The following comes from Then A Penguin Walked In and Other Tall Tales, currently on sale digitally and in paperback.


WHEN DOMINICK WAS A kid, there wasn’t much to do.

His parents had never participated much in the way of social activity, and therefore had spent most of their free time avoiding others. Probably still do, for that matter. Dominick could recall the many occasions in which his family had never gone to any of the neighborhood barbecues, had never had anyone over for any reason, and had never attended any sort of public function. This extreme avoidance meant that Dominick and his parents were known throughout town as ‘that weird family’.

If they were bothered by the moniker, his parents had never shown it, but for Dominick it meant that he’d never really had any friends growing up in small town America. This reason alone was the primary cause behind Dominick having little to do as mentioned above.

Dominick had taken to wandering around his home town of Eudora, Kansas whenever he’d been shunted outside by his parents because they’d grown tired of watching him sit in front of the television all day. Dominick had come to realize later in life that his parents had never truly worried about the potential mental problems that prolonged exposure to the television might have on his developing brain, but instead sent him out of the house so that they might finally get a chance to spend some quality time with the boob tube.

When Dominick was nine, he’d discovered the town landfill while out on one of his daily sojourns. He’d been positively entranced as he’d picked through the mountain of trash. That day alone he’d found a lamp, a bowling ball, and a box full of action figures. Soon the landfill had become a daily trek for him, and often he would return home with small treasures. But none had been so monumental as the one he’d found two summers later.

It had been a beat up old go-cart. It didn’t run, which probably had something to do with the missing engine, and it looked like it hadn’t seen a coat of paint since folks thought the bow tie was the height of fashion.

But, all the same, Dominick pushed the heap the five miles home.

He’d known that his parents were not going to approve of his latest acquisition. They’d call it a waste of time. Sure, if it had had a working engine that would be one thing. But without it, the go-cart would just take up space.

In anticipation of this parental wall, Dominick had hidden the go-cart in the garage.

His parents had never used the garage for anything other than storage. Beyond chucking the occasional box into the garage now and again, his mom and dad had rarely laid eyes inside.

So, Dominick had figured, as long as he kept the big door closed—he’d actually never known it to be open—he could keep the go-cart back in a corner, throw some boxes over the top of it, and tinker on it while his parents were at work with no risk of discovery.

And so that is what he had done.

The following week had gone swimmingly. He’d pounded out all of the dents as best he could with his dad’s hammer. Then he’d sanded off what paint had managed to still be clinging to the metal shell. There had been a hole or two here and there due to rust, but all in all he felt it had turned out okay. He’d just needed to paint it.

That next week Dominick had taken his savings downtown to Pop’s Hardware and bought three cans of spray paint: Two red and one black. Then he’d gone home to paint his go-cart red, with a pair of black racing stripes.

He’d been on his second can of red when everything around him had gone a bit wobbly. He’d been about to go back inside to let the paint dry when his hamster, Reggie, had squeezed into the garage from under the big door. Dominick had found that a bit odd.

First, Reggie had been wearing a sombrero, something he’d never recalled Reggie ever doing before.

Second, Reggie had been carrying a small bag full of colorful socks that the hamster had then tried to sell to Dominick. But oddest of all, Reggie had died the previous year.

After that everything had grown hazy and had then gone black.

He’d come to later in a hospital bed, confused and more than a little terrified.

He’d come to realize, of course, that Reggie, his sombrero, and his bag of socks had never actually been there. It had all been a hallucination brought about by huffing paint fumes in a confined space.

Dominick thought back on all of that now as he hung helpless and slack-jawed in the arms of a sword-wielding lizard man, watching in justified disbelief as a penguin waddled into the basement of the Happy Hamburger. While the incident with Reggie had seemed real enough at the time, it didn’t hold a candle to the strangeness he had suddenly found himself in today.

If he had to be honest with himself, and at a time like this he didn’t have a lot of choice, Dominick wasn’t all that surprised to see the penguin. After all, he’d been seeing penguins all week. Just yesterday he was leaving the comic book store and for a moment spied a penguin looking at him from behind a lamppost across the street. But, just as Dominick had realized what it was he was seeing, a car passed between them and the penguin was gone. Nearly the same thing had happened at the grocery store three days ago, and the DMV the day before that. So while the lizard man was enough to make Dominick question his sanity, the penguin was almost comfortable.

