I do not know if you have ever been to Antarctica, but if you have not, I have some advice for you: Do not go to Antarctica. Trust me, you will not enjoy it. There’s just nothing to do there. I mean, like, really. Nothing. There’s nothing there! I don’t mean like all the bars and hangouts and stuff are lame or you can’t get good Chinese food, I mean there is literally nothing there at all!!!
Well, no, I guess there are two things: Ice and penguins. But that’s about it.
I can tell you about ice; it’s cold it’s hard and it’s easy to slip on it and fall on your butt (which hurts). It’s white and boring and, I don’t care what they say about global warming, it ain’t gettin’ any toastier down there. Which means that Antarctica has only one thing going for it as a tourist location, and, to be fair, it’s a pretty good draw:
And what’s not to love about penguins? Cute and cuddly, yet dignified and noble. Classy in both dress and demeanor, yet possessed of excellent senses of humor. Not only that, penguins are dreamers. Oh yes, for, you see, deep within the heart of every young Antarctican penguin, there is a single, burning desire. A most sincere wish. A great passion and a dream which guides us through the dark nights of our native Antarctica.
And it’s this: To get the heck out of Antarctica!
As I said, it’s no fun. And for an ambitious young penguin with dreams that don’t fit on an ice floe it’s darn near intolerable. No libraries, no cinemas, no bookshops, no coffee bars, not even a Wal-Mart for flip’s sake! If it weren’t for those guys who came down to work in that weather station, I may never have even seen a book! I mean, they were real nice to me, they…Oh, I’m sorry. I think I forgot to tell you something:
I’m a penguin.
My name is Leroy, and this is my story. I guess, to look at me, you wouldn’t think I was too remarkable. I’m kinda short, maybe a little chubby, black, white, and birdlike. But if you took the time to get to know me, I like to think you’d be able to tell how special I am. All my life, I’ve felt different from other penguins. Not just because I don’t like fish. Not just because I’m not a strong swimmer. Not even because of my asthma (which we just called the “Wheezing Sickness” cuz we had never heard of it before). It was something else that set me apart from my fellow birdies. True, we all would have liked to see something besides Antarctica, but I felt there was something bigger out there. Something I couldn’t put into words but felt that I was meant to be a part of. But whenever I tried to explain what was in my heart to the other penguins, they just looked at me like I was crazy.
Heck, for all I knew, I was!
But then those weather station guys turned up and shared their books and music and we even had movie night every Wednesday. I’ll never forget the first movie we ever watched, mainly because it was the first movie I ever watched…like ever. You probably know it: It’s about a girl in Kansas who goes over a rainbow and ends up in another world. I was transfixed! Here I was, a simple penguin, dreaming of a world that I had no proof even existed, and this movie comes along and says everything I’m thinking more clearly than I ever could say it myself. Now, granted, at the end she goes back to Kansas, but that doesn’t really help the point I’m trying to make, which is this: I had to get away.
I begged Carla and Abrams (the weather station guys…which, thinking about it, I guess was a little misleading, cuz Carla’s more of what you’d call a “lady,” but I always called them “the guys,” so, ya know) to take me with them when their experiments were over, but they said no. They said they had a job to do and it was done and they had to go home. They couldn’t exactly take back souvenirs, they said, but they did leave me one. Carla’s a doctor, you see, and she noticed I had trouble breathing when I got too excited, so she used some of the medical supplies to make me a crude inhaler, and taught me how to use it.
So, for the record, I had no hard feelings toward Carla and Abrams. They were good friends and I understood their position about not taking indigenous persons (penguin or otherwise) back with them. How could I hold a grudge against such nice people? Letting me hang out and watch movies in their station, making me the inhaler, lending me the paper and pen with which I ultimately wrote my tearful goodbye letter to my friends and family before zipping myself in Abrams’ duffel the morning of their departure.
Looking back, I totally get why they were so mad at me.
Of course, by the time they noticed I was there, we were in the air, past the point of no return. They yelled, I yelled, they yelled louder, I yelled as loud as I could, I couldn’t catch my breath, I passed out for a few minutes and when I woke up, Carla was cradling me in her arms singing my favorite song from my favorite movie and we were all friends again. But now the question of what they were going to do with me presented itself. I mean, they would have gotten in trouble just walking me through airport security. Although, I maintain it would’ve been pretty funny:
TSA AGENT: Do you have anything to declare?
ABRAMS: Just this penguin.
