The boy freezes mid-smack.
"The bus is pulling out. Face forward and leave David alone. I'm not gonna tell you again."
She is, let's be honest, gonna tell him again. This is the third time that Mrs. Carter has issued such a warning, and it's not yet seven o'clock.
What possessed them to think a lengthy jaunt across state lines was a bright idea? From the snow-capped mountains of New Hampshire to bustling Boston, all for the sake of a shark exhibit.
Those fanged fishies better be spectacular.
Granted, most of the squeaking is coming from a lone wheel. In the back, Billy continues to twist David's ear, literally, intent on trading mercy for a Rugrats sweatshirt.
"Hey! Quit it," David yells, flailing in defense, his Tommy Pickles merch tucked safely out of reach.
Mrs. Carter casts a glance over her shoulder.
"I. Said. ENOUGH!" she bellows. "If you keep this up, we're not stopping at McDonald's. And you can forget the aquarium gift shop!"
That does the trick. The one thing Billy likes more than cartoons is copious amounts of junk, edible or otherwise. Plus, this week's Happy Meal toy is really good.
Defeated, he slams himself down next to Mark L. and crosses his arms.
"I was just fooling around," he whines, delivered in the pouty cadence of a toddler.
He kicks the seat in front of him and, finding some satisfaction in that, retrieves a Gameboy from his backpack.
"Whatever," he mutters, banging away at the red dots.
Mrs. Carter, her patience toast, leans against the rainy window, fingers coming to rest on fatigued lids.
Joel Bryant, her fellow chaperone, opts to look around awkwardly, never much for chitchat.
Or, you know, assisting.
Within their Scout troop of a dozen, nine-year-old Billy is the only Cub who consistently mouths off or gangs up.
Sometimes, he manages a twofer.
The rest can be impulsive. Rowdy. A tad gross. All par for the course. But they lack that certain something—willfulness? a mean streak?—that makes her want to send Billy's mother a sympathy card.
Sorry your kid's a handful! 💐
— The Hallmark Co. 👑
Trouble is, Mrs. Carter admits, spying her dark circles in the mirror, she's Billy's mother.
Does it count as empathy if you're pitying yourself?
In the years before she became a chef, Beth Carter taught a class called Life Skills—irony duly noted.
Whenever she came across a student behaving badly—though, to be fair, nobody was quite like her William—she wondered if there were problems in the home.
Was the child being mistreated?
Did he lack supervision?
Was he mimicking a parent's poor example?
Welp. In this case, she has the inside scoop, and her theories have gone to pot. Both she and her husband are relatively normal, thank you. One might label them as bland.
They aren't neglectful of Billy's needs. They don't yell unless necessary—okay, so the necessity has been increasing—and neither would harm a strand on his noggin.
It seems that Billy is simply, as his grandmother puts it, a "delightful, excitable soul stumbling along the path of existence."
Grandpa isn't as generous.
"Kid's a naughty little brat! A real pain in the ass! You know why he acts up? Because he can. In my day, we would've thrown him off a boat, let him sink or swim on his own."
While she admonished her father, a part of Beth understood. It's not lost on her that she had to volunteer as troop leader. None of the other adults can wrangle her son, and they're no longer keen on trying.
She doesn't blame them. After the last field trip, Ms. Buckley, his teacher, was picking slime out of her highlights for a month.
Once indoors, the morning passes in a pleasant rush. To the chaperones' relief, it can almost be described as peaceful.
They observe the yooge turtles (oooh), the fascinating balloonfish (ahhh), and even a California sea lion (sweet!) that bears a decent resemblance to its namesake.
If this sounds too harmonious to last, it is. Uninterested in the fuss, Billy develops a fatal case of boredom. He tries shoving around Josh, the dork with the Starter jacket, but that's not going to cut it.
"I'm missing Ren & Stimpy!" he laments, somewhere between the stingrays and the lobstahs. "And Doug!"
He's particularly fond of Roger, the leather-clad ruffian.
When they get to the Atlantic salmon—salmon? really?—he produces a black Sharpie, followed by a glitter pen.
Yep, the kind that leaks, leaving puddles of shimmer in random spots.