The arctic bird was about two feet tall. Beyond that Dominick didn’t know enough about penguins to identify its species. It paused just inside the door, looking from Dominick to the lizard man. If he didn’t know any better, Dominick would swear the bird was studying the situation, assessing, working things out in its head.

“You!” The lizard man said. It dropped Dominick unceremoniously onto the floor and pulled its sword.

Dominick scrambled out from between the two animals.

Then, without even the tiniest bit of fanfare, a sword appeared in the penguin’s hand—well, flipper—and it leaped into the air, brandishing the tiny blade. It was a blur of movement as it attacked the lizard man, jumping this way and that, flipping about like a gymnast in a tuxedo. Dominick found it hard to follow the penguin but had no trouble spotting the blood that dripped from numerous cuts all over the lizard man’s body.

The lizard man, try as it might, couldn’t defend itself against such a small, flying, ball of fury and steel. It swung its massive sword here and there, never connecting with the penguin.

Then the lizard man was on its knees, its head bowed. The sword fell from its hands and crashed to the concrete floor.

The penguin stood before it. It raised its sword once more, this time as some sort of salute, then finished the lizard man with one, quick jab to the heart. The penguin stepped back as the lizard man collapsed in death.

The room was quiet. The only thing Dominick could hear was the sound of his own breathing. He kept his eyes glued to the penguin. The bird’s tiny sword disappeared as it turned to him. Dominick backed away a step, halted only by the wall behind him.

The penguin did not advance. It merely made a motion with its flipper. A motion meant to convey its desire for Dominick to follow. Then it turned and waddled its way out of the basement, where it vanished from view.

Dominick remained on the floor, petrified. What should he do? He’d grown up being told never to go anywhere with a stranger. But no one had ever mentioned penguins. Besides, it had saved his life.

His mind made up, Dominick stood and followed the penguin from the room.

He found the penguin outside. It hadn’t gone far. It leaned against the back wall of The Happy Hamburger, flippers crossed in front of its chest.

“Thank Bose that I have found you at last,” the penguin said.

“You can talk?” Dominick said.

“Of course I can talk.” Its voice reminded Dominick of one of those animated chipmunks.

“But, you’re a penguin.”

“Actually, I’m a pixie.”

“A pixie?”

“That is correct. One of the faerie folk. I am called Vivian.” The penguin held out its flipper, offering to shake.



“Vivian the pixie?”

“Yes. I am a pixie. I am called Vivian.” If a penguin could be said to smile, Vivian was doing just that.

“But you look like a penguin.”

“Yes, yes I do. Well spotted. I chose a form that would allow me to blend in with your world. I didn’t want to cause any undo excitement or mental trauma to your people.”

“So you chose the form of a penguin?”

“You like to repeat things, don’t you? Is that a typical human trait in your world, or are you having some sort of mental imbalance?”

“Well, it’s just that we don’t have any penguins in Kansas outside of a zoo.”

“The penguin is not native to your land?” Vivian said, looking a bit concerned.

“No, not at all,” Dominick said.

It had suddenly occurred to Dominick that he was handling this current situation with the utmost of aplomb. Anyone else would be freaking out under such circumstances, but not Dominick. It made him feel more than a bit proud of himself, which was, he had to admit, an odd feeling.

That was when the other penguin appeared.

“Vivian, what is going on?” the second penguin said. “Is it him? Is he the One? Have you given him the sword already?”

“Yes he is, Harold,” said Vivian. “And no, I’ve not given him the sword. There appears to be some confusion in the matter of our disguises that I am trying at the moment to work out.”

“What’s wrong with our disguises?”

Dominick seemed to have been forgotten for the moment. This was a shame as he found himself practically itching to ask about this sword he was supposed to be given.

“It appears,” Vivian said. “That the penguin is not indigenous to this particular region.”

“But Rick said–”

“Rick was wrong then, wasn’t he?” Vivian interrupted.

“Look,” Vivian turned to Dominick. “Would you mind just waiting here for a moment while we get this all sorted out?”

“Um, no… Er, did you say something about a sword?”

But he received no response as Vivian, and the penguin she had called Harold, waddled away.