Still, in the interest of simplicity, I snuck back into Abrams’ duffel and stayed as still and quiet as possible until the heat was off. As I write this, I admit being slightly ashamed of how I came to America. I mean, I was, for all intents and purposes, an illegal alien. All I can say is that, at the time, it seemed like my only option. You see many penguins applying for green cards? There is a clear pro-human bias in US immigration laws…but that’s not what this story is about.
Anyway, when Abrams finally unzipped his duffel, we were in his apartment in Chicago, Illinois. “Welcome to your new home, Leroy,” he said as he led me to the window. And there, for the first time, I saw the United States of America. The tall buildings, the fast cars, the lights, the sounds, the music, the people. I felt how Dorothy must’ve felt when she and her friends saw the Emerald City for the first time. And in that moment I knew that Abrams had been right: I was home.
I stayed with Abrams for about a month, and I really did my best to get used to it and make myself at home. I just felt so cooped up. I mean, I was used to the wide open spaces of Antarctica. Now I had to spend my days in a one-bedroom in Lincoln Park. I couldn’t leave because, A, I was too short to reach the doorknob, B, didn’t have any money or identification, and, C, I was a penguin, so I had to stay inside all day every day. I mean, I tried to keep myself occupied. I read, I watched TV, Abrams gave me free run of his Netflix account, if I ever felt homesick for the ice and snow, I would just climb into the freezer. Nevertheless, I got stir crazy! I actually started to miss Antarctica, if you can believe that. What I thought was going to be my new home turned out to be just another boring place that I had to get away from.
So, one day, when Abrams had left for work, I put my plan into action. I pushed a great big chair up to the door and climbed on it to turn the knob. It was hard, especially for someone without fingers, but I finally managed to get the door open. I had found an old fanny pack of Abrams and had filled it with a few things I thought might come in handy. A spare key to the apartment, a map of the city, a Swiss Army Knife, a digital watch and about four dollars in loose change I had found in the sofa cushions (and my inhaler, of course). I slung it over my back like a knapsack and headed out into the world.
I figured I’d have a quick look around the city and be home before Abrams even noticed I was gone. I managed to get out of the building easy enough, but once I was on the street, things changed. You see, looking down on a city from seventeen flights up is one thing…looking up at it from two feet above the ground is another. The fact that I was a penguin and they were humans didn’t seem to matter when I was with Abrams or Carla. But now, for the first time since I left the South Pole, I saw things the way they truly were. I realized the risk my friends had taken helping me sneak into the country and why it was so important that I stay inside. As giant strangers passed me on all sides, I felt for the first time like what I was:
I didn’t belong in this world and I never could. This was a world made for human beings. There were a few animals, but they were either on leashes, under policemen or scavenging in the garbage. Even the birds could fly away, something I certainly couldn’t do. I began to think about going back to Antarctica. But then I remembered how miserable I was there. The fact is that, even though there was no place for me in this world, I still loved it. I loved the diversity and the wonders and, of course, the movies. And unless Netflix could deliver to my old address, I knew I’d never be happy back there either. But how could I be happy in a world where I would be forced to live as an outcast?
Of course people saw me. Lots of people who passed did cartoonish double takes when they realized that I was a penguin wearing a fanny pack on his back and using an inhaler. I can’t pretend to know what they were thinking, but I’m sure they were pretty freaked out. I assume what must have happened is someone took out their cell phone and called the police, because as I was walking aimlessly, trying not to panic, suddenly remembering why Dorothy decided she wanted to go home to Kansas as the end of the movie, I noticed a policeman coming toward me. Now, remember, I was an illegal immigrant who was under a great emotional strain and basically having a pretty traumatic day all around, so I hope you’ll understand what I did next:
I ran like I’d never run before (which, actually, isn’t saying much cuz, when you live on slippery ice, you don’t do much running) and somehow managed to stay ahead of the policeman for about a block and a half. Then I ducked into an alleyway and hid until I saw him run past me. I had gotten away from the authorities, but for how long? I went back out into the street to try and get my bearings. You see, in the throes of my anxiety, I had sort of lost my way and wasn’t sure how to get back to Abrams’ apartment. After a few minutes, however, I knew I was hopelessly lost. There was no other alternative: I had to call Abrams and tell him everything.
Though I didn’t know this yet, Abrams had already arrived home and seen that I was gone. He called Carla right away. They called the police and explained everything. The officer who took their call, Sergeant Hanratty, was very understanding and promised them that he would personally do whatever he had to do to bring me home. He called it in and was told that another officer had been called in to pick up a penguin wandering the streets but that he had lost me. Now, still unbeknownst to me, every available police officer in the area was looking for me.