"Put it away," his mother tells him, but only once. Sparkles aren't a hill she's willing to die on.
He ignores her, setting to work on his masterpiece, his tongue poking out in concentration.
With pride, Billy rotates his hand for the group to see. The letter A has been drawn over his admittance stamp, obscuring the cutesy blue logo.
"Um, rad," remarks a boy with freckles. "But what is it?"
"Are you stupid, Collin? It means anarchy! No rules. My cousin Frank is wicked cool. He plays the guitar and rents R movies, and he has a sticker with one of these on it. So yeah, I know about that stuff."
The others seem less infatuated with watching the world burn, but each gives a nod of approval.
When Billy Carter shows you something, you at least pretend to be impressed—assuming, that is, you prefer your Snapple without backwash.
As the group approaches the penguin exhibit—a pool with an array of large stones for the rockhoppers' benefit—Billy hangs back.
"What are they?" he asks, pupils growing by the second. "They look freeeeaky."
"They're penguins! Like the sign says," a guide teases.
He's not a fan of girls, and her tone is way too perky, but he allows her to proceed. For now.
"You're used to seeing the famous variety on TV. The tuxedo'd crew. These fellas are a bit different. More rugged."
You can say that again. Their beaks are ultra-sharp. Their feathers, or so it appears, have been buzzed into freshly shaped Mohawks, and there are yellow quills sticking up everywhere, kinda like antennae.
The best part is the eyebrows. Two diagonal slashes, the same taxi-ish color as the plumes circling their crests.
It's a lot to take in.
Speaking of a lot, the chatty lady's name is Nora. It's printed in block font on her tag.
Well, Nora, he thinks, all I need is for you to hush so that I can be alone with the birds.
They are birds, right?
Most of the colony is out of viewing range, but there are four specimens currently nestled amid the wet rocks.
Three of 'em are socializing while bouncing from stone to stone.
Like Gummy Bears. Whoa!
The fourth is standing by his lonesome, those stern brows arched towards the ceiling.
He's looking right at Billy with indescribable intensity.
"Oh, that's Cy," says Nora, picking up on the ocular tension. "Cy the Shy Guy, though grumpy may have been more accurate."
Captain Anarchy does not.
"Cy hates being pent up. Or watched, I'm assuming. A true loner. Been that way since his mom got sick and... A sad situation. They were a bonded pair."
"That is sad," Billy replies, and he means it.
The guide makes an absent-minded gesture towards the Employees Only section.
"We have to be careful when opening the access panels. He's eager to escape."
"I want to meet him," Billy declares, palms pressed to the partition.
"Meet him? Uh, okay! Talk about anything you please. Just respect the guidelines on the wall."
"No," he corrects her, impatient. "I'm not a baby. I don't wanna say hi. I want to play around in there. Feed him, go swimming. See what his weird skin is like."
He considers this, then adds, "I bet it's rubbery underneath the fuzz."
A familiar wave of uh-oh washes over Nora.
This ain't her first marine-themed rodeo.
"I'm afraid that's out of the question. You'd regret it, anyway, trust me. He can be a nasty one."
When no response is forthcoming, she says, "Let's move on. There's a seal show starting in a few minutes."
Pretending he didn't hear her, Billy pounds his fists on the divide, hard enough to startle the more laid-back trio. They bound towards the commotion, curious.
Cy, however, hasn't budged an inch. He's still boring a hole through the glass with his stare, garnet peepers on fire.
"WHAT is going on here?" Beth Carter hollers, hurrying towards the ruckus.
She was searching for coffee when this nonsense broke loose.
"I told him he can't enter the penguins' habitat," Nora explains. "He's taking it hard."
Funny how it always begins this way...
"I'm so sorry! Don't know what's gotten into him. Billy, honey, let's go."
Beth forces a smile, inauthentic as Velveeta. He knows she means business because her teeth are clenched, tiny bubbles of spit peeking out from between the bottom row.
Steering him away by the elbow, she hisses, "We're done here."
Maybe you are, he retorts, but only to himself.
"Can I go to the bathroom?" Billy asks, oddly polite.
Enthralled by Sonja the Seal's antics, Mr. Bryant fails to notice which kid is bugging him.