Dominick tried to follow. The two had moved off the lot and into the dumpster pen behind the Happy Hamburger.

The dumpster pen was a magical place where one could find the trash dumpster, that is if one were the sort of person who spent their idle time going out and looking for trash dumpsters. The pen itself was a tall privacy fence made up of vertical wooden planks. It surrounded an area about the size of two small busses parked side by side, but was open at the front for easy access to the dumpster by the city trash collectors. The Happy Hamburger’s dumpster, like most, was rusted with flaking green paint. Sitting next to the dumpster was a green and rusted grease trap where Dominick often visited to dispose of the used oil from the fryers each day. There’s never been a joy known in life like the glee one is able to experience when visiting a fast food grease trap. The smell alone was enough to cause the contents of one’s stomach to curdle and churn like a stormy sea of spoiled milk.

Dominick watched as the two penguins waddled between the dumpster and the grease trap, disappearing into the dark confines beyond. He decided to go in after them, despite the smell of rancid beef that was all part of the Happy Hamburger dumpster pen experience. Yet, as he rounded the corner behind the dumpster, the penguins were gone.

Dominick scratched at his head, pondering for a moment if today was truly happening. A lizard man? Penguins? Pixies? Maybe he’d finally inhaled too much of the fumes from the cleaner fluid he employed each day to remove the caked-on grease from the front of the fryers. Possibly this was all a dream and he would wake up at any moment in the comfort of his bed. Then he looked at his arm where the lizard man had taken hold of him earlier. He could see the bruises forming there. He certainly wasn’t imagining those.

But still, Vivian and Harold seemed to have disappeared. He realized how long he’d been gone now on this quest of his to find more medium boxes and figured it would be best to get back to work. Otherwise, Mr. Finkleton was going to come looking for him. One thing you never wanted to do at the Happy Hamburger was make Mr. Finkleton do anything outside of his daily work activities. Never make a cop run, never invite a sales person into your home, and never make Mr. Finkleton come look for you. If you did any of the three, you could look forward to a level of comfort usually set aside for, well, the type of person who would make a cop run.

Dominick left the dumpster pen and made his way across the lot. After just a few steps he learned that despite the worry of incurring the wrath of Mr. Finkleton, Dominick wasn’t in any real hurry to return to work. He’d been privy to a much larger world in as little as ten minutes today, and that’s likely to shake most people. And as Dominick is most people, he felt more than a little shaky.

As he crossed the lot and reached the back door, Dominick sighed the kind of sigh that poets can only dream of sighing themselves as they wallow in a state of creative melancholy and gaze forlornly at the muse they will never attain. Then, as he was about to take the handle in hand and yank open the door, he heard a tiny voice from behind.

“Dominick Hanrahan,” the voice said. “Where are you going?”

Dominick turned to find a pair of, well… he wasn’t quite sure what he was looking at. They were about a foot long and looked a bit like elongated rats.

“Vivian?” Dominick said. “Harold?”

“Yes, Dominick Hanrahan,” said Harold, the one on the right. “It is us.”

“What are you supposed to be now?” Dominick asked.

The two odd looking creatures looked at each other for a moment before turning back.

“Why, we have each taken the form of the long nosed bandicoot,” Vivian said.

“The bandicoot?” Dominick almost laughed. “We don’t have bandicoots in Kansas either.” At least Dominick didn’t think so. In truth, Dominick wasn’t sure just what a bandicoot was beyond being the star of a video game from the late 90’s.

“Look,” Harold said. “It doesn’t matter.”

Then Harold rose up onto his hind legs and Dominick suddenly knew what it was like to see a rodent look regal.

“You must come with us, Dominick Hanrahan,” Harold said. “Gund is nearing its most desperate hour and you are sorely needed.”

“Me? Gund? What the heck is a Gund?”

“Gund is our home,” said Vivian. “And you must go there with us now.”

“What?” Dominick took a step back. “Why?

“The fate of our people depends on you,” said Vivian.

“Now? I can’t go anywhere now; I’m supposed to be working. Mr. Finkleton is going to kill me when he finds out that I’ve left my post.”

“Worry not, young Hanrahan. Your Mr. Finkleton does not know that you are gone,” Harold said.

“Yes, our companion, Raymond, has taken your form and is posing as you as we speak,” Vivian said.