Unfortunately, it would still be a while before I knew any of this. You see, it was getting dark and, being seventy-five percent black, I was becoming very hard to see. And being so small, my voice couldn’t carry over the sounds of the city, so nobody who I tried to ask for help could hear me. It was getting dark quick and I was scared and alone. I had to find some kind of shelter, and fast. So when I saw a young girl walking out the front door of her brownstone to drop the garbage on the curb, and noticed that she left the door wide open, I made a break for it. I didn’t like going in without permission, but I figured these were extenuating circumstances.
This home happened to belong to the Freeman family, the first of whom that I met was the youngest daughter, Moira. She was on her way upstairs to bed, judging by her pajamas, when she spotted me, shivering in the corner.
“Hello,” she said. But I was too scared and upset to answer. I had lost my inhaler when I was running from the policeman, and was having a hard time breathing, let alone calming myself. Moira must’ve been able to tell that I was having trouble and, looking around to see that her parents weren’t looking, she picked me up and carried me to her room. She laid me down on her bed and pulled the covers up over me. It reminded me of the way Carla cradled me on the plane and sang to me. It made me think of my home. My real home.
“Thank you,” I said, finally able to speak. “I’ve had a very bad day.”
“Did you lose your mommy and daddy?” Moira asked.
“Actually, I…I sort of left them.” And as soon as I said that I started to cry. You see, this was the first time I had really thought about what I had done. How much it must have hurt my family when I left. I never felt so bad in my life. I was homesick, and scared, and ashamed, and miserable. So I cried like I never cried before. And Moira held me very close. Unfortunately, I must’ve cried louder than I meant to, because a minute later there was a knock on the door.
“Moira?” said the person who knocked. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Ginny. My friend just misses his mommy.”
“What friend?” and the door was opened by Moira’s big sister, Ginny, the one who had unwittingly let me in her house. When she saw her little sister cradling a sobbing penguin, she…well, I guess she reacted pretty much the same way you would have reacted. “Where did it come from?” she said.
“I don’t know,” said Moira, and she turned to me and asked where I was from.
“My name is Leroy,” I said through my tears. And I told them both my whole story, everything from the day Carla and Abrams arrived in my neighborhood to the moment I ran inside their house. “I don’t know what to do or where I go from here. All I know is I wanna go home, but I have no idea where that is anymore.”
“We’d better tell Mom and Dad,” said Ginny.
“No!” I said. “Please, if you tell your parents they’ll just want to call the police or animal control or something and there’s no telling what will become of me!” Of course now I know that if I’d let her tell her parents, everything would’ve gone much smoother for me. At the time, however, I was clearly not thinking straight. “Just let me stay here for a while. Just until I work things out. I won’t be any trouble. Please?”
Ginny and Moira took very good care of me. They made sure I had plenty to eat, they gave me baths (very shallow baths cuz, again, not a strong swimmer), we played games and Moira and I read stories to each other every night. It’s remarkable to think that we lived like this for three whole days without their parents noticing…of course their parents leaving town for a long weekend probably didn’t hurt.
“Leroy,” Ginny said to me one afternoon while bathing me in the kitchen sink. “Have you given any thought to what you want do?” I had. I had grown very fond of Ginny and Moira and very much liked living with them. But I knew their parents would be home soon and I wouldn’t be able to stay there. Anyway, I was being selfish. My family in Antarctica and my friends in Chicago were worried about me, and I needed to make things right with them. I figured the best thing would be to get in touch with Abrams and Carla and see if they could help me get back to where I belonged.
Luckily, Abrams had written his name and telephone number in the fanny pack I was using, so I was able to call him that very day.
“Hello?” He sounded somewhat shaken when he answered, and I felt a pang of guilt.
“Hi, Abrams. It’s me.”
“Leroy? Oh my God, where are you? We’ve been worried sick!”
“I’m okay, Abrams. I’m somewhere safe, with friends.”
“Friends? What are you talking about, Leroy? Who’s there with you?”
“Moira and Ginny Freeman. I’m at—”
But just then we heard the unmistakable sound of a car pulling up. The girls’ parents were home! If they came in and saw me, it would just lead to trouble. I told Abrams I had to go and would call him back, then hung up the phone. Ginny helped me repack my bag and she and Moira both kissed me goodbye and wished me luck. I hated to leave like that, but I knew I couldn’t be seen. Besides, they’d done enough for me already. It was time to move on.
