Peeling his eyes open, he flinched away from the yellow bill and the black face with white splotches hovering before him. The penguin honked in a way he wasn’t sure was welcoming and stared with beady eyes. With a flap of its flightless arms against oval sides, it belted again.
“Sorry,” he whispered.
When he sat up and the igloo around him spun. White bricks blended with one another, creating an impenetrable blizzard across his vision. Closing his eyes, he cupped his head in hands scented of brine and fish but recoiled when his palm met a tender bump. He touched the swollen mass on his forehead tentatively, grimacing at each hot shard bolting across his skull. The pain helped his vision clear, but not the cotton candy between his ears. Regardless, gravity took hold of the igloo, revealing his bared knees beneath khaki shorts and a pair of all terrain hiking boots. Goose bumps sprouted over his exposed flesh and he rubbed his shins, inspiring some warmth in his pebbled skin.
He stopped his hands when slaps from behind neared, and gripping his legs tight, peered over his shoulder. Through the igloo’s arched doorway he spotted a streak of unblemished ice, a crystal clear pool, and a colony of penguins wobbling his way.
A tug on his leg drew him back inside. The penguin beside him dipped down, pinched leg hair between its bill, and began preening each curly strand.
“Thanks Walter,” he said, although he couldn’t recall where the name had come from.
Walter paused, cocked his head and honked again, the bleat somehow flattered. After another bob in greeting, he resumed his preening.
“If you’re Walter,” he said, “then who am I? What am I doing here?”
By then, the colony had gathered at the igloo’s doorway, chirping and honking a surprisingly harmonious din. During their serenade, he patted down his ruby polo shirt and found an insignia for a zoo on his chest, the lion, tiger and elephant heads surrounding the San Diego in the emblem. A badge pinned to the belt of his khakis had a colored picture of a middle-aged man with a dopey smile and too-short hair alongside the name, Paul Grant and title Assistant Supervisor of Antarctic and Arctic Exhibits. Touching his chin he found the same cleft as in the badge, and a rake over his face, the caterpillar-sized eyebrows.
“Paul Grant,” he whispered.
The name made a home on his tongue, although he felt more dubious about the job. Investigating deeper into his pockets, Paul found a toothbrush, four one dollar bills and a pebble the size of a small marble. His search for a wallet or any other pieces of identification resulted in nothing more than pocket lint.
He sighed uncertainly, and unsure what else to do waited for Walter to cease his preening.
The penguin finally shook from rounded head to pointed tail, and after a farewell nod teetered into the group crowding the door. Paul swiveled around and watched the bird rejoin the others amid a swelling of screeches, tweets and honks. The cacophony, however, had a resoundingly happy undertone and Paul found himself smiling.
The colony circled around Walter and then collectively they wobbled toward the lip of the pool. One by one they dove, disappearing under the surface.
The woman’s voice calling his name flitted among the diving splashes. The pounding footsteps of a gray haired fellow and petite redhead who hurried across the ice with arms held out to prevent a slip, made snowy flakes fall from the igloo’s concaved ceiling. Their shirts mirrored his, but besides the familiar polo Paul found nothing else recognizable. No names came to mind, no titles, no relationships or no connections. The concern in both their faces stoked his sense of worry when they arrived at the igloo’s entrance.
The red head ducked through and began scouring the frosted floor. “Did you find it?”
“What was choking him of course.” Wheeling around, she set her hands on her hips and tilted her head in expectation.
Paul held out the rock he’d found in his pocket. “Is this it?”
She snatched the stone and started examining it through a magnifying lens the size of a quarter. Meanwhile the older fellow leaned against the doorframe.
“Is he alright?”
Paul turned to him. “Who? Walter?”
“Of course Wal—”
The fellow whistled, and then knelt. Pulling a pen light from his pocket, he ignited the lamp. Paul held up a hand against the beam passing over his eyes.
“What are you doing?”
The inspection didn’t slow. “How did you get that bump on your head?”
“I don’t know,” said Paul. He lowered his hand while the truth landed in his gut. “I don’t know.”
“Do you know who you are?”
“I’m Paul….” He touched the badge at his waist. “Paul Grant…I think.”
