Sara thought Petey was her brother, and nobody had the heart to tell her otherwise. They’d grown up together, after all. Sarah and her mom had found him hopping on the shoreline near their home in Athenree, New Zealand. Rockhoppers were all over the coast, but it was rare for one to venture into Shelly Bay.
They left him where he was, and her mom promised that they would check on him the very next day. The toddler wanted to take him home right then but her mom said they didn’t have anything for him to eat. Sara didn’t think that was a good enough reason because she knew the Four Square market was open. Mama had to admit she was worried that he might be lost and looking for his family. She hadn’t wanted to say that, not knowing how Sara would take it. Would she feel for him, be sad that he was alone, and then insist on adopting him right away? This was not a situation she wanted to deal with on a Tuesday afternoon. She just wanted to go on a wander with her daughter and then come home to afternoon tea and a nap, preferably in that order.
Sara was concerned, but not overly so, and Mama again assured her they’d come back tomorrow and check on him. She hoped that he’d be gone and forgotten by then. Children have such short memories, and sometimes that was a blessing.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Mama had forgotten about the little lone penguin by the next afternoon. But he hadn’t forgotten about them. As soon as she opened the garage door to leave for their daily walk, he was standing there in the side yard. Sara shrieked with delight and started to run towards him. She hadn’t forgotten about him at all. Mama called to her to stay away but it was too late. She was already embracing him in a full-on hug as only a toddler can. It was a hug that was a bit like a tackle and a lot like a reunion after a wartime deployment. Fortunately the penguin seemed to be just as enthusiastic, flapping his stubby wings and chirruping in high-pitched squeals. You would have thought they were long-lost friends if they were of the same species.
Mama stood there in amazement, taking in the scene. Maybe he had followed them home? They lived not far from the shoreline, and there weren’t any roads he (Mama assumed it was a he – how do you to tell?) would have had to cross. How long had he been there? Sara’s voice broke through her musings.
“Mama he’s here! Our Petey!” she exclaimed in delight, her face lighting up like the sun.
“Sara, sweetheart, we can’t keep him, he’s a wild animal. There are laws about this.” She wasn’t certain about this but it sounded very parental to say. “And Petey? Is that his name?” – knowing that naming a pet meant it was harder to get rid of it. Name it and keep it. Anonymous animals came and went, but named ones stayed. How did she come up with Petey? They didn’t have any friends or relations named that. It wasn’t out of any picture book they’d gotten from the library to read at bedtime.
“He told me his name was Petey!” Sara beamed, and she hugged him all the more. He seemed a little overwhelmed and on the verge of being smothered by this point, but overall still quite happy to be found. Mama wondered if Sara could translate his squeaks and chitters. “How did he tell you, baby?” She used her most reasonable voice now. This wasn’t in her plans. Daniel would be upset when he came back from his business trip tomorrow to discover they had adopted a penguin. Or a penguin had adopted them. She wasn’t sure.
“He told me in my heart,” Sara said, and letting go of her newfound best friend with one hand, she placed it over her heart to show her mom. Sometimes she had to point things out to her mom to make sure she understood. Even toddlers know that parents can be a little dense sometimes.
Sara’s mom wasn’t sure how to take this. Was her daughter making things up again? Or was this a sign of a mental illness? It was hard to separate the two sometimes. Was this why so many artists and writers went off the deep end? This wasn’t going so well. She was supposed to be the adult, after all, supposed to be in charge. Toddlers weren’t supposed to run the show, although they often did. Adults just thought they were in control. Meanwhile, toddlers determined when and if they slept, and where and how they ate. The fact that Sara was an only child amplified her power over her parents.
It was not long before Petey became a member of the family. He lived outside, however, so he wasn’t a full member. Mama thought it was safer all around to not bring him inside, and the weather was always mild where they lived. She was concerned that if they brought him in they’d have to notify the animal control department. But if he lived outside, they could still think of him as “wild” and he could come and go as he wished. If they brought him in there might be shots and laws to be considered. Plus, there was always the thought that it wasn’t fair to keep him in. Daniel, once he got home and was consulted, remembered a roommate he’d had in college who’d kept a bird in a cage as a pet. He’d always thought there was something cruel and vain about that, because birds aren’t meant to live inside like dogs or cats. They are meant to be free. Penguins were birds too, after all.
Sara’s parents started to think of Petey as their second child, and while they never said that out loud to friends or coworkers, they were never so bizarre as to refer to him as their “featherbaby”. He was an animal, a quasi-pet. They loved him, but he wasn’t human.
Except to Sara. She remained the only child that Mr. and Mrs. Fullerton had, so she didn’t know any different. To her, Petey was her younger brother. It didn’t matter to her that he never learned how to speak English and never went to school. She understood that he was a little different than her friend’s siblings, and she was OK with that. All of her childhood she looked forward to going home after school and getting to see her best friend, who still waddled about in the back yard, still pleased as punch to see her.