Of course, Abrams hit *69 almost immediately, but by then I was gone. Mr. and Mrs. Freeman, however, heard the phone and had what must have been a very odd conversation when they picked it up. Though, once again, I wouldn’t know this for a long time, the police arrived shortly thereafter and questioned the girls. They told the truth about everything, and Sergeant Hanratty was that much closer to finding me.
In the meantime, I was once again lost and alone on the streets of Chicago. But this time I wasn’t scared. My stay with the girls had reinvigorated me and now I had a specific goal to work toward: to get back in touch with Abrams and Carla. Knowing that gave me greater confidence and I was ready to face just about anything.
I rounded a corner and heard a strange yet familiar sound: It was music. And not just any music. Someone was singing about troubles that melted like lemon drops and I knew it was my song! My favorite song from my favorite movie! I ran toward the source of the singing and found myself outside a place called Barry’s Pizza. A tall, lanky, loose-jointed kinda guy was outside singing the song and dancing, presumably to attract customers into the pizzeria. There was a sign next to him that said “No tips, please, just come in and order a slice!” But I just stood there and listened to him sing the song. Toward the end of the last verse, he looked down and saw me for the first time. He smiled at me, and even though it was kind of a goofy, lopsided grin, it made me feel good. Made me feel like I had found another friend. After he was done singing, I tried to clap, but, let’s face it, flippers aren’t great for applauding.
“Thank you, little man,” said the singer. “Always nice to play for an appreciative audience.”
“That’s my favorite song!”
“Mine too, little man, mine too. My name’s Elijah. And how may I address you, my new friend?”
“I’m Leroy! And I’d like to come in for a slice like your sign says…but I don’t know if I can afford it.”
“Don’t you worry about that, Leroy. You’re friends with Elijah now. I’m sure we can come to an agreeable arrangement. Why don’t you come on in?”
So Elijah led me into the pizzeria. He and I went halfsies on a large slice of pepperoni while I told him my story (which, I don’t mind telling you, I was starting to get kind of tired of telling at this point)…actually, if I can just sidetrack the narrative just briefly here, I want to explain that this was the first pizza I’d ever had and it remains the most delicious thing I have ever eaten. I have since tried pizza with all different kinds of toppings, including anchovies, which I like, which is odd when you consider that I don’t normally like fish. Anyway, I just wanted to mention what an important experience this was for me…So, once my story and the pizza were done, Elijah said, “Man, oh man, little man. That is some kind of tale of woe you got right there. But, don’t you worry. Cuz, it’s like I told you: you’re friends with Elijah now. And when you’re friends with Elijah everything just seems to work out for the best. Ain’t that right, Barry?” he added, calling out to his boss, the owner of the pizzeria.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever you say, Elijah,” said Barry, who wasn’t really paying attention.
Elijah took me over to the counter and helped me dial the phone. I called Abrams’ number again, but this time Carla picked up. “Leroy?” she said, “is that you?” She sounded as upset as Abrams did, if not more so.
“Yes it’s me. Where’s Abrams?”
“He’s out looking for you, Leroy. You need to come home now, sweetie.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t. I’m kind of lost.”
“That’s okay, honey, we’ll come to you. Can you tell me where you are?”
“I’m in a place called Barry’s Pizza,” I told her, and Elijah helped me give her directions.
“I’m on way, Leroy. But please don’t go anywhere.”
“See?” said Elijah, grinning like a Cheshire Cat. “What’d I tell you? Everything’s gonna work out for the best. I’m kinda what you’d call a good luck charm, little man. Take Barry here, for instance. A year ago he couldn’t give pizza away in this neighborhood. I come out of a clear blue sky and his profits go through the roof. Barry, tell my little friend how lost you’d be without me!”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Barry, “why don’t you start singing again. At least when you were outside I didn’t have to—” But just then, he looked up and for the first time saw that Elijah’s friend was a penguin. I smiled and waved politely to Barry, but he didn’t return the sentiment. “What’s that filthy animal doing in my place? Get it out of here! Go on, shoo!” Elijah tried to talk Barry down, but he wasn’t listening. He picked up a big broom and swung it at me. Elijah pulled me out of harm’s way at the last minute and ran me outside. He hailed a taxi and put me inside, then gave some money to the driver.
“Take him to Rico’s on Kowalski Street,” he said to the driver. Then he turned to me and said, “Sorry about this, little man. But don’t you worry. Elijah’s friends are always welcome at Rico’s. Just tell ‘em I sent you and wait for me there.” Before I could even thank Elijah for all his help, the cab pulled away.