A rookie mistake.
"Yeah, sure. Be back in five, and don't wander."
"Awesome! I won't."
As the rest of the suckers watch some slippery thing balance a ball on its nose, he hustles towards the penguin enclosure, retracing his steps.
When he arrives, the clique is out of sight, but that's no biggie.
He's here to see the boss.
Confident the crowds aren't paying attention, he sneaks through the off-limits area, quiet as a mute button.
He's worried the door will be bolted but figures it's worth a shot.
Bolted, that is.
Having entered the forbidden kingdom, Billy makes a beeline for the source of his obsession. He finds Cy behind the main staging.
It's as if he's been waiting.
With care, Billy climbs aboard a floating landscape. They're about ten feet apart when he kneels and calls to the critter, the same method he uses when spotting a dog.
"Come 'ere, Cy," he coos, tapping his thighs for good measure.
How else should one address a penguin?
Their eyes lock, but this time Cy barrels in Billy's direction, hopping across the expanse and making furious, full-body contact.
Billy topples, falling onto another boulder. When he sits up, damp and stunned, his head is throbbing something fierce.
They might as well have gone to the planetarium because the next thing he sees is stars.
"Again, Mrs. Carter, let us know if he has any issues relating to the lump he sustained. We take safety breaches very seriously around here. Luckily, this type of incident is rare."
The man in tan slacks is the aquarium's director, and he's doing an admirable job of avoiding a lawsuit.
Except, muses Nora, eavesdropping, they're not that rare. There was the girl in the pink coat who got too close to a blowfish.
And the blond kid who wouldn't stop pestering that eel...
"Oh, it's alright," Beth reassures him. "I trust William has learned his lesson. Your staff has been wonderful, by the way."
Ditto for her on the suit-avoidance strategy.
The tot of the hour appears, having just exited the gift shop. His hair is frizzy, the bump is sporting a bandage, and there's a neon bag dangling from his wrist.
The folks at the desk gave him store credit to make up for any trauma. Not to mention his soggy Nintendo.
"Mom! I bought these for you. To say sorry about everything. And I'm gonna apologize to the guys, too. I've been a jerk."
In a million guesses, she never could've predicted that those words would come tumbling out of his mouth.
"Thank you, sweetie! Whatever it is, I'm sure I'll appreciate it."
Perhaps she shouldn't be so indulgent after the stunt he pulled, but...
Billy puts his arms around her and squeezes. Surprised, she comforts him with a soothing pat.
"It's a bunch of postcards and a calendar. This was a pretty fun day. I want to remember it."
There's more. While trekking through the parking lot, he actually holds her hand.
Like, in front of people. On purpose.
Any lingering frustration melts faster than an ice cube in the sun. Beth's still concerned, mind you—he's getting checked for a concussion the moment they return to the Valley—but touched all the same.
Scrapes aside, Mrs. Carter feels her son's change of heart—of personality, even—can only be attributed to one thing:
He finally met a creature that could out-bully him, and it. was. humbling.
She should mail the feathered rascal a treat.
Nora is closing up for the night, a visual sweep of the penguin exhibit the last item on her list.
Satisfied that everyone is accounted for, she hits a switch and kills the overhead lights.
As she turns to leave, a flash of movement registers in her peripheral, semi-darkness be darned.
"Cy? Mr. Shy?" she sing-songs.
The bird is standing atop a rock in the dead center of the pool. Under the glint of the tank's bulbs, she spies a smear of something clinging to his flipper.
Something shiny. Shifty. Almost hypnotic.
Upon further inspection, she realizes it's glitter.
I knew it.
Nora scans the room, making absolutely certain the building is empty.
It is. They're alone.
Wearing a Cheshire smirk, she joins him on the island, crouching until level with the beast that headbutted a nine-year-old.
"Billy?" she whispers, exploring his gaze for clues. "Is that you in there?"
The animal shuffles his feet, a frantic impression of Fred Astaire. He peers at her, imploring, desperate for rescue or explanation or—
Nora releases a loud chuckle, cold as the emperor penguin's homeland.
"Don't look at me, buddy. I told you Cy wanted out!"
Kids. They never listen.
About the Creator
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions