soil, dropped the seeds in place and covered them up. He patted down the dirt and placed a pebble to mark where each plant would grow. Now, all he needed was to give them a little water so they could start growing into big, juicy full-grown cucumbers. He ran into the kitchen, filled a glass in the sink and ran back into the yard.
But when he reached his newly planted cucumber seeds he saw that there was dirt scattered all over the garden. The pebbles were gone and only giant holes were left in their place. He dug into the soil, searching for his seeds, only to find nothing but weeds and roots. Where had his seeds gone? He looked up at his mother and saw little bits of dirt smeared across the sides of her beak. She looked back at him, chewing noisily.
He asked her, “Did you eat the cucumber seeds?”
She nodded her penguin head up and down and gulped down the last of them. Pete threw the shovel down in a huff and walked back into the house.
With no report card, a messy room and a ruined garden, Pete was truly fed up. He resolved to run away from home. It was clearly a better alternative to living with a messy penguin for a mother. He packed a bag full of clothes, books and cucumber seeds, ready for his journey.
His penguin mother watched him gather his things without making a sound, following him around from room to room as he grabbed this and that. On his way out the door, Peter left a note for his mother, in case she ever did return to her normal self. It read:
Your unfortunate situation has left me no choice but to run away. It’s not your fault. It’s the penguin’s. I miss you. I love you.
Peter folded the note and left it on the kitchen counter. As he walked toward the front door he could hear the sound of his mother’s beak gnashing paper. And with that, he left forever.