“You are,” said the redhead. She’d lowered her magnifying lens and the stone, and peered at him with the same boring gaze. “Do you know who I am?”
Paul stared into her robin’s egg eyes and wished he could say yes.
“No,” he whispered.
He followed the penlight around when the fellow wielding it teased his vision. “What about me?”
Searching the man’s wrinkles, the widow’s peak flanked with two receding arches and brown eyes rimmed with crow’s feet, Paul came up empty.
Looking up at the redhead, the fellow doused his light and draped his arms over his bent knees. “We better get him to a hospital.”
“What about the reporters?”
Paul glanced between the two. “Reporters?”
The redhead pocketed her lens and the stone, and Paul let them guide him into a crouch, then to his feet. Wary of being a burden on the woman, he leaned more heavily on the fellow’s arm when his legs threatened to buckle.
“How far back can you remember, Paul?”
“I…um….” He winced in the sunlight when they led him outside.
Cheers and claps sounded on the opposite side of the thick panes running along his right. Squinting, Paul made out a line of children wearing identical construction paper rings about their heads, their noses squished against the glass. Among them, those he imagined were chaperones towered. Around the class, a few lone grownups took pictures or tapped into handheld devices.
“This way,” whispered the fellow.
He tugged once on Paul’s arm, and then left him in the redhead’s care. With his freed hand, Paul waved back to one of the kids before letting the redhead turn him toward a doorway hidden in the corner of the exhibit.
As they trudged, the penguins reemerged from the pool, their wet webbed feet slapping. Paul spied Walter and his white splotched face among the colony.
“Are the reporters here because of Walter?”
“Yes,” said the fellow. “He’d been having the same trouble as the others.”
“The ones who’d died,” said the redhead.
“Died?” Paul stumbled from the sudden sucker punch. “What do you mean?”
“They’d suffocated, choked.”
“We didn’t know until now.”
“Oh,” said Paul. The stone’s smooth surface echoed on his skin, and he steadied when they reached the exhibit’s door. “Then do we know whose doing it?”
“When you came running out here, I thought you’d seen something or someone,” said the fellow.
The redhead put her hand on the doorknob but stopped before she opened it, embers kindling in her eyes. “Did you?”
Paul dropped his gaze to the pristine floor and scowled. He searched through the equally unblemished expanse of his mind, seeking a face, a hint, a memory. Nothing emerged. Shaking his head he faced them both.
“No, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” said the fellow.
The redhead’s glower said otherwise.
Paul swayed under the other man’s resigned pat on his shoulder. “We’ll find out.”
“We better,” said the redhead, thrusting the door wide. “Who knows which of them will be next?”
Paul followed them into the back of the exhibit where the pumps for the pool hummed and shadows draped the unpolished side of iceberg walls. With a glance through the doorway, he caught sight of Walter staring over the other penguin’s heads, beady eyes locked on tight. The bird honked once, the wordless plea ricocheting in his ears and reverberating against the back of his skull. The note faded away in the uncluttered terrain, making him feel even emptier, and when the redhead closed the door, more alone.
“Come on,” said the fellow. “Let’s get you some help.”
“I don’t need it,” said Paul. He gestured at the shut door. “They do.”
“They need you to remember,” said redhead.
“And how do you suppose I do that? Hit my head again?”
Her eyes glittered. “Maybe.”
“Easy now,” said the fellow. “It’s not his fault he doesn’t remember this time.”
Paul frowned. “This time?”
The fellow whistled again, a sound Paul was beginning to dislike.
“They really smacked you good didn’t they?”
Paul looked to the redhead whose expression of distain hadn’t lessened. Sensing himself at fault somehow, he quickly turned away.
“I guess so.” He scrubbed the back of his head, careful not to threaten its seemingly egg-shell delicacy. “Do you think there’s anything we can do to fix this? To get my memory back?”
“I don’t know,” said the fellow. “But we’re going to find out for Walter’s sake if nothing else.”
“For Walter,” whispered Paul.
Lowering his hand, he let the fellow lead him on, hoping his past, with all its apparent pitfalls and menace, lay somewhere in the future.