Well, as you’ve probably guessed, I managed to just miss my friends yet again. Sergeant Hanratty and Carla arrived soon after I departed (I had no way of knowing that Barry’s Pizza was actually right across the street from Abrams’ apartment; I got pretty turned around that night) only to see that I was gone. Elijah told them what had happened and where I’d be. Carla called Abrams (who was driving around town with Moira and Ginny, looking for me) on his cell and told him where I was headed. Then she and Elijah (who, I’m sorry to report, got fired from Barry’s because of me) piled into Hanratty’s car and they all headed toward Rico’s on Kowalski Street.
Oblivious to all of this was me, sitting in the backseat of the taxi on the way to a place I’d never heard of where I would have to sit and wait heaven knows how long for Elijah to show up and help me find Carla and Abrams again so they could help me go home to a place I didn’t know if I ever wanted to see again after being lost, chased, yelled at and attacked and all this in the space of just under five days.
Before long the cab driver dropped me off outside of Rico’s, which turned out to be a nightclub. I wasn’t about to go inside a place like that (plus the line was like crazy long) so I resolved to sit on the curb and wait for my friends. Actually, I was so exhausted, both physically and emotionally, that I fell fast asleep.
I dreamed I was home, in my old room at the South Pole, my mom was with me, just like when I was a hatchling.
“Oh. I’m sorry I left Mom. I promise I’ll come back as soon as I can.”
“That will make me very happy, Leroy…but what about you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Will it make you happy? Is it what you really want?”
“Well…to tell the truth, Mom, I don’t know what I want. I wasn’t happy in Antarctica, but I don’t belong here either. Where do I belong? What should I do, Mom?”
“What do you mean you don’t belong? You’ve already found several places where you belong. Here with me and your friends and family, back with Abrams and Carla, up in Moira’s bedroom, Elijah’s pizzeria. You’ve made so many friends, and you have such a big family now. That’s where your home is, Leroy. Home isn’t a place. Home isn’t ‘where.’ Home is people. Home is ‘who.’ Home is family.”
Suddenly it got very bright. I opened my eyes and saw two cars had stopped right in front of the club and their headlights were blinding me. I squinted and saw lots of people climbing out of the cars and running toward me. By the time I could tell who they were, they were already hugging and kissing me and telling me how happy they were to see me. Carla, Abrams, Moira, Ginny and Elijah all took turns holding me and telling me how worried they were.
And I cried again. But this time, in a good way.
That night I was back in Abrams’ apartment with him and Carla. It seems I had missed quite a lot since I’d been gone. Most importantly, things had changed between Carla and Abrams. I guess they had discovered some kind of feelings for each other back in Antarctica, but weren’t ready to act on them. But when I went missing, the shared experience of looking for me brought it out in them. In a weird way, my taking off was a good thing because it brought two wonderful people together. Not just two people, come to think of it. Elijah, The Freemans, Sergeant Hanratty. All of my new friends. That’s when I finally realized what my mom was telling me in my dream. Here I thought I had no home, but really I had lots of homes. One home for every friend.
Speaking of my mom…well, it turns out she and the other penguins were as resourceful and determined as my human friends. When they got my goodbye note they all banded together as a team. They went to the now abandoned weather station where Carla and Abrams worked and somehow (to this day I’ve never understood how) got the communications back up and sent a message. It got relayed to a sister station in New Guinea, then was routed through Beijing, Moscow, London, New York and finally to the lab where Carla works in Chicago. The message, which she read on the very day that Abrams came home to find me gone, went like this:
WE ALWAYS KNEW YOU WERE TOO GOOD FOR ANTARCTICA.
DON’T FORGET TO WRITE.
WE LOVE YOU.
Do I miss them? Of course I do. But they’re still with me in other ways. And it’s not like we don’t keep in touch. Besides, a lot of them have left Antarctica and now live in zoos all over the country, and I visit them all the time. In fact, that’s my life these days. I travel all over this great nation of ours visiting friends, making new ones. I figured Carla and Abrams were gonna want me to move out so I wouldn’t cramp their style (not to give away too much of their personal lives, but little baby Leroy is expected in March), and it just so happens Elijah has a friend at the San Diego Zoo, so that’s where I live when I’m not traveling. But even when I am traveling, as long as I have friends and family near me, I know I’ll be okay.
And, after all…there’s no place like home.
To read more of Leroy's adventures (and those of some of his animal friends) buy your copy of Leroy Goes Home And Other Animal Stories HERE and read it on your Kindle or supported mobile device.