“Okay, you’re going to have to explain that,” Dominick said.

“There is no time for long-winded explanations,” Harold said. “You must come with us now.”

“Yeah, that’s what needs explaining. I’m not in the habit of going off with people I’ve just met, much less shape-shifting leprechauns.”

“We are pixies, young man,” Vivian said, crossing her furry arms across her furry chest. “Pixies.”

Dominick had no clue what an angry bandicoot looked like, but he figured he was looking at one right now.

“Pixies, leprechauns, penguins, what does it matter?” Dominick said. “What matters is that two minutes ago I was secure in the knowledge that I would live till the end of my days having never had a conversation with a rat, and now this!” He gestured to the two of them.

Dominick Hanrahan’s freak out was well and truly in full swing.

“You can’t just show up and expect me to go off to someplace I’ve never heard of with two—what do I call you people?” Dominick’s voice rose to an octave normally reserved for fronting an 80’s hair metal band.

“You can call us pixies,” Harold said.

“It doesn’t matter!” Dominick let it rip. “The fact that you thought you could just show up out of the blue and expect me to leave with you is simply ridiculous, and frankly, more than a little offensive!”

“I saved your life,” Vivian said. “Does that not account for a little trust?”

“Besides,” Harold said, looking up at him with eyes like sad blue marbles. “Our people are dying.”

Dominick found that more than a little unfair. And yet, it had the desired effect all the same. He sighed once, took a single deep breath, closed his eyes, and made himself relax. It wasn’t all that hard. Dominick had never been much of an angry person. He’d been known to dabble in quick bursts of harmless rage now and again, but in the end he’d always maintained a fairly calm demeanor.

“Look, I’m sorry I snapped at you, and I feel for whatever it is that’s happening to your people, but I don’t understand what you think I can do about it.”

“You are the One,” Vivian said.

“The One,” Harold echoed.

“The One?” Dominick said. “Like capital O one?” If Dominick could arch an eyebrow, he would be doing so now.

“You are destined to protect the lands of Gund,” Vivian said. “The veil is weakening; the darkness will soon be on us.”

“Yes,” Harold said. “The darkness rises. Already Lord Hob has grown in power.”


“Scourge of the West,” said Vivian

“Defiler of the East,” said Harold.

“Plague of the North,” said Vivian.

“Overlord of the South,” said Harold.

“King of the Nighttime World,” said Vivian.

“Lord Hob and his army are set to invade Haven,” said Harold.

“You must stop him,” said Vivian.

“How?” Dominick said. “How am I to do that? I work the fryers at a fast food place and you’re talking to me about defeating an army. This is insane.”

“You need not worry about Hob’s forces,” Vivian said. “The grand army of Haven will take care of them. It’s Hob himself. He is beyond our power.”

“Okay, so yeah. That’s the part I’m having a problem with. This guy can’t be beaten by an army, but you expect me to do it? What do you want me to do, stick his head in a fryer?”

“You are the One,” said Harold as if no other explanation was warranted.

“Only you can wield Arakis, the Black Sword of Power,” Vivian said, sensing that Dominick needed a little bit more.

Before Dominick could reply, a car roared around the back of the store. Luckily the driver was too busy texting to notice Dominick and the bandicoots, but just the same…

The problem with talking openly to a pair of bandicoots, apart from the obvious of course… No, not apart from the obvious, the obvious is the only problem, which is this: If said conversation is observed by anyone with even a moderate degree of sanity, your own mental state of mind will be immediately put into question. Your ability for rational thinking will be scrutinized and judgment will befall upon you in such magnitude that in comparison the Great Chicago Fire will forever in your mind be looked upon unfairly as nothing more than a cozy night curled up in front of the fireplace with a good book and an even better bottle of wine.

Sensing on an instinctual level—the passing car hadn’t hurt—that this was the case, Dominick took steps.

“Look, can you two take human form or something? Someone’s gonna call the Police if they see me out here talking with two big rats.

“Yes, of course,” Harold said.

Light surrounded the two bandicoots and they began to grow. The light shone with such intensity that Dominick had to shield his eyes. When he could see again he found himself facing Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift.

“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t think this is going to be any better.”

To be continued...


No comments:

Post a Comment